Serendipitous Reading

Photo by Katie Winkler

I love it when my summer reading plans fall into place almost magically. In April, for my birthday, my nephew Timothy, a total bibliophile (I love it!) who blogs at The Mugwump Diaries, gave me the book Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald. For one reason or another, I was unable to read the book until later in May.

Another thing that was put off was my correspondence with potential contributors to Teach. Write. Turned out that one of the writers, whose work you will read in the next edition, mentioned W. G. Sebald in his cover letter. In the acceptance email, I told him that I was reading Austerlitz; thus began a brief correspondence about the work and the author that helped solidify some of my thoughts about the work. He suggested that I read another of Sebald’s books, The Emigrants, which I have added to my very long reading list for this year.

In his excellent review of Austerlitz on the website The New Canon: The Best in Fiction Since 1985, Ted Gioia, music critic and book reviewer, writes that Sebald “has written a historical novel that appears to exist outside of history, yet this represents less an escape and more an exile. That dislocation is both the tragedy of Austerlitz the character, and the wonder of Austerlitz the book.” This statement reflects my understanding of the book as well.

Austerlitz is a displaced person, growing up in the UK from the age of five, feeling different and not understanding why until his adoptive parents explain his origins. As he travels through life, drawn more and more to the seemingly immutable architecture of Europe, he also explores his history and the trauma of his childhood. Further highlighting his isolation, Austerlitz tells his story not to a friend or relative but to the narrator, whom he meets by chance at a zoo in Antwerp. Their intermittent friendship develops slowly over the years when the narrator is invited to the various places Austerlitz lives, especially London, where the German-born Sebald lived and worked for a large portion of his life.

Page 5 of Austerlitz–photo by Katie Winkler

The unusual style of the book is part of its appeal. Like Nick Carraway, the narrator shapes our vision of Austerlitz. We only know what Austerlitz reveals to him and what we see in the various photographs like those below, displayed throughout the book. (You can see why I think of The Great Gatsby now, can’t you?) The long narrative passages with no chapters and very little paragraphing are often punctuated by the words “Austerlitz said,” reminding us that this is not the narrator’s story.

Also unusual are the long sentences and dialog without punctuation. The effect is not exactly stream-of-consciousness, but stream-of-conversation or narration, like when listening to an elderly relative recalling events from childhood, moving seamlessly from one memory to the next, digressing when the recollection leads to some topic of interest or area of expertise.

As a teacher and a writer, I find the digression from the story that speaks about the difficulties of writing particularly interesting. The narrator has come to visit Austerlitz at his home in Alderney St., London; photographs of architectural wonders from around the world are scattered all about, but before Austerlitz can begin taking up the story of his life once again, he explains how he, recently retired from teaching, now wishes to compile his thoughts and ideas about architecture but is having trouble focusing:

“All I could think was that such a sentence only appears to mean something, but in truth is at best a makeshift expedient, a kind of unhealthy growth issuing from our ignorance, something which we use, in the same way as many sea plants and animals use their tentacles, to grope blindly through the darkness enveloping us” (124).

I don’t know a writer who has not felt this way at some point and time. Austerlitz goes on:

“I could see no connections anymore, the sentences resolved themselves into a series of separate words, the words into random sets of letters, the letters into disjointed signs, and those signs into a blue-gray trail gleaming silver here and there, excreted and left behind it by some crawling creature” (124).

And so I hear the words of the reviewer Gioia again–Austerlitz’ tragedy is the wonder of the book, that the character’s growing displacement can bring all of us, not just writers, not just survivors of childhood trauma, but anyone who feels displaced, into a community, giving us a place to belong.

Citation

Sebald, W.G. Austerlitz, 10th Anniversary Edition, Modern Library, 2011.

I feel that I am developing my own community of writers through editing and producing Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal. It is devoted to writing teachers who want to publish their writing, but you don’t have to be a teacher to contribute. I welcome writing from anyone.

Submissions for the Fall/Winter 2021 edition are open until September 1. Follow this link for submission guidelines. I would love to read your work.

My podel has gnomes and fairies, boojums and zombies, along with other outlandish characters, living ordinary, extraordinary lives.

