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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Standing Ovation for Percival Everett's "The Trees"

Percival Everett writes books that absolutely need to be written, and although my introduction to him was his dramatic novel So Much Blue, I somehow intuited the inside zaniness married to a skydiver’s sense of adventure and a philosopher’s wisdom and fearless vision of truth because my head exploded on first contact: “This is it!” screamed my hair follicles. “This is who I’ve been looking for.” And I hadn’t even read I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Glyph, or the incredibly prescient God’s Country, all of which made me scream with laughter and almost roll off my couch in joy and agony.

 

Reading The Trees after reading a lot of Everett’s 30+ books allows you to secretly smack your lips, knowing some of the precursors to this new one. Almost immediately I thought I knew what was coming because I’d read American Desert, and the ending to one of my favorite Everett books, the aforementioned God’s Country, has echoes of this new book, and almost seems to demand that it happen eventually. And now it’s here.

 

To compare Everett’s work to anybody else’s is pointless. So instead, here’s a scene that conveys what I love here and in his earlier funny novels (no setup necessary):

The Doctor Reverend Cad Fondle was sitting in his living room with his wife, Fancel. Fancel was a big woman, big enough that she hardly ever moved from her corduroy recliner, which was stuck in recline. There was a half a meat lover’s pizza and two beers on the foldout tray between her recliner and her husband’s. They were watching television, switching back and forth between Fox News and professional wrestling.
“They’s right,” Fancel said. “That Obamacare don’t work worth a hill of puppy shit. We done bought in, causin’ we had to, and I ain’t lost nary a pound.”
Fondle took long pull on his beer. “Well, the country’s done with that experiment. Smart-ass uppity sumbitch. You know he thinks he’s better’n us.”
“That Hannity is cute,” Fancel said. “If I could get my hand anywhere near my vajayjay, I’d rub me one out just watchin’ him.”
“You can’t reach it, so shut up.” Read More 
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The Reckoning: Our Nation’s Trauma and Finding a Way to Heal by Mary L. Trump, Ph.D.

There is something medicinal about hearing straight truth. With no affiliation to anything but the truth, clinical psychologist Mary L. Trump writes with muscular clarity, scholarship, and fury about anybody who acts in denial of the truth—from the beginnings of the practice of enslaving and torturing Black people to Obama and his justice department refusing to prosecute the architects of the Great Recession to the wanton cruelty and pathological lying of her uncle Donald to the January 6th insurrection to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris stating that this is not a racist country even though there is systemic racism. Even the Supreme Court and Jimmy Carter don't get away without condemnation.

 

Mary Trump writes with the heat of a wildfire and truncates American history in a way that makes its carefully crafted hypocrisy even more shocking. There is not a lot of new material if you've been educating yourself with whole history (as opposed to filtered white history) and if you follow the news. That said, if you haven't been reading book after book on racism, antiracism, and the history of racism, this is an excellent summation and exposure of the creation of ongoing systemic racism. But whatever your level of education, you will benefit from the passion of the writing steeped in scholarship and the laser focus that makes this book vibrate.

 

It is a book about the historical creation of our national trauma. Trauma comes not simply from the brutality and torture of slavery and genocide done with impunity that form the foundation of the U.S.A., but it comes from many "good" people looking the other way because the inconvenience of addressing and redressing the wrong was/is just too damned hard. It comes from denial and lies to justify the unjustifiable. It comes because people are reluctant to give up anything—money, power, complacency, peaceful co-existence with people who would be offended if they rocked the boat, "willful blindness. (115)" And all this was there long before it manifested Donald J. Trump.

 

The introduction to The Reckoning is one of the best book intros I've read. In it Mary Trump recounts her own history of PTSD and going into a full crisis that led to a stint in a rehab treatment facility after the election of her uncle. All that along with her grounded knowledge of psychology bring something unique to the book—well served by the fact that she is such a good writer.

 

This is not a "Trump book." It is an us/U.S. book. It is a fearless demand that we Americans look at who we are, who we have been, how we birthed the current divisions and violence, and acknowledging the wrongs, atone and repair. Read More 

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Books to Inspire Good Writing—Learning by Osmosis

 

I didn't go to grad school because frankly it never occurred to me. At the age most people enroll in MFA programs, I was zipping around NYC auditioning for acting roles and writing short stories and plays in my alone time. I didn't talk much about the writing, but once I mentioned it to a colleague when I had a menial job at an arts council and he asked why I didn't write a novel. Glibly but honestly I replied, "Because I'm too young." I knew I had so much to learn that I didn't even know what I didn't know, so certainly I wasn't mature enough to write a novel.

