BASS 2022: Kevin Moffett, “Bears Among the Living” from McSweeney’s #63

When I was a kid the newspaper published a column called Chatterbox, which was full of local gossip, mostly wedding engagements and job promotions and news that readers probably sent in themselves. Every once in a while, though, there’d be a blind item written in a tantalizingly cryptic code, so only those really in the know would be able to identify the subject. Like, H. T. lost his keys but not his sense of humor. Must have been some rehearsal dinner!
I was well into writing a story about the town where I live when I realized I was mimicking the brevity, if not the civic heft, of Chatterbox. More and more, as both a writer and a reader, I’m drawn to short, self-contained pieces, ones that arrive late to the party and leave before they say anything too stupid. Which is surely less reflective of the imperatives of the subject matter than the limitation of this writer’s (and reader’s) attention span. I’ve been trying to finish what I begin in a given day, which often means writing stories that are only a few sentences long.

Kevin Moffet, BASS 2022 Contributor Note

Let me admit right away: I have no idea what’s going on here. I question whether this is even a story. There’s a protagonist, a first-person narrator named Kevin (yes, that is the author’s name), there is a clear setting, and there are other characters. But… is there a story? It reads more like a memoir, and a mild stream-of-consciousness memoir at that. Maybe it’s helpful to think of it as a Chatterbox column, as Moffett describes above.

I do see clusters of topics. Oh, it’s about language, I thought. The opening page has some intriguing language and structure, complete with a quote by Wittgenstein on the limits of language. But then his father enters the picture. And his son. And throughout, he describes his town and his interactions within it.

Just a couple of days ago in my Short Story Reading Group, I said I was struggling with a story. “I’m perplexed, so I’m just going to sit here in my perplexity and see if someone else says something that shows me the way.” That led to the leader commenting that maybe the goal isn’t always “to understand” but to ask questions. I also remember a comment in a prior reading group (I’ve become quite a fan of online reading groups) in which someone said something like, “The writer could have written it very clearly, but they didn’t, so we’re being given permission to wonder, to speculate.” Ok. If you’re going to write it this way, I’m going to speculate.

The Wittgenstein quote bothered me. Yes, he did write  “The limits of language are the limits of my world” in his first work, mapping language to reality via logic. But he changed his mind later, inventing the idea of language games in which we communicate by playing by a set of rules; we agree what words mean, and reality has nothing to do with it. Sort of like the cryptic sentences in Chatterbox: if one is playing the same game, they’re not so cryptic, but without the rules, we’re lost. Maybe Moffett is playing a language game in this piece, and I’m confused because I don’t have the rules.

The first paragraph gets us started:

They call our town the City of Trees because of the trees. Along Harrison Avenue, sycamores with their tops sheared to accommodate power lines overhead, massive peeling eucalyptuses. On Mills, prim maidenhairs dropping their rancid berries. Our town is a page, its streets are the lines, houses are the words, and the people: punctuation. Trees are just trees. We hear church bells on Sunday but never see anyone coming out or going in. The Church of Christ has a new sign in front that says HE’S STILL LISTENING, which makes me a little sad. It makes me want to say something worth listening to. Less and less, I’m in control of what I broadcast. At a park the other day I was reading on a bench while my wife pushed her son on the swings. A woman walked up to her and said, just a heads-up: there’s a man reading over there on the bench and he’s not with anybody. We’re all keeping an eye on him. His zipper’s wide open.

Just the first sentence is enough to lend a playful cast to the piece. Yet when he describes the trees, they don’t sound like something a city would be proud of: the sycamores are mowed to fit electric wires, the eucalyptuses are peeling (which is normal, and often seen as pretty, but sounds gross when you call it peeling), the maidenhairs have rancid berries. Wouldn’t you expect the trees in the City  of Trees to be more impressive? Is this irony, or a warning?

Then there’s the sentence, “Our town is a page, its streets are the lines, houses are the words, and people: punctuation.” It’s that colon that does it, separates people from things by means of, wow, punctuation. The story is right there, and we’re just the dots and squiggles.

The town looks more dismal as we read on. Church bells summon no one. Then there’s the intimidation he feels when assured God is listening; that’s supposed to be a comfort, or at least a lifeline, not added pressure to perform adequately.

Then we move into another topic: the misbroadcasting incident at the playground, which is funny, but… why isn’t it in its own paragraph? The language in this paragraph – semantics and structure – has me off-balance, while I’m dealing with a guy who literally can’t keep his fly zipped, not out of lasciviousness but out of absent-mindedness. This has to mean something.

Then some additional scenery, and we’ve got:

Asleep at night, I plot and replot my jogging circuit. Seventh to Mountain, Mountain to Baseline, Baseline to Mills, Mills to Bonita… I wake up exhausted.

I love this, because… I do something similar. I frequently dream about trying to figure out a math problem, or a geographic location, or a Spanish sentence, or something in whatever mooc I’m taking, and I drive myself nuts trying to get it right. I can’t, of course, because what I’m working with, be it math or a map or a language, is nonsense in the dream. When I wake up it’s a relief. I used to tell my husband, “I have to take a break from sleeping.” So I can sympathize with Kevin.

When we move into father material, I feel slightly more secure; this is the stuff of stories. Kevin’s father died when he was eleven; we see some of his flaws. But we no sooner get introduced than we’re back to this terrifying town with coyotes and snakes, before another church sign assures us, GOD ISN’T ANGRY. He’s just disappointed, Kevin decides.

New scene. Kevin’s waiting for his son, chatting idly with parents to pass the time. One says he misses maps that fold, or rather, that can never be refolded correctly. Why you’d miss that I’m not sure, but I get missing paper maps. There’s a flurry of nostalgia – one misses thinking Columbus discovered America, another ant farms, etc.  Kevin makes his contribution.

I miss when my future was more interesting to me than my past, I thought. The other parents paused and looked at me, which meant I’d set it out loud as well. They waited for an explanation. The least I could do was tell them how I used to dream of being a landscape architect, as opposed to dreaming of when I used to dream of being a landscape architect. Dreaming ahead instead of dreaming behind. I kept my eyes on the sidewalk and finally said I also miss scratch and sniff stickers. Sighs of relief from the other parents, robust communal nodding. It felt good to think about things you hadn’t thought about in a while. Harmless, nearly forgotten things. Some of the stickers smelled like what they were supposed to smell like and some didn’t, and every time you scratched them the smell grew fainter. Remember that? You had to make sure to ration it out because the stickers wouldn’t last long. It was an object lesson. Remember? Scratching and knowing that every time you scratched erasing the very thing you were savoring.

Been there. Funny how even scratch-n-sniff can be depressing. But don’t bring it up with people who are just killing time.

So many little anecdotes packed in here, all of them poignant, hinting at deeper meaning. I was fond of the comment about Kevin, as a boy, seeing a couple of books on the one bookshelf in the house: When Bad Things Happen to Good People, and The Good Earth. As a seven-year-old, I remember seeing The Hinge of Fate and The Carpetbaggers on my parents’ sole bookshelf. And I was horrified to read an object lesson in the Law of Unintended Consequences:

Another friend came to the house during the funeral and took away all my father’s clothes, donated them to the Salvation Army. She thought she was doing us a favor, scrubbing our closet of unwanted reminders. Years later, we’d still see his golf shirts all around town. On a man pumping gas into a motorcycle. On a supermarket bag boy.

I wrote, “Oh God” in the margin.

The story – I feel strange calling it that, it’s still more of a loose collection of thoughts, almost a diary – seems to focus more and more on Kevin as a son, and as a father. His son has shining moments of sweetness, surely edited for heartwarmingness. Aren’t all our memories?

Then we come to what might be considered a climax, only because it contains the title:

We are bears among the living, agile and fearsome. We range and rut. We hunt. We return to our dens to sleep and let torpid winters seal our wounds. When we die our pelts are stripped from our bones, draped over plausible likenesses, nailed to pedestals in telltale poses. Children still flinch at the sight of us, though our eyes are flat and lifeless. For now death seems to have perfectly arrested our essence. One day we’re moved to the garage, replaced by a Christmas tree, and we stay there, surviving, yes, but shrinking. Time declaws us, softens our contours and our blood matted fur, and it gives us a bow tie, and one day, where a life-size bear once stood, there’s a cute little plush toy stuffed with foam and air, a harmless abbreviation consigned to spend a third life in the land of make believe.

Again, I try to understand the language. Who is we? Who are the living? Are we not the living? For a moment I had a brilliant idea, a way to solve the puzzle: Kevin is dead, remembering his life. But, no, that doesn’t work, because he dies early in the paragraph and becomes something else, a taxidermied image. And over time, that image becomes less and less present, until it becomes less painful, less threatening.

Who is we? Fathers, perhaps? Because there’s a follow-up:

Sometimes I think I can still summon the sound of his voice. A thin, distant rasp. My childhood is a song I’ve heard so many times I’ve stopped listening to the words. Probably half the things my father said to me he never said to me.

The final paragraph takes on the voice of the father, in words he probably never said – words Kevin wishes he’d said?

You are the man of the house now…. Is it my voice you’re hearing right now or someone else’s? And how old are you now? Old enough to watch over yourself? Old enough to watch over someone else? Children, and I quote, are the living messages we send to a time we will not see. Something along those lines. So what are you trying to say and why are you still trying to say it? Do you think this is a game, Kevin? Do you think you are winning?

Is Kevin’s father challenging him, or is Kevin talking to himself?

That quote line sounded like something someone must’ve said, so I went hunting. Indeed, it is a genuine quote, not the almost-quote from Wittgenstein tailored to the needs of the story, but the genuine first line from The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman, listed as a professor of media ecology (hey, I’m just reporting here), who sounds a lot like Marshall McLuhan and has the same distrust of media and mass entertainment. The Childhood book proposes that infancy is a given, but childhood is a social construct that began with literacy, when education became necessary instead of learning by doing, and that childhood will again disappear once literacy is replaced with imagery in the form of television.

I’m still not sure what’s going on here, but again I see this melting of past, present, and future into a pool of time, the motif that’s been so prominent in this volume. Kevin, his son, his father: messages going back and forth, reconstructed memories, a father fading from a bear to a toy over time. That somewhat ignores the rest of the story, which maybe is setting:  this City of Miserable Trees where the word of God is displayed on signage and memorabilia is confined to the cheerfully pleasant, unless your dead dad’s shirts end up on strangers unaware of the effect they’re having on you.

I’d read Moffet before, in my first BASS read, in fact, back in 2010. “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events.” I didn’t clearly remember the story, though I did remember the name and that I’d liked the story. Like I keep saying, this is why I blog, so I can remember. I re-read the older story after reading this one; it’s what set me on the track of the fathers-and-sons theme, because it’s about an angst-ridden writer (is there any other kind?) frustrated by his lack of success, who discovers his father is writing thinly-disguised stories about their family life.

I’ll end as I began: admitting I have no idea what’s going on here. But I’m choosing to believe that, if Moffett had wanted it to be clear and easy, he would have written it that way, so groping for meaning is the task. So I’ll just sit here in my perplexity, hoping someday I’ll have the wisdom to see.  

 * * *  

  • Jake Weber loved this story; he does  much better job of parsing it than I did in his post at Workshop Heretic.
  • For those so inclined, David Auerbach has written a brief explanation of Wittgenstein at Slate.
  • For those so inclined, Frank Elwell has written a brief summary of Neil Postman’s The Disappearance of Childhood.
  • For those so inclined, I wrote about Moffet’s beautifully sweet 2010 story “Further Interpretations of Real Life Events”  back in 2011.

BASS 2022: Alice McDermott, “Post” from One Story #280

“Reflection” by Jasmine Newman
I wrote “Post” to pay homage to Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, one of the first stories I was moved to reread as the pandemic began to unfold. Porter’s brilliant account of two young people falling in love in the midst of the 1918 flu epidemic and the First World War has always struck me as a masterpiece: witty, compassionate, devastating. Reading it in 2020, I recognized as well how honestly, how brutally, how generously, Porter’s story captured our own era’s collective confrontation with mortality. A confrontation popular discourse, or perhaps the politics of the moment, seemed reluctant to acknowledge. But how to pay homage to a classic while also making it new? Porter’s Miranda and Adam are at the beginning of their romance; I imagined my Mira and Adam as post.

Alice McDermott, BASS 2022 Contributor Note

I had an easier time than most adjusting to the shutdowns early on in the COVID pandemic. I’m retired, so didn’t have to worry about going to work, converting to working from home, or getting laid off. I’m something of a hermit, so reduced in-person social activities didn’t bother me; in fact, I found the increase in formerly in-person groups meeting online to be a plus, since I could attend things I’d never known about. Of course, that was all balanced against knowing I was more likely to die of the thing due to age, but that’s how it goes.

Perhaps to distract myself from horrifying statistics and grim images like refrigerated trucks storing bodies when morgues were overflowing, I wondered a lot about how this would affect people in the long run, particularly those who had rites of passage – senior prom, college graduation, a wedding a year in the planning – that would not happen now. I wonder if these few chaotic years will have aftereffects for specific generations. The COVID kids, like young Robert in “Detective Dog,” stuck at home, listening to ambulance sirens, writing a story about dancing morgues. I wondered about some hypothetical couple who just met at a bar, or on a blind date, or at a wedding, and felt a real connection. How would their relationship develop without the usual structures of going to dinner and movies and away for the weekend or whatever people do these days? Would it be better in the long run to have an online relationship, long talks about scary moments, about the anxieties of the day, than to engage in superficial pleasantries? Or would relationships just not happen because no one would have the energy to invest?

We won’t know for some time; it’s too soon yet to tell.

I can understand the impulse to tell this story, this reworking of a story set in a similar time. I wonder if it was too soon, set in the early part of the pandemic. I wonder if their outlook will change over time. “There are so many things we don’t know” is a repeated refrain in the story; add whether they would write a different story about the same time now, in two years, in twenty, to the list of unknowns.

They had weathered it together. Inadvertently, it seemed. Their relationship had mostly ended in early February, weeks before the shutdown began. A mutual lack of enthusiasm, they said. Which was too bad. They had gotten from all so well, pre-passion, as they called it then, well before they were saying pre-pandemic, back when they were just friends. They remained apart through the hellish spring and the long summer and the spiking fall, with only reports from mutual acquaintances that they’d each stayed in town, managing. In early December, he sent her a text, How are you doing in all this? She’d replied, Scratchy throat, fever, going for a test. Three times, he texted to the single word: Results? Until she finally wrote: Positive. Sleeping.

I found McDermott’s Contributor Note explaining the origin of the story had a lot of impact on my read. It was one of those “I wanted to explore… “ stories rather than, “I wanted to tell this story about these people.” I haven’t read the Porter story she’s paying homage to, but I can see its general bones here: a couple dealing with something they can’t escape. And while there wasn’t a war raging during our pandemic as there was in Porter’s, there was an election that often felt like a war. McDermott  doesn’t go there, however, not at all. She sticks to the pandemic.

The story interweaves an afterview with the actual experience of illness. We start off with Mira and Adam discussing Mira’s most noticeable sequela to her illness: marijuana now smells awful, like garbage, rot. But we end with a paragraph that indicates there are more profound consequences.

The story lingers initially on the isolation and loneliness of the two main characters. They were once lovers, but hadn’t seen each other for a while. Mira is surprised when Adam shows up at her apartment as she battles fevers and the exhaustion of troubled breathing.

“Call your mother,” he said. “And your sister. They’re frantic.”
“They called you?”
He shrugged. The mask made it difficult to tell if he looked good. She thought, yes. “Guess I’m the boyfriend of last report. Or resort. They called your friend Angie.”
“She’s in New Hampshire.”
“And your downstairs neighbors.”
“Roy and Carol went home to Virginia.”
“Your landlord. Who’s in the Hamptons.”
“I know.”
“And then me.”

Mira has friends, has acquaintances, has contacts, but they’ve all disappeared, no doubt looking for a safer place where the virus wasn’t spreading as rapidly.  Personally, I think Adam is an idiot for staying with her during her illness. “I’m careful,” he say, adjusting his mask. No, you’re not; careful is if you bring her orange juice and Gatorade every day and leave it outside her door and call to see if she needs anything in the afternoon. Careful is not moving in with someone in the throes of a contagious viral illness. And of course, as she recovers, he gets sick, and and the polarity reverses as she takes care of him. “I told you so,” I screamed at the page. (No, I didn’t, but I thought it).

I wasn’t interested at all in hearing about the course of their illnesses. Odd, given my fondness for all things medical, but nope, not this time. I felt it made up too much of the story, but I suspect the proportion of present to past had to be that way to lend balance, or perhaps even as part of the homage element, and present needed to include possible future as well. Some interesting  stories got mixed in the past. This timescape is quite different than how time is handled in prior stories. There’s no melting of time, blending present, past, and future into one. Instead, while there’s an acknowledgement that the future will look different because of the past, each tense is clearly delineated. It’s a much more traditional approach to time.

But the far more interesting parts were in the Afterview sections, when they got together to share their thoughts a few months later.

“Have you been over?” he asked her. And nodded toward the skyline.
She shook her head. “In the beginning, I pictured my office every day. Eerie and empty. My desk, the bathrooms, the elevators. Now I’m having trouble believing they still exist. Or ever existed. Over there.” “I miss the place,” he said.
“Me too.”
The water lapped, silver and black against the apron of rough stones. There were the usual odd bits of wood, the ugly brown tatters and frills of what might once have been seaweed, a rolling plastic bottle, a Starbucks cup. “We sound like refugees,” she told him. “A couple of lonely immigrants.”
Distractedly, his thumb brushed the shoulder of his own coat. “Exiles,” he said.

I suspect this is the most relatable moment for a lot of readers. Some things have changed; others haven’t. What’s most changed is the way they view things, how they feel about things. And the overriding question is: what now?

It was what she had wanted to ask him as they walked, what she had, in fact, called him to discover. But she hadn’t found the chance. As they walked, the question – what now? – had become a betrayal of something, some intimacy, some fear or despondence, that was too fragile for this emerging post-pandemic life.

Their downfall as a couple was intimacy. Now, as they kiss through masks in the final scene, I wonder if the restricted intimacy makes it more likely that they will try again, having shared an incredibly intimate experience that had nothing to do with sex. She mentions, when she misunderstands something he says because of the masks, that she feels like not only her smell and taste but her hearing and vision have altered as well. “Changed utterly.” Does that mean they might find themselves together, or does it mean they have found friendship more rewarding than a romantic bond? And… is this a ridiculously trivial concern when so many have lost loved ones in a country resistant to mourning?

I thought this was a successful transposition of how she describes Porter’s story, the “post” referring to post-relationship as well as post-illness. War makes brothers of strangers; can this kind of stress make friends of unsuitable lovers?

 I’m still a little uncomfortable with it being too soon for this kind of story, which was published in August 2021. But maybe it’s not so bad an idea to write stories too soon, before time yields more answers. It documents a moment, and this way it’s more honest than trying to remember how we felt when so much was unknown. I also appreciated her comment, when asked if she was going to write the great pandemic novel: “I said the author of the great Coronavirus novel probably I’m guessing short stories, with their narrower focus, don’t need this tincture, since she has indeed written one. Or maybe it’s the homage approach that allows it.been born yet. Tincture of time seems necessary here.” I’m guessing short stories, with their narrower focus, don’t need this tincture, since she has indeed written one. Or maybe it’s the homage approach that allows it.

*  *  * 

  • McDermott’s One Story author interview can be found online.
  • Jake Weber was less than impressed with this story, and he does a good job of explaining exactly why (with three reasons, to make it feel official) in his post on Workshop Heretic.

BASS 2022: Elizabeth McCracken, “The Souvenir Museum” from Harper’s, January 2021

Illustration for Harper’s by Icinori
A lot of stories can give you a great theme, but this story weaves at least four themes into it, blending them and then letting them stand alone for a time the way a great symphony can. Indeed, much like in listening to Beethoven or Rachmaninoff, I find myself enjoying each new motif as it comes along so much, I’m disappointed when it’s interrupted, only to find I like the new one better, until it’s interrupted again by an even better one. The experience builds until all the themes are brought together.

Jake Weber: “Solid and Mutable Both”, post on Workshop Heretic

Regular readers, if there are any (given how my blog stats tend to swell in September and February, I gather my readers are typically English Lit 101 students who are desperately looking for something to say when a story is assigned in class) may have noticed that a few years ago, I shifted from using quotes from the story as a lead-in, to quotes from the author’s Contributor Note on how the story originated, or the guest editor’s Introduction on why the story was chosen, or perhaps an online review, either to generate interest in the story or to highlight an important aspect. I’ve never used one of my blogger buddy Jake’s posts before; it just felt a bit inbred or something.

It’s not that the other options weren’t eminently appropriate. McCracken discusses the importance of setting and how she uses real-life places in her stories, and how this one was chosen because she encountered a huge stone statue that looked just like her father in a Denmark museum. There’s also a very brief reference to her having been on her way to an exhibit of “stone noses that had lost their statues” when she saw her father’s image; she has a way of making these drop-dead references consisting of two to ten words that have more impact than any other author’s three elegantly crafted paragraphs.

Likewise, Greer celebrates the humor of the story, via his appreciation of seeing a character’s flaws as well as strengths, and how the seriousness of life is underlined by its absurdity: “how else could you tell the story of an old boyfriend discovered at a Viking reenactment park except with laughter?”

