Friday, January 25, 2013

What I'm reading this week

The artist's life, communes, tribal history and a Mumbai slum: that's what I'm reading about this week.

Since I prefer it when my books harmonize a little in my mind, here's how I link them together: if you start with the first book, which asks How Should a Person Be?

the rest of the books kind of answer it, only with less emphasis on "should" than "could."

How could a person be?

A person could be in a hippie commune in upstate New York, overworked, hungry, subject to the tyranny of the collective but enriched by it, too: Arcadia.

Similarly at mercy of the elements, but still buoyed by an ancient tradition and an rich religious foundation, a person could be a member of the People: People of the Sacred Mountain, Vol. 1.

Or a person could be hot, wet, hungry and eking out an unbearably crowded life among toxic trash at the edge of a lake of sewage on the grounds of the Mumbai airport: Beyond the Beautiful Forevers.

Lots of harmonizing, so much so that my mind would be one deafening roar of exaltation, were it not for some picky details:

1. The Sheila Heti book, asking How Should a Person Be? (always a useful question), answers it from the point of view of a twenty-something artist, someone without the complicating burdens of children and work and obligation: someone who can do what she wants. It is interesting to read about her struggles to define herself and respond to her friendships, but there's not a whole lot I can bring to my own life. And I consider such take homes my reward for reading this kind of novel (i.e. not escapist. Though it was very easy and enjoyable to read, with short chapters and sentences. I appreciate this kind of book.)

2. I have a scab-picky fascination with hippies commune novels, but I wonder if they don't tend to...blur together, a little. Drop City was great. I like Arcadia even more. They are both rich, unique, original novels...and yet the ground feels trodden, somehow. Perhaps it doesn't matter. But it does feel like a trope. However, [SPOILER ALERT] when I accidentally read a summary of Arcadia, I see that it actually moves beyond the commune and into the dystopian maybe it's less trodden than I thought.

3. People of the Sacred Mountain: a huge, heavy, two-volume history of the Cheyenne people, as told by a chief of the tribe. Who was also - this is confusing to me, and I feel like it shouldn't be, like it's none of my business - not actually Cheyenne himself, I think. He is - was - a Roman Catholic priest who was adopted into the tribe as an adult. I.e., as white as me. And obviously this doesn't matter, except that I worry that I am being presented with a history of the Cheyenne people as told by the People themselves - only it's actually not being told by the People themselves, it's being told by an outsider who thinks he's an insider, who maybe romanticizes and misrepresents. But maybe he is an insider? And in any case, since I am most definitely an outsider and will never claim any sort of authority on the subject, why would it matter? But it does matter. I'm pretty sure that it does. So I enjoy this history, which is rich and beautiful and seamlessly merges the mythic with the historic, yet I hold it at arm's length.

4. I have a similar nagging doubt about Beyond the Beautiful Forevers. I love it, for its intelligent and sympathetic portrayal of these people so different from me (who, it should not surprise me but it does, are motivated by very similar things as the families in my own community); yet it is told in novelistic style in the POV of the inhabitants of the slum, and I keep wondering where the tall, elegantly dressed white woman was standing when these events were occurring, and how her presence affected the unfolding story. So far she's been entirely invisible, but unless the events related were told to her after the fact, and I can't help but think that just by being there she changed how things turned out. Actually, since I've gotten totally invested in the fortunes of these people, I am really hoping that her invisible presence will affect how things turn out for them.

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