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Most Anticipated: The Great 2023A Book Preview

Welcome to our biannual Great Book Preview! We've assembled the best books of 2023A (that is, the first half of 2023), including new work from Nicole Chung, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Claire Dederer, Brian Dillon, Samantha Irby, Heidi Julavits, Catherine Lacy, Mario Vargas Llosa, Rebecca Makkai, Fernanda Melchor, Lorrie Moore, Jenny Odell, Curtis Sittenfeld, Clint Smith, Zadie Smith, Brandon Taylor, Colm Tóibín, and many, many more. At 85 titles, you may notice our 2023A list is a bit trimmer and more selective than in year's past. We wanted to make sure that our list comprises the books that we are truly anticipating the most—which is to say, we've carefully curated our selections to showcase the very best books coming out in the first half of 2023. We hope you enjoy! Love reading our Great Book Previews? Learn how you can support The Millions here. January Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor Part crime thriller and part saga of the powerful Wadia family, Age of Vice roams across India, from the dusty villages of Uttar Pradesh to the cauldron of New Delhi. Three lives intersect in this world of lavish estates, extravagant parties, drugs and seamy business deals: Ajay, the watchful family servant; Sunny, the playboy heir; and Neda, a journalist out to expose the consequences of corruption. The writing has authority. Kapoor, author of the novel Bad Character, grew up in northern India and has worked as a journalist in New Delhi. The result is an addictive, vivid spellbinder of a novel. —Bill Morris Decent People by De'Shawn Charles Winslow Winslow returns to the fictional Southern town of West Mills for a second time in this expertly-plotted and character-driven follow-up to his award-winning debut novel. In the 1970s, an investigation into a triple homicide reveals surprising and profoundly sad layers of reality for the townspeople of West Mills—the trauma and ramifications of segregation, class, deeply kept secrets, and underlying homophobia. A haunting, page-turning mystery, Decent People makes a must-read on anyone’s literary list. —Jianan Qian The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley In this debut novel, a perpetually single Black lawyer, Aretha, falls in love with Aaron, a coffee entrepreneur who shares a brownstone with a stable of bizarre roommates. When Aretha moves in with Aaron, she gets caught up in their household dramas, which range from illegal gun sales to half-baked schemes to prepare for the end of the world. It will not surprise people who’ve read Cauley's essays—or seen her work on The Daily Show, or read her excellent tweets—that The Survivalists is, according to Tom Perrotta, an “edgy” and “darkly funny” book. —Thom Beckwith Still Pictures by Janet Malcolm Malcolm was a master of reportage, able to dissect and decipher her subjects with startling precision. (Also one of my own writerly heroes.) She often mused on the relationship between journalist and subject; in much of her journalism, she judged her subjects from a cool distance. How, then, would she approach a memoir? What would a self-portrait by one of our most formidable portraitists look like? These were the questions that exhilarated me when I began Malcolm's posthumous memoir. Still Pictures is as much a look at Malcolm's own photos and memories as the nature of photography and memory, written with all her characteristic style and clarity. —Sophia M. Stewart The Half Known Life by Pico Iyer In this philosophical and theological travelog, Iyer searches the globe for paradise. Not for himself—he wants to understand the idea of paradise, that incentive and dream and goal that undergirds the world's religions. Maria Popova herself, the brilliant mind behind The Marginalian, has called Iyer "one of the most soulful and perceptive writers of our time" and I expect The Half Known Life will further cement that status. —SMS OK by Michelle McSweeney In this slim and lucid addition to the Object Lessons series, which explores the hidden lives of everyday objects, linguist and author Michelle McSweeney unpacks the phrase “OK,” coined 200 years ago and now ubiquitous in spoken English. As an object, “OK” reveals how technologies inscribe themselves into languages—originally, it was an acronym that stood for “all correct,” a phrase which marked some of the earliest printed newspapers as ready for publication. From there, McSweeney traces the word’s evolution through the present, illuminating the ways in which its meaning developed over time. —TB The 12th Commandment by Daniel Torday Torday presents a provocative and unexpected tale of contemporary Jewish life that owes less to Philip Roth and Saul Bellow than it does to Cynthia Ozick and Isaac Bashevis Singer. The 12th Commandment concerns the historical sect known as the Dönmeh, Turkish followers of a seventeenth-century Jewish pseudo-messiah who outwardly practice Islam but who are actually adherents of an esoteric kabbalistic faith. “Weird folk,” explains a character, “They’re like Jews and Muslims at the same time. Or something.” Unexpectedly set among an imagined group of Dönmeh in small-town Ohio, with a noirish murder plot driving the action, and The 12th Commandment will appeal to fans of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, but Torday’s unique imagination and vital vision are his own. —Ed Simon Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Céspedes, translated by Ann Goldstein The story begins when Valeria Cossati—a 43-year-old office worker, self-sacrificing wife, and mother of two—buys a thick black notebook and begins writing at night—her thoughts, experiences, and fury. What follows over the course of six months are reflections on motherhood and femininity in postwar Rome that were as urgent and revelatory in the 1950s, when the novel was originally published, as they are today in post-Roe America. In the words of Annie Ernaux: “Reading Alba de Céspedes was, for me, like breaking into an unknown universe.” —Jenny Wu Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter by John Hendrickson I've been waiting for John to write this book since I first read his paradigm-shifting Atlantic article "What Joe Biden Can't Bring Himself to Say." Like Biden, John is a person who stutters. In Life on Delay, and with profound intelligence and insight, John examines his own stuttering life, as well as the lives of many other stutterers, to probe the many contradictions of disfluency. John has become something of a torchbearer in our community, and this book is going to be an essential contribution to the (currently very limited) literature of stuttering. I hate when people call certain books "important"—but this book is very important me, and will be important to a lot of people. We've been waiting a long time for a book like this. —SMS The Call of the Tribe by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by John King When I began my undergraduate studies, I was disappointed by how little nonfiction appeared on the syllabi of my Spanish literature classes. Then I encountered Llosa, a Nobel-winning nonfictioneer and intellectual heavyweight (and occasional novelist) who rose to prominence during the Latin American Boom. In The Call of the Tribe, he maps out the minds that shaped his own: Sartre and Adam Smith, Friedrich A. Hayek and Isaiah Berlin, and many more (mostly male) writers and thinkers. It's a pleasure—and a pleasurable challenge—to read Llosa on the roots of his ideology. —SMS The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women's Roles in Society by Eleanor Janega Ever since I visited the Cloisters for the first time earlier this year, I've been hungry to learn more about medieval life, and specifically women's place in it. Enter The Once and Future Sex, the subtitle of which quite directly addresses this yen of mine. Janega, a medievalist by training, makes middle-age sociology accessible, highlighting how archaic notions of femininity continue to shape modern womanhood in ways both subtle and overt. Beauty, sex, work, labor, motherhood, decorum—no aspect of women's lives goes unexplored in this rigorous study, which also highlights many of the era's subversive trailblazers. —SMS Black and Female by Tsitsi Dangarembga Zimbabwean writer Dangarembga explores the long shadow cast by imperialism in her own life, and the lives of all African people, in this volume of essays. The personal and political commingle (because, as all feminists know, they're one and the same) as Dangarembga excavates her own history and the history of her nation. The result is a clear-eyed look at what navigating life and art-making as a woman in Zimbabwe has taught her, as well as the possibilities and limits of a distinctly Black feminism, which she calls "the status quo’s worst nightmare." —SMS A Guest at the Feast by Colm Tóibín One of Ireland's greatest living novelists, Tóibín is known the world over for his fiction. That's why I'm so curious to read his new essay collection, to see how he transfers his mastery across genres. A (supposedly) great compliment is to be called a nonfiction writer with a "novelist's" sensibility—the implication being that nonfiction is best when it reads like fiction. (I disagree!) This isn't Tóibín's first foray into nonfiction (he's written books on Elizabeth Bishop; contemporary queer artists; and the fathers of famous Irish writers)—but it is one of his most intimate. This is clear from the book's outset, which features one of best opening lines I've read in a minute: "It all started with my balls." —SMS Vintage Contemporaries by Dan Kois I always love reading Dan Kois's criticism (if you haven't yet read him on Tár, please do yourself the favor—and prepare to have your mind blown) so I was thrilled to hear about his forthcoming novel, a coming-of-age set in New York City at the turn of the millennium that wrestles with art, friendship, and what it means to cultivate a creative life. Our very own Lydia Kiesling blurbed it and gave it what is in my book one of the ultimate compliments: "poignant without being treacly." A near-impossible literary feat—I can't wait to see (read?) Kois pull it off for myself. —SMS Your Driver Is Waiting by Priya Guns A retelling of the movie Taxi Driver featuring a ride-share driver? An incredible premise for a novel that explores work, class, and solidarity (or the lack thereof). Damani Krishanthan works for an Uber-like company, scraping by after her father dies during his shift at a fast-food restaurant. During a summer of uprising, she drives through throngs of protestors trying to make enough to cover rent. A relationship with a white wealthy protestor goes south, prompting a dramatic ending (considering its cinematic source material, I can only imagine). —Lydia Kiesling The Guest Lecture by Martin Riker Abby, a young economist, can't sleep the night before the talk she is scheduled to present tomorrow, optimism and John Maynard Keynes. A lapsed optimist struggling to support her family, she feels grossly unprepared to offer any insights into Keynes. With wry humor and true wisdom, Riker, co-founder and publisher of Dorothy, a Publishing Project, transforms one woman’s insomnia into an enchanting and playful exploration of literature, performance, and the life of the mind. —JQ After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz At the turn of the twentieth century, three queer women—Rina Faccio, Romaine Brooks, and Virginia Woolf among them—make the same decision: They take up their pens or paintbrushes to define their lives and their identities on their own terms. Taking cues from the Greek poet, After Sappho, Schwartz's Booker-longlisted debut novel, reimagines the intertwined voices of those pioneering women artists in the collective first-person, whose courage and struggles never cease to inspire and encourage those who come after. —JQ Hanging Out by Sheila Liming We’ve all heard the admonitions to slow down, drop out, resist the rush—but what does that actually look like? “Hanging out is about daring to do nothing much and, even more than that, about daring to do it in the company of others,” writes Liming in her treatise on the subject, the follow-up to her 2020 book What a Library Means to a Woman on Edith Wharton and book collections. Hanging Out, an endearing and revealing book, is well-timed, but as she notes, “we were having a hard time hanging out well before COVID-19 came along.” She makes a compelling case for us to get together. —Nick Ripatrazone Call and Response: Stories by Gothataone Moeng This debut story collection joins a chorus of literary voices rising out of contemporary Africa. Set in the author’s native village of Serowe, as well as in Gabarone, the thrumming capital of Botswana, these stories are spun from the struggles of women seeking to reconcile ancestral expectations with imported dreams—a girl who hides her sexual exploits from her family while her older brother flaunts his conquests; a young widow who ponders the custom of wearing mourning clothes for a year; a woman who returns from America, ashamed to have given up on the land of opportunity. The great Namwalli Serpell praised the collection for its "sharply observed vignettes," which together amount to a "beautiful" book full of "deep insight." —BM Black Empire by George S. Schuyler Originally published in serial form in the 1930s, Black Empire is the masterwork of George S. Schuyler, a journalist, Harlem Renaissance man, socialist-turned-arch-conservative, and creator of acid satires. This novel is the story of Dr. Henry Belsidus, a Black genius who sets out to cultivate a global network that will reclaim Africa from imperial powers and punish Europe and America for their crimes against the world’s Black population. Schuyler’s earlier novel, Black No More, is a satirical romp about a Black man who turns his skin white. In all his work, Schuyler work confronts an abiding and urgent moral quandary: How far should one go to bring justice to an unjust world? —BM February Where I'm Coming From by Barbara Brandon-Croft Drawn & Quarterly has never let me down, and its winning streak won’t be snapped by this collection from the