The Good Lord Bird: A Review

16171272“The Good Lord Bird” is a book I ought to like. I liked McBride’s first autobiography, “The Color of Water,” an appreciative remembrance/meditation on being a black man with a white mother. I liked McBride personally when he visited Messiah College. He is a fantastic musician, whose passion for music I share. Like most America’s I’m intrigued by the fanatical John Brown. The novel’s theme is race in America, the fatal subject of many of the greatest American novels from Moby Dick to Huckleberry Finn to Absalom Absalom to the Invisible Man to Beloved. It’s James McBride’s fourth book, about the time in a career when one starts to see signature work produced. It was chosen for the National Book Award. Everything things about it says BIG. Good writer, big book, big subject.

But the book left me cold.

Well, really somewhat more than lukewarm, which feels like cold when you are eagerly expecting greatness. I liked many passages. It was better than watching netflix…most of the time. But I expect more than that from a National Book Award Winner, and couldn’t help but wonder what the judges were thinking, though it also crossed my mind that American fiction must have been in a bad way in 2013 if this was the best we could produce. Apparently this thought crossed McBride’s mind as well since, according to the Times story on the 2013 NBA ceremonies, McBride was stunned to have won and didn’t even prepare a speech.

The book has often been compared to Huckleberry Finn. indeed, the novel’s cover insists on it, evoking the ubiquitous straw hat that seems to accompany every edition of the novel and rendition of Huck’s story since that American classic was written. Henry, the novel’s protagonist, is a cross-dressing early adolescent struggling to find his own way and own identity in a world full of people who impose their vision of what he is or ought to be at will. There is no river–a good bit of the novel takes place in the plains of Kansas and Iowa, in its own more desiccated way as stark brutal and unforgiving a wild thing as the Huck’s Mississippi. In a different sense, John Brown himself is Henry’s river, a wild thing, a force of nature with a logic and will of his own that bends things to himself, like a Kansas tornado or a Mississippi flood, and does the bending in part through his own fanatical certainty in the will of God.

But the differences between Huckleberry Finn and The Good Lord Bird also point to the latter’s narrative problems. In Huckleberry Finn, the river is a character of its own, but it is never the character that we care about. From the opening sentence we know we care about Huck Finn and coming to know him. The river is finally an occasion for the main narrative character, and not the other way around. If the river drives Huck through coincidence, or if Huck follows it where it carries him, finally the reader follows Huck, only sticking with the river because of that human story. In The Good Lord Bird I could never muster a lot of concern from Henry, who followed John Brown for no good reason, didn’t seem to want to be there, and didn’t seem to learn all that much by his travels. In the Times story cited above, McBride says he enjoyed writing the novel because “It was always nice to have somebody whose world I could just fall into and follow him around.” The novel has that feel. That Henry is just falling in to the world and following John Brown around for no reason we can adequately figure out. In this sense, the novel feels all the way through a bit like Huck Finn feels in its disappointing conclusion, when Huck Finn, who has captured our imagination and matured before our interior eyes, turns freedom and maturity into a banal melodrama at the hands of his would-be mentor, Tom Sawyer.

In the acknowledgements section at the end of the book, McBride thanks the many who kept the memory of John Brown alive. I’m not sure this book will do that very well. When, for the space of several dozen pages in the middle of the novel, John Brown disappears from the scene and Henry is left to his own devices, we realize we just don’t care that much about him. And if Henry is not himself a compelling character, if Henry is not more than an empty sleeve of a boy becoming a man, then we can’t really find John Brown all that compelling either. Adolescents drifting through life are compelled by many things, some of them profound, many or most of them not. John Brown is a terrifying and complex figure in American History, one that Americans still feel uncertainly as both a brutal terrorist and a freedom fighter, and feel this contradiction all the more so in that Brown was indeed on the right moral side of the arc of history when it comes to the story of race in America, unlike so many other of our white founding fathers and mothers. But because Henry does not himself seem to struggle in any meaningful way with the desperate question of whether in pursuing freedom we are winging into flight or stumbling over a precipice, we ultimately don’t feel in this John Brown the terror that can be the birth pangs of freedom. Instead, McBride’s John Brown seems to shift uncomfortably between being a joke and being meaningfully sincere.

A worthy subject for a netflix melodrama, but I was hoping for more.

