Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Patchett, Byatt, and Llosa

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Ann Patchett, A.S. Byatt, and Mario Vargas Llosa—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
These Precious Days by Ann Patchett

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about These Precious Days: “In this eloquent collection, novelist Patchett (The Dutch House) meditates poignantly—and often with wry humor—on ‘what I needed, whom I loved, what I could let go, and how much energy the letting go would take.’ In ‘How to Practice,’ Patchett writes of her ‘journey of digging out’ and the feeling of lightness she begins to notice as she gets rid of possessions. In the title essay, she shares the story of Sooki, Tom Hanks’s publicist, whom Patchett invited into her home and offered solace and comfort as Sooki underwent pancreatic cancer treatments: ‘What Sooki gave me was a sense of order, a sense of God, the God of Sister Nena, the God of my childhood, a belief that I had gone into my study one night and picked up the right book from the hundred books that were there because I was meant to.’ Other essays cover the lessons Patchett learned on her first Thanksgiving away from home, insights from a year in which she didn’t go shopping, and what she’s picked up from Snoopy. The elegance of Patchett’s prose is seductive and inviting: with Patchett as a guide, readers will really get to grips with the power of struggles, failures, and triumphs alike. The result is a moving collection not easily forgotten.”

Medusa’s Ankles by A.S. Byatt

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Medusa’s Ankles: “These stories by Booker winner Byatt (Possession), three of which are previously uncollected, offer a scintillating look at three decades of the author’s work. Her stories transcend genre and stylistic limits, traversing through landscapes fantastical and real, as they bewitch, unnerve, and comfort the reader. ‘The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye’ blends the natural and supernatural worlds when a scholar falls in love with a djinn she released from a mysterious bottle from an Istanbul bazaar. ‘Dolls’ Eyes’ oscillates between the real and unreal too, as it follows a schoolteacher with a large collection of dolls, some of which are alive. In a similar vein, ‘The Lucid Dreamer’ presents a man for whom real life and dreams begin to mesh as he struggles to regain his ability to dream while processing the loss of his beloved. Grief resurfaces as a theme in ‘A Stone Woman,’ which blends fantasy and Scandinavian myth with the story of a woman who turns to stone after her mother’s death. ‘Racine and the Tablecloth’ is equally effective in the realist mode, detailing the power dynamics between a student and the vulturine headmistress at an all-girls’ boarding school. Each story showcases Byatt’s exquisite prose and her wide-ranging mastery of the short story form. For the uninitiated, this makes for a perfect entry point.”

Harsh Times by Mario Vargas Llosa (translated by Adrian Nathan West)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Harsh Times: “Peruvian Nobel laureate Vargas Llosa (The Neighborhood) spins a complex and mostly propulsive tale of deception, centered on Guatemala’s political strife during the 1950s and ’60s. The Eisenhower administration latches onto a lie about communism taking root in the country via president Jacobo Árbenz, propagated by juggernaut banana importer United Fruit, which faces taxes for the first time under Árbenz’s regime. As part of its containment policy, and hoping to appease the company, the U.S. backs Lt. Col. Carlos Castillo Armas’s successful coup d’état. Once in power, the married Armas takes a lover, Marta Borrero Parra, who advises him and acts as conduit to his ear. Meanwhile, Dominican Johnny Abbes García is sent to Guatemala by his own country’s political leaders, who feel jilted by Armas, to orchestrate Armas’s assassination. Johnny takes a shine to Marta and befriends Armas’s director of security, Enrique Trinidad Oliva, with whom he plans the president’s murder. Vargas Llosa follows this trio up to and beyond Armas’s demise, as Johnny and Marta abscond to the Dominican Republic while Enrique is thrown in prison, and he employs a lovely Rashomon-style narration of Armas’s death through multiple perspectives. The fragmented storytelling leads to unnecessary murkiness at some points, but once the action kicks in, everything falls into place. Vargas Llosa writes with confidence and authority, and overall this hits the mark.”

Diagnosing Billy Pilgrim: On Tom Roston’s ‘The Writer’s Crusade’

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1. A couple of months ago, when I was feeling stuck in a revision of the novel I’ve been working on for too long, I decided to reread Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Slaughterhouse-Five. My reasons for rereading were a writer’s reasons. I was having trouble balancing speculative and realistic elements in my novel and I wanted to see how Vonnegut did it. Vonnegut was one of my favorite writers in my teen years, someone I read and re-read, but at some point in my 20s, I stopped reading him. When I picked up Slaughterhouse-Five, my memories of the book were vague. I knew Vonnegut would use the device of time travel to tell the story of his experiences in World War II; he was taken as a prisoner of war and survived the bombing of Dresden, Germany. I also knew, from Charles Shields’s biography of Vonnegut, And So It Goes, that it was a difficult novel for Vonnegut to write, one he approached from many different angles over two decades. And so, pencil in hand, I opened the book in an analytic spirit, hoping to learn a thing or two from a great writer.

If you’ve read the book recently, you may guess what happened: I pretty much dropped the pencil after a couple of pages. Everything about the book surprised me; it was almost as if I’d never encountered it before. I had completely forgotten that the first chapter is told from the point of view of Vonnegut, the writer, and reads like a memoir. It’s all about how hard it is to write an autobiographical novel, and the misgivings Vonnegut has about turning his war experiences into an entertaining narrative. He claims to have written and discarded thousands of pages, and it feels true; he comes off as genuinely anxious and tired in a way that it surprisingly raw. But the thing that really startled me was Vonnegut’s depiction of Billy Pilgrim’s time travels.

For those of you unfamiliar with the structure of Slaughterhouse-Five, I will quote from the book I’m supposed to be reviewing—and will eventually get to, I promise—Tom Roston’s The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut and the Many Lives of Slaughterhouse-Five:

Vonnegut writes the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five as if it’s nonfiction, but then the next nine chapters are about a fictional character, Billy Pilgrim, who travels in time and is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, and whose war experiences loosely parallel Vonnegut’s, all of which makes it metafiction, meaning it upends the conventional fictional narrative by blurring the line between the author and the story being told.

Pilgrim’s time travel, combined with the metafictional aspects, are what give Slaughterhouse-Five its extraordinary power. On a storytelling level, the time travel element allows Vonnegut the writer to escape the bonds of linear narrative. I believe he needed to do that for this particular book because he could not bring himself to write a story about a massacre of human life that followed the laws of cause and effect. Instead of building momentum around the question of Pilgrim’s survival, Vonnegut shapes the novel around Pilgrim’s traumatic memory of the bombing of Dresden, inching closer and closer to it until the final chapter, when we get the full picture of what happened to Pilgrim during the war, and why he was never the same afterward.

As a teenager, I took the time travel elements in Slaughterhouse-Five literally and enjoyed them as funny sci-fi elements. Reading it as an adult, Billy’s time traveling immediately struck me as tragic, a symptom of deep trauma. I felt I was in the company of a man so haunted by terrifying memories that he was unable to settle into the present. It’s possible that I’m still taking Vonnegut too literally, reading his characterization of Billy as early reporting on what we now call PTSD. But the parallels are quite eerie.

Here’s Vonnegut, describing Billy’s state of mind, in an opening chapter:

Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.

And here’s a passage from Bessel van der Kolk’s bestselling study of trauma, The Body Keeps the Score:
Dissociation is the essence of trauma. The overwhelming experience is split off and fragmented, so that the emotions, sounds, images, thoughts, and physical sensations related to trauma take on a life of their own. The sensory fragments of memory intrude into the present, where they are literally relived.

And here’s Roston, again, describing how Vonnegut uses time travel in Slaughterhouse-Five:

By splintering reality, time, memory, and Pilgrim’s identity, Vonnegut aestheticized one of the primary effects of trauma, dissociation, in which there is a disconnection or lack of continuity between one’s thoughts.

One of the most remarkable things about Slaughterhouse-Five is its ending. The war is over, but there are anonymous, brutal deaths right up to the very end. Then, a bird tweets in Billy’s direction and the book ends. There’s no emotional catharsis for Billy, and no feeling of victory for the reader. This was as Vonnegut intended. In a preface to a special edition of Slaughterhouse-Five, (included in the Library of America’s collected Vonnegut, Novels & Stories, 1963-1973), Vonnegut rejects the idea that he gained any knowledge from his war experience. In witnessing the firebombing of Dresden he says he “learned only that people become so enraged in war that they will burn great cities to the ground and slay the inhabitants thereof.”

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When I finished Slaughterhouse-Five, I found myself wondering if Billy Pilgrim could be understood as having PTSD, and to what extent Vonnegut might have suffered from it. That’s how I happened upon journalist Tom Roston’s new book about Slaughterhouse-Five, one in a series of “books about books” published by Abrams Press. In The Writer’s Crusade, Roston argues that Slaughterhouse-Five was ahead of its time, and that “our views of its central themes—war, trauma, and the delicate act of telling war stories—have finally caught up with Vonnegut’s accomplishment, allowing us to see it, and the author, more clearly.” Roston structures his analysis of Vonnegut’s novel around the question of “whether or not Slaughterhouse-Five can be used as evidence of its author’s undiagnosed PTSD.” Although Roston poses the question sincerely to people who knew Vonnegut, it’s also a useful rhetorical device, and one that leads him down different research paths as he delves into Vonnegut’s notes and early drafts and talks with Vonnegut scholars, trauma experts, psychologists, and veterans who have personal experience with PTSD.

In structuring his book, which is a mixture of literary criticism, biography, and a cultural history of PTSD, Roston borrows from Slaughterhouse-Five, with an opening chapter that reflects on the process of writing and researching The Writer’s Crusade, and his ambitions for it. Roston recounts a reporting lead that he chased for some time, hoping to uncover a secret side of Vonnegut. But it’s hard to break news on a writer whose novels, particularly Slaughterhouse-Five, have been combed over by two generations of critics and hundreds of thousands of readers. Reading Slaughterhouse-Five through the lens of psychological trauma is also not a new angle. Roston notes that as early as 1974, the literary critic Arnold Edelstein describe Pilgrim’s time travel as a “neurotic fantasy” to help cope with the trauma of war.

No writer wants to be diagnosed through his work, and perhaps the best thing that Roston does in his book is to give context to the question of whether Slaughterhouse-Five is an autobiographical portrait of Vonnegut’s own war trauma. Roston writes in depth about the novel itself and how it came to be written, including the nitty-gritty of Vonnegut’s literary career before he became famous for Slaughterhouse-Five. (One of my favorite details from this section was just how lucrative the short story market used to be; Vonnegut supported his family on short stories, and even bought a house in Cape Cod.) Roston also provides a history of war trauma and how our understanding of it has evolved over the years. Although the negative psychological effects of war have been observed since ancient times, the symptoms of PTSD were not defined until the late 1970s, when it became apparent that many Vietnam veterans were having difficult adapting to civilian life. In 1980, PTSD was added to the DSM-III, and has now become so well-known that that people refer to it in casual conversation to describe any number of symptoms in the wake of traumatic events. Roston calls it as “the signature mental disorder of our age” and tries to untangle its popular definition from its clinical one. He also brings in the expertise of veteran-writers, such as Tim O’Brien, as well as veterans with an affinity for Vonnegut’s work. He wants to hear how they interpret Slaughterhouse-Five, given their experiences with war and trauma.

It’s with the help of a veteran that Roston finally attempts to diagnose Billy Pilgrim and Vonnegut, using a Veterans Affairs-issued PTSD screener. He brings many voices into the discussion, including Vonnegut’s children, literary critics, psychiatrists, and Vonnegut himself. Billy, being a fictional character, is elusive. Vonnegut, even more so. Those who knew him personally have varying opinions as to the extent of his war trauma and whether it falls under the diagnostic rubric of PTSD. Certainly, Vonnegut could be diagnosed with the loose, popular definition of the term. Speaking for himself, Vonnegut did not regard himself as someone with PTSD, and did not see Billy Pilgrim as an alter ego. In interviews later in life, Vonnegut revealed that Billy was loosely based on a private he knew in war, who died of malnutrition a few weeks before the war ended because—it seemed to Vonnegut—he had lost the will to live after witnessing so much senseless violence. Nor did Vonnegut conceive of the time travel element as a way of representing the symptoms of PTSD. Instead, he saw it as a comic device to lighten the heavy mood of the book. (So, my adolescent reading wasn’t totally stupid.) Roston doesn’t argue with Vonnegut’s analysis, but he does observe that at least some of Vonnegut’s reluctance to dwell on the past is generational. Vonnegut may have gotten in touch with war buddies and made his share of desperate late-night phone calls—as detailed in the opening chapter in of Slaughterhouse-Five—but he wasn’t visiting the VA for help. “To the best of my knowledge,” Roston writes, “Vonnegut never sat in a room with a VA-organized group of veterans to process his feelings.”

