BASS 2019: Julia Elliott, “Hellion” from The Georgia Review, Summer 2018

TGR art

TGR art

In a bloated early draft of my novel, The New And Improved Romie Fudge, I got sidetracked by a digression about Romie’s first erotic experience, a blissful romp with a rural third cousin during which the two prepubescent kids smear molten tar all over each other, a transcendent moment followed by a brutal reckoning….Recalling badass girl cousins from my own youth, so-called tomboys who could hold their own among hellion boys, the kind of girls who could drive go-carts one-handed while taking cool puffs from stolen cigarette butts, I realized that Butter’s perspective on this incident would be far more interesting than Romie’s. When I took the cutting from my novel and switched the point of view, my story “Hellion” bloomed from the corpse of that killed darling.

Julia Elliott, Contributor Note

My view of this story evolved over several days. My first take was consumption, food, eating, but that expanded to a celebration of the the primeval. Then I flipped open the book and saw the title: Hellion. Oh, ok: hell. Not the Christian hell of punishment, but more of a Classical-era Underworld. No, back to the primeval, maybe the primordial. Then I read Jake Weber’s post and thought, not for the first time, that I should quit doing this since he does it so much better. But I still get “primordial ooze” and “this is the forest primeval” running through my head when I think about this story, so I’ll go with that.

The whole consumption theme comes in early with a thirteen-year-old protagonist named Butter (her real name is Elizabeth Ann, but she was so small at birth, her parents nicknamed her Butterbean, and it stuck) who feeds her captive alligator chicken innards, and chases away the neighborhood boys who try to feed it Atomic Fireballs so they can watch it fart fire, and leaves Slim Jims for the Swamp Ape (who, she explains, may be a deformed man, or a voluntarily-regressed Rousseauian man, or a Bigfoot mutant of some sort, or something else entirely).

It’s a Stranger-Comes-to-Town story. Alex, Butter’s third cousin from the city (where they have a mall and a nuclear reactor) comes to stay with his Aunt Edna while his new premie brother emerges towards, hopefully, life, and his mom recovers from childbirth. Butter may be a badass girl, but the local boys are a different level of badass – hellions – so Edna asks her to help out with Alex.

“Butter,” she said. “You got to promise me you’ll watch out for Alex, the boys around here being mostly hellions.”
“I’m a hellion, too, Miss Edna.”
“No, Butter, not like the rest. You’re my great-niece, after all.”
She drew me close so she could whisper, suffocating me with her White Shoulders perfume.
“Alex’s mama just had a premature baby boy. Know what that means?”
“Came out before he was cooked.”
“That’s right. A poor three-pound thing struggling to breathe in an oxygen tank. Alex, being tenderhearted, is taking it right hard. So, you got to keep that in mind and be gentle with him. You can be a lady when you want to.”
Ladies sat still and tormented themselves with stiff dresses and torture-chamber shoes. Ladies held their tongues when men walked among them and fixed them food and drinks. As my mama, who worked the night shift at Clarendon Memorial, said, “I don’t have time to be a lady.”
“I won’t never be a lady,” I said. “But I won’t let the boys mess with Alex.”

Complete story available online at Georgia Review

Even the idea that a premature birth happens before the baby is cooked evokes consumption. And here’s Alex, stranded among the hellions. Butter – who is caught midway between primeval and lady, as well as between child and adult – gives him a coping strategy: pretend that living in that city with that nuclear plant has “endowed you with a Hulk-like condition…. You could mind-read, tell futures, and levitate.” Since she has some inside info on the locals, she points out the boys’ weak spots, like one’s mother’s webbed toes. “We got to keep up the mystery…. Think about it like a video game. Get to the next level.” She primes the ground, warning the boys there’s more to the city kid than they think.

There’s another really interesting consumption-related detail here: as Butter is telling him this, Alex “went bluish-pale like skim milk.” Butter is made from the cream removed from skim milk. Alex + Butter = whole milk? Two halves make a whole? In The Symposium, Plato has Aristophanes put forth a theory that humans originally had four arms and four legs and two faces, and Zeus split them apart into separate people; humans since have spent their lives looking for their soulmates, the other half that was separated. Most readings consider this satire of simplistic origin tales, not the least because it was put in the mouth of Aristophanes, who satirized Socrates like nobody’s business. It’s kind of sealed shut for me when Butter later teaches Alex frog-language, The Frogs being one of Aristophanes’ classic satires. They merge into the primeval.

Butter takes Alex to meet Dragon, her alligator, but things go awry during feeding and she gets “snagged by a tooth—a jagged red rip right through the meat of my lower thumb.” And again, consumption: the primeval is trying to consume Butter, starting with the meat of her thumb.

She takes some remarkably responsible (and non-primeval) first-aid steps – peroxide, antibiotic cream, gauze – but doesn’t think more about it and takes Alex go-cart racing next. The hellion boys, ignoring Butter’s warning about Alex’s superpowers, come after him while they’re all riding, the twentieth-century version of jousting. Alex turns out to be a quick learner vis-à-vis the superpower tip:

Though it almost killed him, Alex loosened his grip on the side rail, keeping up a half-assed appearance of cool. The boys went crazy strutting their stuff…. I realized how stoked they were to blow this city-boy away. They finished their daredevilry, circled us twice, and then stood idling, staring at Alex, half-hoping my tales were real—that the boy would float up out of his seat. Instead, Alex staggered from the cart, fell to his knees, and wallowed on the ground like a bass gasping for water.
“Aw, shit,” I said. “Looks like he’s about to turn.”
Clutching his head, Alex stood up.
“I can-not al-low it to hap-pen a-gain,” he said. “Too ma-ny in-no-cents slaugh-tered.”
Alex twitched as though shaking a winged demon from his back. He tottered like an exhausted old man and then stared up at the sky, croaked out gibberish, pausing between bouts as though taking dictation from God.
“Your mother has mermaid blood.” He pointed at Mitch and Butch. “Hence her webbed toes. She swims in Lake Marion on full-moon nights.”
The brothers’ jaws dropped at the exact same time, and I pictured them creeping around their den at night, their mama crashed on the couch, her feet freed from the Reeboks she wore to waitress, toes moist and pale in the spooky light of their television.

Keeping up the mystery, indeed. They are both in this midland between primeval and civilized. And Butter is smitten in the way only a thirteen-year-old girl can be. My heart started to sink; don’t tell me this is going to be a tender coming-of-age tale. It is, but it’s a lot more interesting than the My Girl variety.

Butter has a thing for the smell of pitch – it smells of open roads and amusement parks – and her nose leads her to a barrel of the stuff, still melted. So she and Alex have a tar fight. Yep, that’s like a food fight, except with tar. What could evoke the depths of the primeval better than being covered in still-warm tar? It’s a descent into the dark side, experimenting with hell itself. Dangerous stuff.

And they pay the price when they emerge. Edna scrubs the tar off them, which should be punishment enough, but wait, there’s more: Alex gets the switch, and Butter… oh, poor Butter: her parents see the wound on her thumb, Dad gets the shotgun and heads for the alligator.

It was almost dusk, light tipping toward pink. I was in the swamp, bawling my miseries to the throb of frogs—my baby gator dead, Alex shamed and switched on my account, my house a tomb of silent wrath, vampire and ogre cramming it roof to cellar with what Miss Ruby called bad vibes. I was a hellion, for sure, who deserved to slip back into the swamp from which the first land creatures crawled: those fish with legs, skinks or whatever, primitive pining things….
I was lost, doomed to attend Central Carolina Tech, master some bleak medical procedure, and turn into a vampire like my mama…. Alex had said he wanted to build rockets, and I pictured him zipping off into the twinkling black of space, leaving the likes of me to rot on our ruined planet. I imagined humans crammed cheek to jowl, mutated by nukes, resorting to cannibalism after they ’d devoured every last animal alive. I saw plant life stamped out by solid blacktop, the globe turned to a ball of tar.
Alex, fated to zoom through universes unknown, was right to keep his distance from both me and planet Earth, a thought that made me bawl the harder.

Yeah, consumption, the primeval, and the modern nukes, right there side by side on a ball of tar, and Butter, stuck in it. I’m not exactly sure what this is, but it’s way beyond My Girl.

But don’t despair, the My Girl denouement is at hand. It’s ok; the story earned it, and gives the reader an after-dinner mint, as Butter – and Alex’s premie brother – emerges from the primeval, and resolves childish mystery with adult reality on a summer night bittersweet for a couple of soulmates.

BASS 2019: Deborah Eisenberg, “The Third Tower” from Ploughshares #44.1

“Too Many Words” by Payana

“Too Many Words” by Payana

[The story] began – uncharacteristically – with the title, which popped into my head one day. I thought, Somebody should write something called “The Third Tower,’ and after a time during which nobody seemed to do that, I thought, Oh, well, I guess I will.
I really didn’t know what snagged me on that title, but it was always in my mind as I worked, and eventually, after many trials, I finished the story. So then there I was, with a story set in a sort of near future or a parallel present, about a girl – a young laborer – whose imagination, curiosity, vitality, and quality of experience are being purposefully reduced.
….
So it turned out that what had interested me about that phrase, the third tower, were matters concerning the systemic opportunism of power and money: catastrophe as a rationale for increasing economic inequities, as a rationale for invasions and resource appropriations and wars and oppression that benefit only the powerful; catastrophe utilized as an instrument to make a population compliant or inadvertently complicit – incapable of significant dissent or incapable even of comprehending what is happening to it.

Deborah Eisenberg, Contributor Note

One of the hallmarks of imagination – creativity – is the lack of uniformity from one person to the next. To Eisenberg, “the third tower” instantly associates with the two towers of 9/11. Me, I went immediately to Tolkien. I’ve never read Tolkien (don’t judge), and I have a clear memory of 9/11 (a friend of mine worked at the Port Authority in one of the towers; she was getting oatmeal in the cafeteria when the plane hit, and, trained by her experience with the 1993 bombing, she got the hell out of there in time to see people jumping out of windows and marvelled at a grocer selling blueberries on the sidewalk just a few blocks away as she walked home), but that’s where my associations took me.

I think I was at a disadvantage with this story because I simply don’t run on the same imaginative track as Eisenberg. For instance, that final paragraph above about opportunism and catastrophe strikes me as a very real condition of the present, but if it’s in the story, it’s because the reader puts it there.

We’re introduced to Therese, the protagonist of this dystopian-future story, as she’s about to leave her home for medical treatment of a hyperassociative disorder, evidenced by her deficient word-stabilization reflex. When you say tree, she says piano, when she’s supposed to say… um, tree. There is, by the way, a psychiatric symptom referred to as loose associations, but it’s far more dramatic than anything here; it’s more like when you say tree I say gears grinding milkmaids in blue pillowcase.

Her friend gives her a blank book to take with her, because “you like to do handwriting.” But it’s a lot more than handwriting:

She opens the book, just to admire again the lovely, thick, rough-edged paper, but then the air starts to shimmer, and it splinters, splashing words and pictures everywhere, all whirling and glittering.
She grabs up her pen: wooden table dim cozy place. Funny song about mouse, hands clapping in time. Leaves dripping, fresh! – horse and buggy?? Bugy?? Blossoms, hooves. Glass mountain, meadow mountain tiny white flowers tiny yellow star-flowers tiny pearl moon. Clothes whisper night fields moon whispers – sailing moon, sorcerer moon, watchman moon. Marching band – shiny octopus-instruments – light or swords? Long robes little outdoor tables little glass cups, stars, moon,..
The pictures flow by, sparkling, dissolving, blending in their disorder, like the landscape outside the window of the train, fading finally.
She blinks, and looks around at the stillness of the room, the mute shutters.
Right. Back in the drawer goes the book. Maybe these pictures are memories that somehow became detached from other people and stray through the universe, slipping through rips in the fabric and clinging to whatever living beings they can, faulty beings like her …

This is one of the strong points of the story: the descriptions of Theresa’s episodes, the ones the treatment is supposed to stop. She’s looking forward to a cure, which is itself heartbreaking.

Some of her word episodes are less felicitous than moons and marching bands, such as when she remembers, while riding on the train to the city, that someone told her some criminals had escaped from prison.

Fugitives – the word erupts from its casing, flaring up like a rocket, fanning out, fracturing the air into prisms and splintered mirror. Therese snatches up her book and pen, and rapidly writes something down.
She’s sweating. She closes her eyes and takes a few deep breaths before she looks at what the book says: Uniforms – teams, prisoners, and guards, shouting, clanging – blood and weapons. Two civil guards stumbling through trees, they trip on twisted roots, they carry a heavy pole, one of the guards at each end, a man hangs from it, roped to it by bleeding wrists and ankles…

It seems to me these might not be imaginings as much as they are suppressed memories. Hence the sinister importance of the treatment: can’t have people remembering how much fun things used to be, or how brutal the authorities can be. Hear tree, think tree, not noose. Not fires in the Amazon. Someone else will do all the thinking there is to be done. And they’ll make sure you’re happy about what they decide.

The story is formatted in brief titled sections, easily labeled chunks, as is fitting with our theme. But, since we are readers with imaginations, we can put the pieces together better than Therese can. She’s surprised by the view of destroyed landscapes, bands of marauding children, general disorder she sees from the train. We have no idea why she’s allowed to see these things – why aren’t the windows boarded up, maybe leaving small louvres for light, other than because that’s the only way to convey them to the reader as Therese is the POV character. She must see these things for us to see these things. But when she gets to the city, her view is indeed obscured, leaving us to wonder what it is we’re not seeing through her eyes.

They work with her, one on one. A kind tech has been trying hard to help her with word-stabilization. Did you ever collect butterflies when you were a child, Therese? The tech asks.
Butterflies? Theresa asks.
With pins? The tech says. And chloroform?

I remember, as a kid, admiring pictures of butterflies in books, until I found out how those pictures were taken. This is a world where, when I say butterfly, you say, kill it and pin it down, whether it’s the word or the insect.

In his Introduction, Anthony Doerr notes the POV shift from Therese to the doctor in a couple of the sections, and has an interesting opinion about the importance of that technique: “Without those leaps away from her protagonist’s point of view, her story would collapse.” I’m not sure what he means by collapsing – I’m no literary match for Doerr, and again, my imagination is on a different track – but I do see great importance to these sections. I see the doctor as just as much a victim of mind control as Therese. Maybe everyone is, except the clown in the White House. Oops, that just slipped in there, didn’t it, maybe I need some word stabilization treatment. Or maybe the story was constructed to take us places like that.

I’ve had Eisenberg’s 2018 collection, Your Duck is My Duck, on my reading list. I have to admit, I’m a bit disappointed by this story. Maybe it’s just not my taste. Maybe it’s over my head (Eisenberg’s a MacArthur Grant winner, has a big collection of writing honors, and teaches at Columbia). Maybe I had unrealistic expectations. Or it’s possible, as Jake Weber suggests in his post, that BASS wanted to include something from the collection, and this was the story that qualified (in terms of publication date, length, etc.). But maybe, given the glut of dystopic fiction around, it’s a little been-there-done-that, with a backstory so completely left to the imagination as to feel like the story is only half-written. I’m comforted that Jake wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about the story either (we really don’t collude on these stories; with rare exceptions, I only read his posts after I’ve at least started mine for a given story).

I don’t think I’ll be reading Your Duck is My Duck any time soon. I might, however, give her 2006 collection, Twilight of the Superheroes (boy does that associate all over), a try.

BASS 2019: Jamel Brinkley, “No More than a Bubble” from LitMag #2

“Mono No Aware” by Joshua Stringer (detail, modified)

“Mono No Aware” by Joshua Stringer (detail, modified)

For a while, “Brooklyn Zoo“ was my working title, and I wanted to draw upon the energy, aggression, and arrogance that characterized that song in order to counter the passivity, inwardness, and timidity of the narrators I often find myself using in first-person stories. But then, in order to counter all that male intensity and assuredness, the story demanded that Ben and his friend be out of their depth, in terms of their age and maturity, and in terms of their understanding of their environment, of the women they pursue, and of their problematic, exoticizing desires.
It is a cliche in fiction to have a scene in which a dog barks mysteriously in the distance, but what happens when a barking dog actually shows up?

Jamel Brinkley, Contributor Note

I have a lot of questions about this story. It’s sort of a swan story – you know how a swan glides through the water so gracefully, but the power is generated under the surface by unseen feet. The surface story glides along, but there’s a lot more going on, a lot of subtle touches in for the reader to connect. Right now I’m thinking it’s an open story, so those touches are designed to connect in different ways, depending on the reader’s context. But as I said, I have questions, so I could be completely off base here.

Ben and his friend Claudius are sophomores at Columbia, crashing an off-campus party given by older students and graduates.

The main difference between a house party in Brooklyn and a college party uptown was that on campus you were just practicing….At parties like this the crowd was older, college seniors who already had New York apartments, graduates who were starting to make their way, and folks who were far enough into their youth to start questioning it. The booze was better and the weed was sticky good. The girls were incredible, of course, especially here.

The basic flow of the story goes: they pair up with a couple of hot women, older, mysterious, confident, and they end up finding out just how much more practice they need. But this is a simplification to the extreme, and all those subtle touches nudge in one direction or another along the way.

For example, there’s a line in the second paragraph that I think is key: “The party, thrown by a couple of Harvard grads, happened just weeks before the Day of Atonement, in late September of 1995.” First, it sets up, in a story told in retrospect, an incident important enough to be remembered twenty years later. In an interview with Craft, Brinkley goes into some detail about his use of flash-forward. The first sentence tells us “It was back in those days” and then we’re there, with the sound of music and the smell of booze and the first sight of the two women who will lead the boys through the evening.

But that reference to the Day of Atonement seems major. The whole story is set in a sort of multi-ethnic stew: ancestry from the Caribbean, Belize, Italy, mentions of Japanese philosophy and now, Jewish religion. I assumed this mixture was the New York vibe. But this particular line, so specific, set me up to expect a rather Jewish story, or at least a Jewish protagonist. There’s no indication anywhere, at least than I can see, that Ben is Jewish, with the possible exception of his name. His father is Italian (and calls him Benito, which could be a nickname or his given name), and his mother is African American. Neither of those scream Jewish, though it’s of course possible either might be. Later, one of the women accents this note:

“We graduated in May,” I lied.
“Mazel tov,” Iris said.
Sybil shook her head.
Iris’s attention snapped all the way back now. “What? I can totally say that.”
Sybil made a popping sound with her mouth, and the two of them laughed.
Claudius and I laughed too, though neither of us knew what was funny.

I can’t tell if Iris is reacting to something about Ben that gives her the impression he’s Jewish – something he said, or is wearing – or if she herself has some connection to Jewishness, a possibility Ben idly speculates on later. Or it’s just a Hebrew phrase most people happen to know. Sybil’s reaction makes me think it’s something more, as if this has been something they’ve discussed before. But I agree with Ben: I have no idea what’s funny about it.

In any case, it’s such a big tell – to remember an event was the day before Yom Kippur, twenty years later, means it was somehow connected at the time – that it goes way beyond ethnicity or religion, and imparts a flavor of forgiveness. The Day of Atonement is more complex than simple forgiveness: an individual must forgive those who have trespassed against him, then ask for forgiveness for his trespasses against other people, before asking God for forgiveness for sins. So it conditions forgiveness and repentance on each other.

Which brings us to Ben’s mother. As they are wooing the women, Claudius suggests they play a game of confession: tell their most shameful stories. He starts with an episode of sexual acting out when he noticed a neighbor watching him through his window. Hr probably thinks it makes him look cool, but the women aren’t impressed. Ben tells a story about looking through his father’s skin mags, but it’s clear he’s more reflective than shameful, and includes his mother’s reaction and complaint to his father: “Don’t you realize what you’re teaching him?” The women lose interest completely, and wander off: “Then they turned away, and just like that sealed us off from them. I marveled for a moment at this female power.” Turns out, Ben’s mom left his father shortly after the magazine incident. The real female power to seal off. Ben chose to stay with his dad, out of some kind of loyalty, and his relationship with his mother was strained from then on. Lots of forgiveness due in this scene alone.

