Staff Picks

Lost Worlds: On Stephanie Vaughn’s Sweet Talk

I first learned of Stephanie Vaughn’s short stories through The New Yorker fiction podcast, when Tobias Wolff read her story “Dog Heaven”. (Three years later, Téa Obreht chose “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog” from the same collection, Sweet Talk.) Podcasts are my way of getting through laundry weekends, and I remember listening to “Dog Heaven” while I was folding a stack of tee shirts at my kitchen table. But at some point I had to stop to wipe my eyes. And then I just had to give up on the laundry altogether because I couldn’t concentrate on something as banal as folding tee shirts. I’m pretty sure this is the point of literature: to break us out of our routines. I’ve read “Dog Heaven” several times since then and it always gets me feeling a little weepy. It’s a flat-out masterpiece, the story I would give to anyone who is lukewarm on short stories. (And, according to publishers, there are a lot of you out there). Without giving too much away, “Dog Heaven” is about a dog, Duke, who loves his family so much that he runs away from “dog heaven” in order to be with them. Gemma, the family’s young daughter, narrates the story, but in a way, the story’s true narrator is Duke, the dog. The story’s first sentence -- “Every so often that dead dog dreams me up again” -- is perfection, letting you know right away that you are about to enter a lost world, one that maybe only Duke and Gemma know about. Many of Vaughn’s stories depict lost worlds. Gemma is a recurring narrator, a military brat whose family moves often, going from one base to another. You would think this would lead to a feeling of dislocation, but Gemma has a sharp, outsider’s eye and her observations are grounding rather than alienating. I was especially intrigued by a story set (in part) on Governor’s Island, a small island in the New York Bay, just off the southern tip of Manhattan. Nowadays, Governor’s Island is a public park, a summertime spot that hosts public art and 1920s-themed parties, but in the 1970s, when Vaughn’s story is set, it was a slowly-dying military base: If you looked away from the light of the city, you looked back into the darkness of the last three centuries, across roofs of brick buildings built by the British and the Dutch. The post was a Colonial retreat, an administrative headquarters, where soldiers strolled to work under boughs of hardwood trees, and the trumpeting of recorded bugle drifted through the leaves like a mist. It was a green, antique island, giving its last years of service to the United States Army. Vaughn grew up a military brat, like Gemma, and in a recent interview for The Rumpus, she talked about conjuring places from her past, observing that over time, “you are as much an invention of your memories as you are the author of them.” You can feel that invention of memory taking hold in Gemma’s narration, as she looks back to her childhood and tries to make sense of her relationship to her family, and in a larger sense, her country. There is ambivalence toward authority throughout Sweet Talk, something more than the usual coming-of-age disillusionment, as Gemma confronts the dark side of military culture. It’s an ambivalence that feels especially relevant now, as Americans look back on a decade of war overseas. Sweet Talk was published in 1990, with most of the stories being published in The New Yorker in the 1980s. It was re-issued last year by Other Press, and in her interview for The Rumpus Vaughn indicated that she has been working on a novel, but wouldn’t say much more. I am naturally eager to read more of Vaughn, but Sweet Talk is an achievement in its own right, not the training ground for a novel or the precursor to something greater. Here’s hoping it stays in print for years to come.
Staff Picks