But I chose Jake’s post because it is extraordinary. While he often – even when he says he’s working hard on his comments – comes up with insights I have missed, here he not only displayed the structure and purpose of the story, but did so with the metaphor of a symphony, a vehicle I always appreciate but usually find trite. Here, it’s perfect. I could have replacd this entire post with the words “See here” and a link, but I have sworn to write something about each story, each year (which is the hard part; try it, no one other than the two of us has lasted more than three or four stories) and so I shall. But definitely, see there (link provided below).

To give myself due credit, I had begun a post using two elements Jake mentions: the coming-of-age story, and the blending of past, present, and future into a kind of melted-time soup that features so prominently in virtually all of the stories in this volume so far. So let’s begin at the beginning:

Perhaps she should have known that she would find her lost love—her Viking husband, gone these many years—in Sydesgaard, on the island of Funen, in the village of his people. Asleep in the hut of the medicine woman, comforted by the medicine woman, loved by the medicine woman, who was (it turned out) a podiatrist from Aarhus named Flora. The village itself was an educational site and a vacation spot where, if you wanted, you could wear a costume and spin wool for fun. As for Aksel—was he Joanna’s common-law ex-husband, or ex-common-law husband? Eleven years ago they had broken up after living together for ten. “Broken up”—one summer Aksel left for Denmark, and she never heard from him again.
Not never. He sent an apologetic postcard from London. But never after that, nothing for eleven years. She’d married, been made a mother, lost a mother, been legally divorced, finally was fully orphaned by her father’s death. Her father, who had been heartbroken when Aksel disappeared, for his own sake.

This opening paragraph introduces the three generations that form the backbone of the story: Joanna and Aksel as the middle generation, Joanna’s father as the elder, and, tangentially, her son Leo as the younger. I find it interesting that, in a sense, they all go through a kind of coming-of-age, though not the traditional one.

What is a coming-of-age story? The Masterclass site (where, for $15 a month, you can watch videos of Margaret Atwood talking about writing, or Gordon Ramsey talking about cooking, etc etc) has a how-to section and lists four kinds. Emily Temple gives her criteria and examples on LitHub. Other definitions abound. Since everyone seems to have their own idea of what it is, I might as well make up my own definition.

Coming-of-age has nothing to do with age, but with transformation, with ending one phase of life and starting a new one. The key element is sacrificing one element of comfort and safety for an element of growth and freedom: The safety of dependence is given up for the risk of self-determination; or, passivity becomes activity; or, innocence becomes experience. In this story, it’s more like a view of the past, a view that has buffered against pain, is sacrificed for honesty and the ability to move forward unimpeded by one’s own history.

In the case of ten-year-old Leo, this shift is made quite literal via a pair of eyeglasses:

He was newly bespectacled, having failed a vision test at school. Because he hadn’t cared, she’d picked him out a pair of square black frames, so that he looked not like the bookish skinny wan pubescent boy he was, but like a skinny wan Eighties rocker. Wow, he’d said, stepping out of the optician’s, scanning the parking lot, the parking lot trees, the Starbucks and the Staples. Wow. Just like that, both he and the world looked different.

In lesser hands, this could be clunky. However, McCracken makes it a small part of a whole; it doesn’t bear the entire weight of the story. It’s just Leo’s visual experience. He has other experiences which supersede it: his discovery that Legoland, even to a Legofan, is a cheesy rip-off, and that playing Viking hoop rolling with a Danish boy could be more fun than he’d expected. And that he needs – wants – his mom, still.

The Danish Iron Age Viking village serves as the meeting place for Aksel and Joanna, bordered by the memory of Joanna’s dad on one side and the presence of Joanna’s son on the other. Aksel seems to have made his major coming-of-age transition years earlier, though he does go through some transition in the scene with the watch. He and Joanna argue. They both consider it might be better to give the watch to Leo, Joanna in the hopes that he might take an interest in horology, Aksel in the interests of getting rid of old ties. This is all amidst a dreamy world of in-between: “The Viking village was all around them, smoke in the air, the bleating of sheep that didn’t know what millennium they were in, either.”  While arguing about, on the surface at least, a watch.

He retrieved the watch from his pouch, his Viking pocketbook, and weighed it in his hand as though he himself would throw it bogward. Instead he wound it up—later, when Leo did become interested in old watches, she would discover this was the worst thing you could do, wind a dormant watch—and displayed it. First he popped open the front to exhibit the handsome porcelain face, the elegant black numbers. “Works,” he remarked. Then he turned it over and opened the back.
There, in his palm, a tiny animated scene: a man in a powdered wig, a woman in a milkmaid’s costume, her legs open, his pants down, his tiny pink enamel penis with its red tip tick-tock-ticking at her crotch, also pink and white and red. It was ridiculous what passed for arousing in the old days. She was aroused.
“Old Walter,” said Aksel. “He lasted a while, then. He started taking care of himself?”
“No. He got worse and worse. He was eighty.”
“He never wanted to be,” said Aksel, in a sympathetic voice.
“I know it.”
He offered the watch. “In four years perhaps your boy will be interested.”
Ah, no: it was ruined. Not because of the ticking genitalia, but because it was somebody else’s private joke, and she the cartoon wife wanting in, in a robe and curlers, brandishing a rolling pin. Even a cartoon wife might love her rascal husband. She did.

It’s a tough thing to do, let go of the past we believe in, and accept the past that was.

So where was the Souvenir museum? It was tucked in between Legoland and Odins Odense.  It’s a quantum world when time melts: effect precedes cause. We are thus prepped for the Passing of the Pornographic Watch, and then for the descent into quantum time that makes up the final few paragraphs, where there is no present, no past, no future, just a boy deciding he still wants his mother, and a mother deciding she wouldn’t trade the present for the past after all.

I urge you again to read Jake’s post. He claims he only scratched the surface, but I, a master of surface-scratching, think he did a lot more than that.

*  *  *  

  • The story is (at least temporarily) available online at Harper’s.
  • Jake Weber’s insightful post about this story can be found online at Workshop Heretic.  
  • The MasterClass discussion of coming-of-age stories
  • Emily Temple discusses coming-of-age stories on LitHub.
  • Do you really want to know more about Legoland after reading this story? Do you? Really?
  • And Odins Odense? Surely you want to know more about the European Iron Age version of Plimouth Plantation?
  • And just because it’s so cool and where else could I ever fit this in: you might want to know about the museum collection of “stone noses that had lost their statues.”

BASS 2022: Claire Luchette, “Sugar Island” from Ploughshares #147

It is the simplest kind of story – two lovers picking up a couch for an apartment – but there is a telescoping of time within the story, and especially at the end, that allows it to be told both in the moment of romantic doubt and pleasure and in a future memory of pain. And isn’t this how we really look on the past? Both with the purity of how we felt colored by how we feel now?

Andrew Sean Greer, Introduction, BASS 2022

How do you tell an end-of-love story? With a really big symbolic couch, of course. Open it like this:

Maggie and Joan took the two o’clock boat to Sugar Island. A man was supposed to show them his camelback sofa, green velvet upholstery, scrolled arms, feet like talons. Seven hundred. The ad said it dated back to 1908. This struck Maggie as disgusting – a hundred years of butts – But Joan loved old things, and she wanted to buy Maggie a sofa, somewhere they could sit together and read when Joan visited. Joan’s love language was gift-giving. Maggie’s was gift-receiving.

The skill of gift-receiving is underappreciated. What is there to it, you ask: you smile, say “Thank you” with as much enthusiasm as the gift, and the relationship, calls for, and move on. And that’s fine for the casual friend or the cousin you see at Christmas and every five years at the family reunion. But what about when your spouse brings home, time and again, elaborately jewel-encrusted silver jewelry when you’ve only ever worn a plain gold chain and almost-invisible gold ball studs? Or when at an office event you make an idle comment about a teapot displayed on a shelf just for the sake of having something to say and suddenly it shows up at your plate, courtesy of your boss who’s trying to impress his high-end colleagues with his magnanimity?

Or, more relevantly to the story, when your girlfriend wants to sit closer to you when you read together, so she drags you a few hundred miles and a ferry ride to buy a century of butts?

We get the backstory of the relationship intermingled with the saga of the trip to the guy with the camelback. They met over blood, literally; Maggie was a phlebotomist, Joan needed a blood test. Notice the language and imagery. A camelback: sure, it’s a sofa, but there’s some extraneous feel to it, like a deformity or an unfamiliar means of travel. It has “feet like talons”: the better to grab on to you my dear? Then there’s Sugar Island: what a sweet place that must be! Google tells me, “From thrilling boat rides to sweeping views and extreme relaxation in your own secluded paradise, Sugar Island truly has it all.” Well, ok, if everything you want is on that list. Apparently there’s also at least one antique store. Phlebotomy: the story points out how even that initial encounter was give-and-receive. “It was convenient to sleep with a woman whose bodily fluids she’d already handled.” Ok, convenient, but also weird. All of this is weird, but in a playful, rather than a creepy, way. Oddball, then, rather than weird.

The relationship was initially a good one, it seems, though Maggie seems to have just accepted it rather than it being something she craved. Even when Joan moved 445 miles away, she continued via a kind of inertia. But inertia doesn’t last forever in a universe full of friction:

They took turns making 445-mile trip, and with each trip, it took Maggie longer and longer to get there. She would park at the rest stop in Ceylon, get a car wash, do a crossword. One time, she pulled off the turnpike to play eighteen holes of mini-golf. She could not identify the exact moment at which her love for Joan folded in on itself. But somewhere on the turnpike, when she was going to the minimum speed in the rightmost lane, she found she could not make it sit up straight.
… The last time Maggie tried to end things, she practiced what she would say during the 445-mile drive to Sandusky. She decided to tell Joan the truth. “The trouble is,” she would say, “I don’t care what you have to say about anything at all.”

Yeah, that sounds pretty out-of-love. Yet here they are buying the couch. To Joan, it’s a great find. The owner is an artist of sorts, as is Joan, and they have a great time while Maggie stands around idly.

Maggie’s decision to take the couch, to literally carry it back rather than wait for the offered white-glove delivery, is part of her effort to “take and active interest in the events of her life.” Nothing displays her any-way-the-wind- blows attitude better than an art piece Joan made for her the day after their first night together:

Joan had attached a long tube of ripstop to a fan. The tube inflated and seemed to sway, like an air dancer, and Maggie saw that Joan had painted the tube to look like her. The ripstop woman was wearing the same striped shirt she wore the day before. Maggie watched her nylon self lean one way, then the other. Her arms swung by wide, and when the wind blew, she kinked at the waist and bent low, then stood up again. It was so startling, so moving, but even now, years on, Maggie pulse still quickens when she drives past a car worship.

Which brings me to another feature of this story: the occasional narratorial shift into present tense. The narrator has a powerful voice. I found it distracting. It’s almost as if there’s an observer narrator, but no one’s there. I suspect there’s some writerly reason for this – you don’t go through all the rounds of edits involved to get to BASS without someone saying, Hey, what’s this here – but I’m not perceptive enough to get it. Maybe some day I’ll run into something that will clarify it, so I document it here for future insight. Note: Some day will come sooner than expected. Before the end of this post, in fact.

Then there’s the highly symbolic couch with its years of butts. As they carry it to the ferry, Joan at the lead end is walking backwards. “’You have to be my eyes,’ Joan said, stepping backward. ‘Tell me if I’m going to walk into something.’” Oh, honey, you are. But Maggie’s not gonna warn you.

From Maggie’s POV:

Past Joan, Maggie saw fields of rushes and creeping thistle. There was so much nothing. The street was flat and seemed deserted, but then Joan said, “Hello,” and a boy in big jeans pulled up next to them on a bike, no helmet. He nodded as he glided past them, and peddled with lassitude, knees wide, aimless. The only sound was his bike chain slipping over the sprocket.

So much nothing, except the kid only Joan sees. Maybe it’s Maggie who’s going to need the warning.

When they finally get to the ferry, Maggie can’t manage any more. She puts her end of the couch down and one of the ferry staff comes over to help. She watches how easily they manage: “She wished she hadn’t given up so quickly.”

The whole relationship is right there in those three moments of the camelback.

Ah, but then the final act opens:

The boat left Sugar Island with a lurch, and Joan put an arm around Maggie. Joan smelled like sweat and Bagley’s wine. They sat on the camelback, looking out over Lake Michigan, and it was nice, after hauling the couch, to be held by Joan. More than the material goods and the attention and the eye contact during sex, Maggie expected she would miss this the most: the way Joan clung, close as plum to pit.
She expected, too, that only she was capable of ending things.

I wish the story had ended here, with all that last sentence implies. I think that’s my main complaint about the story. I want it to be Carvered-down, leave me something to contribute. It’s not that the final page isn’t interesting; it is. The final paragraph is pretty cool, in fact, showing what we hold on to and what we let go, how we often want, reject, and regret no matter which wins out. But that line above about expectation is so eloquent, I just wish it had room to resonate more.

But we get the guided tour of what happens next, complete with all of Maggie’s feelings about it. And I notice here the mixture of past, present, and future: when they get the couch home, when they break up, long after they break up, many years after in fact, and the intent implied by the last sentence of the piece.

Here’s where some day happens. I read Jake’s post on the story: he refers to it as lyric, rather than narrative. Feelings, rather than events. That reminded me of something I’d encountered in a story last year:

I listened to a podcast that explained the difference between narrative and lyric. Narrative proceeds along a time line: one event, then the next, with connections that might be lyric or explicit, but time moves and the story changes with it. Lyric occurs in a moment of time. That’s what this final paragraph does: it encompasses the narrator’s experience, both leading up to her trip and as the manager of the crying rooms, it embraces her confusion, her sorrow, even her medical training. But it stays in that one moment, happening all at once.

Post on Pushcart 2022’s story, “The Crying Room” by Lucas Southworth

Maybe this is why present tense shows up, why in the final paragraph it all blends together, and when I wrote about all of Maggie’s feelings and the shifting time frame, I was describing this lyric moment, just as Jake and Justin St. Germain describe. Which is why Carvering it down would not be a good idea, why it’s right the way it is.

In her Contributor Note, Luchette writes, “I wanted to explore the consequences of receiving – gifts, kindness, love.” That’s the kind of thing authors often write in these notes, how the story “explores” something. It’s a concept I don’t understand, this idea of a story written to explore something. When I want to explore something, I want to write about it, not make up characters and situations and plots and narrators and pretend they have lives and wills of their own. Fiction writers tend to be adamant about this. I remember someone at Zoetrope, back in the day, saying she had been writing a short story but then the character did something so unexpected, she had to write a novel about it. I don’t think this is any form of rationalization or self-deception; a lot of fiction writers feel this way, they are following the character’s lead, at least when they do their best work. I’ve been reading stories for twelve years now, trying to understand this, and I still think everything that comes out of a writer’s head was in the writer’s head to begin with, and if a character does something unexpected, it’s because the writer chose that path. That’s why I was such a crappy fiction writer.

Insights about lyric structure aside, this story felt overly written to me, which is more about me than about the story. I’m surprised at my reaction. I’ve never thought I was much of a minimalist, but maybe I’m shifting in that direction.

I was quite fond of Luchette’s Pushcart 2020 story “New Bees” and have her novel Agatha of Little Neon on my TBR list.  

  *  *  *   

  • Jake Weber focuses on the lyric aspects of the story in his post at Workshop Heretic.  
  • The podcast I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead, S4E6, explaining narrative and lyric can be found here; the passage is at about the 1:08 mark.

BASS 2022: Gish Jen, “Detective Dog” from TNY, 11/22/21

Photograph by Justin T. Wee for TNY
Gish Jen’s “Detective Dog” is a miracle of both timely and enduring storytelling. In it, our present situation provides the tension that forces the characters to action. That tension is of a Chinese émigré family living in New York City in the era of COVID and anti-Asian bigotry. Their locked-in life brings a teenaged son’s rage to a boil, accusing them of not caring about protests in Hong Kong; he takes up and leaves them in disgust. Jen writes of his mother, Betty, our protagonist: “What is a mother but someone who cannot stop anyone?” That helplessness surfaces when their boy Robert asks for help with his homework: explaining a family mystery to a pet. The kind of Zoom homework so many parents have helped with. Robert calls himself Detective Dog. Quietly, lovingly, Betty answers his questions. And, in answering them, a moment in time is captured perfectly: the past that precedes it, the anxiety that shapes it, and the unknown future that undoes every effort to keep it safe.

Andrew Sean Greer, Introduction, BASS 2022

And again, I’m faced with writing about a story that, although packed with interesting moments, I can’t fully grasp as a whole. That’s three out of six so far.

So let’s start with the basics, the things I’m sure of. Betty, the POV character, was born in Hong Kong but moved to New York with her husband and children just in time, thanks to the advice her mother gave her:

“No politics, just make money,” Betty’s mother, Tina, liked to say. And when it came to China: “See nothing, hear nothing, say nothing. Do you hear me?”
“I hear nothing,” Betty had wanted to say something. Or, well, many times, really. But instead she’d said nothing and, as directed, made a lot of money. After all, she was the good daughter.
And that was how it was that when umbrellas took over Hong Kong she had a nice place in Vancouver. And that was how it was, too, that when racism took over Vancouver she could up and move to New York. It was convenient to be rich, you had to say. In New York, she didn’t even have to buy an apartment. She and her husband and the boys just moved into her sister’s old place, which they liked so much that they bought the apartment next door, and then the apartment on the other side, too. They figured they’d turn the extra kitchens into bathrooms.

We learn early on that Betty’s older sister Bobby had taken a different path, that of a dissident; a recent letter, sent through an uncle but destroyed to prevent its use as evidence, gives Betty the strong impression that Bobby has been arrested and very possibly executed.

Betty’s children are central to the story. Theo, at seventeen, shows signs of adolescent rage at the Chinese regime; he remembers people he knew in Hong Kong before the move, and considers his mother to be complicit in the anti-protester violence, watching on TV from her lilac leather couch in New York instead of being on the front lines. I often feel the same way, sans the lilac leather couch. I wonder why I’m not in the street protesting all that seems to be wrong, or at least something, one thing.  By the same token, sometimes I’m surprised when I get off Twitter and notice people laughing and talking and enjoying lunch on the sidewalk outside the taqueria across the street, or walking by with bags and bundles, living lives unrelated to shootings and protests and the end of democracy in America. The irony that Theo is able to throw such tantrums safely because of his mother’s actions is lost on him. He buys a car with money he made gambling online, and takes off. Not forever, she hopes.

It’s interesting that the story doesn’t use this as a focal point, but more as background to the central drama of the story: a homework assignment the younger son, Robert, adopted as a baby in Hong Kong, needs Betty’s help with: solve a family mystery.

I’m always wary of stories featuring children. Too often they’re shown as victims, in a way that feels exploitive and manipulative to me. On the other hand, they can be overly precocious, bringing a little too much wisdom from the mouths of babes to be believable. The photograph TNY paired with the story didn’t help.

It does help that the story is set during the COVID lockdown (or what we called a lockdown; we never had a real lockdown, no matter how many times we call it that). This provides some ballast, material still very real to the readers. There’s a description of remote learning that might give some parents flashbacks. Robert himself has a blend of goofy childishness and precocity that saves him a bit:

Whether Theo would have been so riled up were it not for the ambulance sirens going and going was hard to say. It shook Betty up, too, that even nine-year-old Robert knew “ventilator” was spelled with an “or”; she was just glad he wasn’t sure how to spell “morgue.” Although, as imaginative and intense as he was, he was writing a story about dancing morgues for the mystery unit in his English class. It was a murder mystery, he told her, in his quiet, unnerving way. He was not like other boys at all. The last story he’d written was about mind reading hats that looked like regular fur hats but then stole your thoughts right through your scalp. How they did it was the mystery.

The morgue story is hilarious: when the morgues stop dancing they let all the people out and they’re alive again, complaining, “Hey, what happened to my phone?” It’s kind of the opposite of magical realism, where you’ve got realism with a single instance of magic; here you’ve got fantasy with a single touch of realism (would that be realistic fantasy?), because that’s exactly the first thing people brought back to life would say. I had to remind myself the story is the product of Jen’s mind, not an eight-year-old. I’d love to see a graphic version, a sort of dark humor companion to the pandemic.  Some future day will be ripe for that sort of thing. But not yet; too soon.

But Bobby is also a kid who refers to getting a new dog as an “upgrade.” Makes perfect sense if you think about it. I asked Jake, to be sure (I rarely consult him before posting, but I was unusually at sea with this one so I needed to make sure I had some basic plot points right) that Bongbong, the original dog, was an actual dog and not Aibo, the robot dog companion from Sony.

It’s the homework assignment about the mystery that brings the story to its climax. Prompted by Robert, Betty tells him the story of her sister Bobby, and of the letter that was sent but not received, and what it could mean. In the last sentence of the story, literally the last word, she reveals a mystery I didn’t even realize was a mystery, which may be why I missed it so many times. The mystery to me is why I’d assumed it prior to that last word.

I find many parts of this interesting, mostly in what is underplayed. Theo’s departure. Betty’s husband, who is barely a character as much as a way to allow Betty to talk about her concerns. The means by which Betty, and/or her husband, made so much money.

But at heart, it’s a story of a family struggling with history and history-in-the-making, and again, a story about storytelling, and its role in creating the family’s history.

