Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Ohlin, Adrian, Jin, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Alix Ohlin, Emily Adrian, Ha Jin, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
We Want What We Want by Alix Ohlin

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about We Want What We Want: “Ohlin (Dual Citizens) delivers another rich collection full of insights and sticky contradictions. In ‘The Brooks Brothers Guru,’ Amanda is recruited to rescue her long-lost cousin by his girlfriend, from a possible cult in Upstate New York. While there, Amanda, who spends much of her life on various devices, begins to understand the appeal of her cousin’s quiet new life. ‘The Point of No Return’ follows Bridget from her 20s into middle age as she views her life at a distance, seeing herself as ‘a tiny animal she had happened upon by chance one day and decided to raise.’ The strongest stories feature connected characters, such as ‘The Universal Particular,’ told by a Swedish-Somalian orphan, a beard blogger, a gamer, and a massage therapist as each longs to break out of their isolation. Ohlin also does a great job capturing her characters’ perspectives on life. As Bridget in ‘The Point of No Return’ begins to understand, sometimes one’s 20s are a ‘performance of adulthood,’ while Tamar in ‘The Universal Particular’ imagines telling her husband, during a fight, that adulthood requires one ‘to embody a role and not be able to escape it.’ Throughout, Ohlin reveals the depth of her characters with empathy and precision. The strongest stories are more than worth the price of admission.”

The Second Season by Emily Adrian

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Second Season: “The spare, bold latest from Adrian (Everything Here Is Under Control) follows a sportswriter as she reckons with middle age. Ruth Devon, 42, covers NBA games and longs for a television analyst position now held by her ex-husband, Lester, who is about to retire. Meanwhile, Ruth and Lester’s daughter, Ariana, a high school senior, aspires to be a model, and Ruth has a boyfriend, Joel, who is six years her junior. When Ruth learns she is unexpectedly pregnant, she struggles with deciding whether to tell Joel and weighs her career ambition as well as her devotion to Ariana. Adrian cleverly structures the novel around Ruth’s experiences during the NBA finals, as she covers a conflict between two best friends who play play for the opposing teams (‘For the next four games he’s my enemy,’ one says). As the games unfold in sharp detail, with attention paid to the action on the court and on the sidelines, Adrian raises the stakes on Ruth’s attempt to keep a handle on things. Even the sports-averse will be caught up in the drama.”

Fierce Little Thing by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Fierce Little Thing: “After 12-year-old Saskia’s father goes to prison for her little brother’s murder and her mother decamps to Mexico in this haunting psychological thriller from bestseller Beverly-Whittemore (June), Saskia goes to live in a Manhattan loft with her friend Xavier. While Xavier’s mother is traveling, his father, an eccentric artist, decides that he and the kids should summer in Maine at a lakeside commune dubbed Home. Saskia quickly falls under the thrall of the commune’s charismatic leader and finds a sense of belonging she’d do anything to preserve. Twenty-five years later, reclusive Saskia is sequestered inside her Connecticut home when Xavier comes knocking: someone has been writing to Home’s former teen residents, threatening to tell the world about the crime they committed unless all five of them return. Saskia’s evocative, elegiac narration cycles rapidly between past and present, escalating pace and imparting suspense while developing the keenly rendered characters and their thorny histories. Not every revelation feels earned, but on balance, Beverly-Whittemore delivers a twisty, rewarding tale of friendship, secrets, and childhood trauma. Donna Tartt fans, take note.”

The Minister Primarily by John Oliver Killens

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Minister Primarily: “Killens (1916–1987), a member of the Black Arts movement and author of And Then We Heard the Thunder, cleverly satirizes 1960s American politics in this sharp thriller. Jaja Okwu Olivamaki, prime minister of the Independent People’s Democratic Republic of Guanaya, sees his country lifted from obscurity after a great quantity of the radioactive metallic element cobanium is found there, making it the newest front in the Cold War. African-American musician James Jay Leander Johnson travels to Guanaya to learn ‘the folk songs of his people,’ only to become a suspect in a plot to murder Olivamaki. Johnson’s life takes an even stranger detour after his resemblance to his supposed target leads to his being asked to impersonate the nation’s leader, a pretense he must maintain on a state visit to the U.S. Killens is pointed in his barbs; when the imposter is asked his opinion of Malcolm X, he declares he believes in the same kind of nonviolence the U.S. does: ‘I believe we should keep everybody nonviolent, even if we have to blow them off the face of the earth, in the American tradition.’ Throughout, Killens maximizes the potential of his plot with outrageous humor. Readers will be glad to find this gem unearthed.”

A Song Everlasting by Ha Jin

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Song Everlasting: “At the onset of the uninspired latest from Jin (The Boat Rocker), set in the early 2010s, singer Yao Tian stays behind in the U.S. for a few extra days after his state-sponsored choir’s tour ends. When his employer asks him to turn over his passport as punishment, Tian instead returns to the U.S. and settles in New York City, leaving behind his wife and teenage daughter. Now free to make his own decisions, Tian performs occasionally, sending what funds he can to his family, but after the Chinese media spreads the story of a violent altercation between Tian and his manager, his reputation is tarnished. He relocates to Boston and works for a cousin on home renovation jobs, all the while clinging to his dream of restarting his singing career, but the Chinese government cancels his passport, stranding him in the U.S. with few prospects. Jin has a knack for seamlessly compressing large swaths of time, yet Tian remains something of a mystery, with little effort made to explore his singing abilities. And though the author shuttles his protagonist through a series of trials over many years, Tian’s unfailing ability to overcome setbacks lessens the novel’s dramatic pull. As far as itinerant heroes’ quests for freedom go, this one doesn’t get the heart racing.”

Edgar Allan Poe: Self-Help Guru

You may have read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe. Chances are you’ve read a little whether you’re a fan or not. Poe’s influence, as James Wood wrote of Flaubert, is “almost too familiar to be visible,” while Poe’s work is standard in school curricula across the U.S. and beyond. I still remember how, when I was living in Australia a few years ago and happened to be seated at a coworker’s kitchen table, her eight-year-old son burst in, gushing about “The Raven,” impressed that a poem, of all things, could be so scary.

Still, Poe’s work has its less-visited corners. Take “A Chapter of Suggestions,” an 1844 essay in which Poe set aside literary criticism to advance a different and, to my eye, more personal set of ideas. There is some profound shit in there. The first paragraph goes like this, no preamble:
In the life of every man there occurs at least one epoch, when the spirit seems to abandon, for a brief period, the body, and, elevating itself above mortal affairs just so far as to get a comprehensive and general view, makes thus an estimate of its humanity, as accurate as is possible, under any circumstances, to that particular spirit. The soul here separates itself from its own idiosyncrasy, or individuality… All the important good resolutions which we keep—all startling, marked regenerations of character—are brought about at these crises of life.
A quick and dirty translation? Once or twice in our lifetimes, you and I will experience dissociative moments that allow us to glimpse our humanity beyond the idiosyncratic snags of our personalities. Understanding the self in fact requires transcending the self, however briefly. And such crises may lead to breakthroughs, epiphanies, moments of much-longed-for change. It’s like what people say now about eating shrooms.

Poe, we can be pretty sure, wasn’t writing under any psychedelic influence, but he did have his own experiences of anxiety, depression, and/or periodic breaks with reality. He wrote “A Chapter of Suggestions” for money, netting 50 cents a page when it was published in an 1845 gift book, which may have helped alleviate some of his anxiety, if only for a moment. The reason you and I might find it a funny, poignant reading experience today is because Poe’s “Suggestions” sound a lot like contemporary self-help. He veers through a series of disconnected paragraphs, rattling on about probability, the imagination, why disappointed artists may drink too much in midlife, and more. Here are his bugbears, weaknesses, obsessions, hopes—plus a little how-to, dusted with 19th-century pop science and transparent wish-thinking—in one place and under 2,000 words.

In paragraph four, he remarks how often our first grasp of an idea, our initial intuitive impression, turns out to be the most accurate. We know this from our childhood reading, Poe says. We encounter a poem as a kid and we love it. Later, we grow up only to scoff at the same poem. Then we reach yet another stage in which we return to our initial impression, the right one.

What’s startling now, even eerie, is how accurate Poe’s description of this process is for those of us who—like my coworker’s bowled-over son—loved “The Raven” as children, thrilling to its dark rhythms and atmosphere of glamorous doom. Later, as undergrads or grad students, we put that enthusiasm behind us, knowing without having to ask that, past a certain age, it’s not cool to like Poe. And then, once we’ve graduated, lost whatever grasp we ever gained of theory, and reentered civilian life, we recognize all over again how good “The Raven” really is, how effective and successful. Yes, it is a carefully calculated shot at reaching fame by satisfying popular taste, and that is precisely why it works.

