Category Archives: REVIEW

How should you read a book?

A bookshop in Edinburgh, Scotland, photographed in June 2012.

A bookshop in Edinburgh, Scotland, photographed in June 2012.

 

Virginia Woolf’s reading advice, circa 1926 , remains witty & useful.

In the first place, I want to emphasise the note of interrogation at the end of my title.  Even if I could answer the question for myself, the answer would apply only to me and not to you.  The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.

—Virginia Woolf

Woolf around the time she wrote her essay on reading.

Woolf around the time she wrote her essay on reading.

As these opening sentences of her famous essay on reading show, Virginia Woolf is highfalutin only to those who haven’t read her. The chatty offhand charm and modesty of her essays impress and please. The humbling phase comes when you re-read, and see how simple she’s made complex matters, yet how rounded, deep, and full her expression.

I turned again to “How Should One Read a Book?” because after a while a reviewer tends to ask himself what he thinks he’s doing. What’s fair? Relevant? This weighed on me in wondering how to assess, for my recent review, Ted Kerasote’s Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs. I found this fine book marred by one major flaw in Kerasote’s judgment. I was uncertain how serious my disagreement is for the book, and puzzled by the issues it raised for reviewing in general.

Woolf, in stepping back to see the forest of literature, does provide some guidance in how to asses its individual trees:

1.    Open your mind

 At first, she says, try to move in tune with the author. “Be his fellow-worker and accomplice” rather than his critic: “Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning.”

Thankfully, I feel I did a good job initially of moving in tune with Kerasote. And even as my hackles rose over his letting his dog roam, I admired him for being himself. For admitting what he must’ve known would upset some readers. Granted, he doesn’t appear fully aware of how maddening his practice is to some of us, but he does explain his thinking; steadily he reveals himself throughout, which is brave in its way.

Woolf addresses this:

How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the man himself rouses in us—so sensitive are words, so receptive of the character of the author?  These are questions that press upon us when we read lives and letters, and we must answer them for ourselves, for nothing can be more fatal than to be guided by the preferences of others in a matter so personal.

I take this to mean that my faulting Kerasote on a matter of judgment—and in this case the preponderance of opinion is on my side—was within bounds.

2.    Learn to read by trying to write

Who can’t help but agree that to discern it helps to have done, or tried to do. Some great and famous editors were not great writers, just as many coaches weren’t great players themselves. But in each case they understood their chosen business from the inside.

A practitioner’s tough love, here:

Recall, then, some event that has left a distinct impression on you—how at the corner of the street, perhaps, you passed two people talking.  A tree shook; an electric light danced; the tone of the talk was comic, but also tragic; a whole vision, an entire conception, seemed contained in that moment.

But when you attempt to reconstruct it in words, you will find that it breaks into a thousand conflicting impressions.  Some must be subdued; others emphasised; in the process you will lose, probably, all grasp upon the emotion itself.

Now, she says, read the opening pages by a great novelist—she suggests Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy—and see their mastery and the great differences between their reality, their worlds, from open-air adventure to the drawing room’s subtleties to the lonely moor’s dark mysteries.

She continues:

Yet different as these worlds are, each is consistent with itself. The maker of each is careful to observe the laws of his own perspective, and however great a strain they may put upon us they will never confuse us, as lesser writers so frequently do, by introducing two different kinds of reality into the same book. Thus to go from one great novelist to another—from Jane Austen to Hardy, from Peacock to Trollope, from Scott to Meredith—is to be wrenched and uprooted; to be thrown this way and then that.  To read a novel is a difficult and complex art.  You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist—the great artist—gives you.

3. Read lesser books & even rubbish

These are those lives and letters mentioned above, works of craft—books that don’t necessarily aspire to art. They can be made to “light up many windows of the past,” but also can stoke one’s own creative musing:

Is there not an open window on the right hand of the bookcase?  How delightful to stop reading and look out!  How stimulating the scene is, in its unconsciousness, its irrelevance, its perpetual movement—the colts galloping round the field, the woman filling her pail at the well, the donkey throwing back his head and emitting his long, acrid moan.  The greater part of any library is nothing but the record of such fleeting moments in the lives of men, women, and donkeys. Every literature, as it grows old, has its rubbish-heap, its record of vanished moments and forgotten lives told in faltering and feeble accents that have perished.  But if you give yourself up to the delight of rubbish-reading you will be surprised, indeed you will be overcome, by the relics of human life that have been cast out to moulder.  It may be one letter—but what a vision it gives! It may be a few sentences—but what vistas they suggest!

And yet, we must move on, for lesser works lack the “artist’s power of mastering and eliminating.” Having failed to “tell the whole truth,” having “disfigured the story that might have been so shapely,” they can only offer facts. Not Woolf’s “purer truth of fiction.”

4. Read poetry

“The impact of poetry is so hard and direct that for the moment there is no other sensation except that of the poem itself. What profound depths we visit then—how sudden and complete is our immersion!”

Woolf cites first a heartbreaking lament from the 16th Century song Westron Wynde, which probably is even older in origin—from a fragment if medieval poetry:

 Western wind, when wilt thou blow?

 The small rain down can rain.     

Christ, if my love were in my arms,     

 And I in my bed again!

Her reading essay concludes this collection.

Her reading essay concludes this collection.

And the time to read poetry is “when we are almost able to write it,” she says, going on to cite, so as to show their differing emotional expressiveness, verses of “force and directness,” of “wavering modulation,” of meditative calm,” of “complete and inexhaustible loveliness,” and of “splendid fantasy.”

I love Woolf’s unabashed passion and how it endorses one’s own deeply personal emotional response to literature—which, after all, is made from emotion and is meant to move us, engendering an emotional response its very purpose. Like the blinded Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear, we might, using our great human asset of emotion, apprehend the world fully, “see it feelingly.”

Remember always, Woolf says, that with the lever of his great power to shift our perspective, “The poet is always our contemporary. Our being for the moment is centred and constricted, as in any violent shock of personal emotion.”

5. Wait, then give tough love

Having been open to an author, once “the dust of reading” has settled we must come to judgment. One of Woolf’s most useful tips is to wait till a book, first experienced in varying impressions, floats “to the top of the mind as a whole.” And the book having revealed itself as a “barn, a pigsty, or a cathedral,” she writes, “Let us then be severe in our judgments; let us compare each book with the greatest of its kind.”

Ouch. While judging isn’t as simple as reading and receiving impressions, Woolf admits, the task must be done to complete the reading process. One may be tempted to leave this to the “gowned and furred” experts:

Yet how impossible!  We may stress the value of sympathy; we may try to sink our identity as we read.  But we know that we cannot sympathise wholly or immerse ourselves wholly; there is always a demon in us who whispers, “I hate, I love”, and we cannot silence him.  Indeed, it is precisely because we hate and we love that our relation with the poets and novelists is so intimate that we find the presence of another person intolerable.  And even if the results are abhorrent and our judgments are wrong, still our taste, the nerve of sensation that sends shocks through us, is our chief illuminant; we learn through feeling; we cannot suppress our own idiosyncrasy without impoverishing it.

 6. Learn from experts as you train your taste

Some critics, however, including gifted fellow practitioners whom Woolf enjoys for their inside knowledge, can “steady” us in this difficult task of assessment: “But they are only able to help us if we come to them laden with questions and suggestions won honestly in the course of our own reading. They can do nothing for us if we herd ourselves under their authority and lie down like sheep in the shade of a hedge. We can only understand their ruling when it comes in conflict with our own and vanquishes it.”

And though reading a book “calls for the rarest qualities of imagination, insight, and judgment,” and Woolf considers it unlikely that even after a lifetime if reading someone can “make any valuable contribution to its criticism,” ordinary readers have responsibilities and even importance.

Here Woolf winds down her metaphor-rich advice with a mystical bit I love—it’s so very Virginia in its generous sense of connection and in its vision of ultimate holism:

The standards we raise and the judgments we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work. An influence is created which tells upon them even if it never finds its way into print.

. . .

If behind the erratic gunfire of the press the author felt that there was another kind of criticism, the opinion of people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally, and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity, might this not improve the quality of his work?  And if by our means books were to become stronger, richer, and more varied, that would be an end worth reaching.

And, anyway, reading is its own reward—the closest we can come to heaven on earth, she ends.

Wise, warm, and witty, our fellow reader Virginia Woolf is always so much fun.

Woolf’s essay “How Should One Read a Book?”concludes her collection The Second Common Reader and also is available free around the web by googling it.

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Filed under emotion, essay-expository, reading, REVIEW, Temp

Review: Ted Kerasote’s new dog book

Pukka’s Promise charms & irks this reviewer, a lover of canines.

I got Pukka’s Promise at a wonderful independent bookstore, Explore Booksellers, Aspen, Colorado.

I got Pukka’s Promise at a wonderful independent bookstore, Explore Booksellers, Aspen, Colorado.

Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs by Ted Kerasote.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 388 pp.

Pukka in action.

Pukka in action.

Once when I was farming, I visited another shepherd and was stunned by the tameness of his sheep. Dave was a retired librarian, tall and energetic and assertive, and passionately in love with his little farm and his flock. Now sheep are timid creatures and know we’re predators—with our staring, front-placed eyes, dominating movements, most of us reeking of meat—but Dave’s let us amble right up. They greeted us with trusting eyes. I saw why: he spoke constantly to them, calling each ewe by name, commenting on her pretty lambs, and inquiring how she was doing. No predator does that. I realized that I didn’t use my own voice enough, but also felt I wasn’t as fine a shepherd as I’d supposed. Busy and all business, I took good care of my hoofed wards but seldom communed with them.

