Lillian Li uses her past as a server for inspiration in her debut novel, Number One Chinese Restaurant. “I got a taste of the physical and emotional toll that kind of work takes; a taste of the isolation of working six days a week, 12 hours a day serving other people; an understanding of the necessary camaraderie that forms between waiters and other staff to counter that isolation,” she said.
Her debut follows the Hans family and various staff members at the Beijing Duck House, a well-known Peking duck restaurant in Rockville, Md. Food is, of course, a big part of Number One Chinese Restaurant. While praising Ann Hood’s food writing (and “especially her essay on tomato pie”), Li also cites Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Eddie Huang’s Fresh off the Boat as books about food that have impacted her life.
Li and I spoke via email about food, books, the past, and Number One Chinese Restaurant.
The Millions: I’d like to begin by asking you about your writing process in regards to creating a family saga. You balance characters as they age; you weave plots; you create entire histories that extend far into the past and point toward various futures. It all sounds incredibly difficult to me. Some writers like to draw their characters to create some kind of tangible connection. Others use charts and different kinds of sorting tools. There are probably even a few out there who wing it. I’m curious to know what your outlining process was like for Number One Chinese Restaurant.
Lillian Li: When I look back at how I wrote this book, I’m just amazed. I had no idea what I was doing, and I had no idea that I had no idea. For the first four months, there was no outline. There was no plot! There were only characters, their relationships to one another, and the restaurant. But I also knew that the relationships, more than even the restaurant, were where my interest in writing the book began (though maybe it’s better to say that I was interested in the kinds of relationships that could only exist in a restaurant like the Beijing Duck House). I think that’s why even though I threw out so many pages in the revision process, I didn’t end up cutting a single character.
Once I nailed down all the relationships in the book, I was able to work backwards. I think that’s why the multiple plotlines and character histories you’ve cited didn’t need to be outlined. The plotlines and histories came about naturally to explain why the relationships are the way they are in the present. For example, why Nan and Ah-Jack have been friends for 30 years, why Jimmy can’t stand his older brother Johnny, and so on. The trick, for me, was finding the realest-feeling part of my book and then using it as a compass for the rest.
TM: To build on that question a little, after you finished your first draft, how difficult was the edit for a novel so complex?
LL: I was fortunate to be in grad school when I started my first draft, which gave me a big pool of readers. This allowed me to write the novel almost recursively. I would write a hundred pages, show a classmate or teacher, then go back and revise. I believe that by the time I finished a full first draft, I had written multiple unfinished ones. I remember telling someone at the start that I was resigned to having to write 800 disposable pages to get to 200 workable ones. This felt less labor-intensive, though, than editing the novel after it had already been built. Then it’s a game of Jenga, where any change had the potential to send the entire structure crashing. I’m getting very nervous just imagining it.
TM: I know you worked briefly as a waitress at a Peking duck restaurant that is similar to the one in your novel. I’m sure your experience influenced your book to some extent. Did you find this experience to ever be a burden in regard to the creation and development of your novel?
LL: Brief is right! I didn’t even last a full month. At the time, I was feeling pretty weak for quitting (I mean, my mom worked at a Chinese restaurant for five years when she first came to America), and then when I realized I wanted to write a novel that took place in a Peking duck restaurant, I was even angrier at myself for not staying longer. But it was actually a blessing that I quit so early. I’d assumed the more time I spent in the restaurant, the more authoritative I’d feel writing about one. That turned out to be both true and untrue. I would be more authoritative…about the real restaurant. Not the fictional one. I think too much reality ends up suffocating the imagination. The few weeks I spent as a waitress gave me just enough information. I got a taste of the physical and emotional toll that kind of work takes; a taste of the isolation of working six days a week, 12 hours a day serving other people; an understanding of the necessary camaraderie that forms between waiters and other staff to counter that isolation. There would be no book without that kind of personal experience. There also wouldn’t be a book, at least not a book of fiction, if I’d spent a much longer time in the real restaurant. Or if I’d come into the restaurant wanting to write about it, instead of just wanting to make some money for grad school.
TM: I was struck in the second chapter by the loneliness the employees at the Duck House feel. When describing the connection between some of the workers, you write, “They were all friends, if one defined friendship as the natural occurrence between people who, after colliding for decades, have finally eroded enough to fit together.” I think this statement is so sad, but I also think it’s incredibly truthful for many of us. How prevalent do you think loneliness is in our current culture?
LL: What a good question! Whenever people say that writing is a lonely process, I both do and don’t understand what they mean. Like, yes, you often write alone, sometimes for many hours on end, and if you’re especially dedicated (I’m not), you eschew social events in order to stay home and write. But for me, without writing, I wouldn’t be less lonely. I’d be estranged from my loneliness. Or worse, I’d be ashamed of it. I think that loneliness isn’t so much prevalent in our current culture as it is universal. To be an individual is to be lonely. Writing, both the act of doing it and the act of reading it, puts us in touch with the loneliness that exists inside all of us. It shows us that loneliness might take a unique shape for each person, but no one is alone in feeling it. I’m not talking about the loneliness of being excluded by others or alienated by society, which is external and awful and should be undone, but the internal loneliness that we’re all born into. I think that kind of loneliness isn’t a problem, unless we either don’t admit to living with it, or think we’re the only ones who are.
TM: In your novel, brothers are upset with one another. A mother and son struggle to get along. Husbands and wives fight to stay together. I mean, a lot is happening on an emotional level. Still, though, there’s so much love and tenderness flowing through these pages. Was it difficult for you to love these characters after some of their decisions?
