Witch + Spy = Essayist: The Millions Interviews Randon Billings Noble

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As soon as I put my hands on A Harp in the Stars, I realized how lucky we readers (and writers) are that Randon Billings Noble not only curated this extraordinary collection, but also provided guideposts for reading.

Dubbed “An Anthology of Lyric Essays,” the book contains work by 50 authors, and offers four different forms of essay: flash, segmented, braided, and hermit crab. Among many others, contributors include Diane Seuss, Lidia Yuknavich, Tyrese L. Coleman, Casandra López, and Sayantani Dasgupta; writers we already know, and writers we need to know. The book’s subject matter covers the map of human emotions. In these distracting times, a lovely aspect of A Harp in the Stars is that you can open it to any essay, and instantly immerse yourself in a meaningful and gorgeous piece of writing.

Chief among the book’s pleasures is Noble’s introduction, a clearly written and enlightening chapter in which she notes that Michel de Montaigne may be the essay’s most well-known progenitor, but what about Sei Shonagon, a woman writing at the turn of the 10th century whose “pillow book full of what we might now call list or nonce or flash essays?” Noble walks us through Greek mythology, citing Apollo’s lyre as the root of the word “lyric,” and gives a brief history of various essay forms. She writes, “Lyric essays require a kind of passion, a commitment to weirdness in the face of convention, a willingness to risk confusion, and comfort with outsider status.”

Is there a better reason to open a book? I was fortunate to catch up with Randon Billings Noble by email.

The Millions: You write that lyric essays have the “power to soothe, to harrow, to persuade, to move, to raise, to rouse to overcome.” You say much more too! For those who have not read your anthology, can you talk about the lyric essay and how you came to it?

Randon Billings Noble: I came to the lyric essay haphazardly; I was writing them before I knew what they were. For one essay I thought, what if I used strikethroughs to show things I didn’t want to admit but were still true?  For another, I thought, what if I divide this essay into segments without obvious transitions?  Later I learned the term lyric essay and realized that’s what I had been writing.

Defining a lyric essay is tricky.  These essays rely more on intuition than exposition. They often use image more than narration. They question more than answer. But as I write in my introduction, “despite all this looseness, the lyric essay still has the responsibilities of any essay: to try to figure something out, to play with ideas, to show a shift in thinking (however subtle). The whole of a lyric essay adds up to more than the sum of its parts.”

I came up with this definition: “a piece of writing with a visible / stand out / unusual structure that explores / forecasts / gestures to an idea in an unexpected way.”  I clung to structure–or form –because it’s more discernable than other features of a lyric essay, like the use of intuition or “poetic” language.

TM: Speaking of form, I know that it is very important to you as well. Can you talk about that, and what might distinguish form in a lyric essay from that in a poem?

RBN: I’m not a poet but in my experience as a reader, the forms of many poems are strictly defined–a sonnet is very specific, as is a villanelle. The forms of lyric essays, which I’ve generally categorized as flash, segmented, braided, and hermit crab, have more latitude to them.  A flash essay can be 10 words or 1000. A segmented essay can be any length, as long as it is divided into sections. A braided essay is a segmented essay with a repeated pattern to it–but the way the pattern repeats is entirely in the hands of the writer. And a hermit crab essay uses a form already in use such as a Yelp review, or a Web MD entry.

I like the way a particular form acts as a constraint. The limits that the form imposes can help push your thinking and expand your content. It’s strange that it works that way, but it does.

TM: Creating an anthology is complicated. Can you talk about how you reached out to writers and what you were looking for?

RBN: It was a lot harder than I thought it would be! I didn’t think it would be easy, but I thought it would be more straightforward.

The idea began simply–I wanted all the lyric essays that I admired, all the ones I teach, to be in one place. I couldn’t find an anthology dedicated to lyric essays, so I decided to make one.  There were some previously published essays I knew I wanted to include, like Lidia Yuknavitch’s “Woven,” Elissa Washuta’s “Apocalypse Logic,” Davon Loeb’s “My Mother’s Mother,” and Dorothy Bedel’s “Body Wash.” But I knew there were all kinds of other lyric essays out there that I didn’t yet know about and hadn’t yet read. So, I put out a call and got more than 300 submissions for about 30 spots. It was a real challenge–and sometimes a heartbreaking one–to narrow it down.

TM: Once you had all these wonderful pieces, I can imagine that organizing them was a bear. Can you talk about that?

RBN: After a few different attempts, I decided to order them with the same strategy I had used in my own collection, Be with me Always. I went for contrast within themes. I knew I wanted to start with Diane Seuss’s “Gyre” (which begins with “When I was a schoolgirl, now and then a delicious state would come over me”) and end with Steve Edward’s “The Last Cricket.” Then I tried to have a series of waves of theme or emotion. Each wave might loosely follow the same thread of content (essays about transformation, essays about family) but there would be contrast in terms of the form (a short essay followed by a longer one, a braided essay followed by a hermit crab), etc. Most people don’t read a collection or anthology straight through, but I wanted it to have a certain flow if they did. And I made sure each essay is labeled so you know what the form is—segmented, braided, etc.—whatever “wave” you might be riding.

TM: Can you talk about the editing process?

RBN: I wanted all the contributors to keep creative control over their essays, so I did a minimum of editing. Most of the edits were copyedits that came very late in the process and even then, I sometimes lobbied to defy grammar and keep the rhythm or mood of a particular sentence or passage. Since I’ve been edited in ways that I thought were too rough or that changed the meaning of my work, I didn’t want to do that to any of these essays. If I accepted an essay, I accepted it as it was.

TM: How did you come to writing and essay writing in particular?

RBN: In some ways I always wanted to be a writer.  But my first career choice (at age seven) was to be a witch. My second was to be a spy. I feel like that played out: witch + spy = essayist.

In high school I was always bending the rules of essay writing—using the forbidden first person, starting my essay with a story or a joke. I got compliments on my creativity but points off for deviating from the five-paragraph form. In college I had more latitude, but I was still pushing the boundaries of academic writing into something more creative. It was only in graduate school that I started to see that there was such a thing as a creative or literary essay—one that did serious thinking but expressed that thinking in a way that was more personal, more human, less certain, more wondering. I read Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” and then James Baldwin and then Richard Rodriguez and then Virginia Woolf and then Cheryl Strayed (“The Love of My Life”—before Wild) and I saw I was on a particular path, part of a longer tradition. It was very exciting to be joining that larger conversation.

TM: Tell us about your reading life.

RBN: I read rather a lot and pretty omnivorously—essays (of course), novels, graphic novels, you name it. Right now, I’m finishing up a big reading project—Philip Lopate’s anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, which I’ve been discussing with a small group of fellow essayists.  It’s been great to read some “classic” essayists (Montaigne, Lamb, Baldwin, Didion) but there’s always so much more to go, including more lyric essays.

I’ve also recently read Good Talk by Mira Jacob and My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland, both of which really knocked my socks off.

TM: Did any books in particular influence your writing life?

RBN: When I was in graduate school (not yet for writing but for Renaissance drama–another life for sure!) I took a 20th-century nonfiction class as a lark and read Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That.” I was in New York, and very young, and thought it completely possible to stay forever at the fair. When I was much older, and had said goodbye to New York, I came to understand what Didion was getting at. The seed was planted. I realized this was the kind of thing I wanted to write.

Later I read Eva Saulitis’s collection Leaving Resurrection and felt that same chord of recognition. This is what it looks like to see a mind at work on the page. I feel it still when I read Maggie Nelson or Cathy Park Hong or Patrick Madden or Tressie McMillan Cottom.  I feel like I’m constantly influenced by others’ formal choices—Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Naja Marie Aidt’s When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back, Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary.  It’s a great time to be a lyric essayist.

TM: What’s next for you?

RBN: The pandemic has been incredibly disruptive to my creative life but I’m very much looking forward to getting back to writing. My next book is a lyric meditation on shadows, and I’m very keen to return to thinking about Rembrandt and Macbeth and Peter Pan and Joseph Cornell–and Bonnie Tyler.

Writing Is Thinking: Martha Anne Toll in Conversation with Ed Simon

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As both a daily reader and somewhat frequent contributor, I have long been a devotee of The Millions. In the last several years, I have also become an Ed Simon devotee. Ed’s articles in The Millions are not only fresh and surprising, they are also always about something I had no idea I needed to know. Simon is an intellectual omnivore; his essays cover an awe-inspiring range of topics.

So, I was delighted to read Simon’s quirky, wonderful, and informative new book, An Alternative History of Pittsburgh. At 182 pages, this 5” by 7” volume reads like a microcosm of American history, warts and all. The book is composed in short chapters, largely chronological, that read as both love letter to Simon’s hometown and an effort to reckon with Pittsburgh’s past—the good, the bad, and the ugly. From Socrates to August Wilson, from Uruguayan historian Eduardo Galeano (whose Open Veins of Latin America is a classic on the deleterious impacts of America ravaging Latin America) to Andrew Carnegie’s rapaciousness, to Pittsburgh’s role as an early American frontier town, to Billy Strayhorn, Major League Baseball, and so much more, An Alternative History of Pittsburgh contains gems on every page.

The book starts in 300 million BCE with a dive into the geologic characteristics that make Pittsburgh unique, and ends in 1985 with the collapse of Pittsburgh’s legendary steel industry due to globalization. In its overarching sweep, coupled with its specificity to place, this book called to mind Tiya Miles’s eye-opening The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits.

Simon sums up his feelings about Pittsburgh toward the end of book: “It must be admitted that the place is almost preternaturally charged with a broken beauty, a tinge of the numinous throughout the landscape itself.”

I was excited to catch up with Simon by email.

Martha Anne Toll: How did you come to the subject of Pittsburgh, other than growing up there?

