Claire of the Sea Light (Danticat)

In Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, she recalls an amazing image of her husband standing waist deep in their pool reading Sophie’s Choice in order to try to figure out how it works. That image prompted me to read Sophie’s Choice. It also reminds me of a writing exercise that I’d read about but never used until I read Danticat’s The Farming of Bones. I found a short chapter, fewer than 200 words, that just blew me away so I copied it into my journal. I’m not sure I figured out how it works, but I certainly enjoyed copying the words.

Danticat’s words are still music in her new novel. What’s different here is her plotting. (Upon reflection, maybe there are seeds of this approach in Krik? Krak!) Though Haiti and its challenges and beauty are always present (particularly the challenges and beauty of the sea), here her plot moves in a kind of circle (similar to Zadie Smith’s NW), starting with the Claire of the title and following her life as it intersects with others who live in Ville Rose before ultimately returning to Claire.

Some memorable passages –

Writing about the name Claire, she writes (118):

The name was as buoyant as it sounded. It was the kind of name you said with love, that you whispered in your woman’s ears the night before your child was born. It was the kind of name you could easily carry in your dreams, in your mouth, the kind of name that made you clasp your hands against your chest when you heard it being shouted out of so many mouths. It was the kind of name you might find in poems or love letters, or songs. It was a love name and not a revenge name. It was the kind of name that you could call out with hope. It was the kind of name that had the power to make the sun rise.

Read it again. Read it out loud. Writing about another character who has every reason to leave Ville Rose, except the money and the will, Danticat writes (160) –

She could not be dyaspora. She liked her ghosts nearby.

Later, when another character sympathizes with an old friend who has taken their child to live in Miami, the character asks (192):

How can some people not fully understand their ability to shatter hearts?

Who wouldn’t want to be kissed like this (203)?

He hadn’t been kissed by a woman in that way since his wife died, a kiss so pure that it felt like it was polishing him.

I had to pause to savor the word “polishing.”

And finally, in words that speak to my heart (214):

She disliked people too sometimes. She felt them moving around her, exchanging places. Sometimes she wished people, especially adults, were trees. If only trees could move. With trees, you’d have to be the one who moved around them. But trees didn’t cry. They didn’t complain.

If I could ask Danticat one question, I would ask why she translated all of the French and Creole. It’s her world. I don’t mind being a little lost as I swim in it.

The Shadow of Sirius (Merwin)

William Blake has held the top spot ever since my high school English teacher told me I was too young to understand his work, but he’s finally slipped into second place. The Shadow of Sirius is my new favorite. There’s not a single poem in this 113-page collection that I didn’t relish.

Even with the complete absence of punctuation, on the surface, some of them can appear to be simple and straightforward. But a careful reading also yields a slight ripple, often related to a pronoun, that merits more careful attention.

This one will stay on the bedside table.

The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (Appiah)

Appiah is one of the more interesting thinkers / philosophers writing today. (Do you know others?). I enjoyed his book Cosmopolitanism, though I didn’t think it was especially well-written. It seemed like an amalgam of talks and articles. It didn’t hold together well.

This one is written well. It is quite (too?) organized. Appiah presents three moral revolutions – dueling, foot binding, and Atlantic Slavery – to develop his theory about the stages of a moral revolution. I wish he’d explained why he chose these three in particular. I wonder, also, what would have happened if he’d organized his argument by stage of revolution rather than by revolution. As written, Appiah feels compelled to provide a fair amount of historical background for each revolution and then offer his commentary. He is not, as he makes clear in his Sources and Acknowledgments section, an historian, and it shows in his writing. The background, though clear, is perfunctory.

As I read the preface, I all but said aloud, “What about honor killings?” And he does address them, and this is the section that prompted the most margin notes – but more on this in a moment.

Appiah makes much of Shakespeare’s Henry V having a true understanding of honor, yet he overlooks Hal’s command to “Kill the prisoners” or the possibility that by challenging France he’s only doing what his father suggested – distracting the populace with foreign wars (a move that marks him as more akin to George W. Bush than an honorable man). And if Appiah wants to employ Shakespeare, what about Hamlet’s struggles with his assigned honor killing? Brutus’ speech about Caesar being an honorable man?

