Salvage the Bones

SalvagetheBones“I will tie the glass and stone with string, hang the shards above my bed, so that they will flash in the dark and tell the story of Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”    Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward

Last week, as Hurricane Harvey had its way with Houston, I wrote about an excellent work of investigative journalism that came out of Hurricane Katrina: Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm Ravaged Hospital,

This week, as Hurricane Irma gathered strength, I finally got around to reading Jesmyn Ward’s fine novel about Hurricane Katrina, Salvage the Bones.

Jesmyn grew up with her family in rural Mississippi trailer parks. Her father had been a gang member; he eventually abandoned the family, but not before the pit bull he was raising attacked Jesmyn, sending her to the hospital.

In 2005, Jesmyn’s family survived Hurricane Katrina. They had to evacuate her grandmother’s house, wade through chest deep water, and wait out the storm in their cars as flood waters swirled around them. Jesmyn was moved to write a novel about the hurricane, in part, because people seemed to forget about Katrina’s devastation long before the land and the people were healed. As a writer, she also must have been compelled to translate this life-threatening and life-changing episode into art.

Salvage the Bones is about an African American family and their rural community of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, where most of the residents are poor, much like the place where Jesmyn grew up. It’s written from the viewpoint of 15-year-old Esch, who has just discovered she is pregnant. She has three brothers and a hard-drinking father; one of her brothers is raising pit bulls for fighting. China, the pit bull mama, is just as much a character as the people in this novel, as well as a symbol of strength, power, and vengeance.

In the opening pages, I felt a stranger to this family, whose experiences and culture are so foreign to mine even though we live in the same country. By the end, I’d fallen in love with Esch and her family. I even had a grudging respect for China the pit bull, which says something about the power of Ward’s writing – I’ve always disliked and feared pit bulls. I couldn’t help but be awed by Jesmyn West’s fiction. Her writing is outstanding – fierce, evocative, and gritty.  Jesmyn has said that she strives for a “narrative ruthlessness.” Salvage won the National Book Award in 2011.

I plan to read Jesmyn’s memoir next. Men We Reaped is about the deaths of Jesmyn’s brother and four other young black men she knew due to car accidents, drugs, and suicide. And she’s just published another novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing.

You can listen to an interview with Jesmyn Ward on NPR at this link.

Have you read any books by Jesmyn Ward? What about the literature of natural disasters – any books to recommend?

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me

 

“We should seek not a world where the black race and white race live in harmony but a world in which black and white have no real political meaning.” Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me, winner of the National Book Award, is written as a letter by Ta-Nehisi Coates to his 15-year-old son.

“You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.”

I read this book together with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle, a coming of age memoir about growing up black in West Baltimore, and the two are excellent read back to back. If you want to see what Ta-Nehisi Coates is all about, I recommend reading the memoir first, so you’ll have background about Coates’ childhood and family, and then follow up with Between the World and Me so you have some context.

Fair warning, though, I found neither book an easy read emotionally, and you may not either if you are a white American. (Or, as Coates would say, if you think you are white. Coates believes race is a falsehood.)

“Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable reality of the natural world. Racism – the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them – inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.”

There is plenty of uncomfortable truth in these two books, and Coates does not mince words. Between the World and Me, especially, is meant to awaken America from its false Dream.

I grew up in a somewhat racially diverse town outside of Cleveland and attended public school alongside African Americans, but there was de facto segregation, with blacks in their own neighborhood not far from where I lived. In retrospect, and especially after having read Coates, I see how absolutely separate and different our lives actually were.

When I began reading The Beautiful Struggle, I found myself baffled by the words and phrases Coates used and many of his cultural references. I was reading a different language, the language of urban black America. The language is perhaps deliberately exaggerated in the first pages, and not decoded, maybe to act as a kind of culture shock or wake-up call to the reader.

A senior writer at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in one of the toughest, most marginalized and deprived communities in America. His father was a Black Panther who later became a librarian; his employment at the Howard University library enabled his children to attend school there tuition free.

