The Math Book even a Mathphobe Can Love: Ben Orlin’s Math with Bad Drawings [IBR2018]

This is a book about math. That was the plan, anyway.
Somewhere, it took an unexpected left turn. Before long, I found myself without cell phone reception, navigating a series of underground tunnels. When I emerged into the light, the book was still about math, but it was about lots of other things, too: Why people buy lottery tickets. How a children’s book author swung a Swedish election. What defines a “Gothic” novel. Whether building a giant spherical space station was really the wisest move for Darth Vader and the Empire.
That’s math for you. it connects far-flung corners of life, like a secret system of Mario tubes.

Ben Orlin, Introduction, Math With Bad Drawings: Illuminating the Ideas that Shape our Reality

As a lifelong mathphobe, I rarely buy math books; no matter how highly recommended they are, I get stuck in the pages of formulas, equations, and sample problems that require translating, much as a text in an unknown language requires, resulting in a Google-translate version of the math. I neither learn nor enjoy it. But I’ve been following Ben’s blog for about five years now, so I knew I was going to buy this book, I knew I’d enjoy it – AND I knew I’d learn something.

To be sure, I had a couple of concerns. First, I thought it might be what the Tumblr-turned-book market cranks out, merely a “greatest hits” reprint of his blog. Nope; all the material in the book is brand-new, though he references his blog a few times. And by new, I mean new: I’ve seen many explanations of the triangle inequality theorem that turned into the Charlie Brown Teacher wah-wah but I will remember Ben’s triangle struggling to bring its arms together and falling… short.

My second concern was that, while starting out as a “fun math for everyone” book, it would soon turn into formulas and equations. Let’s face it, most math books (even “friendly” math books that start out with lots of reassurance that “anyone can learn math”) read like rule books: “The ball shall be a sphere formed by yarn wound around a small core of cork, rubber or similar material, covered with two strips of white horsehide or cowhide, tightly stitched together. It shall weigh not less than five nor more than 5¼ ounces avoirdupois and measure not less than nine nor more than 9¼ inches in circumference.” But again, my faith in Ben was rewarded: This book is more like the 7-year-old next door tossing a ball in the air and calling out, “Hey, wanna come play?” The only things that resemble math-book formulas are a couple of endnotes that are pre-declared to be esoteric. Oh, there is a bit about methods of calculating certain baseball and football stats, but even that is presented in a non-scary way (at least as far as the math is concerned; the sports stuff is still lingo, but I suspect most will consider that a plus rather than a minus).

The first thing that struck me about the book, before I’d read anything, was the high quality of the physical object. The dust jacket is appealing and representative, including some of Ben’s “bad drawings”, also reproduced on the endpapers and flyleaves. My practice is to remove and put aside dust jackets while I’m actively reading a book, lest it get torn or dirty (I’m super-destructive, I am I am), and recover the book when I’ve completed the first read and shelve it. I was surprised, and pleased, to see one reproduced drawing on the cover of the book itself, a nice detail. The book felt heavy, and I soon realized that’s not just because it’s a 400 page book, but because the pages are of unusually thick paper, presumably to prevent bleed-through of the many color drawings on nearly every page. In fact, I had to learn how to turn pages all over, the feel was so different.

And color! On every page, color! The Bad Drawings are all in color, sometimes monochrome but often a mixture. Even the running titles (vertically set!) and colored boxes enclosing page numbers are in colors that match the topic (red is probability, purple is statistics). I’ve become more appreciative of books as physical objects as I’ve encountered more truly well-produced books; this one keeps the bar high.

But what about content? No problem. You can find an excerpt at Popular Science, and another at Vox; I find these difficult to read online, and like the book layout far better, but then I’m an old fart. And by the way, you can find a bunch of reviews, interviews, and other goodies on Ben’s blog, if you want more.

The opening division – How to Think Like a Mathematician – presents the playful, investigative approach to math: “Creativity born from restraint.” That tickled me, because it’s in many respects the basis of poetry with its forms of meter and rhyme, not to mention Oulipo, who delight in such things as writing entire books without the letter “e”. And the Ultimate Tic Tac Toe is pretty cute.

I’d like you to meet this chapter’s star: the triangle.
It’s not your typical protagonist. Snooty literary types may dismiss it as two-dimensional. Yet this atypical hero will embark on a typical hero’s journey: rising from humble origins, learning to harness an inner strength, and ultimately serving the world in a time of crisis.

Chapter 6, We Built This City on Triangles

In the Geometry division, I was surprised by how captivating I found bridge trusses, and the reasons they are made with triangles instead of some other shape. The chapter on European paper sizes was maybe my favorite of the book; they make sense, like the metric system, unlike the American way of remembering how many ounces in a pound and feet in a mile and make it stop! The stories of brownies and the Colossus at Rhodes made scaling more understandable than memorizing formulae, and we even got into some biology with explanations of the differences between ant and elephant legs. I found the chapter on dice asked a question I’d never considered: why are dice typically shaped as cubes? I had encountered pig-shaped dice in a logic mooc, and I’ve seen a few non-cuboid novelty dice in my travels, but why are standard run-of-the-mill dice always cubes? Then there’s Chapter 10, An Oral History of the Death Star, told from the POV of various participants: the Imperial Geometer, Imperial Physicist, Imperial Engineer, and a few others in conversation with Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader, trying to outline the difficulties involved in building the most advanced killing machine ever.

The Probability section included the hilarious chapter “10 People You Meet in Line for the Lottery”, as well as chapters on DNA (yes, more biology), and weird insurance and how companies determine what to charge for, say, multiple-birth insurance or Extraterrestrial Kidnapping Insurance. Some of this chapter gets into economics more than I’m comfortable with, since, despite how much I enjoyed the terrific Oxford mooc on economics, I still find anything to do with money to be boring as snot.

I admit that there is something reductive about the whole project of statistics, of taming the wild, unpredictable world into docile rows of numbers. That’s why it’s so important to approach all statistics with skepticism and caution. By nature, they compress reality. They amputate. They omit. They simplify.
And that, of course, is the precise source of their power.
….By condensing the world, statistics give us a chance to grasp it.
And they do more, too. Statistics classified, extrapolate, and predict, allowing us to build powerful models of reality. Yes, the whole process depends on simplification. And yes, simplification is lying by omission. But at its best, statistics are an honest kind of lying. The process calls upon all the virtues of human thought, from curiosity to compassion.
In that way, statistics are not so different from stick figures. Their bad drawings of reality, missing hands and noses, yet speaking a peculiar truth all their own.

IV: Statistics: The Find Art of Honest Lying

I had some troubles with the Statistics section, possibly because it’s the mathiest in the book, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t fun spots, such as the history of baseball statistics. Anyone who liked the movie Moneyball will find a similar storytelling approach that makes a niche subject interesting to the outsider. There’s also a chapter on corpus linguistics, the statistical analysis of language use and a particularly hot topic in literary circles these days. But I confess: I still don’t understand p-hacking beyond the most elementary level.

The final section – On the Cusp – is about the difference between what is continuous and what is discrete. The camel example reminds me of the sorites paradox, aka the Problem of the Heap (from another logic mooc), but I’m improvising wildly here; as a mathphobe, I don’t quite grasp the connection in this section as we veer from electoral math to measurement of coastlines (which is in itself another fascinating paradox from, you guessed it, another mooc). I’m sure those with greater in-depth understanding will see a discipline that’s lost on me. In any case, it’s all fun, and if there’s anything that can convince a mathphobe that math matters, it’s election math.

After I’d read the book – and I couldn’t believe I’d read a math book, cover to cover – I went back to connect the endnotes with the text to which they referred. I’m going to guess this was a “de-academicizing” decision, avoiding cluttering pages with footnotes, but I like to know when I read a text that hey, there’s more info about this in the back. So I spent a couple of hours flipping back and forth, making notes in the margins (I told you, I’m destructive). Sometimes it’s just a simple citation; sometimes it’s an expansion on the topic; and sometimes it’s a funny comment. Don’t skip the end notes. Ok, you can skip the citations (unless you want to look something up; I looked up Poe’s prose poem “Eureka” but TLDR’d it), but the rest are worth reading.

I’ve had a complicated relationship with math all my life. It wasn’t until about five years ago, thanks to a brilliant mooc on mathematical thinking, that I saw a different way to approach math, a more investigative, playful way that viewed mistakes as part of the game. It was in that course that I also was referred to Ben’s breakout essay, “What it Feels Like to be Bad at Math”, and started following his blog. He’s always been patient with my stupidest questions, encouraging with my painfully slow progress, and generous with his time and talents.

I hope this book introduces him to a wider circle of mathphobes (and those of us slowly recovering from same); there are lots of us out there, and we all could benefit from seeing the fun side of math.

Curtis Sittenfeld: Prep (Random House, 2005) [IBR2018]

Ault had been my idea. I’d researched boarding schools at the public library and written away for catalogs myself. Their glossy pages showed photographs of teenagers in wool sweaters singing hymns in the chapel, gripping lacrosse sticks, intently regarding a math equation written across the chalkboard. I had traded away my family for this glossiness. I’d pretended it was about academics, but it never had been….I imiagined that if I left South Bend, I would meet a melancholy, athletic boy who liked to read as much as I did and on overcast Sundays we would take walks together wearing wool sweaters.

Lee Fiora, originally from South Bend, Indiana, transplanted to a high-end boarding school in Massachusetts, might just be the most unknowable first-person narrator I’ve ever read. Many of her comments ring so true to me, but somehow I still don’t get her; I feel a much stronger emotional connection with Gene from A Separate Peace, and was far more involved in Huey’s development as I read They Come in All Colors, even though my worldspace is much closer to Lee’s. After 400 pages of listening to her thoughts and seeing her actions, I still have no idea who she is.