Ed Simon: I’d always wanted to write a Pittsburgh book. When I was an undergraduate at Washington and Jefferson, I tinkered at a super-pretentious Pynchonesque exercise of a novel that I titled Fourteenth Ward, and that I imagine is still in a box in my mother’s basement. I rightly abandoned it, but I wonder if this new, slim volume is an attempt to do what I couldn’t do with that novel, even as different as the two exercises are. Pittsburgh gets very deep in the marrow of people who are from there. Folks I knew in high school who took great pride in moving to New York, or California, or wherever, bedeck their social media in black and gold on particular days in the autumn. It may sound tautological, but because I’m from Pittsburgh I had to write about Pittsburgh.

MAT: The research in this book must have been a massive undertaking. How did you do it?

ES: As with a lot of my writing—though not all— much of the research was done while I was writing the book. When writing an essay, I normally have a very narrow, circumscribed understanding of what I’m going to cover. A lot of that research is done in a traditional way, i.e., I gather the books I’m going to need, I read what I need, I assemble notes, I organize a flexible outline, and so on. For this book, each one of the chapters— which are short, discrete, and fragmentary— was like writing a type of hyper-intense flash non-fiction. I’d gather what I needed while writing an individual section. While writing those fragments I might come across a reference or footnote that pushed me to some book that I had no idea existed, and I’d mine what I could. This is true for any book, but An Alternative History of Pittsburgh is also a record of me learning about Pittsburgh itself.

MAT: How did you organize what you found?

ES: When I put together my proposal for Belt Publishing, I already had a detailed outline of all 40 chapters, with their synopses as fleshed out as possible. I knew roughly what I wanted for the structure of the book, a largely chronological collection of discrete narratives, character sketches, and thematic arguments. I hoped the relationships between the chapters would manifest an argument about the significance of Pittsburgh that was less historical or scholarly and more literary. There were certain places, people, and events I knew would be in the book—Fort Pitt, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, the collapse of the steel industry. I also had more obscure, idiosyncratic things that I wanted to cover, like the utopian colony of the Harmonists, or the 1877 anarchist railroad strike. Ultimately, about 90 percent of what I proposed ended up in the book. Some chapters were merged, some were expanded, and a few were cut entirely.

MAT: Are you a Damon Young fan? I ran into him at the 2019 National Antiracist Book Festival and was too starstruck to speak, other than to blurt out that I was a huge fan.

ES: I am! I was an avid reader of his work with Very Smart Brothas, and his book of essays What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker is simultaneously trenchant and hilarious. As a voice specific to Pittsburgh, Young is crucial in questioning the “Pittsburgh is the most livable city in America” narratives that have existed for my entire life, because he asks— and answers— “For whom is Pittsburgh most livable for?” A lot of Pittsburghers—myself included—are very much in love with the city, but white folks can be blinded to the profound inequities that endure in the city. Damon Young isn’t the only young, gifted writer in Pittsburgh right now; there’s Brian Broome whose Punch Me Up to the Gods is an amazing memoir, and Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, which has rightly been hailed as a potential future classic. Philyaw recently announced she’s leaving Pittsburgh, and I’d encourage white Pittsburghers to read and think about the reasons why she gives for that decision.

MAT: Thank you! I was gaga over Deesha Philyaw’s book and can’t recommend it highly enough. I look forward to reading Brian Broome’s. Can you talk to us about the Pittsburgh writers you discuss in your book?

ES: For a city of its size, Pittsburgh has an imposing literary history. John Edgar Wideman, Annie Dillard, Michael Chabon, Rachel Carson, Jack Gilbert, Gerald Stern, W.D. Snodgrass, and of course August Wilson. We’re overrepresented in fiction, poetry, and drama—Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, chronicling life in the Black neighborhood of the Hill District, is arguably the greatest triumph of the last half-century of American theater. Dillard is possibly the most significant chronicler of nature over the past several decades, as is Carson obviously, in a more explicitly scientific way. Gilbert is among the greatest of poets to write in the 20th century, even if he isn’t a household name, as are Stern and Snodgrass. Chabon is a singularly brilliant writer who needs little introduction to the readers of The Millions, and Wideman’s Homewood is every bit as visceral and ghost-haunted as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.

MAT: How did you come to writing?

ES: I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a kid. My first essays geared for a wider public were published about a decade ago. At that time, I was working on my PhD, and the bulk of writing that I’d done was scholarly. I slowly began to transition toward writing creative nonfiction, essays, reviews, and so on. I don’t write for acclaim, and Christ knows I don’t write for the money. I’m honored that anyone spends their limited time reading something I wrote. My essays pay for groceries, and that’s not nothing. But I saw something on Twitter the other day, where the OP asked if people would still write if they knew nobody would read their stuff, and my thought was Well of course I would. Writers write, that’s what we do—that’s what we need to do. Writing is how I organize my experience and make sense of the world; in some ways writing is itself synonymous with thinking for me.

 MAT: Can you talk about the journey from academia to your current writing life?

ES: Bluntly, the journey out of academia isn’t necessarily a choice—it’s mandatory these days, especially for millennial scholars. There simply aren’t any tenure track jobs left, the profession itself is in free fall. While I know that being a fulltime faculty member must have its faults, my impression is that many working in that role have little clue how incredibly fortunate they were to do so before the profession was in decline. I’m incredibly envious. I’d love the romance of being a tenured professor somewhere, teaching students, and writing what I write right now, but with a salary and health insurance.

MAT: Can you talk about your journey to this publisher?

I first worked with Anne Trubek, founder and publisher at Belt, in 2015 when I wrote an essay for Belt Magazine entitled “The Sacred and the Profane in Pittsburgh,” about St. Anthony’s Chapel in Troy Hill on the Northside, which has more relics than anywhere but the Vatican. This was one of my earliest pieces that was popular—Neko Case tweeted a link! I’ve contributed something at least once or twice a year since. Belt Publishing is incredibly innovative and vital—Anne has created a small regional press with tremendous oomph. She’s addressing a conspicuous absence by highlighting writers and writing from the Rust Belt and the Midwest, regions that are often stereotyped, misunderstood, misinterpreted, or ignored by people on the coasts. The sheer variety of titles and authors that Anne has introduced to a wider audience is remarkable. My proposal was for an odd, unconventional book, halfway between a history and an impressionistic, fragmentary, creative nonfiction thing. Belt has been incredibly supportive, from proposal through publication. We’ve found a lot of readers, which speaks to the work that Belt does.

MAT: Tell us about your writing for The Millions? What are your writing interests? And where do you seek inspiration?

ES: The Millions is my literary home. I first started writing for them several years ago as a freelancer when Lydia Kiesling was editor, and I’ve been on staff since 2018. Both Lydia and now Adam Boretz have been incredible editors—supportive, insightful, and tolerant of my odder ideas. Since I’ve been a staff writer, I’ve been able to write all kinds of unconventional things. I’m so grateful and fortunate to find a wide audience for essays that might be viewed as too eccentric at other sites. I cover religion and history, sometimes writing in the same fragmentary style of my Pittsburgh book. Adam has also published a lot of my pieces centered in what I studied in graduate school, Renaissance literature, high theory, etc. I’ve done literary esoterica, things like a history of footnotes, an essay on marginalia, and a rumination on breaking the fourth wall. My fragment essays have been on things like a history of the color black, or accounts of people who’ve claimed to be messiahs, that sort of thing. There’s no site like The Millions. When C. Max Magee founded it decades ago, he helped create an institution. It’s a place that’s not just focused on publishing, but that’s also focused on reading. There’s a huge difference. It’s an honor to be able to contribute there.

MAT: Tell us about your reading life.

ES: Too much of my reading life is doom scrolling, but I’m the stay-at-home dad for a one-year-old. When you’re exhausted, sometimes Twitter is the easiest thing to read. I try to keep up on the smart literary things that are published, so checking Arts and Letters Daily is a morning ritual. I try to keep in mind advice by Linda Troost, a fantastic professor at W&J, who said we should try to make sure that when we’re at the (figurative) beach, we read a book from more than 200 years ago and a book from less than 20 years ago, so we can stay grounded in history and tradition and be open to the new. One incredible benefit to working at The Millions is that their much-loved year-end Year in Reading series provides an opportunity to stay grounded in contemporary literature. It keeps me centered in pleasure reading throughout the other 11 months of the year. I try keep up with new authors, or newish authors. Since January, I’ve read some fantastic novels, including Anna North’s Outlawed, Emily Nemens’s The Cactus League, Rufi Thorpe’s The Knockout Queen, Danielle Evans’s The Office of Historical Corrections, and the return of Andrea Lee in the incredible Red House Island.

MAT: Did any books in particular influence your writing life?

ES: If I could write something as sublime as Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading, I’d be content. He’s a model for a particular type of eccentric, essayistic, exploration of esoterica, an author who can mine threads of obscure information to make an argument about what it means to be human. He writes with a light touch, humor, erudition, and most importantly pure curiosity.

MAT: What’s next for you?

ES: This has been an incredibly busy year. I’ve got two more books coming out in 2021, and a third scheduled for 2022. The first is an anthology of writing which I coedited with philosopher Costica Bradatan entitled The God Beat: What Journalism Says About Faith and Why it Matters, released by Broadleaf on June 8. We had the opportunity to work with a lot of fantastic writers like Ann Neumann, Brooke Wilensky-Lanford, Tara Isabella Burton, Marcus Rediker, Simon Critchley, Daniel Camacho, and so on. It was a tremendous honor. The second book is an art book that I’m really proud of with the absolutely amazing title of Pandemonium: A Visual History of Demonology, which looks beautiful and will be published by Abrams in October, in time for Halloween. Finally, sometime in 2022, Broadleaf will be releasing a collection of my essays entitled Binding the Ghost: Theology, Mystery, and the Transcendence of Literature. There are a few other nascent projects that I’m also working on.  

