Pushcart XLIII: John Landretti, “A Fish in the Tree” (non-fiction) from Orion #36:2

I often imagine my walks as two circles of concurrent experiences. One circle is external and sensuous – footfalls and bird song, rain – the physical journey: the other circle is internal and imaginal – ponderings and conjunctures, dreamscapes – the figurative journey. Now and then these two experiential circles overlap, forming a mandorla. in their slender overlay I occasionally encounter an infusion of both worlds: the imaginal strikingly present in common things.

On a routine morning walk through a park near his home, Landretti noticed something unusual: a stick in a tree. Not a branch, but a log that obviously came from somewhere else. He spent the rest of his walk wondering how the branch had come to rest in the ash tree’s branches, then realized it intrigued him because it looked like a fish. A coelacanth, to be precise: a fish thought to have gone extinct 66 million years ago until live specimens were discovered in 1938 swimming in the waters off Africa. That experience led to this essay about the human capacity for perception.

My experiences reading nature writing has always been uneven, but perception is a different matter. As it happens, I’ve taken several moocs dealing with our capacity to view the world and how our retinas, cochleas, and other sensory organs convert input signals into comprehension, such as this excerpt from a lecture by Dartmouth neuroscientist Peter Tse:

Scientists largely agree that there is no redness out there in reality. Redness is a construction of our perceptual systems that exists in our conscious experience, but is not a property of reality-in-itself. What is presumably real are pigments in the surfaces of the flower-in-itself, and the pigments we experience as red. But redness and those pigments seem to exist in two different domains, one in consciousness and the other in the world-in-itself, regardless of how it is being experienced or even whether it is being experienced.

Landretti also discusses the phenomenon known as pareidolia, our predeliction for seeing patterns in randomness, be it mythical characters in arrangements of stars or a Man in the Moon (or a rabbit, a more common interpretation in China), enlisting the help of a Peanuts cartoon in which Charlie Brown sees a duck and Linus sees a scene of St. Phillip’s martyrdom.

All of this takes place in the discussion of the intersection between the physical and the metaphysical, emblemized by the mandorla. I’d never encountered the term before, and initially wondered if it was a variation on mandala; but despite a vague similarity – they are both artistic expressions of religious concepts, one from Buddhism and one from Christianity, one word descending from Sanskrit for circle and the other from the Italian word for almond – on casual research I can find no etymological or semantic connection.

The mandorla is the intersection of two circles; Venn diagrams come to mind, but these circles are representative of heaven and earth, typically encasing images of Jesus or Mary as liminal figures. In Landretti’s case, he sees these more as intersections of imaginal and physical, reality and perception. The essay celebrates this blending of fact and fancy with references to a host of examples and analogues in addition to Charlie Brown, from Nabokov to Emily Dickinson.

This was obviously a profound experience for Landretti, and he relates it with thoughtful appreciation for the mysticism. Me, I prefer the neuroscience route, but there’s room for both.

Pushcart XLIII: Jung Hae Chae, “The Great Meal” (non-fiction) from Agni #86

When the bell rang at noon at Five Ocean Trading, it was time. The swishing of scissors, the clicking of dies, cutting of a thousand berets and beanies and bowlers and fedoras, the up-and-down cross-ankle pedalling of a sea of sewing machines, even the chattering of the AM-radio man or woman in the background – time to rise to something holy.
Or to lunch.

It’s an often-heard truism that food brings us together, crosses boundaries otherwise impenetrable and lets us share in the human activity we associate with warm companionship. Chae’s essay takes a slightly different approach: food as a vehicle for memory.

It’s how she remembers the people at the factory where she worked. Ms. Cho and the good rice that was so important for the meal; a manager who brought brightly colored and highly spiced rice or fish cakes; Mr. Lee, a former double-agent who brings a bowl with a flying phoenix; and Jane, Chae’s contemporary with whom she dreams of what they’ll do as soon as they have enough money.

But I read a lot of divisions. The Koreans and the Chinese. The “men-children and the woman-mothers.” The Mexican workers, who “were not welcome at the table”, who took the jobs Koreans didn’t want (does that sound familiar?), who are “used. They were used to being used.” Even Chae separates herself from the people with whom she shares lunch: “Ashamed of having to wear a dual identity of sorts: at once an aspiring human with a lofty, though as yet unknown, purpose, a comrade-in-arms with the Wretched of the Earth as my coworkers seemed to me then; and a thud of a human spiraling out of control.” I know that feeling well, the feeling of being all about good intentions with little to back it up.

Chae remembers her own childhood in South Korea, a time, sans refrigerator, that required some finesse and long-forgotten – or, for most of us, never-learned – techniques for keeping food safe and wholesome. It was a time she was separated from her mother, living with her grandmother. After she and her mother were reunited, she watched as cancer took her mom’s voice and then her life:

The upside of being given something of a notice of impending death is that one can prepare for it. Ostensibly, your life does “flash before your eyes” when the end is near. Time collapses. You stop caring about what other people fill their buckets with. You start using the good crystal bowl you’ve been saving for special guests and start wearing the gold watch. You settle old feuds and stop to talk to neighbors and pet their dogs. The mundane fills with meaning. You appreciate the simple ingredients of life: water, wind, colors, flowers, children. My mother did strange things like that.

I have a feeling the food-as-connection idea is comforting but not really true. Haven’t we all run afoul of another family’s idea of Thanksgiving, or what constitutes a good picnic or barbecue? In recent decades, a kind of separation-by-food has evolved as well: the vegetarians over there, the gluten-frees over here, the allergies bringing their own, and then we have those who can do a two-hour lecture on the sociopolitical implications of whatever you put on your table. Food as connection works when people are starving, or when the group is homogenous. Otherwise, food as memory works a lot better.

But then, Chae turns the food-as-memory idea on its head in a paragraph that ties a somewhat scattershot essay together beautifully:

It was forgetting that was at the heart of drinking, forgiving at the heart of communal eating. We seem able to forgive anything or anyone – even the nation’s traitor, or the lover who had made her wait in the maid’s wings, or the mother-daughter who passed on without bidding proper goodbye. We pass on – when we share our foods and each earnestly, noisily, more so by morsel, with our good tongues. That is when the food is good for the body: it washes us of our debris, tears us down, build us up once again to face the insufferable.

Maybe this is how food brings us together: its comfort makes forgiveness more possible.

Pushcart XLIII: Justin St. Germain, “Murder Tourism in Middle America” (nonfiction) from Tin House, Fall 2017

A week earlier, Bonnie—my copilot and de facto girlfriend—had asked if I wanted to drive with her to Minnesota…. Google Maps suggested a route that ran fifty miles from Holcomb. I said yes, as long as we could make a detour. She agreed to accompany me to a murder scene much more readily than I’d expected. Bonnie was up for anything, a trait that had attracted me to her, and that now made me keep her at arm’s length, unable to imagine a relationship.
Going to Holcomb was a pilgrimage of sorts. I’d been writing a book about my mother’s murder for the last five years, and to write about murder is to live in the long shadow of In Cold Blood. Capote’s seminal book had become an obsession of mine. I’d wanted to write a response, a counterargument, a true murder story that made a gesture his didn’t: to present the victim as a person, not a narrative prop, and to treat their death itself as tragic, not as an occasion for a larger tragedy. A printed copy of the manuscript sat on the passenger’s floorboard of our car; the final edits were due in a week, and I’d been reading it out loud to Bonnie on the trip, listening for false notes. It was scheduled for release in a year—from Random House, Capote’s publisher—and, save for my editor and agent and a few friends who’d read an early draft, Bonnie was its first audience.
Somehow the contents of Capote’s book, and what I’d read about the writing of it, failed to warn me how drastically plans can change on trips to Kansas.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This Faulkner line has been on my mind a lot lately, and maybe it was on Justin St. Germain’s mind, too, as he drove into Holcomb. His mother’s murder was still very much alive for him – of course, it would be, even had it not been riding with him in the car in the form of the manuscript about the event – but the 1959 murder of the Clutter family, the subject of Capote’s In Cold Blood was also in the car with him.