first Black woman to have a nationally-syndicated comic strip. In the witty and groundbreaking "Where I’m Coming From," which ran from 1989 to 2005, nine Black girlfriends deliver insights and punchlines in equal measure, touching on politics, race, relationships, and everything in between. Tayari Jones says that Brandon-Croft’s work has “aged beautifully,” hailing the collection as “both ahead of its time and right on time.” —Evan Allgood Brutes by Dizz Tate This surreal and ambitious debut novel, written partially in first-person plural and billed as “The Virgin Suicides meets The Florida Project,” follows a clan of teenaged girls in Falls Landing, Florida, as they grapple with the disappearance of the local preacher's daughter. Brutes’s adolescent cast, time-jumping narrative, and promise of violence evoke the hit show Yellowjackets. Mariana Enríquez calls it “a beautiful and deeply strange novel, full of dread and longing.” —EA City of Blows by Tim Blake Nelson I love movies, but Hollywood—both the city and the industry that undergirds it—has never much interested me. Honestly, celebrity culture in America baffles me. But when a Hollywood insider and an accomplished playwright—and, not to mention, a fine actor—decides to satirize the toxic culture of Tinsel Town, I’m in. Nelson's debut novel follows four men fighting for control of a script and a place in a rapidly transforming Hollywood. There’s something sustaining in a story that shows how beautiful people can be just as petty—just as ugly—as the rest of us. —Il’ja Rákoš Couplets by Maggie Millner Lovers of horny, rhyming poetry rejoice: Millner’s “love story in poems,” arrives a week before Valentine’s Day, just in time to tie your brain to its bedposts. Kink and queerness, power and polyamory—this debut by the senior editor of the Yale Review has it all. Read an excerpt in BOMB to see why Elif Batuman, Garth Greenwell, and Leslie Jamison are all head over heels for this clever, seductive story of coming out and coming of age. —EA The Black Guy Dies First by Robin R. Means Coleman and Mark H. Harris This collaboration between Coleman, a scholar, and Harris, a journalist and film critic, explores the history of Black horror films since 1968. Named for the well-known cinematic trope, the book spans cult classics like Spider Baby up to commercial and critical successes like Get Out. According to Kirkus Reviews, the book is written with “keen observation, a satirical eye, and a genuine love for the subject.” —Edan Lepucki Big Swiss by Jen Beagin "A sex therapist's transcriptionist falls in love with a client while listening to her sessions"—that was all I needed to hear to get excited about Beagin's third novel. Throw in blurbs from Melissa Border and A Touch of Jen author Beth Morgan, and I was all but convinced that Big Swiss will be weird and horny and unfettered in all the best ways. "Pick it up because you like cheese," Morgan urges, "stay for the brilliant sentences." —SMS Culture: The Story of Us, From Cave Art to K-Pop by Martin Puchner So many books these days are described as being "sweeping histories"; Culture, which promises in its subtitle to take us from our most primitive artistic impulses all the way to the machinery of modern-day fandom. But what intrigues me most about Puchner's latest isn't its scope—it's its driving question: "What good are the arts?" In my more hopeless moments, this question bubbles up inside me, and I'm chomping at the bit to hear Puchner's answer, grounded in history and informed by cultures around the world. —SMS Dyscalculia by Camonghne Felix Following her poetry collection Build Yourself a Boat, which landed a spot on the National Book Award longlist, Camonghne Felix makes her nonfiction debut with this memoir, which charts a life-changing breakup and its many consequences for her life. When the author ends up in the hospital, she draws a parallel between her troubles as an adult and her childhood diagnosis of dyscalculia, a condition which makes it difficult to learn math or estimate place value. As she starts to tally her romantic miscalculations, she asks a wide-ranging question: who gets the right to freely express their own pain? —TB All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me by Patrick Bringley A former New Yorker staffer turned museum guard is a pretty compelling tagline, to be certain, and Bringley delivers in this intimate and philosophical debut memoir—he muses on the artworks, coworkers, and museumgoers that surround him. Adding poignancy to the memoir's conceit, his observations are all permeated with profound grief as he reels from the death of his older brother. Bringly brings the Met to life on a grand scale and granular level. —NR The Wife of Willesden by Zadie Smith For her first foray into playwriting, novelist and essayist Smith reimagines Chaucer’s Canterbury Tale about the Wife of Bath for twenty-first century, northwest London. Alvita, a Jamaican-born British woman in her early fifties, tells her life story to strangers in a pub. In its review, The Guardian calls it “a celebration of community and local legends, of telling a good story and living a life worth telling. Not bad for an original text that’s 600 years old.” —EL Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World by Malcolm Harris I went to college in the Bay Area, where the allure of Silicon Valley was palpable. My classmates posted about their internships at Twitter and Microsoft, wore t-shirts with emblazoned with the logos of Google and Linkedin, and went on to get jobs with six-figure starting salaries. I remembered my dad's quaint stories of growing up in nearby Los Altos and struggled to reconcile that history with the present. Harris's comprehensive history of Silicon Valley, from railroad capitalism to free love to big tech, does just that. Palo Alto spans centuries in order to thoroughly demystifying the region's economics and unearth its enduring legacy of settler colonialism. Users by Colin Winnette I worked for years as a consultant at American-based IT companies with teams in Kyiv, and among those Ukrainians I knew who were handling the code, it was rare to find anyone who worshipped Steve Jobs, loved tech, or saw STEM work as anything particularly noble. No true believers in panaceas or "essential" tech. Here, in the fictional world of Winnette’s latest novel, we encounter a strong critique and timely caution that my Kyiv ITshnyks certainly understood well: the devastation that awaits when we entrust the mechanisms we’ve built to do our thinking, our feeling, and our living for us. —IR I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai In her follow-up to her 2018 novel The Great Believers, a Pulitzer and National Book Award finalist, Makkai brings us to a New Hampshire boarding school. Film professor Bodie Kane has been eager to forget her four awful years there, which included a murder of a classmate by the athletic trainer. But when she's brought back to campus to teach a two-week course, everything she thought she knew about the case is thrown into question. Makkai plays with true-crime tropes to deliver a literary exploration of friendship. —Marie Myung-Ok Lee Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears by Michael Schulman Michael Shulman is one of the great profile-writers of our time, and one of our best writers, period. (His New Yorker profiles of Jeremy Strong, Bo Burnahm, and Adam Driver long ago took up permanent residence in my brain.) What Schulman, a student of personality, could accomplish in a study of the Oscars—that most official of personality contests—is limitless. It's also just a perfect opportunity to spill so much celebrity gossip. I imagine devouring this book poolside, while sipping on a blue drink; a big umbrella overhead, a little umbrella in my glass. Slime by Susanne Wedlich, translated by Ayca Turkoglu  Primordial slime has long been considered a cornerstone of life on Earth; without it, the natural world would be unrecognizable. Slimy substances like mucous and slobber are also common features of fictional monsters in popular culture from Lovecraft to Alien. Munich-based science and nature journalist Susanne Wedlich’s ode to the semi-liquids that hold our world together—and our minds in awe—reminds us “we are sticky beings living in a sticky place” (TLS), whether we like it or not. —JW March Monstrilio by Gerardo Sámano Córdova What lengths would you go to get back someone you've loved and lost? Just for a bit, to look in their eyes one more time, or tell them what needed to be told? But play that possibility out to its inevitable conclusion and it’s difficult to envision anything good coming from it. In  Córdova’s horror debut, a grieving mother in Mexico City goes to unimaginable extremes to bring her late 11-year-old son back to life, only to discover that there are worse things than death. Grief, she learns, is not something to be trifled with, or worse, avoided. —IR Francisco by Alison Mills Newman Though it garnered plaudits from Toni Morrison when it was first published in 1974, Newman's autobiographical novel has long been out of print. Now, a reissue by New Directions—with a new foreword by Saidiya Hartman—promises to introduce a new generation of readers to Newman’s innovative and genre-bending story, which draws on the author’s experience as a young actress in 1960s Hollywood. —TB The Fifth Wound by Aurora Mattia In her new novel, the Mattia reinvents the roman à clef with a magical realist memoir that puts the dusty genre of autofiction to shame. Sifting from multiple narratives—and dimensions—The Fifth Wound is a romance, a meditation on transphobic violence, and a speculative tale of time travel, ecstatic visionaries, and mystical union. Transcending the limiting confines of not just society, but reality as well, and Mattia’s novel promises the reader an experience that recalibrates simplistic notions of truth and fiction, reality and illusion.  —ES Saving Time by Jenny Odell I love books that force me to recognize or reconsider the structure of existence—and Odell’s book does just this, in a way that's both enlightening and generative. Her previous book, How to Do Nothing, was a runaway hit about what happens when we subvert the temporal expectations that are placed upon us: “Letting go of one overwhelming rhythm, you invite the presence of others. Perhaps more important, you remember that the arrangement is yours to make.” Odell demonstrates how it's never too late to save the time we have left. —NR The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe In 1958, at the age of 27, Rona Jaffe published her first novel, a revolutionary portrait of three young women employed at a New York publishing house. Renowned for its frankness and honesty, particularly in its depictions of sexual harassment, The Best of Everything is, per Michele Moses, “what you would get if you took Sex and the City and set it inside Mad Men’s universe.” Now, for its 65th anniversary, Penguin Classics is reissuing the novel, complete with a new introduction by New Yorker staff writer Rachel Syme, who is the perfect voice to prime us for a retro romp through postwar New York and its attendant glitzy patina. —TB Raving by McKenzie Wark Wark's entry into Duke University Press's Practices series, which spotlights the activities that make us human, invites us into the underground queer and trans rave scene of New York City. A bombastic collision of sound and movement, raving is, to Wark, the ideal activity for "this era of diminishing futures." An avid raver herself, she blends academic analysis with her own first-hand accounts, all relayed with sensual, staccato prose. "Some come to serve looks; some come to leave their sweat on the dance floor," she writes. "I’m the latter kind. I want to be animate and animated on the floor." —SMS Still Life with Bones by Alexa Hagerty From 1960 to 1996, more than 200,000 Guatemalans were killed, and tens of thousands more disappeared, after an American-backed coup gave rise to a steady march of genocidal dictators. Decades later, anthropologists like Alexa Hagerty are working to exhume and examine the dead, piecing together their bodies and their stories in an urgent but potentially quixotic quest for resolution, and attempting to bring a sense of humanity to the forensic sciences. —EA How to Think Like a Woman by Regan Penaluna In her first book, journalist Penaluna, who has a PhD in philosophy, explores the oft-forgotten and under-taught feminist philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Mary Astell, Damaris Masham, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Catherine Cockburn. Blending biography, criticism, and memoir, Penaluna explores the lives and beliefs of these thinkers, as well as the ways women—past and present—have been devalued within philosophy, academia, and history. How  to Think Like a Woman serves as an alternate philosophical canon, where women and their intellect are deeply and rigorously examined. —Carolyn Quimby Y/N by Esther Yi “Y/N,” short for “[Your/Name],” refers to a type of fanfiction that allows readers to insert their own names into brackets in the story, so as to imagine themselves in romantic scenarios with popular idols. In Esther Yi’s debut novel, our narrator devotes herself to writing fanfic about a K-pop star named Moon. When Moon suddenly retires and retreats from the spotlight, the narrator embarks on a transnational search that unveils the absurd innards of a Korean entertainment company, as well as the loneliness of modern life and the various fantasies we enact to try to escape it. Yi, a Leipzig-based writer, has earned comparisons to Elif Batuman, Thomas Pynchon, Yoko Tawada, and Marie NDiaye. —JW How Not to Kill Yourself: A Portrait of a Suicidal Mind by Clancy Martin Clancy Martin has tried to die by suicide more than 10 times. In How Not to Kill Yourself, he speaks frankly about these attempts and the thoughts that fueled them. In probing his own experiences, he inevitably comes to larger conclusions about the nature of the self-destructive mind and the philosophy of suicide. He also turns to other writers who have attempted suicide and written about it, from Yiyun Li to David Foster Wallace. Written with surprising tenderness and humor, this memoir-cum-critical-inquiry is a perspective-shifting study. Biography of X by Catherine Lacy With a title that recalls both Alex Haley’s biography of Malcolm X and Gertrude Stein’s consideration of her partner Alice B. Toklas, Lacey audaciously explores the contingencies of identity, memory, and history in her latest experimental novel. Lacey’s novel takes place in an alternative history where the American South separated from the United States and was governed as a fascist theocracy only recently being reabsorbed into the wider nation. Ostensibly The Biography of X is about the titular unknown, a celebrated but mysterious artist, and her widow’s account of that life as much as can be assembled. But with cameos by such twentieth-century luminaries as Sontag and Bowie, the novel is also a biography of American art and theory which understands that sometimes history is best understood at a slant. —ES The Last Catastrophe by Allegra Hyde This collection of 15 stories by the author of Eleutheria continues Hyde’s interest in humanity grappling with climate change. Alexandra Kleeman writes that these speculative stories are “dazzling, inventive, and glinting with dark humor.” Spaceships, AI, zombies, and body-switching abound. I, for one, am most excited to read the story about the girl growing a unicorn horn! —EL The New Earth by Jess Row A century which began with 9/11, and has so far seen economic collapse, a ground war in Europe, a global pandemic, and the rise of neo-fascism is painfully interesting. Jess Row’s latest novel interlays these interesting times on a family drama among the privileged Wilcoxes of the Upper East Side, from 2000 to 2018. The global perspective becomes synonymous with the vantage point of daughter Winter Wilcox, who on the eve of her wedding must grapple not just with her estranged family, but the ways in which her personal tragedies from years coincide with both parental secrets and historical injustices. “Disguising your origins is a deeply American impulse,” Row wrote in 2014, “but that doesn’t make it any less compromising,” a theme heartily interrogated in The New Earth.  —ES Chlorine by Jade Song Song's debut novel revolves around high-schooler Ren Yu, a competitive swimmer who spends her days in the pool. Her immigrant parents expect her to train hard and secure a college scholarship, but she aspires to transform into a mermaid, freeing herself from the terrestrial world. A spiky, sapphic coming-of-age that embraces fantasy and horror to explore girlhood and its discontents. —JQ In Search of a Beautiful Freedom by Farah Jasmine Griffin A new volume of collected essays both new and previously published by Farah Jasmine Griffin, the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia. Following her last book Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature, these new and previously unpublished essays range in topic from Covid to the efforts to ban Toni Morrison to the life work of Odetta. Griffin's insights into Black music, feminism, and literature are unparalleled. —LK Affinities by Brian Dillon When I read Dillon's previous books, Essayism and Suppose a Sentence, I considered them a diptych: two close looks at two literary forms (the essay and the sentence) that were driven by what Dillon himself calls his own "affinity." It turns out, Essayism and Suppose a Sentence were really the first two entries in a triptych! His latest book, Affinities, centers on images, from photographs to paintings to migraine auras. Why do images make us feel the way they do? Why are we drawn to certain images over other ones? Dillon is one of my favorite writers, thinkers, and close-readers, and I can't wait to read him on the pleasures of looking. —SMS Above Ground by Clint Smith I long for a literature—especially a poetry—of joy; life is too short and bland without it. Smith’s new poetry collection teems with images of love and fatherhood. Great poetry comes in many modes and subjects, but there’s something unique about a book of verse that makes me want to hold my own children a little tighter, as I think of his description of delivering a bear hug: “my arms are still / open like a universe / in need of a planet / to make it worth / something.” Juxtaposed with lines of grief and recognition—“men attempting / to unlearn the anger on their father’s / tongues, the heat in their hands”—Smith’s songs of joy are that much sweeter. —NR Ada's Room by Sharon Dodua Otoo, translated by Jon Cho-Polizzi Otoo's debut novel is about four women, all with the same name: Ada, a mother in fifteenth-century West Africa; Ada Lovelace, the real-life programmer in Victorian England; Ada, a prisoner in a concentration camp in 1945; and Ada, a young Ghanian woman in present day. As Otoo connects their narratives across centuries, the linear confines of history break down and a profound sorority comes into focus. R.O. Kwon calls this one "thrillingly, astonishingly original." —SMS April This Is Not Miami by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes Taking place in and around the Mexican city of Veracruz, this collection of crónicas—narrative nonfiction pieces that blend reportage with novelistic structures—explores the criminal underworld, shedding light on social problems that manifest in gory headlines. As in her novels Paradais and Hurricane Season, Melchor draws empathetic portraits of deeply unsympathetic figures, forcing her readers to understand the mindsets of monstrous characters. —TB Chain Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah Ever since the moment I finished Adjei-Brenyah’s surreal, satirical, and original debut story collection, Friday Black, I’ve been not-so-patiently waiting for whatever he wrote next. In his upcoming debut novel, two female gladiators fight to the death for their freedom on the hugely popular and controversial TV show, Chain-Gang All Stars, which airs on CAPE (Criminal Action Penal Entertainment). With his sharp eye for satire and reverence for humanity, Adjei-Brenyah’s latest explores the exploitation, violence, and false promises of the prison industrial complex, capitalism, and the country itself. —CQ Work-Life Balance by Aisha Franz, translated by Nicholas Houde This graphic novel, which was originally a comic series published by Colorama, concerns three friends who, disillusioned with their work lives, seek help from the same therapist. Franz, who lives in Berlin, was nominated for a Los Angeles Times book prize for her previous book, Shit is Real, which the Guardian called “a wise and funny journey through loneliness and confusion.” Her latest sounds just as promising. —EL Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe The latest book by scholar of English literature and Black Studies Christina Sharpe takes the form of a series of 248 notes on history, art, literature, and life whose meanings accumulate over the course of nearly 400 pages. At the center of the resulting polyphonic portrait of Black existence is the figure of Ida Wright Sharpe, the author’s mother. Saidiya Hartman calls Ordinary Notes "an exquisite text" that "demands everything of the reader and, in turn, offers us a vocabulary for living.” —JW A Living Remedy by Nicole Chung Chung's bestselling memoir All You Can Ever Know, published in 2018, cemented her as one of this generation's great chroniclers of family, both adoptive and biological: its limits and possibilities, what it means, how it shapes us. Her follow-up, which follows Chung as she mourns her parents and navigates the institutional inequities baked into American society, promises to be just as poignant. Blurbers Megha Majumdar, Julie Otsuka, Imani Perry, and Bryan Washington certainly think so. —SMS Second Star: And Other Reasons for Lingering by Philippe Delerm, translated by Jody Gladding A runaway hit in France, Second Star is a collection of vignettes about life's smallest and simplest moments, from washing your windows to peeling a clementine. With evocative descriptions of taste, touch, and sound, Delerm zeroes in on the sensations and pleasures that, while often overlooked or taken for granted, can make us feel most alive. Linger in the moment, he says, stay a while—be here, now. —SMS Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld  I first encountered Curtis Sittenfeld in high school, when my dad's then-girlfriend gifted me a copy of Prep. It was smart and sexy and felt like a portal into womanhood, which I was on the precipice of. Sittenfeld knows how to write romantic comedy without ever slipping into the saccharine, the chivalrous, the cliche. (Also, Brandon Taylor is a fan!) So I can't wait for her new rom-com, about a comedy writer whose decision to swear off love is rocked when she falls for a pop star. —SMS Sea Change by Gina Chung Chung's debut centers on thirty-something Ro who feels stalled in her life—heartbroken after a breakup, father missing, mother remote, friends drifting away. She's also stagnating at her job at a mall aquarium, where one of her favorite sea creatures (and last remaining link to her father), an octopus named Dolores, is about to be sold to a wealthy investor intent on moving her to a private collection. Joseph Han called Ro one of his favorite Korean American characters of all time. —MML The One by Julia Argy Argy’s debut novel, about a woman who’s a contestant on a Bachelor-style dating reality show, has garnered some killer blurbs. Julie Buntin writes, “I could not stop reading Julia Argy’s smart, funny, and tender debut novel about falling in love and finding oneself on and offscreen,” and Claire Messud calls it “riveting, astute and darkly comic.” —EL Without Children by Peggy O'Donnell Heffington As a mother of three myself, I’m interested in why people become parents—or don’t. In Without Children, Heffington, a historian of gender, explores the long history of women who did not become mothers, for a variety of reasons. Situating what seems to some to be a modern phenomenon within a larger historical context, this one seems like an essential read. Ada Calhoun deems it a “timely, refreshingly open-hearted study.” —EL The Double Life of Benson Yu by Kevin Chong I hear the word “metafiction” and I usually figure I’m in for a cerebral workout and probably a headache. While Chong’s story of a graphic novelist focusing on his art in an attempt to process his difficult youth is indeed a workout, it’s also a hugely engaging, headache-free read about a world, Chinatown, and a creative outlet, graphic arts, that I know nothing about. Yes, there is a lot of darkness in this story, episodes that could present challenges to some readers, but ultimately the heft of this novel lies in its powerful reminder that unless we confront our demons, we’ll never exorcise them. —IR Arrangements in Blue by Amy Key An essay collection about unpartnered life set to the soundtrack of Joni Mitchell's Blue—so thoughtful of Amy Key to write a book specifically and exclusively for me! Looking back at her past romantic longings and collisions, Key considers the (inflated?) value of romantic love and finds her contradictory feelings on the matter reflected in Mitchell's lyrics. There's nothing poor-me about Arrangements in Blue; in Key's hands, solitary life becomes more capacious—and more complicated—than I ever thought possible. —SMS The Ugly History of Beautiful Things by Katy Kelleher In this deeply researched collection of essays, Paris Review contributor Katy Kelleher explores the hidden histories of our favorite luxury goods, revealing how even the most beautiful objects have dark, unsavory backgrounds. In a blend of historical, scientific and autobiographical writing, Kelleher explains why some red lipstick contains beetle shells, why certain perfumes include rodent musk, and why a fancy class of dishware is made with the ashes of cow bones. Along with helping us understand how these objects came to signify beauty, Kelleher reveals the price workers pay to bring them to us – and suggests a few ways we can ethically appreciate their products. —TB May Written on Water by Eileen Chang It is no exaggeration to say Eileen Chang has shaped our perceptions of modern cities in China. Before her, big cities were monstrous, with myriads of people often seen as sordid sinners. Chang portrayed Shanghai and Hong Kong as the intersections of tradition and modernity, of the East and the West. The pleasures of modernity embody new ways of life. The subtleties of everyday life signify people’s pursuit of happiness. Chang is sharp, rebellious, and unique. You will find even her examination of Shanghainese food eerily resonating. —JQ Homebodies by Tembe Denton-Hurst  When Mickey Hayward loses her coveted media job, she pens a scathing letter about the racism and sexism she's encountered in the industry. It's met with silence and soon forgotten, until a media scandal catapults the letter—and Mickey—back into the spotlight. This witty take on fame, media, and the institutions that rule our lives, Homebodies already garnered blurbs from Danielle Evans, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, and Bryan Washington. —SMS Quietly Hostile by Samantha Irby If you’ve read Irby’s previous collections, or even skimmed her Instagram, you’re likely waiting for her next book of hilarious essays. This one sounds promising: it has a skunk on the front and covers everything from working in Hollywood, to getting a “deranged pandemic dog” (per the jacket copy), to being turned away from a restaurant for being dressed inappropriately. I can’t wait! —EL Dances by Nicole Cuffy At the age of 22, Cece Cordell is catapulted to fame when she becomes the first Black principal dancer in the history of the storied New York City Ballet. But her achievement doesn’t feel right, and she she soon embarks on a journey to find a missing older brother— and the pieces of herself that have been devoured by the voracious machinery of the highly competitive ballet world. This debut novel by the author of a decorated work of short fiction, 2018's Atlas of the Body, is an examination of the physical and spiritual costs all artists must pay in the pursuit of their art. —BM Monsters by Claire Dederer How to separate the art from the artist? A question I—and most cultural critics—have been wrestling with for a long time now. In Monsters, Claire Dederer takes a stab. Inspired by her Paris Review essay, "What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?," Dederer takes on Hemingway and Picasso, Miles Davis and Roman Polanski, to construct a deeply personal theory of art, genius, and cruelty, written from the perspective of both a critic and a fan. I've been counting down the days to this one for a while. —SMS Dykette by Jenny Fran Davis In her blurb for Davis's debut novel, the writer Samantha Hunt tells me everything I needed to know: "Like a tightly rolled spliff passed around the room," she writes, "you will inhale Dykette." Following three queer couples on a 10-day country getaway, Dykette takes on desire, debauchery, and destruction through a distinctly queer—and propulsively entertaining—lens. —SMS Avidly Reads Screen Time by Phillip Maciak Phillip Maciak is one of the best TV critics alive right now, full stop. Whether he's writing about Girls or Station Eleven or Bluey, his criticism is always characterized by wit, insight, and a remarkable propensity for close-reading. So yes, I was over the moon to learn about his new book of cultural criticism and history, Avidly Reads Screen Time, about how we define screens and how they define us. There are three Mad Men screen caps within the book's first 30 pages, so, yeah, it's gonna be ridiculously good. —SMS Thinning Blood by Leah Myers Leah Myers is likely the last official member of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe as a consequence of blood quantum laws. In a work of memoir and family excavation of her ancestors lives' in the Pacific Northwest, Myers explores the meaning of legacy, documentation, belonging, and weaves between and together her own life, the lives of her ancestors, and the hypotheticals of future generations.  —LK King: A Life by Jonathan Eig Martin Luther King Jr. has, at this point, been flattened into an icon. The Selma to Montgomery march, "I Have a Dream," his assassination—this is what his life has been boiled down for many of us, and in the American imagination as a whole. King the leader, the orator, the pastor, the martyr—what about King the man? Eig's forthcoming tome on King, the first full biography in decades, contains new research and shines a fresh light on King's life, relationships, and interiority. —SMS A Life of One's Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again by Joanna Biggs I've recently realized that I will read just about any book of nonfiction that has the word "women" in the title. A Life of One's Own is no exception, though the draw certainly does not end at its title. Biggs's latest combine memoir, criticism, and biography (my favorite literary concoction) to study how women writers across the centuries—Plath, Woolf, Morrison, et al.— have carved out freedom for themselves in their lives and work. (I suspect this one will be a great companion to the aforementioned How to Think Like a Woman.) —SMS The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor Everyone’s favorite Booker Prize shortlister, national bestseller, Story Prize winner, Henry James prefacer, litcrit-newsletter purveyor, tweet-sender, and sweater-enjoyer Brandon Taylor, returns in May 2023 with The Late Americans. Like his acclaimed 2020 novel Real Life, The Late Americans is set in a small midwestern college town; also like Real Life, it is more accurately set in its young characters’ exquisitely sensitive and private psyches. Its three protagonists, and a larger constellation of midwestern eccentrics, artists, and academics, confront and provoke one another in a volatile year of self-discovery leading to a trip to a cabin where they bid goodbye to their former lives—a moment of reckoning that leaves each of them irrevocably altered.  —Adam O'Fallon Price The Lost Journals of Sacajewea by Debra Magpie Earling Earling reimagines the well-trodden tale of Sacajewea and her role in the fateful expedition of Lewis and Clark in this historical novel. Endowed agency, authority, and interiority, Earling's Sacajewea rewrites the version of herself handed down through American history. Her life before the expedition comes into vivid focus, as do her complicated feelings about her role in charting the course for American imperialism. Night of the Living Rez author Morgan Talty praises this "transcendental work of literature" as "striking" and "elegant." —SMS On Women by Susan Sontag, edited by David Rieff Susan Sontag, Merve Emre—the collab of the century? I'll read anything by either writer, so I will of course be reading this. Sontag's takes on feminism, sexuality, beauty, fascism, aging, and more are the focus of this seven-essay collection, introduced by Emre and edited by Sontag's son David Rieff. Always drawn to the grey, the murky, the complicated, here Sontag considers the ubiquitous, amorphous forces that shape women's lives with her characteristic curiosity and authority. —SMS Lesbian Love Story by Amelia Possanza In her debut memoir, Brooklynite Possanza dives into the archives to recover the stories of twentieth-century New York lesbians. Sifting through records she finds role models and cautionary tales, juicy gossip and heart-wrenching regret. Writing with empathy, wit, and imagination, Possanza constructs a personal, political, and romantic history of lesbian life and love. —SMS June Where Are Your Boys Tonight?: The Oral History of Emo's Mainstream Explosion 1999-2008 by Chris Payne Emo exploded just as I gained consciousness as a human being with aesthetic tastes. For me, and many of my peers, emo music was a formative force in our lives, enunciating the frustration and darkness that many of us found ourselves newly harboring as adolescents. So I can't wait to read Chris Payne's oral history of the genre, which uses interviews with My Chemical Romance, Paramore, Panic! at the Disco, Fall Out Boy, and more to reconstruct emo's meteoric ascent and profound cultural footprint. —SMS Wannabe: Reckoning with the Pop Culture That Shapes Me by Aisha Harris Harris, host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, always has a take. Movies, TV, music—she's got an opinion and she's excited to tell you about it. Adapting her radio presence into book form, Wannabe sees Harris turning her talents for critique and criticism inward, looking at the media that has shaped her life and examining its effects. From Clueless to the Spice Girls, New Girl to Chance the Rapper, Harris teases out the connections between her identity and her love of pop culture with wit and elan. —SMS Rivermouth: A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration by Alejandra Oliva Oliva is a writer, translator and immigration activist who has translated for people seeking asylum along the US-Mexico border since 2016. In this work of memoir and journalism, which won a 2022 Whiting Nonfiction Award, Oliva describes her experiences of translation, describes her own Mexican-American family's relationship to the border, and interrogates notions of citizenship and belonging. —LK I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home by Lorrie Moore Moore's first novel since 2009's A Gate at the Stairs, I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home (that title!) is a ghost story set in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries about grief, devotion, and narrative. I'll be honest, I have no idea what this book is actually going to be about (the descriptive copy sums up the plot thusly: "A teacher visiting his dying brother in the Bronx. A mysterious journal from the nineteenth century stolen from a boarding house. A therapy clown and an assassin, both presumed dead, but perhaps not dead at all . . .") but the intrigue makes it all the more anticipated. —SMS Directions to Myself: A Memoir of Four Years by Heidi Julavits  My first introduction to Julavits was 2015's The Folded Clock, which I read the week after I first moved to New York, back in 2020. I've been waiting for her next book ever since. It's finally here—Directions to Myself sees Julavits studying what she calls "the end times of childhood." She writes about her son's upbringing as well as her own to find answers about motherhood, family life, and growing up. George Saunders calls it "an absolute stunner." I predict I'll feel the same. —SMS [millions_email]

Paris, Wikipedia, and My Middle Age Crisis

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Each man’s middle age crisis begins at an indeterminate age and offers a peculiar window into the architecture of masculine decline. In this respect it mimics death, which is both punctual and ruthlessly efficient in its demolitions. For many men, the crisis begins with the fear that your Emersonian Self-Reliance is spent, or even worse, you’ve sucked so deeply on the marrow of life that you are now as penniless as Henry David Thoreau. In my case, the crisis has arrived at the age of 39 with the realization that I’m numerically closer to 48 than I am to 29. Now this isn’t to suggest my twenties were a time of wine and roses, but simply to make the point that 48 is old—crotchety old in my book, as in Mr. Roper the curmudgeonly landlord in Three’s Company or the portly short-order cook Mel Sharples from Alice (I’m painfully aware that younger readers may find these 1970s references both dated and horridly nostalgic). And the reason that 48 is old, of course, is that it is two steps from 50, which is not the new 20 or the new 30, but the old half-century mark, period. I proudly note that my crisis has not involved acting out cultural stereotypes — there have been no impulsive trips to the Corvette dealership or expensive gym memberships — but centers instead on Wikipedia entries and male celebrities over the age of 40. It plays out like this: night after night I Google celebrities as they flash across my television screen, not only looking up their age, but trying to get a handle on what they’ve accomplished by 40 — and even more importantly — what great achievements are possible in the 5th, 6th, and even 7th decades of one’s life. I quickly realized Wikipedia was indispensable for such queries, for its entries list a person’s date of birth up front, along with paragraphs on the celebrity’s early life, professional career, and personal life. Armed with accurate chronologically-based facts, I learned how little I’d accomplished by 39 in relation to say, Charlie Sheen, who though he is clearly in a class by himself when it comes to the middle age crisis, did have impressive films like Platoon and Wall Street on his resume years before tiger blood and Twitter. Over time my Wikipedia research has uncovered the dark underbelly of my own crisis, which isn’t that I fear death to be imminent, but that I regret the years I squandered in my twenties and thirties loitering through time and space. As a result, my non-existent Wikipedia listing has nothing about the spellbinding novel I’ve written, the legendary appearances on the Charlie Rose Show, the critically-acclaimed performance in Sofia Coppola’s recent dreamy bio-epic on Morrissey or my special friendship with writer Christopher Hitchens. Speaking of Charlie Rose, I know from Wikipedia that he was born in 1942, which if you do the math makes him 69. From my crisis point of 39, I can comfort myself by thinking, “Okay, after the age of 40, Charlie lived 29 more years where he did some of his best work.” I scan down to the "Career" section of his biography where I find the real gem in his entry: he didn’t begin the Charlie Rose Show until 1991 at the mature age of 49. This means I still have 10 more years to finish the novel and/or bump into Sofia Coppola on the streets of Paris. Watching the news over the last two months I’ve become curious about former IMF Chief Dominique Strauss Kahn (DSK). It turns out that DSK is 62 years old, seven years younger than Charlie Rose, but arguably less attractive, although we’d need a woman between the age of 35 and 50 to confirm this. And although he’s shaped like a beet and not particularly handsome, it was a revelation to learn that he was an infamous ladies' man in France. I began to wonder: will I still be attractive to women when I’m in my 60s? Being happily married I will never find out of course, but men — like their female counterparts — like to think they remain at least plausible to the opposite sex. During a typical night of TV I come across CNN’s Piers Morgan, he’s probably about 50, but I’m not that interested in Mr. Morgan so I don’t Google him. I flip from channel 702 all the way up to 790 and then to the chagrin of my lovely wife — who is not in the least alarmed I will soon be 40 — I descend back to 702, pausing briefly on ESPN to marvel at men who are forever in their prime. This pause gives rise to guilt that I’m not reading volume two of the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy by the fabulous Spanish novelist Javier Marias, who was born in Madrid in 1955 and is now 56. I learned too late that Marias is precisely the kind of person you do not want to look up on Wikipedia, because he published his first novel when he was 20, speaks English flawlessly, and because he’s European, does not have the kind of American habits that give rise to middle-aged bellies the size of the Iberian Peninsula. The crisis goes on like this night and day. It matters little whether I’m on YouTube, watching television, flipping through my wife’s magazines or churning through RSS feeds and Twitter updates, there are always endless amounts of famous, middle-age men to look up. There is the former Connection radio host Christopher Lydon (70), my favorite literary critic Harold Bloom (80 — which means I could double my life, if I shared his longevity), former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer (51), British rocker Morrissey (52), and on and on it goes. In addition to my Wikipedia obsession, it has also been impossible to ignore that something new, and very French, is happening to me: I’ve been reading and talking far too much about Paris lately, which is significant because I’m not now, nor have I ever been, a Francophile. A sudden interest in Adam Gopnik’s (55) book Paris To the Moon, a yearning to watch Juliette Binoche (47) movies on Netflix, and the