A great example of this comes from the beginning of her sophomore year, about a third of the way through the book. Her English teacher has assigned an essay: write about something you care about, and take a stand. Lee writes an adequate essay about school prayer, but asterisks the title: “This is not an issue I truly care about but I believe it fulfills the assignment.” Girl could give master classes in passive aggressiveness. “You’re a cipher,” the teacher tells her, noting that other students want to be friends with her but she seems completely unengaged in anything. And, though it makes for somewhat frustrating reading, I can understand. I know what it is to feel like – and notice, that’s an interpretation, not reality – anything you say will just draw boredom, scorn, or rebuke. Thing is, she seems to be able to make friends – it’s just that they aren’t the friends she’s interested in.

Some light is shed on this at the very end of the book, when she, as an adult, recalls Martha, her roommate and best – maybe only – friend for three years

I never understood when I was at Ault why she liked me as much as I liked her. Even now, I’m still not sure. I couldn’t give back half of what she gave me, and that fact should have knocked off the balance between us, but it didn’t, and I don’t know why not. Later, after Ault, I reinvented myself – not overnight but little by little. Also had taught me everything I needed to know about attracting and alienating people, what the exact measurements ought to be of confidence and self-deprecation, humor, disclosure, inquisitiveness; even, finally, of enthusiasm. Also, Ault Had been the toughest audience I’d ever encounter, to the extent that sometimes afterward, I found winning people over disappointingly easy. If Martha and I had met when we were, say, twenty-two, it wouldn’t have been hard for me to believe she’d like me. But she had liked me before I became likable; that was the confusing part.

All the “what made me a success” stories I’ve ever read give great credence to these kinds of skills – not grades, or knowledge of any subject matter, or even popularity – and it seems Lee got a terrific education though she wasn’t able to apply it until much later.

The novel has a beads-on-a-string structure, one incident after another, with some resonance between them but not much. Within the beads there may be some tension and narrative drive, but there’s really no track on which the novel as a whole runs, other than the elapsing of four years of high school. I tried reading it as an observer novel – the story is about the other students – but that doesn’t work either, since we find out little about how they grow and change. No, the story is about Lee.

She feels awkward as a student, but in fact has fairly good social skills. She has friendly relations, if not friendships, with several students. She stumbles into a role cutting other students’ hair. She is the one called upon when a fellow student, her first-year roommate, attempts suicide. But it all seems far removed from her. Her closest relationship is with Martha, but only two extended conversations, bracketing the friendship, are revealed, making it seem like an arrangement of convenience rather than a close friendship. Even her eventual sexual relationship is something she enters into passively. Willingly, I should say, happily even, though it’s her partner who initiates and continues the relationship, who determines where and when – and, more importantly, where and when not.

Only one thing seems to really interest her: a classmate named Cross. She has an unexpected encounter with him as a freshman, then spends a couple of years thinking about him, avoiding looking like she’s paying any attention to him while focusing intently on everything he does.

One of the beads-on-a-string that interested me most was the game of Assassin, a kind of anonymous tag in which each student has to put a sticker on a target student, thus assassinating her and eliminating her from the game. Lee is really into this game (and maybe that’s why it stands out in my mind), and because she’s almost invisible to everyone, she does quite well at sneaking up on people. Eventually she finds a student, one of the boys, a challenge, and hides under a table to get close enough to tag him. Her entire motivation for his game, however, is the fantasy that she will eventually end up assassinating Cross. Her own assassination, what for anyone else would feel like a betrayal, is only a disappointment because she is out of the game before this happens.

The book is filled with great pithy observations that I might have said at some point along the way:

I always worried someone would notice me, and then when no one did, I felt lonely.

The interest I felt in certain guys then confused me, because it wasn’t romantic, but I wasn’t sure what else it might be. But now I know: I wanted to take up people’s time making jokes, to tease the dean in front of the entire school, to call him by a nickname. What I wanted was to be a cocky high-school boy, so fucking sure of my place in the world.

…nothing broke my heart like the slow death of a shared joke that had once seemed genuinely funny.

I believed then that if you had a good encounter with a person, it was best not to see them again for as long as possible lest you taint the previous interaction.

It struck me suddenly that my parents might be bewildered by me, the Ault version of me for whom it was a daring act to eat spaghetti.

…I had figured out early on how Aubrey liked me best: trying but not getting anything right. Or maybe not getting anything right but trying. Either way, the other person’s reaction was the only thing that ever counted to me…

The alcohol on his breath could have conjured up bus stations and old men with dirty clothes and bloodshot eyes, but because I was seventeen and a virgin and because I lived nine months a year on a campus of brick buildings and wooded hills and lovingly mown athletic fields, it’s conjured for me summer dances at country clubs, lives with wonderful secrets.

And then I realized that here, in sports, it was okay to show that something mattered to you.

My regret surged and billowed, as regret does in the middle of the night; everything had happened so quickly, the chance to have caused a different outcome was still so recent. … You had a window of opportunity. if you had used it, you probably would have embarrassed yourself, but it not using it, you wasted something irretrievable.

The last event of her senior year is the most emotionally packed and gripping: the school arranges for her, and a few other students not from the usual upper-crust prep school crowd, to give an individual interview to a NYT reporter. She thinks she’s just talking to an interested adult, and is shocked to see her words appear in the article as an indictment of boarding-school culture. Her first honest conversation in four years poisons her final week at a school; it’s telling that no one had any idea she felt isolated.

Although I had great sympathy for her – I once had a newspaper interview go bad, though nowhere near as bad and on a much smaller scale – I still kept thinking she was the one primarily responsible for her isolation. This, I think, is the reason for the disconnected-narrator approach: like her fellow students, I wanted to get to know her, but she, as narrator, kept me at arm’s distance.

I discovered this book through, of all things, the Odyssey. On Twitter, I follow classicist Prof. Emily Wilson, whose recent translation of Homer reveals much about other versions. She mentioned a blog post that looked at Odysseus as an unlikeable character. I went poking around that blog, written by Jaime Lustig and primarily focused on anime and manga, and found a delightful Favorite Books page. I recognized Sittenfeld’s name, since I’d recently read, and later came to more fully appreciate, her story “Gender Studies” in Pushcart. This is where I first got the idea to do a three-book “prep school” series, since I already had a recommendation for They Come in All Colors and was going to finish my planned summer reading with time to spare.

Of the novel, Jaime said, “It’s also the most perfect book about realizing that everything we thought was the fault of a world that doesn’t get us, is actually our fault and we missed so many opportunities to connect.” That’s a perfect description. And something for me to think about, as well.

Malcolm Hansen: They Come in All Colors (Atria, 2018) [IBR2018]

I explained that the very notion of an immutable identity was a foreign concept to me. Everything was negotiable, and infinitely so. To be sure, I might have felt differently if the identity presently being forced on me conferred even a hint of admiration from my peers. But in point of fact, it was the subject of considerable derision. So I’d cast it off, and after having done so, I joined in on the fun. It came so easily to me precisely because I’d pulled that page right out of Mom’s old playbook. It was a time that she hardly cared to recall but that I remembered vividly. Ironically, she once recast herself as the person she needed to be to help me at a vulnerable moment in our lives, and now here I was doing pretty much the exact same thing. Now, come to find out, she’d had a crisis of conscience, albeit it too late to do me any good.

How does a child understand race? How does an eight-year-old understand racism when it’s part of his everyday life? How does he put together that 1) he tans easily but has wavy hair, 2) Mom is very tan and has curly hair, 3) Dad is white, and, and compute, What am I? in a world where “a person” just isn’t a good enough answer.

All Huey wanted was to go for a swim on a hot summer evening in Georgia, as he’d done in prior years. He didn’t know he’d turn the world upside down. He didn’t even know he was why the world was turned upside down, even as it flipped him on his head.

You are a bright boy, Huey. Tell me something. If the world went to hell in a handbasket tomorrow, does it make sense to you that it would all come down to this stupid little pool ?

This was not at all the book I expected it to be. Writer/reader/blogger Navidad Thelamour recommended it as follow-up to Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. I was expecting satire and prep school. As someone who seems to be somewhat tone-deaf to contemporary irony (I may be the only person who never understood what was so hilarious about Seinfeld), I have to take Navi’s word for it that this reads as satirical and ironic; to me, it’s straight-out grisly fact, unlike the wacky turns in Beatty’s novel. No, this was not the book I was expecting; the good news is, it’s a terrific book, and one I might have otherwise missed (thank you, Navi!).

Most of the story takes place in rural Georgia rather than the New York prep school that form the second timeline. In an informative interview with Thelamour, Hansen tells her he “initially underestimated the importance of the New York sections”; these were strengthened after encouragement from his editor.

It was very hard reading, both emotionally and cognitively. Emotionally, because of the confusion of 8-year-old Huey, and his later devastation as a teenager, over racism, pain which is so effectively protrayed it pervaded the air itself as I read. Cognitively, because crucial information is revealed with great subtlety. I must have doubled back to re-read in a half dozen places, thinking I’d missed something. This helps to understand the kind of confusion Huey lived in, overhearing things, being told one thing and seeing evidence for another. Although child narrators are always pretty unreliable, this one is doubly so, since truth has been obscured in an effort to protect him – until the town unobscures it for them.

I had no idea why Toby was with the people across the street. I was trying to figure it out. Aside from the obvious fact that he was colored and so were they. It felt like a betrayal – he’d known us just as long as he known any of them. He’s been with us for so, so long. And his father before him. Grandfather, too. After that, it’s got murky. Dad said people didn’t keep written accounts that far back. He made it sound like employment records were a modern invention.

