BASS 2018: Yoon Choi, “The Art of Losing” from New England Review #38.2

Palimpsest bench: The Immigrant as Palimpsest

Palimpsest bench: The Immigrant as Palimpsest

Watch the boy, she had said.
Or had she? Some things he knew for sure. His name was Han Mo-Sae. His wife was Han Young-Ja. They had been married forty years, possibly fifty. The wife would know. They had two children: Timothy and Christina. They would always be his children but they were no longer kids. He had to keep remembering that.
Tunes. He was good with tunes. He could retrieve from memory music he hadn’t heard in decades. “The Mountain Rabbit,” “Ich Liebe Dich,” Aretha Franklin’s “Operation Heartbreak,” which he had first heard in his twenties on the Armed Forces Network in Korea. He had a good singing voice. He had been Tenor 1 in the church choir; years before that, he had led off the morning exercise song in the schoolyard. These performances had given him an appetite for praise and notice, although no one, seeing the old man he had become, would know it.

Complete story available online at NER

I’m a complete sucker for an Alzheimer’s story. Build it around an immigrant family, and you know I’m going to bring in Seth Keller’s palimpsest bench doubly inscribed with Michelle Janssens Keller’s “immigrant as palimpsest” text. The two go together so perfectly: as a palimpsest layers one text over another, and the immigrant layers one life over another, the disease strips layers away, little by little.

Philosophy debates whether reality is made up of things, or ideas. For Mo-Sae, the two interplay as his memory goes in and out over the course of a few hours alone with his grandson. He’s not sure why his wife isn’t there, forgets she’s gone out for an errand. Sometimes he remembers, sometimes he forgets who the boy is. Sometimes he forgets he’s there. He looks at a coffee can full of change, and wonders why the coins are so odd: “Then he remembers that these are American coins.” The reader knows terror as the boy gets into dangerous situations – climbing over a rail on the balcony, standing at the edge of a pool – and the grandfather might forget he exists if he turns around. On returning to his apartment, “The doors keep opening and closing on identical hallways, and Mo-Sae realizes that he has no idea which is his own.” Things and ideas don’t always match up any more.

His wife, Young-Ja, becomes the second narrator of this story. In her Contributor Note, as well as her interview with Rose Whitmore at NER, author Yoon Choi explains the need for a second, more reliable narrator in a story of this kind, and how the idea developed from one character – a man with Alzheimer’s – to a story of interrelated characters and events. It’s one of the more explicit and helpful Notes, from a would-be writer’s POV, and for me, it’s always interesting to see where stories come from.

Young-Ja also provides an interesting narrative thread of her own, as she interacts with a neighbor. He started out as my “favorite overlooked character” (though I changed my mind, more later); we don’t know much about his life, but he has many interesting items in his home, including an organ. Also an older man, he’s packing to move so his offspring’s caregiving duties will be more convenient. He gives Young-Ja some of his items, including a Christmas cactus, which she ignores until it wilts. “But what she realized was that Mr. Sorenson’s gifts were not free but finicky, and came with a burden of care.” Just like children. Or parents who age inconveniently.

Jake Weber’s post at Workshop Heretic is highly informative, as he focuses on the issues involved in writing about “other” cultures within a dominant culture. Both because he’s a professional translator (of Korean, among other languages), and because he’s published stories set in “other” cultures, he has some interesting insights into the tradeoffs and decisions involved. I found his observation that there are three, maybe four cultures here – Korean, Korean-American, American-Korean, and American. Again, I think of the way Alzheimer’s, with its tendency to strip away more recent memory first, might peel off those layers of the palimpsest that is Mo-Sae.

One scene in particular resonates with me, partly because it echoes on what is familiar to me, and partly because it reveals so much about the family. Mo-Sae is asked to return to his church choir, which he left before his illness was obvious, for a Christmas performance. To Young-Ja’s surprise, he agrees. This isn’t good news for her; she’d rather they not know about his condition. Rehearsals go fine, but at the performance, during one of the solos, Mo-Sae makes his way to the platform to do his own impromptu solo:

Nothing could be read in the soloist’s expression. Perhaps that was what made him a professional: the ability to keep singing, keep pretending. And no interpretation could be made of the choir director’s turned back, from which a conducting arm continued to emerge and retreat in time. Or of the choir members who presented three rows of staunch faces.
But Mo-Sae’s face was laid bare to scrutiny. The expression on it was high-minded and earnest, but also a little coy, as though he was struggling to disguise his basking pleasure.
What was he possibly singing? In which language? To which tune? Or had he somehow learned the tenor solo on his own? He was not behind the microphone so no one could hear. But anyone could see from the childish look of surprise that came over Mo-Sae’s face that he was straining for the high notes that came forth in the soloist’s voice.
So there it was. The spectacle.
Young-Ja could do nothing but watch, to feel that there in the spotlight that she had never once sought for herself, her private miseries had become manifest.

Christina, the daughter, finally leads Mo-Sae from the choir. That’s an interesting choice. Young-Ja is almost relieved the secret is out. Almost:

Now that the secret was out, the church members treated her like one of the New Testament widows. They saw her as devoted, praiseworthy. They never asked Mo-Sae to rejoin the choir or even take part in a real conversation. Thus she was free from the burden of his reputation.
And yet, sometimes she took the opposite view. She was not really a widow so she was not really free. While Mo-Sae was alive, she could not pretend that he did not exist in some real, sometimes inconveniencing way. Others might pretend, but she had to look squarely into the question of Mo-Sae’s dignity. It was up to her to reclaim it from this point forward in a more complicated, arduous, thankless way.

Again, the inconvenience borne by family. It would be easy to judge Young-Ja, but only for someone who’s never loved someone who wasn’t always able to meet expectations of others in public.

The story takes an unexpected twist that projects a complex future, a future not at all settled by the end of the story. Choi tells us it was not the first ending she envisioned, but it was the one that became necessary to her when she started filling in the details of this family.

My nomination for interesting overlooked character would be Christina. As Jake points out in his post, giving her a more traditional Euro/American name signals a shift from Korean-American to American-Korean in the minds of her parents; her choice of husband perhaps shifts it even further. Given the ending, she’s the character whose life, past and future, I would most like to know about.

Let’s end with the beginning: the title, “The Art of Losing.” Everyone in this story is losing something. Sorenson, the neighbor, meets the loss of his home by giving away items that will live on, although to Young-Ja they are items that require care she feels too burdened to provide. The daughter Christina, leading her father away from the choir at Christmas, faces this loss with seeming dignity and responsibility, but we don’t know what she is feeling. Mo-Sae, facing ever-increasing losses multiple times a day, ends the story by huddling near the door, watching his grandson so he won’t forget he’s there. The little boy, who lost the coins that were to buy him ice cream, met his loss with a temper tantrum he’s young enough to get away with. And Young-Ja, who loses so much, barely notices, she’s so busy trying to get through the day.

The art of losing can be created in different shapes and colors, and we can all just do our best.

Operamooc: First Nights of the 18th Century – Handel and Mozart

Course: 18th-Century Opera: Handel & Mozart
Length: 5 weeks, 3-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: HarvardX/edX
Instructor: Thomas Forrest Kelly
Quote:

In this breathtaking course, you’ll get to know the music of two beautiful operas — both in their spellbinding artistry and colorful histories.
First, you’ll travel to London in 1724, where George Frederic Handel premiered his most famous opera, Giulio Cesare. Meet the performers and experience what it was like to attend the first production, all while gaining an appreciation for the typical characteristics of Italian opera represented in this popular Baroque opera seria.
Then fast-forward 63 years to the Estates Theatre in Prague for the premiere of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s enduring classic, Don Giovanni. Learn about the challenges Mozart faced during the rehearsal process and the revolutionary relationship he created between music and drama in this opera.

I’m not sure what it is about Prof. Kelly’s lecture style that makes his courses so much fun, but this is the sixth one I’ve taken and they’re all delightful. Here he focuses on 18th century opera through two very different approaches: the recitative/aria model used by Handel and others early in the period, and the more melodic and dramatic style that emerged later with Mozart, culminating in Don Giovanni.

No music background is required or expected. That isn’t to say that musicology is overlooked. We find out about key changes that came to characterize the classical period, the different structural parts of the music (ritornello, cavatina), and, most importantly, the ways the structure and sound of the music contribute to the emotional and dramatic whole of the piece (the discussion of “La Ci Darem La Mano” is not to be missed!). But everything is explained for those with little or no background in music or opera.

Overall the course is probably best described as music appreciation: a conversational approach to the music’s history, the stage presentation, the conventions of singing and stage performance at the time, explanations of why the opera was written to begin with, and details of the opening night performances. Much of it is told in an anecdotal manner rather than the typical lecture style. A few questions, mostly multiple choice (but a couple aiming for listening skills) follow each video. For me, it was a recreational mooc, a wonderful way to wind down for an hour or so at the end of the day.

Although I was primarily interested in classical singing – choral, art songs, madrigals – I hated opera until my late 20s, when I found ways to understand one work, then another and another. I still wouldn’t call myself an opera buff; I love a group of a half-dozen or so, and like some arias from another dozen, but you’d have to chain me to my seat to get me to sit through Fidelio again (the first time I saw it at least I was at Tanglewood, which is beautiful no matter what’s playing). The truism that understanding changes attitudes is a truism for a reason: it’s true. And if Prof. Kelly ever explains Wagner, well, I just might surprise myself by liking that, too. And oh, by the way – there’s a 19th century session in the works. I can’t wait!

BASS 2018: Jamel Brinkley, “A Family” from Gulf Coast #29.2

Art by Chris Ofili

Art by Chris Ofili

Curtis Smith watched from across the street as the boy argued with Lena Johnson in front of the movie theater. She had probably bought tickets for the wrong movie. Or maybe Andre didn’t want to see any movie with his mother on a Friday night. Her expression went from pleading to irate. The boys said nothing more. With his head taking on weight, hung as though his neck couldn’t hold it, he followed as she went inside.
It was a chilly evening in November, the sky threatened by rain. Curtis blew warm breath into his cupped hands. Obedience, he thought, he could talk to the boy about that. He’s been making a list of topics they could discuss. The question of obedience was right for a boy of fifteen, when the man he would become was beginning to erupt out of him like horns. Though sometimes it was important to disobey.

There’s a thousand ways things could go wrong all through this story. Just the first paragraph had me clenching my teeth: Why is he watching them? Is he a former lover, is he Andre’s father, disappeared and now wanting back in? No, someone else is Andre’s father, so why is he making a list of topics to talk to the kid about? And we’re back to stalker. Uh oh, twelve years in prison, that doesn’t sound good…

It all turns out to be relatively benign, a past tragedy of jealousy, grief, guilt, and vehicular manslaughter. Andre’s father was Curtis’ best friend until they had a major falling out; when Marvin died in a fire, Curtis was wracked with guilt, culminating in the DUI that sent him to prison. Hey, I did say “relatively”. His interest in Lena and Andre isn’t clear – I don’t think it’s clear even to him – but it involves some combination of responsibility to Andre, finding out the details of Marvin’s death, and, maybe most importantly, finding out what Marvin said to Lena about the falling out between them, all with an overlying layer of guilt.

So much could go wrong. But it doesn’t, not because of twists of fate, but because these people work at it. And even more amazing, it keeps out of heartwarming movie-of-the-week territory.

“What makes mothers the way they are?” Andre asked one day. It was the first time he posed a question like this to Curtis, that of a boy seeking the wisdom of a man.

No, the music doesn’t play, the credits don’t roll, there’s no sense that It’s Going to Be Alright. You can see the work being done on every page, by all three characters. Sometimes it’s patience, sometimes it’s taking a risk, sometimes it’s recognizing a mistake.

In his blog post at Workshop Heretic, Jake Weber looks at the story from the sleuth point of view, inspired by the mention of Walter Mosley in the text. I particularly liked his comments on the conflict between Curtis’ masculinity and the infantilization partly forced upon him by his inability, as a black man with a prison record, to get a job.

Although the story felt full of tension – I kept waiting for something to go wrong – it manages to resolve in the key of family. I just had an email conversation with a friend, in which he mentioned some family issues but assured me he loved his family. I told him there’s a reason fiction is so often about families: it’s where everything starts, ends, and happens. Most of us start in one family, and create another, yet they are connected in ways we may or may not recognize, whether by imitation or contrast. And by the way, I have the sense that Curtis’ mom is the overlooked character in this story. I’d love to see an expansion of her story.