Or take paragraph seven, in which Poe tells us that being a genius means attracting haters, “a set of homunculi, eager to grow notorious by the pertinacity of their yelpings,” but also that, crucially, not everyone who attracts haters is a genius:
All men of genius have their detractors; but it is merely a non distributio medii to argue, thence, that all men who have their detractors are men of genius. Yet, undoubtedly, of all despicable things, your habitual sneerer at real greatness, is the most despicable…Their littleness is measured by the greatness of those whom they have reviled.
Clock the pettiness of detractors by the outsize nature of what they attack: Now that’s insightful.

Skipping to paragraph nine, Poe informs us that geniuses like getting drunk. It grows out of habits picked up in youth, he says, but later becomes more about somehow coping with the unfairness of existence: “The earnest longing for artificial excitement, which, unhappily, has characterized too many eminent men, may thus be regarded as a psychal want, or necessity. . . a struggle of the soul to assume the position which, under other circumstances, would have been its due.”

Readers familiar with Poe’s blog-like Marginalia series and his galaxy-brained prose-poem Eureka will spot familiar strains of thinking in this paragraph and the larger “Chapter.” There is Poe’s tendency to make grand pronouncements about the character of geniuses—something he got on a tear about with some frequency—and all of which, it should come as no surprise, might be applied directly to himself. Call it self-justification, but there might be more to it than that. It’s these moments when we get the keenest insight into Poe’s own turbulent and amazingly successful life—from the person who lived it. How to make sense of its devastating ups and downs, victories and reversals?

Well, he tells us. Such self-knowledge as he ever gained came from moments of profound crisis, as well as sidelong looks and returning to first impressions—or so we might conclude from reading the “Chapter.” And maybe we might now recognize that the same process gives us our best chance of attaining wisdom and self-knowledge in our own lives, too.

Elsewhere, Poe liked to present himself as a towering, one-take auteur. Think of “The Philosophy of Composition,” the essay in which he dubiously, maybe-kinda satirically claimed that he wrote “The Raven” according to some ultra-precise formula. Whereas in “A Chapter of Suggestions” he shows himself to be no stranger to the sorts of questions you and I ask our cracked ceilings at 4 a.m. He wondered about his own lurching, intermittent progress, about the faults and failings of his character—what the scholar Jerome McGann once listed as “his lies, his follies, his plagiarisms, his hypocrisies”—and whether these might sink him.

Maybe the most surprising thing about “A Chapter of Suggestions” is how, in the 177 years since its publication, and in contrast to the rest of Poe’s work, it’s received so little critical attention. If there’s a single paper dedicated to it in all of JSTOR, I haven’t found it. Burton R. Pollin, who wrote an introduction identifying its origins and genre, concluded that the essay might fall under “general philosophy,” alongside other species of vaguely high-minded magazine filler common in Poe’s era.

We might go a step further. Poe, it seems to me, was pondering the subject of personal growth. Where he landed was somewhere between Coleridge at his most aphoristic, metaphysical and self-justifying, and Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week, who’s now in a psychedelic phase and who’s never really gotten credit, either, for the range of his thought.

Besides: lies, follies, hypocrisies? That’s most of us, if we’re honest. No wonder then that the ways we come to insight are so strange, glancing, sidelong. Or that we tend to second-guess our initial impressions, only later coming to realize, to know—and, of course, to rationalize. It’s weird to be human, even as we’re unable to compare it with, say, being a macaque or an orchid. We lurch from crisis to crisis, and what knowledge we ever arrive at is likely to surprise us. You can almost see Poe enacting this process in his essay. It makes me think that our childhood assessments of him were right all along: in his darkness, odd rhythms and peculiar wisdom, Poe really was cool. And still is.

Bonus Links:
Edgar Allan Poe Was a Broke-Ass Freelancer
Was Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ Inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe Story?
Twenty-Five Ways to Roast a Raven: The Spiciest Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe
Poe’s ‘Eureka’ Is a Galaxy-Brained Space Opera for Our Times

Image Credit: Flickr/Alvaro Tapia.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring El Akkad, Kitamura, Hoby, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Omar El Akkad, Katie Kitamura, Hermione Hoby, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about What Strange Paradise: “Akkad (American War) delivers a stirring if straightforward account of a young boy’s flight from Syria during the country’s civil war. Amir Utu sets out for Egypt with his mother, uncle/stepfather Younis, and baby stepbrother. When Younis boards a ferryboat overloaded with migrants, Amir follows him and ends up on a disastrous journey across the Mediterranean, of which he is the sole survivor. The details of what went wrong emerge gradually: first, Amir flees from soldiers on an unnamed island’s beach. He is then found by disaffected 15-year-old Vänna Hermes, who helps him evade detention. Here, Akkad explores a world in which migrants routinely wash up dead on the beach and are viewed as an inconvenience for wealthy tourists. The chapters alternate between the ‘Before’ and ‘After’ of Amir’s arrival on the island, chronicling the characters and challenges Amir faces on the boat and on land, and depicting the injustice, intolerance, and violence that refugees face in a hostile global landscape. The result is a moving if somewhat predictable story of survival and the need for compassion and camaraderie across languages, cultures, religions, and borders. While readers may find themselves wishing for more complexity, there is plenty of moral clarity.”

Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Nightbitch: “Yoder’s guttural and luminous debut blends absurdism, humor, and myth to lay bare the feral, violent realities underlying a new mother’s existence. An unnamed stay-at-home mother lives through a monotonous routine with her two-year-old son, while her kind yet mostly uninterested husband leaves for weeklong work trips each Monday. Things begin to change when the mother notices a patch of hair growing on the back of her neck; spots her new, curiously sharp canines in the mirror; and begins to feel a tail emerging from her lower back. Bewildered by her metamorphosis, the mother searches online for explanations with terms such as ‘looks like I was punched hard in both eyes.’ Horrified by the dizzying results, she treks to the library, a zone that promises the comfort of knowledge but is colonized by other mothers (‘She actively resisted making friends in a mom context and objected to the sort of clapping and cooing that went on in the library room… the happiness and positivity that would also be mandatory,’ Yoder writes). She checks out a book titled A Field Guide to Magical Women, which validates her experience and encourages her to embrace the freedom of her new animal nature. Bursting with fury, loneliness, and vulgarity, Yoder’s narrative revels in its deconstruction of the social script women and mothers are taught to follow, painstakingly reading between the lines to expose the cruel and downright ludicrous ways in which women are denied their personhood. An electric work by an ingenious new voice, this is one to devour.”

The Woman from Uruguay by Pedro Mairal (translated by Jennifer Croft)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Woman from Uruguay: “This introspective outing from Mairal (The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra) follows a writer’s eventful day as he travels from Argentina to Uruguay to game the exchange rate and collect advances on two books. Lucas Pereyra hopes the money will solve all his problems, including his marital strife with Catalina, who may or may not be having an affair. While in Montevideo, Lucas plans to meet up with Magalí Guerra Zabala, a woman he recently met at a festival, whom he has built up in his mind as another source of salvation. After securing the money from the bank—’a whole year in my pocket’—he rents a hotel room to pursue his ‘hormonal agenda’ with Magalí, though, as is to be expected, nothing goes as planned. Instead, Lucas has run-ins with a pit bull, a tattoo artist, thugs at the beach, and his old mentor. While Lucas’s objectifying of Magalí wears thin, the story ends beautifully and judiciously, as Lucas must decide what he wants and who he wants to be. It adds up to an intimate and mostly fresh look at middle age.”

Intimacies by Katie Kitamura

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Intimacies: “Kitamura’s plodding latest (after A Separation) follows a group of jet-setting young professionals in The Hague, where a translator finds herself enmeshed in the private lives of her colleagues. There’s something vaguely unseemly about the unnamed translator’s married suitor, Adriaan, as well as other characters, including her boss in Language Services, the preppy curator she house-sits for, and a book dealer who is mugged during a recent wave of violence. But it’s hard to discern what anybody is actually up to. Meanwhile, in the courts, the translator is entrusted with the cases of a recently extradited jihadist and a well-heeled former president of a West African country on trial for war crimes, with whom she must match wits. There are, unfortunately, plenty of unused opportunities for deeper character development; Adriaan in particular is built up as a nemesis, but he does little more than preen, while even less can be said of the various other dilettantes and sexual rivals. Subtle to a fault, this adds up to very little outside of a plethora of dinner scenes and undeveloped subplots, while the translator simply drifts through a Henry James–style chronicle of life abroad. Kitamura is a talented writer, but this one disappoints.”

Virtue by Hermione Hoby

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Virtue: “Hoby (Neon in Daylight) delivers an accomplished take on class and protests against racial injustice. ‘That was just what you did on weekends—brunch and protest,’ Luca Lewis wryly narrates in 2027, looking back on his time interning at a New York City magazine as a naive 22-year-old in 2016–2017. He yearns to befriend fellow intern Zara McKing, an attractive Black woman, but feels ashamed of his whiteness and unsure of how to be an ally. Luca also becomes enamored with Paula Summers, an artist working at the magazine, and her indie filmmaker husband, Jason Frank, and spends the summer with the couple and their five kids in Maine as Paula and Jason fight over how to respond to racial injustice (in the city, Jason took the kids to protests; in Maine, Paula insists on carrying on traditions such as a Fourth of July parade). Toward the end of the summer, Luca learns of a tragedy involving Zara during a protest. Hoby’s writing sparks with inventiveness (‘The sky had a passive-aggressive quality, bruised clouds withholding their light while telling you they were fine’), and she offers insights on the damage of power imbalances in relationships. This speaks volumes on the shallowness of white privilege.”

