Tuesday New Release Day: Starring VanderMeer, Hess, Murugan, Olafsson, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Jeff VanderMeer, Annette Hess, Perumal Murugan, Olaf Olafsson, and more—that are publishing this week.

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Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Dead Astronauts: “VanderMeer returns to the hallucinatory world of Borne, where an all-powerful company has ravaged a metropolis known only as the City, in this lackluster novel. Into this unpredictable landscape come three astronauts, Chen, Moss, and Grayson, determined to explore their otherworldly environment, which is watched over by a mysterious blue fox that seems capable of transcending time and space. After the first few chapters, fragmentary subplots bubble up: there is Charlie X, a rogue astronaut from the expedition fighting to hold on to his memories amid a creeping amnesia; a massive sea monster awaits its death; a mysterious journal containing knowledge of demons that foretells the coming of the monster Behemoth is passed between survivors; a total darkness called Nocturnalia threatens to engulf the dead city; and a shapeshifter confronts a cosmic duck over ownership of the journal. If this sounds overstuffed, it’s because it is. It’s certainly among VanderMeer’s most experimental work, but the novel never coalesces; the characters and concepts are too loosely sketched and the prose is both grandiose and oddly humorless, punctuated by lines such as ‘A fox is a question that must be answered’ and ‘The duck represented a paradox.’ This diffuse novel reads like unused notes from Borne and feels incomplete.”

The Story of a Goat by Perumal Murugan

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Story of a Goat: “This superbly fabulist tale from Murugan (One Part Woman) dives into the inner life and turmoil of a Asuras, a fictional farming village in rural India, through a small but determined goat and her unlikely caretakers. A large, mysticlike man gifts a rare black goat to an old farmer one day on his way home from the field. When the old farmer brings the malnourished goat home to his wife, she quickly gets to work caring for the goat, whom she names Poonachi. It’s not an easy start for Poonachi, who must deal with the abuses of the village children, refuses to suckle, and is attacked by a tiger. But in the hands of the old woman, Poonachi eventually thrives alongside their older goats and becomes her inseparable companion. As Poonachi grows older, she learns that life is filled with struggle and suffering, but also that it holds moments of beauty and love. Anthropomorphic Poonachi lets readers into many of her thoughts and experiences, including a vibrant view of life under a government regime that banned black goats (which supposedly can’t be seen in the dark) and oversaw long periods of famine and food rationing. Murugan explores the lively inner life of an observant goat in this imaginative exploration of rural life under the caste system.”

The German House by Annette Hess (translated by Elisabeth Lauffer)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The German House: “Hess’s strong debut follows Eva Bruhns, who works as an interpreter at the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials in 1963 Germany, in which German defendants have been charged with crimes they perpetrated at Auschwitz during WWII. Eva becomes emotionally invested as she interprets the testimonies of Polish witnesses from Polish to German, but she doesn’t understand why her parents, Edith and Ludwig, owners of the German House restaurant, don’t seem to care about the trial. As Eva continues her work and makes a trip to Auschwitz along with other members of the trial team, she uncovers secrets her parents have hidden from her about her father’s work during the war. The period detail is impressive, but the highlight is Eva, a complex and thoughtful woman who finds herself in the midst of a significant moment in history. This novel will appeal to both WWII fiction fans and those seeking historical novels anchored by a strong, memorable heroine.”

The Sacrament by Olaf Olafsson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Sacrament: “Olafsson (One Station Away) offers a mesmerizing and powerful look at abuse in the Catholic Church through the eyes of an elderly French nun called upon to revisit a two-decades-old case from 1987 in Iceland. Back then, Sister Johanna Marie, brought in to investigate because she had learned the language from her Icelandic college roommate, discovered that priests engaged in abhorrent behavior with impunity. Now, in 2009, she would rather tend her convent’s rose garden, but when a Cardinal calls upon her to obtain new evidence from a witness who will speak only to her, she agrees to help. The circumstances of the original case are vividly recalled: during an investigation of a priest accused of abusive behavior, the priest fell to his death from a bell tower. Johanna is concerned now about what this witness remembers and what he will reveal. Besides the investigation particulars, the reader discovers why Johanna became a nun and why she had to mask her feelings for her college roommate—a hidden love that impacted the rest of her life. The author shines a light on the enigmatic workings of the Catholic Church and, in an astounding dénouement, delves into the balance between justice and vengeance, and the power of conviction, absolution, and redemption. This is an incisive novel.”

This Is Happiness by Niall Williams

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about This Is Happiness: “In glorious and lyrical prose, Williams (History of the Rain) spins the tale of one 1958 season in the village of Faha, County Kerry, where young ‘Noe’ Crowe, only 17 and already departed from the seminary, has washed up with his grandparents. The story opens on the Wednesday of Holy Week with the cessation of an almost constant rain, relieving the villagers of their life ‘under a fall of watery pitchforks.’ To add to this wonder, the electricity is finally coming to Faha and with it a lodger at Ganga and Doady Crowe’s house. Christy McMahon is a man of broad experience who seems ‘as if it was he who told the world the joke of himself’ and a perfect companion to Noe. During that late spring and early summer, Noe assists Christy in signing up the locals for electric service, and they spend their evenings on a quest for music at countryside pubs. Most important for Christy is his attempt to gain forgiveness from Annie Mooney, now Annie Gaffney, widow of the village chemist, a woman that Christy left at the altar decades before. Meanwhile, love springs on Noe unawares as he comes under the thrall, in succession, of each of the lovely Troy sisters, daughters of Faha’s doctor, whose attention Noe needs after an accident. Noe’s reminiscences of that period are full of beauty and hard-won wisdom. This novel is a delight.”

I Offer My Heart as a Target by Johanny Vázquez Paz (translated by Lawrence Schimel)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about I Offer My Heart as a Target: “In the introduction to this piercing and timely exploration of gender, violence, and social justice, novelist, poet, and critic Rigoberto González writes: ‘The survivor speaks her truth, or rather, writes her way to truth as an avenue of expression.’ As the book unfolds, readers witness the role of language in creating truth from a variety of aesthetic vantages, ranging from the philosophical to the image-driven: ‘To smoke in another language causes a cancer that spreads; first the lips, then the tongue,’ Paz explains in ‘Diaspora of Words.’ Throughout, she calls attention to language as a reason for those in power to exclude, and effectively disenfranchise, those individuals beneath them. Yet language also appears as a source of understanding, connection, and community: ‘We went to live to indulge the enemy/ to resist nights of storms and orphanhood to hear the silence of the lips/ sealed by the ignorance of the language.’ To understand others, individuals must first learn how they organize, structure, and understand the world around them through language, Paz suggests. ‘Against all prognoses,/ we survive,’ she proclaims in this moving book that, with Schimel’s skillful translation, highlights resilience in the face of oppression.”

A Pregnant Pause: Reading About Motherhood

When I found out I was pregnant, the first person I told, besides my husband, was my friend’s mother, Claire, who is a doula. The word “doula” comes from the Greek word for “slave” and refers to a birthing professional who is devoted to the mother—or to both parents,— and ensuring her holistic well-being during the antenatal months, through labor, and into the “fourth trimester.”

Claire insisted on sending me a book. It arrived in the mail a few days later: Birth with Confidence by Rhea Dempsey, another Melbourne-based doula. The subtitle interested me: Savvy Choices for Normal Birth.

A “savvy woman,” the book purported, understood that there was “power in women’s bodies,” and that it was necessary to “be on guard, defensive and second-guessing all the time about what the agendas are for suggesting particular procedures.”

These agendas and procedures, Dempsey continued, ranged from artificial induction of labor, to pharmaceutical pain relief (the infamous epidural), to extraction of the baby with forceps and vacuum induction. The alternative to these various interventions, the author stated, was to embrace birth as an ecstatic experience and revel in the female body’s capacity to produce oxytocin, the “love hormone,” which is essential in the laboring process.

Was I a “savvy woman”? I shut the book, terrified that for some reason, I wasn’t.

Over the following months, Dempsey’s book would sit mostly unread under a pile of other books, all pertaining to pregnancy, labor, and motherhood, that I’ve read in lieu of relying on the scant pamphlets provided me by the Australian medical establishment. Having moved hardly two years ago to this remote corner of the world, with my mother and sisters and friends back in North America or Europe, these books were really all I had.

When Sheila Heti’s novel Motherhood came out in 2018, I immediately read it. I did so because I like her work—I would have read her latest book if it had been called Bicycles or Turnips. But as I followed the main character, nervously flipping a coin and hoping that fate would randomly decide whether she, at 37, should have a baby with her live-in boyfriend, I understood that unlike this narrator, I was not undecided about whether to become a mother. For whatever reason, I never have been. Whereas Heti’s narrator wonders aloud (via her iChing coin-flipping methodology) whether a female artist should have children—
But I don’t care about my genes! Can’t one pass on one’s genes through art?

yes

Do men who don’t procreate receive punishment from the universe?

no
—I, for some inexplicable reason, have always felt that motherhood and creative work will somehow go hand-in-hand for me.

And yet, I still had no idea how to be pregnant. I knew that What to Expect When You’re Expecting was considered the “bible” of pregnancy around the world, so I found a copy. Originally published in 1984 (the year I was born, my mother’s fourth pregnancy, and the only one where she accepted the use of an epidural, as she was 41 years old and the obstetrician basically told her she had to use it), the 530-page tome assumes that the newly-pregnant woman knows nothing, and therefore offers information from multiple angles on every possible topic of concern: vitamins; birthing locations; weight gain; single motherhood; alcohol consumption; preparing for labor; and in the third (and current) edition, a new emphasis on partner communications.

I flipped through it, and somehow found the page on “Emergency Delivery If You’re Alone”—i.e. what to do if your baby decides to come very quickly and you don’t have time to go anywhere and only you and your partner are around. Using an exacto knife, I removed this page from the book and attached it to the refrigerator with a magnet. Step number one: “Try to remain calm. You can do this.”

“I don’t think I would feel comfortable,” my husband said with a pale face when he saw the page. I assured him it was just in case of an emergency.

At 13 weeks of pregnancy, I boarded a plane to Europe. I’d planned the month-long trip before getting pregnant. In Slovenia and then Italy, I promptly ignored all the dietary cautions I’d read in What to Expect and ate raw milk cheese, salami, and crudo at every chance, washing it all down with modest sips of wine.

By the time I got to Berlin, the last stop on the journey, I was finally showing, but not much. But emotionally, I was in a state—I realized that this trip was my last solo hurrah—ever. I blurted out to one friend over Syrian food in Kreuzberg: “I have always wanted to go to Berghein.” Because she’s not a native Berliner, my friend didn’t roll her eyes dramatically, but instead volunteered to meet me there the next day, for a morning rave. At 9 a.m., I arrived to the ugly beige warehouse that houses Berlin’s most notorious nightclub. I waited nervously to be judged by Sven, the legendary guard. He barked at me to remove my sunglasses, then briefly scanned my outfit—I’d worn the black shift dress that another friend had gifted me secondhand, swearing it had gotten her through pregnancy. I was allowed in, and located my friend at the espresso bar downstairs. We danced for hours, completely sober, and I placed my hand on my belly, smiling at the thought of one day telling my child, “I went out dancing when I was pregnant with you!”

As I do on every trip to Berlin, I visited the magazine shop Do You Read Me?!, in Mitte. In their tightly curated book section, I found a series called “Vintage Minis” that prints short works by famous authors on mundane subjects. I purchased one, called Making Babies, by Irish novelist Anne Enright, and read it on the plane back to Australia.

Enright does not make any attempt to provide guidance on pregnancy and motherhood. To the contrary, she herself seems to be fumbling along, and she narrates all of her anxieties, annoyances, discomforts, and elations from the first trimester onward. In the grocery store, Enright battles cravings: “Starvation is no joke, especially when you have been eating all day.” She fears, even becomes convinced, that something is wrong with her baby, it must be deformed, until the first ultrasound proves otherwise. And Enright discovers, as I did, that being pregnant is a discursive state—a woman’s body becomes a blank page, upon which others can project their own morality.

“A pregnant woman is public property,” Enright writes. “I began to feel like a bus with ‘Mammy’ on the front—and the whole world was clambering on. Four women in a restaurant cheered when I ordered dessert. A friend went into a prolonged rage with me, for no reason at all. Everyone’s unconscious was very close to their mouths. Whatever my pregnant body triggered was not social, or political, it was animal and ancient and quite helpless. It was also most unfair.”

The second trimester is a time when hormones charge the body. Reading Enright’s words, I felt very emotional. Everyone was judging me, I felt—judging my body and consumption, already making me out to be a bad mother before the child was born.

Once the baby has arrived, Enright chronicles the months in terms of “Development (the baby)” and “Regression (me),” almost like an advice book that carefully outlines each stage of pregnancy in terms of sleeping, eating, bodily capabilities, etc. We see Enright struggling to hold it all together (her emotions, her career, her marriage) as the baby takes it all in stride. At five months, she goes back to her smoking habit and gets very tipsy whenever possible. At six months, she feels that her life is essentially centered upon literal shit. I, too, gave up smoking when I became pregnant and reading, I started to wonder whether I’d crave cigarettes not long after my baby is born. I also questioned my environmentally driven vision of using cloth diapers.

