Goodbye Stranger

51IiW2FCopL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Rebecca Stead is one of the finest authors of middle grade fiction currently working, writing with precision about the palpable pain of growing up. She has an ear for dialogue and an eye for detail, but the sense she captures best is the vestibular: that is, the feeling of being in motion and off-balance.

Her latest book is about three friends who belong to a club (or rather, a “set”) that is falling apart in middle school. Goodbye Stranger is, for content, practically YA. The children are thirteen, and much of the book courses with the kind of anxious hormonal energy of teenagers. We feel the threats and the heartbreaks of girls who feel pressured to be sexy, to wear suggestive Halloween costumes and text intimate images of themselves to boys they barely know, while they are children at heart. But the deepest sadness and sharpest pain is not the risks girls take for boys (if that’s who it is for); it is the splintering of their own friendships.

Books like this were stock-in-trade of YA in my own teen years, epitomized by Judy Blume, Paula Danziger, and Paul Zindel. But as YA characters have gotten older and savvier, and the awkward early teen years forgotten, middle grade books have gradually picked up the slack. Aaron Starmer’s Riverman pushed at the same envelope, and I’m hopeful that these two books portend a new wave of upper middle grade that replaces what YA used to be.

Still, it’s risky territory for middle-grade authors, since our books are generally considered appropriate for fourth graders. Even a Newbery-award-winning author might feel a ripple of discontent from parents and educators. But there is a gap in the publishing paradigm. We need books about coming of age and sexual awakening, books that help twelve- and thirteen-year-olds navigate the choppy waters of early adolescence and assure them that they will reach the other shore.

This isn’t to say Goodbye Stranger is important because it fills a niche. Goodbye Stranger is important because it’s written by Rebecca Stead. But I love that she is testing herself, feeling out new territory and filling a real need, while delivering once again on the excellent characterizations and concise writing that make her one of the most respected middle grade authors among other middle grade authors. 

Goodbye Stranger is also one of the best books I’ve read showing modern children in their technological milieu, without over-stressing the novelty or gimmickry. But Stead does this with more depth and deftness than lesser authors would. She shows, for example, the over-theatrical friendships splashed across social network profiles, or the lost-a-limb feeling of a teen without a phone, with utter verisimilitude, but neither of these are major plot points. She does not let the technology become the center of the story.

That center is the frayed friendships in the wake of puberty, and the new friendships that form. These will be heartbreakingly familiar to anyone who has survived adolescence in any decade.

Officelessness

Like a lot of avocational writers, I don’t have a room of my own — well, OK, there’s a corner of the basement with a desk, but the desk is piled high with kid stuff and craft supplies and my own mess of half-drafts, notebooks, and swag. I do much of my writing in the living room on a laptop, either early in the morning or late in the evening, when the kid is still blessedly sleeping.

On days I dedicate to writing and revising, like yesterday, I venture out into the wild in search of wifi and outlets. Coffee shops, cafes, and library “quiet” rooms.

I wonder if it would be better to have a regular place, a writerly cove with a pinboard of inspirational quotes and photographs, or if the essential itineracy of my writing life is a good thing: the mixing up of scenery, the people watching, the unexpected inspiration in an overheard conversation or discovery of a new place. Stagnation is its own kind of death. Plus, the homeless feeling gives me and my writing a desparate edge.

I sometimes wander out with really no idea where I’m going. I am Robert Frost, simply taking the least-traveled paths… I set out yesterday for one library, and ended up at another. After seeing the backed-up cars waiting to get on one expressway, I turned down a side street that veered in a different direction than I expected and dumped me on a different highway, under construction, with an infinity of cars crammed into one lane, so I took the first right and ended up at the library on Winnetka.

It meant no coffee (intended library has a coffee shop) and different/less-exciting lunch plans (first one is near my favorite sandwich shop). But it proved to be worth it — I was inspired at that library on Winnetka, and believe I first saw the light at the end of the tunnel with regards to these revisions. I went in feeling like Sisyphus and left feeling like I’d crested the hill by accident and sent the ball rolling the other side. I feel like something there made the difference — running into a colleague, seeing an interesting art print. Maybe just being sort of across the street from a TV studio where one crucial scene takes place, remaining in the radius of my characters’ lives.

