Mrs. Millions thanks all of you for your suggestions. We stopped by the Borders today, and she selected Michael Frayn’s Headlong. She wanted to purchase The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, as well, but the staff at Borders was unsuccessful in its half-hearted attempt to locate the book for us nor did it appear to be on the new releases/bestsellers table, all of which seemed odd to me because isn’t this supposed to be one of the big books of the summer? Well, hardcovers are no good at the beach anyway, so maybe we’ll pick it up when we get back. That’s all for now; time to go catch a plane.
The first time I read Huckleberry Finn, I must’ve been nine, because I remember padding down the staircase one evening book in hand, and taking a left into the living room where my parents were sitting on the couch.
We moved away from the house I’m remembering when I was in fourth grade, so ten years old might be the upper limit here. I remember the book too. It was one of those editions designed to look old and expensive, with a faux-leather cover that had a padded feel to it, like the back seat of my parents’ minivan. The edges of the thin pages were “gilt,” giving the book a faintly biblical aspect.
I was walking down the stairs with the book in hand because, though a fairly precocious young reader, I’d come across a word I’d never seen before.
I held up the book, open to one of the early pages, and pointed. What does this word “nigger” mean?
My parents, I think, had not planned on doing any more parenting that day — maybe there were glasses of wine sitting on the coffee table — let alone having to carefully explain to a nine-year-old the gravity of this particular word. It wasn’t “where do babies come from?”, but it was close.
Nonetheless, and sensing, I assume, that they had better fully satiate my curiosity lest I bring this word carelessly with me to school the next day, they explained. I paraphrase: “this is a very, very bad word that white people used to call black people. You must never, ever use this word; it’s one of the worst things you can call someone.”
They did not, I note now, take the book away from me.
I went back to my room and kept reading, and eventually, some days or weeks later I finished the book.
To the best of my recollection, despite it appearing six times in the text, I never went back downstairs, book in hand, to ask my parents what the word “slave” meant.
The first of the three books I read between starting and finishing The Fortress of Solitude is The Underdog: How I Survived The World’s Most Outlandish Competitions by Joshua Davis. Hilarious. I am not sure where to begin but Davis’s interest in excelling in obscure or at times plain ridiculous fields of “sports” stems from two sources: the Ipski-Pipski stories his dad told him during his childhood (where Ipski-Pipski would overcome any and all difficulties in a very James Bondesque manner) and his mother’s undying hope that her son be best at something (she was the 1962 Miss Nevada and a contender for Miss Universe, who barely missed first spot because of a bad hairdo). So, Davis decides to overcome his shortcomings that keep him from becoming a traditional achiever (such as a high school basketball star or college football player) and get rid of his unfulfilling job as a data-entry clerk by embarking on a quest to be really good at something. Davis not only faces the challenge of finding out what he can excel in but also of providing for his wife, who is about to enroll in gradate school and considers his actions very childish. It is, therefore, difficult to see where Davis is going when he chooses arm wrestling as the first sport to prove himself in. At 125 pounds and 5 foot 9 (and wearing glasses) Davis is not the usual imposing arm-wrestler you would imagine. But despite his physique, Davis manages to join the American Arm Wrestling Team and attend the world championships in Poland, ranking 19th worldwide due and placing 4th in the lightweight category worldwide. Quite a title for a first timer, but it sure helps that there were a mere 4 lightweight contenders. Encouraged by his mediocre success, Davis pursues bullfighting, sumo wrestling, backward running and a Sauna World Championship. Through each of his misadventures Davis meets people such as celebrity bullfighter Miguel Baez Litri, sumo wrestling Yokozuna (grand champion, a title granted to only two people) Musashimaru, world-class backward runner (and inventor) K. Veerabadran, and the Swedish sauna lover Markku Mustonen, who influence and encourage him to pursue his heart’s desire. As Davis runs (at times backwards) from one outrageous feat to another, he also manages to pull his family together, please his wife and land a job at Wired as a staff reporter. The Underdog is an unusual and genuinely encouraging take on the American dream of being all you can be (or whatever you want to be) and it points out that doing ridiculous things might work after all.My second book during the Lethem intermission was Kurt Dosyasi (The Kurdish File) by Ugur Mumcu. Mumcu is a Turkish journalist murdered in 1993 (suspects still at large) whose works were very detailed and influential. I talked a lot about him during my journalism school applications, which made me want to read more of his work. Mumcu was murdered while working on Kurt Dosyasi, hence it is unfortunately cut short in its early investigative stages. The parts that were published, however, tell the parallel stories of (currently imprisoned head of PKK) Abdullah Ocalan’s life as a student, as well as his involvement in the 1970s left-wing student movements, and the government policies regarding the Kurdish population in the Eastern and South-eastern parts of Turkey in the 1930s. The documents that Mumcu presents are interesting and shocking, such as reports by ministers and minutes of parliamentary hearings that talk about assimilating Kurds to Turkish society, dispersing Kurdish clans, and replacing internal populations for the Turkification of Eastern Turkey and the Kurds. Kurt Dosyasi also draws on the government’s shortcomings in peacefully penetrating Kurdish societies and its failure to deal with the threats posed by armed militias that disrupted trade, prevented investments and threatened the newly founded republic with uprisings. Unfortunately, Mumcu was killed before tying all the pieces together and explaining the emergence of Ocalan as the leader of the Kurdish insurgency in 1984. I am sure that his work would have been invaluable in assessing the “Kurdish Issue” in Turkey and it is a shame that it is incomplete. Still, it is a great source of information and sheds some light on the wrong nationalistic policies of the 1930s that led to the creation of Kurdish discontent in Turkey. I would recommend it to all parties interested in the issue; the only drawback is that you have to know Turkish, as