LL: It wasn’t difficult for me because if I know what compels a person to act the way they do, it softens my judgment of them. It allows me to see how I might have acted similarly if I’d been given the same set of circumstances and history. And when you write characters that are, hopefully, real on the page, that means everything they do, no matter how awful, has an underlying explanation. The bigger issue I face is whether the reader can still love these characters after their decisions. Some probably won’t. That’s understandable. What I love about fiction is how it stretches certain muscles that daily life only stiffens. Relating to someone who acts against how we think they should is one of those muscles. Some readers will be able to stretch with my characters more easily, and others will feel that stretch acutely and hate the discomfort. I know that I’ve been on both sides of that reading experience. But no matter what, those muscles have been stretched, and that’s ultimately what matters. Or so I tell myself…
TM: As I was reading, I began to notice an appreciation for the past. I love how you mention the Duck House’s history: “Before it became a restaurant, the Duck House building had been a pharmacy, a real estate office, and at least a half dozen other businesses in between.” Everything really is built on something.
I think the focus on the past’s richness is probably most evident, though, when looking at the two restaurants. The Glory is shiny and new, with fusion cuisine. It’s attractive, but it doesn’t seem to have much of a heart. The Duck House, on the other hand, isn’t very attractive: “The gaudy, overstuffed decor didn’t help. A deep, matte red colored everything, from the upholstered chairs to the floral carpet to the Chinese knots hanging off the lantern lighting, their tassels low enough to graze the heads of taller customers. Framed photos of famous clientele protruded from the walls.” However, this is the place that has heart. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
LL: Rather than an appreciation for the past, I’d say that I have an appreciation for personal history, for the accumulation of years in the same place, with the same people. I think that is ultimately why the Duck House feels like it has more heart than the Beijing Glory—it’s been around longer, and it’s built a backbone of staff that has seen the restaurant, and each other, through multiple decades. I don’t think the original owners of the Duck House, Jimmy’s parents, intended for their business to have heart. I don’t want to romanticize past generations and give them more credit than they deserve. In the end, Jimmy’s parents were driven by the same motivations as Jimmy: ambition, respect, and financial success. At the same time, by simply existing and thriving for as many decades as it has, the Duck House has accumulated a kind of priceless history. To lose that history, or worse, to throw it away, is a great tragedy. No amount of money or class can give an establishment that same density of spirit, that intangible richness, and that’s the lesson Jimmy ultimately has to learn.
TM: Since you are a bookseller at the beloved Literati, I can’t leave without asking you a couple of questions about books. I’ve really been into books about food recently. I just finished Michael W. Twitty’s The Cooking Gene and thought it was absolutely wonderful. With your novel being set largely in a restaurant, were there certain books based around the food/restaurant industry that you read for research? Or were there other books that inspired your book in some way?
LL: I didn’t read any books for research, but I have always had an interest in chef memoirs. My perennial favorite is Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. I picked it up at a used bookstore when I was a sophomore in college and have read it countless times since. Not on purpose, though. Kitchen Confidential is the book I keep in my bathroom at my parents’ house. If you have not experienced the phenomenon of keeping a book in a bathroom you only occasionally use, I recommend it! As a result of its placement in my life, I read Kitchen Confidential from start to finish every two years or so. By the time I finish the last page, I just turn right back to the first. The bravado and energy of Bourdain’s writing definitely seeped into a few chapters of my book and made certain kitchen scenes easier to access. I also loved the anger in Eddie Huang’s Fresh off the Boat. By the time I read his memoir, I’d already finished a draft of the novel, so the experience of reading Huang was more affirming than informative. I was gratified to see how many parallels Huang and my character Jimmy shared, and the similarities in their emotional landscapes. Finally, I love Ann Hood’s food writing, especially her essay on tomato pie. Her exploration of food, family, and memory very much align with my own interests.
TM: What new or soon-to-be-released books should we be reading?
LL: As a bookseller, I can’t generalize about books! I always have to ask, what else have you read? So here are the books you should be reading…
If you love explorations of the American dream transplanted in Shanghai, generational sagas, and the lives of the newly rich and confused, read What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan.
If you love trippy, experimental ruminations on the intersections of technology and the human condition, read Rubik by Elizabeth Tan.
If you love satirical, hilarious, and ultimately compassionate snapshots of contemporary black life and interiority, read Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires.
If you love atmospheric mysteries full of light and mist, dreams and omens, all set in small-town Japan, read Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan.
If you love lush, historical love triangles where history plays a shadowy, villainous role, read If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim.
If you love short story collections where every story is a contender for your heart, as well as a deep dive into the emotional depths of black boys and men learning how to care for themselves and each other, read A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley.
If you love beautiful and piercing narratives about grief, friendship, the loneliness of a writer’s life, and the love of a good dog, read The Friend by Sigrid Nunez.
As we mourn the loss of Anthony Bourdain, the Los Angeles Times remembers his impact on the literary world and the ways in which the literary establishment wanted him to ‘shape up’. A well-read chef and writer, Bourdain’s most well-known book was Kitchen Confidential. Pair with this essay on food writing.
Season three of Peaky Blinders has a sexy, comic-book, super-villain version of a Russian Duchess. She is marooned in England after having fled the Bolshevik Revolution, and her sadistic wiles drive home a moral that is central to the gangster genre: Sure gangsters are cruel, but they are nothing next to the corruption of established power. The “Blinders” may have gotten their name from the razorblades they slice into their enemies’ eyes, but their ferocity is decidedly working-class. They have to clock in every day and break not just heads but their own backs and hearts on the labor required of a gypsy family that wants to rise above its station. Meanwhile, the Fabergé femme fatale, whose secrets are way more sinister than anything hiding in the Blinders’ newsboy caps, stays clean under an enamel of imperial stateliness.
Such unambiguous class bitterness is refreshing. It’s exactly what’s missing from recent American novels about decadence. Ramona Ausubel’s Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, Emma Cline’s The Girls, Edmund White’s Our Young Man, and Sari Wilson’s Girl Through Glass are good novels, but they are all one gangster-moral short of reckoning with the 1 percent.
