Book Time: June Titles

Here are the books I read in June, with some thoughts on each. Mostly women authors, and a curious assortment of worlds. I’d gladly spend more time in each one, looking over facets of the fossils unearthed and the cave drawings brought to light.

The Mars Room – Rachel Kushner

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Kushner is among my favorite writers working today. She can take real issues and historical epochs and imagine the people in them like no one else I’ve read. She does meticulous research, but her knowledge doesn’t translate as a mere recitation of facts. Her work is dextrous and fascinating. Her most recent book, The Mars Room, is set in a women’s prison, but contains an eddy swirling with memories of growing up in San Francisco and being swept up and consumed by the criminal justice system.

In the early 2000s, Romy Hall is serving two consecutive life sentences at California’s Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. She killed her stalker in self-defense, and had a swift path to imprisonment in a courtroom unconcerned with her reality. Romy was raising her son, Jackson, in San Francisco, and working at the Mars Room. (Kushner describes it better than I can.) Her sense of place and how people occupy it captivated me – as Romy ekes out the days of her sentences, she conjures her life before. Her childhood in the city, the people she ran with, and  her adult life are a gallery of indelible images.

Kushner inhabits the unknowable in history. She reminds us of all the lost worlds out there, real at some point to some people but never recorded. She renders Romy’s life in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and prison with the detail not afforded to her in court as her story was brushed aside. Kushner breaks into experiences, and this is where she shines, giving Romy this awareness: “A lot of history is not known. A lot of worlds have existed that you can’t look up online or in any book, even as you think you have the freedom to find things out that I cannot, since I don’t have access to the internet. Google the Scammerz, and you’ll find nothing, no trace, but they existed.” Existence is a luxury stolen from Romy.

And this is what stays with me – Romy is in prison, utterly forgotten, cast aside with a biblical punishment, but her past is so alive. She keeps it with her. Though Romy has effectively been erased, when she closes her eyes, she still sees the outlines of herself. “All those lights stayed on, in the world that had been, and that still existed in me, the one I contained.”

Emergency Contact – Mary H.K. Choi

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Read my review here.

We Begin Our Ascent – Joe Mungo Reed

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I hope I start seeing Joe Mungo Reed’s name more often, both because I like saying “Mungo” and because now that I’ve seen what he can do, I need more.

Reed’s first novel covers journeyman cyclist Sol at the Tour de France. He’s singularly devoted to being a machine, fueling and training his body for peak performance, but he plays a supporting role on his team. He is also married and recently became a father. Reed ties all these elements into a meditation on quiet ambition and what success means.

I’m not sure what exactly drew me to this book, but I was glued to it. Though it takes place at a world-famous athletic event, Reed seemingly doesn’t have a lot to work with in the monotony of tour cycling. Teams race, recover, rinse, repeat. But Reed focuses on the process of getting to the top of a sport, and each tiny action that builds into mastery. He is an engineer of plot and detail. I was in thrall to the story he built and the people he created.

I liked how Reed described the peloton as a way of being: “When one is cycling surrounded by others, one does not think of slowing, or speeding up, or stopping pedaling. One thinks only of behaving as the group dictates: leaning into corners at the same angle, pumping one’s legs at a similar rate, marking the same parabolas around alpine turns. There is not, in one sense, a single choice to be made. In another sense, however, there are many choices: the hard and unending decisions made in the service of behaving uniformly, reliably, and predictably.”

As Sol gives every day in service of his team, he and his wife are also drawn into the seedier side of racing. How far will they go to prop up a lifetime of small sacrifices? Reed sails deep into the territory of extreme but ordinary routines, the life of an athlete.

(Of note: Reed created a playlist for his book here – just in case you want to relive the team leader belting out “Livin’ on a Prayer” to his charges over the radio during a stage.)

Priestdaddy – Patricia Lockwood

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Patricia Lockwood was born into unusual religious circumstances: her father decided to become a Catholic priest after marriage, getting special permission from the Vatican. The family moved around to different Midwest rectories, following Mr. Lockwood’s career. “Priestdaddy” concerns the time Patricia and her husband moved back in with her parents. There is much to unravel.