serendipitous connections involving Frenchman DSK, Sofia Coppola (39) who lives in France, Charlie Rose who is a well-known Francophile, and Christopher Hitchens (62), who used to be a Marxist (Okay, I admit that one is a stretch). Having read the novel Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, I was immediately concerned that like the character April Wheeler, I was fantasizing about a magical life in Paris as a form of escapism. It worried me that it was possible to quit my job, sell the condo, move to Paris (I’ve seen it done on HGTV’s House Hunters International after all) and start working on a novel while my wife spent her days buying fresh-cut flowers and baguettes. But before I could become too anxious about what it all meant, a factoid from the book hit me. The characters Frank and April Wheeler weren’t going through a middle age crisis — they were no more than 30 in the book — but a metaphysical crisis, which I wrapped up way back when I was 35! No need to worry. Relieved that the Wheelers’ crisis wasn’t my own, I started thinking that living in Paris for a few years might not be the mark of crisis at all, but an opportunity. That’s what Gopnik did, not to mention the novelist Paul Auster (64) who lived in Paris in the early 1970s. They did not move to France permanently, for that would be rather clichéd, and let’s face it, slightly pathetic. I’m talking about a few years, five tops. I can picture it now: my wife and I are lounging at a café in the 6th district. I’m scribbling away in a notebook as my wife raves about how fresh the arugula is. All of a sudden, we look up and see the lithe figure of Sofia Coppola and her husband, Phoenix front man Thomas Mars (34), standing directly in front of our table. “Are you an American by any chance?” she says. “Why yes. I sure am,” I respond. We invite them to sit down and Sofia explains how her next film is about an American in Paris. She describes the project as a “kind of Henry James meets Quentin Tarantino (48) type of thriller” — and I’m instantly intrigued. Within minutes Sofia presses a script into my hands and declares I’m perfect for the role. We decide to move the feast to Sofia’s penthouse where everyone kicks back, while I rework her script on the fly. I hand the manuscript back to Sofia with red slashes and scribbled words. She pauses to scan my edits and is dumbstruck at my narrative instincts and ear for dialogue. “You’re a writer too?” Sofia says. “Yeah, I’ve written a few things,” I say modestly. “How is it that we’ve never heard of you before,” Sofia says. “With all this talent?” I shrug my shoulders and wink at my wife. “You must be one of those, how do you say in English, late bloomers?” Thomas asks. “That’s it,” I say, downing a glass of wine. “I’m a late bloomer.”   Image credit: Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray (60) on set via orangeintense/Flickr

Watching Cuba Watching

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1. I am in Havana, sitting next to Pepé on the seawall of the Malecón. The news tells me that Cuba is changing, but the sun still looks like a tangerine soaked in blood. We watch it sinking fast into the ocean. My traveling companion KC had asked Pepé to take our picture because he looks to be in his eighties, and we don’t think he will get the wrong idea. At twilight the Malecón, a sidewalk running between a busy boulevard and the sea, is where lovers stroll, teenagers fight and prostitutes prey. We have only been in Cuba for a few days and still don’t fully understand the dual currency system and public transportation, but we know the pervasive hiss of a Cuban man.  A hiss seems to mean anything from a catcall to a simple hello, yet it sounds menacing in our ears. “Are you going to stay for the cannon show?” Pepé asks, after KC explains how to work her digital camera. “There is a cannon show at 9 p.m. every night.” Pepé takes our photo and then sits between us. His face is tanned dark and is wrinkled like a raisin; his light blue eyes are filmy with cataracts. KC’s red curly hair and white freckled skin look exotic next to his. Our six legs dangle above the rocks and water. The night is warm, and we drink pineapple juice mixed with rum, tasting a little salt in each sip from the sweat on our lips. Pepé tells us what the houses lining the Malecón used to look like before 1959. He braces himself on the seawall with one hand while sweeping the other across his body with a flourish. “They were beautiful,” he says. “They were the most beautiful!” I think I can imagine how they might have been, tall townhouses with ample porches and breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean. But now the homes are hunched over, with sagging roofs, broken windows and peeling paint. “Was it better back then?” I ask. I assume Pepé would have been around our age when Batista was still in power. He shrugs his thin shoulders. I still haven’t learned that questions like this make some people uncomfortable. I check KC’s watch. It’s forty-five minutes until the cannon show. Pepé’s loafers dangle higher than our flip-flopped feet; like his body has shrunk from too much heat in the dryer. My heels have been beating against the wall to a rhythm I can’t place. I will them to stop, to just dangle. I breathe in the salty air, in through my nose, out through my mouth.  I press my heels together, my ankles, my knees, my thighs, and release. “I am retired, but before, I worked at a store,” Pepé says softly. His Spanish is hard to understand.  It comes out when he exhales, in phrases bunched into what sound like single words.  “When he came to power,” Pepé scratches his chin to make the sign of a beard, “I worked on the roads, construction.”  He pauses. “The roads are nice, si?” We nod and know that scratching his chin signals that he is referring to Fidel. I had read about the thousands of neighborhood watch teams that Fidel employed, not to protect the streets from drug dealers or burglars, but from dissidents, counterrevolutionaries. “But yes,” Pepé says quietly, “it was better before.” We continue to sit, and I stretch my legs long, trying to touch my toes to the water. “Ten cuidado! Be careful!” Pepé says. “When I was a boy, I once saw a shark when I was swimming out there!” “What kind of shark?” “Do you think I waited around to see?!” Pepé cackles and slaps his knees.  He looks at KC’s watch.  “It is almost time.” We sit up straight. It is dark now, but I get my camera out just in case.  I strain my ears to hear and my eyes to see. A single cannon goes off, we hear it in the distance. Pepé swings his legs around the seawall. “I am going home.” “Is it over?” we ask. “Yes. And it is time for me to go to bed.” 2. I am sitting in a health clinic in Cienfuegos, a town off the southern coast of Cuba. Dr. Mario grasps the flabby underside of my right tricep and presses it to his face. “Do you know Gary Cooper?” he asks me in Spanish. “No.” “You have never heard of him?” “Is he an old movie star?” I guess, vaguely remembering my mom telling me that one of her girlfriends named her new Mini Cooper “Gary.” “He was very famous,” Dr. Mario says. He speaks slowly and is easier to understand than most Cubans we have met, perhaps because the clinic I have come to is designated for tourists. “He came here once.” It is stuffy in the clinic, and I’m feeling self-conscious about Dr. Mario’s face so close to my armpit. He looks to be in his forties, and I wonder if he knows his name reminds me of a Nintendo video game character. My arm is covered in red welts that look like a topographical map of volcanos.  He raises my tricep to a 90-degree angle, and presses my elbow away from his face. I wince because this is the movement that makes my shoulder roll out of its socket. “Am I hurting you?” he asks, looking puzzled.  My shoulder has dislocated two other times I have traveled outside of the US.  When it springs from its socket, my tendons release and only a doctor is able to put it back in.  In Spain, I became fluent in ways to explain my shoulder in the sling.  But that was years ago, and I have forgotten the conjugation. “A shoulder I have is bad,” I tell Dr. Mario.  “At times it hurts me.” “Oh, I am sorry, I will be more careful.” I smile and try to relax my shoulders to prove that I trust him. “Does your arm itch when it is wet?” he asks. “Yes.” After leaving the heat of the interior of Cuba, in Cienfuegos we had chosen a casa particular, a home with a license to rent bedrooms, near the water. We have been swimming in the ocean ever since we arrived. “Does your arm itch when it is dry?” “Yes.” “Would you say that this thing is spreading?” Dr. Mario asks. “I think it’s spreading a little.” “Have you seen Back to the Future III?” “Yes.” “Did you like it more than the second one?” “Not really.” “It’s on TV right now.” Dr. Mario’s nurse turns the TV on. “Some Miami channels come in right here.” Dr. Mario’s nurse wears a tight white blouse that shows her deep cleavage, and her skirt ends a foot above her knees. She wears white fishnet hosiery and a little white hat with a red cross on it. My sister received the same outfit as a gift at her bachelorette party. We have found in Cuba this is not just the uniform for nurses though. Every woman in uniform, from teachers to policewomen to shopkeepers, wears a similar variation of short skirt, tight top and fishnets in eccentric patterns and colors.  KC and I call them the naughties and delight over pointing them out to each other.  The naughty nurse was earlier acting as a receptionist.  Now with her in the room with Dr. Mario, KC has wandered in too and is standing by the doorway.  The health clinic for tourists is otherwise empty.   I see KC fingering her camera in her pocket, dying to take a picture of the most perfect archetypal example of a naughty. Dr. Mario and the naughty nurse have become engrossed in Back the Future III. “I have noticed a bit of bumps on my side too,” I say to get their attention. Dr. Mario turns back to me, puts on his glasses and looks again.  “I think it is a rash. Yes, it is a rash.  I’ll give you some cream.”  He gives me calamine lotion, the same stuff I have been using.  My visit is pointless, but it only costs $25 dollars, the same as Dr. Mario’s monthly salary, if he is lucky. “Have you ever seen Platoon?” he asks as we walk out. “No.” “It’s a good movie. You should see it.” 3. Tony instructs us to find big rocks.  He wants to place big rocks behind the tires of his tiny red car so it does not roll down the road.  The road is black asphalt which is cracked and frying under the mid-day sun.  The road goes straight up the side of a tree-covered mountain, and the mountain looks steeper than a black diamond ski run.  Tony is old and rusty like his car, but he’s squatting in a sprinters pose behind the bumper as if he’s about to spring off the blocks.  He has all 130 pounds of himself pushing against the car, waiting for KC and me to produce rocks.  For the first few minutes of rock hunting, we have avoided the woods running alongside both sides of the road, but now I am starting to panic; I am starting to envision Tony’s car flattening him, so I run into the woods even though the grass is as tall as I am and the snakes are waiting to eat me.  When we find four big enough rocks and bring them to Tony, he talks to God as he places each rock behind each tire. Tony tells us that he thinks it’s the caja de cambia that is broken in his car.  Caja de cambia means box of change and at first I think he means a piggy bank, but then I think harder. It has to be something with the gear shifter, the transmission?  I look to KC, who doesn’t understand very much Spanish, but has a penchant for memorizing bizarre vocabulary.  She shakes her head no; she doesn’t know what it means either. Tony’s car is a red Russian Lada that was probably built in the 70’s.  The cars in Cuba are either American and built before 1962 when the full embargo started, or Ladas from the 70’s and 80’s when Cuba was on good terms with the Soviet Union.  Seeing old cars zoom through Cuban cities has made me feel like I am magically living in the past, but right now there is nothing supernatural about a car in the middle of nowhere that won’t start. Tony tells us to sit on the edge of the road and stop hovering.  KC gingerly extracts our water bottles and towels from the back seat.  The sun is directly overhead and her watch confirms that it is noon.  To cool down, we debate taking off our t-shirts and shorts and just being in swimsuits, but we decide that being hot is better than being sunburnt. We hide under our towels instead, marinating in our sweat. We have hired Tony to take us to El Nicho, a set of waterfalls hidden in the forest 90 km inland from the southeast coast of Cuba. Public transportation and car services won’t go to El Nicho because too many vehicles break down going up and down the mountain and then can’t be rescued due to lack of traffic and portable phones.  Even though Raul Castro has just allowed Cubans to own cell phones, people are still without enough money for food.  Several Cubans we have stayed with have insinuated how they find the futile freedom insulting. KC and I continue to sit under our towel tent as Tony continues to curse at his Lada and God.  There aren’t many cars to be had in Cuba and they are expensive to maintain because they’re so old. The owner of our casa had arranged a ride for us yesterday.  When the driver arrived, KC left for a minute to buy more water.  The driver just saw me, a blonde wearing sunglasses, sneakers, a tank-top, and running shorts, waiting in a rocking chair with my bottled water, camera, novel, and sunscreen.  He turned his car around and left.  “That’s what I was afraid would happen,” our casa owner had said.  “You look too foreign.  Being caught driving a foreigner when you don’t have a license is a crime.  If caught, his fine could cost him many months salary.”  We hadn’t realized riding in a non-licensed taxi was a crime.  I felt embarrassed we had put him in that position, yet if car owners don’t get caught, their payoff is a small fortune.  This morning our casa owner called his friend Tony.  