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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karen Bender: The New Order (Counterpoint, 2018)

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

Karen Bender, interview with Charity Nebbe on Iowa Public Radio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danielle Evans, interview with Adrienne Westenfeld at Esquire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danielle Evans, interview with Lily Meyer at Believer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Rock Hudson, whose death somehow changed everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perception of victims as unimportant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Randy Shilts, NYT interview, 1993

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had lost my faith, Josephus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kierkegaard, Journal 1A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Solomon, lecture available online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Salon Article:  “Was Gatsby Black?”

Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice (Penguin 1985)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m starting with a couple of literary standards:

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

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

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

In historical fiction:

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

Nonfiction:

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

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

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

As for my “new” books:

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

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

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

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