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Oh, What a Lovely War

Has it really been almost a whole month since I’ve posted? It seems like That’s So Jacob is turning into something akin to a monthly blog, judging my summer posting pattern…

Things are just chugging along at my end. The weather is staying kind, even if the mosquitoes are not, and I’m attempting to keep up with all of my TAship responsibilities.

I did, however, finish a book this month, finally. And it only took me until September 20th but I did it. Names on a Map by Benjamin Alire Saenz, done.

Image result for names on a map by benjamin alire saenz

Names on a Map tells the story of the Mexican-American Espejo family, who are living in El Paso, Texas in 1967, with the Vietnam War looming over their existence. The story is told mostly from the perspectives of young adult twins Gustavo, a rebellious pacifist, and Xochil, who is trying to take control of her life. They live with their parents, Octavio and Lourdes; their younger brother, the westernized Charlie; and their grandmother, Rosario, who dies 3/4 of the way through the book and spurs Gustavo’s main actions. In addition, a side narrative occurs in Da Nang, where Adam and Abe are fighting, although their connections with the Espejo family seem rather slim, other than Adam referencing having met Xochil one time in El Paso.

Mostly, the book revolves around the main characters’ relationships with the wars going on both in Vietnam and in their own lives. We find out that Xochil was raped as a young girl, and that Gustavo is attempting to dodge the draft because of a previous disillusionment with violence. In between the twins is Jack Evans, a white, Vietnam-bound schoolmate of theirs who is a former friend of Gustavo’s and a current boyfriend of Xochil’s. He seems to embody all that is the opposite of Gustavo, from white privilege to American machismo, as he faces off against Gustavo and convinces Xochil to “make him a man.” What is interesting about that relationship is that even though Gustavo is devastated once he finds out that Xochil and Jack Evans sneaked away to do the deed, Jack Evans doesn’t come out on top, as Xochil explains to him that she wanted to avenge her rapist on her own terms, and has no intention of marrying Jack now or after he comes back from Vietnam. As Xochil leaves Jack Evans behind, so does Gustavo to America, escaping over the border to Mexico.

Even though the plot is difficult to follow at times and goes in so many different directions, the writing is so poetic and you really get a feel for what this family and the people around them endured in such a turbulent time in America, when lines were drawn in the sand, and twice as deep for minorities such as Mexican-Americans.

I had never heard of this book or its author before I plucked it off the shelf of the Madison Public Library, but it will definitely not be the only Benjamin Alire Saenz novel I read. I’ve already picked up another for my never-ending pile of books.

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Flip The Script: Sabina Berman, Four Plays

Today’s Flip the Script is technically Episode 5, but I’m making it Episode 4, because of things and stuff and this is four plays and oh look it’s starting…

That’s So Jacob Presents: Flip The Script

Episode 4: Sabina Berman, Four Plays

Hey, it’s Sabina Berman…remember her? Of course you do. Today, we will be exploring more of her dramatic side, in four plays lovingly translated by Adam Versenyi, who also happens to be a friend of mine. Well, more of an acquaintance, but we’ve met several times at ATHE and we’re friends on Facebook, and when I gave my first paper at ATHE 2010 in Los Angeles, he was sitting in the audience, with a name tag on and everything, so I was super nervous but I was also like, “I know who you are, and I read your translation like four years ago, and now you’re about to hear me probably make a giant fool of myself.” Something tells me he’s going to find this blog post and laugh, so in that case, hi Adam! Will you be at ATHE this year?

But enough about that.

Obviously, I love me some Sabina Berman. I believe I read most if not all these plays in undergrad, but it’s been awhile so I’m going to approach them with fresh eyes.

The Agony of Ecstasy

Recap

This play consists of three vignettes, each revolving around the good-looking, androgenously-described He and She. In the first, “The Mustache,” the title object is passed between the two: for He, sexual gratification, and for She, repelling others. He spent the previous night with another woman, but returned to She when she cried for help and they end up together again.

My Thoughts

Like always, a tour-de-force with some mystical, metaphysical, hyper-theatricality thrown in. “The Mustache” had a distinctly Salvador Dali feel, and addressed the politics of sex and sexuality. At some points, He seems like a woman, and She, a man. This is among Berman’s finest mind games.

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Knock-Knock, Who’s There?

First of all, big welcome to visitors from my three newest countries: Austria (wilkommen!), Mexico (bienvenidos!) and Guam (hafa adai!). And an even special welcome to getting visits from all 50 states with my first click from Montana. In your honor, I will post a picture of your flag.

Well that was fun.

Wouldn’t it be disappointing if that was it?

