Monday, March 24, 2014

"Ruby" by Cynthia Bond

"Ruby" is a story about "the needle of lust that pierces the heart of small church towns," in this case, Liberty, Texas, which is located somewhere between Beaumont and Houston.

It's about other things, too, many other things that are more easily enjoyed in the reading than sorted out for review: Love unrequited, child abuse, the black/white schism in the American south, lesbianism, voodoo, lynching and the bondage to which human beings subject one another.

Ruby is a product of the rape of a black woman by a white man. She is blessed, or cursed, with a beauty worthy of attention and that attention marks her for an interaction with influential Christian locals who are given to the secret practice of something called "conjure."

Early in the story, Ephram Jennings joins the child Ruby, and her knockabout soul sister Maggie, for an adventure that lands them in the home of one Ma Tante, a kind of voodoo seer. It's a great scene, powerfully visualized, successfully conveying the type of experience that sears a child's memory.

Ma Tante is spiritually attuned enough to know that "haints" or lost souls tend to follow Ruby around.

"Child, they ride you like a chariot ride a horse. They feastin' on yo' soul." the seer says. "This child gots a powerful hex 'sur son esprit,' done by peoples who knows how. Make her flypaper for all manner of traveling haint. May already be too late..."

And the rest of the story unfolds so as to answer whether it is too late, or not. A positive outcome depends upon the success of 42-year old Ephram, a man who, as a child, saw his mother committed to the crazy house and his father lynched.

He has been raised under the overweening watch of his sister Celia, to the point where he refers to her as "Mama." It has not been much of a life for Ephram, whose sole singular experience was the trip to Ma Tante's shack where he spent time under Ruby's alluring sway.

Celia wears the black hat here, a looming presence enforcing a narrow and mean-spirited strain of Christianity, which makes the fact that she is actually right, easy to overlook. Ruby Bell IS possessed by haints, and harassed by a powerful "Dybou," a negative force out of Ma Tante's conjure world.

The structure involves Ephram trying to connect with Ruby when they are in their 40s, both essentially beaten by life, she especially so, abandoned, shunned by the sacred community, and three-quarter's crazed. The good Christian folks of Liberty, out to save them both, will not permit an easy coalescence.

The progress of Ephram's attempt to restore Ruby's health and awareness, is interspersed ,with chapters of back story, a story of child abuse and prostitution, a young black woman's stab at freedom in New York only to find the same dish served differently, of her return to a southern town still chafing under Jim Crow.

It is the story of a man who has never left Liberty because no path was ever opened up to places beyond it, never existed. Celia's coddling is the source of Ephram's weakness; good food and a warm bed in exchange for light house duties are the elements from which his particular velvet coffin is constructed.

"Ruby" is certainly a story about white cruelty to blacks, but not in the main. Save for a few incidents, the white world mostly hovers omnipresent, threatening, something to be avoided or to placate when cornered.

Rather, the novel is concerned with the African-American milieu, which its distinctive portraits of blacks, in Liberty and on Manhattan Island, make clear is hardly monolithic. "Ruby" renders a brutality unleashed between the closest of kin and neighbors. It is incestuous, envious, and finally, destructive to individual aspirations and confidence.

Author Cynthia Bond's concoction is strong coffee. She does not pull a single punch, decorating her tale of sexual torture, psychological abuse, deceit, ambiguity, false religion and pure evil with the sugary southern kitsch of buttermilk, honeysuckle, maple syrup, cornbread, fried pork chops, okra, and the Confederate States of an arresting, disjointed effect.

"Ruby knew that the White girls were always good girls, even when they were bad, but Negro girls started bad and could be anything after that."

Finally, if not obviously, "Ruby" is a story of black womanhood, of life without options, of slavery by other means and a struggle to keep something of one's self from being sold off to the lower bidder.

Friday, March 21, 2014

"The Sea House" by Elisabeth Gifford

“The Sea House” is about the power of past events and forgotten people to influence lives in the present.

For her tale of interplay between what has happened and what will, author Elisabeth Gifford developed three voices.

There is the Reverend Ferguson, living in the late 19th century, who represents the English presence in Scotland while dramatizing the struggle to reconcile community mythologies with the cold, hard facts of science.

There is Moira, his servant at the parish, who stands for all things Gaelic and local to the piece.