 

Now that I'm an old writer with some published novels, even though I still struggle to get my work seen and have none of the foundation contacts that MFA students start building during their student days, I'm still glad I took a different route.

 

I read voraciously and though some MFA grads produce good work out of the gate, I find many such first novels to be a little forced and self-consciously literary—the kind of thing that I associate with workshop students being praised by a teacher and one another for finding their original voice, for crafting esoteric observations, for being imaginative. And this group reinforcement results in a kind of groupspeak of self-conscious vocabulary and "insights" as well as endless stream-of-consciousness literary-sounding lists that I hear in my mind's ear in the droning monotone affected by certain writers giving readings of their work.

 

I've learned my craft and continue to learn by osmosis—by reading fine writing and getting feedback on my work from individuals I trust. Also, earning my living an editor of other people's work has been a boon to my own. I notice things as an editor does and, when inspired, steal like a pickpocket, morphing inspiring bits in the throes of my own creation so that you would never recognize their source.

 

Here are a few books that have been my teachers.  Read More 

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The Passenger: People See What They Decide to See and Make Drastic Judgments

I usually only post book reviews of books that won't leave me alone. I thought, and hoped, that when I finished reading The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, I was done with it. Since I closed the final page, I've gone to a book club meeting where we discussed another book and I'm reading my third new book. But Boschwitz won't leave. Hence, here's the review:

The Passenger

 

Otto Silbermann, with his Aryan nose but his Jewish last name is on the run. Although he's just been excoriated and demeaned by his Nazi business partner, he managed to get some of his money back. However he's stuck:

Mulling over his situation, he wondered what am I supposed to do now? Because they're still going after Jews. I can't stay a single night in my apartment—not with forty-one thousand marks!
We have to leave Germany, but no place will let us in I have enough money to start a new life, but how to get it out of the country? I don't have the nerve to try to smuggle it across. Should I stay or go? What to do?
Should I risk ten years in prison for a currency offense? But what other choice is there? Without money I'd starve out there. Every road leads to ruin, every single one. How am I supposed to fight against the state?
. . .
Other people were smarter. Other people are always smarter! If I'd realized in time what was going on, I could have saved my money. But everyone was constantly reassuring me. Becker [business partner] more than anybody. And fool that I am, I let myself be reassured. . . .
Maybe things aren't half so bad, and the whole business is one big psychosis. But no, I should finally acknowledge the reality of the situation: things are going to get worse—much, much worse! (80-81)

It's 1938 and Otto Silbermann, a persnickety neurotic, could not be less suited to running for his life.

 

Author Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz (1915-1942) wrote and published an earlier version of The Passenger when he was only 23, and he died before he could get a revised edition to his publisher. At first the writing seemed to me to have some of the clumsiness of a young writer—overwriting, heavy-handed dialogue, redundancy—but as my anxiety grew (more on that in a second) so did the writing grow on me and I stopped judging.

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PERSIST by Elizabeth Warren

I don't have kids and have never dealt with the difficulty of getting good, affordable childcare, but by the end of the first chapter of Persist, I cared so passionately about national childcare that, typing this sentence while eating a carrot, I got excited enough to swallow the wrong way and had to lurch from my desk to open my airway.

 

How is it possible to explain the tax code, tax deductions, and how business is constantly subsidized by all of us (aka socialized wealth distribution; what people are so afraid of is already going on, but the recipients are large corporations and billionaires!*) so clearly that the reader has an aha about the movement of money in the economy resulting in a feeling that she can articulate life itself: all life is movement and change, and Warren ties that to the economy so simply and coherently that you will never not understand this again, and hence, never not understand inequity of investment that is built into our system and an imbalance that will eventually topple us all if not corrected.

 

Simply put, Elizabeth Warren is a great teacher. I understand why Rep. Katie Porter changed her life while taking Warren's class (a wonderful anecdote). As I type this, I'm now in the middle of an explanation of a two-cent wealth tax and what that would mean and how it would work, and again, it's so exciting, I'm chewing my carrot extra carefully in order to stay at the computer.