I’m not going to summarize too much about the books, because I can’t do justice to Coates’ eloquent, powerful prose as he describes how the African American body has been violated through slavery, segregation, incarceration, and death at the hands of our criminal justice system. His words are sometimes hard to take, and both books are unfailingly hard to put down. I was especially struck by these aspects:

  • How very terrifying it is to be pulled over or questioned by a police officer if you are black in America. I think the only thing more powerful than Coates’ words are the videos we’ve seen of incidents gone wrong these past few years. I respect the bravery of police officers doing incredibly challenging work, but I’ve also been following the news in Cleveland, where I grew up, and how the police department there has been investigated by the US Department of Justice. My son attends the U. of Cincinnati, where this past year an unarmed black man was killed by a campus security officer for no apparent reason. (The officer has been charged with murder.) When the video went viral, I was chilled by what I saw, frightened for my son and anyone who might be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
  • Coates recounts the first time he visited Paris, France. Growing up in West Baltimore, he could never have imagined such a gracious and beautiful place or that he would ever go there. It was moving to read Coates’ description of how easy it was for him to walk the streets of Paris, how differently he was treated, and how for the first time he wasn’t afraid.
  • Coates concludes that the fate of all of us is in the hands of those with power who think they are white – he believes many, though not all, African Americans are still too disenfranchised to change the system. But he fears that we as a country will reap what we’ve sown; that our hunger for power has also meant the abuse and destruction of the earth. He fears that in the end the earth will prevail, likely at great cost to humanity.

Here is one more quote from Between the World and Me, an example of his powerful use of language that some may see as divisive or offensive:

“The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are the product of democratic will. And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream. The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.”

(And from “Whitey” Tim Kreider, read this. I happened to discover this link on my Facebook page the day I wrote this post.)

Have you read Between the World and Me or The Beautiful Struggle? What do you think of the final quote above? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

 

 

The Beautiful Struggle

Redeployment

Redeployment book cover

“Your wife takes you shopping in Wilmington. Last time you walked down a city street, your Marine on point went down the side of the road, checking ahead and scanning the roofs across from him. The Marine behind him checks the windows on the top levels of the buildings, the Marine behind him gets the windows a little lower, and so on down until your guys have the street level covered, and the Marine in back has the rear…

In Wilmington you don’t have a squad, you don’t have a battle buddy, you don’t even have a weapon. You startle ten times checking for it and it’s not there. You’re safe, so your alertness should be at white, but it’s not. 

Instead, you’re stuck in an American Eagle Outfitters. Your wife gives you some clothes to try on and you walk into the tiny dressing room. You close the door, and you don’t want to open it again.”      Redeployment, by Phil Klay

 

Redeployment, Phil Klay’s collection of short stories, won this year’s National Book Award. It’s been hailed as THE literary work that captures the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, destined to become a classic of war literature.

Klay served during the Surge as a public affairs officer in Anbar (Iraq), which has now been infiltrated by ISIS. All the stories in this collection are written from the first person point of view: a military chaplain, a Mortuary Affairs officer, a Marine home on leave, and others because, as Klay said in an interview, each person has a different experience of war. He wanted to capture those varied perspectives.

If you read Redeployment, you’ll encounter stark realism, much profanity, and a bewildering array of acronyms: SITREP (Situation Report), RPG (Rocket-Propelled Grenade), CASEVAC (Casualty Evacuation), EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), UXO (Unexploded Ordnance).  There is no glossary, of course. Reading along without knowing what the acronyms mean has a confusing and disorienting effect that adds to the sense of overwhelming fear and danger.

Klay is a master at conveying situation and character through dialogue and idiosyncratic points of view. These soldiers are strangers in an utterly baffling land. They return home as aliens, isolated and unable to relate to “normal” American life. They are ciphers to an American public tragically disengaged from the war being conducted by their own country. I, myself, do not know a single Iraq or Afghanistan war veteran.

There have been a number of interesting interviews with Klay, especially since he won the National Book Award. An NPR interview by Terry Gross is one of my favorites. Terry is adept at asking the hard questions, and Phil Klay is an intense, thoughtful man, a Catholic who attended Jesuit schools. He does not come out in favor of or against the wars, although it’s clear he does not like incompetent leaders or clueless, insensitive civilians.  As any good writer does, he lets character and situation tell the stories, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.