One way that these novels manage to be about decadence without also reproaching conspicuous affluence is by ignoring work and aestheticizing idleness. Another way is by setting the stories in a distant, socio-politically empty version of the 1970s—a world of rotary phones, full ashtrays, and irresponsible parenting that is all but untouched by Watergate or stagflation. Ausubel’s novel is about parents who accidentally abandon their children after learning they have lost their inheritance. Cline and Wilson’s debuts are about young women charmed by evil forces that nearly destroy them but somehow eventually earn the young women’s tacit respect. And Edmund White’s novel is about an immigrant’s struggle to, well, be a supermodel despite the fact that he is in his 30s. With the exception of Mira, Wilson’s bunhead-turned-visiting-assistant-professor-of-performance-studies, none of these novels’ main characters work.
In the context of our very New York-centric moment of 1970s nostalgia, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty reads like a Woody Guthrie song (albeit one about rich people)—a tall, American tale that ripples outward from New England to California and the Caribbean. Amid such well-funded homages to the dirty-real Big Apple as Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire and the TV shows that Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrmann are making for HBO and Netflix (though Scorsese’s has already been nixed), Sons and Daughters is an almost magic-real fantasy about what happens when a rich family loses all its money. In a sentence, what happens is this: Husband (Edgar) and wife (Fern) fly the coop on separate, post-traumatic vision quests while their accidentally-abandoned children (led by Cricket, a cross between Tina Belcher and Scout Finch) go native in the backyard.
Though it’s set in the 1970s—late summer of 1976 to be exact—the sources of ease and plenty are decidedly pre-’70s: Edgar’s family’s money is from steel, Fern’s is from a wicked alchemy of cotton, slaves, and sugar. Edgar’s father is an honest-to-goodness “steel tycoon” against whom Edgar rebels in the form of a muckraking roman à clef. Edgar has read Karl Marx at Yale and is thus ashamed of his father. He cares about exploited workers, though he can’t tell the difference between a steel worker and coal miner. Push comes to shove, Edgar is just anti-work. He doesn’t want to claim his patrimony not because it’s evil but because to do so would mean micromanaging balance sheets, “suffering on one side and profit on the other with a thin column of vacations between.” He mourns the loss of Fern’s slave money (which has financed the first 10 years of their marriage). Slave money is better than steel money; it facilitates ennui better, allowing Edgar to transcend the acquisitive impulse and get a long, unobstructed view of how terrible human beings are.
Fern is haunted by her wealth’s provenance. She thinks about what it means to buy and sell human beings, to parade naked bodies in parlors while ladies mill about in dresses and gloves. Fern has a heart of gold. For her we suspend our disbelief that it’s a burden to be a daughter of ease and plenty. In addition to the waking nightmares about slavery, good rich girls have to live according to such adages as “a good woman saw her name in the paper three times: when she was born, when she was married, and when she died” and cultivate the kind of beauty that is “for the purpose of enjoyment by men and envy by women.” They have to lead lives of dignified sorrow: “To prove that they were worthy of their wealth, they had all silently agreed to remain in the upper margins of unhappiness.” Poor little rich girls.
Sari Wilson’s Girl Through Glass is about an aspiring ballerina in Balanchine’s New York. It has the requisite creepy old-dude mentor who eventually destroys the girl’s innocence. It has anecdotes about how dark the heart of Russian ballet really is: a refrain about how ballerinas in the age of gaslights sometimes caught fire and died in the wings while the show went on. Wilson’s world is a world wherein Russian expatriates have helped New Yorkers develop a palate for beautiful young girls who ritually dance themselves to death. Despite the sinister quality of the enterprise, the intense, destructive labor of being a ballerina “comes as a relief” to Mira, an 11-year-old who is otherwise abandoned on the periphery of a marriage that is falling apart, sometimes actually abandoned to shop girls by a mother who disappears with strange men. Ballet is Mira’s (very costly) ticket out of reality. In such a context, she’s not surprised that the Russian Tea Room, the place where Mira first meets George Balanchine himself, serves up blood-red soup that tastes like dirt. Everything that is beautiful and rich is served up with a dose of superfluous cruelty.
The titular girls of Emma Cline’s The Girls are hardly rich, but they are Russian-duchess-level cruel. When we first meet them, en route to a dumpster dive, they are gliding through a suburban park like “royalty in exile.” They are untouched by the dirty business of doing what society expects of them, and for Evie Boyd, it’s love at first sight. The enamel in which these girls are cloaked is supplied by Russell, the novel’s Charles Manson stand-in whose imminent superstardom and fuck-the-squares philosophy is the girls’ key out of bourgeois jail (though compulsory sex with middle-aged men is the price of that key). The girls smugly, gullibly perform transcendence of ideology. They have that “vague dislike for the rich that all young people had. Mashing up the wealthy and the media and the government into an indistinct vessel of evil, perpetrators of the grand hoax.” Which is to say that the bitterness that fuels the girls’ rebellion is not a bitterness toward decadence but a bitterness toward a childish conception of “the man.” Until Russell order-66s them into coldblooded killers, their rebellion is simply an artful form of idleness.
Of course, artful idleness is pretty much the stuff of the modern novel. Sure Leopold Bloom had a job, but Ulysses is a decidedly post-quitting-time novel. And sure buying flowers ain’t easy and Big Ben strikes the hours, but Clarissa Dalloway never once clocked in. The Blooms and Dalloways of our time, Ben Lerner’s Adam Gordon or Teju Cole’s Julius, say, smoke hash and stalk “life’s white machine” and/or reboot the flânuer for a globalized present.
Such aestheticized idleness is likewise a key feature of what Nicholas Dames calls “throwback fiction,” ambitious novels set in the 1970s. Novelists are drawn to this decade because, among other things, it “lacks the unbearable, compulsory dynamism we live under” and thus allows stories to be “ruminative rather than dynamic.” It allows novelists to write 1000-page novels about a super-particular time and place (à la Hallberg’s City on Fire).
Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2012) is the throwback novel that almost bends idleness to a politically efficacious end. It relishes the slow passage of time while also illustrating the class dimension of aspiring to not-work. It’s a novel about how doing nothing can be a way of doing something profound. It’s a novel wherein a woman who gets hit by a meteorite while sitting in her kitchen becomes wise to time:
time is more purely hers if she squanders it and keeps it empty, holds it, feels it pass by, and resists filling it with anything that might put some too-useful dent in its open, airy emptiness.