And, no, I have not forgotten my podel (podcasted novel), but I am having some issues, not unlike those encountered by Austerlitz. I am tooling along ,though, and quite proud of the nine episodes I have produced so far and having fun, which is not the only point but a big one. If you would like to hear the podel so far, then follow this link: CAMPUS: A Novel That Wants to Be a Musical.

Gift Books

I am blessed with special people in my life and one of those people is my nephew Timothy. He is in school studying media arts and has started a blog here on WordPress called the Mugwump Diaries. You can check it out here.

Timothy and I love reading and reviewing books, and for a while now, I have enjoyed reading his reviews on Goodreads, so I am excited that he has started a book review blog. Plus, he has inspired me to get back to my own book reviews.

This Christmas, I received several books that I am looking forward to reading and two Christmas themed books that I just haven’t gotten around to until this year. It just didn’t seem right to read them outside of the Christmas season.

I will write about those last two next post but today, I just want to talk about my gift books and what they mean to me.

Where to begin? Why not at the top? I can’t wait to read In Praise of Difficult Women by Karen Karbo, given to me by a dear friend and colleague who knows that I take it as an ultimate compliment that she finds me difficult. In the introduction, Karbo says, “I love these women because they encourage me to own my true nature. They teach me that it’s perfectly okay not to go along to get along. They show by example that we shouldn’t shy away from stating our opinions. Their lives were and are imperfect. They suffered. They made mistakes. But they rarely betrayed their essential natures to keep the peace” (p.17).

Yeah, that’s what I need to read!

That same friend gave me the book immediately below that, Untamed by Glennon Doyle. I haven’t finished it yet as I was distracted by the Christmas books I was determined to read (before it was too late, ha!), but it is another one that gives voice to my feelings, these feelings I have of not being what people expect me to be, that I’m not an easy keeper, as we say in the South. Doyle speaks to women who don’t want to be defined by their roles in society, who don’t want to be defined at all. Difficult women. Troublemakers.

Women like me.

I’m getting back to reading Untamed today!

The book to the right, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is a gift from my husband and is proof of what a treasure he is. Out of all the books he could have chosen, he picked a historical novel giving life to Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, who died at eleven, during the Plague. A few years after the death of his son, Shakespeare wrote one of the greatest works of literature the world has ever known. Hamlet. Just like my friend, my husband knows me, knows that I would relish reading a beautiful book that will make me cry. He gets me, even though I’m difficult. And he loves me anyway.

To the left is another special book, Podcasting for Dummies, given to me by my dear daughter, who also advised my husband on what equipment to buy me to help me with my big podcasting challenge of 2021–my podel or povel or novcast or whatever you want to call it–this thing that I’m doing. Her gift book is special to me because it shows that she has faith in me and supports what her mother is doing, no matter how weird it is. And believe me, you will see, it is weird. But she gave me the book because she doesn’t care that her mother does do some strange things and doesn’t do or say all of the things mothers are supposed to do or say, except the most important thing, that is. She does say, “I love you.”

And my daughter loves me, too.

A gift book told me so.

All ready for the debut of my podel (podcast novel) CAMPUS, January 10

Thoughts on Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

My work has kept me so busy that it took me a while to finish the latest choice for the Western Carolina University Alumni Book Club that I joined this summer.

The book is Just Mercy, written by the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama that has been instrumental in helping to overturn many wrongful convictions and reduce the harsh sentences of poor and disabled people in Alabama and around the country.

The end of book discussion included the following provocative prompt: “A critical theme throughout Stevenson’s book is that the fight for fair and equal treatment of all people under the law is a long and ongoing struggle. Setbacks are common and must be overcome, and even in the aftermath of great victories, there is still more progress to be made. For example, the Supreme Court originally upheld the use of the death penalty on convicted minors, but this was later successfully overturned in 2005; still, the fight for fair and humane treatment of minors in the criminal justice system continues. How does this understanding and approach lead to more effective organization and activism on behalf of marginalized people?”