“The Locked Room of Himself”: On Colm Tóibín’s The Master

A confession: I haven’t read much Henry James. I read Daisy Miller in college, along with a few of James’s better-known short stories. Later, maybe in grad school, I took a run at one of his novels, though I can’t say I remember which one, or really much else about it except that the sentences seemed to go on for days and I gave up after only a few pages. Reading James made me feel dumb, and while I recognize that feeling dumb is a necessary part of learning new things, there’s only so much time I’m willing to spend struggling to read a book that makes me feel like an idiot. As a consequence, I have lived a James-free existence for the last twenty years. Given that, I would have figured I would be the last person on earth to enjoy Colm Tóibín’s 2004 novel The Master, a fictionalized account of Henry James’s life from 1895 to 1899, which sounded to me like a highbrow Behind the Music-style wallow in the fields of Jamesiana. But I was wrong. While I’m sure a serious Henry James head would get more out of The Master than an ignoramus like me, I found myself both riveted and deeply moved by Tóibín’s novel despite, and perhaps even because of, my lack of knowledge about Tóibín’s subject. For me, and for I suspect a lot of contemporary readers, Henry James is something of a blank slate, a cardboard cutout of a nineteenth century Dead White Male Author, essentially interchangeable with any number of DWMAs of the period, from William Dean Howells to Anthony Trollope, whose work I feel slightly embarrassed about not having read. Oddly, this turns out to be a perfect starting place for an author creating a fictional character. Because Tóibín is writing about a real historical figure whose significance is a given, he can skip all the boring expositional scenes that would persuade you that his main character is, despite his limitations, worthy of your interest. But because he is writing fiction, Tóibín can also dispense with the narrative distance of biography and bring you directly inside that powerhouse of a mind as James tries to make emotional and moral sense of himself. That James fails, and ends the book unable to love anyone outside the pages of his own fiction is his tragedy, but the fact that you care about him anyway, that you spend more than 300 pages hoping James will break free from what Tóibín calls “the locked room of himself,” is Tóibín’s triumph. I have never cared so much about a character I liked so little. One of the few things I knew about Henry James going in was that he is widely perceived as being the poster boy for the closeted gay Victorian, and because Tóibín is openly gay and because I have no imagination, I assumed The Master would drag poor Henry kicking and screaming out of the closet. Indeed, Tóibín’s James is powerfully attracted to men, and spends one deliciously ambiguous night cuddling naked in bed with a boyhood friend, the future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. But as masterfully as Tóibín handles James’s struggles to keep his homosexuality latent, the central relationships in the book are with women – first with James’s cousin Minny Temple, who died young, and later with fellow novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, who committed suicide at least in part because James could not return her love for him. In these cases, we watch the usually imperious Henry James get positively tiddly with puppy love, and later, when these women need him, we watch in horror as he coldly cuts them off, leading, perhaps indirectly, perhaps not, to their deaths. Then, a bit ghoulishly, he begins to write them into his books. In Minny’s case, he calls her Daisy Miller and has her die in Rome. A few years later, he calls her Isabel Archer and marries her off to a caddish snob named Gilbert Osmond, with whom she lives unhappily in Italy. Tóibín writes: He wanted to take this penniless American girl and offer her a solid old universe in which to breathe. He gave her money, suitors, villas and palaces, new friends and new sensations. He had never felt as powerful and dutiful. … There were scenes he wrote in which, having imagined everything and set it down, he was, at moments, unsure whether it had genuinely happened or whether his imagined world had finally come to replace the real. Thus, the problem for Tóibín’s Henry James is not that he is a closeted homosexual, or that he is incapable of feeling love. He feels love profoundly, for women and men alike, but he can’t act on it in any way that might compromise his freedom as an artist, and instead he pours out his love for them in his novels after they’re dead. That, in this case, his love for Minny Temple gave us The Portrait of a Lady may be enough for some. It isn’t for me. As much as I care about books, I think people matter more in the end. But what makes The Master such a compelling read is that Tóibín has a subtler mind than I do and can see both sides of the question with equal sensitivity. He doesn’t shy away from the human destruction James leaves in his wake, but he also brings James alive on the page, not as a monster or emotional cripple, but as one of the great minds of his age expressing love the only way he knows how.
Staff Picks