Ted Kerasote’s Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs had a similar effect. I adore dogs and have tried to be a good master to mine, but Kerasote is in a different league—it’s one lucky dog, with one glaring exception, who has him as his master. He hikes and hunts and plays with his pal, talks to him constantly, teaches him many words, and selects the best diet, playthings, and beds. Kerasote’s new book tells how when his beloved Labrador cross Merle died at age thirteen, he set out to replace him with a dog that might live much longer. This means one free of genetic defects and given the best home and veterinary care. Pukka comes from a Minnesota kennel that specializes in genetically screened field-type Labradors.

Canine age-extension is the book’s marketing peg and also a theme that unifies its meld of memoir—his first two years with Pukka—and how-to advice. There are extensive researched sections on diet, breeding, and vet care.

Kerasote’s advice and practices may seem nutty to your average dog owner. For instance, he scorns what he views as unnecessary scheduled vaccinations and also opposes neutering, making the case that both practices shorten dogs’ lives. The first issue I agree with, having grown to resent the way many vets now push products and procedures, though it’s been easier to go along to get along with my vet. The second, while perhaps true, is problematic for typical owners. As would be Pukka’s favorite breakfast: ground elk meat, chunks of elk heart and liver, chopped spinach, kale, chard, broccoli, and cauliflower, mixed with a raw egg and fish oil, and topped with an elk rib.

Given his dog’s diet, Kerasote is surprisingly moderate about kibble—if its maker abjures grain. But when I looked up one of his recommended elite brands I found that it just underwent a massive safety recall. Fact is, legions of dogs have lived to ripe-old ages eating mainstream and boring and grain-extended—and usually fresh and monitored—brands like Purina and Old Roy. Of course Kerasote doesn’t accept that thirteen or fourteen is sufficient. And he’s got a great emotional point, one that might be addressed by the intelligent selective breeding and conscientious care he advocates. Wouldn’t it be wonderful indeed if our dogs lived to at least twenty-five?

Kerasote lets his dog out

I was charmed by Kerasote’s warm-and-fuzzy persona, and admired his bravery in revealing it, while doubting I’d go half as far.

The deal-breaker for me was when he let Pukka roam his Wyoming village with other dogs. To Kerasote, this teaches a dog independence and helps it become an individual and attain the je-ne-sais-quoi Merle possessed after living in the wild before Kerasote found him. But even if Kerasote’s burgh is as dog-friendly as he says, he’s expecting everyone to love dogs, which they don’t. And roaming dogs get into garbage, harass other dogs, kill chickens. As a farmer, I saw the horrors to farm animals that loose dogs inflict. The late lamented Merle carried a bullet, and Kerasote admits this probably was from the gun of someone whose livestock Merle was chasing. He says he teaches Pukka to leave domestic ruminants alone, and depicts use of a shock collar to break a deer-chasing habit, but neither lesson’s foolproof when dogs are untended and in packs. It’s weird to learn that Kerasote is exposing Pukka to the risks of roaming even as he frets over the composition of Pukka’s toys and the effects of herbicide residues in his environment. I sense that Kerasote’s expressed antipathy to industrial agribusiness is larger, the blind spot of a hunter-gatherer toward all agriculture. I imagine he’d have a hard time grasping a husbandman’s distress over maimed ewes or massacred hens: You’re just going to kill them anyway, right?

I gathered from Amazon.com reviews that some readers devoured the book’s memoiristic passages while skimming, as I sometimes did, its swaths of technical information. Kerasote’s melding of the two aspects was impressive, though, and the information is there when and if you need it.

And, again, what a loving buddy he makes. When Pukka rides in Ted’s car, he has his own seatbelt, naturally. When Kerasote backpacks, Pukka also totes—panniers containing a supply of his own dehydrated elk meat—and, needless to say, Kerasote’s first-aid kit includes dog-specific products.

Memoir aspect reveals a poignant choice

You gather as you read that Kerasote is alone in life as in the wilderness, other than Pukka. He’s aware of your awareness and curiosity, and late in the book sets a revealing and poignant scene. As he spends a freezing night in his tent, cuddling Pukka for warmth, he recalls his recent break-up with a woman he still loves. She, president of her own company on the East Coast, can’t relocate to his remote western valley; he won’t abandon his location and lifestyle—both choices inseparable from his career as a top outdoor writer and photographer.

A snippet:

I unzipped the bag and put it over both of us, spooning him against me, my sweet young pup, his head under my chin, his back against my chest. I held him and thought, “How curiously things have turned out.” Here I was—more than halfway through my allotted run—still without a human partner, but with this very fine dog, with whom I was spectacularly in love: alone on the great divide, but not.

Perhaps Pukka felt my restlessness. Rubbing his face against my jaw, he gave me a lick on the cheek. I pulled him closer and felt his heart beating against mine. Then he relaxed completely and let out a sigh: “Ah, that’s better—touch, together, as we should be.”

How curious it would be—in truth, ironic and sad—if Kerasote’s sentimental view of dogs one day costs Pukka his life. Then again, I’ve never sustained his constant connection to a canine, and I admire it.

Which brings me to a real dilemma in rating Pukka’s Promise. Do I give this five-star book four stars because I disagree with and lament one immature notion? No matter what he says, I’m not going to let my dog roam; I presume his other readers won’t either; and surely 99.9 percent of the owners of roving dogs don’t buy 400-page books like this or expect affirmation for their rudeness and neglect. So maybe this extremist, with his surprising and stimulating contrary vision, is simply challenging the moderate middle to become a little better with our dogs, more worthy of their love.

Reluctantly, and in truth guiltily, I do dock Kerasote’s fine book for my one major disagreement, finding his practice odious. I sense it’s the dark side of his rare virtues as a master, a writer, and an outdoorsman.

Explore Books Photo

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Filed under REVIEW, sentimentality

Echoing a familial refrain

Khaled Hosseini’s third novel strikes universal chords.

A crowd mobbed Book People, Austin, for Hosseini's appearance.

A crowd mobbed BookPeople, Austin, Texas, for Hosseini’s recent appearance.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Riverhead Books  (Penguin Group ); 404 pp., $28.95 hardback. Also available in paperback (Bloomsbury Publishing), Kindle, Nook, Audible, audiobook CD, SoundCloud, iTunes, and large-print (Thorndike Press) editions.

Guest Review by Lanie Tankard

“…and the place echoed every word,

and when he said ‘Goodbye!’

Echo also said ‘Goodbye!’”

 —Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book III (Trans. by A.S. Kline)

Hosseini CoverKhaled Hosseini took a risk in his third novel. He tried a different structure.

In his first published work, The Kite Runner, Hosseini followed one boy’s life and how it related to his childhood friendship with another boy named Hassan, portrayed through the voice of the protagonist named Amir.

In his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini focused initially on the individual stories of two women, Mariam and Laila, and then later on both as their paths crossed. I admired the fact that, being a male author, Hosseini had pulled off a convincing protagonist gender shift from his first book.

When I recently heard Hosseini discuss his third book, And the Mountains Echoed, he noted, “The structure of this novel was far more ambitious.” He addressed a packed crowd in Austin, Texas, at BookPeople, which was already mobbed an hour before Hosseini was scheduled.

“The heart of the book is about an act of separation—a relationship between a boy and his sister,” he told us, after reading an excerpt. “Splitting them affects who they become as adults,” as the boy has been “almost like a parent to her.”

Hosseini offered details about how he shaped the book.

“Like a giant oak tree, there’s a trunk to the novel that branches out with all the characters, and the geography of the settings as well. It gets wider as the book goes on,” he said. “It was the hardest book to write.”

And it was the hardest book to read, at least for me. As if traveling on the ancient Silk Road, many characters in Mountains Echoed take circuitous routes to their ultimate destinations—and so does the storytelling. These interwoven lives begin to resemble the stacked “spaghetti bowl” of an interstate highway with flyover ramps and exits.

Such a plot construction is not necessarily detrimental to a story, though, nor to one’s growth as a writer. Once again, I admire Hosseini for stretching himself rather than relying on the formulaic repetition of a style with which he’d become comfortable.

In Mountains Echoed, Hosseini constructs the metastories of an entire clan to examine their intersections. It becomes an interesting device for disentangling the relatives in a particular family of origin as they fan out across the globe. Hosseini investigates the genealogical ramifications of family connections. He scrutinizes various generations as if he were peeling back delicate paper-thin layers of phyllo from a wedge of baklava with tweezers.

Charting the novel’s cast

Lanie Tankard's aide-memoire—her cheat sheet for the novel.

Lanie Tankard’s aide-memoire—her cheat sheet for the novel.

I did have to chart my way through the book, however.  Early on, I had the fortunate premonition to start drafting a map to follow as I read. I wonder why the editor didn’t suggest inserting a family tree to assist the reader? Yet quite honestly, the lack of one did not deter me from being totally absorbed by this story, even though I did have to consult my hand-drawn legend from time to time to keep the characters straight.

Hosseini’s storytelling ability is nothing short of mesmerizing. He knows just when to stop with a particular strand, leaving the reader hungering for more detail. He puts your mind to work. As he told his Austin audience, “It’s a series of revelations and epiphanies for which the reader must connect the dots.”

While Hosseini set the story in specific countries, he grounded it in larger themes that cross borders and speak the language of the global family. He laid bare the fundamental elements of our common humanity.

Hosseini wrenched unexpected tears out of me in different sections, due not only to such universal refrains, but also because he assembled in the denouement a heartbreaking scenario similar to one I witnessed in my own family as well. Since I’ve never been fond of spoilers in reviews, I’ll not divulge the endgame of Mountains Echoed except to say it rang true.

Tears arising unbidden as I read usually alert me to the fact that I’m holding a compelling book in my hands—a “heads up” that I need to pay close attention to the illusion that I’m consuming a straightforward rendition of a simple tale.