*  *  *            

  • Gish Jen reads the story at WNYC.
  • Jake Weber’s post on Workshop Heretic compares the story to last year’s “Love Letter” by George Saunders.

BASS 2022: Greg Jackson, “The Hollow” from TNY, 11/29/21

Van Gogh: Sheet with Numerous Figure Sketches, 1890
I usually have an idea for a story rattling around in my head, which I return to over a period of months, often in those moments just before sleep. If I keep coming back to it, I know there’s something to it, a latent energy or bottled meaning. The premise of the house with an unexplained hollow seems, in retrospect, like a literalization of this maxim…. The characters’ catalytic volatility blasted the path forward, and slowly the life force in Valente overwhelmed the donnée, the hollow, fastening the story with progressive firmness to his peculiar magnetism. That I didn’t anticipate! But it’s nice to be surprised.

Greg Jackson, Contributor Note BASS 2022

This fifth story in this year’s BASS breaks with the first four in that it has nothing to do with trauma or with storytelling as a way of creating history. I’m not sure if I was relieved or disappointed. It did, however, share something in common, for me at least, with the third story, Foote’s “Man of the House,” in that I found a great many interesting ideas, but in the end was puzzled by the whole of the story. Instead of fighting it, I’m going to go with it, starting with the word “donnée” from Jackson’s Contributor Note. I’d never heard it before, had no idea what it meant. Merriam-Webster tells mit it’s “the set of assumptions on which a work of fiction or drama proceeds.” In this story, it seems, the donnée is the hollow itself.

And there’s my second issue. It took me a while to figure out just what the hollow literally is. I finally came up with: if my closet had a wall instead of a door, there’d be a walled-off, inaccessible space in the house. I might not notice it, at least, until a Jonah came along and pointed it out to me. It might be a place where once there was a fireplace and chimney, or maybe there’s a dead body in there. Metaphorically, I’m seeing it as a space we all might have inside us where we can’t really see, possibly because we’ve just never noticed it, or because we’re scared to look that closely. Here be dragons, perchance.

Jack had intended to get past the hollow, but he found that he couldn’t. At night, before falling asleep, or having awoken to darkness, he felt the eerie, mystical nearness of it, and this unsettled him. He started, without realizing it at first, to orient himself in the house and on the property in relation to the hollow. “Like Mecca, or Jerusalem,” he said, chuckling to himself as if the joke would rob the hollow of its power.

Here’s where I turned to Jake Weber’s post, which helped me get a grip on the hollow’s part in the story. He suggests comparing and contrasting how the three primary characters each regard the hollow: Jonah instantly notices it and is intrigued by the possibilities; Jack never noticed it before but then became obsessed, and Sophie… shrugs. Sophie does a lot of shrugging. What Jack sees in her, why he’s waiting for her to realize she made a mistake leaving him, is beyond me. But he waits, and she returns, shrugging. Turns out Jonah and Jack both forget about the hollow at various times. You can forget about the hollow, but it doesn’t forget about you. I have no idea what that means, but it sounds appropriate here.

Sophie is, perhaps, the human embodiment of a hollow:

Jack soothed his hot cheeks and brow against the cool wood of the door frame. “Do you remember that concert we went to over the holidays, Soph? Somewhere uptown, off Park maybe. There were these trucks moving in the street. You could hear them through the walls while the music played.”
She didn’t respond for so long Jack thought the line had gone dead. “I remember the concert,” she said finally. “I don’t remember the trucks.”
“There were trucks.”
“All right, there were trucks.”
“And the sound of the music…” He no longer knew what he meant to say. The scope of something inexpressible, a mammoth, ungraspable intimation, had overtaken him.

Here’s Jack, wrestling with something profound, trying to peer into his hollow, and she’s shrugging, an impenetrable hollow, nothing there, so nothing it can’t even be visualized.

What really grabs me about that scene, however, isn’t about the story, but about John Cage. You know, the guy who wrote 4:33, a concert piece of silence, who debated the idea of what music was, what it might be, who asked, “Which is more musical: a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?” Turns out, Cage had a thing about trucks:

For many years, the composer John Cage lived in a building on Sixth Avenue and 18th Street in Manhattan where, even with the windows closed, his apartment filled with the loud and ever-present hum of traffic. At first Cage considered the sound annoying but then he decided to change how he received or perceived the noise. By remaining present with it, he discovered that the constant sound rising from the avenue through his window subtly changed but nevertheless had a sort of homogeneity that he could enjoy. “If you listen to Mozart and Beethoven, it’s always the same,” he claimed. “But if you listen to the traffic here on Sixth Avenue, it’s always different.”

“John Cage – Manhattan Music” from Gramophone magazine

I have no idea what intimation Jack was grasping for, but I’m betting he would’ve loved Cage.

Jack and Jonah were acquaintances in high school, but they have very different recollections of that time. I get the sense neither of them is a totally reliable narrator, each curating his own memories to guard their personal hollows. Jonah’s most salient characteristic at the time was that he gave up football to study art.

“Tell me more about Van Gogh,” he said. And Valente spoke, of wheat fields and flowers and crows and turbulent skies, of painting loneliness and sorrow and anguish, of moments when the veil of time and of inevitability (to use the painter’s own words) seems to open for the blink of an eye…. Valente described an impossible person, a scoundrel, a tramp, difficult and gruff, prone to fighting, taking up with prostitutes, rejected by everyone, repulsive even to his parents, unlovable, homeless, driven by inexpressible love, or love that was expressible only in a particular form that did not allow it to be shared between two people, and that was therefore cursed, above that was refused while he was alive, and only, when this cretin, this parasite, offensive to every standard of good taste, was gone, did everyone see how much they did want his peculiar, displaced, and overripe love, and the same respectable people who had found him so revolting now clutched him to their breast with the fiercest longing, because a certain intensity of color reminded them, or so then he said in his own way, of intimations of such intensity in moments of their own that they had forgotten or suppressed.

As it happens, I’ve recently become obsessed with Van Gogh myself via an artbot on Twitter. In the past six months I’ve discovered how well he could do realism, yet chose something else; how amazingly he could sketch a few lines that created a woman or a farmer; and I’ve become fascinated with the way he drew and painted old beat-up shoes – damn, those paintings, they smell like old beat-up shoes right through my computer screen. And sure, the Starry Night which I’ve loved since I was a depressed teenager in about 1972 and Don McLean let me know I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, and ok, Sunflowers is nice and it’s my favorite Dr. Who episode, but it’s Hannah Gadsby who brought it home much more recently via her comedy special Nanette on Netflix:

Vincent van Gogh. The way we tell his story… it’s no good. It’s destructive. Because we’ve reduced it to a tale of rags to riches. He only sold one painting in his life…. And people believe, with that story, that van Gogh was this misunderstood genius. You know, he was born ahead of his time…. He was not ahead of his time. He was a Post-Impressionist painter, painting at the peak of Post-Impressionism,… He wasn’t born ahead of his time. He couldn’t network. ‘Cause he was mental. He was… crazy. He had unstable energy. People would cross the street to avoid him. That’s why he didn’t sell any more than one painting in his lifetime. He couldn’t network. This whole idea, this romanticizing of mental illness, is ridiculous. It is not a ticket to genius. It’s a ticket to fucking nowhere.

Hannah Gadsby, Nanette

Jack and Jonah lose touch again when Jonah goes into some kind of unspecified mental health treatment. They cross paths years later, with Jack and Sophie back together, at an art fair. Jonah denies the art is his;

I have my suspicions, but no evidence. They discuss the hollow, start laughing, and when Sophie asks what’s going on, Jack “was about to shrug” when Jonah names it: Sadness.

Jack makes a choice that passes for an epiphany:

Valente was smiling broadly, entirely in earnest. It was the earnestness of a large, clumsy person, crashing through a world of glass doors and gossamer screens. Jack realized that he was waiting for Sophie to suggest that she had misheard, but she said nothing. Only pursed her lips. He breathed quietly. The day was crystalline, blue, touched by clouds. Cool. A light breeze. The market hummed. A burble of chatter. Dogs’ barks. The smell of cut flowers, of burning. Colors. Crushed leaves. Exhaust. A chime, tinkling. A yellow shawl. Time pooling. Opening. A moment, before anyone spoke.

As I’ve said, I’m incredibly stupid about art, but I like to look things up. So I looked up post-impressionism, which Hannah Gadsby taught me (she has a degree in art history) is Van Gogh’s world. And I looked up the difference between impressionism and post-impressionism.

Impressionists…painted contemporary landscapes and scenes of modern life, especially of bourgeois leisure and recreation, instead of drawing on past art or historical and mythological narrative for their inspiration. Interested in capturing transitory moments, the Impressionists paid attention to the fleeting effect of light, atmosphere and movement…. the Impressionists differed from their antecedents because they painted en plein air (in the open air) and used a palette of pure colors. Post-Impressionism is a term used to describe the reaction in the 1880s against Impressionism…. The Post-Impressionists rejected Impressionism’s concern with the spontaneous and naturalistic rendering of light and color. Instead they favored an emphasis on more symbolic content, formal order and structure. Similar to the Impressionists, however, they stressed the artificiality of the picture. The Post-Impressionists also believed that color could be independent from form and composition as an emotional and aesthetic bearer of meaning.

Impressionism vs post-impressionism via OxfordArtOnline

It seems to me (take this with a grain of salt; I am, remember, art-challenged) that Jack is having an Impressionist experience, both visually and aurally, combining plein-air naturalism with Cage’s sense of music in ordinary sound. It’s quite beautiful, this aesthetic experience, in someone who hasn’t shown a whole lot of interest in aesthetics until now. He’s about to shrug – to stand with Sophie – but when Jonah in all his earnestness, this earnestness that crashes into hollows, into Jack’s hollow, he instead joins with Jonah and experiences something he’s never experienced before. He lets down his own barriers and feels, rather than shrugging and pursing his lips. He chooses authenticity over cynicism. It’s a bumpier ride, maybe, all that feeling and seeing and hearing, but he gets inside his hollow at last.

Then you have to wonder, when the moment was over, who spoke, and what they said. Do you want it to be Jack, revealing his experience and keeping the moment in play? Or will he revert to cool? Will it be Jonah? Or, lord forbid, Sophie, with some kind of verbal shrug (“I’m going to find some chai”)? In any case, there’s a momentum that allows – that begs – the reader to take the story in whatever direction seems warranted at the moment.

Andrew Sean Greer focuses on the stylistic change here, from long complex sentences to these short fragments, in his Introduction; it’s a sign of change in the character. I’m thinking that’s why I’m struggling with this story: it’s a writer’s story, rather than a reader’s story. When I used to follow figure skating, every once in a while there’s be a skater who didn’t have the fancy quad jumps or even a full arsenal of triples, but who had deep edges and perfect technique and form on every move. A skater’s skater. They didn’t get the high scores or have the fan clubs, but they were admired by those who could tell they were superb at their craft. In the same way, maybe this story grabs Greer’s attention because of its attention to technique and form, rather than its flashy emotional outlays and clever phraseology.

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have a clue what’s actually going on here, but I too have had an experience made up of bits and pieces, like Jack noticing the colors and sounds, resulting in my impression. Yours is for you to create.

  *   *   *

  • Greg Jackson reads his story at WNYC.
  • Jake Weber’s post on Workshop Heretic gives a handy guide to compare/contrast analysis.
  • The transcript from Hannah Gadsby’s comedy show Nanette is available online at Scraps From the Loft
  • Gramophone Magazine provides the synopsis of John Cage’s New York experience in the article “John Cage – Manhattan Music.”
  • Oxford Art Online writes about the differences between Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.

BASS 2022: Lauren Groff, “The Wind” from TNY, 2/1/21

TNY art by Ping Zhu
There are parts of this story that I have tried and failed to tell for over two decades. Bless my agent, Bill Clegg, for having read perhaps a dozen variations on some of these themes over the years, and each time ever so gently suggesting that I unhook the story and let it swim away to grow for a bit longer. It’s impossible to rush a story if it just isn’t ready to be finished.

Lauren Groff, BASS 2022 Contributor Note

Soon after this story originally appeared in The New Yorker, fellow story blogger Jon Duelfer emailed me to ask if he could do a Guest Post about it on my blog. I said sure, I was happy to publish a post of his – he’s a thoughtful, insightful reader – but I didn’t want to bother with the story. In retrospect, I see I claimed to have read the story. This was, well, let’s call it an exaggeration rather than a lie; I’d glanced at the first sentences (which use a construction I particularly dislike – “the woman,” “the girl” –  and at a couple of sentences of other posts about the story, and decided I didn’t want to be bothered with what seemed to be a harshly realistic story about a woman fleeing domestic violence. When I saw the story in the TOC for this year’s BASS, my heart sunk a little, but I figured it was fate catching me in a… exaggeration, forcing me to read the story after all.

You know that old saw about when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me? Well, I sure did. I should have trusted Jon. I should have trusted Lauren Groff. I can imagine some of the earlier versions of the story Groff mentions in her Contributor Note might have been closer to what I’d imagined when Jon contacted me. But she ended up doing something quite remarkable instead, turning a ripped-from-the-headlines piece into a smartly crafted narrative form that moves beyond the expected into themes that are, by now, familiar to those of us who’ve read these BASS stories in order: the generational transmission of trauma, and the use of story to form history.

The bare-bones plot is what you might expect: when an abusive man progresses from beating his wife to beating his child, the mother/wife grabs the kids and runs. One complication is that the husband is a police officer; how do you report a man for abuse when he and his buddies are the officials you would report it to?

Beyond that, Groff employs a narrative twist that lifts this story: originally it seems to be omniscient third person, but halfway down the page, we find out, as the three children leave for school, that isn’t the case: 

When they stopped by the mailbox, the younger brother said in a very small voice, Is she dead?
The older boy hissed, Shut up, you’ll wake him, and all three looked at the house hunched up on the hill in the chilly dark, the green siding half installed last summer, the broken front window covered with cardboard.
The sister touched the little one’s head and said, whispering, No, no, don’t worry, she’s alive. I heard her go out to feed the sheep, and then she left for work. The boy leaned like a cat into her hand.
He was six, his brother was nine, and the girl was twelve. These were my uncles and my mother as children.

This allows several storytelling devices. It creates a narrative where the narrator’s mother is referred both as mother and a child, where the boys are both kids and uncles, and where the children’s mother is a grandmother, compressing time until there is no past, present, and future, but all three exist at once. One of the primary features of PTSD is time compression: the sufferer repeatedly experiences the past as if it is the present.

It’s also the first in a series of carefully timed reveals, some subtle (such as we now know the twelve-year-old girl will survive and have a child of her own, relieving a huge dread and allowing the reader to focus on other things) and some explicit (Ruby is the mother/grandmother’s name, Michelle is the twelve-year-old daughter/mother, Joseph and Ralph the nine- and six-year-old boys/uncles). And by the way, though unrelated to narration, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Ruby takes care of three children, an unspecified number of sheep, and works a job outside the home.

Immediately after the narrator is introduced, she, safely in the future, will reveal the themes that are powerful enough to override even this harrowing plot:

Much later, she would tell me the story of this day at those times when it seemed as if her limbs were too heavy to move and she stood staring into the refrigerator for long spells, unable to decide what to make for dinner. Or when the sun would cycle into one window and out the other and she would sit on her bed unable to do anything other than breathe. Then I would sit quietly beside her, and she would tell the story the same way every time, as if ripping out something that had worked its roots deep inside her.

And again, for the fourth time in this volume, we deal with family history passed on by story, how that story becomes history, and the sense that the past is always with us, it is indeed not dead or even past. In his Introduction, Greer highlights this choice:

Groff has not chosen to tell it in third person, or from the point of view of the woman, or even the point of view of her child. The narrator is the daughter of the child. The granddaughter. Someone who was not there. It makes the story somehow grander and more terrifying, because it is a story passed down through generations, a story told to make sense of who these women are. A myth, in the sense of story crucial to these women. That simple choice – and an unusual one – puts enough emotional distance between the narrator and the characters to remove any cliche or sentimentality. Instead: there is dignity, sorrow, and rage.

Andrew Sean Greer, Introduction, BASS 2022

The escape is as tension-filled as one would expect. The story manages to focus on the effects of the fear of detection, of decisions that must be made quickly, and on how compromised by terror Ruby is at this moment when she’s acted. At one point she’s paralyzed, and this becomes a moment of truth for Michelle. As Michelle’s daughter relates in the future:

Fine, my grandmother said. Yes. I can’t think of nothing else. I guess this will be our change of plans. But, for the first time since the night before, tears welled up in her eyes and began dripping down her bruised cheeks and she had to slow the car to see through them.
And then she started breathing crazily, and leaned forward until her forehead rested on the wheel, and the car stopped suddenly in the middle of the road. The wind howled around it.
…. It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, my grandmother whispered. It’s just that my body is not really listening to me. I can’t move anything right now. I can’t move my feet. Oh, God.
It’s fine, my mother said softly. Don’t worry. You are fine. You can take the time you need to calm down.
And at this moment my mother saw with terrible clarity that everything depended on her. The knowledge was heavy on the nape of her neck, like a hand pressing down hard.

Notice how similar this bodily reaction to fear – a shutting down of physical will, of control over one’s own muscles – is to what the daughter – “my mother” – feels in the present as noticed by her daughter.

Yes, it’s confusing, since who is mother and who is daughter depends on context, on whether we are in the story or in the narration. That’s reflective of the chaos of this family, where Michelle, at nine, is helping Ruby, her mother, cope in a moment when Ruby isn’t able to cope on her own. Michelle has her own black eye at this moment, but she must become the adult. This is one more perversion of abuse: adults become children, so children must become adults.

Groff finishes off with two paragraphs that hammer home the overriding themes of the story. First, how we tell stories, how we turn stories into history – or at least, try to:

This was the way my mother later told the story, down to the smallest detail, as though dreaming it into life: the forsythia gold on the tips of the bushes, the last snow rotten in ditches, the faces of the houses still depressed by winter, the gray clouds that hung down heavily as her mother drove into the valley of the town, the wind picking up so that the flag’s rivets on the pole snapped crisply outside the bus station, where they watched on a metal bench that seared their bottoms and they shuddered from more than the cold period the bus morning to life, wreathed in smoke, carrying them away. She told it almost as though she believed this happier version, but behind her words I see the true story, the sudden wail and my grandmother’s blanched cheeks shining in the red and blue and the acrid smell of piss. How just before the door opened and she was grabbed by the hair and dragged backward, my grandmother turned to her children and tried to smile, to give them this last glimpse of her.

This is the fourth of four stories so far in this volume to make use, to greater or lesser effect, of this theme: by Lucy’s need to tell the story of her vision in “A Ravishing Sun,” by the way the Dominican girls tell the story of The Little Widow From the Capital to change both their participation and the ending in that story, and in Jeb’s efforts to put together his family story in “Man of the House,”

Then there’s the generational transmission of trauma, also reflected in both “A Ravishing Sun” as Lucy considers the torture and fear her family went through in Cuba, and in “Man of the House,” as Jeb remembers his father and his uncle and how their fear, predating his birth, is visited on him. It wasn’t until the third time I read this story, when I was pulling quotes, that I was driven to tears by Ruby’s strength in smiling as her husband dragged her away, trying to offer her children a view of her that did not reflect her fear and pain. Maybe it helped. Then again:

The three children survived. Eventually they would save themselves, struggling into lives and loves far from this place and to this moment, each finding a kind of safe harbor, jobs and people and houses empty of violence. But always inside my mother there would blow a silent wind, a wind that died and gusted again, raging throughout her life, touching every moment she lived after this one. She tried her best, but she couldn’t help filling me with this same wind.

We don’t know exactly what happened to this family. The impression is their mother was murdered by their father, and the kids were put into some kind of foster care, but Groff leaves those details out as they aren’t important. It’s the relationship between the mother and her children, in this context of violence, that matters, and that’s where Groff focuses our attention.

By a strange coincidence (I keep saying, I love a good coincidence), I just started watching This is Us a few days ago (yes, I’m always late to the party). I’m just a few episodes in, but I’m also blown away by the time compression used there, until there is no past, present, future. It’s used in a pleasant way there, rather than the grim way it’s used here. But the technique is the same: on some level, past, present, and future form a whole, where they aren’t separate. This also fits in with the mooc I recently took on metaphysics, which looked at ways time can be viewed. Do things in the past or future exist? Some schools of thought say yes. Do we look at time as moving, or do we look at our perception as moving along a timeline? How does now become then? Is there a present at all? And moving to ethics: if we realized how our actions in the present will affect those we will love in the future, would we perhaps act differently?

Maybe I just used these things to force the story into something I found more interesting than your standard tale of abuse. And what does it mean that I want to do that? Am I cold-hearted, don’t I care about abuse? I don’t think that’s it; I think it’s more that, at this point, when we’ve already seen the news specials and TV shows, it begins to feel a little emotionally exploitative to use such high-impact drama for fiction unless there’s something more than a display of horror. And here, I believe, there is, both aesthetically, and emotionally.

  *  *  *     

  • Lauren Groff reads this story on WNYC.
  • Jonathan Duelfer discussed this story in a guest post on this very site back when it first appeared in TNY. At the time I made some assumptions about it and declined to read it. I now recognize that was a mistake. Fortunately, BASS has corrected that mistake.
  • Jake Weber’s post at Workshop Heretic looks at his wife’s experience at a shelter for battered women.