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Fung, Anam, Bell, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Pik-Shuen Fung, Tahmima Anam, Matt Bell, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
Ghost Forest by Pik-Shuen Fung

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Ghost Forest: “Fung’s moving debut follows an unnamed protagonist whose family immigrated to Vancouver from Hong Kong when she was three, right before the 1997 handover to Chinese rule. Her father, fearing he won’t be able to find a job abroad, stays in Hong Kong—and thus, their ‘astronaut family,’ coined by the Hong Kong media to describe families where the father stays behind for work, is born. The narrator grows up in Vancouver with her mother, grandparents and younger sister, born a year after they immigrated, and develops a complicated relationship with her father, whom she only sees twice a year. The time they do spend together, like when she lives with him during a summer internship in Hong Kong or when he visits her during her semester abroad in Hangzhou, China, is marred by criticism, arguments, and hurt feelings. But when her father develops liver disease, the narrator is suddenly faced with the reality that she and her father may never have the opportunity to fill in the gaps of their relationship. Woven throughout are stories from the narrator’s mother and grandmother, whose tales about their family provide both historical context and levity. The bracing fragments and poignant vignettes come together to make a stunning and evocative whole.”

The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Startup Wife: “Heavy lies the high-tech crown in Anam’s spectacular fourth novel (after her Bengal trilogy). Asha Ray, 30, a brilliant computer coder whose PhD project at Harvard involves the ‘reverse engineering of the brain,’ reconnects with Cyrus Jones, a high school crush she hasn’t seen in 13 years who has become an itinerant ‘humanist spirit guide,’ officiating weddings and baptisms for nonreligious people. She abandons her research and the two marry in an impulsive city hall wedding, then move into her parents’ house on Long Island. Asha and Cyrus find work at Utopia, a tech company whose mission is to ‘save humanity from the apocalypse.’ There, Asha throws herself into creating an ‘Empathy Module’ algorithm for a social networking app inspired by Cyrus’s spiritual work. The app, a ‘virtual parish’ called WAI (We Are Infinite) becomes a global sensation, and, after Cyrus gets the credit for it, his charismatic personality turns him into a ‘new messiah’ and threatens their marriage. A startling ending framed by a deadly, Covid-like pandemic drives the plot close to a disastrous abyss as a trend of ‘death ritual groups’ sparked by the app causes moral and ethical dilemmas. Anam provides a piercing perspective on marital and business institutions and gender bias and cultural clashes, and weaves in rich local color as Asha grows reacquainted with her childhood home and her parents’ Muslim community. This is a powerful statement on the consequences of public achievement on private happiness.”

China Room by Sunjeev Sahota

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about China Room: “Sahota’s engaging latest (after The Year of the Runaways) follows a teenage bride in rural Punjab during the British Raj. Mehar Kaur was five years old when she was promised to one of three brothers. In 1929, Mehar, now 15, is married along with two other women to the three, but Mehar still does not know which is her husband. The women live and sleep in the china room, and are alone with their husbands only on those nights when they meet in an unlit room for sex. Mehar mistakenly comes to believe that Suraj, the youngest, is her husband, leading her to drop her veil and sleep with him one afternoon. Suraj realizes what happened but doesn’t want to give her up, and Mehar falls in love with him, leading to heartbreaking consequences. Mehar is seen and treated as property, yet Sahota manages to give her the illusion of agency, providing an empathetic look at how she would prefer the world to be. Woven within Mehar’s affecting narrative is the less-developed story of her great-grandson, an unnamed man who narrates in 2019, recalling the summer of 1999, when he was 18 and left England for Punjab to battle his heroin addiction. Though the various parts are uneven, it’s well worth the time.”

A Passage North by Anuk Aradpragasam

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Passage North: “A young man ruminates about Sri Lankan history and his own life in the introspective latest from Arudpragasam (The Story of a Brief Marriage). After leaving a PhD program in India and spending two years as an NGO worker in Sri Lanka following the end of the civil war, Krishan returns home to live with his mother and frail paternal grandmother in Colombo. He then learns that his grandmother’s caretaker, Rani, has fallen into a well and died while visiting her family in the north. As Krishan wrestles with the appropriate response to the news, he also mulls over an email from Anjum, a bisexual Indian ex-girlfriend with whom he shared an intense relationship. Krishan decides to travel north for Rani’s funeral, and reflects on Rani’s life as the mother of two sons killed in the war, while he still fixates on his time with Anjum. He interrupts these reminiscences with lengthy summaries of poems and a documentary film, the latter providing historical background on the civil war in a way that sometimes feels forced. Overall, though, the elegant descriptions of Krishan’s sentiments helps smooth over the slow pace and spare plot (on cigarettes: ‘the present [was made] more bearable even when he wasn’t smoking because it meant the present was leading to something good’). Readers who enjoy contemplative, Sebaldian narratives will appreciate this.”

To Walk Alone in the Crowd by Antonio Muñoz Molina (translated by Guillermo Bleichmar)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about To Walk Alone in the Crowd: “Spanish writer Muñoz Molina, whose Like a Fading Shadow was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, returns with an ambitious story of a writer-flaneur. An unnamed narrator enumerates his perceptions while walking in various cities: ‘I listen with my ears and with my eyes,’ he notes in the opening, set in Madrid. In New York City, he travels from the southern tip of Manhattan to the Bronx, to visit Edgar Allan Poe’s former cottage. Interspersed are wistful descriptions of his aging wife (‘She is enriched by the treasure of time’) and gauzy meetings in a Madrid café with a mysterious man whose ‘physical features were forgotten as soon as he was gone.’ The narrator also ruminates extensively on such writers as Poe, Charles Baudelaire, Thomas De Quincy, Herman Melville, and Walter Benjamin, noting how they fell in social status while practicing ‘a useless trade pursued by people of no practical sense.’ Most of the narrative is in short prose fragments, often headed by phrases that mimic ad copy (‘Go Wherever You Choose’). Occasionally the narrator breaks out into verse, cataloging terrorist attacks and deadly accidents. Some sections burst with political barbs (‘Donald Trump with his gold Lex Luthor hairpiece, misgoverning’). In the end, the solitary writer’s journeys and observations culminate in his discovery of solace in loving his wife, and his passion makes the narrative deeply rewarding. The result is a treasure trove.”

Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge (translated by Jeremy Tiang)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Strange Beasts of China: “Yan delivers a noirish, stylish bestiary in her English-language debut, reminiscent of such Chinese classics as The Book of Mountains and Seas and Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. In the mythical land of Yong’an City, humans live alongside a variety of quirky, beautiful beasts who are often almost indistinguishable from their human neighbors, aside from mild behavioral or physical characteristics. Sacrificial Beasts, for instance, have low-hanging earlobes with sawtooth edges. Sorrowful Beasts cannot smile, or else they die. Others enjoy fantasy novels or have a penchant for char siu pork. The main character, an unnamed cryptozoologist, spends her days smoking cigarettes, drinking at a dive bar, and documenting the stories of her beast-inhabited city. Many involve romances between humans and beasts that are taut with tragedy and friction. A painter, for instance, falls in love with the perfect bestial mate, but loses him after a mysterious incident involving his pregnant sister. The overall effect of Yan’s storytelling is dreamy and hypnotic, sometimes opaque but always captivating. These cryptic but well-told tales offer much to chew on.”

Appleseed by Matt Bell

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Appleseed: “Bell (In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods) delivers a stirring take on climate change, complicity, and human connection. In separate narratives set centuries apart, three characters struggle to remain true to themselves in hostile worlds. In 18th-century Ohio, Chapman, a faun, wanders the wilderness with his human brother, planting apple trees that will feed future settlers and may someday grow the fruit Chapman hopes will make him fully human. In a postapocalyptic late 21st-century North America, a man named John confronts his role in the creation of the corporation that controls the world’s food supply, and plots to tear down the system. A thousand years from now, in an icy wasteland, humanoid C follows the directive of his previous iterations: find enough biomass beneath an endless glacier to regenerate life. An accident surfaces long-forgotten instructions, leading C across the ice to what may be humanity’s last stronghold. While each character’s situation appears bleak, the voices in this powerful tale continually seek something beyond the imperfection of human stewardship, as when John contemplates his complicity: ‘there’s no crime in being born into a harmful story but surely there’s sin in not trying to escape.’ This is an excellent addition to the climate apocalypse subgenre, and the way it grapples with humanity’s dramatic influence on the planet feels fresh and bracing.”