And this is how we find out Dad’s people used to own Toby’s people; at least, that’s my interpretation, since very little is ever made explicit in this book. But it gets more complicated, because not only does Huey feel genuine affection for Toby, it turns out there’s a deeper connection, one that isn’t acknowledged until quite late in the book, and then is still a source of shame for the teenage Huey, still growing into his identity.

One of the many interesting subtexts of the book is that, while the racism of the South is more explicit, the racism of the North, even the sophisticated New York City, is just as deep. We begin at the fancy Claremont, a prep school eager to have Huey because he is “different, but not too different”. In other words, he counts as black for statistical purposes, but he isn’t scary-black. Huey’s mom, Peola, makes this more explicit: the only work she can find is cooking, cleaning, and child care for the rich family of a mattress mogul. We know she’s left Georgia behind, and has become more sociopolitically savvy – and more angry – as she’s found the same impediments to growth, but we don’t find out for quite a while exactly what precipitated the move.

Huey, on the other hand, is initially optimistic about his future during his first years at Claremont:

Zuk and I, on the other hand, had a different outlook. …Our job wasn’t to try to change the nature of things but to make sure we ended up on the winning side. ….I couldn’t fault Mom for being bitter about the opportunities she’d never had, but I wished that she could just be happy that all of that could be mine. We just had to let go of the past and embrace the golden future that being at a place like Claremont would ensure.
Oh. And race – well that just never seemed to come up. ….

Race never seems to come up, until it does, and then it turns out it was the elephant in the room all along.

The question of identity plays throughout. Is race a binary state? Must one be black or white? Is the “one drop rule” still in effect? The book is set in the 60s, which was before companies like 23AndMe or AncestryDNA could pin down exactly who has what blood. Turns out, white supremacists are using these tests to prove their purity, and have interesting ways ways of discounting results they don’t like. Huey has only what his parents tell him, what the people of Akersburg, GA tell him, and later, what his “friend” Ariel Zukowski tells him.

One side note: in Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel Imitation of Life, and the 1934 film of the same title, “Peola” was the name of the light-skinned daughter who tried to pass (that was the word for it then) as white, leaving her black mother behind, with tragic results. There’s a reference to this in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye by the character Pecola, a dark black girl who longs for whiteness, particularly blue eyes. In the film, the part of Peola was played by Fredi Washington, a biracial actress who refused to pass though her career suffered as a result. To travel a little further down the rabbit hole, when the film was remade in 1959, the character was renamed Sarah Jane and was played by Susan Kohner, generally considered “white” (whatever that means) though her mother was a Mexican-American actress. Whether Hansen deliberately incorporated this, I can’t be sure, but it fits so well I think he must have.

In one intense and pivotal scene late in the book, Peola tries to explain to Huey why he belongs at Claremont. She uses a metaphor new to me, one that I found immensely powerful as a response to the “hey, I never owned any slaves so don’t take it out on me” reaction to affirmative action:

It’s like one man steals a house from another man, and we say, fine. The authorities find the man guilty and send him to jail, and we say justice is served. But his son gets to keep the house. Okay? In short order, the son has a child and decides that he wants a second house. Except now, the man who’s had his house stolen finds himself competing for a home loan with guess who – the thief’s son. Only the thief’s son has a house to offer up as collateral against a second mortgage, and the man with whom he’s competing for the loan does not. Now, the banker doesn’t care one way or another about that first home. He only cares about getting his money back. And after all, the son didn’t steal the house that he lives in. His father did. So why should he be penalized unfairly? We all know that you can’t punish the son for the sins of the father. Which is why he gets to live in that first house. But I’ll be damned if he gets to use it to bootstrap his second home when there is still a man out there who has been robbed of his fair chance at his first!

Writing a book through the eyes of a child is tricky business. Sometimes Huey seems to be sophisticated beyond his years, while he remains clueless – perhaps willfully so – about race. Why doesn’t Mom ever come to the pool to see him swim? Why does Dad take him for ice cream so early in the morning, before anyone else is in the store? Who are these people on the bus, why are they here, what is SNCC, why do they want ice cream at that parlor so bad, why can’t they just go somewhere else? What really happened to Mr. Goolsbey’s shop, and what happened to Toby? I get the sense these are questions he isn’t sure he wants answered, adding to his cluelessness. Then he writes a poem, quite sophisticated for an eight year old, that evokes “Raisin in the Sun” – and reminded me that Plath’s poem, “Daddy”, was used as an epigraph – and shows why he might be selected for Claremont a few years later.

Yes, it’s hard to read. I kept thinking it reminded me a bit of my experience of reading Light in August several years ago during another hot, racist summer. But it’s very worth reading. I hope it finds the audience it deserves, the audience that deserves, that needs, it.

John Knowles: A Separate Peace (Harville Secker, 1959) [IBR2018]

I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before. It seemed more sedate than I remembered it, more perpendicular and strait-laced, with narrower windows and shinier woodwork, as though a coat of varnish had been put over everything for better preservation. But, of course, fifteen years before there had been a war going on. Perhaps the school wasn’t as well kept up in those days; perhaps varnish, along with everything else, had gone to war.

I’ve always had an unexpected fondness for prep-school novels and movies. No, I didn’t go to prep school or boarding school or anything but plain old public school, yet I find the concentrated atmosphere of these stories works for me.

I have a couple of contemporary examples in the works for the next weeks, so I thought I’d take another look at the granddaddy of them all. Do kids still read this? It was on my summer reading lists throughout school; I think I finally read it in my teens, probably in the late 60s – yes, I read some of the books on the summer reading list, mostly the ones having to do with death. But now that I’ve re-read it, I don’t think I finished it; I think I stopped after the tree incident, because I don’t remember the Winter Carnival, or Leper’s “escape”, or really much of the book at all.

I certainly don’t remember it as gay. And yeah, now, in 2018, it reads very repressed-and-unspoken gay, in a way it couldn’t have read to me in 1968. Putting aside Gene’s repressed sexuality, it’s a novel about jealousy, about wanting what someone else has, about the grass being greener and all those typical teenage themes that last into adulthood. Competition, the foundational drive. Ethical failure, the engine of so much modern literature. Guilt, the universal emotion.

It’s pretty much a classic structure: the tree scene, far from being the end of the book, is merely the inciting incident upon which complications pile up. A dramatic climax – second cousin to a courtroom scene – uses recollection of hazy memories to create a violence that explodes by accident. The denouement that follows includes a major shift in tone, even in the face of one final dramatic reveal. And I get the sense that we’re never really returned to the present, from where the novel started as a recollection. The past is always present, for many of us, even 15 years on.

One of the things I noticed is that all of Finny’s vaunted athletic trophies, the prizes on which his status in Gene’s eyes as a sports superhero, seem to be of the “most improved” variety. It’s expressly stated that he doesn’t have any records in his sports, but he has awards for sportsmanship and cooperation and effort. I get the impression Finny isn’t really as great an athlete as everyone thinks he is. Gene’s jealousy, sad under any circumstances, becomes sadder when based on a mirage. Is it possible to see Finny at all – or is he all image, all energy, all beholder-created impression?

It’s also very much a novel rooted in WWII. The “separate peace” metaphor has its reference in a move seen as a betrayal. During WWI, Russia signed a separate peace accord with Germany, removing itself from the Tripartite Pact. That there was a change in regime – from Czar Nicholas II to Bolshevik rule – tempered the outrage somewhat, but during WWII fears of another reversal, of Russia pursuing a separate peace with Germany in spite of the German betrayal, emerged in a more complex situation.

But the separate peace of the novel has to do with less global matters. After Finny breaks his leg, he decides the war is fake news, sort of a Wag the Dog situation. The boys are facing the draft by the following summer, and have the question of enlistment before them at all times, a question that creates excitement and adventure, yes, but also anxiety concealed out of shame. By creating a separate peace on his school campus, they feel some reprieve from the dramatic induction into adulthood. But for Finny, it means something else: because of his injury, he’s ineligible for the military, so it’s easier for him to not feel left out by ignoring it all.

Do kids reading it now have the understanding of what the war meant, what the draft meant? I first read the novel during Vietnam, a very different war with very different home fires burning. And now, kids would be reading it in yet another war time: a war time almost as ephemeral as Finny’s peace mirage. Very few people, outside of military families and news hounds, are even aware that we’ve been at war for 15 years, that we’re currently involved in a half dozen nasty conflicts with no clear sides and plenty of ambiguous, and not-so-ambiguous, collateral damage. Is it possible to read the book the same way now as then? Is it any wonder it’s easier to read it as a gay novel, than to find a way to put oneself in a mindset of a prior historical setting?

And again, context, my obsession over the past year, becomes central to reading. Does context alter the book, or is that a reader flaw? Can we be aware of the original authorial intent, and still see new ways old messages reveal themselves? Haven’t relationships like Gene and Finny’s always existed – and haven’t they always been the same, yet always current?

So I’ll leave the marble stairs and oak panelling and musty rooms of Devon for a prep school of the 60s, and one of the 21st century; will I find the same thing, in different light?

Erik Spiekermann & E. M. Ginger: Stop Stealing Sheep & find out how type works (Adobe, 2003) [IBR2018]

In 1936, Frederic Goudy was in New York City to receive an award for excellence in type design. Upon accepting a certificate, he took one look at it and declared that “Anyone who would letterspace black letter would steal sheep.” This was an uncomfortable moment for the man sitting in the audience who had hand lettered the award certificate. Mr. Goudy later apologized profusely, claiming that he said that about everything.

