A Year in Reading: Scott Cheshire

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The first thing I thought of while trying to write this list was the pile of books I have not even started, that I feel guilty for not reading, or have not yet finished reading this year. I have problems with guilt. To stoke that fire, I’ll mention some books I reread (while I clearly should have been reading other books for the first time): I revisited Max Frisch’s masterpiece Montauk because while devouring Jenny Offill’s irreducible and totally beautiful Dept. of Speculation I noticed echoes between the two books. I was even compelled to write an essay about the experience. I “reread” Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood by listening to it on audio, and was amazed after I was finished to find all those voices, and accents, all that violence, and all those profoundly religious and genuinely creepy moments were delivered by Bronson Pinchot. What a reader! I had no idea. Truly a perfect stranger to me. I reread the first quarter or so of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus and once again found myself nodding off, wishing he would please stop already with the lecturing on musical theory and just get on with the story. I reread James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain only to discover I have been subconsciously stealing moves from that book for years.

I loved David Gerrard’s debut Short Century, a twisted tale of moral relativism, political posturing, drone strikes, and incest. What more could you want? Will Chancellor’s A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall knocked my socks off. Amy Jo Burns’s Cinderland made me cry and want to listen to Nine Inch Nails — at the same time, which is exactly how you should listen to Nine Inch Nails. I read Chelsea Hodson’s Pity the Animal, twice. It is quite short but huge in scope and ambition. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

2014 Homeruns: Roberto Bolano’s A Little Lumpen Novelita is impossibly good like all of his best stuff and while it comes in last chronologically (we shall see…), it leaps to the near head of the line as one of his best books. I would read Javier Marías’s “to do” lists with pleasure (then again, all of his books sort of read like deeply ruminated “to do” lists), and so I found The Infatuations, all of its secrets and obsessions, its violence and cheating, all of its murder and sex, a superb addition to my shelves. Jason Porter’s Why Are You So Sad? was by far the funniest novel of the year (and one of the weirdest, and one of the saddest, and one of the most philosophical). And the only thing that could have made Marilynn Robinson’s Lila better were if she rocked me in her arms as she read it to me as if I were her child.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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Over Here, Over There: Said Sayrafiezadeh’s Brief Encounters with the Enemy


I recently found myself compelled to revisit Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried for lots of reasons, not the least of which was reading Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s remarkable new collection of war stories, Brief Encounters with the Enemy. I wanted some context for the experience. In fact, after reading Brief Encounters…, I asked several friends and colleagues if they were asked to suggest a work of war literature, what would it be? The responses were what you’d expect: The Naked and the Dead, Catch-22, some recent examples, like The Yellow Birds, or Tree of Smoke, but overwhelmingly the book suggested was O’Brien’s. It was the first book I’d thought of, too, and so I dug around for my copy.

The first thing that struck me was the epigraph, taken from John Ransom’s Andersonville Diary:
This book is essentially different from any other that has been published concerning the “late war” or any of its incidents. Those who have had any such experience as the author will see its truthfulness at once, and to all other readers it is commended as a statement of actual things by one who experienced them to the fullest.
What struck me was how this epigraph could just as well work for Sayrafiezadeh’s book, for very different but no less relevant reasons.

For O’Brien the epigraph serves as something of a warning: beware, this is truth, but you might not recognize it. His version of war will be significantly different.

And it is.

The Things They Carried wants to convey viscerally and poetically what it was really like, over there. Which for O’Brien means disorientation, confusion, fractured sensory experienced, amorality, and a memory that cannot be trusted. Truth is entirely up for grabs. Probably my favorite story in the bunch is the often quoted and practically protean “How to Tell a True War Story,” which opens with a short, sly, and pretty bold statement: “This is true.” O’Brien then proceeds to dismantle a few presumptions regarding truth: “A true war story is never moral;” “If a war story seems moral, do not believe it;” “In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it be skeptical;” “Often in a true war story there is not even a point;” there’s plenty more. Prior to O’Brien, the mission of the war story was mostly to tell civilian readers what it was like over there, “there” being a main point. In fact, think of the mythic narrative that surrounds the “thereness” of war: from the seminal American anthem, “Over There” (here’s a colorized clip of Jimmy Cagney singing it from Yankee Doodle Dandy), to Dalton Trumbo’s award-winning novel Johnny Got His Gun, inspired by the anthem’s opening line (“Johnny get your gun, get your gun, get your gun”), to Metallica’s video for “One,” a song inspired by Trumbo’s novel, the video cut with clips from the novel’s infamous film adaptation. But O’Brien’s story decries these three versions of truth. In fact, the story closes with: “in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war.” Which brings us back to Sayrafiezadeh’s book, a dynamite collection of war stories, with hardly any war in them at all.