This memoir is an account of his visit to Holcomb, where the Clutters are still remembered in diverse ways. One of the more chilling echoes of the past is the house itself, home to a suicide by the owner after the murders, then sold at auction for $1 to a family unable to resell it; they now have to deal with trespassers, murder tourists less polite and respectful of private property than St. Germain. The Tyson Foods slaughterhouse later built outside town lends another bizarre touch.

From the beginning, Capote conceived of the book as a tragedy: hence the silos rising like Greek temples from the plains, the minor Holcombites who act as chorus, its classical story arc and emphasis on fate. Hickock is the second actor, the cops and justice system the antagonists, the Clutters vehicles for the hero’s hamartia. The hero is Perry Smith.

I haven’t read In Cold Blood. I saw the 2005 movie Capote, but only vaguely recall it for the mesmerizing portrait of the writer tortured between two poles of love and exploitation. But St. Germain’s particular take-away, as he wrote about his mother’s murder, was the emphasis on the killers and the rather superficial gloss of the victims, a gloss that has been challenged by those who knew them. Capote had his motivation; St. Germain’s was, of course, very different. But he recognizes the challenge involved: while true-crime books are always popular, “nobody wants to read about a victim”, he says; it causes anxiety, whereas reading about killers gives a vicarious thrill of a kind of power otherwise never experienced. I’m not so sure; isn’t it possible readers want to know what makes the killer different from them, assure themselves that evil is something that lives in other people?

It’s something of a creepy coincidence that St. Germain’s girlfriend, who unwittingly instigated the trip and then accompanied him, was named Bonnie, as was the murdered Mrs. Clutter. Bonnie forms a secondary focus in the essay:

Some rare moments feel significant even as they happen: you see the future stretch ahead, flat and forbidding, like a highway across the plains. Capote had one in Garden City, on the courthouse steps. Smith had one on the Clutters’ lawn before he killed them. I had one leaving the cemetery, watching the wheat bend in the wind just like Capote writes and realizing that whatever was happening between Bonnie and me was beyond our control. That night, in the last hotel room left in Salina, we threw our bags down and fucked like we were about to die, and in the aftermath I told her nobody had ever wanted her as much as I did, and she took that to mean I always would, although I didn’t mean that at all. We made it to Minnesota the next day. Two years later, we did that drive again, to start a new life there, and six months later Bonnie passed through Kansas while leaving me, and six months after that I drove through yet again, in a panic, with a ring in my pocket. Capote got one thing right: there are only two kinds of endings, death and the ones we invent.

A little googling tells me that, at least as of 2017, the couple is still together. In 2013, St. Germain’s book about his mother’s murder – by her husband, rather than in a random spree killing by a stranger – was published. And Holcomb, Kansas still sits on the plains, in past-present tense.

Pushcart XLIII: Steve Stern, “Carolyn” (non-fiction) from Bat City Review #13

I don’t want to write this. I’d always counted on C. D. Wright – she was always Carolyn to me – outliving me long enough to say inappropriate things at my funeral. It gives me vertigo to find myself hanging about on earth in her absence. Forgive me if I tend to view her as somewhat larger than life – problem is, she was.
I knew her best back in our scruffy Arkansas days.… This was 1973.

In November 2016, Brown University hosted “Come Shining: A Tribute to C.D. Wright”, a two-day event in honor of the recently deceased poet who had taught there for over 30 years. Steve Stern delivered a version of this memoir as his contribution. I’m at a disadvantage, since I’m hopelessly ignorant of poets; although she was awarded both Guggenheim and Macarthur fellowships (and won several top-level book prizes) she appeared in Pushcart only once, just prior to my use of the anthology as an annual project.

I am, however, familiar with Steve Stern. He wrote the wonderful story “The Plate Spinner” that so charmed me last year. His forte is building on the Jewish folk tale. I guess I’d imagined him as having studied at a yeshiva somewhere before turning to writing, but that’s what happens when you’re stuck in stereotypes: he’s from Memphis and was an honest-to-god hippie on an Arkansas commune back in the 70s. And so I learned something from this elegy. The University of Arkansas back then was a kind of fountain of young people who would, like Wright, become great poets, not to mention an incubator for a young couple named Bill and Hillary Clinton. Stern traces her life through various turning points, but still sees her through the eyes of youth.

My ignorance is not disrespect. I wonder what budding greatness I’m overlooking right now. Not that it matters; I most likely won’t be around when it bears fruit. But you might be. Pay attention.

Pushcart XLIII: Pam Houston, “What Has Irony Done For Us Lately” (non-fiction) from About Place IV:IV

Attributed to Banksy

Attributed to Banksy

Back in 2000, to help pay for the ranch, I took a teaching job at UC Davis, requiring me to be there for two ten-week quarters each year. I chose spring and fall, because summers are glorious in the high country and miserable in Davis, and because farm animals die most often in winter. I hired a series of house-sitters to tend the ranch while I was gone, often former students who needed a place to finish a book. Twice yearly I’d trade my down, fleece and Xtra Tuffs for corduroy and linen. ….
To the people in Creede I am intelligent, suspiciously sophisticated, and elitist to the point of being absurd. To the people at UC Davis I am quaint, a little slow on the uptake, and far too earnest to even believe.

Complete story available online at About Place

I’ve noticed that Pushcart, free of the alphabetical-order dictum that forces the order of BASS stories, tends to put a piece out front that resonates through the entire volume, as well as carrying forward into a smaller subset of material that will follow until a new theme emerges. We have several themes to choose from with this piece: appreciation of nature, environmental damage, ironic distance vs engagement. And, given that Mr. Henderson just lost his canine companion of eleven years, it’s fitting that the first story should begin with the author in a similar scenario.

My first reaction was to simply trace the essay’s path from a heartrending scene encompassing the last days of her dog, to a passionate outcry about the ongoing destruction of the biosphere that sustains our civilizations and lives with a side-slam on academia for being academic, and back to encountering the grim side of nature with the sweet story of a baby elk orphaned by illegal hunting, all on the premise of favoring hope and genuine emotional engagement over the quicksand of irony and cynicism. But it started to get complicated: while I basically agree with the overall theme – caring is better than not-caring, and we can’t afford to be sealing ourselves behind a wall of cynicism and irony – I somehow have a lot of issues with the how she gets there.

Just as I was putting this post together, I saw a tweet from Michael Schaub: ‘Logically I know that people don’t come up with new words just to piss me off, but I don’t know how else to explain “hopepunk.”’ I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded related to what Houston is saying, so I went hunting and found an article by Aja Romano in Vox explaining hopepunk as the opposite of grimdark and in contrast to noblebright. Caution: I’m about to venture into unknown waters, and I may be getting this wrong.