Professionals in all trades, whether they be dentists, carpenters, or nuclear scientists, communicate in languages that seem secretive and incomprehensible to outsiders; type designers are no exception. Typographic terminology sounds cryptic enough to put off anyone but the most hard-nosed typomaniac. The aim of this book is to clarify the language of typography for people who want to communicate more effectively with type.

I’ve always been interested in fonts and typefaces (there is a difference, but I can never remember what it is) but I’ve never studied the details. Oh, I know what ascenders and descenders are, and I have some idea of what’s considered modern and what’s considered humanist, and in connection with manuscripts I’ve become a bit familiar with calligraphic scripts, but I’ve always wanted to know more details, take a more structured approach, understand the difference between Times New Roman and the dozens of look-alikes Word offers.

This book doesn’t really offer that kind of detail, but it was fun anyway.

It’s not the sort of book you sit down to read, but it’s not really a reference work either. It’s lived in my duffel and accompanied me on appointments and errands and bus rides, where I might have five or ten minutes. Reading text, fiction or non, in that way gets disorienting, and interferes with the flow of stories and ideas, but this book was ideally suited, since each double-layout page is a single unit. On the left is a full-page example, maybe an ad or a document or a form, and on the right is a brief description, a sidebar with details, and individual examples of various fonts.

It’s a very well-produced book. Though it’s small – trade paperback, about 179 pages – it’s unusually heavy because the paper is a heavy glossy weight. The illustrations are often in four color, always in two color. I got the 2nd edition (used), published in 2003, because it was a lot – a LOT – cheaper than the 3rd edition from 2013; there were some throwbacks (PostScript, dot matrix printers, CRTs were just fading from the scene) but I’m not particularly interested in those details anyway.

As a quick-fix amusement, it was a success. I still want to learn more about fonts, how they’re designed, the different effects created by small differences that I can’t even see, what makes a font “friendly” or “ominous”; I can see the difference, but have more trouble quantifying exactly how it’s created. But I’ll need another book for that. That’s ok, this one was perfect for bus reading.

Jesmyn Ward, ed.: The Fire This Time (Scribner, 2016) [IBR2018]

It was then that I knew I wanted to call on some of the great thinkers and extraordinary voices of my generation to help me puzzle this out. I knew that a black boy who lives in the hilly deserts of California, who likes to get high with his friends on the weekend and who freezes in a prickly sweat whenever he sees blue lights in his rearview, would need a book like this. A book that would reckon with the fire of rage and despair and fierce, protective love currently sweeping through the streets and campuses of America. A book that would gather new voices in one place, in a lasting, physical form, and provide a forum for those writers to dissent, to call to account, to witness, to reckon. A book that a girl in rural Missouri could pick up at her local library and, while reading, encounter a voice that hushed her fears. In these pages she would find a wise aunt, a more present mother, who saw her terror and despair threading their fingers through her hair, and would comfort her. We want to tell her this: You matter. I love you. Please don’t forget it.

Introduction – Jesmyn Ward

In the months after Trayvon Martin’s murder and the trial that excused it, Jesmyn Ward turned to words. In particular, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time reminded her that, no matter what the world thinks, she had value. She felt it important, just as important now and maybe more so, that the message was conveyed, so she conceived this new anthology subtitled “A New Generation Speaks about Race”. She envisioned the work as consisting of three parts: past, present, future. But the work that came back to her was heavily weighted in the past and present. She interprets that, in part, as a reaction to the American reluctance to truly acknowledge the racist roots of our country, to see how the present is connected to the past. Too many times, there’s a tendency to say, Slavery ended in 1865, the Civil Rights Act went into effect in 1964, what more do you want? Plenty.

One of the most shocking essays (to someone who wears white privilege) is “Black and Blue” from Garnette Cadogan. He was born in Jamaica, and developed a fondness for long walks early in life. It wasn’t always easy to navigate the neighborhoods of Kingston – wearing the wrong color in the wrong place could get him killed – but he adapted. When in 1996 he moved to New Orleans at 18 for college, he was warned about the dangerous neighborhood, and laughed it off; he knew how to adapt. “What no one had told me was that I was the one who would be considered a threat.” And there follows the collection of incidents, familiar to us from the stories we see on Twitter every day, of being accused, handcuffed, questioned, searched, and otherwise harassed by police for Walking While Black. I don’t know why it surprised me.

But it did. This was one of the most powerful recitals of this particular theme, possibly because he had imagined himself as a new Tom Sawyer exploring the Mississippi on foot; it didn’t work out that way. And it wasn’t just New Orleans; this continued when he moved to New York, and hoped to follow in the footsteps of Whitman, “descend to the pavements, merge with the crowd, and gaze with them.” I kept thinking, he’s lucky he survived. Maybe I can never truly appreciate how dangerous Walking While Black can be. Is this Freedom?

Emily Raboteau continues the legal jeopardy theme in “Know Your Rights!” by photographing and cataloguing a series of murals in New York realistically depicting street scenes of black people being arrested, cuffed, frisked, or questioned by police. The captions are stark: “Demand a lawyer and don’t say anything until you get one.” “You have a right to observe and film police actions.” Set against this is the Ben Sargent cartoon titled “Two Americas”, featuring a white boy going out to play and being advised by mom to take his jacket, and a black boy getting instructions “so intricate, leery, and vexed a warning that her words obstruct the exit”: “Keep your hands in sight at all times, don’t make any sudden moves, don’t mouth off, don’t wear a hoodie…” By the way, the black boy still has to worry about neighborhood crime. He just has to worry about the police as well.

One of the articles from the Legacy section is Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ paean to Phillis Wheatley, kidnapped from Africa as a child in the 18th century and sold here to the Boston family of Susannah Wheatley. She learned to read and write, and became the first published African American poet. The Stanford mooc on Pre-Modern Women Poets included a unit on her work. I’m guessing the course used the Margaretta Matilda Odell’s biography as a guide, but Jeffers discovers this work may be far less authoritative than it claims. It’s a fascinating look at how a black woman’s life story might be stolen.

I had expected this book to be pretty depressing, and of course it’s infuriating that such injustice is excused every day. But it’s also quite beautiful, particularly in the Legacy portion: a look at Baldwin’s house in France, at the black bodies buried beneath an intersection in New Hampshire or Rhode Island. The final message is one of Jubilee: we have a right to be here. I’ve never been asked to defend my place. I wonder if I could. I wonder why some people have to, and some don’t.

A comfort? I can see that. I remember, in some of my darkest times, not wanting cheer and hope, but just wanting to know I’m not the only one who feels pain. This book gives Ward’s imagined boy in California, the girl in Missouri, the comfort of good company. It’s not justice, not by a long shot, that’s still work we need to do; but maybe it’s enough to get through one lonely, sad night.

Anis Shivani: Anatolia and Other Stories (Black Lawrence Press, 2009) [IBR2018]

Over the next hour, as the natural light declined further, she began to see the painting in all sorts of ways forbidden to her before. It struck her for the first time that paintings ought to be appreciated in their natural habitats for some period of time, then let go of, consigned to the mists of time and memory …

As I’ve been completing and blogging the reading list I compiled a couple of months ago, I’ve been listing the reasons I chose to read each book. I picked this one for an odd reason: my blogging buddy Jake, a big fan of some of Shivani’s essays, didn’t like it. Jake and I often agree on stories, but we just as often disagree, and that’s the case here: with a couple of exceptions, I greatly enjoyed the stories in this collection. I’m pretty sure I didn’t get everything I could have out of it, but, like the painting that changes as the natural light shifts, I suspect I’ll be recalling some of them quite frequently.

I can easily see why Jake takes issue with some of the stories. Often, the plot seems like a scaffold, existing only to give a place for characters to voice their opinions – voice, not discuss, since there’s rarely any interaction. It’s just that this doesn’t bother me at all. I’m also not concerned that Shivani’s personal views are front and center in most of the stories. First, I’m not that familiar with him, beyond his anti-workshop essay (which was in one of the first Pushcarts I blogged, but before I blogged anything but fiction) and a rather startling fairly recent article in Salon, voicing his longstanding argument against identity politics.

I’m not qualified to assess either opinion, but I find it interesting in the light of the Salon article that so many of the characters in the stories find it impossible to assimilate into the dominant culture, not because they aren’t willing, but because they simply aren’t accepted. The most stark occurrence of this is in “Manzanar”, where an interned American of Japanese descent during WWII speaks quite bluntly of the problem: “The wind groans a dirge for time lost to fatal error. How was it we thought we could become fully American, one hundred percent American, unassailably patriotic American, and get away with the illusion for so long?” This echoed for me the line spoken by Mr. Dussel in The Diary of Anne Frank: “I always thought of myself as Dutch.”

I encountered a review of the book that complained about the characters being “stuck”, of the lack of change in the stories. I can’t find that review now, however; I don’t think I made it up or dreamed it, since I doubt it would have occurred to me, but once I thought about it, I realized this was indeed the case in all but a couple of the pieces. This goes along with the “plot is a structure to hang philosophizing on” approach, I think, and again, while it’s probably a valid complaint, it’s just not something that bothers me.

Nowhere is this lack of change more prominent than in “Conservation”, one of my favorite stories. A conservator at a small Boston museum goes to great lengths to smuggle a painting out and take it home with her, in order to rescue it from the restoration plans of her superior to remove the imperfections that were not from accumulated damage, but were part of the original work: “Why should a lowly latter-day conservator go against the master’s intentions and try to cure the painting of its alleged defects by removing all hint of anomaly and conflict from the surface of the painting?” The brought to mind the enormously complex Japanese concept of wabi, an affinity for a natural state rather than artificial perfection, which I have corrupted to “the flaw that perfects”.

