Category Archives: Writing

“Hallelujah Anyway”: Mercy and Change

This week, I stumbled across Anne Lamott’s TED talk, 12 truths I learned from life and writing, through Twitter, and it inspired me to get her newest book at the library. (It also inspired me to write my own list, which was an helpful process.) I tore through Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, in a few hours. It’s a short book of essays. I intended to just read the first essay, but I happily spent the afternoon reading.

I love how she interweaves her own stories with Bible stories on the loss and rediscovery of mercy, particularly in challenging times. I particularly liked her story of tadpoles and loved this quote from the last page of the book:

Images of tiny things, babies, yeast, and mustard seeds can guide us; things that grow are what change everything. Moments of compassion, giving, grief, and wonder shift our behavior, get inside us and change realms we might not have agreed to have changed. Each field is weeds and wheat, but mix the wheat with yeast, the most ordinary of elements, and it starts changing the flour.  It becomes bread and so do we, bread to eat and to offer…(176).

We always have room to grow, as individuals and as a society. It isn’t always comfortable, but we can change.

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Social change in Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140”

[Spoilers the size of the First Pulse ahead]

Earlier this year, over spring break, I traveled to San Francisco for a work conference. (What a lovely place!)  I needed a book for the return flight across the country and remembered that I had been looking forward to the new Kim Stanley Robinson novel about future New York. (In a previous post, I discussed why I loved reading his last book, Aurora, as well as Seveneves by Neal Stephenson.) I hiked all over the city to local bookstores, trying to find a copy, which I eventually found at Alexander Book Company.  I had high hopes for New York 2140.

This book was precisely what I needed after the political events of 2016.  One of my concerns about much of popular culture (in movies, tv shows, books, etc.) in recent years has been the focus on dystopia, cruelty, anti-heroes, self-loathing, etc. I’ve been slowly cooling out on many parts of popular culture that I used to enjoy.  As an example. I stopped watching Game of Thrones seasons ago (and am torn as to whether I want to finish the novels.)

In my own writing, and in the stories that I want to read right now, I want stories that focus on real people who are working to make their communities better. We need stories that tell us that we can be good, that we can be better. We need stories about communication and collaboration. We need stories that show that outcomes change through daily actions and diligence. New York 2140 delivers this through its magnificent cast of characters—characters who have ordinary but essential jobs. Characters who actually grow as people over time due to their situations and interactions with other people in their communities.

However, it’d be too easy for a novel to swing too far in the other direction away from dystopia and total despair. It could focus too much on utopia, on “perfect” heroes without flaws, on rosy ideas that could never actually happen because we humans are complex and messy. Apparently, at least in this novel, Kim Stanley Robinson feels similarly.

The future New Yorkers are dealing with uncertainly and adversity relating to the environment and capitalism and have been for more than a century.  Yet, despite the destruction, people are still living their lives. There are people who are swooping in to take advantage of disaster and those who are the “helpers” that Mr. Rogers referenced.

This book made me wish that I had read more American literature. There were many classic American stories embedded in the larger story which is why such a large cast was needed: it included a treasure hunt, a police/detective story, a rags to riches orphan tale, Moby Dick references, “Mutt and Jeff,” a gritty lawyer, the immigrant experience, an internet star, love affairs, and so much more.  I’m sure that I missed some references. There’s also “a citizen” that waxes poetical about the city of New York, that gives historical and educational information about New York through the centuries. In fact, New York City felt like a character in this book.

Many stories play out simultaneously in a city, and Kim Stanley Robinson points this out.  In fact, we often focus on the “few” people, but in reality, there are many people responsible for the events around us, including social change. It reminds me of the differences between micro-level and macro-level approaches in sociology.  Reality construction requires the day-to-day interactions and meaning construction between individuals.  You don’t get large institutions like banking or politics without individuals. Yet the institutions and large scale-conflicts around us shape those individual actions. The characters actions in New York 2140 impacted the society that they live in; however, other people in the city/nation/world who were not a part of the narrative played a role, too. Kim Stanley Robinson puts it like this in a chapter by “a citizen”:

Note that this flurry of social and legal change did not happen because of Representative Charlotte Armstrong of the Twelfth District of the State of New York. . . Nor was it due to any other single individual. Remember: ease of representation.  It’s always more than what you see, bigger than what you know.