 

One of my other favorite teachers, Bertice Berry, recently did a video about how being your authentic self brings light to all situations and people, so if another person who is not being authentic is illuminated in that light, it can expose them and make them really angry. I thought of this when Warren first talked about former Mayor Mike Bloomberg. I remembered her stunning exposure of his arrogance during the presidential debates (deliciously reported later in the book in a chapter called A Fighter). In that moment she exposed her authentic brilliance in a way that constantly flows through this well-made book.** Read More 

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Why I Support Changes in American History Education

According to Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letters from an American” enews this morning (dated May 2, 2021):

On April 19, the Department of Education called for public comments on two priorities for the American History and Civics Education programs. Those programs work to improve the "quality of American history, civics, and government education by educating students about the history and principles of the Constitution of the United States, including the Bill of Rights; and… the quality of the teaching of American history, civics, and government in elementary schools and secondary schools, including the teaching of traditional American history." The department is proposing two priorities to reach low-income students and underserved populations. The Republicans object to the one that encourages "projects that incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse perspectives into teaching and learning."

I couldn't check out the public comments portal fast enough.

 

I am seventy years old. It was not until around twenty years ago when I found myself working for an organization that had indigenous rights projects that I realized millions of people all over the world had worldwide conferences and had been screaming (and ignored) for centuries about land theft, culture obliteration, and the destruction of their families. I met many of these people and felt as though I'd been living under a rock all my life. This led to a self-education project that escalated during the Trump era when racism became acceptable. I've read book after book (see end of this essay for references*) that horrified me at what my white school never taught. I felt embarrassed and also infuriated at the blatantly false history I'd been led to believe was true.

 

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100 Years Later: Review of "Tulsa 1921: Reporting a Massacre" by Randy Krehbiel

Reading Tulsa 1921 is a little like being in the middle of a mob and hearing all the hundred-year-old voices at once. It is an important record of absolutely everything leading up to, during, and after the mass killing of Black people in and the destruction of the Greenwood district, the Black Wall Street section, of Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 31–June 1, 1921—a history that was never recorded in Oklahoma school books and certainly did not make its way into my white high school history classes in suburban New York in the 1960s. But unless you are digging for facts, it is a difficult book to follow as it is really more like investigative notes, leaving nothing out. Often the reporting is recounting what is essentially a game of "Telephone" where facts are skewed or made up out of whole cloth or maybe not, and every single one of them is relayed for examination. According to author journalist Randy Krehbiel, some truths will never be known, especially about the incident that led to this abomination.

 

I was willing and eager to dig through this book because my mother was born in Tulsa in 1921, and although she never spoke about it, or is it possible she didn't know?—I'll never know—I suspect that whatever happened exploded into our family with such force that, unbeknownst to me, I've suffered the reverberations in my own history, due to my mother's trauma ... due to her parents' trauma … due to her Jewish merchant father's decision to inexplicably flee (my word, not hers—she never explained it and I don't know exactly when he fled, if he did indeed flee) Tulsa after she was born, four months after the massacre. The family subsequently moved so often that my mother suffered a lifelong phobia about being lost.

 

I'm glad this record exists. It made the people and the place real for me and I did pick up bits of history that may add to my personal understanding: the fact that the riot and destruction began in the white business district (where my grandfather's jewelry store probably was), although this pales in comparison to what followed; and the fact that at least two businesses mentioned in Greenwood (a movie theater and a grocery) had white owners, so perhaps there were others. But all this is tangential to what we need to know to understand what happened.  Read More 

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Old Novels as Therapy

I am a published novelist and a rabid reader, but I've been stalled in both those areas. Between the cultural tumult and my almost-15-year-old dog's terminal kidney disease, I've become a worried political activist and an exhausted canine hospice caregiver.

 

I have two novels circulating to publishers through my agent (the newest of which deals with the cultural and political turmoil we are all living through right now), but since there is no discernible response, I see no point writing more—which nicely compliments my complete lack of inspiration.

Between my dog's IV drips and endless treks up and down my four flights of stairs to walk her, I found I cannot concentrate on reading new novels, let alone meeting new characters and remembering who everybody is. So suddenly my reading habit—a great source of joy—stalled.

 

In these incredibly dark days, I've found solace talking to people I've known since childhood. And, likewise, I realized I need books with a personal foundation already in place: books that I already know are outstanding, that I know will transport me—books that I trust because of my long history with them. I have such books already on my shelves, but I also bought a couple more.

