Helen Oyeyemi: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours (Riverhead, 2016)

Especially in our era, it’s become really hard to find meaning. Because there’s a multiplicity of meaning in any simple story that we’re told. There is a great temptation to move toward alienation and nihilism and just say, “Nothing means anything.” I think a faith in stories is an assertion that anything that happens to you does have meaning.

Dreamy. Fantastical. Feverish. Dizzying. These are some of the words reviewers use to describe this story collection. They’re accurate, but they still don’t begin to capture the sense of velocity and stillness, inevitability and surprise, frustration and satisfaction, that I felt after reading any one of these stories. But not during; while I was reading, there was only story, the need to turn the page.

It wasn’t necessarily an easy read. A few stories went down smoothly, but others required some wrestling. I let a few sit for a time before moving on, outlined a couple, fell asleep thinking about the puppets or the Presence or the goose (sometimes jumping up to check a detail or scribble a note, which, grrr, I can never read the next morning). In this I agree with Sebastian Sarti, who writes, “Oyeyemi’s stories refuse interpretation… Yet the reasons for my dissatisfaction point to Oyeyemi’s powers as a stylist. After three-hundred pages and hours of reading, I felt I’d only scratched the surface….” It’s the kind of puzzlement that insists there’s something there worth looking for, that comes back over and over in different shades and echoes, rather than the good-riddance kind. The kind of hard reading I love.

I read the stories in order because I feel like there’s a reason an author orders stories. Characters from earlier stories showed up in some later ones, sometimes just in mention but often as updated versions of the original, maybe a few years older and with different interests. Yet I wouldn’t call these stories linked; it’s more like Europe is a town and we see different aspects of it as we go from Spain to England to Prague to places not found on any map. The characters are likewise diverse; as Oyeyemi says, they’re “populated by the people I see.” She’s lived in Paris, Toronto, London, Prague, Berlin, Budapest, New York, and Lexington, Kentucky, so she’s seen a great deal.

Keys are the connective tissue of the collection, appearing in various ways in each story. In an NPR interview, Oyeyemi explains her visit to a bazaar shop in Cairo that sold swords and keys: “I think keys can cut — it divides property, it separates what is yours from what is not yours. A key defends what you have, but it also protects other people’s property from you.” We lock up what we treasure; and we lock up what we fear. Sometimes keys are central to the action; sometimes they’re tangentially symbolic.

Titling is another interesting quirk. Although this doesn’t seem to be the case in previously published editions of the stories, all titles are in lower case, including the title of the collection itself (and the author’s name). I’m not sure why, but that interests me; any decisions about how a book is put together has some significance, even if I can’t see it. Only one title comes directly from a line in the story; a couple of others are fairly straightforward descriptions. But the most interesting titles “inform the story”, a phrase I’ve heard so many times but never truly understood until I saw it used here, particularly in “sorry”, “freddy”, and the final story.

Then there’s the title of the book. It isn’t directly in any of the stories, but is implied in most of them. First, in the key theme by association; a key, a lock, is meant to be a barrier between what is and isn’t yours. But secondly, whether it’s a reputation, a body, a diary, a book, or a life: beware of taking what is not yours.

The nine stories:

She sketched with an effort that strained every limb. Montse saw that the Señora sometimes grew short of breath though she’d hardly stirred: a consequence of snatching images out of the air – the air took something back.

books and roses

It begins with “Once upon a time”, this fairy tale of two women each waiting for someone to return, but finding something else. Because there are several subnarrations, I found it worthwhile to outline the story to keep things straight. I kept thinking of Isak Dinesen, a feeling that came back to me later in the collection as well; I think here it was the subnarrations, the characters in the story who tell their own story. I had to keep reminding myself this wasn’t set in the 19th century; it had that feeling. One moment was particularly jarring, an outburst of annoyed sarcasm that sounded like any 21st century teenager. I still wonder about that. I have no doubt it’s there for a reason, but what is the reason? In any case, this ended up as one of my favorites in this collection.

“Imagine not being able to stop me from coming in, imagine not being able to cast me out because I own all thresholds. As an additional bonus, imagine me with three faces. That’s who we’re sending to have a little chat with Matyas Füst.”

”sorry” doesn’t sweeten her tea

Part ghost story, part revenge narrative, I struggled for a while to put the two together, then decided Hecate was the, um, key. This was first published in Summer 2015 in Ploughshares; it’s hard to remember there was a time before #MeToo, yet there it is, perfectly outlined: the denigrating comments a woman gets when she accuses a superstar of physical abuse, the sequence of “she’s lying” to “she deserved it” to “she asked for it”, the self-serving apology. Damn, it’s perfect. Enter Hecate, at the behest of Tyche, part-time beauty clinic attendant, part time invocation caster. Oh, and a beta splendens. I had one of those once upon a time; the exaggeration of its fierceness gives me a clue as to where the woman who keeps unlocking doors might be.

“And I’d say his puppets have a nihilistic spirit, if you’d understand what I meant by that….
Sometimes his puppets won’t perform at all. He just lets them sit there, watching us. Then he has them look at each other and then back at us until it feels as if they have information, some kind of dreadful information about each and every one of us, and you begin to wish they’d decide to keep their mouths shut forever.”

is your blood as red as this?

I couldn’t quite get this one to land; I don’t think it was meant to land, for one thing, but I’ll take 90% of the blame. Nevertheless, it’s captivating, and I sense something beautiful, and important, that’s waiting for me if I can just persevere. The structure alone fascinates me, and that’s before puppet school comes into it. The title is a line spoken by a puppet. The first half of the story, subtitled “No”, is narrated by Radha in the form of a letter to Myrna, whom she loves. The second half, subtitled “Yes”, is narrated by a puppet, Gepetta. Tyche, from “sorry”, makes an appearance. I felt the need to spend more time with the story, but not just now; I want to return to it later.

Puppets make for great stories, whether as characters, props, or just atmosphere. In an interview with Heather Akumiah at Bookforum, Oyeyemi explained how she got there:

“Writing about keys led me to puppets—trying to write from the perspective of something that is inanimate unless moved. It makes you start to think about the life of objects. Whether they can be alive even though they never exhibit any signs of life, and what they witness, and how they come to reflect the personality of the person who spends time around them.”

Additionally, Aaron Brady reports in his for New Republic that she discussed Kenneth Gross’s book about puppet theater (she also mentions it in the Acknowledgments):

In Kenneth Gross’s book about puppets (Puppets: An Essay on Uncanny Life), she read about a master puppet-maker who would make his puppets as perfect as he could, and then smash them, and then repair them. It was brokenness that made them human, she said: A puppet that perfectly resembled the perfect human form would be worrying, even obscene. It was their flaws—and the struggle to live through them—that made them most human. As Gross puts it, “The poetry of the puppet is a poetry of inadequacy, which feeds more fragile, vexed gestures of substitution, revision, replacement.”

A similar scene shows up on the story, except it is a story told by the ghost of a puppet about a group of puppets who each sacrifice a part to make a new, whole puppet. Yeah, I really want to spend more time with this story, and maybe with Gross’s puppet book as well. It’s somewhat pivotal in the collection, as other stories refer not only to these characters but to the puppet school and puppet shows.

This happened and it didn’t happen:
A man threw a key into a fire. Yes, there are people who do such things. This one was trying to cure a fever. He probably wouldn’t have done it if he’d had his head on straight, but it’s not easy to think clearly when rent is due and there isn’t enough money to pay it, and one who relies on you falls ill for want of nourishment but you have to leave him to walk around looking for work to do. Then even when you find some there still isn’t enough money for both food and shelter, and the worry never stops for a moment. Somehow it would be easier to go home to the one who relies on you if they greeted you with anger, or even disappointment. But returning to someone who has made their own feeble but noticeable attempts to make the place a little nicer while you were gone, someone who only says “Oh, never mind” and speaks of tomorrow as they turn their trusting gaze upon you . . . it was really too much, as if tomorrow was up to him, or any of us . . .

”sorry” doesn’t sweeten her tea

This sounds bleak and tragic – and it is, of course (and we haven’t even come to the part about the evil King drowning anyone who says anything mean about him) – but it’s also an engrossing story that ends up hopeful. It’s a fairy tale, of course; in an interview with Paste, Oyeyemi explains the opening lines as a more literal translation of the traditional Czech fairytale opening bylo, nebylo. Don’t you just love it when you run across a writer who uses Czech fairytale openings?

All I could think of in the description of the swamp where the King drowned his detractors was the Molinere Underwater Sculpture Park in the Caribbean. But that ignores the intricacy of the story, the adulterous queen, the lovely daughter, Arkady and his beloved, and all the ways they interact without interacting to get a key to the right lock.

His project focused on a particular type of experience that a large number of his clients reported having undergone. “To oversimplify the descriptions I’ve been given, this experience presents as . . . an implosion of memory. And as the subjects drift through the subsequent debris, they calmly develop a conviction that they do not do so alone. These presences aren’t reported as ghostly, but living ones . . . minutes, sometimes hours when the mourner feels as if they’ve either returned to a day when the deceased was still alive or the deceased has just arrived in the present time with them . . . and what’s interesting about these lapses people experience is that most of them happen under fairly similar physical conditions.”
“So you’ve put together some sort of program that induces this feeling of . . . presence?”


This started out as a domestic drama that didn’t interest me at all, but morphed, as all these stories tend to do, into something else. In this case, it was more like science fiction than fairy tale or fantasy: a physical environment that allows the bereaved to reconnect with their lost loved ones, and, presumably, provides some kind of closure or comfort.

I got a bit more interested when Jill finds herself experiencing the presence of her son, a son she never had, a son who goes from about 12 years of age to his 50s over the course of their time together. Maybe its my total indifference to motherhood, but in spite of the interesting premise – and the slight echoes of Anthony Doerr’s “Memory Wall” – I still wasn’t drawn into it.

Among Cambridge University’s many clubs, unions, academic forums, interest groups, activist cells and societies, there’s a sisterhood that emerged in direct opposition to a brotherhood. What this sisterhood lacks in numbers it more than makes up for in lionheartedness: The Homely Wench Society. The Homely Wenches can’t be discussed without first noting that it was the Bettencourt Society that necessitated the existence of precisely this type of organized and occasionally belligerent female presence at the university.

a brief history of the homely wench society

This story shows that Oyeyemi doesn’t have to rely on fantasy or fairy tales to captivate. It’s straightforward realism-grounded, and it’s a lot of fun. The above quote is taken from a memo that serves as an invitation to Dayang (from “sorry”) and comes complete with wee conversations via footnotes between the senders. And that’s just the formal aspect of it.

