The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts

It’s hard to write of a review of Alan Watts’ books because there’s so much in them. It’s like trying to summarize the ocean. Each time I re-read one of his works, I come away with something different. So I’m not going to try to encapsulate all that Watts says. Instead, I’ll just described what impressed me in this reading, using mostly Watts’ own words, since he can express himself better than I can paraphrase him.

If you want a full summation of the book, Watts gives it succinctly in the last two sentences of the final page:

Life requires no future to complete itself nor explanation to justify itself. In this moment it is finished.

By “finished,” he means not ended but complete, as a completed work of art requires no additional gloss or explanation. Watts spends most of the book showing how both science and religion attempt to supply this additional gloss, and how their systems of thought often wind up replacing the reality they are meant to explain.

That there is a way of looking at life apart from all conceptions, beliefs, opinions, and theories is the remotest of all possibilities from the modern mind. If such a point of view exists, it can only be in the brain of a moron. We suffer from the delusion that the entire universe is held in order by the categories of human thought, fearing that if we do not hold to them with the utmost tenacity, everything will vanish into chaos.

In holding so tightly to a system of understanding, whether it be scientific, religious, economic, or political, we lose touch with reality. The mental constructs we’ve created to understand, predict, and manipulate the world prevent us from actually seeing it.

Ordinarily, [the basic principles of philosophy, religion, and metaphysics] are used as attempts to stand outside oneself and the universe to grasp them and to rule them… The powers of technology have availed for little save to speed the process to a point of unbearable tension… If scientific thought has weakened [religion’s] power we need have no regrets, for the “God” to which it could have brought us was not the unknown Reality which the name signifies, but only a projection of ourselves–a cosmic, discarnate “I” lording it over the universe.

The true splendor of science is not so much that it names and classifies, records and predicts, but that it observes and desires to know the facts, whatever they may turn out to be… In this openness and sincerity of mind it bears some resemblance to religion, understood in its other and deeper sense. The greater the scientist, the more he is impressed with his ignorance of reality, and the more he realizes that his laws and labels, descriptions and definitions, are the products of his own thought…

What he does not know seems to increase in geometric progression to what he knows. Steadily he approaches the point where what is unknown is not a mere blank space in a web of words but a window in the mind, a window whose name is not ignorance but wonder.

The timid mind shuts this window with a bang, and is silent and thoughtless about what it does not know in order to chatter the more about what it thinks it knows. It fills up the uncharted spaces with mere repetition of what has already been explored. But the open mind knows that the most minutely explored territories have not really been known at all, but only marked and measured a thousand times over. And the fascinating mystery of what it is that we mark and measure must in the end “tease us out of thought” until the mind forgets to circle and to pursue its on processes, and becomes aware that to be at this moment is pure miracle.

There’s quite a bit overlap between Watts’ book and Anthony De Mello’s Awareness. Both authors have a deep knowledge of Eastern and Western religion, and both have a strong mystical bent, arguing persuasively that experience and language’s representation of experience cannot ever be the same thing. As we come to dwell more and more in the latter, in the conceptual world, we have less and less visceral experience.

Watts spends much of the book describing how our attempts to avoid pain are themselves the source of great pain. If something hurts, it hurts. But if, during the hurt, we add to it an insistence that the world not be hurtful, that it be something other than it is, we simply compound the hurt with psychological discord and strife.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James remarked:

A strange moral transformation has within the past century swept over our Western world. We no longer think we are called on to face physical pain with equanimity. It is not expected of a man that he should either endure it or inflict much of it, and to listen to the recital of cases of it makes our flesh creep morally as well as physically. The way in which our ancestors looked on pain as an eternal ingredient of the world’s order, and both caused and suffered it as a matter-of-course portion of their day’s work, fills us with amazement.

Watts notes how much of today’s world is engineered to try to guarantee certainty, to guarantee a future that is predictable and known, and if not pleasurable, at least comfortable and free from pain. When the world turns out not to go the way we expected, we have to endure the pain of that, plus the emotional strife of being surprised, disappointed, and slighted. Illness, misfortune, and death are no longer part and parcel of existence, they are injustices and we are their victims.

Both Watts and William James point out that when a mind rejects suffering and death as natural parts of life, it can only justify these them by creating a beneficent father figure whose loving plan is beyond our understanding, to be concluded outside of time in a world that is larger, more real, and more permanent than our own.

Watts notes that it’s a lot easier to just accept these things as part of life. Hence, the wisdom of insecurity: there is no certainty from one moment to the next in this life. When you accept that, you begin to appreciate the wonder of the now.