MAT: I am in awe of your productivity! Anything else you want to talk about?

ES: Thanks. When it comes to an audience for An Alternative History of Pittsburgh, I want people to know that this isn’t just a book for Pittsburghers. One of the central arguments about the book is that Pittsburgh is a microcosm of America, and in its triumphs and failures, its exultation and wickedness, its good and its bad, there is something which the city can tell us about the nation of which it’s a part. Now, when we’re finally having a reckoning with what history really means, I hope my book can in some small way illuminate how we think about the past.

A Year in Reading: Martha Anne Toll

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Pandemic, Uprisings, Election. 300,000 senseless deaths and
untold senseless misery, Black America demanding to be heard and honored, The
Election. I got COVID, was sick for a couple of months, recovered, and leaned
into audiobooks—blessedly available from our shuttered libraries—as I tried to
regain stamina. In 2020, as in all other years, books were tonic and balm,
escape, and lifeblood. I tend to group them in categories, even as categories
are both useless and limiting.

OBITUARY READS. I find gems reading writers’ obits, which I see as carrying on their legacy rather than a morbid fascination with death. A standout this year was Tunisian-French-Jewish-Arab writer Albert Memmi, who died at age 99. His autobiographical novel The Pillar of Salt (translated by Edouard Roditi) is a rich mélange of growing up poor and Jewish in the heart of a thriving polyglot city, the smells and tastes of Tunisian cooking, a young man’s thirst for education, and an interrogation of colonial oppression. I read my first Harold Bloom (I’d been avoiding him for years)—Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine—a fascinating exploration of cultural appropriation (Christianity appropriating Judaism). And while these do not qualify as Obit Reads, I’ll lump them here: The House of Childhood by Marie Luise Kaschnitz (translated by Anni Whissen), a weird and wonderful dreamlike visit to childhood, and Animal Farm by George Orwell (uncomfortably prescient).

GRIEF. This year, there was plenty to go around. I loved Grief’s Country: A Memoir in Pieces by Gail Griffin, a blunt and searing look at widowhood; Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, a deeply humanitarian approach to treating trauma through identifying how the body holds it; The Smallest Lights in the Universe: A Memoir by Sara Seager, a renowned astrophysicist who weaves her journey to find life in the outer reaches of the universe with her trail through marriage, motherhood, widowhood, and beyond.

MUSIC. I caught up with Stanley Crouch’s gorgeously written Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker. I loved the short, insightful essays in concert pianist Stephen Hough’s Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More, and the shimmering writing in Wolf Wondratschek’s Self Portrait with Russian Piano (translated by Marshall Yarbrough). I was curious to learn about iconic twentieth century pianist Vladimir Horowitz’s young male lover in Lea Singer’s novel The Piano Student (translated by Elisabeth Lauffer) and I luxuriated in the beauty of Philip Kennicott’s Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning.

MEMOIR. I found Grace Talusan’s The Body Papers an elegantly composed, intense and important memoir about child sexual abuse, growing up Filipino in America, and so much more. I was struck by the craft and power in Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary, fragmented essays about injured family and love relationships and the strains of stereotype and career. Written in fast paced, accessible prose, Sopan Deb’s Missed Translations: Meeting the Immigrant Parents Who Raised Me is a world-spanning effort to understand the parents he couldn’t know as a child. I adored poet Natasha Trethewey’s Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, a heartrending revisiting of her mother’s murder; essayist Paul Lisicky’s Later: My Life at the Edge of the World, a loving and eloquent look back at the early days of the AIDS epidemic, and poet Mark Doty’s What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life, a gorgeously written memoir organized around Doty’s lifelong adoration of America’s troubadour.

NONFICTION. I was riveted by Karen Armstrong’s deep dive into the development, role, and meaning of scriptural interpretation across the world’s major religions in The Lost Art of Scripture, and astounded by the complex communications amongst trees explored in Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World (translated by Jane Billinghurst). Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures is a gripping, turn-your-world-upside-down-and-inside-out examination of some of earth’s smallest life forms. As a scientific neophyte, I appreciated Neil deGrasse Tyson’s clear explanations in Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. And Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race, a must-read for we white people grappling with our own racism.

NOVELS [mostly]. There are too many to do justice here, but here are some I found memorable: André Aciman’s beautifully written Call Me by Your Name (gay coming of age story, movie about same) and Mitchell James Kaplan’s Into the Unbounded Night (a sweeping and absorbing investigation into early Roman Christianity as it split off from Judaism). Donna Miscolta’s linked short story collection, Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories, manages to be both light and serious in its treatment of a young Mexican immigrant facing prejudice that threatens her dreams. I was totally taken in by Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half (critical insights into the pain surrounding the act of passing); and Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom (in lovely prose, a scientist probes race and drug addiction and the meaning of family). Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is a marvelous celebration of Black womanhood and love; Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown is a brilliantly structured takedown of Chinese stereotypes, Andrew Krivak’s stark and stunning The Bear follows the last girl on earth; Sulaiman Addonia’s Silence is My Mother Tongue covers life in an East African refugee camp, replete with societal taboos, sibling bonds, and the mysteries of language and silence. I listened to Luis Alberto Urrea’s The House of Broken Angels which he reads in laugh-out-loud-while-you-cry astonishing family storytelling that I hated to finish. My introduction to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Sula were also through listening. In an incredibly generous gift to her readers, Morrison narrates these novels herself. I hope I can hold onto the sound of her voice forever. And finally, I read George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss for the first time. The drama! The agony! The misogyny! The biting social commentary! The pathos! Maybe I needed to wait this long to begin my love affair with her. I’m already infatuated with Daniel Deronda and I’ve only just begun.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

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What Is the Value of Being Haunted? The Millions Interviews Randon Billings Noble

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Randon Billings Noble values form as much as content. Her new book of essays, Be with Me Always, is a collection about heartbreak and memory, and, in her words “hauntedness.” Consider an essay called “Vertebrae,” which is shaped like a spine, and another, “The Heart Is a Torn Muscle,” written as a cardiologist’s report. Noble does wonderful things with form; she is a beautiful writer, fully in control of her craft. Her essays cover a wide range of subjects—a near death experience, a relationship read through the catastrophic romance of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Stonewall Jackson’s amputated arm, pregnancy, reunions, and silences. Her words are lyrical and, yes, haunting. Among the many pleasures of this collection is Noble’s take on situations that look ordinary to an outsider, but, for the individual experiencing them, are life changing. Noble is not scaling Mount Everest or courting self-destruction; she’s living a life that is as recognizable as it is engaging. And that, perhaps, is the book’s greatest allure: an intimacy that is both welcoming and enveloping.

I had the good fortune to catch up with Noble by email to talk about her process, the impact of form on her writing, her influences, and more.

The Millions: Readers are always interested in process. As we get to know you, can you talk about your writing trajectory?

Randon Billings Noble: I’d always been interested in essays and found myself looking for subversive ways to liven up college research papers. But I didn’t really know that essays could be their own thing until graduate school, and not through the classes I was taking, but the classes I was teaching while getting my MFA at NYU.

NYU taught expository writing (aka freshman comp) in a way that valued personal experience as a form of evidence. You could do research at the library, or interview subjects, or crunch numbers, but you could also use something that happened to you as a child, or an odd experience you had on the subway, or a conversation you had with your best friend to support and explore your thinking. Finally! A name for that thing I’d been doing my whole writing life; I was an essayist.

TM: Many writers have a difficult path to publication. Can you talk about yours?

RBN: With individual essays, getting published was fairly smooth. So I wasn’t prepared for the challenges of publishing a book, which was more like playing “Chutes and Ladders.” My third published essay was in the Modern Love column of The New York Times. A fancy New York agent wined and dined me so I could be her literary passion project. Over lunch at Nobu, we had what I thought was a very frank conversation about who I was (an essayist) and what I wrote (essays). I was over the moon when she signed me! I felt propelled up that one big ladder that launches you. But then came the revision requests. She didn’t want an essay collection; she wanted a memoir. I tried to rearrange the essays more chronologically—but ultimately I couldn’t —wouldn’t—tear out the structures of my individual essays to make a full-length memoir. So my agent and I broke up. Then I was down the long chute that dumps you back to the start of the game.

At the time I was heartbroken. But it turned out to be a very, very good thing. I kept writing essays. I grew as a writer. I reshaped my collection. All the shorter chutes and ladders, the successes and rejections, made Be with Me Always a better book. I submitted it to independent and university presses and was thrilled when the University of Nebraska Press accepted it.

TM: The essay is an art form, and you’re very interested in form. What kind of impact does form have on your book?

RBN: I love traditional essays—if there is such a thing—essays that use narrative, that bring the reader along a consistent if sometimes meandering train of thought. I started writing in different forms without realizing this was a practice. My essay “Ambush,” published under the title “War Weary from a Dangerous Liaison” in Modern Love, started out as a segmented essay. It’s about letting the love of my young life go by telling him that I had married someone else, which felt like an ambush. Each short segment was introduced by a quote from the Army Ranger’s handbook with information about how to construct an ambush—or a counter-ambush. Late in the drafting process I took all the quotes out and the sections fell together perfectly. I didn’t need the trellis or scaffolding anymore.

Later, after my twins were born and my time became extremely limited, I started writing in shorter forms. Then I started to play more intentionally with lyric essays—essays that rely on intuition more than exposition and borrow more from the traditions of poetry than fiction. I love the way constraint paradoxically confers freedom. Robert Frost, lover of metrical poetry, said: Writing without meter is like playing tennis without a net.

TM: To follow up on that, some of your work borders on poetry.

