Five Books About Bad-Ass Moms in the Apocalypse

American parents are infamously obsessed with our kids’ well-being. If you’ve had the experience of raising a child, you’ve probably also had the experience, at least once, of lying awake at night contemplating the particular obligations and terrors of parenting in a world that—while not literally threatened by monsters or aliens or imminent collapse—often feels, well, shall we say challenging. Unsafe. Threatened.

John Krasinski once described his monster-apocalypse film, A Quiet Place, as a “love letter” to his kids. It’s not every horror movie that’s described by its director as a love letter, but we live in interesting times. All good stories about the future touch upon the world we inhabit now, and A Quiet Place isn’t really a story about aliens or the end of civilization. It’s a story about trying to be a good person—a good parent—under impossible circumstances. Being tested and discovering what you’re made of.

A Quiet Place is one example of great storytelling about parenting during the end of the world as we know it—but there are others. As a reader, you could say that one of the few real perks of parenting in scary times is that storytellers have risen to the occasion, creating science fiction and dystopian future narratives that show how humanity resists and prevails—and sometimes even triumphs.

These stories often have one thing in common: A bad-ass mother.

Dystopian fiction is full of strong mothers, and for good reason. These characters show the way forward and reframe global conflicts in deeply human terms—making these stories less about How can we go on? and more about How can we survive? To be strong enough to survive, and to keep your kids alive and safe in a world that’s collapsing: That’s a true heroine.

Some bad-ass apocalypse moms are so iconic you’d have to sleep through the actual apocalypse not to know their names: Sarah Connor in the Terminator series, Ellen Ripley in the Alien films, June/Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. The following list offers a look at some other heroines of science fiction and dystopian worlds who are strong enough to pull others to safety, even as the world around them implodes.

1. Essun from The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemison

In the first pages of the first novel in Jemison’s incredible, award-winning Broken Earth trilogy (now in development for a series by TNT), Essun discovers her son’s broken, dead body—just as a geological cataclysm strikes, threatening civilization as she knows it. Drawing on the hidden powers that have sustained her since her own fractured childhood, Essun picks herself up from unimaginable tragedy to search for her daughter in a world teetering on the brink of collapse. As she travels, she serves as a kind of surrogate mother for a child, who may hold the secret not only to finding Essun’s missing daughter, but to understanding the destruction that threatens to overwhelm them.

2. Lauren Oya Olamina from Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler

The 1998 sequel to Butler’s classic sci-fi novel Parable of the Sower finds its bad-ass mother character violently torn from her infant daughter, in a future California in which natural resources are scarce, armed communities survive in walled-in neighborhoods, and religious zealots overpower and enslave anyone who doesn’t follow their philosophy. Nevertheless, this collapsed world is in the process of remaking itself thanks to Lauren Olamina, a charismatic visionary whose prophetic writings suggest a radical future for humankind. Olamina is eventually reunited with her daughter after years of enslavement and struggle—only to discover that she and her daughter can’t make peace. While it’s a heartbreaking story about a complicated mother-daughter dynamic, Parable of the Talents is also eerily prescient: Its fanatical, unhinged, autocratic president character leads on the promise to “make American great again.”

3. Julian from The Children of Men by P.D. James

In this dark (but often darkly funny) 1992 bestseller, which inspired the 2006 Alfonso Cuaron film of the same name, a global fertility crisis has vaulted an authoritarian government into power. (Funny how that keeps happening in sci-fi stories written by women.) A young dissident named Julian, miraculously pregnant, helps devise and execute a plan to destabilize the violent regime, with assistance from a group of freedom fighters. Julian’s faith and idealism are tested by a dangerous race for safety as well as by conflicts within her group of revolutionaries, but her clarity of vision and unfaltering bravery keeps the group from splintering, and keeps the ending surprisingly hopeful.

4. Dr. Louise Banks from Arrival, based on the “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang

Aliens arrive in giant, inscrutable structures, and no one knows how to communicate with them or whether they intend to destroy Earth or save it. Obviously, your first move is to call in a linguist, but major bonus points if she happens to be a bad-ass mother—even if she’s not yet aware that motherhood is in her future. In the film and in the short story that inspired it, Dr. Banks decodes the atemporal, emotional language of the strange visitors from another planet, changing her own life and saving her world and her own sense of self in the process. If there’s a better metaphor for parenting a toddler, I don’t even want to know what it is.

5. Cedar Songmaker from Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

Species around the world—including humans—have begun to devolve, and the world itself is rapidly changing as a result. Fertile and pregnant women are imprisoned and endure forced labors and pregnancies—yes, this is another science fiction novel by a female author in which a fertility crisis prompts a radical and violent regime into power. Meanwhile, Mother, a sort of Siri gone evil, slips through the wires of personal computers and technology to monitor everyone and everything. Cedar Hawk Songmaker, a resourceful young woman whose own origins are a mystery she feels driven to solve, struggles to conceal her pregnancy from the authorities, in the process discovering family secrets that force her to reevaluate her own sense of self. Cedar’s bravery and odd, poignant sense of humor make her a heroine worth following through the dangerous and strange future depicted in these pages.

What If Better Penmanship Could Make You a Better Person

Cursive is supposed to happen at the right speed for steady thought. It hits the page slower than type and faster than print, and in this happy medium, one hopes the mind will hit its stride and think clearly, rationally, linearly. But what if the idea of cursive practice was to humble, even eradicate the content of the written word? That is the project of the narrator in Mario Levrero’s novel Empty Words—recently released in translation from the Spanish by Annie McDermott—to focus on neat, regular handwriting so careful that it smooths out all digressions of the mind. Though the narrator is, like the author, a writer and crossword setter, he takes a writer’s tool and divorces it from the act of connecting with the self or world. Instead, the physical act of writing becomes about avoiding spiritual searching, which has become too onerous—in an opening poem, before he begins his “graphological self-therapy” he writes “ It’s not worth searching, the more you look /  the more distant is seems, the better it hides.”

So the narrator delves into his penmanship not in hope of being a better writer, but to “make changes on a psychological level,” ones that he claims, in a burst of optimism, “will do wonders for my health and charachter, transforming a whole plethora of bad behaviors into good ones and catapulting me blissfully into a life of happiness, joy, money, and success with women and in other games of chance.” When his exercises pick up pace, though, the neat, ordered discipline of handwriting breaks down and sloppy print letters creep into that uniform line of script. This indication that thought has begun to flow freely is not positive—it runs contrary to the two-dimensional bliss he imagines neatness can herald. He takes frequent breaks to play around with his computer, which, even though the book was originally published in 1996, is a daunting tool, “very similar to the unconscious.” Nonetheless, he claims to prefer it to his own exhausted mind: “there’s nowhere left to go when it comes to investigating my unconscious; the computer also involves much less risk, or risk of a different kind.”

To avoid this “risk” he must suppresses the content of his writing, the meaning. He tries to keep his words steady and boring, though he fails hilariously, again and again. He is in a constant state of agitation about the need to stick to his task. He dreads interruptions, mostly from the family life that hums along in the background. So he tries to write nothing important, nothing complex. But when he leaves his handwritten pages out for his wife to critique, he complains that they “naturally became a way of telling her things—hence the anxiety that makes me write too fast when I have something important to say.”

The exercise is not dissimilar to the one put forth in Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, in which a young woman decides to hibernate for a year in the name of self-improvement. Both narrators lay out stringent rules for their supposed betterment, rules that, to the reader, seem arbitrary and obviously self-defeating. The mission, for both characters, is to blot out much of life. The byproduct is a heaping dose of both anxiety and moral superiority.

In spite of the narrator’s vague resolve to be better, his discipline makes him generally nasty within his household. When his stepson looks over the shoulder, he writes on the page “Juan Ignacio is a fool.” He begrudgingly cares for his dog, even encouraging him to run away by widening an opening in the fence—an act he insists repeatedly is not metaphorical. And when he returns to his work, he complains that it is difficult to concentrate after kicking a dog. Neither the narrator nor anyone in his household is catapulted blissfully into a life of joy, but his focus on handwriting over expression protects the narrator from reflecting on these failures.

The narrator has tender moments, though. He wonders when he and his wife, Alicia, will start “living together” apart from all the “hyperactivity” of the household. The two even earmark Fridays as a time to focus on their relationship, but they can’t sustain it because the narrator brings a similar mentality to improving their relationship as he does to penmanship. And he forgets that like communication is to writing, quotidian household tasks and banal decisions are the stuff on which domestic relationships are founded. The phenomenological isolation he seeks doesn’t exist and he lashes out in frustration: he refers to Alicia’s efficient approach to daily life as a “militarization of the self” and says it is akin to pruning a tree into a geometric shape.

In another moment of frustration with a household routine he finds chaotic and distracting, the narrator calls Alicia a “fractal being.” Though he complains that fractals have not been studied enough, he never gives readers a full picture of his wife; instead he uses her as a cautionary tale, though it is he who flounders on every page. If Alicia is a “fractal,” then the things that preoccupy him, like his irregularly racing heart, can be described best in fractals. The things that comfort him aesthetically—a tree growing through a ruined piece of architecture, shattered glass, the search for patterns in the randomness of dreams—are infinitely more fractal than pure forms.

Dreams are a recurring element of the book, treated with the same distance but less frustration than the other digressions and unpredictable moments that vex our narrator. He does not explore them or elaborate on them; he even becomes annoyed when he finds himself seeking to interpret them. Levrero’s approach to dreams—his approach to writing this book even—is about as far from Latin American magical realism as one can get. Earlier Uruguayan writer (and inspiration to many of the magical realists) Felisberto Hernández molded each plot in his Piano Stories into the dreams and obsessions of his narrator; reality followed the digression. But as much as Levrero’s narrator rejects his dreams, he still nods at the tradition: the final line of the book ends with another uninterpreted, unexplored dream. The final word of the books is “Alchemy,” the thing the narrator has stripped from his writing and life, but vows in the end to return to.

And it is a thrill in the final part of the novel to see his the narrator’s penmanship exercises gather speed, to see him put aside his frustration and concentrate on specific details like the formation of the letter “R,” or to see the pages littered with strikethroughs of words he resolves to execute better. But even when the exercises have begun to absorb him, they are not what bring about a final revelation. This comes when he finally writes about his mother’s illness and death, referred to only in passing throughout the book. The narrator has let story rise to the surface of his writing, and he is able call handwriting the “evasion tactic” it is. “When you reach a certain age, you’re no longer the protagonist of your own actions,” he reports “all you have left are the consequences of the things you’ve already done.” Exerting control over one small activity does not neaten up the other strands of life, it only throws its messiness into relief.