This is the empowering inaction of a labor slowdown—Kushner includes one of these in the novel (specifically, a work-to-rule strike). Not working means retreating from the tyranny of the clock. For the narrator (a 22-year-old known only by her hometown-inspired moniker “Reno”), it means gaining entry to a SoHo art scene full of middle-aged men who wear “work clothes” but don’t really care about labor: Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” is an exercise in “risking men and front loaders.”
Reno’s first SoHo art project is to film limo drivers while they wait for their hires. She envies the sweaty, miserable chauffeurs: “To wait by a car and to know with certainty that your passenger would appear.” Such waiting—spoiler alert—is what Kushner uses for the novel’s climax, the pregnant moments of Reno waiting on the Swiss side of Mont Blanc to play getaway driver for a Red Brigade soldier. In short, The Flamethrowers turns waiting into a revolutionary act.
Stephanie Danler’s debut novel, Sweetbitter, takes “waiting” in a decidedly less esoteric, more pedestrian, direction. It’s the one novel I’ve read this year that takes work seriously, that balances decadence with an honest day’s work. It is, as Gabrielle Hamilton claims, the “Kitchen Confidential of our time,” but not because it is an exposé of the restaurant business so much as because the same industry people who used their shift breaks to walk to Barnes & Noble and buy a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s book in the early-2000s will be drawn to Danler’s book.
More than rewriting Bourdain for the front of the house, Danler rewrites the 22-year-old-ingénue-in-the-city plot. Where the first thing Kushner’s ingénue does when she gets to New York is make waiting into an art project, the first thing Danler’s does is get a job, waiting:
I don’t know what it is exactly, being a server. It’s a job, certainly, but not exclusively. There’s a transparency to it, an occupation stripped of the usual ambitions. One doesn’t move up or down. One waits. You are a waiter.
This is about as profound as Danler’s narrator gets, as Danler is more interested in capturing the voice of a young woman than she is in convincing us that young women are smarter than their misogynistic sponsors assume that they are. Danler’s narrator’s voice represents what seasoned server Simone calls the “gross disparity between the way that [22-year-old women] speak and the quality of thoughts that they’re having about the world.”
The novel follows a year in the life of Tess, a newly-hired backwaitress, a year of being ignored, insulted, stoned, bumped, and betrayed by the people whom she will eventually have no choice but to call family. In short, she joins the working class. She reads the rulebook, finds hidden there such compensatory pleasures as the “shift drink.” She develops a palate (and a tolerance). She burns and scars herself. She learns that the key to good service (the 51 percent) is to be “fluent in rich people,” “versed in that upper-middle-class culture” without also misunderstanding it as something worth joining. Rich people circulate “in crowds that reinforced their citizenship.” They sleepwalk through a “movie they starred in…dining, shopping, consuming, unwinding, expanding,” while the industry people are both invisible and “on a pedestal at the center of the universe.”
Reading Sweetbitter will cure you of your romance with idleness, with the first-world downtime social media engines need us thinking we love so that we will continue to generate free content. The aestheticization of idleness in recent novels reminds me of what Sean McCann and Michael Szalay, in “Do You Believe in Magic? Literary Thinking After the New Left” (2005), describe as the shortcomings of literary culture in general over the past half-century. According to McCann/Szalay, literary practitioners and scholars alike have embraced forms of retreat that started out in ’60s countercultures and have become cornerstones of libertarianism. “Dropping out” may (or may not) get you beyond the reach of forces that want to shape your consciousness and dictate your aspirations, but it also leaves to fate systemic social problems that organization and planning might redress. Enlightened retreats from solvable ills still abound in recent fiction. Which is why we need more novels like Sweetbitter, novels that don’t give decadence a pass and that suggest that clocking in (not dropping out) is revolutionary, that the rulebook can set us free.
Image Credit: Pexels/Pixabay.
I recently attended a talk in Boston given by Adm. James Stavridis, the dean of the Fletcher School — Tufts University’s graduate school of Law and Diplomacy — his alma mater (and mine). The subject was global security, and during the course of his very sobering talk, he gave a fascinating sidebar on the importance of reading novels — of stories. Among the books he mentioned were The Orphan Master’s Son, The Circle, Matterhorn, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and Station Eleven.
Stavridis has had an illustrious, globe-spanning career in the U.S. Military including three years leading U.S. Southern Command and four years (2009-2013) as the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. When we met before dinner, we quickly launched into a rapid-fire chat about books we had recently read. It seemed to me, he had read everything. Through military ventures in Haiti, Bosnia, the Persian Gulf, and Libya (among other operations Stavridis commanded was the 2011 NATO intervention that led to the downfall of the Muammar Gaddafi regime) on aircraft carriers and battleships, while serving at the Pentagon and on Navy destroyers, one thing has been consistent: his love of reading, and his need for books to help make sense of this increasingly complicated world. His exuberance for the written word inspired me to return to Boston and finish our conversation.
Marcia DeSanctis: When I met you last month, you told me you had just put down My Life in France and it had you in tears. That surprised me.
James Stavridis: Why?
MD: I suppose because you’re a four-star admiral.
JS: Well, even four-star admirals read quirky books and this is an incredibly quirky, wonderful book about discovering yourself and discovering your life. Julia Child comes to France, kind of searched around for what to do with her life, essentially. Newly married and falls in love not only with her husband but with France and with its cuisine and with its culture. The voice in the book is so authentic and so beautiful, so wonderfully rendered. And the part that really had me in tears — because everything I said to you is actually quite joyous and upbeat — is the end of the book where she recognizes that, as she hits her 80s, she cannot continue to go independently to the small home in the south of France where she had centered so much of her life. And you can feel her untethering from something that has meant everything to her.
MD: You also mentioned you like books about chefs.
JS: Oh, I love books about chefs. Who doesn’t? I love, particularly, chef memoirs. Anthony Bourdain is just fantastic, Kitchen Confidential. Or The Devil in the Kitchen (Marco Pierre White) is just fabulous.
