BASS 2020: Marian Crotty, “Halloween” from Crazyhorse #96

Rumen Kozhuharov: “Unrequited love”
I began this story in response to a discussion I had with my first-year writing students about subjects for short memoirs that tend to rely on clichés. Essays about the death of a grandparent with the top of the list. They were often boring, almost always sentimental, and one grandma or grandpa usually felt indistinguishable from the next. And yet, because I was convinced that a story about the death of a grandparent could be compelling, I challenged myself to write one. My initial plan was to write the story in the form of a long social media memorial, and although I couldn’t make this approach work, it gave life to Jan, Jules, and a story that departed from the initial prompt I’d given myself.

Marian Crotty, Contributor Note

I’m not surprised that this story began with a grandmother. While Jules, the point-of-view character, is the character I most recognize and the one who gets the most space on the page, it’s quirky grandmother Jan who  grabs the attention, and gives a lift to Jules’ rather familiar problem.

Is there anything so exquisitely painful as unrequited love? Sure, there’s disease, destitution, all manners of human degradation, but to love an indifferent heart has a tenderness, a near-universality that makes it a ripe centerpiece for fiction. That this is a relationship between two women doesn’t really matter. Love is, after all, love. And not-love is not-love.

My grandmother had fucked-up ideas about love. This was something anyone who spent about five minutes with her understood. She had been married three times – once to my grandfather and twice to a guy named David who I remember as a quiet gray-bearded man with a motorcycle but who had broken into Jan’s duplex and set fire to the rattan patio set that she’d always kept in her sunroom. When I asked if she’d been afraid of this guy, she shrugged. “Sure. Sometimes.” In her mind, love was an undertaking bet required constant vigilance and bravery….
But when it came to Erika , the girl who had recently broken my heart, after what was admittedly just one relatively chaste summer together, Jan was my ideal audience – sympathetic, almost always available, and the only person in my life who thought that getting back together with Erika was both advisable and likely to happen.
The logical part of my brain thought the more likely explanation was that Erika had only ever gotten together with me in the first place out of boredom and convenience (we spent the summer working together at her frozen yogurt shop called Yotopia!) and now that FSU was back for the fall semester, it embarrassed her to be with a high school student. Sometimes, though, in the midst of one of Jan’s musings, I could almost convince myself that there had been a misunderstanding and that if I could just show Erika I was a mature and attractive person, she would, if not see that she had made a mistake, at least consider making out with me in secret.
“When it comes to love,” Jan said, “you shouldn’t have regrets. I have regrets, and I can tell you it sucks. I never should have divorced your grandfather.”

The three generations of women in this family – grandmother Jan, Jules, and Jules’ mother – have all had bad experiences with love. What Jules really needs to hear is: get as far away from Erika as you can, and it will eventually fade. Yes, it will – I promise (I’ve been through this four or five times, and not all when I was young, either; it’s really hard to walk away, but it’s the only thing that will help). But it’s the little maybe that makes her follow Jan’s advice: act happy and engaged in life, wear reavealing clothes, make up an imaginary girl who’s crushing on you, find ways to touch Erika now and then. The first part of that isn’t a bad idea. The rest, well… Jules is as surprised as I was when it seemed to work, and she and Erika finally get it on.

But did it work, or was it something else? Almost a goodbye present? Because Erika later tells her it’s not going to happen again, and things get a little more complicated after that.

I’d initially thought of this story as one of broken trust. Jan’s good husband, a decent guy who sometimes committed minor infractions, finally took her up on her threat to divorce him for one of those, breaking a trust that she could complain and life would go on. Her crazy husband obviously broke the trust most of us have in our husbands to not set our furniture on fire. Mom broke Jules’ trust by telling her social worker boyfriend about the breakup, leading him to attempt to console Jules, as clumsy but well-meaning do-gooders are wont to do (a wise do-gooder would have kept his mouth shut until a good opportunity presented itself). And of course Erika broke Jules’ trust, though Jules doesn’t realize it until things get complicated.

But then the story ends with Jules planning to go to a Halloween party at Erika’s house, a party she heard about from a co-worker. She knows she shouldn’t go, but Jan doesn’t try to stop her. I suspect Jan knows she’ll go no matter what, so she might as well be on the kid’s side. It’s when she refers to the box of Halloween costumes that I freak out – oh, no, not the dead baby costume!

This was a pleasant, entertaining read, kind of bittersweet for those of us who remember what it was like and feel some sympathy for Jules. But a lot of it just seems a little off. Jan is a little over the top; the Halloween connection – three times! From Jan’s once wearing an inappropriate costume to a child’s Halloween party, to her working in a Halloween store, to the Halloween party that continues Jules’ obsession – seems overplayed; maybe it’s a reference to fear, horror associated with love? This recycling maybe goes with Jules continuing her own cycle of what Miss Manners (I think; I can’t find the reference) once called getting every last ounce of pain out of a breakup. I’m not curious at all about what happens with her, but I wouldn’t mind reading more about Jan, over-the-top or not. I’d like to see her through her own eyes, rather than through Jules’.

* * *

Other takes on this story can be found at:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “Crotty’s “Halloween” treats the idea of love equaling suffering like the two-bit trailer-park philosophy it is, and it paints it with a comic brush rather than a dramatic one.”

Jim Harris at Auxiliary Memory: “Because part of the story was set at Yotopia I couldn’t help compare it to John Updike’s classic teens at work story, ‘A&P.’”

BASS 2020: Emma Cline, “The Nanny” from The Paris Review #231

A few years ago there was a stretch of tabloid stories about celebrity affairs, often involving nannies. I was struck by a paparazzi photo of one of the young women; she looked so confident, almost smirking, but then seemed, at the same time, obviously afraid, obviously in over her head. I wanted to explore that mindset – the bravado of youth covering up terror, the desire to try to take ownership of bad things as a way to make them less painful. Kayla is desperate to avoid being seen as a victim, to forestall pity or self reflection by any means necessary, even if this means rebuffing actual kindness and connection.

Emma Cline, Contributor Note

Having been a young person who made some mistakes, but had the luck to make them before the internet age, I can sympathize with Kayla’s confusing reaction to her situation. I can also get a little exasperated with the public fascination with scandal, with the need to see things as a morality play, to force our beliefs onto a situation about which we know very little.

Keeping in that vein, as the story opens, we have little information. Kayla is staying with Mary and Dennis, a couple other than her parents. When she asks for a beer to go with the pizza, she notices they glance at each other, but they find some and give it to her. When she goes for a walk, she worries they’re watching her and will object to her checking her phone. “What would they do, take her phone away?” From this, I got the impression that Kayla was very young, and maybe had a substance abuse problem or had been acting out in some way. I was surprised to find out 1) she’s 24 years old, and 2) she’s a college graduate, possibly with a Master’s degree.

Eventually we find out Kayla was a nanny for an actor’s family, and slept with him some number of times. It’s unclear if the affair began as consensual, but it became so, to the point where now, hiding out from paparazzi with Mary, her mother’s college roommate, she searches in vain for messages from the man.

Then comes the line that put me squarely into judgmental mode:

It was easy to imagine what Mary thought of Kayla. A waste, she probably believed, Kayla just twenty-four years old and now this. Probably, Mary thought, this was just the result of an absent father, an overworked mother.
But how could Kayla explain? This felt correct, the correct scale of things. Kayla had always expected something like this to happen to her.

There’s the paradox of her actively insisting on seeing herself in the passive role, of this happening to her, rather than her actions having consequences; exaggerated consequences, certainly, but her behavior played a role. And yet, I have some idea of what it’s like to be young and not fully grasp how the world works, to be  able to convince yourself that what you did wasn’t that bad, there were extenuating circumstances. There usually are extenuating circumstances to everything, but it’s dangerous to take them as license. Unfortunately, it takes time – and, sometimes, bitter experience – to learn that.

The scenes from the affair make her seem pathetic rather than predatory. Returning from the bathroom after a tryst, she finds him watching TV, “as if nothing had happened at all.” He ignores her in public, which she excuses because there are film people around who might start talking. At a filming session on an oversees shoot, he demands she get out of his eye line:

“I’m not in your eye line,” she said. She could feel the makeup girl glancing at them.
“You don’t think you are, but it’s my eye line, that’s the point,” Rafe said. “It’s what I see. Not what you see. What I see. And I’m seeing you.”
He widened his eyes, about to say something, then seemed to soften. “Why don’t you go swim in the pool at the hotel? Get some lunch?”
“Yes,” she said. Her voice was faint. “That’s a good idea.”
She knew Rafe didn’t want her to make a scene. And she wouldn’t. She smiled out to the nothingness, the empty horizon. The land was scrubby and not beautiful, not at all how she had imagined. In truth, it had been her first time outside the country.

The scenic description after that interaction about whose eyeline matters is perfect. I’m sure love does look bare and drab to her, not at all how she had imagined it would look. Her inexperience is a distinct disadvantage.

Why does a woman put up with this? Because he’s handsome and famous? Because she needs the job? Sure, that probably plays into it, but there’s something else, a self-image problem we glimpse now that she’s down and out and letting more supressed feelings into her conscious mind. Kayla wasn’t always a nanny banging a famous daddy, which, leaving aside any sexual morality you want to fold over it, is horrible because it’s so cliché. And it’s so dumb. But she used to be something else.

The thing was, she was a smart girl. She’d studied art history. Her first class, when Professor Hunnison turned out the lights and they all sat in the dark—they were eighteen, most of them, still children, still kids who had slept at home all their lives. Then the whir of the projector, and on the screen appeared hovering portals of light and color, squares of beauty. It was like a kind of magic, she had thought back then, when thoughts like that didn’t feel embarrassing.
How mysterious it seemed sometimes—that she had once been interested or capable enough to finish papers. Giotto and his reimaginings of De Voragine’s text in his frescoes. Rodin’s challenge to classical notions of fixed iconographic goals, Michelangelo’s bodies as vessels for God’s will. It was as if she’d once been fluent in another language, now forgotten.

Flash forward to her senior thesis, where she’s increasing the margins to meet the minimum page requirement. I had to smile at that. I used to adjust my margins, too, but the other way – I made them as small as possible so I could get more words into my 5 or 10 or 25 pages. But Kayla’s metamorphosis is the point: What happened in between? How did awe turn into cynicism, inquisitiveness into reaching for the easiest fix and closest available comfort? We don’t get to know that. We only know it happened. When she starts wondering if her art history professor remembers her, it’s a genuinely moving glance back to a happier time.

The story ends with her dragged to a party by her hosts. She ends up hiding out in one of the children’s rooms, naturally enough; she was a nanny, after all, so she must have a high comfort level with kids, but also she’s not really up to adult interaction. She climbs into the little girl’s bed – kind of strange, but ok – and the child takes charge, reversing the roles: “I’m actually a princess, but I was forced to be a nurse.” Yep. Kayla knows all about that. Whereas she was unable to receive caretaking from Maya and Dennis, she is able to accept it from a child, possibly because she doesn’t worry about the judgment and advice that’s sure to be contingent on the comfort.

The final scene is loaded with subtlety and ambiguity, to the point where, if it were a script, it could be read a dozen different ways and feel authentic in each.  But I struggle with great writer’s choices that seem questionable in the fictional world. For example, Dennis comes looking for her to take her home. Why is it he who comes, not Mary? The reason Cline chose to make it him becomes obvious from the interaction that follows, but what is the fictional reason, is Mary looking for her somewhere else, or did she just casually say, “Hey, go look for Kayla, the girl who sleeps with inappropriate men”?

“Come on, Kayla,” Dennis said, pulling the covers back. Kayla’s dress had ridden up and her underwear was showing.
“Jesus,” he said, and tossed the blankets back over her. His face was red.
“I’m sorry,” Kayla said, getting up, searching out her sandals.
“Are you?”
The tone of his voice surprised her—when she glanced at him, he looked intently at the floor.
Kayla felt the room around her, her cheap sandal in her hand. “I’m not ashamed, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
Dennis started laughing, but it just seemed weary. “Jesus,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “You’re a nice girl,” he said. “I know you’re a good person.
The anger she felt then, close to hatred—“Maybe I’m not.”
Dennis’s eyes were watery, pained. “Of course you are. You’re more than just this one thing.”
Dennis scanned Kayla’s face, her eyes, her mouth, and she could tell he was seeing what he wanted to see, finding confirmation of whatever redemptive story he’d told himself about who she was.

Another great writer’s choice that seems odd in the fictional context: pulling back the covers. As a symbol of Kayla being laid bare to the world, it’s perfect, but would a man who is pretty much a stranger do that? Is that the point, that men do that? That he shows embarrassment is a plus; he’s an adult, in other words, acting like an adult, respecting boundaries. Look closely, Kayla, you might never see that again. But the conversation is, yes, that golden word, ambiguous. Is she being seductive? Is he thinking about it?

I’d like to hope maybe Kayla is learning to recognize respect between adults, and that she can accept kindness without paying dearly for it. But that’s my hope; Kayla doesn’t need anyone else projecting their mindset onto her.

* * *

Other takes on this story can be found at:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “Every digression, every observation not strictly necessary, is so enjoyable, so considerate of the reader’s need to be stimulated, is pulled off with such skill, I do not feel myself constantly looking to see how much longer the story is.”

Jim Harris at Auxiliary Memory: “Everything that unfolds in “The Nanny” is a mystery because Cline doesn’t tell us upfront what’s going on.”

BASS 2020: Michael Byers, “Sibling Rivalry” from Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #40

I suppose this story came about from sitting with friends on that porch (the porch in the story is our porch in Michigan), all of us watching our children get older in that unreal, jerky, all too sudden way they do, and recognizing that their lives, and their own children’s lives, which differ from ours in ways that we wouldn’t be able to really get our heads around. And I wanted to get my head around it. Given current circumstances, the world this story depicts looks like a pretty benign one, all things considered, a world in which people still sit on porches and have friends and fun moments in which to consider who and why they are.

Michael Byers, Contributor Note

I had a long, complicated post all ready to go explaining why this story isn’t science fiction but literary fiction with science fiction elements, complete with a definition of science fiction from Ted Chiang and an explanation by Isaac Asimov of how science fiction stories clue readers into the differences between their world and the strange new world in the story. I showed this story didn’t meet Chiang’s definition and how at its core it didn’t need Asimov’s techniques because the important questions raised were questions we all face every day, and the two science-fictiony elements, AI and cookies (a sort of telepathic Facebook/Twitter), were substantially familiar to us all, though taken a few steps farther in the story.

And then I read Jim Harris’ post on the story (link below) and was introduced to the term slipstream: a blending of literary fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and whatever else you’ve got. If I were more secure about the definition of the term – or if there were a strict definition, for that matter – I’d argue that the story is too rooted in realism to even be slipstream, but I’ll go with Jim’s far greater experience with science fiction.

It might seem strange to claim realism in a story that starts with this kind of paragraph:

In the Burkharts’ neighborhood the Hughes brand had become the most popular and that’s what the Burkharts had, the Hughes Fully Human: superhigh-mobility musculature, self-growing chassis, real AI, and it was just sort of amazing to watch them change as they grew, from the day you brought them home from the Birthing Unit (along with the two blue nylon suitcases full of accessories and equipment), amazed at how real she looked, but what else would she be but real? And then a few years later this daughter of yours was clinging to your pantleg outside the worn blue doors of the kindergarten wing on the first day of school, afraid to go in, her hair shining in the September sun, her older brother standing in line expressing an airy unconcern, backpacks everywhere, everyone knowing (mostly via conversation, it was very hard to tell just by looking) who was and who wasn’t but you didn’t make such distinctions out loud, it wasn’t polite, and in fact in some sense it really didn’t matter. Your emotional centers were fooled by the physical limitation, and the AI was the real thing, and the growth was to human scales – So what was the difference, anyway? Well, what? It became a philosophical question more than anything, or at least a question to gossip about, which people were always happy to do.
But people had always gossiped about their kids.

Even though Byers’ story features an AI being – the growth and development of which, by the way, brought to mind Chiang’s novella “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” – the issues raised are not only present in contemporary life, they have been part of society for at least hundreds, if not thousands, of years. How do you integrate people who are perceived as very different into society? How much freedom and privacy do you give a child? Can excessive reliance on one ethical criteria be detrimental, and if so, how can various criteria be balanced, and who gets to decide which balance is ethical and which is horrific?

The story follows the Burkharts as they negotiate daily life with their AI daughter Melissa and biological son. With a few exceptions, they could be parents from 2020. But the issue of synth-vs-bio is always present. When, at a casual gathering with neighbors on their porch (ah, the porch, it’s a great scene, alternating between gossip and serious discussion of how AI is working in society, a topic pertinent to all the participants since they all have synth kids), the discussion turns to “would you want your bio kid to marry one?”, they generally agree it’s something that will become more accepted in time. “It wasn’t normal, though. They all knew it. It wasn’t normal yet.” At the Burkharts’ parent-teacher conference, the teacher says Melissa reminds them of her daughter, and they wonder if her daughter is synth or bio. “And all three of them sensed the question hovering there, and none of them spoke it , and then it slowly, very slowly drifted off. Because it didn’t matter. Officially, it didn’t.”

Yes, the AI character throws a science fiction element into the mix, but questions about “mixed marriages” date from the beginning of time, forming over differences in class, religion, race or ethnicity. The unspoken questions about whether someone is or isn’t a member of an outsider group tends to happen around the same classifications, with the addition of sexual identity. The hesitation to bring it up is well-meant, but still signals a level of discomfort. This isn’t science fiction; it’s life.

We see Dad’s contemplation of Melissa’s nature in a single paragraph:

He watched her turn her arm, rotated the owner, the radius, observing her own workings. It either was or was not the case that his daughter was a fully conscious , living creature, in just the way he was, self aware and aware of her own self awareness, unpredictable but bound by physics and probability in the same way he was, capable of originality, prone to certain behaviors, feeling, thinking, erratic, unknowable.
Either was or was not.
And if you couldn’t tell, if nobody could tell – what was the point of wondering?

If you flashed on the “Does Data have a soul?” episode of ST:TNG, welcome to the club. To anyone with a philosophical nature, the point of wondering is everything; better to wonder now, when it isn’t a crucial  moment, than to put it off until you have to decide if destroying a synth is murder. And I think the more important question is: what is the point of not wondering? If you acknowledge a difference, does that mean something about your relationship with your daughter? If you can’t find a difference, what does that mean?

In any case, this parallels discussions from earlier centuries about whether people who look different, who live differently, are people, complete with – yes –  souls, or can be brushed out of the way and/or enslaved. From Aristotle’s natural slaves to The Valladolid debate to eighteenth-century American justifications for slavery, this attempt to define and restrict personhood is not new.

AI itself isn’t something that requires a lot of explanation, either. Granted, we don’t have AI people who grow and interact and can’t be easily distinguished from biological people, but we have self-driving cars and chatbots that handle your customer service issues and refrigerators that order food for you. Not to mention programs that tell you what advertisers and politicians want you to hear. One of my twitter friends has a robotic dog which isn’t exactly AI but it’s trainable. AI is real life, not science fiction.

The other major issue is how closely a parent should watch over a child, known in our era as  helicopter vs free range parenting. Obviously that’s a real-life issue, but it’s tied in with a science fiction element, the cookie. It’s never clearly defined, but the way the characters refer to it, it seems to be some kind of telepathic Facebook or Twitter that can, at maximum setting, record and make available to all followers every thought you have. Or it can be toned down and used more casually, for news and such, and only alert parents when a child is upset or frightened. That’s how the Burkharts keep tabs on their kids.

But what if they turned it off, so they’re no longer in constant touch with everything?

For him, once the cookie was off – completely off – he just felt it as a weird silence. As though he had discovered some new space in the air, a new room, empty, featureless, that had been carved out of his brain. He would turn to it and find nothing. A great quiet.
He missed it most when he was doing dumb stuff around the house – laundry, tidying up the playroom. How natural it had been to flit from music to news to the feed. The whole world carved out of his head, gone.
And when he turned to see the children, they were gone too.

This is a much milder reaction than I have when my internet connection goes out, and I’ve seen people go bonkers when their smart phones are temporarily unavailable. This isn’t a strange other world, either. It is kind of funny when, constantly wondering if the kids are ok without the connection, he thinks, “How had his grandparents done this, exactly?”

The story ends with a much less interesting concept, the Frankensteinian monster destroying its creator. This is made interesting, and connected with the story, in three ways. First, Dad has been insisting throughout that Melissa was created from he and his wife, using as input their brainwaves, social media feeds, personality tests, and genetic data. At times he sees his wife, or himself, in her. The chilling final scene, in which Melissa senses a “firm swipe of rectitude” as she develops a plan, hearkens back to Dad’s confidence when he turns off the cookie: “But he was resolute. This new place. This new sense of himself.” We have met the enemy, they are us indeed. The second way is the more philosophical irony of who gets to determine what is fair, and fair to whom, another issue top on the contemporary charts these days. Just ask someone who won’t wear a mask. The third way is by implying this resolution answers the two previously unresolved issues: how do you integrate the synths, and how much privacy/freedom do you give a child.

I made a craft note as I was reading, a note regarding an example of clunky exposition. Back in the days of TwoP, the board for The West Wing often referred to the exposition fairy, a minute or so of script that would have one of the men explaining some detailed function of government to a woman (hey, it was a great show, but it was as sexist a show as there ever was, whether that was to reflect government or because someone in the writing room had his head up his ass is open for debate). The term Supers comes up a few times, and we’re kind of left in the dark for a while. Dad ends up explaining them to Melissa, noting, “She knew this history, but one thing about kids, you had to repeat things – kids learned something, forgot they had learned it.” Ok, but this kid has an AI brain, you’d think she’d be able to remember. I’d give this one a C-minus. But it’s one brief moment; everything else is handled much more smoothly.

I’d say most of the science-fictiony stories in BASS are actually literary fiction with science fiction elements, including some of my favorites: Téa Obreht’s “Items Awaiting Protective Enclosure” from 2018, Eric Puchner’s “Beautiful Monsters” from 2012,  and “The Great Silence” by Ted Chiang, even though Chiang is a science fiction author. The exception would be Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s “The Era”: it was a science fiction story that used literary fiction themes, and quite successfully.

The image that stays with me after reading this story isn’t AI, isn’t Supers or cookies; it’s that group of neighbors sharing drinks on the porch. Maybe it’s the age of COVID-19, the rarity of such moments right now. Or maybe it’s the universality, like so much of this story.

* * *

Other takes on this story can be found at:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “The nine stages of reading ‘Sibling Rivalry’ by Michael Byers.”

Jim Harris at Auxiliary Memory: “Basically, Byers opens up Pandora’s box and we get to watch several fires start burning.”