Empty Words is a very funny, very sad reflection on the ways people try (and fail) to simplify their lives. As the narrator says at one point in the story, “you cannot become less busy by getting things done.” Perhaps that is what Levrero thinks of self-help programs, that they become one more overbearing thing on an overwhelming to-do list. In the protagonist’s case, if he was trying to find relief from the emotional and intellectual work of life by reimagining handwriting as a Zen-like practice of  “invisible work,” he picked the wrong manual task. Handwriting is the ultimate in visible work—script, scrawl, or chicken scratch, it is the tool through which thoughts grow visible and complicated.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Obreht, Tokarczuk, Nganang, Parsons, Kendi, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Téa Obreht, Olga Tokarczuk, Patrice Nganang, Kimberly King Parsons (whom we interviewed recently), Ibram X. Kendi, 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.

Inland by Téa Obreht

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Inland: “The unrelenting harshness of existence in the unsettled American West sharply focuses what Obreht (The Tiger’s Wife) refers to as ‘the uncertain and frightening textures of the world’ in this mesmerizing historical novel spun from two primary narrative threads. In one, homesteader Nora Lark waits with her son and niece for the return of her newspaperman husband with a supply of badly needed water for their house in Amargo, in the Arizona Territory in 1893. In the other, outlaw Lurie Mattie flees a warrant for murder by taking refuge in the Camel Corps, an all-but-forgotten experiment in history to import camels as beasts of burden in the 19th-century American Southwest. As Nora’s and Lurie’s paths gradually converge, Obreht paints a colorful portrait of the Western landscape, populated by a rogue’s gallery of memorable characters and saturated with spirits of the countless dead who attain a tangible presence, if only through the conversations they conduct in the minds of the characters whom they haunt. The novel’s unforgettable finale, evocative and grimly symbolic, crystallizes its underlying themes of how inconsolable grief and unforgivable betrayal shape the circumstances that bind its characters to their fates. Obreht knocks it out of the park in her second novel.”

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Drive Your Plow into the Bones of the Dead: “Tokarczuk follows her Man Booker International winner Flights with an astounding mystical detective novel. Narrator Janina Duszejko, an English teacher and winter caretaker for a few summer houses in an isolated Polish hamlet near the Czech border, is awakened one night by her neighbor, whom she calls Oddball, who informs her that their neighbor, nicknamed Big Foot, is dead in his house. Before the police arrive, Janina and Oddball find a deer bone in Big Foot’s mouth. Soon another body turns up, and Janina, an avid creator of horoscopes and, more generally, prone to theorizing and ascribing incidents to larger systems, develops a theory that animals are killing the locals. As the body count rises, readers are treated to Janina’s beliefs (‘Finally, transformed into tiny quivering photons, each of our deeds will set off into Outer Space, where the planets will keep watching it like a film until the end of the world’), descriptions (a body is ‘a troublesome piece of luggage’), and observations (flowers in a garden ‘are neat and tidy, standing straight and slender, as if they’d been to the gym’). Tokarczuk’s novel succeeds as both a suspenseful murder mystery and a powerful and profound meditation on human existence and how a life fits into the world around it. Novels this thrilling don’t come along very often.”

The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Yellow House: “Broom presents a great, multigenerational family story in her debut memoir. At its center is Broom’s dilapidated childhood home—a source of both division and unity in the family. Broom’s mother, Ivory Mae, bought the house, located in New Orleans East, in 1961; the budding area then succumbed to poverty and crime in the late 1980s. Broom connects the house’s physical decline to the death in 1980 of her father, Simon, who left many unfinished repair projects. The house had a precarious staircase, electrical problems, and holes that attracted rodents and cockroaches. Broom recalls living in an increasingly unwelcoming environment: ‘When would the rats come out from underneath the sink?’ she wonders. Broom eventually left New Orleans—she attended college in Texas and got a job in New York—but returned after Hurricane Katrina. Through interviews with her brother, Carl, she vividly relays Katrina’s impact on families. Broom is an engaging guide; she has some of David Simon’s effortless reporting style, and her meditations on eroding places recall Jeannette Walls. The house didn’t survive Katrina, but its destruction strengthened Broom’s appreciation of home. Broom’s memoir serves as a touching tribute to family and a unique exploration of the American experience.”

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Memory Police: “Ogawa (Revenge) returns with a dark and ambitious novel exploring memory and power—both individual and institutional—through a dystopian tale about state surveillance. The unnamed female narrator is an orphaned novelist living on an unnamed island that is in the process of disappearing, item by item. The disappearances, of objects such as ribbons, perfume, birds, and calendars, are manifested in a physical purge of the object as well as a psychological absence in the island’s residents’ memories. The mysterious and brutal Memory Police are in charge of enforcing these disappearances, randomly searching homes and arresting anyone with the ability to retain memory of the disappeared, including the narrator’s mother. When the narrator discovers her editor, R, is someone who does not have the ability to forget, she builds a secret room in her house to hide him, with the help of her former nurse’s husband, an old man who once lived on the ferry, which has also disappeared. Though R may not leave the room for fear of discovery, he, the narrator, and the old man are able to create a sense of home and family. However, the disappearances and the Memory Police both grow more aggressive, with more crucial things disappearing at a faster rate, and it becomes clear that it will be impossible for them—their family unit, and the island as a whole—to continue. The classic Ogawa hallmarks are here, a dark eroticism and idiosyncratic characters, but it’s also clear she’s expanded her range into something even deeper. This is a searing, vividly imagined novel by a wildly talented writer.”

When the Plums Are Ripe by Patrice Nganang

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about When the Plums Are Ripe: “Nganang continues his rich, complex saga of WWII-era Cameroon with this second volume in a trilogy, after Mount Pleasant. Pouka the poet has returned to his village of Édéa after being educated by the French in the capital city of Yaounde. Fancying himself a man of letters, he starts a poetry group in the local bar. However, upon the fall of France to the Nazis, the poets are quickly thrown into the fighting that has spread throughout North Africa. Readers move from Pouka’s story to that of the poets under the questionable and racist leadership of French general Leclerc. Through the bloody battles of Kufra and Murzur in Libya, Nganang confronts the horrible history of French colonialism: the French’s use of ‘black soldiers for cannon fodder’ in fighting the Axis powers; villagers armed with nothing but machetes, killed by the thousands. With a narrative structure reminiscent of African oral traditions, an unknown narrator heralds these men for their deeds and weeps for the sons and daughters of Cameroon: the young men who shed their blood for a Western country and the young women left behind, whose bodies were exploited and raped. With lyrical, soaring prose, Nganang sings their song, challenging the Euro-written history of colonialism and replacing it with a much-needed African one. The result is a challenging but indispensable novel.”

Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Black Light: “Parsons’s debut crackles with the frenetic energy of the women who stalk its pages. In opening story ‘Guts,’ Sheila has just started dating ‘almost-doctor’ Tim, whose particular brand of condescending masculine practicality destabilizes her already-erratic lifestyle. In ‘Foxes,’ a recently divorced mother recounts her courtship and marriage to her ex-husband, whom she calls ‘the fool,’ as she listens to her young daughter spin a story featuring knights and inky enemies, and the two stories begin to intertwine and mimic the cadences of each other. ‘Foxes’ kicks off a dazzling run of stories, including ‘The Soft No,’ in which a pair of siblings must navigate neighborhood politics as well as their unpredictable mother, to ‘We Don’t Come Natural to It,’ in which two women’s pursuit of beauty becomes a vortex of self-inflicted violence, control, and mistrust. In the title story, a young woman watches as her former lover evolves into someone she realizes she never knew, while she must navigate the breakup in a way that doesn’t out her sexuality. Parsons’s characters are sharp and uncannily observed, bound up in elastic and electrifying prose. This is a first-rate debut.”

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about How to Be an Antiracist: “Kendi follows his National Book Award–winning Stamped from the Beginning with a boldly articulated, historically informed explanation of what exactly racist ideas and thinking are, and what their antiracist antithesis looks like both systemically and at the level of individual action. He weaves together cultural criticism, theory (starting each chapter with epigraph-like definitions of terms), stories from his own life and philosophical development (he describes his younger self as a ‘racist, sexist homophobe’), and episodes from history (including the 17th-century European debate about ‘polygenesis,’ the idea that different races of people were actually separate species with distinct origins). He delves into typical racist ideas (e.g. that biology and behavior differ between racial groups) and problems (such as colorism), as well as the intersections between race and gender, race and class, and race and sexuality. Kendi puts forth some distinctive arguments: he posits that ‘internalized racism is the true Black-on-Black crime,’ critiquing powerful black people who disparage other black people and racializing behaviors they disapprove of, and argues that black people can be racist in their views of white people (when they make negative generalizations about white people as a group, thereby espousing the racist idea that ethnicity determines behavior). His prose is thoughtful, sincere, and polished. This powerful book will spark many conversations.”

Hard Mouth by Amanda Goldblatt

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Hard Mouth: “Goldblatt’s propulsive and beguiling debut tracks the story of a young woman searching for escape. Twenty-something Denny, short for Denise, has watched her father suffer on and off from cancer for 10 years and moves through her days in a fog of half-hope and half-grief, ‘working on the idea of being alive.’ She works a quiet job in a genetics lab and spends most nights alone in her studio apartment in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, socializing only with her high school best friend Ken and her imaginary friend, Gene, an amalgam of classic movie–character clichés. But when her father’s cancer returns, and Denny learns he won’t be seeking treatment, Denny decides to take time off and rent a cabin deep in the woods, leaving no word with the people she leaves behind. Cut off from civilization, the unexpected becomes the everyday, and Denny’s inner turmoil is matched by the brutality she must endure to survive, particularly after a storm downs a tree that tears open the roof and exposes her to the elements—and even more so when she discovers that she might not be alone out there. Denny’s story gains momentum early on, though the secondary characters too often come across as one-note, muddled shapes in the background. Still, this debut is a striking psychological portrait of despair.”

Also on shelves: I Heart Oklahoma! by Roy Scranton.

The Horror, The Horror: Rereading Yourself

Here is a secret about writers, or at least most writers I know, including me: we don’t like to read our published work. Conversations I’ve had over the years with author friends have tended to confirm my own feelings on the matter—namely, that it is very nice and fortunate and rewarding to get something published, but you don’t ever especially want to read it again. One reason for this is the fact that, by the time you’ve finished revising, copyediting, and proofreading a book, you have already reread it effectively a hundred million times before publication. Another reason: there is something deeply nerve-wracking about the fact of the thing you’ve written, mutable for so long, now being fixed and frozen forever, with no possibility of rewriting whatever mistakes you might—and will—find upon rereading. Among the countless, loving tributes in the wake of her recent death, one memorable Toni Morrison anecdote recounted her habit of taking a red pencil to her published works as she read from them; Toni Morrison, of course, was one of the few authors who might have reasonably expected reprintings and possible future opportunities for correcting errata. Toni Morrison was Toni Morrison.

The rest of us have to live with the reality of what we’ve written and managed to get out in the world, and so there’s a self-protective instinct to look away from it. But when the case of author’s copies of my new novel, The Hotel Neversink, arrived—and with it, the usual reticence to crack one open—I found myself wondering about this impulse: is it good? Maybe not. A writer could go through their whole life accumulating work and publications without ever, in earnest, going back and looking at what they’ve done with a reader’s eye. And if you never revisit your old work, you may never fully understand how, or if, you’ve changed as an artist and person. With a sense of great reluctance and apprehension, I therefore decided to sit down and fully reread my first novel.

