Adam Kay: This Is Going To Hurt (Picador 2018) [IBR2023]

All doctors are recommended to log their clinical experiences, in what’s known as ‘reflective practice’. On looking through this portfolio for the first time in years, my reflective practice seems to involve going up to my hospital on-call room and writing down anything remotely interesting that happened to that today, like a medical Anne Frank (only with worse accommodation).
Among the funny and the mundane, the countless objects in orifices and the petty bureaucracies, I was reminded of the brutal hours and the colossal impact being a junior doctor had on my life. Reading back, it felt extreme and unreasonable in terms of what was expected of me, but at the time I’d just accepted it as part of the job.
… So here they are: the diaries I kept during my time in the NHS, verrucas and all. What it’s like working on the front line, the repercussions in my personal life, and how, one terrible day, it all became too much for me. (Sorry for the spoiler, but he watched Titanic knowing how that was going to play out.)

I’ve said before I’m something of a collector of how-I-became-a-doctor books, starting with Intern by Doctor X in the 1950s – a book so controversial at the time it was published anonymously (I don’t remember what was controversial about it; I just remember 1. there was no treatment for cancer, and 2. lunch in the hospital cafeteria, consisting of chicken a la king over rice, apple pie, and coffee, cost “a princely sum” of 85 cents). In the 60s came Drs. Kildare and Casey, earnest, handsome, heroic men in pristine whites. William Nolen came along in the 70s with his The Making of a Surgeon, with a bit more medical detail, leading to a variety of doctor books supposedly letting the public behind the scenes. But in 1978, Samuel Shem (a pseudonym) blew the lid off with The House of God, a hilarious fictional account of his internship. The TV series St. Elsewhere followed, and medical humor was everywhere.  But things settled down as time went on; most general readership non-fiction medical books have been informative and/or contemplative of ethical and philosophical issues.

It’s nice humor has returned to the genre.

Kay takes us through his training in the UK. For those concerned about an overdose of medicalese, he does a very good job of putting more technical descriptions of the medical events in footnotes, and keeping storytelling the focus of the main text. His most prominent theme is overwork, the disappointment he’s caused his family and friends, the events he’s missed out on. Backing that up is his general unpreparedness as a new doctor, being thrown into the deep end and having to sink or swim with little backup. And then there’s the bureaucracy, the rules designed to make an overburdened system safer that just makes things more difficult and time-consuming. The rage seethes underneath the humor.

The problem, for those of us who’ve been reading these books for decades, is that the stories are more or less the same. There are the objects-in-unexpected-places-and-the-explanations-of-how-they-got-there stories:

Most of these patients suffered from Eiffel syndrome – ‘I fell, doctor! I fell!’ – and the tales of how things get where can be skyscraper tall (come to think of it, it’s only a matter of time before someone tries to sit on the Gherkin), but today is the first time I actually believed the patient’s story. It’s a credible and painful sounding incident with a sofa and a remote control that at the very least had me furrowing my brow and thinking, ‘Well, I suppose it could happen.’ Upon removal of the remote control in theater, however, we notice it has a condom on it, so maybe it wasn’t a complete accident.

Amazing how many people perform household chores – painting ceilings, climbing up on ladders to wash windows – while naked, and then fall onto vaguely phallic objects in just the right way to insert them into rather tightly sphinctered places.

Then we have patients with odd expectations.

Husband and wife are both in tears at the news that the baby will need to come out of the sunroof for failure to progress in labor. The main sadness seems to be the husband’s slightly odd obsession with being the first person to touch the baby. There isn’t much time to muse upon why he might want to do this – perhaps he wants to break an enchanted spell or has superpowers he needs to transfer to his offspring – but he is really most insistent. Isn’t there a way he can still be the person who touches her first? If he lifts her out at the end of the caesarean maybe?
He would definitely faint, vomit or both at what it looks like inside an abdomen: a casserole of flesh and giblets cooked up by someone irrevocably insane…. [N]o one seems to realize there’s a whole tricky ritual that takes time to learn, namely getting scrubbed and then into gown and gloves. Gloves! ‘How about if we pass the baby straight to you?’ I suggest. ‘We will be wearing gloves so you will be the first person to actually touch her.’

I’d be cautious when reading about the woman who wanted to eat her placenta after birth, if you have a weak stomach. And there’s the usual parade of patients who object to various aspects of medical care. This used to be the sole domain of Jehovah’s Witnesses refusing blood products, but now it’s expanded to include anti-vaxxers and alternative medicine advocates.

We also have the problem with underfunded infrastructure, coupled with regulations that make failures of plant a punishable offence. This leads to various conflicts with non-medical staff:

We summon Prof. Carrow, the on-call consultant, and he’s furious. Mostly because he’s spent the last decade successfully avoiding walking onto labor ward during his shifts, and also – as he points out to the engineer – this counts as an extremely serious clinical incident. Lives are being endangered and the company needs to come out immediately to resolve it. The engineer mutters he’ll do his best, but no promises – and besides, what happened on labor wards one hundred years ago, before emergency buzzers?
Prof. Carrow fixes him with a zero-degree-Kelvin glare. ‘One in twenty women died in childbirth.’

Kay specialized in OB/Gyn, so most of his diary entries are about childbirth. Most of these stories have happy, or at least non-tragic, ends; only two are really tearjerkers. As it happens, it was one of those tragedies that convinced Kay to leave the profession:

I’d seen babies die before. I’d dealt with mothers on the brink of death before. But this was different. It was the first time I was the most senior person on the ward when something terrible happened. When I was the person everyone was relying on to sort it all out. It was on me, and I had failed.
Officially, I hadn’t heard negligent and nobody suggested otherwise….. But this wasn’t good enough for me.
…. Except, I wasn’t really dealing with it, I was just getting on with it. I went six months without laughing, every smile was just an impression of one – I felt bereaved. I should have had counseling – in fact, my hospital should have arranged it. But there’s a mutual code of silence that keeps hope from those who need it most.
No matter how vigilant I was, another tragedy would have happened eventually. It has to – you can’t prevent the unpreventable. One brilliant consultant tells trainees that by the time they retire there will be a bus full of dead kids and kids with cerebral palsy, and that bus is going to have their name on the side. A huge number of ‘adverse outcomes,’ as they say in hospitalese, will occur on their watch. She tells them if they can’t deal with that, they’re in the wrong profession. Maybe if someone had said that to me a bit earlier I’d have thought twice. Ideally, back when I was choosing my A levels and getting myself into this mess.

It’s hard to understand how someone can go through the truly laborious process of becoming a doctor and give it up because of the emotional strain (Michael Crichton went to HMS before he wrote er and Jurassic Park, but he never suffered through an internship or residency), but maybe it’s surprising it doesn’t happen more often. In spite of my interest in medical matters from the time I was in elementary school, I never considered a career in health care; the idea of being responsible for someone’s death or disability was too terrifying to me, raised as I was to steadfastly believe in my own incompetence.

Kay’s story turns out positively: as a TV writer, one of his first projects was turning this book into a BBC series, which apparently is quite popular. From the clips I’ve found on Youtube, it seems to convey the rage beneath the humor quite well.

Sam Cha: The Yellow Book (Pank 2020) [IBR2023]

The Yellow Book, a cross-genre meditation on what it means to be Korean/American and write, begins with a moment of doubt, in which the speaker, forced into speech by his interlocutor, is no longer sure he is who he is: “You sure you’re not Jackie Chan? […] Honestly, I say, I don’t even know.” The speaker opts for camouflage, transformation, and evasion. The book, similarly, aims to elude identification, to contradict itself. It moves broken-tongued, between memoir and essay and poem, between body and footnote, between Korean memory and English utterance, between remembrance and forgetfulness, between history and fiction. Populated by a varied cast of characters—a god, a bear, a tiger, Mr. Miyagi, Jack London, a fictionalized version of Civil War general Franz Sigel, and a non-fictitious chihuahua—The Yellow Book is a travelogue, a picaresque, a mythology, a catalog of grievances, an act of revenge, an apology, a joke book, a defiance, an obeisance, a performance, a slander, a love letter, a manifesto, a refutation.

Product Description on the PANK website

I often claim I don’t get poetry, yet it was Cha’s poem that vied for my #1 favorite in the 2023 Pushcart volume. And I’ve sworn I’ll never buy another poetry book – but, wait, it’s ok, this isn’t a poetry book, it’s cross-genre, so that gave me some cover. For that matter, there’s an entire piece about genre and the crossing thereof. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’m the sort of person who likes to feel like I know what’s going on when I read, who wants comfortable, predictable elements like chapters or titles and clear boundaries of prose and poetry. Yet once in a while something tempts me out to walk on the wild side, like here where there’s no table of contents, where the first piece – and I’m feeling my way here, guessing – is a piece titled “yet another origin story but with punchlines” that has a bunch of little addenda titled punchline and has footnotes and has punchlines in the footnotes. I spent a long time figuring out it was a single piece so I wanted to put that here like a gold star.

It’s a piece that otherwise could be easy to skip over if it were written in traditional prose. But it’s written in a kind of experiential stream-of-consciousness fast-paced breathless voice as Cha walks through Central Square in Cambridge eleven years ago and a drunken rando starts yelling he looks like Jackie Chan, and all the thoughts that go through his head before during and after.

This is how you protect yourself, the secret that we all knew when we were four: they can’t see me if I can’t see them.
Except it never works. I can’t turn off my peripheral vision (you and your girl walking in the door). I can’t turn off my hearing (I hear your girl order a bucket of chicken, ten pieces, crispy, without the biscuits, but with potato wedges). The follicles and their tiny bundles of nerves and muscles and glands still gather all their chemical words (smell of malt liquor)…. Too late to ignore you, too late to run away, too late to pretend I can’t hear you or see you or feel you. You’re already leaning towards me, swaying gently in the Olde English scented breeze.
You’re already saying: Hey man. You know you look like Jackie Chan?
You’re grinning. You’re completely innocent. You’re unmalicious. You think you’ve just given me a huge compliment.

Then come the other punchlines: all the drunks and all the comparisons (with the unstated point being that Jackie Chan, Dice-K, and Seiji Ozawa don’t resemble each other any more than Tom Hanks, Bill Buckner, and Aaron Copland do, except that each trio belongs to a vaguely-defined racial category if you don’t bother with the variability of reality because it isn’t your racial category; compare with Darren’s experience of hearing how he looks like MLK, Sidney Poitier, or Malcolm X in Mateo Askaripour’s recent novel Black Buck) and the slurs.

And then come the punchlines/footnote about Jack London’s 1910 short story “The Unparalleled Invasion” which builds on his 1904 essay, “The Yellow Peril” written when he was a war correspondent during the Russo-Japanese war. In his future-history story, he imagines a China invigorated by Japanese technology, expanding over its borders and reclaiming French Indochina and the rest of Asia from England. How dare they. Then follows in 1976 the American biological warfare upon China, defeating the threat. Followed by another footnote:

When the toxic zeppelins of the right wing make noises about COVID-19 being a virus manufactured in a lab in Wuhan, when they say it is a bioweapon designed to destroy the American economy and throw the American population into chaos and terror, what I hear is: we wish we could do that to them.

When I read London’s short story, I take it as satire (we read from where we are), mostly because of the bitterness of the Western world at being forcibly de-colonized. But when I read his 1904 essay, I wonder. What really gets me is that I spent a lot of time on London last year when I read Martin Eden, a book about writing and self-education and socialism, which surprised me since I thought he was more or less a young adult adventure writer  (as Cha says, “We think of London as a writer of thrilling canid adventures”) and found out a little about his ventures into political activism but never encountered anything about his racial theories.

And of course in these punchlines and footnotes we get into COVID. And what it’s like to have Asian features in 2020 – 2022 when a small but very vocal and aggressive subset of Americana has decided it’s your fault. There’s a little poem in one of these footnotes that takes my breath away (yes, in the age of COVID):

COVID days 2

you see me
you clutch your lungs
like a purse.

What I love about this is how it grows, from ten little syllables (is that a particular form? Short poems like this immediately call to mind haiku and haibun, but that’s Japanese and Cha is Korean; is my ignorance showing?) to something huge.

Start with the obvious: we all were cautious about getting too close to other people in pre-vaccine 2020. That metaphor of clutching your lungs like a purse is amazing, the preciousness of coin being replaced by the preciousness of breath in a moment when all the money in the world couldn’t breathe for you. And buried in there is the white American tendency to clutch our purses closer when we pass by men of color because who knows if they’re going to rob us, while the politicians are the ones draining our resources into their superPACS and consultancies but they’re white so it feels respectable.

But then imagine how reads (we read from where we are) to an Asian-American, how the clutch would be emphasized because it’s YOUR FAULT. I just saw a PBS Newshour piece last night that more than half of Asian-Americans don’t feel safe in public, and one in five Americans (presumably white Americans) believe Asian-Americans – not the people of China – are at least partly responsible for COVID. It’s easy to point out that one in five Americans believe all kinds of batshit crazy stuff, but there are numerous reports of increased anti-Asian violence so no wonder people don’t feel safe, how that clutch isn’t the same as the clutch I see because the clutching hands might hold a gun or a bottle of acid or bleach.

And then I look at the poem and notice the three lines are all different meters. I’m always interested in how form emphasizes meaning; I’m not sure how to take this here – different kinds of Asians, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc etc being lumped into one big hate – or different people being scared of different things. But it’s right there on the page: the first line is hit-hit-hit and then there’s this mild familiar iambic line followed by the rat-a-TAT of anapest.

I love poems where even I can recognize something; they’re few and far between, and I recognize three very different things in this poem. Whether they’re meant to be recognized, or I’m just patting myself on the back for reading a primer (or recognizing this is one piece, with punchlines, or knowing who Seiji Ozawa is (even if I’m clueless about Dice-K and vague about Jackie Chan) since I lived in the Boston area during his tenure as BSO conductor). This one gave me three levels to recognize. It packs a helluva lot into ten syllables.

And we’ve just covered the first seven pages of the book.

It looks like a quick read: 113 pages, hey this is a travel book, a book I can read on busses and in waiting rooms, but no, it’s a read-in-front-of-the-computer book so I can look up Elsie Sigel (the next punchline) and Michael Derrick Hudson (whose story but not name I recognized) and Latasha Harlins and Du Soon-Ja.

After several short pieces they start to get longer again, until we come to what I consider the second masterpiece of the book: “some notes about where I’m from, framed as a discussion of genre.”

First he makes me want to read Unbearable Splendor in spite of it being a poetry book, but it’s a poetry book the way this is a poetry book and that’s working out just fine for me, so maybe.

Unbearable Splendor (Coffee House Press 2016 ) is a book that I love. Because I love it, it’s hard to write about. Any love is hard to write…. And that difficulty’s multiplied when you’re writing about writing that you love. Because writing itself is always in tension between what can and can’t be said, what can and can’t be known. Writing itself is a kind of love, and so writing about love always undermines itself.

So that’s why I have so much trouble writing about so many books and stories: it’s like there’s all this stuff going on at once, and it’s hard to linearize it into sentences and paragraphs.

But then this goes on to trace his schooling in Korea and in the US and the differences therein, his double name, and, miraculously, a discussion of poetry vs essay I don’t fully understand but am wildly attracted to:

Poetry is about saying things. But because of that, poetry is the art of leaving things out. It leaves things out because not all things that we can be aware of are commensurate with language, i.e., not all things that we can wish to say can be said through language. Human language is confined to that subset of things that are human that can be spoken.
….The lyric is about being a dying thing, about being something, a thinking feeling human mind, that is always just about to become nothing.
The lyric is about being.
And being is precisely what can’t be said.
An essay, by way of contrast, is about trying to say something, about trying to make something happen. An essay essays, tries. To do.
If the poem is about trying to be something, while an essay is about trying to do something, and if you accept that this is a real difference, then a poem’s about being, about being-defined-by-death, while an essay’s about struggle, about trying to live. This contradiction – in impulse, in thrust – makes any combination of the two – any child, any “hybrid” – monstrous, like Shin’s Antigone, a “hybrid of life and death.”

From here the discussion of genre broadens to include Moby-Dick, which apparently was unclassifiable at the time it was published, and to genre as a guide to consumption: “How to buy and how to read = how to cook; how to eat.” As you might suspect by now, that’s how we get into a discussion of the immigrant. I remember being blown away by a woodcarver’s Palimpsest Bench, which included text by his poet-wife, extolling the Immigrant as Palimpsest; here I run into it again.

Cha pushes back against the notion of hybrid, the very notion of genre (setting the stage for his poem that I loved so much), and makes the case for the immigrant as the perfect writer:

Immigrants and exiles are the perfect writers because we are at home in this state of not being at home; because we know this unknowing, because we have learned to unlearn, because we carry within us multiple versions of ourselves, multiple histories, whole nations, continents, oceans. We know the art of losing. (Elizabeth Bishop was a was an immigrant, too, in Brazil.)…. Your presidents and pundits will natter on about winning, but what’s so great about winning? Winning’s for losers, for aging bone-spur bully boys thumping their upholstered chests. Losing’s the essential human art.