Over, Under, Sideways, Down: On Louis Menand’s ‘The Free World’

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Louis Menand has generated an uninterrupted flow of far-ranging critical commentary in the pages of the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, and his books, one of which—The Metaphysical Club—was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. American Studies, published almost 20 years ago, is a wonderful, representative sampling of his magazine writing. Many readers would like a sequel.

The Free World is Menand’s newest book, which bears the almost audaciously broad subtitle Art and Thought in the Cold War. The Free World, though, emphatically makes good on its promise: It is a Herculean, revelatory examination of this vast historical terrain. Within its pages are a far-ranging dramatis personae that include—to name but a very few—Susan Sontag, Elvis Presley, Jasper Johns, George Orwell, and Hannah Arendt.

Did he feel any inhibition about attempting a work of this scope? “I didn’t really know what I would include until I had written three or four chapters,” Menand says via email. “Then I was able to see where the trend lines were that would get me to my predetermined terminus, Vietnam. It was then a matter of deciding which stepping-stones would get the reader to see the changes I was trying to document.

“Things included were things that gets us there (U.S. as center of increasingly global culture, international exchanges, opening up of American society and the arts), so generally not conservative thought or other ‘backlash’ tendencies—though of course they are there and are part of the story,” he says. “I feel I could have written 18 more chapters, if I could live forever.”

The Free World is wisely structured into discrete, yet cross-pollinating, loci. By dint of narrative sweep, analysis, a judicious use of statistics, and some not-inconsequential dollops of humor, the book presents a comprehensive picture. The Free World also—crucially—provides the space for readers to draw their own conclusions.

Drawing one’s own conclusions about this large swath of history makes sense for many reasons. “[I]n general,” Menand says, “as a historian, you are giving readers the tools to analyze for themselves topics you did not take up.”

The era of the Cold War was undergirded by apocalypse. World War II was in the very recent past. With the advent of the atomic age, there was the real prospect of another apocalypse, this one capable of ending sustainable life on the entire planet. America’s insidious notions of racial superiority were legally codified. The CIA, as Menand amply documents, was unleashed. And The Free World is unflinching in chronicling the era’s “deeply entrenched ideology of gender difference” that manifested itself in vicious, often violent misogyny.

At the same time, the United States went through a cultural and intellectual big bang. Higher education expanded to unprecedented levels. One could function on minimal income and still be able to write, paint, make music. Magazines proliferated. Ideas mattered.

There was also an envy-inducing dose of serendipity. The legendary movie critic Pauline Kael, we read, “started out writing plays, but one day in 1952, she was sitting with a friend in a coffeehouse in Berkeley talking about Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight. The discussion was overheard by Peter Martin, who was the co-founder, with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, of City Lights Book Shop. Martin also edited a movie magazine called City Lights. He invited Kael to write up her reviews on Chaplin. She did.”

The sweep of advancement was stunning, but just as stunning was the plethora of so many hideous elements. How can one properly assess this wide, complicated swath of history? Or do we live with the contradictions?

“Gotta live with them, but with regret,” he says. “I was a little surprised to see how small a role Cold War politics played in the art and poetry (apart from Howl) world, actually. It’s there, but it does not really impact the creative elements. The success the U.S. had as an emerging cultural power does make one think that the ‘hideous’ elements were unnecessary. But the government was hawkish all through the period (and beyond). We wasted not only a lot of money in the arms race but a lot of political capital as well.”

So much of Louis Menand’s oeuvre has focused on the craft and practice of writing? What was his practice in the crafting of The Free World? “You just roll out the carpet,” he says. “You want every sentence to follow, as though inevitably, the last sentence, same with paragraphs and chapters.

“Because that is how you want the reader to experience the book, as a continuous whole.”

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Spiotta, Austin, Statovci, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Dana Spiotta, Emily Austin, Pajtim Statovci, and more—that are publishing this week.
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Wayward by Dana Spiotta

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Wayward: “Spiotta (Innocents and Others) draws up a love letter to Syracuse, N.Y., in this wonderfully mischievous and witty story of a 53-year-old woman who flees the suburbs for the city. In 2017, Sam Raymond divides her time between working part-time at a historical house for fictional suffragette and Oneida Community member Claire Loomis, and her ‘bored-housewife pastime of attending open houses.’ After swooning over a run-down bungalow designed by a locally treasured architect, she buys the house and leaves her husband, Matt, and 16-year-old daughter, Ally, without much of an explanation. Matt assumes she’s leaving as part of her distraught reaction to Trump being elected president; it’s true that Sam’s outrage has peaked, and she’s been going to meetings with other enraged women, which Spiotta renders with ingenious complexity. When a pair of younger women confronts a gathering of older white feminists (‘All I know is that people our age, queer people, people of color—we didn’t elect him,’ one of the young women says), Sam’s reaction is mixed, as she feels caught between two generations. Sam then meets a self-described ‘Half Hobo’ from an online ‘Crones’ group, who advises Sam to resign herself to the coming apocalypse. But Sam still wants her life to have meaning, and she wants to reconnect with Ally, whose story of a secret affair with a 29-year-old man emerges in a parallel narrative. As Sam reckons with how Syracuse’s history is viewed by a younger generation (‘let’s salvage, not savage’), Spiotta pulls off a surprising dive into the Loomis story, which informs Sam’s relationship with her own mother and with Ally while shading in Sam’s interest in local lore. This is a knockout.”

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead: “Runaway humor sustains an otherwise grim story in Austin’s exuberant debut. After a car accident in which 27-year-old Gilda breaks her arm, she visits an emergency room where she’s a frequent patient, then responds to an ad offering free mental health support at a church. There, a priest mistakes her for a job applicant, and she doesn’t correct him. After the interview, Gilda accidentally becomes a receptionist, taking over for the late Grace Moppet, who may have been the victim of a homicidal nurse. As the receptionist, Gilda rapidly falls prey to impostor syndrome, a problem she faced during her last job as a bookseller (‘I didn’t really get 1984 and… I hate poetry’). Meanwhile, Gilda, an atheist and a lesbian, makes awkward attempts to masquerade as a good Catholic, mistaking communion wafers for crackers, trying to understand hymns, catechism, baptism, and the blessed sacrament of confession. The plot thickens as Gilda responds to emails from one of her predecessor’s friends as Grace. What starts out as genuinely bleak affair, with a depressed Gilda considering suicide, becomes a brisk story underpinned by a vibrant cast. Fans of Helene Tursten’s An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good will find much to enjoy.”

Dear Miss Metropolitan by Carolyn Ferrell

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Dear Miss Metropolitan: “Ferrell’s innovative and harrowing debut novel (after the collection Don’t Erase Me) draws on the Ariel Castro kidnappings in Cleveland for a story about the abduction and captivity of three young women in Queens, N.Y., and their subsequent escape in 2007. Prior to their abductions in the late 1990s, each of the ‘victim-girls’ finds coping mechanisms to survive their difficult situations. Fern, 13, distracts herself from her mother’s drug abuse and lecherous boyfriends with Soul Train VHS tapes; Gwin, 15, skirts her mother’s increasingly radical Jehovah’s Witnesses ideas by grooving to Prince; and the quick-witted Jesenia, nearly 17, leaves Queens with her doting but violent boyfriend. The three are chained in a decrepit house and tortured by their sadistic captor, known only as ‘Boss Man,’ for close to 10 years. When they are finally discovered and freed, the surrounding community members, including Mathilda Marron, a newspaper advice columnist known as ‘Miss Metropolitan’ who has lived next door to the house the girls were held in for four decades, grapple with guilt over not discovering them sooner. Composed of an assemblage of fragments, photos, articles by Mathilda, and first-person narration from the victims, this effectively unpacks both individual and collective trauma. It’s blistering from page one.”

Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kuppersmith

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Build Your House Around My Body: “Kupersmith’s exceptional debut novel (after the collection The Frangipani Hotel) offers profound and original insight on Vietnam’s tortured history. Twenty-two-year-old Winnie, a mixed-race American woman, signs up to teach English in Saigon in an attempt to connect with the Vietnamese part of her heritage, and essentially dooms herself to failure: ‘her life would continue to be as empty as her luggage, wherever she went,’ Kupersmith writes. Winnie figures out how to placate her students by helping them learn American terms such as ‘booty call’ and ‘loaded nachos,’ and enters a more or less satisfactory romantic relationship with a fellow teacher, but then disappears. At this point, the chapters range widely beyond Winnie’s present-day story to the days, months, and years before and after her disappearance. These vivid vignettes—horrifying and hilarious by turns—are marvelously written and include nightmarish scenes of immolation, two-headed snakes, and other accounts of disappearing young women, as well as a memorable team of ghost hunters and a soul-swapping dog. The multiple pages of maps and dramatis personae at the novel’s opening help ground the reader through this disorienting but captivating opus, until the clues and characters coalesce in a way that’s both surprising and satisfying. Magic can be both benevolent and monstrous in Kupersmith’s work, and here she indelibly illustrates the ways in which Vietnam’s legacies of colonialism, war, and violence against women continue to haunt. This more than fulfills the promise of her first book.”

