Daniel Kehlmann: Measuring the World (Carol Brown Janeway, translator) (Vintage, 2007)

It was both odd and unjust, said Gauss, a real example of the pitiful arbitrariness of existence, that you were born into a particular time and held prisoner there whether you wanted it or not. Each gave you an indecent advantage over the past and made you a clown vis-à-vis the future.
Eugene nodded sleepily.
Even a mind like his own, said Gauss, would have been incapable of achieving anything in early human history or on the banks of the Orinoco, whereas in another two hundred years each and every idiot would be able to make fun of him and invent the most complete nonsense about his character.

Aha! Enter Daniel Kehlmann with his fictionalized biography – a dual biography, in fact, of both Gauss and Alexander Humboldt – ready to supplement history with a little fun, slipping in “complete nonsense” as well as sly meta-comments along the way. It’s great fun to read.

Alexander Humboldt and Carl Gauss: The two men were contemporaries, were both famous in Europe, and published vast works that established new fields of science and mathematics. Yet they were quite different. One was from a wealthy Prussian family, the godson of a Duke, and was made a Baron; the other was the son of a German gardener. One wanted nothing more than to explore and document the world; the other preferred to stay home and work in a room, reasoning out abstractions. One never married; the other took a second wife to make up for the loss he felt when his first wife died. And yet, by the end of the book, they have more in common than we might suppose.

I spent a lot of time initially trying to determine what was documented fact and what was fancy, but eventually gave that up. I found an article by an eminent Dutch mathematician (all links provided below) castigating Kehlmann for taking such liberties (I hope he never reads Irving Stone or watches Amadeus). Then I found a Harvard mathematician who was a lot more enthusiastic, particularly about the film made from the book.

One of the scenes that so irritated the Dutch professor concerned a balloon ride that almost certainly never happened, as it appears to have taken place after the balloonist died (in a balloon accident, tragically). It’s one of my favorite passages:

And seizing him partly by his collar, partly by his hair, he hauled Gauss up.
The curve of the earth in the distance….
This is how God sees the world, said Pilâtre.
He wanted to say something back, but he’d lost his voice. How fiercely the air was shaking them! And the sun—why was it so much brighter up here? His eyes hurt, but he couldn’t close them. And space itself: a straight line from every point to every other point, from this roof to this cloud, to the sun, and back to the roof. Points making lines, lines making planes, planes making bodies, and that wasn’t all. The fine curve of space was almost visible from here. He felt Pilâtre’s hand on his shoulder. Never go down again. Up and then up further, until there would be no earth beneath them any more. One day this is what people would experience. Everyone would fly then, as if it were quite normal, but by then he would be dead. He peered excitedly into the sun, the light was changing. Dusk seemed to be rising in the still-bright sky like fog. A last flame or two, red on the horizon, then no more sun, then stars. Things never happened this fast down there. We’ve started to drop, said Pilâtre.
No, he begged, not yet! There were so many of them, more every moment. Each one a dying sun. Every one of them was decaying, and they were all following their own trajectories, and just as there were formulae for every planet that circled its own sun and every moon that circled its own planet, there was a formula, certainly infinitely complicated, but then again maybe not, perhaps hiding behind its own simplicity, that described all these movements, every revolution of every individual body around every other; maybe all you had to do was keep looking. His eyes smarted. It felt as if he hadn’t blinked for a long time. We’re about to land, said Pilâtre.
No, not yet! He rose on tiptoes, as if that could help, stared upward, and understood for the first time what movement was, what a body was; most of all, what space was, the space that they stretched between them, and thatheld them all, even him, even Pilâtre and this basket, in its embrace. Space, that …
They crashed into the wooden frame of a haystack….
Now he knew, said Gauss.
What?
That all parallel lines meet.
Fine, said Pilâtre.
His heart was racing. He wondered if he should explain to the man that all he would need was to add a hanging rudder to the basket, and he could turn the air current to make the balloon move in any specific direction.
But he kept quiet. Nobody had asked him, and it wouldn’t be polite to force his ideas on these people. It took no stretch of the imagination, and one of them would think of it soon.
But now what this man wanted to see was a grateful child. With an effort, Gauss put a smile on his face, stretched his arms wide, and bowed like a marionette. Pilâtre was happy, laughed, and stroked his head.

I’ve found several sources that credit Gauss with coining the term “non-Euclidean geometry” and conducting  an exploration of the Fifth Postulate as a way into the curvature of space; he never published anything on these topics, apparently feeling it would seem too fanciful, but the ideas were passed down to others, culminating in Riemann and Einstein. So while this particular incident may never have happened, its point – that inspiration and insight, comes from many other sources other than the hard work credited with 99% of genius – is well-taken.

Kehlmann relates the more familiar story of the discovery of Gauss’ mathematical talent by a schoolteacher who, as punishment or pedagogy, who knows, has the young children add the numbers from 1 to 100. Gauss completes the task in moments, using the method that is now codified for summing consecutive integers, and is thus vaulted into serious mathematical study. Whether or not this tale, which exists in several versions, is true is debated; maybe it’s more like George Washington telling the truth about cutting down the cherry tree, a legend that has become so ingrained it’s inseparable from fact. In any case, it’s told charmingly. Humboldt’s childhood inspiration was a bit different:

Once they stumbled on a story about Aguirre the Mad, who had renounced his king and declared himself emperor. He and his men traveled the length of the Orinoco in a journey that was the stuff of nightmares… Hardly any scholars had ever penetrated this region, and there was no reliable map.
But he would, said the younger brother. He would make the journey.
Naturally, the elder brother replied.
He really meant it!
Yes he understood that, said the elder brother and summoned a servant to note down the day and the exact time. The day would come when they would be glad they had fixed this moment.

The chapters alternate between Gauss and Humboldt, proceeding chronologically after a brief opening section preparing us for their eventual meeting later in life. Possibly because Humboldt’s life reads like an adventure novel while his personal life was rather limited, we see a great deal of him travelling, particularly of his trip to Latin America, collecting samples, and, indeed, measuring the world. Gauss’ studies, once his Disquisitiones Arithmeticae was published in his early 20s, are more summarized than dramatized, at least until his work with Wilhelm Weber on magnetism later in his life.

Yet Kehlmann gives us a picture of him through various short scenes, such as the (presumably fictional) moment he met his first wife, Johanna, while working as a surveyor shortly after qualifying for his doctorate:

He climbed over a hedge and landed panting, sweating, and strewn with pine needles in front of two girls. Asked what he was doing here, he nervously expounded the technique of triangulation: if you knew one side and two angles of a triangle, you could work out the other sides and the unknown angle. So you picked a triangle somewhere out here on God’s good earth, measured the side that was most easily accessible,and then used this gadget to establish the angle of the third corner. He lifted the theodolite and turned it this way,and then this way, and do you see, like this, with awkward fingers, as if doing it for the first time. Then you fit together a whole series of these triangles. A Prussian scientist was in the process of doing exactly this among all the fabulous creatures in the New World.
But a landscape isn’t a flat surface, retorted the bigger of the two.
He stared at her. There had been no pause. As if she had needed no time to think it over. Certainly not, he said, smiling.
A triangle, she said, had one hundred and eighty degrees as the sum of its angles on a flat surface; but it was on a sphere, so this was no longer true. Everything would stand or fall based on that.
He looked her up and down as if seeing her for the first time. She returned his look with raised eyebrows.
Yes, he said. So. In order to even things out, you had to scrunch the triangles, so to speak, after measuring them until they were infinitely small. In and of itself, a simple exercise in differentials. Although in this form … He sat down on the ground and took out his pad. In this form, he murmured, as he began making notes, it’s never been worked out in this form yet. When he looked up, he was alone.

The Prussian scientist mentioned is, of course, Humboldt, off looking for the mysterious channel between the Orinoco and the Amazon. This was a culmination of sorts for him; we watched him attend the completion of the triangulation of longitude that defined the meter: “People wanted to name it ‘the meter.’ It always filled Humboldt with exultation when something was measured; this time he was drunk with enthusiasm.”

Both men had to search for funding for their projects, as much a major, if unpleasant, effort then as it is today. Kehlmann’s fiction has a lot of fun with some of this: as Humbolt is trying to charm sponsorship out Mariano de Irquijo, the minister of Madrid (who did initially sponsor him), he is mistaken for a physician there to provide the regent with an aphrodesiac (“His power over the land rested on his power over the queen. She was no longer a young woman, nor was he a young man now.”) Quick-thinking Humboldt starts listing ingredients from all over the world, and offers to collect them to make a superb remedy. “Never before had foreigners received such documents.”

This use of humor is, for Kehlmann, the point:

Some readers, he concedes, may have bought it because they were flattered to be reminded of Germany’s role in the Enlightenment’s avant garde.
In fact, he says, it was intended as the antithesis of that – “a comedy about German high culture, about the German cult of genius”. “I have met people who didn’t want to read Measuring the World because they thought it was a serious, educated, self-important book about intellectual history. It has gained an aura that is the very opposite of what it really is, and I do regret that a bit. I also think it’s problematic that it is now on the school syllabus, because, in reality, it’s a parody about how we deal with educational values.”

Interview in The Guardian with Philip Oltermann

One of the clearest examples of this poke at German genius comes from Humboldt’s measuring of a solar eclipse while in South America. His assistant/collaborator, Aimé Bonpland, was astounded by the fading light, the momentousness of it all. Humboldt was too busy taking measurements to pay attention. “Did one always have to be so German?” sighs Bonpland.

Some of that humor has an ironic bite. While discussing the miracle of a parrot who is the last surviving speaker of a tribal language, Bonpland asks the head of the mission where the scientists are staying what happened to the tribe, why it disappeared.

It happened, said Pater Zea.
Why?
Pater Zea stared at him with narrowed eyes. It was easy to be like that. A person came here and pitied anyone who looked sad, and back home there would be bad stories to tell, but if that person suddenly found himself with fifty men ruling ten thousand savages, wondering every night what the voices in the forest meant, and being amazed each morning to find himself alive, perhaps he would judge things differently.
A misunderstanding, said Humboldt. Nobody had intended to criticize.

On a later stop in Mexico (New Spain at the time), Humboldt recommends to the Spanish overseer that the mine passages be repaired, to reduce accidents. “They had enough people, said Don Fernando. Anyone who died could be replaced. Humboldt asked if he’d read Kant.” This sly way of bringing up the categorical imperative to treat people as ends, not as means, doesn’t land for the overseer, but it does for the reader.

And also in Mexico:

Shortly afterward, as Humboldt packed up his instruments, he knew that on the day of the solstice, the sun when seen from the highway rose exactly over the top of the largest pyramid and went down over the top of the second-largest. The whole city was a calendar. Who had thought it up? How well had these people known the stars, and what had they wanted to convey? He was the first person in more than a thousand years who could read their message.
Why was he so depressed, asked Bonpland, awakened by the sound of the instruments being closed.
So much civilization and so much horror, said Humboldt. What a combination! The exact opposite of everything that Germany stood for.

That Spain inflicted horror on the New World is without doubt, but those of us who are familiar with the 20th century, yet future to Humboldt, might find somber irony in his exclamation.

I’m impressed with Kehlmann’s ability to compress these ideas into short statements, but the best is yet to come. Towards the end of his life, Humboldt and his brother, always close, speak of destiny:

Nobody, said Humboldt, had a destiny. One simply decided to feign one until one came to believe in it oneself. But so many things didn’t fit in with it, one had to really force oneself.
The elder brother leaned back and gave him a long look.
Still boys?
You knew?
Always.

That exchange of five words carries great impact. Yes, biographers and scholars of Humboldt’s travels have assumed, with varying degrees of certainty, that he was gay. I keep thinking of a trope that runs through the Gauss chapters, how he recognizes, as in the first quote above, that the state of knowledge, and society,, is always in flux, and what we accept today will most likely be different in fifty or a hundred or two hundred years. Humboldt didn’t have the luxury of waiting around for acceptance; I think that underlines some of his obsessive work.

Last year I read Kehlmann’s more recent book, Tyll, and enjoyed it so much I decided to read this earlier book. I’m glad I did. While the august personages, mathematics and science might intimidate some readers, it’s not a problem. Of course, the more one knows, the more one gets out of it (I love recognizing things I’ve heard of), but Kehlmann makes a point of not worrying about explaining background, be it of the Thirty Years’ War in Tyll, or the discoveries of Gauss – or, for that matter, the Napoleonic Wars which play in the background as Gauss moves from one university town to the next in search of a position.

I feel like you can never leave out enough explanation. We humans are actually used to working with incomplete information, for all our lives, all the time.
Measuring the World was a novel about two German scientists. It did very well in Germany, but then foreign publishers said, “We need footnotes because in our country nobody knows Carl Friedrich Gauss.“ I said, “Very few people in Germany knew Carl Friedrich Gauss either!“ When I read Dostoevsky, there’s so much about the politics of nineteenth-century Russia that I don’t understand, but it doesn’t matter at all. I feel like we should always trust the reader to deal with incomplete information—because that’s what all of us do all day long anyway!

Interview in Bomb Magazine with Álvaro Enrigue

The book ends not with the deaths of the scientists, but with Gauss’ son, Eugen. Throughout the book, Gauss has dumped on the poor boy, disappointed that he had little facility for mathematics. In more historically accurate materials, he urged the boy to go into law rather than science, fearing he would not be able to uphold Gauss’ name. Eugen leaves Germany, travelling somewhat the same route as Humboldt many years ago, but missing the excitement the journey brought the naturalist; he clearly doesn’t measure up to either man. He ended up in America, and, in historical accounts, became quite a successful businessman. The last word of the book, in fact, is America. If one wishes to deduce a shift in polarity from this, from Gauss the father, German genius, to the son, American entrepreneur, one is free to do so.

But I found the emotional end of the book to be earlier: as they exchange letters towards the ends of their lives, they end up feeling sorry for each other. Gauss pities Humboldt because he can’t explore Russia with the degree of freedom he needs, and Humboldt feels bad that Gauss has seen so little of the world. Humboldt, who yearned for travel and direct experience to measure everything in existence; Gauss, who valued thinking through principles to find truth. Yet, like those parallel lines that intrigued Gauss from an early age: seemingly different, yet they meet.

Kehlmann’s book made me want to read more factual biographies of both men, and I can think of no greater compliment for fiction.

* * *

Philip Oltermann,The Guardian, 11/15/2014: Interview, “Daniel Kehlmann: ‘German writers have been taught to hide their humour'”

Álvaro Enrigue, Bomb Magazine, 2/26/2020 : Interview, “Daniel Kehlmann”

St. Andrews Math Histories: Carl Friedrich Gauss

Eleanor Jones Harvey, Smithsonian Institution: “Who Was Alexander Von Humboldt?”

Frans Oort: Book Review

Michael Harris, Mathematics Without Apologies: “Three mathematicians, three novels, only one movie, part 3”

Oliver Knill, 9/27/2020: “Measuring the World [Film]

Kazuo Ishiguro: Klara and the Sun (Knopf 2021)

Do you believe in the human heart?

Every review of this book mentions it’s about Artificial Intelligence. And it is, of course. But to my surprise, I found it to be very much about the spiritual realm as well. I may add it to my under-construction Five Books list of Books about Relgion for People who Don’t Do Religion (to go with my existing list of Books about Math for People Who Don’t Do Math).

Our first-person narrator is Klara, an Artificial Friend available at the local department store. On the plus side, this allows us access to Klara’s reasoning process. On the minus side, it gives the novel a YA feel (we are dealing with a teenager, teenage love, teenage decisions, coming of age stuff) and it’s sometimes hard to understand what’s actually going on. I’m still not sure of the overall environment; it seems stratified by genetic manipulation, but some people have been “substituted” and there’s mention of fascism and white gangs and I’m not really clear on all that. However, I didn’t try very hard. I get enough of that on the news.  

Klara is not one of the intellectually-brilliant-but-socially-inept androids science fiction so loves to throw into human chaos; in fact, it’s somewhat the opposite. She has what contemporary education theory might call emotional intelligence, the ability to read cues from people’s words and actions and know what they are feeling, what they want, what is expected of her. She’s quite attuned to relationships, to love and loneliness, and to motivations. But her logical processes are far less sophisticated when analyzing how the world works, showing – sometimes – a strong predeliction for post hoc ergo proptor hoc.

The pace of revelation is carefully controlled, allowing several important threads to develop both consecutively and simultaneously. Part 1 takes place entirely in the department store where Klara is for sale, allowing us to understand her view of the world. Yet it also introduces Josie, the teenager whose mother will  buy Klara, and it will introduce two events Klara observes on the street: a woman and a man – the Coffee Cup woman and the Raincoat Man – meet coincidentally after what Klara surmises is a very long time, showing both joy at the reunion and sorrow at the time gone by; and the Begger Man and his dog seem to die (though they merely went to sleep in a doorway), but are brought back to life by the Sun.

The Sun was pouring his nourishment on to the street and into the buildings, and when I looked over to the spot where Beggar Man and the dog had died, I saw they weren’t dead at all – that a special kind of nourishment from the Sun had saved them…. They were both hungrily absorbing the Sun’s special nourishment and becoming stronger by the minute, and I saw that before long, perhaps even by that afternoon, Beggar Man would be on his feet again, cheerfully exchanging remarks as always from the blank doorway.

This can only be called Sun Worship: the attribution of both power and the will to use it to a Being who is out of the range of communication. Klara is dependent upon solar energy (as are we all) so assumes everyone is likewise energized by its rays. This becomes central to the overall story. I find it fascinating that, in a world that seems quite done with humanism, it’s a machine that re-invents God and faith, and that acts out of self-sacrifice for the benefit of another. Is that because she is not fully rational, or is it something programmed into her? A great deal of research is showing how algorithms that are supposed to be unbiased show precisely the bias of the people who wrote them; in a world where people are abandoning not just God but their own humanity, is it possible they have subconsciously re-recreated God through AI?

This religiosity goes beyond merely seeing the Sun as a god. To save Josie, Klara prays to the Sun, offering to perform a service she thinks will please It. It turns out this involves a rather large sacrifice on her part, but she gives it willingly. Alas, she discovers the task was a waste of time (very faulty logic, but a human joins her in this and he isn’t any wiser, while I’m shouting “There are other machines!” from my living room), so she prays again, this time relying on faith in the power of human love. This is in line with the Protestant catechism: we are not saved by anything we can do, for our actions are always insufficient; it is only by faith that we can please God and receive His salvation.

There is another course of action, and as we learn more about it, we come into the discussion of whether people have a soul. The word soul is never used, but it seems clear to me that’s what they’re talking about.

‘Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ, obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?…’
‘The heart you speak of,’ I said. ‘It might indeed be the hardest part of Josie to learn. It might be like a house with many rooms. Even so, a devoted AF, given time, could walk through each of those rooms, studying them carefully in turn, until they became like her own home.’ ‘But then suppose you stepped into one of those rooms,’ he said, ‘and discovered another room within it. And inside that room, another room still. Rooms within rooms within rooms. Isn’t that how it might be, trying to learn Josie’s heart? No matter how long you wandered through those rooms, wouldn’t there always be others you’d not yet entered?’
I considered this for a moment, then said: ‘Of course, a human heart is bound to be complex. But it must be limited. Even if Mr Paul is talking in the poetic sense, there’ll be an end to what there is to learn…’

So even Klara, the most soul-conscious of the bunch, sees the heart, the soul, as finite. What if it isn’t? That Mr. Paul, an outcast in this society by virtue of having been substituted out of his job, is the advocate of an infinite human heart, which I am  calling a soul, seems telling. This conversation takes place in a context that makes this more than just late-night dorm room stoned gab session, by the way; it’s central to the story, but I’m trying to be discreet about spoilers.

Several other powerful threads run through the book. The process of lifting apparently is only possible for children. There are benefits for both the child and the parents who make the decision, but there is also a significant risk. This brings guilt and forgiveness into the equation, and makes some interesting reading as we in the here and now struggle through the pandemic.

Then there’s the whole issue of Klara’s status as an AF. As readers, we naturally form an attachment to her, but she isn’t a person. Or is she? Forgive me if I lapse into ST:TNG for a moment (you knew I’d go there): “Data is a toaster.” There’s a reason art keeps creating machines and daring us not to care about them. Again, the question comes up: Can a person care about a machine? Does Klara have a soul? Can she even be likened to a service or sporting animal who is eventually retired? Do we owe her anything in that case? We just saw great outcry about military dogs in Afghanistan; does Klara, as a machine, earn that level of respect, or is she a toaster, to be thrown out when she’s no longer needed?

I was surprised by the book; it was less than I’d expected, even though I found the religious aspect compelling. I think I was put off by the voice. The only other Ishiguro I’ve read is The Consoled, and a short story “A Village After Dark” which turned out to be a practice piece for the dream-grammar of The Consoled. I wasn’t going to read Klara at all; I’d just read a Ted Chiang novella about AI and wasn’t really eager to read another. But I read a review or a comment somewhere that caught my attention, so I put it on my list; alas, I can’t remember what it was that interested me, or where I found it. I’m guessing it had something to do with religion.