BASS 2020: T.C. Boyle, “The Apartment” from McSweeney’s #56

As I creep through Shakespeare’s seven stages of life (I’m now knocking on the door to the final one, “second childishness and mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”), I’ve necessarily become more attuned to the vicissitudes of old age, and notions, however transparent, of eternity. This is where Jeanne Calment (1875 – 1997) comes into the picture. Madame Calment was the longest lived human being in recorded history, having continued to live, breathe, and pump blood into her one hundred and twenty-third year. What would it be like, I wondered, to live that long? Would it be a burden or a daily revivifying challenge to beat the odds, especially as one competitor or another shuffled off the mortal coil? The historical figure of Jeanne Calment, by virtue of her astonishing longevity, has already morphed into the mythological, and it was that mythological status I’ve wanted to explore.

T. C. Boyle, Contributor Note

I had a historical reaction to this story as well, but of a different sort. I thought, it’s the kind of story Poe might write, if he were smoking pot instead of taking laudanum. I was gratified to see Jim Harris’ post on the story mentioned Poe as well. Then I looked at Jake Weber’s post, and he mentioned O. Henry, leading me to think: Yes, it’s the sort of story O. Henry might have written, in the days before he happened upon the clever twist ending that characterized his famous works.

I found it quite engaging most of the way through; the characters of Madame C. and Monsieur R. have life and energy and wit; there’s a good deal of subtle symbolism and irony. But the resolution was ultimately unsatisfying, resulting in a rather plaintive, “That’s it?”

The story rests on the French practice known as viager: I find an older person with a home I like, and pay them a set amount monthly for the rest of their life in return for receiving title to the property when they die. If they die in two months, I’ve made quite a deal; if they live for decades, not so much. The key is obviously to pick someone who is likely to die soon. It seems to me it’s pretty cold-blooded to extend such an offer – and very creepy to receive it. But that’s a literal reading, and the story turns it into something else.

So we have Monsieur R., who has a reasonably nice life and a perfectly fine apartment in Arles, but his family includes two teenagers who play their annoying music all day long (“the Beatles, the Animals, the Kinks” – dates are given in the story, but it’s always fun to recognize chronology by references within the text) and he’s got his eye on Madame C.’s larger and more pleasantly located apartment. So he sends a note to her to discuss “a matter of mutual interest”:

As far as he knew – and he’d put in his research on the subject – she had no heirs. She’d been a bride once, and a mother too, and she’d lived within these four walls and paced these creaking floorboards for an astonishing sixty-nine years, ever since she returned from her honeymoon, in 1896, and moved in here with her husband, a man of means, who had owned the department store on the ground floor and had given her a life of ease. Anything she wanted was at the fingertips. She hosted musical parties, vacation in the Alps, skied, bicycled, hunted and fished, lived through the German occupation and the resumption of the Republic without noticing all that much difference in her daily affairs, but of course no one gets through life unscathed. Her only child, a daughter, had died of pneumonia in 1934, after which she and her husband had assumed guardianship of their grandson, until first her husband died unexpectedly (after eating a dish of fresh-picked cherries that had been dusted with copper sulfate and inadequately rinsed), and then her grandson, whom she’d seen through medical school and who had continued to live with her as her sole companion and emotional support. He was only thirty-six when he was killed in an auto accident on a deserted road, not two years ago.

The cherries, coupled with the general tendency of everyone around her to die, made me wonder if something else was going on here, so that was a bit of a Chekhov’s Gun that, in spite of being mentioned a second time in more detail, it never went off. Seeing this as a human story, it should generate some compassion for this woman who has lost everyone in her family, but the tone is more bantering than tragic so it doesn’t really connect in that way. By the way, this would make a great Intro to Writing assignment on the importance of tone: rewrite a few paragraphs as tragedy.

Madame C.’s reaction to Monsieur R.’s offer of 2000 francs per month is not, however, tragic: she ups it to 2500. Here I am all ready for introspection on aging, or how others view one as aging and headed for the great beyond, and instead, we have a businesslike approach. Turns out it’s more than that:

Twenty-five hundred francs! Truly, this man had come into her like an angel from heaven – and what’s more, he never even hesitated when she countered his offer….Best of all, even beyond the money, was the wager itself. If she’d been lost after Frederick had been taken from her, now she was found. Now – suddenly, wonderfully – purpose had come back into her life.

Now this is pretty cool: she turns the assumption underlying his offer into motivation to stay alive, not for the joy of living, but as a kind of bet. Competitive lady, she is.

Monsieur R. wants to stack the deck, so he visits her fairly often, bringing chocolates, cognac, cigarettes, and all manner of decadent foods. Fondue with pork rinds? Really? To my surprise, I see this is popular with keto-dieters looking to avoid bread. I can barely handle the fat in a peanut butter sandwich, and they’re eating cheese over pork rinds:

At first he’d come every week or two, his arms laden with gifts – liquor, sweets, cigarettes, foie gras, quiche, even a fondue once, replete with crusts of bread, marbled beef, and crépitements de porc – but eventually the visits grew fewer and further between. Which was a pity, really, because she’d come to relish the look of confusion and disappointment on his face when he found her in such good spirits, matching him chocolate for chocolate, drink for drink, and cigarette for cigarette. “Don’t think for a minute you’re fooling me, monsieur,” she would say to him as they sat at the coffee table laden with delicacies, and Martine bustled back and forth from the salon to the kitchen and sometimes even took a seat with them and dug in herself. “You’re a sly one, aren’t you?” He would shrug elaborately, laugh, and throw up his hands as if to say, Yes you see through me, but you can’t blame a man for trying, can you? She would smile back at him. She found herself growing fond of him, in the way you’d grow fond of a cat that comes up periodically to rub itself against your leg – and then hands you twenty-five hundred francs.

The cat is the perfect cherry on top of that section. Really, this is why I say I truly enjoyed reading it until the end: it’s a marvelous scene, and they’re wonderful characters, pitted against each other in this way. Another neatly ironic twist is that Monsieur R. resumes unhealthy habits he’d quit years earlier once he starts visiting Madame C. and tempting her with all sorts of deleterious delights, leaving him hoisted by his own petard. I was all set to love this story – but in the end, I couldn’t.

I hadn’t realized until I read Jake’s post that this was based on the very real Jeanne Calmet, who lived to 124, well outliving the lawyer who made a viager deal with her, and never lived to collect. In fact, his estate had to keep paying Calmet until her death. But alas, in converting this to a story, the ending didn’t work. Yes, there’s a victory, and a Pyrrhic one at that, and all sorts of delicious irony, and maybe that should be enough. But, at least in this case, for me it wasn’t.

Compare this with Boyle’s story “The Five Pound Burrito” which I read  in Pushcart 2017. That, too, was fun to read, but the ending made it satisfying as well. Boyle is like that for me: sometimes he hits me square in the heart, sometimes not. Then again, most writers are like that, aren’t they.  Again I think of what Sittenfeld wrote in her Intro: I see all kinds of great stuff in here, and I understand what he was doing, but it’s just not to my taste. I need more from an ending. I’m greedy that way.

* * *

Other takes on this story: 

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “The problem is that this isn’t really a natural way for the story that’s on the page to end.”

Jim Harris at Auxiliary Memory: “This year I’m digging through BASS 2020 looking for something. I’m not sure what, but just being a well written story it’s not.”

BASS 2020: Selena Anderson, “Godmother Tea” from Oxford American #106

OA Art by Ebony G. Patterson:
“Duppy Treez”
When you look in a mirror you see yourself, but you also see a mess of other people who came before. Simply by looking, you are reconciling yourself in a long line of these folks. I’ve wanted to play with this idea of being your ancestor’s greatest dream – I keep seeing T-shirts that say this. But when you’re young and struggling, you’re more likely to think they’re disappointed. The godmother is an extension of what Joy is both seeing and avoiding. She’s basically there to cook amazing meals and to give cutting straight talk. The horrible thing isn’t so much hearing an important person’s worst opinion of you as it is feeling your own body agree with them. Joy is in a spell where moments like this are happening on loop. She eventually gets beyond it, but none of that resolution stuff was up to her either.

Selena Anderson, Contributor Note

Tired: The Midlife Crisis

Wired: The Just-Starting-Out-and-Getting-Nowhere-Fast crisis.

The first section of this story contains hints of everything that’s to follow. I felt that as I read it, before I had any idea how the rest of it was going to go. Hints like:

  • Messy presents. Oh, yeah, presents that come with strings, with expectations, that tell you what to like, how to live. Presents worse than a basket of kittens in terms of how much they’ll require.
  • A preference for an empty apartment, but one that’s filled with stuff from other people, filled with those messy presents. “Now there was hardly any space to move around.” Think about that:  all this stuff from other people gets in Joy’s way. Gets in the way of joy.
  • The mirror that doubles all that stuff: “My reflection belonged to too many other people.” No room for Joy in that mirror.
Even my people who are still living don’t let me suffer the way I want to. A lot of them, much older and less bothered than myself, express pride in the way I’m turning out. My mother’s friends talk about me like I was a dish that was difficult to get just right, but the special ingredients of an elite social circle, good home training, and private education have turned me into a well-spoken young woman full of potential.
Complete story available online at Oxford American

And Joy’s mom, proud of her daughter, maybe proud of having raised this well-spoken, potential-laden women, still reminds her when she’s “sounding too white.” Boy, that’s a tough needle to thread.

This existential who-am-I-and-how-should-I-be-in-the-world psychological problem is made more concrete by three other elements of the story. Joy’s long-time friend, Nicole, has begun pulling away. The reasons are a bit hazy, but I get the impression Nicole is doing really well and wants to move on to bigger and better things, including new friends that live in gated communities and give ritzy parties. Joy looks back on her relationship with Nicole and sees something she never thought about before: “But what made us last was that when we were together, it felt like we were speaking a special language. Looking back, I think that maybe I had just learned to speak her way.”

The second concretization comes in the form of André, the ex-boyfriend. It seems she dumped him when he “had neglected to propose marriage when I’d felt the time was right.” It’s unclear if there was a discussion about the time being right or not, or if she just got tired of waiting. I’m not taking anything for granted here. In any case, André has a new girlfriend named Porche, which brings to mind a lifestyle upgrade similar to Nicole’s.

The third concrete example of her identity crisis is more mundane but the most blatant: “[M]y driver’s license was so badly expired that now it was actually becoming difficult to prove that I was myself.” Interestingly, I remember another story where a lost driver’s license carried the symbolism of identity confusion for a character, a story from BASS 2017 written by… BASS 2020 guest editor Curtis Sittenfeld.

Joy makes efforts to fix the three things in her life: she goes to a party with Nicole, sleeps with André, and goes to the DMV to renew her license. None of these things work. Again, the driver’s license is the most clear symbol: it’s Sunday – Easter Sunday, in fact – and of course the DMV is closed. Her disconnect with time aside, that’s about as real as failure to recover gets.

The godmother could be seen as the amalgamation of mother, ancestors, all the other people crowded in the living room via their belongings, the whole world, but also a rescuer, someone to show Joy the way out. But, since she’s a product of Joy’s imagination, I prefer to think of her as Joy’s conflicted vision: she moves from how others see her, to how she wants to see herself, via a cup of tea Godmother – er, well, Joy’s projection of Godmother – makes for her. And via a prayer:

I was so confused that I started to pray. I prayed that my past loves would feel distant to the point of disappearing. I prayed that I could accept living a life without happiness, that I would make friends who shared this view, that I would not drink too much or become too bitter. I wanted so badly to be in harmony with the city I called home and with my time on this earth and for this to show in my face and the way I talked. And if none of this was meant to be, I prayed that I wouldn’t want it in the first place, that I would be turned into a different girl completely. That’s when things turned around for me. I couldn’t say exactly when it happened, but the godmother was gone.

The last three paragraphs again concretize this discovery of identity via an orange dress and the gift of a Dr. Pepper. Hey, read the story, it makes sense.

This resolution feels a little too abrupt for me. I’ve always been fond of the line from the film Postcards from the Edge: “Growing up isn’t like in a movie where you have a realization and life changes. In life, you have a realization and your life changes a month or so later.” But this a short story, not a novel, so there’s limited space, and time, to work with. The dress and the drink are just first steps; maybe she’ll get rid of the mirror in a month.

What this story does quite effectively is make themes real via symbols. Sometimes the symbols are subtle, sometimes less so. And of course each element brings in other things with it.

While a lot of the story is about racial identity – which is a whole thing in itself, why is eloquence seen as the province of white people? – I found myself strongly identifying with a lot of Joy’s problem areas. I spent way too long trying to be what other people kept telling me I needed to be. I’ve learned to speak other people’s languages and taken up their interests in order to form relationships that were too one-sided to last. And, oh, the  messy presents I’ve collected. Rejecting them at the time of offer is often painful and, sure, messy, but it’s better than keeping a basket of kittens you really don’t want, just because someone left them on your doorstep.

Other takes on the story can be found at:

Cut to BASS in the Crazy Year 2020

For better or worse, we read fiction in the context of our ongoing lives. It is difficult to write about this moment – even this moment in the American short story – without mentioning the altered and frankly scary state of the world right now.

Heidi Pitlor, Foreword

I’m normally pretty quick out of the gate on BASS, but these aren’t normal times.  Instead of asking my local bookstore put a copy aside for me so I can run over and grab it on release day, I ordered by mail. While PortlandME mail delivery has been superb even in these times of sabotage, it’s not instantaneous; the book arrived on Friday. I planned to write this post on Saturday, but then Saturday happened, and it was difficult to get anything done. My apartment overlooks the street that serves as Portland’s main drag, and from noon until about 9pm, there was honking and cheering and shouting and celebratory music. It was wonderful, and I couldn’t tear myself away from it to get work done. Until the Four Seasons thing, which added a badly needed note of goofy hilarity to 2020. So I figured, Sunday would do, except that was the day Alex Trebek left us. It’s ridiculous to feel so attached to someone I really don’t know, but Alex has been part of my life for a half hour a day, five days a week, for decades, and his public acknowledgment of his experience with cancer has touched many of us. This Monday has been quiet so far, but 2020 has been full of surprises, so I’d better get this done while I can focus.

In her Foreword, Pitlor refers to Rebecca Makkai’s 2018 Electric Literature essay “The World’s On Fire. Can We Still Talk About Books?” as a way of defending a discourse some might call frivolous when life, death, and democracy are in the balance. It’s a wonderful article – “Art is a radical act. Joy is a radical act. This is how we keep fighting. This is how we survive” –  and even more pertinent now that COVID-19 is cancelling book tours and bookshop readings and closing music and theater venues all over. Look at all that has blossomed in the past few months: unique performances on social media, innovative ways to perform without venues. Buying books, reading books, talking about them, getting others excited about them, creating new readers: these are not just aesthetic choices, but are defenses against despair, and can even be defended from the economic point of view. So many joys had to be bypassed this year; reading doesn’t have to be one of them.

Last year, I proclaimed Anthony Doerr’s Introduction to be the most charmingly engaging since 2010. Now Curtis Sittenfeld comes along with an Intro that’s completely different in style – more real-talk straightforward – but is every bit as personal and delightful as it outlines her experience reading for this edition of BASS and why she chose the stories she did. She makes the all-important point that there is a difference between “Your writing is not at all to my taste” and “This is garbage.”

Since 1992, I’ve dipped in and out of reading The Best American Short Stories; during various years I’ve read all of the stories, none of them, and some of them. In some years I thought a high proportion of the stories were outstanding. In other years I thought, I guess not that many good stories were published this year. At the time I assumed that, as with grapes made into wine, certain crops of stories were better or worse than others, but I now suspect this isn’t accurate. Instead it’s probably that the idiosyncratic taste of a guest editor is sometimes more and sometimes less aligned with my own idiosyncratic taste as a reader.

Curtis Sittenfeld, Introduction

I think I’ve become considerably better at recognizing when a story is perfectly fine, but not my thing (Westerns and slacker stories, for example). I’ve been less successful at distinguishing between a story that I love because it fits me perfectly, and a good story; I’m probably overly fond of some borderline stuff, but so what. Let’s face it, the stories in BASS have been selected three times: once by the original publication, once by Pitlor, and once by the guest editor. I’m sure there are a few that benefit from name recognition or because they were part of a hot collection; this seemed particularly evident to me last year. But they’re still good stories; maybe not the best that author has written, maybe not the best in that popular collection, but still worth reading, even if they aren’t my particular taste. And, as Sittenfeld goes on to say of herself, I’ve found that I can truly enjoy certain Westerns and slackers stories, in spite of myself.

Stylistically, I particularly like that Sittenfeld has clearly delineated, via individual short paragraphs, a brief account of her reason for choosing each story. Every guest editors’ introduction gives some kind of hat tip to individual stories, but they’re often scattered through several paragraphs and, as someone who looks at these comments after I read the story, I often have trouble finding the comment on a particular story. This is so much better.

Browsing through the table of contents, I find the usual mix of familiar names (Boyle, Cline, Gaitskill) and those new to me. I also find a story I’ve already read, the title story from Jason Brown’s collection A Faithful But Melancholy Account of Several Barbarities Lately Committed. I’m interested to see what T. C. Boyle is up to, sometimes I get him, sometimes not; I’m a little worried about Gaitskill, she is one of those different-taste writers, but maybe she’ll surprise me; I’m intrigued by the title of Jane Pek’s story, “The Nine-Tailed Fox Explains.” Hey, I’m intrigued by all of them.

Jake Weber has already started his series of blog posts about these stories; as usual, he’s a little quicker on the draw than I am. I’m glad to see Jim Harris will also be sharing his thoughts via his blog; last year he did a single post summarizing the stories he’d read, I’m eager to see what he comes up with this year. And Ben Walpole of has told me he also plans to work on these stories. He’s been blogging short stories, new and old, for years, and has the unique approach of selecting one “magic trick” a writer uses that makes a story work. I’m looking forward to his comments. [Addendum: I apologize for omitting Andrew Stancek, who has joined in via commenting on posts Jake and I have made in the past. On at least two occasions, those comments changed my read of the story, so they’re well worth reading]

It’s time to get reading, that radical, joyful act.

Closing out the In-Between Reading for 2020

The photos above are fake news. Oh, the photos themselves are real enough; that is my TBR shelf, then and now. But the story the photos tell isn’t a completely accurate record of my reading. Some books were added to the shelf after the first photo, but didn’t get read. Some books aren’t there any more, but they weren’t read; they turned out to be mistakes, and they’re now on other shelves, awaiting another try some day. But, though not precise, the idea remains: I did a lot of reading over the last six months.

Twenty-nine books, to be exact (see them all here). I’ve never been been one to count, but somehow it made sense now. I’ve categorized them in different ways. First, by overall genre, the easiest classification:

  • Philosophy:   5
  • Other Non-fiction:   7
  • Short Story Collections:  8
  • Novels:  9

Then, by source: where did I get the idea to read these books? Pushcart and BASS often send me reading other works by authors, and sometimes research turns up interesting ideas. Twitter includes a host of subsources: various literary websites, writers and reviewers mentioning books they’ve read, etc. And this year, I made an effort to include some science fiction:

  • Pushcart- and BASS-inspired:  7
  • Twitter-inspired:  6
  • Big New Books:   2
  • Reading-list (catching up on the canon) books:  3
  • Science Fiction/Fantasy:      4

If that doesn’t add up to 29, well, sometimes I don’t remember, and some things were impulse buys.

Then by the rating I gave them on Goodreads. These are very flimsy; had I read the exact same book at a different time, I might have rated it differently. Some days I’m in a hypercritical mood; apologies to those authors whose books happen to fall on those days.

  • 3-star:   1
  • 4-star:  13
  • 5-star:  15

I had a great time.

Then there were the mistakes: the books I didn’t read enough of to post about. I made more mistakes this year than in prior years, maybe because I bought more books. Hey, if you don’t make occasional mistakes, you’re probably too risk-averse and are missing out on some great books. At least that’s what I tell myself.

I tried poetry again; when will I learn? But I saw a tweet with Stephen Dunn’s “Different Hours”, a wonderful poem (“Only the facts saved her”) and thought, maybe this time. But no. There were a few other poems I understood in there, but not enough to write a post about. Sorry.

I also experimented with a new technique of book selection. I’d read a couple of books from a small publisher, and thought I’d check out a couple of their titles; one turned out to have a great premise, which is why I got it, but was one of the most boring books I’d ever read. The other was just too weird. I knew it was weird when I got it, that’s why I got it, but there’s weird and there’s weird, and I just couldn’t do that much weird. Hey, sometimes experiments work out; sometimes they don’t.

I used to read a lot of medical books; that is, “how I became a doctor” books, or “the story of my husband’s/son’s/mother’s/my illness”. Maybe medical books have changed; maybe I have, because the two medical books I tried to read were a bust. One turned out to be all about the doctor, not the medicine. Another was just too simple. Maybe that’s the thing: considering you can pretty much take the classroom courses of medical school via moocs and Youtube, medicine isn’t that much of a mystery any more.

A Reading List Book discouraged me from the opening scene, and was much too long to persevere. A book I bought because the author had a delightful podcast turned out to be bogged down in parental minutiae; not being a parent, I got bored and lost track of who’s who. These, and the others, were all worthwhile mistakes. Even the poetry. My theory: if you’re not making a certain number of mistakes, you’re missing out on a bunch of really great books.

One notable sign-of-the-times: I included more recently-published books than usual, and ordered a far greater percentage from my local independent bookseller rather than waiting for second-hand prices or using library copies. Part of that is my desire to support a local business that’s been hit hard by COVID-19. And part is the result of having moved to a much less expensive apartment a year and a half ago, thus having more money for things like books.

And now I’m done. Not really, of course. One of the books still on my shelf is a large anthology of science fiction from the 50s to the 70s; I can pick away at that while I read BASS and Pushcart. I have another History of Philosophy book that lends itself to reading in short segments, and a medieval history that’s the same. And of course there are always books coming across various feeds. Just today, xkcd reminded me of one already on my list (Because Internet) and added another (A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear). So many books, so little time! Oh well, there’s always next year. And it looks like there will be a next year, after all.

But now it’s time for BASS 2020. It’s not here yet, but it’s on its way. Patience. As with so many things.

