Staff Picks

Staff Pick: The New Jim Crow

If you are anything like me, you cried along with Jesse Jackson on the November night, now almost four years ago, that Barack Obama was first elected president. Jackson, who had been with Martin Luther King the night he was shot in 1968, seemed to be passing the torch from a generation of black men and women who had known segregation and racial oppression to a new generation that not only stood as equals to white people, but could offer up a leader to help bring the nation out of a financial crisis. But if you were one of hundreds of thousands of young black men in prison, many of them on drug charges, Nov. 4, 2008, was just another night in a long march to nowhere It is the plight of these Americans, not the success of figures like Colin Powell and Oprah Winfrey, that law professor Michelle Alexander believes gives us the clearest picture of the true state of race relations in the Age of Obama. In her book The New Jim Crow, Alexander, a former ACLU staffer, argues that the 30-year-old War on Drugs has created a de facto “racial caste system” to replace the Jim Crow laws that fell in the 1960s. Today, thanks in large part to the drug war, more than 2 million people, disproportionate numbers of them black and Hispanic, are locked up in America’s prisons, giving us an incarceration rate of 750 per 100,000 people, outpacing even repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran. In major cities, Alexander says, four out of five black men have criminal records, which not only takes them out of the legitimate economy while they’re in jail, but keeps them out of work after they’re freed because of widespread, and quite legal, discrimination against ex-convicts. According to Alexander, an unholy cocktail of strict drug laws, selective enforcement, harsh sentencing rules, and societal discrimination against ex-cons has led to a systematic stripping of voting rights, economic security, and basic dignity for a generation of black men. To make matters worse, she says, most states restrict prisoners’ right to vote, rendering those most affected by the drug laws unable to help elect politicians who might make the system less draconian. She writes: The stark and sobering reality is that, for reasons largely unrelated to actual crime trends, the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history. And while the size of the system alone might suggest that it would touch the lives of most Americans, the primary targets of its control can be defined largely by race. Readers familiar with the horrors of the Jim Crow era may find it hard to see today’s drug war, harsh as it may be, as destructive a system of social control as decades of sharecropping, systematic disenfranchisement, and lynch law - to say nothing of the centuries of slavery that came before it. In her effort to wake up her readers, Alexander may be guilty of exaggerating for effect. If so, the exaggeration is worth it. The War on Drugs, and the massive buildup of our prison populations, has barely come up in this year’s presidential campaign. Before we lecture the Chinese and Iranians on their treatment of their ethnic minorities and dissidents, we need to look more closely at the millions of our own people we are locking up for years, often for no more than possession or sale of a few grams of weed. The statistics Alexander cites, while shocking, are hardly new, and the racially stratified world she describes is visible to anyone with open eyes. It’s there when a white person describes a neighborhood as “sketchy,” and we know without having to ask that this means the area is full of poor people of color. It’s there if you drive in a car with a black man and notice how careful he is to abide by traffic rules whenever he sees a cop. If you are white, it’s there every time you pass a police officer and smile, knowing there is no chance he is going to stop you and frisk you for drugs. “I have a dream,” Dr. King declared in 1963, that black Americans would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” For many Americans, particularly those of us who are white, that day may have seemed to come four years ago when an overwhelming majority of Americans of all colors voted for Obama for president. The New Jim Crow reminds us that we aren’t there yet, not by a long shot.
Staff Picks

Back in the USSR: On Maurice DeKobra’s The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars

Imagine if Bertie Wooster’s considerably more intelligent but equally fussy older brother had wandered by accident into a John LeCarre novel. The result might look something like Maurice DeKobra's exquisite The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars, wildly popular when it came out in the 1920s, revived recently by Melville House after 50 years out of print. The novel concerns a recently heartbroken gentleman of independent means and impressive title, Prince Gerard Séliman. At a loss as to how to spend his time now that his estranged wife has taken to returning his letters unopened, he answers an ad for a personal secretary and finds himself in the employ of the elegant Lady Diana Wynham, a youngish widow, whose hobbies include collecting casual lovers. She is intelligent, skilled in high society politics, supremely independent, and fearless. “Logic,” Séliman reflects, “when she chose to recognize it, was no stranger to her. On the other hand, she knew all the actions and reactions of a moonlight night and the intoxicating values of perfume.” They’re a good match. He needs something to do with his time, and she requires some assistance with certain practical matters. At their first meeting she explains the details of the estate she was left when her husband died of too much food and drink: a house, automobiles, a yacht in disrepair, a box in Covent Garden. “If I add that my banker cheats me,” she continues, That every year I have seven hundred and thirty invitations to dinner, all of which I couldn’t accept unless I cut myself in half at eight o’clock every evening; if I go on to say that I have, on the average, six admirers a year, without counting casual acquaintances and some exploded gasoline which sticks to the curburetor; that I keep an exact account of my poker debts, that I always help every charitable undertaking, that I am the honorary captain of a squad of police women and I was a candidate in the elections for North Croydon; if I finally admit that I have a very poor memory, that I love champagne and that I have never known how to add, then, perhaps, you will be able to understand why I need a private secretary. The woman described by Alan Furst as “the siren of the Orient Express” lives well and travels widely, but cracks are appearing in her flamboyant life. She has recently suffered a serious blow in the stock market and creditors have taken to dropping by the house. Her options are narrowing. Unwilling to accept either financial ruin or a marriage of convenience to a moneyed bore, she has lit upon an unlikely third option. Her late husband served as ambassador during the reign of Czar Nicholas II, during which time he managed to get his hands on 15,000 acres of oil lands in Georgia. The land has been nationalized by the Communist regime, her deed worth no more than the paper it’s printed on. But if she can just regain ownership, or at least get the Soviets to grant her the right to exploit the oil, she’ll be saved from financial ruin. She sets off for Berlin with her loyal secretary in the hopes of successfully employing her considerable charms on the Soviet delegation. Dekobra perceived the horror of the Soviet regime some time before most others did. His Séliman is a coddled product of high society, the sort of man who notices whose coat of arms is engraved on his sugar spoon and who packs special dancing shoes when he goes on trips, but he’s also capable of recognizing and critiquing the brutality and hypocrisy of the emerging Soviet state. “There was less distance from reformist and pacifist Socialism,” Séliman remarks to a member of the Soviet delgation, “under the absolutism of Nicholas II than there is under the Communist autocracy.” Herein lies one of the book’s most interesting aspects. This is the kind of book that gets described as “a delightful romp” in press materials, and that’s not an inaccurate description of a book that functions beautifully as both send-up of high society and globe-spanning adventure story, but the novel has a deathly serious core. The featherweight prose proves a brilliant set-up for the darkness that Séliman encounters when he’s eventually sent into the Soviet Union to try to make Lady Wynham’s capitalist dreams come true.
Essays, Staff Picks