Vonnegut also avoided overly autobiographical interpretations of Slaughterhouse-Five because he didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a writer traumatized by war, or as someone whose impulse to write was related to his war trauma—and anyone who looks at his life and work can see that this isn’t the case. But Slaughterhouse-Five is a special book. To say that it is Vonnegut’s most personal doesn’t seem quite right, in part because I don’t know Vonnegut personally. (If I had to guess, I’d pick Cat’s Cradle as the book closest to his heart.) After re-reading it, and reading Roston’s book, I think it’s actually the novel that has the least to do with Vonnegut. In the strange way of great works of art, it escapes the confines of Vonnegut’s autobiography as well as the PTSD diagnosis. Maybe it even eludes war and instead speaks to a feeling of bewildered pain that is universal to all human beings when confronted with violence. The flights to Tralfalmadore feel like a way to get some distance from the psychic mess we’re all in on this planet. Roston concludes as much in his final analysis: “As much as I’ve tried to pull out the threads on Slaughterhouse-Five to determine its relationship to war trauma, a book can never be just one thing.”

The Origins of Raoul Duke

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Fifty years ago, Hunter S. Thompson published a two-part story in Rolling Stone that could only be categorized as Gonzo—a one-man literary genre marked by bizarre flights of fancy, hyperbole, depictions of drug abuse, and often violence. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas introduced a generation of readers to the hilarious and shocking antics of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo: larger-than-life characters based loosely upon Thompson and his friend Oscar Zeta Acosta.

The story, published in book form the following year, catapulted Thompson to fame, but before long he was frustrated by the fact that readers could hardly separate him from his creation. The device he had created to fuse fact and fiction in a wholly original form of literary journalism quickly became an encumbrance. Hordes of young fans viewed Thompson and Duke as one and the same—something that irked the writer, even if he did little to dissuade them. In his writing, he readily presented himself as a cartoonish outlaw and in public he played the role his fans wanted to see, frequently appearing on stage in costume whilst blind drunk and openly imbibing illegal substances.

Even today, the Duke/Thompson image is a popular Halloween costume and dorm-room poster, and on social media thousands of fans proudly boast about their own consumption of hallucinogenic substances whilst quoting Raoul Duke and attributing his words to Thompson. Less interested in his literary innovations than his outrageous actions, most fans seem utterly unaware that Raoul Duke was merely a figment of Thompson’s prodigious imagination. To them, the exploits of Duke and Gonzo were a relatively faithful account of Thompson and Acosta’s own Vegas adventures. But of course these were carefully invented for satiric purposes.

Indeed, it is quite possible to pick apart the real and the imagined in Thompson’s hallucinatory Gonzo prose, and many of his close friends will attest to the marked distinction between Thompson the author and Duke the character. With some effort, one can delineate the real and the imagined in most of Thompson’s work, yet it is far harder to pin down just where exactly Duke came from and why he was given his unusual name. Thompson, an incorrigible self-mythologizer, was reluctant to explain and, as he did when asked about what really happened in Las Vegas, simply complicated matters further by giving contradictory or deliberately vague answers. In an interview with the Paris Review, he was typically circumspect on the matter, pretending not to remember, but suggesting that “Raoul” came from Fidel Castro’s brother.

Thompson’s letters are often a good insight into the truth behind his various fictions, but they are also littered with attempts at obfuscating the reality of his life. Still, in discussing Raoul Duke with his publisher, he appeared honest about the purpose of his creation. These letters from the ‘60s show that he created Duke in order to do and say more outrageous things—things even the notoriously outspoken writer wouldn’t do. Duke was intended to be a comical, fictional device that would engage a reader throughout an otherwise accurate piece of journalism, allowing Thompson to explore serious and complex issues. However, as illuminating as his letters are, they do not pinpoint where and when Duke was invented or why he was given his odd name.

This confusion is further exacerbated by those who have previously attempted to uncover the truth. According to his biographer, William McKeen, Thompson invented Duke when editing the Command Courier at Eglin Air Force Base in the mid-1950s, but Duke’s name never appeared in any of Thompson’s articles from that era. His former literary executor, Douglas Brinkley, claimed in Fear and Loathing in America that Duke had been created to write about the 1968 Democratic Convention, but this is also incorrect. Whilst Thompson did use Duke in aborted efforts at writing about the tragic events in Chicago, the name appeared two years earlier in Thompson’s 1966 debut, Hell’s Angels.

Although Duke played no real part in this breakthrough book about the infamous motorcycle gang, his name was casually included in a list of outlaws near the end. Readers at the time must have been baffled, as this was the first time Thompson had ever used that name. However, it was not the first time that the words “Raoul Duke” had appeared next to each other in print. The improbable appellation had popped up in a series of articles in December 1965—a month when Thompson was furiously scouring newspapers from across North America in search of material for his book, which he considered a meditation on the media as much as the biker gang. In the midst of his press binge, he more than likely stumbled upon a series of stories about an unassuming businessman from Calgary by the name of Raoul “Duke” Duquette.

It is likely no coincidence that the name Raoul Duke first appeared in print the year before Thompson adopted it. Throughout his career, he frequently latched on to words (savage, doomed, atavistic) and names (Yail Bloor, Claude Fink, Martin Bormann) that he found amusing or otherwise significant. He was a literary magpie, borrowing the phrase “fear and loathing” and the word “gonzo,” as well as titles for several of his unpublished books, including “guts ball” (taken from Ken Kesey). Many of these became his catchphrases, parroted often enough that they became inseparable from Thompson himself. But seldom did he acknowledge their true origins.

It is not hard to imagine that the same happened with Raoul Duke. From a seemingly insignificant reference in Hell’s Angels, Duke became the device around which Gonzo journalism was conceptualized. Over the next five years, he was trialed in short stories, articles, and satirical reviews before being immortalized in the era-defining, genre-bending classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. As with most of his other favorite words, phrases, and names, Thompson refused to disclose the origins of Raoul Duke, but perhaps now we can speculate with some confidence that this countercultural legend began as a humble Canadian shop manager.

Nailing the Walkaway

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Years ago, a novel-writing teacher of mine liked to ask her students, “What is the feeling you want to leave the reader with, when they finish this piece?”
The teacher was Jeanne Cavelos, the Director of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. Her question struck me as perfectly normal and legitimate, but not really central. At the time, I was writing passionately, though without a plan. Writing novels was fun, a kind of grand exploration. It was art was for art’s sake…art for my sake. I wasn’t thinking about how my work would emotionally land with readers. And shockingly, my novels—wait for it—didn’t emotionally land with readers.
After years of writing novels that readers shrugged off, I decided two things. (1.) I really did want to reach readers. (2.) I wanted reach them the way great novels had reached me: with grand, indescribable moods. I wanted to evoke the aching, forlorn beauty at the end of The Great Gatsby; the rugged, mystic hope at the close of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; the awesome compassion for genius on the final pages of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet.
As I pondered how to do this, I came to a few core realizations.
First: great stories deliver great payoffs.
Two of my favorite narrative forms are the parable and the joke. Both are ancient and durable; the basic microorganisms of narrative. They are highly economical systems of set-ups and payoffs. In the parable, the payoff is wisdom. In the joke, it’s laughter. Anyone constructing a joke or a parable arranges a tight, sturdy story to get to the payoff as quickly as possible.
A novel, it occurred to me, is fundamentally no different. Though it’s a larger and more complex organism, capable of delivering more complicated emotions, ultimately, it’s still just an elaborate system of set-ups and payoffs.
Second: the genre determines the type of payoff.
Readers of romance, mystery, thriller, action, and horror, expect certain kinds of endings. If you don’t deliver them, beware—it’s like telling joke no one laughs at.
Knowing your ending = knowing your genre.
Knowing your genre = knowing what your reader craves.
Knowing what your reader craves = the first step in giving it to them.
Third: focusing on the final payoff is helpful in crafting the story’s beginning and middle.
If you’re going to end high, you have to start low. If you’re going to end low, you have to start high. The beginning is reverse engineered from the end. Most character arcs can be boiled down to this: “It’s a story about a character who begins at X and must overcome Y to get to Z.” But in the writing process, Z comes first. Without Z, you don’t know what Y or X must be. Without Z, you don’t have a story.
I recently got back in touch with Jeanne and told her how formative her one basic question had been. She drove her points home.
“Readers pay the most attention at the beginning and end of what they read, and most especially at the end, so what you put there is very important,” she told me. The emotion at the ending “will, in many ways, define the piece and determine what kind of story it is.”
All of this begged a question: did a novel’s final, emotional payoff have a name?
I asked a few writers.
“A reverb? A resonance?” said novelist and memoirist Jenna Blum. “Like that sound the orchestra makes and that you carry with you in your heart as you walk out of the building.”
Hmmm. So maybe…le sentiment après l’orchestre?
“We do need a word for that feeling,” said author Stephen Kiernan, “When I get to the end of certain books, I feel ruined for a while. It’s that feeling of satisfaction, and nostalgia, and fullness. It’s a feeling only a novel can accomplish.”
Then I chatted with author Jonathan Evison, who did have a name for it.
“You have to hit that last right musical note that will sustain,” Evison said, describing how he works on his own novel endings. “When you hit it, you know it, and the book doesn’t ever feel done to me until I hit it. In Hollywood they call it ‘the walkaway.’”
For the past year on my author interview show, The Thoughtful Bro, which airs on A Mighty Blaze, I have closed each of my conversations the same way. I wait until the end of the discussion, when the authors are nice and loose, then I say:
“Imagine you have an ideal reader, someone who is receiving your book in exactly the way you wish it to be received. Now imagine they have just finished the final page. In a word or a phrase, what is the feeling the reader has at that moment?”
Many authors at first seemed stumped by the question. Clearly, being able to articulate the walkaway is not a requirement for producing great books. But when they did get around to their answer, the responses varied wildly. They were funny, poignant, inspiring, and above all, revealing.
“Like child’s pose at the end of yoga,” said Yaa Gyasi, about her novel Transcendent Kingdom.
“Sweaty and happy,” said Mark Leyner, about his latest, The Last Orgy of the Divine Hermit.
“It’s a cozy, warm feeling,” said Jeff VanderMeer, about his young adult romp, A Peculiar Peril. “You close the book in front of the fireplace, after having had a couple of marshmallows and a hot cup of cocoa.”
“It’s kind of a Mister Rogers feeling,” said George Saunders, about his work of non-fiction, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. “I like you, and I hope you like me, and we just did something together that was kind of fun.”
Other authors hoped their readers felt “remorse,” “companionship,” “euphoria,” “a beautiful sadness,” or even the feeling of “a struck diving board—just humming.”
In the video below, you can see a compilation of writers trying to boil down what they hoped their readers felt when finishing the books they’d written. The question seems to cut to the core, for each author, of their book’s raison d’etre.

 
As for me, a sailor navigating the vast oceans of narrative, I now feel confident in my north star. Whether I’m introducing a protagonist on page one, keeping the arc aloft in the muddy middle, or tying up things up in the denouement, I’m constantly inching toward that final emotion, that parting shot, the reverb, the resonance, that ultimate task and unique power of the novel…
The walkaway.
Image Credit: Flickr/Robert Couse-Baker

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Seçkin, Sen, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Mina Seçkin, Mayukh Sen, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
The Four Humors by Mina Seçkin

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Four Humors: “Grief is the point of entry for this perceptive debut from Seçkin, the story of a young Turkish American college student’s complicated summer in Istanbul. Sibel, the daughter of immigrants, visits Istanbul before her senior year, ostensibly to help her paternal grandmother, who has Parkinson’s. She is there with her blond American boyfriend, Cooper, a helpful, culturally sensitive type who quickly becomes of a favorite of Sibel’s large, opinionated extended family. Sibel, on the other hand, is increasingly irritated by him, particularly as he nags her to visit the grave of her father, who died unexpectedly the previous winter. But Sibel has found it difficult to grieve a man with whom her relationship was difficult, and who, as she comes to discover, was keeping some pretty hefty secrets. Seçkin moves with poise from Sibel’s modern-day, deadpan tone to the stories of her older relatives, which are related as stand-alone narratives and are often entangled with Turkey’s tempestuous political history. The grandmother is particularly well drawn, with her ‘giant beige bras drying out on the laundry rack,’ her habit of watching soap operas, and her secrets. Things unfold at a measured pace, with a fairly straightforward plot that’s low on suspense. Like many debuts, this packs a lot in, with varying degrees of success. At its heart, though, it’s a moving family story.”

Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women who Revolutionized Food in America by Mayukh Sen

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Taste Makers: “In this dazzling debut, James Beard Award–winning food writer Sen looks at the lives of seven remarkable immigrant women whose passion for their homeland’s food transformed how Americans cook and eat. While he originally set out to write about immigration using food as his lens, Sen ended up ‘interrogating the very notion of what success looks like for immigrants under American capitalism.’ What results is a vibrant, empathetic, and dynamic exploration of culture, identity, race, and gender. The story of Iranian-born cookbook author Najmieh Batmanglij examines how America became, for her, ‘a wonderful place for the stateless,’ even as the prejudice she faced in the 1980s stifled the potential reach of her work. The late Chao Yang Buwei’s revolutionary How to Cook and Eat in Chinese (1945)—’a manual of gastronomic diplomacy’—and Elena Zelayeta’s Mexican cookbooks in the 1960s made their home cuisines palatable for an American audience, while the late acclaimed chef Norma Shirley resisted assimilation and eventually returned to Jamaica, because ‘making food for white Americans was never her chief aim.’ Thoughtfully written, Sen’s portrayals of his subjects reveal how rich and nuanced being ‘American’ can truly be. Food lovers with a big appetite for knowledge will gobble this up.”

Noor by Nnedi Okorafor

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Noor: “Convenience and comfort come at a cost in this probing, brilliant near-future odyssey from Okorafor (Remote Control). Anwuli Okwudili changed her name to Augmented Organism, or AO, as a nod to the body augmentations she’s used to compensate for her physical and mental disabilities over the years. Now she’s partially robotic, with various cybernetic limbs, organs, and implants produced by the mega company Ultimate Corp—and at times she feels more connected to Ultimate Corp’s machines than to her own people in Abuja, Nigeria. When AO is attacked while at the market, she inadvertently kills her assailants in self-defense, displaying the deadly range of her cybernetically enhanced capabilities. Branded a murderess, she goes on the run with Dangote Nuhu Adamu, or ‘DNA,’ a Fulani herdsman wrongfully accused of terrorism. Together, the fugitives battle never-ending sandstorms and evade both Ultimate Corp’s watchful eye and the Nigerian government’s retribution as they make their way across the desert. Okorafor exposes the cracks in this technology-driven, highly surveilled society as each detour in AO and DNA’s route adds layers of intrigue on the way to a jaw-dropping finale. Frequent instances of suicidal ideation may be triggering to some readers, but Okorafor handles heavy subjects well. This is a must-read.”

Chouette by Claire Oshetsky

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Chouette: “Oshetsky’s wild and phantasmagorical debut takes a Dantean journey through the violent fever dreams of a woman in the trials of pregnancy and early motherhood. Tiny, an accomplished cellist, believes she has been impregnated by her ‘owl-lover’ and that the baby inside her will most certainly be an ‘owl-baby.’ Her husband fails to understand this, and Tiny leads the reader into the lonely terror she feels as she considers abortion, followed by her overwhelming, hormone-driven desire to have and protect the child. When Chouette is born, she is indeed strange: winged, ferocious, and ugly. Tiny’s husband, who insists on calling his daughter Charlotte, goes to great lengths to try to fix her, taking her to dicey doctors offering outlandish cures. But encouraged by Tiny, Chouette is allowed to become her true self. Tiny feeds Chouette frozen pinkie mice, and she hunts gophers in the backyard. When the husband finally tries to wrest Chouette away from Tiny, it becomes a mortal battle between good and evil. Tiny’s day-to-day struggles with child-rearing, blood-soaked and feces-covered, on the one hand offer a familiar view of a young mother’s delirious tedium, with the desperation and horror made vivid and strange by Oshetsky’s parable. No reader who has cared for a tiny human being will fail to recognize the battleground this talented author has conjured.”

The Kindest Cut: On Rejection

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At a party many years ago, I jokingly told another guest that I’d do my best to remember his name after I published a book to great acclaim. I meant to be funny and disarming, but I bungled the delivery. I came off like a jerk. This other guest was a writer, too, and an equally self-serious one. Predictably, he took offense. He pointed his beer bottle at me. I’ll remember you too, he said, when I win my Pulitzer.

I did not shrug off his rejoinder. How could I? He may as well have suggested pistols at dawn. I was young. I was jittery with ambition. I was terrified of failure in all forms. By the time his girlfriend—who’d introduced us—returned with more beers, we were pompously debating who had better odds for a Nobel.

Flash forward to last winter, as I walked to the building where my daughter has choir practice. I wore a thick parka, but I felt my phone vibrate to announce a new email. Once inside the vestibule, I warmed my hands and checked my email to find a message from the agent who’d asked to read my latest novel. “There is really so much to admire in this manuscript,” the email began. I stopped reading and put the phone back in my coat pocket. Then marched onward to find my daughter. Already, I knew: rejection. I knew all the words that would come. I’d heard them all before.

There’s a fairly wide gap between what I expected as a preposterous young man and the writing life as I’ve lived it. I’m old enough to see how disillusionment is the price for adulthood in every vocation, not just writing and the arts. Yet, one facet of my writing life still surprises me with its wicked gleam. Once, I believed as a writer my most important skill would be knowing how to lay words in a line that’s solid as a cut stone wall. Nope. Turns out the most important skill for me as a writer, the skill I can’t live without, and the one that took the longest to learn, is a skill for failure.

OFFSTAGE VOICE (Indignantly): Your Honor, the defendant is beating around the bush. For the record, can he state plainly that he has not, I repeat, not yet won a literary prize of any kind, or general acclaim, or even, I believe, published a real book, yes? Is that right? Can that be right, after all these years?

Yes, yes, that’s true, all of it. I’ll be specific, then: I graduated from an MFA program over 21 years ago now. I was not idle during those years. But it took 12 years for me to write and revise a story to the point that a journal was willing to publish it. The rewriting wasn’t the problem, although I wrote a lot of bad prose, too; the problem was submitting.

Once upon a time, any query that I sent out involved printing an excerpt or a story and sending the pages in the post. I had a stockpile of Uline envelopes, printer paper reams, spare toner, and stamps, always stamps. I was a regular at the drop box in the post office in Newark, N.J., the tired one near the office where I worked. Eventually, the postal tide carried rejections to me in my own self-addressed envelopes. I was prepared for cold, impersonal rejections. I hated to see them, but they were expected. However, nothing prepared me for the kind ones. For the almost-but-not-quite-there rejections, the let downs that were almost yeses. The kindest of cuts stung the most.

“I want to stress how close this came,” wrote one editor, about a story I’d submitted. The first agent I ever queried wrote: “I found myself starting and stopping, convinced by your talent without being fully absorbed.” An editor at Grove went so far as to edit 50 pages of my manuscript before deciding, no, no, not for her. I have a photocopy of the edits; a kind gesture, but also a painful one.

As time passed, more and more people I knew began to show up, one here, one there, in The New York Times Book Review. I wrote genuine congratulatory emails to friends and I tripped to the outer boroughs for readings in book shops, but let’s be real: I felt awful. It’s not that I wished these people ill. (Except that Pulitzer guy from the party long ago. He was insufferable.) I just wanted some wins, too.

One day, I opened the NYTBR to see a large photo of someone who lived three doors down in college. Her jaunty, snazzy novel was a bestseller. I’d had no idea she was a writer before that day, that moment. The shock was like learning your wife’s high school flame is moving in next door. It doesn’t really matter. Except it totally matters.

After the world mutated into its current digital state, submissions became easier, and rejections came faster. Gmail easily captured them all, and it still allows me ready access should I wish to torture myself with re-readings. “I read this piece with great interest, and I thought the characters were beautifully done,” begins a rejection from an editor at Knopf. “I wanted to let you know,” an editor writes at the end of a rejection notice from Electric Literature, “our readers commented on the story’s smart pacing and evocative details.” Another editor, another journal: “Your piece made it to the top of the general submission pile, but we didn’t take any general submissions this year.”

I have more letters like these. Dozens. Dozens of dozens. I did my best to read each and then move on. Sometimes I complained, but I learned, as the years went on, that quiet endurance was what people expect of anyone foolish enough to harbor artistic ambition. If I complained about rejection at, say, a wedding reception, a garrulous bore with a practical degree and a smug worldview was always at hand and ready to point out that this author or that cult classic got the thumbs down from publishers a few dozen, a score, hundreds, hell, why not a thousand times? This is what you asked for, yeah?

Sometimes, a useful piece of criticism would crop up in a rejection letter. “The writing is a bit flat for our list,” said the editor of a small press, after reading my novel about an interracial marriage. How lovely it felt to get clear criticism! Flat, toneless, lacking affect? Got it. This was an observation that I could address. Briefly, I had the clarity of a writing workshop. I rewrote the entire 85,000-word novel. Doubled down on submissions. But it still didn’t sell. An editor at Random House said of that book: “I read this with great interest, and thought the characters were beautifully done, and the writing was lovely, but ultimately, the stakes just didn’t seem to be high enough.”

The failure of that novel—my third since graduate school—was a turning point for me, a moment when I saw it clearly spelled out that perhaps I just plain wasn’t good at something crucial to fiction. I could write crafty sentences, even create plausible characters, but could I make a reader care?

People talk about fiction sometimes as if the elementals are so simple. Make sure your characters want something! Make sure there are stakes! Make sure the prose rings like a wine glass when you tap it! As if these attributes rose out of simple decisions made on a line-by-line basis. Yes, they do. But there’s also something more. There must be. Or else. after years of trying, wouldn’t I already have found the formula that works?

One evening after a reading that made me feel frustrated and jealous, I began writing an essay. I didn’t know that’s what it was. I was just tapping into my phone while riding on the train. But then I kept working on it after I got home. The subject: Why was I still writing? What was it that had me still trying, refusing to quit, despite failing for so long?

That meditation on failure turned into my first published essay; ironically, an essay on not succeeding was my first piece of writing to succeed in reaching an audience. I didn’t quit writing fiction per se after that. But I did write another essay. And another. I found a comfortable niche in personal essays. The canvas is smaller. The stakes are clear in the first few lines. And I fail less often when I send essays out.

Of course, I am stubborn, and I don’t always operate in a rational manner. I continue to labor at fiction. Every few years, I am swept up in the idea for a novel. I spend months and months writing doomed texts. But I don’t have the same attitude toward what will happen when I’m finished. The expectation of success is gone, so much so that I sometimes forget the point of writing a novel is to share it.

Sometimes I even see humor in rejections where no humor was intended. “There was a lot I admired about this,” said an agent who read my manuscript about the poet Sappho reappearing in the modern world. “But I couldn’t accept the idea that Sappho was somehow transplanted into the modern day.” Indeed, it would be hard to admire much about a book where you can’t accept the central premise.

Another agent once rejected a novel manuscript, but without stating why. Very well, carry on. Then, six months later, she wrote another email, apologized for the delay, and rejected me a second time. If this doesn’t make you laugh, then don’t write a book.

Not long ago, an agent rejected me and, in a few sentences, she also helped me to see how and where I fail as a fiction writer: “The gracefulness and control of your writing impressed me. [The characters] make an intriguing pair of protagonists around whom the narrative twists and unravels. As much as I admire these aspects, however, I fear the novel may ultimately be too introspective, without quite enough plot development to move the narrative along.”

Am I too introspective? Yes, I am. Do I not write fiction the way most good fiction is written? Perhaps I do not. Does this bother me? A little yes, a little no. But this is who I am. I am the Don of the Also Rans. Mr. Not Quite Good Enough. I’m a Master of Failure, and although that’s not what I set out to be, it’s something.

As a writer, I have had to learn how to fail, to fail with economy and without anger, to fail in ways that allow me to see where I am not writing well, or where I have sent my words to the wrong place. Once I learned this, everything was easier, or at least everything that had to do with rejection.

For more than a year I have been sending out into the world a new novel, Likeness; it’s starting to look like my most masterful failure yet. “There is no question that you are a very talented writer,” wrote an agent’s assistant after reading it. “This story pulled me along and kept me invested, and it’s like nothing else I’ve read in the best way.” I mean, yes, yes, right? Isn’t that what a novel should do? But, no, she went on. The book just wasn’t a fit. Her boss had no idea where to place it. It was too strange, too weird, too much its own thing.