As time went on, I reverted to the advice books. After all, I was going to have to breastfeed this child and keep it clean and fed, all of which seemed like pretty high-stakes things. A friend lent me her copy of Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth, and it became my cornerstone.

Gaskin is a beacon of sanity in a world of hypermedicalized child birthing. After one birth in which a doctor used forceps, followed by a traumatic premature birth on a bus traveling though Nebraska (the baby did not survive), Gaskin became motivated to provide better birth experiences for women. In 1971, she and her husband founded one of the United States’s first outside-hospital birth retreat centers, called The Farm, in Tennessee. Over the decades, Gaskin and her coterie of midwives delivered thousands of births, and she became the foremost expert in natural childbirth. I read her book from cover to cover, absorbing every single one of the birth stories with gusto I usually reserve for binge-watching Netflix.

With confident Ina May by my side, I felt equipped to write my “birth plan,” in which I voiced my intention to avoid, unless medically necessary, every kind of medical intervention ranging from induction to episiotomy to C-section. And I finally felt comfortable telling my doctor that I would not be taking the gestational diabetes test, which involved fasting for 12 hours and drinking a sugary solution, since I had no risk factors and plenty of qualms with the methodology.

At around 20 weeks of pregnancy—halfway through—I remembered that a book called Bringing Up Bebe had been a huge bestseller in the U.S. Being a Francophile, I rushed out to get it. In this 2012 book, Paris-based American journalist Pamela Druckerman offers anthropological insight on French childrearing culture. Every time Druckerman debunked another classically American, overly risk-averse stipulation, whether about pregnancy or childbirth, and cracked the code on what the French were doing, I felt like cheering out loud. Her approach showed expert journalistic slyness and cultural sensitivity—French mothers insisted they didn’t let their babies “cry it out,” but when Druckerman pried more, these mothers explained that they briefly “observed” their babies crying just for a few minutes, before acting. French childrearing was different, I came to think, because it emphasized the well-being of broader society (a child must be well-educated because it’s better for everyone; a child must go to daycare because it’s important to the family as a whole that the mother works) rather than obsessing over a child’s achievements and plotting its entrance to Harvard at six months. Druckerman, I thought, you’re my hero.

Three friends who live in Europe, who were also pregnant, shared photos on social media featuring a nice new hardcover book called The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother. They seemed excited about it, so I ordered it. The author, Heng Ou, applies her family’s knowledge of traditional Chinese medicine and cooking to postnatal care for the mother. About half the book is recipes, including super food smoothies, bone broths, soups, and stews—apparently, after birthing it is important to warm the body—and I noticed one recipe, in particular, called for Chinese red dates, which according to the author “bestow amazing postpartum benefits.”

I tried to picture myself going to the Asian markets to find these red dates and preparing such a stew. Even without a baby crying on my hip, it seemed like a lot of work. I lay the Forty Days book on the shelf along with my other aspirational cookbooks such as Bar Tartine’s.

At 31 weeks of pregnancy, this stack of books sits neatly on a shelf. I have stopped reading any of them; instead I prefer to delve into the latest Rachel Cusk essay collection and Ben Lerner’s new novel. I’m not sure a book could make me a better mother than I am already destined to be. But at least I do know that I’ll raise a good reader—and maybe one who likes late-night dancing to house music.

Image: Toa Heftiba

Lost in Translation: Classical Arabic Literature

It’s a good time to be an Arab writer. December 18 marks the seventh annual UNESCO World Arabic Language Day, just one of many honors accorded by western elites on their Arab peers. Another came earlier this year when the International Booker—not to be confused with the “Arabic Booker,” a.k.a. the International Prize for Arabic Fiction; as James English observes in The Economy of Prestige, the nature of cultural prizes is to endlessly beget more prizes—had its first Arabic winner in Celestial Bodies, by Omani author Jokha Alharthi and translated by Marilyn Booth. All of this commotion means that publishers are now seeing Arabic titles spike in supply and demand. With conspicuous gestures by enterprising Gulf monarchs, there is now more financial and psychical support than ever for translating Arabic literature into English.
Yet such happy developments tend to bless the province of modern works alone. However well-intentioned their goals, the various prizes, publishers, and pecuniary goods—in short, the institutional boons to translation—are losing sight of Arabic’s great riches: the centuries-old tradition of classical literature, as well as the battle-weary corps of translators bringing it into English, often from beyond the fortified ramparts of university tenure.
There are exceptions, of course. Foremost among them is the Emirati-funded Library of Arabic Literature (LAL), a New York University Press venture that has released more than three dozen works of classical Arabic. For each, scholars use original manuscripts to create a reliable print edition and English translation, in partnership with a board of accomplished Arabists. The books are then published as bilingual hardbacks and English-only paperbacks. Among the tenured, this series bodes a new era of friendly assistance that some have waited entire careers to see. However, the LAL editorial policy of turning away young scholars—with the worthy goal of keeping them from work that doesn’t count for tenure—means that most titles come only from comfortably established professors or translators. This stiff hierarchy finds itself mirrored outside the university, too: journalists and others not affiliated with LAL but who hope to promote classical Arabic literature have had lost potential readers to LAL’s savvy, well-funded publicity team.
But despite the odds, a number of independent translators, most of them young and untenured, have in the last few years taken to small presses with radiant, vigorous English translations. The majority are works of classical Arabic poetry, although in the case of NYU’s David Larsen, the text in question was an 11th-century etymological dictionary called Names of the Lion, translated by Larsen and published as a “chapbook” with Wave Books in 2009 and reprinted in 2017. Larsen has another Wave Books title, Lightning Scenes, of actual Arabic poetry in English.
After a characteristically insightful preface, Larsen surrounds and overwhelms his readers with lexicographical minutiae—a list of more than 400 classical Arabic synonyms for “lion” compiled by Persian grammarian Ibn Khalawayh, plus translator’s footnotes that betray a deep erudition:

al-Rayyas              “The Strutter”al-Jukhdub           “The Great Big [Leaper in the Grass?],” also said of the locustal-`Ajannas          “The Colossus,” also said of a camelal-Sabanda          “The Daredevil,” also said of the leopard, as is al-Sabantaal-Ghadb               “The Scarlet,” said of intense saturation with rednessal-Bay’as               “The Bane,” said of anything that causes harm. God, be He exalted, speaks [in Surat al-`Araf 7:165] of “a doom that is ba’is.”al-Muhis                “Who Causes Folks to Step Along”al-Arqab                “Whose Neck is Massive”

Doing more justice to a classical Arabic tradition obsessed with its own language than many a wispy verse collection could, Larsen’s oddball gamble paid off, netting him the 2018 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets. With 2020 promising his second classical poetry night for the American Oriental Society, he is clearing the cobwebs from a corner of ancient Arabic literature that English readers never get to see.
But Larsen is a working poet, just like many who grind away at classical Arabic. It’s no shock that they should choose to translate verse rather than something else. Casting an enormous shadow over this new generation of Arabic literary translators, in terms of style and voice, if not in direct tutelage, are the labors of Michael Sells, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago. For decades, he has rendered the Qur’an, pre-Islamic desert odes, and Islamic Sufi lyric poetry in a way that avoids the archaizing quality of the original, striving instead for “a natural, idiomatic, and contemporary American verse,” as he explains in Desert Tracings. Here, for instance, is his opening to Qur’an 82, “The Tearing”:

When the sky is tornWhen the stars are scatteredWhen the seas are poured forthWhen the tombs are burst openThen a soul will know what it has given              and what it has held back

Spare, ghostly, thrumming with the distance of legend told in light whispers—this is not a classicist’s crib, but instead the ethereal fare one might expect in the pages of River Styx or Tin House. Being aware of this working poet’s sensibility goes a long way toward explaining the shape of translations now being made by young Arabists, and perhaps why some of them have chosen to remain outside academia, where literalizing trots are the preferred tool.
One translator in this camp is Kareem James Abu Zeid. An Egyptian-American with a UC Berkeley Ph.D. and training under the poet CK Williams, Abu Zeid has worked exclusively with modern Arabic up to now, including Songs of Mihyar the Damascene by the Syrian poet Adunis (with Ivan Eubanks, New Directions, 2019). But in 2018, he secured a National Endowment of the Arts grant to translate the mu`allaqat or “hung poems.” These are a group of seven—or 10, depending on the compiler—pre-Islamic desert odes as formative to Arabic as Beowulf was to English.
Channeling a sixth-century Arabian desert zeitgeist in which the grainy details of tribal warfare and harsh landscapes mingle with more expansive themes such as love, betrayal, and hubris, the odes were traditionally grist to the mill of European orientalists like Charles Lyall and Sir William Jones. But in the last century, they got their first working poet’s touch from Sells in Desert Tracings, mentioned above. Abu Zeid moves in a similar direction, rendering them “more poetic and accessible,” as in this passage from the hung poem of Imru’ al-Qays describing the poet’s own horse:

How quickly he moves,charging forward and drawing backas in a single motion, poisedto rush down from on highlike a torrent of stones.His hue: the dark of wine.His back: so slickthe saddle-felt slips from itlike raindrops off rock.

Sidestepping the familiar Latinisms and plodding cadences, Abu Zeid delivers tight, Creeley-esque lines that quicken long-dead poets back to life. Specialists will groan about yet another translation of what they see as well-worn texts, but this view forgets how novel they are to non-experts. What’s more, the specialists themselves, malnourished by a lack of apparent relevance to society, will reap the fruit of greater public awareness about classical Arabic titles beyond the 1,001 Arabian Nights.
Speaking of that last work, another person to watch is Yasmine Seale, a French-Syrian translator and essayist for venues like Harper’s and The Times Literary Supplement. One of the first women to translate the Nights, in 2018 she put out a dynamic English rendition of Aladdin with Liveright Publishing, an imprint of W.W. Norton. Just as artful but less known are her experiments with the mystical poetry of 13th-century Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi. According to Tentacular Magazine, Seale has teamed up with Robin Moger, a Banipal Prize-winning translator of modern Arabic literature, to workshop poems from The Interpreter of Desires, a collection that uses erotic motifs to express mystical-philosophical doctrine. At the urging of his pupils, Ibn Arabi wrote a preface to clarify the connection.
Regarding their method, Seale and Moger explain: “We each separately begin a translation of the same ode and then send the translations to one another. The second iteration of the ode is written as a response to this translation and sent in turn, and so on, until we are exhausted.” Readers can watch a single poem evolve as Seale and Moger post its several English reincarnations online, such as these lines in Moger’s translation:

if we meet we will partbut in one moment pressing and wrapping we is emphatic
really there is space between useyes do not see itinstead the unity of usin my sparse stuff and your light
by my thin cries loosed I am spied

Perhaps not surprisingly, given such redolent material, Ibn Arabi is yet another figure touched by the poetic vision of Michael Sells. In 2018, he reprised his earlier work Stations of Desire (Ibis, 2000) with a new set of translations from The Interpreter of Desires, called Bewildered (The Post-Apollo Press), with further plans to publish a complete translation plus Arabic edition.
Some up-and-comers have cast their translator’s nets to the other side of the boat, opting for material less common in English. One is Melanie Magidow, Ph.D. alumna of University of Texas at Austin and a freelance Arabic consultant. In 2017, she received an NEA grant to translate the epic Sirat Dhat al-Himma, the longest of its kind and the only one named for a female general, Dhat al-Himma—“She of High Resolve,” a warrior’s honorific; her real name is Fatima—who brawls her way across the Arab-Byzantine borderlands. Readers can find an excerpt published through the University of Iowa. At times the English comes off a bit sclerotic, as when Magidow’s classicizing ear picks up the garble of battle cries:

Mazlum shouted, “You bastard! No matter which sky shades you or which bit of earth upholds you, you are going down!” “No!” Fatima hefted the spear in her hand, and called to Marzuq, “Cover my back, brother!”

But she is more confident in passages of description or narrative:

Fatima kept to herself, riding the horses and learning the arts of war on her own–attack and retreat, lining up for battle, pursuit, defense, and charging. She made weapons from tree branches, leaves, and reeds. Whenever a camel stallion opposed her, she would shout at him and, clinging to the stallion’s mate, she would direct him until he surrendered … By the age of seven, she could fast a full day, repeating to herself the name of Allah. The Bani Tayy began to call her “Shariha the Mystic.”

Another translator whose work enlarges classical Arabic literature’s place in English is Alex Rowell. A Beirut-based journalist and managing editor of Al-Jumhuriya English, Rowell burst onto the scene in 2017 with his debut book, Vintage Humour: The Islamic Wine Poetry of Abu Nuwas (Hurst Publishers). Despite being a household name in the Arab world, the 9th-century poet Abu Nuwas is all but unknown in English. An infamous philanderer, sexual adventurer, mocker of religion, and general free spirit, he’s considered above all to be classical Arabic’s bacchic bard. His wine poems, or khamriyyat, speak of a dissolute Baghdad nightlife where all pleasures can be found:

Why would I go on Hajj as long as                I’m plunged in a wine house, or a pimp’s pad?And even if you could save me from those               How could I be saved from Tiyzanabad?