The family in the story is black, and while race is only explicitly mentioned a couple of times, it’s always a presence. Curtis recognizes that, if the woman he’d killed while driving drunk had been white, he’d still be serving time. What’s not said, but what this reader understands, is that if Curtis had been white, and had a hotshot lawyer, he might not have done any time at all.

I was very aware of four sentences, sprinkled throughout the piece, dealing with what a linguistics professor of mine, back in days of yore, called action/intent indices. They’re about how we can use language to accept responsibility, or distance ourselves from it:
▪ In the first instance, he’s walking off his stress, whispering Marvin’s name over the East River: “He might have also said the name of the dead woman, the one he had struck with his car….”
▪ In the second, he’s walking again, watching a woman making a phone call (again, the stalker vibe): “…she reminded him, for some reason, of the woman he had struck with his car.”
▪ The third time, he’d followed Lena into the club but hadn’t talked to her yet. “Sipping his third bourbon, he thought about how easy it had been to go from his first to his third, and beyond, on the night the girl was struck by his car.”
▪ The fourth time he’s dreaming: “.. there was the dim, gray shadow of the woman he’d hit with his car all those years ago…. That night she’d seemed to fall upon the car like a burden dropped from the sky…”

See the difference? In the first two, he struck the woman with his car. In the fourth, again he hit her with his car, though there’s some distancing in that she’d dropped out of the sky. But in the third, it’s as if the car hit the woman without him. The only real difference I see in context is that drinking distances him, removes his action and intent; it’s the car that hit her, she dropped out of the sky. Drinking isn’t mentioned anywhere else, he’s not identified as an alcoholic, and a DUI is not necessarily diagnostic. Isn’t this an extension of the so-called social lubricant function of alcohol? Who hasn’t used the excuse, “I had one too many, I didn’t mean it.” Taken to the extreme: instant absolution. Release from agency. I didn’t do it. I can’t think of a better reason to drink.

Oh and by the way: he never gets to the point of “the woman I killed.” That’s still a bridge too far.

I love that this story is part of a conversation: in his interview with Crystal Hana Kim at Apogee, Brinkley tells us: “’A Family’” is a kind of response to ‘Gold Boy, Emerald Girl’ by Yiyun Li, which itself is a response to ‘Three People’ by William Trevor.” I haven’t read either of the predecessors, so I can only imagine that these, too, are stories about other families, perhaps also bound together by shared tragedy. The story is found in the recently released collection A Lucky Man, shortlisted for the 2018 National Book Award in fiction.

Curtis nodded and listened as Andre continued talking about his future, his life of success, of accumulation and bachelorhood.

This is the most hopeful sentence in the story: the kid hasn’t lost his belief that his future is in his hands. He’s been loved enough to stay an optimist. Curtis and Lena are another story, but they manage as well. It’s a balancing act, and it’s never a sure thing, but they’ve formed a family. Brinkley’s Contributor Note explains he arrived at the title: “I wanted to emphasize all the characters together as one unit, even on the level of grammar.” He discarded anything that made it sound like this was a “degraded” family. To me, the story does a fine job of this. And families try to make it work, and allow some leeway for the times when it doesn’t.

Probably (Purdue part 1) MOOC

Course: Probability: Basic Concepts & Discrete Random Variables
Length: 6 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk (New session starts Oct. 13, 2018)
School/platform: Purdue/edX
Instructor: Mark Ward
Quote:

In this course, we will first introduce basic probability concepts and rules, including Bayes theorem, probability mass functions and CDFs, joint distributions and expected values.
Then we will discuss a few important probability distribution models with discrete random variables, including Bernoulli and Binomial distributions, Geometric distribution, Negative Binomial distribution, Poisson distribution, Hypergeometric distribution and discrete uniform distribution.

I grew to love this course, and I feel like it greatly helped my understanding of probability, but when I sat down and put all my thoughts together, I remembered being less enthusiastic at the start. So now I have to wonder: do I have a highly positive view of the class because it’s really good, or because I did well? And did I do well because it was a great course, or because, after running at this stuff multiple times, I was finally ready to learn some of it? I don’t know, but this was the right course for me at the right time and I’m very pleased – and ready to tackle part 2, which is the highest endorsement anyone can give.

This is part 1 of a 2-part series, and covered general probability techniques and discrete models; continuous models and the fancy stuff like Markov chains are covered in Part 2. I took it in archived form, meaning the forums weren’t active. I’m happy to discover that both parts will be re-starting on Oct. 13; I’m registered for both. For me, math is a process, with lots of loops and restarts.

By way of brief recap, since in math classes, background is everything: I ended up in this course after I tried the Harvard follow-up to the very introductory mooc Fat Chance, but it was too “mathy” for me; the focus was on proving theorems with little guidance on what to do with them. This was more my speed, an in-between step, since explanation shared the stage with deriving and proving theorems.

The course is structured so that all the lectures are presented for the week, at which point I would feel generally confused. I felt like I was missing an overview, a sense of where we were going, the connective tissue of narrative. But I have learned patience, and it paid off: the lectures were followed by three problem sets of non-graded practice questions, complete with answers and varying degrees of detailed explanation. This is where the course really worked well for me: doing these questions – or in many cases, not doing them because I didn’t know what to do at first – and reviewing the given solutions made sense of the lectures. I do wish there had been a few “basic nuts and bolts” questions after each video, but that’s me.

Because it took me a while to catch on to the rhythm of the course, I think I still have more to learn from the first weeks in particular, which is why I signed up again. It will also be helpful to have forums for questions (I still don’t think I fully understand how to calculate variance, particularly using the “diagonal” approach shown in the video), though I found I could get most of my questions answered through old forum posts.

Each week ended with a graded set of 11 or 12 questions. These varied in complexity, which is always helpful. For the most part they shadowed the practice questions, though some would venture into unexplored territory or require some extra consideration of just what manipulation was necessary. Most of the questions required calculation; a few were multiple choice. Grading was generous: three attempts were possible for each question (although the syllabus claimed they were single-attempt; maybe they are single-attempt in live sessions, with more leeway in archive. Or maybe they changed their minds. Or maybe it’s a mistake).

And again, these questions is where the lectures came together for me. I wish there had been another round somewhere along the line, since often I didn’t figure out how something worked until the last question, but there were no further questions on that aspect to make sure I knew what I was doing.

I found one outside source to be an enormous help: the Youtube channel run by jbstatistics (aka Jeremy Balka, assistant prof of Math at Guelph University). These videos are extremely clear, step-by-step explanations of basic topics in Discrete (and continuous) probability without a lot of technical verbiage.

I’m really glad I found this course, and I’m hoping to be able to tackle Part 2 on continuous models, which is where I completely fell apart in the Harvard series. It might not be the course for everyone; for someone at my level, a good deal of frustration tolerance is required, but a little patience went a long way and in the end, the result was very much worth it.

BASS 2018: Maria Anderson, “Cougar” from Iowa Review #46.3

Our trailer sat on cinder blocks in a half-acre lot a four-cigarette drive outside of town. There wasn’t much else around except Jenny’s trailer and forest that started at the end of the lot and went on for as far as you could see, dim and impenetrable. Dad kept pink healing quartz on the porch steps, rocks he’d found in the deepest parts of the forests, back when there was still old-growth forest to be logged. He was a sad, quiet guy. Never argued with me or knocked me around like dads of guys I used to know.

Poor Cal: his world is disappearing on him, little by little. His mom disappeared years ago when he was just a baby. Now his dad disappears. And Jenny, the only adult who cares about him, is riddled with cancer, getting thinner and thinner. The town itself barely exists. Pretty soon it’ll just be Cal, and the woods. And the cougar that’s been hanging around, occasionally killing things. Like maybe Cal’s dad, though he’ll never know for sure, since the body was never found. Cal hopes it was suicide: “It was easiest to think he’d made a choice and acted on it.“ Acting on things isn’t really Cal’s strength these days.

But back to that opening paragraph: I love that subtle “guys I used to know.” Since Cal got out of high school, he doesn’t know many guys any more. His friend Blake now works on an oil rig, and Cal was thinking about joining him. It’s the one spark of initiative he shows in the entire story: he saved up some money, even took the test required. But then the cougar got his dog – his dad’s dog, actually, though it’s Cal’s now – and he got fired from the Chinese restaurant, and that spark was extinguished.

The restaurant’s an interesting place: owned by Koreans who once tried to serve real food, but discovered people wanted what they were used to. “What I decide is, people want shit, you give them shit,” says the grandmother who owns the place.

The owners of the Chinese restaurant, who were actually Korean, kept a quiet shrine on the floor in the corner of the dining room. The shrine had a picture of a sad-looking man with a dented head, a bowl of bruised clementines, and a plastic cat that waved its paw at you. An up-and-down wave. Maybe that was how Korean people waved. The cat waved at you like it was waving away all the stuff you thought about. Like it was urging you not to think, not to worry about being able to buy food or pay rent or feel like you should try to make some friends or have sex again because that was what eighteen-year-olds did.

The cat statue, though a contemporary knicknack, evolved from an Edo-era Japanese talisman called maneki neko, invitation cat or beckoning cat. The paw-down motion mimics the Japanese gesture of beckoning. Over centuries a lot of variations have developed as it’s been adopted outside Japan; it’s common in Chinese restaurants in the hopes it will bring in customers and cash. But I find it fascinating that Cal sees it as waving away thoughts he doesn’t want to have, while it’s actually a come-here motion. And, remember, there’s that other cat maybe beckoning, maybe waving away, the cougar out in the woods. Jenny reminds him, it’s just hungry. “I’m not sure an animal deserves getting shot for being hungry.” Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, just like Jack London said. Jenny tells him he’s been feeding the cougar, and asks him to continue to do so after he’s gone.

Jake Weber has some very detailed ideas about, among other things, the symbolism of the cougar and the cat, and the world views they represent, at his blog post. We honed in on a lot of the same elements, yet in a couple of cases ended up in slightly different places. I particularly like his take on Cal’s misinterpretation of the word “Seoul”.

It’s a story of the kind of depression isolation brings on, of the inertia that can keep us from pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We leave Cal admiring the cougar. It’s the only thing he has left. I wonder if he’ll feed it. Or if he’ll make a decision and act on it too, one of these days.

BASS 2018: It’s that time again

I do not think it hyperbole to say that in 2018, the rapidly changing condition of American democracy has become an absorbing narrative of its own, one that features larger-than-life characters, nonstop conflict, breakneck pacing, and incredibly high stakes….
Fiction writers are now faced with the significant challenge of producing work that will sustain a reader’s attention amid this larger narrative. Roxane Gay is just the right guest editor for this moment. With her keen eye for tension, voice, and structure, as well as her deep understanding of the forces at work in our culture, she chose stories that reflect and refract our time, stories that exhibit mastery of pacing, surprise, and rich characterization. Here are stories that hold their own in this day and age, no small feat, and they do so with devastating realism, honesty, humor, and courage.

~~ Heidi Pitlor, Foreword

I’m a little scared to read this volume.

But that’s ok: I trust litfic writers and the editors who, unlike the bozos running the country right now, love their readers, love their characters, care about something besides themselves, and write to show a way out, an alternative to whatever hellscape they’ve created. To show us it doesn’t have to be like this.

As I was typing this, a DFW quote from 1993 – oh, how innocent we were then about darkness! – twittered across my screen: “In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.” (How innocent will we seem 25 years from now?) Yeah, that’s what I was trying to say.

Whatever else this volume may turn out to be, it represents in some way the state of American short story writing. Roxane Gay’s Introduction appears in full at lithub, but here she capsulizes her intent:

When I am reading fiction, I am not always looking for the political. First and foremost, I am looking for a good story. I am looking for beautifully crafted sentences. I am looking for a refreshing voice or perspective. I am looking for interesting, complex characters that I find myself thinking about even when I am done with the story. I am looking for the artful way any given story is conveyed, but I also love when a story has a powerful message, when a story teaches me something about the world, when a story shows me just how much I don’t know and need to know about the lives of others.

