Category Archives: history

An Unnecessary Woman.

UWfinalcompAn Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine is the kind of novel that practices what it preaches, one where form matches function, and one where I felt ready to give up on it half way through when I couldn’t define a real plot line, but then began to see what Alameddine was up to with his protagonist.  Aaliyah Saleh, 72, has lived alone in her Beirut apartment ever since her husband of 4 years left in her early twenties. She spent her career working, and educating herself, in a bookshop and retired when the shop closed.  She translates a novel a year, using French and English versions to write an Arabic one, and yet she simply saves her work in a small back room of her apartment.  We meet her when she is pondering her next translation, and her thoughts take us through the Lebanese Civil War, as well her more personal battles.  By the end, it feels like we’ve not necessarily read a book with a clear plot, but instead got to know a woman and her city.

The most interesting part of this book for me the fact that while Aaliyah is virtually a recluse at this point of her life, she is also a brilliant literary theorist–and her theories were fascinating. Real literature, she asserts passionately and convincingly, exists to make palpable the mysteries of human existence, not explain them away.  This is what Alameddine did with his work, and why I think this book wasn’t written with the standard narrative plot. I think this book is brilliant, though difficult to recommend unless you comfortable stepping into Aaliyah’s world–and if you are reading from a privileged, Western perspective, being made to feel a bit uncomfortable.

Because her world is so intricate and complex, and because it took me the entire length of the book to fully appreciate its purpose (the “rising action” occurs in last 15 pages or so), I thought the best way to end this post is to share some of Aaliyah’s ideas–her reflection on the literature she reads and the Lebanese Civil War is extraordinary. The irony of the title is not lost on the reader, because though she is a childless, unmarried, reclusive woman, her voice is also absolutely necessary in a reader’s growing understanding of human existence.

None of us know how to deal with the aleatory nature of pain. (98)

One reason we desire explanations is that they separate us and make us feel safe. (99)

There should be a new literary resolution: no more epiphanies. Have pity on readers who reach the end of a real-life conflict in confusion and don’t experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment.  Dear contemporary writers, you make me feel inadequate because my life isn’t as clear and concise as your stories. (148)

No loss is felt more keenly than the loss of what might have been. No nostalgia hurts as much as nostalgia for things that never existed. (155)

To write is to know you are not home…It is that longing for a mystical homeland, not necessarily a physical one, that inspires art…I appreciate longing.  (195-196)

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

51l1ADoTZzL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by  Anthony Marra ended up becoming one of my favorite books of 2014. Set in war torn Chechnya, the settings alternate between Eldar, a small village, and a mostly abandoned hospital in nearby Volchansk.  The narrative structure reminded me of All the Light We Cannot See, which played with time and the order in which the story was presented to the reader.  In this story, there is a timeline at the beginning of each chapter that goes from 1994-2004, with the chapter’s focus highlighted.  Marra covers the interconnected story of about characters, focusing mainly on Havaa, a young girl whose mother had died and whose father was disappeared at the beginning of the story, the neighbor who takes her in, and Sonja, the only doctor at the hospital who returned to Chechnya from London to be with her sister, who has also disappeared.

In an interview at the end of the book Marra describes his style: “War breaks cities, buildings, and families, but also time and the way stories are constructed. To tell this story in a straightforward, linear fashion would fall short of capturing the absurd, recursive manner in which its characters assemble their chaotic narrative. All the characters in Constellation are trying to piece back together their fragmented lives, and I wanted to embody that in the novel’s structure. As each character attempts to rescue what has been lost, the novel mends their individual stories into a communal whole,” 394). Marra beautifully captures the struggle and desperation of each of the characters–enabling us to feel the chaos, confusion, and heartbreak alongside of them.

When describing her missing sister to border guards, camp officials, and aid workers: How could an instrument as blunted as language express one as strange and fleeting as Natasha? Metaphors failed her; Natasha could not be summarized, (271).  It was this sentence that helped me wrap my mind around what Marra was doing with the structure of the story–language cannot fully express a nation at war, let alone an individual.  The shifting in time, backward and forward through the memories of six or so individuals can provide only a glimpse of the confusion, the loss, the human weight of what happens when we begin to destroy each other and then try to find the kernel of humanity left there.

The title felt a bit pretentious to me until I found the reference: While reading The Medical Dictionary of the Union of Soviet Physicians, she stumbled across this: Life: a constellation of vital phenomena–organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation (184). 

