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

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Running Wild

The first time I heard Robin MacArthur read, I was twenty-five and in my third semester of graduate school. Robin was a semester ahead of me, and she intimidated me, though I realized years later, when I got to know her, that she shouldn’t have, and that she definitely didn’t want to. Still, there’s something distinctive about Robin, something uncannily familiar and exotic, worldly and down-home, intimate and unattainable. 

Her writing is like that, too: it’s many things at once, like the best writing is.

That first time I heard Robin read, none of us had published anything yet. Still, it was clear that Robin was going places. She read “Running Water,” an essay about her grandmother’s rugged life on a rambling old farm, and I cried at the end, amazed at the beauty of Robin’s writing and also the sadness, the grief at the end of the story—grief I realized years later was actually joy. When I became Robin’s friend, I asked for the story for the literary journal I manage, and miraculously, Robin still had it, unpublished and all. “I’ve always had bad luck with publication,” she said, her shrug perceptible through the emailed note.

The second time I heard Robin read might have been a year after the first. She’d had a baby and returned to the program, and now, we were graduating at the same time. For her final reading, Robin chose “The Heart of the Woods,” the second story in her new collection, HALF WILD.

I’ll never forget hearing “The Heart of the Woods.” It was beautiful, surely, just like “Running Water,” but there was a darkness to the story’s core that I still can’t get out of my mind. As Robin read, the afternoon faded into dusk outside. The story is about a woman who has found success in a Vermont town. Her father, still poor, lives in a trailer she visits one day—a trailer tucked back into the heart of the woods. In spare, wretched, lovely prose, Robin shows us these lives, rippled with past anguish that penetrates every moment. The story’s ending isn’t a slap, or a push, or a stab: it’s a slice with a very sharp knife. It’s something dark and sick and sad, and in the end, like all of Robin’s extraordinary stories, it’s the most beautiful thing the reader has ever seen.

Yesterday, I saw an old friend from the same graduate program, and I mentioned Robin’s book. “The book is about loving a place and wondering how you can leave,” I explained. “No, the book is about transcending a place, whether you leave or not,” I decided, correcting myself. My friend nodded, considering, and I changed my mind a final time. “The book’s about a hating a place,” I said finally. And to hate something you must love it fiercely. This is HALF-WILD: A kind of love that sometimes looks like hate. A place’s cruel grip on your heart. As resonant and tightly plaited as a novel, HALF-WILD’s eleven stories tell of those who both adore and despise their lives, their choices, their families and, most deeply, their land.

Awed, tearful, and mightily proud, I raise my glass to Robin, who showed us that it really can be done.  

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

On Reviews

The best reviews don't come from the New York Times.

Today, I was perusing my Amazon book page (you do this when you have a new book), and I came across this brand-new review:

I read Kate's book while meandering through Europe this spring. Patagonian Road came with me to the rugged coast of the Baltic Sea, to little mountain huts in the French Alps, through the busy streets of Berlin and to the snowcapped peaks on the border of Italy and Austria. Every night I turned a page and stepped out into the bustling markets of Beunos Aires, thick jungle in Ecuador, endless stretches of salt in Bolivia. Patagonian Road takes the reader along on a journey of self-discovery, while gently reminding them of the importance of home, family, the open road, and the profound pleasure to be found in simply getting lost. Blessed with a true gift for sharing the vivid smells, sights and sounds to be encountered in any foreign place, Kate reminded me that travel isn't about acquiring photos or visiting the right places, it's about fully embracing the journey and the lessons it can share.

Beautifully written, Kate.

Your brother Dave

Sunday, March 5, 2017

How to Murder Your Life

It took some wheedling, but Peg came through for me, like she always does, and HOW TO MURDER YOUR LIFE, Cat Marnell's tell-all memoir, arrived from the High Plains Library District via interlibrary loan just a week after I'd requested it. It wasn't something we'd be ordering for our own library, Peg explained. Too....something. So when the book arrived, it had that tinge of bad, of banned, and I grabbed it up and held it close. Illicit. The cover itself was a guilty pleasure, the title scrawled in pink and blue - lipstick and smeared Adderall? I took the book home to read and, for the next two days, did little other than that.

