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

Saturday, May 5, 2018

A Little Life

You think A LITTLE LIFE is going to be something it’s not: one of those post-college coming-of-age-in-Manhattan books that takes you along through drug-addled friendships, boozy conversations, new babies, failed marriages, and the like. The start of Hanya Yanagihara’s 813-page novel certainly smacks of books like A FORTUNATE AGE, by Joanna Smith Rakoff, and even Mary McCarthy’s THE GROUP – complex, layered stories that chronicle that path of a group of friends as they navigate the adult world.

But A LITTLE LIFE isn’t A FORTUNATE AGE. It’s not THE GROUP. In fact, I suspect many would be hard-pressed to find an easy contemporary for this complex, tragic story. It’s a singular, unforgettable, searing work, one that navigates the realms of trauma, physical pain, and grief by means of expert language and gorgeous, visceral scene. For the last third of A LITTLE LIFE, I wept, turning the pages and wiping my eyes as the story unfolded, gruesome and true. 

The central figure in A LITTLE LIFE is Jude, the one who holds his group of male friends together.  He’s the victim of a childhood trauma, one that is revealed to the reader in fits and starts, snippets and scenes, until we finally grasp the horror, the breadth of such abuse, in the book’s closing pages. Jude holds his secret tightly, and his friends come to accept this. When he’s crippled with pain, paralyzed on the floor, they hold him close; they take him to the doctor; they don’t ask questions about the cuts on his arms. His friends are his saviors, and he, with his understated beauty, his generosity, his humility, is also theirs. 

At the end of the book’s second chapter (there are just seven), Jude remarks, “The only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are – not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving – and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself.” Jude’s best friend, the attractive and compelling Willem, is this friend: kind, generous, forgiving. He’s Jude’s foil, the picture of health and good fortune, and the relationship between the two is what carries the book forward, propels it through the decades to its final agonizing close. 

In A LITTLE LIFE, “Friendship [means] witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs.” At one point, Willem wonders, “Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going.” Willem and Jude’s friendship is like this: the most important relationship in each of their lives, and one that remains sexless, but not without love. 

As handsome and charming as Willem is, it’s Jude who steals the reader’s heart. Jude, who keeps his pain knotted tight inside himself, who never complains aloud, who feels, all the time, like his legs will give out—it’s Jude who’s the true hero in A LITTLE LIFE, the one who survives, who even thrives, despite the obstacles he’s faced. Jude hates himself, hates his failing body, his terrible past. He can’t enjoy sex, can’t enjoy his physical body: He sees himself as flawed, “a piece of junk.”

For this reader, Jude’s pain was the most compelling part of the book. I’ve taken my body for granted my whole life, and yet it’s brought me to countries near and far, to the tops of frozen peaks and to the shores of vast oceans. It’s folded itself into cramped buses, cabs, rickshaws, boats—all so that I could see the world. Swimming, walking, skating, climbing, hiking, skiing, rowing, biking, running: verbs have always been the vocabulary that’s defined my life, punctuated the other, more literary life I’ve also led. It took A LITTLE LIFE to teach me to treasure these things, hold them close, thank my legs and arms for taking me through another pain-free day, another day when I could forget about my body and get down to the business of living. 

A LITTLE LIFE is about enduring pain. Jude’s pain was never a friend, but it was always a companion, something he could count on, something he spent his life managing. And yet even in pain, Jude eked out success: As a prominent lawyer, he spent his final years with the man he always loved. The two gardened together, created beautiful spaces for themselves, those final years together all cool, shimmery pools and frosted cocktails in the afternoons. The book ends in tragedy, but it’s so imbued with beauty that you almost don’t even notice. It’s only when you finish reading do you realize you’ve been weeping for hours, and your face and hands are stained with tears. You’ll stand, aware of how your body hurts or doesn’t hurt, and you’ll see the world anew, pain-infused and beauty-bound, a brand new place each day. 