BASS 2022: Kim Coleman Foote, “Man of the House” from Ecotone #30

A few years before “Man Of The House” came into existence, I started a fiction collection based on my family’s experience of the Great Migration, thinking I would feature women’s voices only. Then one day, while perusing an anthology of stories and struggling to connect with one about a man on the road, I saw my grandfather on I-95, driving to Florida to meet his uncle. Details of his trip or scant; I’d heard he talked about it often and that his sister couldn’t join him at the last minute, and I’d seen the Polaroid. And yet, I found myself urgently starting a story from his very male perspective, moments of toxic masculinity and all.

Kim Coleman Foote, BASS 2020 Contributor Note

I’ve noticed that when I struggle with a story, my tendency is to get overly concrete and analytical. That happened with the first story: I got fixated on contradictory details of the motorcycle accident. It happened with a story I read for my current reading group, where I kept trying to figure out how the black square was orbiting the earth, as if it were a science fiction story instead of magical realism and very, very emotional. So when I noticed myself picking out details of this story as if they were crucial to my reading, I knew I was doing it wrong.

It’s not that the details weren’t useful, or at least interesting, in the long run. The setting, for instance. I was puzzled by the place name Vauxhall, a name I associate with England, though this seemed to be a very American story. It turns out it’s set in Virginia, and there is no town named Vauxhall; I still don’t know what that name refers to, but it seems less important now that I’ve eliminated England from the equation.

In order to figure out the time that was the present of the story, I actually got out paper and pencil and used a calculator: if Jeb was eight years old in 1920, and is now sixty-one, it must be 1973. Except that the line that gave me his current age was ambiguous: “She had two years on him at sixty-three” could mean his sister Verna is now sixty-three and that makes him sixty-one, or it could be he is sixty-three and she is sixty-five, which would make it 1975. The difference is insignificant.

Then there are the Maxwell House bottles Verna asks Jeb about. I was around in 1973, as well as 1975, and I don’t remember Maxwell House coffee coming in bottles. Turns out, it has nothing to do with coffee, but with Jack Daniels whiskey; in 1971, in honor of the Maxwell House Hotel, the company produced a replica of the whiskey bottle originally designed in the 19th century for the Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville, TN – the place where Nathan Bedford Forrest was crowned (or whatever you call it) grand pooh-bah of the KKK, and where the first national KKK meeting was held. The coffee was named for the hotel. Makes you want to switch to Nescafe, doesn’t it. But I’m betting if you dig hard enough, Nescafe, developed in Switzerland just prior to WWII, has its own dark history. That’s the thing, isn’t it: to the dismay of anti-CRT school boards, racism is embedded in history.

But the point is, although little of this is of direct importance to the story, it was something concrete I could focus on while the story swirled by me. It’s background, and the story seems to be a great deal of background, which is probably why I struggled with it. It’s less about plot than about a period of time, one family’s experience with the Great Migration, when so many Black people left the South, some just ahead of a lynch mob, to head for what seemed like less racist territory in the North, and the aftereffects.

In his Introduction, Andrew Sean Greer looked at how the way Foote wrote the story reflects Jeb’s place in the history of his family, and the larger history of The Great Migration:

We are given the family first. And then his journey. Jeb is not himself aware of the history of the great migration; he is not even fully aware why he awakens one morning and drives south. But his choice of how to tell the story places him in the history of his family, and places the simple story against the complex and grief-stricken story of black migration at the beginning of the twentieth century. Foote paints this history in the background, which makes Jeb’s actions and struggles both his own and part of a legacy of hope and pain. It is a profound choice by Foote, one that makes for a powerful story.

Andrew Sean Greer, Introduction, BASS 2022

After reading Foote’s Contributor Note quoted above, I thought of the story, though fiction, as memoir, which helped me.

Her friends had been by before and seen the yard, along with everybody else in Vauxhall. And their mother never called it junk. She didn’t exactly offer compliments, but she once compared it to artwork in a museum she visited over in New York with the family she kept house for. But the man who created the work in the museum was white, and an artist at that. Jeb didn’t consider his things art. They were simply what people no longer wanted—what they thought was worthless. When he started working as a trash man, he was shocked at what people threw away. The broken chairs and rusted doorknobs, patched tires and dented pots, scrap metal and auto parts, used cans and bottles. So much of it could be mended and resurrected, unlike people when they die.

Jeb is a retired trash collector who has a massive collection of stuff he rescued from the trash. His mother recently died, and now his sister, as owner of the house, wants him to move his stuff out of the yard. He’s not happy about it, but does so, burying it in the woods since his girlfriend won’t let him keep it at her place where he lives.

His mother’s death, and his forced evacuation of stuff, starts him thinking about his Uncle Abe, who returned to the South after his brother, Jeb’s father, died in 1920. It takes a while for the story to get there, but Jeb heads down to find Abe, not an easy task since all he knows is the town. But, amidst a few racist interactions with white folks, a Black post office clerk recalls a guy named Abe and he heads over.

Again, I got all analytical about this, from a 2022 perspective. A post office clerk gives a random stranger someone’s address based on a first name? Jeb doesn’t seem to think this is unusual, and maybe for a very small town – population 316 – it isn’t that strange, but it seems terrifying to me. It might be the presence of an obnoxious white guy makes the clerk feel more bonded with Jeb, more willing to help him out. Jeb comments later about Southern hospitality, but that’s in connection to his uncle’s wife inviting him in so warmly, not the Post Office giving out addresses.

Jeb finds his uncle is past the point of coherence, so he can’t ask him any of the questions about why he’d go back to the South after having left. He does find out one of Verna’s stories is true: he left in the first place because he’d stolen some clothes off someone’s clothesline, and they were coming to get him for it. There’s a certain irony that Jeb can’t understand how someone would return to the South, even in the post-segregation era, a fairly recent development in 1971, when he’s quite aware of how he was denied advancement available to others in his job. I suppose there’s a difference between not getting promoted, being kept in poverty, and being murdered for whatever slight some white person decided to avenge.

Jeb had been planning to stay overnight, but decides to head back.

He grabbed his bag, heaved himself off the bed, then paused. A feeling of unsettlement came over him—the same as when he saw the bare yard on Waldorf. He was about to stuff the lumberjack shirt into his bag when he visualized Verna doing likewise with her baby-doll furniture, the ketchup bottle, his muh’s wedding ring. He fingered the soft red material, which had the slightest scent of aftershave, suddenly understanding why Verna stole. And he was no thief.
Remembering his camera, he tossed the shirt back onto the chair and dug through his bag. He told himself that as soon as he got back home, he would fabricate a story for Verna. He would say that their uncle never wrote because he had difficulty establishing himself in Florida, that he wanted no more visits because he was ill, and that he had a good woman looking after him. If Jeb told the truth, Verna might think he was hiding some historical detail their uncle had shared. She might try to come see him herself. Jeb wanted to spare her the disappointment. And who knew what she might try to pilfer?
He’d give Faye and his friends the real version, though, focusing on the heat and how hospitable everyone was, the red dirt, the lone bolls of cotton, and the overalls everywhere. A surge passed through him as he considered sharing the story of the trip with his children too. When they next visited, Faye wouldn’t have to prompt him to mention the latest trout he’d caught or the bears and deer he’d felled. Those stories made his children look like they were sleeping with their eyes open. Jeb even considered telling all of his children, whoever was willing to listen, about Uncle Abe. The man was, after all, their uncle too.

This is the third BASS story, and also the third one to deal with the relationship between story, memory, and history. Jeb’s collecting is the embodiment of memory. And now he’s ready to pass it on to his next generation. Foote’s story collection is also her way of passing on her family’s part in the history of the African diaspora. She has an additional story from Jeb’s childhood on The Rumpus website.

  *   *   *

  • This story can be read online at Ecotone.
  • Foote’s other story about Jeb, “Daddies and Sons,” can be read online at The Rumpus.
  • Jake Weber’s post at Workshop Heretic looks more closely at Jeb’s inability to let go of the past.

BASS 2022: Yohanca Delgado, “The Little Widow from the Capital” from Paris Review #236

This story is inspired by a Latin American nursery rhyme I sang growing up called “Arros Con Leche.”
…This story takes the collective first person because nursery rhymes are stories we sing together, retelling and reinforcing them for ourselves and for each other. As I wrote, the story swiftly revealed itself to be an exploration of collective narrative – which we sometimes call gossip and sometimes call history – and its ability to transform and subvert itself, even when we think we’ve got all the facts. That the story is set entirely in the domestic sphere is no accident; I wanted to celebrate how full of life, magic, and imagination domestic spaces are because they are the spaces women have traditionally occupied. This is a story about women talking to each other at home.

Yohanca Delgado, Contributor Note BASS 2022

I had a quick and simple post planned. A nod to first person plural (I’m a sucker for oddball narrations), a look at the two-act-plus-an-epilogue structure, a bit about muñecas Limé, and bam, I’m going to get caught up so I can blog through BASS by January 1st. But the more I read about the narration, and the dolls, and the closer I read the text of the story, the more intricate it became: less of a nursery rhyme, more of a meditation on the tension between individuals and groups. Because we all live in both contexts.

To start with the simple view, let me defend my two-acts-and-an-epilogue structure (and be forewarned, there will be spoilers). I have no training in theatre or drama, so have no idea what technically constitutes an act of a play, but I saw two reciprocal halves in the story. The first half rises in mood, the second half falls, and then there’s a tiny little ending that allows fitting it all into a concept.

What?

On the day the widow finally arrived in New York, the rain came in fast, heavy drops that sounded like tiny birds slamming into our windows. She emerged from the taxi with a single battered suitcase and, little-girl small, stared up at our building as the rain pelted her face. Behind us our men and children called out for their dinners, but we ignored them. We would wonder later if she had seen our faces pressed up against the windows, on all six floors, peering out over flowerpots full of barren dirt.
…. She was younger than we expected her to be, thirty, maybe. The amber outfit was all wrong for the chilly autumn weather. She was from Santo Domingo, but she looked like a campesina visiting the city for the first time, everything hand-sewn and outdated by decades. She wore an old-fashioned skirt suit, tailored and nipped at her round waist, and a pair of low-heeled black leather pumps. Seeing them made us glance down at our own scuffed sneakers and leggings. On her head, she wore a pillbox hat, in matching yellow wool sculpted butter-smooth. She dressed her short, plump body as though she adored it.
Instantly, we took a dislike.

On first read, this seemed straightforward enough. A stranger comes to town. A woman in a building of women with husbands, a woman who doesn’t fit in. “We ourselves had been raised on a diet of telenovelas and American magazines, and we knew what beauty was,” the group confidently proclaims, and the little widow is not beautiful, but seems to adore herself nonetheless. On rereading, I recognized so much more: a persistence of images, from birds to families calling out for the women who are busy snooping to all that home-sewn getup.

The little widow and the residents fall into a stable if slightly uneasy truce of moderately friendly greetings in hallways but restricted access beyond. When they discover she can sew, the residents use this to get a look at her apartment: she’s hung burlap on the walls of her sewing room and embroidered scenes of palm trees and ocean vistas down to individual grains of sand. They arrange for a cousin new to town to rent a room from her, and use that as a way to get a look at the widow’s bedroom, which is also embroidered, though with a different motif:

Like the wall of her sewing room, the wall across from her bed was covered with burlap, and on that canvas the little widow had hand-stitched tidy rows of Limé dolls.
The faceless dolls looked just like the clay figurines tourists bought as souvenirs. They varied in hair and clothing—some wore their hair in a single thick plait, draped down the side of their necks, and some wore it down around their shoulders. Their dresses were every color of the rainbow and some wore Sunday hats and carried baskets of flowers. But rendered in the little widow’s hand, these familiar dolls took on an eerie quality. Sonia studied the wall for a long time and became convinced that the dolls represented us.
She took a picture and texted it to the group. We looked at the faceless dolls, with their caramel skin and their ink-black hair styled into bouffants and braids and pigtails. Then we looked at each other, with our jeans and winter boots and blonde highlights.
The resemblances are uncanny, we said.

It takes a lot to look at faceless dolls with black hair wearing rainbow dresses and carrying flowers and decide the resemblance to one’s blonde highlights, jeans, and winter boots is uncanny. You really have to want to see it that way. It makes for a more exciting life, just as it does for a more exciting story. And it gives them an excuse to dislike her, mistrust her, think she’s a witch out to steal their husbands. And by the way, this is only the second time in my life I’ve encountered the word “ensorcel” in any form.

Of course, given my love for researching all manner of trivia from these stories, I had to look up Limé dolls, better known as Muñecas Limé.

Muñecas Limé, also known as Dominican faceless dolls, are a celebrated handicraft of the Dominican Republic and in Dominican homes. Over 40 years ago, in 1981, pottery worker Liliana Mera Limé began sculpting small clay dolls in the town of Moca, located in the Cibao region of the Dominican Republic.
Two challenges faced Limé on the potter’s wheel as she set out to depict the beauty of Dominican women in the small, ceramic figures. First, she lacked the necessary tools to define small facial features. Second, no single face could depict the broad spectrum of Dominican diversity. Her solution gave the dolls their most significant feature. Each ceramic figure was given a smooth surface without facial features. Therefore, Muñecas Limé (Limé dolls) became Dominican faceless dolls.
Limé’s original figures were styled with baskets of fruit, hands holding flowers, colorful hats, and dresses with ruffles. Their simple beauty attracted mass appeal and quickly drew interest in Dominican shops.
Today, Dominican faceless dolls are crafted by numerous artists across the Dominican Republic. Their styles and features have broadened to better encompass diverse Dominican identities.
The dolls have many skin tones and depict the mixed heritage and diversity of Dominican people. They honor African, European, and Indigenous identity.
Dominican faceless dolls reflect the multifaceted roles of Dominican women—roles recognized and unrecognized, celebrated or ignored. They depict Dominican mothers, children, wives, farmers, street-vendors, artists, breadwinners, laborers, and more.

“Muñecas Limé: Dominican Faceless Dolls”: article available online

These dolls incorporate the tension between individuality and group identity that runs through the story. The artist sacrificed the individuality of faces to appeal to group identity, yet they must be individuals, for she had to select skin tones, clothing, role indicators, and other details. There’s a subconscious (or maybe not so sub-) tendency to associate these dolls with voodoo, but I could find no connection; voodoo is more a Haitian phenomenon. Still, the connection remains, and the group reinforces it with their concerns about witchcraft.

But this act, as I’m calling it, does start to lift in mood with the arrival of Andrés, the little widow’s suitor. “[W]e heard her laugh ringing in the halls, a lovely, alien sound.” When he proposes, the group runs to see her engagement ring, “[r]elieved that she was finally on the right track, heading toward a life we understood…” The individual has found a way into the group, and the group has found a way to incorporate her. End Act One.

Act Two goes in the other direction, as Andrés turns out to be a scumbag. She sends him away while wearing “a silk dressing gown, embroidered with human hearts the size of silver dollars.” I have to struggle to visualize this detail. Had it read “embroidered with hearts” I wouldn’t have given it much thought, but why the detail of human hearts? That makes me think of anatomical hearts, but I’d be surprised if that’s the case; the anatomical heart doesn’t really resemble the more common Valentine’s heart. I wonder if the idea is to generate imagery of the dress being covered with actual hearts. Now that’s creepy.

Andrés is devastated by the little widow’s rejection, first begging for forgiveness, then asserting the same idiotic masculinity that got him in trouble in the first place. The group all listen at their doors, “swatting away needy children and chatty husbands,” as he tries to beat down the door, while Cheryl, the one of the group who lives across from the little widow, surreptitiously watches the results:

Only Cheryl – who slowly and silently slipped the chain lock into place, all the while holding her door ajar and keeping one eye firmly on Andrés – can describe what happened next, and only you can decide if you believe it.
Andrés raised his arm again, and as he drew it back for another blow, it froze. The arm appeared to be stuck to his head, as if glued there. His back still to Cheryl, Andrés shook himself and tried to use his other hand to pry it loose, but that one became attached, too, and then it looked like he was holding his hands to his head, the way men do when their baseball team is losing. He began to make a frantic humming sound.
When he turned to Cheryl, with the purest, most desperate panic she had ever seen blazing in his eyes, she discovered that his lips had been sewn shut with large, sloppy stitches.
He dropped to his knees with a grunt, and then bent in half at the waist. He kept folding in on himself, over and over, becoming smaller and smaller, his moans of distress more and more distant, until he was just a small scrap of cream fabric that fluttered to the floor in front of apartment 4E.

Thus the witchcraft – in literary terms, magical realism, a realistic story with one magical element as opposed to a fantasy story in which magical events predominate – the group has been assuming, that has been hanging over the story like a faint vapor, becomes realized. This is cool enough, but two outside sources helped me see it in other terms.

First was Jake Weber, my blogging buddy, who in his post (link below) writes: “When something that doesn’t happen in the real world happens in a story where most things do happen in the real world, then, I look at it like a song in a musical. It’s not about the thing, it’s about what the thing signifies.” That sort of takes the fun out of musicals and the magic out of magic realism. Of course we can note that the little widow’s will shut the guy up and reduced him to nothing; there’s reference later that he might have been seen elsewhere, but it’s presented as highly questionable. As the story says, you get to decide what to believe.

The other reference was a post on the Ploughshares blog (again, link below) which compares the story to Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and discusses how a named character from the group, in this case, Cheryl, is discredited, punished, temporarily ejected, to maintain the homogeneity of the group:

Named individuals, importantly, are doomed in both pieces… The group narrator, however, casts doubt on the credibility of Cheryl, its chief spy, who allegedly witnessed the incident: “Only Cheryl, who slowly and silently slipped the chain lock into place, all while holding her door ajar and keeping one eye firmly on Andres—can describe what happened next, and only you can decide if you believe it.” In undermining Cheryl, the group narrator communicates that she has outlived her usefulness: she sees and is seen as an individual. Cheryl comes to this realization as well: when the widow locks eyes with her, Cheryl “nearly died of shame.”…
The group narrator is threatened only by individual agency. But, in a twist of fate, the group narrator grows by recruiting individuals. When the group’s desires go unfulfilled by the individual resisting affiliation, group aggression corners the individual until they are vanquished. Groups form when individuals relinquish their autonomy, but they cannot exist without individuals.

“The Monolithic, Unforgiving Group Narrator” by Dedria Humphries available online at the Ploughshares blog

I’m not sure I buy this. There are two other named characters, and neither are excluded in any way; in fact, their information is incorporated into the group. But it’s still an interesting point: individuality again must be sacrificed to belong to the group, which may or may not accept individual contributions. In the case of Sonia and Florencia, the group absorbs their individual contributions; in the case of Cheryl, they doubt. Even Cheryl’s name is different from the other two. Is her story too outrageous for belief, even by this group that’s already considering witchcraft?

But we still haven’t finished Act Two: the little widow – who, notice, is never named, who is not afforded that particular individuation – is still on stage. It is her wedding day, and the rejection of the groom doesn’t deter her from putting on her wedding dress – embroidered with women’s names – and marching down the aisle – er, hall – and climbs up to the roof, raising herself, where of course she throws herself off before the group realizes what’s going to happen and belatedly moves to stop her.

The dress dissolved into a thousand pigeons, and they filled the space between our building and the next with brown and grey and white, with the sounds of wings flapping. The air was thick with the feathery thrum of their wings as they flew away in different directions, toward downtown, toward the river, toward the Bronx, and skyward, toward heaven.
The little widow was gone. All we had left – as we huddled together for warmth on that silver roof and watched the sky deepen to the bruised plum of Manhattan night – was the story. And so we told it again, and again, until we had stitched the details into our memory.

And now that trifecta of images from that early paragraph – birds, neglected families, snooping – is fulfilled. While it’s perfectly understandable that someone falling off a roof in a city would disturb the ubiquitous pigeons, it’s so much more magical to imagine the dress transforming, the widow disappearing, perhaps embodied in the birds as they fly everywhere. Whichever, she is, for the group in the building, gone.  And all that is left is the story, as is – or will be – the case with all of us. End Act Two.

The final few paragraphs, what I see as the epilogue, are all about the story. In this, the group not only absorb the little widow into their group, but they can “write” their wrongs: the little widow is not gone, but shows up in another town to a warmer welcome, her magical sewing ability now something wonderful instead of frightening: “[W]e, too, thrilled to imagine it.” They now see her as Legendary.

Although this is only the second story in this year’s anthology (and I’ve briefly glanced at the third story), I’m beginning to sense a thematic connection: the connection between stories and history, for better or worse, since stories can range from accurate reports to gossip to wishful thinking to outright lies. A historian requires documentation; a storyteller can rely on imagination. We might do well to mind the distance between the two; both can be enjoyed for themselves.

I greatly enjoyed this story both as a fun read and as a more technical work that plays with narration and imagery. It’s worth considering how we embrace and exclude people from our overlapping communities, and worth thinking about what individualities we must give up in order to join a group – and which ones the group can absorb.

  * * *   

  • Delgado reads the story (starting at about the 10-minute mark) at the Paris Review podcast #19, “A Memory of the Species”
  • Jake Weber’s post at Workshop Heretic disenchants, perhaps, but makes a valid point, by comparing the story to musical theater. And he taught me the word “diegetic.”
  • Dedria Humphries compares the story to Faulkner in her post “The Monolithic, Unforgiving Group Narrator” at the Ploughshares blog.
  • Find out more about Muñecas Limé at the National Park Service website (if you’re wondering why the Salem, MA branch of NPS is doing an article on Dominican dolls, it’s because there’s a sizeable Dominican population in the town).
  • The song “Arroz con Leche” and the lyrics are easily available; there are several variations.