The novel in question is The Grand Tour, which I wrote from 2013 to 2014, while I was in graduate school at Cornell. I revised it over the following year, during which time I was lucky enough for it sell to Doubleday, which published it almost exactly three years ago, in August, 2016. For what it’s worth, it received good reviews from outlets like Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, and was generally well-received by readers, although not readers who were expecting an uplifting read. One of the highlights of publication came in the form of a hostile email from a very old woman telling me how much she hated my main character, Richard. And she wasn’t wrong to hate him. Richard is quite hateable. In an era of nice characters, and an ever-increasing expectation of “relatability” from readers, The Grand Tour features the kind of anti-heroic ’60s/’70s protagonist sometimes played in films by Jack Nicholson, the kind who no longer curries any cultural favor whatsoever.

But that’s the point of Richard Lazar: he doesn’t curry any favor in his fictional world, either. He is washed-up and alcoholic and socially radioactive, having lived in the desert for ten years following the collapse of his second marriage. When he receives word that his Vietnam memoir has grazed the bestseller list, he is uniquely unprepared to capitalize on this fleeting moment of success. Nonetheless, his publisher trundles him out on a promotional tour, where he meets a young fan named Vance, providing the basis for what is essentially a coming-of-age road novel, (a bildungsroadman?).

The book’s first chapter sets the tone. Richard comes to after blacking out on a flight, is rude to a flight attendant and hostile to Vance, who meets him at the airport with a homemade sign. He proceeds to get drunk before the reading, do a predictably bad job, get drunker at the faculty dinner, and hit on the Dean’s wife. As he’s driven back to his hotel room by the disillusioned Vance, he tells the kid not to bother with writing.

I knew Richard sucked, but this time around, I found myself disliking him a lot more than I did while writing or revising the novel. Richard is a version of the Unhappy White Guy protagonists I grew up reading, and that I attempted to classify in this essay. His specific lineage is the hard-drinking hard-luck variety found in books by the Southern writers I loved in my twenties: Messrs Hannah, Brown, and Crews—Barry, Larry, and Harry. Ultra-masculine, drunk and doomed, these writers and their antiheroes exerted an outsized influence on The Grand Tour. I suppose it speaks well of my personal growth that I’m less (read: not) enamored with this type of character the way I was seven years ago. In a way, this disenchantment feels healthy and generally axiomatic: books take a long time to write and publish, and perhaps they should always feel a little dusty and outmoded by the time they come out.

To the novel’s credit, I think, it is aware of Richard’s awfulness, and, to an extent, Vance’s. It is not the kind of book that misjudges its protagonist, although it might misjudge the extent to which, for a reader, the comedy of complete assholishness can justify having to spend 300 pages with a complete asshole. That said, this time around, I still found it to be a pretty funny book with lots of amusing passages, for instance this one, describing Richard’s purchase of a house in foreclosure after the 2008 real estate bubble:

[His advance] was enough, as it turned out, to buy a nearby house in foreclosure, in a superexurban neighborhood called The Bluffs. There was no bluff visible in the landscape, so perhaps the name referred to the cavalier attitude local banks and homeowners had taken toward the adjustable-rate mortgages that subsequently emptied the neighborhood. It turned out they were giving the things away—all you had to do was show up at auction with a roll of quarters and a ballpoint pen.

Horrible or not, Richard is a successfully drawn character, if one with many problematic antecedents. Vance is drawn convincingly, as well, although his chapters feel slightly less successful to me, simply for the fact that he’s a less funny character. He’s nineteen, stuck at home, depressed and painfully earnest—in other words, the perfect earnest foil for Richard’s cynical lout. This odd couple set-up does feel formulaic, although it also works, as formulas tend to do. Formulaic, as well, though less successfully so, are a clutch of chapters representing Richard’s memoir in the book. On a reread, the appearance of these Vietnam chapters felt somewhat unwelcome to me, and not just because of being typeset in italics. They lean a little too heavily on skin-deep source material like Full Metal Jacket and The Things They Carried. Here comes the gregarious, rebellious grunt. There goes the gruff sergeant and patrician lieutenant. I did do some actual research about troop movements and munitions and local geography, but the whole thing feels a bit stale, though maybe any Vietnam story published in 2016 would.

What does not feel stale at all this time around is the introduction of a third perspective, Richard’s estranged daughter, Cindy, a casino croupier and malcontent, who takes over the middle third of the book. On this read, Cindy strikes me as the most successful aspect of The Grand Tour. She’s the most original character, and she structurally provides respite from the bad male behavior that otherwise dominates the proceedings. Richard and Vance are, after all, two sides of the same coin, i.e. the coin of male ego and its attendant problems. That Vance’s ego is subdued and wounded makes it no less irritating.

The novel’s awareness of these men as problematic and tiresome, and the section in which Cindy more or less destroys them—Vance sexually, Richard emotionally—elevates (I hope) the book above similar novels that simply find their male hero’s antics fascinating. Cindy makes her gleeful exit, disappearing into a street fair crowd, in one of the novel’s most memorable passages:

The Friday-night crowd swelled around her as she neared downtown—in front of the façade of a large art deco building, a stage was set up on which a bunch of paunchy white dudes mangled “Whipping Post.” People pushed past and she rejoiced in it, becoming part of the throng, the multitude … she wondered what someone watching her from above, looking at her face, might think. Would they know anything, be able to divine something about her, her life, or her mistakes? No. No one knows anything about anyone, she thought, and for the second time that day was struck by the feeling that she could start over—that nothing, in fact, would be easier. Denver, why not? She dragged her suitcase into the hot jostle, for the moment immensely pleased.    

The remainder of the novel (SPOILER) finds Vance getting sent to Riker’s Island (!) and all of Richard’s proverbial chickens coming home to roost. A lot happens in these last chapters, probably too much. This is, I think, an unavoidable function or symptom of the book itself trying to do too much. One thing that struck me on this reading is just how much there is going on. It’s a common feature of the debut novel, in which an author takes decades of reading and thinking about novels and compresses it all into their first try, as though it will also be their last. Some of it works here, and some of it doesn’t. If I were to give critical advice to the person who wrote this, I might tell him to think about losing at least one of the component parts—maybe the Vietnam sections—and to also not feel like he has to conclude all of the proceedings with quite such a bang. The tour, I might suggest, could end on a more muted note. The final pages do manage this quietness, and it’s a relief after the sound and fury that precede them.

All of which is to say, I think it’s… pretty good? It’s entertaining and funny, and the writing is solid and sometimes excellent. That sounds like an unreliable claim, given my obvious bias, but would it convince a reader of my objectivity if I also say that I found the book to be weirdly old-fashioned and in certain places very contrived? Ultimately, it’s an uneven novel held together by its humor and prose. I believe if I hadn’t written The Grand Tour and had just happened across it, I would have finished and enjoyed it, with reservations. And if I’d written a review, I might have been generous with this first-time author, adding to everything I’ve said here that I looked forward to what he comes up with next.

Image credit: Unsplash/Rey Seven.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Tolentino, Valentine, Folarin, Marías, Price, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Jia Tolentino, Sarah Valentine, Tope Folarin, Javier Marías, our own Adam O’Fallon Price, 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.
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Trick Mirror: “New Yorker contributor Tolentino debuts with a sharp, well-founded crackdown on the lies of self and culture in these nine original, incisive reflections on a hypercapitalist, internet-driven age that ‘positions personal identity as the center of the universe.’ While some essays peel back personal self-delusions—such as by recalling, in ‘Always Be Optimizing,’ how taking barre classes for fitness gave her the ‘satisfying but gross sense of having successfully conformed to a prototype’ —others comment on broader cultural movements with frightening accuracy, for instance noting in ‘Pure Heroines’ that ‘bravery and bitterness get so concentrated in literature, for women, because there’s not enough space for [women] in the real world,’ or that the election of Donald Trump represents the ‘incontrovertible, humiliating vindication of scamming as the quintessential American ethos.’ The collection’s chief strength is Tolentino’s voice: sly, dry, and admittedly complicit in an era where ‘the choice…is to be destroyed or to morally compromise ourselves in order to be functional.’ While the insights aren’t revelatory, the book’s candid self-awareness and well-formulated prose, and Tolentino’s ability to voice the bitterest truths—’Everything, not least the physical world itself, is overheating’—will gain Tolentino new fans and cement her reputation as an observer well worth listening to.”
The Hotel Neversink by Adam O’Fallon Price

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Hotel Neversink: “Centered on a rambling hotel in the Catskills, the striking latest from Price (The Grand Tour) is part multigenerational saga, part murder mystery. In 1950, a young boy, Jonah, goes missing from the Hotel Neversink, and his disappearance kicks off a string of similar crimes that stretch across decades. The owners of the hotel, the Sikorsky family, avert scandal, until Jonah’s remains are discovered in the hotel’s basement in 1973. With no obvious suspects, the Sikorskys suffer the ups and downs of running a business associated with an unsolved murder, entertaining crime buffs and conspiracy theorists while the hotel—passed down from patriarch, Asher, to his daughter, Jeanie, and eventually to his grandson, Len—slowly loses its luster with vacationers, despite Len’s dedication to keeping the family business alive. Price focuses each chapter on a single character, which gives the work a novel-in-stories feel that periodically drifts from the hotel. As a result, the central mystery moves into the background, yet it never fully vanishes, wearing on characters without their acknowledgement as they face marital strain, addiction, and depression. Price is a sharp writer, and his novel wonderfully critiques family obligation while simultaneously delivering a crafty, sinister whodunit.”
When I Was White by Sarah Valentine

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about When I Was White: “In this fervent and heartfelt memoir, Valentine, an artist-in-residence at Northwestern University, tells of coming-of-age in Pittsburgh, Pa., as the daughter of two white parents who refused to acknowledge an ethnicity hinted at by her appearance, and a family secret. Her mother and business consultant father were married in the 1970s when Valentine was born, and she describes an ordinary childhood in a loving family of Italian and Irish descent. Early on, she clues in that she is ‘different’ and even though her parents avoid the topic of race, others make note of her darker skin color (for instance, a school guidance counselor suggests she apply for a minority scholarship). Valentine attends Carnegie Mellon University, and at age 27 she presses her mother on the details of her past; her mother claims she was raped at a college party by an unknown black man (though her recollection is vague). The narrative moves fluidly between past and present as Valentine tries to make sense of the lies and misconceptions that have plagued her throughout her life. Beset with conflicting emotions and a sense of betrayal, Valentine begins a futile search to locate her biological father, and the revelation of Valentine’s conception (later confirmed by a DNA test that revealed 45% sub-Saharan African) will be simultaneously startling and yet expected to the reader. This is a disturbing and engrossing tale of deep family secrets.”