If this is failing, then I suppose that I should have it no other way.

Image Credit: Flickr/DrewCoffman

Conquering Hell

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“You have reason to wonder that you are not already in hell.” —Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741)

“For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside/that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”—Bruce Springsteen, “Badlands” (1978)

Charging only a quarter, Joseph Dorfeuille allowed the curious to view Hell itself—admission was half-price for children. Not far from the Ohio River, amongst the steep hills of the Queen City, and from 1820 to 1867, the Western Museum of Cincinnati promised in an advertisement “Come hither, come hither by night or by day, /there’s plenty to look at and little to pay.” Founded by physician Daniel Drake, known by enthusiasts as the “Ben Franklin of the west,” the institution was modeled after the Wunderkammers, “Wonder Cabinets,” of Europe, displaying shells and rocks, feathers and fossils, pottery shards and arrow heads. Even ornithologist James Audubon was on staff. Only two years after its founding, however, and the trustees forced Drake to resign. In his place Dorfeuille was hired, who rather than assemble materials zoological, archeological, and geological, understood that the public was curious about the “occasional error of nature.” In place of Drake’s edifying scientific exhibits, Dorfeuille mounted skeletons that moved by mechanical apparatus, dancing while an organ grinder played. He featured a diorama of wax figurines depicting the local murderer, Cowan, in the act, while also preserving in formaldehyde the head and heart of Mathias Hoover, a Cincinnati serial killer. And with particular popularity, the director distributed huffs of nitrous oxide after his “lectures.” But no exhibit—even the laughing gas—was quite as popular as “Dorfeuille’s Hall.”


A recreation of characters and scenes from the 14th-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s epic religious allegory The Divine Comedy, as well as from the 17th-century British poet John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Molded in beeswax, the hall was mounted by Hiram Powers, who’d eventually become the first celebrated American neo-classical sculptor (Elizabeth Barret Browning would pen a sonnet in honor of his work). Powers was tasked with illustrating our most grotesque visions—it would be among the most talked about exhibits before the Civil War. Powers crafted wax figures of the demon Beelzebub and of fallen arch-rebel himself, Lucifer. Adept in mechanism and sound-effects, his wax statues would shakily move in the darkness while screams emanated. “Visitors…were so intrigued by the realism of the figures that they were constantly touching them for confirmation that they were indeed wax,” writes Andrea Stulman Dennett in Weird and Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America. “To minimize the damage to his sculptures,” she explains, “Dorfeuille had to put an iron grating charged with a mild electrical current.” At the center was the “King of Terrors,” a stock Devil with red horns and pitchfork, smoke swirling about him. Originally Powers played the role, though an automata would after he quit the Western Museum—moving onto a respectable art career in Washington DC and then in Dante’s Florence—after Dorfeuille stiffed him on pay. By 1839, Dorfeuille sold off the Western Museum of Cincinnati, but he took his deteriorating waxworks to New York, where they were latter immolated in a fire, their owner following them into the underworld a few months after. King Entropy awaits us all.

A skeleton at the exit to Dorfeuille’s Hall held aloft a sign with some doggerel on it: “So far we are equal, but once left, /Our mortal weeds of vital spark bereft, /Asunder, father than the poles were driven;/Some sunk in deepest Hell, some raised to highest Heaven,” though highest Heaven was never as pruriently fascinating as deepest Hell. Powers didn’t outfit an exhibit with harp-playing, winged angels and shining halos; no wax figurines of the unassailable, the respectable, the decent. Not that it was ever much different, for people have always been more attracted—in both the neurotic’s fear and the sadist’s delight—with the fires of damnation. We recognized the 700th anniversary of Dante’s The Divine Comedy in September, and while I have no reliable numbers, my hunch is that 10-to-1 more people have read “Inferno” than the remainder about Purgatory and Paradise. Hell is more visual; if asked to envision Heaven we could offer gauzy, sepia-toned cliches about clouds and pearly gates, but if being perfectly honest nothing about it sounds appealing. But Hell. Well, Hell, we can all agree is interesting. The sulphur and shrieks, bitumen and biting, the light that burns eternally but gives off no glow. It all sounds pretty bad. While our curiosity draws us to the grotesque, we also can’t help but be haunted by Hell, traces of its ash smeared across even the most secular mind.

“Understand, I’m not speaking here only of the sincerely religious,” writes Dinty W. Moore in his irreverent To Hell With It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous, Needlessly Guilt-Inducing Inferno, focusing on his shame-filled Catholic education. “The fable of our flawed souls, the troubling myth of original sin, the looming possibility of eternal damnation clandestinely infects even those of us who think ourselves immune: atheists, agnostics, secularists.” Supposedly only the most zealous lives without doubt, but just as such a pose evidences more anxiety than might be assumed, so too is nobody an atheist all of the time. The pious are haunted by absence and apostates by a presence, but the fear is the same. I don’t believe in a literal Hell, a place of eternal torment where our sins are punished by demons—most of the time. Hell is often on my mind, but unlike Moore I think that occasionally there is intellectual benefit in that which is sulphury (or at least the idea of it). Moore writes about the traumas of “depressive guilt brought on by religious malarkey,” and it would be a cold critic to disagree that belief has been used to oppress, persecute, and inculcate shame. Not just a cold critic, but one incapable of parsing objective reality. But even though he’s right, it’s still hard for me to throw the demon out with the hot coals.

Hell’s tragedy is that those who deserve to go there almost never think that they will, while the pious shame-filled neurotic imagines those flames with scrupulous anxiety. My soul is content if God prepared a place of eternal torment for the EXXON executive who sees climate change as an opportunity to drill for Arctic oil, the banker who gave out high-risk loans with one hand and then foreclosed on a family with the other, the CEO who makes billions getting rich off of slave labor, the racist representative who spreads hate for political gain, the NRA board member unconcerned with the slaughter of the innocent, the A.M. peddlers of hokum and bullshit, the fundamentalist preacher growing rich off his flock’s despair, and the pedophile priest abusing those whom he was entrusted to protect. Here’s an incomplete list of people who don’t belong in Hell—anyone who eats the whole sleeve of Oreos, somebody who keeps on pressing “Still Watching” on the Netflix show that they’re binging, the person who shouts “Jesus Fucking Christ” after they stub their toe, anybody who has spied on their neighbor’s home through Zillow, the Facebook humble-bragger talking about a promotion who keeps hitting “Refresh” for the dopamine rush of digital approval, the awkward subway passengers suddenly fascinated by their feet when a loud panhandler boards, and mastrubators. That so many guilty of the little sins, peccadillos, tics, frailties, and flaws that are universal and make us all gloriously imperfect humans so often feel crippling shame, guilt, and depression over these things is tragic. That my first category of sinners almost never feels those things is even more so.      

Before either Hell or Heaven there was the shadow land of indeterminate conclusions. Neither the ancient Greeks or Jews much delineated out an afterlife. Greek Hades was a grey place, a foggy place, and not particularly pleasant, even if it wasn’t exactly inferno. “Gloomy as night,” is how Alexander Pope describes Hades in his 18th-century translation of Homer’s The Odyssey, a realm populated by “Thin airy shoals of visionary ghosts.” Excepting Elysium—where excellence is more honored than virtue—and everybody has Hades to anticipate, though Homer is content to consign even the glorious to this depressing place. “I’d rather slave on earth for another man,” the hero Achilles tells Odysseus in Robert Fagles’s contemporary translation, “than rule down here over all the breathless dead.” The ancient Jewish conception of an afterlife was originally not much more hopeful, with the Hebrew Scriptures speaking of Sheol, described in Ecclesiastes as a place of “neither deed nor reckoning, neither knowledge nor wisdom.” As smudgy and unfocused as Sheol was, the Bible sometimes draws distinction (and conflation) with a horrific domain known as Gehenna.   

Drawing its name from a dusty valley where pagan child sacrifice had once been practiced, and which became a filthy heap where trash was burnt in a frenzy of ash and dirt, Gehenna is ruled over by Baal and dedicated to the punishment of the wicked. Both the Talmud and the New Testament use the word “Gehenna,” an indication of how, in the first centuries of the Common Era, a comprehensive vision of the afterlife emerged in Judaism and Christianity. Among the Sadducees, who composed the Temple elite, the afterlife was largely defined by absence, but the Pharisees (from whom rabbinic Judaism emerged) shared with early Christians an interest in charting the geography of death, and Gehenna was a highlighted location. (Worth mentioning that the historical Pharisees bear no similarity to the hatchet job performed on them in the Gospels). As it was, Jewish Gehenna would be understood slightly differently from Hell, more akin to Purgatory, a place of finite punishment cleansing the soul of its inequities. Though as the 13th-century Kabbalistic Zohar makes clear, the truly evil are “judged over in this filth… [and] never get released… the fire remains.”

Though both Judaism and Christianity developed a complex vocabulary of Heaven and Hell, it’s not unfair to attribute much of the iconography of perdition to Dante. Writing a generation after Dante’s death, and Giovanni Boccaccio predicted that as regards the Florentine poet’s name “the more it is furbished by time, the more brilliant it will ever be.” Boccaccio’s prediction has been perennially proven correct, with the Victorian critic John Ruskin describing Dante as the “central man of all the world,” and T.S. Eliot arguing that “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third.” All of this might seem a tad Eurocentric, a tad chauvinist, and a tad too focused on Christianity—the apotheosis of Dante into a demigod. Concerning prosody—Dante’s ingenious interlocking rhyme scheme known as terza rima or his ability to describe a “place void of all light, /which bellows like the sea in tempest, /when it is combated by warring winds”—he was brilliant. But acknowledging acumen is different—even Voltaire quipped that more people valorize Dante than read him. And yet (there’s always an “And yet”…), there must be a distinction between the claim that Dante says something vital about the human condition, and the objective fact that in some ways Dante actually invented the human condition (or a version of it). John Casey argues in After Lives: A Guide to Heaven, Hell, & Purgatory that Dante’s was “without doubt the supreme imagining of the afterlife in all [Western] literature,” while Alberto Manguel in The Traveler, the Tower, and the Worm: The Reader as Metaphor claims that his epic has “acquired a permanent and tangible geography in our imagination.”

“Dante’s story, then, is both a landscape and a map” writes Manguel. None of the poem’s unfortunates get out, save for one—the author. Midway in the course of life Dante falls into despair, loneliness, alienation, and The Divine Comedy is the record of his descent and escape from those doldrums. Alice K. Turner argues in The History of Hell that Dante was the progenitor of a “durable interior metaphor.” Claiming that the harrowing and ascension that he described can be seen in everything from psychoanalysis to 12-step programs, Turner writes that “this entirely comfortable and pervasive method of modern metaphorical thinking might not exist if Dante had never written.” “Empathy” might not be the first word readers associate with a book sticky with the blood of the damned—”punishment” or even “justice” would figure higher—and yet Dante feels pain for these characters. That aspect of The Divine Comedy is why we’re still talking about it. Turner explains that “Dante was concerned with history, with Florentine politics, with the corruption of the clergy, with the moral position of his contemporaries, and most of all with the state of his own psyche,” while arguing that at a “distance of seven centuries, we can no longer easily appreciate any of these things except the last—Dante is generous with his emotions.” It’s true that for any contemporary reader, concerns with forgotten factions like the Ghibelline and Guelphs, parsing of Thomas Aquinas, or condemnations of this or that obscure pope can seem hermetic. When perusing a heavily glossed and footnoted copy of The Divine Comedy, it’s his intimate perspective that is the most human.

Eliot may have claimed that between Dante and Shakespeare there was no third, but that’s the sort of thing that a self-declared “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion” would say, giving short shrift to that bomb-throwing author of Paradise Lost. Earth can be given over to Shakespeare, but Heaven and Hell belong to Dante and Milton. If The Divine Comedy is the consummate expression of Catholicism, then Milton’s epic is Protestantism’s fullest literary flowering, and yet neither of the two are orthodox. Milton’s depiction of damnation in media res after the rebel angels have been expelled from Heaven and the once beautiful Lucifer has been transformed into Satan, revises our understanding of Hell for the first time since Dante. Much remains recognizable in Milton, even if immaculately portrayed, this “dungeon horrible, on all sides round, /As one great furnace, flames; yet from those flames/No light, but rather darkness visible,” a fallen kingdom defined by “sights of woe, /Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace/And rest can never dwell, hope never comes… but torture without end.” Paradise Lost’s beauty belies the darkness of that sunken pit, for Milton’s brilliance has always been that he acknowledges what’s evocative, what’s magnetic, what’s attractive about Hell, for Lucifer in his intransigence and his obstinacy declares that it is “Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heav’n.” Dante’s Satan is a monster encased in ice, weeping frozen tears as he forever masticates the bodies of Casius, Brutus, and Judas. He is bestial, animalistic, and barely sentient. Nobody would admire him; nobody would want to be Dante’s Satan. Milton’s Lucifer, on the other hand, is a revolutionary who gets all the best lines; certainly, better than God and Christ. As William Empson had it in his vaguely heretical Milton’s God, the “poem is not good in spite of but especially because of its moral confusions.”        