BASS 2022: Leslie Blanco, “A Ravishing Sun” from New Letters, 87.1/2

The Tower Tarot card represents chaos and destruction. It is the Major Arcana card of sudden upheaval and unexpected change. This change usually is scary, life changing and often unavoidable. A negative Tower event can be akin to a bomb going off in your life. You don’t know how you will survive but somehow you will and later you will realise that while it was a tremendously difficult thing to go through and you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy, it has made you into the person you are. One positive aspect of The Tower is that the destruction it brings is usually directed at something that was built on a false beliefs and foundations or unrealistic goals and dreams. Also on the bright side, the destruction The Tower brings is always followed by renewal and creation.

The Tower Tarot card, online at TheTarotGuide.com

I resisted this story. I immersed myself in the neuroscience: epigenetics, PTSD, somatic memory. I played blame-the-protagonist. I played blame-the-writer, resented the flagrant style abuse – I love me some sentence fragments and weird sentence constructions, but come on – and the everything-but-the kitchen-sink content. I focused on minute details: how did the guy’s brains end up going through the windshield if his helmet was still on? I put it aside for a few days and came back to it. Because what it really was, was too close.

The opening values style over information:

I look for the motorcycle, for the body. I look everywhere except at my feet.
At my feet.
By then, people are milling, afraid to go near him.
Not me.
I touch him.
I speak to him.
I see his spirit leave. I see it. Like an S rising up, swishing its tail like a fish, wishing, longing. Then a whoosh – not a sound, a feeling in the silence – so fast in every direction, touching every tree, every molecule, every drop of sky.
Exhilarating.
Until I understand what I am seeing. And then the swarm of dark flies, the stink of carrion, the weight – a boulder – that falls and pins me to that asphalt, to that story. For years.

It’s oddly beautiful – that S shape of the spirit, the image of being pinned – but what’s going on? Persistence is a necessary virtue. This paragraph makes a lot more sense when read after finishing the story. A million Creative Writing 101 teachers will tell you not to start a story by confusing the reader, but sometimes it works, it draws one into the story, arouses curiosity: what’s literal, what’s figurative?  As the opening lines of an anthology, I wonder if it’s a wise choice. Would I have persisted if I hadn’t committed myself to yet another annual BASS read?

The story follows Lucy through her recovery from trauma, a journey that includes a lot of side trips through privilege, the psychosociology of the immigrant, cultural norms, and medical treatments that range from ineffective to quackery.

While the motorcycle accident is the inciting incident in the story, the inciting incident in Lucy’s life is elsewhere. We find out that at the time of the accident, she’s left her husband and her career as a doctor to return to grad school and study Cuban history. She blames medical school for the failure of her marriage: “The world drained slowly of wonder, of beauty, until all that was left was illness…. I want to be outside, with the living.”

It’s not clear exactly clear why this discovery, this decision to change everything about her life, happened at the moment it did, but that is the ultimate inciting incident. The question is muted but hangs over the story: had she not been in the middle of such a massive life change, would the accident have been as traumatic? She sees herself as being punished by karma, Santeria, genetics, the Universe; but what if she’s doing the punishing herself?

 Xavier has been a nice feature of living, though it took her a while to get to the point where she took their relationship seriously. And then a motorcycle crashed into them on a blind curve. Aside from a few lacerations, she and Xavier were not injured, but the motorcyclist died. And this is where her symptoms started. Fear. Lack of motivation. Inability to work. Flashbacks of Xavier’s bleeding face, of the dead man’s brains on his shirt, of the dead man’s soul leaving, coming back to her, over and over.

Her father waits a few days before bringing out the tough love:

Consider this your wake-up call, Lucy, he says, the universe is telling you to get your life in order.
What the hell are you saying? I ask him.
But I know what he’s saying. He wants me to regress. To my husband. To my career. To socially condoned misery.
Scholar? my father’s said. What does that mean, scholar? Are you changing it to historian now? What does historian mean? What will they pay you for, exactly? He acts like he’s never heard of a university. Like he’s never read a history book. Seeing a documentary. Do you have any idea how much I paid for your medical school? You’re a doctor. Do you hear me? A doctor. And every time he’s greeted Xavier – not a doctor – he’s looked him up and down with a scowl, as if Xavier was an intruder, a hitchhiking vagrant I picked up at the side of the road.
This is your wake up call.
Wearily, with no anger or amusement, my sister’s words echo in my head. If you’re going to rebel, couldn’t you have picked something more exciting than Cuban history, for God’s sake? Couldn’t you have become a fucking stripper? My sister. Also a doctor. Married to – what else – a doctor.

That thing about “what does a historian do anyway?” reminded me of my own father. He once told us some news about a cousin: “He teaches a class at some university, and he wrote a book about cults, but I don’t know what he does for a living.” Sociologist, like historian, is not on the scorecard for some people.

The thing is, we learn that Lucy’s father, who emigrated from Cuba, knows something about trauma. About being held at gunpoint by government agents. About secret police. About his father’s torture for insufficient fealty to Communism. Lucy doesn’t know these details for a long time, but she knew her father:

I know which by the way my father holds his body, by the way his papers have to be arranged just so, by the way he cleaves so tightly to the notion of progress, of never looking back. You can’t slow down, he said to me so many times. You’ve got to keep moving. You’ve got to go forward. You’ve got to succeed. And at night, he surfs the news channels with a look on his face of intense vigilance. As if reading facial expressions for code. For deception. For apocalypse.
…For a child, from a parent, panic is heritable by touch, by proximity. Calamitous thinking, too. Threatening, traumatized, dysfunctional patterns. Threaded into the DNA.
All it takes, then, is a confluence of traumatic events in a short period of time – a divorce, a career change, a family feud, actual, physical violence – and your brain connects a zillion dots of personal and ancestral suffering.

This process of epigenetic inheritance – generational transmission of trauma, not by genetic mutation, but by changes in the supporting structures that up- and down-regulate the expression of genes – is one of the hot topics in molecular biology these days.  It’s hard to tease out nature from nurture, however.

Xavier becomes an enemy of sorts: Lucy sees his optimism as the product of white privilege. I have a lot of problems with that categorization, but it gives her something to think about, this issue of memory being different for immigrants and people of color. Her Tarot card is The Tower, a warning of danger; his is The Sun, the symbol of optimism – and it just occurs to me now, as I type this, how that resonates with the title and the final line of the story. He leaves. But he comes back. Is that optimism, or is it love?

This is the part of the story where there’s supposed to be a big climax.
There’s no big climax.
One day I do the simple thing. The hard thing. I get up.
I can’t tell you why. Why that day. Why at all.
Except: for getting up is a form of revenge.
…What is history, really, but collective adrenal time? Memories that exist collectively with an altered time signature. Memories collectively stored in isolation from reality. Memories rehearsed as if for a guarantee against the future which never, no matter what historians say, repeat, not really, not to the same people, not to the same way.

When I say this story was too close, this is one of those points where it’s like reading my own biography. Several times, I’ve emotionally collapsed in a heap for months, and several times, one day I got up. I understand the mystery here. But the revenge belongs to Lucy. As are the memories, which become her profession. 

Blanco’s contributor note describes how she originally wrote this as a micro-memoir of a similar series of events in her life, events that culminated on 9/11, but put it aside to work on a novel instead, as she felt “too exposed.” She picked it up once, turned it into fiction, but it still felt exposed, so she put it aside for another novel. The pandemic gave her the chance to get it done. “It only took me twenty years to finish it.”

 *  *  *

  • The story can be found online at New Letters.
  • Jake Weber does a stellar analysis of the many aspects of this story barely mentioned here at Workshop Heretic.

BASS 2022: Here We Go Again

On display in this volume of The Best American Short Stories are twenty emotionally and intellectually engaged writers. I found myself drawn to the basics this year: ease of language, innovation, humor, truth, the ability to tell an interesting and important story. Often new writers are taught to explore what is at stake for their characters. This can be love or even life, a sense of self, anything really. As a reader, I want to feel that what I am reading matters, that the story knows something profound, goes somewhere worthwhile, tries something difficult or risky, something significant. Thankfully, there was no lack of good candidates.
Heidi Pitlor, Foreword

I can’t imagine the work it takes to put together these anthologies. I struggle to read two or three stories a week; how does one read dozens, choosing from among them the one hundred best to pass along to the year’s guest editor? In her Foreword, Pitlor informs us this is her sixteenth BASS. It’s my thirteenth read/blog. I obviously have the easier job.

It always takes me a moment to readjust from reading books to reading BASS, from thinking about the two or three or four hundred pages I’ve just read to focusing on eight or ten or fifteen pages. I learned to blog on BASS and Pushcart, and they’re still my comfort zone, giving each story its individual post.

As always, the first thing I do is look through the Table of Contents. I see a lot of familiar names – Elizabeth McCracken, Karen Russell – and some recent acquaintances – Claire Luchette, Bryan Washington – as well as some old friends I haven’t seen in a while – Rebecca Makkai, Alice McDermott – and, of course, several writers completely new to me. I still wish there were more Ecotone-level journals and fewer New Yorker entries, but that’s what Pushcart is for.

I noticed Lauren Groff’s story “The Wind.” One of my blogosphere interlocutors, Jonathan Duelfer, wrote a Guest Post about it when it appeared in The New Yorker; I declined to join in at the time, letting him do his thing unimpeded. Looks like it’s a story I was meant to read.

And then there’s Andrew Sean Greer, this year’s guest editor, who I keep confusing with someone else, but I’m not sure who.

We are rightfully interested in what the story is about, but equally important (and mostly unexamined) is the language in which it is told. Because being a good storyteller is more than having a good story; we all know this. It is knowing how to tell it. The right words for this story. That is what I wanted to celebrate in the authors of this collection. … How do you write about hard things? That is the question many writers ask before sitting down. They know their terrors and fears, but worry they will not get them across properly, and to fail to do that would be to betray what is most important. Many give up and tackle smaller, easier subjects. But we all know that unless you are touching on your own private fears and heartaches, your own hardest stories, then you are not (as my Montana professor William Kitteredge used to say) “even in the ballpark.”… Clever is impressive; clever gets attention; clever is satisfying. But telling a hard story is the actual job.
Andrew Sean Greer, Introduction

I’ve been looking at Greer’s breakout book, Less, every year since it was published in 2017, wondering if I should include it in my In Between Reading. I always decided to read other things instead, partly based on the cover art, which evoked both the Falling Man photo and Mad Men, a couple of sacred images to me; I didn’t want them trifled with. It won the Pulitzer, and a slate of other prizes, and I still passed it by. This week, I read Greer’s Introduction to BASS, and immediately put Less on my TBR list. I like what he pays attention to; whether or not I see the same things in those stories remains to be seen, but I appreciate his appreciation of words, language, point of view, and humor, and his insistence on telling the hard stories rather than the easy ones.

Let’s get started.

In-Between Reading 2022: The Reality

Art by Richard Jackson
Still, the fact remains, more and more people are making reading goals that most of them will not meet. Why set yourself an unattainable goal? Why quantify your leisure reading at all? Perhaps the most intuitive reason is the most common: Adding some structure to your reading life can be a way of making sure that you actually read. … This is the curious thing about reading goals—they are essentially homework that people make for themselves. Like homework, reading challenges can feel like pointless busywork for those who aren’t feeling intrinsically motivated to read. Or they can bring a sense of learning and accomplishment.

Julie Beck: “The Adults Who Treat Reading Like Homework” available online at The Atlantic

I keep seeing Reading Challenges. Sometimes these are just numerical: read a book a week over the summer, read twenty books this year. I would imagine this goes over well with competitive people. Me, I announce at the beginning of games I don’t really want to play, “I lose, you win, that means you’re better than me” and go do something more interesting, so these reading challenges aren’t really of any interest to me.

I can better see the point of guided reading challenges, such as that from my own public library: read a book by an Eastern European author / about or featuring music / about siblings, with suggestions from the library’s stacks and contributed by other readers. In fact, I just now found a book I might want to read sometime by looking through the list of “read a book where a house is important.” And that’s why I don’t rely on reading challenges: I will probably read many of those categories at some point, by curating my own list. 

As for making sure I read, I’ve never needed any help with that. I’m convinced there’s some crossover in some people’s brains that makes reading innately pleasurable, which is why we’ll read cereal boxes if nothing else is available.

What I do need help with is not getting distracted by bright, shiny things in my feeds. Oh, a new book someone’s raving about: click. Another one – I have to read that. This is where I went wrong in last year’s In-Between Reading.

This year’s Read went so much better than last year’s, both in terms of quantity and enjoyment. I think that boiled down to how I chose which books to read. 

Anyone who’s read these posts for the last couple of years (a very small group) will know I get a lot of my suggestions these days from the Five Books weekly “What are you reading this weekend?” thread. There are many other such threads, but they tend to be huge, with hundreds of replies. Five Books is far more manageable, usually under 100, and vary in genre, topic, and style. Then there’s the site itself, which features interviews with experts who recommend five books on a given topic or style. It’s a gold mine.

I also pay attention to various literary sites when they tweet about a book, prize lists, what shows up on my Goodreads home page (I need to restructure that, it’s cluttered with a lot of crap right now), and random comments from other readers. And once in a while, a book will mention another book.

But just hearing about a book is the first step. I’ll check it out: both the official description, maybe a review or two, whatever I can google. If it sounds like something I might enjoy – an interesting style, a topic I want to know more about – I’ll add it to a “maybe” list. I used to use the Amazon Shopping List for this purpose, but recently switched to Goodreads Want-to-Read, since I can note where I heard about the book and why I want to read it.

Some books, I jump at. These form a sort of skeleton for my annual Read. This evolves each year: one year I deliberately chose non-fiction about jobs and fiction about boarding school. More recently, I find myself picking a few philosophy/religion books, some medical/science stuff, and a variety of fiction. And yes, I read diversely. It’s not hard: I pay attention and put lesser-publicized books by non-white-American-male authors on my maybe list, and end up with a bunch to choose from, all books that interested me in the first place, when it’s time.

My “Plan” post at the beginning of the year’s In Between Reading isn’t an ironclad contract; it’s more aspirational, including a wide variety of things I want to read. This year, I planned twenty-seven books; I read thirty-five (approximately; some of those posts included more than one book). But I didn’t read all twenty-seven that I’d planned. I found I wasn’t in the mood for Dante; I read one Mlodinov book and didn’t want to read a second book by him in the same year; and I decided Fuzzy vs Techie, or Dream a World Anew was not something I wanted to read after all; it didn’t feel like it would teach me much.

This year’s favorites:

  • Helen DeWitt, Some Trick: Thirteen Stories. I keep saying I don’t particularly want to read Lightning Rods, but I just may. And there’s a new one, The English Understand Wool.
  • Steve Stern: The Frozen Rabbi: a novel that traces the nineteenth century Jewish diaspora out of Poland while recapping Stern’s belated discovery of his own Jewish roots via a teenager who discovers a rabbi in the freezer.
  • Jerald Walker: How to Make a Slave: a collection of short essays on middle class and academic Black life in the 21st century US.
  • Edward St. Aubyn: Lost for Words: a hilarious romp skewering the Booker Prize.
  • G. K. Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday: a philosophical mystery that’s just plain fun.
  • Michael Lewis: The Undoing Project: the story of an academic partnership that birthed a new academic field and revealed just how irrational we are.
  • Zena Hitz: Lost in Thought: the book that kept on giving, leading me to Jack London’s book, and the Catherine Project, where I’m currently in a short story reading group.

My regrets: only two. A Passion for Books was not really what I’d expected, and I think there are better books on the development of the alphabet than Alpha Beta. These weren’t wastes of time, but weren’t satisfying.

At this point, I have seventy-one books on my GoodReads “want-to-read” list. The Amazon shopping list is still outrageously long; some books have been there for ten or twelve years. But who knows, I may get around to them some day. By next April I might have double that amount.

But now it’s time to open Best American Short Stories 2022, and then Pushcart 2023. Every year I debate whether I should skip them, take on some of those seventy-one books instead. But I get a lot out of reading short stories and essays; to skip them would be to abandon some part of my reading consciousness, leave it to wither. So ends IBR2022.

I’m already looking forward to IBR2023.

Bob Harris: Prisoner of Trebekistan (Crown, 2006) [IBR2022]

Trebekistan is a location unfixed in physical space and time. It’s a place of pure learning, where hard playful work can bring sudden shock of unexpected perception. In Trebekistan, art and math and geography and science stop pretending to be separate subjects, and instead converge in a glorious riot. Every new detail creates two fresh curiosities, so you know less as you learn, and yet nothing seems unknowable. Trebekistan, oddly, is a place of expanding dimension yet increasing connection, both growing and shrinking with every new step.
Of course, even the best places can be screwed up. Toured foolishly, I would learn, Trebekistan can become a place of self-absorption, where knowledge has no purpose but the accretion of other knowledge. One can sin with intellectual greed as self-destructively as one who hoards wealth, love, or pride itself.

I am, and have been most of my life, an unabashed Jeopardy! fan. It started in the late 60s when I was in junior high and the only time I could watch the show, then on in the afternoon, was during school vacations. Things got a little jumbled for a few decades, and it wasn’t until the 90s that I realized it was still there,  in a more watchable early evening time slot. Since about 2000, I’ve watched it pretty regularly. For the past ten years or so, it’s been unmissable with a few exceptions; those usually involved hospital stays.

I’ve bought a couple of books like this before, but never really worried about using them to study for the show. I have no interest in appearing on TV to make a fool of myself. But I was looking for something quick and fun to read, and this fit the bill.

It’s something of a peculiar book: part autobiography, part history of the show, part excruciatingly detailed accounts of each individual game played, part study guide and prep techniques (complete with an Eightfold-Path to Enlightened Jeopardy! which, of course, has nine steps) with a sideline of cognitive science tidbits backing up the methodology, part travel guide, part love story, part not-love story. And part medical narrative for several different people, varying from the severe to the merely disgusting (I can handle discussions of pretty much any organ systems and their failures, but this was TMI about nasal secretions, particularly in the age of COVID. That isn’t the author’s fault; he was writing in 2006). There is a method to this madness, as one of the Eightfold Steps is: Everything Connects to Everything Else.

At first I found it annoying, all these Forrest Bounces (aha! If you know, you know) from topic to topic within the same page, paragraph, sometimes sentence. But in time, the narrative got me. Here you have this small-venue stand-up comedian from the Midwest who stumbles onto Jeopardy, alienates his girlfriend by turning his house into a Study Chamber, gets himself through five consecutive games, and heads for the Tournament of Champions, then to a couple more Tournaments. Along the way, he starts to value learning, rather than mnemonic devices:

More important, though: I wanted to know this stuff. I couldn’t imagine not wanting to know everything about everything. Every day was a rush of excitement, new knowledge and worlds and perceptions unfolding. I was an eager captive, unable and unwilling to leave.
I was imprisoning myself in Trebekistan.

I know the feeling. It’s how I feel every time I start a mooc or open a book.

When I say detailed accounts of each game, that includes several of the mental conversations he had with himself while pondering his responses. Consider, for example, his reasoning as he tackled the Final Jeopardy question:

This historic city was named for the Bishop of Hippo on whose feast day the area was first sighted.

“This historic city”… OK, and the category is U.S. cities… Well, the oldest city in the U.S. is Saint Augustine; That’s in my notebooks somewhere… “was named for the Bishop of Hippo.” Hippo, singular. A place, not the animal. Good, I didn’t think hippos had bishops. Where the hell is Hippo? Still, any city named for a Catholic might start with “St.” or “Santa.” good enough. St. Augustine, fine…
Electronic pen on glass. Clackety-click-whap-clickety. But I am second-guessing my response before it is even finished.
“On whose feast today the area was first sighted.” So it’s either on the coast or near a mountain pass. Shit. Santa Fe is really old, too. And it’s in the mountains. Crap. I wonder if somebody named Fe was from Hippo. Shit…
Bum-BUM!
The lights come up. It’s over.
… But Who is Saint Augustine? is correct.

This kind of thing allows those of us who have done some superficial study of Church history, as well as any good Catholic, to feel smug and superior since we had it at Hippo and smirked at the animal reference. But other clues are there to humble us. Like: The Secretary of State who survived an assassination attempt on the night his boss was shot. Harris knew it was “the guy who bought Alaska.” I had no idea. I mean, I knew Seward bought Alaska, but I had no idea the assassination plot that killed Lincoln included Seward as well – and, by the way, injured several other people, including his family and bodyguards. Now isn’t that more fun than memorizing secretaries of state?

If that level of detail doesn’t discourage you, I have one more caution. The book uses foreshadowing like a blunt instrument. Several times, the film Amistad shows up, and doesn’t pay off until the first game of the Tournament of Champions. Hints about romantic partners likewise stretch delayed gratification to the utmost. But I have to hand it to him: he knows when and how to drop the beat.

There is, if you persist, a genuine soul to the story, and that might make it good reading for those who are less enchanted by reading about learning techniques like chunking and state-dependent retrieval, or Jeopardy!-specific training like buzzer technique, clue choice, and wager strategies. You have to want it – but it just might be worth it, even if you have no intention of ever following in his footsteps.