Ben’s father has had a lot of influence on him, and on his attitude towards women:

A few weeks earlier, late one August morning in Philadelphia, shortly before the start of sophomore year, I sat with my father, Leo, at the kitchen table and got drunk with him for the first time. He told me to beware of crazy women, angry women, passionate women. He told me they would ruin me. “But they are also the best women, “ he said, “the best lovers, with a jungle between their legs and such wildness in bed that every man should experience. “ I knew the kinds of women he meant. I also knew he was talking about my mother, but I didn’t give a damn. She had left us, left him, a few years earlier, and recently she’d announced she was getting remarried. I saw how this news affected my father. He had stopped around our house all summer and appeared smaller and more frantic by the week. ….He held a chewed fingernail up by his nose and then reached into his pocket for something. It was a condom, wrapped in silver foil. “Use this with the most delicious woman you can find, una pazza. Let her screw your brains out, once and never again. Then marry a nice, boring, fat girl with hands and thighs like old milk. Making a dull life is the only way to be happy. “

So all this family stuff is lurking beneath the surface as Ben and Claudius take their shots at the party with these older women, and fail. They get a second chance as they notice the women leaving, unable to handle their bicycles. The boys offer to escort them safely home. This doesn’t work out too well either, since they come across the snarling dog promised in Brinkley’s Contributor Note above. And again, the boys show they are boys by freezing and the women show they are women by beating down the dog.

I’m not sure how I feel about that; any dog that’s beatable doesn’t deserve it. And that seems to fit into the next section as well, where the women invite the boys in.

At the party, Iris kept referring to bubbles, somehow related to the Japanese philosophy of aesthetics, mono mo aware. I’ve had some very tangential brushes with Japanese aesthetics, and it’s complex stuff, mostly based on naturalism, the acceptance of irregularities we would see as flaws. In this case, it’s a reference to a kind of overall awareness in conjunction with wistful acceptance of the temporary nature of things. Bubbles burst. They sure do. In his interview with Crystal Hana Kim at Apogee, Brinkley tells us the title of the story comes from Denis Johnson’s story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” another reference that ties in nicely with this story. You think you’re just along for the ride until you’re confused and bleeding on the side of the road.

Now that the women have the boys on their turf, things get real. The women, already naked, tell the boys to strip, which is hard enough for them, and then look at each other. For a long time. This takes the story of boys-getting-laid off-track to the point where getting laid is covered in a sentence or two. Ben finally gets to use the condom his father gave him; at least he knows the kind of woman Iris is. And I suspect he knows he’s no match for her. At least not yet.

It’s the relationship between Ben and Claudius that takes center stage:

Claudius was sitting up in the bed, staring at me. At once an acute ugliness shuddered into being, a face revealed within his face, and he must have seen it within mine too. It had been that way with people in my life, with people I have loved: a fine dispersal, of rupture as quiet as two lips parting, a change so sudden one morning, so slight, you wonder if they had ever been beautiful at all.

I’m not sure what caused the bursting of this bubble. Did they both recognize, when subjected to the male gaze, what women go through all the time, and feel some kind of shame at the type of masculinity they’d been brought up to flaunt and prize? Were they ashamed at whatever random homoerotic feelings ran through them in the moment? Or were there more than just random feeling, and shame that the other saw them? Was it just the general idea that the women were running the show and they were helpless? Did each blame the other for getting them to that point?

The rupture between Ben and Claudius is the denouement, however; the climax comes a paragraph before, as Ben again thinks about his father:

What did he mean back on that August morning before I returned to college? ….I don’t know, but I keep imagining what it would be like, to be a father to a boy who loves me and believes in me and, despite all our differences, wants nothing more than to be a man in my image. I see that spectral boy, my son, vividly, and feel frightened when he is with me. I have no idea what to say.

This comes in a future moment, looking back on that night with Iris and Sybil – Iris, a part of the eye, and Sybil, a prophetess – from an adult vantage point twenty years later. It sets in stone the hero worship of his father, now dead. And I wonder: why is Ben not a father? Is that by choice, or circumstance? What would those circumstances be?

So I end this story with far more questions than answers. They’re good questions, malleable to different shapes so covering a lot of ground. I don’t know if Brinkley intended it this way. I went through several reviews of the story before writing this post – it’s the opening story of his 2018 book, A Lucky Man, a finalist for that year’s National Book Award, so reviews abound – and did something I seldom do: I read Jake Weber’s post before even making preliminary notes. I was that convinced I was missing something that floated through the story, some big sentence or pov shift that boiled down to “this is what the story means.” I also thought a male viewpoint might be instructive, that he might see this story about masculinity quite differently than I. I was relieved that Jake struggled on this one, too, in much the same way I did. He came out of it with a somewhat different range of ideas, but we were both in the ballpark. And he tripped over the Day of Atonement reference like I did, which was a comfort. If I had one question to ask the author, that would be it.

Maybe Jake’s Five Themes is the Bubble way to think about it: an awareness of all of it. In another rare move, I pre-read the next story, which has a theme that complements this idea nicely. So onward.

BASS 2019: Wendell Berry, “The Great Interruption” from Threepenny Review #155

Wood engraving by Joanne Price for the Larkspur Press edition of the story

Wood engraving by Joanne Price for the Larkspur Press edition of the story

….I have more or less suddenly become capable of writing so as to be read by strangers a story that, until then, had only been spoken and heard in my own neighborhood. Behind this now-written story is a lived one that, for a while, could be passed about among people who knew the setting and, so to speak, the original cast. Writing such a story calls for the characters and the situation to be newly imagined, in order to give it the plausibility previously supplied by local tellers and hearers. This can be accomplished by moving the lived story into a fictional community already prepared, as has been done here.

Wendell Berry, Contributor Note

This is it: finally, the Wendell Berry story I greatly enjoyed. I’ve admitted before that although I mostly agree with his viewpoints about the evils of modern (that is, post-WWII) life, I find him annoying, for reasons I don’t quite understand. But here, I was caught up in a story that kept expanding its scope.

It begins with a delightful opening anecdote about thirteen-year-old Billy Gibbs, resident of Port Williams in this summer of 1935.

His life would have been simple if he had been only lazy – or, as he himself might have said if he had thought to say it, only a lover of freedom. But along with the wish to avoid work, his mental development brought him also to the wish to be useful to his parents and to work well, especially if an adult dignity attached to the work. And so he was a two-minded boy.
And so he grew up into usefulness and a growing and lasting pride in being useful, but also into a more or less parallel love of adventure and a talent for shirking.

It’s one of those Tom Sawyer-esque stories about Billy climbing a tree to see what town bigwig Mr. La Vere and his unfamiliar ladyfriend are doing, having driven well into the brush one afternoon, and recognizing the activity as one “enacted by cattle, horses, sheep, goats, hogs, dogs, housecats, chickens…”. Billy can’t quite see, and now that he’s confirmed that this activity is, indeed, something people engage in as well, he wants to be sure to pick up some pointers. So he climbs out a little more on the branch, which of course breaks, dropping him right on top of a startled Mr. La Vere (and, presumably, an even more startled ladyfriend). Youthful vigor and a willingness to disregard the thorns of blackberry brambles allow Billy to escape unidentified, with a story for the ages.

But this story isn’t The Story, and now becomes an exhibit in a story about storytelling:

One mind, and a boy’s mind at that, finally could not contain such a story. But such a story, a story of such high excellence and so rare, could be turned loose in Port William only with some caution beforehand, as one might release an especially exuberant big dog. Billy found that he was not able to tell the story to anybody unworthy of it, which illuminated forthwith all the boys more or less of his generation.
….Billy knew he had a really good one. He wanted to tell it to a real story teller who would recognize its worth. And so he told it to Burley Coulter.

I’m quite impressed with Jake Weber’s blog post analyzing how Billy embodies the characteristics of a writer.

The Story about storytelling mutates once again into an interesting reflection on the synergy between Port William and the story, how when people heard it, they knew the places and people and caught the nuances: “It meant in Port William what it could not mean, and far more than it could mean, in any other place on earth.”

I’m not sure I agree. Or rather, I agree that any story about people and places we know have more impact on us than stories about strangers, since we can fill in so many of the details other readers can only imagine, no matter how well described. But the art of storytelling is in conveying a world to someone not in that world, and Billy – or Berry – has done an admirable job. Billy comes across as a very real, multidimensional person; it’s a story very accessible to outsiders, fairly easy to translate to anywhere. And no, I don’t hear this story and think poorly of Kentuckians, any more than I would if Billy were from the Lower East Side and fell off a trash can watching Mr. La Vere’s urban counterpart in an alcove or parking lot. Maybe this is because I read a lot of different settings, and I’m used to translating experiences, to observing differences without judgment. If that’s the case, damn, let’s get people reading, because we all need to be a lot less critical of each other and realize our experiences truly have more in common than differences.

But Berry’s point is, the story doesn’t sound the same to latter-day residents of Port Williams, either. The story about storytelling transforms again into more familiar Berry ground. He describes how things changed, and now we’re getting into familiar Berry territory as what seemed like a third-person narration is revealed to be first person, with Berry’s long-time Port William alter-ego, Andy Catlett, coming out from behind the curtain:

I heard the story of The Great Interruption only a few times in the years after the war. It was becoming less and less a property of its old community in time and place. Grover Gibbs and Burley Coulter, remarkably, had ceased to tell it. I think it had begun to make them sad. Port Williams by then was losing its own stories, which were being replaced by the entertainment industry, and so it was coming to know itself only as a “no-place“ adrift with every place in a country dismemoried and without landmarks.

I’m not sure we’re dismemoried; I think our memories might come from a different place. Just as the notion of family has evolved and expanded, so has what we share, whether it be over coffee with the people next door, or on Twitter. Yes, there are ways to use Twitter that don’t involve fighting or having your life threatened, but those ways are incompatible with fame, so are less well known.

Maybe it’s the speed with which things change that makes the last century so disorienting. After all, Depression-era Kentucky wasn’t always there; it too was a change from whatever came before it. But that change happened slowly, over decades or even centuries. Now, we get left behind in the space of a single generation. I myself have become far more sympathetic to the anxieties my father’s generation showed back in the 60s and 70s, when I was just a kid, now that I am what was then his age and I feel confused by the gig economy and contemporary comedy and soulless algorithms that run our lives. In twenty years, will today’s millennials be confused by whatever is around the corner?

I enjoyed watching this story zoom out from the initial close-up on Billy to a broader storytelling view, to a broader more sociopolitical view. The last short paragraphs seem to go a little wide of the overall piece, but veers into Berry’s traditional stomping ground, decrying the evils of modernism and the effect of machines and money on rural America. I have to tell you, money hasn’t been all that great for anything, as becomes clearer every day. I even thought of Berry last week when I saw a news story about the current Secretary of Agriculture admitting outright that small family farms would continue to fold: “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out.” Even though I’m well-removed from farming, I took it rather personally, as if he were telling Andy Catlett to quit whining and go get a job at WalMart. So I’m not indifferent to his schtick. I just find it annoying. Few writers have this effect on me. I’ve kind of come to enjoy it, the two-mindedness of it.

A note on the title: BASS lists the story title as “The Great Interruption: The Story of a Famous Story of Old Port William and How It Ceased To Be Told (1935-1978)”. The shorter form is used in the Threepenny Review table of contents (perhaps the subtitle is included in the text itself, but I don’t have access). The Larkspur Press standalone edition puts the subtitle on the cover, but lists the story under the three-word version. I’ve abbreviated it only because such a lengthy title plays havoc with computer-defined fields and Twitter connections. I think it’s fitting that my abbreviation is forced by the machines and modernity Berry rails against, and so I mention it, whether as a nod to him or a smack upside the head, I’m not sure.

BASS 2019: Kathleen Alcott, “Natural Light” from Zoetrope All-Story #22.1

Having lost my parents in my early twenties, I often considered how I might maintain a relationship with each – which stories of theirs might take on different meaning as my life changed, which objects left behind might alter in emotional valence. But at the center of these thoughts was a certain dynamic: myself as protean, my parents’ lives as fixed where they left them – never, as the story begins, providing any new information.

Kathleen Alcott, Contributor Note

The quick takes on this story emphasize the inciting event: a woman in her thirties comes across a photograph, at a New York museum exhibit, of her now-deceased mother doing … something. “I won’t tell you what my mother was doing in the photograph”, Daughter promises in the first line of the story. She drops hints, however, that strongly suggest a sexual act with overtones of mainlining, things not usually associated with suburban mothers of adult daughters.

Shows like these are a dime a dozen here, and they are not of the sort I seek out, having lost most interest I might have had in the type of lives and rooms they always feature. Bare mattresses on the floor, curtains that are not curtains, enormous telephones off the hook, the bodies always thin but never healthy. Eyes shadowed in lilac, men in nylon nighties pour liquor from brown paper bags into their mouths. A woman with a black eye laughs, her splayed thigh printed with menstrual blood. These photographs are in color, the light strictly natural.

While this is dramatic and forms the foundation for the story, there’s a lot more to it, namely, a network of relationships involving our protagonist (who I’ll refer to as Daughter), laid out against her intrusive thoughts of suicide.

The relationships – Mother-Daughter, Father-Daughter, Husband-Daughter, Mother-Father – show some interesting parallels. Then there’s the Photographer-Mother relationship, of which we have testimony only from one side, and the Photographer-Daughter relationship, which is quite different in that we see only its genesis when Daughter wants to meet to discuss the circumstances of the photograph. It serves a specific purpose in the world of the story, and as a writing element, providing an escape and/or an ending.

The idea of natural light – unretouched reality – plays throughout the story, contrasted with ways we routinely soften, cleanse, and civilize what we see. Daughter had gone to the museum to see a different exhibit, landscapes “refashioned with a particular pink glow the painter must have felt when he saw what inspired them.”

The story gives several other examples of this softening. Mother gave up perfume years before, but on her death bed wore foundation to mask her pallor. Father has his own technique:

It was one of a thousand of precooked phrases he had on hand: canary in a coal mine, teach a man to fish, taste of your own medicine. Language to him was the same set of formations and markers, certain maxims always leading the way to others. After you pulled up your bootstraps, you reaped what you sowed. It was something he had adopted in recovery, I thought, the beginnings of which took place a decade before I was born. For my whole life, he had referred to himself that way: in recovery. It seemed cruel to me one had to adopt that title for the duration of living, but for my father it became a helpful boundary, a gate he could close on any conversation he wanted.

This precisely parallels the Daughter-husband relationship, or non-relationship, as they are estranged:

Contact between us now consisted mainly of three words, even the contraction never parted into its constituents. Hope you’re well, he wrote. Hope you’re well, I wrote. Hope you’re well! Hope you’re well! The statement never altered into a question, and with time it began to read to me as a kind of threat, beveled, ingenious. To his last hope you’re well, six weeks before, I had not replied, and I believed that was the end he had in mind. ….We had been separated a year.

There’s a different kind of natural light in the Daughter-Husband relationship. Daughter has what could be classified as either intrusive thoughts, or suicidal ideation; it’s not entirely clear from the story which is the case. They seem to be random, triggered obliquely by something she encounters. “Pills in a blender with strawberry ice cream, I thought. An email scheduled a day ahead of time with very clear instructions” follows her recollection of the email exchange with Husband. “A hotel suite uptown, I thought, a maid you’d somehow apologize to beforehand” occurs while at the museum. When Photographer says “I’d like to shoot you sometime,” we get “A gun shop, I thought, where you bantered a little outside your politics with the owner, some bald man with ideas about a woman’s instincts for self-preservation, who congratulated your investment in personal safety.”

I have no professional qualifications, but my understanding is that suicidal ideation is the repeated image of one scenario, complete with extensive plans. Hey, who hasn’t fantasized about the scheduled-ahead email. Husband seems inordinately freaked out by these thoughts. It’s sort of the reverse of the softening effect: he’s shining a glaring spotlight, increasing the harshness of the situation. Or… is Daughter softening her view, taking things too casually? There’s a strong indication that might be the case, given the language of her dismissal:

It is true there were parts of me that must have been difficult to live with, namely an obsessive thought pattern concerning various ways I might bring about my own death, but also clear that I rose to the occasion of this malady with rosy dedication, running miles every day and recording the impact of this on my mind, conceiving of elaborate meals, the hedonistic pleasures of which I believed spoke to my commitment to life. Could a person who roasted three different kinds of apples for an autumn soup really be capable of suicide? I asked him this question laughing, wooden spoon aloft, during an argument about a drug I did not want to take. Doesn’t the one cancel out the other, leaving you with a basically normal wife?

The double use of forms of “rose” makes me think maybe she’s the one painting the picture in soft light, like those landscapes with the “peculiar pink glow.” At the same time, the humor reminds me of her mother’s gesture as she dismisses her youth in New York. And that brings in her description of Husband’s tendency to dismiss her routine upsets: “Rather than responding to my speaking, he took to waving at it, scenery to be considered later…”.

Thus, the language of this story is incredibly important on a micro level. At times, it’s maddening. All the references to light, to pink (she wears a rose-gold watch), carry meaning. Syntax comes into play as well:

When my husband met me, twenty-two to his forty, he saw a girl with a rough kind of potential, and he tended to me as one might a garden, offering certain benefits and taking others away. He did not wish me to grow in just any direction. That I allowed him this speaks just as poorly of me. I was once a girl with an exquisite collection of impractical dresses – ruched chiffon, Mondrian prints – and a social smoking habit, a violent way with doors and windows. I left him in taupes, my arches well-supported, my thinking framed in apology….
Growing up his beliefs as their rigidity dictated, I was something like an espalier, the distance between the vine and the thing that trained it almost imperceptible.

That last sentence requires some concentration to parse (who is growing up?), but subtly introduces another element: how much of this metamorphosis is simply the natural byproduct of growing up, rather than an unnatural pruning of unwanted traits? Given what we learn about Mother’s past, didn’t she go through the same process of putting away childish things? Maybe meeting Father was the catalyst, or maybe she was just ready to grow up and move on. It happens to all of us; we change throughout time, and sometimes we want to forget our past lives.

That brings the overt theme of the story: how much do we get to know about the past of those close to us? It’s clear Mother didn’t want to share the details of her youth with Daughter, evidenced by “a gesture she would make…: a low hook of the hand, swiped an inch or two to the left. Total dismissal.” (Does that recall Husband waving at Daughter’s concerns?) Father amplifies this at the end of the story. Is our past our property? I can’t think of any practical reason Daughter has a right to know her mother lived, by all indications briefly, a seedy life. Is there an emotional reason to shine natural light on a Mother who would rather be seen in muted half-light? Is it an intrusion, a violence, to press the issue even after her death?

Syntax connects the relationships as well:

Of course, the thoughts had disturbed me enough that I had confessed to having them, about a year after my mother died, in the dark after sex in the middle of the night. This was the time he wanted me the most, calling me in from where sleep had taken me, his body my reintroduction to the living world.

I was startled by that first sentence, since the ambiguous clause arrangement made it sound like Mother died in the dark after sex in the middle of the night, an odd notion since she was so ill towards the end. Then I realized that was instead when Daughter told Husband about her intrusive thoughts. This grammatical blending of Mother and Daughter adds to all the confusion of identity, the connections between all of these people.

The story contains a line I adore, for my own reasons: “Anything can be lived around, so long as it’s only you who has to do it.” My husband and I spent fifteen years playing “Who’s turn is it to be crazy?” That sentence is the first time anyone’s validated my own sense that, as much as the well-meaning try to push me into social circles, I’m really better off alone, where I can be crazy without anyone feeling the need to do something.

What I see more than anything else is that Daughter is denied on all fronts: Mother, Father, and Husband all refused to give her what she wanted from them. Was she entitled to what she wanted? Maybe, maybe not. But the fact is, all the doors were closed. The only one open was the Photographer.

And then we come to the end. More connections via language and images. Backtrack to language: her husband wanted her most in sleep. She agrees to be shot – photographed – when she’s asleep. I see two connections to prior suicide thoughts: shooting, and dying in a temporarily occupied (hotel) room. So when I read:

I’m open to being photographed, I wrote to the photographer, so long as I’m asleep.
A field, I thought then. A yellow caned chair. A room up some stairs that was empty.