MD: So the reason I asked to interview you was because I recently attended a lecture you gave in Boston, which was a frank assessment of the crises that are facing our planet now and the people on it. You covered it all — climate change, ISIS, epidemics, poverty, inequality, cyber risks. And then you posted a slide about novels. Can you tell me why you inserted a slide about novels and why you chose the ones that you did?
JS: Well, first of all, because reading is integral to my life. And I think, in the end, we solve global problems not by launching missiles, it’s by launching ideas. So as a tool for understanding the world and for understanding how you can change the world, I find fiction incredibly important. One that I put up pretty frequently is The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, which is a superb book about North Korea. And North Korea’s an almost impenetrable country. But through a decade of meticulous research and endless interviews and then, an understanding of the human sensibility in an extraordinarily dystopian world, Adam Johnson gives us a portrait of life in North Korea. It’s not a burlesque, it’s not satire. It is, in every sense, life in a world where everything is a half a beat off the music. It’s a gorgeous novel.
I think a second book I had there was The Circle by David Eggers, which is a world in which all of the social networks kind of merge into one. So picture Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, everything merged in one huge social network where the motto is “Privacy is Theft.” And the idea is that by complete transparency, we can transform the world. Overlaid on it is a coming of age story of a young woman who has her first job at the Circle. In the largest sense, by one of our most creative contemporary writers, David Eggers, it is a story about what we hold to ourselves, what is privacy, and what transparency can provide but take away from each of us. I think that is an enormous debate that spans the distance from Edward Snowden to Julian Assange to Chelsea Manning. It’s a profoundly important novel that helps us deal with this collision between privacy and transparency.
MD: And you think a novel has the power to help deal with it?
JS: I do, I do absolutely. In the most prosaic way, novels are stories. So recognizing there are differences in how people learn and what people want to read, for me — and I think for the vast majority of people — stories are the best way to learn.
MD: You also discussed Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
JS: Dystopian literature is very interesting. Most of it is unspeakably bleak. But some dystopian literature really is about how you come back; it’s about resilience, so I love that novel.
Station Eleven is about the world after a brutal pandemic that kills 99.9 percent of the population. And it’s a novel about choices that people make in crisis. And so the protagonist chooses — and I love this part — to become part of a wandering troupe of Shakespearean actors with a kind of ragtag orchestra attached to it, that wanders around this devastated countryside putting on plays and concerts. And think about that for a minute and what that implies about the resilience of the human spirit, about the importance of art, the importance of music, the importance of drama — all those things are powerful in this. It’s such a wonderful construct. And, at the end of the novel, they got to an airport where another band of outcasts have managed to find a way. And in the distance, they see a light on a hilltop — not a bonfire but an electric light. It’s a symbol that we can recover, we can come back. It’s a very hopeful novel.
I was just testifying with Bill Gates on the Hill yesterday, not to namedrop, but we were talking about global health and pandemics and the importance of speed and alacrity in response. Part of what can help us prepare for a pandemic is imagining how horrible the outcome would be. Thus, a book like Station Eleven helps us do that.
MD: Interesting. So in your talk, you confirmed what most of us know, that in a world gone mad or potentially gone mad, novels are these kinds of islands of sanity and escape, even ones that are difficult to read like A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.
JS: Yeah, oh, that’s an absolutely wonderful book.
MD: I agree. So explain to me, why reading matters and the importance of books, particularly fiction, in your life.
JS: Well, first of all, I developed a reading habit very early. My parents moved to Greece when I was eight years old. In those days, in the 1960s, Greece effectively didn’t have television. Certainly no English language television. So my mom would take me down to the embassy library on the weekends and I’d pick out books. And then, it became a lifelong habit and I’ve always had a book in my hand. I read constantly. I read probably 80 percent fiction, 20 percent nonfiction. And I have found through reading fiction, I understand the human condition better.
You said a moment ago that a novel is a sanctuary in the middle of this violent world. Let’s remember that occasionally, novels are also moments of violence in an otherwise very peaceful life. It can be the opposite. And so if you can think of a novel as a kind of simulator where you imagine what you would do in a stressful, dangerous situation, it becomes, I think, a very helpful learning tool about ourselves.
And, helpful to understand other places and cultures. I’ve recommended on occasion a novel about Afghanistan called The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield, which is not about the current NATO campaign, it’s not about the Russian campaign, it’s not about the British campaign. It’s about the first campaign, which is that of Alexander the Great and the Greeks’ attempt to conquer Afghanistan, which turned out roughly the same as all the other ones. And the reason is because you can drop a line — a plumb line — from 2,500 years ago to the present day in terms of the toughness of Pashtuns and their culture. And so to read a novel like that, even set in an ancient time, could help you understand Afghanistan and its place in history.
Lastly, I think novels are a way that we can explore the unimaginable. So here, I’m thinking of science fiction and fantasy even, which I think are not only entertaining but powerful in terms of how they open our minds. I’ll give you an example. Ender’s Game, which is a classic science fiction novel about a cyber force defending its world. It makes me think, “Should we have a cyber force today?” Today we have an Army, a Navy, an Air Force, and a Marine Corps. We don’t have a cyber force. But when I read a science fiction novel about the future, I think, “Boy, we’re going to need one pretty quick.” I have a lot of pragmatic, real world reasons for that, as well. But fiction can reinforce that and open up what’s often unimaginable to us.
MD: Do you believe that there is a single most important novel about conflict — or let’s say two, an old one and a new one, a classic and a contemporary — that really encapsulates the bad and the ugly about war?
JS: Yeah, I’ll give you a modern one, Matterhorn, which is by Karl Marlantes. It’s about Vietnam and combat at the micro level. It’s about a young Princeton graduate who becomes a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps and his first 60 days in combat. It won the National Book Award. It’s magnificent.
I’ll give you one from the middle period. Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, about the psychology of war, is quite terrific. All Quiet on the Western Front, a World War I novel by Erich Maria Remarque, is incredible.