Watts also touches on a point that De Mello stresses in Awareness. De Mello, a Jesuit with strong streaks of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, says that often a religious person’s understanding of God is the last and strongest impediment to enlightenment. It’s usually a second-hand understanding, passed down from doctrine rather than experienced first-hand, and in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it carries the weight of damnation if you get it wrong. It is one of those beliefs “that if we do not hold to them with the utmost tenacity, everything will vanish into chaos.”

Both Watts and De Mello define belief as something you think you know, and faith is an acceptance of not knowing. “Almost all the spiritual traditions recognize that there is a stage in man’s development when belief…and its securities has to be left behind,” says Watts. When we are willing to make that leap, to relinquish the known and secure for the unknown and insecure, when we are ready to give up what we perceive as everything in exchange for nothing–no certainties, no guarantees–then we “come to a position from which the principal ideas of religion and metaphysics can once more become intelligible and meaningful–not as beliefs, but as valid symbols of experience.”

This is how I’ve always viewed the story of Adam and Eve. Not as a factual recounting of events in a distant age, but as a profoundly accurate and moving description of the universal human progression from innocence to experience, of the cost of knowledge and the painful emergence into adult consciousness. Whether or not the story portrays actual events is irrelevant. There is no truer account of human experience.

When I read Watts again in a year or two, it will be a different experience, a different reader opening a different book to find something new and unexpected.

You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up by Richard Hallas

Hallas’ novel opens with Richard Dempsey returning from a long day’s work at the diner to an empty house. Before he enters, he knows from the darkened windows that his wife has left him. Inside, he learns she’s taken their son and the family savings. She says he’ll never find her, but he knows she’s always dreamed of going to Hollywood.

This is Oklahoma in the late 1930’s, in the midst of the Great Depression and a crushing years-long drought. The world of glamour and sophistication that Hollywood painted on the silver screen in those days must have looked like heaven compared to the stark and pitiless world in which Richard and Lois had been living. Richard Dempsey doesn’t blame his wife for leaving. Who wouldn’t want to trade such a grim reality for a shot at one that was so much brighter?

Dempsey wants his son back, but with only two dollars and change to his name, his only chance of getting to California is to hop a freight train and ride with the hobos. Dempsey barely survives the multi-day journey, locked inside a freight car with dozens of other men by cops who want to push all the homeless out of the Western railroad towns and into California. Dempsey and his pack of fellow travelers, after being ripped off by cops and by each other, nearly roast as the sweltering box car crosses the desert, and nearly freeze as it crosses the mountains. Dempsey arrives in California exhausted, dehydrated, hungry, and broke, but still determined and full of hope.

The novel that seems to be about a man winning his family back turns out not to be that at all. Dempsey, now a drifter, winds up falling in with a number of shady characters, hustlers and survivors who are doing what they have to do in a failing economy that has no place for them.

Dempsey befriends a film director, gets roped into a scam with a con man from a gambling house, meets a couple of heavy-drinking divorcées, and then… Well, since this book is more about plot than character, I won’t spoil anything. Let’s just say the action rolls along at a very fast clip, and not always in the direction you expect.

Hallas’ book reads like a noir version of The Grapes of Wrath. Imagine Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain co-writing a condensed version of Steinbeck’s novel, and swapping out the Joad family for an inarticulate loner with an unfortunate instinct for trouble.

The populist left-leaning political movements of the era that Steinbeck portrayed with a visceral sympathy are mocked with withering satire here. And that’s not because Hallas lacks sympathy for the plight of his characters. He’s just a little less earnest than Steinbeck, and a little more cynical. In this book, the impossible promises of populist politicians merely play on the desperate hopes of the oppressed, who are willing to replace the knaves in power with fools who actually believe the utopian vision they are peddling.

Hallas’ prose is lean and spare, like Cain’s, and the mid-1930’s Los Angeles it portrays is very much like the one Philip Marlowe inhabited, with people from all tiers of society drinking and misbehaving together in a corrupt and decadent city with plenty of flash and little substance.

Hallas’ novel was published in 1938, a year earlier than Steinbeck’s, so you can’t call it derivative, though its stark portrayal of the Okie migration bears striking similarities to the journey Steinbeck portrayed in greater detail. It was also a year earlier than the first of Chandler’s Marlowe novels, The Big Sleep, though Chandler had been publishing in magazines for several years before You Play the Black appeared.

All three books bear similar themes of California as the land of promise and disappointment. One of the main characters in Hallas’ novel, the successful movie director Quentin Genter, tells Dempsey that the Southern California climate makes people foolish and delusional. They cross the mountains from the east and lose their judgment and perspective, ready to accept the most outlandish ideas and practices as sensible and normal. Genter prides himself on being the only man in Los Angeles who actually knows he’s insane.