Video Games Are a Metaphor for Life: Austin Grossman’s You

On the evening of Christmas 1992 I lay on the floor sobbing and screaming “HE KILLED ME!” repeatedly. I was referring to a game of Mario Brothers that my brothers were playing, having received it that morning. (I do maintain that my brother killed me in an underhanded manner -- that being pausing the game when I was mid-jump, resulting in my inevitable fall into the chasm when the game was unpaused -- and he did it was because I was winning.) That’s the last time I played a video game. Nevertheless, I like listening to people talk about video games. Not those conversations about who scored a sick no-scope head shot, or which character's passive ability allows them to farm the most efficiently, mind you, but about why video games can be meaningful and why they matter. That is exactly why I read Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell, who has an interesting grasp on both the purposeful and the harmful side of habitual gaming. I went to a party where my friend gave a presentation on video games, how they’ve shaped his relationship with his brothers and how the hours he spends playing them make him feel content. Then I read Reamde by Neal Stephenson, which blurred the line between what happens in-game and what happens in the real world in a fascinating way, before it abruptly stopped and did less fascinating things. I like observing the way video games give their players epic purpose on a manageable scale. When I came across You by Austin Grossman, the newest addition to video game literature, I was intrigued. Grossman is the author of 2007’s Soon I Will Be Invincible, and an experienced game developer. You is the story of four friends - Darren, Simon, Lisa, and Russell - who begin designing games in high school and start Black Arts Studios together. Darren is the charismatic leader, Simon is the aloof genius, Lisa is socially awkward but brilliant, and Russell is the one who thought he was above it all. When the rest of them went to UMass together he went to Dartmouth and then law school. At the beginning of the book, he has dropped out of law school and been hired as a game designer at the company that made his high school buddies rich and famous. You is not subtle about the fact that video games are a metaphor for life, and this is what I liked best about it. During his job interview at Black Arts, they ask Russell to describe his ultimate game, and he is flummoxed. What is the ultimate game? A game that is both immersive and fulfilling? What will make him happy? What kind of man does he want to be? With the high-stakes hero’s journey laid out on the table in the first chapter, Grossman has 400 pages to explore every possible way the video game production process parallels Russell’s life. What it lacks in nuance it makes up for in genuine energy. You get the feeling Grossman has been wanting to talk about video games in this way for a long, long time. As Grossman has firsthand experience of producing a game from concept to shipping, he’s usually in one of two modes: explaining the logistics of video game production or showing how deeply you can read into them. Sometimes he just sounds like he’s bragging about how hard and awesome his job is, such as: “It was like we had all the problems of shooting a movie while simultaneously inventing a completely new kind of movie camera and writing the story for a bunch of actors who weren’t even going to follow the script.” The book is at its best when the two modes work for each other, when the logistics of playing a video game dovetail into what he’s saying about the vagaries of adult life. As Russell plays his way through the Black Arts catalogue, he observes the following: “It’s only when you finish the entire damned Realms of Gold III and start on the next one that you see one of the deep truths of the WAFFLE engine. Because when you type rogiv.exe, you get the prompt Import rogiii.dat?” Those two sentences express something vital to Russell’s journey, the way he has moved from one path to another in life without ever really starting over, and they also unlock the plot mystery brewing at Black Ats, and they do it in language I wouldn’t have understood when I started the book. It’s video game language, and Grossman wrote a terrific book with it.
Staff Picks

James Ross’s They Don’t Dance Much Returns From the Grave. Again.