First Cosmic Velocity by Zach Powers

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about First Cosmic Velocity: “Powers’s entertaining and winning debut novel about the 1960s space race launches from an intriguing premise: that the Soviet Union covered up fatal rocket misfires by recruiting groups of twins as cosmonauts—one to pilot the ill-fated space capsule, the other to bask in the glory of a faked hero’s return. Set primarily in Star City, Russia, in 1964, Powers’s story centers around the earthbound experiences of Nadya (whose twin burned up on re-entry years before) and Leonid (whose brother, the last twin, is currently orbiting the earth), through which Powers refracts glimpses of the competitive Soviet space program and its personnel, the sometimes absurd politics of the Khrushchev era, and the process by which a cold-hearted recruiter pried the twin Leonids away from their family in 1950s Ukraine. Powers (Gravity Changes) endows his stoical, driven characters with distinctive personalities and the capacity to reflect philosophically on their charade, as when Leonid says, ‘Maybe our individual personalities are just the areas in which we failed to copy someone else.’ Powers’s deadpan depiction of the ruse that drives his tale and the historical figures duped by it will give readers pause to wonder if it really is that improbable.”
A Particular Kind of Black Man by Tope Folarin

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Particular Kind of Black Man: “Folarin’s tender, cunning debut begins as a realistic story of a boy coming of age in Utah in the 1980s, then slides into a subtle meditation on the unreliability of memory. Tunde, the older son of parents who emigrated from Nigeria, who is five years old when the novel opens, lives in a small town in Northern Utah where he is made to feel like an outsider. His hard-working father is frustrated because he can’t hold a job equal to his abilities, and his mentally ill mother frequently breaks down and physically abuses Tunde. When she leaves the family and returns home, Tunde’s father goes to Nigeria and brings back a ‘new mom,’ who has two children of her own whom she prefers to her stepchildren. After a move to Texas, the narrator is accepted by Morehouse College, where he realizes to his alarm that he is experiencing ‘double memories’ and is seeing ‘things I could have done as if I had done them,’ which causes him to re-write the version of the past by which the reader has come to know him. Only when he visits Nigeria does ‘reality click into place.’ Folarin pulls off the crafty trick of simultaneously bringing scenes to sharp life and undercutting their reliability, and evokes the complexities of life as a second-generation African-American in simple, vivid prose. Foralin’s debut is canny and electrifying.”
All the Water in the World by Karen Raney

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about All the Water in the World: “Raney’s ardent debut examines love and loss through the eyes of Maddy, a vibrant 16-year-old girl diagnosed with cancer, and Eve, her loving mother. Maddy is spending the summer recovering from chemotherapy at her family’s lake house in Pennsylvania. While her thoughts often turn to normal adolescent concerns—such as her summer reading assignments and her crush—they are also studded with existential worries as she contemplates death, the existence of God, and the ephemerality of nature. Maddy begins to think about her father, who separated amicably from her mother before she was born, and decides she must get to know him before she dies. Over her final summer, Maddy and her father begin an epistolary friendship and bond over their mutual love of nature and advocacy for environmental protections. Reading the correspondence is painful for Eve when she later finds the letters. Eve, struggling to process everything, begins to spend long hours at the lake talking with her neighbor Norma. The book is broken into three sections, and is at its strongest when Maddy’s naive, searching voice narrates the story, which is effused with a passion for life and nature. However, the novel’s final section loses momentum, tapering off into Eve’s self-examination and excavation of the past. Raney’s pleasing tale is a deep, genuine investigation of memory, the pain of loss, and the strength of a mother’s love.”
Berta Isla by Javier Marías

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Berta Isla: “Marías (Thus Bad Begins) transforms a spy thriller into an eloquent depiction of those left behind at home in this rich novel. Popular, beautiful Berta Isla decides she will marry Tomás Nevinson, a half-Spanish, half-British classmate with a preternatural ability to learn languages, while they are students together in mid-1960s Madrid. During his studies at Oxford, Tomás is recruited by a professor to use his abilities with languages and accents to serve as an infiltrator for the British Secret Intelligence Service. He demurs, until he is accused of murdering his British lover and needs help evading the charge. Marías toggles to Berta as a narrator for Tomás’s return to Spain, their marriage in 1974, and his cover job for the British Embassy. Berta struggles to cope with her husband’s long, mysterious absences and forces a confession about his real job after a terrifying threat on their young son’s life. Tomás offers scant details of his work, which only partially satisfies Berta, who spars with him. When he leaves on assignment just before the start of the Falklands War in 1982, Berta’s worries compound as his time away stretches into months and then years. Marías switches back to a third-person narrator for the gut-punching conclusion that explains what happened to Tomás. The espionage premise is initially enticing, but the real draw is the depth of Marías’s characterization. This weighty novel rewards readers with the patience for its deliberate dissection of a marriage.”
Also on shelves: The Pretty One by Keah Brown and White Flights by Jess Row.
Image credit: Unsplash/Amador Loureiro.

Marks of Significance: On Punctuation’s Occult Power

“Prosody, and orthography, are not parts of grammar, but diffused like the blood and spirits throughout the whole.” —Ben Jonson, English Grammar (1617)

Erasmus, author of The Praise of Folly and the most erudite, learned, and scholarly humanist of the Renaissance, was enraptured by the experience, by the memory, by the very idea of Venice. For 10 months from 1507 to 1508, Erasmus would be housed in a room of the Aldine Press, not far from the piazzas of St. Mark’s Square with their red tiles burnt copper by the Adriatic sun, the glory and the stench of the Grand Canal wafting into the cell where the scholar would expand his collection of 3,260 proverbs entitled Thousands of Adages, his first major work. For Venice was the home to a “library which has no other limits than the world itself;” a watery metropolis and an empire of dreams that was “building up a sacred and immortal thing.”

Erasmus composed to the astringent smell of black ink rendered from the resin of gall nuts, the rhythmic click-click-click of movable type of alloyed lead-tin keys being set, and the whoosh of paper feeding through the press. From that workshop would come more than 100 titles of Greek and Latin, all published with the indomitable Aldus Manutius’s watermark, an image filched from an ancient Roman coin depicting a strangely skinny Mediterranean dolphin inching down an anchor. Reflecting on that watermark (which has since been filched again, by the modern publisher Doubleday), Erasmus wrote that it symbolized “all kinds of books in both languages, recognized, owned and praised by all to whom liberal studies are holy.” Adept in humanistic philology, Erasmus made an entire career by understanding the importance of a paragraph, a phrase, a word. Of a single mark. As did his publisher.

Erasmus’s printer was visionary. The Aldine Press was the first in Europe to produce books made not by folding the sheets of paper in a bound book once (as in a folio), or four times (as in a quarto), but eight times, to produce volumes that could be as small as four to six inches, the so-called octavo. Such volumes could be put in a pocket, what constituted the forerunner of the paperback, which Manutius advertised as “portable small books.” Now volumes no longer had to be cumbersome tomes chained to the desk of a library, they could be squirreled away in a satchel, the classics made democratic. When laying the typeface for a 1501 edition of Virgil in the new octavo form, Manutius charged a Bolognese punchcutter named Francesco Griffo to design a font that appeared calligraphic. Borrowing the poet Petrarch’s handwriting, Griffo invented a slanted typeface that printers quickly learned could denote emphasis, which came to be named after the place of its invention: italic.

However, it was an invention seven years earlier that restructured not just how language appears, but indeed the very rhythm of sentences; for, in 1496, Manutius introduced a novel bit of punctuation, a jaunty little man with leg splayed to the left as if he was pausing to hold open a door for the reader before they entered the next room, the odd mark at the caesura of this byzantine sentence that is known to posterity as the semicolon. Punctuation exists not in the wild; it is not a function of how we hear the word, but rather of how we write the Word. What the theorist Walter Ong described in his classic Orality and Literacy as being marks that are “even farther from the oral world than letters of the alphabet are: though part of a text they are unpronounceable, nonphonemic.” None of our notations are implied by mere speech, they are creatures of the page: comma, and semicolon; (as well as parenthesis and what Ben Jonson appropriately referred to as an “admiration,” but what we call an exclamation mark!)—the pregnant pause of a dash and the grim finality of a period. Has anything been left out? Oh, the ellipses…

No doubt the prescriptivist critic of my flights of grammatical fancy in the previous few sentences would note my unorthodox usage, but I do so only to emphasize how contingent and mercurial our system of marking written language was until around four or five centuries ago. Manutius may have been the greatest of European printers, but from Johannes Guttenberg to William Caxton, the era’s publishers oversaw the transition from manuscript to print with an equivalent metamorphosis of language from oral to written, from the ear to the eye. Paleographer Malcolm Parkes writes in his invaluable Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West that such a system is a “phenomenon of written language, and its history is bound up with that of the written medium.” Since the invention of script, there has been a war of attrition between the spoken and the written; battle lines drawn between rhetoricians and grammarians, between sound and meaning. Such is a distinction as explained by linguist David Crystal in Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation: “writing and speech are seen as distinct mediums of expression, with different communicative aims and using different processes of composition.”

Obviously, the process of making this distinction has been going on for quite a long time. The moment the first wedged-stylus pressed into wet Mesopotamian clay was the beginning of it, through ancient Greek diacritical and Hebrew pointing systems, up through when Medieval scribes began to first separate words from endless scripto continua, whichbroachednogapsbetweenwordsuntiltheendofthemiddleages. Reading, you see, was normally accomplished out loud, and the written word was less a thing-unto-itself and more a representation of a particular event—that is the event of speaking. When this is the guiding metaphysic of writing, punctuation serves a simple purpose—to indicate how something is to be read aloud. Like the luftpause of musical notation, the nascent end stops and commas of antiquity didn’t exist to clarify syntactical meaning, but only to let you know when to take a breath. Providing an overview of punctuation’s genealogy, Alberto Manguel writes in A History of Reading how by the seventh century, a “combination of points and dashes indicated a full stop, a raised or high point was equivalent to our comma,” an innovation of Irish monks who “began isolating not only parts of speech but also the grammatical constituents within a sentence, and introduced many of the punctuation marks we use today.”

No doubt many of you, uncertain on the technical rules of comma usage (as many of us are), were told in elementary school that a comma designates when a breath should be taken, only to discover by college that that axiom was incorrect. Certain difficulties, with, that, way of writing, a sentence—for what if the author is Christopher Walken or William Shatner? Enthusiast of the baroque that I am, I’m sympathetic to writers who use commas as Hungarians use paprika. I’ll adhere to the claim of David Steel, who in his 1785 Elements of Punctuation wrote that “punctuation is not, in my opinion, attainable by rules…but it may be procured by a kind of internal conviction.” Steven Roger Fischer correctly notes in his A History of Reading (distinct from the Manguel book of the same title) that “Today, punctuation is linked mainly to meaning, not to sound.” But as late as 1589 the rhetorician George Puttenham could in his Art of English Poesie, as Crystal explains, define a comma as the “shortest pause,” a colon as “twice as much time,” and an end stop as a “full pause.” Because our grade school teachers weren’t wrong in a historical sense, for that was the purpose of commas, colons, and semicolons, to indicate pauses of certain amounts of time when scripture was being aloud. All of the written word would have been quietly murmured under the breath of monks in the buzz of a monastic scriptorium.