After a series of improbable and increasingly desperate escapades lead him further and further from the life he wants, Richard Dempsey reflects:

…some lands were like a father to a man, and beat him; and some were a mother to him and loved him; and some were a wife, and had to be loved; but California was just a whore who dropped her pants to the first man that came along with a watering-pot.

If you like the crime and noir fiction of the 1930s and 1940s, you’ll like this book. It’s a quick read that never bogs down. It was a bestseller when it was published, and it must have captured the mood of the country. “If you prefer sweetness light,” said the review in the San Francisco Chronicle, “you’ll think this book is just horrid.”

[Notes on names: Eric Knight wrote this book under the pen name Richard Hallas. The narrator, known alternately as Richard or Dick, never gives his true surname, but his friend Smitty “always called me Dempsey right from the first because he said I was kind of built like the champ. I got used to it.” The title refers to the Murphy’s law of the roulette wheel, where the ball always seems to land on the color you didn’t pick. That metaphor works for both the main character, in whose life nothing seems to go as planned, and for the reader, who is constantly trying to predict the next plot twist, and keeps coming up wrong.]

Vernon Subutex One by Virginie Despentes

I received the UK edition of this book as a gift a few months ago (it won’t be published in the US until later in 2019). I twice tried to start it, and twice put it down after a few pages thinking, “I can’t read this. This reminds me of the most depressing parts of the DC punk scene back the eighties and early nineties, the guys who spent their last dollars on beer instead of heating their apartments. This is about the ones who didn’t grow up.”

The third time I picked up the book, I read random pages from the middle, and I was hooked. The author, Virginie Despentes, is a phenomenal writer with an extraordinarily deep and perceptive mind, and an almost unparalleled ability to portray the minds and experiences of a broad cast of very different people. I went back to page one, read the book all the way through, and came away thinking this is one of the best novels I have read in many, many years.

Vernon Subutex is a former record store owner, now out of work and out of options. When the book opens, he’s scrounging tobacco from last night’s cigarette butts to roll into his morning smoke. His unemployment benefits have run out, he’s about to be evicted from his apartment, and his benefactor, the rock star Alex Bleach, has just died.

Things go downhill from there.

I was right in my assessment of the first few pages. This book is about exactly the kinds of people I knew back in DC when Fugazi and Bad Brains were playing at the 9:30 Club and DC Space. Despentes writes about what happens to the rockers, the groupies, the partiers, the addicts, porn stars, transsexuals, Neo-Nazis, and wannabes as they approach age fifty.

Some, like the writer Xavier, have moved into traditional roles and become bitterly reactionary, self-centered, or self-pitying. Others, like the Hyena, adapted to a harsh and cynical world. Still others, like Pamela Kant, gave up on trying to fit in to a society that never did and never would accept them. Many, like Vernon, are just trying to find their way with ever fewer resources, fewer opportunities, and less energy.

We meet this sprawling cast of characters as Vernon drifts from home to home, couch to couch, in a futile effort to avoid ending up on the streets. In true punk fashion, Despentes presents her characters raw and unvarnished. The unrepentant porn star, the savage wife-beater, the neo-Nazis, the young Muslim girl who chooses the veil, the homeless, hulking and physically repulsive Olga–are all full-fledged human beings whose thoughts and feelings make sense, whether we agree with them or not.

In fact, an encounter near the end between the haughty right-wing Xavier and the homeless Olga illustrates the encounter between the reader and the text. Xavier crosses the street to talk to Vernon, who sits beside Olga, begging in front of a supermarket. Xavier has no intention of speaking with, or even acknowledging Olga, whom he finds disgusting. He crouches down in front of Vernon, close enough so that he doesn’t have to see Olga.

Olga, unbidden, talks to Xavier about the dog that was cruelly taken from her. Xavier too has just lost a dog, and has been too hard, too bitter to mourn. Olga’s eloquent expression of grief hits a nerve, takes him by surprise, and allows him to finally feel the extent of his loss. Along with his recognition of their mutual reactions to a shared experience comes a surprise recognition that this woman is not some repulsive “other,” but merely another version of himself in another context that terrifies him. This is himself as a woman at the midpoint of a life in which everything went wrong, in which he ceased to matter and lost all protection from the indignities and brutality of a society in decay.

Throughout the book, Despentes seems to say, “Let me show you the tawdriness, the ugliness of what you so love to despise. This is you. It’s ugly, isn’t it? But are you willing to see the beauty in it? Because it’s there if you look.”