Some novels have strange after-lives. Few can match They Don't Dance Much, the only novel James Ross (1911-1990) published in his lifetime, a book that helped launch a hard-scrabble vein of American literature we now call "country noir." The novel tells a bewitching tale of lust and bloodshed and death – laced with sly humor – in a North Carolina roadhouse during the Depression.  After its initial publication in 1940, despite some positive reviews and praise from the likes of Flannery O'Connor and Raymond Chandler, the novel disappeared like a stone dropped in a lake. For the next three and a half decades it remained virtually unknown.  Then, in 1975, Matthew J. Bruccoli, editor of the Lost American Fiction series at Southern Illinois University Press, brought the novel back to life, accompanied by an ebullient, bittersweet introduction by the best-selling crime writer George V. Higgins, who pointed out that Ross's novel was a marriage of magnificent writing and horrific luck. But even the author of The Friends of Eddie Coyle couldn't revive Ross's literary reputation outside his small, fiercely dedicated cabal of fans. Once again, the book sold poorly and soon disappeared. Another three and a half decades slipped by. There were signs that Ross's lone novel was gone but not altogether forgotten. In 2009 Newsweek critic Malcolm Jones included They Don't Dance Much among his 10 favorite crime novels. While researching an essay here about Ross and other "one-hit wonder" novelists in 2010, I learned that a North Carolina academic named Anthony Hatcher had begun working on a biography of Ross and was trying to get his unpublished novel, In the Red, into print. And in a New York Times review of Joe R. Lansdale's Mucho Mojo, the country noir master Daniel Woodrell named James M. Cain, Erskine Caldwell, and Jim Thompson as Lansdale's literary influences. "James Ross is scarcely ever mentioned," Woodrell went on, "though his one novel, They Don't Dance Much (1940), might be the finest of the lot. He is the forebear Mr. Lansdale most strongly brings to mind. They share a total trust in the straightforward power of a man's voice speaking when he has a witch's brew of a tale to tell. No tricks, no stylish ennui, no somnambulant remoteness or pointless savagery are required..." That review by Woodrell was in the air a couple of years ago when the literary agent Craig Tenney telephoned Otto Penzler, president and publisher of Mysterious Press. "Even though I've been collecting mystery fiction for many years, I didn't know about They Don't Dance Much until Southern Illinois Press brought out that edition in 1975," Penzler recalled recently. "The book stuck with me. On the phone that day I was telling Craig about what I wanted to publish. I'm big on Cain, Ross Macdonald. Craig asked if I'd ever heard of They Don't Dance Much by James Ross. I said, 'I love that book!' It reminded me so much stylistically of Horace McCoy – a little bit like Cain, Erskine Caldwell." Remembering Woodrell's review in the Times, Penzler told Tenney, "How about I commission an introduction by Daniel Woodrell? We could publish a print book and an e-book." When Penzler approached Woodrell, he agreed immediately. But first they had to secure rights to reissue the book. Tenney works at Harold Ober Associates, where Ross's last agent, Knox Burger, had worked until his death in 2010. (While working as fiction editor at Collier's magazine, Burger had published two of Ross's short stories in 1949. Other Ross short stories were published in Sewanee Review, Cosmopolitan, the Partisan Review and Argosy.) Tenney approached Ross's widow, Marnie Polk Ross, the executrix of his estate, and found she was enthusiastic about the idea of a new edition. "Otto Penzler's a very well known person and Mysterious Press is a reputable press, so I was delighted to do it," Ross told me on the phone. "I'm thrilled, that's the right word. I didn't expect this but I'm never surprised, I guess. Things do happen." In his introduction to the new edition, Woodrell says that it was Higgins's recommendation that turned him on to They Don't Dance Much back in the 1970s: "I only read the book because the covert avant-gardist George V. Higgins vouched for it as both literature and a good time. Higgins was quickly proved right, and only became more right as each page was turned – They Don't Dance Much coulda, woulda, shoulda baby, but for some reason didn't, a fate that is eerily in keeping with the ethos of the novel." Woodrell points out that, despite the frequent comparisons, Ross was no acolyte of Cain's. In fact, Ross claimed he had never read a line of Cain's fiction when he sat down to write his novel. He said he admired Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Ring Lardner. Given Ross's scorching sense of humor, I've got a hunch Lardner was on top of that august list. The late William Gay understood Ross's desire to distance himself from Cain. Shortly before he died in 2012, Gay wrote in the Chattahoochee Review that They Don't Dance Much is "as noir as novels get. It made the pseudo-tough style of Cain read like Dick and Jane Go To the Sea Shore and reminded me of the early stories of Ernest Hemingway... As far as I'm concerned, this book is where dark Southern fiction began, and any writer who works in the field owes Ross a debt of gratitude, whether he or she has read They Don't Dance Much or not." The closing sentence of Woodrell's introduction serves as an appropriate last word: "They Don't Dance Much, a novel that was often declared dead but never successfully buried, offers a persuasive portrait of a rough-and-ready America as seen from below, a literary marvel that is once again on its feet and wending its way toward the light." So read this dark dirty lovely country-noir masterpiece already. It deserves a better fate.
Staff Picks