Unlike most renderings of classical Arabic poetry, Rowell’s English pulls off rhyming couplets (aB-cB-dB-eB, etc.) without sounding trite or stilted, although readers will sense his taste for a bookish register when compared to the other translations seen here. Along with a sharp introduction and helpful notes, Vintage Humour finds a rare balance between poetry and philology that so completely defines the original.
It’s a balance needed right now, at a time when contemporary Arab writers are taking their turn on the world stage, in order to keep the classical tradition from being lost to view. As independent translators strive after the best English voice for lines written a thousand years ago in Arabic, they are also determined to show why those lines matter in the first place.

Image: T Foz

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Duffy, Habral, and Lynch

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Bobby Duffy, Bohumil Habral, and Thomas Lynch—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 sign up to be a member today.

Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything by Bobby Duffy

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything: “Duffy, Policy Institute director at King’s College London, puts his 20 years of research into opinion formation to good use in this illuminating first book. Through cogent analysis, made accessible through charts and anecdotes, he thoroughly examines ‘general and widespread delusions about individual, social, and political realities.’ The book divides misperceptions into two categories: mistakes people make in their own thinking, and mistakes originating in what they are told by others, both by authority figures and the media, and by friends, family, and colleagues. Within these categories, Duffy’s examples of things people often get wrong range from the trivial, such as whether the Great Wall of China is visible from space (it isn’t), to the consequential, such as whether violent crime is on the rise (a single high-profile case can make people think it is, even when crime rates are actually declining). While addressing such well-known conceptual pitfalls as the inherent ‘bias toward information that confirms what we already believe,’ Duffy avoids pessimism. He focuses on the things everyone can do to change how they process information, such as learning not to focus on extreme examples, or improving critical reading abilities. The result is a well-informed breath of intellectual fresh air about how best to avoid misunderstanding the world.”

All My Cats by Bohumil Habral (translated by Paul Wilson)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about All My Cats: “This slender volume from novelist Hrabal (1914–1997), originally published in 1983, is an affecting meditation on the joys and occasional griefs of sharing his life with a large group of cats. While working in Prague during the week, Hrabal constantly worries about the animals that inhabit—and which he’s allowed to completely overrun—his country cottage, and only upon returning there for the weekend can he feel relieved. Should anything happen to him or his wife, he frets, ‘Who would feed the cats?’ So when a new litter brings the cottage’s feline population over capacity, and Hrabal rashly decides to kill several kittens, readers will be shocked. That he can keep them on his side afterward—by persuasively showing himself as appalled at what he’s done—is a testament to his storytelling skills. These include an ability to balance brutal moments with tender ones, as when relating how even his feline-averse wife ‘always looked forward to mornings, when we’d wake up and I’d open the door and five grown cats would come charging into the kitchen and lap up two full bowls of milk.’ Hrabal’s involving and moving story will prod his audience to look more closely at their own relationships with other creatures.”

The Depositions by Thomas Lynch

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Depositions: “This meditative, often emotionally affecting collection from funeral director, poet, and essayist Lynch (Whence and Whither) explores, with personal honesty and philosophical curiosity, the intersection of faith, death, family, and vocation. It features selections from Lynch’s four previous collections, along with five new pieces. It begins with ‘The Undertaking,’ an introduction to his trade that is moving and humorous in turns—the latter, particularly, as Lynch considers people’s frequent discomfort with his profession, noting, ‘I am no more attracted to the dead than the dentist is to your bad gums.’ Despite this flippant remark, Lynch explores his work as a spiritual one. In ‘How We Come to Be the Ones We Are,’ he recalls how learning Catholicism’s language and rituals in childhood informed his work. In ‘Y2Kat,’ one of the standout pieces, Lynch views his first marriage’s collapse through the metaphor of the ancient, seemingly immortal family cat that hates him, again expertly straddling the line between comedy and tragedy. In the new essays, Lynch contemplates the potential collapse of his second marriage and the challenge of maintaining sobriety during dark days, among other topics. Providing an excellent entry point for newcomers to Lynch’s work, this assemblage is an erudite but unpretentious discussion of life and mortality by a master craftsman of language.”

I Know He Enjoyed Your Calls

In early March of 2019, I spoke with my friend Frank on the phone for only the second time in months. He had recently moved into a senior center in Maryland, and he was depressed. His younger daughter had died of cancer. I had written, called, and left messages for him, not realizing how restricted communications can be with someone in a senior facility when you’re not related. Access is often limited.
It was the longest I’d gone without seeing or talking with Frank for more than five years.
That day he called. It was after dinner on a Saturday. He was trying to get better, he said. He was focused on it. “I wanted to call because I consider you like family,” he said. “I told my daughter if something should happen to me—”
I started to interrupt. But he was firm: “Face it, I’m 92 years old.”
He told me a story. He said one of the staff at Greenfield Senior Living had found “the book” in Frank’s room. By the book, he meant my book, Cork Wars, which had just come out, about Frank and a few others during World War II. Frank had been keeping his copy to himself—he didn’t want to draw attention. “But Trish found it and asked if she could read it,” he said. “She was surprised” that he was in a book.
Later, Trish told him she and another staffer wanted to read the book aloud to all the residents over a few days. Frank grudgingly let her. But he wanted to curate it: He marked the chapters that related to him and said those were the ones they should read. Of course it felt good to hear him say this. Besides massaging my author’s pride, it told me Frank was feeling better.
First Interview
It was November 2013 when I first visited Frank at his home in east Baltimore. I was just going to scout a potential source for my book about corporate espionage in WWII, immigrants, and the different ways families got entangled in war, from the factory floor to the CEO suite. I wanted to interview Frank about the company where he had worked, Crown Cork and Seal, and what he’d seen during WWII.
I walked up to the front door of the bungalow on suburban 47th Street, a blue-collar neighborhood. I gave even odds that we wouldn’t click at all. When I called Frank to set up the interview, what struck me was his voice: cement poured through a coarse sieve, a fibrous Baltimore baritone with grit and street. Which is how he sounded when he welcomed me inside his house. I imagined myself through his eyes: a privileged, college-educated guy who hadn’t had to work as hard as he had. But he invited me to have a seat in an overstuffed chair and we talked. We meandered around several topics, and in that first conversation I wasn’t sure if he was providing much I could use in my writing.
One of my early questions, about his first factory job as a drill operator at a war factory, immediately made him defensive. I asked how old he had been. “I was working with a permit,” he said. “I was 15 years old.”
He handed me a slim folder documenting the milestones of his career at Crown Cork and his pay history. “Look through it and tell me what you want to know,” he said. “I don’t want to get you all confused.”
Invasion of Privacy
I got a little confused about timelines when Frank spoke, but his story felt important to the story I wanted to tell. I wasn’t sure how, at first, but over the course of more than a dozen conversations, we focused on his teenage years during the war, growing up in an Italian-American family, and being part of the war effort. We’d sit in the two living room chairs facing the front door, and he’d give me an hour or so of his time.
My questions got more personal: How was it when he had to leave high school to get a job after his father died? How did it feel getting drafted when his three older brothers were already in the army? I asked where his father was buried, and how his mother responded when she was left to take care of the family.
We talked about Frank’s fears of shipping out to the Pacific. How did he feel, landing in the Philippines? What did he think then about the impending invasion of Japan? What did he see, coming back to unemployment in America? How did he propose to his girlfriend? How much did they spend on the wedding?
These conversations happened a couple years after my father died. So besides gathering string for my work-in-progress, I was asking questions I couldn’t ask my father. I enjoyed talking with someone from that generation. Frank was almost 90, almost my father’s age.
The Words That Bind
There’s a long tradition of interview relationships. Truman Capote famously befriended Perry Smith in prison and used that rapport to craft the most chilling details of In Cold Blood. “I thought he was a very nice gentleman,” Smith told Capote about Herb Clutter. “Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.”
At the other end of the emotional spectrum is Mitch Albom, who already knew the man whose conversations would become Tuesdays with Morrie (first a memoir, then a film, then Broadway!). Morrie Schwartz had been Albom’s sociology professor. Albom framed the book as his last class, a one-person tutorial on the meaning of life. “The son of poor Russian immigrants, Morrie was blessed with a crescent smile that crinkled his eyes and made everyone feel like family,” Albom wrote after seeing him again. These visits yielded dialogue but also caregiving lessons as Albom accompanied Morrie to the toilet and pounded his back at the direction of a physical therapist to loosen congestion. But Albom’s journey was into his own emotional core. From a college grad who mocked Schwartz’s sentiment, their conversations moved the author to epitomize that sentimentality, ending with a vision of his departed friend amid “stars and moons and planets, I see him dancing in the sky.”
Polymaths Eileen Myles and Jill Soloway engaged in a double fantasy version when they interviewed each other after—or rather, during—the dissolution of their relationship. Myles’s memoir Afterglow was in bookstores when they appeared together at the Hammer Museum in October 2016. To watch the video is to witness a fascinating performance of disclosure. Soloway frames the conversation: “We have things in our relationship that we haven’t quite worked out yet. And we thought we’d just process our relationship onstage here for you guys,” she says, adding, “We want to invite audience participation throughout.”
“We met very much like this. We met onstage,” Myles observes. “Being in each other’s work is a funny kind of exposure for a relationship.” Later Soloway’s 2018 memoir, She Wants It, talked more about Myles and the relationship.
I had no intention of complications as I returned again and again to visit Frank. I had a book to write and was simply grateful he made time to talk. I was also interviewing two other families about their experiences of life during wartime.
Escalator to the Galleys
Frank and I talked about ways to change our routine: going to the racetrack with his Pimlico group, or heading out for lunch at one of his favorites. But his schedule was as jammed as mine. He and his friends in the Pimlico group already had a regular outing. By the weekend, sitting and talking in his living room was usually his preferred option.
I would get there in the afternoon, having gone through my notes of our previous talk and identified gaps I meant to flesh out. The Eastern Avenue exit from the highway just after the tunnel, past the harbor, became a familiar turn.
Over time, Frank shared more personal memories and frustrations. He recalled the indignities of government suspicion of Italian Americans, and officials taking away his father’s shortwave radio as a security risk. He wrestled with how difficult it was to express some things from that time.
“How can I instill that I have seen death, that I’ve seen poverty, that I’ve seen sadness, that I’ve seen people that, if you have any compassion, it would break your heart?” he asks. “How do I relate that to someone who didn’t see it?”
His tangents added a dimension to my book. I realized it was important to include more about the wartime restrictions on immigrant families from different backgrounds labeled “enemy aliens.”
The book finally came together and I sent the manuscript to my editor, but I kept finding reasons to visit Frank. Did he still have the letters he and Irma exchanged during the war when he was in the Pacific? Did he have photos of the two of them during those years? And what did his grandson do for the Patent Office anyway?
This was how our relationship shifted: through Frank’s endless patience with my questions and through his sense of being heard. Finally in late 2017, I had a printout of the chapters that involved him, and brought the sheaf of pages for him to peruse.
That time, he made me lunch. Gnocchi with red sauce—he pulled out the jar, so I’d know what to look for when I wanted to make it myself. We enjoyed it at his kitchen table, and he sent some home for my wife. Frank’s independence at 91 staggered me. He was still driving himself around, volunteering at his local delegate’s office, and handling calls from constituents.
I was conscious of the transition in our exchanges from informant to writer to something else. The book launch was a few months away. Frank said he would join some events including one at the Baltimore Museum of Industry.
He was facing the annoyances of age. But then one hit him from out of the blue: His younger daughter got a cancer diagnosis. She was fighting it, and he was visiting her every week.
In April 2018, I called him several times and left a voicemail after his cheeky prompt (“You’ve reached the voicemail of Frankie Dee. Please leave a message.”). Unusually for him, I didn’t hear back. So that weekend I went to check on him. It was a glorious spring afternoon and I walked up to his door and rang the bell. I waited. Eventually the next-door neighbor came out and told me that Frank had been taken to the hospital a few days before. He’d been depressed since his daughter died. We both hoped Frank would be home after a few weeks’ rest.
On the highway back to D.C., I passed 18-wheelers as Courtney Barnett’s “Sunday Roast” expressed my hopes for Frank: Keep on keepin’ on. You’re not alone. I’ve heard your stories.
By late summer, the family saw he would not be able to stay in his house alone. I was still talking about book events we could do together, where Frank could tell his story like we’d talked about. I invited Frank and his daughter to a launch event in December. But I was losing direct touch with him.
Back in Dialogue
Rafael Alvarez, the writer who had introduced us, messaged me in January: “i just visited with frank at the nursing home. very sad.” Rafael said. I realized Frank had swayed at least two of us scribblers to keep up with him long after filing our stories. There were probably more.
I phoned Frank a few times at the center, and caught him once after the 5:30 dinner. It was good to hear his voice, but he sounded down. Still, he stayed on the line and by the time we ended the call he was laughing.
When he called me in early March, he sounded somewhat stronger. He started chatting about his surroundings and spoke about why he was depressed. He wanted to inform me, as if for the first time and he was breaking the news gently, that his younger daughter had died. It was really hard on his older daughter, he said.
Late Fragment
He’d become sort of a star at Greenfield. There are so many women and so few men. “A few weeks ago they had elections for the King and Queen of Valentines,” he said. He got worried. There was no way he would be King of Valentines, he said. So he filled out five or six ballots with other men’s names and put them in the ballot box. Still, it looked like the staff was intent on their plan so he—“and my daughter told me I shouldn’t do this”—pried open the box and grabbed out half a dozen ballots with his name on it.
It didn’t matter. He still ended up King of Valentines at Greenfield.
By the end of his story we were both laughing. Maybe, it seemed, he would have some more days that were OK.
But, as we ended the call, he was clear: He would reach out and call me when he felt like it. So I held back. I let go of our fantasy of having him join the event at the museum, which would highlight his part of the book and his career in Baltimore industry. But I wanted to visit him at Greenfield.
The Longest Odds
A few weeks after our phone call, I shared his story at the Museum of Industry. It was a crisp evening and the last sunlight off the harbor was shimmering. The only missing element was Frank.
Later I made notes to myself to call him. I knew I had said I’d wait for him to call, but I also thought the calls helped him. So I called on Saturday evening, May 4. It was Kentucky Derby day and I figured we’d have something to say. He did. He already knew the outcome and was aware that it was the longest-odds win in the Derby’s history. He said to tell my wife hello, and to be sure to pick up a jar of gnocchi from the store, reminding me of the brand name. “Sure, Frank,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
Two weeks later I heard from Frank’s daughter that he had passed away that Sunday. “It was unexpected,” she said, “He never got over my sister’s passing,” she said. She thanked me for staying in touch. “I know he enjoyed your calls.”
Probably not as much as I did. But the main body of our relationship remained in the book, and for that I’m grateful. Frank would say life is not all sweetness and light. Then he’d make a joke.
Image source: Hans