For contemporary historical fiction written about a battle 2,500 years ago, I’d recommend Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, which is about the Battle of Thermopylae. And there’s a powerful line in that book, which I think is very true, which is that the opposite of fear is not courage. The opposite of fear on a battlefield is love. Because warriors in combat fight for the love of those with whom they are in combat. That’s a powerful idea. Actually, I have to give you one other.
JS: Because I’m an Admiral, I get to give you a nautical book.
MD: That was one of my questions, actually.
JS: So the best seagoing books about combat, in my opinion, are by a writer called Patrick O’Brian. He wrote a series of believe it or not, 20 novels and they’re all set from about 1800 through 1815. They follow the life and times of a British sea captain, Jack Aubrey. They are terrific. Picture Jane Austen going to sea and writing about maritime combat. They are that good. I think they may be the best writing of the late-20th century. The reason they’re not more widely celebrated is because they’re perceived as maritime warfare genre. But these are big, chewy, fascinating books about life, relationships. About a third of them are set ashore in early 1800s Great Britain, two-thirds set at sea. The combat scenes are incredibly realistic.
MD: Do you have a favorite book about the sea?
JS: I think it’s hard to argue with Moby-Dick. It’s the greatest sea novel of all.
JS: I like Don DeLillo, I liked Falling Man. I don’t lean to 9/11 books as a general proposition. I had a near death experience at 9/11. I was in the Pentagon and my office was right on the side of the building that was hit by the airplane.
MD: You spent your career up until now with the military. Do you read books that are critical of U.S. policy and the wars themselves?
JS: Of course.
MD: There are many.
JS: Oh, sure.
MD: Shattering depictions of the war, soldiers’ reality, and the aftermath.
JS: Oh, gosh, yes. Both fiction and nonfiction. I’ll give you a couple that I loved. I like Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman, just came out. I like Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. I like Yellow Birds (Kevin Powers), I like The Book of Jonas (Stephen Dau).
In terms of nonfiction, critical, I think is Fiasco by Tom Ricks — it’s harsh, but, in many ways, accurate. It’s about Iraq. Most of the really harsh books are more about Iraq, less about Afghanistan, I think because Afghanistan’s probably going to come out okay.
MD: Yes. What about Dexter Filkins?
JS: I love Dexter Filkins. The Forever War I think is a masterpiece. And you know, I signed 2,700 letters of condolence to young men and women who died under my command. And when I’m in Washington, I often go to Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery and visit with them and that will be with me forever. So I read those books partly to honor them, partly because it’s a big part of my life, partly because I feel it’s my responsibility.
MD: How do you have time to do all this reading?
JS: I stay up late at night, do it on airplanes, use technology to make it easy.
MD: I was going to ask — Kindle or hard copy?
MD: Books on tape? Do you do Audible?
JS: No, I don’t. What I do now, as opposed to going out and buying a stack of books, is I’ll read on the Kindle and then say okay, that’s a terrific book, and buy it. Like I just read Into the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides, which is a book about a polar expedition and it’s fantastic. It’s nonfiction but it reads like a novel. It’s kind of in Eric Larson style if you know his work.
MD: I do.
JS: I’m reading currently his new book, Dead Wake, about the sinking of the Lusitania. It’s just fantastic. Oh, gosh. Fabulous, fabulous writer. So if I think a book will stand up to it, I’ll own a copy of it. I own about 5,000 books and I’m trying to not own 10,000 books.
JS: Yeah, it’s a beautiful novel.
MD: I wrote my senior thesis on him, by the way.
JS: Stop it.
MD: Yes, about Aksyonov.
JS: Is he still alive, by the way?
MD: No, he died a few years ago. He’s not one of the better known Soviet-era writers. Why do you think this is an important book?
JS: Because it raises issues of ethics in command. It’s also, I think, a portrait of a really interesting period in Russian society that transitioned from the World War II generation and how they were effectively betrayed. And I think it’s also a novel about civilian control of the military. I just think it’s a very clever, haunting novel and the characters are beautifully developed.
Is it as good as [Fyodor] Dostoevsky or [Leo] Tolstoy or [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn, [Nikolai] Gogol? No. But…
MD: You have a lot of Russians on that list.
JS: Oh, yeah. I love Russian literature.
MD: If you met Vladimir Putin, what would you suggest he read?
JS: I’d start — and I’m sure he’s read a lot of the — well, actually, no, he was a KGB Colonel, so maybe not. He’s certainly not from the intelligentsia, he’s from the thugocracy.
JS: Thugocracy, absolutely. I think I’d start him on Dead Souls by Gogol because it’s such an absurdist novel and it’s about trying to grasp power and watching it slip through your fingers. I’d probably force him to read The Brothers Karamazov and focus on the Grand Inquisitor scene. But you know what he’d say back to me? He’d say, “Okay, I’ll read those, but, Stavridis, if you want to understand how tough Russians are and why your sanctions aren’t going to work, read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn. And so I think we could have a lively conversation about the motifs of Russian literature.
MD: Fair enough. You also included one of my favorites, The Good Soldier Svejk. What does that book teach you about command? Not much, right?
JS: No, not much at all. Another terrific novel — I forget if it was on my list, I think it was, is called One Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko. You should stop everything you’re doing and read this book.
MD: Really? Why?
JS: If you like Russia and you’re interested in this topic, it’s about a Russian conscript fighting in Chechnya in the 1980s. It’s an inside look at the Russian military and its extraordinary dysfunctionality and the cruelty of its counter-insurgency technique, which led, obviously, to the complete disasters there. I mean, it makes the U.S. performance in Vietnam look like an Olympic gold medal by comparison. It’s a powerful, powerful book.
MD: I noticed you had Anne Applebaum’s book on the list, which I thought was really a masterpiece. I mean…
MD: Gulag: A History, yes.
JS: Yeah, it’s a brilliant book.
MD: Of all the global concerns now — and there are many — what do you think is the most fertile ground for future literature?