I know so little about art, but the recent History of Architecture mooc I took acquainted me with different views on building preservation: whether, in view of the frequent changes to buildings in ancient times, it makes sense to lock down a building’s structure by declaring it a historic landmark, whether recreating a city after the destruction of war erases something important, and the unusual point of view of Jorge Otero-Pailos, an artist who removed and preserved years of soot from various structures.

But in the end, the smuggler changes her mind and returns the painting, and it is as if nothing has happened. The stuffy European decides to go back to Europe where his stuffiness will be appreciated, and the director continues her plans to make the museum more appealing to a modern audience to increase funding. The lack of change was perhaps the point; there was that moment of seeing the painting change in the fading light, a moment of rash courage that existed, then was retracted. And, more important to me than any narrative drive, I got something of an education in attitudes towards art conservation. I’m never happier than when a story teaches me something, plot or no plot.

The most Shivanian (can that be a word, please?) story is “Go Sell It On The Mountain”, a takedown of Bread Loaf-style writing conferences powered and paid for by hope and vanity. I happen to know someone who went to a session, under the same conditions as the narrator (you pay your couple of grand, you get to workshop with other hopefuls and breathe the air of Success); he was quite enthusiastic about the experience, and I adored the story he wrote as a result (however, I was in the throes of a major crush at the time, so my judgment may be skewed). The Director of the fictional contest, seen as sort of the Archbishop of American Writing Programs, has a mission: he is, very much like the popularity-oriented art curator in “Conservation”,

… bent on cleaning up the filth and decadence in American writing, of which tidying up the Conference was a necessary though minor component. Professionalisation, standardisation, systematization , these were his obsessions, from the administering of contests to the editing of manuscripts, and his aim was no lower than rigorous enforcement of the rule of law to the three hundred and fifty writing programs in the country, to the extent his influence had any meaning. “The quirky personal element has been to romanticized. I want to establish the business of writing” …

I know very little about MFA programs or literary publishing, but I can tell you what happened when moocs got standardized by best-practices teams and slick instructional design departments. The best ones, to me, were put together with spit and glue back in the early days, by professors who felt a mission to share their excitement about their field. Their innovations – live sessions with call-in and tweet-in participation, 25-minute videos thoroughly exploring a single thought, message boards that encouraged students to connect and teach each other – have all been discarded as ineffective and inefficient in favor of the profitable development of mcMoocs and marketing them as products.

Oddly, I didn’t connect much with the Bread Loaf story, perhaps because it’s been redone several times. That’s a little unfair, like complaining that Shakespeare wrote in clichés. But here’s where I get why pontificating fiction is less popular now: whereas the story’s heart was to show the arrogance of the Director against the desperate hope of the newbie, with a couple of supporting characters for ballast (those in the know must’ve had a lot of fun solving the Roman à clef aspects), it felt like everyone was operating by a script not their own. I compare this to something like Elizabeth Tallent’s “Narrator” which has characters operating by their own beacons, not as participants in a morality play, and I felt the difference.

Another story that showed a similar locked-in quality was “Profession”. It was more than anything else an outline of different approaches to literary education, by way of a husband and wife at the University of Wisconsin. He, of “common sense” and the traditional approach to literature, is fading into the woodwork, while she, offering talks on the hermeneutics of a Mexican restaurant menu (forgive me, but I’d love to hear this), has become a superstar. She lives across campus, and he visits on weekends; they’ve just adopted a Vietnamese orphan, and he’s trying to figure out how to be a father while she’s just breezing along doing the literary equivalent of circus tricks. “Without compromise, there was no family,” he notes. But there’s compromise and there’s absurdity.

One of the things that pricked up my ears on this story was his frequent descriptions of her as “petite.” I wonder if he’s trying to make her smaller, or is trying to convince himself she is not the Sun and he does not have to revolve around her. Or if he’s just hung up on weight.

Another moment that stopped me in my tracks was a look at his despair: “Arthur couldn’t even pretend that teaching mattered. In four decades, had he been able to sway a single student to his point of view?” Is that the point of teaching, or is teaching about showing students how to find their own point of view, how to distinguish between wheat and chaff, how to discover what they value most versus least? Are we seeing two extremes here, with the golden mean – the compromise – lost in the egos and struggle for power in an academic system where, as many have said, the stakes are so small?

“Texas” also is, in my view, a plotless story that nevertheless has some interesting undercurrents. It consists of the musings of Amy, babysitter to a high-flying Malaysian oil engineer’s family. The interesting detail is that the engineer works at Enron, obviously before the fall (the story was published in 2006, well after the shit hit the fan). “Amy felt second-class in her own country.” That’s the double-bind of the immigrant, isn’t it: if you’re a highly trained engineer or doctor or software designer, you’re taking jobs away from Americans, but if you’re untrained, you’re not good enough to be here.

“Gypsy” gives another example of the difficulty of living among yet apart. A young girl from a Rom family is about to be promised into marriage, and she’s not happy about it. She has non-Rom friends, and wants to go to school, have a career, but her father, horribly old in his 30s, is counting on her bride price to settle a debt. As it happens, she goes through with it, but her husband comes to an unexpected early end, so she gets to pick up her life after all. “I’ve shed many generations of weight off my frail shoulders, without having betrayed anyone.” A little deus-ex-machina, but it’s an engrossing story, one of the few that has a relatively genuine progression of events. I ended up caring about her, whereas most of the other characters in the book were exemplars rather than people to me.

I found “Repatriation” to be interesting for only one reason: context. I’ve been obsessed with context lately, since most of the books in my summer reading project are from Before and now we are in the After (if you don’t know Before or After what, well, you haven’t been paying attention). I’m sure when Shivani wrote this story in 2006, it was a bizarre little apocalyptic tale about kicking brown and black people out of America, not something that was actually happening.

I found the title story to be pleasantly frustrating. Because of my unfamiliarity with the norms and vocabulary of the 17th century Ottoman empire, it was a little difficult to follow, but basically concerned a Jewish merchant in some kind of legal trouble; he expected it would go away, but the powers that be had other ideas, and while it didn’t go as badly for him as it could have, neither did it go away. What interested me were two moments towards the end of the story: first, a casual conversation turns into an invitation to a Muslim gathering of some sort. “I’m a Jew,” he replies with a sort of amused scorn. His interlocutor indicates surprise; he’s not wearing a kipah, but our merchant doesn’t think that’s so unusual at all. He’d even bought a ring, thinking he might convert to Islam and marry a colleague’s daughter. But given the legal outcome (which I’m quite hazy on), he reconsiders: “Perhaps there was beauty after all in keeping things separate, not letting odd combinations mix and match at will.” I just ran into a similar sentiment in The Sellout, with a farming metaphor to emphasize the different kinds of conditions various species might need, and compared it to HBCUs and single-sex schools, both of which have shown some good results.

The story becomes chilling in the last paragraph, when he declares, “What had happened to him was an individual incident with no universal meaning.” I find it odd a Jew would think such a thing, but I suppose it had been a few centuries since the expulsions from Spain and England, and it seems the restrictions of 15th century Italy might not be that much of a factor in his consciousness. But just wait, dear man, until the 20th century. And the 21st.

The final story, “Tehran”, seemed very different to me. It’s a reconstruction, in fragmented leaps, of a suicide bombing at a café. The bomber turns out to be, oh dear, a frustrated writer whose work, while brilliant, has been censored. The innocent people he takes with him are people he would probably like: a caring schoolteacher trying to help women continue their education in spite of restrictions, and a young religious court official trying to reconcile his beliefs, and the poetry he loves, with post-Revolutionary Iran. It’s a beautiful, sad story, and a tragic reminder that no one has suffered more from terrorism and Islamic extremism than Muslims.

I’m very glad I read this collection. I wish this post did it justice; I find I have so much to say – and I’ve left out some things – I just haven’t been able to organize it properly. But obscurity has its benefits; when I make a fool of myself, the witnesses are few. It’s full of things to think about, and, like the painting, I suspect I will see it differently as time passes. I hope it will be with more wisdom and understanding.

Chinelo Okparanta, Happiness, Like Water (Mariner, 2013) [IBR2018]

“Happiness is like water,” she says. “We’re always trying to grab onto it, but it’s always slipping between our fingers.” She looks down at her hands,. “And my fingers are thin,” she says. “With lots of gaps in between.”

She holds out the object in the space above my thighs. “For you,” she says to me. “A wedding favour,” she says.
I reach out to accept. She places the object into my cupped hand, and then she covers my hand with her own. Our hands linger in mid-air that way, mine in hers. Then I pull away, because the whole thing feels not quite like a celebration, something like unadorned acceptance, just a bit short of joyful.
And I think that perhaps all this will do. The waterfowls are still quacking, and the sun is high in the sky. The river is still glowing in shades of silver and gold. Grace is sitting next to me, and I can’t help thinking that perhaps the verge of joy is its own form of happiness.

~~ Grace

Rooted in domestic drama – marriages, families, and the conflicts that arise – the stories in this collection look at women struggling to cup their hands around happiness, and finding, in most cases, it runs right through their fingers. Perhaps the lucky ones learn to live with that, the verge of happiness. Or perhaps they’re the unlucky ones.

I chose this book because I’ve quite enjoyed the work of several other Nigerian women over the past few years. Okparanta has generated a lot of buzz, and I was curious to see the kind of scope a collection about nine different Nigerian women could generate. The first five stories are set in Nigeria; the sixth concerns a woman preparing to emigrate the US, and the last four show Nigerian women after migration here. But they are all different and face different issues.