Lessons in Waiting for Yes

1.
I used to be in a band.

We played more than 600 shows in our roughly seven years together. We lasted seven years and 600 shows and three full-length albums and four EPs and two tapes, and dozens upon dozens of sessions, interviews, and videos. We weren’t the best. We weren’t the coolest. We weren’t the hippest. But we were good. We were really fucking good. And we outworked everyone. Beyond any music we ever created, we became most known for that work ethic. We were the Road Dogs, the writers said, the Working Man’s Band, the Hardest Working Group in Rock ‘n’ Roll. Our tires were bald, our heads heavy, our guitars torn to absolute shit.

Yet all of that hard work yielded nothing.

Well, that’s not entirely true. It yielded seven of the greatest years of my life, the majority of which were spent driving around the country, playing my guitar every night, making new friends and fans, seeing old friends and family, watching our small but devout fan base singing words that we wrote right back in our faces, and spreading our beer-soaked gospel in every corner of the country. We got to see our world in a way few people get to see it, and I’ll never suggest anything other than our being amongst the luckiest people on Earth.

But in the end, it resulted in nothing other than fond memories and a lifetime of experiences. As far as tangible returns on our years-long investment, we had nothing to speak of.

And yet here I am, starting at the same point I started at almost a decade ago. Only now, in place of a guitar and a bunch of songs, I am armed with a laptop and a bunch of stories.

I’ve decided to parlay my life and career from (arguably) the hardest industry to break into to break into (arguably) the second-hardest industry to break into. I’ve decided—thanks to a resume whose main body attempts to explain how being a “guitar player” can bring value to your company—to try and get paid doing one of the few things I know I can do well: writing.

Because being a musician—a decade of noes and passes, of agents and managers and labels and distributors and venues and bigger bands and producers telling me (in their kindest boilerplate language) that they’d rather not work with me—wasn’t enough, I’ve decided to have another go at failure in an attempt to start a writing career.

2.

In the 18 months since I gave up on a job search and threw myself headlong into trying to get paid enough to make a living as a writer, I’ve enjoyed a modicum of success. I’ve had a bunch of stories published online via sites great(ish) and (very) small. I’ve written for The New York Times and Catapult. Some publications have paid very, very well. Most have not. Every day, I apply for full-time work as a staff writer. I write and rewrite pitches. I query editors.

But I’m making a living—thanks, no doubt, to relocating from Lower Manhattan to the much less expensive Chapel Hill, N.C.—solely from writing.

There are the good gigs. The thrilling stories and the personal essays I hope to one day publish as a collection. There are the bad gigs. The dreaded listicles and the less-dreaded SEO work that pay the bills more regularly than anything else.

I write about sports and about wine. I write about the local flair of my adopted hometown and about the Italian-American food that is my family’s heritage. I write about my son, 18 months old and nearly half as tall as his mom.

Last summer, I pecked away every morning at a story about him, about her, and about me, and emerged with a 45,000-word manuscript of which I am very proud. I wrote it for myself. I wrote it for my mom, who’s been dead half a decade, and for my family, who are still here. I wrote because I felt that I had a story I had to write. I wrote for all the reasons the half-cocked self-help gurus tell you to write; “Don’t write the story because you want to get published. Write the story because you need to write the story.”

I needed to write that story. But I also wrote it with the intention of selling it to a publisher. Because fuck the self-effacing, pre-failure refrain of writing only to write because the story needs to be written. Because I want this story to be successful and I want it to be read and passed on and, at best, I want it to resonate with people. Because I want to be paid for my work. Because I want the book tour and the trappings that come with some bit of success.

Because I want it to be a book. Not just a manuscript. And I feel not an ounce of shame in saying that.

And it will. Someday. I have little doubt.

But first I have to wade through another cycle of the endless noes and passes, as the 50-plus literary agents whom I’ve queried and the 50-plus more that I’ve yet to query tell me in their kindest boilerplate language that they’d rather not work with me.

And while I recognize that most aspiring writers’ unsuccessful queries number in the dozens, if not the hundreds, and while I’ve already had dozens, if not hundreds of editors pass on my story pitches, it doesn’t take the sting out of the Thanks-But-No-Thanks responses that litter my inbox at present.

3.

It took seven years and 600 shows for the wind to leave my sails as a rock ‘n’ roller. Seven years and 600 shows and three full-length albums and four EPs and two tapes and dozens upon dozens of sessions, interviews, and videos for the noes and the passes and the boilerplate letters to cause me to crumble under the endless weight of denial, under the endless reminder that my music just wasn’t quite good enough.

So I still have some time. I still have hundreds of queries to send and editors to pitch and more manuscripts to write and more people to bug with my endless optimism. And if after seven years, my resolve is destroyed by the noes and the passes and the boilerplate letters, I can always try out for the Mets.

It can’t possibly be harder than trying to write for a living.

Image: Scott Warman

Ten Ways to Live Forever

1.Before ISIS toppled the minaret of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Anbar Province, or threaded the Mosul tombs of Daniel and Jonah with incendiary, Utnapishtim was somewhere in the desert. He was there before the Americans with their hubristic occupation, in some cave while soldiers in Kevlar patrolled the banks of the Tigris, M1 tanks of the Third Infantry rolling toward Baghdad and F-22s of the 101st Airborne cutting across the skies of Karbala. Utnapishtim survived Saddam’s reign, with his mustard gas, torture chambers, and the invasion of Kuwait; he’d seen men burnt alive on Highway 80 by the Americans; he’d endured the brutal war with Iran, when tanks got stuck in the mud of Dezful and Khorramshahr was turned into a city of blood; he was there when the Ba’athists overthrew the Hashemite monarchy.

Utnapishtim lived through the British Mandate of Mesopotamia, when Sir Percy Cox drank G&T’s at the officer’s club; he’d lived when Iraq was a backwater of the Ottomans, and he saw Mamluks, Jalayirids, and Mongols steer their horses across the desert; he witnessed Genghis Khan in Khwarizmi, more centaur than man. He snuck unseen into the Baghdad of the Abbasids, city of gardens and astrolabes, where he discussed Hadith with the humane Mu’tazila and parsed Aristotle with Ibn Sina. Prior to the Islamic Golden Age, Utnapishtim was in Ctesiphon when Yazdegerd III fled as the Arabs marched into the Sasanian Empire, the Zoroastrian mages unable to prevent the course of history (true of all of us). He was there when Trajan marched columns of iron-armored Roman centurions into Parthia, and when Alexander the Great established Seleucid.

Witness to when Cyrus the Great freed the Jews of Babylon, and when Hammurabi’s scribes chiseled the law into stone. Utnapishtim had endured Chaldeans, Babylonians, Assyrians, Akkadians. Our primogeniture, the oldest of men, born in Sumer; as old as cuneiform pressed into wet clay, as old as sunbaked cities and the farming of wheat on the Euphrates’s banks, as old as the words themselves. Enki of the stars and An of the sky, Enlil of the wind and Ninhursag of the mountains molded Sumer, and by the banks of Eden birthed humans like Utnapishtim. Our only refugee of that before-time, the only person to survive when the fickle gods conspired to destroy the world by flood shortly after having created it.

He dwelled when Iraq was Uruk, before civilization’s keystone was set, when the firmament was new. Utnapishtim survived leaders and conquerors, presidents and dictators. Breathing before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Muqtada al-Sadr, George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein, and the Ayatollah Khomeini; talking before King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II; walking before Mehmed II, the Abbasid caliphs, and Genghis Khan; older than the Prophet Muhammad; older even than Yazdegerd III, Alexander the Great, Cyrus the Great, Darius II, Sargon of Akkad, and Ashurbanipal. He witnessed the inundation of ziggurats, the collapse of towers, the immolation of temples. For the thousands of reigns he lived through, the kings innumerable and emperors forgotten, only one had ever sought his counsel. Despite being two-thirds divine, a king who would ultimately die like the rest of us; a fearsome ruler named Gilgamesh.

2.The tale of a righteous man visited by a god who warned him of rising waters—who in response builds an ark, venturing forth when a dove that he’s released confirms that dry land has reemerged—may strike you as a story that you’ve heard before. Norman Cohn parses the purpose of these stories, writing in Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought that “large areas of what used to be Mesopotamia…were frequently devastated by flood. When torrential rain combined with the melting of the snows… the Tigris and Euphrates could burst their banks.” Cohn explains that in “ancient times this phenomenon gave rise to a powerful tradition: it was believed that here had once been a flood so overwhelming that nothing was ever the same again.” But if Genesis focuses on sin and punishment, the anonymously written Epic of Gilgamesh has no moral, save for a brief on why we must die at all (or at least why most of us must).  

Unlike Noah, who even with the antediluvian extremes of 950 years did ultimately die, Utnapishtim was gifted (or cursed) by the gods with immortality. Some other differences with the Bible’s account, for Genesis records nothing of having to fight scorpion-monsters to reach Utnapishtim. Gilgamesh was stricken over the death of his best (and arguably only) friend, Enkidu, the wild man domesticated by the priestess Shamhat with sex and beer (as so many people are). For the ruler of Uruk, Utnapishtim promised something that can’t be purchased in gold, the possibility of Enkidu’s resurrection and Gilgamesh’s immortality. In Stephen Mitchell’s reimagining Gilgamesh: A New English Version, Utnapishtim queries the ruler: “who will assemble/the gods for your sake? Who will convince them/to grant you the eternal life that you seek?”

Utnapishtim tasks Gilgamesh, the man who defeated the mighty ogre Humbaba, that immortality is his if he simply stays awake indefinitely. Despite quasi-divinity, powers temporal and physical, authority and prestige, Gilgamesh can’t defeat slumber. Utnapishtim mocks the king, “Look at this fellow! He wanted to live / forever, but the very moment he sat down, / sleep swirled over him, like a fog.” All of human weakness and desires—our need to eat, our need to shit and piss, our need to fuck—signal that our lot is not that of Utnapishtim or of the gods who created him. Even if you can defeat Humbaba, the Epic of Gilgamesh reminds us, sooner or later you’ll nod off.

Finally, Gilgamesh is informed that the only means of living forever is to acquire a magic plant growing at the bottom of all rivers’ sources, which the ruler promptly finds, only to have the wily serpent (at the start of an auspicious career) snatch the fruit away from him. Enkidu’s death has left the king raw and lonely, but Utnapishtim’s example is illusory and dangerous, for it “postpones Gilgamesh’s necessary acceptance until a time when he is more ready for it,” as Mitchell writes. Gilgamesh realizes that immortality is not literal; one does not live forever at the world’s eastern edge, but rather in deeds, memories, and in words. We’re told by less mature voices to rage against the dying of the light, but the earliest story has Gilgamesh confront immortality’s mirage, understanding how “now that I stand / Before you, now that I see who you are, / I can’t fight.”

Ironically, Utnapishtim’s story was forgotten for millennia (if filtered through other myths). “Though it is one of the earliest explorations of these perennial themes,” writes David Damrosch in The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, “this haunting poem isn’t a timeless classic.” Hidden just as surely as Utnapishtim in his orchard, the influence of The Epic of Gilgamesh is subliminal in our cultural memory. Preserved on a few broken kiln-burnt tablets strewn about the floor of the Akkadian king Ashurbanipal’s library, The Epic of Gilgamesh wasn’t rediscovered until the 19th century by British archeologists. Of that, Utnapishtim’s discourse on eternity occupied only a few lines on the 11th tablet.

Literary historian Michael Schmidt in Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem describes the epic as constituting “the first road novel, the first trip to hell, the first Deluge.” So much has come after what that nameless scribe wrote; it predates Homer and Virgil, Dante and John Milton, William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, Anne Bradstreet and Emily Dickinson. Even though ignorant of Gilgamesh, they worked and aspired to the same timelessness, for as Schmidt writes, it “prefigures almost every literary tone and trope and suggests all genres, from dramatic to epic, from lament to lyrics and chronicle, that have followed it.”