HOW TO MURDER YOUR LIFE is one addict's story of growing up rich, white, beautiful, and hungry - for drugs, for men, for experience, for food, for beauty, for love. Cat Marnell, in gossipy, inviting prose, draws us up the crystal stair of her childhood. Born and raised in a Bethesda "Shangri-La"—her words—Marnell endures her parents' constant fights and her own sweeping mood swings against a backdrop of professional landscaping and a kindly grandmother, dear Mimi, who bails out Marnell way more than once.

So I figured I'd hate it: rich bitch, catty prose, and a barrage of exclamation points. Like, every third line....! But despite the irreverent style and the decidedly "unwriterly" quality of the book, I found myself falling ever deeper into Marnell's sticky web of crushed pills, Gatorade spiked with Ketel One, and all-nighters fueled by speed, heroin, and 4 AM visits to the 7-11 for binge foods. I'll admit it: I fell for Marnell, right away and then increasingly so as this raunchy memoir progressed. Her style is so refreshing! It's so candid! The exclamation point really can serve a function! The exclamation point, in essence, is Marnell: a little showy, a little gaudy. Plus, it takes the right person to use it well - it only looks good on some people.

It looks good on Marnell, whose style seems to edit as it goes, reflecting the many layers of revisions that went into this book. This narrator is constantly referencing editorial desicions - for example, in comparing her first boarding school to a "concentration camp," she admits that she put the phrase in and took it out literally fifteen times. "Let its presence here," she writes, "be a harbinger of bad judgement to come."

And come bad judgement does: in the form of a late-term abortion, a series of failed relationships, a best friend who sucks blood from the character's nose after a night of too much coke, a series of babydoll dresses and an infatuation with Courteney Love, a string of champagne-filled events in which our narrator gets obliterated, a second abortion, many falls and accidents, several assaults, several robberies, and several rapes. At times, I couldn't go on, but go on I did, barreling through Marnell's raucous, battered, wired life like an addict myself.

In the end, I'd fallen into twisted love with Cat Marnell. This wasn't the healthiest relationship, and her final lines left me unsettled, disgusted, and weirdly smitten. In her Afterword, which serves primarily as a way to report on all the book's characters - most of whom Marnell cares about far more than you or I - she writes:

Yes, my addiction is still very much part of my life—distracting me with cravings, obsessive thoughts, and negative self-talk. Yes, I see my Chinese night pharmacist more often than I see my pregnant sister. Yes, I was recently 'caught' doctor shopping on the Bowery...I'm keeping my disease active as long as I'm not in recovery. By keeping away from AA or NA, I remain in the danger zone. Things could—and probably will—get bad again. Real talk!

Recovering addicts, current addicts, would-be addicts, new mothers, old mothers, grandmothers, my mother, and Peg: I can imagine all rejecting this book. Maybe it starts with discovering it somewhere it shouldn't be, like in a teenager's bedroom. Maybe it escalates to reading, just out of curiosity, a few paragraphs, but then burning it, destroying it, disappearing any evidence of what many readers will call filth. Being sick and hating herself made Cat Marnell famous, and in many ways, her book advocates drug use. "I may be back on speed," she writes at the book's close, "but I take way less than I used to." In 2017, Marnell is wealthy, well-dressed, well-groomed, and comfortable. "Runner's high is so crazy!" she writes of her new fitness routine, Barry's Bootcamp in Noho. "Especially when you boost that shit with a little nibble of Adderall just before you hit the treadmill."

Hate Marnell if you want. She's expecting you to. The whole story, after all, is about keeping an addiction alive, sabotaging your goals and dreams, and still winning in the end. Still, Marnell isn't without a conscience. In HOW TO MURDER YOUR LIFE's final pages, she writes:

So what can all you pretty young addicts learn from this? Beware. Unealthy people attract other unhealthy people—and girls on drugs attract bad guys like a wounded baby deer attracts vultures. When you're high every day, you are vulnerable every day. You are making your jugement all screwy. You will let bad people into your life.

Of her life now, Marnell writes, "I've got a hot career, a clear head, and in ice pick in my kitchen in case I need to Basic Instinct a bitch."

Not quite sober, not quite free, but five stars for courage to Cat Marnell.