Milton is a “Puritan,” that wooly category of killjoy whom we associate with the Plymouth Pilgrims (though they were technically different), all belt-buckled black hats and shoes, trying to sniff out witches and other people having impure thoughts. As it goes, Milton may have politically been a Puritan, but he was also a unitarian and a materialist, and on the whole a rather cracked Protestant, not least of all because of his Devil’s thinly disguised heroism. Paradise Lost is honest because it exemplifies a principle that we all know, something expressed by Augustine in his Confessions when filching a pear from a Tunisian marketplace like he was Eve in Eden with her apple, admitting that he wasn’t even hungry but he did it because “It was foul and I loved it. I loved my own undoing.” Doing bad things is fun. Puritans ironically seem more apt to admit that clear truism than all of the Panglossian advocates for humanity’s intrinsic good nature, an obvious foolishness. Just try and negotiate a Trader Joe’s parking lot and then tell me that you’re so certain that Original Sin is old-fashioned superstition. Acknowledging sin’s innate attractiveness—our “total depravity” as John Calvin described it in his 16th-century tome The Institutes of Christian Faith—means that detailed descriptions of Hell can sound perverse. At a pulpit in Enfield, Conn., the minister Jonathan Edwards delivered an infamous sermon in 1741 in which he told the assembled that “Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell… if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf” for God abhors all of us, and is ” his wrath… burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing… but to be caste into the fire.” According to Edwards, all women and men are “ten thousand times more abominable in [God’s] eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.” Historians note that while Edwards delivered his sermon, congregants rolled around in the church aisles and stood on the pews, moaning and screaming. All of this is a bit kinky, honestly.   

Calvinism’s God has always read more like his nemesis, omnipotent enough that He created us, but apparently not so omnipotent that He makes us worthy of salvation. More than a tyrant, He reads as a sadist, but when God is deleted from Calvinism what’s left is only the putrid, jaundiced, rotting corpse of our contemporary world, where nobody knows the value of anything, but only the price of everything. Nothing better expressed the dark American transition to post-Calvinism than our greatest of novels, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, the Whale, of which the author wrote to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1851 that “I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.” Immature exegetes perseverate on what the white whale means, what he is a symbol of. God? Satan? America? That’s the Holy Trinity, though only one of them has ever kept his promises (I’ll let you guess who). It’s both more and less complicated than that; the whale is the terrifying, naked abyss stripped bare of all our presuppositions. In short, he is the world as it actually is, where Hell is all around us. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael listens to the former harpooner Father Mapple’s sermon at the New Bedford, Mass., Whaling Chapel (with its cenotaphs and its massive cetacean bones), and though the sermon is ostensibly on Jonah, it describes a type of Hell. The congregants sing a strange hymn about the “ribs and terrors in the whale/Arched over… a dismal gloom, /While all God’s sun-lit waves rolled by, /And lift me deepening down to doom.” Mapple preaches that despite how sinful the reluctant prophet was, “Jonah does not weep and wail for direct deliverance. He feels that his dreadful punishment is just… And here, shipmates, is true and faithful repentance; not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment.” You’ll go to Hell—or the belly of a whale—and you’ll be happy about it, too.     

Not that this rhetoric is limited to Protestantism, for fire and brimstone come just as often from homily as sermon. James Joyce knew that Catholic priests could chill the blood every bit as much as an evangelical bible thumper, with perhaps no more disturbing a vision of Hell ever offered than in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. His roman a clef Stephen Dedalus attends a religious retreat, and the visiting priest provides visceral description to the adolescents—buffeted by arrogance and hormones—of what awaits them if they give into temptation, for “Hell is a straight and dark and foul-smelling prison, an abode of demons and lost souls, filled with fire and smoke” where all of the punished are “heaped together in their awful prison… so utterly bound and helpless that… they are not even able to remove from the eye a worm that gnaws it.” Drawing upon the Jansenist Catholicism that migrated from France to Ireland, and the priest’s descriptions of Hell are the equal of anything in Edwards. With barely concealed sadism he intones how amongst the damned the “blood seethes and boils in the veins.. the heart in the breast glowing and bursting, the bowels a red-hot mass of burning pulp, the tender eyes flaming like molten balls.” Sin is spoken of in sensory terms—the taste of gluttony, the touch of lust, the rest of sloth—then so too does the priest give rich description of Hell’s smell. That pit is permeated by the odor of “some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing… a jelly-like mass of liquid corruption… giving off dense choking fumes of nauseous loathsome decomposition… a huge and rotting human fungus.” Heaven can remain vague, because none of us will ever agree on what it is we actually want. Pleasure is uncertain, but pain is tangibly, deeply, obviously real, and so Hell is always easier to envision.       

After Stephen is convinced to become rigidly austere following that terrifying, he finds himself once again straying. A friend asks if he plans on converting to Protestantism, and Dedalus responds that “I said I had lost the faith… not that I had lost self-respect. What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?” Funny in the way that Joyce is, and true as well, though it might only make sense to lapsed Catholics who fumble over the newly translated words of the liturgical preface at Mass. Such Catholic atheism, or Catholic agnosticism, or Catholic what-ever-you-want-to-call-it influenced one of the great contemporary depictions of Hell in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Guirgis engages an idiom that could be called “bureaucratizing the sacred,” transposing the rigid elements of our society in all of its labyrinthine absurdity onto the transcendent order. Whenever Hell (or Heaven) is depicted as an office, or a waiting room, or a border checkpoint, a prison, a hospital, or a school, that’s bureaucratizing the sacred. In Guirgis’s play, the action takes place in that most arcane of bureaucratic structures, the court system. “In biblical times, Hope was an Oasis in the Desert,” a character says. “In medieval days, a shack free of Plague. Today, Hope is no longer a place for contemplation—litigation being the preferred new order of the day.” The Last Days of Judas Iscariot portrays a trial of its largely silent titular character, held in a courtroom that exists beyond time and space, where expert witnesses include not just Christ and Pontius Pilate, but Sigmund Freud and Mother Teresa as well. True to the mind-bending vagaries of eternity, both God and the Devil exist in a country unimaginably far from us and yet within our very atoms, for as Christ says “Right now, I am in Fallujah. I am in Darfur. I am on Sixty-third and Park… I’m on Lafayette and Astor waiting to hit you for change so I can get high. I’m taking a walk through the Rose Garden with George Bush. I’m helping Donald Rumsfeld get a good night’s sleep… I was in that cave with Osama, and on that plane with Mohamed Atta… And what I want you to know is that your work has barely begun.” Who does the messiah love?—”every last one.” A vision expansive and universalist, and like all great portrayals—including Dante and Milton who most definitely didn’t think you could breach the walls of inferno by drilling into the earth—Hell is entirely a mental place.

“Despair,” Guirgis writes, “is the ultimate development of a pride so great and so stiff-necked that it selects the absolute misery of damnation rather than accepts happiness,” or as Milton famously put it, “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”  Like all things in the sacred—that vast network of metaphors, allusions, images, allegories, poems, and dreams—the question of “is it real or not?” is entirely nonsensical. Heaven and Hell have always been located in the human mind, along with God and the Devil, but the mind is a vast country, full of strange dreams and unaccounted things. Perdition is an idea that is less than helpful for those who fear (or hope) that there is an actual Hell in the black waters of the Mariana Trench, or in scorched, sunbaked Death Valley, or near a sandy cave next to the Dead Sea. But when we realize that both Hell and Heaven exist in a space beyond up or down, left or right, any of the cardinal directions and towards a dimension both infinitely far away and nearer than our very hearts, then there just might be wisdom. Such is the astuteness of Dante, who with startling psychological realism, records the woeful tale of illicit lovers Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, tempted into an adulterous kiss after reading the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere, now caught in a windstorm as they had once tussled in bedsheets. “There is no greater sorrow,” Francesca tells the poet, “Than to be mindful of the happy time/in misery.” Because we often think of sin as simply a matter of broken rules, psychological acuity can be obscured. Drawing from Thomas Aquinas, Dante writes that “Pride, Envy, and Avarice are/the three sparks that have set these hearts on fire,” and the interpretative brilliance of the Seven Deadly Sins is that they explain how an excess of otherwise necessary human impulses can pervert us. Reading about Paolo and Francesca, it’s understandable to doubt that they deserve such punishment—Dante does. But in the stomach-dropping, queasy, nauseous, never-ending uncertainty of their lives, the poet conveys a bit of their inner predicament.    

“There are those… who, undoubtedly, do not feel personally touched by the scourge of Dante, [or] by the ashen pall of Augustine,” writes Moore, and while I wouldn’t say that I’m so irreverent that I’m willing to lustily eat a rare hamburger on Good Friday without worrying a bit, I will admit that if I make a visit to Five Guys after forgetting that it’s Holy Week I don’t fret too much. A privilege to play with the idea of Hell without fearing it (at least too much), but the concept still has some oomph in it. Returning to an earlier observation, Hell must be the language with which we think about that which divides us, estranges us, alienates us, not for when we despair at having eaten a bit too much or sleeping in on the weekend. If anything, that Puritanical rugged individualism that so defines American culture whether we’ve opted into it or not—You need to be up by 5a.m.! You have to be a productive worker! You must avoid any real joy except for the curated experience chosen for you by algorithm!—is the true wage of sin. In opposition, I lustily and gluttonously and slothfully advocate for eating a bit too much, laughing a bit too loud, and sleeping a bit too long. Preachers once told us that to be alive was a sin, but that was never it at all. Now we have pundits and TED talk lecturers forcing us to weigh our souls instead, but there’s no shame in knowing that the road rises to meet us, in feeling the wind at our back and the warmth of the sun or the cool rain upon our faces. Shame and guilt are utilitarian, but they belong on the other side. Notable that the idea of Hell developed contemporaneously with that of Heaven, and if it wasn’t for the former, then what would we ever struggle against? “Without contraries there is no progression,” writes the poet and prophet William Blake in his 1793 The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. “Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate are necessary to human existence.” Whether temporary or eternal, finite or infinite, a place of extreme punishment implied another for reward. There’s no Heaven unless there is also Hell, and both places are much closer than might be supposed.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Erdrich, Wideman, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Louise Erdrich, John Edgar Wideman, and more—that are publishing this week.
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The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Sentence: “Pulitzer winner Erdrich (The Night Watchman) returns with a scintillating story about a motley group of Native American booksellers haunted by the spirit of a customer. In 2019 Minneapolis, Tookie, a formerly incarcerated woman, is visited at a bookstore by the ghost of Flora, a white woman with a problematic past. Despite being a dedicated ally of myriad Native causes, Flora fabricated a family lineage linking her to various Indigenous groups including Dakota and Ojibwe. Many of the story’s characters reckon with both personal and ancestral hauntings: Tookie with a childhood of neglect and her time in prison for unknowingly trafficking drugs; her husband, Pollux, a former tribal police officer, confronts his past experiences of using force after the murder of George Floyd; and Asema, a college student of Ojibwe and Sisseton Dakota descent, pieces together an ominous historical manuscript depicting the abduction of a 19th-century Ojibwe-Cree woman, which Flora’s daughter brought to the store. As the Covid-19 pandemic takes hold and the store pivots to mail orders, several of the characters join the protests against police brutality. More than a gripping ghost story, this offers profound insights into the effects of the global pandemic and the collateral damage of systemic racism. It adds up to one of Erdrich’s most sprawling and illuminating works to date.”

