Posts Tagged ‘community’

The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)

I love this book so much. It’s about a competition between two magic teachers – they each train a student, then bind them together in a magical fight to the death. Of course the two fall in love. The first time I saw that much, but this time I saw just how important everyone else is, the clockmaker, the contortionist who survived the last challenge, the fortuneteller who uses Temperance to keep them balanced, the teenager who teaches the magician about stories, the woman who sees behind the scenes and runs mad, the boy who falls in love with the circus and saves it. Of course I love the circus as well, all the magical tents that don’t seem to match what I remember of circuses – The Wishing Tree, The Pool of Tears, The Ice Garden… It’s beautiful and emotional, and not at all outsized or self-conscious the way I picture circuses. I want Morgenstern to write more books.

 

The Poisoned Island (Lloyd Shepherd)

This book starts with a rape, and rubs the symbolism in as it continues to tell the story of English botanists raiding Tahiti. It’s marketed as literary fiction, but don’t be fooled: this is a dark Regency-era murder mystery with a strong social-justice message. It’s also the second in a series, which didn’t become clear until I got curious about all the references to the characters’ shared history and checked Amazon, and sure enough, the major characters are mentioned by name in the description of Shepherd’s previous novel, The English Monster. So read them in order. I’m not saying it’s poorly written, because I think it’s a good book – I use ‘literary fiction’ as a genre rather than as a description of quality. But seriously, the body count gets up to nine or ten, and the protagonist takes a really paternalistic attitude toward his wife, who seems like a brilliant scientist if men would stop hampering her activities.

 

The Earthsea Trilogy (Ursula K. Le Guin)

I thought this would be a good way to slow down the way I’m burning through my book collection, reading a three-in-one, but it didn’t work. It went so fast. Three titles: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore. In some form, all three books are about the human conflict with death. Le Guin points out that death is to be respected, but not sought after, not worshipped, not feared. The protagonist of the first one turns into a guide in the other two, but while it makes sense, it’s a little sad – the first book makes it clear that he has dark skin, as do most of the people in Earthsea, but the next two books have white protagonists, and Ged becomes another magical Negro spirit guide. There are important things here about who we are and what it means to be human, but the racial stuff did make me sad. There are more books now, so maybe the people of color come back to the center in Tehanu, but I don’t know yet.

 

The Lightning-Struck Heart (T. J. Klune)

I loved this book so much. Again, it’s sort of thick so it should have taken me a while, but I went through it so fast and loved it all. Highly recommended for anyone who thinks that bitchy twinks who make sex jokes in a fantasy landscape can be hilarious. Fantasy/gay rom-com, completely genre-appropriate. Sam is a wizard’s apprentice whose best friends are an angry glittery unicorn and a half-giant. He’s in love with Knight Delicious Face, engaged to Prince Justin – the prince gets kidnapped by a sexually aggressive dragon who has been deified by a local town with mind-control corn, so the baby wizard and the knight go on a quest. I am super excited about the fact that there are three more that I can put on my list.

 

Oh, and by the way, today is my seven-year anniversary on WordPress. You’ve come a long way, Angry Ricky, but you’re still yourself, even though you thought you might lose yourself along the way.

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It’s not always labeled as such, but this is a Dungeons and Dragons story. Well-written fantasy, but in a world that already feels familiar to some of us. I have never studied economics; even in high school, my civics class was all government and no economics. This book puts the basis for some of our economic problems into terms that I can understand.

It’s like this. Hero work ostensibly exists for the improvement of society and making the world a better place, but it really all boils down to money, sort of like the American education system. Heroes go out and kill ‘bad’ guys and take their stuff. Society measures their accomplishments by looking at the tangible results, the loot. Corporations or guilds see the loot coming in and want a piece of it, so they choose a hero and invest in getting him better armor and weapons so that he has a better chance of getting the loot. In exchange, he promises them a percentage of the take. It was all well and good for a while, but then a couple of things happened. First, heroes started running out of ‘bad’ guys to kill. Too many heroes, not enough loot. The competition gets more intense for a lesser reward, so the investors are less interested in putting their money into something that will not pay. Second, the bankers figured out that you can invest in a hero, get him outfitted and all that, but then while he’s gone slaying the dragon or suppressing the orc menace, you sell your share of his loot to someone else. You get your profits faster and without risk, because you’re passing the risk along to someone else. The hero has now become a hot potato, with everyone selling the shares around until he comes back with a wagonload of gold or something. When dealing with actual companies and small business owners, I imagine that the hot potato can be passed around indefinitely, as long as the company stays in business.

The idea of who is bad and who is good opens up a whole can of post-colonial immigration worms. It’s typical to see the player races – humans, dwarves, elves, halflings, etc – as the good guys most of the time, and some other races as being bad all the time – goblins, orcs, trolls, ogres, the less sexy fantasy creatures. Protagonist Gorm Ingerson is a dwarf berserker, and the story begins with him befriending a goblin. They don’t speak the same language, but Gorm recognizes that the only chance the goblin has of not being killed is for him to give him a job and get him properly registered with the government. He’s not necessarily less prejudiced than the people around him, but he does have some compassion for the innocent. Eventually someone starts teaching the goblin the common language, but for most of the book Gorm calls him Gleebek, the goblin word for Hello.

Speaking of post-colonial worms, let’s talk about the Elgin marbles. Once upon a time, Greeks built huge temples to their deities and covered and filled them with statuary and other stone carvings. Among these was the Parthenon, which is still considered a national treasure today, nearly 2500 years later. Around five hundred years ago, Greece and its Parthenon were captured by the Ottoman Empire, who turned it into a Muslim prayer site. Around two hundred years ago, the Earl of Elgin got permission from the Ottomans to haul the statues back to England, pagan statuary not being essential to Muslim worship. Some pieces were fairly simple to haul away, but some had to be cut off the building. Byron (poet, member of the House of Lords, and enthusiast for all things Greek) was especially voluble in condemning Elgin for defacing and looting the pride of an ancient people, but Elgin sold the marble pieces to the British government for placement in the British Museum, so nothing bad ever happened to him. Shortly thereafter, Greece won its independence and now they want their marbles back. The English are refusing to give them back, because they bought them from Elgin fair and square, and Elgin had the proper permits from the Ottomans, and it’s Greece’s own fault for being conquered in the first place. Now, imagine that the English are elves and the Greeks are orcs, and that the Elven Marbles have been stolen in transit. Gorm and his pals are hired by the elves to get the Marbles back, even though they really belong to the orcs. But, you know, orcs are evil and smelly and dangerous (foreign), so can anything really belong to them? I mean, they don’t speak English.