Damn, I wish I’d read this back in 2018 when I encountered Yoon Choi’s “The Art of Losing,” a BASS story about a Korean immigrant family dealing with Alzheimer’s. It’s interesting that Cha has the same “Damn” experience: he read East Goes West: The Making of an Oriental Yankee written in 1937 by Younghill Kang, likely the first Korean-American novel, and one that includes his own recipe for carrot salad, just after writing about it here.

To list everything in this book would be an impossible task; even now I keep thinking, Oh, but I left out the thing about han (the Korean word made famous by a post-Sorkin episode of The West Wing) and then there’s the linguistic history of “gook” and “Why I am not a Pianist” (I was lucky enough to have encountered the Frank O’Hara poem in a long-ago mooc) and the constant question “but where are you really from?” This question happens to be posed, in one instance, when Cha is writing at a café. Why do people who see others writing – or reading, or drawing – think an open book or pad of paper is an invitation to chat? When I lived in Boston, reading a book on the T was a way of drawing a curtain around yourself, becoming invisible, putting out a Do Not Disturb sign.

I keep saying I love books that teach me something. This one taught me a lot, and also let me recognize a lot, yet showed me how much more I have to read to have even a glimmer of what’s going on. That’s a lot for 113 pages. But considering how much Cha crammed into ten syllables, I’m not surprised.

Thaisa Frank: Heidegger’s Glasses (Counterpoint, 2010) [IBR2023]

What sparked me was someone at a party telling me that Heidegger had a revelation about his glasses. So I thought, wow, “Heidegger’s Glasses,” that’s a great title. And I’m pretty title-driven; I often know something is going to be a story by a title, and then the title is like a pinata made of iron, and I just beat it and beat it until something comes out.

Interview with Halie Rosenberg for Writing Pad’s Writers on Writing available online

It was the title that drew me in. I’d enjoyed Frank’s flash, “Fire,” from Pushcart 2023, and on checking out her oeuvre, found three story collections and this novel, with a title I couldn’t resist – and a description that might’ve hooked me on its own: a novel about the Holocaust, using philosophy and the occult as tracks through magical realism and absurdism. Add in my reading buddy Andrew Stancek, a flash specialist, mentioning he’d read several pieces by Frank and liked her work. We decided to do a simultaneous reading, something we haven’t done before. But it started with the title – and the revelation referred to above:

In the ordinary winter of 1920, the philosopher Martin Heidegger saw his glasses and fell out of the familiar world. He was in his study at Freiburg, over one hundred and sixty kilometers south of Berlin, looking out the window at the thick bare branches of an elm tree. His wife was standing next to him, pouring a cup of coffee. Sunlight fell through the voile curtains, throwing stripes on her crown of blond braids, the dark table, and his white cup. All at once a starling crashed against the window and dropped to the ground. Heidegger reached for his glasses to look and as he leaned over, the coffee spilled. His wife cleaned the table with her apron while he cleaned the glasses with his handkerchief. And all at once, he looked at the thin gold earpieces and the two round lenses and didn’t know what they were for. It was as though he’d never seen glasses or knew how they were used. And then the whole world became unfamiliar. The tree was a confusion of shapes, the blood-spattered window a floating oblong. And when another starling flew by, he only saw darkness in motion.
…Then he went to his desk and wrote about this moment to a fellow philosopher named Asher Englehardt. Even though they often met for coffee, they enjoyed writing to each other about tilted moments: the hammer that’s so loose its head flops like a bird. The picture that’s crooked and makes the room seem uncanny. The apple in the middle of the street that makes you forget what streets are for. The thing made close because it’s seen at a distance. The sense of not being at home. Falling out of the world.

So much of that is echoed in the novel: a fake street with a fake sun and fake stars all in an underground cave built for prisoners to answer letters – letters that are themselves lies – to dead people. A philosopher turned optometrist. Nazi officials who are Resistance workers. Orders that might be real or unreal. An impending visit that never happens. Luxury goods stolen from the murdered, comforting the trapped. Things are not what they seem: falling into the world consists of being told what they are, rather than recognizing what they are in reality.

Asher writes back: “It’s a strange world, Martin. But we can never fall out of it because we live in it all the time.”

But let’s start at the beginning, since so much of importance is covered in the pre-page-1 material, the pages ii and xiv etc. that so often get overlooked.

Take a moment to look at the beautiful cover, designed by Michael Fusco, featuring a photo, “Woman Crossing the Road,” by Dennis Cooper. We see a postmarked envelope, and a handwritten letter. The woman appears to be running towards the sea. All of these elements will come up, to varying degrees, in the text.

Then the dedication: “This book is dedicated to the memory of Stanley Aldeman – typewriter expert extraordinaire, friend to innumerable writers.” LitHub has excerpted a portion of Frank’s anthologized article “Stanley Adelman: Magician of Typewriters,” explaining his impact on her life in particular – and how he found his way into this book by another name. You’ll know it when you see it.

After the Table of Contents, but before the contents listed there, you’ll find a couple of architectural drawings:  a Cross Section and a Plan of a Compound of Scribes, attributed to architect Hanz Ewigkeit in 1941. I did enough googling to satisfy myself that this is a fictional building and he is a fictional architect whose last name just happens to mean eternity in German. I don’t know German and the handwriting on the diagrams is very small, but thanks to internet translators and a magnifying glass I managed to read Aufzug (elevator), Viertel der Wachtposten (sentry quarters), Zimmer der Schreibern (writers’ room), untergrundweg dur stadt (Underground path through the city), the number 917, and a few other things.

Then comes the first official section of the book, Curator’s Notes, starting on page xv. Everything in here – the description of Briefaktion, the role of the Thule Society and various supernatural beliefs in the leadership of the Third Reich (in 2008 British MI5 documents were released confirming that the UK used an astrologer to try to comprehend the Reich’s strategies, since Hitler was a firm believer in the pseudoscience), the roles of Goebbels and, finally, Heidegger, is factual as far as I could determine. It ends with: “Over ten years before the Reich came into power, Heidegger’s own eyeglasses were one of several catalysts for a revelation about this aspect of human existence, and he mentioned them in his seminal work, Being and Time.” My efforts to find this specific mention via internet research failed. The author of the Curator’s Notes is Zoë-Elizabeth Englehardt, indicated as Guest Curator at the Museum of Tolerance in New York City. She appears to be a fictional character, but stay alert to the name. There was a Museum of Tolerance in NYC, but it has since closed; others exist in various US cities.

The Prologue, the last of the before-page-1 material, follows, and gives the full account of Heidegger’s encounter with falling out of the world via his perception of his glasses as quoted above. At the end is a full-page photo-image of a tattered letter, typed in Polish, with a typed English translation beneath: Mari is asking her mother to bring her shoes for the journey. There is no explanation for this image. But it’s enough to create a great curiosity about how it fits in, a curiosity intensified when other images follow with each chapter.

In the first section of the book, “The Orders,” we meet Elie Schacten, on the surface a good German organizing the Compound, but underneath so much more: Resistance member, smuggler of children to safe places, transporter of goods looted from deported Jews to the Compound. And the Compound: yes, we find out about the Compound.

At night the smell grew stronger, as if the mine were denouncing its transformation after Hans Ewigkeit, a famous German architect, had toured it and said this will do.
No detail had been too small: the mine was masked by a shell, including three water closets, a kitchen, a cobblestone street and artificial sky, a room for over fifty people, and a shoebox of a watchtower. Everyone who slept below the earth had fallen from some place or other. At night, while Ellie felt the weight of a feathered quilt, they shifted and coughed and fought to keep warm. Everything in the project depended upon them. It was called the Compound of Scribes.

I find this Compound something of a metaphor for the book as a whole. Frank has taken existing reality – the Briefaktion project, the belief in the occult – and has grafted onto the inherent absurdity of this reality the surrealism of a second project involving the Scribes answering letters of the dead, which is perhaps no more absurd, if less fatal, than the historical reality.

We meet Lodenstein, another Good German on the surface, Obërst of the Compound, but also Elie’s lover and a fellow member of the Resistance. Their relationship is sometimes strained by the anxiety of living in two realities, and by his jealousy of her: he has a good idea of the flirtatious tactics she must use to achieve her goals, to transport people in danger to safety, to obtain information and supplies for the Scribes. This strain provides both a thematic background of what is real and what only looks real, and a pin on which the plot turns later in the book.

What is the purpose of the Scribes answering letters written by murdered prisoners? It depends on who you ask. Goebbels explains to Lodenstein:

You must know, he said in a low voice, that some people think the dead are waiting for answers and will hound us until they get to them.
Lodenstein, who couldn’t decide what to say, didn’t say anything. Goebbels pounded his desk.
Of course you know. Don’t act like a moron.
He shoved over a pamphlet called War Strategies from the Thule Society. Lodenstein saw a list of names – Himmler, a few SS officers, and some famous mystics.
These idiots think they’re allied with the fucking beyond, and they need to get advice about the war from the astral plane, said Goebbels. So a certain demoted Obërst may bother you about it. But remember there is no fucking beyond, and the dead can’t read. Make answers short, and keep that asshole from holding seances. This is just about record-keeping.
Lodenstein said, yes, of course he would, and Goebbels showed him a model of a building to exhibit the letters after the war. The building had Greek columns and marble nooks. A mausoleum, Lodenstein thought.

The primary action of the book concerns, as one might expect, Heidegger’s glasses. How can this be? It starts when an Officer passes on orders to Elie:

I just got an order from Goebbels’s office, he said. And it’s your neck and mine if we can’t come through.
He handed Elie a paper from the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda that read:
Joseph Goebbels demands that the enclosed letter from Martin Heidegger to his optometrist Asher Englehardt be answered by a philosopher at the Compound of Scribes who can absolutely duplicate what would have been Asher Englehardt’s reply – in other words act as his ventriloquist – and be delivered, along with the proper pair of glasses, to Martin Heidegger’s hut in the Black Forest in Todtnauberg. This must be done while maintaining absolute secrecy. No discussions are necessary.
No discussions are necessary meant anyone who spoke about this to Goebbels would be shot.
Ellie tugged at the sleeves of her thick woolen coat.
Why would Martin Heidegger bother to write to his optometrist? she said, careful to sound calm.

The book then becomes a philosophical thriller, punctuated by images of letters in various languages, wrapped in the comfort of time. If I struggled for grounding in the first section (me and my insistence on certainty; it’s better to just trust and keep going), I was on pins and needles in the middle as Elie and Lodenstein schemed to satisfy these orders and, perhaps, commit a daring rescue in spite of the interference of the bumbling ex-Obërst; and by the end, I was sobbing, yet immensely satisfied by the closure of several circles.

I also enjoyed the opportunity to comment back and forth a bit while reading with Andrew. We didn’t have any set idea of how the simultaneous read would work, and yet it did, as we passed impressions back and forth, asked and answered questions. I’ll leave it to Andrew to decide if he wants to add his impressions in the comments below. I think I had the advantage of being predisposed to enjoy the book because of the connection to philosophy, but he had the advantage of being a writer himself.

I love how reading takes me on paths I never expected; certainly Frank’s whimsical flash fiction piece has generated a great deal from itself, from the Holocaust to the foundations of Existentialism. How way leads on to way!

Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities (1859; Penguin ed. 2000) [IBR2023]

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

I wonder if any book has a more recognizable opening and closing paragraph than this one. Genesis probably beats it on openings, but how many people recall the final verse of any version of the Bible?

The widespread knowledge of this Dickens novel might go beyond the famous words. I have to admit, with significant embarrassment, that I’ve always thought Madame Defarge was a real-life historical personage. She comes up in any discussion of the French Revolution, after all. I wonder how much of our understanding – or, perhaps, misunderstanding – of history comes from fiction, and whether we recognize it as such. I’m further embarrassed by admitting I never read this before. It’s part of my annual effort to catch up with the reading list, under the banner of It’s Never Too Late.

Since it was first published in thirty-one weekly installments, I tried to honor that as I read (the Penguin Classics edition notes the end of each installment), but soon got impatient; this is why I don’t watch television any more but wait until I can stream a series at my own pace and not wait for summer hiatuses. Although some of the references are cryptic – footnotes helped a lot – and the language can get weighted down, it’s still quite readable, and the plot is certainly exciting, even in the beginning. How will Charles Darnay’s first trial come out, seeing as Dr. Manette is so reluctant to testify? Will he and Lucie get together? What is Sydney Carton’s problem, and will he overcome his inertia? What’s with the “fishing” scam that Jerry Cruncher is in on? The closing chapters are downright page-turners: Will Sydney’s plan work? Will Miss Pross delay Madame Defarge long enough for the escaping coach?

And of course there are many literary tricks going on, foreshadowing and metaphor in particular. Take the scene at the Defarge’s wine shop in Paris, prior to the Revolution, where wine is running in the streets:

A shrill sound of laughter and of amused voices—voices of men, women, and children—resounded in the street while this wine game lasted. There was little roughness in the sport, and much playfulness. There was a special companionship in it, an observable inclination on the part of every one to join some other one, which led, especially among the luckier or lighter-hearted, to frolicsome embraces, drinking of healths, shaking of hands, and even joining of hands and dancing, a dozen together….
The wine was red wine, and had stained the ground of the narrow street in the suburb of Saint Antoine, in Paris, where it was spilled. It had stained many hands, too, and many faces, and many naked feet, and many wooden shoes. The hands of the man who sawed the wood, left red marks on the billets; and the forehead of the woman who nursed her baby, was stained with the stain of the old rag she wound about her head again. Those who had been greedy with the staves of the cask, had acquired a tigerish smear about the mouth; and one tall joker so besmirched, his head more out of a long squalid bag of a nightcap than in it, scrawled upon a wall with his finger dipped in muddy wine-lees—blood.
The time was to come, when that wine too would be spilled on the street-stones, and when the stain of it would be red upon many there.

Any reader who doesn’t recall this during the blood literally starts running in the streets some years later just isn’t trying.

Then there’s the circus atmosphere when, in London, an executed spy is buried and the funeral procession includes a number of entertainment aspects later reflected by the popularity of guillotine executions in Paris:

…At length, a person better informed on the merits of the case, tumbled against him, and from this person he learned that the funeral was the funeral of one Roger Cly.
“Was he a spy?” asked Mr. Cruncher.
“Old Bailey spy,” returned his informant. “Yaha! Tst! Yah! Old Bailey Spi—i—ies!”
“Why, to be sure!” exclaimed Jerry, recalling the Trial at which he had assisted. “I’ve seen him. Dead, is he?”
“Dead as mutton,” returned the other, “and can’t be too dead. Have ’em out, there! Spies! Pull ’em out, there! Spies!”
The idea was so acceptable in the prevalent absence of any idea, that the crowd caught it up with eagerness, and loudly repeating the suggestion to have ’em out, and to pull ’em out, mobbed the two vehicles so closely that they came to a stop. On the crowd’s opening the coach doors, the one mourner scuffled out by himself and was in their hands for a moment; but he was so alert, and made such good use of his time, that in another moment he was scouring away up a bye-street, after shedding his cloak, hat, long hatband, white pocket-handkerchief, and other symbolical tears.
These, the people tore to pieces and scattered far and wide with great enjoyment, while the tradesmen hurriedly shut up their shops; for a crowd in those times stopped at nothing, and was a monster much dreaded. They had already got the length of opening the hearse to take the coffin out, when some brighter genius proposed instead, its being escorted to its destination amidst general rejoicing. Practical suggestions being much needed, this suggestion, too, was received with acclamation, and the coach was immediately filled with eight inside and a dozen out, while as many people got on the roof of the hearse as could by any exercise of ingenuity stick upon it.…The remodelled procession started, with a chimney-sweep driving the hearse—advised by the regular driver, who was perched beside him, under close inspection, for the purpose—and with a pieman, also attended by his cabinet minister, driving the mourning coach. A bear-leader, a popular street character of the time, was impressed as an additional ornament, before the cavalcade had gone far down the Strand; and his bear, who was black and very mangy, gave quite an Undertaking air to that part of the procession in which he walked.

That this leads to Jerry Cruncher’s “fishing” scene – and how crucial that scene becomes in the final section of the book – is the icing on the cake.

These parallels allow the connection between the two cities: although the revolution was in Paris, not London, many of the same elements applied in the “best of times” city as well. Fiction also allows us to care more deeply about individual people, like the death of a child by an aristocrat who complains about the people cluttering the street, and the imprisonment of Dr. Manette for reporting a horrible injustice. Reading statistics can only do so much; creating a scene with characters who mourn engages the emotions far more effectively. The same can be said for showing how the Revolution went too far, as it turns on Charles Darnay, known to the reader as a man who abhors injustice and has renounced his title and privilege. We can debate whether one can renounce privilege entirely – he still had the education and bearing of an aristocrat which no doubt made it much easier to fit into London as a language teacher than if he’d been a mender of roads – but that’s one of the fun, and productive, byproducts of literature over the years: we see things differently now than Dickens did, perhaps.

I was interested in how women were portrayed. Lucie Manette is sweet and gentle, with some backbone and courage, but is still rather stereotypical in that any male who gets within a few yards of wants to marry and/or protect her – which is why it takes Madame Defarge to serve as her enemy. Madame is an interesting study of revenge gone mad, as well as a woman able to command an army, if unofficially. Then there’s Miss Pross, who, unobserved by all but the omniscient narrator, truly saves Lucie’s child in a scene that’s both poetic – “with the vigorous tenacity of love, always so much stronger than hate” – and cinematic. She was just as willing to give her life for her Ladybird as Sydney Carton was for Darnay; it just worked out better for her.

