Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Seeing Palenque

This is Palenque: green and growing and growing 
and it is summer and we are in love.

Monday, July 18, 2016


Kristin Hannah's sweeping WWII novel, The Nightingale, offers a narrative scope reminiscent of Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See. The novels are similar; both detail the horrors of war as well as the human beauty, the strength, that always prevails. Both tug at the heartstrings, leaving readers sobbing, sympathetic not only for the victims but for the brutes, the Nazis, many of whom were victims themselves, prisoners to a dangerous idealism and with families of their own at home. Both The Nightingale and All the Light are rare books, magnificent sagas that span time and space, generations, cultures, and languages. They're books that leave the reader grateful for the written word, for the power of story, and for the relative safety we Americans inhabit today.

Yet Hannah's work is different than All The Light, or any other war epic that chronicles men's experiences. Cold Mountain, The Things They Carried, Birds Without Wings, All Quiet on the Western Front, For Whom the Bell Tolls; these are the great war stories of our modern age, the many books about the soldiers on the front and the women who stayed behind. Yet so few attempt what Hannah has succeeded in executing: a well-written, expertly-researched chronicle of the women only, not the ones who "stayed behind" but the ones who watched their men, neighbors, and friends get torn away, who waited for the war to end and meanwhile protected their houses and land, their farms and children, paying for that protection with whatever they could muster: their words, their meals, their bodies.

The Nightingale follows the lives of two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, both French. From their small town of Carriveau, Isabelle jets around France, stealing through war-ravaged Paris and across the icy Pyrenees, hustling fallen Allied pilots across the mountains to the safety of Spain. She falls in love; she comes under fire; she gets shot at and interrogated, imprisoned in a special concentration camp for female traitors. Vianne, meanwhile, holds down the fort, protecting her children's lives with her own, watching as her town is decimated by soldiers. Her body is ravaged by hunger, illness, and rape. She commits an accidental betrayal, and her best friend is taken away to be murdered. She carries a Nazi's baby, gives birth, and never tells her husband the truth. Some secrets are better left untold.

Of war, Vianne remembers at the end of the book, the men tell stories and the women get on with it. Such is the style of The Nightingale; perhaps women have even more to lose in war than men, and so it's easier - healthier - to forget whatever traumas were endured than to keep them alive. Though Hannah is a storyteller more than a poet, her writing poses lingering questions that will resonate with any reader, of any gender or age: What constitutes a full life, and what constitutes a fair trade? What makes living worthwhile? Which secrets should always be kept? What do we as a society forget as the years go by, and what are we destined to relearn?

Get thee to a library, dear reader, and put your name on the list for The Nightingale. You may have to wait, but I can assure you, my lovelies, that it will be worth it.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Irish Eyes

In Ireland, people ask us where we’re going if they see us looking at a map. Sometimes, they tell us to put the map away, and then they just walk us to where we want to go. Community meetings happen in the schools or in the pubs, and everyone we walk past smiles. Lovely day, they say, even on the shittiest days. All the drivers wave when they pass by.

At the bar the other night, I sat and read the news: fifty dead and fifty more hurt, a massacre of unutterable horror. One man hid in a bathroom stall while, in the next one, everyone inside was gunned down. One woman remembers the last drink she ordered before she made it out the exit, just in time. Cell phone videos play a pumping beat, a shrieking crowd – drunk, euphoric – and the guns sound like part of the song. I sat at the Irish bar and felt sick, and the bartender, his eyes so kind, asked what was making me sad. I told him, and he didn't say he was sorry, or how terrible, or how sick. He looked down at his hands – big workman’s hands – because somehow the Irish know when words just won't work.

In Ireland, no one mentions Donald Trump unless we bring him up first. Many Irish have relatives in America now. People ask me when my wedding is, ask about my dress – even the men ask about my dress. Every morning when we leave for the next town, they wish me a lucky marriage. They make little jokes about grandkids, and they wave as we walk away.

It’s a kind place, Ireland, a gentle and beautiful place. At least, that is what we see: rolling hills, sweeping views, crashing coasts buffered by munching sheep. We see sweet, smiling faces and polite, well-behaved children. We see friendly cows, friendly dogs, shy but friendly cats. People offer us rides and seem embarrassed when we push money into their hands. They push it back towards us, shaking their heads.