 

Complete article published in the January 4, 2021 issue of Publishers Weekly.

 

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William Still's 1872 book Underground Railroad Records

book cover William Still's Underground Railroad Records

The Underground Railroad Records: Narrating the Hardships, Hairbreadth Escapes, and Death Struggles of Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom

by William Still, Quincy T. Mills (Editor), Ta-Nehisi Coates (Introduction)

 

Imagine it's you: You are kidnapped from your family, stripped naked, shipped like cargo, body stacked on body, in the hold of a ship. If you survive, this transport is followed by being "owned" and worked by other people. Some of the "owners" claim you're not human; others say, "Gee, I'd like to let you go, but I'm too poor and my dead husband left me only you." Or "When you get old enough, you can be free." Or "You can buy yourself for $500." So on some level they know you're a person just like them. But it simply doesn't matter to them.

 

Imagine you are beaten, raped, have your children ripped away from you and sold like a bag of potatoes. Maybe you escape, only to have to leave babies behind. Or your wife or husband. Or one of them fights tooth and nail, escapes and then comes back to try to rescue you. And then is killed.

 

All the time, you are a feeling, thinking, intelligent, maybe brilliant, talented, agonized person, and this treatment is condoned and supported by a whole culture that lives fairly well off of your enslavement.

 

This book of firsthand accounts of escapes on the Underground Railroad, first published in 1872, makes you feel it—as if it's you. And the rage I feel is beyond expression. I got so angry I shook.

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A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn

A partial journal of reading this very long book

 

7/7/20 My Facebook Post

I am very late to this classic. The first paragraph landed so hard I have to stop reading and do errands to let this process through my body. Here's what did it—from Columbus's log when he was met with an extraordinary welcome by Arawak people who inhabited the Bahamas:

"They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned ... They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features ... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. ... They would make fine servants. ... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."

The legacy of this mindset is nauseating. The misinterpretation of love, altruism, and gifts to honor visitors, from a Western perspective of power and possessions and the arrogant belief that any culture that is different from theirs is necessarily ignorant or stupid rather than perhaps more evolved and connected to oneness? ... I do not know where to begin. I have been reading and editing Native material the last few months, and seeing and feeling the roots of the pain leaves me moaning in my own agony. I will absorb this book as fast I'm capable.  Read More 

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White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo

Educator and sociologist Robin DiAngelo is brilliantly thorough, and I am grateful beyond expression. This is unapologetically a book by a white woman written for white people who dispute our part in our historically racist system. It's for people who find the discomfort of the discussion intolerable. And it's also for white people like me who have accepted culpability and have committed themselves to being as uncomfortable as it takes in an effort to become an antiracist—and it gets pretty damned uncomfortable; my last read, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, gave a new-to-me history that I was never taught in white school and a vivid new awareness of systemic racism and how black people have coped with it that's changed my vision.

 

White Fragility is clarifying, supportive, and further strengthens my commitment, even as the clear articulation of everything made me sometimes squirm. DiAngelo's genius is the ability to break things down and deliver them as digestible facts. And with that, I'll turn it over to Professor DiAngelo:

 

What is white fragility?

 

Given how seldom we [white people] experience racial discomfort in a society we dominate, we haven't had to build our racial stamina. Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable—the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. I conceptualize this process as white fragility. (1-2)

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Percival Everett Has a New Book!

I made this video as part of the Authors Guild's initiative, #SupportAuthors, to promote new books in the age quarantine.

 

The websites mentioned are Graywolf Press's page for Percival Everett's new book Telephone

and the wonderful new bookshop.org that supports independent bookstores--here is their page for the book: bookshop.org.

 

 

Now that I have just finished this magnificent book, my review:

 

How on earth do you review a book that is as personal, as tender, and as unnamable as your own soul? Reading Percival Everett, and this new novel in particular, is like entering the territory where all life comes from. I had such a hit of this when I first began the book that I literally passed out. In yoga there are names for this. Suffice it to say that it's when your consciousness is overwhelmed, stretched beyond its normal capacity.

