Posts tagged ‘Native American’

February 7, 2011

Book Review: Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich

by thiszine

SHADOW TAG
by Louise Erdrich

Harper Collins
(February 2011 pb, $14.99 , 272 pages)

We once lived next door to some rather inscrutable neighbors: friendly enough when caught in the driveway for a quick hello, but otherwise cool and aloof. Occasionally, we’d catch glimpses of their interior lives – a tearful phone conversation on the patio, voices raised in argument, a slammed car door and the racing engine of a hasty departure. There seemed no way to inquire about their well-being, to offer a hand, or a thoughtful word. They kept their distance quite efficiently. They never wanted to connect, never offered to reciprocate after we initiated the social niceties. But how much did we really want to know anyway? How much should we know? Where did they end and we begin?

Reading Louise Erdrich’s Shadow Tag is a bit like looking too long over the inscrutable neighbors’ fence. It feels like you shouldn’t pry, yet it explains so much. The irony in Shadow Tag – one of many – is that Erdrich’s main characters, the artist Gil and his wife, Irene, have become strangers to each other within their own home, erecting careful facades, putting together each other’s stories from miscues – and in Irene’s case, intentionally misleading clues.

Erdrich’s character development draws the reader in the same way looking too long over the fence might; you don’t want to keep listening, but you want to know – need to know – what’s happening and why. Although I don’t typically care for indirect third person dialogue (sans quotation marks in this case) it’s an effective device for the terse, tense nature of Gil and Irene’s marriage. The distancing created by the third person is akin to hearing a conversation through a wall instead of being in the same room with the speakers. When Irene meets her half-sister in a restaurant, it’s as if you’re in a neighboring booth, lacking context or facial expressions; it’s just a vignette of voices.

 

 

The line between internal thought and external dialog is blurred in Shadow Tag. Without quotation marks it all becomes one long stream of consciousness, flowing seamlessly from journals, to thought, to conversation and back – one big head game. Time is fluid in the novel. The past informs the present, the present puts the past in perspective and the story flows between histories both personal and cultural. Shadow Tag functions as art history, too, a gallery of arcane knowledge about paints, colors, and artists.

But mostly, it’s a literary portrait of a family in turmoil, framed by the ethnic and popular culture of their times. History must have a narrative, Irene says at one point. Shadow Tag is the narrative that brings her and her family to life and also puts the reader at a safe distance, though perhaps too safe a distance. With no frame of reference for the Native American cultural issues – it took me a few page rereads to figure out what “enrollment” meant with respect to tribes – and the third person dialog that never quite lets readers into the conversation, or fully invites them into the experience, I found it hard to connect with the story or find some commonality with the characters. Not that you’d necessarily want to be part of their experience, which is a generally dark and dysfunctional one with a somewhat predictable outcome.

While I think the book is well written, I don’t feel that I took away anything of value from it. I didn’t find it transformative in any sense, nor was it particularly enlightening or escapist in the way of taking me on a journey of self-discovery, intellectual revelation or entertainment. I found much of the story frustrating. Although perhaps, like a game of shadow tag, you take away from Erdrich’s novel only as much as you’re able to make out in the dim light of the characters’ lives, what you’re able to piece together watching from the periphery of their existence, and then perhaps only within the framework of your own family history.

In the end, I found Shadow Tag masterful, but depressing. But maybe that’s how it is when you look over the neighbor’s fence too long.

Theresa Willingham

November 3, 2010

THIS Reads: NaNoWriMo Killed the Literary Star

by thiszine

BY LACEY N. DUNHAM

I always find myself frustrated by all the books I’m not reading. My “to read” list is always miles longer than the list of books I’ve finished. Compounding my frustration is that I’m a slow reader. I have friends who readily soar through three or four books each week and, unless all I do is sit in a chair for six hours a day intently focused on one book, knocking through multiple titles only days apart is something I rarely accomplish.

Then again, at least I’m reading, right? In an article at Salon in which she rails against National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), Laura Miller complains that there aren’t enough readers and far too many writers. And while there are statistics revealing that many folks in the U.S. spend more leisure time watching television or using a computer than reading, I don’t believe the argument that there is a dearth of readers in the U.S. People are reading; what people are reading has changed.

In the age of technology, reading occurs outside of books with an increasing frequency, something Miller doesn’t acknowledge in her article (which I “read” online although, because it doesn’t occur between the pages of a bound book, might not count as actual “reading” in Miller-world). Each Sunday I read the New York Times Book Review, in print; I try to read most of the New Yorker each week. When I travel, I frequently pack back-issues of magazines and literary journals I’ve been meaning to get around to and haven’t: Bitch, Poets & Writers, Zone 3, Zoetrope, The Normal School. I don’t work at a typical desk job, but if I did, I imagine that a chunk of my day would be spent reading articles and blogs online. Does all of this, because I’m not purchasing my reading from a traditional bookstore or downloading it on a Kindle, mean I’m reading-deficient?

To be fair, Miller’s article mostly deals with the reasons why someone shouldn’t participate in what she calls the “self-aggrandizing frenzy” of NaNoWriMo: “…while there’s no shortage of good novels out there, there is a shortage of readers for these books.” She’s right: getting published is not half as hard as getting someone to purchase your book, read it, and recommend it to others who will also purchase it once you’ve been published. And it’s true that few authors are commercially successful. But reading novels and writing them isn’t a zero-sum game.

Maybe I’m touchy because I am participating in NaNoWriMo and I take it personally that Miller refers to writing as a “narcissistic commerce,” even if I’m not sure where the “commerce” part comes in. If I’m supposed to be getting wealthy from all this, I wish someone would have told me long ago so I could have the last laugh over my friends who elected law and business school.

Miller implies that Wrimos (NaNo parlance for participating writers) aren’t reading any books or, at least by her judgement, not enough of them. I disagree with this assumption, too. Maybe Wrimos aren’t reading the same types of books Miller would read (she goes on a long rant against self-help books in her article) but reading is reading, regardless of the material. And, unless it’s Nicole Richie’s latest novel, I don’t think reading in all its many forms is making anyone more stupid.

So in addition to all the magazines, lit journals (both in print and online), book reviews and newspapers this particular Wrimo has read over the last month, I also enjoyed Julia Glass’s novel The Widower’s Tale, a story shaped by four voices that represent various corners of modern American culture. Set against the backdrop of eco-terrorism, limousine liberals, and a longing for the past in the face of rapid change, Glass succeeds in illuminating the darkest corners of our hypocrisy and hopes, all with her characteristic tenderness and humor.

Leslie Marmon Silko has been a favorite writer of mine ever since I read Ceremony. The Turquoise Ledge is her first book in ten years and a beautiful memoir that fuses elements of her family’s mixed-race heritage with Native myths and reflections on the natural world. Her imaginative storytelling travels across boundaries of time to share aspects of her life as they are remembered; for example, her first divorce is discussed alongside the eradication of the Laguna language.

University of Chicago historian Thomas C. Holt presents a generational and nuanced portrait of African-Americans in Children of Fire, a uniquely framed history that traces the shifts in culture, policy, and social norms that have defined race relations and institutions of oppression in the U.S. from when the first Africans were sold in Jamestown in 1619 to the election of President Barack Obama. Holt’s history reminds us that lives mired in history as it is lived are far more complex and dynamic than the flattened accounts textbooks would have us believe. I don’t generally read histories but appreciated Holt’s perspective and sharp narration. Children of Fire is a long book but it doesn’t lag.

Finally, confidential to all the Wrimos clattering away at their keyboard out there: Carolyn Kellogg is on our side.