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Kimi Cunningham Grant on Japanese American Experience

Last month I had the chance to hear Messiah alum, Kimi Cunningham Grant, read from her work and talk at The Midtown Scholar Bookstore with poet Julia Spicher Kasdorf about her new book, Silver like Dust. The conversation was wide-ranging touching on the elements of the writing process, on issues associated with Japanese American history and experience, and on Kimi’s own grappling with her identity as a bi-racial writer whose connections to her Japanese American heritage have grown over the years interviewing her grandmother and writing the book. I still have a blog vaguely planned related to Kimi’s book; I think there’s some really interesting things in there about books and reading. But for now I’m just happy to share this podcast recorded by the folks down at the Midtown. Catherine Lawrence and Eric Papenfuse do a tremendous amount for our community and for the world of books and writing generally. I’m glad we’ve got this record of a good event

.Kimi Cunningham Grant at the Midtown with Julia Spicher Kasdorf

Conrad’s Typhoon: or, An Ode to My iPad

Joseph Conrad

Typhoon by Conrad, Joseph

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Conrad’s Typhoon: or, An Ode to My iPad

I think one reason I don’t write and publish more than I do is because I am far too slow on the trigger. The ubiquity of blogging hasn’t helped this any since I usually find that someone else much more intelligent and articulate than I has blogged on what I think of as MY SUBJECT in a manner far more perspicacious, acute and interesting than I could manage. Take Charles Simic’s meditation on boredom during the recent power outages along the east coast, blogged over at the NYRB. I had several of those, Yes-that-is-exactly-what-was-on-the-tip-of-my-tongue moments reading lines like these:

“We sit with our heads bowed as if trying to summon spirits, while in truth struggling to see what’s on our dinner plates. Being temporarily unable to use the technology we’ve grown dependent on to inform ourselves about the rest of the world, communicate with others, and pass the time, is a reminder of our alarming dependence on them.”

Of course, these words weren’t actually on the tip of my tongue, but by imagining that the poet is only telling us what we have always known but could not say so well, we are able to give ourselves credit for a lot of intelligence and imagination that we don’t actually possess. Simic goes on to talk about the notable demise of reading and other delights like radio in the fact of our ubiquitous gadgets. Now, of course, reading books on a rainy afternoon or listening to a radio show has the faint reek of quaintness when we can’t manage to champion with a straight face these distractions as relics of authenticity. Simic reminds us that reading too was a form of distraction as surely as an i-phone.

“All of this reminded me of the days of my youth when my family, like so many others, lived in a monastic solitude when the weather was bad, since we had no television. It wasn’t in church, but on dark autumn days and winter nights that I had an inkling of what they meant when they spoke about eternity. Everyone read in order to escape boredom. I had friends so addicted to books, their parents were convinced they were going crazy with so many strange stories and ideas running like fever through their brains, not to mention becoming hard of hearing, after failing to perform the simplest household chores like letting the cat out.

“Living in a quiet neighborhood made it even worse. Old people stared out of windows at all hours, when they were not staring at the walls. There were radios, but their delights—with the exception of a few programs—were reserved for the grownups only. Thousands died of ennui in such homes. Others joined the navy, got married, or moved to California. Even so, looking back now, I realize how much I owe to my boredom. Drowning in it, I came face to face with myself as if in a mirror.”

Be that as it may, I lived out this boredom during the last hurricane by taking up Conrad’s Typhoon, the Project Gutenberg version, on the recommendation I received via my facebook friending of the New Yorker Magazine. (Let’s be frank, folks.  Oprah’s book club is absolutely yesterday).  Too dark to read, yes, but unlike the youthful Simic I had one gadget in hand that bore its own light to me in hand, my trusty iPad, fully charged and functioning.

When I began blogging three years ago at Read, Write, Now (a title I have come to detest, so future bloggers choose carefully), I had a suspicious and doubtful mindset about e-books, e-readers, and many things e-in-general. To be sure, I saw the advantages of blogging as a means of immediate intellectual self-gratification, and even then I think I felt that a great deal of writing and reading, especially in the academic world, would migrate effectively online. But I could not imagine, then, that an electronic gadget could take the place of paper. I wrote about the fact that I freely took my paper books in to saunas and bathtubs, that I could find my way through paper books more quickly and simply than with a scrolling sidebar, that I didn’t have to worry about whether it was sunny outside. And the smell, the smell, the smell. E-books were sterile, it seemed to me. In a word inauthentic.

I may still believe some of this, but I believe it less than I used to, largely due to my i-Pad. To come back to the

The steamer Nan Shan in the Storm

ostensible purpose of this review, Conrad’s Typhoon, it was the first full book I had read on my IPad, if a novella of 100 some odd pages can be thought of as a full book. And the verdict is that it was like reading…well…a book. The interface felt book like, I can adjust the light to the needs of my aging eyes, and can read more clearly than I could have managed by candlelight. I’ve always worried about the ability to personalize the texts, but iBooks lets me underline, and if anything I personalized the text more than I might have some others since my handwriting is unreadable and my notes in paperbooks cryptic and unintelligible. By contrast, the marginalia tool in iBooks is clean and my notes copious. Perhaps above all, I loved my iPad for remaining charged and working when everything else failed, leaving in the dark and to my own devices. Scary what I might find in that mirror. I read the entire book undistracted by facebook or my email apps, but I took comfort in knowing they were available for my distraction should I need them.

Now as to Typhoon itself. I want to say “Yes,” with qualifications. The story is gripping and intense, a naturalist drama of man against nature that becomes a kind of paean to stoic and pedestrian endurance, though one that is ironic and complicated in the end. The main human character is Captain MacWhirr, whose name betokens a machine-like efficiency. He is a man of small intellect, little imagination, and no intellectual curiosity. Because of this it is hard to describe him as actually courageous in the teeth of the hurricane. While a more imaginative man might have hidden his response to the terrors of the outrageous sea in cryptic understatement, MacWhirr is mostly just given to small emotion and small imagination.