~~ Roxane Gay, Introduction

One aspect of this year’s read has me particularly eager to see what we have here: author (and my blogging buddy for several years) Jake Weber will be posting commentary on the stories on his blog, Workshop Heretic. He’ll be taking a more academic approach than I do, so for the students who find their way here when an English professor assigns them these stories as reading (yes, I see the spike in blog stats every September and January), his insights might be more fruitful. I know I hope to learn from him, since I still don’t know what a “good” story is.

But I do so love trying to figure it out.

Beyond Medical Histories: Insight from Patient Stories mooc

Course: Beyond Medical Histories: Gaining Insight from Patient Stories
Length: 3 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: Brown/edX
Instructor: Jay Baruch, MD
Quote:

Physicians and healthcare providers are – fundamentally – professional story-listeners, story-shapers, and story-responders. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; people have always related to each other and the world through the telling, listening, and interpreting of stories.

Expertise with stories is a low-tech skill that’s fundamental to connection, communication, curiosity, and problem-solving. It’s a clinical ability with multiple potential benefits, ranging from making us more mindful of our thinking to improving patient engagement. Aptitude with stories can both expand our tolerance for uncertainty and reduce risk.
We’ll focus on stories – challenging stories, in particular. We’ll discuss why healthcare providers must think more creatively, even in a field that prides itself on its grounding in scientific evidence.

Any course that starts with an Amy Hempel story has real promise.

I love medical stuff, and obviously I like stories, so this sounded like a win-win: using techniques from storytelling to better understand a patiet’s presentation. It’s primarily intended for medical practitioners, particularly those in training, but everyone was explicitly welcomed.

It’s a short course, three weeks (there is a Week 0, for purposes of getting used to the edX platform, but there’s no content). There’s very little solid content; it’s mostly open response to acted-out scenarios and discussions of the issues raised. Ostensibly the weeks had different foci, but I found it all to boil down to: keep an eye on your assumptions, notice when you’re being triggered by a difficult patient, and think about what isn’t being said as well as what is being said. The instructors were mostly emergency room physicians, a setting that often requires action when there isn’t a lot of time to gather a great deal of data.

Grading is purely self-reported: did you submit an answer to a survey question? Did you post on this topic? My main struggle with the course was remembering to click the checkboxes, since I normally don’t scroll down that far.

The acted-out scenarios in W1 and 2 were dramatic as conflicts arose between patients and staff, patients and their families, families and staff. I very much liked the Week 3 exercise, in which an abstract painting was the focus: what story do you see in the painting? Look at the negative space (I had trouble with this; I didn’t see any negative space). Map one of the patient scenarios to the painting in a way that makes sense to you.

My own assumptions, and background, got in the way at times. I have a rather uncomfortable relationship with healthcare for a lot of reasons. I was hoping to find some way to become more effective at conveying my concerns, but the course focused exclusively on the other side of the picture, on receiving a story.

My main thought was: I wonder how possible any of this approach is in the current healthcare system, which focuses on efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Insurance companies and accountants have reduced primary care physicians to something like data entry clerks, and socioeconomic factors more than medical factors impact patient decisions.

I would look at this more as an in-service training unit rather than a course. Still, it was interesting, and worth the time required.

LitCrit: Yale OCW

Course: Introduction to Theory of Literature
Length: 26 50-minute lectures
School/platform: Yale (OCW)
Instructor: Paul H. Fry
Quote:

This is a survey of the main trends in twentieth-century literary theory. Lectures will provide background for the readings and explicate them where appropriate, while attempting to develop a coherent overall context that incorporates philosophical and social perspectives on the recurrent questions: what is literature, how is it produced, how can it be understood, and what is its purpose?

So here I was, at the end of my reading list and the extra reading list I patched on at the end, and I still had a few weeks to go until BASS 2018 dropped. Inspired by the Milton OCW I’d just finished, I thought it might be fun to play around with literary theory for a while. And it was – this is a really nice set of lectures.

I took a class similar to this one in college, but of course that was a very long time ago. I tracked down the textbook through my library, a thousand-page-in-tiny-print-on-onionskin compilation of Profound Thoughts from creation to last week (I had a book very much like this in college, too). Alas, I confess, I did very little of the reading. I’m not 20 years old any more (not that I was 20 years old in college, either; it took me a while to get there), after all.

The sequence was mostly chronological, apart from a little overview at the beginning. I liked the explicit labelling of the various phases, from language-based theories of New Criticism, Russian formalism, and the truly scary triplets Saussure, Levi-Strauss, and Derrida (I toyed with linguistics in college), to psychologically-based theories including Freud and Lacan, to cultural systems of post-modernism and the identity-based critics of the contemporary Academie.

I also very much liked the clever twist of including Tony the Tow Truck as the exemplar text evaluated across the systems. If you’re wondering how you missed this work of literary genius, well, it’s probably because you don’t have little kids. Tony the Tow Truck is a picture book for toddlers, clocking in at about 188 words total. In keeping with Russian formalism, Prof. Fry parsed it linguistically (the repeated “t” sounds common in folklore), psychologically (the narcissism of the repeated “I” sentences and the return to an earlier, safer state), socially (the snooty cars that won’t help Tony, and the friend that will), and in terms of identity and community (relationships). It’s kind of amazing. I wrote papers like this. I always thought it was sophistry.

It wasn’t my goal to come away with working knowledge of all the schools and theories; I just don’t have that kind of brain power any more. But I run into these things from time to time, and it’s nice to have it all in one place, where I can refer to it from time to time. I really like these lectures; they come with nicely edited transcripts. Of course, there are no tests or quizzes, and it’s purely a solo effort with no other students. I’ve tried to get others interested, but no one wants to play.

As luck would have it, right after I started, a bunch of moocs opened up, and I ended up with more books to read (I’m on a math kick at the moment). I’m glad I managed to keep going with this; it might even turn out to be useful in some way on future readings, now that I’ve been reminded of certain salient points of literary criticism.

Curtis Sittenfeld: Prep (Random House, 2005)

Ault had been my idea. I’d researched boarding schools at the public library and written away for catalogs myself. Their glossy pages showed photographs of teenagers in wool sweaters singing hymns in the chapel, gripping lacrosse sticks, intently regarding a math equation written across the chalkboard. I had traded away my family for this glossiness. I’d pretended it was about academics, but it never had been….I imiagined that if I left South Bend, I would meet a melancholy, athletic boy who liked to read as much as I did and on overcast Sundays we would take walks together wearing wool sweaters.

Lee Fiora, originally from South Bend, Indiana, transplanted to a high-end boarding school in Massachusetts, might just be the most unknowable first-person narrator I’ve ever read. Many of her comments ring so true to me, but somehow I still don’t get her; I feel a much stronger emotional connection with Gene from A Separate Peace, and was far more involved in Huey’s development as I read They Come in All Colors, even though my worldspace is much closer to Lee’s. After 400 pages of listening to her thoughts and seeing her actions, I still have no idea who she is.

A great example of this comes from the beginning of her sophomore year, about a third of the way through the book. Her English teacher has assigned an essay: write about something you care about, and take a stand. Lee writes an adequate essay about school prayer, but asterisks the title: “This is not an issue I truly care about but I believe it fulfills the assignment.” Girl could give master classes in passive aggressiveness. “You’re a cipher,” the teacher tells her, noting that other students want to be friends with her but she seems completely unengaged in anything. And, though it makes for somewhat frustrating reading, I can understand. I know what it is to feel like – and notice, that’s an interpretation, not reality – anything you say will just draw boredom, scorn, or rebuke. Thing is, she seems to be able to make friends – it’s just that they aren’t the friends she’s interested in.

Some light is shed on this at the very end of the book, when she, as an adult, recalls Martha, her roommate and best – maybe only – friend for three years

I never understood when I was at Ault why she liked me as much as I liked her. Even now, I’m still not sure. I couldn’t give back half of what she gave me, and that fact should have knocked off the balance between us, but it didn’t, and I don’t know why not. Later, after Ault, I reinvented myself – not overnight but little by little. Also had taught me everything I needed to know about attracting and alienating people, what the exact measurements ought to be of confidence and self-deprecation, humor, disclosure, inquisitiveness; even, finally, of enthusiasm. Also, Ault Had been the toughest audience I’d ever encounter, to the extent that sometimes afterward, I found winning people over disappointingly easy. If Martha and I had met when we were, say, twenty-two, it wouldn’t have been hard for me to believe she’d like me. But she had liked me before I became likable; that was the confusing part.

All the “what made me a success” stories I’ve ever read give great credence to these kinds of skills – not grades, or knowledge of any subject matter, or even popularity – and it seems Lee got a terrific education though she wasn’t able to apply it until much later.

The novel has a beads-on-a-string structure, one incident after another, with some resonance between them but not much. Within the beads there may be some tension and narrative drive, but there’s really no track on which the novel as a whole runs, other than the elapsing of four years of high school. I tried reading it as an observer novel – the story is about the other students – but that doesn’t work either, since we find out little about how they grow and change. No, the story is about Lee.

She feels awkward as a student, but in fact has fairly good social skills. She has friendly relations, if not friendships, with several students. She stumbles into a role cutting other students’ hair. She is the one called upon when a fellow student, her first-year roommate, attempts suicide. But it all seems far removed from her. Her closest relationship is with Martha, but only two extended conversations, bracketing the friendship, are revealed, making it seem like an arrangement of convenience rather than a close friendship. Even her eventual sexual relationship is something she enters into passively. Willingly, I should say, happily even, though it’s her partner who initiates and continues the relationship, who determines where and when – and, more importantly, where and when not.

Only one thing seems to really interest her: a classmate named Cross. She has an unexpected encounter with him as a freshman, then spends a couple of years thinking about him, avoiding looking like she’s paying any attention to him while focusing intently on everything he does.

One of the beads-on-a-string that interested me most was the game of Assassin, a kind of anonymous tag in which each student has to put a sticker on a target student, thus assassinating her and eliminating her from the game. Lee is really into this game (and maybe that’s why it stands out in my mind), and because she’s almost invisible to everyone, she does quite well at sneaking up on people. Eventually she finds a student, one of the boys, a challenge, and hides under a table to get close enough to tag him. Her entire motivation for his game, however, is the fantasy that she will eventually end up assassinating Cross. Her own assassination, what for anyone else would feel like a betrayal, is only a disappointment because she is out of the game before this happens.

The book is filled with great pithy observations that I might have said at some point along the way:

I always worried someone would notice me, and then when no one did, I felt lonely.
 
The interest I felt in certain guys then confused me, because it wasn’t romantic, but I wasn’t sure what else it might be. But now I know: I wanted to take up people’s time making jokes, to tease the dean in front of the entire school, to call him by a nickname. What I wanted was to be a cocky high-school boy, so fucking sure of my place in the world.
 
…nothing broke my heart like the slow death of a shared joke that had once seemed genuinely funny.
 
I believed then that if you had a good encounter with a person, it was best not to see them again for as long as possible lest you taint the previous interaction.
 
It struck me suddenly that my parents might be bewildered by me, the Ault version of me for whom it was a daring act to eat spaghetti.
 
…I had figured out early on how Aubrey liked me best: trying but not getting anything right. Or maybe not getting anything right but trying. Either way, the other person’s reaction was the only thing that ever counted to me…
 
The alcohol on his breath could have conjured up bus stations and old men with dirty clothes and bloodshot eyes, but because I was seventeen and a virgin and because I lived nine months a year on a campus of brick buildings and wooded hills and lovingly mown athletic fields, it’s conjured for me summer dances at country clubs, lives with wonderful secrets.
 
And then I realized that here, in sports, it was okay to show that something mattered to you.
 
My regret surged and billowed, as regret does in the middle of the night; everything had happened so quickly, the chance to have caused a different outcome was still so recent. … You had a window of opportunity. if you had used it, you probably would have embarrassed yourself, but it not using it, you wasted something irretrievable.

The last event of her senior year is the most emotionally packed and gripping: the school arranges for her, and a few other students not from the usual upper-crust prep school crowd, to give an individual interview to a NYT reporter. She thinks she’s just talking to an interested adult, and is shocked to see her words appear in the article as an indictment of boarding-school culture. Her first honest conversation in four years poisons her final week at a school; it’s telling that no one had any idea she felt isolated.

Although I had great sympathy for her – I once had a newspaper interview go bad, though nowhere near as bad and on a much smaller scale – I still kept thinking she was the one primarily responsible for her isolation. This, I think, is the reason for the disconnected-narrator approach: like her fellow students, I wanted to get to know her, but she, as narrator, kept me at arm’s distance.