Well, Gorm’s pals are not really his pals. The team is assembled Avengers-style, and this party is really questionable. The most important danger in Dungeons and Dragons is not the supposed villains, it’s your own party members. People will get each other killed in a heartbeat, either by wandering off or being spiteful in battle. In time, there are pairs of people who start to work well together, but the group never really coheres. They’re all different levels (as DM, I would not have gone along with this), all fairly independent and belligerent, and none are that friendly. Working out your party dynamic is essential because these are the people who will get you killed. The game is more fun when the players aren’t wasting their energy arguing with each other.

Another social issue is the drug addiction. In a world of magic combat, of course there are healing potions, which means that of course there are people addicted to healing potions. The elf in Gorm’s party tends to sneak off by herself, cut, and then heal. It’s sad and frustrating – the addiction cost her a lot of prestige and skill, but most people don’t know about it. She keeps it secret and somehow manages to function most of the time, and this is how addictions work in the real world as well. We accept the fact that our friends are quirky and if we’re not really that close we don’t look under the surface. I know that I have an addictive personality and a body that creates dependence quickly, so I try to be careful about drinking coffee and alcohol or doing anything else. Those habits are expensive, and easy to form. I’ll have a drink occasionally on the weekends, meaning maybe a couple of drinks once in four to six weeks, but when I feel stress my brain jumps to alcohol as a solution. Even if it’s 6:30 a.m. and I just woke up. A long habit of denying myself anything has kept me from ruining my life with addiction, but not everyone was trained in self-hatred the way that I was.

Of course, the Elven Marble thing is a setup and Gorm realizes too late that there is no right solution and that the banks, guilds, and corporations are all ready to destroy the world to increase their own profits. I’m used to distrusting institutions, so this part of it feels familiar and right to me, even though it’s a big double cross and the friends I play D&D with would not appreciate this kind of plot twist.

So, this is a novel set in a familiar fantasy landscape, but demonstrating the evils of capitalism run amok, sort of like what we have here in the United States today. I enjoyed it, and if you’re into this sort of thing, you probably will too.

Many of you will recall Hoffmann’s name from the Offenbach opera, or from the opera that he himself wrote. Others may recall comments about German ghost stories of the Romantic Era, and you’ll want to connect those with Hoffmann’s name. It seems strange to think that these stories were published at the same time as Jane Austen’s, though a trifle less strange to think of them as contemporaneous with Frankenstein, Wordsworth’s Prelude, and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Another thing to think of as strange is the fact that the editor chose this group to package together. He wasn’t looking for a broad sampling of Hoffmann’s work; he put together the stories that were the most similar, that all have pretty much the same central idea. These are allegories of thought, intuition, and inspiration, and therefore of identity and art.

If there is a dark power which malevolently and treacherously places a thread within us, with which to hold us and draw us down a perilous and pernicious path that we would never otherwise have set foot on – if there is such a power, then it must take the same form as we do, it must become our very self; for only in this way can we believe in it and give it the scope it requires to accomplish its secret task. If our minds, strengthened by a cheerful life, are resolute enough to recognize alien and malevolent influences for what they are and to proceed tranquilly along the path to which our inclinations and our vocation have directed us, the uncanny power must surely perish in a vain struggle to assume the form which is our own reflection. Lothar also says there is no doubt that once we have surrendered ourselves to the dark psychic power, it draws alien figures, encountered by chance in the outside world, into our inner selves, so that we ourselves give life to the spirit which our strange delusion persuades us is speaking from such figures. It is the phantom of our own self which, thanks to its intimate relationship with us and its deep influence on our minds, casts us down to hell or transports us to heaven. (The Sandman)

So, unlike a lot of supernatural stories, these are deeply humanistic – it’s always ourselves, our divided selves, that control our lives and destinies. We make choices, so responsibility is never assigned to external forces like God or Fate. We each make our own world.

Nor do I quite see what you mean by wonders, my excellent Mr Peregrinus, or how you contrive to divide phenomena into the wondrous and the non-wondrous, since the reality they manifest is the same as ourselves, and we and they determine each other reciprocally. If you wonder at something because it has not yet happened to you, or because you think you cannot perceive the connection of cause and effect, that simply shows that your powers of perception are limited by the deficiencies of your vision. Whether your vision is naturally deficient, or sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, I cannot say. But, with respect, Mr Tyss, the most comical aspect of the matter is that you are trying to divide yourself into two parts, one of which perceives what you call wonders and readily believes in them, while the other wonders at this perception and this belief. (Master Flea)

As in this quotation, all this is often tied into vision and perception. Characters look through magnifying glasses or spyglasses or into mirrors, and their value is often determined by what they are able to see, which could also be named how they see, which is informed by their beliefs. Worth is conferred upon those who see wonders in the midst of everyday life, who know that the world is a miracle and more fantastic than we can imagine. Those with this gift are often found to belong to the world of fairy more than the world of work – these are stories like those of Diana Wynne Jones, where characters have more than one identity, so a bratty little brother can become a legendary hero, or an unemployed Welsh uncle can really be a powerful magician.

You are now, kind reader, in the fairy realm of glorious wonders, whose mighty strokes summon up both supreme bliss and extreme horror, and where the grave goddess raises her veil so that we may fancy we see her face – but her grave expression often breaks into a smile, and that is the impish humour that teases us with the bewilderment of magic, as a mother often teases her dearest children. In this realm, which our spirit often reveals to us, at least in our dreams, try, kind reader, to recognize the well-known shapes that, as the saying goes, cross your path every day. You will then believe that this magnificent realm is much nearer at hand than you had previously thought; and that is what I heartily wish you to believe, and what the strange story of Anselmus is supposed to convey. (The Golden Pot)

I do love narratives that teach this concept, that this is a world of endless wonder, that the bird that flew against my window this morning was a miracle of life trying to get into my apartment, and that by keeping it shut out I lost something more than the opportunity to clean bird shit off all my stuff.

At this point, my kind reader, you must be prepared to hear a story which seems quite unconnected with the events that I have undertaken to recount and is thus open to criticism as a mere episode. Sometimes, however, it happens that if you resolutely follow the path that seemed to be leading you astray, you suddenly find yourself at your journey’s end. And thus it may also be that this episode only appears to be a false trail but in fact leads straight to the heart of my main story. (Princess Brambilla)

These are also stories about storytelling, because the mythical aspects of the stories are told explicitly as stories, which then bleed into the supposedly realistic portions of the narrative until actual reality is compounded of both.