I think this is the real thing. Pills, booze maybe, to assure sleep that deepens. Photographer, the only open door. More than a little passive-aggressiveness towards the woman whose relationship with her mother predates hers. I’m betting the emails would be all set up and ready to go. Then again, ask me in a year, and I might read it differently.

That’s what’s fun about a story like this, the different takes. Jake Weber went in another direction in his blog post, and introduced me to the art term mise en abyme, a picture within a picture, while expanding it to a literary use here.

BASS 2019: Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, “The Era” from Guernica, 4/2/18

I had what would become Ben’s voice rattling in my brain for a while. It was a postapocalyptic-sad-boy chorus that was strange and funny and alive to me. An idea of a world emerged from this voice, a world that was brutal in the name of “honesty,” a world that had learned to forsake kindness as a virtue. And once these general ideas were in place, I let the voice take me where it would.

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brehyan, Contributor Note

I first read this story about a week ago, at the end of my Summer Read II, in Adjei-Brenyah’s collection Friday Black. My impression at the time was that it was remarkably sterile and cool in a collection bursting with energy, violence, and rage; I briefly mentioned it combined concerns about human genetic engineering with the pushback on political correctness and high-priced self-help scams. On re-reading the story individually, I have a very different impression; the interactions are anything but sterile and cool. While it isn’t five kids getting beheaded outside the library, it’s still amazingly violent, but the violence is interpersonal and institutional, not physical. It’s Mean Girls on steroids, and everybody, including teachers and parents, plays.

Adjei-Brenyah has gone to some trouble to create a pretty complete outline of a future world, from language to technology to social institutions and attitudes. The tentpoles are familiar, however: money talks, revisionist history supports the power structure, let’s make sure everyone thinks they’re happy, and exclude the outliers. Ben, our protagonist, is in high school, so we learn a lot about the setting, both historically and socially, by looking over his shoulder in what passes for History class:

“Suck one and die,” says Scotty, a tall, mostly-true, kid. “I’m aggressive ’cause I think you don’t know shit.”
We’re in HowItWas class.
“Well,” Mr. Harper says, twisting his ugly body toward us, “you should shut your mouth because you’re a youth-teen who doesn’t know shit about shit, and I’m a full-middler who’s been teaching this stuff for more years than I’m proud of.”
“Understood,” says Scotty.
Then Mr. Harper went back to talking about the time before the Turn, which came after the Big Quick War, which came after the Long Big War. I was thinking about going to the nurse for some pre-lunch Good. I do bad at school because sometimes I think when I should be learning.

Complete story available online at Guernica

Truth telling and pride are central values in this world; emotion is the prime evil. Kids are genetically engineered for various qualities, but sometimes it goes wrong, resulting in various abnormalities and disabilities. Sometimes it goes right-but-wrong, as with the case of Ben’s sister Marlene; her seven indices all landed on ambition, creating a real monster, but one fully compatible with and prized by important parts the world in which she lives.

Ben’s decline makes up the plot. I’m still not sure what the reason is for his decline. He’s clear-born, that is, not genetically improved (after the experience with his sister, his parents thought it best not to take chances again), which comes with some disadvantages in a world where most of his classmates can read thirty-five pages in a minute and a half. The requisite does of Good given every morning isn’t working very well, so he goes to the nurse for more during the day. Is this a common reaction in clear-born kids? Is he on his way to becoming a shoelooker – someone without pride or communicative skill? Is this physical, or the toil of emotional strain? Fact is, no one seems to care, including his parents, who, with prideful honesty, only note that he’s a mistake, slow, and disappointing, and they’re disappointed because that’s a reflection on them. Apparently narcissism is part and parcel of the pride-and-honesty thing.

I’ve always had an antipathy towards people who claim “You may not like what I say but at least I’m honest.” That’s always struck me as a translation of “You don’t matter enough for me to learn basic social skills or care about any relationship I may have with you.” And now this society is built on the same attitude: that interpersonal stuff might have been useful when there were a few thousand of us scattered about the savanna, but now it’s like an appendix, useless and prone to infection, so let’s tell stupid people they’re stupid and ugly people they’re ugly and not worry about it.

There’s a match for every misfit, and in Ben’s case, it’s Leslie McStowe:

Leslie was a twin, then her brother, Jimmy, died. Jimmy was a shoelooker who cooked his head in a food zapper. Leslie is always telling lies about how great things are or how nice everyone looks and how everybody is special. Leslie McStowe is one of the least truthful people around, which is frustrating because she and I scanned high for compatibility on our genetic compatibility charts. Probably because we’re both clear-borns. Leslie’s parents have protested against the Opti-Life™. They don’t believe in perfect. I believe in it—I just hate it.

It’s Ben’s birthday, which apparently is ignored in this post-emotion world, but Leslie invites him to come to her home where the McStowe family introduces him to birthday cake, jokes, and the idea that human relationships create a natural form of Good that obviates the injections. At this point we’re ready to go with the plucky-band-of-resistance-fighters trope, but plot twist: they give Ben a brochure explaining the prices of various packages for sessions of basking in the warm glow of friendship, which turns it into something closer to Scientology or whatever the financially-exploitative cult of the day is. Life in the Era, they call it.

Except, not so fast. Ben runs into trouble the next day, and Leslie is there. Alas, so is Marlene. And Ben has a choice to make. It could be a simplistic ending, but it’s choreographed nicely, using a lot of physical sensation to emphasize the nature of his decision.

As with most SF/F stories, this one plays with long-debated questions:

Where is the line between honesty and cruelty? While visiting the McStowes, Ben asks, “Is that the food sector your son killed himself in?” This understandably creates a shock wave for Mrs. McStowe, who, unlike Ben’s parents, operates with what we would consider a normal emotional palette, and drops a plate.

Father McStowe looks at me. He touches my shoulder. His hand is large/heavy. “You know something,” he speaks low so only I can hear him, “one of the things we like to do in this home is be careful of what we say. What you said didn’t have to be said. And now you’ve hurt my wife. She’ll be fine, but—”
“Lying for others is what caused the Big Quick and the Long Big,” I say.
“Maybe. Or maybe it was something else. I’m talking about thinking about the other person, ya know?” Father McStowe whispers to me. “I’m sure you have a lot of ideas about this, but it’s something we try around here.” He smiles and touches my shoulder again. “Let’s eat some cake,” he says in a big voice, a voice for everybody.

I recall a Miss Manners article in which she recommends considering what’s behind a question with a potentially devastating answer, like “Do I look fat in these pants?” or “Would you like to see pictures of my grandchildren?” If, in the first case, if a fix is possible (like in a store dressing room, pre-purchase), suggest it, otherwise (like just before the questioner goes on stage to deliver an important address), don’t destroy someone’s confidence for no reason; and in the second case, the question is really “Do you care about me?” That’s a lot easier to answer.

There are times when it will be necessary to tell a painful truth: “I don’t love you” or “You didn’t make the cut for the team/class/job.” It’s possible to cushion the blow, but that requires taking into account the other person’s feelings, not something a society that devalues emotions is likely to care about. I find this particularly important in the contemporary struggle around political correctness and safe spaces. In general, they are built on courtesy and compassion, on the simple idea of caring about others’ feelings when possible. Somehow, exaggerations turn into heated calls for “I’ll call you what I damn want and you’ll put up with it, bitch” rhetoric. Given that a perfect balance is not possible, personally I prefer to err on the side of kindness.

This leads to another theme, perhaps a central one: what is the best balance between reason and emotion? Philosophers have gone back and forth on that for millennia. Plato and Aristotle both felt reason should consider, but rule over, passions; David Hume felt otherwise: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Kahneman got more psychological, proposing System 1 and System 2 thinking, one jumping in immediately to protect us from danger, the other one considering consequences but perhaps coming in too late; several contemporary philosophers, Jonathan Haidt among them, see morality and judgment as an emotional response – the quick, “hot” System 1 take – then System 2 is brought in to find a way to justify it. Cognitive therapy uses the concept of wise mind, a blending of emotional mind and rational mind, as a way of balancing two inputs into decision making. In all these examples, where the balance lies is debatable, but no one advocates sliding the bar all the way to either side.

Ben’s society slides the bar hard over and gives emotion zero weight, but you can’t tell me there isn’t more than a little surreptitious delight in some of the crueler episodes. Power might be the motivation, the ability to hurt others; but in his blog post analyzing the story, Jake Weber makes a great case for the essential role of shoelookers and other misfits in Ben’s society: they provide someone to feel superior to. This makes sense, in light of Ben’s evaluation of shoelookers:

And then there’s Nick and Raphy who are the class shoelookers. All they do is cry and moan. They were both optimized and still became shoelookers. Being emotional is all they are and it means they aren’t good for anything. I’m glad Samantha and Nick and Raphy are in the class. Because of them I’m not bottom/last in learning and I don’t wanna be overall bottom/last at all.

It’s interesting how differently the story reads in Friday Black, versus in BASS. I see a lot of little choices that give it depth. Some of the particulars of the world confusing, but, given the space of a short story, Adjei-Brenyah has done an excellent job of setting us up with what we need to know to understand Ben and feel a stake in his struggle.

BASS 2019: Let’s Get This Party Started

Last fall, when the indefatigable Heidi Pitlor sent me a first batch of forty stories, I dove right in….
By Thanksgiving I felt as though I had lucked into the best gig ever….I was discovering brilliant similes everywhere; I was meeting adulterous Alaskan moms and White House switchboard operators and nuns buying beehives. I kept thinking: there are so many brave voices singing out there!
it was mid December when I remembered, Shit. I’m supposed to decide why some of these stories are better than the others. I panicked. I spent an entire mourning constructing a spreadsheet; I built fields to score and summarize and evaluate, and in about fourteen seconds all the pleasure ribboned away.
Evaluating is a very different experience than enjoying, and I suppose this is true when it comes to parenting, traveling, eating, having sex, and reading short stories. Evaluating sucks. Evaluating turns eating a delicious piece of pie into homework.

Anthony Doerr, Introduction

It’s maybe the most narratively engaging Introduction since Richard Russo told the story of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “To entertain, and to instruct” lecture back in BASS 2010. Considering the guest editors are themselves short story writers, it’s odd that so few use their storytelling skills in their introductions, preferring to use more of an essay style to outline their process and thoughts on the state of fiction in general, and how it relates to the real world. But Doerr starts out with some wonderful anecdotes about his writing as kid: his stories usually featured a boy leaving school on some adventure, because “[t]o a kid with a science-teacher mom and a perfect attendance record for four years running, walking out of school in the middle of the day and never returning was the most epic beginning to a story imaginable.”

We read about his first short story competition during his junior year in high school,

My current story-in-progress was “Avalanche”, about a boy who strolls out of a trigonometry test, steals a delivery van containing thousands of chocolate bars, and drives to the Yukon only to become caught in (surprise!)an avalanche. I had loads of fun describing the snow whooshing and tumbling and grinding around the van , then switched to the point of view of a nearby dog who, out of the goodness of his dog heart, begins searching for the buried kid. Then I jumped into some back story on the dog (nice farm girl, mean farmer, a misunderstanding involving chickens) and I described how the dog smells all that chocolate through six feet of snow and digs out the boy and they eat frozen Twix bars and the boy never studies trigonometry again.

Boy, do I want to read that story (hey, that would be an interesting anthology: established authors rewrite their earliest stories, from the vantage point of experience)! But the young Doerr came upon a “how to write stories” book, and realized he’d broken all the rules enshrined within: subplots, secondary characters, multiple povs. So he wrote a different story, followed all the rules – and someone else the contest, of course.

He did, as we know, go on to learn the rules, and, most importantly, when and how to break them –

Indeed, whenever I came across a list of rules like the ones above, what I really wanted to do was write a story that was all backstory, in which multiple protagonists, none of which are exactly likable, wake up, tell lots of different stories inside the story, argue significant moral points, then wake up a second time and realize the whole thing was a dream.

– and, as the guest editor of this anthology, when to allow other writers to break rules. He abandoned his spreadsheet for a more gestalt approach: “I wanted sentences that pulled me in multiple directions at once, structures that unsettled pre-existing patterns, and techniques that took some previously ratified rule and poked it.”

Although I’ve always considered myself to be more about introspection and ideas than story – a preference I just re-remembered during my Summer Read II of fiction and nonfiction – and though I have been increasingly anxious and depressed about current events over the past several years (reaching bottoms previously considered unreachable), I found this introduction to be the most uplifting in years. Maybe because it countered, rather than echoed, my despair, maybe because it was just so much fun to read. I’ve enjoyed all of the Doerr stories and essays I’ve read, but I never thought of him as light-hearted and fun. It’s wonderful to make this discovery, that he – and, more selfishly but importantly, I – can laugh. Yet he is not out of touch with the present reality:

These stories push back against tradition even as they simultaneously embrace it, and help us remember that in art, so long as we humans manage to keep having children, and our children keep growing up and looking around at the stories their forebears have told and deciding they can tell them better (which is to say faster, or slower, or greener, or longer, or with more monsters, or fewer verbs, or more stolen vans full of chocolate bars), the resistance is always happening.

But… did it have to be orange?

I have a longstanding aversion to the color orange. I like oranges well enough – I eat clementines regularly – and I quite like shades of peach, burnt siennas, dusty ochres, and the like. But in clothing, walls, and, yes, book covers, orange-orange grates on me. Not since the Great Chartreuse Horror of 2011 have I had such a negative reaction to the look of BASS. But then, when I hold it, I notice it has that velvety matte finish I love so much… maybe I just needed to shut my eyes until I open the cover.

I see in the Table of Contents the usual combination of Famous Names (Ursula Le Guin, Jeffrey Eugenides, Wendell Berry), BASS repeats, and writers I’m unfamiliar with. I’ll be doing my usual “reacting to stories” rather than reviewing or critiquing, because I have no training in the latter skills. Fortunately, Jake Weber will be working in parallel on his blog, offering a more writerly analysis of each story (and as usual, he’s a step ahead of me already). And, if we’re lucky, we may have another writer joining us in some capacity. Everyone is welcome to comment, offer differing opinions, and point out what I’ve missed.

I’m nervous about this particular volume for another reason: last year’s was extraordinary. For that matter, to me BASS has been crescendoing for about three years now. How do you follow that? How do I tame my own recollections, my expectations? Not to mention my angst?

Both Doerr and Pitlor acknowledge the impossibility of living up to the title “Best”:

Here’s a secret: every year, in some way, I find myself telling the guest editor that there are not twenty perfect stories. There is not even one perfect story. There is, to my knowledge, no such thing to all people. What one person sees as implausible, another sees as imaginative. ….You learn to keep your gaze on something bigger and broader, the horizon of a story, say, rather than the potholes. The horizon – the place where voice, mood, plot, characterization, language, and perspective coalesce and expand – the horizon is where you’ll find, as Anthony calls it in his introduction, the “magic.”

Heidi Pitlor, Foreword

Maybe that’s a step. Stop worrying about last year, about the orange cover – or whatever’s breaking on Twitter – and read.

Closing out Summer Read II

I have to find a better descriptive phrase for this reading period between the end of Pushcart in May and the beginning of BASS in October. While it does take place over the summer, it starts in Spring (or at least has so far; the beginning depends on when I finish Pushcart) and ends in the fall. For that matter, seasons aren’t all that well-defined, since summer might mean June 21 to September 21, or it might mean however your school system defines it, or it might mean time between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

I started this interim reading period last year, when I finished Pushcart early, but it has its roots in the year before when I realized I was essentially reading two books a year and missing out on a lot. That was back when I was neck-deep in moocs, taking anywhere from three to six at a time. Moocs have redesigned me out of the picture, so I have more time to spend on free reading.

Interim reading period? Free reading time? Nah, I’ll stick with Summer Read. Feels more relaxed.

Back on May 6, I had a preliminary list of 31 books, divided into four categories, that would fill the months until October. I read 21, five of which weren’t on the original list. If that seems like a low count for five months, well, some of them took longer than others, my move in July threw me into a tizzy, blogging a book takes almost as long as reading it, and I did go through a few Yale OCWs in the same time period. And why am I making excuses anyway – this isn’t a competition.

The actual read list:

Religion:
• Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God
• C. Michael Curtis, ed. : God Stories
• Youssef Ziedan: Azazeel
• Jo Walton, Lent (added)

Jobs:
• Finn Murphy: The Long Haul
• Nell Painter: Old in Art School
• Kwame Onwuachi: Notes from a Young Black Chef
• John Urschel and Louisa Thomas, Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football (added)

Filling in literary gaps:
• Sinclair Lewis: Main Street/Babbitt/It Can’t Happen Here (I read about half of each)
• Umberto Eco: Serendipities: Language and Lunacy (substituted for On Literature)
• Toni Morrison: The Bluest Eye
• Jonathan Franzen: The Corrections
• George Lakoff and Mark Johnson: Metaphors We Live By (added)

Miscellaneous from my TBR lists:
• Ellen Litman: The Last Chicken In America (short story collection)
• Simon Winchester: The Professor and the Madman (nonfiction)
• Michel Lincoln: Upright Beasts (short story collection)
• Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: Friday Black (short story collection)
• Emily Wilson: The greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca (nonfiction)
• Mark Kurlansky: Salt: A World History (nonfiction)
• Tony Hoaglund: Twenty Poems that Could Save America (nonfiction)
• Robert Long Foreman, Among Other Things (added) (essay collection)
• Lesley Nneka Arimah: What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky (added) (short story collection)

I abandoned a couple of books I’d planned to read because I discovered I hated reading them. No, I’m not going to tell you which ones. They aren’t bad books; one wasn’t what I’d expected, and the other was just too much dense prose.

The outcome of all this: Something I remembered, and something that surprised me.

I remembered that nonfiction is my first love. This is why I keep saying I love a story or novel that teaches me something, and why beautiful, perfectly-written fiction can leave me shrugging while I find a free-for-all mesmerizing if I find something worth researching in it.

Which leads into the surprising aspect of this read: I found the religion category by far the most engaging. That’s because, rather than character development, I prefer books I have to read at my computer, so I can look up Hypatia and the conflicts in fifth-century Alexandria, or the Renaissance humanists and the theological directions abandoned in early Christianity, or details of Kabbalah and why Spinoza is considered the atheist’s theologian. I get a thrill when encountering something I learned in a mooc; maybe it’s just reassurance that I didn’t waste all those hours over all those years in all those weird classes.

And now it’s time to roll up my sleeves for BASS 2019. That doesn’t mean I won’t be reading anything else. Inspired by Salman Rushdie’s new book, I’m already getting started on Don Quixote, and following a Yale OCW to keep me motivated and on track. My Favorite Math Blogger (Humor Division), Ben Orlin, has his second book coming out in a few days; I was lucky enough to read a chapter early in its development, and I’m eager to see more of what he’s done interweaving calculus with art and literature. And then there’s plain old recreational reading: a book on the US territories (inspired by the Great Greenland Fiasco), a memoir by a woman who came here from Iran as a kid, before anyone knew where Iran was; a book of medical stories; a history book about the middle ages.

There’s always something to read.

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: Friday Black (HMH, 2018)

I use fiction as a way to find truth. I try to avoid the lies that come from euphemism or complete erasure. I’d say, in general, my work is concerned specifically with making the truth unavoidably clear.

Adjei-Brenyah’s PEN Ten Interview with Lily Phipott

 
Going into this, I didn’t think, “Let me try to write dystopian fiction.” I think I just sort of create spaces that I know I can create energy from. So if that ends up feeling like dystopia, I guess that’s just what happens. But what I do like is sometimes turning the volume up on something so that you can’t ignore it. Or pushing the needle just a little bit, shining a light on whatever issue….
[I]f the house is on fire, I’m not going to talk about what’s in the fridge. If people are getting killed around me, that’s something I care about and have to talk about. And so maybe I have to be violent on the page to represent that meaningfully. And on some level, getting people to react to violence on the page is part of the project of the book because there’s already violence that I don’t feel like we’re reacting to. I’m just trying to be as ethical as possible when creating this violence as I can be, and I try my best to do different things to make sure it’s done purposefully.

