Blinking is a good thing…

We’ve all had times when we knew something before we had a ‘good’ reason to know it.  You have a funny feeling something is about to happen, or known a person was up to no good before they’ve done anything wrong.   In the book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell tells us how this happens, as well as why a snap judgment can be as dependable as a well-considered decision, and sometimes better.

Using everything from art forgeries to Pentagon war games to divorce counseling, Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point and Outliers) builds a convincing case for the snap judgment.  He uses scientific studies and front-page news stories to demonstrate how the brain is not just getting lucky, but processing information (speed dating)  without needing us to be involved.   And how this system – which is calls the adaptive unconscious – can be derailed by stress and other factors to become a liability (cops shooting innocent bystanders).

This book peaked my interest the first time I heard about it.  Psychology has always fascinated me – I want to know why people do the things they do.  This book discusses how a part of the brain can make decisions based on information that people are not even aware they have acquired.  It was a quick read (I read it on the plane from Anchorage to Portland) and well-written.  Gladwell keeps things interesting with tons of real-life examples to illustrate what could be boring scientific research.  You wouldn’t think that orchestral auditions, secluded Amazon tribes and the O.J. Simpson trial to could all be used to illustrate his point – under the right conditions, the brain can be trusted to do amazing things without our well-reasoned (and sometimes interfering) help.

One of the points I found interesting was the fact that – when pressed to come up with an explanation for why they did a particular thing or knew something they didn’t realize they knew, people would make up a story for why they did it. Gladwell calls it the ‘storytelling problem’ (and we all know people with this problem, don’t we?).  We aren’t comfortable with the fact that we don’t consciously know why we do things, so we come up with an explanation.  And in some cases, if we are pressed to explain what we know, we know a lot less (I know that sounds confusing – but read the book and it’ll all make sense).  Of course, when others then take these explanations and run with them… well, it’s the blind leading the blind (New Coke).  My ex-husband was always pushing for explanations for the crazy things our son would do when he was younger (and even now =).  But I have come to realize – and this book only reinforces my conviction – that sometimes there is no ‘why’ for what we do.  “It seemed like a good idea at the time” covers all manner of ills.  And now I have evidence that says that’s not always a bad thing.

Population: fantastic

I have lately become a fan of memoirs – recently popularized by writers such as Augusten Burroughs and David SedarisBarbara Kingsolver wrote a kind of garden memoir in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which I loved, and Rebecca Walker wrote a powerful childhood memoir titled Black White Jewish.  So I have been paying more attention to this kind of book, and when I heard about Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time, I put in on hold at the library. (I try not to buy every book that looks half-way interesting, keeps me from running out of gas money every week).  I have know a few people who are volunteer fire and rescue folk – and most of them live in small towns – so I thought a writer’s view of the experience might be interesting.  And since the blurb says he had recently moved back to his hometown before joining its volunteer crew, there seemed to be all kinds of potential for great story-telling.  And this book did indeed deliver.

Being a person prone to introspection, the memoir genre allows me to watch others ruminate about their own thoughts and reactions to the events in their lives.  Not all memoirs are created equal, of course, and different lives result in very different books.  Population: 485 is less navel-gazing that the average memoir, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.  Michael Perry is from Wisconsin and spent some time ‘cowboying’ in Wyoming (says the blurb on the book), so this is not the story of an urban man and his neuroses, but a small-town boy returning to that small town after seeing the world – and happy to be doing so.

Perry does a great job of connecting himself and the folks around him to the landscape – in a way that resonates on a very basic level – and reminds me of my own trips back to the small town I grew up in.  When he goes running, he relives the myriad events of his childhood that occurred on each particular street and corner, overlaid by the fire and rescue calls of adulthood.  So one street may be where he received a scar as a young, rough-playing boy, the next a house where he wasn’t able to save an elderly man after a heart attack.  Each is treated with vivid detail and adept delicacy.  These are not the essays of a hero in his own mind, but a man humbled by the trust placed in him by his community.  And someone who knows that laughing at your own screw-ups is the only way to keep your sanity when life throws you a curve.

As I hurry to finish this book before I need to return it to the library (thinking phrases like ‘the writing isn’t great but is good, author really gives you a sense of what the experience of fire and rescue is like for him’), I had almost decide that it was a decent book but nothing outstanding.  But that was before it made me cry, and then made me bawl like a baby.  I’m sure it won’t have that effect on everyone.  But Perry clearly understand grief and has the chops to make you feel it if you have any inclination towards visceral empathy.

When he describes the quiet grief of a man – a stranger to him – who has lost a child, I teared up.  I have a child, and Perry’s gentle descriptions were heartbreaking without a hint of being over-wrought.  But it was the passages regarding the loss of his young sister-in-law that make it impossible for me to see the words on the page (both his as I read and these as I attempt to write them).

