cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (Default)
I've been scarce this week because my home internet access has been squirrelly AF. Also, I've been dealing with a mild cold and major headaches that are probably hormone related. But today I managed to sign a contract (sorry, can't share details yet), send some emails, and revise a poem. Also, when I can focus on the page, I've been reading Carlos Hernandez's short story collection, The Assimilated Cuban's Guide to Quantum Santeria. It's delightful.
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (Default)
It really does feel like a good morning. ~5 hours of sleep and I woke up feeling absolutely decadent, went back to sleep for another hour or so. The sun is shining and it's warm enough to open up and air out the house. Birds singing, a view of green and gold. 

I'm psyching myself up for a business call later today. I'm fond of the person who'll be on the other end and it's for a Good Thing, so fingers crossed that I won't get too tongue-tied.

I recently finished reading Sonya Vatomsky's poetry collection Salt Is For Curing. This sentence, from the Aperitif, "Bathymetry," astonished me:

I've got the kind of light
you name galaxies after.

I keep thinking about it. It pesters me. I can't imagine saying/writing that in any persona near my own. Audacious! Egotistical! Forbidden! But there are different galaxies, including donut galaxies, so perhaps I am selling my round self short. Truly, I think the world would be a better place if more women and marginalized folks of various genders could feel and speak this proudly. Maybe one day I'll get there.

Towards the end of the First Course, in "A Girl's Guide to Adventuring," Vatomsky writes:

I never regret because
I'm never wrong...
I didn't make the rules, and I don't mind them.
You have to start somewhere and I start with "no,"

Now, there's plenty of regret in Vatomsky's other poems, so the boast in this poem's first two lines is easier for me to accept. But to START with "no"? Is that allowed?! I can't help but read this as a rebuttal to Nietzsche's sacred Yes. A recognition that for women, the default is Yes because we have no right to refuse. But Vatomsky says, "fuck that right in the ear." If I don't join her "no" it's only because I'm too busy hissing Yisss, fist raised.

Okay, off to finish prepping for this phone call. 


cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (book)
I like to learn new words. Not from word-a-day websites or calendars, but from my own reading, where context is more likely to make the new word stick. This week, three words impressed themselves upon me, three lovely little morsels of brain candy.

1. Jerboa -- I encountered this noun while reading Rae Carson's The Girl of Fire and Thorns (a somewhat misleading title, btw). The jerboa is described as a desert rodent with a long tail, and the jerboa is caught and cooked in a (much maligned) stew by folks traversing the desert. I assumed the jerboa was a mythical "smeerp" type critter that resembled a squirrel or chinchilla. Then I saw a picture of a real-life jerboa online. And was instantly, retroactively revolted at every mention of the stew. I think it's the tail. And the long skinny legs. And the skin on its bat-like ears. Considering how many of the online mentions of jerboas emphasize their cute-itude, I suspect I am in the minority with my revulsion, much like [livejournal.com profile] snowy_owlet and her feelings toward sloths.

2. Caudillismo -- I've seen (and looked up) this word many times before, from my general interest in Mexican history and the polysci copyediting I did years ago. But it never really stuck until this week, when I came across it again in Shadows of Tender Fury: The Letters and Communiques of Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. A caudillo is defined in the book's glossary as "a charismatic political leader who derives his power from his military experience, prowess, and bearing." So caudillismo is that form of leadership. Why should the term stick now, when it never did before? For one thing, you're familiar with the idea of "my TV (or book) boyfriend"? Well, Subcomandante Marcos is my Rebel Boyfriend. Any word I learn from him has instant cachet. Also, the fact that the book has a glossary means I can flip back and refresh my memory, and the memory is further solidified by the look of the formatted text.