For grammarians, punctuation has long been claimed as a captured soldier in the war of attrition between sound and meaning, these weird little marks enlisted in the cause of language as a primarily written thing. Fischer explains that “universal, standardized punctuation, such as may be used throughout a text in consistent fashion, only became fashionable…after the introduction of printing.” Examine medieval manuscripts and you’ll find that the orthography, that is the spelling and punctuation (insomuch as it exists), is completely variable from author to author—in keeping with an understanding that writing exists mainly as a means to perform speaking. By the Renaissance, print necessitated a degree of standardization, though far from uniform. This can be attested to by the conspiratorially minded who are flummoxed by Shakespeare’s name being spelled several different ways while he was alive, or by the anarchistic rules of 18th-century punctuation, the veritable golden age of the comma and semicolon. When punctuation becomes not just an issue of telling a reader when to breathe, but as a syntactical unit that conveys particular meanings that could be altered by the choice or placement of these funny little dots, then a degree of rigor becomes crucial. As Fischer writes, punctuation came to convey “almost exclusively meaning, not sound,” and so the system had to become fixed in some sense.

If I may offer an additional conjecture, it would seem to me that there was a fortuitous confluence of both the technology of printing and the emergence of certain intellectual movements within the Renaissance that may have contributed to the elevation of punctuation. Johanna Drucker writes in The Alphabetic Labyrinth: The Letters in History and Imagination how Renaissance thought was gestated by “strains of Hermetic, Neo-Pythagorean, Neo-Platonic and kabbalistic traditions blended in their own peculiar hybrids of thought.” Figures like the 15th-century Florentine philosophers Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola reintroduced Plato into an intellectual environment that had sustained itself on Aristotle for centuries. Aristotle rejected the otherworldliness of his teacher Plato, preferring rather to muck about in the material world of appearances, and when medieval Christendom embraced the former, they modeled his empirical perspective. Arguably the transcendent nature of words is less important in such a context; what difference does the placement of a semicolon matter if it’s not conveying something of the eternal realm of the Forms? But the Florentine Platonists like Ficino were concerned with such things, for as he writes in Five Questions Concerning the Mind (printed in 1495—one year after the first semicolon), the “rational soul…possesses the excellence of infinity and eternity…[for we] characteristically incline toward the infinite.” In Renaissance Platonism, the correct ordering of words, and their corralling with punctuation, is a reflection not of speech, but of something larger, greater, higher. Something infinite and eternal; something transcendent. And so, we have the emergence of a dogma of correct punctuation, of standardized spelling—of a certain “orthographic Platonism.”  

Drucker explains that Renaissance scholars long searched “for a set of visual signs which would serve to embody the system of human knowledge (conceived of as the apprehension of a divine order).” In its most exotic form this involved the construction of divine languages, the parsing of Kabbalistic symbols, and the embrace of alchemical reasoning. I’d argue in a more prosaic manner that such orthographic Platonism is the well-spring for all prescriptivist approaches to language, where the manipulation of the odd symbols that we call letters and punctuation can lend themselves to the discovery of greater truths, an invention that allows us “to converse even with the absent,” as Parkes writes.  In the workshops of the Renaissance, at the Aldine Press, immortal things were made of letters and eternity existed between them, with punctuation acting as the guideposts to a type of paradise. And so it can remain for us.

Linguistic prescriptivists will bemoan the loss of certain standards, of how text speak signals an irreducible entropy of communication, or how the abandonment of arbitrary grammatical rules is as if a sign from Revelation. Yet such reactionaries are not the true guardians of orthographic Platonism, for we must take wisdom where we find it, in the appearance, texture, and flavor of punctuation. Rules may be arbitrary, but the choice of particular punctuation—be it the pregnant pause of the dash or the rapturous shouting of the exclamation mark—matters. Literary agent Noah Lukeman writes in A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation that punctuation is normally understood as simply “a convenience, a way of facilitating what you want to say.” Such a limited view, which is implicit for either those that advocate punctuation as an issue of sound or as one of meaning, ignores the occult power of the question mark, the theurgy in a comma. The orthographic Platonists at the Aldine Press understood that so much depended on a semicolon; that it signified more than a longer-than-average pause or the demarcation of an independent clause. Lukeman argues that punctuation is rarely “pondered as a medium for artistic expression, as a means of impacting content,” yet in the most “profound way…it achieves symbiosis with the narration, style, viewpoint, and even the plot itself.”

Keith Houston in Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks claims that “Every character we type or write is a link to the past;” every period takes us back to the dots that Irish monks used to signal the end of a line; every semicolon back to Manutius’s Venetian workshop. Punctuation, as with the letters whom they serve, has a deep genealogy, their use places us in a chain of connotation and influence that goes back centuries. More than that, each individual punctuation has a unique terroir; they do things that give the sentence a waft, a wisdom, a rhythm that is particular to them. Considering the periods of Ernest Hemingway, the semicolons of Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson’s sublime dash, Lukeman writes that “Sentences crash and fall like the waves of the sea, and work unconsciously on the reader. Punctuation is the music of language.”

To get overly hung up on punctuation as either an issue of putting marks in the right place, or letting the reader know when they can gulp some air, is to miss the point—a comma is a poem unto itself, an exclamation point is an epic! Cecelia Watson writes in her new book, Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, that Manutius’s invention “is a place where our anxieties and our aspirations about language, class, and education are concentrated.” And she is, of course, correct, as evidenced by all of those partisans of aesthetic minimalism from Kurt Vonnegut to Cormac McCarthy who’ve impugned the Aldine mark’s honor. But what a semicolon can do that other marks can’t! How it can connect two complete ideas into a whole; a semicolon is capable of unifications that a comma is too weak to do alone. As Adam O’Fallon Price writes in The Millions, “semicolons…increase the range of tone and inflection at a writer’s disposal.” Or take the exclamation mark, a symbol that I’ve used roughly four times in my published writing, but which I deploy no less than 15 times per average email. A maligned mark due to its emotive enthusiasms, Nick Ripatrazone observes in The Millions that “exclamation marks call attention toward themselves in poems: they stand straight up.” Punctuation, in its own way, is conscious; it’s an algorithm, as much thought itself as a schematic showing the process of thought.

To take two poetic examples, what would Walt Whitman be without his exclamation mark; what would Dickinson be without her dash? They didn’t simply use punctuation for the pause of breath nor to logically differentiate things with some grammatical-mathematical precision. Rather they did do those things, but also so much more, for the union of exhalation and thought gestures to that higher realm the Renaissance originators of punctuation imagined. What would Whitman’s “Pioneers! O pioneers!” from the 1865 Leaves of Grass be without the exclamation point? What argument could be made if that ecstatic mark were abandoned? What of the solemn mysteries in the portal that is Dickinson’s dash when she writes that “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers –”? Orthographic Platonism instills in us a wisdom behind the arguments of rhetoricians and grammarians; it reminds us that more than simple notation, each mark of punctuation is a personality, a character, a divinity in itself.

My favorite illustration of that principle is in dramatist Margaret Edson’s sublime play W;t, the only theatrical work that I can think of that has New Critical close reading as one of its plot points. In painful detail, W;t depicts the final months of Dr. Vivian Bearing, a professor of 17th-century poetry at an unnamed, elite, eastern university, after she has been diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. While undergoing chemotherapy, Bearing often reminisces on her life of scholarship, frequently returning to memories of her beloved dissertation adviser, E.M. Ashford. In one flashback, Bearing remembers being castigated by Ashford for sloppy work that the former did, providing interpretation of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet VI based on an incorrectly punctuated edition of the cycle. Ashford asks her student “Do you think the punctuation of the last line of this sonnet is merely an insignificant detail?” In the version used by Bearing, Donne’s immortal line “Death be not proud” is end stopped with a semicolon, but as Ashford explains, the proper means of punctuation, as based on the earliest manuscripts of Donne, is simply a comma. “And death shall be no more, comma, Death thou shalt die.”

Ashford imparts to Bearing that so much can depend on a comma. The professor tells her student that “Nothing but a breath—a comma—separates life from everlasting…With the original punctuation restored, death is no longer something to act out on a stage, with exclamation points…Not insuperable barriers, not semicolons, just a comma.” Ashford declares that “This way, the uncompromising way, one learns something from this poem, wouldn’t you say?” Such is the mark of significance, an understanding that punctuation is as intimate as breath, as exulted as thought, and as powerful as the union between them—infinite, eternal, divine.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Sam Town.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Horrocks, Russo, Lenz, Zink, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Caitlin Horrocks, Richard Russo, Lyz Lenz, Nell Zink, 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.

The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Vexations: “Horrocks’s vivid, hard-edged debut about French composer Erik Satie focuses on his erratic career, difficult personality, and dysfunctional family. In 1872, widower Alfred Satie leaves his children—six-year-old Eric, youngest brother Conrad, middle sister Louise—to be raised by their grandmother in Normandy. A great-uncle takes Louise to live with him. When the grandmother dies, Alfred brings the boys home to Paris. By his early 20s, Eric, now calling himself Erik ‘with a k,’ plays piano at Chat Noir and other Montmartre cafes. Louise, widowed within a year of getting married, resides with her son on her husband’s debt-ridden estate, until relatives confiscate both the estate and the son. Often neglectful and hurtful of friends and family, Erik collaborates with modernists like Cocteau and Diaghilev to varying success. Horrocks includes the perspectives of Erik’s onetime librettist (fictional Philippe) and sometime lover (real-life Suzanne Valadon) for a portrait of avant-garde turn-of-the-century Paris that proves art isn’t easy and neither are artists. Horrocks shines while envisioning Erik scoring a silent film, debuting a masterpiece, or being released from jail (where he was held for defaming a reviewer) so he can complete a commission. Horrocks’s description of Satie’s music is also apt for her noteworthy novel: slow, spare, and at its best finely filigreed.”

Chances Are… by Richard Russo

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Chances Are…: “Russo’s first standalone novel in a decade (after Everybody’s Fool) mixes his signature themes—father-and-son relationships, unrequited love, New England small-town living, and the hiccups of aging—with stealthy clue-dropping in a slow-to-build mystery about a young woman’s 1971 disappearance. Set mostly in Martha’s Vineyard circa 2015 with flashbacks to the characters’ coming-of-age in the 1960s and ’70s, the story follows three college buddies who, now in their mid-60s, decide to reunite on the island. There’s Lincoln, a happily married and successful real estate broker with six kids; Teddy, an editor and publisher of a small university press who’s prone to panic attacks and disorienting spells that leave him depressed; and Mickey, a musician renowned for his ability to rock hard, play hard, and sometimes beat up anyone in his way. Then there’s the missing link—gorgeous Jacy, the ‘three musketeers’ ’ closest gal pal from college and secret crush—who was engaged to ‘privileged, pre-school, Greenwich, Connecticut’ Vance, and had joined her boys at Lincoln’s Vineyard cabin for one last hurrah before she vanished. Relayed in alternating chapters from mostly Lincoln and Teddy’s perspectives, the narrative touches on the Vietnam draft, Lincoln’s complicated relationship with his dogmatic father and meek mother, and an accident that befalls Teddy. In the final stretch, surprising, long-kept secrets are revealed. This is vintage Russo.”

