Closing out the In-Between Reading for 2020

The photos above are fake news. Oh, the photos themselves are real enough; that is my TBR shelf, then and now. But the story the photos tell isn’t a completely accurate record of my reading. Some books were added to the shelf after the first photo, but didn’t get read. Some books aren’t there any more, but they weren’t read; they turned out to be mistakes, and they’re now on other shelves, awaiting another try some day. But, though not precise, the idea remains: I did a lot of reading over the last six months.

Twenty-nine books, to be exact (see them all here). I’ve never been been one to count, but somehow it made sense now. I’ve categorized them in different ways. First, by overall genre, the easiest classification:

  • Philosophy:   5
  • Other Non-fiction:   7
  • Short Story Collections:  8
  • Novels:  9

Then, by source: where did I get the idea to read these books? Pushcart and BASS often send me reading other works by authors, and sometimes research turns up interesting ideas. Twitter includes a host of subsources: various literary websites, writers and reviewers mentioning books they’ve read, etc. And this year, I made an effort to include some science fiction:

  • Pushcart- and BASS-inspired:  7
  • Twitter-inspired:  6
  • Big New Books:   2
  • Reading-list (catching up on the canon) books:  3
  • Science Fiction/Fantasy:      4

If that doesn’t add up to 29, well, sometimes I don’t remember, and some things were impulse buys.

Then by the rating I gave them on Goodreads. These are very flimsy; had I read the exact same book at a different time, I might have rated it differently. Some days I’m in a hypercritical mood; apologies to those authors whose books happen to fall on those days.

  • 3-star:   1
  • 4-star:  13
  • 5-star:  15

I had a great time.

Then there were the mistakes: the books I didn’t read enough of to post about. I made more mistakes this year than in prior years, maybe because I bought more books. Hey, if you don’t make occasional mistakes, you’re probably too risk-averse and are missing out on some great books. At least that’s what I tell myself.

I tried poetry again; when will I learn? But I saw a tweet with Stephen Dunn’s “Different Hours”, a wonderful poem (“Only the facts saved her”) and thought, maybe this time. But no. There were a few other poems I understood in there, but not enough to write a post about. Sorry.

I also experimented with a new technique of book selection. I’d read a couple of books from a small publisher, and thought I’d check out a couple of their titles; one turned out to have a great premise, which is why I got it, but was one of the most boring books I’d ever read. The other was just too weird. I knew it was weird when I got it, that’s why I got it, but there’s weird and there’s weird, and I just couldn’t do that much weird. Hey, sometimes experiments work out; sometimes they don’t.

I used to read a lot of medical books; that is, “how I became a doctor” books, or “the story of my husband’s/son’s/mother’s/my illness”. Maybe medical books have changed; maybe I have, because the two medical books I tried to read were a bust. One turned out to be all about the doctor, not the medicine. Another was just too simple. Maybe that’s the thing: considering you can pretty much take the classroom courses of medical school via moocs and Youtube, medicine isn’t that much of a mystery any more.

A Reading List Book discouraged me from the opening scene, and was much too long to persevere. A book I bought because the author had a delightful podcast turned out to be bogged down in parental minutiae; not being a parent, I got bored and lost track of who’s who. These, and the others, were all worthwhile mistakes. Even the poetry. My theory: if you’re not making a certain number of mistakes, you’re missing out on a bunch of really great books.

One notable sign-of-the-times: I included more recently-published books than usual, and ordered a far greater percentage from my local independent bookseller rather than waiting for second-hand prices or using library copies. Part of that is my desire to support a local business that’s been hit hard by COVID-19. And part is the result of having moved to a much less expensive apartment a year and a half ago, thus having more money for things like books.

And now I’m done. Not really, of course. One of the books still on my shelf is a large anthology of science fiction from the 50s to the 70s; I can pick away at that while I read BASS and Pushcart. I have another History of Philosophy book that lends itself to reading in short segments, and a medieval history that’s the same. And of course there are always books coming across various feeds. Just today, xkcd reminded me of one already on my list (Because Internet) and added another (A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear). So many books, so little time! Oh well, there’s always next year. And it looks like there will be a next year, after all.

But now it’s time for BASS 2020. It’s not here yet, but it’s on its way. Patience. As with so many things.

Richard E. Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children (Harcourt Harvest, 2003)

Once upon a time in the West, in Spain, to be exact, a collection of documents that had lain in darkness for more than one thousand years was brought to light, and the effects of the discovery were truly revolutionary. Aristotle’s books were the medieval Christians’ star-gate. For Europeans of the High Middle Ages, the dramatic reappearance of the Greek philosopher’s lost works was an event so unprecedented and of such immense impact as to be either miraculous or diabolical, depending on one points of view. The knowledge contained in these manuscripts was “hard” as well as “soft,” and it was remarkably comprehensive. Some three thousand  pages of material ranging over the whole spectrum of learning from biology and physics to logic, psychology, ethics, and political science seemed to be a bequest from a superior civilization.
Or, I should say, from two superior civilizations. For Aristotle’s books were not discovered written in Greek and stored in clay jars, but written in Arabic and housed in the libraries of the great universities at Baghdad, Cairo, Toledo, and Cordoba. After the fall of the Roman Empire and the collapse of order in Europe, the works of Aristotle and other Greek scientists became the intellectual property of the prosperous and enlightened Arab civilization that ruled the great southern crescent extending from Persia to Spain. As a result, when Western Europeans translated these works into Latin with the help of Muslim and Jewish scholars, they also translated the works of their leading Islamic and Jewish interpreters, world-class philosophers like Avicenna, Averroës, and Moses Maimonides.

Prologue

This dramatic prologue sets the stage for Rubenstein’s primary discussion of the intellectual history of twelfth- and thirteenth- century Europe. He begins further back, with Aristotle himself and then the workings of the fourth- and fifth-century Church, to explain the foundations of the Church as we move into this period of focus, and show the impact the re-discovery of some of Aristotle’s texts – for some of them had been long extant and merely overshadowed by Neoplatonism – on theology, on science, and on history itself, as all these areas are interlinked. While adding a dash of dramatic flair, Rubenstein’s use of the Star-gate analogy (referring to Arthur C. Clarke’s use of the term in 2001: A Space Odyssey) is not merely rhetorical. One of his points is that, just as Clarke’s star-gate was located in a place that humanity could only reach at a certain level of functioning, a culture chooses its primary mode of intellectual investigation depending on the ethos of the time:

To comprehend this choice, it helps to recognize that, in some periods of history, Plato’s ideas and attitudes make obvious sense to thinking people, while in others, Aristotle’s vision of the world seems far more realistic and inspiring. In Aristotelian epochs, economic growth, political expansion, and cultural optimism color the intellectual atmosphere. People feel connected to each other and to the natural world. Confident that they can direct their emotions instead of being dominated by them, they are generally comfortable with their humanity. Proud of their ability to understand how things work, they believe that they can make use of nature and improve society…. Curiosity and sociability are their characteristic virtues, egoism and complacency their most common vices.
Platonic eras, by contrast, are filled with discomfort and longing. The source of this discomfort is a sense of contradiction dramatised by personal and social conflicts that seem all but unresolvable. Society is fractured, its potential integrity disrupted by violent strife, and this brokenness is mirrored in the souls of individuals. People feel divided against themselves – not ruled by reason but driven by uncontrollable instincts and desires. The universe as a whole may not be evil, but it is far from what it should be….They believe that a better and truer self, society, and universe await them on the other side of some necessary transformation. Earthly life is therefore a pilgrimage, a stern quest whose pursuit generates the virtues of selflessness, endurance, and imagination. The characteristic Neoplatonic vices (the dark side of its virtues) our self hatred, intolerance, and fanaticism.

Chapter 2: The Murder of “Lady Philosophy”

He supports this view with a look at the periods involved:  the optimism in the eleventh and twelfth centuries as economies and populations grew, and the decline of Aristotelian inquiry by the thirteenth century when even the weather stopped cooperating (the beginning of the “Little Ice Age”) and growth slowed and stopped.

Rubenstein tells his story by tracing the lives of various thinkers, from Aristotle himself, to Augustine and Boethius, and then to the main cast beginning with Peter Abelard and Anselm, moving on to Thomas Aquinas and finishing with William of Ockham. Various groups also feature prominently: the Dominicans and Franciscans, the Picardy Nation, the Cathars. Then there are the popes and other ecclesiastical leaders, and the academic institutions: the early School at Notre Dame, the University of Paris.

One of his primary points is that all this takes place within the Catholic Church. This is in contrast to the usual mindset that the Church squelched all scientific inquiry. Not so, shows Rubenstein: a great deal of effort was expended to find a way to bring reason and faith into a relationship, one laden with creative tension:

The belief shared by virtually all medieval scholars that, in case of conflict, faith trumped reason clearly had limiting effects on scientific inquiry. …For the most part, however, the attitude of Catholic intellectuals toward scientific research was remarkably sanguine. Although they agreed that the faith must at all costs be preserved, both Dominicans and Franciscans, teaching friars and secular masters, assumed that what the researchers were discovering by using their senses and their reason was real, and that religion would have to come to terms with it. The great issue, in other words, was not whether inquiring into nature’s workings was a good thing or a bad thing. It was a good thing, since both reason and nature were from God. The issue was how to define the proper territory and boundaries of the religious and scientific (“philosophical”) modes of inquiry, how to establish a healthy relationship between them.

Chapter 5: Aristotle and the Teaching Friars

This setting of boundaries makes up a great deal of the central portion of the book. At times, teaching of certain Aristotelian precepts was banned. Some theological notions were considered matters of faith, particularly the nature of God and of salvation through Christ. Aristotle’s idea (supported by Averroës but challenged by Maimonides) that the universe was eternal was never accepted, as that would have implications leading to something like pantheism. And so on.

Rubenstein uses the metaphor of marriage between faith and reason to explore the dual approach to inquiry. Thus, he sees Thomas Aquinas as a kind of marriage counselor, trying to keep the duality together, with William of Ockham as the judge granting the divorce decree on the grounds of simplicity:

Ockham’s razor, on the other hand, implied that the task undertaken by Thomas – the attempt to construct a unitary system capable explaining both natural and divine things – was impossible. Behind his call for simplicity, in other words, lay a conviction that natural science and theology must go their separate ways. On the science side, there are concepts and methods derived from experience and processed by reason that help us to understand the natural world and the world of human society. On the theology side, there are doctrines revealed by Scripture or the Church that help us to understand God and what he requires of us. From Ockham’s point of view, Thomas had made a hash of things by conflating the two realms of understanding. His system had mystified nature. Worse yet, by claiming that we could reason our way to an understanding of God’s attributes and intentions, it had demystified God. The job of the new school of philosophers theologians, as William saw it, was to reverse this mistake – that is, to demystify nature and remystify God.

Chapter 7: The Divorce of Faith and Reason

Rubenstein ends by looking at why today we see the Middle Ages as anti-science, in spite of this attempt to integrate reason into faith, and how the relationship might be improved in the present age by  understanding the difficulties of the past.

The use of story-telling technique and metaphors make this a far more readable book than it might be, considering the detail of history and philosophy included. I found it remarkably clarifying in the brief but clear explanation of the heresies of early Christianity: Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism. It might just be that I was ready to absorb that material, having encountered it before; like the theory that a culture is primed for Neoplatonism or Aristoteliansim by its nature, I was primed by prior reading. It does get quite complicated when it comes to the politics of the Church, at least for someone, like me, who isn’t that familiar with such things.

This was my first detailed encounter with the faith-reason interaction, and with some of the persons mentioned within. I’ve heard of Peter Abelard in connection with Heloise; while that story is a pretty wild ride, Abelard’s philosophic-religious journey is none the less exciting, and I’d like to know more about that. Anselm, as well, interests me. These two predated the release of the Latin translations of the Aristotelian documents, but they were on the way to science – or reason, or natural philosophy, whichever term works – in their day. The Cathars are described as a kind of puritanical gang, and I’m interested in them as well. I’ve never really understood the Orders, the Dominicans and Franciscans, and so that’s something else I need to learn more about.

This book goes nicely with Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, another tale of a “lost” intellectual document found. I remember there was significant push-back on that book, since it portrayed the late Middle Ages as anti-intellectual, and rescued by Lucretius. That makes these two books somewhat in tension with each other. And, just as Rubenstein credits the tension between reason and faith as generating great creative energy and discovery, so this tension between the two books inspires me to find out more.

I found out about this book in the first place through Edith Hall’s recommendation on Five Books, a site I highly recommend, by the way. I’ve discovered several interesting reads through them this year since I started following them on Twitter instead of waiting for some other account I follow to retweet them. I find them most useful for nonfiction, since I have numerous sources for fiction, but it’s always fun to see what different people recommend.

Firoozeh Dumas, Funny in Farsi (RH, 2004)

Together, my relatives form an alliance that represents a genuine and enduring love of family, one that sustains them through difficulties and gives them reasons to celebrate during good times. ….Before I married Francois, I told him that I came with a tribe – a free set of ginsu knives with every purchase, so to speak. Francois said that he loved tribes, especially mine. Now, whenever we visit my relatives, all of whom dote on my husband, I realized that he didn’t marry me despite my tribe, he married me because of them. Without my relatives, I am but a thread; together, we form a colorful and elaborate Persian carpet.

As I read this book, I kept thinking of Cheaper by the Dozen, the charmingly humorous family story written  (don’t even talk to me about the movies) by two of the grown-up Gilbreth children about childhood in their very large family in the early 20th century. On the surface, these are very different families, but the books paint a similar picture: life has its ups and downs, and in the moment some things can seem embarrassing or even scary, but from a distance, it’s the family connection that makes it all ok. Dumas has written, sure enough, a charmingly humorous family story, if in a much drier voice.

Dumas’ father first came to the US as a Fulbright scholar, then as a grad student, and later, with his family on work assignment as a petroleum engineer for an Iranian oil company. All of this was before most Americans had ever heard of Iran, that is, before the 1979 hostage crisis. The family later moved here and became citizens. This is their story; instead of the huge family of Cheaper as a central point, it’s their transit between cultures that serves as the rail the story rides on.

Dumas begins with her experience of entering second grade:

To facilitate my adjustment, the principle arranged for us to meet my new teacher, Mrs. Sandberg, a few days before I started school. Since my mother and I did not speak English, the meeting consisted of a dialogue between my father and Mrs. Sandberg. My father carefully explained that I had attended a prestigious kindergarten where all the children were taught English. Eager to impress Mrs. Sandberg, he asked me to demonstrate my knowledge of the English language. I stood up straight and proudly recited all that I knew: “White, yellow, orange, red, purple, blue, green.”
The following Monday, my father drove my mother and me to the school. He had decided it would be a good idea for my mother to attend school with me for a few weeks. I could not understand why two people not speaking English would be better than one, but I was seven, and my opinion didn’t matter much.

Language, as you might expect, features in many of the anecdotes. “Thanks to my father’s translations, we stayed away from hot dogs, catfish, and hush puppies, and no amount of caviar in the sea would have convinced us to try mudpie.”   When Dumas, now fluent in English, gets separated from her parents at Disneyland, the staff tries to get her to translate for other lost children who don’t speak English, not really caring that they don’t speak Persian either. This was, remember, a long time ago. What I found really hilarious about the Disneyland episode had nothing to do with language: in an attempt to find her parents, staff asked Dumas what they were wearing. “No seven-year-old, except maybe a young Giorgio Armani, could tell you what his parents were wearing on a given day.”

Her father features in many of Dumas’ stories. She mentions in the Afterword included in this paperback edition that she hadn’t realized, as she was writing, how central he was, and still isn’t sure how that happened. Interestingly, the father is the most dominant character in Cheaper as well. I see a lot of parallels between Frank Gilbreth Sr. and Dumas’ father (he asked her not to use her maiden name as she wrote the book, then asked why she hadn’t used it when the book was published). In many ways he seems like any American father: he loves Denny’s, Las Vegas, and fancies himself a handyman:

[H]e purchased and installed a medicine cabinet in our bathroom while my husband and I were at work. Perhaps if it hadn’t been hung crooked, François would not have been so upset.
During his next visit, my father secretly decided that our bathroom needed towel hooks. Using nails that were too long, my father pierced the door, creating towel hooks on one side, medieval blinding devices on the other. My husband has since taken the situation into his own hands, hiding all our screwdrivers and hammers before my parents visit.

Other anecdotes involve Dumas’ childhood in Iran, her father’s year as a Fulbright scholar in Texas, her summer of language study in France, her multicultural wedding. We also meet some other family members, including Uncle Nematollah, who decided to lose weight gained via the Colonel’s finger-lickin’-good chicken and the many flavors of Baskin-Robbins, by ordering a silver “weight-reduction suit” advertised on late-night TV:

The instructions stated that the outfit had to be worn for 20 minutes before each meal, during which the wearer was supposed to engage in some form of exercise. My uncle decided to speed the weight loss process by wearing his moon suit all day. He thought nothing of circling the block endlessly, leaving neighbors wondering whether perhaps he was looking for the mother ship. Dressed for a jaunt on Venus, he strolled to the supermarket, the hardware store, and everywhere else he needed to go. Unable to understand English, he had apparently forgotten the international meaning of stares as well. Kids at school asked me about the strange guy who was staying with us. In terms of weirdness, my family I were now off charts.

There are stories of adjustment, of fitting Persian traditions to their new home. The holiday Nowruz celebrates the first day of Spring, and is about a big a deal in Iran as Christmas is in the States. Of course, Christmas isn’t much of a holiday for the family, though when she married, Dumas found delight in gingerbread and decorations. Then there are the celebrations that don’t translate that easily, but where there’s a will, there’s a way:

The Persians, like the Romans and Greeks before them, believe in slaughtering a lamb when something good happens. This is supposed to ward off the evil eye…. Iranians in America have had to tweak this tradition a bit. Slaughtering a lamb on one’s front porch in Los Angeles might not do much for the neighborhood, so when something good happens that calls for a lamb slaughter, who ya gonna call? Relatives in Iran, that’s who. Lambs are now slaughtered long distance and distributed to the poor in Iran. Your son bought a Lexus? There goes a lamb. The grandson graduated from UCLA law school? Don’t forget the lamb.

The book is more a collection of anecdotes than a consecutive narrative, which is appropriate for the style. This isn’t an in-depth examination of The Immigrant Experience or of Iranian-American relations;, it’s a fun family story that sometimes brushes by deeper issues – political, cultural, and social – along the way. While it follows a general chronological sequence, there are a lot of digressions, so it’s a bit hard to reconstruct the family’s life, which included several moves from Iran to the US and within the US. But as a charming family story, it works very well – well enough to have generated a sequel, Laughing Without an Accent, and a semi-autobiographical children’s novel, It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel.

Rebecca Buxton, Lisa Whiting, Eds.: The Philosopher Queens (Unbound, 2020)

In the pages that follow, we intentionally adopt a broad definition of ‘philosopher’ as we believe that part of the reason why women have historically been excluded from our discipline is because many of them have instead been considered activists or ‘learned ladies’. This has led to a prevailing image of the white male philosopher thinking from his armchair. Instead, it’s time to recognize the clear intellectual rigor, questioning and insight that makes these women worthy of the ‘philosopher’ title.
….
The authors and subjects in this book come from many different backgrounds with their own unique ideas, experiences and histories. The philosophers written about here are complex, challenging, often inspiring, and sometimes deeply problematic. However, they all contribute an important element to our understanding philosophy.

Introduction

If you ask a random person at a party to name a philosopher, chances are – well, ok, chances are they’ll move very far away from you and go find someone normal, but the ones who would play would probably go for Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, maybe Nietzsche if they were into goth. You’d have to go a long way before anyone came up with a female name. As students undergoing advanced training in philosophy, Buxton and Whiting noticed most philosophical histories and anthologies skipped over the women as well, including maybe one or two, often in a perfunctory or referential manner. They thought they might want to change that, so they collected a team of contemporary women in philosophy, and put together this readable introduction to twenty lovers of wisdom you might want to know more about.

The title plays off Plato’s use of Philosopher Kings in The Republic, the wise men who should be leading countries rather than relying on heredity or political power (and don’t contemporary events make that sound like an idea whose time came long ago). The entries, arranged chronologically by the philosophers’ birth dates, are rather short – four to six pages – and are intended to highlight the lives and works of women who have contributed to philosophy over the last couple of millennia. They’re all jumping-off points, chapters that might interest you enough to find out more.

The book is a lovely physical object, put together with thought and care. It’s heavier than you might expect for a book its size, probably because the paper is thicker than usual, possibly to provide the appropriate substrate for the illustrations. Illustrations? Yes – each entry includes a full-color illustration by Emmy Smith of the philosopher under consideration. Most of the illustrations are backed by rich block-color pages; whether that’s to prevent bleed through or just for design I don’t know, but it’s very attractive. The cover features the illustrations, glossy on a flat background. For each essay, the name of the philosopher appears on the title page in a decorative font using a color chosen from the illustration. Minor details, yes, but pleasing ones.

Several useful appendices follow the collection of essays: a Further Reading section, a list of more Philosopher  Queens, and a very handy About the Authors section giving brief bios of each of the contributors. And of course there’s an introduction by the editors, tracing the conception of the book.

You may be wondering if I’m ever going to talk about the philosophers included in the work. Well, of course I am. A quick glance at the table of contents revealed several names I knew, though not necessarily as philosophers; as I read the essays, I became intrigued to know more about some, dismayed by others, and found out something I didn’t know about even the most familiar names. And I noted some connections I wasn’t expecting.

Diotima leads things off, courtesy of Zoi Aliozi. What I found most interesting about her is that her very existence is up for debate. Plato writes her into Symposium; Socrates recounts how she taught him about love, beauty, and The Good, and the ladder of love ranging from lust to appreciation of Goodness itself. Whether she’s real or not, even if she’s a fictional character or a stand-in for a god or a dream or Wisdom itself, that Plato shows her as a teacher of Socrates makes her pretty impressive. I’ve taken, what, four or five moocs that dealt with Plato in some detail, but it’s interesting Symposium wasn’t one of the texts examined, nor was Diotima ever mentioned in any of the brief summaries of that text. The Further Readings list is going to come in handy.

Ban Zao gives advice for surviving marriage. Seriously. Eva Kit Wah Man writes:

For Ban, the most important principles for a wife’s conduct are respect and acquiescence. Although Ban adapts many keywords traditionally associated with femininity when she elaborates on the principles with instructions – for example, terms such as weakness, softness, inferiority, malleability – it is interesting to see how she actually describes the practical reasons for abiding by the principles. She determines, for example, that the heart of disrespect originates from the habit of the two spouses staying too close to one another. She also says that accusations and quarrels in family affairs are derived from bluntness and crookedness in words. Here, respect and acquiescence are recommended as a result of what Ban observed in married life in reality, not because of some moral and ethical deduction ….Her intention is to provide young wives with a survival kit necessary for marriage.

This gives some insight into what life was like for women in first-century China. However, Man brings in a deeper philosophical connection: while Confucianism is the usual context of this text, it’s worth looking at Daoism, which sees weakness as overcoming strength, using water and air as examples.

I was introduced to Hypatia last year when I read Youssef Ziedan’s novel Azazeel, and did some extra reading at the time, so it was nice to see her again in Lisa Whiting’s chapter.  I remember reading that she was more a mathematician than a philosopher, and Whiting bears this out but considers that her teaching, rather than writing, was where she excelled. This, too, fits with the characterization in Ziedan’s novel.

Even in fourth century Alexandria, women had to put up with men who couldn’t see them as anything but sexual possibilities:

Hypatia tried to stifle one of her most persistent student’s affections by playing a musical instrument for hours in the hopes he would get bored. When this did not work she turned to more extreme measures and one day pulled out a bloodied menstrual rag and waved it in the boy’s face, proclaiming that it was only lust that he desired, and this was not beautiful compared to her intellect and the true wonder of philosophy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hypatia succeeded in halting the young man’s advances….

Let’s put that anecdote on the internet and see what happens.

I would quibble a little on one comment Whiting makes on the significance of Hypatia’s legacy: “She was one of the first women to successfully break into the academic sphere that had been largely reserved for men.” Hypatia was torn apart on the street by a mob who then paraded her body parts around before setting her on fire. That’s a high price for success.

I recognized the name George Eliot, of course, even the name Mary Anne Evans (though not Mrs. Lewes, her preferred social name) though as a novelist rather than a philosopher. I’ve even had Middlemarch on my reading list (since I saw Rebecca Newberger Goldstein included it in her list of Five Best Philosophical Novels). Clare Carlisle’s chapter has convinced me to add Adam Bede, and to overcome confront my hesitation to read nineteenth-century literature.

Jae Hetterley’s chapter on Edith Stein left me sad and angry. I’d never heard of Stein, which is not a surprise, since she was screwed over six ways from Sunday by just about everyone, from her academic supervisor Edmund Husserl who refused to grant her doctorate to his collaborator Martin Heidegger who took credit for the extensive editing work Stein did on Husserl’s compendium to the Nazis who eventually murdered her at Auschwitz. But to look beyond that to her work, she was elemental in developing phenomenology, a kind of first-person-experience based philosophy that I only vaguely understand. Again, I find myself in the Further Reading section.

Hannah Arendt has become a familiar name to those of us concerned about what’s been happening in the US over the past four years. “Origins of Totalitarianism (1951),  Hannah Arendt’s most famous political work, was difficult to find in bookshops across America in November 2016,” writes Rebecca Buxton. Interestingly, Arendt didn’t consider herself a philosopher but a political theorist. I was also surprised to find that she was a racist, viewing Africa as savage and black Americans struggling for equality as “social parvenus”. People are complex, aren’t they. It’s her examination of totalitarianism, of course, that has her in the spotlight now. And you haven’t been paying attention if you haven’t muttered “the banality of evil” a few dozen times in recent years. I put her Origins of Understanding on my TBR list a couple of years ago (I thought it might be a better place to start, to keep my mounting panic at a controllable level), but I keep getting distracted by shiny new things.

Iris Murdoch is another figure from literature who I didn’t realize until recently was a philosopher. I had a traumatic experience with A Severed Head in college so I’ve avoided her, but Fay Niker has convinced me to overcome that. I love the female foursome that developed as WWII made room for women in Oxford – Mary Midgley and Elizabeth Anscombe also appear in this book, maybe Volume II will include Foot – and the “Mods and Greats” course of study that turned them into philosophers. I’m drawn to her idea that “adjustment of inner vision” – thinking about something – is moral activity, whether or not it results in behavior change, her focus on attention. This seems a bit over my head, but I’m going to see if I can find a good way to approach it.

I already had Mary Midgley’s What is Philosophy For? on my reading list, and Ellie Robson’s chapter added a few more on philosophy as seen in everyday life and relationships between people and the world. Seriously, all of her books sound like something I really want to read. And most of her writing came later in life: “Between the ages of fifty-nine and ninety-nine she wrote over two hundred books, articles and chapters….” I’d better get cracking.

Sophie Bosede Oluwole focused her attention on examining and, in fact, legitimizing Yoruba philosophy, not an easy task since it was orally transmitted rather than written. Minna Salami tells us:

…[S]he demonstrated how Yoruba oral genres qualified as philosophy. More specifically, she argued for the interpretation of the ‘corpus of Ifá,’ which is the quintessential Yoruba compendium of philosophical themes such as wisdom, justice, time, human agency, destiny, democracy, misogyny and human rights, as philosophical rather than system of divination as it is commonly assigned. The corpus of Ifá, which now largely also exists in written format, is a geomantic system consisting of 256 figures to which thousands of verses are attached. It has been stored through memory for thousands of years by traditional Yoruba philosophers known as babalawos, which means ‘fathers of esoteric knowledge’.

Having just read Ted Chiang’s short story “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling” which in part dramatizes  the competition between oral tradition and written records, I connected to this right away. As Oluwole points out, if Socrates, who never wrote a word and in fact opposed using books for learning, can be the premier Western philosopher, why should African philosophy be disqualified on those grounds?

The focus of Anita Allen’s philosophical arena is privacy, an issue that doesn’t really tempt me (don’t start, I understand the importance, I’m just more interested in other things). Yet, interestingly, as I read more about her via Ilhan Dahir’s chapter, I realized I’ve encountered her before: she was one of the lecturers in Penn’s mooc “An Introduction to American Law”; the Torts unit, to be precise. It’s one of the few moocs I completed but never wrote up because, well, it’s one of the few Penn moocs that just fell flat for me. But I’m delighted it served as an introduction to Allen.

Nima Dahir sums up Azizah Y. Al-Hibri’s work as: “How does Islamic jurisprudence fit into the twenty-first century?” In the US, any discussion of Islamic law quickly becomes saturated with all kinds of implications, so I’m always interested in looking at different points of view, in this case, one that sees Islamic scripture being overlaid with cultural patriarchy, resulting in its more misogynistic aspects. That it doesn’t have to be that way is good news.

These are only some of the philosophers included in the book. The others are just as interesting; I just had to draw the line somewhere, so I picked those I was particularly interested in finding out more about, or with whom I had some connection through books or moocs.

And why would someone who isn’t a philosophy student, or who doesn’t expect to be at any parties anytime soon where “name a philosopher” comes up, be interested? First, the stories of their struggles can serve as inspiration to keep going even when … well, you know, insert your story here. Or when someone tells you you’re too old, or your culture never produced anything of value.

And second, philosophical questions go interesting places. There’s nothing like defending your vision of morality to shake your world view, or trying to convince someone you’re not a brain in a vat.

Then again, I was that weirdo at the party playing Name A Philosopher.

Ted Chiang, Exhalation (Vintage 2020)

TC: OK, so the term conceptual breakthrough is sometimes used in science fiction criticism to describe the moment in the story in which a character’s understanding of their universe changes in some fundamental manner. They are experiencing a sort of paradigm shift about their place in the universe. I think that’s a way of dramatizing the process of scientific discovery. That process is one of the reasons I was interested in reading about science as a kid; I could vicariously experience that thrill. Stories about conceptual breakthrough offer a way to re-create that experience in fiction. In the actual history of science, there are only a handful of really dramatic scientific discoveries, but you can’t keep telling their stories over and over again. Most of the history of science isn’t actually that dramatic. In science fiction, you can have your characters make discoveries that radically expand their view of the world just as much as Galileo’s or Darwin’s discoveries expanded ours.
BLVR: Do you feel that emotional and psychological breakthroughs can be used similarly?
TC: I would categorize those as being something different. Science fiction is known for the sense of wonder it can engender, and I think that sense of wonder is something that is generated by stories of conceptual breakthrough. I don’t know if a sense of wonder is engendered by stories of personal epiphany.