Adjei-Brenyah’s BookRiot Interview with Emily Martin

That’s a great description of the stories in this book. Whether he’s writing about the shortcomings of justice when the victims are black people, or about abortion, or about rampant consumerism, or gun violence, or troubled families, Adjei-Brenyah scrapes the veneer of civilization off our savage moments and shines a spotlight on what lies beneath. Some of his stories literally go inside character’s minds to take a closer look. There is a lot of violence in this book; if that sounds like a trigger warning, maybe that’s what it is. It can be a difficult experience, reading this book, but a worthwhile one if you’re sick of thoughts and prayers and bullshit.

We start right off with “The Finklestein 5” which highlights the ease with which “I was afraid for my life” is accepted as an excuse for any violence against any black person, including a group of five kids standing outside a public library. In an interview with Christian Coleman at Lightspeed, Adjei-Brenyah said he put that story first because “if this reader only reads one thing from me ever, I want it to be that.” Other elements get blended in – a job interview, how Blackness needs to be calibrated for particular activities to minimize obstacles, Say Her Name – but it’s the beheadings with a chain saw that overwhelmed me. Thing is, it’s not that exaggerated, if you examine our trajectory.

Another story clearly emanates from the Trayvon Martin murder: “Zimmer Land”, a kind of theme park where hunting black people for sport is monetized.

Zimmer Land Mission
1) To create a safe space for adults to explore problem-solving, justice, and judgment.
2) To provide the tools for patrons to learn about themselves in curated heightened situations.
3) To entertain.

The question keeps coming up: safe for whom? Is the mecha-suit, protecting the body, enough? For that matter, in a discussion with management, it becomes clear the mecha-suit isn’t primarily about safety of the hunted, but the paying hunter’s experience. When they add on a new feature, Isaiah has to rethink things.

That brings us to the consumerism part of our program. The title story takes Black Friday – which I’ve never done, by the way, I avoid going anywhere near a store on Thanksgiving Weekend – and takes it up to eleven. The guy with the job of pulling bodies out of the way isn’t even the worst part. It’s the desperation of the various customers, the needs they see their purchases fulfilling, that makes my heart ache:

“Blue! Son! SleekPack!” a man with wild eyes and a bubble vest screams as he grabs my left ankle. White foam drips from his mouth. I use my right foot to stomp his hand, and I feel his fingers crush beneath my boots. He howls, “SleekPack. Son!” while licking his injured hand. I look him in his eyes, deep red around his lids, redder at the corners. I understand him perfectly. What he’s saying is this: My son. Loves me most on Christmas. I have him holidays. Me and him. Wants the one thing. Only thing. His mother won’t. On me. Need to feel like Father!

I’m the only one at work without one…. How can I be a senior manager without one?

I won’t be alone with this. They’ll like me.

And again, I feel like, while this is exaggerated and surreal, is it that far off reality? This is followed up by two more stories, one featuring the same sales associate, and one about a sales clerk’s suicide at the mall, which generates a new verb, to Lucy. “I didn’t know her name then” pretty much sums it up. Turns out Adjei-Brenyah, who worked in retail for a while, experienced a similar incident.

“Lark Street” takes all the rhetoric about abortion and turns it into a teenage guy who finds himself surrounded by the fetuses his girlfriend just aborted. It’s a well-imagined story: “We’re not gonna be people” just keeps echoing over and over. “The Era” manages to combine pushback to political correctness, genetic engineering, and the high-priced side of the self-help industry; this story will appear in BASS 2019 so I’ll save my comments for then.

There are subtler stories, based more on relationships. “The Hospital Where” is something like a hallucinatory horror story; I read it several times before I got some idea of what was happening. A boy who, during a childhood of poverty, evictions, dark cold nights without any lights, makes a deal with the Twelve-Tongued God:

“I can give you new eyes. Eyes that will work, that won’t cry. I can put your hurt to use,” Twelve-tongue said. “I can give you what you want.” After every other word, it pulled off a mask to reveal yet another beautiful new face. Its voice sounded like every voice I’d ever heard speaking at once. “I can give you the power to be anywhere. To heal the world. To own time. To turn lies to truth. To make day into night and night into day.” I nodded viciously. “You will have the power to change everything, to make the life you want.”

To write, in other words. But the effects are, you might say, not what he expected.

“The Lion & The Spider” also features a duel between reality and story, though in a very different way, entwining a folk tale from West Africa about a trickster god, Anansi, who appears as a spider, with a teen’s efforts to keep going when his father disappears on him. “I imagined you gone forever, and I survived.” I thought, Thank you. I don’t know why. This is the story that inspired the cover art by Mark Robinson, using uniquely colored stock images of engravings. The chaotic lion’s mane appears to be many things before it is recognized, just like the story.

School shootings make up the background of “Light Spitter”, but as usual, Adjei-Brenyah gives it a twist, this time a post-mortem fantasy: the shooter and the victim meet when he is dying and she is dead, become an angel of sorts, and pay a visit on another incipient shooter.

Most of the stories feature young black men, often teenagers, as protagonists. A debut collection, the book has received a lot of attention from a lot of heavy-hitters, picked up a major prize, and made some impressive lists.

I just write whatever a story needs, but I did spend a lot of time with the surreal, or I guess stories that were outside the realm of straight literary fiction or straight reality. I spent a long time wondering if they could coexist in a cohesive book with stories that are a little bit more bound to reality or at least closer to reality. Working with George Saunders, I asked him, “Should I be this kind of writer, or should I be that kind of writer?” And he just said, “Yes.” And that was very helpful for me.

Adjei-Brenyah’s BookRiot Interview with Emily Martin

Who knows where he’ll go next.

Robert Long Foreman: Among Other Things (Pleiades Press, 2017)

I had gone to the colony in order to write about inanimate things. I had once written with great enthusiasm, and with some success, about my great-grandfather’s walking stick. I had also written about a wooden club, and had written another essay about a bag of dirty laundry that was left in my old apartment in Ohio by a German woman. I was asked many times at the colony what I was writing, and I explained as many times, to different listeners, that my plan was to write a collection of short pieces about inanimate things. They would come together as a book, I said, one that I hoped would be worth reading. Every time I described it, I was less convinced of the likelihood of this.
My secret anxiety was that I had run out of objects worth writing about. I couldn’t just run to the nearest department store and purchase a laundry basket, so that it could be the subject of my next contemplative prose piece.
Now, though, I was about to take on more objects than I could possibly write about in one book, all of them pregnant with meaning to someone who was now gone.

~~ “We Are All Dealers in Used Furniture”

I’ve been thinking a lot about things lately. First there was the book I read in May by long-haul moving truck driver Finn Murphy, whose advice was: leave everything behind and get new stuff, it’s cheaper and will fit your new life better. Then there was my own (very short-haul) move in July; I had to part with furniture I loved, as well as stuff I should’ve thrown out a decade ago, and I came across some wonderful things I thought I’d thrown out years ago: a paper from college with an encouraging note from the professor, music from the dozen or so choruses I’d sung in over the years, a teapot that was prettier than I remembered. And of course there was Marie Kondo all summer, telling us to throw away everything that doesn’t spark joy. Joy is good; I like joy as much as anyone, but I treasure many things for reasons other than sparks of joy.

Foreman’s essays in this collection show very nicely how things can carry essentials beyond joy.

The pieces also challenge our concept of thing. We tend to think of all that is as fitting into categories of either person, place, or thing. But in Foreman’s essays, a thing, like a bag of left-behind laundry, or a sculpture, might become a person. Or, person might become a thing, as with an art model. The boundaries can be more porous than we might think.

The above quote is from the next-to-last essay, “We Are All Dealers in Used Furniture”, in which Foreman details the events surrounding the death of his Aunt Posey, including going through her home to sort things into what to discard, what to sell, and what to take as inheritance pieces. Hence the reference to more objects than he could possibly write about; it’s the longest piece in the book at 80 pages. He brings up several poems written by poets who lost family members, pointing out things I probably wouldn’t have noticed, like the absence of the father in Robert Lowell’s “Father’s Bedroom”. I love that Aunt Posey drew medieval knights in battle with animals and monsters; it sounds like manuscript marginalia, though in that case I would have expected snails and rabbits.

It wasn’t until I got to that quote that I realized the book was intended to be about objects. I kept thinking (I tend to consider various approaches to these posts as I read) that many of the stories were about things; I suppose it should have been obvious from the title, but some of the pieces require a more metaphorical approach to recognize them as being about things, which is when I started thinking about porous boundaries.

The final essay, following Aunt Posey but not about her, puts the perfect coda on the longer story, and the book. The family gathers to put together a 9000 piece jigsaw puzzle of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. And of course, they’re doing something else entirely. “We don’t mourn at my mother’s house – not formally.” I’ve never thought of jigsaw puzzles as vehicles for grief, but I will every time I see one; and the next time death is in my circle, I might just break one out for all of us mourners.

The collection starts off with two shorter essays that focus clearly on things in the literal sense: a walking stick, and a club. If I may once again borrow a concept I learned from Ken Nichols’ blog, these two stories teach us how to read the book. While objects take center stage, they are pointers to more important matters: “The stick would complete my walking self when I had not realized that I was a fragment”, he says of his grandfather’s walking stick. The club, bought at an antique store, led to darker places: the Rodney King beating, an ancestor who was in the Klan. But it eventually leads back to light when it breaks as he uses it to hit a baseball: “I reacted to the death of the club with a mixture of surprise, embarrassment, and relief….I wondered if it had not been a club after all.” That the club was seen to die upon breaking hearkens back to that overly simplistic person-place-thing categorization being a little messier than we might realize.

His essay about his high school – a place that becomes, for the duration of the essay, a thing, as well as a container for things, including a python that springs a freak attack one afternoon – covers a lot of historical and sociological ground about its past as a military school, and about his family. “If I learned nothing else there, I understand that to spend mornings and afternoons in a place for four years entails merging that place with the person you are, or strive to be, whether you like it or not.” And again, person, place, and thing entwine. I would like to think we’re able to un-merge from negative places, but it can take time, a great deal of hard work, and, most crucially, the recognition that the merging has took place.

One of the weirder stories is about dirty laundry left behind by a subletter. It seems to me, if you find someone else’s dirty underwear (among other items) in your apartment, you throw it out. Immediately. But Foreman spent a lot of time thinking about it, trying to find someone who might want the skirt and shirts, trying on the socks. Wait – trying on a stranger’s unwashed socks? Is he nuts? I started to think this was a gag of some kind; I have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to irony, and maybe this was a Seinfeldesque fantasy.

But then, it got very real. He talks about the stuff with his friends: “Most people, when I told them about Sarah’s abandoned laundry, were less interested in it than they were in other things, like movies and their own lives.” Boy, do I know that feeling. Even on the Internet, where you’re supposed to be able to find anything, I can’t find people who are willing to talk to me about stuff I want to talk about for more than 280 characters, if that.

A couple of essays about Foreman’s decision to go vegetarian (in a non-evangelical way, thank god) didn’t particularly interest me until he revealed what to me was a surprising fact: Hitler was a vegetarian. Then we get serious when he imagines what lunch with vegetarian Hitler might be like:

I don’t like to think I could have a pleasant talk with Adolf Hitler, or that I could bear his presence long without at least being critical, even brutally honest, but if we could somehow meet at a dinner party or reinforced bunker, and I couldn’t help interacting with him, I might well behave as I do when faced with anything I consider worth protest. I am afraid I would act like I do in all awkward encounters: evade the points of contention between us, downplay our differences, be polite, avoid a scene.
….Instead we would talk about our favorite salads. I would sing the praises of chickpeas, and worry that, by discussing food instead of his atrocities, I might be doing something unforgivable.

This style of writing mesmerizes me. The comedy and absurdity makes me think it’s humor, but the tragedy and profundity layered in there cancels that out, and the self-deprecation makes it all somehow very real. It leaves me a bit off balance, and I realize, that’s the same thing he did with the laundry, except it’s more intense here because everything’s more intense with Hitler. Except that invoking Hitler usually turns trite, but discussing favorite salads kept us from going down that road. It reminds me of a flash Steve Almond wrote, “Nixon Swims”, which, being about Nixon, could’ve also been trite, but had me in tears, since it wasn’t really about Nixon at all, just like this isn’t about Hitler.

The story about working as a live model for art students was memorable as an example of a person intentionally becoming a thing, if a sentient, reflective thing. I hadn’t realized it was so physically taxing. A secondary thing in the story is the robe. You can’t just take off your clothes; you have to change, in private, into a robe, then remove the robe when it’s time to start. There’s a tiny vignette about the robe getting lost that again went through absurdity and came out real on the other side.

“Boxes” presents Foreman’s stint as a temp for a law firm, and made me realize how, when expertly used, “show don’t tell” is extraordinarily effective. Privilege, in corporate and personal forms, is never mentioned but laid out bare via boxes full of documents that must be examined and tagged. The calmness of the voice in the essay only inflames my reaction.

“James and the Giant Noise Violation” was most notable, to me, for the behavior of the girlfriend Aurora. Foreman moved to Missouri; Aurora came with him to pick out a place, then when the time came, moved a hundred miles away. If she had a reason, it isn’t given. She left several art projects in Missouri, however, including a bizarre bust based on a casting of a friend of hers; bizarre because of the naked men on the torso, bizarre because of the handprints on its back, and bizarre because it was from the hips up, so looked like it was “halfway buried in the floor.” It’s interesting that I began to see Foreman as a person at this point. I know him slightly through Twitter, and have always assumed he was a rather water-off-a-duck’s-back kind of guy. Now I began to see him differently.

“Skillet” is a wonderful piece, my favorite in the book at the moment, I think, about the aftermath of a kitchen accident that melted a skillet, and the oddly-shaped remnant of metal that remained afterwards. And through this thing we come to several urgent matters. About huddlers and spreaders, the cost of our tendency in modernity to leave the nest farther and farther behind:

Post skillet, I gained some insight concerning why my four brothers and one sister lived within an hour of each other – within sixty miles of the house where we grew up. It is one thing when your skillet explodes and roasts your kitchen and you panic, and you have a brigade of family members who can reach you in fifty minutes in case things really go wrong. It is another thing altogether when this happens soon after you’ve moved to Missouri and you live alone….

About the fragility of the world, about the damage that can be done in a mere minute. “I was upset with the world because of the stuff it was made of…. I wanted the world to be stronger than that.”

And, in a poignant end to this essay that began with a Chaplinesque accident:

If my brother Jim found the ugly piece of metal on my desk, he would throw it away, and so would my brothers Sam and David. So would my father. So would my mother. This would make no difference, if i did not think the piece of metal meant something, if there were nothing of significance I thought I could learn from it. Years after its creation, I sit at my desk sometimes still and let it hang from my fingernail by its stem. I stare at it, and think about nothing.
I am convinced that my family would in no way understand this, that they would not see the value of this useless piece of previously useful metal. I worry that no one else would get it either, and sometimes I know that I am utterly alone in this world.

As someone who was always alone in my family, and someone who now remembers to recite “nobody gives a damn what you say” whenever I have an impulse to tweet, reply, or otherwise communicate to a world that, truly, doesn’t give a damn what I say because everyone’s only interested in what they themselves are saying, or what the Influencers are saying, I understand this. And again, I somehow found it surprising coming from someone like Foreman, who appears, on Twitter at least, to be a successful professor and writer who now has a family of his own, a family that, presumably, understands him just fine. I wonder if they look at him funny when he writes essays about a stranger’s laundry, though.

I also appreciated a paragraph from the preface:

Scenes in the essays that follow have been rendered as faithfully to objective truth as possible, and every sentence was written with the intent to portray things with clarity and honesty. The value of clarity, honesty, and objective truth is a worthy subject for another preface to a different book.

I’ve gone ballistic in the past over nonfiction that invents things to make reality work more like a story, or to fill in gaps in memory. I’m fully aware of the difficulty of remembering exactly what happened, what was said, years in the past, particularly in emotionally charged moments, but writers have always had ways of handling that without lying to their readers. So I’m glad to read nonfiction that aims for, as much as possible, 100% truth, rather than 82% truth. And I’d really like to see that preface on the value of truth.

I e-met Foreman about five years ago, when I made a snarky remark about a story of his that appeared in a Pushcart volume. As luck would have it, somehow he found it, and made a good-natured joke on Twitter. I asked him a few months later if he would answer some questions about the story for an online writers’ group I was still using (yes, it was that long ago), and he generously did. He’s the second writer who’s responded graciously to my clumsy remarks, and ended up, well, not a friend exactly, but someone for whom I feel warmth and appreciation. I’ve had his book on my read list since it came out a couple of years ago, but my mistake was: I put it on a special list, not on my library list or Amazon list or browser bookmarks list. I put it in my Google Calendar. So every three to six months, I’d get a message, “Read Rob Foreman’s Book” and I’d be in the middle of something – a nasty math mooc, the current Pushcart, and most recently, a move – and push it forward a few months.

A few weeks ago, I forwarded a tweet from my blogging buddy Jake Weber, hoping to lure some of the writers who follow me (I have no idea why) into joining us for the impending BASS 2019 read. Rob was the only one to reply affirmatively. So I made his book a priority for this summer session. I now wish I’d read it years ago. But then again, maybe this was the ideal time for me to read about things. He has a short story collection coming out in 2020, titled I Am Here to Make Friends.

In every essay, no matter how far removed from my personal experience, I found something I strongly identified with. The margins are littered with exclamation points and scribblings of “yeah, I know!”. Some of these were silly: who hasn’t forgotten a pan on the stove (mine did not result in any kind of disaster, though I threw it away, afraid to reheat it); I associate “Thanatopsis” with my monstrous fourth grade teacher, though I’m not sure if that’s real or something I conjured up since my mother died that year; and I’ve always wanted some kind of walking stick – and now I’m approaching the age and condition where a cane would not be inappropriate – but fear it would draw too much attention. That’s where the overlaps between Foreman’s world and mine deepen: timidity, self-assurance, courage, loneliness, haplessness shading into learned helplessness, healing, and always, a sense of great significance in everyday things.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (Pantheon, 2010)

Something shifted, something so immense you could call it the world.
Call it the world.
The world shifted, catching lots of smart people off guard, churning up issues that they had thought had settled forever beneath the earth’s crust. The more sophisticated they are, the more annotated their mental life, the more taken aback they’re likely to feel, seeing what the world’s lurch has brought to light, thrusting up beliefs and desires they had assumed belonged to an earlier stage of human development.
What is this stuff, they ask one another, and how can it still be kicking around, given how much we already know? It looks like the kind of relics that archaeologists dig up and dust off, speculating about the beliefs that once had animated them, to the best that they can be reconstructed, gone as they are now, those thrashings of proto-rationality and mythico-magical hypothesizing, and all but forgotten.
Now it’s all gone unforgotten, and minds that have better things to think about have to divert precious neuronal resources to figuring out how to knock some sense back into the species. It’s a tiresome proposition, having to take up the work of the Enlightenment all over again, but it’s happened on their watch….
None of this is particularly good for the world, but it has been good for Cass Seltzer. That’s what he’s thinking at this moment, gazing down at the frozen Charles and regarding the improbable swerve his life has lately taken. He’s thinking his life has gotten better because the world has gone bonkers.

Back in the 90’s, I fell in love with Sophie’s World, a Norwegian novel about the history of philosophy written primarily for teenagers. It featured long speeches about philosophers from Thales to Sartre sprinkled within a mystery featuring a fifteen-year-old. 36 Arguments… is that book’s grown-up cousin. I adored it.

It’s not a book for everyone. Both critics and readers are divided on whether it’s a pretentious mess lacking plot or characters, or a tour de force stirring in everything from religion and philosophy to math and science in a slickly snarky romance and/or academic roman à clef. It probably depends on what you like to read. Just because I loved it doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the very good reasons it might not appeal to some. There are long, sometimes arcane (deliberately so; these are academics, reveling in arcanity) splitting of hairs, the timeline is hard to follow, many of the characters are cardboard cutouts. Even the main character is pretty bland. The climax is an academic debate that didn’t seem all that brilliant to me. But in spite of all that, I loved it.

