Bridget Quinn, Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (in That Order) (Chronicle, 2017)

Great lives are inspiring.
Great art is life changing.
The careers of the fifteen artists that follow run the gamut from conquering fame to utter obscurity, but each of these women has the story, and work, that can scramble and even redefine how we understand art and success.

It strikes me that we might need a little caveat here before getting started. Can we agree at the outset to lay down our qualms about Ye Olde Arte Hystore at the door of this book? Put them down. Walk away. Let us agree that together we shall fear no corsets, nor nursing saviours, nor men in top hats and cravats, nor vast expanses of peachy dimpled thighs.
Let us withhold judgment until we know more.

Last year, I read Nell Painter’s book Old In Art School and found I enjoyed reading about art. The OCW about Don Quixote examined a Velázquez painting (Las Meninas) in great detail as part of the discussion of the narrator/subject, and I found that fascinating. But then, whenever I tried to find an article on some artist, or a video on a style, I would lose interest almost immediately. Art has its own language and its own values (just like writing), and the sources I found just barreled ahead and started lecturing about what makes this part energetic and this part ominous and… well, I can take their word for it, but I can’t understand it.

But I keep trying. Towards the end of last year, I read The Millions “A Year in Reading” entry by Grace Loh Prasad (about whom I really know nothing, but I love these year-end briefs). This was the first book she described:

Quinn seamlessly weaves together biography, art history, memoir, and incredible storytelling, such as in the chapter on Edmonia Lewis and the rediscovery of her long-lost sculpture The Death of Cleopatra. Her writing is intimate and unstuffy, and it makes learning about important and overlooked artists feel like having a conversation with a smart, badass friend.

Grace Loh Prasad

Who doesn’t love a smart, badass friend. So I ordered it. And I have to agree: it’s a marvelously unstuffy book that talks about art in language I can understand, and even more importantly, talks about artists in ways that make me interested in their lives and work.

The artists discussed are all women, but there’s great diversity beyond that, in era, race/ethnicity, artistic medium and style, and life story. I was surprised to discover that I’d heard of a couple: I got interested in Kara Walker while reading Painter’s book, and Ana Mendieta showed up in an art mooc I took (and hated) back when I started doing moocs; I didn’t remember her name, but I did remember her siluetas, so the class wasn’t a complete loss.

I enjoy Quinn’s approach. It is, indeed, less stuffy than most, sometimes irreverent, sometimes poignant. She’s a good storyteller, whether she’s relaying an artist’s life, the story of a painting, or the moment she herself discovered the artist. The chapters are fairly short; it’s easy to read two or three in one sitting. I even started to understand some art, thanks to her inclusion of comparisons and contrasts; yes, this was another book I read at the computer so I could look up the works mentioned but not included.

The images are wonderful: full-color reproductions of several works by each artist. Each chapter begins with a full-page illustration of the artist by Lisa Congdon. It’s nice to have an image of the artist under discussion, and interesting to compare these with the self-portraits that sometimes show up in the chapter.

I kept trying to figure out a way to summarize the individual chapters without doing a full paragraph on each one, but they are all quite different and all deserve full attention. So forgive the length of this post; the book is nowhere near as cumbersome.

The first chapter about Artemisia Gentileschi shows how easily Quinn moves from art to biography to social commentary. It opens with a discussion of Gentileschi’s Judith Severing the Head of Holofernes, a Biblical story of a Jewish woman using what skills she has – seduction – to destroy the leader of the forces massing to slaughter her people. “The two women work in dispassionate exertion. They could be Julia Child and Alice Waters deboning a turkey.”

From there, she takes us to the rape of the seventeen-year-old Gentileschi at the hands of one of her art teachers, the legal climate in which the wrong was done, not to her, but to her father, and the trial her father brought against the rapist which involved obstetric examinations and, best of all, torturing Gentileschi with thumbscrews to ascertain the truthfulness of her version. As a result she was married off to another painter and ended up in Florence, which turned out to be good for her career. Quinn also discusses the poor renderings of female nudes by even such experts as Michelangelo, for lack of models. I hadn’t known this until I looked up his sculptures for the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo as mentioned in the text. The other female hero Gentileschi paints is Susanna, another biblical rape story.

But the artistic centerpiece of the chapter is her Self-Portrait as La Pittura, the embodiment of the art of painting. Here she maintains the existing traditions as regards hair, jewelry, and dress, but does not include the usual gag in the mouth symbolizing the muteness of art. As Quinn puts it:

Artemisia Gentileschi was never quiet. She was instead the heroic center of her own art, fashioning a new language of womanhood, in action and in form.
Her heroic women are not man-eaters, but man-beaters. That’s one reason why her Judith Severing The Head Of Holofernes appalled so many for so long. Not only is a woman depicted performing a heinous act on a man, but also it’s a woman daring to depict it.
Artemesia refused the gag. And from four hundred years away she speaks to us still, saying: Dare to be great.

Judith Leyster’s chapter starts with an art gallery adventure. The Louvre acquired a painting by Franz Hals, only to discover upon cleaning that the signature was not Hals at all. At first it was thought to be the work of Hals’ brother, but it eventually was resolved that the then-unknown Leyster was the artist. Quinn quotes Germaine Greer’s observation: “At no time did anyone throw his cap in the air and rejoice that another painter, capable of equaling Hals at his best, had been discovered.” Legal action and recompense followed quickly.

Her Self-Portrait is amusing for the paintbrush aimed at the crotch of the male musician she is shown painting, but more importantly, it’s been revealed through infrared examination that the figure was originally a woman, possibly a self-portrait within a self-portrait. “In other words, Leyster predicted her own erasure from the history of art.”

The chapter on Adélaïde Labille-Guiard traces her clever maneuvering through the years before and during the French Revolution

There was an 18th century version of trolling that supported an entire economy of the most vicious satire. As a woman artist, Labille-Guiard was an easy target.
….For women artists the leap from intimacy with a man to being an untalented slut has, in the public eye, never been a big one.
Slut or not, she was shrewd. With no husband to defend her, or support her financially, Labille-Guiard defended herself. Between 1782 and 1783 she showed six portraits of important male Academicians. It was a brilliant stroke, securing valuable eyewitnesses to her talent. If any man admired his portrait, he must admire Labille-Guiard’s ability as well.

When the winds shifted, she painted portraits of the power forwards of the Revolution. But she still had to burn one of her paintings, her greatest masterpiece. It’s here that I discovered the hierarchy of classical French painting: still life at the bottom, history painting (“big ass canvases with a story to tell” as Quinn puts it) at the top. There’s also a great deal of compositional strategy in this chapter: why what is behind the subject of a painting may be as important as the subject itself.

The story of Marie Denise Villers has two focal points and a wonderfully humorous accent. When Quinn was in grad school for art history, the objective was connoisseurship: “Basically: knowing who made what, just by looking at it. To be able to perceive, by attitude, gesture, mood, and style, what belongs to whom.” In a discussion with Professor Alfred Moir, this was developed and evolved:

“You know the problem with connoisseurship?”
I did not. I had no idea there was a problem with connoisseurship.
“It doesn’t take into account the artist waking up on the wrong side of the bed.” He leaned forward and lifted a finger, as if to shake it in my face. “It doesn’t consider the really shitty day.”
….Later it would occur to me, what about the opposite? The Day When Everything Goes Right. The Fucking Excellent Day.

Turns out Villers had one of those when she painted Portrait of Charlotte du Val d’Ognes. Again, this turns into a comedy of errors: in 1917 the New York Met aquired a gift of what was thought to be a painting by Jques Louis David. In the 40s it was discovered this could not be a David, and by 1951 it was tentatively attributed to another woman painter. At this point critics came out of the woodwork to point out flaws which, when the painting bore the imprimatur of David, had been unnoticed. It wasn’t until 1996 that Villers was credited as the artist, by comparison with two of her other works.

And here the plot thickens. Quinn looks at those other works in detail, and proclaims them “bland” and lacking magic. I can’t really tell the difference. She goes to some trouble to show the difference in interpretation of the Portrait as painted by a man (sexual anxiety) and by a woman (artistic anxiety). But the point is that Villers and her student Charlotte happened at a special moment; soon thereafter France became far more restrictive to women, and, Quinn writes, “by 1804, Napoleon had shut down every avenue of official education and exhibition for women artists in France.”

So a singular moment in time is the secret of Villers’s marvelous, moving painting: two young women longing to make art found themselves in a brief period of opportunity, when instruction, exhibition, and even fame were possible.
And in that moment, perfection happened. A Fucking Excellent Day. Longing and kinship and ability became great art. A masterpiece.

I regret that I’m unable to see the perfection. But I’ll take her word for it.

Rosa Bonheur painted a very different subject: horses and bulls. It seems she was very popular towards the end of the 19th century, to the point of children playing with Rosa Bonheur dolls. She became friends with Buffalo Bill, meeting him when he was in Paris. And she was gay: Quinn compares her and her companion Natalie to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. She had an official permit for crossdressing – that is, wearing pants – at a time when only women who could defend the need for pants could legally wear them. A monument to her stands in France: not a sculpture of the artist, but of a bull like those she painted.

The only flaw in this book occurs in this chapter. Her painting, The Horse Fair, is spread across two pages, a necessary choice to see anything close to the details. But that means the gutter of the pages runs down the center, making the crucial central figure – the only non-mustachioed figure, thus possibly a woman, even a stand-in for Bonham – hard to see. Fortunately, the Internet offers numerous options.

With Edmonia Lewis, we get our first look at art outside of painting; that is, sculpture. And we happen upon another fascinating story of an outstanding piece of art being lost. The Death of Cleopatra had been missing for a century in the 1980s when curator Marilyn Robinson started looking for information on Lewis for her own work. She sent out (pre-internet) feelers.

A curator at the Metropolitan Museum of art, perhaps lingering over bagels and orange juice some lazy Sunday, happened to see it and recalled a recentish letter from one Frank Orland, a dentist/history buff from a Chicago suburb, who’d written to the Met looking for information on the very same Edmonia; he thought he might have something of hers. The museum curator, feeling generous, sat down the juice and contacted the number listed in the Times.
Richardson pounced on the lead. She called. And called. She left messages. They were not returned. So what would any academic on an independent scholar’s salary do? Damn straight – she got on a plane, then in a car, and then marched up Frank Orland’s front steps and rang his bell.
A now-pliant Orland led Richardson to a barren corridor in a nearby suburban shopping mall. Hardly the place one might expect to find, say, a monumental marble statue of an Egyptian Queen. …
Orland leaned into the storage room and flicked on the light.
There sat Edmonia Lewis’s The Death of Cleopatra, a regal monarch limp on her marble throne. Tragic, moving …and, noted Richardson, “surrounded by holiday decorations and papier mache turkeys and Christmas lights and Christmas elves.”
Richardson was shaking.
A celebrated work by one of nineteenth-century America’s most important sculptures, lost for a hundred years, was now quite suddenly found.

If a shopping mall storage room is an unusual place to find a marble sculpture, Edmonia Lewis might also be considered an unusual prospect for fine art. She was born of a Chippewa mother and Black father, orphaned at age nine, kicked out of several schools, and as the Civil War started, was beaten severely and left for dead in a field. Nevertheless, she persisted, and through William Lloyd Garrison, met a teacher and went to Rome.

In addition to the qualities of Lewis’s work, particularly her Hiawatha sculpture, Quinn discusses the implications of white marble. It was, in Lewis’s time simply what sculpture was made of, but in antiquity, the Greeks and Romans painted their statues. The worship of whiteness came later.

Paula Modersohn-Becker painted what Quinn calls the “first female nude self-portrait in Western history”, while Alice Neel may have painted the oldest nude self-portrait; she was eighty at the time. Given Neel’s early life – she was hospitalized for suicidal behaviors in her 30s, her first child died, and the second was taken by her husband when he abandoned her to live in Cuba, a lover burned and slashed hundreds of her works – it’s a triumph she made it to eighty, so as far as I’m concerned she can paint anything she wants. Her most notable work was of gay men and couples, mostly from the Warhol Factory.

Vanessa Bell painted her sister, Virginia Woolf, without a face, yet “captures something essential in her, opposed or a way of being in the world as distinctive as her facial features. …She ignored mere features, capturing her sister’s essence instead.” She did the original covers for Woolf’s books, including the highly phallic image for To the Lighthouse. She served as a sort of base for a couple of Woolf’s characters, including the painter Lily Brisco in Lighthouse.

The chapter on Lee Krasner spends a fair amount of time on her marriage to Jackson Pollock, and credits her with discovering him and introducing him to those who would support his rise to artistic stardom. Her own work seemed to get lost in the mix. The images presented in the book are all very different – from Self Portrait (1930) to Seated Nude (1940) to Composition (1949) to Milkweed (1955). Surprisingly, I like the later three works far better, and here’s where I try to grapple with the language of Abstract Expressionism:

Ab Ex as perfected by Pollock was all about doing. According to influential critic Harold Rosenberg, “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”
Abstract art is sometimes described as a departure from reality, but a better way to say it might be that it seeks to express a different reality. The reality behind our visible world. …
You wouldn’t think of a jazz musician as a fraud trying to trick you into thinking noise was really music. No, because you feel music intuitively: your soul and spirit (and even body) understand its message. The same is true of abstract art if he will give it time and attention. It will work on you, if it’s good.

I’d never heard of Louise Bourgeois, but I recognized her Femme Maison works: literally, “housewife”, they are half woman, half house, and express a feminist reaction to the expectations women live under.

Bourgeois’s feminism may have been born at the dinner table where her father verbally abused her in front of whatever company happened to be there. As an example, take a look at the video
“Louise Bourgeois Peels a Tangerine”. She seems to have returned the disfavor, though much later, with her sculpture Fillette. It means “little girl” but the work is a 2-foot penis, looking remarkably like the preserved corpses I’ve viewed for anatomy moocs: brown/orange and rough. Robert Maplethorpe took an iconic photo of her holding the sculpture, “her right hand cupped beneath the glans penis as if it were the muzzle of a small dog… She might be any lady who lunches in midtown, one who doesn’t go anywhere without her little pet.” Quinn associates it with DaVinci’s Lady with Ermine, a painting from half a millennium prior which is also loaded with sexual symbolism.

While some of the women, particularly those from earlier centuries, were from artistic families yet never attained any kind of status in the art world, the opposite is the case with Ruth Asawa. Her father was a truck farmer in California; when she was sixteen, he was arrested and she was interned with so many other Japanese Americans in one of America’s most revolting acts. She found the benefit in it, however, since a casual school formed which included interned artists. She eventually went to a small teacher’s college, but found that, in her fourth year, she was not allowed to do the practicums required so she had to leave without her degree. She made some contacts through her sister, who was studying Spanish in Mexico, an found the Black Mountain College, an experimental school with a superstar roster of instructors including John Cage and Buckminster Fuller, who became her mentor. Her work includes wire art based on folk techniques she learned in Mexico, and more traditional fountains in San Francisco, where a High School for the Arts is named after her.

The chapter on Ana Mendieta begins with a scene from Law & Order:

In the hot early morning of September 8, 1985, a doorman working the night shift in Greenwich Village heard a woman’s voice pierce the night, screaming, “No, No, No, No,” then moments later, the sound of a large object striking somewhere nearby.
Artist Ana Mendieta, thirty-six years old and married less than a year to renowned sculptor Carl Andre, fifty-two, had just plummeted from the bedroom window of their nearby apartment – thirty-four stories – and died on impact.
Because Mendieta is known for the ethereal self-portraits-cum-crime-scene-outlines she called siluetas – and because the police took no photos – it’s tempting to imagine the scene. Rather than gruesome, I want to picture Mendieta as she was in her very first silueta: a naked body covered in white flowers, all ripeness and purity, associating her own procreative forces with the power of the Great Goddess.
….Even Andre doesn’t seem to know exactly what happened; over the years, he’s given three very different accounts. …A celebrated pioneer of minimalist sculpture, Andre and his brilliant career were affected not at all.

Quinn, fully aware of Andre’s sculpture, discovered Mendieta in 1992 at the Guggenheim opening in NY, where protesters objected to the white male palette (one woman, no artists of color) and the inclusion of the famous sculptor who many believed had murdered his wife.

Mendieta came to the US in 1961 from Cuba; she and her sister, young teens, lived in a series of temporary homes in Iowa. She is known for “earth art”: using the planet itself as a canvas:

Earth Art tended toward the massive and the masculine, requiring big machines and accompanying egos….If there were an ancient prototype for the new art, it would be Stonehenge way back in the Neolithic, impressive and lasting, at least in part because it’s just so damned big. The Neolithic inspiration for Mendieta runs more to the plastered skulls of Jericho and myriad great goddess images found all over the world.

As I mentioned, I was aware of Kara Walker from other sources. Her silhouettes, as Quinn notes, have the appearance of lighthearted gaiety on first glance, but when examined more closely, they contain a shocking – and damning – portrait of the sexual and physical exploitation of black people. “The silhouette says a lot with very little information, but that’s also what the stereotype does,” Walker has explained.

But the chapter starts with a very different piece of art:

At the behest of Creative Time, Kara E. Walker has confected:
A Subtlety
or the Marvelous Sugar Baby
An Homage to the unpaid and overworked
Artisans who have refined
our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the
Kitchens of the New World
on the Occasion of the demolition of the
Domino Sugar Refining Plant.

It’s a giant sphinx-like sculpture made out of sugar, with a head fashioned to evoke a “mammy” with clearly black features, and, in the back, ten-foot-tall vulva protruding over curled toes. This is an artist who goes there. The sculpture combines the histories of whiteness, blackness, sexuality, industrialization, and capitalism, probably a few other things I’m not sophisticated enough to see. There’s a reason Walker won a MacArthur “genius” grant at twenty-seven.

In the final chapter, we learn of Susan O’Malley turning the pain of her mother’s degenerative illness into art by enlarging and mounting notes she wrote – “Love you Baby”. O’Malley’s specialty was textual art: the careful placement of words in surroundings that emphasize or contrast with the meaning. She created a series of nine signs for the Montalvo Arts Center, titled A Healing Walk: at various places on the trail there are wooden signs reading “You are Here, Awake and Alive,” “This Beautiful Moment”, and similar sentiments. Quinn compares it to Dante:

Nine was the number favored by Dante in structuring his Divine Comedy, which begins with a walk: In the middle of our lives / I found myself in a dark woods / the right road lost. Dante’s guide is the poet Virgil; in A Healing Walk, the artist O’Malley is ours. And just as Virgil takes Dante through Hell, then on a steep path up until they see the stars, O’Malley’s path culminates in the summit overlooking the quiet balm of the natural world.

I’m a little dubious of this interpretation overall, but some of the pieces indeed fit.

O’Malley died suddenly at the age of thirty-eight; the Montalvo Arts Center made her installation permanent.

Quinn finishes with a brief postscript:

Our story began with my finding sixteen women artists in the third edition of H. W. Janson’s seminal History of Art. I’ve presented fifteen here. Why one short?
I’ve left room for myself. For you. For anyone who wants it.
Insert yourself here.
….Hell, insert anything you like – poet, architect, filmmaker, actor, brain surgeon, astronaut – and run with it. Great lives in great works are endless: we just have to look for them. And of course create them.

I’m delighted to have found this book, a book that made the artists come alive for me, and that did, in spite of my lack of artistic comprehension, make sense of many aspects of art.

It turned out that Quinn, while studying art history and connoisseurship, came to be inspired most by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard in an unusual way. Her professor gave her an assignment of high honor, a request to authenticate a Labille-Guiard painting. “I had already decided to follow Labille-Guiard, not study her. I wanted to be like her, to explore what talent might lie inside me with passion and courage.” No, not painting; she left art to become a writer, which is how this book came to be, and probably why it is far more enjoyable for someone like me than the entries written by those who achieved full connoisseurship.

Weike Wang, “Chemistry” (Vintage, 2018)

The Chinese word for chemistry is hua xue. The first character means to change, transform, melt. The second character means to learn. Said with a different inflection, xue could mean snow, hua could mean speech, and chemistry becomes the melting of snow, becomes the learning of speech.

No, this isn’t a chemistry text, nor is it a Chinese language guide; it’s a novel about a woman who comes to several dead ends in her life, and has no idea what to do next. In her NYT review, Alexandra Alter called it an “anti-coming-of-age story: Instead of figuring out how to be an adult, the narrator learns to live with uncertainty and indecision.” Wang pushed back on that a little in her Asia Society blog interview: “the novel ends in the middle of [the narrator’s] development. She’s on the upswing as far as potential for change, but you don’t see the victory dance.” I’m not sure I like “coming of age” for someone who’s well into adulthood, but there is a coming-to-terms with, or at least a recognition of, a number of problematic relationships she’s been at the mercy of: with her mother, her father, her boyfriend, her career goals, and her identity as a Chinese-American woman and daughter.

I didn’t notice until I read the Penguin Reader’s Guide that only the boyfriend Eric is named. That’s interesting. Except for the narrator – who, naturally enough in a first-person story, doesn’t refer to herself as anything other than “I” – everyone but Eric is referred to by their relationship to her: parents, best friend, lab mate, math student. It almost feels like this is an inversion of the usual thing where the named characters are the most important. That Eric’s relationship isn’t labeled fits with both the odd relationship they had at the outset, and his departure midway through the novel.

The brittle humor and style – many smallish sections, about a page or so – keep things from edging into sentimentality, but there’s plenty of emotional territory covered. As well, some scenes are downright hilarious. Early on, our narrator loses her place in grad school; whether it’s because she’s just not a good enough chemist, or because she doesn’t love chemistry enough to do it well, is one of the issues she’s struggling with. Best Friend tries to help:

The best friend has sent me a present. It is a stuffed doll with yellow yarn for hair and two Xs for eyes and a line for a mouth. It is called a Dammit Doll. I am to grasp this doll by the legs and whack the stuffing out of it, while shouting, Dammit, dammit, dammit. I try, but the doll has proven to be made from industrial grade stuff. I have named it Science, You Motherfucker.

I can sympathize; mine would be named Math.

The beginning of the novel finds our narrator working outrageously long hours as a graduate student in her chem lab, yet unable to produce the result she needs. The confidence she felt as an outstanding student in high school is long gone, and she’s losing the love she had for the field:

Coming in, I think myself the best at chemistry. In high school, I win a national award for it. I say, cockily, at orientation, Yes, that was me, only to realize that everyone else had won it as well, at some point, In addition to awards I have never won.

I am a senior in college when I decide to go into synthetic organic chemistry. I am mesmerized by the art of it. The purpose of this kind of chemistry is to build a molecule that is already present in nature, but to build it better than nature, in the least number of steps, with a beautiful key step. Technique is everything. Percent yield is everything. For months I am running the same reaction over and over again, the seventh step of a twenty-four-step synthesis, just so I can get the yield up from 50 percent to 65 because anything under 60 is unacceptable to the advisor. Then for months, I am running step eight. Then for years, the advisor is asking, Do we have it, the molecule? And I say, no, it is still at large.
In time, you find yourself no longer mesmerized.

I’m reminded of an article by Kamil Ahsan about the falling-out-of-love-with-biology that happens when you “inspect a single protein or a single gene every day for six years.”

Add to this her sense that her boyfriend’s academic career is soaring, and she feels left behind. “Please stop, just for a little while, and let me catch up. How do you expect me to marry you if you never let me catch up?” she whispers at night as he sleeps.

Then there are parental expectations, both expressed and unexpressed. Her father has set a high bar by example:

My father’s is the classic immigrant story.
He is the first in his family to go to high school and college and graduate school and America. He is the first to become an engineer. …
But such progress is made in one generation that to progress beyond him, I feel as if I must leave America and colonize the moon.

Her mother has a very different story.

My mother’s mother was one of the best architects in Shanghai.
In the late 1970s, she helps reconstruct the Bund. During this time, she tells my mother, still a teenager, that if she were ever to settle down and have children, she need only had daughters. Daughters have more chu xi and xiao shun, she says. Chu xi is the ability to succeed. Xiao shun is filial piety. My grandmother believes this because she was one of those daughters – having accomplished a great deal, having married well, raised two kids, and taken care of her parents in the last years of their lives.
But to follow my father to America, my mother inevitably gives up both.
And for this reason, I think she believes herself to have failed.
Then the moment of shock sets in. A daughter? You must be mistaken. I do not have a daughter. And if I did, how would I raise her if I cannot set for her an example?
Upon putting that car in reverse and leaving, she thinks, finally, a chance to start anew. But then she realizes that she cannot get very far without my father. There are many things she cannot read or say. And money, she doesn’t have her own money.
Maybe she also comes back because of you, the shrink says. The maternal instinct kicking in.
If she does, she never shows it.

This not only sets up high expectations – anything less than a PhD is unacceptable – but adds to the narrator’s reluctance to marry Eric and follow him when he is offered the job of his dreams at Oberlin.

All of this culminates in a meltdown (chemistry, the study of melting) in the lab and the breaking of beakers. She is put on medical leave and sent to a shrink, then cut from the program. Eric gets his dream job and moves without her. Now what?

Now what turns out to be continuing therapy, watching her best friend have a baby and leave her husband when he cheats on her, and working as a math and science tutor. Without the pressure of the lab and the exhausting work schedule, without the constant self-comparison to Eric, and without the pressure to decide about marriage, some things start to sort themselves out. Her memories of her parents grow less damaging. Her confusion about how to keep her Chinese identity while remaining American starts to become less burdensome. And she starts to enjoy teaching.

Science is used as example and metaphor throughout the novel.

Biologically, physical strength comes from mitochondria, which are organelles that generate all of our body’s energy. A unique feature of mitochondria is that they have their own DNA. Whereas the rest of the body is built on code that is half paternal and half maternal, mitochondrial DNA is entirely maternal and passed down from the mother.