I know I’m not alone, and that many writers find themselves writing not only in the scattered free minutes of busy lives, but also at whatever “office” they can find for a few hours. It’s not such a bad existence.

Hope from Evolutionary Biology

[W]ithin groups selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals.

E. O. Wilson, “Evolution and Our Inner Conflict

The Three-footed Squirrel

True story: a few weeks ago I was picking up medicine for my cat and on the way back to the car I saw a three-footed squirrel. One of its hind feet had been severed; the wound where it used to be was kind of scabbed over and the squirrel was making do, hobbling along, gathering scraps of food from an overflowing garbage can, watching the world more warily than most squirrels do, but not especially tragic.

I knew I wanted to write about this plucky rodent. I thought of allusions that might tie in: the famous poem about the Scot and the field mouse; a squirrel that was an ironic icon of traffic safety when I was a child living in England. I recalled a crippled beggar I saw in Rome at age seven, how I bawled later, and how my parents yelled at me… one of my most palpable memories, but one I’ve written about futilely so many times it no longer has heat.

I never did write about it because I failed to come up with a narrative frame, something the squirrel would be “about” in the grand scheme of things. I gave fleeting glances in subsequent days as I drove by that building (used to be a grocery store, now vacant and fenced off), but gradually forgot.

Such is the plight of the bush-league memoirist, of which the blogger is a kind. I want to make meaning of my experiences, but fail sometimes to see theme lurking behind a scene.

I thought of that squirrel today because there’s a conversation about what people choose to think and write about. Here is an example of something trivial that I nevertheless cared about, and wanted to write about, no doubt in a week of mudslides and mass shootings that I received with tragedy-saturated numbness. Squirrels are less significant than humans, I know, and not even an endangered species. But God forgive me, I briefly gave a damn about a small thing.

To Improve Upon Silence

There’s a saying you’ve probably seen or heard before, in some form:

truenecessarykindBefore you say something, ask yourself: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?

Ironically, this is the sort of wisdom that is captioned onto a photo, say, of a statue of the Buddha or a gurgling grotto, and posted on Facebook or Twitter where it will float along a bilious stream of untruth, unkindness, and non-necessity. But it is worth considering. I have been frustrated with how little currency truth and value have when we enter the online world; I’ve seen some of the kindest people I know disparage kindness; I’ve seen people say outright that the truth of a thing is beside the point. I have thought of this proverb when seeing waves of outrage and thought, “I would settle for any one.”

Researching the origins of the quote (Quaker school tract from the turn of the last century? Ancient midrash? Who knows?) I came across a different construct:

Before you say something, ask yourself: Is it true? Is it kind? Does it improve upon silence?

Does it improve upon silence? 

This reveals the compulsion that leads good people to be unkind and, at best, unconcerned about knowing the full truth. They want to fill the silence. Silence is associated with oppression and victimization; to be told to be kind and true is interpreted as a demand to be silent, sometimes by people who have long been silenced. I get all that, and yet I’m wary of the conclusion. Is any noise at all preferable to silence?

But this also creates a rubric for what construes necessity. It’s the best test there is for the value of an utterance. Does it improve upon silence?

The Silence of the Educated FansSometimes I sit one out, and let a cycle of fury rage and fizzle without me. But I realize now that failing to join in the fray is not silence, even without the public apophasis that I am not going to comment on [story of the week] because of my judiciousness and gallantry. Silence is something other than strategic noiselessness.

I have begun to think of this silence as a natural resource to be treasured and protected: the silence of a calm lake at dawn; the silence of a mind at rest; the silence of listening and waiting. This silence, like clean water and star-lit skies, is harder and harder to find. It is also a value: a decision to seek silence inside and out, to turn of all the screens and quiet your own mind. And, if such a place be found, to protect it.

My mother didn’t work for the last ten years of her life, and spent much of that (waking) time watching television, particularly the 24-hour news networks, which sometimes blared different channels in different rooms of the house. Entering her house was to enter a churning noise machine, her own running commentary mixed in with that of various TV pundits and reporters. She took up every news cycle ready to be angry and outspoken. I now see the noise as a part of her sickness, and her inability for her mind to heal. But it’s also a metaphor for my own mind, clattering with noise, my inner muttering monologist struggling to be heard over the din. I can only quiet my mind by choice: walks at dawn, drives with the car stereo muted, the time before sleep where I listen to the breaths of family and pets around me and the murmurings of the house itself.

