Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Westward Ho!: Sherman Alexie’s Modern Indian

When I was in the fifth grade, my teacher made me read a book and write a report on it…that NO ONE ELSE HAD TO DO. The intent of it, I know, was to keep my mind challenged because there was no “Encore” program at my middle school, but the overall significance of this was lost on me as an eleven-year-old; I was just bitter I had to do more work than everyone else. Though I have no idea what the book was called nor what it’s plot was, I know it was about the Trail of Tears. And I remember its existence because it sparked in me a curiosity of these cultures that are spoken of so predominantly in terms of the past and not the present.

I’ve been wanting to read some Sherman Alexie for a while now, since I’ve been motivated to read about American cultures and lifestyles that are unfamiliar to me. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven is the short story collection that pulled Alexie out of the blue and to the forefront of modern Native American literature. Earning a Hemingway/PEN Award nomination in 1993, The Lone Ranger and Tonto is partially a memoir of Alexie’s life growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. The stories are somewhat connected, mostly by character overlaps, and often focusing on a character named Victor who has quite a cynical outlook on life.

That, in fact, is the predominant tone that just drips from Alexie’s stories: cynicism. Some of the stories are told from Victor’s perspective and some are told about him by others, but no matter the narrator, most are just filled with an overwhelming disenchantment with people and society. A common theme that shows up in many of the stories is alcoholism and how widespread and destructive it is in this tribe. The edition of this book that I read had a preface by Alexie in which he stated (and I’m summarizing by what I remember) that he did not have a motive in writing about the alcoholism; he was not trying to make a statement nor validate a stereotype; he was just writing about what is. I would hate to believe that this is, in fact, the life and mindset of today’s Indians, but as I said before, it’s a lifestyle unfamiliar to me and one I am trying to learn more about. And though Alexie is perhaps the most well-known modern Indian author, he is but one voice, and his voice alone should not define or generalize a vast group of people.

Alexie’s stories are not deeply complex, nor action-filled. They are brief snippets of time or conversation between characters, revealing thoughts and emotions that Alexie has seen and felt. In the first story, “Every Little Hurricane,” a nine-year-old Victor witnesses a fight between his uncles on New Year’s Eve. We see pieces of a young Victor’s history and will be able to understand, as the stories progress and Victor ages, where he is coming from and what he is relating to. “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Don’t Flash Red Anymore” merely contains a conversation between two characters on a young, talented basketball player who succumbed to alcoholism and their hopes that a young, talented artist doesn’t follow suit. These stories, no matter how brief, create a history for the reader, so that we will understand how experiences have led to how these people see the world today.

I had a thought while reading this, one that doesn’t have much literacy importance but is a discussion point nonetheless: the appropriate term for indigenous peoples of America is still a tricky one to define, depending on who you’re talking to. Most of us probably developed the habit of using “Native American” while in grade school, as “Indian” was deemed to have negative stereotypes. But throughout Alexie’s book, the only term he uses (when using as a blanket statement and not referring to specific tribes) is “Indian.” Now, before reading this, I was still in the grade-school mindset in which “Indian” seemed slightly un-politically correct, but this made me think—think about the history of the term and the environments that have demanded specific language—and the “Native American” I had been so used to suddenly sounded, to me, so…forced. With an evolving language, it’s difficult to get an entire population on the same page, and what sounds correct to some may still hold inappropriate connotations to others. So this, and so many more examples of “politically-correct” terms, are still drifting in uncertainty.

Overall, I felt Alexie presented a strong voice through his stories, but he’s still only one voice of a population of people that is over-generalized despite carrying vastly different cultures and histories. And to further understand the whole, you need to explore its individual pieces.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Nonfiction | Starving Artists in the City

Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids is a book that’s been on my periphery for quite a while. For a period there it was one of the books you’d most frequently see on the subway and on the ‘featured’ shelves of bookstores. In fact, I think I’d checked it out from the library no less than three times before I ever got around to actually reading it.

Before reading this book, I had no idea who Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were. I got the impression that maybe these were people that are well-known to a certain crowd, a certain New York City artsy crowd, but it wasn’t their story that drew me to the book in the first place; it was that the book (supposedly) captured a particular moment and lifestyle in New York City history, and as a resident, that’s always exciting to read about.