The Chelsea Girls by Fiona Davis

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Chelsea Girls: “The strong friendship between two women who meet performing in USO shows during WWII is tested as the country descends into McCarthy-era madness in the solid latest from Davis (The Masterpiece). Hazel Ripley is a perennial understudy, pushed into performance by a mother who is grieving Hazel’s brother, a talented actor who died during the war. When Hazel joins the USO tour as the maid in Blythe Spirit, she initially dislikes star Maxine Mead, but as the women endure a sideline view to the horrors of war, they find that they are a good team, with Maxine acting and Hazel writing. After the war, they meet again in New York City when both are living at the Chelsea Hotel. Maxine has become a rising Hollywood starlet, and Hazel is staging her first play on Broadway. Soon the Red Scare consumes the nation, and Hazel is flagged as a possible communist and threatened with being blacklisted due to her association with Chelsea Hotel proprietor Lavinia Smarts. Maxine and Hazel are fearful their newly found community might be broken apart when they find mysterious men investigating the building. As a government agent appears to monitor rehearsals, Hazel is irritated but remains confident there’s nothing to be found. However, as the production nears opening night, Hazel worries her confidence could be misplaced. Featuring vibrant, witty characters who not only weather but thrive in a dark period of American history, Davis’s tale of one friendship’s strength will stun and satisfy readers.”

Marilou Is Everywhere by Sarah Elaine Smith

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Marilou Is Everywhere: “Smith’s solid debut follows the isolated and overlooked life of a teen in rural Pennsylvania. After 14-year-old Cindy Stoat and her older brothers, Clinton and Virgil, are abandoned by their mother, they make do with canned goods, candy, and income from the brothers’ lawn-mowing business amid the constant meddling of education officials who hope to bring Cindy back to school. Their stagnant and isolated existence is broken open when a teenage neighbor, Jude Vanderjohn, goes missing. A popular but complicated girl, Jude is so much of what Cindy herself feels she could never be, and her disappearance rocks not only the community, but Cindy’s day-to-day existence, especially after Virgil begins bringing her to spend time with Jude’s mother, Bernadette. Bernadette is a former hippie, a half-mystic, and an alcoholic who mistakes Cindy for her disappeared daughter, an identity crisis that Cindy cherishes, hoping desperately for her life to change, and leading to a terrible decision as she tries to maintain the illusion. Smith’s rural world is brought to life with precise and devastating descriptions of poverty and neglect, though sometimes the lyricism of the prose doesn’t gel. Still, fans of Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling will appreciate Cindy’s toughened point of view and Smith’s close attention to the details of rural Appalachian life. This is a promising debut.”

This Is Not America by Jordi Puntí

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about This Is Not America: “This thoughtful collection of short stories from Catalonian writer and translator Puntí (Lost Luggage) is set primarily in Barcelona and largely features a cast of jaded male protagonists. Though the stories often blend together, one not particularly standing out from the other, memorable instances occur throughout, such as the somber twist at the end of ‘Kidney,’ about a loner ignoring letters from his sick, estranged brother. In ‘My Best Friend’s Mother,’ and ‘Consolation Prize,’ men pursue fantasies of women they barely know, then realize their dream doesn’t match their reality. In ‘Seven Days on the Love Boat,’ a disgruntled husband exchanges anniversary tickets to France for a solo trip on a Mediterranean cruise liner, where he meets a sage American pianist. In ‘The Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes,’ a Catalonian with a gambling problem moves to Las Vegas, where he manages to turn his addiction into an unexpected career. Although the collection lacks variety, the stories make for a consistently pleasant reading experience, especially when consumed in small doses.”

The Accidentals by Minrose Gwin

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Accidentals: “Evocatively depicting the small town of Opelika, Miss., in 1957, Gwin (Promise) tells the heart-rending story of a mother feeling trapped in her life, whose death throws her family into turmoil. Olivia goes to a ‘chiropractor’ for an illegal abortion, dying a few days later from complications. Her husband, Holly, copes by trying to protect his daughters from the unlikely threats of bombs and natural disasters while ignoring their emotional needs. The older daughter, Grace, blames herself for not finding Olivia sooner, and her own poor choices lead to her becoming pregnant at 16 and getting sent away to have the baby in secret. The younger daughter, June, grows up to marry unhappily. Meanwhile, Ed Mae, the orphanage worker who cares for Grace’s child, has a moment of distraction that leads to complex consequences. Though the story is wrought with sadness, there’s a sense of hope that those thrown off course may find happiness in the end. Fans of tear-jerkers will forgive the occasional too-pat coincidence as Gwin brings all the threads together for an uplifting finale. This is a satisfying fable of errors and consequences in a tumultuous era.”

In the Country of Women by Susan Straight

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about In the Country of Women: “Novelist Straight (Between Heaven and Here) focuses on the lives of the women in her family in this moving memoir. The narrative is framed as a letter to Straight’s three daughters—Gaila, Delphine, and Rosette—whom Straight shares with her ex-husband Dwayne Sims, and honors the daughters’ rich ancestral past through stories of female relatives struggling to overcome violence, oppression, and hardship. Straight celebrates Jennie Stevenson, an aunt on the Sims side who, in the early 1900s, shot a man who cornered her, and Straight’s mother, a Swiss immigrant who left home after her stepmother tried to marry her off at 15 to a pig farmer. The author excels in chapters about raising her kids, and about finding her place in the Sims clan (Straight is white, Sims is African-American). She feels indebted to her mother-in-law, Alberta Sims, who showed her how to keep family and friends close (‘she took my hand and led me to the kitchen…. Alberta cooked for the whole community’). In the touching final chapter, Straight reflects on the enduring power of memory: ‘All we women have to give you is memory…. What we felt we might keep to ourselves, unless someone wrote it down.’ Straight passionately illuminates the hard journeys of women.”

The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Other’s Gold: “Four women form an intense bond as college freshmen and support one another through life-altering mistakes across a decade and a half in Ames’s unfocused debut. In 2002, sporty Alice, uber-rich Ji Sun, stunningly beautiful but academically struggling Margaret, and feisty, adopted Lainey arrive at Quincy-Hawthorne College. After immediate friendship, Alice divulges that years before she caused her brother’s intellectual disability by intentionally pushing him off a tractor. In their sophomore year, all four become entranced by a popular professor until Ji Sun fabricates a claim of sexual harassment against him. After college they all gravitate to New York City, where Lainey becomes a well-known voice of the Occupy Movement and Alice struggles with fertility problems. The foursome’s friendship cools when Margaret, now a popular blogger and wife to a wealthy scion, crosses a serious line, and drifts further apart when Lainey makes an even more shocking mistake. Ames rarely provides sufficient retribution for characters’ bad decisions, and the tangents about their lives become distracting. Though there are moments of powerful emotion, and the details and emotional crises are well drawn, most readers will feel frustrated by the meandering plot and the characters’ choices.”

Black Card by Chris L. Terry

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Black Card: “Terry’s darkly humorous coming-of-age novel (after Zero Fade) explores the nuances and challenges of being a young black man in America. A punk rock bassist with a white mother and black father living in Richmond, Va., the unnamed narrator struggles with feeling ‘black enough.’ ‘Being mistaken for white erases half of me,’ he muses, ‘and happens so often that I think I’ve failed at blackness.’ In a desperate attempt to finally earn his Black Card—an actual card—he indulges in misconceived stereotypes of blackness. He tries to ‘speak more black’ and changes up his style of dress. He earns his card but has it revoked by his guide/mentor Lucius when he fails to speak up during a racist incident. Determined to earn back his card, he performs rap songs at a white karaoke bar and musters up the courage to ask out his black coworker, Mona. When Mona is assaulted in her apartment, he becomes a suspect and is finally forced to face his racial identity. ‘The minute Mona told the cops about me, she’d given me something. She’d made it so I’d never, ever doubt that I was black.’ This memorable, deeply insightful work has echoes of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Terry’s provocative and timely novel challenges readers to confront the racial stereotypes and injustices in America.”

God Land by Lyz Lenz

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about God Land: “Journalist Lenz blends memoir and reporting in this slim but powerful debut on the faith and politics of Middle America. After a lifetime of straining against her prescribed place within a white, Protestant world, Lenz left both her marriage and church in the wake of the 2016 election. Unable to compromise any longer with a husband who voted for Donald Trump, and unable to worship at a church that ignored violent white supremacy, divorce and departure become her only path forward. ‘The story of who leaves the church,’ Lenz writes, ‘is just as important as the story of who stays.’ In a series of episodic chapters, the author travels across the Midwest exploring stories of both the belonging and exclusion she finds there. Highlights include her tale of a home church that imploded around questions of authority and submission, and her tracking of a resurgent ‘muscular’ and patriarchal Christianity. She also reveals online and physical communities built by women, queer Christians, and people of color pushed out of conservative evangelical spaces. This work will resonate with any readers interested in understanding American landscapes where white, evangelical Christianity dominates both politics and culture.”

Doxology by Nell Zink

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Doxology: “Beginning in the early days of the 1990s and moving through the years to the 2016 election, Zink’s solid fourth novel (after Nicotine) follows the exploits of the members of a short-lived New York City punk band. Pam and Daniel have a daughter, Flora, before their careers can even begin to take off; meanwhile, Joe, the singer, has a breakthrough when he writes an unexpected hit single. As his fame grows, Pam and Daniel focus on raising Flora. On 9/11, everything changes, not just because of the attacks, but also because of an unexpected death that occurs on the same day. The second half of the book focuses more on Flora’s coming-of-age as she, among other things, becomes a campaign staffer for Jill Stein. As time passes, Zink infuses the novel with as many period details as possible (for instance, ‘bricklike cell phones’), but the repeated intrusion of the narrator explaining the political and cultural developments during the last 30 years becomes a bit overbearing and, worse, mostly unnecessary. Still, Zink’s gifts for characterization and richly evoked periods and places are on display throughout. Zink’s longest novel is her most ambitious and perhaps her most effective.”