Richard E. Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children (Harcourt Harvest, 2003)

Once upon a time in the West, in Spain, to be exact, a collection of documents that had lain in darkness for more than one thousand years was brought to light, and the effects of the discovery were truly revolutionary. Aristotle’s books were the medieval Christians’ star-gate. For Europeans of the High Middle Ages, the dramatic reappearance of the Greek philosopher’s lost works was an event so unprecedented and of such immense impact as to be either miraculous or diabolical, depending on one points of view. The knowledge contained in these manuscripts was “hard” as well as “soft,” and it was remarkably comprehensive. Some three thousand  pages of material ranging over the whole spectrum of learning from biology and physics to logic, psychology, ethics, and political science seemed to be a bequest from a superior civilization.
Or, I should say, from two superior civilizations. For Aristotle’s books were not discovered written in Greek and stored in clay jars, but written in Arabic and housed in the libraries of the great universities at Baghdad, Cairo, Toledo, and Cordoba. After the fall of the Roman Empire and the collapse of order in Europe, the works of Aristotle and other Greek scientists became the intellectual property of the prosperous and enlightened Arab civilization that ruled the great southern crescent extending from Persia to Spain. As a result, when Western Europeans translated these works into Latin with the help of Muslim and Jewish scholars, they also translated the works of their leading Islamic and Jewish interpreters, world-class philosophers like Avicenna, Averroës, and Moses Maimonides.


This dramatic prologue sets the stage for Rubenstein’s primary discussion of the intellectual history of twelfth- and thirteenth- century Europe. He begins further back, with Aristotle himself and then the workings of the fourth- and fifth-century Church, to explain the foundations of the Church as we move into this period of focus, and show the impact the re-discovery of some of Aristotle’s texts – for some of them had been long extant and merely overshadowed by Neoplatonism – on theology, on science, and on history itself, as all these areas are interlinked. While adding a dash of dramatic flair, Rubenstein’s use of the Star-gate analogy (referring to Arthur C. Clarke’s use of the term in 2001: A Space Odyssey) is not merely rhetorical. One of his points is that, just as Clarke’s star-gate was located in a place that humanity could only reach at a certain level of functioning, a culture chooses its primary mode of intellectual investigation depending on the ethos of the time:

To comprehend this choice, it helps to recognize that, in some periods of history, Plato’s ideas and attitudes make obvious sense to thinking people, while in others, Aristotle’s vision of the world seems far more realistic and inspiring. In Aristotelian epochs, economic growth, political expansion, and cultural optimism color the intellectual atmosphere. People feel connected to each other and to the natural world. Confident that they can direct their emotions instead of being dominated by them, they are generally comfortable with their humanity. Proud of their ability to understand how things work, they believe that they can make use of nature and improve society…. Curiosity and sociability are their characteristic virtues, egoism and complacency their most common vices.
Platonic eras, by contrast, are filled with discomfort and longing. The source of this discomfort is a sense of contradiction dramatised by personal and social conflicts that seem all but unresolvable. Society is fractured, its potential integrity disrupted by violent strife, and this brokenness is mirrored in the souls of individuals. People feel divided against themselves – not ruled by reason but driven by uncontrollable instincts and desires. The universe as a whole may not be evil, but it is far from what it should be….They believe that a better and truer self, society, and universe await them on the other side of some necessary transformation. Earthly life is therefore a pilgrimage, a stern quest whose pursuit generates the virtues of selflessness, endurance, and imagination. The characteristic Neoplatonic vices (the dark side of its virtues) our self hatred, intolerance, and fanaticism.

Chapter 2: The Murder of “Lady Philosophy”

He supports this view with a look at the periods involved:  the optimism in the eleventh and twelfth centuries as economies and populations grew, and the decline of Aristotelian inquiry by the thirteenth century when even the weather stopped cooperating (the beginning of the “Little Ice Age”) and growth slowed and stopped.

Rubenstein tells his story by tracing the lives of various thinkers, from Aristotle himself, to Augustine and Boethius, and then to the main cast beginning with Peter Abelard and Anselm, moving on to Thomas Aquinas and finishing with William of Ockham. Various groups also feature prominently: the Dominicans and Franciscans, the Picardy Nation, the Cathars. Then there are the popes and other ecclesiastical leaders, and the academic institutions: the early School at Notre Dame, the University of Paris.

One of his primary points is that all this takes place within the Catholic Church. This is in contrast to the usual mindset that the Church squelched all scientific inquiry. Not so, shows Rubenstein: a great deal of effort was expended to find a way to bring reason and faith into a relationship, one laden with creative tension:

The belief shared by virtually all medieval scholars that, in case of conflict, faith trumped reason clearly had limiting effects on scientific inquiry. …For the most part, however, the attitude of Catholic intellectuals toward scientific research was remarkably sanguine. Although they agreed that the faith must at all costs be preserved, both Dominicans and Franciscans, teaching friars and secular masters, assumed that what the researchers were discovering by using their senses and their reason was real, and that religion would have to come to terms with it. The great issue, in other words, was not whether inquiring into nature’s workings was a good thing or a bad thing. It was a good thing, since both reason and nature were from God. The issue was how to define the proper territory and boundaries of the religious and scientific (“philosophical”) modes of inquiry, how to establish a healthy relationship between them.

Chapter 5: Aristotle and the Teaching Friars

This setting of boundaries makes up a great deal of the central portion of the book. At times, teaching of certain Aristotelian precepts was banned. Some theological notions were considered matters of faith, particularly the nature of God and of salvation through Christ. Aristotle’s idea (supported by Averroës but challenged by Maimonides) that the universe was eternal was never accepted, as that would have implications leading to something like pantheism. And so on.

Rubenstein uses the metaphor of marriage between faith and reason to explore the dual approach to inquiry. Thus, he sees Thomas Aquinas as a kind of marriage counselor, trying to keep the duality together, with William of Ockham as the judge granting the divorce decree on the grounds of simplicity:

Ockham’s razor, on the other hand, implied that the task undertaken by Thomas – the attempt to construct a unitary system capable explaining both natural and divine things – was impossible. Behind his call for simplicity, in other words, lay a conviction that natural science and theology must go their separate ways. On the science side, there are concepts and methods derived from experience and processed by reason that help us to understand the natural world and the world of human society. On the theology side, there are doctrines revealed by Scripture or the Church that help us to understand God and what he requires of us. From Ockham’s point of view, Thomas had made a hash of things by conflating the two realms of understanding. His system had mystified nature. Worse yet, by claiming that we could reason our way to an understanding of God’s attributes and intentions, it had demystified God. The job of the new school of philosophers theologians, as William saw it, was to reverse this mistake – that is, to demystify nature and remystify God.

Chapter 7: The Divorce of Faith and Reason

Rubenstein ends by looking at why today we see the Middle Ages as anti-science, in spite of this attempt to integrate reason into faith, and how the relationship might be improved in the present age by  understanding the difficulties of the past.

The use of story-telling technique and metaphors make this a far more readable book than it might be, considering the detail of history and philosophy included. I found it remarkably clarifying in the brief but clear explanation of the heresies of early Christianity: Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism. It might just be that I was ready to absorb that material, having encountered it before; like the theory that a culture is primed for Neoplatonism or Aristoteliansim by its nature, I was primed by prior reading. It does get quite complicated when it comes to the politics of the Church, at least for someone, like me, who isn’t that familiar with such things.

This was my first detailed encounter with the faith-reason interaction, and with some of the persons mentioned within. I’ve heard of Peter Abelard in connection with Heloise; while that story is a pretty wild ride, Abelard’s philosophic-religious journey is none the less exciting, and I’d like to know more about that. Anselm, as well, interests me. These two predated the release of the Latin translations of the Aristotelian documents, but they were on the way to science – or reason, or natural philosophy, whichever term works – in their day. The Cathars are described as a kind of puritanical gang, and I’m interested in them as well. I’ve never really understood the Orders, the Dominicans and Franciscans, and so that’s something else I need to learn more about.

This book goes nicely with Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, another tale of a “lost” intellectual document found. I remember there was significant push-back on that book, since it portrayed the late Middle Ages as anti-intellectual, and rescued by Lucretius. That makes these two books somewhat in tension with each other. And, just as Rubenstein credits the tension between reason and faith as generating great creative energy and discovery, so this tension between the two books inspires me to find out more.

I found out about this book in the first place through Edith Hall’s recommendation on Five Books, a site I highly recommend, by the way. I’ve discovered several interesting reads through them this year since I started following them on Twitter instead of waiting for some other account I follow to retweet them. I find them most useful for nonfiction, since I have numerous sources for fiction, but it’s always fun to see what different people recommend.

Firoozeh Dumas, Funny in Farsi (RH, 2004)

Together, my relatives form an alliance that represents a genuine and enduring love of family, one that sustains them through difficulties and gives them reasons to celebrate during good times. ….Before I married Francois, I told him that I came with a tribe – a free set of ginsu knives with every purchase, so to speak. Francois said that he loved tribes, especially mine. Now, whenever we visit my relatives, all of whom dote on my husband, I realized that he didn’t marry me despite my tribe, he married me because of them. Without my relatives, I am but a thread; together, we form a colorful and elaborate Persian carpet.

As I read this book, I kept thinking of Cheaper by the Dozen, the charmingly humorous family story written  (don’t even talk to me about the movies) by two of the grown-up Gilbreth children about childhood in their very large family in the early 20th century. On the surface, these are very different families, but the books paint a similar picture: life has its ups and downs, and in the moment some things can seem embarrassing or even scary, but from a distance, it’s the family connection that makes it all ok. Dumas has written, sure enough, a charmingly humorous family story, if in a much drier voice.

Dumas’ father first came to the US as a Fulbright scholar, then as a grad student, and later, with his family on work assignment as a petroleum engineer for an Iranian oil company. All of this was before most Americans had ever heard of Iran, that is, before the 1979 hostage crisis. The family later moved here and became citizens. This is their story; instead of the huge family of Cheaper as a central point, it’s their transit between cultures that serves as the rail the story rides on.

Dumas begins with her experience of entering second grade:

To facilitate my adjustment, the principle arranged for us to meet my new teacher, Mrs. Sandberg, a few days before I started school. Since my mother and I did not speak English, the meeting consisted of a dialogue between my father and Mrs. Sandberg. My father carefully explained that I had attended a prestigious kindergarten where all the children were taught English. Eager to impress Mrs. Sandberg, he asked me to demonstrate my knowledge of the English language. I stood up straight and proudly recited all that I knew: “White, yellow, orange, red, purple, blue, green.”
The following Monday, my father drove my mother and me to the school. He had decided it would be a good idea for my mother to attend school with me for a few weeks. I could not understand why two people not speaking English would be better than one, but I was seven, and my opinion didn’t matter much.

Language, as you might expect, features in many of the anecdotes. “Thanks to my father’s translations, we stayed away from hot dogs, catfish, and hush puppies, and no amount of caviar in the sea would have convinced us to try mudpie.”   When Dumas, now fluent in English, gets separated from her parents at Disneyland, the staff tries to get her to translate for other lost children who don’t speak English, not really caring that they don’t speak Persian either. This was, remember, a long time ago. What I found really hilarious about the Disneyland episode had nothing to do with language: in an attempt to find her parents, staff asked Dumas what they were wearing. “No seven-year-old, except maybe a young Giorgio Armani, could tell you what his parents were wearing on a given day.”

Her father features in many of Dumas’ stories. She mentions in the Afterword included in this paperback edition that she hadn’t realized, as she was writing, how central he was, and still isn’t sure how that happened. Interestingly, the father is the most dominant character in Cheaper as well. I see a lot of parallels between Frank Gilbreth Sr. and Dumas’ father (he asked her not to use her maiden name as she wrote the book, then asked why she hadn’t used it when the book was published). In many ways he seems like any American father: he loves Denny’s, Las Vegas, and fancies himself a handyman:

[H]e purchased and installed a medicine cabinet in our bathroom while my husband and I were at work. Perhaps if it hadn’t been hung crooked, François would not have been so upset.
During his next visit, my father secretly decided that our bathroom needed towel hooks. Using nails that were too long, my father pierced the door, creating towel hooks on one side, medieval blinding devices on the other. My husband has since taken the situation into his own hands, hiding all our screwdrivers and hammers before my parents visit.

Other anecdotes involve Dumas’ childhood in Iran, her father’s year as a Fulbright scholar in Texas, her summer of language study in France, her multicultural wedding. We also meet some other family members, including Uncle Nematollah, who decided to lose weight gained via the Colonel’s finger-lickin’-good chicken and the many flavors of Baskin-Robbins, by ordering a silver “weight-reduction suit” advertised on late-night TV:

The instructions stated that the outfit had to be worn for 20 minutes before each meal, during which the wearer was supposed to engage in some form of exercise. My uncle decided to speed the weight loss process by wearing his moon suit all day. He thought nothing of circling the block endlessly, leaving neighbors wondering whether perhaps he was looking for the mother ship. Dressed for a jaunt on Venus, he strolled to the supermarket, the hardware store, and everywhere else he needed to go. Unable to understand English, he had apparently forgotten the international meaning of stares as well. Kids at school asked me about the strange guy who was staying with us. In terms of weirdness, my family I were now off charts.

There are stories of adjustment, of fitting Persian traditions to their new home. The holiday Nowruz celebrates the first day of Spring, and is about a big a deal in Iran as Christmas is in the States. Of course, Christmas isn’t much of a holiday for the family, though when she married, Dumas found delight in gingerbread and decorations. Then there are the celebrations that don’t translate that easily, but where there’s a will, there’s a way:

The Persians, like the Romans and Greeks before them, believe in slaughtering a lamb when something good happens. This is supposed to ward off the evil eye…. Iranians in America have had to tweak this tradition a bit. Slaughtering a lamb on one’s front porch in Los Angeles might not do much for the neighborhood, so when something good happens that calls for a lamb slaughter, who ya gonna call? Relatives in Iran, that’s who. Lambs are now slaughtered long distance and distributed to the poor in Iran. Your son bought a Lexus? There goes a lamb. The grandson graduated from UCLA law school? Don’t forget the lamb.

The book is more a collection of anecdotes than a consecutive narrative, which is appropriate for the style. This isn’t an in-depth examination of The Immigrant Experience or of Iranian-American relations;, it’s a fun family story that sometimes brushes by deeper issues – political, cultural, and social – along the way. While it follows a general chronological sequence, there are a lot of digressions, so it’s a bit hard to reconstruct the family’s life, which included several moves from Iran to the US and within the US. But as a charming family story, it works very well – well enough to have generated a sequel, Laughing Without an Accent, and a semi-autobiographical children’s novel, It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel.

Rebecca Buxton, Lisa Whiting, Eds.: The Philosopher Queens (Unbound, 2020)

In the pages that follow, we intentionally adopt a broad definition of ‘philosopher’ as we believe that part of the reason why women have historically been excluded from our discipline is because many of them have instead been considered activists or ‘learned ladies’. This has led to a prevailing image of the white male philosopher thinking from his armchair. Instead, it’s time to recognize the clear intellectual rigor, questioning and insight that makes these women worthy of the ‘philosopher’ title.
The authors and subjects in this book come from many different backgrounds with their own unique ideas, experiences and histories. The philosophers written about here are complex, challenging, often inspiring, and sometimes deeply problematic. However, they all contribute an important element to our understanding philosophy.


If you ask a random person at a party to name a philosopher, chances are – well, ok, chances are they’ll move very far away from you and go find someone normal, but the ones who would play would probably go for Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, maybe Nietzsche if they were into goth. You’d have to go a long way before anyone came up with a female name. As students undergoing advanced training in philosophy, Buxton and Whiting noticed most philosophical histories and anthologies skipped over the women as well, including maybe one or two, often in a perfunctory or referential manner. They thought they might want to change that, so they collected a team of contemporary women in philosophy, and put together this readable introduction to twenty lovers of wisdom you might want to know more about.

The title plays off Plato’s use of Philosopher Kings in The Republic, the wise men who should be leading countries rather than relying on heredity or political power (and don’t contemporary events make that sound like an idea whose time came long ago). The entries, arranged chronologically by the philosophers’ birth dates, are rather short – four to six pages – and are intended to highlight the lives and works of women who have contributed to philosophy over the last couple of millennia. They’re all jumping-off points, chapters that might interest you enough to find out more.

The book is a lovely physical object, put together with thought and care. It’s heavier than you might expect for a book its size, probably because the paper is thicker than usual, possibly to provide the appropriate substrate for the illustrations. Illustrations? Yes – each entry includes a full-color illustration by Emmy Smith of the philosopher under consideration. Most of the illustrations are backed by rich block-color pages; whether that’s to prevent bleed through or just for design I don’t know, but it’s very attractive. The cover features the illustrations, glossy on a flat background. For each essay, the name of the philosopher appears on the title page in a decorative font using a color chosen from the illustration. Minor details, yes, but pleasing ones.

Several useful appendices follow the collection of essays: a Further Reading section, a list of more Philosopher  Queens, and a very handy About the Authors section giving brief bios of each of the contributors. And of course there’s an introduction by the editors, tracing the conception of the book.

You may be wondering if I’m ever going to talk about the philosophers included in the work. Well, of course I am. A quick glance at the table of contents revealed several names I knew, though not necessarily as philosophers; as I read the essays, I became intrigued to know more about some, dismayed by others, and found out something I didn’t know about even the most familiar names. And I noted some connections I wasn’t expecting.

Diotima leads things off, courtesy of Zoi Aliozi. What I found most interesting about her is that her very existence is up for debate. Plato writes her into Symposium; Socrates recounts how she taught him about love, beauty, and The Good, and the ladder of love ranging from lust to appreciation of Goodness itself. Whether she’s real or not, even if she’s a fictional character or a stand-in for a god or a dream or Wisdom itself, that Plato shows her as a teacher of Socrates makes her pretty impressive. I’ve taken, what, four or five moocs that dealt with Plato in some detail, but it’s interesting Symposium wasn’t one of the texts examined, nor was Diotima ever mentioned in any of the brief summaries of that text. The Further Readings list is going to come in handy.

Ban Zao gives advice for surviving marriage. Seriously. Eva Kit Wah Man writes:

For Ban, the most important principles for a wife’s conduct are respect and acquiescence. Although Ban adapts many keywords traditionally associated with femininity when she elaborates on the principles with instructions – for example, terms such as weakness, softness, inferiority, malleability – it is interesting to see how she actually describes the practical reasons for abiding by the principles. She determines, for example, that the heart of disrespect originates from the habit of the two spouses staying too close to one another. She also says that accusations and quarrels in family affairs are derived from bluntness and crookedness in words. Here, respect and acquiescence are recommended as a result of what Ban observed in married life in reality, not because of some moral and ethical deduction ….Her intention is to provide young wives with a survival kit necessary for marriage.

This gives some insight into what life was like for women in first-century China. However, Man brings in a deeper philosophical connection: while Confucianism is the usual context of this text, it’s worth looking at Daoism, which sees weakness as overcoming strength, using water and air as examples.

I was introduced to Hypatia last year when I read Youssef Ziedan’s novel Azazeel, and did some extra reading at the time, so it was nice to see her again in Lisa Whiting’s chapter.  I remember reading that she was more a mathematician than a philosopher, and Whiting bears this out but considers that her teaching, rather than writing, was where she excelled. This, too, fits with the characterization in Ziedan’s novel.

Even in fourth century Alexandria, women had to put up with men who couldn’t see them as anything but sexual possibilities:

Hypatia tried to stifle one of her most persistent student’s affections by playing a musical instrument for hours in the hopes he would get bored. When this did not work she turned to more extreme measures and one day pulled out a bloodied menstrual rag and waved it in the boy’s face, proclaiming that it was only lust that he desired, and this was not beautiful compared to her intellect and the true wonder of philosophy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hypatia succeeded in halting the young man’s advances….

Let’s put that anecdote on the internet and see what happens.

I would quibble a little on one comment Whiting makes on the significance of Hypatia’s legacy: “She was one of the first women to successfully break into the academic sphere that had been largely reserved for men.” Hypatia was torn apart on the street by a mob who then paraded her body parts around before setting her on fire. That’s a high price for success.

I recognized the name George Eliot, of course, even the name Mary Anne Evans (though not Mrs. Lewes, her preferred social name) though as a novelist rather than a philosopher. I’ve even had Middlemarch on my reading list (since I saw Rebecca Newberger Goldstein included it in her list of Five Best Philosophical Novels). Clare Carlisle’s chapter has convinced me to add Adam Bede, and to overcome confront my hesitation to read nineteenth-century literature.

Jae Hetterley’s chapter on Edith Stein left me sad and angry. I’d never heard of Stein, which is not a surprise, since she was screwed over six ways from Sunday by just about everyone, from her academic supervisor Edmund Husserl who refused to grant her doctorate to his collaborator Martin Heidegger who took credit for the extensive editing work Stein did on Husserl’s compendium to the Nazis who eventually murdered her at Auschwitz. But to look beyond that to her work, she was elemental in developing phenomenology, a kind of first-person-experience based philosophy that I only vaguely understand. Again, I find myself in the Further Reading section.

Hannah Arendt has become a familiar name to those of us concerned about what’s been happening in the US over the past four years. “Origins of Totalitarianism (1951),  Hannah Arendt’s most famous political work, was difficult to find in bookshops across America in November 2016,” writes Rebecca Buxton. Interestingly, Arendt didn’t consider herself a philosopher but a political theorist. I was also surprised to find that she was a racist, viewing Africa as savage and black Americans struggling for equality as “social parvenus”. People are complex, aren’t they. It’s her examination of totalitarianism, of course, that has her in the spotlight now. And you haven’t been paying attention if you haven’t muttered “the banality of evil” a few dozen times in recent years. I put her Origins of Understanding on my TBR list a couple of years ago (I thought it might be a better place to start, to keep my mounting panic at a controllable level), but I keep getting distracted by shiny new things.

Iris Murdoch is another figure from literature who I didn’t realize until recently was a philosopher. I had a traumatic experience with A Severed Head in college so I’ve avoided her, but Fay Niker has convinced me to overcome that. I love the female foursome that developed as WWII made room for women in Oxford – Mary Midgley and Elizabeth Anscombe also appear in this book, maybe Volume II will include Foot – and the “Mods and Greats” course of study that turned them into philosophers. I’m drawn to her idea that “adjustment of inner vision” – thinking about something – is moral activity, whether or not it results in behavior change, her focus on attention. This seems a bit over my head, but I’m going to see if I can find a good way to approach it.

I already had Mary Midgley’s What is Philosophy For? on my reading list, and Ellie Robson’s chapter added a few more on philosophy as seen in everyday life and relationships between people and the world. Seriously, all of her books sound like something I really want to read. And most of her writing came later in life: “Between the ages of fifty-nine and ninety-nine she wrote over two hundred books, articles and chapters….” I’d better get cracking.

Sophie Bosede Oluwole focused her attention on examining and, in fact, legitimizing Yoruba philosophy, not an easy task since it was orally transmitted rather than written. Minna Salami tells us:

…[S]he demonstrated how Yoruba oral genres qualified as philosophy. More specifically, she argued for the interpretation of the ‘corpus of Ifá,’ which is the quintessential Yoruba compendium of philosophical themes such as wisdom, justice, time, human agency, destiny, democracy, misogyny and human rights, as philosophical rather than system of divination as it is commonly assigned. The corpus of Ifá, which now largely also exists in written format, is a geomantic system consisting of 256 figures to which thousands of verses are attached. It has been stored through memory for thousands of years by traditional Yoruba philosophers known as babalawos, which means ‘fathers of esoteric knowledge’.