This is where Despentes differs vastly from so many American writers. American readers seem to demand that characters whose political values or moral outlooks are opposed to their own be portrayed as unlikable and be condemned by the author. Despentes simply pumps her world at the reader through a fire hose and leaves it to you to figure out how you feel.

What comes out of that hose, like real life, is a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly. What makes this book so good is its unflagging intensity, the scope and breadth of the world it portrays, its clear-eyed and justified rage, its untender appreciation of beauty. You can’t imagine that an author can convey such depth and poignancy writing to the machine gun beat of eighties punk, or that she can break your heart without an ounce of sentiment. But she does it. After three hundred and fifty pages of vivid writing that challenges you to think and feel, to revisit and re-evaluate perspectives you thought had settled, Vernon’s final descent into homelessness, when he suddenly identifies with the entire catalog of outcast humanity, is one of the most moving passages in all of literature.

I really hope this book finds an audience in the US when it comes out this fall.

Night Has a Thousand Eyes by Cornell Woolrich

Woolrich is a master of suspense and a brilliant writer. I was hoping to like this one more, but unfortunately, I could never fully buy into the story.

The book begins with Detective Tom Shawn walking home from work at one A.M. along the river, where he finds a young woman, Jean Reid, about to kill herself. He stops her from jumping and asks her why she wants to end her life when she’s young, wealthy, and beautiful. Her explanation forms an unusually long and well-written chapter of backstory.

The narrative switches in the second chapter, which is well over 100 pages, from third person to first, with Jean doing the telling. She’s an excellent narrator, as well as a confident, thoughtful, observant and well-grounded character. She lives the charmed life of the wealthy, without being dysfunctional. She’s deeply attached to her father, Harlan Reid, whose recent troubles are the source of her own.

Her father, a clear-eyed practical man, has recently encountered a strange reclusive man with clairvoyant powers, and he’s become obsessed with extracting predictions from the reluctant seer. Some of these predictions are innocuous, some are helpful, and one–the prediction of the exact time and manner of the father’s imminent death–is terrifying.

After hearing this prediction, Harlan Reid is so consumed with terror and dread he cannot function. His own suffering and his imminent demise are what led Jean to attempt suicide.

After telling her story to Detective Shawn, Jean, still rattled by events, refuses to go home. The Detective takes her to the police station, where the lieutenant takes an interest in her tale. The lieutenant, a hard-eyed realist, doesn’t believe in the supernatural. He sees the whole affair as the attempt of a clever con man to manipulate a wealthy old man and separate him from his fortune.

Realizing that the setup is complete, and the shakedown will occur within the next 48 hours, the lieutenant assigns several detectives to investigate the characters Jean Reid described in her story. From here on, the novel plays out in two parts: one follows Jean and Harlan Reid, along with Detective Shawn who has been assigned as their bodyguard. The other follows the detectives sent out by the lieutenant as they shadow the characters they believe are extorting the Reids.

The Jean/Harlan/Shawn chapters read like dark psychological suspense with tinges of madness and the supernatural. The detective chapters read like classic, well written police procedurals. Few writers can write so well in two different genres, and fewer can merge two genres into a single book in which both tellings–the criminal and the supernatural–make sense.

My problem with the book was that the psychological suspense depends on Harlan Reid’s pathological and paralyzing dread. When we meet Mr. Reid in the long second chapter, he is confident, sharp, and vigorous. How could he be so thoroughly undone so quickly? If the reader were to accompany Harlan Reid on his descent into dread–for example as the reader feels the young Mrs. de Winter’s deep earnestness, sensitivity, and insecurity in Rebecca–the story would be more convincing and powerful.

Instead, we watch Mr. Reid from the outside, and from that perspective, his helplessness and paralyzing dread seem like an exaggeration and an out-of-character overreaction. A flaw like that is excusable when it involves a minor character and a minor plot point, but it’s a problem when the entire novel and the actions of all the characters hinge on it.

Woolrich was certainly ambitious in this book, unfolding a complex plot through an equally complex narrative structure, incorporating prose that is at times tedious and at times powerful and strikingly brilliant. Even if some elements of the book aren’t entirely satisfying, he sure aimed high, and there’s a lot to like about this one.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

The most disturbing thing about this book is that the vapid, false, and mind-numbing world that the media produces and the population so whole-heartedly consumes is so much like our own. The narrator points out more than once that the government didn’t take the initiative to ban books (and by extension, reflection and depth of thought and experience); the people themselves stopped wanting them.

In this world, humanity has rejected its own cultural history and the hard-won wisdom of preceding generations in favor of comfort and isolation. They choose to consume life second-hand, as remote spectators, accepting whatever their screens feed to them.