Interview with James Yeh for The Believer

In the category of Oh, I Get It Now: That explanation articulates for me the difference between these stories as science fiction, and literary fiction stories that use science to explain a setting or move into the future. Take, for example, Karen Russell’s “Tornado Auction” or Téa Obreht’s “Items Awaiting Protective Enclosure.” I greatly enjoyed those two stories, which tell personal stories in settings understood through science and time. But the connection between the science and the impact point of the story – the character’s epiphanies, decisions, and changes – is metaphor. In Chiang’s science fiction stories, the impact point is the moment a character sees the universe differently: understands the link between present, past, and future; debates the consequences of perfect memory technology; discovers entropy; sees evidence their world is not the center of the universe it has always been assumed to be.

But, having read this collection, my favorite stories of his are those that do both: where the expanded understanding of the universe contains the answer to a personal struggle. The man who understands the nature of time travel does so against the magic of repentance, atonement, and forgiveness, and learns that the immutability of the past – or the future – is not necessarily tragic; the father who debates new technology also finds the human-ness of memory as he realizes an error in a key recollection of his own.  Or maybe it gives us as readers a window to view the extinction of one species against our fascination with extraterrestrial life, and leaves us wondering why one is considered expendible and the other is eagerly sought, and whether we ought to see that differently, all while mourning the death of the last parrot. 

There’s something paradoxical about many of these stories. They might end in failure, loss, or tragedy, yet the sense at the end is one of hope, of purposeful momentum. They aren’t necessarily happy endings, but there’s a definite uplift that’s rare in literary fiction.

I must again admit I am not a big reader of contemporary science fiction, so there are references and nuances I may be missing. What’s interesting is that I’ve read a couple of Chiang stories before now: a friend recommended “The Story of Your Life” (which became the film Arrival), and I read “The Great Silence,” included in this collection, when I read BASS 2016. I greatly enjoyed both of those, so I was looking forward to this. I wasn’t disappointed. And of course several of these stories have won major prizes. Chiang isn’t a prolific writer, but he sure has a knack for hitting the sweet spot.

One exciting thing about this book had nothing to do with the stories themselves: it includes story notes! I’ve always loved the Contributor Notes in BASS; this is the first time I’ve encountered them in an author’s collection. In the Believer interview quoted above, he says he included them because he enjoys them in other collections (they’re more popular in science fiction than literary fiction) and it’s a handy way to reframe the question, “Where did you get the idea for the story” in a way that fits the circumstances. I know literary fiction writers are trained in “the story must stand on its own” but it’s so great to have a little more insight – and often, the context he chooses to share is surprising.

One of my clear favorites was the first story, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” possibly because I’d just read The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye and was primed for the stories-within-a-story approach, this time in Baghdad and Cairo instead of Anatolia.

All the while I thought on the truth of Bashaarat’s words: past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully. My journey to the past had changed nothing, but what I learned had changed everything, and I understood that it could not have been otherwise. If our lives are tales that Allah tells, then we are the audience as well as the players, and it is by living these tales that we receive their lessons.

from “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”

Of the story, Chiang says: “While we can all understand the desire to change things in our past, I wanted to try writing a time-travel story where the inability to do so wasn’t necessarily a cause for sadness.” In the first two of the embedded stories, the future enables the past to enfold in that head-spinning way time travel stories tend to work, yet nothing changes; the future and the past are linked, but immutable. The third of these tales delivers the impact point: we can’t change the past, but we can change how we feel about it.

“Exhalation,” the title story, is literally the discovery of entropy, albeit in a universe very different from ours.

Our universe might have slid into equilibrium emitting nothing more than a quiet hiss. The fact that it spawned such plenitude is a miracle, one that is matched only by your universe giving rise to you.

from “Exhalation”

The protagonist engages in self-study via dissection of her own self, a task perhaps easier than ours would be since she is made of metal. Chiang’s Note tells us this was inspired by Philip K. Dick’s story “The Electric Ant,” involving a robot discovering his own nature; “That image of a person literally looking at his own mind has always stayed with me.” A lot of beginning neuroscience courses express the same wonder, as brains examine brains, though I’ve yet to read of a scientist studying his own brain. Such a thing via EEG or PET scan would not be impossible, however.

The story moves into the contemplation of the mechanism of life for the protagonist’s universe. It’s based on air pressure forming a gradient. This happens to coincide with the biological creation, in our universe, of ATP, the molecule of energy, through the creation of a proton gradient in our mitochondria. though it’s on a microscopic scale. Even the idea of air comes into it, as oxygen accepting protons becomes the last step allowing ATP production to continue. We breathe to enable this chain. It’s one of those elements of biochemistry that amazes me. And here, Chiang has my counterpart just as amazed as she notices the crucial function of air pressure.

But in doing this, she  makes another terrifying discovery: air pressure must, of necessity, be evening out all over the universe, just as, in our universe, entropy increases. He puts it very well in his Note, drawing from Roger Penrose: “In effect, we are consuming order and generating disorder; we live by increasing the disorder or the universe. It’s only because the universe started in a highly ordered state that we are able to exist at all.”

Our protagonist moves beyond this terrifying discovery, however, to hope, and this is where the power of the story lies. In envisioning a multiverse, she imagines other beings able to visit her universe and discover what remains even after the air pressure has equalized and life is no longer possible. And in that, she believes, her world will live again. It’s something like the way we send records with music and art and literature into space, hoping to show others who we were, when Voyager at last finds someone who can, and wants to, examine it. It’s an amazing feat to combine so many different scientific elements into one story, and yet have it be so emotionally satisfying. This is why this guy wins all the awards.

People are made of stories. Our memories are not the impartial accumulation of every second we’ve lived; they are the narrative that we assembled out of selected moments. Which is why, even when we’ve experienced the same events as other individuals, we never constructed identical narratives: the criteria used for selecting moments were different for each of us, and a reflection of our personalities. … Digital memory will not stop us from telling stories about ourselves. As I said earlier, we are made of stories, and nothing can change that. What digital memory will do is change those stories from fabulation’s that emphasize our best acts and elide our worst, into ones that – I hope – acknowledge our fallibility and make us less judgmental about the fallibility of others.

Story note on “Exhalation”

“The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling” is another story that, when described, sounds like a mess, but works  beautifully to examine the difference between objective and subjective memory; that is, what we record in pictures and notes and data, and what we remember.

In most cases we have to forget a little bit before we can forgive; when we no longer experience the pain as fresh, the insult is easier to forgive, which in turn makes it less memorable, and so on. It’s this psychological feedback loop that makes initially infuriating offenses seeing pardonable in the mirror of hindsight.
What I feared was that Remem would make it impossible for this feedback loop to get rolling. By fixing every detail of an insult in indelible video, it would prevent the softening that’s needed for forgiveness to begin.

from “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”

It’s two stories alternating in sections, one in the future, one in the past. The future story often reads more like a lecture, as it describes new technology that allows digital recording of everything we see, available on instant recall with merely a thought. The past story recounts the change from orality to literacy in a Nigerian village as European missionaries arrive. In his Note, Chiang cites Walter Ong’s work and notes, “…[T]here might be a parallel to be drawn between the last time a technology changed our cognition and the next time.”

The protagonist in the future story is a father whose primary emotional drive is his relationship with his daughter. They’ve recovered somewhat from a nasty fight years before, but ties between them are still strained. The past story focuses on one villager who learns to read and works with Europeans to keep records of tribal disputes. Both protagonists make discoveries about objective vs subjective memory that have great impact on their lives, and on how they view truth itself.

I keep running into this hazy idea of truth when I read memoirs, nonfiction essays that, theoretically, reflect what happened. Several scandals of embroidered memoirs have made this a touchy subject, and I’m probably too much of a hardass for expecting nonfiction to be, well, nonfiction. I went into this extensively in my post about Pam Houston’s “Corn Maze” so I won’t relitigate. I’m perfectly fine with errors of memory, and with writing techniques that allow for lack of recall, but it seems to me if you add a conversation or a scene because it makes the story read better and don’t acknowledge it, that writing is called fiction.

In another of the coincidences that seem to happen with some regularity when I read good work, I happened to be looking at Plato’s Symposium for another book I’ll be posting about in a week or so, and came across this:

For what is implied in the word ‘recollection,’ but the departure of knowledge, which is ever being forgotten, and is renewed and preserved by recollection, and appears to be the same although in reality new, according to that law of succession by which all mortal things are preserved, not absolutely the same, but by substitution, the old worn-out mortality leaving another new and similar existence behind unlike the divine, which is always the same and not another?

Plato, Symposium

This connects memory with immortality via the love one has for one’s offspring, for the closest we can come to living forever is to leave someone to carry on for us.

But this story is more about how we sometimes remember wrong, not because we’re trying to lie, but because we can’t face the truth. It invites us to consider the wisdom of turning memory, with all its inconsistencies and glitches and individuations, into data. When I consider how the father-daughter relationship played out, I wonder what would have happened had the father’s recollection been more accurate. Better? Worse? By what means could that quality be measured, if at all?

“Omphalos” puts an interesting twist on the relationship between religion and science, in a world where they serve each other – until they don’t:

Is it wrong of me to question whether the construction of cathedrals is, as we approach the twenty-first century, the best use of countless millions of dollars and the effort of generations of people? I agree that a project lasting longer than a human life span provides its participants with aspirations beyond the temporal. I even understand the motivation for carving a cathedral out of the Earth’s substrate, to create a testament to both human and divine architecture. But for me, science is the true modern cathedral, an edifice of knowledge every bit as majestic as anything made of stone.

from “Omphalos”

This story takes the form of a prayer, but not from a priest. The pray-er is a scientist who works on discovering artifacts of the original creation dated to eight thousand years before, when trees had no rings, and people had no navels. The central tenet of the religion was that the universe was created as a setting for humanity. The scientist encounters evidence that may shift that view. This is the moment at which science may need to split off from religion, or it may be the end of religion. It’s interesting because while it recalls certain historical conflicts between religion and science in Western history, it shifts things around sufficiently to keep us off-balance and the story fresh and new.

I’ve already written about “The Great Silence” so I’ll just link to that post; I did want to include it in this list of my favorite stories from this collection.

Here’s where I usually stop when I’m writing about story collections. But what about my not-favorite stories? I usually don’t mention them.  Time for a change-up: I want to mention one of my most not-favorite stories, because it won a Hugo, is universally adored by reviewers I’ve found (with one exception) and, hey, there isn’t anyone who really cares about my opinion of Ted Chiang, let’s be honest. That gives me a little freedom to state: I really did not like “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” at all.

Based on our experience with human minds, it takes at least twenty years of steady effort to produce a useful person, and I see no reason that teaching an artificial being would go any faster. I wanted to write a story about what might happen during those twenty years.

Story note on “The Lifecycle of Software Objects”

I’m not a gamer, and I suspect it would be a lot more fun for those who enjoy interacting with virtual characters and imagining how AI could take them to the next level. And remember: I’m not really a science fiction reader at heart.

I get the general idea: the ways in which AI digients (digital entities) might develop over time can be compared to some degree with raising a child, and certain issues develop. The issues are interesting, particularly set against the instability of the technical milieu required to instantiate the digients. What do you do when a website goes bust, if your digient’s existence depends on that website? What about when huge sums are offered to uses digients in ways that would be unspeakable if they were considered people or even pets? Can they gain autonomy (yes, along the lines of Asimov’s “Bicentenial Man”)? At what point can they make major decisions on their own, even against their owner’s (or is it parent’s) advice? These are all good questions.

And I have no doubt it was a good story. At 110 pages, it was the longest story in the book, and yet I think one of the problems was that it was too short. Paul Kincaid at SFSite gives his analysis:

In the pursuit of realism, or at least verisimilitude, therefore, how do you enclose the whole mystery of passing time within the relatively limited confines of a story or play? There are, essentially, two strategies. You can cherry-pick key moments along the timeline, describe those moments in detail and allow the reader to imagine what might fill in the gaps. At its most extreme, this means offering just the beginning and end of the process. This strategy allows full novelistic depth for those points along the line, but at the expense of any full representation of, and hence awareness of, the time scales involved.
Alternatively, you can present a synopsis of the entire period. This gives a clear impression of the time scales involved, the various forces that come into play shaping and directing the flow of history. But it necessarily skims across the surface, refusing the depth that allows us to share the individual experience of the historical momentum.
This dilemma becomes more pronounced, of course, the longer the period that has to be encompassed by the story. And this dilemma lies at the heart of the new novella from Ted Chiang…. His solution is a mixture of the two strategies, though as so often happens in such circumstances, highlighting the worst elements of both.

Paul Kincaid for SFSite

As I read, I felt the disconnect between the world at large, and the world of the story, was problematic. The only outside events were in the romantic lives of the two humans each raising digients, with a kind of hint that they would eventually get together. As much as that possibility dismayed me – it just seemed too Lifetime TV Movie – the fact that it went nowhere dismayed me more. Why not replace that with interactions with the world at large? Something significant must have happened during that time: a must-read book, a war, a hurricane or earthquake, a pandemic, an election… yes, I’m letting Real Life bleed through, but it’s like they were digients themselves. In fact, I thought that might be how things wrapped up. And yes, I was relieved when that didn’t happen, either, because if I can see it coming, it has to be cheesy.

I have a feeling that, in a novel setting, there might be more substrate for the main interaction to play out against. Alternatively, cutting it down might have worked better for me, since I really didn’t care about entire sections discussing various software issues.

But, it was not a story written for me; it was written for people who would be enthralled with such issues. And it seems they loved it. As a SF tourist, I’m fine with that. I wouldn’t expect Japan to stop serving sushi just because I chose to visit, after all; I can just eat something else. I have no complaints. There was plenty in this book that I loved.

Because I encountered him in a literary fiction setting, I tend to think of Chiang as a literary fiction writer. He does manage to write stories overflowing with human connections, with love and loss and moments of joy and pain. That they are based on science, and show a kind of wonder at the way the universe works at the same time as laying bare the human soul, is a plus. One of these days I’m going to pick up his first collection. Probably sooner than later. I suspect I’ll learn a lot there, too.

Joy Williams, The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories (Vintage, 2015)

When I started writing weird Florida tales in graduate school, more than one person was appalled that I hadn’t read any Joy Williams. And they were so correct—I had been deeply remiss. More than the setting of her work—some of which does indeed take place in the queer light of Florida, as well as New Mexico and Arizona and Maine—I was amazed by the emotional states Joy Williams could imprint so fluidly on the page. Unlike any other writer I know, she can render the interior slide from grief to strange cravings to jokey observation to superstitious fears, all in the span of a single paragraph, or even sentence. Her leaps floor me: she sails with a freakish grace from poignancy to sarcasm, or from one character’s fantasy to another’s nightmare, or from a kitschy deer-foot lamp to a disagreement with Kierkegaard. Nobody in her stories behaves the way you expect and yet somehow even their craziest actions feel inevitable, preordained. When I read her, I feel like I’m in direct contact with the deep irrationality of our species.

Karen Russell at LOA, 2011

I confess that I, too, have been remiss; I’d never heard of Joy Williams until I encountered her last March via her story “Flour” in Pushcart 2020 (her appearances in BASS predated my annual reads which began in 2010). “I understand the words, the turn of events, but I don’t have a clue what the story is about,” I wrote in my post. I did what I do in those cases: I researched it to death, both the story which hinged on a parable from the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, and Williams herself. I had a blast with the former – I love mucking around in religious arcania – and as for the latter, was chastised to discover I was reading what many would call one of the best American short story writers around. “I don’t understand this story. But the journey was a lot of fun,” I wrote, and that’s how I came to choose this book for my In-Between Reading this year, as a comfort-zone-stretcher.

It was a rough start. The first story went smoothly enough, but then I was befuddled by the next several. I took a Twitter break (oh, yeah, like you don’t) and saw Robert Long Foreman doing something with the “books no one wants on their bookshelves” meme that was going around last week (I always thought Infinite Jest was a sign of literary potency, color me surprised) and realized he might be helpful, since, while his stories and essays make perfect sense to me, I rarely understand what he’s talking about on Twitter:

Me: You might be able to educate me: have you read Joy Williams?
RLF: Oh yeah. She’s amazing.
Me: I thought you’d think so. I have no idea what to do with her.
RLF: Yeah me neither! But I’m drawn to that.
Me: lol, ok, that makes me feel a little better.

(Yes, I still lol, go ahead, laugh. And by the way, Rob’s first novel Weird Pig was just published and everyone should be reading it)

So relieved of the need to make sense of things (as relieved as I can be; by nature I have that tendency Billy Collins described in “Introduction to Poetry” as “beating it with a hose to find out what it really means” and to search for the authorial intent that anyone who’s taken litcrit will tell you is irrelevant), but this is comfort-zone-stretching time, so I read on.

The stories in this collection are taken from three prior collections, with thirteen new stories appended. That’s forty-six stories. Granted, most of them are fairly short – 490 pages total – but these are not stories you finish and turn the page to read the next one. I realized this wasn’t going to be a four- or five-day read when, at four days, I was still less than a quarter through. So I started skipping. As a result, I ended up reading most of her first and third collections, and all of the new stories.

Although there’s really no such thing as a spoiler to most of Williams’ stories, the final paragraphs tend to require what preceded them, and as they are often the most powerful I’ve quoted several below; use discretion. And, by the way, there is one story that has a clear spoiler; to point it out would be to spoil it already. Life’s tough, y’know?

I found a lot of help scattered around the interwebs. One particular moment came from Vincent Scarpa, writing about the story “Dangerous” featuring, among other things, a woman building a tortoise enclosure following the death of her husband. That was interesting enough, but there’s a moment that tripped me up, as our narrator, the woman’s also-bereaved daughter, is talking about a group of survivalists who lived in a nearby house:

They did have an ingenious water-collection system and I was given a tour of all the tanks and tubes and purifiers and washers and chambers that provided them with such good water and made them happy. They also kept bees and had an obese cat. The cat, or rather its alarming weight, seemed out of character for their way of life but I didn’t mention it. Instead, I asked them if his name was spelled with an ew or an ou. They found this wildly amusing and later told my mother they’d liked me very much. That and a dollar fifty will get me an organic peach, I said.

Dangerous

I must’ve spent ten minutes scouring that paragraph, and a couple before it, looking for the name of the cat that might be spelled one of two ways, literally reading word by word, I was so sure I’d missed it. Eventually I went on, and, a few paragraphs later: “It was Lewis with an ew that kept bringing diseased rodents into the house, is my suspicion.”

That missing name tormented me until I found Scarpa’s commentary:

It has everything to do with the delay. The delay between our being made aware of that which we do not know—in this case, simply the cat’s name—and then the unexpected revelation of it. It doesn’t take so long that we forget something has been withheld from us, but it is long enough for us to consider—indeed, to believe—that we may never be told. And what I’ve just described there—this coexistence of knowledge and confusion and incomprehension, the lag time between a given moment and our understanding of it—does it not have a certain resonance with the way grief so often operates? That deferment of detail, that defying of narrative expectation, that disinterest in clarifying in a timely manner that which one has been made to see as concealed but knowable—these movements simulate the very essence of grief: its unwieldiness, its errancy, its total disregard for the yearnings of the grieving person.

Vincent Scarpa for Lithub

Then I could throw in, among the other interesting things in the story (like survivalists possibly killed by disease brought in by the cat, and the refrain “Grief is dangerous,” and the mother discovering she’d built the enclosure on the wrong land) how distracted I was from everything else by one little detail I couldn’t line up neatly, which also fits with grief. Just ask a funeral director how that fits with grief.

I have to say I found the new stories, like “Dangerous,” to be more comprehensible than the older ones. Jason DeYoung, writing in Numéro Cinq, finds a difference, citing “thematic or temporal iterations” creating density in her earlier stories, versus “longer, looser” style in her later ones, and they do seem more like typical stories to me, but I have to wonder if I just got better acclimated and stopped worrying so much as I read. By the way, that DeYoung article is, like Scarpa’s, great. So is Karen Russell’s, which opens this post and served as a kind of mast for this ship. And while I’m citing sources, Lincoln Michel’s article at Vice (I discovered it when I was working on “Flour”) and James Wood for TNY are both fundamental Williamsology.

The first story, “Taking Care,” was, as I said above, a good place for me to start; it seemed one of the most coherent of the early stories. The title tells it all: it’s a tour of the ways we take care of each other, of the world. Jones, a preacher, takes in his daughter’s baby and dog as his wife becomes ill and is hospitalized. On the day he baptizes the baby, his wife’s blood count is perilously low, and two sentences from the sermon predominate: We are not saved because we are worthy. We are saved because we are loved and There is nothing wrong in what one does but there is something w4rong in what one becomes. At one point he plays some records, including Kindertotenlieder. “He makes no attempt to seek the words’ translation. The music is enough.” The translation, which he must on some level realize, is some version of “Songs for dead children.” Ignorance is sometimes the best defense.

The final paragraph is a mixture of reality and fantasy. At first I thought it was simple realism, but then I read Williams’s interview in Paris Review where she recalls she was advised to cut the last line. “Of course I will not cut the line. It carries the story into the celestial, where it longs to go.” Maybe this isn’t about actual dying, but at the very least it evokes the dying that will eventually occur for these two people connected by caring, and I am so happy that they will together enter shining rooms.

By the way, in that interview Williams also tells how TNY rejected the story, calling it “insincere, inorganic, labored.” Of course, this was one of her first stories, she wasn’t Joy Williams yet.

Then there are stories I don’t claim to understand at all, but they stick with me. Like “Yard Boy,” about the “spiritual materialist…free from the karmic chain” who, after two months of enlightenment, realizes it isn’t easy. “He feels the sorrow and sadness of those around him but does not necessarily feel his own.” I’d believe that if it didn’t come down to the rabbit’s foot fern and the Spanish bayonet fighting it out after he loses everything he owns and his girlfriend walks out on him. Then again, he said “not necessarily” which allows some wiggle room. Again, the final paragraph makes the preceding, however confusing, work:

The rabbit’s-foot-fern brightens at the yard boy’s true annoyance. Its fuzzy long-haired rhizomes clutch its pot tightly. The space around it simmers, it bubbles. Each cell mobilizes its intent of skillful and creative action. It turns its leaves toward the Spanish bayonet. It straightens and sways. Straightens and sways. A moment passes. The message of retribution is received along the heated air. The yard boy sees the Spanish bayonet uproot itself and move out.

Yard Boy

“Anodyne” presents us with a diabetic mother and daughter, recently bereaved by the loss of their husband/father. We see Mother through Daughter’s eyes, which is funny or horrifying, but more likely funny. Mother quits yoga and takes up shooting – “Be aware of who can do unto you” reads a sign at the door of the Pistol Institute – then takes up the Marksman, the owner of the Institute and instructor. Daughter kind of figures this out – “I knew my mother did not exactly want him in our life… but she wanted him somehow.” Mother arranged for Daughter to see a psychiatrist, which I’m thinking is more for Mother’s sake (so many anodynes in this story) since Daughter doesn’t seem to be in any pain. Then again, maybe that’s the problem. Again, I find the end of the story justifies it all, though I still can’t define exactly why:

When my time was almost up he said, “You’re a smart girl, so tell me, what’s your preference, the manifest world or the unmanifest one?”
It was like he was asking me which flavor of ice cream I liked. I thought for a moment, then went to the dictionary he kept on a stand and looked the word up.
“The manifest one,” I said, and there was not much he could do about that.

Anodyne

That last line makes me want to see what this kid’s like when she’s twenty-five.

Death, animals (especially dogs, but also cats and birds and elephants etc), and religion run through these stories, and in the later ones, the environment becomes a prominent theme. Sometimes these themes are subtle. In “Another Season,” the death and animals are evident, but the religion comes in through the name of the main character, Nicodemus. He lives on an island mostly populated in the summer by the well-to-do. He starts out as a handyman but after many years he ends up asked to pick up road kill to keep the island looking nice for the rich. “They would provide him with a truck, a gasoline card at the dock’s pumps, and two thousand dollars a year to make the island appear as though death on the minor plane were unknown to it.” Though it sounds grotesque, it’s the most realistic scenario in the book; this is exactly what such an island would do, and I’m willing to bet most have some kind of arrangements just like this, maybe with public works employees instead of individuals, but the motivation is recognizable.

The name Nicodemus is not random. In the Gospel of John, Jesus and Nicodemus have a long talk about the means of salvation. It’s one of those passages that gets quoted a lot, all about light and dark and that famous one John 3:16 that someone’s always holding up on a big sign at baseball games. But what really makes it interesting is that Nicodemus provides the spices and other materials needed to care for Jesus’ body after death. He that hath an ear, let him hear who it is the animals are symbolizing. Uh oh, I’m beating it with a hose again, aren’t I.

Two stories feature mothers of murderers. “The Mother Cell” consists of seven such mothers who end up, coincidentally, in the same town for no apparent reason. Then one dies and there are only six. And again I get out my rubber hose: why seven? What does it mean that there are then only six? There’s this organic moment of suspense in which we wait to see if a replacement will show up, but is that enough of a reason? But I’ll put that away and instead enjoy the biological sense evoked by the title, the sense in which all of these women were a mother cell.

Fathers don’t look very good in this story. Not only are all the mothers now single, but the fathers seem to have gone on with their lives as if nothing happened, while the mothers huddle to defend themselves against the world’s blame. God doesn’t fare so well, either. After telling a story about Jupiter, a featherless bird, and a hairless goat (the story has a hilarious tag line about a Russian philosophy professor) they start to wonder if something like that could happen to the current God.

Then Barbara said, “Well, I don’t know why you told that story about the old god, but the nice thing about it was that he wasn’t alone at the end.”
“What about the one we got now,” Emily asked.
“The one what?”
“The god we got now. Do you think somebody in the future will be telling a story about finding him exiled to some desolate island and crying when he learns that everything he had fashioned and understood has vanished and that he is subject to the same miserable destiny as any created thing?”

The Mother Cell

One detail I love about that is the lack of capitalization. I wonder if Williams had to fight about that. Forgive me, I know it’s sacrilege to have me and Williams in the same sentence, but I once had the line “they called him god” in a story, and the editor insisted on capitalizing it or inserting a “the.” Whenever I see something like this, I wish I’d fought harder. Then again, I’m not Joy Williams.

But, again, the power comes at the end, here in the last two paragraphs:

“We’ve settled nothing,” the eldest mother said. “We cannot make amends for the sins of our children. We gave birth to mayhem and therefore history. Oh, ladies, oh, my friends, we have resolved nothing and the earth is no more beautiful.”
She struggled to her feet and was helped inside. Her old knees creaked like doors. She always liked to end these evenings on an uncompromising note. Of course it was all just whistling in the dark, but sometimes she would conclude by saying that despite their clumsy grief and all the lost and puzzling years that still lay ahead of them, the earth was no less beautiful.

The Mother Cell

I go back and forth on whether these two paragraphs, taken together, are an expression of hope, or hopelessness. Or both at once. Or either, as the day requires.

The other offspring-murderer story – and here I run into the spoiler that, simply by saying it’s a spoiler, spoils – is “Brass.” Until the last few sentences, it seems to be a father describing family life with his outspoken son. There’s some discussion of neurodiversity, and the kid can be pretty harsh, but he also takes poetry at the community college. The title is based on a passage in one of Rimbaud’s letters:

For I is someone else. If brass wakes up a trumpet, it isn’t to blame. To me this is evident: I give a stroke of the bow: the Symphony begins to stir in the depths.
“That ain’t even grammatical,” I say.
For I is someone else, ” he says somberly. “If brass wakes up a trumpet it isn’t to blame. ” Then he smirks at me. He’s been working on this smirk.
“Now that’s the translation,” he says. “But for class I’m going to translate the translation.”
“Somebody should translate you,” I say.
“No one’s going to be able to translate me,” he says.

Brass

At this point I could use a translation of the translation myself. But then, as with so many other stories, in the final sentences the focus shifts into tragedy and the rest of the story becomes relevant. Not comprehensible, but I know now why we’re looking at this kid and how he interacts with his family. The trumpet’s awake and trying to figure out how the hell it all happened.

So maybe this was, for me, a successful failure, to borrow from NASA. Yes, I skipped almost a quarter of the stories. It was too much book for me, for one reading. I saw some comments while webcrawling that made me very interested in reading “Honored Guest”, “Congress”, and “Marabou”, and I’m very curious to see why “Bromeliads” got separated from the other Escape stories and was moved to the end of the Collected Stories section, but I realized I was Done and little of value was to be accomplished by forcing myself forward. I needed to read something… easier. Something more eager to give itself up, sans hose.

I wonder if I’d have had a different experience if the nine new stories had been released on their own, or if I’d read them first. This seems more like a reference work, a Complete Works you take down and read a bit of once in a while or when something reminds you of it, not something you sit down and plow through in a week. But it did push on the boundaries of my comfort zone, and I will go back for another look. And I’m glad I now know something about Joy Williams; I look forward to seeing her again.

Nathan Englander, kaddish.com (Vintage, 2019)

This is what ritual does. It binds from chaos. Across time.

A typical description of this book tells you that Larry, the strayed oldest son of an Orthodox Jewish family, outsources his duty to recite Kaddish, in three services a day for eleven months in memory of his dead father, to an internet site. That, of course, is the setup. It’s what happens next that is the real book. This post is going to get a bit spoilery as it goes on, so be ready to bail when the warning light goes on.

The novel is divided into four parts. In Part One, we have the setup, an excellent examination of what it’s like to be an outsider in one’s own family, and to have a burden one cannot imagine either honoring or failing to honor. It’s 1999, and Larry is sitting Shiva at his sister Dina’s house in Memphis, which apparently rivals New York in the intensity of its Jewish neighborhood. Larry’s still in New York, in advertising (“Branding,” he’d correct me. “It’s part of advertising, but it’s different”), and is taking a lot of heat for his semi-observance of Shiva. He’s about to take a lot more heat as Dina reminds him of his filial duty to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish in three separate shul services a day for the next eleven months. He can’t believe it really matters, but he can’t quite shake the feeling that it does.

That conflict is what interests me most about the book. I, too, have left behind a religion that just won’t vacate a few small strongholds in my mind. Mix that with the genuine grief Larry is feeling – I have no doubt he loved his father and misses him terribly – and I can understand his dilemma.