It seems that, particularly in the genres of speculative fiction and fantasy, as well as in gaming, the approaches of grimdark and noblebright have been jousting since 9/11. Grimdark is exactly what it sounds like: abandon hope, all ye who enter here. Apocalyptic despair. Resignation. Helplessness. Noblebright is an opposing approach that, as Romano explains it, “social systems are good because the leaders we choose are inherently good.” This sounds so ridiculous at this moment in history, I feel like my keyboard is going to explode with laughter. Other sources define it more as a heroic character who embodies good qualities and battles evil, particularly in fantasy and game settings.

So where does that leave hopepunk?

“The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk,” declared Alexandra Rowland, a Massachusetts writer, in a two-sentence Tumblr post in July 2017. “Pass it on.”
With this simple dictum, the literary movement known as hopepunk was born.
Depending on who you ask, hopepunk is as much a mood and a spirit as a definable literary movement, a narrative message of “keep fighting, no matter what.” If that seems too broad — after all, aren’t all fictional characters fighting for something? — then consider the concept of hope itself, with all the implications of love, kindness, and faith in humanity it encompasses.
Now, picture that swath of comfy ideas, not as a brightly optimistic state of being, but as an active political choice, made with full self-awareness that things might be bleak or even frankly hopeless, but you’re going to keep hoping, loving, being kind nonetheless.
Through this framing, the idea of choosing hope becomes both an existential act that affirms your humanity, and a form of resistance against cynical worldviews that dismiss hope as a powerful force for change.

“Hopepunk, the latest storytelling trend, is all about weaponized optimism”, Vox, 12/27/18

Romano gives examples. Game of Thrones (which I have never seen/read so don’t @ me) is grimdark, in spite of the noblebright character Jon Snow. Parks and Rec (which I just watched in its entirety for the second time since it went off the air, solely because The West Wing Weekly podcast featured a special episode showing how it was a comedy version of TWW) and The Good Place (which I lost track of in Season 3 but was a big fan of the first two, given its enthusiasm for philosophy) are hopepunk.

No, I don’t quite get it, but I’m all for positive action and a current of hope and optimism underlying even the worst times. I never got Seinfeld either; they were all nasty, judgmental people who couldn’t stand anyone with man-hands or soft voices, and unlike Archie Bunker, the racist with a heart of gold (a troubling image in itself), there was no redeeming quality among any of them. Yet they were icons of the 90s. Which may be how we ended up with hipsters and twenty-something salesclerks who sneer at you for buying products that pay their minimum wages. Everything’s complicated, isn’t it?

What does all this have to do with Houston’s essay, with dying dogs and orphaned elks and impending environmental catastrophe and distant reading?

Oh yes, distant reading.

Last winter, a colleague taught a class in something called “distant reading.” Because I have spent half my life teaching close reading, when the grad students first told me about it, I thought it was a joke. But distant reading, according to the New York Times is “understanding literature not by studying particular texts but by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data.”
“It’s not actually done by people,” my student Becca told me. “You take a body of literature, say, all the books set in Paris from 1490 to 1940, plug them into a computer, and the computer can tell you how many mentions of the Pont Neuf there were.” It was, I understood, an attempt to repurpose literature. As if all beings are best understood only in terms of their aggregate, as if by making things less particular, one made them more powerful or clear.

Now wait a minute. As I understand it (I’ve have had some vague exposure, at a very low level, to this sort of thing via digital humanities and corpus linguistics moocs), distant reading is not a replacement for close reading; it’s a way to look at an author’s oeuvre, or at a genre or period, to find overall trends and patterns, which can then be aligned with history and/or compared to individual works to see what conforms to those patterns and what resists them. Sneering at distant reading is something like complaining about research into brain tumors because it doesn’t treat heart attacks or immunize children against measles. Then again, it’s Houston who’s a professor at UCDavis, so maybe I should just shut up. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d misunderstood, or missed the point.

I seem to be jumping all over the place here. That isn’t a bad thing, to me; an essay that connects to other ideas, that reminds me of something else, is a good thing, a great thing. Or maybe I’m just making excuses for using Houston’s essay to get sloppy about organization, to spout off on my own stuff.

Back to the beginning of the essay. We open with the last days of Fenton, Houston’s 11-year-old Irish Wolfhound. It’s exactly as you’d expect: heartbreaking, poignant, and beautiful, as love and loss flow across the page. I don’t particularly want to know anyone who could read this and not be moved. I myself was sobbing by the end.

Then we move into a broader focus on the natural world, and the impending and ongoing ecological disaster that Houston sees as analogous to the loss of Fenton:

If we pretend not to see the tenuous beauty that is still all around us, will it keep our hearts from breaking as we watch another mountain be clear cut, as we watch North Dakota, as beautiful a state as there ever was, be poisoned for all time by fracturing? If we abandon all hope right now, does that in some way protect us from some bigger pain later? If we never go for a walk in the beetle-killed forest, if we don’t take a swim the algae-choked ocean, if we lock grandmother in a room for the last ten years of her life so we can practice and somehow accomplish the survival of her loss in advance, in what ways does it make our lives easier? In what ways does it impoverish us?
We are all dying, and because of us, so is the Earth. That’s the most terrible, the most painful in my entire repertoire of self-torturing thoughts. But it isn’t dead yet and neither are we. Are we going to drop the earth off at the vet, say goodbye at the door, and leave her to die in the hands of strangers? We can decide, even now, not to turn our backs on her in her illness, we can still decide not to let her die alone.
…. There are times when I understand all too well what my colleagues in Davis are trying to protect themselves from…. If I hadn’t slept those three nights on the porch with Fenton, it would have been three fewer nights of my life spent with an actively breaking heart. But a broken heart—God knows, I have found—doesn’t actually kill you. And irony and disinterest are false protections, ones that won’t serve us, or the earth, in the end.
For now, I want to sit vigil with the Earth the same way I did with Fenton. I want to write unironic odes to her beauty, which is still potent, if not completely intact.

Here’s where I get confused. I don’t know anyone who isn’t concerned, to at least some degree, about our precarious biosphere. There are the deniers, but they have other agendas, and who knows what they feel; I don’t think they are who Houston is talking about, anyway. Is there some pact at UCDavis to ignore the problems of the planet? Does one have to live in close touch with nature to recognize the damage that is being done, and to do one’s best – through daily stewardship, voting, and contributions – to reduce it? Isn’t holding the earth’s head in our laps and weeping as we watch her die a little defeatist? It seems to me a great many people are working very hard to keep it alive; should they now sit upon the ground and tell sad stories?

And by the way, I do want people to write what they want, including unironic odes to the beauty of the earth. But isn’t there a place for ironic humor? Doesn’t it expand the reach of the message? Doesn’t the sign above leave a visceral message of the consequences of denial?

Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m missing the point. Or being overly rigid in my metaphoric reading. Or I’m just feeling miffed, and striking back. I’m a city dweller; I always have been. I don’t think that renders me immune to feeling the horror as regulations are rolled back (radiation isn’t that bad for you; carbon dioxide is a good thing, just look at Venus; mmmm, mercury, they put it in thermometers, how bad could it be?) and acknowledging a tragic loss as the Amazon rain forests continue to shrink in the name of commerce (and just wait, the upcoming years are bound to be worse).