They wanted instead a world of empty thrills and non-stop stimulation. And then they wonder why they’re not happy. They don’t even understand their feelings of dissatisfaction, because those feelings have no place and no representation in the media-produced world they consume. Guy Montag doesn’t understand quite why he’s unhappy today, after being perfectly fine yesterday. His wife Mildred almost kills herself with an overdose of sleeping pills and doesn’t even know it.

In this world, war is entertainment, one more flash of excitement on the screen. War’s death and destruction are distant and abstract. As one character puts it, death is something that happens to other people’s husbands.

Everyone in this world is asleep, and they don’t even know they’re asleep. Swap out a few details–TV for the internet, the three-walled televisions for smart phones–and you have something pretty close to the world we live in now. Even the manner of death the society chooses for its outcasts is ironic: the robot dogs hunt them down and numb them to death with massive injections of procaine (novocaine).

What do you do with a world like this? Bradbury gives us the analogy of the Phoenix that must descend into self-immolation before it can rise again.

Fahrenheit 451 is an allegory. Bradbury doesn’t spend a lot of time on character development, because the characters aren’t the point. They’re merely types against which the characteristics of the world he portrays come into sharp relief. It’s a chilling read, not because it makes you think of the dystopia into which the world may someday evolve, but because it so uncannily portrays aspects of the world we live in right now.

Awareness by Anothony De Mello

This book reads like a transcription of talks given before live audiences. The initial chapters read like the joke-filled exhortations of a professional self-help writer, but the book begins to deepen around pages 60-70. De Mello was a Jesuit priest, a trained psychologist, and apparently a devoted student of both Eastern and Western religion. His knowledge is broad and deep, and he has obviously brought great passion to his learning.

At its core, this book is about the difference between reality and our constructs of reality, most of which we have inherited from our culture, our parents, our teachers, the clergy, and the media. The constructs are all second-hand and almost always false. Our suffering comes from the strife we feel when reality does not conform to our false understanding of how the world should be.

De Mello points out repeatedly that most people are not aware of the constructs they live by. These constructs include the ideas that we must succeed financially, that we must find another person to give us love, that illness and death are personal affronts, that we must adhere to this or that ideal, that our lives must go a certain way. Our false understandings control us through fear and desire, and they do so invisibly until we take the time to see them and root them out.

Even the love we think we feel toward others is often simply an expression of our need for approval and validation. We don’t see this until we look deep inside and discover that we expect to get something in return from the person to whom we think we are giving selflessly.

Our most deeply cherished beliefs are the most dangerous. De Mello offers this excellent observation and parable:

Reality, God, divinity, truth, love are unknowable; that means they cannot be comprehended by the thinking mind. That would set at rest so many questions people have because we’re always living under the illusion that we know. We don’t. We cannot know.

What is scripture, then? It is a hint, a clue, not a description. The fanaticism of one sincere believer who thinks he knows causes more evil than the united efforts of two hundred rogues. It’s terrifying to see what sincere believers will do because they think they know. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a world where everybody said, “We don’t know”?…

A man born blind comes to me and asks, “What is this thing called green?”

How does one describe the color green to one who was born blind? One uses analogies.

So I say, “The color green is something like soft music.”

“Oh,” he says, “like soft music.”

So a second blind man comes to me and asks, “What is the color green?”

I tell him it’s something like soft satin, very soft and soothing to the touch.

So the next day I notice that the two blind men are bashing each other over the head with bottles. One is saying, “It’s soft like music”; the other saying, “It’s soft like satin.” And on it goes.

We see this kind of trouble in the world all the time. This is the difficulty of trying to use concepts that people understand to point them toward concepts that they don’t understand. People get attached to the bits they understand, and their understanding ends there, often permanently.

We can only change our false concepts, De Mello says, when we become aware of them. In fact, our false understandings often lose their power as soon as we become aware of them. In this, he is in line with Socrates and the Buddhists, with the stoicism of Seneca and twentieth-century European existentialists. Life is flow. Abandon your ideas and go with it.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. There’s nothing more terrifying than being asked to accept what you cannot control or understand. Yet with the acceptance comes freedom.

De Mello notes that the few people who really do start to question their understanding of the world do so only after immense suffering. Only after it becomes too painful for them to hold on to their ideas of how the world should be. He notes that there are only two paths for those whose world-view is completely shattered: they become insane, or they become mystics.