It’s a battle-of-the-sexes story set at Cambridge University. It involves an elaborate scheme, and an eventual surrender. And, by the way, while it is fun, it hooks into a real issue: the boys read boy books and the girls read girl books, and through a surreptitious library swap, the girls discover, amidst the blossoming of a forbidden love and the possibility of peace, they… kind of like the boy books.

Well, Dornička met a wolf on Mount Radhošť.
Actually let’s try to speak of things as they are: It was not a wolf she met, but something that had recently consumed a wolf and was playing about with the remnants.

dornička and the st. martin’s day goose

So it starts off as Little Red Riding Hood, and then goes in a very different direction. And this, too, is a lot of fun. We’re in the Czech Republic now; Oyeyemi made her home in Prague for a time (and may still, I’m not sure). To say she writes diversely is an understatement.

As I was saying, I’m an inadequate son.

freddy barrandov checks . . . in?

Poor Freddy. His father was a master handyman, a legend at the Glissando, a hotel that might remind you of an Eagles’ song from the 70s. Freddy tries to step into his shoes, but really just isn’t that handy. So he sets himself to another task: breaking up a couple. As it happens, we’ve met the couple before, though they weren’t a couple then; in fact, in this story, a great many characters come together, some in mention, some in cameo, and a few more centrally. I’ll be honest: I have absolutely no idea what happened at the end. But instead of feeling unfinished, it feels more like having a lot of options.

Every time someone comes out of the lift in the building where you work you wish lift doors were made of glass. That way you’d be able to see who’s arriving a little before they actually arrive and there’d be just enough time to prepare the correct facial expression.

if a book is locked there’s probably a good reason for that don’t you think

Available online at Buzzfeed

I don’t think that would work; it would just push back the moment of uncertainty a few seconds, because, after all, the elevator occupant could see you, too, as well as any other people standing around waiting. I suppose one-way glass would obviate the first issue, but wouldn’t that be pretty creepy, knowing someone could see you and you couldn’t see them?

As it happens, that has a lot to do with this story, this idea of one-way information. The unnamed narrator analyzes data for client corporations to determine which employees are less profitable and should be let go. Eva, a new employee in the office, isn’t very forthcoming about herself and prefers to eat lunch alone rather than with coworkers. She’d been something of a sensation at first, having a great deal of panache, but a visitor accusing her of unseeming behavior changes that, and the coworkers go all wolf pack on her. And then there’s the diary. The locked diary. Of course. I love Eva. I want to be Eva. It’s a remarkable story.

I chose to read this collection because of Michael Shaub’s NPR review. In addition to words like “dreamy” and “flawless”, he brought up the keys and the puppets and her sense of humor, and I was hooked. I’m interested in her novels now as well, particularly Boy, Snow, Bird, a reimagination of Snow White, now that I’ve seen what she can do with the kernel of a fairy tale, and a key idea.


Robert Walser: The Schoolboy’s Diary (NYREV, 2013)

A poet is bent over his poems, of which he has assembled twenty. He turns one page after another and find that every poem awakens a very particular feeling inside him. He racks and racks his brain to try to figure out what kind of something it is hovering over or around his poeticizings. He presses hard but nothing comes out, he strikes with the ball of his hand but nothing comes out, he pulls but everything stays exactly as it is, namely shrouded in darkness. He lays his head down on his crossed arms and completely covers the open book with the body and cries.

From “The Poet” (first half)

I got off to a very bad start with this book, entirely due to my own careless reading process. In my (weak) defense, it’s a reconstructed collection, a compilation of work from throughout Walser’s writing career, which spanned the first quarter of the 20th century. This was, however, one of the reasons I chose to read the book when a neighbor, wildly enthusiastic about it, recommended it to me: I felt it would be a good idea to get out of my fixation with immediately contemporaneous works for a bit. I’d never heard of Walser – I strained to recall any other Swiss writers, in fact, and came up blank, but in fact Herman Hesse and Rousseau were both Swiss, so I wonder if I just never recognized them as such – but discovered, in Ben Lerner’s effusive Introduction to this edition, high praise from such literary heavyweights as Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, and W. G . Sebald, not to mention Hesse himself. I like uncovering previously unknown lacunae in my knowledge of the world.

The collection comprises three sections. First, we have “Fritz Kocher’s Essays”, twenty short prose pieces published as Walser’s first novel. And here is where I went astray: I was confused, ungrounded. What am I reading? These schoolboy essays, probably from a young teen, seemed fairly typical, and I could not find a story, a theme, or much of anything. I buttonholed my neighbor on a street corner (the up- and down-side of trading book recs with neighbors) and he mentioned the boy’s isolation in space and time. We talked about Calvinism (Calvin was Swiss) and the connection of material prosperity and Godliness (the boy at one point is quite dismissive of the poor, though he seems ambivalent shading into sympathetic overall), but I was still uncertain.

I went googling, and discovered Trevor Berret, who runs the excellent the Mookse and the Gripes website, is a Walser fan (how have I never heard of this writer?), and the unique site Schlemiel Theory (where Comparative Literature scholar, Jewish Studies professor, and Berfrois editor Menachem Feuer analyzes “real-life-schlemiels and fictional ones”) had further insights into Kocher. Both mentioned that the boy had died shortly after writing these essays. Now I was really confused: how did they know this? Was it subtly mentioned in the pieces, so subtly I’d overlooked it completely?

Not really. I had, however, skipped the Introduction to the section. Again in my defense (very defensive today, aren’t we, Karen – that’s how it is when I’m out of my element), I’d read the Lerner intro to the edition, and skimmed, quickly, the Translator’s Introduction by Damion Searle, and by the time I got to the third Introduction, I was just sick of intros, so I skipped over it. Turns out that was a big mistake, as it is part and parcel of the novel that is “Fritz Kocher’s Essays”, and a very important part at that:

The boy who wrote these essays passed away not long after he left school. I had some difficulty convincing his mother, a dear and honorable lady, to allow me to publish them. She was understandably very attached to these pages, which must have been a bittersweet reminder of her son. Only after I promised to have the essays published unchanged, just as her little Fritz had written them, did she finally agree. The essays may seem unboyish in many places, and all too boyish in others. But please keep in mind that my hand has not altered them anywhere. A boy can speak words of great wisdom and words of great stupidity at practically the same moment: that is how these essays are, too.

From “Introduction”

This intro created a foundation, a context in which the essays made far more sense, and indeed acquired a distinct poignancy. I’d found the story I was looking for.

Each essay is on an assigned topic, but it’s clear the boy has trouble with some topics so wanders into more fruitful areas as soon as possible. One of my former English professors used to say, “The art of being an English major is to write about whatever you want while still fulfilling the assignment.” Fritz is a natural.

He also has an adolescent inconsistency that allows him to go from judgmental to transcendent to uncertain in the span of a few sentences. His essay on Poverty is a case in point: he despises poor men because they beg, he likes poor women because they ask for money beautifully, “asking someone you love for forgiveness” is a kind of beautiful request, he doesn’t respect the poor boys in class because “they see me as an enemy for no reason”. The “Careers” essay shows a kind of unfocused energy that, read in the knowledge that he will not embark on any career at all, feels quietly tragic. And his comments on colors and music show a kind of sensitivity that, if it had time to mature and unfold, would have been glorious:

Colors are too sweet a muddle, nothing more. I love things in one color, monotonous things. Snow is such a monotonous song. Why shouldn’t a color be able to make the same impression as singing? White is like a murmuring, whispering, praying. Fiery colors, like for instance Autumn colors, are a shriek. Green in midsummer is a many-voiced song with all the highest notes. Is it true? I don’t know if that’s right. Well, the teacher will surely be so kind as to correct it.

From “Autumn”

I would like to be dying while listening to a piece of music. I imagine it as so easy, so natural, but of course it’s impossible. Sounds stab too sweetly. The wounds hurt but they don’t fester. Melancholy and suffering trickle out instead of blood.

From “Music”

The second section of the collection includes very short prose pieces from Walser’s entire writing career, some of which have not been previously published in English. So much for the claim that flash fiction was invented in the 90s and is linked to the digital generation’s shrinking attention span; it was Walser’s primary mode of writing.

Some of these pieces are fantastical; some are realism-based; some are more like essays than stories, some are letters, others are little episodes. Many of them feature authorial intrusion, primarily explanations and observations to the reader. Some are pure lyric expression. Favorite themes include nature and writing.

Remember our Poet from the lead quote in this post? The writer who couldn’t figure out his own poems? In the second half of that story, we see from another angle:

I, on the other hand, the wag of a writer, am bent over his work and can solve with infinite ease the riddle of his volume. Very simply, it contains twenty poems, one of which is simple, one pompous, one enchanting, one boring, one moving, one divine, one childish, one very bad, one animalistic, one awkward, one impermissible, one incomprehensible, one repulsive, one charming, one reticent, one magnificent, one tasteful, one worthless, one poor, one unspeakable, and one more cannot be because there are only twenty different poems, each of which has received from my lips perhaps not exactly a just but at least a quick judgment, which always takes the least trouble on my part. One thing is certain, though, the poet who wrote them is still crying, bent over the book , the sun is shining over him, and my laughter is the wind that violently, coldly musses his hair.

From “The Poet” (second half)

Had I started here, I would have been on far more solid ground; this is the flash, and the artistic temperament, I can parse. On the one hand, what writer hasn’t been too close to his work to see the simplicity; and on the other, what writer hasn’t been afraid a reader will casually riff on months, years of intricate work, and render it ordinary. What poet wouldn’t be delighted that a reader could see so clearly, yet devastated that it was so clear to all but himself?

(I also toyed with the idea of applying these twenty adjectives to the twenty Fritz Kocher essays, but I’m not sure if those were selected from the original publication and represent a larger group, or if there were indeed twenty to begin with. In any case, I couldn’t seem to line them up.)

Many of these stories are wonderful. A poet, having received a request from a gentleman to meet, writes back to refuse because he doesn’t want to bother with the civility that would require; yet, the letter itself, far longer than necessary to say “no”, bespeaks an urge to establish genuine contact. In the more personal but no less loneliness-assuaging “Ascent by Night”, a traveler climbs a mountain first by train, then by foot, and arrives at a door: “I was recognized, oh how beautiful it was, it was so beautiful – “. The pain of the writing life becomes almost absurdly humorous in “The New Novel” – or, perhaps I only read it as humorous because it’s such a cliché – with a novelist constantly asked how his new project is coming along. My understanding is that PhD students have the same problem with their dissertation.

