Monday, April 30, 2012

Review: Salvage the Bones

Jesmyn Ward's latest book, Salvage the Bones, didn't get a lot of attention before rising out of the dust with the National Book Award in 2011. Thank god it won the award, it's the best book I've read this year.

The story follows a family living near the coast in Mississippi during the ten days proceeding hurricane Katrina, and the day of the storm. The main character, Esch, lives with her father and brothers in a ramshackle house. Esch is fifteen years old, precocious, smart, kind, and pregnant. In her world, there are no choices.

Ward gives depth to every character in this novel, elevating them out their dire poverty so the reader sees the soul within. Even Esch's alcoholic father has moments of kindness and care, although he is largely absent or at the periphery while the kids make their own way. Esch's brother, Skeet, has a pitbull named China who is like his soulmate. Her brother Randall has hung all of his hopes on basketball camp and discovery by a college scout. Her youngest brother Junior is a typical bratty child, a necessary character in this book. He grounds the family in reality.

The characters are treated with care. They never veer into mere stereotype. Even Randall's friends who come around are not mere thugs or cretins, they are kids. Esch lets them take advantage of her, but her love for one of them above all others shines through. Ward shows Esch's turmoil and pain, her most heartfelt desires.

Perhaps these characteristics sound like something out of an ordinary romance novel. Ward's use of language and metaphor set this book apart. One criticism has been that it's hard to believe a fifteen year old girl in the sticks of Mississippi could have the observations Esch has in the novel. This criticism speaks more of the reader than the writer. Ward is careful to show Esch's intelligence and thoughtfulness, her awareness of the world around her. Popular opinion holds that poor people can not be smart people, they can't be as educated so they can't be as poetic. Tell that to James Baldwin.

The hurricane adds tension to the story for the reader but not for the characters. As readers, we know what is to come as soon as Esch's father says the storm has a name and that name is Katrina. As typical in hurricane-prone regions, the families in this novel intend to ride it out. The children scoff at their father's insistence that they must prepare. Despite being prepared for what's coming, as the reader, when the storm hits it takes your breath away. The slow build, the high tension, the choices and decisions, not choices or decisions at all, truly.

Salvage the Bones not only gives a realistic portrayal of life immediately following hurricane Katrina, but it also gives insight into the lives of people affected. Beyond that, into the mindset of poor people in America, and the unfairness of it all, of life.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Message in a Bottle

Not the Nicholas Sparks one. A facebook post saying people should continue to throw glass into the ocean so we can continue to have seaglass reminded me of a childhood memory.

I swear, this whole blog is not going to be "the story of my childhood."

When I was a kid, there was a man who was attempting to sail around the world. He had gone missing, and eventually people found a mayonnaise jar with a message inside, from him. I don't remember what that message said even, I just remember being so taken by this idea that a message could travel so far. In those days, everything was glass. I put notes in every Pepsi bottle, jam jar, big Hawaiian Punch bottles. We lived on the river, and I snuck down and threw them in. Some of the messages were simple, "Hi, I'm a girl from Maine. Please let me know you found this." Others were desperate, slowly fading, "Help M--" messages, not thinking ahead to wonder how someone who couldn't even finish the note could possibly roll it up and get it into a bottle. I also didn't think about the fact that the river, unlike the ocean, doesn't have that same pull at the shore. My bottles kept washing up, no matter how far I threw them.

Writing a blog is sort of the same thing, yeah? You send out messages, hoping for some acknowledgement. Same goes for forums and comment threads. With the advent of the Internet, we have a whole new way to seek attention, to get proof that we are here and matter. I know it's trite, but I sometimes struggle with the question, "why am I here?" I think most of us do, but maybe we phrase it differently. "I want to make a difference." "I need to have children." "I just feel like there's something bigger meant for me out there." It's some kind of cruelty, isn't it? That we have these magnificent brains to make us so aware, but can only use a small portion of them so we never understand.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


The great thing about family is they back up the batshit insane memories you have. You have instant confirmation that the thing you're not sure if it was a nightmare or real life actually happened, and then you can trot it out to your therapist and tell her about it.

If you had one.

Which I don't.

By which I mean that when I was hanging out with my Dad he expressed a desire to go back into the White Mountains and go camping. We reminisced about camping trips where he brought the TV and the VCR, a microwave... you know, the necessities. Before we camped out of tents and a pickup though, we had an old Winnie. Most of my memories of the Winnie are of us playing on and in it as children. It sat, idle, in the yard by the garden, next to the old Firebird full of wasps, and we kids would play house, climb the ladder to the top and play pirates, pretend to be long distance truckers. That thing was WAY better than a tree fort.

Anyway, I do have a couple of memories of the Winnie when it was in use. 1: I remember going to a drive-in movie and seeing a man come out from behind a curtain. I was so little, I was sound asleep before the movies started, so I can only guess I saw a preview. 2: I remember playing hide and seek with my parents in the camper while we drove through the mountains. Funny thing is, the best place I could think of to hide was the storage space underneath the seats at the fold-in dining table. It was a tiny space, and I'm guessing I was under five, because that Winnie sat in our yard for a long, long time. I crept into the space and laughed hysterically as my mum searched for me. She'd never find me here! But then it started to seem so dark, so close. I wanted to get out. But I couldn't. All I remember is not being able to open that door, the feeling of terror (I still can't be in close, dark spaces).