That said, people in this era did do it.  Individuals make history, but it’s also a collective thing, a wave that people ride in their time, a wave made of individual actions.  So ultimately history is another particle/wave duality that no one can parse or understand (603).

I loved this idea.  We’re riding a wave that we’re creating together. In some ways, it indicates a lack of control while also recognizing that we are in control of our individual actions. We can work to improve our communities and enact social change.  But there is a limit in scope of what one person can do alone.

A remaining questions that I have: is “a citizen” actually Franklin Garr, the only first person narrative in the novel? He’s smart and knows a ton about New York due to his work in the beginning of the novel as the creator of the Intertidal Property Pricing Index, and extremely complicated formula “used by millions to orient investments that totaled in the trillions“ (19).  It’d be easy to mistake him for “just a stock broker”, but he has to understand finance, as well as the physics of what’s happening.  He obviously had a great education; however, he is young, wealthy, privileged, selfish and immature. Over time, through his exposure to diversity within his building, though his interactions with the other characters, he grows and becomes more empathetic and thoughtful.  This is a great message because people can change. I’d have to go back and do a longer analysis, but small things make me wonder if he’s also “a citizen” like their love of boating, enthusiastic narrative style and way of “speaking.” ( Of course, this could be a coincidence  since the whole book is about New York being submerged.)

I highly recommend this book, and I hope that it gets nominated for awards next year. Although I haven’t mentioned it, New York 2140 would be educational for readers who might not have taken a sociology class.

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2016: My Favorite Books

[Minor spoilers]

This year, although I didn’t write many blog posts, I read more books than I have in recent years (28). I used to force myself to finish all the books I started. Now, probably as a product of aging, I’ve gotten more discerning in the books I begin, as well as the ones I’m willing to continue.

Philosophy:

If I had to pick my favorite book this year, I’d pick the book that transformed my thinking the most, Spinoza’s The Ethics, originally published in 1677. (It’s available on Project Gutenberg, if you’re interested, although we read it in A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works.) My husband suggested it, and we read it together. It was a challenging read that took me several months of study, but it was worth it. However, I can tell it’s a book that I need (and want) to return to again. It’s amazing how we can connect across time with a writer.

Fantasy and Science Fiction:

My favorites this year in terms of science fiction and fantasy were The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett, and The Jean le Flambeur series by Hannu Rajaniemi. The Shepherd’s Crown is one of the few novels that I actually reviewed on my blog. In light of his own impending death, I thought that Pratchett treated death in a thoughtful and reassuring way in the book. It also dealt with how to be a good person in a time of crisis and battle.

I loved the Escher-esque feel of The Jean le Flambeur series. It a heist story, but it’s also so much more than that. It begins with Jean in prison and tracks his story from there. The dream-like quality of these novels actually impacted my dreams recently. I loved the spaceship’s personality in the books.

Literary Fiction:

In terms of literary fiction, I loved the four Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante.  I loved the series as it traced the complicated relationship of two friends over decades. It was set in Naples, Italy, and its look at social class was fascinating. Once I started reading this series, I couldn’t put it down.

Art and Writing:

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, as well as her podcast, Magic Lessons, helped me get back to work on my creative writing. I stumbled across the podcast by accident: someone had posted a link to the one with Neil Gaiman as a guest, one of my favorite authors. The basic format of the podcast is that Gilbert interviews a person who has written to her with a problem relating to their artistic process.  Then, she makes recommendations, gives them homework, and sends them off to work.  Meanwhile she consults with an artist who she thinks can help with their particular problem, and then calls them again after time has passed to see if they have made progress. I found it very helpful, even when the artists’ fields were quite different than mine.

Finally, I really enjoyed A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer by Pierre Mac Orlan, written in 1920. I wrote about my thoughts on his active and passive adventurers and how it relates to living and writing in this blog post.