RBN: I don’t consider myself a poet…but that doesn’t mean I don’t strive to be poetic. Lyric essays often borrow more from poetic traditions—image, metaphor, rhythm, but especially form—than from fiction traditions, like scene, dialogue, etc. Traditional essays can use these techniques as well. And why shouldn’t they?

TM: That’s a great point. What would you say is the thread through your collection? You call it hauntedness; memory seems to be a through-line as well.

RBN: Memory is certainly a through-line, but that could be said for nearly all creative nonfiction. As I wrote, I became more interested in the memories you don’t necessarily want to invoke—memories that have a will of their own, that follow you, that haunt you. I started to ask: What is the value of being haunted? Many of the essays in this collection try to answer that.

TM: How did you decide to organize your collection?

RBN: I knew I wanted to begin with “The Split” [about near death experience] and end with “Devotional” [also separately published in a gorgeous edition by Red Bird Chapbooks]. I knew my essays are written in a wide range of forms and didn’t want the reader to be shocked to come across, say, “Vertebrae” (in the shape of a spine) after half a book of more traditional essays. So I made sure that some of the weirder forms happened early.

I printed out a title page for each essay that had its first and last line on it. And then I spread them all out on my dining room table and moved them around, thinking about form, thinking about content, and thinking about how the last line of one essay might resonate with the first line of the next. The essays grouped themselves into different sections—“Whatever Bed,” “Biologies,” “The Red Thread,” etc.

TM: From the references in the collection, it seems clear you read in many genres. What, if any writers, have influenced your work?

RBN: Anna Karenina is one of my favorite books. I reread it every few years and identify with a different character, a different set of circumstances, a different life stage each time. I’m sure it’s influenced my writing, although I haven’t written directly about it (yet).

Years ago, I went through a Proust phase ushered in by one of my teachers, André Aciman—long sentences, rich nostalgias. I think my writing has gotten a little shorter—and a little sharper—since then, but that desire for slowing down, for reminiscing, for expansiveness remains.

Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That” was a vector for my own essays. I read it in graduate school 20 years ago, when I still believed you could stay at the fair for as long as you wanted.

And Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life” was another vector. It showed me how you could write with rawness and honesty without being apologetic or self-deprecating or diminishing.

TM: What essayists do you admire today?

RBN: Lacy M. Johnson. The Reckonings knocks me out with its sharp intelligence.

Kiese Lamon. How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America grabs me from its very first sentence and holds me in thrall to his voice and rhythm and story.

Eva Saulitis. Leaving Resurrection strikes me as a near-perfect collection. The essays range widely in subject (from playing oboe to dissecting a dead killer whale on a beach) but the way her mind works, the way she combines the thinking of a scientist with the beauty of a poet, makes me strive to be as observant and as descriptive in my own work.

Claudia Rankine. If you haven’t read Citizen yet, get your hands on it today.

Elissa Washuta. The essays in My Body Is a Book of Rules tumble thorough a variety of forms to explore sex, race, identity, doubt, and self-knowledge.

Rebecca Solnit. After reading The Faraway Nearby, I wanted to structure my writing life to have room to think thoughts like hers.

TM: What great reading suggestions! It’s hard to talk to any writer today without asking how their art form fits into this current political moment.

RBN: Essays are more important than ever! By “essays” I don’t mean anecdotes or hottakes (although those are important too). I mean writing that slows down, deliberates, ruminates, and examines its own beliefs even as it states them. Writing that shares experiences of people from different backgrounds. Writing that explores the myriad ways we have of being human. Essays subvert a common narrative that those in power try to impose on all of us. Essays think and wonder and probe and argue and speculate and reveal. We need more deliberate thinking about how we choose to live.

TM: So true! Do you feel a feminist angle in your work, and if so, what?

RBN: Someone at a conference once told me that the only way I’d get an essay collection published was if I wrote fun feminist essays. I thought, what if I write rather un-fun, obliquely feminist essays? Which is what I wound up doing.

TM: What are you hearing from your readers?

RBN: I just got an 18-page letter from a writer I admire that was about Be with Me Always and the way some of its essays led her to think differently about her own work. Wow. I can’t wait to write back—I love a literary correspondence! Others have told me at readings that my stories about longing—especially “The Heart as a Torn Muscle”—have helped them through their own heartbreaks.

These comments are enormously heartening. Writing can be a lonely process. So many times you send work out into the world and hear nothing back. I’m so grateful when my work reaches people, touches them, and in some cases makes them think about their lives in a new way.

TM: What’s next for you? Do you have another book in the works and can you tell us about it?

RBN: Yes! I’m working on two books. The first is an anthology of lyric essays to be published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2021. The second is my next collection, which is about women, shame, and desire. An essay in Be with Me Always got me thinking about it—“69 Inches of Thread, Scarlet and Otherwise. ” There’s so much more to be said…

Memorizing and Memory: A Writer’s Estranged Cousins

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1. Memorizing
My lines disappeared. I was in 10th grade, dressed in a blue-checked gingham dress and white tights, playing the lead in Alice and Wonderland for an audience of children. I’d had memory lapses before—an embarrassing one in my piano teacher’s living room in fifth grade, the specific, awkward misery of having to begin the sonatina again. The assembled families either would or would not pretend it didn’t happen, both options mortifying.  I lost my lines in ninth grade as well, playing Lucy in You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. I was mid-song when the words atomized, but I belted out something anyway; I don’t know what.  Whatever happened that time left me unscathed.

In general, however, no memory lapses.  Not at the sixth-grade safety assembly run by a cop who held up a license plate.  When he quizzed 500 of us seated on the gymnasium floor 10 minutes later, I was the only one who could recite the numbers. I’d memorized them from boredom.  No problems either when I played Eliza in My Fair Lady the summer after seventh grade.

Alice in Wonderland was different. I stopped trusting my memory.  Betrayed at age 14, I lost faith that anything would ever stick again.  I saw my inability to memorize as a terrible weakness, and it haunted me.

Years of viola study followed. I got to the point where I could identify most any piece on any classical radio station. It takes practice, but it’s not exactly memorizing; composers leave tracks as clearly as deer crossing a snowy field. You get to know a composer’s output—Johannes Brahms left us only four symphonies (he destroyed more); César Franck wrote one piano quintet. Composers’ nationalities become as recognizable as flags. If a piano quintet sounds French, and/or has phrases that mirror those in César Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, it’s not too hard to narrow it to the right piece. And once you’ve played or performed a composition, it stays with you as surely as remembering how to walk.

To me this is uninspiring; more akin to reciting the times tables than interrogating music’s mysteries. Much more meaningful are the memories that accompany first hearing or first playing:

I’m 16, on the edge of a metal folding chair, heart palpitating, listening to five students playing in a rehearsal room too small to contain the sound.  At a music camp in Orono, Maine, I’m hearing the Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor for the first time.  I’m in an adrenaline-fueled high; I’m a jockey on a winning horse. 

I’m at my music stand in the living room of a math professor from M.I.T. with whom I played chamber music, weeping that I have lived in ignorance of the third movement to the Schumann Piano Quartet in E Flat Major. The sound covers me like a hot blanket of grief, first the violin and the cello and then my part!  The viola gets that heartbreaking melody, the one that sings to the world’s beauty slipping away, to the impermanence of love and life.

I don’t care if I sound hyperbolic; that’s what I felt. I’m not so different with books.  Ask me whether I’ve read a certain book or a certain author, what it’s about, when I read it, who recommended it to me, and I’ll answer.  But aren’t those memories somewhat meaningless?  I’d rather share the feeling I had—the breathtaking experience of reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse for the first time, of being unable to contain my excitement about Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, of rushing to complete Robertson Davies’s trilogies; the deep serenity of living with May Sarton for months on end, and the connection I felt with Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music.

For a career in classical music, recognizing any piece won’t cut it. Books, of course, are beside the point. To become a professional violist, you must memorize; you have to be able to take an audition without sheet music, an ability I lost at age 14.

And yet, I entered college with the aspiration of becoming a professional musician. For a year or two during that time, I studied with a viola teacher who tried to cure me of my memorizing deficit.  Our lessons were in his apartment on New York’s Upper West Side where he lived in an Old World space, dimly lit with lamps that must have come from Vienna in the 1930’s, walls lined with sheet music, and floors laid out in imported Persian rugs. He recommended I study the ads on New York City buses and memorize the numbers or words I found in them. Also, I should note and memorize the numbers on the rear of city buses.

Ultimately, I broke down and left music.  My departure was, to my mind, an epic failure; my inability to memorize one of the many reasons for my defeat.

2. Memory
My mother died when I was in my early 40s. Her death was sudden and shocking—a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer for a strong athletic woman who had never been sick. She was gone in the space of eight weeks.

In ways I don’t fully understand, her death unloosed my writing.  Granted, my relationship with mom was intimately tied up with books and the written word.  She worked as a copy editor and editor.  We shared a great interest in reading.  Granted too, that I had been writing all along, if writing means keeping a journal and sending snail mail after it went the way of the telegram.  Or writing memos at work.  And inhaling books.  But writing—the kind where you make a commitment and stick to it, where you attempt to take yourself seriously—didn’t come until after mom died.

It was then that I uncovered something altogether different from my memorized files of books and musical compositions.  I discovered a trove of personal memories that went back to at least age three.  Or more accurately, I found I could access those memories, which I began to appreciate as a generous gift from the writing gods. Memory is a writer’s nutrition and sustenance, her sine qua non.

The cabinets of memory I discovered after mom died were not remotely orderly.  Stashed with my memories were other people’s recollections, memories that others had forgotten but I retained.  Memories that were crammed into file folders, pieces torn off and gone missing, others like so many balled-up drafts.  There were minute details about my siblings, granular information about school lives, friends and frenemies, secrets and intimacies. Don’t ask me to recite a poem.  If, on the other hand, you want to know the name of my sister’s fifth grade teacher and what poems this terror of a teacher made her memorize, I’m on it.

