Books

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Mother...Tell your children not to walk my way

Another passage from The Autobiography of My Mother (pp. 96-98):

I had never had a mother, I had just recently refused to become one, and I knew then that this refusal would be complete. I would never become a mother, but that would not be the same as never bearing children. I would bear children, but I would never be a mother to them. I would bear them in abundance; they would emerge from my head, from my armpits, from between my legs; I would bear children, they would hang from me like fruit from a vine, but I would destroy them with the carelessness of a god. I would bear children in the morning, I would bathe them at noon in a water that came from myself, and I would eat them at night, swallowing them whole, all at once. They would live and then they would not live. In their day of life, I would walk them to the edge of a precipice. I would not push them over; I would not have to; the sweet voices of unusual pleasures would call to them from its bottom; they would not rest until they became one with these sounds. I would cover their bodies with diseases, embellish skins with thinly crusted sores, the sores sometimes oozing a thick pus for which they would thirst, a thirst that could never be quenched. I would condemn them to live in an empty space frozen in the same posture in which they had been born. I would throw them from a great height; every bone in their body would be broken and the bones would never be properly set, healing in the way they were broken, healing never at all. I would decorate them when they were only corpses and set each corpse in a polished wooden box, and place the polished wooden box in the earth and forget the part of the earth where I had buried the box. It is in this way that I did not become a mother; it is in this way that I bore my children.

The blurb on the cover of this book, written by Michiko Kakutani, says that it is "powerful and disturbing." I wouldn't say it's all that disturbing as a whole (yet), but this excerpt definitely stands out.

Virginia Woolf's got nothing on her

I finished up the Joanna Russ book; it was okay. I'm now a good way into The Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid, and this gem looked nice. I'll probably end up teaching a grammar course in the near future; shall I require the students to diagram this sentence?

My world then -- silent, soft, and vegetable-like in its vulnerability, subject to the powerful whims of others, diurnal, beginning with the pale opening of light on the horizon each morning and ending with the sudden onset of dark at the beginning of each night -- was both a mystery to me and the source of much pleasure: I loved the face of a gray sky, porous, grainy, wet, following me to school for mornings on end, sending down on me soft arrows of water; the face of that same sky when it was a hard, unsheltering blue, a backdrop for a cruel sun; the harsh heat that eventually became a part of me, like my blood; the overbearing trees (the stems of some of them the size of small trunks) that grew without restraint, as if beauty were only size, and I could tell them all apart by closing my eyes and listening to the sound the leaves made when they rubbed together; and I loved that moment when the white flowers from the cedar tree started to fall to the ground with a silence that I could hear, their petals at first still fresh, a soft kiss of pink and white, then a day later, crushed, wilted, and brown, a nuisance to the eye; and the river that had become a small lagoon when one day on its own it changed course, on whose bank I would sit and watch families of birds, and frogs laying their eggs, and the sky turning from black to blue and blue to black, and rain falling on the sea beyond the lagoon but not on the mountain that was beyond the sea.

Over My Shoulder: Joanna Russ' Picnic on Paradise

From Picnic on Paradise published 1968, which I scored in Knoxville at McKay Used Books for 75 cents (pp. 94-95):

He sighed. It was rather peaceful, actually.

"Look, dear," he said quietly, "I've done my best. But if you want me, myself, you'll have to do without; I've heard that too often. Do you think they don't want me out there? Sure they do! They want me to open up my" (she could not catch the word) "like a God damned" (or that one) "and show them everything that's inside, all my feelings, or what they call feelings. They talk about their complexities and their reactions and their impressions and their interactions and their patterns and their neuroses and their childhoods and their rebellions and their utterly unspeakable insides until I want to vomit. I have no insides. I will not have any. I certainly will not let anyone see any. I do things and I do them well; that's all. If you want that, you can have it. Otherwise, my love, I am simply not at home. Understood?"