“On Ohaeto Street” gives us a somewhat reluctant bride who discovers her husband loves his car more than he loves her, forming an instant bond with a lot of American women right there. It’s told by a relator-narrator, a term I’m inventing because I lack the formal training to use the proper terminology. It’s something like an observer narrator, but O-Ns are typically involved in the action of the story, or at least appear in it, and witness the action themselves; the relator-narrator is repeating what someone else has told them (yes, I have finally taken to plural objects, it makes sense, and face it, language changes or I’d be writing in proto-Indo-European). The tone is a slightly brittle repressed humor rather than outright horror or condemnation, which gives it an interesting twist. The reveal of the narrator’s identity at the end underlines the voice.

“Wahala!” is the story of a wife whose family is getting impatient for her to be fruitful and multiply. Nobody cares that she has pain with each act of intercourse; they keep trying different things to make her fertile, and hear her moans of pain as sounds of delight. It’s incredibly sad.

“Fairness” deals with the obsession, even among African women, with lighter skin, and the lengths they will go to for a few shades. The semantic confusion between the two meanings of “fair” elevates the story from movie-of-the-week territory: “She is now one of the others, one of the girls with fair skin…. We are thirsty for fairness.” “Story, Story!” is a kind of urban legend turned gruesome, something like the Psycho version of Arsenic and Old Lace.

“Runs Girl” didn’t interest me much at first, but I was drawn in as the emotional complexity increased. It seems a Run Girl is similar to an escort in the US. In this case, the girl only gets into it, at the urging of a friend, because her mother desperately needs medical care they can’t afford. The ironic twist comes when mom figures out what happened – only once – so refuses to use the money for anything. The story turns to a meditation on forgiveness, one of my always-favorite notes:

And sometimes I think that if I were to be placed in a valley full of bones, I would create a new Eve, create her from a new set of bones. And I would lay sinews upon her dry bones, and flesh upon the sinews. And I would cause there to be a noise, a clicking noise, and everything would fall in place. And I would cause breath to enter in, and this new Eve would live.
And this new Eve would walk amongst the trees of the garden. And she would drink from the waters of the river of the garden. And again, she would eat the forbidden fruit. But she would not be cast away from the garden, because she would be given the opportunity, just once, to ask for forgiveness. And she would be forgiven.

~~ Runs Girl

I’m just about to begin a study of Paradise Lost, and this question of the opportunity to repent fits in nicely.

“America” is another story that starts out as one thing and becomes another. It also forms a transition point in the book, from stories set in Nigeria to those of immigrants to the US, as Okparanta was at the age of 10. Nnenna is a teacher whose primary reason for emigration is to be with her girlfriend in a place they won’t be jailed or executed for loving each other, but of course she needs to come up with something better than that, so decides to obtain another degree, this time from an American college. The story slowly morphs into the ecological and social impact of Shell Oil on Nigeria, a topic on which I confess I am ignorant, but I’d be surprised if exploitation and ecological ruin was not involved just as described. During the visa process, Nnenna starts to consider “getting lost in America”, otherwise known as the brain drain. It’s a thoughtful story with a lot to consider.

“Shelter” and “Designs” are, to me, less developed stories, offering fairly stereotypical views of domestic abuse and adultery, respectively. But then we come to “Grace”, which ends with the lead-off quote above. It’s a story of an American professor and the Nigerian student who develops a crush on her, a story of boundaries and keeping limits, but also about the outskirts of happiness. While it seemed too long for what is, after all, a fairly routine plot, I was quite taken with the ending, and realized the search for happiness, women hanging on to the fringes of happiness, is the connecting thread for the collection.

“Tumours and Butterflies” was the most complex story of the bunch, recapitulating some themes of belonging and exile, domestic abuse, forgiveness, and the outskirts of happiness. I have to wonder about the title, which is, well, awful, but the story is engrossing. There’s a passage about a doormat that captures the subdued eddies running through the piece:

… I recognize the doormat, the same one from nearly a decade ago. But it’s still looking brand new, not fraying at the edges at all. I wonder how often doormats are replaced. I wonder if they have just gotten into the habit of replacing it with the exact same type. I wonder if maybe there is just no one stepping on the mat, perhaps it is always just the two of them, never any guests, never any extra footsteps.

~~ Tumours and Butterflies

Okparenta’s 2016 novel, Under the Udala Trees, combines the stormy Nigerian civil war period with the protagonist’s illicit relationship with another woman. It’s probably not a novel I’ll read, but I continue to enjoy the voices of Nigerian women through their books and stories.

Kiese Laymon: How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance (Bolden, 2013) [IBR2018]

…I wanted to produce a book with a Mississippi blues and gospel ethos. And I wanted to shape the book in the form of some of my favorite albums. I thought of the essays as tracks. I thought of some of the pieces in the book as songs with multiple voices and layered musicality. I thought of ways to bring the ad lib, riff, collaboration, and necessary digression to the page. I wanted a book that could be read front to back in one sitting. I wanted to explore the benefits and burdens of being born a black boy in America without the predictable literary rigidity. And I wanted young black Southerners, particularly, to generate art in response to this text while working with the essays at being human. The hardest part, of course, is that I wanted to be honest about my family, my nation, my region, my memory, and me.

~~ Prologue

I can see the music album form of this book: the essays take different forms, different moods; they use overt collaboration in the form of a series of letters between family, and between artists who bring a different view to the same theme of growing up with something to say and not a lot of permissible room to say it in. Like some of my earlier reads, this essay collection was published in 2013, a time before the current era; now it seems prescient, but if anyone had been paying attention back then, we would’ve seen that MAGA has always been part of this country, waiting in corners where most of America didn’t bother looking for the day when it could again take center stage.

The collection is rooted in family and tours through music, literature, politics, and growing up amidst it all. We start out with a prologue, a letter to the now-dead Uncle Jimmy, who served as inspiration and bright warning light on the road that goes nowhere good: “I didn’t want you to know that I wanted you to be better at being human…. I knew that you were slowly killing yourself. And, predictably, I knew that I would become you. I hated you and me both for that.”

In “The Worst of the White Folks”, everything is set in apposition: a schoolmate is the picture of “American responsibility” one day and a bratty kid the next; the country debates the violence in Chicago on Twitter in 2012 while cousin Jermaine’s sister is murdered and he’s found guilty of manslaughter. The title essay recounts Laymon’s college years, from Millsaps to Jackson State to Oberlin, and how close he came to dying on so many occasions, how many guns were aimed at him, including by his mom and himself:

I know that as I’ve gotten deeper into my late twenties and thirties, I have managed to continue killing myself and other folks who loved me in spite of me. I know that I’ve been slowly killed by folks who were as feverishly in need of life and death as I am. The really confusing part is that a few of those folk who have nudged me closer to slow death have also helped me say yes to life when I most needed it. Usually, I didn’t accept it. Lots of times, we’ve taken turns killing ourselves slowly, before trying to bring each other back to life. Maybe that’s the necessary stank of love, or maybe — like Frank Ocean says — it’s all just bad religion, just tasty watered down cyanide in a styrofoam cup.

~~ The Worst of the White Folks

“Our Kind of Ridiculous” recounts a period Laymon spent writing his Master’s thesis in Pennsylvania and meeting white poverty in the person of Kurt who gives him “that gift that a number of white folks I’d met love to give black folks at the strangest times, the gift of being decidedly different from all them other niggers.” Oh, yeah the “you’re one of the good ones” thing. It comes in flavors other than racism – gender, queerness, nationality, religion, even career choice – but it’s never so pernicious as when bestowed by the root and cause. Then we hear of the incident outside Hershey, where Laymon and his girlfriend are pulled over on the way home from a Lilith Fair concert while driving a Geo Metro, for god’s sake. It’d be funny if people weren’t dying in circumstances like this.

There’s a chapter on hip hop that completely goes by me. Hey, what can I say. I stopped paying attention to popular music in 1970 when the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel broke up, and the only contemporary music I hear these days is on TV and movie soundtracks. Yet “Eulogy for Three Black Boys Who Lived”, the triptych on Michael Jackson, Bernie Mac, and Tupac, was greatly moving. “Echo” is exactly that: a reverberation of letters between five black men – five highly successful black men from a variety of fields and backgrounds – talking about family and love and figuring out how to heal. I found it interesting that they disagree with the “it’s the lack of fathers” narrative; they focus more on the need for love, in the home, the community, the country.

While not really about music, “Kanye West and HaLester Myers Are Better at Their Jobs…” looks at how the music industry affects how the community views women. He points out the conundrum that is Kanye: while he’s standing up for Beyoncé and the drowning people of NOLA, he’s also making millions off misogyny, an attitude that’s contagious and seeps into the lives of real woman. The essay rotates around a rhetorical question: does he, does any man, deserve to ever have his hand held by a woman?

“Reasonable Doubt and the Lost Presidential Debate of 2012” is another of those prescient moments, but it’s only prescient because some people have been here before; it’s part of their culture, the culture white people want to forget and gloss over. From Laymon’s mom, a PoliSci prof, to the corner barbershop, they know the game is fixed:

Mama eventually sighs and says again, “Kie, people who never learned to lose will do anything to see us not win. When they lose to Obama, they’ll figure out a way to win anyway. It’s just too much.”
…I’m playing it off, imagining the celebrations that will follow the election of our first black President. But not even deep down, though, I know Mama is right.
We know Mama is right.
Obama will win. We will win. Then we will continue to lose. And the right questions will never be honestly asked or answered. And it’s all just too much.