I found myself mucking around in exhaustive details about my parents’ jobs; their friends’ careers, marriages, and children. Questions began arising in droves.  Why did my father talk more about work than his emotional life? Why did my mother shy away from friendships with women?  Random gossip from my early employment reared up and insisted on reinterpretation, indiscretions ranging from salacious to violent; memories that in the time of #MeToo would sink more than a few professional careers.

Writing, I quickly discovered, doesn’t thrive on memorization.  And memories that are free from doubt, anxiety, and pain are nearly useless.  Writing thrives on conflict and those  irreconcilable, problematic memories. Were my overstuffed memory files a cause or symptom of my efforts to write in earnest?  Perhaps both.

My father died last spring.  With his death, I find myself slogging through memories too large to manage.  They’re not so much painful, as awkward and uncomfortable.  They keep me up at night, in part because so many of those memories are not mine. I hear dad recounting stories about his friends and colleagues, but fewer about himself.

Like mom, my father was a creature of the written word, a highly skilled wordsmith, author of two books and countless articles on varied subjects both personal and professional (he was a trial lawyer).  He was the second of four children.  His mother lost most of her hearing during his birth. To that physical disability he credited his clear speaking voice, which became stentorian in the courtroom.  That does not, however, account for his vast vocabulary—an endless cache of words. Dad’s parents were extraordinarily intelligent, but his mother had a sixth-grade education and his father never finished high school.

Oh, but daddy could speak.  His words are emblazoned on my memory. They land on the pages I write—ubiquitous, textured, yet not easy to digest. Does anyone use the word obliterate anymore?  Does anyone ablute when entering the shower?  I doubt wifty is even a word.

Words came tumbling out of my father, huge ones, short ones, fat ones, skinny ones. He was a stickler for precision. He kept a huge dictionary behind his chair at the dining room table. If we weren’t sure of a word’s definition, he would dive into the book and demand, “Will you accept Webster’s Unabridged as a source?” He never read one of my junior high school social studies papers that he didn’t thoroughly mark up, because words matter and it’s always possible to be more precise.

Words are memories, but they are tools too, carving out bits of text from the lumpy rind of the past.  It’s a daily effort—often exhausting—to try to keep the commotion of family memories at bay while simultaneously holding onto those noisy recollections.

I see now that I’m lucky for my memory, however unruly and ill-behaved it is.  I mine it every time I put pen to paper.  It is brine for my writing, even if I’ll never fully understand it.  Wading through the chaos, I’ve learned that memory is more useful than memorizing.  I might even forgive myself that shortcoming.  I’m beginning to realize memorizing is too far removed from memory to qualify as even a distant relative.

Image credit: Unsplash/Siora Photography.

Discovering Ourselves: The Millions Interviews Well-Read Black Girl Glory Edim

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Reading Well-Read Black Girl, an anthology of essays by Black women writers, is like finding your favorite books compiled in one place and then getting to see the radiance and sorrow and joy that went into their creation. Glory Edim’s book includes work by Jesmyn Ward, Marita Golden, Tayari Jones, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Dhonielle Clayton, Gabourey Sidibe, and Jacqueline Woodson, to name a few. Each contributor offers a personal account of her literary journey, how it felt growing up without Black characters on the page, and/or the joy of finding themselves mirrored in literature. They describe how their own reading and writing weaves into their larger community stories.

Before she published Well-Read Black Girl, Edim had developed an enthusiastic following of readers who eagerly lap up her book club recommendations and participate in her annual festival celebrating literature by Black women. I had the good fortune to catch up with her at Washington, D.C.’s Busboys and Poets. Glory had just come from visiting the elementary school where her brother teaches. The students there wanted to become writers, and sought her advice on finding literary agents (!).

Glory was appearing in conversation with acclaimed DC-based writer Marita Golden. Among a lifetime of marvelous literary contributions, Marita founded the Hurston Wright Foundation, which supports emerging and midcareer Black writers and preserves and disseminates the rich legacy of African American writing. Marita’s essay in Well-Read Black Girl, “Zora and Me,” is a poignant journey through her own literary maturation:

Like Zora I lost my mother at a young age and warred with a father I loved, it seemed, more than life. Like Zora I stepped over the ashes and debris of loss and struck out on my own, carrying grief and anger on my shoulders.Zora’s mother told her to jump at the sun. My mother told me that one day I would write a book.

Marita pointed out that book clubs are part of the Emancipation story. Following the Civil War, African-American women played a huge role in keeping books in print; books were an important social and economic force.

The Millions: Can you tell us how you got started reading and writing?

Glory Edim: My parents are Nigerian. They came here in search of a better life. I think about how life could have been completely different if they had taken a different path. I grew up in Washington, D.C., and being here is like a homecoming.

After my parents divorced, my father moved back to Nigeria, and we traveled back and forth every summer. Those travels are so much part of who I am.

My mother was a huge influence. She took us to the Smithsonian museums. She would ask us to find a painting that we would like to put on our living room wall and have us talk about it. She took us to all kinds of D.C. cultural events. D.C. was our playground. She read to me every night. Reading aloud is to witness ourselves.

I went to Howard University and was incredibly inspired to be around so much Black excellence in a space that was like love. A big part of my book is trying to recreate the feeling I had at Howard.

After Howard, I worked at the Lincoln Theatre in D.C., where I saw many wonderful plays, and began to think about dialogue in novels. That work made me think about what pulls a reader into a book. What generates an emotional response? I found that it’s important to think across art forms, and study great works of art for their structures.

TM: Tell us about the origin of Well-Read Black Girl, the persona.

GE: My partner gave me a tee shirt for my 31st birthday that said “Well-Read Black Girl.” By then I was living in New York. When I wore it, all kinds of people stopped me to talk about books they loved and ask for book recommendations. The level of interest inspired me to start a book club. More than anything, I wanted to make connections and foster relationships. I saw that people in New York were craving community.

I have a special interest in debut novels. I invited Naomi Jackson to our first book club to talk about her debut novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill. She brought along her friend Natalie Diaz, an incredible poet who just won a MacArthur Genius award. Things went from there.

I was lucky to have a job at Kickstarter, which is filled with techies who read and are engaged in other creative pursuits. I was able to use Kickstarter to launch the Well-Read Black Girl Festival in 2017, which is a cultural event, meant to promote community.

Timing is everything. My work coincided with the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, and online organizing was catching on quickly. Social media is an important part of what I do. Still, there is nothing like holding a real paper book in your hand; there’s nothing like reading a book from the library. One reason for this collection is to take the conversation offline and onto the pages of a book.

TM: Readers are always interested in process. Can you talk a little about that?

GE: I read widely and deeply. I’ve always been curious about the stories of writers. Who inspired them to write? When did they first declare themselves a writer? Beginnings have a significance. In the anthology, we discover how it began for each writer.

When I read for the book club, I read both as a facilitator and as an editor. These are two different roles. I am a lover of art; I study how people put things together.

TM: How did you decide to organize your collection?

GE: I organized it according to my personal taste. I considered my own literary memories and pulled from there. The essays are meant to feel like a conversation. As I prepared to invite contributors, I returned to the pivotal work of Toni Morrison, Cade Bambara, Zora Neale Hurston, and Audre Lorde. The essays I selected are heartfelt, precise, and genuine. Whether you are 16 or 65, I want the reader to be hit with a sense of nostalgia. My hope is that the collection encourages readers to share their own stories.

TM: How did you reach out to other writer/contributors and what was their response?

GE: I had a relationship with a majority of authors—as mentors, book club authors, or fans on social media. Each contributor was generous with their time.

TM: What’s next for you?

GE: You mean beyond growing our community?

I am working on a memoir with my mother. She was severely depressed while I was in college. The whole family came together to help her. Since this was a deeply private experience for her, she is the only one who can tell that story. But it is so much about my family’s legacy that I hope to get it on the page.

I’m always reading. Have you read Dr. Imani Perry’s Looking for Lorraine? It’s about author and playwright and activist Lorraine Hansberry. It’s a must read!

A Mysterious Respect for Lies: On Éric Vuillard’s ‘Order of the Day’

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The sun is a cold star. It’s heart, spines of ice. Its light, unforgiving. In February, the trees are dead, the river petrified, as if the springs had stopped spewing water and the sea could swallow no more.
These ominous lines open Éric Vuillard’s The Order of the Day, which won France’s 2017 Prix Goncourt. Poetically translated by Mark Polizzotti, the book shines a light on the industrial titans and politicians behind Hitler’s might. With chilling precision and moral authority, Vuillard draws a straight line between the marching orders Hitler gave to Germany’s moguls, and the Anschluss.

Order of the Day opens in 1933 at a secret meeting in the Reichstag. Twenty-four scions of German industry attend, their names familiar from our washers, coffee makers, and elevators—Krupp, Siemens, Opel, to name a few. They are pillars of German society, fathers of German business:
They doffed twenty-four felt hats and covered twenty-four bald pates or crown of white hair …. The venerable patricians stood in the huge vestibule, exchanging casual, respectable banter, as if at the starch opening of a garden party.
The men trudge up the steps to wait in the palace of the President of the Assembly. They exchange smiles and “whispers between two sneezes …. nostrils honked in the silence.” Hermann Goering, President of the Reichstag, strides into the room. “The twenty-four lizards rose to their hind legs and stood stiffly,” nodding solemnly in agreement, as Goering announces that it’s “time to get rid of that wishy-washy regime once and for all.”

Hitler joins the assembly—affable and friendly. He clarifies the political situation. These men must pony up, which should be no problem since they are used to “kickbacks and backhanders”: “Corruption is an irreducible line item in the budget of large companies, and it goes by several names: lobbying fees, gifts, political contributions. Most of the guests immediately handed over hundreds of thousands of marks. Gustav Krupp gave a million.”