Anyway, second of all, where did all the people who were visiting my blog go? Please come back. I had over 600 of you the other day; what did I do wrong? Was it something I said? Can we patch things up?

But that’s not the actual post either.

So, I don’t know what’s going on with me lately – maybe an advanced case of frost on the brain, because it’s halfway to March and it’s still so fucking cold – but there has been weird stuff going on around me.

Maybe I’m spending too much time alone, but I’ve been hearing weird noises in my apartment. Not just at night, but during the day as well. I mean, there are the normal sounds – cars, motorcycles, garbage trucks, loud music playing, people talking, blenders whirring, and when I’m in my bathroom, the farts, flushes, and showers of the people above/below me (totally gross, btw, and one of the reasons I can’t wait to leave here) – but then there are sounds.

Some of the sounds are perfectly normal in context, like knocking on a door. Sometimes I hear other people’s apartment doors being knocked on, but I know when it’s mine. The past few days, I’ve been hearing a very near knocking sound, and this morning actually rushed to my door, finding no one there. Also, there’s tapping, like someone is gently tapping on the walls. Sometimes, in the area of the refrigerator, I hear a snap/crackle sound, like the fridge is adjusting itself.

I’m not sure I believe in ghosts; I certainly haven’t seen any, and other than that one day in the religion center where a stereo spontaneously started playing in the Hillel Lounge in front of me and two witnesses, not much in the way of supernatural experiences. But if this building’s haunted, I deserve the right to know.

I don’t want to wake up one morning to see…this.

Yes, I’m looking at you, Jennifer Connelly.

Wait…I don’t have a tub.

Phew.

Safe for now.

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אין סוף (Without End)

I normally wouldn’t do something like this, but something recently made me want to reread a book I’ve already read. I originally read it for a project for which I didn’t even end up using it, but it stuck in my mind all the same. I haven’t thought about this book for awhile, but when I remembered it, I knew I had to get a copy and read it again. Astonishingly, the library didn’t have it so I had to order it through ILL, and since it’s due tomorrow, I should probably write something about it now. It’s one of those hidden gems of literature that says little (90 pages, exactly) but says a whole lot. It’s a novella entitled Bubbeh by Sabina Berman.

I continued eating grapes and talking, mocking the congregation and their Amens, while laughing with amusement at my own cleverness, all with the same mouth, a mouth that was very big indeed that day. And my grandmother, absorbed in her own thoughts, continued putting the pieces of the broken plate together.

Suddenly I felt sad. I stopped talking. The water continued running out of the tap into the sink.

Finally my grandmother said: “Close your eyes.” I squeezed my lids shut.

“What do you see?”

“Nothing.”

“And in that nothing, do you see a light?”

I concentrated. Beneath my eyelids in that darkness something like a yellow and white dust shimmered, a light.

“Yes,” I said. “But I always see that.”

“Always?”

I thought. That light didn’t seem extraordinary in any way.

“Yes,” I said, “always.”

“Always,” my grandmother repeated. “Well, that light is God, and it has many names.”

– Sabina Berman, Bubbeh, page 30

Bubbehor La bobe in Spanish, is a first-person account of the author’s relationship with her grandmother, “bubbeh” (which means “grandmother” in Yiddish). This true story takes place in Mexico City in the 1960s, but Berman’s grandmother comes from the “old world” of WWII-era Eastern Europe.

We are introduced to the grandmother as a woman who “lived tidily,” in Berman’s words. So tidy, in fact, that she has committed suicide by drowning herself in the bathtub, thereby eliminating the need for a traditional body-washing. Backtracking, we see the author as a little girl, moving into her grandparents’ house alongside her newly-divorced mother. Berman uses this opportunity to uncover the secrets of this mysterious, ladylike woman, with a faith in God that is foreign to her. The generation gap between mother and daughter is quite clear, with Berman’s mother’s aggressive and abrasive nature clashing with the grandmother’s more reserved and traditional ways. The more time that Berman (and the reader) spends with her grandmother, the more and more we see the beauty of the grandmother’s reticence and her unshakable faith in God despite having survived the horrors of war alongside her husband. The grandmother says very little herself, preferring to be dutiful to her husband yet maintaining a queenly presence as she introduces the Sabbath and the Jewish holidays to the author. After the author describes her grandmother’s funeral, she returns to the opening image of her grandmother’s death, which takes the reader by surprise even though it was revealed at the very beginning.

What really moves me about Bubbeh is Sabina Berman’s style of writing. The text is translated from Spanish to English but the words are so smooth, you’d never know. The way that Berman catches every detail, all the colors of the room, each crease in her grandmother’s wrinkled face, provides a rich context and a place where you can settle in and embrace the simplicity of faith and familial love. The undertone of her grandfather’s taste for secrets and Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed adds a nice through-line that brings the story together, especially for the grandmother; although grandmother does not read and study like her husband does, she has some secrets of her own.