I've never quite heard it told like that before.

Friday, February 17, 2017


I'd been hungry to read EILEEN, Ottessa Moshfegh's first novel that competed with DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING for the Man Booker Prize in 2016. I'd already read the New York Times' tantalizing review: "Through Eileen," Lily King writes, "Moshfegh is exploring a woman’s relationship to her body: the disconnection, the cultural claims, the male prerogative." I was seduced by King's descriptions, which paint Moshfegh as a feminist, and her protagonist, Eileen, as a pioneer, a woman venturing into the unknown realms of her own capacity.

What King glossed over was the gross intimacy of the book, the grotesque confessions at every turn, and the narrator's relentlessly described proclivities for the debased and the disturbing. EILEEN is the story of a woman disgusted with herself, revolted by her life, sickened by her job. Everything disgusts her, it seems: her co-workers, who she imagines to be lesbians. Her father, who lies drunk in the house all day and night. Most of all, though, Eileen hates herself: her breasts, the unexplored "caverns" between her legs, the slime-sludge color of her eyes. This narrator is writing from a place of maturity, looking back at her 24-year-old self with pity, shame—and perhaps a slant of amusement.

EILEEN spans several weeks in the life of its namesake, who floats from work to the liquor store to home in her father's beat-up Dodge. She watches the world through eyes hardened by hate. She shoplifts compulsively, touches herself at work, and uses the bathroom without washing her hands. Some of the Moshfegh's lines horrify, and that, I suspect, is the point—this is a book that shocks and awes. This is a book about agency and passivity, action and inaction, but it's also a book about being a woman - in any age. What I both hated and loved about this story was that I could see myself in it: the dirty nuances, the graphic revelations—these belong to Eileen, to Moshfegh, and to me.

The book's dramatic finale left me underwhelmed—especially since the Boston Globe claims that it "culminates in a dynamite ending." In fact, as King writes, "For a while we hang on to the hope that more will be revealed about her...that somehow the gun-blood-death culmination will feel as fresh and particular as the first part of the novel. And then we have to let those hopes go."

Ultimately, EILEEN is a bold, brave book—a book not for the faint-hearted, the squeamish. Not a book, I think, for my mother. If you ate up SMILLA'S SENSE OF SNOW or THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, you'll be drawn, I think, to EILEEN—she's a similar narrator, after all: mannish sensibilities, moments of unreliability, and a raw, confessional voice that forces you, grimacing, on.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Madeleine Thien, in her sprawling, complex, and vigorously beautiful third novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, manages to simultaneously devastate and inspire. The book is poetic balm, even as it tortures.

Thien begins by introducing us to Marie, who remembers the day Ai-Ming, a mysterious family friend, comes to live with her and her mother in Canada. Ai-Ming instantly becomes a part of the family, offering Marie a link, however tenuous, to the rich tapestry of ancestors she barely knew she had.

What begins in present-day Canada soon shifts to a  China under Chairman Mao's regime, where “people simply didn’t have the right to live where they wanted, to love who they wanted, to do the work they wanted. Everything was decided by the Party.” In this China, there are very few liberties, but, as Thien muses, “It was still possible to keep your private dreams, only they had to stay that way, intensely, powerfully private. You had to keep something for yourself.”

Do Not Say We Have Nothing has many faces: A pair of wanderers, hunting the desert for their missing girl. Sparrow, Ai-Ming’s father, who filters everything he hears through the language of musical notes. Zhuli, daughter of the desert nomads and a brilliant violinist who, mid-novel, takes her own life and whose character lingers throughout the narrative long after her death. Always there’s Ai-Ming, coming of age in a country where nothing is hers, not even her body, not even her family, and just barely her thoughts. To Ai-Ming, Thien writes, “The only…question that mattered was, How was it possible for a person to write her own future?”

Ultimately, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is about both loss and inheritance, destruction and rebirth. The book hinges on revolution—first, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, when China was brutally forced to erase its past. The country’s artists, educators, and thinkers become the enemy to be spat upon in the street. The gifted are forced to unlearn their abilities. Sparrow, Ai-Ming's father, has only ever known music, but he submits to a lifetime of work in a wire factory. Kai, Sparrow’s closest friend, his maybe-love, manages to leave the country while he still can, forever branded, at least to himself, as a coward, a traitor to his family and his country both. Zhuli, Sparrow’s cousin, kills herself rather than betray what’s inside her heart. No option ever seems wholly right; no character can be fully blamed. All are intensely, relatably real. As Ai-Ming remarks, “Maybe we should mistrust every idea we think is original and ours alone.”