Thus the narrator, instead of fearing she will disappoint her mother, can claim the strength she has inherited from her. Finding a different path does not have to mean failure; it can mean success is redefined, and becomes more fulfilling.

And if you think in terms of the nuclear family, physics teaches more than equations:

For a long time, scientists did not know why the nucleus of an atom held together. Theoretically, it should not. It is made up of all positive charges that should repel, but somehow, it persists.

It’s not by accident Wang chose science for the background of her first novel. She did her undergraduate work at Harvard in Chemistry, completed a doctorate in Public Health, and then picked up an MFA from Boston University. It’s interesting, in this STEM-focused era, how some people find their way back to the humanities.

I put this book on my TBR list when I first heard about it a couple of years ago; the blend of science and cultural adaptation appealed to me. Then I came across Wang’s story “Omakase” in last year’s BASS. Interestingly, it involves a woman moving to another city for a man, a man who annoyed me greatly. In my wrap-up post for the volume, I said I wasn’t sure about it yet; that’s still the case, but it was enough to move this novel from list to bookshelf for this year’s read.

I think the style was used to great effect here; a novel with a more fluid style, scene transitions and more filled-out prose, would have felt unduly heavy and almost trite. Instead, the novel bubbles and bounces, leaving its marks in concentrated packets. Of course, I enjoyed the use of science. And it turns out I like academic novels even when they stop being academic halfway through.

Balinese Music: Gamelan mooc

Course: World Music: Balinese Rhythms
Length: 10? weeks, 6-7? hrs/wk
School/platform: edX/MIT
Instructor: Evan Ziporyn, Dewa Alit

This course provides an introduction to Balinese music, and the role of music in Balinese culture. Students will have the opportunity to both learn about and watch Balinese performances, as well as start to learn and practice the rhythms and techniques of Balinese gamelan online, using the “Jamelan” game. The “Jamelan” game, developed by MIT Professor of the Practice Eran Egozy, consists of rhythm recognition software similar to that used in ‘rhythm-based’ video games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band, which Egozy also developed. Using the Jamelan, learners’ progress is tracked and measured so that they can play along, hearing their accuracy audibly, but also having that accuracy measured digitally. By merging hands-on pedagogical tools based on traditional Balinese teaching methods, with new digital tools based on the gaming industry, the resulting learning experience is potent.

What, you never heard of Balinese gamelan music? Yeah, neither had I, and I’m still trying to process that MIT has a music department – and a music department deep enough to have a world music section, one that’s willing to put on a mooc, to boot.

It’s one of those courses that just drifted irresistibly across my feed, whispering enroll, you know you want to. I was a little daunted by the “10 weeks, 6-7 hours/week” time estimation, but I figured, what’s the worst that could happen, I don’t finish. In retrospect, I’m not sure where they got those numbers from. All the material is released at once; it’s a six-lecture course, with one or two videos totaling about 20 minutes, and two or three jamelan exercises each. The jamelan will take a while to get used to, and I found it helpful to repeat the exercises every day or so. Still, I would consider the time estimate wildly inflated: I finished it all in a little more than a week, a couple of hours a day at most.

Gamelan turns out to be a type of music involving predominantly percussion instruments, particularly various kinds of metal or bamboo marimba-like instruments. Sometimes dance is involved, either solo or group. There’s a small subset of gamelan that’s used to accompany shadow puppet plays. The music can have religious or secular purposes.

One of the most interesting aspects, and the one emphasized by the design of the mooc, is the way new musicians are taught. There’s no musical notation. Musicians might play their instruments, particularly the mid-size iron gangsa we used, with their very young children on their laps. Later, a student will sit across from a gangsa and imitate the instructor’s movements: the rhythms, the notes, and damping techniques to keep the sound crisp. For the purposes of this mooc, they created a digital gangsa (designed by the Guitar Hero guy, I discovered) dubbed the Jamelan for us to learn a few parts by imitating Dewa Alit, master gamelan musician and MIT Artist-in-Residence for the past decade. It was great fun. At times my aging fingers failed me, but it was still quite an experience.

Lectures were provided by Prof. Evan Ziporyn, who in 1993, founded Gamelan Galak Tika (get it? Say it fast), MIT’s gamelan ensemble. Yeah, here I go again, MIT has a gamelan ensemble and has had one for twenty-seven years?? I’ve got to get out more. He described some of the traditional and modern uses of gamelan, as well as musical elements such as the structure of interlocking parts and the importance of damping.

I struggled a bit with the lingo. It’s not just that it’s in an unfamiliar language; I found it hard to organize it all: this is a type of music, this is an instrument, this is a subset of that type. I posted a question on the discussion board, along with a crude outline of what I thought the divisions were, and received a prompt and helpful reply the next morning. My biggest confusion was about the word “gamelan” itself: is it a type of music, or a type of instrument? Turns out it’s sort of both, similar to how Western music might use the term “string quartet” to describe a type of music with a certain structure played by certain instruments. That helped a lot.

One of the extraordinary benefits of moocs – and one overlooked in the age of “get skills and a certificate to improve your job prospects” – is the ability to check out things you’ve never heard of before and might never have otherwise heard of. This mooc succeeds wildly on this dimension. It was one of those completely unexpected moocs that sometimes crop up, one of the best aspects of moocdom. I wouldn’t say it was the best mooc I’d taken, but you know what, teaching music is hard, putting up moocs is hard, and teaching music in asynchronous mode to people from all over with a wide range of musical experience is really hard. I love that they did this, and I love that they have other courses in the works.

Bart D. Ehrman: Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife (S&S 2020)

When I’ve told people the title, they have often been puzzled or even slightly offended. But let me be clear: I am not saying that a literal heaven and hell have experienced historical changes. I’m saying that the ideas of heaven and hell were invented and have been altered over the years.
And I think that can be proved. There was a time in human history when no one on the planet believed that there would be a judgment day at the end of time. At another time, people did believe it. It eventually became a standard Christian teaching and is accepted as orthodox truth by many millions of people today. Between the time no one believed it and many people did, someone came up with the idea. That is, it was invented. So too with every idea of the afterlife. That doesn’t make the ideas wrong. It just means that they were ideas that once did not exist and then later did.

I’ve mentioned my misspent youth as a fundamentalist before. In the years since, my interest in religion has been more academic and historical (and, musical: I love church music from Palestrina to Mozart and standard Protestant hymns; I bounce in and out of various churches periodically because that’s where the music is). This book is just another attempt to make sense of a pretty insane path that, in spite of the difficulty of pinning anything down, keeps affecting our daily lives for better or worse. And it’s less prone than Dante to give me nightmares (once the Pentecostals get into your brain, you can never completely get them out).

My impression – and I haven’t done the careful study that would be necessary to confirm this – is that this book at least generally follows the flow of thought as presented in the Yale OCW’s I went through last year, and has at least some elements in common with the mooc “Early Christian Outlook and its Jewish Matrix: Narratives of Gospels and Acts”, which looked at Christianity as a Jewish sect and examined the influences in the Jewish world that would have been in play at the time. That is: Judaism itself, under the pressures of exile and Roman rule, underwent a shift towards anticipating a Messiah and into apocalypticism in the late Second Temple period; that shift influenced both the message of Jesus and Paul; early Christianity had many different beliefs, and what ultimately became today’s Christianity was also influenced by apocalpyticism generated by, among other things, Roman persecution and the need for unity to expand and maintain the church. I still think there’s another phase of development: the Roman Christianity that used hierarchy and strict obedience to orthodoxy to maintain power. But I’m just a dilettante, though I prefer to think of myself as a learner at an elementary level.

The book starts at the end: In Chapter 1, Guided Tours of Heaven and Hell, Ehrman looks at the early Christian period, between the time of Jesus and the original apostles and the codification of the Canon, a time when many varieties of Christianity existed in widely separate places. We learn about “the earliest Christian forerunner to Dante’s Divine Comedy”, the Apocalypse of Peter, attributed to the disciple but written some time around 100 to 150 CE, too late to have come from his pen. Several other works are included here to underline the second-century belief in a hell of torment versus a heaven of paradise. Then comes the kicker:

None of these visions can be found in the Bible, because they do not, in fact, represent the earliest Christian views of the afterlife. The ideas of a glorious hereafter for some souls and torment for others, to come at the point of death, cannot be found in either the Old Testament or in the teachings of the historical Jesus. To put it succinctly: the founder of Christianity did not believe that the soul of a person who died would go to heaven or hell.
But this became the standard Christian view over time, and it will be helpful to see where it ultimately came from, when it started to be adopted, and why it seemed so attractive….To see where this belief originated, we will need to begin our explorations many years before Christianity – before even the most ancient writings of the oldest parts of the Bible.

The rest of the book is the examination of how we got to this view of heaven and hell, essentially the one most commonly held today in Western Christianity. We start in 2100 BCE with the Epic of Gilgamesh, considered the first extant written literature in the world, to look at the fear of death. Enkidu goes to great lengths to find a way to cheat death, but ultimately fails. In several philosophy and religion moocs I’ve encountered the idea that the fear of death – the very impossibility of imagining what it is to be dead – may have been the motivation for imagining an afterlife; this seems to jibe with Ehrman’s thinking. I’ve also frequently seen the idea that the lack of justice in this world may have motivated consideration of judgment in the afterlife, where those who were wicked but went unpunished or even profited from their wickedness would finally get their just desserts. Again, this fits with the ideas in this book, though it comes in much later.

Another idea I encountered in some mooc along the way – I wish I could remember where – is that Virgil invented the hell of punishment in the Aeneid. Ehrman concurs with this as well, showing how, in Homer, the shades lived in Hades as sort of depleted, bored people, but weren’t punished, except for a very few (Tantalus, Sisyphus, Tityus); the pleasant Elysian Fields await heroes (or perhaps offspring of the gods, favored of the gods, it seems to shift). Then, several centuries later, comes Virgil, who turns the afterlife into reward and punishment galore.

Some six or seven centuries after the Homeric epics, Virgil does not populate Hades with shades that all experience the same boring and pleasure-free existence. He writes of hellish torments for some and heavenly glories or others. Most have to be punished for their sins before being given a second chance at life. Why such a change from Homer? What has led to this invention of heaven and hell?
It is hard to say what among the enormous changes in the political, social, and cultural worlds between seventh century Greece and first century Rome might have affected the shift in thinking. But it is relatively easy to see what happened in the realm of ethical thought. Equity has become an issue. …The wicked, no matter how powerful and revered in this world, will pay a price in the next. Those who have done what is right, however, will be rewarded.
By the time of Virgil, these ideas had been around for centuries, popularized most importantly by the greatest philosopher of antiquity, Plato.

I was glad to see that my hazily-recollected notion was confirmed, and that further explanation was forthcoming. We spend a few pages looking at Greeks and early Roman philosophers before arriving at the main event: the Biblical view of what happens when we die.

Ehrman’s primary point is that throughout much of the Hebrew bible (what Christians refer to as the Old Testament), resurrection concerns not individual people but the nation of Israel. In later books and in the apocryphal books such as the Maccabees, a more apocalyptic view comes into play, possibly a reaction to the Babylonian captivity and/or the growing awareness of Hellenistic philosophy – specifically, Platonism – in Jewish thought. While resurrection of the body and soul becomes more prevalent, the punishment for sin is annihilation: death, in other words. Torment isn’t part of the picture yet.

In a very interesting section subtitled “What Did Jews Believe at the Time of Jesus”, Ehrman gives us an overview of the work of Pieter Willem van der Horst, who examined a thousand epitaphs that have been preserved in the archaeological record in a thousand-year period of Jewish life leading up to Jesus. He points out what an extremely small sample this is. In fact, the conclusion doesn’t go much beyond noting the variety of beliefs about resurrection. We then take a look at the work of Josephus, the first-century historian who wrote extensively about the Jews as a people and a nation. This gives us three distinct groups with differing views on the afterlife: the Essenes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. These views boil down to “annihilation, immortality, or resurrection.” This is where we start with Jesus and the Greek bible (the New Testament).

I get antsy whenever someone, anyone, points to a Biblical verse and declares what it means, whether it’s a PhD who’s studied six ancient languages and knows the history and archeological findings of the area of ancient Israel, or a country preacher who is sure he has a direct connection to God via prayer. Let’s face it, we’re dealing with documents written by people in a very different time and culture, in a different language, and, to boot, those documents were recopied over and over, broken apart, reunited, and so may or may not closely resemble the original texts. We in the US can’t agree on interpretations of the Constitution, which was written in our language a mere 200 years ago and is buttressed by a fair amount of supportive documentation including the explicit Federalist Papers; how can anyone claim to know the exact meaning of esoteric references in documents far more alien to us?

But we have what we have, and Ehrman goes through the hot spots of afterlife theology in the gospels: Gehenna, sheep and goats, poor man Lazarus and the rich man. He ends up here:

One of the other criteria I take very seriously is the need for any saying of Jesus to fit well into his own early first-century historical context as a Jew from Galilee. I have pointed out that for over a century now critical scholars have been widely convinced that Jesus subscribed to a thoroughly apocalyptic worldview. My contention in this chapter is that his apocalyptic understanding of his world extended to his view of the afterlife. Jesus did not focus on what would happen to an individual at the point of death. He was principally concerned with that great act of God that was coming soon with the appearance of a cosmic judge from heaven, the Son of Man, who would destroy the evil powers in control of this world and establish a great, utopian, and eternal Kingdom. Those who lived as God wanted to them to – loving their neighbors as themselves, doing good for others in need – would enter into that Kingdom. Those who lived lives of self-centered sin and wickedness, on the other hand, would be destroyed, never to exist again.
Like other apocalypticists of his day, Jesus believed this day of reckoning was coming very soon ….But what happens if it doesn’t come? Then adjustments have to be made, and those who accept Jesus’s teachings have to reinterpret and possibly even alter them – maybe a little at first but then, possibly, more thoroughly. …It will be these later developments that lead to the views of heaven and hell still believed by so many of Jesus’s followers in our day.

We then go on to look at the books of Paul, and how it seems he might have changed his view when he began to realize the End of Time might not come before his death. It’s one thing to talk about what happened to some other people who die before the Return; but when it seems it might be your fate as well, maybe you reconsider. However this mostly concerns whether, at death, souls go into a kind of hibernation until the Return, or whether they immediately go on to be judged and rewarded or destroyed (because annihilation is still the punishment for sin, not eternal torment).

One of the topics I found most interesting was the discussion of 1 Corinthians on the new incorruptible and eternal body that will be given to the righteous at the resurrection. This draws from the transitory state of matter in neo-Platonic thought and removes that problem from the afterlife by a “mystery”: “We shall be changed.” This interests me for a musical reason: I remember all those Messiah performances, as a singer and an audience member, hearing that phrase from “The Trumpet Shall Sound” and not having a clue what “we shall be changed” meant but loving the sound of it. Paul turns it into an act of God that allows the resurrection of the body in incorruptible form.

So Ehrman considers that the actual words of Jesus and Paul indicate a heavenly afterlife for the righteous, and destruction, eternal death, for the wicked. He then looks at how the notion of torment crept into both the scripture and thinking of earliest Christians. This is the section that is likely to cause the most discomfort for those whose belief follows from the King James Version of the Bible. I can appreciate that discomfort on two levels. Spiritually, if you’ve been raised with a belief, it’s hard to hear that maybe Jesus didn’t say that, or maybe this piece here was appended to that part there three centuries later by a Roman empire now adjusting to Christianity. And aesthetically, the KJV is, in many places, beautiful to those of us whose first language is English, so saying it’s wrong is like editing Shakespeare. But we’re looking at analysis here.

And, of course you knew we’d get here eventually, there’s the book referred to as Revelation, or, if you prefer, The Revelation of St. John the Divine. Ehrman points out that this is not whoever wrote the Gospel of John, as the writing is very different (“a bit like reading a page from a Dickens novel and then another from a sophomore in a creative writing class”). There are also some important points about the genre that affect how it is read.

This book, like all books of the Bible, was written both in and for its own day, and if we want to understand what its author meant, we have to place his book in its own historical context.
In addition, we have to understand better what kind of book it is. I will be arguing that it is not a prediction of what was to happen thousands of years after the author’s day. He was describing what he thought would take place in his own time. He did so by using a literary genre common at the time, called the “apocalypse,” a genre found in a number of works, especially during the four-hundred-year period between the Maccabean revolt and the end of the second Christian century.

In other words, the Whore of Babylon isn’t whatever scandalous actress is making gossip sheets these days, nor is it your least favorite politician; it’s Rome. And the Beast isn’t Hitler, it’s Nero. The Lake of Fire is a symbol. Just as Gehenna was a dump used to burn trash, the wicked were destroyed, not tormented.

So how did we get to burning forever? The post-Biblical period; the apocalyptic books; and the earliest communities of Christians who every once in a while faced a new round of persecutions from Rome. And a sense of justice. He even mentions apocatastasis, Origen’s theory that no one is in Hell forever but all are eventually purged of sin and saved. I learned about this back when I read Jo Walton’s Lent, and wish Augustin hadn’t dispatched it to the dustbin of theology.

I was a bit disappointed that the book ended here. I suppose it is the end of the story, since we’ve now got people going to heaven when they die, then being reincarnated for the Final Judgment, and the wicked being punished forever. But it seems to me heaven and hell continued to develop in different ways, as reflected, not only in religious and academic discourse, but also in fiction. Look at Dante, at Milton, and, yes, at Walton.

I chose to read this book after seeing a blog post Jim Harris about a previous Ehrman book. We’d just crossed paths discussing BASS stories, so I was intrigued my new friend was, like me, interested in religion as an academic rather than a spiritual pursuit; that is, more interested in the history of Christianity than it its truth or guidance. He mentioned this book would be published soon, and since I’d so enjoyed Walton’s Lent just months before, I put a hold on it at my local library.

That brings us into a bit of contemporary drama. I placed the hold in late February 2020, knowing the book was scheduled for release on March 31. In late February, COVID-19 was something happening in China and, maybe, Italy. On March 15, 2020, the Portland Public Library shut down the physical building (online services continued) following the diagnosis of two cases in Maine; what we now refer to as lockdown followed within days. I forgot about this book; I was still working on Pushcart and had a shelf of other reading, and the closure was only for two weeks (we were so naïve).

During the first week of June, the library announced it would open a “Library-to-go” service, initially to distribute books that had been placed on hold before lockdown by appointment only, staggered to reduce the number of people at the library at once. The pickup notice I found in my email delighted me, as 1) I’d forgotten all about it, and 2) the library was waking up! On June 11, stepped into the library building for the first time in months; it was only for about 30 seconds, but it was wonderful.

This has nothing to do with Ehrman’s book, of course, but does show how unexpected events can influence one’s viewpoint. I probably have a positive bias towards this book because of its place in my personal COVID history, minor as it is. So I have no trouble imagining the impact exile, destruction of the Temple, or persecution could have on one’s point of view. And for those who find these kinds of man-created-God thoughts offensive, that’s fine; there’s plenty of other stuff you can read.

James Alan McPherson: Elbow Room (Fawcett, 1979)

Background image: Ben Wohlberg, Original Oil Illustration, McPherson's “Why I Like Country Music” from Elbow Room

Background image: Ben Wohlberg, Original Oil Illustration, McPherson’s “Why I Like Country Music” from Elbow Room

A point of information. What has form to do with caste restrictions?
You are saying you want to be white?
A narrator needs as much access to the world as the advocates of that mythology theory.
You are ashamed then of being black?
Only of not being nimble enough to dodge other people’s straitjackets.
Are you not too much obsessed here with integration?
I was cursed with a healthy imagination.
What have caste restrictions to do with imagination?
A point of information. What is your idea of personal freedom?
Unrestricted access to new stories for me.
Have you paid strict attention to the forming of this present one?
Once upon a time there was a wedding in San Francisco

As is evident to those who read here often, I’m fond of switching up narrative approaches to short stories. So I’ve got to hand it to a story that presents a kind of metanarrative of an editor questioning a narrator/writer along with the story itself about two young people searching for their own stories, and one of them finding it, perhaps, in their child. This is the title story of Elbow Room, a story that looks at stories, how we find and create them in our lives, and how we hear and use language in ways meaningful to us, all while protecting ourselves from walking into a shitload of pain.

It’s the last story in the collection, and I think that’s a good choice, partly because it’s a terrific story, and partly because we’ve had a chance to see other ways McPherson writes. There’s outright hilarity, irony, social commentary, warm and gentle memoir, and some bro-lit as my blogging buddy Jake likes to call it. The themes of language and storytelling come up often, as do ideas of hiding what is true behind a façade and self-protection against emotional damage. In this last story, it all comes together. Along with, in a central position, the n-word.

“I’m black. I’ve accepted myself as that. But didn’t I make some elbow room, though?” She tapped her temple with her forefinger. “I mean up here! Then she laughed bitterly and sipped her tea. “When times get tough, anybody can pass for white. Niggers been doing that for centuries, so it ain’t nothing new. But shit, wouldn’t it of been something to be a nigger that could relate to white and black and everything else in the world out of a self as big as the world is?” She laughed. Then she said, “That would have been some nigger.”

It’s a word I will quote, obviously, but won’t use. It’s not just that I’m uncomfortable with it or that I feel it isn’t a word I have title to use (though both of those are true), but more that I don’t want to get used to using it; I want it to remain a word that’s difficult for me to speak or type. That’s my choice. But in this story, it becomes very important, so can’t be overlooked. Not that the word isn’t used in other stories; it is in many. But if this were the first story in the collection, showcasing the significance of the word, it might become the central issue of the book before the foundation is laid. Here, after having read story after story about people who view their own blackness in different ways, who experience blackness in the world differently, it becomes more of a climax, or an epiphany. At least, for me.

I chose to read this book after reading, in Pushcart 2020, Allen Gee’s memoir of McPherson, “Old School”. McPherson was Gee’s teacher, then mentor, at the Iowa MFA program, then friend for almost thirty years until McPherson’s death in 2016. It was through this essay that I learned McPherson was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with this very book. I was embarrassed that I was unaware of him, so chose it to fill in yet another gap in my reading history.

Many of the stories deal with differences in the generational and geographical expectations of individual black people – and, for that matter, in the white community both within itself and as it interacted with the black community. As brought out most clearly in the final story, younger people were now writing their own stories of their lives and especially laying the groundwork for the next generation to be free to write its own story; the older generations had trouble catching up. There’s a terrific thought experiment in the story about an African mask in an art museum, and how to convince customers that it’s beautiful, since all the other art dealers think it is not.

That thought experiment, by the way, is a scene between the narrator and one of the characters. Throughout the story, I kept wondering if the narrator was a person he knew, or if this was more of a metaphor for a writer creating characters who sometimes do surprising things. I know a lot of writers who claim to talk with their characters. I can’t decide; maybe both, and that ambiguity is one of the reasons I liked this story so much.

The collection starts off with “Why I Like Country Music”, a wonderfully heart-warming story about a childhood crush. Even here, though, there is depth, starting from the beginning when our unnamed first-person narrator, decades and half a country removed from his South Carolina grade school, tries to explain his musical taste to his wife. It’s all about Gweneth, the little girl he pined for when he was ten. And, possibly, because square dancing is the only kind of dancing he has ever learned – from, or because of, Gweneth.

In those days, down in our small corner of South Carolina, proficiency in dance was a form of storytelling. ….But, sadly, I could do none of it. Development of these skills depended on the ministrations of family and neighbors. My family did not dance; our closest neighbor was a true-believing Seventh Day Adventist. Moreover, most new dances came from up North, brought to town usually by people returning to riff on the good life said to exist in those far northern places…. Each of their movements, as well as their world weary smoothness, told us locals meaningful tales of what was missing in our lives. Unfortunately, those of us under strict parental supervision, or those of us without northern connections, could only stand at a distance and worship these envoys of culture. We stood on the sidelines – styleless, gestureless, danceless, doing nothing more than an improvised one butt shuffle – hoping for one of them to touch our lives. It was my good fortune, during my tenth year on the sidelines, to have one of these Northerners introduced me to the square dance.

The plot concerns a school pageant including both a maypole dance and a square dance, and our narrator’s foiled attempts to squire Gweneth. His rival is the ebullient Leon Pugh whose father and brother told him “to git anything’ in this world you gotta learn how to blow your own horn.” Leon does that quite well. Our narrator, not so much. The stern teacher plays a role in all this, possibly the foiler, possibly the subtle, behind-the-scenes enabler. But it’s mostly a spotlight on our narrator’s ten-year-old heart, and powerful desire to do-si-do and allemande with Gweneth.

Included in the story are the differences between Northern and Southern Negroes, as already hinted at. That our narrator is now in New York shows how that works. He describes Gweneth in a wonderful way: “I remember the rainbow of deep, rich colors in which she lived.” The colors are the brown of her neck and the black of her hair against the white of her collar, and sometimes the blues or reds of the hair ribbons she wore on her braids. Black and brown as part of a color palette have a particular implication here.

Within this recognition of North and South is the realization that in this town there are two cultures that, somehow, coexist yet don’t:

Still, our school books, our required classroom songs, our flags, our very relation to the statues and monuments in public parks, negated the story that these dreamers from the North had ever come. …Given the silent circumstances of our cultural environment, it was ironic, and perhaps just, that we maintained a synthesis of two traditions no longer supportive of each other.

Like I said, it’s a lot deeper than a schoolboy crush.

“The Faithful” deals directly with what we used to call the generation gap back in my day. A barber / preacher can’t adjust to Afros or to more contemporary sermons. “The Story of a Dead Man” is more of a character gap between two cousins, one following the straight and narrow, one who’s constantly in trouble. The title hung over the whole story for me: who is the dead man? Then I found a wonderful paper from 1988 by the now late Prof. Jon Wallace that had an intriguing idea: does that last line echo Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”?