In one interview, Klay says that when he returned from Iraq he ran into a friend who said she couldn’t possibly imagine what he’d been through. That did not sit well with Klay. He in fact wanted very much for his friends and American civilians to imagine and understand, which is one of the reasons he wrote the stories.

Klay has also said that asking veterans if they ever killed someone is “the most obscene question you can ask.”

After reading (surviving!) Redeployment, I feel as though saying “Thank you for your service” to military personnel I might encounter would be incredibly lame. I’m not sure I could come up with the right words to show I have even a semblance of an understanding and thatI want to understand more.

Redeployment is not comfortable or comforting reading, but necessary if we civilians want to pay attention.

Prayer of a military chaplain in Iraq:  “I asked God to protect the battalion from further harm. I knew He would not. I asked Him to bring abuses to light. I knew He would not. I asked him, finally, for grace. When I turned back to the Divine Office, I read the words with empty disengagement.”    from “Prayer in the Furnace,” Redeployment

 

All the Light We Cannot See

“At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.”     All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeWhen she is six, Marie-Laure LeBlanc goes blind. Her widowed father, a locksmith at the Natural History Museum, constructs a miniature replica of the Paris neighborhood where they live so Marie-Laure can memorize nearby streets and landmarks.

Some years later, when she and Monsieur LeBlanc flee to the coastal city of Saint-Malo during the Nazi occupation, Marie-Laure’s father constructs a replica of that city, too, so Marie-Laure can make her way around independently. Eventually, Marie-Laure joins the resistance, along with her uncle, Etienne, who is a shell-shocked World War I veteran. She finds herself quite alone on the eve of the massive American bombing of Saint-Malo in August of 1944.

In the meantime, German orphan Werner Pfennig takes a keen interest in building and fixing radios. Eventually, he is recruited by the academy for Hitler Youth. During the war, Werner tracks the resistance by searching for secret radio broadcasts. Werner detects illegal broadcasts coming from Saint-Malo, and the very street where Marie-Laure lives.

All the Light We Cannot See was a 2014 National Book Award finalist. Anthony Doerr, who grew up in Cleveland but now lives in Idaho, is a writer I intend to follow. I’ve put his memoir, Four Seasons in Rome, on my holiday wish list, and am enjoying his collection of short stories, The Shell Collector. His prose is breathtaking, poetic. (I’m studying favorite sentences from the novel as a writing exercise.)

When I read World War II European-front fiction I try to imagine where my father would have been at the time. He arrived in France and Luxembourg a few months after the bombing of Saint-Milo and fought during the weeks leading to the Battle of the Bulge.

Here is a 9-minute video I found on YouTube of Americans bombing and entering Saint-Malo. There were about 850 buildings in the town, and after the bombing only 150 or so remained standing.

A couple of my favorite passages from All the Light We Cannot See:

“She places a ration coupon on the counter. ‘One ordinary loaf, please.’

‘And how is your uncle?’ The words are the same, but the voice of Madame Ruelle is different. Galvanized.

‘My uncle is well, thank you.’

Madame Ruelle…reaches across the counter and cups Marie-Laure’s face in her floury palms. ‘You amazing child.’

…the loaf comes to her: heavy, warm, larger than normal. ‘Tell your uncle that the hour has come. That the mermaids have bleached hair.’

‘The mermaids, Madame?’

‘They are coming dear. Within the week.'”

++++++++++++++++++++++

“They cross the Channel at midnight. There are twelve and they are named for songs: Stardust and Stormy Weather and In the Mood and Pistol-Packin’ Mama…

Inside each airplane, a bombardier peers through an aiming window and counts to twenty. Four five six seven. To the bombardiers, the walled city on its granite headland, drawing ever closer, looks like an unholy tooth, something black and dangerous, a final abscess to be lanced away.”

