After more than a month of intense reading I’ve finally finished Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. As some of you may remember from a post a while back, this was my first serious excursion into the golden era of 19th century Russian fiction. After seeking the advice of several trusted fellow readers (aside: see how well it works! Make sure to Ask a Book Question if you ever find yourself in a similar predicament. We’re here to help!) We collectively decided that C & P was the best place to start. I reacted to the book in a couple of different ways. My first reaction, from almost the very beginning, was that the book felt like a Dickens novel to me. I saw similarities in both the gothic overwrought characters and the lurking shady characters who alternately seemed for or against young Raskolnikov. The friendship between Raskolnikov and Razumikhin, in particular, reminded me of the friendship between Pip and Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations. Other similarities, I think, are structural. Both books were written serially, and as with Dickens, I looked forward to the cliffhanger at the end of each chapter which would ensure that readers would look forward to the next installment. When I read a book like this, it always occurs to me that it’s too bad books aren’t written that way any more. It seems like it would be a really fun way to read a book. (Now that I think of it, I’m pretty sure that Stephen King has experimented with this in recent years). My other reaction was how psychological and modern the book seemed. I never read this or any other Russian novels in school (not sure how that happened) so I had neither expectations nor preconceptions when I began. The book was, in its own verbose way, a very profound discussion of morality and power. More specifically, I was interested in the relationship between the power of murder and the power of wealth and social class. These themes were buried beneath layers of prose. The book seemed to be divided almost equally between action and Raskolnikov’s internal monologue. It was very readable, but occasionally overwhelming. A final observation: the book is filled with events and real people drawn from real life in 1860s St. Petersburg. In the present day, as an established classic, it gives the book a historical context, but I couldn’t help but think about how it must have appeared at the time of its publication. In this day and age, writers are often derided for relying too much on current events and pop culture. Critics claim the these books will lose their cultural significance as they become quickly dated. Yet, in C&P, Dostoyevsky’s practice of referring to specific scandals and amusements that were the hot topics of conversation at the time serves to cement the book very specifically in a time and place and it manages to make the story feel real and complete. I should also mention that I really enjoyed the particular edition that I read. A multitude of informative notes augment the text, and the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky felt inventive and engaging. But now I am done, and I am looking forward to a change of pace. I’ve already embarked upon Jamesland by LA author Michele Huneven. The book club that I help run is reading it, and Huneven herself is planning to make an appearance at the end of our meeting so that she can answer our questions. Should be lots of fun.
In August, Atul Gawande published an article in The New Yorker on end of life care which referenced a 2008 study by the Coping with Cancer project that attempted to assess how the manner in which a person dies affects the mental health of the family and friends who watch him go. The study found that the survivors of cancer patients whose last days were spent in mechanized intensive care units tended to suffer post-mortem depression three times more often than the survivors of terminal patients whose last days had been spent at home under hospice care. The implication was that holding on for too long, and in the wrong ways, can disrupt the natural rhythms of grieving.
Recently I’ve been thinking about how this framework—the idea that there are better and worse ways to let someone go—might be applied to the Facebook era of human relations, in which friendships don’t really end so much as they attenuate into superficial voyeurism and token gestures. This past February, for example, I received good wishes (prompted of course by an auto-generated reminder) on my birthday from elementary school acquaintances who I had not spoken with in nearly twenty years (and I’m only 29!). Jake F., who I played Little League with but have not seen since, was one of them: “Hope it’s a good one!” he wrote on my wall.
On a gut level, I couldn’t figure out what to make of this. Was I supposed to feel happy to hear from long lost Jake? Was I supposed to write back “thanks” as though it were completely natural to be wished a happy birthday by a person whose existence is barely more real to me than a character’s in a novel? There seemed to be no categories or schema in the evolutionarily designed layout of my brain to process an encounter that bore qualities in common with a person coming back from the dead.
This feeling of interpersonal vertigo was particularly acute a few months ago when an item in my newsfeed announced that Josh W. was engaged. Josh and I had become friends in the first half of the George W. Bush era, during a year in which we taught sixth grade together in New York City. We were the same age and both liked to play basketball and by Columbus Day we were spending a lot of time together. I’d hang out in his classroom in the mornings before the kids arrived and after school we’d sometimes go play pool and drink Budweiser at an Irish bar located improbably in the midst of what by then had become a Latino neighborhood of the Bronx. We talked about a lot of things, but mostly we never tired of talking about the students we had in common.
