December Reads Part Two
Walter Tevis, The Queen’s Gambit
Bettina L. Love, We Want to Do More Than Survive
Susanna Clark, Piranesi
Ijeoma Oluo, Mediocre The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America
Elena Ferrante, The Lying Life of Adults
Walter Tevis, The Queen’s Gambit
If you are living and breathing in this culture of ours, there’s a good chance you have watched the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit. But if you happen to be in the situation where you haven’t seen the show, I’m going to suggest it’s worth your time to read the book first. Just like always.
The novel’s protagonist, Beth Harmon, is eight when the story begins, and recently orphaned. Her father died earlier in her life, and she is found by police at the scene of the car crash that killed her mother. Her reaction to this traumatic event is notably unemotional.
Beth is taken to an orphanage to be raised. She is quiet and smart, allowing time to get to know the routines of the orphanage, protecting herself from becoming too involved in its social dynamics. On her first day, in line for the “vitamins” all children are given daily, Beth meets Jolene, a slightly older resident of the orphanage, and it is Jolene who explains to her that the green pills are actually sedatives, part of an institution-wide program to keep everybody calm.
Let me just say that again. Children get downers daily.
Very quickly Beth discovers the mood altering power of the green pills, and she begins to hoard them, with Jolene showing her how to pretend to swallow in front of the dispensary and then pocket the pill instead while walking away from the line-up.
Beth’s relationship to the pills as a child, and later as an adult to alcohol, is something that defines her. On the one hand, she’s an addict, and arguably made so by the institution meant to take care of her. On the other, her ability to save the pills, only taking them when most needed (often when she can’t sleep), exhibits a level of control many addicts cannot manage. Even at eight, it seems, she’s aware of her own proclivity to addiction, and able to manipulate the tendency in a way suits her. Most of the time.
Beth's discovery of chess is accidental. Sent from class to the basement to clean chalkboard erasers, she finds Mr. Shaibel, the school custodian, playing chess alone. After several cautious attempts to engage him, Beth is ultimately given permission to play a game, and here her talent is discovered and nurtured. She finds a way to absent herself from Sunday morning church services so she can learn the game. Shaibel is careful with her talent, recognizing it, but also taking time to ensure Beth doesn’t get too cocky about her abilities.
My question is: What if she had never met the janitor? Would she still be a chess prodigy? Follow-up question: What if the orphanage never gave her a single pill? Would she still be an addict?
I mean, probably? But the casualness of these two encounters in Beth’s life continues to haunt me. It’s so true and yet so chilling that a completely random occurrence can define our lives like that.
Beth Harmon is one of the greatest characters I’ve met. She is calculating, emotionless, and long-suffering, but also single-mindedly committed to her own success. In her journey through the world of high stakes chess competition she meets exactly the sort of mansplaining dudes you’d imagine. She sleeps with many of them, but rarely do those relationships outlast her ability to trounce them at the game they love.
Beth’s adopted mother is also a gorgeously complex character. A poor / distant relationship with her husband allows Alma Wheatley to be lovingly supportive of Beth, never questioning her talent or denying her the freedom to pursue the life she desires. Their relationship is so mutually respectful, it’s hard to remember that Alma is the ‘parent’. Ultimately Alma becomes Beth’s manager, and their ensuing mutual benefit is marvelous.
In the sea of Beth’s male mentors, her adopted mother stands out as being her most supportive friend, no less critical to her success than the long line of chess nerds trying to get lucky.
An essential part of Beth’s character in the book is that she is not glamorous or attractive, and I think it’s worth noting that Anya Taylor-Joy, the actor who plays Beth in the series is one of those unusually striking beauties. She is also very confident, even at early tournaments, which I do not think is in keeping with how we know Beth in the book. Her lack of attractiveness is important to the story, as is her adopted family’s poverty; they set her apart from the easy glamour of her female classmates. She is an outsider in all ways, and I believe this is what allows her to commit so thoroughly to the game of chess. I like looking at Taylor-Joy’s gorgeous face as much as the rest of you, but I really feel the essence of Beth Harmon was not captured by those luminous eyes and smart dresses. Also, I might be quibbling here, but the series depicts Beth’s addiction as integral to her ability to play chess. She takes the pills in order to be able to visualize the chess board in her head, planning imaginary moves for her next game. But in the book the two addictions, chess and downers, run parallel and are not dependent on one another any more than they are part of Beth’s careful balancing act of maintaining focus and opening her mind to the multitudinous possibilities of the sixty-four squares on a chess board.
Long story short: you should read this book! Maybe you’re thinking, I have no interest in chess, why would I read this book? That’s fair. But this book is “about” chess in the same way that Friday Night Lights is about football. That is to say, the game creates a context, informs our understanding of character and builds tension in the story. But trust me, you will love this story regardless of how you feel about chess.
