Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Taking a deep breath

All my life I've been an ardent bibliophile. I started reading around age three and never looked back. When I was naughty, my mother soon learned that "Go to your room" was far from an effective punishment; I'd happily lock myself in and read for hours. In my early twenties, I could not get my brain around the concept when some people told me they had "no time to read." At the time I was convinced I could no sooner go a day without reading at least a chapter or two of a book than I could go without breathing. The parallel is, I think, especially apt; I breathed in books. I read everywhere -- on the public transit, at lunch break, before bed, and very often when I should have been doing something else.

But recently I came to the unsettling realization that although I continue to read every day, the lion's share of my reading time is spent online, flitting from website to website, flicking through the news stories and glancing over Wikipedia and the IMDb. And although these sources have their charms and treasures, both rich and delicate, the majority of it is like crunching through a bag of potato chips -- filling, tasty, but not nutritive. Add in the fact that I allow the siren call of the Net to suck away all my free time, and you have a singularly unhealthy mix.

It occurs to me that I still have the time to read books, but only if I deliberately tear myself away from the Internet and start seeking out the good stuff in my local library -- if I go back to the easy habit of breathing in books. So here's what I've been inhaling recently:

Possum Living by Dolly Freed

I first came across information about Possum Living online, actually; I stumbled across the Possum Living blog and was simply fascinated. "Dolly Freed" (not her real name) was a good writer with a distinctive, funny voice, and I was curious what she might have had to say about life without a job back in her late teens.

Turns out, she had plenty to say. Dolly's "possum living" existence -- surviving and thriving with no regular job, living on just enough money to buy absolute essentials -- is reprinted just as it was first published in 1978 (with a few judicious comments and an afterword by the author, now older and wiser). She sketches out the basics of her possum existence (raising/hunting/killing/skinning your own meat, growing your own vegetables, distilling your own alcohol, buying and fixing up houses, handling legal disputes, avoiding taxes) in detail, adding subversive and funny touches. The kicker is that you have to be willing to make, grow or forage for nearly everything you need, so it's hardly a lazy existence; I happen to like our current way of life and I'm not convinced that I should try bailing out just to see what it's like. But it's relieving to know that if you're willing to put in the effort, it's very possible to live well on little ready money.

The best entertainment value in the book, to my mind, is the afterword. Dolly has plenty to say about her young and sassy opinions, some of which she no longer espouses (especially the chapter about legal disputes, and about dealing with people who have done you wrong by clandestinely breaking their windows or slashing their tires). She also admits what the observant reader has already seen between the lines of the original text: that her father, with whom she lived during the years she wrote Possum Living, was an alcoholic who eventually lost access to his entire family because of his addiction, and who in later years became outright abusive and dangerous. At least some of what the young Dolly has written is her way of putting a brave face over a bad situation. But that, too, is part of what makes this book compelling.

My Lobotomy by Howard Dully

I first picked up a copy of this book several years ago at a Borders Books in Utah, while I was waiting semi-patiently for Miss V to make her latest manga selection, and read an early chapter at random. The picture of abuse and cruelty at the hands of a real-life "wicked stepmother" who chose one stepson as a scapegoat drew me in, and though I didn't have enough money at the time to buy the book, it remained stuck in the back of my mind. When I saw it again at the library, I plucked it off the shelf immediately.

My Lobotomy is one of those books that brings up far more questions than it ever answers: why did Howard Dully's stepmother demand that he have a lobotomy? Why on earth did his father ever agree to it? How could experimental brain "surgery" (in reality, the transorbital lobotomy was little more than brain-scrambling) ever have been performed on a 12-year-old boy? And perhaps the most haunting question: what kind of man would Howard Dully have become if he hadn't been given a lobotomy?

The fact that Dully still has the ability to think and reason, after so many others were rendered incapable of caring for themselves or even of speaking, is a minor miracle. But the lobotomy and what it came to represent -- an utter, complete rejection of his very being by his stepmother (and, to a lesser extent, his own father) -- set Dully onto a trajectory toward a ruinous life that would include criminal activity, drug addiction, irresponsible sexual behavior and a host of other problems. That he has risen above it to carve out a good life for himself indicates that this might be perceived as a success story, but in many ways it is not. Howard Dully is haunted by what was done to him, by what he might have become. His exploration of his case file and his interview with his father (who still insists that he carries no share of the blame) have brought Dully no closure. It is only the chance to reach out to others who have also survived lobotomies, or their children and families, that has finally brought him a measure of peace. Readers are left hoping that somehow that may be enough to heal the wound in his mind, even if the damage inflicted behind his eyes remains.