I’ve said before that the awe and majesty some see in the Grand Canyon or Lake Louise for me takes place when I get a glimpse of how a living body breaks down glucose to generate energy, or how a cell divides, over and over, for the most part correcting its errors along the way, how just by the tiniest forces of positive-attracts-negative we breathe and sing and love and write. And I have held three cats in my arms as, in their mid-to-late-teens, they died (one was put down while in surgery) and have mourned each one. I know the terrible process by which we decide the suffering is greater than the living, and surrender them to whatever is next.

How will we sing when Miami goes underwater, when the raft of garbage in the ocean gets as big as Texas, when the only remaining Polar Bear draws his last breath, when fracking, when Keystone, when Inhofe…? I don’t know. And I imagine sometimes, often, we will get it wrong. But I’m not celebrating the Earth because I am an optimist—though I am an optimist. I am celebrating because this magnificent rock we live on demands celebration. I am celebrating because how in the face of this earth could I not?

I was in high school on the first Earth Day. I lug my groceries in cloth bags. And, by the way, I haven’t owned or driven a car (or lived in a household with a car) for twenty years. I live in a city because there are busses that get me where I need to go. I did not, I should say, make this choice for ecological reasons; I simply hate driving, and prefer to spend money on things other than insurance and gasoline and repairs. But I’ll match my carbon footprint against anyone’s. I’m not cynical about nature; I just am more comfortable where I am. But that doesn’t mean I don’t care.

There’s one more thing that comes into play here. This isn’t my first encounter with Houston. Her article “Corn Maze” appeared in the 2014 Pushcart. I had a pretty strong reaction to that, too, when she defended 82% truth as a reasonable benchmark for non-fiction. Of course, now that we live in a land where truth barely exists, 82% sounds pretty good, but at the time I pretty much threw a hissy fit. And in the here and now, I kept wondering as I read this essay: which 18% is made up?

I may sound like I’m picking on Houston. I’m not (and if I were, wouldn’t that be like a black fly – one of the best reasons in Maine to avoid nature – picking on a moose?). I’m just reacting to what I’ve read, which is what I do here all the time. It’s just that she tends to come up with things that get strong reactions out of me. That’s not a bad thing. If I were being ironic, I’d just write up the structure and content and turn the page.

But I can’t do that. Because I’m engaged with the issues, and I care.

Erik Kwakkel: Books Before Print (2018, ARC Humanities Press)

As a scholar of medieval book culture I handle manuscripts (handwritten books made before the invention of print) several times per week period I cannot help but speed up as I make my way to the Special Collections Library. What will the object I called up from the vault look like? what might it let me discover about its past? as soon as I touch the menu script it attacks the senses: its pages are “velvety” to the touch, they sound crackly and tired when I turn them, and they present a musky scent that is unbeatable if you like old books. As the manuscript starts acclimatizing to the warmer and moisture air outside the vault, the tips of the pages begin to curl – although not usually as much as the ninth century manuscript on the cover of this book – as if to encourage me to keep going. I find the whole experience simply magical, each and every time.
It is this feeling of magic and excitement that I am trying to convey in the book you are holding. This volume is intended for those who want to learn about medieval manuscripts and are new to the topic, or perhaps have some prior knowledge.

Preface

The first thing I noticed when I got this book was the totally different aesthetic experience of seeing a manuscript page in print, in my hand, as compared to on a computer screen. That difference surprised me; I still wonder if there’s a neurophysical reason, or if it’s just psychological, a slight change that feels exaggerated. I’m not knocking the many wonderful digitalizations available to all of us; without these, I would never have encountered medieval books at all. It’s just that, as my entire (meagre) experience of looking at manuscripts has been online, through moocs or twitter feeds or blogs, I was quite stunned when I opened this book to a full-page image from the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the first manuscripts I came to recognize with some regularity.

The book is, as Kwakkel tells us in his Preface, intended both for academic use, and for “non-experts outside academia” – hey, that’s me! As I said when I took my first manuscript mooc back in 2015, had I known fields like book history and medieval studies existed when I was at the age of making decisions about my future, I very well might have ended up there. This book is yet another way I can get in on the good stuff, even now.

And, in fact, this book would make a lovely companion volume to any of the introductory manuscript moocs I’ve taken. It covers similar areas – the historical development of books primarily through the medieval period, a very brief overview of bookmaking procedures, and, most importantly, explanations of why books were made they way they were. It’s loaded with full-color images, as well as references for further study.

I’m nowhere near “done” with it; I’ve just done a quick read to facilitate this post. I will keep it near my computer, where I’ll continue to go through it at a leisurely pace, pursuing all the leads it provides

The last page of the book is equally telling of the manuscript’s history as its first page. due to its location, however, the end of the book contains very different information than that found on the opening page. The last page represents the closure of a book project, and sometimes the scribe wanted to provide some information about himself or the circumstances under which the book was produced. Given that medieval books left a title page, such explicit information is very welcome: it makes the last page an important location for historians of the book.

Ch. 6

We get to see how book historians take what to me is incomprehensible and discover clues to a manuscript’s origins, sometimes with remarkable precision. Kwakkel explains how scripts changed over time and in different regions, allowing the very writing of the text to narrow down the place and time it was written. He uses a specific example of overlapping letters – biting and kissing, as he puts it – with images that help with understanding. While scripts are not the focus of the book, there’s enough to give a good idea of what specialists look for, and how they view the text of a manuscript.

This is the area of my nascent investigation of manuscripts where I am weakest: paleography. I have a smattering of Latin, French, and Spanish, not anywhere near enough for communicative competence but enough to recognize words at least; yet I still can’t figure out any texts. So many letters, and letter combinations, look alike to me! I did some amateur calligraphy when I was younger (hey, didn’t we all?) so I understand the pen strokes, but that doesn’t help in reading. And then there are the abbreviations, which complicate it all the more – even if I figure out the letters, they may not spell a word, certainly not one I can google for a translation. One of the moocs I took featured some extended practice with reading Spanish documents, but I found it more frustrating than enlightening. It could be that, like math, this is something that will remain beyond my reach given my age and circumstances.

While readers of printed books had little choice as to the physical appearance of the object they read, owners of manuscripts handled a book that was made especially for them. Consequently, they would normally specify what it should look like, as explained in the General Introduction. You might think that medieval readers would go overboard and abuse this freedom of choice, ordering polka-dotted books with pink letters written upside down on triangle-shaped pages. The opposite turns out to be true. Book owners before print are predictable in that they mostly opted for regular features: their choices are typical, almost conforming to some unwritten rules. It is probable that scribes, who knew the rules, attempted to keep deviations from the norm at bay.
This striking act of confirmation results from what is a driving force behind the chosen physical features : the anticipated use of the book.

Ch. 20

One predominant theme of this book is the principle of form follows function. A Book of Hours, intended for personal devotions, might be small so as to be easy to carry, and highly decorated to encourage meditation on the material within. Speakers and performers might prefer a narrow book that can be held in one hand. A copy of some work of Aristotle, intended for academic work, might have very wide margins for notes, clarifications, and outside references (and, by the way, I was happy to learn that medieval students wrote extensively in margins, a habit that sometimes earns me a scolding by someone who insists I should take better care of my books; I do take care of them, by using them).

I found the section on hornbooks particularly interesting. These are almost-books in that they aren’t quires bound together (the technical definition of a book) but a single sheet mounted on something like a wooden paddle, and covered with a layer of animal horn shaved so thin it’s nearly transparent: medieval plastic, if you will. They were used as primers to teach children to read. The written portion might only be an alphabet and a passage that would be memorized by any child of the time: certain prayers, for instance. Their form emphasized durability, given the primary users were children. And, by the way, hornbooks used in U.S. law schools – a small book offering a quick review of a single concept – are said to borrow the term, as they, too, serve as primers of a sort.