S. J. Parris: Heresy (HC 2011) [IBR2022]

I have been fascinated by this man, the philosopher Giordano Bruno – ex-monk, poet, playwright, fugitive, heretic, proto-scientist, magician, spy – for years, since I first stumbled across him in a book on Renaissance philosophy…. I’ve always admired Bruno for his willingness to defy the limitations placed on the imagination and intellectual curiosity by organised religion – he achieved the impressive feat of being tried for heresy by both the Catholic Church and the Calvinists.
… Bruno always struck me as a man at odds with his time, a man whose unusually progressive ideas set him apart from those around him. Excommunicated, exiled, permanently looking over his shoulder, Bruno is the perfect outsider, the perfect flawed hero for a detective or spy novel. The challenge was to make my fictional Bruno modern enough to be sympathetic to readers, and Renaissance enough to be plausible.

Stephanie Merrit (aka S. J. Parris), “Diary: Giordano Bruno, my hero” available online at The New Humanist

My fascination with historical novels is a recent development. I’ve discovered only in the past couple of years that I like reading fictional accounts of historical people, books I call “read in front of the computer books’ – I read a chapter, then look everything up to see what is historical and what is fiction. It takes time to read a book that way, but I find it very satisfying. I find it far more enlightening than reading academic history books, which tend to go into more detail than I care about and require some familiarity with the period and the players to read in the first place. I’m guessing the engagement level involved in looking things up to verify them helps as well.

Last May, one of my writer/readers mentioned in a blog post that he’d read a series of novels featuring Giordano Bruno. That got my attention. He was something of a shadowy figure to me, first coming across my radar screen via some mooc or other, I’m not sure which, then appearing as a ridiculous cartoon character in Neil Degrasse Tyson’s remake of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I wasn’t really able to get a bead on him, however. So when my blogger buddy recommended this series so highly – “high values of character and plot” – I thought I’d take a look.

Heresy, the first of the five-book series, covers a very brief period in Bruno’s life: a few weeks of his visit to Oxford University in 1583, where he participated in a disputation – a debate of sorts – with the Rector of Lincoln College. This is historically documented, as are his travelling companions, a Polish palatine and a rakish nobleman, Philip Sidney, whose connection to Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State Sir Francis Walsingham created an opportunity for Bruno: check out any illicit Catholic activities at the college, as these were considered potentially traitorous and dangerous to Her Majesty.

Parris’ inspiration to write this series came from an academic work of history exploring the possibility that Bruno was, in fact, a spy: John Bossy’s Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair.

This book tells a story, and because it tells a story I cannot, dear reader, reveal to you here and now what happens in it. If you wish to find out what the story is you will have to read the book from beginning to end; which you may easily do, for it is not very long…. It deals with high matters of state, of public and private salvation. I should be inclined to classify it as tragi-comedy, and it could be said to have a moral.
Although many of these features would have qualified it, a few years later, to be put on the stage at Blackfriars or Bankside, the story differs from that of Hamlet or Measure For Measure in being true.

John Bossy: “To the Reader” from Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair

Given the direct connection, I read that book as well – or rather, skimmed it, since, as expected, it went into far more detail providing supporting evidence than I was interested in, and seemed far less a story than Bossy seemed to think. But it was enlightening for the difference in perspective it provided.

Parris’ fictional summary of Bruno’s mission:

So it was that I became part of what I later learned was a vast and complex network of informers that stretched from the colonies of the New World in the west to the land of the Turks in the east, all of us coming home to Walsingham holding our little offerings of secret knowledge as the dove returned to Noah bearing her olive branch…. Tomorrow I would see the great university city of Oxford, where I must ferret out two nuggets of gold: the secrets Walsingham wanted from the Oxford Catholics, and the book I now believed to be buried in one of its libraries.

The novel presents the disputation as the disaster for Bruno that history records: possibly his overblown rhetorical style developed in France, possibly his accent, possibly his support of Copernican astronomy replacing Aristotelian and Church-approved views, led to ridicule and rejection. He plans to spend the night sulking in his tent, and then will regroup in the morrow.

And it’s here, in Chapter 8 of 22, that the murder mystery takes over. It’s not that history is irrelevant from here on; it’s merely less prominent. The historical characters have already been laid out; the characters involved in the murder are fictional, since the murders are fictional. And the potential romance between Bruno and the Rector’s daughter, kindled over her interest in an ancient book he’s particularly interested in, is (presumably) entirely fictional: the Rector, James Underhill, was a historical person, and did have a daughter, but her name is not recorded anywhere I can find, much less her romantic leanings.

The murders take their cue from the historical tension between the Protestant Queen Elizabeth and her Catholic half-sister Mary, at this point imprisoned in the Tower of London. English Catholics viewed Elizabeth as illegitimate, both personally and as Queen, and elements in England, France, and Spain sought to assassinate or dethrone her and put the real Queen back on the throne, re-establishing the real religion. Any similarities to the present moment in the United States are, well, a bit of a stretch, but not as much as Parris might have imagined when she wrote this book in 2010.

I found the discussion about the ancient book to be the most interesting part of the book. A hundred years earlier, Marsilio Ficino (who I met in Jo Walton’s wonderful historical novel, Lent) had translated fourteen of fifteen books of the Corpus Hermeticum, a book blending magic and religion supposedly written by one Hermes Trismegistus in ancient Egypt, indicating the origins of Christianity as a corruption of the original true religion. This is not the first time Egypt has been proposed as the source of the Abrahamic religions, nor the last: in the 17th century, Athanasius Kircher would propose the language of Adam was recorded in Egyptian hieroglyphics. This Egyptophilia isn’t completely off-the-wall, since there’s significant evidence that the alphabet – all alphabets, from Hebrew to Greek to Latin – originated from the idea, though not the form, of  Egyptian hieroglyphics.

It is this book, and the mysterious almost-presence of Hermes Trismegistus (who is not believed to be a real person but an amalgam of sources) that fascinated me most. It’s not entirely clear to me how this is related to the Picatrix, but I’m glad to have more exploring to do.

A bookseller and his bookshop form one of the more memorable scenes in the book:

In fact, the narrow shop smelled more like home than any place I had been since my arrival in Oxford, for it smelled of books; a warm scent of new leather and paper, with the mustier traces of old vellum and ink, a heady mixture that brought on a sudden pang of nostalgia for the scriptorium at San Domenico Maggiore where I had spent so many hours of my youth.
Carved wooden book stacks lined each side of the shop showing the bookbinder’s art: each was filled from floor to ceiling with volumes bound in colored leather and organized according to size, placed with their fore-edge outwards so that the brass clasps glinted under the darting flames of the candles. Along the bench where Jenkes now stood, rubbing his hands and looking from me to Florio with an expression of greedy anticipation, examples of different types of binding and format were ranged, from the old-fashioned wooden boards encased in calfskin that would keep a parchment manuscript from cockling, to the newer Paris bindings of double pasteboard for lighter books of paper, that needed no brass clasps but were tied together with leather thongs or ribbons. All were secured, like the books in Lincoln library, by a brass chain attached to a rod running beneath the bench.

To say exactly how would be a spoiler, but I’ll just mention that the bookseller becomes a rather crucial character later in the book.

As the mystery resolves and Bruno puts this adventure behind him, he reflects on his role as spy to the Secretary of State. Some people deserved their fate; others, nowhere near as guilty of actual crimes, became collateral damage as the result of his information. This leads to the grand epiphany of the book’s 460 pages:

Walsingham had warned me that this kind of choice was part of his service, and I needed to repay his faith in me if I were to have any hope of gaining the Queen’s patronage. Playing politics with the lives of others was part of the path to advancement, but that, as I was just beginning to understand, was the real heresy.

For the record, Pariss’ inspiration, historian John Bossy, has a different point of view:

Against Bruno’s virtues and talents, now revealed or confirmed, we have to set the discovery that he was not an honorable man. Spying is a dishonorable profession: contrary to an impression which has been put around, it always entails betraying your friends, or people you have caused to believe are your friends. Bruno appears to have no qualms about entering it. I am sure he went into it mainly for reasons of conviction, though he also went into it for the money, and probably for the thrills as well….
The single motive of everything we have discovered Bruno doing was the destruction of the papacy and all its works.

John Bossy: Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair

While historical fiction, obviously, should not be taken at face value, I find it a worthwhile way to engage with material that might be otherwise too complicated without some background. While I lost some interest as the murder mysteries took center stage, there was enough cultural commentary to keep me reading. Those who prefer mysteries to historical background will probably have the opposite experience.

Will I read the rest of the series? Not sure. The next book, also a murder mystery, concerns Queen Elizabeth herself, as well as her astrologer John Dee (a real historical person), and the Great Conjunction, an astronomical event such as we just witnessed a few months ago when Jupiter and Saturn snuggled up next to each other. In 1583, they took these things a lot more seriously. The third book also sounds interesting, involving a look back at Thomas Beckett, another piece of English history I’ve never been able to get straight. I’m somewhat tempted, but I have so much on my reading list! 

Percival Everett: The Trees (Graywolf Press, 2021) [IBR2022]

At a certain point, dark social satire bleeds into horror. That can be powerful, but it can also very easily miss its target. Percival Everett’s new novel The Trees hits just the right mark. It’s a racial allegory grounded in history, shrouded in mystery, and dripping with blood. An incendiary device you don’t want to put down.

Carole V. Bell, NPR review

That’s a very good description: a detective novel layered onto a sort-of historical fiction book blended with horror and fantasy. It even works in a couple of minor references to Jaws and In The Heat of the Night, and probably a few other cultural items I didn’t recognize.  But more than anything else, it’s about the continuing, and accelerating, reluctance of USAians to admit, much less apologize and atone for, our racist roots, and shows one way that particular raisin in the sun might explode.

The story opens in Money, Mississippi, with a gruesome double murder: one white man named Junior Junior Milam, and one unknown Black man. While the local police are asking questions, the Black man’s body goes missing from the morgue. Some ideas are tossed around – he wasn’t really dead seems to predominate – a second murder shows exactly the same pattern: a local white man, and… the same Black man who was dead and then disappeared. This time he’s clearly confirmed to be very, very dead, but again goes missing, under seemingly impossible circumstances. “I don’t know why he can’t stay dead,” says a deputy, in one of the most loaded statements of the book.

Bring in the state Bureau of Investigation. Alas, the two Special Agents are Black, which doesn’t sit particularly well with the local white sheriff, already feeling superseded.

That’s the basic setup. If you’ve ever read detective fiction, you know things get a lot more complicated. And if you’re familiar with the name Emmett Till, they get a lot darker.

Everett does some subtle things here, starting with that line “I don’t know why he can’t stay dead.” We see the town sheriff, upset about how things are going, at breakfast:

Red Jetty took a bite of toast and put it back on his plate. He sat at the table with his wife, Agnes. His dog, an American foxhound, stood behind him, his long snout resting on Jetty’s leg.
“You okay, Red?” Agnes asked.
“I’m okay.”
“The only time Wallace puts his face in your lap like that is when you’re upset,” she said.

Now, there are a lot of Wallaces that could refer to: Mike, David Foster, Alfred Russell, Stevens. But in this context, my money’s on George “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Everett doesn’t hammer it home, just leaves it there. He does that a lot. Like when he takes us inside a Klan meeting – or what’s left of the Klan in Money, Mississippi – where someone complains that the same guy has been Grand Kleagle for a long time.

“We ain’t had no election because we ain’t had no gaddamn meetins,” from still another.
“That’s true, Jared,” Donald said.
“Used to be back when my daddy was alive, we had meetins all the time, every week,” Jared said.
“Elections too,” another man said. “They was always votin’ back in them days. Right?”
“And they used to have cross burnins a lot more and family picnics and softball games and all such,” said Donald. “I remember eatin’ cake next to that glowing cross. I loved my mama’s cake.”
“Yeah.” Several voiced their agreement.
“We don’t do nothin’ now,” a man complained. “I don’t even know where my hood is. I don’t even own a rope.”

Ah, heritage, so important to the (Confederate) flag-waving South. They hold an impromptu election – and elect the same guy. Who just happens to be the coroner, the Reverend Doctor Cad Fondle. Who is neither a doctor (very few non-urban coroners are) nor a Reverend of any official religion. And who ends up… well, guess.

Everett has a good time with names. Junior Junior, Digby, Red, Wheat, all local white boys in Money, Mississippi. But when the Black agents from the Missisippi Bureau of Investigation arrive, they’re named Ed and Jim. The FBI agent who eventually shows up, however, is a Black woman named Herberta “Herbie” Hind, so whites don’t have a monopoly on fun names.

If this all sounds a little like reverse racism dumping on dumb Southern whites, well, yeah, it is. I found it uncomfortable reading. None of the locals can put two sentences together without tripping over a racial epithet, and they get tied up in knots trying to talk to outsiders without giving away their DNA-deep racism, a racism that becomes more and more important as it becomes evident that the murdered white men are sons of the original group that lynched Emmett Till.

Still feel bad about those silly names? Because beneath the detective fiction and the horror story and the kind of goofy revenge fantasy it turns into, it’s a book about the thousands of people of color who were – and who continue to be, when you consider the kinds of murders going on today –lynched, and the lack of justice for such crimes.

And then we have other forms of injustice, summed up in the character of Damon Nathan Thruff, another oddly named Black character:

Damon Nathan Thruff was an assistant professor at the University of Chicago. He held a PhD in molecular biology from Harvard, a PhD in psychobiology from Yale, and a PhD in Eastern philosophy from Columbia. He was twenty-seven years old. He had published three books on cellular regeneration, all issued by Cambridge University Press, and a two-volume work on the biological and philosophical origins of racial violence in the United States published by Harvard University Press. On this particular day, he was sitting at the desk in his tiny university office in the Department of Ethnic Studies (because they didn’t know where to put him), trying to compile a list of names of people who might write letters in support of his tenure bid. He had been denied tenure the year before but was being given a second chance, what the university administration was calling an affirmative reconsideration. The reason given for this denial of tenure was his productivity. The Dean told him, flatly, that no one really believed that he was capable of so much work of such quality so quickly. And so he was stuck with a one year appointment called the Phillis Wheatley Chair in Remedial Studies. Part of his second (gift) bid for tenure required that he not publish anything for a year. Such restraint from active scholarship might show the proper commitment to his proper place, was what the Dean told him.

Mama Z is one of the locals, an impossibly old Black woman who’s been keeping records of lynchings going back to the day she was born in, as she claims it, 1913, the same year her daddy was lynched. Her file room is a powerful image: twenty-three gray metal file cabinets. “The drawers were like those in a morgue,” thinks Jim when he sees them. And the Professor who wrote a book about racial violence, a book Mama Z knows well – “you were able to construct three hundred and seven pages on such a topic without an ounce of outrage” – is so overcome by these twenty-three file cabinets, all full of racial violence, sits down and starts writing:

“When I write the names they become real, not just statistics. When I write the names they become real again. It’s almost like they get a few more seconds here. Do you know what I mean? I would never be able to make up this many names. The names have to be real. They have to be real. Don’t they?”
Mama Z put her hand against the side of Damon’s face. “Why pencil?”
“When I’m done, I’m going to erase every name, set them free.”
“Carry on, child,” the old woman said.

 Say Their Names. And he intends to, every one of them, all twenty-three cabinets full.

This image is so powerful, it made its way to the book’s cover. It’s hard to see, but the deep-blue background is imprinted with what looks like a striped design – maybe mimicking the rows of file cabinets? – but is actually a list of names in just slightly lighter print. Pick a name (it takes some looking to read, but it can be done) and google it – Say Their Names – and you’ll find their stories. James Scott, accused of sexual assault on a 14-year-old white girl in 1923, was kidnapped from his jail cell in Columbia, MO and hanged by a white mob. William Miller, an Alabama coal miner and labor activist, was likewise dragged from his jail cell and hanged in 1903. Chee  “Gene” Loong Tong, a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, was one of seventeen Chinese men shot and hanged by a Los Angeles mob in 1871. Leo Lung Siang, one of twenty-eight Chinese murdered by white coal miners who burned down the houses of Chinese coal miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1885.  Then there are the names more familiar to us: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner. And perhaps most heartbreaking of all: the numerous “unknown male” entries.

Mama Z didn’t just collect names, however. Where possible, police and coroner’s reports are outlined as well. Such as:

The individual was found bound at the ankles and wrists with some kind of coated wire. The individual was found suspended from the large branch of an oak tree by a light brown rope tied in a loop around his neck. The individual was pronounced dead at the scene by the coroner. The cause of death was determined to be a self-inflicted knife wound to the neck.

Everett leaves it for us to compare that to the contemporary version:

An Arkansas medical examiner has ruled that Chavis Carter, the 21-year-old man killed by a gunshot wound to the head while handcuffed in the back of a police car, committed suicide….

CBS News, 2012

As the book goes on, things get more and more farcical, with similar murders happening in multiple cities. Finally we end up at the White House, where an unnamed President cowers under his desk and demands “my bunker.” As amusing as this might seem, I felt it derailed things. But I give Everett a lot of credit for capturing the voice perfectly: “Did you hear that screaming? That was the loudest screaming that anyone has ever heard. You wouldn’t believe how loud that screaming was.”

The novel returns at the end to the file room with all the central – that is, Black – characters, and Damon typing names. The last line is a question, a question maybe we should all be asking ourselves in this moment when school boards are prohibiting teaching history and literature that might upset white people, with no regard to how Black people might feel about it. “Should we stop him?”

The title puzzled me for a while. I’m pretty sure it refers to the song “Strange Fruit,” which is quoted in the text (as is “Mississippi Goddamn”):

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

“Strange Fruit,” Lyrics & Music by Abel Meerpool,1937

But are the trees, stained by the blood of lynching victims, crying out for justice – or were they complicit in the lynchings and thus are tainted by that same blood that marks guilt? It could go either way. I think the strongest argument by far uses the subject of the book – the lynching victims of the past centuries – as well as  the biblical “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground,” as support for the first option. But it’s possible, given the present-day murders at least start out with descendants – the family trees – of the people who set up and lynched Emmett Till, to make a case for the second option.

I became aware of this book via the Five Books article on the short list for this year’s Booker prize. I don’t pay a lot of attention to prizes – I’m much happier when I look for content or style that interests me – but I took a look, as I do most of the Five Books lists. The description interested me: a detective novel about racism that included humor and fantasy. I’ve enjoyed several “Black satire” novels in the past few years, most recently Black Buck, so I investigated further and ended up ordering it. I liked Everett’s comment about his use of humor in his interview with the Booker Prize people:

There is, of course, a distinction to be made between irony and humor and absurdity; a distinction that does not make them mutually exclusive. If one can get someone laughing, then one can use that relaxed state to present other things.

Percival Everett, Booker Short List Interview

I didn’t laugh much while reading the book, but that didn’t surprise me; historically I have a hard time with humor. But I didn’t need to be lulled into a state of acceptance to face the grim realities presented. I admired the subtlety with which Everett dropped certain references, and it makes me wonder how many I missed. The scariest part is not the future the book suggests, but the present, and how much like the past it continues to be – and how much more like the past it might become in the next few years.

Cookbooks are books, too! [IBR2022]

The matter of how to read a cookbook is a very personal one. After all, who is to say which way is best when it comes to digesting the ingredients, recipe notes, and photography from one cook to another?
…There are voracious cookbook readers, who tear open the box as soon as it arrives and don’t get up from the couch until they’ve finished reading cover to cover. This kind of reading is often a luxury, but a wonderful one.
There are thoughtful cookbook readers, who set aside time to pick it up and set it down again, always saving where they left off, and reading from beginning to end in the order it was written.
If someone is very hungry, they might read in accordance to their physical needs. If it’s dinner time, they start with main courses. If they’re hosting a party this weekend, they consider appetizers, flipping around from chapter to chapter in no particular order.
Also, the note takers, who keep a running list of things to make and keep it folded in the cookbook so when they pull it off the shelf again, they’ll know exactly what they had wanted to try from the first time they read it. They may or may not cross off the recipes they made with a triumphant smile.
There are even non-readers who purchase cookbooks solely on the basis of beauty, to be stacked and assembled as art pieces in their living rooms.

From “How To Read A Cookbook” by Nicole Gulotta available online at Eat This Poem

I recently binge-watched Top Chef: all 19 seasons, which was tricky since it bounced from one streaming service to another while I was in the middle. Back in the day, I blogged recaps for a few seasons, but I lost track around season 11, so I had some catching up to do. I noticed a few things: the earlier seasons were mean. Season 2 included theft, cheating, bullying, threatened assault, and an actual assault. Most of the early seasons featured a villain of some sort, sometimes just an out-of-place chef who stayed beyond their skill level (which isn’t in the chef’s control after all; my theory is they want someone they can plausibly cut should one of the obvious leaders have a really bad week) but Last Chance Kitchen seems to have obviated that. Language seemed to evolve as well: in later seasons, I kept hearing “the dish eats salty” or “it eats dry,” and dishes were declared “vegetable-forward” or “flavor-forward,” while those phrases didn’t show up in the early years. I’m tempted to ask Language Log of this is linguistic evolution or if they just decided to get sophisticated all of a sudden.

Linguistic and psychosocial observations aside, two cookbook purchases resulted from this binge. The first was motivated by a renewed appreciation for Richard Blais; the second, by several reminders that I really want to move towards a more vegetarian diet.

