I have only read Joy Williams’s non-fiction, and I love her fierce dedication to the natural world as expressed in biting yet idealistic prose. This novella felt just as fierce and just as idealistic, and just as dedicated to the natural world.
- I was very pleased to see that Williams hadn’t gone soft and written some bland insipid inspirational prayer book. I will admit to being a bit nervous that she had done an Eldridge Cleaver, so I’m happy that this text is a logical progression from where she’s been.
- Her conception of god is one that will probably confuse lots of people. God shows up in here, a lot. However, he is doing pretty mundane things – hosting dinner parties, visiting animal shelters, shopping, hanging out with wolves – and he’s pretty routinely confused by what has happened to the planet under the ravages of Western industrialism.
- The stories she shares are often pretty mundane, which I’m guessing is part of Williams’s point. In my mind writing a book like this that is about conceptions of the divine and that isn’t chock full of platitudes that pretend to be epic revelations is a subversive act. The fact that she makes them funny as hell and sharply observed helps.
Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones became one of those books that I read too fast. I wanted to know that Randall was able to go to basketball camp and get out of the poverty trap, that Skeetah kept the puppies to make some desperately-needed money, that Dad was able to break out of his grief-inspired alcoholism, that Esch discovered having sex would make her pregnant and that boys are at best stupid and at worst evil, and that Junior had a chance at some sort of childhood. Most of all, much to my shame, I wanted to keep going to see if China survived. Spoiler alert – Ward ends the novel before we know…
- Esch is a marvelous character. She’s trapped since the death of her mother, and has had to watch the family slink slowly into a kind of sloth fueled by the fact that their dad has become non-functioning since Mom died in childbirth.
- She clearly relates to the Greek plays that they are reading in her school, and she feels close to Medea in all her forms. The interplay between Esch’s reading of Medea and her own life features her trying out Medea in a bunch of different roles and possibilities, trying to make sense of her own pregnancy and relationship with her baby’s father in the light shed by Medea’s own struggle for autonomy.
- Skeetah and China’s relationship also did not play out how I expected it to. I have no experience with people who fight dogs outside of reading of the horror of Michael Vick’s slaughter pit, and to have this relationship so lovingly sketched out, with the care that Skeetah takes for China and her puppies going far beyond the money they’re worth. China and Skeetah are in a mutual protection society, with China simply doing what her hard-wiring tells her to do, and the relationship felt so loving *despite* the fact that she had been bred to fight.
- Despite all the blood, no dogs are killed in these fights, which makes sense since the dogs are worth so much money and are so close to their owners in a physical sense. This is not a portrayal of the bloodthirsty, cold-to-their-animals type of dog fighting that I see in the media – these are people who are simply allowing the dogs to do what they do.
- Finally, the portrayal of the hurricane’s impact is powerful but not dominating. I cared about the characters long before the hurricane hit, and the gradually creeping terror that they felt resonated with me. It also felt like an accurate portrayal of how the power of these storms is hard to imagine, especially with the elders in a community disabled or gone.
- And dammit, I hope China survived…I was hoping that Ward would at least let them keep a puppy…
This article has me frustrated, and I’m going to try to figure out why here…
- I want to accuse it of lazily repeating myths about the millennial generation, but it slides around directly accusing young folks of the general stereotypes (self-obsessed, pampered, screen-addicted) and sort of foists those critiques off onto colleges and universities. Higher ed certainly is not innocent of believing (and acting upon) these same stereotypes as well, but what this strategy does is enable Flanagan to not directly indict students.
- She also idealizes stand-up, something I get. As she notes here
And in the comedians’ desperate attempts to grasp the realpolitik of the college market—and to somehow reverse engineer an act catered to it—you could see why stand-up is such a singular form: it is mercilessly ineffective as agitprop.
and I agree – at its best, stand-up is agitprop – Bruce, Carlin, Pryor, and Rock are the most famous, but there are a lot of lesser-known comedians who have done some essential rhetorical bomb throwing as well…
- Her critiques of the university are useful, especially when she accuses them of simply wanting to entertain students, but she doesn’t mention some of the larger systemic issues that result in this – too many universities, too much of the employment scene devoted to this four years of what she calls ‘resort’ living, too much accumulated debt that results in the need to justify these expenses in terms of gains in marketable skills.
- Holy shit, though, this comment made me chuckle and want to spew for its truthiness:
During the day, “educational sessions” on topics of inexpressible tedium—“Wave Goodbye to Low Volunteer Retention”—droned on, testament (as are the educational sessions of a hundred other conferences) to the fact that the growth field in higher education is not Elizabethan literature or organic chemistry but mid-level administration.
Translating the need for studying Elizabethan literature might be a tough sell, but I can’t imagine why better understanding organic chemistry is, and this wholehearted rush to add administrators at a high level in universities seems less about the hypothetical soul of the institution and more about a desire to not tackle tough visionary questions with any sort of thoroughness or clarity.
- Her accusation that universities are no longer living the glory days of the 60s (“We knew who the enemy was then,” although Pogo might have been a good read for them) is a misread of campus environments. Yes, free speech is great until it’s abused, but what students are trying to do is to create an atmosphere that is not harmful. Even as I write this the slippery slope leading to an absolute yawning chasm looms, but the students who are trying to be careful shepherds of the dollars they spend are at least aware of how a university paying a comic to say stuff is some sort of endorsement.
- She ends with a nod to the essential humanity that drives the student activities folks to choose this style of comedy, but wonders at the cost. Not a surprise ending, but I think she also misses that while student activities folks are perhaps shy about offending in and of themselves, they also know that they will not be in these positions if they choose comedians who the institution does not approve of. Whether or not that sort of caution is one that will irredeemably shape them is something that none of us know…
Where I suddenly vanished to in my mind this morning…
As the situation of my life changes (dramatically), I find myself parsing small chunks of information, like an FBI agent or a tea leaf reader or a religious prophet, looking for meaning that probably isn’t there…