When that school year ended, I left teaching and New York to travel. While I was abroad, and then afterwards when I settled in Philadelphia, Josh and I kept in touch over email and occasional phone calls, and a couple times when I was back in New York I looked him up. Those encounters dwindled, though. I was sad when we began to lose touch and I missed the feeling that I associated with the easy period in my life when Josh and I had become friends. But at the same time I was all right with the idea that we weren’t going to be important parts of each other’s lives going forward. Our friendship was tied to a place and a time that had passed and it didn’t diminish how much the friendship had meant to me (or to Josh either, I hope), that we wouldn’t be calling each other up when we were 60 to shoot the shit.
But then there I was, some years after we’d last talked, staring at my computer screen and the news that Josh was going to be getting married. I saw that a few dozen people “Liked” the announcement and I clicked the thumbs-up icon, but immediately I felt a little ill, like I’d just cheapened the memory of our friendship somehow. I thought about adding a small note—”Congratulations” or “So excited to hear the news!!”—but that seemed off, too.
I could have called Josh, or written him a personal email, but I didn’t, although maybe I should have. We all trail a line of relationships behind us as we grow older, and we all have our own standards that define when and how we let go of people who were once important in our lives (and when and how we accept being let go of ourselves). I could see why it might be rewarding or interesting or comforting to know that with Facebook you never really need to put a friendship to rest completely. But to me it’s comforting and disorienting in the way of ventilators and feeding tubes that sustain a narrow definition of life long after the real thing has run its course.
In my recent review of Alvaro Mutis’ The Mansion, I noted the paucity of Mutis’ writing available in English. Basically, there is Maqroll and not much else. From what I understand, much of what would remain of Mutis’ writing to be published in an English-language edition would be his poetry, much of it featuring “Maqroll the Gaviero.”But there is also Mutis’ account of his time in Lecumberri, a Mexico City prison, after being accused of fraud by his employer Standard Oil in Columbia. Mutis would write, “I never would have managed to write a single line about Maqroll el Gaviero, who has accompanied me here and there in my poetry, had I not lived those fifteen months in the place they call, with singular precision, ‘the Black Palace.'”Mutis’ account, The Diary of Lecumberri, was published in 1959 by the Universidad Veracruzana and reprinted by Alfaguara in 1997.In 1999, a journal called Hopscotch translated and published a substantial excerpt of The Diary of Lecumberri, which is available as a PDF. Also included are a petition to the President for Mutis’ release penned by Octavio Paz and several letters that Mutis wrote to the journalist Elena Poniatowska from prison.When things go bad in jail, when someone or something manages to break the closed procession of days and shuffles and tumbles them in a disorder coming from outside, when this happens, there are certain infallible symptoms, certain preliminary signs that announce the imminence of bad days. In the morning, at the first roll, a thick taste of rag dries the mouth and keeps us from saying hello to our cellmates. Everyone sits himself as well as he can, waiting for the sergeant to come and sign the report. Then comes the food. The cooks don’t yell their usual “Anyone who takes bread!” to announce their arrival, or their “Anyone who wants atole,” with which they break the mild spell left over from the dreams of those staggering around, never able to quite convince themselves that they are prisoners, that they are in jail. The meal arrives in silence and everyone approaches with his plate and his bowl to receive his allotted ration, and nobody protests, or asks for more, or says a word.