Nine Things You Didn’t Know About the Semicolon

My husband and I fell in love, in part, over discussions of the semicolon, a woman told me last year. I’m afraid of it, students tell me every year. Love, fear, or outright hate—the semicolon can elicit them all. People have always had strong feelings about the semicolon, and its history testifies to its ability to touch hearts—or nerves. Here are a few things about its past that you might not know.
1. It’s young. Well, not young compared to you and me—but relative to the rest of our punctuation mainstays, the 525-year-old semicolon is a spring chicken. The period dates all the way back to the 3rd century B.C., although it began as a dot placed at the tippy-top of the end of a sentence and didn’t drift down to its current position until the 9th century. Commas and colons—in concept, at least—trace their origins back as far as periods, but their original forms were also simple dots, suspended at different elevations. They didn’t unfurl into their present shapes until much later, with the comma reinvented in the 12th century as a slash that slowly slid down below the baseline of the text into its modern form; and the colon began to turn up in its current incarnation in the late 13th century.
The semicolon would take a couple more centuries to join the party. It debuted in 1494, in an Italian book called De Aetna. The publisher of the book, Aldus Manutius, believed readers and writers would find a use for a break midway between the quick skip of a comma and the patient pause of a colon; and so, out of these two marks, he created the chimera we know as the semicolon, with its colon head and comma tail.
2. It might be poisonous. A Dutch writer known as Maarten Maartens (the pen name of Jozua Marius Willem van der Poorten Schwartz), now not exactly a household name, was tremendously popular as an English-language writer during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of Maartens’s books, The Healers, features a scientist who develops an “especial variety of the Comma” called Semicolon Bacillus, with which he manages to kill several lab rabbits.
3. It has a long history as a courtroom troublemaker. A semicolon that slipped into the definition of war crimes in the Charter of the International Military Tribunal threatened to derail the prosecution of captured Nazis, until a special protocol was created to swap it for a comma. This wasn’t the semicolon’s first or last brush with the law. It was notorious among early-20th century Americans for interrupting liquor service in Boston for six years, after a semicolon snuck into a regulatory statute during retranscription. More sinisterly, semicolons (and indeed all manner of punctuation marks) have been implicated in many appeals cases in which a defendant has been sentenced to death.


4. In spite of its fraught history, legal scholars still succumb to its charms. In the 1950s, Baltimore judge James Clark found an innovative way to ensure his trial transcripts were correct and to add some drama to his court’s proceedings by reading punctuation aloud during sentencing: “Ten years in the penitentiary,” he might say, pausing to let the convicted person blanch in terror at receiving the maximum allowable sentence. “Semicolon,” he’d then continue, and after another pause, finally: “sentence suspended.” The judge hoped the shock of a tough sentence followed by a generous reprieve would help reduce recidivism. Suspending sentences in this fashion earned Clark the nickname, “The Semicolon Judge.”
5. It hasn’t always been bound by rules. For most of the history of the English language, punctuation was a matter of taste. Writers relied on their ears and their instincts to judge where best to mark a pause. But then, with the spread of public schooling in the 1800s, savvy teachers saw a market for a new class of books that would make grammar a teachable science. Perversely, instead of making people more confident in choosing a punctuation mark, rules seem to have had the opposite effect, conjuring up confusion and consternation. Gradually, proper punctuating came to be seen as the province of the elite, although the best writers still followed their own star: “With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule,” Abraham Lincoln mused; “with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say that I have a great respect for the semi-colon; it’s a very useful little chap.”
6. In the 19th century, the semicolon was all the rage. Back when Lincoln was sprinkling semicolons into his speeches, rules for the semicolon allowed more possibilities for its use than we have today and, perhaps as a result, it was extremely popular. It was so popular, in fact, that colons (and parentheses) became puncti non grati; semicolons were gobbling them up. Some grammar books simply stopped giving rules for those unpopular punctuation marks, while a journal aimed at school teachers and administrators proclaimed that when it came to the colon, “we should not let children use them.” One grammarian, troubled by the notion that colons were now contraband, urged writers to defend them against the encroaching semicolon, forlornly noting that colons were “once very fashionable.”

7. You could bet on a semicolon. “Semicolon is the best,” proclaimed the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1902. They didn’t mean the punctuation mark, however: a horse named Semicolon had a long and successful racing career in the 1890s and the early 1900s. Based on his wins, his younger brother, Colonist, sold for $3,500 (around $100k adjusted for inflation). Mirroring the relative popularity of semicolons and colons at that time period, Colonist seems not to have matched Semicolon’s winning record.
8. It’s…a woman? Or at least not a heterosexual man? Criticisms of the semicolon—and there have been many—are often couched in peculiarly gendered terms. Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, and Kurt Vonnegut avoided them, with the latter describing them as “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.” In an attempt to explain why so many macho writers avoid it, Vanity Fair editor James Wolcott mused that perhaps it was fear of looking “poncy.” “‘Real’ writing is butch and cinematic,” he explained, “so emphatic and declarative that it has no need of these rest stops or hinges between phrases.” Grammar pundit James J. Kilpatrick had a full-on misogynist meltdown over the semicolon, calling it “shy,” “bashful,” “gutless,” “girly”—and therefore “useless.” Of course, the semicolon can indeed be used to show traits stereotyped as feminine or effete, like hesitancy and delicacy (which are no bad things, incidentally); but it can also come down like a hammer, curt and decisive. How lucky for us writers that the semicolon doesn’t yield to pressure to behave in only one way just because guys like Hemingway expected it to.
9. It’s probably not going to go extinct. Newspaper columnists and pundits have been giving it six months to live since at least the 1970s. But no matter how much its function has shifted over time, no matter how many rules are piled on top of it, and no matter how many people rail against it, as long as there are those of us who find it beautiful and useful, it will survive.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

French Novelist Maylis de Kerangal Takes on the Culinary World

The post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 

“Little by little, his sensations become more precise; at each stage of the preparation they are mobilized as one, coalesced into a single movement, as if the boy himself were being unified; it’s synesthesia, a feast, and now he can cook by ear as well as with his nose, hands, mouth, and eyes. His body exists more and more, it becomes the measure of the world.”

                                                                        -The Cook

Novelist Maylis de Kerangal hails from Le Havre, France. Before publishing her first novel, Je Marche Sous un Ciel de Traîne, in 2000, she worked as an editor in the children and youth department at Éditions Gallimard, one of France’s leading publishers.

Naissance d’un Pont (Birth of a Bridge), de Kerangal’s eighth book, won the Prix Medicis in 2010 and the Prix Gregor Rezzori in 2014. The English translation of her book Réparer Les Vivants (The Heart)—published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux and translated by Sam Taylor—was named one of The Wall Street Journal’s Ten Best Fiction Works of 2016 and won the 2017 Wellcome Book Prize.

Now, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, thanks to the indispensable work of Sam Taylor, brings us the translation of de Kerangal’s most recent novel, Un Chemin de Tables (The Cook), which follows the path of a young Frenchman named Mauro as he rises through the ranks of the culinary world while struggling to preserve his identity and integrity as a cook with a singular vision.

Stylistically, de Kerangal’s writing is much like the haute cuisine she so expertly describes: refined, precise—yet utterly divine. Through the eyes of an unnamed female narrator—a friend and discreet admirer of Mauro’s—the novel captures the trials and rewards of a working world evolving with the times.

The Millions: Your descriptions of food, and the ins-and-outs of the restaurant business in The Cook are so specific. Do you have a love for cooking? What was your inspiration for this book?

Maylis de Kerangal: I don’t have a passion for cooking in itself, although I’m interested in what cooking tells about us: about our relationship with our body, our sensuous experience, related to taste and sight, to the ideas of tradition and research. The commensality inferred by cooking attracts me, the idea of the meal as the epitome of “social representation,” and the fact that it has been ritualized. The Cook was published in a collection supervised by the French historian Pierre Rosanvallon and entitled “Raconter la Vie” (Narrative Democracy). It aims at bringing a fictional representation to areas, fields, and particular paths underrepresented in literature. This collection was writing about work, and I chose to write on the work of a cook.

Today, TV sets have become kitchens; in countless TV-reality shows, the kitchen counters are now under the spotlights and the chefs are not mysterious characters working in the shadows and hidden in their kitchens anymore, but stars that appear on the covers of glossy magazines. I wanted to go behind the scenes and discover restaurant kitchens as though they were a part of an entirely new world. I met a young cook who had already worked in numerous restaurant kitchens and was attempting to reach a kind of cooking ideal. His personality and life path really inspired me for this book. I wanted to focus, as in my other novels, on the personal investment involved in one’s work, and the impact it has on their daily lives, with the fascinating yet paradoxical idea that work is at the same time a place where one is dominated and exploited, and a way to find personal fulfillment.

TM: You published five novels in your 30s before your sixth, Birth of a Bridge, was translated into English when you were 42; and all your novels since have been translated into English.  Did this mark a change in your literary career?  If so, how?

MDK: The Cook is my third book translated into English. Un Monde à Portée de Main, my last novel about the art of paintings, illusion, and Paleolithic wall frescoes, is about to be translated as well. Of course, translations have given my books more visibility, and made my literary life denser, regulated by trips abroad, meetings and lectures at universities. But what has changed the most, in my opinion, is my own perception of translation. I used to regard it solely as a highly technical conversion. However, I have quickly become convinced that translators are authors, and that they are “super-readers,” who know the text from the inside, delve into its depths, navigate through its polysemy, but also through its “blanks” and silences. I understood that translation could give me another perspective on my writing, could shed light on other facets, other layers of my fictions. Being translated caused an upheaval in my relationship with language and with my literary work.

TM: To your knowledge, what is the typical trajectory for an author’s literary success in France? Is publishing “late,” or age in general, a part of the conversation in literary circles?

MDK: I do not believe there is a typical trajectory for success—I published my first novel rather late when I was 33, other writers publish younger, others older. This is not a question I hear much about, except the very specific question of the first novel, the first novelist, the appearance of the “young author.” Where the question of age comes in, is in the “generation effects,” the fact that the same generation is crossed by the same questions.

TM: Book-to-film adaptations are sorts of translations as well—translations which you are familiar with, as your book Mend the Living was made into a movie directed by Katell Quillévéré in 2016. What was that experience like, watching your words onscreen?

MDK: Yes, cinematographic adaptations are translations as well. But words aren’t visible on screen, and the writing is lost, the literary writing is overtaken by another language, a cinematographic writing which has its own syntax, its own vocabulary. What is visible on screen is the image of the novel, the image the director keeps in mind, and which is a landscape he remembers and is his only. What is kept in the cinematographic adaptation then has to do with a rhythm, color variations—if a sentence is dark or lighter—with a mental atmosphere, the outlines of the characters, the plot and more than anything else the aim, the purposes, the gesture of the narration—author and director must have a common aim, a “common gesture.” I was very moved by the movie because it was at the same time my novel but also something else, my story and another story. Something had been “moved,” changed. And precisely, it is this shift that is the print of adaptation. And then I thought about these hours spent writing in my attic room and upon seeing that all this work had become a movie, I felt a really strong emotion.

TM: The Cook’s French title, Un Chemin de Tables, while referring to what we call “table-runners,” literally translates to “table path.” I love that play on words—Mauro’s gastronomical life’s journey takes him from country to country, restaurant to restaurant, table to table. Was any travel involved in the research process for this book? Do global influences tend to suffuse your writing?