Bolla by Pajtim Statovci (translated by David Hackston)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Bolla: “Astounding writing distinguishes this portrait of love, loss, and war from Kosovo-born Finnish writer and National Book Award finalist Statovci (Crossing). The story alternates between the feverish recollections of Miloš and Arsim, whose paths cross briefly but indelibly in 1995 Kosovo, where Miloš, a Serb who is studying medicine, and Arsim, a married Albanian literature student, become lovers. Arsim recounts his disastrous marriage to Ajshe (she is ‘remarkably beautiful, silent as a drape’) and his doomed affair with Miloš, comparing himself and Miloš to ‘two birds that have crashed into the window,’ and describes how mounting ethnic tensions forced him and his family to flee their home (‘We Albanians are washed across the world like a handful of sand scattered into the sea,’ he reflects). In nonlinear passages extending to 2004, Miloš riffs on the horrors he encountered during the Balkan wars and reveals his deteriorating mental state. Woven throughout is the myth of the snake-like bolla, a daughter of God who is set free by the devil for a single day a year, conceived by Statovci as a metaphor for the men’s brief but powerful liaison. Statovci sustains a deeply somber tone as the characters struggle to endure while looking back on a sad past of missed opportunity, “exhausted by that speck of freedom.” It’s an eloquent story of desire and displacement, a melancholy symphony in a heartbreaking minor key. Statovci is a master.”

On Memory and Literature

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My grandmother’s older sister Pauline Stoops, a one-room school teacher born in 1903, had lived in a homestead filled with poetry, which sat on a bluff overlooking the wide and brown Mississippi, as it meandered southward through Hannibal, Missouri. Pauline’s task was to teach children aged six to seventeen in history, math, geography, and science; her students learned about the infernal compromise which admitted Missouri into the union as a slave state and they imagined when the Great Plains were a shallow and warm inland sea millions of years ago; they were taught the strange hieroglyphics of the quadratic equation and the correct whoosh of each cursive letter (and she prepared them oatmeal for lunch every day as well). Most of all, she loved teaching poetry — the gothic morbidities of Edgar Allen Poe and the sober patriotism of John Greenleaf Whittier, the aesthetic purple of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the mathematical perfection of Shakespeare. A woman whom when I knew her was given to extemporaneous recitations of memorized Walt Whitman. She lived in the Midwest for decades, until she followed the rest of her mother’s family eastward to Pennsylvania, her siblings having moved to Reading en masse during the Depression, tracing backwards a trail that had begun with distant relations. Still, Hannibal remained one of Pauline’s favorite places, in part because of its mythic role, this town where Mark Twain had imagined Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer playing as pirates along the riverbank.

“I had been to school most all the time and could spell and read and write just a little,” recounts the titular protagonist in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “and could say the multiplication table up to six times seven is thirty-five, and I don’t reckon I could ever get any further than that if I was to live forever. I don’t take no stock in mathematics, anyway.” Huck’s estimation of poetry is slightly higher, even if he doesn’t read much. He recalls coming across some books while visiting the wealthy Grangerfords, including John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that was filled with statements that “was interesting, but tough” and another entitled Friendship’s Offering that was “full of beautiful stuff and poetry; but I didn’t read the poetry.” Had Huck been enrolled in in Mrs. Stoops’ classroom he would have learned verse from a slender book simply entitled One Hundred and One Poems with a Prose Supplement, compiled by anthologizer Roy Cook in 1916. When clearing out Pauline’s possessions with my grandma, we came across a 1920 edition of Cook’s volume, with favorite lines underlined and pages dog-eared, scraps of paper now a century old used as bookmarks. Cook’s anthology was incongruously printed by the Cable Piano Company of Chicago (conveniently located at the corner of Wabash and Jackson), and included advertisements for their Kingsbury and Conover models, to which they promise student progress even for those with only “a feeble trace of musical ability,” proving that in the United States Mammon can take pilgrimage to Parnassus.

The flyleaf announced that it was “no ordinary collection,” being both “convenient,” “authoritative,” and most humbly “adequate,” while emphasizing that at fifteen cents its purchase would “Save many a trip to the Public Library, or the purchase of a volume ten to twenty times its cost.” Some of the names are familiar — William Wordsworth, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Rudyard Kipling (even if many are less than critically fashionable today). Others are decidedly less canonical — Francis William Bourdillon, Alexander Anderson, Edgar A. Guest (the last of whom wrote pablum like “You may fail, but you may conquer – / See it through!”). It goes without saying that One Hundred and One Poems with a Prose Supplement is overwhelmingly male and completely white. Regardless, there’s a charm to the book, from the antiquated Victorian sensibility to the huckster commercialism. Even more strange and moving was my grandmother’s reaction to this book bound with a brown hardcover made crooked by ten decades of heat and moisture, cold and entropy, the pages inside turned the texture of fall sweetgum and ash leaves as they drop into the Mississippi. When I mentioned Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, my grandmother (twenty years Pauline’s junior) began to perfectly recite from memory “By the shores of Gitchee Gumee, /By the shining Big-Sea-Water,” going on for several stanzas of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s distinctive percussive trochaic tetrameter. No doubt she hadn’t read “The Song of Hiawatha” in decades, perhaps half-a-century, and yet the rhythm and meter came back to my grandmother as if she was the one looking at the book and not me.

My grandmother’s formal education ended at Centerville High School in Mystic, Iowa in 1938; I’ve been fortunate enough to go through graduate school and receive an advanced degree in literature. Of the two of us, only she had large portions of poetry memorized; I on the other hand have a head that’s full of references from The Simpsons. If I’m able to recall more than a quarter of a single Holy Sonnet by John Donne I’d be amazed, yet I have the entirety of the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” memorized for some reason. Certainly, I have bits and pieces here and there, “Death be not proud” or “Batter my heart three-personed God” and so on, but when it comes to making such verse part of my bones and marrow, I find that I’m rather dehydrated. Memorization was once central to pedagogy, when it was argued that committing verse to instantaneous recall was a way of preserving cultural legacies, that it trained students in rhetoric, and that it was a means of building character. Something can seem pedantic about such poetry recitation; the provenance of fussy antiquarians, apt to start unspooling long reams of Robert Burns or Edward Lear in an unthinking cadence, readers who properly hit the scansion, but where the meaning comes out with the wrong emphasis. Still, such an estimation can’t help but leave the flavor of sour grapes on my tongue where poetry should be, and so the romanticism of the practice must be acknowledged. 

Writing exists so that we don’t have to memorize, and yet there is something tremendously moving about recalling words decades after you first encountered them. Memorization’s consequence, writes Catherine Robson in Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem, was that “these verses carried the potential to touch and alter the worlds of the huge numbers of people who took them to heart.” Books can burn, but as long as a poem endures in the consciousness of a person, they are in possession of a treasure.  “When the topic of verse memorization is raised today,” writes Robson, “the invocation is often couched within a lament.” Now we’re all possessors of personal supercomputers that can instantly connect us to whole libraries — there can seem little sense to make iambs and trochees part of one’s soul. Now the soul has been outsourced to our smartphones, and we’ve all become cyborgs, carrying our memories in our pockets rather than our brains. But such melancholy over forgetfulness has an incredibly long history. Socrates formulated the most trenchant of those critiques, with Plato noting in the Phaedrus that his teacher had once warned that people will “cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.” Important to consider where Socrates places literature, for if it is “within” — like heart, brain, or spleen — rather than some dead thing discarded on inked reeds. According to Socrates, writing is idolatrous; the difference between memorization and actual literature is the equivalent to a painting and reality. Though it must be observed that the only reason we care who Socrates happens to be is because Plato wrote his words down.

Poetry most evokes literature’s first role as a vehicle of memory, because the tricks of prosody – alliteration and assonance; consonance and rhyme – endured because they’re amenable to quick recall. Not only do such attributes make it possible to memorize poetry, they facilitate its composition as well. For literature wasn’t first written on papyrus but rather in the mind, and that was the medium through which it was recorded for most of its immeasurably long history. Since the invention of writing, we’ve tended to think of composition as an issue of a solitary figure committing their ideas to the eternity of paper, but the works of antiquity were a collaborative affair. Albert Lord explains in his 1960 classic The Singer of Tales that “oral epic song is narrative poetry composed in a manner evolved over many generations by singers of tales who did not know how to write; it consists of the building of metrical lines and half lines by means of formulas and formulaic expressions and of the buildings of songs by the use of themes.” Lord had accompanied his adviser, the folklorist and classicist Milman Parry, to the Balkans in 1933 and then again in 1935, where they recorded the oral poetry of the largely illiterate Serbo-Croatian bards. They discovered that recitations were based in “formulas” that made remembering epics not only easier, but also made their performances largely improvisational, even if the contours of a narrative remained consistent. From their observations, Parry and Lord developed the “Oral-Formulaic Theory of Composition,” arguing the pre-literate epics could be mixed and matched in a live telling, by using only a relatively small number of rhetorical tropes, the atoms of spoken literature.