These words, especially constellation, seem to perfectly describe life’s processes–and when considered out of a medical dictionary, have enormous metaphorical weight.  Each individual character in the story was actively involved in each phenomena–each has that individual constellation of connectedness between irritability and growth, adaptation and organization, and so on.  When the individual stories are layered, all of a sudden the night sky, and the human story, becomes infinitely more complex.  I’m fascinated by the way individual stories lend themselves to larger historical narratives and I think it is absolutely necessary for us to understand both.  I mentioned this concept a few weeks ago when I was thinking about why reading narrative (fiction or nonfiction) is important: we get to hear voices and understand places that are so far outside our own experiences, and by doing so we become more aware, more empathetic, and (thankfully in my opinion) more understanding of the fact that life is deeply more complex than the two-sided camps that much of American media portrays.  This is vital if we are to make real progress as humans.

To end, I wanted to share this excerpt from Sonja (who copes by quantifying and distancing), as she looks at Havaa upon her arrival.

Those smooth, spit-cleaned cheeks gave no indication of the dreams crowding her skull.  Should she make it to adulthood, the girl would arrive with two hundred and six bones. Two and a half million sweat glands. Ninety-six thousand kilometers of blood vessels. Forty-six chromosomes. Seven meters of small intestines. Six hundred and six discrete muscles. One hundred billion cerebral neurons. Two kidneys. A liver. A heart. A hundred trillion cells that died and were replaced, again and again. But no matter how many ways she dismembered and quantified the body lying beside her, she couldn’t say how many years the girl would wait before she married, if at all, or how many children she would have, if any; and between the creation of this body and its end lay the mystery the girl would spend her life solving.  For now, she slept. (49)

The importance of reading historical narrative, whether you are an 8th grader or not.

I recently started a graduate program and have been reminded of just how much I enjoy nerding out.  My class is on Tuesday nights and for the past three weeks since it started I have spent my Wednesday and Friday nights reading and writing for it–and enjoying it.  I was last in graduate school for English education nine years ago, and I have to say that reading professional books while being an active, experienced teacher is so much more engaging.  Before I was reading all of these theories and philosophies but without a real way into the conversation.  This time around I have 95 current students and 700 previous ones to think about as well as structures I’ve put into place to grow them as readers and writers–and reading the books is making me think and dream a bit bigger about what a gift it is to teach reading and writing and reminding me that I haven’t figured it all out yet.  

{cover of Maus II}

I am currently in the middle of a Holocaust Literature book club with students–I have a group of 5-8 in each class reading Maus by Art Spiegelman and Night by Elie Wiesel over the course of 5 weeks.  (I’ve written previously about book club experiences with students here: Maus and Night and Harry Potter.) It never ceases to amaze me how 8th graders approach and handle such serious texts.  What I’ve come to realize while reading great books with small groups of students is that 13 and 14 year old students are aching to talk about and be trusted with serious topics.  Instead of nervous about handing titles like Maus and Night to them, I frame it with the context that learning about difficult times in the past is best done in community and that reading, reflecting, talking, and writing about them is one of the best ways to process through the stories that have come before us and to equip us in becoming educated, sensitive people when we walk out into our own lives.

This is where my reading for graduate school comes in.  One evening after our first Maus book club meeting I read: “History is about people who were products of their time and their own intricately woven value systems.  Literature study enhances our appreciation of history’s complexity, which in turn expands our appreciation of present political complexities and better equips us to predict and prepare for the future.  History gives us statistics; literature lets us experience the human tragedy.” (Teaching Children’s Literature: It’s Critical, Leland, Lewison, Harste)

This is especially fitting for our reading of Maus because it is Spiegelman telling not only the story of his father’s survival of the Holocaust, but it is also the story of Spiegelman himself grappling with his family’s history and how it shaped his present while writing the book.  In turn, the reader is able to contextualize multiple lines of history, feel pain over the fact that this is a true story, and ask questions about their present time and life.  I cannot more strongly believe that historical study must be paired with narrative if students today are to grow into educated citizens who can see nuance and complexity rather, who can ask questions and dialogue, who can be people who understand statistics but also tap into the real people represented by those numbers.

Spiegelman ends the World War Two storyline of Maus with a scene we as readers know from the beginning happens–the reunion of his parents post-Auschwitz.  We ended our conversation by asking why he would end the story in this way and if we were to have any hope as we move forward as people.  What we came up with is that love can still win–and despite the fact that most were not as lucky as Vladek and Anja Spiegelman, and despite the fact that human history still remains quite ugly, that perhaps the threads of goodness can restore and heal the human spirit.  And, perhaps, that by remembering both that and the historical details, readers can imagine a different kind of future.

a short history of women.

The title of Kate Walbert’s A Short History of Women tells just that, depending on how you read the title.  The story is told non-linearly through narrators of 5 different generations of the Townsend family, beginning in England in 1898 and ending in New York in 2007.  As Walbert writes the story, the reader gets not only the family history, but also a window into some of the unique struggles of women over the last 110 years–which doesn’t seem so long at first glance, but really is, especially considering that there weren’t more than three generations alive at once in the story.  It was fascinating to see as the reader the connections these women shared 100 years apart and at the same time a bit heartbreaking that the characters weren’t able to see them the way a reader could.

