Archive for October, 2009

An Ayn Rand Revival

October 28, 2009 1 comment


A decade ago readers chose four Ayn Rand novels and, more inexplicably, an armful of L. Ron Hubbard books to top the century’s best fiction list.  Compared to the Modern Library’s list of the best English-language novels of the 20th century, culled by the board’s erudite scholars a year earlier, their online poll results seem suspect. 

Not that I’m suggesting any tampering took place by publishing houses but it’s hard to imagine choosing Rand over Faulkner or Fitzgerald. Yet the popular picks remain fixed in history: readers declared Ayn Rand the reigning fiction queen of the 20th century.

Living in the shadow of the Ayn Rand Institute , I’ll still see a faded “Who is John Galt?” bumper sticker on the back of an old Volvo on occasion—a symbol of the legacy left by the author.  Today,  Rand is more renown for creating archetypal embodiments of fervent capitalists than for any claim to literary prowess.

It’s no big surprise that in this age of tea parties and totalitarian talk an Ayn Rand revival is in full swing. Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are showcased selections at the local Borders books. A newly-released edition of We The Living is garnering reviews.  And right on cue Knopf Doubleday just today released The Goddess That Failed, an Ayn Rand biography by Anne C. Heller.

Despite her growing resurgence, I have no plans to re-read Rand.  My close encounter with Howard Roark and his fellow protagonists left me with little desire to slog through more pages of heavy-handed drubbings disguised as fiction. I’m thinking the better read might be Heller’s biography, especially as many of this century’s readers will no doubt ask, “Who was Ayn Rand?” 

Hey, that gives me an idea:  I think I’ll make some bumper stickers and start a movement.

© Shelly Roberts and, 2009


Push, by Sapphire

October 24, 2009 Leave a comment

Push by SapphireI read Sapphire’s novel in 1996 during a break from graduate school.  The writing so effectively wrenched my mind from the tomes of the dead white English men I’d been mired in for a semester that I recoiled from its pages.  I pushed myself to finish the book, a mere 142-page novel, but in contrast to, say, John Locke, the text seemed much too potent and raw.  So it was with astonishment that I sat in a theater last week watching a trailer for the upcoming Hollywood production of Push (marketed as Precious.)    

In a mere two weeks the Oprah Winfrey/Tyler Perry promoted film will descend on movie screens across America. Oprah will no doubt hype the movie to a billion fans through her eponymous tv show and magazine. And if they’ve done Sapphire’s novel justice the film will ignite discussions of not just the tragedy of rape and incest, but also of the lingering atrocities perpetrated on a race and the redemptive power of healing.

Push is the story of Precious Jones, a barely literate, grossly obese, incest ravaged, HIV-infected teen with a meteor-sized chip on her shoulder. Through Precious, Sapphire delivers an honest portrayal of a discarded life.  Giving birth to two babies from her own father and stunted by third-grade level literacy, sixteen year-old Precious is finally rescued by an improbably empathetic and patient woman named Blue Rain.  Ms Rain teaches her to write as a means of healing: “If you just sit there the river gonna rise up drown you!  Writing could be the boat carry you to the other side.”      

Clearly, writing is Sapphire’s salvation, too. Her voice pokes through the text sometimes awkwardly, as in this glaringly lucid and out of character piece of prose from Precious: 

She say forget about the numbers and just keep working.  The author has a message and the reader’s job is to decode that message as thoroughly as possible.  A good reader is like a detective, she say, looking for clues in the text.

The message in Push is easily decoded: Myriad descriptions of the relentless molestation and abuse endured by Precious are both redemptive and radical; the slamfest poet-author uses graphic rape scenes as a metaphor for the abuses of a race–same as in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, much invoked in Push.  Unlike Walker’s novel, Sapphire pushes too far to reach mainstream masses.  It’s not surprising that, while Oprah backs the film, the novel is nowhere found on the talk show host’s much touted book club list.  And public school libraries are about as likely to catalog Push as they are to carry William Burroughs. 

While Sapphire’s text alienates some readers with its rawness, Push did manage gaining attention from  Hollywood heavy-hitters.  With luck the movie version will soon have millions of Americans rooting for Precious Jones and opening the dialogue on incest and rape–that’s what Elaina Kroll, founder of The Innocence Mission deems so critical to ending the cycle of child sexual abuse.  If Precious the movie manages that where the book may have failed,  then it’s worth the price of admission. 

 © Shelly Roberts and, 2009

On Censorship in Public Schools

October 23, 2009 1 comment


freedomIn an age of one-click accessibility to all things literary it’s somewhat surprising that book-banning in public school libraries is still topical, yet, alas, an open letter in this morning’s Opinion page is proof that censorship still rages on–and in Orange County, California no less! The hot potato subject addressed in  a letter by Elaina Kroll, founder of a non-profit group missioned with eliminating child sexual abuse, centers around Maya Angelou’s autobiographical story, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

At issue still are the book’s brief  rape and incest scenes, deemed by would-be censors as too graphic for impressionable teen minds. Kroll rightly admonishes the danger of such a myopic reading. Her argument against banning the book from public schools is that the very act of censorship may actually perpetuate child sexual abuse. “The only way we can preserve the innocence of our children is by allowing an open and honest dialogue about sexual abuse and never allowing a victim’s story to be hidden in shame and secrecy,” says Knoll.