My sister lost her husband to a drunk-driving accident 3 and ½ years ago, and the picture this man paints – of a husband who responds to an accident scene where his new wife has been hit, how his mother is there performing CPR as his brother blows air into his own wife’s injured lungs, how they are surrounded by the friends and family who make up the volunteer crew, and later the professionals arrive and pronounce her dead there on the soil they both spent their lives on – these are some of the most heart-breaking and emotionally charged sentences I’ve ever read. I admit, my situation makes them more personal to me, but this is a book that brings life – and death – remarkably up close and personal.

I would not characterize this book as a tear-jerker (though it made me cry) or a comic story (though it made me laugh).  This book does what the best stories – whether so-called non-fiction or the truly fictitious – do so well, put all the experiences of one life into words that allow us to recognize our own. I wouldn’t call him a favorite author after only one book, but I will certainly be checking out his other books to see if they measure up to this one.

Song of the Turtle – edited by Paula Gunn Allen

I was exposed to some wonderful Native American literature in my undergrad literature courses.  Louise Erdrich is a favorite (I own all of her novels) and I have enjoyed Sherman Alexie (the film Smoke Signals was based on one of his short stories), Leslie Marmon Silko and others whose names escape me at the moment (this is a blog, not a research paper!).  So the short story collection Song of the Turtle was a shoe-in as soon as I laid eyes on it (at the Gresham library).  The fact that it was edited by Paula Gunn Allen meant that I was sure to notice it.

I heard Ms. Allen speak at UAA in 1999 or 2000.  I was taking Feminist Theory (a fabulous class, again taught by Genie) and immersed in the critical theory coming from the feminist movement.  Allen was brought to UAA as a part of Women’s History Month by the Women’s Studies Program (I believe) and I may have gotten class credit for attending – but if I had known how her talk was going to affect me, I would have paid admission. At the time, we were reading some of Catherine Mackinnon’s work in class, and it focused on a lot of negative things – powerful stuff, but not exactly uplifting.  Allen was a completely different kettle of fish. She had a way of describing the world that turned my personal worldview on its head.  This was a well-respected, professional woman who believed in magic and spoke of it like sewing or cooking – a regular part of life that could be practiced by those willing to put in the effort.  And that was exactly what I needed to hear.  There are many different paradigms for understanding the world – and Mackinnon’s is no more or less valid than Allen’s.  And both had something to offer me.

I think it is that different world view that draws me to the stories like those in Song of the Turtle.  The basic assumptions conveyed are not those of the mainstream American culture I find myself living in – and I agree with much of what’s being assumed.  Gratitude for life in all its forms.  A responsibility to others as well as to ourselves.  A quiet appreciation for the ironies of life.  It reminds me to be grateful for all that I have, and to laugh along with the universe at the ridiculous events in my life.

This collection is the cream of the crop of American Indian Literature for the last quarter of the twentieth century, so there’s not a dud in the bunch.   The settings vary from – historical to modern, rural to urban, and some that have no ‘indians’ in them at all – but all are told with that certain flavor that keeps many of us coming back for more.  Some stand-out stories are: Pilgrims by Roxy Gordon, Siobhan La Rue in Color by D. Renville, Compatriots by Emma Lee Warrior and Christianity Comes to the Sioux by Susan Power.

We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For- Alice Walker

It’s one of those things that reminds me that there is mystery in the universe.  One of two epigrams in We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For?  “It was the best of times , it was the worst of times, etc. ”  A Tale of Two Cities. Now, I understand that AToTC is a popular, widely quoted book. But what are the odds that a book of essays published in 2006 by an African-American woman would quote a Victorian white guy’s book from the mid-1800s that I just finished reading?  Not a scary coincidence, but still strange.

This book is a collection of essays. The title refers to a theme that runs thru this book (the line is from a poem written by June Jordan, the other epigram) that we may be the generation that has all of the skills and tools to put an end to the horrors still left on Earth – war, poverty, ignorance, discrimination and the like.  And that is where the to connection to AToTC lies.  There was war, death and upheaval all around, but it was the result of a desire to end oppression and suffering.  Alice Walker sees our generation as uniquely qualified to end them once and for all.

Alice Walker is skilled at finding unusual metaphors for common themes, mostly those dealing with race and caring for the planet.  When giving a commencement speech, she refers to the I Ching.  In a talk given to an alliance of midwives, she invokes a Vietnamese poet, Native American poetry, the work of an M.D., some of her own poetry and essays, and discussions of Osama bin Laden and the war in Iraq. And somehow everything comes together as a whole that is new and illuminating.

One of the reasons I love Walker is because she believes in things powerfully and is not afraid to express an unpopular opinion. And many of the things she believes in are things I believe in, and it seems that in each new book I find something new that we have in common.  In this collection, she talks about honoring ‘the pause’ – those times in life when something big has  been accomplished or is changing, and the need to sit still with that change rather than just reacting (my paraphrasing).  Apparently a part of the I Ching encourages this as well – so it’s not just me and her.  I used to be a very reactive person, and as a result I did things that didn’t really make me happy, and people who knew me could easily push me into doing what they wanted by telling me not to do it.  I’ve mostly gotten rid of this button in my life, but it still pops up in times of stress.  If you can’t pause and reflect on your decision, then it is difficult to figure out what all the choices are and which one is right for you at any particular moment in your life.  These are the reasons I read Walker, to remind me that the choice is always mine, and the results are mine as well.