There are other ways that these stories speak to me, as in pieces of advice like this:

I tell you again, give up your solitary life. You’ll feel much better if you do. If you knew any other girls, you’d hardly think Dörtje the most beautiful of all; and if you had made advances to any other woman, you wouldn’t think that Dörtje was the only one who could love you. Come, come, Peregrinus, a bit more experience will teach you better. You’re a good-looking man, and I wouldn’t have to be as intelligent and perceptive as Master Flea is, to foresee that you’ll enjoy happiness through love in a quite different way than you now imagine. (Master Flea)

Which is advice that I’ve needed at some points in my life. As things are now, I’ve been pulling toward hermit-ness more than is needful. It made a little sense in the Midwest because I didn’t feel a connection with either the people or the place, but now that I’m back home in the midst of people who love me, I would be happier if I made more of an effort to spend time with those people. Then there’s the him from the Midwest, the memory of whom is keeping me from actively looking for the romance my heart cries out for. He was going to come down for a visit this weekend, but ran into some administrative difficulties – an ex had rented a car under his name a few years ago and not returned it on time, so there was an unpaid charge for a few hundred dollars attached to his credit card number, which they didn’t bother telling him until he showed up to pick up the rental he had ordered for Friday morning. He paid it off and is postponing the trip for a few weeks, which is frustrating for the both of us, but what lends poignancy to the situation is that I’m planning to tell him that long-distance is not working for me, and he needs to either commit to leaving his family for me or let me go. I think that if I phrase it that way he’ll pick the option I think would be best for us both, which is breaking it off. I don’t think he’ll be happy far away from his family, and if it takes this long and this much trouble to schedule a visit to see me, it’s going to take just as much time and effort to go back to see them, and before I left he had been talking about moving down here and getting up there twice a month. I think his expectations (for the world, not necessarily for me) are unrealistic. I also think that he loves me because I try to make people feel safe and comfortable (in real life, not necessarily on the blog), not because of who I am. He likes the feeling of security, and frankly, any gay man who thinks monogamy is important could fill that role, and most of them would fit his lifestyle and tastes more easily than I would. As for my own happiness, I haven’t felt fulfilled in the relationship for a long time; as The Ex did, he made me feel loved in spite of my weirdness and not because of it, as if I needed an interpreter to interact with real, normal human beings. I’d rather not be with someone who encourages my sense of isolation or alienation. It’s strong enough without the help. Which is sort of why I want him to come down here for the conversation instead of trying it over the phone – I don’t think he’s ever really seen me happy, and seeing who and what does this for me could be a good education for him. If you’ll excuse the cliché, an eye-opener.

All this stuff about identity doubling is not where I needed to be this week, which is why I was reading so slowly. About ten days ago, my car had serious trouble on the way to work, so it’s been parked at the college ever since. A week ago, my good friend (who comments here as Scribble Feather) took me to a car dealership to look into buying a new vehicle, but I was denied financing because of my income and credit score. Granted, I know my income is low, but my credit isn’t bad, so I checked the credit report. Apparently someone stole my identity and ran up three credit cards in my name – they applied for a fourth, unsuccessfully. I’ve been calling around to these different financial companies and declaring fraud, but it’s going to take some time before it’s all cleared up. Just thinking about finances is enough to give me the shakes, so it’s been an unnerving experience, the type where I have to shove all my emotions into a back room so that I can take care of what needs my immediate attention. I stayed with the good SF for a few days, and now I’m borrowing a vehicle from another friend, so we see how important communities are, and how grateful I am to be in the middle of one. And now that I’m done with a lot of that, the depression I’ve been delaying is starting to seep in. It’ll get better, though. The day the car gave up on life was the day of a job interview, which was successful, so tomorrow (Monday) I’m starting a new position, Library Clerk. This is in addition to my position as a part-time English instructor, and in the new year I’ll shift the schedule around so that the library job will be my main focus and I’ll only have one class. The new schedule will also make it easier to find a third part-time job, which I think will be necessary.

Oh, it might be helpful if I were to list the stories in the volume:

  • The Golden Pot, in which Anselmus writes his way into the heart of a snake
  • The Sandman, which has very little to do with sand and is part of Offenbach’s opera
  • Princess Brambilla, where Carnival goes on for far too long thanks to the commedia dell’arte
  • Master Flea, where a man learns confidence when he’s given the power to read others’ thoughts
  • My Cousin’s Corner Window, which is much shorter than the other stories and which fits almost nothing I said here

As is implied, this is a collection of stories that would be better read one at a time instead of all at once, and in truth, it was never the original author’s intent that they should be combined like this. Despite my disagreement with that editorial choice, I will say that Ritchie Robertson’s 1992 translation is a good one and feels very contemporary, even though the stories were written two hundred years ago.

I have to admit, I didn’t see the evil hour this book depicts, at first. It seems pretty normal: the town priest cares for the people and they care for him; the mayor has a toothache but is too proud to go to the dentist; the judge is determined to have sex three times a night even though his wife’s pregnancy is advancing; normal sorts of things. But as the book goes along, you start to see the cracks in society, the party lines, the weaknesses, the power structure, the discontent.

What’s happening is that there isn’t a single fortune in this country that doesn’t have some dead donkey behind it.

There are scandals in everyone’s lives, and the smaller the community, the fewer secrets people are permitted to have. In this community, though, things go beyond idle gossip. Someone starts writing the secrets on paper and posting them on people’s doorways.

“Justice,” the barber received him, “limps along, but it gets there all the same.”

There’s a poster-related death almost immediately, but for the most part, life goes on as it ever did. The posters only reflect the common gossip of the town; there are no real, shocking revelations. It’s a paradox that we in the United States don’t live with, but based on my own experience, it’s what happens in rural, poor South America – everyone is all up in everyone else’s business, but they don’t much care what people say about them, so long as it doesn’t end in violence. Perhaps it’s my experiences in Brazil that lead me to have this attitude: don’t do anything you’re going to be ashamed of, but if you do, face it and accept the consequences. These lampoons, these pasquinades, don’t bother most people that much, nor do they reveal much about the community or individuals. People who were circumspect before become even more so, but otherwise, it’s not that big a deal. For most.

The big deal is how the authorities in the town respond. The religious authority, Father Angel, is completely ineffectual. Some of the parishioners pressure him into writing a sermon about the pasquinades, but he wimps out at the last minute. He’s too afraid of conflict to resolve any of the actual issues. That sounds a lot like me, so I try not to judge too harshly.

It doesn’t seem to be God’s work, this business of trying so hard for so many years to cover people’s instinct with armor, knowing full well that underneath it all everything goes on the same.

This has always been my problem with religion. People are created one way, and then someone tries to make them something else. They surround people with rules to control their behavior, hoping to change them from the outside in. The only empirical evidence we have of God’s character is the personality of the people S/He created, and it’d be much more in line with the divine will to reveal and unfold that personality instead of twisting and pruning it. It would look more like loving God instead of finding fault with Her/His creation. I’ll admit that it’s a tricky business since people get so bent by the bad things that happen to them, but healing God’s children is a more worthy endeavor than torturing them with guilt. Especially things they may not feel guilty about.