In looking into McPherson’s background, I discovered he was in law school when he published his first story. He graduated but apparently never practiced. In a few stories his legal background shows, once in a humorous tone, and once more somberly.

“Problems of Art” concerns one Mrs. Farragot who is facing a revocation of her drivers’ license for driving under the influence. The story begins with Milford, her lawyer from Project Gratis, interviewing her at her home; she’s insisted on a white lawyer, wanting someone who can “make logic” out of the story her witness tells. And it’s quite a story; I couldn’t quite follow it, except it involved her not wanting to “walk a line” because she was in her nightie. It’s a (very funny) story about making order out of chaos, but at the same time, about the false façade that order can create, masking the chaos underneath:

Milford’s suspicion of an undisclosed reality was heightened by the figure in the painting on the wall across the room. It was the portrait of a sad eyed Jesus.…A disturbing absence of nuance undermined the face: the small brown eyes were dimensionless, as if even they did not believe the message they had been calculated to convey….In the entire face, from forehead to chin, there was not the slightest hint of tragedy or transcendence. To appreciate it, Milford concluded, required of one an act of faith.

When her lawyer hears the witness, he’s kind of enchanted, but agrees that he can’t possibly testify: “And as colorful as were the circumstances of her case, there was not the slightest possibility that any responsible lawyer could include them in her defense.” Again I’m tweaked by word colorful. It’s clear that a court of law is no place for color. And Milford gets a bit of a surprise at the end – or maybe it’s just confirmation of what he suspected all along.

This theme of the law being white is played out far more seriously in “A Sense of Story”. Robert Charles, the black defendant, is charged with the murder of Frank Johnson, his boss at an auto repair shop. An outburst by the defendant forces the judge to dismiss the jury and issue a verdict based on the transcripts; we watch over his shoulder as he reads documents that glow with hints and nuance about the relationship between Charles and Johnson: Charles invented an engine lubricant that would work in foreign cars, but Johnson shut him down, or possibly stole it. At one point, Johnson hands out paychecks, which include a raise for one man but not for Charles, and mutters, “I’m white.” If Charles is convicted, he will be the first death row prisoner under a new law; his lawyer is arguing mitigation to reduce that to a prison term. The transcript is full of assumptions about Negroes and how ‘they’ are. The mitigation seems to focus on such points, like Charles drinking and carrying a gun, rather than any genuine circumstances of mitigation. As the judge reads the transcript the narration tells us, “The specially treated glass in the picture window made the sky seem more bright and blue than it really was.”

I still wasn’t sure what I was reading here, so I went poking around as I tend to do, and found a highly relevant passage in the book Whispered Consolations: Law and Narrative in African American Life by the late Jon-Christian Suggs, a professor of African American History at CUNY. He puts it right out there:

That is, the transcript to which we have access shows nobility of character, perfectionism, commitment to hard work, genuine creative intelligence, and patience on the part of Charles and the blind racial insensitivity, class privilege, institutional racism, and personal betrayal in the larger world around him. We come away with solid intimations of the theology of the crime. But of course, that is not in any way admissible, nor was it even visible to Charles his own attorney. Nor did the judge admit it even on his review of the transcript. What was allowed to be told was enough to convict, though not enough to create an accessible and “true” story of a man’s life….McPherson’s story argues once again a larger point, one we saw in Wright, Motley, Bell, and Williams: the law is no lens through which to view the lives of African Americans. In McPherson’s text we see perhaps more clearly than in the others where the narrative shortcomings of the law may lie.

Whispered Consolations::Law and Narrative in African American Life By Jon-Christian Suggs

As Mrs. Farragot’s lawyer said, colorful is not for the courtroom.

McPherson turns his pen on economic inequality in “A Loaf of Bread”. Harold Green, a white grocer, has three stores, one in a black neighborhood. His black customers discover his prices are significantly higher in this store (55 cents vs 39 cents) than his prices in a wealthier neighborhood, or in a neighboring poor white area. The story is loaded with subtle commentary on ways capitalism screws over black folks while spinning credible excuses. When the customers picket, Green mutters, “Where do they get so much power?” He gives the obligatory “I’m not a racist” speech pointing out his name, and finishing with, “Green is the only color I’m interested in.” The association of green with money, of course, gives a double meaning to that remark. Then his brother-in-law has a suggestion to ease the situation:

“How would it be if you visited one of their meetings and chalked out, on a blackboard, the dollars and cents of your operation? Explain your overhead, your security fees, all the additional expenses. If you treat them with respect, they might understand.”
Green frowned. “That I would never do,” he said. “It would be admission of a certain guilt.”
The brother-in-law smiled, but only with one corner of his mouth. “Then you have something to feel guilty about?” he asked.
The grocer frowned at him. “Nothing! he said with great emphasis.

As in “Elbow Room”, there’s a wonderful thought experiment here, this time about a man buying a used stove. Green thinks it’s exonerating, but it’s actually quite damning, approving of exploitation. We, as readers, are given information the customers in the story don’t get: Green’s other two stores, the ones with lower prices, are basically subsidized by the higher prices at this one, so his rationale of paying more for security bars and such falls flat.

The story turns when his wife insists he run the store for one day selling everything for free. She also suggests he not buy any meats or expensive items beforehand to mitigate the loss, but otherwise give away anything anyone comes in to buy. She will leave him, and take his children, if he doesn’t do this. Talk about exploitation. He follows through, and the titular loaf of bread comes in at the very end in a spectacular way: even when being given a break, he has to tweak just a little more out of it.

“The Story of a Scar” features two people vying to tell a story only one of them knows. At one point I wrote “mansplaining!” in the margin. Something about the male figure seemed almost Satan-like to me, but I don’t see that anywhere else, so I’ll mark it as my idiosyncratic experience. At heart it’s about good people who seem bad, and bad people who seem good.

“I am an American” is another very funny story about a black couple touring Europe

One reason might have been our having grown tired of being mere tourists. In the Louvre two mornings before, among a crowd of American tourists standing transfixed before the Old Masters of Renaissance painting, I had suddenly found myself pointing a finger and exclaiming to Eunice, “Hey, didn’t they name a cheese after that guy?”
“Leroy, they did no such a-thing!” Eunice had hissed.
The other tourists had laughed nervously.
Eunice had pulled me out of the Louvre though not by the ear.
That same morning I had decided to wire one of a list of London people suggested to us by friends back home in Atlanta.

There’s a great deal of confusion over national identity of everyone: this guy might be Bulgarian because of the coat he wears, are the Orientals Chinese or Japanese, and one couple keeps asking what tribe in Africa the couple is from; the situation gets compounded when the husband tries to answer in what he thinks is Japanese. I had so much fun reading it, I didn’t really want to dissect the overriding necessity some people feel of figuring out who’s what. And then there’s the frequent refrain, “Eunice was right.” Now you’re talking.

There were a couple of stories that I couldn’t do much with. “Just Enough for the City” seems to be about religious alienation, but it could be anything; I kept wondering what city has that many proselytizers of so many widely different sects showing up every day. The language theme intrigued me, but I couldn’t connect with it; maybe I’ll run into something later on that will jog something loose. “The Silver Bullet” was too bro-lit; whereas “The Story of a Dead Man” was also strongly tough-guy, it had a center to return to. I started letting my eyes skim over sentences of “Bullet” and never really saw where it was going. That’s more or less a personal preference, or bias, if you will, and doesn’t reflect on the story as much as on my difficulty with certain styles.

I’m so glad I discovered McPherson, late as it is. I wondered why I haven’t seen this book out there more. Then I remember. Well, here it is. Yes, it’s more than 40 years old. Sadly, some things haven’t changed, and this book is a great touchstone for realizing how important it is that they do.

Doug Mack: The Not-Quite States of America (Norton, 2018)

The United States of America is not just a nation of states but also – legally and officially – of those scattered shards of earth and populace that make up our outposts far from the North American continent: the territories of the Virgin Islands of the United States, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico, along with the uninhabited Minor Outlying Islands.
They have U.S. National Parks and American Legion posts and U.S. post offices – just a standard first-class stamp gets your mail there; it’s all the same country. Their millions of citizens earn American dollars and pay into Social Security and Medicare and serve in the U.S. military at impressively high rates. They participate in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee and receive Pell Grants and play Little League baseball and have 4-H Clubs and serve as United States Ambassadors. They pledge allegiance to the American flag, even if Old Glory hasn’t made room for them.
Yet for the average resident of the states (lowercase s – because States would be the whole nation), the territories are all but forgotten. They’re extant but inconsequential, vestiges from another era whose ongoing existence is a cultural curiosity, like Tab soda or professional mini-golf. They flicker into our consciousness here and there – an offbeat news story, a friend’s tropical-island vacation photos, a passing reference in the fine print of a governmental form – and for a moment we think, oh, right …we have territories. Then, just as quickly, they disappear from our minds once more.
The territories are not part of our conception of ourselves.

I know we’re all dealing with multiple crises at the moment – pandemic, police violence, economic disruption, racism finally under national examination – but try to remember back in 2017. Man, that was a long time ago. Ok, hurricanes, especially Maria, that devastated Puerto Rico (and the US Virgin Islands, but somehow that never really got on our radar screen), the President of the United States throwing rolls of paper towels at people whose homes and livelihoods had been destroyed, Jose Andre’s World Central Kitchens feeding an island while politicians sat on their thumbs, a corrupt deal with an out-of-its-element electrical company to repair the Puerto Rican grid, and it went on and on for months until we got bored and started looking for new outrages, which, sadly, are always available.

Somewhere in that time frame, a tweet by Doug Mack crossed my path. The question about the citizenship of Puerto Ricans kept coming up, and it seems his book about the US Territories had been published earlier that year and answered a lot of the questions that were coming up. Not just about Puerto Rico, but about all the territories, however many there were, because most of us had no idea.

I got that book for last year’s in-between reading period, but I never got to it (appropriately enough) so I rolled it over to this year. I was a little unsure, since I’m not really interested in “travel books”. Turns out it’s not a travel book at all. Oh, there are some tales of people and interesting places and a chance encounter with a CIA-trained chef (that’s the Culinary Institute of America, not the spy shop, for those who didn’t spend years mesmerized by Top Chef), but it’s really a book about history and culture and American colonialism and why we don’t know anything about the US Territories.

Mack became interested in researching the Territories after an encounter with “the Quarters of Destiny”: you know, those special-issue quarters each state has, with a specific image carved on the back. Turns out the Territories have them, too, which he discovered looking at a portfolio of the quarters. Then a few days later he read something about American Samoa, and thought, “That’s one of those mysterious places on the quarters.”

Until very recently, I couldn’t even list the territories, let alone tell you anything about them. And if there’s anyone with no excuse for this, it’s me, a travel writer with a college degree in – ahem – American Studies.
My obsession with Americana runs deep, pulsing through my childhood in Minneapolis ….Years later, at Carleton College, amid the prairies and cornfields of southern Minnesota, I channeled this fascination into actual academics. I could rattle off esoteric facts (about the states ) and tell you the name of just about every capital (of the states). I graduated with the self-satisfied confidence of the newly diploma: I am a credentialed expert on all things American.
When I started out as a writer, my gaze turned overseas. I filed stories from Rome, from Ecuador, from a tiny Icelandic island. I was ever on the lookout for Americana and how it translated abroad ….
Yet in all this time, it never occurred to me, Mr. American Studies Guy, Mr. Globally Aware Travel Writer, that there was more of my very own country to consider. Parts of the USA about which I was not just fairly ignorant but almost wholly unaware. Places I could not reliably find on a map, within a thousand miles or even, in some cases, within the correct hemisphere.
And then one day I encountered what I now think of as the Quarters of Destiny….
It also seemed that, right around the turn of the twentieth century, the territories were part of the national mythology and the everyday conversation….It was one of the focal points of the 1900 presidential election, between Republican William McKinley and Democrat William Jennings Bryan.
A century or so ago, Americans didn’t just know about the territories but cared about them, argued about them. But what changed? How and why did they disappear from the national conversation? Was there a compelling reason why they mattered for the present day USA, or were they just remnants of a long-past historical moment?

These questions form the backbone of the book. Some of the answers may surprise you. For instance, in some ways they seem an awful lot like… colonies, can that be true? What’s a commonwealth, anyway? What’s the difference between an American national and an American citizen? What does guano have to do with all this?

It all started with the Guano Islands Act of 1856, when farmlands needed fertilizer and all these uninhabited islands covered in bird poop were just sitting around waiting for the taking. We still have Navassa (Haiti thinks they have it, and we’re pretty much in a stalemate that nobody seems to care too much about) though mining ended in the 19th century. From there, it became a game of I’m a Big Boy Now, as the US decided to make its mark on the world by acquiring non-contiguous lands; at the same time, the Navy wanted to become King of the Pacific, ceding the Atlantic to Great Britain. War seems to be a major motivation. Some territories were picked up after the Spanish-American war. Others became strategically important in the World Wars.

Mack goes through the territories one by one, while continuing the overall theme of answering those questions of how we came to have territories and why we don’t think of them now. Just when you think you’ve had enough of the history, he switches over to a nice little dinner he had with some people he met in a bar and we find out more about the attitudes towards the US and some of the culturally important aspects of island life. And then we’re back to political analysis and maybe a little economic scrutiny, ending with another group of new friends in “the rain forest version of Cheers. It’s a fascinating way to write a book, keeping a full-length narrative running while delving into details for each individual territory. It’s also very successful at keeping me turning pages.

Some details I found interesting:

The US Virgin Islands

In terms of the overall structure, Mack focuses his attention in this chapter on why the territories were acquired to begin with (guano), while delving into the USVI specifically.

On St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, the St. Thomas Historical Trust Museum is a paean to “Danish industry and Manor life” and pretty much ignores the indigenous peoples and the more recent colonial struggles, including a major slave revolt in the 18th century. There’s a reason for this:

[Danish tourists] come to the territory in droves, specifically for the history, for the portal to their 19th century glory days. The American tourists come for the beaches and the shopping. The museums and historic sites, intentionally or not, reflect this imbalance and tailor their content to their ticket-buying audience: the Danes. History is written not just by the victors but by those who are most eager to underwrite it.

Next time someone tries to tell you only White Christian Europe has ever produced anything important, remember all the peoples and things that have been left out, overshadowed, or appropriated to create that impression.

American Samoa

This seems, to me, like the most appealing of the islands Mack discusses. Again, he contributes to the overall story by focusing on the Imperial Moment and Insular Acts of the early 20th century, with the assistance of Columbia Law Professor Christina Duffy Ponsa.

Ponses answers all pointed back to the turn of the twentieth century, the USA’s so-called Imperial Moment. “That’s what the historical actors at the time see as the question: can we do empire?” she said. “In the wake of the Civil War, the federal government has become more powerful and the United States is now flexing its muscle on the international stage and European powers have been annexing colonies, so the question arises, Do we do this, too?
The nation’s answer: “Let’s go for it!”

This leads to constitutional questions: does the Constitution follow the flag? The Supreme Court, in its wisdom, left that up to Congress. Yeah. There’s also some routine racist stuff about how alien races can’t possibly be included with Anglo-Saxons. Fortunately, it’s a well-constructed book, it can handle being thrown across the room a few times.

Turns out American Samoa made the decision to decline citizenship – they are American nationals – to avoid possible “outsider land-grab”. The Lapita have been here for 3500 years, and trace their ancestry back another 3500 before that. They aren’t giving that up for a Marriott and a bunch of designer outlets. “There was pressure, even duress, but the fact remains – and American Samoans are deeply proud of this fact – that these islands were granted to, not claimed by, the USA.” They’d rather keep fa’asamoa – the Samoan way.

One surprising fact is that American Samoa – the Territories in general, in fact – have a much higher rate of military enlistment than any state. The NFL and professional wrestling also have an outsized proportion of Samoans. And: they have fa’afafine, the third gender, a person who is born male but identifies as female. Maybe they could help some mainland Americans understand how that works.


The prominent overall theme of this section is the general public’s waning interest in the Territories:

The Spanish-American war had helped put the United States on the global stage, and soon there were much bigger battles, literally, than what was going on in these small islands. The United States became more deeply involved than ever before in goings-on across the globe, at the same time that the ever-growing mass media was covering ever more stories in ever more distant places. The territories were overshadowed by the competition. These “foreign” islands were no longer the most interesting foreign lands.

We always have been suckers for bright shiny new objects.

One of those goings-on was a little thing called WWII, and Guam bears the scars. They may have the world’s largest Kmart (not sure if that’s still the case) and watch out for karaoke clubs (they aren’t really about karaoke) but they also have the War in the Pacific National Historical Park, where signs warn you to stay on the trail because there may be unexploded ordnance in the brush.

When Guam fell to the Japanese in the early days of WWII, the Chamorros were put in rapidly constructed, crude concentration camps, or just murdered.

Nearly twelve hundred Chamorros died during the years of Japanese occupation and the Battle of Guam. (If you think about the standard narrative of the war in the Pacific, it’s always USA versus Japan, with little acknowledgement that many of these islands were already populated by people caught in the middle.)
The South Pacific Memorial Park was established in 1970, a joint Japanese-Chamorro project. There’s no ill will here, just a mutual sorrow.

“Nearly a million Japanese citizens visit Guam every year.” Guam also has a very high rate of US military service; in the Iran and Afghanistan wars, the casualty rate for troops from Guam was six times higher than any state. I’m trying to understand these things.

The Northern Mariana Islands

In terms of the overall arc of the book, this section looks at some of the legal and political issues the Territories have dealt with in more recent decades, including the growing discomfort the US began to feel with their role as colonizers. Yet, as you might imagine, when a group of people can’t vote for President and have congressional representation that can’t vote on anything, there’s little motivation to cater to their needs and opinions. Alas, the territories can’t seem to agree themselves on their relationship to the US.

“Saipan is the most welcoming place on the planet,” Angelo had told me in an email before I arrived, and every day I met people who proved him right. And the landscape really was gorgeous, with the sky so pristinely blue that it felt manufactured and seemingly endless flame trees, ablaze with bright orange flowers.
But there was also an unmistakable sense that all was not well on Saipan, a disquieting feeling that the whole island had been burned, hardcore.
It was often the stillness of abandonment: empty houses, empty shops, entire vacant factory complexes, with broken windows and the occasional tree growing out of a roof.
I pulled my Hyundai to a halt when I saw an entire abandoned mall. …
The more modern the ghost town, the more disconcerting it is. Pompeii has a certain charm area Chernobyl does not. Recent ruins indicate research, relatable failings: THIS COULD BE YOU. Here, not too long ago, were vigor and joy and laughter and big plans. And then something went horribly wrong.

I’ve read this chapter three times now, and I still am not sure what it is that went wrong. It seems to be the predictable aftermath of Congress using the territories to experiment with economic approaches. One Speaker of the House called it his “Galapagos Island.” Mack has a particularly juicy way of describing it: “Imagine that you used a Club Med brochure and Atlas Shrugged as your manuals for constructing a new economy in a place with a long history of insularity and colonialism. What’s the worst that could happen in this laissez-faire Shangri-la?” Then there’s this tidbit, which I find shocking: “On Saipan, the tap water for most residents is not potable.”

The wartime history of this island again echoes the “caught in the middle” tragedy. It’s not just the mass suicide of the Japanese who realized they were losing the island. It’s the ghost of the North Field airbase on the small, now mostly abandoned island of Tinian, where Little Boy and Fat Man were loaded into the Enola Gay and Bockscar. Mack incorporates these aspects of the island with great sensitivity.

On the softer side, there’s the ubiquitous laundromat/poker room combination, and a lovely evening that included “Fanta with a Founding Father.” But overall, it’s the bleakest chapter.

Puerto Rico

The overall sense of this chapter is a summary. Mack presents his nine points answering the question of why no one cares about the Territories any more, one of those points being “it can get ugly so let’s not think about it.” That might be the ultimate American attitude towards everything, from colonies to race to COVID testing.

The chapter starts out, however, with an anecdote that delighted me: a visit to artist Samuel Lind’s house and a close look at his sculptures and prints celebrating the bomba dance. This charmed me because, four years ago in Pushcart 2016, I read a fascinating short story featuring bomba as both a plot and structural element: a dance with doctors in the interests of patient advocacy. As the header image, I chose a Lind print. All of this was out of a place of complete ignorance; I had to google “bomba” to learn what it was and why it was pertinent, and my choice of Lind was completely random. But it stuck with me, and now, four years later, I run into it again. This is why I blog what I read; it makes it more likely I’ll remember it later.

The main issue here is the conflict within the territory about its relationship to the States. The three sides – status quo, independence, and statehood – are passionate about their positions. The politics goes a little beyond me. The humanity doesn’t.

This is also where, by sheer accident, Mack ran into the CIA-trained chef (“I was Emeril’s sous chef in Orlando”), as well as an architectural student who, along with his photographer wife, got them into what might be the most opulent home Mack had ever seen – including “around eighty handmade tiles telling the story of Don Quixote.” There was a year when everything I read or did ended up connected to Norway; this year seems to be all about Don Quixote. And, fun fact: Puerto Rico has the highest concentration of Walgreens in the US, and the highest concentration of Walmarts in the world, which depresses the hell out of me.

The territories are neither united nor states nor part of either American continent, which makes it hard for them to assert their legitimacy as part of the United States of America. It’s understandable that so many people think of them – implicitly or explicitly – as foreign. But when you consider everything tangled up in the territories – issues of basic human and political rights, issues of immigration and military readiness, issues of regional politics and our reach in the world – it’s clear that they are integral to our national story, even today. And there’s the rub: the territories are the most important domestic policy issue Americans aren’t talking about, precisely because we don’t think of them as a domestic policy issue at all.

Yes, the territories are, in fact, modern day colonies. Of course they are. This fact has not changed since the Imperial moment. And that’s a problem, one that we, the United States of America, must resolve.

This was, in terms of the political content, a more intense read than I was prepared for at the moment. Turns out, it was a good read anyway. I learned a great deal about the Territories (beginning with what they are), actually found them on maps, figured out the difference between Micronesia and Polynesia (sort of), and felt everything from sorrow to amusement to delight. It’s not a travel book, but it’s not a history book, either; it’s somewhere in the middle, which is so appropriate for the subject of places somewhere in the middle of us and them.

Vladimir Nabokov: Pnin (Vintage International edition, 1989)

How should we diagnose his sad case? Pnin, it should be particularly stressed, was anything but the type of that good-natured German platitude of the last century, der zerstreute Professor. On the contrary, we was perhaps too wary, too persistently on the lookout for diabolical pitfalls, too painfully on the alert lest his erratic surroundings (unpredictable America) inveigle him into some bit of preposterous oversight. It was the world that was absent-minded and it was Pnin whose business it was to set it straight. His life was a constant war with insensate objects that fell apart, or attacked him, or refused to function, or viciously got themselves lost as soon as they entered the sphere of his existence. He was inept with his hands to a rare degree; but because he could manufacture in a twinkle a one-note mouth organ out of a pea pod, make a flat pebble skip ten times on a the surface of a pond, shadowgraph with his knuckles a rabbit (complete with blinking eye), and perform a number of other tame tricks that Russians have up their sleeves, he believed himself endowed with considerable manual and mechanical skill. On gadgets he doted with a kind of dazed, superstitious delight. Electric devices enchanted him. Plastics swept him off his feet. He had a deep admiration for the zipper. But the devoutly plugged-in clock would make nonsense of his mornings after a storm in the middle of the night had paralyzed the local power station. The frame of his spectacles would snap in mid-bridge, leaving him with two identical pieces, which he would vaguely attempt to unite, in the hope, perhaps, of some organic marvel of restoration coming to the rescue. The zipper a gentleman depends on most would come loose in his puzzled hand at some nightmare moment of haste and despair.
And he still did not know that he was on the wrong train.

How come no one ever told me how wonderful this book is?

I don’t even remember why I added it to my in-between read list this year; I vaguely recall reading somewhere something like “the novel about the very funny Professor Pnin.” I could be imagining that, but since I have a longstanding fondness for “campus novels” (a subgenre I didn’t realize, until I read David Lodge’s 2004 commentary on the novel, only came into existence in the early to mid-1950s, and thus of which Pnin serves as an early example) I would have been tempted by such a description.

It worked both as a casual surface read – wonderful turns of language, amusing characters, arpeggios running from preposterously funny entanglements to heartbreaking pathos, the incorporation of poignant phrases done so subtly it’s almost as if they were accidental – and, with some help from those more perceptive than I, as an example of literary skill as well.

It’s fairly short for a novel – less than 200 pages for my trade paperback edition – and divided into seven episodic chapters. It comes close to being the “novel in stories,” in fact. And I discovered there’s a reason for that: four of those chapters were serialized in The New Yorker over the course of a couple of years in the mid-fifties, before its publication as a novel in 1957.

Thanks to the paper “A Resolved Discord” by Gennady Barabtarlo, I discovered an additional structure to the inner chapters (excluding the first and seventh, which have a different relationship): they begin and end in ways to strengthen their themes:

Chapter Two opens to the tune of the Waindell College chimes, replaced by the ringing of the Clementses’ telephone (Pnin calls to inquire about renting a room in their house), and ends with a close-up of Joan Clements abstractly examining the cover of a local magazine with the Waindell belfry on it, while Pnin yields to utter despair.
Chapter Three begins with a description of Pnin’s uncomfortable, sound-leaking lodgings and closes at the point when Pnin will have to vacate the first room in which he feels really at home.
Chapter Four, which is central both compositionally and thematically, has been studied more thoroughly than any other chapter. Victor Wind dreams of his imaginary father, a lonely and betrayed King, at the beginning; at the end, Pnin (Victor’s water father, as his real father, Eric Wind, jokes, perhaps more aptly than he may suppose) sees a sequel to Victor’s fantasy in his own dream….
In Chapter Five the woods of “beautiful New England” fan out most tranquilly as far as the view from a watch-tower can afford. Towards the end of the chapter, however, they change gradually into, and then are replaced by, the ominous German forest where Pnin’s sweetheart was murdered in one of the extermination camps situated inside a serene environment, at the core of a German cultural memorial.
At the beginning of Chapter Six, a new semester at Waindell starts on its routine autumn course, and Pnin finds a suitable home at long last; at the end, he must give up his position at the university and the sweet hope of settling in the house for good.