I discovered this book through, of all things, the Odyssey. On Twitter, I follow classicist Prof. Emily Wilson, whose recent translation of Homer reveals much about other versions. She mentioned a blog post that looked at Odysseus as an unlikeable character. I went poking around that blog, written by Jaime Lustig and primarily focused on anime and manga, and found a delightful Favorite Books page. I recognized Sittenfeld’s name, since I’d recently read, and later came to more fully appreciate, her story “Gender Studies” in Pushcart. This is where I first got the idea to do a three-book “prep school” series, since I already had a recommendation for They Come in All Colors and was going to finish my planned summer reading with time to spare.

Of the novel, Jaime said, “It’s also the most perfect book about realizing that everything we thought was the fault of a world that doesn’t get us, is actually our fault and we missed so many opportunities to connect.” That’s a perfect description. And something for me to think about, as well.

Malcolm Hansen: They Come in All Colors (Atria, 2018)

I explained that the very notion of an immutable identity was a foreign concept to me. Everything was negotiable, and infinitely so. To be sure, I might have felt differently if the identity presently being forced on me conferred even a hint of admiration from my peers. But in point of fact, it was the subject of considerable derision. So I’d cast it off, and after having done so, I joined in on the fun. It came so easily to me precisely because I’d pulled that page right out of Mom’s old playbook. It was a time that she hardly cared to recall but that I remembered vividly. Ironically, she once recast herself as the person she needed to be to help me at a vulnerable moment in our lives, and now here I was doing pretty much the exact same thing. Now, come to find out, she’d had a crisis of conscience, albeit it too late to do me any good.

How does a child understand race? How does an eight-year-old understand racism when it’s part of his everyday life? How does he put together that 1) he tans easily but has wavy hair, 2) Mom is very tan and has curly hair, 3) Dad is white, and, and compute, What am I? in a world where “a person” just isn’t a good enough answer.

All Huey wanted was to go for a swim on a hot summer evening in Georgia, as he’d done in prior years. He didn’t know he’d turn the world upside down. He didn’t even know he was why the world was turned upside down, even as it flipped him on his head.

You are a bright boy, Huey. Tell me something. If the world went to hell in a handbasket tomorrow, does it make sense to you that it would all come down to this stupid little pool ?

This was not at all the book I expected it to be. Writer/reader/blogger Navidad Thelamour recommended it as follow-up to Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. I was expecting satire and prep school. As someone who seems to be somewhat tone-deaf to contemporary irony (I may be the only person who never understood what was so hilarious about Seinfeld), I have to take Navi’s word for it that this reads as satirical and ironic; to me, it’s straight-out grisly fact, unlike the wacky turns in Beatty’s novel. No, this was not the book I was expecting; the good news is, it’s a terrific book, and one I might have otherwise missed (thank you, Navi!).

Most of the story takes place in rural Georgia rather than the New York prep school that form the second timeline. In an informative interview with Thelamour, Hansen tells her he “initially underestimated the importance of the New York sections”; these were strengthened after encouragement from his editor.

It was very hard reading, both emotionally and cognitively. Emotionally, because of the confusion of 8-year-old Huey, and his later devastation as a teenager, over racism, pain which is so effectively protrayed it pervaded the air itself as I read. Cognitively, because crucial information is revealed with great subtlety. I must have doubled back to re-read in a half dozen places, thinking I’d missed something. This helps to understand the kind of confusion Huey lived in, overhearing things, being told one thing and seeing evidence for another. Although child narrators are always pretty unreliable, this one is doubly so, since truth has been obscured in an effort to protect him – until the town unobscures it for them.

I had no idea why Toby was with the people across the street. I was trying to figure it out. Aside from the obvious fact that he was colored and so were they. It felt like a betrayal – he’d known us just as long as he known any of them. He’s been with us for so, so long. And his father before him. Grandfather, too. After that, it’s got murky. Dad said people didn’t keep written accounts that far back. He made it sound like employment records were a modern invention.

And this is how we find out Dad’s people used to own Toby’s people; at least, that’s my interpretation, since very little is ever made explicit in this book. But it gets more complicated, because not only does Huey feel genuine affection for Toby, it turns out there’s a deeper connection, one that isn’t acknowledged until quite late in the book, and then is still a source of shame for the teenage Huey, still growing into his identity.

One of the many interesting subtexts of the book is that, while the racism of the South is more explicit, the racism of the North, even the sophisticated New York City, is just as deep. We begin at the fancy Claremont, a prep school eager to have Huey because he is “different, but not too different”. In other words, he counts as black for statistical purposes, but he isn’t scary-black. Huey’s mom, Peola, makes this more explicit: the only work she can find is cooking, cleaning, and child care for the rich family of a mattress mogul. We know she’s left Georgia behind, and has become more sociopolitically savvy – and more angry – as she’s found the same impediments to growth, but we don’t find out for quite a while exactly what precipitated the move.

Huey, on the other hand, is initially optimistic about his future during his first years at Claremont:

Zuk and I, on the other hand, had a different outlook. …Our job wasn’t to try to change the nature of things but to make sure we ended up on the winning side. ….I couldn’t fault Mom for being bitter about the opportunities she’d never had, but I wished that she could just be happy that all of that could be mine. We just had to let go of the past and embrace the golden future that being at a place like Claremont would ensure.
Oh. And race – well that just never seemed to come up. ….

Race never seems to come up, until it does, and then it turns out it was the elephant in the room all along.

The question of identity plays throughout. Is race a binary state? Must one be black or white? Is the “one drop rule” still in effect? The book is set in the 60s, which was before companies like 23AndMe or AncestryDNA could pin down exactly who has what blood. Turns out, white supremacists are using these tests to prove their purity, and have interesting ways ways of discounting results they don’t like. Huey has only what his parents tell him, what the people of Akersburg, GA tell him, and later, what his “friend” Ariel Zukowski tells him.

One side note: in Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel Imitation of Life, and the 1934 film of the same title, “Peola” was the name of the light-skinned daughter who tried to pass (that was the word for it then) as white, leaving her black mother behind, with tragic results. There’s a reference to this in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye by the character Pecola, a dark black girl who longs for whiteness, particularly blue eyes. In the film, the part of Peola was played by Fredi Washington, a biracial actress who refused to pass though her career suffered as a result. To travel a little further down the rabbit hole, when the film was remade in 1959, the character was renamed Sarah Jane and was played by Susan Kohner, generally considered “white” (whatever that means) though her mother was a Mexican-American actress. Whether Hansen deliberately incorporated this, I can’t be sure, but it fits so well I think he must have.

In one intense and pivotal scene late in the book, Peola tries to explain to Huey why he belongs at Claremont. She uses a metaphor new to me, one that I found immensely powerful as a response to the “hey, I never owned any slaves so don’t take it out on me” reaction to affirmative action:

It’s like one man steals a house from another man, and we say, fine. The authorities find the man guilty and send him to jail, and we say justice is served. But his son gets to keep the house. Okay? In short order, the son has a child and decides that he wants a second house. Except now, the man who’s had his house stolen finds himself competing for a home loan with guess who – the thief’s son. Only the thief’s son has a house to offer up as collateral against a second mortgage, and the man with whom he’s competing for the loan does not. Now, the banker doesn’t care one way or another about that first home. He only cares about getting his money back. And after all, the son didn’t steal the house that he lives in. His father did. So why should he be penalized unfairly? We all know that you can’t punish the son for the sins of the father. Which is why he gets to live in that first house. But I’ll be damned if he gets to use it to bootstrap his second home when there is still a man out there who has been robbed of his fair chance at his first!

Writing a book through the eyes of a child is tricky business. Sometimes Huey seems to be sophisticated beyond his years, while he remains clueless – perhaps willfully so – about race. Why doesn’t Mom ever come to the pool to see him swim? Why does Dad take him for ice cream so early in the morning, before anyone else is in the store? Who are these people on the bus, why are they here, what is SNCC, why do they want ice cream at that parlor so bad, why can’t they just go somewhere else? What really happened to Mr. Goolsbey’s shop, and what happened to Toby? I get the sense these are questions he isn’t sure he wants answered, adding to his cluelessness. Then he writes a poem, quite sophisticated for an eight year old, that evokes “Raisin in the Sun” – and reminded me that Plath’s poem, “Daddy”, was used as an epigraph – and shows why he might be selected for Claremont a few years later.

Yes, it’s hard to read. I kept thinking it reminded me a bit of my experience of reading Light in August several years ago during another hot, racist summer. But it’s very worth reading. I hope it finds the audience it deserves, the audience that deserves, that needs, it.

John Knowles: A Separate Peace (Harville Secker, 1959)

I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before. It seemed more sedate than I remembered it, more perpendicular and strait-laced, with narrower windows and shinier woodwork, as though a coat of varnish had been put over everything for better preservation. But, of course, fifteen years before there had been a war going on. Perhaps the school wasn’t as well kept up in those days; perhaps varnish, along with everything else, had gone to war.

I’ve always had an unexpected fondness for prep-school novels and movies. No, I didn’t go to prep school or boarding school or anything but plain old public school, yet I find the concentrated atmosphere of these stories works for me.

I have a couple of contemporary examples in the works for the next weeks, so I thought I’d take another look at the granddaddy of them all. Do kids still read this? It was on my summer reading lists throughout school; I think I finally read it in my teens, probably in the late 60s – yes, I read some of the books on the summer reading list, mostly the ones having to do with death. But now that I’ve re-read it, I don’t think I finished it; I think I stopped after the tree incident, because I don’t remember the Winter Carnival, or Leper’s “escape”, or really much of the book at all.

I certainly don’t remember it as gay. And yeah, now, in 2018, it reads very repressed-and-unspoken gay, in a way it couldn’t have read to me in 1968. Putting aside Gene’s repressed sexuality, it’s a novel about jealousy, about wanting what someone else has, about the grass being greener and all those typical teenage themes that last into adulthood. Competition, the foundational drive. Ethical failure, the engine of so much modern literature. Guilt, the universal emotion.

It’s pretty much a classic structure: the tree scene, far from being the end of the book, is merely the inciting incident upon which complications pile up. A dramatic climax – second cousin to a courtroom scene – uses recollection of hazy memories to create a violence that explodes by accident. The denouement that follows includes a major shift in tone, even in the face of one final dramatic reveal. And I get the sense that we’re never really returned to the present, from where the novel started as a recollection. The past is always present, for many of us, even 15 years on.

One of the things I noticed is that all of Finny’s vaunted athletic trophies, the prizes on which his status in Gene’s eyes as a sports superhero, seem to be of the “most improved” variety. It’s expressly stated that he doesn’t have any records in his sports, but he has awards for sportsmanship and cooperation and effort. I get the impression Finny isn’t really as great an athlete as everyone thinks he is. Gene’s jealousy, sad under any circumstances, becomes sadder when based on a mirage. Is it possible to see Finny at all – or is he all image, all energy, all beholder-created impression?

It’s also very much a novel rooted in WWII. The “separate peace” metaphor has its reference in a move seen as a betrayal. During WWI, Russia signed a separate peace accord with Germany, removing itself from the Tripartite Pact. That there was a change in regime – from Czar Nicholas II to Bolshevik rule – tempered the outrage somewhat, but during WWII fears of another reversal, of Russia pursuing a separate peace with Germany in spite of the German betrayal, emerged in a more complex situation.

But the separate peace of the novel has to do with less global matters. After Finny breaks his leg, he decides the war is fake news, sort of a Wag the Dog situation. The boys are facing the draft by the following summer, and have the question of enlistment before them at all times, a question that creates excitement and adventure, yes, but also anxiety concealed out of shame. By creating a separate peace on his school campus, they feel some reprieve from the dramatic induction into adulthood. But for Finny, it means something else: because of his injury, he’s ineligible for the military, so it’s easier for him to not feel left out by ignoring it all.

Do kids reading it now have the understanding of what the war meant, what the draft meant? I first read the novel during Vietnam, a very different war with very different home fires burning. And now, kids would be reading it in yet another war time: a war time almost as ephemeral as Finny’s peace mirage. Very few people, outside of military families and news hounds, are even aware that we’ve been at war for 15 years, that we’re currently involved in a half dozen nasty conflicts with no clear sides and plenty of ambiguous, and not-so-ambiguous, collateral damage. Is it possible to read the book the same way now as then? Is it any wonder it’s easier to read it as a gay novel, than to find a way to put oneself in a mindset of a prior historical setting?