JS: Of what’s happening now, I think it’s the Arab Spring, which the term itself has become this sort of grand irony. But I think what’s happening in the Arab world today is a lot like the Reformation, which ripped apart the Christian faith, created the wars between Protestants and Catholics, destroyed a third of the population of Europe. It led to, among other things, William Shakespeare’s plays, Martin Luther’s writing. So I think the big muscle movement is in the Arab world and I think those novels are being written. They’ll have to be translated. They’ll start to come out, though. But the searing quality of what’s happening in that part of the world, I think, will unfortunately lend itself to a dark vein of fiction going forward. I think another place is India, and I love contemporary Indian fiction.
MD: Name a few that you love.
JS: The Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga, and even better is White Tiger. I like Salman Rushdie. He’s a little dense and somewhat impenetrable. I like — I forget his name. Sea of Poppies is his best book. It’s fantastic. It’s historical fiction set, oh, probably 200 years ago. Hang on, let’s see. [Looks it up on iPad] Yeah, Amitav Ghosh. Sea of Poppies. So there’s a few. But I think Indian literature will lend itself to big, big novels coming out.
The United States will continue to produce, I think, terrific novels from young novelists and from old novelists. Can there be a better writer alive today than Cormac McCarthy, who’s 80-plus years old and keeps writing these masterpieces one after the other? It’s unbelievable.
MD: It is.
JS: And we have brilliant, brilliant young writers, certainly in the English speaking world — this novel, The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton) She’s a New Zealander, youngest person to ever win the Man-Booker Prize. And the book is just — oh, my God, it’s magnificent. It’s just unstoppable.
MD: Tell me what you like about it.
JS: I love it because it’s so complicated and the fit and finish of it are just extraordinary as a technical accomplishment. Secondly, it is about a fascinating period in the Gold Rush in New Zealand in the 1850s. And thirdly, the characters in it are so both crisply drawn but feel like they’re just from contemporary life. They feel like they have walked in from people you know. It’s really good. I’ll tell you, it’s like Cold Mountain, which I know you’ve read, by Charles Frazier. It’s that good.
MD: That’s a good war book.
JS: It is a good war book a book that shows both sides of it, with the coming home piece, too.
MD: I wanted to get some final thoughts about some of the books you highlighted in your talk in Boston (Matterhorn, The Orphan Master’s Son, Station Eleven, The Circle). Is this the literature of hope or is it the literature of despair about the world we live in now?
JS: What we hope from our writers is that they give us both. Despair’s part of the human condition as is joy and hope and love. And there are wonderful novels on both sides. And as I look back at literature over the ages, I think that’s largely been the case. I think you go back to Voltaire writing in the midst of the French Revolution, the world’s collapsing. I mean, the world is on fire. It’s really falling apart. We like to act like the world’s falling apart. It’s actually not. It’s actually going to hold together and it’s getting better. And that’s hard to see in the thicket of the day-to-day anguish over — justifiably — over Syria and the Ukraine and people flying airplanes into the side of mountains. But if you really rise your head above it and you look at violence in the world, levels of war, we’re better than we’ve ever been. Fewer people are killed in war, fewer people die of pestilence. We’re getting better by really any conceivable metric.
So back to Voltaire. He’s writing in a world that really is on fire. What’s the novel he writes? Candide. You know? “I must tend my garden.” It’s pretty terrific. And that’s a book I read once every year or two. And you know, there are those who say, “Oh, it was all a big satire and you know, he’s actually debunking the theory of optimism.” I don’t think so. I think Candide is a book of optimism and a book of hope from a guy who was very cynical. But I think in his heart, he felt like the outcome of this revolution and everything that was falling apart would eventually be a better world, and I think we’re getting there.
MD: Anything you’re looking forward to?
JS: Well, I wake up every morning hoping that this will be the day that Hilary Mantel’s third volume comes out after Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. I love Hilary Mantel because she’s a brilliant writer. But what I love about the trilogy is the reversal of character in which Thomas Cromwell, always portrayed as the villain, is suddenly the hero. And Sir Thomas More, the saintly Thomas More, is the insufferable prig. And I find it a to be a powerful piece of fiction because it reimagines the world. Because no one knows. No one knows. I mean, that was 400 years ago and no one knows.
MD: Last question. Do you have a favorite movie about the Navy?
JS: The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial by a country mile.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
August is the only month the name of which is an adjective. But is August august? There’s nothing majestic or venerable about it. It’s sultry and lazy. It’s the height of the dog days, over which the dog star, Sirius, was said to reign with a malignity that brought on lassitude, disease, and madness. “These are strange and breathless days, the dog days,” promises the opening of Tuck Everlasting, “when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after.”
It’s not only the heat that can drive you mad; it’s the idleness. Without something to keep you occupied, there’s a danger your thoughts and actions will fall out of order. It was during the dog days of August that W.G. Sebald set out on a walking tour in the east of England in The Rings of Saturn, “in the hopes of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.” He couldn’t just enjoy his freedom; he became preoccupied by it, and by the “paralyzing horror” of the “traces of destruction” his leisured observation opened his eyes to. It strikes him as no coincidence at all that the following August he checked into a local hospital “in a state of almost total immobility.”
What evil can restlessness gin up in August? “Wars begin in August,” Benny Profane declares in Pynchon’s V. The First World War, one of modernity’s more thorough examples of the human instinct for destruction, was kicked off in late June with two shots in Sarajevo, but it was only after a month of failed diplomacy that, as the title of Barbara Tuchman’s definitive history of the war’s beginning described them, The Guns of August began to fire. “In the month of August, 1914,” she wrote, “there was something looming, inescapable, universal that involved us all. Something in that awful gulf between perfect plans and fallible men.” In some editions, The Guns of August was called August 1914, the same title Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn used for his own book on the beginning of the war, a novel about the calamitous Battle of Tannenberg that exposed the rot under the tsar and helped bring on the years of Russian revolution.