What were your favorite books this year?  I’d love recommendations.

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Lessons from “A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer”

“Adventure books are dangerous” (22).

Pierre Mac Orlan

My spouse and I adventured to Boston last summer and visited the Institute of Contemporary Art with family. (It’s a beautiful museum in terms of both architecture and exhibits if you ever get a chance to go.) When we were browsing the museum store, my husband pointed out a book, “A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer,” knowing that I love adventure stories, writing, and learning about writing craft.

The book by Pierre Mac Orlan is short, only 73 pages including the notes, but I savored it over many nights at bedtime. It’s translated from French by Napoleon Jeffries. Mac Orlan was a prolific writer, although I hadn’t heard of him before, likely due to how few of his books have been translated to English.

Although the book made many references, often to French literature that I wasn’t aware of, I loved the book, especially its dramatic flair. The tone cracked me up at points. It seemed tongue-in-cheek, silly, etc. Mac Orlan was a pithy writer, and I enjoyed his turns of phrase.

While it’s entitled “A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer,” it raises the question of what exactly an adventurer is.  The book explored the idea of active and passive adventurers but is written for the passive adventurer to assist in writing.  Mac Orlan’s premise is that behind every passive adventurer (e.g., writer) there is usually an active adventurer. The active adventurers are often have sociopathic tendencies while the passive adventurer merely watches the raucous adventures of others and then writes about it. He states with considerable disdain that parents often say of the active adventurers, “[t]hat child will end up on the scaffold” (12). Often, the active adventurer’s life does end in punishment. I loved this line about the active adventurer:

But his good luck, his health, and the guardian demon that watches over bad boys guide him with impunity through this torture garden which he adapts to his own size (12).

Orlean notes that passive adventurers rely on the imagination to create narrative and atmosphere rather than their lived experience. It wouldn’t do for a passive adventurer to actually describe real, distant locales, for example. Rather, the setting must be imbued with the right atmosphere. Instead of traveling as an active adventure to actual culturally distant places, a passive adventurer needs a bit of travel like to Holland, rather than America. Also, the passive adventurer needs to be an avid reader, as well as learning slang. This helps the fostering of his imagination. He further points out:

And never forget, you other passive adventurers, companions of the ink bottle, that a crime perpetuated in a tavern has a fantastical flavor to it that a crime committed on a public thoroughfare does not (47).

(I definitely want to use the phrase “companions of the ink bottle” for some creative endeavor in the future.  Perhaps, it could be the name of a writing or gaming group. And I do feel that certain taverns do work well in many adventure stories.)

In the end, the passive adventures dies as most people do, unlike the  demise of the active adventurer.  Therefore, they often have time to consider the ending of their lives. As Mac Orlean notes:

At that moment when each of us considers his share of responsibility, they can take the liberty of writing a novel that will be read by no one. It is at that moment, I fear, that the passive adventurer creates his most beautiful work, this time by not withdrawing from the game (62).

The book ends with the possibility of the active adventurer returning to beat up the man who exploited his life in tales.  The active adventurer doesn’t spend much time evaluating his actions; whereas, the passive adventurer spends too much time in reflection.

After reading the book, I decided that Mac Orlan was actually saying that there is no such thing as a perfect adventurer, only maybe a good enough one. The passive adventure is superior to the active one, if flawed. Mac Orlan states, “[t]he passive adventurer generally feeds on corpses” (18). (Although apparently a rare person such as Jack London can do both so perhaps balance is actually the recommendation. Being an active adventurer doesn’t have to mean that someone is wicked but rather experienced and skilled. And some books are about a character attempting to transition from one to the other.)

How does this apply to writing and life today, particularly mine?  I’d suggest that, as in most things, a balance is needed between living and writing.  It isn’t beneficial to get stuck solely in action or reflection.  An excellent writer of adventures (or anything really), and perhaps an excellent person, needs both. If forced to choose, I’d side with Pierre Mac Orlan and the passive adventurer.