~~ Reasonable Doubt and the Lost Presidential Debate of 2012

And then there’s “You are the Second Person”, the most directly writerly essay in the book. This essay is, by the way, the reason I chose to read this book; I read it some time ago. I was drawn to it by my appreciation for the second person voice, and discovered a layer of word play (throughout the story, several overheard conversations start with “You are the second person who…”. But it’s really about the nasty side of publishing, the exploitation, the whitewashing, the eagerness to jettison artistic intent and execution in favor of a bland work that reaps profits. It’s how voices of color, of queerness, of otherness, get muted. It’s the story of Laymon’s first novel, Long Division, which languished on agents’ desks for a couple of years while he was pressured to rewrite out the racial politics, to make it more palatable to the projected audience of white readers, because southern black boys don’t read fiction. Maybe they don’t read it because nobody’s writing anything they want to read. The novel was eventually published intact, time travel, metafiction, racial politics, and all. I’m very curious. His memoir Heavy is set for release this October, but I think this novel is the one I’ll add to my list for the next reading round.

And we end near where we began, with letters to family, this time between Laymon and his mom. I like that technique of circling back to finish off a piece; I like the sense of closure, of wholeness and unity it brings to a work that, because it’s a collection, could seem fragmented. This reads like a single work; yes, the style changes throughout, and there is variety, but all in the service of a single theme: moving from slowly killing himself and others in America, to health. May the journey continue – for all of us.

David Litt: Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years (HarperCollins, 2017) [IBR2018]

The list of Things Obamaworld Taught Me could go on for several pages, I learned that decisions are only as good as the decision-making process. That generosity is a habit and not a trait. That all human beings, even presidents, look goofy chewing gum.
But here, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is the single most valuable lesson I learned in public service: There are no grown-ups, at least not in the way I imagined as a kid. Once you reach a certain age, the world has no more parents. But it contains a truly shocking number of children. These children come in all ages, in all sizes, from every walk of life and every corner of the political map.
And this is the reason I’m most grateful for my time in Obamaworld: For eight formative years, often against my will, I was forced to act like an adult.

I chose to read this book because I thought it would be a comfort. The book is exactly what I’d expected: a series of anecdotes, many humorous or self-deprecating, some inspiring, from Litt’s experience in various communications positions at and around the White House during the Obama presidency. I was surprised to learn how many different forms this could take. It was fun reading.

Yet, I wasn’t comforted. The difference between then and now – what it was like to not feel ashamed of the President of my country, the different rules that apply now, and how those rules seemed to change without any mass consensus, but merely on the whims of a small group that decided power was the only thing that mattered – left me feeling kind of miserable. It’s the same sensation I’ve been having lately when trying to watch West Wing episodes to keep up with Joshua Malina’s weekly podcast: poking at this open wound just isn’t much fun.

That’s not the book’s fault. As I said, it was good reading. Litt goes from awkward newbie to experienced hand, from the confusion of naïveté to the exhaustion of a crazy job under impossible circumstances, and comes out of it with his hope intact.

That quote Sarah Palin used so snarkily in 2010 – “How’s that hopey changey thing going fo ya?” – creates a zip line for the story to travel, as Litt considers, at various points, just how it is going.

…[I]f you ignore her mocking tone and that annoying dropped G, it’s a good question. I spent the lion’s share of my twenties in Obamaworld. Career-wise, it went well. But more broadly? Like so many people who fell in love with a candidate and then a president, the last eight years have been an emotional roller coaster. Groundbreaking elections marred by midterm shellackings. The exhilaration of passing a health care law followed by the exhaustion of defending it. Our first black president made our union more perfect simply by entering the White House, but a year from now he’ll vacate it for Donald Trump, America’s imperfections personified….
How has it all worked out?
I had knocked on doors and driven naked. I had organized a county and scrubbed Janice Maier’s table till it gleamed. I sang the Golden Girls theme song in the Oval. I watched a tiny man surf Jesse Jackson’s coat. In a convention hall in Charlotte, I met a mom from Arizona who would never stop fighting for her little girl. I was disillusioned more times than I thought possible. I was reinspired more times than I could count. I navigated for a woman, the highest test of love. I helped break the Internet. I wrote one perfect speech. I found a salmon in the toilet and was caught half-naked on Air Force One and told the president he looked like Hitler to his face.

If any of those niblets interest you – and come on, how can you not wonder about most of them – you’ll find this book a lot of fun to read. And you, too, may forget the open wound for a few minutes when you find yourself replaying the “Luther the Anger Translator” bit from the last SOTU, just for the fun of it.

Muriel Barbery: The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa Editions, 2008) [IBR2018]

As for Madame Michel… how can we tell? She radiates intelligence. And yet she really makes an effort, like, you can tell she is doing everything she possibly can to act like a concierge and come across as stupid. But I’ve been watching her…. Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.

Nearly everyone in this book is trying to appear to be something other than what they are. That’s true of all of us, I suppose. As always, it’s the journey that forms the plot: from fear to joy, from despair to wonder, on the rails of art. With a lot of philosophy along the way.

The plot starts out at glacial speed, but ends up moving at breakneck pace. I wonder if that’s really the case, though, or if I’d just become accustomed to the pages and pages of exposition and textual thought bubbles between each tiptoe step forward. It isn’t until page 77 – almost a quarter of a way through the novel – that we come to “And that is when it all started”, and it takes nearly another hundred pages before the plot starts to develop. But what is in between is not mere padding; it’s all important, it all is drawn into the plot, though we have to be patient to find out how. And it’s fascinating to someone like me, who loves to learn about something new, whether it’s Francis Bacon or the camellia-on-moss imagery in the Yasujirō Ozu film The Munekata Sisters or her admiration for the writing style of the restaurant critic whose death, the subject of an earlier novel, begins the chain of events that make up the plot for this story.

We follow two narrators who take turns delivering short chapters. Reneé Michel is the concierge of a Parisian apartment building (a hôtel particulier, which, I take it, is something like an American luxury condominium – forgive me, my lack of familiarity with everyday life in France is showing). She’s in her 50s, dumpy and lumpy, and has had a lifelong passion for reading, art, films, philosophy, and the beauty of language. Yet she has a desperate need to hide her intelligence and extensive knowledge; we don’t find out exactly why until much later in the book.

The other narrator, Paloma Joss, is a 12-year-old girl, living with her family on the 5th floor. She, too, is hiding her intelligence, though her motivation is less complex: she just doesn’t want the burden of increased family expectations. She has decided that life is disappointing, and there is nothing in this world that is worth the effort, so she plans to kill herself on her 13th birthday if nothing convinces her otherwise. Her narration is in the form of a journal containing both Profound Thoughts, and Movement of the World.

…if I had more time to live, Art would be my whole life…. I’m referring to the beauty that is there in the world, things that, being part of the movement of life, elevate us. The Journal of the Movement of the World will be devoted therefore to the movement of people, bodies, or even – if there’s really nothing to say – things, and to finding whatever is beautiful enough to give life meaning. Grace, beauty, harmony, intensity. If I find something, then I may rethink my options. If I find a body with beautiful movement or, failing that, a beautiful idea for the mind, well then maybe I’ll think that life is worth living after all.

For most of the book, these two characters don’t interact, barely seem aware of each other. Yet, their narrations bounce off each other. When Reneé considers, and eventually rejects, Husserl’s phenomenology (having struggled with phenomenology in several moocs on Consciousness, I can identify), Paloma separates her journal into thought and matter; they consider art in congruent chapters, coming to the conclusion that “Beauty is consonance”, a thought that persists throughout the book. And eventually, we realize they are quite aware of each other. It’s just that they’d rather rip into the other tenants in the building.

Scenes of great humor lighten up what could otherwise be a heavy text. Paloma observes two of her neighbors whose dogs, on their respective leashes, insist on smelling each others’ butts, as dogs do. The women are clearly uncomfortable, but “… they are incapable of doing the only truly practical thing in cases like this: acknowledge what is going on in order to prevent it.”

The complications begin when a new neighbor arrives to take over the apartment vacated by the family of the deceased restaurant critic. He’s a distinguished middle-aged Japanese gentleman, generating great curiosity from all the tenants. He’s very polite to all, yet seems uninterested in them at the same time. Until he meets Reneé, over another tenant’s (relatively minor) usage error of using “bring” instead of “take”, a violation of the structure and beauty of language that Reneé so appreciates in secret:

And yet, there is an element of tragedy: I flinched when she said bring and at that very moment Monsieur Something also flinched, and our eyes met. And since that infinitesimal nanosecond when – of this I’m sure – we were joined in linguistic solidarity by the shared pain that made our bodies shudder, Monsieur Something has been observing me with a very different gaze.
A watchful gaze.

She and the newcomer – whose name turns out to be Monsieur Ozu, connecting the plot to the exposition – trade the opening lines of Anna Karenina as casual conversation, and he asks the name of her cat: Leo. Unlike the other tenants in the building, this gentleman sees her for what she is, yet maintains her secret.

Their relationship ranges from hilarious to sublime. He invites her for dinner, causing a flurry of concern about dresses, hair, and so forth. When she arrives for the dinner, she agonizes over how to ask the location of the bathroom until matters are urgent. Her tendency to overthink is so familiar to me: how should I act? What do normal people expect me to do in a case like this? But when she is taken by surprise by the Confutatis that accompanies the flushing of the toilet – an event that would certainly take me by surprise – she discovers she can relax, that M. Ozu does not have any particular expectations about how one ought to behave. “Can’t everything always be this simple?” she wonders.

At that point, Paloma enters her life more directly, visiting during the day to have a cup of tea and chat. So our isolated, secretive concierge now has two people with whom she can be who she is, two friends.

The book ends in a way I found a bit disappointing, even manipulative, and possibly… lazy? As the pages dwindled to a precious few, I had three possible endings in my head, and this was one of them. Not the worst possibility, but still, considering Pushcart story endings regularly take me by surprise, I was hoping for something more imaginative. I have to admit, in view of the revelation of the reason for Reneé’s desperation to hide her inquisitive mind and self-learning from the world, it makes sense, and forms… ok, a consonance. I still feel there must have been a better resolution, but I’m not bright enough to offer one (I have never had to work hard to keep up a front of ignorance for the world).