After my brief service was completed I spent a week in Istanbul and returned to New York. In the meanwhile I picked up a collection of Yasar Kemal’s short stories, Sari Sicak, Teneke ve Diger Hikayeler (Yellow Heat, Tin Can and Other Stories) from my parents’ library. I was in between cities and about to quit my job, hence a collection proved perfect for the time. Kemal has a very distinct style that reflects an Anatolian tone and includes long depictions of nature and rural life and lengthy character analyses. The collection included some of his most famous pieces such as “Sari Sicak” (“Yellow Heat”) and “Teneke” (“Tin Can”), which, as do most of the other stories, reflect on the difficulties of rural life in the southern towns and regions surrounding Adana, a city now known for its cotton farmers and back then for its rice plantations. The backwards methods of planting rice resulted in swamps and an increase in the number of mosquitoes, and therefore malaria. Kemal reflects on the ill approach of the government towards the rural population and the generous benefits it granted to landlords, who, without the slightest regard to the peasants, flooded villages, planted rice, created swamps and did not even wince at the death of hundreds of men, women and children due to malaria. Reading Kemal’s stories, the reader easily identifies with the daily troubles of the villagers that believe in a just government and seek help, all to their dismay. Depictions of corrupt and impossible situations reach a new zenith in Kemal’s stories, and, hold true even today – despite the changes in setting. Books by Yasar Kemal.Upon arriving in New York, I received four great books as birthday presents. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange from Sylvia and Noam Chomsky’s Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky and The Best American Magazine Writing 2005 compiled by the American Society of Magazine Editors and published by The Columbia University Press from Selin and Siddhesh. I immediately started reading The Best American Magazine Writing 2005. I am currently reading stories at random and so far I read four out of the seventeen pieces in the collection: Seymour M. Hersch’s “Torture at Abu Ghraib“, Ned Zeman’s “The Man Who Loved Grizzlies”, Andrew Corsello’s “The Wronged Man” and Samantha Power’s Dying in Darfur. I am not sure if I agree one hundred percent with Nicholas Lemann’s assertion that this specific collection comprises the best pieces of writing to come out of the U.S. in 2005, but nevertheless the stories are incredibly well written, insightful and fresh. I enjoyed the ones I read thus far and hope that the rest will be just as good.See also: Part 1, 3
It’s been a moment since my last post, and I am here to apologize and explain. Ever since the fifth grade, when I took my birthday party to see the movie Outbreak and then read The Hot Zone thrice a row, I have been terrified of epidemics. Two weeks ago, my beloved and I returned from a week’s holiday in Mexico and immediately commenced moving our household to the other side of the country, in an automobile. We had spent the holiday in points around the state of Oaxaca, and then the last day we were in Mexico City, larking around the metro and holding hands with everybody.I know that currently public opinion finds the Swine Flu to be very passe, and we’ve all been reminded several times that regular flu kills a third of Americans every year, but three days after we returned from Mexico it was very scary to receive a phone call informing us of the new flu that was killing all these young people in the place from whence we came, and it was more scary when my beloved shortly thereafter developed a sniffle. What with my intense paranoia and the terrifying reportage on every website, I insisted we spend two days sitting in a seedy motel, taking our temperatures with a Hello Kitty thermometer which cost ten goddamned dollars yet recorded our temperatures at a steady ninety-six degrees. It was truly a long, dark teatime of the soul (for me, that is. The invalid was remarkably cheery about the whole thing), but it was only a cold that he had, and we are fine. However, all the furor, and the move and all, has limited my brain function; furthermore, most of my books are still packed away. So, friends, excuse this post, for it is budget, as budget, perhaps, as the motel in which we awaited our deaths. Here is my holiday/cross-country move reading list:1. The Magus. I have read and really enjoyed this book about four times. This time it sort of soured on me (or did I sour on it? I can never remember how that expression goes). The narrator Nicholas is, in the crude parlance of our times, a “douche.” This never bothered me before, but this time I found him sort of boring. Maybe it’s the fact that the novel, which is about a big elaborate game perpetrated on the narrator by some crazed rich people, is very mysterious and fast-paced and racy when you don’t know what’s going on, and once you are familiar with the plot you have more gray matter available to ponder how annoying the narrator is. Maybe it’s just not holiday reading. I do find it bizarre that it is on the Modern Library List (#93), while The French Lieutenant’s Woman is recognized only