But my Dad? He remembers feeling some panic, imagining he'd have to break through the outer shell of the camper to rescue me. Mostly he remembers patiently guiding me as I cried, telling me what I needed to do to save myself. He remembers the relief he felt when I finally worked the latch to that door and freed myself.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review: A Feast of Snakes

In days where shootings in the workplace and casual violence in shopping malls are commonplace, the seventies look like the good old days. “A Feast of Snakes” by Harry Crews challenges that notion with a novel brimming with angst, loathing, and yes, violence. Crews takes on the myth of the all-powerful white man by showing white men who, due to poverty and geography, are denied access to that power and have few outlets to vent their frustration.

The story takes place in a small town in Georgia called Mystic over the course of a weekend featuring an annual snake hunt, the Rattlesnake Roundup. Joe Lon Mackey organizes the hunt each year, as his father (also named Joe Lon) did before him. In high school, Joe Lon played football, winning titles and leading his team. He was destined for greatness, but thwarted by poor grades from going on to play college football. He remains trapped in his small town, taking over his father’s bootleg liquor store and trapping rattle snakes. At times his dissatisfaction with his life leads him to drive to a secluded area and howl until he is hoarse.

Anger and frustration consume Joe Lon and the other men in this novel. They believe the world owes them and they intend to collect. Every scene in this book displays a need for power. Joe Lon’s father trains pitbulls for fighting and keeps his son on a tight leash. The town sheriff lost his leg in Vietnam and regains his feeling of masculinity by forcing himself upon the disenfranchised African-American women in town. Joe Lon engages in humiliating acts with his former high school girlfriend within shouting distance of his current abused wife, Elfie.

The women in “A Feast of Snakes” serve as plot devices and little else. Joe Lon’s ex-girlfriend, Berenice, illustrates life outside of Mystic. She returns from college for the Roundup with a new boyfriend. A preppy boy who, as Joe Lon says, “plays debate.” Joe Lon married Elfie when Berenice went to college, quickly impregnating her twice. Elfie pales in comparison to Berenice, and Joe Lon views her as another failure. Two other women in the book find solace in madness. The rest are mere trollops. The caricatures can be forgiven, however, as this book unapologetically concerns itself with men. The point of view rarely comes from a female character, and when it does, the woman is insane. Women viewed through the lens of these men can only be one-note.

Other authors have written about men who feel at odds with the world. Crews’ characters stand out by being poor and Southern, with very little agency outside of their small town. They feel powerless despite hearing all their lives that the world belongs t them. This attitude exists today as well. While marketing and media cater to the white male, the poor, uneducated white man feels ignored. Unable to articulate how they feel and unsure how to expend their fury, they turn to violence.

Unlike many modern uses of violence in literature, the underlying rage in the characters of “A Feast of Snakes” is palpable. We see this particularly in Joe Lon. Crews allows access to Joe Lon’s thoughts as he makes decisions. We see his angst over the way he treats his wife and his attempts to curb his abusive behavior. Crews pulls off the difficult feat of making an abusive man a sympathetic character. Joe Lon’s character has been crafted so the reader understands the emotion behind his extreme act of violence at the crescendo.

We also see how violence begets violence. Joe Lon’s dad abused his wife, and now Joe Lon abuses his. The sheriff rapes a woman, threatening her with a rattlesnake, and reaches a grim demise. The men in this book feel entitled because they have always been allowed to do whatever they like, without consequence, until they leave the confines of their provincial Southern town.

When Harry Crews passed away on March 28th, many of his books were out of print and difficult to find. With his passing, his books have re-entered the public consciousness. Crews gave voice to the people he grew up with and knew the best. He allowed people to understand the particular mindset of men who have been told the world belongs to them, only to be rebuffed each time they try to collect. In Crews’ oeuvre, “A Feast of Snakes” stands out as a glimpse into the inner workings of the “ignorant redneck.” As long as the myth of the all powerful white man continues, “A Feast of Snakes” will resonate.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Nostalgia: Lovesongs for Underdogs

I was going to call this a review but let's be honest, this album came out in 1997 which is much further away than it feels like it is. Every time I listen to this album, it feels like the first time. The lyrics always feel fresh and new, and the music! So catchy and danceable. Even the slower songs pull you along with the melody to the crescendo. Oh man, it doesn't get better than "Mysteries of the Unexplained," which I would have linked to, but all of the YouTube videos were terrible. I suppose I'm feeling so nostalgic because I just came back from a weekend home, after being away for more than three months. This never happens, but this semester has been one project after another, not leaving much time for relaxing weekends shooting the shit with Dad. There's been some stuff going on back home though, and I thought it was time for me to make a visit. The very first thing I did was go to the local drive-in for a grilled cheese with tomato, fries, and banana shake. And I was transported to being a child again. There I was in Dad's house, him cooking for me, me cleaning up. We drove through town and I pointed things out, "When'd they clear out all those woods?" "What's goin' in there?" By this morning, my Maine accent was out in full force, not a g to be found. Driving through town, I daydreamed about living there again, having my own little apartment in town, having my bunny with me again, seeing my family almost daily. I said I missed town, and I'd like to live there again. I didn't say that there aren't a lot of opportunities there for me and I probably wouldn't be back. Why spoil it?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Things You Should Know About Me

1. I'm a creative writing student.
2. I am also a knitter
3. Including stuff for school, I read a lot.
4. A lot.
5. I have an addiction to Buffy, 90210, the BBC Office, and the Simpsons. I'm probably going to talk about them.
6. My brain is all over the place. Maybe sometimes I'll feel funny. Maybe sometimes I'll be pensive. Probably I'll be mad. I suspect this blog will be all over the place too.