 

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Review of “Mortality” by Hitchens and Brief Thoughts on Violence and Gender

“To the dumb question ‘why me’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?” (Hitchens 6).

This post may be a bit different than the others because this short book evoked many emotions including sadness, fear, and joy, as well as the fact that I’m dealing with my turmoil over the deaths of the children and teachers at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut right now.

Part 1: Book Review of “Mortality”

This book review is of Christopher Hitchens book, “Mortality,” written after he was diagnosed with cancer.  Although I was well aware of who Hitchens was considering the fact that he was a controversial public figure, I have never personally read any of his materials until now.  I decided to start at the end of his life and work backwards.  This short book of only just over a hundred pages only took me part of an afternoon to read at my favorite coffee shop, and it brought me to tears.  It is rare that I cry when reading, especially in public.  In some ways, the book is raw look at the experiences of having terminal cancer, but it was told by a writer with a brilliant mind and expansive knowledge.  At one point, he discussed how he did not fit some of the stages of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief.  I loved this quote by Hitchens:

In one way, I suppose, I have been ‘in denial’ for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light.  But for precisely that reason, I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have no succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me (5).

He goes on to discuss his feelings of loss at not seeing important family and societal events, but he also recognizes this as a form of self pity, using the quote that I placed at the top of this post.

Additionally, Hitchens spends time discussing the norms surrounding being a cancer patient and interacting with other people.  One of my favorite parts of the book is when he explores the norm surrounding the phrase, “How are you?” (40).  In the US, as he mentions we often ask the question without expecting a deep, or even true, answer.  I think about how many times I’ve been having a terrible day and someone asks me this at the grocery store. At some point, I decided that the rote response (or lie), wouldn’t work for me anymore.  Often, I say “I’m okay,” which still may be overly enthusiastic compared to my actual feelings.  I’ve actually seen this “script” discussed as both a positive and negative for society.  Hitchens discusses his own responses to this question, depending on who is asking.

Throughout the book, he discusses his feelings about the people rejoicing, often for “religious” reasons, in his painful death. (Hitchens was a loud voice for a particular type of atheism.   I thought that this section of the book was truly powerful.  I personally despise it when people discuss how it’s God’s will that something negative or positive happens and how victims of a particular situation brought it on themselves with some kind of “immoral” act.)

The most powerful section of Hitchens, “Mortality,” for me was the one on the erosion of his ability to continue to use his powerful, well-known voice.  Of course, it is heartbreaking for anyone to lose their voice, but for a man who made a great difference, for good or ill in the world based on speaking, it seems even more tragic.  This was the section that brought me to tears.  He discusses how voice is tied to identity and gives some excellent advice for authors that I’ve taken to heart, relating to finding your voice.

As far as recommending this book, I found it to be a powerful look at illness, cancer, life, death, religion, identity, and many other topics.  As I have lost loved ones to cancer and have seen the physically and emotionally wracking effects first hand, I actually found his words to to be very refreshingly realistic and hopefully helpful for interacting with persons with terminal cancer in the future.  Some readers may prefer to remain blissfully ignorant of the many changes a person’s body and mind may go through during cancer and might find this book to be too “accurate” or detailed.  For me, though, I generally  prefer to know the unvarnished truth.  His advice on identity, finding your voice and writing were helpful to me as a writer, and I might write a post exclusively on that another time. I respect Christopher Hitchens, even when I don’t agree with his positions, because he was willing to cut right to the heart of the matter.  I look forward to reading “Hitch-22” sometime in January.  I was pondering this book still when the tragic shooting happened in Connecticut, and it led to some of the following thoughts.

 

Part 2: Mortality of Children in Tragedy

Obviously, dying is dying in one regard. It comes for all of us eventually, and in that way maybe it is “fair.”  But we emotionally experience it quite differently depending on all kinds of factors, depending on our culture and norms, religion (or lack thereof), philosophy, the age of the person(s) dying, our relationship to the person dying, the type of death, how directly it impacts our daily lives and many other factors.  This week, I felt a great deal of sadness at both thinking of Christopher Hitchens slow, painful death, and the sudden and untimely death of children and staff at Sandy Hook school in Connecticut. Like many people, I find myself thinking about the implications of all of this.  As a sociology instructor, while I think it is important to talk about gun control and the ease at which people can get assault rifles, I tend to reflect more on other cultural factors.

