Look at Me, by Jennifer Egan

Some years ago, when I lived in New England, my next-door neighbor decided to burn the brush he had cleared from his yard. Unfortunately, mixed in with that brush was poison ivy.

Now, I catch poison ivy if you simply tell me that your second cousin had it ten years ago, so I reacted strongly to this smoke. My face swelled to twice its size. It turned beet-red and lumpy, and my eyes were reduced to mere slits. I was lucky, I guess, that I just got a faceful of smoke and didn’t breathe it in; if I had gotten poison ivy in my throat, I would have ended up in the hospital on a ventilator.

As it was, I called my doctor and got her to call in a prescription for a strong antihistamine. Walking around the corner to the drugstore, however, was a more difficult experience altogether. People gave me a wide berth, their eyes flickering to my face and then quickly away again. Even the pharmacist, whom I’d come to know well through my children’s various ailments, looked over my shoulder rather than at my monstrous face.

“I’m still me!” I wanted to shout.

But was I? How much of who we are has to do with what we look like? I’m always intrigued by people whose appearance contradicts their personalities. Take Buster for instance, a huge, husky steelworker whose terrifying demeanor incited newcomers at the corner bar to pick fights with him in order to prove their mettle. But in fact Buster was the most gentle man imaginable and loathed fighting. Or Christine, who worked with me several years ago. A blandly beautiful young woman, with the blond hair, blue eyes, and clear complexion once commonly found in teen magazines. She looked like a ditzy blond but actually boasted a fierce intelligence that she refused to hide.

Egan’s excellent novel explores these issues around the intersection of appearance and identity. It opens with a fashion model who has been in a terrible auto accident. The resulting reconstructive surgery has left her looking beautiful but different, so unlike herself that even her friends and agent do not recognise her at first. She is also at an age where her bookings had already started falling off, even before the accident, and Egan adds to her examination of identity the dimension of celebrity and how that relects or influences our idea of ourselves.

There is much more to the book, other fascinating characters whose charisma waxes and wanes, plotlines that vary from teen-aged self-discovery to acts of terrorism. It is almost too much. In fact, it is too much for Egan to handle. She does an astonishing job of keeping all her balls in the air, making me think this one of the best books I’d read a long time. But the balls tumble down in chaos at the end of the book. I was so disappointed by the ending, which felt as though Egan simply got tired of writing and stopped, leaving many plot threads dangling. The only attempt at resolution, in an epilogue, had such a different tone that it seemed to have come from another book entirely.

Still, it is an excellent book and well worth reading. There is much to think about here. How and when we define ourselves, or allow others to define us. What consistency we can expect with our past selves. What effect our influence on others has, on them and on us. And how our appearance affects the construction of our identity. I certainly found my monstrously altered appearance prevented any interaction with others. If it had been more permanent, I wonder how my image of myself might have changed.

Shadow People, by Molly Lynn Watt

Molly sent me a copy of her book this week, and I’ve been reading and rereading her poems in the evenings as I sit out on my little porch. Instead of going to the dance, I linger to read and watch the light fade from the sky and the surface of the pond. The water makes no sound, its gentle undulations barely noticeable, until a fish breaks the surface with a little popping sound and sends necklaces of ripples whirling out into stillness.

These poems start out in Alaska, bringing to life encounters with the aurora borealis, brown bears, and local storytellers. I particularly like “Menenhall Glacier”, a meditation on time, anchored by specific descriptions of loons and lupines and mosquitoes and enhanced by surprising but oh-so-right metaphors, such as referring to the glacier as “nature’s giant plow”.

The poems segue into the revelations of daily life: hiding eggs in the spring, meditating on laundry, consoling a friend on his divorce. Sometimes, a quirky sense of humor surfaces, such as in “Song of Consumption” with its self-mockery and “Enumerating” with its playful recounting of the way we count each day. She finds music in the words around us, such as in “Redline” which uses the rhythms in the stops of the T, a rocking rhythm reminiscent of the swaying of the cars themselves.

The people who inhabit these poems are vividly drawn, a marvel of compression that I must continue to study. I felt as though I knew the man with the blue eyes, had seen Billie Holliday myself, walked through the woods with Alice. I found the poems about her mother and father exceptionally moving, especially “Into the Crack of Dawn” with its last waltz.

Molly and I share a dance community, and I am thrilled by the dance imagery in these poems, sometimes in the context of dancing itself, sometimes as a way to understand and approach the rhythms of life. My daughter-in-law, new to dancing, said that she knew she would love it when she first walked in and noticed that everyone was smiling. These deceptively simple poems invite you onto the floor and gently whirl you away, inviting you to explore the complex patterns of your life, leaving you refreshed and—yes—smiling.

Arts of the Possible, by Adrienne Rich

Starting with sixth grade, my mother enrolled me in private girls’ school. I didn’t want to leave the public school but was helpless before her determination. One of the requirements of the entrance exam was to write an essay, a term and a form that were new to me. The proctor explained that I should just write a story about the assigned subject, summer vacation, I think.