But, in addition to thought-provoking threads already mentioned, it does have these drop-dead moments: the trip to Morgan’s Falls, which has all sorts of foreshadowing;  the interaction meeting, a sort of social therapy group since no one goes to school any more, which gives a better idea of what kind of society this is; and, perhaps less importantly in the grand scheme of things, but just as dramatically, Klara’s impression of a bull in a field:

I was so alarmed by its appearance that I gave an exclamation and came to a halt. I’d never before seen anything that gave, all at once come up so many signals of anger and the wish to destroy. Its face, its horns, its cold eyes watching me all brought fear into my mind, but I felt something more, something stranger and deeper. At that moment it felt to me some great error had been made that the creature should be allowed to stand in the Sun’s pattern at all, that this bull belonged somewhere deep in the ground far within the mud and darkness, and its presence on the grass could only have awful consequences.

I crammed this in to this post where it doesn’t belong because it gives me the chance to use the word chthonic, something that doesn’t come along every day. Where there is God, there must be Evil.  

It might not be the first book I’d recommend, but with all the threads it contains, it’s worth reading.

* * *

A Very Particular Risk: Aimee Bender on Jane Campion and Kazuo Ishiguro at Literary Hub (lithub.com)

Another Literary Novel About Androids Passing for Human – post by James Wallace Harris

Margot Lee Shetterly: Hidden Figures (William Morrow 2016)

Even if the tale had begun and ended with the first five black women who went to work at Langley’s segregated west side in May 1943—the women later known as the “West Computers”—I still would have committed myself to recording the facts and circumstances of their lives. Just as islands—isolated places with unique, rich biodiversity—have relevance for the ecosystems everywhere, so does studying seemingly isolated or overlooked people and events from the past turn up unexpected connections and insights to modern life. The idea that black women had been recruited to work as mathematicians at the NASA installation in the South during the days of segregation defies our expectations and challenges much of what we think we know about American history. It’s a great story, and that alone makes it worth telling.

I’d wanted to see the film version of this book, but for various reasons that never happened. So when someone recently mentioned it, I added it to my reading list, another “unusual career paths” book like others I’ve read before. It’s not that the careers are that unusual, but as the author says, the circumstances made them notable.

I was surprised to find out that the story of these women, the West Computers, started during WWII, when NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, predecessor to NASA, worked on warplane design. Reducing drag seems to have been the biggest problem. Though different types of planes – bombers, fighter planes, transports – had very different requirements. 

Of course, the technical information, though interesting, isn’t the focus of the book. NACA was located at Langley in Virginia, a state where segregation was still law. Hence, the West Computers; the East Computers were the white women who did the same job, in a different building.

I kept reacting to the word “Computers” being used to denote people. I have a dictionary that was published in the 30s; I knew a long time ago that it defines “computer” as “one who computes,” so it’s not a new usage to me, but it still sounds strange. Then again, a lot of the language in the book, the language of the time and place, has an even stronger effect, as the battlefield against racial discrimination took place in strange ways:

Most groups sat together [in the lunchroom] out of habit. For the West Computers, it was by mandate. A white cardboard sign on a table in the back of the cafeteria beckoned them, its crisply stenciled black letters spelling out the lunchroom hierarchy: COLORED COMPUTERS. It was the only sign in the West Area cafeteria; no other group needed their seating proscribed in the same fashion. … It was Miriam Mann who finally decided it was too much to take. “There’s my sign for today,” she would say upon entering the cafeteria, spying the placard designating their table in the back of the room. Not even five feet tall, her feet just grazing the floor when she sat down, Miriam Mann had a personality as outsized as she was tiny. The West Computers watched their colleague remove the sign and banish it to the recesses of her purse, her small act of defiance inspiring both anxiety and a sense of empowerment. The ritual played itself out with absurd regularity. The sign, placed by an unseen hand, made the unspoken rules of the cafeteria explicit. When Miriam snatched the sign, it took its leave for a few days, perhaps a week, maybe longer, before it was replaced with an identical twin, the letters of the new sign just as blankly menacing as its predecessor’s.

This process of removing the sign, waiting for it to show up again went on for quite a while before whoever placed the sign gave up. The women still sat at the same table, but the stigma, the shame, was gone.

Race wasn’t the only issue, of course. Women who worked with engineers on extended projects wouldn’t be credited on reports, the public recognition of their expertise. “Why would the computers have the same desire for recognition that they did? many engineers figured. They were women, after all” muses Shetterly.  

Then there was the question of attending an important weekly meeting. Katherine Goble asked to attend the meeting; she was refused. She asked again the next time, and again was turned down. Eventually, she was allowed in, and, wonder of wonders, the sky didn’t fall. Persistence once again paid off. But it was never a given: “Whether or not a woman was promoted, if she was given a raise, if she had access to the smoky sessions where the future was being conceived and built, had much to do with the prejudices and predilections of the men she worked for.”

The story is carried along a broad outline of history that intersects with both the mission of NACA/NASA and the Civil Rights movement. WWII, breaking the  sound barrier, school segregation (one county in Virginia closed its schools rather than comply with integration), Sputnik and the space race, and voting rights, all blend together. John Glenn’s orbit and safe splashdown became a turning point for Katherine Johnson, who undertook the assignment of figuring out how to make sure the capsule ended up near the ship that would recover Glenn:

“In the recovery of an artificial earth satellite it is necessary to bring the satellite over a preselected point above the earth from which the reentry is to be initiated,” she wrote. Equation 3 described the satellite’s velocity. Equation 19 fixed the longitude position of the satellite at time T. Equation A3 accounted for errors in longitude. Equation A8 adjusted for Earth’s west-to-east rotation and oblation. She conferred with Ted Skopinski, consulted her textbooks, and did her own plotting. Over the months of 1959, the thirty-four-page end product took shape: twenty-two principal equations, nine error equations, two launch case studies, three reference texts (including Forest Ray Moulton’s 1914 book), two tables with sample calculations, and three pages of charts.

A woman receiving credit for her own work was almost as big a deal as the successful recovery using her work. It’s quite a joyous chapter.

And yet, it’s not so much the story itself as the very telling of the story that I keep thinking of. I’d certainly never heard of these women. It seems they did a fair amount of public speaking, but national recognition never came their way until a chance comment moved Shetterly to interview some of the women and research the book in order to tell the story. This is the importance of diversity, of access, of different voices in the room. As Shetterly says in her Epilogue:

Most people are astonished that a history with such breadth and depth, involving so many women and linked directly to the twentieth century’s defining moments, has flown below the radar for so long. ….For too long, history has imposed a binary condition on its black citizens: either nameless or renowned, menial or exceptional, passive recipients of the forces of history or superheroes who acquire mythic status not just because of their deeds but because of their scarcity. The power of the history of NASA’s black computers is that even the Firsts weren’t the Onlies. …For me, and I believe for many others, the story of the West Computers is so electrifying because it provides evidence of something that we’ve believed to be true, that we want with our entire beings to be true, but that we don’t always know how to prove: that many numbers of black women have participated as protagonists in the epic of America.

The history that spans from the personal to the national to the scientific makes this interesting reading for a broad audience. That may be why there’s also a Young Reader’s edition and a Teacher’s Guide, as well as the film. But I was perfectly happy with the original.

Adrian McKinty: The Chain (Mulholland, 2019)

Her phone rings, startling her.
Unknown Caller, it says.
She answers with the speakerphone: “Hello?”
“Two things you must remember,” a voice says through some kind of speech-distortion machine. “Number one: you are not the first and you will certainly not be the last. Number two: remember, it’s not about the money—it’s about The Chain.”
This has to be some sort of prank, one part of her brain is saying. But other, deeper, more ancient structures in her cerebellum are beginning to react with what can only be described as pure animal terror.
“I think you must have the wrong number,” she suggests.
The voice continues obliviously: “In five minutes, Rachel, you will be getting the most important phone call of your life. You are going to need to pull your car over to the shoulder. You’re going to need to have your wits about you. You will be getting detailed instructions. Make sure your phone is fully charged and make sure also that you have a pen and paper to write down these instructions. I am not going to pretend that things are going to be easy for you. The coming days will be very difficult, but The Chain will get you through.”

What would you do to save your child from a horrible death? Most parents immediately answer, Anything, of course, but what if it means acting so far outside your life experience you couldn’t have ever imagined it, if it means doing something unthinkable? What if it means killing someone else’s child?

These aren’t academic questions anymore for Rachel. After years of putting her husband through law school, then a divorce, then working while finishing her own education, then beating cancer, she thought she was home free. She and fourteen-year-old daughter Kylie were about to start a new chapter as she took up her first academic job, teaching philosophy at a local community college.

Then the Unknown Caller comes into her life, and plans go out the window.

Apparently there’s something called Mexican kidnapping which involves substituting one victim for another; McKinty got the idea for this book from that, but he developed it into something bigger. When Rachel’s child is kidnapped, she has to kidnap someone else in order to get her back. She has to hold her victim until those parents kidnap yet another child.  The chain can’t be broken; if anything goes wrong, kill the victim and start over, or your child dies. And in the meantime, Unknown Caller has a secret army of former victims available for threats, enforcement… whatever it takes.

The book has three main parts. Kylie is the focus of the first, and longest, section. Then there’s a problem with the next link in the chain, and Rachel is commanded to fix it, or the secret army will come after her and her daughter; you’re never out of danger in The Chain. And finally, there’s a showdown, an attempt to out the Unknown Caller, because nightmares and crushing guilt are only the beginning, and there will be no end, as long as The Chain goes on.

This book won several prestigious awards – including the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, billed as Britain’s most prestigious crime novel award – and has a cover blurb from Stephen King. I heard about it through Five Books, where Anthony Franze put it on his list of Best Thrillers of 2020.

I’m afraid my reaction isn’t as enthusiastic. I found it tense rather than suspenseful. The brief conversations with the Unknown Caller should have created suspense, but it seemed like bad TV movie dialog to me. Fans of surveillance technology will probably appreciate the final sections, but I wasn’t interested. A character was added and removed, which seemed too random to me.  The big question throughout the book is where did The Chain come from, who is running it, and why? The answer felt disappointing. Then again, it did underline the whole banality of evil thing pretty definitively. It’s not a bad book; the idea of the victim becoming victimizer is intriguing.  There’s a particularly gripping scene as Rachel must decide if she’s going to let a child die in front of her, or get medical help that would undoubtedly risk the secrecy of her operation and Kylie’s life. A few side issues – a possible recurrence of breast cancer, a romance – grounded it in real life. It just wasn’t enough to keep me interested.

I have to admit to a personal bias: I never get, in kidnapping movies or TV shows or books, why no one goes to the police. Yes, of course, they’re told not to, and the stakes are very high, but it still seems strange to me. Then again, I have a tendency to overvalue institutions and authority; those more self-confident may well prefer to handle things themselves.

I  used to read series thrillers back in the day – the Kellermans, Stephen White, Patricia Cornwell – but they all had a strong medical or psychological aspect to them that interested me. So this was an experiment. I’m not sorry I read it. I just can’t get excited about it.

Chris Stuck: Give My Love to the Savages (Amistad, 2021)

The nine tales in Give My Love to the Savages illuminate the multifaceted Black experience, exploring the thorny intersections of race, masculinity, and Black life through an extraordinary cast of characters. From the absurd to the starkly realistic, these stories take aim at the ironies and contradictions of the American racial experience. Chris Stuck traverses the dividing lines, and attempts to create meaning from them in unique and unusual ways. Each story considers a marker of our current culture, from uprisings and sly and not-so-sly racism, to Black fetishization and conservatism, to the obstacles placed in front of Black masculinity and Black and interracial relationships by society and circumstance.
Setting these stories across America – in large and small cities – Stuck uses place to expose the absurdity of race and the odd ways that Black people and white people converge and retreat, rub against and bump into one another.

Jacket copy

Chris Stuck does a number of things I really like in this volume. He plays with names. He varies the tone from one story to the next, sometimes even within a story. And boy, does he ever stick the endings.

Although all of the stories focus on Black or biracial men, there’s a lot of diversity. In several of his interviews, Stuck mentions that he wants to balance out the books that show Black people poor or oppressed or in danger, show more successful Black people. There are indeed successful Black men in these stories, but there are also those who have lost, or are losing, that success, and those who haven’t quite gotten there yet. Ages range from teens to middle age; a few stories are second person; one reads like a memoir. Not all of these men seem like good guys at first, but they’re all struggling to figure it out, and that generates a great deal of empathy.

The opening story, “Every Time They Call You Nigger,” sets a contemplative tone, recounting this specific event that remains ingrained in the memories of so many Black people. But there’s humor, too, as both Black and white people try to figure out the rules for when it’s ok to use this reclaimed, rehabilitated term. But our protagonist “never had the right cadence” so he skipped it. It’s weird how angry some white people get when they find out they can’t do something a Black person can. Sometimes they ask questions about it. Usually they’re just being dicks.

Which brings us to the second story. It seems to track with several other stories in the collection, stories I’d call “looking in the mirror and not liking what I see.” In “How to Be A Dick in the 21st Century,”  Richard Dickerson knows he’s a dick. He’s always known he was a dick. It didn’t seem like a problem.

The testosterone, it was how I got ahead, my assertiveness, my swagger. As a man, it was expected of me. As a Black man, it was required. Every single morning of my adulthood, as I took a leak, I adjusted my medicine cabinet door so I could get a glimpse of my morning wood in the mirror.
Somehow, everything would then seem right, if not in the world then at least in my life.

Until he woke up one morning as a six-foot penis.

I’m still somewhat under the influence of George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, having just read it  a couple of months ago, so I couldn’t help but compare this story to Gogol’s “The Nose,” discussed in that book. It’s a very different story: Dickerson is a lot less upset at his predicament than Kovalyov was at his. Instead of running to a doctor, he figures out how to walk on two testicles and how to dress so as to cover the most shocking aspects of his new appearance. He knew, after all, that he was a dick in the first place.

But I also see a real similarity to Gogol: as Saunders puts it, “[T]he meaning of a story in which something impossible happens is not that the thing happened… but in the way the story reacts to the impossibility. That is how the story tells us what it believes.” What this story believes is that change is possible. It may take a massive shock to bring it on, but once you face your dickishness, you can do something about it, if you choose. And this is one of those beautifully stuck endings, as Richard has a brief exchange with a doorman who seems to feel as though he’s lost something, while Richard feels he’s gained.

Another facing-yourself story, though in a far more realistic vein, is “Cowboys.” A wax museum guard decides to make some extra cash by helping his co-worker’s brother track down a bail jumper. Things get a little rough, and he has a moment: “I couldn’t believe I was standing there with two white dudes I barely knew, over the body of a woman I just helped hunt down, a Black woman.” There are a lot of funny moments in this story, but that isn’t one of them. But again, change is possible.

Then there are those who don’t change, who get impossibly stuck, and it’s not entirely their fault. In “This Isn’t Music,” there’s disappointment and tragedy all around. Nick’s career that stalled out, and he had to return to his childhood home to take care of a father who doesn’t recognize his son (“My son doesn’t look like you….Well, for one thing, you’re Black”), who can’t tell the difference between an electric shaver and a cornet. A wife who’s happy there. And an old girlfriend. They only sleep together once, but Nick’s clearly having what the Twelve Steppers call an emotional affair. Names play such an important role in the story – the white wife’s name is Lily, the Black girlfriend’s married to “the only white guy in the world named Tyrone.” All of these things could be played for laughs, but the tone is too bleak to create humor.

The very geography of the road sums it all up:

You are 286 feet below the surface, in the bowels of a man-made crater, a big-ass hole. … It was all the entertainment you had. A bump. A bump to jump, you used to say. Bumps are hard to come by here, since it’s so flat. You both loved the launch, that moment of flight. It was better than drugs, better than sex. You’re an asshole, but there are still some things you can appreciate.

Yes, the self-recognition is there, but the weight of the air is just too much to allow for change.

“Chuck and Tina Go On Vacation,” on the other hand, is hilarious. They don’t so much want a vacation as they want to post vacation photos to impress the friends who’ve been posting their own vacation photos. It’s Keeping Up with the Joneses on Social Media. And though they pay for it in a couple of ways, they still don’t get it. Some people are too self-absorbed for change.

For showing how change can happen after self-recognition, the prize goes to “The Life and Loves of Melvin J. Plump, Esq.” Melvin is a Black conservative political operative who cut a few too many corners, and found himself in court-ordered therapy. His therapist urges him to take a cruise for unseen souls:  “People who are shunned by society because of their physcial appearance. It’s just like how it sounds. Unseen souls, Melvin.” And why should he take that particular cruise? He’s developed vitiligo; his formerly dark skin has turned pink-white.

Malavika Praseed of the Chicago Review of Books felt this story was off: “the catchiness of the premise trumps the events of the story itself.” I strongly disagree; the whole idea of a cruise of disfigured and/or disabled people felt disgusting to me, but by the end of the story, I’d forgotten all about the vitiligo, about the politics, about the therapist, about my disgust. It’s a longer story, so that allows for a lot of development as Melvin meets Zarrella, another unseen soul.

…[S]he was obviously bookish but then again obviously not. There was something else there, a variety of roughness I couldn’t place. Perhaps she was a reformed thug with a knack for words. Whatever it was, it made her interesting. She was tall, possibly well proportioned if you squinted a little. There was a certain dignity in the way she could disregard people, even me.

She’s fascinating, and their relationship goes through many twists and turns, culminating in a beautiful moment that works as metaphor and as plot, as it provides the impetus for Melvin to change. Maybe not a lot – he’s probably still a conservative – but enough to provide that empathy story readers look for.

“And Then We Were the Norrises” is another story that rode relationships beautifully, in this case a couple of relationships in the life of a teenager in Witness Protection due to some shenanigans by his parents. Stuck plays with names again; this time, unlike in “Music,” we can enjoy the humor as we find out the boy’s newly assigned name is Chuck Norris, and his newly found friend is Sterling Silver. Man, that’s child abuse, y’know? But the two boys developing feelings for each other, dancing around the edges of homoeroticism without actually going there; it’s a high-wire act. The other relationship is with the agent assigned to look out for the family, a crank who only becomes genuine when he faces a personal loss. It’s perhaps a tad unrealistic, but it was drawn so nicely, I just went with it. Reason as slave to the passions and all that.

The title story is last; I read it in this year’s Pushcart (and discussed it then), and that’s why I decided to read the collection. I was going to wait for the paperback, but I got impatient. I’m glad I did, because I would have missed what is one of the nicest dust jackets I’ve seen in a while. The art, by Arnold R. Butler, is cool enough, but it’s magnificently rendered: gold foil, and a slightly rough texture to the heavy paper, with the title in smeared white. Photos don’t do it justice.

One of the things that interests me about short story collections is how authors put them together. Stuck has said in several interviews that he wanted stories about biracial men to bookend the collection, a clever idea. He’d tucked the penis story in the middle, hoping readers would have a sense of his writing before they came to it, but his agent wanted it right up front. That makes a stark contrast with the contemplative first story, but seeing as it grows contemplative itself, it works. The cruise story, being longer, went next-to-last because he’d read that’s where authors put novellas in collections. I can’t find examples, but it works where it is, so I have no complaints.

In fact, I have no complaints at all about this book. I enjoyed it all around, and I’m glad I ran across the story that led me here.

* * *

An Interview with Author Chris Stuck by Tom Williams – mixedmag.com : “But I want to see more successful black folks in books. For whatever reason, the publishing industry has a predilection for black trauma stories, black folks being held down by a system of oppression. It seems like those are the only stories that get out there. We’re not all from the ghetto or the inner city or the poor south or gang-infested west. Those realities exist, of course, but I just want to balance the representation, complicate it.”

Malavika Praseed for Chicago Review of Books : “To me this collection helps debunk the idea that men are not privy to their own flaws and insecurities. Rather, when these are claimed and understood, art can result.”

Chris Stuck, in conversation with Chris L. Terry at BookSoup: “I don’t plot before writing; I freewrite and discover as I go. Most of the time I have an idea and try to figure a way into it, like the first sentence. Then I just explore the voice or whatever is happening in the story. At some point I realize I need the narrative drive, or something to riff on in the story… The plot comes out of trying to figure out what I’m doing.”