So, if you also have no idea who these people are, don’t worry. In a nutshell, they’re sort of vagabond artists of the Dylan, Morrison, Warhol generation. They lived paycheck to paycheck, worked whatever job would pay, moved wherever was cheaper, saved pennies and occasionally splurged on treats. They did what they had to do to get by, but art was always at the forefront of their minds—creation of something…photography, painting, drawing, sculpting, writing, composing…didn’t matter what. The late 60s and 70s are not often reflected upon fondly in New York City. It’s an era defined by the city’s decline—uptick in crime, heavy drug use, neighborhoods falling apart—but it produced some of the twentieth century’s most lasting artists. Intentional or not, Smith’s memoir describes the connection between art and environment, how having nothing inspires creating of something, how surroundings influence what an artist wants to say.

Patti Smith encountered a lot of famous people in her youth, people with much bigger names than hers. She never describes these people to name drop. Her own described insecurities keep her placed her on a rung below the most famous, but she did share their world. She recalls encounters with Hendrix and Joplin and describes them as the gods they have become, leaving me wondering if she remembers them with the status they have attained in the past forty years or if they really were so far above in their own time.

Smith paints a full picture of the era, complete with secondary characters and locations, but the focus of the story is always on her relationship with Mapplethorpe. Ultimately, she tells the story of two people who support each other endlessly as they each try to achieve their goals and reach their dreams.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

February 1: Next On the List

In an attempt to mentally organize and motivate, I think I’m going to start taking a monthly mental pause to assess what I want to read, where I am with any reading goals, and what exciting things are on the horizon. It sounds silly because reading should be a relaxing, enjoyable activity, but it can sometimes get a little overwhelming to think of all I have and want to do!

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In January, I started my own personal Westward Ho! reading project, for which I read two books (but only blogged on one; I’ll get there!). I don’t have anything on the immediate agenda for this, only in the abstract future—the next couple of months. I am going to be reading Lions of the West with Aarti, but that’s not going to start until at least March.

Yesterday I started the book for my February book club meeting, Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. I’ve been taking a bit of a break from book club for the past two months. It’s not that I grew tired of it, it’s just…well, the last two meetings went on for two and a half hours. I mean, I enjoy talking about books, but that is a long time to discuss one book. The discussion is great for about an hour and then it gets too detailed, like people are grasping for straws for something to discuss, and it’s the same couple of people who just keep talking. It is possible to over-discuss a book. Anyway, I just needed a breather and now I’ve had one, so I’m excited for next week’s meeting! The book, by the way, is “eh” so far (I’m 100 pages in). Like every book I’ve read for this book club, I probably won’t love it but I will enjoy the discussion of it.

I started Jonathan Raban’s essay collection, Driving Home, last week, and it is a chunkster. I took a break from it for a bit to start my book club book, but it’s a library book so I plan on finishing it in the next two weeks. (The only time I’m able to start a new book in the middle of another one like this is if it’s essays or short stories!) So far, some of the essays are interesting and some are boring. I thought it would be more of a travelogue, but a lot of his essays are just analyzing other authors’ works and have little to do with American travel. It’s not really what I expected from the book as a whole.

I got some fabulous books from ALA Midwinter, including:

  • Marzi, a new graphic novel that the girl at the Random House booth generously let me take
  • Maggie Now, a Betty Smith novel I’d never heard of, thanks to the HarpeCollins booth
  • Come In and Cover Me, the new Gin Phillips (I loved The Well and the Mine) thanks to Penguin’s $5 all-you-can-hold sale
  • The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam (I have Old Filth but haven’t read it yet!)
Conferences are fun, but when you’re working at one and have to stand in your exhibition booth all day…well, you miss out on the fun of discovering new books! Luckily, the last day was pretty slow and I got to wander a bit.
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If you live in Brooklyn (or even just in NYC) and you don’t know about WORD yet, you should. It’s an independent bookstore in Greenpoint, and they have some fabulous events. It’s where I’ve gone to readings with Emily St. John Mandel and Jon Michaud. In December, I missed Haley Tanner, who was coincidentally there as I was reading her book. But in February, they have some great things coming up, including an event with Jonathan Evison (of West of Here) which I will sadly have to miss because of class, one with Joe Wallace who I met there once and subsequently read his book, and one with Michael Showalter of comedic fame. 
Related: Wet Hot American Summer is one of my top 5 movies of all time, and in college, my friend Gretch and I once spent an entire three-hour studio painting class throwing Wet Hot quotes back and forth until, at the very end of class, a guy sitting next to us finally asked, “Are you guys quoting Wet Hot?” I asked Colin if I could tell Michael Showalter that story, and he said no, it would not impress him. I think it would. We quoted the movie longer than the movie itself.
Happy February!