Some of these formulas — phrases like “wine-dark sea” and “rosy-fingered dawn” for example — are familiar to any reader of The Iliad and The Odyssey, and the two discovered that such utterances had a history in Balkans and the Peloponnesus that goes back millennia. There’s an important difference between relatively recent works like Virgil’s The Aeneid (albeit composed two millennia ago) and the epics of Homer that predate the former by at least eight centuries. When Virgil sat down to pen “I sing of arms and man,” he wasn’t actually singing. He was probably writing, while whoever it was — whether woman or man, women or men — that invoked “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns” most likely did utter those words accompanied by a lyre. The Aeneid is a work of literacy, while those of Homer are of orality, which is to say it was composed through memory. Evocatively, there is some evidence that the name “Homer” isn’t a proper noun. It may be an archaic Greek verb, a rough translation being “to speak,” or better yet “to remember.” There were many homers, each of them remembering their own unique version of such tales, until they were forgotten into the inert volumes of written literature.  

Socrates’ fears aren’t without merit. Just as the ability to Google anything at any moment has made contemporary minds atrophied with relaxation, so too does literacy have an effect on recall. With no need to be skilled in remembering massive amounts of information, reading and writing made our minds surprisingly porous. From the Celtic fringe of Britain to the Indus Valley, from the Australian Outback to the Great Plains of North America, ethnographers recount the massive amounts of information which pre-literate peoples were capable of. Poets, priests, and shamans were able to memorize (and adapt when needed) long passages by deft manipulation of rhetorical trope and mnemonic device. When literacy was introduced in places, there was a marked cognitive decline in peoples’ ability to memorize things. For example, writing in the journal Australian Geography, linguist Nick Reid explains that the oral literature of the aboriginal Narrangga people contains narrative details which demonstrate an accurate understanding of the geography of York Peninsula some 12,500 years ago, before melting glaciers irrevocably altered the coastline. Three hundred generations of Narrangga have memorized and told tale of marshy lagoons which no longer exist, an uninterrupted chain of recitation going back an astounding thirteen millennia. Today, if every single copy of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest were to simultaneously vanish, who among us would be able to recreate those books?

It turns out that some folks have been able to train their minds to store massive amounts of language. Among pious Muslims, people designated as Hafiz have long been revered for their ability to memorize the 114 surahs of the holy Quran. Allah’s words are thus written into the heart of the reverential soul, so that language becomes as much a part of a person as the air which fills lungs or the blood which flows in veins. “One does not have to read long in Muslim texts,” writes William Graham in Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion, “to discover how the ring of the qur’anic text cadences the thinking, writing, and speaking of those who live with and by the Qur’an.” Still relatively common in the Islamic world, the process of memorizing not just Longfellow or a few fragments of T.S. Eliot, but rather an entire book, is still accomplished to a surprising degree. Then there are those who through some mysterious cognitive gift (or curse depending on perspective) possess eidetic memory, and have the ability to commit entire swaths of text to retrieval without the need for mnemonic devices or formulas. C.S. Lewis could supposedly quote from memory any particular line of John Milton’s Paradise Lost that he was asked about; similar claims have been made about critic Harold Bloom.

Prodigious recall need not only be the purview of otherworldly savants, as people have used similar methods as a Hafiz or a Narrangga to consume a book. Evangelical minister Tom Meyer, also known as the “Bible Memory Man,” has memorized twenty books of scripture, while actor John Bassinger used his stage-skills to memorize all six thousand lines of Paradise Lost, with an analysis some two decades later demonstrating that he was still able to recite the epic with some 88% accuracy. As elaborated on by Lois Parshley in Nautilus, Bassinger used personal associations of physical movement and spatial location to “deep encode” the poem, quoting him as saying that Milton is a “cathedral I carry around in my mind… a place that I can enter and walk around at will.” No other type of art is like this — you can remember what a painting looks like, you can envision a sculpture, but only music and literature can be preserved and carried with you, and the former requires skills beyond memorization. As a scholar I’ve been published in Milton Studies, but if Bassinger and I marooned on an island somewhere, or trapped in the unforgiving desert, only he would be in actual possession of Paradise Lost, while I sadly sputtered half-remembered epigrams about justifying the ways of God to man.

Bassinger, who claims that he still loses his car keys all the time, was able to memorize twelve books of Milton by associating certain lines with particular movements, so that the thrust of an elbow may be man’s first disobedience, the kick of a leg being better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven. There is a commonsensical wisdom in understanding that memory has always been encoded in the body, so that our legs and arms think as surely as our brains do. Walter Ong explains in Orality and Literacy that “Bodily activity beyond mere vocalization is not… contrived in oral communication, but is natural and even inevitable.” Right now, I’m composing while stooped over, in the servile position of desk siting, with pain in my back and crick in my neck, but for the ancient bards of oral cultures the unspooling of literature would have been done through a sweep of the arms or the trot of a leg. Motion and memory being connected in a walk. Paradise Lost as committed by Bassinger was also a “cathedral,” a place that he could go to, and this is one of the most venerable means of being able to memorize massive amounts of writing. During the Renaissance, itinerant humanists used to teach the ars memoriae, a set of practical skills designed to hone memory. Chief among these tutors was the sixteenth-century Italian occultist, defrocked Dominican, and heretic Giordano Bruno, who took as students King Henry III of France and the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (later he’d be burnt at the stake in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, though for unrelated reasons).

Bruno used many different methodologies, including mnemonics, associations, and repetitions, but his preferred approach was something called the method of loci. “The first step was to imprint on the memory a series of loci or places,” writes Dame Frances Yates in The Art of Memory. “In order to form a series of places in memory… a building is to be remembered, as spacious and varied a one as possible, the forecourt, the living room, bedrooms, and parlors, not omitting statues and other ornaments with which the rooms are decorated.” In a strategy dating back to Cicero and Quintilian, Bruno taught that the “images by which the speech is to be remembered… are then placed in imagination on the memorial places which have been memorized in the building,” so that “as soon as the memory… requires to be revived, all these places are visited in turn and the various deposits demanded of their custodians.” Bruno had his students build in their minds what are called “memory palaces,” architectural imaginings whereby a line of prose may be associated with an opulent oriental rug, a stanza of poetry with a blue Venetian vase upon a mantle, an entire chapter with a stone finishing room in some chateau; the candle sticks, fireplace kindling, cutlery, and tapestries each hinged to their own fragment of language, so that recall can be accessed through a simple stroll in the castle of your mind.

It all sounds very esoteric, but it actually works. Even today, competitive memorization enthusiasts (this is a real thing) use the same tricks that Bruno taught. Science journalist Joshua Foer recounts how these very same methods were instrumental in his winning the 2006 USA Memory Championship, storing poems in his mind by associating them with places as varied as Camden Yards and the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, so that he “carved each building up into loci that would serve as cubbyholes for my memories.” The method of loci is older than Bruno, than even Cicero and Quintilian, and from Camden Yards and the National Gallery to Stonehenge and the Nazca Lines, spatial organization has been a powerful tool. Archeologist Lynne Kelly claims that many Neolithic structures actually functioned as means for oral cultures to remember text, arguing in Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: Orality, Memory, and the Transmission of Culture that “Circles or lines of stones or posts, ditches or mounds enclosing open space… serve as memory theaters beautifully.”

Literature is simultaneously vehicle, medium, preserver, and occasionally betrayer of memory. Just as our own recollections are more mosaic than mirror (gathered from small pieces that we’ve assembled as a narrative with varying degrees of success), so too does writing impose order on one thing after another. Far more than memorized lines, or associating stanzas with rooms, or any mnemonic trick, memory is the ether of identity, but it is fickle, changing, indeterminate, and unreliable. Fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose, drama and essay — all are built with bricks of memory, but with a foundation set on wet sand. Memory is the half-recalled melody of a Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood song played for your son while you last heard it decades ago; it’s the way that a certain laundry detergent smells like Glasgow in the fall and a particular deodorant as Boston in the cool summer; how the crack of the bat at PNC Park brings you back to Three Rivers Stadium, and Jagged Little Pill always exists in 1995. And memory is also what we forget. Our identities are simply an accumulation of memories — some the defining moments of our lives, some of them half-present and only to be retrieved later, and some constructed after the fact.