The Epic of Gilgamesh reminds us that there have been many floods, many apocalypses, many deaths, and virtually nobody has ever come out the other side alive. To live forever may be a myth, yet for our lack of eternity, even after all these millennia, we are still “Wandering, always eastward, in search / of Utnapishtim, whom the gods made immortal.” 

3.Sex evolved before death. Arguably the former was a prerequisite for the latter. Sexual reproduction, genetic material exchange resulting in a new individual, was first practiced among simple prokaryotes—unicellular organisms lacking membrane and nuclei—about two billion years ago. Birds do it, bees do it, educated fleas do it, and apparently even prokaryotes do it. Such hobbies introduce beneficial genetic variations that the date-night loneliness of asexual reproduction simply doesn’t allow for. When celibate organisms reproduce through mitosis, they’re cloning themselves—the individual is the species. If you squish an asexual prokaryote, there are millions more just like it—death is meaningless; it is fundamentally immortal. But once sex exists, the loss of any one thing can be considered the irretrievable death of something completely unique, no matter how simple it may be. As the old joke at my alma matter has it, “Sex kills. If you want to live forever, go to Carnegie Mellon.”

Immunologist William R. Clark explains in Sex and the Origins of Death that “Obligatory death as a result of senescence—natural aging—may not have come into existence for more than a billion years after life…programmed death seems to have arisen at about the same time that cells began experimenting [with] sex…It may be the ultimate loss of innocence.” From the first orgasm came the first death gasp—at least proverbially. Human culture has subsequently been one long reaction to that reality, debating whether it was a fall or a Felix culpa.

That sex precedes death isn’t just a biological fact, but it has the gloss of theological truth about it as well. Such is the chronology as implied by Genesis; though there was debate as to if Adam and Eve did have sex in Eden, there seemed little doubt that they could have (though St. Augustin said it could only be facilitated through pure rationality, and not fallen passion). That all changes once Utnapishtim’s wily serpent makes a reappearance, and God tells Eve that He will “greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” Only three verses later, and God tells Adam that “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Sent beyond Eden’s walls to live out their finite days in the desert, their only consolations are sex and death.

Eros and Thanatos endures in the human psyche. Since the 16th century, the French have referred to orgasm as la petite mort, the “little death.” When that phrase first appeared, Europe was in the midst of syphilitic panic. A disease of replacement: silver noses pressed into the viscus putty of a rancid face, and of the tics and mutterings of those who’ve gone insane. Anthropologist Jared Diamond writes in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies that when syphilis “was first definitely recorded…in 1495, its pustules often covered the body from the head to the knees, caused flesh to fall from people’s faces, and led to death within a few months.” If scolds were looking for the connection between sex and death, syphilis was a ready-made villain. Always a moralizing faith, Christianity was made a bit more so with the arrival of syphilis; in 15th-century Florence the fanatical Dominican Girolamo Savonarola taught that it was God’s punishment for decadent humanism; a generation later and the Protestant Martin Luther would concur with his Catholic forebear.

In Naples they called it the “French disease,” and in Paris it was an Italian one, but epidemiologists have configured it as American, noting its arrival shortly after Christopher Columbus’s return from the Caribbean. Syphilis was an export alongside potatoes and tomatoes; an unwitting revenge for the smallpox introduced into the Western Hemisphere. If modernity signals its own fall, than syphilis was perhaps an indiscriminate punishment, for as historian Roy Porter writes in The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity, syphilis “should be regarded as typical of the new plagues of an age of conquest and turbulence, one spread by international warfare, rising population density…[and] the migrations of soldiers and traders.” Sacrificed immortality was the price that living creatures paid for the possibility of connection, for if eternity was once a biological process, then its opposite was as well.

4.Ponce de Leon looked for immortality in Florida, it’s true. Somewhere near where tourists stroll eroding Miami Beach, soccer moms pick their children up from Broward County strip malls, or hearty adventurers visit Pensacola gator-parks, the conquistador had obsessively searched for the Fountain of Youth. According to (apocryphal) legend, de Leon was fixated on stories told by Native Americans of a mythic source water whose curative properties would restore men to youth—indefinitely. Immortality by water fountain if you will. “Ponce de Leon went down in history as a wishful graybeard seeking eternal youth, like so many Floridians today,” quips Tony Horowitz in A Voyage Long and Strange: On the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventures in Early America.

Arawak and Taino spoke of a spring named “Bimini,” located everywhere from the Bahamas to the Yucatan. De Leon looked for it in the future Sunshine State, though you’ll note that he did not find it. If you’ve ever visited the Old Town of San Juan, Puerto Rico with its charming, crooked stone streets that meander by colonial buildings painted in pinks and blues, you’ll find that far from achieving immortality, de Leon is buried inside of the white-walled Cathedral of San Juan Bautista. In 1521, somewhere between Florida’s hidden Fountain of Youth and immortality, de Leon found himself in the way of a manchineel poisoned arrow wielded by a Calusa warrior.  

When de Leon envisioned a bubbling creek that could restore him to lost youth (probably better to have just enjoyed the original more), by what mechanism did he see such a thing as working? Chemical or alchemical, natural or supernatural? Horowitz writes that a “Spanish historian later claimed that Ponce de Leon [searched]…as a cure for his impotence,” which gives us an emotional register for the conquistador’s obsession, if not the pharmaceutical specifics. Since no such fountain actually exists, the question of whether it’s magic or science is easier to answer—it’s neither. Or, perhaps, better to think of it as a magical belief about science; the idea that the fountain’s waters have mineralogical or medical properties is fundamentally just a mask for our supernatural inclinations, the fountain not so different from Gilgamesh’s restorative plant.

As early as the fifth century before the Common Era, and Herodotus would declaim in The Histories that the mythic Macrobians living on the Horn of Africa could live as long as 120 years with the assistance of a particularly pure spring. He writes of a “fountain, wherein when they had washed, they found their flesh all glossy and sleek, as if they had bathed in oil—and a scent came from the spring like that of violets…their constant use of the water from it [is] what makes them so long-lived” (gerontologists agree that 120 years seems to be the upper-limit natural expiration date for humans, if free of disease and accident).

Alexander the Great and the imaginary Christian king Prester John, whose realm was supposedly somewhere deep in either pagan Asia or Africa, are associated with the myth. The 14th-century faux-exploration narrative The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a post-modern picaresque or autofiction written before postmodernism and autofiction were things, claims that a similar spring exists in India, “a beautiful well, whose water has a sweet taste and smell, as if of different kinds of spices.” Some of the author’s accounts of Egypt and China conform to what we know about those places during the Middle Ages, and yet Mandeville’s claims about whole tribes that have Cynocephaly (they’re dog-headed) or of groups of Epiphagi (people with heads in their chests) strain credulity. How are we to trust such a source about the Fountain of Youth?

What these examples should demonstrate is that de Leon had a ready-made script. Not a dissimilar process to how Spanish colonists saw the ancient Greek legend of the Amazons in South America, or the Portuguese fable of the Seven Cities of Cibola in the red-baked American southwest. Theirs was never a process of discovery, but of the endless use and reuse of their own dusty legends. Who knows what Bimini really was? The conquistadors had their imaginings from Herodotus and Mandeville, and they were going to impose such a concept onto America. Immortality, regardless of whether it’s to be found in India, the Horn of Africa, or south Florida, is an obsession. Yet what the obsessive obsesses over tells us more about the obsessed than the obsessee.

5.Virginia Woolf didn’t wish to acquire immortality, far from it. A disservice to Woolf, not to mention the millions of those who suffer from depression, to reduce her 1941 suicide to allegory or symbol. When weighted down with rocks she walked into the Ouse near her East Sussex home, Woolf was not providing us with gloss on life and death. “I am doing what seems the best thing to do,” Woolf writes in the note left for her husband, “I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came.” That, in its straightforwardness, says the most important thing about Wolfe’s suicide—that it was the result of her disease. Depression is not allegory, it is a disease, and oftentimes it kills people. Woolf did, however, supply her thoughts on immortality some 13 years earlier, in one of the greatest meditations ever supplied on the subject, her novel Orlando: A Biography.

Woolf depicts an English courtier born during the reign of the Tudors, who, despite the limitations of having a finite body, is somehow able to will himself (and then herself) into immortality. Orlando may be a subject of Queen Elizabeth I, but by the end of the novel she’s able to fly over her manor house in an airplane. In the interim, the character experiences the Frost Faire of 1608 (when the Thames froze over and merchants plied candied apples and roasted walnuts on its surface), an affair with a beautiful Russian noblewoman, placement in an English embassy in Constantinople, adoption by a group of Roma, and marriage to an eccentric gender nonconforming sea captain with the unimaginably great name of Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine. And then around the age of 30, Orlando transforms from being a man into a woman as she slept one night.

No magic plants or springs, rather a sense that Orlando’s personality is so overabundant that it can’t be constrained through either sexuality or time. “Orlando had become a woman,” Woolf writes simply, “there’s no denying it.” A masterpiece of both temporal and gender ambiguity, in Orlando the author doesn’t desire immortality for herself, but she imagines it for her character, what her biographer Hermione Lee describes in Virginia Woolf as its quality of being a “masterpiece of playful subterfuge.” Unlike Gilgamesh with his overweening bloodlust, or de Leon with his immature obsession, Woolf envisions immortality as a radical, subversive, creative state; as Hill puts it, a “magnificent, surrealist erection.” For Woolf, immortality is better understood as an aesthetic act, living one’s life so fully, with such pure, unmitigated, wondrous agency that the contours of normal years and decades simply must expand to fit our enormity. With relativistic insight Woolf observes that “An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second,” a phenomenon that she cheekily claims “is less known than it should be and deserves fuller investigation.”

Orlando’s great negative capability is that Woolf describes depression without the novel losing sight of a certain wondrous enchantment. She writes that “At the age of thirty…this young nobleman had not only had every experience that life has to offer, but had seen the worthlessness of them all. Love and ambition, women and poets were all equally vain.” Such emptiness and disinterestedness—the sheer fact of being so tired—is the medium of depression. But the narrative itself is what demonstrates the illusoriness of such emotions, even if in the moment they feel to us to be inviolate. Orlando thinks that they have experienced everything, but have they been to Constantinople? Have they flown over Sussex in a plane? Not yet—and therein lay the rub. Life has a charged abundance, even if brain chemistry and circumstance sometimes deny us that.

Orlando was a roman à clef upon the great love of Woolf’s life—Vita Sackville-West. The character shares Sackville-West’s androgynous beauty, her poetic brilliance, and her aristocratic forbearance. Most of all, Orlando and Sackville-West are united in having lived their lives with such jouissance, with such unbridled life, that death itself seems to indefinitely pause to take them. An existence where we can observe in the Thames “frozen to a depth of some twenty fathoms, a wrecked wherry boat… lying on the bed of the river where it had sunk last autumn, overladen with apples,” the frozen corpse of the saleswoman visible in her blue-lipped magnificence at the bottom. What a strange, terrible, and beautiful thing this life is, that if we were to fully inhabit every single blessed second of it, we’d be as eternal as it were ever possible to be, within the very universe of a moment. How fortunate we are.  

6.On the road from Santiago de Compostela in 1378, the French alchemist Nicholas Flamel and his wife Perenelle met eternity. According to almost certainly fabricated accounts written in the 17th century, the wealthy Parisian bookseller’s study of magic helped him to (among other things) derive the philosopher’s stone, and thus generate the so-called “Elixir of Life,” which granted him immortality. Flamel had journeyed to Spain, that liminal place between east and west, Europe and Africa, Christian, Jewish, and Islamic, under the assumption that some mage could interpret a manuscript he purchased in Paris. Flamel wasn’t so fortunate in finding assistance while actually in Spain, but on the road home a Jewish converso recognized the occult text for what it was—an original copy of the powerful grimoire The Book of Abramelin.

As with all such guides, The Book of Abramelin makes big promises. Within there are “the actual rules to acquire this Divine and Sacred Magic…therein find certain examples and other matters which be none the less useful and profitable unto thee.” It parsed the intricacies of summoning your guardian angel, how to bind demons, and how to walk underwater (which as impressive as it is, doesn’t really match the first two). There are a lot of magic squares scattered throughout. And, of course, there is the recipe for the philosopher’s stone. As with the stories about Flamel himself, The Book of Abramelin seems to be another 17th-century invention. The author is supposedly the German Kabbalist Abraham of Worms, who traveled to Egypt to confer with the reputed mystical master Abramelin himself. “And having written this with mine own hand,” writes the author (since we’re unsure of whose hand penned that line), “I have placed it within this casket, and locked it up, as a most precious treasure; in order that when thou hast arrived at a proper age thou mayest be able to admire, to consider, and to enjoy the marvels.”