Poor Sydney Carton: the man who just couldn’t achieve his full potential, not through oppression or poverty, but through his own lack of will:

Waste forces within him, and a desert all around, this man stood still on his way across a silent terrace, and saw for a moment, lying in the wilderness before him, a mirage of honourable ambition, self-denial, and perseverance. In the fair city of this vision, there were airy galleries from which the loves and graces looked upon him, gardens in which the fruits of life hung ripening, waters of Hope that sparkled in his sight. A moment, and it was gone. Climbing to a high chamber in a well of houses, he threw himself down in his clothes on a neglected bed, and its pillow was wet with wasted tears.
Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.

As someone who started out as an overachiever, but somehow ran out of gas, I can sympathize, and understand why he so willingly traded places with Darnay. It’s called sacrifice, given a religious cast, but at its heart, is it not his own desire to finally matter? The Altruism Paradox strikes again!

The ending is handled in an interesting way. We never see Darnay safely back in England, except through Carton’s imagination as he walks to the block. Should this be considered fact, that Charles and Lucie have a son they name after him? Or is that a romantic notion of his redemption and sacrifice?

Again I think of the question raised in that Short Story Reading Group from last year: whose story is it? As a novel, it’s the story of many people, but Carton is the one who changes – and whose words close the book.

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

That’s quite a change from the pillow wet with his tears, letting his slackerdom eat him away.

The Penguin Classics edition includes the original illustrations by Hablot Browne. It’s a shame we don’t have illustrated novels any more. Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, the words are supposed to convey the visuals. But it’s such a nice touch.  Bryan Washington’s Memorial, the book I read just before this one, included several photographs; that was a nice touch, too. Maybe we’re headed back in that direction.

One of the first times I really felt interested in reading this book was when I saw the film version of Up the Down Staircase, based on the book by Bel Kaufman. The book got me interested in Chaucer, whose name I had no idea how to pronounce for a couple of decades. But the film used Dickens instead, focusing on that mesmerizing opening paragraph, as Sandy Dennis, playing brand-new teacher Sylvia Barrett in a decrepit urban high school, asks her underachieving class:

Dickens wrote that more than 100 years ago, referring to a time almost 200 years ago. “It was so far like the present period” – now, what I want to know is can we still say that today? Is it still the best of times, the worst of times?”

Video clip available online

The kids come up with various ideas – war vs prosperity, tenements vs housing developments – and Miss Barrett is delighted that she’s got the class engaged in, of all things, a book. The genius of the film, however, is that it’s intercut with the suicide of another student. The best of times, the worst of times, indeed.

I read this book as a remedial exercise, but ended up enjoying it more than I expected. I can’t recommend it as an entrée to the historical French Revolution – the Penguin edition gives some instances where the facts don’t quite line up, and it all seems rather jumbled – but it’s good reading nonetheless, and surprisingly entertaining.

Bryan Washington: Memorial (Riverhead 2020) [IBR2023]

Mike’s taking off for Osaka, but his mother’s flying into Houston.
Just for a few weeks, he says.
Or maybe a couple of months, he says. But I need to go.
The first thing I think is: fuck.
The second’s that we don’t have the money for this.
Then it occurs to me that we don’t have any savings at all. But Mike’s always been good about finances, always cool about separating his checks. It’s something I’d always taken for granted about him.

Now he’s saying that he wants to find his father. The man’s gotten sick. Mike wants to catch him before he goes. And I’m on the sofa, half listening, half charging my phone.
You haven’t seen your mom in years, I say. She’s coming for you. I’ve never met her.
I say, You don’t even fucking like your dad.
True, says Mike. But I already bought the ticket.
And Ma will be here when I’m back, says Mike. You’re great company. She’ll live.
He’s cracking eggs by the stove, slipping yolks into a pair of pans.
After they’ve settled, he salts them, drizzling mayonnaise with a few sprigs of oregano. Mike used to have this thing about sriracha, he’d pull a hernia whenever I reached for it, but now he squeezes a faded bottle over my omelette, rubbing it in with the spatula.
I don’t ask where he’ll stay in Japan. I don’t ask who he’ll stay with. I don’t ask where his mother will sleep here, in our one-bedroom apartment, or exactly what that arrangement will look like. The thing about a moving train is that, sometimes, you can catch it. Some of the kids I work with, that’s how their families make it into this country. If you fall, you’re dead. If you’re too slow, you’re dead. But if you get a running start, it’s never entirely gone.

Now there’s a premise you can hang your hat on: One partner skipping town while his mom stays with the other partner. Room for a lot of maneuvering. And it is a book about a lot of things. Race, class, family, love, communication, food; different ways these things mix. But it’s a kaleidoscope, changing every time I read a portion. Right now, I’m thinking it’s about how our families of origin affect our later relationships and the new families we create through love, or at least through sexual attraction. And yes, it is that. But it’s more importantly about forgiveness, and how forgiving what was done in the past lets us grow and leave behind restraints, a kind of emotional constipation, we learned in the past. Ask me next week, and I’ll say it’s about something else.

I’m always appreciative of work that uses structure to inform meaning. Here we have three major sections: Benson narrates the first, and we get some idea of his family background (his parents kicked him out when his gayness was just too obvious to overlook) and his current somewhat troubled relationship with Mike. We watch him and Mitsuko, Mike’s mother, negotiate daily life together, get used to each other.

Then it’s Mike’s turn. We see his relationship with his estranged father develop, and hear more about the beginnings of his relationship with Benson.

The final section is narrated by Benson, but it’s a coming together, evidence of growth that’s begun, and that promises to continue, maybe.

Race is a persistent theme, partly because Mike is Japanese-American and Benson is Black, but also because Houston is a multi-racial area and race relations crop up during ordinary everyday encounters. Most of them are amusing, but they nonetheless have bite. Take Benson’s description of their neighborhood in Houston:

We live in the Third Ward, a historically black part of Houston. Our apartment’s entirely too large. It doesn’t make any sense. At one point, the neighborhood had money, but then crack happened and the money took off, and occasionally you’ll hear gunshots or fistfights or motherfuckers driving way too fast. But the block has recently been invaded by fraternities from the college up the block. And a scattering of professor types. With pockets of rich kids playing at poverty. The black folks who’ve lived here for decades let them do it, happy for the scientific fact that white kids keep the cops away.
Our immediate neighbors are Venezuelan. They’ve got like nine kids. Our other neighbors are these black grandparents who’ve lived on the property forever. Every few weeks, Mike cooks for both families, sopa de pescado and yams and macaroni and rice. He’s never made a big deal about it, he just wakes up and does it, and after the first few times I asked Mike if that wasn’t patronizing.
But, after a little while, I noticed people let him linger on their porches. He’d poke at their kids, leaning all over the wood. Sometimes the black folks invited him inside, showed him pictures of their daughter’s daughters.

It may have seemed strange when I included “food” in the list of major threads, along things like race and family; it seems a bit trivial in comparison. But the book really uses food in a subtle way to show how things are going, to echo feeling and events. One example is Mike’s use of food to bond with his neighbors. This is echoed by Mitsuko’s use of sharing a mug of something with those same neighbors later. Not only is the technique of using food as a friendship offering significant, but it shows how she’s taught Mike, what she’s passed on. Pay attention to the cooking: who’s cooking for whom, who’s teaching whom to cook what, how plates are set, what ingredients are combined. Take that opening quote, for instance: Mike overcomes his horror of sriracha on eggs to make omelettes the way Benson likes them. Greater love hath no man, than he accedes to the condiments of another.  

There’s a drop-dead scene or comment or paragraph every couple of pages, but at the very end, there’s one for the ages. Benson has been explaining how many times they’ve said they love each other – he can count the number on two hands and have fingers left over – and he bounces around, in no particular order. But it’s the first time that really sets the pattern:

The first time is a memory that I’ve thinned down to the basics. We are, I think, walking through the neighborhood. I tell Mike that I love it, or that I could learn to love it here. He looks up entirely too quickly, but it’s too late, I’ve already seen his grin. But right there, at the height of a potential catastrophe, Mike points to a house and tells me that he loves the way it leans. I pointed to a cat sunning under a street light and tell Mike I love how it’s navigating the world. Mike points to the wildflowers growing next to the road. I point to the lamps above us. We both point behind us, below us, in the corners, through the windows of the houses we’re passing, at everywhere but each other, although of course I’ve since realized that this was an acknowledgement, too.

The rhythm of that paragraph is terrific – speeding up then coming to an abrupt halt – but it’s the take-home that gives me goosebumps. Love can be scary: Tell all the truth, but tell it slant, as Emily Dickinson would say, to make it less scary. But then it becomes, later: Loving others can let them love each other, be loved by each others. Love generates love; it multiplies.

The ending is wide-open. Mike is returning to Osaka, but whether he will return – or whether Benson will join him, though that seems as unlikely as… well, as unlikely as Mike coming around to accepting sriracha on eggs – remains to be seen.

I’ve read two of Washington’s short stories via Best American Short Stories. In each, I wasn’t sure I was catching some of the subtext, but I was captivated in that way I sometimes am when I don’t quite “get” a story but find it mesmerizing. Same with this novel. There’s something beautiful and desperate about it; I’m not sure what it is. But I think I want more.

* * *    

  • Read Michael Shaub’s review of the book for NPR.
  • Read Alexis Burling’s review of the book for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Andrew Piper: Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times (UCP, 2013) [IBR2023]

This book is not a case for or against books. It is not about old media or new media (or even new new media). Instead, it is an attempt to understand the relationship between books and screens, to identify some of their fundamental differences and to chart out the continuities that might run between them…. In Gertrude Stein’s words, books were there. It is this thereness that is both essential for understanding the medium of the book (that books exist as finite objects in the world) and also for reminding us that we cannot think about our electronic future without contending with its antecedent, the bookish past. Books got there first.

One of the books I read last year was an essay anthology titled A Passion for Books. I thought it would be about, well, you know, reading books. Turns out, it was primarily about collecting books. I was quite disappointed.

I should have read Book Was There; it didn’t disappoint at all. At several points, my face hurt from smiling so hard and so long. It’s about the human relationship to reading books and electronic media, the history and the future of that relationship. I wanted to argue with it in places – always a good sign – and I didn’t follow the argument in other places. When it came to pulling quotes, I copied enormous passages, far too long and too many to include in a blog post. It’s marvelous.

Each of the chapters is organized around something that we do when we read: how we touch books and screens, how we look at them, how we share them with each other, how we take notes with them or navigate our way through them, where we use them, or even how we play with them. In this, I am interested in understanding how we relate to reading in a deeply embodied way.

This functional approach to reading was a new perspective for me. It provided a natural setting for a comparison – no, that’s not the right word, an examination – of how we read books and screens. Touch, sight, motion, use: these are the topics, and they often led to surprising places. Several chapters end with Piper’s anecdotes about his children’s experiences with reading, making this a sort of academic-general readership hybrid text.

First up is “Take It and Read” borrowing the phrase St. Augustine heard that led to his conversion to Christianity. It deals with how we hold and touch what we read, focusing on hands. In this initial chapter I had some of my biggest arguments with the text. We don’t read everything in the same way; we read a novel differently than an instruction manual, or an encyclopedia. We don’t even read similar material in the same way every time: sometimes I sit in a comfy chair, sometimes I sit at my computer so I can look up literary or historical references as I encounter them (as I did with this very book), and sometimes I read in bed or on the bus or in a waiting room; some books are small, others large, some paperback, some hardcover. I hold books differently in each of these cases. I disagreed with specific points: “When we hold books while we read, our hands are also open. Reading books, and this is no accident, mimics the gestures of greeting and prayer.” My hands fold around the book; that isn’t, to me, open. When I sing in a chorus and hold music, yes, my hands are open, palms flat, one supporting the folder, one one keeping it balanced and readying the page turn. But books, no, my hands are not open, and it doesn’t look like greeting or prayer, which would, to me, be flat hands together. But Piper includes an illustration from a medieval Book of Hours (yes, the book has many delightful [black and white] illustrations!) that shows the reference: the palms are flat, thumbs performing the holding function. So I can argue about what happens in reality, but there is cause for making his point.

The corresponding e-book component of this chapter dealt with presence: “Digital texts are somewhere, but where they are has become increasingly complicated, abstract, even forbidden.” Although we’re all familiar with clicking, tapping, and swiping – the hard screen a different sensation from the tactile feel of paper pages – Piper examines other ways that touch is incorporated into digital media, using the examples of the interactive digital installation Text Rain (Camille Utterback, Romy Achituv) – where letters fall from the sky and can be gathered with the hands or objects – and the storyspace The Jew’s Daughter (Judd Morrissey, with contributions from Lori Talley), in which a click changes parts of the page. Others, created since, abound.

The second chapter – “Face, Book” – starts with a summation of Balzac’s short story The Unknown Masterpiece. I know nothing about Balzac other than the exquisitely clever use of his name as an epithet for “dirty books” in The Music Man – a play so old-fashioned yet so relevant to this sociopolitical moment – but now I want to read everything he wrote. This leads to a history of the frontispiece in print books, and the ubiquity of online faces. This had a particular resonance for me, since I have tried very hard not to put my own image online, to the point of breaking my webcam (which can lead to some conflict in the Zoom era).

Books teach us to see the world multiply, from all its angles. The multiple faces of books presuppose a nonknowledge of another that has deep ethical implications… Facebook presupposes an inherent presence of another, that there is no I without You, and that, too, is ethically profound. There is an entanglement to social networking that is as meaningful as the book’s pedagogy of mental distance, that I can never in the end fully know you.

“Turning the Page,”  the third chapter, might be the most familiar to even casual computer users. It compares the crowdedness of the digital page (ads, navigation panels, etc) with that of medieval manuscripts which might include sidebars, illustrations and decorations, and rubrics. I’d add the Talmud to that: now there’s a book that revels in the crowded page, the actual text under examination often the smallest part while the commentary floods around it.

Piper mentions three ways of reconceptualizing the digital page – roaming, zooming, and streaming – with examples of each. I kept thinking of Sea and Spar Between, a digital version of Moby-Dick created by Nick Montford and Stephanie Strickland that I encountered in a mooc on electronic literature: “What does it mean, that the work can’t be “read” as a whole – what does it mean to our closure-driven psyches when a work of e-lit never ends?”

The fourth chapter, “Of Note,” about, clearly, different forms of making notes about texts, had me considering my bizarre reading strategy in the recent Catherine Project reading group on Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Armed with both a PDF and a paper copy of the book, I still had a terrible time flipping back and forth between text and end notes and supplements. I taped paper tabs to the paper copy so I could find the end notes and various chapters more easily, but still struggled. I finally ended up manually copying the text, chapter by chapter, into a Word document and using Comments to store end notes next to the text of reference, including material from the supplements and from outside texts as necessary. It was absurdly time-consuming, but it was the best way I could manage it.

Piper’s recognition of notes in relation to texts introduced me to yet another book I must read: Nabokov’s The Origin of Laura, an unfinished novel he left in the form of index cards at the time of his death with instruction to destroy it. His son disobeyed, and eventually published a blend of cards and book:

All that remained of Nabokov’s “novel” at the time of his death was a stack of index cards left in a safe. The book that they became consisted of pages of perforated color facsimiles of note cards with printed transcriptions beneath. There was something profoundly disjunctive between the cards, the kind that anyone could buy at a drugstore, and the weightiness of the book to which they belonged, the last remaining novel by one of the twentieth-century’s greatest writers.
In its affectionate reproduction of the author’s note cards in book form, The Original of Laura performed, at both a visual and tactile level, what we might call a morphological theory of media – that notes could become books, indeed that these two very different forms of writing (the cheapness of the index card and the majesty of the book) might be synonymous with one another. But in the cards’ perforation – one of the most inspired publishing decisions of our so-called late age of print – the note cards’ possible removal from the book also drew attention to the hole in that book… that was the note. Without notes, so Laura tells us, we have no books.

This chapter also looks at handwritten marginalia, the importance of handwriting, and the insufficiency of electronic handwriting instrumentation. Anyone who’s played both a traditional piano and the electronic version will immediately understand that insufficiency.

I’ve been told many times that learning is enhanced by handwritten notes far more than by typed or recorded notes, and I believe it, but with three kinds of nerve damage my dominant hand is just not up to the task of legibly writing more than a sentence or two at a time.

Chapter 5, “Sharing,” is one of the more opaque chapters to me. Piper uses Adam’s rib as his grounding anecdote, but to me, he didn’t share his rib, he gave it (or, rather, God took it and gave it); only Eve had use of it after her creation. There’s also a section on UNIX which I more or less skipped over (in my defense, I once worked as a systems programmer and analyst back in the days of the mainframe, and do everything I can to avoid being reminded of that). I’m more on board with the discussion of shared reading spaces and communal reading (I do participate in these reading groups, after all, and will hunt down online short story discussion groups like a bloodhound). The comments on libraries nearly brought a tear to my eye; could Piper have known, back in 2012 when this volume was published, that libraries would become targets for those advocating censorship and bigotry?