Indeed, as some of Hosseini’s characters become Westernized in Mountains Echoed, I notice that an individualistic culture has slowly begun to muffle echoes of the earlier stages of their lives in a collectivistic society. The author writes with subtle strokes of his calligraphy brush to achieve this effect.

Perhaps such subtlety was intentional. After all, how clearly can we actually view an ancestor who lived several generations prior to our own and truly understand the choices made during that person’s sojourn on this planet?

Hosseini’s characters speak truths we ought to know like the backs of our hands already, and yet we continuously require reminding. Some of these verities underscore the values of memoir writing, genealogy research, and meditation. Hosseini prompts us to realize that it’s important to know where you came from, because in doing so you may encounter a part of yourself that was lost.

Gail Lumet Buckley, daughter of Lena Horne, wrote in her memoir titled The Hornes: An American Family: “Family faces are magic mirrors. Looking at people who belong to us, we see the past, present, and future. We make discoveries about ourselves and them.”

Flawed characters thwarted in love

Yet Hosseini denies most if not all of the characters in Mountains Echoed such types of discoveries due to assorted acts of separation he writes into their lives. He sets up many types of love in his characters’ relationships, and then creates formidable barriers to their perpetuation. Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman once wrote about herself: “This packrat has learned that what the next generation will value most is not what we owned, but the evidence of who we were and the tales of how we loved. In the end, it’s the family stories that are worth the storage.” The fictional individuals who people the Mountains Echoed plot won’t have such an inheritance, though. That’s where the angst in this novel arises, and it’s powerfully strong.

Hosseini in Austin.

Hosseini in Austin.

“I really like flawed characters,” Hosseini told his Austin listeners. “They allow me the most to work with. All of us have things about ourselves that we don’t like at all. We can see our own flaws in them.”

He pointed out that the “evil stepmother” character, Parwana, “is the black sheep of her family“ but she “gets her day in the sun later in her own chapter.”

Fiction can be a potent tool. Authors who serve up their home countries via literature to the world can call attention to inequities, assist in cultural understanding, or play roles in uniting us. Consider such writers as Isabel Allende, Orhan Pamuk, or Chinua Achebe. And when a novelist writes about the assimilation of people from one culture into another culture, as such authors as Amy Tan or Junot Díaz or Jhumpa Lahiri have done, readers gain the perspectives of characters who have migrated from their native countries. In Mountains Echoed, Hosseini depicts the homelands of his characters (Afghanistan and Greece) as well as later adaptation to new countries (France and the United States), illustrating how Westernization has changed them.

What factors determine the impact of a literary contribution? Is it the words alone—or do timing, packaging, current news events, author talks explaining motivation and intent, and advance promotion each play a role? The Zeitgeist likely creates desire for certain subject matter. Once upon a time, journalists were taught the term Afghanistanism to avoid concentrating on issues in faraway places when problems in their own cities cried out for attention. Technology, transportation, and wars have both broadened our horizons and shrunk our world since that time, negating the term.

Hosseini mentioned the influence of the poet Rumi in his Austin talk, and he uses a wonderful Rumi quote as an epigraph in Mountains Echoed: 

Out beyond ideas
of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
—Jelaluddin Rumi, 13th century

 He also alluded to music in reference to his third novel: “My intention was that each chapter raises the stakes for what has happened before, creating a synchronicity—like a lot of single instruments playing together to create a symphony.”

Hosseini seems to have blended music, poetry, and myth in Mountains Echoed. An echo in music has a resonance that amplifies the sound and makes it reverberate with the underlying meaning. It’s a nice metaphor for what Hosseini accomplishes in his new novel.

There are hints of the Echo and Narcissus myth as well, if one focuses on the ideas of separation and later deprivation of speech and garbling of the tongue, as Juno did to Echo. The separation in Mountains Echoed deprived the siblings of speech with one another, and the novel’s ending symbolizes garbled memories.

The echo motif also fits into the storyline of Mountains Echoed as a rhetorical device, which Hosseini employs in both a literal and a figurative sense. With the repeated refrains and themes, one could almost view the novel as a musical composition of lyrical poetry, with a chorus continuing to sing praises to the nuclear family unit in the midst of a long narrative ballad, ideas John Hollander discusses in his book The Figure of Echo.

Hollander uses the example of echo in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which indeed Afghanistan has become.

“The country is struggling with a lot of problems,” Hosseini said of his native land. “The big question is what will move into the vacuum when the US and NATO troops leave in 2014. There’s a lot of skepticism on the part of Afghans. Not many people in the West understand what the Afghans fear. The militia wars preceded the Taliban. Those were the darkest of the last thirty-two years. There’s a reason Afghanistan has been called ‘the graveyard of empires.’”

One audience member called out a heartfelt comment: “Thank you for teaching us about Afghanistan.”

BookPeople showed a five-minute film before Hosseini spoke, highlighting the Khaled Hosseini Foundation he has set up. The author explained how his organization concentrates on helping all the homeless refugees returning to Afghanistan by finding shelter for them there.

Hosseini’s shift from a medical career

“I was a doctor in my former life,” Hosseini said in his Texas book discussion. “I wrote all my life though,” he said. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love to write, but I didn’t think I was very good. I just did it for myself. I wrote Kite Runner, and then 9/11 happened. I felt the book would be distasteful at that time.” So he shelved it in the garage.

His wife ran across it “and made a bunch of notes on it.  She urged me to try to publish it later.” He noted that she majored in rhetoric at UC Berkeley, and is his editor and a lawyer.

“She’s edited every draft. She can’t come up with an answer as to where the story should go,” he said, adding that “the danger of having an ‘in-house’ editor is that you don’t get what you need to hear—you get what you want to hear. Although sometimes she writes things like ‘LOL. You can’t be serious.’ I go into a mini funk when she does that.”

He sent Kite Runner around, but “it got rejected a lot.” Finally an agent (who is now deceased) took him on and Kite Runner was published. “I thought maybe my cousins would read it,” he joked. “I was still a doctor then.”

So just how did the transition from medicine to literature occur?

“Three things happened to change me from a doctor to a full-time writer,” he said, and listed them: “(1) I began to notice people reading my book on airplanes. (2) All my patients wanted to take up the time during their office visits asking me to sign their copies of my book. (3) I found myself as the answer to a ‘Jeopardy’ question when I was watching the show on TV. So I thought maybe I could take a year or so off.” The health plan he worked for “didn’t allow time off, so I had to quit to write.”

Listening to Hosseini articulate tales from his own family made me realize he’s a natural-born narrator. And the Mountains Echoed is a paean to the importance of storytelling to strengthen family bonds. There is an African saying: “When an elder dies, it is as if an entire library has burned to the ground.”

Writer Madeleine L’Engle once underscored this leitmotif when she said: “If you don’t recount your family history, it will be lost. Honor your own stories and tell them too. The tales may not seem very important, but they are what binds families and makes each of us who we are. “

Every one of Hosseini’s three novels has seemed stronger than its predecessor to me, so I await the fourth with great expectations.

Lanie & Grandma

 Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. (Photo of Lanie Tankard and her grandmother by Toni Fuller. Photos of Khaled Hosseini by Elaine F. Tankard)

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Filed under braids, threads, craft, technique, fiction, narrative, REVIEW, structure

Joe Bonomo on sex, spirit & implication

A review and interview about his new collection of essays.

This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began by Joe Bonomo. Orphan Press, 248 pp.

There is no such thing as was—only is. If was existed, there would be no grief or sorrow.—William Faulkner

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Memoir is made of memories, by definition; some theorists assert memoir must be about memory. Yet it’s notable how much Joe Bonomo explores memory and takes it as his subject. His new collection of essays, This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began, summons and examines a wide range of memories, expressed in often lyrical sentences. He’s had an ordinary suburban boyhood and adult life, but he makes this material interesting because—as he tells stories, and muses interestingly on their meaning—we find ourselves catching our own cast-off thoughts and doubts, thinking about our own stories.

Here’s this reflective person in the present trying to make sense of his life: what every adult does, one supposes, and it’s satisfying being privy to another’s subjective reality and party to his grappling with memory and meaning. His blog, No Such Thing as Was, its title taken from Faulkner’s remark about the past’s persistence, testifies to his steady inquiry into the memories that live inside him.

Some of his essays are strongly narrative, with personal experience dramatized in scenes; others are models of the classical ruminative approach (as run through a poet’s sensibility) and some are short prose poems. Since he’s got all the chops and deploys them artfully, slapping a label on his creative nonfiction is difficult and would be misleading.

Here’s an example from “Caught,” which moves from his adult self’s sexualized encounter with two strangers—two college girls acting up—to depict his adolescent self’s furtive research into sex at his neighborhood newsstand:

One weekend afternoon I discovered that the manager of the newsstand had stocked a ground-level magazine rack with digest pornography, magazines like Penthouse Forum and Family Letters. My heart racing, I cased the store like a petty thief, strolling self-consciously up and down the aisles feigning interest in Creem magazine, soon recognizing that if I stood directly behind the rack, reached in surreptitiously through to the front, and discreetly pulled Penthouse Forum through the rack back toward me, I could prop it up harmlessly between Reader’s Digest and the Farmer’s Almanac.  . . .

And so I remember vividly the instant the manager’s thick hand crashed through the magazine rack and clutched at the magazine I was holding. Startled, I looked up and saw his eyes peering at me through the magazines. The store spun away from me in a swirl of fear, and in a lightheaded haze I felt my feet lift from the ground. Memory seduces us with claims to legitimacy and to truth, though I remember graphically the long moment it took for the manager to sweep around the side of that rack and to lean down into my face, his eyes ferocious behind thick rim glasses.