We are soon in 1937, following the annexation of the Saarland, the remilitarization of the Rhineland, and the bombing of Guernica by the Condor Legion. Vuillard probes the complicity of England’s elite:
Halifax, Lord President of the Council [England’s foreign minister], went privately to Germany at the behest of Hermann Goering, Reich Aviation Minister, Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe, Minister of the Interior, resident of the defunct Reichstag, and creator of the Gestapo. That’s a mouthful, yet Halifax did not bat an eyelid: the truculent, operatic figure, the notorious anti-Semite with his chestload of decorations, did not strike him as odd.
Vuillard discloses that Neville Chamberlain, England’s conciliator-in-chief, owned a number of properties in London, one of which he rented to Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s ambassador to England until 1938: “From this anodyne fact … no one has drawn the slightest inference.” Vuillard cannot refrain from voicing such opinions; he’s compelled to judge the underlying facts.

Austria’s capitulation—its citizens warmly embracing the Nazis—was instrumental to the cataclysm. No matter that Hitler’s military equipment ran into massive mechanical failures lumbering into Austria. That same machine, well-greased and powerful, became the terror of Europe, financed and fueled by its capitalist backers.

Describing the Austrian leader Kurt Schuschnigg’s reactions to the Anschluss, Vuillard writes, “The border lay just ahead, and Schuschnigg was suddenly seized by apprehension. He felt as if the truth was just beyond his grasp.” (Schuschnigg was imprisoned as soon as the Nazis consolidated power in Austria, and interned for the rest of the war.)

With the insertion of his personal voice, Vuillard’s narration echoes his countryman, Laurent Binet. Binet won the 2006 Prix Goncourt for HHhH (translated into English by Sam Taylor), an account of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by Czech resistance fighters. Heydrich’s was the only assassination of a senior Nazi official during the war. Binet narrates historical events with meticulous attention to facts. But writing in first person, he frequently inserts himself, telling the reader what he is doing and why:
I’m now going to paint a portrait of the two heroes with much less hesitation than before, as all I need to do is quote directly from the British Army’s personnel reports.
Or:
I, too, am transfixed—because I’m reading Europe Central by William T. Vollmann, which has just appeared in French.
Whereas Binet’s personal asides are distracting and self-important, Vuillard’s glisten with righteous indignation. Vuillard’s language is beautifully and economically crafted; his judgments raise crucial questions. Commenting on the chaos and failure of German equipment at the Austrian border during the Anschluss, Vuillard offers this:
We have to remind ourselves that, at that moment, Blitzkrieg was nothing. It was just a bunch of stalled Panzers. Just a monstrous traffic jam on the Austrians highways, some furious men …. What’s astounding about this war is the remarkable triumph of bravado, from which we can infer one lesson: everyone is susceptible to a bluff.
Without a sense of hurry, Vuillard brings us to the Nuremberg trials, presenting a horrifying picture of two men once at the pinnacle of Nazi power:
At the memory of [an] overplayed exclamation, perhaps sensing how dissonant that stagey bit of dialogue was with History-capital-H, with its decency, the image it conveys of great events, Goering looked at Ribbentrop and guffawed. And Ribbentrop, too, was shaken by nervous laughter. Sitting opposite the international tribunal, opposite their judges, opposite journalists from the world over, amid the ruins, they could not help laughing.
Order of the Day is a stark examination of the price of silence, the cost of sticking to the rules to keep the peace, and the human toll when ruling elites not only go along to get along, but support the ravings of a violent and vengeful leader:
We shower History with abuse …. We never see the grimy hem, the yellowed tablecloth, the check stubs, the coffee ring. We only get to see events from their good side. And yet, if we look closely, on the photo showing Chamberlain and Daladier in Munich beside Hitler and Mussolini, just before signing the agreement, the English and French prime ministers do not look very pleased with themselves. Still, they signed.
Where are we now? Order of the Day demands that that question be asked. Wealth and power grow together. What are the risks when private capital is concentrated in quantities never before seen? The German industrial complex partnered with and profited handsomely from the Nazis. We buy our coffee makers and luxury cars and cameras and telephones and gasoline from companies that eagerly availed themselves of slave labor:
Bayer took laborers from Mauthausen. BMW hired in Dachau, Papenburg, Sachsenhasen, Natzwiler-Struhof, and Buchenwald. Daimler in Schirmeck. IG Farben recruited in Dora-Mittelbau, Gross-Rosen, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, and Mauthausen, and operated a large factory inside the camp at Auschwitz, impudently listed as IG Auschwitz on the company’s org chart. Agfa recruited at Dachau. Shell in Neuengamme. Schneider in Buchenwald. Telefunken in Gross-Rosen, and Siemens in Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Neuengamme, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, Gross-Rosen, and Auschwitz. Everyone had jumped at the chance for such cheap labor.
Today, we are again experiencing a leader with complete contempt for the law. History is, unfortunately, riddled with them. Here’s Hitler’s reaction to the weakened Austrian leader meekly trying to cite the Austrian constitution:
But the strangest part was the reaction of Hitler, who stammered in turn, “So, you have the right…” as if he couldn’t quite grasp what was happening. Objections of constitutional law were beyond him.
Order of the Day looks back on a dark time for humankind, but it is also a clarion call to our current era. “Truth is scattered into many kinds of dust,” Vuillard writes. “This great jumble of misery, in which horrific events are already taking shape, is dominated by a mysterious respect for lies.”

What is the fallout from a leader whose sole means of communication is lying? Be forewarned, Vuillard cautions. Heads of state can be remarkably effective in bludgeoning perceived enemies and lying their way forward. It’s not too difficult to wreak havoc on your own people with the stroke of a pen. Vuillard suggests that if we are lucky enough to survive, it will be because the lessons of history have not been squandered on us.

Across Geography and History: On Esi Edugyan’s ‘Washington Black’

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Washington Black is a terrific new narrative about enslavement, but that description fails to do it justice. Canadian writer Esi Edugyan’s third novel, long-listed for the Booker Prize, is a multi-faceted tale that travels across geography and history. In its rich details and finely tuned ear for language, the book creates a virtual world, immersing the reader in antebellum America and Canada as well as in Victorian England.

The novel opens in Barbados, 1830, where Washington Black, an orphaned and enslaved boy, lives in brutality. “I cleared the cane, only my sweat was of value. I was wielding a hoe at the age of two.” Washington, or “Wash,” relies on Big Kit to care for him. Big Kit infuses Wash with her dream: to kill them both so that in death they can return to their Dahomey roots.

Fate, however, has other plans. The master dies—“no one grieved him”—and his nephew, Titch, arrives from Britain to assess the estate. Titch, a scientist inventor, soon recognizes Wash’s talent for drawing, derived from his great powers of observation and insight.

Wash’s description of the master’s cousin Philip, newly arrived in Barbados, serves as exquisite foreshadowing:
Across from me Master Philip stared out at the distant tamarinds, their tops bowing in the dull wind. There were red fissures in the whites of his eyes, and under the mountain’s shadow his skin appeared grey. I noticed the flaking red knuckles, so strange on a man of leisure, the mesmerizing whiteness of his teeth; I saw the oddity of a body used for nothing but satisfying urges, bloated and ethereal as sea foam, as if it might break apart. He smelled of molasses and salted cod, and of the fine sweetness of mangoes in the hot season. I eyed him uneasily.
Titch convinces his brother, the new plantation master, to “loan” him Wash. Together Titch and Wash work on experiments and Titch begins to educate Wash. Titch builds a Cloud Cutter (flying machine), in which he and Wash are forced to escape following a suicide for which Wash is framed for murder.

Since Titch has not paid his brother for Wash, Wash is in jeopardy both as an alleged criminal and as “stolen property.” Wash travels—hunted and battered—through America and Canada. Here is Wash, escaped from America but still at peril in Nova Scotia:
I was everywhere uneasy in my skin, and this made me irritable and nervous and desperately melancholy, though I could not then have expressed it so. The fear, the fear was always with me. And not just of [the bounty hunter’s] agents—kidnappers generally roamed the coast, and in the rainy, grey dusk they would stun a freed man in the street and drag him half-conscious onto a ship bound for the Southern states, to make of him a slave again.
Spoilers prevent explaining why and how Wash and Titch end up in the Arctic, but the trek is fraught with danger and thoroughly engaging. Edugyan captures the Arctic so artfully, you want to reach for your parka to stay warm:
Ah, but the cold. I dreamed about that cold for years after. It had a colour, a taste—it wrapped itself around one like an unwelcome skin and began, ever so delicately, to squeeze…. 

I had been warned … that snow was white, and cold. But it was not white: it held the colours of the spectrum. It was blue and green and yellow and teal; there were delicate pink tintings in some of the cliffs as we passed. As the light shifted in the sky, so too did the snow around us deepen, find[ing] new hues, the way an ocean is never blue but some constantly changing colour. Nor was the cold simply cold—it was the devouring of heat, a complete sucking of warmth from the blood until what remained was the absence of heat. When the wind stirred, it would scythe through the skin as if we were the cane and the wind were our terrible reaping.
This isn’t just a novelist’s flight of fancy; only a few decades after the time period in Washington Black, Matthew Henson began accompanying Robert Peary on his arctic expeditions. For over two decades, Henson, a black man, proved pivotal to the missions. He mastered Inuit and served as an indispensable physical and intellectual guide, despite Peary’s efforts to obscure Henson’s role.