Susanna Moore, Cheryl Strayed, and the Place Where the Writers Work

1. It was Hans Weyandt at Micawbers Books in St. Paul who pressed the slim blue advance review copy of Susanna Moore's latest novel into my hands. It was good, he said, although he understood if I didn’t want to add any extra weight to my suitcase, and if I hadn’t heard of her, she was a very good writer. I hadn’t heard of her, but that’s no surprise. I don’t feel that I’m as well-read as I should be. Further, my suspicion is that 10 percent of the novelists get 90 percent of the publicity, and while very good books can and do rise to the top and catch the attention of the reading public, the correlation between talent and exposure is casual at best. I did an event at Micawber’s that night, returned to my friend’s house and ate pizza, slept for a few hours on her living room floor and then woke up at three a.m., showered and dressed and slipped out with my suitcase to catch the 4:15 train to the airport. The stars were so bright as I was leaving Minneapolis. By five thirty a.m. I was on a flight to the next city. This was the Midwestern tour: five cities in five days, condensed in such a manner so that I’d only have to take three days off from my day job. The size of my American publisher’s tour budget was somewhat smaller than the size of the tour I wanted -- they’d already sent me out to the South and Ohio in the late spring, and they’re sending me to Florida twice -- so I put five days worth of flights and cheap hotel rooms on a credit card and hoped the checks I’d been expecting from my French and Canadian publishers would arrive soon. I just wanted to be able to say I’d done everything I could for the book. Two years ago I missed an event because of a canceled flight, which has left me endlessly paranoid, so I booked all of my flights in the early mornings when cancellations and delays are least likely. Paying for your own tour makes the stakes seem especially high. Each day began with an early-morning flight to a new city and ended with an event at a bookstore, an airport hotel. I slept four or five hours a night, went through airport security on autopilot, revived myself with coffee and dark chocolate-covered espresso beans in early-morning airports, spent sleep-deprived but pleasant days writing in cafes in strange cities, met at least two dozen booksellers, talked about my book every night, was so tired by the end that I had to carefully talk myself through the motions of getting ready for bed in that last airport hotel room in Milwaukee (“Now you’re going to brush your teeth”), could not possibly have continued at that pace for even one more day, and was improbably happy. 2. I try not to accumulate much when I travel, because I only fly with carry-on luggage, but I respect Hans’s literary taste, and Susanna’s book seemed worth carrying with me. I read it when I got home. He was right. The book's wonderful. Susanna Moore’s The Life of Objects is set mostly in Germany, over the course of the Second World War. Has any conflict in history been mined more thoroughly for fiction than the Second World War? Possibly not. I’ve lost track of how many World War II novels I’ve read. It can’t be easy to find a new angle. Or perhaps, I thought while I was reading The Life of Objects, a new angle isn’t necessarily important. Perhaps all that matters is that the book must be extremely good, and The Life of Objects is exquisite. It’s the simply written story of a girl, Beatrice, who longs to escape the confines of the Irish village where she lives. It’s the kind of backwater where everyone knows everyone else, her sole career opportunity lies in working in her parents’ store, and despite her yearning for knowledge and her love of books, there is no possibility of a higher education. She begins making lace because making lace is a way to make the world disappear, and her work catches the attention of a visiting aristocrat. She’s plucked out of the village, offered a household position with the aristocrat’s friends in Germany, the Metzenburgs. The year is 1938. When war breaks out they retreat to their country estate. The Metzenburgs, Dorothea and Felix, are possessed of both glamor and exquisite taste. Felix, in particular, is devoted to his objects: the paintings, the sculptures, the jewels. As the political situation worsens, Dorothea suggests that they leave, but Felix will never leave his objects and Dorothea will never leave Felix. Moore writes in a measured and elegant style. The Life of Objects combines elements of fairytale -- there’s a place on the grounds that all but qualifies as an enchanted forest -- and the kind of realism that brushes up against the edge of horror. The novel is a subtle and brilliant chronicle of a slow slide out of normalcy into deprivation and surrealism, and of a character's transformation from a passive and dependent girl to a bold and independent adult. The writing is a miracle of clarity and beauty. It’s the kind of book I read and think, this is why I do this, and this is what I’ve come for. This is why I travel so hard, why I work seven days a week, why I write in the subway, why I usually close myself in my office on weekends instead of seeing my friends. Why all of us work so hard. It’s because it’s possible to write books like this, and because books like this exist in the world. 3. I know a lot of writers, which means there are days when my social media feeds are clogged with relentless self-promotion. Everyone’s written a book, and everyone wants you to buy it. This is a delicate point, because we do need to sell our books. Selling books is how we make our living, or at least part of our living. But there are days when I wish we could all just take a deep breath in the midst of all the hustle and remember what matters, because my personal opinion is that what matters the most is the work, not the sales numbers. I think that the fact that most of us will never be very well-known and will never make The New York Times bestseller list doesn’t matter as much as whether or not our books are any good. The marketplace is important but not that important, at least in the sense that I doubt anyone ever lay on their deathbed and thought, I wish my sales numbers had been better. What matters is good writing, what matters is that there are people who love books enough to press them into your hands in far-off cities. We are here for the books, but I think it’s easy to get distracted by our longing for success and forget this. 4. Cheryl Strayed has had a remarkable year, a one-in-a-million kind of year, a year with a bestselling memoir that got optioned by Reese Witherspoon and picked for Oprah's book club. Almost every bookstore I’ve walked into from Kentucky to Toronto has had the memoir, Wild, prominently displayed. I secretly cheer it on every time, because I think it’s a good book and because while I’ve only met Cheryl once, she seems very kind, and character matters a lot to me. “The most annoying thing to come of this past truly good year,” she wrote recently on Facebook, "is the narrative that I 'came out of nowhere,' that I was 'an unknown writer' before WILD was published. Actually, I came out of a literary community of readers and writers who knew me quite well. Before WILD, I'd published a novel as well as many essays that were read by a national audience. I bristle at this narrative not so much on my own behalf, but rather on behalf of the many writers I love, admire, respect and read. There is a strong and vibrant literary culture that exists and thrives in this nation and it does not exist in a place called nowhere, whether you know about it or not. It's the place where the writers work." I liked this Facebook status a great deal. I love writing, and love working in solitude for long hours. But it brightens my working days and evenings further sometimes to think of all the other writers in our separate rooms, all of us trying to create something lasting in the place where the writers work.
Staff Picks