This book is the subject of the most current Anti-Racist Educator Reads podcast. It is indeed intended for educators, and I can’t really judge it on readability for any other audience, so bear with me, non-teachers.
Love argues in this book that educators are in a position to empower students and colleagues not only to understand racial injustice but to act in ways that promote equity. But, attemptingto do this within the existing system is not going to work. Or, as Love puts it, “education can’t save us. We have to save education.”
Chapter 4, entitled “Grit, Zest and Racism (The Hunger Games)” is the section that most resonated with me. Working in education can at times feel like being on a jargon-y initiative roller coaster, where what we do is constantly being re-named and quantified. These are typically trends reflective of what the culture has most recently deemed important. Local educators might recognize “Understanding by Design”, “triangulating data”, and “character education” as some of these hills and valleys. It’s hard, frankly, not to be cynical about such initiatives when what I’ve been waiting for my whole career is the one called “Humble-yourself-and-just-be-nice-to-everyone”.
But I digress.
A recent and much discussed trend in education has been to predict student success by assessing their “grit” or ability to stick with difficult tasks and keep trying even when they are struggling. The problem with grit, though, is that it’s only ever measured by one standard, and that standard presumes an equal playing field that has never existed in educational spaces. “Grit” comes from privilege, not character or personality. And, as Love illustrates, it simply does not hold up in the face of racism. “Trayvon [Martin] was on the phone with Rachel Jeantel, his close friend, when he noticed George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain, and told her that a “creepy White cracker” was following him. From Rachel’s testimony, one can glean that Trayvon was keenly aware of his surroundings, and that Zimmerman made him very uncomfortable. On the night of his death, Trayvon’s grit was tested and measured, not in a lab but by White rage - and not many pass this test.”
The idea that all learners have equal access to opportunity and success is popular among White educators, of course, because it suggests that the failure of non-White students is a result of a character flaw that presumably can be “fixed”. I get it. It’s so much easier to repair perceived flaws in individual human beings than to address the massive, crumbling foundation of education itself. But this belief in a level playing field is the very ideology that has led to education being such a destructive force to Black students and students of colour. Grit is just another form of institutionalized discrimination; Grit is bullshit.
Educators know better than to participate in this nonsense, right? Dr. Love thinks so, and I do too. But the very first step is always going to be honouring the lived experiences of Black students and students of colour. Step two is moving past acknowledgement into the realm of action, which in my mind looks like empowering all students to question the systems that define their education and celebrating their unique approaches to learning. Reading this book is a great way to get started.
Susanna Clark, Piranesi
I’m very lucky to belong to a small but mighty book club. We are colleagues and friends who meet up every month or so to talk about our most recent book choice, and choices alternate between members. I have discovered some great titles through this group, one of which was The Queen’s Gambit, and another of which was this one, Susanna Clark’s Piranesi. Without the influence of my book club friends, I would not have picked up either title and would have been the worse off for it.
Here’s the inner front flap description of Piranesi: “Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.”
Honestly, that is not the description of my kind of book. Sounds kind of woo-woo, like a fantasy novel with a bit of mythology thrown in. Yikes.
The story is slow to begin. One of my great flaws as a reader is that I am not very good at getting sucked into imaginary worlds. Folks, I am never going to finish The Lord of the Rings. I did okay with the Harry Potter books because they had just enough real life mixed in to be relatable to me. Point is, I didn’t immediately love Piranesi. There is so much description of the labyrinth that Piranesi lives in, all so artfully written that it felt like a trap. I was suspicious of every detail. Does the house itself even actually exist? I asked myself. Are the statues real people who have been frozen, like inhabitants of Pompeii? Are the albatrosses in the south-western halls actually there? Or are they a metaphor? Or maybe they are both real and also metaphorical, like in Moby Dick?
Anyway, as it turns out, just when I was about to give up on trying to a) picture the labyrinth and b) distinguish between real and metaphorical events, the book gets super interesting and impossible to put down. Thanks book club friends!
Piranesi is a kind of buddha. Over many years of living in the labyrinth, he has learned how to be self-sufficient. He’s watched the tides and knows when it is best to avoid certain areas; he knows how to fish and gather seaweed so he always has food, and he has given identities to all of the statues and other (for the most part) no longer living creatures he’s met. He regularly meets with a man he calls “the Other”, and these exchanges add intrigue to Piranesi’s quiet life. As we witness more of their conversations, we begin to question Piranesi’s understanding of his own environment. The Other appears to be a scientist or researcher working on entering subconscious worlds, and occasionally shares information with Piranesi that is contradictory to what we know Piranesi believes. We start to wonder if the labyrinth is a home or a prison, if the Other is a friend or enemy.