Sexuality runs as one theme through this collection, which made me realize how seldom creative nonfiction even mentions the topic of sex in passing, whereas fiction fairly reeks of it. Not that it’s a big deal here, just another thread, as in life, but arresting in its candor. Equally unusual is the spiritual theme in some of Bonomo’s essays, and perhaps a riskier one than sex. In fact I first learned of his work several years ago when he read his essay “Occasional Prayer,” collected here, in Ohio University’s chapel where it’s partly set. The essay opens with an adult ritual, Bonomo and his wife praying as they set out on a trip, and depicts how and why Bonomo returned to prayer in college. One thing I like about his essays on faith is their roots in a frankly utilitarian view of religion, which after all is most usefully about practical matters—not abstractions like whether an external God exists but how we might live more humanely.

From “Occasional Prayer”:

My occasional prayer finds me less reaching a higher state than desperately shedding ego. Perhaps this explains my impulse to write autobiographically. Does self-addition wiggle from its straightjacket by turning outward to others in an attempt to make larger humane sense? And I wonder, can I pray for that. Prayer does not change God, writes Kierkegaard, but changes him who prays. . . .

Amy and I are back from our drive later, and I’ll repeat to myself what she’d said in the car when I asked her why her prayers are longer than mine. More people to say hello to. More people to stretch toward on the thin prop of prayer. More to caress in absentia, to tap lovingly on a shoulder knowing that touch is a foreign language, not spoken here. There. And I’ll wonder, who do I have to say hello to? Who do I have to surprise, moist-eyed, my mouth moving oddly, slowly, the other tilting his head tenderly to make out the words. Alone to myself in my room, my words perish on the mirror.

In an interview with the campus newspaper where he teaches, Northern Illinois University, Bonomo said his essays are about “the edges of my suburban youth, exploring issues of spirituality, sex, violence, and myth, and a grappling with language [. . . an] attempt to articulate the past and our shifting responses to it.”

Bonomo Photo

Joe Bonomo

This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began won the Orphan Press Book Contest. Bonomo’s other books include AC/DC’s Highway to HellJerry Lee Lewis: Lost and FoundInstallations (National Poetry Series), Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, and Conversations With Greil Marcus (edited). He’s the Music Columnist at The Normal School.

He answered some questions:

Your new book is organized into four themed parts, and within the sections medium-length essays alternate with short lyrical meditations or tone poems. How did this structure develop, and once you had it how did it influence individual essays’ content or placement within a section?

The overall structure materialized near the end of the process. At some point I realized that I was going to have these longer essays and these shorter, micro-essays or prose poems together, that they were going to have to work it out. Once I took a step back and recognized the book’s essential themes, I saw clusters of essays that worked well together, and they began to fall into these four sections. The biggest challenge was arranging the pieces in such a way that would, one, imply my subjects and interests rather than name them directly, and two, allow the longer and shorter essays to work together without feeling as if they were gathered together artificially. I had to trust my instinct that in the experiences I was exploring there was a need for sustained attention in the form of longer essays, as well as a need for a brief, momentary recollections or narratives in the form of smaller pieces. Our experiences, and our memories of them, are so varied in shape and texture and temperature, and call for different forms, I think.

Why did you want to imply rather than name your subjects and interests?

Well, I think that comes from Walter Pater who said “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” To my mind, music is an abstraction, and abstraction evokes rather than states, a place where I like my essays, which are generally lyric- rather than narrative-based, to go, and the place where they usually originate. I try in my essays to circumvent designating my subjects; I’d rather the language and the selection of details and the story-telling, if there’s any, to do that.

Phillip Lopate has said that an essay can tell as well as show, and that’s of course true, but I like essays too that evoke rather than declare, though there are plenty of declarative sentences in my essays. That’s one reason why I like segmented essays so much: the white spaces act as a kind of transparent connective tissue. It’s more exciting to be held aloft by wires that you can’t see. And that same strategy went in to arranging the book and the essays within the sections.

I sense a strong link with poetry in your essays, or perhaps it’s that you seem to have a background in poetry as well as in creative nonfiction. Is this impression accurate and, if so, what did studying poetry bring to your prose? What poets were strong influences and why?

Yeah, in graduate school at Ohio University I wrote poems, in fact wrote a poetic thesis and dissertation. Sometime in the mid-1990s I began to grow dissatisfied with writing poems and turned to writing prose. It wasn’t overnight nor was it something I was really conscious of at the time, except that I felt that I wanted to write sentences and not concern myself so much with line breaks. That’s a very simple decision that had a monumental impact on me as a writer. I’d been reading essays but really had to catch up—I still am. I think that because of my love of poetry I gravitated toward writing essays that were lyric in impulse, or in origin. Like most of us I’ve always remembered, and observed the world, in snatches, shards, and brief scenes, narratively-speaking. So my early essays, some of which are in the book, are quite short—not as short as the micro-essays or prose poems; those originated in deliberate attempts at brevity—and in retrospect definitely stem from the lyric moments I’d been working with in my poems. But my poems had begun to feel to me squeezed out, too dry or spindly, and I wanted to push my sentences a bit, to “tell” and chase ideas or analyze more while still allowing imagery and abstraction and music into the writing.

There were poets I loved to read—Stevens, Kinnell, Plath, Lowell and later, Russell Edson, Dennis Schmitz, Mark Irwin, and other contemporaries—but I don’t know that they’ve been direct influences, more like compass pulls toward lyric abstraction as I’m writing sentences and paragraphs.

Your work seems conversant with the entire tradition of the essay, from classical essays—Montaigne’s work comes to mind—to today’s lyric form. What do the essay’s roots have to teach us? Which essayists, whether ancient or modern, have most influenced you?

The roots of the essay have everything to tell us. On some level each essay begins with What do I know? The great turn that an essay can make, has to make in my opinion, is to move from that essential question to Why do I know? That is, why does this linger, why do I now feel compelled to explore it? What don’t I know? Every essayist is fond of highlighting the word essay’s etymological roots in “the attempt, the weighing out,” and that’s always important to remember, for young essayists especially, who need to be urged to go beyond story, to really believe that an essay should start not with What but with Why, an attempt to make sense of something that’s either dimly understood or so well-understood that it might benefit from a skeptical reassessment. My favorite quote about the essay is Huxley’s: “the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.” An essay can do anything in the world as long as the essayist is writing candidly and honestly.

Montaigne, William Hazlitt, and Virginia Woolf have had some influence on me, I think, as have contemporaries Patricia Hampl, Annie Dillard, Phillip Lopate, Albert Goldbarth, Robert Vivian. As a single influential book, Alfred Kazin’s A Walker In The City is up there, both for its subject and its style. But lots of writers from different places—fiction writers like Andre Dubus, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Larry Brown, rock & roll writers and cultural critics like Lester Bangs, Peter Guralnick, and Greil Marcus, the New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane, the baseball writer Roger Angell, even Phyllis Richman, the restaurant reviewer at the Washington Post who I read every Sunday when I was growing up!—all these people have also influenced my writing and my approach toward nonfiction, some directly, some indirectly. A model is always good to have for a writer, to see where one overlaps with that model as well as where, and how, one doesn’t.

The self and its experiences are what the essayist has to work with, yet in practice both components face the presumed “so what” test and are tricky to pull off. You quote V.S. Naipaul on this: “No one cares for your tragedy until you can sing about it.” Could you discuss this in terms of your own subjects and your use of persona?

This is the great paradox of personal writing. Why should the reader care? Because the writer cares? That’s not enough. What I love about Naipaul’s quote is his necessity on song, the crafting. The image I always use, that I’ve discussed before, is of a silhouette: by the end of an essay or a book of autobiographical nonfiction the writer should morph into a silhouette, a persona-outline into which the reader steps, and into which the reader fits, perhaps surprisingly. Montaigne said that we have inside ourselves the entire human condition, and I think the smartest essayist both embraces this and is deeply skeptical of it. The work comes less in being attentive to potential subject matter than in shaping that subject in such a way that might resonate with a reader. And the reader works, too. Some essays —I’m thinking right now of work by Nabakov and John D’Agata and Lia Purpura, Richard Rodriguez or David Foster Wallace, or Walter Benjamin—need time and patience on the part of the reader, to let digressions and footnotes and expansion do their work at coherence.

But the art, and hopefully the resonance for the reader, comes in the shaping. The tops of my students’ heads lift off when they get it, finally, that an essay can come from anywhere—it doesn’t have to originate in sexy or dramatic or otherwise trendy subject matter. Their spirits flag a bit when they realize the work involved. They learn, and I’ve learned: “This does not matter simply because it happened to me, or even simply because the experience might be unique.” Paraphrasing Vivian Gornick, the value is in the telling, the exploring, the doubt and uncertainty, the chase toward something tangible—not in the events. My childhood and adolescence were statistically normal, I’m happy to report. The subjects I explore in my book—suburbia, cities, Catholicism, faith, sex, landscape—are hardly novel or sexy or fraught with drama or abuse or adversity through which I’ve been transformed. What an essay says is: Being alive is startling, an astounding subject; that’s everything, let’s go there.

Your thematic mix is interesting in itself, and your exploration of sex and faith, in particular, is unusual. Despite those being such fraught subjects, your stance seems much the same as for your other topics—here’s something that happened and that interests me—and I wonder if you’d discuss your approach? Also, because many of these thirty-eight essays first appeared in journals, I wonder how readers, including editors, have reacted?