One story describes a schoolboy game of Hat-Chitti, involving revenge and retaliation for humiliation which is expanded to a situation particularly relevant to the year in which it was published, 1915: “That is how wars arise between nations that could have a wonderful friendship with each other if only the one nation could get over the humiliation it has received and the other refrain from reminding the first of the wound, humiliation, and insult it has been given.” Indeed.

In reading this section, I was acutely aware that Walser, his family peppered with mental illness, spent the last twenty years of his life in sanitariums and taking long, solitary walks. I try to resist the urge to project biography onto story, but I was unable to resist. Even the illustration that adorns the cover of the book – the work is illustrated throughout by his brother Karl, a highly esteemed artist and stage designer – echoes a kind of loneliness, someone walking away and disappearing, leaving only footprints behind, footprints that fade as the snow falls.

The third section is a single work titled “Hans”. Rather a slacker, Hans is quite happy making rather ethereal observations until war breaks out, at which point: “All at once there rose up before Hans a tall and imperious figure: Duty.” Again, I can’t avoid imposing Walser’s bio on top of this: although he had been in the military, as were all Swiss, earlier, he was again brought in during WWI. Did the war affect him? How could it not?

I’m glad I read this, struggle though it may have started out. I still don’t quite understand what so many people see here, but I’m no Susan Sontag. Maybe I just need to keep expanding my view to incorporate more so that I can better recognize genius when I read it.

Guillermo Martínez: The Oxford Murders (MacAdam/Cage, 2005)

Now that the years have passed and everything’s being forgotten, and now that I’ve received a terse email from Scotland with the sad news of Seldom’s death, I feel I can break my silence (which he never asked for anyway) and tell the truth about events that reached the British papers in the summer of ‘93 with macabre snf sensationalist headlines, but to which Seldom and I always referred – perhaps due to the mathematical connotation – simply as the series, or the Oxford Series. Indeed, the deaths all occurred in Oxfordshire, at the beginning of my stay in England, and I had the dubious privilege of seeing the first at close range.
I was twenty-two, an age at which almost anything can still be excused. I just graduated from the University of Buenos Aires with a thesis in algebraic topology and was traveling to Oxford on a years scholarship, intending to move over to logic….

I’ve never particularly enjoyed the mystery genre – never read any Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie – but I used to have a very limited list of mystery writers I devoured. My tastes ran to “series” writers whose investigator had some kind of interesting twist: Patricia Cornwell’s medical examiner, Jonathan Kellerman’s kiddie shrink, Stephen White’s adult shrink, Faye Kellerman’s tales set in a background of SoCal Orthodox Judaism.

This book came to my attention because it was presented as involving logic and mathematical philosophy, specifically, Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems. He proved there are aspects of mathematics that, while true, cannot be proved, and a complete collection of mathematical principles can not exist. If I sound like I know what I’m talking about, that’s purely coincidental, as this is all well over my head in spite of several diligent attempts over the years to follow explanations at varying levels of complexity. So if you are beginning to break out in a mathphobic cold sweat, don’t worry, the book doesn’t require much. Everything you need is included.

The unnamed narrator is a young mathematician from Argentina who comes to Oxford to study logic. Shortly after his arrival, his landlady is murdered, and he makes the acquaintance of an éminence grise named Seldom who has reason to believe the murder is the first of a series. They join forces to understand the series, and thus predict and prevent future murders. The police, of course, are doing the same thing, but by interviewing witnesses and tracking down leads, not by considering the ramifications of Wittgenstein and Gödel.

To wit:

“Think of any crime with only two possible suspects…. All too often there isn’t enough evidence to prove either one suspect’s guilt or the other suspect’s innocence. Basically, what Gödel showed in 1930 with his Incompleteness Theorem is that exactly the same occurs in mathematics. The mechanism for corroborating the truth that goes all the way back to Aristotle and Euclid, the proud machinery that starts from true statements, from irrefutable first principles, and advances in strictly logical steps towards a thesis – what we call the axiomatic method – is sometimes just as inadequate as the unreliable, approximative criteria applied by the law.”

There’s more, but that’s the basic connection. As for Wittgenstein’s Infinite Rule Paradox: “This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because any course of action can be made out to accord with the rule”. The upshot is, no matter how many terms of a series are discovered, we can never be absolutely certain that we know the rule that generates the series, so we can never know for sure what the next term is. So, although they are mathematicians and so enjoy playing with this stuff, they don’t really think it’s going to help predict or prevent future murders. But they’re gonna give it a try anyway.

One small thing fascinated me. The first murder victim, the landlady, was clearly patterned after Joan Clarke, one of the few female cryptographers who worked on Enigma at Bletchley during the war. However, her recruitment is fictionalized:

During the war she’d been one of a small number of women who entered a national crossword competition, in all innocence, only to find that the prize was to be recruited and confined to an isolated little village, with the mission of helping Alan Turing and his team of mathematicians decipher the codes of the Nazis’ Enigma machine.

This is exactly the same little fictionalization that’s part of The Imitation Game. It makes a great story, and it’s a terrific scene in the film, but it seems it seems it never happened: Clarke was recommended by a professor, and there’s no evidence Turing had anything to do with the crossword contest (which was, indeed, used as a recruitment tool). That such a scene shows up in two different works makes me wonder if it’s an urban myth, or if it applied to someone and the exact facts have been changed by time and secrecy.

Most of us think of mathematics and philosophy as very different fields of endeavor: philosophers are over here, studying things like ethics and truth and beauty, and mathematicians are over there playing with numbers. I’ve discovered (through moocs that often went way over my head) that it’s more complicated than that, that there is a continuum, and the point where they intersect most clearly is logic, where our narrator and Seldom dwell.

(Warning: I’m about to go above my pay grade again, so please take this with a pound and a half of salt). And here, Seldom proposes that mathematics mimics physics, where the rules change once we get down to the quantum level. His hypothesis is that what keeps us out of the mathematical “uncertainty principle” zone – where unprovable statements lie – is the mathematician’s aesthetic appreciation of simplicity and elegance in proofs, an aesthetic in existence from the time of Pythagoras. In this way he unites beauty and truth, philosophy and mathematics, aesthetics and execution, quite neatly. The point at which he departs from actual mathematical theory, I have no idea.

The book reminded me somewhat of The Davinci Code; both were published the same year (and both were made into movies, neither of which I’ve seen, but the consensus seems to be that this movie was terrible). I found Brown’s book annoying; the cliffhangers-every-five-pages and “thriller” element putting various characters in jeopardy over and over. I prefer my thrills to come from less violent sources. In typical mystery style, subtly-suspicious characters wander in all over the place, and in classic Isaac Asimov “Black Widower” style, the eventual answer comes out of left field but makes perfect sense. I have to admit my interest was not terribly high until the end, at which point I had to read it over again.

That was possible because it’s a short book and a quick read. There really isn’t much to it at all, outside of the math and the resolution, but I found that enough to make me glad I read it. Martínez – a mathematician from Argentina, by the way, like his protagonist – has written several other books; I’m interested enough to consider reading another one some day.

Celeste Ng: Little Fires Everywhere (Penguin, 2017)

Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down. All spring the gossip had been about little Mirabelle McCullough—or, depending which side you were on, May Ling Chow—and now, at last, there was something new and sensational to discuss. A little after noon on that Saturday morning in May, the shoppers pushing their grocery carts in Heinen’s heard the fire engines wail to life and careen away, toward the duck pond. By a quarter after twelve there were four of them parked in a haphazard red line along Parkland Drive, where all six bedrooms of the Richardson house were ablaze, and everyone within a half mile could see the smoke rising over the trees like a dense black thundercloud. Later people would say that the signs had been there all along: that Izzy was a little lunatic, that there had always been something off about the Richardson family, that as soon as they heard the sirens that morning they knew something terrible had happened. By then, of course, Izzy would be long gone, leaving no one to defend her, and people could—and did—say whatever they liked.

No, it’s not a spoiler; it’s the first paragraph of the novel, leaving the reader to keep wondering, “Who is Mirabelle McCullough, why is she also known as May Ling Chow, and who is this Izzy who set the fire? It’s particularly interesting that these characters are barely mentioned for a good portion of the book, giving us time to absorb the setting and the players. But I only realized that after the fact, because there was so much to pay attention to in this story that asks questions like: Can we really not see race? Rules and reason, passion and art, which is the higher value, and can they coexist?

The setting is Shaker Heights in the 90s, where Ng grew up, and it really was, as explained in the book, inspired by the Shakers as a highly planned community. I’ve followed Ng on Twitter since I read her Pushcart-winning short story “Girls, at Play” (a story that’s still one of my favorites, a true powerhouse of teenage horror with nary a vampire in sight) and I remember her telling us about the “mini garbage trucks” that picked up trash from behind houses, so the street view would remain pristine even on trash day. Yet the Shaker Heights of the story – and of fact – was also a community that made positive efforts to encourage racial diversity. That’s the thing about this book: as Ng points out in her Salon interview, there really are no villains. As in real life, people are complicated, with good and bad elements, making good and bad choices. And often, it’s just a matter of preference as to which is which.

This forms one of the main axes of the book: order and rules vs freedom and spontaneity, or, more bluntly, economics or art.

All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never – could never – set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.

Elena Richardson believes in rules. I keep thinking of David Hume – “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” – but she’d reject that in favor of an orderly life. Unfortunately, an order-driven life can, and here does, cause intense frustration, as she learns when her house burns down. There must be room for little fires within the rules, flexibility rather than suppression, to prevent violent flare-ups.

Mia, on the other hand, has always followed her heart, which means she works odd jobs waitressing or housecleaning to pay the rent while working on her photographs. If she comes up with a good series, she can live off the sale of a series for a while and devote herself full-time to planning the next set. It’s an odd life, pulling up stakes frequently to find the next inspiration, getting to know every thrift shop in the region. “Why doesn’t your mom get a real job” a character asks Mia’s daughter, who is puzzled. “She has a real job… she’s an artist.” To Pearl, this way of life is as normal as the Richardsons consider theirs. To the Richardsons, it seems precarious.