“Among the Trees,” Chapter 6, looks at two rather opposite phenomena: the history of outdoor reading, and our fondness for reading in corners. When I moved to my current home four years ago, I finally arranged a Reading Corner. It’s not fancy – just a comfy chair by two windows and a bookshelf – but it’s perfect. Piper also talks about chairs designed for reading, reminding me of the interview I did with Richard Osgood about his Tin House Plotto story, and his wide array of reading chairs with different settings for different authors. There’s also a historical review of book miniaturization, leading me to remember the now-defunct Madras Press (I miss them) and their collections of teeny-tiny square books released once a year.

Historians of ideas tell us that it was during the eighteenth century when the tree of knowledge began to give way to the knowledge “field.” Hierarchically ordered categories based on descending branches of knowledge were being replaced by adjacent, yet slightly porous fields. The sequentially ordered “leaf” was no longer at the center of learning; It was instead the topographical map…. The computational tree has ironically only further accelerated the growth of knowledge fields.

Now the UNIX-data tree section comes home to roost in a wonderful way: Stefanie Posavec’s “Literary Organisms” as graphic descriptions of books, using the tree structures. The kind of work that goes into this is overwhelming.

Considering my constant whining about how much trouble I have grasping statistics or calculus, it’s interesting that Chapter 7, “By the Numbers,” had me jumping up and down with glee. Sarah Hart’s book Once Upon a Prime: The Wondrous Connections Between Mathematics and Literature was released just about a week ago, and I’ve been reminding myself I strongly prefer paperback books so should wait a year to read it; but every mathematician in my Twitter feed is pimping it, so I may not be able to resist. In this chapter Piper presages the title of Hart’s book:

Reading literature is indebted in profound ways to the world of the numerical, just as the history of mathematics is far from what the deterministic horror story many make it out to be. Symbols like ∞, π, e, -2, √, ≈ or ideas like “plane,” “circle,” or “parallel line” – are these any more precise than when Mrs. Ramsey reads “Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose”? They are both signs of the necessity of form, of our need to model, approximate, represent. Whether it’s fiction or theorem, they are means of understanding a world that at bottom always seems to elude our grasp.

In this chapter we encounter the ancient practice of bibliomancy – divination through books – and recall St. Augustine’s conversion from the first chapter. To some degree is still practiced today; there’s a scene in Herman Wouk’s Winds of War where a Navy pilot, on the eve of the Midway battle, opens his Bible to a random page and points, unfortunately, to the verse from Isaiah, “Set thine house in order, for thou shalt die and not live.” Turns out God changed his mind a few verses later, but you can guess what happened to the character.

Non-electronic computation included Raymond Llull’s dials for moral guidance in the thirteenth century, and Georg Harsdörffer’s seventeenth-century thought rings for mixing and matching German phonemes. Nonsense poetry teams up with Dada, and Piper shows us how the Turing Machine relates not only to Samuel Beckett, but to the history of reading: “At the dawn of computing the scroll returns, an ironic bookend to the end of the book.” Don’t be afraid if this sounds esoteric; it’s all very accessible.

Then we come to algorithms, the word that has been on everyone’s mind for the past decade. But just like bots can be annoying or deliver little bits of Van Gogh or Moby-Dick to brighten your feed on occasion, algorithmic writing can be wonderfully creative: witness Fox Harrell’s GRIOT, or Wershler and Kennedy’s Apostrophe Engine, which create poems and texts from various inputs. I was a bit disappointed not to find mention of my own obsession from a few years ago, the Mesostic as created by John Cage, but one book can’t include everything and I’m glad to discover new things.

Then we get to distance reading, as I knew we would. This is a method of examining texts, often multiple texts, via computer analysis to determine linguistic patterns, or lack thereof.  One of the first moocs I took, back in 2014, gave me some introductory experience in corpus linguistics; it still runs every year. Back in the day, it had several foci: positive and negative words used in media coverage of various events and people (particularly related to immigration), and a landmark study of war metaphors in cancer treatment. There’s also a Shakespeare-specific mooc from another university that looks at the myths about the Bard and ways his language use varied between dramatic characters, as well as a Stylistics mooc that includes a brief corpus unit. It’s a fascinating field, even for those who, like me, aren’t going to become experts but want some idea of how it works and are interested in the findings.

Piper’s chapter references several applications of distance reading from analyzing Stein to looking at the language used to describe poverty and how that correlates to the proposed remedies. There’s also a fascinating topological map of eighteenth-century literary works showing the influence of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther  (and reminding me that Goethe is another European author I’ve more or less ignored and thus need to add to my TBR list).  

Lest we shake our heads and fret about what the world of reading is coming to today, Piper then draws our attention to earlier forms of corpus creation: from Origen’s Hexapla in the third century, comparing six different source texts for the Bible, to the sixteenth century Bible arranged by Erasmus comparing the Greek and Vulgate versions of scripture. Our tools may be shiny and new, but the impulse to compare texts as wholes has quite a history.

We are at a similar moment in terms of creating new textual instruments today. Current anxieties about the meaning of computational interfaces are no different than the controversies that surrounded the biblical translations of Renaissance humanists. Erasmus had provocatively entitled his addition Novum Instrumentum, not Novum Testamentum, a new instrument, not a new testament. For Erasmus, the book was indeed an instrument, not just a “mere tool.” Where some readers were shocked to encounter his edition rather than Jerome’s, so too are some readers today just as shocked to see their beloved Jane Austen heaped onto a giant pile of books and run through the mill of data mining.

A few years ago, Pam Houston’s essay, “What Has Irony Done For Us Lately,” which included a sneer at this new instrument. “I thought it was a joke,” she writes, when she heard of distance reading, since she’d been teaching close reading all her professional life. I had a few things to say about that (the second time I’ve had a few things to say in response to a Houston essay, making her one of my favorite writers), primarily that this technique doesn’t replace close reading; it augments research into texts by looking at them in a different way. And by the way, close reading itself was a new way of looking at texts in the 1920s when I. A. Richards began to advocate for it.

The book ends with a brief Epilogue – “Letting Go of the Book” – which I found quite disturbing, a reaction I might not have had if I’d read it in 2012 when originally published. He describes the work of Emily Jacir in which she shot one thousand books with a .22 pistol as a political protest.

Jacir’s work was also part of a larger wave of contemporary projects that were performing aggressive, even violent, acts towards books. Cutting, drawing, soaking, unfurling, piercing, and shooting the books have been some of the many ways that artists like Jacqueline Rush Lee, Jonathan Latham, Robert The, Cara Barer, and Sam Markham have over the past decade or more been enacting a collective sense of the book’s imminent demise. If we have forever been imagining our way past books, we have more recently begun to think about what it would be like to live in a world without them. We have begun the work of bibliographic mourning.
At an even deeper level, though, Jacir’s work and the work of other book demolishers isn’t just about a particular moment in time when the book’s viability as a medium seems to be increasingly in doubt. It also captures something fundamental to the act of reading itself, something more timeless about the kindred spirits of mourning and melancholy that go with reading. Just as the imagination of how to transcend books has been integral to the history of books, so too is a sense of melancholy, a persistent sense of loss. Melancholy isn’t a sign of the book end; it is its inspiration. Melancholy is reading’s muse.

As to the first paragraph: the combination of violence and books strikes me as terrifying right now, in a moment when books are not only banned but become criminal contraband, when librarians are receiving death threats and funding is being threatened – in a context where murder seems to be a common reaction to any kind of unexpected encounter.

As for the idea of melancholy, it seems to be a persistent idea, but I don’t understand where that idea comes from. If reading itself is “nonvital, sluggish, or even deadening,” why do we persist in doing it? I experience a distinct sense of pleasure – subtle, to be sure – when I read. It’s why I’ll read anything – the iconic cereal box, signs on the bus rather than looking at familiar scenery – in moments of captivity, and make time for reading daily. I’ve always wondered if it’s something in the wiring of the brain, some interpretation pathway passes close to the pleasure center, or there’s an excess of dopamine in some region that translates marks on a page into people and ideas and actions. Yes, many books are sad, but isn’t that the basis of catharsis: a sadness we understand, one we can react to and control, rather than the sadness that weighs us down when bad things happen? I’m talking out of my hat here, but I don’t get the melancholy thing.

John Koenig does, however. He’s the writer of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, which I just mentioned in my post on Eley Williams’ The Liar’s Dictionary: he gives the definition of his neologism vellichor as “the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time.” Wistfulness is a second cousin to melancholy. Perhaps there is something there.

Piper ends with a nod to Alexander von Humboldt, another person I recently met via reading Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World. Von Humboldt wanted to write an Uberbuch, “the entire material world in a single book.” Piper doesn’t make the facile connection to the Internet, but I confess, I did. 

It’s interesting that this book has so many offshoots that I will go forth and read, because it is for me an offshoot. Last Fall, I participated in my first Reading Group via the Catherine Project, with Prof. Piper leading a reading of contemporary short stories. As I typically do when I take a mooc, OCW, or other learning experience, I looked him up (I follow him on Twitter, where he is very involved in AI, particularly in relationship to learning and the classroom) and found this book. I don’t mess with Gertrude Stein unless I have to, but I was intrigued by the title, the cover design (oh, the urge to straighten that image!), and ultimately, the subject matter. I’m very glad I picked it up.

But as he writes, “In the end, we must always let go of the book.” So I shall. It’s been a wonderful ride.

Truman Capote: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (RH 1958) [IBR2023]

I’d been living in the house about a week when I noticed that the mailbox belonging to Apt. 2 had a name-slot fitted with a curious card. Printed, rather Cartier-formal, it read: Miss Holiday Golightly; and, underneath, in the corner, Traveling. It nagged me like a tune: Miss Holiday Golightly, Traveling.”

I just barely remember having seen the movie that so many consider iconic, but watching the opening and closing scenes on Youtube leaves me puzzled as to how Capote let it be made as it was, since it changes several key pivots.

I’ve always been curious about this book, based on – well, I’ll get to that later, lest you judge me right of the bat and move on. It was kicked up in my “I’ve got to read that some day” list by Bryan Washington’s BASS 2022 story, “Foster,” which involves a cat named Cat (it took my blogging buddy Jake Weber to point out the similarity) in the service of family relationships.

I vaguely remember watching the movie a long time ago; I was, shall we say, less than impressed. I have to admit being less than  enamored with the book – I was surprised how short it was, a novella, really – but I see a lot of interesting features that made it worth reading.

First is that it’s an envelope story. This gives it all a nostalgic feel: our narrator, whose name is never given, looks back fifteen years or so, as a now-successful writer, to the “early years of the war” from some time shortly after Christmas, 1957. His memory is sparked by the thinnest of evidence: a  photo of a wood carving from South Africa that resembles Holly, and a story of a woman who rode in with two men in need of medical aid, then “by and by she went like she came, rode away on a horse.” The details are sketchy: did she “share the woodcarver’s mat,” did she leave with the two men she arrived with, where did she go? But, like Proust’s madeleines, it’s enough.

I’m interested in how gradually information is revealed, both to the younger narrator in the past and to the reader through him. His fist awareness of Holly comes by a name card in her mailbox; instead of an address, there’s just the notation “traveling” which is a great summation of her character, not to mention, as the first information we get, connecting it with the African carving from the present. He hears her before he sees her; he sees her piecemeal before he meets her; and he finds out her full story well into their acquaintance.

Holly is a woman who lives off of the generosity of men who want her company. Exactly how much company is left rather vague; she’ll dismiss without thought someone who gives her twenty cents for the powder room (ah, yes, I remember ladies’ room attendants who, as far as I could tell as a child, did nothing but sit in the corner but it was customary to drop a quarter, real money in another time, in the basket). Those who gave her a hundred-dollar bill apparently had more luck.

It’s easy to call Holly a ho and leave it at that, but her story is far more complicated. She is eighteen years old, and has left backwoods Texas after she was married off to  a horse doctor at the age of fourteen. Her first destination was California, where she learned to speak well and comport herself with a more urban air; movies were a possibility, but not a strong one, so she headed to New York because that’s where everyone goes. In the forties, it wasn’t easy for a woman, nearly a child, to support herself; using the power of men was one way to do it. I remember reading somewhere about a character who knew the difference between a prostitute and a courtesan; Holly clearly is aiming to be the latter, and if she isn’t quite at the highest levels yet, well, she’s working on it. She’s obviously clever and adaptive; her early marriage may have been the cause of her restlessness and inability to take root anywhere, even for an address card, and her refusal to name her cat.

Another interesting feature is that she is using her married name, Golightly. It sounds so fake, but that is indeed the name of the man to whom she was given to as an adolescent. Her first name is invented: Holiday, in full, which sounds so joyous, like her fascination with eating her breakfast donut outside Tiffany’s, the place where nothing bad can happen. Of course, she never gets inside, but again, she was working on it.

The ending is far superior to the Hollywood version: she dumps the cat, then regrets it but can’t find him. “Fred” promises to find him, and she leaves. He does eventually find the cat:

I had kept my promise; I had found him. It took weeks of after-work roaming through those Spanish Harlem streets, and there were many false alarms – flashes of tiger-striped fur that, upon inspection, were not him. But one day, one cold sunshiny Sunday winter afternoon, it was. Flanked by potted plants and framed by clean lace curtains, he was seated in the window of a warm-looking room: I wondered what his name was, for I was certain he had one now, certain he’d arrived somewhere he belonged. African huts or whatever, I hope Holly has, too.

I see this as corresponding to his glimpsing a flash of her in the wood carving, which may well be a false alarm. But some day, the reader has to believe, he will find her in a window, inside Tiffany’s, where nothing bad can happen to her ever again.

Now, back to basics: I was initially interested in reading the book, years ago, because of a scene from a tv show or movie (I finally discovered it was a Seinfeld episode, of all things, a show that’s become my nemesis) where a character goes to a book club reading and says something about Fred and Holly getting together at the end; a book club member sneers at him for watching the movie instead of reading the book. She explains that “Fred” is gay.

So I admit it: I read the book to find out where “Fred’s” sexual preference appears. It doesn’t. There are a few hints – primarily that, since he didn’t have his own name but was christened “Fred” by Holly after her brother, and that he’s a fledgling writer from the South, that he is a stand-in for Capote. I’m more interested in why he’s not in the army, given they were drafting pretty much everyone at that point, but I don’t see how that would have worked: “You can’t draft me, I’m gay” seems a little far-fetched. Others find a few other clues, like he doesn’t hit on Holly, and she refers to him as “Maude”, a codeword of the era. Ok. I still think it’s flimsy evidence at best. But ok.

But there is a scene in the book that makes that TV scene particularly interesting. Holly’s former Hollywood  mentor is visiting New York, and she acts as “Fred’s” agent:

[W]e had a big falling out, and among the objects rotating in the eye of our hurricane were the birdcage and O. J. Berman and my story, a copy of which I’d given Holly when it appeared in the university review.
….“O.J. Berman’s in town and listen, I gave him your story in the magazine. He was quite impressed. He thinks maybe you’re worth helping. But he says you’re on the wrong track. Negros and children: who cares?”
“Not Mr. Berman, I gather.”
“Well, I agree with him. I read that story twice. Brats and niggers. Trembling leaves. Description. It doesn’t mean anything.”
My hand, smoothing oil on her skin, seemed to have a temper of its own: it yearned to raise itself and come down on her buttocks. “Give me an example,” I said quietly. “Something that means something. In your opinion.”
Wuthering Heights,” she said, without hesitation.
The urge in my hand was growing beyond control. “But that’s unreasonable. You’re talking about a work of genius.”
“It was, wasn’t it? My wild sweet Cathy. God, I cried buckets. I saw it ten times.”
I said, “Oh” with recognizable relief, “oh” with a shameful, rising inflection, “the movie.”
Her muscles hardened, the touch of her was like stone warmed by the sun. “Everybody has to feel superior to somebody,” she said. “But it’s customary to present a little proof before you take the privilege.”
“I don’t compare myself to you. Or Berman. Therefore I can’t feel superior. We want different things.”
“Don’t you want to make money?”
“I haven’t planned that far.”
“That’s how your stories sound. As though you’d written them without knowing the end….”

I have to wonder if the Seinfeld writers deliberately played off this scene. They could have picked any book/movie, after all.

That fight scene is, by the way, one of the most gripping in the book, right up there with when she discovers her brother Fred has died in the war. As the narration says, it brings together all kinds of threads into a massive knot that’s only undone with time.

It was an interesting read, though I remain rather meh on the whole subject of Holly Golightly. Still, it clearly has its moments.

Eley Williams: The Liar’s Dictionary (Anchor, 2020) [IBR2023]

A dictionary’s preface can act like an introduction to someone you have no interest in meeting. The preface is an introduction to the work, not the people. You do not need to know the gender of the lexicographers who worked away at it. Certainly not their appearance, their favourite sports team nor favoured newspaper, for example. On the day they defined crinkling (n.) as a dialect word for a small type of apple, the fact that their shoes were too tight should be of absolutely no matter to you. That they were hungover and had the beginnings of a cold when they defined this word will not matter, nor that unbeknownst to them an infected hair follicle under their chin caused by ungainly and too-hasty shaving is poised to cause severe medical repercussions for them two months down the line, at one point causing them to fear that they are going to lose their whole lower jaw. You do not need to know that they dreamed of giving it all up and going to live in a remote cottage on the Cornish coast. The only useful thing a preface can say about its lexicographers is that they are qualified to wax unlyrically about what a certain type of silly small apple is called, for example.