We are paying Tony $50 to take us to and from El Nicho, where we will get to swim in secret waterfalls at the top of a mountain, a magical experience we expect to talk about in tones of reverence for years to come.  For this trip Tony will receive the equivalent of almost five months’ salary. Tony tells us the car is dead and KC and I confer as to whether he used the permanent or temporary verb form of to be.  “We will have to just sit here and wait for another one,” he tells us in Spanish.  And I want to tell him what a terrible idea this is.   Obviously no one will be driving by in this remote part of the country and even if they are, who will want to risk putting foreigners in their car, and how are we supposed to walk somewhere when Tony’s so old and it’s so hot and his caja de cambia, essentially his 401K, is broken, all because we wanted to swim in a waterfall and see places others can’t. I say nothing and tilt my bottle of water his way.  He waves it off and says he will try the car one more time. He turns the key, and the engine sounds like shoes in a washing machine, but at least it’s making noise. Tony yells for us to get in, “The car has started! Run!” He reaches over and opens the front passenger door, and we throw ourselves in.  We squish into this one seat, afraid to move, afraid to let one of our legs accidentally touch the gear shift.  We hold our breath and suck in our stomachs. From the way the car is bucking and inching up the hill, it looks like a low-rider with massive shocks.  I whisper that we are in a rap video, we are video vixens, and we start to laugh. Tony hears us laughing and he laughs too.  “Gracias Tony,” I say. “Me? Thank Cuba!” he replies.  He starts to chant “Cuba.” Starting low and slow and getting faster, “Cooooooooooooobaaaaaa, cooooobbbbaaaaa, coooobbaaa!” he commands us to join. “Cooooobaaaa! Coooooooba! Cooooobbbaaaa!” we shout over and over, and the car doesn’t stop until we get to the waterfalls. 4. I am running in the sand shouting to a boy named Manny to pass his soccer ball “aqui, aqui! Here! Here!” My voice is loud and there is no inflection of a question in the words that come out of my mouth for I am feeling confident. For three weeks, KC and I have been seeing boys play soccer in every city and town we visit, and I have watched with unfettered envy, having played soccer since I was five and desperately wanting to join but feeling too shy.  Besides, being foreign women traveling alone has created more attention than we have wanted or expected.  Playing soccer in the streets wouldn’t help our immersion. Yet the longer we are in Cuba, the more I have been fantasizing about a stray ball coming my way, and kicking it back with perfect precision and the eight-year-old boys cheering and begging me to join their team. While KC and I are walking along the beach in the small town of Playa Siboney, the stray ball finally rolls my way. I kick the ball back firmly and with precision.  He kicks the ball back to me, and therefore I love him. Manny tells me in Spanish that he and his friends are seventeen and recently out of school for the summer holiday. He asks me if I am a professional soccer player and I am flattered, even though he only asks me this because girls in Cuba don’t play sports; he assumes I have to be. “No, I’m not a professional.” I laugh. “You don’t play?” “No. Well, yes, I do.”  There was the rec league I joined in NYC the previous year, where our forty-minute games revolved more around the post Happy Hour spot than the actual soccer.  “I am on a team, but it’s not professional.” “So you’re a professional?” “No.  I’m on a team of people my age and older, people who have jobs, so yes they are called professionals, but they are not professionals at soccer. Just professionals at work.” “Jorge ven aqui!” Manny shouts to his friend.  “La rubia es un jugador professionale!” The blonde is a professional soccer player! He turns back to me.  “Are you here with your team?” Deciding I love the sound of jugador professionale, I relent. “No, It’s off-season right now, so I’m on vacation.” We decide to play an actual game with the boys but opt to go back to our casa particular first to change into t-shirts and shorts.  We tell the boys that we will  be back in five minutes, and Manny and Jorge tell us to put on shoes too because once out of the shade, the sand gets so hot that our feet will burn.  They show us pieces of cardboard duct-taped to the pads of their feet. As we jog to our house, I thank KC for humoring me.  “It will be good practice,” she says, “for when you start your job.”   Before leaving for Cuba, I had accepted a coaching position in NYC that would entail coaching high school boys around the same age. “I know! Maybe they can give me some ideas.” After changing, we race back to the beach only to find that the boy who owns the soccer ball has left. “Do you want to go swimming with us instead?” Manny asks. We look at the ocean. “Swimming in the ocean” for Cuban teens involves throwing a bottle of rum from person to person, and couples groping each other underwater.  “No,” I say.  “I think we’ll just read.” We settle down on our towels and open our books. Moments later six of the boys are back, making themselves comfortable in the sand next to our towels.  They speak in rapid-fire Spanish. We had been able to hold our own when it came to soccer, hot sand, and my professional status, but now, we struggle to understand.  For a while we ask them to slow down por favor or we simply nod, “Si, estoy de acuerdo.”  Yes, I agree with you—something we have picked up when the owners of our casa particulars vent about the Cuban economy.  Eventually, Manny stops and slowly repeats himself. “So you want to buy me?” “What?” I say. “Buy me. For the night. Or one hour if you like.” He shrugs one shoulder. “But you might want two.” Manny’s skin is tanned dark, he has floppy brown hair and looks to be too thin for his age. I want to take him to get his hair trimmed so he can see better and then buy him ice cream. “No! No! I don’t want to buy you.” His face falls and I look to KC as I feel myself blushing and talking faster and faster.  “Thank you for the offer.  It’s just that I don’t buy people. I don’t need to buy people.  In the States,” I jab a finger toward the ocean, “We are doing just fine, you know, without buying people.” For once, it’s the boys who are looking confused as I continue to babble.  “We don’t buy people.  You are not for sale.” I have read about the Cuban sex trade.  We have seen older European men with Cuban girls whose little bodies barely fill out their bikinis. But we have watched from a distance.  Seeing the girls had sickened and saddened me, but I still felt like I was the observer, a sociologist of sorts. “Yes, we are for sale,” Manny restates.  “Older women like to buy younger boys.”  He speaks slowly and deliberately so nothing is lost in translation.  His friends, who all look to be even younger, nod. “We pleasure them, and they buy us presents.” “Listen,” I try again. “We can’t buy you.  I taught boys your age in school about books, and grammar and poems—” “We can teach you too.” “No, no.” I am feeling flustered.  These boys who were jabbering about how to make shoes out of cardboard are now asking us to buy their bodies.  Maybe these boys were just joking with us, maybe they thought we were somehow their age too. “How old are these women who buy you?”  I ask. “All ages. Some 75, others younger.  They like us young boys. You would too, yo prometo, I promise.” 5. KC and I are wandering down the beach, looking for a hidden path.  That morning the couple we were staying with told us about a hidden path off the beach which led to a wooden bridge and across the bridge, there is a village, and somewhere outside the village, there is a road and off the road there is a section of jungle and through the jungle there is an underwater cave that sometimes people lead you to for a small price.  But seeing as I still got confused when people directed us to go straight, derecho, versus turning right, derecha, and the air in Baracoa smelled like chocolate no matter where we walked, I didn’t have my hopes up for finding the cave. Already the town of Baracoa had seemed mysterious, a city on Cuba’s easternmost tip— closer to Haiti than to Havana.  It was discovered by Columbus in 1492 but remained, essentially, only accessible by boat until 1964 when Che Guevara presided over the opening of a chocolate factory and a highway was built. We spot the path and cross a river by walking across a bridge made of wooden beams.  Beside the bridge, shirtless men drag nets along the bottom of the river.  Small sail boats are tied to the edge of the river and on the other side is a village, just like we were told.   In the village we wander along a dirt road but then we don’t know what to look for.  Wandering has taken on a new meaning in Cuba; every day we wander, waiting for something to happen, hoping what happens will be good; it usually is. An old woman beckons for us to enter her home off the dirt path. Her house is a small hut with an earthen floor.  Several rats as big as cats stare at us from the inside of two wire cages, while the woman cuts up mangos with a machete.  She hands pieces to each rat and to me and KC. She asks us if we have come to see the underwater cave.  She says, “We give tours for not much money.” We see an old man sitting in a chair who looks to be the woman’s husband.  There are also two girls who look to be in their teens.  Each of the girls is breastfeeding an infant.  While the women speaks to us in Spanish about the underwater cave, the old man sits motionless in his wooden chair.  His chin rests against his concave chest and he appears to be sleeping.  The chair looks like it grew around him and if you cut him he would have rings of age too.  Yet when we agree to go on a tour to the cave, he quickly stands.  His puddle of wrinkles loosens and he looks younger, now maybe seventy years old instead of 1,000. Without speaking, he motions for us to follow him to the back yard. Behind their house is a grove of very tall coconut trees.  A few giant hogs and a trail of piglets follow us through the grove and a younger man appears from behind one of the trees.  The younger man welcomes us and knocks coconuts down by throwing his machete at the high branches. He cuts the tops off the coconuts and gives them to us to drink.  When we are finished he tells us we can give our extras to the pigs.  “Are you ready to see the underwater cave?” the younger man asks. The old man, still having not spoken is standing next to the younger man.  Again he motions for us to follow him. Then he starts to sprint, straight into the jungle. KC and I run after the old man who is weaving through the jungle.  The path is narrow so we run in single file. While running I glance back at her while trying not to lose my footing.  She’s still there—she smiles.  The old man wears sandals and loose pants.  He sidesteps every tree branch, but they scrape across my face and when I look down I see that my arm is bleeding.  The blood looks burnt, and I wonder if my face is bleeding too, but I can’t stop because I can no longer see the coconut grove behind us, and we don’t know where we’re going. After twenty minutes of weaving through the trees, the man stops abruptly in front of a tree with branches stretched like octopus tentacles.  I bend over and breathe hard, asking my heart not to explode. KC catches up, and we look at each other with big eyes. The man reaches for one of the branches and pulls down a rope ladder.  He mimes climbing and points at me to start.  My legs are shaky as I slowly move up the ladder.  At the top is a platform the size of home plate balanced between two branches. KC and I grasp the tree trunk between us with both hands as we both tentatively place our feet on the platform. Wow, I try to say as I open my mouth wide, but no sound comes out.  It’s as if the man’s silence has rendered me mute.  I can see green mountains.  I can see El Yunque, a mountain with a flat top that Columbus had thought was a floating island over 500 years before. I lift to my tiptoes and I see the ocean; I think I see Haiti. We are on an island in the ocean, on a tree branch with an old man.  I look down the tree, and the old man has disappeared. Magical, I think. I am experiencing magic. A moment later, I see that the old man has not ascended into heaven, the old man is removing rocks from his sandals.  He is breathing hard from running too, and I am looking at the top of his head.  When he looks up at me, I point out to the horizon, I point to our vista and call down the tree. “It’s amazing!” I say.  “Que bontia! What beauty! Is this all yours? Is this land in your family?”  He doesn’t answer.  Later that day, after we swim in the underwater cave, after more mango with his family, after holding the babies, I remember stupid, stupid, none of this is his. 6. I am standing in a bus station trying to see Raul Castro.  He is on a small, dirty TV hanging from the ceiling. The TV is on mute, but I can still hear his voice projected by loudspeakers across the city.  I am in Santiago de Cuba and Raul is making his first public speech since being appointed president.  He is 300 yards from the bus station, but he is in a park surrounded by tall yellow walls that make it impossible to get inside. We have been in Cuba for 22 days.  It is July 26th.  On this day in 1953, Fidel and a group of 82 revolutionaries attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba.  The attack failed, but the group later reorganized in Mexico. On New Year's Day in 1959, when Batista and his family boarded an early morning flight to flee Cuba, Fidel and his revolutionaries had officially overthrown their government. It is the failed Movimiento 26 de Julio that is  celebrated, however, because it marks the first act in the ultimately successful revolution--a pre-pre-triumph. For many years, this was the only holiday that Fidel allowed to be celebrated. This particular July 26th is being hailed as the 50th anniversary of the final victory of the revolution. The TV shows me that Raul is wearing the same Army green hat and jacket that he and Fidel always wear in public.  But he looks nothing like Fidel, besides being old.  He is shorter than Fidel and wears glasses.  