Ten Best Book Covers of July 2021 – LitHub

Arnold R. Butler, Artist

Helen DeWitt: The Last Samurai (New Directions Reissue 2016)

Say you grow up in the type of place that is excited to be getting its first motel, moving from town to town as one motel is finished and another begun. You are naturally not enthralled by school and achieve a solid B- average. Presently you take Scholastic Aptitude Tests and astound everyone by a degree of scholastic aptitude which places the B- average in an entirely different light. Your teachers take the result as a personal insult. You apply to various colleges, who ask for references, and teachers who have reduced you to speechless torpor write complaining of apathy. You are interviewed on the basis of dazzling scholastic aptitude and you are asked about your interests and you have no interests. You have no extracurricular activities because the extracurricular activity was the Donny Osmond Fan Club. Everyone turns down your application on grounds of apathy.
One day you are lying on a bed in one of the motel rooms. Your mother is having a bad day: she is playing Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude for the 63rd time on the piano in the adjacent room. Your father is having a good day: a member of the Gideon Society has come to suggest placing Bibles in the rooms, and he has been able to state categorically that he is not having that piece of trash in his motel. Each bedside table, he explains, has a copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species in the top drawer. In fact it’s a really good day because that very morning one of the guests stole the Origin of Species instead of a towel. You stare apathetically at the TV. They are showing A Yank at Oxford.
Suddenly you have an idea.
Surely Oxford, you reason, would not hold non-membership of the Donny Osmond Fan Club against you. Surely Oxford would not insist on mindless enthusiasm just to prove you can be enthusiastic about something. Surely Oxford would not accept hearsay as evidence. Surely Oxford wouldn’t hold a reference against you without knowing anything about the writer.
Why not apply?
I thought: I could leave Motelland and live among rational beings! I would never be bored again!
I had reckoned without Roemer.

Short version: I loved this book. And yes, this is going to be one of those posts that goes on and on to record some of what I saw in it – there are plenty of professional reviews around for those who need that sort of thing, I’ll provide links at the end – but let’s clear something up right now: it has NOTHING WHATSOEVER TO DO WITH THE TOM CRUISE MOVIE. That should be evident from the above quoted passage, but I’m not taking chances.

It does have strong ties, however, to another film: Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, which, sadly, I’ve never seen. Fortunately, Sybella, who found Oxford just as boring as Motelland, by the way, and her son David/Steven/Ludo, watch the movie obsessively, describe scenes in detail, and provide analysis as they find opportunity to apply the themes and processes of 16th century Japan to their own lives. The plot of the book turns into the film. And I understand, from those who know more than I about the movie and about cinema in general (again links provided below), the structure and style of the novel mirrors Kurosawa as well.

I just know I adore this book. It’s another one of those Why Hasn’t Someone Told Me About This Before books.

As with most complex things, it’s easy to state the general idea: A single mother educates her child – who may be a prodigy, a genius, or just an ordinary kid in the right circumstances – far more than anyone would believe possible, which prepares him, at age 11, to seek out his father. When he finds his father doesn’t meet his expectations, he seeks out a more suitable father. And as with most complex things, that overview should be thought of as a container for delicious wonders within, all of which are linked together in sometimes clear, sometimes hazy ways.

I’ve always said I love a book that teaches me something, and this book teaches me so many things I’ve lost count. In fact, it teaches about teaching, about learning.

What’s so damning about knowledge porn is that it’s often written with the same basic level of intelligence as any other work of mainstream literary fiction. Which ruins the whole premise…. You can’t footnote a cliché and call it genius….
Fortunately for us, The Last Samurai is better than that. It’s a rare work of knowledge porn that actually conveys knowledge. Flip through the book and the first thing you’ll notice is Greek writing, or Japanese writing, or impossibly long strings of numbers. As Ludo studies, DeWitt folds his material into the text, and a patient reader will learn that, in Japanese, JIN is an exogenous Chinese lexeme, while hito is an indigenous Japanese lexeme; that in E.V. Rieu’s translation of The Odyssey (yes, it’s a real thing), Odysseus calls his companions “lads;” and that in the sum of any sequence n + (n+1) + (n+2) + (n+3) etc. is simply half of the sum of the sequence added to itself backwards. DeWitt doesn’t just tell us her characters are smart; she builds the truth of that assertion into the book, and she makes us smarter for reading it.

Brian Hurley, “Knowledge Porn: On Helen DeWitt’s ‘The Last Samurai’” available online at The Millions

I love that phrase, knowledge porn; it’s often applied to Rushdie or Wallace, or the Crown Prince of Knowledge Porn, Umberto Eco, and it fits here, too. Yes, that makes it challenging reading. But that’s one of the themes of the book: we’re all so fucking lazy we just play video games and watch reality TV when we could be learning Greek or Japanese or music or reading the foundational literature of humanity, or reading a book referencing diverse subjects we can always look up on our computers that are more than game devices, because it’s hard, it requires thinking. And we put our kids in front of Sesame Street because we think that’s age-appropriate, we don’t think they can learn languages until high school or college (which is completely backwards from any language acquisition research).

The thing is, they have to be curious, interested, as Ludo is. He wants to know what the funny letters in the big book are. And when he watches The Seven Samurai, with its subtitles, he wants to learn Japanese.

I tell L that in the autobiography Kurosawa has nothing but praise for the marvellous Mifune except possibly that he had a rather harsh way of talking which the microphones had trouble picking up. I say that it’s very charming the way the translators have translated the Japanese into Penguin.
L: What’s Penguin?
I: It’s what English translators translate into. Merely had a lot of fighting experience! Determined to follow you! As it happens most English speakers can understand Penguin even if they wouldn’t use it in daily life, but still.
L: Isn’t that what they say?
I: They may be speaking Penguin Japanese, we can only surmise. Kambei says Tada kassen ni wa zuibun deta ga, tada, just, kassen is battle or combat according to Halpern (but I wonder whether that isn’t just Penguin infiltrating the dictionary), ni in, wa topic particle, zuibun a lot, deta happened, ga another particle which we won’t go into now but which seems pretty common, it’s hard to believe it is giving the flavour of Penguin to the
L: When are you going to teach me Japanese?
I: I don’t know enough to teach you.
L: You could teach me what you know.
I: [NO NO NO NO] Well
L: Please
I: Well
L: Please
Voice of Sweet Reason: You’ve started so many other things I think you should work on them more before you start something new.
L: How much more?
I: Well
L: How much more?
The last thing I want is to be teaching a five-year-old a language I have not yet succeeded in teaching myself. I: I’ll think about it.
…. HOW MUCH MORE?
HOW MUCH MORE?
HOW, MUCH, MORE?
I: Well if you read the Odyssey and Books 1–8 of the Metamorphoses and the whole Kalilah wa Dimnah and 30 of the Thousand and One Nights and I Samuel and the Book of Jonah and learn the cantillation and if you do 10 chapters in Algebra Made Easy then I will teach you as muuch as I can.
L: Then that’s what I’ll do.
I: All right.
L: I will.
I: Fine.
L: You’ll see.
I: I know.
L: Will you teach me the alphabet while I’m working on the rest?
I: It doesn’t have an alphabet. It has two sets of syllabaries of 46 symbols apiece, 1,945 characters of Chinese derivation in common use since the Second World War and up to 50,000 characters used before then. I know the syllabaries and 262 characters which I keep forgetting which is precisely why I am not really qualified to teach it to you.
L: Then why don’t you get a Japanese to teach me?
This is a wonderful idea. I could get a benevolent Japanese male to act as an uncle substitute for L! A benevolent Mifune lookalike to come and talk about stamp collecting or football or his car in a language which would conceal the diabolical tedium of the subject. But he would probably want some money.
I: I don’t think we can afford it.

Please forgive the unusually long quotes; since it’s a 482-page book (don’t let that scare you off, it reads rather quickly and is highly engaging, if sometimes mysterious about what it’s doing), I feel like some excess is justified, and to cut it too much would be unfair. Also forgive the approximation of the typography; see the book for details, I have technical limitations on this blog.

I did leave out a part, as you may have noticed, which is one of those inserts that a thinking person sometimes runs through when doing something else, and includes another, thankfully briefer, theme of the book: “What I mean is that I have read books written 2,000 or even 2,500 years ago or 20 years ago and in 2,500 years they will need everything even Mozart explained and when once you start explaining there is no end to it.” Yes! Once you learn something, you realize you don’t know something else, so you have to go back and learn that, which requires learning yet another thing in a whole different discipline, and you have to stop at some point, but most of us stop way too soon.

And did you catch that Ludo is five years old in that quote? What’s amazing is that there’s the discourse pattern of a five year old – demanding, nagging, driving Mom crazy with his persistence – but the content is learning another language on top of the Greek he’s already learned.

We watch Ludo’s attempt at school, which goes about the way you’d expect and seems to last about a week. And we watch Sybella worry about how to teach him, yes, but also how to deal with the father issue. She’s read that a single mother needs to supply male role models for a boy, and here he is with no uncles or family friends to fit the bill.  Oh, but wait –

I suddenly realise that everything is going to be all right, I am providing my fatherless uncleless boy not with 8 male role models (6 samurai 1 gatecrashing farmer’s son 1 fearless farmer) but 16 (8 characters 8 actors) 17 including Kurosawa who does not appear. Only one of the characters is a perfectionist in the practice of his art but all 8 actors & the director who does not appear show this terrible perfectionism making a total of 17 male role models (not including the extras)

There’s also a moment of self-referential meta-analysis as she contemplates the overall structure of Kurosawa’s film:

A striking peculiarity of the film is that though it is called Seven Samurai it is not really about seven samurai. Bandits are about to attack the village and only one farmer wants to fight; without him there would be no story.

I keep going back and forth as to whether Sybella, or Ludo, is analogous to the farmer.

The book starts with a Prologue that outlines the intellectual tragedy of Sybella’s father, cheated at age fifteen  out of a Harvard scholarship to study the science he loved by his father, a minister, who talked him into going to a mediocre Divinity College in order to “give the other side a chance”. He spends most of his Divinity time playing pool, so he has some money when he finishes, but not much in the way of grades, and Harvard is no longer interested. So he builds a string of motels around the country.

We also have an Interlude – and I can’t verify this is accurate, but it seems to me “prologue” is primarily a literary term while “interlude” is more of a musical one, blending music and text – in which we learn about Sybella’s mother, a self-taught musician who managed to talk her way into an audition at Juilliard and is sent away with an exercise she is to play on the piano every day for four hours; she will then be allowed to return for a second audition. And of course that never happens, but her family is always there to say, “It’s not so bad being a secretary” and to her brother, “Is being an accountant so awful?” So Sybella comes from thwarted dreams and failed institutional educational practices.

It’s interesting that DeWitt (who, by the way, completed a Classics PhD at Oxford) uses this structure to convey Sybella’s background. They’re funny/sad chapters, captivating to read, and give us some idea of her motivation to learn everything important, and to instill a passion for rational thought and for learning in her son, without the limitations so many assume children must be subjected to.

When Ludo is still very young, Sybella takes him on the London subway to keep warm, since she can’t really afford to heat their flat all the time. It turns out the Tube is something like a precursor to Twitter: everyone has an opinion, and insists you hear it. In another of the more humorous moments of the book, Sybella keeps track of how many people think a five-year-old reading the Odyssey in Greek is 1) wonderful, 2) a great way to learn about spelling and grammar, 3) too hard for his age, etc. etc.

Faced with officious advice feel almost overwhelming temptation to say:
You know, I’ve been in a terrible quandary over this, I’ve been racking my brains for weeks trying to decide whether I was doing the right thing, finally this morning I thought—I know, I’ll take the Tube, somebody on the Tube will be able to advise me, & sure enough you were able to tell me just what to do. Thank you so much, I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t come along—
So far have been able to resist temptation 34 times out of 35. Pas mal. When able to resist temptation I say (which is perfectly true) that I never meant this to happen.

Ludo’s amazing learning adventure does come about as something of a surprise, generated by the boy himself. Sybella only wants to teach him a word every day, an  English word from Hop on Pop, but he starts demanding more, and it grows from there. This isn’t a case of an overzealous mother trying to live vicariously through her son; it’s a case of the son having an innate desire to learn and dragging his mother along with him. Is this inherited? Brought about by nurture and example? If she’d told him in the beginning, “No, you’ll learn to read when you go to school,” would he have retreated, or would he have found other ways to learn? If Ludo is gifted, It’s this desire to learn that is the gift, not points on an IQ test. I’m reminded of the quote paraphrased from The Little Prince author Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” It isn’t a matter of skill drills or discipline, but a desire to know.

Ludo’s father first comes into the picture when Sybella, working as a secretary in a publishing house, goes to a party where he, a Famous Travel Writer, will be. She refers to him in the book as Liberace: more flash than substance, “slick, buttery arpeggios, the self-regarding virtuosity,” a kind of showman adored for his lack of intellectual rigor. I keep reading of their night together, because it’s hilarious: she kisses him because she wants to shut him up and that seems a non-rude way to do it, and sleeps with him for much the same reason. That, too, is a Liberace performance:

No sooner were Liberace and I in his bed without our clothes than I realised how stupid I had been. At this distance I can naturally not remember every little detail, but if there is one musical form that I hate more than any other, it is the medley. One minute the musician, or more likely aged band, is playing an overorchestrated version of The Impossible Dream; all of a sudden, mid-verse, for no reason, there’s a stomach-turning swerve into another key and you’re in the middle of Over the Rainbow, swerve, Climb Every Mountain, swerve, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, swerve, swerve, swerve. Well then, you have only to imagine Liberace, hands, mouth, penis now here, now there, no sooner here than there, no sooner there than here again, starting something only to stop and start something else instead, and you will have a pretty accurate picture of the Drunken Medley.
The Medley came at last to an end and Liberace fell into a deep sleep.
I wanted to clear my head. I wanted strangeness and coldness and precision.

She decides to leave, but again worrying about appearing rude, decides to leave him a note, “to imply that we had had an interesting conversation.” That emphasized “imply” reinforces just how she feels about the guy. She hits on the idea of a Rosetta stone, something she’d mentioned in their conversation during the evening though he didn’t seem interested, but to follow up would, again, imply, that he was a person capable of appreciating such things. It takes her five hours. When Sybella writes a Rosetta stone, she doesn’t fool around.

Eventually, of course, Ludo wants to know about his dad, and the puzzle she presents – figure out what’s wrong with three different artistic expressions, plus the hiding of an envelope “To be opened only in the event of my death” – reminds me a bit of Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Sentinel,” the story that was the basis for 2001: A Space Odyssey (and given the prominence of the original Odyssey in the novel, this doesn’t strike me as too strange) in that an object was left on the moon to signal an advanced civilization that the beings of Earth had finally figured out how to get there. When Ludo has the rationality to either decipher her riddle, or find the envelope, he will be ready to meet his father, armed with enough intellect to resist being snowed by Liberace slickness.

When Ludo does meet his father, it’s five pages of rich dramatic irony, as the dolt keeps saying things that mean one thing to him, and another to Ludo, who keeps thinking, He knows. But he doesn’t. He assumes, when Ludo says he’s read all his books, that he did so because he liked them, while of course Ludo had another motivation. It’s wonderful.

I mentioned the blending of music and text. Music seemed very important to me throughout the book, though it was at times subtle. In fact, it forms what I see as the axis of the book. I’ve read that The Seven Samurai opens with three minutes of drums over the title card opening typical for Japanese films of the time. The Prologue might be seen as that kind of introduction, since it gives us the genesis of Sybella’s distrust of institutional wisdom, and drums are a crucial element sprinkled throughout the book. The Interlude again uses music in relating her mother’s intellectual trauma.

Then we have the subplot describing an erratic but brilliant pianist Yamamoto, one of the artists/heroes who Ludo sees as a mirror for the Samurai. This is another feature the book shares with the movie: Kurosawa tells little stories of all the Samurai while working his way through the main plot of rescuing the farmers from the bandits, and DeWitt also tells us stories of various artists and heroes through the book.

Specifically, Yamamoto was struggling with the idea of piano, his instrument, as percussion, whether the music of the piano should compensate for its percussive nature or revel in it. He reads a (fictional) book about an Australian’s visit to Africa:

The sun was near the horizon; at any moment it would be dark, for it sets quickly in the tropics. The sky was a deep dark blue. The men tilted the drums against wooden rests; they began to tap the drums very lightly with sticks, and the sound seemed to melt away over the lake. Then they stopped, and at a gesture from the leader they struck the drums a single louder blow. They stopped. Another beat. Another beat. Another beat. When they had struck the drums six times like this the sun vanished and they struck the drums once, very loudly, and stopped. Several seconds went by, until at last, from over the dark water, the sound of the drums came back. Again they struck the drums, and again the sound came back, and when this had happened seven times they laid down their sticks and walked away, and the women picked up the pallet and walked away, and McPherson saw that the boy was dead. In the morning the drums were gone.

This idea of the drums fading away and coming back – of people, of life, fading away and coming back – haunted me, and in retrospect I see it all over the book. It appears in broken form in Yamamoto’s own story, as his visit to Chad to hear the drums himself has a tragic end, a fading away without a coming back. Its not by accident that there is a fading away – and, blessedly, a return – more specific to Sybella in connection with a Yamamoto concert. It is Yamamoto’s segment that had me looking up Schoenberg’s opera, Moses Und Aron, to be sure I understood the description of Sprechgesang, the rough speaking voice of Moses; and by the way,  Messiaen.  Years ago I sang  O Sacrum Convivium, a motet with nightmare harmonies, during one of my many choral adventures, but here we focus on his piano work Mode de valeurs et d’intensités, a study of “the dying sound.”

The idea of the musical axis, however, didn’t occur to me until the very end, when the book concludes with a kind of  return, the echo of resurrection when Luco finds this Samurai. Sublime.

Although I’m no Ludo (if even Ludo is a Ludo), I found the book highly validating. I’ve often faced a sneering  consternation in others when they find out so much of my time is spent taking moocs (I don’t have an accurate count, but it’s at least 163) in subjects that have no practical benefit whatsoever. Even mooc providers have moved on from 2012’s “Let’s Teach the World” to “Let’s Sell Certificates,” and the only people who will pay for certificates are those looking for work credentials, so not only are universities turning into Vocational Training Centers (a drum I’ve been beating since the 80s, and DeWitt’s Afterword somewhat echoes it) but now moocs are mostly business and computer courses. Me, I take anything but. Biology, of course – I mean, come on, our lives depend on something like 37 steps between glucose and the last oxygen being taken up by two hydrogens, it’s a miracle this happens at all, let alone at a pace that keeps us breathing, yet for some reason everyone’s studying cloud computing and how to come up with the next Angry Birds?? – and math, of course, as an instrument since that’s needed to understand the bio and chem, even though I’m a senior citizen and will never set foot in a lab but damn, this is amazing stuff. But let’s also do Balinese Gamelan music, or Kabbalah, or Codicology and Paleography of Medieval Manuscripts, and what about  Icelandic Sagas? Sure, and when I ran into Njals Saga and the Althing on Ludo’s birthday I feel a kind of joy – hey, I know what those are! And of course the Greek literature courses gave me enough of the Odyssey to feel some kinship with him there as well, knowing why Sybella is helping him with the word for weaving and what the Cattle of the Sun had to do with HC’s climbing the mountain to save the outcast child.

And then there’s the math, oh, the math I took for years, trying to fix whatever damage I did to my math brain back in the 60s in high school. Why are you doing this to yourself, a friend said, when I cried because I could not do u-substitution. Why indeed, because I want to learn it – and then this book comes along, and one of the heroes/samurai stories concerns a mathematician/physicist whose plane crashes in the Amazon and he takes a boy under his wing, hoping to teach him mathematics though they can’t speak each others’ languages, and all is well until they get arrested and the only chance is to bring the British Consulate in to rescue both of them, presenting Pete, the boy, as a genius:

Sorabji looked at Pete. His head had fallen back, and the whites of his eyes were showing. He would die soon but that was not good enough. He could probably get a decent mark at O-level; it was a miracle of sorts but not good enough.
Sorabji said: He is a mathematical genius. I shall take him back to Cambridge.
The consul looked at Pete. If you are a consul people are constantly spinning you ridiculous stories and expecting you to believe them, but this was the most ridiculous he had ever heard. He said correctly: If he is a Brazilian national I’m afraid there is nothing—
Sorabji said: You. Stupid. Ignorant. Bureaucrat.
And he said: Newton is sitting in this cell. If I leave they will kill him. I shall not leave this place unless he goes with me.
But what exactly do you think I can—
Sorabji said: Do you have a piece of paper?
He was handed a piece of paper and a pen, and he wrote on it
1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9+10+11+12+13+14+15+16+17+18+19+20
and he said: How long do you think it would take you to add it up?
The consul hesitated—
That boy, said Sorabji very gravely, can add all the numbers between 1 and 500 in 20 seconds.
The consul said: Hm.

And if all this again reminds you at all of Kurosawa’s Samurai shaving his head to save a child, well, it does, doesn’t it. But I was talking about validation – and here, I forgot my faith, and was truly depressed, because this author was going to pass off a parlor trick, one I happened across in the Mathematical Thinking mooc that changed my way of looking at math (though it didn’t help with u-substitution), as genius. O ye of little faith, because the next sentence…

Sorabji was a Zoroastrian but he was not much of a believer, and he had been to chapel a lot at school but he believed even less in that, and yet he found himself saying Please Please Please Please. Please let him not know about Gauss please please please please please.

And again, I felt a kind of joy, like I had an answer to Why are you doing this to yourself? Because it’s what some of us do, and there’s so little reward, but here it is on this page. Ii know why he hopes the consul hasn’t heard of Gauss.