Sayrafiezadeh is no stranger to writing books that artfully navigate contemporary politics. His 2009 memoir <i>When Skateboards will be Free is basically the story of a kid growing up in Pittsburgh, and his strained adult relationship with his father. But it also happens to be the engrossing story of a youth spent in the Socialist Worker Party, and the best firsthand account of American fundamentalist ideological indoctrination I’ve ever read (I’ve read quite a few, I have my reasons…). What makes Brief Encounters with the Enemy such a singular book is not so much Sayrafiezadeh’s attempt at conveying what war feels like right now, but his choice of location. This is not a book about there. It’s about here, what America feels like, here, and now, while at war.

The stories are linked by way of subject and space, set in what feels eerily like your average and somewhat depressed American city (Wal-Marts and convenience stores, suburbs, city blocks, and bus routes), sometimes hilariously referred to as an “Emerging International City,” but one that refuses to name itself. That refusal lends the collection a strange sort of intimacy from its opening pages, a dreamlike déjà vu. And Sayrafiezadeh’s subject: how does a nation go about its daily business while its young men and women kill and die at war for more than a decade already? There are parades, yes, of course, like in “Paranoia,” when the narrator and his friend Roberto drive to downtown to see the 4th of July Parade: “The turnout was extraordinary,” and “[p]eople applauded, but the applause seemed to disorient the veterans.” But parades can’t happen everyday, and so for the remainder of each year, we lose our jobs, and get new jobs, house-watch for friends, and fall in love on the coffee line. All of which happens in Brief Encounters… Which is to say, we are at war and we simply go about our business. But such a state of schizophrenic complacency does have its price.

The entire collection is marked by a mix of malaise and foreboding that feels uncannily like American life right now. Uncertainty about weather and “the war” pervade these stories: “It was winter now and it was cold and the bus drivers were on strike. And the war was coming, everybody said so,” says the narrator of “Cartography;” “When April arrived, it started to get warm and everyone said that the war was definitely going to happen soon and there was nothing anybody could do to stop it,” from “Paranoia.” The sense throughout is of an anxious culture, a culture in which war looms, almost naturally, cyclically. And one that shares a kind of secondhand collective (mis)understanding, “everybody said so.” A culture in which military imagery and heroic language is appropriated by daily routine and has no meaningful corresponding relationship to its real world referent: a bus rider on a cramped bus describes sweating heavily, “rivulets ran from my armpits down my sides and collected in the elastic of my underwear. This is what it must feel like for soldiers on the transport heading to battle;” line cooks “come to the aid of another who has fallen far behind, as if in battle,” and they scald themselves with boiling water like “grenades had gone off” in their hands, and still they “continue marching onward up the hill.” In “Operators,” Wally comes back from the war “to great fanfare, that I felt undeserved,” says the narrator. “He had departed to great fanfare too — which was also undeserved.” What follows is a totally uncomfortable, and poignant, and just plain funny tug-of-war between two co-workers for the attention of the pretty office girls. Now seems like a good time to say how funny all of these stories are, and I don’t mean punch line funny, I mean tragicomedy along the lines of Bellow and DeLillo.

There is one honest to goodness story here about a young soldier at war, the title story, in which the soldier finds himself mostly getting bored: “Instead of getting in shape, I started to get fatter.” He does have a cool gun, however, so cool and creepily like a sort of militarized iPhone, that it not only shoots bullets, but tells the time and temperature too.
Plus it could kill a man from a mile away. You hardly even had to pull the trigger. If you put your finger in the proximity of the trigger, it sensed what you wanted to do and it pulled itself. Poof went the bullet, and the gun would vibrate gently, as if you were getting a call on your cell phone.
Among all the things this soldier carries — “it was the lightest thing on me.”

Brief Encounters with the Enemy does something rare in that it contributes something new and “essentially different” to the literature of war — our stories, about what it’s like over here. It’s discomfiting, and surprising, and illuminating to say the least. I’ve not read anything like it before.

Buoyant and Blue: On Jessica Soffer’s Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots

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While reading Jessica Soffer’s lush and layered debut novel, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, I was reminded of one of those sayings you hear about life: “Life is like a box of sardines,” something, something something… Sadly, I could not remember how it finished. But I was sure it had to do with some type of fish. And so I did an Internet search for quotes about life, and what it’s like, and I found life is indeed like a box of sardines (according to Alan Bennett), but it’s also apparently like: chocolates (Forrest Gump), artichokes (Thomas Aloysius Dorgan), pasta (Fellini), pudding (W.S. Gilbert), soup (Flaubert), an onion (Carl Sandburg), and a bowl of cherries (Erma Bombeck). There is a pattern here.