There’s also the political authority. As I mentioned, the mayor and Judge Arcadio are two of the most important characters. But these aren’t the patriarchs that I think of when I hear these titles; they’re my age, or younger. The mayor especially is haunted by feelings of inadequacy and illegitimacy. People keep calling him Lieutenant – as time goes on, it becomes clear that the town is under martial law. The mayor is a soldier, not a politician, and he was appointed, not elected. He refuses to go to the dentist because the good doctor is on the opposing side. Eventually he decides to take a strong stand, instituting curfews, hiring extra “police officers,” guys who get pulled out of a bar and handed guns despite their complete lack of credentials. His poor decisions lead to a mass exodus; it’s implied that the community unmakes itself by the end of the story. I suppose it could be argued that the military not-really-mayor undoes it because he keeps the town in an unnatural state of things, a state of fear and the constant threat of danger.

“You don’t know what it’s like,” he said, “getting up every morning with the certainty that they’re going to kill you and ten years pass without their killing you.”

“I don’t know,” Judge Arcadio admitted, “and I don’t want to know.”

“Do everything possible,” the barber said, “so that you’ll never know.”

I’m with the judge on this one. And the barber. Having been born in the United States to a white family, one of my privileges is that the government isn’t trying to kill me. Given that I’m gay and the homophobes are taking over my country, this privilege may not last forever, but I don’t think we’re becoming The Handmaid’s Tale overnight. This situation will change. I believe that people are good, and their collective better instincts will win in the end. Especially in the age of the Internet, when information spreads quickly and widely. It’s not an age of logic or enlightenment; emotions rule the day, and images provoke compassion. I’m still haunted by the pictures of that guy who got beat up in Paris a year or two ago. I don’t remember his name, but his face, with its blood and bruises, stays with me.

I’ve been passing through my own evil hour this summer. Last week he admitted that he’s not emotionally investing in me because he expects me to leave him and go back to the South. It was hard to hear, and I’m trying not to be hurt or paranoid about it, but it makes things simple. When it’s time, I’ll just go. I’m mentally preparing myself to move away, including moving away from him, and it’s not as hard as I thought it would be. I suppose I’m more callous than I like to believe. We’re living more like friends than lovers, and he has plenty of family to fill his time. More than he’d like; there’s a reason he doesn’t know how to love without manipulating and taking advantage of people. But as I said, it simplifies things. Very soon it will be time to go, and I doubt I’ll be coming back.

I think that I want to like Garcia Marquez more than I actually do. He’s a bit like Toni Morrison – terrible stories beautifully written. I need to focus my attention on more uplifting literature.

This was Kundera’s first novel, and in some ways, it explains his habitual themes more clearly. It’s like The Joke is a key to help understanding his entire oeuvre. While most of his other novels that I have read focus on the Prague Spring or other anti-Communist movements, this one predates all that. It starts with the generation that became Communist after World War II.

I have become such an inveterate skeptic that whenever someone starts listing his likes and dislikes I am unable to take it seriously, or to put it more precisely, I can accept it only as an indication of the person’s self-image. I didn’t for a moment believe that Helena breathed more easily in filthy, badly ventilated dives than in clean, well-ventilated restaurants or that she preferred raw alcohol and cheap, greasy food to haute cuisine. If her words had any value at all, it was because they revealed her predilection for a special pose, a pose long since outdated, out of style, a pose going back to the years of revolutionary enthusiasm, when anything “common,” “plebeian,” “plain,” or “coarse” was admired and anything “refined” or “elegant,” anything connected with good manners, was vilified.

I think that it must have been terribly thrilling to have been a Communist living during the revolution, seeing the old forms of civilization consciously destroyed and replaced by something rational, based on the ideology that you yourself are committed to. Ludvik Jahn is just such a young man, but he keeps a skeptical distance from the crowd. He has a friend, Marketa, who dives in head first, drinks the Kool-Aid, whatever other metaphor you might prefer for a complete commitment to a system of belief. So when she goes away to training camp, he writes her letters, just sort of messing with her because she’s gullible and naively enthusiastic. But. One postcard, intended as this sort of not-funny-to-everyone joke, gets picked up by the Party and his life gets ruined. Sarcasm always stings a little, but here that little sting turns around and eats his entire life. His best friend Zemanek votes him out of the Party, and therefore out of the university. He’s drafted by the military, but that little black mark on his record gets him sent to a prison squad, where he works in a mine with rioters, thieves, and political dissidents. They’re forced to work six days a week, but the only way to get leave passes or other privileges is to volunteer to work on Sunday too, so sometimes they’d go thirteen or twenty days without a break. It’s a lonely, miserable existence.

I know that my experience is not that bad – the universe is generally fairly gentle with me – but this does remind me of my expulsion from Texas, nearly a year ago. I work for a private language company that does intensive English programs, and they sent me to Texas to work at modifying our curriculum to expand the market to boarding schools with international students. Speaking strictly professionally, it was a resounding success. I kept careful records and had enough data to show that my students’ language skill had improved dramatically, but that wasn’t enough. Little did I know that the Christian school where I worked had been watching me like a hawk all year, and as soon as they figured out my Facebook identity they dug through everything I had ever posted, all four years of it, and used it as proof that I was anti-Christian and deserved to be fired. I’m not against Christians or their beliefs, as long as those beliefs aren’t being used to hurt anyone. They were aghast at all the pictures of men I’ve hit the Like button for, but they based their argument on a joke. It’s not a very funny joke, admittedly, but it was a joke nonetheless.

Back when I was religious, sometimes I’d joke with my friends on the day between Good Friday and Easter – Jesus is dead, we can do what we want while he isn’t looking. I even added a bit about him getting back from Hell, when I would go back to being good. Now, I agree that it’s not very funny, but it is completely orthodox. Many theologians have believed that Jesus spent his time between death and resurrection saving souls from their punishment – the Medievals called it The Harrowing of Hell. You can see it in the old Cycle plays (The York Cycle can be found in your local academic library). Before Jesus, everyone went to hell because of Original Sin, then Jesus went down there to personally bring to heaven all those who were actually good people. Now, because of Jesus, the decent people can skip hell and go to heaven. The Harrowing of Hell is a great cinematic moment in the history of the world as envisioned by the Christian Church, yet these people hadn’t heard of it. This is the problem with splinter groups (read: non-denominational independent Protestant Churches) – insufficient education. My supervisor called it a witch hunt because I’m gay, but because the company does want to keep this market open, they relocated me back to the Midwest. The little Christian school would have just fired me because in Texas it is perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay. My company was really great about the whole thing, appropriately appalled at the suggestion I be fired for my sexuality, so they sent me somewhere I would be surrounded by friends and unconditionally accepted. So, a good move.