The experience of growing up Catholic was a kind of fun-house mirror held up to sexuality. On the one hand, Catholicism is a very sensuous faith in that among its foci is the body: Christ’s body, both divine and human, sacred and wounded, the priest’s body, devout but flawed, my body, all hopped-up and going nuts in puberty. But the church also taught me about self-abuse, about the dangers of indulging, about the sins of the body. So around age 13 or 14 as I was mentally undressing the girls around me during mass or thinking about the underwear ads in the Washington Post Magazine, while struggling to pay attention to the sermon and the sacraments, there was an age-old conflict going on. Urge versus abnegation, urge versus sin, urge versus propriety, the afterlife. It was a heady mix, to say the least. And, as you said, I approach writing about it as I would anything else intense that I experienced: this must be made to matter. But the mingling of sex and faith was—is—such an overwhelmingly present subject for me, that I trusted to its value.

Readers and editors have been fine with these subjects. I don’t think that I’m particularly explicit, and I try and write respectfully, even if what I’m essaying at times are moments of rather brutal objectifying on my part. But living is complicated.

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Filed under Author Interview, essay-classical, essay-lyric, essay-personal, implication, memoir, religion & spirituality, REVIEW

Reading my father’s book at last

Charles C. Gilbert’s Success Without Soil  endures after 65 years.

Image by Senua Hydroponics, U.K.

Image by Senua Hydroponics, U.K.

Mr. Gilbert was one of the first to commercially exploit the popularity of hydroponics at the time by marketing the first nutrient solutions to commercial and hobby growers.—Progressive Farming Media Kit Volume 1 Hydroponic Gardening: A Resource Guide For Understanding, Teaching, or Writing About Hydroponic Gardening

Success Without Soil: How to Grow Plants by Hydroponics by Charles C. Gilbert. Charles C. Gilbert Company, 129 pp. [second edition, 1949].

Tux & tomatoes: Dad in his greenhouse, ca. 1947.

Tux & tomatoes: Dad in his greenhouse, ca. 1947.

My father got enthused about hydroponics—growing plants in sterile sand, gravel, or vermiculite and fed by liquid fertilizer—while serving during World War II in the Pacific, where the U.S. Army established several vegetable farms. Family lore has it that Dad was the first American to land an airplane in Tokyo after the war ended. He was twenty-six years old on August 28, 1945, when he flew in Major General Kenneth Wolfe, who had directed the start of the heavy bombing campaign against Japanese cities. Outside Tokyo, which had been devastated by subsequent firebombing, Dad witnessed the development of a vast hydroponics facility.

At Chofu the army built a glass greenhouse that covered 232,000 square feet—over five acres—more than twice as large as any in the world. U.S. Signal Corps photographs show a gleaming structure that stretched to the horizon in a series of peaked glass roofs. Workers seeded lettuce, tomatoes, and other crops into gravel beds periodically saturated with 75,000 gallons of liquid fertilizer. Other crops apparently were grown hydroponically outside the greenhouse in special beds.

Soldiers longed for fresh vegetables, but they were forbidden to eat local food, grown under centuries of “unsanitary and primitive fertilizing practices,” Dad writes in Success Without Soil: How to Grow Plants by Hydroponics. This allusion to the use of human excrement was in contrast to the hydroponic plants grown in “sterile gravel and pure water.” He adds, “I wish that those who are not yet convinced of the value of soil-less growing could see the harvests taken from those fifty-five acres of concrete.”

Dad saw an opportunity—this was modern farming. The future, in fact: all variables were under control. Hydroponics could be done anywhere by anyone, and hydroponic farmers would need to buy products constantly. Upon his discharge, he returned to La Jolla, California, and set up a greenhouse at home. With two friends, he started a business in San Diego selling a hydroponics fertilizer. He wrote and published his guidebook to promote the sale of his Nutrient Formula.

Success Without Soil promotes hydroponics yield, nutrition.

Soil-less-grown plants out-yield those grown in soil by ten times, the book reports. Perfect soil is rare, Success Without Soil observes, and much farmland is so worn out and abused that the crops produced are unfit nutritionally. “It is necessary to fertilize, cultivate, irrigate, rotate, pray and perspire,” Dad writes, “in order to keep good soil fertile or to improve worn out soil.” Furthermore, diseases lurk in soil and often kill tender seedlings.

Growing up, I’d spy the green leatherette cover of Success Without Soil in Dad’s bookshelf, pull it down, and start turning its glossy pages—Dad had paid for the best paper stock—intrigued by photos of the Japan facility and enthralled by photos of him working in his greenhouse in California years before my birth. In one photo he’s inspecting tomato plants while dressed in a tuxedo; the tux presumably symbolized how clean and easy this way farming was, though I imagined he’d just come from a party, since Mom always told me those were his wild partying years.

I’ve only just read Success Without Soil from start to finish for the first time, impressed with Dad’s sentences, his expertise, his service ethos, and his persona. I recalled that Dad’s authorial persona was confidential, humorous, and self-deprecating, but this time I was surprised by how he tailored it to his presumed audience. For instance, he launches a brief, jokey attack on organic growing, surely assuming that his readers would expect or enjoy it. And there’s one reference to the Japanese as “Nips,” hardly the worst slur they suffered but astounding to me from a man who’d raged when he heard me, as a boy playing war, call my opponents “Japs”—like I’d heard on TV. While he didn’t have a smidgen of guilt for bombing them, he honored the Japanese, seeming to respect their discipline.

I also noticed a reference to my mother, who apparently typed the book, and I had to smile because the advice he’s dispensing was always her caution to him: “[S]tart small, start small, start small, start small, start small, start small—I would keep that up for twenty pages if I wasn’t afraid of having Rosie throw the typewriter at me.” Dad was completely unable to follow this path himself, and lost a small fortune cattle in ranching and in leisure pursuits that usually involved buying boats, racecars, and airplanes.

An introvert who avoided socializing, in Success Without Soil he’s amazingly there for his readers, offering to send them additional information and corresponding with numbers of them. Of the first “so-many thousand” buyers of Success Without Soil, exactly half sat down and wrote him a letter, he reports. He includes long, enthusiastic passages from one Walter X. Osborn, who, upon release from a Japanese prisoner of war camp, had settled down in the Philippines and established what he called a “productive chemical farm.” Dad thanks readers for their positive letters, seems stung by one writer who criticizes him for being too technical, and pleads with readers to number their questions, keep a copy of what they asked, and be clear and exact about what they wished to know.

He cites this letter from a man in Maine:

Your book and everything was fine but I raise rabbits and arthritis is giving lots of trouble. Now I don’t understand why it wouldn’t be a good idea to feed your Nutrient Formula and everything directly to them so that the fur would be better. Also I could save money this way. Besides, I want to go and set up my business in Florida but I don’t know what effect it will have on my rabbit work but it should help the arthritis and everything. What do you think? I had a friend that moved there once but he won’t write me about it. Please answer at once as I must make plans and everything.

“I know very little about Florida,” Dad replies, “less about rabbits and practically nothing at all about arthritis—and everything!”

Romance & memoir dwell between the lines of the how-to book.

The first edition of Success Without Soil is dated August 10, 1948, the birthday of my mother, Rozelle Rounsaville, whom my father had hired as his secretary the September before. She must have been different from anyone he knew in southern California’s party circuit. A five-foot-two redhead, Rosie had grown up in a family of ten children in the sweltering country town of Atoka, in southeastern Oklahoma.

Dad quickly sold out of his book’s first printing. The second edition of Success Without Soil is dated May 23, 1949, my Dad’s 31st birthday. His Nutrient Formula mail-order business was written about in Forbes and featured in Mechanix Illustrated in October 1951, in an article by Lester David headlined “Mail Yourself a Fortune”:

 Mechanix illusThen, there’s the case of Charles C. Gilbert of San Diego, Calif., who began five years ago and now calls himself the world’s largest supplier of hydroponic information, equipment and materials. Hydroponics, a soilless method of growing plants, was generally misunderstood, Gilbert discovered. It was clouded by all sorts of technical gibberish. Gilbert thereupon set out to make the field so simple that any schoolboy could enjoy it as a hobby. He began selling seeds and a book called Success Without Soil. The business caught on so rapidly that today, during peak months, he does a $350 daily volume of business.

Mechanix Illustrated article featuring Dad’s mail-order business.

Mechanix Illustrated article mentioning Dad’s business.

But by then he’d saturated the market—eager hobbyists and modest-scale farmers—and his Nutrient Formula business was wilting. Dad was soon pursuing a new dream. He and Mom bought a cattle ranch outside Hemet, California, where my sister, Meg, was born in 1953; I followed in 1955. When I was about two he settled us on another cattle ranch, in Leesburg, Georgia, having concluded that the rainy southeast was more viable for a grass farm than the California desert. Still unable to earn enough income from cattle, he moved us when I was almost six to Florida and went to work at the Kennedy Space Center. In retirement, he started a successful nursery.

Hydroponics never has seemed to achieve its postwar promise in America. I suppose that’s because we’re a big country, still with more land than we know what to do with. And hydroponic growing is intensive, and associated with greenhouses, which are expensive. Probably another factor is America’s cheap fuel policy: a grower in the Midwest can’t get a premium for early or out-of-season hydroponic tomatoes when they’re being trucked cheaply from fields in California and Florida. Hydroponics, I’ve noticed, retains its allure for marijuana growers, who for obvious reasons often want to grow their crop indoors.

Dad was value-neutral as far as methods and information went, so when I was a kid our house in Satellite Beach, Florida, was awash in literature with clashing philosophies. We still received the mainstream Progressive Farmer, which I found boring, but also got a quirky grassroots how-to rag, the original, on black-and-white-newsprint, Organic Gardening and Farming, along with the fun Countryside & Small Stock Journal. Later in the 1970s Dad subscribed to The Mother Earth News, a counterculture upstart that he’d learned about in the Wall Street Journal. Then we got the coolest pre-Internet resource ever, Stewart Brand’s The Whole Earth Catalog. On Dad’s bookshelves I found the four volcanic farming memoirs of Ohioan Louis Bromfield, who wrote rapturously about soil and mystically about the glory of humus.