De Mello is deeply critical not of religion, but of the way religion is practiced and misunderstood. If people devoted to awareness the time and energy they currently devote to worship, they and the world would be much better off. Toward the end of the book, he gives this excellent parable:

There was a man who invented the art of making fire. He took his tools and went to a tribe in the north, where it was very cold, bitterly cold. He taught the people there to make fire. The people were very interested. He showed them the uses to which they could put fire–they could cook, keep themselves warm, etc. They were grateful that they had learned the art of making fire. But before they could express their gratitude to the man, he disappeared. He wasn’t concerned with getting their recognition or gratitude; he was concerned about their well-being.

He went to another tribe, where he again began to show them the value of his invention. People were interested there, too, a bit too interested for the peace of mind of the priests, who began to notice that this man was drawing crowds and they were losing their popularity. So they decided to do away with him. They poisoned him, crucified him, put it any way you like.

But they were afraid now that people might turn against them, so they were very wise, even wily. Do you know what they did? They had a portrait of the man made and mounted it on the main altar of the temple. The instruments for making fire were placed in front of the portrait, and the people were taught to revere the portrait and to pay reverence to the instruments of fire, which they dutifully did for centuries. The veneration and the worship went on, but there was no fire.

This powerfully describes the problem of many of the world’s religions, where people are taught to direct their worship outward through ritual, rather than inward toward awareness, growth, and change. They have duty without fire, maintaining the symbols without ever discovering the thing the symbols were meant to lead them to.

“These are the more dangerous idol worshippers,” De Mello says. “They use a very subtle substance, the mind, to produce their God.”

True spiritual practice is not a palliative to soothe us in times of trouble. It is the root of how we perceive and experience the world, and it comes from surrender, from accepting that we can simple be without having to know or control or even understand. “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow,” De Mello reminds us. “They toil not, neither do they spin.”

The Long Dry by Cynan Jones

In this extraordinarily beautiful and deep short novel, author Cynan Jones follows four characters through a summer day on a draught-stricken farm in Wales. Gareth begins his day by checking on two cows that are due to give birth. He finds the first one in the barn, kneeling beside her stillborn calf, “lowing sadly and gently.”

The second has disappeared, wandered off in the night to god knows where. Gareth sets out to find her, but first:

He took the dead calf by its ankles and lifted it from the straw that was bloodied by birth, not by the calf’s death. It was strange because the mother had licked the calf clean. He thought of the mother cow licking her calf and not understanding why it would not stand clumsily to its feet, its legs out of proportion, its eyes wide. Why the incredible tottering new life did not come.

As we follow Gareth on his search for the second the cow, we get a tour of the farm, the neighboring properties, and the bog. We also meet his wife Kate, his son Dylan, and his daughter Emmy. Every inch of this world is teeming with life, death, and memory, and the extraordinary power of this book comes from the author’s use of simple, direct language that is always tied to objects and creatures in the physical world, to natural processes and elemental needs that affect every living thing.

The farmer and his family–especially his daughter Emmy–are deeply aware of and viscerally rooted to the physical world around them. Even the insects can’t go unnoticed, from the cuckoo bee who invades the bumblebee’s nest to the flies that torment both the cow and its owner, to the lacewings that Emmy distinguishes from fairies. The lives of every being in the story are deeply intertwined, and like the thirsty pregnant cow wandering lost through the bog, most are driven by forces they feel but cannot fully understand. The dynamics between Gareth, his wife Kate, and their daughter Emmy are particularly complex, based in part on secrets, lack of communication, and misunderstood desire.

As Gareth searches the bog for his missing cow, he notes the skeletons of other animals who have perished there. The ones who wandered in during the wetter seasons got stuck and died, years or decades ago, and only now, in the drought, does the earth yield up evidence of their being. In reading his father’s handwritten memories, Gareth notes the old man followed a similar process as he tried to recall the important events of his life: it was as if he had drained the water from the landscape of his memory and let the earth reveal what was below the surface.

Memory and real care sit under the surface, like still reservoirs waiting to be drawn from.

It’s easy, he knows, to take from the surface of things, like dipping a bucket into water self-consciously: you can call up these things. But when it comes up unbeckoned, without self-control, set off by some scent in the air, or fear, you can be shocked by its depth, which you hold in yourself all the time.

This book will linger in your mind long after you’ve finished it. The vivid imagery, the depth and simplicity of the prose, and the richness of the world the author creates are like magic.

Loose Girl by Kerry Cohen

Kerry Cohen’s Loose Girl is a memoir of emotional need in which the author recounts the compulsive sexual promiscuity of her teens and twenties and the underlying feelings of loneliness and desperation that drove that behavior. I was friends with a few girls like her during my own teens and twenties, and I had no idea they were feeling any of the things Cohen describes.