My objections to Appiah’s argument started near the end of his section on suppressing Atlantic slavery. He writes (135):

As the British Empire expanded through the nineteenth century, the abolition of forms of slavery indigenous to Africa and Asia came to be one of the aims of imperial policy.

This ends a paragraph. I wanted more here. How can you use a phrase like ‘abolition of forms of slavery’ in the same sentence as ‘Empire’ and ‘imperial policy’ without more explanation? Aren’t the two ideas inherently contradictory?

As I mentioned above, though, my objections started piling up in the 4th chapter, entitled “Wars Against Women.” Here Appiah writes with disconcerting certainty of rape victims (145):

It is not guilt – the thought that they have done something wrong – that haunts them, it is the reminder of their humiliation.

Even if he is right, how would he know? And what about acknowledging what it is to be male and make such an argument? As written, it comes off as privileged.

Appiah, who is aware of the potential problem of one society imposing its own sense of another, shares this, perhaps apocryphal story (160):

” [T]he British official . . . ordered an Indian family not to allow a widow to be burned on her husband’s funeral pyre. ‘But sir,’ the Indians protested, ‘it is our custom.’ ‘And it is our custom,’ the official replied, ‘to execute murderers.’

How does this official feel about colonizers? How does Appiah feel? Why is the British official issuing this order? Appiah offers this story only as a parenthetical comment; it deserves more unpacking.

Shortly thereafter, he calls honor killing “an immoral honor practice” (163). Based on what standards? His? Western standards? Don’t get me wrong; I do not support honor killing in any way. But who are we to impose our morality on others?

Appiah thinks one of the steps he has developed in the first three chapters should apply here – that of international shaming. But haven’t we learned that there are certain segments of the world that don’t care what we think, that don’t need or want us or our money enough to feel pressured by our sense of morality? Tony Kushner makes this quite explicit in his play, Homebody / Kabul. The argument that honor killing does not live up to true Muslim ideals? That hasn’t really made much of a dent in the post-9/11 world. And even if there are some people interested in reform (as there are, for example, in China), though the world is much more connected than it was in the days of collecting signatures to offer a petition against the Atlantic slave trade, we can’t get to these people, or at least not enough of them? China wanted our scientific knowledge, so they travelled to learn it and were shamed by the reaction they faced about the practice of foot binding, so that helped it change. People from all over still want things from us, but either they get it on their own terms, or they get it from elsewhere.

“If an Islamic republic is to recognize the human rights of its citizens, it will have to repudiate this element of Muslim tradition” (166). By ‘this element,’ Appiah means the practice of stoning men and women to death for adultery. Yes, I want this to stop. But who are we to determine human rights? Appiah makes a powerful case for the notion of the right to ‘dignity’ as espoused by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. How much sway does the UN have in Pakistan? In the US?

Appiah thinks (hopes?) other countries are asking themselves, “How can we be respected in the world if we do this terrible thing?” (172). But what does he mean by “respected in the world”? Respected by the US? By the West? By the UN? Does Iran, for example, want any of these kinds of respect? I agree that honor needs to be ‘reshaped,’ and that there are signs of hope. But isn’t this just imposing my will on others or at least trying to? And should a country with, for example, an incarceration rate like ours really be claiming a higher moral ground?

I come back, as I usually do, to literature, namely Beowulf. In a translation I worked with once, Beowulf came off as incredibly arrogant. I asked the students to consider whether this characteristic diminished his heroism. Appiah acknowledges that some kinds of honor demand that modesty accompany it, but that time and place might require a person to celebrate his (pronoun intentional) own accomplishments. I disagree with this consequence of Appiah’s persistent relativism. Arrogance is, in my mind, always inappropriate, immoral even.

Appiah’s discussion of Kant is interesting, but I searched in vain for any comments about altruism.

In his section called “Lessons and Legacies,” Appiah argues (185):

Social status – class, if you like – should grant you no moral rights, people think; nor should your race or gender or sexual orientation.