Staff Pick: Terese Svoboda’s Tin God

1. I went to an event in New York a while back, maybe a year ago, where various writers were giving readings on the theme of movies. The time limit was three minutes, although this was frequently ignored. Everyone told a personal story that was in some way movie-related — except one. When Terese Svoboda got up, toward the end, she said, “I misunderstood the assignment. I wrote a three-minute movie,” and then read, for three dazzling minutes, text that was something like a film script and something like poetry, a fragmentary series of images suggestive of a noir mystery. Something about a running man, I think, and the hands of a clock. If she was out of step in that parade of personal narratives, she was out of step in the most sublime and interesting way. All of the readers that night were good, but I wished a few more people had misunderstood the assignment. I’d only read one book of hers at that point, the in-my-opinion-mildly-flawed but delightfully strange Pirate Talk or Mermalade. This is someone, I thought, from whom one can reasonably expect originality, and I was delighted to see this suspicion confirmed in Tin God, recently reissued in paperback by the University of Nebraska Press. 2. In Tin God there is a conquistador, and he’s fallen off his horse in a field of tall grass. He comes to and hears whispering all around him; a tribe of grass-dwelling people have come across him in the midst of their hunt. They’re reasonably sure he’s a god — the way he lies there in full armor like a flipped-over beetle, glinting improbably in the sun; the way his eyes are the color of the sky, unsettling to a people who’ve never seen blue eyes before — but it’s impossible to be sure, so they send him a virgin to watch how he uses her and to gather proof. Five hundred years later, a sweet but dim-witted gogo dancer named Pork loses a bag of drugs in the same field. His friend Jim threw it out of the car, which as he points out probably saved them from certain legal entanglements given that a cop was after them, but the problem is a tornado touched down in the field in between Pork and Jim throwing the bag out of the car and Pork and Jim coming back to look for it, and now the bag could be anywhere. The field is torn up and in disarray. Pork is in a certain amount of trouble. God watches over both narratives. God is, in fact, the first-person narrator of the book, whose opening lines are “Hi, this is God — G-O-D, God with all the big letters. I’m out here in the middle of a field.” God is everywhere, especially in the field; God knows everything; God is somewhat competitive and likes to win; God sometimes takes the form of a Nebraska farm woman who enjoys donuts and drives a pickup, because why not. (“I drive by on my route that follows Pork’s, lifting My two fingers off the wheel in traditional car greeting.”) Tin God is confidently-written, often beautiful, sometimes profane, and strange in the best possible way. It takes some time for the two narratives to come together, but the entire picture does eventually click into place and there’s a feeling, reading this book, of encountering something that hasn’t been done before. It seems to me that Terese Svoboda is a true original.
Staff Picks

Staff Pick: Terry Tempest Williams’s When Women Were Birds

When Terry Tempest Williams’s mother was dying, she told her daughter that she was leaving her journals to her, with one condition — that Williams wait until after her death to read them. Williams honored her mother’s wish and when she finally opened the journals she was shocked to find that every one of them was blank. When Women Were Birds is a memoir that explores this extraordinary gesture, one that Williams chose not to write about until she turned 54, the age her mother was when she died. The book’s subtitle, “54 Variations on Voice,” refers not only to her mother’s age, but to the book’s structure, which consists of 54 short chapters. Some chapters contain stories from Williams’s childhood and give glimpses of Williams’s mother, the kind of stories you would expect from a traditional memoir. Others contain lists of words, excerpts from letters, quotations, notes, photographs, and even blank pages. It’s an intimate, fragmented book, written not to tell a story but to hint at stories untold. Williams admits that when she first discovered her mother’s empty journals her disappointment was difficult to bear: “The blow of her blank journals became a second death.” She had hoped that the journals would reveal her mother’s private life and thoughts, but instead Williams was left with even more questions. She wonders if her mother’s refusal to keep a journal was an act of defiance; as a Mormon woman, Williams’s mother was expected to keep a journal. “All Mormon women write,” Williams explains, “This is what we do, we write for posterity, noting the daily happenings of our lives. Keeping a journal is keeping a record. And I have hundreds of them, hundreds of journals filled with feathers, flowers, photographs, and words. Without locks, open on my shelves.” For Williams, a writer, her journals are a refuge, but perhaps for her mother, not writing offered a great feeling of protection, of privacy. “My mother’s journals are her shadow. They hold her depth and substance and her refusal to be known.” Williams has said that she wrote When Women Were Birds as a way to explore voice, but instead she ended up writing about silence. To write about silence sounds like a zen koan, and there is something meditative about this book, especially in the way it avoids storytelling and even analysis. And yet it is compelling, drawing you in by the weight of its questions and the open, searching mind of its author.
Staff Picks