This story reminds me of my own mother’s mother, my grandmother Mimi. She was also a woman who spoke very little, especially in her Alzheimer’s-ridden final decade, in contrast to her own mother, who died shortly before I was born, whose outspoken nature made her the very image of a family matriarch. In contrast, my grandmother ruled with a different sort of nature; it would be incorrect to say “ruled,” as her equanimity (and unfortunately, failing mental state towards the end) kept her a silent queen, always present but not needing to make her presence known.

To most people, a person who prefers to keep things to herself is perceived as anti-social, cold, afflicted by either a deep sorrow or a negative attitude. But my grandmother was none of those things; she let her love for her children, grandchildren, and religion speak for her. In her younger days, she was a red-headed firecracker from New York City who traveled across the country between the wars to seek her fortune as an accountant in California, who always knew what she wanted and went for it. Upon marrying my grandfather and having children, this chapter of her life was completely shuttered; a locked file cabinet, never to be spoken of again. Even though she never lost her gleam, her luster, her zest for life, she concentrated all of her efforts on being a dutiful wife and mother. Like Berman’s grandmother, my own grandmother had a vast trove of secrets, some of which came out to my mother, and some only to me. Although after her death we found many artifacts of this life, we were unable to piece together a narrative; there were so many missing pieces. Some of my grandmother’s secrets are lost forever. I guess, in a way, by doing this, she cemented her reign in our lives and in our minds. She wanted us to have pleasant memories of her, as sweet, caring, and kind without fault. Without raising her voice or speaking her mind, she got her way, even after death.

My favorite passage is this one, on page 33-34.

I’m in the big bed, as fluffy as a cloud. A long, white bed. My grandmother covers me up to my chin with the goose-down comforter, and she sits down on the edge of the bed. The bedroom is in shadows.

My grandmother leans over to peer into my eyes. It’s an ageless moment. I’m eight years old, perhaps six or even four. Once more my grandmother becomes that tall woman whose profile extends upward, covering the cathedral’s golden clock. Her black eyes penetrating my eyes. Her face, as white as the moon’s reflection in a pond. The pond, my face, illuminated by her own. She passes her hand from my forehead down to my cheeks, half-closing my eyelids.

Her measured voice, distant and close at the same time: “Do you see that light?”

With her index and ring fingers, she taps the comforter on my chest. I hardly feel the pressure.

Yes, that greenish-white light, inside me.

Ayn sof,” she says, scarcely breathing the words.

Everything is like a secret. What my grandmother is now entrusting to me is, in face, a secret.

Ayn sof,” I reply very quietly.

Years later I will learn that Ayn sof means without end in Hebrew. It will take me even longer to fully comprehend that this is one of the names of God. I will be astonished at the simplicity with which my grandmother has asked me if I see that light and at the ingenuousness with which I answer simply, yes.

I will forever be curious about the things she didn’t tell us, things she didn’t leave clues to, and things she didn’t want us to know. Maybe someday, something will surface, but for now, these things – people, places, events, and how she really felt about them – are hers alone, her travel companions in the next stage. Sabina Berman’s Bubbeh is a testament to those lost memories and is something that should be treasured and read by anyone who is need of a reason to believe.

La bobe

This book review has been brought to you by the library of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the scary heavy winds outside.

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Six Things I Learned About History From Friends

As I was sitting in my Irish drama class, something happened that made me think about Friends. It was something about something from history that I learned from Friends that I’ll never forget. And of course, I forgot it. So, I spent an inordinate amount of time looking for quotes from the show to trigger my memory. But I did realize that Friends taught me a lot of things that if I hadn’t watched it, I wouldn’t know. It sounded like a good blog post, but then I went on the Internets and found a bunch of other people beat me to that idea.

One of the topics we discussed today was historiography, and the interstices/lacunae between previous scholars’ work, so to that effect, here are the top six things that I learned about history from Friends.

(oh, and bem-vindo to my first guests from Brazil, and tere tulemast to my first guests from ESTONIA!!! 🙂 happy dance)

6. World War I was also known as The Great War.

And we fought against Mexico…wait…that can’t be right.

5. Where Dutch people come from.

Well, the Pennsylvania Dutch come from Pennsylvania, and on that note…

4. The Netherlands? Real country.

Not to be confused with Never-Never Land. Thank you Amsterdam, good night.

3. When the dinosaurs died.

2. Joseph Stalin is not a good stage name.

Turns out he’s a real person.

1. This.

The more you know!