We Were Witches

This book made me dizzy, sizzled my hands. Preference for fiction is such a personal thing, I usually refrain from loading it into my highly recommended category. But I’ve got to put this book on there, if only because I had to stop reading it several times to 1) savor the goodness,  making it last longer 2) text friends to put it on their reading lists immediately.

It’s a novel, a fictionalized memoir with the real characters of Ariel, as narrator, along with her daughter Mia. Her son shows up years later, but he’s hinted at in the beginning when she’s having a midwife inject her with borrowed sperm who notices her scar from a painful operation she had in rural Italy in 1990 when giving birth to her daughter.

The story follows Ariel, a teenaged single mother who did not finish high school, as she raises Mia with no help from her parents or Mia’s father, while going to college, first at an unnamed school near Petaluma then at Mills College. Magical realism lifts your heart as you pull for this family to make it, for Ariel to become the artist mother that she wants to be, to blossom into a raging feminist, to evolve into a witch. Spoiler alert: there’s a happy ending.

Along the way, she melds the fiercest quotes from Adrienne Rich, Tillie Olson, Sylvia Plath, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde. There’s a sprinkling of spells, too. Gore’s own words are powerful, spare, lovingly picked, packed with punch. Major kudos for her including a reading list at the end, curating all the breadcrumbs of books she dropped references to throughout in one easily accessible spot. It’s a modern tale that leaves out all the name-dropping/brand-calling/technology-inserting that mars other similar works, marking them as ineligible for Classic status.

One of my favorite chapters, The Feminist Agenda, quotes Pat Robertson in 1992 saying that the feminist agenda is about “a socialist, antifamily political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.” Gore notes that aside from wanting to kill her child the rest of the list rang very true, and factored into her goals and reminders for 1992:

Don’t get married, ever.
Practice witchcraft.
Destroy capitalism.

Another great chapter is called White-Lady Feminism 101, which is three words in its entirety, and made me laugh: “Bring a mirror.”

For her senior thesis combining feminist economics and English lit, she links Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to Michel Foucault to Marilyn Waring’s economic treatise If Women Counted, wrapping up with: “Like Hester Pryne’s moment in The Scarlet Letter, my public shaming is not merely designed for my own benefit, but rather serves as a sermon and a warning to other girls and other women who may hope to escape the confines of a system designed to support and enable the white-supremacist capitalist war machine. I reject this system. I intend to resist this system.”

As she stands in her professor’s office, nursing her daughter, the professor announces that Ariel will have to be a feminist, because “Feminists do what they want.” That seared my scalp, yes yes yes!

In her rules for being 20 years old: “If there are only two options, always choose material poverty over psychic poverty.”

Quoting Adrienne Rich: “To seek visions, to dream dreams, is essential, and it is also essential to try new ways of living, to make room for serious experimentation, to respect the effort even where it fails.”

Greatest risk factors to being accused, tried, convicted and executed for witchcraft in 15th-17th centuries? Being a woman and being poor. “Add to those risk factors having a job or being sexual or single or outspoken or an unwed mother or unconcerned with cultural beauty norms or mentally ill or a healer—especially a midwife or a counselor—and you were pretty much dead. Dare to help another woman find contraceptives, and you were dead. Have the audacity to be old and grumpy, and you were most certainly dead.” Quoting the 1487 witch-hunting manual, The Malleus Maleficarum: “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.”

“If we don’t follow society’s rules, we risk losing our freedom [e.g. being locked up]. But if we must follow those rules without question, we’ve already given up our freedom.”

 

A Christmas Carol

It has been a year of Dickens, apparently. This is my 6th Dickens book consumed this year, appropriately timed for the holidays. Gorgeous edition from the Morgan Library which included digital photographs of each page of the manuscript side-by-side with the transcribed text.

Dickens is in top form in this quickly rendered story, churned out in six weeks for the 1843 Christmas season and to help pay the bills that were crowding in. Scrooge is the main attraction, a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!… self-contained and solitary as an oyster.” Marvelous character! He says if he could get his wish, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” As he tries to withstand the onslaught of Spirits, he claims that anything could upset his senses, such fragile things they are. “A little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more gravy than grave about you, whatever you are!”

Robert Rauschenberg

It is perhaps unfair to call Rauschenberg a spoiled/rich-man’s version Bruce Conner, but that’s what I’m left feeling after viewing the extensive retrospective at SFMOMA. A friend said it made him feel melancholy to view the vast production of art over many decades, culminating in Rauschenberg’s purchasing of an island in Florida—the feeling comes from sadness that this type of life no longer seems possible, to stumble into making art as a twenty-something of no means, travel the world, brainstorm with the most creative minds at Black Mountain, to end up almost printing money by being the art world darling.

The book was put together for the MOMA show that is now in SF and offers a chance to get up close and personal with the work in a way that is impossible when you’re elbowing others out of your viewing space. But it cannot possibly convey the magic of the sound sculptures, the burbling of the Mud Muse, the quirky clips from Pelican and Linoleum.