And again, context, my obsession over the past year, becomes central to reading. Does context alter the book, or is that a reader flaw? Can we be aware of the original authorial intent, and still see new ways old messages reveal themselves? Haven’t relationships like Gene and Finny’s always existed – and haven’t they always been the same, yet always current?

So I’ll leave the marble stairs and oak panelling and musty rooms of Devon for a prep school of the 60s, and one of the 21st century; will I find the same thing, in different light?

Paradise Lost and other things Milton: MOOC & OCW

“Paradise Lost”, bas relief (ca.1330, predating the poem) by Lorenzo Maitani, Cathedral of Orvieto, Siena


Course: John Milton: Paradise Lost
Length: 4 weeks, 2-8 hrs/wk
School/platform: Dartmouth/edX
Instructor: Thomas H. Luxon
Quote:

….[L]earners will use the Milton Reading Room’s online resources and links to contribute to an ever-growing body of scholarship….
The annotations and glosses to Paradise Lost in the Reading Room not only help readers make their way through a notoriously difficult poem, they also provide links to the classical, biblical, religious, and historical works to which the poem so frequently refers. This makes informed engagement with Milton’s epic poem more possible than it ever has been.
___________________________

Course: Milton
Length: 24 50-minute lectures
School/platform: Yale OCW
Instructor: John Rogers
Quote:

This class is a study of Milton’s poetry, with attention paid to his literary sources, his contemporaries, his controversial prose, and his decisive influence on the course of English poetry. Throughout the course, Professor Rogers explores the advantages and limitations of a diverse range of interpretive techniques and theoretical concerns in Milton scholarship and criticism. Lectures include close readings of lyric and epic poetry, prose, and letters; biographical inquiries; examinations of historical and political contexts; and engagement with critical debates.

Back in February, I read a poem in Pushcart that heavily referenced Paradise Lost. I wrote something like “I wish there was a mooc on this poem, because I can’t read it alone.” And look what happened: Dartmouth must’ve heard me. And Yale must’ve known years ago.

The Dartmouth mooc was postponed from earlier this summer, and then got off to a rocky start when it opened with no content. Some of us started chatting on the message boards – several of us used various contact modalities to alert edX, and the course staff, of the problem – and one of the things that caught my attention was the Yale OCW. I should’ve realized it was there; I’ve gone through several of their OCWs on literature and philosophy. But there’s nothing but video lectures for OCWs, so I hoped the mooc would offer more.

As it turned out, the mooc was a broad overview of the major themes and techniques, consisting of a total of about 2 hours of videos in 15-minute stints. The additional work included annotating the poem for specific features (highlight indications it is an Epic, that Satan is a hero in the opening books, etc). This required using an annotation package that afforded the opportunity to see others’ annotations. I hate this sort of thing, so I skipped it. The other coursework was mandatory discussion posts, which I also skipped.

Since “check the box to get credit for having done the assignment” was the only means for grading, I could have, if I were a cheater, gotten an A. But I’m not a cheater, so I finished the course with a grade of… 0. Still, the lectures were worth listening to, as a way of orienting myself to the poem.

Then I headed for Yale.

Everything in an OCW depends on the lecturer; some people will find one person great, others will find the same prof boring or hard to listen to or whatever. I was very pleased with this. It was far more in-depth, as of course it would be, since there were 24 lectures each about 50 minutes. Transcripts were available for all lectures as well.

The course covered more than PL, which is one reason there was so much more material. Milton’s major writings were included, showing his development over time and his artistic and political leanings. The course emphasized how his biography was evident in his work, from his attitudes towards marriage and the Church to his political beliefs. Spoiler alert: dude was a bit of a radical. In fact, an extreme radical, since he called for beheading King Charles I, which eventually happened in the English Civil War. And, oh yeah, he had daddy issues, one of the recurrent phrases in Overly Sarcastic Production’s very sarcastic (and irreverent, and hilarious, but not inaccurate) video interpretation of the poem.

While the Dartmouth course was general and presented a standard Academy view of the poem, the Yale course offered a more detailed look, indicating where consensus existed and where various scholars, including the professor, had differing views.

I confess that while I read/listened to the shorter poems and PL, I did not read Paradise Regained or Samson Agonistes other than the sections quoted in the lectures. And obviously, I didn’t do any written coursework. A copy of the midterm and final were provided; they consisted of short quotes for identification and explanation of significance. A set of paper topics was also available, interesting to see, and do some brief consideration of a few of them.

I’m very glad to have had some guidance with this poem. I tried to tackle it back in February, but I found it nearly incomprehensible, even more so than the English translation of Dante I worked on a few years ago. Some things, I just need more help with, and I’m grateful these courses are available.

Erik Spiekermann & E. M. Ginger: Stop Stealing Sheep & find out how type works (Adobe, 2003)

In 1936, Frederic Goudy was in New York City to receive an award for excellence in type design. Upon accepting a certificate, he took one look at it and declared that “Anyone who would letterspace black letter would steal sheep.” This was an uncomfortable moment for the man sitting in the audience who had hand lettered the award certificate. Mr. Goudy later apologized profusely, claiming that he said that about everything.

Professionals in all trades, whether they be dentists, carpenters, or nuclear scientists, communicate in languages that seem secretive and incomprehensible to outsiders; type designers are no exception. Typographic terminology sounds cryptic enough to put off anyone but the most hard-nosed typomaniac. The aim of this book is to clarify the language of typography for people who want to communicate more effectively with type.

I’ve always been interested in fonts and typefaces (there is a difference, but I can never remember what it is) but I’ve never studied the details. Oh, I know what ascenders and descenders are, and I have some idea of what’s considered modern and what’s considered humanist, and in connection with manuscripts I’ve become a bit familiar with calligraphic scripts, but I’ve always wanted to know more details, take a more structured approach, understand the difference between Times New Roman and the dozens of look-alikes Word offers.

This book doesn’t really offer that kind of detail, but it was fun anyway.

It’s not the sort of book you sit down to read, but it’s not really a reference work either. It’s lived in my duffel and accompanied me on appointments and errands and bus rides, where I might have five or ten minutes. Reading text, fiction or non, in that way gets disorienting, and interferes with the flow of stories and ideas, but this book was ideally suited, since each double-layout page is a single unit. On the left is a full-page example, maybe an ad or a document or a form, and on the right is a brief description, a sidebar with details, and individual examples of various fonts.

It’s a very well-produced book. Though it’s small – trade paperback, about 179 pages – it’s unusually heavy because the paper is a heavy glossy weight. The illustrations are often in four color, always in two color. I got the 2nd edition (used), published in 2003, because it was a lot – a LOT – cheaper than the 3rd edition from 2013; there were some throwbacks (PostScript, dot matrix printers, CRTs were just fading from the scene) but I’m not particularly interested in those details anyway.

As a quick-fix amusement, it was a success. I still want to learn more about fonts, how they’re designed, the different effects created by small differences that I can’t even see, what makes a font “friendly” or “ominous”; I can see the difference, but have more trouble quantifying exactly how it’s created. But I’ll need another book for that. That’s ok, this one was perfect for bus reading.

Jesmyn Ward, ed.: The Fire This Time (Scribner, 2016)

It was then that I knew I wanted to call on some of the great thinkers and extraordinary voices of my generation to help me puzzle this out. I knew that a black boy who lives in the hilly deserts of California, who likes to get high with his friends on the weekend and who freezes in a prickly sweat whenever he sees blue lights in his rearview, would need a book like this. A book that would reckon with the fire of rage and despair and fierce, protective love currently sweeping through the streets and campuses of America. A book that would gather new voices in one place, in a lasting, physical form, and provide a forum for those writers to dissent, to call to account, to witness, to reckon. A book that a girl in rural Missouri could pick up at her local library and, while reading, encounter a voice that hushed her fears. In these pages she would find a wise aunt, a more present mother, who saw her terror and despair threading their fingers through her hair, and would comfort her. We want to tell her this: You matter. I love you. Please don’t forget it.

Introduction – Jesmyn Ward

In the months after Trayvon Martin’s murder and the trial that excused it, Jesmyn Ward turned to words. In particular, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time reminded her that, no matter what the world thinks, she had value. She felt it important, just as important now and maybe more so, that the message was conveyed, so she conceived this new anthology subtitled “A New Generation Speaks about Race”. She envisioned the work as consisting of three parts: past, present, future. But the work that came back to her was heavily weighted in the past and present. She interprets that, in part, as a reaction to the American reluctance to truly acknowledge the racist roots of our country, to see how the present is connected to the past. Too many times, there’s a tendency to say, Slavery ended in 1865, the Civil Rights Act went into effect in 1964, what more do you want? Plenty.

One of the most shocking essays (to someone who wears white privilege) is “Black and Blue” from Garnette Cadogan. He was born in Jamaica, and developed a fondness for long walks early in life. It wasn’t always easy to navigate the neighborhoods of Kingston – wearing the wrong color in the wrong place could get him killed – but he adapted. When in 1996 he moved to New Orleans at 18 for college, he was warned about the dangerous neighborhood, and laughed it off; he knew how to adapt. “What no one had told me was that I was the one who would be considered a threat.” And there follows the collection of incidents, familiar to us from the stories we see on Twitter every day, of being accused, handcuffed, questioned, searched, and otherwise harassed by police for Walking While Black. I don’t know why it surprised me.

But it did. This was one of the most powerful recitals of this particular theme, possibly because he had imagined himself as a new Tom Sawyer exploring the Mississippi on foot; it didn’t work out that way. And it wasn’t just New Orleans; this continued when he moved to New York, and hoped to follow in the footsteps of Whitman, “descend to the pavements, merge with the crowd, and gaze with them.” I kept thinking, he’s lucky he survived. Maybe I can never truly appreciate how dangerous Walking While Black can be. Is this Freedom?

Emily Raboteau continues the legal jeopardy theme in “Know Your Rights!” by photographing and cataloguing a series of murals in New York realistically depicting street scenes of black people being arrested, cuffed, frisked, or questioned by police. The captions are stark: “Demand a lawyer and don’t say anything until you get one.” “You have a right to observe and film police actions.” Set against this is the Ben Sargent cartoon titled “Two Americas”, featuring a white boy going out to play and being advised by mom to take his jacket, and a black boy getting instructions “so intricate, leery, and vexed a warning that her words obstruct the exit”: “Keep your hands in sight at all times, don’t make any sudden moves, don’t mouth off, don’t wear a hoodie…” By the way, the black boy still has to worry about neighborhood crime. He just has to worry about the police as well.

One of the articles from the Legacy section is Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ paean to Phillis Wheatley, kidnapped from Africa as a child in the 18th century and sold here to the Boston family of Susannah Wheatley. She learned to read and write, and became the first published African American poet. The Stanford mooc on Pre-Modern Women Poets included a unit on her work. I’m guessing the course used the Margaretta Matilda Odell’s biography as a guide, but Jeffers discovers this work may be far less authoritative than it claims. It’s a fascinating look at how a black woman’s life story might be stolen.

I had expected this book to be pretty depressing, and of course it’s infuriating that such injustice is excused every day. But it’s also quite beautiful, particularly in the Legacy portion: a look at Baldwin’s house in France, at the black bodies buried beneath an intersection in New Hampshire or Rhode Island. The final message is one of Jubilee: we have a right to be here. I’ve never been asked to defend my place. I wonder if I could. I wonder why some people have to, and some don’t.

A comfort? I can see that. I remember, in some of my darkest times, not wanting cheer and hope, but just wanting to know I’m not the only one who feels pain. This book gives Ward’s imagined boy in California, the girl in Missouri, the comfort of good company. It’s not justice, not by a long shot, that’s still work we need to do; but maybe it’s enough to get through one lonely, sad night.

Anis Shivani: Anatolia and Other Stories (Black Lawrence Press, 2009)

Over the next hour, as the natural light declined further, she began to see the painting in all sorts of ways forbidden to her before. It struck her for the first time that paintings ought to be appreciated in their natural habitats for some period of time, then let go of, consigned to the mists of time and memory …

As I’ve been completing and blogging the reading list I compiled a couple of months ago, I’ve been listing the reasons I chose to read each book. I picked this one for an odd reason: my blogging buddy Jake, a big fan of some of Shivani’s essays, didn’t like it. Jake and I often agree on stories, but we just as often disagree, and that’s the case here: with a couple of exceptions, I greatly enjoyed the stories in this collection. I’m pretty sure I didn’t get everything I could have out of it, but, like the painting that changes as the natural light shifts, I suspect I’ll be recalling some of them quite frequently.