Not everyone is idle or evil in August. Many stay behind as the cities empty out in the heat, as Barbara Pym reminds us in Excellent Women, the best known of her witty and modestly willful novels of spinsters and others left out of the plots novelists usually concern themselves with. “‘Thank goodness some of one’s friends are unfashionable enough to be in town in August,’” William Caldicote says to Mildred Lathbury when he sees her on the street toward the end of the month. “‘No, I think there are a good many people who have to stay in London in August,’” she replies, “remembering the bus queues and the patient line of people moving with their trays in the great cafeteria.”
Put your idleness, if you’re fortunate enough to have some, to good use with these suggested August readings:
The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons by John Wesley Powell (1875)
What better use for idleness than an appreciation of someone else’s industry? In this case, the laconic record of the dramatic first expedition through the unknown dangers of the Grand Canyon by the one-armed geology professor who led it in the summer of 1869.
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915)
Among the threads in Ford’s intricately woven “saddest story” is the date August 4, which runs through the doomed life of Frances Dowell like a line of fate, or of self-destructive determination: it’s the date, among other things, of her birth, her marriage, and her suicide.
Light in August by William Faulkner (1932)
Faulkner planned to call his tale of uncertain parentage “Dark House” until he was inspired, by those “few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall” and “a luminous quality to the light,” to name it instead after the month in which most of its tragedy is set.
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946)
Embedded in Warren’s tale of compromises and betrayals is a summer interlude between Jack Burden and Anne Stanton, the kind of young romance during which, as Jack recalls, “even though the calendar said it was August I had not been able to believe that the summer, and the world, would ever end.”
The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers (1946)
It’s the last Friday of August in that “green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old,” and on Sunday her brother is going to be married. In the two days between, Frankie does her best to do a lot of growing up and, by misdirection, she does.
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952)
It’s hard to state how thrilling it is to see the expectations and supposed rules of the novel broken so quietly and confidently: not through style or structure but through one character’s intelligent self-sufficiency, and through her creator’s willingness to pay attention to her.
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman (1962)
It only added to the aura surrounding Tuchman’s breakthrough history of the first, error-filled month of the First World War that soon after it was published John F. Kennedy gave copies of the book to his aides and told his brother Bobby, “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [called] The Missiles of October.”
Letters to Felice by Franz Kafka (1967)
One of literature’s most notoriously failed (and best documented) courtships was sparked by Kafka’s August 1912 encounter with Felice Bauer. By the end of the evening, despite — or because of — what he describes as her “bony, empty face,” he reported he was “completely under the influence of the girl.”
The Family by Ed Sanders (1971) and Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi (1974)
The terrible events at the Tate and LaBianca households on the night of August 8, 1969, were recounted in these two pop-culture tombstones for the 60s, one by Beat poet Sanders, writing from within the counterculture that had curdled into evil in Charles Manson’s hands, and one by Manson’s prosecutor that’s part Warren Report and part In Cold Blood.
The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley (1981)
Bradley’s nearly forgotten modern classic concerns two incidents in Chaneysville, Pa: the shooting — self-inflicted, the legends say — of 13 escaped slaves about to be captured, and the mysterious August death, a century later, of a black moonshiner of local wealth and power, whose son, in attempting to connect the two, pulls together a web of personal and national history.
“The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter
Carter’s fictional retelling of the August 1892 murders of which Lizzie Borden was acquitted by a jury but convicted by popular opinion is a fever dream of New England humidity and repression that will cause you to feel the squeeze of a corset, the jaw-clench of parsimony, and the hovering presence of the angel of death.
The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald (1995)
A book — call it a memoir or a travelogue or a novel — grounded in an August walk through Suffolk, although Sebald could hardly go a sentence without being diverted by his restless curiosity into the echoes of personal and national history he heard wherever he went.
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (2000)
In August, in a seaside village in southwest France, Bourdain tasted his first oyster, pulled straight from the ocean, and everything changed: “I’d not only survived — I’d enjoyed.”
Image Credit: Flickr/Paulo Otávio
5/29/08: Welcome The Lede readers. Thanks for stopping by! Once you’re done reading about Rachael Ray and Anthony Bourdain, check out some of our more recent articles or have a look at our Notable Posts, listed in the right sidebar. If you like what you see, subscribe to our RSS feed. –The MillionsWe’ve talked about Anthony Bourdain here before, I love food, hell, Millions contributor Patrick even has a food blog, so this is fair game. At Michael Ruhlman’s blog Bourdain decided to go through the roster of Food Network personalities and either praise them or lambaste them. I have to say, I agree with him on most points (though I can’t watch more than 30 seconds of Emeril without my eyes bleeding). Best by far, though, are his comments on Rachael Ray, and just in case you’re too lazy to click through to read them, I’ll paste them for you here because they are not to be missed:Complain all you want. It’s like railing against the pounding surf. She only grows stronger and more powerful. Her ear-shattering tones louder and louder. We KNOW she can’t cook. She shrewdly tells us so. So…what is she selling us? Really? She’s selling us satisfaction, the smug reassurance that mediocrity is quite enough. She’s a friendly, familiar face who appears regularly on our screens to tell us that “Even your dumb, lazy ass can cook this!” Wallowing in your own crapulence on your Cheeto-littered couch you watch her and think, “Hell…I could do that. I ain’t gonna…but I could–if I wanted! Now where’s my damn jug a Diet Pepsi?” Where the saintly Julia Child sought to raise expectations, to enlighten us, make us better–teach us–and in fact, did, Rachael uses her strange and terrible powers to narcotize her public with her hypnotic mantra of Yummo and Evoo and Sammys. “You’re doing just fine. You don’t even have to chop an onion–you can buy it already chopped. Aspire to nothing…Just sit there. Have another Triscuit..Sleep…sleep…”Damn. (via Black Marks)Books for Anthony Bourdain fans:Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary UnderbellyNo Reservations: Around the World on an Empty StomachThe Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and BonesBooks for Rachael Ray fans:Rachael Ray 365: No Repeats–A Year of Deliciously Different DinnersJust In TimeClassic 30-Minute Meals: The All-Occasion Cookbook