I’m getting carried away (the validation, it’s such a high), it must be time to stop, even though there’s so much more.

I’ll have to read this book again, of course; there’s way too much to get it on one read. I want to study the film first, something I should have done this time, but I wasn’t aware how central it was.

I don’t even remember how I discovered the book; somehow I came across a review proclaiming it a Best Book of something (the century?) and I was puzzled, since I was still thinking Tom Cruise, so I read a little about it. All I remember is something about an American woman in England, but it must have been more than that to find its way onto my list. I would assume I saw the Millions and Paris Review articles back in 2016, but dismissed them out of confusion with Tom Cruise (I’m surprised I don’t remember being puzzled back then, but maybe something else was going on).  

It had a complicated publication history, which DeWitt explains in her Paris Review interview (link below): first published in 2000, it went out of print when the publisher got gobbled up in a merger, and it was hard enough convincing a publisher to tackle it the first time (all those languages!), but somehow that happened. I’m so grateful. And if you’re still here – I expect most people stopped reading a few sentences into the opening quote (oh no second person! Don’t worry, it’s just a few paragraphs) or by the first few sentences of my rambling – chances are you’ll be grateful as well.

* * *

The Trouble of Rational Thought: Miranda Popkey for Paris Review, June 10, 2016 “Trying to guess which contemporary novelist DeWitt might be eviscerating is one of the many delights of The Last Samurai.”

Helen DeWitt in the My First Time video series (Paris Review): “Different people liked different parts of the book, and so each person would feel that with some assistance I could be helped to make the whole book like the part that they liked, or maybe we could just get rid of all the parts they didn’t like and just keep what they liked.”

Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai Is the Best Book of the Century (for Now) (Christian Lorentzen for Vulture) “It drinks deeply in the canon while at the same time renewing it.”

Knowledge Porn: On Helen DeWitt’s ‘The Last Samurai’ (Brian Hurley for The Millions): “As the father figures try to explain themselves and dish out advice to their not-quite son, Ludo gains a variety of perspectives on how he might conduct his own life.”

Seven Samurai – A Lesson In Storytelling VIDEO (Jack’s Movie Reviews): “It’s one story that is the result of many”

Seven Samurai: A Masterpiece in Eight Minutes | Video Essay (Arttective) “In these initial three minutes, legendary composer Fumio Hayasako weaves a repetitive but hypnotic drone of drum sounds…”

Kathleen Flinn: The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry (Penguin, 2007)

This is not for pretend.
As we’ve done three or four times a week since January, my Basic Cuisine class gathered this morning en masse, on time and in uniform. We first watched a chef move through a three hour demonstration; we anxiously take notes, as we must repeat his lesson in a training kitchen later. This afternoon, I’m searing thick magrets de canard for a classic preparation of duck à l’orange. Magrets are the breasts of Moulard ducks force-fed corn to fatten their livers for foie gras, a process that fattens everything on the duck. We must take care with the sauce, a slightly complicated preparation that requires cautious reduction of veal stock and orange juice, the sweetness tempered with vinegar. Our potatoes and carrots must be “turned” – a cut that transforms an otherwise unremarkable vegetable into a precise seven-sided torpedo shape.
This is my life now.

Kathleen Flinn, food enthusiast and journalist turned software manager, found herself merged out of her upscale corporate job in London. She considered returning to the States, but instead, with the advice of her long-time-friend-turned-recent-boyfriend Mike, decided to do what any level-headed person would do under the circumstances: she cashed in her 401K and plopped down $26,000 to take a three-part Cuisine course at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. “I don’t know that I want to be a chef, or that I particularly want to work in the food industry when I am done with my training…. I just know that going to Le Cordon Bleu is something I have to do,” she wrote in her application’s “statement of motivation.”

It would be easy to ridicule that step, but I get it. No one understands why I spend time reading stories and books, then writing about them in a blog no one reads, or why I spend so much time and effort taking moocs of no practical use whatsoever. The price tag may be a little different, but I get the power of internal motivation.

I got this book on impulse after I saw it mentioned in my Goodreads feed. I didn’t have any “weird career/educational move” books on my list for this year’s In-Between Reading, and I’d enjoyed the art school book, the trucking book, the football-player-turned-mathematician book from prior years. So I added it in.

My first thought was:  This book really wants to be Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia, with a fired marketing manager heading to Le Cordon Bleu played against Audrey Hepburn as Sabrina. But the timing doesn’t fit; Flinn’s time in Paris roughly overlaps with the time Powell was writing her book, and was published before the movie (one of my favorites, by the way) was released. In my view, it suffered from the comparison, but that’s my failure, not the book’s.

Flinn goes through three levels of Cuisine (the savory side, as opposed to pastries and desserts): Basic, Intermediate, and Superior. She describes her struggles to produce the dishes required:

I put together several little vols-au-vent. They look as if a kindergartener put them together with Play-Doh. I agonize over my leeks to cut them into a perfect julienne. Then, I work on my eggs. We must make them the classic way, by dropping them in simmering water with vinegar and, with a ladle, wrap the egg white around the yolk as it cooks. Poached eggs should look like shiny, smooth parcels. Mine look like gnarled creatures from a horror film. As I finish the last egg, a strong burning smell hits me, a mix of burned grass and onions. I forgot my leeks. They’ve burned to black.

There’s a hilarious story of a duck dropped on the floor, and the decision to serve it anyway. Flinn even took it home with her after grading (permitted, even encouraged, so no food would be wasted) and the leftovers for her own dinner. “Don’t eat the skin,” she advises her boyfriend.

By the time she gets to Superior Cuisine, more is expected:

“La sauce n’est pas chaude,” says chef du Pont. He holds his wrist to the plate and looks at me with alarm. “L’assiette n’est pas chaude.” He waves me away. “Nous sommes finis.” How could I be so stupid? I’d forgotten to heat my plate – an utterly simple thing that I’ve learned the first day in . “We’re finished,” he says, ending his critique abruptly. He doesn’t taste anything. But for this, I can not blame him. In Basic Cuisine or even Intermediate, I might have gotten marked down for a cold plate. But in Superior Cuisine, it’s inexcusable.

Each chapter ends with a recipe based on the dish from class, or a thematically related dish. From simple veggie soup to pastry-wrapped fish and delicate sauces, there’s a lot of food info here.

There’s a lot more as well. During class, chefs relate various trinkets of information: the history of the word and entity restaurant (based on the French for restorative, meaning soup), and the origins of the term cordon bleu (a medal given to honored knights; it became associated with grand food when banquets were thrown in their honor). Flinn also explores Paris and relates her experiences, not just at markets and restaurants, but in various neighborhoods and, eerily, in the catacombs created in the late 18th century when the contents of graveyards were consolidated in underground quarries.

There’s also some rumination on wider implications of various aspects of her experience:

Who decides what is quality cuisine anyway? Some of the sauces we learned in Basic were once thought daring, revolutionary. The unusual combinations we’re learning in superior are trendy; unconventional pairings with classic technique are common on haute-cuisine menus. But it makes me wonder more about the general nature of evolution. We can reinvent anything, even ourselves, and some things will change, but in the end, something familiar always remains.

We also see, through Flinn’s eyes, the other students – Le Cordon Bleu attracts an international student body – including a super-competitive woman who’d been a lawyer before coming to the school. Flinn wonders if her attitude is acquired of necessity in the corporate world, where creativity and cooperativity take second place to “winning.”

I was surprised at how resistant I was to the occasional appearance of what I perceived as Hallmark Card sentimentality. At one point, after working on her consommé to get the right degree of clarity, Flinn writes, “I consider how wonderful it would be to toss some hamburger, egg whites, and tomatoes into the soup of life. Suddenly, everything which we clear and the purpose of it all would be revealed,” and I wrote in the margins, “Oh, please.” I’ve been reading too much edgy fiction and academic nonfiction, perhaps, nudging my reading style into a kind of intolerant cynicism. I’ve got to keep an eye on that. A little skepticism is fine, but I don’t want to start sneering at felt words from genuine hearts, whether I feel them or not.

Flinn has since written two other food-related books, gives classes (online during the pandemic), and hosts a podcast, all available via her website. I’d say she put her education to good use, if not in the most typical fashion. And she’s earned that cherished line in her obituary: “Graduated from Le Cordon Bleu.”

Karen Bender: The New Order (Counterpoint, 2018)

I view everything through absurdism and humor. I think humor works best in literature and fiction when it’s borne of deep feeling, and the deep feeling it’s borne of here is fear, and then the crazy things people do to cope with fear to maintain control, which is really human…
I do write to figure things out, either internally or externally, something that I find really troubling. So I stared writing the other stories in response to things that were going on. … writing is a way of controlling chaos, a way of controlling what is difficult in life, and I’ve found it a comfort to me all my life.

Karen Bender, interview with Charity Nebbe on Iowa Public Radio

As soon as I finished reading Bender’s short story “The Shame Exchange” in 2021’s Pushcart, I went looking for something else she’d written. Out of the five choices, I picked this one, partly because of the description that promised it “boldly examines the sense of instability that has grown stronger in American culture over the last two years through the increasing presence of violence, bigotry, sexual harassment, and the emotional costs of living under constant threat.” That, it does.

Several of the stories are told from spaces adjacent to violence; they’re not about acts of violence or the people directly affected, but about how people  removed from the violence react to it. That is, it’s about most of us. 

“Where to Hide in a Synagogue,” the first story in the book, is one of these adjacent stories.

“Come on,” I said. “We can set out a policy. If there is an attack, congregants are permitted to remove the Torahs from the Ark and climb in for safety purposes.” I paused. “We can add, ‘Congregants removing Torahs are responsible for getting them back into the Ark after the shooter has left.’” I thought to add if they are alive, but I thought I’d leave that out.

Eva and Harriet have been appointed to their synagogue’s advisory Board for Safety and Well-Being following the attack on churchgoers in Charlottesville. They’re walking through the sanctuary in order to come up with a report of strategies to protect congregants in case of an attack. In real life, Bender started this story as a flash  after hearing her daughter and friend discussing how they’d hide if shooting broke out in their movie theater; it changed after Charlottesville, moving to a synagogue.

The two women, long-time friends, argue about whether the Torahs or the safety of people should be prioritized, about how much normality can be sacrificed to safety: a dress code requiring sneakers for faster escape? Flower arrangements including thorns for potential defense? It shows how the perception of threat can divide even those who are close; is it any wonder the question of what is and is not a threat is a major wedge issue today?

The story balances on the edge of tragedy and humor; Bender’s fondness for absurdity, in its everyday form rather than its more extreme avant garde form, more often tips it into humor, but it is that tipping that underlines the tragedy.

The story ends with an everyday occurrence perceived as threat, and leaves us wondering if they would perceive it that way if they weren’t already immersed in an atmosphere of threat. That’s of the many costs of pervasive violence, isn’t it: an air of suspicion, dividing friends, invading even a house of worship.

There is a horrific real-life connection to this story: ten days before the book was released, eleven congregants of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh were murdered in an attack. No wonder Bender’s voice shook as she discussed the story in her interview.

The title story, “The New Order” is also a violence-adjacent story.

I felt powerful for the first time since the incident, as though I had to become a steel spike, completely hard and sharp; but I also trembled, for I simultaneously felt a plunging sense of loss. It was confusing to experience both of these at once. I realized then how much I admired my friend, even loved her, and that I had damaged something I could not see. Lori didn’t stand up and walk away; she changed the subject to the staleness of the carrot cake on our plates, but it felt as though something finished between us, and that we were now unknowable to one another, separate, an ostrich and a bear.

This story starts out back in the 1970s, when school shootings weren’t a social phenomenon yet, but just got described as some guy brought a gun into the cafeteria and shot two teachers and a student, for reasons unknown. The student, Sandra, seemed to be collateral damage, but it’s her seat in the cello section of the school orchestra that must now be filled.

For those who never paid attention to the intricacies of school music programs, seats for each instrument are doled out based on merit. In my school, anyone could challenge for a better seat at any time, giving a week’s notice or so. In this story, it seems the auditions are scheduled instead.

The story centers on our narrator and her friend, Lori, who are both preparing to audition. Their relationship, the conflict between competition and generosity, is the focus of the first two-thirds of the story, though it’s all infused with the reason for the audition: the empty chair where Sandra used to be. The title of the story, and the contemporary reader’s knowledge that school shootings are going to become a lot more common, also adds to the painful atmosphere.

What makes the story compelling is the jump to thirty years later when the two friends meet again for the first time since audition day, and the echoes of the past get updated.

In the interview quoted above, Bender said she wanted to write about a misunderstanding, and was inspired by Alice Munro’s short story “Fiction,” a story I haven’t read but now must. And again, the way Bender writes about, not the shooting, but one small slice of aftermath, is equally terrifying and impressive.

“This is Who You Are, ” the longest story in the book, is violence-adjacent on two fronts.

“What do you think they were thinking?” I asked.
“What are you talking about?”
“Right before the grenade. When they were in the corner.”
I didn’t know what I wanted from her. Diane was just fourteen, two years older than I, but all of her ballet training gave her a straight, proud carriage that she made her older than she was. She touched her tongue and picked a loose hair off it. Then she took a deep, crinkly breath.
“How to get out,” she said. “I bet that’s what they thought. Where can I go.”

It’s another story set in the 70s and is far more plotted than most of the others, which focus more on ideas.

It’s something of a partial coming-of-age story. Coming of age doesn’t happen all at once, after all; here, Celia is dealing with a couple of issues at the tender age of 14. One is the attack on a group of schoolgirls in Israel, an event she only knows about because it was brought up in her weekly Hebrew school session. The teacher has them write letters to the families of the murdered girls, which seems a little creepy to me but it’s presented as supportive, so I’ll go with that. Celia becomes a bit enmeshed with the girl she has chosen, Ilana, imagining she has survived after all:

I had a secret: in my locker, I stored some extra clothes for Ilana. An old sleep shirt and shorts and flip-flops. While I was somewhat embarrassed that I had done this, I was also a little proud, for I wanted to take some, any, action; I felt I was preparing for her arrival. When I had trouble focusing in class, I imagined her trudging up to the locker, perhaps at night, her clothes smelly from her long trip; I imagined her wandering through the junior high school to my locker, changing her clothes right then, and slipping on the shirt and shorts I had left for her. She would thank me; she would be grateful that someone believed she was not doomed but could get out of that classroom. I saw her letting out a breath when she had the right clothes, turning around in the warm, honeyed silence, trying to decide what to do next.

Celia is also dealing with a different kind of violence at her high school:  a predator coach. In the 70s, it was the creepy guy in the trench coat everyone worried about, not the teacher who got girls to sit on his lap before he signed their late slips, the coach whose office was papered with glossy images of women in swimsuits and skimpy, sweaty athletic gear. One of Celia’s friends brings the violence more adjacent than Celia is comfortable with; in a special twist of irony, Celia mentions that Laila is not allowed to see R-rated movies because her mother thinks she’s too young to handle that kind of imagery, while she’s handling a lot more than that when she meets up with the coach at the beach.

A couple of the stories are overtly political. “Mrs. America” follows a senatorial candidate on a trail of attack. In her interview, Bender says Sarah Palin was the inspiration for this story; she wanted to explore how a decent  could compartmentalize indecent actions. It’s my least favorite in the book; it seems over the top, and while that might be this current of absurdity that runs through many of the stories, instead of illuminating anything, it just seems like a hatchet job.

“The Good Mothers in the Parking Lot,” on the other hand, is shockingly familiar. A woman watches other mothers pick up their kids from a field trip and wonders which ones voted for the guy. Yeah, you know which one. She’s amazed that these women, friends, fellow bake sale veterans and committee co-chairs, could be the ones who did this, who changed everything.

They walk through the world as though it is still the world. Their innoence is a sort of violence and makes you want to look away.

I’d just read Danielle Evans’ The Office of Historical Corrections last week, so ringing in my head as I read this was its epigraph from James Baldwin: “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” And of course I was struck by how I’d written a blog post, four days after the election, with pretty much the same sentiment. My tirade took place in a supermarket, pushing my cart and watching other shoppers, wondering “Which ones?” The story – and it’s not really a story, since there’s no plot, it’s more of a scene – felt like a mirror. I was very grateful.

Other stories, like “The Department of Happiness and Reimbursement,” were also inspired by current events. Bender tells us she wrote this in response to non-disclosure agreements  between women and their harassers, and wondered what it’s like to be part of the mechanism that arranges such things. Not the harasser or the victim, but the lawyers, and the accountants to figure out what category the expense goes into. It’s an interesting story, though I found the preamble a little long. Necessary, but too long.

The book closes with “The Cell Phones,” another story that’s more concept than a plot, but a great way to end. You know how it is, there’s always someone in the meeting, audience, or service who forgets to turn off their cell phone. This time, it’s a little more complicated than that. It’s really quite wonderful; Bender said she wanted to end on a hopeful note, and she did.

I very much enjoyed this book; I can’t help but wonder what kind of pandemic stories she might come up with. I think I might check out one of her novels, see what she does with more plot. Though I have to admit, I’m very fond of concept as a genre.

Danielle Evans: The Office of Historical Corrections (Riverhead, 2020)

I do think the calibration of a collection is ideally to make it feel like you’re talking to yourself but not repeating yourself. So, the book opens with the story that I think contains the collection in miniature in some way. All of the themes that come up again—grief, racism, our weird ahistorical fetishizing of history, commitments, sex, anxiety about the future, mothering, daughtering, depression, ambivalence about becoming a parent—start there. And then ideally I think the next few stories in a collection should offer some form of complication or surprise about what the collection can contain. And then I just tried to avoid either jarring transitions or stories with a lot of themes in common until the last story, which I hope circles back to most of the themes in the first story, but in a different light.

Danielle Evans, interview with Melissa Scholes Young at Fiction Writers Review

I’d originally planned to get this book in paperback for next year; I prefer paperback editions whenever they’re available. But as the heat around who gets to define history got turned up in real life, I decided I couldn’t wait. I’m really glad I did that. As I read, I kept nodding, seeing contemporary life in every story, but seeing other possibilities, other viewpoints as well.

I could almost call it part of my Re-Reading project, since it contains two stories I read when they appeared in the 2017 and 2018 editions of Best American Short Stories. “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain” and “Boys Go to Jupiter” both stand up well to re-reading, expanding to accommodate a reader’s growth in both lived experience in a time of upheaval, and in the act of reading itself.

“Alcatraz” shows us an attempt, via a visit to the historic prison, to put a family back together after circumstance and human frailty took it apart.

I had orchestrated the visit confident that my mother’s cousin would be grateful for the chance to make amends, that she and her family would be eager to prove themselves better than the people who raised her. It had honestly not occurred to me that my mother and I would have to make a case for ourselves, that conditions could possibly be such that we were the ones who were supposed to impress them.

Cecilia had the idea to go to the source: the prison that housed her great-grandfather for a crime he didn’t commit, an acknowledged mistake that her mother has been trying to fully purge for decades with no success. At the prison, Cecilia notices signs about Indians and the military and penitentiary life: “All that history, bleeding into itself in the wrong order.” That’s the story of this family, right there. I had a surprisingly hard time getting the family relationships straight, partly because I’ve never understood cousins, but mostly because family members are viewed at several different ages – all that history, bleeding together –  and one is  absent; or, more accurately, was barely there to begin with.

The story ends in the Alcatraz gift shop. Wrap your mind around that: Alcatraz has a gift shop, where you can buy, among other things, replicas of keys to the cells. In the Fiction Writers Review interview mentioned above, Evans reveals that she only realized that two stories ended in gift shops (with a couple of other stories including gift shops in less dramatic sections) when the collection was about to go to press: “I freaked out and rewrote the ending,” but her agent talked her down. I’m glad, because it’s perfect.

“Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want” is another extraordinary story that skates on brittle humor over hot, vicious depths of truth.

When the apologies began, they were public and simultaneous. It was late summer, and they appeared suddenly and all at once, like brief afternoon thunderstorms. The High School Sweetheart’s apology came over the PA system at the grocery store where she was buying bread and cheese… the Long-Suffering Ex-Wife’s came as a short film projected on a giant screen in the park nearest the house where she lived with their daughter. It played in the loop until the city took it down. The daughter’s apology was posted on Instagram….
They were unlike him in that they were, in fact, actual apologies, and in that way for no resemblance to his previous efforts at making amends….

As I was reading about these apologies, it occurred to me they were actually additional abuses. Maybe some of the women had made their experiences with this man public, but others had not. This brings to the fore the question of why the abusee, rather than the abuser, is often the one embarrassed by revelation of the abuse, a quirk abusers use to their advantage. That the guy then turns the apologies into a literal art exhibit, featuring a volcano (apparently inspired by some literary magazine joking about a “throw men into a volcano” issue) and a dare, brings Evans’ point out clearly:

The second-to-last thing I wrote for the book was the story “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,” which in some ways is an outlier, but in other ways, it revealed the thematic core of the book, which is apology and correction. I’m interested in this emotional question of apology and what we want in an apology, or what it means to try to correct something that in some ways can’t be fixed, but I’m also interested in who the narrative of apology belongs to.