I can easily see why Jake takes issue with some of the stories. Often, the plot seems like a scaffold, existing only to give a place for characters to voice their opinions – voice, not discuss, since there’s rarely any interaction. It’s just that this doesn’t bother me at all. I’m also not concerned that Shivani’s personal views are front and center in most of the stories. First, I’m not that familiar with him, beyond his anti-workshop essay (which was in one of the first Pushcarts I blogged, but before I blogged anything but fiction) and a rather startling fairly recent article in Salon, voicing his longstanding argument against identity politics.

I’m not qualified to assess either opinion, but I find it interesting in the light of the Salon article that so many of the characters in the stories find it impossible to assimilate into the dominant culture, not because they aren’t willing, but because they simply aren’t accepted. The most stark occurrence of this is in “Manzanar”, where an interned American of Japanese descent during WWII speaks quite bluntly of the problem: “The wind groans a dirge for time lost to fatal error. How was it we thought we could become fully American, one hundred percent American, unassailably patriotic American, and get away with the illusion for so long?” This echoed for me the line spoken by Mr. Dussel in The Diary of Anne Frank: “I always thought of myself as Dutch.”

I encountered a review of the book that complained about the characters being “stuck”, of the lack of change in the stories. I can’t find that review now, however; I don’t think I made it up or dreamed it, since I doubt it would have occurred to me, but once I thought about it, I realized this was indeed the case in all but a couple of the pieces. This goes along with the “plot is a structure to hang philosophizing on” approach, I think, and again, while it’s probably a valid complaint, it’s just not something that bothers me.

Nowhere is this lack of change more prominent than in “Conservation”, one of my favorite stories. A conservator at a small Boston museum goes to great lengths to smuggle a painting out and take it home with her, in order to rescue it from the restoration plans of her superior to remove the imperfections that were not from accumulated damage, but were part of the original work: “Why should a lowly latter-day conservator go against the master’s intentions and try to cure the painting of its alleged defects by removing all hint of anomaly and conflict from the surface of the painting?” The brought to mind the enormously complex Japanese concept of wabi, an affinity for a natural state rather than artificial perfection, which I have corrupted to “the flaw that perfects”.

I know so little about art, but the recent History of Architecture mooc I took acquainted me with different views on building preservation: whether, in view of the frequent changes to buildings in ancient times, it makes sense to lock down a building’s structure by declaring it a historic landmark, whether recreating a city after the destruction of war erases something important, and the unusual point of view of Jorge Otero-Pailos, an artist who removed and preserved years of soot from various structures.

But in the end, the smuggler changes her mind and returns the painting, and it is as if nothing has happened. The stuffy European decides to go back to Europe where his stuffiness will be appreciated, and the director continues her plans to make the museum more appealing to a modern audience to increase funding. The lack of change was perhaps the point; there was that moment of seeing the painting change in the fading light, a moment of rash courage that existed, then was retracted. And, more important to me than any narrative drive, I got something of an education in attitudes towards art conservation. I’m never happier than when a story teaches me something, plot or no plot.

The most Shivanian (can that be a word, please?) story is “Go Sell It On The Mountain”, a takedown of Bread Loaf-style writing conferences powered and paid for by hope and vanity. I happen to know someone who went to a session, under the same conditions as the narrator (you pay your couple of grand, you get to workshop with other hopefuls and breathe the air of Success); he was quite enthusiastic about the experience, and I adored the story he wrote as a result (however, I was in the throes of a major crush at the time, so my judgment may be skewed). The Director of the fictional contest, seen as sort of the Archbishop of American Writing Programs, has a mission: he is, very much like the popularity-oriented art curator in “Conservation”,

… bent on cleaning up the filth and decadence in American writing, of which tidying up the Conference was a necessary though minor component. Professionalisation, standardisation, systematization , these were his obsessions, from the administering of contests to the editing of manuscripts, and his aim was no lower than rigorous enforcement of the rule of law to the three hundred and fifty writing programs in the country, to the extent his influence had any meaning. “The quirky personal element has been to romanticized. I want to establish the business of writing” …

I know very little about MFA programs or literary publishing, but I can tell you what happened when moocs got standardized by best-practices teams and slick instructional design departments. The best ones, to me, were put together with spit and glue back in the early days, by professors who felt a mission to share their excitement about their field. Their innovations – live sessions with call-in and tweet-in participation, 25-minute videos thoroughly exploring a single thought, message boards that encouraged students to connect and teach each other – have all been discarded as ineffective and inefficient in favor of the profitable development of mcMoocs and marketing them as products.

Oddly, I didn’t connect much with the Bread Loaf story, perhaps because it’s been redone several times. That’s a little unfair, like complaining that Shakespeare wrote in clichés. But here’s where I get why pontificating fiction is less popular now: whereas the story’s heart was to show the arrogance of the Director against the desperate hope of the newbie, with a couple of supporting characters for ballast (those in the know must’ve had a lot of fun solving the Roman à clef aspects), it felt like everyone was operating by a script not their own. I compare this to something like Elizabeth Tallent’s “Narrator” which has characters operating by their own beacons, not as participants in a morality play, and I felt the difference.

Another story that showed a similar locked-in quality was “Profession”. It was more than anything else an outline of different approaches to literary education, by way of a husband and wife at the University of Wisconsin. He, of “common sense” and the traditional approach to literature, is fading into the woodwork, while she, offering talks on the hermeneutics of a Mexican restaurant menu (forgive me, but I’d love to hear this), has become a superstar. She lives across campus, and he visits on weekends; they’ve just adopted a Vietnamese orphan, and he’s trying to figure out how to be a father while she’s just breezing along doing the literary equivalent of circus tricks. “Without compromise, there was no family,” he notes. But there’s compromise and there’s absurdity.

One of the things that pricked up my ears on this story was his frequent descriptions of her as “petite.” I wonder if he’s trying to make her smaller, or is trying to convince himself she is not the Sun and he does not have to revolve around her. Or if he’s just hung up on weight.

Another moment that stopped me in my tracks was a look at his despair: “Arthur couldn’t even pretend that teaching mattered. In four decades, had he been able to sway a single student to his point of view?” Is that the point of teaching, or is teaching about showing students how to find their own point of view, how to distinguish between wheat and chaff, how to discover what they value most versus least? Are we seeing two extremes here, with the golden mean – the compromise – lost in the egos and struggle for power in an academic system where, as many have said, the stakes are so small?

“Texas” also is, in my view, a plotless story that nevertheless has some interesting undercurrents. It consists of the musings of Amy, babysitter to a high-flying Malaysian oil engineer’s family. The interesting detail is that the engineer works at Enron, obviously before the fall (the story was published in 2006, well after the shit hit the fan). “Amy felt second-class in her own country.” That’s the double-bind of the immigrant, isn’t it: if you’re a highly trained engineer or doctor or software designer, you’re taking jobs away from Americans, but if you’re untrained, you’re not good enough to be here.

“Gypsy” gives another example of the difficulty of living among yet apart. A young girl from a Rom family is about to be promised into marriage, and she’s not happy about it. She has non-Rom friends, and wants to go to school, have a career, but her father, horribly old in his 30s, is counting on her bride price to settle a debt. As it happens, she goes through with it, but her husband comes to an unexpected early end, so she gets to pick up her life after all. “I’ve shed many generations of weight off my frail shoulders, without having betrayed anyone.” A little deus-ex-machina, but it’s an engrossing story, one of the few that has a relatively genuine progression of events. I ended up caring about her, whereas most of the other characters in the book were exemplars rather than people to me.

I found “Repatriation” to be interesting for only one reason: context. I’ve been obsessed with context lately, since most of the books in my summer reading project are from Before and now we are in the After (if you don’t know Before or After what, well, you haven’t been paying attention). I’m sure when Shivani wrote this story in 2006, it was a bizarre little apocalyptic tale about kicking brown and black people out of America, not something that was actually happening.

I found the title story to be pleasantly frustrating. Because of my unfamiliarity with the norms and vocabulary of the 17th century Ottoman empire, it was a little difficult to follow, but basically concerned a Jewish merchant in some kind of legal trouble; he expected it would go away, but the powers that be had other ideas, and while it didn’t go as badly for him as it could have, neither did it go away. What interested me were two moments towards the end of the story: first, a casual conversation turns into an invitation to a Muslim gathering of some sort. “I’m a Jew,” he replies with a sort of amused scorn. His interlocutor indicates surprise; he’s not wearing a kipah, but our merchant doesn’t think that’s so unusual at all. He’d even bought a ring, thinking he might convert to Islam and marry a colleague’s daughter. But given the legal outcome (which I’m quite hazy on), he reconsiders: “Perhaps there was beauty after all in keeping things separate, not letting odd combinations mix and match at will.” I just ran into a similar sentiment in The Sellout, with a farming metaphor to emphasize the different kinds of conditions various species might need, and compared it to HBCUs and single-sex schools, both of which have shown some good results.

The story becomes chilling in the last paragraph, when he declares, “What had happened to him was an individual incident with no universal meaning.” I find it odd a Jew would think such a thing, but I suppose it had been a few centuries since the expulsions from Spain and England, and it seems the restrictions of 15th century Italy might not be that much of a factor in his consciousness. But just wait, dear man, until the 20th century. And the 21st.

The final story, “Tehran”, seemed very different to me. It’s a reconstruction, in fragmented leaps, of a suicide bombing at a café. The bomber turns out to be, oh dear, a frustrated writer whose work, while brilliant, has been censored. The innocent people he takes with him are people he would probably like: a caring schoolteacher trying to help women continue their education in spite of restrictions, and a young religious court official trying to reconcile his beliefs, and the poetry he loves, with post-Revolutionary Iran. It’s a beautiful, sad story, and a tragic reminder that no one has suffered more from terrorism and Islamic extremism than Muslims.

I’m very glad I read this collection. I wish this post did it justice; I find I have so much to say – and I’ve left out some things – I just haven’t been able to organize it properly. But obscurity has its benefits; when I make a fool of myself, the witnesses are few. It’s full of things to think about, and, like the painting, I suspect I will see it differently as time passes. I hope it will be with more wisdom and understanding.

Chinelo Okparanta, Happiness, Like Water (Mariner, 2013)

“Happiness is like water,” she says. “We’re always trying to grab onto it, but it’s always slipping between our fingers.” She looks down at her hands,. “And my fingers are thin,” she says. “With lots of gaps in between.”

She holds out the object in the space above my thighs. “For you,” she says to me. “A wedding favour,” she says.
I reach out to accept. She places the object into my cupped hand, and then she covers my hand with her own. Our hands linger in mid-air that way, mine in hers. Then I pull away, because the whole thing feels not quite like a celebration, something like unadorned acceptance, just a bit short of joyful.
And I think that perhaps all this will do. The waterfowls are still quacking, and the sun is high in the sky. The river is still glowing in shades of silver and gold. Grace is sitting next to me, and I can’t help thinking that perhaps the verge of joy is its own form of happiness.

~~ Grace

Rooted in domestic drama – marriages, families, and the conflicts that arise – the stories in this collection look at women struggling to cup their hands around happiness, and finding, in most cases, it runs right through their fingers. Perhaps the lucky ones learn to live with that, the verge of happiness. Or perhaps they’re the unlucky ones.

I chose this book because I’ve quite enjoyed the work of several other Nigerian women over the past few years. Okparanta has generated a lot of buzz, and I was curious to see the kind of scope a collection about nine different Nigerian women could generate. The first five stories are set in Nigeria; the sixth concerns a woman preparing to emigrate the US, and the last four show Nigerian women after migration here. But they are all different and face different issues.

“On Ohaeto Street” gives us a somewhat reluctant bride who discovers her husband loves his car more than he loves her, forming an instant bond with a lot of American women right there. It’s told by a relator-narrator, a term I’m inventing because I lack the formal training to use the proper terminology. It’s something like an observer narrator, but O-Ns are typically involved in the action of the story, or at least appear in it, and witness the action themselves; the relator-narrator is repeating what someone else has told them (yes, I have finally taken to plural objects, it makes sense, and face it, language changes or I’d be writing in proto-Indo-European). The tone is a slightly brittle repressed humor rather than outright horror or condemnation, which gives it an interesting twist. The reveal of the narrator’s identity at the end underlines the voice.