Here is my response: Stevenson touches on the most powerful approach to effective activism for the sake of poor and disabled people in Chapter Fifteen, titled “Broken.” Stevenson recognizes his extreme brokenness after trying to comfort one of his clients on the night of his execution. On the verge of giving up in the face of overwhelming injustices, the author admits to himself that he is as broken as those he is trying to save, but remembering his own past failures, he finds the strength to go on.

He says, “You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it. We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent.”

There is such humility in recognizing that you are weak and will fail. We are too seldom willing to be humbled by what we cannot do and too often inflated by superficial accomplishments, even when “doing good.” We must ask ourselves if our altruism is born of deep empathy or shallow pity. I must ask myself if I am willing to continue fighting for liberty and justice, even in the face of defeat after defeat, even if I am never recognized for my efforts, or in some cases ridiculed for them. I hope I am, but I don’t know. Time will tell. I do know, however, that this book has inspired me to try.

Mrs. Winkler’s Last Summer Book, but She Keeps Reading

The last book I finished before the craziness of teaching all online, synchronous and asynchronous, was a book my brother gave to me a while back, and I finally pushed through the stack to get to it.

I’m glad I did.

No one Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts is marketed to be a retelling of The Great Gatsby, and there are certainly echoes of Fitzgerald’s iconic novel here. The twists, however, make the novel rise above a simple re-telling. Jade Chang in her New York Times review describes the novel as a “skillful riff on ‘The Great Gatsby,’ which revolves around a contemporary black family in a declining North Carolina town,” an apt description of the novel.

Jay Gatsby is recast as JJ Ferguson, a young man who has left Pinewood, a small town in the Piedmont, to seek the American Dream. He returns a wealthy man, and begins to court Ava, our Daisy, who is now married to a weak man who is unfaithful to her.

Sound familiar?

Yes, some of the same themes are there, but the novel reveals the importance of setting in a novel. This is not a New York story. It is not one Nick Carraway could have told. It is not a story that any one person can tell, so we discover the hidden truths from multiple points of view, all circling around the most unlikely of Nick-type characters, Ava’s mother Sylvia, who is rooted in the soil of her Southern home.

Perhaps because I am about the same age as Sylvia, her perspective resonates the most with me. Her transformation is quiet and not earth-shattering– acceptance of herself, her past, and her place in life. Forgiveness. During the extraordinary days that have been the Summer of 2020, I have found myself learning these things, too.

And feeling good about it.

Here is a passage that captures Sylvia’s self-deprecating mood at the beginning of the novel, one of the passages that drew me into this amazing woman’s story:

“None of that hoping and believing girl was left in Sylvia now or at least she couldn’t be found. The woman she was now didn’t yearn for sophistication, and as far as she could tell she’d stopped yearning for much at all. The woman she’d become was fat and weighed down, but not just fat, dumb too, and always in the process of adjusting, like there was two of everything, the real thing and the shimmering copy that her brain had to work with focus and concentration to integrate. Her brain in slow-mo or she felt slow–same difference. The result was the girl she’d been had evaporated from her body like an emancipated soul.”

What I like is that Sylvia makes an honest appraisal of herself here. She is not eliciting pity–simply telling the truth.

I find that refreshing.

That is why I liked No One Is Coming to Save Us. Although it first seemed to focus on the deprivation of a black community in the South, I quickly saw it isn’t only about the African-American South or even about poverty in the contemporary South. It is about the American Dream and how these people, in this special place and time, define it, how they lose it or make it come true.

My next book review will be about the next Western Carolina University Book Club read, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. I have seen the movie version of the book, too, so maybe it will be a book/movie comparison. Spoiler alert: the book is better than the movie, but the movie is very good.

Also, I will soon be unveiling the 2020 fall/winter edition of Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal, slated to appear October 1.

So come back!!

Mrs. Winkler Keeps Reading

Updated June 16, 2020

NOTE: Scroll to the end to see additions to this review. CAUTION: SPOILERS

I joined an online book club for Western Carolina University alumni, and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is the first book we are reading. The book has given me some food for thought and its simple formula for changing habit (cue, routine, reward) has been actually working for me. I have completed short yoga routines for 80 days in a row and am regularly meeting my quota of 600 words a day towards completion of my novel, writing six of seven days a week for the past three weeks, just to name two examples.