“And once again I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoration of lime flowers which my aunt used to give me,” Marcel Proust writes in the most iconic scene of In Remembrance of Things Past, and “immediately the old gray house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theater.” If novels are a means of excavating the foundations of memory, then Proust’s magnum opus is possibly more associated with how the deep recesses of the mind operate than any other fiction. A Proustian madeleine, signifying all the ways in which sensory experiences trigger visceral, almost hallucinatory memories, has become a mainstay, even while most have never read In Remembrance of Things Past. So universal is the phenomenon, the way in which the taste of Dr. Pepper can propel you back to your grandmother’s house, or Paul Simon’s Graceland can place you on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, that Proust’s madeleine has become the totem of how memories remain preserved in tastes, sounds, smells. Incidentally, the olfactory bulb of the brain, which processes odors, is close to the hippocampus where memories are stored, so that Proust’s madeleine is a function of the cerebral cortex. Your madeleine need not be a delicately crumbed French cookie dissolving in tea, it could just as easily be a Gray’s Papaya waterdog, a Pat’s cheesesteak, or a Primanti Brother’s sandwich (all of those work for me). Proust’s understanding of memory is sophisticated, for while we may humor ourselves into thinking that our experiences are recalled with verisimilitude, the reality is that we shuffle and reshuffle the past, we embellish and delete, and what’s happened to us can return as easily as its disappeared. “The uncomfortable reality is that we remember in the same way that Proust wrote,” argues Jonah Lehrer in Proust was a Neuroscientist. “As long as we have memories to recall, the margins of those memories are being modified to fit what we know now.”

Memory is the natural subject of all novels, since the author composes from the detritus of her own experience, but also because the form is (primarily) a genre of nostalgia, of ruminating in the past (even an ostensibly invented one). Some works are more explicitly concerned with memory, their authors reflecting on the malleability, plasticity, and endurance of memory. Consider Tony Webster in Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, ruminating on the traumas of his school years, noting that we all live with the assumption that “memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent.” Amnesia is the shadow version of memory, all remembrance haunted by that which we’ve forgotten. Kazuo Ishiguro’s parable of collective amnesia The Buried Giant imagines a post-Arthurian Britannia wherein “this land had become cursed with a mist of forgetfulness,” so that it’s “queer the way the world’s forgetting people and things from only yesterday and the day before that. Like a sickness come over us all.” Jorge Luis Borges imagines the opposite scenario in his short story “Funes the Memorius,” detailing his friendship with a fictional Uruguayan boy who after a horse-riding accident is incapable of forgetting a single detail of his life. He can remember “ever crevice and every molding of the various houses.” What’s clear, despite Funes being “as monumental as bronze,” is that if remembering is the process of building a narrative for ourselves, then ironically it requires forgetting. Funes’ consciousness is nothing but hyper-detail, and with no means to cull based on significance or meaning, it all comes to him as an inchoate mass, so that he was “almost incapable of ideas of a general, Platonic sort.”

Between the cursed amnesiacs of Ishiguro and the damned hyperthymiac of Borges are Barnes’ aging characters, who like most of us remember some things, while finally forgetting most of what’s happened. Tellingly, a character like Tony Webster does something which comes the closest to writing — he preserves the notable stuff and deletes the rest. Funes is like an author who can’t bring himself to edit, and the Arthurian couple of Ishiguro’s tale are those who never put pen to paper in the first place. Leher argues that Proust “believed that our recollections were phony. Although they felt real, they were actually elaborate fabrications,” for we are always in the process of editing and reediting our pasts, making up new narratives in a process of revision that only ends with death. This is to say that memory is basically a type of composition — it’s writing. From an assemblage of things which happen to us — anecdotes, occurrences, traumas, intimacies, dejections, ecstasies, and all the rest — we impose a certain order on the past; not that we necessarily invent memories (though that happens), but rather that we decide which memories are meaningful, we imbue them with significance, and then we structure them so that our lives take on the texture of a narrative. We’re able to say that had we not been in the Starbucks near Union Square that March day, we might never have met our partner, or if we hadn’t slept in and missed that job interview, we’d never have stayed in Chicago. “Nothing was more central to the formation of identity than the power of memory,” writes Oliver Sachs in The River of Consciousness, “nothing more guaranteed one’s continuity as an individual,” even as “memories are continually worked over and revised and that their essence, indeed, is recategorization.” We’re all roman a clef in the picaresque of our own minds, but bit characters in the novels written by others.

A century ago, the analytical philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in The Analysis of Mind that there is no “logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into existence five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that ‘remembered’ a wholly unreal past.” Like most metaphysical speculation there’ something a bit sophomoric about this, though Russell admits as such when he writes that “I am not here suggesting that the non-existence of the past should be entertained as hypothesis,” only that speaking logically nobody can fully “disprove the hypothesis.” This is a more sophisticated version of something known as the “Omphalos Argument” — a cagey bit of philosophical book-keeping that had been entertained since the eighteenth-century — whereby evidence of the world’s “supposed” antiquity (fossils, geological strata, etc.) were seen as devilish hoaxes, and thus the relative youthfulness of the world’s age could be preserved alongside biblical inerrancy (the multisyllabic Greek word means “naval,” as in Eve and Adam’s bellybutton). The five-minute hypothesis was entertained as a means of thinking about radical skepticism, where not only all that we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch are fictions, but our collective memories are a fantasy as well. Indeed, Russell is correct in a strictly logical sense; writing this at 4:52 P.M. on April 20th, 2021, and there is no way that I can rely on any outside evidence, or my own memories, or your memories, to deductively and conclusively prove with complete certainty that the universe wasn’t created at 4:47 P.M. on April 20th, 2021 (or by whatever calendar our manipulative robot-alien overlords count the hours, I suppose).

Where such a grotesque possibility errs is that it doesn’t matter in the slightest. In some ways, it’s already true; the past is no longer here and the future has yet to occur, we’ve always been just created in this eternal present (whatever time we might ascribe to it). To remember is to narrate, to re-remember is still to narrate, and to narrate is to create meaning. Memories are who we are — the fundamental particles of individuality. Literature then, is a type of cultural memory; a conscious thing whose neurons are words, and whose synapses are what authors do with those words. Writing is memory made manifest, a conduit for preserving our identity outside of the prison of our own skulls. A risk here, though. For memory fails all of us to varying degrees — some in a catastrophic way — but everyone is apt to forget most of what’s happened to them. “Memory allows you to have a sense of who you are and who you’ve been,” argues Lisa Genova in Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting. Those neurological conditions which “ravage the hippocampus” are particularly psychically painful, with Genova writing that “If you’ve witnessed someone stripped bare of his or her personal history by Alzheimer’s disease, you know firsthand how essential memory is to the experience of being human.” To argue that our memories are ourselves is dangerous, for what happens when our past slips away from view? Pauline didn’t suffer from Alzheimer’s, though in her last years she was afflicted by dementia. I no longer remember what she looked like, exactly, this woman alive for both Kitty Hawk and the Apollo mission. I can no longer recall what her voice sounded like. What exists once our memories are deleted from us, when our narratives have unraveled? What remains after that deletion is something called the soul. When I dream about Pauline, I see and hear her perfectly.

Image: Pexels/Jordane Mathieu.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Prose, Johnson, Sestanovich, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Francine Prose, Diane Johnson, Clare Sestanovich, and more—that are publishing this week.
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The Vixen by Francine Prose

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Vixen: “Prose (Mister Monkey) holds up a mirror to a fractured culture in this dazzling take on America’s tendency to persecute, then lionize, its most subversive figures. In 1953, recent Harvard graduate Simon Putnam watches news of the Rosenberg execution on television with his parents in Brooklyn. Though Simon has profited from a Puritan-sounding name—and hopes to profit further—he’s from a liberal Jewish family; his mother attended the same high school as Ethel Rosenberg (and even keeps a small shrine to her in their apartment). It’s the height of the Red Scare, when ‘anyone could be accused’ and ‘everyone was afraid.’ Flash forward a year, and Simon’s literary critic uncle has landed him a job as junior editor at a prestigious but financially unstable publisher. When its founder, Warren Landry, gives Simon his first novel to edit, Simon is aghast to learn the project is a thinly veiled bodice ripper about the Rosenberg trial. It’s an unusual book for the publisher, but Landry, a WWII veteran who once ran psyops for the OSS, lays out the stakes: the publisher needs a win, and a pulp yarn that further vilifies the Rosenbergs and Communism seems like just the thing. Why a junior editor would be given such an important task is a slow-burn mystery that propels readers through Prose’s recreation of 1950s paranoia, complete with an appearance from Senator Joseph McCarthy’s minion and future Trump mentor Roy Cohn. Sidelong commentary on Landry’s sexual predation, shot through a lens informed by the #MeToo era, adds further resonance. This is Prose at the top of her game.”