Every night as I wait for sleep to come, I marvel at this beauty: unsullied and raw and real. Still, every place knows death, knows blood, and these shattering coasts are no exception. Everywhere there’s ugliness; every day you can find it, if you look. I think back to a dark-eyed, brooding student who, in the middle of class, said something to the woman next to him that made her scream and leave the room. Neither of them ever came back. There’s the woman I met in Santa Fe who walked there from Guatemala, and on the way, her baby died. She had to leave him behind. Him, she said, a fist against her mouth. There’s the boy I knew my whole life who, when I brought my college friends to my hometown, raped one of them beneath the toboggan chute before it was even dark out. All tragedies, all small compared to fifty people dead. The horror of that guy in the bathroom stall still pervades my dreams, and I think that life is too fucked up to fathom.

Who have you lost? a friend recently asked, and I thought of a life cut short beneath thin ice, another halved by pills and booze, a third crushed beneath the weight of sorrow, small at first but enormous by the time a decade passed. I thought of my father’s face in his hands the day his mother died. Without death, I know, we couldn’t live. Without blood, there would never be beauty.

Still, to make sense is impossible.

So the best we can do is to mourn and then learn. We must grieve, weep, and remember. We must rally, lobby, speak out, and educate. We must change our laws. We must change our minds, and once that's done, we must be brave and fight to change other minds, too.

Meanwhile, may we the living seek out beauty today, and say a prayer: For the stranger who shows you the way. For the lover who teaches you trust. For the wedding that’s just around the bend, and for all the years that stretch beyond it  – happy years, you hope, but of course you never know. For the child who runs into the rain just as it’s starting to fall: she’s dancing now, and her grandfather runs out to join her. For the bird that smacked the window and fell, and for my partner, who went out and stroked it and stroked it until finally it beat its wings and flew away. For all the little gifts that make up a day, and for the lessons we might take from the horror. For the laws that might change when we finally decide that we won't lose our freedom if we put down our guns.

To all those beautiful lives lost on a terrible Florida Sunday: May your deaths not be a waste. May we learn from this terrible loss. May beauty grow up from your ashes.

Monday, May 9, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air

WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR is a finely written, wretchedly beautiful account of one neurosurgeon’s struggle with lung cancer. By now, I’m sure you’ve heard the premise of this sensational book: Thirty-six-year-old Paul Kalanithi spends his whole life training to fulfill his destiny: to become a neurosurgeon. Different paths lead him to the profession – studies in English literature, philosophy, biology, and ethics bring him, eventually, to Stanford, where he’s poised to become one of the best neurosurgeons in the world.

And then his life changes: lung cancer just when things are finally starting to get good. Now the book becomes beautiful, truly shimmering. Death becomes not the enemy but the inevitable end, the thing which gives all else its meaning. And so what begins as a biography, a list of admirable milestones reached and challenges overcome, turns into something different, a story raw and yet perfectly controlled, a humble account of the time one young man faced his death.

For Kalanithi looks death straight in the eye. In the book’s tugging Epilogue, Kalanithi’s wife Lucy writes, “Paul faced each stage of his illness […] not with bravado or a misguided faith that he would ‘overcome’ or ‘beat’ cancer but with an authenticity that allowed him to grieve the loss of the future he had planned and forge a new one.”

Reminiscent of Jill Bolte Taylor's MY STROKE OF INSIGHTKalanithi’s descriptions of the mind – and his symptoms – are remarkable, and remarkably interesting. As a neurosurgeon, Kalanithi knows just where to press in the brain to make someone feel unutterably sad. He knows what makes people speak in numbers, not in words, and he muses upon the value of language to a life – what is living without words, for example? What does it mean to survive without the ability to listen – or to speak? When does death become a blessing? When does the doctor make the choice to pull the plug?

WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR is a gift to the world. As Lucy writes in the Epilogue, Kalanithi would certainly have saved many lives had he lived. He would have comforted and cured and guided and grieved so many times, in a relationship “that sometimes carries a magisterial air and other times, like now, was no more, and no less, than two people huddled together, as one faces the abyss.”

With a mastery of language and an appreciation for the work that came before—explorations of prose by T.S. Eliot and Graham Greene, and even analysis of the Scripture itself—Kalanithi writes not only from a doctor’s perspective, a scientist’s, but also from that of an artist and a lover of beauty. The book, though considered unfinished, is nevertheless flawless, so tightly bound and emotionally wrought as to be unforgettable.