I read her daughter’s memoir Black White Jewish, also well-written. It does not gloss over how her mother’s preoccupations were not always a good thing for her young daughter.  But I still find comfort and inspiration from Alice’s words – maybe because she doesn’t always make the right decision any more than I do.  I used to read Living By the Word regularly to help me remember that I was not the only person trying to live by the guidance of the voice in the back of her head.  My favorite novel of hers is The Temple of My Familiar, a book about people trying to live a life that feels true to themselves and the interconnected nature of human life.

When I read Walker, I have to remind myself occasionally that, when she speaks at length of the horrors visited on the underprivileged in the past and present, that she is not just speaking of displaced Africans and their descendents, but also Native Americans, women and, yes, poor Caucasians.    Her focus is often on the African-American experience – understandably so – but she was also poor, and is still a woman and has experienced discrimination because of all of them.

For me, it’s clear that her writing is as much therapy for her as anything else, and the fact that the rest of us want to read it or hear her speak about her life is just a bonus. It allows her to live a life that makes her happy and support herself at the same time. And isn’t that what we all want?

a tale that begins with two cities

I thought it might be fitting to start a blog about books with a classic.  I just finished reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  Though I am an avid reader, have a B.A. in English and considered myself reasonably well read, this was my first time reading AToTC.  Dickens has never been a favorite of mine, nor is the Victorian period one I’m drawn to.  But since I am currently between schools while working on my Master’s, I am trying to keep myself in the loop by reading some of those iconic works that have somehow slipped thru the cracks of my lifelong reading list.   And while taking a Victorian lit class last spring, I came to appreciate the period more (much thanks to the post-modern feminist focus of the course provided by one of my favorite profs, Genie).  So, with all of this as background, when I was watching Flash of Genius, and Bob Kearns (played by Greg Kinnear) reads the first paragraph of AToTC to show that new things could be made from old pieces (words, in Dickens’ case, electrical thingamajigs in the case of Kearns), the book got added to the library book list in my head.  (I have yet to make enough money to afford my reading habit, so the local library is a friend and lifesaver.  I knew that Portland was a good place to be when – on my first trip to a local library – I found five interesting books to read in under 10 minutes, only two of which were on my mental list.)

We’ve all heard those first words – “It was the best of time, it was the worst of times.” But it wasn’t until I read the introduction that I found out that the book was set during the French Revolution, and the ‘two cities’ in the title were London and Paris.  And until I read that intro, I don’t remember ever wondering which two cities the book was about.  And then, of course, I wondered what kind of idiot I must be for not being curious about that before now.

I suppose I should say here that, if you haven’t read this book either, this column contains spoilers.   The intro to the edition that I read talked about how AToTC was the Dickens novel that received the least critical acclaim, while  remaining one of his most popular with readers. And while I am certainly not widely read in the Dickens’ oeuvre, it does move along rather quickly and with less of the obsession with detail I’ve found in other works of his, as the intro suggests.  And the plot is certainly not a mystery (I don’t think many are surprised when the amazingly twin-like men who are morally and psychologically opposite love the same woman and end up switching places at the end), but, as with most great novels IMHO, it is the characters and the masterfully suspenseful writing that keeps you reading long after you should have turned out the light.  It was slow going in the beginning as I accustomed myself to the Victorian syntax and pace, but by half-way thru I was skipping my online viewings of Lost to find out what would happen next.

I knew that when Lorry was going to Paris after the revolution had broken out, that Darnay would not be far behind.  I knew that when a mysterious stranger showed up at Lorry’s flat in Paris, that it was certainly Carton.  But the appearance of Miss Pross’ brother was a complete surprise, as was the real identity of Mrs. Defarge.  Dickens wisely (yes, that’s me, passing judgment on one of the masters of the English novel) chooses to reassure the reader that Lucie will survive the horrors of the revolution, while leaving us hanging as to the fate of the rest until the very end.  We buy into the release of Darnay and are almost as devastated as she when he is re-arrested the same night.

In the end, I enjoyed the novel more than I expected to (which, in all honesty, was true of most of the novels I read in my Victorian lit class).  I’ve tried some older novels on my own in the past (Moby Dick, for instance) that I just never finished.  Maybe what I was missing was a critical perspective – which would give me something to focus on if the story or writing didn’t hold me – but A Tale of Two Cities did not need anything but a little patience to hook me all on its own.

As with everything I do in my life, but particularly in what I read, I try to find the lessons offered by the text.  I didn’t find a lot in AToTC that I didn’t already know (oppression is bad, the reaction to oppression is usually ugly, never lie about who you are, true love will save you in the end – though not usually by providing a body double to die in your place) so it won’t be going on my personal Favorite list.  But if you are looking for a book to read that will impress your cerebral friends at cocktail parties (so, basically, the gay men in your life), A Tale of Two Cities will fit the bill without boring you to tears in the process.