Thoughts of an Author in Training
I vaguely remember where this author was first introduced among my literary knowledge but the title echoed in my mind when I received it as a present for graduation. I love the title and I quite like that the author never used it in the book. Most books and essays usually echo the title in their work, or rather, like myself, they latch on to a word or phrase in their writing and that becomes their title.
Anyways, I was thoroughly terrified and impressed by this book. It’s a vulnerable task when combining the issues of race and emphasizing the female struggle within that race. Maya, the protagonist is pressed with what she comes to recognize as the unlucky fortune of being born black in a time when white people are ignorant and places like Stamps, Arkansas is still segregated. Maya and her brother Bailey grow up with their grandmother and older crippled uncle. Throughout the story their tossed between believing their orphans and vaguely living between mother and father. All sorts of identity questions surface in the novel and ultimately the two children fight to understand where they belong, not feeling wanted anywhere.
When Maya and her brother first move in with Mother Dear in San Fransico, the reader is exposed to the sexual brutality of Mother’s boyfriend and his greedy fingers for Maya’s body. The author didn’t have to give much detail for me to just cringe and want to throw up everywhere. The twisted part and probably the most unbelievably realistic, is that Maya thinks it’s her fault and is isolated in the rape scenario because she can’t expose herself and disappoint her brother. This part was harsh to read. The consciousness of the child mind being violated by the sexual adult was just horrifying. She felt guilty for wanting the attention, she felt at fault for what was happening, and most importantly she had no idea what was being done to her until she started bleeding.
I think what grabbed me the most in this story was the bravery and the style of writing. The story is non-fiction, which made it more difficult to comprehend, but it exposed so much courage and talent in being able to write a history blotched by so much pain. The author did it all through the child conscious and curiosity, something that isn’t easy to do or to keep consistent. There’s a quote late in the book in which Bailey asks, “Uncle Willie, why do they hate us so much?” Good question and a question really only a child could ask because they haven’t been corrupted by the ridiculousness of racism. It would seem very hurtful and unnatural to be continually punished for something you didn’t do, that nobody did, that just being was the apparent crime. This part struck me raw at how unfair and unhappy racial cruelty was and still is. The fact that children are the ones pointing out our outlandish standards says something to how far we stray from humanity sometimes as adults.
First saw this and thought, no freaking way, religious books are not my genre. At least not now, who knows they might be in the future, the afterlife is a curious thing. But it turns out this book was the exact opposite of anything pious. It’s a short compilation of stories about fuck-ups and drug addicts, an intriguing combination for me. There something tasty about the misfortunes of others when you begin to write. At least in fiction you have the ability to torture the protagonist in matters of everything you wish you could control in your own life. But that doesn’t make a good story. It’s the misfortune and the unfortunate consequences that equal an intriguing stream of consciousness. That’s why I’ve enjoyed reading about the addicts in books because the writing is so raw and all over the place.
Each story was loosely connected so it felt like a novel but there was no real sequential relationship. The characters were about the only thing that tied them together which made an interesting read of the stories. I wanted to smash them all together, to make them work as one novel but the content didn’t allow it. So I forced myself to read on through this strange alliance of recovering addicts, robbers and drunks it order to find that I really only enjoyed two of the stories.
“Work” and “Emergency” were the two stories that I had to re-read a few times because the development was electric in the last paragraphs. Johnson really has the characteristic ability to leave you hanging with heavy last words. Each story had a dramatic last sentence, but the two I liked the most exposed a strange human absence. In “Work” the protagonist exposes the nameless bartender as his mother. In “Emergency” he realizes that though work in a hospital he doesn’t understand the meaning of a life and how to save it. These two absences of a nurturing mother and appreciation of life created a hollow human existence in the rest of the stories. Everything seemed so opposite, the value of things, tangible or not, was something I hadn’t considered in choices of addictive life styles. It was chaotic and a sad compilation of stories but it kept me turning pages to figure out what pathetic task the protagonist would attempt next.