The second revolution, the student protest at Tiananmen Square, lends the book its strongest, most compelling scenes. “When the demonstrations began,” Thien writes, “the students were asking for something simple. In the beginning it wasn’t about changing the system, or bringing down the government, let alone the Party. It was about having the freedom to live where you chose, to pursue the work you loved.” In this revolution, the victories are staggered, balanced by violence. The city is stagnant with heat beneath a yellow sky, and the protests go on for days. The students weaken, starve, collapse. The city occupies an uncertain, unsettled no-man's-land. “I want to live,” Ai-Ming thinks to herself, “but nobody here knows how.”

Those still reeling from Trump’s November victory might find solace in Thien’s sensitively penned and ever-shifting saga. It is, after all, a story about survival: cultural preservation, family bonds, and the enduring strength in courageous art. Even as power corrupts, our ability – or, perhaps in Thien's world, our desire and will – to enact change prevails. Facism, however brutal, eventually fuels change. Human rights violations eventually fuel change. Censorship fuels change. Ultimately, Thien’s novel affirms, the power to enact meaningful change exists within us all. Sometimes, we just need someone to light the fire. Sparrow walks in protest with his fellow citizens - police, bus drivers, shop owners, all daring to walk in protest, all daring to risk their lives. “He felt," Thien writes, "as if all his past lives, his past selves, were walking beside him.”

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is about our most fundamental freedoms: the ability to think, to create, to imagine, and to feel. Thien's story is about remembering, even when the safest thing to do is to simply forget. Even when an entire cultural history is destroyed, families are shattered, and song lyrics are buried deep into the ground, “Not everything," Thien wryly reminds us, "will pass.”

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Take Your Broken Heart

Make It Into Art.

To a productive, inspired 2017. #StillWithHer #NotMyPresident #Hope

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Stay Alert

Sage words of wisdom by Yale professor Timothy Snyder.

Stay informed, dear readers. Stay aware, stay kind, and stay brave.

"Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism," Snyder writes. "Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.

1. Do not obey in advance.
Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You've already done this, haven't you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom. 

2. Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of "our institutions" unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don't protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning. 

3. Recall professional ethics. When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges. 

4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of "terrorism" and "extremism." Be alive to the fatal notions of "exception" and "emergency." Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary. 

5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don't fall for it.

6. Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don't use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps "The Power of the Powerless" by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev. 

7. Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow. 

8. Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

9. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Bookmark PropOrNot or other sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

10. Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them. 

11. Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

12. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so. 

13. Hinder the one-party state. The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can. 

14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can. Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good. 

15. Establish a private life. Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

16. Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports. 

17. Watch out for the paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.

18. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.) 

19. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.

20. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it."

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Hope Flickers

"We are all here together, not alone at all, not distant nor lost, and it’s time, once again, to fight for the country we want our country to be."

Wednesday, November 9, 2016


A too-short night. My pounding heart. The feeling that I knew all along. The map, too red, all blood. The women behind me in the ballot box: my grandmothers, my great-grandmothers, all of the women, black and white, dead and alive, who have fought for a voice in this country. They're fading even as I type: they're slipping from my vision, moving to the periphery, looking on with heavy, hooded eyes.

It took women to vote our woman down.

Our lives won't change, my partner says, as half-hearted reassurance.

That's just what I'm afraid of, I reply.

And we sit at the kitchen table, the morning still dark, the tea grown cold, our hands sweaty, empty. Even touch doesn't help. Later, I stand at the sink, choking back sobs. The grief will come in waves, I realize - a little today, a little tomorrow, the sadness parsed out in bits and pieces for months and years to come.

I try to summon love. I try to send it out, to exude it. I try to think of sunshine, of women's voices, of babies being born. I try to think of families.

No sweetness comes, though - not today.