Except for Izzy Richardson, the youngest Richardson, the one who has always struggled against the rules:

Until now her life had been one of mute, futile fury. In the first week of school, after reading T. S. Eliot, she had tacked up signs on all the bulletin boards: I HAVE MEASURED OUT MY LIFE WITH COFFEE SPOONS… She had fantasies of students whispering in the halls – Those signs? Who put them up? What did they mean? – noticing them, thinking about them, waking up for God’s sake. But in the rush before first period everyone funneled past them up and down the stairwells, too busy passing notes and cramming for quizzes to even glance up at the bulletin boards, and after second period she found that some dour security guard had torn the signs down….

It isn’t until Mia comes into her life that she finds a focus for her chaotic energy beyond blind rebellion. This could be such a beautiful thing, a relationship welcoming growth. But the primary conflict of the story makes that impossible. And that brings us to a secondary axis: what does “the best interests of the child” mean?

It’s a custody battle between a well-established couple who have tried everything to conceive before turning to adoption, and a mother who, in a moment of despair and desperation, abandoned her baby at a fire station. Again, there are no villains here. Just as Izzy’s mother is not just a regimental tyrant (she has, or at least had, good reasons for her focus on Izzy), neither Bebe Chow nor the McCulloughs are evil, and in fact both followed the rules. Elena truly believes she could never be caught in a situation like Bebe’s, that she would have “made better choices” all along. What she can’t see is that some people don’t have all the choices other people get, and, while the rules can be harsh no matter how blessed you are financially, they can be even harsher to those who have few resources and no safety net.

Elena’s husband, the attorney for the McCulloughs, can see a bit farther than Elena:

For her it was simple: Bebe Chow had been a poor mother; Linda McCullough had been a good one. One followed the rules, and one had not. But the problem with rules, he reflected, was that they implied a right way and a wrong way to do things. When, in fact, most of the time there were simply ways, none of them quite wrong or quite right, and nothing to tell you for sure which side of the line you stood on.

I would only add that he might consider: who makes the rules? What assumptions – and what surreptitious goals and fears – underlie them?

I had some trouble with Mrs. McCullough, but that is a feature, not a bug. When asked if she would raise her adopted daughter with an understanding of her cultural heritage, she lists things like having purchased some Asian art and eating at a local Chinese-American restaurant. Ng herself calls it “cringeworthy” in her Guardian interview, but that’s by design: “I wanted the reader to have double vision at that point. To squirm, but also to see that she had good intentions and that the resources available to her were limited.”

And that’s pretty much how I reacted to it: first wondering if anyone was truly that stupid, then realizing I had no idea what an appropriate answer would be. “We want Mirabelle to grow up like a typical American girl” says Mrs. McCullough. But what is a typical American girl? How do you avoid “othering” is perhaps the root question – what do you say to her a few years down the road, when she notices that, while her friends look like their parents, she doesn’t look at all like Mom and Dad? Is the “I don’t see race” refrain – so popular with the Shaker Heights residents in the book – the way to go? Is it possible for us to not see race?

I’m quite fond of Rohan Maitzen’s take on her Novel Readings blog:

And though our family history is in one sense our heritage, there seemed something uncomfortably essentialist about the argument that May Ling / Mirabelle’s identity must be decided by her biology. I found myself wishing that the arguments within the book about these polarized views (“race should mean nothing”; “race means everything”) were more complicated–though perhaps what Ng wanted was for us to be dissatisfied with both answers, just as I think she leaves us feeling that there isn’t an obviously right answer about who should raise the baby.

Rohan Maitzen at Novel Readings

That’s the value in a novel like this: there’s plenty to think about, a stimulus for a great discussion with no easy answers. And it looks like that conversation is going to broaden: the book, already wildly popular (six months on Best Seller lists), will be made into a miniseries starring Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon. I hope it generates in all of us the kind of thoughtful reflection, a willingness to see without judging, that I felt it was asking of me. We could use some of that right now.

Julie Schumacher: Dear Committee Members (Doubleday, 2014)

Dear Ted,
Your memo of August 30 requests that we on the English faculty recommend some luckless colleague For the position of graduate studies. (You may have been surprised to find this position vacant upon your assumption of the chairmanship last month – if so, trust me, you will encounter many such surprises here.)
A quick aside, Ted: god knows what enticements were employed during the heat of summer to persuade you – a sociologist! – to accept the position of chair in a department not your own, an academic unit whose reputation for eccentricity and discord has inspired the upper echelon to punish us by withholding favors as if from a six-year-old at a birthday party: No raises or research funds for you, you ungovernable rascals! And no fudge before dinner! Perhaps, as the subject of a sociological study, you will find the problem of our dwindling status intriguing.

Meet Jason Fitger, tenured English professor at a not-very-prominent college. He started out as a red-hot literary talent (and, apparently, romantic talent) on the strength of his first novel, but that was a long time ago and his career (and his love life) has faltered since. We get to know him through an academic year’s worth of memos, emails, and, especially, letters of recommendation.

We’ve all written (or been the subject of) those recommendation letters. We know how to write them as boilerplate, where “he’s a good candidate” means “Are you crazy? He’s a blithering idiot, why would you even think of hiring him!” and nothing below “outstanding candidate” is a real recommendation.

Jason Fitger is done with the academic boilerplate. So when he writes a recommendation letter – whether it’s for grad school, a professional job, or, more and more, jobs English majors end up settling for, like caterer or retail sales – he turns it into a work of art.

This letter is intended to bolster the application to Wexler Foods of my former student John Leszczynski, who completed the Junior/Senior Creative Writing Workshop three months ago. Mr. Leszczynski received a final grade of B, primarily on the basis of an eleven-page short story about an inebriated man who tumbles into a cave and surfaces from an alcoholic stupor to find that a tentacled monster–a sort of fanged and copiously salivating octopus, if memory serves–is gnawing through the flesh of his lower legs, the monster’s spittle burbling ever closer to the victim’s groin. Though chaotic and improbable even within the fantasy/horror genre, the story was solidly constructed: dialogue consisted primarily of agonized groans and screaming; the chronology was relentlessly clear.
Mr. Leszczynski attended class faithfully, arriving on time, and rarely succumbed to the undergraduate impulse to check his cell phone for messages or relentlessly zip and unzip his backpack in the final minutes of class.
Whether punctuality and an enthusiasm for flesh-eating cephalopods are the main attributes of the ideal Wexler employee I have no idea, but Mr. Leszczynski is an affable young man, reliable in his habits, and reasonably bright.
You might start him off in produce, rather than seafood or meats.

I chose to read this book because, first, I enjoy stories about writers and academia, and second, I wanted something that would make me laugh after so many weeks of soul-ripping poetry bouncing off soul-crushing current events. While it is humorous, it’s a kind of sad humor, because the collapse of education in favor of vocational training at the higher levels is something I’ve been railing against since the 80s. And while it was published in 2014, I think it becomes a slightly darker book when viewed through the post-November-2016, post-#MeToo lens. Or, more likely, I have become a darker reader, examining everything through a retrospectoscope fitted with a deconstructionist lens (oh, man, did I just type that? I really, really need to get out more).

Though it’s an epistolary novel, and humorous, it’s more than a collection of funny letters. Fitger’s first letter, full-on sincere, recommends his student, Darren Browles, for a prestigious resident fellowship: “his novel-in-progress, a retelling of Melville’s ‘Bartleby’ (but in which the eponymous character is hired to keep the books at a brothel, circa 1960, just outside Las Vegas), is both tender satire and blistering adaptation/homage.” Unfortunately, it turns out the decision-maker is just one of a string of women Fitger has cheated on, dumped, lied to, or put into one of his books, leaving Mr. Browles to look for other opportunities lower and lower on the academic food chain, until at last he falls off completely. This forms the backbone of the novel, outlining the slow decline, over the course of one academic year, of the teacher’s patience and the student’s hope.

Paralleling this is the literal dismantling, accompanied by dust and noise from wrecking balls and crosscut saws, the toxic air from uncovered asbestos and paint and polyurethane, of Fitger’s building as the floor inhabited by the Economics department, safely ensconced in another location, is refurbished while the English department, left behind, deals with rubbish and particulates and fumes.

Fitger is stuck in one concept of “good literature”, and it just happens to be, who could’ve guessed, the concept that best suits his talents: reality-based classic narrative. He sneers at the fantasy-laden stories his students write for class. Consider: at the same time he’s championing the Melville recast, he’s outraged by the success of another student who landed a lucrative book deal based on her work, also developed under his tutelage:

She began the novel as a memoir, writing about growing up in an immigrant family in California. I found the project to be a bit quiet (that is, dull), which may have led to the manuscript’s current confabulation—a pseudo autobiography in which the speaker portrays herself as a fifteen-year-old girl/cheetah amalgam. Ms. Zelles informs me that the human/animal blend mirrors the false distinction between fiction and fact and points to the necessity of the hybrid form. Whatever the hell she wants to call it – a mem-vel, a nov-oir – the new incarnation of the book is effectively startling, especially the scene in which the protagonist devours and then remorsefully regurgitates her little brother.

Whether he’s more outraged because of the classics vs fantasy element, or because he picked the wrong horse, I don’t know. Both treatments, ridiculous on their faces, have interesting concepts, but could go so, so badly, so we’re taking his word for their value. And that word on one of them shifts later in the book, as the stress of the year mounts.

I think Fitger is at heart more disgruntled with his unappreciated talent than with the way things are changing. I think maybe he sees himself as kin to Bartleby; yet, lost in a more narcissistic resentment, without the – courage? will? integrity? – to state baldly, “I would prefer not to”, he takes out his frustrations in written form, and even tries, however clumsily and self-servingly, to rebuild bridges others have long considered burned. It’s hard to dislike him. Eventually he comes the closest he’s able to come to facing himself, and it’s more engendering of sympathy than scorn that he just can’t make it any further.

It’s an amusing, quick read; those of us who, like me, fear we’ll soon be in a world full of iPhones and increasingly clever gadgets but without art, thought, or history, will find it often a bitter humor.

This struggle over the humanities has been going on for a long time. I previously had occasion to look at some excerpts from Concetta Carestia Greenfield’s Humanist and Scholastic Poetics: 1250-1500 (Bucknell University Press, 1981) tracing, among other things, the history of academic suppression in the late middle ages. The Enlightenment bucked that trend, but now we have schools where science is taught from a Creationist point of view, where history recasts slaves as immigrant workers, a “mistake” not caught until an outraged 8th grader and her mom challenged the textbook. In the 80s, a fellow student at the state university where I finally got enough credits for a degree told me that, as a business major, she resented the required Writing Proficiency Test: if she ever needed to write a letter, she’d have her secretary write it. I still wonder about her from time to time, if she found that entry-level job, armed with an undergrad degree from a third-rate system at a time when MBAs were gushing forth from the Ivies, that supplied her with a secretary who could write her letters for her. And I wonder about a vision of a world that requires secretaries to be better educated than their bosses.