No version of the text has been found that predates 1608, and the earliest copies are in German rather than Hebrew; all of which seems to indicate that just as with Flamel, the reputation of The Book of Abramelin is a fantasy borrowing authority from medieval exoticism. A fashionable Hebraism developed during the Italian Renaissance, and quickly spread throughout Europe, so that references to the Kabbalah could impart a degree of authenticity for Christian occultists. Gershom Scholem writes in Alchemy and Kabbalah that the “name of this arcane discipline became a popular catchword in Renaissance and Baroque theosophical and occult circles, having been declared and revered as the guardian of the oldest and highest mystical wisdom of mankind by its fist Christian mediators.” All the greatest stories about Kabbalah may be set in the Middle Ages, but for the Christian occultists who appropriated it, the subject was very much a Renaissance affair.

For alchemists and occultists like Paracelsus, Johann Reuchlin, or John Dee, Flamel was an instructive example. Knowledge was supposed to be the road to eternity, as surely as a Parisian scribe could return from Compostela, and perhaps the bookseller was somewhere wandering like the converso who gave him the secret to never dying. Could Flamel be glimpsed, in the court of the occult emperor Rudolf II in red-roofed Prague, discoursing on astronomy with Johannes Keppler and Kabbalah with Rabbi Judah ben Lowe? Would he be found on those curving stones of dark Cambridge with Thomas Vaughan, or among the sun-dappled courtyards of Florence with Giordano Bruno?

In reality, Flamel was moldering underneath the nave of the Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie in the fourth arrondissement. His tombstone now sits in the Musée de Cluny; the year of Flamel’s expiration was 1418. By all actual accounts, he was a loving husband and a successful merchant. Flamel’s fate, in all of its beauty, was the same as everybody’s. The psychoanalyst Marie-Louise von France gives a charitable reading of the Renaissance theorists of immortality, explaining in Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and Psychology that the desire for this knowledge “was actually the search for an incorruptible essence in man which would survive death, an essential part of the human being which could be preserved.” An accurate definition for poetry.

7.Enoch’s story is recounted across only four lines in Genesis. The King James Version of the Bible sets the cryptic tale of a man who ascended bodily to heaven, presumably having never died and still living immortally somewhere in the astral realm, in just 53 words. Father of Methuselah, who was himself so remarkably long-lived that his name has long been conflated with extreme seniority, Enoch simply never died. We’re told at Genesis 5:24 that “Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.” Such is the entire explanation of what happened to this man of the seventh generation. What an odd bit of poetry this is. For. God. Took. Him.

Even if the Bible is tight-lipped about Enoch, the copious fan-fic about him (which scholars call “apocrypha”) lacked a similar reticence. From the mystics of antiquity to the occultists of today, Enoch achieved not just immortality but actual apotheosis, seated next to a God who liked him so much that he transformed the mortal into a “lesser Yahweh.” Such is a description of his career change from a pseudographical rabbinic text called 3 Enoch, which is dated to the fifth century after the Common Era. Scholem provides gloss on this unusual book in his Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, writing that “[his] flesh was turned to flame, his veins to fire, his eye-lashes to flashes of lightning, his eye-balls to flaming torches, and who God has placed on a throne next to the throne of glory, received after this heavenly transformation the name Metatron.” There is a venerable occult tradition that holds that Enoch become immortal, was elevated above even the archangels, became the very voice of the Lord, and was given a name that sounds like that of a Transformer.

Enochian literature can be traced back to three apocryphal texts from the first centuries of the Common Era that all elaborated on the terse passage from Genesis. 3 Enoch (also amazingly called The Revelation of Metatron) is joined by the Book of Enoch, written in Ge’ez and still held canonical by the Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Ethiopia, and the Second Book of Enoch which only survives in Old Bulgarian (I’m not making that up). The last book’s alternate title is actually even better than The Revelation of Metatron, it is often referred to as The Book of Secrets. From translator Willis Barnstone’s version of The Book of Secrets, as included in his incredible anthology The Other Bible, Enoch speaks in the first person, telling us that “I know all things and have written them into books concerning the heavens and their end, their plentitude, their armies, and their marching. I have measured and described the stars, their great and countless multitude. What man has seen their revolutions and entrances?”  

Metatron was the amanuenses of God’s thoughts, the librarian of reality who noted all that had, would, or could be done. A scribe as surely as Flamel was—Metatron was a writer. Enoch was the first figure in scripture to ascend to heaven, though he was not the first. Midrash actually records eight people as having achieved immortality this way, including the prophet Elijah who is consumed entirely up into a whirlwind; Sarah, whom is blessed by her grandfather Jacob with “May you live forever and never die;” and Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian who saved the prophet Jeremiah’s life during the Siege of Jerusalem. Catholics believe that the Virgin Mary ascended bodily, though after her death on Earth (a minority claim she was taken while still alive). Christianity more generally teaches that Christ rose to heaven, though he also died first, of course; while Muslims teach that both Muhammad and Jesus ascended.

Immortality, these accounts remind us, is a miracle. Perhaps no more so than with Enoch, for those other examples concern the ascension of prophets and the messiah, but the lowly man of the seventh generation was just some guy. A quiet beauty to the account, for why did Enoch walk with God? What about Enoch was so agreeable to the Lord that He would take him? What cracked beauty is there in a human gifted the ability to see the universe in its resplendence, so that as concerns the stars, Enoch speaks in a voice of awe from the Book of Secrets that “Not even the angels see their number, yet I have recorded all their names.”

8.While writing theater reviews for the Dublin Evening Mail, a 28-year-old graduate of Trinity University named Abraham Stoker would be the unlikely author of a gushing fan letter sent on Valentine’s Day 1876 to an American poet with an address in the distinctly unglamorous locale of Camden, New Jersey. That wasn’t Stoker’s first attempt at writing to Walt Whitman; he’d penned an effusive, borderline-erotic missive some four years earlier but kept the epistle in his desk out of embarrassment, before finally sending the original with a new note of introduction.

“Do not think me cheeky for writing this,” Stoker, who now went by “Bram,” wrote in the new letter, but “I believe you will like it,” he said regarding his original message. Whitman is a “man who can write, as you have written, the most candid words that ever fell from the lips of a mortal man.” For Stoker, only 9 when Leaves of Grass was first printed (and as of then completely unknown in Britain or Ireland), Whitman had “shaken off the shackles and your wings are free.” With a tragic pathos still clear more than a century later, Stoker confesses (which has afforded no shortage of literary gossip) that “I have the shackles on my shoulders still—but I have no wings.”

As obsequious as Renfield, Stoker tells Whitman that “You are a true man, and I would like to be one myself, and so I would be towards you as a brother and as a pupil to his master.” Perhaps he was, as there is something almost vampiric in Whitman’s 1891 revision of his poem “Trickle Drops,” done a year before his death and six before his protégé would publish his most famous novel. “Trickle drops! my blue veins leaving!…drip bleeding drops, / From wounds made to free you when you were prison’d / From my face, from my forehead and lips, / my breast…Stain every page, stain every song I sing, every word I saw, bloody drops,” Whitman enthuses. Stoker’s titular character in Dracula concurs with the American bard: “The blood is the life!”

Strange to think of the consummate rugged individualist with his broad shoulders and his Old Testament beard as influencing Stoker, but as an unconventional bohemian, Whitman may have shared more with Dracula than has been supposed. Biographer Barbara Belford notes in Bram Stoker and the Man Who Was Dracula that “the vampire at times resembles Whitman. Each has long white hair, a heavy moustache, great height and strength, and a leonine bearing.” Perhaps less superficially, “Whitman’s poetry celebrates the voluptuousness of death and the deathlike quality of love.” Whitman, with the gleam of the vampire in his eyes, promises in his preface to Leaves of Grass that the “greatest poet…drags the dead out of their coffins and stands them again on their feet.”

Leaves of Grass is a work that enthuses about immortality, albeit more in the transcendentalist sense than in the vampiric one. “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,” Whitman writes, “And if there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it…All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what anyone supposed.” Whitman fully expected a metaphysical immortality whereby his very atoms mingle into the streams and stones, the rocks and the rambles. Admittedly a different type of immortality than that surmised by Stoker, yet he borrowed from Whitman the poet’s charged, fully realized, erotic, bohemian persona. The Irishman noted that Whitman was the “quintessential male,” and its hard not to see some of that projection onto Dracula.

The immediate historical influence for Dracula was the 15th-century Wallachian prince Vlad Tepes, more popularly known as the “Impaler” after his favored pastime. Eros and Thanatos again, a bit of sex and death in that nickname. Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally note in their classic In Search of Dracula that the “ruler notorious for mass impalements of his enemies…was in fact called Dracula in the fifteenth century, and we found that he even signed his name that way.” From Whitman, Stoker took the transcendent nature of immortality, and from Vlad the blessed violence, bound together in the transgressive, bohemian personality of the aesthete. Literary scholars Joanna Levin and Edward Whitley write in Whitman Among the Bohemians that from the “bohemians to contemporary hipsters, Whitman still commands center stage, providing an ever-magnetic focal point for countercultural self-fashionings,” something that any goth can tell you is true of Dracula as well. As a reader, Stoker is able to comprehend that Whitman’s celebration of immortality must by necessity also have its drawbacks, that the vampiric can’t help but pulse through any conception of life beyond the grave.

With the smallest sprout in mind, Stoker writes that it’s a “strange world, a sad world, a world full of miseries, and woes, and troubles.” Yet we can “all dance to the tune…Bleeding hearts, and dry bones of the churchyard, and tears that burns as they fall—all dance together to the music.” Immortality kindled in the space of human connection, our lives able to exist indefinitely through others. Dracula does this literally, sucking upon the blood of innocents, but we ideally all do it when we ingest the words of others, and respond in kind. Whitman wrote back to Stoker. “I am up and dress’d, and get out every day a little, live here quite lonesome, but hearty, and good spirits.” He concluded the letter with, “Write to me again.”

9.Many lines are on the CV of the biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey: graduate of Trinity College Cambridge with a Ph.D. awarded for his dissertation The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging; Fellow of the Gerontological Association of America, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology, and the American Aging Institute; adjunct professor at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, and most famously the chief science officer at the California-based Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. Added to that, under “Skills,” could be “Still Alive.” Don’t knock it as an entry; the vast majority of people who have ever lived can no longer claim the same. De Grey, whose name is almost ridiculously on the nose, would argue that “Still Alive” could be easily translated into “(Effectively) Immortal,” for the researcher claims that death is a terminal illness that will one day be preventable, and that any dismissiveness to that is a case of sublimated religious nostalgia.

He looks the part of an immortal, more prophet than scientist. With a long, tangled, greying auburn beard that is positively druidic, de Grey appears as if he were Merlin or Galahad, some Arthurian immortal. If anything, that epic beard calls to mind those who’ve joined us already—the good, grey bearded ruddy complexioned poet Whitman, and de Leon with his face burnt from the Florida sun with unshorn hair poking out from his metal cap; Enoch’s cascading white mane (or so one imagines) and Utnapishtim’s curled black beard hanging in plaits from his gaunt, severe face.

De Gray has an advantage over all of these men, and that’s that he is still alive (or even exists in the first place). That may, however, be his ultimate disadvantage, for unreality has a type of immortality that biology can’t approach. Of no concern to de Grey, writing alongside Michael Rae in Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs that Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime, he argues that his field is “inhibited by the deeply ingrained belief that aging was ‘natural’ and ‘inevitable,’ biogerentologists had set themselves apart from the rest of the biomedical community by allowing themselves to be overawed by the complexity of the phenomenon that they were observing.” Not without some justification, de Grey argues that aging and death are biological problems and thus have biological solutions.

Utnapishtim had his magic plant and de Leon his spring of rejuvenation, but for de Grey immortality was an issue of his “own idea for eliminating intercellular garbage like lipofuscin [combined with]…making mitochondrial mutations harmless…for addressing glycation, amyloid accumulation, cell loss, senescent cells and cancer.” When it comes to the hodgepodge of techno-utopians who fall under the broad term of “transhumanism,” de Grey is positively a traditionalist in that he’s still focused on these meat bags filled with blood, piss, shit, and phlegm. More radical transhumanists have gone digital, arguing that consciousness could be downloaded to computers, the eternal soul an issue of making sure that your files are backed up.

Engineer Ray Kurzweil is one such evangelist for the coming of robot-Jesus, when Artificial Intelligence will be able to assist in the downloading of your mind, and the resurrection of those who’ve already passed before us (through purely material, scientific, technological means of course). He writes in The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology that when that eschaton arrives (always in just a few decades), it will “allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains. We will gain power over our fates. Our mortality will be in our own hands. We will be able to live as long as we want.” Apparently, such a project is easier than halting climate change, or at least the hyper libertarian funders of such transhumanist schemes, from Elon Musk to Peter Thiel, would have you believe such. The desire for immortality is a deeply human one, but with the irony that its achievement would serve to eliminate the human entirely. Ask not for whom the computer chimes, simply upload your soul to the cloud.

10.About two weeks ago from the time of my writing, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced that the legislature was “moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry” of Donald J. Trump. Pelosi’s announcement was broadcast on all major networks, on PBS and MSNBC, CNN and (even) FOX. In a vacuum, electromagnetic radiation travels at 186,000 miles per second; Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity tells us that nothing may go faster. That means that this happy bit of news can be heard as far as 225,327,187,473.16 miles away, and counting, though unfortunately what’s in that space is mostly dust and rock. The closest star system to us is Alpha Centauri, which is a positively minuscule 4.37 light years away, meaning that for any lucky extraterrestrials there Barack Obama is still president.