More important than travelogue, however, is Washington Black’s interrogation of human attachment. Now a man, Wash struggles over his relationship with Titch. Their connection is encumbered with race and class issues, as well as Titch’s emotional baggage. Wash raises questions that are a template for examining the insanity of slavery and its damaging aftermath, even when the players consider themselves well-intentioned. Is Titch trying to be Wash’s father? If so, he is a crushing letdown. With his own selfish cares, Titch turns out to be emotionally stunted. He fails as a protector, unable or unwilling to appreciate the threats to Wash’s life. This is Wash, assaulted as he arrives with Titch in slave-holding Virginia, following their escape from Barbados:
I was so frightened I closed my eyes…. I did not know where Titch had gone to, but I understood, in that moment, the terrible bottomless nature of the open world, when one belongs nowhere, to no one.
At great peril, Washington Black makes his way to England, where he struggles to survive. In an effort to recapture his scientific past, he returns to drawing and acquires a student, Tanna, the adored daughter of a foibled zoologist/marine explorer. Tanna is a young woman who defies the stereotypes of her class and sex, and is nothing if not forthright.
“You are like an interruption in a novel, Wash….”

“I do not read novels.”

“Do not let my endorsement dissuade you. They are not all as I describe.”
Wash may an exemplar of the rational man, but the love story between Tanna and Wash is refreshing in its oddities and unconventionalities.

Edugyan is a virtuosic writer. Her second novel, Half-Blood Blues, captures the racism and terror in 1939 Berlin and Paris through the lives of two jazz musicians. There too, she demonstrates an ear for dialogue and a facility for conjuring time and place. Along with creating an entire world in Washington Black, Edugyan satisfies the ultimate demand we make of novels: an intriguing examination of unanswerable, but essential, questions.

Working with What You’ve Got: An Interview with Lydia Kiesling

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Readers of The Millions know Lydia Kiesling as its current editor, corralling an eclectic group of writers and readers into a daily book blog circulated to thousands of book lovers.  Lydia’s first novel, The Golden State, arrives today from Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s MCD imprint.  An unusually accomplished debut, the book has all the elements this interviewer reads for:  flow, language, ideas, surprises, humor, and a great big heart.  

The Golden State’s protagonist is a young mother named Daphne, separated from her Turkish husband through an immigration screw-up, struggling to support her family in San Francisco.  Overwhelmed with her situation, Daphne takes baby Honey and retreats to the family’s ancestral mobile home in rural California, the site of an enthusiastic separatist movement gunning for the new State of Jefferson.  As Daphne revisits memories from her family of origin, she faces a thousand small and large obstacles in raising Honey.  She follows a trail of longing through the fallout from America’s Kafkaesque immigration system so that she can create a family that coheres.  I was lucky enough to catch up with Lydia via email over the summer. 

Martha Anne Toll (MAT):  How did you first come to writing? 

Lydia Kiesling (LK):  I was always a reader. I had a corresponding, mostly submerged, urge to write, but I wasn’t sure how to start or what to write about. When I was 25, I decided to set up a Wordpress blog to write…something. Books seemed like the best entry point, so I started out writing short posts about books in a semi-facetious style. C. Max Magee, who founded The Millions as his personal blog and grew it into what it is today, read the posts (via emeritus staffer Ben Dooley), and kindly invited me to make the site a home for my writing.  For a long time I only wrote about books, but I was constitutionally unable to avoid bringing in personal elements—writing about my particular experience of reading—which didn’t always translate to the classic book review (there are many strong opinions about this!). I quickly started doing more writing in the category of personal essay, but I didn’t presume to give fiction a try until about six or seven years in.  

MAT:  Readers are always interested in process.  What is the genesis of your novel and how did it unfold? 

LK:  I started feeling that my available venues and structures for writing were limiting. I had a full-time job, so digging into deeply reported or researched pieces was not realistic.  I also found that some of what I wanted to explore didn’t fit neatly into an essay format—at least one that I knew how to write or sell. I saw that fiction was where you could range as far as you wanted with a particular theme, provided you put it into a story that made sense, and that’s where I started to focus my energies. I felt that the day-to-day experience of parenthood, and certain kinds of professional and political frustrations, were rich fodder for a novel, and that I might have the tools and material available to write about them in that format.   

MAT:  With your more than full time position at The Millions how do you fit your own writing in? 

LK:  I’m glad I give the illusion that The Millions is full-time, but it’s really extremely part-time! The reason I could write this book is that my increasingly urgent desire to try a long fiction project coincided with Max’s feeling that running every aspect of The Millions while doing his own full-time job and raising children was untenable—he had been doing it for more than a decade!  He offered me a position that worked out to about two hours per weekday, with a stipend that almost covered daycare for one kid (now I have two—whoops). My husband and I figured that we could make the arrangement work for a year, at the end of which I would have to either sell a book, or have a clear indication that it would happen soon. I’m incredibly fortunate that my husband had health insurance and a salary that covered our rent, and that I could mostly cover childcare with my stipend. I was writing against the clock, at a pace I’m sure I’ll never sustain again, and I made the deadline with a couple of months to spare.   

MAT:  One of your book’s most unusual aspects is Daphne’s experience with the Turkish language and her commentary about its joys and challenges.  Can you say more about that? 

LK:  I started learning Turkish in Turkey in 2005 when I was there teaching English to kindergarteners. I moved back to California after a year to be closer to my family, but I regretted not going further with Turkish, and I missed Turkey dearly. In 2009, when my now-husband and I were living in Pittsburgh while he went to graduate school, I decided that my job prospects were such that I was basically only qualified for miscellaneous admin jobs just outside what I wanted to do, so I went back to school to work on Turkish and get a Middle Eastern Studies degree.  The decision made no sense since our plan was to move back to California, but I have been able to use it in different ways.  Putting Turkish into the novel was both a form of domestic economy—working with what you’ve got—and also a way to live in a world where I used a language I sincerely love.  

MAT:  Turkish has everything to do with Daphne’s husband Engin, who is marooned in Turkey due to a green card calamity at the San Francisco airport.  How do you think of their relationship? Do you see it as a metaphor? 

LK:  I think Turkey and America have a lot in common as relatively young countries—the way our social currents affect governance, in particular—but realistically, it’s probably only a metaphor for my own sense of…regret isn’t quite the word, but melancholy that I can’t see a future when I’m going to live in Turkey or speak Turkish.  I’m losing my Turkish all the time, and I knew this as I was writing.  I was anxious not to make Engin too much of a fantasy boyfriend, life-not-lived kind of thing. That said, as someone who unwittingly followed the practice of “assortative mating”—my husband and I grew up in very different regional contexts, but our demographic and class backgrounds are similar—I am interested in other kinds of couples. Many people feel social pressure, either explicit or implicit, to marry someone from a similar background, but marriages happen every day between people who didn’t grow up speaking the same language, and where neither party will assimilate into the other’s culture—they build something new. I did hesitate about trying to portray an experience that I haven’t had. Then again, since we only have Daphne’s narration, we only hear her side. One reader was really incensed about Daphne, on Engin’s behalf. “Imagine being him, helplessly watching your child’s mother melt down on the other side of the world via Skype.”  She had a point! 

MAT: A central theme in The Golden State is new motherhood and childrearing.  Daphne’s relationship with her baby daughter Honey is at times laugh-out-loud funny, at times poignant, and always heartrending.  You were in the throes of new motherhood when you wrote this novel.  How did that affect your writing?  Was part of the challenge to protect your real-life child/ren from appearing on the pages of this book? 

LK:  I started sketching out vignettes when my eldest daughter was about six months old, and I started writing in earnest when she was 17 months old, about Honey’s age. The book owes everything to her; I simply wouldn’t have written it if I hadn’t had her and if she hadn’t transformed the way I experience time—both the huge anxiety of seeing her new-babyness turn into toddlerhood so quickly, and the slowness of individual moments with her.  I didn’t feel any angst about representing her; obviously individual parents know their individual children’s quirks, but babies and toddlers tend to operate within a spectrum of familiar behavior, so Honey is kind of an Every-baby. I was more interested in describing a particular parent’s psyche and behavior as she interacts with a toddler, not in imbuing a lot of specificity to the toddler herself. I now have a second baby, and it’s an experience I don’t seem to urgently need to translate to fiction the same way. I suppose I could worry that my babies will grow up and read the book and worry that I was miserable, but Daphne isn’t me, and her life is much harder than mine, and she isn’t totally miserable in any case. My children don’t make me miserable—the way American society fails parents of every background is much more immiserating. I love them, and I think and hope that will supersede whatever weirdness they feel if they ever read this book.    

MAT:  Novels are often about memory.  Daphne finds herself on that most personal of journeys—revisiting a critical place in her childhood.  Can you talk about Daphne’s encounters with memory, particularly memories of her mother and grandparents who are everywhere in the house to which she escapes? 

LK:  I grew up moving around a lot in a Foreign Service family, as well as visiting the same places over and over without living permanently in them, so memories of place are central to the book.  Along with the baby stuff, it was the nostalgia and love you can feel for particular places, both as the sites where you interacted with particular people, but also as their own, stand-alone forces—smells and sounds and sensations—that I wanted to get on the page.  

MAT:  Writers are admonished to be observant.  Can you talk about that admonition with regard to this heart stopping sentence:  “…observation is violence as any Orientalist knows.” 

LK:  I think about this all the time, particularly because I was in an “area studies” program both as a student and later as an employee, that has roots both in the discipline of Oriental Studies and in the Cold War-era belief that America would materially benefit from Americans learning about other languages and cultures. And my childhood in the Foreign Service was full of mythology that if you travel to a lot of places you will be more informed, more empathetic, more adaptable. There is truth to that, but the more saccharine and platitudinous version of this mythology ignores the fact that gaze is everything. Part of what has been breathtaking about adulthood, in ways good and painful, is seeing how my own gaze has been shaped by social and political forces, many of them malign. This is pertinent to area studies, but also to literature, as we see again and again in conversations that take place in the literary community. So yes, you have to be observant to be a novelist, but you also have to understand that what feels to you like objectivity or interest, or even love, can be ignorance, and can be violence. (Phrenologists considered themselves very observant!) Also, this may seem like a tangent, but women are socialized to be observant.  Observation in that sense is rarely neutral—trading observations is currency in female friendships, particularly among girls and young women, and wielding observation cruelly is part of that. I’m still not sure where the line is as far as fiction goes, but I try to keep it in mind. 