I see there is a sequel, titled The Shakespeare Requirement, scheduled for release in August. The epistolary format is traded in for traditional narrative, probably a wise move since the format works better as a novelty than as a standard.

I’m undecided about reading the sequel. By coincidence, I took an online survey (I follow a lot of language academics, they’re always retweeting casual grad student surveys) about the emotional attachment to the last novel read, which in my case was this one. This wasn’t really an emotionally involving novel (a reason I chose to read it first after an emotionally draining Pushcart), and I realize that translates into, “Do I care enough about this character to find out how he deals with his new role as Chairman of a dying department?” No, not really. But I am impressed with Schumacher’s sense of humor and irony, so I just might go with it anyway. As I said in my “What’s Next” post, I’m gonna need more books to read.

What’s Next?

A few weeks ago, I realized I was almost finished with Pushcart. The new BASS wouldn’t be released until October, and mooc pickings are slim. I needed a summer project.

I thought about reading the latest PEN short story prize anthology, but that didn’t really excite me. And then I remembered: books! All those books I’ve been putting on To-Be-Read lists, books I was too busy to read when I was taking 5 or 6 moocs at a time. Hey, Karen, remember novels? Remember single-subject nonfiction? I feel like Henry Bemis, the Twilight Zone guy, brought to life by the inimitable Burgess Meredith, who discovers he has “Time Enough at Last” (from a short story by Lynn Venable) to read his way through the library after the world is reduced to rubble.

Sure hope my glasses don’t break. (Nah, doesn’t matter, I don’t wear glasses when I’m reading).

I combed through the list I started on my public library’s website, starting years ago. And I went through the browser bookmarks I’ve made over the years whenever I’ve seen comments about a book that made me think I might want to read it. That in itself was an interesting trip: I can tell what courses I was taking by the types of books I listed; I went through an intense Nicholas Baker phase (I still wanna go there, but not right now); I listed a lot of collections by TNY and BASS writers whose stories I liked; and for some entries, I have to wonder, what was I thinking?

In the end I came up with a list, a mixture of novels, collections, fiction and non, from a broad range of writers with different points of view. Some are pure fun; some are more serious.

Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher
The Oxford Murders, Guillermo Martínez
Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
The Schoolboy’s Diary, (short stories) Robert Walser
A Place for Us, Fatima Farheen Mirza
Thanks, Obama: My Hopey Changey White House Years, (nonfiction) David Litt
Happiness, Like Water , (short stories) Chinelo Okparanta
The Elegance Of The Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery
Stop Stealing Sheep And Find Out How Type Works, (nonfiction) Erik Spiekermann
How To Slowly Kill Yourself And Others In America, (Essays) Kiese Laymon
Anatolia And Other Stories, (short stories) Anis Shivani
The Sellout, Paul Beatty
The Fire This Time, (Essays) Jessamyn Ward, Ed.
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, (short stories) Helen Oyeyemi


I chose them for a host of different reasons, which I’ll be including in future blog posts. As always, I welcome company, comments from other readers. This isn’t in any particular order; the first few are library borrows, so I’ll be starting there in order to return them on time; I’ve already read the first three, in fact…

uh oh, I think I I’m gonna need a bigger list…

Pushcart XLII: Stop

As always, thanks to you, dear reader. Without you we would perish You remind us of this every year. This frantic world needs you more than ever. Keep the faith.

~~ Bill Henderson, Introduction

I have a small framed print hanging in my bookshelves: “Out of chaos, brilliant stars are born.” It’s supposedly Hexagram #3 from the I Ching, though the way Chinese philosophy is so often distorted, I’d want to verify that with an expert. I like it, regardless of its authenticity. And it’s often true of art: times of intense political and social upheaval supposedly lead to new expressions, new purposes for art, new generations of artists. I don’t know if that’s true of the present moment, but this volume, particularly the first half, was outstanding. Then again, I’ve never met a Pushcart I didn’t like.

Often, as I write these posts, I used the text of the story or poem to write about other things, whether it’s hair or current events or Kabbalah. It’s really a matter of what strikes me about a piece: sometimes technical aspects are what stand out, and sometimes the content is all I can see. And sometimes, particularly with poetry and the more advanced aspects of prose, I just don’t have the technical knowledge to recognize or address form.

I often worry that I should be writing more about technical issues, craft: the meter of a poem, the point of view of a story or its narrative structure. But I think I’ve finally made some peace with that. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, to be analyzed; it’s there to be enjoyed, and to inform other areas of our lives. Maybe a story nudges awake an idea from long ago, and now I’m more able to grasp it. Maybe a poem shapes a thought I’ve been having, helps me develop and redefine a vague impression, gives language to what was ineffable. That’s worth noting, even if it has nothing to do with meter or pacing.

For my particular tastes, this volume was very much front-loaded: a high proportion of the initial pieces were knock-my-socks-off good. I won’t deny that craft had a lot to do with this, but content played a significant role as well. I loved encountering Walter Benjamin “in the wild”, having studied his ideas in a more academic setting via a couple of recent moocs. Ditto Kabbalah. I felt like a family’s reaction to a floating sneaker said far more than the fun tone implied it would. I called on my local librarian to help with some minor research into a phrase that appears in Paradise Lost as well as Hamlet, and again reflected on how history is never dead, it just keeps re-revealing itself to us over and over. I thought about freedom vs. responsibility, and how each looks from the other side.

I saw distinct real-life connections, particularly to the refugee crisis, and over the course of this six-month read, saw it evolve from something happening in Europe, to something happening right here. I’d like to think I’m a little less helpless to do anything about it as a result of these encounters, but I’m not sure that’s the case.

The front-loading had a consequence, of course: the last few weeks have been tough sledding. It isn’t that I didn’t enjoy anything – on the contrary – but that sense of “wow”, the discovery of something brilliantly imaginative or unexpected, no longer appeared. Combined with the grim content of so many of the later pieces, I began to feel burdened. I hope I can encounter these writers, maybe even these pieces, again, when my expectations are lower and my resilience is higher and everything doesn’t remind me of children crying for their parents.

There are simply too many “favorites” in a volume this large to list them all, but I’ll single out a few, pieces that struck me as extraordinarily imaginative and/or effective. “Catacombs” by Jason Zencka just kept becoming a new story with every paragraph; his change of voice is brilliant. Cecilia Woloch’s “Reign of Embers” still rings in my ears, and I suspect it will for some time. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Anthony Wallace gave me an incredible workout on aesthetics, and brought in much of my recent mooc study. Steven Stern’s “The Plate-Spinner” skillfully walked a think line between reality and fantasy, with a self-propelled narrative. “Float” by Reginald McKnight kept me charmed while revealing something important. Christopher Kempf’s “Michaux State Forest, New Year’s” was at once beautiful and horrifying, days of future/past. “Freedom” by Rachel Cusk used small details of setting in important ways. “My Dear Master Liszt” by Ben Stroud combined art, psychology, and history in an unexpected setting. Jamie Quatro’s “Belief” was a joy to read, a down-to-earth, reality-based meditation on religion that kept away from polemic and sentimentality to delve into the heart of faith. And though I wasn’t initially blown away by the final story, it keeps coming back to me in new ways. That often means something; I wonder if I’m still working on the lens to read it properly, if some day I’ll pick up a tomato and find myself sobbing, undone.

And now it’s time for something a little different, a summer project to keep me blogging until BASS rolls around next Fall. In about six months, Pushcart XLIII will drop, celebrating 2017 in literature from the small presses. If chaos does generate great art, it’ll be spectacular. 2018 could be even better. Let’s hope there will be readers to enjoy it.

Pushcart XLII: Delaney Nolan, “Everything You Want Right Here” from Electric Literature #195

Steve Goad: “The Lone Tomato”

Steve Goad: “The Lone Tomato”

Natalie was pulling the slot machine lever, dropping in coins from a little yellow purse she held in her lap. I was drinking my fourth daiquiri, which was also yellow.
“This honestly tastes like real bananas,” I said.
We were standing near the one window in Game Room Twelve, which was tinted dark but still showed the red desert going on outside, the same for miles, thousands of miles, I guess. Jermy, who works janitorial on our floor, told me once that the desert led to a massive sinkhole, that magnificent quantities of sand were pouring into the sinkhole day after day, and that eventually we would pour in, too, all of us, the casino and the games and the residents and everything. But that is ridiculous. There might be one sinkhole. But we can’t be surrounded by sinkholes, not in every direction. Statistically, we’re going to turn out fine, in the long run.

Complete story available online at Electric Literature

I’m always interested in how a not-quite-reality-based story cues the reader in that they’re not in Kansas, or in this universe, any more. There are hints in these opening paragraphs, but I’d assumed the sinkhole talk was the desert variety of an urban legend. But then we get to the excitement over a tomato plant. And a scrawny tomato plant, at that. But when you haven’t seen a tree, or eaten a peach, in years, well, any tomato plant looks pretty good. And when you’ve been eating a thousand varieties of starch and sugar for that long, a forthcoming real tomato is eagerly anticipated.

We don’t get a lot of backstory here. Apparently the world has turned to sand, and the casino is a kind of shelter where at least you won’t starve. The details of what went wrong aren’t spelled out; it’s more about the tomato. If that sounds weird, well, I have a serious sweet tooth, but if all I’d eaten lately is cotton candy and lollypops, I can imagine the lengths I’d go to for a taste of that sweet/sour juice, the pop of skin, the squish of pulp, the feel of seeds on my tongue.

It’s a sequel to the earlier “Miracle Fruit”, focusing on the human elements of desire for what has been lost in a setting of the wrong kind of plenty. And a lot more has been lost than fresh vegetables:

The thing is, in the casino you tend to get into a routine, and it makes time go weird — you’re walking past a bank of video poker screens when you realize a week’s gone by without you really noticing. So at some point around last year I started holding on to leftover bits from meals, just to remind myself: time is passing, time is passing. This is your life. It really is.

They’ve been in the casino, located some place in Kansas, for four years now. There’s really no place to go; it’s the only building for three states. There’s constant entertainment – gambling, movies, a laser corridor, a pool party, the pool filled with Marshmallow Fluff, twice a year – and ingenious ways of turning sugar into dinner. Winning the tomato plant is the equivalent of a Powerball win, and they become a celebrity couple. They fantasize about the eventual tomato. The casino chef suggests they candy it. Because, what else does he know?