Having just read Ted Chiang’s short story “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling” which in part dramatizes  the competition between oral tradition and written records, I connected to this right away. As Oluwole points out, if Socrates, who never wrote a word and in fact opposed using books for learning, can be the premier Western philosopher, why should African philosophy be disqualified on those grounds?

The focus of Anita Allen’s philosophical arena is privacy, an issue that doesn’t really tempt me (don’t start, I understand the importance, I’m just more interested in other things). Yet, interestingly, as I read more about her via Ilhan Dahir’s chapter, I realized I’ve encountered her before: she was one of the lecturers in Penn’s mooc “An Introduction to American Law”; the Torts unit, to be precise. It’s one of the few moocs I completed but never wrote up because, well, it’s one of the few Penn moocs that just fell flat for me. But I’m delighted it served as an introduction to Allen.

Nima Dahir sums up Azizah Y. Al-Hibri’s work as: “How does Islamic jurisprudence fit into the twenty-first century?” In the US, any discussion of Islamic law quickly becomes saturated with all kinds of implications, so I’m always interested in looking at different points of view, in this case, one that sees Islamic scripture being overlaid with cultural patriarchy, resulting in its more misogynistic aspects. That it doesn’t have to be that way is good news.

These are only some of the philosophers included in the book. The others are just as interesting; I just had to draw the line somewhere, so I picked those I was particularly interested in finding out more about, or with whom I had some connection through books or moocs.

And why would someone who isn’t a philosophy student, or who doesn’t expect to be at any parties anytime soon where “name a philosopher” comes up, be interested? First, the stories of their struggles can serve as inspiration to keep going even when … well, you know, insert your story here. Or when someone tells you you’re too old, or your culture never produced anything of value.

And second, philosophical questions go interesting places. There’s nothing like defending your vision of morality to shake your world view, or trying to convince someone you’re not a brain in a vat.

Then again, I was that weirdo at the party playing Name A Philosopher.

Ted Chiang, Exhalation (Vintage 2020)

TC: OK, so the term conceptual breakthrough is sometimes used in science fiction criticism to describe the moment in the story in which a character’s understanding of their universe changes in some fundamental manner. They are experiencing a sort of paradigm shift about their place in the universe. I think that’s a way of dramatizing the process of scientific discovery. That process is one of the reasons I was interested in reading about science as a kid; I could vicariously experience that thrill. Stories about conceptual breakthrough offer a way to re-create that experience in fiction. In the actual history of science, there are only a handful of really dramatic scientific discoveries, but you can’t keep telling their stories over and over again. Most of the history of science isn’t actually that dramatic. In science fiction, you can have your characters make discoveries that radically expand their view of the world just as much as Galileo’s or Darwin’s discoveries expanded ours.
BLVR: Do you feel that emotional and psychological breakthroughs can be used similarly?
TC: I would categorize those as being something different. Science fiction is known for the sense of wonder it can engender, and I think that sense of wonder is something that is generated by stories of conceptual breakthrough. I don’t know if a sense of wonder is engendered by stories of personal epiphany.

Interview with James Yeh for The Believer

In the category of Oh, I Get It Now: That explanation articulates for me the difference between these stories as science fiction, and literary fiction stories that use science to explain a setting or move into the future. Take, for example, Karen Russell’s “Tornado Auction” or Téa Obreht’s “Items Awaiting Protective Enclosure.” I greatly enjoyed those two stories, which tell personal stories in settings understood through science and time. But the connection between the science and the impact point of the story – the character’s epiphanies, decisions, and changes – is metaphor. In Chiang’s science fiction stories, the impact point is the moment a character sees the universe differently: understands the link between present, past, and future; debates the consequences of perfect memory technology; discovers entropy; sees evidence their world is not the center of the universe it has always been assumed to be.

But, having read this collection, my favorite stories of his are those that do both: where the expanded understanding of the universe contains the answer to a personal struggle. The man who understands the nature of time travel does so against the magic of repentance, atonement, and forgiveness, and learns that the immutability of the past – or the future – is not necessarily tragic; the father who debates new technology also finds the human-ness of memory as he realizes an error in a key recollection of his own.  Or maybe it gives us as readers a window to view the extinction of one species against our fascination with extraterrestrial life, and leaves us wondering why one is considered expendible and the other is eagerly sought, and whether we ought to see that differently, all while mourning the death of the last parrot. 

There’s something paradoxical about many of these stories. They might end in failure, loss, or tragedy, yet the sense at the end is one of hope, of purposeful momentum. They aren’t necessarily happy endings, but there’s a definite uplift that’s rare in literary fiction.

I must again admit I am not a big reader of contemporary science fiction, so there are references and nuances I may be missing. What’s interesting is that I’ve read a couple of Chiang stories before now: a friend recommended “The Story of Your Life” (which became the film Arrival), and I read “The Great Silence,” included in this collection, when I read BASS 2016. I greatly enjoyed both of those, so I was looking forward to this. I wasn’t disappointed. And of course several of these stories have won major prizes. Chiang isn’t a prolific writer, but he sure has a knack for hitting the sweet spot.

One exciting thing about this book had nothing to do with the stories themselves: it includes story notes! I’ve always loved the Contributor Notes in BASS; this is the first time I’ve encountered them in an author’s collection. In the Believer interview quoted above, he says he included them because he enjoys them in other collections (they’re more popular in science fiction than literary fiction) and it’s a handy way to reframe the question, “Where did you get the idea for the story” in a way that fits the circumstances. I know literary fiction writers are trained in “the story must stand on its own” but it’s so great to have a little more insight – and often, the context he chooses to share is surprising.

One of my clear favorites was the first story, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” possibly because I’d just read The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye and was primed for the stories-within-a-story approach, this time in Baghdad and Cairo instead of Anatolia.

All the while I thought on the truth of Bashaarat’s words: past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully. My journey to the past had changed nothing, but what I learned had changed everything, and I understood that it could not have been otherwise. If our lives are tales that Allah tells, then we are the audience as well as the players, and it is by living these tales that we receive their lessons.

from “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”

Of the story, Chiang says: “While we can all understand the desire to change things in our past, I wanted to try writing a time-travel story where the inability to do so wasn’t necessarily a cause for sadness.” In the first two of the embedded stories, the future enables the past to enfold in that head-spinning way time travel stories tend to work, yet nothing changes; the future and the past are linked, but immutable. The third of these tales delivers the impact point: we can’t change the past, but we can change how we feel about it.

“Exhalation,” the title story, is literally the discovery of entropy, albeit in a universe very different from ours.

Our universe might have slid into equilibrium emitting nothing more than a quiet hiss. The fact that it spawned such plenitude is a miracle, one that is matched only by your universe giving rise to you.

from “Exhalation”

The protagonist engages in self-study via dissection of her own self, a task perhaps easier than ours would be since she is made of metal. Chiang’s Note tells us this was inspired by Philip K. Dick’s story “The Electric Ant,” involving a robot discovering his own nature; “That image of a person literally looking at his own mind has always stayed with me.” A lot of beginning neuroscience courses express the same wonder, as brains examine brains, though I’ve yet to read of a scientist studying his own brain. Such a thing via EEG or PET scan would not be impossible, however.

The story moves into the contemplation of the mechanism of life for the protagonist’s universe. It’s based on air pressure forming a gradient. This happens to coincide with the biological creation, in our universe, of ATP, the molecule of energy, through the creation of a proton gradient in our mitochondria. though it’s on a microscopic scale. Even the idea of air comes into it, as oxygen accepting protons becomes the last step allowing ATP production to continue. We breathe to enable this chain. It’s one of those elements of biochemistry that amazes me. And here, Chiang has my counterpart just as amazed as she notices the crucial function of air pressure.

But in doing this, she  makes another terrifying discovery: air pressure must, of necessity, be evening out all over the universe, just as, in our universe, entropy increases. He puts it very well in his Note, drawing from Roger Penrose: “In effect, we are consuming order and generating disorder; we live by increasing the disorder or the universe. It’s only because the universe started in a highly ordered state that we are able to exist at all.”

Our protagonist moves beyond this terrifying discovery, however, to hope, and this is where the power of the story lies. In envisioning a multiverse, she imagines other beings able to visit her universe and discover what remains even after the air pressure has equalized and life is no longer possible. And in that, she believes, her world will live again. It’s something like the way we send records with music and art and literature into space, hoping to show others who we were, when Voyager at last finds someone who can, and wants to, examine it. It’s an amazing feat to combine so many different scientific elements into one story, and yet have it be so emotionally satisfying. This is why this guy wins all the awards.

People are made of stories. Our memories are not the impartial accumulation of every second we’ve lived; they are the narrative that we assembled out of selected moments. Which is why, even when we’ve experienced the same events as other individuals, we never constructed identical narratives: the criteria used for selecting moments were different for each of us, and a reflection of our personalities. … Digital memory will not stop us from telling stories about ourselves. As I said earlier, we are made of stories, and nothing can change that. What digital memory will do is change those stories from fabulation’s that emphasize our best acts and elide our worst, into ones that – I hope – acknowledge our fallibility and make us less judgmental about the fallibility of others.

Story note on “Exhalation”

“The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling” is another story that, when described, sounds like a mess, but works  beautifully to examine the difference between objective and subjective memory; that is, what we record in pictures and notes and data, and what we remember.

In most cases we have to forget a little bit before we can forgive; when we no longer experience the pain as fresh, the insult is easier to forgive, which in turn makes it less memorable, and so on. It’s this psychological feedback loop that makes initially infuriating offenses seeing pardonable in the mirror of hindsight.
What I feared was that Remem would make it impossible for this feedback loop to get rolling. By fixing every detail of an insult in indelible video, it would prevent the softening that’s needed for forgiveness to begin.

from “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”

It’s two stories alternating in sections, one in the future, one in the past. The future story often reads more like a lecture, as it describes new technology that allows digital recording of everything we see, available on instant recall with merely a thought. The past story recounts the change from orality to literacy in a Nigerian village as European missionaries arrive. In his Note, Chiang cites Walter Ong’s work and notes, “…[T]here might be a parallel to be drawn between the last time a technology changed our cognition and the next time.”

The protagonist in the future story is a father whose primary emotional drive is his relationship with his daughter. They’ve recovered somewhat from a nasty fight years before, but ties between them are still strained. The past story focuses on one villager who learns to read and works with Europeans to keep records of tribal disputes. Both protagonists make discoveries about objective vs subjective memory that have great impact on their lives, and on how they view truth itself.

I keep running into this hazy idea of truth when I read memoirs, nonfiction essays that, theoretically, reflect what happened. Several scandals of embroidered memoirs have made this a touchy subject, and I’m probably too much of a hardass for expecting nonfiction to be, well, nonfiction. I went into this extensively in my post about Pam Houston’s “Corn Maze” so I won’t relitigate. I’m perfectly fine with errors of memory, and with writing techniques that allow for lack of recall, but it seems to me if you add a conversation or a scene because it makes the story read better and don’t acknowledge it, that writing is called fiction.

In another of the coincidences that seem to happen with some regularity when I read good work, I happened to be looking at Plato’s Symposium for another book I’ll be posting about in a week or so, and came across this:

For what is implied in the word ‘recollection,’ but the departure of knowledge, which is ever being forgotten, and is renewed and preserved by recollection, and appears to be the same although in reality new, according to that law of succession by which all mortal things are preserved, not absolutely the same, but by substitution, the old worn-out mortality leaving another new and similar existence behind unlike the divine, which is always the same and not another?

Plato, Symposium

This connects memory with immortality via the love one has for one’s offspring, for the closest we can come to living forever is to leave someone to carry on for us.

But this story is more about how we sometimes remember wrong, not because we’re trying to lie, but because we can’t face the truth. It invites us to consider the wisdom of turning memory, with all its inconsistencies and glitches and individuations, into data. When I consider how the father-daughter relationship played out, I wonder what would have happened had the father’s recollection been more accurate. Better? Worse? By what means could that quality be measured, if at all?

“Omphalos” puts an interesting twist on the relationship between religion and science, in a world where they serve each other – until they don’t:

Is it wrong of me to question whether the construction of cathedrals is, as we approach the twenty-first century, the best use of countless millions of dollars and the effort of generations of people? I agree that a project lasting longer than a human life span provides its participants with aspirations beyond the temporal. I even understand the motivation for carving a cathedral out of the Earth’s substrate, to create a testament to both human and divine architecture. But for me, science is the true modern cathedral, an edifice of knowledge every bit as majestic as anything made of stone.

from “Omphalos”

This story takes the form of a prayer, but not from a priest. The pray-er is a scientist who works on discovering artifacts of the original creation dated to eight thousand years before, when trees had no rings, and people had no navels. The central tenet of the religion was that the universe was created as a setting for humanity. The scientist encounters evidence that may shift that view. This is the moment at which science may need to split off from religion, or it may be the end of religion. It’s interesting because while it recalls certain historical conflicts between religion and science in Western history, it shifts things around sufficiently to keep us off-balance and the story fresh and new.

I’ve already written about “The Great Silence” so I’ll just link to that post; I did want to include it in this list of my favorite stories from this collection.

Here’s where I usually stop when I’m writing about story collections. But what about my not-favorite stories? I usually don’t mention them.  Time for a change-up: I want to mention one of my most not-favorite stories, because it won a Hugo, is universally adored by reviewers I’ve found (with one exception) and, hey, there isn’t anyone who really cares about my opinion of Ted Chiang, let’s be honest. That gives me a little freedom to state: I really did not like “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” at all.

Based on our experience with human minds, it takes at least twenty years of steady effort to produce a useful person, and I see no reason that teaching an artificial being would go any faster. I wanted to write a story about what might happen during those twenty years.

Story note on “The Lifecycle of Software Objects”

I’m not a gamer, and I suspect it would be a lot more fun for those who enjoy interacting with virtual characters and imagining how AI could take them to the next level. And remember: I’m not really a science fiction reader at heart.

I get the general idea: the ways in which AI digients (digital entities) might develop over time can be compared to some degree with raising a child, and certain issues develop. The issues are interesting, particularly set against the instability of the technical milieu required to instantiate the digients. What do you do when a website goes bust, if your digient’s existence depends on that website? What about when huge sums are offered to uses digients in ways that would be unspeakable if they were considered people or even pets? Can they gain autonomy (yes, along the lines of Asimov’s “Bicentenial Man”)? At what point can they make major decisions on their own, even against their owner’s (or is it parent’s) advice? These are all good questions.

And I have no doubt it was a good story. At 110 pages, it was the longest story in the book, and yet I think one of the problems was that it was too short. Paul Kincaid at SFSite gives his analysis:

In the pursuit of realism, or at least verisimilitude, therefore, how do you enclose the whole mystery of passing time within the relatively limited confines of a story or play? There are, essentially, two strategies. You can cherry-pick key moments along the timeline, describe those moments in detail and allow the reader to imagine what might fill in the gaps. At its most extreme, this means offering just the beginning and end of the process. This strategy allows full novelistic depth for those points along the line, but at the expense of any full representation of, and hence awareness of, the time scales involved.
Alternatively, you can present a synopsis of the entire period. This gives a clear impression of the time scales involved, the various forces that come into play shaping and directing the flow of history. But it necessarily skims across the surface, refusing the depth that allows us to share the individual experience of the historical momentum.
This dilemma becomes more pronounced, of course, the longer the period that has to be encompassed by the story. And this dilemma lies at the heart of the new novella from Ted Chiang…. His solution is a mixture of the two strategies, though as so often happens in such circumstances, highlighting the worst elements of both.

Paul Kincaid for SFSite

As I read, I felt the disconnect between the world at large, and the world of the story, was problematic. The only outside events were in the romantic lives of the two humans each raising digients, with a kind of hint that they would eventually get together. As much as that possibility dismayed me – it just seemed too Lifetime TV Movie – the fact that it went nowhere dismayed me more. Why not replace that with interactions with the world at large? Something significant must have happened during that time: a must-read book, a war, a hurricane or earthquake, a pandemic, an election… yes, I’m letting Real Life bleed through, but it’s like they were digients themselves. In fact, I thought that might be how things wrapped up. And yes, I was relieved when that didn’t happen, either, because if I can see it coming, it has to be cheesy.

I have a feeling that, in a novel setting, there might be more substrate for the main interaction to play out against. Alternatively, cutting it down might have worked better for me, since I really didn’t care about entire sections discussing various software issues.

But, it was not a story written for me; it was written for people who would be enthralled with such issues. And it seems they loved it. As a SF tourist, I’m fine with that. I wouldn’t expect Japan to stop serving sushi just because I chose to visit, after all; I can just eat something else. I have no complaints. There was plenty in this book that I loved.

Because I encountered him in a literary fiction setting, I tend to think of Chiang as a literary fiction writer. He does manage to write stories overflowing with human connections, with love and loss and moments of joy and pain. That they are based on science, and show a kind of wonder at the way the universe works at the same time as laying bare the human soul, is a plus. One of these days I’m going to pick up his first collection. Probably sooner than later. I suspect I’ll learn a lot there, too.

Joy Williams, The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories (Vintage, 2015)

When I started writing weird Florida tales in graduate school, more than one person was appalled that I hadn’t read any Joy Williams. And they were so correct—I had been deeply remiss. More than the setting of her work—some of which does indeed take place in the queer light of Florida, as well as New Mexico and Arizona and Maine—I was amazed by the emotional states Joy Williams could imprint so fluidly on the page. Unlike any other writer I know, she can render the interior slide from grief to strange cravings to jokey observation to superstitious fears, all in the span of a single paragraph, or even sentence. Her leaps floor me: she sails with a freakish grace from poignancy to sarcasm, or from one character’s fantasy to another’s nightmare, or from a kitschy deer-foot lamp to a disagreement with Kierkegaard. Nobody in her stories behaves the way you expect and yet somehow even their craziest actions feel inevitable, preordained. When I read her, I feel like I’m in direct contact with the deep irrationality of our species.

Karen Russell at LOA, 2011

I confess that I, too, have been remiss; I’d never heard of Joy Williams until I encountered her last March via her story “Flour” in Pushcart 2020 (her appearances in BASS predated my annual reads which began in 2010). “I understand the words, the turn of events, but I don’t have a clue what the story is about,” I wrote in my post. I did what I do in those cases: I researched it to death, both the story which hinged on a parable from the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, and Williams herself. I had a blast with the former – I love mucking around in religious arcania – and as for the latter, was chastised to discover I was reading what many would call one of the best American short story writers around. “I don’t understand this story. But the journey was a lot of fun,” I wrote, and that’s how I came to choose this book for my In-Between Reading this year, as a comfort-zone-stretcher.

It was a rough start. The first story went smoothly enough, but then I was befuddled by the next several. I took a Twitter break (oh, yeah, like you don’t) and saw Robert Long Foreman doing something with the “books no one wants on their bookshelves” meme that was going around last week (I always thought Infinite Jest was a sign of literary potency, color me surprised) and realized he might be helpful, since, while his stories and essays make perfect sense to me, I rarely understand what he’s talking about on Twitter:

Me: You might be able to educate me: have you read Joy Williams?
RLF: Oh yeah. She’s amazing.
Me: I thought you’d think so. I have no idea what to do with her.
RLF: Yeah me neither! But I’m drawn to that.
Me: lol, ok, that makes me feel a little better.

(Yes, I still lol, go ahead, laugh. And by the way, Rob’s first novel Weird Pig was just published and everyone should be reading it)

So relieved of the need to make sense of things (as relieved as I can be; by nature I have that tendency Billy Collins described in “Introduction to Poetry” as “beating it with a hose to find out what it really means” and to search for the authorial intent that anyone who’s taken litcrit will tell you is irrelevant), but this is comfort-zone-stretching time, so I read on.

The stories in this collection are taken from three prior collections, with thirteen new stories appended. That’s forty-six stories. Granted, most of them are fairly short – 490 pages total – but these are not stories you finish and turn the page to read the next one. I realized this wasn’t going to be a four- or five-day read when, at four days, I was still less than a quarter through. So I started skipping. As a result, I ended up reading most of her first and third collections, and all of the new stories.

Although there’s really no such thing as a spoiler to most of Williams’ stories, the final paragraphs tend to require what preceded them, and as they are often the most powerful I’ve quoted several below; use discretion. And, by the way, there is one story that has a clear spoiler; to point it out would be to spoil it already. Life’s tough, y’know?

I found a lot of help scattered around the interwebs. One particular moment came from Vincent Scarpa, writing about the story “Dangerous” featuring, among other things, a woman building a tortoise enclosure following the death of her husband. That was interesting enough, but there’s a moment that tripped me up, as our narrator, the woman’s also-bereaved daughter, is talking about a group of survivalists who lived in a nearby house:

They did have an ingenious water-collection system and I was given a tour of all the tanks and tubes and purifiers and washers and chambers that provided them with such good water and made them happy. They also kept bees and had an obese cat. The cat, or rather its alarming weight, seemed out of character for their way of life but I didn’t mention it. Instead, I asked them if his name was spelled with an ew or an ou. They found this wildly amusing and later told my mother they’d liked me very much. That and a dollar fifty will get me an organic peach, I said.


I must’ve spent ten minutes scouring that paragraph, and a couple before it, looking for the name of the cat that might be spelled one of two ways, literally reading word by word, I was so sure I’d missed it. Eventually I went on, and, a few paragraphs later: “It was Lewis with an ew that kept bringing diseased rodents into the house, is my suspicion.”

That missing name tormented me until I found Scarpa’s commentary:

It has everything to do with the delay. The delay between our being made aware of that which we do not know—in this case, simply the cat’s name—and then the unexpected revelation of it. It doesn’t take so long that we forget something has been withheld from us, but it is long enough for us to consider—indeed, to believe—that we may never be told. And what I’ve just described there—this coexistence of knowledge and confusion and incomprehension, the lag time between a given moment and our understanding of it—does it not have a certain resonance with the way grief so often operates? That deferment of detail, that defying of narrative expectation, that disinterest in clarifying in a timely manner that which one has been made to see as concealed but knowable—these movements simulate the very essence of grief: its unwieldiness, its errancy, its total disregard for the yearnings of the grieving person.

Vincent Scarpa for Lithub

Then I could throw in, among the other interesting things in the story (like survivalists possibly killed by disease brought in by the cat, and the refrain “Grief is dangerous,” and the mother discovering she’d built the enclosure on the wrong land) how distracted I was from everything else by one little detail I couldn’t line up neatly, which also fits with grief. Just ask a funeral director how that fits with grief.