A Book for the Dog Days of Summer

This summer I forsook traditional beach reading for the unbeachy but extremely diverting Rabid, a cultural history from (married) co-writers Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy. I am always susceptible to books about grim subjects, and Rabid has the significant added virtue of being very well-written, and finding a nice balance between the authors' respective disciplines (she is a veterinarian with an additional degree in public health; he is an editor at Wired, previously Harper's). Let's make no bones about the fact that the subject is grim -- a horrible death experienced by 50,000 people a year, the overwhelming majority of these in countries where neither the state nor the citizenry have the resources to combat rabies, at the post-exposure, or the far more important preventative stage. I didn't know that rabies in humans is hydrophobia, that its victims are repulsed by water, or that nature's mute perversity subjects some victims to frequent and involuntary orgasm. As Murphy and Wasik stress again and again, this is a horrible disease; its grotesque symptoms, its uncurable-ness, its unpredictable incubation time, and its ideal vector -- the dog -- give it a unique fascination in the human psyche. The authors go in-depth on the longevity of rabies' iterations and simulacra in popular culture, from Homer to Danny Boyle (one of our first recorded jokes is a Babylonian thigh-slapper about a man who seeks treatment after being bitten by a dog). The subject is grim, but what moved me about this book was, oddly enough, something approaching the so-called triumph of the human spirit -- our collective curiosity and knack for problem-solving over millennia. Of course, we also tend toward crappy decisions in trying times: one solution to the rabies problem has been the widescale, usually brutal, and always ineffective culling of dogs (with guns, with rocks, with poison). There are books which do the important work of chronicling the missteps in the history of science and medicine -- the collateral damage, human or otherwise, of progress. But despite this book's catalog of now-outlandish theories and treatments developed by our medical forefathers, for me Rabid is partly about the heroism of history, from Susruta to Ibn Sina to Benjamin Rush. I loved the chapter on Louis Pasteur, on his methodological rigor and his showmanship (he staged a publicity stunt whose success rode on the survival of 25 hapless sheep infected with anthrax). I loved reading about the children who were bitten by a dog and traveled all the way from New Jersey to receive his new miracle treatment. Rabies hasn't been solved; one of its horrors is that it is profoundly incurable once the sufferer presents symptoms. The book wraps up by describing our contemporary batch of problem solvers and medical bulldogs, and it is fascinating to read about the way that understanding of the disease and its implications continues to evolve (blood-brain barriers! Nanoparticles!). I was moved by the chapter on the Milwaukee Protocol, a practice innovated by a Wisconsin doctor named Rodney Willoughby, who may or may not have saved the life of a young woman infected with rabies--a goner according to all received wisdom. I found him a very sympathetic figure, despite the disdain with which his protocol is evidently treated in some medical quarters. I say humanity's collective curiosity and can-do, but I should exclude myself from the august ranks.  One of the book's side effects in my case was the manifestation of totally unreasonable and heretofore dormant rabies panic. Two days after I finished the book, a raccoon interfered with my yoga mat on the back porch in the night. In the morning I touched the mat, and spent the next two days picturing the fatal drop of virulent raccoon spittle persevering long enough to slip into a scratch or mucous membrane, making its long creep up the nervous system to my brain. Nothing about the book's science does anything to encourage such ludicrous fancies. But it is a testament to Wasik and Murphy's success in identifying a primordial human anxiety and bringing it vividly to life.
Staff Picks