Maybe, like the robot story before it, this is just a fantasy, a what-if, and any similarity to our current lives – lived by the light of smartphones running the latest apps, fretting about trivia while ignoring as best they can the sands piling up all around us – is a coincidence. Maybe we need to get outside the casino once in a while, before there’s nothing out there. Or maybe it’s too late.

The story concludes with, sadly, the truest possible expression of human nature. There’s a scene that reminds me of the end of The Day After, with Jason Robards wandering around the charred ruins of what used to be his home, telling the lost and distraught man who cowers there, “Get out of my house!” until he’s offered an onion. There’s loss. And there’s escape – to what, isn’t clear, but at least it isn’t about sugar and slot machines.

At first, I thought this was an odd choice for the final word from XLII. Then I thought back to the first story, “Catacombs”, and its themes of devastating loss and obsession. And I thought of Richardson’s opening words in the Introduction, a brief dedication to President Obama: “We miss him.” And I think of the gathering sands all over the world. I think it’s the perfect ending for this particular year.

Pushcart XLII: Matthew Fogarty, “Maybe Mermaids and Robots are Lonely” from Stillhouse Press

Jordan Shields: “R1”

Jordan Shields: “R1”

And just because his skin is steel doesn’t mean he feels nothing. Maybe they’re at a beach and she’s in with the tide. Or maybe they’re at the tops of skyscrapers, a city between them, and all they can see is each other: her with the curls that fall in a tangle over her shoulders and the dress that drapes her fins, him with the earnestness of a logic board. Wherever it is they find each other, he has to believe in the possibility, because if this isn’t possible, what is?

Speculative fiction typically includes elements outside of realism, from vampires to Martians to future histories. But what if, layered on top of that, the fiction itself speculates: what if this happens next? Or, instead, this? This is what if. It’s kind of a choose-your-own-adventure story, without all the page-turns.

So robot meets mermaid – we don’t know how, it’s flash fiction – and, maybe, they fall in love. “He says, ‘I’d rust for you.’ She says, ‘You leave me breathless.’” But they are of different worlds. He sadly watches her return to the sea – then gets an idea for a wetsuit, and heads out to find her.

He wonders whether robots can drown. He wonders whether she’s forgotten him, or whether maybe he’s in the wrong ocean, or if it’s all just a cruel glitch. She’s a failure of programming; she doesn’t exist. Maybe this is what happens in the night, when the factory is closed and it’s dark—idle robots dream of love and mermaids.
Or maybe that’s when she catches him, thrashing for life, fishhooks her arms under his. He says, “I’m sorry. I’m not programmed to swim.” And she smiles, takes his hand, says, “Then don’t let go.”

If this reminds you a bit of a certain 30-year-old Tom Hanks/Daryl Hannah romcom, well, sure; it was a charming movie, after all, and the story is just as charming. What if you add “what ifs” to let the reader decide between the tragedy of loneliness, or the joy found in the willingness to cross any divide to share life with another? What if you just read it as a technofable?

In an interview with Tara Laskowski at Smokelong (one of the finest flash fiction sites out there), Fogarty said, “I love entering through the whimsical and finding the serious.” I’m not certain I see the serious here, but the whimsy suited me just fine.

Pushcart XLII: Cecilia Woloch, “Reign of Embers” (poem) from American Journal of Poetry #1

Early Christian martyr from the Roman catacombs, reinterred at  Weyarn, Germany. Photo by Paul Koudounaris

Early Christian martyr from the Roman catacombs, reinterred at Weyarn, Germany. Photo by Paul Koudounaris

“In the dark time will there also be singing?”
“Yes, there will be singing about the dark time.” — Bertolt Brecht

I. (Aftermath: Paris)
Can you make a song of the love of death?
(And how does it go? the poet asks.)
Some had been singing before they died.
Some had been bringing the food to their lips.
Some had been kissing. Some had been drunk.
Some had been screaming, God is good,
as they fired into the crowd.
Can you make a prayer from the love of death,
from the fingerprint of the finger
blown off the assassin’s hand?
Can I love my enemy as myself?

Complete poem available online at The American Journal of Poetry

2015 in France was an annus horribilis: the Hebdo attack in January, a string of isolated violence and attempts throughout the year culminating in November with coordinated attacks at several sites at the same time. A few days later, police raided the Paris neighborhood of Saint-Denis to capture the suspects. For those of us following the events from afar, it seemed like complete chaos, but it was considered successful.

Woloch captures the pain, fear, and confusion of that November in this long poem divided into ten parts, rotating from Paris to LA to Saint-Denis with brief sections of Macbeth and news coverage. Themes of God, love, death, children, morality, all swirl around. It’s brutal, tragic, heartbreaking, and filled with questions, short on answers, because they are the kinds of questions that are nearly impossible for thinking people to answer.

It’s quite a tour-de-force. I’ve been way out of my pay grade for a while now, and this raises the bar even more. I’m tempted, as I often am when confronted with something bigger than I can handle, to just encourage any readers who may find their way here to read the poem itself via the link above. Maybe I’ll leave some breadcrumbs here, hoping they will be followed, and include a few of my own reactions, peripheral though they may be.

III. Ratline
One source says the source is everywhere.
One source says the source is our enemy.
One source says the source is us,
with our blundering, with our greed.

I didn’t know, until I read this poem, that ratlines are a system of illicit escape or transit routes; the word originally referred to the rope ladders on the rigging of a ship’s sail, by which sailors could abandon ship if necessary. But that isn’t the important part here, is it?

I can’t remember where I read it – I thought it was Chimamanda Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” but it seems not – but where you start the story determines what the story is about. If you start with the arrival of Europeans on the North American continent, that’s one story; if you start with the thriving indigenous population already there, that’s another. If you start with violence and wars raging through central Africa today, that tells one story; if you start with European partition and colonization of Africa, that tells a different story. If you talk about civility when a restaurant won’t serve a powerful government employee, that’s one story; if you talk about civility when immigrant children are ripped away from their parents and locked in cages, when women seeking health care are harassed outside Planned Parenthood offices, when a twelve-year-old in a park is gunned down by the police after less than 2 seconds of deliberation, when a presidential candidate brags about grabbing women by the pussy and mocks a disabled reporter and insists that Mexican immigrants are rapists and drug dealers, when two people can’t get a goddamn cake for their wedding, that’s a different story.

Where do you start to look for the source of contemporary violence?

Have we chosen the wrong men to lead us?
Have we made the wrong people rich?
Have we put power into the hands
of those who love power as much as death?

Yes. Yes. And yes.

The poem ends with a cab ride in LA, and a friendly cab driver, an immigrant who prompts the speaker, “Guess where it is… my favorite country in Africa.”

Rwanda, he answers, his smile
lighting up in the rear-view mirror,
because, after the genocide there,
so few men were left alive,
it’s a country of women and children, now,
a new country of the young.
And the women who’ve taken the law
and the government into their hands
hold everyone accountable, he says.
Because all the warriors are dead.
Because they killed one another so well.

A 17-page poem is quite unusual in Pushcart. It’s even more unusual in an online journal; these usually blanch at anything beyond two page scrolls. The American Journal of Poetry, a recent descendant of the earlier journal MARGIE, proudly bucks that trend, looking only for “a strong voice and risk-taking”. They certainly found that in this poem.

Pushcart XLII: Jane Wong, “When You Died” (poem) from Foundry #1

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha: Father/Mother (brown envelope cover)

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha: Father/Mother (brown envelope cover)

Five years of fireflies in oil; five years of ants gnawing
through red flags; five years of pockmarked suns, your face:
each ray, each sweltering August; five years of unraveling,
hair loosening from your crown like a rotten tooth;
five years of how easy it is to split a frog in two; five
years of pollen in your mouth, that bitter buzzing;

Complete story available online at Foundry Journal

And again, I come to a poem that makes little sense until I read some context. Yet it’s quite beautiful, the kind of beautiful that makes me want to understand. A kind of pain only beautiful now that it’s recollected in tranquility.

Wong has considered what she calls “The poetics of haunting” for a long time. Her dissertation was about precisely that: “how social, historical, and political contexts “haunt” the work of Asian American poets.” She made it into a website , a collection of the works examined in the academic document, and discussed the origins of her interest in this aspect of poetry – “it’s not a matter of the repressed coming back to haunt you, but is a productive and intentional act to go toward the ghost and rewrite forgotten histories – in her TEDx talk.

Which brings us to this poem, part of a “project” addressing her own personal history, the recollection of stories from an unknown, unnamed family who died long ago:

With my missing family members who starved during the Great Leap Forward, I can not visit their graves, their physical bodies. They exist as ghosts for me—a kind of presence that it always there, across distances and spaces of time….
In my forthcoming project, I am writing a series addressing my missing family members during the Great Leap Forward (poems entitled “When You Died“). I do not know their names; I wish I new their names. I wish my family could talk about what happened during that time, but they do not. Silence itself is a ghost.

~ ~ Poet interview at lithub

Given the current situation here, I can’t help but wonder if thousands of Central American kids will be growing up not knowing their stories, how their parents, in a desperate attempt to get them to safety, were torn from them. I wonder if some Guatemalan poet, some years down the line, will also try to remember a forgotten history. Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.

Sometimes, even if the poem doesn’t land, the backstory does, and I end up in a puddle of tears just the same.

Pushcart XLII: Lo Kwa Mei-En, “Aubade for Non-Citizens” (poem) from New Orleans Review #41

Alien status, a blue bourgeois dress, the hustle of Rome. A waltz—
zoom out—the citizen ingenue’s cool, cool crinoline and persona
buckling in the silhouette the ahistorical hourglass. I have no story,
your shout into this century’s solar wind, a yellow ribbon on a bomb
compromised by compromise, a citizen’s birthright, a little box
xeroxed white, the alien body folded like a french flap in the epic
determination to predetermine the alien body in the here / now.

Complete poem available online at Poetry Society

As with several poems in this volume, I was completely confused as to what is going on here. It starts out with clear references to aliens – that is, the political designation of someone residing in one country with citizenship from another – but that quickly morphs into a more science fiction notion of aliens (the poem originally appeared in the Science Fiction issue of the New Orleans Review) with references to gravity and ships and “Here on Earth” and colonists. Adding to my confusion is the element of entertainment: karaoke, webcams.