Here we examine books with remarkable tools and instruments physically attached to them, a genre that is both rare and versatile – and comma frankly, a bit weird as well. Mounted onto the page or bookbinding, these added instruments extend the book’s primary function as an object that one reads into a utilitarian piece of hardware. Some of these add-ons Functioned as a calculator, others – astonishingly – even allowed the reader to tell time. As unusual as this enhanced functionality was in the Middle Ages, to a modern person it seems very familiar. Apps on our smartphones, after all, do precisely the same: they extend the function of the phone far beyond its original parameters. Let’s examine how medieval books were sometimes more than books.

Ch. 26

This is another theme of the book: nothing new under the sun, and everything old is new again. Page numbers, running titles, footnotes, bookmarks, marginal notes, speech bubbles: these were part and parcels of book, and by the late Middle Ages are remarkably similar to the contemporary versions. The examples provided here are wonderful and varied, and, like Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” connect us to the past in a powerful way.

And then there’s the unexpected. Scraps of parchment and, later, paper, are nearly always left over after sheets used for books are cut. Because of their irregular sizes and shapes, they’re used for temporary writings – notes, letters – that aren’t meant to be preserved. But one special use stands out: a Dutch orphanage preserved name tags from the fifteenth century, name tags that were pinned to the infants that came into their care. Some included a background story for the child; others just a name. These scraps of paper still bear the pin holes from their attachment to the child’s clothing. I wouldn’t have expected an emotional experience from an academic book on manuscripts, but human artefacts reflect our humanity, even after five hundred years of storage.

I first became aware of Erik Kwakkel through, guess what, a mooc. One of the assignments was to create a Pinterest board with five examples of the weekly topic – writing supports, inks, bindings, etc. I discovered Kwakkel’s blog (which, by the way, contains versions of some of the material in this book) which proved particularly helpful with examples of creative parchment repairs and discoveries of manuscript fragments. I started following him on Twitter, along with several other academic medievalists and book specialists. I knew I’d be buying this book. Academic books are ridiculously expensive (a topic academics love to discuss). So I was delighted that, while the hardcover edition was indeed out of my range, the paperback fit nicely in my budget, and was my 2018 Christmas present to myself.

Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein: I Think, Therefore I Draw: Understanding Philosophy Through Cartoons (Penguin, 2018)

Like the best jokes, the best cartoons address philosophy’s Big Questions. They explain and illustrate these perennial conundrums and there are various answers in ways that hard sometimes ingenious, sometimes profound, and sometimes even a bit useful. Yep, these cartoons are incisive snapshots of the Biggies.
….
Here, then, is a collection of our favorite philosophical cartoons and our annotations about what they teach us about the Big Questions in philosophy. Questions like, “Is there really any difference between girls and boys?” and “Is there a cosmic scheme?” and “What went wrong with right and wrong?” Eighteen of the most frequently asked questions in the history of philosophy.

I avoid visiting my local bookstore in person (unless I’m picking up a specific book they’ve ordered or held for me) because I can’t resist interesting covers and intriguing titles. Sometimes just walking past the display window is enough, as when I saw this volume a few weeks ago. I mean, it’s cute and tiny, about the size of a mass market paperback, and you had me at philosophy, hello, can I take it home mom, please?

Inside it is also cute and tiny and philosophical. The organization is, as advertised, around eighteen philosophical questions, introduced by eighteen cartoons. The connection between cartoon and philosophical point may be a bit tenuous, but that’s what the text is for. For example, Dave Carpenter’s cartoon featuring a man telling his psychiatrist, “I never realized how empty my life was until I started tweeting about it”, is part of the first section about the meaning of life, titled “What’s it all about, Alfie?” and brings in Heidigger’s Everydayess (and, for me, evoking DFW’s “This is Water” in the process) and Frankl’s logotherapy. All in about a page.

And therein lies the reason I avoid buying on impulse. If I’d thought about it, looked it over carefully, I would have realized there wasn’t enough bang for my buck here. Fast food. I don’t object to brevity – flash fiction is one of my favorite genres – but to fit Everydayness into a couple of sentences (not even complex sentences, for pete’s sake) kind of offends me. Then again, it’s not billed as a deep text on Heidegger, or anyone else, but more of an appetizer. And if it leads someone to investigate some nugget of philosophy in more depth, well, that’s nothing to sneeze at. For me, it was Sophie’s World, but whatever works.

In any case, it was an enjoyable book, and those who want a nutshell-version of philosophy, an offering of canapés from which one might choose an entrée – or maybe just a smile – would no doubt find it quite suitable. And, of course, for those who, much as I need Bad Drawings to approach math, can only overcome their fear of philosophy via cartoons, this would be ideal.

It’s one in a whole series put together by two former Harvard philosophy majors who spent most of their lives in other careers before producing humorous philosophy books. They’re all books I might like to check out of the library, or spend an hour browsing through in the atrium for that matter. I just wish I hadn’t impulsively spent part of my precious book budget on candy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 6, We Built This City on Triangles

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

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

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

IV: Statistics: The Find Art of Honest Lying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introduction – Jesmyn Ward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~ Prologue

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

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

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

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

~~ The Worst of the White Folks

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

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

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

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

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

~~ Reasonable Doubt and the Lost Presidential Debate of 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pushcart XLII: David Meischen, “How to Shoot at Someone Who Outdrew You” (nonfiction) from Gettysburg Review 29:3

Krista Whitson: “Dance Halls of Central Texas”

Krista Whitson: “Dance Halls of Central Texas”

The morning I learned of Hank Locklin’s death, I disappeared right out of my life, jolted elsewhere by a single fragment of the deluge spilling from my web browser. March 9, 2009, was an ordinary Monday morning. A breeze drifted through my central Austin neighborhood. I was sixty years old. I’d long since quit listening to stations that call themselves country—that wasteland of loud pop ballads cowboyed up with twang, with steel guitar and fiddle. A name, then, a simple Internet death notice. A voice, singular as the whorl tipping my ring finger. Opening words to a song. And five decades dropped away beneath me.

Please help me I’m falling . . . in love with you.
Close the door to temptation, don’t let me walk through.

Complete story available online at Gettysburg Review

Music, for many of us, forms the backdrop of our lives. So many times a song, written by a complete stranger, crystallizes our state of mind in a way our own thoughts have resisted. I still remember how “Both Sides Now” summed up one summer. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” still breaks my heart, even though I’m a decade too young to remember WWII and the separations it was written to honor. And once it a while, God help us, even Madison Avenue captures the essence of a moment, as so many of us recalled when “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” played on the final Mad Men episode.

Meischen’s memoir traces his evolving understanding of love through song. As a child, then a teenager, growing up in Texas, a boy on a farm raised by parents who’d known hard knocks and tragedy, the weekly outings to the dances at Rifle Club Hall were a way of connecting life with living through the polka and the jitterbug. And at the same time, he began to realize that his father’s life was not a perfect fit for him.

It would be years before Meischen discovered words like gay or found a way to forge a life that felt comfortable. But music – country songs at first, then the piercing “Unchained Melody” – knew how he felt, though it took him a long time to work his way towards what he needed.

This is not a story about confrontation; it’s about cherishing one’s roots while discovering one’s wings.