Staff Pick: Saul Bellow’s The Bellarosa Connection

There are writers, I believe, who benefit from constraint. This at least has been my experience with Saul Bellow, whose brilliance as a novelist is incontestable, but whose tendency to sprawl out in all directions, novelistically speaking, frustrates me sometimes when I read him. Case in point: Humboldt’s Gift is a masterpiece. It’s also kind of a mess, or at least I experienced it as such when I last read it a decade ago or so. It’s on an extended mental list of things I want to read again, someday, as soon as I have a spare moment. In Bellow’s shorter works there’s a certain focus, the sprawl forcibly constrained into a sharper, more pointed form. I read The Bellarosa Connection again this afternoon. It’s one of his shorter works; in the 1989 Penguin edition it’s a hundred pages long, but these are the suspiciously generous pages often accorded to novellas, with largish type and spacious margins; different typesetting would’ve rendered it a considerably smaller book. I’m struck, as I was the first time I read it, by the brilliance of the execution and the deceptive simplicity of the story. As founder of the Mnemosyne Institute in Philadelphia, The Bellarosa Connection's unnamed narrator has made a career of his remarkable memory. In his later years, he inhabits a Philadelphia mansion, a millionaire several times over, alone since the death of his wife. He was born in Newark, son of Russian Jews. As a 32 year old in the late 40s he “still behaved like a 12 year old," hanging out in Greenwich Village, immature, drifting, a layabout, shacking up with Bennington girls, a foolish intellectual gossip, nothing in his head but froth—the founder, said my father in comic bewilderment, of the Mnemosyne Institute, about as profitable as it was pronounceable. It’s the job of every generation to baffle their parents. The narrator’s stepmother has a nephew, Fonstein, about the narrator’s age but with a vastly different biography. While the narrator was caught up in the small dramas of high school and then serving in a low-key post as an army clerk in the Aleutians, Fonstein was busy surviving the Holocaust. Fonstein is the kind of person, the narrator’s father hints, whom one might aspire to emulate. Fonstein is possessed of a certain seriousness that the narrator lacks. The narrator’s father makes a point of introducing the two. Fonstein has recently emigrated from Cuba. He is serious but not without a trace of wit, married to a massive woman named Sorella whose desire for a husband coincided with Fonstein’s desire for legal residency in the United States, although this isn’t to suggest that they don’t love one another. Feinstein got out of Poland with his mother and made his way to northern Italy, where his mother soon died; he buried her and set about the business of picking up Italian as rapidly as possible, working his way south, until a night when he was employed as a translator for a reception in Rome at which Hitler was present. But a police check was run and his papers were suspect, so he was arrested and thrown into an Italian jail while the SS began deportation proceedings. It was here that a man came to him one evening: at the same time the next night, Fonstein was told, the door to his cell would be left unlocked. He was to make his way to the street. No one would stop him. A car would be waiting, and he would be taken to safety. Who, he asks, is his benefactor? Ciano, his occasional employer? No, he’s told, it’s not Ciano. It’s Billy Rose, a Broadway producer, who’s apparently running a covert rescue operation in Italy. When Fonstein arrives at last on Ellis Island, a representative from Rose Productions comes to see him. His case is being turned over to an aid society, she tells him. Can he see Billy Rose, just to thank him and shake his hand? No, he’s told, Rose won’t see him. Fonstein’s letters to Rose in the ensuing years are returned, always with a polite note in someone else’s hand: Billy Rose has no time to see him. His calls are deflected by secretaries. He approaches Billy Rose at Sardi’s, but one of the restaurant personnel cuts him off before he reaches Rose’s table. He wants only to thank Rose, to shake his hand, but Rose -- a man capable of great acts of goodness, but also a bit of a sleazebag even by Broadway producer standards, comfortable with shady business dealings and unable to relate very easily with his fellow man except, apparently, at a distance and in the abstract -- will not see him. Do the ones who save us owe us anything? When documents that incriminate Rose come to her unexpectedly, Sorella devotes herself to trying to get Rose to see her husband; the narrator listens to her stories and files everything away in his perfect memory. The Bellarosa Connection is fascinating as a study of memory and regret.
Staff Picks