Friday, April 27, 2018

There There

When I Googled Tommy Orange, I found photos of a guy around my age. He’s wearing a baseball cap and a black sweatshirt, and he’s unsmiling, staring straight into the camera. Sherman Alexie comes up on the same Google search, and Louise Erdrich, and Joy Harjo – the handful of Native voices our nation’s publishers have chosen to elevate. Scroll farther down the Google Image results, and photos of Tommy Orange disappear. Now, the feed fills with pictures of white guys in puffy orange vests, pictures of orange sweatshirts that say “Tommy Jeans,” even a picture of a fuzzy felt orange fruit, complete with a felt leaf hat. Tommy Orange is new to the scene, and his Google results prove it. 

Still, his is the new voice of an old soul, the voice of someone who’s bound to stick around, make a splash, put new ideas about what it means to be Native into our collective head. His can be a weary voice, or a joking voice, or a voice imbued with an unnamable grief. It’s a voice saturated in new turns of phrase, a voice simultaneously youthful and wise. THERE THERE tells the story of urban Natives, and the prologue begins with a reflection on a bloodied past—“They did more than kill us. They tore us up.” Orange remarks that “getting us to the cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our assimilation, absorption, erasure.” But “we did not move to cities to die,” he explains. Instead, “the city made us new, and we made it ours.” For anyone still imagining each Native with a wolf at his shoulder and a feather in his hair, THERE THERE will upend that perception – one that’s sometimes true, but increasingly not.  

In the city, Orange’s characters reinvent what it means to be of the earth. The city became home, because “the city sounds like a war, and you can’t leave a war once you’ve been.” In the city, “Everything here is formed in relation to every other living and nonliving thing from the earth...Buildings, freeways, cars—are these not of the earth? Were they shipped from Mars, or the moon?” In Orange’s world, “Urban Indians feel at home walking in the shadow of a downtown building.” The city’s become home, where “the land is everywhere or nowhere.”

THERE THERE tells the stories of twelve different Natives, roaming the West Coast as they make their plodding way towards a long-awaited Oakland, California powwow. Some are going to make money; others to perform, to dance, to don the regalia that’s been gathering dust in their closets. Some are going to find the parents who long ago left them behind, and who now are feeling sorry, feeling guilty. As the story progresses, the connections between each of the twelve characters reveal themselves; they are interconnected, and their journeys have crosses many times, without their even knowing. 

In one of the book’s final chapters, Tony Loneman, one of the twelve, puts on his regalia, then takes a train to the powwow. “No one on the train knows about the powwow,” Orange writes. “Tony’s just an Indian dressed like an Indian on the train for no apparent reason. But people love to see the pretty history. Tony’s regalia is blue, red, orange, yellow, and black. The colors of a fire at night. Another image people love to think about. Indians around a fire. But this isn’t that. Tony is the fire and the dance and the night.” An older white woman asks Tony about his regalia, but when he invites her to the powwow, she demurs. “People don’t want any more than a little story they can bring back home with them…to talk about how they saw a real Native American boy on a train, that they still exist.”

THERE THERE is often searing, frequently beautiful, and ultimately tragic. That’s how so many Native lives look today: Conflicted, complex, and sometimes brimming over with love. There’s a grief beneath the surface, and there’s hope. There’s fear, doubt, and shame. There’s an unnamable legacy, ugly and beautiful both. To be a Native today means so many things, so many different things: It means to be alive, to smell the air, to put both feet on the ground and keep moving. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

We write to nurture our inner lives, to challenge ourselves with ourselves.

"The writing life isn’t always easy, but once you’ve chosen, well, there indeed is no turning back. As someone filled with old numbers, I can look back at my life and see the various crests and valleys of my imagination and career, how sometimes they’re in synch and sometimes not. The most important path, though, is the one of imagination. In the end, the public journey of career means very little. We write to nurture our inner lives, to challenge ourselves with ourselves."