The Perishing by Natashia Deón

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Perishing: “Deón follows the critically acclaimed Grace with a provocative if unruly adventure through time featuring an immortal Black woman struggling to discover her destiny. Lou wakes up naked in an alley in 1930s Los Angeles as a teenager, with no memory of her past. Taken in by a foster family, she completes her education and becomes a journalist for the Los Angeles Times, where her beat consists of reporting on the deaths of ‘colored people—all shades of brown: Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Indian, Native American, and, depending on our country’s mood, Irish Catholic.’ Among those she interviews is a petty criminal who lives in an iron lung and a firefighter whom she has no memory of having met, but whose face she has drawn again and again for years. Interwoven are flashes of other lives, among them a murderess a century in the future, and the light-skinned lover of a Chinese doctor in 1871. These others are cognizant of their connection to Lou, but she knows nothing of them, and Deón burns a lot of pages with commentary on the various historical periods before elucidating Lou’s purpose. Lou does not discover who she really is, however, until the final pages, so though Deón can turn phrases in new and powerful ways, the story fails to find a satisfying ending. Deón is a very gifted writer, but this won’t go down as her best work.”

Admit This to No One by Leslie Pietrzyk

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Admit This to No One: “Pietrzyk dissects the messy interpersonal power dynamics of Washington, D.C., in this sharp debut collection of linked stories. In the opener, ‘Til Death Do Us Part,’ an unnamed Speaker of the House, whose sex scandals adjusted his status from ‘not-president’ to ‘never-president,’ is stabbed while meeting his 15-year-old daughter for dinner at the Kennedy Center. His 40-year-old daughter, Lexie, who initially assumes the assailant was one of the Speaker’s exes, hears the news in ‘Stay There,’ and abruptly departs her own art opening to visit him at the hospital. The Speaker’s exceptionally competent, longtime senior staffer, Mary-Grace, stars in ‘I Believe in Mary Worth,’ where she butts heads with an eager young female new hire, and the title story, which flashes back to the Speaker’s doomed presidential run in 1992. Some stories move beyond the Speaker’s family, including ‘People Love a View,’ where a couple on a first date witness an increasingly tense traffic stop, and ‘This Isn’t Who We Are,’ in which a white, middle-class ‘Northern Virginia’ woman, in a series of sentences starting with the word ‘pretend’ (‘Pretend that your desire to compliment her hair isn’t about you;), wrestles with her implicit racism and classism. Throughout, Pietrzyk writes with insight and wit, and makes even tertiary characters feel fully developed. This ambitious work is pulled off with verve.”

The Dawn of Everything by David Wengrow and David Graeber

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Dawn of Everything: “he transition from hunter-gatherer life to agriculture, urbanism, and civilization saw a blossoming of egalitarian politics and social order, according to this sweeping manifesto. Surveying 26,000-year-old European graves, Stone Age Turkish towns, the musings of 17th-century Iroquois philosophers, and more, archaeologist Wengrow (What Makes Civilization?) and anthropologist Graeber (Debt), who died last year, critique conventional theories of historical development. Far from simplistic savages living in a state of ‘childlike innocence,’ they argue, hunter-gatherers could be sophisticated thinkers with diverse economies and sizable towns; moreover, agriculture and urbanism did not necessarily birth private property, class hierarchies, and authoritarian government, they contend, since many early farming societies and cities were egalitarian and democratic. Vast in scope and dazzling in erudite detail, the book seethes with intriguing ideas; unfortunately, though, the authors’ habitual overgeneralizations—’one cannot even say that medieval [European] thinkers rejected the notion of social equality: the idea that it might exist seems never to have occurred to them’—undermine confidence in their method of grand speculation from tenuous evidence. (For example, they see ‘evidence for the world’s first documented social revolution’ in the damaged condition of elite habitations in the 4,000-year-old ruins of the Chinese city of Taosi.) Readers will find this stimulating and provocative, but not entirely convincing.”

O Beautiful by Jung Yun

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about O Beautiful: “In Yun’s revelatory sophomore outing (after Shelter), a former model turned freelance journalist’s big magazine assignment sends her back to her hometown in North Dakota. Elinor Hanson grew up near the Bakken Formation with her Air Force father, who is white, and her Korean mother, and the assignment, which she took over from a former professor, Richard, involves reporting on the oil boom in nearby Avery, N.Dak. On the flight from New York City, Elinor faces sexual harassment and discrimination for being Asian, experiences that recur throughout the novel. As Elinor interviews men who came from all over the country in pursuit of the economic opportunities provided by the oil industry, she learns that some of her former grad-school colleagues are preparing to sue Richard for sexual harassment. Elinor also begins asking around town about a woman who disappeared two years earlier, but her editor, who is romantically involved with Richard, admonishes her not to write a ‘dead-girl story.’ By the end of Yun’s tightly plotted narrative, Elinor has figured out the angle of her story in a way that ties together the drama around Richard and the problems in her hometown. Yun successfully takes on a host of hot button subjects, drilling through them with her protagonist’s laser-eyed focus.”

Look for Me and I’ll Be Gone by John Edgar Wideman

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Look for Me and I’ll Be Gone: “Two-time PEN/Faulkner winner Wideman’s bold latest (after You Made Me Love You) resonates with themes of racial identity, incarceration, poverty, and history. The stage is set with a quick one-two: the brief stream-of-consciousness opening story, ‘Art of Story,’ and ‘Last Day,’ in which the narrator ponders visiting his brother in prison, where his Blackness is felt in ‘hard, rigid, premeditated’ overtones. A boy’s sadness is palpable in the gorgeous ‘Separation’ as he stands by his beloved grandfather’s coffin while the narrator recounts the family’s heritage as a tender requiem. A letter written to R&B legend Freddie Jackson forms the soul of the epistolary ‘Arizona’ as the narrator travels to prison with his son and his lawyers so his son can continue serving a life sentence for murder. A brother anxiously awaits a reunion, 44 years in the making, with his formerly incarcerated brother in ‘Penn Station.’ Other gems feature Wideman’s piercing observations; in ‘BTM,’ the narrator recounts seeing the three letters painted on the side of a building in New York City, then transformed to ‘BLM,’ and reflects on the ‘hopelessness of railing against race.’ Wideman’s memorable collection reinforces his reputation as a witty and provocative social observer and raconteur who challenges stereotypes and creatively reaffirms the realities of Black American life.”

Drizzly November in My Soul

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Because Robert Burton used astrology to forecast the date of his death with exact accuracy—January 25, 1640—even some skeptics in that credulous age suspected that he may have assisted the prediction’s veracity. To accuse anyone of suicide was a slander; for Burton’s contemporaries such a death was an unpardonable offense. A half-century later, and the antiquary John Aubrey noted in his 1681 Brief Lives that ”tis whispered that… [Burton] ended his days in that chamber by hanging himself.” There are compelling reasons to think this inaccurate. Burton would not have been buried in consecrated ground had he been a suicide—though, of course, it’s possible that friends may have covered for him. Others point to the historian Anthony Wood, who described Burton as “very merry, facete, and lively,” though seemingly happy people do kill themselves. And finally, there’s the observation that within his massive, beguiling, strange, and beautiful The Anatomy of Melancholy, first printed in 1621, Burton rejected suicide—even while writing with understanding about those who are victim of it. As it actually is, the circumstances of Burton’s death remain a mystery, just as self-destruction frequently is, even as etiology has replaced astrology, as psychiatry has supplanted humoral theory.

That such a rumor spread at Christ Church, where Burton had worked for years in the library, compiling his vast study of depression, is not surprising. So identified was Burton with his subject—called “history’s greatest champion of the melancholy cause” by Andrew Solomon in The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression—that his readers simply expected such a death. Within The Anatomy of Melancholy Burton gives overview of Greek and Roman biothanatos, while still condemning it. And yet Burton empathetically concludes that “In such sort doth the torture and extremity of his misery torment him, that he can take no pleasure in his life, but is in a manner enforced to offer violence unto himself, to be freed from his present insufferable pains.” Burton was also frank about his own suffering. White Kennett would write in his 1728

A Register and Chronicle Ecclesiastical and Civil that “I have heard that nothing at last could make… [Burton] laugh, but going down to the Bridge-foot in Oxford, and hearing the bargemen scold and storm and swear at one another, at which he would set his Hands to his sides and laugh most profusely.” Such a man, it was imagined, was the sort who may have dreamed of wading into that cold water in the years when the rivers of England still froze over, walking out into infinity until he felt nothing. Who is to say? We don’t have a complete record of Burton’s thoughts, especially not in his last moments (we don’t have those things for anybody), but The Anatomy of Melancholy is as comprehensive a record as possible, a palliative for author and reader, an attempt to reason through the darkness together.

“Burton’s book has attracted a dedicated rather than a widespread readership,” writes Mary Ann Lund in Aeon, “its complicated branching structure, its Latin quotations and its note-crammed margins resist easy reading.” Though clearly indebted to the humanism of Erasmus and Montaigne, The Anatomy of Melancholy is one of those books that’s almost post-modern before modernity, like the novel
Tristram Shandy (Laurence Sterne shamelessly plagiarized from Burton). The book is encyclopedic but open-ended, erudite but curious, expansive but granular, poignant but funny; never doctrinaire, never judgmental, never orthodox, but gleefully self-referential even while contemplating sadness. Burton combed history, poetry, theology, travelogue, philosophy, and medicine for case studies, across five editions during his lifetime (and a sixth based on posthumous notes) in three separate sections printed as a folio that ballooned to half-a-million words. In the first section he enumerates accounts of melancholia, in the second he offers up cures (from drinking coffee to eating spiced ram’s brain), and in the third Burton presents taxonomies of insanity, including love madness and religious mania. The contemporary edition from the New York Review of Books Classics series is 1,382 pages long. Within those digressive, branching, labyrinthine passages Burton considers King Louis XI of France’s madness whereby everything had the stink of shit about it, an Italian baker from Ferrara who believed that he’d been transformed into butter, and the therapeutic effects of music on elephants. Lund explains how subsequent editions, rather than cutting verbiage, fully indulged Burton’s favored rhetorical conceit of concierges, whereby words are piled upon words in imitation of the manic mind, a quality that has both endeared and frustrated his readers. And yet as William H. Gass observes in his introduction to the NYRBC edition, “the words themselves are magical; you cannot have too many of them; they are like spices brought back from countries so far away they’re even out of sight of seas; words that roll… words even more exotic, redolent, or chewy.”

Sales of Burton’s monumental work, which readers felt free to dip in and out of rather than reading cover-to-cover, easily outsold Shakespeare’s folio, though by the Enlightenment his acclaim had dimmed, the work interpreted as a poorly organized baroque grotesquerie based in outmoded theories. During the optimistic 18th century, The Anatomy of Melancholy had not a single printing. Despite that, it still had readers, including Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Johnson, who told Boswell that it was the “only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.” Romantics were naturally drawn to it; both Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Keats had underlined copies, with the latter drawing the plot for his vampiric
Lamia from Burton. In the 20th century, the existentialists saw something modern in Burton, with Samuel Becket a lover of the book. The Canadian physician William Osler, a founder of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, thought it the greatest medical text by a layman, and was instrumental both in increased interest as well as the bibliographic tabulation of Burton’s personal library at Oxford. Despite the pedigree of his fans, Burton hasn’t had a wide readership for centuries, as The Anatomy of Melancholy has never been easy. An assemblage of disparate phenomena, a hodgepodge of unusual examples, a commonplace book of arcane quote and complicated exegesis, none of which is structured in a straightforward way, with Burton himself apologizing that “I had not time to lick it into form, as a bear doth her young ones,” though as it became even more formless over the next two decades that would belie his protestation.               