The overall present of the story covers one week in the life of Cass Seltzer, psychology professor and recent “intellectual celebrity” for his book Varieties of Religious Illusion which includes an appendix titled “36 Arguments for the Existence of God” and counterarguments to each one.

Cass is still trying to assimilate the fact that his book has become an international sensation, translated into twenty-seven languages, including Latvian. He understands that it’s not just a matter of what he’s written – as much as he’d like to believe it is – but also a matter of the rare intersection of the preoccupation of his lifetime with the turmoil of the age. When Cass, in all the safety of his obscurity, set about writing a book that would explain how irrelevant the belief in God can be to religious experience – so irrelevant that the emotional structure of religious experiences can be transplanted to completely godless contexts with little of the impact lost – and when he had also, almost as an afterthought, included as an appendix thirty-six arguments for the existence of God, with rebuttals, his claim being that the most thorough demolition of these arguments would make little difference to the felt qualities of religious experience, he had no idea of the massive response his efforts would provoke.
He never would have dubbed himself an atheist in the first place, not because he believes – he certainly doesn’t – but because he believes that belief is beside the point. It’s the appendix that’s pushed him into the role of atheism’s spokesperson, a literary afterthought that has remade his life.

The book is structured in thirty-six chapters, each purporting to be an argument for the existence of religious experience without God. The usual philosophical arguments are included in an appendix (you can see why some reviewers thought this book was too clever for its own good). It’s a handy reference, since much of the discussion uses points from those arguments.

While the present-story is only a week, most of the book deals with the past, following Cass’ academic training from the time he switched from pre-med to follow iconic-but-kinda-crazy Professor Jonas Elijah Klapper (because every academia novel must have a Mad Professor) into grad school in psychology. We also go through Cass’ romantic history, which is pretty tragic. Anyone who doesn’t realize his current girlfriend, the exceptionally ambitious and self-focused Lucinda, is bad news, isn’t paying attention.

Lucinda’s away tonight, away for the entire bleak week to come. Cass is missing Lucinda in his bones, missing her in the marrow that’s presently crystallizing into ice. She’s in warmer climes, at a conference in Santa Barbara on “Non-Nash Equilibria in Zero-Sum Games”….
Technically, Lucinda’s a psychologist, like Cass, only not like Cass at all. Her work is so mathematical that almost no one would suspect it has anything to do with mental life. Cass, on the other hand, is about as far away on the continuum as you can get and still be in the same field. He’s so far away that he is knee-deep in the swampy humanities. Until recently, Cass had felt almost apologetic explaining that his interest is in the whole wide range of religious experience — a bloated category on anyone’s account, but especially on Cass’s, who sees religious frames of mind lurking everywhere, masking themselves in the most secular of settings, in politics and scholarship and art and even in personal relationships.

Still, she’s a step up from his former wife, a poet who rejected probability theory in all its guises because something either happens or it doesn’t. An anthropologist girlfriend, now a friend, is sandwiched in there. She seems like more of a keeper, but that didn’t work out for vague reasons and now she’s looking for financing for her longevity project, so maybe she’s a little crazy too.

Those are all amusing and entertaining, if often shallow and/or annoying, characters, but the real plot of the book is a subplot that doesn’t even start until about halfway through when Cass meets a six-year-old boy who’s pretty much inventing number theory while nobody watches. Over the course of the backstory, the boy grows to be sixteen, at which point he is faced with a decision between the necessary but impossible, and the impossible but necessary. The resolution to this closes the book, and it crushed me; yet I see how essential it was, both to the character, and to the book, and the more I thought about it, the less crushed I felt: it’s a perfect counterpoint to the final act of the Mad Professor, and shows that even Messiahood may not require a God.

Because this is a novel of academia, reviewers in the know have some opinions about the real-life inspirations for the characters. Klapper, the Mad Professor, is nearly universally assumed to be Harold Bloom. There’s a fascinating interview on Youtube: Steven Pinker asks Goldstein, “Who is Cass Selzer?” She goes through a brief character sketch, and he asks, “Who is Cass Seltzer really?” she answers: “It’s a misconception that characters in a novel are based on real people,” and claims many people, including herself, contributed bits and pieces of him. This strikes me as fascinating because, first, some reviewers have speculated that Pinker is the basis for the character as he did a highly publicized debate on the existence of God some years before. And second, because Pinker happens to be Goldstein’s husband.

In that same interview, Goldstein does a lovely summary of the book:

It’s one of the points of Cass’ book – and it’s one of the points of my book – that religion is about much more than belief in God. It’s about loyalties to community, it’s about spiritual experiences, it’s about existential dilemmas.

Along the way we’re introduced to a great deal of philosophy and religion, particularly Hasidic Judaism and Kabbalah, some game theory, number theory, and brief visits to neuroscience and music. And probably some other things I’ve forgotten about because it’s just too much to keep in my head after one reading.

I was tempted to make an appendix for this post titled “36 moocs to help with reading this book” because, honestly, when I read “Thomas Nagel” I mentally jumped up and yelled. “What’s it like to be a bat!” and when we got to the “What” region of the brain, I went nuts trying to find which neuroscience mooc showed me exactly where that is (I haven’t found it yet, the down side of taking so many different neuroscience moocs, but it’s in there somewhere/addendum: found it, the ventral visual pathway is the “what” and the dorsal visual pathway is the “where”, Harvard’s MCB80 part 3. That’s 2 hours of my life I spent finding that, but I had to do it) and I wanted to thank all the math teachers who’ve taught me about the infinitude of primes and successive differences. I’ve often said I love a book that teaches me something; I did learn some things here (and I have a couple of new entries on my reading list, including everything Goldstein has ever written) but in this case, it was more about confirming that I’d actually learned something in those 120+ moocs.

And that is why I loved this book. That, and Azarya. And come on, how can you not love a book that includes the line, “There’s no way I’m writing a dissertation on the hermeneutics of potato kugel.”

Nell Painter: Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over (Counterpoint 2018)

Art school would mean more than following my own inclinations. It would entail evaluation – judgment – according to already existing criteria. Whose criteria? Other people’s criteria. Other people’s judgment. An awful discord between freedom and other defined seriousness that I could not yet see. I had little understanding of the potency of good and better as applied obsessively to art schools and to art and to my own art in particular.
I had no inkling of how thoroughly art school would instruct me – teach me, challenge my abilities, and question my sanity. I didn’t know how much I would learn from the young art students beside me. I just knew I wanted to make art and make art seriously.
….
Why do something different? Why start something new? Why did I do it? What made me think I could begin anew in an entirely different field from history, where, truth be told, I had made a pretty good reputation? Was it hard leaving a chaired professorship at Princeton? I didn’t think so. For a long time, my answers, even to myself, were simple — too simple by far.
I said, because I wanted to.
Because I could.
I knew from my mother I could do it.

On Nell Painter’s website home page, there are three options: “Historian Nell Irvin Painter”, “Old in Art School”, and “Artist Nell Painter”. Three identities, different but related. That sort of sums up one of the tracks of this book: the struggle to incorporate multiple facets, the alchemy that was a journey, a transformation, and a consolidation. It’s a fascinating read.

She also looks at big questions like: Is an Artist born or made? At what point is someone recognized as an Artist? What are the strengths and limitations of an older student, and is there room in the twenty-first century art world for what Painter refers to as her “twentieth-century eyes”?

All of me wanted to be An Artist – and yet at the same time to keep my past as thinker and writer. But how could I be An Artist, when “academic” was so poisonous a concept in art and while I had always been academic? The very worst thing in the world you could call someone’s art was “academic,” meaning sterile, humorless, obscure, unattractive, and old-fashioned. Old.
An Artist’s art is ambiguous and ironic, possessing what teacher Roger called “right nowness.” I was doing my darnedest for ambiguity and irony, with mixed results, but right nowness? I was too old for right nowness.

Painter was not a complete neophyte to the process of art; she’d drawn all her life, and had taken several studio courses, mostly in painting. She started her full-time journey at the Mason Gross school of the Arts at Rutgers, and after three years worked on her MFA at RISD. On the first day, one young student asked point blank, “How old are you?” Painter writes about the similarities, and differences, between not fitting in because of her race and sex, and not fitting in because of her age, and of the difficulty of knowing which was which.

She struggled with conflicting priorities younger students couldn’t understand: caring for elderly parents (her mother died during her third year at Rutgers, and her father suffered from crippling depression, heaped on top of the usual challenges of eight and nine decades of living, after that), and residual professional responsibilities from her career as a historian. I get the sense there was a good deal of resentment on the part of instructors towards her when her last book as a historian was released and required multiple appearances, meaning time away from school; that it was titled A History of White People probably didn’t help matters. Beginning with the application of the label “Caucasian” to white people and travelling through other delimiters of whiteness, it made the NYT Best Seller list, and she’s one of the few people who’s joyfully entered into the spirit of schtick in her appearance on The Colbert Report and come out intact. But her instructors asked, “Why did you come to art school when your book was being released?” Those involved in publishing know how those things can go beyond the writer’s control. Brief trips to acknowledge honors – a Centennial Award from Harvard, the activation of her archive at Duke – were similarly met with disapproval, in one case resulting in a thesis reader withdrawing from her project.

She describes much of her artwork, both origin and process, in the book as well, including several full-color insets of her work. For example, one of her early projects at Rutgers was a combination of inspirations. She’d attended a Met series on Chinese scrolls of the Song dynasty via public transportation. The commute – “colorful congestion and junkiness and its characteristic sounds” including La Traviata on a recorder – so delighted her, she made it part of her project:

My final painting project reworked that assignment, adopting the style of an ancient Chinese scroll, reading right to left and painted in the scrolls’ warm, desaturated colors. I depicted myself as a mounted Chinese warrior in a gorgeous red coat, repeated in the style of simultaneous narration that I had just discovered in Islamic art in art history class. Chinese-warrior-me repeated seven times, starting with leaving my house, crossing Branch Brook Park to the light rail station, to Newark Penn Station, my New Jersey Transit Northeast Corridor line (complete with lumpy Chinese mountains)….
My Faux Chinese Scroll commemorated my emblematic experience in art school: my commute and my affection for New Jersey camaraderie. A commute anchovy in what I might call Du Boisian oneness with my fellow anchovy-commuters.

Later, while she struggled with the process of silkscreen, she came up with an idea combining ideas of male beauty from the Classical and contemporary periods,and fashioned images of Apollo Belvedere talking to Michael Jackson (whose ever-evolving appearance fascinated her), strips of conversation about their respective hairstyles.

So much of her art seems, to me, rooted in and/or inspired by history, yet she constantly struggled with both the different ways of approaching the disciplines, and with a kind of self-competition:

As a painter, I feared I could never measure up to myself as a historian because I’d never have enough time to learn to manipulate images as well as I had learned to answer the questions on my mind through research and writing. Is this a reason to stay in a place where you do what you do better than what you can do anew? Does this mean I could never change fields? Well, know. There was no reason on earth why Nell Painter, painter, had to equal Nell Irvin Painter, historian and author. I didn’t always know that.

This tension between past and present/future, between the historian and the artist, between the scholarship and dusty research of History and the improvisation and approximation of Art, is a major theme of the book. She resolves this quite beautifully at the end of the book when the Metropolitan Museum of Art asks her to do a presentation on “African Art, New York, and the Avant Garde.” She researched numerous artists from the Harlem Renaissance for her presentation. History, combined with her new artist’s sensibilities, became something new for her:

Now what history means to me in images is freedom from coherence, clarity, and collective representation. My images carry their own visual meaning, which may or may not explicate history usefully or unequivocally. For me now, image works as particularlity, not as generalization. This how art school changed my thinking about history and how visual art set me free.

I’ve admitted my stupidity in the visual arts several times in these pages. Often, when I read about art, either through the eyes of an artist or as an academic study, I’m lost; much as when I read about poetry, the language gets abstract and takes for granted that the yellow brings joy or there’s an ominous sense to the horizon. But I found this book to be enjoyable and informative, not leaving me behind at all even in discussions of technical processes or artistic approaches. That’s partly because the writing is clear and explains what’s necessary, but I admit I looked up all kinds of things (this reading-in-front-of-the-computer thing is getting to be a habit). What is grisaille? Who is Robert Colescott, whom she refers to as her “patron saint”? I was also pleased to recognize a few names, having incorporated some of their art as header images for stories in this blog: Kara Walker, Toyin Odutola, Amy Sherald, Hale Woodruff.

Some time last year, I saw a PBS story I’d seen about Painter, and put her on my “to read” list. When I started organizing my summer read list, it seemed like a natural inclusion in the “writing about jobs” category. I’m so glad I did. At times it’s very sad reading, at times infuriating, but overall it’s joyous and celebratory. Nell Painter seems like quite a woman, and her story is worth reading.

Umberto Eco: Serendipities: Language and Lunacy (Harvest, 1998 translation)

In short, all these erudite excursions of mine are concerned with a linguistics that I would call “lunatic,” and — as I have already said in my book on perfect languages — even the most lunatic experiments can produce strange side effects, stimulating research that proves perhaps less amusing but scientifically more serious….
I feel that what links the essays collected here is that they are about ideas, projects, beliefs that exist in a twilight zone between common sense truth and error, visionary intelligence and what now seems to us stupidity, though it was not stupid in its day and we must therefore reconsider it with great respect.

This book is a collection of five lectures, on mistakes in the field of linguistics that nevertheless yielded important things. Eco uses the example of Columbus: he thought he’d found India when he stumbled across the Caribbean islands and South America (he never did make it to North America), but his mistake was a great boost for Europe (if a tragedy for the men, women, and children who were already here minding their own business).

It’s not a big book – 115 pages, plus notes – but it’s extremely information-dense. I spent six hours on three pages, and still don’t have it all. The original lectures were targeted at professionals and grad students far more advanced than I, so he doesn’t do much background before leaping into things like Fenius or Abulafia. This was another read-in-front-of-my-computer book. And, although it was a bit beyond my grasp, I loved it. Though it’s time to move on, I’m nowhere near finished with it. But I find it more profitable to loop back over material, bringing more background each time, than to dig straight down.

The first essay, “The Force of Falsity”, applies Bob Ross’ happy accidents to the humanities. After reviewing the reworking of the cosmos over centuries and Columbus, we come to the Donation of Constantine, which, though later proved to be a forgery, directed medieval power structures. And then there’s the example of Prester John. The name was familiar to me, but I assumed he was one of the endless people in the middle ages who did something I can never remember. Turns out, that’s not the case: he was totally fictitious, but letters about his massive kingdom somewhere in Asia – a place of health, wealth, and perfect morality – was part of the engine of Eastern exploration. When the possible regions for this Kingdom were finally exhausted, he was moved to Ethiopia, likewise encouraging travel in that direction.

The geographical fantasy gradually generated a political project. In other words, a phantom called up by some scribe with a knack for counterfeiting documents (a highly respected literary activity of the period) served as an alibi for the expansion of the Christian world toward Africa and Asia….

Chapter 2, “Languages in Paradise”, was the place I spent most of my time. The chapter begins with a focus on the Creation story: when God said, “Let there be light,” was that speech, or will? If speech, what language? How did God speak to Adam? In what sense did Adam name the animals, that is, was the language he spoke at that time arbitrary (as linguists consider all human language) or innate?

Eco looks at the Babel story (including an interesting inconsistency between Genesis 10, where the 72 descendants of Noah dispersed “after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, after their nations” before Babel is built and the solitary language confused in Genesis 11), then jumps to the early Christian Church where Hebrew was considered the Adamic language. And now we move to Europe in the early middle ages.

The first step is the 7th century Gaelic book Auracepit na n-Éces (Precepts of the Poets) which claims one Fenius Farsaid, present at Babel, preserved his language, and his descendants became the Gaels and thus created the Gaelic language. Irish as the primordial language: this was all news to me. But this urge to heal of the wound of Babel, as Eco characterizes it, by finding the original language proliferated throughout Europe, and is the topic of his 400-page book The Search for the Perfect Language (The Making of Europe) from which this brief essay is distilled.

It thus happens that as soon as Europe was born as a bunch of peoples speaking different tongues, European culture reacted by feeling such an event not as a beginning but as the end of a long harmony, a new Babel-like disaster, so that a remedy for linguistic confusion needed to be sought….It is a quest that took two different paths: on the one hand, people (from Raymond Lully to Leibniz and further) looked ahead, aiming to fabricate a rational language possessing the perfection of the lost speech of Eden; on the other hand, people tried to rediscover the lost language spoken by Adam.

From 7th century Ireland we leapfrog to early 14th century Dante, where things get really interesting. First of all, he has an almost Chomskian view of the original language: it was a kind of universal grammar, a way to generate language, rather than a language itself. Dante got more practical with In De Vulgari Eloquentia (and, by the way, vulgar was not pejorative; vulgar languages were considered natural as they were generated from use, while Latin, by this time only used for formal or historical purposes, was considered a grammar, or a secondary language, and more artificial), where he proposes that the Adamic language was preserved until Babel, and that Adam’s first word to God was the name of God, EL. But when he wrote the Paradiso of the Comedy, he’d changed his mind, for, in Canto XXVI, Adam tells him:

The language that I spoke was entirely extinguished before the uncompletable work (the tower of Babel) of the people of Nembrot was even conceived…. Before I descended into the pains of Hell, on earth the Highest Good was called I, from whence comes the light of joy that enfolds me; the name then became EL: and this change was proper, because the customs of mortals are like the leaves on a branch, one goes and another comes.”

Eco goes into some detail to answer why these two changes were made, eventually arriving at Abraham Abulafia, founder of the Prophetic (or Ecstatic) Kabbalah, who I vaguely recall from the mooc on Kabbalah I took a couple of years ago. It seems pretty thin to me, since it’s based on the statement “Paleographers say that in certain codes of the Divine Comedy I is written as Y” as well as some speculation about whether Dante could have known of the work of Abulafia. Eco admits it’s only a hypothesis. I sure had fun with it, since it took me all over the place. At one point I had all three volumes of the Divine Comedy, a Bible, Eco’s book, and several browser tabs all open, trying to keep up with these few paragraphs.

But though the connections seem (to me, at least, and who am I to argue with Eco) attenuated, he brings the chapter to a lovely close:

Perhaps, on his way to paradise, Dante met, even if indirectly, Abulafia. I hope both men reached the same destination, where they are now talking to each other, making fun of our desperate efforts to ascertain if they had something in common. If by chance Adam has joined the party, only God knows what kind of language those three characters are speaking together. Perhaps the angels are providing an excellent service of simultaneous translation.

In the third chapter, “From Marco Polo to Leibniz”, Eco looks at culture collisions. He name three common reactions when cultures meet: conquest, which we’re all familiar with; cultural pillage, exemplified by the Hellenization of Egypt while many aspects of science and religion were brought back to Greece even as Egypt was subjugated; and exchange, such as in the early contacts of Father Matteo Ricci (another name new to me) and Marco Polo with the Chinese. Eco names two additional possibilities: exoticism, which is seen in Orientalism and, amusingly, “the Siddhartha syndrome of the hippies”; and something he doesn’t name but seems to be a form of cultural translation:

In a very curious sense we travel knowing in advance what we are on the verge of discovering, because past reading has told us what we are supposed to discover. In other words, the influence of these background books is such that, irrespective of what travelers discover and see, they will interpret and explain everything in terms of these books

He gives the example of Marco Polo’s unicorn, which was a rhinoceros. But the high point of the chapter is in the ancient Greek and medieval European reaction to Egyptian hieroglyphs, prior to the discovery of the Rosetta stone. These hieroglyphs became viewed as the Adamic language or, possibly, a system that could generate such a perfect language

At the beginning of the 15th century, European culture rediscovered Egyptian hieroglyphs. Their code was irredeemably lost (rediscovered only in the 19th century by Champollion) but at that time a Greek manuscript, the Hieroglyphica of Horapollus (or Horus Aollon) that purported to decipher the code, was introduced into Italy, in Florence. ….The scholars of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries believed that they signified mysterious and mystical truths, understandable only by initiates. They were divine symbols, able to communicate not merely the name or forms of things , but their very essences, their true and deeply mysterious meanings. They were thus considered the first instance of perfect language.