++++++++++++++++++++++

“But God is only a white, cold eye, a quarter-moon poised above the smoke, blinking, blinking as the city is gradually pounded to dust.”

Tenth of December, National Book Award nominee

“…we all know that one way to do a job poorly is to be negative about it. Say we need to clean a shelf. If we spend the hour before the shelf-cleaning talking down the process of cleaning the shelf, complaining about it, dreading it, investigating the moral niceties of cleaning the shelf, whatever, then what happens is, we make the process of cleaning the shelf more difficult than it really is. We all know very well that that “shelf” is going to be cleaned, given the current climate, either by you or the guy who replaces you and gets your paycheck….So the point of this memo is: Positive.”  -“Exhortation” in Tenth of December, by George Saunders

Tenth of December book cover

The “shelf” that has to be cleaned is a euphemism for…what?

I don’t often read short stories, but I’d heard so many good things about Tenth of December by George Saunderswhen I saw the book in our local library’s “Most Wanted” display I checked it out.

Saunders has been called the Kurt Vonnegut of our day. He says he’s been influenced by Monty Python. Many highly regarded writers (Mary Karr, David Foster Wallace, Lorrie Moore, Jonathan Franzen, among others) can’t say enough good things about Saunders, who teaches creative writing at Syracuse University.

Before he became a highly praised short story writer, Saunders lived here in Rochester, where he was a contract worker for Kodak and a technical writer for a local consulting firm.

I was once a Kodak contract worker, too, and that’s partly why I’m so fascinated with Saunders. He writes about the workplace in a liberating, irreverent and hilarious way. In an interview, Saunders has said that he’s grateful for the corporate jobs he held early on that helped support his young family, but that working in a corporate culture long-term can be difficult if you have a creative calling.

You can listen to the full interview with Saunders at the link further down in this post. You’ll hear the writer interviewing Saunders tell how she started off in book publishing (as I did) and at times she considered stealing the toilet paper as a small revenge. Working for a prestigious publisher in a Manhattan skyscraper was glamorous but, on the other hand, her salary was tiny, and many employees were exploited.

Getting back to Saunders’ stories, they are darkly comic, subversive, strange, and compelling. They’ve been called “alarming” and “tender.” Some are dystopian. You’ll be disturbed, aroused and, perhaps, comforted by the fact that someone recognizes and so eloquently expresses the absurdities of how we live our lives and the dreadful possibilities for the future if certain trends continue.

This week Tenth of December was named one of the finalists for the National Book Award.

Pastoralia coverYou can listen to Saunders read an excerpt from one of his older stories, “Sea Oak,” (from his collection, Pastoralia) on the National Book Award website, which features audio recordings of all the nominees. (Start listening at the 10-minute mark unless you want to hear the program host brag about how Brooklyn is now the literary capital of America.)

I’ll warn you in advance, though, that Saunders doesn’t read the ending of “Sea Oak.” He’d prefer that you buy the book, of course. In an interview after the reading, Saunders said it took him four years to come up with an ending to “Sea Oak” that he was satisfied with.

I, for one, can’t get out of my mind the two teenagers in the opening story, “Victory Lap,” in Tenth of December. Or the strange and horrifying lawn ornaments that are the ultimate status symbols in “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” Or the poor guy who’s in prison and becomes a guinea pig in a pharmaceutical experiment and must choose how it will end.

There’s really nothing like a George Saunders short story.

Great book club reading, too, guaranteed to spark excellent conversation.

“It’s time for you to pull yourselves up by the bootstraps like I done….Let me tell you something, something about this country. Anybody can do anything….It’s the frickin’ American way. You start out in a dangerous crap hole. And work hard. So you can someday move up to a somewhat less dangerous crap hole. And finally maybe you get a mansion.” – “Sea Oak,” by George Saunders

STELLAR SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS

Tenth of December, by George Saunders

Pastoralia, by George Saunders

Welcome to the Monkey House, by Kurt Vonnegut

The Collected Works of Katherine Anne Porter

Binocular Vision, by Edith Pearlman

The Love of a Good Woman, by Alice Munro (2013 Nobel Prize in Literature)

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