The Anatomy of Melancholy feels unfinished, just like life; it’s contradictory, just like a person; and it encompasses both wonder and sadness, just like a mind. On its quadricentenary it’s abundantly worthwhile to spend some time with Burton, because though he can’t speak of neurotransmitters, he does speak of the soul; though he can’t diagnose, he can understand; though he can’t prescribe, he can sympathize. Beyond just depression, Burton considers ailments like anxiety, obsessions, delusions, and compulsions, Sufferers “conceive all extremes, contrarieties and contradictions, and that in infinite varieties.” To paraphrase Tolstoy, the happy are all the same, but Burton’s depressives are gloriously different. “The Tower of Babel never yielded such confusion of tongues, as this chaos of melancholy doth variety of symptoms.” The second thing that is important to note is that Burton distinguishes between everyday emotions—the occasional blues if you will—from the more punishing. He explains that “miseries encompass our life,” that everyone suffers grief, loss, sorrow, pain, and disappointment, and that it would be “ridiculous for any mortal man to look for a perpetual tenor of happiness.” If somebody is suffering from physical pain or a loved one’s death, grief and sadness are rational; for a person facing economic ruin or an uncertain future, anxiety makes sense, but a “melancholic fears without a cause…this torment procures them and all extremity of bitterness.” For those whose humors are balanced, grief is the result of some outside torment, for the melancholic grief is itself the torment. Furthermore, as Burton makes clear, this disposition is not a moral failing but a disease, and he often makes suggestions for treatments (while just as soon allowing that he could be entirely wrong in his prescriptions). “What can’t be cured must be endured,” Burton notes. In the depressive canon of the late Renaissance, Burton would be joined by Thomas Browne with his similarly digressive, though much shorter, Religio Medici, wherein he writes, “The heart of man is the place the devil dwells in; I sometimes feel hell within myself;” John Donne’s sickbed, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, where he concludes that “Man, who is the noblest part of the earth, melts so away as if he were a statue, not of earth, but of snow;” and, of course, Shakespeare’s famed soliloquy from Hamlet that wonders if “by a sleep to say we end/The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to.” And that’s just relatively High Church Englishmen; with a broader scope you’d include the Catholic Frenchman Blaise Pascal, whom in his Pensées defines man as that who is “equally incapable of seeing the nothingness out of which he was drawn and the infinite in which he is engulfed,” and the 15th-century Florentine Neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino who wrote in his 1489 The Book of Life that the condition was “conducive to judgment and wisdom,” entitling one chapter “Why the Melancholic Are Intelligent.” None of them, however, is as all-encompassing as Burton, as honest about his own emotions and as sympathetic to his fellow sufferers. Within his book’s prologue, entitled “Democritus Junior to His Readers,” ironically written under a pseudonym adapted from the pre-Socratic thinker known as the “laughing philosopher,” Burton explains that “I had a heavy heart and an ugly head, a kind of imposture in my head, which I was very desirous to be unladen of,” and so his scribbling would act as therapy.

Across denominations, countries, and continents, the contemplation of a fashionable melancholia was encouraged, with even Burton confessing to sometimes enjoying such abjection as a “most delightsome humor, to be alone, dwell alone, walk alone, meditate, lie in bed whole days, dreaming awake as it were.” Noga Arikha explains in The Public Domain Review that melancholia could be seen as “good if one believed that a capacity for strong passions was the mark of a fine soul that recognized beauty and goodness… the source of sonnets, the harbinger of creativity,” while Darin M. McMahon notes in Happiness: A History that this is a “phenomenon that would have a long and robust future: the glamorization of intellectual despair.” A direct line can be drawn from the goth teen smoking clove cigarettes in a Midwestern high school parking lot through the Beats in their Manhattan lofts eating hash brownies and masturbating to William Blake through to the Left Bank existentialists parsing meaninglessness in the post-war haze and the Lost Generation writers typing on Remingtons in Parisian cafes back to the Decadents and Symbolists quaffing absinthe and the Romantics dreaming opium reveries until interrupted by the person from Porlock through to Burton, and Browne, and Donne, and Shakespeare, and Pascal and Ficino and every other partisan of depression. As Burton notes, “melancholy men of all others are most witty.”

More than a pose, however, and even if Burton agreed that melancholy could sometimes be romanticized, he never lost sight of its cost. Tabulating the price of anxious scrupulosity, Burton notes that “Our conscience, which is a great ledger book, wherein are written all our offences…grinds our souls with the remembrance of some precedent sins, makes us reflect upon, accuse and condemn ourselves.” In the millennium before Burton there were contrary perspectives concerning melancholy. It was interpreted by theologians as a sin—an indolent sloth called acedia—as opposed to the position of doctors who diagnosed it as an imbalance of elemental substances called humors. One thing that Burton is clear on was that melancholy wasn’t simply feeling down. To be melancholy isn’t to be “dull, sad, sour, lumpish, ill disposed, solitary, any way moved or displeased,” Burton writes, and that clarification is still helpful. For those blessed with a brain chemistry that doesn’t incline them towards darkness, depression might seem an issue of will power, something that can be fixed with a multivitamin and a treadmill. Reading Burton is a way to remind oneself—even as he maintained erroneous physiological explanations—that depression isn’t a personal failing. And it’s certainly not a sin. McMahon explains that by “reengaging with the classical tradition to treat excessive sadness and melancholia as an aberration or disease—not just the natural effect of original sin—Renaissance medicine opened the way toward thinking about means to cure it.”

That was a possibility more than anything, for the rudiments of mental health were still mired in superstition. Such an emotion was identified with an overabundance of black bile in the spleen, and a deficit of yellow bile, blood, and phlegm, a condition associated with a dry coldness, so that some of that metaphorical import still survives today. Arikha writes in Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours how the “experiences of joy, pain, anguish, and fear each had their temperature, their match in some sort of stuff in the body whose motion modulated the emotion.” In a broader way, however, there is something to be said in how the humors emphasized embodiment, the way it acknowledged how much of the emotional was in the physical. We now know that melancholy isn’t caused by problems with our humors, but rather in our neurotransmitters—I am not cutely implying that this is equivalent, accurate science is the only way that pharmacologists have been able to develop the medicine that saves so many of our lives. Yet there is an enduring wisdom in knowing that this is a malady due to something coursing in your veins, whatever you call it. “We change language, habits, laws, customs, manners,” writes Burton, “but not diseases, not the symptoms of folly and madness, they are still the same.”    

Depressives have always existed because there have always been those of us who have a serotonin and dopamine deficiency, even if we’re not lacking in yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. How culture interprets mental illness is entirely another thing, though. As Burton’s popularity demonstrates, there was a surprising lack of stigma around melancholy. In an abstract way, during the 17th century this a reaction to how eternal verities no longer seemed so eternal. Gass explains that “people were lifting their heads from canonical books to look boldly around, and what they saw first were errors, plentiful as leaves. Delight and despair took turns managing their moods.” Even while The Anatomy of Melancholy used Galen’s humoral theory that dominated medicine since the second century, the English surgeon William Harvey was developing his book Anatomical Account of the Motion of the Heart and Blood, which would dispel the basis for the four bodily humors (it would take two more centuries to die). There were more practical reasons for melancholy as well. On the continent, the Thirty Years War started three years before Burton’s book was completed and would end in 1648, eight years after he died. As many as 12 million people perished, a death rate that dwarfed all previous European wars, with one out of five people on the continent dead. Writing in the early ’20s, Burton’s native England was headed towards inevitable civil war, disunion clear in the political and religious polarization. By its conclusion, 200,000 people were dead, fully 2.5 percent of the population. By comparison, that would be as if 12 million contemporary Americans were killed. Disease could be just as deadly as the New Model Army; over the course of Burton’s life the bubonic plague broke out in 1603, 1625, and 1636, with close to 1000,000 deaths. Depression can come from an imbalance within the body, but sometimes insanity is also a sane reaction to an insane world. You still have to bear it, however.     

Burton is good humored, he may even have been jovial from time to time, but he’s resolutely a partisan of the sighing angels. Not that Burton didn’t advocate for treatment, even while he emphasized his own inexpertness. Solomon explained that Burton recommends “marigold, dandelion, ash, willow, tamarisk, roses, violets, sweet apples, wine, tobacco, syrup of poppy, featherfew, Saint’-John’s-wort…and the wearing of a ring made from the right forefoot of an ass.” We are, it should be said, fortunate to have refined our prescriptions. Despite the fact that Americans hunger for painkillers both helpful and deadly, The Anatomy of Melancholy isn’t a particularly American book. If the English malady is glum dampness, then the American affliction is plucky sociopathic optimism. A can-do-attitude, pulling-ones-self-up-from-the-bootstraps, rugged individualism, grit, determination, cheeriness. We were once inundated by snake oil salesmen and medicine men, now we have self-help authors and motivational speakers. A nation where everybody can be a winner in seven easy steps and there are keys to a new car under ever guest’s seat. “Americans are a ‘positive’ people,” writes Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, this “is our reputation as well as our self-image…we are upbeat, cheerful, optimistic, and shallow.” Some crucial points: optimism is not equivalent with happiness, and if anything, it’s a mask when we lack the latter. That’s not bearing it—that’s deluding ourselves.

We weren’t always like this; we have our counter-melody to faux-positivity, from those dour Puritans to Herman Melville writing of the “damp drizzly November in my soul.” But could anyone imagine Abraham Lincoln being elected today, who as a young lawyer in 1841, would write that “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth?” Now, with the ascendancy of the all-seeing Smiley Face, we’ve categorized talk like that as weakness, even if we don’t admit what we’re doing. Our 16th president had a melancholic understanding that grappled with wisdom, what Roy Porter in Flesh in the Age of Reason: The Modern Foundations of Body and Soul phrased as “Melancholy and spleen, those stigmata of true scholarly dedication.” An ability to see the world as it is. Not just as some cankered, jaundiced, diseased thing, but how in the contrast of highs and lows there is a sense of how ecstatically beautiful this life is, even in its prosaic mundanity. Solomon writes that “I love my depression. I do not love experiencing my depression.” He explains that the “opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality,” and ignorance of this distinction bolsters the cult of positivity. Therapy is honest, unsparing, difficult, and painful. Self-help just tells you what you want to hear. Norman Vincent Peale wrote in Stay Alive All Your Life that the “dynamic and positive attitude is a strong magnetic force which, by its very nature, attracts good results.” This, quite clearly, is unmitigated bullshit. Instead of Dale Carnegie, we need Donne; rather than Eckhart Tolle we could use Browne; let’s replace Tony Robbins with Robert Burton.  

Because, dear reader, if you haven’t noticed, we’re not at a happy point in history. America’s cheery cult of optimism is finally folding under the onslaught of the pandemic, political extremism, economic collapse, and the ever-rising mercury. If you’re the sort who’d be chemically glum even in paradise, then if you’ve already been to hell, you might have a bit of extra knowledge folks could benefit from. Stanley Fish explains in Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth Century Literature how “sober discourse itself is an impossibility given the world,” and that for Burton “nothing—no person, place, object idea—can maintain its integrity in the context of an all-embracing madness.” Gass is even more blunt on the score: “When the mind enters a madhouse…however sane it was when it went in, and however hard it struggles to remain sane while there, it can only make the ambient madness more monstrous, more absurd, more bizarrely laughable by its efforts to be rational.” Burton speaks to our epoch, for depression is both real and there are legitimate reasons to be depressed. As he writes, melancholy is an “epidemical disease,” now more than ever. Burton’s prescriptions, from tincture of marigold to stewed offal, seem suspect—save for one. With the whole world an asylum, Burton advocates for awareness. There are risks to such hair-of-the-dog though. “All poets are mad,” Burton writes, the affliction of “excellent Poets, Prophets, &c,” and I suspect, dear reader, that you too may be in that “etcetera.” Depression, along with addiction, is the writer’s disease. Sylvia Plath, James Baldwin, David Foster Wallace, Ann Sexton, Arthur Rimbaud, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, and so on—all wrestled with the noon-day demon. Many of them died because of it, at least in one way or another. There is no shame here, only sadness that some couldn’t be around with us a bit longer, and the genuine, deep, and loving request that you, dear reader, stick around here. As for Burton, he was committed to the principle that “I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy,” and it often worked. He gives the most poignant expression to that black veil that shrouds the mind, the caul of the soul that afflicts some from time to time. If writers are prone to depression, then Burton’s tome was an attempt to write himself out of it, to “satisfy and please myself, make a Utopia of mine own, a New Atlantis, a poetical commonwealth of mine own.” We’re lucky that he did, because even if it’s not the only thing—even if it’s not always the best of things—there is something sacred in that. No matter how occluded, know that somebody else understands what you’re feeling.

So, blessed is Burton and duloxetine, therapy and sertraline, writing and citalopram, empathy and fluoxetine, compassion and escitalopram. Blessed are those who ask for help, those who are unable to ask for help, those who ask if somebody else needs help. Blessed are those who struggle everyday and blessed are those who feel that they no longer can, and blessed are those who get better. Blessed are those who hold the hands of anyone suffering. Blessed is understanding—and being seen—for what Burton offers you is the observation that he sees you, the reader. “I would help others, out of a fellow-feeling,” he writes. Because Robert Burton often felt worthless; as if he was walking at the bottom of the chill Thames. Sometimes it felt like his skull was filled with water-soaked-wool and his eyes pulsated, vision clouded over with gauzy darkness; he knew of listing heaviness and the futility of opening the door, of getting dressed, of leaving the bed, of how often the window of care shrunk to a pinpoint of nothingness, so that he could feel no more than that. This strange book studded with classical allusion and scriptural quotation, historical anecdote and metaphysical speculation—who was it for? He wrote for the person who has had the tab for this article open on their computer for days, but has no energy to read; for the woman who hasn’t showered in weeks and the man who can’t bring himself to go outside. “Thou thyself art the subject of my discourse,” Burton writes. His purpose was one thing—to convey that you have never been alone. Not then, not now, not ever.    