Later, in a sort of reverse of the Prester John migration, Chinese ideograms were seen as closer to the original language and conveying the true nature of things. This gets pretty complicated, going back and forth between Egypt and China as having the closest representation, or even the actual symbols, of the original language; it’s another track I want to pay more attention to next time.

But then we get to the big finish: Leibniz, working on logic and binary representations of numbers, received a copy of the I Ching, and recognized it as using a binary code. I’m still unclear as to whether it really is, or if it just seemed that way; the characters can be arranged in different ways. But in any case, it’s fascinating reading how things as unalike as an ancient Chinese philosophical fortune system and emerging modern mathematics managed to converge.

The chapter closes with a review of these explorations in the context of errors of cultural anthropology: that is, the misunderstanding of a new culture because we interpret it in our existing terms. But the cases Eco shows are, fittingly for this book, serendipitous; Leibniz may have misinterpreted Chinese writing, but, “looking for the mathematical awareness of Fu-shi, contributed to the development of modern logic.” And again, he ends on a lovely note:

But what does sound cultural anthropology mean? I am not among those who believe there are no rules for interpretation, for even a programmatic misinterpretation requires some rules….However, the real problem does not so much concern rules as our external drive to think that our rules are the golden ones.
The real problem of a critique of our own cultural models is to ask, when we see a unicorn, if by any chance it is not a rhinoceros.

“The Language of the Austral Land”, chapter 4, deals with the concept of a perfect and universal language, which grew out of the realization that Chinese, Japanese, and Korean characters for the same concepts were the same, although they were pronounced differently. It was Francis Bacon (the 16th century philosopher, not the 20th century painter) who began this European search for universal characters.

These inventors of languages, which would be called philosophic and a priori, because they were constructed on the basis of a given philosophical view of the world, no longer aimed merely at converting the infidel or recovering that mystic communication with God that distinguished the perfect language of Adam but rather at fostering commercial exchange, colonial expansion, and the diffusion of science…. Many of the results – apparent failures – of these utopists contributed to the birth of new scientific taxonomies.

Eco brings in utopian works from the familiar – Gulliver’s Travels and Thomas More’s original Utopia – to the more (to me, at least) arcane, Gabriel de Foigny’s La Terre australe connue, all of which included some description of the language of utopia. He goes into extreme detail of Foigny’s fictional grammar and construction, which is head-spinningly complex in its attempt to be simple. Then we move on to Descartes’ analysis of such constructed languages. He didn’t think it would be possible, as our ideas aren’t really that simple. Swift, Joyce, and Borges all demonstrate in fictional settings.

Though I’m pushing the quotation limit a bit, the final paragraphs of these chapters (which were delivered as lectures) are too good to miss:

The failure of the utopias of the a priori philosophical language has thus produced some interesting experiments in the Land of Novels that, instead of constructing perfect linguistic systems, have demonstrated how our imperfect languages can produce texts endowed with some poetic virtue or some visionary force, I consider this no small achievement.

Chapter 5, “The Linguistics of Joseph de Maistre”, left me behind from the start. But one phrase leaped out at me: “Since it is linguistically difficult to demonstrate that a relationship exists between words and the essence of things….” This is where the Perfect Language begins, with the word that is sky, not the English or Chinese or Hebrew word for sky. And while I’ve pretty much gone with it in the context of these chapters, it’s still a puzzle to me. It reminds me of TS Eliot’s “The Naming of Cats” in which he proposes that a cat has three names, an everyday name used by the humans, a more formal name that is unique to each cat, and a name only the cat himself knows and will never tell. Do things – the sky, a rock, a radio, love, running – all have names they themselves know? Or that God endowed them with at creation? I also wonder about telepathy, if it conveys “yesterday John and Mary had a fight and she doesn’t love him any more” as a sentence, as images, or as simply a knowledge?

Yes, I’m lost in this chapter; maybe my brain was just full from the first four. So I will leave this as a sample:

This is Maistre’s idea of Reason; to reason means to entrust oneself to any analogy that establishes an unbroken network of contacts between every thing and every other thing. This can be said, and it must be done, because it has been assumed that this network has existed since the Origin; indeed, it is itself the basis of all knowledge.

I suspect my confusion comes from what I interpret as Eco’s own disapproval of Maistre’s work. Whereas he pointed out missteps in the prior thinkers, here he seems to be quite negative. But that may be my misunderstanding. And I am, throughout, well over my pay grade with this one; this is not a general readership book.

But setting aside this last chapter, I found this small book to be a wonderful adventure. Every page, sometimes every sentence sent me scurrying to look something up. I discovered all manner of things I’d never heard of, and I still have more work to do before I can consider that I have truly “read” the book. I recommend it highly for those who, like me, have an interest in language and history, and are never happier than when they are learning something new.

Lincoln Michel: Upright Beasts (Coffee House Press 2015)

For the abyss. Thanks for always gazing back.

~~Upright Beasts dedication

“The guy’s crazy” can mean a lot of things. There’s cross-the-street-to-avoid-him crazy, and there’s courage-to-go-there / think-outside-the-box creativity. So let’s be specific: when I say Lincoln Michel is crazy, I mean the second kind. Mostly. Because there’s also some very grim stuff here. Stuff from the abyss.

I put this book on my TBR list about three years ago, when I read “If It Were Anyone Else” in the 2015 Pushcart anthology. I struggled with it, until I gave up, at which point it was no struggle at all (the main reason I write all these posts is so I can look back back three years later and know exactly what I was thinking; it sure isn’t for fame and fortune). I never did figure out exactly what was going on, but that doesn’t always have to be the point of reading, does it? Emily dwelt in possibility; so can I.Turns out, Michel’s ok with that:

I’m a big fan of mystery and ambiguity in writing. I don’t think that writing should be a mystery, but rather open the mysterious inside you. Which is to say, I’m not as much of a fan of “puzzle” fiction that you are supposed to solve (unless it’s a good mystery novel) and more of a fan of work that’s dreamy, evocative, and can be read in different ways.

Reddit AMA

Most of the stories are short, four to six pages; some are barely two, a few are much longer. The book is divided into four named sections; Michel paid a lot of attention to the organization, but stops short of explaining it. While I can see hints of patterns – the first section is surreal and very flash-like in tone if not length, the second section is more about realism, the last are longer stories – that doesn’t quite work for all of them. But I learned my lesson three years ago; I’m not going to beat myself up for not figuring it out.

“The River Trick” is my emotionally-favorite story.

One by one the people on the bridge hurtle into the cold waters, their arms wrapped around microwaves and cordless vacuums. They fall straighter than I ever though possible.
“Will there be love?”
“That I can’t promise,” I say, “but we can try to fight our way through it together.”
And perhaps seconds later, the people come rocketing back to the surface, having abandoned their appliances. They bob and gasp. And maybe they will have found something down there while starving for air. On the surface, they will seek each other out and cling tightly, saying, “This is what I need. This is what I’ve been waiting for.”
I’m not sure. Patricia and I have walked too far away to see.

The narrator’s job is showing up just in time to save people from pre-arranged suicide attempts. The thematic emphasis on the need for connecting brought to mind the Australian David Brooks’ story “Blue” – still on any top-five-flashes list I would make – though it’s completely different in tone. It’s a theme that’s been front and center for me this summer: I moved in July, and I keep saying I feel so much more open and connected in my new place, thanks to huge windows overlooking both busy streets and distant waters. My sense of well-being has greatly improved as a result, even though it’s all illusory. But what works, works.

But wait, there’s more to the story. At one point, the government, so alarmed by all these attempted (and, occasionally, accidentally successful) suicides, tries to connect people by projecting pictures on building walls, and by pouring a dye into the city river that turns it into a giant mood ring (I’m old enough to remember mood rings; are you?). That reminded me of something Facebook tried several years back (well after I’d left), before it went into the election-tampering-enablement business; didn’t they push posts that were upbeat, according to an algorithm, to make everyone happy to be on Facebook reading ads? I was happy to find Kyle Lucia Wu was thinking along the same lines when she interviewed Michel for The Rumpus. But it turns out the story was written before social media was really a big thing; AIM and ICQ were around, but they weren’t anywhere near as public as the current generation of apps.

The idiocy of government features into several other stories in the collection. In “The Mayor’s Plan”, the plan is to give keys to the city to pretty much anyone, causing a business boom and massive expansion. “I’m not sure if the keys are saving his job. I do know that everyone I meet seems angry.” Good thing they weren’t red hats.

And then continuing along the theme of government there’s my intellectually-favorite story, “What We Have Surmised About the John Adams Incarnation”: a historian/anthropologist of the future trying to make sense of the United States, and characterizing government as a pagan religion.

Long assumed to be a prince or demon of a lesser cult, we now know that John Adams was an important figure in the dominant United Statsian mythology. He appears to have originally been conceived as a familiar or minion of George Washington, the first of the hundred tyrants that are said to have ruled the country until its infamous, self-inflicted demise.

A hundred presidents, eh? Not sure we’re going to make it to 46 at this point, but this story was first published in 2012 when we never would have believed this is where we’d be. Turns out Michel wrote it for an election-year anthology about the Presidents; that anthology is available online.

Some of the creepiest stories feature kids. “Our Education” presents a school sans teachers, with just one student who still wants to complete his assignment:

I keep the paper folded in my back pocket. I don’t remember when I received it, but it’s my strongest proof that our teachers are coming back. The sheet of paper says:
In your own words, a) what is the goal of your education and b) how far are you, in your mind, to achieving this goal?

It gave me something of a Lord of the Flies meets the Inquisition vibe, but man, Halimah Marcus really nailed: “…in the absence of a hero, what once was a pillar, an organizing principle, is now a dark center — the vacuous teachers’ lounge.”

Even creepier is “Little Girls By the Side of the Pool” which should come with a trigger warning. But there’s something else, an amazing writing technique. Over the course of four pages, the little girls subtly grow up, but keep talking about the same thing (men’s hands – I told you, trigger warning) until it ends where it began and it all makes horrible sense.

The stories based in realism have their charm as well. “Some Notes on my Brother’s Brief Travels” takes us to a town where Foster is photographing old abandoned mines, maybe to put together an exhibition, maybe on his way to law school, but really, as his brother says, “he just wanted to pretend he was doing something with his life.” Don’t we all. There’s a guy in a chicken suit by the road most days, advertising a fast-food joint, and this leads us in two related directions: they can’t know who the guy in the chicken suit is – maybe he was sitting at the next table in the bar they just left – but everybody in town knows he dresses up like a chicken, and what’s it like to know everyone knows. The unknowability, right next to the familiarity you can’t escape. Neither really feels good, does it. It’s close to a slacker story – in fact, it is a slacker story – but it got to me anyway.

The Deer in Virginia” is a little gruesome, unless you’re a hunter in which case it’s probably milquetoast, but, like the girls at the pool, there’s a writing technique I admire. The first sentence starts with “Or take the day my father handed me his glass of lemonade and reached for the rifle.” It’s a pair of anecdotes about injuring deer, one on purpose, one accidentally. Either way, they’re just as injured. Then it ends with “So many days seem to end this way:….” and we’re back to this deep sense of being lost in an ongoing horror.

Like Michel says, “Ideally, I’d like my stories to go past the surface level of fun and weird and find their way, at least a little bit, into the more hidden parts of a reader’s mind.” Yeah, that they do. “The Room Inside My Father’s Room” was just a reasonably clever piece about a son’s room nested in his father’s room nested in his father’s room ad infinitum, until I got to the father’s line, “I did the best I could.” Then it turned into something else, a memoir, a therapy session, a spider hiding in a corner. Michel couldn’t have known that was the line my father trotted out every time a therapist put the two of us in a room together. He said it with an almost playful, self-depreciating self-depreciating shrug, less concerned that I was broken than that someone might think he was to blame (and, to be fair, he wasn’t, not more than five or ten percent, anyway). We’re all born in our parents’ rooms; it’s amazing how long it takes some of us to realize we can leave, we can bust out through a wall if that’s what it takes.

Then there’s the chef’s kiss on an already good read: “A Note on the Type”. I’d read a couple of pages before it occurred to me that Berdych probably isn’t an actual font. No, an actual printer’s note tells us the font is Weiss, and again, you never know what’s going on in this book. At least I wasn’t the only one fooled; Ilana Masad of The Collagist calls it a bonus track, and admits he got her, too.

I think it’s good it took me three years to get to this book. I’d like to think I can handle weirdness better, though handling it well is still a ways off. But see, even in his weirdest stories, the weirdness isn’t the point; it’s a path to the point. Or maybe a whole bunch of points. Good read.

Emily Wilson: The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca (OUP 2014)

This book traces the paradoxes that emerge in Seneca’s life and work through his attempt to gain “control“ or “empire“ (both covered by the Latin term imperium) in both the public and personal senses: to be influential over other people within his society, and also to be stable in himself. The phrase I use as my title, “the greatest empire,“ comes from a passage in Epistle 113 (113.30 ) dealing with the problematic relationship of these two kinds of empire. Seneca insists that those who attempt to conquer the world and attain political, military, and economic power are far inferior to those who manage to achieve the empire of control over themselves: imperare sibi maximum imperium est (“The greatest empire is to be emperor of oneself” – or, “The greatest kind of power is self-control”).

I came to read this book in a roundabout way. Philosophy tends to show up a lot in my Youtube recommendations. One day I realized I didn’t know much about the Stoics, so I listened to a few brief descriptions. From there, an interview with historian James Romm cropped up; he was discussing his book on Seneca, Dying Every Day, with Francesca Rheannon. It sounded interesting – a philosopher (about whom I knew nothing, other than his name) advocating virtue and simplicity while amassing a huge fortune serving as a top advisor to Nero – so I went looking for the book. I discovered Classics professor Emily Wilson had also written this other biography of Seneca. I’m quite fond of the introduction to her recent translation of The Odyssey (which waits patiently in my TBR pile for me to sit down with it and the Fagles and get serious) so I chose to read her book instead; or, perhaps, first.

This little reading adventure was highly productive. I found out a lot more about Stoicism in general, laying a foundation for further reading, and I have a somewhat better understanding of early Imperial Rome. I have trouble with straight history texts, which tend to throw names and battles and conquests around until I give up, but approaching history from the angle of biography/philosophy helps get the straight history stick together.

Seneca turns out to be a fascinating character. The only problem is, there’s very little solid historical data about his life. Few original sources exist, and what secondary sources exist sometimes contradict each other. Seneca’s own comments in his letters sometimes contradict what factual information exists. Much of his writing seems to be defensive, countering criticisms. Drawing conclusions about motivations is risky business. But it makes for a damn good read.

The book is organized chronologically from birth to death to his effect on the future up to the 21st century, and seats Seneca’s works in the context in which he wrote them, at least, as much as possible, since some works are undateable. Chapter I, Parental Love is Wise, goes through his birth in Spain and the family dynamics. This is often the part of biography that I find tedious and boring, but here it was quite helpful, since it helped me understand the social and political norms of the time, as well as potential family dynamics at play (an overbearing father, a favored younger brother). Chapter II, Nowhere and Everywhere, traces several journeys Seneca undertook, from time in Egypt to help with his respiratory illness (probably TB, asthma, some such thing), to his initial public service under Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius, to exile to Corsica for adultery, which may or may not have actually taken place.

Then we get into the thick of things:

In Chapter III, we move back to Rome: Seneca, now a middle-aged man of about fifty, was recalled from exile thanks to the emperor’s new wife Agrippina and became tutor to her son Nero. I focus on the fascinating tensions and contradictions created by Seneca’s position as the educator of the young prince, including the paradoxes of being an ascetic philosopher who achieved vast wealth in the imperial court. In Chapter IV we turn to the life and work of Seneca’s last years, his repeated attempts to disentangle himself from Nero’s service, and eventually his long awaited death. The Epilogue traces some key moments in the reception of Seneca’s life and work in the later Western tradition. I point to the ways that Seneca’s yearnings for wealth and wisdom, for death and time, for power and kindness, for flexibility and constancy, even in the most terrifying and tempestuous of circumstances, have provoked both shocked resistance and the desire to emulate him, in the early Christian period, in the Renaissance, and into twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

That last Epilogue is wonderful. As I read more and more about Stoicism and its similarities and differences with Epicureanism (which I dove into a couple of years ago via Greenblatt’s The Swerve) and Cynicism, I kept thinking of two other possible connections: Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy in which Boethius is assured that his virtue is what matters, and nothing else should bother him, and contemporary cognitive and dialectical therapies, which examine painful emotional states for the thoughts that give rise to them, and try to eliminate any cognitive distortions that are causing the actual distress. I found no mention of Boethius in this book (there are some connections elsewhere, but I’m not confident in my knowledge of either Stoicism or Boethius to draw conclusions, so I’ll leave that for another day) but Wilson does connect the dots to CBT/DBT: “Seneca’s discussion of anger, and of the emotions in general, there’s comparison with modern analysis of emotional disturbance and mental health, having particular affinity’s with the cognitive therapy movement in psychology.”

One of the sociohistorical elements that this book helped me with is the shift from Rome the Republic to Imperial Rome. I got a much better sense of this, through Wilson’s comparison of Cicero and Seneca:

Moreover, Cicero and Seneca were on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Cicero (despite repeated acts of hedging and compromise) struggled to stand up for the old ways of the Republic. Seneca, by contrast, belonged both to the empire and to the emperor. Despite deep hostility to particular emperors (such as Caligula and Claudius-at least after his death) and a degree of covert resistance to his ward and patron, Nero, Seneca had no interest in restoring the Republic and no particular hostility toward the institutional structure of the Principate.
Cicero turned to the writing of his works of philosophy only in the interludes between his political engagements; philosophy was, for him, a means to an end, the primary end being the renewal of the Republic. For Seneca, philosophy was an end in itself. His rhetoric aims to achieve a change in the readers individual psyche, not in the institutions of government. In Cicero’s time, there was still a sense that political action could make a difference. Cicero hoped that he really could bring down Caesar and Marc Anthony. Seneca, by contrast, had no hope that he could achieve anything by direct opposition to any of the emperors under which he lived. His best hope was to moderate some of Nero’s worst tendencies and to maximize his own sense of autonomy.

Seems I’ve heard that phrase about “moderating the worst tendencies” a few times in recent years. Never seems to work out that way, does it? And yet another book has special overtones when read in 2019.

As a fiction reader, I would claim the primary conflict here is between Seneca’s words and the life he leads. He carved out some exceptions to simplicity, declaring wealth and comfort to be “indifferent”, that is, not necessarily opposed to virtue as long as the head isn’t turned by them, and they can be easily released. Wilson spends a good deal of time looking at both sides of this. His essay De Beneficiis (On Benefits) seems in places to be an indirect defense of the wealth he had accumulated under Nero:

Seneca’s arguments in the essay allow him to suggest positive interpretations of his own service to the Neronian court, even though he never actually draws the connection directly. For instance, his insistence that the most important benefits are not material at all allows him to offer an implicit answer to those, like Suillius, who complained at how rich he had become . … This is a wonderful way of having his cake and eating it too. Nobody needs to be jealous or critical of his own huge material benefits under Nero, because wealth and status are not real benefits; the real gift Nero has given him, if any, comes from the mind.

In some places, Wilson uses what I interpret as sly wit to hold his feet to the fire a little bit. In his Letters to Licilius (112.2), written near the end of his life, he writes, “Not every Vine accepts grafting.” Wilson notes: “This is as close as Seneca ever comes to discussing his failure at teaching Nero.” She describes his daily self-examination, which found its way into the practices of future intellectuals such as Descartes and Virginia Woolf, as not precisely self-examinations as much as I’m OK what’s wrong with you-examinations:

His account of his day slips from the self who is supposedly the subject of the analysis to gaze around at all the other people he has encountered in the course of his waking hours. In discussing, for instance, how he snapped at an “uneducated person“, he does not then try to work out what made him snap; instead, he shifts to analyze why this kind of person might not be teachable, and therefore, why one ought to avoid such people. If this is the kind of moral training Seneca gave Nero, it is easy to see why the boy did not become strikingly self aware or self-critical.