So I grew up absorbing a very different agricultural ethos from that espoused in Success Without Soil. Dad’s romantic farming adventures, his losses, and his flood of alternative reading material helped forge me as a boy into an agrarian dreamer with organic leanings. Proud of Dad and his book, I’m still doubtful that there’s truly such a thing as success without soil.

This started as a basic review or account of reading my father’s book from start to finish for the first time, but I ended up explaining a bit more. My father, his farming, and the scarring effect on him—and therefore on me—of his father’s suicide constitute a major thread in my Shepherd: A Memoir, to be published in 2014 by Michigan State University Press.

Senua Hydroponics, U.K.

Senua Hydroponics, U.K.

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Filed under memoir, MY LIFE, Persona, Voice, POV, REVIEW

Fiona Maazel on loneliness

A novel approach to the absurdities of mass desolation.

Lighted Globes x 

Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel

Graywolf Press, 336 pp., $26.00.

Guest Review by Lanie Tankard

We are lonesome animals. We spend all life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story . . .

—John Steinbeck, to the Paris Review

Maazel novel

A Google search for the term lonely can yield 287,000,000 results in less than twenty seconds. A Facebook Community called “Loneliness” has close to 19,000 Likes, while over 15,000 Likes appear on a Facebook Interest page with the same title. It looks like Fiona Maazel really struck a chord with this literary theme in her second novel.

The cover, with its iconic backlit image of a concert crowd wave, pulls the reader right into the anomie awaiting inside the book. When a writer as proficient as Maazel collects intriguing ideas—such as global eavesdropping in the middle of the Pisgah National Forest, the juche idea of the spirit of self-reliance in the isolated nation of North Korea, the secret world of subterranean Cincinnati, the lure of cults, and the psychology of loneliness —and combines them all into a plot that is at the same time wildly comical and perceptively forlorn . . . well, you’ve got yourself a rollicking good read.

Some authors can make you laugh out loud. Others wrench tears right out of you. Maazel blends those two abilities in a startling yet subtle way—at least for me. While reading Woke Up Lonely, I would on occasion be aware of a riotous laugh heading straight up my throat, only to be met by an equally powerful lurch of my heart just before the hysterics breached my lips. The effect muted what was about to become a loud guffaw by curtailing the initiation of tears into a sharp intake of breath instead, infusing me with a unique sense of poignant hilarity. Maazel’s artistic skill in smudging the demarcation between comedy and angst left me shaking my head in admiration time and time again.

Her first novel, Last Last Chance, also touched upon disparate societal issues viewed from an absurdist eye with acuity. I would place Woke Up Lonely in a special fiction genre, however, possibly also comprised of Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen and Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl.

The protagonist in Woke Up Lonely inspired opposing feelings in me as well. I found Thurlow Dan, known as Lo, at once both despicable and endearing. Lo is the founder of the Helix, a cult followed by throngs of lonely people. He, too, is aware of his emotional remoteness while missing his former wife, Esme, and their daughter, Ida. It’s been a decade since he saw them—and then suddenly he does.

Avid readers of Boris Pasternak will recognize the riff on a scene from Doctor Zhivago as the novel begins. Thomas Hardy aficionados may pick up on another from Tess of the d’Urbervilles at the book’s end.

The author employs a technique for revealing Esme’s backstory by having the character number the pages of a speech she’s preparing about her early life. Unbeknownst to Lo, Esme’s job has involved spying on her former husband. One of their most hilarious scenes together takes place in a limo driving through Pyongyang, DPRK, told at different points in the novel as each of them experienced it. Esme’s disguised professional vantage point over the years has allowed her to protect him covertly as she became aware that she still cared for him. Then Lo throws her a curveball by taking her agents hostage. These four spies are vividly drawn quirky characters with mind-boggling individual story lines of their own.

In explaining the reasons why people behave in unusual ways, social psychologist Elliot Aronson noted his “first law” in The Social Animal, published in 1972 and now in its 11th edition: “People who do crazy things are not necessarily crazy.”

Later, in his 2010 memoir Not By Chance Alone: My Life As a Social Psychologist, Aronson wrote: ““In this society most of us glide through life protecting ourselves; in effect, each of us wears a behavioral suit of armor, to minimize how much other people can hurt us. But sometimes we become so successful at hiding our true feelings from others that we hide our feelings from ourselves as well.”

Woke Up Lonely strikes me as a literary exploration of these very ideas. Maazel juxtaposes ribald incidents next to analytical explanations of how loneliness differs from anxiety and depression with a deft and sure hand. She draws attention to the distinctive features of individualism and collectivism within a society as they relate to loneliness.

Neuroscientist John Cacioppo, coauthor of Loneliness, has spoken widely about such concepts. Cacioppo stresses that loneliness is not a bad thing because it compels us to form connections. “Loneliness is a cue to us to reconnect, like a prompt,” he says. “Individualism is celebrated in our culture. The underlying collective is not recognized.” According to Cacioppo, the symptoms of loneliness are: “(1) You don’t have a confidant who confirms who you are. (2) You don’t have a collective identity, a social identity.”

And that’s right where Thurlow Dan’s Helix cult snags so many lonely people in Maazel’s novel. I was briefly confused a couple times amid shifts from first to third person and in the description of several characters, but never did they mar the framework or flow of this modern tragedy with its intelligently subtle humor. Maazel masterfully couches editorial observations about our culture within the dialogue of her creatively sketched characters. On page after page, I thought in bemused wonder, “How did she ever dream up these folks?”

I picked up some insights when I heard Maazel speak recently at the New Fiction Confab in Austin, Texas.

“I write because I enjoy it,” she said. “I don’t know how to do anything else but fiction writing. It’s lucky if you get to do what you love.”

She doesn’t hold stock in the old adage “Write what you know.”

“Write what you can learn about,” she said. “It teaches you about your inner life. If you’re a person who finds it difficult to confront your inner life, writing is a way to do it.”

She advised writers to “be available to the world around you. It teaches you. I use no headphones or iTunes. I use the subway to be a keen observer. Let the stories come to you. Refract them through your own consciousness.”

Afterward, I asked her how many drafts she wrote of Woke Up Lonely before it was published.

“Oh, about forty-six,” she replied seriously. “There’s no ‘would-be’ about being a writer. You’re either a writer or you’re not.”

Fiona Maazel is definitely a writer.

ChezZee x

Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.

 

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Filed under emotion, evolutionary psychology, experimental, fiction, REVIEW

Review: ‘The Days are Gods’

No one expects the days to be gods—Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Days are Gods by Liz Stephens. Nebraska, 203 pp.

Stephens-Days are Gods

A meditative memoir with a narrative arc.

Last week I got four memoirs in the mail and picked up the most celebrated. Bounced right off it. Next, I tried The Days are Gods by Liz Stephens and got hooked. That happened despite what seemed thin material: L.A.-Hollywood gal with roots in middle America sees middle age approaching, moves with her mate, an ex-actor-turned-welder, to rural Utah for a master’s program, tries to fit in and become local, struggles but mostly succeeds, has a baby, and eventually decides to move away for better prospects, not a local after all.

Despite—or because of?—this rather ordinary human story the book works. Stephens’s persona is very appealing, for one thing. She’s smart, nuts about animals, has this pull to belong, even to the point of swallowing certain convictions to fit in, and knows when she’s being crazy or looks far cooler than she feels. For instance, no matter how artfully tattooed she is or how well she sits a horse, behind closed doors she coddles two beloved, aging uber-uncool dachshunds—which, needless to say, don’t exactly thrive in the West’s deep snows. Sometimes, after teaching local kids at the local college, she weeps in frustration over the blinkered futures they accept. Yet to her and her husband, the choice to have a baby is brave, a truly alien concept in their new Mormon-saturated hometown. But you can see it’s true what she says, that she and her mate have done something gutsy in moving there and settling in, that they’ve indeed “taken the path of most resistance.”

Here she’s writing about her boisterous husband, tough and biker-ish on the outside, who has sensitively and gamely followed her to greener pastures:

By spring, he was a smoker again. He’d quit in L.A., and the man I married was the guy who would come home at midnight from running miles through the streets of Hancock Park, gleaming and healthy. But a winter of standing in the Rocky Mountain cold with greasy hands, surrounded by a few other guys who couldn’t get other work, friends of the boss who were drinking on the job and then welding weight-bearing structures, was wearing him down. He wasn’t adjusting the way he thought he would. He wasn’t, it turned out, loving it like I was. I was stunned.

Along with Stephens’s surprisingly classical-essayistic meditative and musing bent, which in its reflection on meaning harkens back to essays’ roots in philosophy, she crafts for her memoir a relaxed forward momentum and achieves a real narrative arc. It’s a winning combination. Stephens analyzes everything she’s experiencing and thinking—as people do inwardly, though surely not as artfully—as the story ambles onward. Late in the book, when a local couple whom Stephens has idolized turn frosty because she’s leaving, it’s moving and painful to read. The truth, poignancy, and much of the payoff of her memoir reside right there.

Real locals seldom write books like this, I’d wager, for The Days are Gods is a product of an outsider yearning that can’t ever be fully sated and of a self-consciousness and insecurity that seem antithetical to what what’s meant when we call someone “a local.” Then again, Stephens shows the downsides to what in America we call local culture: folks with jobs instead of careers, steeped in tradition for good and ill, wary of new ways. But locals do seem enviously planted, whereas the rest of us must labor to earn our place. Or at least inhabit, suffer, and love long enough in one place to earn the feeling that we deserve to draw breath where we do.

We can only pray, as the days wash over us and the new and awkward become routine, that we continue to see what we may have glimpsed in the pain of starting over, seen what Stephens tries to show, that our days themselves are gods. The Days are Gods is a book with a lot of heart, and it’s a model for those seeking to turn their own experiences into memoir.