The hope didn't go away; it's still inside. I'm carrying it in my heart - but there's no place to put it now. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Woman Who Will

I was up before four AM. Election day. Election day. My heart has been pounding all week, it feels like, my body pent up with an odd, unfamiliar tension. History is about to change.

Meanwhile, I look around and am hard pressed to recognize the excitement in other people’s faces: this daring to hope. We are on the brink! I want to scream—to my students, my colleagues, random strangers in the grocery store, old women peering at bags of sugar and gaggles of teenagers wheeling a cart to their car. I imagine a glass ceiling, shattered. On my commute, alone in the car, I let myself imagine what it will feel like to see her win. I think of my grandmothers, my great-grandmothers, and of the daughter or son I might one day have. Pride wells in my eyes.

Meanwhile, people are posting on Facebook, and not all of it’s good. One female student of mine posts that she’d rather have a cigarette put out in her eye than vote for Hillary Clinton. I read that and grieve, but only a little; I’m used to it now, the raw hatred. People can’t stand her voice, her face, her figure, her clothes. They speculate on her sexuality; they compare her to Satan. She’s stumbled and fallen and clawed at the glass ceiling; she’s worked hard to understand women’s lives – poor women’s lives – and make them better. She’s faced so much discrimination, so much sexism in her career, and other women, my peers, are slinging mud. It hurts my heart.

I saw Hillary speak once. I was nineteen, a sophomore in college, and Hillary came and spoke in our chapel to a crowd of thousands of women. She didn’t speak with grace or softness; she spoke with strength and confidence. It was almost as if she didn’t care if we liked what she had to say. Someone asked her about her Iraq vote and she answered honestly, carefully, as though she hadn’t been asked it a hundred times before. She voted with the information she had. She regrets the decision. She made a mistake; she changed her mind. I remember leaving the lecture feeling proud, an odd tingle palpable even then—she might be the one.

And today, more than ten years later, it turns out she is.

As a senior in college, I took a course called Women and Development. My professor was Lois Wasserspring, one of Wellesley’s best. The class was small, intimate, a group of maybe twelve women, all seniors I already knew. At the end of the semester, Louis invited us all to her home, a sprawling place in Wellesley Hills decorated with things she’d collected in Latin America.

That night, Lois told us about her experience with glass ceilings. She was one of the first six women admitted at Princeton, and on the first day of class, when she entered the classroom, a man spit on her.

Gloria Steinem was criticized for saying that young women just didn’t understand the feminist struggle. Women everywhere took offense at her critique of Bernie Sanders and his followers, but in all honesty, I agreed with her. I hear women beat each other down all the time. I seem them marginalized. I know how it feels to be seen as prey - all women do. 

Recently, I overheard a conversation between several young women. They were discussing a friend of theirs who’d accused a young man of rape.

Jessa’s my girl and everything, one of the woman said to the other, but we all know she sleeps around.

I’m tired of living in a world where women hate women almost as much as men do. I’m tired of seeing men tear Hillary Clinton apart for the way she sounds and the supposed lies she tells. I’m tired of reading essays by my female students about the times they were raped, the times they were punched, the times they were shut down with a few harsh words. I’m sick of teaching students who got pregnant at fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. I’m tired of hearing the regret in their voices, now that they know better: If only I’d had an abortion. If only I’d turned down the ring. If only I’d stayed in school.

If only I’d known I had a choice—had a voice.

I’m tired of feeling like a raging feminist when I tell a man not to use the word “slut.” I’m tired of hearing other faculty members call my twenty-year-old female students “girls” and not “women.” I’m tired of feeling afraid to walk down a dark street, or to wear a tight skirt, or to look a man straight in the eye. I’m tired of being afraid on the trail in the middle of the day. I’m tired of the number of students who sit down in my office, bow their heads, tug at their sleeves to cover thumbprints on their arms. I’m tired of our junky, underfunded Planned Parenthood – one of two in all of New Mexico.

Today, I’ll take a shower and get ready with care. I’ll dress in my best. I’ll vote for the woman on the ballot, and I’ll say a silent prayer that she’ll win. I’ll permit myself a moment to hope, to remember my grandmothers, to imagine the way my great-grandmothers might feel, watching me vote for a woman for president for the very first time.