“I think the World to Come is just a long table where every­one, on both sides, sits, men and women—”
“Pets?”
“No pets,” his father said.
“None?”
“Fine,” his father said. “Under the table, the dogs and cats. But no birds. I can’t picture it with birds.”
“Fair enough,” Larry said.
“This long table, with its perfect white cloth, is set not with food and drink, but with the Torah, copies for everyone, so that you can read to yourself or learn in pairs.”
“I can picture that.”
“And you know what happens at this table?”
“What?”
“All you do for eternity is study. Nothing else. No interruption. No day, no night, no weekend or holiday, no y’mei chag or chol. For it is the afterlife. Time unbroken—all of it given over to one purpose.”
“Sure,” Larry said.
“This is why, for the souls gathered, that single place serves as both Heaven and Hell.”
Here his father had gulped at the air, fishlike himself.
“It goes like this,” his father said. “If you have a good mind and a good heart, if you like to learn Torah and take interest in knowledge, then studying for eternity is, for you, Heaven.”
He had looked to his son, and Larry had nodded.
“And if all you want is to waste time on narishkeit and bunk stuff, to think your greedy thoughts though the money is gone, and to think your dirty thoughts though your schvontz is buried down below, then for you that same table is torture. Then sitting there, with your bad brain, you find yourself in Hell.”
Larry considered the idea, poised at his father’s side.
Partly, he’d thought it was funny, and thought about making a Larry-like joke. But being his father’s son, Larry also took it seriously. He was awed at the notion and somehow afraid.
His father, who could read him like no one else, reached out with his liver-spotted hand and, laying it atop Larry’s, said, “I’m sure, in that place, for you, it would be Heaven.”
Larry had gasped, not from surprise, but choking back the rush of comfort he took in his father’s ruling.
“Trust me, Larry, it’s all right that you don’t believe. This period in your life—it feels like it’s forever, but if you’re lucky, life is long and each of these forevers will one day seem fleeting. You think when I was your age that I could have pictured this? That it would be 1999—the edge of a new millennium—and I’d be saying goodbye to a handsome, grown son at the end of my days? I can tell you that even back then, I already felt old and thought I knew it all.” His father gave a weak squeeze to Larry’s hand. “You’re a good boy. And I pray that I don’t see you across from me until you reach a hundred and twenty years. But for you, my boychick, when it’s the right time to take your seat, that table will feel like a blessing without end.”

Larry’s problem is that he can’t imagine himself actually carrying out the duty of reciting Kaddish so often for so long. Remember, it’s not just saying the prayer; that he could do. But it must be said in a minyan, a gathering of ten or more Jewish men, and that means it must be said in shul, which means attending services three times a day. Every day. For eleven months. When Dina spells it out, he promises, because he can’t imagine not promising. But he’s got his fingers crossed behind his back:

…As long as Larry promises he’ll say the prayer, what does it hurt Dina if it skips? And honestly, what does it hurt their dead father, in heaven above, if Larry says a prayer or not? Does anyone really think God sits up there with a scorecard, checking off every one of Larry’s blessings?

That’s a second theme that interests me greatly: just how seriously do we take our religions? Do we really believe in hell and purgatory and a day of judgment and that wine and bread becomes blood and body and that baptism has power and our prayers are heard and acted on? I’ve always felt that if we really took eternal life seriously, we’d be living this life a lot differently. Some areas of philosophy and evolutionary psychology wonder if all the guilt that’s built into Western religion is outsourced from our own consciousness, rather than the typical religious notion that it is God who implants conscience in us and without God there is no morality. So when Larry asks these questions – does it really matter if I say the Mourner’s Kaddish on schedule? – I understand how a ‘yes’ can lurk underneath the ‘no, of course not.’

This brought in something I wasn’t aware of. I’m not Jewish, so my (limited) knowledge of Orthodox tradition is based on what I’ve read in academic and popular reading, but I’d never heard this before: after death, the soul goes into a kind of purgatory for a year, to be purged of sin. Saying of the Mourner’s Kaddish (for there are several varieties of Kaddish) helps to ease that process, sort of like Dante depicts in his Comedia for Christians in Purgatory when prayers are received on their behalf. So the question “Does it matter” is more than tradition; it impacts his father’s afterlife experience, speeds along – or delays – his passage to paradise.

Because she’s a pretty good judge of character, Dina explodes at Larry’s promise to say Kaddish, because now she knows he’s lying. Enter her rabbi, who tries to come up with solutions. The most promising is a proxy, someone who will say Kaddish for him. So his responsibility has been pared down to: find a proxy.

Enter kaddish.com. And yes, there is a current website of that name offering this service, though I understand it was set up after the novel was published (how foolish of the publisher and/or Englander not to register the domain name themselves). The service has been, however, available for quite some time through other long-established Jewish organizations, so it’s not some newfangled thing. If it were me, I’d probably go to one of them. But this is about Larry. Englander plays the scene of Larry signing up for all it’s worth, including a pornographic pop-up involving a glass dildo (um… really?) that becomes visible when he closes the Kaddish site page. It’s very effective, with details that weave through the rest of the book.

Then we come to Part Two (this starts getting a bit spoilery, be forewarned), which starts a year later when Larry receives a letter from his proxy, Chemi, to indicate his service has come to an end. This sets Larry on a road back to Orthodoxy, via the word “assimilate.” The thing is, this crucial moment feels a bit skimmed-over to me. The bones are there, but I’d like a little more flesh padding them out. We understand the changes Larry goes through to become, twenty years later, Reb Shuli, teacher of Gemara at a Brooklyn yeshiva, but it’s thin. It’s as if Englander suddenly decided he didn’t want this to be that deep a novel, so kept this transition at beach-read level before moving on to the next order of business: Shuli realizes the depth of what he committed to on that website twenty years earlier. He explains to his wife:

What has left Shuli lightheaded is the understanding that all his years of t’shuvah, a lifetime of redemption, had – for his father – done nothing. Not the yahrzeit candles lit, nor the services led. It was twenty years of Kaddishes without meaning, as they were not Schuli’s just say….
“It’s the kinyan,” Shuli tells her, looking around nervously as if someone might overhear. “Just because I returned to the fold doesn’t mean I brought everything back with me. On that website, a lifetime ago, I gave up what was mine.”
“This isn’t news, Shuli. How many times have we discussed this over the years? You paid for a service, and that’s all.”
“But it’s not all. I don’t know if I ever told you. When I signed, there was a digital pen that I put into a digital hand. I made a kinyan. I transferred over my rights – for real. Which means, even now, remembering my father is that other man’s job….It was my intent to be rid of that responsibility for life. The privilege doesn’t just revert on its own. The other party would need to return it.”

This is where things get a bit frustrating for me. I don’t fully understand the kinyan, and I haven’t found an explanation that really makes sense to me. Shuli observes a wedding ritual involving a kinyan, and this reminds him of the twenty-year-old transaction. It seems like a real leap of logic to equate clicking on a web page, moving a pen icon into a hand icon, with the ritualistic and symbolic trading of tokens. His wife also finds it a bit of an exaggeration, and feels confident it’s not binding.

Maybe it makes sense if you’re more familiar with this Jewish custom than I am (though Shuli’s wife would be), but to me, it just seems like a way to carry forth the plot. Then again, we can look at it through the lense of character: Shuli’s guilt over shirking his duty creating a need to take further action. I think that’s the key to the whole novel: see everything through the eyes of the repentant, needing to atone for past sins, including not only outsourcing Kaddish, but leaving the fold in the first place.

Shuli makes his attempts to reconnect with Chemi, his proxy from so long ago, via the Kaddish.com website, still in operation. He enlists the help of a student. And my frustration mounts, because everything here is overcomplicated. Setting Gavriel’s age at twelve feels forced (since he hasn’t been bar mitzvah’ed, he’s not implicit in any sin), and the constant trading of extra recess for computer help just feels sleazy. By the way, do twelve year old boys do recess?

Be that as it may, a brilliant passage emerges from this scene:

When he first entered this miserable room and found his way back onto the web, Shuli had prided himself on the belief that all knowledge was contained inside the Torah. And now, as he waits for Gavriel to pinpoint the exact spot on the planet where this hidden yeshivah stood, he’s forced to admit that inside this terrible machine is a different kind of all knowingness. A toxic, shiftless omniscience.
To unlock the secrets of the Torah, one had to be disciplined. One had to work and to think. But this? If one only knew how to ask the question, all knowledge was lazily yours.
…And here in these machines is that exact knowing – for the advertisers and for the governments and for those with good and bad intentions to use as they saw fit. It’s all accessible, your wants and dreams, your sins and secrets, so that Gavriel, tapping away at the keys, can tell where someone around the world sits right then – a humble, hidden someone who does not want to be found. But the Internet knows, and it has no compass to guide it and no will to guard what was meant only for the Maker. Here, it all waits to be plucked out of the air by a child.

Those of us of a more secular bent are indeed quite aware by now of the perils of all that information just sitting somewhere that anyone could find it. It goes well beyond what ads show up on the websites you visit. Just a few days ago, a major effort at vote deterrence was discovered as a major source of voter suppression in 2016: people targeted as Democratic voters who could be persuaded, not to vote for the other guy, but not to vote at all. And think of AI, all those algorithms, programmed without morals, without judgment, without, well, soul. I can see how Shuli might see this through a religious lens.

SERIOUS SPOILER ALERT: But that raises another complaint I have with the book (hey, I often avoid negativity, but I think Englander can handle it). Shuli just seems hopelessly naïve. He was in New York advertising, people! He knew his way around internet porn. This isn’t some sheltered yeshiva bocher who’s never been outside Williamsburg. And yet he doesn’t catch on as Gavriel’s inquiries to kaddish.com go unanswered. He thinks Chemi is hiding from modesty. He really doesn’t get what the rest of us realized immediately, what we suspected back when we first read the words kaddish.com: that it’s a scam. This stretches credulity to the breaking point. But it’s still a book worth reading, if you can get into that mindset.

Part Three follows Shuli as he roams through Jerusalem trying to find the yeshiva, and thus the server, responsible for kaddish.com. And again he finds himself studying, waiting for a mysterious donor whose middle name might be abbreviated Chemi. Since I’ve given up on credibility at this point, I just went with it and enjoyed the chase. But it’s easily the least interesting part of the book.

Part Four is where the money shot is, and yes, I use that term advisedly, since Shuli’s father (as well as the Lady of the Glass Dildo) makes another appearance. Shuli, and through him, we as readers, finally gets the picture of the scam. It’s not as bad as it could have been, and I give a lot of credit for that. It would’ve been easy to have put the server in the back of someplace awful – a New Jersey muffler shop? – but this is more nuanced, though the upshot is the same: there was no recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish. For Shuli, resolution comes while he sleeps. I’m not a big fan of the use of dreams to resolve metaphysical questions, but the interaction between Shuli and Dad is quite lovely, and there’s a religious question resolved quite handily:

One earthly year – what they’d always been taught, what he himself said to his students. This was the maximum period a soul might be purged in the afterlife. And yet, twenty years later, here his father is caught in a ceaseless kind of kaparah.
…”A year is still the maximum,” his father says. “Only without day and without night to signify change, without a son who has been studiously saying Kaddish to go silent at the eleventh month, how are we to know when judgment comes to an end without such markers?”
Shuli, already sweating, says, “I will fix it, Abba. Don’t worry. For you, and for all the others. I will put it right.”

Although I had my complaints, I did very much enjoy this book. The questions of religion and character overshadowed my misgivings about plausibility; for someone more interested in what a character does than in the philosophies raised, I think it might work just as well. I ended up feeling very warmly towards Shuli; he screwed up a lot, but he was able to find his heart and follow it when it mattered. And while some background, however vague, in either Judaism or internet configurations might be helpful, I think the action, and the thought, is accessible to just about anyone.

A. S. Byatt, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories (RH, 1994)

Is there anyone who doesn’t love fairy tales? They are some of our first stories, and by reading them (or hearing them) we learn what stories should be like: that wealth and beauty don’t guarantee happiness; that kindness to all kinds of creatures will help keep you safe in a dangerous world; that loyalty to your goals may get you past obstacles where others have failed; that the villain must be punished and that magic is unpredictable. Whether it’s the story of a spell or a curse, a quest or a fool, a forest or a village, we learn the same lessons over and over: Be cautious. Be kind and brave. Be wise. Know what your wishes are, should anyone ask.

Shelflove review, 11/24/2008

Did you ever lose a book for fifteen years? Not lose in the sense of leaving it on the subway or knocking it behind a massive dresser that never gets moved, but lose in the sense of wanting to read it but putting it aside for something else and way leads on to way and you never get back to reading it? That’s what happened for me with this book.

Some time in the early years of this misbegotten millennium, I read something about Byatt’s use of metafictional elements in her fairy tale “The Story of the Eldest Princess” contained within this collection. I was very interested to find out how that worked, but I was also short on funds, so I found a copy at my local public library. Before I read a word, I fell in love with the physical object of the book: it’s hardbound but small, between the size of mass-market and trade paperback, each story’s opening page is illustrated with a woodcut, and the dust jacket, with its lush green background and deep-toned images, is stunning. Poverty be damned, I had to buy it, but first, I read the story that had started my quest. When the book arrived, I’d already read the part that interested me, so I put it in a line-of-sight location rather than on my to-be-read shelf. Where it sat. And sat. I looked at it most days, admiring anew the cover design, but never read the other four stories.

Flash forward to a couple of weeks ago, when Rabia Chaudry announced her new podcast about djinn lore. I wondered: Why had I never read further in this book? And courtesy of that tiny nudge, so it moved, so belatedly, on-deck, unlost.

The individual stories have diverse origins – two are from an earlier novel, two were separately commissioned, and the final novella was written as a standalone – yet maintain a certain thematic constancy: self-awareness while in a story, familiarity with the conventions of fairy tales, conflicts between the expectations of society and personal desires, and a kind of self-reliance and courage that is sometimes noticeable in its absence. And the cleverness of women, unwilling to commit the mistakes of women in the past.

“The Glass Coffin”

There was once a little tailor, a good and unremarkable man, who happened to be journeying through a forest, in search of work perhaps, for in those days men travelled great distances to make a meagre living, and the services of a fine craftsman, like our hero, were less in demand than cheap and cobbling hasty work that fitted ill and lasted only briefly. He believed he should come across someone who would want his skills — he was an incurable optimist, and imagined a fortunate meeting around every corner, though how that should come about was hard to see, as he advanced farther and farther into the dark, dense trees, where even the moonlight was split into dull little needles of bluish light on the moss, not enough to see by. But he did come upon the little house that was waiting for him, in a clearing in the depths, and was cheered by the lines of yellow light he could see between and under the shutters.

I have little background in the structure of fairy tales, but this is what I think of as typical: someone is offered choices. What seems a little different to me here is that often there are different participants who are used to demonstrate the results of each choice, with only one being the “right” one. But there is no bad-actor for contrast, so that’s just a guess.

Our tailor also seems to use different criteria to decide each set of choices. The first choice is triggered by his honorable good work in making dinner for the man he finds in the house in the woods:

And he laid before the tailor three things. The first was a little purse of soft leather, which clinked a little as he put it down. The second was a cooking pot, black outside, polished and gleaming inside, solid and commodious. And the third was a little glass key, wrought into a fantastic fragile shape, and glittering with all the colours of the rainbow. And the tailor looked at the watching animals for advice, and they all stared benignly back. And he thought to himself, I know about such gifts from forest people. It may be that the first is a purse which is never empty, and the second a pot which provides a wholesome meal whenever you demand one in the right way. I have heard of such things and met men who have been paid from such purses and eaten from such pots. But a glass key I never saw or heard of and cannot imagine what use it might be; it would shiver in any lock. But he desired the little glass key, because he was a craftsman, and could see that it had taken masterly skill to blow all these delicate wards and barrel, and because he did not have any idea about what it was or might do, and curiosity is a great power in men’s lives. So he said to the little man, ‘I will take the pretty glass key.’ And the little man answered, ‘You have chosen not with prudence, but with daring. The key is the key to an adventure, if you will go in search of it.’

He uses a combination of an appreciation for craftsmanship, and natural curiosity, to select the key, choosing daring over prudence. Yet his response to that observation is telling: “Why not? Since there is no use for my craft in this wild place.” We learn a lot in a short time about this tailor: he loves his craft, he is willing to work, and he has an imagination.

He follows the little man’s intricate and somewhat daunting instructions and arrives at his second choice, between a collection of sealed bottles, a tiny village encased in something like a snow globe, and a glass coffin containing a beautiful woman with long golden hair. And again, he wonders about the contents of the little bottles, admires the craftsmanship of the miniature village, yet chooses the woman in the coffin because “the true adventure was the release of this sleeper.” When she wakes, she tells him her story – fulfilling the story-within-a-story quality that runs through this collection – and he continues his adventure to reverse the evil magic that has brought her here.

In the end his love of craftsmanship is reduced to a mere mention in the denouement, which leads me to think that love of adventure supersedes all other motivations. I also get the sense, given how all the objects and characters are tied together, that any decisions he made along the way would have given him opportunity to arrive at the same end, and so it is less his decisions, and more his character in reacting to changing circumstances, that provides the fairy-tale happy ending.

“Gode’s Story”

There was once a young sailor who had nothing but his courage and his bright eyes – but those were very bright – and the strength the gods gave him, which was sufficient.
He was not a good match for any girl in the village, for he was thought to be rash as well as poor, but the young girls liked to see him go by, you can believe, and they liked most particularly to see him dance, with his long, long legs and his clever feet and his laughing mouth.
And most of all one girl liked to see him, who was the Millers daughter , beautiful and stately and proud, with three deep velvet ribbons to her skirt, who would by no means let him see that she liked to see him, but look sideways with glimpy eyes, when he was not watching. And so did many another. It is always so.

The danger of pride seems to be the overarching message of this tale, as the sailor and the miller’s daughter both come to poor ends when they could have lived as happily ever after as the tailor and the woman from the glass coffin in the previous tale. Both of these stories were set in Byatt’s novel Possession, and several online commentaries mention how they are set in a context there that is lost here. That might be why this story passed me by somehow, though it doesn’t explain why the Glass Coffin was such a delight to read.

In any case, it seems a counterweight to the first story, perhaps an externally situated example of following the wrong path or making the wrong decisions that was missing in that tale.

“The Story of the Eldest Princess”

When the eldest Princess was born, the sky was a speedwell blue, covered with very large, lazy, sheep-curly white clouds. When the second Princess was born, there were grey and creamy mares’ tails streaming at great speed across the blue. And when the third Princess was born, the sky was a perfectly clear pane of sky-blue, with not a cloud to be seen, so that you might think the blue was spangled with sun-gold, though this was an illusion.
By the time they were young women, things had changed greatly….

The great change is that the sky has now turned green. You might think that a story about the sky turning green instead of blue would be some kind of eco-fable, but other than the initiating event, that aspect isn’t significant. Byatt’s writing, both in terms of story and style, are strong enough to make the reader forget all about climate change and pollution, in fact, a pretty remarkable feat.

This was the story I originally wanted to read fifteen years ago, in my investigation of metafiction, and I’m just as charmed now on re-reading it as I was then, except more so. If you think fairy tales are boring, this one might change your mind, since it’s shot through with wit more aimed at an adult reader than a child:

The ministers said nothing could be done, though a contingency-fund might be usefully set up for when a course of action became clear. The priests counseled patience and self-denial, as a general sanative measure, abstention from lentils, and the consumption of more lettuce. The generals supposed it might help to attack their neighbor to the East, since it was useful to have someone else to blame, and the marches and battles would distract the people.
The witches and wizards on the whole favored a quest.

Again I see what I imagine as a general fairy tale, but in this case, the Eldest Princess is also aware of fairy tale motifs and so watches her decisions, makes sure she isn’t rash or avoidant, and that she covers her bases as she searches for a way to make the sky blue again.

She began to think. She was by nature a reading, not a travelling princess. This meant both that she enjoyed her new striding solitude in the fresh air, and that she had read a great many stories in her spare time, including several stories about princes and princesses who set out on Quests. What they all had in common, she thought to herself, was a pattern in which the two elder sisters, or brothers, set out very confidently, failed in one way or another, and were turned to stone, or imprisoned in vaults, or cast into magic sleep, until rescued by the third royal person, who did everything well, restored the first and second, and fulfilled the Quest.
She thought she would not like to waste seven years of her brief life as a statue or prisoner if it could be avoided.
She thought that of course she could be vigilant, and very courteous to all passers-by – most elder princesses’ failings were failings of courtesy or over-confidence.

Along the way she encounters a scorpion and a frog – no, not that substory, she’s on the alert for it, even mentions it, and thus turns their journey in a more successful direction – and an old woman who appeared at times to be ahead of her on the road, and behind her, and ends up with her.

The story-within-a-story motif plays out as the Eldest Princess, knowing that when she doesn’t return her sisters will be sent, imagines their journeys. The ending is surprising: not at all what you would have expected given the whole of the story, but quite positive. Downright happy-ending, in fact, and in favor of adapting to change. A lot better than what the ministers, the priests, and the generals came up with.

“Dragon’s Breath”

The short story ‘Dragon’s Breath’ was commissioned by the Scheherazade 2001 Foundation, a project which took place during the bombardment of Sarajevo in 1994. As Byatt explains, this project consisted in reading aloud commissioned tales from different European writers simultaneously in theatres in Sarajevo itself and all over Europe every Friday until the fighting ended. This tale features two dragons which destroy everything in their wake, thus representing war anywhere as the story is not set in Sarajevo. According to old tales, as one of the character puts it, dragon’s breath paralyses the will – an apt metaphor for war’s effects.

Alexandra Cheira: Evil Monsters as War Metaphors in A. S. Byatt’s Fiction, chapter abstract

With this kind of background, I’m intimidated by this story; some things seem too sacred to dissect. I’m also hesitant because I’m not sure I follow the story as written. But maybe by approaching it, with the background in mind, I’ll begin to understand it better.

We start out with a family including the children are Harry, Jack, and Eva. Their valley is surrounded by mountains, and their lives by ancient lore:

In England the circular impressions around certain hills are ascribed to the coiling grip of ancient dragons, and in that country there was a tale that in some primeval time the channels had been cut by the descent of giant worms from the peaks. In the night, by the fire, parents frightened children pleasurably with tales of the flaming, cavorting descent of the dragons.
Harry, Jack and Eva were not afraid of dragons, but they were, in their different ways, afraid of boredom. Life in that village repeated itself, generation after generation.

And again the inciting event might be seen as ecological: changes in water coming from the mountains, in colors of the sky. While they are afraid, they’re also excited, since this is something new. Until the hills seemed to generate fire and sent trails of burning rock towards the village: “almost as though it was not landslides but creatures, great worms with fat heads creeping down on us.” This Dragon’s Breath, slowly oozing lava from a volcanic source, is headed to the village, but the residents talk about it rather than planning to evacuate so are forced to leave hurriedly and too late, to take refuge in the forest.

They were watching the destruction of their world, and yet they felt a kind of ennui which was part of all the other distress they felt. You might ask – where were the knights, where were the warriors…. The old women said that old tales told that dragons’ breath paralyzed the will, but when they were asked for practical advice, now, they had none to offer.

The lava eventually burrows under a lake and the villagers can return. Jack and Eva find their house, amazingly enough, intact, even the rug Eva was weaving. Harry’s pig returns, and they wait for Harry to return – “But he did not.”

In spite of all the action of this story, of villagers watching their homes destroyed, living in primitive conditions in the forest, what stands out is the final paragraph. For they made the event into stories, naturally enough. Some things they left out.

And these tales, made from those people’s wonder at their own survival, became in time, charms against boredom for their children and grandchildren, riddling hints of the true relations between peace and beauty and terror.

This theme of boredom interests me (how paradoxical). Some people are bored under any circumstances, others are never bored, though they may be frustrated by an inability to access resources. I think we sometimes claim to be bored as a way of expressing that lack of access; it’s not that we’re bored, but we’re disappointed that the game was cancelled or we can’t hang out with our friends and nothing else fills that particular gap. I can understand how containment, even in the midst of horrible conditions like dragon’s breath or war, can generate a kind of boredom that becomes blended with the horror. And I very much understand how stories might be used to alleviate that boredom, and to motivate actions that, however limited, are possible in restricted circumstances.

I can’t begin to understand how the people of Sarajevo might have felt listening to this story as their own city was being destroyed. But let’s look at it more broadly. Stories survive disaster. Stories grow out of disaster, using destruction as a kind of fertile soil. How many war stories are in the contemporary canon, from Anne Frank to The Things They Carried? My generation’s equivalent of “What’s your major” was “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” 9/11 is still generating stories. In the first days of the stay-at-home phase of pandemic control in Maine, the library started its “Isolating Together” archive, a collection of comments, poems, diary entries, etc. from patrons. It’ll be interesting to see how this compares with the stories we tell ten years from now.

“The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye”

In this case, it’s a present-day story-teller meditating on Scheherazade, rather than Scheherazade seen directly. (The other two stories, “The Story of the Eldest Princess” and “Dragons’ Breath,” are also meditations on the nature of story-telling.) It’s less optimistic than Barth on the possibility of any stable union possible within marriage, but Gillian the story-teller wins through to a reasonably happy­after­ever ending. She confronts the misogyny built into classics both Western (Chaucer’s “Patient Griselda”) and Eastern (Scheherazade), and when she winds up with a djinn of very own, she defeats the traditional dangerousness of wishes by a mixture of cleverness (one of her wishes is that the djinn should love her) and generosity (another is to give the djinn his own wish, which is for freedom). The balance between freedom for the djinn and his continued love for her leaves them with choices and possibilities.

~ Ruth Berman review in Mythprint 35:2, published and excerpted online by the Mythopoeic Society

The title story is more of a novella, comprising half the book. It’s an absolute delight to read, with its hat trick of 1) stories that teach me something, 2) stories that resonate with something I’ve seen before, and 3) stories that aren’t afraid to have fun.

Unlike the other stories, it takes place in the present day and, for at least the first half, in total realism, or at least as close to realism as academia gets. Dr. Gillian Perholt is a British narratologist who spends the story attending academic conferences on mythic storytelling. Yet it is told in fairy tale style:

Once upon a time, when men and women hurled through the air on metal wings, when they wore webbed feet and walked on the bottom of the sea, learning the speech of whales and the songs of the dolphins, when pearly-fleshed and jew­elled apparitions of Texan herdsmen and houris shimmered in the dusk on Nicaraguan hillsides, when folk in Norway and Tasmania in dead of winter could dream of fresh strawberries, dates, guavas and passion fruits and find them spread next morning on their tables, there was a woman who was largely irrelevant, and therefore happy.
Her business was storytelling, but she was no ingenious queen in fear of the shroud brought in with the dawn, nor was she a naquibolmalek to usher a shah through the gates of sleep, nor an ashik, lover-minstrel singing songs of Mehmet the Conqueror and the sack of Byzantium…. She was merely a narratologist, a being of secondary order, whose days were spent hunched in great libraries scrying, interpreting, decoding the fairy-tales of childhood and the vodka-posters of the grown-up world, the unending romances of golden coffee-drinkers, and the impeded couplings of doctors and nurses, dukes and poor maidens, horsewomen and musicians. Sometimes also, she flew. In her impoverished youth she had supposed that scholar­ship was dry, dusty and static, but now she knew better.

Having just read Ayşe Papatya Bucak’s short story collection The Trojan War Museum, I wondered if that opening was a salute to the traditional Turkish fairy tale openings; later in the story, Dr. Perholt travels to Turkey and confirms it. For this opening, we are informed via a rather present narrator that Dr. Perholt is in her 50s and happily divorced with a couple of children now independent of her, and that she is professionally in great demand at narratology conferences.

In Ankara she presents an analysis of The Clerk’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, analyzing the woes of Patient Griselda, and her outrage that, though the moral of the tale is that women should bear all things and will be rewarded, as a woman she has a different reaction: “the stories of women’s lives in fiction are the stories of stopped energies… and all come to that moment of strangling, willed oblivion.” The story as a whole shows how she has refused, and continues to refuse, to let this happen to her.

We are also treated to an analysis of Scheherazade by Perholt’s good friend and in-country host, Orhan Rifat, as well as tours of Ankara and Istanbul, antiquity museums and soirees and Hagia Sophia, places that serve as settings for more story analysis (an old soldier who may or may not be a guide relates Gilgamesh, partygoers discuss Persian tales). With these in mind, with echoes of Paul in Ephesus, with remembrances of prior trips when she was younger and more comfortable in her body, we arrive at a small shop selling, among other things, glass bottles.

‘I’m not an expert in glass,’ he said. ‘It could be çeşm-i bülbül, nightingale’s eye. Or it could be fairly recent Venetian glass. “Çeşm-i Bülbül” means nightingale’s eye. There was a famous Turkish glass workshop at İncirköy – round about 1845, I think – made this famous Turkish glass, with this spiral pattern of opaque blue and white stripes, or red sometimes, I think. I don’t know why it’s called eye of the nightingale. Perhaps nightingales have eyes that are transparent and opaque. In this country we were obsessed with nightingales. Our poetry is full of nightingales.’
‘Before pollution,’ said Orhan, ‘before television, everyone came out and walked along the Bosphorus and in all the gardens, to hear the first nightingales of the year. It was very beautiful. Like the Japanese and the cherry blossom. A whole people, walking quietly in the spring weather, listening.’

I wasn’t able to find anything by searching for “nightingale’s eye,” but had much better luck with “Çeşm-i Bülbül.” The most interesting site I found is, alas, in Turkish, but Google Translate does the job. NYT also has a travel story that gives a clearer history.

And then the title begins to make sense, as Dr. Perholt brings the bottle back to her hotel room and discovers there’s a djinn – what we in the West would call a genie – inside. This rests on the previously encountered information about wishing and fairy tales, so we have some context in which to understand how Perholt applies her knowledge, and her personal history, to get the most out of her genie, and at the same time learns his history (more storytelling within the story) and introduces him to the contemporary world.

It’s a story held together by style, linking the academic world with the mythic imagination and cultural artifact. I wish I’d read it, and the other stories here, fifteen years ago. Then again, I hadn’t started blogging at that point, and was a much less experienced reader, so maybe the book wasn’t so much lost as waiting for me to be ready to read it.

Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone: This Is How You Lose the Time War (Saga, 2020)

We wanted the war, and the whole of time and space, to be a backdrop to the characters. We’re in some ways anthologizing a war, drawing from the whole breadth and depth of science fiction, and… historical fiction for that matter. There are tropes and characters that we’re referencing… If you’re getting the references then oh, ok, all of a sudden I’m there, but if you’re not, the question is, how do you navigate the book? And the answer we settled on is: This is really the story of these two characters. Anyone who picks up the references is going to see how they connect; and anyone who is really used to the particular old-school science fictional game of taking tiny little hints of how worlds assemble and extrapolating from that to a complete sense of the society and culture will be able to do that too. But for people who are coming for the characters, they’re still going to be able to follow Red and Blue and understand them enough to enjoy the book, to go on the journey with them.

Interview: An Online Conversation with Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone via Read It Again Bookstore (14 minute mark)

I haven’t read much contemporary (that is, post-1970s) science fiction. Even though I can quote some scenes from ST:TNG by heart, I’ve never been a piece-it-together kind of viewer/reader, and my affection for Dr. Who never got beyond the Christmas Carol and Vincent episodes (which I love enough for the whole series to be dear to me, however). I do like a lot of the literary fiction that uses other-world settings, mostly because it invites a variety of interesting structural and stylistic elements. But at heart I am, I suppose, more of a litfic reader putting up with strange other worlds than a scific reader tolerating emotion and social meaning.

So it’s odd I would choose to read this book. Ah, the power of marketing: I just kept seeing it on my feeds, with words like “imaginative,” “chaos,”, “wordplay,” and, my favorite, “affective center of motion.” I don’t even know what that last one means, but it’s irresistible. And I will admit, my favorite ST episodes were always about time, or at least multiverses.