I’m left wanting to know more about Josef Albers time at Black Mountain College because of this statement he made in 1929 back in Germany while working at the Bauhaus:

First we seek contact with material… Instead of pasting it, we will put paper together by sewing, buttoning, riveting, typing, and pinning it; in other words we fasten it in a multitude of ways. We will test the possibilities of its tensile and compression-resistant strength. In doing so, we  do not always create ‘works of art’ but rather experiments; it is not our ambition to fill museums; we are gathering experience.

Two Years Before the Mast

I’m not sure how I managed to avoid reading Richard Henry Dana’s classic work chronicling his two years at sea, but Melville tipped me off to it again recently (Dana recites the 39th chapter of Job to keep himself entertained during his watch on board). Dana’s voyage began in 1834 out of Boston on a ship bound for California to collect hides. Once they get to San Diego, Dana is tasked with curing the cattle hides on shore and becomes familiar with the other beach denizens, learning piecemeal Hawaiian and mastering Spanish. He finagles his way onto a different ship when he learns that his original ship was going to stick around the California coast for an extra year or two, and Dana was concerned about missing too much of his “real” life (he took a few year sabbatical from Harvard studies to go oceaning).

It’s an interesting work—priceless descriptions of early California pre-Gold Rush, detailed information about the running of a ship from a worker’s perspective—but nothing nearly as astonishing as Melville’s blend of tale and poetry. I was struck by one possible coincidence/influence—did Bartleby’s “I prefer not to” originate out of Dana’s Indians who were asked to help and shook their heads saying “no quiero” ?? (Chapter XIV)

Dana’s treatment of the natives is as racist and ridiculous as you’d expect. He calls their language “the most brutish and inhuman language, without any exception, that I ever heard or that could well be conceived of. It is a complete slabber. The words fall off of the ends of their tongues, and a continual slabbering sound is made in the cheeks, outside of the teeth. It cannot have been the language of Montezuma and the independent Mexicans.”

I learned that sailors call tea “water bewitched,” which I love. And his use of “holyday” made me realize that this is where “holiday” derives from.

Great quote about California that I wish were still true: “Revolutions are matters of constant occurrence in California. They are got up by men who are at the foot of the ladder and in desperate circumstances…” Also prescient is his comment about the Bay Area (circa 1935): “If California ever becomes a prosperous country, this bay will be the centre of its prosperity. The abundance of wood and water, the extreme fertility of its shores, the excellence of its climate, which is as near to being perfect as any in the world, and its facilities for navigation, affording the best anchoring-grounds in the whole western coast of America, all fit it for a place of great importance.”

Little Fires Everywhere

Everyone is in love with this book, but I can only work up a mild flirtation. There were some sparkling parts, and as I dove in I was sure that I would excitedly gobble it up in one sitting. Instead, it lurched across the entire afternoon, more of a plowing through than a nibbling delightedly.

Most interesting were the characters of Mia, the artist-mom who comes into town with her teenage daughter Pearl in tow, and Izzy – the daughter of the rich family that Pearl falls in love with and who Mia starts to clean/cook for. Izzy sets her own parents’ house on fire and runs away, a scene that lingers through the rest of the smoke-tinged air of the rest of the book. There are subplots aplenty—Pearl becomes instant besties with Moody, the 2nd son of the rich family, but starts boning Trip, the oldest son. Lexi is the oldest daughter, a spoiled popular brat but not too unlikeable. Izzy’s the youngest, the most hated sibling. The mother is a frustrated journalist who gave up her career to raise this family.

Another plot is the abandoned Asian baby—dropped at a firehouse—adopted by rich friends of the main family, but the mother (who works with Mia at a Chinese restaurant) decides she wants her baby back. Her court case fails so she steals it. Blargh, none of this book is memorable nor will stay in the mind for more than a few seasons before sinking into obscurity.

I guess one good thing from the book was getting tipped off to Phillip Larkin’s poem, This Be The Verse. “Man hands on misery to man./It deepens like a coastal shelf./Get out as early as you can,/And don’t have any kids yourself.”

Oliver Twist

Gruel, gruel world! This is Dickens’s second novel, a more gruesome and tattered look at poverty and crime in early 19th century London, peppered with bits of witticism but mostly just grim. There’s even a murder! Poor Nancy gets offed by Sikes when he suspects her of having told people of his crimes. But the main story is the eponymous Oliver Twist, an orphan raised by the state with starvation rations, farmed out to a coffin-maker as an apprentice where he runs away from more ill-treatment. Walking the 70 miles to London, he arrives fairly bedraggled and falls in with the wrong crowd. Artful Dodger, as Jack Dawkins is known, feeds him and takes him to his boss, Fagin the Jew, who leads a ring of petty thieves, stealing pocket handkerchiefs and watches and anything else of resale value. We know Oliver is different, somehow angelic in the middle of all these bad ‘uns. Of course it turns out that his parents were rather well-to-do, and he ends up with a pretty inheritance along with a parcel of happy and kind friends.