The proverb takes on power when it is not about manners; it is about soul-nurturing. Is this thing I am about to say worth disrupting my own calm? If I believe in silence as a natural resource, is it now worth plundering? What whispers of the universe might I hear, if I remain silent?

Go Set a Record Straight

Go Set a WatchmanForget what you’ve read and/or assume about Go Set a Watchman. It is not a “first draft” of To Kill a Mockingbird. And while it may not narrowly meet the definition of sequel, it sure reads like one: a new story, set decades later, with most of the same characters. Indeed, it really feels like the writer of this book assumes readers are familiar with the events and characters of To Kill a Mockingbird. Yes, there are inconsistencies, huge ones, which indicate it was not written after final edits to Mockingbird. But it mostly works as a sequel.

Also, Go Set a Watchman is not remotely, as NPR suggested (and many people suspected), “a mess.” It pleasurable reading, with Lee’s talent for dry humor and poetic description, and her unmatched ability to write perspicaciously about her own terrain. There are some uneven transitions, overlong conversations that could be trimmed (the mansplaining in this book!), and the aforementioned inconsistencies with Mockingbird, but it is not far from the polished sequel that might have been, if Lee had wanted to pursue it. I wonder how much of the decision not to publish this, as is, has more to do with anxiety over how the (white) reading public would receive it, than a judgment on its literary quality? And I wonder if Lee’s decision to abstain had more to do with roiling her community than feeling the manuscript was not up to snuff and beyond salvation?

Now to the touchy spot. The Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman is a continuation of the one we love from Mockingbird. It is not a different Atticus, or a different draft of Atticus. Sorry, folks. This is Atticus. Harper Lee goes out of her way to show us that the Atticus in Watchman is every inch the Atticus of Mockingbird. And, as you have probably read, in Watchman Atticus is a bigot.

Keep in mind that even the Mockingbird-era Atticus is a man of his time and place. His attitude toward black people is kind but paternalistic. He maintains his idealism in the courthouse, but the black people he has in his house are servants. He is a perfect example of the white moderate of good will, the kind Martin Luther King described as “the biggest stumbling block” to equality. This new Atticus does fit with that one; he may not fit with the one in your head but he fits with the one in the book.

Early reviewers dropped a “Snape kills Dumbledore” sized spoiler on the reading public, but the reviewers didn’t tell you this: it is supposed to be shocking. It is absolutely devastating to Jean Louise (aka Scout) when she finds out what her father has become. If we feel the soil give way beneath our feet, it’s because that’s exactly what Lee intended to do to us. I’m sorry you had to find out that way. I’m sorry I had to find out that way.

But it’s important for us to accept that this is our beloved Atticus Finch, and not some Bizarro world Atticus Finch, because racism is not just enacted by the uneducated, trashy Ewells of the world. It is also enacted by genteel and well-educated whites, even ones with lofty principles. Jean Louise discovers her father at his racist meeting among “men of substance and character, responsible men, good men. Men of all varieties and reputations.” She hides and listens to the filth spew from their mouths. None spews from her father’s mouth, at this meeting, but he doesn’t speak up. She thinks: “Did that make it less filthy? No, it condoned.”

This is a necessary message, and a necessary postscript to To Kill a Mockingbird. Racism is enacted by kind, polite people. Silence is sanction. If this is not the same Atticus, and if this is not a sequel, there is utterly no point to the book. The book is about Scout, now grown, coming to terms with the frailties of her own origins. Everywhere she goes, all of the people she meets, the people she loves, veer into racist diatribes. Is she of these people, she asks herself? Are these the people she loves? When she describes herself as color blind, it is not to hint that she doesn’t “see color,” in that late 20th Century trope, but that she has been blind to the true nature of her community. To be honest, even Jean Louise’s own New York-influenced high mindedness falls short of 2015 standards (but she’s getting there, her own ideas evolving even in the text.)