~ Gennady Barabtalo: “A Resolved Discord”

The first and last chapters are something like bookends, giving us our first and last glimpses of both Pnin, and the narrator. Barabtalo calls them “outward facing,” a phrase I don’t quite understand but quite like, and notes they also face each other, a concept I can see more clearly and will get to presently.

The one writing technique I noticed on my own was the question of the narrator’s identity. In fact, the story often became less important to me than the question of who is telling the story, and it’s not a question that is ever definitively answered.

And, incredibly enough, this ends up relating to language, translation, pain, and … Don Quixote! Stephen Casmier ties them all together in his 2004 paper (2004 seems to have been a banner year for Pnin analysis, I’m not sure why), “A Speck of Coal Dust: Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin and the Possibility of Translation.” His thesis, as I interpret it (and I could be misreading; it’s a bit above my pay grade) is that Nabokov conceived of this novel while giving a series of lectures on Don Quixote (one of which is referred to, by the way, in Jason Brown’s “The Last Voyage of the Alice B. Toklas” from Pushcart 2020), and was intrigued by Quixote’s pain, how it was narrated, translated into language, alongside Wittgenstein’s and Scarry’s concepts that pain confounds language; all of this gets wrapped up in Pnin, who teaches Russian language and mangles English in hilarious ways (whisky and soda comes out as varnish and sawdust, yet his landlady knows exactly what he means).

In many ways, pain is the white noise of Pnin, a constant pulse, throbbing in the background. Pnin is a man in unrelenting, unforgettable and often unexpressed pain.

~ Stephen Casmier: “A Speck of Coal Dust: Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin and the Possibility of Translation”

Let’s start with pain; then we’ll look at narration, and let Casmier tie everything together.

Pnin’s narrator reveals his pain several times. Even his name – he gives explicit instructions on the pronunciation of his first name, Timofey, but we never know the correct way to say Pnin – speaks to the garbled language of pain. Several specific instances stand out to me. In the first chapter, for example, as he is struggling to get to a speaking engagement but has found himself on the wrong train, he suffers some kind of seizure, one of those moments of extreme emotionality in the middle of a comedic episode.

In the second chapter, we meet his ex-wife, a piece of work if there ever was one. That she is a psychiatrist is the icing on the cake. When they are still living in Europe, she dumps him for another guy, gets pregnant, claims to want Pnin back in order to use his possession of a special visa to obtain passage to the States, and sends the cuckolder to dump him again on board the ship even as Pnin is enthusiastically planning the adoption of his child. Now, thirteen years later, she shows up, insults his lodgings, his clothing, his salary, and asks him to send money monthly to the child, a gifted teen artist in boarding school, as she is again divorcing. It’s painful to read. Even as he agrees to her request, Pnin recognizes her flaws, and after she leaves, he contemplates the downside of heaven as being reunited with her. Then he encounters a highly symbolic squirrel:

He seemed to be quite unexpectedly (for human despair seldom leads to great truths ) on the verge of a simple solution of the universe but was interrupted by an urgent request. A squirrel under a tree had seen Pnin on the path. In one sinuous tendril-like moment, the intelligent animal climbed up to the brim of a drinking fountain and, as Pnin approached, thrust its oval face toward him with a rather coarse spluttering sound, its cheeks puffed out. Pnin understood and after some fumbling he found what had to be pressed for the necessary results. Eyeing him with contempt, the thirsty rodent forthwith began to sample the stocky sparkling pillar of water, and went on drinking for a considerable time. “She has fever, perhaps,” thought Pnin, weeping quietly and freely, and all the time politely pressing the contraption down while trying not to meet the unpleasant eye fixed upon him. Its thirst quenched, the squirrel departed without the least sign of gratitude.
The water father continued up on his way ….

I’ve noticed several commentators refer to the frequent appearance of squirrels in the book, but this is the only one that I noticed, perhaps because it has a neon sign flashing “I’m recreating the prior humiliation!” It’s not irrelevant that the ex-wife, when she told Pnin about the pregnancy, referred to Pnin as the boy’s “water father” because of the ocean voyage.

In Chapter 5, the émigré weekend at The Pines, a deeper agony is revealed. Pnin recalls his first love, Mira, who was lost to him by circumstances beyond their control: “The Civil War of 1918-22 separated them: history broke their engagement.” They each married others, and ran into each other in Berlin some time later. This might seem like enough pain, but we’re just getting started:

In order to exist rationally, Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to remember Mira Belochkin — not because, in itself, the evocation of a youthful love affair, banal and brief, threatened his peace of mind (alas, recollections of his marriage to Liza were imperious enough to crowd out any former romance), but because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible. One had to forget—because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one’s lips in the dusk of the past.

If Pnin suppresses his pain, he has not forgotten it, as we see in Chapter 6 when he, at his most buoyant in the novel, giving a “house-heating” party for his new home, looking forward to a new semester, unaware he is about to be fired, makes enthusiastic plans with the dean who is about to do the firing:

You and I will give next year some splendid new courses which I have planned long ago. On Tyranny. On the Boot. On Nicholas the First. On all the precursors of modern atrocity. Hagen, when we speak of injustice, we forget Armenian massacres, tortures which Tibet invented, colonists in Africa …The history of man is the history of pain.

This is also where he mentions he has been advised by doctors, upon x-ray examination, that there is “a shadow behind the heart.” There sure is. By the way, it’s interesting reading the above paragraph on a weekend when statues of slaveholders, slave traders, racists and exploiters of various nations are being torn down by those tired of honoring evil.

Now about that narration. Things start out as typically third-person omniscient, a narrator who has insight into Pnin’s thoughts and knowledge of all his past and present actions. Sometimes it seems to address the reader a bit – “Now a secret must be imparted,” we’re told, the secret being that Pnin is on the wrong train. “How should we diagnose his sad case?” as an introduction to an encapsulation of Pnin’s overall personality and manner. The narrator refers to him as “our friend”. All of this could be seen as a stylistic approach to a standard narration, a style generally abandoned over a hundred years ago when somehow it was decided that narrators should blend into the woodwork, but it seemed a bit odd to me beyond the now-abandoned technique of having a pseudo-personality as narrator.

And sure enough, about two-thirds of the way through chapter 1, in discussing the episode of physical distress Pnin experiences when he realizes the complexities of getting to his lecture on time and with his paper, the narrator coalesces into a person, though an unidentified one: “I do not know if it has ever been noted before…” leading into a metaphorical discussion of Pnin’s distress. “Was his seizure a heart attack? I doubt it. For the nonce, I am his physician, and let me repeat, I doubt it.” I was led astray by this sentence, and thought the narrator was indeed Pnin’s physician, thus could conceivably have more access to the material revealed. But that was a misreading. “For the nonce” makes physicianship a momentary function of the narrator, not their relationship. I would like to believe this was a deliberate misdirection on Nabokov’s part, but since I don’t see reference to it anywhere else, I will have to put it upon myself and my less-than-sophisticated reading skill.

This personhood of the narrator, though not the identity, is nailed down at the end of the first chapter, when we find he would have preferred to see more pain for Pnin:

Some people – and I am one of them – hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam. The avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above the cowering village behaves not only unnaturally but unethically. Had I been reading about this mild old man, instead of writing about him, I would have preferred him to discover, upon his arrival to Cremona, that his lecture was not this Friday but the next. Actually, however, he not only arrived safely but was in time for dinner ….

This narratorial intrusion (can that be a thing, please) continues throughout the book, but we don’t get a clue as to the identity of the person until the last chapter, when we discover he is an incoming Waindell professor, a replacement to Hagen, I presume, and claims to have met Pnin several times over his life, the first when they were children (though Pnin disputes those accounts). And here’s where the Casmier paper becomes an excellent guide to this mystery:

Nabokov uses several techniques to create a profoundly unsteady literary landscape—casting aspersions on the first-person narrator and what he actually knows about his subject, Pnin, and thus hopelessly alienating Pnin from the narrator and the instance of narration. Readers learn, for example, that Pnin leaves the scene at the same moment that the narrator enters the timeline of his own narrative. Pnin drives off down the highway while the narrator pursues him by foot, never catching up. Because of this, the reader surmises that knowledge that the narrator has about Pnin must be second-hand and garnered through the mostly unreliable sources of Waindell.
Indeed, by the end of the novel, it becomes manifest that much of what the reader knows about Pnin could have been made up just so the narrator could flaunt his own, brilliant writing abilities. In essence, Pnin (the character) seems like a horrible translation, presented by a translator with a dubious relationship to his subject.

~ Stephen Casmier: “A Speck of Coal Dust: Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin and the Possibility of Translation”

That last scene, literally the last page of the book, is so wonderful, it’s worth quoting here:

Hardly had I taken a couple of steps when a great truck carrying beer rumbled up the street, immediately followed by a small pale blue sedan with the white head of a dog looking out, after which came another great truck, exactly similar to the first. The humble sedan was crammed with bundles and suitcases; its driver was Pnin. I emitted a roar of greeting, but he did not see me ….I hurried past the rear truck, and had another glimpse of my old friend, in tense profile, wearing a cap with earflaps and a storm coat; but next moment the light turned green, the little white dog leaning out yapped at Sobakevitch, and everything surged forward – truck one, Pnin, truck two. From where I stood I watched them recede in the frame of the roadway, between the Moorish house and the Lombardy poplar. Then the little sedan boldly swung past the front truck and, free at last, spurted up the shining road, which one could make out narrowing to a thread of gold in the soft mist where hill after hill made beauty of distance, and where there was simply no saying which miracle might happen.
Cockerell, brown-robed and sandaled, let in the cocker and led me kitchenward, to a British breakfast of depressing kidney and fish.
“And now,” he said, “I am going to tell you the story of Pnin rising to address the Cremona Women’s Club and discovering he had brought the wrong lecture. .”

This brings us back to the beginning (I love circular structure; the first and last chapters facing each other, indeed) but, more importantly, it indicates there is a possible source for the material the narrator could not know: Jack Cockerell, fellow professor and skilled Pnin mimic (and possibly rooster-man), who has bored more than one party (such as the one in Chapter 2) with far too many re-enactments shading from humorous to caricature to cruelty. So not only could the writer/narrator be making things up to show off his literary skill (though his reluctance to change the Cremona ending to suit his taste for a more tragic ending might hint against that) but his source is likely exaggerating simply to give himself better performance material. And of course there could be other sources in addition to Cockerell.

What does this have to do with Don Quixote, with translation? The issue isn’t one of language translation, but of character translation from reality to page, via a writer and, possibly, a narrator. Then Casmier looks at how the character himself leaves the work and becomes something on his own, something outside the control of the writer, narrator, or anyone other than whoever is creating him in their mind, memory, and imagination. DQ with its multiple layers of narration – an original manuscript, a second manuscript, a translation, and someone who put it all together, reaching back to the creator of the universe, for that matter – is how Casmier sees the narrative structure of Pnin, all metaphorically reflecting how our pain gets conveyed. Philosophers would start using words like qualia – conscious experience, such as pain, that simply can’t be transferred from one to another but only described, the ultimate problematic translation – but I’m already way over my head here so I’ll just drop that there.

But let me drop in one more observation, one I didn’t recognize until I started putting together the header image for this post featuring the book cover of the edition I read. I confess that it is my favorite cover of the options I see, though it’s mere coincidence that this is the cover I ended up with; I ordered it used, sight unseen. Yet here I see Pnin, the title, author, and bow tie, is neatly encased in a frame or shadow box, which is neatly encased on a shaded background. Did the layers of narration make it to the cover art, or is this merely aesthetics?

None of this is really necessary to enjoy the book. There isn’t much plot; most of it is coming to know more about Pnin through his interactions with colleagues, landlords, his ex-wife, and her child. Some may find the wordiness annoying, in this age when minimalism rules, but that’s one of the things I liked most. I enjoyed the mystery of the narrator, the blend of joy and agony, Pnin’s rise to bliss, and if I’m sad that this bubble was popped at the end, I understand he shows up again in Pale Fire and so has landed on his feet. A happy ending, narrator be damned.

Rebecca Goldstein: Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (Schocken, 2009)

I was being true to Spinoza in leaving behind the personal sense of him that had opened up to me within the space of one small Hebrew phrase; and yet it is back to that personal sense of him that I am trying now to return, even knowing what I know about his philosophy. I would like to recapture the sense of the man behind the formidable system, locate the pounding pulse of subjectivity within the crystalline structure of radical objectivity.
There was a moment long ago when I knew next to nothing about the magnificent reconfiguration of reality laid out in the system of Spinoza, and yet when I felt I knew something about what it was like to have been him, the former yeshiva student, Baruch Spinoza.
I would like to know that feeling again, even though I know that the desire amounts to betraying Spinoza.

This wasn’t the book I expected it to be, but in retrospect, that’s a good thing. I’m nowhere near ready for full-on Spinoza philosophy, and here I got a gentle introduction to some of the key points wrapped in an engaging story of a person, a people, and three nations, as told by a philosopher.

I became interested in this book last year when I read Goldstein’s novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. One of the characters referred to Spinoza as the “atheist’s theologian” (note: I don’t consider myself an atheist; there isn’t a commonplace label for my constantly shifting spiritual quasi-beliefs) and some casual googling uncovered his phrase Deus sive Natura, God or Nature. I wasn’t sure what the exact implications of this phrase were, and I wanted to find out. Goldstein’s book seemed like a start.

After a brief abstract that combines biography, history, and philosophy in a sort of preview-of-coming-attractions, Goldstein starts with a scene from her own childhood at a New York yeshiva high school for girls. Her teacher, Mrs. Schoenfeld, used Spinoza, the excommunicated Jew of Amsterdam, as “a cautionary tale of unbridled human intelligence blindly seeking its own doom,” and among other things as the perils of valuing philosophy over the Torah. We get a second biography from this point of view, along with a thoughtful student’s reactions. At one point, Mrs. Shoenfeld speaks of one small positive feature of Spinoza, and in doing so, made an impression she might not have intended:

However, continued Mrs. Schoenfeld, Spinoza did retain one Jewish virtue, and a very important one at that: Respect for his parents. Just think about that for a moment, girls. Even a man like that, completely godless, still honored his parents. He waited until both his parents had passed away before he revealed his apikoros. … He had followed exactly the prescribed mitzvahs for mourning a parent, going every day to the synagogue, saying Kaddish. And while his father lived, he had kept his silence because of shalom bayis.

But now, with this phrase, Spinoza burst into vivid life before me. It was as if I suddenly knew him, knew the manner of person he was. ….He had not wanted to hurt his family by speaking his doubts aloud. Though he was a man who had given himself over entirely to the search after truth – I knew this instinctively – still he would not speak the truth so long as his doing so might hurt those whom he loved.
And from this one fact about Spinoza I knew that Mrs. Schoenfeld was mistaken in thinking that it was his arrogance that explained his departure from orthodoxy. An arrogant person would not have shown such heightened consideration for others’ sensibilities. He would not have waited until his father had died before revealing how deeply he questioned the beliefs of the fathers. The thought occurred to me that he must have been a lovable man. I sat in Mrs. Schoenfeld’s class and I felt that I loved him.
My teacher had tried to make us feel Spinoza’s betrayal as our own, as if we, too, were part of that close-knit community of former Marranos, which in some sense we were. She had tried her best to put the seventeenth-century philosopher into familiar terms, and she had succeeded, though, at least in my case, not exactly as she had intended.

I hadn’t realized until I read Harold Bloom’s NYT review (which, I confess, I poorly understand, but I don’t think he’s a fan) that the title has two meanings. For me, Goldstein was the philosopher betraying Spinoza by approaching him in a more personal sense rather than through the radical objectivity he spent his life writing about. But “Betraying Spinoza” can also be a descriptive term for the yeshiva boy, the Sephardic Jew whose family fled from Spain to Portugal to Amsterdam long before he was born in search of a place they could safely be Jewish, who turned his back on Torah and Talmud and disavowed the special relationship between the nation of Israelites and God in favor of a view of the universe through reason, a view that made logic into God, into everything that is.

To get to Spinoza’s ideas of the fundamental nature of the world and the route to salvation, Goldstein takes us through Sephardic history in Spain and Portugal as well as his life in Amsterdam where Jews were relatively safe. She sees his vision of identity as a reaction to the Jewish identity which, prior to arrival in Amsterdam, was denied, hidden, or forgotten, yet always existed. The question of “What is a Jew” – is it a cultural, genetic, religious, voluntary, or permanent trait? – for her resolves in his idea that, in the system Spinoza envisioned, “To the extent that we are rational, we, all of us, partake in the same identity.”

We also need to understand the importance of Kabbalah to Sephardic Jewry in particular. I was glad I’d taken a mooc explaining the basics of Kabbalah, since the ideas come at you quickly.

Lurianic Kabbalah, transmitted from his visions of Elijah, offered a new narrative to explain the moral history of the suffering world, and the role that the Jews were chosen to play in that moral history. It is a tale of a shattering – a shevira – at the very beginning of the creation of the world, when the
Ein Sof, or that without end, contracted itself so that the world could be created. The divine light entered into the ten vessels that were waiting to receive it, and some were shattered, the shards falling into the abyss from which the world arose, carrying sparks of light that were trapped within. From the moment of its first being, then, the world was not as it ought to have been. ….It is tikkun ha olam – healing the world – which in mystical terms is described as the gathering up of the shards of the broken vessels, the divine light caught within them. ….When all is restored to its rightful place, the Messiah will come; his arrival will not deliver our redemption to us, but rather signal that redemption has, through man’s spiritual efforts, been achieved.

This view that the world was broken from the start and our job is to fix it somewhat parallels Spinoza’s idea that the world is made of logic and everything in it is as it should be; and if we can attain that logical view, much of our conflict stemming from differences will be unnecessary. I see the likeliness of either approach happening getting slimmer all the time, but I’ve become more pessimistic every day over the past three years. In any case, Spinoza departed from Kabbalistic ideas at the broken vessels, because why should they break? He’s got a point.

Biography is sprinkled throughout the book. Sometimes it’s factual and objective from the academic side of Goldstein; other times it’s through imaginings as her fiction writer self steps forward. Aspects of Spinoza’s philosophy are explained as well: conatus, the essence of identity that makes us who we are; the pleasure of expanding into the world, the pain of withdrawing from it, the desire towards pleasure are the primary emotions. “Reality is ontologically enriched logic”: that’s the sort of thing I’m going to need to read more about; it almost makes sense, but not quite.

It’s a book that makes me want to know more. I suspect Spinoza’s ideas have been superseded by those of others – Nagel’s The View from Nowhere, a more contemporary discussion of radical objectivity in light of information we now have from science, keeps cropping up here, as it did in Goldstein’s novel. But it’s a start, and, in places, an emotionally gripping one.

Another Biochem mooc (MIT version)

Course: Biochemistry: Biomolecules, Methods, and Mechanisms
Length: 12? weeks, 3-6? hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: Michael Yaffe

We developed 7.05x Biochemistry with an emphasis on:
• Developing your scientific thinking skills including articulating hypotheses, performing thought experiments, interpreting data, and designing experiments.
• Using data based on real scientific experiments and highlighting the scientific process.
• Asserting that biology is an active field that changes daily through examples of MIT (and other current) research, not static information in a textbook.
• Visualizing real molecular structures with PyMOL to better understand function and mechanism.
• Appreciating the quantitative aspects of biochemistry and practicing this quantitation with MATLAB.
• Translating topics in biochemistry to diseases and medicine.
• Conveying the authentic MIT firehose experience.
• Implementing the science of learning in the course design.

I started to take this course a couple of years ago, and ran away screaming when I saw it started with “Buffers and pH.” For some reason I felt more up to it at this point, though I haven’t done any additional work on those topics. Predictably, I did quite poorly on that unit – and a couple of other units – but it was still very worthwhile.

MIT’s biology department emphasis is always on the practical approach. That is, they go through a pathway or a process in detail, give you a couple of general questions to see if you’ve got the idea, then throw you into a story set in a lab and make you figure out the setup: what assay do you need, what product are you looking for, what reactants do you need, what would you expect to see, what does this result – graph, gel image, whatever – mean. This is, after all, what biochemists are training for, not memorizing reactions. Something I discovered late in the course: the names of the fictional lab team in the Problem Set questions are the names of biochemists. They don’t have the distinct (and amusing) personalities of those in the Molecular Bio lab scenarios, but it’s still a great approach.

The home page emphasize some prior biology is needed to succeed. As usual, I needed more (any?) organic chem in some places; they do provide a nice set of review materials on pertinent topics – orbitals, thermodynamics, functional groups – and that helped.

The material is broken down into eight modules, one released every week, but the due dates allow a week of extra time for all modules. I wish I had the chops to spend just 3 to 6 hours as predicted on the home page; for me, it was more like 10 – 12 hours, though I do a lot of extra work basically copying the whole course into a Word document for future reference. Each module consists of a set of between ten and twenty video lectures; these are each followed by a short quiz that allows unlimited attempts for each question. The module is capped off by a Problem Set, where the number of attempts are more restricted and the lab scenario is usually prominent. As you might expect, the Problem Sets count for a lot more than the Test Yourself quizzes. Some weeks have far more material than others, but it might be they seemed harder to me because they hammered my weaknesses.

Some of the Problem Sets included questions that required the use of MatLab; you can connect for free through the course (in fact I still had an account from a prior course, to my surprise). I skipped these entirely. Maybe another time. Optional PyMol assignments were also included. I used PyMol in another course, and liked it a lot, but I didn’t mess with it this time; I had too much to deal with already.

Then there’s the “final”, in the form of what they call a Competency Exam (paywalled; $150). Don’t worry if you can’t or don’t want to pay the fee; there’s plenty of testing throughout to make sure you’ve got the salient points. I’m perfectly happy with the free material available, even if I do have a score of only 26% to show for my trouble. The bright side is, the maximum could only be 30%, so if I look at it one way, I got a score of 86%. I suspect the Competency Exam is significantly harder (they call it a challenge), it’s timed (oh no…), and it would have required a review of all the material (and I was pretty much done by the time I finished the last problem set) so I’m fine with not paying $150 for the work and likely humiliation.

I’m a big fan of MIT’s approach, even though I’ll never set foot in a bio lab or work on an actual science degree. The Harvard Biochem mooc is, after the thermodynamic component, more about specific pathways, particularly the generation, metabolism, and regulation of major elements, and the testing is far more information-retrieval. I might take that again, because that’s fun, too. And I feel more up to the thermodynamics and kinetics material, thanks to this course.

Daniel Kehlmann (Ross Benjamin, translator): Tyll (Pantheon, 2020)

The war had not yet come to us. We lived in fear and hope and tried not to draw God’s wrath down upon our securely walled town, with its hundred and five houses and the church and the cemetery, where our ancestors waited for the Day of Resurrection.
We prayed often to keep the war away. We prayed to the Almighty and to the kind Virgin, we prayed to the Lady of the Forest and to the Little People of Midnight, to Saint Gerwin, to Peter the Gatekeeper, to John the Evangelist, and to be safe we also prayed to Old Mela, who during the Twelve Nights, when the demons are let loose, roams the heavens at the head of her retinue. We prayed to the Horned Ones of ancient days and to Bishop Martin, who shared his cloak with the beggar when the latter was freezing, so that they were then both freezing and both pleasing to God, for what’s the use of half a cloak in winter, and of course we prayed to Saint Maurice, who had chosen death with a whole legion rather than betray his faith in the one just God.
Twice a year the tax collector came and always seemed surprised that we were still here. Now and then merchants came, but since we didn’t buy much they soon went on their way, which was all right with us. We needed nothing from the wide world and gave it no thought until one morning a covered wagon, pulled by a donkey, rolled down our main street. It was a Sunday at the beginning of spring, the stream was swollen with meltwater, and in those fields that weren’t lying fallow we had sown the seed.
A red canvas tent was pitched on the wagon. In front of it crouched an old woman. Her body looked like a bag, her face seemed made of leather, her eyes looked like tiny black buttons. A younger woman with freckles and dark hair stood behind her. But on the coach box sat a man we recognized even though he had never been here before, and when the first of us realized who he was and called his name, others too realized, and soon many voices were calling from all directions: “Tyll is here!” “Tyll has come!” “Look, it’s Tyll!” It could be no one else.

And here we go again: I love a book that teaches me something. Those who’ve read those words from me before know this will be one of my long, meandering posts that may not really address the book as much as the learning experience. So let me give you the short version up front: I loved this book. I loved the themes of decision points, of contrasting points of view, of modernity’s science and individuality emerging slowly from the pre-modern superstition and group identity, of the absurd juxtapositions of Christian words and deeds, of the obscenity of war. I loved the writing style that changed to fit the story from chapter to chapter, acting something like Tyll himself: now mocking, now thoughtful, now playful, now caring and kind, now terrifying, now uncertain. I loved the philosophy woven into the story, the art and drama, the historical personages, the major works of scholars. And I loved the touches of the supernatural, the hints that sometimes were never really nailed down, and the other outright magic.