3. Sankofa -- This is an Akan word from Ghana that I learned from reading "lifestream," Sofia Samatar's account of the Princeton symposium "Ferguson Is The Future." I see from several online sources that, roughly translated, sankofa means "reach back and get it" and is associated with a proverb along the lines of "there's no shame in going back for what you forgot." Most often sankofa is symbolized by a bird flying forward while twisting its head back to take an egg in its beak. There's a picture of the symposium poster in Sofia's post, and it includes a different sankofa symbol near the center: the twisty, twirly heart-shape. The concept of sankofa, of retrieving precious things from the past, resonates with me partly because of the research I've been doing on Sara Estela Ramirez, a nearly forgotten rebel poet of the Mexican Revolution. Much of her poetry was published in newspapers, which are so ephemeral, and even more so when they are of and for a marginalized population, as was Ramirez's writing for Mexican exiles living in South Texas around the turn of the 20th century. I can't even find a surviving photo of the woman, though I've seen several of her contemporaries. I would very much like to reach back and retrieve ALL the work of this amazing antepasada.

Have you learned any new words this week? What made them stand out for you? Maybe you made up a new word? Please share in the comments!
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (book)
Currently Reading: a book of poetry, When My Brother Was an Aztec, which is Natalie Diaz's first collection. I should have finished by now. It's not long and it's very good, but I'm in an emotional slump where if I'm not working, I'm sleeping. So I still have part 3 to read.

Something that I've been thinking about as I read (only tangentially, if that, related to Diaz's work): Why do poems end where they do? Probably everyone has had the experience of reading a longish poem and turning the page, expecting more, only to find there's just a few words left. It's disorienting, and it doesn't happen just because of page formatting.

When the poem has a narrative thread, it's easier to understand why it stops where it does. If it's formal verse, then usually it's obvious why it ends even if you wish for it to go on, and good poems often do leave us wanting more.

But if a poem isn't narrative or formal, then what? I look for a realization or wisdom bestowed. I seek crystallization, a sense that the poem has finally gathered itself into its most potent terms, or a crescendo of emotion. When I don't see these things, I wonder what I'm missing. Do our brains operate so differently that I don't see/feel what the poet's put on the page? Or do they have a drastically different aesthetic philosophy, and they don't think what I'm looking for makes for a proper ending? (Here I'm assuming competency; incompetency reveals itself much earlier than the last lines.)

Theories welcome. Nay, encouraged! Tell me what makes for a satisfying conclusion in a poem.

Also Currently Reading: I continue reading Mouseheart with Tweetie and I continue to enjoy it.
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (book)
How is it Wednesday again?! Life is like a toddler that keeps running away from me, and sometimes I'm just too weary to give chase.

With the exception of the continued read-aloud with Tweetie (Rising Storm by Erin Hunter), most of my reading this past week has been of short forms.

I finished reading Grace Notes, Rita Dove's fourth collection of poetry. I'd read single works of hers in American Poetry Review in the past, but this was my first time reading a collection. The book begins with memories of youth and concludes with insight into old age. Dove is a poet of surgical precision. Few of these pieces are more than a page long, and several are sonnets or sonnet-like.

The problem, for me, with the surgical approach is that it involves emotional distance. I sense the intensity behind these distillations, but couldn't always share that emotion. The sigils didn't mean the same to me as to Dove, perhaps. Sometimes I had no idea what the poem was even about, which was strange, to be surrounded by recognizable details yet not know where I was. (Maybe like walking into the "your" apartment in the wrong building of the complex.) Rarely was there lyrical lushness that allowed me to get lost in words and rhythms for their own sake. The poems that really sang to me, as [livejournal.com profile] snowy_owlet might say, were about childhood, parenting, or strong narratives about family. There, the sigils lined up.

Online, I read a marvelous translation: "Cefalea" (Headache) by Julio Cortázar, translated by Michael Cisco. I haven't read the original story, but the translation feels accurate. I loved the homeopathic neepery as the narrator attempts to maintain order in a disintegrating situation, and the cumulative effect is very satisfying. At first, you won't understand what the hell is going on, but stick with it. Highly recommended!