As Jackson Katz said in his documentary, “Tough Guise” in 2001, we need to be thinking about violent masculinity.  (If you haven’t had a chance to see this documentary, it is very relevant, though older.)  Masculinity, and femininity for that matter, are not the same from culture to culture, as has been shown through anthropological studies like Margaret Mead’s work.  (There are critiques of some of this research, too.)  Even what is considered ideally feminine or masculine within the history of the US has changed.  “Tough Guise” focuses on “violent” masculinity and how images in the media may play a role in shaping the identities of men in our culture.  Although my students and I usually laugh at points in the video, like when it is shown how ridiculously “ripped” even the action figures that boys play with have become over a few decades, there are many extremely serious points.  Katz points out that school shooters are men.  He addresses why he thinks this is happening.  This week he has written a blog post for Huffingtonpost.  Near the end of the video, Katz points out that all of us have a role to play in changing the norms surrounding this, including women.  For other sociologists, there is a post on sociological cinema with a clip of Katz’s documentary this week.  (I highly recommend sociological cinema for finding good clips to demonstrate concepts for class. I use it all the time during the semester in both my online and seated classes.)

I realize that I may personally play a role in this violent masculinity.  While I ethically disagree with violence as a solution to problems, I put my money into all kinds of violent portrayals of masculinity, as witnessed by this blog.  I’d like to live in a society where men do not have to be seen as violent or aggressive to be good men.  Personally, I think that there needs to be more blurring of the lines when it comes to gender.  We need to move away from rigid, dichotomous definitions of what it means to be a woman or man. As adults, we need to reduce our own behaviors bullying others so that children and teens will be more tolerant and even accepting of a wide range of people.  Children learn from role modeling, and adults often subtly (and not so subtly) act in ways that are disparaging towards others.  While I feel that the individual is important, and we should learn to think for ourselves, I feel that the strong streak of individualism in the US may be our undoing.  We need to form stronger bonds with others in our communities, reaching out past the normal lines that divide us.

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The Tolkien Professor Podcasts

“History often resembles ‘myth’, because they are both ultimately of the same stuff.” Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”

[Spoiler free for a change.]

This post is a bit different than my previous posts, but in honor of “The Hobbit” coming out next month, I thought that I’d share a delightful discovery that I made this summer.  Last year, I wrote a fantasy novel for National Novel Writing Month. I’ve been trying to analyze how good stories are constructed to improve my second draft.  I bought myself new copies of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy to mark up with my reflections.

While understanding the various critiques of Tolkien’s writings, I admire a great deal of what he did.  The first time I read the books in my early twenties, I was riveted.  And I still find them delightful.  After I had been working on this project of mine for a couple of months, I discovered Dr. Corey Olsen, also known as the Tolkien Professor, on I-tunes.  He has many different podcasts, and I’ve only listened to about ten of them so far.  In some ways, I enjoyed the episodes on Tolkien’s essays the most since I haven’t read them yet.

There’s some fascinating material here that I had never been exposed to before like “On Fairy-Stories,” “Mythopoeia,” and “Leaf By Niggle.”  Olsen discusses Tolkien’s view of the importance of art.  As I have been reading “The Fellowship of the Ring” again, I can really see the elements that are discussed in these other essays and works.

From a sociological view, I love the fact that new technology is changing the landscape of learning.  Listening to an English professor’s thoughts on Tolkien while commuting to work would have been a dream when I was in college.  I’ve thought about doing a series of podcasts for my own online sociology students, and it is great to see that Professor Olsen is making this technology work for both his own students, as well as for people like me with a commute and an inquisitive mind.  Listening to his podcasts has enriched my own study of “The Lord of the Rings,” and  I hope that you’ll enjoy these podcasts as much as I did!

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