The value of this book lies exactly there, in her exposure of the underlying feelings and thought patterns that drive the behavior. Cohen, like the girls I knew, came from a damaged, dysfunctional family that left her with a damaged, dysfunctional psyche. It takes a confluence of conditions and events and timing, and perhaps an underlying susceptibility in a person’s innate disposition to produce the kind of compulsive behavior she describes, and she does a good job describing all of those factors.

Cohen now has a degree in psychology and counsels girls like herself. She notes that the psychological damage that led her to behave the way she did doesn’t simply go away, nor does the compulsion. Like a sober alcoholic, it’s simply something she has to acknowledge and manage. Her struggle, like the addict’s struggle, has been to reach a point of maturity in life where she understands the causes and effects of her behavior, and to develop the strength to choose the healthier path.

I recommend this book to everyone–to the girls and women out there who might not know that someone else was feeling exactly the way they did, and actually figured out how to say it. And to the guys who didn’t stop to think about the needs or desires of the person they were with.

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

When I read Robin DiAngelo’s article How White People Handle Diversity Training in the Workplace, I had the same hostile reaction she described seeing in so many of her workshop participants. I came away from it thinking, “Of course people are going to be angry with you if you try to put the Klansman’s hood on them.”

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

The article got under my skin in a way few things do, and I was still thinking about it months later when someone on a mailing list recommended White Fragility. So I bought a copy and I read it slowly.

The book painstakingly (and painfully) lays out an argument that boils down to this:

  • American culture is fundamentally racist, preserving racial and social hierarchies over centuries through a number of subtle and not-so-subtle means.
  • Everyone raised in American culture has absorbed a racist ideology, whether they are aware of it or not.
  • People of color are aware of it. Whites are not.
  • Unless you make a conscious and continual effort to work against the racist defaults in your thinking, your attitudes, your behavior toward and treatment of others, you are perpetuating and reinforcing the racist system.
  • You will not become aware of your racist attitudes and behaviors until you are willing to become aware of them, and a big part of that willingness lies in the ability to listen to others, and to accept their experiences, perspectives, and opinions as legitimate. (This is where “white fragility” becomes the great obstacle.)
  • You can never completely unlearn the prejudices and assumptions of the culture that formed you, but you can begin to see when they shape your actions, and when those actions become hurtful.
  • The process of becoming aware can be deeply uncomfortable, but as you become aware, you can choose a better path.
  • Awareness and choosing are a constant process. You will never be done.

The hardest thing about reading this book was the feeling of being put in checkmate, the sense that by simply being white and male, I was the oppressor and the bad guy, no matter what. DiAngelo’s arguments do box you in if you’re white, and there is no counterargument that will let you out of the fact that you are at the top of a racial hierarchy, that you see the world through an unacknowledged racial lens, and that the perspective you take to be universal and benevolent is often exclusive and harmful. DiAngelo says:

Whiteness rests upon a foundational premise: the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as a deviation from that norm. Whiteness is not acknowledged by white people, and the white reference point is assumed to be universal and is imposed on everyone. White people find it very difficult to think about whiteness as a specific state of being that could have an impact on one’s life and perceptions.

As DiAngelo elaborates on all the subtle manifestations of the white-centric viewpoint that we (whites) see as normal, natural, and beyond question, the inescapable box she constructs around us keeps getting tighter–the box that says You are participating in this unjust system, whether you acknowledge it or not, and you are complicit in it until you begin to actively work against it.

This is where most white people check out. This is where they feel they’re being blamed just for being who they are. The blame feels unjust–I know, because I’ve felt it sharply, not just from DiAngelo, but from others–and it drives a lot of people away. I think the deep resentment that sense of blame engenders showed up in the 2016 election, when many white voters essentially said, If you’re going to make me feel bad about who I am, I’ll never be on your side.

But the point of White Fragility is not to blame or shame anyone. The point is first to open people’s eyes to perspectives they cannot or will not see; second to force them to ask themselves if, in light of these new perspectives, they’re still willing to support the status quo; and finally, for those who say they want change, to call them to action, not by joining some big social movement, but simply by opening up and making changes in how they interact with others in their day to day lives.

The hostile reactions of white fragility constitute a refusal to acknowledge one’s own involvement in difficult problems that affect everyone in our society. Those who won’t acknowledge problems won’t confront them. And many who do acknowledge them won’t take necessary action, in part because they view changes to their own behavior as an admission of guilt. But DiAngelo’s point is “to move past guilt and into action.”

In addressing issues of race with whites, “What [people of color] are looking for is not perfection but the ability to talk about what happened, the ability to repair.”