A moustache has replaced the beard. The reception on the TV is bad and lines run through Raul’s face.  Also, the bus station smells like mold, so I leave and try to get closer to the voice.  It has grown dark while Raul has been speaking, and from the way the stage is lit, the yellow walls now appear gold. I am alone because KC has a stomach bug and is trying to get some sleep in the casa where we are staying.  Outside the walls, I still can’t see Raul, so I leave to check on KC. The hilly streets in Santiago de Cuba remind me of San Francisco.  From every angle, I can see the Sierra Maestra Mountain range looming over the city, the mountains which Fidel and his men hid in before their final triumphal entry.  There is a soft breeze tonight, and I am enjoying the solitude.  I decide to walk the long way and buy KC lemon soda for her stomach before returning home. Our only plan for our time in Cuba was to be in Santiago de Cuba for July 26th.  We left the US on our day of independence and wanted to get, on time, to the city where Cuba celebrated theirs. Since the day we arrived in the city, we have been asking official looking people when Raul would speak.  What time? What place? But no one seemed to know or care.  “In the morning?” a policeman would say.  “Late at night,” another would answer.  Maria, the woman whose casa we were staying in, explained that people were not very excited about Raul.  “He’s just the same,” she had said in Spanish. “But what about the DVD players he is allowing and the cell phones and how you can go to the hotels?” I asked.  Under Fidel, Cubans had not been allowed in any hotels. Fidel hadn’t wanted his tourist base to see the hunger of his people.  The people still couldn’t afford a hotel, but I thought that the added freedoms must be a step in the right direction. “He is just the same,” Maria repeated. “They make promises they can’t keep.” To celebrate the Movimiento 26 de Julio, there has been a weeklong carnival with parades every day and parties every night that have lasted until six in the morning.  But now as I walk to buy KC the soda, for the first time I have been in Cuba, or any city for that matter, the streets are empty.  The emptiness feels eerie, as if the city has been raptured to somewhere else.  I hear no hissing, no rubia, no questions of where I’m from, no begging, all I hear is Raul’s voice. Even though I can’t understand what he is saying, I can hear the rhythms of his oration, the rise and fall of his speech and the volume growing softer and louder.  During my time in Cuba I have understood a large amount of Spanish, but the voice filtered through the loudspeakers, his thick accent, the night, I can’t comprehend a word he says—as if he’s only telling Cuba his secrets. Houses line the streets and the windows and doors of every house are open to catch the breeze.  I can see inside the homes because they are lit by Raul’s face.  In each house, families, couples and friends are gathered, their faces also illuminated by Raul.  Some of the homes are nice by Cuban standards with a couch, tiled floor and a fish tank on display, whereas others have dirt floors and plastic chairs, but almost every home has a TV. I walk slower, unnoticed.  I watch a city watching Raul on the night of the anniversary of the revolution.  I watch a nation with the potential for magic, broken but tied to an event so many years before.  I watch Cuba watching for its demise or its triumph, afraid to admit its hope. (All photos copyright the author)

Down by the Riverside

- | 6
I. Having failed to convince friends to join me, I went alone to Riverside Church the night of November 9th for Mary Travers’ memorial service. On my way in, an usher handed me a program with a black and white photograph on the cover of a bombshell with long blond hair and blunt bangs, a straight nose, almond eyes staring at the camera, and a sensuous mouth. I opened the program and scanned the pictures—black and white and color, aesthetically delineating eras—on the inside flaps: that same blond bombshell performing at the Lincoln Memorial (black and white), smiling at her husband (color), doing presumably good deeds in a presumably third world country (black and white), and with her two bandmates, smiling and bald from chemotherapy on what looks like the stage at Carnegie Hall (color). Inside the sanctuary, the pews were packed with the predictable sea of gray hair, sober colors, practical sweaters and comfortable shoes. (Two thousand people, the paper reported the next day.) I slipped into a seat three rows from the back between a man my father’s age and a woman my mother’s. At 29, I was at the youthful end of those who had read the small notice in the Times that morning: “A memorial celebration of the life and music of the folk singer Mary Travers will be held at 7 p.m. on Monday at Riverside Church. Ms. Travers, who with Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey formed the renowned trio Peter, Paul and Mary, died on Sept. 16. Besides Mr. Yarrow and Mr. Stookey, participants in the celebration will include Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Tom Paxton… Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Moyers, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and former Senators George S. McGovern and Max Cleland.” A video montage of Peter, Paul and Mary concert clips featuring “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” was code for “Please turn off your cellular devices,” and the service began. Cameras on mechanical arms manned by a PBS film crew patrolled the airspace above the gray heads like giant disembodied insect legs. As it goes with memorial services, a parade of people—many famous—from Travers’ life then began filing on and off stage to lead the audience in song and to recall and applaud her beauty and talents and hobbies and temper and quirks and grace in the face of illness. November 9th would have been her 73rd birthday. I thought about how somber parades like this of personalities and anecdotes ask us, “Remember this time? Remember that time?” and how we in the audience then say to ourselves, “Yes,” even when the truth is closer to, “No, but I believe it.” Veiled cell phone warnings notwithstanding, for the duration of that first half hour, a man in the pew in front of me held his phone in the air so that the person at the other end of the line could hear what she was missing. I pictured that other person on a couch in a comfortable living room somewhere sitting alone with the phone to her ear, her face quiet. I wondered whether she was his wife, daughter, or granddaughter and whether she could hear a word of what was being said or sung through the earpiece, or whether all she heard was the occasional garbled lyric of a well-known protest song and the static of periodic applause. I preferred to imagine her as woman of about my own age and the man in front of me as her father. He had probably told her about the car he drove in those days, about the time he took it to the record store to buy his first Peter, Paul, and Mary album, about how he had taken the record back to his house, put it on the record player and promptly developed a crush on that blond bombshell. Maybe he had told her how he had once seen the group in concert and been close enough to see that the buttons on Mary’s shirt were made from mother of pearl. Speaking of mothers, he may have then said, your mother has always been very patient with me. Sitting behind him that night, I wondered whether holding up his phone was this man’s way of asking his daughter to remember the things he had told her about who he had once been in another time and place. I wondered whether the she in this equation was sitting wherever she was sitting with the phone to her ear for his sake or hers. II. As a teenager I watched the movie Harold and Maude thinking what an eccentric hobby it would be to spend one’s spare time attending strangers’ funerals. That’s what you are supposed to think when you watch that movie; its eccentricity is the engine of its charm. Yet in the past year, this extracurricular activity seems to be one I’ve begun cultivating. Last February I braved an hour and a half in the bitter cold outside Riverside Church in a line that wrapped around the corner and reached to Broadway to attend Odetta’s memorial service. In May, I finagled prime seats to Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday Bash at Madison Square Garden. The concert may have been billed as a celebratory extravaganza but it resembled a memorial service in that the celebration was one of a life nearing its end, and Pete was more the theme of the evening than the primary performer. And now, the Mary Travers service, back again at Riverside. I plan to keep going as the services keep coming, which they will. So far, the events I’ve attended have shared traits: length (they have all been at least four hours long), singing, the singing of specific songs (“This Little Light of Mine,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “Amazing Grace”), references to Selma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Dr. King, the Kennedy brothers, Nixon’s List of Enemies and Greenwich Village in the fifties and sixties, and famous faces on stage or at the pulpit podium (Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Gloria Steinem, Peter Yarrow, Bill Moyers). The crowd always knows the words to the songs, as well as to clap reverently while nodding knowingly at the mention of key cultural touchstones. To watch a crowd like this respond to the word “Vietnam” is akin to watching more traditional evangelical churchgoers respond to a particularly resonant passage from The Book of John. I went with friends to the Odetta service and to Pete Seeger’s birthday concert, and socialized with them throughout both, so sitting alone through Travers’ service was a new experience and one I intend to try again. All around me was a burgeoning community of mourners coming to pay their final respects and say goodbye to all that. The pews have been full thus far, but looking at that sea of gray hair I have begun wondering whether this Riverside pew community will begin to thin out as the services reach a fever pitch, then slowly fade to nothing. I keep picturing myself among the stragglers at these final services and us stragglers—us Harolds and Mauds—getting to know each other, making the pews a good place to be as our own hairs begin to gray. A fair number of the people there had probably been at Odetta’s service and Pete’s birthday as well. Many were the same people who had celebrated life in a different way fifty or sixty years ago, doing their small parts to imbue the words “Selma” and “Vietnam” with the meanings they have today. Many, but not all. Some were also young, some middle-aged. These are the ones I will sit with when the pew population thins out. I looked for them now and then among the faces in the crowd that night. I wondered whether one day one or more of them would confide to me that the same things that brought me to these pews had brought them as well. When I first took my seat that evening, I noticed those around me taking stock of my person—my age, my moderately expensive handbag, my iPhone, my fur vest. Throughout the service the man on one side of me would occasionally lean over and quietly ask me a question. In each case, I couldn’t tell whether he was hard of hearing or whether he was quizzing me on my place in that pew. If it was a quiz, I failed. The woman on the other side of me would wait for my responses before correcting me. “Who’s that?” he whispered, as a man with white hair in a grey suit took the podium. “McCarthy?” “McGovern,” corrected the woman on my other side. I flushed. As a string quartet played Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” he turned to me again and whispered, “What movie is this from?” “Apocalypse Now?” “Platoon,” hissed the woman on my other side. I wanted to apologize for getting his questions wrong even when I knew the answers. Instead, I smiled as I stood to leave five minutes early. For the past half hour people had been slipping out and I had begun to feel as if I had stayed too long at the party. I was neither family, friend, nor peer, after all. I wished them a good night, hoping that next time, I would answer their questions correctly, that I would know my history, for their sake and mine. III. Goodbye to all that. You can’t write that phrase and not name-check Didion, who earned her reputation as the observer in their youth of the generation I was now observing in their age. In her famous essay, she explains how over the course of a decade, she fell in and then out of love with New York. She flew into the city at 20, a girl with all the time in the world, and she flew out of it at 29, a woman aware that neither time nor life were what they had been when she arrived. The essay is a memorial to a time and a place, and to a girl who had been and who that girl had become. It is melancholy and wry and wise and tender and bitter and sweet. As it was beneath the arched stone ceilings of Riverside Church, beneath the strict architecture of Didion’s sentences, there is a great deal of emotion churning that people understand. Sitting in the church that night with nearly 2,000 people who remembered where they were and what they were doing on those days in 1968—more than a decade before I was born—when the gunshots sounded in Memphis and Los Angeles and their youth ended, I realized that just because these people had said goodbye to all that does not mean they ever let it go; that’s what memorial services like this were for. While some of the famous folkies may have lived fast, that was not the image they were projecting. The movement’s breakout stars were people who resembled, at least superficially, your average guy and gal who wanted to change the world and make it a better place back in the day; the folkies most resembled the everyday members of that generation. The ones dying now are not dying young, troubled, or tragically; these are the ones who have just gotten old and sick. I never worry much about the fate of classical music or the novel when I catch talking heads bemoaning their imminent demises. I have a feeling both will find ways to weather their current and future