In EZ Aquarii, they just heard President Obama’s acceptance address in Grant Park; any planets near Procyon will have just been informed of the 2008 financial collapse, and at LPP 944-020 they’re leaning of the invasion of Iraq. At MU Arae they’ve discovered that humans made the puny jump to the Moon (as well as listening to Abbey Road for the first time), HR 4864 just heard Walter Cronkite deliver the sad news about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and Zeta Virginis is now aware that the Second World War is over. In just a little less than a decade, assuming that such weak electromagnetic waves hadn’t been absorbed by the dust and rock that reigns supreme in interstellar space, Guglielmo Marconi’s first transatlantic radio broadcast of the letter “s” repeatedly tapped out in Morse code would be arriving at K2-18b, a massive “super-earth” exoplanet some 120 light years away.

Earth is surrounded by an electromagnetic halo, our missives in radio and light that grow ever weaker with distance, but which send our thoughts ever further into interstellar space with every passing year. Music, entertainment, news, communication, all of it sent out like so many dandelion spores into the reaches of the black cosmos. The continual thrum of that pulsating meaning—what Whitman could have described as “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking, / Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle”—a record of our having been here that can never be erased, though it’s ambiguous if there is anyone out there to listen. “O rising stars!” Whitman wrote, “Perhaps… [I] will rise with some of you,” an offering made up in a frequency between 88MHz-108Mhz. There is an immortality, disembodied and ethereal, that does turn to be out in the heavens—just in a form that may have been difficult for Enoch to imagine.

A harder chunk of our finality exists out there as well, the Golden Record included on both of the Voyager 1 and Voyager II spacecraft launched by NASA, which having passed into interstellar space beyond our solar system in respectively 2012 and 2018 are the furthest things that have ever been touched by human hands. Conceived of by the astrophysicist Carl Sagan, the Golden Record is a phonographic LP encoded with both images and a little under six and a half hours of sounds, meant to express our sheer enormity. For any extraterrestrials that should happen to find the record—Voyager 1 is about 40,000 years out from Gliese 445—Sagan and his committee’s record may serve as the only tangible example of our eternity, our only vehicle for immortality. In being able to select the contents of such a canon, Sagan is arguably the most influential human to ever live.

Any future listeners will be able to hear pianist Glen Gould’s transcendent interpretation of Johan Sebastian Bach’s mathematically perfect Brandenburg Concerto, the mournful cry of blues-singer Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground,” the Bavarian State Orchestra playing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Chuck Berry absolutely shredding it on “Johnny B. Goode.” Sagan reminisces in Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space that “any alien ship that finds it will have another standard by which to judge us.” Astronomer Jim Bell writes in The Interstellar Age: The Story of the NASA Men and Women Who Flew the Forty-Year Voyager Mission that “If the messages aboard the Voyagers ended up being the last surviving artifacts of our world, they would signify the brighter sigh of human nature…[we] wanted to send out sign of our hopes, not our regrets.” Unless Voyager 1 or 2 should slam into some random star or fall into a hidden blackhole, unless some bit of flotsam should smash it up or some wayward creature should use it for target practice, both probes will continue unimpeded for a very long time. Space being mostly empty, their lifespans will be such that they’re effectively immortal.

Fifty-thousand years from now, after climate change renders us extinct, the interglacial period will end and a new ice age will descend on Earth. In two million years, the coral reefs of the world will have had time to recover from ocean acidification. Sixty million years from now, and the Canadian Rockies will have eroded away. Geologists predict that all of the Earth’s continents will coalesce into a supercontinent 250 million years from now. Five hundred million years in the future they’ll have separated again. A little more than a billion years from now, and stellar fluctuations will increase temperatures so that the oceans will be boiled away. In 1.6 billion years the last of our friends the prokaryotes will most likely be extinct. By 7.59 billion years, the sun will reach its Red Giant phase, and what remains of the Earth will most likely fall into our star. Through all of that, slowly moving along in blackness, will be the Golden Record. “Better was it to go unknown and leave behind you an arch, a potting shed, a wall where peaches ripen, than to burn like a meteor and leave no dust,” Woolf wrote. Voyager, however, leaves dust, no matter how scant.

Our solar system will be dead, but somewhere you’ll still be able to hear Ludwig von Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5 in C Minor. Sagan’s satellite is as if Ashurbanipal’s library was buried in the desert of space. As these things have moved us, perhaps somehow, someway they will move minds that have yet to exist. In a lonely universe, the only immortality is in each other, whomever we may be. Included within the Golden Record are a series of sentences in various languages, including Akkadian. Only 19 seconds into the record, and for billions of years listeners may hear a human speaking in the language of Utnapishtim, delivering the benediction that “May all be very well.”

Images: Mark Tegethoff, Greg Rakozy, Kristopher Roller, Aron Visuals, Ewan Robertson, NASA, Franck V., Drew Graham, Maksym Gryshchenko

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring MacLaughlin, Gritton, Hamilton, Dunn, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Nina MacLaughlin, JP Gritton, Saskia Hamilton, Stephen Dunn, 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 sign up to be a member today.

Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung by Nina MacLaughlin

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Wake, Siren: “MacLaughlin, whose debut book was the carpentry memoir Hammerhead, heads in a vastly different direction with this collection of myths recast for the #MeToo era. In more than 30 short stories, nymphs and human women are allowed to tell their own stories, many of which depict gods and heroes as more dangerous than the lascivious and mischievous rogues they’ve often been portrayed as. These settings are largely unmoored from traditional chronology, borrowing freely from both classical tropes and contemporary popular culture, and some—such as one where incestuous Myrrha confesses everything to her therapist, or another in which the cyclops Polyphemus is Galatea’s cyberstalker—are inventive in form. There is nevertheless a certain sameness to many of the stories, perhaps unavoidable in such a project, but MacLaughlin largely succeeds in varying the recurrent themes of sexual violence and women’s subsequent rage and inevitable transformations, largely imposed by gods to ensure women’s silence. The emotional heart of the collection arrives when the horrific story of Proche and Philomela is immediately followed by Baucis’s sensually and emotionally satisfying tale of a long, love-filled marriage. In the latter story, the narrator states that ‘Not all stories are sad,’ a much-needed reminder at this point in the collection. MacLaughlin skillfully elevates what could have been merely a writerly exercise, instead composing a chorus of women’s justifiable rage echoing down through the millennia.”

The Confession Club by Elizabeth Berg

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Confession Club: “Berg (The Story of Arthur Truluv) returns to Mason, Mo., for this feel-good testament to taking risks, falling in love, and reinvention. Here, the focus is on the irrepressible members of a monthly club of eight women ranging in age from 20s to 80s, who bare their fibs, sins, and shame. ‘They knew they were mostly silly,’ Berg writes. ‘They enjoyed being silly, because sometimes you just needed to take a load off.’ The heart of this story belongs to cooking school teacher Iris, who’s ‘coming into my fifties,’ divorced and childless when she falls in love with John, 66, a homeless Vietnam vet still haunted by the war and the wife and child he left behind. Berg effortlessly wraps her arms around this busy universe of quirky characters with heartbreaking secrets and unflagging faith. ‘We forget how ready people are to help,’ 47-year-old “stout and practical” club member Toots says, adding: ‘To say those words to yourself or another, ‘I forgive you’? Most powerful words in the world.’ Readers new to Berg’s Mason will be dazzled by this bright and fascinating story, and fans will be cheering for the next volume set there.”

Labyrinth by Burhan Sönmez (translated by Umit Hussein)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Labyrinth: “Sönmez’s latest, following Istanbul, Istanbul, is a cerebral philosophical meditation on memory and what it means to live without it. Boratin Bey is a 28-year-old blues singer living in Istanbul, or at least that is what he has been told. After jumping from the Bosphorus Bridge in an apparent suicide attempt, the musician has experienced complete amnesia: ‘He raises his eyes and looks at his face. The face he met a week ago. It’s that new. Hello stranger, he says.’ His friend and bandmate Bek helps him relearn who he is, or was, answering basic questions such as ‘what sort of person was I, what did I look like?’ Boratin wanders unfamiliar streets, kisses a woman he is told he knows, and attends the funeral of someone who he is told was a friend, Zafir—who, as Boratin describes it, ‘got left behind in the past and disappeared there.’ Indeed, the central question of the novel is if the loss of one’s past is a loss of selfhood or a liberation. As another patient says to him, ‘Maybe you are unfortunate to still be alive and fortunate to have lost your memory.’ Both poetic and an existential novel of ideas, Sönmez’s prose, in Hussein’s translation, is accessible and profound, bringing to mind Albert Camus and Patrick Modiano. While Boratin must learn to find fulfilment with ‘a blank memory,’ this is a book that will undoubtedly linger in a reader’s mind.”

Wyoming by JP Gritton

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Wyoming: “In a voice rough as a chainsaw blade and Midwestern as green bean casserole, debut author Gritton chronicles the trip-to-hell-and-back life of the troubled Shelley Cooper. After a fire ravages the mountains in the vicinity of Montgrand, Colo., and most of the construction work dries up, Shelley steals an air compressor from his boss and loses his job. He needs money, same as his weed-growing older brother, Clayton, and his sister, May, who is married to Shelley’s best friend Mike. Clayton’s wife, Nancy, has the same shaking sickness her mother had, and May and Mike’s little daughter, Layla, has cancer: in short, these are folks ‘whose bad luck run longer than an interstate.’ Something deep and unnameable bothers Shelley; he cares an awful lot about Mike, though his discontent mostly seems like a mean streak to others. When Clay starts coming up with mystery money, Shelley becomes suspicious; his brother already spent five years in prison for dealing weed, and Shelley blames this calamity for their mother’s death. Nevertheless, he agrees to deliver Clay’s latest batch of marijuana to Houston, and what happens on this trip is both violently tragic and a twisted sort of redemption. Pitch perfect cadences sing from the mouths of Gritton’s characters, and the author performs skilled loop-de-loops in and out of Shelley’s memories. This auspicious debut marks Gritton as a storyteller to watch.”

The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979 edited by Saskia Hamilton

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Dolphin Letters: “The push and pull of love and anger course through this riveting collection of correspondence between onetime literary power couple Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick. Beginning soon after Lowell’s move to England, without Hardwick, to teach, the book then tracks her discovery of his infidelity, their 1972 divorce, and his 1973 publication of The Dolphin, a sonnet sequence drawing extensively on her letters to him. It then covers the aftermath, which saw Hardwick deeply hurt, and their friends (including Elizabeth Bishop, Mary McCarthy, and Adrienne Rich) rallying around her. Though Lowell is perhaps better known, Hardwick emerges as the collection’s central figure. Her voice resonates more deeply, with frustrated but loving concern for Lowell—who struggled with manic-depressive disorder—and with protectiveness toward their daughter, Harriet. Despite such pressures, Hardwick also, as Harriet noted, ‘was never freer or more livel’ than after the divorce, when she was able to focus on her own creativity rather than on her feckless husband. Bolstered by a helpful introduction and timeline by poet and Barnard professor Hamilton (Corridor), this compulsively readable collection illuminates a tumultuous time in two celebrated writers’ lives.”

Pagan Virtues by Stephen Dunn

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Pagan Virtues: “In this 19th book, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Dunn (Different Hours) offers up the soul of a mature, solitary man who appreciates company, but who finds that love is, ultimately, ‘a better way to be alone.’ The humble pagan virtues he upholds may be less flashy than religious ones, but they provide many ‘options,’ such as ‘to uphold the beautiful// by renouncing the pretty.’ Moving from instructions to his eulogist (‘for accuracy you might say/ I often stopped,/ that I rarely went as far as I dreamed’) to the disenchantments of success, he advises the lucky to ‘try to settle in,/ take your place, however undeserved,/ among the fortunate.’ The book’s center is the luxurious pit of ‘The Mrs. Cavendish Poems,’ a sequence that moves through an affair with an unsettled, run-on address to the eponymous lady, plumbing the solipsism of its sorrow: ‘the sea doesn’t want to be bothered today,/ it merely wishes to behave like a lake / reflect back a face it believes is its own… / it would also like to change / its salty ways, but like you, / Mrs. Cavendish, it can’t.’ Intimations of illness and age are carried forward with small steps of irony and courage in Dunn’s latest, moving work.”