I have to say I found the new stories, like “Dangerous,” to be more comprehensible than the older ones. Jason DeYoung, writing in Numéro Cinq, finds a difference, citing “thematic or temporal iterations” creating density in her earlier stories, versus “longer, looser” style in her later ones, and they do seem more like typical stories to me, but I have to wonder if I just got better acclimated and stopped worrying so much as I read. By the way, that DeYoung article is, like Scarpa’s, great. So is Karen Russell’s, which opens this post and served as a kind of mast for this ship. And while I’m citing sources, Lincoln Michel’s article at Vice (I discovered it when I was working on “Flour”) and James Wood for TNY are both fundamental Williamsology.

The first story, “Taking Care,” was, as I said above, a good place for me to start; it seemed one of the most coherent of the early stories. The title tells it all: it’s a tour of the ways we take care of each other, of the world. Jones, a preacher, takes in his daughter’s baby and dog as his wife becomes ill and is hospitalized. On the day he baptizes the baby, his wife’s blood count is perilously low, and two sentences from the sermon predominate: We are not saved because we are worthy. We are saved because we are loved and There is nothing wrong in what one does but there is something w4rong in what one becomes. At one point he plays some records, including Kindertotenlieder. “He makes no attempt to seek the words’ translation. The music is enough.” The translation, which he must on some level realize, is some version of “Songs for dead children.” Ignorance is sometimes the best defense.

The final paragraph is a mixture of reality and fantasy. At first I thought it was simple realism, but then I read Williams’s interview in Paris Review where she recalls she was advised to cut the last line. “Of course I will not cut the line. It carries the story into the celestial, where it longs to go.” Maybe this isn’t about actual dying, but at the very least it evokes the dying that will eventually occur for these two people connected by caring, and I am so happy that they will together enter shining rooms.

By the way, in that interview Williams also tells how TNY rejected the story, calling it “insincere, inorganic, labored.” Of course, this was one of her first stories, she wasn’t Joy Williams yet.

Then there are stories I don’t claim to understand at all, but they stick with me. Like “Yard Boy,” about the “spiritual materialist…free from the karmic chain” who, after two months of enlightenment, realizes it isn’t easy. “He feels the sorrow and sadness of those around him but does not necessarily feel his own.” I’d believe that if it didn’t come down to the rabbit’s foot fern and the Spanish bayonet fighting it out after he loses everything he owns and his girlfriend walks out on him. Then again, he said “not necessarily” which allows some wiggle room. Again, the final paragraph makes the preceding, however confusing, work:

The rabbit’s-foot-fern brightens at the yard boy’s true annoyance. Its fuzzy long-haired rhizomes clutch its pot tightly. The space around it simmers, it bubbles. Each cell mobilizes its intent of skillful and creative action. It turns its leaves toward the Spanish bayonet. It straightens and sways. Straightens and sways. A moment passes. The message of retribution is received along the heated air. The yard boy sees the Spanish bayonet uproot itself and move out.

Yard Boy

“Anodyne” presents us with a diabetic mother and daughter, recently bereaved by the loss of their husband/father. We see Mother through Daughter’s eyes, which is funny or horrifying, but more likely funny. Mother quits yoga and takes up shooting – “Be aware of who can do unto you” reads a sign at the door of the Pistol Institute – then takes up the Marksman, the owner of the Institute and instructor. Daughter kind of figures this out – “I knew my mother did not exactly want him in our life… but she wanted him somehow.” Mother arranged for Daughter to see a psychiatrist, which I’m thinking is more for Mother’s sake (so many anodynes in this story) since Daughter doesn’t seem to be in any pain. Then again, maybe that’s the problem. Again, I find the end of the story justifies it all, though I still can’t define exactly why:

When my time was almost up he said, “You’re a smart girl, so tell me, what’s your preference, the manifest world or the unmanifest one?”
It was like he was asking me which flavor of ice cream I liked. I thought for a moment, then went to the dictionary he kept on a stand and looked the word up.
“The manifest one,” I said, and there was not much he could do about that.


That last line makes me want to see what this kid’s like when she’s twenty-five.

Death, animals (especially dogs, but also cats and birds and elephants etc), and religion run through these stories, and in the later ones, the environment becomes a prominent theme. Sometimes these themes are subtle. In “Another Season,” the death and animals are evident, but the religion comes in through the name of the main character, Nicodemus. He lives on an island mostly populated in the summer by the well-to-do. He starts out as a handyman but after many years he ends up asked to pick up road kill to keep the island looking nice for the rich. “They would provide him with a truck, a gasoline card at the dock’s pumps, and two thousand dollars a year to make the island appear as though death on the minor plane were unknown to it.” Though it sounds grotesque, it’s the most realistic scenario in the book; this is exactly what such an island would do, and I’m willing to bet most have some kind of arrangements just like this, maybe with public works employees instead of individuals, but the motivation is recognizable.

The name Nicodemus is not random. In the Gospel of John, Jesus and Nicodemus have a long talk about the means of salvation. It’s one of those passages that gets quoted a lot, all about light and dark and that famous one John 3:16 that someone’s always holding up on a big sign at baseball games. But what really makes it interesting is that Nicodemus provides the spices and other materials needed to care for Jesus’ body after death. He that hath an ear, let him hear who it is the animals are symbolizing. Uh oh, I’m beating it with a hose again, aren’t I.

Two stories feature mothers of murderers. “The Mother Cell” consists of seven such mothers who end up, coincidentally, in the same town for no apparent reason. Then one dies and there are only six. And again I get out my rubber hose: why seven? What does it mean that there are then only six? There’s this organic moment of suspense in which we wait to see if a replacement will show up, but is that enough of a reason? But I’ll put that away and instead enjoy the biological sense evoked by the title, the sense in which all of these women were a mother cell.

Fathers don’t look very good in this story. Not only are all the mothers now single, but the fathers seem to have gone on with their lives as if nothing happened, while the mothers huddle to defend themselves against the world’s blame. God doesn’t fare so well, either. After telling a story about Jupiter, a featherless bird, and a hairless goat (the story has a hilarious tag line about a Russian philosophy professor) they start to wonder if something like that could happen to the current God.

Then Barbara said, “Well, I don’t know why you told that story about the old god, but the nice thing about it was that he wasn’t alone at the end.”
“What about the one we got now,” Emily asked.
“The one what?”
“The god we got now. Do you think somebody in the future will be telling a story about finding him exiled to some desolate island and crying when he learns that everything he had fashioned and understood has vanished and that he is subject to the same miserable destiny as any created thing?”

The Mother Cell

One detail I love about that is the lack of capitalization. I wonder if Williams had to fight about that. Forgive me, I know it’s sacrilege to have me and Williams in the same sentence, but I once had the line “they called him god” in a story, and the editor insisted on capitalizing it or inserting a “the.” Whenever I see something like this, I wish I’d fought harder. Then again, I’m not Joy Williams.

But, again, the power comes at the end, here in the last two paragraphs:

“We’ve settled nothing,” the eldest mother said. “We cannot make amends for the sins of our children. We gave birth to mayhem and therefore history. Oh, ladies, oh, my friends, we have resolved nothing and the earth is no more beautiful.”
She struggled to her feet and was helped inside. Her old knees creaked like doors. She always liked to end these evenings on an uncompromising note. Of course it was all just whistling in the dark, but sometimes she would conclude by saying that despite their clumsy grief and all the lost and puzzling years that still lay ahead of them, the earth was no less beautiful.

The Mother Cell

I go back and forth on whether these two paragraphs, taken together, are an expression of hope, or hopelessness. Or both at once. Or either, as the day requires.

The other offspring-murderer story – and here I run into the spoiler that, simply by saying it’s a spoiler, spoils – is “Brass.” Until the last few sentences, it seems to be a father describing family life with his outspoken son. There’s some discussion of neurodiversity, and the kid can be pretty harsh, but he also takes poetry at the community college. The title is based on a passage in one of Rimbaud’s letters:

For I is someone else. If brass wakes up a trumpet, it isn’t to blame. To me this is evident: I give a stroke of the bow: the Symphony begins to stir in the depths.
“That ain’t even grammatical,” I say.
For I is someone else, ” he says somberly. “If brass wakes up a trumpet it isn’t to blame. ” Then he smirks at me. He’s been working on this smirk.
“Now that’s the translation,” he says. “But for class I’m going to translate the translation.”
“Somebody should translate you,” I say.
“No one’s going to be able to translate me,” he says.


At this point I could use a translation of the translation myself. But then, as with so many other stories, in the final sentences the focus shifts into tragedy and the rest of the story becomes relevant. Not comprehensible, but I know now why we’re looking at this kid and how he interacts with his family. The trumpet’s awake and trying to figure out how the hell it all happened.

So maybe this was, for me, a successful failure, to borrow from NASA. Yes, I skipped almost a quarter of the stories. It was too much book for me, for one reading. I saw some comments while webcrawling that made me very interested in reading “Honored Guest”, “Congress”, and “Marabou”, and I’m very curious to see why “Bromeliads” got separated from the other Escape stories and was moved to the end of the Collected Stories section, but I realized I was Done and little of value was to be accomplished by forcing myself forward. I needed to read something… easier. Something more eager to give itself up, sans hose.

I wonder if I’d have had a different experience if the nine new stories had been released on their own, or if I’d read them first. This seems more like a reference work, a Complete Works you take down and read a bit of once in a while or when something reminds you of it, not something you sit down and plow through in a week. But it did push on the boundaries of my comfort zone, and I will go back for another look. And I’m glad I now know something about Joy Williams; I look forward to seeing her again.

Nathan Englander, (Vintage, 2019)

This is what ritual does. It binds from chaos. Across time.

A typical description of this book tells you that Larry, the strayed oldest son of an Orthodox Jewish family, outsources his duty to recite Kaddish, in three services a day for eleven months in memory of his dead father, to an internet site. That, of course, is the setup. It’s what happens next that is the real book. This post is going to get a bit spoilery as it goes on, so be ready to bail when the warning light goes on.

The novel is divided into four parts. In Part One, we have the setup, an excellent examination of what it’s like to be an outsider in one’s own family, and to have a burden one cannot imagine either honoring or failing to honor. It’s 1999, and Larry is sitting Shiva at his sister Dina’s house in Memphis, which apparently rivals New York in the intensity of its Jewish neighborhood. Larry’s still in New York, in advertising (“Branding,” he’d correct me. “It’s part of advertising, but it’s different”), and is taking a lot of heat for his semi-observance of Shiva. He’s about to take a lot more heat as Dina reminds him of his filial duty to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish in three separate shul services a day for the next eleven months. He can’t believe it really matters, but he can’t quite shake the feeling that it does.

That conflict is what interests me most about the book. I, too, have left behind a religion that just won’t vacate a few small strongholds in my mind. Mix that with the genuine grief Larry is feeling – I have no doubt he loved his father and misses him terribly – and I can understand his dilemma.

“I think the World to Come is just a long table where every­one, on both sides, sits, men and women—”
“No pets,” his father said.
“Fine,” his father said. “Under the table, the dogs and cats. But no birds. I can’t picture it with birds.”
“Fair enough,” Larry said.
“This long table, with its perfect white cloth, is set not with food and drink, but with the Torah, copies for everyone, so that you can read to yourself or learn in pairs.”
“I can picture that.”
“And you know what happens at this table?”
“All you do for eternity is study. Nothing else. No interruption. No day, no night, no weekend or holiday, no y’mei chag or chol. For it is the afterlife. Time unbroken—all of it given over to one purpose.”
“Sure,” Larry said.
“This is why, for the souls gathered, that single place serves as both Heaven and Hell.”
Here his father had gulped at the air, fishlike himself.
“It goes like this,” his father said. “If you have a good mind and a good heart, if you like to learn Torah and take interest in knowledge, then studying for eternity is, for you, Heaven.”
He had looked to his son, and Larry had nodded.
“And if all you want is to waste time on narishkeit and bunk stuff, to think your greedy thoughts though the money is gone, and to think your dirty thoughts though your schvontz is buried down below, then for you that same table is torture. Then sitting there, with your bad brain, you find yourself in Hell.”
Larry considered the idea, poised at his father’s side.
Partly, he’d thought it was funny, and thought about making a Larry-like joke. But being his father’s son, Larry also took it seriously. He was awed at the notion and somehow afraid.
His father, who could read him like no one else, reached out with his liver-spotted hand and, laying it atop Larry’s, said, “I’m sure, in that place, for you, it would be Heaven.”
Larry had gasped, not from surprise, but choking back the rush of comfort he took in his father’s ruling.
“Trust me, Larry, it’s all right that you don’t believe. This period in your life—it feels like it’s forever, but if you’re lucky, life is long and each of these forevers will one day seem fleeting. You think when I was your age that I could have pictured this? That it would be 1999—the edge of a new millennium—and I’d be saying goodbye to a handsome, grown son at the end of my days? I can tell you that even back then, I already felt old and thought I knew it all.” His father gave a weak squeeze to Larry’s hand. “You’re a good boy. And I pray that I don’t see you across from me until you reach a hundred and twenty years. But for you, my boychick, when it’s the right time to take your seat, that table will feel like a blessing without end.”

Larry’s problem is that he can’t imagine himself actually carrying out the duty of reciting Kaddish so often for so long. Remember, it’s not just saying the prayer; that he could do. But it must be said in a minyan, a gathering of ten or more Jewish men, and that means it must be said in shul, which means attending services three times a day. Every day. For eleven months. When Dina spells it out, he promises, because he can’t imagine not promising. But he’s got his fingers crossed behind his back:

…As long as Larry promises he’ll say the prayer, what does it hurt Dina if it skips? And honestly, what does it hurt their dead father, in heaven above, if Larry says a prayer or not? Does anyone really think God sits up there with a scorecard, checking off every one of Larry’s blessings?

That’s a second theme that interests me greatly: just how seriously do we take our religions? Do we really believe in hell and purgatory and a day of judgment and that wine and bread becomes blood and body and that baptism has power and our prayers are heard and acted on? I’ve always felt that if we really took eternal life seriously, we’d be living this life a lot differently. Some areas of philosophy and evolutionary psychology wonder if all the guilt that’s built into Western religion is outsourced from our own consciousness, rather than the typical religious notion that it is God who implants conscience in us and without God there is no morality. So when Larry asks these questions – does it really matter if I say the Mourner’s Kaddish on schedule? – I understand how a ‘yes’ can lurk underneath the ‘no, of course not.’

This brought in something I wasn’t aware of. I’m not Jewish, so my (limited) knowledge of Orthodox tradition is based on what I’ve read in academic and popular reading, but I’d never heard this before: after death, the soul goes into a kind of purgatory for a year, to be purged of sin. Saying of the Mourner’s Kaddish (for there are several varieties of Kaddish) helps to ease that process, sort of like Dante depicts in his Comedia for Christians in Purgatory when prayers are received on their behalf. So the question “Does it matter” is more than tradition; it impacts his father’s afterlife experience, speeds along – or delays – his passage to paradise.

Because she’s a pretty good judge of character, Dina explodes at Larry’s promise to say Kaddish, because now she knows he’s lying. Enter her rabbi, who tries to come up with solutions. The most promising is a proxy, someone who will say Kaddish for him. So his responsibility has been pared down to: find a proxy.

Enter And yes, there is a current website of that name offering this service, though I understand it was set up after the novel was published (how foolish of the publisher and/or Englander not to register the domain name themselves). The service has been, however, available for quite some time through other long-established Jewish organizations, so it’s not some newfangled thing. If it were me, I’d probably go to one of them. But this is about Larry. Englander plays the scene of Larry signing up for all it’s worth, including a pornographic pop-up involving a glass dildo (um… really?) that becomes visible when he closes the Kaddish site page. It’s very effective, with details that weave through the rest of the book.

Then we come to Part Two (this starts getting a bit spoilery, be forewarned), which starts a year later when Larry receives a letter from his proxy, Chemi, to indicate his service has come to an end. This sets Larry on a road back to Orthodoxy, via the word “assimilate.” The thing is, this crucial moment feels a bit skimmed-over to me. The bones are there, but I’d like a little more flesh padding them out. We understand the changes Larry goes through to become, twenty years later, Reb Shuli, teacher of Gemara at a Brooklyn yeshiva, but it’s thin. It’s as if Englander suddenly decided he didn’t want this to be that deep a novel, so kept this transition at beach-read level before moving on to the next order of business: Shuli realizes the depth of what he committed to on that website twenty years earlier. He explains to his wife:

What has left Shuli lightheaded is the understanding that all his years of t’shuvah, a lifetime of redemption, had – for his father – done nothing. Not the yahrzeit candles lit, nor the services led. It was twenty years of Kaddishes without meaning, as they were not Schuli’s just say….
“It’s the kinyan,” Shuli tells her, looking around nervously as if someone might overhear. “Just because I returned to the fold doesn’t mean I brought everything back with me. On that website, a lifetime ago, I gave up what was mine.”
“This isn’t news, Shuli. How many times have we discussed this over the years? You paid for a service, and that’s all.”
“But it’s not all. I don’t know if I ever told you. When I signed, there was a digital pen that I put into a digital hand. I made a kinyan. I transferred over my rights – for real. Which means, even now, remembering my father is that other man’s job….It was my intent to be rid of that responsibility for life. The privilege doesn’t just revert on its own. The other party would need to return it.”

This is where things get a bit frustrating for me. I don’t fully understand the kinyan, and I haven’t found an explanation that really makes sense to me. Shuli observes a wedding ritual involving a kinyan, and this reminds him of the twenty-year-old transaction. It seems like a real leap of logic to equate clicking on a web page, moving a pen icon into a hand icon, with the ritualistic and symbolic trading of tokens. His wife also finds it a bit of an exaggeration, and feels confident it’s not binding.

Maybe it makes sense if you’re more familiar with this Jewish custom than I am (though Shuli’s wife would be), but to me, it just seems like a way to carry forth the plot. Then again, we can look at it through the lense of character: Shuli’s guilt over shirking his duty creating a need to take further action. I think that’s the key to the whole novel: see everything through the eyes of the repentant, needing to atone for past sins, including not only outsourcing Kaddish, but leaving the fold in the first place.

Shuli makes his attempts to reconnect with Chemi, his proxy from so long ago, via the website, still in operation. He enlists the help of a student. And my frustration mounts, because everything here is overcomplicated. Setting Gavriel’s age at twelve feels forced (since he hasn’t been bar mitzvah’ed, he’s not implicit in any sin), and the constant trading of extra recess for computer help just feels sleazy. By the way, do twelve year old boys do recess?

Be that as it may, a brilliant passage emerges from this scene:

When he first entered this miserable room and found his way back onto the web, Shuli had prided himself on the belief that all knowledge was contained inside the Torah. And now, as he waits for Gavriel to pinpoint the exact spot on the planet where this hidden yeshivah stood, he’s forced to admit that inside this terrible machine is a different kind of all knowingness. A toxic, shiftless omniscience.
To unlock the secrets of the Torah, one had to be disciplined. One had to work and to think. But this? If one only knew how to ask the question, all knowledge was lazily yours.
…And here in these machines is that exact knowing – for the advertisers and for the governments and for those with good and bad intentions to use as they saw fit. It’s all accessible, your wants and dreams, your sins and secrets, so that Gavriel, tapping away at the keys, can tell where someone around the world sits right then – a humble, hidden someone who does not want to be found. But the Internet knows, and it has no compass to guide it and no will to guard what was meant only for the Maker. Here, it all waits to be plucked out of the air by a child.

Those of us of a more secular bent are indeed quite aware by now of the perils of all that information just sitting somewhere that anyone could find it. It goes well beyond what ads show up on the websites you visit. Just a few days ago, a major effort at vote deterrence was discovered as a major source of voter suppression in 2016: people targeted as Democratic voters who could be persuaded, not to vote for the other guy, but not to vote at all. And think of AI, all those algorithms, programmed without morals, without judgment, without, well, soul. I can see how Shuli might see this through a religious lens.

SERIOUS SPOILER ALERT: But that raises another complaint I have with the book (hey, I often avoid negativity, but I think Englander can handle it). Shuli just seems hopelessly naïve. He was in New York advertising, people! He knew his way around internet porn. This isn’t some sheltered yeshiva bocher who’s never been outside Williamsburg. And yet he doesn’t catch on as Gavriel’s inquiries to go unanswered. He thinks Chemi is hiding from modesty. He really doesn’t get what the rest of us realized immediately, what we suspected back when we first read the words that it’s a scam. This stretches credulity to the breaking point. But it’s still a book worth reading, if you can get into that mindset.

Part Three follows Shuli as he roams through Jerusalem trying to find the yeshiva, and thus the server, responsible for And again he finds himself studying, waiting for a mysterious donor whose middle name might be abbreviated Chemi. Since I’ve given up on credibility at this point, I just went with it and enjoyed the chase. But it’s easily the least interesting part of the book.

Part Four is where the money shot is, and yes, I use that term advisedly, since Shuli’s father (as well as the Lady of the Glass Dildo) makes another appearance. Shuli, and through him, we as readers, finally gets the picture of the scam. It’s not as bad as it could have been, and I give a lot of credit for that. It would’ve been easy to have put the server in the back of someplace awful – a New Jersey muffler shop? – but this is more nuanced, though the upshot is the same: there was no recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish. For Shuli, resolution comes while he sleeps. I’m not a big fan of the use of dreams to resolve metaphysical questions, but the interaction between Shuli and Dad is quite lovely, and there’s a religious question resolved quite handily:

One earthly year – what they’d always been taught, what he himself said to his students. This was the maximum period a soul might be purged in the afterlife. And yet, twenty years later, here his father is caught in a ceaseless kind of kaparah.
…”A year is still the maximum,” his father says. “Only without day and without night to signify change, without a son who has been studiously saying Kaddish to go silent at the eleventh month, how are we to know when judgment comes to an end without such markers?”
Shuli, already sweating, says, “I will fix it, Abba. Don’t worry. For you, and for all the others. I will put it right.”

Although I had my complaints, I did very much enjoy this book. The questions of religion and character overshadowed my misgivings about plausibility; for someone more interested in what a character does than in the philosophies raised, I think it might work just as well. I ended up feeling very warmly towards Shuli; he screwed up a lot, but he was able to find his heart and follow it when it mattered. And while some background, however vague, in either Judaism or internet configurations might be helpful, I think the action, and the thought, is accessible to just about anyone.

A. S. Byatt, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories (RH, 1994)

Is there anyone who doesn’t love fairy tales? They are some of our first stories, and by reading them (or hearing them) we learn what stories should be like: that wealth and beauty don’t guarantee happiness; that kindness to all kinds of creatures will help keep you safe in a dangerous world; that loyalty to your goals may get you past obstacles where others have failed; that the villain must be punished and that magic is unpredictable. Whether it’s the story of a spell or a curse, a quest or a fool, a forest or a village, we learn the same lessons over and over: Be cautious. Be kind and brave. Be wise. Know what your wishes are, should anyone ask.