- the incomparable, ever inspired Philip Graham

Sunday, August 6, 2017


I saw Roxane Gay last February at the American Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Washington, D.C. It was cold and gray that weekend, and I wore wool the whole time. I was walking with my friend Austin, making our way out of the conference hotel and into downtown D.C., and all of a sudden, Austin whispered, “Roxane Gay,” and he pointed with his gaze.
I knew what Roxane Gay looked like, of course—I’d seen the pictures online and in her books’ jackets. But nothing prepared me for Roxane Gay in the flesh, just a few feet away from us, leaning against a wall and smoking a cigarette. She was dressed in dark colors, denim and black, and though I’d sensed nothing a moment before, I now felt her presence like a spirit in the room with you when you’re sleeping. I gasped. She was the woman who’d written the stories that broke me down, made me weep, made me remember for years afterwards. She was a legend, a literary goddess, and here she stood, smoking a cigarette and leaning against a wall, just a few steps away from where we walked. We hurried past, not the type of fans to gush or hug or be a bother, but I was chilled for the rest of the night, stunned by what I dared to feel coming off of her: this latent power, warm like the sun.


I couldn’t believe it: Roxane Gay’s Hunger was on the shelf, and no one had snapped it up yet. I love our library, especially when it feels like no one goes. I checked it out, tucked it into my bag, and had it open by lunchtime, sandwich and lemonade forgotten. “We should not take up space,” Gay writes on page thirteen. “We should be seen and not heard, and if we are seen, we should be pleasing to men, acceptable to society. And most women know this, that we are supposed to disappear, but its something that needs to be said, loudly, over and over again, so that we can resist surrendering to what is expected of us.”

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body is Gay’s courageous, beautiful, terrible story of her coming-of-age, her sexuality, her roaring twenties and fumbling thirties, her rise to fame, and always her body, her body, and her hunger. The book feels like you’re reading someone’s diary. It feels, uncomfortably and blessedly, like an invasion. This is the best, rawest, most troubling, most healing kind of memoir there is, and it’s the kind I can’t yet make—she tells us everything, she lays her life bare, she opens her heart and dares to let us take it. The intimacy of this book is a revolution, and should be required reading for all women and men, all mothers and fathers, all teachers and civil servants. Everyone who resides in a body in this world owes it to herself to read Hunger.

In her memoir, Gay divides her experience into the before and the after – the innocence and then the fall from grace that followed a trauma I won’t describe – read the book, Bad Feminist, or other reviews if you really want to know. Or, just take a guess. You’re probably right. Anyway, Gay swallows the worst day of her life like an edible secret, and everything falls apart – her confidence, her blossoming physical beauty, her open trust in her family. Food becomes a way to hide, the weight a disguise that renders the body invisible, genderless. Gay’s short chapters span the topics of cooking and food preparation, breakfast and binging, flying on planes and sitting in too-small chairs, and, of course, the weight-loss reality-TV shows that populate most networks. In one of the book’s most poignant passages, Gay describes Rachel Frederickson, the Season 15 Biggest Loser winner who weighed in at 105 pounds on live television. “In the two months after her big reveal,” Gay writes, “Frederickson gained twenty pounds and reached, apparently, a more acceptable but still appropriately disciplined size….those of us who deny ourselves and discipline our bodies know better. Rachel Frederickson was doing exactly what we asked of her, and what too many of us would, if we could, ask of ourselves.”

Reading Hunger was a little bit like reading Americanah, by Chimanada Ngozi Adichie—the reading process was also a process of learning how it is to be black in America, or, in Gay’s case, to be too big in America—for armchairs, for planes, for the public’s comfort. The stories she tells break my heart and smack me in the face, because of how little I’ve seen, and what I’ve been willing to ignore—in airports, in college, and even in my own classroom. Chairs that don’t fit, clothes that are always too small, doorways that are always too narrow. Strangers who take food from your grocery cart and put it back on the shelves. Nurses who wince when they weigh you. After a while, it all gets internalized, “and then I start to hate myself for my unruly body that I seem incapable of disciplining, for my cowardice in the face of what other people might think.”