As the book jacket nominates Homes to be one of the most daring writers of her generation, I couldn’t stand closer to that fact. This book led me to assume it would be about the safety of things, of life, but it was nothing near safe. After I read the first story I figured out the recipe to reading all the others. Expect graphic, expect the truth, don’t read as a bed time story, and don’t skim.
The first short story I dived in to one night with my boyfriend was “Chunky in Heat” and we read it aloud underneath the vaulted ceilings of our apartment. I felt so dirty reading it and had to hand it off, when “in the hot air the surface of her skin becomes tacky and the tops of her thighs touch and stick together, gripping each other in a vaguely masturbatory manner.” Not that I mind the description of sexuality, but it just caught me off guard. I had no idea what to expect in her writing style. I only knew that she was in the recommended section of my book check out because I read so much David Sedaris.It was a treat, a terrifying treat in finding a fresh author.
What I enjoyed most about her writing was the brutal honesty in the American dream. Each story was targeted for the exposure of an American life style, what happens behind the perfect suburban doors. It didn’t seem like fiction. Though outrageous and striking it all was extremely viable and each scene validated in its madness. From parents who do heroin while the kids are at grandmas to the constant struggle of the fat girls club, Homes delegates attention to the topics we most deeply want to ignore.
All of the modern day world problems seem to be crammed in to this book as they demand attention. AIDS, child sexuality, suicide, drugs, adultery and self loathing all creep in to the pages of this book. This all makes it quite heavy to read and certainly not a bed time story. If you’re a mother I wouldn’t recommend this book as many of the themes pertain to the horrible possibilities of children. I don’t even have kids and I felt uncomfortable with “Looking for Johnny” thinking of some kid getting kidnapped and drugged. If it’s uncomforting Homes was seeking, I believe she accomplished it and did it with rather beautiful details. I admire that she didn’t abuse the disturbing contexts, nothing said was a waste of space or language because she did it all with a rather poetic and tasteful sense. It’s the grander themes that she attacked which make the book so controversial, but the bravery of doing so was what I couldn’t turn away from.
Aside from the beautiful cover I really didn’t suspect this was going to be a likeable book. It’s set in the forests of Alaska during the 1920s where a childless couple moves from their city life to try and survive the wilderness. They move initially for the seclusion because they can’t handle the questions and judgment of the loss of their only child who died in birth. I’m not entirely in to the farming and homestead type novels but I have to admit that I enjoyed this one. I didn’t enjoy it for purely content but rather the majestic attempt and creative story line.
It was given to me by a best friend whose in-laws believed she would enjoy the novel. Knowing they were completely wrong, being the city-girl she is, she passed it along to me where I know she didn’t even read page one because if she had I think she would at least given it a try. Ivey dives right in to the goodies of a novel and raises the stakes exponentially. The protagonist, by page three is pacing across a lightly frozen lake headed toward a dramatic drop and threatening her life under the night sky.
Suicide? Pretty dramatic way to start off a book I would say, maybe the author recognized that she needed to catapult her readers in to the story because homestead Alaska wasn’t going to be enough. But Mable does survive and the reminder of the book is her fight with the loneliness of not being a mother. The book goes on to introduce the snow child, Faina, which I still after reading it can’t decipher weather she was real to the characters or everyone just went crazy. There are hints here and there that Mable might be a victim of cabin fever and so the realness of the snow child is put in to question. The writing style even alludes to her non-existence. All the character dialogue is put in quotations, but when they talk with Faina dialogue is not quoted. It’s also not in italics which would have suggested inner dialogue. It’s sneaky how we never come to know the truth about Faina. It really gets strange when she becomes pregnant and has a son when all along I was assuming she was made of snow.
I admire the poetics and natural beauty of this story. The scenery and character development made the pages a working piece especially in its length. I was worried how it would keep building but character relationships and growth was the answer. I can’t say I’ll read much more of this author’s work simply in the fantasy aspect of this piece, but I enjoyed it for what it was and it really polished a picture of Alaska for me.