If you’re wondering if you would enjoy reading it, I suggest you check out one of the many professional reviews can be found in all the usual places: TNY, the NYT, the Guardian. Rob Doyle for the TLS is the only clearly negative entry: while he admires the sprinkling of “Borgesian tidbits”, he feels “it is quite a slog – there’s lots of history and not enough story.” I would disagree, arguing that the history is presented as story, with the characters evincing their own unique qualities and undergoing various trials and adventures, all of which involve, at some point, meeting up with Tyll Ulenspiegel, himself a semi-historical character. Then again, I did my second read in front of my computer, checking out every name, place, and date, which, ok, some might consider a slog. I found it great fun.

I don’t remember how this book came to my attention, but someone said something that grabbed me. Kehlmann is a German writer, not likely to come across my screen by the usual channels. The book was published in German back in 2017 with great success in Europe; the English translation was released this year. I’ve read that it’s being filmed as a Netflix series (though who knows what the pandemic may do to that idea); I think that means it will be in German, since those notices preceded the English publication. If that’s the case, I hope Netflix will make English subtitles available. I’m very curious to see how they realize the book.

I knew nothing about the Thirty Years’ War in which it is set, and the only thing I thought I knew about Til Eulenspiegel turned out to be completely wrong (for some reason, I thought he was a female fairy or a nymph, not a male prankster). I hit Wikipedia and the Youtube for some general info before I read the book. The original Tyll Eulenspiegel (the spelling of both names varies; the novel uses Tyll Ulenspiegel) was possibly a real person from the fourteenth century, but was solidified as a prankster character by a sixteenth-century chapbook. The background image of Tyll I used in the header image above is from a 1921 German “emergency note”, temporary money issued after WWI. Seems a little weird to put a famous prankster on money, but it was a weird time. The war is way too complicated to really understand; I can’t keep straight who’s Catholic and who’s Protestant, and have no idea how all the many kingdoms are organized. I did some additional basic research on individuals as I read along, which helped; in one case I recognized a character from something I read last year, which really curled my toes. I’m guessing my toes would have curled more if I’d been more up on the war, but my lack of info didn’t get in the way of the read at all.

The chapters – or maybe sections would be a better word for it, since some of the longer ones are subdivided into numbered chapters – each have distinctive characteristics, and are set at various times during the Thirty Years’ War that devastated great portions of northern and central Europe in the seventeenth century. The sections aren’t in chronological order, they feature different characters, and different narrative styles and tones are used. There’s some mild confusion for a few pages at times until it becomes clear who’s who and when, but in general, I found it read easily. And of course, what ties it all together is Tyll, even though he barely appears in some sections.

Let’s go through it, shall we, and I’ll add in some extras along the way.

We start out with “Shoes,” which, as quoted above, opens in a small village as yet unaffected by the war. This chapter introduces us to Tyll’s travelling circus at perhaps the height of his fame as an entertainer, and to the qualities that sum him up as a person. For example, his signature talents are tightrope walking and juggling, which serve as metaphors for his life skills throughout the book. It’s told in third person plural from the point of view of the town; this gives the final paragraphs great impact.

In his NYT interview with Tobias Gray, Kehlmann explains how he heard the shoe story as a child as a moral tale, with Tyll’s pranks “showing people their folly.” He later disagreed with this; a purported translation of the original chapbook gives the impression the “Shoes” incident was more about revenge for the village boys dumping him in the river than about an ethics lesson. So Kehlmann has rewritten it in this book with a conversation that indicates more clearly that this Tyll’s point is shining a spotlight on hypocrisy and the evil that lurks even in the most upright towns: he chats with a young girl, asking her if the people are “good people…. Peaceful people, help each other, understand each other, like each other, is that the sort of people they are?” The girl assures him they are. Yet, during his tightrope stunt, they are easily goaded into attacking each other over, of all things, shoes. The town remembers:

We never spoke about what had happened. Nor did we speak about Ulenspiegel. Without having arranged it, we stuck to this; even Hans Semmler, who was so severely injured that from now on he was confined to his bed and could eat nothing but thick soup, pretended it had never been otherwise. And even the widow of Karl Schönknecht, whom we buried the next day in the churchyard, acted as if it had been a blow of fate and as if she didn’t know exactly whose knife it had been in his back. Only the rope still hung for days over the square, trembled in the wind and was a perch for sparrows and swallows until the priest, who had been roughed up especially badly during the brawl, because we didn’t like his boastfulness and his condescension, could climb up the bell tower again to cut it down.
At the same time, we didn’t forget. What had happened remained between us. It was there while we brought in the harvest, and it was there when we bargained over our grain or assembled on Sunday for the Mass, where the priest had a new facial expression, half wonder and half fear. And it was there especially when we held celebrations on the square and when we looked each other in the face while dancing. Then the air seemed heavier, the water different on our tongues, and the sky, where the rope had hung, not quite itself.

This entire first chapter is available online at Bomb Magazine; it’s short, entertaining, moving, and worth the read. But don’t be misled (and don’t worry, if you happen to hate first person plural); remember, each chapter has its own narrative style and tone.

The second section, “Lord of the Air”, is much longer and serves as a sort of origin story, laying down a foundation that will return again and again throughout later chapters. Tyll is just a boy; his father Claus married himself into the town miller job, but is at heart a philosopher. That made it one of the most fun chapters for me, as I watched him wrestle with the sorities paradox, aka the Problem of the Heaps (if you take a grain of sand from a heap of sand, is it still a heap? At what point is it not a heap?) which became the 20th century’s fuzzy logic exemplar, the Indiscernability of Identicals that Liebniz formulated just a few decades after Claus, infinities, and other topics those of us fond of philosophy and logic moocs have encountered along the way. At the same time, he works on spells, potions, and amulets. It’s a wonderful reminder that, even with the spells and superstitions, this is the world on the brink of modernity, with science on its way down the birth canal.

Tyll as well does some thinking that could be considered philosophical; he wonders what it’s like to be a donkey. Thomas Nagel will later write a famous paper about consciousness titled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”, but for Tyll, the donkey experience is alien enough. He retains an affinity with donkeys for the rest of the novel. I’ve tried to figure out if there’s some symbolism involved, but all I come up with is the helper animal of Christianity, and I’m not sure that fits.

[Addendum: A couple of hours after this post went live, Egyptologist/Historian (and tweeter of Papyrus Stories) Jenny Cromwell tweeted a link to a new French Egyptology book (English title In The Footsteps Of The Donkey In The Egyptian Religion. There’s an English abstract on the publisher’s website:

Donkeys were essential in ancient Egyptian trade and agriculture, but their value was nuanced by their perception in religion. The animal appears in funerary, magical or ritual sources, where it often reflects an ambivalent nature, while its well-known association to the evil god Seth is constantly reminded in the modern literature.
Either benevolent or evil, donkeys are ambiguous entities that can be recognized as dreadful beings possessing powers praised for their protective efficiency. Although they can be associated to Seth, they also followed their own path. In magical texts, the animal was feared and revered at the same time, becoming a powerful entity holding spears and evoked as a protector, while in the context of the temple it will be annihilated as the archetype of evil.

Marie Vandenbeusch: Sur les pas de l’âne dans la religion egyptienne, website English abstract

This sounds a lot more like Tyll than the Christian symbolism. It’s only connected to him via Kircher’s hieroglyphics work, so it’s tenuous at best, but there might be another connection I’m unaware of. And I do love a good coincidence (even if it’s really just confirmation bias).]

Tyll has a bizarre experience in the forest while transporting flour to another town in the care of his mother and a farmhand. The exact details are uncertain, but there are clues that some kind of fundamental shift takes place. His interest in the donkey is cemented here. Yet the highlight is his father’s execution for heresy, a prosecution Tyll unwittingly sparks when he has a brief conversation with a Jesuit, Athanasius Kircher. Kircher (as well as his mentor, Oswald Tesimond) is a historical person, a scholar of great reputation. He will come back into the picture later, and there is much to explore about him, but for now, a brief detour into his expertise in draconology aside, his role as a mini-inquisitor takes center stage.

Tyll realizes his childhood is over; he might have to become a day laborer, unless the Jesuits decide to come after him as well. He asks his friend Nele to run away with him:

Suddenly she felt a wondrous excitement, and her throat seemed constricted, and her heart pounded. “Why do you say we?”
“Because you’re coming with me.”
“With you?”
“That’s why I was waiting.”
She knew she must not think, or else she would lose her courage, or else she would stay here, as was in store for her; but he was right, you really could leave. The place where everyone thought you had to stay – in actuality nothing was keeping you there.
…there are only a few moments when two things are possible, one path as much as another. Only a few moments when you can decide.

This becomes another theme that carries through the book: decision points.

They spend a rough night in the forest, then fall in with a third-rate balladeer, Gottfried. He’s a decent sort, though, and their dancing improves his balladeering, so they team up. They, and we, are introduced to the idea that those in the travelling trades give up the protection of the authorities: “That is the price of freedom,” which sounds something like Hobbes contrasting the state of nature with the social contract.

They encounter Pirmin, another entertainer, and a better one, but a bit of a scary guy. Do you go with the guy who is good to you, or the guy who can teach you something? For Tyll, there is no question, but Nele is more hesitant, and we have another decision point:

It’s true, of course, that Gottfried can’t do much. But he has been good to them. And she doesn’t like this fellow. There is something not right about him. On the other hand, it’s true, of course: Gottfried will not be able to teach them anything.
On the other hand, on the other hand. Pirmin winks as if he were reading her thoughts.
Tyll jerks his head impatiently. “Come on, Nele!”
She need only extend her arm.

Then we zoom forward with the section titled “Zusmarschausen,” named for what would be the last major battle of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. The primary character is the Fat Count, Martin von Wolkenstein, who has been sent by the Kaiser to fetch the now-famous jester Tyll Ulenspiegel from the Abbey of Andechs, where he has taken refuge from the war raging in the area. It’s basically an expose on the horrors of war, punctuated by the hilarity of the Fat Count’s future writings of his life’s chronicle. It’s an interesting narrative technique: the voice of the future following up the events that occur with how the Fat Count will related them in his Chronicle. Whether it’s his memory or his desire to appear less lazy, or both, it’s a bit of a poke at these kinds of memoirs and a reminder that, in the absence of documentation, they might be taken with a grain of salt.

And again, the style of the writing fits the chapter:

In his life’s chronicle, the style of which was still beholden to the fashionable tone of his youthful days, that is, of erudite arabesque and florid ornamentation, the fat count depicted in sentences that, precisely due to their exemplary tortuousness, have since found their way into many a schoolbook, the leisurely ride through the green of the Vienna Woods: at Melk we reached the wide blue of the Danube, alighting there at the magnificent Abbey to pillow our weary heads for the night.
Once again this was not entirely true; in reality they stayed for a month.

Exemplary tortuousness, indeed.

I found a dozen or so examples of this “not entirely true” approach to Wolkenstein’s memoir. Sometimes he doesn’t remember what happened, so he inserts digressions of twelve or seventeen pages on his mother or some other irrelevant topic; sometimes he just shaves the truth to make his journey appear more courageous than it was; he leaves out one incident, it seems, because it felt too personally meaningful, even though that’s what a life chronicle should express. I’ll include just one exemplar. After he retrieves Tyll from the Abbey and is on his way back to the Kaiser in Augsburg, he is caught in a bloody artillery attack, one of the more gruesome scenes in the book (there are several which are worse). I include this because, not only is the Fat Count plagiarizing, but the source he’s stealing is also plagiarized:

Even then he sensed that all this would have to be told differently in his book one day. He would not succeed in any description, for everything would elude him, and the sentences he would be able to form would not match the pictures in his memory.
And indeed: that which had happened did not even appear in his dreams. Only occasionally did he recognize in what seemed utterly different dream events a distant echo of those moments when he had come under fire at the edge of Streitheim Forest near Zusmarshausen.
Years later he questioned the unfortunate Count Gronsfeld, whom the Bavarian Elector had summarily arrested after the defeat. Toothless, weary, and coughing, the former commander of the Bavarian troops named the names and places, he described the strength of the various units and drew deployment maps so that the fat count managed to some extent to account for roughly where he had been and what had befallen him and his companions. Yet the sentences refused to fall into line. And so he stole others.
In a popular novel he found a description he liked, and when people urged him to recount the last battle of the great German war, he told them what he had read in Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus. It didn’t quite fit, because that passage was about the Battle of Wittstock, but it didn’t bother anyone, no one ever raised any questions. What the fat count could not have known, however, was that Grimmelshausen, though he did experience the Battle of Wittstock firsthand, had himself been unable to describe it and instead had stolen the sentences of an English novel translated by Martin Opitz, the author of which had never witnessed a battle in his life.

While the Fat Count Martin von Wolkenstein appears to be a fictional character (it’s implied he is a descendant of 15th century poet and composer Oscar von Wolkenstein) and thus his life chronicle exists only within this book, the rest is from fact. The picaresque novel Simplicissimus from 1668, which by the way has some similarities with the original Eulenspiegel chapbook, was assumed to be semiautobiographical until it was pointed out that Grimmelshausen never participated in the war at all. In the foreword to a 2008 translation of Simplicissimus by John C. Osborne, Prof. Lynne Tatlock tells us: “The vivid description of the Battle of Wittstock in chapter 27 of book 2, for example, that can tempt modern readers to speak of realism, borrows liberally from an encyclopedic work of the seventeenth century, the Theatrum Europaeum.” Opitz is often considered the Father of German Poetry, and did a great deal of translating, though I can’t verify he translated that particular work.

None of this really affects the reading of the novel; I just find it interesting how Kehlmann chooses what bits and pieces to weave into his work. And I love diving into these rabbit holes. This is what the internet was made for!

Although the Fat Count is played as a blowhard, he has his moments and is deeply affected by what he witnessed. Tyll, meanwhile, comments on a couple of incidents from other chapters. As they are wandering in the forest before the artillery attack, he tells them, “I know the forest. I became a forest spirit when I was a small boy….A white forest spirit…. For the great devil.” This recalls the flour experience in “Lord of the Air” and hints at, but doesn’t quite explain, what happened. After the attack, he tells the Count about his experience in the mine of Brno three years earlier; this will be a later chapter. But, again, he stops short of explanation of his escape.

And so each chapter needs to be read mindful of each of the other chapters, even though they exist more or less independently. It’s why I ended up going through the novel three times: once as a straight read, a second time to pull quotes and research the historical mentions, and a third time to make connections. A fourth straight read wouldn’t hurt. It’s a novel that unfolds more and more with each read.

The next section, “Kings in Winter,” begins with someone named Liz in the Hague; it takes a while to figure out who this is and where we are in time, but as near as I can tell, it’s 1632 and Liz is Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I of England, wife of Frederick V, the Elector Palatine of Bohemia. None of this meant anything to me, and it’s still pretty hazy, but apparently his coronation kicked off the Thirty Years’ War and he fled in exile after less than a year, earning him the title The Winter King – and, for Liz, the Winter Queen. She is now ensconced in the Hague, is running out of money, and is waiting for her husband to return from his mission to reclaim his palatinate (is that a word?). As you can tell, for me the details of the political machinations don’t particularly inspire the research that other things do.

Liz starts out as something of an out-of-touch elite, but by the end of the novel she was one of my favorite characters. In this chapter, she affords the opportunity to bring in John Donne (who wrote a poem for her upon her marriage to Frederick, referring to her as “fair phoenix bride”), Shakespeare (who appears, uncredited and briefly, and then by implication), and a great deal of venom towards the German language. Oh, and Daddy issues: “This was just how Papa was. When you were counting on him, he left you in the lurch.”

Daddy – who, remember, is King James I of England – is also the mechanism by which the hypocrisy of Christianity is revealed in this chapter. Following the failed Gunpowder Plot (which I finally understand to some degree), her father deals with the conspirators:

He summoned not only the best torturers of his two kingdoms but also three pain experts from Persia and the emperor of China’s most learned tormentor. He commanded them to cause the prisoners every kind of agony that was known to be possible for a person to cause other people, and in addition he had tortures invented that no one yet envisioned. All the specialists were ordered to devise procedures more refined and dreadful than any the great painters of the inferno had dreamed. The one condition was that the light of the soul not be extinguished and that the prisoner not go mad: the perpetrators still had to name their confidants, after all, and they should have time to ask God’s forgiveness and to repent. For Papa was a good Christian.

Tyll showed up on her doorstep one day, along with Nele. They danced, he juggled, and finally they put on a little play with clear similarities to the death scene of Romeo and Juliet. Given Liz’s fondness for theatre, and particularly the King’s Men (Shakespeare’s acting troupe), she invited them to stay. She needed a court jester, to further convince herself she was still a Queen. And here I learned about the fool’s license: it’s the jester’s duty to make fun of the royal, since no one else is allowed to.

Tyll plays a joke on the entire court:

He had made his debut by giving her a painting. No, it was not a painting, it was a white canvas with nothing on it. “Have it framed, little Liz, hang it up. Show it to the others!… Show it to your husband, the beautiful picture, let the poor King see it. And everyone else!”…
“It’s a magic picture, little lives. No one born out of wedlock can see it. No one stupid can see it. No one who has stolen money can see it . No one option no good, no one who cannot be trusted, no one who’s a gallows bird or a thievish knave or an arsehole with ears can see it – for him, there’s no picture there!”
She hasn’t been able to help laughing.
“No, really, little Liz, tell the people!…. Tell them, watch what happens!”
What had happened still astonished her, every single day, and it would never cease to astonish her period the visitors stood helplessly before the white picture and didn’t know what they were supposed to say. For it was complicated, after all. They knew there was nothing there, of course, but they weren’t sure whether Liz knew it too, and thus it was also conceivable that she would take someone who told her there was nothing there for illegitimate, stupid, or thieving. They racked their brains. Had a spell been cast on the picture, or had someone fooled Liz, or was she playing a joke on everyone? The fact that by then almost everyone who came to the court of the winter King and Queen was either illegitimate or stupid or a thief or a person with ill intentions didn’t make matters easier.

Among the many things Kehlmann does so well in this chapter is his capturing of the marriage between Liz and Frederick. Both of them think the other is stupid; one of them is right. Royal Marriages were, of course, dynastic and more about power than love. It seems Daddy had some trouble figuring out just whom Liz should marry. The King of Sweden was an option, but she feels he didn’t want her, while sources I found seem to imply it was Daddy who nixed that deal. We see both sides of the wedding night, with one detail – rose petals floating like little boats on a puddle of water –as a lovely point of comparison. Which version is true? Maybe both, maybe neither.

We find out that it was Liz who persuaded Frederick to accept the crown of Bohemia, or whatever it should be called. Others advised against it, but she said, hey, how often does someone offer you a crown? And later, when he muttered, “I listened to the wrong people,” she knew that was her.

At that moment she realized that he would not forgive her for this. But he would still love her, just as she loved him. The nature of marriage consisted not only in the fact that you had children, it also consisted of all the wounds you had inflicted on each other, all the mistakes you had made together, all the things you held against each other forever. He would not forgive her for persuading him to accept the Crown, just as she would not forgive him for having always been too stupid for her.

The chapter gets a bit confusing, since there are comings and goings and two sets of characters. We’re with Liz and then with Frederick, and Tyll is with both, and then he isn’t. It’s full of interpersonal betrayals and loyalties, and a great deal of political barter as Frederick visits the King of Sweden to get back his Palatinate (is that the word?). The characters themselves are often confused. Frederick wanders in the snow, having failed in his mission, and thinks, “A king without a country in a storm, alone with his fool – something like this would never happen in a play, it was too absurd” as he tries to compose a message for Liz, the theatre lover, the admirer of Shakespeare, with whose King Lear she would be quite familiar. But it’s a wonderful confusion, laden with significance.

And by the end of the section, the King is dead, the Queen is alone, and Tyll, Nele, and the donkey have headed off to somewhere else.

Then we return to Tyll and Nele in their early days with Pirmin in the section titled “Hunger.” It’s a very short section, more of a transition. It is Pirmin who first tells Tyll and Nele about Liz and Frederick, as he was in London when they married. Tyll becomes aware that aging is not easy for travelling performers; he is young here, so it seems far away, but it’s something he tucks away. He and Nele refer to each other as brother and sister; sorry for those of you who were looking for romance, but you won’t find it here. But they have learned some skills, and with those skills they just might be able to eke out a living as performers.

“The Great Art of Light and Shadow” brings us back to the scholars Adam Olearius, Athanasius Kircher, and Paul Fleming. All three are historic personages. We have met Kircher, who prosecuted Tyll’s father Claus for witchcraft, before. He now comes to Olearius for assistance in hunting down a dragon so that he can make medicine for the plague. It’s pretty weird reading this at this moment, by the way, but let’s not go there, the book is so much more fun than hydroxychloroquine.

This section again really drives home how close the world is to modernity, and how far it still has to go. Parts are hilarious. Kircher embodies the know-it-all so certain of his certainty he can’t conceive of alternative possibilities, who spouts illogical logic. To wit:

“… The experiment gave me the idea of having a decoction of sulfur and snail’s blood administered to a plague victim. For on the one hand the sulfur drives out the Marian component of the disease out of him, while on the other hand the snail’s blood as a dracontological substitution sweetens that which sours the humors.”
“Excuse me?”
Kircher again contemplated his fingertips.
“Snail’s blood is a substitute for dragon’s blood?” asked Olearius.
“No,” Kricher said forbearingly, “dragon’s bile.”
“And what brings you here now?”
“The substitution has its limits. The plague victim in the experiment died despite thick decoction, which clearly proves that real dragon’s blood would have cured him. Thus we need a dragon, and one of the last dragons of the North lives in Holstein.”

“Has it been sighted then, the dragon?”
“Of course not. A dragon that has been sighted would be a dragon that did not possess the most important quality of dragons – that of making itself undetectable. For this very reason one must treat all reports by people of having cited dragons with extreme skepticism. For a dragon that let itself be cited would be recognized a priori as a dragon that is no real dragon.”
Olearius rubbed his forehead.
“In this region, evidently, a dragon has never before been witnessed. Hence I am confident that there must be one here.”

Ya gotta love this guy. By the way, he’s not entirely wrong. Jordan Ellenberg’s book How Not to be Wrong starts off with the story of Abraham Wald, who solved the problem of where to reinforce airplanes to reduce the likelihood they would be shot down: don’t reinforce the areas with bullet holes on the planes that have returned; they survived the damage. Reinforce the areas where you rarely see bullet holes on returned planes; those are the ones that needed reinforcing. Kircher had some twisted inkling of this idea called survivorship bias, but started with a false premise: that dragons exist. I mean, they don’t, do they?

I mentioned before that I would return to Kirchner, and here we are. At some point he mentions his prior work on hieroglyphs, how he found the true Christian significance to them, and I thought, wait, I’ve seen this before. But where? Oh, yes – last year I read Eco’s Serendipities, a collection of lectures on topics of scientific errors that turned into valuable research avenues nonetheless. Kirchner’s work on hieroglyphics – and on Chinese characters – was central to Chapter 3, From Marco Polo to Leibniz, Stories of Intellectual Misunderstandings. Eco acknowledges that Kircher was “one of the most learned men of the seventeenth century” and was also “insatiable in his lunatic curiosity.”

When Kircher set out to decipher hieroglyphs in the seventeenth century, there was no Rosetta stone to guide him. This explains his double mistake, namely, believing that hieroglyphs had only symbolic meaning and the absolutely fanciful way in which he identified their meaning. …But it was his conviction that, finally, hieroglyphs all showed something about the natural world that prevented him from ever finding the right track.

Kircher was then wildly wrong. Still, notwithstanding his eventual failure, he is the father of Egyptology, though in the same way that Ptolemy is the father of astronomy: in spite of the fact that his main hypothesis was mistaken.

Umberto Eco, Serendipities, Ch. 3

The hieroglyphs are irrelevant to this book, but Kircher’s belief in his own infallibility, his tendency to prove what he wanted to prove instead of hypothesizing, experimenting, and following the evidence, is one of the things the practice that will become Science needed to change to move out of the pre-modern and into the modern. Not that we don’t have trouble with the same issue today. But science aspires to be a self-correcting mechanism, willing to change theories when new evidence emerges.

And come on, Kirchner wrote a book on dragons. Because never having seen a dragon is the surest sign there is one. I suppose if I mentioned his Katzenklavier, it would be going too far? But, hey, Kehlmann uses it, so it’s fair game:

“Several princes wants to have a water organ constructed according to my design. And in Braunschweig there are plans to build my cat piano. It astounds me a little. Really I presented the idea mainly as an intellectual game, and I doubt that the results will please the ear.”
“What is a cat piano?” asked Olearius
…“A piano that produces sounds by torturing animals,” said Kircher. “One strikes a note, and instead of a hammer hitting a string, well-dosed pain is inflicted on a small animal – I propose cats, but it would work with the voles too, dogs would be too big, crickets too small – so that the animal makes a noise. When one releases the key, the pain stops too, the animal falls silent. By arranging the animals according to their pitches, the most extraordinary music can be produced. “
For a little while it was quiet. Olearius looked into Kircher’s face. Fleming chewed on his lower lip.

To be fair, Kircher’s works on music and medicine were considered masterpieces and are still respected as great works today. Everyone should be forgiven one cat piano.

This section does have a plot, and it concerns the musicians Kircher needs to tranquilize the dragon. It just so happens a travelling circus complete with musicians is in Holstein at that moment, the circus headlined by… Tyll Ulenspiegel.

First they meet the donkey, whose name, Origenes, might invite some speculation. For the characters, however, the fact that the donkey is talking to them is curious enough. Even Kircher is “aware that it could damage his reputation to talk to a donkey before witnesses.” But they need the musicians, and they must get through the talking donkey first. It’s a nice little scene showing how those who take themselves too seriously can be utterly confused by a little unexpected fun. Then they need to get past Nele, and the old woman travelling with them, before they get to the musicians.