Now I am reading an ARC of Tell My Sorrows to the Stones, a short story collection by Christopher Golden. I bought the ARC at a fundraiser at WisCon. According to Goodreads, Golden has written approximately three zillion books, so it's no surprise that the prose is polished and the stories well-crafted. I really like when Golden writes about work. I'm about halfway through the book, and already I've "been" a miner, a clown, and a National Guardsman. And amazingly, the story with the Guardsman was about patrolling the US-Mexico border and did NOT piss me off.

(Though Golden describes the Sonoran Desert as land so ugly even the Texas Rangers never worried much about it, when I'm pretty sure the Rangers ignored it because it's nowhere near Texas. I'd hope an editor caught that before the final version, but since the story was a reprint, I kind of doubt it.)

My main complaint so far is that whenever a sexy lady shows up, you can bet things will go bloody. The conclusion of "The Art of the Deal" was so grossly, misogynistically unfair to the sole female character, I had to put the book down for a while. "Thin Walls" pissed me off, too. (Newsflash: Women can be sexy and enjoy sex without being evil!) Skip those stories if you can.
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (book)
It's been bumpy, shifting gears into fall, hence my late reading report. Tweetie and I are still reading aloud Rising Storm by Erin Hunter. I am still reading Grace Notes by Rita Dove on my own. It's a slim volume that in no way justifies how long it's taking me to finish it. It's good, I like it, but I've been wanting to "blank out" in the evenings. Much microaggression, many revision, wow.

I read some short fiction, though. On Twitter, I recommended "Herd Immunity" by Tananarive Due. (Honestly, I was hooked the second the narrator confessed that she felt an instinctive trust toward a man she saw from afar just because he had a guitar case on his back. ME TOO!) The story is set after most of the human population has been killed off by a virus. It's not going to give you a happy hard-on, and yet, there's a vibrancy to it that we don't often see in these post-disaster scenarios. The narrator populates her rundown world with such vivid, if fleeting, imaginations. I wondered if she had always thought this way, or if it was a survival mechanism, and if it was the latter, was that imaginative capacity a key aspect of her immunity? I also liked the idea of how dangerous hope can make us, and yet where are we without it?

I'd also recommend Claire Humphrey's "Four Steps to the Perfect Smoky Eye." I only thought it was okay when I finished reading it, but I've been thinking about it ever since. The story is set in a science fictionalized 1980s America, so it is both familiar and not. Uncanny. I recognized some aspects so instantly but others were skewed by the speculative element, problematizing the whole. It made me think about how we (mis)remember recent history, how we (especially women) are manipulated to focus on things that will never change the status quo, and how gaslighting perplexes our views. Very interesting, indeed. I'm starting to wish I'd written it!

FYI, I am on Goodreads, as an author and reader: Lisa M. Bradley. Feel free to friend me there to make reading recs even easier!
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (book)
Last week, a storm knocked out our home internet access for three days, so I wasn't able to post a reading update. That I was as frustrated as I was suggests "Wednesday Reading" has become a habit for me, which is good. I think it might be especially helpful during the winter, when seasonal depression makes me feel as if I have nothing worth saying aloud, let alone worth blogging about.

On the read-aloud front, Tweetie and I finished Forest of Secrets by Erin Hunter. YAY! The review is here on Goodreads. My relief was short-lived, however, for Tweetie smuggled into the house the next book in the series, Rising Storm. I think it's better written, but maybe I've just been beat into submission. We are on Chapter 8 of that. Sigh.

In my own reading, I finished Amnesia Moon by Jonathan Lethem and really liked it. Lethem uses the dystopia to more metaphoric ends than most novelists in the subgenre. The laconic prose and swift pacing pleased me. I'd call it literary spec fic, because the science fictional aspects aren't explored in much detail. How our protagonist got into his mess is less important than his reactions to it, and the novel cuts off before we learn whether he succeeds in his rebellion.

For sure, the book had flaws: the women were one-dimensional--when they existed at all--and, as I point out in my Goodreads review, there were elements of transphobia, ableism, and fat-shaming. I was able to read past the first problem because, let's fucking admit it, I've had to do that all my life. The other gross elements I endured because (1) I came to the story with a certain amount of privilege and (2) I thought of them as authorial intrusions rather than part of the story itself. The metafictional aspects of the story (what is the nature of reality? how do we impose order on the contents of our consciousness?) sort of lend themselves to making that distinction, I think.

