Book Report: Radical Passions and The Stuff of Thought

Radical Passions

Radical Passions: A Memoir of Revolution and Healing (iUniverse, 2008), by local massage therapist Kendall Hale, is part essay, part personal reflection, part revolutionary travelogue.

“Dear Mom and Dad,” she writes in a 1970 letter, “The only solution is revolution. Armed revolution. Unfortunately, since you are members of the middle class and the silent majority, our People’s Army will have to fight anyone who stands in our way. This means I could be face to face with you and have no choice but to shoot. I will not be coming home this summer.”

It’s a bold move, to admit having written such a letter — and to one’s parents, at that. And Hale’s book is filled with bold admissions of the ilk that lead the reader to believe she must be a very understanding parent. It’s not like her kids could do anything that would surprise her. (Joined a radical political group known for building bombs? Been there. Under investigation by the FBI? Done that.)

Radical recounts Hale’s life from the late 1960s up to present day, and the details are magnificently rich and exciting. She name-checks all manner of ‘60s and ‘70s ephemera (the Weather Underground, Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book) while hitchhiking from coast to coast, fighting for the rights of workers, women and the dispossessed, and dispatching socialist beliefs left and right.

In the end — near the end, rather — the author must come to terms with herself as a member of the status quo that she’d railed against as a young person.

“March 2006: Dad was dead, and I was a Democratic precinct chair in Fairview,” she writes. “The sixties me was disgusted that I was organizing a forum for the sheriff’s race.” Hale manages many equally brilliant moments of levity and reckoning, and those passages elevate her book from a collection of journal pages to something much more significant.

Indeed, Radical is a collection of the author’s letters, journals and memories, and at times it suffers from a certain myopia. Its organizational structure lacks clarity, and though the book covers nearly 40 years of history, there are gaps in the telling. There are quantum leaps from Hale’s early ‘80s Communist leaning to the reality of the Tiananmen Square Massacre; from her 1970s plans to organize factory workers to her present-day speculations about China’s place in the world market. Sure, we all make these jumps in our mental processes, but the book requires stronger connective material in order to maintain flow.

Still, readers who were there in the ‘60s or who have shared Hale’s interest in social causes and activism will find much to take away from this personal narrative.

Kendal Hale reads from Radical Passions: A Memoir of Revolution and Realing at Malaprop’s on Saturday, Sept. 6. The 7 p.m. event is free. Info: 254-6734.


The Stuff of Thought

I like Steven Pinker, author of The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (Penguin, 2007). Rather, I like his book, though to say “I like it” feels so amateurish. This is a book of ideas, a constant needling at mental processes presented under the guise of exploring language and our understanding of grammar.

“It’s not just nouns that care about boundlessness and individuals; verbs do, too,” he writes in the fourth chapter, titled “Cleaving the Air.” “The choices can differ among languages and even dialects, such as American and British English. I am always momentarily startled when my British editor offers to collect me at the hotel, as if he thinks of me as a bunch of smithereens.”

Indeed, I came across this sort of word play as a young reader, making my way through an A.A. Milne collection. “Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie,” goes the nursery rhyme. “A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly. / Ask me a riddle and I reply / Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie.” Pinker, a Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard (this, after a tenure in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT) has based his career on such puzzles.

Stuff delves into these puzzles from a variety of angles — our emotional connection to words and the way children learn syntax, irregular tense and linguistic patterns are plumbed for meaning. “To take a simple case, one can throw a cat into the room, but one cannot throw the room with a cat,” he explains in an early chapter.

The book is heady with these distinctions, yet never waxes dull or dry. Somehow Pinker makes language fun. (Okay, maybe not as fun as a Hollywood tell-all or Monsieur Pamplemousse mystery — but I suspect Pinker’s Malaprop’s reading will be every bit as entertaining as it is educational.) After all, as the author points out, “Language is a level with which we can convey surprising facts, weird new ideas, unwelcome news, and other thoughts that a listener may be unprepared for.”

Steven Pinker discusses The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature at Malaprop’s on Monday, Sept. 8. The 8 p.m. event is free. Info: 254-6734.

— Alli Marshall, A&E reporter


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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. She is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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