Next: See my interview with Liz Stephens.

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Tale of a gravedigger’s daughter

Graves to Horizon x

It takes a village to raise a child, and my village was the graveyard.

—from Rachael Hanel’s memoir

 We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter by Rachael Hanel. University of Minnesota Press, 177 pp.

hanel-cover-small-copyRachael Hanel grew up in a sleepy Minnesota town where old people “have more faith that cars will stop for them than they have in Jesus Christ.” But where her gravedigger father could joke, with a darker edge than any TV Mayberry admits, about a jaywalking elderly woman, “Business has been a little slow. Should I gun it?” Even sincere, hard-working folk—especially them?—can be naughty. Maybe need to be. Especially when they’re gravediggers and cemetery-tenders, their noses rubbed constantly in the taboo, the unspeakable, the humdrum matter of death. Her father, in wry response to his mundane-macabre role, dubbed himself Digger O’Dell, and took for his business motto the cheeky pun that gives Hanel’s memoir its title.

“Death infiltrated our lives,” Hanel writes, casually mentioning how a man’s ashes, shipped from California in a white box wrapped in clear packing tape, once sat on their clothes dryer for a week or two, “bouncing and vibrating every time Mom did a load of laundry.”

Surrounded by death, playing and working in cemeteries, Hanel was more aware than most of mortality as she grew up but was untouched personally by its sibling, grief, until her vibrant father was struck down. His abrupt, agonizing death from cancer came when she was fifteen. The thirteen linked memoir essays in We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down circle this loss and culminate in its depiction.

The tone of Hanel’s writing is exquisitely pitch-perfect. She achieves a plainspoken charm and a depth in the spare elegance of her expression, inseparable from her appealingly forthright Midwestern persona. Due credit must be given to her mother, who told young Rachael stories of loss, harrowing and gruesome tales of how those bodies came to her father for burial, and kindled in her daughter the storytelling impulse. Here’s Hanel on her bookish childhood and the dark turn her reading took:

Other people my age also went to wakes—we were all part of this small town. But no one went as much as I. No one spent their summer days in cemeteries, though occasionally my friend, Amy, came with me, and we rode our three-speed bikes up and down cemetery roads. I didn’t feel the need to talk about my immersion in death. I didn’t feel a heavy pressing on my chest that had to get out. People here didn’t show much emotion; we didn’t pour out our love and sadness. These were people of periods, not exclamation points. If I couldn’t connect with people in person, I could connect with them on the page.

I knew death but Bridge to Terabithia showed me grief, the part of the story others left out. I learned what could happen to the people left behind. At wakes I caught only glimpses of grief, those initial moments of shock that render family as zombies. Immediate grief forms a quiet, hard surface that makes it impossible to peer inside. Quiet tears slipped down cheeks, of course, and there were gentle hugs, but the calm surface of a sea hides volatile riptides flowing beneath.

The murders of 1986 made the gap between Bridge to Terabithia and Helter Skelter very small indeed. The summer, with its violent deaths, demanded a book on the scale of Helter Skelter.

In our house, it was perfectly appropriate for an eleven-year-old to read Helter Skelter. I had no need to hide it, no need to read it furtively by flashlight like it was some type of pornography. I read it out in the open, in a chair in the living room while everyone else watched TV. Mom valued a good story; she wasn’t going to stop me. Tales of grisly murder, violence, and disaster had knitted me in the womb.

A former newspaper reporter, Hanel lives in Mankato, Minnesota, and works for Kaplan University as an administrator. She’s an adjunct journalism instructor for Minnesota State University-Mankato, and is the author of many nonfiction narratives for children. She answered some questions for Narrative:

You’ve said that your memoir took you thirteen years to complete. Why so long?

I used to feel badly about this, but then I took a step back to examine why the writing process was so slow. I was always doing other things while writing. I’m somewhat of a workaholic and blessed/cursed with a strong work ethic. A 40-hour week to me is like a vacation, because I’ve usually always had side jobs on top of full-time work. When you’re working for a paycheck, that needs to take priority over creative writing, at least in my world.

Here’s an inventory of things I’ve done in the past 13 years besides writing: completing an M.A. degree in history; running four marathons; completing about 10 triathlons; maintaining a happy marriage; maintaining lifelong friendships. There were times when I wanted to work on my book but other things took precedence. After working all week and not connecting with my husband, it felt unfair to him to say, “Honey, I know I haven’t talked much to you for a couple of days, but I’d like to work on my book now.” Or it felt wrong to say no to a nephew’s birthday party or no to a friend I hadn’t seen for a while. So the 13 years represents how writing fit into my “real life.”

I’m struck by the fact that you were an experienced nonfiction writer, as a journalist and narrative nonfiction author, yet it appears that to produce your memoir you had to create your own MFA program by attending workshops and classes for years. Could you explain your education process in creative nonfiction? What was the challenge of personal nonfiction since you apparently had the factual down cold?

Rachael Hanel; photo by Steve Pottenger

Rachael Hanel; photo by Steve Pottenger

Not doing an MFA wasn’t a conscious choice. This may sound strange, but when I decided to go to grad school, I was so steeped in the journalism world that I didn’t even really know what an MFA was. I had a vague notion of creative nonfiction, mostly in terms of literary journalism, but I thought that was something for others to pursue, not me (because I was a “serious” journalist). I got a graduate degree in history, mostly because I love history very much and I thought it would be a good complement to journalism. By the time I was finishing my M.A., I realized I should have pursued an MFA instead, but it was too late. So I looked for writing classes elsewhere, namely at The Loft in Minneapolis. I took several creative nonfiction classes there and also was part of the 2007-08 Loft Mentorship Series. In the mentorship, four of us nonfiction writers worked closely with noted nonfiction writer and teacher Barrie Jean Borich. In addition, I read a lot of narrative nonfiction and memoir, closely examining structure, narrative arc, and writing style.

Writing memoir was hard! I went into the process thinking it would be easy, since I already knew how to write and had journalism experience. I had no idea what memoir really entailed. This is where an MFA would have been beneficial. For me, it was more of a trial-by-error process with some feedback along the way from trusted readers and writers who pointed me in the right direction. This is also probably part of the reason why the writing of the memoir took so long. I was about five years into the writing of my memoir before I really figured out how to ditch the journalistic voice.

Each of your linked essays has a structure, but so does the overall work, which moves toward the depiction of your father’s death and the devastating effect of his loss on your family. How did you envision the overarching structure of We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down?

Structure was something I played around with quite a bit. For a long time the manuscript consisted of separate essays, many of which were written as stand-alone pieces that I had submitted to journals and contests. When I was figuring out how to put them all together, I came across information about the three-act structure. I bought a couple of writing books that were more screenplay-oriented. When I read them, that was really a breakthrough moment. My story doesn’t fit neatly into the three-act formula, but I did use it as a loose organizational structure.

I’m interested in your persona in the book as the storyteller who clearly exists beyond the action, in the writer’s “now,” yet who allows the character of you “then” her moments. Was this a natural impulse or did you have to work out where you stood as the narrator?

I hear a lot about this in writing books, writing classes, etc. But to be honest, I didn’t know a lot about narrator perspective as I was writing the book. I guess I wrote in a way that felt natural to me. In the process of revising and getting feedback, readers helped me refine the perspective. But it was not anything I planned out before I wrote—“OK, what perspective do I use here? The now-perspective? The then-perspective?” That would have made me feel that I was overthinking things and the result may have been stilted.

Your book’s tone, or maybe some would call it voice, is impressive, deftly balanced in terms of diction, mood, and the content of what’s being expressed; it feels both controlled, in terms of conscious intent, and pleasantly colloquial or natural, seemingly offhand. How did you work this out?

The “voice” question! :) When I was in writing classes, discussion about voice drove me crazy, mostly because I had no idea what the teacher was talking about. Voice was always a nebulous, confusing, abstract topic. I didn’t know what my voice was or how to achieve a voice. After a while, I gave up trying to define it. When discussion would come back to voice or when I would read about voice in a writing book, I tuned out because I would get frustrated. I stopped thinking about it and just wrote.

My answer here relates to the one above. I wrote in a manner that felt natural to me. When I reread something that I had written, if it sounded strange or clunky or inappropriate to the topic, then I revised. I could flag some of that, and my friends who had read my drafts flagged some of it, too.

Both of these questions together make me realize that maybe there’s something to be said for not knowing too much about craft, at least in the beginning stages of writing. If I had taken a lot of writing classes and really studied things like narrator’s perspective and voice, I probably would have become mired down in those details just because that’s my personality. I’m sure studying craft deeply helps a lot of writers, but I think it probably would have just made me more anxious during the writing process.

We all have favorite memoirs, but do you have favorites that taught you moves you needed for your own memoir essays?

 You and I have talked about this one before, Richard—Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home was a major influence upon my writing. I bought it when in came out in 2006, mostly because I was interested in the fact that she spent part of her childhood in a funeral home. I was blown away upon my initial reading and read it probably eight more times over the years. My copy is marked up and I spent weeks poring over it and writing down a map of its narrative flow. I haven’t come across a more perfect example of memoir both structurally and also in terms of inner/outer story. She also is simply a brilliant, smart writer, but her intelligence doesn’t come across as fake.

A couple of Midwestern-based memoirs also were influential. My dear friend Nicole Helget—also based in Mankato—wrote a beautiful, lyrical memoir, The Summer of Ordinary Ways, in 2006. Her story takes place in a town not far from where I grew up, so her memories of growing up in a rural area where a certain darkness permeated lives was very familiar. In terms of pure literary style, very few people do it better than Nicole.