I have a huge extended family on both sides, and for almost two decades we were able to see four generations of my dad’s family in the same room and on my mom’s side we are going on 12 or so.  When my grandma passed away last summer, my dad and one of my uncles were reminiscing and I heard so many stories that I had never heard before, which was surprising because I hail from a story telling family.  It was a bit surreal at her burial because we were also standing here in Brooklyn amidst Robbins headstones dating back to the 1800s.  Like usual, I felt a part of something bigger, but there was also a twinge of sadness that there are some stories that passed with my grandma.

The same thing happens when I hear the handful of stories I know about my great grandmother on my mom’s side.  Because I am the story lover nostalgic that I am, I often find myself wishing that I could go back and visit with her about when she moved to New York from Ireland.  I always wish I knew more about the threads of similarities that I share with the women in my family tree or that my aunts and cousins share.  While talking with one of my aunts this spring who is a retired teacher, I learned that she used to dedicate a day to celebrate the Super Bowl in her classroom, just like I do with the Ohio State/Michigan game.  My family is so big that sometimes it is easy to miss those kinds of connections.

All that to say, reading about the Townsend women in this book was really thought provoking, especially when some of the stories are placed side by side: the 1914 suffragette in England and the granddaughter she never met garnering strength from her memory, the mom in post 9/11 New York dealing with her panic and her own mother embarking on a new life at the end of it.  It makes me wish I could have a collection of the narratives of the women in my family.

{four generations of robbins: my grandma, one of my aunts, 2 of her daughters, another cousin and her daughter and I.  Oh, and FNL and The OC.}

silence and fear.

Some context: I love learning about history when it isn’t connected to memorizing names and dates, but rather when it encompasses understanding culture and incorporates what was going on in the world of the arts simultaneously.  There are so many complexities and nuances in our collective history as humans that I love digging into. I finished UnbrokenMaus I and II and Night earlier this year and then spent the last week reading In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larsen (who wrote Devil in the White City), and ordered the biography Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas before I was even finished, which is about the Christian theologian who was a part of a plot to assassinate Hitler.  I’m enmeshed in World War Two and non-fiction (albeit mostly narrative), which is rare for me, but I am loving it.

In the Garden of Beasts is the story of the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, and his family in Berlin in the mid 1930s, when Hitler is rising to power.  Dodd was an unconventional choice for this position, and far from top of the list in potential candidates.  He was a history professor and a self professed “true Jeffersonian” in his manner and politics.  Larsen does an incredible job documenting Dodd’s ambassadorship and the politics of the time.  Though I was familiar with the U.S. isolationist stance before World War Two, it was fascinating and frightening to learn about the politics surrounding the way we interacted with Germany during this time.

In 1934, the American Jewish Congress with support from the American Federation of Labor planned a mock trial of Hitler at Madison Square Garden.  When Germany caught wind of this, Hitler ordered Foreign Minister Neurath to demand that it be stopped.  The American government communicated that because of our belief in free speech, there was nothing they could do to cancel the event, though they did not make, at that time, any kind of statement against Hitler.  Larsen makes an excellent point about this:

“One result was a sequence of official protests, replies and memoranda that revealed both Germany’s sensitivity to outside opinion and the lengths U.S. officials felt compelled to go to avoid direct criticism of Hitler and his party.  The degree of restraint would have been comincal if the stakes had not been so high and raised a question: why were the State Department and President Roosevelt so hesitant to express in frank terms how they really felt about Hitler at a time when such expressions clearly could have had a powerful effect on his prestige in the world?” (231).

It was easier to hide behind the guise of politics? It was easier to turn a head than to get involved with what seemed to be someone else’s mess? People pleasing seems like a good temporary answer?

A few pages later Larsen asks, “What was everyone afraid of?” (241).  This is one of the overriding questions of the entire book, and one that speaks into not just politics at the international or governmental level, but a personal level.  Quietly ignoring things that are wrong offers temporary safety only.

The title of this book is a reference to the Tiergarten, a park in Berlin that was one of the only places in the city where people felt safe to have private conversations.  As I think about its symbolism, I can see two sides: hiding one’s true thoughts in a garden, rather than bringing them out into the open, or the concept that we all need to have spaces in which we can be alone and be heard away from whatever metaphorical beasts are in our lives: that maybe we need space in order to stop listening to the fear and actually consider what is right?

It is uncomfortable to think about this because speaking out at this time in history could mean death of oneself or family, and when there are people to protect all of a sudden everything becomes gray.  So, on that note, all I can say is that I cannot wait to finish reading Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the length that he went for what he believed to be true. More on that later.

Ambassador Dodd was asked to resign in 1938 because he seemed to be taking too bold a stance against the Nazis, even though his actions could be described as silent protest.  He spent the remainder of his career traveling and speaking against the regime until his death in 1940.  Gah.