MAT:  The personal becomes political in The Golden State.  Daphne is confronted with a militant secessionist group fighting to break off from California and establish the State of Jefferson.  How did you come up with that idea?  How much did contemporary politics shape the plot of your novel? 

LK:  I started seeing the State of Jefferson signs on drives up north and east in the last few years and found them surprising, but it turns out this regional movement to create a 51st state out of part of northern California (and Oregon, in some iterations) has been around for a long time. The neo-Sagebrush Rebellion activities as characterized by the Bundys and their supporters are their own thing, but the rhetoric overlaps, and the ideological roots are similar.  So I conflated a few things in this book—I took a State of Jefferson action that took place in 1941 and gave it a kind of Malheur standoff spin. I didn’t devote a lot of the book to the State of Jefferson, but I wanted to show that something that seems to have nothing to do with you can brush up against your life in a variety of ways. I didn’t really see until recently how much Daphne’s feeling that if she can be alone with her child she can be safe, can manage her life, even though all signs point to the contrary, somewhat mirrors the belief that if people can break off and form a state that matches their politics perfectly things will just work out (again, all signs point to the contrary). 

MAT:  The Golden State begs the question:  What does this novel say about the virulent fight over immigration we are experiencing in Trump’s America? 

LK:  I wrote the novel during the Obama years and the immigration story is loosely based on that of people I know. One of many things that alarmed me then about our immigration system is that it often seems to come down to the individual frame of mind or set of prejudices of the border agent you come across. You have absolutely no power, regardless of whether you follow the law (such as it is) or not. Our immigration policy was exclusionary and difficult before Trump.  But now everything that was previously subtext is text.  It seems clear that the people in Trump’s coterie want to end birthright citizenship, and that is sickening. If they take that, they take any remaining pretense of American being the land of opportunity. The American Dream becomes Stephen Miller’s dream realized.

MAT:  What’s next for you?  Do you have another novel/book in the works, and if so can you tell us about it? 

LK:  I’m early in another book, about American efforts at soft power abroad!  But there’s no way I’ll be able to finish it before my daycare money runs out. I’ll need to rearrange, again. 

A Book for the Moment: On Helen Weinzweig’s ‘Basic Black with Pearls’

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This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

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In our current moment, a chorus of “nasty women” has flooded social media with grievances.

Unfortunately, these grievances recur with grim regularity. But even before modes of communication expanded and modernized, storytelling was the constant, the vehicle to voice oppression. Fiction has always been a means for coding muzzled, transgressive complaints.

Codes play both a literal and metaphoric role in Basic Black with Pearls, a brilliant midcentury novel by Canadian Helen Weinzweig. The book has just been reissued by New York Review Books, with an illuminating afterword by Sarah Weinman.

Born in 1915, Helen Weinzweig emigrated from Poland to Canada at age 9. She was raised in poverty by a single mother in Toronto. As a child she spent two years recovering from tuberculosis in a sanatorium—where books became her best companions—and at age 17 was reunited with her estranged father in Milan. Their meeting resulted in something close to a kidnapping, in which he didn’t allow her to leave for months, a trauma reflected in a strange interlude in Basic Black. She never saw her father again.

In 1940, Weinzweig married the most prominent Canadian composer of his day and spent her married life in service to his career. “At first Helen stuck to traditional roles of muse, helpmeet, mother of sons, housewife,” writes Sarah Weinman. Helen’s husband “was the creative force, the one whose art needed the space for nurturing. (‘Both John and I lived his career,’ she once said.)” Weinzweig published her first novel at age 58. Given her mastery of the form, it is tempting to speculate that in a different era, she might have been able to take her writing seriously at an earlier age.

Basic Black concerns a “traditional” Toronto woman, Shirley, married with two children, whose clandestine liaisons with a man code-named Coenraad take place around the world. Coenraad works for an American spy agency and divulges where Shirley can find him (Kyoto, Tikal, Montreal, Scandinavia, for example)—through a series of clues in National Geographic magazines that only Shirley can decipher.

The novel opens with Shirley’s first decoding failure. She has flown to Guatemala for an assignation, and Coenraad has not materialized. “Night comes as a surprise in the tropics,” she begins. “There is no twilight, no preparation for the disappearance of light.” She returns reluctantly to Toronto, her hometown, where she relives her stark childhood: “The city is mined, for me, with the explosive devices of memory.”

Shirley continues her quest for Coenraad in Toronto, testing the limits of her intuition. She recounts their trysts with specificity and longing, Coenraad’s elusiveness a persistent trope:
When he was in danger, he told himself, if I get out of this alive, I will never let her [Shirley] go. But of course he did. Over and over. Still, I have become accustomed to waiting. It’s not so bad: I always have something to look forward to.
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On one level, Basic Black is an exploration of relationships and their failures. Shirley’s early love for a boy named Max, for example, is broken up by his mother. Later, Shirley hears he has been injured diving and is confined to a wheelchair:
[If Max’s mother] had left us alone then Maximilian need not have broken his back and I need not have married a man who reminded me of him. Zbigniew. The fault is not his. …Zbigniew has done nothing wrong. He never breathes in my face. The fault is not his that I cannot look into his unclouded eyes, that I cannot meet the gaze that once commanded a squadron…Any agitation on my part brings to the bedroom two men in white.
Shirley considers Coenraad the perfect lover, but their relationship is not without its ups and downs:
I am forced to contrast our meetings in cold climates with those of warm zones. In countries around the equator our love is at its hottest. …Everything we eat is spiced with aphrodisiacs. We have never had a harsh word in São Paulo or Rangoon or Palermo. Nor do we speak about matters that might cast a shadow across our sun: about hungry men, dying women, disfigured children; about arrests at night and executions at dawn. …In the colder regions something goes wrong…we quarrel easily. …In Stockholm, he was so easily irked and I so quickly wounded, that he sent me to Edinburgh ahead of schedule.
Coenraad’s views on the relationship are more muted:
Coenraad said, Lucky for me I didn’t know you years ago. And I, weak-kneed and seated replied, Oh but I wish we had! My life would have been fulfilled! Exactly, he replied, you would have been fulfilled, but I would never have amounted to anything.
Shirley examines her encounters with Coenraad from multiple angles, as if she were selecting choice fruit from a market. She places her meetings with him within a broader canvas. Hearing Greek music, she wonders:
Did Theseus abandon Ariadne because he no longer loved her; or, as one legend claimed, because his ship was blown out to sea?

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On another level, Basic Black is a tour of loneliness with strong feminist overtones. She considers what happens to women who are prevented from reaching their educational and professional potential, who are forced by societal norms or economic necessity into loveless marriages and involuntary child rearing. The harsh loneliness in Basic Black resonates with Stoner’s isolation in the eponymous novel by John Williams, and with the brutal singlehood of Anita Brookner’s heroines, who lack the chance at love for which Shirley grasps.  Shirley finds herself surrounded by loneliness:
I began to notice that there were others like myself, as one with crutches is aware of those similarly crippled. I passed an old woman in a tweedless coat and galoshes with metal buckles; I passed a Chinese boy in a quilted black silk jacket; I passed a curly-haired teenager who, despite the cold, revealed nipples under a sheer blouse, I passed a man who must have just come off the boat. …There were more. We solitaries came towards one another, passed…
Basic Black also interrogates broader issues such as war, cultural displacement, fantasy versus reality, sanity versus insanity, light versus shadow. Weinzweig brings the full range of artistic tools to her writing, deploying a rich set of metaphors that resonate on multiple planes. Through metaphor she reflects the joys and heartache of human interaction, the impossibility of absorbing life’s challenges:
Music, it is said, is the perfect art. It, too, is an abstraction, at the very least, of vibrations, of wavelengths, of such and such frequencies, of so many overtones, of semitones and quarter tones; yet none of these components, as with fragrance for a wasp, accounted for the rising tension I felt as I listened to Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies…

…the music is sad, life is sad, the plight of all lovers is sad, but here we are, in the dance, the music urges us on, faster, faster, yet there is no hurry, we can dance our lives away.
In addition to these broad themes, Weinzweig layers her personal history beneath the narrative. She explores the world of her childhood—left behind—“In Yiddish a man who kills your feelings is the same as a murderer.” She considers the world of her adult, married life: “I have deduced from Coenraad’s indifference to certain domestic gestures that I have made from time to time that it goes against the grain of romantic love to bring to it the trappings of marriage. When we are together no stockings hang, no shirts drip; no water boils, no bread is buttered.” Finally, she explores the world she would have her heroine, and perhaps herself, inhabit: “After a while I felt I was walking in forbidden territory; I had a sense of danger that comes when one asks why is there no one here but me?”

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Basic Black with Pearls unfolds with the deliberate elegance of a budding flower. No spoilers here, but it’s fair to say that Weinzweig so fully immerses the reader in Shirley’s mind that it is too late by the end to question the veracity of what has come before. With this expert sleight of hand, Weinzweig delivers a masterpiece of compressed/repressed emotion. Her economy of expression is breathtaking. In less than one hundred and sixty pages, Weinzweig covers the world, while simultaneously remaining laser-focused on who and what Shirley is. Shirley, too, has a code name with Coenraad, which is Lola Montez. But as it turns out, she is far more complex and nuanced than her alter ego.

With its quiet, luminous intensity, its relentless questioning of how a woman should be, Basic Black with Pearls is a book for this moment.