Absolutely true. But I would argue that it is easier to be both moral and honorable if you have enough. Think Jean Valjean. Remember, as a friend once wrote me as I was exploring the work of Noam Chomsky and libertarianism, “Children shouldn’t be blamed if they were born in East St. Louis.”

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the challenge of this book. As I hope I’ve made evident, I was completely engaged. In fact, I’m going to send this review to Appiah (if I can find a way to reach him). If he responds, I will, with his permission, share what he writes.

I hope he’s right. I hope there’s still a place for honor today. I do hope there’s a moral revolution coming, in Pakistan and everywhere else.

Daniel (Mankell)

I am a huge Mankell fan and, having finished the Wallender series, I’ve rationed the rest of his books. As usual, his writing his precise and powerful and his concern for social issues is evident.

The choice of the archetypal wise child as a narrator for 2/3 of the book was a surprise to me. Some of the child’s diction and insights seemed beyond him. The diction could be the fault of the translator, Steven T. Murray.

But there are larger issues at stake because of Mankell’s choice. Is he claiming that he alone can colonize the African mind? Though his characters are along the spectrum, they all, to some extent, claim a superiority over the child that gets named Molo. Is Mankell, who admittedly has a long history in Mozambique, claiming that he alone understands the African mind?

And why isn’t the novel called The Antelope?

I’d still rather read Mankell’s B level work than most people’s best stuff.

Miss Child Has Gone Wild (Gutman)

My daughter talked so much about this one that I figured I’d read it myself. Having long since abandoned my hope of reading everything she reads, I’ve decided to pick and choose. I’ve also told her that she can tell me when she wants me to read something.

The narrator has a funny, sarcastic voice. I love the idea of the footnotes. The gender questions are affirming (the new AJ, a blonde from Puerto Rico does not like stereotypical girl things) and the plot is entertaining, especially if you like animals.

Hold It ‘Til It Hurts (Johnson)

There’s a writing adage that dictates that you shouldn’t hold anything back, that there’s no use saving any ideas for a next book. T Geronimo Johnson certainly listened. As if the story of a black soldier saddled with name Achilles returning from the war in Afghanistan to the white mother who adopted him isn’t enough, Johnson has him end up in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina to find his (also adopted) brother, Troy. So, yes, Achilles has to go to New Orleans to find Troy.

Despite the weight of the plot summary, Johnson makes it work. His sense of detail as well as his skill at making his characters fully human (which is to say, not always likable) makes this, his first novel (and a nominee for the 2013 PEN / Faulkner Award), quite engaging.

Johnson has a lot of ideas on his mind – about race, about power, about history, about war. This is a book you’ll want to discuss.

Note to Coffee House Press: Find a better proofreader!

Summer of Shadows (Knight)

I enjoyed Larson’s Devil in the White City as much as anyone. Knight is going for the same sort of approach here. He attempts to alternate an account of the Indians’ record-setting but ultimately disappointing 1954 season with the Marilyn Sheppard murder case (Think The Fugitive). If that isn’t enough, Knight also provides “Interludes” which explain just how disappointing the end of the season was. (Why these were printed in double columns – to look like newspaper accounts? – is beyond me. It looks like the work of an amateur.)

But either the timing does not work or Knight fails to make it work. The pace of the book definitely picks up when the account of the Sheppard murder begins, and Knight is much more adept at evoking the characters here. And while that enlivens these portions of the book, it makes the others that much more disappointing. After all, Knight is a sportswriter. But his descriptions of the season (both on and off the field) are uninspired. I’ve never been exactly clear about what is meant by ‘purple prose,’ but I’m pretty sure Knight comes close here when he writes about baseball.

Knight clearly has his biases, but they don’t intrude too much here. He loves his city and regrets the arc of its decline (which he says is bracketed by 1954 and the river fire of 1969). Probably because he perceives it as outside the scope of his book, Knight only makes passing mention of Brown v. Board of Education, yet he wants to make much of the composition of the 1954 Indians and the lessons Larry Doby learns.

Any other suggestions about how to learn about Cleveland’s history would be appreciated.