But Kircher has another meeting, one that shakes him to the core, one that sends him back to the safety of Rome and his books for good.

The meeting of the scholars and the travelers is significant for another reason: Olearius is taken with Nele, and asks her to marry him. Here Kehlmann shows his versatility, and the last portion of this section turns gentle and sweet as she and Tyll part. It’s quite lovely.

But the loveliest is yet to come: the chapter ends with the last dragon of the north, seventeen thousand years old, and tired of hiding. I didn’t know I could cry over a dragon.

I found the section titled “In the Shaft” to be the least to my liking. It’s 1645, the town of Brno has been under siege, and Tyll and several miners are trapped in a mine shaft that has collapsed. The chapter itself is claustrophobic, which may be why I had trouble with it. Tyll is more uncertain than he was as a child lost in the woods. He mentions a couple of incidents, but we get no explanation. And then it’s over. We don’t find out how he escaped, or if anyone escaped with him. To me, it was unsatisfying, but I suspect I just missed the point, which is why I so want to discuss this book with someone.

“Westphalia” is the final chapter, and as might be expected, is primarily about the negotiations around the end of the war and the establishment of what would be called The Peace of Westphalia. Liz is the primary character, and she is motivated to fight all the assembled powers of Europe to obtain a Palatinate for her son Charles, showing a loyalty to her son that her father never showed to her. For it is here she finally thinks the thought: “Ultimately Papa had sacrificed her and Friedrich to keep his country out of the war.” Was that sacrifice justified? I don’t have the background to decide, but if it comes down to one daughter or a country at war, I’m not so sure I’d be outraged by this decision.

In a 2018 interview with Marc-Christoph Wagner for the Danish Louisiana Literature Festival (in English), Kehlmann discusses, among other things, the difficulty of the negotiations in an age when diplomacy had not yet been invented. He expresses this clearly via Liz’s attempts to meet with various representatives while keeping herself in a position to be respected, a position that requires many behavioral signs such as who asks whom for refreshments, who opens doors, and on what type of chair she should sit.

Without pausing, she walked towards the doors. Now she could not afford to hesitate. The briefest hint of uncertainty would be enough to remind the two lackeys standing to the right and to the left of the doors that it was also entirely conceivable not to open them for her. If that should happen, her advance would be staved off….She would all at once no longer be a queen but a complaining old woman in the anteroom.
That was why it had to work. There could be no second attempt. One had to move as if the door weren’t there, not be slowed down by it; one had to walk in such a way that if no one opened the doors, one would crash into them at full force.…for that very reason, they would open them; that was the whole trick.
It worked. With confused expressions the lackeys reached for the handles and heaved open the doors.

Liz, 1; the confederacy of self-important men, 0. But wait, there’s more: in the next meeting, she executes her right to sit, but then realizes she is sitting on a stool. A stool! Liz’s reaction as she realizes what she’s sitting on tells us how crucial this detail is.

Of course she could neither remain standing nor let him invite her to sit, but a chair without a backrest, that should not have happened to her under any circumstances. As a Queen, she was entitled to sit on a chair with a backrest and armrests even in the presence of the Kaiser, a mere arm chair would be an indignity, but a stool was out of the question. And he had deliberately placed stools all around the reception room, yet only behind his desk was there an arm chair.
What should she do? She smiled too and decided to pretend it was of no consequence. But now he had the advantage …

I wonder if diplomacy has progressed much, really. Every scene I’ve watched on TV or in the movies has involved worrying about placement of flags and water glasses and making sure no one’s notepad is even a quarter inch further away than anyone else’s. Then again, maybe that’s fictional fantasy. But the news footage I’ve seen of some US Presidents meeting with foreign leaders clearly indicate some gamesmanship at work.

Tyll shows up as Liz gets a breath of air on a balcony. She invites him to return to England with her, offers him safety and comfort, a place to grow old safely. There’s a kindness between them that speaks of mutual respect. Another decision point.

If you’ve come this far, chances are you’ve read the book and found it as interesting as I did. I hope I can find a couple of readers who would be willing to discuss it, perhaps starting with reactions to my impressions above (which, of course, could be completely off base), and I hope progressing to areas I’ve overlooked. I think this is a book that offers real opportunity for deep dives.

Allen Gee: My Chinese-America (SFWP 2015)

I think that those African-Americans who like to assume that I have white privileges, or the upper hand of lighter skin pigmentation, aren’t aware that some whites, especially in the academic arena I work in, view me as a fierce source of competition, fearing I’ll match the stereotypical Asian prodigy, or be the diligent hardworking immigrant. One white male writer once complained to me in a jealous tone, “I wish I had a cultural background like yours to draw upon!”
While I do consider myself hardworking, which stems from my family’s original blue collar Toisanese farming roots in China, my determination stems more from a desire to live the most involved writing and teaching life possible, for the sake of wanting to fully explore the life of the mind. So for me, being Asian in the New South means occupying a unique space, a territory of my own, neither black nor white …. And although some African-Americans believe I have advantages because my complexion is lighter, or supposedly more acceptable, and might also view me as a competitor vying for limited claims to minority status, they have not walked far enough in my shoes, and would certainly be surprised to know how much we have in common, as different as we are.

It’s easy for those of us in White America to see Asians as the “model minority,” and more or less forget about them when we have those Twitter fights about racism. Then a pandemic comes along and shows you what was just under the surface all along.

That has little to do with why I chose to read this book, however. Back at the end of January, I read a piece by Gee recalling his mentor James Alan McPherson in Pushcart 2020. I put both this book, and a volume of short stories by McPherson, on my list. As it happens, current events added to my interest.

As an English professor, a former basketball player, and skilled fisherman, Gee bucks a lot of stereotypes about Chinese American men. As his essays point out, he often has to deal with them anyway. He covers a wide spectrum from the very personal – family and dating – to the societal, to the universal experience of aging.

The first essay, “Profile,” is a harrowing account of an encounter with a Kansas State Trooper as he was traveling from his then-home in Houston to the midwest to Albany to see his parents. That’s followed by a more reflective look at the past in “Is It Safe There?”, which takes its title from a friend’s question about going to Chinatown. Gee, as it happens, spent his early childhood in New York’s Chinatown, where his family owned restaurants. He writes with fondness of his memories, and with sadness about how so much of the flavor is being lost to gentrification:

These days, I fondly recall accompanying my grandfather on his self-appointed rounds, but as more and more of the Chinatown I knew vanishes, I have the sense that more of my own history is disappearing, and so part of myself seems to be winnowing away , like I am slowly being erased. I’m left feeling less and less connected to where I once felt the most culturally anchored and secure and alive.
We are constantly told that change is inevitable in life, but what happens when we have almost nothing left to return to?

We then shift to a peculiar date he had with a woman I would describe as an Asiaphile/stalker. It’s almost comical; it’d make a great scene for a movie, but this was real life, with people looking on. But we’re back to serious business with “Fraught with Masculinity” as Gee, buying formula for his infant daughter at WalMart, finds himself about to walk into a showdown between two rival gangs. He took a detour into a McDonalds to avoid the situation, and in the essay uses the opportunity to look at images of masculinity in multicultural American:

What I intuited before the age of twelve was how American representations of Asians failed to correspond with who I was, and aside from the dearth of rolemodels throughout popular culture, Asian-American male stereotypes were already prevalent. …[W]hile emasculation is how Asian-American males are otherized, hypervirilization and being attributed with a menacing intent to elicit fear is how African American males are most often stereotyped. Neither minority group is allowed to be thought of as “normal” – that would deem them equal with whites.

I’ve never thought of Asian men (and I’m thinking of East Asian in particular; as Anthony Bourdain once said, Asia is a big place) as being less masculine, but I’m aware that’s a common trope. What particularly interested me wasn’t even in the piece itself, but came up as I was dictating the above quote using word-recognition software to save wear and tear on my disintegrating hands. Instead of “how Asian-American males are otherized”, the result was “how Asian-American males are authorized.” A perfectly understandable substitution based on pronunciation of a rarely-used word, but remarkably pertinent semantically as well: stereotypes, particularly those that weaken and dismiss the target, are ways of authorizing, both in terms of permission, and in terms of writing them as characters rather than allowing them to be who they are. While this author-izing of Asian men writes them as harmless and allows them to be ignored and dismissed, rewriting African American men as threatening justifies abusive treatment and assumption of wrongdoing.

One of the most contemplative pieces is “Silences” and outlines Gee’s relationships with the men in his family. One startling revelation is that his father didn’t know he’d been adopted until he was 45 years old. I’m a little confused as to how that’s possible, but I suppose birth certificates weren’t required in the past as much as they are now. While considering his father’s reluctance to give him advice throughout his life, Gee comes to embrace the habit of silence that is part of the family.

“Point Guard” is a fascinating essay both structurally and informationally, even for those of us who don’t basketball at all. Gee discusses his own basketball career, originally undertaken as way of fitting in as a teenager, in parallel with a second essay about Jeremy Lin and the reaction America had to a Chinese basketball star.

When you feel that you can affect or dictate the flow of the game by determining the pace – by scoring on your own and creating opportunities for teammates, or by shutting down an opponent or outplaying him or her – or when you are dominant because of your vision come up dribbling, and passing or shooting skills, and when you want the ball and everyone looks to you and wants to get you the ball so that you are the locus of play, like a conductor or floor general, or when you are the man, the woman or the one whose play determines whether your team wins or loses in “clutch” moments, only then do you know what it is to be a “true” point guard.

I have no idea what a point guard is, but that paragraph sure makes me wish I was one.

Somewhere in today’s feeds was a request that more white people write about their white privilege instead of about the problems faced by people of color. I will own my white privilege here: “Asians in the Library” was hilarious. It’s hilarious to me because I’m not the subject of the rant of the UCLA student who simply was fed up with so many Asians in the library – “they come to our school, which is fine” – committing atrocities like talking on cell phones (which is annoying, but is annoyingly cross-racial, trust me on this) and having family over on weekends. It’s funny in the way the current crop of freedom fighters are posting rants about refusing to wear masks in stores that require them. That is, not funny at all. Enter Jimmy Wong, who made his own song/video in reply, and it’s even funnier/sadder. It’s all available on Youtube, but no, I’m not going to provide links.

“The Real New South” gives us a sense of Gee’s experience living in Georgia as an English professor. It’s an interesting look at what it is to not fit into a binary society based on black and white. The experiences of aging take the stage in “Echocardiography” as an erratic heartbeat leads to the realization that the body does, eventually, betray us all. I could identify with the sense of shock as he found himself “buying a long plastic pillbox with letters for each day of the week on top of seven compartments.” Ah, yes. The first pill bar. It felt like giving up. I now have one with AM and PM compartments for each day. And an extra one for as-needed analgesics. You can get used to anything, turn anything into normal. Whether you should is another question.

A fishing trip provides the narrative for “By 2042” that somehow pivots to the question of minorities becoming the Ugly Americans when they become the majority. Just as he did with basketball, Gee took an activity in which I have no particular interest – deep-sea fishing – and made it fascinating. I had no idea so much was involved. Most of the people on the boat that day probably had no idea, either; it turned out to be that kind of tourist trip where someone else does most of the work but you get to pull on the rod at the right moment and claim your fish. My father, who’d never been fishing before, hung a sailfish on our living room wall after such a fishing trip. But the boat captain wasn’t prepared for someone at Gee’s level of expertise,and that led to a decision on how to handle disappointment when a silly mistake let the big one get away.

The book wraps up with a state-by-state travelogue relating various experiences or statistics related to Gee and/or to Chinese American history. Turns out his grandfather came to Maine in the 30s on vacation. And Gee wants to retire to Florida. I grew up in Florida. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. But I hear there’s good fishing.

Some aspects of my life are directly contrary to Gee’s; on others, we share traits. My father held secrets. I never did find out exactly when he came here from Sweden. He was determinedly American. I learned a few words of Swedish and a couple of recipes from his older sister, but that’s about it. Our culture was supposed to be American, though I still have no idea what that’s supposed to mean. I didn’t find out my older sister was adopted until I was sixteen. I thought it was cool. To my parents, it was something to be hidden. I connect with him on the unlikeliest things: the pill box, the descriptions of fishing and basketball. From his Pushcart essay, I learned that he considered himself not very well-read at the time he became interested in literature. These reading projects I do are all aimed at fixing my similar lack of background.

And further considering how silence has pervaded our family, I know it is not simply something mysterious, shameful, confounding, and divisive; nor is silence something to be resented. It is a behavior that will forever be in the air, seeming as natural as the wind or the sun. For although I might wish otherwise, not only is silence a deeply ingrained part of our history, but I sense it’s deep in our bones, as if it’s a part of our destiny, and so in many forms, it will most likely continue.

I’m glad he let his voice, and through him his father’s and grandfather’s voices, be heard in this volume.

Jason Brown: A Faithful But Melancholy Account of Several Barbarities Lately Committed (Missouri Review Books, 2019)

I love reading a good novel, but the linked collection has always been my favorite form. When I first read Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich, my jaw dropped. While some people I knew felt as if the book straddled an awkward territory between the novel and a collection of stories, I felt that it was written for the way my mind works. Other linked collections have had a similar effect on me. Alice Munro’s books, Sebald’s The Emigrants. These books present cohesive but fractured narratives.

In an era in which commercial publishing has pushed out most forms of innovation and shown zero tolerance for risk, I believe linked collections represent some of the best work available because they are not commercial. A linked collection can establish a main character for the book and then wander away from that character and the central themes. A linked collection can function like a conventional novel by focusing on one or more main characters and following a narrative arc through time to some kind of crisis and resolution.

Jason Brown: Interview with Marjorie Celona for Fiction Writers Review

In searching for a theme or vantage point from which to discuss this book, I saw many options. Family ties that comfort even as they bind. A respect for the past that seems to be fading from American life. Boats. We will, in fact, talk about all these things, but I want to start with the overall structure of this book, which is classified as linked stories, and how that helps emphasize the themes and images within.

It wasn’t until I read Brown’s interview quoted above that I realized the form of the book reflects its subject: the fragmentation of narrative to heighten its themes, the fragmentation of a family to expose its push and pull, the fragmentation of the past in an effort to both remember and forget. Even the literal fragmentation of highly symbolic boats as they carry our loved ones, or maybe wander off on their own.

I’ve always been a little hazy on the concept of linked stories versus the novel in stories, but the more I thought about this book as a whole, the clearer it seemed to me that fragmented novel fit the bill. That feels a little arrogant, since the cover proclaims it is linked stories, as does Brown. But I felt like I read a novel, a saga over centuries with some of the pages, even entire chapters missing (at least two major events are referred to only in past tense from stories set well beyond their occurrence), maybe torn out by readers who loved them – or hated them – too much to leave them behind, or just disconnected from the tatters of age.

Then again, maybe I’ve been paying too much attention to medieval fragments. It’s an entire discipline, you know, the study of manuscript fragments used as backing for other manuscripts, or in some cases linings for hats or just pieces swept together long ago. And then, by coincidence – and coincidence plays such a big part in my reading, though I’m pretty sure it’s more like confirmation bias, something’s on my mind so I’m more prone to notice relevant items – an article by Sinéad Gleeson discussing her essay collection Constellations titled “Fragmented Narratives Are Broken, Independent, and Honest” came across my feed:

Sometimes the world steers you towards the broken apart, the work that refuses to be glued together, that basks in its un-ness.
What is a life but a series of fragments?

Sinéad Gleeson, article online at LitHub

That changed how I saw the book. And I’ll repeat: it not only describes the form of the book, but the families, stories, and lives within.

The family saga gives us a glimpse into how various characters deal with, or dispense with, the family’s legacy, which at this point is little more than bragging rights and a name recognized only on one small Maine island and another tiny inland town. This is to some extent the story of modernity; we used to grow where we were planted, now we have options to uproot and travel the world. Yet, for many, home soil keeps calling us back. And in this family, travel has been a tradition: across oceans, up and down continents, only recently have they rooted in Maine.

One of the minor recurring themes is the lure of California, the state farthest from Maine that serves as a way for some of the family to escape. In the informative podcast with G. P. Gottleib for New Books in Literature, Brown mentions a pertinent scene from The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “There’s a sense in California that everything is so new, and that you can reinvent yourself, and that the past is gone.” I can see this in at least two stories, though in one case, the escaping character comes to terms with the past and reclaims it. It’s also interesting that the primary point-of-view character ends up in Oregon (where Brown lives, btw), which I read as a way, not to escape the past, but to crawl out from under its domination. Brown’s comment also reminded me of a scene from Mad Men, the “Christmas Waltz” episode in which Harry encourages Paul to leave the Hare Krishna cult and go to California to start over: “You don’t understand what it’s like out there. This failure, this life, it’ll all seem like it happened to someone else.” Lightness is on my list for this year’s in-between read because of these connections.

Each story is dated, but those dates are deceptive. Although most of the stories occur from the 80s to today, they often recount events from much earlier, events that underline what is going on in the present of the story. The first story is dated 2003, and in the second, we go back to 1981. From there the stories work their way forward in time to 2014; then the final piece looks back to 1741. This constant overlapping of present and past slightly unmoors the stories in time, adding to my impression that this is a novel, and emphasizes the importance of the past within the present for the primary characters. If I were to lapse into poetic metaphor, I might say it also feels like waves lapping forever at the same shore, but always different.

The tentpole character is John Howland, not to be confused with his grandfather, also John Howland. That’s the thing with these old New England families, with old families everywhere I suppose, they keep recycling the names. There’s a handy family tree in the first pages, and I think its main point is to underline the procession of Johns in the early years of the family, petering out in the present. It’s not by accident that grandson John is the last John Howland; in fact, it’s explicitly mentioned in one story and shows the kind of unspoken pressure he feels as part of a family that traces itself back to the sixteenth century. Other characters take their turns – sisters, parents, cousins, and people from outside the family entirely – but the story structure allows small groups of characters at a time, making it easier to keep track of who’s who. It’s a clever way to keep track of a large cast. The family tree helps, too.

The Stories: (hey, you knew I’d get there eventually, right?)

The first story, “Instructions to the Living from the Condition of the Dead,” introduces us to the family via grandfather John Howland, now a widower in his 90s. Some of the family, including great-grandson Will and his parents visiting from California, have descended on the family house in Vaughn, Maine, for Thanksgiving. So we have breadth of age and geography, as well as sensibility. John still feels his wife Sarah’s presence, and hears her voice in his ear. He has lately, however, been keeping company with Isabel Vaughn, a younger woman of eighty-five from the other prominent family of the town.

He decides he will bring Isabel a cupcake and a copy of Emily Dickinson (he was an English teacher) for her birthday. She will tell him her birthday isn’t until next week, but that isn’t the reason, shortly into the visit, he needs to “run for his life.” He shares something with her, something from the War, something he’s never shared with anyone, and she discounts it.

Cue the boat:

He hobbled around the edge of the woods. His breath seized every time a dry branch snapped under his boots. He had left the Dickinson in her kitchen , but he didn’t think he would read anymore Dickinson in the time he had left.
Isabel kept an old wooden rowboat down by the river for when her daughter and grandchildren visited. He spotted the upturned blue hull, made of plywood, half its paint gone. He flipped it over and found the gray oars rotting but still solid. Larry had pulled the dock for her already. With his back to the river, he tugged the boat a few feet at a time to the marshy shore. The tide would pinch anytime now. He waded up to his knees and pulled the boat in after him. Sensing Isabel watching him, he tried to climb quickly into the boat, but he couldn’t raise his feet. He dove head first over the side and used his arms to right himself. When he craned his neck, he spotted her halfway between the river and her house and moving fast on her springy legs.
“John,” he heard Sarah say in his ear, “why did you never tell me what you saw?”
“I just wanted to forget it,” he said.
“John…” Isabel, calling his name. Though he’d launched himself into ebbtide, he did have the wind in his favor. Before he could set the locks and oars in place, he’d already drifted out of Isabel’s view and traveled fifty yards, maybe seventy five. Rowing, he picked up speed and felt the satisfying whoosh of the oars and the bow cleaving the water. He had rowed this stretch as a boy many times, and now all he wanted to do was get home to Sarah.

The boat was leaking period up to his ankles now. Nothing he could do but harder. The rotten oar cracked, and his shoulder seized with pain. He sighted the field in front of his house and gave an extra hard tug. A small person stood at the shoreline shielding his eyes. His great grandson, Will, shouted, “Grand, Grand,“ over the water. “What are you doing?”

“There’s a problem with your boat,” Will observed from the safety of his position on the bank.…Despite his California origins, possibly Will had inherited a tendency to look at all boats, even this boat, with longing.

I wasn’t able to realize how well this story introduced the rest until I’d finished the book. The title, by the way, comes from a 1717 sermon by Cotton Mather concerning some shipwrecked pirates and their execution. The link between the living and the dead ranges from John’s continuation of his relationship with his dead wife Sarah, his memory of WWII, and the ever-increasing distance of the past, both as it pertains to family and to his life in general. This distance from the past, like the use of boats, continues through all the stories.

The second story, “The Last Voyage of the Alice B. Toklas”, I’ve already discussed at length from its appearance in the 2020 Pushcart volume. It takes us back to 1981 and introduces us to grandson John at age 15, living with his grandparents during the summer on Howland Island. This is the story that details the decline of the Howland family, how it went from founding the island to owning one small house while the rich take over the rest, and shows John on the verge of finding his own path via a pair of sunglasses bestowed upon him by a visiting writer. The Alice B. Toklas is, need I say, a boat of significant symbolic value.

In “Return of the Native” we move ahead to the next summer, and stay focused on John again on Howland Island with his grandparents. This time, we learn about his relationship with his mother, now divorced. This comes about via a conversation with a family friend and his mother’s current boyfriend, Dickie Saltonstall, who had “a lot of problems with boats over the years.” The reference is to his family’s naval history, but as we’ll see, the story makes it trouble of a more personal nature. John’s mother has gone to Mexico for the summer, supposedly to teach, though there’s a distinct impression teaching has little to do with it. Dickie has received a letter from her, but isn’t yet disclosing what it says. Mom is due to return home that evening, so they’re going to take the skiff over to the mainland and meet her plane in Portland. Dickie tells John a few things in the meantime:

“Then there was the night your grandfather threw the ham through the window. You were only about three years old then, right before your mother went out to San Francisco for six months.”
I’d never heard of my grandfather doing such a thing, and I’d never heard of my mother going to San Francisco at all. I asked why she’d gone, though what I really wanted to know was why I didn’t know she had disappeared for such a long time when I was so young.

Dickey shook his head with his eyes closed. “When your mother went out to San Francisco, your father wouldn’t go after her, and neither would your other grandfather, the minister. They gave up on her. So I went. And, I have to tell you, people loved her out there. She still had that accent from Castine. I wish you could have seen her. She was the queen out there. She wanted everyone – all people – to be free. It wasn’t just to talk with her.” Dickey bobbed his head. “She felt it. And in the middle of this batshit circus, she raised people out of their chrysalis. Not everyone, though,” he said, nodding gravely, “not herself. She got arrested at People’s Park. I was there. They were jealous of her flame.”
The mother I knew took hour-long baths, blasted Neil Young until 1:00 a.m. on school nights, and heated up supper from cans. In the morning she guzzled coffee and never cooked breakfast.
“Your mom knew I was there to bring her back. You can’t rescue me, she told me. For as long as I’ve known her – when she first came here with her parents those two summers her father was the island minister – she’s dreamed of escaping. You have to understand the way she grew up in Castine, a smaller town than Vaughn, an only child living in that tiny house next to the vestry. Anyway, she did come back, but not because of me. She was starting to show with your sister by then.”

It’s one thing to dream of escaping. It’s another to be what someone is escaping from, especially when they’re supposed to love you and care for you. It isn’t until John and his grandparents get into the skiff to go pick up Mom that Dickie reveals she’s not coming back. Problems with boats, indeed. Even when the boat ride is aborted, it’s still central to the story. I keep wondering just how much of a friend Dickie was to Mom back then, and, of course, about the sister she’s carrying. Then there’s the California connection, the aborted attempt to escape, which becomes more manifest in a later story.

“Make Way for Ducklings” brings us forward another few years to 1990. John has not fared so well in his in-between youth. He’s been in rehab, and is now working in Portland as a house counselor for disturbed children. It’s not going well for him. Boats only appear as a promise in this story, but it’s an important promise, and a broken one. By the end of the story, he isn’t a counselor any more. I felt both disappointed and concerned, hoping he would land somewhere.

“Flood” detours from the Howlands and shows us similar issues of dealing with the effects of one’s past via a very different character. He doesn’t have the storied past, and is something of a town misfit in Vaughn. He treasures the past, running some kind of second-hand shop in which he knows and loves every item. As a flood approaches, he moves things out of harm’s way. It’s an interesting check of perspective to see this connection to family, this appreciation of the past, play out with a person from a different background.

“The Wreck of the Ipswich Sparrow features Phoebe, young John’s cousin, in the second story about the lure of California and its power to erase the past, and how the same place can seem suffocating one moment, and comforting the next. It’s a complicated story – and one of my favorites – with too much involved to summarize in a couple of paragraphs, but involves the same issues: what does it mean to be home, and how family history binds or boosts. Phoebe, recently divorced and raising two kids, finds herself dealing with the old family house in Vaughn, and discovers her Aunt Helen’s journal – her Aunt Helen’s heretofore unknown life, sailing with her husband, surviving a shipwreck – in a trunk. Predictably, it connects her to someone she never knew, and affects her previously cynical attitude towards what was, in her childhood, her home.

The kids fell asleep slouched against their seatbelts. Looking at them, she realized that she’d lived longer in California than in Maine, and now that she was selling the house the kids would never know the place where their mother, Grandfather, and ancestors had grown up. They were California kids – whatever that meant.