Danielle Evans, interview with Adrienne Westenfeld at Esquire

In a collection where nearly every story is a standout, the title novella stands out among the standouts, and carries forward with this idea of correcting what can’t really be fixed but that’s no excuse for not trying.

We were not supposed to be aggressive in demanding people’s time – correct the misinformation as swiftly and politely as possible (guideline 3) – but we were supposed to make it clear we were available for further inquiry or a longer conversation if anyone wanted to know more (guideline 5). We were supposed to be prepared to cite our sources (guideline 7).

Envisioned  as a “public works project for the intellectual class,” including our protagonist, Cassie, a history professor disenchanted with academia, the OHC has been compressed and blunted into uselessness. Or had been, until Genevieve came along. Cassie and Genevieve, frenemies, go way back to when they were the only Black students in an exclusive prep school. Genevieve was Genie then, polite and obedient to authority and annoying as hell to Cassie. They ended up in the same graduate program by chance, where Genie made all her milestones – marriage, children – while Cassie just did her work.

And now they both find themselves in the same office. Genie has become Genevieve, divorced, and a lot less deferential to authority.

The Genie I remembered would have had expansive ideas about our mission but would have spent years charming the director into coming around to them, while parroting her parents on the virtues of treading lightly. Genevieve said in our first office meeting during her first week that we were tiptoeing around history to the point that we might as well be lying to people. She wanted a guideline emphasizing that lies of omission were still lies. In the field, she amended a sign quoting the Declaration of Independence with portions of the worst of Notes on the State of Virginia. She was instructed not to come back to the National Portrait Gallery after she stood in front of the Gauguin for hours telling viewers about his abuse of underage Tahitian girls. She made a tourist child cry at Mount Vernon when she talked about Washington’s vicious pursuit of his runaway slaves, and she was formally asked by the only Virginia field historian to avoid making further corrections in the state….
My problem, alas, had never been a simple as Genie being wrong.

Predictably, Genevieve doesn’t last in the job, and leaves behind a pile of corrections to her corrections. One of them involves a long-ago incident in Wisconsin and a Black man who may or may  not have been killed when a town mob burned his store to drive him out of town. Genevieve only wanted to expose the murderers, but now Cassie finds a few mysteries about the whole affair: did the man survive, and why did he go there in the first place, to a town that clearly didn’t want him?

I’m impressed by how much Evans puts in tnis story without losing its forward motion. Everything from the woes of academia – “Landing a good academic job here was serendipity bordering on magic in a market where ‘professor’ increasingly meant teaching seven classes on four different campuses for no health insurance and below minimum wage” – to the tension of what I call casual racism, to an old relationship and a new relationship and Genevieve and victims and perpetrators and a domestic terrorist viewed as a goofy kid – “Either a town is going to let a person run around goddamn calling himself White Justice or it isn’t” – and several shades of family secrets. Yet it’s something of a page-turner, particularly in this moment when the question of who has the power to decide what History is front and center.

In re-reading “Richard of York…,” I was impressed all over again with Evans’ way of ending a story: not with a bang but an echo. She does that here in this novella as well, turning from high drama to a flashback from a moment in high school: she wasn’t aware a shooter drill had been scheduled, so hid in earnest, and was found by Genie, of course, when she never came out of hiding.

“You always think when something like that happens you’re going to be the bravest version of yourself. I thought I was ready, and I wouldn’t be terrified.”
“Oh Cassie,” Genie said. “No, you didn’t.”

I’m still mulling this over. In her interviews, Evans talks a lot about “the gap between our internal lives and our external lives” and how we are often performing rather than being. I wonder how much each girl is performing in that moment, and how much is real. Is Genie just being her usual critical self, or is she on to something? In the context of the story, the scene shifts – or does it? I see Cassie as being quite genuine throughout, and Genie/Genevieve as being all about performance, but what if it isn’t that simple?

Evans discusses how she ends a story, and that, too, illuminates the scene:

I think of stories in terms of their operative questions. First there’s the active question (or the narrative question, or the “small” question)—the question I owe it to the reader to resolve. Gradually, the larger, thematic or moral or intellectual questions of the story arise, and that’s what I intend to leave open for the reader when the story closes. I rarely know how a story ends before I start—I think it’s only happened twice. But I usually recognize the ending when I get there, because by the time I get to the end of the active plot, I’ve already written past and recognized the open question, the thing I didn’t know the story was actually about until I got there, and once I get there everything else about the arc of the story becomes clear to me. I’m waiting usually not for the moment when I’m certain of the plot, but the moment when whatever’s underneath the story comes to the surface and illuminates the project for me.

Danielle Evans, interview with Lily Meyer at Believer

That’s what is so satisfying about the novella, about all the stories in this book: they leave a lot for consideration, like a song that gets stuck in your head and seems to change with every mood and every situation you find yourself in. The themes of grief, performance/interiority, quotidian racism (a superb phrase Evans uses in that FWR interview), the power to dictate history, weave together throughout each story and throughout the book, leaving the reader with a lot more to think about beyond characters and plots and resolutions. That every page seems to reflect today is either a bonus or a curse. I want to put it into a Re-Reading project for twenty years from now, and see how it reads then. I doubt I’ll be around then, but maybe someone else could do that for me.

Randy Shilts: And the Band Played On (St. Martin, 1987/QPBC 1993)

People died while Reagan administration officials ignored pleas from government scientists and did not allocate adequate funding for AIDS research until the epidemic had already spread throughout the country. People died while scientists did not at first devote appropriate attention to the epidemic because they perceived little prestige to be gained in studying a homosexual affliction . . .
People died while public health authorities and the political leaders who guided them refused to take the tough measures necessary to curb the epidemic’s spread, opting for political expediency over the public health.
And people died while gay community leaders played politics with the disease, putting political dogma ahead of the preservation of human life.
… It is a tale worth telling, so that it will ever happen again, to any people, anywhere.

When I first read this book back in the 90s, I was most interested in the medical aspects, and secondarily in the politics. Over the years, I became quite fond of some of the people who appear within – and enraged with others. Because, although this is a work of journalism filled with details of budget battles and political wrangling, it’s also an engaging narrative, using recurring motifs, highly personal stories, and occasional lyricism to enhance its readability for the general public.

The Bicentennial Parade of Tall Ships in New York begins the book, and is referred to several times thereafter as a possible beginning to the epidemic, at least in the US. This theory seems to still be considered; a casual google didn’t turn up anyone objecting to it.

July 4, 1976
New York Harbor
Tall sails scraped the deep purple night as rockets burst, flared, and flourished red, white, and blue over the stoic Statue of Liberty. The whole world was watching, it seemed; the whole world was there. Ships from fifty-five nations had poured sailors into Manhattan to join the throngs, counted in the millions, who watched the greatest pyrotechnic extravaganza ever mounted, all for Americas 200th birthday party. Deep into the morning, bars all over the city were crammed with sailors. New York City had hosted the greatest party ever known, everybody agreed later. The guests had come from all over the world.
This was the part of the epidemiologists with later note, when they stayed up late at night and the conversation drifted toward where it had started and when. They would remember that glorious night in New York harbor, all those sailors, and recall: from all over the world they came to New York.

The Feast of the Hearts, a Danish tradition, ties together with the 1977 death of a Danish physician who worked in a clinic in Zaire (today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo). She may have been the first European, first Westerner, to die of the disease, though it mystified doctors. A friend and physician wanted to study Pneumocystis after she died, but was discouraged from doing so because it was so rare; his tropical disease research later points to an African virus, which is, as I understand it, the current theory. The recurrence of the Feast of the Hearts is one of the most touching echoes of the book.

Another effective trope is Before and After, both as an overall structure and in the lives of various people who came to realize, at varying times, that this was not something that would go away in a few months.

Before.
….Before and after. The epidemic would cleave lives in two, the way a great war or depression presents a commonly understood point of reference around which an entire society defines itself.
Before would encompass thousands of memories laden with nuance and nostalgia. Before meant innocence and excess, idealism and hubris. More than anything, this was the time before death. To be sure, death was already elbowing its way through the crowds on that Sunday morning, like a rude tourist angling for the lead spot in the parade. It was still an invisible presence, low, palpable only to twenty, or perhaps thirty, gay men who were suffering from a vague malaise. This handful ensured that the future and the past met on that single day.

Then there are the personal stories. Some are of the major players: Bill Krauss, Cleve Jones, Larry Kramer, told alongside more journalistic accounts of their actions. Or Paul Popham, who presents a complicated picture (an activist who is closeted in his work life) but watches friends who shared a house on Fire Island with him one summer die one by one:

A year ago, he had come here with the ashes of his friend Rick Wellikoff. It had been a sunny, melancholy day, warmed by the sharing of grief with Rick’s surviving lover and friends. Now, Rick’s lover was ailing too, the fourth person from the house on Ocean Walk to be stricken by this new plague, and Paul was alone with the ashes of Jack Nau.
The cold white fingers of the sea stroked the indifferent sand, littered by a winter’s worth of misshapen flotsam. Paul open to the box and shook. The sea’s fingers reached to grab Jack’s ashes and pull them into the brine. Paul gazed out to where the leaden sky met the gray Atlantic and wondered when it would all end. This can’t be happening, he thought, it’s simply too unbelievable. Yet, as he shook the last of the bone dust that was once Jack Nau into the sea, Paul knew that it was happening and it was all too believable.

Some are practicing physicians who watched patient after patient get sick and die. Some are public health officials, who fought the good fight against a unopposable foe for every small victory they could achieve. And some are just people caught in the crossfire. People like a woman who goes in for hip surgery and refuses a post-op blood transfusion, unaware she’d been transfused while under anesthesia. She later learns she has AIDS from a newspaper story. People like a kid from the midwest who came to San Francisco to get away from bigotry, but favored close relationships instead of the bathhouse scene. People like a flight attendant who refused to believe his KS was contagious so entered into three-city sexual liaisons with gusto, only to be labeled (incorrectly, as it turned out) Patient Zero.

And Rock Hudson, whose death somehow changed everything.

I chose to include this book in this year’s Re-Reading Project primarily because of COVID-19; that my reading fell during Pride Month was a happy coincidence. I’m well aware that AIDS and the corona virus are very different diseases and the epidemics have vastly differing courses and effects, but I wondered if reading in this moment showcased any similarities. Boy, did it. To wit:

The conflict between public health and politics\profit, with public health on the losing side most of the time. In the case of AIDS, this was most specific to shutting down the bathhouses (which both the gay community, and the bathhouse owners, vehemently opposed) and keeping the blood supply safe by banning donations from gay men (which, again, was opposed by blood banks and by the gay community). Shilts makes the community opposition to these measures seem more understandable by rooting them in the time, when gayness was far less accepted than it is now (and let’s face it, it’s not exactly popular in a lot of places even today) and owning one’s sexual preference was a new freedom in places like San Francisco. With COVID, there were early assurances from the highest levels of the Federal Government that this was “just the flu” and panic wasn’t necessary, to forestall an economic slowdown. Six hundred thousand deaths later, there are probably those who still feel that way.

Poor communication from medical experts to the public, even when the attempt to communicate was genuine. To my surprise, Anthony Fauci turned up in this category. He was just a name the first six or seven times I read the book, but of course he’s practically a celebrity now. In the early 80s, while considered a hero dealing with the epidemic on public health grounds, he made a comment about household contact, then walked it back as being out of context and remarked that the public didn’t understand the language of science.

This eerily parallels his early remarks on the inefficacy of face masks – which he also walked back as being out of context and in reaction to the shortage of protective equipment for hospital personnel. Even heroes trip over their feet sometimes.

Political animosities and personal grudges became higher priority than health. The most grotesque example of this from the 80s comes from a San Francisco newspaper editor, outraged when a group of gay readers wrote a letter calling for his resignation over poor coverage of the epidemic.

Paul Lorch decided to exact his own revenge. He took the letter demanding his termination and the list of all the people who signed it, and set it aside. One by one, as they died, he crossed their names off the list, gtting the last laugh, so to speak.

I usually think I’ve seen enough of this world to no longer be surprised by any depravity, but this shocked me.

Denial, willingness to believe hoaxes and rumors. This was not just a problem in the general public; for a year or so, much of the medical and research community did not believe the cause of the various illnesses could be a single virus, and a new virus at that. A significant portion of the gay community didn’t believe the disease – which at first appeared as Kaposi’s sarcoma – was contagious at all. Fear of homophobic reprisals kept a lot of the medical information more restrained than it should have been. As for COVID, I don’t have to go into it, do I? From  “just the flu” to “the vaccine makes you magnetic,” it’s been a wild ride.

Perception of victims as unimportant.

The NCI conference fueled Gottlieb’s suspicion that no one cared because it was homosexuals who were dying. Nobody came out and said it was all right for gays to drop dead; it was just that homosexuals didn’t seem to warrant the kind of urgent concern another set of victims would engender. Scientists didn’t care, because there was little glory, fame, and funding to be had in this field; there wasn’t likely to be money or prestige as long as the newspapers ignored the outbreak, and the press didn’t like writing about homosexuals. So nobody cared….

This might not seem to have much to do with COVID, but I remember a lot of talk about old and sick people who would’ve died anyway. It’s amazing how callous we can be when the stock market is our only metric.

The federal government’s unwillingness to spend money or take any role at all. Shilts outlines this with exquisite clarity: the CDC couldn’t provide airfare for epidemiologists to visit outbreaks and interview patients; even a textbook was out of the question, a virology lab, with the necessary precautions, was a pipe dream. Another agency waited two years for a centrifuge to conduct basic  experiments. When pressured, officials lumped together all kinds of spending as being related to AIDS, though the link was tenuous at best, and insisted everyone had enough money. Remember the bidding war over respirators and PPE in the early months of COVID, because the Feds let the states fight it out? The vaccines started out that way as well but fate intervened in the form of an election. In January 2021, when the vaccines were first approved, my local health service predicted my age group (65 to 70) would be eligible in June or July. The feds got involved in late January, made vaccination a priority, and I got my shots in March. Elections matter.

I confess, I started skimming around page 400. There is a certain repetitiveness to the major themes: lack of action, lack of money, inability to convince the community of the danger, divisions within both the public and the research communities. The fight between NIH and the Pasteur Institute, as well as the CDC, is the stuff of legend, and shows the worst side of some people. Every time I’ve read the book, I’ve become lost in the timeline, though it’s clearly indicated nearly on every page and chapters are separated by the year in which they occur. Still, it has a sameness, with escalating numbers.

It’s a monumental work of journalism, covering three cities in detail, plus a host of government agencies, health facilities, and ordinary lives. Yet it’s the humanity that makes it a beautiful read. Shilts, a gay man, decided not to find out his HIV status until he’d finished the book, in the interests of journalistic integrity.

“HIV is certainly character-building. It’s made me see all of the shallow things we cling to, like ego and vanity. Of course, I’d rather have a few more T-cells and a little less character.

Randy Shilts, NYT interview, 1993

 The book was published in 1987. He died in 1994 at the age of 42.    

Rumaan Alam: Leave the World Behind (Ecco, 2020)

There it was again: shuffle, a voice, a quiet murmur, a presence. A disruption, a change. Something. This time Amanda was more certain. Her heart quickened. She felt sober, awake. She put her cup down on the marble counter, quietly—suddenly that seemed right, to move stealthily. “I heard something.” She was whispering.
Such moments, Clay was called upon. He had to be the man. He didn’t mind it. Maybe he liked it. Maybe it made him feel necessary. From down the hall, he could almost hear Archie, snoring like a sleeping dog. “It’s probably just a deer in the front garden.” “It’s something.” Amanda held up a hand to silence him. Her mouth was metallic with fear. “I know I heard something.”
There it was, undeniable: noise. A cough, a voice, a step, a hesitation, that uncategorizable animal knowledge that there’s another of the species nearby and the pause, pregnant, to see if they mean harm. There was a knock at the door. A knock at the door of this house, where no one knew they were, not even the global positioning system, this house near the ocean but also lost in farmland, this house of red bricks painted white, the very material the smartest little piggy chose because it would keep him safest. There was a knock at the door.

This was not at all the book I expected it to be. That’s not a complaint: I wasn’t sure how the book I expected could possibly live up to they hype I’d heard. Now I understand how: by being a different book.

Descriptions typically read something like: A white couple rents a vacation house, then an older black couple show up, say they’re the owners, and there’s been some sort of blackout in the city, can they stay in the house. Naturally this sets the scene for racial tensions. It sounded a bit like Six Degrees of Separation (which the book mentions). But no one would say much about anything else, though there were indications that something else was going on. Not since The Sixth Sense have I felt such a refusal to reveal. I was driven by curiosity more than anything else: what could possibly happen, given the initiating event, that would be so surprising?

Well, for one thing, there’s more than one initiating event, and the knock at the door is just the first one.

Granted, that knock leads to some interesting moments, including a bit of casual racism (“This didn’t seem to her like the sort of house where black people lived. But what did she mean by that?”) and some class envy. For that matter, race and class run through the whole thing. But it’s not a dramatic version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (which the book also mentions, with a twinkle of humor). Nor does it disintegrate into a white-vs-black doubles match of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. And no, I’m not going to tell you where it does go.

I will point out how all the usual markers, the guideposts we use to understand  fiction, the details that set expectations, are confounded. It’s right there in the paragraph above: a red brick house painted white, near ocean but in farmland, and lost to GPS. Amanda: “….it was unclear whether she was guest or host. She liked clarity about the role she was meant to discharge.” But there is no clarity. And we, too, as readers, are off the literary grid. And as the story tells us, “The brain abets the eye; eventually your expectations of a thing supersede the thing itself”, but when those expectations are contorted by conflicting messages, how do you get your bearings? You just let the story be what it is, as uncomfortable as that may be.

In an interview with Emma Straub, Alam addressed this kind of open, rolling genre idea directly. He said he wanted to “push through the vacation novel (a very specific thing) into the political novel; to go through the domestic into the very big.” He definitely achieved that. He also talks about dropping in elements from genre fiction – horror, thriller, suspense – but not following the expectations. “If the narrative chooses to deal with that in a way that you are not necessarily expecting, it can feel electric, and weird, and fun.” Yes, it can. It can feel like you’ve lost your GPS, your Wi-Fi.

Rose saw a deer, with abbreviated velvet antlers and a cautious yet somehow also bored mien, considering her through dark, strangely human eyes.
She wanted to say “A deer” but there was no one there to hear her. She looked over her shoulder into the house and saw her parents talking. She wasn’t supposed to go in the pool, but she wasn’t going to go in the pool. She walked down the steps onto the damp grass and the deer just watched her, barely curious. She hadn’t even seen that there was another beside it – no more. There were five deer, there were seven; every time Rose adjusted her eyes to try to understand what she was seeing, she was seeing something new. There were dozens of deer. Had she been up higher, she’d have understood that there were hundreds, more than a thousand, more than that, even. She wanted to run inside and tell her parents, but she also wanted to just stand there and see it.

The narration has an interesting twist to it. Most of the time it’s head-hopping: close third-person from one character then another. But eventually, a broader view pops in, just for a  moment in a few scattered places, which orients the main in a wider frame. In the quote above, this was the first occurrence of this that I noticed. While in this case the broader view is peculiar; later glances will be increasingly alarming. For me, this was reassuring; I was reading correctly, I wasn’t on some flight of fancy, and the narrator – the author – hadn’t left me behind.

To me, the book didn’t so much end as it just stopped. This would normally be a big flaw, but here it worked. And it’s maybe why so many readers are talking about it as the book that captures the off-GPS feeling of the pandemic, and the political tensions of the moment, though, published in the fall of 2020, it was obviously written before we were using words like pandemic and before the pro-life party turned out to be anti-public-health, before  anyone dreamed the Capitol could be attacked and the party of law and order wouldn’t want to investigate the origins. The book has the same feeling as some of us have now: we’re waiting to get back to normal, or for a new normal, but normal is nowhere to be seen.

I’m still trying to figure out if I “liked” the book; I’m in something like a state of literary shock. I’m waiting to see if it comes back to me over the coming weeks and months, and in what ways, particularly this idea of being “not lost but not quite not lost.” That feels more important than “what a great read” anyway.

I’m very glad I read it, though not for the reasons I thought I would be. Who needs GPS, just look at the scenery and enjoy wherever you are.

Wilton Barnhardt: Gospel (St. Martin’s, 1993)

I had lost my faith, Josephus.

I’ve always been a little embarrassed by my great fondness for this novel. It’s one of the books I used to read about once a year – all 773 pages –  back before I started living on the internet, blogging, and taking moocs. When I put it on my re-read list for this year, I wondered: would I find it a bit silly, a kind of Dan-Brown-writes-Indiana-Jones thing, the historical and religious background material that so captivated me now recognized as trivial at best, invented at worst? Would the characters – a cantankerous alcoholic professor, having failed academically and personally, out to redeem himself but unable to get along with anyone, a young earnest grad student sent to track him down who becomes enmeshed in his project against his will and hers – annoy me as stereotypes rather than captivate me as flawed people doing their best to recapture their own faith?