Despite its title, the book is also a love letter to the author’s mother, who raised five children in a space that never expected them, and conveniently does a lot of highly readable things. For example, Lockwood writes, “at some point during my childhood, [my mother] decided bellowing ‘OHHHH YEAHHHHH’ in a loud Kool-Aid Man voice was a catchphrase, and she has punctuated her speech with it ever since.” Mom Lockwood steals every scene she’s in.

Patricia Lockwood is a poet, but her prose is equally smashing. She is gut-splittingly funny about the many absurdities she grew up around, but deftly weaves in the struggles of Catholic womanhood and simply being a teenager. It knocked me down. Lockwood covers a lot of ground, but it never feels drawn-out or unnecessary. She is captivating with any material.

I’ll leave you with two of my favorite bits:

“‘I’ll tell you what the problem is,’ he says, taking on the comfortable tone of instruction. ‘When people started forgetting about gender roles, they started building ugly churches. Architecture requires an equal balance of the male and female in order to be beautiful.’ What? There’s no way that can be right. According to those standards, the perfect cathedral would be a gigantic Prince symbol people could pray inside.”

“When my father started saying the Latin Mass, he gave up the short-sleeved shirts and slacks and took to wearing a cassock, which is just a long black dress for a man that everyone refuses to call a dress. (‘It is a dress,’ I have reiterated many times, trying to open people’s eyes to the truth. ‘And the pope wears what a baby would wear to the prom.’)”

The Glass Castle – Jeannette Walls

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The Glass Castle is a devastating portrait of poverty rendered by someone trying to see what else is out there. Jeannette Walls grew up in an itinerant family, one of four children. Her father was a long-standing alcoholic who would leave for unspecified amounts of time, and her mother lived in her own cocoon of paintings and novels. They moved every time her father lost a job, which was usually in a violently dramatic manner. Walls spools out her father’s thought process – that he was an exceptional inventor just one imminent discovery away from greatness – and much of the book is essentially from his point of view. If his daughter loves him, wouldn’t she understand?

As Walls gets older, she notices that not everyone conforms to her parents’ worldview. She struggles to reconcile her love for them with the desire to fit into the spaces outside their house. About her first foray into journalism, Walls writes, “I’d never known what was going on in the world, except for the skewed version of events we got from Mom and Dad – one in which every politician was a crook, every cop was a thug, and every criminal had been framed. I began to feel like I was getting the whole story for the first time, that I was being handed the missing pieces to the puzzle, and the world was making a little more sense.” Walls faces considerable obstacles in gaining a foothold in society, and it’s both painful and fascinating to see how she navigates crossing over from her parents’ realm to the world at large. While she cannot fully let go of her father’s ethos, she plants her feet firmly in independence. But she carries shards of that old existence with her, and they puncture her writing with an all-encompassing sympathy for those living outside the margins.

I read this in a slipstream from Tara Westover’s Educated – throughout, I couldn’t help compare her experience and reflection with Walls’s. While they were born into vastly different lives, they both grew up in fringe households with domineering fathers. These figures wove for them a needle-specific view of the world, one which they first accepted and lived by, and then gradually reckoned with. That reckoning is harrowing, but ultimately liberating. I would recommend reading both books in succession.

 

When Leo Flew: P-38 to POW

A silver flash ripped the sky, a guttural humming breaking through the atmosphere.  As it drew level with the horizon, the metallic comet almost blended with the deepening blue of the sky. Sound and sight united in a broad airplane wing bisected by two fuselages and whirring propellers. It was a P-38 Lightning, a new kind of machine. Leo Brindley saw it, and his world burst open.

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P-38 in flight

Leo watched this dream come alive in the skies above California. His family had moved there, Joad-like, in the 1930s, fleeing Iowa farming for more reliable jobs in Lockheed’s Burbank airplane manufacturing center. While his father worked on some assembly line or another, making the prototypes of eventual World War II planes, Leo first set hopes on flying a P-38 – a silver wing of a contraption, shiningly fast. It would be a lodestar for him, but a fraught one.

Leo was born in fall 1921, his father a farmer who did not own a farm. He was a quiet kid who loved animals, listened to them and felt what they put into the air. His handwriting slanted forward in clipped sentences. An aquiline nose anchored his face, topped by an outcropping brow ridge that shadowed his searching eyes. When he smiled and really meant it, the grin broke wide across his cheeks and made his pupils visible again. His legs took up the most territory on his strong body.