Richard Blais, twice a contestant and several times a guest judge, has an interesting approach to cooking, summed up perfectly by his choice of the character Willy Wonka on a challenge about movies. He thrives on puns and spectacle, and isn’t afraid of modernist techniques (agars, liquid nitrogen) to create dishes that are conceptually and visually interesting as well as, most of the time, tasty. I got curious about what he’s up to now (apparently, starting restaurants and selling them once they’re up and running is a thing) and discovered he’d written a couple of cookbooks. One was available at a bargain price via one of my favorite used booksellers, so Try This At Home now graces my shelves.

What I love about cooking is recreating traditional dishes to make them delicious and an experience. I prod my diners for an emotional reaction – a chance to revisit childhood, or a special time and place, or to find whimsy in overwrought dishes that we sometimes eat.

Richard Blais, Try This At Home

As is usually the case with cookbooks, it’s not that I’m going to cook Blais’ recipes. I’m certainly not going to rush out and get an immersion circulator or liquid nitrogen (both of which he advocates, to my surprise, with plenty of warnings about the coolant), and I already make rigatoni alla Bolognese but I call it American chop suey; I’m perfectly happy with boxed pasta and sauce from a jar mixed with browned ground beef so I feel no need to make it all from scratch. His sweet potato gnocchi is a lot more tempting; I’ve never made or even eaten gnocchi but this version sounds great and looks beautiful. Mostly I just like looking at the pictures: cookbook photography is incredibly tempting. There’s a charred half-artichoke that makes me drool so hard, I might even consider trying it, but the recipe includes only boiling so I wonder how the char gets there. See, this is why I don’t try to cook from cookbooks.

The other impetus, moving towards a more vegetarian lifestyle, was generated by watching the Top Chefs catch fish and glory at their success as these living creatures flopped and gasped and died. Not to mention seeing suckling pigs on a spit, and lobsters and crabs thrown live into boiling water. I felt guilty every time I saw one of Crouton’s tweets. Those of us who eat out of supermarket packaging forget there were once live animals on the other end of those fillets and chops.

So that’s how Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone ended up on my shelves.  The teaser called it the equivalent of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but for vegetarian cuisine. I should have realized that meant it was more than I really wanted, but it, too, was at a low price and brought the total to the threshold for free shipping. It turns out it’s a doorstop of a book, and assumes the “everyone” to whom it’s addressed cares about non-GMO and organic and natural crap, which, well, i don’t. Still, it’s probably good to have as a reference.

There is also the fundamental joy in cooking, born of the pleasure of using our senses – rustling our fingers through a bunch of herbs, listening to the sizzle of onions, watching the colors brighten while vegetables cook, inhaling the fragrance of olive oil the moment it hits the pasta. This sensual involvement draws us into the process of cooking and teaches us about it. That sizzling sound tells us our heat is high enough; the scent of the herbs tells us whether we need to use a lot or a few; the fragrance of the oil assures us of its quality. Because these small but often stellar moments occur even when cooking the simplest things, both the beginning cook and the expert can experience them.

Deborah Madison, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

In retrospect I should have found something simpler. What I really wanted was some ideas about combining grains and legumes for protein that goes beyond rice and beans. There’s a frozen dinner I’m very fond of which includes something they call whole wheat orzo and wheat berries; I’m in love with it, and long to combine it with, I don’t know, pea pods? I can’t find either grain at my local supermarket, and that means, I guess, a trip to Whole Foods. I’m always afraid an alarm will go off if I step into Whole Foods: “Caution, shoppers, a person contaminated with artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners has just entered the store!” I wish I had the nerve to ask them, batting my eyes innocently, where the Diet Coke is.

While in this mindset, I took a look at my sparse collection of cookbooks. Very sparse, two, three if you stretch the definition of cookbook a little.

My original Joy of Cooking fell apart decades ago, so I replaced it with the 1975 edition, the last, as I understand it, to include pictures with descriptions of skinning rabbits and squirrels (and basic instructions for muskrats, possums, and other critters). Remember, I only look at the pictures. These pictures amuse me. At some point the book became water-soaked, but I don’t want to replace it again so I put up with the warped pages. I only remember making pinwheel cookies and osso bucco from the book, but it was a handy reference for cooking times.

Asking a cook why he heats food at all is, of course, like asking an architect why men do not live in caves. The obvious answer is that it usually tastes better that way.

Rombauer/Becker, The Joy of Cooking

It’s kind of a loaded item: I still remember Julia Child’s dismay over it in the film Julie and Julia (love the movie, never had any urge to buy her cookbooks). But I have a vague recollection of a line from Frank Conroy’s Body and Soul in which Claude, the pianist at the beginning of his career, raves about reading a copy of Joy of Cooking as if it were a novel. That scene may or may not be in the actual book (regrettably, it’s long been purged from my shelves) but it gives me a fondness for the book that overrules Ms. Child’s disdain.

Sheila Lukins’ All Around the World cookbook makes a nice complement to the solidly middle-America  Joy. I don’t remember what I was thinking when I bought it. And again, it’s something I read rather than cook from. She admits sacrificing authenticity for accessibility, which is fine by me. It’s a resource for flavor combinations. I should look through this again, who knows what might jump out at me.

My book presents some of everything I learned after going all around the world. I brought home the customs, flavors, and essences of each cuisine and reinterpreted them in my kitchen. My recipes are not traditional, rather a blend of my views on the best the world has to offer.

Sheila Lukins, All Around the World Coobook

Lastly is the not-cookbook: The Restaurant Lover’s Companion by Steve Ettlinger et al. It provides a preview of what going to your local French, Italian, Indian, Japanese, or a dozen other ethnically defined restaurants will entail: signature dishes, most common flavors and ingredients, booze, dining customs, a bit of vocabulary to help with the menu.

This is not a definitive reference book or a complete glossary, but rather an introductory guide to make ordering easier and exploring new cuisines more fulfilling. [It’s] meant to play the role of an erudite and well-traveled friend who dines with you and explains the meal as it progresses.

Steve Ettinger et al, The Restaurant Lover’s Companion

I can count the number of times I’ve been to an actual restaurant in the past couple of decades on one hand – first there was financial stress, then there was COVID, and there’s always been the intimidation factor and my hopelessly bland and unadventurous palate – but as is my typical pattern, I prefer reading about things to doing them. Besides, thanks to the wonder of the frozen foods section of my supermarket, I can experiment with flavors, inauthentic and unrepresentative as they may be.

Now, let’s be honest: if you want a recipe, you can find dozens, hundreds, on Youtube or any of the recipe sites online. But a cookbook, that’s more than recipes. As I went googling for a lead quote for this post, I found numerous articles discussing cookbooks as books:

Jaya Saxena presents cookbooks as history and personal narratives in “Eight Cookbooks You Can Read Like Books” at Electric Literature: “From histories to family secrets, some of the most delicious tales around can be found between the recipes.”

Amanda Shapiro explains how cookbooks helped her cope with panic attacks in “There’s No Better Time to… Read a Cookbook Like a Book-Book” at Bon Appetit:

A common strategy for dealing with panic attacks, I’ve learned recently, is something called the 5-4-3-2-1 method. You find 5 things to see, 4 things to feel, 3 things to hear, 2 things to smell, and 1 thing to taste. The idea is to get your brain away from Anxietyland and back to the immediate present by focusing on what’s around you. I think reading [How To Cook Everything by Mark Bittman] works in a similar way. My eyes are focused on a page, my hands on holding a solid (and quite heavy) object, and my mind on the food I’m reading about: how the ingredients come together, how the dish might smell and taste, the texture of it in my mouth.

Article available online at Bon Appetit

Neha Patel tells us how looking for recipes to cook during lockdown turned into something else: “My intentions were pure: I wanted to learn new cooking techniques. But the reader in me couldn’t read through the recipes. Instead, I found myself attracted to the introductions, the blurbs that always come before a recipe, and even the acknowledgements.” I know the feeling! She relates her experience in “Why I Don’t Just Read Cookbooks For The Recipes” at Bookriot.

Bee Wilson has a surprisingly bookish take on recipes in her New Yorker article, “The Pleasures of Reading Recipes”:

Recipes have a story arc. You need to get through the tricky early prepping stages via the complications of heat and measuring before you arrive at the point of happy closure where the dish goes in the oven or is sliced or served. When a recipe has many ingredients and stages and finicky instructions, it can be hard to concentrate, like reading a Victorian novel with so many characters that you need a dramatis personae to keep things straight.
…There are many mysteries here: What is a timbale? And how do you make a vanilla-flavoured syrup? If Escoffier tried to clear them up, the recipe would be easier to use but less intriguing. And part of the pleasure of recipe-reading is the feeling that you are about to discover a great secret.

Article available online at The New Yorker

Frank Conroy’s Claude was on to something.

I also found numerous sites recreating dishes from various books: Boeuf en daube from To The Lighthouse was a favorite, but the crab salad on avocado from The Bell Jar showed up surprisingly often; surprisingly, since in the book it gave everyone food poisoning. However, I crave chicken broth – with or without the pat of butter floating on top – whenever I’m recovering from any ailment, from the close of that segment.

I used to do a fair amount of cooking. I specialize in “Swedish” dishes: not Swedish, as in originating from Sweden, but “Swedish” as in altered to suit my peculiar preferences. It started out by recognizing that when you ask for Swedish pancakes, or Swedish meatballs, you won’t get typical pancakes or meatballs. Add to that my father’s Swedish heritage, and the whacko Swedish chef, and you’ve got my cooking style: my “Swedish” lasagna is more sweet than savory, and my “Swedish” tagine uses dried apricots instead of preserved lemons and my favorite spice blend – cinnamon plus ginger with half as much cumin, inspired by, I kid you not, Rachael Ray – instead of Ras el hanout and grains of paradise. You don’t want to know about my “Swedish” rice and beans or burritos, trust me. Oddly, I learned to make reasonably authentic sauerbraten at the urging of my husband; it may be the best thing that came out of that marriage.

I do make one authentically Swedish item: Vetebröd, a fairly standard yeast bread made with cardamom. I have the recipe from my genuinely Swedish Aunt Elsie tucked in my water-warped Joy of Cooking. It’s the closest I come to the warm family memoir stuff cookbooks are now famous for. My family wasn’t about warm memories.

I have one culinary dream:  to make Jacques Torres’ Bûche de Noël. The first problem is that I will need help, if only to keep me calm. The second problem is that it requires a small amount of Grand Marnier, which doesn’t come in small amounts, only large, very expensive amounts. The recipe does offer the helpful “or other liqueur” so there is some wiggle room. We’ll see.

These days, my hands aren’t reliable for fine chopping (I recently bought a new bread knife and cut myself taking it out of the packaging) or strong enough for kneading, so I haven’t been doing much cooking. Maybe if I can find some of that whole wheat orzo and those wheat berries, that’ll change. And from there, who knows, Richard Blais’ sweet potato gnocchi might make it to my plate yet.

Harold Rabinowitz & Bob Kaplan, eds.: A Passion for Books (Three Rivers Press, 1999) [IBR2022]

My history is all books, and rarely anything else, which is why I am up front here, as preface….
The Egyptians often, in death, had their favorite cats embalmed, to cozen their feet. If things go well, my special pets will pace me into eternity, Shakespeare as pillow, Pope at one elbow, Yeats at the other, and Shaw to warm my toes. Good company for far-traveling. Meanwhile, I stand here with my hopeless prejudices, to preface these loves. Please, to begin.

Ray Bradbury, Foreword

About twelve years ago, during my read of BASS 2011, I came across a story by pre-Overstory Richard Powers titled “To the Measures Fall.” It’s the story of a woman’s relationship with a book, and how that relationship continued and changed throughout her life. I can remember, unprompted, only a handful of the stories I’ve read over the years; this is one of them.

I was hoping to capture that same feeling – relationships with books – in this anthology of writings about books. I was disappointed.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy parts of it, it’s just that it’s one of those Great Men Write About the Greatness of Books (oh, sure, there are a few women sprinkled in, but it’s a sausage-fest, partly because many of the essays are drawn from prior to the 20th century when women belatedly appeared on Earth).

Not reading: books. I hadn’t realized what a difference that would make. Many of the articles are about book collecting, a process I don’t quite understand. Now, I have for the past ten years or so become fascinated with manuscripts, and I realize books don’t become historical cultural treasures unless they are collected and protected from their start. Will we some day stare in awe at a hardcover copy of, say, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire as the product of a bygone technology? Still, I don’t understand collecting books for their value. I have only recently come to appreciate books as physical objects, but that’s only inasmuch as the substance makes the reading easier or better in some way. I still consider books as tools to be used, not sculptures to be admired from afar. Yes, I dog-ear, I underline and notate, I crack spines and roll paperback covers. I’ve recently replaced several volumes that were falling apart, because I’m attached to the content, not the package. But there are those who put considerable effort – not to mention funds – into amassing book collections, not of books to read, but of books to have. To each his own.

I did find a number of articles fun to read. “Pillow Books” by Clifton Fadiman wonders what type of book is best for bedtime reading? Few want something dull enough to let them nod off in boredom, but how do you find a book that’s engaging but sedating rather than stimulating?

Then there are lists. The ten, fifty, one hundred best books of all time, of the 20th century, of course. “Books that changed America.” Favorite novels of Somerset Maugham and Norman Mailer. And a wonderful list of “Ten Books that Never Existed,” books mentioned within books. To the Measures Fall was not included. Neither was An Imperial Affliction, which I felt I might have liked more than The Fault in our Stars in which it appeared. More seriously, nothing by Borges made the list.

The most heartbreaking article was “Comfort Found in Good Old Books” by George Hamlin Fitch. In a moving essay, Fitch describes how favorite books were a comfort after the unexpected death of his son.

 Other essays covered the perils of loaning books, several articles titled “Bibliomania” or derivatives thereof, and the business end of books, both publishing and selling. Some of these were interesting, but I suspect I would have to be more of a book sophisticate to fully appreciate them.

Choosing to read this book was a worthy effort with mediocre success. I should have found a book titled A Passion For Reading instead. Or maybe just reread “To the Measures Fall.”

Jack London: Martin Eden (original publication 1909; Penguin, 1985) [IBR2022]

Martin Eden (1909) is London’s most autobiographical novel. It describes his struggle for education and literary fame in his youth and his disillusion with success in his middle age. It mythologizes his rise from obscurity and prophecies his early death at forty. The author’s passionate identification with his hero, Martin Eden, creates the power and compulsion of the book, which remains today equaled only by Knut Hamsun’s Hunger as an archetypal study of the urge to write subordinating even the will to live.

Andrew Sinclair, Introduction

This post is dedicated to my two favorite angst-ridden writers (you know who you are), not because they share Martin Eden’s urgency and torment or his rise and fall, but because they will find some of the descriptions of his thoughts about writing to be hilarious, in ways Jack London couldn’t have intended.

But before I get into that, let’s look at the book as a whole, because it’s crammed with all kinds of social, political, and psychological drama.

Martin Eden was a perfectly content young man of twenty, taking turns on various sailing ships when he needed money, hanging around early 20th century San Francisco and living with his sister and her husband when he didn’t. One fateful day, however, he rescued a stranger from a violent encounter with hooligans, and was invited home to dine with Arthur and his family. He admires the art on the walls and the leather-bound books placed importantly around the parlor, becoming uncomfortable when he realizes just how elegant a family they are. His interaction with a painting sums up the entire novel:

An oil painting caught and held him. A heavy surf thundered and burst over an outjutting rock; lowering storm-clouds covered the sky; and, outside the line of surf, a pilot-schooner, close-hauled, heeled over till every detail of her deck was visible, was surging along against a stormy sunset sky. There was beauty, and it drew him irresistibly. He forgot his awkward walk and came closer to the painting, very close. The beauty faded out of the canvas. His face expressed his bepuzzlement. He stared at what seemed a careless daub of paint, then stepped away. Immediately all the beauty flashed back into the canvas. “A trick picture,” was his thought, as he dismissed it, though in the midst of the multitudinous impressions he was receiving he found time to feel a prod of indignation that so much beauty should be sacrificed to make a trick.

He promptly falls in love with Arthur’s sister, Ruth, as much for her sophistication and education – she’s a college student, studying English – as for her beauty.

Here was intellectual life, he thought, and here was beauty, warm and wonderful as he had never dreamed it could be. He forgot himself and stared at her with hungry eyes. Here was something to live for, to win to, to fight for – ay, and die for.

He realizes, of course, that he can never win over such a magnificent creature, seeing as he doesn’t speak well (he doesn’t even realize the half of how badly he speaks) and isn’t worthy to touch the hem of her garment. And about that biblical allusion: the text doesn’t fuss much with religion at all, but as editor and London biographer Andrew Sinclair mentions in his Introduction, the names are loaded with inference. Eden is, of course, the Paradise of innocence, from which Woman caused the expulsion of humanity. Martin Luther was the Disrupter Supreme of the medieval order. And Ruth is the picture of loyalty and steadfastness, whither thou goest I will go.

The fictional Ruth doesn’t quite live up to that billing, but as she gets to know Martin, she does wander into what for her is a strange land:

Her gaze rested for a moment on the muscular neck, heavy corded, almost bull-like, bronzed by the sun, spilling over with rugged health and strength. And though he sat there, blushing and humble, again she felt drawn to him. She was surprised by a wanton thought that rushed into her mind. It seemed to her that if she could lay her two hands upon that neck that all its strength and vigor would flow out to her. She was shocked by this thought. It seemed to reveal to her an undreamed depravity in her nature. Besides, strength to her was a gross and brutish thing. Her ideal of masculine beauty had always been slender gracefulness. Yet the thought still persisted. It bewildered her that she should desire to place her hands on that sunburned neck. In truth, she was far from robust, and the need of her body and mind was for strength. But she did not know it. She knew only that no man had ever affected her before as this one had, who shocked her from moment to moment with his awful grammar.

From there, the overall path is predictable: Martin struggles to raise himself to Ruth’s level, and educates himself right over her head, while she tries to get him to stop fooling around with his awful writing and follow the only path she knows: formal education, and a position in Daddy’s firm. Unable to change him into what she wants, and embarrassed by something of a smear campaign against him, Ruth ditches him – and of course then he finds the literary and financial success he was striving for, all on the writing Ruth so disparaged.

Political and social philosophy makes up a significant part of the book, but it’s all pretty bleak. Martin calls himself an Individualist in the vein of Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism and Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. He discovers most educated people are dolts who can only parrot what they’ve been taught, but eventually finds a comparable, if opposing, mind in the ardent socialist Brissenden, and enjoys the rowdy discussions of a group of streetcorner philosophers. London, himself an ardent socialist and labor activist, seems to be making a point here: both Brissenden and Martin kill themselves, and the streetcorner philosophers are impotent in a society that still values breeding and conformity. Seems like a pretty bleak worldview to me. I know the feeling.

The last page of the book goes with Martin as he throws himself off the side of the ship, the ship that was ostensibly taking him to his own personal Shangri-La now that he has the money to set it up. Except he’s lost the girl, he’s lost the will to write, so he jumps into the ocean. It’s a beautiful passage:

The bubbles rubbed and bounded like tiny balloons against his cheeks and eyes as they took their upward flight. Then came pain and strangulation. This hurt was not death, was the thought that oscillated through his reeling consciousness. Death did not hurt. It was life, the pangs of life, this awful, suffocating feeling; it was the last blow life could deal him…
Colors and radiances surrounded him and bathed him and pervaded him. What was that? It seemed a lighthouse; but it was inside his brain—a flashing, bright white light. It flashed swifter and swifter. There was a long rumble of sound, and it seemed to him that he was falling down a vast and interminable stairway. And somewhere at the bottom he fell into darkness. That much he knew. He had fallen into darkness. And at the instant he knew, he ceased to know.

Now, about that unintentionally hilarious plot thread about writing.

Martin is aware of the gulf between him and Ruth, and he starts a self-education project to make himself worthy of her. He even enlists her help in improving his grammar and manner of speaking, and his knowledge of what kinds of books there are to learn from. He makes some progress, then must go to sea again to earn money so he can afford to live on land; apparently sailoring pays pretty well. But he realizes speaking well won’t do it; he needs to become one of what he calls the bourgeoisie, and he can’t do that if he’s running off to the South Seas every few months to earn the rent.

The answer comes to him during one of his sea voyages:

Along with his humbleness because he knew so little, there arose a conviction of power. He felt a sharp gradation between himself and his shipmates, and was wise enough to realize that the difference lay in potentiality rather than achievement. What he could do,—they could do; but within him he felt a confused ferment working that told him there was more in him than he had done. He was tortured by the exquisite beauty of the world, and wished that Ruth were there to share it with him. He decided that he would describe to her many of the bits of South Sea beauty. The creative spirit in him flamed up at the thought and urged that he recreate this beauty for a wider audience than Ruth. And then, in splendor and glory, came the great idea. He would write. He would be one of the eyes through which the world saw, one of the ears through which it heard, one of the hearts through which it felt. He would write—everything—poetry and prose, fiction and description, and plays like Shakespeare. There was career and the way to win to Ruth.

No, no, no! screams everyone who’s ever logged in to Submittable. This is still early in his self-education project, so his naïveté, while heartbreakingly funny, isn’t as crazy as it seems. He had, after all, learned grammar and a bit of literature, and all along he’s been portrayed as an intelligent, if uneducated, person.