It seems this novel was wildly popular in France when it was first published; it seems to have been less successful here. I greatly enjoyed it. Even though the first half is slow-moving, there isn’t a page that doesn’t contain something of interest to me.

I put this on my library “to be read” list several years ago, and I don’t really remember why. At this point, I was interested the descriptions of the protagonists, and the inclusion of so much philosophy and art (Barbery was a philosophy teacher, by the way, and lived in Japan for several years). In spite of my misgivings about the endings, I’m very glad I read it.

Paul Beatty: The Sellout (Picador, 2015) [IBR2018]

This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies….
But here I am, in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, my car illegally and somewhat ironically parked on Constitution Avenue, my hands cuffed and crossed behind my back, my right to remain silent long since waived and said goodbye to as I sit in a thickly padded chair that, looks like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.
…Allegations in that summation accused me of everything from desecration of the Homeland to conspiracy to upset the apple cart just when things were going so well. Dumbfounded, I stood before the court, trying to figure out if there was a state of being between guilty and innocent. Why were those my only alternatives ?

There’s an anecdote told at the very end of the novel, a story about a black comic who throws a white couple out of the black club where he’s performing his routine, telling them, “This is our thing.” Although this leads to the deeper question of just what is “our thing”, it reminded me of the SNL skit that followed the release of Beyonce’s “Formation” video: a bunch of confused white people, shocked to discover that Beyonce is black, whispering, “Maybe the song isn’t for us?” with the reply, “But usually everything is!”

That’s how I felt when I began reading this book: slightly uncomfortable, like I wasn’t going to be able to get it, like it was meant for someone else. That may be true, but it was, indeed, hilarious and tragic at the same time, and while I may have not recognized some of the references, I was kept pretty busy with the ones that landed just fine.

Like the entire town of Dickens, I was my father’s child, a product of my environment, and nothing more. Dickens was me. And I was my father. Problem is, they both disappeared from my life, first my dad, and then my hometown, and suddenly I had no idea who I was , and no clue how to become myself.

This struggle of identity forms one major core of the novel. Our protagonist’s last name is Me; his given name is never revealed. We know him only through nicknames, some more positively intended than others, like BonBon and The Sellout. His dad was a sociologist who had some strange ideas about child rearing and education, and who was considered the town’s “nigger whisperer” since he’d talk people off the ledge, literally and figuratively, as needed. “Who am I? And how may I become myself?” were the two questions he relied on, and those questions are what BonBon – expected to fill his dad’s role when the man is shot dead by police for the usual non-reasons – asks himself over and over throughout the novel, culminating in the final, “what is our thing”?

If this sounds like a tough setup for a comic novel, well, yeah, it is, but remember, satire is a different form of comedy, and the laughter is deeply tinged with bitterness and sorrow.

The town of Dickens is based on an actual section of Compton called Richland Farms, where, odd as it may seem, there are indeed horses and pigs and growing produce right smack in the middle of one of the toughest places in the US. It can get lost in the flood of significance from the novel, but BonBon is one hell of a farmer: his plums are treasured for their blend of flavors, and he painstakingly cares for a satsuma tree to keep it from being overwatered during a freak onslaught of rain, producing gems with the perfect blend of sweet and sour. Beatty doesn’t let the chance for a great metaphor to pass by:

Those motherfuckers segregate because they want to hold on to power. I’m a farmer: we segregate in an effort to give every tree, every plant, every poor Mexican, every poor nigger, a chance for equal access to sunlight and water we make sure every living organism has room to breathe.

This week was the anniversary of Eric Garland’s death by choke hold at the hands of police, ostensibly for the crime of selling loose cigarettes on the street. Ross Gay’s poem “A Small Needful Fact”, written shortly after, came across my twitter feed, and connected immediately with Beatty’s metaphor, but I think there’s another context, that of HBCUs and some secondary schools for girls, which allow those often overlooked to shine in their own right. “How do you racially segregate an already segregated school?” Dickens suffers from the segregation of racism and power; BonBon tries to change it into a segregation of nurturance.

The overall story follows BonBon’s efforts to put Dickens back on the map, after it’s somehow removed. He starts with a simple thing: painting a white line around the town borders. Along the way he picks up a “slave” in the person of Hominy, a former child actor and the last surviving member of the Little Rascals cast who just shows up on the farm and declares himself a slave. This arc, interestingly, forms a secondary envelope for the story, as Hominy un-declares himself at the end, when his only desire is fulfilled: the reclamation of the “lost” episodes of the serial, the ones too racist even for the 30s, including outtakes which are where most of Hominy’s scenes ended up.

While most of the efforts to put Dickens back on the map are outrageously wild, a few are fairly tame, yet these too are played for all they’re worth and turned into satire. Take for example the choosing of sister cities, from among the abandoned and destroyed cities of the world – except for the last one:

But in the end we found it impossible to ignore the impassioned pleas of the Lost City Of White Male Privilege, a controversial municipality whose very existence is often denied by many (mostly privileged white males).
It became impossible to walk the streets of the Lost City Of White Male Privilege, feeding your ego by reciting mythological truisms like “We built this country!” when all around you brown men were constantly hammering and nailing, cooking world-class French meals, and repairing your cars.

I’ve been hyperaware of context over the past few months in everything I read, and this is no exception. It was published in March, 2015, before the current administration was even a nightmarish possibility. It was a time of Black Lives Matter and the incongruous assurance that, thanks to the election of President Obama, we were now living in a post-racial America, even as the murderer of a 17-year-old kid named Trayvon Martin was exonerated since an adult in a truck armed with a gun is no match for a teenager standing on a sidewalk, a 12-year-old named Tamir Rice was murdered having been judged, after less than 2 seconds, to be a threat to the officer’s life, and a 22-year-old named John Crawford was buying a BB-gun in Walmart when he was murdered by a SWAT team. And this brings us to BonBon’s true crime: as he puts it, “Well, I’ve whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.”

The book is loaded with comebacks to some of the stuff that falls out of the mouths of people who aren’t racist at all.

You’d rather be here than in Africa. The trump card all narrow minded nativists play ….I seriously doubt that some slave ship ancestor, in those idle moments between being raped and beaten, was standing knee-deep in their own feces rationalising that, in the end, the generations of murder, unbearable pain and suffering, mental anguish, and rampant disease will all be worth it because someday my great-great-great-great-grandson will have Wi-Fi, no matter how slow and intermittent the signal is.

One of the judges BonBon comes before on his trip to the Supreme Court has a great metaphor for this “I don’t see race” thing: when people say they don’t care if someone’s black or white or purple, start painting them purple and see what they think. There’s a scene in Herman Wouk’s WWII epic, Winds of War that I’ve always remembered: a group of Warsaw embassy officials, in German hands on safe passage out of the city at the beginning of the war, resist disclosing who in the group in Jewish. The charge finally offers an exasperated solution: if it’s just for recordkeeping, count them all as Jews, at which point the group objects. Racial equality, even among the well-meaning, only goes so far.

By the way, we don’t seem to be having a lot of discussions about whether we live in a post-racial society now, do we?

I keep wanting to admire how unusual it is for a humorous book to make some of us uncomfortable yet leave us laughing, but… though many scenes are indeed hilarious, I’m not sure it’s going to leave anyone laughing. Satire isn’t laugh-out-loud humor; it’s like watching a food fight, but in your own kitchen. Satire makes the slapstick slap back. The better the satire – and the more real the thing that is being satirized – the harder the slap.

I chose to read this book because I read so many good things about it at the time. I was going to put his earlier book, White Boy Shuffle, on my list, but it seems to emphasize youth, surfing, and basketball, so maybe I’ll wait for the next one instead.

Helen Oyeyemi: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours (Riverhead, 2016) [IBR2018]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The nine stories:

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

books and roses

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

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

”sorry” doesn’t sweeten her tea

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

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

is your blood as red as this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

”sorry” doesn’t sweeten her tea

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

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

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


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

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

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

a brief history of the homely wench society

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

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

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

dornička and the st. martin’s day goose

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

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

freddy barrandov checks . . . in?

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

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

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

Available online at Buzzfeed

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

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

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

Robert Walser: The Schoolboy’s Diary (NYREV, 2013) [IBR2018]

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

From “The Poet” (first half)

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

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

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

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

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

From “Introduction”

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

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

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

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

From “Autumn”

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

From “Music”

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

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

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

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

From “The Poet” (second half)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guillermo Martínez: The Oxford Murders (MacAdam/Cage, 2005) [IBR2018]

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

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

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

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

To wit:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celeste Ng: Little Fires Everywhere (Penguin, 2017) [IBR2018]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rohan Maitzen at Novel Readings

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

Julie Schumacher: Dear Committee Members (Doubleday, 2014) [IBR2018]

Dear Ted,

Your memo of August 30 requests that we on the English faculty recommend some luckless colleague For the position of graduate studies. (You may have been surprised to find this position vacant upon your assumption of the chairmanship last month – if so, trust me, you will encounter many such surprises here.)

A quick aside, Ted: god knows what enticements were employed during the heat of summer to persuade you – a sociologist! – to accept the position of chair in a department not your own, an academic unit whose reputation for eccentricity and discord has inspired the upper echelon to punish us by withholding favors as if from a six-year-old at a birthday party: No raises or research funds for you, you ungovernable rascals! And no fudge before dinner! Perhaps, as the subject of a sociological study, you will find the problem of our dwindling status intriguing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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