Most poignant about Kalanithi’s narrative is his examination of Lucy’s and his decision to have a child. Despite the death sentence of his cancer diagnosis, Kalanithi and Lucy conceive a daughter. Eight months after she’s born, Kalanithi dies. His final words – both to the reader and to his child – are these, which I’ll leave you with, dear reader:

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

May we give thanks for every day, because each one is a gift, and we’ve only got so many. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

Woodsy Girls

Aspen Matis's GIRL IN THE WOODS (William Morrow), a new memoir about a young female hiking the PCT, appears at first glance to closely follow the parameters of Cheryl Strayed's chronicles of hiking that same route. Yet, in ways both good and bad, GIRL IN THE WOODS is a different animal; it's younger, rougher, less polished, at once more and less raw. It's less careful, more reckless, more boundless. It's more naive.

There are lots of reasons not to like GIRL IN THE WOODS. Skim reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, and you'll see. For this is the story of a white female who has everything: a ritzy Massachusetts upbringing, a life filled with books and clothes and trips, parents who are still together, a college acceptance at one of our nation's tops. The book is also the story of a novice who ventures into the woods unprepared and almost dies. And it's the story of a girl who didn't dress herself until she was sixteen, didn't wash dishes until she was 19, didn't cook, didn't clean, didn't know how to brush her hair. She's a pampered protagonist, and her writing is youthful, borderline sloppy, peppered with comma splices and phrases repeated.

Yet it's also a story of devastation, and of feeling insatiable, and of staying alive. It's about being alone, and not being alone, and being afraid to be alone, and ultimately wanting nothing more than to be alone. At the beginning of the book, I rolled my eyes at the comma splices, and by the end I was rolling my eyes at the love story, how easy it came, how perfect. 

But in the middle, I was crying. I was gripping the book with both hands, reading fast, letting hours slip by, phone calls going unanswered, meals going uneaten. Matis did what all memoirists dream of: she took something horrible - her rape - and she made it into a gift. She made it into something true, and real, and, very frequently, solemnly beautiful. 

I read the book in a day and a night, and then I went outside into the New Mexican night and inhaled deeply: pine, stars, a sprawling sky, the lights of Albuquerque in the distance. 

I thought of the PCT: that rugged, storied trail. Matis wrote of the men there, the prevalence of men hungry for women, the hunger they all felt on the trail. I thought of the "trail angels," who provided food and booze and weed and clothes and baths. I thought of the days Matis ran the trail, wild with thirst, her heart pounding hard, her life on the line. I thought of the comfort she gave up, the suffering she took in exchange. All of those days on the trail. 

GIRL IN THE WOODS, however flawed, remains worthwhile, rare, a fleck in a very dark night.

Friday, March 18, 2016


Happy Spring, dear readers, and a kiss from the sunny plains.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Random Family

I don’t usually like being chucked into a book, and I spent the first few chapters of Random Family, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s ambitious, saga-esque work of non-fiction, wondering why LeBlanc hadn’t written an introduction. She doesn’t interpret; she doesn’t try to inform beyond the lives of her characters. She doesn’t examine the system directly; she doesn’t give background information about laws, or neighborhoods, or people, or policies. She just throws you right into it: the daily ups and downs of life in the Bronx for an everyday teen. The story starts with the beautiful Jessica, so young and already months away from getting pregnant with the first of five children. From there, the story skitters and jolts from character to character: the wild, drug-using Lourdes, Jessica's mother, and her crazy brother, twelve and already out on the streets, breaking night. There's no pause, no situating. The narrator is invisible, unknown.

But after a while, I started to get it. This is immersion journalism; these are LeBlanc's characters’ lives. In Random Family, the struggles of half a dozen poor New York City teenagers are chronicled with grace and honesty. These kids – adults, really, because kids in the ghetto grow up at age five – were raised by the street, and they’re rugged and clever. The men deal drugs and the women have babies. A lot of the characters, men and women both, get arrested and go to jail; they get beaten and recover. They get kicked out of their moms’ houses. Their moms become grandmothers at thirty. Their babies get molested as toddlers. The book breaks your heart, and it makes you gasp, exasperated, at all the little mistakes – mistakes the system facilitates. All the little choices that make life harder, and all the little things that compound bad choices: no time or money for birth control, quick and expensive loans, abundant cigarettes, booze, and weed - and worse. A shitty transport system means a shitty life if you don’t have a car. Cheap sugar means rotten teach by three.

I realized an introduction wouldn’t do this book justice. It wouldn’t be fair. I could come to my own conclusions: that this was the story of an America I’d never seen, where girls became moms at twelve, and three-year-olds passed around blunts and bootie danced. Men had multiple wives, and gunned each other down in the streets. This was a story about a system stacked against the people who lived there, a system designed to see them fail. 