Unfortunately, many whites can’t even get to the point of talking. Many whites–myself included on a number of occasions–have looked at basic calls for justice and even simple requests to acknowledge injustice as attacks on white people, white culture, white history. This is the response you get when you try to question things that are “beyond question,” when you hit at issues that truly are at the foundation of a person’s and a society’s cultural identity. (Especially if it’s an unacknowledged cultural identity.) DiAngelo does a good job of pointing out how social norms have conditioned whites not to talk about race, and to view the explicit pointing out of racial injustice–especially by people of color–as a social transgression, if not an act of outright hostility.

After reading her book, I see DiAngelo’s work not as attempt to put the Klansman’s hood on me or anyone else, but as an effort to take off our blinders. The author points out repeatedly that racist acts do not necessarily stem from the bad intentions of evil people, but from the unexamined attitudes and uninformed actions of people raised in a racist society. They come from the default behaviors of people who consider themselves good and just, and who can’t stand to be shown that the effects of their actions are often neither good nor just.

This book is politically charged. Its unsentimental analysis of American culture and white psychology is difficult to accept (for whites) and difficult to refute. For white readers, it pushes buttons you didn’t know you had, or wouldn’t admit were there. It risks provoking your hostility, your resentment, and your hatred by asking you to examine deeply held assumptions, by asking you to look at things you were taught not to see, and by pointing out ways you need to change.

This book will get under your skin, which is why you need to read it.


A Touch of Death by Charles Williams

Williams is one of the great underappreciated American crime writers of the 20th century. A Touch of Death, first published in 1953, bears the hallmarks of many of his other works: a down-and-out guy around thirty years old who’s not as smart as he thinks he is, a very smart and practical woman who’s more interested in getting things done than in sticking anyone else’s ideas of morality, and a seemingly simple caper that turns out to be vastly more complicated than it first appears.

A Touch of Death by Charles Williams

Lee Scarborough, a former football player who is nearly broke as the story begins, accepts a proposition from a woman named Diana James, whom he’s just met. She wants him to drive a few hours north to the small Texas town of Mount Temple, sneak into the home of the wealthy Madelon Butler, and steal the $120,000 in cash that Ms. Butler’s late husband embezzled from the bank.

Scarborough has an easy enough time getting into the Butler mansion, but as he searches for the money, he sees signs that others have been there before him, apparently searching for the same thing. Well, wait a minute, he thinks. What happened to those people?

He then discovers there’s another person in the house that was supposed to be empty. Madelon Butler is in her bedroom, drunk and listening to classical music on a phonograph. In a minute, it gets worse as Scarborough discovers he’s not the only prowler in the house.

We’re only in chapter three at this point, and our protagonist is already in way over his head. I won’t give away what happens from there, but Scarborough’s problems get a lot worse, especially when Diana James unexpectedly reappears. Scarborough begins to understand that he has unwittingly walked into the middle of a feud between two sharp and ruthless women who truly hate each other. And he has the perfect mix of desperation, false confidence, poor judgment and greed to make his situation a whole lot worse.

One aspect of this book that is unusual for the crime/noir genre is that there is no sex or even sexual attraction between the criminal protagonist and the femme fatale who assists him on his path to self-destruction. Lee Scarborough and Madelon Butler genuinely dislike each other. Ms. Butler never reverts to sex appeal to manipulate people. She’s smart enough to get what she wants by simply outthinking everyone.

As the plot continues to thicken, we watch Mr. Scarborough try to think his way out of the hopeless checkmate position that Madelon Butler has maneuvered him into. The sense of the ever-tightening noose makes this book reminiscent of Jim Thompson’s work, though where Thompson is the better psychologist of perversity, Charles Williams is more ingenious at constructing an endlessly twisting
plot and a devastatingly effective femme fatale.

Madelon Butler, unlike many women in the noir genre, is no underworld tramp. She’s cool, well educated, and exceptionally articulate. When Scarborough asks her why she killed her philandering husband, she says:

I had borne his other infidelities, but when he calmly decided that I was going to support him and his paramour for the rest of their lives, I just as calmly decided he was going to die.

Though the opening chapters of the book are a little clunky, and some of Scarborough’s early decisions tax the reader’s credulity, the ever-thickening plot of the story soon makes up for those shortcomings. As the web of current and past events becomes more and more dense, the reader feels Scarborough’s world spiraling out of control. We feel his growing sense of paranoia, his sense of entrapment, and the full unraveling of his mind.

Though I don’t think this is Williams’ best work, it’s still a very good read. If you find yourself liking this book, check out an even better work of his, The Hot Spot.