When you put it that way, this sounds like a really stupid book.

But it isn’t. And, in fact, as I re-read it this time, I discovered something I couldn’t have seen when I last read it about ten years ago: it’s Kierkegaard. At least, it’s what I think of as Kierkegaard. Granted, I’m no expert – and I’ve barely scratched the surface for this particular philosopher – but the thought crept in about halfway through, only to be strengthened by the final sentences. I went looking for more info on Kierkegaard, particularly his views on subjective vs objective truth, on faith vs reason, and his complaints against the church as an institution vs religion as personal experience. And I become more convinced: this is Kierkegaard.

The overall story of the novel can be summed up quite simply:  Patrick O’Hanrahan, a theology professor at the University of Chicago who’s been on the way down for a long time, is searching for a gospel rumored to be written in the first century, the earliest gospel recorded, written by an actual disciple rather than cobbled together from notes and letters a hundred years later. It’s been floating around for decades, but was considered untranslatable and/or heretical and/or dangerous, and bounced from one place to another between rich collectors and institutions academic and religious. A scholar-priest claimed to be deciphering it, but he met with an unfortunate, um, accident and the scroll disappeared. And now, it’s turned up again.

The problem is, O’Hanrahan has fallen off the radar screen since heading for Europe on his quest. The University sends Lucy Dantan, naïve and sheltered graduate student torn between her rigid Catholic background and academia, to find him. O’Hanrahan doesn’t particularly want to be found, especially by some dewy-eyed innocent. Nevertheless, she persisted, and found him. Then she decided to go home. Then she persisted again, then decided to go home, etc etc, and they travel through Northern Ireland, Italy, Greece, Jerusalem, Egypt, and Sudan over the course of a month or so, chasing the elusive Gospel and looking for research materials that will lead to its translation. And, in doing so, dealing with kidnappers, spies, mad monks, zealots, illness, and a language that will not yield to translation.

The gospel itself is embedded in the novel, a chapter preceding each change of venue.

Textual note: Throughout the gospel, the editor has arranged the text in paragraphs, punctuating as seemed reasonable, and using quotes in the dialogue for easier reading. The editor has endeavoured to retain a bit of the self-important and stilted tone of this confession, reminiscent of the Byzantine church historian Eusebius, but of an earlier era.

This is something of a self-spoiler – here is the Gospel, translated, edited, and notated, so someone must have had success finding and reading it – but there are other possibilities: what if it’s consigned to flames at the end, and  what is recorded exists only in the minds of the participants? Or what it if’s discovered to be a forgery, all that work down the drain?

It doesn’t really matter, because the story I’ve outlined isn’t what the book is about; it’s merely the engine, how it gets to what it’s about. And it is, as the first line states, about finding one’s faith. The three main characters – O’Hanrahan, Lucy, and the writer of the gospel – all have lost different kinds of faiths in different ways, and the book is about how they find it again. 

O’Hanrahan looked once more to the spires and would have prayed for a second chance to use his gifts anew, more wisely this time, more productively, if he thought such a prayer would be heard, let alone answered. Or if he thought prayer worked at all and wasn’t the vainest waste of words yet conceived.
(You have lost your faith, Patrick.)
“I have lost my faith,” he said aloud to the rain-soaked night.

Oh, wait – there is a fourth main character: God. Or, maybe more accurately, the Holy Spirit. It appears in parentheticals throughout the book, and as a literary device serves many functions: to point out a character’s misunderstanding or self-delusion, as foreshadowing, and sometimes as conversation. O’Hanrahan refers to “the voices,” indicating he’s heard them before, and engages in some back-and-forth. Lucy seems to be responding to something she interprets as her own thoughts, conscience, perhaps, though it’s unclear. What is clear is that these aren’t psychotic voices or delusions, since the Voice of God persists when no one hears it. And sometimes, it’s just to inject some humor. Yes, God has a sense of humor:

Lucy was a born worrier. Between the plane crashing and dealing with Dr. O’Hanrahan, whose ferocious presence she had witnessed in lecture halls a time or two, her body pumped and adrenaline of incessant worry….. [S]he looked out to see London in a soup of low-lying rain clouds. Oh thank you, Father, Jesus, and Holy Ghost, for delivering me safe and sound!
(No problem.)
Although, then again, most planes crash on takeoff or landing.
(This is not the fighting spirit we might have hoped for, Lucy.)

With O’Hanrahan, the humor is more sophisticated, but he’s up to the challenge, as when he finds himself ill in Jerusalem, and discouraged because of the problems with getting his hands on the scroll, for one thing, and figuring out the undeciphered language it seems to contain:

… And now in the Holy City of Jerusalem in the middle of the night on a deserted street with goddam Mt. Ararat between me and my bottle of pills – no, not Ararat with the dove and olive branch, but Pisgah, Mt. Nebo! With the Promised Land of his worldly ambitions glimmering at him from the valley, unreachable! And the Lord said to O’Hanrahan, this is the scroll that I swore to those before thee, and I will give it to thy rivals. I have let thee see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not translate it and make a pile of money.
(Because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people at the waters of Jack Daniels, in the wilderness of Jamisons…)
God the Heckler, now. Catcalls from the cheap seats!

Refer to Deuteronomy 32; this is a variation of God’s punishment of Moses for his impatience 40 years before, by taking him to Pisgah to look at Canaan, but not to enter. And come to think of it, most of the times when O’Hanrahan and the Voice of God converse, it’s when the professor is ill.

Now, what does all this have to do with Kierkegaard?

I see two, possibly three or four, uses of his ideas, all of which relate to each other. First is his concern, written in his journal at age 22, about finding the purpose of his life:

What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain understanding must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.

Kierkegaard, Journal 1A

For O’Hanrahan, this comes up, as in the quote above, when he realizes he’s squandered his talents and produced little. As a young man, he translated a part of the Dead Sea Scrolls and made a name for himself, but hasn’t published since, and that “publish or perish” thing is taken quite seriously, even for those who have made a name. He later looks at the bookshelf of his friend the Rabbi Hersch, and thinks of the books he could have written, but didn’t.

The first-century gospelist also has a similar moment when he realizes he’s been on the wrong path all along. He has been publishing, writing, though his works have mostly been destroyed (one burned by Peter himself). His travels in search of faith take him to visit Peter; when he mournfully admits he can’t perform healings or other miracles, Peter attempts to console him, but the effect is anything but, as he records in his Gospel:

A moment later, upon reflection, Peter volunteered a confession to ease my feelings: “My brother… I’ve never spoken in tongues. Yes, John gets to jabbering and I nod along pretending I understand. I’m frankly embarrassed; it looks so silly. Even at the Pentecost, I didn’t learn anything that I already didn’t know. Some people get some gifts and others others. Like Paul. He’s never healed a sore joint, to my mind – ah, but the difference he has made to us! A Roman and fine scholar that he is!”
And then I understood.
O bitter my revelation!
I saw clearly that it was to be my lot to teach and evangelize, to take my fortune and travel with the Nazirene message to the Gentiles, to dictate epistles like Saul’s to be read throughout the Church, to be revered and studied. And I did not do it! And therefore our Lord and Master, impatient but resolute, appeared by the grace of Our Father and recruited someone else – Saul of Tarsus! Mine enemy! The man I reviled! He was but fulfilling the mission that I did not complete!
I found myself weeping hopelessly before Peter.
‘I am a failure in the eyes of God,” I told him.
“But so are we all, dear friend,” he replied.

Lucy’s dilemma is different, as she hasn’t yet begun her career and still isn’t sure what it is she is working towards. Her dissertation on changes in Greek alphabets is dragging; when she describes it, she assures O’Hanrahan it’s more interesting than she’s making it sound, and the Voice of God mutters, (Not really). But she doesn’t know what else to do. She still considers her teenage idea of becoming a Poor Clare, but isn’t sure that suits her, either. By the end of the book, she has a much clearer vision.

While her revelation is life-changing and inspiring, it’s a decision she makes in connection with it that bothers me as a reader (I’m being discreet in the interests of limiting spoilers). In a novel where necessity of decisions is dictated by motivations, this decision seems less necessary than the others. I feel a little authorial intrusion here, the author’s wish to include a particular resolution, rather than it springing from the character herself. Her changing attitude toward the catechism seems pushed a bit too far. That may or may not be an accurate impression. It is a new impression on this read; I didn’t give it a second thought in earlier reads.

The clearest (to me, at least) Kierkegaardian aspect uses his idea of subjective vs. objective truth as the key to faith. This is related to his “leap of faith” (which both the journal of the College Theological Society and the TV show The Good Place, as well as various other sources inside and outside of Academia) will tell you is better translated as “leap to faith”. Religious faith, he argues, is not found by reason; in fact, it’s the uncertainty that makes it faith.

When subjectivity is truth, the definition of truth must also contain in itself an expression of the antithesis to objectivity, a memento of that fork in the road, and this expression will at the same time indicate the resilience of the inwardness. Here is such a definition of truth: An objective uncertainty, held fast through appropriation with the most passionate inwardness, is the truth, the highest truth there is for an existing person. At the point where the road swings off (and where that is cannot be stated objectively, since it is precisely subjectivity), objective knowledge is suspended. Objectively he then has only uncertainty, but this is precisely what intensifies the infinite passion of inwardness, and truth is precisely the daring venture of choosing the objective uncertainty with the passion of the infinite. I observe nature in order to find God, and I do indeed see omnipotence and wisdom, but I also see much that troubles and disturbs. The summa summarum [sum total] of this is an objective uncertainty, but the inwardness is so very great, precisely because it grasps this objective uncertainty with all the passion of the infinite…But the definition of truth stated above is a paraphrasing of faith…Faith is the contradiction between the infinite passion of inwardness and the objective uncertainty.

Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments

That’s a lot of verbiage (he tends to do that) so let me repeat the key point: “Here is such a definition of truth: An objective uncertainty, held  fast through appropriation with the most passionate inwardness, is the truth,  the highest truth there is for an existing person.” Don’t get me started on “existing;” I’m already way above my pay grade.

It is our disciple from antiquity who makes the clearest case for this embrace of objective uncertainty with the strongest passion, in the final paragraphs of his Gospel. Having spent years writing the most objective and factual treatises in the interests of research, and at the end of his long journey that makes up the Gospel, having visited the other Disciples and found little to restore his faith, he at last comes to a life-or-death decision that forces him to decide between Fact and Faith, and chooses Faith:

I preferred, dear brother, in this final gesture, Faith to Truth.…
The Master Of The Universe’s gift to us is not Truth, which we clearly don’t have the capacity to perceive; it is instead the capacity for Faith. These past years I have allowed my obsession with what was true to lead me down faint, irrelevant paths. One cannot retrieve Faith by a world of proofs, facts, histories, and tracts, as if it were Truth one had lost.

I am leaving out a great deal here, since to reveal more would spoil the impact of the novel; as such, I’m afraid it seems weak and diluted. But trust me, the circumstances under which he declares this are goosebump-inducing, and brings me to tears every time I read it. This was the passage, late as it is in the book, that convinced me of the connection to Kierkegaard.

The book as a whole, however, embodies another of Kierkegaard’s themes. Even ten years ago, I described this novel as making fun of religion while still revering God and faith. Those who have strong beliefs in the tenets of the Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Catholicism in particular, might well find it an offensive book, as O’Hanrahan needles Lucy with tales of what people have done in the name of God: martyrs, Crusades, extremes of asceticism. Yet there’s that Voice of God, which keeps the focus on Something beyond all that, Something that wants more for us. It’s this Voice that recounts St. Francis of Assisi rejecting the trappings of his own ascendency:

His conscience led him to oppose his followers who raised a monastery in his honor – are the sick eased in their suffering? Will the poor be served? Francis was not listened to. So as Lucy and Gabriel and all the other children of Mine spend the night in serious thoughts, dreaming of the security of rules, orders, traditions, habits, the set routine from matins to nones, they would do well to consider the first Franciscan to resign his place in the order to continue the search for God: in 1220, St. Francis himself.

The tradition of mocking what people do with God goes back a long ways, even for Catholics.

This, too, was a Kierkegaardian theme. Philosophy professor and Existentialism scholar Robert Solomon sums it up in a lecture:

The problem with organized religion is it transfers what in fact is a very personal experience to something which is at its very heart purely institutional.
Now of course in this one can see Kierkegaard’s Protestantism reacting against essentially Catholicism, something which was a very common move of the day, but also he wants to move against Lutheranism itself, which, as far as he was concerned, had become much too herdlike, much too organized, and for all its talk about the inner spirit and the emphasis on individual freedom, nevertheless it was still much too impersonal, much too social, for his taste.

Robert Solomon, lecture available online

One can mock what people have made of God without mocking God, and here we have are 772 pages showing how.

The potential fourth aspect of Kierkegaard that shows up is his three levels of existence, from the Aesthetic to the Ethical to the Religious. I suspect O’Hanrahan is the symbol of the first, though, interestingly enough, he started out as a Jesuit priest, so his journey is convoluted. Lucy might display characteristics of the Ethical stage. And that leaves our Disciple, the ancient Gospelist, to show us Religious Existence, if only briefly. I’m too uncertain about the meanings of these terms to claim this, so only cite it as a possibility. Maybe in ten more years, I’ll have the understanding to go into more depth.

There’s something  about absurdity as well. O’Hanrahan delights in recounting the crazy things done in the name of religion – self-mutilation, imaginary foreskins as wedding rings, sitting atop a tower for years – and I wonder if those things seem absurd from the outside, but are part of each individual’s construct of faith. But, like the notions of Existence, I’m groping in the dark here, and need to understand Kierkegaard’s use if the term better.

The net result of my re-read: I still love this book, it still makes me cry in spite of myself. Because I too find little for me in organized religion, but can’t help feeling there is Something that all of the religions point to, like the Blind Men and the Elephant. This book brings me closer to understanding that Something than the hours I spent in Sunday School and prayer meetings and worship services during my Misspent Youth as a Fundamentalist; and, by the way, O’Hanrahan’s mock etymology of the word “fundamentalist” is a special treat – and based on fact, to boot.

Our Gospelist confides to us while on his way to find Reason in the city of Meroe:

I confess to a brief, foolish flirtation with the adventures of my youth, my brother. I lay awake at night, in the camps of other travelers, looking at the desert night sky and imagining that I should go into the court of Meroe and perform miracles as Moses before Pharaoh, that I should win over a kingdom where Matthew before me had failed. And that finally my gospel alone would touch another man’s heart and that the world might change ever so slightly toward the good and then it would be my words and faith that engendered this inclination.

This fictional gospel touched at least two fictional lives in soul-changing ways, and perhaps, situated in this novel, has had other effects beyond the confines of the fictional world. I’ve quoted that opening line several times (once, in connection with a math mooc, of all things).

A Medievalist I follow on Twitter remarked back in May, “One thing I wish more people got about pre-modern history is how very *little*  documentation usually survives and how little we actually know.” I wonder if that’s why religion in antiquity provides such a rich setting for fiction: it allows great leeway of fact while weaving among some of society’s most strongly-held beliefs.

I count this as a highly successful re-read. And I’m glad to realize I may have learned something from all those philosophy moocs.

George Saunders: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (RH, 2021)

We are going to enter seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art – namely, to ask the big questions: how are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it? How can we feel any peace when some people have everything and others have nothing? How are we supposed to live with joy in a world that seemed to want us to love other people but then roughly separates us from them in the end, no matter what?
(You know, those cheerful, Russian kinds of big questions.)

I haven’t read much Russian literature, and the little I’ve read hasn’t really stuck with me. Out of the seven stories Saunders investigates in this book, I’ve read two of them before. I didn’t get much out of them the first time; this was a wonderful opportunity to see what I’d missed.

The book is a 400-page encapsulation of the MFA course on the Russian Short Story that Saunders has taught at Syracuse University for the past 20 or so years. Each story gets an individual approach, since each story has its own way of unfolding.  Although the audience of the course is the emerging writer, each chapter first examines a story as a reader would, and only then brings in ways to incorporate the findings into writing. The first entry actually had me thinking, “I wonder if I could write a story using this kind of approach.” But then I came to my senses. It doesn’t matter which side of the page you live on; it’s worth reading.

Was there a place you found particularly moving? Something you resisted or that confused you? A moment when you found yourself tearing up, getting annoyed, thinking anew? Any lingering questions about the story? Any answer is acceptable. If you (my good-hearted trooper of a reader) felt it, it’s valid. If it confounded you, that’s worth mentioning. If you were bored or pissed off: valuable information. No need to dress up your response in literary language or express it in terms of “theme” or “plot” or “character development” or any of that.

This might be why I enjoyed the book so much: it’s approach to stories was similar to my approach in this blog. I always feel bad when, in September and January, I see page views climbing, knowing students have been assigned stories from the latest BASS and need to answer questions like: Who is the protagonist? What is the theme? What is the initiating event? Those students will be disappointed when I start rambling about what the story reminded me of, and why it might have made me side with one character or dislike another. It’s not that the technical elements are extraneous – they’re very important – but there’s a much more organic way of recognizing them. You can’t help but talk about them when you’re encountering a story as an experience, rather than an assignment. Saunders helps connect the two approaches.

We start off with Chekhov’s “In The Cart.”   

And again she thought of her pupils, of the examination, of the janitor, of the school board; and when the wind brought her the sound of the receding carriage these thoughts mingled with others. She wanted to think of beautiful eyes, of love, of the happiness that would never be… His wife? It is cold in the morning, there is no one to light the stove…. And at night she dreams of examinations, peasants, snowdrifts. And this life has aged and coarsened her, making her homely, angular, and clumsy, as though they had poured lead into her. She is afraid of everything and in the presence of a member of the Zemstvo Board or of the Trustee, she gets up and does not dare sit down again. And she uses obsequious expressions when she mentions any one of them. And no one likes her, and life is passing drearily, without warmth, without friendly sympathy, without interesting acquaintances. In her position how terrible it would be if she were to fall in love!

I ran into a challenge off the bat. Saunders begins with a brief preface asking what makes a reader keep reading. Then he proposes to answer that question by giving us the story one page at a time, followed by a pause in which we will consider “what has that page done to us.” What? No, no, that’s ridiculous, I’m going to fish out the separated pages and read the whole story… except I didn’t, because he knew what he was doing, he knew what questions to ask at the end of the first page. This is how I learned to trust George Saunders.

It was a remarkable reading experience, to find that the questions raised were indeed answered. Saunders calls it “a kind of call and response” and that’s a good a description as any. How did this sad, depleted woman get that way? I expect the story will serve up some situation that will challenge her current frame of mind, and she will either respond to it, or not. In fact, the story offers up a bit of a bluff at first, then, in the closing pages, shows what it is when someone becomes something else, even if just for a moment. Had I read the story for myself – had I read it all at once instead of chapter by chapter – would I have had the same experience? I doubt it.

I was even tempted to try to write a story using this kind of guide, this “set up a question, answer it but set up another one, keep an overall question going” kind of atmosphere. Don’t worry; I wasn’t tempted for long. I realized pretty quickly that’s a stupid reason to write a story, though it’s probably a great way to actualize a story that’s already in one’s mind, begging to be written.

Though that chapter-by-chapter approach was highly effective, Saunders returned to the more traditional read-then-analyze with the second story, “The Singers” by Turgenev. 

“What shall I sing?” asked the contractor, with mounting excitement.
“Anything you like,” replied Blinker. “Just think of something and sing it.”
“Yes, of course, anything you like,” added Nikolai Ivanych, slowly folding his arms across his chest. “We have no right to tell you what you should sing. Sing any song you like. Only, mind, sing it well, and we shall afterward decide without fear or favor.”
“Aye,” Booby put in, licking the rim of his empty glass, “so we shall – without fear or favor.” “Let me clear my throat a little, friends,” said the contractor, passing his fingers along inside the collar of his coat.
“Come now, don’t waste time – begin!” the Wild Gentleman said forcefully and dropped his eyes. The contractor thought a moment, shook his head, and stepped forward. Yashka stared fixedly at him.
But before proceeding with the description of the contest itself, it may be as well to say a few words about each or the characters of my story.

In the margin next to that line “But before proceeding…” I wrote, “WTF??!?” Seriously, you spend eight pages setting up a singing contest in a remote country bar, and then you stop to describe your characters? What kind of writer are you, Turgenev, anyway? And that turns out to be the focus of Saunders’ analysis:  “I teach ‘The Singers’ to suggest to my students how little choice we have about what kind of writer we’ll turn out to be.” Maybe he realized he wasn’t great at incorporating description into plot; maybe he didn’t realize it until he read over his draft, and he decided, not to fix it, but to capitalize on it. Maybe sometimes a reader’s WTF moment is an important part of the story experience.