"Autobiography" Novels

What are all the novels that purport to be autobiographies? I can think of three off the top of my head:

1. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by Gertrude Stein
2. The Autobiography of My Mother, by Jamaica Kincaid
3. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, by Ernest Gaines

An Amazon search reveals an "autobiography" of Santa Claus, of Henry VIII, of God, and others. I realize this is a pretty stupid question, but is there an article in a literary studies journal that discusses these? Does writing a fictional autobiography, in addition to allowing the author to experiment with voice and point of view, also allow the author to skewer subtly some of the conventions of autobiography as a genre? I mean, why use "the autobiography of" in the title? Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is a story told from the point of view of Offred, a handmaid (spoken into a tape recorder like Gaines' Pittman), but it isn't called an autobiography. What is gained by the autobiography label?

A Larger Pool of Luck

Another installment of Over My Shoulder, a tradition started by Rad Geek (the rules). This passage comes from Saving the World by Julia Alvarez, an author from the Dominican Republic whose protagonists (in this case Alma) are also usually women from the Dominican Republic.

But she couldn't let it go. This periodic homeland rage that would crop up out of nowhere, even though she had been in the United States almost forty years, this feeling that her own luckiness was off the backs of other people, not because her family had been exploiters but because the pool of the lucky was so small in that poor little place that God forgot. In the United States there was a larger pool of luck, and the overspill trickled down: extra toilet paper in the stalls, soup kitchens, social service programs, sliding scales, legal aid, free clinics, adjunct teaching posts and art enrichment grants so that people like Tera, like Helen, like Alma before she lucked out with her novels and marriage to Richard managed to scrape by. (275-276)

End-of-semester pleasure reading

This weekend, between student drafts, I'm going to finish the book I started yesterday, Julia Alvarez's latest: Saving the World. It seems to be getting mixed reviews, but I've read everything else Alvarez has written, and I feel compelled to read this one too. It's fast reading.

Then, I'm not sure. I still want to finish The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which I started in the summer. This Collected Stories of Amy Hempel sounds pretty good too, in addition to a couple of those nonfiction books. Fiction (or creative nonfiction, or autobiographical romans à clef) is my priority, though.

Eric Kandel's New Book

I'm dying to read it; I just have to make the time to do it, really:

Also, what the heck: Friday poetry blogging

I recently read, for the first time if you can believe it, The Bell Jar. Of course I then demanded to know if Jonathan had a copy of Birthday Letters, which he then produced. One of the great things about being married to him is the instant gratification when it comes to book reading. He has far more books than I have, and if there's something I want, there's probably no need to go to the library to find it or order it from Amazon, because it's probably right there on one of the shelves. When we get set up in Greenville, we're going to integrate our books and put them in order according to LOC classification.

I'm about a third of the way through Birthday Letters now, and this poem is by far the finest one I've read so far. I keep reading it over and over again in awe:

The Shot

by Ted Hughes

Your worship needed a god.
Where it lacked one, it found one.
Ordinary jocks became gods --
Deified by your infatuation
That seemed to have been designed at birth for a god.
It was a god-seeker. A god-finder.
Your Daddy had been aiming you at God
When his death touched the trigger.
                    In that flash
You saw your whole life. You ricocheted
The length of your Alpha career
With the fury
Of a high-velocity bullet
That cannot shed one foot-pound
Of kinetic energy. The elect
More or less died on impact --
They were too mortal to take it. They were mind-stuff,
Provisional, speculative, mere auras.
Sound-barrier events along your flightpath.
But inside your sob-sodden Kleenex
And your Saturday night panics,
Under your hair done this way and done that way,
Behind what looked like rebounds
And the cascade of cries diminuendo,
You were undeflected.
You were gold-jacketed, solid silver,
Nickel-tipped. Trajectory perfect
As through ether. Even the cheek-scar,
Where you seemed to have side-swiped concrete,
Served as a rifling groove
To keep you true.
                    Till your real target
Hid behind me. Your Daddy,
The god with the smoking gun. For a long time
Vague as mist, I did not even know
I had been hit,
Or that you had gone clean through me --
To bury yourself at last in the heart of the god.

In my position, the right witchdoctor
Might have caught you in flight with his bare hands,
Tossed you, cooling, one hand to the other,
Godless, happy, quieted.
                    I managed
A wisp of your hair, your ring, your watch, your nightgown.

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