Shelflove review, 11/24/2008

Did you ever lose a book for fifteen years? Not lose in the sense of leaving it on the subway or knocking it behind a massive dresser that never gets moved, but lose in the sense of wanting to read it but putting it aside for something else and way leads on to way and you never get back to reading it? That’s what happened for me with this book.

Some time in the early years of this misbegotten millennium, I read something about Byatt’s use of metafictional elements in her fairy tale “The Story of the Eldest Princess” contained within this collection. I was very interested to find out how that worked, but I was also short on funds, so I found a copy at my local public library. Before I read a word, I fell in love with the physical object of the book: it’s hardbound but small, between the size of mass-market and trade paperback, each story’s opening page is illustrated with a woodcut, and the dust jacket, with its lush green background and deep-toned images, is stunning. Poverty be damned, I had to buy it, but first, I read the story that had started my quest. When the book arrived, I’d already read the part that interested me, so I put it in a line-of-sight location rather than on my to-be-read shelf. Where it sat. And sat. I looked at it most days, admiring anew the cover design, but never read the other four stories.

Flash forward to a couple of weeks ago, when Rabia Chaudry announced her new podcast about djinn lore. I wondered: Why had I never read further in this book? And courtesy of that tiny nudge, so it moved, so belatedly, on-deck, unlost.

The individual stories have diverse origins – two are from an earlier novel, two were separately commissioned, and the final novella was written as a standalone – yet maintain a certain thematic constancy: self-awareness while in a story, familiarity with the conventions of fairy tales, conflicts between the expectations of society and personal desires, and a kind of self-reliance and courage that is sometimes noticeable in its absence. And the cleverness of women, unwilling to commit the mistakes of women in the past.

“The Glass Coffin”

There was once a little tailor, a good and unremarkable man, who happened to be journeying through a forest, in search of work perhaps, for in those days men travelled great distances to make a meagre living, and the services of a fine craftsman, like our hero, were less in demand than cheap and cobbling hasty work that fitted ill and lasted only briefly. He believed he should come across someone who would want his skills — he was an incurable optimist, and imagined a fortunate meeting around every corner, though how that should come about was hard to see, as he advanced farther and farther into the dark, dense trees, where even the moonlight was split into dull little needles of bluish light on the moss, not enough to see by. But he did come upon the little house that was waiting for him, in a clearing in the depths, and was cheered by the lines of yellow light he could see between and under the shutters.

I have little background in the structure of fairy tales, but this is what I think of as typical: someone is offered choices. What seems a little different to me here is that often there are different participants who are used to demonstrate the results of each choice, with only one being the “right” one. But there is no bad-actor for contrast, so that’s just a guess.

Our tailor also seems to use different criteria to decide each set of choices. The first choice is triggered by his honorable good work in making dinner for the man he finds in the house in the woods:

And he laid before the tailor three things. The first was a little purse of soft leather, which clinked a little as he put it down. The second was a cooking pot, black outside, polished and gleaming inside, solid and commodious. And the third was a little glass key, wrought into a fantastic fragile shape, and glittering with all the colours of the rainbow. And the tailor looked at the watching animals for advice, and they all stared benignly back. And he thought to himself, I know about such gifts from forest people. It may be that the first is a purse which is never empty, and the second a pot which provides a wholesome meal whenever you demand one in the right way. I have heard of such things and met men who have been paid from such purses and eaten from such pots. But a glass key I never saw or heard of and cannot imagine what use it might be; it would shiver in any lock. But he desired the little glass key, because he was a craftsman, and could see that it had taken masterly skill to blow all these delicate wards and barrel, and because he did not have any idea about what it was or might do, and curiosity is a great power in men’s lives. So he said to the little man, ‘I will take the pretty glass key.’ And the little man answered, ‘You have chosen not with prudence, but with daring. The key is the key to an adventure, if you will go in search of it.’

He uses a combination of an appreciation for craftsmanship, and natural curiosity, to select the key, choosing daring over prudence. Yet his response to that observation is telling: “Why not? Since there is no use for my craft in this wild place.” We learn a lot in a short time about this tailor: he loves his craft, he is willing to work, and he has an imagination.

He follows the little man’s intricate and somewhat daunting instructions and arrives at his second choice, between a collection of sealed bottles, a tiny village encased in something like a snow globe, and a glass coffin containing a beautiful woman with long golden hair. And again, he wonders about the contents of the little bottles, admires the craftsmanship of the miniature village, yet chooses the woman in the coffin because “the true adventure was the release of this sleeper.” When she wakes, she tells him her story – fulfilling the story-within-a-story quality that runs through this collection – and he continues his adventure to reverse the evil magic that has brought her here.

In the end his love of craftsmanship is reduced to a mere mention in the denouement, which leads me to think that love of adventure supersedes all other motivations. I also get the sense, given how all the objects and characters are tied together, that any decisions he made along the way would have given him opportunity to arrive at the same end, and so it is less his decisions, and more his character in reacting to changing circumstances, that provides the fairy-tale happy ending.

“Gode’s Story”

There was once a young sailor who had nothing but his courage and his bright eyes – but those were very bright – and the strength the gods gave him, which was sufficient.
He was not a good match for any girl in the village, for he was thought to be rash as well as poor, but the young girls liked to see him go by, you can believe, and they liked most particularly to see him dance, with his long, long legs and his clever feet and his laughing mouth.
And most of all one girl liked to see him, who was the Millers daughter , beautiful and stately and proud, with three deep velvet ribbons to her skirt, who would by no means let him see that she liked to see him, but look sideways with glimpy eyes, when he was not watching. And so did many another. It is always so.

The danger of pride seems to be the overarching message of this tale, as the sailor and the miller’s daughter both come to poor ends when they could have lived as happily ever after as the tailor and the woman from the glass coffin in the previous tale. Both of these stories were set in Byatt’s novel Possession, and several online commentaries mention how they are set in a context there that is lost here. That might be why this story passed me by somehow, though it doesn’t explain why the Glass Coffin was such a delight to read.

In any case, it seems a counterweight to the first story, perhaps an externally situated example of following the wrong path or making the wrong decisions that was missing in that tale.

“The Story of the Eldest Princess”

When the eldest Princess was born, the sky was a speedwell blue, covered with very large, lazy, sheep-curly white clouds. When the second Princess was born, there were grey and creamy mares’ tails streaming at great speed across the blue. And when the third Princess was born, the sky was a perfectly clear pane of sky-blue, with not a cloud to be seen, so that you might think the blue was spangled with sun-gold, though this was an illusion.
By the time they were young women, things had changed greatly….

The great change is that the sky has now turned green. You might think that a story about the sky turning green instead of blue would be some kind of eco-fable, but other than the initiating event, that aspect isn’t significant. Byatt’s writing, both in terms of story and style, are strong enough to make the reader forget all about climate change and pollution, in fact, a pretty remarkable feat.

This was the story I originally wanted to read fifteen years ago, in my investigation of metafiction, and I’m just as charmed now on re-reading it as I was then, except more so. If you think fairy tales are boring, this one might change your mind, since it’s shot through with wit more aimed at an adult reader than a child:

The ministers said nothing could be done, though a contingency-fund might be usefully set up for when a course of action became clear. The priests counseled patience and self-denial, as a general sanative measure, abstention from lentils, and the consumption of more lettuce. The generals supposed it might help to attack their neighbor to the East, since it was useful to have someone else to blame, and the marches and battles would distract the people.
The witches and wizards on the whole favored a quest.

Again I see what I imagine as a general fairy tale, but in this case, the Eldest Princess is also aware of fairy tale motifs and so watches her decisions, makes sure she isn’t rash or avoidant, and that she covers her bases as she searches for a way to make the sky blue again.

She began to think. She was by nature a reading, not a travelling princess. This meant both that she enjoyed her new striding solitude in the fresh air, and that she had read a great many stories in her spare time, including several stories about princes and princesses who set out on Quests. What they all had in common, she thought to herself, was a pattern in which the two elder sisters, or brothers, set out very confidently, failed in one way or another, and were turned to stone, or imprisoned in vaults, or cast into magic sleep, until rescued by the third royal person, who did everything well, restored the first and second, and fulfilled the Quest.
She thought she would not like to waste seven years of her brief life as a statue or prisoner if it could be avoided.
She thought that of course she could be vigilant, and very courteous to all passers-by – most elder princesses’ failings were failings of courtesy or over-confidence.

Along the way she encounters a scorpion and a frog – no, not that substory, she’s on the alert for it, even mentions it, and thus turns their journey in a more successful direction – and an old woman who appeared at times to be ahead of her on the road, and behind her, and ends up with her.

The story-within-a-story motif plays out as the Eldest Princess, knowing that when she doesn’t return her sisters will be sent, imagines their journeys. The ending is surprising: not at all what you would have expected given the whole of the story, but quite positive. Downright happy-ending, in fact, and in favor of adapting to change. A lot better than what the ministers, the priests, and the generals came up with.

“Dragon’s Breath”

The short story ‘Dragon’s Breath’ was commissioned by the Scheherazade 2001 Foundation, a project which took place during the bombardment of Sarajevo in 1994. As Byatt explains, this project consisted in reading aloud commissioned tales from different European writers simultaneously in theatres in Sarajevo itself and all over Europe every Friday until the fighting ended. This tale features two dragons which destroy everything in their wake, thus representing war anywhere as the story is not set in Sarajevo. According to old tales, as one of the character puts it, dragon’s breath paralyses the will – an apt metaphor for war’s effects.

Alexandra Cheira: Evil Monsters as War Metaphors in A. S. Byatt’s Fiction, chapter abstract

With this kind of background, I’m intimidated by this story; some things seem too sacred to dissect. I’m also hesitant because I’m not sure I follow the story as written. But maybe by approaching it, with the background in mind, I’ll begin to understand it better.

We start out with a family including the children are Harry, Jack, and Eva. Their valley is surrounded by mountains, and their lives by ancient lore:

In England the circular impressions around certain hills are ascribed to the coiling grip of ancient dragons, and in that country there was a tale that in some primeval time the channels had been cut by the descent of giant worms from the peaks. In the night, by the fire, parents frightened children pleasurably with tales of the flaming, cavorting descent of the dragons.
Harry, Jack and Eva were not afraid of dragons, but they were, in their different ways, afraid of boredom. Life in that village repeated itself, generation after generation.

And again the inciting event might be seen as ecological: changes in water coming from the mountains, in colors of the sky. While they are afraid, they’re also excited, since this is something new. Until the hills seemed to generate fire and sent trails of burning rock towards the village: “almost as though it was not landslides but creatures, great worms with fat heads creeping down on us.” This Dragon’s Breath, slowly oozing lava from a volcanic source, is headed to the village, but the residents talk about it rather than planning to evacuate so are forced to leave hurriedly and too late, to take refuge in the forest.

They were watching the destruction of their world, and yet they felt a kind of ennui which was part of all the other distress they felt. You might ask – where were the knights, where were the warriors…. The old women said that old tales told that dragons’ breath paralyzed the will, but when they were asked for practical advice, now, they had none to offer.

The lava eventually burrows under a lake and the villagers can return. Jack and Eva find their house, amazingly enough, intact, even the rug Eva was weaving. Harry’s pig returns, and they wait for Harry to return – “But he did not.”

In spite of all the action of this story, of villagers watching their homes destroyed, living in primitive conditions in the forest, what stands out is the final paragraph. For they made the event into stories, naturally enough. Some things they left out.

And these tales, made from those people’s wonder at their own survival, became in time, charms against boredom for their children and grandchildren, riddling hints of the true relations between peace and beauty and terror.

This theme of boredom interests me (how paradoxical). Some people are bored under any circumstances, others are never bored, though they may be frustrated by an inability to access resources. I think we sometimes claim to be bored as a way of expressing that lack of access; it’s not that we’re bored, but we’re disappointed that the game was cancelled or we can’t hang out with our friends and nothing else fills that particular gap. I can understand how containment, even in the midst of horrible conditions like dragon’s breath or war, can generate a kind of boredom that becomes blended with the horror. And I very much understand how stories might be used to alleviate that boredom, and to motivate actions that, however limited, are possible in restricted circumstances.

I can’t begin to understand how the people of Sarajevo might have felt listening to this story as their own city was being destroyed. But let’s look at it more broadly. Stories survive disaster. Stories grow out of disaster, using destruction as a kind of fertile soil. How many war stories are in the contemporary canon, from Anne Frank to The Things They Carried? My generation’s equivalent of “What’s your major” was “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” 9/11 is still generating stories. In the first days of the stay-at-home phase of pandemic control in Maine, the library started its “Isolating Together” archive, a collection of comments, poems, diary entries, etc. from patrons. It’ll be interesting to see how this compares with the stories we tell ten years from now.

“The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye”

In this case, it’s a present-day story-teller meditating on Scheherazade, rather than Scheherazade seen directly. (The other two stories, “The Story of the Eldest Princess” and “Dragons’ Breath,” are also meditations on the nature of story-telling.) It’s less optimistic than Barth on the possibility of any stable union possible within marriage, but Gillian the story-teller wins through to a reasonably happy­after­ever ending. She confronts the misogyny built into classics both Western (Chaucer’s “Patient Griselda”) and Eastern (Scheherazade), and when she winds up with a djinn of very own, she defeats the traditional dangerousness of wishes by a mixture of cleverness (one of her wishes is that the djinn should love her) and generosity (another is to give the djinn his own wish, which is for freedom). The balance between freedom for the djinn and his continued love for her leaves them with choices and possibilities.

~ Ruth Berman review in Mythprint 35:2, published and excerpted online by the Mythopoeic Society

The title story is more of a novella, comprising half the book. It’s an absolute delight to read, with its hat trick of 1) stories that teach me something, 2) stories that resonate with something I’ve seen before, and 3) stories that aren’t afraid to have fun.

Unlike the other stories, it takes place in the present day and, for at least the first half, in total realism, or at least as close to realism as academia gets. Dr. Gillian Perholt is a British narratologist who spends the story attending academic conferences on mythic storytelling. Yet it is told in fairy tale style:

Once upon a time, when men and women hurled through the air on metal wings, when they wore webbed feet and walked on the bottom of the sea, learning the speech of whales and the songs of the dolphins, when pearly-fleshed and jew­elled apparitions of Texan herdsmen and houris shimmered in the dusk on Nicaraguan hillsides, when folk in Norway and Tasmania in dead of winter could dream of fresh strawberries, dates, guavas and passion fruits and find them spread next morning on their tables, there was a woman who was largely irrelevant, and therefore happy.
Her business was storytelling, but she was no ingenious queen in fear of the shroud brought in with the dawn, nor was she a naquibolmalek to usher a shah through the gates of sleep, nor an ashik, lover-minstrel singing songs of Mehmet the Conqueror and the sack of Byzantium…. She was merely a narratologist, a being of secondary order, whose days were spent hunched in great libraries scrying, interpreting, decoding the fairy-tales of childhood and the vodka-posters of the grown-up world, the unending romances of golden coffee-drinkers, and the impeded couplings of doctors and nurses, dukes and poor maidens, horsewomen and musicians. Sometimes also, she flew. In her impoverished youth she had supposed that scholar­ship was dry, dusty and static, but now she knew better.

Having just read Ayşe Papatya Bucak’s short story collection The Trojan War Museum, I wondered if that opening was a salute to the traditional Turkish fairy tale openings; later in the story, Dr. Perholt travels to Turkey and confirms it. For this opening, we are informed via a rather present narrator that Dr. Perholt is in her 50s and happily divorced with a couple of children now independent of her, and that she is professionally in great demand at narratology conferences.

In Ankara she presents an analysis of The Clerk’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, analyzing the woes of Patient Griselda, and her outrage that, though the moral of the tale is that women should bear all things and will be rewarded, as a woman she has a different reaction: “the stories of women’s lives in fiction are the stories of stopped energies… and all come to that moment of strangling, willed oblivion.” The story as a whole shows how she has refused, and continues to refuse, to let this happen to her.

We are also treated to an analysis of Scheherazade by Perholt’s good friend and in-country host, Orhan Rifat, as well as tours of Ankara and Istanbul, antiquity museums and soirees and Hagia Sophia, places that serve as settings for more story analysis (an old soldier who may or may not be a guide relates Gilgamesh, partygoers discuss Persian tales). With these in mind, with echoes of Paul in Ephesus, with remembrances of prior trips when she was younger and more comfortable in her body, we arrive at a small shop selling, among other things, glass bottles.

‘I’m not an expert in glass,’ he said. ‘It could be çeşm-i bülbül, nightingale’s eye. Or it could be fairly recent Venetian glass. “Çeşm-i Bülbül” means nightingale’s eye. There was a famous Turkish glass workshop at İncirköy – round about 1845, I think – made this famous Turkish glass, with this spiral pattern of opaque blue and white stripes, or red sometimes, I think. I don’t know why it’s called eye of the nightingale. Perhaps nightingales have eyes that are transparent and opaque. In this country we were obsessed with nightingales. Our poetry is full of nightingales.’
‘Before pollution,’ said Orhan, ‘before television, everyone came out and walked along the Bosphorus and in all the gardens, to hear the first nightingales of the year. It was very beautiful. Like the Japanese and the cherry blossom. A whole people, walking quietly in the spring weather, listening.’

I wasn’t able to find anything by searching for “nightingale’s eye,” but had much better luck with “Çeşm-i Bülbül.” The most interesting site I found is, alas, in Turkish, but Google Translate does the job. NYT also has a travel story that gives a clearer history.

And then the title begins to make sense, as Dr. Perholt brings the bottle back to her hotel room and discovers there’s a djinn – what we in the West would call a genie – inside. This rests on the previously encountered information about wishing and fairy tales, so we have some context in which to understand how Perholt applies her knowledge, and her personal history, to get the most out of her genie, and at the same time learns his history (more storytelling within the story) and introduces him to the contemporary world.

It’s a story held together by style, linking the academic world with the mythic imagination and cultural artifact. I wish I’d read it, and the other stories here, fifteen years ago. Then again, I hadn’t started blogging at that point, and was a much less experienced reader, so maybe the book wasn’t so much lost as waiting for me to be ready to read it.

Contemporary Chinese Literature mooc

Course: ChinaX Book Club: Five Authors, Five Books, Five Views of China
Length: 5 weeks, 1-2 hrs/wk
School/platform: HarvardX/edX
Instructor: David Wang

How can literature and literary analysis allow us to understand the dynamics of contemporary China?
China’s historical and cultural transformations, and its imaginary and actual engagements in everyday life are vividly dramatized by five Chinese authors featured in this course…. This course will employ the tools of close reading, discussion, and analysis to explore issues that concern the Chinese people, and ponder the power (and limitations) of literature in imagining China anew.

I started Harvard’s ChinaX series a couple of years ago; I loved the first couple of segments, but lost interest as we moved into the medieval period and never completed it. Recently I saw this offered as another part of the series. I’m way too intimidated to read Chinese literature on my own, so I thought it might be an interesting way to get some kind of glimpse into what I was missing.

To my surprise, I had read two of the authors discussed. An excerpt of Mo Yan’s novel POW! appeared in TNY right after he won his Nobel Prize, and I read Ha Jin’s story collection A Good Fall a long time ago and made a mess of it (I’m embarrassed every time I see those posts come up, since I had no idea what I was doing). Neither of those works was involved in this course, however.

The works that were discussed were:
∘ China in 10 Words by Yu Hua
∘ Red Sorghum: A Novel of China by Mo Yan
∘ Lenin’s Kisses by Yan Lianke
∘ Waiting by Ha Jin
∘ The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi

I took this as a “recreational mooc” and thus didn’t read the works. Each week focused on one author/book. After an introduction of the author, with some reference to the specific book, a passage from the book (usually about 10 pages) was presented with numerous detailed instructor notes and questions. This was an annotation exercise, the idea being to respond to the instructor material or add your own notations. I found the instructor notes very helpful, and also a bit intimidating: they pointed out things I never would have considered if I’d been reading the book. Some of this is just a more analytical way of reading – a discussion of free indirect discourse, for example – and some was in references to Chinese culture and history that’s outside my knowledge. Of course, reading books is a great way to get that knowledge, but it helps when they’re highlighted and explicitly explained.

Other material for each week included an interview with the author (these were in a Chinese dialect – I’m assuming Mandarin, but how would I know – with English subtitles and transcripts), and discussions between the instructor and a couple of PhD students. A set of “reader’s guide” style questions was provided for each book, giving further guidance to personal reading. All grading was in self-reporting; I skipped that entirely.

Yu Hua’s China in 10 Words, the only nonfiction covered in the course, served as both an entry into the class, and a wrap-up, as the course is situated within a series about understanding China. An entry survey asked us to come up with ten words we connect with China, prior to reading the works or taking the course. Given the coincidence of taking this during a pandemic that began in China, and living in a country with a leader whose racism is front and center, it was a bit disconcerting [Note: I took this course in the Spring; this post has just been sitting in my notes document since then, but I… well, I forgot about it until I saw it the other day]. I connect China with the philosophies of the Warring States period, with the poetry of the Tang (or is it Song, I get them confused) dynasty, and with bits and pieces I’ve encountered in other moocs. At the end of the course, the instructor and his grad students came up with their own list of ten words to summarize contemporary China; they of course know a lot more than I do about it.

Initially, I thought Lenin’s Kisses by Yan Lianke would be the book I’d be most likely to read on my own, just based on the description: a satiric novel about a kind of travelling circus of disabled people from a poor village who turn to entertainment for economic survival. From the excerpt included, I get the impression there are important nuances that I couldn’t follow, so I’m not sure it’s where I would start.

By the end of the course, Ha Jin’s Waiting seemed like the best entry point: a novel about a man trying, for twenty years, to divorce his wife so he can marry the woman he loves. Yet I would be reluctant based on my past inability to connect with Ha’s stories in A Good Fall. Perhaps I’ve learned a little about reading since then? The author has an interesting story: he was in the US as a student when the Tiananmen massacre occurred, and he decided then he would write only in English from then on and never return to China.

Wang Anyi also has an interesting story, and her The Song of Everlasting Sorrow reflects it alongside the history of Shanghai: a woman struggling against prohibitions, coming into her own voice. This turned out to be the most easily readable for me (at least, of the excerpts in translation that were provided), so that makes it tempting as well. Red Sorghum by Mo Yan, a “native soil” novel about peasant China (their word, not mine) rounded out the field.