The school was as awful as I’d expected, snobby and materialistic. Worst of all, the minuscule population (smaller classes! the brochure bragged) reduced to near zero the chance of my finding like-minded friends. Rather than learning to get along with others, I withdrew into myself. It wasn’t until Adrienne Rich came as an alumna to speak at an assembly that I began to believe in my own survival. A published and honored poet, rebellious and outspoken: she took my breath away. If she could survive this school with her voice intact, then I could too.

Ever since, I’ve devoured her poetry and—yes—essays, grateful for the questions she’s asked and the trails she’s blazed. This book of essays and conversations gives us her fierce and intelligent voice discussing poetry, art, women, and her own work. When she mentions that the primary motivation for her poetry is to reveal what is hidden, I am reminded of our school and our neighborhood—she grew up a block away from me—and their suffocating atmosphere of secrecy, their respectable and elite front hiding shame and abuse and prejudice.

She relates this archeological work to the study of silence, a parallel that had not occurred to me before. I’d thought about silences in women’s lives in the sense that Tillie Olsen uses, the gaps in women’s creative lives cause by the harsh demands of women’s roles in our culture. But the thought of digging into what those silences might hide is thrilling.

Rich talks about the difficulty of making poetry out of political experiences, mentioning how she learning from Yeats that it was indeed possible to do so while protesting his idea that the addition of a political dimension would make the voices of women poets harsh.

I love when she talks about how Raya Dunayevskaya’s biography identifies Rosa Luxemburg’s central relationship as being with her work. I’ve found that too many people—biographers, editors, readers—allow women only one story: a romance.

Most of all, I loved Rich’s discussion of translation, having just taken a course where I translated Italian poetry into English. She carries the idea forward into describing the essence of poetry itself: “But poetry is an art of translation, a connective strand between unlike individuals, times, and cultures.” And here she ties translation and poetry into one of my deepest values: that of creating and nurturing communities.

Despite the stereotype of the lone artist, working away in solitude, there is no doubt that the heart of it is communication. And by communicating our different realities, we come to understand and appreciate each other. In a new book club at Ukazoo Books, a group of strangers, one person asked why it seemed that people who read lots of novels tend to be liberal politically. It seems to me that the reason is precisely this appreciation of experiences foreign to our own, undermining our self-righteous conviction that everyone could be as successful as we are if they would just try a little harder. Rich says: “Art is our human birthright, our most powerful means of access to our own and another’s experience and imaginative life. In continually rediscovering and recovering the humanity of human beings, art is crucial to the democratic vision.”

Rich is still my model and my inspiration, just as she was when I was in school. These essays help me understand why.

Locked Rooms, by Laurie R. King

King’s first book about Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes was The Beekeeper’s Apprentice which I finally read, despite my misgivings. I’ve come to dislike stories that use real people as characters or characters created by other authors. It doesn’t seem fair somehow, even if they are out of copyright.

Milan Kundera’s book Immortality made me think about public images and how little control one has over how one is remembered. More than just celebrities haunted by paparazzi and grotesque tabloid stories: even those who have chosen private lives may be affected. It is terrifyingly easy for a rejected lover or malicious sibling to spread false stories about a person and change the way that person is perceived by others.

And of course, the internet increases the range of the problem. Consider the dog poop girl, a young woman on the subway in South Korea who refused to clean up the mess her dog made and was rude to people around her who asked her to do so. A bystander snapped her picture and posted it on the internet. Others quickly tracked down her personal information and shared it on the network, shaming her family, forcing her to drop out of school, and causing her to be known for the rest of her life as the dog poop girl—surely a disproportionate punishment for her rude behavior. Daniel J. Solove’s The Future of Reputation explores this story and others like it, raising ethical issues about privacy in an age of internet vigilantism.

Well, I’ve wandered from Mary Russell, but these concerns have kept me away from such books. However, rave reviews from people whose opinions I trust finally sent me to the first book in the series. While I found it absorbing and well-written, I winced every time Holmes’s name was mentioned, which somewhat interrupted the flow of the story, and I decided not to read any more in the series.

But I have. Mog asked me to return this book to the library for her, and there it sat, saying Read me . . . Read me . . . until I finally gave in. Again, absorbing and well-written. Again, the wincing, though perhaps a little less because Russell and Holmes operate independently during long stretches of the book. Here, on their way back to England from India, they decide to stop in San Francisco to enable Russell to deal with her inheritance. Her intention is to sell the properties that have languished since the tragic death of her parents ten years previously.

As they near port, however, Russell experiences three different recurring dreams, disturbing dreams of flying objects and faceless men, causing Holmes to wonder if they could be related to the death of Russell’s parents and the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, although Russell maintains that she and her family were living in England at that time. Holmes and Russell's separate and mutual investigations probe issues of memory and identity, of the role that places and possessions play in anchoring our sense of self and providing the continuity we expect to find in our personalities.

Several recent books have looked at the effect of learning you were mistaken about some critical event in your past: Atonement by MacEwan, The Sea by John Banville. Understanding and correctly interpreting your past seems to be a task of middle age: looking backward in order to determine the best way forward. I keep getting distracted, but I meant to say that King is an excellent writer, and I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Except for the wincing.