MDK: I like the exploration, the research process that takes place when I’m writing. For my books, I always try to go and see real places that will appear fictionally. Here, it is Paris, the southwest of France, which I’m familiar with; also Portugal and Berlin. But above all I visited Mauro in the kitchens, and in the restaurants he worked at. The end of the book depicts trips of Mauro to Thailand and Burma where he develops other skills, discovers other products that will impact his cooking. But there, he also feels the limits of an overly technical, exclusive cooking, disconnected from the countries where it is elaborated. He feels that since this prestigious cooking is globalized, it can also be smoothed, standardized, and having access to it is a social marker—due to the circulation of famous chefs in big metropoles and the fact that their names are now brands. The process of globalization—which I am contemporaneous of—worries and fascinates me. I had also written Birth of a Bridge like a “globalized novel.”

TM: I love to hear more about this process that “worries and fascinates” you, and that so clearly impacts your writing. How does your experience being a globalized writer interact with your sense of being a French writer?

MDK: In literature, the ground, the territory of this experience is language. How my own language, the one that has developed, that I have crafted in literary work, has been affected with this process of globalization, and how is it scrubbed by it? It seems to me that I do not envision my French as a conservatory, a reservation, and I consider that my own language is in a certain way an open space, which must be porous to the world around it in order to be able to describe it, to make it alive. However, I work against the very idea of ​​a globalized language, the “globish” that spreads the ideology of economic liberalism. All my writing shows it: peer into my sentences and find foreign words, specific idioms, professional lexicons, orality. It is a way for me to connect “my” French to the globalized world, to relate them. In the same movement, I seek to establish an increasingly intimate relationship with “my” French, in order to enrich it, to activate it totally, to show with ever more sensitivity its singularity. `

TM: “Mauro lived in his workplace—I realized this suddenly—this little room…had robbed him of a buffer between his workplace and his home, had stolen from him those tiny cracks, those hazy intervals, that can open up cavities of daydreams in the hardened concrete time of each day.” As a writer, do your work and your life bleed into each other? What kind of places, physical or mental, do you inhabit while writing?

MDK: I can write anywhere: in trains, coffee shops, kitchens…but mostly in a former maid’s room located 20 minutes away from my home. It is a kind of “airlock” which enables me to “take off” or, on the contrary to “land.” It is a “room of one’s own,” in a commonplace building. The walls are a stormy gray, it faces north and the lighting is matte, but the sky appears here “above the roof,” as in Verlaine’s poem. It is a workshop, a library, an ongoing construction, at the heart of a kind of ecosystem. But mentally, when I’m writing, I live in the world of fiction, of the novel. I imagine, visualize, hear it, and can perceive its vibrations. This place exists only in writing but I try to give an account of it, so that it can be corporeal. It is an avenue that runs along the sea, a volcano, a quarry, a coffee shop, a wave, a city that grows on the banks of a river, a forest. It is also a train compartment, a studio, an operating room. I cautiously separate the time of writing and the living time—full of so many other things! However sometimes the two temporalities mingle and create a continuous timeline where daydream, obsession, and prosaic reality are interwoven.

TM: Your writing style is very understated, almost a cinema-verité approach in its depiction of events that are obviously fictional, and textual. Your background is in the humanities: history, philosophy, the social sciences. Do you feel that these subjects preoccupy your fiction, and influence your writing style?

MDK: The collection Raconter la Vie (Narrative Democracy), in which this book was first published, was resolutely directed towards non-fiction. The authors are mostly researchers in social sciences. I studied humanities and I use these fields to nourish my interrogations on literature, but also to influence my outlook and my writing style. In return, fiction allows me to read reality, and shape it. The relationship with language is immediately determining and the fictional language is infinitely rich and complex. For The Cook, I used particular and professional lexical fields, whole areas of language that aren’t present in literature because they are reduced to a utilitarian use, and are not deemed able to convey beauty and sensibility. They remain exogenous to novels. As if they were in a way the offal of language, as if they weren’t worthy of being literary. I like their poetic beauty, I like to make their strangeness hearable, and I like their precision, which is always political and goes against standardization. Writing becomes then the place of detail, where the color chart of reality can unfold.

From Beyond the Grave: Interviews with Dead Authors

We all have a favorite author who is no longer with us. Whether reading a classic or contemporary book, we’re curious about the author—particularly about the deceased and the questions that may forever go unanswered. But what if we were able to ask those questions and perhaps summon answers from the dead? What if the ghosts of these authors had the benefit of hindsight in the age of the internet? Would they answer in their own voices, or in that of a snarky Millennial, someone from the MTV Generation, or even a Yuppie?

To wit: Let’s interview some of the best dead writers and find out what they didn’t reveal in life, what secrets they kept, and what they think of life in 2019.

The Hemingway Buoyancy 

Mark Gottlieb: When a Parisian friend of yours allowed his cats to eat from a table, you were initially disgusted, but later, during your time in Cuba, you became fascinated with cats and kept many of them around. How did you go from a cat-hater to a cat-lover, and what’s with all the seemingly inbred cats that roamed your former Key West home?

Earnest Hemingway: The cats on Key West merely have an extra toe on one or more of their paws. It allows them to grasp things like we do. Polydactyl is the word. A genetic anomaly among some cats. These cats are like other members of my generation that survived the war. Battered and deformed among the lost. That is my affinity for them.

MG: You led a life full of daring adventure, much of which contained many terrible injuries and near-death experiences. Some of your injuries included severe burns, multiple plane and automobile accidents, and head trauma. One injury supposedly saw you mended with kangaroo tendon. This was all preceded by the crushing news of your father’s suicide, where you remarked, “I’ll probably go the same way.” Some have wondered if you always secretly carried a death wish?

EH: My collected injuries put Evil Knievel to shame. Once my wife, Mary, and I were in a plane crash that convinced reporters I was dead. They wrote obituaries. How bizarre that was. It is hard to say if I was pining for my own demise all those years. We found out my father and siblings and I all had hemochromatosis. It’s an iron disorder that can lead to depression and lack of energy. That might have contributed to our deep depressions and suicides. I have to admit I was acting like my father close to my death. Though don’t ask if I’m part kangaroo. I am all man.

MG: Were you really a spy and do you truly think you were being followed by the FBI, or was it just paranoia?

EH: I am sure every Facebook user can relate to my paranoia of being monitored. Soviet intelligence tried to recruit me as “Agent Argo.” They knew I was always DTA—Down To Adventure. That is why I was present at the Normandy landings. Present during the Liberation of Paris. Posing with my trophy kills in Africa. The United States government treated me as a danger to myself and others. The FBI was watching me in New York and tracking me in Idaho. During the Red Scare they even opened a case to investigate my admiration for the Castro government. Too bad I had to leave all my books behind when I fled Cuba.

Have You Seen Emily?

MG: Many have wondered about your reclusiveness. You also avoided attending church later in life. You began wearing all white and carried out most of your social life via correspondence. Why live so much of your life in isolation?

Emily Dickinson: Why the life of isolation? Short answer: People suck. I grew tired of people bombastically declaring their faith in church around me. Long answer: this wild rollercoaster of a ride we call life is sometimes just too much for certain people. We lose many people and things along the way. That is what kept me confined to my bedroom in my later days. I became known as something of a local myth because of it and that drove me further into isolation.

MG: Your poems were heavily edited upon publication mainly to remove all mention of the name of “Susan,” a woman you had an intense friendship with. Had you known, would you have allowed for that? Why were you tucking your poems away in an attic?

ED: I would not have wanted many of my poems published in the first place, let alone edited. It went against my wishes that my life’s work wasn’t destroyed after my death, even if some thought it was for the good of others. I am not even sure poetry can be edited to begin with…

MG: You seemed to be very troubled by death all of your life, even though death is a natural part of life. Where do you feel that might have originated?

ED: Who isn’t troubled by death? It also doesn’t help to have grown up across the street from a graveyard. That would scare any kid and make her highly sensitive to the loss of relatives and loved ones. That was one of the reasons I remained upstairs during my father’s funeral when services were held on the first floor of our home. I left my door ajar for anyone that might need me, but I did not feel the need to be present beyond that. Funerals are for the living.

Missing Agatha

MG: Saying you were a highly prolific is an understatement. Part of what helped you write those 66 novels and 14 story collections, was an unusual writing ritual you had. Care to speak to that?

Agatha Christie: I enjoyed chewing on apples while sitting in a bathtub, dreaming up my next murder mystery novel plot. Talk about food for thought! Come to think of it, munching on apples was also a repetitive task, making for mediation. The bath probably made it more relaxing and easier to think. Our brains don’t just need fuel to write but also mental recalibration afforded by rest and relaxation.

MG: I also understand that you had a penchant for observing people at cafes and restaurants. Not to say that it bordered on voyeurism, but what was behind all of that?

AC: I observed people at cafes and restaurants in order to build my characters more accurately. It is important for writers to get out into the world and observe their surroundings rather than getting stuck in front of a screen all day.

MG: Lastly, though probably most importantly, when your husband Archie asked you for a divorce, you went missing for days. Nothing was found except your clothes and an expired driver’s license near a quarry, resulting in public outcry from the media and a front page article in the New York Times. Where were you all those days before coming back?

AC: The media was cruel. Some went as far as to say that it was an attempt to try and frame my husband. The truth of the matter is that we all later discovered that I suffered from amnesia. At least that is what the doctors had to say. The truth of the matter was that my mother’s death from the previous year, coupled with my husband’s infidelity and overwork from a busy literary career, resulted in something of a mental breakdown. It is cute to see that the 1979 film “Agatha” tried to offer an alternate solution to my disappearance, though…

The Importance of Being Oscar

MG: Believed to be your last words: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go.” Was the wallpaper in the L’Hôtel, where you spent your final days, really all that bad? Does it make you angrier that the hotel has preserved your room and its wallpaper for tourists to this very day?

Oscar Wilde:  That gallows humor could have come from the mouth of Queer Eye’s Bobby Berk upon his walking into a frat house. You must know it wasn’t just the alcohol talking—prison can really take a toll on a gent. The peacock wallpaper reminded me of a better time in my youth, when I used to decorate my own room with peacock feathers and flowers. And who wants to remember youth when you’re not youthful anymore?

MG: People think Oscar Wilde and they think parties, drinking, social decadence, and enjoying beauty for beauty’s sake. A friend from your literary circle, Reginald Turner, referred to you as the “life of the party.” Many have come to think of you as a lively “agent provocateur,” especially in Victorian times. It almost seems like your last name, Wilde, could have been self-appointed?

OW: I may have lived a wild life, but Wilde is most definitely my surname. Now do I look like Morrisey to you—using wit to mask my social ennui? I aesthetically bare the reality of who I am in an absolutely beautiful way, but then again some might just call that decadent.

What if the conversation didn’t end here? Could we speak to more dead writers? Could we seek bigger answers? We could ask Flannery O’Connor what was up with all her weird peacocks; we could ask Jane Austen for her juiciest piece of gossip. Could we determine if Bukowski really was the antihero of his novels, Henry Chinaski? Or finally figure out if Shakespeare had any help during his highly prolific career?

The main thing is that the important questions get asked. And that we reflect on these classic authors—their lives and their work. Sometimes the questions we ask are more important than the answers we receive.

Image credit: Pixnio/Toper Domingo.