It was a very different experience for me. It’s the first time I’ve enjoyed a book while not really understanding the setting, and, even more strangely, not having a clue as to what happened at the end.

When Red wins, she stands alone.
Blood slicks her hair. She breathes out steam in the last night of this dying world.
That was fun, she thinks, but the thought sours in the framing. It was clean, at least. Climb up time’s threads into the past and make sure no one survives this battle to muddle the futures her Agency’s arranged — the futures in which her Agency rules, in which Red herself is possible. She’s come to knot this strand of history and sear it until it melts.

If it weren’t for the back cover synopsis and promotional teasers, I would’ve been completely lost. Red and Blue are on two sides of a war: Red, from the technologically-grounded Agency, and Blue, from the back-to-nature Garden. Both go into various strands of time to adjust events so their entity will come out in charge in the final analysis. Both try to undo, or compensate for, the other’s adjustments.

And they fall in love. But that’s just where their troubles begin: now what do they do?

Getting to that point is really half the fun. This is where words like “imaginative” come into play. They start leaving each other letters, but they’re letters on unusual media. A letter that must be burned before reading, then the ashes mixed to a paste. A letter that’s part of a fish, “sealed” in a seal – a cute little Arctic seal. Letters written in the rings of centuries-old trees (they are time travelers, after all), in the lava of the volcano that sank Atlantis, in berries and leaves and tea dregs. Letters that are smelled, tasted, consumed rather than read. And letters that would get both of them executed as traitors, if discovered by their superiors.

It starts out more as admiration for a worthy opponent, a kind of “Across the havoc of war, I salute you” kind of thing as Churchill was supposed to have said of Rommel (not quite; he said something similar). Then they get curious about the other side: “Do you eat?” “Do you laugh?” “Do you dream?” Admiration turns to fondness, turns to affection, turns to love for two solo warriors. Who are, by the way, both women.

…So in this letter I am yours. Not Garden’s, not your mission’s, but yours, alone.
I am yours in other ways as well: yours as I watch the world for your signs, apophenic as a haruspex; yours as I debate methods, motives, chances of delivery; yours as I review your words by their sequence, their sound, smell, taste, taking care no one memory of them becomes too worn. Yours. Still, I suspect you will appreciate the token.

I found it interesting to watch them go through known history: Genghis Khan, London of various eras, the aforementioned Atlantis, World War II. And Ozymandias. Oh, yes, the literary references, those are great fun. “I’m contradicting myself. The geometers would be ashamed,” writes Red (or is it Blue?). Maybe, but Whitman would rejoice. And the fun stuff: “How many boards would the Mongols hoard if the Mongol horde got bored?” They must’ve spent time in the 20th century US.

As the earth shakes and the sky burns, even the bravest and most single-minded leave their work. Notes and sums and new engines remain behind. They take people and art. The math will burn, the engines melt, the arches fall to dust.
…That man built a steam and pinwheel engine six centuries earlier than the mean. This woman, through reason and ecstatic meditation, discerned the usefulness of zero to her mathematics. This shepherd built freestanding arches into the walls of his house. Small touches, ideas so fundamental they seem useless. Nobody here knows their worth, yet. But if they do not perish on this island, someone might realize their use a few centuries earlier and change everything.
So Red tries to give them time.
… the mathematician still has time to grab her wax tablets at least.

As for the ending, I have no idea what happened, but I was glued to the last thirty pages. I found a Reddit thread that tried to explain it, but it didn’t help much; I was that lost as to the overall setting. I would imagine those who recognize the tropes, as the authors say above, would have been quite happy. In looking at various reviews, it seems the romance was central to many readers. Though I am in neither camp, I did enjoy the book, as little as I understood of what was happening, mostly because of the references I got, and the idea of letters encrypted in ingenious forms.

It’s unusual for a book to be written by two authors. The interview quoted above gives some insight into the process (starting at about the 40 minute mark). They decided to work together on a project, then decided it would be a novella, then came up with the concept. Oh, and I discovered this is a post-singularity world. Singularity is one of those concepts I only vaguely understand: the point where machines take over from us. So that adds to the conflict: it’s a red pill/blue pill thing. One reader mentioned US political leanings associated with those colors. That never occurred to me; odd, really, since I’m fairly keyed in to politics, but I was perhaps distracted, given the jovial nature of it all, by Overly Sarcastic Production’s use of the pseudonyms Red and Blue.

I’ll admit I didn’t try all that hard to figure out the battleground or the sides or exactly what happened at the end. I didn’t feel any particular need or desire to do so, and I’m not sure it would have done me much good. So I’m not your typical reader for this sort of thing. But it was fun to visit.

Mark Dunn, Ella Minnow Pea (Anchor, 2002)

On Monday, July 17, a most intriguing thing took place: one of the tiles from the top of the cenotaph at town center came loose and fell to the ground, shattering into a good many pieces. A young girl here, one Alice Butterworth, discovered the fallen tile at the base of the statue, carefully gathered up the bits and shards, and quickly conveyed them to the offices of the High Island Council. Tiny Alice delivered these fragments into the hands of Most Senior Gordon Willingham who promptly called an emergency meeting of that lofty body to glean purpose and design from this sudden and unexpected detachation.
This aforementioned gleaning – this is important.

My reaction to this novel went through a number of revisions as I read. I started out amused by the premise: a tiny island nation off the South Carolina coast, a nation named for and dedicated to the (fictitious) deceased creator of the quick-brown-fox pangram, interpreted the tiles falling off his cenotaph as a message that those letters should no longer be used, and thus language becomes more and more restricted. I’m not really a fan of the epistolary novel in general, but it’s the perfect form for this tale, as the text itself reflects the linguistic difficulties posed by the loss of each letter in turn.

I formulated the following reaction early on: “A clever one-page satire expanded into a 200 page YA-dystopia novel.” I rather dreaded reading through another 170 pages of shrinking alphabet. Fortunately, Dunn is far better writer than that, and he soon changed my mind. And the ending – and I mean, the very end, the last five pages – it really landed.

Although the central progression is the deletion of letters of the alphabet, a lot more happens. Ella, our title character, views the loss of the first letter – Z – with some amusement, but her friend Tassie is more alarmed. Sure enough, Ella discovers all books in the library have been destroyed. The punishment for using the forbidden letters is, for the first offense, a rather stern talking-to, but then gets draconian: second offense, whipping or being placed in the stocks in the village square (offender’s choice); third offense, banishment from the island, or death. Offender’s choice.

One family, condemned for a second offense as a unit, made a special request:

“We also wish to be flogged in the presence of as many town residents as choose to be in attendance. And if this produces no outcry – especially the laying of leather tassel upon the youthful backs of my nine-year-old twin daughters Becka and Henrietta – then please trundle us without delay from this island of cringe and cowardice, for we no longer wish to belong to such a Despicable confederacy of spinal-defectives.”

Neighbors start turning each other in. Mail is read (by a French savant who knows no English but can recognize the forbidden letters). The Council drives eminent domain into high gear. Various means of reversing the edict are proposed, and meet obstacles. Throughout there are subtle ironies and humorous passes that might escape notice, such as when one resident defends the edict (and her tendency to squeal on anyone who happens to accidentally let a forbidden letter pass their lips):

I sincerely believe, as do several who have joined me for biweekly talk group sessions, that Nollop, as one who put great emphasis upon the word, is now attempting to pry us away from our traditional heavidependence on linguistic orthodoxy. Through this challenge, he hopes to move us away from lexical discourse as we now know it, and toward the day in which we can relate to one another in sweet pureplicity through the taciteries of the heart.

And when this leopard-eating-faces-party supporter finds the leopard eating her own face, there’s a moment of forgiveness so pure, it would surely make Jesus weep.

I was impressed at how forward momentum was maintained in what could have been the one-trick-pony book I initially expected. And, even though the last twenty-five pages got pretty hard to read, by then it was impossible to stop.

The ending – not only a plot resolution but a bit of linguistic philosophy – left me laughing and shaking my head in disbelief. By the end, this had become minimalist fiction. The language restriction forced it, to some extent, but a typical novel would’ve had another thirty pages of everyone discussing what had happened and what was going to happen and how they felt about it all. But none of that was necessary. Paring down the letters also pared down discourse, as predicted, to the simplest possible presentation: here, this is how it ends, bye now. It’s perfect.

But I was left with one question: Is there such a thing as a reverse McGuffin?

As I understand it, the McGuffin, as described by Hitchcock, is an item that generates motive but in itself is essentially unimportant: “the device, the gimmick, if you will, or the papers the spies are after….the engine that sets the story in motion.” What I am calling a reverse McGuffin (which others have already wondered about; feel free to google about) is, to my mind, something that enters unobtrusively, has no role whatsoever, until, at the end, it suddenly becomes the Key to Everything. It’s a tricky thing to do. I remember The Grasshopper King in which a certain character’s traits seemed clumsily inserted in preparation for their final role; here, the technique works so much better. In fact, its unobtrusiveness is the key to its success. To say more would be a spoiler.

Although this book was first published in 2001, some of the themes and elements seemed particularly suited to the present moment. Elements such as:

∘ The dangers of oligarchy, gerontocracy, theocracy, and various brands of authoritarianisms;
∘ Interpretation of events in mystical terms;
∘ Conflict between science and religion;
∘ Resistance and backlash;
∘ Censorship;
∘ Hero worship of a figure whose background is obscured by time and, perhaps, deliberate deceit;

By the way – you think it’s hard to launch a new book in the middle of a pandemic? Try in the month after 9/11. That this one succeeded – primarily by word of mouth – is a testimony to how good it is. By the way, the subtitle was changed between hardcover and paperback versions: from “A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable” to “A Novel in Letters”. I find that interesting and… disappointing. Given the voice of the letters – initially just a more formal and old-fashioned to the contemporary ear, relying more and more on esoteric vocabulary as common words must be stricken, and resorting at last to phonetic spellings that sometimes only come close to conveying the meaning – the first title seems far more appropriate. A marketing decision, perhaps? I see Dunn has written several novels since this, his first (he was originally a prolific playwright), and a lot of them have rather wacky descriptions. I may have to check these out.

This book came to my attention last March via a Twitter prompt from last March about books to be read while self-isolating. Dear @timtfj, you had me at “arbitrary banning of various letters of the alphabet” but “society collapses” helped, too.

Ayşe Papatya Bucak, The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories (Norton, 2019)

“I would like to tell a story,” Emineh said and everyone turned to her, surprised.
She tried to make the nightingale’s sound, but her voice came out as sharp as the cold wind on the top of the eastern mountains.
Once there was and once there wasn’t, in the time when genies were jinn and camels were couriers, during that time there was a baby bird who broke its wing and so could not make the winter migration to warmer air. And so the baby bird’s mother went first to the oak tree to ask if it would shelter her baby bird in winter, but the oak tree said no. And then she asked the walnut tree. And the olive tree. And every tree she could find, but they all said no. Until finally she asked the pine. And the pine made a nest among its needles for the baby bird, and all winter long, it kept the baby bird warm and safe by not dropping its needles. And ever since that winter, the pine tree has never shed its needles.
“It would have been kinder to let the bird die,” Mother Zeyno said. “It probably grew up weak and coddled and couldn’t take care of itself.”
“I think that’s very cruel,” Emineh said.
“Then you take care of the baby bird,” Mother Zeyno said, and all the others laughed.

“Little Sister and Emineh”

Folk tales; elaborated stories about real, if obscure, people; timelines that reach from antiquity to today and even a bit beyond; stories containing stories; stories that address the reader; stories with mystery and tragedy and love: it’s all in here. This is a collection for those who want to hear a storyteller when they read, who want to get a peek at the unusual alongside the ordinary. Interested in chess-playing automatons? A Turkish wrestler on tour? A man who got rich harvesting sponges and never bothered to contemplate his life? An art collection full of stories? A series of museums created by the Gods of Olympus? The poetic, the harsh, the episodic, the subtle, the overt? It’s in here.

Back in 2014, I fell in love with Bucak’s story “Iconography” after reading it in Pushcart XLVIII. When I saw this collection hit the market last year, I put it on my list, but wanted to wait for the paperback. I just find them easier to carry around and to read. And I see via Twitter that Bucak has the same preference, one of several minor intersections between us.

The “storyteller voice” is prominent in these stories, which sometimes include little preludes and/or postludes that use storyteller formulas or revert to first-person. In her FWR interview, Bucak explains she’s drawn to that style, and discusses an Armenian folk tale formula for ending a story:

With a couple of stories I wanted to end with the storyteller addressing the reader more overtly, which is something I think I stole from Armenian folktales, which often end “Three apples fell from heaven” and then usually include some variation on “one for the storyteller, one for the listener” and one for some odd third. I like the breaking of the wall that happens there.

Interview with Natalie Rowland at FWR

That closing formula is another intersection I have with Bucak, one with particular power for me. The Portland (Maine) Public Library, just a couple of blocks from where I sit, a sculpture
by local artist and teacher John Ventimiglia titled “Three Apples Fell from Heaven” decorates the elevator niche on the first floor. Folds of metal form an alphabet based on Armenian calligraphy of a bygone century, and cast shadows on the wall behind the piece. The artist’s statement explains how it honors the traditional folk tale formula. I’ve loved that scupture for years. In 2011, in fact, when I was in my Zin Kenter phase (if you don’t know, you don’t want to, trust me) I wrote a goofy flash about an Armenian man who, while looking for a book elsewhere in the library, finds himself drawn back to that sculpture, and to his own story, by the yarn of his own sweater which caught on it as he walked past. Alas, Prick of the Spindle is no more so I can’t link to it, but it was there.

Bucak links that third apple to her sense, as someone of mixed heritage (her father was Turkish, her mother American), of writing from “the third position of being both.” All of the stories feature Turks, usually as main characters, and in her Rumpus Book Club chat she admits she’s amused, having been raised in America, that readers might get the impression she’s more culturally Turkish than she is. “I suspect American readers notice the Turkishness a lot more than they notice the Americanness,” she says, which was, for most stories, the case for me. I’d love to know the impression of Turkish readers!

I’m always interested in how a collection is put together. She’d written two stories – “The History of Girls” and “Iconography’ – before she started thinking in terms of a collection. She wanted variety, so moved away from girls to “A Cautionary Tale” featuring a wrestler, then a Southern story, perhaps the most traditional narrative in the book. She started fitting stories within stories, which created some wonderful effects. When things started to feel “too magical” she went back to reality. Then came the process of ordering the stories:

Actually the decision to put “Gathering of Desire” at the end came very late. My agent and I went back and forth a few times on the order. She wanted a more contemporary story at the end, but I didn’t have that many contemporary stories. And originally “The History of Girls” was more toward the middle. But that was the first story I wrote for the book so it had been out a while and I knew firsthand that it was my most reader-friendly story, so I suggested we put it first—as a kind of warm greeting, everybody welcome kind of story. But then I wanted “The Trojan War Museum” to be last as it’s my personal fave (Julie was not so keen on that idea). Then I realized on albums—when we used to listen to those—I often liked the sixth song best… so I put “The Trojan War Museum” sixth. And at that point, it felt like “Gathering of Desire” could work as anchor, and in fact more people would notice the story (which is maybe my second favorite) if it was at the end.

I now want to go through all my favorite albums and see what the sixth cut is. The problem is: whereas she’s of the age when album probably meant CD, I gathered my music in the vinyl age, and the sixth cut tends to be right at the side flip, which probably has some impact on the song chosen for that spot – either the last song on side A or the first on side B. In any case, I find her stories to have such intriguing beginnings, and such strong endings, I’d be fine beginning and finishing the collection with any one of them.

How about a more detailed look at some of the stories.

The History of Girls (available online at LitHub)

While we waited we were visited by the ghosts of the girls who had already died. Those who were closest to the explosion, in the kitchen sneaking butter and bread when the gas ignited, the ones who died immediately, in a sense without injury, the girls who died explosively.
The dead girls waited with us, amidst the rubble, our heads pillowed on it, our arms and legs canopied by it, some of us punctured by it. The rubble was heavy, of course. The weight of it made us wonder what happened to the softer things. Our sheets and blankets, our letters from home, our Korans, our class notes, the slips of paper we exchanged throughout the day, expressing our affections and disaffections for each other, for our teachers, for the rituals of our contained life. What about the curtains on our windows? we thought.… The explosion, it seemed, turned everything to stone. Except us. We were soft then, softer than we ever were.

Given my fondness for unusual narrative points of view, of course I was enchanted by this first-person-plural story. Then, at the end, it shifts into singular, a change Bucak made at the urging of one of her early readers. It’s interesting that she chose an accident, rather than malfeasance, for the cause of the explosion. Throughout, the girls show caring for each other – whether living or dead – and fear is pushed into the background. They produce their own hope, and they aim to survive, even when that seems unlikely. This is the history of girls.

As a bonus, Bucak followed this up with “Microeditorial: The History of Girls, Part II”, also available online, a contemplation of the difference between Anne Frank and Malala based on a conversation she had with her mother, and how hard it is for girls to find the right balance between power and humility. Or, more accurately, how difficult it is for the world to see girls who don’t fit the expected balance. Just ask any female political candidate; it doesn’t get easier with age.

A Cautionary Tale

I imagine that before the collision, on the boat, Yusuf must have thought often of reaching home. He was ready to retire. But I imagine, too, that he was afraid. He had some money, he had a family to return to, but it was all unknown; he had spent his life wrestling, traveling. He was famous, of course, but he had daughters he barely knew and a wife who had grown accustomed to living without a husband. He had things to be ashamed of. He had never had much of a life outside of wrestling, So what would it be like to no longer have wrestling?
It would be nice to imagine that in the water he did not think of his fights with men but, rather, of how he used to train against nature, and how though he never defeated it, nature always made him stronger. How beautiful if he was able to remember his home with the cypress trees, the wind from the east, and the fields full of filberts and pistachios and chestnuts, later to be roasted in a fire.

There was, in the late 19th century a real Yusuf Ismail, a Turkish wrestler whose life did follow the path outlined in this story. That in itself would be an interesting story – Ismail is what tactful sources often refer to as colorful – but what makes it really work is that it’s being told, by an immigration officer, to an applicant during an entry interview:

You don’t like my asking you questions, do you?
You’re just doing your job.
Yes. But you don’t like it.
It’s not what I expected.
What did you expect?
Different kinds of questions.
What kind?
About my work. About where I’ll live. About, I don’t know, paying taxes, obeying the law.
We’ll get to those.
Do you tell everybody these stories?
I tell everybody stories.
But not these stories.
No, not these stories.

We have no information about the officer or the applicant, other than their conversation about Ismail’s story, which lets us as readers tell the real story ourselves. It’s hard to resist, given the present moment in which we are living, putting a malevolent spin on the officer, but it’s possible he (or she) has some understanding of the transitions involved in immigration, and is hoping to reduce expectations a bit. Bucak shared her motivations in an interview with Joshua Graber for Asterix:

The interview style of this story was inspired by the young adult novel I am the Cheese by Robert Cormier. There’s an interviewer/interviewee format to much of the novel that I found hugely [word(s) omitted]. So I wanted to try it. On the simplest level, the border agent (as I imagine him) is offering the interviewee a cautionary tale about leaving home. And while I view the interviewer as a fairly negative force, trying to control things he shouldn’t, I wrote the story out of the ambivalence that I know my father felt about having immigrated to the United States. He never really knew if he wanted to be here or there. I worry now about how this story will be read in an unnuanced world that doesn’t necessarily have room for the idea that immigration doesn’t always work out. But it doesn’t always work out. (That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be allowed, of course.)

Interview at Asterix

Having read quite a few stories by immigrants about immigrants, I’ll agree that there’s often at least some ambivalence involved, even in cases where they go to great lengths to get here. Literary fiction, re-nuancing the world one story at a time. It’s a great use of the story-within-a-story technique.

Mysteries of the Mountain South

As much as I continue to love “Iconography,” this story is stiff competition for my favorite of the collection. It’s quite different from most of the other stories in several ways. First, it’s set in the present, with blogs and drones and computer simulations, all of which are critical to the turn of events. Second, though it’s set in the rural South, it doesn’t borrow much from folk tales. Third, its Turkish content is minimal, though it does have a powerful theme around race and ethnicity. But other similarities remain, in particular the storyteller voice, though in more subdued form. And it does have a pov-switching coda at the end, including a final paragraph that shook loose all the tears I had stored up.

Edie is a recent college graduate who expected to go to Mountain View and code 24/7, but she ends up in Mountain Home, North Carolina, instead, due to her grandmother’s terminal illness and need for a caretaker. Armed with a video-equipped drone, she puts her technical expertise to work creating Virtual Valley, a computer simulation of the area.

Her relationship with her grandmother blossoms, and she finds out her great-great-grandfather was black. Or, rather, Melungeon, as her grandmother explains. I’d never heard of Melungeons, people of mixed ethnicity that’s described as white, black, and Indian, maybe Portuguese and Turkish. Edie reacts to this, but carefully – “trying to sound nonchalant, utterly and absolutely unsurprised, nothing that could make her sound insensitive or racist. Because she wasn’t!” This is such an incredibly authentic thought I had to smile.

This thickens when Grandma starts planning for her green funeral. Edie meets Michael, the young, and black, owner of the local mortuary which specializes in “environmentally sustainable practices and death midwifery – but also the regular stuff, if you want it.” After some paperwork, Michael goes over a delicate issue with Edie:

“She understands,” he said, “that I’ll be the one to prepare her?
“Prepare her how?”
“Her body,” he said.
“I’m sure she understands. That’s why we called you. What are you saying?”
“It’s just that sometimes… people think they aren’t prejudiced, and they thing they can handle” – he paused again – “a black man washing their body, but then suddenly they can’t.”
“Well, she’ll be dead anyway, right?” Edie said, her voice rising in pitch. God, how she hated that.
“Right,” he said and looked at her.
“So you mean me? Do I understand?”
“You and your family.”
“We’re not racist,” Edie said. “My grandmother’s black. Melungeon. Whatever.” How convenient to have this information to wield! She was not a racist! How could she be! She kept going: “My father’s grandfather was black. No, my grandmother’s grandfather was black. My great-great-grandfather or something, was black. Melungeon.”
Michael laughed.
“What?”
“So you’re black?”
“What do you mean, preparing the body?” Edie asked suddenly. She nearly stumbled right into him, as if her words were spewing her rather than the other way round.

She stumbles into him, all right. Again I had to laugh at the perfection of this interaction. In her FWR interview, Bucak worries that she’s lost her dialog-writing skills, but it seems like she found them again for this section. It’s exactly that awkward conversation that would happen. I’m relieved Edie stumbled into Michael in private, face-to-face, rather than over Twitter, where she would immediately be eviscerated and Cancelled. Here, there’s a chance for someone to give her the benefit of the doubt, and accept there’s a learning curve. May we all stumble into someone who will give us that break.

This is one of those stories that makes me wish we had something like General Electric Theater, a way of making short stories into half-hour or one-hour television spots (movies involve too much money) so maybe people will learn to love short stories, like this one, again.

The Trojan War Museum (available online at Guernica)

Sing to me now, you Muses, of armies bursting forth like flowers in a blaze of bronze.
Soldier: I begged for sleep, and if not sleep, death. I was willing to settle for death. Then again, I’ve never felt more loved.
He looked at his father, a veteran; his grandfather, a veteran; his uncle, a veteran; his sister, a veteran; and he saw his future foretold, no different than birds and snakes foretelling nine more years of war.
Think: museums turn war to poetry. So to poets. So to war.
You know, Athena forgot Odysseus was out there.
Oh Muses.

This beautifully imaginative piece gives us a series of Trojan War museums – the first one being “not much more than a field of remains” – run by the Gods of Olympus, from antiquity to the 22nd century as a meditation on the wisdom of glorifying war. In recent days, there’s been a lot of discussion about soldiers as losers and as heroes. I’d never think of anyone who volunteers for service out of duty, or family tradition, or because it’s the only path to a job or college, as a loser. But lionizing dead soldiers also bothers me, because I have to wonder if it creates more dead soldiers. What if war was a rare necessity rather than a chance for glory? What if monuments to schoolteachers were as common as those honoring military figures? Even without the present impinging on it, it’s a beautiful story, poetic and allusive. And yes, there’s a real irony to poeticizing a story that critiques the romanticizing of war.

The Dead (available online at Bomb)

In Key West, Arapian was known as the Turk, though he was Armenian.
The extraction of fingernails; the application of burning irons to the breast; the pinching of skin with burning clamps; boiled butter poured into wounds; the tearing off of genitalia; the penetration of orifices with swords, with brooms, with flesh; the sawing off of hands and feet, arms and legs; the bayoneting of babies; the slitting of throats, the exhibition of the massacred.
The difference between Turk and Armenian? The Turk extracted the Armenian’s fingernails. The Turk applied burning irons to the Armenian’s breast. The Turk pinched the skin of the Armenian with burning clamps. Or he had the Kurd do it.
Turkey for the Turks, they said.
In Key West, sponges made Arapian a millionaire, one of the richest men in America at the time, an immigrant from the Ottoman Empire, which would have killed him if it could.
Bow down to the almighty sponge! Either the highest order of plant or the lowest order of animal.

Although it may not seem like it from those opening lines, this is less a story about genocide than it is a story about what seems to be true versus what is true, which is, now that I think about it, the story of the Armenian genocide after all. And it’s about the violence that pervades our lives, in ways large and small: “…his men smoked to cover up the terrible smell of sponges, which, after all, were living creatures beaten to death with clubs before they were bleached.” Arapian’s wife indicates, somewhat subtly but clearly enough, that she’s ready to die, and he misreads her, either deliberately or through inattention. Then there’s the societal violence: “People would remember the starving Armenians, but more as a chastisement to eat their own dinners than to sacrifice those dinners on the Armenian’s behalf,” just as American kids are told to “think of the starving children in Europe/Asia/Africa” (depending on their generation) and clean their plates, not to do anything to actually benefit starving children.

The Sponge King and his wife are hosting a party for Anahid, who escaped those who would murder her. Though he himself could have been in her shoes, he shows no particular compassion towards her, but only uses her as a focus of the party. Anahid is rather incapacitated by trauma, so others take her place, at the party, and in the commercialization of her story. She’s based on Aurora Mardiganian, who was an actual escapee, and was likewise commercialized beyond her actuality.

It’s a story with a lot of layers and many subtleties, yet it’s a compelling narrative.

The Gathering of Desire

And once there was, and once there wasn’t,
in the time when magic was mystery and science was fact,
in the time when God’s hand could arm man’s puppet,
when miracles were seen to be believed, and schemes were believed to be seen,
there was the Ottoman Turk, the chess playing mechanical man.

And again we have this wonderful blend of folk tale and reality, delivered with several varieties of chiasmus from the traditional opening to the text itself.

There was a Mechanical Turk, a chess-playing automaton built in the late 18th century, and it was of course a fake; there are automatons, and some of them can perform very complex maneuvers, but they weren’t computers. At the time of the story, hidden inside the cabinet was a former chess master, here referred to as S. but known to be William Schlumberger. He was past his prime but still able to consistently beat non-masters. And, like most of us, he’s a little confused about his fate: “When all options were open to him, he desired only chess, but now that only chess is open to him, he desires everything else” (I told you, chiasmus).

And there was a woman who beat him, here unnamed but recorded in chess history as Mrs. Fisher (in fact, the game they played has been recorded as well). The unnamed woman in the story has two children and a husband who was lost for months and then died, the circumstances unknown. The children see him while she’s playing the Turk. There are times when she feels him “emanating from the machine opposite her.”

To deepen these characters with backstories is not an unusual technique; Bucak has done it in many of these stories. But it’s what she does with the Turk that makes this special: “The Turk knows that inside each of us is a black light and a love without end. He wishes he could tell her so.”

I hate to go all sappy and romantic here, but it’s a story about our desires and our hopes and grief and love and whatever there is, be it in us, around us, or be it us, all tempered by placing it within a chess match between a has-been, a widow, and… something else.

Iconography

Never does the Starving Girl think of herself as anything but hungry. It is the others who give her act drama, and meaning, which, in the end, she is happy to accept.

This is the story I’d encountered in Pushcart 2014. In my post about it from six years ago, I blathered at length about the narrator. That seems a bit silly to me now (hey, it could have been worse; the further I go back in this blog, the more embarrassed I get), but I’d like to think it’s a good thing I’ve developed a better sense for the storyteller voice, a subtype of third-person narration – with accents of first-person – Bucak uses so effectively throughout this collection. It’s still a great story about projection, our need to fit others into roles that suit our needs. But it’s also about a girl who comes to understand what matters.


I’ve always been partial to fiction that teaches me something about the world, and every story here held something new for me to discover. It was a collection worth the six-year wait.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosopy Won’t Go Away (Vintage, 2015)

When I was a child I was addicted to science fiction, and my favorite science fiction required the reader to accept just one preposterous premise, and then everything else made sense. That is what the dialogues of this book ask of the reader. Just accept the one preposterous premise that Plato could turn up in twenty-first century America, an author on a book tour, and everything else, I hope, makes sense.

I wasn’t aware of that “preposterous” premise when I decided to read this book. It’s the sort of thing that might immediately put some people off as gimmicky, but it would’ve sold me from the get-go. What would Plato have to say about computer technology, how would he be as a guest on a cable news show or on a discussion panel, as an advice columnist, or when confronted with contemporary neuroscience?

Overall, the book tries to answer the question in the title: is philosophy, as imagined 2400 years ago, still relevant? If not, why does everyone still know the names Plato and Socrates? And if it is still relevant, that’s almost worse: doesn’t that mean philosophy has made no real progress at all?

While the 21st century Plato chapters are both informative and entertaining, they only form half the book. The chapters proceed in pairs: first there’s a more traditional chapter on some aspect of Plato’s life and work, and then a chapter further illuminating the concepts via a contemporary setting. As such, instead of thinking of it as a ten-chapter book, look at it as five modules with two sections each. The chapters, by the way, are accounted by Greek letters (α, β, γ, δ, etc) rather than numbers, which makes me smile since I just recently started a course on ancient Greek and have just become somewhat comfortable with the alphabet. But it’s another of those things: some people see fun and charm, others see gimmicks.

The first module looks at how Plato saw the purpose of philosophy:

Plato didn’t think the written word could do justice to what philosophy is supposed to do . And yet he did write; he wrote a great deal. And the literary form he invented for his writing should give us an indication of what he thought philosophy was supposed to do .
And what is it, according to Plato, that philosophy is supposed to do? Nothing less than to render violence to our sense of ourselves and our world, our sense of ourselves in the world….
Progress in philosophy consists, at least in part, in constantly bringing to light the covert presumptions that burrow their way deep down into our thinking, too deep down for us to even be aware of them.