….The future, the TV
vectoring the colonists’ self-portrait, thumbs up for this handmade
family, zoom in—Citizen 2 karaokes in low gravity (Zou Bisou Bisou),
unlikable kiss shot to Earth besmirched. The camera winking, stiff
grafts in the ship’s greenhouse untrembling at the speed of light,
turmeric tumescing quietly, and the brilliant soldier of a pear sapling.


So, I did what I do: I went looking, and I found an author statement explaining the genesis of the poem. This was extremely helpful in understanding how the pieces fit, because the pieces are, indeed, 1) her own immigration experience, 2) a project to colonize Mars, and 3) reality TV. And once I knew the background, it all made sense.

This comes from the mission statement of Mars One, a non-profit foundation that aims to establish the first human colony on Mars by the mid-2020’s…. Reading about the standards of physical, social, and psychological desirability potential colonists needed to fulfill in order to be deemed eligible reminded me of the questions asked of immigrants attempting to obtain American citizenship—Have you ever been a sex worker? Are you willing to go to war for the United States of America?—and the message of undesirability that underlies such questioning. When I learned that Mars One planned to narrow down their applicant pool to four final colonists via a reality television audience vote, I was reminded of how popular culture, deformalized media, and social narratives can serve as powers that can enforce (or denounce) the structures of phobic policy.

That’s kind of impressive, to weave all those things together, even if it was done in a fashion that was, for me, less than coherent. I wonder if a more expository approach would have blunted the impact of the combination of events, if disorientation is part of the intended aesthetic experience. The poem is included in a linked collection, The Bees Make Money in the Lion, which continues to explore the idea of this Mars colony. That title, by the way, evokes the Biblical Samson’s riddle pointing to a beehive within a lion’s carcass, itself a story with a wealth of interpretations, and juxtaposes it to the economics of worker bees. Like Oulipo, the concept interests me greatly and I admire the semantic crossconnections, even if I am a bit dubious about the poem itself.

And of course, as I’ve been saying all along, context is king. The cries of children in cages still ring in my ears, the sound of Republican heavyweight Corey Lewandowski’s abhorrent “womp womp” when told of a child with Down syndrome who was taken from her parents (call them asylum seekers, refugees, migrants, they are trying to negotiate a bizarre system with a built-in Catch-22 aimed at keeping them out for the express purpose of keeping their families safe) and put into what amounts to a confused, uncontrolled system so ad hoc and run with so little disregard for children and human rights that no one can explain just how the children will be reunited with their families, where they are all being kept (New York, Michigan, tents on the Texas border where temperatures consistently exceed 100 degrees), and, most troubling, just where the girls are. But corporations are making money, so what are these concerns. This is what colors everything now: disgust for the country that is my home, rage that it is done in my name as a citizen, and absolute impotence to stop it in the face of shameless greed, bigotry, and egotism that propels it. Protests, petitions, phone calls, donations may help us feel better, but I don’t see anything that can stop the boulder rolling down the hill, crushing what is left of America.

Pushcart XLII: David Meischen, “How to Shoot at Someone Who Outdrew You” (nonfiction) from Gettysburg Review 29:3

Krista Whitson: “Dance Halls of Central Texas”

Krista Whitson: “Dance Halls of Central Texas”

The morning I learned of Hank Locklin’s death, I disappeared right out of my life, jolted elsewhere by a single fragment of the deluge spilling from my web browser. March 9, 2009, was an ordinary Monday morning. A breeze drifted through my central Austin neighborhood. I was sixty years old. I’d long since quit listening to stations that call themselves country—that wasteland of loud pop ballads cowboyed up with twang, with steel guitar and fiddle. A name, then, a simple Internet death notice. A voice, singular as the whorl tipping my ring finger. Opening words to a song. And five decades dropped away beneath me.

Please help me I’m falling . . . in love with you.
Close the door to temptation, don’t let me walk through.

Complete story available online at Gettysburg Review

Music, for many of us, forms the backdrop of our lives. So many times a song, written by a complete stranger, crystallizes our state of mind in a way our own thoughts have resisted. I still remember how “Both Sides Now” summed up one summer. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” still breaks my heart, even though I’m a decade too young to remember WWII and the separations it was written to honor. And once it a while, God help us, even Madison Avenue captures the essence of a moment, as so many of us recalled when “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” played on the final Mad Men episode.

Meischen’s memoir traces his evolving understanding of love through song. As a child, then a teenager, growing up in Texas, a boy on a farm raised by parents who’d known hard knocks and tragedy, the weekly outings to the dances at Rifle Club Hall were a way of connecting life with living through the polka and the jitterbug. And at the same time, he began to realize that his father’s life was not a perfect fit for him.

It would be years before Meischen discovered words like gay or found a way to forge a life that felt comfortable. But music – country songs at first, then the piercing “Unchained Melody” – knew how he felt, though it took him a long time to work his way towards what he needed.

This is not a story about confrontation; it’s about cherishing one’s roots while discovering one’s wings.

I am my father’s son. I didn’t see it at the time. I’m not sure he did either…. My father was a talker—storyteller, jokester, clown. He loved entertaining people, loved all eyes on him, all ears. I’m told I started talking at eighteen months. I can attest I haven’t stopped since. I’ve been turning my life into stories for as long as I can remember. I can play the clown with the best of them.
A confession: When I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, I saw my father as impossibly moody, impossibly judgmental, his moods and judgments tinged by anger. I promised myself—promised—that I would not be a moody, angry father. Thirty years went by, and then one day in my early forties, I woke to a stunning fact. I was a moody, angry father.
Flip sides of a coin. I share both sides with the man who fathered me.

The memoir is a chapter from Meischner’s memoir-in-progress; other chapters appear here and there in literary magazines. In an interview with Kelcey Parker Ervick, he describes himself as a literary late-bloomer. I respect those who take their time before taking flight.

Pushcart XLII: Nick Norwood, “Latchkey” (poem) from The Greensboro Review, Fall 2016

Photo by Alexander Harding

Photo by Alexander Harding

Remember the first time
you let yourself in—
stunned by the sheer
silence of it all,
the sunlight blooming
on mute, blank-faced

We don’t know why this kid is now coming home to an empty house; maybe we don’t need to know. We can’t be sure whether he’s excited or scared; probably both, as he runs with a burst of energy, yelling at the sun to go away so he can be alone. Does he see it as a threat? An intrusion on his privacy? It’s probably something he never noticed before, just as, when we’re trying to fall asleep at night, we hear quiet sounds that never made it to our consciousness during the noisy day.

But even a kid’s energy can’t continue forever, so…

you dropped
into your mother’s chair
and watched
that same sunlight creep
silently across floors,
up walls,
and let itself out.

His mother’s chair: an important detail. Almost like a hug, sitting in that chair, I’d imagine, comfort and safety surrounding him. That gives him breathing room, enough to observe, to watch, and to learn that, if you have a safe place, even the scariest things might turn out to be kind of interesting, kind of beautiful, and you just might miss them when they go away.

I love the image of the sun moving around the room. Many years ago, there was a TV commercial for something, windows or shades maybe, that showed a sped-up beam of sunlight moving across a room as the day progressed and the light angles changed. At the time, I wished I could do something to capture that in my living room. I never thought I’d find it, captured for me, in a poem.

Pushcart XLII: Kaveh Akbar, “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Relapse Fantasy” (poem) from zyzzyva #107

BevShots: Liquor under a Microscope

BevShots: Liquor under a Microscope

You’re in a car and crying and amazed
at how bad it feels to do bad things….

Complete poem available online at Zyzzyva

If there’s one thing addicts love to do, besides their addiction, it’s talk about their addiction. Or, in this case, fantasize about it. It does feel bad to do bad things, but somehow, like multiplying two negatives equals a positive, it feels good, too. So we take a little tour of bits and pieces from a nightmare, without having to live the nightmare.

I have a very low tolerance for addiction literature. Sure, it’s powerful since it taps into all the energy zones – self-destruction, acting against self-interest, danger, pain, death – but I just find it all boring. But it does, in this case, make a nice little poem, neatly wrapped up by the last couple of lines:

It’s so lucky,
this living forever all at once. When you turn
on the lights, you’re inconsolably
glad. You could stop this whenever, but why?

Why indeed? The glad is worth it all.

Yet when I read a review of Akbar’s chapbook Portrait of the Alcoholic, dedicated “for drunks”, and from which I assume this poem comes, I wonder if I’m putting too much emphasis on the “relapse” of the title, which to me signals recovery. Maybe not so much. Though it isn’t evident in this poem, the collection, the collection includes several references to Akhbar’s Muslim background. Per Seth Copeland’s review, “drunkenness in the Islamic literary tradition is a long and time-honored metaphor. For what? Abandonment to God, a cessation of the self—but not so here; no. Here it’s real, it’s coarse, it’s dangerous.” Just like the real thing.

Pushcart XLII: Tarfia Faizullah, “I Told the Water” (poem) from Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring 2016

Joerael Je: A Cup holds Water so do We 2016

Joerael Je: A Cup holds Water so do We 2016

I told the water             You’re right
     The poor are
                             broken sidewalks
     we try to avoid

Audio recording available online on Soundcloud

This is the third Faizullah poem I’ve encountered now, and each one has a haunting mood, a voice I find compelling even though I’m not entirely sure what the subject is. It’s that voice that keeps me hooked, rather than impatient, the sound of the words somehow conveying there’s something here worth hearing, if I can only find out how to listen.

The poem starts with poverty and moves on to lying “facedown in dirt”, the speaker becoming “hieroglyph a wet braid caught in your throat”. War and the urge to defy gravity. A “graveyard of windows”. And in the end, defiance:

Last night I walked out onto your ice
                                                    wearing only my skin
           Because you couldn’t tell me            not to.

I thought of hurricanes. I suppose that’s because the chaos in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Maria is still very much with us. And I still vividly remember Katrina, since a couple of friends of mine lived in Metarie and were incommunicado for quite some time (they were fine, they left, if far later than they should have). It’s always the poor these disasters strike worst: people with houses built on flood plains, people living in trailer parks or in substandard homes, people who can’t afford to evacuate or rebuild or invest in insurance policies. On a grander scale, it’s the world’s poor who suffer the most from climate change, which boils down to changes in water distribution and access.

But, as well as that fit, I left something out.