It’s that last line that made me smile.

But she’s also got a good point: it is the very conflict between words and deeds that elevates his work.

Seneca’s intense awareness of, for example, the emptiness of luxury was not independent of his own experiences in luxurious living. Rather, he knew of what he wrote. He understood first hand that wealth cannot buy peace of mind; if he had not been so rich, he would have been less conscious both of the dangers and the advantages of having money. He was neither a monster nor a saint; he was a talented, ambitious, deeply thoughtful man, who struggled to create an uneasy compromise between his ideals and the powers that were, and who meditated constantly on how to balance his goals and his realities. His work is deeply preoccupied with the question of how to create and fully inhabit an authentic self, end of what it might mean to be authentic. This is one of the many ways in which his work seems particularly relevant to contemporary anxieties and concerns.

Some of Seneca’s darker views – on slaves, or on capital punishment – can be seen as simply rooted in his time. He complained of an exhausting trip to one of his villas; he was riding in a carriage carried by a group of slaves, but their fatigue was not noticed or mentioned. His objections to gladiator fighting, which gave him a reputation for humaneness, was indeed humane, not for the gladiators, but for the spectators: “He deserves to suffer this punishment for his crime. But you, poor man, what did you do that you deserve to watch it?”

The fourth chapter describes Seneca’s attempts to get out of Nero’s service without getting himself killed. I’m still not precisely sure why this was such an issue, but apparently it’s more about Nero being a touch crazy and Roman mores and such. And he doesn’t quite make it. He’s convicted of conspiracy, and sentenced to suicide. But, as Wilson says, “For somebody who wrote so frequently about the importance of facing death bravely and readily, Seneca was extremely good at avoiding it.“ He had to try three times before he succumbed: wrist slashing didn’t work, neither did hemlock, but it was a steam bath that finally suffocated his diseased lungs. This is almost too sad to satirize.

I get the sense, having listened to the interview with James Romm, that his book, which limits itself to the Nero years, is more consistently kind to Seneca; I’ll have to see if that plays out if/when I read it. But Wilson presents a balanced view, allowing readers to weigh factors with their own values scale. I’m quite taken with the writing style, which combines so many layers. It was truly an enjoyable read, and while there are a few elements that still confuse me, I have definitely made some progress here, both philosophically and historically.

Lesley Nneka Arimah: What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky (Riverhead, 2017)

There was something in my father’s eyes, in his voice, as though he hadn’t meant to tell this much of the story, as though, perhaps, he had forgotten that this was how it had ended.

This 2017 collection started cropping up in my twitter feed this summer, mostly because Arimah won the Caine Prize for African Fiction for a more recent story (“Skinned”, published in McSweeney’s Quarterly). I kept thinking I should look into it; Michael Schaub loved it, and I seem to enjoy stories by Nigerian women. But I had my list, and I’d already deviated from it several times, so I kept resisting. Eventually, gave in, because we all have our breaking point. I’m glad I did; it’s wonderful.

I’ll have to admit, though, it’s not a cheerful book. These aren’t stories of heroic characters breaking out of desperate situations, perpetuating the myth that anyone can do anything if they want it bad enough. It’s about those for whom it’s all they can do to survive; their stories are just as worth telling. Amy Weiss-Meyer of The Atlantic put it perfectly in her review: “These tales don’t celebrate virtue, but they pay tribute to tenacity.”

Most of the stories deal with family issues, particularly mother-daughter problems. Some are straighforward realism; some are fanciful with touches of the supernatural; others are outright spec-fic, and one is a lovely folk tale of the gods. A couple are notable for writing techniques, and in all, wonderful lines tend to bubble up unexpectedly, lines like “My mother was a small woman who carried her weight in her personality.“

I noticed that for several of the stories, I loved them while reading, caught up in the story, and when I finished and, perhaps, came to put down some notes about them for this post, I had second thoughts about certain aspects. I don’t think that means they’re flawed; I think they’re going in unexpected directions. I still loved the stories, even when I wasn’t sure about an ending, or an element, just like you still love your dog – or your kid, or your best friend, or your country – even when they don’t quite meet your expectations. Maybe it’s time to examine those expectations, hmmm?

Some of my favorites:

The Future Looks Good

Enzinma fumbles the keys against the lock and doesn’t see what came behind her.

The paradigm of short story structure is: begin near the end, in media res, then fill in the backstory once you’ve got the reader hooked on the present conflict. This story takes some liberties with that. The initial sentence, which is indeed in media res, very near the end of the action of the story, is repeated four times. It’s that phrase, “what came behind her” that works the magic: for the first three iterations, what comes behind Enzinma is her past. This sets us up perfectly for the fourth iteration, the completion of the present of the story in a single phrase that hits like a ton of bricks. Given my fondness for using structure, it’s my favorite of the collection.

Second Chances

Ignore for a moment that two years out of grad school I’m old enough to buy my own bed and shouldn’t ask my father to chip in on a mattress, so that he shows up with my mother, who looks like she’s stepped out of a photograph, and she tries to charm the salesman, something she was never good at, but it somehow works this time and he takes off 20 percent. Ignore for a moment that she is wearing an outfit I haven’t seen in eighteen years ….Ignore that she flits from bed to bed, bouncing on each one like she hasn’t sat on a mattress in a while, and the salesman follows her around like he’d like to crawl in with her. Ignore all this because my mother has been dead for eight years.

Again, I find this division between story and backstory to be key. The backstory is of course crucial; without it, there wouldn’t be much of a story. I wasn’t really sure where this was going for a while, but I had to keep reading to find out, and then it was worth it. I have a nagging feeling that it ends twice, and I’d prefer it only end once, but I’m not sure, maybe it works better this way.

Windfalls

The first time you fell, you were six. Before then, you were too young to fall and had to be dropped, pushed, made to slip for the sake of authenticity.

Again, I’m ambivalent. I loved it while I was reading; I was totally immersed. I loved thinking about how well second-person worked here, distanced the narrator from her own victimhood, gave her some control at least over how her story is related, avoided cloying pathos. But it is still a child-abuse story, and I balk at those. The girl is not in denial at all; at one point her mother asks, “Do you think I’m a bad mother?” and the girl thinks, “Was she a bad mother? You were fifteen years old and pregnant because she wanted a price cut on a battered green Toyota.” But, crucially, she stays silent. The ending intrigues and repulses me; the silence, again, is maddening. But, remember, it isn’t the end of her, it’s just the end of the story; she goes on, and there’s hope in that. In this case, my ambivalence fits with the story, which, as the last line makes clear, is all about how we look at things. And I do appreciate good use of second person. So in the end, yes, I loved it.

Who Will Greet You At Home

Women like her had to form their children out of sturdier, more practical material if they were to withstand the dents and scrapes that came with a life like hers. Her mother had formed her from mud and twigs and wrapped her limbs tightly with leaves like moin-moin: pedestrian items that had produced a pedestrian girl. Ogechi was determined that her child would be a thing of whimsy, soft and pretty, tender and worthy of love.

Another mother-daughter struggle, told in a magical realism setting where young women make pretend-babies which are blessed into life by their mothers – unless they fall apart first. Ogechi’s mother charges for her blessing in the currency of empathy and joy. I was intrigued by the premise of the story, then went back to figure out what the ending was telling me.

What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky

When things began to fall apart, the world cracked open by earthquakes and long dormant volcanoes stretched, yawned and bellowed, the churches (mosques, temples) fell, not just the physical buildings shaken to dust by tremors, but the institutions as well. Into the vacuum stepped Francisco Furcal, a Chilean Mathematician who discovered a formula that explained the universe. It, like the universe, was infinite and the idea that the formula had no end and, perhaps, by extension, humanity had no end, was exactly what the world had needed.

But then a man fell from the sky. Something always goes wrong, when you think you’ve got the perfect solution. This is another story I loved; it’s set in the future, and combines environmental disaster, racism, everyday hubris, news vultures, and a few family dramas. On the other hand, I have some reservations. I don’t like the use of the word Mathematician for those who are more like healers; to me, the mathematicians are the ones experimenting with the formula. Hard-SF fans might not go with the math and science, but they are put to terrific use in the story so I’ll go with them. If you like, you can listen to LeVar Burton read this one on his podcast.

What Is a Volcano?

The god of ants and the goddess of rivers were feuding.

This is pure fable, and remarkably enjoyable as the feud escalates. It’s also packed with wonderful phrases and sentences: “…and who even knew there was a god of ants, did you?” Reader address is pretty unusual, and works beautifully here; I kept flashing to Peter Falk reading about Westley and Buttercup. “They backed and forthed for five human centuries…” “The problem with those who don’t know real power is that they do not know real power.” And at the end, we do indeed get an answer.

It’s a short book; it’s literally small, and the type is set with wide spacing, so even the long stories read quickly. Because the stories work in different genres, it’s possible for a reader to dislike a couple and love others; I tend to be less enthusiastic about straight-off domestic realism, but even there, the stories worked. Given the payoff of even two or three of the stories, it’s more than worth the time to read.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson: Metaphors We Live By (UCP, 1980/2003)

We are concerned primarily with how people understand their experiences. We view language as providing data that can lead to general principles of understanding. The general principles involve whole systems of concepts rather than individual words or individual concepts. We have found that such principles are often metaphoric in nature and involve understanding one kind of experience in terms of another kind of experience.
…Definitions for a concept are seen as characterizing the things that are inherent in the concept itself. We, on the other hand, are concerned with how human beings get a handle on the concept – how they understand it and function in terms of it. Madness and journeys give us handles on the concept of love, and food gives us handle on the concept of an idea.

Any time I read anything about language, whether it’s from a literary or neuroscience or psychosocial point of view, I’m enthralled. This book, or at least excerpts from it, was on several reading lists when I concentrated in linguistics as an undergrad; revisiting it now has been incredibly exciting, since all these years later I have come across other facets that fit into the outlined concepts. Two caveats: I did a recreational read, as opposed to a serious academic read; and in the 40 years since this book was published, many of the concepts have been refined, expanded, or qualified. But damn, it was fun anyway. I need to do this more often.

Key to the theory: metaphors, the handles that help us understand more abstract concepts, emerge from our physical and cultural experience. This implies that different cultures would have different metaphors. The opening salvo of the text was the example ARGUMENT IS WAR (see what I did there? The book is, after all, an argument for a theory). He shows how elements of combat, clear in a personal argument (intimidation, threat, appeal to authority) also show up in what he calls rational argument, such as a formal debate or academic panel, because a great many cultures find the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor fits. Imagine a world in which an argument is experienced differently: ARGUMENT IS EDUCATION, or AFFECTION, or COOPERATION. Imagine Twitter in such a world. Hard to do, isn’t it?

I found certain aspects downright exciting, mostly because they brought in concepts I’d seen in other contexts, usually moocs (how did I read before moocs?). One is the rather obvious CLOSENESS IS STRENGTH OF EFFECT, which barely deserves mention in the real world. Of course we feel warmer sitting next to a fire than if we sit in the next room. But apply it to syntax, and things get interesting.

There is a rule in English, sometimes called negative transportation, which has the effect of placing the negative further away from the predicate it logically negates; for example,
Mary doesn’t think he’ll leave until tomorrow.
Here n’t logically negates leave rather than think. This sentence has roughly the same meaning as
Mary thinks he won’t leave until tomorrow.
Except that in the first sentence, where the negative is FURTHER AWAY from leave, it has a WEAKER negative force. In the second sentence, where the negative is CLOSER, the force of negation is STRONGER.

Lakoff extends that beyond negation. Examples in this section include “I found that the chair was comfortable” vs “I found the chair comfortable.” The first sentence could apply if I looked up product reviews and saw that most people said it was a comfortable chair (or, in the 80s, asked people if it was comfortable) whereas the second strongly implies that I sat in the chair and judged it comfortable. “I taught Greek to Harry” and “I taught Harry Greek” show the same pattern: the first sentence allows some wiggle room (I might have taught Greek to Harry, but I’m not saying he learned it).

In summary, in all these cases a difference in form indicates a subtle difference in meaning. Just what subtle differences are is given by the metaphor CLOSENESS IS STRENGTH OF EFFECT, where CLOSENESS applies to elements of syntax of the sentence, while STRENGTH OF EFFECT applies to the meaning of the sentence. …
The subtle shades of meaning that we see in the examples above are thus the consequences not of special rules of English but of a metaphor that is in our conceptual system applying naturally to the form of the language.

This allows for all sorts of artful dodging on the part of politicians and salespeople. Or, if you want to be more upbeat about it, go see Arrival again, with this on a post-it: “Because we conceptualize linguistic form in spatial terms, it is possible for certain spatial metaphors to apply directly to the form of a sentence, as we conceive of it spatially.” Lakoff uses this to propose that true paraphrase is impossible, since changing anything about a sentence – even word order – changes the meaning, if only in very subtle ways. If paraphrase is impossible, translation is well beyond the pale. And yet we go for it.

Position, in various ways, shows up again and again in these examples. Some of them stem from the canonical person:

The canonical person forms a conceptual reference point, and an enormous number of concepts in our conceptual system are oriented with respect to whether or not they are similar to the properties of the prototypical person. Since people typically function in an upright position, see and move frontward, spend most of their time performing actions, and view themselves as being basically good, we have a basis in our experience for viewing ourselves as more UP than DOWN, more FRONT than BACK, more ACTIVE than PASSIVE, more GOOD than BAD. Since we are where we are and exist in the present, we conceive of ourselves as being HERE rather than THERE, and NOW rather than THEN. This determines what Cooper and Ross call the ME-FIRST orientation: up, FRONT, ACTIVE, GOOD, HERE, and NOW are all oriented toward the canonical person; DOWN, BACK-WARD, PASSIVE, BAD, THERE, and THEN are all oriented away from the canonical person.

This affects word order: we say up and down, good and bad, and the other pairs, in those orders, me-first, unless there’s a reason to reverse them. And previously this preponderance of being upright when healthy brought us to the GOOD IS UP, HAPPY IS UP metaphors: my spirits rose, cheer up, things are looking up, etc.

One of those, UNKNOWN IS UP (something uncertain is up in the air) has all kinds of interesting consequences, even though it’s in conflict with GOOD IS UP, and I admit I’m a bit confused, since an explanation or resolution seems absent. Nevertheless, it matches with the rising intonation of a question (in English; hey, I’m having enough trouble without bringing Mandarin and other tonal languages into things).

And it also matches with one of my other favorite topics: maps! All this GOOD IS UP stuff reminded me of the convention of putting north at the top of a map. So I went poking around and verified that NORTH IS UP is a fairly recent convention, one I thought might be related to mapmakers living in the northern hemisphere using the North Star for orientation and various measurements, and the UC-Santa Barbara Geography department seems to more or less agree with me. But maybe not. Map historian Jerry Brotton of Queen Mary University in London explains explains it differently: in Christian medieval maps, east was often at the top, as, for example, in the oft-seen T-O pattern. Early Islamic maps put south at the top. Chinese maps did indeed put north up. “In Chinese culture the Emperor looks south because it’s where the winds come from, it’s a good direction. North is not very good but you are in a position of subjection to the emperor, so you look up to him”. That’s some cool cultural positional orientation right there. It was Mercator who pretty much sealed the deal on north being at the top, and Brotton considers that to have been an arbitrary choice.

But we’re just getting started on position. Lakoff describes how we typically see a frontless object as facing us, meaning if a ball is between me and a tree, I think of the ball as being in front of the tree. But that isn’t universal. He cites the Hausa, a Nigerian ethnic group, as seeing the ball behind the tree; it’s as if the tree inherits my orientation (that’s my interpretation; Lakoff would come up with a much better metaphor, I’m sure) and is, like me, facing forward, which means its back is towards me, and the ball. This brought to mind egocentric vs geocentric frames of reference, a concept I picked up from (guess what) another mooc, in which a neuroscientist brought in Lakoff. By the way, the book includes an afterword from 2003 which includes some neuroscience, particularly how the brain maps space. Don’t you just love it when everything comes together?

Another really exciting idea, one completely new to me (unless I forgot about it, a not-unlikely possibility) is what Lakoff calls AN INSTRUMENT IS A COMPANION – not a musical instrument (though it might be) but an instrument as a kind of tool. He gives the examples of naming cars, guns, and, indeed, musical instruments, and/or referring to them as travelling companions, participants in the journey rather than mere things: “Me and my old Chevy”. This leads to the observation that, in English, the word “with” indicates both accompaniment (“I went to the movies with Sally”) and instrumentality (“I cut the salami with a knife”).

But given the fact that with indicates ACCOMPANIMENT in English, it is no accident that with also indicates INSTRUMENTALITY….
The reason that this is not arbitrary is that our conceptual system is structured by the metaphor AN INSTRUMENT IS A COMPANION. It is a systematic, not an accidental, fact about English that the same word that indicates ACCOMPANIMENT also indicates INSTRUMENTALITY.
This grammatical fact about English is coherent with the conceptual system of English.
As it happens, this is not merely a fact about English. With few exceptions, the following principle holds in all the languages of the world:
The word or grammatical device that indicates ACCOMPANIMENT also indicates INSTRUMENTALITY.
….Where the INSTRUMENT IS A COMPANION coherence does not appear in a language, it is common for some other conceptual coherence to appear in its place. Thus, there are languages where INSTRUMENT is indicated by a form of the verb use or where ACCOMPANIMENT is indicated by the word for and. These are other, nonmetaphorical, ways in which form may be coherent with content.

I was immediately frustrated that he didn’t indicate the languages that are the exceptions, or give better examples, so I went looking for more detail – and found a surprise (Google is a wonderful thing). In 1997 one Thomas Stoltz, professor of linguistics at the University of Bremen, apparently also went looking to quantify Lakoff’s statement:

However, the large-scale comparison of 323 languages has yielded a completely different result. Contrary to the supposed universal status of the above syncretistic pattern, two thirds of the languages in our sample distinguish between comitative and instrumental by formal, ie, morphological means (Stoltz 1997:127).
…As a matter of fact, coherent languages cluster in Europe whereas incoherent languages are by far more frequent outside Europe (Stoltz 1997:130)

Thomas Stolz, “On Circum-Baltic instrumentals and comitatives” from The Circum-Baltic Languages: Grammar and typology, edited by Östen Dahl, Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm

I would guess that, since 1987, even more research has been done, and somewhere there’s a detailed exposition of which languages do what. If I kept diving down this rabbit hole, I’d never get to another book, so at some point I have to accept that everything is asterisked and move on. But it’s still fascinating to me, how language works.

Much of the book, particularly the early chapters, lay down a framework to hold all these theories together. There’s also a section towards the end on truth, which he roughly subdivides into three camps: objectivist, subjectivist, and experientialist, which combines elements of the other two. The analysis of the limitations of LABOR IS A RESOURCE is politically relevant right now. And there’s a chapter on metaphor creating new meaning which includes an anecdote that’s completely charmed me:

An Iranian student, shortly after his arrival in Berkeley, took a seminar on metaphor from one of us. Among the wondrous things that he found in Berkeley was an expression that he had heard over and over and understood as a beautifully sane metaphor. The expression was “the solution of my problems “ – which he took to be a large volume of liquid, bubbling and smoking, containing all of your problems, either dissolved or in the form of precipitates, with catalysts constantly dissolving some problems (for the time being ) and precipitating out others. He was terribly disillusioned to find that to the residence of Berkeley had no such chemical metaphor in mind. And well he might be, for the chemical metaphor is both beautiful and insightful. It gives us a view of problems as things that never disappear utterly and that cannot be solved once and for all. All of your problems are always present, only they may be dissolved and in solution, or they may be in solid form. The best you can hope for is to find a catalyst that will make one problem dissolve without making another one precipitate out.