This is a book for word lovers, for those who wonder where words come from, who smile when they come across a new word with a fascinating history, who love how new words come in and old words change or go out (I have a 1930 dictionary that defines computer as “one who computes”), but also love how language is used to express and conceal and connect.

That isn’t to say there isn’t a plot. There are, in fact, two plots, separated by a century, revealed in alternating chapters arranged alphabetically by a key dictionary word. There’s a tricky balance to dual plots: they can’t be too different, or it wouldn’t make sense to have them in the same book; but they can’t be too similar, or it would feel artificial. The connective tissue between these two plots are romantic issues, work issues, and catastrophic events that precipitate change. And, of course, the corpus callosum of the book: the dictionary. Swansby’s New Encyclopedic Dictionary to be precise.

Gerolf Swansby is hoping his dictionary will compete with the OED, and thus he has invested in it lavishly and hold regular fundraisers with the London Elite to keep it going. The building is beautifully appointed, and each lexicographer is given a starter kit on joining the firm: including an elegant fountain pen with which to write words and definitions. But the best laid plans, of course:

Before a single edition of the Dictionary was printed, before they had even reached the words beginning with Z, work came to an abrupt halt. All this early, costly industry on Swansby’s Encyclopaedic Dictionary was interrupted when its lexicographers were called up and killed en masse in the First World War….
The unfinished dictionary, its grand hopes for a newly ordered world truncated, potential never fully realized, was considered an appropriate memorial to a generation cut short… The dictionary exists in an incomplete published form as a sad, hollow, joyless joke.

Over a hundred years later, Gerolf’s great-great-grandson David’s mission is to update and digitalize the incomplete print edition finally released in 1930. The enterprise has scaled back considerably; the offices are now ramshackle, and the building is mostly empty except for David and one employee.

In 1899, under Gerolf’s direction, Peter Winceworth, a lexicographer by profession and nature, toils away daily writing words and definitions, using the elegant fountain pen entrusted to each employee on their first day. He’s an awkward man, both in physical presence and in verbal presentation; when we first meet him, he’s in the offices of a speech therapist to correct a lisp he’s been faking at work since he accidentally used it on his first day. In his pocket is a piece of birthday cake from the party last night. Ah, the cake, it brings us to his romantic problem… he’s fallen in love with Sophia after meeting her at the party. But she is the fiancée of Frasham, the most elegant and extravagantly fluent man in the office – and the birthday celebrant.

In the present day, Mallory (which, she tells us, means “bad luck” in French) updates definitions all day, glad to have a job, even though it does come with daily phone threats from someone who does not want the definition of marriage updated. However, this is still an improvement, since her previous job was on a gingerbread-man assembly line (“no more dreams of faceless, brittle bodies”). As it turns out, she really enjoys words. She also enjoys her romantic partner of several years, Pip, but describes her as “my flatmate” because she resists being out, for reasons that aren’t clear to her: “I just didn’t have the words in the way they all seemed to.”

Interesting that this woman who can tell us that clepsammia is another word for hourglass, and that she was “glad when precariat gained some traction” (a neologism sociologists formed from precarious and proletariat, indicating workers facing economic insecurity and uncertainty), lacks the words to define herself to the world. It turns out that the only word she needs is yes.

So how do these two characters cross paths across the years? It turns out Winceworth has a habit of inventing his own neologisms:

For some years now, just to pass the time and for his own amusement, he had been making up some words and definitions. He sketched these idle thoughts on borrowed notepaper whenever the mood took him: sometimes inspired by interactions with his colleagues in the Scrivenery – bielefoldian (n.), an annoying fellow; titpalcat (n.), a welcome distraction. Sometimes he just improvised little fictions in the style of an encyclopedic entry. To this end, he made-up some fourteenth-century dignitaries from Constantinople and a small religious sect living in the volcanic Japanese Alps. More often than not, however, these false entries allowed him to plug a lexical gap, create a word for a sensation or a reality where no other word in current circulation seems to fit the bill. This ranged from waxing political about a disappointing meal – susposset (n.), the suspicion that chalk has been added to ice cream to bulk out the serving – to ruminations concerning everyday events – coofugual (v.), the waking of pigeons; relectoblivious (adj.), accidentally reading a phrase or line due to lack of focus or desire to finish; larch (v.), to allot time to daydreaming.

Some time ago, I discovered a website called The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. It listed made-up words for previously unlabeled notions: vellichor is “the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time;” jouska is “a hypothetical conversation that you compulsively play out in your head—a crisp analysis, a cathartic dialogue, a devastating comeback—which serves as a kind of psychological batting cage where you can connect more deeply with people than in the small ball of everyday life.” Winceworth is creating his own Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, though it seems he puts a lot more thought into creating words for his neologisms, combining Latinate roots and various prefixes or suffixes until each lexical entry is just right.

Though he intended these merely for himself, a catastrophic event convinces him he should slip them into  Swansby’s New Encyclopedic Dictionary. One of the most touching moments in what is overall a very funny book is Winceworth realizing this action, and what it might entail:

The thought became clear and clean: it would take just some small strokes of pen to transfer these doodled drafts onto the official blue index cards and he could pepper the dictionary with false entries. Thousands of them – cuckoos-in-the-nest, changeling words, easily overlooked mistakes. He could define parts of the world that only he could see or for which he felt responsible. He could be in control of a whole universe of new meanings, private triumphs and soaring new truths all hidden in the printed pages whenever the dictionary was finished and (absurd notion!) others might find his words in print. He would never be known as a poet or a statesman, never be known as anything really – but if Prof. Gerolf Swansby’s vision for Swansby’s New Encyclopedic Dictionary was achieved, Wadsworth imagined his personal words and thoughts on every bookshelf up and down the country.
…. A private rebellion, a lie without a victim – what claims for truth did anyone have, anyway? What right to define a world? Some trace of his thoughts surviving him was not so bad a thing. He would live forever.
…. He regretted he could not share a wink or something more permanent with the person who might find them.

I’m reminded of Walt Whitman’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and his notion that people in the future would stand where he was standing and connect with him: “Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?” Winceworth is not going to be famous, yet he looks across the years and hopes someone will know him. And, in the present day, Mallory and Pip are the recipients of this hope.

Other spectacular scenes, on the humorous side, include a meeting in a potted plant, and a duel with a pelican. Yes, there are pelicans in London, even today, I discovered, some descendants of the original group donated by the Russian ambassador in 1644, others added since then. This is just one of the many points of information – trivia, you might call them – sprinkled throughout the book, and another reason it makes for fascinating reading.

One of the reasons I’m having so much trouble writing about this book is that everything, absolutely everything, is connected. The pen, the pelicans, the words, the color orange, ash and smoke, cats named Tits after the patron demon of scribes (he could be blamed for errors), and two word-workers who can’t quite get the right words out.

There’s a linguistic connection between chapters as well. Each chapter is named, rather than numbered, and placed in alphabetical order by a dictionary word. A is for artful (adj.), B is for bluff (v.), etc. The A chapter features Mallory, the B Winceworth, and the title words feature somewhere in the chapter, though sometimes it’s rather obscure. But it’s the linguistic connection between timelines that fascinates me.

For example, in chapter “A is for artful (adj.),” we get Mallory’s view of the portrait of Gerolf Swansby that still hangs in the hallway: he “looked like his breath would be sweet. Not bad breath, just not good.” In chapter “B is for bluff (v.),” Winceworth describes Gerolf’s breath as “a strange mix of citrus zest and Fribourg & Treyer’s finest tobacco.” Sometimes it’s more subtle, a single word, like “ghost” in chapter “G is for ghost (v.)” and “H is for humbug (n.).” Sometimes it’s an event, like the catastrophic events they both witness. And sometimes it’s a word, as when Mallory discovers the fake words slivkovnion (a daydream, briefly) and mammonsomniate (to dream that money might make anything possible) in the chapters after Winceworth discovers his unattainable love’s name, and tells her of his wish to someday live in a cottage at Sennen Cove, Cornwall where there are rocks named Dr. Syntax and Dr. Johnson (presumably after the dictionary pioneer Samuel Johnson).   

I loved this book. It hits three of my hot spots: it’s funny, it’s full of interesting things to learn, and it uses structure and language in interesting ways. I also identify with the awkward characters struggling to fit into the world. Readers who are less enthusiastic about language might not be so charmed, however. I’ll admit I found the 1899 plot far more interesting than the contemporary thread, but its ending seemed rather unsatisfying. I think that’s because Mallory’s turn is really a continuation, so Winceworth’s contribution doesn’t end at all; to view them as separate plots obscures that reading.

I see Williams first published a story collection that has earned similar praise for its use of structure and language; sounds like I’ve found another book I must read.

* * *       

  • Read the chapter “Preface” (it’s a chapter, don’t be fooled into skipping it) at Lithub.
  • Read the chapter “A is for artful (adj.)” at ElectricLit.
  • Check out the author’s website for more information about her and her work.
  • Check out the book The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows .
  • See the New Yorker article on the real-life mounteweazel “esquivalience”.
  • Read the complete poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” by Walt Whitman.
  • Yes, there are pelicans in London!
  • Who was Titivillus?
  • Yes, there is a Dr. Syntax and Dr. Johnson’s Head at Lands End, Sennen Cove.

Andrew Stancek: Saying Goodbye (Červená Barva Press, 2023) [IBR2023]

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?
The book details a year in the life of a six-year-old Slovak boy being brought up by his grandparents in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia. In this novella-in-flash, filled with heartbreak and joy, betrayal and love, Adam grows through adventures with his grandfather in a quest for acceptance.

Author Andrew Stancek’s interview with Leslie Pietrzyk at Work-In-Progress

Although we’ve never met in person, Andrew Stancek and I have known each other electronically for quite some time. We both used the Zoetrope online writing workshop back in the day, and in 2015 we got back in touch. For the past several years we’ve emailed back and forth almost daily, discussing books (“Have you ever read This Author? Do you know This Book?”), movies and television shows (“Hey, let’s watch all the streaming episodes of This Show, talk about what works, whether it’s acting, writing, or directing”), which usually leads to conversation about more personal aspects of our lives. I was thrilled to hear his first book was coming out this Spring; his flash fiction has been anthologized several times, but this would be his debut solo work.

Then, during the 2023 AWP conference in Seattle, a package arrived for me: he’d sent me a copy of his book, literally on the day it was released – personally inscribed, no less! I wasn’t expecting that; I’d planned to order it myself, so thanks, Andrew, for saving me the trouble. And of course I wanted to write about it.

As the above quoted interview indicates, it’s a book about a little boy. A six-year-old child can be a difficult voice to write. Children that young often live in a combination of fantasy, wish-fulfillment, and reality. Their sense of the passage of time, and the importance of events, is tangled by their lack of experience. They feel things very deeply, particularly disturbances in the familial relationships most important to them, but they lack the verbal and analytical sophistication to communicate those feelings. To call them unreliable narrators is an understatement, but they notice things adults would overlook, and they often behave according to instinct rather than social pressure. Andrew turns all these potential drawbacks into assets in this short book, written through Adam’s eyes and voice. Show-don’t-tell is not just a writing workshop cliché; it’s a necessity. And Adam’s actions speak volumes as he endures loss after loss but maintains his joy in the present, and his faith in the future.

Mami pushed me through the doorway. Grandpa’s cushy sweater with the patches on the elbows clutched and nuzzled me. Mami was already walking away. I turned my head and her steps were runs. She did not look back. I knew she didn’t want to hear goodbyes. The door closed with click.
I knew I’d live there for good and Grandpa knew, too. He hugged hard. I inhaled cherries sizzling – Grandma was making my favorite dessert – bublanina.
In my new kingdom I’d eat like a king, ride a shiny red bike, perform good deeds for my subjects. And I’d never think about Mami again.

His mother’s departure isn’t Adam’s first experience of loss. His father disappeared earlier; his understanding is muddled by his young age. All he knows, when we first meet him, is that his mother was sometimes home, sometimes not, and now he’s going to live with someone else. Most of us, as adults, feel a twist of pain watching a child abandoned by both parents, but even in this second ‘chapter’ (the chapters are short flash pieces) we almost feel a sense of relief that he sees the bright side: his life will be more secure. His expectation of forever might concern a thoughtful reader, who knows that, in fiction, nothing is forever. And of course we know his decision to forget his Mami is not carved in stone, but in the still-developing psyche of a hurt child.

His mother’s visit a month after his sixth birthday – her place setting at the table was quietly cleared when she failed to show on the special day – leads to one of my favorite scenes in the book. Intermingled with an argument between the three adults and just prior to her second departure is her presentation of a birthday gift to Adam, a small package wrapped in plain paper:

The door clicked behind her. I ripped the paper off the package she left: a miniature tow truck with whirring wheels. I snapped the winch off and shoved the truck into the coffee grounds in the garbage.

This strikes me as one of those moments of grace you sometimes find in a book. Adam is angry with his mother for not showing on his birthday, but throwing away only half the gift shows his ambivalence about forgetting her. Even more deeply, if I may be granted a pardon for overinterpretation: a tow truck takes things away. A winch pulls things closer. He discards what leaves, and keeps what attracts.

This same ambivalence shows in a later scene, several months later, when his grandmother becomes ill and goes to the hospital:

Since Grandma was admitted to the hospital, everything was topsy-turvy and when I went to pee in the night, the light was still on and Grandpa was snoring in the rocking-chair. I walked over to the mantle, picked up the photograph of Mami and Dad smiling at each other on their wedding day. It was a sunny day in the picture. I spit on my forefinger and wiped off a smudge.

Even through the anger, Adam wants the memory. I beg another pardon for anachronism: this so reminds me of the Simon & Garfunkel song, “Bookends”: Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you. This reads two ways: when someone is gone, our memory of them is all that’s left, so take care of it, don’t let smudges blur them; and, in the end, all we have are our memories, so keep them clean and bright.  

There are other events in the story, of course: Adam rummages through his grandparents’ attic and finds pieces of their former lives which generate stories and play; he and his grandfather listen to music and read books from Scheherazade to history; his grandmother fills the house with delicious smells as she cooks apricot  dumplings with poppyseed sauce, sauerbraten, or bublanina, a fruit-filled cake; he and his grandfather take a trip by train; neighbors drop by. Adam knows joy and wonder and adventure as well as loss. Yet, for me, the loss predominates.

I read the title “Saying Goodbye” on at least two levels. In the most immediate sense, Adam doesn’t actually say goodbye to his mother or father; his actions show somewhere in his young mind, they still exist for him. I would call that the six-year-old’s version of hope, in spite of all the past disappointments. As Grandma lies in her hospital bed, Adam looks out the window: “The birches swayed in the wind and waved goodbye.” This is, perhaps, how a six-year-old says goodbye to someone he loves, vicariously rather than directly.

On another level, I get the sense that Adam is, finally, saying goodbye to this year of loss, or perhaps to his naïve six-year-old viewpoint. The book ends just before Adam’s seventh birthday, when his grandfather, in failing health, arranges for him to be taken in by friends rather than sent to an orphanage. Although this is another loss, Adam sees it with a sense of hope, and a new kind of realistic understanding:

Grandpa had talks with neighbors he’s known for years and two families said they’d take me in, treat me as a member of the family, give me a home. I wanted to stay with Grandpa but that cannot be forever. I know that now. In a few days it’ll be my birthday. The families who might be my new family are coming. Cake and sparklers and snow and a new life. Right now, the snow is hurtling around. I see faces in the whirlwind.

Adam has grown in that he knows the limitations of forever, but he sees promise in this change. The book projects so strongly into the future – an effect I love – it’s impossible not to imagine Adam as an adult, and wonder how things turned out for him. And I love that closing image of faces in the whirlwind.

As I often do when I have a connection to the author, I asked Andrew if he would answer some questions for me, and he graciously agreed.