In the end, Hunger is a story of triumph, even if the book isn’t framed that way. “I often wonder,” Gay writes at the close of her memoir, “who I would have been if this terrible thing had not happened to me, if I hadn’t spend so much of my life hungering so much.” And by the very end, she’s asking her reader to look within: “Does anyone feel comfortable in their bodies?”

I closed the book this morning, tears in my eyes, and I thought about the day I’d seen Roxane Gay standing outside the Marriott Hotel in downtown D.C. I thought about the experience I had at that conference—all the walking, the standing, the waiting, the sitting, and how easy it was for me to fit. I thought about my own body and the times I’ve hated on it, run it ragged, dragged it too far, pushed it to make it thinner, starved it. Beat on it. All the ways I’ve hated my body over the years.

I can still feel the way the writer’s strength hit me like a warm gust of wind, though she hadn’t looked at us, hadn’t moved at all. In fact, if Austin hadn’t said her name, I might have walked right past without noticing the tall, denim-clad woman smoking a cigarette by herself.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A Ranch Bordering the Salty River

Stephen Page’s twenty-poem collection, “A Ranch Bordering the Salty River,” explores the second half of a life, as Page’s narrator navigates the transitions from city to country, from intellectual toil to physical labor, and from youth to middle age. 

In language rich with natural imagery and tense with the poles of joy and disillusionment, Page has written a collection that leaves an indelible imprint. These layered stories-in-poems render birth extraordinary, death ordinary, and the natural world a disappearing muse, a forested siren the narrator yearns to know. Ever relevant and always beautiful, “A Ranch Bordering the Salty River” contemplates the possession of land alongside the inscrutable mystery of the natural world. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Not Altogether Yogic

I was storming out of the Target, Seventh Generation laundry detergent in hand. They didn’t have our kind of toilet paper, and I’d travelled all this way, twenty minutes off the route, just to stock our house. Why was I the only one to stock our house with toilet paper, anyway? When did my husband last buy the stuff? So I was storming out of the Target, laundry detergent so at least I wouldn’t be leaving empty-handed—though this probably would mean I’d have to do laundry, in the end.


It had already been an awful morning, relatively speaking: not enough caffeine, not enough breakfast, unwashed hair, unwashed clothes (no laundry detergent), not enough time. And my husband’s ever-present refrain: “Why not leave a little more time in the morning? Why must you write until the very moment it’s time to go?”

And my screams, in reply: “BECAUSE I AM A WRITER,” even though some days it feels like the least productive activity available in a house filled with unwashed clothes.

And then I was tearing down Cerrillos Road, perpetually late to yoga class, but I’ve set my intentions to attend, and this didn’t feel very yogic at all, speeding along at a great rate and cursing the slower drivers. “Go!” I shouted. “Go!” My window was down, and the man in the red car next to mine was looking over, smiling.


Naturally, in the end, yoga class was cancelled, the man at the front desk told me smugly.

So as not to make the whole trip a waste, I arrived, sweaty and rushed and yoga clad, at the Target, where I stormed through for the one thing we truly needed: toilet paper, but only the natural, recycled, non-toxic, non-paraben, non-cancerous toilet paper, please—our bottoms require this.

Sold out.


And as I was heading to the counter to pay, there you stood, blocking the aisle. You were wearing a red shirt like all the other employees, neat and new and tucked into your khakis. You were unloading something, toothpaste maybe, mouthwash, I didn’t look closely. You were helping a woman pushing one of those massive Target carts, and what with the cart, and you, and her, and me, there was no space for anyone to move. I was crabby, yoga-cranky, and all I wanted to do was go home.