What bothers me about all this is just how nice the Christians were, right up until they asked my boss to fire me. I should have figured something was wrong – my subconscious was sending all kinds of paranoia messages, like how I was avoiding open spaces because I kept seeing men aiming rifles at me. But I assumed it was a response to past situations and not the present one, and I knew they weren’t really there, so I figured I was just being crazy, like I was back when I was religious. But no, I was ignoring a present warning. I really ought to learn to trust myself. These people were not my friends, even though I thought they were and trusted them almost completely. A year later, I still have a serious aversion to churches. And strangers. And religions in general.

So, drifting back to changes in Czech society in the late 1940s. They absolutely rejected religion and capitalism, replacing them with a belief in progress, community, and communism. As such, familiar habits became crimes, such as sarcasm or a belief in God. The belief in God doesn’t fit with the officially atheistic stance of The Communist Party, but sarcasm is a subtler crime. It evinces a certain pessimism, an antagonistic way of seeing the world, and pessimism is a lack of faith in progress and hence anathema to the Communists. Sarcasm is not the product of happiness. It betokens disappointment and pride, a sense of intellectual superiority. When everyone in the community is holding hands and singing together, sarcasm is extremely anti-social. The Communists were trying to force an individualistic society into becoming collective, and some people resisted. Maintaining individual difference marked people as suspect because difference meant hierarchization. Part of this destruction of the individual is the erasure of the line between public and private spheres. Suddenly I understand why Kundera makes such a big deal out of this in later books – privacy was taken away by the Communist Revolution. It must have made it strange to arrive in the West and see exhibitionism, where people voluntarily arrange a private act for public viewing. So this explains his fascination with writing about public sex, and how weirdly scatological his middle-aged characters can get.

Ludvik’s sarcasm landed him in prison mines for several years. Finally he was allowed to finish his degree and become the academic he had always wanted to be. All this is mostly flashback – the present of the book is about revenge. He’s coming back to his hometown to avenge himself on the man who ruined his life. But he gets sidetracked when he sees Lucie.

Lucie is from a different city. As a teenager, she had a gang that she was friends with, and when they got to be around sixteen they noticed that she was the only girl and proceeded to gang rape the shit out of her, repeatedly. Eventually she got away, and by that I mean got run out of town because everyone said she was a slut, and started a new life in a new town. There, she met Ludvik during his time in the mines and they had a thing for a while, but he never understood why she wouldn’t have sex with him. She’d try to be willing, but in the end she just couldn’t. She coped with the rape by creating a division between her body and soul – the one became dirty and corrupted with the violence of men, but the other was free and pure. She loved Ludvik with her soul, but she needed such an abyss between the physical and the emotional that she couldn’t have sex with him. Eventually they broke up over not having sex, and she left town to start over again. This third town is Ludvik’s childhood home, but she has no way of knowing that. She meets Kostka, a Christian determined to save her. Kostka was a professor at the time of Ludvik’s expulsion, and he was expelled for his religion a short time afterward. He helped to heal her internal divisions, and when the time is right she expresses that personal union by having sex with him, which can sound a little sordid and self-serving on his part, but it’s actually a big step for her to be able to give her body to someone she loves and respects. The sex doesn’t seem to benefit him much; it’s more for her, celebrating her newfound love for her own body. It only happened the one time, like a baptism, and then she went on to lead a conventional life in a conventional marriage to a conventional guy who probably beats her in the conventional way.

Ludvik really has one purpose in coming here: to sleep with Zemanek’s wife Helena. He thinks that cuckolding the guy who derailed his life will make up for all the suffering he’s gone through. But again, this relies on a sense of privacy that the mainstream has abandoned. Ludvik’s seduction succeeds, but his revenge fails because Zemanek doesn’t care. He’s fucking this girl who’s young enough to be his daughter and rubbing it in Helena’s face. Helena thinks she has found someone she can leave her husband for, but Ludvik isn’t looking for a commitment. She might be in love, but to him she’s just a revenge fuck. She has an assistant who’s in love with her and even younger than Zemanek’s girl, but she’s not into him, at least not yet.

Our other essential character is Jaroslav, Ludvik’s childhood friend. While Ludvik and Zemanek embrace the Party in their youth, Jaroslav doesn’t. He’s not in the center of the revolution. But, when the Party announces that it intends to foster art with Communist ideals that still retains a national character, he finds his way in. Jaroslav loves Moravian traditions, especially folk music. He organizes the traditional dances, he writes songs in the folk tradition with Communist-approved themes, he finds ways to keep doing what he loves doing even under a repressive regime. Ludvik may criticize, but Jaroslav did what we all do – he selected and expanded the canon. On a small scale, each of us who reads and writes does this; on a larger scale, academia has trends in what gets taught and what gets avoided. For example, in the 1960s Sir Walter Scott was considered one of the most important Romantic writers, equally with Byron, Keats, and Wordsworth. Now, his poetry is considered too long and tedious to teach, so we mention Ivanhoe in a survey class and move on. Other works get dropped for political reasons, like Heart of Darkness or The Education of Little Tree. Then we choose other things to add, like Felicia Hemans or Oroonoko. There are a lot of subtle currents that add up to big changes.

Youth is a terrible thing: it is a stage trod by children in buskins and fancy costumes mouthing speeches they’ve memorized and fanatically believe but only half understand. History too is a terrible thing: it so often ends up a playground for youth – the young Nero, the young Napoleon, fanaticized mobs of children whose simulated passions and primitive poses suddenly metamorphose into a catastrophically real reality.

When I think of all this, my whole set of values goes awry and I feel a deep hatred towards youth, coupled with a certain paradoxical indulgence towards the criminals of history, whose crimes I suddenly see as no more than the terrible restlessness of waiting to grow up.

While our situations are drastically different, to some extent Ludvik et al are going through the same thing that Generation X is doing today. In our late teens and early twenties, we felt like we were reshaping our world to be kinder, more welcoming. Now that we’re in our thirties or forties, it seems like we’re supposed to have made it, but at thirty-seven I don’t feel like I have anything more together than I did ten years ago. The universe has not acceded to my demand for a better world, and now people are fighting against the movement that I feel really made things better – the Obama presidency. The young people growing up don’t have the same values that people only fifteen years older than they are did. Jaroslav’s son hates folk music; he and his friends are all excited about modernity, so they’re wearing leather jackets and listening to rock music, and in a few years they will propel the Prague Spring to try to take their country back from their Communist parents. Youthful idealism can make a lot of good things happen, but as we age we develop compassion: we learn to see people as individuals instead of masses, ideas as shades of grey instead of the black-and-white ideologies of adolescence. Ludvik’s response, hating youth, is a result of his personal experience of betrayal.