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I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett

Once after dinner, as we sat in front of the television watching an Adventures of Superman rerun, I asked, "Was my father handsome?"
She replied, "Some might say yes."
"Was he smart?" I asked.
She stared at the television. "Why is it that after all the bullets have bounced off Superman's chest, he then ducks when the villain throws the empty gun at him?"
I looked at the television and wondered, knowing also that my quest for some detail about my history had been again thwarted, albeit with a very good question. I never pressed terribly hard, thinking that someday the story would surface, but then she died. (pp. 84-85)

I've quoted this out-of-context gem to give you a taste and because it made me laugh the first time I read this brilliant book about a boy who is named "Not Sidney Poitier" although he is the spitting image of a young Poitier. I laughed while I moaned. This is serious and hilarious stuff.

 

However a year after my first reading, when I read this book for a second time, I had a different experience. I hardly laughed at all for the first half (second half is funnier). Instead I was moved by the pain.

 

I Am Not Sidney Poitier is a quest story—a search for identity, or one's true essence, in a culture where that is largely obscured by other people's perceptions of race, wealth, and the like. Each event in this quest is a step for Not Sidney to find out who he is. The book opens with him wondering who his father was, then careens into a life where he is a screen for other people's projections. After getting beaten, locked up, applauded for his money, and locked up again, he finally decides to go back to where he came from . . . only to be met at the L.A. airport by yet another person who mistakes him for the real Sidney Poitier. Exhausted and depleted of any sense of identity, he acquiesces and ends up receiving an award as the Greatest Black Man in the Universe—a role that is a distortion of anybody, including the real Sidney Poitier. His last line, in my opinion, is perfect:  Read More 

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I Wish More People Would Read Books

Because I write books, of course I wish more people would read them. But I write fiction, and this morning, after seeing a plethora of fearful social media posts as well as the New York Times's trepidatious headline about Bernie Sanders's New Hampshire primary win ("Tightens Grip on Party's Liberal Wing"), my wish is that people would read more nonfiction.

 

Why?

 

Because, unless the books are the fabrication of a good ghost writer (i.e., The Art of the Deal, now disavowed by repentant ghostwriter Tony Schwartz), people tend to expose who they really are when they write.

 

Since the 2016 election, I have read a lot of political books:

 

In A Higher Loyalty, former head of the FBI James Comey came across as thoughtful and introspective . . . with a fatal flaw that turned off his self-analysis talent: blind righteousness when it came to his decision to talk about an ongoing investigation, despite the fact that it was against FBI policy.

 

In Hillary Clinton's post-mortem, What Happened, she is warm, funny, dedicated, smart, and unbelievably oblivious when she dismisses, with one line, the Democratic National Committee's rigging of the primaries—because it was legal, albeit completely unethical. She gives not one thought to all the people who felt betrayed to find out what really happened in that instance. It is the same oblivion that allowed her to condemn "deplorables" and promise unemployment for coal miners. For a smart and usually ridiculously controlled person, she could be incredibly flippant.

 

I like Comey and Clinton—a lot. I understand flaws and have plenty of them. I don't believe either one of them wants anything other than the best for this country, but they have blind spots—a similar tendency to instantly dismiss what they disagree with.

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Awakening the Ancient Power of Snake by Dawn Baumann Brunke

 

I used to work as managing editor of a magazine whose theme was spirituality. Despite its subject, it was news and research-based at its core. Readers liked this, but often we would get pitches from New Age writers who couldn't understand the importance of science, verification, and credentials. It was my job to gently explain that although I understood that people had powerful personal experiences, for us to publish a "fact" story, the writer and/or material had to have had some kind of vetting.

 

I cannot imagine a better writer than Dawn Baumann Brunke for material that might otherwise fall into the "woo-woo" category for many readers. She is not only a deep dreamer with apparently 20/20 vision for details that she remembers, but she is a skeptical analyst of all things and a researcher who understands that history matters—that everything, including dream images, has history that informs meaning. And it helps that she is also an elegant writer who knows how to tell a story.

 

Who better to write about one of the most potent and controversial animals—snake? Snake is worshipped and loathed. It is embedded in our stories and architecture and reflected in our DNA. There is even a named phobia (ophidiophobia) because fear of snakes is common among our species.

 

This generously illustrated book is so full—from history, art, myth, and science, to personal stories of owning and feeding snakes, to understanding why our feelings about the iconic snake (in body and in image) are indicative of the sharp divides in today's culture, how these divides came to be, and what we might do to accept the synthesis of opposites offered by one of the most ancient symbols of healing, protection, and oneness. Read More 

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