You’ve said in another interview that the book went through many forms before reaching its final composition. Tell me a bit about why you chose the narrative structure “a year in the life” and why you featured Adam at the age of six, as opposed to seven or ten or fifteen.
My wrestling with words continues until I feel the text feels right.
The opening piece provides the setting, sets the mood, introduces the key characters, hints at the themes. The story begins snowballing once Adam is abandoned by his mother and left at his grandparents’ doorstep. The age of six always seemed right. He is old enough to understand situations and even implications, but his understanding is limited; he still has an innocence which he is bound to lose later. In terms of taking a year, it is both short enough and long enough to investigate the issues and have a certain narrative urgency.
In that interview you said you particularly liked the grandfather as he developed as a character, were you ever tempted to switch the POV to him, or was Adam always going to be the voice of the book?
It is Adam’s story. The grandfather is key but the voice has to be Adam’s, the understandings and limitations have to be Adam’s.
Is any of the book is autobiographical?
Some of the events of the story have connections to my life. I did, for example, spend a number of my childhood years living with my grandparents and my mother was not present. But in real life my grandmother did not die and I did not take trips with my grandfather. The book, I think, is authentic in the mood, the ambience. Adam and I breathe the same air at the age of six. The concerns of the six-year-old Adam are related to mine at that age.
You went to Bratislava and related places last year, was there any inspiration in that, or did any memories emerge that made their way into the book?
My visit last year was one of three in the last ten years. When I return to Bratislava, I always feel I am coming back home, always feel the need to caress the cobblestones in front of the Slovak National Theater, dip my fingers into the Danube. I am always overwhelmed with memories, feel stabbed with shards of the past. I breathe in the street I used to stroll along, take new pictures of the now-ivy-covered house where I once lived. Nothing in the book is directly related to this visit, but the feel of the air remains the same.
Is the picture of the building on the cover one of yours?
I sent Gloria Mindock, the publisher, about 15 pictures I took and suggested she use one of them. Unfortunately they did not have a high enough resolution. But she searched, with an understanding of what I was hoping for, and found this one, which has the right feel. I am very pleased with it.
So much food! Yummmm, made me hungry. I’ve never been big on plums, but now I can’t wait for summer so I can get some. Do you cook these foods now?
I have always cooked these foods, even as a thirteen-year-old. I cook them more and more. My son cooks them now. I am about to make bread dumplings and paprikash.
What question do you wish someone would ask you? Ask it, then answer it!
What’s next, Andrew?
A novel. Then another novel. Then short stories. Then more short stories and a novel. Persevere, persevere, persevere.

This was a delightful book to read, full of the author’s heart and mind on every page. I’m pleased to present it here so others can know about it and, if it so interests them, seek it out.

* * *         

  • Read the rest of Stancek’s Author Interview with Leslie Pietrzyk online at Work-In-Progress
  • Read other flash fiction by Stancek: Winner of the 2022 London Independent Story Prize for Flash Fiction: “Good Neighbors”
  • Read other flash fiction by Stancek: “Fat Man” from Smokelong Quarterly, March 2020
  • The book can be ordered online from various outlets, or, better yet, check with your local independent bookseller.

In-Between Reading 2023: Opening with an Improvisation

I’ve had a rather difficult year so far. I got COVID in January; I hated the opening pieces of this year’s Pushcart and that sense of indignation carried through, even when I found works I enjoyed. My reading of Fear and Trembling was marked, somewhat appropriately, by intimidation and anxiety, though I found my stride a few weeks into the course – until it became clear that Thursday afternoons were the times building management most liked to send maintenance up for routine procedures. Snow interrupted my errand schedule; a prescription refill turned into a bizarre tour through Prior Authorization Land and We Don’t Make That Any More Island.

As a result, I find myself ready to start this period of reading books, rather than short stories and essays, in a state of mild confusion. Disorganization. Inconsistency.

The hell with that. I’m calling it Improvisation.

I’ve been ordering books for months, tossing them on my TBR shelf to wait their turn. It’s time for them to have their chance. Just go, and see what happens.

The books fall in the usual categories from past In-Between Reading years:

Reading list books: those works most people read in high school or their required Freshman English Lit class in college, but that I somehow skipped over. Dickens makes a double appearance.

Books by authors I’ve enjoyed in the past: Some of these I’m a bit dubious about, but this is the faith category.

Recommended books: From Goodreads, FiveBooks, LitHub, random conversations. I don’t care if someone tells me it’s the best book on earth, if the summary doesn’t have something that grabs my attention. I’ve learned my lesson about the “must-reads”: no, I mustn’t.

A special category: books by friends. My reading/writing/TV/movie buddy Andrew Stancek, anthologized several times, has published his first book, a novella in flash about a boy in Bratislava, where Andrew grew up. I’m delighted to celebrate with him by sharing a bit of his book with others.

In addition to the books already present on my shelf, I have a number of books in my online shopping cart of my local independent bookstore. Some are waiting for paperback editions; the rest are just waiting with them to save duplicate shipping charges. It’s a second-wind cart. And then there will be another Catherine Project reading group, though I don’t yet know the subject.

This post is less of a plan than in prior years. Improvisation, remember?

Reading Kierkegaard’s Fear & Trembling with the Catherine Project [IBR2023]

Once upon a time there was a man who as a child had heard that beautiful story of how God tempted Abraham and of how Abraham withstood the temptation, kept the faith, and, contrary to expectation, got a son a second time. When he grew older, he read the same story with even greater admiration, for life had fractured what had been united in the pious simplicity of the child. The older he became, the more often his thoughts turned to that story; his enthusiasm for it became greater and greater, and yet he could understand the story less and less. Finally, he forgot everything else because of it; his soul had but one wish, to see Abraham, but one longing, to have witnessed that event…. His wish was to be present in that hour when Abraham raised his eyes and saw Mount Moriah in the distance, the hour when he left the asses behind and went up the mountain alone with Isaac— for what occupied him was not the beautiful tapestry of imagination but the shudder of the idea.
Søren Kierkegaard as Johannes de Silentio, Fear and Trembling, Exordium; Hong/Hong 1983 ed.

I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time, but I’ve always been too intimidated to just sit down and read it by myself. I’ve listened to several lectures available on Youtube, and taken a mooc on Kierkegaard’s use of Socratic irony, but reading the book itself always felt like biting off way more than I could chew. Until now.

This is, for me, the greatest value of The Catherine Project. Through their small Reading Groups held on Zoom, I was able to overcome that intimidation and finally read the actual text. And yet again I realized there’s no substitution for reading the source material; a lot of the supposedly explanatory material made a lot more sense after I read what it was explaining.

It’s impossible to give a “nutshell” description of the book, but there are certain qualities and expressions that are more common than others. It’s an exploration of faith, using Abraham’s Binding of Isaac (the almost-sacrifice on Mount Moriah) as an exemplar. Kierkegaard wrote it using one of his pseudonymous personas: Johannes de Silentio. Scholars consider two major reasons for this approach: first, he wanted the book, which was intended to stir his fellow Danes to wonder if they truly had faith in his sense of the word, and felt it would be best to come from someone who admitted he does not, in fact, have Abraham’s type of faith, and wanted to understand it. Second, he didn’t want his own background, academic and personal, to interfere with the text. He’d ended his long engagement to a woman and there are those who feel he referred to this in places throughout the text, particularly in the “weaning” examples. And he was a vocal opponent of contemporary philosophers like Hegel and Martinson, as well as the Danish Lutheran church. The book is often viewed as a challenge to encourage members of the church to examine their own faith.

De Silentio describes three spheres of existence (which Kierkegaard discusses in other works as well): the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious, in order of increasing difficulty and impact. He’s concerned mostly with the movement – a loaded term – from the ethical/universal to the religious/absolute, via the comparison of the Knight of Infinite Regression and the Knight of Faith. While Abraham is the exemplar of the Knight of Faith, de Selentio uses many examples from literature, myth, and scripture to show how he moves from one stance to the other. Among the most complicated and hard-to-understand (for me, at least) aspects of the text, he describes the absurdity and paradox, as well as anxiety (the fear and trembling) of faith, both of whihc it difficult to reach. Then there’s the idea of the inability to communicate the experience of faith – why Abraham could not explain himself to Isaac – which plays with the persona’s name of de Silentio.

This was my second full-length (10 weeks) reading group with the Catherine Project. For my first round, I chose a short story reading group, something in my wheelhouse. Having gotten my feet wet, I felt I was ready for a more challenging project, and this was certainly that. Each week covered a page span in the book, generally about fifteen pages, sometimes more, sometimes less. It’s surprising how dense fifteen pages can be.

It was a difficult study, but a highly worthwhile one. In a traditional class, there’s a tendency to read passages, maybe chapters, and hear a lecture explaining what it all means. That’s fine, but this process of reading a confusing book, along with others who have different interpretations and viewpoints, reading every word, sometimes concentrating on one sentence for a considerable period of time, is quite something.

This word-by-word reading in a group setting, while it isn’t fast and it isn’t easy, really has its benefits. At one point, someone mentioned that “passion” has its root in the word for suffering, which had quite an impact on de Silentio’s praise of passion. The difference between active and passive voice describing two similar moments also made a difference. One reader wondered if the Virgin Mary could have been used as an exemplar, parallel to Abraham. We all wondered about the significance of the passages on weaning, which seem to be somewhat incongruous. Several of us felt Abraham set a terrifying example of a slippery slope, the use of the Voice of God to excuse horrific deeds. To be fair, de Silentio deals with this in the text, but not to my satisfaction (cheeky of me, but there it is).

One reader gave us an amazing metaphor using Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting “The Creation of Adam”: [paraphrasing] There’s a space, like in the painting – you’re constantly reaching, you can’t fully touch God, but as long as you’re reaching, you’re the Knight of Faith; if you give up you’re the Knight of Resignation.” Another mentioned that the reply Abraham gives several times in the story – “Here I am” – is something of an echo of the name of God, Yawhew, “I am.” These are insights that aren’t found in scholarly commentaries; they probably wouldn’t come up in a traditional class, and I certainly wouldn’t have thought of them on my own.

So what was so hard about it?

The book itself was structurally confusing. Aside from the Preface, sections had Latinate titles and didn’t conform to the general structure of a contemporary textbook: after the Preface, four alternate versions of the Abraham story made up the second section (it wasn’t clear until later that these were examples of Abrahams who had not made the movement to faith), followed by a Eulogy of Abraham, and then a section, with its own preamble advocating the value of working to achieve understanding (thanks, Kierkegaard), of three Problemata, each asking a different question: Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical? Is there an absolute duty to God? Was it ethical for Abraham to conceal his mission from Sarah and Isaac? A brief Epilogue closed out the text.

Then there was the language of the text. Extending my cheekiness, I’ve said numerous times, Kierkegaard needed 1) and editor and 2) a glossary. Words I thought I knew – universal, absolute, mediated, paradox, absurd, movement – were being used in specific ways that seemed baffling. Other works were used as examples. Some were vaguely familiar to me – Goethe’s Faust, the legend of Agamemnon and Iphigenia – and some were completely new to me – Agnes and the Merman, the apocryphal book of Tobit. 

Even the physical book itself confused me. The edition we used combined F&T with another work, Repetition, as well as Supplement materials (journals, drafts) and End Notes tucked as far away from the notations as possible. I ended up copying the PDF into a Word document so I could bring the end notes to the side of the passages quoted, instead of flipping through trying to find them and then forgetting what the number was, what the page was, and, ultimately, what the passage was that was being addressed. Though ridiculously time-consuming, it helped, not just with understanding the Notes but as a preview of the material. I also found putting homemade tabs on the sections helped, letting me flip more easily between text and notes and supplement.

I struggled a bit with the group sessions themselves, though I became far more comfortable as time went on. Most of it was my confusion over the text and its meaning, and my general intimidation. I’m also not very good at speaking – I get confused, re-start, jump over ends of sentences, and now I find my voice itself is starting to crumble – and tend to stay quiet. Each reading group is run differently, and this one used the “just speak up” method of conversation management rather than the “raise hand” feature; I find it hard to just start talking, afraid someone else will start talking at the same moment. And of course that happens a lot, to everyone, and it’s no big deal. Given the group was small – ten to fourteen people initially, whittling down to six to eight by the end – it was perfectly manageable, so this is something I need to adjust to if I’m going to participate in Zoom meetings, as it seems I am on several fronts. I got better at it over time.

One other personal quirk haunted me. The Catherine Project has only one real rule for these groups: discussions must stick to the text at hand. Quoting commentaries or moocs about the text is discouraged. No bringing in other works that have similar themes and methods. It’s interesting that this parallels my short story blogging with my buddy Jake Weber; he adheres strictly to ‘the story must stand on its own’ while I research some stories to death. I pretty much think by forming these networks, and I realized how my own interpretation is often buried under what others with more insight have said. I still look for hard-and-fast answers, and in a lot of philosophical works, it’s more about different interpretations than about one correct view. So this is a good challenge for me, to develop a different kind of reading technique. Maybe I’ll try it when Jake and I take on the next BASS.

I did, towards the end of the reading, obtain a couple of commentaries (one by Clare Carlisle for Reader’s Guides and one by John Lippitt for Routledge Guidebooks). I have to emphasize, however, that these would not have made sense to me, any more than the lectures and classes I found piecemeal, without having read the original text, sentence by sentence, word by word, and had the benefit of the ideas of ten or twelve other people to increase my understanding in the first place.

I had another interesting experience as the result of this group. A few years ago, as part of my “Re-reading Project” to take another look at books I’d read long ago and see if they read differently now, I re-read Wilton Barnhardt’s Gospel. I thought I recognized Kierkegaard in the novel. Having read this text, I felt even more strongly that there was some influence. I contacted the author and he agreed, Kierkegaard had been a factor, though the Pragmatists were probably more prominent. I was delighted to have recognized something in the wild.

The group leader will be continuing with Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death in the summer session. While I’d like to continue with this group, I’m not sure if I want to continue studying Kierkegaard, or get a taste of something else. I also found the time of the group meeting – noon on Thursdays – to be unusually disruptive to me; I do much better with evening groups, though I’ll certainly manage it if the lure is strong enough.

I continue to be impressed with the Catherine Project, and grateful for the opportunity to study works that have always seemed unreachable. I’m eager to start the Summer session; the offerings will be available early in April for those interested in trying this style of learning.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII : An Inductive End

I know I say it every year but the wealth of talent, empathy, and insight here is overwhelming. Year to year the literary excellence of the small press world has grown profoundly. I can barely express my admiration to our writers who, in the face of such enormous obstacles of climate catastrophe, war, and deep international anxiety, cast aside gloom and persist – pilgrims on the sacred journey.
Pushcart salutes all of you.
Love and wonder, Bill

Bill Henderson, Introduction, Pushcart XLVII

A few months ago, Min Jin Lee, the guest editor of what will be BASS 2023, asked Twitter, “What makes a great short story for you?” Replies – wonderful ideas! – ranged from the poetic – “It opens a window” – to the specific – “I smile at the turn of a phrase more than once.” My own answer was too compressed, so I’d like to expand upon it here.

Pick at least two:

  • It teaches me something concrete, or adds to something I’ve been thinking about;
  • It uses humor or whimsy intelligently;
  • It says something big in a subtle way;
  • It uses form and structure to amplify its theme;
  • I laugh and/or cry while reading.
  • The ubiquitous X factor – who knows why a story, something I never would expect to care about, grabs me.

I added that, since the hallmark of these anthologies is variety, I don’t expect to like (whatever that means) every story, but I do expect to love a few.

I got off to a bad start with this volume, and the resulting grumpiness persisted. But there were high spots, stories that met my demands and exceeded them or, in some cases, added something I didn’t know I wanted in a short story. And I discovered two new potential criteria for excellence: a story that breaks through my stubborn refusal to take it seriously and impresses me, and pieces that are great fun to write posts about.

I did love two pieces, though, surprisingly, neither were stories.

  • Sam Cha’s poem “Motherfuckers Talking Shit About American Sonnets” used form to amplify its theme, used humor and whimsy in an intelligent way, added to something I’ve been thinking about. It was also great fun to write about, giving me the rare chance to play with meter and poetic form as if I know what I’m talking about.
  • “Wishbone” by Joseph Sigurdson used humor and whimsy intelligently, made me laugh and cry, had that X-factor that let me overlook what I think were flaws and write back to it in a satisfying – and fun – way.

There were other pieces that I thought were very well executed, although they didn’t hit my sweet spot.

  • Idra Novey’s story “The Glacier” said something big in a very subtle way.
  • Stephen Fishbach’s “To Sharks” managed to break through my initial refusal to take it seriously and impress me, which was quite a task.
  • “The Kiss” by Kate Osana Simonian used humor and whimsy in an intelligent way, and used form and structure to amplify its theme.
  • “The Land of Uz” by Aleyna Rentz used humor and whimsy in an intelligent way, and I’m a pushover for biblical references.

I found a number of interesting pairings as well:

  • Gina Chung’s “Mantis,” and Karen Russell’s “The Cloud Lake Unicorn” used humor and whimsy – and a touch of magical realism – in an intelligent way.
  • Mary Ruefle’s essay “Dear Friends” and Elizabeth Tallent’s short story “Poets” both effectively used form – a list or catalog – to amplify their themes.
  • Elaine Hsieh Chou’s “Skinfolk,” Anthony Veasna So’s “Maly, Maly, Maly,” and Doug Crandell’s essay “The Union Waltz” showed different aspects of teenagers breaking away from their families and moving, sometimes eagerly, sometimes nervously, into the world at large, away from a familiar culture into something new.

Loving a story – or an essay or poem – is like loving a person. There isn’t always a reason. Something just grabs you. Sometimes you know you’re making a mistake (a dead dog story? A unicorn? An insect love story? Really?) but you just can’t help yourself. And sometimes you know on paper they’re perfect (great structure, interesting characters, perfect pacing) but you just don’t feel it. They all deserve their laurels.