Finally, you’d answered the woman’s question, and now we were letting her pass. Now I was moving ahead. I heard it distinctly: “Good morning,” you said sweetly to me, your voice gentle and genuine, like you really wanted to greet me with kindness. I didn’t look up at you. I said nothing in reply. Instead, I walked towards the register, imagining your eyes on my back—maybe you were rolling them, or maybe you were a little stunned at my cruelty, or maybe you were used to this, and you just kept on with your work, smiling down at the boxes you had left to unpack, your sweet voice filling the aisles.

How ugly of me, not to reply. How little my problems that day. A greeting, after all, costs nothing, and smiles are free. This morning I sit with my tea, the air fresh outside after an all-night rain, and I cringe at myself, wondering what would have been the harm.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

A Birthday Letter

Dear Hen,

Five years you've been gone, and still you come to me daily—your lavender scent, or the sound of your voice, or some little thing that you did so long ago. Today I thought about that recipe you had me copy down, beef bourguignon when I was about thirteen years old, too young to even fathom cooking a dinner like that. I told you I liked the smell, told you it was my favorite meal, and so while you cooked, I copied, noting how similar our writing looked: the rounded consonants, the looping vowels, our shared impatient cursive.

I thought about the garden path today, which the new owner neglects. I know because I went there two summers ago, just showed up on her doorstep weeping, and I continued to weep as she walked me through your old house, pointing out all the things they’d changed, steeling me for the upstairs, which they’d gutted: all of our bedrooms, the narrow toy closet with all the games, Poppa’s dark office with the gleaming desk, and my dad’s childhood room with the flowered paper on the walls and the lace curtains that billowed out over the driveway—all of it, gone. They’d left just one space, one tiny room unchanged: the hall closet, right next to your old bedroom. That room smelled just like you, preserved after all those years. I went into the little closet and shut the door and breathed in deeply and tried not to cry while outside, the new owner waited kindly.

I thought about the things you used to give me: oil pastels I’d smear over nubby paper, taking pleasure in every line and crease. There was always enough paper to make a mistake. You taught me the names of the colors: Vermillion, Cerulean, Burnt Sienna, Raw Sienna. Titanium White. Watercolor trays, and damp paintbrushes, and charcoal pencils, good for sketching. And when the art was done, book and books, piles and piles, always what I asked for. We’d gobble the words up, page after page, never ready to go to bed.

I’m married now, but you never met David. He's a good man to me, and you'd be proud of how handsome and smart he is. I live a life you never would have imagined—yesterday I even mixed cement! We have a pickup truck that he goes and fills with rocks, or wood, or bricks, or sand, and then he brings it home and we unload that stuff into the yard and make something out of it. We read a lot of books, sometimes one a day, just like you did. David's a gardener, too, basil and tomatoes and a little herb garden he planted for me at the edge of the property. It’s so dusty here, so overgrown and brown and not at all what it was like back at your sweet house. We eke what we can from this earth. I memorize the names of all the trees in our yard: Russian Olive, Locust, Cottonwood, Ash. I plant Hollyhock along the fenceline. I dig with my hands; I smell the earth, and in the garden, I always think of you.

Tonight I’ll cook beef bourguignon. I wrote a book and dedicated it to you. The cactus are blooming, and the sky overhead is a sharp and piercing blue. A day doesn’t pass that I don’t think of you, and in this way, I keep you alive.

Happy Birthday to my grandmother, Hen. I love you forever and ever.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

No One Can Pronounce My Name

In the tradition of Jhumpa Lahiri, Nell Freudenberger, and Akhil Sharma, Rakesh Satyal’s NO ONE CAN PRONOUNCE MY NAME emerges as the funniest, freshest story of the lot. There’s a market for Indian fiction, as the author astutely observes through the lens of his protagonist, Ranjana, and NO ONE CAN PRONOUNCE MY NAME has budged itself right to the front of the line. This beautiful, hilarious, and richly reflective novel explores the fate of the Indian family on the North American continent, with the narrator’s observations constantly drawing parallels between East and West, old and young, ancient and modern. Ultimately, the Indian-American family is reshaped, reformed, and refashioned into a motley crue of friends: The flamboyantly gay Teddy, the tentative Harit, the gaudy, talkative Cheryl, and the literary Ranjana. In America, the author seems to suggest, the family that endures is the friend group we adopt.