When the wave reached the height of its arc through the air, she began to tell her children about an island of blowing sand that swallowed ships whole – an island where horses stood as tall as buildings, where waves reached higher than skyscrapers, where storms lasted for weeks come up and wear a person with the wind at her back would fly thirty feet with one step. It was a place people could end up – an island where survivors waited for the drowned to walk out of the sea.

The title story, set in 2001, returns us to the narration of young John and his grandfather on Howland Island. John is not spending the summer there this time; he’s there with his fiancée Melissa to attend his sister’s wedding, except Melissa hasn’t yet answered his proposal and Bridget is already married. Add in that grandfather John digs a hole and declares he will die that day, and you’ve got a lot of fakery going on. When Grandfather tells the assembled family that John is to inherit the house – a house with no electricity, in need of repairs, on a summer island half a continent away from John’s home in Tuscon where he’s sleepwalking through life in recovery – the fun begins, with Uncle Alden contesting the bequeathal and Bridget, the only Howland with any money, coming up with ideas for the house. It’s a wonderful story, teetering on the edge of screwball comedy but always coming back to the central point:

We stared out our windows for awhile. [Melissa said] “It’s exciting that’s the house is really yours, John Howland. Of Howland island.”
This sounded better than John Howland, adjunct community college instructor. Back in Arizona, where no one gave a shit about New England, I could forget all that John Howland stuff, but here the name John Howland also belonged to my grandfather and his father, et cetera, in a more or less unbroken line of Johns going back twelve generations to the John Howland who accidentally fell off the stern of the Mayflower in a storm but thank God somehow managed to pull himself back aboard before landing at Plymouth so the rest of us could someday exist.
“Whenever I’m back here I feel as if I should be doing something more important with my life, “ I said.

To most of the family, my sister represented Greed, Ambition, Aggression. Striving constituted an unforgivable sin to those of us who believed ourselves chosen a priori and, therefore, beyond the indignity of scrabbling after the very things without which, of course, one found it difficult to feel chosen.
She [Bridget] looked over her shoulder. …”You’re the last John Howland, and not only that: you are the last chance at another John Howland – not that I care. But if the old man gives the house to everyone, it will be sold because everyone but me lives on minimum fucking wage. My name should be John Howland for Christ’s sake. That would solve a lot of problems.” Like the old man, my sister had gone to Harvard. He talked slowly, with silent r’s, while she (when she wasn’t cursing like a fisherman ) usually talked rapidly in lilting, hyperarticulate blocks of prose.

The title, by the way, is also from a Cotton Mather sermon.

We skip over a decade to the next story, “Goat,” and end up right back on the island, this time for uncle Alden’s funeral. A great deal has occurred in the ensuing years: Grandfather John has died, young John, no longer young, has married (not to Melissa), has a son (not named John) and lives quite happily in Oregon, where he can feel but not be overwhelmed by the gravitational pull of family history. The story involves John’s cousin Anna who has promised to take a goat to a house on a neighboring island that may or may not be inhabited by drug dealers. This involves, of course, a boat, which, loaded with Uncle Alden’s ashes and his cane, gets lost, as do I in weaving together “boat” and “goat” and “GOAT” and John’s Herculean effort to recover the boat and the ashes and the cane within. It’s magnificent, and is the third story to come very close to knocking Toklas out of its My Favorite Story In this Collection spot.

I had flown all the way back here for a funeral just to drown while returning a goat to its summer residence – an allegory my grandfather would have told about the dangers of moving west. Of course he hadn’t been worried about me as much as himself. What would happen to him without an audience? I never found out because I wasn’t here. I had just moved to Oregon when he flew over the handlebars of his electric tricycle and ended up in the hospital with broken ribs. When I called the hospital, I told him I would get on a plane right away. “It’s not that kind of thing,” he told me from his bed. I should have ignored him – he was ninety seven. That night he had a heart attack but survived. The next day he got out of bed, pulled the tubes out of his arms, pushed Uncle Alden and a nurse out of the way, and stormed down the hall. He died, I was told, five feet short of the front doors.

By the time I dog-paddled to the hull, I could touch bottom. Though I had a hard time pulling myself over the side (at home I exercised only to walk the dog), I still had enough energy to stand and wave to Anna. She waved back with her whole left arm, then both arms, swinging in the air. I was still alive. We were both still alive!
I yelled across the water that I was coming to get her, but the wind had picked up. I doubted she heard me.
The keys rested in the ignition of the console, the urn in the backpack on the floor of the boat next to my grandfather’s cane. I could push off the mud with the oar and pick up Anna in less than a minute. For the moment, though, I sat behind the wheel, looked across the water at my cousin, and thought of hanging out on the back deck with my family when I returned home to Oregon. I would slice up a cold watermelon while Mary passed out paper towels. They’d want to know about my trip, and I’d be eager to tell them the story. As soon as I let slip the part about the goat and the urn, the tale of how I almost drowned as I boldly swam through rough water and gale force winds to rescue my pregnant cousin would begin to tell itself. Before I even finished, Justin would ask me to stop and go back to the beginning. He’d want to know what I’d been wearing, about the time of day, the temperature of the water, the number of sharks. Just like me at his age, he’d want us to go over and over what had happened until he knew every detail by heart.

He didn’t need to name his kid John to carry forth the family tradition after all.

“Sarah Campbell’s Story” provides a nice coda instead of an ending for the collection. It brings us back to 1741 and the struggles she, at nineteen, faced when she and the rest of her family joined their father and husband in Pennsylvania. The relative ease of her life after marrying a Howland is comrepessed into a single sentence. It’s an effective way to finish off the collection.

Alert readers will note that I skipped over the next-to-last story, “Wintering Over.” While by itself it’s a good story – a failing writer and his wife rent the Howland house in Vaughn for the winter, and they both start to go a little bonkers (shades of The Shining), just how bonkers is for the reader to decide – I felt like it disrupted the wonderful flow from “Ipswich” to “Faithful” to “Goat”, the ending of which I just wanted to let echo around for a while before the brief denouement of “Sarah Campbell” closed the book. So I just ignored it for the purposes of this post, because I have the luxury to do so.

I still can’t believe how much I like this book, since I really can’t claim connection on the overall issues. My family was pretty low on the identity thing; there’s no legacy there. But I greatly enjoyed the combination of humor and loneliness, the urgency with which some characters approach family and others ignore it, the conflict between escape and belonging.

Brown has a couple of other short story collections out there, one focusing on Portland, and one on the fictional town of Vaughn. It’s likely at least one of them will show up on my shelves at some point in the future.

Daniel Chamovitz: What a Plant Knows (Scientific American/FSG, 2012) with BONUS MOOC!

We are utterly dependent on plants. We wake up in houses made of wood from the forests of Maine, pour a cup of coffee brewed from coffee beans grown in Brazil, throw on a T-shirt made of Egyptian cotton, print out a report on paper, and drive our kids to school in cars with tires made of rubber that was grown in Africa and fueled by gasoline derived from cycads that died millions of years ago…. And plants continue to inspire and amaze us: the mighty sequoias are the largest singular, independent organisms on earth, algae are some of the smallest, and roses definitely make anyone smile.
Knowing what plants do for us, why not take a moment to find out more about what scientists have found out about them ?

I’ve lived a relatively plant-oblivious life – until about six months ago. And now I’ll talk about my plants (not even interesting ones, basic beginner stuff) like old ladies talk about their bunions.

It’s all @drunkphyto’s fault.

I was minding my own business when someone retweeted her tweet into my feed last September: “The smell of cut grass is the grass releasing a wounding compound into the air to warn other plants that they were injured. You are smelling their screams.” I immediately thought of Seth Fried’s “Animacula”, a short story in the form of a lab report about organisms with strange properties, including screaming. Oh, and Liz Ziemska’s “The Mushroom Queen” which acquainted me with the interconnectedness of fungi via mycelia.

I emailed @DrunkPhyto to tell her how excited I was about all this (yeah, I know) and, to my surprise, she gave me a friendly reply rather than a restraining order. She recommended a number of books, one of which was Chamovitz. So it ended up on my reading list. And I started eyeing the plant stand in the supermarket, until I finally brought home a tiny philodendron, then an ivy, and an oxalis, and various flowers….

I was in for another surprise. As I started reading, I realized I’d taken all these moocs on biology, physiology, biochem, anatomy, and other sciency topics, and while I’d encountered cell respiration and the Michaelis-Menten equation multiple times, I’d never learned anything specific to plant biology. I didn’t even know how photosynthesis worked! So I checked edX for any moocs on plant bio, and found little beyond agricultural ecology. Ah, but on Coursera, I found… Understanding Plants: What a Plant Knows , taught by Daniel Chamovitz! So of course I signed up. It follows the book very closely, and includes very helpful diagrams the book lacks. Double bonus: He has a second course, Understanding Plants: Fundamentals of Plant Biology , which I will take as soon as I finish up the biochem I’m struggling with.

How way leads on to way…

Plants must be aware of the dynamic visual environment around them in order to survive. They need to know the direction, amount, duration, and color of light to do so. ….Plants don’t have a nervous system that translates light signals into pictures. Instead, they translate light signals into different cues for growth. Plants don’t have eyes, just as we don’t have leaves.
But we can both detect light.

The book’s approach is to examine how plants sense their environment, through chapters like What a Plant Sees, What a Plant Feels, How a Plant Knows Where It Is, What a Plant Remembers. For each sense, the approach is to look at the human equivalent – say, sight – and break it down to its fundamental quality – sensing light – while pointing out key differences between the human version and the plant version – plants don’t have brains to interpret light signals into pictures – and presenting experimental evidence and theories for ecological significance of the sense.

There’s a fair amount of technical detail for a general readership book. The basics of electrochemical conduction, for example, and the regulation of water through ion transport to cause movement; gene expression and epigenetics; receptors and phytochromes. The experiments that revealed various processes and qualities are described in detail. I have to admit, I was surprised that Darwin was such a plant buff, proving that plants sense light in the tips of shoots. One of the most ingenious experiments was by Thomas Andrew Knight, a 19th century gentleman (rather than a scientist) who concocted a kind of water wheel to create centrifugal force to understand the role of gravity in plant growth, the International Space Shuttle being a couple of centuries in the future.

One of the most interesting chapters was What a Plant Hears, for several reasons. Caution: Spoiler ahead! First, it was a negative finding, and, as Chamovitz points out in his mooc, “one of the other problems in scientific research is that you can’t publish negative results.” This is particularly pertinent to this chapter, since a poorly-designed study in the 60s, coupled with a pop-science (in the worst sense of the phrase) book, had everyone convinced that plants like to be talked to, and they prefer classical music to rock. I’ll admit, I thought this was the case until I read this chapter; I had no idea the study was flawed and the hypotheses invalid. But because no one wants to publish negative results, failures to replicate the study weren’t anywhere near as publicized as the original work.

Even more interesting, the mooc contains a post-production video updating the hearing lecture, since later experiments have shown that plants do show responses to low frequency sounds, possibly via touch sensors (which is, fundamentally, what hearing is), and this may be related to sending roots in the direction of water. As Chamovitz says, “Science is a self-correcting system,” and new research leads to new theories.

Our dictionary’s definition of smell excludes plants from discussion. They are removed from our traditional understandings of the olfactory world because they do not have a nervous system, and olfaction for a plant is obviously a nose-less process. But let’s say we tweak this definition to “the ability to perceive odor or scent through stimuli.” Plants are indeed more than remedial smellers. What odors does a plant perceive, and how do smells influence a plant’s behavior?

The chapter on smell was also particularly interesting. Just like us, plants have receptors for volatile chemical molecules, which are the basis of smell. Anyone who has sped up the ripening of a peach or avocado by placing it in a paper bag with a ripe banana has used this sense: ethylene is given off by ripe fruits and signals other fruits to ripen. I learned this practice goes back many centuries, though it used other means: incense in China, for example.

And here’s where the book’s approach really works for me: given that this is the case, why would this happen? What’s the evolutionary advantage to having one ripe peach encourage others to ripen as well?

From an ecological perspective, this has an advantage in ensuring seed dispersal as well. Animals are attracted to ready-to-eat fruits like peaches and berries. A full display of soft fruits brought on by the ethylene-induced wave guarantees an easily identifiable market for animals, which then disperse the seeds as they go about their daily business.

So it isn’t that peach trees thought it would be a good idea if they did this; it’s that those plants that had this facility, however it was acquired (by mutation?) would have better reproductive success than those that didn’t. This is evolution in a nutshell. This is also my own musing, not a point made explicitly in the book, so if I’m off-base, tell me.

It’s this sense of smell that @DrunkPhyto was (slyly) referring to with “smelling their screams”. This exact point comes up when considering that an injured leaf will release a volatile chemical, and other leaves, on the plant and on other plants, will respond to it with self-protective measures:

While the phenomenon of plants being influenced by their neighbors through airborne chemical signals is now an accepted scientific paradigm, the question remains: are plants truly communicating with each other (in other words, purposely warning each other of approaching danger), or are the healthy ones just eavesdropping on a soliloquy by the infested plants, which do not intend to be heard?

There’s no real answer to this question, but again resorting to evolutionary advantage, plants that warn their own leaves to defend against intruders would likely survive more than plants that didn’t. How the “altruism” of warning other plants comes into it is murkier, though it’s scientifically doubted.

We don’t typically think of memory in connection with plants, but it turns out we can. Again, Chamovitz breaks down memory into its essential parts – storage, encoding, and retrieval – and shows how this works in an organism with no brain, no hippocampus. The Venus Flytrap serves as an excellent example of short-term memory: about 20 seconds. Plants that want to bloom or seed at specific times of the year keep track of the length of the day via genetic suppression or expression; this serves as a kind of medium-range memory. And the most interesting memory of all, long-term memory, spans generations via epigenetics, a topic I know far too little about:

…Not only do the stressed plants make new combinations of DNA but their offspring also make the new combinations, even though they themselves had never been directly exposed to any stress. The stress in the parents caused a stable heritable change that was passed on to all their offspring: the plants behaved as if they had been stressed.… In other words, stressed parents give rise to offspring that grew better under harsh conditions compared with regular plants.

Human experience tells a different story, since human offspring are subjected to other inputs beyond genetic inheritance. But it’s an amazing paragraph: what doesn’t kill a plant, makes the species stronger.

A look at awareness – consciousness – ends the book; it’s not as far-fetched as you might think. I myself hold two conflicting instincts about this sort of thing. I’ve always found it impossible to understand how a plant could “know” it’s time to bloom or seed, or for that matter how a red blood cell knows to pick up oxygen in the lungs and drop it off in the tissues. The biochem mooc I’m taking just did a wonderful lesson on that process, in fact, and it helped to clarify that it’s all about osmosis, competing pressures, and electrical charges repelling and attracting each other. But you could say the same thing about our brains: maybe all the art, belief, and knowledge is just a matter of manipulating matter and energy, no matter how much it feels like we control it with our will. On the other hand, I find it troubling when anyone declares some ethereal quality – like art, or religion, or emotion – is what makes people special, and when it turns out bees dance and whales communicate, the goalposts get moved to keep humans unique. I don’t try to reconcile these two ideas. Like Whitman, very well, I contradict myself; I am large, I contain multitudes.

Granted I have little to compare it to, but I don’t think I could have picked a better entrée to plant biology than this book. It combines a hint of romanticism with solid scientific evidence, and bounces off my prior learning (if unorthodox, via moocs and youtube) in biology and neuroscience to bridge the gap between human and botanical. Finding a mooc attached to it was a super-deluxe Easter egg.

For readers who’d rather not bother with the technical details, there’s still plenty to enjoy. And who knows, you might just come away with curiosity about something you always thought was way over there somewhere. Way does lead on to way, after all.

In-Between Reading 2020

This is my third year of reading an assortment of books between finishing Pushcart and starting the next BASS (which is, at the moment, scheduled for publication in November). I keep calling this different things: interim reading, free read, interregnum, summer read. This year, in-between reading seems to fit.

Previously, I’ve had some kind of thematic classification for the books I chose to read: boarding school novels, nonfiction about various jobs, religion. This year, like the spirit of the moment, I’m a little less organized. I have fiction, both novels and story collections, and nonfiction. Reading list fiction, and oddball stuff. Nonfiction includes philosophy, science, literary studies, and history. American authors predominate, but there are a couple from other places. I started to make a list, but it didn’t spark joy so I stopped. That kind of obviates the need for this post, but in addition to serving as an introduction, it’s also a motivator for me. Now I’m committed.

The image above is my To Be Read shelf. My cheap-ass camera blurs everything, so I used the photo as a base for Artistic Effects via Word. Then I couldn’t decide between three version, so included all three so has to have no regrets. That’s a lot of reading; I’d better get started.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: You Got Your Pandemic In My Pushcart Read

Pandemic Art: Variation on Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" (originator unknown)

Pandemic Art: Variation on Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” (originator unknown)

From these writers I learned how important it is to all of us that we encourage each other. It is not news that writing is a hard and solitairy road. A few words can give us the necessary courage to continue….Many have told me that the Pushcart Prize series is almost a religious obligation to me. And I would not disagree.

Bill Henderson, Pushcart XLIV “Introduction”

Little did we know, back in January, how solitary and hard that road would become.

I don’t remember when I first became aware of COVID-19, but it was definitely not on my mind when I started this read in early January 2020. At some point it became something that was happening in China. Then Italy. I happen to have an e-friend in that region of Italy, and I felt very sorry for her as she described the lockdown procedures: no school, no work, no travel except for food or medicine, no gatherings, no weddings or funerals. Eventually it dawned on me that I would soon come to know those conditions, perhaps a little less stringent, but not much. And now 60,000 people in the US have died, including health care workers who weren’t provided proper personal protection equipment. But we flattened the curve. And now there are armed militias brandishing Confederate flags, Nazi swastikas, and assault rifles gathered outside Michigan’s legislature threatening lawmakers who want to continue the measures in the interests of preventing a resurge.

City Lights Bookstore, founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (whose poetry serves as an epigraph in this edition of Pushcart) and declared a national landmark, nearly went bankrupt until a gofundme kept it going. AWP’s conference in early March, often a sales boost for small booksellers and a moment of publicity for new authors, was not cancelled, a decision everyone now regrets since panels were cancelled and it turned out to be a sad, sparsely attended affair. Authors are valiantly holding book launches on Zoom, in the hopes of enjoying some semblance of the triumphal event capping years of work that they’d been looking forward to.

My first loss of the pandemic was the closing of the local library. I would visit once or twice a week, get a copy of the NYT Sunday crossword, just sit and read in the Atrium. Then Portland shut down. The grocery store has stayed open (the initial toilet paper shortage has mostly abated though stocks are limited, and many food items are growing more scarce) and the busses are running, but it’s very different: we all wear masks, occupancies are reduced to assure social distancing is possible, plexiglass sheets protect cashiers. Between the masks, the partitions, and my inability to wear glasses and mask at the same time, I can barely see or hear. But I’m healthy, no one I know has died or been horribly sick, I don’t have to worry (yet) about losing my job, income, and/or health insurance, and that’s more than some can say.

It’s been a weird spring.

Reading, as I yammered on about a couple of years ago, is all about context, and as I read more into this volume, the current moment intruded more and more.

The upshot is: I greatly enjoyed this edition. Given how tepid I was about last year’s volume, that wasn’t a certainty, but by the seventh or eighth story, I felt like last year was an aberration and Pushcart was itself again. It’s possible that’s because I skipped the poetry (with one exception, included more for its source than the poem itself). I’d intended to do a few, the poems I could say something intelligent about, but it was so much less stressful to just turn the page and not spend a couple of hours worrying about syllables and symbols and consonance/dissonance and all that. So (I admit it) I wimped out. But I think the fiction was far stronger than last year, and the nonfiction, while overall less interesting to me, had a few standouts as well.

The fiction was so good, in fact, I have trouble narrowing down a list of favorites to a reasonable number. To list my favorites would be to leave out three or four stories that were only not-favorites because the favorites were so favorite.

One type of story I always enjoy are those that mystify me in a positive way, stories I don’t think I’ve got a handle on, but can’t stop thinking about, that intrigue me with their possibilities instead of leaving me in the dark. “The Important Transport” by Diane Williams, and “Flour” by Joy Williams, had moments that were crystal clear and moments that seemed to shift to another plane. These are quintessential Pushcart stories.

Early on, I thought “The Last Voyage of the Alice B. Toklas” by Jason Brown would be my favorite story. I still think it is; I mean, Don Quixote, come on. But what about Ben Shattuck’s “The History of Sound” or Claire Luchette’s “New Bees”, Erin Singer’s “Bad Northern Women,” or “Pattycakes” by Claire Davis? And what about the coming of age tales – “Fat Swim” by Emma Copley Eisenberg, “The Entertainer” by Whitney Collins, Richard Bausch’s “In That Time” or Leslie Pietrzyk’s “Stay There” – that show how age comes all our lives? Or “Hao” by Ye Chun, or “General Unskilled” by Ryan Eric Dull, showing how personal the political can be?

I won’t say much here about the closing story, “Oasis,” except that, reading it in the context of COVID-19 where the debate is now about letting old people die to save the economy, it was the perfect closing story with the perfect closing line. I suspect it would’ve been perfect back in January, too, but would’ve been perfect in a different way. Though we’re focused right now, we have a whole stack of tragedies, horrors, and atrocities to forget, after all. When we take our masks off, will we be able to look at each other? At ourselves?

I had a couple of push-backs on the nonfiction side, which are always fun: Hal Crowther’s “Dante on Broadway” and Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Jailbait”. I found “If You Find a Mouse on a GlueTrap” by Suzane Farrell Smith to be an outstanding example of creative nonfiction. “The Human Soup” by Maureen Stanton did a great job of combining what could have been dry (hmmm) facts with storytelling – but to read it now would be a very different experience than when I encountered it in the unawares of January.

There are other great stories here; these are just a few examples. Read it yourself, see what stands out to you. Not everything will grab you; presenting a variety of viewpoints and techniques is the hallmark of a prize anthology. But I suspect you’ll find a lot to enjoy, while you’re looking out the window, wondering if the sidewalks will ever bustle again.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Deborah Forbes, “Oasis” from Hudson Review, Winter 2018

There are many things she hasn’t known how to tell her husband since she followed him to this posting in Lusaka, Zambia, and one is how she loves the dust. Not “loves” – she wants a word less willed and compromised, more elemental. The dust seems to her not dirty but clean, fine enough to filter out impurities. When it collects in her hair and under her fingernails, it’s proof she’s here, alive – affect she finds wildly improbable, most days.

I pay particular attention to the opening and closing stories of each Pushcart volume, since, unlike BASS, the order is chosen by the editors. We started with “The Arms of Saturday Night,” a story about a teenager focused on getting to a party to hook up with the popular boy, until she realizes the reason she’s stuck at home is the death of her father’s brother. We close with a woman who has more insight into her self-focus given what’s going on around her. But what makes this an outstanding closing story is the last line, a line that keeps ringing in the air long after the book is closed. Especially right now.

Corinne is desperately unhappy in Zambia, having followed her professional do-gooder husband on some kind of fund-raising project. I’m still not clear about where her discontent lies, or if she was similarly discontent when they lived in the States. Much of the story consists of missed connections between her and other people, from her husband, to the colleague she ends up in bed with, to the waiter she sees frequently at the fancy hotel where she lunches.

These missteps stem from different roots. She ends up having an affair just to feel something other than empty and sad, and predictably feels empty and sad about the affair. It’s the part of the story I least understand.

With her husband, it’s more complicated. Corinne is beginning to understand what she is so protected from, in her nice house with the quiet maid and lunches in the nice hotel with the polite, attentive waiter. To her husband, it’s about numbers and fund-raising approaches, and the problem is that “poverty isn’t sexy enough.” But it becomes more visceral to Corinne as she serves dinner to a group of her husband’s colleagues:

“That’s why we’re working the defense angle,” Grant said. “Hundreds of thousands of kids orphaned by AIDS, growing up without adult supervision – if that’s not a security threat, what is?”
There was pleasure in her husband’s voice, a quickening on the trail of a solution, but she was listening to something else. Hundreds of thousands of orphans. She tried to steady the fact in her mind. This is why we are here.
“I’ve got something even better,” Tim said. “Plane crashes. Think of all that attention to the planes going down. Child mortality in sub-Saharan Africa is like plane crashes. Seventy-seven plane crashes every day. That’s one every eighteen minutes. And every plane filled with children.”
Corinne scraped her chair hard against the floor but kept her steps as even as she could as she walked to the kitchen. She pressed her palms into the counter. She knew people in Grant’s line of work got used to terrible statistics. She knew they had to get hard and to pain and death, like surgeons had to harden themselves to the open wound. Everybody else was OK; what was wrong with her?
She made herself open the plastic container and distribute raspberries onto the dessert plates. They were imported, shamefully expensive, but she couldn’t resist the contrast they make against the whipped cream and dark cake. Every eighteen minutes, a planeload of children was falling from the sky – children weakened by hunger as well as disease. Either this was not real or the raspberries and cake weren’t real. They couldn’t be real at the same time.

Later that night, she considers bringing this up with her husband, asking if he feels anything about these numbers, the campaigns designed to shake dollars from tight fists. But she doesn’t: “She was afraid of his versions of no.”

But consider that surgical analogy. Would a surgeon who freaks out at the sight of a gaping hole in the abdomen be any good to the patient who needs a tumor removed? There is a balance, of course, and it’s tricky, facing tragedy and horror every day with enough distance to help, but not walling off the human connection. Exactly the problem the fundraisers mentioned a paragraph before: you have present a sympathetic picture, but not a hopeless one. I think of the NYC doctor who, after treating COVID-19 cases for weeks, committed suicide just two days ago. And I think of the guys in this story tossing around statistics about dead children as marketing tools, not to mention all the talking heads on newscasts declaring it’s ok to let old people and those with underlying conditions die in order to get the stock market back on track and oil prices up, that meat and poultry workers – often poorly paid, often immigrants – should get back to work and if they get sick it’s their fault because of how they live. Damn, this story is hard reading right now.