Love and wonder back at ya, Pushcart.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Stephen Fishbach, “To Sharks” from One Story #273

When the phone rings, Kent Duvall is in the Memorabilia Room watching himself on the reality show Endure. On days when he is feeling his age and the slab of gut hangs like an anchor at his waist, he often finds himself popping the disc into his DVD player, which clicks and snaps like an arthritic joint. He doesn’t need much. The show’s intro features a three-second, slow-motion shot of him pounding his chest in the tropical light, hair billowing around his face. God, he had epic hair, long blond locks that in the island’s unreasonable humidity looked like they belonged to the lead singer of an eighties glam band. Last year, Margaret insisted he shave his head. “You’re starting to look like you have a comb over,” she said, walking her conversational tightrope between loving joke and withering insult. He’ll watch that three-second clip again and again, rewinding and replaying, rewinding and replaying, and think to himself, That is me.

Years ago, it was the high school football star, or the prom queen, who couldn’t get past their own success and move on to Real Life. Now it’s reality TV contestants. Or maybe it’s the fans who can’t move on. I still remember the SNL skit featuring William Shatner yelling at his adorers: “Get a life, will you people? I mean, for crying out loud, it’s just a TV show!”

I have to admit to a bit of snobbery here. When I realized what this story was about, I got on my high horse and sneered. WTF is Pushcart doing? Ending the anthology with Survivor fanfic? I wanted to know just how snarky I could be – it varies, according to how established the author is – and discovered Fishbach was a Survivor contestant. That really got my bile flowing.

Thing is… it’s a pretty good story. And Fishbach isn’t some hanger-on drafting off his fifteen minutes of fame. As a final nail in the coffin of my indignance, it’s a fitting end to this year’s edition, considering the opening story, also about a guy with limited self-awareness.

Kent’s been riding his $100,000 win on Endure for twelve years now, but the waves have long gone flat. He already sold his memorabilia on eBay, and the engagements are now trickling down to inspirational talks in half-empty high school classrooms. His wife is keeping them afloat financially, but he hates that she saves leftover coffee for the next day. That’s a nice detail, if a horrible practice.

He’s invited to a charity event, featuring contestants from several shows besides his, and demands a $1500 fee. “It’s for charity,” the organizer pleads. Kent figures the beneficiaries – sick kids, or something – will be fine without that $1500. And he hopes to hit up a fellow former contestant, a highly successful tech entrepreneur (I’m thinking Zuckerberg, though today it might be Musk) for a job. If you’re getting the sense that Kent is not much of a good guy, you’re on the right track. But that opening paragraph above, the honesty about his age and his gut, his recognition that he has to move on to some other form of employment, makes him just self-aware enough to clear pathetic and land at desperate but sympathetic. Barely. I’m reminded of Steve Almond’s writing advice: “Love your characters.” Even though Kent is a mess, Fishbach shows him this love, and it helps the reader keep caring about what happens to him.

The show is loaded with all sorts of ego-deflating moments – the first round of calls for an All-Star season has already gone out – but there are bright spots. He catches the attention of Ashley, eliminated in the first round of a later season, and feels his superior place on the totem pole. She had a problem with spiders. “You lose control for one second, and then for the rest of your life, you’re hashtag tarantula freakout.” I hear ya.

Deflation and inflation combine when another fan, wearing a Megadeath t-shirt, starts fawning all over him.

“Man, when you – when you caught that shark with a spear,” the fan says. “I couldn’t believe it. I said to my wife, someday I’m going to meet him and shake his hand.”
“Dreams really do come true,” Kent says. He never caught a shark with a spear. The man is confusing him with some other contestant, possibly on some other show.
“Sure enough,” says the man. “I’m Travis.”
“I’m Kent. This is Ashley.”
“I know who you are!” Megadeath says to Kent. He hardly glances at Ashley. “I’d like to buy you a shot, Kent.”
“Only if you buy Ashley one too.”
Megadeth leans in to the bartender and orders three lemon drops.
“Lemon drops?” Kent asks. “Are we sorority girls?”
Megadeth stammers a response, and Kent’s heart squeezes in pity. “Just kidding,” he says. This is how he is supposed to feel. In control. Extending pity. Bestowing grace.
“What should we toast to?” Kent asks.
Megadeath is speechless, still flushed with embarrassment over the lemon drops debacle.
“How about to sharks?” Kent offers. “Because they don’t stop moving till – ”
“Till Kent kills ‘em!” Megadeth exclaims. “To sharks!”

That’s a really nice scene. There’s the irony in “Dreams do come true” as Megadeath isn’t meeting the guy he admires and Kent isn’t getting the recognition he craves. The grace-as-power is an interesting way to view things, it gets a little Schindler’s List. And this encounter leads to Kent getting his due for the sorority sisters crack. Taking the title from this scene was a great move.   

The story ends with a scene that recalls the opening: Kent viewing himself in a photo, with a very different conclusion.  

Now, I’m not a complete reality-TV snob. If you view the categories of this blog, you’ll see I’ve done a bit of recapping of Top Chef, Project Runway, and some other shows. Survivor is less skill-based than those, but requires a lot more – mentally and physically – than personality shows about roommates and dating and housewives and all those other random things out there. It’s not my thing – like one character says, I get cranky if I miss lunch – but the story goes beyond the setting and works.

Then we come to Mr. Fishbach. Besides being a Survivor contestant, his bio on One Story describes him as a “former television producer” in case I needed another reason to sneer at him. However, a little more googling turned up that he earned his BA in English from Yale, and given my obsession with academic credentials, that softens my heart a bit. I then discovered he’s studying for his MFA at NYU, and he runs a podcast interviewing writers about, wait for it, writing. Ok, he’s done / is doing the work. When asked in his One Story interview how he came to writing, he answered:

I always imagined I’d write fiction, and through my twenties I thought if I bought enough tweed jackets that a novel would burst forth from my fingertips. Whenever I sat down at a computer to actually write, however, I was overwhelmed with fear from all the expectation and pressure. Five years ago, when I was on Survivor the second time, I got violently ill in the middle of a monsoon. Not to get too graphic, but about every ten minutes, I had to strip off my clothes so they’d stay (relatively) dry and then walk out into the rainstorm naked to be sick outside our shelter. I had a real epiphany—if I was willing to suffer through so much for a reality TV show, how could I not muster the willpower for something I really cared about? When I got home, I left my job and have focused on fiction writing ever since.

One Story Q&A

Considering how depressed so many writers I know can get after rejection slips pile up, fiction writing might be just as scary as tarantulas. LitHub reports he’s written a novel following Kent through “more post-reality shenanigans and then back onto television.” I think I’ll probably pass on that – a 5000-word story is one thing, a 300-page novel is another – but I’ll be interested to see what else he comes up with in the future.

* * *                    

  • Read the author’s interview and other information about the story at the One Story site.
  • See the author’s website for more information about his writing, and for an Entertainment Tonight interview about this story.
  • Check out the author’s Paraphrase Podcast for interviews with other writers.
  • LitHub’s article about this story can be found online.
  • The SNL clip featuring Shatner can be found on Youtube.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Anthony Veasna So, “Maly, Maly, Maly” from Paris Review #236

Cover image from So’s story collection
Always they find us inappropriate, but today especially so. Here we are with nowhere to go and nothing to do, sitting in a rusty pickup truck, the one leaking oil, the one with the busted transmission that sounds like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Here we are with the engine running for the AC, the doors wide open for our bare legs to spill out. Because this, right here, to survive the heat, this is all we have.
An hour ago we became outcasts. One of us—not me—would not shut the fuck up. And since the grandmas are prepping for the monks and need to focus, we’ve been banished outside to choke on traces of manure blown in from the asparagus farms surrounding us, our hometown, this shitty place of boring dudes always pissing green stink.
And according to the Mas, everything about us appears at once too masculine and too feminine: our posture—backs arching like the models in the magazines we steal; our clothes—the rips, studs, and jagged edges—none of it makes sense to them. The two of us are wrong in every direction. Though Maly, the girl cousin, strikes them as less wrong than the boy cousin, me.

I’ve said before that the coming-of-age story can happen at any age: the pubertal discovery of sexuality, the adolescent shouldering of responsibility and individuation, the adult transition phases. Here we have an entire extended family about to undergo a big transition, and two teenagers who’ve been each others’ support system for years about to split up. And one dead mother about to reincarnate into a newborn baby.

It’s a story of Cambodian refugees in the 1980s still scarred by the war most of America never knew and the rest have forgotten about thanks to subsequent wars. Ves and Maly are cousins, children of these immigrants, joined at the hip all their lives, frighteningly American. Ves came out before puberty and seems too feminine, evoking the kteuy, sometimes known as the third gender but more often seen as feminine men. Maly’s mother died, a suicide, and her father took off, leaving her with her aunts and grandparents to grow up on G Block, their name for the rural California patch where they ended up.

But a change is about to come. Ves is off to college in LA. Maly will stay behind and do a couple of years at community college. But today, she will partake in the religious ceremony by which her dead mother will be reincarnated into her new baby cousin. They don’t discuss their feelings explicitly but they’re bursting out all around.

I wonder how Ma Eng must feel right now, clinging to the desperate wish that her dead sister’s dead daughter has another chance at life, that the forces of reincarnation are working their voo-doo spells to rebirth lost souls. Especially those who died as pointlessly as Maly’s mom, an immigrant woman who just couldn’t beat her memories of the genocide, a single mom who looked to the next day, and to the day after that, only to see more suffering.
Honestly, if I think about it too hard, I get really mad. I know it’s terrible to ask, but why did Maly’s mom even have a kid? And why does only she get to tap out of life? Well, joke’s on her, I guess, because now she has to deal with yet another life, and in G Block, too.

Maly’s feelings are more deeply buried, but she eventually lets it out: “Ves… is it weird I want my mom reborn as… my child?”

They spend their last day together in the family video store, smoking pot and watching porn, Maly screwing her boyfriend, Ves contemplating being a solo act from now on. Then the focus shifts to Maly’s house, where ceremony preparations are underway and she must decide if she is in or out. Sometimes all the choices are hard ones.

There’s an extra pall over this story: the author died shortly before his debut short story collection, including this story, was released.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Sam Cha, “Motherfuckers Talking Shit About American Sonnets” (poem) from Clarion #24

It’s not your lawn.

Less than seventy-two hours ago I wrote, in reference to Elizabeth Tallent’s story about poets, “After a few years of trying, I gave up on the poetry in Pushcart, poetry anywhere, though occasionally a poem leaps out and grabs me by the throat.” I had no idea that when I turned the last page of Tallent, I’d run smack into a poem that grabbed me by the throat, the funny bone, the head; that fired on all (of my) cylinders; that excited me like few poems have since I stopped trying to find something to say about Pushcart poems. It made me laugh, but it said something important; and, best of all, I understood why it was written the way it was. Or at least I think I do. And if I see things that aren’t there – so what, they’re there to me.

It’s a little note to the gatekeepers, the Grey Eminences who sniff at anything new or different, who want everything to stay exactly the same as it was when they learned it: to the motherfuckers talking shit about American sonnets that don’t measure up to those from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the speaker’s words: It’s not your lawn. Damn, I love that line. I want that on a t-shirt, I want it on sweatshirts and hats everywhere, because there are a lot of people these days who think everything is their lawn. And I’m not just talking about poetry.

The poem is available online; link is below, and I urge, beg, the three people who’ve somehow stumbled across this obscure page (“she isn’t a writer, or a professor, or even an English teacher, who the hell is she to be writing about poetry?”) to read it now, since I’m going to assume that and otherwise this post won’t make any sense at all.

The title is in-your-face. It has to be; it’s fighting back against three hundred (at least) years of snootery. If it were any less so, it wouldn’t work, like a stand-up set that’s almost really funny, like an actor who doesn’t commit. I’ll admit I’m not completely comfortable with the language (I keep insisting I’m not a prude, but the more I insist, the more I think I am), but it’s necessary here, so I’ll deal with my discomfort. There are two ways to get one’s attention: with a whisper, and with a slap across the face. The whisper wouldn’t do here.

I don’t have the training or the language to do the formal analysis I’m about to do, so please be tolerant. It’s just that I see so much going on here (and I wonder what I can’t see) I just have to write it down, even if I don’t get it right. The lawn belongs to everyone, even me. At least this patch does.

Some elements of sonnet form are clearly used here: the poem is fourteen lines long (though a couple are broken, so maybe it’s sixteen lines); there is a break at the halfway point; there is a rhyme scheme, at least a partial one; and it does end with a rhyming couplet. Where it goes off the rails is meter: it uses everything but iambic pentameter. But that’s where its greatest success lies.

For instance, the opening line –

I know what you want: to waggle your tongue

 – strikes me as anapestic tetrameter with a couple of skipped unstressed beats. Wikipedia (hey, I’ve already admitted I don’t know what I’m doing) tells me it’s common in comic verse, particularly Dr. Seuss, and has a driving rhythm, which seems appropriate for a first line of a tirade.  

But then things get more chaotic:

to make you go buckwild, flushed, knock-kneed,
toe-curled, blank-eyed, blank-versed, brain all snow-white
till you spill your thin blancmange down your tidy-
whiteys and come—back to yourself.

Read that out loud – it’s sex in poetic form. “Buckwild, flushed, knock-kneed, toe-curled, blank-eyed, blank-versed” is that one-two thing picking up speed – I dearly want to make “flushed” “flush-ed” but I think that’s pushing it, so let’s just call it a dropped beat that allows for gaining momentum – until the one-two changes to one-two-three-four at “brain” and then disintegrates into a frenzy: then we come back to ourselves and things calm down, take a breath. AKA, the turn. The speaker then gets all reasonable, even identifies with the motherfuckers for a couple of lines – and these are the closest to iambic pentameter, might even be considered such by those who actually understand the details of such things – before bringing on the point:

                                         …. But the sonnet doesn't
belong to you. There's nothing to own. Not a spit
of land nor spitcurl of rivulet for your chickenwire,
                                 your snares,
your chickenshit sneers—where's the rhyme scheme?
                                 Who cares.
Not Shakespeare. Not Keats, not Drayton, not Donne.
It's not your lawn. (Yawn.) Stop yelling. Be done.

That’s some pretty slick sliding there. First, there’s a semantic arc: The spit of land – a geographic feature of a beach sticking out into water at an angle from the shore –  to a spitcurl of rivulet. A spitcurl is a hair style, if you check Google Images you’ll find Superman in a surprising number of poses with a spitcurl in the middle of his forehead though it’s typically associated with women of the Roaring 20s, the 1920s that is, and here we are in the 2020s which are roaring in a very different way. In any case, spitcurl connects with the water of the spit of land and the rivulet, a small river, but hair is sometimes referred to as coursing like a rivulet, perpetuating the hair idea, and then suddenly it’s chickenwire and snares, or chickenshit sneers, phonetic sliding.

Shakespeare et all don’t care because they’re dead. They probably wouldn’t care if they were alive, since a lot of poets invented their own forms of sonnet. That whole “not-” line brings back the anapest rhythm from the first line, a nice little circle structure I like so much. And that brings us to that incredible line about the lawn, which requires knowing the whole “get off my lawn” trope, but that’s common enough, isn’t it? And by the way, the rhythm of that “It’s not your lawn” is four stressed syllables, which might be called a double spondee: pounding his fist on the table for emphasis. And that last sentence – “Be done” – plays off the use of Donne above. Be done, not Donne. Are we talking to poets now? You be you?

Now about rhyme. From what I can tell, sonnets are supposed to have alternating line rhymes, and here each couplet has a rhyme – sort of. Lines 1/2, 5/6, 9/10 have imperfect rhymes, so imperfect it might be hard to call them rhymes at all. So every other couplet, plus the concluding couplet, has a definite rhyme – the final couplet in fact uses a homophone, Donne and done – and every other couplet maybe rhymes and maybe doesn’t. “Tongue/Elizabethan” has something of the same vowel and close to the same consonant, that sort of thing. So Cha has invented his own rhyme scheme, as well as his own use of meter. Because it’s his lawn, too.

Since this got complicated, I’m throwing in the diagram from my notes. It may not make sense to anyone but me, but I can’t believe how much I get this poem. And, if it turns out I’m completely batshit crazy, well, it’s my lawn, too.

The more I find out about Cha, the more I like him. He has an MFA from my alma mater, after all, though when I went there back in the dark ages, it was a commuter school for alternative students (that is, adults with jobs) consisting of three buildings over a parking garage; I hear it’s grown a bit sice then. If you look for him on Youtube you’ll find a lot of his readings, including one from a 9/15/21 via Stone Soup which includes, at 47:45, his reading of the poem and the brief explanation that an “American sonnet” doesn’t have a rhyme scheme. Interesting, then, that he wrote one into this one. I’m seriously tempted to buy one of his books – American Carnage, or Yellow Book – but would I end up disappointed as I so often am by poetry books? We’ll see, perhaps.

* * *           

  • This poem can be read online at Clarion Magazine
  • Check out Cha’s website for more information about his books and publications
  • Listen to Cha read this poem (at the 47:40 mark) and others at the Stone Soup recording on Youtube.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Elizabeth Tallent, “Poets” from Threepenny Review #164

To begin with I held them in awe. Tell me one time awe turned out well.