As we read a story (let’s imagine) we’re dragging a cart labeled “Things I Couldn’t Help Noticing” (TICHN). As we read, we’re noticing — surface level, plot type things (“Romeo really seems to like Juliet”), but quieter things, too: aspects of language, say (“Tons of alliteration in the first three pages”), structural features (“It’s being told in reverse chronological order!”), patterns of color, flashbacks or flashforwards, changes in points of view. I’m not saying that we’re consciously noticing. Often, we’re not….
What we are adding to our TICHN cart are, let’s say, non-normative aspects of the story — aspects that seem to be calling attention to themselves through some sort of presentation and excess.
….A good story is one that, having created a pattern of excesses, notices those excesses and converts them into virtues.

Another thing that endeared this chapter to me was the title: “The Heart of the Story.” It’s a phrase I’ve used from time to time for the focus of a story’s meaning; not necessarily the climax, or the theme, or a moment, but the overall lifeforce. I thought I’d invented that phrase. It’s not all that unique, so I’m not surprised to see it elsewhere, but it’s comforting, like a slight pat on the back, that maybe I’m not totally crazy when I fumble around trying to convey my story experiences.

Chekhov’s “The Darling” is next.

She was always enamored of someone and could not live otherwise. At first it had been for Papa, who was now ill and sat in an arm chair in a darkened room, breathing with difficulty. Then she had devoted her affections to her aunt, who used to come from Bryansk every other year. Still earlier, when she went to school, she had been in love with her French teacher.

Saunders uses this story to examine patterns and what makes them work: “What transforms an anecdote into a story is escalation.” He brings out charts (“The Various Loves of Olenka”) and a diagram of the five-act structure, for those who just can’t live without technical details (I learned that he was an engineer before he was a writer; not the first time I’ve heard of someone making that transition, though we usually think of it going the opposite direction).

I think of this entry as more writerly than those preceding it, because the story itself is a bit easier to read and recognize its technique. Producing such a story is, of course, another matter.“Master and Man” by Tolstoy is the longest story included in the book, and, for me, the hardest to read.

Having driven through the snow they came out into a street. At the end house of the village some frozen clothes hanging on a line — shirts, one red and one white, trousers, leg-bands, and a petticoat — fluttered wildly in the wind. The white shirt in particular struggled desperately, waving its sleeves about.

Hard in that I felt like I was missing a lot conveyed by unfamiliar references; Saunders’ discussion of wormwood confirmed that for one element. Also hard because… well, it seemed too long, like there were points of interest but they were far apart, separated by long descriptions. And hard because I wasn’t sure what to make of it when I was finished. That’s why this book was written, of course: to help readers like me figure out how to make something of a story that eludes us.

I learned that Tolstoy is considered a writer who incorporates Christian morality and ethics into his work (though perhaps less so in his life); maybe he’s the Russian analogue of Flannery O’Connor (or she him, since he preceded her by a century). This made the “Eye of God” viewpoint particularly interesting to me. I also appreciated how all this morality was conveyed with the usual explicit epiphany, and I loved Saunders’ interpretation:

Vasili does not launch into a soliloquy or internal monologue describing his changed feelings about master/ peasant relations or his radical new understanding of Christian virtue as it applies to the treatment of the less fortunate…. He just acts…. Vasili has changed. We know this because of what he’s just done. It’s kind of a miracle of writing. Without narrating the logic of the transformation, Tolstoy has made Vasili do exactly what the story made us believe he could never do….
Tolstoy is proposing something radical: moral transformation, when it happens, happens not through the total remaking of the sinner or the replacement of his habitual energy with some pure new energy but by a redirection of his (same old) energy.

A brief digression: When I read Saunders’ short story “Tenth of December” a few years ago, I used as header art a photograph by artist Riitta Päiväläinen: a laundry line full of frozen clothes. This was in response to the story’s use of a frozen coat in the snow. Now I see frozen laundry as an image in this story, and read Saunders’ interpretation of it, and feel like I was ahead of my time.     

The story still feels tedious and hard to read (possibly the side-effect of too much contemporary fiction, when tends to be more streamlined) but I can now admire what it does. Worth a book, right there.

Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose” is one of the stories I’d read before.

Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov woke up rather early and made a “b-rr-rr” sound with his lips as he was wont to do an awakening, although he could not have explained the reason for it. Kovalyov stretched and asked for the small mirror standing on the table. He wanted to have a look at the pimple which had, the evening before, appeared on his nose. But to his extreme amazement he saw that he had, in place of his nose, a perfectly smooth surface. Frightened, Kovalyov called for some water and rubbed his eyes with a towel: indeed, no nose! He ran his hand over himself to see whether or not he was asleep. No he didn’t think so. The Collegiate Assessor jumped out of bed and shook himself – no nose! He at once ordered his clothes to be brought to him, and flew of straight to the chief of police.

A decade ago, when I was still harboring delusions that I could write stories, I wrote a flash I titled “The Man With the Nose in His Living Room.” A reviewer in an online workshop dismissed it as derivative of Gogol’s “The Nose,” which I hadn’t read but had someone copied. I found it online and read it, and couldn’t see anything in common with my story except the word “nose” (the nose in my piece was an advertising symbol from a closed-down bakery, which a homeless man took to a house he sometimes broke into for shelter and invited a woman from the soup kitchen to join him… the similarities in the story elude me still). I regarded Gogol’s nose as something of a novelty piece, fun to read but not sure why it was considered great literature. So I was glad to have Saunders teach me.

…[T]he meaning of a story in which something impossible happens is not that the thing happened (it’s only language after all, with somebody at the other end of it, making it up) but in the way the story reacts to the impossibility. That is how the story tells us what it believes.

This opened up worlds to me, not just for this story but for all the stories that include fantastical elements. Reginald McKnight’s “Float” came to mind, since, unbelievably, I’d actually  made that connection back when I wrote about it: it’s not about the shoe, it’s about how everyone regards the shoe. Again, I’m really excited that I stumbled across something that happens to be a real thing (and please don’t tell me if I’m misinterpreting, I don’t get to be excited about my own writing that often).

Saunders also discusses skaz, a Russian storytelling tradition that I’ve come across before in connection with Toni Morrison and in my second person study. It’s described as the blurring of lines between narrator and narrated, but Saunders makes it seem a bit more encompassing than that.

What really struck me was his comment about ‘…[S]omething troubling (a missing nose, a hateful political agenda) is met with polite, well-intentioned civility — a civility that wants things to go on as usual.” Don’t tell me 19th century stories have nothing to do with contemporary society. There’s nothing new under the sun, after all.

“Gooseberries” is another story I’d read before.

Ivan Ivanych came out of the cabin, plunged into the water with a splash and swam in the rain, thrusting his arms out wide; he raised waves on which white lilies swayed. He swam out to the middle of the river and dived and a minute later came up in another spot and swam on and kept on diving, trying to touch bottom. ‘By God!’ he kept repeating delightedly, ‘by God!’ He swam to the mill, spoke to the peasants there, and turned back and in the middle of the river lay floating, exposing his face to the rain. Burkin and Alyohin were already dressed and ready to leave, but he kept on swimming and diving. ‘By God!’ he kept exclaiming, ‘Lord have mercy on me!’ ‘You’ve had enough!’ Burkin shouted to him.

Note that this is the passage from which the book takes its title, a book which joyfully splashes about in stories. On my prior reading, I’d come away with the idea (perhaps harvested from googling resources and analyses) that the story is about the guy who has to be happy eating his sour, hard gooseberries, even though they’re obviously not edible, and the kind of self-delusion (or self-will) that requires. Joy didn’t enter into it. Thank you, George Saunders, for bringing the joy.

Because, in addition to examining another digression in great detail, he points out how every instance of joy – whether the swim or bathing for the first time in months or the new house or the drowsiness that leaves a pipe uncleaned – requires a balance of misery: someone’s impatient to get on with the walk, filthy water that pours off the bather, the gooseberries themselves, the stench in the next room. And this brought me to Le Guin, and Omelas: if every joy depletes someone else, is joy ethical? Saunders’ point is that the story takes several viewpoints at the same time and refuses to fully endorse or disavow any of them.

Tolsoy’s “Alyosha the Pot,” the shortest story in the book, finishes things off.

[S]uddenly, in the second half of the second year, something happened to him that had never happened before in his life. This something was that he found out, to his amazement, that besides those connections between people based on someone needing something from somebody else, there are also very special connections: not a person having to clean boots or take a parcel somewhere or harness up a horse, but a person who was in no real way necessary to another person could still be needed by that person, and caressed, and that he, Alyosha, was just such a person. This he learned from the cook, Ustinya…. Alyosha felt for the first time that he – he himself, not his work – but he himself was needed by another person.

This too brings in a great deal of morality and Christian virtue: is humility a good thing, or can it be overdone? Saunders spends a lot of time on the amazement issue, how it relates to the final few sentences in which Alyosha is again amazed, and how the amazements could be connected.

— —

The book ends with an Appendix containing three writing exercises: editing, escalation, and translation. I haven’t done any of them. Yet. I’m trying to resist, because who knows what will happen if I get it into my head that I should try writing stories again.

Since this is a new book – brand new, just published this year – it may not seem to fit into the “re-reading” theme of this In-Between-Reading period. However, two of the stories Saunders discusses are stories I’ve read before, so I’m slipping it in (besides, I said I’d be doing some new reads, so it fits there, too). However it fits in, I’m very glad I read it; it’s a delight to read, and I hope it will give me more ways to think about stories as I read forward.

A final digression: I ordered the book online from my local independent bookseller for shipping to my apartment ten blocks away, as that’s how these things are done during pandemics. When it arrived, I saw that it was a signed copy. It may be the only signed book I have, and I got it by accident. I’m very glad I did.

* * *

  • Indiebound Book Link
  • LARoB review
  • Reginald McKnight’s short story “Float” online at Georgia Review.
  • My blog post on “Float”.
  • Riitta Päiväläinen photograph “Vestige: Ice and Wind”
  • Zin Kenter’s flash fiction “The Man With the Nose in His Living Room” online at FriGG.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

I’ve encountered this book several times over the years, but as I came to the end of this read, this re-read for my ReRead Project, I began to wonder: did I ever read the whole book before? Those last lines quoted above are practically memorized, of course, but the opening paragraph was unfamiliar, and my memory of the book seemed to end a couple of chapters before the book itself came to a close.

I don’t think it was a book I was assigned in high school, but when Robert Redford was cast as Gatsby, I dug in. [Hey, come on, some day Idris Elba will seem like an old man to your grandkids, too.] Then in college, when I did a teaching pre-practicum at a local high school, the class was studying Gatsby so I read it again. I again started it back when Colbert had his short-lived Book Club, but I got distracted by something I don’t remember now (see how that works?) and didn’t get very far. And now I’m beginning to wonder if I ever read the whole thing at all, if I’ve just picked up a lot of commentary so that it feels like I read it.

I decided to add it to my re-read list because of a tweet that happened to float by me a few months ago. Someone mentioned that there was a line of analysis claiming Gatsby was a black man, or part black, and was passing. I’d never heard that before; it sounded like a really interesting hypothesis. It’s based on several  factors: the forty acres on which Gatsby’s mansion sits, the predominance of the color yellow (“high yellow” is a term for a light-skinned or white-appearing black person), the honorary medal from Montenegro, the original working title Trimalchio (a freed Roman slave famous for his parties), and Tom Buchanan’s racist rant. Since so much of Gatsby’s persona is based on his escaping his childhood past on the North Dakota farm, it seemed plausible to me that race could be part of it.

Scholars don’t seem as easily swayed, however. One sputtered, “If Fitzgerald wanted to write about blacks, it wouldn’t have taken 75 years to figure it out. If that’s what Fitzgerald wanted, he would have made it perfectly clear in April 1925.” I had to laugh at that one given how good white America is at ignoring, or co-opting, anything that isn’t white, then claiming it doesn’t exist.

But while I’m intrigued by the theory, I had to step off the train when Gatsby’s father showed up for the funeral. Nothing in his demeanor suggested his son was black, or mixed race, or even had that proverbial one drop of blood that would have characterized him at the time. And, had Fitzgerald been deliberately inserting this theme, that would have been the place, giving Nick even more uncertainty about his friend. I’ll leave the analysis to those more qualified than I, but for this reason I remain skeptical. I don’t consider it a wasted trip, more of a detour full of interesting scenery.

And by the way: I didn’t remember the funeral at all from prior readings, which is a big reason I wonder if I ever read the entire book.

I wanted to get out and walk eastward toward the park through the soft twilight but each time I tried to go I became entangled in some wild strident argument which pulled me back as if with ropes, into my chair. Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.

Other riches in the book came to my attention via a FiveBooks weekend reader (FiveBooks asks every Saturday: What are you reading this weekend? and the responses, and interactions, often show me interesting new directions) who recommended Maureen Corrigan’s book And So We Read On, a history of the book and its place in the literary canon. I don’t have a copy (yet) but listened to a talk she gave for the 2015 National Book Festival. I was surprised to learn that Gatsby was not that popular on publication. Fitzgerald never saw himself as a success; in later life, he’d wander into bookstores to see if his books were available, and they rarely were. That’s a book right there.

I have a fondness for Fitzgerald that comes from another story of his, “Thank You For the Light,” a story that was soundly rejected by The New Yorker in the 30s (“…this Fitzgerald story is altogether out of the question. It seems to us so curious and so unlike the kind of thing we associate with him, and really too fantastic”). Even readers in 2012 when it was finally published, hated it, called it a story written to serve up a punch line. I loved it for my own reasons, reasons Fitzgerald probably didn’t share: the bestowal of compassion from an unusual source. He probably wrote it as a lark, but I can see how he might have craved the same kind of mercy his character received, and how he, too, might have made a joke out of it rather than turning maudlin.

But back to Gatsby. Another thing I didn’t remember was how beautifully he wrote. How can you read a book and forget the paragraphs of Nick’s musing. The opening paragraph itself should have stuck in my mind:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
He didn’t say any more but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person…. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.

It becomes obvious later, of course, that Nick, who holds himself to be the only honest man he’s ever met, turns out to be full of crap, and this paragraph, in which he interprets “advantages” a bit differently than we would expect, sets it up so that we can’t miss it. Yet I missed it, whenever I read the book earlier. If I ever did.

And that’s what I take with me from this entry in my ReRead project. Oh, I’m glad to more fully understand the book, but what horrifies me is how I thought I already did. I wonder what I’m reading now that I’m not really getting, or if I’m forgetting entire sections of novels that change the overall experience. I’m beginning to think re-reading is as important as reading; maybe I should incorporate more of it into my life. So I don’t continue to forget what I don’t remember.

* * *

Maureen Corrigan discusses her book, So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures.

Salon Article:  “Was Gatsby Black?”

Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice (Penguin 1985)

“How despicably I have acted!” she cried; “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.”

I haven’t failed to notice that the number of visits to this blog follows the American school year; and thus I have surmised that students are looking for clues to help with their homework, with talking points for classroom discussions, for writing assignments, exams, etc. I hate to disappoint them, but there’s really nothing here that will help. Oh, I’ll throw in a few sources at the end, but for heaven’s sake there’s plenty of that out there and my two cents isn’t worth the effort to type.

My purpose for these re-reads, particularly with the two Literary Classics, is instead to trace my own reactions to the book over the years. It’s an idea that I found in a short story, “To the Measures Fall” by Richard Powers (yes, The Overstory guy) in a Pushcart volume from ten years ago. That’s how long it’s taken me to follow through.

I first read P&P in high school. It would have been 1971 or so. It was not a good time for me; I was sunken into the first of what would be many major depressive episodes. So I didn’t think it was funny, or cheeky, or cute, or satirical. It scared the hell out of me. So many rules! How to talk, what to say, what to do, how to visit friends, how to go to a ball. And if someone didn’t follow the rules, there would be scathing gossip about their lapses. How did people learn to do all these things? You might think I was an idiot for not realizing it was a different era, but TV and movies at the time were full of people “dressing for dinner” and holding conversations with perfect strangers, knowing how to breeze into a town with a couple of lovebirds in a cage and end up hiding in the corner of a house when the birds attacked. I was scared to go to a football game; college was out of the question.

So I missed all the stuff that might have helped. Like Elizabeth’s terrific line, “There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.” Or the irony when she said, “That would be the greatest misfortune of all! – To find a man agreeable whom one is determined to hate!”

I read it for a second time – really a first time, since I barely read it at all in high school, just a few lines from random pages – in college, and had a much better time. At least, I think I did. I don’t remember any details, just a lot of character shifts as Elizabeth goes from hating Darcy to liking him, and from admiring Wickham to realizing he’s a piece of work. I was quite taken with the letters, and wrote my required paper more on the English postal service of the era rather than on the ironies, plot twists, and character revelations.

And now I read it again, and find I’m still impatient with all the girls-fret-about-boys stuff in the first half of the novel. It gets a lot more interesting when set against the customs of the time, since marriage was a matter of survival. And that may be what I got out of it overall: no matter how badly textualists want to scream about literature existing in itself, context matters, and the novel doesn’t make sense unless 21st century social mores are held at bay and the realities of the 19th century are better understood. I think of Mrs. Bennett, a flibbertygibbet if there ever was one, cranking out one baby after another hoping for the male child who will assure the family’s future, but surrounding herself with daughters who will be victims of the entailment against the estate. Then there’s all of Elizabeth’s fretting about her family’s reputation ruining her prospects for marriage, particularly when Lydia takes off with Wickham.

It turned out that the Lydia episode caught my interest the most at this point. It was hilarious, in a kind of tragic way, that marrying her to this conniving and dishonest shark was seen as the best solution. But it made for a merry chase.

As an aside: I bought a used copy of the book, my college copy having long ago disappeared, and discovered someone had underlined all the passages I wanted to underlined, and had written brief summaries on the first page of each chapter. That isn’t so odd for a used copy of a widely-read text, but what kind of freaked me out was how much the handwriting resembled mine of thirty years ago! For all I know, this was my college copy, come back to haunt me!

I used to say most 60s sitcoms and romcoms would be ruined if anyone ever spoke honestly what was on their mind. That’s the case here, as well. Elizabeth begins to think she might like Darcy, but doesn’t want that to be evident to anyone. Jane doesn’t want anyone to know she’s heartbroken at losinn Bingley. In fact, the most honest character might be Lydia, who openly declares she wants to snare her a soldier, and everyone assumes she doesn’t really mean it until they hear she’s headed for Scotland (I’m still not sure exactly why Scotland is so evil, but it has something to do with marrying people without the usual strictures of English society, a less respectable marriage. I don’t even want to get into the burden on women to uphold all this respectablility, when it’s the men in the legal and governing professions who have placed such restrictions on their ability to survive outside of marriage.

All in all, I still view this as a fun book. Yes, I know, there’s all this literary gold, but it’s hard to keep a straight face when reading it. I gave up on Bridget Jones’ Diary one of the contemporary resettings of the general plot, pretty early in the film when it came out long ago, for the same reason. But I admire Jane Austen for putting it all out there at a time when no one else would.

* * *

Ten Things to Know before Reading “Pride and Prejudice” by Jay Pawlyk: a handy video review of the historical and social background.

John Green’s Crash Course on P&P: John Green has quite a following from his YA books, but I find his rapid-fire style exhausting; I’m out of breath after the first minute. Those younger than I will surely enjoy them more, and they do contain some good information.

The story of the  P&P Cake created by Night Kitchen Bakery in Philadelphia in March, 2021 (header image). The peacock edition, no less!

It’s time for In-Between Reading 2021: The Plan

Once again I’m between Pushcart and BASS, and so have several months to devote to reading other things.

Somewhere within this year bouncing between anxieties about pandemic and elections, I remembered all the re-reading I used to do. I had a whole list of books I reread every year (given how long that list was, I’m surprised I found time to read anything new). When I started blogging, re-reading stopped. That means it’s been well over a decade since I’ve read some of my old favorites. And, of course, it’s been many more decades since I read some literary standards in high school and college.

So I’m devoting this In-Between year to re-reading. Not entirely; I  have quite a few new (or at least new-to-me) books on my TBR shelf. But I want to re-read some of those old-friend books (I had to buy new copies of some of them, they were so tattered from their annual outings), see if any of them look different given all the focused reading and study I’ve been doing. Do I see flaws I never noticed? Do I see more depth than I did before I started concentrating on reading for subtlety and nuance?

I’m starting with a couple of literary standards:

  • Pride and Prejudice, which crops up so often in mentions I wanted to refresh my memory;
  • The Great Gatsby, which ended up on the list because someone mentioned a theory in which Gatsby was a black man passing for white. That would give a whole different read, wouldn’t it.

Then, one of my all time favorite science fiction collections:

  • The Past Through Tomorrow, Robert Heinlein: in recent months I’ve thought of several of the stories from this book, such as “If This Goes On…,” “The Logic of Empire,” and “The Man Who Sold the Moon.” I’ve also been thinking about The Crazy Years a lot lately. It’s possible this may lead to other Heinlein collections, like The Menace from Earth, since “By His Bootstraps” is maybe my favorite SF story of all time (and by the way  it’s pretty amazing that Heinlein wrote the ultimate teenage romance as the title story).