Not bad.

One of the main themes of the book is not trying to suppress bad habits but to replace bad habits with positive ones through changing the routine. Duhigg explains and gives examples of the idea that habits are born of cues that trigger the behavior and lead to some kind of reward. He calls it The Golden Rule of Habit Change: “You can’t extinguish an old habit. You can only change it.”

He shows how this works by using a multitude of examples. In the first part of the book he shows how mainly positive examples, including Tony Dungy, coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who changed the team’s habits to eventually lead them to the Super Bowl and Bob Wilson, the founder of AA, how the program’s success for so many people comes in part from establishing new habits.

But in both cases, Duhigg talks about belief, not necessarily a spiritual belief, but some sort of faith must be present to successfully form good habits and this faith is normally found by being part of a group.

The chapter that will be most useful to me as a teacher is “Chapter 5: Starbucks and the Habit of Success.” This chapter talks about how Starbucks had become a powerhouse coffeehouse chain by, simply put, teaching willpower. At the same time, Starbucks has found that giving employees a voice is one of the ways to help develop the self-discipline and willpower needed to train and retain productive employees.

The implications for teaching are obvious–our students need to have more power over what they are learning. If they feel they have choice, they will be more likely to exhibit the self-control necessary to complete their studies

Interesting.

One of the most relevant parts of the book for today is “Chapter 6: The Power of a Crisis.” Duhigg gives an example of a Rhode Island hospital that made radical changes for the better by changing institutional habits following the senseless death of one of their patients.

Following the example, Duhigg states:

“But sometimes, even destructive habits can be transformed by leaders who know how to seize the right opportunities. Sometimes, in the heat of a crisis, the right habits emerge.”

Updated June 16, 2020

In response to a question posed by our book club leader, I wrote the following about the chapter in the book I appreciate in some ways but took exception to in others:

Overall, I have a positive reaction to the book and its author, but my perspective changed quite a bit towards both as I was reading Chapter 7, especially the Target example. The author seemed to treat this example in a positive light at first–as if intrusion into a woman’s reproductive privacy is no big deal. It is only when the marketing team and the data researcher finally question whether his intrusive data collection would actually make money or not that they apparently begin to question how pregnant women might feel.

Interesting also that the author gives an example of an angry father to make his point about negative reactions from the public. I found myself wondering what was happening to the poor young woman who was the daughter of that angry father. How did she feel about the father talking to a manager at Target about her pregnancy? Did the father kick her out of the house because she got pregnant? Did father and daughter reconcile? Is he forcing her to keep the child or marry, or not marry, the father of her child against her wishes? How does the young woman’s mother feel about all of this? But none of this matters to the data collectors or the author of the book, it seems. Maybe it does, but not enough to find out and give examples of how any individual woman feels about this kind of marketing strategy, I guess.

Perhaps the author being a male and the subject of his example being a male was my cue to go to the routine of rolling my eyes at this obtuse behavior. The reward is another great example for my students of sexism and manipulative advertising tactics.

After reading this chapter I was reminded how important it is to continue teaching my students about the power of persuasive techniques that are legal but border on, or are downright, unethical but widely accepted as the norm because they make a lot of money. It is up to my students as consumers to use critical thinking when viewing advertising and recognize the incredible powers of data-driven marketing. It is up to me as their instructor to provide proof of these questionable tactics and for that, I am grateful to the author and his book.

One final question: Why did the author not comment on the initial question the marketers asked the mathematician to solve?

Here’s the question: “Can your computers figure out which customers are pregnant, even if they don’t want us to know?” (182). (Emphasis mine).

That’s okay? I guess so because “Figuring out whose pregnant…could make Target millions of dollars” (184), and this little gem “So for companies, pregnant women are goldmines” (192). Oh, I get it. Priorities.

I think if there is a new edition, Duhigg should consider leaving out Chapter 7. It was the reason I gave the book four stars instead of five. At the very least, he should spend some time trying to get at least one pregnant woman’s view of this kind of advertising.

I know I have harped on the bad, but there is much good to be gleaned from the book as well, so I am glad I read it and have taken part in the discussion.