Reading a 1980 book in 2019 is sometimes weird. There are lots of references to Jimmy Carter, the energy crisis, and inflation, all of which seem slightly off-key as we’re reinterpreting these things in more contemporaneous terms. Oh, and Pete Rose, pre-scandal. As were so many back then. There are passages that seem prescient: “Communication theories based on the conduit metaphor turn from the pathetic to the evil when they are employed indiscriminately on a large scale, say, in government surveillance or computerized files.…When a society lives by the conduit metaphor on a large scale, misunderstanding, persecution, and much worse are the likely products.”

It’s been a very long time since I read a real academic work on language. So why now? Back in April of 2014 – five years ago, which is a lot longer in confused-old-lady time – I took a Futurelearn mooc about Cognitive Poetics taught by Peter Stockwell out of the University of Nottingham. I’d just started moocing; as became my habit, I followed him on Twitter. This May, he tweeted something that caught my attention: one of the books that was most significant to him was this very text. This was just a day after I posted my reading list for this summer, but I realized just how long it had been and got a hankering to trip down Memory Lane, so I added it. Prof. Stockwell has his own book on Cognitive Poetics in the process of publication; I’m considering this a sort of warm-up, and boy, was it fun.

John Urschel and Louisa Thomas, Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football (Penguin, 2019)

I am a mathematician, a PhD candidate at MIT.
I am also a former professional football player, a retired offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens.
Many people see me as a walking contradiction. They think that the pursuit of excellence in football makes the pursuit of excellence in mathematics impossible. They think that a strong interest in one makes a strong interest in the other improbable.…
I don’t spend a lot of time wondering about the ways in which I’m an anomaly. My life is the only one I know. It’s normal to me. We all have multiple and diverging identities. In different ways, math and football are both essential to me.

I’ll admit, I see football and math – at least, when done at the high levels like the NFL and an MIT doctorate – as an improbable pairing. It’s not that an interest or talent in one would preclude interest and ability in the other; it’s the time and focus needed to reach the NFL or MIT. Urschel managed to pull it off, then wrote a book describing his journey so far.

Don’t expect to find an easy secret; there isn’t one. Urschel points to two innate characteristics that helped: his ability to compartmentalize – to focus on football during football time and to focus on math during math time – and his work ethic. I’d add to that a passion for both fields, which includes curiosity, a need to go beyond showing up for class or practice whether it’s reading extra books or observe expert players and put in the extra work to fully understand or develop skill. I don’t know much about how football players talk about football, but I know a little about how mathematicians talk about math (at least, publicly) and he talks about math like a mathematician. I can only assume football players will see the same feature in his description of practice and games.

I’m sometimes asked about the connection between math and football. People want to know what edge being good in a classroom gave me on the field. I know what they want to hear, and I usually give it to them. I talk about basic physics, intelligence, and problem solving. But the truth is, football and math or disjoint in my experience. When the ball is snapped, I’m not thinking about vectors and forces. I’m not really thinking about much of anything. I’m simply moving.
Math gives me a way of making sense of the world. It helps me see past the confusion of everyday life and glimpse the underlying structures of the universe. It reveals the properties of shapes and the prevalence of patterns. It describes the relationships between things. I’m drawn to the rigor and clarity of mathematics, and to the elegance and simplicity of solutions to even the most complex problems. …
Football put me in contact with something messier, something elemental and deep within me. Its strength and not only my body, but also my confidence and will. …I never had as much raw athletic talent as a lot of the guys I played with and against. I relied on my intensity and competitiveness and desire.

I smiled when I read this. It comes from years of algebra and calculus teachers trying to find ways to make math interesting or engaging to their students, while teaching calculation techniques and assigning twelve differentiation problems that are boring as snot. So they bring in, as Vi Hart has said, shopping and sports, because kids love shopping and sports so of course they’ll be interested in how the path of a ball can be predicted from starting speed and position or the price of an object from the percent markup. No, they won’t, but it’s the best they can do. And in the meantime, Urschel is explaining the birthday problem, which I’ve run into several times in various probability moocs – if you have 23 people in a room, there’s about a 50% chance two of them have the same birthday, and once you get more than about 60 people, it’s almost a sure thing. That’s interesting because it seems wrong, so he explains how it works in terms anyone can understand. Or skip the explanation, if you really want to; it won’t diminish the rest of the book. But it’s fun.

Urschel didn’t realize he had any special math ability for a long time. As a college freshman, he started out in Engineering, but took all the math classes and had to be forced to take any engineering at all. Even when he realized it was math all along, he wasn’t focused on being a mathematician, because he wasn’t sure what a mathematician did all day. It wasn’t until he worked on a paper solving a heretofore-unexamined problem that he finally understood:

And this is what mathematicians did all the time. They didn’t sit around doing really hard homework, which was my old vague conception of the life of a math professor.
In that moment, I realized that this is what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to produce new results. I wanted to discover things that no one else had. I wanted to be a mathematician.

Again, this made me smile. I’ve said before that in high school, I assumed that mathematicians wrote problems for math books. It wasn’t until recently, when I could look over the shoulders of mathematicians at work through moocs and Twitter and blogs and books, that I realized that idea was wrong.

After high school, Urschel had offers from several colleges, including Princeton, which made his mom swoon (she still hoped he’d be an aeronautics engineer – a rocket scientist). But he chose Penn State, because of football, rather than the academic program (forgive me, but apparently Penn State is a big deal in college football?). It was in a class on differential equations, when he solved a fifth-degree polynomial in his head (the professor posed it as a problem that could not be solved by traditional methods, and was shocked when he raised his hand and gave the correct answers) that he realized math was something he was good at – and something that was way more interesting than he’d realized.

He describes being something of an underdog on the football field, and his way of dealing with it:

I didn’t know what the others would see in me either. I was an undersized recruit, and not prized. I had terrible technique. I was well aware that didn’t really to be the one no one wanted to be around. ….
So I kept quiet period there was only one way I knew how to deal with the uncertainty: control what I could. I could keep my head down. I couldn’t turn myself into some outgoing social person automatically I could be respected. So I’d listened calmly when the coaches yelled at me, which they did every day period I’d figure out whom not to mess with and keep my distance. I’d learn who the leaders were.

We see a lot of the football side of his life, but there’s little about individual plays and more about the decisions he made, and his life as a football player. For instance he describes a distinct difference between college and pro ball, which he characterizes as a shift from being in a brotherhood to having professional colleagues. There’s some detail of individual plays, particularly one game with the Patriots involving the strategic effect of an ineligible receiver downfield (I’m lost here, but this might mean something to someone reading), and a few instances of the expected grit of playing football. Like noticing he was walking funny, and discovering he’d ripped a callus off the ball of his foot – so he shoved it back on and kept playing.

I had to laugh at Urschel’s remedy for post-game pain:

On the plane back to Baltimore, I passed out from exhaustion.…My body had never felt so beat up. My hand was throbbing where a nose tackle had to stepped on it; my knee creaked when I bent it; my head had a dull ache. But when I lay in bed, I was too wired from the game – not to mention all the caffeine, equivalent to 10 cups of coffee, that I had taken right before the game period so I got up, found a pen and a clean piece of paper and focused on an unproved conjecture. Immediately, I felt myself calm down.

Like I said, he sounds like a mathematician.

We go through the revelation of the Penn State sexual abuse scandal with him. Sandwiched between multiple declarations of “abuse is way worse than any football team penalty, and the kids suffered more than any of us ever will” is a somewhat bewildered position: this happened years go, why is it affecting us? Those of us who read a lot of racial justice material usually hear this in the form of “I never had slaves, why should I be penalized?” The answer is the advantage one group makes for itself at the expense of another. Urschel himself becomes the front-and-center icon of “We don’t just care about football, we have scholars too”, but no other player is mentioned as serving PR in this way; so my question is, was he the only one who could present such a narrative? And isn’t that a statement, too?

He also takes us through his decision to retire from professional football. Because I follow a lot of mathematicians on Twitter, I remember this: his announcement immediately followed the New York Times article describing a frightening study of brain trauma in football players. But Urschel explains he retired because, when it came time to go back to football, he simply wanted to stay at MIT and continue his math work. As surprising as it may seem to the rest of us, math, like football, is a youngster’s game (I heard that from one of my math mooc profs a few years ago, too). He’d already had one serious concussion, an injury that took months for full recovery, and he was aware of the risks. He also knew the study that got so much attention had a problem with selection bias (another term I’m familiar with, in a primitive way, from another mooc), a point made by the researcher herself and included in the NYT article. So the timing was a coincidence.

This book wasn’t originally on my reading list for this year. I added it to the category of “writing about work” because I kept seeing it. I follow several mathematicians on Twitter – fallout from all those moocs – and just as Penn State held Urschel up as a sign that football players can be scholars, mathematicians hold him up as a sign that mathematicians can do cool things like play football. Jordan Ellenberg interviewed him for Hmmm. Ben Orlin got a great blurb from him on his first book, Math With Bad Drawings. And just as I finished this book and started notes for this post, Mike Lawler posted about the credit-bearing online Calculus course on outlier.org that Urschel is teaching; if I had $400 sitting around I’d take it for sure. If stuff like this had been around when I was in school, who knows, maybe things would’ve been a little different for me.

It’s an interesting and fun read. This is the book I should’ve read when I was moving, rather than poetic analysis.

Mark Kurlansky: Salt: A World History (Penguin, 2002)

I bought the rock in Spanish Catalonia…. it was, after all, despite a rosy blush of magnesium, almost pure salt, a piece of the famous salt mountain of Cardona. The various families that had occupied the castle atop the next mountain had garnered centuries of wealth from such rock.
I took it home and kept it on a windowsill. One day it got rained on, and white salt crystals started appearing on the pink. My rock was starting to look like salt, which would ruin its mystique. So I rinsed off the crystals with water. Then I spent fifteen minutes carefully patting the rock dry. By the next day it was sitting in a puddle of brine that had leached out of the rock. The sun hit the puddle of clear water. After a few hours, square white crystals began to appear in the puddle. Solar evaporation was turning brine into salt crystals.
For a while it seemed I had a magical stone that would perpetually produce brine puddles. Yet the rock never seemed to get smaller. Sometimes in dry weather it would appear to completely dry out, but on a humid day, a puddle would again appear under it. I decided I could dry out the rock by baking it in a small toaster oven. Within a half hour white stalactites were drooping from the toaster grill. I left the rock on a steel radiator cover, but the brine threatened to corrode the metal. So I transferred it to a small copper tray. A green crust formed on the bottom, and when I rubbed off the discoloration, I found the copper had been polished.
My rock lived by its own rules. When friends stopped by, I told them the rock was salt, and they would delicately lick a corner and verify that it tasted just like salt.
Those who think a fascination with salt is a bizarre obsession have simply never owned a rock like this.

To those of us who buy a 2-pound canister of salt every couple of years (maybe every four or five years, if we do little cooking) and leave it on the topmost shelf until the saltshaker needs refilling, it seems a bizarre notion that salt often determined the population centers and shifting fortunes of the ancient and medieval world. For those of us who have been cautioned about excess salt in the modern diet, it’s surprising that lack of salt halted armies and dissipated cities. And where salt is freely available on every table in America, we have to remember that salt production, transport, and trade was, for several thousand years, the primary occupation of a sizable percentage of humanity, when it was far more life-and-death than seasoning a french fry.

Kurlansky’s book puts salt at the center of every society, from ancient Chinese administration and the Mayan empire to medieval Europe to the American Civil War and Indian independence. It’s not a casual-reading book. I could spend three to six months using this as a text central to a host of other sources on world history and science (and it would require other sources; this presentation is often more broad than deep). A quick read was all I had time (and mental stamina; I’m still pretty befuddled) for right now, so I’m mostly going to stick to the “fun stuff” in this post. But be assured, there’s plenty more within the pages.

What “fun stuff” could salt provide, you may wonder? How about the underground salt cathedrals, just outside Krakow, Poland:

In 1689, the mines began offering miners daily Catholic services at their underground place of work. The miners of Wieliczka begin carving religious figures out of rock salt. Three hundred feet below the surface, miners carved a chapel out of rock salt with statues and bas relief scenes along the floor, walls, and ceiling. They even fashioned elaborate chandeliers from salt crystals.
Increasingly, the mine had visitors. In the early 17th century, as in Durnberg, the Crown began to bring special guests, mostly royalty. They came to dance in ballrooms, dine in carved dining rooms, be rowed in underwater lagoons. In 1830, the Wieliczka Salt Mine Band, which still performs, was started because of the quality of the acoustics in the mine.

Not only is the Band still available, you can visit the mine on your next trip to Europe, and even hold your wedding or business meeting in the rooms carved from salt.

Ancient China was, like most societies, deeply invested in salt, and provide some interesting perspectives. Soy sauce was invented as a way to stretch the preservative and culinary power of salt; it started out as fermented fish sauce, with soybeans added for bulk. Later, the fish was dropped, though it was retained in Southeast Asia. Salt and Iron government monopolies were a long-term source of debate through several early dynasties. And perhaps most interestingly, Kurlansky tells of the brine wells, dug in Sichuan about 250 BCE, where workers would sometimes become ill and even die, or where occasional explosions would occur. Within a few hundred years, the Chinese learned to tame the evil spirits causing these misfortunes by a system of bamboo pipes channeling them to boiling houses where they lit flames to evaporate the brine into salt. This is considered the first use of natural gas in the world. It wasn’t for a couple of millennia, until geology became established as a science, that we learned how underground salt deposits trap organic material, leading to the frequent partnership of salt and oil or gas. In fact, Texas became an oil state when companies drilling for salt discovered oil instead.

Egypt’s salty contribution to the world was, of course, mummification (which used natron rather than sodium chloride) and, culinarily, the olive. It seems olive oil was widely used for thousands of years throughout the Mediterranean region, but olives themselves were considered inedible until some Egyptian discovered they were edible if soaked in brine. But it turns out the best olives for oil are not the best olives for eating, so one had to decide.

Salt was a valuable commodity, so mines turned up in Europe as well. Some of the earliest mines, around the time Julius Caesar approached Gaul, were tended by Celts. This was all pretty normal, until a more recent discovery:

Only in the 1990s did Westerners become aware of the mummies that had been found in the Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. …As with the early Egyptian burials that are 1000 years older, the corpses have been preserved by the naturally salty soil.
….These unknown People were in appearance notably similar to the large blue eyed blonde Celtic warriors described by the Romans almost two millennia later. Their conical felt hats and twill jackets bore a close resemblance to those of the salt miners in Hallein and Hallstatt – not unlike the much later plaids of the Scottish Highlands.…Textile historian Elizabeth Wayland Barber concluded that even the weave was nearly identical workmanship. Why Celts might have been in the salty desert of Asia many centuries before there were known to be Celts remains a mystery.
In the centuries when the Celtic culture was documented, beginning 1300 years after these seemingly Celtic bodies were buried in Asian salt, they did trade and travel great distances, usually selling salt from their rich central European mines.

Kurlansky’s book was published while investigation of these mummies was just beginning. As time goes on, it gets more complicated, with subsequent research bringing in Tocharian linguistics, DNA analysis, and political tragedy (yes, that Uyghur).

Salt became much less necessary after the development of canning and refrigeration/freezing technology. Salt led to other discoveries, such as potash and chlorine bleach. It was a former salt baron, Edmund McIlhenny, who, his salt fortunes in now useless Confederate dollars after the Civil War, happened upon capsicum peppers from Mexico, and created… Tabasco sauce.

The United States is both the largest salt producer and the largest salt consumer. It produces over 40,000,000 metric tons of salt the year, which earns more than one billion in sales revenue. …But little of this is table salt. In the United States, only 8% of salt production is for food. The largest single use of American salt, 51 percent, is for deicing roads.

Plot twist: After millennia of harvesting salt from the earth and sea, we are now putting it back. Some future historian might wonder why.

Kurlansky has written a few dozen books on a variety of interesting subjects, including paper, milk, the Basques, and an album of international culinary adventures with his daughter as they spin the globe and cook a meal from whatever pops up. I’m perhaps more taken with Simon Garfield’s style (and inclusion of far more diagrams, maps, and visual examples of the topic at hand), but don’t be surprised if one of these – perhaps Paper or International Night – shows up on these pages at some point.

C. Michael Curtis, ed., God: Stories (HM, 1998)

This is a collection of stories about spiritual experiences of several sorts. Some are comic, some vaguely anticlerical, some only grudgingly engaged with any sort of denominational mainstream, at least a few outwardly skeptical of a divine presence or intention at any level. Others, however, make their way shrewdly into the perplexities and challenges of belief, explore the hazy perimeter of unconditional love and forgiveness, examine sympathetically the paradoxes of discipleship. Above all, these stories encounter spirituality in its human dimensions. They are about men and women, children and venerables, proselytizers and skeptics, the obsessed and the weak at heart. They tell us something important about our literary culture, point to the impact of religious sensibility in the way we lead or question our lives. Holding them together is a recognition that God, however conceived, challenges our deepest yearnings, provides our greatest comfort, assures us of our fundamental worth, grants us the only absolution we fully trust, makes possible, in ways both mysterious and immense, a loving regard for other characters in the larger narrative of life.

~~ Introduction, C. Michael Curtis

In his introduction, Curtis, a long-time editor at The Atlantic (among other things), tells us this anthology grew out of a cobbled-together text for an adult education class on story and religion. Turns out, it’s pretty middle-of-the-road stuff, the stories by prominent writers spanning the 20th century (1914 to 1997, as far as I can tell). Most of the stories are based in Christianity, though a few are distinctly Jewish, and the writers are predominantly American. The stories feature clergy, believers, and doubters; those who believe devoutly and thoughtfully, and those who casually connect with a religion for reasons other than spiritual longing.

While I was reading this book, the podcast for Jo Walton’s historical-theological-fantasy novel Lent was released. I was surprised to realize that book, for me, was far more powerful and made a deeper spiritual impression on me than this collection. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy these stories; some were delightful, and several raised interesting questions. But apparently the path to my soul is more in history, with Hypa and his battles with Azazeel, and with the tormented Girolamo and his Renaissance humanist friends.

The James Joyce and Flannery O’Connor stories (“Grace” and “Parker’s Back”) were, unsurprisingly, the most deeply symbolic; it was only through a bit of internet research that I glimpsed the intensity under the surface story. Philip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith” was a terrific read, and I was delighted to find an academic paper by Gillian Steinberg proposing a connection to the Haggadah of the Four Sons. Her question: which of the two main characters is the Defender of the Faith, the “good” son? The question doesn’t need to be answered; just raising it is interesting enough.

Brendan Gill’s “The Knife” and William Hoffman’s “A Question of Rain” gave insights into the purpose of prayer. The child in the Gill story is given a rather glib explanation of prayer, giving his father something of a shock when he follows it to its logical conclusion. Hoffman’s minister, taking a more sophisticated view of prayer, is shocked by unexpected results.

And speaking of shock: the minister in Peggy Payne’s “The Pure in Heart” hears the voice of God. Twice. Nothing profound or specific – in fact, its petty cryptic – but what really surprises him is the reaction of his congregation, who debate whether he should be ousted.

“Doesn’t it seem contradictory?” Swain says. Bill is watching him carefully. “It’s okay to believe in God, but only if God is distant. A presence in history. Is that the idea?”

“I thought maybe a few people would be curious about what actually happened. Would want to hear more.” He shakes his head. “They don’t.” It makes him mad to think about it. They’ve decided to put up with him – that’s what they’ve made of all this. They’re being broad-minded and tolerant, that’s all.

“The Rabbi in the Attic” by Eileen Pollack is also a lively, fun read, but here’s where I wish I hadn’t gone researching. Pollack relates that the plot came from an overheard conversation. She added an interesting element, pitting an Orthodox rabbi against a young Reform woman; this presents such wonderful opportunities, I was a little disappointed there wasn’t more. But the moment with the scroll was everything: Solomon speaks yet again.

This was an interesting way to expand my reading of several short-story authors I’ve mostly ignored. And if it wasn’t the most personally meaningful anthology I’ve read, that doesn’t mean it was meaningless. I prefer a more oblique approach: tell it slant, as Emily Dickinson says, and several of these stories did just that.