In smart-but-not-isolating prose, Satyal presents the lives of disparate characters whose lives intersect. There’s the Indian contingency—we first meet Harit, who, despite ten years in the States, feels no more acclimated than he did when he arrived. Donning saris and lipstick each night, he pretends to be his dead sister for his mother’s sake, though it’s not until the last quarter of the book that we learn the true, stupid reason for his sister’s untimely death. (We also learn that, all along, his mother knew it was him—such is the humor of this clever, tightly-wound book.) With the gender bending of the first few pages comes an element of the queer—unexpected for a book about Indian families, but knotted deeply into the fabric of these interconnected lives Satyal has designed.

From Harit’s life, we move to the story of Ranjana, who has lived in the States for fifteen years but who, the narrator reveals, still doesn’t feel a part of the culture either; she doesn’t drink, doesn’t flirt, doesn’t walk on the street with men she doesn’t know. In our flirty, sexy culture, Ranjana is an outsider: at her job at a proctologist’s office, in the market, and even, it seems, in the company of her own husband. The conversations she has with her college-aged son over the phone are conversations among strangers; Prashant, the son, can never end the call soon enough.

Ranjana’s only peace is her writing hour, after she’s served her husband dinner, worked all day, and completed all errands. Late at night, all alone, unfueled by wine or weed or caffeine, “It was easily her favorite time of day,” Satyal writes, “work barely a memory, dinner accomplished, her husband appeased, a story her only world for an hour or two. It was at once fun and disorienting.” It is Ranjana who sails the rest of the book forward, she who guides the fumbling characters towards unity. “That was what writing really was,” she observes, “an excuse to gild your loneliness until it resembled the companionship of others. It was entertaining yourself when you had no other entertainment. It was the way out.” Just as her own writing becomes a “way out,” so too do the characters, for each other, become an alternative to the realities they occupy.

            As Ranjana’s taste for writing develops, she joins a writing group, where, each week, the members tear each other apart while defending their own bad writing to the death. Ranjana, for her part, spends the hour feeling self-conscious and reading her worst work, hiding her bloody Indian vampire stories for after-hours, when she’s alone. It’s only when she finally shares one with the group that the other members take note of her ability, and she’s invited to a writers’ conference.

            Because I’m a writer, I loved this book, whose climax concluded with two days spent at said conference. The book’s four central characters – Ranjana, Cheryl, Teddy, and Harit – end up making the trip together, in one car, though Ranjana’s the only writer of the group. In one of the final scenes, the four of them meet Pushpa Sondi, the book’s version of Jhumpa Lahiri, and Ranjana’s initial reaction is not admiration or awe but envy, “jealousy, the top of her mouth turning to metal. All the goodwill that she had built up – the warmth that she had felt upon ingesting the stories and their beauty – was effaced upon the author’s entrance….there was no emotion as swift and complete.” This is the type of writing that makes me love NO ONE CAN PRONOUNCE MY NAME; such fumbling grace, so real, so true. The envy is Ranjana’s and mine.

            Just as quickly, Ranjana’s envy melts at the woman’s next words: “Fear is as common as blood,” Sondhi admonishes her audience. “It courses through us and is, in its way, a vital source. It is the requisite formula for our continued work as writers.” Ranjana is “immediately reenergized,” and begins to wonder how her own writing, however humble its beginnings, could provide readers something that even the great Sondhi’s words could not.
            Like others that have come before it, NO ONE CAN PRONOUNCE MY NAME is a poignant reflection of what it means to be the Other, the relocated, the one who came from somewhere else. This is an Indian story, but it might as well be mine—or my grandmother’s, who came here from Finland at twenty-two with a fake passport and no English to speak of, but who worked as a maid in rich ladies’ houses to raise my mom right. While my grandmother grew old and white-haired and feeble, I became a writer myself, shaping stories around the journey she’d taken so many years ago. At the book’s bold close, Ranjana seduces her husband, rekindling a love she thought had died years ago: “She turned her head to his and pressed her laughing mouth to his agog one. She kissed the man who had brought her to this country, to this house.”