I am my father’s son. I didn’t see it at the time. I’m not sure he did either…. My father was a talker—storyteller, jokester, clown. He loved entertaining people, loved all eyes on him, all ears. I’m told I started talking at eighteen months. I can attest I haven’t stopped since. I’ve been turning my life into stories for as long as I can remember. I can play the clown with the best of them.
A confession: When I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, I saw my father as impossibly moody, impossibly judgmental, his moods and judgments tinged by anger. I promised myself—promised—that I would not be a moody, angry father. Thirty years went by, and then one day in my early forties, I woke to a stunning fact. I was a moody, angry father.
Flip sides of a coin. I share both sides with the man who fathered me.

The memoir is a chapter from Meischner’s memoir-in-progress; other chapters appear here and there in literary magazines. In an interview with Kelcey Parker Ervick, he describes himself as a literary late-bloomer. I respect those who take their time before taking flight.

Pushcart XLII: Meghan O’Gieblyn, “Dispatch from Flyover Country” (nonfiction) from Threepenny Review, Summer 2016

The Midwest is a somewhat slippery notion. It is a region whose existence—whose very name—has always been contingent upon the more fixed and concrete notion of the West. Historically, these interior states were less a destination than a corridor, a gateway that funneled travelers from the east into the vast expanse of the frontier. The great industrial cities of this region—Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis—were built as “hubs,” places where the rivers and the railroads met, where all the goods of the prairie accumulated before being shipped to the exterior states. Today, coastal residents stop here only to change planes, a fact that has solidified our identity as a place to be passed over. To be fair, people who live here seem to prefer it this way. Gift shops along the shores of the Great Lakes sell T-shirts bearing the logo Flyover Living. For a long time, the unofficial nickname for the state of Indiana was “Crossroads of America.” Each time my family passed the state line, my sisters and I would mock its odd, anti-touristic logic (“Nothing to see here, folks!”).

Complete story available online at Threepenny Review

I have a lot of trouble with the notion of “flyover states”. It seems to me most of the US is a big flyover zone to New York and Washington. So let’s stick with “midwestern” since that seems more appropriate to the article anyway.

O’Gieblyn tells not just of her relatively recent life in Michigan, but compares it with her previous residence of Madison, Wisconsin, “the Berkeley of the midwest”, one of the “cities that lie within the coordinates of the region but do not technically belong there”. Then she mixes in some religion, courtesy of the remnants of a Bible camp that draws in believers every Summer.

I can understand the “anti-touristic logic” she mentions above. There’s a lot of that where I live, an area that gets a significant influx of tourists, hence income, in summer. Yet there’s a definite attitude of who’s local and who isn’t that goes deeper than “winter people”. I’ve lived here over 20 years, but will never be a Mainer because I wasn’t born here. By the way, notice on the map above: most of Maine doesn’t even get flown over.

Whether we call ourselves midwesterners or Californians or North Carolinians or whatever, it’s a matter of identity.

On Saturday nights, the camp hosts a concert, and my husband and I occasionally walk down to the Tabernacle to listen to whatever band has been bused in from Nashville. Neither of us is a believer, but we enjoy the music. The bands favor gospel standards, a blend of highlands ballads and Gaither-style revivalism. The older generation here includes a contingent of retired missionaries. Many of them are widows, women who spent their youth carrying the gospel to the Philippines or the interior of Ecuador, and after the service they smile faintly at me as they pass by our pew, perhaps sensing a family resemblance. Occasionally, one of them will grip my forearm and say, “Tell me who you are.” The response to this question is “I’m Colleen’s daughter.” Or, if that fails to register: “I’m Paul and Marilyn’s granddaughter.” It is unnerving to identify oneself in this way. My husband once noted that it harkens back to the origins of surnames, to the clans of feudal times who identified villagers by patronymic epithets. John’s son became Johnson, etcetera. To do so now is to see all the things that constitute a modern identity—all your quirks and accomplishments—rendered obsolete.

I have to shake my head when I hear for calls of ending “identity politics”. People are all about identity. Maybe the key to the Midwest is this idea of family identity, of stability. To some of us this feels like security; for others, it feels like a life sentence. For those of us whose families have scattered, other forms of identity fill in. We find new ways of creating social bonds. Just because we don’t share bloodlines doesn’t mean we can’t feel loyalty, trust, and reciprocity with others who share our identity. And those who enjoy one form of identity fear those who don’t share it, along with a natural resentment of those who would disparage it.

O’Gieblyn uses a fascinating conceit to structure the piece: smoke from the California wildfires moved across the midwest, changing the sunsets, including those in Michigan. She likens this to the winds of change that bubble up in places that don’t seem to have a lot to do with the neighborhood, be it new technology or ideas. It’s something from elsewhere. From away, as we say in Maine (or, as real cradle-to-grave Mainers, do). It seems ominous, unpleasant. And it generally clears out after a while. Real change happens slowly in flyover zones.

And this may be the point of the article published in 2016, the Year of the Flyover Voter. While some of us feel like we’re being yanked back to a past we thought we left behind, maybe, for some, it just seems like the sunsets are back to normal. That’s a divide far harder to overcome than geography. We could do it – we could heal, see each other not as threats but as interlocking parts of a whole, each valuable in our own right – but it seems there’s more profit, more power, in exploiting it.

Pushcart XLII: Philip Connors, “Burn Scars” (nonfiction) from N+1 #25

I thought I heard a shout from far below….
The shout came twice more before I recognized the voice and hollered back. It belonged to Teresa, fiancée of my friend John, whom we had both been mourning for three weeks…. During a dozen summers of lookout duty I had mostly spent my nights in a cabin at ground level, in another mountain range entirely, but there was no cabin on John’s peak, only the tower — a spacious live-in model. I invited Teresa up the stairs, feeling almost embarrassed at having to proffer an invitation. She had spent far more time there than I had, hanging out with John; I was merely an emergency fill-in, on loan from a different ranger district twenty miles east. A fire there the previous summer had left my home tower surrounded by a 214-square-mile burn scar: a bird’s nest marooned in a charscape. There wasn’t a whole lot left to catch fire in that country, so my boss figured he could spare me for a few weeks while I covered John’s shifts on Signal Peak, and my relief lookout worked extra to cover mine.

I remember having read a short story featuring a fire lookout. It’s an interesting setting for a story, full of associations – wilderness, caution, protection, vigilance, risk. But this is not fiction. Connors worked as a fire lookout, wrote a book about it, and now tells another episode in this piece.

It’s an elegy of sorts, a kind of mourning song for both John, whose death came not by fire but by a trail accident, and the wilderness as it burns and tries to grow back. But fire isn’t the only danger, as the wilderness itself is encroached on by people – and, as he points out in the essay, fires started by people tend to do more damage than those started by lightning.

This is beautiful writing, lyrically weaving all those themes together as Connors and Teresa prepare to return John’s ashes to the wilderness he spent so much time protecting. I’ve said many times I’m not a nature person, but even I can be alarmed by the loss of woodlands at the hands of both fire, and development. What’s particularly interesting is the implied respect for fire. This isn’t an enemy to be conquered or feared; it’s a force with which we share the earth. It’s a tone I’ve heard in accounts of city firefighters as well.

In 1947, forest fires destroyed huge swaths of Acadia National Park on Mt. Desert Island, up the coast from where I live. I’ve driven through some of those areas. They still have the acrid smell of burning pine, seventy years later.