I also enjoy Debra Marquart’s A Horizontal World, a story about growing up as a farmer’s daughter in North Dakota. As I was writing my memoir, I was curious as to how people wrote about rural places in a way that can be engaging to all readers. I have always been concerned that my story may be too “regional,” and I wanted to see what it was that made a writer break out of those confines and how he/she was able to tap into a larger story, even though the root of the story was Midwestern.

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Richard Russo’s ‘Elsewhere’

Narrative risks & rewards in a talky memoir about Mom.

“You do know your mother’s nuts, right?”—Russo’s father to him when he was twenty.

Elsewhere by Richard Russo. Knopf, 243 pp.

From the book's cover. Young Rick Russo and his Mom.

From the book’s cover. Young Rick Russo and his Mom.

Rather dense, slow-moving, and expository, Elsewhere isn’t a memoir I’d make students read. Smoothly written, interestingly structured, a complex portrait of mental illness, love, and lower middle class life in a wretched town, Elsewhere is a book I’d recommend, with caveats, to adults. They must be serious readers, or blessed with at least one difficult parent, or love and hate their hometown, or be writers. For memoirists, Elsewhere offers lessons in narrative structure, in the power of the reflective voice, and in how to blend diction both elegant and conversational.

Richard Russo’s focus is on his mother, who, wherever she was, wanted to be elsewhere. She most especially didn’t want to be stuck in Gloversville, New York, a depressed mill town where she’d grown up and where her son was born and grew up. If that meant following him off to college in Arizona when he graduated high school in 1967, so be it. She suffered from “nerves,” as people called it in that bygone era. When Rick Russo was young, his divorced mother was stubborn, demanding, and resentful. She worsens with age, and gradually one comes to see that this isn’t garden-variety “nerves,” or mere ego, but a shaky defense. She’s barely able to control her anxiety so she tries to control what she can.

Although Elsewhere is largely chronological, there are retrospective explanations and huge narrative leaps in which years and even decades vanish in a scant line. A writer unrolling a story this way for the first time might wonder—Can I do this? Is this possible?—but it works surprisingly well to jump ahead. Readers are hooked on the heart of the story, not on every last daily event, and most surely appreciate confident summary. Russo tells the story very much from “now,” as an adult looking back. We’re in his head more than in the experience of his younger self who lived it. The first true scene doesn’t appear until page twenty-five. The writer’s stance in the present and his reliance on voice as much as on dramatized action have a distancing effect. This made the book less emotionally involving for me even as its appealing sadder-but-wiser narrator lured me onward.

Elsewhere does have a surprising narrative pull. Somehow Russo generates suspense, probably because although we know from the start the book ends with his mother’s death, we crave the story’s particulars. Details tell the world what it lost. Though I can barely remember his mother’s name, Jean—mentioned in stray quotes by family members referring to her—his mother interests because she’s made unique and her suffering and the problems she causes made palpable. Would that Elsewhere’s elusive lessons were as simple as bringing one troubled woman to life. Legions of memoirists and novelists get their work rejected each year for lack of drama, for being boring, while they burn with their stories about difficult parents, divorces, and deaths. “It’s full of details and events!” they cry.

Yeah, but . . .

It was just the two of them—Dad abandoned the family.

It was just the two of them—Dad abandoned the family.

It’s safe to presume that Russo, the author of eight novels and the winner of a Pulitzer prize, knows what he’s doing. While he chooses a rather talky approach—like some other prominent novelists who’ve turned to memoir, he uses it to tell more than to show—he controls all elements of the narrative. And he’s telling an iconic and resonant American story of place and people. From the start, we feel we’re in the hands of a writer who knows what he has to say and where he wants to take us. Those readers who don’t close his memoir in boredom with Jean Russo will follow him. Ultimately they will be impressed by his candor, by the truly hard-earned wisdom of a dutiful, long-suffering, and humanly flawed son. The book becomes moving as Russo becomes more self-protective and then aware of it. Too late he realizes, or finally admits consciously, that his mother suffered from severe, undiagnosed mental illness her whole life.

Aside from his stature, all those other books and that big prize, why does Russo get to tell his story, and rather successfully per his strategy? First, despite memoir’s popularity it’s not unusual to hear people disdain the genre. In large part they can’t get past a very human resentment. My mother was odd too. Why should I read about yours? Agents and publishers who feel this way, but who must scout new memoirs to sell, will read five to fifty pages to see if a writer can overcome their innate reluctance if not repugnance. Is this narcissistic or boring? A writer must do many things right, but there’s no formula—neither the purely scenic approach of many bestsellers nor the tweedy mastery of literary memoirs like Vladimir Nabokov’s and John Updike’s. And of course a manuscript’s reception is influenced by the market, by the author’s stature, and by the reader’s preferences.

Finally the proof is in the reading. The thing must transcend its elements; it must get airborne; it must become art. Elsewhere meets that test.

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Review: ‘Honeybee Democracy’

Bees give lessons for leadership and group intelligence. 

. . . [N]atural selection has organized honeybee swarms and primate brains in intriguingly similar ways to build a first-rate decision-making group from a collection of rather poorly informed and cognitively limited individuals.

Honeybee Democracy

Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley. Princeton University Press, 264 pp.

Seeley-Honeybee Democracy

How can humans make better group decisions? We might look to the bees, says Thomas D. Seeley, a Cornell biologist who has spent his life studying the insects.

Each year, the legions of (female) worker bees in a colony must make a life-or-death decision: where to build a new home? Scouts report on prospects with their famous waggle dances, arguing for one site or another, which the other scouts check out based on directional clues encoded in the dances. A bad choice—a cavity too small to hold enough honey for the winter, an entrance too large to exclude predators—and the entire colony dies.

This stark imperative has driven bees, Seeley explains, toward dissent-free decisions:

This is what normally arises from the democratic decision-making process used by house-hunting honeybees and, quite frankly, I find it amazing. We have seen . . .  how the debate among a swarm’s scout bees starts with individuals proposing many potential nesting sites, vigorously advertising the competing proposals, and actively recruiting neutral individuals to the different camps. All this makes the surface of a swarm look at first like a riotous dance party. Yet out of this chaos, order gradually emerges. Ultimately the debate ends with all the dancing bees indicating support for just one nesting site, usually the best one.

Honeybee Democracy brought me back to childhood, when I devoured books about the natural world and was a steady observer of nature myself. It reminded me too of how little I know or have retained. Such as: the colony’s queen, who does all the reproducing, decides the sex of her offspring, and she lays eggs that produce mostly females. A nest’s 10,000 worker bees, who collect pollen for honey, and a few hundred who become scouts for new homes, all are her virgin daughters. The comparatively few large male drones are not drones at all, in practice, but lazy, well-fed inseminators of young queens, bred once on their maiden flights and fixed, reproductively speaking, for life.

One of Seeley’s salient findings is that bees try to sense a quorum (sufficient number in agreement) rather than a consensus (unanimity) when they swarm. In taking off without complete agreement they risk that the swarm may split in flight—thus endangering their queen, whose loss would be fatal for the colony’s future. But a quorum strikes a balance between speed and accuracy in decision-making for the exposed and vulnerable swarm, and in practice usually every bee gets on board and makes a beeline for the most popular site. The risk of consensus, as we know from some human groups (Seeley gives an example from a Quaker meeting, but juries came to mind for me), one holdout can overrule the wisdom of the group and prevent a decision or prompt a bad one.

As chair of his academic department, Seeley has instituted the “Five Habits of Highly Effective Groups” that he learned from bees:

Lesson One

Compose the Decision-Making Group of Individuals with Shared Interests and Mutual Respect.

 

Lesson Two

Minimize the Leader’s Influence on the Group’s Thinking.

 

Lesson Three

Seek Diverse Solutions to the Problem.

 

Lesson Four

Aggregate the Group’s Knowledge Through Debate.

 

Lesson Five

Use Quorum Responses for Cohesion, Accuracy, and Speed.

Of course, unlike humans, bees appear to lack individual egos, humans’ blessing and curse as a species. In fact, bees operate without leaders, let alone with the domineering ones who  subvert group decision-making. As a recent national failure from poor leadership, Seeley cites how the “headstrong” style of George W. Bush steamrolled his policy team into agreeing to invade Iraq in 2003. “They did little to question his thinking, engage in extended debate about the possible policy options, or delve deeply into the consequences of going to war,” Seeley writes. “In short, they squandered their opportunity to use group intelligence. We now know that the hasty and flawed decision to invade Iraq was based largely on the gut feelings of just one man, George W. Bush.”

Contrast this with Barack Obama’s “team of rivals” ideal, as enacted by his hero Abraham Lincoln, which emphasizes a dialectic arising from a buzz of dissenting opinions. Lincoln was criticized for not being headstrong enough, for hanging back, for bordering on passivity, but look at his results, the preservation of the union and the abolition of slavery. He led by acting in accordance with his sense of his advisors’ growing recognition of the right. Now our politics seem so ugly that many apparently believe our system itself is broken, even with its brilliant checks and balances against egoistic extremism, but surely that’s what many in Lincoln’s day thought too, when the invective was at least as bitter.

Listening to Obama’s second inauguration last week on my car radio as I drove into snow flurries in Ohio, my eyes stung with tears at the beauty of the progressive ideals being expressed. Some would respond to this rhetoric with hate, I suspected, and indeed they have—unlike bees, some humans will always be on the wrong side of history. Our earliest simian layer might be blamed for this: chimps are brutally hierarchical, fierce toward rivals and rival clans, and masters of the elemental two-against-one calculus of politics.

But in the animal kingdom, ants and bees, the most highly social of insects—not apes—are considered most like humans, at least in exemplifying the kind of cooperation humans strive for and sometimes achieve. And after reading Honeybee Democracy, I’m heartened by how much we’re like the bees when we’re at our best.

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