Finally, there is Ruth, living in the 1990s. She has returned to the village of Scarista, where she and her husband are opening a bed-and-breakfast (The Sea House) even as she is pregnant with child. Orphaned too young by her mother's apparent suicide, Ruth has not made her peace with the world yet.

The setting is the Outer Hebrides, or Western Isles, an outpost facing the cold North Atlantic, off the northwest coast of Scotland.

All three characters are tied up with the local legend of the “Selkies” or mermaids.

Reverend Ferguson believes Selkies exist, existed at one time, or evolved into early generations of the home population. He is trying to prove this through the dictates of scientific investigation, that rare man of the cloth with one foot firmly planted in the empirical world – a Spinozan, reconciling faith and fact.

When Ferguson seeks help in his endeavors from a contact at the University of Edinburgh, he is deemed, “too ready to give credence to the fanciful tales of fairies and legends held by the aboriginal peoples of the Western Islands in their state of ignorance.”

Ruth, for her part, is haunted by the idea that her mother, who claimed mermaid ancestry, committed suicide because of an inbred desire to return to the water.

“How could she do it,” Ruth asks herself in a moment of introspection, “let herself slip away into the dark water? Couldn't she understand that when a mother takes her own life, she reaches out a hand to take her child with her? That cold, white hand reaching up from the water, willing me to slip away with her.”

Moira, as homegrown product, naturally claims Selky lineage.

In getting the Sea House up to snuff, the newcomers discover a small chest with a baby's skeleton inside. The infant's legs are fused together like a mermaids, a fact that unsettles all manner of things in Ruth's troubled soul and prompts a search for further information.

Ruth discovers that the uprooting of the original “crofters” on the islands in the prior century had forced a “complete break in the village's timeline.”

The unfortunate crofters practiced subsistence farming on the rough and rocky Scottish highlands and outer islands under the tutelage of English aristocrats who owned the parcels from which they squeezed a living.

None of this is discussed in the story. Gifford writes her big history small, personalizing it. It is enough the reader know that a good and harmless people were uprooted and that the part of the culture they represented was destroyed in the process.

Here, Moira provides a Gaelic-tinged account of her cousin Annie's life.

“She and her husband had thrown together a small house made from rocks taken from the shore, but the only bit of earth left for the new squatters was a boggy and raw land. The children's feet did sink into it, down at the end of their house where the cattle should be kept-- not that Annie had herself a cow. They never had time to let the floor harden before they must live in there, and no one had the heart or the strength to get up a ceilidh to dance the floor hard and pack down the earth in the old way. The bairns [children] were playing a jumping game to see how far they could sink down in the mud until Annie gave the boys a slap – something I had never seen her do before.”

Gifford's research is nicely embedded into the fabric of the story so that it does not seem like research at all. She writes well and evenly throughout, the highpoint being an evocative and haunting account of one village's demise in which Moira and the Reverend bear witness and play a part, respectively.

Ruth's persistence, or mere presence perhaps, coupled with the stubborn regeneration of myths that sustain a scattered and dislocated people's identity, drive the story from two different places in time, seemingly seeking each other out in spite of history's attempts to obscure the connection between them.

Monday, March 10, 2014

"Strike for America," by Micah Uetricht

“Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity,” is as much about the fate of public education as it is a tract on the virtues and need for radical democratic unionism in the United States.

Micah Uetricht's account of a strike by Chicago teachers against the city school system and Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plan to close scores of schools as part of his reform is no even-handed monograph.

Before us is an unabashedly positive account of changes in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), over a few years, that led to the installation of an activist, left-wing leadership slate.

According to Uetricht, the CTU leadership had grown sclerotic and comfortable, a charge often associated with unions where officer turnover is limited to deaths in dotage.

After a false start with one reform slate, a group of activists within CTU formed the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), “rooted in an organic community-teacher coalition against school closures, a broad left politics, and an uncompromisingly combative and democratic unionism whose raison d'être was in a perceived need to end union capitulation to neoliberal education reform.”

(raison d'être? John L. Lewis, judge us not!)

From CORE's perspective, “The combination of public school closings and charter school expansion will likely erode the union's membership, redirect public money to privately run charters that lack basic mechanisms for public accountability, slash teachers' salaries and benefits, and cause massive disruption in the neighborhoods where the closures would take place.”