It’s with the Zambian waiter Joseph that the full extent of Corinne’s disconnection with the realities she’s beginning to glimpse are most striking, and in this, we’re helped by narrative technique: the third-party narrator who generally speaks from inside Corinne’s head, but sometimes zooms out to provide more context. It’s a technique that gets perilously close to telling rather than showing, something I’ve become rather sensitized to by the previous essay in the collection about the mouse. But it works here, showing not everything has to be Carver or Hemingway.

Her first disconnect is fairly trivial, but shows the rift between Joseph’s world and her interpretation of it:

“How is your family, madam?” he asks the next time.
“It’s only me and my husband.”
“Yes?” he says, his face going blank, and she realizes the question was a courtesy, not a request for information.
“How is your family?” She tries to right the exchange.
“Fine, we are all fine, madam.”
The correct formula, the answer she should’ve given. But instead of stopping here, she asks more questions and confirms that he’s not a teenager; he has a three-year-old son and six-month-old daughter.
“My sister has a baby the same age,” she says. “What’s her name?”
“I’m sorry?”
“Oh-ah-sees. Like this.” He points to the header of her menu: Oasis Bar and Lounge.
“Oh, Oasis!” Corinne says. Joseph’s brow furrows at the hard “ay.” “It’s a lovely name,” she adds quickly. “A green place in the desert.”
Her remark doesn’t seem to register. “It is to give thanks to God,” he says. “This is the place from which our blessings come.”

Corinne can only interpret Joseph by her own experience. She makes some effort to at least hear him, but simply can’t enter into his experience. I suppose we should give her credit for doing as well as she does; there are people who would lecture him on the “correct” pronunciation and meaning of the name he chose for his daughter.

While this misunderstanding is quite trivial, it does show a pattern that continues to play out the next time she asks about Oasis. He says she isn’t eating, and Corinne goes into her sister’s troubles with getting her baby to eat solid foods. Considering she’s just had a literal crash course on child mortality in the area, you’d think she’d pick up on what seems ominous to me. But her frame of reference is raspberry world. The third time they speak of Oasis, Joseph reports she is now eating but has diarrhea. And that zoom-out narration does a yeoman’s job of cuing in anyone who hasn’t caught on yet:

Corinne doesn’t know enough yet to know about the taboo against complaint in Zambia. His refrain should sound like a siren screaming down the street.

These three threads – husband, bedmate, waiter – follow Corinne to the by now expected tragic end of the story, a tragedy she somehow never saw coming. A tragedy that personalizes the discomfort she felt at the dinner table. And Forbes leaves us with a final paragraph that will stay with me for a long time, a paragraph that hits hard at this moment when, still in the throes of pandemic but having flattened the curve, we’re on the brink of reopening, a time when we’re finding out whose life is worth protecting and whose isn’t:

While they are speaking, a plane full of children crashes into the earth. How much do you have not to think about, not remember, in order to live?

How would I have read this story three months ago? I can’t answer that – I suspect Corinne’s cluelessness, in spite of her good intentions, would have read the same – but that isn’t the important question. The important question is how would I read it a year, two years, ten years from now?

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Suzanne Farrell Smith, “If You Find a Mouse on a Glue Trap” (nonfiction) from Brevity #59

If you find a mouse on a glue trap, he’ll eyeball you with one black shiny eye while breathing in and out faster than you have ever seen anything breathe. You will panic, though you know the mouse is panicking harder.

Complete story available online at Brevity

How would you tell the story of finding a mouse stuck in a glue trap you yourself did not put down, but was rather a carryover from the former owners of your house? What would you want to convey: what actions, tone, emotions, persons secondarily affected?

You might use second person, if you wanted to dramatically increase the chances of some random editor/slush pile reader tossing it into the Rejects bin, then make it very short, in order to mitigate that possibility. But you’d make it all one paragraph, again shooting yourself in the foot. Then you’d send it to a litmag that specializes in very short, very creative nonfiction, that wants to see something different.

You might want to cram in a range of emotions, and make them evident not by explaining – “I felt sad/happy/scared” – but through actions and considerations. This is, of course, show don’t tell, the first rule learned in Writing 101, but if you think about it, it’s also Real Life: nobody reads a Bad News Letter and thinks, Wow, I’m sad and scared; no, you crumple up the letter, maybe throw it, maybe cry, maybe stare at nothing, maybe grab a bottle or a pile of chocolate or the phone, maybe a lot of things, but naming emotions wouldn’t be one of them. That’s why it’s a rule.

Ok, I can’t do this any more; see, its harder than it looks.

When the mouse starts to struggle, you will tell your husband to kill it, no save it, and you will run to your phone and search “how to remove a mouse from a glue trap.” Articles will tell you to use oil, so while your husband brings the glued mouse out to the back walkway so that your three young sons, in jammies and waiting with popcorn bowls for a Saturday-night Christmas movie, don’t see it, you will hunt for the carafe. Outside, the mouse will sniff and stretch from the trap…. You will cover his body with an old tri-fold cloth diaper and douse his legs with olive oil. Your husband will say, “He’s going to smell too good to predators,” and you will tell the mouse, in all honesty, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry you smell delicious.”

I would never think of a two-page memoir about finding a mouse as being interesting, but this really was, as writing. We know the narrator has conflicting feelings; we see a strange juxtaposition (every time I use that word, I worry, because I was once told it’s a signal of bad writing, but it’s a useful word and fits what’s happening here) of the drama in the basement and the kids getting ready to watch a Christmas movie upstairs. Hilarious sentences are followed by maudlin ones, but it combines to give an honest portrait of the moment.

The title had me stuck on “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie,” simultaneously the cutest and the most right-wing children’s story ever written. But the text had me comparing it to Richard Wilbur’s poem “Death of a Toad”, often considered hyperbolic, more of a satire of romantic poetry given its subject matter. Smith stays firmly within real limits, even as she explores a reaction some of us might find odd.

It’s a great example of putting the creative in creative nonfiction without going gimmicky. Yes, I know, there are those who think second person is automatically gimmicky, but it works here, distancing the narrator from herself enough to present the scene, and putting the reader in her place, a place some readers, again, might not consider, um, normal. The kids upstairs are just the icing on the cake, offering a parallel to the end stage and the morning-after scene, a scene that is as inevitable as it is… no, not heartbreaking, but more than wistful: let’s call it appropriately somber.

No, let’s not call it anything at all. Let’s just read it, and that’ll tell us more.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Joanna Scott, “Infidels” from Conjunctions #71

Victor Hugo: Lace and Ghosts, ca. 1855

Victor Hugo: Lace and Ghosts, ca. 1855

It was a damp November afternoon in Paris in 1887 when the man who would be identified in the book only as “C” suffered the first symptoms of the affliction that would make him noteworthy. He had risen from his nap and settled comfortably into his armchair by the window overlooking the Place des Vosges. Droplets from the thick fog ran like tears down the exterior of the glass. A wood fire crackled and filled the room with its soothing fragrance.1

1 I came across the story of C when I was browsing at a used bookstore in Ithaca. I read the case history while standing in the aisle. Stupidly, I left without purchasing the book. When I returned for it later, the book was gone. I don’t recall the title. C’s story, however, left an indelible impression in my mind.

This is one of those offbeat stories: I can’t quite get a handle on it, but it fascinates me. It presents as walking a fine line between fiction and nonfiction while skillfully dodging verifications. Telescoping narrations make it something like a walk through a maze of twisty little passages. And by complete coincidence (ah, yes, another coincidence; how I love these coincidences!) I happened to read something this morning that might be relevant. Or not. And this is going to be one of those posts: way too long, meandering into tangential waters, and written more for my own edification and later recall than for readers. Sorry.

The first clever trick blurring the line between fiction and fact is the (unnamed first person) narrator’s description, quoted above, of how she came across the story of C. I avoid the “I read this somewhere but I can’t remember where” thing unless I must include something with a source I can’t find, but here, it’s used as a literary device. Combined with this is the second trick, footnotes, almost always associated with nonfiction but most recently popularized in fiction by DFW (LitHub tells me Infinite Jest doesn’t use footnotes at all, but, rather, endnotes, and explains the difference in terms of reading; I confess, I hate endnotes because they do force me to choose to continue in a straight line or take a brief detour and return, having lost forward momentum, but who am I to argue with DFW).

At this point C becomes something close to a third-person narrator within the first-person narration, and the setting shifts to 19th century Paris, specifically Place des Vosges. The story will necessarily inform us, a bit later, that this is the former location of French royalty, destroyed by Catherine de Medici after her husband, Henri II, was killed in a joust there; turns out she wasn’t crazy about the place to begin with, so what could be seen as a gesture of grief might just be an aesthetic choice and the cleaning out of a really big attic now that the owner is gone. But the location is important for another reason: it was where Victor Hugo lived for sixteen years. And, by the way, is the current home of the Maison de Victor Hugo, the museum containing, among other things, his drawings. I had not known Victor Hugo drew, but it seems he left behind thousands of critically acclaimed abstract and impressionistic works, one of which I’ve used as a header image above.

C is not a fan of fiction in general, and is even more emphatically not a fan of Hugo in particular:

He was secretly critical of contemporary men of letters and blamed novelists, especially, for pandering to the public and emptying their work of useful information. The worst of them, in his opinion, was Victor Hugo, who used to live in an apartment across the square. C had read a couple of novels and a book of verse by his former neighbor. He wasn’t inclined to read more. He wasn’t at all curious. What was there to be curious about if there was nothing to learn?

I love that line about “nothing to learn.” I’ve said many times that my favorite fiction teaches me something. Here, I learned a great deal about Places de Vosges, for example, and a bit about Victor Hugo. Sometimes we learn more intangible things from fiction: another point of view, how it feels to walk in someone’s shoes, the harmful effects of our own barely-noticed prejudices. But C feels the only learning to be done is to be found in military histories and biographies.

He is reading, in fact, on that day in 1887 when we come to know him. And another touch of nonfiction: a footnote informs us the passage C is reading is from Gibbons. I checked (of course I did; in a story like this, I check everything); indeed it is. But he has a problem: when he comes to the word infidels, he can’t read it.

Really, it should have been easy enough for C to comprehend. Yet, to his dismay, the word was utterly unintelligible. His eyes processed the letters in their correct order. His brain received the information in the usual fashion. He inhaled, and his oxygenated blood flowed briskly. All organs were seemingly in working order, and C was very much awake, utterly sober and self-aware, but the eight letters of that English word were as devoid of meaning as if he had never learned to read. …
The letters were so unrecognizable that infidel wasn’t even a word to him. It was a solid blankness, a splotch of spilled ink, an absolute nothing.

Our narrator goes on to explain how this was not the phenomenon known to contemporary neuroscience as semantic satiation, where repetition of a particular word renders it meaningless. I’ve read about this many times, but I’ve never had it happen to me; I’ll have to take it on faith that it’s a relatively common experience, though it is not C’s problem.

And again, a footnote, but instead of an intersection with nonfiction, it is itself a fiction: the cited article (claiming that mobile devices have reduced the vocabulary to the point where some words are repeated more often, causing “a dramatic uptick” in semantic satiation) and the journal it appears in are fictitious.The author names are nearly comedic exercises. Pissoralüpa? Really? Then again, if someone had tried to convince me that @southpaw was really Luppe Luppen, I would have thought that was a joke, so who’s to tell with names. But none of it is googleable, so I’m assuming it’s fictional. It’s a good thing, since a later footnote cites the same article as claiming that humanity will be illiterate by 2150, again, presumably, thanks to the internet (and I just put up a major rant about blaming the internet for all of society’s ills). Yet it’s the internet that convinces me the article is fictitious. Twisty passages, see?

Poor C’s troubles don’t end with the word infidel. He is momentarily relieved to find the other words are perfectly readable, until they aren’t. “It was as if the light within each letter went out one by one, until each word was dark.” Another great turn of phrase: meaning as a light within a word, a light that can, for reasons we don’t always understand, go out.

And here’s where personal coincidence comes in to play. This morning, before I started this post (I’d pulled quotes and done some preliminary research and art searching yesterday), I saw an article on Aeon about posterior cortical atrophy, a form of dementia that alters how the brain interprets the signals the eyes send. I was interested because I remember from some of my neuroscience moocs that the eyes send signals from light falling on the retina, but the image, what we see, is created in the brain. When that goes awry, a street can look like an ocean, and words like smudges. Granted, this is not C’s problem any more than semantic satiation. His problem is specific to words, not all vision. And while strokes and other brain lesions can affect reading, they typically would affect speech as well. Still, there are interesting parallels, and the brain is the true undiscovered country.

By the way: why did Scott chose infidel as the word that would signal such a calamity? In the present American climate it’s a bit loaded, but would it have been in 1887’s Paris? Does it fit C for his distaste for Hugo, for fiction in general? Does the use of this word convey some sense of punishment being wrought upon him? And why is the word pluralized in the title? Are there other infidels in the story?

Now the narrator briefly enters the story. She describes a 1981 trip to Paris, during which time she wandered through the Place des Vosges and had a conversation with an elderly Parisian woman who told her the history of the site. It seems there is a ghost story connected to it as well: the woman claims the ghost of Henri II frequents the park, and she has seen him several times herself.

I didn’t bother to wait around to see if the ghost of Henri II would make his entrance that evening. It had become increasingly obvious to me that the woman was suffering from senility. I could only hope that she was receiving adequate care. As for me, though I appreciate a good ghost story, I thought I could tell the difference between fiction and fact – until I stumbled across the story of C.

Don’t we all think we know the difference. By the way, I can’t find any reference to the ghost of Henri II, or anyone else, connected with the Place des Vosges.

We return to the final scene of the story. I won’t go into detail – it’s much better read – but will propose that it somewhat reprises the narrator’s trip to Paris by bringing C together with a ghost and a drawing. And, in that meeting, C realizes all that he has lost:

It occurred to him that he had judged Hugo’s work too harshly through the years. His inclination to find faults had dominated his reading experience. He realized that in his urge to be critical, he had missed the sheer, absorbing pleasure of Hugo’s books….
He had failed to fully savor the distinct satisfaction that comes with reading selflessly, propelled by selfless interest. All through his adult life, when his intellect was at its sharpest, he had positioned himself in competition with the books in the library. Now it was too late to start over. He had missed his chance.

I can’t help but think this is every author’s warning, or perhaps plea to every reader. While C’s story takes only one day, it seems to span centuries, from Henri II’s 16th to Victor Hugo’s 19th to our own 21st. I learned something about the past and the present, about history and literature and neuroscience. Blended in with the question of fiction or nonfiction is the nature of reading, and the difference between reading critically (which has its place) and pleasure reading, which can take on a broader sense of enjoying the world or finding fault because it is not perfect.

This is my second encounter with Scott. Pushcart 2016 featured her story “The Knowledge Gallery” which drove me mad trying to figure out the significance of the key element. I resorted to emailing Scott, and she was very gracious in her reply, for which I am still grateful.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Hal Crowther, “Dante on Broadway” (nonfiction) from Narrative, Winter 2019

Which heroes of the past do we expect to see honored by urban statues? In the South, mostly generals. Everywhere, politicians, saints, philanthropists, famous athletes. I couldn’t see the statue’s head, up there among the spring leaves, but the larger-than-life-size (nine and a half feet, actually) male figure was dressed in an outfit that looked nothing like a military uniform, more like an academic gown or a priest’s cassock that covered the big fellow down to his shoes. A medieval aristocrat’s everyday street wear, as it turned out, specifically Italian, Florentine, thirteenth century. If I had been sitting on the other side of the little park, I would have seen its name on a large iron sign: Dante Park.

Complete story available online at Narrative

This was not my first Crowther essay. Back in Pushcart 2014, he was represented by a piece that started off with “ a wonderful riff on the crwth,” as I said at the time (a string instrument that has fallen into obscurity). Then he went on to bemoan how everything of value has been supplanted by modern versions of less aesthetic and/or humanistic worth. I rather took exception to that, though I did feel a tug of sympathy for all the crwths in the world collecting dust on antique store shelves.

He’s basically written the same essay here. And I’ve had basically the same reaction. In fact, as I’ve been keeping track, it’s the third piece in this volume that’s had me more or less in agreement with parts, yet resentful of the overall tenor.

The essay starts out with his own recent discover of Dante Park in New York, featuring an outsized statue of the Italian poet who created The Divine Comedy. At that time, he was distracted by a passing truck that specialized in shredding documents.

Representing the thirteenth century, Dante, father of the modern Italian language, progenitor of the Renaissance, disciple of Aristotle, a great poet whose sacred mission was to preserve the wisdom and literature of the ancient Greeks and Romans and protect their precious, fragile links to his own time and culture. Representing the twenty-first century, Information Destruction at Your Door.
Irony doesn’t hit us much harder than that. I like to think that a lot of people, if they had shared my vision at that moment, would have been as blindsided as I was. Realistically I know that 95 percent of the people who pass through Dante Park have never heard of the poet (“Dante? A wide receiver for the Browns?”) and would have no negative response to a Pro Shred truck. And that, of course, is a huge part of the problem.

I have to wonder if Crowther realizes the documents being shredded include things like financial and medical records containing identification numbers that could be used to pirate identities or commit various forms of extortion. Sometimes they also include obsolete manuals and forms that could just be thrown away, but shredding typically is done for security purposes. They aren’t destroying dictionaries or copies of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, or the original Gutenberg Bible or Book of Kells. Those things are, in fact, in abundant existence, not only in museums on paper (where moth and rust doth corrupt) but as facsimilies on library shelves and even household shelves, not to mention in the Cloud where everyone can take a good look at them from their cozy bed at 3am should the desire arise.

I should admit now that I became interested in Dante because the professor of a math mooc spoke so lovingly of it, and I ended up studying it with the help of another mooc, and the online site of a third university. Dante isn’t going anywhere.

In America’s social-media century, with an illiterate Twitter-addicted liar steering the ship of state, even yesterday—the past twenty-four hours and their printed, taped, and digitalized record—is routinely erased, distorted, denied. There are idiots afoot who must start every day like the first day of creation, as empty of memory as Adam waking up in the Garden of Eden.

And of course here is where I agree with him. Right now, as I read this, there’s a misinformation campaign in overdrive convince America that the Orange Man had the pandemic solved long ago and it’s Obama’s fault the tests didn’t work and Hillary’s fault China is growing bat viruses in labs and that his press conferences get the best ratings of any tv ever in history (let me be clear lest I become part of the problem: none of that is true), while medical personnel are getting sick and, in a few cases, dying because PPE is being kidnapped by the Feds and ransomed for maximal profit instead of being directed to where it’s needed… oh, never mind, just go read the news.

And yes, I agree, we tend to forget things. There’s a meme on the internet – which Crowther seems to scorn – that starts, “I’m old enough to remember…” and concludes with something that happened a year ago, or a month ago – or sometimes, just days ago. There is an epic battle for history being fought right now in the present, and revisionists are re-revisioning as often as necessary. Any attempt to show them actual proof of their former positions meets with cries of “fake news” or “you’re a nasty person”, the latter often reserved for women who have the nerve to contradict a man.

But wait a minute. Dante “wrote his greatest poetry in the Tuscan vernacular to expand the reach and influence of ‘those who know.’” This was not considered a good idea at the time, as scholastic and literary work was in Latin. Wouldn’t Dante be on Twitter or Youtube or Tik Tok today, trying to expand knowledge? And let’s not forget he didn’t know Greek and was dependent on translations of Homer. That’s not a serious flaw, but a 13th century Crowther might have seen it as one.

I’m tired of academics and the intelligentsia blaming the internet for everything. There is a great deal of crap online, yes, I freely admit that, and the most popular, high traffic sites tend to be crap. In the 13th century, I’m willing to bet most of Florence was more interested in gossip and love ballads than in Aristotle. Someone like Dante would have been among the most educated, in a stratified society that depended on lower castes as laborers. And don’t forget, Dante was run out of town by the rulers of the day, and the leadership of the Church, as he exposed in “The Inferno”, was a corrupt cesspool. So don’t go crying about evil modernity and blame everything on the Internet.

There is a great deal of crap online, yes, I freely admit that, and the most popular, high traffic sites tend to be crap. You know what else is there? Courses on Dante, on Milton, on Shakespeare. Videos of lectures on topics from protein purification techniques (sorry, I’m taking a biochem mooc at the moment, that’s where my head is) to the history of Ethiopia to the differences between various musical modes and keys, as well as theoretical reconstructions of music from Egypt and ancient Greece and pretty much everywhere else. Through Twitter, I get to peek over the shoulders of classicists, astronomers, mathematicians, historians, medievalists, artists, writers, etc etc. While this alone isn’t educating, it’s often a springboard to papers, books, and courses on topics I’d otherwise never see.

If you can’t find anything but crap on the internet, blame yourself.

While I seem to be thrown by these I-agree-I-disagree pieces, I find that I like them. They help me clarify my thinking, draw boundaries without insisting that everything is right or wrong. That’s another problem we’re dealing with right now: cancel culture, the all-or-nothing approach.

I sympathize with Crowther’s sense that the world is leaving him behind. The world left me behind years ago, and I’m a little younger than he is. I prefer books to e-readers, myself. But that doesn’t mean that innovation is a bad thing. Sometimes it means the way things are saved and stored changes. And, yes, sometimes things are lost: no copies, no notes, of The Divine Comedy in Dante’s hand exist. And somehow, it’s still with us, because of the means of duplication in existence at the time.

When I saw the title of this essay in the Table of Contents, my first thought was, Oh god, someone made a musical out of The Commedia, or out of Dante’s life. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. On the one hand, it could be amazing; but more likely, it’s a lot of catchy tunes and special effects rather than anything to do with the guy who got lost halfway through the journey of his life, and turned to his poetic idol to see him to a salvation that transcended poetry. So I was relieved when I didn’t have to choose.

I doubt I’ll ever get to New York at this point, but if I do, I will seek out Dante Park. And if I happen to catch sight of a shredder along the way, I won’t worry about it, but will give a toast to Crowther for drawing me there.

Japanese Books MOOC: From Manuscript to Print

Course: Japanese Books: From Manuscript to Print
Length: 9 (?) weeks, 1-2 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructor: Melissa McCormick

This course expands the definition of the “book” to include scrolls and albums, focusing on the reading experience of a variety of formats in Japan. You will begin by examining rare and beautifully preserved manuscripts in the Harvard Art Museums in an introduction exploring the material properties of Japanese books and scrolls, binding techniques, and important terminology. An examination of the illustrated scroll comes next, through a unit on the short story and visual storytelling in premodern Japan. The course concludes with The Tale of Genji, an overview of how this celebrated epic from the eleventh century was read and illustrated in every conceivable format, from scroll, to album, to printed book, into the modern era.

One of the unexpected effects of lockdown for me has been my return to moocs. It’s not that I have more time or am bored; my daily routine is much the same, and I had to put a couple of ongoing projects on hold to make time for new classes. And it’s not that I haven’t been paying attention to moocs all along; it’s just that I’ve fallen into a pattern of watching a lecture or two, then deciding I’m not interested enough to continue. Let’s face it, I’ve taken pretty much all the moocs I was interested in already, and the new ones lean heavily towards vocational/technical instruction rather than academics.

So what happened? I think it’s more that there’s so much mooc promotion going on right now, what with everyone learning online, I’ve just felt more inclined to put in the effort.

This one interested me because, of course, manuscripts! I’ve taken several moocs on European manuscripts, and had a slight introduction to Islamic works, but there isn’t much out there on other cultures which of course were producing their own works. I’ve had a very quick introduction to some Japanese work in the Japanese art mooc I took a couple of years ago, and The Tale of Genji was discussed in the World Literature mooc from the year before, but that’s about it. That turned out to be fine, since the course is geared towards novices.

One note: while the course description gives a duration of 9 weeks, that must be a misprint. There are three modules, released weekly, and each is well within the two-hour guideline. Durations are something of a moot point anyway, since nearly all moocs are self-paced; this one is open until March 2021, for those who want to take their time.

The first module looks at a 13th century sculpture of the 7th century Prince Shōtoku, which was filled with various small items: ordination promises, pieces of scripture, tokens. About a hundred of these exist now, and they were something like Buddhist time capsules. Curator and Professor Rachel Saunders went through the items, indicating their purpose, symbolism, and construction, including various forms of the books inserted into the sculpture and the kinds of paper decorations. I’d never heard of this before. A creative assignment rounded out the videos and questions: how would you design a time capsule of similar meaning?

The second module examined what was referred to as the short story scroll, right up my alley. Two stories served as examples of the ways text and art were combined, the variety of materials used, and the themes and purposes of these works. These tales are what today might be called magical realism or fantasy: gentlemen suitors who become other things, for good or evil.

Last comes the Tale of Genji, which could probably be a course in itself. We started with the various forms in which this was published, and the legend of its inspiration (it was written by a woman self-isolated in a monastary). Then, in an interesting twist, the Fraudulent Murasaki’s Rustic Genji was presented. This is something between a pastiche and fan fiction, requiring its own style.

I greatly enjoyed this material, so different from European works of the same period. The care put into the scrolls and books is amazing: paper is decorated with rock dust or ink swirls, various techniques are used to bring the reader into the story (illustrations using the same house from different angles, for instance), and calligraphic techniques that vary depending on the work. Both form and content of the works is discussed, with an emphasis on how one affects the other.

It was a very satisfying return to moocs; I’d recommend it to anyone interested in literature or art, and particularly in ways the two intersect.