Captain MacWhirr was trying to do up the top button of his oilskin coat with unwonted haste. The hurricane, with its power to madden the seas, to sink ships, to uproot trees, to overturn strong walls and dash the very birds of the air to the ground, had found this taciturn man in its path, and, doing its utmost, had managed to wring out a few words. Before the renewed wrath of winds swooped on his ship, Captain MacWhirr was moved to declare, in a tone of vexation, as it were: “I wouldn’t like to lose her.”

One doesn’t come away from this novel feeling grand and heroic and triumphant about human beings. On the other hand, one doesn’t come away feeling like human beings are small and accidental as you do, for instance in reading Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat”. Instead endurance seems something to be achieved, and we end up happy for MacWhirr that he has achieved it, knowing we’d rather have him dull and unimaginative, but steady, were we caught in the writhing seas ourselves.

The story as a whole is gripping and seems to reveal something about both our human frailty and our strength and complexity, making it more than just a good adventure story. If I had read it first, I’m sure I would say that The Perfect Storm reminded me of it in being only partly a book about humans against the storm, and as much or more about humans against themselves.

One thing keeps me from a whole hearted endorsement. It really is the case that the depictions of Chinese in the book are deeply troubling. Passages in which Chinese are cast a jabbering animals or as writhing forces of nature are offensive and hard to find a way to redeem. I have always thought the criticism of Heart of Darkness was perhaps unearned since the thesis of that book had always seemed to me to be the evils of imperialism. But there is no redeeming theme that I can find for the representation of the Chinese coolies as brutes, and I found myself less inclined to defend Conrad, either here or for Heart of Darkness than I was before I began. To say this is not to say that the book is not worth reading, since there is no good human thing that is free of the scent of corruption, but it is to say that the goodness in the book does not overcome that corruption and reminds this reader at least that human beings are mixed creations, leaving us to admire and cringe in the same moment.

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Barack Obama is a Woman! Who knew???

Scandal mongerers alert! Barack Obama’s heretofore unacknowledged sex-change operation threatens to derail his quest for the White House.

(Side Note: I have discovered that including many words like “sex-change,” “porn,” and “diarrhea” really pumps up your blog stats. Count on them from here on out).

Anyway, this in from Scripps-Howard

“If Clinton loses the nomination, do women lose? Rights? Power? Visibility? Clout? Are they not taken as seriously by the political establishment? A month ago I would have told you yes. Now I believe the answer is no. Why? Because metrosexual, pro-choice, pro-health care, anti-poverty Obama is, in every political sense at least, more of a woman than Clinton.

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“Clinton’s female supporters who are watching Obama’s movement coalesce, solidify and take over should console themselves there will be a woman Democrat in the White House either way if the Democrats win the general election. The nominee will either be a woman with double-X chromosomes, or one with XY chromosomes who votes more like a woman than most with XX.”

Perhaps Bonnie Erbe has come up with the true and deeply troubled reason that Barack Obama draws tens of thousands of screaming female fans at whistle stop campaigns throughout the country.

He’s a gender-bender.

And just what does this say about the tens of thousands of screaming young and middle aged men who rush the stage. Deeply repressed problems with gender identity no doubt. Something we have always suspected of limp-wristed liberals and moderates anyway, yes?

Seriously, though, the gender weirdness of this campaign continues to demonstrate that Americans have a keenly developed, if not completely sick, sense of the politics of sexuality and gender. Obama is suspicious because he is too much of a woman, and Clinton is unappealing because she is too much of a man.

It is interesting to me, though, that Obama combines and focuses a great deal of discursive energy when it comes to the politics of not only race but gender. Several years ago in a class I was discussing the tradition of Black Christs within African American religion. My students, mostly young female Christians, largely agreed when one said that as she tried to imagine Christ as an AFrican American, she imagined he was more definitively male than the white Christ she had grown up with.

Well, this is the classic stereotype that we’ve lived with since the 20s. (I realize I’ve already posted on this, but I just can’t get over it) Black men are somehow supposed to be outrageously and uncontrollably masculine–all brawny testosterone, no brains, no tenderness. White men are somehow soft and feminine–at least if they are religious or educated. Jesus holding Mary’s little lamb. Obama’s “metrosexuality”–his softness, his charm (think, what kind of men do we describe as charming?)–humanizes the threatening masculinity his blackness might otherwise entail for white audiences. Clinton’s ill-fated effort to paint Obama as a seducer, as well as the effort to link Obama’s appeal to Jesse Jackson was not only dismissive, it was also an effort to link him to an older form and stereotype of threatening black male sexuality.

But now that we know he’s actually a woman. We don’t have to worry about any of that, do we?

Is it any wonder that the rest of the world wonders when we will grow up?