The Mad Music of Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane

Thank you, Kevin Barry, for reminding us that the people in the book business are not all idiots simply because they remain locked in slavish pursuit of The Next Hot Young Thing. Your first novel, City of Bohane, is proof that every once in a long while the slavish pursuit leads to the discovery of a genuine gem, a new writer like you who pops onto the scene fully formed, spewing poison and wit, able to use the English language as a weapon and a tool and a toy. There's music and magic in your prose. The fictional city of the novel's title is located in the West of Ireland. It's the middle of the 21st century and this wind-battered burgh, pierced by a foul black river and surrounded by a boggy wilderness known as the Big Nothin', is brewing with bad portents. Logan Hartnett, aka the Albino, aka the Long Fella, is the fearsome kingpin of the reigning gang known as the Hartnett Fancy, but he's been hearing whispers. An old rival, the Gant Broderick, is said to be coming back to town after a 25-year absence, his intentions unknown but presumed to be less than benign. Worse, the residents of the cliff-top slums known as the Northside Rises, are chafing under the Fancy's rule, itching for a change of administration. Worst of all, Logan's wife Macu (for Immaculata) was the Gant's former lover, and now she's thinking about abandoning Logan, maybe going straight, maybe going back to the Gant. What's a ganglord to do? Don't let the nifty set-up mislead you into thinking this is yet another mechanical piece of plot-driven fiction. Though there's plenty of action -- and more than a little of the old Ultra Violence -- the real star here is Barry's language, the music of it. Every page sings with evocative dialog, deft character sketches, impossibly perfect descriptions of the physical world. Kevin Barry is, of course, Irish to his bones. Here, for instance, is how a pot-stirrer from the Northside Rises name of Eyes Cusack got his handle: "Eyes was named so for good reason. He saw the city through tiny smoking holes set deep in a broad, porridgy face." Girly, Logan's irrepressible 90-year-old Ma, has spent the past the past 30 years "buzzing on off-script tablets, hard liquor and Hedy Lamarr pictures." The Gant Broderick has "a pair of hands on him the size of Belfast sinks," and he came up rough-like: "His father was a no-good Nothin' quaffer. His father was half his life nose-deep in a bowl of Wrassler stout and sentimental as a sackful of ballads." Here's what a certain fishmonger does inside a shotbar: "He shlepped back a couple of mulekickers and tried to paw the plastik bazookas off the Ukrainer barkeep." Typical lout. The city of Bohane is itself a character, as well as a molder of character. Here's a warren of vice on the southside: "Smoketown was hoors, herb, fetish parlours, grog pits, needle alleys, dream salons and Chinese restaurants...All crowded in on each other in the lean-to streets. The tottering old chimneys were stacked in great deranged happiness against the morning sky." And here's the malevolent river: " is a black and swift-moving rush at the base of almost every street, as black as the bog waters that feed it, and a couple of miles downstream the river rounds the last of the bluffs and there enters the murmurous ocean. The ocean is not directly seen from the city, but at all times there is the ozone rumour of its proximity, a rasp on the air, like a hoarseness. It is all of it as bleak as only the West of Ireland can be." Clothing is important to Barry as a revealer of character. Here's what a sociopathic killer named Fucker Burke wore: Silver high-top boots, drainpipe strides in a natty-boy mottle, a low-slung dirk belt and a three-quarter jacket of saffron-dyed sheepskin. He was tall and straggly as an invasive weed. He was astonishingly sentimental, and as violent again. His belligerent green eyes were strange flowers indeed. He was seventeen years of age and he read magical significance into occurrences of the number nine. He had ambition inside but could hardly even name it.  His true love: an unpredictable Alsatian bitch name of Angelina. And here's what Fucker's homicidal sidekick Wolfie Stanners wore: Black patent high-tops, tight bleached denims with a matcher of a waistcoat, a high dirk belt, and a navy Crombie with a black velvet collar. Wolfie was low-sized, compact, ginger, and he thrummed with dense energies. He had a blackbird's poppy-eyed stare, thyroidal, and if his brow was no more than an inch deep, it was packed with an alley rat's cunning. He was seventeen, also, and betrayed, sometimes, by odd sentiments under moonlight. He wanted to own entirely the city of Bohane. But it's not to be his. For all its testosterone, the novel is orchestrated by three quietly powerful and cunning women -- Girly, Macu, and charismatic Jenni Ching, a girl of old Smoketown stock, proprietress of the Ho Pee Ching Oh-Kay Koffee Shoppe, who rises above the violent flailings of the men and brings together her own fighting force of "a half-dozen wilding girls." They're the future of the city of Bohane, a place much like the world we live in today, where tribes will forever rise while other tribes fall, where violence is bred into the wind and the water, and where all any person can hope for is enough style and guile to survive. Thank you for all of this, Kevin Barry. Please keep the mad music coming. Image Credit: Bill Morris/
Staff Picks