But while it may seem that he is one of those criminals restless to grow up, I don’t feel like he has. This whole revenge thing smacks of immaturity. He sees Helena’s body as belonging to her husband, and his sex act as thieving something to balance the years of freedom stolen from him. Zemanek doesn’t see his wife’s body as his; the Communist idea seems closer to Brave New World, where everybody belongs to everybody else. A woman’s body is never her own. That’s why I think Lucie and Kostka’s experience is so important and good – Kostka teaches Lucie that her body belongs to her, and when they have sex it is her decision about what to do with her body. I don’t make any great claims to maturity myself; I’m preparing to see my family this summer, and as I look ahead, I’m not picturing spending time with the people I love, I’m imagining confrontations with the brothers I feel betrayed by. Without using this vocabulary for it, I’ve been visualizing revenge on them, not by sleeping with their wives but through cutting comments and burning indifference. But that doesn’t make me any better than Ludvik, and it’s not a path that will lead to a good time. I’m not the same person I was when bad things went down, and neither are they. As Kundera points out, revenge is either immediate or worthless. There are no other options.

As long as people can escape to the realm of fairy tales, they are full of nobility, compassion, and poetry. In the realm of everyday existence they are, alas, more likely to be full of caution, mistrust, and suspicion.

The fate of this book is like the fate of its protagonist. Kundera wrote it as a novel, not a political satire. The problem with realism is that if you show real problems realistically, people think you’re exaggerating or being satirical. So, the Communists saw his book the same way his fictional Communists saw Ludvik’s joke, as a serious attack on the establishment. Westerners heard of it and started translating, but they translated poorly and only the bits that served their agendas. Eventually the author left Czechoslovakia and moved to Paris, and he set about having his novels retranslated, so while my copy is an approved translation, it’s not the final definitive one that Kundera supervised in the 1990s. Everyone took it so seriously, even when the title warns us not to.

This is the first of a trilogy that people have called The Roads to Freedom, but I don’t think it’s so much about journeying to freedom. At least, the journey isn’t a pleasant one, and freedom is no triumph.

This book is largely about the life of homosexuals in Paris, the summer of 1938, just before the whole Second World War starts. It’s about an era of enforced closets, where even young philosophy students can’t admit it to themselves.

The man was with a pansy who looked rather attractive from a distance, a fair-haired lad with delicate features, devoid of the usual mincing airs, and not without charm. Boris hadn’t much use for homosexuals, because they always were pursuing him, but Ivich rather liked them; she said: “Well, at any rate they’ve got the courage not to be like everybody else.” Boris had great respect for his sister’s opinions, and he made the most conscientious efforts to think well of fairies.

Boris is as gay as any of them, but just won’t face it.

Of course he preferred Mathieu’s company because Mathieu wasn’t a girl: a man was more intriguing all the time. Besides, Mathieu taught him all sorts of tricks. But Boris often found himself wondering whether Mathieu had any real regard for him. Mathieu was casual and brusque, and of course it was right that people of their sort shouldn’t be sentimental when they were together, but there were all sorts of ways in which a fellow could show he liked someone, and Boris felt that Mathieu might well have shown his affection by a word or a gesture now and then. With Ivich, Mathieu was quite different. Boris suddenly recalled Mathieu’s face one day when he was helping Ivich put on her overcoat; he felt an unpleasant shrinking at the heart. Mathieu’s smile: on those sardonic lips that Boris loved so much, that strange, appealing, and affectionate smile. But Boris’s head soon filled with smoke and he thought of nothing at all.

I lived most of my life with that smoke, though I thought of it more as a sharp turning of the head. When there’s something you really don’t want to see – I don’t mean like those church people who see a porn mag in the gutter and can’t stop looking at it, I mean when you really, deeply cannot see it – you always look away, even if it’s right in front of you. It took me seven years to come out because I could not look at it. I kept having near-miss experiences, like this one:

Sereno burst out laughing. He had a warm, attractive laugh, and Boris liked him because he opened his mouth wide when he laughed.

“A man’s man!” said Sereno. “A man’s man! That’s a grand phrase, I must use it whenever I can.”

He replaced the book on the table.

“Are you a man’s man, Serguine?”

“I – ” began Boris, and his breath failed him.

“Don’t blush,” said Sereno – and Boris felt himself becoming scarlet – “and believe me when I tell you that the idea didn’t even enter my head. I know how to recognize a man’s man” – the expression obviously amused him – “there’s a soft rotundity in their movements that is quite unmistakable. Whereas you – I’ve been watching you for a moment or two and was greatly charmed: your movements are quick and graceful, but they are also angular. You must be clever with your hands.”

Boris listened attentively: it is always interesting to hear someone explain his view of you. And Sereno had a very agreeable bass voice. His eyes, indeed, were baffling: at first sight they seemed to be brimming with friendly feeling, but a closer view discovered in them something hard and almost fanatic. “He’s trying to pull my leg,” thought Boris, and remained on the alert. He would have liked to ask Sereno what he meant by “angular movements,” but he did not dare, he thought it would be better to say as little as possible, and then, under that insistent gaze, he felt a strange and bewildered access of sensibility arise within him, and he longed to snort and stamp to dispel that dizzying impulse. He turned his head away and a rather painful silence followed. “He’ll take me for a damn fool,” thought Boris with resignation.

I couldn’t have told you why I liked certain guys so much (that gorgeous blond river guide in my Faulkner class, for example, or the older boy who wandered out of the showers naked at Scout camp), I just did, and I wanted them to like me. I saw in them qualities that I wanted; they were the kind of guys that I wanted to be, confident and muscular and handsome, so I liked being around them. They’re straight, though. I was attracted to them, but there was a strange, different sort of connection with homosexuals. There’s always been a conflict between what I am and what I want to be. Even now that I know I’m gay, I still want to be more confident, more muscular, and more handsome. When I meet men as beautiful as Daniel Sereno, I’m still afraid that they’ll take me for a damn fool.

Boris and Daniel are both quite definitely homosexuals, but they’ve both established relationships with women. Daniel’s been around the gay block a few times and knows the tricks. There are a few places where the gay men hang out, so he meets them and arranges casual hookups. But homosexuality seems more like a compulsion than a desire. It’s not so much what they want or whom they love as what they need, what they can’t stop themselves from doing. Daniel has sex with a guy he finds revolting simply because he can’t stop himself. There are few choices, so he takes the least bad of a bad bunch. With the greater awareness that we have now, eighty years later, I don’t have to resort to this, but I think back to my last closet days, when I knew that this was burning inside me and I couldn’t let it out where people could see it. When sexuality can’t be expressed in healthy ways, it assaults you in unhealthy ways. Daniel knows of two gay men who live together, but they have no sort of social standing and they sleep with other people, possibly for money. And that’s the extent of the courage that Ivich admires so much. I’m not criticizing gay men who lived in less forgiving times, I’m just saying that men who were as open as Oscar Wilde went to jail, so they had to be a lot more careful than I do today. Even in Trump’s America I’m not afraid of the fact that my boss and coworkers know I’m gay, and that one of my coworkers half-outed me to a student. I’m a little irritated at that last, but not afraid.