            In NO ONE CAN PRONOUNCE MY NAME, all of your wildest dreams come true: A housewife goes on to earn bestselling fame. A bumbling Indian man finds love in Men’s Furnishings. A chatterbox receptionist rises above her child’s death, and a man forgives himself a fatal mistake. In the characters’ fumblings, we recognize our own, and my only response was compassion. 

Sunday, June 25, 2017


It’s summer, and the gig is up: I love me a luscious novel. Non-fiction has a certain pertinence, a relevance, and so to me, reading it feels like eating healthy food. Writing it feels like doing the right thing. My life, our lives, the details of what we’ve actually seen and done and heard—it feels necessary, non-fiction. But I need novels like a different kind of food: butter, or sea salt, or a really dark chocolate. A novel is my oil drizzled over mozzarella cheese. And this week, I tasted such a fine one.

In a word, PACHINKO stunned. Best to plan on calling in sick for a few days, or else taking a few much-needed “personal days”—PACHINKO merits the dedicated time. Min Jin Lee’s masterful novel spans nearly a century, tracing one Korean family’s journey from the port city of Busan, where the matriarch, Yangjin, runs a boarding house, to Japan’s gleaming cities, where the family must painfully relocate.

PACHINKO is a book about duty and pride, and what matters most to Lee’s finely fleshed-out characters has to do with both. Yangjin is the heartbreakingly selfless mother, devoting her body and hands to her family and home until her final days, when at last she may rest, close her eyes, and wait for death. Sunja, her only child, follows her heart as a teenager and pays the price for the rest of her life: a rapturous affair with a wealthy older man leaves her heartbroken and pregnant, but Hansu never leaves her life. Nevertheless, duty-bound, she must make a choice that will curse her years down the line.

In PACHINKO, each figure’s got a duty to uphold—and shirking that duty could mean death. For Sunja’s husband, Isak, duty’s about paying back a debt—Isak marries Sunja because she saves his life, despite the shame of her illegitimate pregnancy. He owes her one. And Sunja’s firstborn, Hansu’s son, disappears in an effort to become the perfect Japanese. Only at the book’s close does the omniscient narrator vocalize Sunja’s frustration at the confines of Korean society: “All her life, Sunja had heard this sentiment from other women, that they must suffer—suffer as a girl, suffer as a wife, suffer as a mother—die suffering.”

Books like these—a whole legacy borne on a single woman’s back—remind me of my grandmother, Helmi. Born in Finland, she took her older sister’s ticket to America when her sister lost her courage—and my grandmother took her identity, too, living in the States for decades as Eva, her sister’s name. My grandmother brought along with her nothing at all, and with that she created all that I see before me, and everything I know. Her rugged hands and crooked back gave me my pampered life.

PACHINKO’s first line is telling: “History has failed us, but no matter.” It’s a line that startles the reader, and yet it’s one she forgets as she reads on, through Sunja’s birth and wracked life, through her first son’s suicide and the loss of her motherland. Yet the line is worth reconsidering: If history matters little, then what does? Are we to succumb? Does the beauty of family transcend any sociopolitical backdrop? What lessons might a statement yield? History has failed us, but no matter.

In an era of Donald Trump, made-in-China, and the modern mystery of North Korea, PACHINKO offers something wrenchingly human. How fresh it felt, to read about characters who missed their beautiful North Korea; in their descriptions of sunlit islands and rippling seas, I missed it, too.  The introduction of new characters at the book’s lengthy dénouement detracts somewhat from the visceral first two sections, yet PACHINKO remains a one-of-a-kind epic, evocative of Pearl S. Buck’s THE GOOD EARTH and, more recently, Madeleine Thien’s DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING. By the novel’s masterful close, there’s no doubt that Junot Díaz was right: “PACHINKO confirms [Min Jin Lee’s] place among our finest novelists.”