This last sentence brought to mind the central metaphor from Sophie’s World, the wonderful YA novel-about-philosophy that, almost thirty years ago, first got me (and a lot of other people I’ve encountered) interested in philosophy, except that it’s the reverse: in Gaarder’s book, most people are burrowed deep down into the rabbit’s fur, while it’s the philosophers who climb out to the tips of the hairs to stare the Magician in the face as he pulls it all out of a hat.

We then join Plato on his book tour in the company of Cheryl, his author escort showing him around the Google complex where he’s to give a book talk. They encounter tech-bro Marcus, and though Cheryl tries to prevent it, Plato invites him to join them. It’s a demonstration of the Socratic method at work, and the eventual effect is to break down some of Marcus’s smugness and get even super-focused Cheryl thinking about more than the schedule and the book sales that will result from the upcoming presentation – which we never see, because it’s this impromptu seminar, the kind so often featured in the Dialogs, that takes center stage.

The chapter is somewhat difficult reading, because it’s told via a narrator who’s listening to Cheryl give her account of the afternoon; quotes are omitted and dialog tags are sparse, but it’s worth it: What starts simply with Marcus’s need for orthodonture, and the question of who gets to decide, travels through having algorithms for ethical questions (and where do the algorithms come from?) to the value of super-arguers, aka philosophers, working on complicated issues and finding the errors in the initial arguments, and finally landing on the question of how changing attitudes towards slavery, so acceptable in Plato’s day and so anathema today (it still is anathema, isn’t it?) are an example of whether argument changes feelings or feelings create the argument, and when it’s in the decision-makers’ interests to maintain the status quo, how do you break through that, until we get to the kicker:

…[H]ow do we know we aren’t any different above all sorts of things we feel perfectly okay about right now because it’s in our interest to feel perfectly okay about them? Why should we be different from people in the past?

And of course we aren’t. We’re seeing this play out in real time with #MeToo, how “back then” it was ok to grab women or make salacious comments to subordinates at work or pin teenaged girls down at drunken parties because boys will be boys, and suddenly it isn’t. Some day maybe we’ll be amazed, like Keiko on ST:TNG, that people actually ate real meat from dead animals, or that people could die from poverty and it would be their own damn fault.

The next pair of chapters looks at how cultures have viewed what makes a life worth living, and the role of the state: is it to protect, or perfect, the citizenry? The expository chapter lays out the Axial Age, the five centuries during which, all around the world, cultures began looking at the meaning of life. The world religions were born during this period: very different religions, from Confucius and Lao Tse, Buddha and Hinduism, Jain and Zoroastrianism to the monotheism of Judaism that would become Christianity and Islam, to the philosophy of Golden Age Athens. Which one of these is not like the others? Only Greece, which was replete with gods and religion, looked to humans to define what made life worth living. Goldstein shows how this evolved, from Homeric kleos to arete, and how Platonism not only established itself and sent offshoots into different directions but met up with Christianity several centuries hence.

This idea of what makes a life worth living, and the state’s role in the arete of its citizens, is dramatized by a panel discussion at the 92nd Street Y with Plato, a Tiger Mom, and a Jungian analyst. Should parents push their children to be the parents’ version of exceptional, or create the circumstances under which children will find their own exceptionality, though it might be more humble? This mirrors the questions about the State, about which character traits the State might want to encourage, and how it might do that, or whether it just holds invaders at bay and makes sure there’s bread for all.

As you might expect, a lot came up that rang with contemporary urgency, from Plato admitting “[W]hat I have not been able to figure out yet is if the Internet itself strengthens your democracy or weakens it” (yeah, we’re still working on that one, too) to the role of reality in a State:

PLATO: And, conversely, when I say that it is right that the guardians should be those who are capable of apprehending reality, and most importantly the aspects of reality that account for goodness and justice and wisdom, then I would expect that you would concur with me. Let it be reality that chooses the powerful, rather than the powerful who choose reality. Isn’t that less tyrannical?
MUNITZ, still speaking uncharacteristically softly: But then you enthrone reality as the tyrant.
PLATO: It is a better tyrant than any one of us, certainly with more of a right to impose itself on our minds than any human being possesses.

Having seen the effects of ignoring reality, that seems to be a good way to think of it. But then there’s the Noble Lie. Nothing with Plato is ever simple or absolute.

In another creative (or gimmicky, you pick your adjective, I’ll pick mine) attempt to illuminate Plato, Goldstein provides in this chapter what she believes would be his answers on the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, developed with Jungian principles. I was surprised that the two axes on which I score the most definitively coincide with the philosopher’s.

I’m a little confused about the next pair of chapters. Ostensibly, they’re about philosophy as the pursuit of Eros (it figures this would be what trips me up), and spends considerable time on who Socrates and Plato might have had the hots for (Alcibiades? Dion?) but is really about whether morality should define the state, or the state should define morality:

Is the best state the one that maximally allows arete to flourish, where arete is independently defined? Or is areteto be defined in terms of the qualities that will allow a person to become justifiably notable in the polis, the qualities of an individual that best allow the values-setting polis to exist and to flourish ? …. Plato moralized political theory, while the Athens to which he objected politicized morality – or at any rate it politicized arete. And it judged Socrates to be severely lacking in the qualities that would conduce to the flourishing of his polis, which made him, though notable, not justifiably notable, and so deficient in arete.

The contemporary chapter gives Plato the role of consultant to a popular advice columnist (the importance of Ann Landers’s Rolodex is emphasized) and shows how he approaches a variety of interpersonal issues.

Then we come to the death of Socrates, the history and politics in play, and Plato as a guest on a cable news show based on Bill O’Reilly’s show at the time. I found it so annoying I couldn’t finish the chapter. Draw your own conclusions.

The final pair of chapters is all about reality, our perception of same, Socrates’ Daimon, epistemology, and a very detailed look at the myth of the Cave. This lends itself nicely to imagining Plato in conversation with a neuroscientist and a cognitive scientist. Those who are familiar with my love of neuroscience will understand why these were my favorite chapters (though I did love the first two as well). The contemporary chapter is in the form of a dialog, complete with clear tags this time, and references where/if the brain ends and the mind begins, determinism vs free will and the implications of both, and whether morality can be determined by algorithm (the neuroscientist’s view). And it contains my favorite half-page in the book in a discussion of whether something besides an algorithm could be needed to explain why Socrates went peacefully to his death rather than avoiding it:

PLATO: So then what my friend ought to have said is something along the following lines: The reason that I am lying here on this jailhouse bed is that my default mode network, interacting with memories stored in my hippocampus and medial temporal lobe, generates patterns of activity that correspond with various future scenarios, including fleeing and staying put. The staying-put pattern generates a conflict signal in my anterior cingulate cortex, because the ACC also receives a prepotent response from midbrain limbic circuits that causes the organism to struggle to escape confinement. The signal is then relayed to my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which engages in information processing to resolve the conflict. The DLPFC sends and receives signals from my ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which contains information about my long term goals and also connects to areas in the right superior temporal sulcus that allows me to simulate the actions of other people. The information in this network causes the DLPFC to resolve the conflict by sending signals to the premotor and motor areas, which caused the muscles of my body to leave me in the jail cell.
SHOKET: OK, now I’m officially amazed. What have you been doing, auditing classes?
PLATO: MOOCs.

And I KNOW WHICH MOOCs – I’VE TAKEN THEM! Dartmouth’s Libertarian Free Will: Neuroscientific and Philosophical Evidence is the most on-point (by the way, philosophical libertarianism is completely unrelated to political libertarianism), complete with ACC and DLPFC and all the other cortexes and modules and nodules.

While all this circuitry is well and good, this leads directly to the invocation of the field of embodied cognition, the study of interplay between the brain, the body, and the world, to truly understand Socrates’ action:

PLATO: Do you not see what is missing from the explanation of my friend’s action? We cannot explain why my friend did what he did unless we understand what that action meant both to him and to others, how he saw it and what value he placed on it and how he saw how others would see it and what values they would place on it, both in his day and later, back and forth in spiraling loops of values and meanings.
AGATHA: The way the philosophers at the cognitive Science Center would put it is that you can’t explain his action unless you view it in the context of value and meaning in which his behavior is embedded.

Ok, so not everybody loves this neuro stuff, but remember there was the advice columnist and the cable tv show and the Googleplex and the 92nd Street Y as well? Surely there’s something in there for everyone.

So why doesn’t philosophy go away? I think this might be revealed in Goldstein’s introductory chapter:

His words sound natural in conversations that will be familiar to the reader , and this is a testament to the surprising relevance he still has – but not because his intuitions always ring true to us. His relevance derives overwhelmingly from the questions he asked and from his insistence that they cannot be easily dispensed with in the ways that people often think…. I rarely give him the answers, and I think this is true to the man. The thing about Plato is that he rarely presented himself as giving us the final answers . What he insisted upon was the recalcitrance of the questions in the face of shallow attempts to make them go away . His genius for formulating counter reductive arguments is at one with the genius that allowed him to raise up the field of philosophy as we know it.

Maybe the point isn’t to answer questions, but to engage people in asking them. This is in fact what happens in the Googleplex chapter: both the tech-bro and the author escort move out of their comfortable assuredness into query mode. I thought of Emily Dickinson’s “I Dwell in Possibility”, a poem I haven’t thought about for a long time: the point is to ask questions, not write down Answers for All Time. Maybe there are answers for one set of circumstances, and maybe not for another. Maybe an answer that once worked, no longer does. The work is to keep asking, and that’s why we still read Plato: because we still have questions, and always will.

This is the third Goldstein book I’ve read, and I find them all wonderful in different ways. Fortunately, there are several more geared towards general readership. I do make a conscious effort to read other philosophical explainers and apologists to keep from getting stuck in a rut, but I have to admit a fondness for her humor and style.

Imani Perry, May We Forever Stand (UNCPress 2018)

The ways we tell history often make transitions from one period to the next seem permanent and strict. But in truth every moment and movement bleeds with the ink of a previous era. This truth emerged dramatically as I researched the history of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” It was the epic anthem embraced by black institutions as well as black and multiracial social movements. Although the tides shifted, and ideologies and tactics rose and fell, the anthem kept people afloat. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” moved with social history, but it also always stands as a sign of a particular racial identity and culture. Even as it was embraced by widely divergent political actors, some aspects of its meaning were and are resilient. It tells the singer to see herself or himself as emerging magnificently through struggle. It nurtures an identity rooted in community. It is a song that moves regionally and internationally, yet holds fast to a sense of particular belonging. It has had a remarkable longevity due to both its beauty and its vision. Perhaps most important, it was and is the song of a people, my people. In the following pages I will trace its journey and with it I will trace a story of African American life over 115 years.

This past June, the confluence of the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, the birthday of Rosamond Johnson, and Juneteenth had this book, published in 2018, popping up on my Twitter feed regularly. I love the song, and I remember how much I’d enjoyed learning the story of how Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” when I took the Pre-Modern Women Poets mooc, so I ordered it.

When I say “I love the song” I have to admit I don’t remember when I first heard it, or when I became aware of it as the Black National Anthem; I’m guessing a TV program (I don’t get out much). But I remember the last time I heard it: it was sung in the Sunday service of the local Unitarian Church when I was in the choir there. I got goosebumps; it’s a wonderful song, musically and lyrically. And I say that as a little old white lady whose taste generally runs to folk and classical. My current favorite version is by the a capella group Committed (even if you have your own favorite version, listen to the last 30 seconds for some truly fine vocalizing), but there are hundreds of other options on Youtube, from soloists to choirs, jazzy to hip hop.

The book spends some time on the writing of the song and its first performance in 1900, and on the two brothers, James and Rosamond Johnson, who wrote the words and music. Both were trained in their disciplines, James as a writer, Rosamond as a musician; this wasn’t their first collaboration, nor would it be their last, though they eventually went their separate professional ways. For James, Spanish sonnets influenced the form, and, most interestingly, Kipling (or, more accurately perhaps, a pushback to Kipling) served as inspiration for some of the content: “Perhaps we ought to consider ‘Lift Every Voice’ as a processional in contrast to Kipling’s ‘Recessional,’ in terms of both substance and form.” Rosamond’s music references the march and the dance, rising and falling with the lyrics. And that minor note in the bridge is nothing short of brilliant.

But the primary focus of the book is on the anthem’s place in the cultural, social, and political milieu of the black community over the last century-plus from the collapse of Reconstruction, to the mid-century push for civil rights, to the right-wing reaction to the election of President Obama. It’s quite a story.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” would become an important feature of a cultural practice that I refer to as “black formalism.” Black formalism emerged in the late nineteenth-century United States. It is a term I am using here to describe the performance and substance within black associations and institutions. Black formalism includes ritual practices with embedded norms, codes of conduct, and routine, dignified ways of doing and being….
I argue that black formalism is distinct from the politics of respectability. Black formalism describes practices that were primarily internal to the black community, rather than those based upon a white gaze or an aspiration for white acceptance. It was engaged in across class lines rather than being rooted in a belief in white and middle-class superiority and pushed from the middle class top down to the poor, as was the politics of respectability. The source material for my account of black formalism is made up of thousands of documents—school and church programs, graduation ceremonies, works of literature, oral histories, material culture and images—that revealed a captivating cultural landscape within black communities from the late nineteenth century on, which included not only a striking vernacular culture of spirituals, blues, and the like but also a similarly compelling formal culture of pageantry, oratory, and ritual.

Since I, like a lot of people, think the world started when I was born, I was surprised to read about the numerous organizations formed by black people starting right after Reconstruction. There was conflict in these organizations, just as there was conflict between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois in what direction education should take. Of course people with this level of gravitas have different thoughts, see different priorities, have different ideas of how to attain goals. Somehow that makes me feel better about the conflict between black leaders we see today.

This extents to disagreements between cultural icons: I wasn’t aware of Jackie Robinson’s disapproval of Paul Robeson’s vocal activism (a disapproval he later regretted; this one’s for you, Roger Goodell), but it doesn’t surprise me, given the wide range of opinion we see aired today. And again, it makes me feel better: things are not falling apart, there was always diversity of view within the community.

Perry includes a reference to Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that directly references the anthem: the eighth-grade graduation story. If you’ve read Angelou’s book, you know what I’m talking about; it’s an almost cinematic moment, a journey of a community from joy and anticipation, to shame and humiliation, and back to pride and confidence led by a boy giving his valedictory speech based on Hamlet (it sounds weird, but it works) and the singing of a song that can’t help but uplift.

Another section about the 1948 Democratic primary between Henry Wallace and Harry S Truman also speaks to the current moment:

Racist intimidation was also often political intimidation in the 1930s and 1940s. The widespread assertion that Wallace was a “red,” a charge repeated by not just segregationists but also the executive director of the NAACP, was a sign of the McCarthyism that was coming to sweep the nation. But more than that, it signaled the coercive power of postwar liberalism. Liberalism framed the outer limits of the kind of calls for justice black people were “supposed” to make. At times, this meant going further than encasing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in Americana; it meant rejecting the very idea of a black anthem….
[A]t the 1948 Democratic Party convention Truman was silent on civil rights, despite his knowledge that black voters would be a decisive force in the presidential election that year. Truman’s support only went so far. He didn’t want to rock the boat with southern white Democrats, whom he considered an essential constituency.

The Democratic party, scared of losing even one white voter for three quarters of a century.

Perry describes the tumult of the 50s and 60s, and the competing anthems, particularly “We Shall Overcome.” There’s also a divide between black people in the North, and those raised in the South even after the Great Migration: those in the North weren’t familiar with the anthem. But it still survived.

Perry makes use of advertising to make a wonderfully effective transition. It turns out Miller Beer was trying to sell beer to black men. As part of the project, they commissioned posters with the song and a record (this was 1984) of LEVAS featuring contemporary stars like Al Green, Deniece Williams, with Roberta Flack and Melba Moore on backup (!). Producer Deborah McDuffie has made some takes on Youtube. Perry takes a more jaded view of the hoopla, and transitions into something completely different:

In this era, to be “for” black people, nominally, could mean absolutely nothing of substance. It might simply mean somebody was trying to sell something, or, in the tradition of Reagan, it might actually mean a paternalistic damnation. Frank speech was needed to clear away the underbrush of race in America.
Then came hip-hop.

This leads us to the opening moments of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing: “The movie begins with a solitary horn playing strains of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ and then suddenly actress Rosie Perez bursts on to the screen, dancing hard and fast to ‘Fight the Power.’”

As R&B music lost nearly all of its political content in the 1980s, and became increasingly sentimental and “smooth”, hip-hop was unflinching and explicitly both hard and political, even when it didn’t have an overt political message. It was the music of the young people dispossessed by the Reagan era. It was the music of migrants and their descendants, from the Caribbean and the South, from the country to the city, who arrived to far less opportunity than hoped for, and with only their resilience and rich cultural archive to rely upon.
The introduction of hip hop into black popular culture must be understood alongside the diminishing sphere of black institutional life.

And then there’s Bill Clinton. Perry notes the negative effects of his welfare and crime legislation on the black community, the increases in poverty and mass incarceration, the weakening of parental and community support for the “village” it takes to raise a child, and notes “It is somewhat ironic, then” that he claimed to know all three verses, and, at the ceremony awarding Rosa Parks the congressional Medal of Freedom, indeed did sing all the words, in effect “doing a duet” with Jessye Norman as she led the Anthem.

Clinton’s intimacy with rituals of black space, one that he was afforded by virtue of his many years in the South living with close ties to black communities, one that earned him a good deal of trust from black constituents, was increasingly unavailable to young black people who came of age during his presidency.

This, too, has an eerie connection to the present moment, when a lot of people are talking (and expressing “concern”, a word that may take on a whole new meaning after this) while making sure nothing of substance changes. I wonder how we’ll view today from 2050, assuming anyone’s around to get there, and assuming the actual history of the moment hasn’t been erased, rewritten, or diluted by those with reason to obscure truth; or, at least, the closest we can come to truth.

It’s a strange experience writing this now. And by now, I mean this week, I mean today, Wednesday, August 26, 2020. Six months, a year from now, what will this day mean? If you have no idea of the significance then (or now, for that matter), google Kenosha, see what comes up. Maybe it’ll be just another day, another place, by then, like August 9, 2014, like Ferguson, MO, like February 26, 2012, like Sanford, FL like August 28, 1955, like Money, MS, like so many other dates and places, but maybe it’ll mean something, this way that with tears has been watered.

I’m recalling yet again the Emily Dickinson bit about “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” I find I learn a lot more about history when coming at it from an angle. I’ve said this about much of the fiction I’ve read set in the Renaissance or the earliest centuries of Christianity or the Thirty Years’ War (usually in the process of cross-checking for historical accuracy), this ability to drive home a direction through a character that a history book might reduce to dry rhetoric. I’ve seen it in the nonfiction I’ve been reading, whether about salt or the US Territories. And again, here: Telling the history of a community, and the nation’s regard of that community, by means of this Anthem somehow makes it more comprehensible, more impactful than a straight-on history-of-black-America book would be. Show, don’t tell, manifest. Good job, Dr. Perry. And good job, Johnson brothers.

Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Mariner edition 2000)

In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together. Early every morning they would come out from the house where they lived and walk arm in arm down the street to work. The two friends were very different. The one who always steered the way was an obese and dreamy Greek. In the summer he would come out wearing a yellow or green polo shirt stuffed sloppily into his trousers in front and hanging loose behind. When it was colder he wore over this a shapeless gray sweater. His face was round and oily, with half-closed eyelids and lips that curved in a gentle, stupid smile. The other mute was tall. His eyes had a quick, intelligent expression. He was always Immaculate and very soberly dressed.

Once again, I was surprised that a book I expected to be tedious and difficult turned out to be engrossing and wonderfully readable from the first sentence.

I chose to read this book at this time as the end result of a conversation about authenticity and appropriation that started with Alan Gurganus’s essay “I Confess: My Cultural Misappropriation” in Pushcart 2020. Jake Weber and I have been having a long, ongoing conversation about appropriation, and in the comments to my blog post on Gurganus’s essay he pointed me to a 2016 TNY article by Sarah Schulman that gave McCullers as an example of a white writer who was able to portray black characters – many different types of characters, in fact – as individuals, as people instead of ideas. Schulman writes, after considering McCullers’ possible sexual identity as what today would be considered gay or transgender:

It may be that the “ease” with which Carson McCullers was able to inhabit any kind of person, in a manner that was recognizable to a reader as sophisticated as Richard Wright, did not come from empathy. No, perhaps it came from the simple fact of having an identity that history had not yet discovered. And, because she didn’t know who she was, she had no place to stand. So she could stand with others who officially did not exist.

Sarah Schulman, “White Writer”, TNY 10/21/16,

The descriptions of the characters in the article, as well as the near-universal praise McCullers has received for bringing them to such full, vivid life, made me want to read the book. But, as I implied, I expected a novel set in the Depression-era South to be a bit of a slog. How delightful to be wrong about that. But be forewarned: there are events – and language – in the book that reflect the era. So it’s often painful reading.

It’s something of a stranger-comes-to-town story, except the stranger was already in town, just in another part. The flip side of the stranger comes to town is usually the hero sets out on a quest, except Singer isn’t really a hero and he’s not questing for anything.

The first chapter sets the ball rolling: Singer and his Greek friend Antonoupolis have been living together for ten years. They’re complete opposites except for their deafness, but have a connection that’s a powerful blend of family and love.

Singer was always talking to Antonopoulis. His hands shaped the words in a swift series of designs. His face was eager and his gray-green eyes sparkled brightly. With his thin, strong hands he told Antonopoulis all that has happened during the day.
Antonopoulos sat back lazily and looked at Singer. It was seldom that he ever moved his hands to speak at all – and then it was to say that he wanted to eat or to sleep or to drink. These three things he always said with the same vague, fumbling signs. At night, if he were not too drunk, he would kneel down before his bed and pray awhile. Then his plump hands shaped the words ‘Holy Jesus’, or ‘God,’ or ‘Darling Mary.’ These were the only words Antonopoulis ever said. Singer never knew just how much his friend understood of all the things he told him. But it did not matter.

This is the first indication of a motif that seems to be part of everyone’s life in the book: everybody’s talking, whether anyone’s listening or not. Usually not. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: in this first chapter, “trouble came to the two friends.” Antonoupolis, deaf and possibly retarded or mentally ill (or both), begins decompensating, and is committed to a state institution by his cousin over Singer’s desperate pleas. This is how Singer comes to the other side of town, to a boarding house run near a diner where he lives and eats and goes to work and minds his own business. Or would, except four townspeople find him an excellent sounding board.

Singer, who is, remember, a deaf man, becomes a major listener to four who become the focus of the novel. He rarely indicates anything other than smiling and nodding, but they keep coming back and find the exchange immensely satisfying. It’s also interesting that we find out Singer isn’t actually mute; he just found no need to talk after Antonoupolis came into his life, and he continued that policy out of habit. Most of the time he keeps his hands, the instrument of his voice, hidden in his pockets, since the only person who can “hear” him is gone.

The bulk of the novel follows the four people through their lives in the town over the course of about a year. Biff Brannon owns the diner where Singer takes his meals. He seems like an Everyman who thinks deeply about many things and notices a lot of details. He also has some sexual quirks that are more hinted at than described. He and his wife barely see each other since they cover the diner at different times, but he’s impotent anyway so it doesn’t seem to matter. He notices a drunk stumbling around the diner, and watches as Singer takes care of him.

He was glad he had not told Alice about what had happened to the drunk. He had wanted to talk to somebody about it, because maybe if he told all the facts out loud he could put his finger on the thing that puzzled him. The poor son-of-a-bitch talking and talking and not ever getting anybody to understand what he meant. Not knowing himself, most likely. And the way he gravitated around the deaf-mute and picked him out and tried to make him a free present of everything in him.
Why?
Because in some men it is in them to give up everything personal at some time, before it ferments and poisons–throw it to some human being or some human idea. They have to. In some men it is in them – The text is ‘All men seek for Thee.’ Maybe that was why – maybe – He was a Chinaman, the fellow had said. And a nigger and a wop and a Jew. And if he believed it hard enough maybe it was so. Every person and every thing he said he was –
Biff stretched both of his arms outward and crossed his naked feet. His face was older in the morning light, with the closed, shrunken eyelids and the heavy, iron-like beard on his cheeks and jaw. Gradually his mouth softened and relaxed. The hard, yellow rays of the sun came in through the window so that the room was hot and bright. Biff turned wearily and covered his eyes with his hands. And he was nobody but – Bartholomew – old Biff with two fists and a quick tongue – Mister Brannon – by himself.

“All men seek for thee” could be a subtitle of the book, as Singer looks more and more like a Christ figure. After all, even the most devout have to admit that if one “hears” an answer to a prayer, it’s in the heart/head, not the ears. Maybe God is a deaf mute. Maybe we create him in our own image, as the four visitors do with Singer: he’s Jewish, or a music lover, or a Communist, or someone who’s figured it all out.

The second of the four spiritual pilgrims is Mick Kelly, the thriteen-year-old daughter of the boarding house owner. She’s an adventurer and a dreamer, full of hopes and the future, and she’s discovered music in a big way, thanks to Beethoven’s Eroica symphony and Mozart. And Mr. Singer has a radio, a radio he can’t hear, but he got it to provide entertainment for the four who visit him so often. “Mister Singer reminded her of this music.” She’s trying to turn a ukelele into a violin and wants to learn to read music, and she climbs up on the very top of the house that’s under construction – “But no matter how many Keep Out signs were put up, they couldn’t run kids away” – and sometimes wishes she were a boy. She’s claimed as McCullers’s most autobiographic character.

M.K.–That was what she would have written on everything when she was seventeen years old and very famous. She would ride back home in a red-and-white Packard automobile with her initials on the doors. She would have M.K. written in red on her handkerchiefs and underclothes. Maybe she would be a great inventor. She would invent little tiny radios the size of a green pea that people could carry around and stick in their ears. Also flying machines people could fasten on their backs like knapsacks and go zipping all over the world. After that she would be the first one to make a large tunnel through the world to China, and people could go down in big balloons. Those were the first things she would invent. They were already planned.

Jake Blount is a bit of a vagabond and a drunk. He shows up at the diner while Singer is having dinner, and Singer takes him back home with him so he can sleep it off. “The mute’s face was in his mind very clearly. It was like the face of a friend he had known for a long time.” He sticks around town for the year working at what I imagine is a mini-carnival consisting of one ride, a flying jinny. He’s also a devout Communist, and preaches the evils of communism in a desperate attempt to get people to “know” their labor is being exploited.

Words came to him and he dreamily spoke them aloud to himself. ‘Resentment is the most precious flower of poverty. Yeah.’
It was good to talk. The sound of his voice gave him pleasure. The tones seemed to echo and hang on in the air so that each word sounded twice. He swallowed and moistened his mouth to speak again. He suddenly wanted to return to the mute’s quiet room and tell him of the thoughts that were in his mind. It was a queer thing to want to talk with a deaf mute. But he was lonesome.

Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, a highly educated black man (his children are named Portia, William, Harrison, and Karl Marx), is the doctor for the black folks in town, and is passionate about the betterment of the Negro race. Sadly, he hasn’t been that successful in bettering the lives of his own children, and his wife left him years ago. He met Singer briefly outside the diner, when Singer lit his cigarette for him, something no white man had ever done before. “He remembered the white man’s face when he smiled behind the yellow match flame on that raining night – and peace was in him.” Later he describes his desire to better the race to his daughter over coffee:

“The Negro race of its own accord climbs up on the cross on every Friday,” said Doctor Copeland.
Portia’s hands shook and coffee trickled down from the saucer she was holding. She licked it from her arm. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that I am always looking. I mean that if I could just find ten Negroes – ten of my own people – with spine and brains and courage who are willing to give all that they have – “
Portia put down the coffee. “Us was not talking about anything like that.”
“Only four Negroes,” said Doctor Copeland. “Only the sum of Hamilton and Karl Marx and William and you. Only four Negroes with these real true qualities and backbone – “

If this sounds familiar, it’s because of the story of Lot pleading with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of fifty – no, forty-five – no, forty – no, ten righteous men.

In my travels of general commentary on this book, I found an interesting structural note (and now I’ve lost the link, sorry, it’s out there somewhere). I’d already figured out that Part I set the stage; Part II, the bulk of the book, shows what happened as it all falls apart; and Part III, very short, wraps up loose ends as a denouement. But wait, there’s more. If you take the first chapter off Part I, the next four chapters introduce the primary characters in the order I’ve listed them above. Then in Part III, the four characters are bid adieu in reverse order, and we see how the year has changed them. They’ve all lost their Christ, their confessor, their center (I’ve seen Singer described as the spoke of the wheel) as Singer is gone (I won’t say how, some things need to stay unspoiled). Dr. Copeland is dying without his Christ; Mick is working in a five and dime instead of dreaming of the future, her family having fallen on hard times and the music in her growing dimmer; Jake Blount is moving on to another town after losing his Christ; and Biff, well, Biff the everyman, having lost his Christ, is still trying to figure things out:

The silence in the room was deep as the night itself. Biff stood transfixed, lost in his meditations. Then suddenly he felt a quickening in him. His heart turned and he leaned his back against the counter for support. For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who—one word—love. His soul expanded. But for a moment only. For in him he felt a warning, a shaft of terror. Between the two worlds he was suspended. He saw that he was looking at his own face in the counter glass before him. Sweat glistened on his temples and his face was contorted. One eye was opened wider than the other. The left eye delved narrowly into the past while the right gazed wide and affrighted into a future of blackness, error, and ruin. And he was suspended between radiance and darkness. Between bitter irony and faith. Sharply he turned away.

This is all of us in 2020, the year of our disaster.

What none of them knew, of course, was that war was only a couple of years away, and America would reshape itself afterwards in various ways. Many of the changes would not be welcomed by these people. But Dr. Copeland would find there are far more than four Negroes with spines, Mick would find other ways to approach her dreams, and Jake would probably end up in prison during the Red Scare years. But Biff, he’d keep trying to figure out what was going on, and who knows, maybe he’d come up with something.

There’s no one single event that carries the narrative of the story; it’s just a slow collapse of the important parts of the five characters’ lives. They struggle, but it seems inevitable. There is no safety net for these folks. Somehow, even though it’s pretty depressing, it still is engrossing to the last page.

I can see why it’s used as an example of “good appropriation.” The characters vary, even when related by race or class. All have flaws as well as assets, and they’re all very individual in their preferences and their reactions. Even when the four main characters have similar attachment to Singer, it’s always tailored to the individual quirks of each person.

There’s another aspect to my reading of this book that has little to do with the text itself. I bought a used copy, as I usually do with older books, and I found some hand-written notes inside. Often I find some underlinings or a word or two, but these were more extensive and seemed cohesive, like the former reader was comparing the book to something. I just can’t figure out what, so I’ll report, and hope either someone will recognize the references, or someday I’ll see something that brings me back here with a big “Aha!”