This book is a time capsule; perhaps its most glaring deficit in that regard is that Lee could not know how iconic Atticus and Scout would be decades later, how much we would want Atticus to remain a pillar of progressive ethics. Lee writes about him as if he were a mere human character. Perhaps the idealized Atticus Finch is another southern flag that needs to be lowered.

I won’t belabor this point, but I want to set the record straight on the book itself. Go Set a Watchman is not a mess, nor is it a sloppy draft. Read as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, it has powerful and necessary truths, even ones that make us uncomfortable. It deepens and complicates our understanding of To Kill a Mockingbird, and though it is imperfect, it is no stain on Lee’s legacy.

The Empathy Exams

Empathy ExamsThe Empathy Exams is an essay collection by Leslie Jamison. The title comes from the first essay, where she blurs her experience as a medical actor with her own real-life medical experiences. Other essays approach second-hand experience of pain from different angles: reality television (of the sort that focuses on shattered lives); tours through impoverished and violent neighborhoods in the U.S., Mexico, and elsewhere; grueling ultramarathons; medical delusions; imprisonment; addiction. Other pain is personal: an abortion, a break-up, an inexplicable attack in a street in Nicaragua. In some ways Jamison is within a trend of creative nonfiction that packages pain for pleasure, like memoirs of addiction and abuse or depictions of third-world poverty. I’ve heard the genre dismissively referred to as “mis lit.”

But Jamison is doing something else in these essays: she isn’t writing about misery so much as the communal experience of misery, the choice to feel what others must feel. There is a place between lurid entertainment and antipathy. She isn’t sure where it is, but it’s where she wants to be.

“What can a twenty-something writer tell grown-ups about empathy?” one friend asked on Facebook, after I joked that it was “irritating” for such a young author to be so successful (similar criticism, some of it less facetious, is all over goodreads). But now I think that youth and uncertainty give this book its vitality. Jamison isn’t sure of herself; yet she is idealistic and hopeful about the form of essay in itself. She doesn’t generally adopt that all-know authoritative “we” voice I complained about recently; she stays within herself. She is honest and thoughtful, yearning to have a deeper conversation about the role of creative nonfiction in reshaping the world, to “fill the lack or liquidate the misfortune.” (And for the record, she is at least thirty).

Jamison is interested in empathy, but she isn’t sure about its value. Maybe empathy is solipsism, she suggests in the first essay, a kind of vicarious self-pity. How does empathy enable delusions, she wonders later, or the addicted, she considers yet later. Hers is not a call for people to “be more empathetic,” like that too-neat video with the bear and the rabbit. The title takes on new meaning as she continually scrutinizes empathy, coming to at least tentative conclusions. “It might be hard to hear anything over the clattering machinery of your own guilt,” she reflects in one essay. “Try to listen anyway.”

Midway through the book is an essay about sentimentality and sweeteners. I suspect it was the first one written: Jamison overeagerly drops in literary references, as if she’s eager to prove she’s read the canon; she resorts to that prescient “we”; and she writes in almost giddy abstraction about “crashing into wonder” and “flinging [oneself] upon simplicity.” Here she takes a stance for art (even bad art) that “can carry someone across the gulf between his life and the lives of others.” If I’m right about it being an earlier essay, it seems to give her the direction that makes the rest possible. She pursues and finds a purpose for tours of pain. She finds inspiration in the James Agee’s writings about rural poverty, and in documentaries that have freed innocent men by garnering public attention.

In the final epic essay Jamison considers the pain of women, often self-inflicted, bringing in the experiences of other women among her own: cutting, anorexia, miscellaneous wounds; mixed in with allusions to Sylvia Plath and Anne Carson, a brilliant one-page critique of Stephen King’s Carrie, lyrics from Ani DiFranco and Tori Amos, and too many other sources to list. She circles around women and pain, women writing about pain, the resentment and rejection of women writing about pain. She asserts explicitly what she is trying to do in the essay: to make it OK for women to write about pain, because even if it’s trite, the pain is real. “The wounded woman get’s called a stereotype, and sometimes she is. But sometimes she’s just true.” It feels like she’s finally enacted a proof of concept she’s been shaping the whole time. She’s found her exact place as an essayist. She’s found her way across the gulf an into the lives of others.