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Rules Do Not Apply

My stylish friend from New York had Ariel Levy’s memoir, THE RULES DO NOT APPLY, at the top of her list. So, when I saw the book perched on the shelf at our down-home, trusty library, I figured I’d best snap it up. I may live in the boonies, but NYC non-fiction keeps me fresh.

Of Levy’s memoir, I devoured it in the course of a few days. Cheryl Strayed read the thing in “one long, rapt sitting.” There’s a compulsion to the book’s style, an almost-addictive quality also present in Cat Marnell’s NYC tell-all, HOW TO MURDER YOUR LIFE. Levy’s memoir shares other qualities with Marnell’s; both analyze addiction, writing, and how to sustain the two. But where Marnell’s book languishes in the booze, the pills, and the name brands, Levy’s transcends a hip Manhattan life to encompass the realm of motherhood, the life of a New York City lesbian, and the landscape of a wild Mongolian steppe. Levy’s book is about living as an urbanite, a social climber, a hipster intellectual. It’s also about living as a daughter, a wife, a traveler, a philosopher, and a mother—even if that motherhood only lasted for a moment.

Ariel Levy, a longtime contributor to The New Yorker, won the National Magazine Award in 2014 for her essay, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia.” The essay, published with The New Yorker in 2013, describes Levy’s decision to travel to Mongolia for an assignment – at five months pregnant. Empowered by the strength of her own body and the heat of her skyrocketing career, Levy promises herself the risk is worth it: I would teach my child the power of fearlessness,” she writes. “I would tell him, ‘When you were inside of me, we went to see the edge of the earth.’"
What happens over the course of The New Yorker essay – and THE RULES DO NOT APPLY – is brutal to read. Ultimately, Levy loses her child on the floor of a Mongolian bathroom in a hotel room. She’s alone, and for a few moments, the baby is alive. She snaps a picture with her phone. Afterwards, numb with grief, she shows people the photo of the tiny baby, born too early to ever have survived, and the essay ends with her guilt, her sorrow, and her shame. Just when you think you’ve got everything, the essay seemed to be saying, the rules suddenly apply.

THE RULES DO NOT APPLY: A MEMOIR is “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” expanded. In just over 200 pages, Levy explores her career as a journalist and, eventually, a New Yorker contributor. Complexity abounds in this memoir, whose style mirrors a chronicle by Joan Didion or Cheryl Strayed—the narration jumps in time and place, but remains anchored a singular, traumatic incident. From stories of Levy’s grandmother, Tanya, a bold Russian immigrant, to details of assignments from all over the world—Africa, Los Angeles, Maureen Dowd’s apartment—Levy shows us how she fought for what she wanted, and how, for the longest time, she had it all.

The book’s strongest passages explore with courage Levy’s long-term relationship with Lucy, a brazen, assertive gold star who takes the narrator under her expert wing. THE RULES DO NOT APPLY is punctuated with examinations of the wealth dynamics at play in the relationship, the roles each woman assume, and, most fascinatingly, Lucy’s decline into alcohol addiction. In that realm, THE RULES DO NOT APPLY is reminiscent of Sue William Silverman’s extraordinary memoir LOVE SICK: ONE WOMAN’S JOURNEY THROUGH SEXUALADDICTION. Both narrators explore the role of addict from the viewpoints of the psychologists they’ve worked with; the result is a revelatory discussion of addiction, made more personal – and hugely more interesting – by the medium—the essay or memoir form. 

THE RULES DO NOT APPLY belies its name, for the book, in the end, is about how the rules really do apply, however hard we try to escape their scope. Slurring words really does mean she’s drunk. It really does get harder to get pregnant as you age. And as Maureen Dowd shrewdly tells our narrator, “Everyone doesn’t get everything.”