The Joys of Reading with a Second Grader

“Why do you only read one book at a time?” my eight-year-old daughter asked me recently.
It isn’t true. I have piles of books stacked around the house, some homework for my writing projects, others written by friends, a few I have the best intentions for but just can’t seem to finish. She’s right, though, that there is usually one book whose call is strongest, and when we read side-by-side for pleasure, that’s the one I grab. I’m a slow reader, so my daughter has time to get attached to my choices. Three years later, she never fails to point out Lisa Ko’s The Leavers in bookstores, like it’s my long-lost friend, which, in a way, it is.
I have limited time to read usually—on the train, if I’m lucky enough to get a seat, or a few pages in bed before my eyelids grow heavy. Anyone who’s ever written a book knows you can accomplish great things via incrementalism, but reading slowly can feel like a grind. This year I’ve been sticking to shortish books that I can fly through. But recently I had some extra time and knew it was my chance to start Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, a multi-generational epic about Koreans living in Japan. I needed a good run of hours to devote to its 497 pages, and finally I had it. My daughter fingered the book’s shiny cover, tracing the mountains and valleys hidden in the folds of the woman’s hanbok.
“I want to read one of your books,” she said, eyeing the shelves in my bedroom.
I looked up, thinking of all the sex and violence housed there, subjects my girl will need to understand eventually, but slowly and carefully and not yet. Then I saw it: the Anne of Green Gables series. Last year I’d asked my mom to ship the books to me. I’d wanted my daughter to have those stories about the plucky red-haired orphan sent to live with a bachelor and his spinster sister on Prince Edward Island. But there’d been no space for them in her bedroom, where every horizontal surface is crowded with Ivy and Bean and Dr. Seuss and Star Wars and Roald Dahl.
“Those ones,” I said to her, pointing at the eight-book series nestled among the other Ms on my shelves. My daughter would need a chair to reach them, and I could see it was this fact—not my personal endorsement of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classics, frequently and freely offered over the preceding months—that sold her on them.
My aunt gave me Anne of Green Gables, the first in the series, in 1982 (“Hope you enjoy reading this book as much as I did more than 20 years ago!” inscribed on the inside flap), and I remember finding the book one summer afternoon as I lay, bored out of my mind, on the floor of my room. Its green cover seemed to twinkle at me from under the bed. I don’t remember how it ended up there in the first place, but I can hazard a guess.
In the four years since my daughter first learned to read, I’ve been hoping to teach her the joys of reading for pleasure. No one wants to be nagged into enjoying themselves or doing something that’s good for them. Instead, I turn off the TV, grab the dog and a blanket, and make a nest so cozy the FOMO sucks in my daughter. You’d be surprised how often it works. But even for a lifelong reader like me—with the responsibilities of middle age: the emails to send, checkups to schedule, sitters to book, pages to write, and bills to pay—it can be difficult to access anything like joy. Contentedness? Sure. Admiration for an author’s achievement and the gratitude that comes with having your world increased and your knowledge deepened? Of course. But the joy in discovering a book that’s too good to resist? That’s been rare—until I started reading with my daughter.
To a second grader, reading is like throwing confetti in the air and getting back music or diamonds; sometimes, on a bad day, only dust motes. My girl isn’t a purist like her mother. I prefer the book as a physical object, novels preferably, the bound pages humming with secrets. But she’ll read anything: comics and graphic novels, chapter books, e-books on her Kindle (she has one; I don’t), engineering manuals, visual encyclopedias, books her dad and I made for her, stapled-together pages she’s started writing and will likely never finish, stories she’s started on my laptop. In the early days, I thought it all a performance, a child’s idea of what reading was supposed to be. I didn’t know then that pretending (to read, to write, to cook, to dance) was the beginning of the thing itself.
It’s incredible that children are so good at beginnings because so often the difficulty with reading books is surviving the beginning. It’s a huge investment for an adult to make—let alone an 8-year-old—to learn about a whole new set of people and places. Somehow it’s worse if the last book you read was one you loved. You have to start over in completely unfamiliar territory and trust that you will get your bearings, that you will fall in love twice (or three times, or a hundred times) and have fun again.


My daughter opted to read Anne of Green Gables to herself at first, slowly, diligently, but I could see she was starting to get bogged down by its rhapsodic passages. One Sunday, I rounded up the dog and the blanket and I offered to read a few pages to her. She was tired from her morning’s adventures, or she never would have acquiesced. As I read aloud, I grew nervous. I knew she’d be on safe ground once Anne meets her bosom friend, Diana, but first we had to outlast the buggy ride from the train station with Anne’s new guardian, Matthew. What would my city kid make of all this rapture over ponds and blossoms: “a glory of many shifting hues—the most spiritual shadings of crocus and rose and ethereal green”? She would need all the ballast I could muster, and I gave it my all: varying my tone and volume, telegraphing true delight. Still, the journey felt as if it might go on forever, with nothing but a mere mention of Diana’s house on the other side of Barry’s Pond. Even Anne knows it’s a drab name for a pond, so she rechristens it the Lake of Shining Waters. “Yes, that is the right name for it,” she tells Matthew. 

“I know because of the thrill. When I hit on a name that suits exactly it gives me a thrill. Do things ever give you a thrill?” Matthew ruminated.

 So did we. We pondered the word thrill until it almost lost all meaning.
When Matthew starts to point to Green Gables, Anne interrupts him and begs to be allowed to guess which house will be her new home.

They were on the crest of a hill. The sun had set some time since, but the landscape was still clear in the mellow afterlight. To the west a dark church spire rose up against a marigold sky. Below was a little valley and beyond a long, gently-rising slope with snug farmsteads scattered along it. From one to another the child’s eyes darted, eager and wistful. At last they lingered on one away to the left, far back from the road, dimly white with blossoming trees in the twilight of the surrounding woods. Over it, in the stainless southwest sky, a great crystal-white star was shining like a lamp of guidance and promise.

My daughter was rapt, becalmed by the crystal-white star. Now we had it, that swoosh of momentum that carries you past the letters on the page, straight into the heart of a story, like the wave in the painting that lifts the Narnia kids out of England and onto the deck of the Dawn Treader. My daughter and I were both swept up in Anne’s reverie, as charmed by this dreamy orphan as silent Matthew is, as I’d been when I first read the book during the Reagan years. The magic held. We flew to the end of the chapter.
“Keep going or stop here?” I asked.
“Keep going,” she said.
We read five chapters like that, coming to a delicate little cliffhanger, scanning the title of the next chapter (“Anne’s History,” “Marilla Makes Up Her Mind”), deciding to go on.
And then, as often happens on a really good reading day, my daughter rolled over and slipped into a delicious nap.
Now it was my turn. I picked up my copy of Pachinko. The paperback was heavy in my hands. I was more than a little afraid that it would defeat me with its length or its sterling reputation as a must-read 10 years in the making. What if I could only read the same two pages over and over again until I, too, fell asleep? What if I didn’t love it or admire it? Or worse, what if I felt like a failure as a writer? What if I felt like giving up? It had been a rough year, and I wasn’t sure I could handle the disappointment.
But two pages in, here was Hoonie, the beloved and only surviving son of an old fisherman and his wife, “this steady, beating organ” his parents shared. Here was the matchmaker, whose “black flinty eyes darted intelligently,” correctly tallying the family’s fortunes from the stacks of rice on the shelves and chickens in the yard. Here was Hoonie’s mother, salting radish “with a flick of her thick wrist,” careful to guard her emotions. And, at last, here was the promised bride, Yangjin, “the last of four girls and the easiest to unload because she was too young to complain, and she’d had the least to eat.” As I got to the end of each chapter, the novel’s gentle pangs urged me forward, until I forgot my to-do list, forgot myself, forgot everything but the warmth of the sleeping girl next to me. I had my own momentum now, born happily aloft to a land and a time far, far away.

Image: Nong Vang

Dear Someone: On Asian-American Writers and Letters as Storytelling

1.

I’ve recently noticed a spate of work by Asian-American authors in epistolary form.

Correlation is not causation, and there may be nothing to this trend other than a cluster of coincidence. But historically, the Asian-American story has been ignored, erased, overlooked. Asians in America have worked in government, grown the nation’s food, healed the sick, fought in wars, built the very infrastructure of the transcontinental railroad, yet too often we’re pushed out of the picture, seen as perpetual foreigners, regardless of how much history we have with this country.

Asian Americans have our own experiences of racism, experiences that often get lost or minimized by the model minority stereotype. We want to have our stories heard but not fall into the trap of competing in an “Oppression Olympics” with other minorities. Our stories are distinct, and thus the idea of a letter as storytelling vessel is a tantalizing one. At its simplest, a Dear Someone letter demands to be read, as is the case with this one, in which former New York Times editor Michael Luo addresses the racist woman who told him and his family to “go back to China.”

The word epistle comes from the Latin espistula: letter. The first epistolary novel is thought to be Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, published anonymously in 1684. Epistolary literature often utilizes multi-character correspondence or varied documents (think: Bram Stoker’s Dracula) to drive action and deepen characterization, including the brilliant use of the email form in Maria Semple’s novel Where’d You Go Bernadette.

The following works are epistolary in a singular way. They all take the form of a Dear Someone letter, a one-way correspondence that illustrates the simultaneous power and powerlessness of the epistle as literary form. That is, the Dear Someone letter already has a clear reader in mind. But if that intended reader will actually read the epistle is not in the author’s power.

No Good, Very Bad Asian is an epistolary novel by Leland Cheuk, “authored” by stand-up comedian and reality star Sirius Lee—divorced dad, the no good, very bad Asian of the title—to his 7-year old daughter Maryann. The letter becomes a vehicle to fill his daughter (and the reader) in on his backstory, and through his voice, provide a portrait of a guy trying and hoping to be a better person while often failing and lying to himself. It is funny but also sad, and runs at a kind of breakneck speed through different stages of comedy and a disillusioned man’s life. The incidents of subtle and not-so-subtle racism (such as everyone thinking he’s a different Asian comic) are swept away by the breezy tone, yet we can feel the hurt linger, in an experience many can relate to.

The Millions: Why did you choose to write this novel as a letter?

Leland Cheuk: I felt like I had to give the reader some sort of emotional hook into Sirius’s life story. For better or worse, bringing the reader in as part of Sirius’s family was my way of doing it. In an earlier draft, it was just written as a comedian’s memoir but there are so many brilliant comedian memoirs from real comedians—why wouldn’t the reader just pick up Born Standing Up by Steve Martin or Lenny Bruce’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence People instead?

TM: Do you think, given that a spate of Asian-American novels have used this form recently, that there’s something particularly Asian-American, immigrant, diasporic about the form itself?

LC: It’s very possible. I read as many Asian-American novels as I can, but I can’t say I’m an authority on the category. I do think that the epistolary form speaks to a certain failure to communicate between generations due to cultural and language barriers that can easily be attached to the Asian-American experience.

A letter is one-way communication. In the case of my book, it’s communication that comes too late, after the point when either party can do anything about their estrangement. The irony in the book is that while Sirius’s failure to connect with his parents is related to their cultural and language gaps, Sirius’s failure to connect with his daughter has more to do with his own mistakes.

TM: Did you consciously create a character —“no good very bad” Asian who goes against basically all Asian stereotypes?

LC: I’d say some of the choices were very conscious. I didn’t want Sirius, for instance, to go to a good college and come from a life of privilege hard won by high-achieving immigrant parents, which is my background. I’m not gonna lie: I’m pretty good at math. I just tried to make Sirius’s life—and rise to and fall from fame—plausible within the pop culture of the last two decades. And that naturally required him to not be the “good Asian” who might be your doctor or accountant.

TM: What was your idea or inspiration for the book. Any other writers influence you?

LC: I started the book so long ago, I’m not even sure I remember. I’ve always been a fan of stand-up and my other writing is often comedic. Stand-up is a perfect art form to use to explore themes of identity and self. There are very few other endeavors where you’re standing in front of a crowd and receiving a judgment for what you look like and what you say every 10 to 15 seconds. Perhaps I could have written a similar book about being a famous Asian-American male model. I’m influenced by a lot of writers, but with this book, I was going for what authors like Paul Beatty and Mat Johnson go for in their novels.

2.

Vietnamese American Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is also written as a letter: “Dear Ma,” it starts; the first chapter was also published in The New Yorker as a personal history titled “A Letter to My Mother That She Will Never Read.” Vuong told Lithub of his choice to use a letter:
Because I knew I did not want to write a 600-page tome, the epistolary mode allowed me the quick detours and returns, while still retaining the vital urgency and vulnerability of a direct address. In this way, the voice, the letter itself, became the main plot, the digressions in memory, cultural investigations, and vignettes its tributaries. And the whale, ever fleeting, out of reach, and finally impossible, is the mother’s readership of the letter.
Yiyun Li’s memoiristic collection of essays, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, is a straightforward address to readers—and takes its title from a line in Katherine Mansfield’s notebooks. The essays, which span topics like reading, writing, and science, circle around a difficult period in Li’s life, ruminating on the sometimes unremitting darkness she feels, but also why she wants to continue writing: that “the books one writes—past and present and future—are they not trying to say the same thing: Dear friend, from my life I write to you in your life? What a long way it is from one life to another, yet why write if not for that distance, if thinks can be let go, every before replaced by an after.”

Ali Wong’s ribald, humorous memoir, Dear Girls, is addressed to her daughters who are still too young to read and understand the book. Wong’s first book, it has a kind of literary flair that separates it from her stand-up—and from those comedian memoirs that are a stand-up act reformatted into a book. It’s a perfect pairing with No Good, Very Bad Asian, covering some of the same ground, including the idea of a parent wanting to give her children a fuller, more complex idea of who they are as individuals. Also, Wong is a wonderful writer. I was fascinated to read in The New York Times that she tests new jokes in front of live audiences by using a robotic “monotone voice where there’s almost zero performance in there, to see if the material holds up.” This is similar to the writer’s internal process: Does this sound right? Does this sound wrong? Wong looks to see if the crowd laughs despite her emotionless delivery. “Sometimes, I have a joke I know is funny, but I haven’t found the right word, and when I do find it, it’s so satisfying.”

Image: David Pennington