Uetricht's is an insider's account and one clearly affected by emotions associated with the American left coming out of the shadows for the strike in demonstration of its common and legitimate components. People pulling together and getting behind the needs of others can make you feel warm, fuzzy and less alone in an atomized and unkind culture.

Some labor watchers view the strike as a wash in terms of the contract reached and the fact Emanuel proceeded to close 49 public schools and open 63 new charters.

Nonetheless, the strike was a triumph as an organizing exercise and in its willingness to take action, even direct action, when confronting powerful adversaries. The CTU blueprint places the hoary old tool of the strike back in play when circumstances are right and proper tactics applied.

That said, radical democratic unionism as a source of vitality, both to organizing and bargaining, is not a new idea and, as an old one, has a spotty success rate.

It is still a less-practiced form of labor activism than the “business unionism” Uetricht readies for the dustbin. It has a tendency to turn a class of workers with bargaining unit representation into full-time  activists or politicians.

Not every rank-and-file is as well-suited to its demands as say, a group of educated, up-to-date, reading-prone teachers. It is more apt to take root when workers are shoved to the wall, the same place they were when the idea of a union got their goat in the first place, and which may be the subtext to this particular saga.

“Strike for America” does a very good job of laying out what the issues in the Chicago strike were, beyond wages, and into the communities served by the schools under attack. The author then ably connects those issues to what is happening in education nationally.

The Obama administration and Democrats do not come off well, and Uetricht asserts that unions need to reassess their long and fruitful relationship with the Donkey Party, given the impact certain of its enthusiastically forwarded policies are having on labor's ranks.

He writes, “From the very top of the national Democratic Party to the local level, the consensus is unabashedly in favor of transforming public education into a market commodity.”

“Strike for America,” is an interesting book for those monitoring the pace and particulars of change roiling American education, labor, and progressive politics, as well as their intersecting trajectories.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

"All the Birds, Singing" by Evie Wyld

Evie Wyld is a poetess of the ugly.

Whether it's a cigarette with a still-lit butt being run under a faucet, a ewe getting her throat slit, or the little pink penis of her protagonist Jake's captor, Wyld employs her marvelous prose to drive bile from one's gut into the bottom of the throat.

There is a place for this in literature: the youth with jaundiced eye, the angry take on a world that has disappointed too early, and the newly minted among us can be particularly rabid about the letdown.

So prepare to be bit.

"All the Birds, Singing," is the story of a woman whose first steps along the path of life are the wrong ones. Very wrong. The device, employed across a number of issues affecting Jake's life, is to let on that something is amiss and keep the reader guessing until the end, which limits the breadth of review so as not to spoil the story.

In any case, the narrative will take you from Australia to England, though it may take time to sort out where you are at first, because the second device employed is the presentation of chapters with no relation to chronology, except for the stacking of issue-resolving revelations at the end of the yarn.

The publisher, Pantheon Books, is very excited about Wyld, "All the Birds Singing" and the advance reviews ("completely and utterly monumental") focus on the author's crisp and textured prose.

There is, floating about the Internet, a "Ten Things Writers Shouldn't Do" list crafted by American author Elmore Leonard, whose specialty was the noir/thriller mystery.

Among Leonard's scripting sins is the use of adverbs, avoiding anything but saying the subject "said" during bouts of dialogue, and eschewing long descriptions of weather, places or people that a reader can jump over without losing the narrative thread.

"I'll bet you never skip over dialogue," said Leonard, whose big idea was that novelists should avoid "self-conscious writing."

Wyld would probably disagree, because she breaks all of Leonard's rules.

And that's because there is good storytelling and there is good "writing" with carefully crafted crevices, rises, flatlands and, yes, adverbs. Wyld has chosen this type of scribery over the keep-em-turning-those-pages approach, which is fine, with all due respect to Mr. Leonard. Readers find joy in the revelry of language, too.

Jake has got scars nasty enough to send one of her johns (semi-spoiler) heading for the exits without paying what's owed and, by golly, you will wait good and long before the writer decides to let you in on how they got there.

"Dark," "guttural," "raw": Pick your descriptive for this rural rant that does not offer up a boulevard of broken dreams so much as a gallery of damaged souls; emotional runts who make an art of barely coping.