I’m not sure I’m ready to take on any of these works; I’ve read very little translated fiction. At some point I’ll read something someone’s written about one of these books, or maybe another Chinese novel, and that will spark me into action. I’m glad this class gave me an overview to find some footing.

Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone: This Is How You Lose the Time War (Saga, 2020)

We wanted the war, and the whole of time and space, to be a backdrop to the characters. We’re in some ways anthologizing a war, drawing from the whole breadth and depth of science fiction, and… historical fiction for that matter. There are tropes and characters that we’re referencing… If you’re getting the references then oh, ok, all of a sudden I’m there, but if you’re not, the question is, how do you navigate the book? And the answer we settled on is: This is really the story of these two characters. Anyone who picks up the references is going to see how they connect; and anyone who is really used to the particular old-school science fictional game of taking tiny little hints of how worlds assemble and extrapolating from that to a complete sense of the society and culture will be able to do that too. But for people who are coming for the characters, they’re still going to be able to follow Red and Blue and understand them enough to enjoy the book, to go on the journey with them.

Interview: An Online Conversation with Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone via Read It Again Bookstore (14 minute mark)

I haven’t read much contemporary (that is, post-1970s) science fiction. Even though I can quote some scenes from ST:TNG by heart, I’ve never been a piece-it-together kind of viewer/reader, and my affection for Dr. Who never got beyond the Christmas Carol and Vincent episodes (which I love enough for the whole series to be dear to me, however). I do like a lot of the literary fiction that uses other-world settings, mostly because it invites a variety of interesting structural and stylistic elements. But at heart I am, I suppose, more of a litfic reader putting up with strange other worlds than a scific reader tolerating emotion and social meaning.

So it’s odd I would choose to read this book. Ah, the power of marketing: I just kept seeing it on my feeds, with words like “imaginative,” “chaos,”, “wordplay,” and, my favorite, “affective center of motion.” I don’t even know what that last one means, but it’s irresistible. And I will admit, my favorite ST episodes were always about time, or at least multiverses.

It was a very different experience for me. It’s the first time I’ve enjoyed a book while not really understanding the setting, and, even more strangely, not having a clue as to what happened at the end.

When Red wins, she stands alone.
Blood slicks her hair. She breathes out steam in the last night of this dying world.
That was fun, she thinks, but the thought sours in the framing. It was clean, at least. Climb up time’s threads into the past and make sure no one survives this battle to muddle the futures her Agency’s arranged — the futures in which her Agency rules, in which Red herself is possible. She’s come to knot this strand of history and sear it until it melts.

If it weren’t for the back cover synopsis and promotional teasers, I would’ve been completely lost. Red and Blue are on two sides of a war: Red, from the technologically-grounded Agency, and Blue, from the back-to-nature Garden. Both go into various strands of time to adjust events so their entity will come out in charge in the final analysis. Both try to undo, or compensate for, the other’s adjustments.

And they fall in love. But that’s just where their troubles begin: now what do they do?

Getting to that point is really half the fun. This is where words like “imaginative” come into play. They start leaving each other letters, but they’re letters on unusual media. A letter that must be burned before reading, then the ashes mixed to a paste. A letter that’s part of a fish, “sealed” in a seal – a cute little Arctic seal. Letters written in the rings of centuries-old trees (they are time travelers, after all), in the lava of the volcano that sank Atlantis, in berries and leaves and tea dregs. Letters that are smelled, tasted, consumed rather than read. And letters that would get both of them executed as traitors, if discovered by their superiors.

It starts out more as admiration for a worthy opponent, a kind of “Across the havoc of war, I salute you” kind of thing as Churchill was supposed to have said of Rommel (not quite; he said something similar). Then they get curious about the other side: “Do you eat?” “Do you laugh?” “Do you dream?” Admiration turns to fondness, turns to affection, turns to love for two solo warriors. Who are, by the way, both women.

…So in this letter I am yours. Not Garden’s, not your mission’s, but yours, alone.
I am yours in other ways as well: yours as I watch the world for your signs, apophenic as a haruspex; yours as I debate methods, motives, chances of delivery; yours as I review your words by their sequence, their sound, smell, taste, taking care no one memory of them becomes too worn. Yours. Still, I suspect you will appreciate the token.

I found it interesting to watch them go through known history: Genghis Khan, London of various eras, the aforementioned Atlantis, World War II. And Ozymandias. Oh, yes, the literary references, those are great fun. “I’m contradicting myself. The geometers would be ashamed,” writes Red (or is it Blue?). Maybe, but Whitman would rejoice. And the fun stuff: “How many boards would the Mongols hoard if the Mongol horde got bored?” They must’ve spent time in the 20th century US.

As the earth shakes and the sky burns, even the bravest and most single-minded leave their work. Notes and sums and new engines remain behind. They take people and art. The math will burn, the engines melt, the arches fall to dust.
…That man built a steam and pinwheel engine six centuries earlier than the mean. This woman, through reason and ecstatic meditation, discerned the usefulness of zero to her mathematics. This shepherd built freestanding arches into the walls of his house. Small touches, ideas so fundamental they seem useless. Nobody here knows their worth, yet. But if they do not perish on this island, someone might realize their use a few centuries earlier and change everything.
So Red tries to give them time.
… the mathematician still has time to grab her wax tablets at least.

As for the ending, I have no idea what happened, but I was glued to the last thirty pages. I found a Reddit thread that tried to explain it, but it didn’t help much; I was that lost as to the overall setting. I would imagine those who recognize the tropes, as the authors say above, would have been quite happy. In looking at various reviews, it seems the romance was central to many readers. Though I am in neither camp, I did enjoy the book, as little as I understood of what was happening, mostly because of the references I got, and the idea of letters encrypted in ingenious forms.

It’s unusual for a book to be written by two authors. The interview quoted above gives some insight into the process (starting at about the 40 minute mark). They decided to work together on a project, then decided it would be a novella, then came up with the concept. Oh, and I discovered this is a post-singularity world. Singularity is one of those concepts I only vaguely understand: the point where machines take over from us. So that adds to the conflict: it’s a red pill/blue pill thing. One reader mentioned US political leanings associated with those colors. That never occurred to me; odd, really, since I’m fairly keyed in to politics, but I was perhaps distracted, given the jovial nature of it all, by Overly Sarcastic Production’s use of the pseudonyms Red and Blue.

I’ll admit I didn’t try all that hard to figure out the battleground or the sides or exactly what happened at the end. I didn’t feel any particular need or desire to do so, and I’m not sure it would have done me much good. So I’m not your typical reader for this sort of thing. But it was fun to visit.

Mark Dunn, Ella Minnow Pea (Anchor, 2002)

On Monday, July 17, a most intriguing thing took place: one of the tiles from the top of the cenotaph at town center came loose and fell to the ground, shattering into a good many pieces. A young girl here, one Alice Butterworth, discovered the fallen tile at the base of the statue, carefully gathered up the bits and shards, and quickly conveyed them to the offices of the High Island Council. Tiny Alice delivered these fragments into the hands of Most Senior Gordon Willingham who promptly called an emergency meeting of that lofty body to glean purpose and design from this sudden and unexpected detachation.
This aforementioned gleaning – this is important.

My reaction to this novel went through a number of revisions as I read. I started out amused by the premise: a tiny island nation off the South Carolina coast, a nation named for and dedicated to the (fictitious) deceased creator of the quick-brown-fox pangram, interpreted the tiles falling off his cenotaph as a message that those letters should no longer be used, and thus language becomes more and more restricted. I’m not really a fan of the epistolary novel in general, but it’s the perfect form for this tale, as the text itself reflects the linguistic difficulties posed by the loss of each letter in turn.

I formulated the following reaction early on: “A clever one-page satire expanded into a 200 page YA-dystopia novel.” I rather dreaded reading through another 170 pages of shrinking alphabet. Fortunately, Dunn is far better writer than that, and he soon changed my mind. And the ending – and I mean, the very end, the last five pages – it really landed.

Although the central progression is the deletion of letters of the alphabet, a lot more happens. Ella, our title character, views the loss of the first letter – Z – with some amusement, but her friend Tassie is more alarmed. Sure enough, Ella discovers all books in the library have been destroyed. The punishment for using the forbidden letters is, for the first offense, a rather stern talking-to, but then gets draconian: second offense, whipping or being placed in the stocks in the village square (offender’s choice); third offense, banishment from the island, or death. Offender’s choice.

One family, condemned for a second offense as a unit, made a special request:

“We also wish to be flogged in the presence of as many town residents as choose to be in attendance. And if this produces no outcry – especially the laying of leather tassel upon the youthful backs of my nine-year-old twin daughters Becka and Henrietta – then please trundle us without delay from this island of cringe and cowardice, for we no longer wish to belong to such a Despicable confederacy of spinal-defectives.”

Neighbors start turning each other in. Mail is read (by a French savant who knows no English but can recognize the forbidden letters). The Council drives eminent domain into high gear. Various means of reversing the edict are proposed, and meet obstacles. Throughout there are subtle ironies and humorous passes that might escape notice, such as when one resident defends the edict (and her tendency to squeal on anyone who happens to accidentally let a forbidden letter pass their lips):

I sincerely believe, as do several who have joined me for biweekly talk group sessions, that Nollop, as one who put great emphasis upon the word, is now attempting to pry us away from our traditional heavidependence on linguistic orthodoxy. Through this challenge, he hopes to move us away from lexical discourse as we now know it, and toward the day in which we can relate to one another in sweet pureplicity through the taciteries of the heart.

And when this leopard-eating-faces-party supporter finds the leopard eating her own face, there’s a moment of forgiveness so pure, it would surely make Jesus weep.

I was impressed at how forward momentum was maintained in what could have been the one-trick-pony book I initially expected. And, even though the last twenty-five pages got pretty hard to read, by then it was impossible to stop.

The ending – not only a plot resolution but a bit of linguistic philosophy – left me laughing and shaking my head in disbelief. By the end, this had become minimalist fiction. The language restriction forced it, to some extent, but a typical novel would’ve had another thirty pages of everyone discussing what had happened and what was going to happen and how they felt about it all. But none of that was necessary. Paring down the letters also pared down discourse, as predicted, to the simplest possible presentation: here, this is how it ends, bye now. It’s perfect.

But I was left with one question: Is there such a thing as a reverse McGuffin?

As I understand it, the McGuffin, as described by Hitchcock, is an item that generates motive but in itself is essentially unimportant: “the device, the gimmick, if you will, or the papers the spies are after….the engine that sets the story in motion.” What I am calling a reverse McGuffin (which others have already wondered about; feel free to google about) is, to my mind, something that enters unobtrusively, has no role whatsoever, until, at the end, it suddenly becomes the Key to Everything. It’s a tricky thing to do. I remember The Grasshopper King in which a certain character’s traits seemed clumsily inserted in preparation for their final role; here, the technique works so much better. In fact, its unobtrusiveness is the key to its success. To say more would be a spoiler.

Although this book was first published in 2001, some of the themes and elements seemed particularly suited to the present moment. Elements such as:

∘ The dangers of oligarchy, gerontocracy, theocracy, and various brands of authoritarianisms;
∘ Interpretation of events in mystical terms;
∘ Conflict between science and religion;
∘ Resistance and backlash;
∘ Censorship;
∘ Hero worship of a figure whose background is obscured by time and, perhaps, deliberate deceit;

By the way – you think it’s hard to launch a new book in the middle of a pandemic? Try in the month after 9/11. That this one succeeded – primarily by word of mouth – is a testimony to how good it is. By the way, the subtitle was changed between hardcover and paperback versions: from “A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable” to “A Novel in Letters”. I find that interesting and… disappointing. Given the voice of the letters – initially just a more formal and old-fashioned to the contemporary ear, relying more and more on esoteric vocabulary as common words must be stricken, and resorting at last to phonetic spellings that sometimes only come close to conveying the meaning – the first title seems far more appropriate. A marketing decision, perhaps? I see Dunn has written several novels since this, his first (he was originally a prolific playwright), and a lot of them have rather wacky descriptions. I may have to check these out.

This book came to my attention last March via a Twitter prompt from last March about books to be read while self-isolating. Dear @timtfj, you had me at “arbitrary banning of various letters of the alphabet” but “society collapses” helped, too.

Ayşe Papatya Bucak, The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories (Norton, 2019)

“I would like to tell a story,” Emineh said and everyone turned to her, surprised.
She tried to make the nightingale’s sound, but her voice came out as sharp as the cold wind on the top of the eastern mountains.
Once there was and once there wasn’t, in the time when genies were jinn and camels were couriers, during that time there was a baby bird who broke its wing and so could not make the winter migration to warmer air. And so the baby bird’s mother went first to the oak tree to ask if it would shelter her baby bird in winter, but the oak tree said no. And then she asked the walnut tree. And the olive tree. And every tree she could find, but they all said no. Until finally she asked the pine. And the pine made a nest among its needles for the baby bird, and all winter long, it kept the baby bird warm and safe by not dropping its needles. And ever since that winter, the pine tree has never shed its needles.
“It would have been kinder to let the bird die,” Mother Zeyno said. “It probably grew up weak and coddled and couldn’t take care of itself.”
“I think that’s very cruel,” Emineh said.
“Then you take care of the baby bird,” Mother Zeyno said, and all the others laughed.

“Little Sister and Emineh”

Folk tales; elaborated stories about real, if obscure, people; timelines that reach from antiquity to today and even a bit beyond; stories containing stories; stories that address the reader; stories with mystery and tragedy and love: it’s all in here. This is a collection for those who want to hear a storyteller when they read, who want to get a peek at the unusual alongside the ordinary. Interested in chess-playing automatons? A Turkish wrestler on tour? A man who got rich harvesting sponges and never bothered to contemplate his life? An art collection full of stories? A series of museums created by the Gods of Olympus? The poetic, the harsh, the episodic, the subtle, the overt? It’s in here.

Back in 2014, I fell in love with Bucak’s story “Iconography” after reading it in Pushcart XLVIII. When I saw this collection hit the market last year, I put it on my list, but wanted to wait for the paperback. I just find them easier to carry around and to read. And I see via Twitter that Bucak has the same preference, one of several minor intersections between us.

The “storyteller voice” is prominent in these stories, which sometimes include little preludes and/or postludes that use storyteller formulas or revert to first-person. In her FWR interview, Bucak explains she’s drawn to that style, and discusses an Armenian folk tale formula for ending a story:

With a couple of stories I wanted to end with the storyteller addressing the reader more overtly, which is something I think I stole from Armenian folktales, which often end “Three apples fell from heaven” and then usually include some variation on “one for the storyteller, one for the listener” and one for some odd third. I like the breaking of the wall that happens there.

Interview with Natalie Rowland at FWR

That closing formula is another intersection I have with Bucak, one with particular power for me. The Portland (Maine) Public Library, just a couple of blocks from where I sit, a sculpture
by local artist and teacher John Ventimiglia titled “Three Apples Fell from Heaven” decorates the elevator niche on the first floor. Folds of metal form an alphabet based on Armenian calligraphy of a bygone century, and cast shadows on the wall behind the piece. The artist’s statement explains how it honors the traditional folk tale formula. I’ve loved that scupture for years. In 2011, in fact, when I was in my Zin Kenter phase (if you don’t know, you don’t want to, trust me) I wrote a goofy flash about an Armenian man who, while looking for a book elsewhere in the library, finds himself drawn back to that sculpture, and to his own story, by the yarn of his own sweater which caught on it as he walked past. Alas, Prick of the Spindle is no more so I can’t link to it, but it was there.

Bucak links that third apple to her sense, as someone of mixed heritage (her father was Turkish, her mother American), of writing from “the third position of being both.” All of the stories feature Turks, usually as main characters, and in her Rumpus Book Club chat she admits she’s amused, having been raised in America, that readers might get the impression she’s more culturally Turkish than she is. “I suspect American readers notice the Turkishness a lot more than they notice the Americanness,” she says, which was, for most stories, the case for me. I’d love to know the impression of Turkish readers!

I’m always interested in how a collection is put together. She’d written two stories – “The History of Girls” and “Iconography’ – before she started thinking in terms of a collection. She wanted variety, so moved away from girls to “A Cautionary Tale” featuring a wrestler, then a Southern story, perhaps the most traditional narrative in the book. She started fitting stories within stories, which created some wonderful effects. When things started to feel “too magical” she went back to reality. Then came the process of ordering the stories:

Actually the decision to put “Gathering of Desire” at the end came very late. My agent and I went back and forth a few times on the order. She wanted a more contemporary story at the end, but I didn’t have that many contemporary stories. And originally “The History of Girls” was more toward the middle. But that was the first story I wrote for the book so it had been out a while and I knew firsthand that it was my most reader-friendly story, so I suggested we put it first—as a kind of warm greeting, everybody welcome kind of story. But then I wanted “The Trojan War Museum” to be last as it’s my personal fave (Julie was not so keen on that idea). Then I realized on albums—when we used to listen to those—I often liked the sixth song best… so I put “The Trojan War Museum” sixth. And at that point, it felt like “Gathering of Desire” could work as anchor, and in fact more people would notice the story (which is maybe my second favorite) if it was at the end.

I now want to go through all my favorite albums and see what the sixth cut is. The problem is: whereas she’s of the age when album probably meant CD, I gathered my music in the vinyl age, and the sixth cut tends to be right at the side flip, which probably has some impact on the song chosen for that spot – either the last song on side A or the first on side B. In any case, I find her stories to have such intriguing beginnings, and such strong endings, I’d be fine beginning and finishing the collection with any one of them.

How about a more detailed look at some of the stories.

The History of Girls (available online at LitHub)

While we waited we were visited by the ghosts of the girls who had already died. Those who were closest to the explosion, in the kitchen sneaking butter and bread when the gas ignited, the ones who died immediately, in a sense without injury, the girls who died explosively.
The dead girls waited with us, amidst the rubble, our heads pillowed on it, our arms and legs canopied by it, some of us punctured by it. The rubble was heavy, of course. The weight of it made us wonder what happened to the softer things. Our sheets and blankets, our letters from home, our Korans, our class notes, the slips of paper we exchanged throughout the day, expressing our affections and disaffections for each other, for our teachers, for the rituals of our contained life. What about the curtains on our windows? we thought.… The explosion, it seemed, turned everything to stone. Except us. We were soft then, softer than we ever were.

Given my fondness for unusual narrative points of view, of course I was enchanted by this first-person-plural story. Then, at the end, it shifts into singular, a change Bucak made at the urging of one of her early readers. It’s interesting that she chose an accident, rather than malfeasance, for the cause of the explosion. Throughout, the girls show caring for each other – whether living or dead – and fear is pushed into the background. They produce their own hope, and they aim to survive, even when that seems unlikely. This is the history of girls.

As a bonus, Bucak followed this up with “Microeditorial: The History of Girls, Part II”, also available online, a contemplation of the difference between Anne Frank and Malala based on a conversation she had with her mother, and how hard it is for girls to find the right balance between power and humility. Or, more accurately, how difficult it is for the world to see girls who don’t fit the expected balance. Just ask any female political candidate; it doesn’t get easier with age.

A Cautionary Tale

I imagine that before the collision, on the boat, Yusuf must have thought often of reaching home. He was ready to retire. But I imagine, too, that he was afraid. He had some money, he had a family to return to, but it was all unknown; he had spent his life wrestling, traveling. He was famous, of course, but he had daughters he barely knew and a wife who had grown accustomed to living without a husband. He had things to be ashamed of. He had never had much of a life outside of wrestling, So what would it be like to no longer have wrestling?
It would be nice to imagine that in the water he did not think of his fights with men but, rather, of how he used to train against nature, and how though he never defeated it, nature always made him stronger. How beautiful if he was able to remember his home with the cypress trees, the wind from the east, and the fields full of filberts and pistachios and chestnuts, later to be roasted in a fire.

There was, in the late 19th century a real Yusuf Ismail, a Turkish wrestler whose life did follow the path outlined in this story. That in itself would be an interesting story – Ismail is what tactful sources often refer to as colorful – but what makes it really work is that it’s being told, by an immigration officer, to an applicant during an entry interview:

You don’t like my asking you questions, do you?
You’re just doing your job.
Yes. But you don’t like it.
It’s not what I expected.
What did you expect?
Different kinds of questions.
What kind?
About my work. About where I’ll live. About, I don’t know, paying taxes, obeying the law.
We’ll get to those.
Do you tell everybody these stories?
I tell everybody stories.
But not these stories.
No, not these stories.

We have no information about the officer or the applicant, other than their conversation about Ismail’s story, which lets us as readers tell the real story ourselves. It’s hard to resist, given the present moment in which we are living, putting a malevolent spin on the officer, but it’s possible he (or she) has some understanding of the transitions involved in immigration, and is hoping to reduce expectations a bit. Bucak shared her motivations in an interview with Joshua Graber for Asterix:

The interview style of this story was inspired by the young adult novel I am the Cheese by Robert Cormier. There’s an interviewer/interviewee format to much of the novel that I found hugely [word(s) omitted]. So I wanted to try it. On the simplest level, the border agent (as I imagine him) is offering the interviewee a cautionary tale about leaving home. And while I view the interviewer as a fairly negative force, trying to control things he shouldn’t, I wrote the story out of the ambivalence that I know my father felt about having immigrated to the United States. He never really knew if he wanted to be here or there. I worry now about how this story will be read in an unnuanced world that doesn’t necessarily have room for the idea that immigration doesn’t always work out. But it doesn’t always work out. (That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be allowed, of course.)

Interview at Asterix

Having read quite a few stories by immigrants about immigrants, I’ll agree that there’s often at least some ambivalence involved, even in cases where they go to great lengths to get here. Literary fiction, re-nuancing the world one story at a time. It’s a great use of the story-within-a-story technique.

Mysteries of the Mountain South

As much as I continue to love “Iconography,” this story is stiff competition for my favorite of the collection. It’s quite different from most of the other stories in several ways. First, it’s set in the present, with blogs and drones and computer simulations, all of which are critical to the turn of events. Second, though it’s set in the rural South, it doesn’t borrow much from folk tales. Third, its Turkish content is minimal, though it does have a powerful theme around race and ethnicity. But other similarities remain, in particular the storyteller voice, though in more subdued form. And it does have a pov-switching coda at the end, including a final paragraph that shook loose all the tears I had stored up.

Edie is a recent college graduate who expected to go to Mountain View and code 24/7, but she ends up in Mountain Home, North Carolina, instead, due to her grandmother’s terminal illness and need for a caretaker. Armed with a video-equipped drone, she puts her technical expertise to work creating Virtual Valley, a computer simulation of the area.