Staff Picks: Tell Me A Riddle

A few years ago, at a publishing conclave in Manhattan, someone handed me a slim unlovely galley called The Riddle of Life and Death. It consisted of a pair of novellas: Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Tell Me A Riddle, by Tillie Olsen. I'm always in the market for Tolstoy -- even Tolstoy I already own. But who, I wondered, was this Tillie Olsen? And aside from a certain anagrammatic plausibility, what had she done to deserve the unenviable role of Count Leo's undercard, the "Under Assistant West Coast Promo Man" to his "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction?" Before I could be bothered to find out, a move to a new apartment landed the book in a giveaway box on the stoop. Well, praise be to the gods of books on stoops, who apparently make allowances for callowness. Walking through my neighborhood one day last December, I stumbled across a hideous Delta Trade Paperback of Tell Me A Riddle. If the Gift-like circularity hadn't caught my attention (give an Olsen, get an Olsen) the promise of an introduction from John Leonard would have: See how it's done: First what Cynthia Ozick once called "a certain corona of moral purpose." And then the prose that lashes like a whip, that cracks and stings. And then the judgment coming down like a terrible swift sword. And then a forgiving grace note, like haiku or pascal. memory, history, poetry, and prophecy converge. Reading her again, and again, and again, I find that when you love a book, it loves you back. Jesus, does it ever. I actually postponed reading Leonard's introduction until I'd finished the book, but by the second page of the first piece, "I Stand Here Ironing," I, too, was feeling the love: palpable, unflinching, almost parental. By the twelfth and last page, I was in tears. "I Stand Here Ironing" is a story about a working mother, but to call it that -- even to call it the best story ever written about a working mother -- feels reductive. Work-life balance may now be the stuff of Atlantic cover stories and Lean In, but in 1961, exploring it in fiction was a downright radical act. The middle two of these four stories more obviously connect to Olsen's reputation as a feminist and Paleyesque working-class heroine. But the political virtues that helped to land them in anthologies and on syllabi in the '60s and '70s may also have contributed to Olsen's relative obscurity among readers of my generation, for whom the canon wars are settled history. (The fact that she never published another collection of fiction after Tell Me A Riddle can't have helped. Nor, come to think of it, can the spectacular disservice book-cover designers have done to it.) Oddly, then, the partial eclipse of her politics might be a good and a timely thing: it gives us room to see her art. The novella that concludes Tell Me A Riddle tells the story of a long marriage, and is one of the great pieces of writing about death. As the wife grows sick, the couple haul themselves around the country, visiting their far-flung progeny. And in the nearness of its approach to their worries, it approaches poetry: In the airplane, cunningly designed to encase from motion (no wind, no feel of flight), she had sat severely and still, her face turned to the sky through which they cleaved and left no scar. So this was how it looked, the determining, the crucial sky, and this was how man moved through it, remote above the dwindled earth, the concealed human life. Vulnerable life, that could scar. There was a steerage ship of memory that shook across a great, circular sea: clustered, ill human beings; and through the thick-stained air, tiny fretting waters in a window round like the airplane's -- sun round, moon round. (The round thatched roofs of Olshana.) Eye round -- like the smaller window that framed distance the solitary year of exile when only her eyes could travel, and no voice spoke. And the polar winds hurled themselves across snows trackless and endless and white - like the clouds which had closed together below and hidden the earth. "Tiny fretting waters..." "Clustered, ill human beings..." "Vulnerable life, that could scar..."  I've been carrying these lines around with me for months now, waiting for a chance to share them. Normally, the fact that someone beat me to the punch here at The Millions would be a source of regret, but I'm happy to find myself in Alice Mattison's amen corner. Tell Me a Riddle really does deserve a place next to Ivan Ilyich, it turns out -- not because Tillie Olsen's a progressive and a humanist (though more power to her), but because she's a master, and this story, this book, is her masterpiece.
Staff Picks

What We Talk about When We Talk about Crying: John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars

A friend of mine told me I should read The Fault in Our Stars, John Green's young adult bestseller, after she finished it last fall. “I cried my eyes out,” she said. When I walked up to the counter of a bookstore, a few weeks later, with The Fault in Our Stars in my hand, the manager said, “This is the only book that’s ever made me cry on the subway.” I read it in one sitting, and then it was I who was thusly cry-sharing to everyone I could find. “Just read The Fault in Our Stars in a hotel in Denver,” I texted my friend, “Will now go cry forever.” It keeps going. In December I told my friend that all I wanted for my birthday was for her to read the book before my party. That afternoon she wrote me: “Well, I won’t ruin your birthday by showing up not having read that book, but I’m afraid I will ruin it by sobbing uncontrollably all night.” Another friend, last week, wrote to let me know that she had read the book in one day. “I have a headache from crying,” was her take. For the last two months, no more than a few days ever go by before I’m talking to someone about The Fault in Our Stars, either because I’m begging them to read it, or because they’ve just finished reading it at my prompting. And what we talk about, always, is the crying. Be ready to cry, I say, don’t read it in public, make sure you have plenty of time to read the last 100 pages in one go. And then they tell me how much they cried, how it surprised them, even after all my promises. Another friend needed a vacation book and asked me, “What’s that book you’re always talking about? The super sad one.” I began to feel uncomfortable about my relationship with this book. It’s a sad book, to be sure, about two teenagers who meet in a support group for kids with cancer, but it’s also joyful, hopeful, wise, funny, romantic, and genuinely inspirational. So why, in my efforts to share this joy and hope with other people, did I keep saying, go be unspeakably sad for as long as it takes you to read a 300-page book? I think that when we talk about The Fault in Our Stars, we go straight to the unspeakable sadness, out of all the emotions evoked, because we want to convey the incredible emotional resonance of the book. What we’re trying to say is: this book mattered deeply to me, I think it could matter deeply to you too. At some point I stopped experiencing this book as fiction, and started experiencing it personally. I read fiction so that the characters' stories, for the time that I’m reading the book, or hopefully longer, will be important to me. And for as many books as I go through, it’s rare for one to succeed. What we’re trying to say to each other is that this is one of those rare books; that you will love the characters the way you love real people, they will make you laugh and cry and want to live a better life. We’re saying, I felt something transforming. You should feel it too. How disappointing of us, that instead of saying any of this, we yap, “I cry! You cry! We all cry!” at each other like nimrods who’ve never articulated an emotion before. ("Hope you're ready to cry!" said the young adult librarian when I checked out two of John Green's earlier books. "I am!" I chirped back.) How disappointing of me, who ostensibly makes a trade of describing books to other people. I have an extensive vocabulary for books with flaws; books that fall short of the ideal. But when the ideal book comes along, I’m stumped. Is The Fault in Our Stars without flaw? Probably not. But I don’t remember what any of them are, because all I remember is how much I loved it, and apparently I don’t have a vocabulary for this situation. I’ve decided to work on that. In the meantime, you should read The Fault in Our Stars. Besides a small infinity of other things, it will make you cry.
Staff Picks

Love in the Bottom Rung: Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband and He Hanged Himself

It’s a cliche to note that New York City or London or any other glamorous locale is a character in the books that take place there. But in the case of There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself, a collection of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s Soviet-era short stories, Russia may be the only character. The book’s 17 stories are only a few pages each and read so quickly that their plots and characters didn’t make a lasting impression on me. What did is Soviet Russia, and Soviet Russia was the pits. The collection’s subtitle, Love Stories, is apt not in the sense that many people end up with love and happiness, but in the sense that the characters — uniformly underpaid, underhoused, underappreciated, and low on groceries — have nothing to hope for but love, the one resource that can’t be rationed. They live in cramped city apartments, assigned to them by the state, with one or two generations of their family, and work in thankless jobs. The most depressing love affairs — emotionless, unrequited, exploitative — shine with promise in these settings. The stories, as they usually go, start with a cutting introduction of an unattractive young girl: There once lived a girl who was beloved by her mother but no one else. What terrible fits she threw, this proud fighter for love! It’s incredible what she went through. Take, for example, her departing husband’s good-bye punch that knocked one of her front teeth inward. A mother brought her girl to a sanatorium for sickly children and then left. I was that girl. These inauspicious beginnings are followed by genuinely pathetic possibilities of love. As in, my married coworker is coming over for sex tonight so I asked my mom to absent herself; or, I think I’ll seduce my sister’s husband. Story after story goes by with these unfortunate souls aiming for the lowest rung of happiness and frequently missing. In the rare instance that they succeed, what kind of victory is the lowest rung of happiness? No one ever said reading Russian literature was a picnic. And yet, Petrushevskaya’s vision is not wholly desolate. If the depressing nature of Soviet life is the book’s first constant, the second is the characters’ romantic optimism, which, under the circumstances, feels like grit. This hope among the ruins, if you like, is patly expressed here: They were referring, of course, to love, for what else could girls of eighteen talk about? They discussed other things, naturally: books, weather, terrible accidents in the city, injustice and deceit, their childhoods, the constant ache in their feet, and problems at work. But mostly they spoke about friendship and love, tried to analyze their feelings, applied intuition or simply closed their eyes to everything and cried their hearts out, and gradually, in the course of those conversations, acquired a protective layer of hardness that sealed their mouths and left them to fight their grown-up battles alone, wordlessly. What’s remarkable is not the love they find, but the fact that they’re looking for it. Given their youth, it’s the most natural thing in the world. Given their options (again, the married co-worker or the brother-in-law) it’s either audacious or loony. But they’re looking, is what Petrushevskaya wants us to see. They are indeed proud fighters for love, and when they do attain that low rung of happiness, you can’t help but be happy for them.
Staff Picks