Kroll believes a key to breaking the cycle of abuse is to make confessional stories like Angelou’s more accessible to teens.  Fair enough, public school library funding officials may say, so long as writers keep the messy details out of the text.  And that’s where one writer pushes back.  In her unrelentingly in your face story of abuse called “nearly pornographic” by the Kirkus Review, Sapphire, the author of Push, deliberately assaults readers sensibilities.   I’ll post thoughts on the novel tomorrow.


Categories: On Reading

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami

October 20, 2009 Leave a comment


Haruki02The plodding title of Haruki Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running telegraphs the content; Murakami treads along the pages at the measured clip of a mid-pack runner. Two quick sentences in the forward appear like staccato marks accenting a jaunty note: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” There it is—the plot laid bare. For the remaining pages Murakami’s prose slows to a meandering pace as he runs the streets of Athens, Tokyo, and New York,  musing on the meaning of  life.

This is no ordinary running guide or how-to book; Murakami’s memoir is a series of “life lessons” delivered with the same precision as he lives—“more like a workhorse than a racehorse.”  Downplaying his writing talents, Murakami attributes two qualities to his success: focus and endurance–his gouge and chisel for carving out a writer’s life amid the malaise of a chaotic world.  

A poster of Steve Prefontaine hangs behind the register at a local running store in town. Above the legend’s photo his words embolden patrons:  “To give anything less than the best is to sacrifice the gift”   Murakami echos the running hero’s sentiment: “Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: That’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life.” 

On the surface Murakami’s words sound like something from a Knute Rockne biopic.  Beneath his trite inspiration are strains of a more imploring message: in a long-distance run it is not enough to simply brace for pain.  You must train for its inevitable arrival–somewhere around mile twenty if memory of my one marathon experience serves me correctly–and the very act of training, of pushing your body to its limits, is where you’ll find meaning.  Murakami puts it this way:

It’s precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive–or at least a partial sense of it.  Your quality of experience is based not on standards such as time or ranking, but on finally awakening to an  awareness of the fluidity within action itself.

Couch happy Murakami fans may not be inspired to lace up a pair of Nike’s after reading that passage and for good reason.  Who wants to hurt? But pain and suffering are different animals, says Murakami–the former does not presuppose the latter.  In fact, it may even guard against it.

It’s well-documented that the work of writers and artists requires toiling in “toxic” places, says Murakami.  They live an interior life of the mind inertly examining the banality of human existence, seeking out the truth of our being.  Marathon training gives Murakami the emotional energy for handling the strain of  the writer’s task.  Time out on the road seems to strengthen his capacity for nurturing his craft.  His continued success as a novelist is perhaps proof that the effort is paying off.

 © Shelly Roberts and, 2009.

More Poetry, Less War

October 19, 2009 Leave a comment

If people read more poetry there’d be less war. You want audacious hope, Obama? Try suggesting NATO troops take on the Taliban with a spirited reading of Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” That’ll hit ’em square in the solar plexus in a way no arms could ever assail.

There’s a certain peace in words. They are the connective tissue that link us to one another: “for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” wrote Whitman. In poetry, words alone aren’t the hook; the emotional grit of a poem is also in its structure. When Picasso said art gives form to our terrors and desires, he could have been speaking of poetry, says Edward Hirsch in How to Read a Poem. You can’t ignore a poem’s form any more than you can react to a painting without considering the colors or brush strokes on the canvas. 

But you don’t have to deconstruct a poem to feel its impact. Hirsch writes that Emily Dickinson knew a poem this way: “If I read a book (and) it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” 

I seek that kind of visceral response from more than poetry.  I look for it in fiction, too.   Beyond the storyline, apart from the action, I am most transported by writing that in its very simplicity knocks me off my feet.  Like this from the book on my nightstand, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies:

More rains came.  Below the dripping awning, a newspaper pressed over her head.  Boori Ma squatted and watched the monsoon ants as they marched along the clothesline, carrying eggs in their mouths.  Damper winds soothed her back.  Her newspapers were running low.

Like the pureness in good poetry, there is a truth in Lahiri’s words that is at once unnerving and consoling.  And for me, connecting with that truth, whether it’s in the cadence of a lyrical poem, or lines from a work of fiction, has a way of silencing my strife.

So while it may be a stretch to suggest that poetry can conquer a dictator or take out the Taliban, whenever my war is internal or I’m deafened by a cacophony of clashing emotions, good writing has a way of calming me.  And knowing that, I offer this suggestion: if ever you find yourself “out of sorts” find a poem and a tree. Sit and read as if meditating on the words. I can’t promise anything but I have a hunch you’ll find a certain peace from it. I do.

© Shelly Roberts and, 2009.

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