On the first page, containing only blurbs, is the notation “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men P. Agee.” I assume that should be J. Agee? I’m not familiar with it, but it seems Agee and photographer Walker Evans put this book together as part of a WPA project to document the South during the Depression era. The text is described as “inscrutable’ (having read some of it, I agree); the photos show exactly what you’d expect, the poor in their homes. But only white people; I remember reading somewhere that the face of poverty was, at that time, white, and poverty was a far more sympathetic state, and remedies far more acceptable, than when that face later became black.

Next to that notation is an outline:

I. Seeing – Joy (maybe Jox)
II. Suffering – Paz
III Needs & Wants
IV. Justice
V. Freedom
VI. Getting There

This doesn’t seem to refer to the plot of the book itself, or to the Agee/Evans book either.

In Part I chapter 4, right after Jake gets his job with the flying jinny, he’s on his way home: the book reads “Dusk softened the outline of the houses…”. There’s another note: “Hunger blurred the outline of the dead chicken”. There’s no chicken in the text, and nobody’s hungry. Could this refer to a photo, to another story?

In Part II, Chapter 2, Biff is buying black ribbon for mourning and cleaning out his dead wife’s clothing to give away; a marginal note reads, “Locky’s death vs pigs death”. This could be Lucky. Again, I have no idea. A few pages later, he’s visiting sister Lucille, and he thinks of his wife but can’t remember her face; the text reads, “The only thing about her that was clear in him mind was her feet…” and a marginal note reads “Mind was bacon”. Now I’m thoroughly confused.

In Part II Chapter 5, as Bubber watches Baby just before the tragedy that will take down the Kelly family, the text reads “Baby looked like a fairy or something in the picture show ….with her yellow hair she was all pink and white and gold – and so small and clean that it almost hurt to watch her. But she won’t talk to them or even look at them.” The marginal note: “It hurts to see what’s really happening to animals, but the pain is nothing comp. to theirs.”

There are other notes, but those are the most content-relevant ones. If anyone has any ideas, please let me know. This is one of the biggest bonuses of buying used books, by the way: it’s almost like a discussion, but, as in the book, you’re never sure if anyone’s hearing you, or if you’re hearing right.

The title is taken from the poem The Lonely Hunter by Fiona Macleod, who was eventually revealed to be the pen name for William Sharp. The final verse:

O never a green leaf whispers, where the green-gold branches swing:
O never a song I hear now, where one was wont to sing
Here in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still,
But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.

Fiona Macleod/William Sharp, “The Lonely Hunter”

An embarrassing admission: until I read the article Jake pointed out, I’d thought the book was some domestic drama involving neighbors hungrily eyeing each other in secret, or maybe no-so-secretly, and the flare-ups that caused. If I’d known it was such a good book, I would’ve read it decades ago. Learn from my mistakes!

John Kaag, Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life (PUP, 2020)

Today, William James is known in philosophical circles as the founder of pragmatism, arguably the only distinctively American school of philosophy…. James did not, from the start, have pragmatism in view as a philosophical tradition. Instead, he slowly, thoughtfully, sometimes gropingly, made his way through early adulthood. Even his groping, however, was deeply meaningful, the stuff that can, I think, save a life or make a soul a little less sick: his struggle with determinism, his excavation of free will, his emphasis on action and habit formation, his sensitive study of the stream of consciousness. These were the different vectors of meaning that helped James make it to middle age. Yes, pragmatism happened on the way, but it appeared so gradually that its formation actually took James by surprise at the beginning of the twentieth century.

I’ve had John Kaag on my list for a couple of years now for his general-readership philosophy books with intriguing titles – Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are, and American Philosophy: A Love Story. And, now, this book, which was published just this year. I follow several academic philosophers doing online academic outreach, and they were talking about this book. I was dubious: it sounded like self-help (the official description even says it “may be the smartest and most important self-help book you’ll ever read”) and I’m really, really not into self-help books, having gone through that phase in my youth and realized they’re all someone else’s self-help, not mine.

But I also realized I know very, very little about William James. His name comes up once in a while (though not so much in philosophy classes though it did come up in philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God), his brother was the writer Henry James, and… that’s about it. So I thought it might be a good way to make his acquaintance, get an introduction to his ideas.

It didn’t really work out that way. The book is primarily a biography, secondarily a memoir of Kaag’s personal interaction with James’s work, and only then a presentation of James’s contributions to science, psychology, and philosophy. And it is all told from a self-help perspective. I was warned; I should’ve listened. That being said, I don’t mean to imply that it wasn’t useful or enjoyable, just that it wasn’t the type of thing I would normally read. And yet, I did discover some very interesting points along the way.

Point one: James was a depressive mess from a very young age.

“I am a low-lived wretch. I’ve been prey to such disgust for life during the past three months as to make letter writing almost an impossibility.” William James was on the brink of adulthood and, as he confessed to his friend Henry Bowditch in 1869, on the brink of collapse. In the coming two decades, James would write – letters, essays, books – incessantly, like his life depended on it. He’d become the father of American philosophy and psychology, but when he wrote to Bowditch he couldn’t foresee any of it. Actually, he often struggled to see the next day.
….Today, James is usually described as a man who faced mental illness without the help of doctors.
That isn’t exactly true : he was the doctor. William James’s entire philosophy, from beginning to end, was geared to save a life, his life. Philosophy was never a detached intellectual exercise or a matter of word play. It wasn’t a game, or if it was, it was the world’s most serious. It was about being thoughtful and living vibrantly. I would like to offer the reader James’s existential life preserver .

The image on the cover of the book (which is nicely produced, by the way: a ¾ paper slip over full cloth binding) is a self-portrait in red crayon, with the title “Here I and Sorrow Sit”. This dates from the late 1860s, so James would have been in his 20s. Kaag mentions and dismisses the “poor little rich boy” quality of his early life (and I know enough about endogenous depression to concur), and points out the pressures: his brothers served in the Civil War while he could not due to physical problems; his father was an avowed Calvinist (making James’s work on determinism all the more interesting), and while he was an excellent student, he struggled mightily with chemistry (I can sympathize). That Kaag sees the work he produced as being in service of his own mental health is interesting.

James began in biology, and worked his way through comparative anatomy to psychology and then philosophy. His first work was to dismember determinism, the idea that, since everything is the result of what has come before, free will is an illusion and we are merely playing out parts already written. This has gone through some interesting twists with physics, first supporting determinism, then making it less likely. Is free will an illusion we were destined to believe in from the moment of the Big Bang? Or do we truly choose? By the way, there’s a mooc for that, combining contemporary neuroscience and physics with philosophy.

But James’s approach was more direct: “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” Which brings us to another interesting aspect of his work, the power of belief, of faith in the absence of evidence, as shown in his lecture “The Will to Believe”:

This address, given to the Divinity School at Yale in June of 1896, is usually understood as a contribution to the philosophy of religion, and argument for voluntarily adopted faith. When empirical evidence is insufficient to prove the reality of the Divine, James argued that one could still will belief, and that this does not violate the strictures of reason. The belief itself, according to James, can change a believer’s world such that the belief is validated over time.
….What is often overlooked in commentaries on “The Will To Believe” is the way that this linchpin of classical American philosophy applies to the maintenance of meaningful human relations, relations that can be lost on the sick souls of the world. …
He is explaining how a certain sort of truth – like the truth about love – comes to be. It doesn’t just emerge fully formed in the head of a lover or beloved. Instead, it grows – or doesn’t – between two people in there actively meeting halfway. And this communion requires a bit of faith, or at minimum an act of optimism.

If you’re wondering how we went from religious faith to romantic love, it’s linked via the account of James’s relationship with the woman who would become his wife, and Kaag’s own personal history as well. Not only can we make a Kierkegaardian Leap to Faith in God, we can approach another person with openness and generosity instead of cynicism and caution, and in doing so, allow reciprocal love, if it is there in seedling form, to flourish.

I thought I heard echoes of “Fake it ‘til you make it,” one of the Twelve-Stepper’s mantras, in this. In any of the Anonymous groups, you’re welcome to be skeptical, but advised to pretend “as if” it works; the idea is to be open to the possibility that it might. The “maybe” is also one of James’s watchwords: when he doubted that life was worth living, he found the “maybe” could get him through another day.

The echoes of “as if” are not my imagination. I discovered that the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous read James’s later work, Varieties of Religious Experience, and incorporated it into his vision of the Higher Power that has become a central tenet of AA.

I also found some echoes of Chinese philosophy in James.

James concludes his analysis of habit by underscoring its possible transcendence, writing in the Principals, “Genius, in truth, means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.“ Following his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, James believes that every individual is imbued with this rare and beautifully disruptive faculty. We just have to exercise it.

I happened to be taking a mooc that, guess what, turns ancient Chinese philosophy into self-help, so I was probably unusually susceptible to hearing Confucius’ idea of “overcoming the self” – that is, breaking out of habits – and learning to pay closer attention to the world itself in order to react to reality rather than act out of habit. James wanted to break out of the same ruts. Too bad European philosophers (looking at you, Kant) dismissed the idea that non-white people might have philosophies worth learning about.

James also delved into what today we call “the hard problem of consciousness”: how can we analyze consciousness since we must be conscious to analyze? James apparently tried some tricks with nitrous oxide to experience the edge of consciousness, but that isn’t really a good idea, is it. What is it about the neurons in the brain that turns it into a thinking mind that experiences the world in an exquisitely personal way? While I was reading this section, a marvelous comic take on this comment came across my Twitter feed (and again, thank you serendipity):

Over the past century, scientists have unlocked many of the most profound secrets of bacon, eggs, oatmeal, and avocado toast, advancing our understanding of the day’s most important meal and ushering in a golden age of innovation.1 Yet there remains one problem that has proven frustratingly resistant to our efforts at resolution: What is often referred to as The Hard Problem of Breakfast.
The stubborn fact remains that, no matter how deeply we probe into the nature of bacon, eggs, oatmeal, and avocado toast — to say nothing of shakshuka, grits, bear claws, or dim sum—or the interactions between these fundamental building blocks and, say, orange juice or coffee and the morning paper, we simply have no convincing theory to explain how such disparate, seemingly inert components give rise to the phenomenon we subjectively experience as “breakfast.”

Jonathan Bines, “The Hard Problem of Breakfast” at Nautilus

One aspect of James’s work that is in contemporary practice today is his understanding of the relationship between physical states and emotions.

“We don’t laugh because we’re happy, we’re happy because we laugh.” The action itself is enough to bring about a particular affective state.
James had studied Physiology long enough to begin to understand what today we call “biofeedback,” The mutual reinforcement of the expression of emotion and its subjective feeling, and he had concluded, for a number of different reasons, that certain bodily activities and responses gave rise to the “coarser emotions”: regret, anger, fear, and joy. This is at the core of what became known as the James-Lange theory of emotion.

While he was going through a divorce, Kaag reread a passage about changing one’s posture from “moping” to upright, with chest raised and shoulders back. He decided to accept a colleague’s suggestion that he try yoga, and he noticed that the “Sun Salutation” series of Ashantaga Yoga forces the posture into different forms, including the upright stance. I myself remember a semi-therapeutic singing group for seniors that included some yoga-like activities prior to vocalizing, and one of them was exactly this chest-out, chin-up pose. The purpose was not to enhance breathing, but to instill confidence and openness. And anyone who’s watched Grey’s Anatomy remembers the “superhero pose improves performance” episode that does, in fact, have a research study to support it (whether or not the results have been replicated, I can’t say).

This idea of controlling emotions through physical posture – and through changing thought habits, noticing when you think “I always screw up” and changing it to “I made a mistake here so I can improve on that” – is part of various behavioral therapies today. So this saving-your-life thing isn’t made up out of whole cloth.

My disappointment in the book had more to do with James’s research. At one point Kaag cites bench research done in the 1880s in the pursuit of consciousness, and I’d love to know what that was. I suppose I’ll have to read James to find out, but… I don’t want to go through a 1200-page book from the 19th century. My other disappointment was in connection to pragmatism.

James’s most fundamental contribution to philosophy was pragmatism. I’d love to give you a clear, concise definition, but the closest I found in the book is “Truth in ideas is their power to work.” That didn’t really give me a good idea of what we’re talking about. And yes, there’s the Stanford online encyclopedia of philosophy, a truly authoritative and wide-ranging work that gives me a headache every time I read more than one sentence. So for those of us who aren’t up to Stanford levels, I found a video by a lesser professor who at least got me to the ball park, if not (yet) into the game: a true idea means it fulfills some purpose for you. He uses the example of directions to his house: they are true if they get you there.

The process of writing this out has been useful, as these posts often are (if anyone else finds them useful, that’s fine, but it’s a side effect of their benefit for me). I debated not writing this book up at all, just listing it as one of the “mistakes” I made in choosing my in-between reading this year. It’s a short book, about 200 pages, the size of a trade paperback, with generous margins and spacing, so it’s a quick read. It’s pleasantly written, even in places it deals with depression. And once I started going through my notes, I found a great deal to write about, and found numerous connections to other areas of interest, from Confucius to humor to television.

Maybe this wasn’t the book I wanted it to be; maybe some things remain for me to find elsewhere. But clearly, this read was not a mistake. And for someone who is looking for self-help, something grounded more in science than in a celebrity’s idea of the good life, it might be perfect.

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Trans. Michael Henry Heim (Harper, 1984)

The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurrs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify? 
Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, did in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.
….This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.

Authorial intrusion used to be a common enough practice, but for the most part it’s fallen out of favor to the point where a writer can be scolded in workshop for indulging. But not here: Kundera begins his novel with an exegesis on Nietzsche’s Eternal Return, and pops in over and over again to explain what his characters are doing, why they’re doing it, and how it relates to Nietzsche. It’s disconcerting, sort of like reading a self-analytic novel.

But at least it gives the reader a chance to understand what’s going on. And, if you need more, the internet is full of explanations of Eternal Return (including several short and simple Youtube videos). Basically, it’s a thought experiment: what if you had to live your life over and over, just as you had lived it, without any chance to change anything? If you knew that was the case, you’d be weighted down by every decision. But we only live once, which implies a kind of lightness, but also brings some kind of meaninglessness, and even blanket absolution for the mistakes we make, since we only had one chance. Obviously this gets more convoluted – it’s Nietzsche, he can’t order breakfast without convolution – but the gist is that the price of weightlessness is meaning, and the cost of meaning is heaviness.

I have to take issue with the idea that life is meaningless because it is lived once. On an individual level, our choices often stay with us, haunting us if they were bad choices, uplifting us if they were good. As a personal example – and yes, I know I’m neurotic as hell – I often recall something nasty I said in high school, something I doubt anyone else remembers, but it sticks with me and affects my current emotional state and behavior. Our decisions likewise have effects that persist, whether for good or bad. And on a grander scale, what we do affects others, and has resonances that carry forward. Some of these might be greater than others, and some might be so minor as to be overwhelmed by other resonances, but the present is the sum of the past.

I decided to read this book because it kept coming up in connection to Mad Men, in which so many characters become who they want to be without looking back. Don Draper, of course, who literally became someone else, then told Peggy, as she recovered from a pregnancy she’d been unaware of until she went into labor: “It will shock you how much this never happened.” Then there’s Harry telling would-be writer Paul to forget his crappy Star Trek script, his long slide down the advertising ladder into unemployment, his absurd dalliance with Hare Krishna, and go to California: “You don’t understand what it’s like out there. This failure? This life? It’ll all seem like it happened to someone else.” I see the connection now. But all those characters, they still carried the past with them.

So back to the book: It’s a good thing we start with something thoughtful, because otherwise, the first quarter of the book is just a domestic drama about a guy justifying his need to screw as many women as possible while in a committed relationship with one woman who’s working out big-time mommy issues while the tanks roll in after the Prague Spring. If that gives the impression it’s not a philosophico-political novel, that impression will be corrected by the second half of the book.

If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to each Hermitude as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. It is a terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make. That is why Nietzsche called the idea of eternal return the heaviest of burdens (das schwerste Gewicht.
If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness.
But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?

Rod Dreher of The American Conservative called it “A Dirty Book for Philosophy Geeks.” As much as it pains me to agree with anything in The American Conservative, he’s not wrong. I have a fairly low tolerance for fiction that tries to turn sex into something with mystical, psychosocial, or existential meaning. Sometimes sex is just sex, y’know? But there’s so much in this book aside from that, it’s well worth reading anyway. And, of course, for those who think Freud didn’t psychologize sex enough, hey, enjoy yourself.

Considering my lack of interest in the primary characters of the first two sections, I was surprised by how fond of them I was by the end of the book. Tereza and Tomas meet by chance in her small town, flirt just as he’s lightly fluttering away, and she turns up at his Prague apartment bringing her heaviness and her emotional baggage with her in the form of an overpacked suitcase. Tomas doesn’t let her get in the way of his mission to sleep with as many different women as possible, but he improbably falls in love with her and does modify some of his rules: they sleep together, holding hands. He even marries her. She becomes a photographer. They move to Zurich to get out of the way of the tanks (there are other women in Zurich, after all, and he’s a doctor, he can go jut about anywhere), but Tereza is unhappy and returns to Prague. And to his own surprise, Tomas follows her.

For seven years he had been bound to her, his every step subject to her scrutiny. She might as well have chained iron balls to his ankles. Suddenly his step was much lighter. He soared. He had entered Parmenides’ magic field: he was enjoying the sweet lightness of being.

On Saturday and Sunday he felt the sweet lightness of being rise up to him out of the depths of the future. On Monday, he was hit by a weight the likes of which he had never known. The tons of steel of the Russian tanks were nothing compared with it. For there is nothing heavier than compassion.

Yes, it was unbearable for him to stay in Zurich imagining Teresa living on her own in Prague.

Unbearable lightness, indeed.

This compassion Tomas feels is a bit more involved than we might think, as Kundera explains in one of his intrusions. He distinguishes between the Latin-derived word compassion, and non-Latinate words from other languages, including Czech (the language in which he originally wrote the book), where the meaning is emotionally broader and less condescending:

All languages that derive from Latin form the word “compassion” by combining the prefix meaning “with” (com-) and the root meaning “suffering” (Late Latin, passio). In other languages, Czech, Polish, German, and Swedish, for instance – this word is translated by a noun formed of an equivalent prefix combined with the word that means “feeling”.
In languages that derive from Latin, “compassion” means: we cannot look on coolly as others suffer; or, we sympathize with those who suffer. Another word with approximately the same meaning, “pity”, connotes a certain condescension towards the sufferer. “To take pity on a woman” means that we are better off than she, that we stoop to her level, lower ourselves.
That is why the word “compassion” generally inspires suspicion; it designates what is considered an inferior, second-rate sentiment that has little to do with love. To love someone out of compassion means not really to love.
In languages that form the word “compassion” not from the root “suffering” but from the word “feeling,” the word is used in approximately the same way, but to contend that it designates a bad or inferior sentiment is difficult. The secret strength of its etymology floods the word with another light and gives it a broader meaning: to have compassion (co-feeling) means not only to be able to live with the other’s misfortune but also to feel with him any emotion—joy, anxiety, happiness, pain. This kind of compassion (in the sense of soucit, współczucie, Mitgefühl, medkänsla) therefore signifies the maximal capacity of affective imagination, the art of emotional telepathy. In the hierarchy of sentiments, then, it is supreme.

I happen to know a native Czech speaker (hi, Andrew!), and he confirmed this, so it’s not just a technicality only a linguist would know, but is in fact part of the life-as-lived understanding of both words. Kundera wrote this book in Czech, while living in France (he started writing in French later on), and I would imagine this became an interesting point of translation. I have to wonder if the prospect of translation made this intrusion necessary. It’s rather a crucial point to realize Tomas’ connection to Tereza was not one of pity, but a bond over the entire range of emotions. He did not pity her; he connected with her. He wasn’t trying to help her or save her; he was trying to love her.

Another motif at play in the scene, and elsewhere, is courtesy of Beethoven. Though Tomas has obviously had more formal education, it’s Tereza who introduces him to the string quartet charmingly designated Op. 135. The final movement is titled “Der schwer gefasste Entschluss,” which can translate as “The difficult decision” or “The Weighty Resolution.” Keep in mind that resolution can be a musical term for the completion of a phrase in melody or harmony. The score itself reflects multiple resonances, as the musical phrase labeled “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?) is followed by the musical phrase “Es muss sein!” (It must be!). Musician Martin Saving goes into some depth about the quartet on the Elias String quartet blog, a piece well worth reading to better understand what Beethoven might have meant (nobody’s sure) and, more importantly, its relevance to Tomas’s decision to return to Prague and Tereza. Did it have to be? Free will, or fate?

Lest you think Tereza and Tomas are the only characters in the book, let me introduce Sabine and Franz. They are another heavy/light couple, though in this case, Sabine is the light one and Franz the heavy. Sabine, a painter, intersects with both Tomas, as a lover, and Tereza, as a kind of artistic mentor for a short time. Sabine moves to Zurich and takes up with Franz, a married professor who keeps her a secret. He goes through some kind of epiphany in which he decides to “live in truth” and informs his wife, who says don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out, and Sabine, who takes of running for Paris. It’s ok, because he finds an undergrad with big glasses who worships him.

Sabine, the character most dedicated to lightness, despises kitsch, defined as what shows the good side and ignores the bad. The art mandated by the Communist regime, for example: smiling happy people praising the Movement. She does a different kind of painting, one she wasn’t free to do until she got out of Prague:

Here is a painting I happened to drip red paint on. At first I was terribly upset, but then I started enjoying it. The trickle looked like a crack; it turned the building site into a battered old backdrop, a backdrop with a building site painted on it. I began playing with the crack, filling it out, wondering what might be visible behind it. And that’s how I began my first cycle of paintings. I called it Behind the Scenes. Of course, I couldn’t show them to anybody. I’d have been kicked out of the Academy. On the surface, there was always an impeccably realistic world, but underneath, behind the backdrop’s cracked canvas, lurked something different, something mysterious or abstract. After pausing for a moment, she added, On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth.

After leaving Franz, she is overcome with melancholy, the unbearable part of lightness. Still she travels the world, unwilling to be weighted down. My take is that too much lightness makes you float away.

Franz is the comic disaster of fakery, a study in trying to be heavy but really being a fool. After Sabine leaves him, he takes part in The Great March, a highly publicized trek of celebrities, intellectuals, and a few doctors to war-torn Cambodia on a mission to be famous treat sick people and the war-wounded. Alas, they aren’t allowed in, but Franz imagines Sabine watching him, following his great gesture of humanity, though she has been oblivious to him since she left him. He ends up murdered in Thailand because he’s a fool. Franz is the embodiment of kitsch, the kitsch Sabine despises.

That leaves us with Tereza and Tomas, who end up running afoul of the Communist regime once they’re back in Prague. They can’t leave because the borders are now closed (I was unaware the borders were ever open under the Soviet regime, so I learned something). Tomas writes a letter to the editor that has a special resonance in the current era:

Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people. Later it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts were therefore murderers.
Then everyone took to shouting at the Communists: You’re the ones responsible for our country’s misfortunes (it had grown poor and desolate), for its loss of independence (it had fallen into the hands of the Russians), for its judicial murders!
And the accused responded: We didn’t know! We were deceived! We were true believers! Deep in our hearts we are innocent!
In the end, the dispute narrowed down to a single question: Did they really not know or were they merely making believe?
….
It was in this connection that Tomas recalled the tale of Oedipus: Oedipus did not know he was sleeping with his own mother, yet when he realized what had happened, he did not feel innocent. Unable to stand the sight of the misfortunes he had wrought by not knowing, he put out his eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes.
When Tomas heard Communists shouting in defense of their inner purity, he said to himself, As a result of your not knowing, this country has lost its freedom, lost it for centuries, perhaps, and you shout that you feel no guilt? How can you stand the sight of what you’ve done? How is it you aren’t horrified? Have you no eyes to see? If you had eyes, you would have to put them out and wander away from Thebes!

This goes out to all those concerned senators who aren’t quite concerned enough to do anything about what they’re so concerned about.

Tomas goes through some machinations involving his son from his first marriage after the letter is published, and is eventually demoted from neurosurgeon to window washer. He’s still pretty much ok since it’s amazing how many women you can screw as a window washer. But that gig eventually is barred to him as well, and he and Tereza head for the hills: that is, the countryside, to work on a collective farm. And here is where Tomas finally settles down with his wife and their dog, Karenin.

The dog’s death is highly emotional, partly because, sure, I’m a sucker for a dying pet, but because of how the changes in Tomas and Tereza are demonstrated: he has become less light, and she less heavy. Nietzsche with Aristotle’s Golden Mean. Amor Fata, another Nietzscheism: love whatever fate brings you, the good and the bad. No kitsch. From Karenin’s Smile to the end of the book, I loved these people who I’d merely tolerated pages earlier. Because the stories are interwoven between various characters, we’ve already seen ahead what will happen; the book stops just before then, leaving a poignant ache as the last page turns. I can’t believe it worked on me, but it did.

Seven years earlier, a complex neurological case happened to have been discovered at the hospital in Tereza’s town. They called in the chief surgeon of Tomas’s hospital in Prague for consultation, what’s the chief surgeon of Tomas’s hospital happened to be suffering from sciatica, and because he could not move he sent Tomas to the provincial hospital in his place. The town had several hotels, but Tomas happened to be given a room in the one where Teresa was employed. He happened to have enough free time before his train left to stop at the hotel restaurant. Teresa happened to be on duty, and happened to be serving Tomas’s table. It had taken six chance happenings to push Tomas towards Tereza, as if he had little inclination to go to her on his own.

Amor fati. Whether it’s a dying dog, or a girl who just happens to blow your way and teaches you to hold hands in bed. It might take years, it might change your life into something you barely recognize, but love it anyway, because whether it’s guided by fate or our own choices, it’s the only life you’ve got.

Salman Rushdie, Quichotte (RH 2019)

There once lived, at a series of temporary addresses across the United States of America, a traveling man of Indian origin, advancing years, and retreating mental powers, who, on account of his love for mindless television, had spent far too much of his life in the yellow light of tawdry motel rooms watching an excess of it, and had suffered a peculiar form of brain damage as a result. He devoured morning shows, daytime shows, late-night talk shows, soaps, situation comedies, lifetime movies, hospital dramas, police series, vampires and zombie serials, the dramas of housewives from Atlanta, New Jersey, Beverly Hills, and New York, the romances and quarrels of hotel fortune princesses and self-styled shahs, the cavorting of individuals made famous by happy nudities,…
As a consequence of his near-total preoccupation with the material offered up to him through, in the old days, the cathode-ray tube, and, in the new age of flat screens, through liquid-crystal, plasma, and organic light-emitting diode displays, he fell victim to that increasingly prevalent psychological disorder in which the boundary between truth and lies became smudged and indistinct, so that at times he found himself incapable of distinguishing one from the other, reality from “reality”….

What kind of book is this? A road novel? A romance? A buddy story? A family saga? A science fiction tale? An homage, a pastiche, a picaresque, an indictment of contemporary American culture and attitudes? Yes.

I’ve seen some pretty tepid reviews out there. “Strenuous and grating” says NYT. “Internetitis” as The Guardian puts it. I can’t disagree. But I’m more with Jason Sheehan for NPR: “So Quichotte, as a book, is a mess. But it is a beautiful mess.” He also feels it’s so convoluted you might need one of those “boards made of index cards and string just to unpack the plot.” I happen to have the MSWord equivalent, because, he’s right. So? I do that with books that I expect to get complicated.

I’ve never read Rushdie before, so I have no idea how this fits into his oeuvre, and I’m not sophisticated enough to look at questions like “is it good literature.” My own yardstick is this: given my enthusiasm for the original Don Quixote, which I explored for a few months last Fall with the help of an OCW, a mooc, and a couple of supplementary texts, in preparation for reading this novel – an enthusiasm that has had me seeing the hidalgo in multiple stories ever since – did the present novel honor the past? Do I welcome it into the web of interrelated thoughts about DQ? Am I happy I invested the time in all of this?

Decidedly so.

The author of the preceding narrative – we will call him Brother – was a New York-based writer of Indian origin who had previously written eight modestly (un)successful spy fictions under the pen name of Sam DuChamp. Then in a surprising change of direction he conceived the idea of telling the story of the lunatic Quichotte and his doomed pursuit of the gorgeous Miss Salma R, in a book radically unlike any other he had ever attempted. No sooner had he conceived this idea then he became afraid of it. He could not at first fathom how such an eccentric notion had lodged in his brain, and why it insisted so vehemently on being written that he had no choice but to start work. Then as he thought about it further, he began to understand that in some fashion that he did not as yet fully grasp Quichotte – the loner in search of love, the loser-nobody who believed himself capable of winning the heart of a queen – had been with him all his life, a shadow-self he had glimpsed from time to time in the corner of his eye, but had not had the courage to confront.
His next thought was even more alarming: to make sense of the life of the strange man whose latter days he was setting out to chronicle, he would have to reveal himself alongside his subject, for the tale and the teller were yoked together by race, place, generation, and circumstance. Perhaps this bizarre story was a metamorphosed version of his own. Quichotte himself might say, if he were aware of Brother (which was impossible, naturally) that in fact the writer’s tale was the altered version of his history, rather than the other way around, and might have argued that is “imaginary” life added up to the more authentic narrative of the two.

The book crams in everything but the kitchen sink. The Odyssey to The Bachelor. Three countries on three continents. The opioid crisis, Elon Musk, violent racism. Family issues from trivial to tragic. Attar of Nishapur’s 12th century Persian poem, “The Conference of the Birds” and Ionescu’s play, Rhinoceros (while I was kind of impressed with myself for recognizing so many of the literary references, these last two were new to me, so thank you Wikipedia). I think, if I had to construct a pre-reading list, I’d only include Arthur C. Clarke’s story “The Nine Billion Names of God” which is probably not widely read (I happen to have his collection of the same name on my shelf; it’s a favorite story of mine). Everyone’s seen the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, right? And I assume the basics of DQ’s story – crazy guy thinks he’s a knight, adventuring to win the heart of the non-existent Dulcinea, sidekick Sancho Panza – are pretty much part of the general consciousness.

Let’s do some compare/contrast on those crucial points of intersection with the original. Where DQ was obsessed with romances about knight-errantry – the dime-store romances of his day – our more modern Quichotte has become obsessed with television, particularly reality TV featuring real housewives, Kardassians, and all the rest. DQ invented Dulcinea, his lady love, as an amalgam of damsels in distress, and went questing to prove his owrthiness of her. Quichotte is enamored with a former movie star from Bombay and current New York daytime talk show host, Salma R. Where DQ co-opted his neighbor, Sancho Panza, into serving as his squire with the promise of governorship of an island at some point in the future, Quichotte conjures up a son of his own at Devil’s Tower (hence, Close Encounters), a teenager named Sancho.

Going a little beyond those basics was very rewarding for me. One of the aspects of DQ I enjoyed the most – and would never have recognized had it not been for the Yale lectures – was the puzzle of narration. The first narrator bows out after eight chapters and we find ourselves reading the work of another narrator, plus a translator. Stories about storytellers telling stories. And, of course, Cervantes, the author behind it all. And behind him? If it’s turtles all the way down, it’s narrators all the way up. God, no longer the Unmoved Mover, but now the Unnarrated Narrator.