Staff Pick: H.H. Munro’s The Best of Saki

I don’t reread books very often. Brian Ted Jones published a recent essay in The Millions wherein he posited that returning to books and rereading them is a sign of adulthood. I suppose that’s possible, but life’s so short, and the thing about books is that they never stop coming: each and every month brings a new tide of books, many of them brilliant, and it’s always seemed obvious to me that none of us are going to have time to read all of them. Not to be morbid -- this isn’t something I spend a lot of time dwelling on -- but I don't think I'm going to have the time to get to all of the books I want to read even once during the course of this all-too-brief life, let alone time to go back and read the same book over and over again. But then, perhaps that’s as good a reason as any to do it. If you’re not going to have time to read all the books you want to read anyway, then why not go back and read the same book twice, if it means something to you and moves you in some way? I pulled a book down from the shelf this week that I hadn’t thought of in a long time. It's a battered green paperback that’s older than I am, a 1961 Grey Arrow edition of The Best of Saki (Selected and Introduced by Graham Greene) that I no doubt swiped from my mother before I left home. Or earlier, actually: a dated notation on the inside cover from my teenaged writing-in-books period suggests that I first read Saki a couple of weeks after my 14th birthday. The pages are getting brittle. I remember, turning them carefully, that this jewel of a book is one of the very, very few exceptions to my habit of never reading the same book twice. I must have read this thing a dozen times before I left home at 18. I’ve carried it with me from city to city. Saki -- actually, let’s drop the nom de plume and call him by his real name, which was H.H. Munro -- was a precursor to P.G. Wodehouse and one of Wodehouse’s influences. He specialized in short, sharp little stories, filled with biting dialogue of the wittier-than-thou variety; in fact, some of his stories were composed almost entirely of this stuff, as in the first story of the collection, “Reginald at the Theatre”, which opens mid-argument: "After all," said the Duchess vaguely, "there are certain things you can’t get away from. Right and wrong, good conduct and moral rectitude, have certain well-defined limits." "So, for a matter of that," replied Reginald, "has the Russian Empire. The trouble is that the limits are not always in the same place." Reginald and the Duchess regarded each other with mutual distrust, tempered by a scientific interest. Munro’s signature characters, Clovis and Reginald, read like Bertie Wooster’s equally ruined but vastly more intelligent older brothers. But Munro, on the whole, is far darker than Wodehouse. He wrote a great many light and often very funny send-ups of the stifling conventions and manners of the Edwardian age, involving misunderstandings, witty one-liners, and practical jokes. But on the other hand, three of the first eight stories in the book involve corpses, with two of these being small children eaten by wild animals -- respectively, a hyena and a werewolf. A child is blown up by a bomb hidden in an easter egg; a woman sits dead in a dimly-lit drawing room while her unknowing husband tries to draw her into conversation; a man nearly dies of humiliation in a railway carriage. Clovis is funny, but frankly a bit of a sociopath. His isn’t exactly the reaction one might hope for in a house guest when a child goes missing, for example, as in “The Quest”: "We’ve lost Baby," she screamed. "Do you mean that it’s dead, or stampeded, or that you staked it at cards and lost it that way?" asked Clovis lazily. The practical jokes are often vicious. The stories often hold an edge of cruelty, and Graham Greene blames Munro’s miserable childhood for this; Munro was born to British parents in Burma, but raised largely by his grandmother and aunts in a strict puritanical household in England after his mother’s death. His mother was charged by a cow on a visit home to England, the shock caused her to miscarry, and she died a short time later. One could speculate on the source of the streak of dark absurdism that runs through his work. Greene does draw the obvious lines between the personal history and the darkness of Munro’s depictions of childhood, particularly in the magnificent “Sredni Vashtar.” The hero of the story is Conradin, a sickly 10-year-old who lives under the guardianship of his cousin, a woman who takes a certain pleasure in beating him “for his own good.” But he has a secret joy and solace: in the back of a disused garden shed, he’s been keeping a ferret. It’s not his only friend -- he also keeps a hen -- but it’s his only god. It was originally just a ferret, but it became a god and idol at the moment he dreamed up its spectacular name. He makes offering of crimson berries and fruits before Sredni Vashtar, nutmeg on special occasions. He prays to Sredni Vashtar daily. When the cousin discovers his secret and goes to the shed to open the cage and investigate, he kneels by the dining room window to offer up a hymn that after countless readings still gives me a chill: Sredni Vashtar went forth His thoughts were red thoughts and his teeth were white His enemies called for peace, but he brought them death Sredni Vashtar the Beautiful. I'll return to this book, I realize, thumbing through the yellowed pages, again and again for the rest of my life.
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Adventures in Self-Publishing: Dallas Hudgens’ Wake Up, We’re Here