Since the election people have been writing #gayandscared all over campus, with all sorts of other slogans like #notmypresident and #blacklivesstillmatter, and yes it’s odd to see a hashtag in sidewalk chalk, but I’m not scared. Probably because I grew up in North Carolina, where our state identity is “Just leave me alone.” We pretty much just leave each other alone. HB2 seems to refute that, but if you look at the conservative fear that prompted it, it’s actually just another expression of “Just leave me alone.” They’re afraid of people not being left alone in restrooms. Yes, that fear has led to a law that refuses to just leave a different group of people alone, but it’s the same concept at work. Most transpeople I know identify so strongly with their gender that you can’t tell it’s different from their gender expression at birth, and I can pretty much guarantee that we don’t have police officers stationed at restroom doors, checking genitalia, so “Just leave me alone” also means that the law is largely unenforceable. And now I sound like the gay Arabs who say that it doesn’t matter if the law says they can be beheaded if no one actually reports them to the police. Probably because I’m a white cis-male and I know that the deck is stacked in my favor. I was talking today to someone who’s worried about his friend because, not only is she a single mom, she’s also a Muslim lesbian American citizen.

This paragraph is going to be politically controversial, so skip it if you must. I am very concerned that our country elected an unqualified, repulsive person as president who is putting together a cabinet of equally unqualified, repulsive persons to make the entire country into a scheme for making themselves rich. As such, Trump’s election puts us one step closer to Stalin’s Russia. However, American liberals, you asked for it. Yes, you fucking did. You alienated rural whites while forgetting just how many of them there are. Think about that moment in Ted where Mark Wahlberg reels off a list of all the supposedly trailer-trash female names he can think of – those are the names of almost all the girls I grew up with. Poor rural whites have been the butt of liberal jokes for too long; of course they voted for the candidate who told them it’s okay to be who they are. One of my friends at work has a friend who always looks like she just wandered out of a film about Depression-Era Mississippi, but she can quote every Shakespeare play from memory, in her country-hick accent. Geography does not guarantee level of education, and level of education does not indicate level of intelligence. And even if it did, level of intelligence is no indicator of the worth of a human life. Stop making them the bad guys, and teach them that when we say Black Lives Matter we are not saying that white lives don’t. Women’s rights do not encroach on the rights of men, and gay marriage does not detract from straight marriage. However, you have to show them that, and making memes about how stupid they are is not showing them that you value their lives. If we want to be Stronger Together, we have to make sure that all people feel welcome in our movement, not just the black lesbians. The internet has had a really polarizing effect, which means that we don’t understand people who don’t think like we do any more. We often don’t even respect them. We need to build some bridges, not based on the intersectionality of our own identities (straight white liberals to gay white liberals), but across the wider political divide to the people who are wholly different than we are. If we’re going to value difference, we have to value people who are different, and believe me, my conservative family is very different to me. I’m not saying I’m better than the rest of you, I’m just as ethnocentric as the rest of them. When I read an internet rumor that Kate McKinnon’s character on Ghostbusters is gay, my response was, Of course she is, she’s awesome. Being liberal doesn’t equate to being open-minded. A lot of my friends are sharing articles on facebook written by rabidly fanatic liberals who do not see the value of conservative [poor white Trump-voting] lives, and by devaluing these people they contribute to the divisive atmosphere that led to Trump’s election. We can disagree with their opinions, we can point out how their policies oppress minorities and women, but we cannot make ad hominem arguments that demonize poverty, lack of formal education, whiteness, or men. We cannot tell them that their lives are unimportant. Because it invites them to retaliate and we get Trump as president. It’s like the guys at the beginning of Fight Club who grow breasts after taking testosterone. Quit trying to fight hate with hate. You need love for that.

Political rant over.

Unfortunately (in my opinion), neither Boris nor Daniel is the protagonist. It’s not even Ivich, Boris’s sister. No, it’s Mathieu, whom I find quite unlikable. He’s in his mid-thirties and obsessed with the idea of freedom. By which he doesn’t really mean freedom, he means control over his own life.

“No,” he thought, “no, it isn’t heads or tails. Whatever happens, it is by my agency that everything must happen.” Even if he let himself be carried off, in helplessness and in despair, even if he let himself be carried off like an old sack of coal, he would have chosen his own damnation; he was free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse, free to equivocate; to marry, to give up the game, to drag this dead weight about with him for years to come. He could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good nor Evil unless he brought them into being. All around him things were gathered in a circle, expectant, impassive, and indicative of nothing. He was alone, enveloped in this monstrous silence, free and alone, without assistance and without excuse, condemned to decide without support from any quarter, condemned forever to be free.

He is determined not to let fate, destiny, or anyone else control him. But he’s in a bit of a jam, and his style of freedom means that no one will help him. You see, Mathieu has been seeing Marcelle a few times a week for the last seven years. He pursues other women too, of course, like the thing he has for Ivich, who actually seems like a young lesbian. And now Marcelle is pregnant and Mathieu rushes off to find the money for an abortion. He spends the entire book trying to arrange this money, and it’s not until rather late in the day that he stops to wonder whether Marcelle actually wants one. Easy access to abortions does not guarantee that this is the lady’s choice. But the baby represents a significant commitment, and Mathieu isn’t willing to make that commitment. He isn’t really willing to make any commitment, not to her, not to his friends, not to the Communist Party (yes, that comes up – he feels like he should be fighting in Spain instead of dithering in Paris, but he just can’t commit to signing up). And in the end, he realizes that his refusal to commit has made him a nonentity. He sees himself as a vacuum, devoid of personality or ideals or friends or even life. Because he is unwilling to secure himself to anything, he doesn’t have anything.

In many ways, Mathieu reminds me of the qualities that I dislike in myself. Depression and low self-esteem, unwillingness to commit. A tendency to decide which course is best without consulting other people who are involved, and then a blind adherence to that course no matter what difficulties or obstacles present themselves. A habitual lack of funds. I got into a fight with him this week about my level of commitment to his family. I still don’t feel as if he heard what I was saying, that his parents take advantage of people (specifically me), but we’re not fighting anymore, and there will probably come another time for that discussion. He doesn’t see that the concept of taking advantage applies to families, that ‘family’ means they can ask for whatever they want and he has to do it, and now I have to do it too. All I can say is, No. Unfortunately, they literally have no one else in their lives to ask for help, and I’m beginning to think it’s because people don’t like being manipulated or taken advantage of. I’m not even that committed to my own family. Commitment scares me, because (a) circumstances outside my control sometimes prevent my keeping those commitments, (b) committing to someone gives them power to hurt me deeply, like he did this week, and (c) if you commit to one thing, people will take it for granted that you’re committed to other things as well (whether or not they’re directly related), or that it’s okay to expect you to extend a time commitment beyond what you’re really willing to do. Commitment creates the opportunity for rejection and manipulation, and for me, those have been the results. I know that there are also opportunities for love and intimacy and closeness, but I have less experience of those things.

