Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

Reading "The Underground Railroad"

Thursday, January 12, 2017

 I should have read “The Underground Railroad” sooner. I should have read it as soon as I heard about it or as soon as I read the spell-binding excerpt that arrived with my New York Times on a Sunday in August. I should have read it in mid-October after I heard its author, ColsonWhitehead, speak at the Boston Book Festival. I should never have left it to read after November 8.

It is an astounding book. The writing is so vivid that I had a moment of questioning whether the Underground Railroad had been, in fact, an actual rail line running below ground. It is also unsparing in its depictions of barbaric cruelty inflicted with sick and sickening gusto, and its portrayal of Cora and other former slaves who, balanced on a razor edge between fear and hope, are nearly numbed to either. The book indicts not only the “peculiar institution” of slavery with its unspeakable inhumanity, but also the whole white supremacist outlook, from the “manifest destiny” of claiming Native American territory to the new reality we are grappling with since Donald Trump’s ascendancy made America hate again.

Late in the book a woman in the early 20th century, hearing about “The Great War,” will feel it was misnamed. “The Great War was the one between black and white. It always would be.”  And here we are now at a moment when we are hearing every day about post-election acts of hatred-- including the march scheduled for this weekend in Whitefish, Montana-- directed at all “others” who are not white, Christian, and male,.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt what people seem to call patriotic, though I have revered the country’s institutions and its promise. Now that America is over, though, I am despondent. For my grandparents it was the land of milk and honey where dreams could be made reality. I am guessing that was the case for most of the immigrant ancestors of the currently American.

“Stolen valor” is a concept I happened upon recently, the dishonest claiming of unearned military honors. It is a term that feels strangely appropriate, as well, to describe how what is being loudly claimed as “American” now feels so constricted, exclusionary, and antithetical to the promise I always thought it embodied.

In “The Underground Railroad” a character says, “Still we run, tracking by the good full moon to sanctuary.” If America is to exist as America again, at the very least don’t we each have to be a good full moon to our neighbors?

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What Elena Ferrante Owes Me

Thursday, October 6, 2016

What does a writer owe a reader? Isn’t that what’s at question in an investigative journalist’s hunting down and gleefully exposing the person he says—ta-da!--is Elena Ferrante? I will not write the name he has uncovered. I will accept what has been given to me—thoughtful, well-written fiction that, as the best fiction does, illuminates reality.

A confession: I am not among the legions of Ferrante fanatics. I like her books, but I don’t love them. “Pride and Prejudice” will not need to share its permanent place on my nightstand. That said, I enjoyed reading the books and I appreciate that many readers, especially many women readers, heard their own voices in her words.

When I heard the disclaimer that “Elena Ferrante” was a pseudonym and that her true identity was unknown, my reaction was a shrug. Wasn't her “true identity’ being the author of those works? I was totally fine with a writer who chose not to open his or her life up to close scrutiny, who—just imagine!-- was uninterested in celebrity, a writer who merely sought to offer us his or her soul and tears and imagination and efforts, and, in exchange, be granted the personal privacy she requested. 

Do readers have the right to barge into a writer’s life and rummage around for clues? Do we have the right to demand context, background, further explanation? Can we not respect something that grows entirely out of imagination? Of course who the writer is has bearing on the work. Maybe it would have made a difference to me to know that these women’s lives had been created by a man. Though Emma Bovary…though Anna Karenina …though…But we can do the work of understanding on our own. What advantage is there in knowing that Elena Ferrante did not personally experience these exact adversities, challenges, and triumphs, but different ones? 

Go in peace, Elena Ferrante. I thank you for characters worth knowing, ideas worth thinking about. You gave me the offering of your gifts; I gave you my attention. We gave each other our time. What more do we possibly owe each other?


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“The Muralist”: reading and thinking about art and and the world and other things

Monday, September 19, 2016

I went to see a beautiful exhibit at the Portland (Maine) Art Museum. It highlights the work of four 20th century women artists, three of them far less known than they should be. In addition to paintings by the deservedly celebrated Georgia O’Keeffe was the work of Florine Stettheimer, Marguerite Zorach, and Helen Torr. For each the determination to make art was counter-balanced—sometimes upended--by life’s making other plans in ways that male artists are rarely called upon to negotiate.

Later, in discussing the exhibit with my cousin Judith Lerner, a painter whose work I hugely admire, she mentioned a book she had recently read, “The Muralist,” a novel by B. A. Shapiro about a woman painter in the male-centric art world of mid-20th century New York. Shapiro places her heroine, a young Jewish woman artist, in the circle of Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, and Willem DeKooning and gives her relatives in harm’s way in Nazi-occupied France.  She is at work on a mural that she hopes will galvanize public opinion in support of rescuing those who are beginning to disappear into concentration camps before that becomes an actual descriptive term. The villain is not the distant and nearly unimaginable Hitler so much as the banally evil Breckinridge Long, who, in fact, as a bureaucrat in FDR’s State Department, made it his mission to deny as many visas as possible to desperately fleeing refugees, particularly Jews. Read Muslims, read wall; so many others, so many ways to keep them out.

What made “The Muralist” especially compelling to me was its ability to let the reader in on the passion with which art is made. Mystical, exhilarating, that concentration of energies. (A digression: last week I saw one of my favorite examples of this, Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” that, though it was a lackluster production, still got me teary over Seurat’s and Sondheim’s evocation of “an ordinary” Sunday. Here’s a little gift to you—this terrific video of the original cast doing the Act I finale at the 1984 Tony awards.)

A lot to think about at this moment in the world, in our country. And always interesting how fiction helps us see what’s most true.

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