The P-38 had given Leo a reason to look up from the fields he was raised in. The family eked out a living however they could, dependent on what could be grown. The next decade, they merged with a migration out of midwestern states plagued by the farming crisis. Crop prices had dropped and Leo’s father could not let his four children starve. So they went to California, a trip that would have taken days in a country yet without a highway system. Their destination was more than 1600 miles away.

Continue reading “When Leo Flew: P-38 to POW”

Sweetness

Every Halloween, my dad conducted a trick-or-treating candy roundup of our pillowcase hauls and shipped it to Iowa, giving my grandpa Earl a healthy supply of chocolate for the year to come, which he kept in the freezer. He especially liked Snickers. He did not practice moderation when it came to sweetness.

Earl put sugar on everything. If it was not already candy, it would be made so. He would fix us bowls of strawberries, cut sharp against his rough thumb and dusted with a generous layer of sweetness. He made us milkshakes by hand, carefully mixing until reaching the perfect consistency. He would spend hours in the driveway churning ice cream. Any amount of effort was worth it for the sugary reward. When he owned an auto body, he made Christmas baskets full of oranges and gave them out in his small Iowa community. This was all his infinite kindness.

Earl came from a family that farmed for larger outfits. Born in 1924, he grew up in what must have been a long strand of near-deprivation. His father worked constantly, and did not let the family go hungry, but there was not room for much else, let alone pleasurable tastes. Earl worked for the family, too. The first time he would have had reliable access to any form of sugar was once he joined the Army Air Corps in 1942. Rations of humble Hershey bars introduced a new palate and a new sense of possibility.

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Earl, mid- to late 1930s

Earl never lost that sense of wonder about sugar. It brought out his own sweetness, and he kept his hand outstretched, always with a pile of sugar cubes. He had seen wartorn Europe from the air in 1945, and knew what death looked and smelled like. His war was unprecedented in American aviation, and the destruction he witnessed could have turned him against people forever. But he found that sugar was its own kind of language, one he quickly learned how to speak. It was a frosting for all the things he couldn’t forget.

Everything Earl built was tinged with this sweetness, too – little cars that could really be driven, for his kids and grandkids to race around, model airplanes that called back to his time in the air, even a riding mower and a back porch. He was always creating something. There was nothing this man couldn’t make, and his creations were full of kindness. All of it – the slow-churned ice cream, the contraptions – could have been produced in other forms without as much effort on his part, but that didn’t matter to him. He was putting a little sugar into his people. He was a giving tree with a cherry on top.

After he died, people showered his family with sugar. I remember a kitchen full of other people’s baking dishes, cakes and pies, and a Willy Wonka factory of chocolate. Someone brought monkey bread, and there was ice cream at his funeral reception. Sugar was really a form of love. Once he discovered the possibility of sweetness, Earl decided it belonged everywhere.

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Earl with grandson TJ, early 1990s

Marathon Madness: A Weirdo Runs Through It

“At the time I did not know that stories of life are more like rivers than books.”
Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

I am the product of a boa-constricted timeline, two people who decided the day they met in late fall 1980 to train for a mid-June marathon. They married a few months out from that decision, and I keep running with it.

28 days after their wedding, my parents ran the 1981 Grandma’s Marathon in northern Minnesota. Thirty-seven years later, I ran down the same path in a mist off Lake Superior. I’d been chasing this for a long time, using this odd confluence of factors in my origins as proof that my destiny is to run marathons. Nothing dramatic, really. I don’t know precisely when, but at some point I concluded that this was what made me a person – both that it put me physically on this earth, and that it would direct my life. Sometimes you create your own spiritual beginnings.


Continue reading “Marathon Madness: A Weirdo Runs Through It”

2018 World Cup Hair Smackdown

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Now for some slightly different programming: an ode to soccer hair, and all it signifies.

Follicular Fabulousness on the Field

The FIFA World Cup is a quadrennial celebration of a game that unites everyone but those who think football is played with your hands. It is also a time to examine some questionable yet delightful grooming choices on an international level – soccer player hair!