It’s a fascinating puzzle of information, and the mystery Piranesi is attempting to unravel is equally beguiling for his readers. He explains, “I use a journal system for all my notes. I find that it’s much the best way for keeping track of information”, which is a clever way for the author to address our disbelief that anyone could keep such a comprehensive record of events, seemingly written at the same time they are happening.
The journals are carefully (also unbelievably) indexed, and they provide Piranesi with tantalizing bits of information as he seeks to understand his world. Simultaneously they suck the reader into the mystery, causing a relentless questioning of which elements of the story are “true”.
This is a beautifully written book, evoking abiding philosophical questions about life all the while maintaining a surface tale of adventure and discovery that is difficult to put down.
Sidebar: Check out who Piranesi is and maybe also the backstory of how Susanna Clarke conceived of and wrote this novel. You don’t need all this information to enjoy the novel, but know it will certainly add depth to your experience. Signed, your favourite English teacher.
Ijeoma Oluo, Mediocre The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America
I’m going to be honest about this book and tell you it’s not quite so zippy and relatable (for this reader) as Oluo’s previous book So You Want To Talk About Race. Certainly its title appeals to me, and I don’t want to suggest it is not worth reading. It is. But what you get here is a thorough history of White male America, starting with the “How The West Was Won” and ending with a chapter on American football’s exploitation of Black players, and your interest in those topics will define your reading experience.
Without a doubt, Oluo undertook extensive research to complete this book. For me, it got better after the first chapter, perhaps because I simply had more knowledge of the historical contexts discussed. And if you’re picking up this book, I think you’re already open to learning about the patriarchy. But don’t go looking for instructive and funny anecdotes about how to stop being a participant in white supremacy. This is a deep dive into American identity and politics and it will not make you feel good.
As a Canadian reader, I was not always super-interested in Oluo’s distinctly American historical focus. The first chapter, especially, had me doubting whether I’d be able to keep reading, just because its overall tone felt more like a history lesson than a takedown of white dudes. And didn’t I learn all I need to know about the settling of the west from Cormac McCarthy and Deadwood? But seriously, who’s going to question the white maleness of the Wild West? It’s the original macho playground.
Later on, she writes about Republican responses to a bill called the Green New Deal cosponsored by the amazing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The suggestion is not so much that the bill is objectionable by any reasonable standard: it’s not. But rather, that it was connected to Ocasio-Cortez, who has been criticized for all manner of things, but I’d say mainly for being an outspoken woman of colour. Aka a total Boss. Oluo writes,
“These are real words, from grown-ass adults who were elected to represent the American people...Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas said that the Green New Deal would force Americans to “ride around on high-speed light rail, supposedly powered by unicorn tears.” Trump claimed that it would take away everyone’s “airplane rights”. Wyoming senator John Barrasso issued perhaps the most bizarre of all the dire warnings...telling Americans to stock up on beef and ice cream, because under the Green New Deal, “livestock will be banned.””
We recently witnessed the four year culmination of Trump’s presidency, where he encouraged his supporters to attack the country’s capital rather than accept that he lost the election. You may have found yourself asking, again, how much devastating proof is out there to show that America is supremely fucked up? Tons, it turns out. This book is here to school you.
I’m not going to go down the road where I get to be all smug for being Canadian, either. I mean, our Prime Minister seemed not to know exactly how many times in the past he’s appeared in public in brown face, nor could he ever adequately apologize for a clearly egregious gaffe. But I can’t think of a time in recent history when the leader of my country was so effective at not just screwing up (a given) but actually manufacturing the kind of damage that leaves the world worse off than it was when he arrived in power. And so I’m going to draw a bit of comfort in being Canadian right now, if only because our electoral system denies anyone achieving the kind of destructive and maniacal control Trump continues to wield until his very last minute in office.
If you still need proof that America, in particular, is a country suffering from profoundly destructive patriarchy and white supremacy, then you will find it here for sure. I don’t think anyone needs proof though, so I recommend you read this book instead for its incredibly clear call to action which is what we already know: Time to move on, white guys. We’ve seen what you’ve got and frankly, it’s crap.
Elena Ferrante, The Lying Life of Adults
Can we talk about how awesome Elena Ferrante is? Someone recently suggested to me that the notoriously secretive writer who uses “Elena Ferrante” as a pseudonym is a man, and I WILL NEVER BELIEVE IT. No one writes about female friendships like Ferrante. No one else writes about the horror of female adolescence, in which our bodies become a foreign and unpredictable and disgusting mystery. We may never know Ferrante’s true identity, but if somehow it turns out she’s been a man all this time I will eat my hat.