American Chica by Marie Arana

This was a pure and simple impulse read. I happened to be scanning the biography section of the library, saw this book, read the back blurb and took it away with me.

American Chica is a wonderful read; Arana was trained as a journalist, and her beautifully detailed descriptions and carefully-chosen similes point out the many ways in which her parents' trans-continental marriage and her privileged upbringing in Peru, then the dramatic change to middle-class surroundings in the United States, have molded her present being. She writes evocatively of being a kind of living bridge, a hybrid child, both Peruvian and American, and yet neither at the same time; how she and her brother were able to claim both sides of their heritage, yet were not fully accepted into Peruvian society and were rejected as "foreigners" by Americans.

Though I believe America is continually becoming more tolerant of difference, less concerned with where you came from and more interested in who you are, I can see there are still many biases and prejudices simmering beneath the surface. I see it in the official immigration laws and allowances -- the way, for instance, we allow unlimited numbers of Canadians and northern Europeans to immigrate each year, but impose caps and limits on the number of darker-skinned southern Europeans, Mexicans, and Central and South Americans who may legally cross our borders. I see it in the soft racism of lowered expectations, the understanding that "those people" are somehow less intelligent and should not be held to the same standard as "our people," whatever that might mean. Arana, who grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s, saw these biases in full flower -- she writes of how, during her first trip to the United States, she saw segregated restrooms in St. Louis, labeled "white" and "colored," and how she looked down at her own brown knees and wondered how anyone could ever think of her as white. (Yet she used the "white" restroom because her white mother took it for granted that since she was white, her children would be too. Not everyone Arana met in America felt the same way, though.)

There are some decidedly uncomfortable vignettes in this book, including one disturbing scene where a family friend attempts to molest Arana; nearly every story, however, is connected to every other, reflecting and reinforcing the author's belief that everything which happens is for a purpose, and that all things are connected beneath the surface. And Arana's prose is both symbolically rich and resonant in its fine description. I have a hard time understanding those who have complained that the author's life is not noteworthy enough to merit an autobiography; any life, whether noteworthy or obscure, is worth reading about if the details are inherently interesting -- a bonus if they are told with a wealth of the right kind of description and an eye for connection, both of which Arana displays in spades. It's well worth the read, in my opinion.


D. Cootey said...

" the way, for instance, we allow unlimited numbers of Canadians and northern Europeans to immigrate each year, but impose caps and limits on the number of darker-skinned southern Europeans, Mexicans, and Central and South Americans who may legally cross our borders. I see it in the soft racism of lowered expectations, the understanding that "those people" are somehow less intelligent and should not be held to the same standard as "our people," whatever that might mean"

Can you give me some links for this? I have never heard of this before. I really want to read up on it.

Soozcat said...

Certainly. A good place to begin is this Wikipedia article.

Also take a look at the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which is largely still the immigration law today.

Laws passed in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have done something to ameliorate the problem, but there are still fairly severe immigrant visa limits which disproportionately affect would-be immigrants from Latin America.

My great-grandmother used to tell me stories of what she saw when she came through Ellis Island. She said there were people who had sold everything they owned to buy passage on a ship to America, and when they got there they had to go through a rigorous health inspection. If they didn't pass, they had a large red X marked on their backs and were placed on ships heading back toward Europe. Many of them, in despair, threw themselves overboard to drown, because they had nothing and no one to go back to.

My grandma used to get angry all over again when she talked about it. She would mutter, "Give me your tired, your poor... but not your sick."

Stephanie Burton said...

Hello, I just found a link to your blog from Goodreads. Having read your reviews here I've been inspired to search out and read American Chica. I realise this post is ages old now, but thanks for writing it! Love to discover great books :-)

Soozcat said...

Well, hi Stephanie! Thanks for your comment. I hope you do read American Chica; it's really interesting and the author writes her story with skill and insight.