on the Modern Library Reader’s List (#30). The French Lieutenant’s Woman strikes me as an incredibly elegant and complex jewel in the crown of twentieth century literature, while The Magus is just kind of thrilling and has sexy twins in it. Am I being unfair here?2. The Things They Carried. Kind of contemporary for me. During my phase of reading about sad things I read a lot of novels about Vietnam, but it has been a long time since I revisited that period of American history. I thought these stories by Tim O’Brien were wonderful, but I don’t have a lot to say about them. I wept. War is awful. I don’t understand why anybody would want to send a young person off to kill people and die. We should stop having wars. Full stop.3. Garden of the Gods. The sequel to My Family and Other Animals and Birds, Beasts and Relatives. It pains to say this, but this third in the trilogy was kind of rubbish. The writing was careless and I got the distinct impression that Durrell needed to raise money quickly and decided to dash out something along the lines of the earlier successes. Although, in his defense, he probably needed the money to save a rare pink-footed equatorial mongoose, or some such. So, while disappointed with this third effort, I do not hold it against him.4. The Rise of Salas Lapham. I always wanted to read something by William Dean Howells, and now I have.5. The Bonfire of the Vanities. We stayed in a hotel in Oaxaca that had a classic example of the hotel/hostel library of books left behind by guests. Most of the books are in Dutch or German, the ones in English either have something to do with the Dalai Lama, or are by James Michener, or are a Tom Wolfe novel with the first sixty-three pages ripped out. I’ve read this before so I wasn’t worried about the first sixty-three pages, but I did miss them once I had gotten underway. I really get a kick out of Tom Wolfe. Everyone is reprehensible and there is no justice, but he doesn’t make me feel sad. Possibly contributing to the downfall of civilization, but super holiday reading.
In early 2002, the mogul for whom I worked began reimagining his prize property, The Atlantic Monthly. For a few weeks, I and other David Bradley employees at The Advisory Board Company received emails asking how The Atlantic might be improved. Would expanded political coverage make us more likely to subscribe? How about an expanded travel section? And: Could we recommend a witty British essayist to round out the list of contributors? (I’m pleased to say I botched this last question, and so can claim no credit for Christopher Hitchens.)Indeed, for a while, I wanted nothing to do with The Atlantic at all. Though the changes inaugurated that year improved the circulation numbers, they seemed to me to damage The Atlantic’s brand. The palpable rightward lurch; the proliferation of infographics, polls, and lifestyle coverage for the country-club set; and especially the breathless editorial hooks – “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” “Was Rumsfeld Right?” “Is Feminism Bad for Women?” – had made this intellectual institution everything it once wasn’t. While reading an article pegged to season five of The Wire, I could practically hear cut-and-paste mouseclicks turning good reporting into vacuous bloviating. (The Wire’s chief offense? It’s fiction!)It was around this point that I began to toy with an essay called, “Is The Atlantic Monthly the Death of Journalism?”The most telling weakness of The Atlantic circa 2005 – 2007, I would have argued, was the way that it had assimilated in print form a quality conventional wisdom assigns to online writing: i.e., an instinct to manufacture controversy, at the expense of common sense. This pseudo-blogginess was on vivid display in the magazine’s letters section, wherein master sophists such as Caitlin Flanagan hectored any reader who dared to point out the tendentiousness of their logic.Even as the editorial standards of the print magazine slipped, however, a stealthy inversion was happening on the magazine’s blogs, whose readership numbers soon eclipsed newsstand sales. Marc Ambinder sought some middle ground in our contentious political discourse. James Fallows and Clive Crook, freed from their editorial overlords, offered thoughtful feuilletons. And even as Ross Douthat and I got into a mini-contretemps about presidential fiction, I came to admire the high standards of logos and ethos he brought to that mire of pathos, the Internet.Now, with a new design and a new slogan, the print and online arms of The Atlantic have perhaps reached some happy accommodation. The current print issue reveals the virtues of editorial patience; Hannah Rosin’s piece on transgender juveniles, in particular, is a model of probity. By far the most interesting aspect of the redesign, however, can be found on the web. The new version of www.theatlantic.com sports a svelte and user-friendly index of the magazine’s blog offerings (a.k.a. “Voices”). Moreover, the central panel of the homepage features a rotating selection of current content, making no distinction between print and online provenance. It’s a credit to The Atlantic’s intrepid bloggers – and a nod to the possibilities of the blog as a medium – that readers won’t miss the distinction.