A Younger, Stranger America: On Harry Houdini’s The Right Way to Do Wrong

This is what gets lost in the hand-wringing over the mergers and rumors-of-mergers between America’s Big Six (or Big Five?) publishing houses: there are more than six publishers in this country. There are countless presses that continue, every year, to publish great work. They range from the large and very well-established -- W.W. Norton and Grove/Atlantic -- all the way down to the micro-presses. Somewhere inbetween is Melville House, which for these past few years has been producing, alongside new offerings, a delightful line called The Neversink Library. Out-of-print works, some in the public domain, are resuscitated as slim paperbacks. Harry Houdini's The Right Way to Do Wrong (subtitle: “A unique selection of writings by history’s greatest escape artist”) is a jewel of the collection. This is a peculiar little book, a collection of Houdini's writings on various topics that opens with an endearing and widely applicable list of tips for the aspiring magician: In winning your audience, remember that “Manners make fortunes,” so don’t be impertinent. An old trick well done is far better than a new trick with no effect. Never tell the audience how good you are; they will soon find that out for themselves. Nothing can give greater delight to the gentler sex than to have some flowers handed to them that you have produced from a hat or paper cone. Rabbit tricks are positive successes. Before he was Harry Houdini he was Erik Weisz, born in Budapest in 1874, son of a rabbi. The family emigrated when he was four years old and settled in Appleton, Wis., the town he later claimed as his birthplace: “I am an American by birth,” he wrote, “born in Appleton, Wis., USA, on April 6 1873.” Why not? It’s a harmless enough deception. There’s something moving in the repetition of the statement. The book displays Houdini's obvious fixation on the difference between what he did, his harmless deceptions -- the card tricks, the “I am an American by birth, born in the USA,” the time he reprogrammed a pair of French letter cuffs on the sly in order to expose a fraud­ -- and the deceptions that cause harm. He is a principled illusionist. The title essay is by far the longest piece in the collection. “I trust this book will afford entertaining, as well as instructive reading,” he wrote in the preface, “and that the facts and experiences, the exposés and explanations here set forth may serve to interest you, as well as put you in a position where you will be less liable to fall a victim.” He goes on to describe, in considerable detail, a dazzling array of cons and acts of perfidy, from overcoat thieves and second-story men to rigged card games and women who work in teams to steal diamonds. But beyond the criminals, the diamond thieves and the conmen, the collection functions as a glimpse into a fascinating world of low-rent, high-risk stunt performing that’s largely faded away. Sword swallowers still exist, but the days when they could travel the country and fill theaters are over, and theirs is only one of a vast range of peculiar acts that Houdini encountered on the road: “In my earlier days in the smaller theaters of America, before the advent of the B.F. Keith and E.F. Albee Theaters, I occasionally ran across a sailor calling himself English Jack, who could swallow live frogs and bring them up again with apparent ease.” Besides English Jack, there is “that degenerate, Bosco, who ate living snakes.” There are poison-eaters and stone-eaters and a man whose stage act involves drinking 30 or 40 glasses of beer. Houdini writes at great length of the magnificent Thardo, an unusually beautiful woman with whom he performed in Chicago, whose act was based on her apparent immunity to rattlesnake poison. The collection provides of a glimpse at the fascinations of a truly unusual man, and a glimpse of a younger, stranger America.