Faizullah lives in Michigan, an hour away from Flint, where residents were poisoned for two years by lead in their drinking water after the state government saved a few thousand by using unsafe pipes, while installing bottled water coolers in government offices so those making the decisions would not share in the consequences. As Faizullah says in a PBS interview, ““I was thinking about things like helplessness and poverty and allocation of resources…” And even those of us on the road of good intentions might forget Flint, in the wake of newer crises.

The poem is included in her recently released book Registers of Illuminated Villages, a collection of all the places undone by the imbalance of poverty and power.

Whether Flint, or Puerto Rico, or New Orleans or Bangladesh, water is both survival and danger. I see now how the poem captures that, the speaker admiring, and fighting, the water, and the invisible power behind it, giving voice to those who have none.

Pushcart XLII: Louisa Ermelino, “The Ménage” from Sarabande Books

I didn’t know Rosie then, when she lived on the beach in Calangute with her old man and the English couple. I could see her from my house when she would come out in the mornings to sweep. They were all four of them tall and beautiful, I remember, both the English girl and Rosie with wild red hair. They kept to themselves and I wasn’t interested in new friends. I was too busy licking my wounds.

Think of this as Eat, Pray, Love for the dysfunctional.

It starts out the same way: our narrator travels the world to heal her broken heart. In India, she notices the intriguing group, but never meets them. After a while she tires of sex and drugs – “I was done with the East” – and moves on to Australia, where she crosses paths again with Rosie. At this point she becomes an observer-narrator, someone Rosie can tell her stories to.

And Rosie has lots of stories.

I didn’t know the Ians and Rosies and Cynthias of the world, with their fearlessness, their disregard for consequences. They both attracted and repelled me.

I kind of feel bad for our narrator; given Rosie’s steadfast self-interest and lack of conscience, I can’t help but wonder what’s going to happen after the story ends. But I suppose that’s another story, isn’t it. I like a story that ends with me imagining what happens next, not in an unfinished sense, but in a further-adventures way. And, as Rosie herself says, “Oh darling, have you not learned anything?”

The story is from Ermelino’s 2016 collection Malafemmena, “Cruel Woman”, which is also the title of a popular Neapolitan song from the 50s (thanks for the consult, Silvia!). For those of us intrigued by bad girls, or bad boys, stories are a far safer option.

Pushcart XLII: Andrew Solomon, “On Gay Parenting” (nonfiction) from Threepenny Review

People often ask me when I came out, generalizing from the experience of many young people who announce themselves to the world on a particular afternoon. But I did not divorce my reticence in a single sharp break. Rather, I seeped out like a spreading wine stain. I told someone; I told a few more people; I denied what I’d said; I said it again, to someone else; I wished it away; I told my family; I denied it to the people I was sleeping with; I admitted it to those people; I denied it to my family; and so on. I had been completely closeted for two decades and I took another decade to declare myself even to myself….
Since then, coming out has been an almost daily exercise.

Complete story available online.

Those of us who have never had to explain or defend our sexuality might not understand the impact of coming out, but Solomon does a great job of comparing it to a separate issue: revealing his depressive illness. I think it’s a good analogy; those of us who struggle with mental illness are never sure how the person we’re revealing to will react. Maybe they’ll start to treat us like we’re about to flip out at the least provocation; maybe they’ll publicize it beyond our comfort zone; maybe they’ll deride it (my favorite reaction is always, Gee, I get depressed/anxious sometimes too, but I don’t call it an illness). Or maybe they’ll just say, Oh, ok, ask a few questions, and return to whatever the original topic was.

The article isn’t really about how gay couples parent their kids. Of course not; that would be silly, since gay couples parent the way any couples do: teaching, sometimes scolding, comforting, nurturing, disciplining. It’s more about how it feels to live in a world where the three-letter adjective matters so much to those outside the family.

New family structures are different from mainstream ones. We are not lesser but we are not the same, and to deny the nuance of that asymmetry is to keep us almost as ensnared as we were when our marriages and families were impossible. Acquiescence to historical standards is still commonly recognized as the essence of good parenting, but I would emphasize the equal power of imaginative breaks with tradition.

I came back to Miss Manners, oddly enough. Even in the 80s, the queen of propriety held to the belief that family events like weddings should be tailored around the family and participants, rather than tailoring family to fit some rigid template of What a Family Should Look Like (she was far more dogmatic on wearing black to weddings, or simplifying place settings).

Maybe we’re so determined to have everyone lined up in cookie-cutter fashion because it’s easier. Not on the parents, and not on the kids, certainly, but on the rest of the world, to have everyone fit a mold, so we can react to everyone the same way. It’s the same thing with accents, languages, religious customs: I think a lot of the push towards conformity comes from those who simply don’t want to have to work so hard to learn to pronounce names or can’t bear to see a guest eat salad at a barbecue. Maybe we need support groups for such folks, so the rest of us can just live our lives.

Pushcart XLII: Meghan O’Gieblyn, “Dispatch from Flyover Country” (nonfiction) from Threepenny Review, Summer 2016

The Midwest is a somewhat slippery notion. It is a region whose existence—whose very name—has always been contingent upon the more fixed and concrete notion of the West. Historically, these interior states were less a destination than a corridor, a gateway that funneled travelers from the east into the vast expanse of the frontier. The great industrial cities of this region—Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis—were built as “hubs,” places where the rivers and the railroads met, where all the goods of the prairie accumulated before being shipped to the exterior states. Today, coastal residents stop here only to change planes, a fact that has solidified our identity as a place to be passed over. To be fair, people who live here seem to prefer it this way. Gift shops along the shores of the Great Lakes sell T-shirts bearing the logo Flyover Living. For a long time, the unofficial nickname for the state of Indiana was “Crossroads of America.” Each time my family passed the state line, my sisters and I would mock its odd, anti-touristic logic (“Nothing to see here, folks!”).

Complete story available online at Threepenny Review

I have a lot of trouble with the notion of “flyover states”. It seems to me most of the US is a big flyover zone to New York and Washington. So let’s stick with “midwestern” since that seems more appropriate to the article anyway.

O’Gieblyn tells not just of her relatively recent life in Michigan, but compares it with her previous residence of Madison, Wisconsin, “the Berkeley of the midwest”, one of the “cities that lie within the coordinates of the region but do not technically belong there”. Then she mixes in some religion, courtesy of the remnants of a Bible camp that draws in believers every Summer.

I can understand the “anti-touristic logic” she mentions above. There’s a lot of that where I live, an area that gets a significant influx of tourists, hence income, in summer. Yet there’s a definite attitude of who’s local and who isn’t that goes deeper than “winter people”. I’ve lived here over 20 years, but will never be a Mainer because I wasn’t born here. By the way, notice on the map above: most of Maine doesn’t even get flown over.

Whether we call ourselves midwesterners or Californians or North Carolinians or whatever, it’s a matter of identity.

On Saturday nights, the camp hosts a concert, and my husband and I occasionally walk down to the Tabernacle to listen to whatever band has been bused in from Nashville. Neither of us is a believer, but we enjoy the music. The bands favor gospel standards, a blend of highlands ballads and Gaither-style revivalism. The older generation here includes a contingent of retired missionaries. Many of them are widows, women who spent their youth carrying the gospel to the Philippines or the interior of Ecuador, and after the service they smile faintly at me as they pass by our pew, perhaps sensing a family resemblance. Occasionally, one of them will grip my forearm and say, “Tell me who you are.” The response to this question is “I’m Colleen’s daughter.” Or, if that fails to register: “I’m Paul and Marilyn’s granddaughter.” It is unnerving to identify oneself in this way. My husband once noted that it harkens back to the origins of surnames, to the clans of feudal times who identified villagers by patronymic epithets. John’s son became Johnson, etcetera. To do so now is to see all the things that constitute a modern identity—all your quirks and accomplishments—rendered obsolete.

I have to shake my head when I hear for calls of ending “identity politics”. People are all about identity. Maybe the key to the Midwest is this idea of family identity, of stability. To some of us this feels like security; for others, it feels like a life sentence. For those of us whose families have scattered, other forms of identity fill in. We find new ways of creating social bonds. Just because we don’t share bloodlines doesn’t mean we can’t feel loyalty, trust, and reciprocity with others who share our identity. And those who enjoy one form of identity fear those who don’t share it, along with a natural resentment of those who would disparage it.

O’Gieblyn uses a fascinating conceit to structure the piece: smoke from the California wildfires moved across the midwest, changing the sunsets, including those in Michigan. She likens this to the winds of change that bubble up in places that don’t seem to have a lot to do with the neighborhood, be it new technology or ideas. It’s something from elsewhere. From away, as we say in Maine (or, as real cradle-to-grave Mainers, do). It seems ominous, unpleasant. And it generally clears out after a while. Real change happens slowly in flyover zones.

And this may be the point of the article published in 2016, the Year of the Flyover Voter. While some of us feel like we’re being yanked back to a past we thought we left behind, maybe, for some, it just seems like the sunsets are back to normal. That’s a divide far harder to overcome than geography. We could do it – we could heal, see each other not as threats but as interlocking parts of a whole, each valuable in our own right – but it seems there’s more profit, more power, in exploiting it.

Pushcart XLII: Kathleen Lynch, “Abracadabra” (poem) from Tule Review

Cover art (modified) from Ann Morgan's novel Beside Myself

Cover art (modified) from Ann Morgan’s novel Beside Myself

When mom wrung her hands over her many
& various worries, whispering I’m simply beside myself,
I tried to picture that diaphanous other version
of our mother – not a ghost, but not all there like
a real body – a mystery vapor-vision that mimicked
her hand-wringing, pacing – always beside her.

Idioms and slang can be confusing to kids. I can remember, when I was a sheltered kid old enough to know better, really, being away at Bible camp and hearing our cabin counselor tell us about some interpretation of scripture: “I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, but this means…” I looked at all our ten-year-old toes pointing to the center of a rounded rectangle, and moved my own feet back under my bunk to protect them. On another occasion around the same time, I had an earache, and the aunt I was staying with for the summer told my uncle she had to call my father for money, because “a doctor visit can cost $10 a shot.” (Yes, it was that long ago). I started to cry, because I didn’t like shots, not at all.

Lynch takes these innocent misunderstandings and uses them as a storytelling device, taking us through her life from the innocence of childhood to the reality of the adult who knows exactly what it is to lose one’s head, to be beside oneself (which, by the way, is related to ecstasy from the Greek ekstasis, “out of place”). We flip forward to see how the speaker, as an adult, experiences being outside herself, with the metaphorical bleeding into the literal in a bit of fancy.

More often than not, we turn into our moms. Drives us crazy, but there it is.