As I read this story, I wondered if it had been miscategorized as fiction. That happens with Pushcart, sometimes. Since it’s available online at Threepenny Review, I checked, and, yes, they list it as fiction as well. It reads more like a lyric essay (giving me the chance to see if I understand the term) or a long prose poem itself: a catalogue of Poets She Has Known, with pithy little statements in between, like the opening paragraph above. If there’s a plot – or, more accurately, a progression, since overall there is no plot, though each individual Poet comes with a plot of sorts – it’s in those in-between statements.

I suspect those with a better knowledge of poets and poet-gossip will recognize some of these poets. Maybe someone will know who the gap-toothed poet who emerged from Suburban Housewife to tenure via Cambridge (not sure which one), a double mastectomy, and talk shows, is: “Through all of this the gap between the poet’s teeth stood by her.”

I myself recognize few things: “Throw your shoe, hit a writer, my students said about the little Iowa town” and “streets vacated by the power outage to Prairie Lights” place the setting at the famous workshop, where some poet visited for a reading – don’t they all? – but that’s about it.

I know a poet who’s ridden for thousands of miles in boxcars and a poet who’s driven everywhere in a black limousine so long it has trouble turning a corner. The boxcars clatter through poem after poem. The limousine idles at the curb just outside.

The individual paeans to poets are fun to read, even if I have no idea who they refer to, if they refer to anyone at all. Poets, it seems, are an odd bunch. But not that odd. They gossip, flirt, screw around, just like anyone else on a pedestal. Sometimes they fall off, and go from gossiper to gossipee.

There’s also a certain envy, as the narrator – who, conversation reveals, is tantalizingly named Elizabeth – discloses an uncomfortable berth in academia herself.

You would have thought my personality would have fended off attraction, incandescently fucked-up as I was, but fucked-uped-ness proved no impediment to sleeping with poets, those first responders of the soul. Still, I was sorry to be the burning building, story after story needing to be searched. Or, first I was sorry, then I was jealous: hideous awkwardness that struck me as needing three hundred pages’ explanation became, in a poem, the kinked hair stuck to a lover’s tongue.

A poem can take place in a moment, can require no backstory, no character development, no plot, just an evocation of feeling. After a few years of trying, I gave up on the poetry in Pushcart, poetry anywhere, though occasionally a poem leaps out and grabs me by the throat. The rest of the time I’m not sure why they’re written as poems, or what I’m supposed to get out of them, or why they’re different from some of the stuff I read in my brother’s high school literary magazine, which I held on to until a few years ago for the sake of one poem: What’s behind the green door? No, it wasn’t porn, this was 1960s Florida high school, don’t get ahead of yourself; it was beautiful, but I can’t tell you why.

The canaries have been singing like mad for a hundred years now, and we’re all still down in the mines.

Sometimes I think we are all in the dark, we keep ourselves in the dark and other forces keep us in the dark, and the poets, at least, are digging.
Tell me what you’d give for a little light.

And this closure shows the progression, from the cynical beginning doubting awe, to the end where there’s hope for light, and gratitude for those who, according to the narrator, are looking for it. As I read about the Keats wannabe, the poet who went to Japan, the poet who used to but isn’t, all these poets, I think awe has possibilities.  

* * *        

  • This story can be read online at Threepenny Review

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Jean Garnett, “There I Almost Am: On Envy and Twinship” (non-fiction) from Yale Review #109.1

You may know the feeling of taking proud shelter in a sibling, someone who knows how to assemble and disassemble you, someone with whom you share blood, history, memory. Imagine sharing not only all of that but also hair, skin, iris, nipple, the same winces of pain caused by the same herniation in the same cervical disks, the same laugh sounds and laugh lines, the very same early marks of age; the same face—your face, the signature that proves the youness of you—so that you can look at another person and think, There I am. There I almost am.

One of the most frequent compliments paid to writers is that their work is brave. Maybe it recalls an incident that’s humiliating or shameful, or maybe it reveals honest thoughts that are genuine, not rearranged for a more flattering angle. I often wonder if the word is overused, that it means the reader will think it’s brave but not necessarily that the writer actually had to be brave to put those words on paper. In this case, however, I have to say unequivocally, there is enormous bravery here. Garnett is not just admitting to less flattering moments, but is writing them as a book editor, therefore highly read by others in her professional field. And one of those readers will be her sister, the object of many of those unpleasant moments. 

Garnett tells us some of the good things about having a twin – a permanent friend, someone who gets it, connection – before going into the dark side. Most prevalent is envy. This may be exaggerated because they work in the same field, but it seems to be a feature of twinship. We learn about the ways envy reveals itself from a variety of sources, Socrates to Nietzsche to Melanie Klein, and then discover how it’s fit into Garnett’s life over the years.

I remember how, in our early twenties when my sister was at her thinnest, I was always angling for a view of her, using barback mirrors and public bathrooms and shop windows to catch secret glimpses. I remember how perverted I felt whenever our eyes met in the reflection and she caught me in the act of envy. I am never more disgusted with myself than when I am engaged in this covert looking and assessing, treating her body as a human mirror. But I still do it. I spy on her. She’ll be walking or crying or dancing or getting dressed or trying to tell me something important, and I’ll become aware that my eyes are scanning her as though she were a bar code. You want your identical twin to be beautiful, to confirm that you are beautiful, but you also want her to be ugly, to confirm that she is uglier than you.

She then goes beyond her personal situation, using examples from The Little Mermaid and Amadeus, to show how envy is often about destruction. She gives an example from Twitter: a celebrity posts a beauty pic, and the compliments pour in:

Every so often one of her millions of followers will reply with an “ugh, so gorgeous” or an “I can’t even” or occasionally a friendly “OMG I hate you.” This is the closest we come to discharging the barely contained fury coursing through the comment feed. “ANGEL!” people shout. “PURE WARRIOR GODDESS!” “YASS!” “YOU’RE SO PERFECT!” It’s like we are stoning her with compliments.

I love that image of stoning with compliments, but I’m not sure I agree. Then again, I often see Twitter differently from others. What are followers supposed to do, not comment? How would the celebrity react to that?

A significant part of the essay concerns a relationship with a man who, after their relationship ended, approached the twin sister, which seems not just tacky but odd. This was complicated by the unrequited nature of the relationship.  Been there, done that, didn’t have to bear the twin sister on top of it.

We end with a moment of connection in despair that serves as a reverse reflection of an earlier moment, and discover that the sister sometimes feels the same way: “I feel like you’re leaving me behind.” It shouldn’t be surprising that this happens. After all, they are twins.

* * *      

  • This article is available online at Yale Review
  • The sisters share an Instagram site : @PublishingTwins

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Aleyna Rentz, “The Land of Uz” from Cincinnati Review #18.2

My favorite kind of poetry is nonsense verse. Gibberish words, ridiculous rhymes, no logical progression – nothing captures the human experience better than this. After my date with Gerald, I decided to memorialize the evening in a double dactyl:
Higgledy Piggledy
Poor Eva Slate
Once again brought down by
Something she ate.
It’s catastrophical
reflux that caused her this
miserable state.

Rentz describes her stories as “voice driven and threaded with dark humor.” Yeah, I get that. It’s hard not to like Ava. And it’s hard not to pull for her, seeing as she’s struggling with the worst case of gastroesophageal reflux ever. I don’t know if GERD can really get this bad, or if it’s comic exaggeration, but it makes for, believe it or not, a fun story to read.

Her disease caused the great tragedy of her life. After graduating from Duke, she won a Fulbright scholarship to go to Ireland and study “the influence of nonsense poetry on Joyce and Beckett. Or the influence of Joyce and Beckett on nonsense poetry.” Feigning ditzy confusion about her own research topic is one way of minimizing the disappointment when she couldn’t pass the medical clearance and never got to go. Humor is how she copes with a lot of things. When you’re prone to precipitous regurgitation, presenting it as a joke is one way to go.

As a child, she wrote poems for the Sunday church bulletin. Once she graduated from Duke with her literature degree and no place to go, she returned to small town Georgia and wrote a poem in a different voice:

There once was a man from the land of Uz,
Whom the Good Lord tortured simply because.
He killed the man’s wife
And fucked up his life
Then dismissed the whole thing with a shrug.

Obviously, this one didn’t make the bulletin.

Now, there’s something to notice here. Neither of her poems completely fit the genre, double dactyl or limerick. The rhythm is a little off in one or two lines in both cases. Either Ava is a really crappy poet – the problems could be easily fixed – or she’s deliberately screwing them up. Making a statement, you might say. I strongly suspect the latter, for reasons that will become apparent.

Two high-tension wires run through the story. The first is her fledgling relationship with Gerald. She makes fun of him as she introduces him to us: he wears ties featuring rodents, his name is pretty stodgy, and he has a job she’s never heard of. I discovered, in looking for art for this post, that both Ferragamo and Brooks Brothers make exorbitantly expensive silk ties featuring hedgehogs and raccoons. Once again she’s using humor as a distancing mechanism. He seems like a nice guy, since, when she throws up on his bedroom rug after eating spaghetti with tomato sauce, he calls her for another date. I mean, that alone makes him a keeper, I don’t care what kind of tie he wears. She realizes this but feels a little insecure. How do you face a guy after that?

The other high-tension wire is the lie she’s told the students in the high school English class she teaches.

Oh, yeah. I kind of told them I have cancer.
… Today isn’t the first time I’ve left class to throw up, and my students have noticed. Rumors started spreading: that I have mesothelioma and never called the 1-800 number, that I’ve contracted a rare but deadly STD, that I have terminal cancer. Naturally, I went with the most attractive option. What was I supposed to tell them? That drinking a glass of orange juice feels like a knife to the gut? That an illness most people overcome with a can of ginger ale has me shackled to prescription pills, imprisoned in South Georgia? Maybe I ought to have related my disease back to our coursework. I could have told them my stomach, that leaky cauldron bubbling with acid, would make an ideal set piece for a production of Macbeth. Mount a play inside my body, I would have said. Make this wreckage into art. They wouldn’t have understood. I got the same reaction in college, boys willing to kiss me until my lips began to taste like whatever we just had for dinner. You can see, I hope, why I lied about the cancer.

No, I don’t, not really. This is way worse than wearing a small-mammal tie.

Both of these wires lead to crash-and-burn moments. But notice: this isn’t an act of God. It wasn’t God who got her dumped by her boyfriend – he seemed perfectly willing to at least try to handle the realities of her illness – nor was it God who got her fired when the truth about her illness became known to her students. In fact, she wasn’t fired at all, she quit. Job didn’t kill his own family or cattle or burn down his own house. She can write about the Land of Uz all she wants, but it was her actions that caused these failures. Just like it was her writing rhythmically questionable lines that made her poems terrible examples of their genres. You can buck the tide to make a point, but you’ve got to accept the consequences. And yet it’s hard not to feel for her, not to hope she gets it together somehow. But that will have to happen outside the boundaries of this story.

A couple of not-terribly-relevant but still amusing points, along the lines of fancy animal ties:

First: A recent article in TNY declared the end of the English major. While English professors and department heads everywhere leapt to the defense of the degree (which, ahem, I happen to hold), pretty much everyone else agreed it was a waste of tuition. Ava has some relevant wisdom: “Having spent the past four years studying literature, I know how to tell a lie.” Still think it’s a waste of time?

Second: I was tempted to call this a musical comedy version of the Book of Job. Turns out, there is such a thing, by Simon Indelicate, available on Spotify. I find Ava’s version far more amusing.

* * *           

  • Read more from the summary of Rentz’s prospective short story collection at Baker Artist Portfolios.
  • See the author’s website for more about her writing and photography
  • The Book of Job: The Musical, is available on Spotify.

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Doug Crandell, “The Union Waltz” (non-fiction) from The Sun #543

The air was brisk, and the nubs of the harvested corn-stalks were covered with hoarfrost. A cassette player blared a Waylon Jennings song someone had recorded from the radio. George hooted at the dark autumn sky as if trying to summon some animal spirit. In the shadowy light I caught the disapproving glances my parents gave each other. It wasn’t that all dancing was bad in their eyes, but it was shameful if you did it like George: with a passion, legs jigging, steps straight out of the Appalachians. Our father wanted my siblings and me to be more than foolish hicks like our great-great-grandfather, who had been run out of Kentucky for unspecified crimes and ended up here in Indiana. But George’s dance fascinated me like nothing else, the taboo sway of his knees and hips. I had seen men dance like this before: at high-school graduation parties or weddings, the graduate or bride and groom children of other union members. I longed to watch and learn.

I always find it interesting how the pieces in a volume of Pushcart interact with each other. Sometimes they come at similar themes from different angles,and sometimes they show how differently those themes can play out. In the fiction piece “Skinfolk” we had a couple of teenagers trying with all their might to escape their home culture; here in this real-life memoir, we have a teen trying to understand what his family culture had been just a generation or two earlier, against the clear efforts of his parents to deny that heritage.

The piece opens at a neighborhood celebration over a victory for the labor union – hence the title – where Crandell first became interested in how George danced, drank, and celebrated his rural roots with abandon. Crandell’s parents were far more staid, possibly because they were not far removed from the same behavior. A few years later, Crandall was eager to move on with his life, heading to college and then, who knows. But he still had the desire to experience the kind of freedom he saw in George’s dance.

Even as George brought me closer to my ancestry, I was aware that I would soon be getting my degree and moving away from that job, that place. George was curious about college life. He thought my being an undergrad psychology major meant that, after I graduated, I could prescribe him drugs: “Don’t you go forgetting that ol’ George taught you how to cook this cancer tile and showed you how to do the two-count.” My heart sank, because I realized I wouldn’t be staying on at the factory after college, which meant I might not know George much longer. I felt caught in a tug of war between the old life my parents somberly led and something new I could not wholly grasp. And the old life was slipping away.

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered Crandall. Back in 2017, his Pushcart piece told of discovering “honor comes in different shapes and sizes” via a new neighbor who was far more “hippie” than his parents were comfortable with, yet turned out to also have lessons worth learning. Today we keep hearing about rural people who don’t want anything to change, yet here is one man from the heartlands who was willing to see difference as potentially positive, rather than as a threat.

* * *           

  • This piece can be read online at The Sun.
  • See Crandell’s website for more of his writing.
  • Read his prior Pushcart-winning Sun article, “Winter Wheat.”

Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Gail Godwin, “The Desperate Place” (non-fiction) from Narrative, Fall 2021

This is from a June 16, 2018, New York Times opinion piece, “What Kept Me from Killing Myself,” by Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers.
“Throughout that summer and into the fall . . . just below the surface of my semi-consciousness, was the constant thought: Maybe I won’t wake up this time.”
Powers continues, “I doubt much needs to be said about the kind of despair that would make such an idea a source of comfort, despair that came not from accepting that things were as bad as they were going to get, but, worse, that they might go on like that forever. The next step felt both logical and inevitable.”
Which sounds along the lines of what my twenty-eight-year-old brother might have been thinking in the hours that led up to his death.

Godwin’s writing career began in journalism; it shows here in this essay about the suicide of her father and half-brother. The voice is calm, with little hand-wringing and no guilt but a generous serving of compassion for the pain that led to the suicides. Although there are some details of events, the speculative psychological analysis, other than references to the Powers article, is controlled.

Godwin had been estranged from her father for most of her early life, only coming back into contact with him via her high school graduation. She’d been in her own desperate place, and sent him an invitation “in a mood of defiant resignation,” not expecting him to come. But he did, and it created a new beginning for them. She spent the summer at the beach with him and his wife. He then paid for her to start junior college, a gesture denied her by her stepfather, a gift that enabled her to become a writer. A rescue from her desperate place.

But that beginning between father and daughter was to be short-lived:

…I had no idea that old disappointments were biding their time, stealthily building like waves, which in less than three years would drown him. One winter afternoon when I was a junior at Chapel Hill, he phoned his brother at his office. “Just felt like saying hello, old son,” he said. “Son” was what the brothers called each other. After he hung up, he lay down on the floor of his bedroom in Smithfield and shot himself in the head.
Losing ground. Was that the thing that ultimately killed him?

Her half-brother’s story, occurring decades later is more harrowing: the exact sequence of events was not clear, and he was not the only person who ended up dead. Godwin recalled her discomfort its prelude only years later:

The afternoon before his death, on my mother’s birthday, we were in the kitchen and he told me the story of his girlfriend suddenly breaking off with him. But this time something was different. I was not deriving the usual listener’s satisfaction from his story. Many years later when remembering that kitchen scene, I realized what had spooked me about it: Not only was there not a trace of the shy, closemouthed smile, but there was no knight errant starring in my brother’s story. The tone was new: one of bafflement and resignation. There was no sense of any future missions. There was no tug of suspense. It was like a story that had already happened.

Godwin tells the stories piecemeal, laying breadcrumbs for the reader to follow, to lead us to a final place with a certain understanding. The inclusion of the Powers essay, as well as her own story of having known desperate places, keeps the question of why some people resist and others succumb before the reader.

It’s a question that isn’t really answered. Is it luck – Powers finding a poem that spoke to him, she finding a way out of the troubled family that held her captive? Is it some quirk of personality, some learned behavior? She lets us consider that for ourselves.

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  • This memoir can be read online at Narrative.
  • See Godwin’s website for more about her writing and how it reflects events in her life.