Now I am reading a poetry collection, Grace Notes by Rita Dove.

I put off starting Grace Notes until I finished a poem of my own yesterday, since I didn't want any "mental interference." I'm interested to hear: how many of my fellow writers avoid reading certain genres when they're working? If you're writing a short story, is reading short stories a problem? If you're a science fiction novelist, do you find it best to avoid SF while you're drafting? Or does reading within genre while writing that genre help in some way? Feel free to share your experience in the comments!
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (ivana baquero)
As the trauma continues in Ferguson, Missouri, the town's public library, established in 1930, offers a sanctuary. Seeing this picture on Twitter reminded me of how important it is that all people, but especially children, have a safe place where they can read: to understand, to learn, to remember, to be comforted, to escape, to imagine. To dream.

Sending grateful good wishes to the librarians in Ferguson, and to all those who strive to make their libraries safe havens.

************************

Read-alouds with Tweetie of Forest of Secrets and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven continue.

I finished reading Sensation by Nick Mamatas. (I checked the cover blurbs and both were from men, one by China Mieville and one from a writer I'd never heard of before.) As I noted in my Goodreads review, my enjoyment waned about four-fifths of the way through Sensation. I no longer felt connected to the narrative. Perhaps the chaos outstripped narrative tension? Or the shift in point of view to emphasize Julia left me adrift? (most of the book centers her husband Raymond or their overlords) Maybe the ratio of satire to sarcasm changed? I still can't put my finger on it. Regardless, I'm looking forward to reading another Mamatas book, Love Is the Law.

Over the weekend, I read the first two volumes of Chew and liked those pretty well. I could do without the fat jokes and the stereotypically buxom female characters, so I might pace myself with the next volumes, but the system of gustatory "superpowers" is cool and the politics are interesting.

Last night I started reading Amnesia Moon by Jonathan Lethem and discovered that the secondhand copy I bought is signed by the author! Nice surprise. The story launches quickly, and this dystopia promises to be very different from your typical zombie or nuclear apocalypse. I'll admit, I'm a bit concerned this is going to be ALL MEN ALL THE TIME. (The Library of Congress tags are "Young Men--Wyoming" and "Automobile travel" and so far the only participatory female character is a nearly mute young teen who hops in cars with strangers, gets used as leverage, and must be saved.) But I'm only 30 pages in, so let's see.

Next book on my reading agenda is poetry, Grace Notes by Rita Dove.

As always, I'm interested to hear what you're reading and enjoying--or not!
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (ivana baquero)
The next installment of this series (the premise explained here) should be about passing. I'm still formulating my thoughts on the topic. In the meantime, feel free to ask me questions, whether about previous installments or topics you'd like me to discuss in the future. Questions can be 101-level, advanced, specific, general, writing-related, lifestyle-related, whatever. Just put it in the comments and I'll see what I can do. :)

This is also a good time to share some reading recommendations. The four works below all deal with passing, but in different genres. So hopefully, there's something for everyone!

Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity, ed. by Mattilda. Although many of the essays focus on passing in a QUILTBAG-specific context, there is discussion of racial dynamics as well. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say this book was life-changing for me. It convinced me that all of us are trying to pass in some respect, and it demonstrated how false, untenable, and destructive the notion of passing is.

Zero Bar by Tom Greene. This SF short story about a Latina's experiences with passing really hits me in the heart and the gut. It all rings so true, perhaps because the author, like me, grew up in Texas.

Incognegro by Mat Johnson. A graphic novel mystery about a black reporter from the North who goes undercover, passing as a white man, to document lynchings in the South. The premise, based on true stories, just blows my mind. I can't begin to comprehend the courage of these investigators.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson. First published in 1912, this is the fictional memoir of a biracial man who passes for white. The narrator, who doesn't even realize he's biracial until he goes to school, is a gifted musician. It's interesting to see how his relationship with music changes, depending on the company he's in and which race he's presenting as.