I know things. Educated things. But how do I know so much, being the teenage son of a seventy-year-old, and born just the other day? I guess the answer is, I know what he knows.…
There’s something else. It’s the strangest thing. Sometimes, when I’m in here, rummaging around in my own head, using the words he gave me and the knowledge he passed down , uncovering my memories which are his memories, his life story which I could claim as my own if I weren’t smart enough to know better …just sometimes, not every time …I get the weirdest sense that there’s someone else in here. Crazy, right?
I’m as crazy as he is, the old guy. But who or what is this third person? I’m just going to say this the way it comes to me just say it, even though it makes no sense and makes me sound…unreliable. It feels to me, at those moments when I have this sense of a stranger, as if there’s somebody under slash behind slash above the old man. Somebody – yes – making him the way he made me. Somebody putting his life, his thoughts, his feelings, his memories into the old man the way the old man put that stuff inside me. In which case whose life am I remembering here? The old man’s or the phantom’s?

Quichotte (which Rushdie goes to some effort to inform us, in “A Quixotic Note on Pronunciation,” is best pronounced “key-SHOT”) begins with “Chapter 1: Quichotte, an old Man, falls in Love, embarks on a Quest, & becomes a Father.” The descriptive chapter titles are another nod to the original DQ; they also help keep the reader focused in a book that does everything it can to derail focus. But in “Chapter 2: An Author, Sam DuChamp, reflects upon his Past, & enters new Territory” we learn Quichotte is a character in a book, which explains how a son, a “monochrome boy” could just appear out of nowhere. And we learn that Sam DuChamp is a pseudonym the writer has used for a series of spy novels; he refers to himself generally as Brother. In the next few chapters we learn about Quichotte’s inamorata, a TV star named Salma R, about Brother’s Sister, about Quichotte’s cousin and erstwhile employer, Dr. Smile, before returning to hear more from Sancho, the black-and-white son.

See? Even though there’s a lot going on, this is a nice introductory sequence to show you who each character is. If you can remember only Brother and Sister are actual people, while everyone else is a character in a book Brother is writing… oh, except, yeah, Brother and Sister are characters, too, but in the book they’re… hmmm.

An interjection, kind reader, if you will allow one: It may be argued that stories should not sprawl in this way, that they should be grounded in one place or the other, put down roots in the other or that one and flower in that singular soil; yet so many of today’s stories are and must be of this plural, sprawling kind, because a kind of nuclear fission has taken place in human lives and relations, families have been divided …And inside the broken families are broken people, broken by loss, poverty, maltreatment, failure, age, sickness, pain, and hatred, yet trying in spite of it all to cling to hope and love , and these broken people – we, the broken people! – may be the best mirrors of our times , shining shards that reflect the truth wherever we travel, wherever we land, wherever we remain. For we migrants have become like seed-spores, carried through the air, and lo, the breeze blows up where it will come up until we lodge in an alien soil, where very often – as for example now in this England with its wild nostalgia for an imaginary golden age when all attitudes were Anglo-Saxon and all English skins were white – we are made to feel unwelcome, no matter how beautiful the fruit hanging from the branches of the orchards of fruit trees that we grow into and become.

There’s a wonderful line in the book defining lunacy as “the inability to separate what-is-so from what-is-not-so.” This generally gets applied, aptly, to American culture and society throughout, but it often applies to the reader. It’s hard to keep straight who is and who is not, particularly since, ultimately, nobody is. As the novel progresses, the book-within-the-book and the author’s story converge more and more, increasing the potential for confusion. Maybe reading this book will give us a bit more compassion for those who fall down rabbit holes of misinformation, given it is so often presented alongside and in similar style to information.

The reader becomes aware of new elements and relationships slowly; often these change presumed motivations. There are brother/sister rifts; by coincidence I happen to be one party in a brother/sister rift, and even more coincidentally (really!) I wrote my estranged brother about a month ago for the first time since, oh, maybe the early 90s, before I started reading the book and knew about this element. I still haven’t heard a reply, but the letter (snail mail, how quaint!) hasn’t been returned as undeliverable, so I suppose that’s an answer of a sort. Moving on: Quichotte until recently worked for his cousin, Dr. Smile, who has made a bundle developing a sublingual Fentanyl derivative and he’s exactly as crooked and evil as that sounds. This sets up a connection between brothers and sisters that takes us through the later parts of the book.

“Is that what you believe,” Son asked him, “that life is meaningless and we are turning into animals without morality?”
“I think it’s legitimate for a work of art made in the present time to say, we are being crippled by the culture we have made, by its most popular elements above all,” he replied. “And by stupidity and ignorance and bigotry, yes.”
“So what have you done about it?” Son demanded. “What’s your contribution? What sort of mark do you think you’re leaving on the world?”
“I did my work, and then there’s you,” he said, hearing as he spoke the weakness of his reply.
Son shrugged and headed for the car. “OK,” he said. “Let’s move on.”
Your son, your grand inquisitor.

The Rhinoceros episode deserves special attention. It appears in the chapter titled “A Sequence of absurd Events during a brief Sojourn in New Jersey,” and features rampant panic as people are turning into mastodons. I was convinced the mastodon – an old, extinct form of elephant – was a pretty direct reference to the Republican party, but in an Interview with Dolen Perkins-Valdez at the Politics and Prose Booktore, Rushdie denied that was his intent. He says he deliberately kept the name of a certain President out of the book, because he didn’t want it to be about that; he wanted it to be about America.

By the way, in a different interview with Walter Isaacson for Amanpour & Co., he tells us his original vision did not include the writer’s story; he would just write the Quichotte story straight. The process of recognizing the story – which started, even more oddly, with a set of science-fiction scripts written for an abandoned cable TV project – is always fascinating, and here, with the intertwining of two stories and so many references, is miraculous.

The death of Don Quixote felt like the extinction in all of us of a special kind of beautiful foolishness, an innocent grandeur, a thing for which the world had no place, but which one might call humanity. The marginal man, the man laughably out of touch and doggedly out of step and also unarguably out of mind, revealed in his last moment as the one to care most about and mourn most deeply for. Remember this. Have this above all in mind.

As I came to the last chapters, I was surprised at the emotion I felt. the chapter “In which the Question of Sancho is Answered” was unexpectedly moving. The events were in the neighborhood of foreseeable; nevertheless, I didn’t see my reaction coming. I had to put the book down for a day to absorb it. And in the penultimate chapter, “Concerning the Author’s Heart,” a revelation is made so casually that its reverberation was again a shock, but this time, the entire book shifted for me. A line from a review of Mad Men came to me: “Who’d have guessed that in the end, it’d be all about family?” Of course, it was always about family, but the true point of origin, the knot that ties it all together, is left until just about the end.

And that leaves the very end, which, well, you’ll just have to read it for yourself. Anything else would be unfair.

N. K. Jemisin, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? (Hachette, 2018)

Once upon a time, I didn’t think I could write short stories.
….
How Long ‘Til Black Future Month Takes its name from an essay that I wrote in 2013…. It’s a shameless paean to an Afrofuturist icon, the artist Janelle Monáe, but it’s also a meditation on how hard it’s been for me to love science fiction and fantasy as a black woman. How much I’ve had to fight my own internalised racism in addition to that radiating from the fiction and the business. How terrifying it’s been to realize no one thinks my people have a future. And how gratifying to finally accept myself and begin spinning the futures I want to see.
….
Now I mentor up-and-coming writers of color wherever I find them …And there are so many to find. Now I am bolder, and angrier, and more joyful; none of those things contradict each other. Now I am the writer that short stories made me.
So come on. There’s the future over there. Let’s all go.

~~ N. K. Jemisin, Introduction

I haven’t read much contemporary science fiction. Nearly every year now, BASS and Pushcart have stories that use science-fiction elements, particularly near-future dystopias predictable by current climate science. But they still read as literary fiction rather than science fiction. I’ve never understood the sharp line of demarcation between them, but it’s there. The point is, I’m out of my element. The most recent SF/F writer I’ve read to any degree is Harlan Ellison (I did read Sagan’s Contact if that counts); my bookshelves hold an assortment of Golden Age collections and anthologies: Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, etc.

Be that as it may, I greatly enjoyed nearly all of the stories in this collection. I’m a bit overwhelmed, in fact, since there are twenty-two stories. I take three months and twenty-two posts to consider a BASS anthology; most collections include maybe ten or twelve stories. So I’m off-balance, not sure how to communicate how beautifully something like “The Ones who Stay and Fight” or “Cloud Dragon Skies” or “The Narcomancer” worked, or how much fun “The Effluent Engine” was, or how deeply “Red Dirt Witch” touched me. There are many, many professional reviews of this volume, so I can stick to my own method of reacting and analyzing my reaction. But still, how to do that with so much to react to?

I decided to let Jemison lead the way via her Introduction.

As she mentions above, the title is from an essay available on her website, an essay inspired by her childhood sense of being excluded from a genre she loved, and by Janelle Monáe’s video
“Tightrope”. It starts with her noticing, as an adult, the cartoon The Jetsons doesn’t include any black people at all. The future was all white.

So Jemisin created a future with black people in it. Even black women. In many of the stories, race isn’t a primary issue, it’s just one of the many features of a character, a feature that brings along a history and a culture and preferences, which is true of white characters as well (surprise!).

<div On rereading my fiction to select pieces for this collection, I've been struck by how hesitant I once was to mention characters’ races. I notice that many of my stories are about accepting differences and change …and very few are about fighting threats from elsewhere. I’m surprised to realize how often I’d write stories that are talking back at classics of the genre.

~~ N. K. Jemisin, Introduction

That “talking back” made the first story, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” unforgettable. It’s talking back to Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, a story published in 1973. I just read it a few months ago. LeGuin’s story “Pity and Shame” appeared in BASS 2019. I hadn’t read her before (stop judging) and it didn’t seem commensurate with her reputation, so I went looking for something to get a better idea of her work. “Omelas” it was, a story that shows the ugly truth that beneath any Utopia is an ugly Dystopia, a story that kicks Utilitarianism to the curb (I just this week am reading Bentham’s presentation of felicific calculus for a philosophy mooc and I couldn’t get either of these stories out of my mind).

But where LeGuin honors those who walk away from Omelas – forego the pleasures of a Utopia built on the suffering of another person – Jemisin challenges us to do more: to stay and fight. Her situation is a bit different, as she’s dealing with the pollution caused by the ugly idea that some people are worth more than other people. For me, it brought in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil from the original Utopia, which makes the case that, if people are going to be more than mindless automatons, evil is going to happen. So do you throw up your hands and give up? Do you accept it in the “what a shame” category? Do you walk away? Jemisin’s Paris Review interview makes the case that, at this time, there’s really no place to go that isn’t benefiting from the underpaid, suffering-laden labors of others – that is, those who have been “othered.” That leaves staying, and fighting to change things.

Perhaps you will speak of Um-Helat to others, and spread the notion farther still, like joyous birds migrating on trade winds. It’s possible. Everyone—even the poor, even the lazy, even the undesirable—can matter. Do you see how just the idea of this provokes utter rage in some? That is the infection defending itself . . . because if enough of us believe a thing is possible, then it becomes so.

Literary conversations are a great tradition. Sometimes they span centuries, sometimes years, sometimes months.

Another story I read as not really pushing back but running along the same lines is “Non-Zero Probabilities”. I thought of Heinlein’s story, “The Year of the Jackpot” when a statistician noticed all the cycles he keeps track of – the 54-year cycle, the 18.3, the 9+ year cycles, the 41 month cycle, and all the others – would peak and trough at a single moment in the near future. He predicted massive acts of random craziness, such as people taking their clothes off for no reason (which is the instigating incident in the story).

Adele, the protagonist of Jemisin’s story, is obsessed with luck. She prays in the tradition of several religions, uses special herbs, wears a St. Christopher medal and personal good-luck charms, things she happened to be wearing when something good happened.

And for good reason: New York is experiencing an upswing in the occurrence of very-low-probability events, which all seem to be happening. Some are bad (a train derailment downtown) (but some are, arguably, good (cancer remissions, more lottery winners). Adele finds herself in the middle of one of these events, a concatenation of unlikeliness involving a child, a frisbee, and a snowcone vendor.

“I work on Wall Street,” says another woman, who speaks briskly and clutches a bag of fresh fish as if it’s gold. Might as well be; fish is expensive now. A tiny Egyptian scarab pendant dangles from a necklace the woman wears. “Quantitative analysis. All the models are fucked now. We’re the only ones they didn’t fire when the housing market went south, and now this.” So she’s going to pray, too. “Even though I’m kind of an atheist. Whatever, if it works, right?”
Adele finds others, all tired of performing their own daily rituals, all worried about their likelihood of being outliered to death.

I love this idea of non-zero probability. No matter how low it is, if it’s not zero, it can happen. I still remember a science teacher long ago telling us about uncertainty and randomness in physics, and how it’s possible that all the oxygen molecules in the room in which you’re sitting will move to one side and leave you gasping for breath. Possible, yes. Of course, there really isn’t enough time in the history of the universe for this to have happened anywhere in the universe, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.

While the math in Heinlein’s story provided lots of fun in other stories (“The Crazy Years” came up frequently), the plot was romance, as the statistician and the impulsive ecdysiast find themselves, unlikely as it is, in love. Jemisin’s story goes in a deeper direction, as she confronts the idea that maybe this isn’t all bad:

She still plans her mornings around her ritual ablutions, and her walks to work around danger spots – but how is that different, really, from what she did before? Back then it was makeup and hair, and fear of muggers. Now she walks more than she used to; she’s lost ten pounds. Now she knows her neighbors’ names. …
Some people react to fear by seeking security, change, control. The rest accept the change and just go on about their lives.

I connected that with the current moment. We can acknowledge the tragedy and loss of the past few months: so many have died, have long-lasting symptoms, have financial catastrophes, and for families with children there’s incredible stress. But there are also some moments of wonder, brilliantly creative work coming across the internet, examples of neighbors helping each other, nature’s residents reclaiming empty streets, some people finding the slower pace of life without the running to the gym and appointments after work is kind of nice. Maybe some of us might want to keep some aspects of lockdown.

I’m sure there are other correlations I don’t recognize given my thin repertoire of SF/F reading. For example, Jemisin gives “Walking Awake” as a response to Heinlein’s Puppet Masters, which I haven’t read.

<div On If you're coming to these tales as someone who primarily knows me through my novels, you're going to see the early forms of plot elements or characters that later got refined in novels. Sometimes that's deliberate, since I write “proof of concept” stories in order to test drive potential novel worlds….sometimes the re versioning is completely unconscious And I don't realize I've trodden familiar ground until long after. The world of the Broken Earth trilogy wasn't my first time playing with genii locorum, for example – places with minds of their own. The concept appears in several of my stories, sometimes flavored with a dash of animism.

~~ N. K. Jemisin, Introduction

I haven’t read Jemisin’s trilogy, but I recognize immediately the stories she’s referring to here. One is “The City Born Great,” a tale of a New York street kid who discovers he has a role to play in a great drama: “This is the lesson: Great cities are like any other living things, being born and maturing and wearying and dying in their turn.” This isn’t a metaphor; it’s an actual quickening and he’s instrumental in the birth. One of the later stories, “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters” gives us a young man struggling to stay alive in New Orleans during Katrina; he, too, discovers a city can be more than roads and buildings.

Then there’s “Cloud Dragon Skies” which isn’t about a city but about the Earth deserted by most after an ecological catastrophe. Those who remain have made a life for themselves, a life different from before, but a life they enjoy and celebrate:

I was a child when the sky changed. I can still remember days when it was endlessly blue, the clouds passive and gentle. The change occurred without warning: one morning we awoke and the sky was a pale, blushing rose. We began to see intention in the slow, ceaseless movements of the clouds. Instead of floating, they swam spirals in the sky. They gathered in knots, trailing wisps like feet and tails. We felt them watching us.
We adapted. We had never taken more than we needed from the land, and we always kept our animals far from water. Now we moistened wild cotton and stretched this across our smoke holes as filters. Sometimes the clouds would gather over fires that were out in the open. A tendril would stretch down, weaving like a snake’s head, opening delicate mist jaws to nip the plume of smoke. Even the bravest warriors would quickly put such fires out.

But those who left Earth for an artificial ring habitat think they’ve figured out a way to fix Earth. The people who live there want nothing of it. Turns out, Earth wants nothing of it, either. It’s a story where we’re never sure if the cloud dragons and the reactions of the sky are natural or supernatural; it could play either way, which is a delightful trick.

I’m guessing the world imagined in “The Narcomancer” is at least related to Jemisin’s Dreamblood novel series. It’s a wonderful story that blends characters with different viewpoints into a single mission, and requires each of them to do something for the other. It is one of the few “threat from without” stories, but it also has several threats from within that are strung along the thread of the rescue mission. I was surprised to find myself tearing up a bit at the end.

I can’t close this post without mentioning a few other stories that don’t fall into one of these categories. “The Elevator Dancer” is very short, pretty much a current-day story with fascist overtones about a guy who’s just run out of enthusiasm for life and maybe, just maybe, rediscovers it while monitoring the elevator security cameras.

It is shameful and sinful to question the will of God. Still, the guard cannot help wondering. He does not want to think this thought, but it’s like, like temptation, it comes anyhow. And, well …
if …
if a tree falls …
if a tree falls and there’s no one around to hear it (but God)…
would it really bother with anything so mundane as making a sound?
 
or would it
            dance

One of the longest stories is “The Effluent Engine” which I have discovered is a Steampunk Romance. I’ve finally read something Steampunk! It’s set in New Orleans in the early 19th century (I’m gathering) and features a spy who is a Haitian woman trying to help her country get back on its feet following the slave rebellion that freed her people. That she falls in love with a Creole woman is the icing on the cake. Some of the escapes and double-crosses are a little facile, but it’s very enjoyable.

“Cuisine des Mémoires” is a natural for this former Top Chef addict. The cooks and judges on the show always talk about how the greatest food evokes emotion and memory; Jemisin turns that into a story that’s part mystery and part delicious. It features a very special restaurant, and a very curious diner who just can’t leave well enough alone:

The hunger to know burned in me right alongside the warm satisfaction of the meal itself, and underneath all of that lay anger. It was irrational anger, I knew. Someone had looked into my heart and found a long forgotten moment of love, plucked it forth and dusted it off and polished it up and shoved it back in, sharp and shiny and powerful as it had been on the day of the memory was made. But I didn’t have Angelina anymore, and that turned the memory from one of sweetness into one of pain.
So I had to know how they done it.

As a special treat, you can listen to LeVar Burton read the story at Stitcher.

There’s another cuisine story, “L’Alchemista”, on more of a Chopped theme. A stranger shows up with a bag of strange ingredients and a recipe. What do you think might happen?

I could go on about nearly all the stories. Several involve computers, AI, robots, and the like. Some are about the struggles to stop abuses of power. Some are about skills they don’t teach in computer programming classes. And, of course, race and power: “Red Dirt Witch” takes a look at the future from the past, and a mother makes the wisest decision a mother ever made: to believe in the hope of her daughter, even when her own hope has run out.

If this is contemporary science fiction, maybe I should be reading more of it.

Robert Long Foreman: I Am Here to Make Friends (Sundress, 2020)

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

— Emily Dickinson

The stories in I’m Just Here to Make Friends are not what the stories are about. Wait, let me say that better. The stories – at least most of them – feature a character rather obsessed with something. Maybe it’s watching a woman give birth in order to experience awe. Or getting a random trinket appraised at an Antiques Road Show event. Or reading someone else’s dream journal. But it turns out, what the character is obsessed with, is not what the story is about; the story is about what’s going on while the character chases down pregnant ladies willing to give birth in front of a stranger, or invades an ARS venue and accidentally sets up shop as an appraiser, or reads a dream journal which itself has to be the product of someone who was in a story about something else.

A line from Mad Men comes back to me: “People will do anything to alleviate their anxiety.” [I had a long bit in here about how new iPhones every two years and designer coffees are distractions to keep us from noticing how everything’s going to hell, and how college debt isn’t a bug but a feature since by the time a kid racks up $20, $100, $300 grand of loans, she’s going to be distracted from social justice and instead worrying about the stock market and how that homeless guy is devaluing her property, but it seemed… inappropriate. So I cut it.] That these stories foreground the anything only highlights the anxiety in the background. The stories tell the truth – but tell it slant.

The thing is, the distractions, the surface stories, are mesmerizing. They’re bright shiny lights and Led Zeppelin and the man on the flying trapeze. And the Truth is quietly sitting alone under a tree, easy to miss.

After the first few stories, I was really confused. I knew I was missing the Truth, but I didn’t know how or where. So I went to story sherpa Jake Weber’s post, which I’d been so careful not to read other than a couple of phrases about bemused narrators and warm-hearted stories. And I saw what my problem was: I needed to stop looking for the usual landmarks.

We’re so used to the cycle of want, followed by inability to achieve the wanted thing, followed then by some kind of epiphany that allows the character to achieve what he wants–the “tyranny of the epiphany” as Jim Shepard calls it–that it’s entirely arresting to read Robert Long Foreman’s short story collection I Am Here To Make Friends (Sundress Publications, 2020, 215 pages). Arresting, because most of the stories involve a protagonist who breaks the rules by not being sure what they really want, mostly being passive and misunderstood, and yet every one of the stories is a joy with more than enough forward momentum to keep the reader happily flipping pages to the end….
Much more than this, though, is the way these stories remind us how appropriate it is to feel disoriented.

– Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic

If there was ever a time when we needed to be reminded that disorientation is a normal reaction to disorienting circumstances, it’s 2020.

The title of the collection isn’t the title of a story; it isn’t a quote from a story. It’s just the title of the collection. That’s not unheard of – I found a couple of examples on my own bookshelves – but it’s unusual. It plays off the reality-TV trope I’ve heard so many times on Top Chef and Project Runway, the well-armored, obnoxious contestant assuring viewers “I’m not here to make friends” but to win, because somehow they can’t conceive of doing both successfully. In this context, it’s more ironic: the characters in these stories may truly want friends, but their efforts are ineffective or counterproductive. Still, in most of the stories they connect: maybe not with the important people in their lives, maybe not with themselves, but with the reader. Maybe we see our own thrashing through their lives.

My curiosity about the title, some other questions that cropped up during my reading (as questions always do), and a few prior conversations with Foreman led me to ask if he’d be willing to answer a few questions for this post. Turns out he would. I don’t often do author interviews, mostly because few authors would bother with me, so when I have the opportunity I jump at the chance. I’m very grateful for his willingness to spend time answering what might seem some pretty strange questions:

1 The title – it looks like it’s not in the text anywhere (if i missed it, please let me know); obviously it’s not a title of a story. I’m assuming it’s an overall title – So many of the characters are losing relationships while they’re distracted by goofy stuff, or they’re distracting themselves from their relationships with goofy stuff, is it more of an overall title about all these people? With the melting snowman, it makes me so sad – like Frosty the Snowman, hurry up and make friends with me before I melt! Anything you want to say about it?

You’re right; the title is not in the text. I had thought of calling it Here to Make Friends; my friend Kate suggested adding I Am Here since all the stories are in the first-person, since it would indicate something about the collection. At first I just thought it would be a funny title, but then I realized it’s actually an accurate statement about me. I am indeed here to make friends! And my hope is that something else comes out in it, too, a sense of something bordering on desperation, which I think the narrators in the stories feel. They tell their stories because they want so badly to be better understood, and there’s so much about themselves they don’t see.

 
 
2 I often have trouble telling if the narrator/main char is male or female. Is that deliberate? It could be a statement about gender fluidity, or it could be, well, just the byproduct of first person narration.

I think it’s mostly the latter–a consequence of first-person narration. But I don’t usually make it a priority to identify the narrator’s gender. Sometimes you have to make gender apparent for the sake of clarity, but I like the idea of a story being read differently based on what you perceive the narrator’s gender to be. I’ve been told I need to make it clearer when my narrator is a woman, because I’m a man, but I still don’t usually do that.

 
 
3 Story order, selection – how did you decide the order of the stories? It seemed to me the last two stories are the most “traditional”. Is that a matter of your writing evolving, or a deliberate choice? How did you decide what stories to include or leave out?

I put the longest story last; that seemed to make sense. For the longest time, in earlier drafts of the collection, I had “Cadiz, Missouri” first in the collection, because it won a Pushcart, and is therefore the most decorated story, maybe the best one. But I think that was holding it back; it’s a subdued, essayistic story, and doesn’t leap out at the reader. “Awe” is a story that does, and once I put it first I found the collection got a much better reaction–was a finalist for a contest, was published by Sundress. I didn’t think that mattered for the longest time, that I needed to ensnare a reader quickly. But I did! Anyway, I mostly just wanted to make sure the collection was ordered in a way that would keep the reader interested, keep surprising them. It’s all about justifying putting the stories together in a collection by creating a book-length experience that you can’t get by reading each story out in the wild.

 
 
4 When was Gunmen written? In an interview after The Man with the Nightmare Gun, you said you’d lost interest in guns, couldn’t write it that way now (then). The scenario is very different, of course, but you did return to guns, was that to change the conversation the earlier story started, or was it more about reality calling for a reaction?

It’s true; I finished writing my other gun story in the collection right before I found out Trayvon Martin was shot, and I was then more repulsed by guns as a fact of American life than I ever was before. I felt gross for having written about guns with even a character’s fictionalized fascination, even if I still think that’s a good story. But then guns never went anywhere, and years later people were talking seriously about arming teachers. I was a teacher at the time, and knew what a horrible, stupid idea that was and still is. So I felt compelled to write about how I think that might actually look in practice, with all the decent people leaving the profession and the only teachers left being rotten and vacuous, hanging onto their jobs just because they’re willing to carry firearms into classrooms. I was also feeling really out-of-place in academia, which I then left, and that informs the story, too.

 
 
5 I’ve never read Cormac McCarthy, if I had, would I have noticed all kinds of connections and references in Gunmen? As much as I liked the story, I wonder if I missed a whole world.

I don’t think you missed too much. There are some jokes that are funnier if you’ve read McCarthy’s novels, like how the narrator says The Orchard Keeper is a terrible novel that no one should read. But all you really need to know is how McCarthy is perceived, as a kind of man’s man of writers, who writes about guns and horses, to get why he’s in that story.

 
 
6 This isn’t a question, though you’re welcome to respond if you’d like. I guess the Rob Save America tour is cancelled; too bad, I was hoping it would work. We’re screwed now. And I was hoping you’d get to Maine, though I communicate much better online than in person. I feel so bad for all of the writers who’ve worked so hard, and had their book releases coincide with this crap.

It’s not a great time to have a book coming out! Let alone to have two coming out (my novel’s out in October). I’m not with any big, monied presses, so it’s hard to get much attention on my books as it is; one way that works is to make personal appearances in different places. And that’s not possible right now. I wish I could do Rob, Save America! and visit all fifty states; it was always meant to be a comical way to set myself up for failure, since I have kids at home and lots of work always and can barely leave the house to do anything ever. But I would have liked to go to a few places. I really wanted to, like, go to Lawrence, Kansas with a map of the US and just two thumbtacks on it to mark the states I’ve been to, in November, and talk about how hard it would be to get to 48 more states by December 31st, and ask the audience if they knew anyone in Montana who owned a bookstore that could host me.

 
 
7 Is there anything you wish someone would ask you so you could say something in an answer?

I wish people would ask why I’m the way I am all the time. Like, what’s it like to wake up in the morning and be like that? My answer is that it’s really terrible, I hate being like this.
 
 
– Interview with Robert Long Foreman, July 2020

As to that last: I have no idea what it means, but to me it brings up Thomas Nagel, Stevie Smith, and BoJack Horseman (which I haven’t really watched, but my blogging buddy Jake Weber keeps dropping pearls of wisdom he’s found in it, so, like Cormac McCarthy, it’s one of those things I may need to grit my teeth and tolerate for a while to get to the good part). Rob’s whole Twitter feed is like this, I’m never sure if I should be laughing at a joke that went over my head, or calling a suicide hotline.

But let’s go back to his stories. Some of my favorites:

Gunmen

Had I known the gunman was on his way, had I known what I was dreaming when I dreamt his arrival in advance, I would have prepared for his coming. I would have stashed an extra gun in the desk at the front of the room and ensured that the students knew it was there. I would have planted a claymore at the entrance to the classroom, just above the door. I would have rigged a steel trap that might have kept the gunman from bringing any harm to the students I was meant to keep safe.
Better yet: I would have told the students not to come in that day. Had I known not only that he would come, but when, I would have cancelled my class and saved the lives of nine people.

Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler; it’s the first paragraph. This is the last story of the book – Foreman refers to it as a novella, and, at 62 pages, that makes sense – but I wanted to start off with it in case readers get discouraged by the length of this post and stop reading (who am I kidding; too late) to make sure at least this one gets on their radar screen. There’s a huge range here: one bit about adjuncts had me giggling, another about trademark violations got a full-blown snort; the climactic scene had me hyperventilating and brought me to the edge of a panic attack. And it almost has me wanting to read Cormac McCarthy. But not quite.

It’s a campus novella with a terrifyingly possible alternative-present premise: teachers at all levels are required to carry guns. Our protagonist is an English professor, and a pretty crappy one at that. When the Must Carry law went into effect, most of the professors quit, so he’s what’s left. To his credit, he knows he’s not much of a scholar or a professor. His students keep complaining that the World Literature course he’s teaching only covers Cormac McCarthy novels. He hopes that somehow, in a class with students fresh with ideas, he’ll find an idea worth writing about.

His transition to arms hasn’t gone totally smoothly. His girlfriend left him because he started checking for dangers everywhere, and talked about gunmen in his sleep. But he’s found the bright side of Must Carry: respect.

… before we had guns I’d found that the respect I was supposed to get as a professor eluded me….
The United States had always seemed to look on its teachers as an enormous population of lay-about distant cousins, living liabilities to the sensible and business-minded world. We were bad examples to the children, they seemed to think, and should have all gone to school for business and opened a business.
That attitude changed, when we got our guns. Everything changed, except how much students didn’t like the things I assigned them to read. They kept not liking any of that.

I’ve never read McCarthy, but I suspect I’d find multiple intersections. In fact, I noticed one even from my unenlightened state: the lack of quotation marks. Foreman uses them in other stories, so it’s a choice not to use them here. McCarthy wasn’t the first to eliminate quotation marks in his writing, but he’s rather famous for it (since even I know about it). The three epigraphs from Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West come into play. Wiki lists them and Shmoop tells me they’re about the continued savagery of the human animal even as we become supposedly more and more civilized. That certainly plays in a story about arming English professors and holding gun fairs on campus so they can choose their University-supplied firearms, because (and I’m editorializing here) it’s more profitable for campaign contributors than getting military weapons away from people who might be crazy enough to shoot up a classroom.