A favorite and more knotty take is from Jim Crace’s wonderful cornucopia of a book The Devil’s Larder, a collection of riffs and vignettes all having to do with meals and booze. In one, he ponders a lone enigmatic tin can, no label, found sitting in a cupboard: “It’s tempting just to stab it with a knife. Wound it. See how it bleeds. What is the color of the blood? What is its taste? We should all have a can like this…The choice is wounding it with knives, or never touching it again.” This gets much closer, I think, to the essence of food and our fraught relationship with it. Food is mystery. It’s sensual, decadent, delicious, and healthful — yes — but also allergy, gluttony, poison, and pain. It’s one of memory’s fastest streets, and delivers life-sustaining and death-haunted thoughts, depending. This is the food of Soffer’s story, which feels like one of Crace’s lovely vignettes, given sufficient room to grow.

The story proper belongs to Lorca, a 14-year-old girl, raised by her mother, a famous chef, and to Victoria, a recently widowed ex-chef, who has just lost her husband to cancer. Both live in New York City. Lorca is precocious in all the right ways, curious, intelligent, funny, and mature. She also wants nothing more that to crack her mother’s icy exterior — “I had a habit of asking her if she loved me. She had a habit of not answering.” She does so by worshipfully watching and copying her mother’s every move in the kitchen (a real chef in the making), oh, and by cutting her own body. In fact, the opening scene tells of Lorca’s suspension from school (and subsequent threats to send her away) because a classmate found Lorca, in the bathroom: “with my skirt high up, my tights down, my shoeless foot on the toilet seat, the paring knife to my thigh.” Lorca is a self-harmer, a cutter, and Soffer’s depiction of her cutting is admirably unflinching. There are the secreted tools she prefers, box cutters, nail clippers, razors. And yes there is blood. At one especially bad time, the poor thing looks as if “splattered with someone else’s death.” This isn’t easy reading, and there are readers who will be surprised by it in a book so sunny.

Yes, sunny. Because despite her “problem,” Lorca’s just a kid, a good kid, and so her days are also filled with thoughts of school, and what she wants to be when she grows up, and boys (she’s in love with a 19-year named Blot), and the dream of making her mother’s favorite dish, masgouf, Iraqi grilled carp.

Victoria, an Iraqi-Jewish immigrant, is headstrong and lonely, even before she loses her husband after his long sickness. This happens in the first few pages and comes as no surprise. What does surprise is her reaction; painfully in mourning, she refuses sentimentality. Unable to leave the apartment, those first few days, she is goaded by a meddlesome neighbor into conducting a cooking class in her home. Lorca finds a flyer advertising the class, and decides Victoria (for lots of reasons) will teach her the secrets of a perfected masgouf.

Like a double helix, the novel is narrated by mostly these two voices of significantly different generations, leading the reader toward what seems the inevitably heartwarming and redemptive conclusion: are Victoria and Lorca more than just neighbors? Are they family? Will a well-prepared dish fix all?

You can’t help but think of Nicole Krauss’s wildly popular novel, The History of Love when reading Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, and yet what Soffer does so well here is employ that same sort of familiar structure, while quietly undermining its typical devices. A novel about food becomes so much more than some simple story of domestic affirmation found in the kitchen (where it was waiting all along…) because, in the end, we always have Grandma’s recipe tin. Instead, it becomes a story of food’s very foundational and fluid place in our understanding of the world. Here is Victoria on her husband’s remains:

What would I carry him home in?…A shopping bag? A cashmere shawl? What could bear the weight of him, of everything he did? Nothing felt right…I couldn’t bear the thought of him like that — like almond meal, cake flour, or sand.

There is also the masgouf itself, the National Dish of Iraq, which serves not only as the object of Lorca’s mission, but enables Soffer to sneak in the undercurrent of a relevant political narrative. Soffer herself is of Iraqi-Jewish heritage, and knows all too well the story of her father’s emigration to the United States after the Jewish expulsion from Iraq. Most fled for Israel, but some chose the States, finding little community here. Or anywhere really. The Iraqi Jewish identity is a rare one. Recent reports put as little as 100 Jews left currently living there. It’s a sadly fading perspective, much like masgouf itself, a dish now impossible to cook in the traditional style. As Victoria tells Lorca, since the fish must be caught in the Tigris or Euphrates, “no one will ever eat this meal the same way again. As we did growing up. With all the dead bodies in the rivers, they’ve declared a fatwa on the fish.”

A notion like this is good warning against nostalgia. In fact, much of the book does the same: upending comfortable notions of womanhood, motherhood, and what makes for a nurturing family. What is perhaps most remarkable about Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots is the ways in which it resembles what reviewers like to lazily think of as “women’s fiction,” even as it dispels those very trappings. This is story about family and love, and how food feeds both of these, but also a story of loss and pain and the empty stomachs of those still learning how to feel. For that I find it, much like life, alive and sobering, buoyant and blue, at times dark, but only until the light fills the room.