If you know of some good books, fictional or otherwise, about experiences of passing, I'd appreciate recommendations in the comments! Thanks, folks.
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (coffee addicted)
I had a good weekend, despite the headache that finally caught up with me on Sunday afternoon/evening. On Friday night, J and I made up a recipe for baked acorn squash with chorizo and apple stuffing. The stuffing was good enough that I enjoyed it again last night for dinner.

On Saturday, we ran errands, which made me feel accomplished. Unfortunately, while we were in Target, our car got hit in the parking lot, marking the third time this vehicle has gotten rear-ended. I tell you, her butt is just too bodacious. Later that afternoon, one of my poems was accepted for publication. And that evening, JJ and Tweetie attended a wedding reception with an elaborate Indian dinner and Bollywood-style dancing. I opted out, not feeling up to socializing. When they got back and Tweetie was in bed, J and I watched Cloud Atlas, which was okay in the moment but has been pissing me off ever since.

Sunday we visited friends for lunch, and I finally got to see their beautiful new home. But like I said, the headache that had been threatening since Thursday(?) caught up with me after that. Luckily it wasn't a migraine, but it still knocked me out for most of the evening. I did rouse myself enough to watch episode 2 of Sleepy Hollow. Ridiculously good fun.

Today I would like to:

--send out a poetry sub
--ready some outgoing mail
--make applesauce
--read more of the Deleuze/Guatarri essay [livejournal.com profile] asakiyume turned me on to
--get flu shots for me and Tweetie
--continue research for the Mexican Lovecraftian novel

And you? How was your weekend? What do you want to accomplish today?
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (book)
This is one of those times I wish I could have a single, simple reaction to something, like I so often do with chocolate cake. But if stuff has to go through my brain rather than simply my senses, it turns into a muddled mess of compartmentalized appreciation and deflated fury.

Reading the cover of American Poetry Review, Sept/Oct 2011, I was delighted to see "Chicano/Latina Poets, 12 poets introduced by..." But I wondered about the label. Chicano slash Latina? Both, either/or? Seemed like an awkward combination. What were the editors trying to accomplish by that strange slash?

Personally, I grew up with the label Hispanic, which comprises the populations of Spanish-speaking peoples and was in my case especially ironic, considering I did not speak Spanish (well). But we are now/always in a state of nominative flux, and the same way Americans have variously used Negro, colored, black, and African-American, and one can sometimes spot generational differences from the use thereof, we have struggled to choose the "correct" label for my ethnicity. I'm sort of resigned to the Latina identifier now (it includes Brazilians. Never understood Chicano though.) Likewise, I grew up saying Chippewa, but am now more inclined to use Ojibwe. And Winnebago is giving way to Ho-Chunk, at least in Iowa and Wisconsin.

Those were my initial reactions to the cover. Only now am I chagrined to note that Chicano/Latino poets is highlighted the same way other poets' names are: Robert Bly, for example. There are reasons, I'm sure, the editors chose not to highlight any one name from the group. But I doubt they're good reasons.

[ETA: These are the 12 poets featured in the supplemental section. Their names do not appear in the Table of Contents, either.]
Angel Garcia
Cristian Flores Garcia
David Campos
John Olivares Espinoza
Luis Lopez-Maldonado
Ruben Quesada
Sara Aranda
Wendy Silva
Iuri Morales Lara
Yvette Luevano
Scott Hernandez
Adriana Sanchez Alexander

The introduction makes clear that, more than "Chicano/Latina"--whatever that means--the poets are specifically from southern and central California. (I am pleased by how familiar their stories are, though I grew up in Texas.)

I feel pretty confident that most of these poems wouldn't make the pages of APR without the special ethnic focus. It's not that they're not good poems. Most are great. I enjoyed almost all of them. But they are strongly narrative; they throb with a sense of physicality and focus that is generally too raw or "naive" for APR. They are stories, whereas most poems printed in APR seem designed to deflect as much as describe.