“Wahala!” is the story of a wife whose family is getting impatient for her to be fruitful and multiply. Nobody cares that she has pain with each act of intercourse; they keep trying different things to make her fertile, and hear her moans of pain as sounds of delight. It’s incredibly sad.

“Fairness” deals with the obsession, even among African women, with lighter skin, and the lengths they will go to for a few shades. The semantic confusion between the two meanings of “fair” elevates the story from movie-of-the-week territory: “She is now one of the others, one of the girls with fair skin…. We are thirsty for fairness.” “Story, Story!” is a kind of urban legend turned gruesome, something like the Psycho version of Arsenic and Old Lace.

“Runs Girl” didn’t interest me much at first, but I was drawn in as the emotional complexity increased. It seems a Run Girl is similar to an escort in the US. In this case, the girl only gets into it, at the urging of a friend, because her mother desperately needs medical care they can’t afford. The ironic twist comes when mom figures out what happened – only once – so refuses to use the money for anything. The story turns to a meditation on forgiveness, one of my always-favorite notes:

And sometimes I think that if I were to be placed in a valley full of bones, I would create a new Eve, create her from a new set of bones. And I would lay sinews upon her dry bones, and flesh upon the sinews. And I would cause there to be a noise, a clicking noise, and everything would fall in place. And I would cause breath to enter in, and this new Eve would live.
And this new Eve would walk amongst the trees of the garden. And she would drink from the waters of the river of the garden. And again, she would eat the forbidden fruit. But she would not be cast away from the garden, because she would be given the opportunity, just once, to ask for forgiveness. And she would be forgiven.

~~ Runs Girl

I’m just about to begin a study of Paradise Lost, and this question of the opportunity to repent fits in nicely.

“America” is another story that starts out as one thing and becomes another. It also forms a transition point in the book, from stories set in Nigeria to those of immigrants to the US, as Okparanta was at the age of 10. Nnenna is a teacher whose primary reason for emigration is to be with her girlfriend in a place they won’t be jailed or executed for loving each other, but of course she needs to come up with something better than that, so decides to obtain another degree, this time from an American college. The story slowly morphs into the ecological and social impact of Shell Oil on Nigeria, a topic on which I confess I am ignorant, but I’d be surprised if exploitation and ecological ruin was not involved just as described. During the visa process, Nnenna starts to consider “getting lost in America”, otherwise known as the brain drain. It’s a thoughtful story with a lot to consider.

“Shelter” and “Designs” are, to me, less developed stories, offering fairly stereotypical views of domestic abuse and adultery, respectively. But then we come to “Grace”, which ends with the lead-off quote above. It’s a story of an American professor and the Nigerian student who develops a crush on her, a story of boundaries and keeping limits, but also about the outskirts of happiness. While it seemed too long for what is, after all, a fairly routine plot, I was quite taken with the ending, and realized the search for happiness, women hanging on to the fringes of happiness, is the connecting thread for the collection.

“Tumours and Butterflies” was the most complex story of the bunch, recapitulating some themes of belonging and exile, domestic abuse, forgiveness, and the outskirts of happiness. I have to wonder about the title, which is, well, awful, but the story is engrossing. There’s a passage about a doormat that captures the subdued eddies running through the piece:

… I recognize the doormat, the same one from nearly a decade ago. But it’s still looking brand new, not fraying at the edges at all. I wonder how often doormats are replaced. I wonder if they have just gotten into the habit of replacing it with the exact same type. I wonder if maybe there is just no one stepping on the mat, perhaps it is always just the two of them, never any guests, never any extra footsteps.

~~ Tumours and Butterflies

Okparenta’s 2016 novel, Under the Udala Trees, combines the stormy Nigerian civil war period with the protagonist’s illicit relationship with another woman. It’s probably not a novel I’ll read, but I continue to enjoy the voices of Nigerian women through their books and stories.

Kiese Laymon: How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance (Bolden, 2013)

…I wanted to produce a book with a Mississippi blues and gospel ethos. And I wanted to shape the book in the form of some of my favorite albums. I thought of the essays as tracks. I thought of some of the pieces in the book as songs with multiple voices and layered musicality. I thought of ways to bring the ad lib, riff, collaboration, and necessary digression to the page. I wanted a book that could be read front to back in one sitting. I wanted to explore the benefits and burdens of being born a black boy in America without the predictable literary rigidity. And I wanted young black Southerners, particularly, to generate art in response to this text while working with the essays at being human. The hardest part, of course, is that I wanted to be honest about my family, my nation, my region, my memory, and me.

~~ Prologue

I can see the music album form of this book: the essays take different forms, different moods; they use overt collaboration in the form of a series of letters between family, and between artists who bring a different view to the same theme of growing up with something to say and not a lot of permissible room to say it in. Like some of my earlier reads, this essay collection was published in 2013, a time before the current era; now it seems prescient, but if anyone had been paying attention back then, we would’ve seen that MAGA has always been part of this country, waiting in corners where most of America didn’t bother looking for the day when it could again take center stage.

The collection is rooted in family and tours through music, literature, politics, and growing up amidst it all. We start out with a prologue, a letter to the now-dead Uncle Jimmy, who served as inspiration and bright warning light on the road that goes nowhere good: “I didn’t want you to know that I wanted you to be better at being human…. I knew that you were slowly killing yourself. And, predictably, I knew that I would become you. I hated you and me both for that.”

In “The Worst of the White Folks”, everything is set in apposition: a schoolmate is the picture of “American responsibility” one day and a bratty kid the next; the country debates the violence in Chicago on Twitter in 2012 while cousin Jermaine’s sister is murdered and he’s found guilty of manslaughter. The title essay recounts Laymon’s college years, from Millsaps to Jackson State to Oberlin, and how close he came to dying on so many occasions, how many guns were aimed at him, including by his mom and himself:

I know that as I’ve gotten deeper into my late twenties and thirties, I have managed to continue killing myself and other folks who loved me in spite of me. I know that I’ve been slowly killed by folks who were as feverishly in need of life and death as I am. The really confusing part is that a few of those folk who have nudged me closer to slow death have also helped me say yes to life when I most needed it. Usually, I didn’t accept it. Lots of times, we’ve taken turns killing ourselves slowly, before trying to bring each other back to life. Maybe that’s the necessary stank of love, or maybe — like Frank Ocean says — it’s all just bad religion, just tasty watered down cyanide in a styrofoam cup.

~~ The Worst of the White Folks

“Our Kind of Ridiculous” recounts a period Laymon spent writing his Master’s thesis in Pennsylvania and meeting white poverty in the person of Kurt who gives him “that gift that a number of white folks I’d met love to give black folks at the strangest times, the gift of being decidedly different from all them other niggers.” Oh, yeah the “you’re one of the good ones” thing. It comes in flavors other than racism – gender, queerness, nationality, religion, even career choice – but it’s never so pernicious as when bestowed by the root and cause. Then we hear of the incident outside Hershey, where Laymon and his girlfriend are pulled over on the way home from a Lilith Fair concert while driving a Geo Metro, for god’s sake. It’d be funny if people weren’t dying in circumstances like this.

There’s a chapter on hip hop that completely goes by me. Hey, what can I say. I stopped paying attention to popular music in 1970 when the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel broke up, and the only contemporary music I hear these days is on TV and movie soundtracks. Yet “Eulogy for Three Black Boys Who Lived”, the triptych on Michael Jackson, Bernie Mac, and Tupac, was greatly moving. “Echo” is exactly that: a reverberation of letters between five black men – five highly successful black men from a variety of fields and backgrounds – talking about family and love and figuring out how to heal. I found it interesting that they disagree with the “it’s the lack of fathers” narrative; they focus more on the need for love, in the home, the community, the country.

While not really about music, “Kanye West and HaLester Myers Are Better at Their Jobs…” looks at how the music industry affects how the community views women. He points out the conundrum that is Kanye: while he’s standing up for Beyoncé and the drowning people of NOLA, he’s also making millions off misogyny, an attitude that’s contagious and seeps into the lives of real woman. The essay rotates around a rhetorical question: does he, does any man, deserve to ever have his hand held by a woman?

“Reasonable Doubt and the Lost Presidential Debate of 2012” is another of those prescient moments, but it’s only prescient because some people have been here before; it’s part of their culture, the culture white people want to forget and gloss over. From Laymon’s mom, a PoliSci prof, to the corner barbershop, they know the game is fixed:

Mama eventually sighs and says again, “Kie, people who never learned to lose will do anything to see us not win. When they lose to Obama, they’ll figure out a way to win anyway. It’s just too much.”
…I’m playing it off, imagining the celebrations that will follow the election of our first black President. But not even deep down, though, I know Mama is right.
We know Mama is right.
Obama will win. We will win. Then we will continue to lose. And the right questions will never be honestly asked or answered. And it’s all just too much.

~~ Reasonable Doubt and the Lost Presidential Debate of 2012

And then there’s “You are the Second Person”, the most directly writerly essay in the book. This essay is, by the way, the reason I chose to read this book; I read it some time ago. I was drawn to it by my appreciation for the second person voice, and discovered a layer of word play (throughout the story, several overheard conversations start with “You are the second person who…”. But it’s really about the nasty side of publishing, the exploitation, the whitewashing, the eagerness to jettison artistic intent and execution in favor of a bland work that reaps profits. It’s how voices of color, of queerness, of otherness, get muted. It’s the story of Laymon’s first novel, Long Division, which languished on agents’ desks for a couple of years while he was pressured to rewrite out the racial politics, to make it more palatable to the projected audience of white readers, because southern black boys don’t read fiction. Maybe they don’t read it because nobody’s writing anything they want to read. The novel was eventually published intact, time travel, metafiction, racial politics, and all. I’m very curious. His memoir Heavy is set for release this October, but I think this novel is the one I’ll add to my list for the next reading round.

And we end near where we began, with letters to family, this time between Laymon and his mom. I like that technique of circling back to finish off a piece; I like the sense of closure, of wholeness and unity it brings to a work that, because it’s a collection, could seem fragmented. This reads like a single work; yes, the style changes throughout, and there is variety, but all in the service of a single theme: moving from slowly killing himself and others in America, to health. May the journey continue – for all of us.

David Litt: Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years (HarperCollins, 2017)

The list of Things Obamaworld Taught Me could go on for several pages, I learned that decisions are only as good as the decision-making process. That generosity is a habit and not a trait. That all human beings, even presidents, look goofy chewing gum.
But here, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is the single most valuable lesson I learned in public service: There are no grown-ups, at least not in the way I imagined as a kid. Once you reach a certain age, the world has no more parents. But it contains a truly shocking number of children. These children come in all ages, in all sizes, from every walk of life and every corner of the political map.
And this is the reason I’m most grateful for my time in Obamaworld: For eight formative years, often against my will, I was forced to act like an adult.

I chose to read this book because I thought it would be a comfort. The book is exactly what I’d expected: a series of anecdotes, many humorous or self-deprecating, some inspiring, from Litt’s experience in various communications positions at and around the White House during the Obama presidency. I was surprised to learn how many different forms this could take. It was fun reading.

Yet, I wasn’t comforted. The difference between then and now – what it was like to not feel ashamed of the President of my country, the different rules that apply now, and how those rules seemed to change without any mass consensus, but merely on the whims of a small group that decided power was the only thing that mattered – left me feeling kind of miserable. It’s the same sensation I’ve been having lately when trying to watch West Wing episodes to keep up with Joshua Malina’s weekly podcast: poking at this open wound just isn’t much fun.

That’s not the book’s fault. As I said, it was good reading. Litt goes from awkward newbie to experienced hand, from the confusion of naïveté to the exhaustion of a crazy job under impossible circumstances, and comes out of it with his hope intact.

That quote Sarah Palin used so snarkily in 2010 – “How’s that hopey changey thing going fo ya?” – creates a zip line for the story to travel, as Litt considers, at various points, just how it is going.