Looking back over the entry I wrote two years ago on Sartre’s philosophy, I think that it’s harder to see existential philosophy in narrative form. Yes, Mathieu comes to see himself as a tabula rasa, existence that has not yet achieved essence, but he’s wrong. He has a personality, it’s just an ineffective one. Personal responsibility, again yes. No one is willing to help Mathieu reach his goal of finding enough money to buy an abortion, so he has to take matters into his own hands. But, and I think this is important, people decide that he’s doing such a wretched job of handling the situation that they take it from him. The solution he works for with his own hands does not solve the problem, and Marcelle makes it clear that it’s not even his problem anymore. He’s not the only string to her bow. But I don’t see anything positive or life-affirming here. Mathieu is more of a cautionary tale; he clings to this idea of freedom so strongly that everyone wishes he would just grow up. Grown-ups recognize that people live in and contribute to communities. Mathieu just takes and takes and takes until he loses it all.

It isn’t that that’s repulsive.

It took me longer to read this than it should have because Mathieu is not a protagonist I want to spend time with. Perspective shifts around a lot, but his friends aren’t really nice people either, except maybe Sarah. This is the type of book that people read to tell themselves that it’s okay not to become an existentialist because they lead wasted lives of self-centered navel-gazing and will probably die alone in a drunken misery.

 

Sometimes there are books we meet unexpectedly, which we read though we never planned to or even wanted to. This week I’ve been substituting in a class reading this book, and I’d never even opened it. I’ve heard of it for years, of course, but somehow I never felt any internal motivation to go read it. Even at the height of my interest in Toni Morrison, I didn’t read Cisneros. And Morrison is a good comparison.

Cisneros’s book is a little circular, with short little chapters, many of four paragraphs or less. The first chapter is strongly echoed in the last, too. Characters keep coming back and back. She presents us with a community, and it can be easy to lose the threads since people can disappear for fifty pages in a book that’s only about 110 pages long. Angel Vargas is only briefly mentioned twice, poor boy, with no other connection between those two sections of the book. I read the whole thing in a couple of hours, and I dozed for twenty or thirty minutes in the middle.

Several of the reviewers remarked on the humor of the book, but I must confess I missed that part. There are jokes that bite, and I feel the teeth but miss the laugh. Having grown up poor, I don’t find jokes about poverty funny. Having a conscience, I don’t find jokes about the trials of women in a patriarchal society funny. I found the book to be absolutely fucking depressing. Women are raped, imprisoned, and married as children. The only protection is to hide in childhood for as long as possible, though that’s no guarantee. Rafaela may be compared to Rapunzel, locked in a tower, but no prince is going to rescue her.

The narrator is a girl named Esperanza, which usually translates to Hope, but also contains the ideas of expectation, waiting, and longing. It’s not a happy name, and she thinks it’s too long and full of consonants. She’s trying to navigate the odd world of preteen girls, where she’s perceived as a child right up until the time she puts on high heels, when she is suddenly treated to the lust-filled stares and catcalls that adult women have to put up with all the time. She and her friends “are tired of being beautiful” and get rid of the shoes. The cultural idea is that if a girl is old enough to be interested in men, she’s old enough to be married to one. So Esperanza hangs onto her girlishness so that she can be single long enough to finish junior high. People tell her to get an education, to get out of their insular community, and she is determined to hold onto her power.

Women do not have power in this book. They are controlled by their fathers until they get married, when they’re controlled by their husbands. Too afraid to leave the apartment, or just locked in. There’s a brief interval when they’re brave enough to defy their fathers’ rule before they marry, and that is the only time that a woman is free to do what she likes.

She sits at home because she is afraid to go outside without his permission. She looks at all the things they own: the towels and the toaster, the alarm clock and the drapes. She likes looking at the walls, at how neatly their corners meet, the linoleum roses on the floor, the ceiling smooth as wedding cake.

The book did show me how great life is outside of Christian education. We came to a section where Esperanza goes to visit an oddly normal fortune-teller, and I pulled my tarot cards out of my bag (like the poor, they’re with me always), and since the students were interested, we had tarot readings all round. I expected the quiet Afghan boy to refuse, but he went along with it. He seemed a little uncomfortable with how accurate the reading was, and he’s not the first person to feel that my reading was closer to the truth than is strictly necessary. As I tell people, there’s no magic in it, the querent provides the interpretation, but still. Take a concept like Temperance or Balance and tell people it’s important to them, and of course you’ll be right because those concepts are important in every life. Anyway, the students were cool with it, I told the story to the supervisor and she thought it was great – secular academics make me feel good about myself because they don’t criticize me for being gay or interested in alternative spiritualities.

Women are not safe. In one section, Cisneros doesn’t come right out and say it, but I’m pretty sure Esperanza gets raped at a carnival. She goes with a friend, and the friend ditches her, and there’s a white man who starts talking about how pretty she is, and suddenly she’s talking about how people have lied to her about how great The Unnamed It is. In that context, she’s right. Sex can be beautiful and special and fun and wonderful, but it can also be terrifying and invasive and traumatizing. It can be the best or the worst thing that ever happened to someone. Or neither, it’s possible to have completely mediocre sexual experiences. But either way, why would someone teach a book with such an upsetting section to children? The first time I read the Red Clowns part I got so agitated that I felt physically ill. And then I had to teach it; I didn’t realize how emotional I get on the topic of rape. But I made it through, and the students were respectful, so our experience could have been much worse. I don’t know how Esperanza’s could have been. Some women have said that they’d rather have been killed, and some kill themselves to get away from the memory. Rape is an awful, evil thing. No one chooses it, and no one should have to experience it.

I suppose I should say something about the fact that this is a Latina community. But honestly, gender seems significantly more important than ethnicity in determining the lives of the characters. And poverty is poverty, no matter what your skin color is. I don’t belong to a recently immigrated community, but I know that my first name refers to a geographical term, a narrow strip of land between two bodies of water. I’ve even seen some on maps. Names having meaning is not specific to Spanish speakers. Religion as a tool of social control is not specific to Catholicism. Their community is insular, but she doesn’t present the uniquenesses of being Latina. Being a woman who’s poor is description enough, I guess.

As mentioned, I didn’t go looking for this book. I read it as a duty, so that I could do my job to the best of my ability. I found it horridly depressing, but I think it’s going to stay with me. The starkness of the writing lends a magical realism effect when she uses metaphors, but . . .

No wonder everybody gave up. Just stopped looking out when little Efren chipped his buck tooth on a parking meter and didn’t even stop Refugia from getting her head stuck between two slats in the back gate and nobody even looked up not once the day Angel Vargas learned to fly and dropped from the sky like a sugar donut, just like a falling star, and exploded down to earth without even an “Oh.”