Elsewhere in the journal, in the essay on Robert Bly, Tony Hoagland writes, "contemporary American poetry seems less political and more esoterically self-involved than ever." I posit that, if this is the case, it is for the exact same reason so few of the C/L poems would normally make it into APR: critics and editors deliberately turn away from the flourishing counterexamples. Somehow, brown poetry doesn't count. [Echoes of the SpecFic anthologist's lament: "I'm just picking the best I can find--and it's all by white men!"]

Another painful quote from Hoagland's essay: "In his advocacy of poetry from other traditions and cultures, Bly's assertion has been that, unlike cultures subjected to Western European Christian rationality, poets like Neruda and Lorca rediscovered the radical psychic freedom of the imagistic leap. Thus they can remind us how to get to a neglected part of the mind."

Aside from the festering Noble Savage rhetoric, I'm disgusted by this mentality's erasure of immigrants and in-betweeners. Don't get me wrong; I want ALL the poetry, from EVERYWHERE. But did Bly really have to look so far afield? As if there weren't Hispanic poets in America at that time? Their writing not consonant with the same luminaries Bly was chasing? I don't know; I can't rattle off names to prove my point, but I feel a nagging suspicion of erasure.

In her acceptance speech for this year's Tiptree, Andrea Hairston showed some black-and-white slides that validated such suspicions. One showed a Native American director, apparently quite successful, whom I'd never heard of. These omissions are on par with the "historical accuracy" in feudal fantasy worlds that conveniently obliterates women from the storylines. A special APR supplement dedicated to my people's poetry hardly makes up for the widespread erasure of said poetry from the status quo. Especially if it can't be bothered to name (the poets') names on the cover.

Cat: this is why we can't have nice things!



cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (studying)
Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock

Pope Brock's writing style is perfectly suited to this story of the heyday of American hucksterism. Ebullient and seemingly effortless, his account of "Doctor" J.R. Brinkley, who became a millionaire by performing goat-gland transplants in the 1920s, is wide-ranging and in-depth, replete with period slang and so many wonderful words that don't get used nearly often enough. Brock includes an extensive bibliography, endnotes, and an excellent index. I could've used more signposts indicating the exact timeline of events and more parallel conversions of past and current moneys (Brock might state the doctor's monthly salary but then refer to the modern equivalent as an annual salary), but I suspect the fault there is with me, being as numerically challenged as I am.

One of the reasons Brinkley was so successful was that he exploited radio like no one before or perhaps even after. In the 1920s, radio stations were such a new and marvelous medium, few folks could conceive of "polluting the airwaves" with advertising. But Brinkley was the most ambitious of those greedy few, and when the FCC kicked him off American airwaves, he established a border blaster in Mexico that, at one million watts, was the most powerful in the world. So powerful, it invaded phone lines and Canadian radio broadcasts. Brinkley could be heard in Alaska, Finland, and the Java Seas! While peddling his colored water and "rejuvenation" procedures, Brinkley inadvertently changed the music scene, introducing listeners worldwide to country music and Tejano.

Brinkley's bogus promises of endless rejuvenation, although entertaining in themselves, triggered provocative philosophical considerations. People worried about the fate of introspective poetry: What would become of the sonnet if poets weren't sublimating angst over their mortality? Insurance companies fretted over their soon-to-be-defunct actuarial tables: one company even told a client who had a monkey-gland transplant: "...you are younger today than you were when you signed the contract...In view of this fundamental change we find ourselves obliged to cancel the contract with you."

Brinkley's adversary was Morris Fishbein, quackbuster extraordinaire of the American Medical Association. Brock characterizes their decades-long game of cat 'n' rat with a term used by military strategists, "replication." The idea, new to me, is that over time, great opponents become more and more alike, though neither would ever admit it. I recognize this thesis-antithesis-synthesis process from the Cold War, and from Nietzsche's quote about looking into the abyss. I hope it's not happening to the characters in my WiP. *frets*

The last bit too good not to note is from Brock's epilogue, wherein he demonstrates the similarities between Brinkley and his clients' obsessions with current, equally desperate youth-pursuits:

"In 2001 a form of bovine collagen was blamed for an outbreak of Creutzfeldt-Jakob syndrome, a potentially lethal disorder linked to mad cow disease, yet this did nothing to slow the stampede for fuller lips and smoother skin. 'Most women find the prospect of dying wrinkled a lot worse than the prospect of dying of dementia from collagen.'"