He begins his writing career with an article about his sea voyage, and sends it to the local newspaper, waiting eagerly for the next day when it will be published. Except… well, you know. He reads some literary magazines and sends stories to them, counting how much each will earn based on pay-per-word rates. Except… yeah.

Eventually we find out he didn’t realize he wasn’t supposed to be writing on both sides of the paper, and still later, that he should have typed his submissions, which requires renting a typewriter. It really makes me want to cry. The poor guy is writing all day, and reading all night, sleeping five hours a night (he tried to cut it back to four and a half, but it didn’t quite work), churning out material and painstakingly recording in his book where he submitted it and how much they’ll pay, then recording the rejection notices as they come in… does any of this sound familiar? It’s almost cruel to laugh at it, knowing the pain it represents, but it’s so predictable.

And then there’s Ruth in the background, telling him to go to school. High school. He would, but he failed the entrance exam. And he’s got a pretty coherent theory about self-education:

“Knowledge seems to me like a chart-room. Whenever I go into the library, I am impressed that way. The part played by teachers is to teach the student the contents of the chart-room in a systematic way. The teachers are guides to the chart-room, that’s all. It’s not something that they have in their own heads. They don’t make it up, don’t create it. It’s all in the chart-room and they know their way about in it, and it’s their business to show the place to strangers who might else get lost.
….Some persons need guides, most persons do; but I think I can get along without them. I’ve spent a lot of time in the chart-room now, and I’m on the edge of knowing my way about, what charts I want to refer to, what coasts I want to explore. And from the way I line it up, I’ll explore a whole lot more quickly by myself. The speed of a fleet, you know, is the speed of the slowest ship, and the speed of the teachers is affected the same way. They can’t go any faster than the ruck of their scholars, and I can set a faster pace for myself than they set for a whole schoolroom.”
“‘He travels the fastest who travels alone,’” she quoted at him.
But I’d travel faster with you just the same, was what he wanted to blurt out, as he caught a vision of a world without end of sunlit spaces and starry voids through which he drifted with her, his arm around her, her pale gold hair blowing about his face. In the same instant he was aware of the pitiful inadequacy of speech. God! If he could so frame words that she could see what he then saw! And he felt the stir in him, like a throe of yearning pain, of the desire to paint these visions that flashed unsummoned on the mirror of his mind. Ah, that was it! He caught at the hem of the secret. It was the very thing that the great writers and master-poets did. That was why they were giants. They knew how to express what they thought, and felt, and saw.

This leads to something of a breakthrough, and he sees his work as amateurish. He starts anew:

Twoscore of manuscripts were travelling the endless round of the magazines. How did the others do it? He spent long hours in the free reading-room, going over what others had written, studying their work eagerly and critically, comparing it with his own, and wondering, wondering, about the secret trick they had discovered which enabled them to sell their work.

Ask any contemporary writer. They’ve all been there.

We see him reading other published writings, copying “strong phrases” and noticing how the stories are structured. He studies “the tricks of narrative, of exposition, of style, the points of view, the contrasts, the epigrams; and of all these he made lists for study. He did not ape. He sought principles.”  It’s a do-it-yourself MFA. I’m guessing it’s very much like how London taught himself to write, which is probably why all of this sounds so authentic, a century later.

One of the themes in the book is the mechanization of labor, not in the sense of machines replacing people, but in people treated as machines. You put work in, they produce. If you put more work in, they produce more. He goes through a period working in a laundry where, surrounded by machinery, he sees himself as just one more machine; a day’s work leaves him drained and unable to read or write, echoing Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness.”

This mechanization of men matches London’s labor activism, of course, but in this book, Martin sees it as part of writing as well:

He began to doubt that editors were real men. They seemed cogs in a machine. That was what it was, a machine. He poured his soul into stories, articles, and poems, and intrusted them to the machine. He folded them just so, put the proper stamps inside the long envelope along with the manuscript, sealed the envelope, put more stamps outside, and dropped it into the mail-box. It travelled across the continent, and after a certain lapse of time the postman returned him the manuscript in another long envelope, on the outside of which were the stamps he had enclosed. There was no human editor at the other end, but a mere cunning arrangement of cogs that changed the manuscript from one envelope to another and stuck on the stamps. It was like the slot machines wherein one dropped pennies, and, with a metallic whirl of machinery had delivered to him a stick of chewing-gum or a tablet of chocolate. It depended upon which slot one dropped the penny in, whether he got chocolate or gum. And so with the editorial machine. One slot brought checks and the other brought rejection slips. So far he had found only the latter slot.
It was the rejection slips that completed the horrible machinelikeness of the process. These slips were printed in stereotyped forms and he had received hundreds of them—as many as a dozen or more on each of his earlier manuscripts. If he had received one line, one personal line, along with one rejection of all his rejections, he would have been cheered. But not one editor had given that proof of existence. And he could conclude only that there were no warm human men at the other end, only mere cogs, well oiled and running beautifully in the machine.

Just yesterday, one of my favorite angst-ridden writers tweeted something remarkably close to this:

Do any of you writers have a journal that just has it in for you? Quick, form rejections every time? I’ve definitely noticed two that I think must have written scripts to auto-form-reject me. Sorry to anyone who submits to them and has my same name.

Jake Weber tweet 9/21/22

I’ve said over and over that this is unintentionally funny, but as I read it now, it’s monstrously painful. It’s even more painful for Martin because he’s desperately poor, barely eating, pawning everything he owns so he can keep his typewriter and buy stamps and envelopes. Labor hasn’t changed much, and neither has writing.

He finally does get an acceptance, but the terms in the publication are illusory: not only do they pay less than a tenth of what they advertised, but they pay on publication, not acceptance, and, as Martin finds out, they really don’t pay at all. This eventually leads to a scene where he literally shakes some of the money out of a couple of editors – and a replay at another magazine, where a younger staff throws him down the stairs, then goes out drinking with him.

But take heart, Angst-Ridden Writers everywhere, Martin does eventually find success, and suddenly everything he’s written is worth a king’s ransom and he’s in demand at every turn. He never writes another word; it’s all his old stuff, stuff that’s been rejected, even his truly bad first writings which are now collected as “early work.” The irony, the hypocrisy, the shallowness starts to reverberate in his head under the phrase “work performed”:

Invitations to dinner poured in on Martin; and the more they poured, the more he puzzled. He sat, the guest of honor, at an Arden Club banquet, with men of note whom he had heard about and read about all his life; and they told him how, when they had read “The Ring of Bells” in the Transcontinental, and “The Peri and the Pearl” in The Hornet, they had immediately picked him for a winner. My God! and I was hungry and in rags, he thought to himself. Why didn’t you give me a dinner then? Then was the time. It was work performed. If you are feeding me now for work performed, why did you not feed me then when I needed it? Not one word in “The Ring of Bells,” nor in “The Peri and the Pearl” has been changed. No; you’re not feeding me now for work performed. You are feeding me because everybody else is feeding me and because it is an honor to feed me. You are feeding me now because you are herd animals; because you are part of the mob; because the one blind, automatic thought in the mob-mind just now is to feed me.

The reader could’ve stopped with the paragraph about the painting on the third page: the closer you get to your heart’s desire, the uglier it gets.

 I confess, I had no idea Jack London wrote fifty books, many of them on sociopolitical themes and several with autobiographical elements. I didn’t know he wrote anything besides his adventure books. I’m not sure if that’s an indictment of our education system (I have a BA in English, after all; shouldn’t I have encountered him before this?) or a failure of effort on my part. I discovered this book via Zena Hitz’s book on autodidacticism, Lost in Thought, which piqued my interest by acknowledging the dark side of self-education (I’m always drawn to the dark sides of everything):

Eden’s development exposes a rift between the carefully policed gentility of the educated middle classes and the wild and open possibilities of intellectual development. His progress into a suicidal disillusionment also points to a danger of a life of learning: an alienation that breeds arrogance and contempt for others.

Zena Hitz, Lost in Thought 9/21/22

Jack London achieved his breakthrough success in 1903 with Call of the Wild; this book was published in 1909.  He died in 1916 at the age of forty. I might need to look into some of his other work sometime.

Malba Tahan: The Man Who Counted (Norton 1993) [IBR2022]

…[T]he book is set in Arabia as a mixture of One Thousand and One Nights and a maths book – it’s coming out of the most populous Catholic country in the world and yet it’s as much a love story to Arab culture as to maths itself…. It is composed of lovely little stories and, with each chapter of a few pages, it introduces a mathematical idea along with a story about travelling through the Arab world. ….[I]n Brazil when I told friends, ‘I’m now working on maths,’ they all said, ‘Oh, you must read Malba Tahan.’ And friends who were kids during that era said, ‘Oh, I remember my parents reading it to me’ – it’s almost like Alice in Wonderland in that it is one of the things that makes people feel nostalgic about their childhood. My Brazilian copy is the 74th edition.

Alex Bellos, FiveBooks Best Books on Math

I love goofy math books; I even have my own list of Best Math Books for People Who Don’t Do Math in the user archives of FiveBooks. I think I may have to rotate one of them out, because this one has completely charmed me. It was originally published in Portuguese in Brazil in 1972; the English edition I have, dated 1993,  is translated from the Portuguese by Leslie Clark and Alastair Reid. The beautiful color image on the cover, as well as the black-and-white drawings that begin each chapter, are by Patricia Reid Baquero.

Within the book we encounter, in short vignettes set in 13th century Baghdad, several numerical tricks and puzzles, a little history of mathematics, and some introduction to various concepts in understandable, practical terms. How can three brothers divide the 35 camels inherited from their father so that, according to the testament, the oldest receives half, the middle brother receives one-third, and the youngest gets one-ninth? How can a merchant discover which of eight pearls is lighter than the others, given a balancing scale that can be used only twice? Perfect numbers are defined by releasing three birds from a cage of 499; amicable numbers are demonstrated by poems written on a wall in red and black letters.

But it isn’t all about such concepts. Myths about the origin of chess, about the death of Archimedes and Eratosthenes, and passages on ethical issues and the wonder of math, apart from its usefulness, appear as well.

There is an overall plot:

My name is Hanak Tade Maia. Once I was returning, at my camels slow pace, along the road to Baghdad after an excursion to the famous city of Samarra, on the banks of the Tigris, when I saw a modestly dressed traveler who was seated on a rock, apparently resting from the fatigue of the journey.
I was about to offer the perfunctory salaam of travelers when, to my great surprise, he rose and said ceremoniously, “One million, four hundred and twenty-thee thousand, seven hundred and forty-five.” He quickly sat down and lapsed into silence, his head resting in his hands, as if he were absorbed in profound meditation. I stopped at some distance and stood watching him, as if he were a historic monument to the legendary past.
…. Several times more the strange traveler rose and uttered a number in the millions, before sinking down again on the rough stone by the roadside. Unable to restrain my curiosity, I approached the stranger and, after greeting him in the name of Allah, asked him the meaning of those fantastic sums.
“Stranger,” replied The Man Who Counted, “I do not disapprove of this curiosity that disturbs the peace of my thoughts and calculations. And now that you have spoken to me with such courtesy and graciousness, I am going to accede to your wishes. But first I must tell you the story of my life.”
And he told me the following, which, for your entertainment, I transcribe exactly as I heard it.

From there, Hanak and Berezim, The Man Who Counted, run into various people with mathematical or logical problems. Berezim solves the problems and, at each encounter, comes away with more than he entered with: a second camel, a turban, a ring, a job as secretary to a Vizier in Baghdad (with Hanak appointed as scribe). He continues to offer advice to various people they encounter in Baghdad, where a Vizier, skeptical at first but finally convinced of the man’s abilities, asks Berezim to teach his seventeen-year-old daughter mathematics to assure her happy future:

When Telassim was born, I consulted a famous astrologer who knew how to read the future by observing clouds and stars. He told me my daughter would be happy for her first eighteen years. From that age on, she would be threatened by a series of tragic misfortunes. He, however, had a way of keeping her bad luck from deeply affecting her destiny. Telassim, he said, ought to learn the properties of numbers and their many working possibilities. But to master numbers and calculation, it is essential to know the science of al Khwarizmi, that is, mathematics. So I decided to provide a happy future for Telassim by making her study the mysteries of calculus and geometry.”

This becomes a fateful request that impacts the rest of the overall story. Some philosophers have ridiculed the idea of teaching a woman mathematics, but Berezim passionately approves of the idea and takes on the assignment. It’s in these meetings, the girl modestly hidden behind screens and fabrics, that Berezim delivers his most eloquent defenses of mathematics:

Geometry is everywhere. Consider the ordinary and perfect forms of many bodies. Flowers, leaves, and innumerable animals reveal admirable symmetries that lighten the spirit. Geometry, I repeat, exists everywhere: in the sun’s disk, in leaves, in the rainbow, in butterflies, in diamonds, in starfish, in the tiniest grain of sand. There is an infinite variety of geometric forms throughout nature. A crow flying slowly through the air traces wondrous figures with its sooty body. The blood circulating in the veins of a camel also obeys strict geometric principles; its humps, unique among mammals, show a singular elliptical form; the stone thrown at an intruding jackal describes a perfect curve in the air, known as a parabola: the bee makes its cells in the form of hexagonal prisms and uses that geometrical form to build its house with the greatest possible economy of material.
“Geometry exists everywhere. It is necessary, to have the eyes to see it, intelligence to understand it, and spirit to wonder at it….”

By the end of the book, Berezim is brought before a council of seven wise men who put questions to him to determine if he is truly as brilliant as he seems. He passes the tests, of course, but we suddenly find ourselves with a love story that rises above the historical Mongol conquest of Baghdad that occurred in 1258.

The dedication that opens the book at first had me a bit puzzled:

To the memory of seven great geometrists, Christian or agnostic:
Descartes, Pascal, Newton
Leibniz, Euler, Lagrange, Comte

Allah take pity on these infidels!

and to the memory of the unforgettable mathematician, astronomer, and Muslim philosopher
Abu Jafar Muhammad ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi

Allah preserve him in his glory!

and also to all who study, teach, or admire the prodigious science of scale, form, numbers, measures, functions, movement, and the laws of nature.

I, pilgrim, descend from the Prophet
Ali Iezid Izz-Edim ibn-Salim Hanak
Malba Tahan

believer in Allah and in Muhammad, his sacred Prophet


dedicate these pages of legend and fantasy.

– Baghdad, nineteenth day of the moon of Ramadan, 1321

I recognized the names of the mathematicians (and am so honored to be included as one who studies and admires, however poorly, the arts to which he refers) but was puzzled because of the date: many of them lived long after 1321. Then I remembered: the Muslim calendar begins with the Hejira of 622, so 1321 is the Gregorian year 1903.

However, there’s more to it than that.

The publication history of the book is almost as delightful as the text itself. Malban Tahan is a pen name of Brazilian mathematician Júlio César (who is, unfortunately, deceased) which gives this story an extra level: a fictional character (Beremiz) chronicled by a fictional companion (Maia) finally discovered and published by a fictional author (Tahan). The Guardian tells me that César had tried to interest newspapers in publishing some of his earlier stories to no avail, so made up the pseudonym R. S. Slade, a New York translator. That worked, so he eventually took on the persona of Malban Tahan for a series of newspaper columns which became books, including this one.

I wish someone would do a math class – for adults, for children (because the book is, as all those Brazilians will tell you, very suitable for kids), for everyone – using this book as a text. It keeps the surprise of math up front (you mean you really can create any integer using four fours? Is there a proof for this?) while introducing real concepts. And generosity, morality, and kindness are always in the picture. Spread all that over the plot that rewards our good guy heroes, and you’ve got better than Scheherazade if she were a mathematician: you’ve got the perfect goofy little math book.

Zakiya Dalila Harris:  The Other Black Girl (Atria 2021) [IBR2022]

I really wrote from the heart, from my soul, for me, but also for Black women. I wanted other Black women, not just ones who have worked in these environments, to see themselves in the hair references, the obscure music references, the TV references. It’s been really fun seeing Black women respond to this book, seeing the different things we take away from it. What I want non-Black readers to know is we’re not a monolith. We have very different views on things, we deserve to be heard, and we deserve to be there. There needs to be more of us. We should be in more places, we should be valued for all kinds of things, writing about all kinds of things.
I really hope that this book will show that to the publishing world that thinks, “Readers won’t be into this,” what could be possible. I want there to be more Black books. I want there to be other books that get the attention that they deserve. I want there to be comps in the future. When I was querying my agent, I was trying to think of books that were in a similar space, and it was hard. I just want there to be more.

Zakiya Dalila Harris, Interview with Arriel Vinson at Electric Literature: “The Horror of Being the Other Black Girl in the Workplace”

Comps. You probably know the concept, even if, like me, you aren’t familiar with the term. Comparable titles, meant to lure readers who liked a particular book with the promise of more of the same. A hilarious example from the book is “Pride and Prejudice meets I, Robot.” I’ve been trying to figure that one out for days now, since “I, Robot” was originally the title of a short story by Otto Binder, then the title of a short story collection by Isaac Asimov, and finally a movie having little in common with either.

Cosmo called this book “The Devil Wears Prada meets Get Out,” not a bad description but lacking some major themes. I wanted to read the book because I thought it might be something like Black Buck transposed from the only Black man in the sales department to the only Black woman in a publishing house, with a darker, more mysterious thriller subplot. That isn’t a bad description, either, come to think of it. But the mystery is front and center from the epigraph and the prologue, so if you’re looking for a cute rom-com where everything turns out all right in the end, look elsewhere. This book raises big questions. I’m not sure it raises them as effectively as it could – I found the thriller subplot distracting, wished it had been less up front, and by the time the reveal happened, I’d somewhat lost interest – but at least it raises them.

She overheard a couple of Wagner employees in the kitchen chatting about the idea of being forced to hire non-white people. “Let’s just go and do exactly that,” Kevin in digital marketing had said indignantly. “Exactly that. And then let’s watch what Richard does when we start hiring unqualified people here, and things start getting screwed up. I’m sure he’ll change his song then.”
… [E]ven if they have seen her, Nella sensed that neither would have said anything differently. Her colleagues, strangely, had made it clear very early on that they didn’t see her as a young Black woman, but as a young woman who just happened to be Black – as though her college degree had washed all of the melanin away. In their eyes, she was the exception. She was “qualified.” An Obama of publishing, so to speak.

Nella is an editorial assistant at Wagner Publishing, and the only Black professional, until Hazel shows up. She’d tried to lead a series of diversity meetings, but they petered out, so she’s surprised and thrilled to smell Brown Buttah, a hair product popular with Black women, waft into her cubicle. It turns out Hazel isn’t going to be her BFF as she’d hoped. Then the notes warning her to leave the company start appearing on her desk.

There are several threads running through the book: professional rivalry, the whiteness of the publishing industry and weak diversity efforts, the hypersensitivity of white authors to criticism about depictions of Black characters, and, amusingly, coworkers who keep mixing up the two Black women, though they are clearly distinguishable even from a distance by hairstyle and height alone. And hair. It may seem surprising that hair is one of them. Black hair has been a social and political flash point for years, regulated to varying degrees by some schools, law enforcement, and the US military. It’s use as a central image here is very clever.

While the workplace is the tinder, the fire comes from the thriller plot. It resolves in a most unsettling way (we’re getting a bit spoilery here, so skip to the last paragraph if you want to avoid that):

There were so many things she never had enough energy for – so many social interactions she’d gotten so incredibly wrong – because Wagner had sucked her dry of her confidence and her sense of self.

“Is that what you want? To feel overextended? To feel worn down by every microaggression you experience in the office, and every injustice you see on the news? Are those the kinds of things that make you feel like you?…. Once you stop fighting – once you let this wave wash over you – you’ll see. It’ll wash over you so quickly, you won’t even feel it. You won’t feel the pain, the white supremacy. You read those articles, watch the police footage, then go to work the next morning without feeling like another part of you has died. That heavy anvil of genetic trauma that’s been strapped to your ankle for all these years… gone. You’ll swim to the top and be free. You’ll be you. This is Black Girl Magic in its purest form.”

This paints a pretty bleak picture of the choice Black workers face: success, or social consciousness. I thought of Toni Morrison’s quote from 1975 – yes, from nearly fifty years ago:

The very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.

Toni Morrison, 1975 speech at Portland State University

While the workplace drama is fun, this is the heart of the book: how do you counter this drag in the workplace, how do you free your energy so you can achieve success and inspire others? I’m disturbed by the implication of the solution presented, but I think it’s meant to be disturbing. This isn’t a case of ‘Hey, here’s the solution,’ but ‘Hey, look how big this problem is, can we figure out some way to deal with it that isn’t insane?’

Harris worked in publishing for several years and incorporates both her knowledge of the field, and her experience as the only Black woman in the room. What I like most about the book is that it’s written for Black readers. If you don’t know what 4C hair is, or who Ntozake Shange is, well, that’s what Google is for, Harris doesn’t waste space and drag down the story explaining every detail for readers less likely to be familiar with aspects of Black culture beyond MLK and Harriet Tubman. Likewise with the publishing industry details: the context give a lot of help, but she’s not going to give a mini-course on an editorial assistant’s function. I like it when writers assume readers can figure things out for themselves. This is Harris’ debut novel; I’m interested to see what she comes up with next.

I see that Hulu is making this into a comedy series. I’m dubious – we’re way beyond The Devil Wears Prada here – but we’ll have to see how that works out.