the book is not translated.My third and last intermission book was another one by Ugur Mumcu: Sakincali Piyade (The Problematic Private). This collection of short memoirs constitute a satirical take on life, as mostly experienced by Mumcu, in the period following the coup d’etat of March 12, 1971, in Turkey. This was the second time since the foundation of modern Turkey in 1923 that the military dissolved the parliament, declared martial law and ran the country until new elections, which, in this instance, they took place two years later in October 1973 (the other 2 coup d’etats are May 27, 1960 and September 12, 1980 – there is also a military decree issued in February 28, 1997 that caused the government to resign). Mumcu was an Assistant Dean of the Ankara Law School at the time. His leftist politics were widely know and not hidden. In the two years that the military administered the country a lot of leftists were persecuted on extremely flimsy charges. Mumcu was one of them. His bitter experiences led to Sakincali Piyade, which points at the outrageous claims made against him, as well as other leftist scholars, thinkers and activists of his generation. His memoirs chronicle life in prison, court hearings and the army. Mumcu had to serve his mandatory military service in this period and at the hands of army officials that hoped to “correct” his “thinking” during the service. The courtroom antics that Mumcu lists are ridiculous in retrospect, but point directly to the gravity of the situation in the 1970s and the sad consequences of “enforcing” democracy through the military. I would recommend Sakincali Piyade to everyone who is looking to laugh and think deeply (and do those simultaneously) about the tragic-comic situations that plague Turkey to this day. Unfortunately, Sakincali Piyade is also not translated.Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Laurel writes to tell us about a fiction contest that she’s involved with at Verb. Stories up to 5,000 words are eligible and the winner receives $1,000 and publication in an issue of Verb. The judge for the contest is Thisbe Nissen who wrote Osprey Island and once helped my friends find an apartment in Iowa City. Verb isn’t your typical literary magazine, by the way. Laurel says: “Verb is the first audioquarterly, which means that you’ll be recording your story for distribution through audible.com, and to subscribers on a CD! If you would prefer, an actor may record in your stead. Past contributors include Robert Olen Butler, Stuart Dybek, Peter Case, Julianna Baggott, Ha Jin, and many others.”
New Millions contributor Noah, who recently wrote a review of Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land and helped answer a question (see the comments) about where to start when reading Ford’s books, managed to get a question in at yesterday’s Washington Post online chat with Ford. The question elicited a fairly long response from Ford, one that name drops a pair of his more well-know contemporaries. I’m quite certain that Noah is from Brooklyn but for some reason, the Post indicated his question was coming from Queens:Queens, NY: At a Barnes and Noble reading in NYC, you said, almost inaudibly because someone was mad to ask another question of you, that one of your personal favorite pieces of your own was “Communist”, the last story in Rock Springs. Can you talk just a little about that story, what it means to you? Do you ever feel that Bascombe-mania overpowers your other work, like the dog that is most aggressive in pursuing the owner’s attentions?Richard Ford: I don’t feel like these Bascombe books overpower my other work, because they are so different from other work that I have done, and I actually value them all pretty much equally. I probably couldn’t write a book or a story without thinking at the time, This is the best thing I could possibly do.”Communist” I feel a lot of affection for, for several different reasons. One is its origin: that my friend Tom McGuane once asked me while we were hunting if I had ever written a hunting story. I told him I had never written a hunting story because I didn’t like to read them. And he said, If I would write a hunting story, he knew some guy that was doing an anthology that would probably publish it. And so I wrote a hunting story. And from that innocent little inception came a story that was much more than a hunting story. I sort of like the humbleness of the origin. And I liked the story because it let me describe something, which is something I never do, it let me describe something I specifically experienced rather than just made up, which is an enormous number of geese taking flight, which I found was a very stirring experience both to have and to write. Two other things: I was moved by the opportunity to write the final conversation at the end of the story between the narrator and his mother, which I thought was quite an intimate relationship but that maintains the proprieties of parent and child. Finally, when I wrote the story, which was in 1983 in Mississippi, far from Montana, where the story is set, I wrote the story to an end which didn’t feel like the right end although it felt like an end. And I showed the story to my friend Joyce Carol Oates, and she gave me the best advice any other writer has ever given me. She said, Richard, you need to write more on this story. Write more words. And I had to figure out what more words to write.
I had my first day at the races today when I went to Santa Anita and bet on the horses. The San Gabriel Mountains hover over the far side of the track. It’s a beautiful track and it was a good time, despite the fact that I lost some money. In fact my only winning bet of the day was a trifecta that paid $15.40. My excitment about this was much tempered by the old Filipino lady sitting behind me who was laughing her ass off at me about how small the pay off was. But it was a nice enough day at the races.
We’re back, and I’m sifting through my emails where a couple of friends have left some interesting tidbits and recommendations:Garth writes: “Europeana, by Patrik Ourednik, is one of the weirdest, funniest, most disturbing, and most wonderful books I’ve read in the last year. It’s also, as a vacation bonus (depending on how one looks at it) a shorty: a two-hour read. I heartily recommend it to your readership. Description is difficult, but an interview with Ourednik is up on the Dalkey Archive website. These guys do amazing work finding and translating literature from around the world.”And Millions contributor Andrew Saikali pointed out that Edward P. Jones was just awarded the $150,000 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his novel The Known World. Add that to his $500,000 MacArthur Grant from 2004 and Jones is doing pretty well for himself. I just hope he takes some time off from all of this award collecting to write another novel!