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Shteyngart, McCarthy, Davies, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Gary Shteyngart, Tom McCarthy, Peter Ho Davies, and more—that are publishing this week.
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Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Our Country Friends: “Shteyngart (Lake Success) returns with the droll and heartfelt story of a Russian American couple who invite a group of friends to ride out the lockdown with them on their Hudson Valley ‘estate’ in March 2020. Sasha Senderovsky, a bumbling writer, clumsily prepares for his guests: ‘Because he did not believe in road marks or certain aspects of relativity, the concept of a blind curve continued to elude him,’ Shteyngart writes of Sasha’s driving, which ends with a case of liquor shattered in the trunk. Sasha’s wife, Masha, bans smoking on the property, which Sasha allows his friend Ed Kim to break immediately after showing Ed to his bungalow, one of five along with the main house. There’s also Vinood Mehta, a once aspiring writer whose abandoned manuscript factors into a late-breaking plot involving jealousy and betrayal. The couple’s eight-year-old adopted daughter, Nat, who is of Chinese descent and is obsessed with K-pop, bonds with their friend Karen Cho, who, like Ed, is Korean, and Shteyngart drops in about as many illuminating details about the Korean diaspora as he does about Russian immigrants and their American children. The author shows great care for his characters, making Sasha’s vulnerability particularly palpable when an uncertain screenwriting project threatens his financial stability. Shteyngart’s taken the formula for a smart, irresistible comedy of manners and expertly brought it up to the moment.”

The Making of Incarnation by Tom McCarthy

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Making of Incarnation: “McCarthy’s acclaimed previous novels all revealed a fascination with spatial diametrics and information theory, and the intricately calibrated latest (after Satin Island) soars even further from plot and character conventions with a study of motion, data, and trajectory. At the center of many looping narratives is Pantarey Motion Systems, whose chief engineer, Mark Phocan—who had a boyhood epiphany during a mishap at an exhibition of Joan Miró paintings where he first encountered camera playback technology—oversees the company’s various models comprising vectors and the measurement of bodies through all matter of space. Its interests include motion capture studios, various experiments with wind tunnels and water tanks, the course of an affair between Norwegian dignitaries, a mysterious client looking into the copyright of dance moves and, most prominently, the special effects department working on a science fiction movie called Incarnation. Crucial to Pantarey’s work are the boxes created by form-and-motion innovator Lillian Gilbreth to measure the pathway of workers through factories, one of which—Box 808—has gone missing. The search for the missing motion-map provides one more course through a series of set pieces that meditate on topics as diverse as the physics of space travel and the pathway of the bullet that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand. (There are also airplanes, astronauts, and Russian spies.) McCarthy arcs and zigzags through the parameters of contemporary fiction and achieves a brilliant new form. The whooshing, trawling result is the epitome of sui generis.”

New York, My Village by Uwem Akpan

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about New York, My Village: “Akpan’s ambitious debut novel (after the collection Say You’re One of Them) follows a Nigerian writer in New York City as he navigates myriad permutations of racism and prejudice. Ekong Otis Udousoro has a four-month fellowship in 2016 to understudy with a small U.S. publisher and edit an anthology of stories about Nigeria’s civil war of the late 1960s. Ekong, a member of Annang tribe (a ‘minority of minorities’), has his visa denied twice before finally securing entry with help from his stateside editor-in-chief. The all-white publishing house greets Ekong with friendly overtures, but his diverse neighbors in Hell’s Kitchen offer only icy stares, leading him to take refuge in Times Square and at Starbucks. While fighting for underrepresented authors and against bloodthirsty bedbugs, Ekong learns that first impressions don’t always reveal true character. Throughout, he strives to bear witness to the atrocities and lingering animosities of the Biafran War among compatriots living in the Bronx, in New Jersey, and in his village back home. Akpan writes as much to educate as to entertain, adding lengthy and lucid historical passages with footnotes to source material along with excerpts from the book Ekong is editing. This layered novel tells more than it shows, but it’s well worth listening to.”

Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Island of Missing Trees: “Booker-shortlisted Shafak (10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World) amazes with this resonant story of the generational trauma of the Cypriot Civil War. Just before Christmas in the late 2010s, 16-year-old Ada Kazantzakis confounds her London classmates by screaming during class. Shortly after, Ada and her botanist father, Kostas, receive a visit from Meryem, an aunt she’s never met, the older sister of her dead mother, Defne. Ada feels growing shame about the scream, and is surly toward the free-spirited Meryem, who spouts strange adages such as, ‘We’re not going to search for a calf under an ox.’ Shafak then jumps back to 1974, when Greek Cypriot Kostas and Turkish Cypriot Defne had assignations in a taverna built around a living fig tree, which narrates part of the book and offers lessons on the human condition via anecdotes about insects and birds. Kostas’s mother, meanwhile, prompted by her disapproval of the courtship and worried over growing violence, sends him to London. Defne and Kostas are later reacquainted in the early 2000s on Cyprus, where she works searching for bodies of the disappeared. The reunion uncovers delicate secrets while expertly giving a sense of the civil war’s lingering damage, and by the end Ada’s story reaches an unexpected and satisfying destination. Shafak’s fans are in for a treat, and those new to her will be eager to discover her earlier work.”

Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Win Me Something: “Wu’s compassionate debut traces one woman’s search for belonging via her memories of growing up in two households. Willa Chen’s upbringing and biracial identity left her feeling caught between worlds. Her parents’ divorce when she was young meant splitting her time between her white mother’s house in New Jersey and her Chinese American father’s in Upstate New York. Both of her parents’ second families—her white stepfather and half brother, and her white stepmother and two mixed-race half sisters—never seem to have room for Willa. At 24, she takes a job as a nanny for an upper-class white family, the Adriens, in New York City. The job becomes a live-in situation, and Willa grows closer to the daughter, Bijou, and the parents, particularly mother Nathalie. As her relationship with the family deepens, Willa confronts memories of her own childhood, and when one of her half sisters moves to the city for college, she hopes to make a connection. Through the characters’ kinships—some familial, some chosen—Wu brilliantly lays out the complicated dynamics of love, belonging, and care that exist within all relationships. Fans of Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age will love this.”

Blue-Skinned Gods by SJ Sindu

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Blue-Skinned Gods: “Sindu’s marvelous coming-of-age story (after Marriage of a Thousand Lies) features a young healer in Tamil Nadu, believed to be an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, who eventually breaks away from his domineering father. Kalki Sami has blue skin and black blood, and his father, Ayya, has built an ashram for the family to live in, where Kalki, on the eve of his 10th birthday, must undergo three tests, beginning with the performance of a miracle. After struggling to heal Roopa, a sick girl brought to the ashram, he doubts the prophecy about him. Kalki may be seen by strangers as a guru, but as a teen he is easily swayed by Ayya; his cousin, Lakshman, who is his best friend; and Roopa, whose condition eventually improves and with whom Kalki falls in love. After Lakshman leaves the ashram, Kalki travels to New York City as part of a ‘world healing tour’ conceived by Ayya to promote Kalki, where the cousins unexpectedly reunite, and Kalki learns some news that breaks his life in two. Sindu juxtaposes the closed world of the ashram with Kalki’s vibrant experiences in New York, where he performs with Lakshman’s band, the Blue-Skinned Gods; eats meat; and ‘figures out who I was and who I was going to be.’ The imagery is vivid—’my body a colony of ants puttering in all directions’—and the slow-burn narrative by the end becomes incandescent. Sindu’s stunning effort more than delivers on her initial promise.”

God of Mercy by Okezie Nwọka

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about God of Mercy: “Nwoka’s dense, mythologically charged debut takes place in an Igbo village in an unspecified area of Africa, at an unspecified time. There, magic is a part of daily life, the inhabitants attribute their fortunes to the Igbo gods, and young, mute Ijeoma discovers she can fly. Her dissolute father, Ofodile, decides this power is dangerous, and, without the knowledge of Ijeoma’s mother or the rest of the community, exiles her to Precious Word Ministries, where she is abused, caged, and regarded as a witch. After years of maltreatment, during which she writes hundreds of diary entries entreating the village god Chukwu to save her, she and her rebellious friend Ikemba make plans to escape, and their scheming brings about magical and transformative consequences. Nwoka immerses the reader in an often-bewildering world, and though readers unfamiliar with the culture will have a tough time making sense of the parameters, those who stick with it will be rewarded with a rich sense of place. This stirring coming-of-age story holds its own in a recent wave of feminist fiction set in Africa.”

Pity the Beast by Robin McLean

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Pity the Beast: “McLean (Reptile House) returns with a category-defying novel of revenge, survival, and transcendence in modern-day Montana. While Ginny and her husband, Dan, assist a mare with a difficult birth on their ranch, the couple fights bitterly about Ginny’s infidelity with a neighbor, Shaw. Locals arrive to help with the foaling, and as the night wears on, drunken arguments turn violent: Dan rapes Ginny, and nearly all of the men do, as well, urged on by her sister, Ella. Presuming Ginny dead, they toss her inert body into the pit for dead livestock. But Ginny survives and emerges with an avenging fury and strikes back at one of her assailants with a plank spiked with nails. Armed with a stolen horse, weapons, provisions, and memories of her tough Granny, she flees into the mountains, hoping to have the authorities bring the men to justice. Hot in pursuit, though, are Dan, Ella, Ella’s husband, and two other men. The story of the posse alternates with prehistoric myth, natural history, excerpts from an imaginary western, data from 22nd-century extraterrestrial botanists, and the wise ‘thoughts’ of superintelligent, telepathic mules. But, however provocative, these passages don’t manage to integrate with the main narrative. Raw and elemental, searing yet wry, this has much to say on law and lawlessness, sexual politics, and humans’ animal nature.”

Chasing Homer by László Krasznahorkai (translated by John Batki, musical performances by Szilveszter Miklós, illustrated by Max Neumann)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Chasing Homer: “Krasznahorkai’s strange and engrossing novella (after Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming) reads like a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie dreamed up by Beckett and Kafka. Killers with an unknown motive are chasing the narrator, who has become by necessity an autodidact of survival skills, through Croatia along the Adriatic Coast. At a tourist bar in Korčula, holed up after being chilled to the bone by ominous gusts of the ‘Bora,’ the hero overhears a tour guide convince a couple to let him lead them on a tour of Mljet, a small island believed by its inhabitants to be the true location of Odysseus’s sojourn with Calypso, and follows them there. The hero’s account up to this point has been filled with reports of fast, chaotic, unpredictable movement to ward off the hunters, and of pledges to resist the animalistic pleasures in life, which would lead to doom, but at Korčula, something changes. Batki’s translation exquisitely captures the grace underlying the hero’s frenetic mindset (‘I must plunge, from the edge of a moment right into its midst, just like some Moby-Dick, or a dying butterfly between two flower petals’), as do the vignettes scored by free jazz drummer Szilveszter Miklós for each chapter (accessible via QR codes that appear in the text). Whether on a large canvas or small, Krasznahorkai never ceases to impress.”

The Art of Revision: The Last Word by Peter Ho Davies

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Art of Revision: “Novelist Davies (A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself) draws on his experience teaching at the University of Michigan’s writing program in this terrific guide to revising fiction. ‘Perhaps our ultimate resistance to revision, to doneness is that it prefigures death—the final draft, the last word,’ Davies writes. He rejects Thomas Wolfe’s categorization of writers as either ‘putter-inners’ or ‘taker-outers’ and posits that revision is the process of finding out what one really means to do with a story and involves both cutting out ‘darlings’ (or the ‘scaffolding… that can be taken down after the story is built’) and by adding when more is needed. Along the way, Davies surveys the methods writers have used for revision, including those of Frank O’Connor and Isaac Babel, and the relationship between Raymond Carver and editor Gordon Lish—in each case, he shows why revisions were made and how they changed a story. Davies also devotes a chapter on knowing when one is done with a story—a moment, he says, ‘when you understand why you told your story in the first place, what your intent actually was.’ Full of spirit and sound advice, this survey will be a boon to writers.”

Also on shelves this week: Sacred City by Theodore C. Van Alst.