1. Dallas Hudgens' short story collection Wake Up, We're Here arrived, as do half the books I read these days, as an unexpected package on my doorstep. This one’s special, the note from the publicist said. As a general rule, I’m skeptical of such claims, and I have to confess that I'm generally less drawn to story collections than I am to novels. But I happen to know the publicist in question as a freelancer of exquisite taste who only takes on projects that interest her, so I moved the book to the top of the towering pile of books that’s presently threatening to avalanche all over the floor of my office and took it with me on the subway a week later. And you know, the publicist was right. Dallas Hudgens' Wake Up, We’re Here is easily one of the best books I've read this year. Some of Hudgens’ work is reminiscent of the fiction of Joshua Mohr, whose three excellent novels to date -- Some Things That Meant the World To Me, Termite Parade, and Damascus -- chart the lives of the damaged and the down-and-out in America. Hudgens’ stories often involve the clinically nervous, the unable-to-make-it-in-the-world, the damaged and the addicted. In the opening story, "Target," a middle-aged bar musician enlists his anxiety-plagued daughter to drive the getaway car in a stolen electronics scam. In "Zamboni," perhaps the most dazzling piece in the collection, a man with a history of drug problems, alcoholism, and petty criminality struggles to find a way to live in the world in the months following his mother’s death; he cared for her for some time before she succumbed to brain cancer. It must have been hard, a friend suggests, being her primary caregiver. “No,” Serge replies, “it was okay. I liked it, you know. It was an honor.” The work is filled with such unexpected moments. Hudgens excels at character development; days after reading the stories I find myself still thinking about Serge, the violence-prone man trying to find his place in "Zamboni", and Tek, the heartbreakingly awkward musician caring for his senile father in the story "Sounding Brass." The language is beautiful throughout (“Her neck was long and fragile, a soft note from an instrument that touched his skin.”) Hudgens doesn’t shy away from the brutality of life on earth -- the illness, the decreptitude, the humiliations and the teen suicides -- but the grittiness is never gratuitous, and his stories are infused with compassion and hope. Happy endings are by no means assured or even particularly likely, but redemption is possible, and the endings of nearly every story in the collection surprised me. Who published this thing? Hudgens’ bio listed a couple of books published by Scribner, but the imprint on this one was listed as Relegation Books. A small press, I assumed, but I couldn’t find it online. Had Hudgens published the book himself? I'd noticed that the book seemed not to have been copy-edited (“’Give me ten mintues,’ he told her”), but on the other hand, the book looked approximately a thousand times more professional than any of the other self-published book I'd ever seen, and I've seen that kind of typographical error in books published by the largest publishers on earth. I emailed the publicist. Yes, she said, he’d published it on his own. It's extremely rare for The Millions to cover a self-published book, but that’s not a matter of editorial policy, and my personal feeling on the matter is that all that actually really matters is whether a given book's any good. In the case of Hudgens’ short story collection, I think the writing’s remarkable. I was curious about why a guy who’d published two novels with Scribner would strike off on his own, so I wrote to the author. 2. Hudgens published two novels with Scribner, and then they declined their option on Wake Up, We’re Here. He was disappointed, but he understood: publishing is a business, and Scribner was making a business decision. Short story collections can be a tough sell in the United States. Conventional wisdom is that they tend to sell fewer copies than novels, which of course might be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy: it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that short story collections have, generally speaking, fewer resources directed toward them by skeptical marketing departments who’ve been told that short story collections don’t sell very well. An editor at a recent party I attended told me rather wistfully that he tries to publish a couple of short story collections every year; the implication was that he’d publish more of them if he could. Hudgens told me that he’d always been drawn more strongly to short stories than to novels. The collection meant a lot to him, but he realized there might not be an audience for his book. Perhaps, he reasoned, this was the end of a particular moment in his life. Perhaps the period of his life wherein he published fiction was drawing to a natural close. “I was grateful to Scribner,” he said, “and especially my editor, Brant Rumble, for the opportunity to publish two novels. I thought I'd accepted the fact that I hadn't found an audience for the story collection. I also thought it made sense to step away from writing and to focus that energy somewhere else. But it was hard to stop writing. After a couple of months, I went back to work on the stories. And, of course, the more I wrote and the more I worked on the collection, I found myself hoping again that there might be an audience for the book. He thought perhaps a smaller publisher would be a better fit for the collection. He started querying, but had singularly bad luck: the one small publisher who expressed an interest went out of business soon after. He tried submitting the stories to journals and magazines, in the hopes of attracting the attention of other publishers, but -- this part’s baffling to me -- none of the stories were accepted for publication. This was when Hudgens began to consider publishing the collection himself. He’d long been interested in the idea of publishing his own work, and ereaders and advances in print-on-demand technology had somewhat lowered the distribution barrier. “I'd spent quite a few years asking editors and publishers to take a chance on my writing,” he said. “It felt like the right time to take that chance myself.” He hired an editor and a cover designer, and set about learning the details of print-on-demand and purchasing ISBN numbers. He came up with a name, Relegation Books. Since I have the trade name and business license, I sometimes think that it would be nice to keep Relegation Books going in the future. I don't know if it would be possible to operate as a small press and publish other writers, but I like to think of Wake Up, We're Here as the test subject. It's still early in the process, and I'm learning as I go along. If nothing else, I'll be able to share my experience with other writers who might be considering this approach. The experience, so far, has been very satisfying.
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Getting the Good Stuff: Mark Haskell Smith’s Heart of Dankness

Connoisseurship is hip right now. Not 100 feet from my apartment, there's a coffee shop whose menu reads like a map -- Colombia, Honduras, Rwanda -- and every few months, I get together with some friends to taste different whiskeys (we're not as insufferable as we sound). Hell, there are at least five restaurants I can thinkamsterdamtodayauc of in Los Angeles that serve artisanal sausages. For whatever reason – maybe it's an extension of the hipster desire for obscurity and authenticity – but knowing what the good stuff is and where to get it has never been a bigger deal. Perhaps that's why Mark Haskell Smith's Heart of Dankness so resonated with me. Smith ventures ADM-201 to Amsterdam to cover the Cannabis Cup, the world's premiere marijuana expo, trade show, and competition. When sampling a particularly potent strain called John Sinclair (named for the manager of the proto-punk band MC5), Smith experiences a moment of epiphany, the words floating above his head in cartoon font -- "This shit is dank." And so begins a quest to get to the root of what, exactly, "dank" is. I like my nonfiction to be both entertaining and edifying, and Dankness delivers both. Smith dives deep into the world of high-end cannabis, from the cobblestone streets of Amsterdam to the near-ubiquitous and semi-legal medical marijuana dispensaries of Los Angeles and Oakland to the clandestine grow sites of the Mexican Cartel. His experience as a novelist 300-206 serves him well, as he brings to life the many growers, vaporists, budtenders, breeders, and activists who make up the cannabis industry. We learn about the different effects 600-199 of sativa and indica, the two strands of pot that each produce very different highs. Indica, with its sledge-hammer heaviness, dominates the California market at the moment, while the light, cerebral high of sativa permeates the Dutch coffeeshop scene. We learn, too, about the landrace strains Buy Windows 10 product key of marijuana that seed companies keep in vaults. These genetically pure strains are "the primary colors" of the seed business, combined to make endless new 70-246 variations of weed, each with a slightly different flavor and feel. Smith is so adept at describing the strains that they almost become characters themselves, albeit characters with really great names like Super Lemon Haze, Kosher Kush, and Trainwreck. If you want to know how the contemporary cannabis industry operates, Heart of Dankness is the book for you. But beyond that, Dankness is a great book for anyone with an inclination towards connoisseurship, because dankness, it seems, is at least in part about circumstances. The right thing at the right time in the right place with the people. A perfectly cooked egg might be considered dank if you ate at precisely the right time and place. Or an ice cold glass of your 700-039 favorite beer at the end of  the longest, hottest buy windows 10 key day of the year. Quality is a part of it, to be sure, but you can't underestimate the situational 300-070 component. This, ultimately, is why the book holds great appeal beyond the world of Buy Windows 10 key marijuana aficionados. Take it from a guy who hates 400-351 reggae: I highly recommend picking up Heart of Dankness, whether you have a doctor's recommendation or not.
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Staff Pick: Lauren Groff’s Arcadia