As in the Neapolitan novels, Ferrante writes here about a young woman who is deeply introspective and sensitive. Like Lenù from the earlier books, Giovanna tells her story from the perspective of adulthood, having grown up and away from the years she describes. She is now a writer, conscious of the fact that she is using writing as the ultimate deception, to construct a story from shards of truth in her own life.
It’s these moments of metanarration that elevate this novel (and Ferrante’s others) to literary fiction, if you ask me. On the one hand, they are no more than gossipy tales of deceit, budding sexuality and betrayal. But the self-awareness of Ferrante’s narrator and her characters means that as readers we never forget we are reading a crafted tale whose veracity is suspect. It’s not an easy device to pull off, maintaining the reader’s suspension of disbelief without fully toppling into straight up, detectable falsehood, but walking that line is Ferrante’s incredible talent.
When the story opens, the narrator, Giovanna is a child of twelve who has overheard a conversation between her parents in which her beloved father compares her to his long estranged and much despised sister. Specifically, he says, “She is getting the face of Vittoria.” Giovanna is deeply wounded by this comment, which she understands as an assertion from her own father that she is ugly.
It’s hard to overstate the intense sorrow an ill timed or offhand remark like this could cause for a child. Presumably Giovanna’s father forgets that he has even made this statement within a day or two, but it actually alters Giovanna’s life, leading her down a path cultivated by a new insecurity and mistrust of her parents. She begins searching for photos of Vittoria and discovers that in every one Vittoria’s face has been scratched out or her image cut from the photo. Neither of her parents will discuss Vittoria with her, which only increases Giovanna’s curiosity. She resolves to see Vittoria in person, and her parents very reluctantly agree to arrange a meeting. The first meeting leads to many more, Vittoria becoming a fixture in Giovanna’s life, much to her parents’ dismay.
Typically, Ferrante’s characters are preoccupied with social class, and that remains true in this story. Giovanna’s father grew up in the crowded and poor neighbourhoods of Naples, speaking dialect. Through education and upward mobility, he was able to leave his childhood behind, and has raised Giovanna in austere comfort, maintaining a separation from his roots. Vittoria, the embodiment of all he left behind, and whom he has worked very hard to deny, becomes an abiding influence of Giovanna. It’s impossible not to point out that Carl Jung’s idea that what we most seek to deny will ultimately become our fate playing out in Giovanna’s family.
Vittoria is indeed a spiteful, crass, and mean person. Though Giovanna is aware of this, and often hurt by Vittoria, she still sees her as a mentor and a refreshing alternative to the reserved quiet of her parents. Vittoria’s bitterness toward Giovanna’s father stems from his interference in her one true love relationship many years ago. At first Giovanna is taken in by the romance of the story, but soon she comes to learn that this man was already married with a family when Vittoria fell in love with him. As she gets to know the extended family Vittoria has created through the deceased lover’s wife and children, Giovanna also discovers her father’s infidelity, which turns out to be not so different at all from Vittoria’s. Giovanna sees her father for what he is: a sham, clinging to the perks of his social class but still a liar and a cheat, just like his sister. All adults lie, is the lesson Giovanna learns, some are just better at pretending they aren’t doing it. The sexual modelling she witnesses at this point in her life is likely what leads her into a series of unsatisfactory sexual encounters with crude and predatory boys her age. She participates, bewildered, not knowing what is expected of her beyond providing what the male sexual appetite demands. None of the adults in her life, as it turns out, have prepared her for an honest, affectionate and passionate sex life. These are the consequences of deceit.
Just like Lenù in the Neapolitan quartet, Giovanna eventually embraces her intelligence, and uses it to empower herself, learning what she needs in order to get what she wants. Are we meant to see this as admirable behaviour? I don’t think so, but it must be acknowledged for its Macciavellian practicality. She doesn’t want to be like her parents or her aunt, so she must find a way to avoid either outcome.
If there is a thesis to this novel (and truly, I think there is) it is not that telling the truth will set us free so much as hiding the truth is an art form. Giovanna learns from the adults in her life that honesty is no more valuable than what it can provide you. In this way, it is no different from deceit (or fiction). She uses her experiences to construct the narrative that defines her, “but nobody, not even the one who at this moment is writing, knows if it contains the right thread for a story, or is merely a snarled confusion of suffering, without redemption.”
You might think this sets us up for an unsatisfactory ending, one in which no conflicts are resolved, but it doesn’t. Even though few characters are “better” than they were when we first met them, the novel’s journey through their foibles illuminates our very human reluctance to see ourselves truthfully, and to understand our motives for what they are: instinctive, lustful and self-serving.