storms with an audience to support them spiritually if not financially. I don’t know if I can say the same for folk music. It rose to popularity as a single generation came of age. It fell from grace when that generation got its rude awakenings. It has been growing old ever since alongside the people with whom it blossomed. I wouldn’t be surprised if it dies with them, too. When Pete Seeger took the stage at Mary Travers’ memorial service, the entire room rose to its feet, a single organism, to give Seeger a standing ovation before his name had even been announced. Everyone in that room knew who the stooped old man carrying a banjo in the plaid shirt was. Last year, when I told friends—well-educated, left-leaning, socially-conscious individuals—I was going to Pete Seeger’s birthday concert, more than a handful had responded saying, “Wait, that name is familiar. Who is that again?” IV. There’s a Tumblr site called My Parents Were Awesome where people can submit old photographs of their parents when their parents were young. The site is like a photo album for a generation, not the public face of that generation, but a more private one. There’s Jim with his long hair and beard smiling at Elaine with her long blond ponytail and paisley shirt. There’s Vilma bearing her middriff at a dancehall. There’s Karin and Gary snuggling on a lime green beanbag chair. There’s Jim, hairy and shirtless, standing in the doorframe above Sue in her swimsuit on the steps of a wood-framed cabin. There’s Bob sucking on a hookah at the dining room table, and a smiling David embracing a smiling Norma in a peasant shirt that billows over her pregnant belly. My parents were awesome once, too. My mother left the chicken farm in Maine where she had grown up for adventures in rent-striking, a summer on a Massachusetts naked commune during which she ate a naked dinner with Taj Mahal, and a failed-yet-eye-opening attempt at group-living in Haight-Ashbury; and my father, the architect and painter, who escaped the stifling atmosphere of country club St. Louis life for Cambridge and the offices of Hugh Newell Jacobson and Jose Luis Sert. They weren’t exactly hippies or fervent subscribers to any particular counter-cultural trend, but they were young and open to experiences and taking chances with their lives. For years, there was a large painting of a suitcase hanging in my parents’ living room in Virginia. When I would ask about it my mother would respond, “Oh, that’s just by an old girlfriend of your father’s back in Cambridge.” I always wondered why my mother was okay with the fact that this strange still-life hung in our family living room, but it seemed to be something I would never understand. I’ve seen too the clothes my mother wore then. I fit into them in high school: the pink Mexican dress that ended halfway down my thigh, the brown and white striped Marimekko shift cut for a stick figure. I remember when she first brought them out of the attic for me to try on. “You look beautiful,” she said, looking at me in the Marimekko. “It fits you perfectly.” I continued growing, of course, and the dress hasn’t fit me for years. I don’t even know where it is now—whether it’s packed back away in some attic box that I will find when I have reason to go through those boxes, or whether I forgot it at a friend’s house or left it behind in a hotel room somewhere along the line. There is a photograph I have on the refrigerator of my Brooklyn apartment that I think illustrates a moment of transition in my parents’ lives between who they were once and who they are now. It’s a family portrait taken on my mother’s childhood farm. My mother, in oversized sunglasses and her long hair pulled back, is beaming and holding the reins of my grandfather’s appaloosa. My father, in his aviators and chin-length hair, is standing behind the horse. You can’t quite see it, but you know his left hand is supporting me at six-months-old perched in the western saddle in front of my sister, who was seven years old at the time and who has her arms wrapped tightly around my babyness to make sure I don’t tip over and fall off. My parents are still relatively young here, they both look young and as if they might still occasionally act young around their friends. When my own friends come over and notice the picture, they often do a double take between me in real life, and my mother frozen in time. “You two look exactly alike,” they say. The photograph, snapped in 1980, is in color, but the color wears that yellow coat of time. It is maybe the only photograph I have of my family in which I can see, for my parents, the continuity between their youth and their age. That said, I write this in a moment that I recognize as yet another time of transition in all our lives. The baby in the picture has just turned 30 and my father celebrates his 70th birthday in May. The hand holding up the baby in the photograph is slowly being lifted up and away from horse, saddle, and the blond seven-year-old as well. My father, who has taught architecture at the University of Virginia for more than three decades, has been trying to pin down his retirement plans for years. He would habitually drag his feet when the topic came up, but this past summer, he set a date: May 2010. Two months later, the 36-year-old who was once the blond seven-year-old was diagnosed with cancer. There’s still the four of us for now, but there are also other things. V. I discovered the music of the folk revival movement after watching The Eyes on the Prize PBS series about the Civil Rights Movement in my eighth grade civics class with Mr. Moore and wondering about the soundtrack. Mr. Moore wasn’t crazy about getting up to the blackboard to lecture us, so he showed us movies instead. The Eyes on the Prize series took up a good two weeks of class time and by the time we had finished it I had decided I wanted to be a folk singer when I grew up because that was an effective way to change the world. I remember coming home each day after school and asking my parents about whether they had been to Selma or the March on Washington or where they had been when Dr. King was shot and how they had confronted their own parents about politics and whether they had ever seen Dylan in concert, or Odetta. To some questions they answered “Yes, and he was rude,” and to some, “No,” sometimes adding, “but we did watch on television and were of course sympathetic.” I was disappointed that they hadn’t been more politically strident, but was glad they hadn’t been boring either. I don’t know if folk music is still an effective method of changing the world, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for it and for the sincere singers who popularized what became anthems for my parents’ generation. That said, I’m not and never have been a huge fan of Peter, Paul, and Mary. For all the individual strength of Mary’s vocals, I’ve always thought of the group as a little bland. Although my parents know all the songs and have memories of the group from when they were young, they feel—and felt—the same way; my parents and I have always preferred Seeger and Woody Guthrie and Arlo and Joan and Joni and Dylan. I did, however, at some point during my adolescence buy a CD or two of Peter, Paul, and Mary’s music that I would listen to occasionally. The first (and only) time I ever tried to add my own verses to a folk song was in ninth grade after repeatedly listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version of “500 Miles.” “If you miss the train I’m on,” the song goes, “you will know that I am gone…” I cannot remember what new stanzas I wrote down in the song notebook I kept, but I do remember how encouraging my parents both were when I came downstairs to sing for them with the guitar they had bought me. I went to Mary’s memorial service, not for Mary so much as for my family. These days, when I talk to my parents on Sunday evenings as is our routine, we ask each other what we’ve done during the week. I tell them about the parties I’ve been to and the music I’ve been to hear and the museum exhibitions I have every good intention of attending. They tell me that the dog is well fed, that they talked to my sister a few days ago, and that things in general are just fine. But more and more, they’ve been telling me, too, about who doesn’t know how he hurt his back and who is feeling sad about her childrens’ life choices and who needs a hip replacement and who died quietly from a heart attack the day after he had gone out and bought himself a new computer. Every six weeks or so, we’ll go through the “What did you do this week?” routine, and they will run through the typical list of responses before I will say, “What else?” and they will then hesitate before elaborating: “Well, we went to so-and-so’s funeral. It was nice.” Most of the time it’s just an acquaintance or neighbor they have lived down the street from for 35 years, but sometimes too, and with increasing frequency, it is a beloved old boss or friend. I think then about Mom and Dad coming home from these services, my father calling to the dog and retreating to his studio, my mother going to her computer to see if there is a new email waiting for her in her inbox from either me or my sister. I can only hope we don’t let her down too often. I knew when I told my parents over the telephone I had gone to Mary Travers’ memorial service that—even though they hadn’t been fans per se—they would want to hear all about it, just as they had wanted to know every detail when I told them I had gone to Odetta’s service and Pete’s birthday. I could hear it in their voices as they asked me questions—Who spoke? What did you sing? Did many young people go? Did you have a good time? Who went with you?—that they wished they could have been there. In each case, I tried to tell them everything I could remember to make what I had seen come alive for them, but I am a poor storyteller and I know my paltry accounts left them unsatisfied after we had exchanged “I love yous” and hung up the phone. VI. Riverside Church it is not yet a confirmed venue on the old folkie memorial service circuit, but my money’s on the likelihood of it becoming one. It is an interdenominational church with a liberal tradition. Martin Luther King spoke there, Nelson Mandela has too. The walls soar up past scenes in stained glass from the life of Christ to a domed ceiling. Church acoustics are always tricky, especially when the place has to accommodate more than a single voice. Sounds bounce from wall to wall to wall so that when you are singing as part of a group you can never be sure if you are singing to the intended beat or to your own imagined tempo; it’s nearly impossible to discern whether what you are hearing and following is coming directly from the choir and choir director, or from an echo across the room. Not even Pete Seeger, the master song director himself, can overcome this technical glitch. That night, my corner of the room reached the final line of “This Little Light of Mine” at least a measure ahead of Seeger and his banjo that “surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” Outside, the church dwarfs the other buildings on its quiet Harlem corner and opens onto Riverside Drive. Unlike the great cathedrals of Europe, it does not open onto a city square in which pigeons beg for birdseed, men with carts sell postcards, and enterprising artists sell watercolors to tourists. Instead, it opens onto a scene that at first appears more modest but is really just more American. From the front steps you look out not at other buildings enclosing you inside the city, but to Riverside Park, the Hudson, and across the state line to the trees of Cliffside Park, New Jersey. Even the church’s name reminds me of its political and social allegiances. It was probably an unintentional allusion, but nonetheless when I think about the church I soon find myself humming an old Baptist spiritual co-opted by the folk revival movement: Gonna lay down my sword and shield, down the riverside, down by the riverside, down by the riverside... I met the first boy I ever really loved during our first week of college in 1998. We sat next to each other at a lecture being given by the Reverend William Sloane Coffin. It was a small lecture hall and only half full. Coffin had been the outspoken and progressive chaplain at Yale during the Civil Rights Movement and then served as a senior minister at Riverside through the late Eighties. He retired to Vermont, not far from where I arrived that September, more than a decade younger than I am now. I don’t remember exactly what he lectured on that evening, but I do remember his thick white hair and how whatever it was he was saying was what I wanted to hear when I was scared and lonely, missing home and my parents intensely: stuff about taking on the world and doing the right things and making our families proud and one day, too, ourselves and our own children. Coffin died in 2006 at age 82, two and a half years after the boy I met that night when I was 18 years old broke my heart. The boy and I didn’t start dating immediately as I had thought we would when we said goodbye to each other that night in the chilly New Hampshire darkness outside the lecture hall. In fact, we didn’t even know each other until we met again and started dating a couple of years later. We were a case of opposites attracting. I am highly sensitive and impulsive where he was (and is) analytical and methodical. It took me a long time to understand him, but my lack of understanding never meant a lack of sympathy, respect, or comfort. I always remembered how something had brought him to that auditorium his first week of college, how he had been there, his knee touching my knee, as we forgot—temporarily—our anxieties about our new lives. When we were together, I would sometimes ask him if he remembered that night and he never did. “Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember?” I would ask. “We went to see William Sloane Coffin. We sat next to each other. I knew then that everything was going to be alright so far away from home.” In response, he would smile and shake his head. “No,” he would say, “I don’t remember, but I believe you.” Image credit: Fabian
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