Sometimes I just want to read a book from beginning to end as quickly as possible. Too often I’m halfway through a handful of books, chipping away at each of them in tiny portions when I’m on the train, and not terribly invested in any of them. Not having finished a book in a few weeks gives me the lethargic, underperforming feeling that some people get from not going to the gym. I recently spent five weeks mired in a life of Grant, some theology by Chesterton, and two novels that I started with optimism and then abandoned in disappointment (reading the early works of a writer you discovered via their later works is such a cruel gamble). At least I enjoyed the Grant biography, enormously in fact, but five weeks of reading with only one book added to my shelf was demoralizing. I was then granted two pieces of good fortune. The first, a weekend with nothing to do. Oh, March 24 and 25, how delightfully brunch- and errand-free you were. The second, Arcadia by Lauren Groff. I had seen the beautiful cover, and my former bookselling co-workers were all tweeting about it, so I decided I would devote the weekend to it, hoping to recapture that ol’ reading magic. I have never unwittingly made such a good reading decision. Arcadia was perfect for this venture, both because I was immediately in love with it, and because the book itself is about experiences that wrap around you until the outside world fades away. The book is titled after a hippie commune where our hero, Bit, grows up in the 1970s. Arcadia’s charismatic founder and leader, Handy, is a folk singer, drug enthusiast, and inspiring speaker, whom the members of Arcadia traveled with until settling on a donated farm in rural New York. The commune supports itself with profits from Handy’s concert tours, a store that sells handmade goods, and occasionally the sale of drugs. Arcadia is uniformly vegan, occasionally nudist, usually stoned, ostensibly dedicated to equality, and can be difficult to endure, with its cold winters, hand-me-down clothes, isolation, gossip, and scant rations. But these more sensational aspects of commune life, except for the gossip, are on the periphery of Bit’s experience of Arcadia. To him it is a beloved home, a nurturing village of people where he grows up with dozens of surrogate parents and sibling, falls in love for the first time, learns about sex and drugs, and delivers babies. The novel is divided into four parts, dropping in on Bit when he is 5, 15, 35, and 45 (roughly), and tracing the lifespan of Arcadia from optimistic experiment to perhaps inevitable demise, then as the legacy that Bit carries with him in his adult life. As a child, Bit is brought up on the dream of Arcadia, believing it as second nature. Even when he is 15, and the cracks in Arcadia’s foundation have become chasms, Bit is still a true believer at heart. In the middle of a photography workshop one day, part of Arcadia’s wide-ranging tutorial program, “he feels, with a gathering of wonder, how this is exactly what makes Arcadia great: this attention to potential, this patience for the individual, the necessary space for the expansion of the soul.” In the poem “Angel” by Lermontov, an angel is flying down from heaven to deliver an infant soul to the world. As he flies, he sings a beautiful song, more beautiful than any earthly music. And within the young soul the sound of his songs Remained, wordless, but alive. For the rest of his life, that soul vainly yearns for the songs of heaven. Minus a bit of the Russian melodrama, Bit reminds me of this poem. The ideals of Arcadia in their purest form had been instilled in Bit at his purest age, and he never gets over it. Bit’s Arcadia is such a thrumming, vivid, beautiful place, it’s hard to believe Groff herself did not grow up there. Reading it in one fell swoop as I did, I felt that I too was walking the rolling hills of New York with a bunch of hopeful nudists. And it’s easy to see why even decades later, Arcadia feels more real to Bit than his life in New York City, why he’s always more attuned to the past. “It isn’t important if the story was ever true” he says, “he knows stories don’t need to be factual to be vital. He understands, with a feeling inside him like a wind whipping through a room, that when we lose the stories we have believed about ourselves, we are losing more than stories, we are losing ourselves.” The real story of Arcadia — the story of an exciting but flawed leader whose oversized dreams eventually can’t sustain themselves — is an interesting but perhaps a common one. Bit’s version of the story, of a place and group of people that wanted to be perfect, is the one he needs. Groff lets both stories exist, showing us how Bit forms one from the other, and how his version shapes his life.