Her relationship with her grandmother blossoms, and she finds out her great-great-grandfather was black. Or, rather, Melungeon, as her grandmother explains. I’d never heard of Melungeons, people of mixed ethnicity that’s described as white, black, and Indian, maybe Portuguese and Turkish. Edie reacts to this, but carefully – “trying to sound nonchalant, utterly and absolutely unsurprised, nothing that could make her sound insensitive or racist. Because she wasn’t!” This is such an incredibly authentic thought I had to smile.

This thickens when Grandma starts planning for her green funeral. Edie meets Michael, the young, and black, owner of the local mortuary which specializes in “environmentally sustainable practices and death midwifery – but also the regular stuff, if you want it.” After some paperwork, Michael goes over a delicate issue with Edie:

“She understands,” he said, “that I’ll be the one to prepare her?
“Prepare her how?”
“Her body,” he said.
“I’m sure she understands. That’s why we called you. What are you saying?”
“It’s just that sometimes… people think they aren’t prejudiced, and they thing they can handle” – he paused again – “a black man washing their body, but then suddenly they can’t.”
“Well, she’ll be dead anyway, right?” Edie said, her voice rising in pitch. God, how she hated that.
“Right,” he said and looked at her.
“So you mean me? Do I understand?”
“You and your family.”
“We’re not racist,” Edie said. “My grandmother’s black. Melungeon. Whatever.” How convenient to have this information to wield! She was not a racist! How could she be! She kept going: “My father’s grandfather was black. No, my grandmother’s grandfather was black. My great-great-grandfather or something, was black. Melungeon.”
Michael laughed.
“So you’re black?”
“What do you mean, preparing the body?” Edie asked suddenly. She nearly stumbled right into him, as if her words were spewing her rather than the other way round.

She stumbles into him, all right. Again I had to laugh at the perfection of this interaction. In her FWR interview, Bucak worries that she’s lost her dialog-writing skills, but it seems like she found them again for this section. It’s exactly that awkward conversation that would happen. I’m relieved Edie stumbled into Michael in private, face-to-face, rather than over Twitter, where she would immediately be eviscerated and Cancelled. Here, there’s a chance for someone to give her the benefit of the doubt, and accept there’s a learning curve. May we all stumble into someone who will give us that break.

This is one of those stories that makes me wish we had something like General Electric Theater, a way of making short stories into half-hour or one-hour television spots (movies involve too much money) so maybe people will learn to love short stories, like this one, again.

The Trojan War Museum (available online at Guernica)

Sing to me now, you Muses, of armies bursting forth like flowers in a blaze of bronze.
Soldier: I begged for sleep, and if not sleep, death. I was willing to settle for death. Then again, I’ve never felt more loved.
He looked at his father, a veteran; his grandfather, a veteran; his uncle, a veteran; his sister, a veteran; and he saw his future foretold, no different than birds and snakes foretelling nine more years of war.
Think: museums turn war to poetry. So to poets. So to war.
You know, Athena forgot Odysseus was out there.
Oh Muses.

This beautifully imaginative piece gives us a series of Trojan War museums – the first one being “not much more than a field of remains” – run by the Gods of Olympus, from antiquity to the 22nd century as a meditation on the wisdom of glorifying war. In recent days, there’s been a lot of discussion about soldiers as losers and as heroes. I’d never think of anyone who volunteers for service out of duty, or family tradition, or because it’s the only path to a job or college, as a loser. But lionizing dead soldiers also bothers me, because I have to wonder if it creates more dead soldiers. What if war was a rare necessity rather than a chance for glory? What if monuments to schoolteachers were as common as those honoring military figures? Even without the present impinging on it, it’s a beautiful story, poetic and allusive. And yes, there’s a real irony to poeticizing a story that critiques the romanticizing of war.

The Dead (available online at Bomb)

In Key West, Arapian was known as the Turk, though he was Armenian.
The extraction of fingernails; the application of burning irons to the breast; the pinching of skin with burning clamps; boiled butter poured into wounds; the tearing off of genitalia; the penetration of orifices with swords, with brooms, with flesh; the sawing off of hands and feet, arms and legs; the bayoneting of babies; the slitting of throats, the exhibition of the massacred.
The difference between Turk and Armenian? The Turk extracted the Armenian’s fingernails. The Turk applied burning irons to the Armenian’s breast. The Turk pinched the skin of the Armenian with burning clamps. Or he had the Kurd do it.
Turkey for the Turks, they said.
In Key West, sponges made Arapian a millionaire, one of the richest men in America at the time, an immigrant from the Ottoman Empire, which would have killed him if it could.
Bow down to the almighty sponge! Either the highest order of plant or the lowest order of animal.

Although it may not seem like it from those opening lines, this is less a story about genocide than it is a story about what seems to be true versus what is true, which is, now that I think about it, the story of the Armenian genocide after all. And it’s about the violence that pervades our lives, in ways large and small: “…his men smoked to cover up the terrible smell of sponges, which, after all, were living creatures beaten to death with clubs before they were bleached.” Arapian’s wife indicates, somewhat subtly but clearly enough, that she’s ready to die, and he misreads her, either deliberately or through inattention. Then there’s the societal violence: “People would remember the starving Armenians, but more as a chastisement to eat their own dinners than to sacrifice those dinners on the Armenian’s behalf,” just as American kids are told to “think of the starving children in Europe/Asia/Africa” (depending on their generation) and clean their plates, not to do anything to actually benefit starving children.

The Sponge King and his wife are hosting a party for Anahid, who escaped those who would murder her. Though he himself could have been in her shoes, he shows no particular compassion towards her, but only uses her as a focus of the party. Anahid is rather incapacitated by trauma, so others take her place, at the party, and in the commercialization of her story. She’s based on Aurora Mardiganian, who was an actual escapee, and was likewise commercialized beyond her actuality.

It’s a story with a lot of layers and many subtleties, yet it’s a compelling narrative.

The Gathering of Desire

And once there was, and once there wasn’t,
in the time when magic was mystery and science was fact,
in the time when God’s hand could arm man’s puppet,
when miracles were seen to be believed, and schemes were believed to be seen,
there was the Ottoman Turk, the chess playing mechanical man.

And again we have this wonderful blend of folk tale and reality, delivered with several varieties of chiasmus from the traditional opening to the text itself.

There was a Mechanical Turk, a chess-playing automaton built in the late 18th century, and it was of course a fake; there are automatons, and some of them can perform very complex maneuvers, but they weren’t computers. At the time of the story, hidden inside the cabinet was a former chess master, here referred to as S. but known to be William Schlumberger. He was past his prime but still able to consistently beat non-masters. And, like most of us, he’s a little confused about his fate: “When all options were open to him, he desired only chess, but now that only chess is open to him, he desires everything else” (I told you, chiasmus).

And there was a woman who beat him, here unnamed but recorded in chess history as Mrs. Fisher (in fact, the game they played has been recorded as well). The unnamed woman in the story has two children and a husband who was lost for months and then died, the circumstances unknown. The children see him while she’s playing the Turk. There are times when she feels him “emanating from the machine opposite her.”

To deepen these characters with backstories is not an unusual technique; Bucak has done it in many of these stories. But it’s what she does with the Turk that makes this special: “The Turk knows that inside each of us is a black light and a love without end. He wishes he could tell her so.”

I hate to go all sappy and romantic here, but it’s a story about our desires and our hopes and grief and love and whatever there is, be it in us, around us, or be it us, all tempered by placing it within a chess match between a has-been, a widow, and… something else.


Never does the Starving Girl think of herself as anything but hungry. It is the others who give her act drama, and meaning, which, in the end, she is happy to accept.

This is the story I’d encountered in Pushcart 2014. In my post about it from six years ago, I blathered at length about the narrator. That seems a bit silly to me now (hey, it could have been worse; the further I go back in this blog, the more embarrassed I get), but I’d like to think it’s a good thing I’ve developed a better sense for the storyteller voice, a subtype of third-person narration – with accents of first-person – Bucak uses so effectively throughout this collection. It’s still a great story about projection, our need to fit others into roles that suit our needs. But it’s also about a girl who comes to understand what matters.

I’ve always been partial to fiction that teaches me something about the world, and every story here held something new for me to discover. It was a collection worth the six-year wait.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosopy Won’t Go Away (Vintage, 2015)

When I was a child I was addicted to science fiction, and my favorite science fiction required the reader to accept just one preposterous premise, and then everything else made sense. That is what the dialogues of this book ask of the reader. Just accept the one preposterous premise that Plato could turn up in twenty-first century America, an author on a book tour, and everything else, I hope, makes sense.

I wasn’t aware of that “preposterous” premise when I decided to read this book. It’s the sort of thing that might immediately put some people off as gimmicky, but it would’ve sold me from the get-go. What would Plato have to say about computer technology, how would he be as a guest on a cable news show or on a discussion panel, as an advice columnist, or when confronted with contemporary neuroscience?

Overall, the book tries to answer the question in the title: is philosophy, as imagined 2400 years ago, still relevant? If not, why does everyone still know the names Plato and Socrates? And if it is still relevant, that’s almost worse: doesn’t that mean philosophy has made no real progress at all?

While the 21st century Plato chapters are both informative and entertaining, they only form half the book. The chapters proceed in pairs: first there’s a more traditional chapter on some aspect of Plato’s life and work, and then a chapter further illuminating the concepts via a contemporary setting. As such, instead of thinking of it as a ten-chapter book, look at it as five modules with two sections each. The chapters, by the way, are accounted by Greek letters (α, β, γ, δ, etc) rather than numbers, which makes me smile since I just recently started a course on ancient Greek and have just become somewhat comfortable with the alphabet. But it’s another of those things: some people see fun and charm, others see gimmicks.

The first module looks at how Plato saw the purpose of philosophy:

Plato didn’t think the written word could do justice to what philosophy is supposed to do . And yet he did write; he wrote a great deal. And the literary form he invented for his writing should give us an indication of what he thought philosophy was supposed to do .
And what is it, according to Plato, that philosophy is supposed to do? Nothing less than to render violence to our sense of ourselves and our world, our sense of ourselves in the world….
Progress in philosophy consists, at least in part, in constantly bringing to light the covert presumptions that burrow their way deep down into our thinking, too deep down for us to even be aware of them.

This last sentence brought to mind the central metaphor from Sophie’s World, the wonderful YA novel-about-philosophy that, almost thirty years ago, first got me (and a lot of other people I’ve encountered) interested in philosophy, except that it’s the reverse: in Gaarder’s book, most people are burrowed deep down into the rabbit’s fur, while it’s the philosophers who climb out to the tips of the hairs to stare the Magician in the face as he pulls it all out of a hat.

We then join Plato on his book tour in the company of Cheryl, his author escort showing him around the Google complex where he’s to give a book talk. They encounter tech-bro Marcus, and though Cheryl tries to prevent it, Plato invites him to join them. It’s a demonstration of the Socratic method at work, and the eventual effect is to break down some of Marcus’s smugness and get even super-focused Cheryl thinking about more than the schedule and the book sales that will result from the upcoming presentation – which we never see, because it’s this impromptu seminar, the kind so often featured in the Dialogs, that takes center stage.

The chapter is somewhat difficult reading, because it’s told via a narrator who’s listening to Cheryl give her account of the afternoon; quotes are omitted and dialog tags are sparse, but it’s worth it: What starts simply with Marcus’s need for orthodonture, and the question of who gets to decide, travels through having algorithms for ethical questions (and where do the algorithms come from?) to the value of super-arguers, aka philosophers, working on complicated issues and finding the errors in the initial arguments, and finally landing on the question of how changing attitudes towards slavery, so acceptable in Plato’s day and so anathema today (it still is anathema, isn’t it?) are an example of whether argument changes feelings or feelings create the argument, and when it’s in the decision-makers’ interests to maintain the status quo, how do you break through that, until we get to the kicker:

…[H]ow do we know we aren’t any different above all sorts of things we feel perfectly okay about right now because it’s in our interest to feel perfectly okay about them? Why should we be different from people in the past?

And of course we aren’t. We’re seeing this play out in real time with #MeToo, how “back then” it was ok to grab women or make salacious comments to subordinates at work or pin teenaged girls down at drunken parties because boys will be boys, and suddenly it isn’t. Some day maybe we’ll be amazed, like Keiko on ST:TNG, that people actually ate real meat from dead animals, or that people could die from poverty and it would be their own damn fault.

The next pair of chapters looks at how cultures have viewed what makes a life worth living, and the role of the state: is it to protect, or perfect, the citizenry? The expository chapter lays out the Axial Age, the five centuries during which, all around the world, cultures began looking at the meaning of life. The world religions were born during this period: very different religions, from Confucius and Lao Tse, Buddha and Hinduism, Jain and Zoroastrianism to the monotheism of Judaism that would become Christianity and Islam, to the philosophy of Golden Age Athens. Which one of these is not like the others? Only Greece, which was replete with gods and religion, looked to humans to define what made life worth living. Goldstein shows how this evolved, from Homeric kleos to arete, and how Platonism not only established itself and sent offshoots into different directions but met up with Christianity several centuries hence.

This idea of what makes a life worth living, and the state’s role in the arete of its citizens, is dramatized by a panel discussion at the 92nd Street Y with Plato, a Tiger Mom, and a Jungian analyst. Should parents push their children to be the parents’ version of exceptional, or create the circumstances under which children will find their own exceptionality, though it might be more humble? This mirrors the questions about the State, about which character traits the State might want to encourage, and how it might do that, or whether it just holds invaders at bay and makes sure there’s bread for all.

As you might expect, a lot came up that rang with contemporary urgency, from Plato admitting “[W]hat I have not been able to figure out yet is if the Internet itself strengthens your democracy or weakens it” (yeah, we’re still working on that one, too) to the role of reality in a State:

PLATO: And, conversely, when I say that it is right that the guardians should be those who are capable of apprehending reality, and most importantly the aspects of reality that account for goodness and justice and wisdom, then I would expect that you would concur with me. Let it be reality that chooses the powerful, rather than the powerful who choose reality. Isn’t that less tyrannical?
MUNITZ, still speaking uncharacteristically softly: But then you enthrone reality as the tyrant.
PLATO: It is a better tyrant than any one of us, certainly with more of a right to impose itself on our minds than any human being possesses.

Having seen the effects of ignoring reality, that seems to be a good way to think of it. But then there’s the Noble Lie. Nothing with Plato is ever simple or absolute.

In another creative (or gimmicky, you pick your adjective, I’ll pick mine) attempt to illuminate Plato, Goldstein provides in this chapter what she believes would be his answers on the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, developed with Jungian principles. I was surprised that the two axes on which I score the most definitively coincide with the philosopher’s.

I’m a little confused about the next pair of chapters. Ostensibly, they’re about philosophy as the pursuit of Eros (it figures this would be what trips me up), and spends considerable time on who Socrates and Plato might have had the hots for (Alcibiades? Dion?) but is really about whether morality should define the state, or the state should define morality:

Is the best state the one that maximally allows arete to flourish, where arete is independently defined? Or is areteto be defined in terms of the qualities that will allow a person to become justifiably notable in the polis, the qualities of an individual that best allow the values-setting polis to exist and to flourish ? …. Plato moralized political theory, while the Athens to which he objected politicized morality – or at any rate it politicized arete. And it judged Socrates to be severely lacking in the qualities that would conduce to the flourishing of his polis, which made him, though notable, not justifiably notable, and so deficient in arete.

The contemporary chapter gives Plato the role of consultant to a popular advice columnist (the importance of Ann Landers’s Rolodex is emphasized) and shows how he approaches a variety of interpersonal issues.

Then we come to the death of Socrates, the history and politics in play, and Plato as a guest on a cable news show based on Bill O’Reilly’s show at the time. I found it so annoying I couldn’t finish the chapter. Draw your own conclusions.

The final pair of chapters is all about reality, our perception of same, Socrates’ Daimon, epistemology, and a very detailed look at the myth of the Cave. This lends itself nicely to imagining Plato in conversation with a neuroscientist and a cognitive scientist. Those who are familiar with my love of neuroscience will understand why these were my favorite chapters (though I did love the first two as well). The contemporary chapter is in the form of a dialog, complete with clear tags this time, and references where/if the brain ends and the mind begins, determinism vs free will and the implications of both, and whether morality can be determined by algorithm (the neuroscientist’s view). And it contains my favorite half-page in the book in a discussion of whether something besides an algorithm could be needed to explain why Socrates went peacefully to his death rather than avoiding it:

PLATO: So then what my friend ought to have said is something along the following lines: The reason that I am lying here on this jailhouse bed is that my default mode network, interacting with memories stored in my hippocampus and medial temporal lobe, generates patterns of activity that correspond with various future scenarios, including fleeing and staying put. The staying-put pattern generates a conflict signal in my anterior cingulate cortex, because the ACC also receives a prepotent response from midbrain limbic circuits that causes the organism to struggle to escape confinement. The signal is then relayed to my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which engages in information processing to resolve the conflict. The DLPFC sends and receives signals from my ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which contains information about my long term goals and also connects to areas in the right superior temporal sulcus that allows me to simulate the actions of other people. The information in this network causes the DLPFC to resolve the conflict by sending signals to the premotor and motor areas, which caused the muscles of my body to leave me in the jail cell.
SHOKET: OK, now I’m officially amazed. What have you been doing, auditing classes?

And I KNOW WHICH MOOCs – I’VE TAKEN THEM! Dartmouth’s Libertarian Free Will: Neuroscientific and Philosophical Evidence is the most on-point (by the way, philosophical libertarianism is completely unrelated to political libertarianism), complete with ACC and DLPFC and all the other cortexes and modules and nodules.

While all this circuitry is well and good, this leads directly to the invocation of the field of embodied cognition, the study of interplay between the brain, the body, and the world, to truly understand Socrates’ action:

PLATO: Do you not see what is missing from the explanation of my friend’s action? We cannot explain why my friend did what he did unless we understand what that action meant both to him and to others, how he saw it and what value he placed on it and how he saw how others would see it and what values they would place on it, both in his day and later, back and forth in spiraling loops of values and meanings.
AGATHA: The way the philosophers at the cognitive Science Center would put it is that you can’t explain his action unless you view it in the context of value and meaning in which his behavior is embedded.

Ok, so not everybody loves this neuro stuff, but remember there was the advice columnist and the cable tv show and the Googleplex and the 92nd Street Y as well? Surely there’s something in there for everyone.

So why doesn’t philosophy go away? I think this might be revealed in Goldstein’s introductory chapter:

His words sound natural in conversations that will be familiar to the reader , and this is a testament to the surprising relevance he still has – but not because his intuitions always ring true to us. His relevance derives overwhelmingly from the questions he asked and from his insistence that they cannot be easily dispensed with in the ways that people often think…. I rarely give him the answers, and I think this is true to the man. The thing about Plato is that he rarely presented himself as giving us the final answers . What he insisted upon was the recalcitrance of the questions in the face of shallow attempts to make them go away . His genius for formulating counter reductive arguments is at one with the genius that allowed him to raise up the field of philosophy as we know it.

Maybe the point isn’t to answer questions, but to engage people in asking them. This is in fact what happens in the Googleplex chapter: both the tech-bro and the author escort move out of their comfortable assuredness into query mode. I thought of Emily Dickinson’s “I Dwell in Possibility”, a poem I haven’t thought about for a long time: the point is to ask questions, not write down Answers for All Time. Maybe there are answers for one set of circumstances, and maybe not for another. Maybe an answer that once worked, no longer does. The work is to keep asking, and that’s why we still read Plato: because we still have questions, and always will.

This is the third Goldstein book I’ve read, and I find them all wonderful in different ways. Fortunately, there are several more geared towards general readership. I do make a conscious effort to read other philosophical explainers and apologists to keep from getting stuck in a rut, but I have to admit a fondness for her humor and style.

Physics for Poets MOOC

Course: How Things Work: An Introduction to Physics
Length: total ~14 hours
School/platform: UVA/Coursera
Instructor: Louis A. Bloomfield

An introduction to physics in the context of everyday objects: It’s essentially case study physics, an introduction to physics in the context of everyday objects and activities. My goal is to make physics useful, and to help you understand and manage the physical world around you.

In the 1994 Law & Order episode “Big Bang,” ADAs Ben Stone and Claire Kincaid are investigating a physics professor whose defense involves serious particle physics. In private, Stone confesses to Kincaid: “You know what I took for my science requirement? Physics for Poets.” Kincaid confesses back: “Elementary Geology. Rocks for Jocks.” This course is essentially Physics for Poets: general concepts peeled down to their simplified forms, presented via concrete examples with minimal math.

It’s one of the oldest classes on Coursera’s roster, making its debut back in 2013, and I’ve been thinking about taking it since about then. But stubbornly, I kept trying the “real’ physics courses and quitting by week 3 when I still couldn’t keep joules, newtons, and watts straight. Now that I finally cried Uncle and got here, I wish I’d done it sooner.

Each of the six weeks focuses on an object that demonstrates a related group of concepts. Skateboarding, for example, introduces force, inertia, and acceleration. I’d never considered weight as a force before (it’s usually ignored in favor of mass), but it makes a lot of sense in this context. And by spending a couple of weeks focusing on force – that is, newtons – I was much better able to grasp the idea of joules when we got to energy later on. For me, that alone was worth taking the course.

The other objects are falling balls, ramps, seesaws, wheels, and bumper cars. I can say I saw a lot of things more clearly, such as what’s a force and what isn’t, and what properties are conserved. By comparing linear velocity and momentum to angular velocity and momentum, the course helped me keep a lot more organized. I’m still a little confused about some stuff, but it’s not a total jumble.

The professor is very hands-on – and feet-on and butt-on – as he skateboards, rolls on a cart, tosses balls out of windows and across rooms, tips small levers and puts TAs on seesaws, pulls wagons around, plays air hockey to simulate bumper cars, and does everything he can to demonstrate various kinds of forces and accelerations while also showing off the UVA campus. There is some math, but very little, and it’s of the a=b*c variety, very simple even for me. In fact, after I finished the course, I went back and dragged out the formulas that tended to get buried in the long runs of explanation. This also was a very worthwhile process for me.

The course starts with a Preliminary Assessment before any teaching takes place. This is graded; for those of us who don’t sign up for the “Certificate Experience” (I guess they gave up on verification), this is the only grade you’ll see. There are ungraded (but very useful) questions embedded in the videos. Each week ends with a quiz that you can take if you’re auditing, but you can’t find out what you got right or wrong (unless you’re determined and creative, in which case you might discover students from years before have left a trail of breadcrumbs some of us might find useful. And some of us might find, for those intending to earn a grade for this, to be cheating, if relatively worthless cheating). A final exam similar (at times identical) to the Preliminary Assessment finishes things off in Week Seven.

There are some tricky concepts, but it’s basic mechanics presented in such a way as to give students more of a sense of what is actually happening than the equations they’ll see in a more typical physics course. I’m going to take another stab at a physics course, and see how much of a difference this made. I’m hopeful.