Sticking goat and monkey nuts in *our* nuts? That's insane. But how about injecting our faces with botulism and sticking cow tissue in our wrinkles? 



 
cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (studying)
The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray's Anatomy by Bill Hayes

From the first line of the prologue, I knew this book was for me: Looking back, I can see how my whole life has led to this: a book about a book about anatomy... 

Like me, the author was an aspiring anatomist who somehow became a writer instead. Only Hayes satisfies his aspirations via career smear: he actually performed dissections when he audited anatomy classes at UCSF as part of his research for this book. (Oddly enough, neither of us seems all that interested in fixing or healing bodies, only taking inventory. I imagined being a coroner, and after his research, Hayes is more curious about evolution than medicine or histology.)

And, like Hayes, I never realized the Gray in Gray's Anatomy was only half of the equation--someone else entirely created the jaw-droppingly gorgeous, innovative illustrations. (Or, perhaps I should say a third of the equation, thereby giving some credit to the cadavers en masse). The illustrator was Henry Vandyke Carter, and by the vagaries of health and history, his life is far better documented than that of his mentor and colleague, Henry Gray.

Amazingly enough, although even laypeople recognize HV Carter's work, he received a pitiful payment for his painstaking efforts. Whereas Gray received 150 pounds for every thousand copies of the book sold, Carter accepted a one-time payment of 150 pounds, period. His acceptance of this arrangement (negotiated with the publisher, not his colleague) reflected an incredible obliviousness to his own genius. The son of a watercolor artist, Carter never thought himself an artist per se, because his subjects were scientific and his mode realistic (or as I like to think of it, "more human than human"). Nor did he perceive himself as equal to Gray. He vowed never to undertake another project on the scale of Gray's Anatomy unless again guided by a "leading mind" like Gray. Carter denigrated himself for "analyzing life on too small a scale."

As one who has often kicked herself for the same fault, I found Hayes' spin on Carter's near-sightedness quite comforting:

"What he meant as a putdown...I see as his great gift. Carter's ability to focus on the small, to break things down, to mentally dissect--the same ability that made him so miserable on personal inspection--is what made him such a precise anatomical artist and such a natural researcher. This man who so firmly believed 'I can't' is no recognized...as a pioneer, the first scientist to apply modern methods...to the investigation of tropical diseases."

Aside from the subject, which I find as fascinating as Hayes does, the writing itself is superb. Early on, Hayes notes that the encyclopedias on his family's bookshelf are as straight-spined and orderly as the cadets lined up in a West Point photo nearby. Such parallels are nestled, Easter egg-like, throughout the text, thus emphasizing the reflexive nature of this book about a book, and of the study of anatomy itself.

Although obsessed with his subject, Hayes' voice is never subsumed by the minutia of historical research. He writes about his own past, without sounding at all self-involved. He writes about his present: visiting the inner sanctums of various Special Collections, exploring with his partner the streets and buildings that the Henrys walked, dissecting cadavers, meeting students and instructors of anatomy, and examining his own body in light of his new knowledge. He also writes a bit about the future: trends in anatomy curricula and his classmates' career paths.

Most affectingly, Hayes writes of his desire to abridge his story about Carter. He'd like to end on a high, happy note, but his scrupulously completist nature won't allow that. Likewise, Hayes' personal story takes a heartbreaking turn that he could've (and understandably) omitted from the book, but he doesn't. He gives it to us straight. And with a grace as illuminating as Carter's illustrations, Hayes' epilogue relieves the tragedy, giving the reader a sense of peace rather than grief.

       


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