From the spectacular to the shambolic, these gentlemen seem to have it all. They express their creativity through these inspiring/insane coifs. But do they have what it takes to become the Universe’s Top Hair Haver?

Bracket and scouting report included at the link below for the 2018 World Cup’s Most Terrific Tresses. Yes, I designed the main graphics terribly in Microsoft Paint, but I hope that my love for footie hairstyles comes through in the reports on each player’s ‘dos.

Hair is where the stories are. Let us listen.

2018 World Cup Hair Bracket

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Book Time: “Emergency Contact” by Mary H.K. Choi

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Mary H.K. Choi is one of those writers you would gladly allow to take over your brain. You read any of her words and immediately want her to comment on anything and everything. She has trained her perfectly eye-linered gaze on such myriad subjects as formative experiences, Korean Thanksgiving, moms, and the joys of fruit-tinged sparkling water. She has written comic books (among them “Lady Deadpool”) and founded a magazine. But no matter how much of her I am blessed with, I always want more of her stealth devastating observations. (Might I bother you to rewrite the entire Internet, Mary?)

Choi’s recent book “Emergency Contact” proved to be another “Alien”-style takeover, a welcome invasion. Her world of budding relationships and texts pulses with humor, loving detail, and everyday pain. She brings us Penny, a college freshman who wants to be a writer, and Sam, an aspiring director who works at a coffee shop and can bake like a tattooed Nancy Birtwhistle. When Sam passes out on an Austin sidewalk, Penny rescues him, and the emergency contacting begins.

Continue reading “Book Time: “Emergency Contact” by Mary H.K. Choi”

Seeing Ruth

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This year, my grandma Ruth would have been 94. I keep this photo as a reminder of my foundations, especially the string that connects me to her. The camera captured her holding a rifle, but my eye is always drawn to her confident stance, spring-coiled with kinetic energy. Flanked by my grandpa Earl and his brother Leo, her back is straight and she knows where to aim.

They had driven a 1938 Dodge to somewhere outside Anita, Iowa. It’s summer 1945. World War II is over in Europe, and in its last Pacific Theater days. The men – Earl on leave and Leo separated from the Army Air Corps – wear parts of their Army-issued uniforms, as they didn’t have much more. They have the same outfit on. Ruth’s sartorial identity is all her own. Leo looks at Earl as if to say, “this woman can shoot.” Or maybe, “I’m out of here.” But Earl looks in the direction Ruth is pointing – always at the horizon. He knows she always knew where to aim. She is fortitude.

Born a few months apart and less than a decade before the Great Depression, Ruth and Earl were both children of a rural Iowa landscape. And they were quiet giants. She was explosive, eyes boring certitude into all they surveyed. A bird of prey – exacting in her choices but deadly with the target. His strength was kept in a place that always found the light. He made it home from a war that was designed to kill as efficiently as possible, and she made life after so much death possible. She was a protector.

There is still a lot I don’t know about her, and try to imagine from photos like this one. In reality, I only have drawing-on-a-napkin-type impressions. Her younger sister Leah died as an infant. Her older brother John was a WWII Marine and then an FBI agent who found and kept secrets for a living. Her grandfather was a Union soldier briefly imprisoned in Andersonville. A strain of hocus pocus went on for generations – in a bit of reverse divination, my first and middle names are those of Ruth’s father and mother, respectively. And my sister bears the name of the lost baby. My parents claim these people from the near past didn’t factor into naming. But the conjuring is strong.

Rooted in these shrouded stories, Ruth defied the time she was born into. She had a courage of bearing, and was the developer of Earl’s beta. He could build or fix anything, but it was through her force of will that he could start an auto body and bear the burden of combat memories. She listened to him, fully, but there was nothing passive about it. Sensing her queenness, the family dog Fred brought her still-writhing snakes as tribute.

I look at this photo every day, revel in it. I realize I have built an array of talismans that tell me who I am, whether they are stories, images, or artifacts. But they embody so much about what came before. We bestow certain objects with power, but that power had to exist in some other form. There is something alive still. I hold onto an idea of transmigration – Ruth’s strength and intelligence survive in this photo, and I have a voodoo hope that it bestows my life with some of her exactitude. She is the backbone of everything.