Although it’s a long piece, it reads quite easily. Nevertheless I found my mind wandering. I’m just not made for nature. But I recognize, and admire, love when I see it, be it love for a friend, or a forest.

Pushcart XLII: Jaquira Díaz, “Beach City” (nonfiction) from Brevity #52

We talked about Miami Beach like it belonged to us, convinced that the tourists who came down to swim in our ocean and dance in our nightclubs were fucking up our city. We were seventeen, eighteen, nineteen-year-old hoodlums, our hair in cornrows, too-tight ponytails, too much hairspray, dark brown lip liner, noses and belly buttons pierced, door-knocker earrings, jailhouse ankle tattoos….
We were the ones who knew what it meant to belong here, to be made whole during full moon drum circles, dancing, drinking, smoking it up with our homeboys. We knew what it meant to bloody our knuckles here, to break teeth here, to live and breathe these streets day in, day out, the glow of the neon hotel signs on the waterfront, the salt and sweat of this beach city.

Complete story available online at Brevity

When I encountered Díaz for the first time five years ago, I said her story had a “mastery of tone and nuance”. She still does. This reads like poetry.

It’s a short piece, a memoir-ish essay about growing up in a city famous for its high-end glamour lifestyle. After the introduction dispenses with the outsiders, she tells us of her own experience in brief snippets. The slight defensiveness of the opening fades and pride of ownership and belonging takes over, her disdain for the bright lights and fancy cocktails and expensive clothes eclipsed by community and friendship and love.

I think a lot of us understand this sense of being part but apart, whether we live in college towns or resort areas. Even in sleepy Vacationland, we have the summer influx, the cruise ship visitors who ride up and down Congress Street on the Downeaster Duck bus/boat, watching us locals emerge from CVS with our aspirin and pretzels or go to the bank or take a lunch break from our jobs.

But I wonder if there is more recognition on the other side than we locals realize. My husband and I used to visit Mt. Desert Island once or twice a summer. We always recognized we had a lot more in common with the people making birdhouses than the Bar Harbor/Northeast Harbor yacht set, or even the Acadia National Park hikers. We knew we didn’t belong at Jordan Pond House, but we went anyway, just for the popovers. Then we’d hang out in Southwest Harbor, where the working people kept their boats, and feel like we were home.

In any event, Díaz’s evocative essay brought a lot out for me. Isn’t that the ultimate goal of writing: not to be over there, explaining one’s existence, but to connect with others, to let us all be the same in some way. The next time you’re on vacation, enjoy the luxury, but look also at the wonders beyond the glitz.

Pushcart XLII: Christian Wiman, “I Will Love You in the Summertime” (nonfiction) from American Scholar, Spring 2016

Teresa Chen: Ambivalence #6 - 2016

Teresa Chen: Ambivalence #6 – 2016

Twenty years ago, while watching some television report about depression and religion—I forget the relationship but apparently there was one—a friend who was entirely secular asked me with genuine curiosity and concern, “Why do they believe in something that doesn’t make them happy?” I was an ambivalent atheist at that point, beset with an inchoate loneliness and endless anxieties, contemptuous of Christianity but addicted to its aspirations and art. I was also chained fast to the rock of poetry, having my liver pecked out by the bird of a harrowing and apparently absurd ambition—and thus had some sense of what to say. One doesn’t follow God in hope of happiness but because one senses—miserable flimsy little word for that beak in your bowels—a truth that renders ordinary contentment irrelevant. There are some hungers that only an endless commitment to emptiness can feed, and the only true antidote to the plague of modern despair is an absolute, and perhaps even annihilating, awe. “I asked for wonders instead of happiness, Lord,” writes the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel. “And you gave them to me.”

Complete story available online at The American Scholar

A few pieces back, I praised Jamie Quatro’s story “Belief” for its straightforward approach to life as a Christian, and its honesty about the mix of joy and struggle. This piece, written in a very different style, takes a similar look at what it means to have faith.

The title comes from a comment made by Wiman’s two-year-old daughter when, during a bedtime ritual, he asked if she loved him. He interprets her cryptic reply – “I will love you in the time where there is time for everything, which is now and always” – while recognizing that he is constructing meaning apart from her intent: “I think that sometimes life and language break each other open to change, that a rupture in one can be a rapture in the other, that sometimes there are, as it were, words underneath the words—even the very Word underneath the words….” That’s the essence of poetry, isn’t it, to use words to evoke the ineffable meaning beyond, underneath, the words.

There’s a section on the meaning of prayer, drawing out the aphorism “Prayer doesn’t change things; prayer changes people, and people change things” into a more sophisticated setting, prayer as less of a laundry list of needs and wants and more of a meditation to connect with the divine will. He draws from a number of poets and writers of various times and places to express, much as Quatro did, the complicated nature of faith for him, its combination of “lament and love”. That phrase stood out to me, since I encountered it at length in last fall’s mooc on classical Greek literature. It seems lament and love songs are intertwined, exchanged, and mirrored in many of the epics and plays. This fits with the very common experience of us all: we cry at weddings or when receiving great news, and bond over laughter and comradeship at funerals and wakes. Yet Wiman is certain of the centrality of faith for humanity, whether as individuals we have “addressed it consciously or not.”

As for myself, I have found faith not to be a comfort but a provocation to a life I never seem to live up to, an eruption of joy that evaporates the instant I recognize it as such, an agony of absence that assaults me like a psychic wound. As for my children, I would like them to be free of whatever particular kink there is in me that turns every spiritual impulse into anguish. Failing that, I would like them to be free to make of their anguish a means of peace, for themselves or others (or both), with art or action (or both). Failing that—and I suppose, ultimately, here in the ceaseless machinery of implacable matter, there is only failure—I would like them to be able to pray, keeping in mind the fact that, as St. Anthony of the Desert said, a true prayer is one that you do not understand.

I connect very strongly with the ambivalence in the piece, with the acknowledgment that faith brings with it a certain discomfort. Wiman, former editor of Poetry Magazine and presently faculty at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music, wrote about his return to faith following a medical diagnosis in 2012.

Pushcart XLII: John R. Nelson, “Funny Bird Sex” (nonfiction) from Antioch Review 74.1

We humans like to think our species is unique.… Fire, underwear, irony, iPhones, art appreciation, AK-47s, judgment in the afterlife, life after offspring—all these set us apart, or so we believe. We’re the animal with a touchy self-pride, the animal that insists on locating itself in a separate, usually higher category. Man is the only animal that laughs at the sex lives of other animals.

One of the things I like about Pushcart is that they are not tied to the alphabetical-order tyranny of BASS; they can run a string of dark matter (exploitation, slavery, depravities, loss, the violence lurking beneath the surface of us all), scatter some hope and inspiration among it, then relieve the tension with sexual humor, all while still examining the subjective/objective aspects of writing and experience. Or maybe it’s just a fun piece about bird sex.

Just as I got to this essay, a video from a year ago came up in my twitter feed with the caption: “A year later, still #1.” Tell me you haven’t seen this scene played out at every bar, every wedding, every office party you’ve ever been to. Tell me you don’t know someone who reminds you of the (male) cockatoo on the right. Tell me you’ve never been the (female) cockatoo on the left. Or vice versa. This is Nelson’s point: “When we laugh at birds, we laugh at ourselves.”