In historical fiction:

  • Winds of War and War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk. World War II in 1600 pages, and the only thing he left out was the internment of American citizens of Japanese descent for no good reason.

Nonfiction:

  • And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts. This was spectacular journalism, following AIDS from The Feast of Hearts to Rock Hudson. For obvious reasons this has been on my mind lately: the government ignoring a health crisis for political reasons, the people most at risk unwilling to change their behaviors in the name of freedom.

And a religiously themed novel for those who can’t take religion too seriously but don’t let that stop them from contemplating the nature of God and how it all works:

  • Gospel by Wilton Barnhardt. Every time I come to the end, I miss God.
  • I may re-read Jo Walton’s Lent as well, though I read it not so long ago, just because it was so interesting (for those of us who find Renaissance humanism vs the Church to be interesting).

As for my “new” books:

  • Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam; so many people raved about this, I had to get it.
  • The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans;  typically I wait for paperbacks, but I really want to read the title story (I’ve encountered two of the other stories in BASS).
  • A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders; I know very little about Russian stories, so this is like taking a class.
  • The New Order by Karen Bender; inspired by her story “The Shame Exchange” from Pushcart 2021, and a tempting description of the title story.
  • The Chain by Adrian McKinty; every Saturday, Five Books asks, “What are you reading this weekend?” and someone mentioned this in a way that sounded terrific. An impulse selection.
  • The Last Samurai by  Helen Dewitt. This has nothing to do with the Tom Cruise movie, but was listed as one of the best novels ever by… I don’t remember, someone somewhere; I’ll figure it out when I get to it.

I have a couple of poetry chapbooks that I might slip in as well:

  • The Book of Fly by John Phillip Johnson, bought because of his poem of the same name in Pushcart 2021.
  • Gallimaufry & Farrago by Kathleen Balma; there’s a long story behind this, since I first encountered her several years ago and then just recently came across her work again.

That doesn’t sound like a lot for seven or eight months of reading. However, remember that some of those re-reads are pretty massive. And I can always get more books if I start to run out!

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Click to End

No pandemics will keep us down. Many more will be on the horizon. If you have doubts about our future, banish them. Be inspired. Be comforted. Read on.

Bill Henderson, Introduction

In my pre-read post, a space I typically use to help change gears and root myself in the upcoming work I’ve chosen to do, I mentioned that there were fewer entries in this year’s Pushcart; in particular, fewer nonfiction pieces. I was nonetheless surprised to see, when I counted posts and compared to prior years, that this year’s volume had the fewest entries – despite having included more poems than in the last two years. I’m not sure those statistics mean anything, but I include them because I noticed. Noticing often precedes, and is essential for, understanding, after all.

The themes that jumped out at me this year were: the battle between cynicism and sincerity; grief and its many forms of expression; and relationships. These are not unique categories, particularly that last one, but I was interested in how they interwove, combining in different ways in different stories. The volume closed with a meditation on the flow of water, a nice way to envision all the writing and reading continuing on after the book is closed.

I enjoyed many of the pieces in this book, but I’ll give a special shout-out to a few.

Upright at Thyatira” by Darrell Kinsey became something like last year’s “The Last Voyage of the Alice B. Toklas” in that it built itself around an element I’m interested in, and also had a message that touched me.

Karen Bender’s “The Shame Exchange” had me jumping up and down, it’s such a good idea; if only it could be instantiated in real life.

I’m a little nervous about giving Nicklaus Rupert’s “Aunt Job” a shout-out, because it’s kind of perverted; but it’s also constructed well enough to handle it and earns its humor. And, more than that, it’s an incredibly brave story for a magazine to publish, and for Pushcart to include.

The poems I included were wonderful:

The Book of Fly” by John Phillip Johnson enticed me to buy his chapbook of the same title, a graphic poetry collection (graphic in the sense of illustrated, not obscene; I’m still of the generation that feels such a distinction is necessary).

David Wohjahn’s “Fifty-Eight Percent…” is a wonderfully constructed emotional powerhouse on the Holocaust. Yes, pretty much anything about the Holocaust is going to be emotional, but this was a master class in how to build.

Leila Chatti’s “The Rules” and Matthew Olzmann’s “Blake Griffin Dunks Over a Car” both dealt with the theme of cynicism vs sincerity in very concrete ways, and waved off all the workshoppers who dismiss sentimentality simply because it’s not cool. These poems show how to express that gooey center of us all without venturing into Hallmark Card territory.

It was strange to be reading stories and poems written in 2019. So much is different now, more than we could have anticipated. That’s the risk, I suppose, of writing with too much attention to the moment; the moment might pass, another moment might take priority. A lot of writers on my Twitter feed were advising each other to keep away from pandemic stories over the past year, primarily because there were so many of them and they weren’t fully fleshed-out pieces.

The other issue is that the impact of the moment isn’t yet fully known. Grief, of course, and isolation, but there may be a larger picture that becomes evident only years down the line. What of the kids who missed out on proms and graduations? That may seem trivial, but in the life of a teenager, the trivial often takes on huge importance. What of scaled-down weddings, of lonely funerals (so many lonely funerals), of connections via churches and community events that were sacrificed? Of course, there have been worse disruptions in routine; anyone who’s read anything set in the World War II years (or who has relatives who lived in that time – my in-laws had quite a story) can tell you that. The weeks of 9/11 took their toll. But the past year has been confusing for a lot of us, and we won’t be reading about that for several years to come.

Yet writing of this volume managed to capture the moment. Some of that was judicious editing: opening the volume with a story of a woman preparing for a variety of catastrophes, while ending up blindsided by the one she didn’t see coming, was a great choice. The conflict between irony and sincerity mirrored our split between defiance and prudence, while still highlighting how easy it is to be hard and cold and not let anything really touch us, and how much is lost that way. And of course grief, with all its different manifestations, is a constant human theme. 

I was quite distracted in this past month so I may have overlooked some later pieces that would have grabbed me had I been more attentive. Life is like that sometimes. We miss a stretch of scenery because there’s someone tailgating us and we need to pay attention to the road. I’m hoping my grip on the steering wheel will loosen over the next few weeks, but for now, it’s enough to just keep going.

Next year, in a better state of mind. Next year, wherever.

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Sangamithra Iyer, “Governing Bodies” (nonfiction) from Kenyon Review #XLI/1

I do think our younger selves are always still a part of us, but like our memories, we can’t access them fully. This is also true for family history for many of us, where colonialism, war, migration or death have left those of us still living with only pieces of stories. “Governing Bodies” is a narrative formed by salvaging fragments, while acknowledging the losses. I was also exploring other kinds of split-selves from the elephant-headed Ganesha to colonized subjects under the British rule like my grandparents, as well as logging elephants who once roamed free. I was interested in this tension between subjugation and freedom, complacency and rebellion, and the moments when a suppressed self rises to the surface.

Sangamithra Iyer, Author Interview at Kenyon Review

Iyer covers a lot of ground in this essay – her grandfather’s life in Burma and India, her loss of her first language, her experience as a childhood immigrant to the US, her reactions to the legends of Ganesha and stories of prearranged marriages, her decision to continue vegetarianism outside of her upbringing – but the image that stays with me most is water. Flow. I’ve always been fond of the Lao Tzu idea that water, the softest of things, overcomes hardness with its flexibility, but Iyer has something different in mind: continuity. The self, maintaining its integrity over time and distance and changes.

But her life, and her grandfather’s life, is aligned with water in a more concrete sense. Grandfather was a civil engineer until he walked away from one way of life and became a water diviner – yes, the guys with sticks who find water – and activist with Gandhi in India. This decision is the backbone of the essay.

Iyer, too, became an engineer, but recounts her life in terms of water:

The Irrawaddy River in Burma is named after the mythical, multi-trunked, white elephant, Airavata, whose name is derived from the Sanskrit word Iravat, “one who is produced from water.” My family history is a story produced from water. If I were to trace my grandfather’s engineering career, I’d follow it along the Irrawaddy River. If I were to trace mine, I’d follow it from streams in the Catskill Mountains through aqueducts and tunnels to New York City’s pipes and faucets. My experience is also in the Yosemite Valley—Sierra Nevada snowmelt that gravity carries to San Francisco. It is on rooftops and in rain barrels in Cameroon; in buckets in the Sanaga River.

I got a bit distracted (don’t I always) by a single sentence later in the piece: “Can you re-create a life—re-member a body—from the knowns and the unknowns?” Iyer was describing various ways her bodily truth – her first language, her early yoga training – was no longer accessible to her.  I was quite taken with that idea of re-membering the body’s memories, dismembered by time and change. However, I discovered that the etymology of “remember” is very different from that of “dismember”; the first comes from the Latin memor, mindful, and the second, from the Latin membrum, limb. I was disappointed to learn this; thinking of the words as related felt much more satisfying.

Iyer’s investigation into her grandfather’s life revealed other fascinating tidbits, such as the account, by a gentleman known as Elephant Bill, of training elephants to haul teak for commerce. This ties in with Ganesha, of course, and tangentially to her vegetarianism. Even here, I see water coursing around, getting into nooks and crannies that a hard, straight substance like iron would overlook.

In researching her grandfather’s life, she discovered his employment records indicated he was “permitted” to resign. We can say it was a different time, we can talk about how the world has changed, but when one man decides whether to permit another to resign, that means something else: in this case, colonialism. And again, she brings in the water metaphor:

But I wonder what his resignation letter—this document that signified his shift from engineer to activist, from civil servant to freedom fighter, from subject to rebel—said. Thatha, like all of us, was produced mostly of water. It wasn’t about resigning but rather about restoring flow—like water desiring to be undammed.

It’s a lovely essay, full of interesting events (her moment in school when she refused a hamburger; a yoga class where the child’s pose is eventually recalled; her childhood horror at the idea of an arranged marriage) that all work with this idea of flow, with the continuity of self even as the self changes, and the ability to find one’s course.

I think that may be why the editors of this volume chose this as the last piece. Literature will continue on. We will continue on. Even after a year of disruption and isolation, grief and loss, we are changed but we are still who we are. And there will be a next year, and a new volume to read. We will find our direction.

* * *

Essay available online at Kenyon Review

Author interview available online at Kenyon Review

Editor’s note “Why We Chose It” available online at Kenyon Review

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Luis Alberto Urrea, “The Night Drinker” from McSweeney’s #58

McSweeney’s Art
What will the world look like in 20 years if climate change goes unchecked? That’s the premise of “2040 A.D.,” a new collection of short stories published by McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern.… Each contributor to “2040 A.D.” was paired with a climate expert from the NRDC [Natural Resources Defense Council], who provided scientific research and support, according to Rob Moore, director of the organization’s Water and Climate Team. The role of the NRDC in the project, Moore said, “was really to be a resource and support each author’s creative process. Where they wanted to ground something in a plausible scenario from a climate science standpoint, we were there to help them figure out what that would look like.” What that looks like in Urrea’s story “The Night Drinker” is a world full of deprivation and delusion brought to the brink of apocalypse by climate-related events. Taking place in Mexico City, the story includes mass human displacement, drought, volcanic eruptions – and a human response that centers more on superstition than logic or reason. “The degradation of the planet is not simply a scientific or ecological conflagration,” Urrea writes, “but also an eroding of the human mind.”

WTTW News by Quinn Myers

Back in 2009, McSweeney’s #32 asked ten writers to contribute a story about life in 2024 (I’d just started reading/blogging BASS, PEN and Pushcart, and encountered three of them). Fewer than half dealt with climate change. It’s interesting to look at that list of stories now that the target date is around the corner. That’s the problem with not-so-distant future predictions: chances are your audience is going to be able to check it out for real. I remember someone in high school quipping, “1984 is only 15 years away!” And as Ethics in Bricks reminds us every once in a while, “What Orwell failed to predict is that we’d buy the cameras ourselves, and that our biggest fear would be that nobody was watching  – Keith Lowell Jensen”.

McSweeney’s innovation this time around was to recruit climate scientists from NRDC to work with the writers and have the stories specifically look at the effects of climate change in 2040 if – big if – efforts to mitigate the effects are not undertaken. They left room for hope. “The solutions are all here before us,” says Rob Moore, paired with Urrea, in the news story above. “It’s a matter of mustering the will to actually employ them.” In the interview with that article, Urrea said, “I wanted to make it visceral. Rather than theoretical or artful or cautionary, I wanted people to understand that there’s something really awful coming for us.”

The story starts out more intellectual than visceral, but by the end, oh yes, visceral it is.

In those years, the one world, Ce Anahuac as the Aztecs called it, was dying of fever. The world was so hot that monarch butterflies easily caught fire in our mountains. Once the whales died, the oceans crawled onto the shore faster than the scientists had predicted. They came ashore like insidious, living beings, filling the lowlands and drowning the ports. Many crops perished down below; the Mexican plateau around us was safe from ocean flood, but not from drought….The agua negra poisoned aquifers, as if punishing the land for its sins. Soon, the salted tides corrupted hydroelectric plants and caused blackouts all over the country. Here in La Capital, as my generation still called it, we had wind generators, solar panels, and smart roofs that she was greenery, filters, and rain collection to try to clear the air.

That’s before things get visceral.

Urrea chose the setting of Mexico City, once again emerging, as it was in pre-Columbian times, as one of the biggest and most thriving cities in the world. His narrator is the diary of a historian, hence the story is subtitled: A CHRONICLE OF THE LAST DAYS OF TENOCHTITLAN, BUILT ON LAKE TEXCOCO, KNOWN NOW AS MEXICO CITY, HOME OF THE ANCIENT GODS. 2040 A.D. FROM THE NOTEBOOKS OF JOAQUIN HERNANDEZ III, HISTORIAN. FOUND IN THE RUINS OF IZTAPALAPA, 2045. We are left to wonder who was left to go digging in the ruins five years after the end of the world in Tenochtitlan, but it does lend another glimpse of hope. Maybe not everyone will survive, but maybe the species, the human culture, will.

Climate refugees are a big part of the story, and Urrea emphasizes in his interview that’s because it’s already happening, whether we recognize it or not. He puts a bitter contemporary twist on it: Americans are pouring into Mexico City as the American West crumbles. “Those of us with dark senses of humor, and what Mexican does not have a dark sense of humor, found it amusing that the parts of the great border wall still above water were used to tie off the boats of floating scavengers and the undocumented.”

He weaves together not just recent history, but Aztec history and the mythologies that have survived for half a millennium. It’s a story I second-read at my computer, looking up Tlaloc, Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, Ehecatl. And the Night Drinker himself, the Flayed One, who fed humanity with his own body – and was worshipped with human sacrifice in similar vein.

Visceral, indeed.

The eventual collapse comes as the result of a pop culture phenomenon from the tin foil hat side of things, a Youtube broadcaster “reminiscent of the old televangelists”:

For Hermanito Jorge had a specific theme: that narcos and sicarios, without knowing it, had begun reenacting Aztec human sacrifice rituals. …Hermanito Jorge maintains that the reenactment of sacrifice would awaken the old gods, who which come to the portals between worlds, thinking that we had returned to their true religion. But that sooner or later, their joy would collapse into rage. These sacrifices were not loving gestures, were not ceremonies beseeching them for mercy and increase, but irreligious acts of greed and commerce.

From there, things get more grotesque; Urrea calls it a horror story for good reason. Our historian finds himself questioning his sanity. And, again, we are left to wonder who picked up the pieces five years later – and if another collapse will befall them, too.

I felt the sense of the rolling back of civilization. We’ve become separated from our natural environment thanks to air conditioners and sump pumps and genetically engineered drought-resistant seeds; no wonder so much of modern Christianity scorns efforts to save the planet, in favor of flaunting domination over it. But nature is a powerful force, which is why she is so often conflated with God, and does her own dominating.

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NRDC blog entry on the project available online

WTTW News interview with Urrea available online: New Collection of ‘Climate Fiction’ Explores the World in 2040

Pushcart 2021 XLV: Siqi Liu, “Chastity” (nonfiction) from The Harvard Advocate, Fall 2019

Funeral banner of Lady Dai (Xin Zhui), 2nd century B.C.E., silk
We didn’t think of chastity in terms of sex, of course. Sex was bourgeois, individualistic, dirty. We never thought about sex (we only thought about sex when we saw dogs doing it in the streets, but that was before they were all eaten along with the cats and rats). We believed chastity was like loyalty. Devoting your body to a person and a cause. Our Great Leader told us that a revolutionary should be loyal to the Party and free of vulgar desires, so we strove to be chaste. We purged ourselves of all but the most necessary wants. Aside from the popsicles—the only thing that stood between us and heat strokes—we ate one meal a day. We allowed ourselves to smile only when we discussed revolutionary activities. We never wanted the boys with whom we went to the river; the only man we found handsome was Our Great Leader.

I characterized the prior story of this volume, “In a Good Way,” as a “raunchy, humorous good time of a story” full of “characters who think about sex all the time.” How interesting that it’s followed up by a piece describing an era and place in which a younger group of characters, real-life people this time in a non-fiction setting, also think about sex all the time. But it’s a more general expression of sex – pleasure, beauty, joy – and it’s strictly subjugated to appreciation of the Party and the Great Leader.

The place is China, the time, the 1970s, the end of the Mao era. The story for our pre-teen point-of-view character – and forgive me if I react to the story as if it’s fiction, for it’s written very much in fictive style even though it’s clearly labeled nonfiction – begins with the discovery of the 2100-year-old mummy Xin Zhui, popularly called Lady Dai. She’s also called The Ancient Hag, pairing admiration of her imagined beauty with the culturally-necessary disdain for her embrace of capitalism, wealth, and comfort.

Here’s the description of the mummy, the way she was seen by the neighborhood girls who crowded to view the mummy every day for months:

We saw the 2,100-year-old woman in a makeshift museum exhibit later. Her breasts, chalky white and full of craters, reminded us of the moon. Her tiny nose hairs—still intact thanks to the acidic, magnesium-rich preservation liquid that soaked her body—looked like either the legs of the flies that we regularly caught or the hairs that were beginning to sprout from our own armpits. Her face was the shape of a sunflower seed and her mouth, gaping open with the tongue protruding like a tiny white fish, suggested that she was laughing in her moment of death.

If you google Xin Zhui, you’ll find pictures of the mummy that don’t look anything like this awe-ridden description. The preservation is highly praised, but beauty is not the word that springs to mind on my first glimpse of the corpse. This shows us how powerful one’s belief about reality can be, whether it’s a belief in tales of a woman who lived long ago, or belief in a current political system that demands loyalty or else.

Siqi uses this moment to describe the final years of the Mao era. She admits “We were too young to remember starvation in the way our older siblings did” but she and her comrades write up complaints about those who aren’t acting in the appropriate revolutionary spirit. It’s written in first person plural voice, again emphasizing the community aspect and unity of the children. And it shows the delicate tightrope they walked on, torn between admiring Lady Dai, and deriding the Ancient Hag.

Although the first few paragraph have a somewhat book-report feel, the piece soon smooths out into a gripping story. Part of that is the first person plural POV, but I think beyond that, what makes it really read like a story, rather than an essay, is a plot twist: the exposure of a diary entry by a “mousy girl” who has blended her latent sexuality with political orthodoxy in the most blatant sense:

So, imagine our horror when we discovered erotic excerpts from one of our comrades’ diary published in an anonymous dazibao, taped to the front door of her home! Someone had stolen her diary (her younger sister, we suspected) and copied the very yellow scenes elaborated over pages and pages in big black characters on white paper: I opened to him like a soft red peony and a drop of blood stained the white sheets… His hands roamed over my body, those small hills and streams… Our Great Leader’s seeds flooded me at last…

If this feels creepy, remember that, following the example in Song of Solomon where highly sexualized imagery supposedly reflects the love of God for His creation, Christianity often  envisions Christ as the Bridegroom marrying his Church, a metaphor echoed by priests and nuns wearing wedding rings as they take vows of celibacy and join their orders. The combination of sex and obedience to an organization is not new.

The fallout from the exposure confuses the young girls, who try to figure out if they must now stone their former friend. However, she turns out to be a spectacular advocate for herself, and becomes almost legendary – until the death of Mao, when she surpasses that “almost’ and passes into local lore.

This is a great example of creative nonfiction. It’s far more effective than a factually based exposition might be, and to me, more interesting than even an emotionally-drenched memoir. The discovery of the mummy anchors the piece to a very specific image, and it’s that image that allows Siqi to go beyond that point and bring in the theme of chastity in the name of the Party to illuminate how it felt to be a young girl growing up in that time. The storification of the events, particularly the use of first person plural, draws the reader in; instead of using our analytical powers to understand an explanation, we’re caught in the emotional flow of events. This is the power of story we keep hearing about from the Old School: in this case, that power is used to take a tour of a time and place and mindset.

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Complete story available online at The Harvard Advocate.