…[I]f you ignore her mocking tone and that annoying dropped G, it’s a good question. I spent the lion’s share of my twenties in Obamaworld. Career-wise, it went well. But more broadly? Like so many people who fell in love with a candidate and then a president, the last eight years have been an emotional roller coaster. Groundbreaking elections marred by midterm shellackings. The exhilaration of passing a health care law followed by the exhaustion of defending it. Our first black president made our union more perfect simply by entering the White House, but a year from now he’ll vacate it for Donald Trump, America’s imperfections personified….
How has it all worked out?
….
I had knocked on doors and driven naked. I had organized a county and scrubbed Janice Maier’s table till it gleamed. I sang the Golden Girls theme song in the Oval. I watched a tiny man surf Jesse Jackson’s coat. In a convention hall in Charlotte, I met a mom from Arizona who would never stop fighting for her little girl. I was disillusioned more times than I thought possible. I was reinspired more times than I could count. I navigated Healthcare.gov for a woman, the highest test of love. I helped break the Internet. I wrote one perfect speech. I found a salmon in the toilet and was caught half-naked on Air Force One and told the president he looked like Hitler to his face.

If any of those niblets interest you – and come on, how can you not wonder about most of them – you’ll find this book a lot of fun to read. And you, too, may forget the open wound for a few minutes when you find yourself replaying the “Luther the Anger Translator” bit from the last SOTU, just for the fun of it.

Temple, Tabernacle and Medicine: a pair of medieval Jewish manuscript mini-moocs

Courses:
1) The Tabernacle in Word & Image: An Italian Jewish Manuscript Revealed
and
2) The History of Medieval Medicine through Jewish Manuscripts
Length: self-paced, each takes about 2 hours total
School/platform: Penn/edX
Instructors: Alessandro Guetta, Y. Tzvi Langermann
Quote:

1) This mini-course introduces the use of early modern manuscripts for intellectual history—that is, the history of how ideas and the communication of those ideas changes over time…. explore this manuscript, its editions, and how it opens a window into Italian Jewish intellectual life only possible by attention to the physical manuscript
2) This mini-course is a general introduction to both to medieval medicine and to the value of using manuscripts…. [Professor Y. Tzvi Langermann] will not only walk the student through the basics of medical knowledge training and practice in the Jewish Middle Ages and beyond, but he will also show how clues gleaned from the particular elements of a manuscript (such as marginal notes, mistakes, and handwriting) allow us to learn a great deal that we could not have gleaned from a pristine printed version.
(both) No previous knowledge of Jewish history, intellectual history, or manuscript studies is required.

Short version: a terrific pair of lectures for anyone interested in what historians can learn from manuscripts, or medieval Jewish history, science, and culture.

These two mini-moocs aren’t so much courses as they are highly focused single lectures, a little over an hour each, on specific documents and how they reveal not just the content of the documents, but the history and norms of the time. That may sound a bit abstract, but the details explored are fascinating: everything from the interrelations of various cultures in the late medieval period, to linguistic differences, to attitudes towards religious practice.

The first mooc examines a pair of manuscripts describing the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and the Tabernacle (a temporary and portable version used before the Temple was built, particularly during the forty years the Hebrews wandered around the Sinai). The second mooc looks at a codex with three different manuscripts on medieval medical practices, and uses these as a way to trace the flow of ideas from Galen to the Islamicate to Europe.

Now, granted, these aren’t “oooh, pretty” manuscripts, the illuminated gospels and breviaries lettered in precise calligraphy. These manuscripts are far more about content than style. But, when examined and described by those who know what to look for, they turn out to be just as interesting as those with artistic flourishes.

Both professors are historians – one of intellectual history, one of medicine – so the focus was on what the manuscripts can tell us about those areas. It isn’t a matter of “in this year so-and-so did this” but a more general history, both in terms of time and scope. For example, as the Talmud had been banned in Italy and bootleg fragments were only intermittently available, different excerpts were added to various versions of the Temple manuscript. While the medical texts list drugs, they do so in Arabic and Hebrew, so marginal notes and end-page glossaries include local dialect vocabularies for practitioners who need to buy these substances from Italian vendors.

One of my favorite segments explored the purpose of documenting the physical appearance of the Temple. The work was an attempt to synthesize a variety of sources into a single description. But why? Prof. Guetta offers three possible factors: the development of “a historical mentality”; a growing awareness of dimensional perspective due to the constant exposure to flourishing Italian architecture of the period, and a reevaluation of the textual description of the Temple in light of that development; or a religious motivation, coming primarily from a specific Protestant group that was more interested in the accurate reconstruction of the Temple as a way to bring about the Second Coming.

I also have to give al-Majusi, a Persian physician, the Bad Timing Award: his comprehensive and beautifully organized medical text, part of the Codex, was considered the ultimate authority, until the renowned physician/philosopher Avicenna came along and wrote an even better text, overshadowing Majusi’s work and pushing him into relative historic obscurity.

These mini-moocs are listed as an advanced course based on predicted audience, but that shouldn’t intimidate anyone who’s interested; the material is very accessible, and all technical and cultural concepts are explained. The medical course is archived at the moment, so the forums are inactive, but all the other material is available. Both lectures are great; the Tabernacle course is slightly more polished, with an artistic lead-in to the videos and varying camera angles, but that’s pretty minor. The lectures are well-organized into specific topics, and images of pertinent sections of the manuscript are embedded in the videos. Links to the complete digitized manuscripts from the Penn collection are hard to find, but they’re there (check the Syllabus).

Grading is based on a few multiple choice questions following each part of the lecture, plus a final covering the basics. Although the forums are inactive for the medical course, the Tabernacle course TA is very helpful and promptly replied to questions and comments. The forums are not terribly active; I’m guessing enrollment is sparse, partly because it’s a niche humanities course in a world obsessed with vocational training, and partly because it wasn’t well-publicized. I stumbled across it by happy accident, in fact.

I almost missed these offerings entirely. edX hasn’t publicized the current Tabernacle course at all (I saw it on a tweet by Class Central), and it was only through the Syllabus that I learned about the Jewish Medicine course. That’s a shame, since they’re terrific. I’ve been a bit of a snob about mini-moocs (I’ve called them “Youtube plus a quiz”) but I have to re-think that. For anyone interested in Jewish cultural history, medieval medicine, or manuscript studies, these are tiny little gems.

Muriel Barbery: The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa Editions, 2008)

As for Madame Michel… how can we tell? She radiates intelligence. And yet she really makes an effort, like, you can tell she is doing everything she possibly can to act like a concierge and come across as stupid. But I’ve been watching her…. Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.

Nearly everyone in this book is trying to appear to be something other than what they are. That’s true of all of us, I suppose. As always, it’s the journey that forms the plot: from fear to joy, from despair to wonder, on the rails of art. With a lot of philosophy along the way.

The plot starts out at glacial speed, but ends up moving at breakneck pace. I wonder if that’s really the case, though, or if I’d just become accustomed to the pages and pages of exposition and textual thought bubbles between each tiptoe step forward. It isn’t until page 77 – almost a quarter of a way through the novel – that we come to “And that is when it all started”, and it takes nearly another hundred pages before the plot starts to develop. But what is in between is not mere padding; it’s all important, it all is drawn into the plot, though we have to be patient to find out how. And it’s fascinating to someone like me, who loves to learn about something new, whether it’s Francis Bacon or the camellia-on-moss imagery in the Yasujirō Ozu film The Munekata Sisters or her admiration for the writing style of the restaurant critic whose death, the subject of an earlier novel, begins the chain of events that make up the plot for this story.

We follow two narrators who take turns delivering short chapters. Reneé Michel is the concierge of a Parisian apartment building (a hôtel particulier, which, I take it, is something like an American luxury condominium – forgive me, my lack of familiarity with everyday life in France is showing). She’s in her 50s, dumpy and lumpy, and has had a lifelong passion for reading, art, films, philosophy, and the beauty of language. Yet she has a desperate need to hide her intelligence and extensive knowledge; we don’t find out exactly why until much later in the book.

The other narrator, Paloma Joss, is a 12-year-old girl, living with her family on the 5th floor. She, too, is hiding her intelligence, though her motivation is less complex: she just doesn’t want the burden of increased family expectations. She has decided that life is disappointing, and there is nothing in this world that is worth the effort, so she plans to kill herself on her 13th birthday if nothing convinces her otherwise. Her narration is in the form of a journal containing both Profound Thoughts, and Movement of the World.

…if I had more time to live, Art would be my whole life…. I’m referring to the beauty that is there in the world, things that, being part of the movement of life, elevate us. The Journal of the Movement of the World will be devoted therefore to the movement of people, bodies, or even – if there’s really nothing to say – things, and to finding whatever is beautiful enough to give life meaning. Grace, beauty, harmony, intensity. If I find something, then I may rethink my options. If I find a body with beautiful movement or, failing that, a beautiful idea for the mind, well then maybe I’ll think that life is worth living after all.

For most of the book, these two characters don’t interact, barely seem aware of each other. Yet, their narrations bounce off each other. When Reneé considers, and eventually rejects, Husserl’s phenomenology (having struggled with phenomenology in several moocs on Consciousness, I can identify), Paloma separates her journal into thought and matter; they consider art in congruent chapters, coming to the conclusion that “Beauty is consonance”, a thought that persists throughout the book. And eventually, we realize they are quite aware of each other. It’s just that they’d rather rip into the other tenants in the building.

Scenes of great humor lighten up what could otherwise be a heavy text. Paloma observes two of her neighbors whose dogs, on their respective leashes, insist on smelling each others’ butts, as dogs do. The women are clearly uncomfortable, but “… they are incapable of doing the only truly practical thing in cases like this: acknowledge what is going on in order to prevent it.”

The complications begin when a new neighbor arrives to take over the apartment vacated by the family of the deceased restaurant critic. He’s a distinguished middle-aged Japanese gentleman, generating great curiosity from all the tenants. He’s very polite to all, yet seems uninterested in them at the same time. Until he meets Reneé, over another tenant’s (relatively minor) usage error of using “bring” instead of “take”, a violation of the structure and beauty of language that Reneé so appreciates in secret:

And yet, there is an element of tragedy: I flinched when she said bring and at that very moment Monsieur Something also flinched, and our eyes met. And since that infinitesimal nanosecond when – of this I’m sure – we were joined in linguistic solidarity by the shared pain that made our bodies shudder, Monsieur Something has been observing me with a very different gaze.
A watchful gaze.

She and the newcomer – whose name turns out to be Monsieur Ozu, connecting the plot to the exposition – trade the opening lines of Anna Karenina as casual conversation, and he asks the name of her cat: Leo. Unlike the other tenants in the building, this gentleman sees her for what she is, yet maintains her secret.

Their relationship ranges from hilarious to sublime. He invites her for dinner, causing a flurry of concern about dresses, hair, and so forth. When she arrives for the dinner, she agonizes over how to ask the location of the bathroom until matters are urgent. Her tendency to overthink is so familiar to me: how should I act? What do normal people expect me to do in a case like this? But when she is taken by surprise by the Confutatis that accompanies the flushing of the toilet – an event that would certainly take me by surprise – she discovers she can relax, that M. Ozu does not have any particular expectations about how one ought to behave. “Can’t everything always be this simple?” she wonders.

At that point, Paloma enters her life more directly, visiting during the day to have a cup of tea and chat. So our isolated, secretive concierge now has two people with whom she can be who she is, two friends.

The book ends in a way I found a bit disappointing, even manipulative, and possibly… lazy? As the pages dwindled to a precious few, I had three possible endings in my head, and this was one of them. Not the worst possibility, but still, considering Pushcart story endings regularly take me by surprise, I was hoping for something more imaginative. I have to admit, in view of the revelation of the reason for Reneé’s desperation to hide her inquisitive mind and self-learning from the world, it makes sense, and forms… ok, a consonance. I still feel there must have been a better resolution, but I’m not bright enough to offer one (I have never had to work hard to keep up a front of ignorance for the world).

It seems this novel was wildly popular in France when it was first published; it seems to have been less successful here. I greatly enjoyed it. Even though the first half is slow-moving, there isn’t a page that doesn’t contain something of interest to me.

I put this on my library “to be read” list several years ago, and I don’t really remember why. At this point, I was interested the descriptions of the protagonists, and the inclusion of so much philosophy and art (Barbery was a philosophy teacher, by the way, and lived in Japan for several years). In spite of my misgivings about the endings, I’m very glad I read it.