One comment the professor makes about McCarthy’s writing style also seems in line with the story:

When McCarthy has the novel trudge along the way it does, with significant events mixed with insignificant events, indiscriminately, in a perfectly linear fashion, it makes the narrative seem more real. It makes it plain that McCarthy is anchoring his imagination to a historical record.

This seems particularly appropriate when he interrupts an account of a class discussion to inform us that Philip, one of his students is black. Not only is it a bit of a digression, but he relates it directly to writing. And it’s one of those writing issues that gets tossed around once in a while: will a reader assume all characters are white unless they have characteristics associated with black people, and in that case, isn’t that stereotyping, etc etc. In the context of the story it’s more about how a McCarthy narrative suddenly stops and a long passage about a horse ensues, but it’s also a genuine social issue that’s pretty front-burner right now. The whole story is chock full of front-burner issues. Then again, right now just about everything is a front-burner issue.

And about Philip: it seems to me he’s the reason the students were still in the classroom when the gunman burst in. The narrator never states it outright, but does indicate Philip’s course evaluation was very long and they probably would have left earlier if he hadn’t been so diligent at outlining the Professor’s weaknesses. Which gives us a deeper answer to the question, who was the real reason the students were in the room? And then leaves us with, why the hell should it matter how long they were there, or why, since the real issue is why isn’t the classroom safe no matter how long they say?

At the center of all of it is the professor, whose name we never know, someone who isn’t up to his job or his relationship or much of anything, really. And he knows it, and seems to accept it without feeling a need to do anything about it. At the end, he’s alone, but he seems to have some direction for the future. Or at least, he knows one thing he doesn’t want to to do, which is a start.

Awe

Maybe he was right, I thought, and I could use some awe in my life. It was making Gary glow. What could it do for me?

This is a story that could have been written another way – a more traditional way – and it would have been sweet and sad and moving, but written this way, it’s kind of like white-water rafting (at least, as I imagine it, since I’ve never been anywhere close to white water nor have I ever been within shouting distance of a raft).

I happen to be very fond of awe, in the Edmund Burke sense (he’s kind of a jerk otherwise, but he knew awe), and I always feel like I find it in places I’m not supposed to. The night sky is beautiful, but awe? Naw. Ditto for the Grand Canyon. People who find awe there, are they serious? Then again, I’ve never been, so who knows. No, where I find awe is in an animation of DNA replication, in all of biology really: we need oxygen for the last of around 30 steps that somehow just happen, in every cell of our bodies, not because molecules make decisions but because positive and negative attract. It’s amazing we’re alive, let alone reading books and having babies. But people look at me like I’m weird when I say stuff like this.

Our narrator – nameless, again – gets some advice from a friend: get some awe in your life, watch a baby get born. The friend just watched his son being born, which it seems to me is a very different experience from watching a stranger give birth, but our guy doesn’t have a son in the oven, so he uses Craigslist to find a woman willing to give birth in front of him. I wasn’t kidding when I said these stories were full of bright shiny lights and stuff.

And then there’s the Truth, sitting in the corner smiling a half-smile:

“I haven’t touched a camera in a year,” I said. “Not since my last subject. She died. She killed herself.” With a half smile, I said, “I guess that’s what I get for making a film about people on the brink of suicide.”

Life and death weave around each other throughout the story, amid sinks and semicolons and a house that looks “as if Frank Lloyd Wright had designed it after banging his head and forgetting what century he lived in.”

As the first story in the collection, it sets the tone. It’s not as baffling as some other ones – there’s an actual resolution – but it’s not your standard How I Came Through the Darkness thing either. At the beginning of the story he’s recovering from having seen something awful. At the end, he’s healed by having seen something aweful.

Appraisals

I went to the Antiques Roadshow with my mother’s green marble frog in the inside pocket of the jacket of the black suit I wore to her funeral that morning. I had taken the frog from her house. I wanted to know what it was worth.

One of the best pieces of advice in the hundreds of pages Miss Manners has published (I love Miss Manners) is about answering a question like, “Would you like to see some pictures of my grandchildren?” A literal answer would almost always be “No,” but she fudges it by looking at “the truth of the situation, rather than the crude literal surface truth.” The grandparent is really asking for communication, sharing, some kind of connection, and only a heartless bastard would refuse that.

The problem is, Antiques Roadshow assumes that, when you show up with a useless trinket, you want to know the actual value of the thing. They don’t know it’s your mother’s, and that you just buried her hours before. They only know it’s worthless crap.

Our bereaved narrator (need I mention he is unnamed) tries to drink off his disappointment, but is mistaken for one of the appraisers. “I imagined that most of the Roadshow appraisers weren’t equipped to take harsh truths and soften them for the ones they told them to. They were like bad eulogists, one of which I heard that morning. It was my dad.” But he has more freedom than the appraisers, so he starts giving out more uplifting judgments. He gets more and more elaborate as time goes on – the “Sears” doesn’t refer to the store, but to subversive artists making a statement – and also more and more generous. “A theme of extinction ran through my late appraisals.” Of course it did.

The end feels wrenching, like any tragedy worth its salt.

The Vinyl Canal

I’ve spent enough of my life listening to weird men talk about things that matter to them but that don’t really matter at all.
How much more of my life would I spend doing that – sitting patiently while someone like Ben told me all about something that really meant something – to him?
How much longer would it be before I had a man living inside my head, droning on about records, or traffic, or the independent comedy scene, for the independent literature scene, or the independent scenery scene, whenever there wasn’t a real man around to do it? How long before I had a man living in my apartment, who would serve the same purpose?

Sometimes, the distraction of the story is, in fact, a lot more interesting to me than the story itself. In fact, I’m not even sure what the Truth is, besides this woman going through some lousy relationships she’s only half paying attention to, because they aren’t worth it. And because the Vinyl Canal is a lot more interesting.

The Vinyl Canal starts out as a way of skipping over tracks of a record you don’t like. I miss records. I still have a few, though I got rid of most of them, things that could be replaced, a long time ago. Records would develop their own quirks over time: skips, repeats, and so forth. Those of us with cheap phonographs (and cheap records that could be replaced) balanced quarters on the tone arm to keep the stylus in slightly damaged grooves, even though this resulted in more damage.

Ben found a way to use those skips to his advantage: by creating canals that would move across cuts he didn’t want to listen to. That’s pretty brilliant; I have to wonder if Foreman actually did this at some point, or knew someone who did. But Ben discovers it’s a lot more work to carve these canals than it is to just let the record play as it was made (by the way, there were turntables available from the late 70s that offered programmable track selection with linear tracking tonearms; my husband had a couple); thus the term Vinyl Canal evolves to mean a way of avoiding something you don’t want to deal with, but actually causing yourself more trouble than if you’d just gone ahead and faced it like a grownup.

This meaning keeps expanding, and he applies it to a wide variety of societal ills: The poisoned water in Flint, MI; the Iraq war; police violence; defunding libraries. It’s maybe the story most broadly pertinent to today, and by today, I mean literally today, this week, 2020 in general, as we’re at 130,000 deaths and the fourth month of pandemic affecting people’s lives every day because someone (we won’t name names) thought it would be better to ignore it. We’re in the Vinyl Canal right now.

The story is available online at Willow Springs, along with a contributor note from Foreman:

What surprised me most as I wrote the story was that it didn’t end where I meant it to, at first. I thought the narrator’s exit from the radio station, about 2/3 of the way into the story, would be the right place to leave her. I realized, when I extended the story to where it ultimately went, that it wasn’t until later that the story’s animating tension was resolved, or its anxiety soothed (I don’t like the word “conflict”). It seemed to me that the right place to leave the narrator was at the mouth of the canal her weird acquaintance had dug. And so I learned a lot from continuing to work on this story, even after I saw I could have decided it was finished and moved on. I used to be less patient than that.

~ Robert Foreman, contributor note

It seems to me that the shorter version makes the narrator the focus, and the longer version makes Ben the primary character; I far prefer it that way, since I have no idea what the narrator’s issues are. I’m too distracted by the Vinyl Canal. See, it works.

On Brian’s Dreams of Submarines

I told some of these dreams to Brian – my husband Brian – as we ate breakfast, but he wasn’t interested. It takes him an hour every morning to be ready to engage with the world, and he’d only been awake for thirty minutes when I relayed my dreams to him , so that was part of it , but I also think he just didn’t care.
I developed a theory, that dreams are interesting to people other than their dreamer only when they’ve been written down and processed through the act of writing into something more concrete. If I wrote down my dreams and left them in a folder in the apartment, Brian might find them when I was dead or at a conference, and he might be as engrossed in my dreams as I was in those had by work-Brian

I always feel inadequate when I read a story about dreams, because my dreams aren’t anything like the dreams in stories or books. I have categories of dreams (house dreams, still-married nightmares, pain dreams) but I never have the same dream, or even close to the same dream twice. And my dreams are very fragmented, but the fragments rarely connect.

In spite of my inferiority complex around dreams, this was another fascinating story with a brilliant distraction. It reminded me a lot, in fact, of “The Vinyl Canal” except to me it worked better as a story, since I understood the narrator’s underlying Truth: her marriage was dying of disinterest.

The narrator is tasked with cleaning out the desk of Brian, who quit his job precipitously some time ago. She finds a notebook which she initially thinks is a technical manual of some kind: it’s typed and has charts and diagrams. It turns out to be Brian’s dream journal. The charts are ways of categorizing his dreams by themes, by gender or race of the population in the dream, by deaths in the dream, etc. These charts are reproduced in the book, by the way; I can only assume that Mid-American Review also reproduced them when they printed the story in 2013, and offer them a high-five for doing so; it’s the sort of thing that befuddles text-only litmags, but allows so much to blossom forth from fiction.

The narrator’s husband is also named Brian. This is not the first time I’ve sensed Foreman playing with doubling. In this case, there’s a hint of the narrator being work-wife and home-wife, even though she and work-Brian rarely interacted. That just emphasizes how distant she and her husband have become.

The title refers to a series of submarine dreams, in which everyone on board is killed. There’s a lot of concern about whether this includes Brian, if he’s the crew, as the dreamer, or if he’s the captain, or something else. These aren’t just plug-in dreams, these are detailed examinations, which makes the story work. I’m reminded of Seth Fried explaining he kept a notebook of creative ways for people to be killed when writing his story “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre,” and at one point he got worried that if he left the notebook somewhere and someone else found it, they might call SWAT on him. Work went into these dreams. And it wasn’t Brian’s work.

Our narrator comments at one point she thinks this journal might be a practical joke played by her boss to freak her out. That sounds like a fun story right there.

The diary turns out to affect the narrator’s life as she and her husband discuss the submarine dreams. It’s a delightful pun on the cliché about marriage being founded on shared dreams. The graph that results from that evening (hey, I can’t reveal everything) makes a delightfully happy ending to a story.

—————————————————————–

I’ve followed Foreman on Twitter for quite some time, and usually have no idea what he’s talking about (I understand less and less of what’s on Twitter every day; pretty soon, it’ll be like a stream of undecipherable language, but I’ve arranged it so that I get lots of pretty pictures, which comfort me). I read his essay collection last year, and it surprised me: I always figured he was just too cool for me, but I discovered we have lots of intersections. This story collection sometimes gets beyond me, but much of it hits the target perfectly: I am these people, way too much. His novel, Weird Pig, is scheduled for release in October 2020.

Bridget Quinn, Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (in That Order) (Chronicle, 2017)

Great lives are inspiring.
Great art is life changing.
The careers of the fifteen artists that follow run the gamut from conquering fame to utter obscurity, but each of these women has the story, and work, that can scramble and even redefine how we understand art and success.

It strikes me that we might need a little caveat here before getting started. Can we agree at the outset to lay down our qualms about Ye Olde Arte Hystore at the door of this book? Put them down. Walk away. Let us agree that together we shall fear no corsets, nor nursing saviours, nor men in top hats and cravats, nor vast expanses of peachy dimpled thighs.
Let us withhold judgment until we know more.

Last year, I read Nell Painter’s book Old In Art School and found I enjoyed reading about art. The OCW about Don Quixote examined a Velázquez painting (Las Meninas) in great detail as part of the discussion of the narrator/subject, and I found that fascinating. But then, whenever I tried to find an article on some artist, or a video on a style, I would lose interest almost immediately. Art has its own language and its own values (just like writing), and the sources I found just barreled ahead and started lecturing about what makes this part energetic and this part ominous and… well, I can take their word for it, but I can’t understand it.

But I keep trying. Towards the end of last year, I read The Millions “A Year in Reading” entry by Grace Loh Prasad (about whom I really know nothing, but I love these year-end briefs). This was the first book she described:

Quinn seamlessly weaves together biography, art history, memoir, and incredible storytelling, such as in the chapter on Edmonia Lewis and the rediscovery of her long-lost sculpture The Death of Cleopatra. Her writing is intimate and unstuffy, and it makes learning about important and overlooked artists feel like having a conversation with a smart, badass friend.

Grace Loh Prasad

Who doesn’t love a smart, badass friend. So I ordered it. And I have to agree: it’s a marvelously unstuffy book that talks about art in language I can understand, and even more importantly, talks about artists in ways that make me interested in their lives and work.

The artists discussed are all women, but there’s great diversity beyond that, in era, race/ethnicity, artistic medium and style, and life story. I was surprised to discover that I’d heard of a couple: I got interested in Kara Walker while reading Painter’s book, and Ana Mendieta showed up in an art mooc I took (and hated) back when I started doing moocs; I didn’t remember her name, but I did remember her siluetas, so the class wasn’t a complete loss.

I enjoy Quinn’s approach. It is, indeed, less stuffy than most, sometimes irreverent, sometimes poignant. She’s a good storyteller, whether she’s relaying an artist’s life, the story of a painting, or the moment she herself discovered the artist. The chapters are fairly short; it’s easy to read two or three in one sitting. I even started to understand some art, thanks to her inclusion of comparisons and contrasts; yes, this was another book I read at the computer so I could look up the works mentioned but not included.

The images are wonderful: full-color reproductions of several works by each artist. Each chapter begins with a full-page illustration of the artist by Lisa Congdon. It’s nice to have an image of the artist under discussion, and interesting to compare these with the self-portraits that sometimes show up in the chapter.

I kept trying to figure out a way to summarize the individual chapters without doing a full paragraph on each one, but they are all quite different and all deserve full attention. So forgive the length of this post; the book is nowhere near as cumbersome.

The first chapter about Artemisia Gentileschi shows how easily Quinn moves from art to biography to social commentary. It opens with a discussion of Gentileschi’s Judith Severing the Head of Holofernes, a Biblical story of a Jewish woman using what skills she has – seduction – to destroy the leader of the forces massing to slaughter her people. “The two women work in dispassionate exertion. They could be Julia Child and Alice Waters deboning a turkey.”

From there, she takes us to the rape of the seventeen-year-old Gentileschi at the hands of one of her art teachers, the legal climate in which the wrong was done, not to her, but to her father, and the trial her father brought against the rapist which involved obstetric examinations and, best of all, torturing Gentileschi with thumbscrews to ascertain the truthfulness of her version. As a result she was married off to another painter and ended up in Florence, which turned out to be good for her career. Quinn also discusses the poor renderings of female nudes by even such experts as Michelangelo, for lack of models. I hadn’t known this until I looked up his sculptures for the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo as mentioned in the text. The other female hero Gentileschi paints is Susanna, another biblical rape story.

But the artistic centerpiece of the chapter is her Self-Portrait as La Pittura, the embodiment of the art of painting. Here she maintains the existing traditions as regards hair, jewelry, and dress, but does not include the usual gag in the mouth symbolizing the muteness of art. As Quinn puts it:

Artemisia Gentileschi was never quiet. She was instead the heroic center of her own art, fashioning a new language of womanhood, in action and in form.
Her heroic women are not man-eaters, but man-beaters. That’s one reason why her Judith Severing The Head Of Holofernes appalled so many for so long. Not only is a woman depicted performing a heinous act on a man, but also it’s a woman daring to depict it.
Artemesia refused the gag. And from four hundred years away she speaks to us still, saying: Dare to be great.

Judith Leyster’s chapter starts with an art gallery adventure. The Louvre acquired a painting by Franz Hals, only to discover upon cleaning that the signature was not Hals at all. At first it was thought to be the work of Hals’ brother, but it eventually was resolved that the then-unknown Leyster was the artist. Quinn quotes Germaine Greer’s observation: “At no time did anyone throw his cap in the air and rejoice that another painter, capable of equaling Hals at his best, had been discovered.” Legal action and recompense followed quickly.

Her Self-Portrait is amusing for the paintbrush aimed at the crotch of the male musician she is shown painting, but more importantly, it’s been revealed through infrared examination that the figure was originally a woman, possibly a self-portrait within a self-portrait. “In other words, Leyster predicted her own erasure from the history of art.”

The chapter on Adélaïde Labille-Guiard traces her clever maneuvering through the years before and during the French Revolution

There was an 18th century version of trolling that supported an entire economy of the most vicious satire. As a woman artist, Labille-Guiard was an easy target.
….For women artists the leap from intimacy with a man to being an untalented slut has, in the public eye, never been a big one.
Slut or not, she was shrewd. With no husband to defend her, or support her financially, Labille-Guiard defended herself. Between 1782 and 1783 she showed six portraits of important male Academicians. It was a brilliant stroke, securing valuable eyewitnesses to her talent. If any man admired his portrait, he must admire Labille-Guiard’s ability as well.

When the winds shifted, she painted portraits of the power forwards of the Revolution. But she still had to burn one of her paintings, her greatest masterpiece. It’s here that I discovered the hierarchy of classical French painting: still life at the bottom, history painting (“big ass canvases with a story to tell” as Quinn puts it) at the top. There’s also a great deal of compositional strategy in this chapter: why what is behind the subject of a painting may be as important as the subject itself.

The story of Marie Denise Villers has two focal points and a wonderfully humorous accent. When Quinn was in grad school for art history, the objective was connoisseurship: “Basically: knowing who made what, just by looking at it. To be able to perceive, by attitude, gesture, mood, and style, what belongs to whom.” In a discussion with Professor Alfred Moir, this was developed and evolved:

“You know the problem with connoisseurship?”
I did not. I had no idea there was a problem with connoisseurship.
“It doesn’t take into account the artist waking up on the wrong side of the bed.” He leaned forward and lifted a finger, as if to shake it in my face. “It doesn’t consider the really shitty day.”
….Later it would occur to me, what about the opposite? The Day When Everything Goes Right. The Fucking Excellent Day.

Turns out Villers had one of those when she painted Portrait of Charlotte du Val d’Ognes. Again, this turns into a comedy of errors: in 1917 the New York Met aquired a gift of what was thought to be a painting by Jques Louis David. In the 40s it was discovered this could not be a David, and by 1951 it was tentatively attributed to another woman painter. At this point critics came out of the woodwork to point out flaws which, when the painting bore the imprimatur of David, had been unnoticed. It wasn’t until 1996 that Villers was credited as the artist, by comparison with two of her other works.

And here the plot thickens. Quinn looks at those other works in detail, and proclaims them “bland” and lacking magic. I can’t really tell the difference. She goes to some trouble to show the difference in interpretation of the Portrait as painted by a man (sexual anxiety) and by a woman (artistic anxiety). But the point is that Villers and her student Charlotte happened at a special moment; soon thereafter France became far more restrictive to women, and, Quinn writes, “by 1804, Napoleon had shut down every avenue of official education and exhibition for women artists in France.”

So a singular moment in time is the secret of Villers’s marvelous, moving painting: two young women longing to make art found themselves in a brief period of opportunity, when instruction, exhibition, and even fame were possible.
And in that moment, perfection happened. A Fucking Excellent Day. Longing and kinship and ability became great art. A masterpiece.

I regret that I’m unable to see the perfection. But I’ll take her word for it.

Rosa Bonheur painted a very different subject: horses and bulls. It seems she was very popular towards the end of the 19th century, to the point of children playing with Rosa Bonheur dolls. She became friends with Buffalo Bill, meeting him when he was in Paris. And she was gay: Quinn compares her and her companion Natalie to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. She had an official permit for crossdressing – that is, wearing pants – at a time when only women who could defend the need for pants could legally wear them. A monument to her stands in France: not a sculpture of the artist, but of a bull like those she painted.

The only flaw in this book occurs in this chapter. Her painting, The Horse Fair, is spread across two pages, a necessary choice to see anything close to the details. But that means the gutter of the pages runs down the center, making the crucial central figure – the only non-mustachioed figure, thus possibly a woman, even a stand-in for Bonham – hard to see. Fortunately, the Internet offers numerous options.

With Edmonia Lewis, we get our first look at art outside of painting; that is, sculpture. And we happen upon another fascinating story of an outstanding piece of art being lost. The Death of Cleopatra had been missing for a century in the 1980s when curator Marilyn Robinson started looking for information on Lewis for her own work. She sent out (pre-internet) feelers.

A curator at the Metropolitan Museum of art, perhaps lingering over bagels and orange juice some lazy Sunday, happened to see it and recalled a recentish letter from one Frank Orland, a dentist/history buff from a Chicago suburb, who’d written to the Met looking for information on the very same Edmonia; he thought he might have something of hers. The museum curator, feeling generous, sat down the juice and contacted the number listed in the Times.
Richardson pounced on the lead. She called. And called. She left messages. They were not returned. So what would any academic on an independent scholar’s salary do? Damn straight – she got on a plane, then in a car, and then marched up Frank Orland’s front steps and rang his bell.
A now-pliant Orland led Richardson to a barren corridor in a nearby suburban shopping mall. Hardly the place one might expect to find, say, a monumental marble statue of an Egyptian Queen. …
Orland leaned into the storage room and flicked on the light.
There sat Edmonia Lewis’s The Death of Cleopatra, a regal monarch limp on her marble throne. Tragic, moving …and, noted Richardson, “surrounded by holiday decorations and papier mache turkeys and Christmas lights and Christmas elves.”
Richardson was shaking.
A celebrated work by one of nineteenth-century America’s most important sculptures, lost for a hundred years, was now quite suddenly found.

If a shopping mall storage room is an unusual place to find a marble sculpture, Edmonia Lewis might also be considered an unusual prospect for fine art. She was born of a Chippewa mother and Black father, orphaned at age nine, kicked out of several schools, and as the Civil War started, was beaten severely and left for dead in a field. Nevertheless, she persisted, and through William Lloyd Garrison, met a teacher and went to Rome.

In addition to the qualities of Lewis’s work, particularly her Hiawatha sculpture, Quinn discusses the implications of white marble. It was, in Lewis’s time simply what sculpture was made of, but in antiquity, the Greeks and Romans painted their statues. The worship of whiteness came later.

Paula Modersohn-Becker painted what Quinn calls the “first female nude self-portrait in Western history”, while Alice Neel may have painted the oldest nude self-portrait; she was eighty at the time. Given Neel’s early life – she was hospitalized for suicidal behaviors in her 30s, her first child died, and the second was taken by her husband when he abandoned her to live in Cuba, a lover burned and slashed hundreds of her works – it’s a triumph she made it to eighty, so as far as I’m concerned she can paint anything she wants. Her most notable work was of gay men and couples, mostly from the Warhol Factory.

Vanessa Bell painted her sister, Virginia Woolf, without a face, yet “captures something essential in her, opposed or a way of being in the world as distinctive as her facial features. …She ignored mere features, capturing her sister’s essence instead.” She did the original covers for Woolf’s books, including the highly phallic image for To the Lighthouse. She served as a sort of base for a couple of Woolf’s characters, including the painter Lily Brisco in Lighthouse.

The chapter on Lee Krasner spends a fair amount of time on her marriage to Jackson Pollock, and credits her with discovering him and introducing him to those who would support his rise to artistic stardom. Her own work seemed to get lost in the mix. The images presented in the book are all very different – from Self Portrait (1930) to Seated Nude (1940) to Composition (1949) to Milkweed (1955). Surprisingly, I like the later three works far better, and here’s where I try to grapple with the language of Abstract Expressionism:

Ab Ex as perfected by Pollock was all about doing. According to influential critic Harold Rosenberg, “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”
Abstract art is sometimes described as a departure from reality, but a better way to say it might be that it seeks to express a different reality. The reality behind our visible world. …
You wouldn’t think of a jazz musician as a fraud trying to trick you into thinking noise was really music. No, because you feel music intuitively: your soul and spirit (and even body) understand its message. The same is true of abstract art if he will give it time and attention. It will work on you, if it’s good.

I’d never heard of Louise Bourgeois, but I recognized her Femme Maison works: literally, “housewife”, they are half woman, half house, and express a feminist reaction to the expectations women live under.

Bourgeois’s feminism may have been born at the dinner table where her father verbally abused her in front of whatever company happened to be there. As an example, take a look at the video
“Louise Bourgeois Peels a Tangerine”. She seems to have returned the disfavor, though much later, with her sculpture Fillette. It means “little girl” but the work is a 2-foot penis, looking remarkably like the preserved corpses I’ve viewed for anatomy moocs: brown/orange and rough. Robert Maplethorpe took an iconic photo of her holding the sculpture, “her right hand cupped beneath the glans penis as if it were the muzzle of a small dog… She might be any lady who lunches in midtown, one who doesn’t go anywhere without her little pet.” Quinn associates it with DaVinci’s Lady with Ermine, a painting from half a millennium prior which is also loaded with sexual symbolism.

While some of the women, particularly those from earlier centuries, were from artistic families yet never attained any kind of status in the art world, the opposite is the case with Ruth Asawa. Her father was a truck farmer in California; when she was sixteen, he was arrested and she was interned with so many other Japanese Americans in one of America’s most revolting acts. She found the benefit in it, however, since a casual school formed which included interned artists. She eventually went to a small teacher’s college, but found that, in her fourth year, she was not allowed to do the practicums required so she had to leave without her degree. She made some contacts through her sister, who was studying Spanish in Mexico, an found the Black Mountain College, an experimental school with a superstar roster of instructors including John Cage and Buckminster Fuller, who became her mentor. Her work includes wire art based on folk techniques she learned in Mexico, and more traditional fountains in San Francisco, where a High School for the Arts is named after her.

The chapter on Ana Mendieta begins with a scene from Law & Order:

In the hot early morning of September 8, 1985, a doorman working the night shift in Greenwich Village heard a woman’s voice pierce the night, screaming, “No, No, No, No,” then moments later, the sound of a large object striking somewhere nearby.
Artist Ana Mendieta, thirty-six years old and married less than a year to renowned sculptor Carl Andre, fifty-two, had just plummeted from the bedroom window of their nearby apartment – thirty-four stories – and died on impact.
Because Mendieta is known for the ethereal self-portraits-cum-crime-scene-outlines she called siluetas – and because the police took no photos – it’s tempting to imagine the scene. Rather than gruesome, I want to picture Mendieta as she was in her very first silueta: a naked body covered in white flowers, all ripeness and purity, associating her own procreative forces with the power of the Great Goddess.
….Even Andre doesn’t seem to know exactly what happened; over the years, he’s given three very different accounts. …A celebrated pioneer of minimalist sculpture, Andre and his brilliant career were affected not at all.

Quinn, fully aware of Andre’s sculpture, discovered Mendieta in 1992 at the Guggenheim opening in NY, where protesters objected to the white male palette (one woman, no artists of color) and the inclusion of the famous sculptor who many believed had murdered his wife.

Mendieta came to the US in 1961 from Cuba; she and her sister, young teens, lived in a series of temporary homes in Iowa. She is known for “earth art”: using the planet itself as a canvas:

Earth Art tended toward the massive and the masculine, requiring big machines and accompanying egos….If there were an ancient prototype for the new art, it would be Stonehenge way back in the Neolithic, impressive and lasting, at least in part because it’s just so damned big. The Neolithic inspiration for Mendieta runs more to the plastered skulls of Jericho and myriad great goddess images found all over the world.

As I mentioned, I was aware of Kara Walker from other sources. Her silhouettes, as Quinn notes, have the appearance of lighthearted gaiety on first glance, but when examined more closely, they contain a shocking – and damning – portrait of the sexual and physical exploitation of black people. “The silhouette says a lot with very little information, but that’s also what the stereotype does,” Walker has explained.

But the chapter starts with a very different piece of art:

At the behest of Creative Time, Kara E. Walker has confected:
A Subtlety
or the Marvelous Sugar Baby
An Homage to the unpaid and overworked
Artisans who have refined
our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the
Kitchens of the New World
on the Occasion of the demolition of the
Domino Sugar Refining Plant.

It’s a giant sphinx-like sculpture made out of sugar, with a head fashioned to evoke a “mammy” with clearly black features, and, in the back, ten-foot-tall vulva protruding over curled toes. This is an artist who goes there. The sculpture combines the histories of whiteness, blackness, sexuality, industrialization, and capitalism, probably a few other things I’m not sophisticated enough to see. There’s a reason Walker won a MacArthur “genius” grant at twenty-seven.

In the final chapter, we learn of Susan O’Malley turning the pain of her mother’s degenerative illness into art by enlarging and mounting notes she wrote – “Love you Baby”. O’Malley’s specialty was textual art: the careful placement of words in surroundings that emphasize or contrast with the meaning. She created a series of nine signs for the Montalvo Arts Center, titled A Healing Walk: at various places on the trail there are wooden signs reading “You are Here, Awake and Alive,” “This Beautiful Moment”, and similar sentiments. Quinn compares it to Dante:

Nine was the number favored by Dante in structuring his Divine Comedy, which begins with a walk: In the middle of our lives / I found myself in a dark woods / the right road lost. Dante’s guide is the poet Virgil; in A Healing Walk, the artist O’Malley is ours. And just as Virgil takes Dante through Hell, then on a steep path up until they see the stars, O’Malley’s path culminates in the summit overlooking the quiet balm of the natural world.

I’m a little dubious of this interpretation overall, but some of the pieces indeed fit.

O’Malley died suddenly at the age of thirty-eight; the Montalvo Arts Center made her installation permanent.

Quinn finishes with a brief postscript:

Our story began with my finding sixteen women artists in the third edition of H. W. Janson’s seminal History of Art. I’ve presented fifteen here. Why one short?
I’ve left room for myself. For you. For anyone who wants it.
Insert yourself here.
….Hell, insert anything you like – poet, architect, filmmaker, actor, brain surgeon, astronaut – and run with it. Great lives in great works are endless: we just have to look for them. And of course create them.

I’m delighted to have found this book, a book that made the artists come alive for me, and that did, in spite of my lack of artistic comprehension, make sense of many aspects of art.

It turned out that Quinn, while studying art history and connoisseurship, came to be inspired most by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard in an unusual way. Her professor gave her an assignment of high honor, a request to authenticate a Labille-Guiard painting. “I had already decided to follow Labille-Guiard, not study her. I wanted to be like her, to explore what talent might lie inside me with passion and courage.” No, not painting; she left art to become a writer, which is how this book came to be, and probably why it is far more enjoyable for someone like me than the entries written by those who achieved full connoisseurship.