In addition to reading examples of funny bird sex, Nelson tells us of funny human reactions to bird sex. It seems, in a trick of watching the watchers, birders who come upon bird sex in the wild invariably giggle. I would, I suppose. But one Althea Sherman, in 1925, had less of a sense of humor, objecting to profligate house wrens, flickers (“a weak-minded, inconsistent, frivolous creature that is called from duty by the notes of any stray male”), and a particular red-winged blackbird she named Brigham for his polygamy. Give ‘em a break, Ms. Sherman, it’s hard out there for a bird. I was going to comment on the tiny size of a bird brain, but it turns out birds have as many neurons in their forebrains as mammals.

But if we hold birds accountable for their sex lives, we need to recognize our similarities:

Males of many animal species are “dim in their sexual discernment,” says Robert Wright in The Moral Animal, and will try to breed with almost anything. Sure, it’s funny to us that a turkey will try to hump a stick with a fake head. But what about the millions of human males who masturbate to representations of women, including “women” who are literally cartoons?

If we looked at ourselves the way we looked at birds, we might be surprised. A fun essay. Entertaining. And informative. Isaac Bashevis Singer would be pleased.

Pushcart XLII: George Saunders, “Taut Rhythmic Surfaces” (nonfiction) from Southampton Review, Winter/Spring 2016

John F. Petro: “Myth & Moor” (1885)

John F. Petro: “Myth & Moor” (1885)

I didn’t know James Salter well at all, personally. I only spent part of one day with him….
But actually he had been a dear friend of mine for many years before that, and will continue to be a dear friend to me as long as I live through his prose. He did for me, and does for me, what any dear friend might do. He helps me sustain my sometimes faltering faith in an idea I base my life on: namely, that there is something sacred about working in prose; that purifying one’s prose style is a form of spiritual dedication; that working with language is a beautiful and noble way to spend one’s life. Every time I read his work I feel a kindred spirit there and am convinced all over again that the way we write a sentence can be everything: exploration, devotion, celebration. A person is never more himself than when he’s writing a sentence he’ll later stand by.

When I read tributes like this one (delivered by Saunders at a speech following Salter’s death in 2015) I’m acutely aware that I don’t have a “favorite author”, and I worry that there’s something wrong with me. I don’t even have a “favorite story” or “favorite novel”, or for that matter a favorite movie or song. Instead, I have a cluster of songs/movies/stories/songs that I love, often for very different reasons, and at various times one or the other is preeminent in my heart; but that’s because of the circumstances of the moment, where my head is at as we used to say, not because of the work itself.

Maybe that’s the difference between me, as a reader, and someone like Saunders who spends his days crafting that which I read. A workman knows fine workmanship. A baker can tell when someone properly proofed the dough, added the yeast at the right temperature, because the baker has thrown out so many failed loaves. A dancer can tell when another’s pointe is just a little off; a pianist knows when a passage isn’t as clear as it should be. A writer, someone who cares about sentences and phrases and syllables and how they fit together into paragraphs and works, knows writers.

What James did so magnificently is make the case for desire, reminding us of how good it feels, how essential it is for us, how wonderful, how unavoidable, an inevitable and happy result of simply being alive – while at the same time reminding us that it’s dangerous to desire. Or, maybe, dangerous to simply desire, to believe that the satisfaction of desire is sufficient for a human being.
We can’t live with desire and we can’t live without it, we say.
Correct, says the Salter story.

I don’t think Saunders is saying there’s one right way to form prose. I think he’s saying that there are many approaches, many styles, but each one has potential for excellence. A writer who hits excellence consistently, whatever her style, deserves notice.

I’ve never read Salter’s work, which maybe hampers my appreciation of Saunder’s comments. But it doesn’t hamper my appreciation of appreciation; there’s no more beautiful thing. Though I’m no Saunders, I hope, along the way, I’ve expressed appreciation for various works I’ve read, because we give what we have.

Pushcart XLII: Daniel Harris, “Zombies” (nonfiction) from Salmagundi 190/191

Historically, there are two entirely unrelated types of zombies, one dull and quiescent, the other rabid and infectious. There are, on the one hand, the somewhat soporific zombies who shuffle around such films as White Zombie, Revolt of the Zombies, and I Walked with a Zombie – macabre colonialist cautionary tales from the 1930s and 1940s often set in a tenebrous Caribbean where evil voodoo mesmerists resurrect dead slaves. On the other hand, there is George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead in which, after a returning space probe from Venus explodes in the upper atmosphere, spreading either radioactive contamination or Venutian microbes, the dead arise to cannibalize the living. This one low-budget cult classic inspired a feeding frenzy that culminated in thousands of films, novels, video games, T.V. shows, apps, tshirts, action figures, board games, pet costumes, collectible dolls, mutant Mickey Mice, and cookie jars with lids made of slate grey ceramic brains – the spawn of a mercantile pandemic for which there is as yet no known cure.

Confession: I’ve never seen a zombie movie. I have, however, read Bennett Sims’ zombie novel, A Questionable Shape which is more about philosophy, art, literature, and the nature of our relationships to each other, and to the world (it’s a great book). And Manuel Gonzales’ short story collection The Miniature Wife featured a couple of zombie stories that also were about things other than zombies. So while I’m travelling blind in some areas of this essay, I recognize other points quite handily. I found it quite enjoyable, since I prefer thinking about what zombies mean, and why we’re so obsessed with then, to actual zombie adventures. And that’s what the essay is: an examination of zombies as an expression of contemporary culture, the zeitgeist of our discontent, if you will.

The essay goes on for seven or eight pages, comparing zombie movies and gross-out movies (Animal House, American Pie), the connection to gamers, the importance of the bite in symbolic and cinematic terms, plot, connections to ancient literature (Homer, Hesiod, Virgil all incorporated the undead), and the relationship to contemporary movements such as anti-urbanism, individualism, and libertarianism. It’s all quite interesting, if not particularly moving.

And then we get to the final paragraph, where the boom drops:

Why does a culture of plenty obsess over scarcity? Do we feel we are living in a fool’s paradise, that plenitude is unsustainable, that we have pushed the planet beyond its limits? The comforts of civilization are fraught with anxieties about hardship and distress, fears that manifest themselves in popular culture, in novels and films that imagine a world depleted of its resources. Global warming, pandemics, nuclear war, terrorism, pollution all contribute to our sense of the precariousness of our affluence and privilege, apprehensions that lead us to create obsessive scenarios of decimation, annihilation, apocalypse. Zombies are the scolds of prosperity, loquacious lay preachers who remind us that the whole complex structure of civilization could collapse in an instant and we could find ourselves, between breakfast and lunch, scrounging for our next meal, even as they scrounge for theirs, us.

I don’t think that’s specific to zombie lit, however. Doomsday books and movies have been a staple of pop culture for decades, and, as pointed out in the essay, disaster/ghost/horror stories go back to the beginnings of literature: what is the story of Adam and Eve if not the ultimate universal doomsday scenario? What is the Theogony if not a horror story? One of the differences between Eastern religions and philosophies, I’ve learned in my mooc travels, is that the West views humanity as flawed, needing rescue from a supernatural source, and history as linear, while the East sees the universe as cyclical and people as capable of finding the right path to internal peace without supernatural intervention. Yet Eastern literature has its share of ghost stories, too.

In the worst of times, we fret about our demise; in the best of times, we fear it won’t last. Our awareness of the inevitability of our own death – often cited as the difference between people and animals – takes many forms. Zombies are one way we assure ourselves that not only are we not really gone, but that we can bring our friends with us, whether or not they want to come along.