Random Family is a chaotic tumble of breakdowns and letdowns, betrayals and grief. It’s pain paired with joy: the beauty of the teenagers, their clothes and jewelry and hair and makeup, and the  beauty of the love in the ghetto: between parents and children, between lovers, between friends. People take care of each other’s kids; people share what little they have. People do their best to keep each other alive.

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Halfway through Random Family, I looked up and found myself on a Southwest plane, half-full and on its way back from Atlanta. I’d been at an expensive educational conference, and I was exhausted, though I’d learned a ton: about accelerating students, interpreting data, and the obstacles young men of color face at community colleges today. I was wearing a nice outfit, and my new laptop slept in my bookbag.

I held Random Family in my hands and thought about all that I had, growing up: summer camp, a grassy yard, a dog and cat, a laundry line. A street that I could bike down. Friends I could explore the woods with. Skis and a ski pass; figure skates. Soccer balls; a tennis racket. A subscription to Highlights and a bookshelf of books, all mine. I thought about all the choices, big and small, that brought me to this moment. Some of those choices I made for myself, but most were already set for me, because of who my parents were, my grandparents. Because of the color of my skin, my class, my caste, all of my inheritances, I was one of the lucky ones, and I had had it so good. I hadn't done anything to earn that. I held LeBlanc’s Random Family in my hands, and I cried: it was so late, I was so tired, and there was just so much suffering in this world. I felt so suddenly guilty. Plus, our country is so sharply broken, and it probably won’t ever get fixed. There are so many of us who will go through our lives – on planes to conferences, in our cars to school – never knowing how bad things could be.

Dear readers, if you haven’t already, please go to the library and check out Random Family. I can assure you it will change your life. Don’t let the absence of high-level explanations dissuade you, because those don’t exist in the ghetto, and this book is true to that world. In its title and in its telling, Random Family depicts a realm just up the road, or just downstate - not far from you. Desperation lives around the corner. This is America, Random Family proclaims: severely fucked up, but wretchedly beautiful nevertheless.

Monday, February 8, 2016

THE MURALIST: Art Lovers Everywhere Lap it Up

Need something fast, hot, and downright good? You could hit up the Shake Foundation in Santa Fe...or you could just head on down to the library and pick up anything by B.A. Shapiro. I fell in love at The Art Forger, Ms. Shapiro's 2013 page-turner about fraud, all-nighters, and painting. So when Peg at the SFCC library put The Muralist, Shapiro's latest, into my hands, I dashed home, prepared tea, and began to devour.

The Muralist  doesn't disappoint. It's paced deftly, darting between 2015 New York to the tumult of the city in the 1940s. Shapiro characterizes well the cast of characters at arty bars and crammed, frigid studios: the alcoholic, say-anything Pollock; the supportive, sensible Krasner; the darkly sensual Rothko.

Among them is Alizee, their lesser-known (and wholly imagined) comrade, perhaps the most talented but also, arguably, the most troubled. Fighting to bring her Jewish family from France to New York, Alizee loses herself in her work...and ultimately loses her mind. Her 1940 disappearance anchors the book, providing a quiet mystery that undercuts the narrative, past and present.

Best of all, the book is fast and fun. It's light, the type of narrative you fall into after a long day of grading papers, barking at students, hustling to meetings...all the hours spent NOT reading. This is no Charles Dickens (happy belated, my fellow Aquarian friend!), but Give me something easy, I said to Peg, and she did.

To me, The Muralist's greatest strength lies not in the tense letters Alizee exchanges with her family in Europe, nor in the vivid descriptions of drunken nights with the (soon-to-be-filthy-rich) gang of artists. No, Shapiro's writing grabs ahold of me because of the way she writes work, the artist's work: frantic at times, possessed, as if she's no longer herself but the paint and the brush. The artist is gone from the world; she's left the building. The paint is her food, the hours her caffeine, the energy of the painting her fuel. I love reading about this lustful, crazed work - the same that defined the protagonist in The Art Forger, because when making art is good, it feels this way. You're not you anymore, and yet you've never been more yourself than in that moment.

Shapiro, in sensible, accessible prose, writes on the nature of art, and on the artist's life. It's one of trouble, anxiety, fear, and despair, but the moments of sheer beauty make it worth it.

Friends, hustle on down to your nearest book purveyor, and snap up a copy of The Muralist. Not in yet? Take The Art Forger instead...you'll probably need it for one night only.

Happy reading, my loves! Now carry on.