Lorna Mott Comes Home by Diane Johnson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Lorna Mott Comes Home: “Johnson (Flyover Lives: A Memoir) makes a welcome return to her wheelhouse in this propulsive domestic dramedy of manners. Having lived for more that 20 years in a village with the ‘exigent rectitude of formal, starchy France,’ Lorna Mott Dumas leaves her philandering husband, onetime museum curator Armand-Loup, whose life consists of ‘sex, cassoulet and Bordeaux,’ to return home to San Francisco, hoping to reboot her floundering professional life as an academic, establish a career on the lecture circuit, and reconnect with three grown children from her failed first marriage. Prime among the crises and misfortunes she encounters are Lorna’s pregnant and diabetic 15-year old granddaughter, Gilda. Lorna’s relationship with Gilda becomes a focus of the narrative, and it gradually gives her a sense of purpose. Meanwhile, Lorna may have left France behind, but it didn’t leave her. After a mudslide disinters the bones of a famous American painter back in the French village where she lived, Lorna is contacted by French police, entangling her in legal problems that eventually intertwine both story lines. Johnson’s usual razor-sharp prose and astute observations are on full display as she tweaks comic incidents arising out of her characters’ relationships. This provocative family chronicle resolves in a poignant ending with prospects for a promising sequel. The author’s fans are in for a treat.”

Hell of a Book by Jason Mott

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Hell of a Book: “Mott’s stunning fourth novel (after The Crossing) delves into the complex and fraught African American experience. The protagonist, a nameless Black author on his first book tour, is reeling from his newfound fame and the success of his book, Hell of a Book. As he flies to promotional events, often in a drunken stupor, the author reveals that his vivid imagination makes it difficult for him to distinguish reality from fiction. So when he encounters ‘The Kid,’ a 10-year-old boy with impossibly ebony skin, the author doubts the boy is real. The Kid, who uncannily resembles a recent victim of police violence, first appears at a hotel and continues to pop up during the book tour, leading the author to recall his own repressed trauma as a bullied Black boy in North Carolina. The author’s sobering recollections of his youth are punctuated with humorous and insightful encounters that include a discussion on national sociopolitical identity with Nicolas Cage and an improbable first date with a funeral director. Mott’s poetic, cinematic novel tackles what it means to live in a country where Black people perpetually ‘live lives under the hanging sword of fear.’ Absurdist metafiction doesn’t get much better.”

Something Wild by Hanna Halperin

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Something Wild: “Halperin’s bold and surprising debut explores the complexity of familial bonds in the face of domestic violence. Tanya and Nessa Bloom, sisters who were once very close but are now somewhat estranged, are visiting their childhood home in the Boston suburbs to help their mother, Lorraine, pack up and move out. But Nessa’s brief indulgence of nostalgia from perusing items in her bedroom (Tanya, ‘who looks forward with a vengeance… would have rolled her eyes,’ writes Halperin) gives way to a reckoning with their abusive stepfather, Jesse. On the first night, the sisters find their mother on the kitchen floor, bruised from a strangulation by Jesse. Soon, they learn this isn’t the first time Lorraine has been physically assaulted, and yet she is reluctant to press charges. Tanya, the younger and more levelheaded daughter, urges Lorraine to get a restraining order. But Nessa, with her distorted sense of self and an unhealthy attachment to their stepfather, is unsure. As contention between the sisters grows, a traumatic experience that altered their relationship threatens it again, except now the sisters have to protect each other as well as their mother. Unflinching and brave, Halperin’s story lays bare the characters’ nuanced and complicated responses to domestic violence. This haunting portrait of a broken family will stay with readers.”

Objects of Desire by Clare Sestanovich

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Objects of Desire: “Sestanovich’s intelligent debut collection demonstrates a gift for pithy detail that encapsulates the whole of a character’s personality or era of lived experience. In the title story, protagonist Leonora is hung up on an ex: ‘They had exchanged love letters and endured two or three pregnancy scares. Once, they had been accosted at knifepoint. They had gone to funerals together. Most of all, they had fought passionately.’ In ‘Annunciation,’ the passive ennui of recent graduate Iris is juxtaposed against the more definitive, if slightly absurd, lives of others: her married housemates are in a food-oriented polyamorous relationship with another couple; Iris’s best friend teaches her ‘to eat burgers and bagels and bacon—there was nothing as powerful as eating masculine foods with feminine grace.’ At times, the observations and jokes give way to poignant insights into the characters’ psyches: in ‘Wants and Needs,’ Val, misinterpreting a facial expression, is “filled with bitterness for all the faces that had refused to reveal themselves to her.” The collection finds cohesion around the quiet angst of mostly young, female narrators who long for experiences, other people, and states of being just beyond their grasp. These technically accomplished if not quite revolutionary stories demonstrate a high command of craft.”

Also on shelves this week: Mona at Sea by Elizabeth Gonzalez James.

Nature Isn’t Always Nice: On Megan Kaminski’s ‘Gentlewomen’

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In Being Wrong, her insightful study on the importance of error in our lives, Kathryn Schulz writes that “however disorienting, difficult, or humbling our mistakes might be, it is ultimately wrongness, not rightness, that can teach us who we are.” Upon initially seeing the title of Megan Kaminski’s third book, Gentlewomen, I had erroneously thought it might be a reference to and critical rewriting of Gentlemen, the 1993 album by the indie-rock group Afghan Whigs (much like Liz Phair’s 1993 album, Exile in Guyville, was a rewriting and critique of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street). While the wrongness of my first impression served a welcomed dose of humility, the mental redirect was equally helpful in reading Kaminski’s engaging and deft poems with a fresh perspective and without the weight of peculiar expectations.

Instead, the gentlewomen Kaminski refers to are the historically feminine Natura, Providentia (referred to as Providence), and Fortuna, which she imagines as sisters. Each of the sisters has a section of her own in the book along with two “Dear Sister” interludes, which function as part epistolary poem and part somatic song. Although the book has nothing to do with the Afghan Whigs, Kaminski’s poetic speakers take aim at patriarchal and humanistic hubris, the aggregating centuries during which men have bent both heaven and earth to their methods. As Kaminski notes in a recent interview, in writing the book she asked herself: “What would happen if Nature was given the chance to speak? How gentle would she really be?”

And indeed, in the book’s first section, we’re treated to Natura speaking for herself in the poem “Lake” when we’re warned that:
…Nature isn’t always nice but if you come inside
I’ll share my wardrobe, water-drenched by silken fine: kelp scarves
wrap necks and wrists, chiffon shroud violet-ribboned, pewter noose
saturated with precious stone. Lick ankle, calf, thigh––I devour with
satin tongue.
As it turns out, Natura––like many mothers, unfortunately––has to repeat herself to finally be heard. Kaminski reinforces this point by offering us five poems in the opening section entitled “the lost girls,” three called “Oh, Natura,” and several other poems noting the term lady in the title (e.g. “Velvet Lady”; “Furred Lady”). The serial yet dispersed poems of “the lost girls” sequence highlights, through sheer repetition, the myriad ways that losses compound: the loss of self (“we carry no I”); loss of consideration (“await whispers from mothers that never come”); and the general loss of a sort of Blakean innocence that was never allowed to take hold in the first place. In perhaps one of the most chilling lines from “the lost girls” poems, Kaminski writes that “a daughter who never returns / never disappoints.”

As the poem “Instructions (how to hold the world)” demonstrates, Providentia, for her part, is pluralistic and dynamic: “[t]he porous body of we and I and they and so. To contain to let wander to give and give and.” Moreover, “Instructions (how to hold the world),”which can be read almost as a kind of mantra amidst the blurs and folds of Pandemia, imbues the infinitive form with urgency, emotional resonance, and propulsion—and, when seen from Providentia’s point of view, reveals the all-too-real effects of planetary disregard on both micro- and macro-scales:
To give yourself until there is nothing left. To be broken into so many
pieces the only option to piece something new. To open to dust. There
is nothing and everything and perhaps no you anymore.
The subsequent poems in the Providentia section are a catalogue of “I”-cum-world, often pairing the environmental and the man-made, with poems such as “I am wind and hot wings” or “I am power line and brush fire”; there’s even a wink to Emily Dickinson in “I am fly buzz and oak blight.” In these poems, we’re treated to a toggling between “I” and “eye” that simultaneously extends empathy while also implicating us in our environmental inertia: “the beer in the ice bucket / the clock ticking into the wall.”

Kaminski says she is “interested in the lyric self as site for commingling with historical, cultural, and political systems, with genetic and projective ancestors, with the various plants, animals (including humans), and material objects that inhabit our worlds,” and these concerns are evident in the poems of Gentlewomen. The final section of the book, devoted to Fortuna, is a long poem assessing the price (and damage) of relentless want, as one speaker exclaims “Oh horror Oh longing for a new dinner jacket” and another exclaims “my palms tremble / wistful entreats for gouted legs to carry firm / and fast, currency-swapped and option-hedged.” The structure of the long poem envelops the reader in the ruthless consumption that Fortuna is barraged with, her much-deserved break from consumption forever out of reach.

In Gentlewomen, readers will find echoes and dialogue with the poetry of Lisa Jarnot, Sarah Mangold, Jennifer Moxley, Evie Shockley, Elizabeth Willis, and C.D. Wright, among others. Kaminski astutely shifts registers and formal structures in the book to give voice to often unseen or unheard ecologies, and the poems continually explore the sonic and somatic boundaries of the page. It’s a testament to Kaminski’s gifts as a poet that Natura, Providentia, and Fortuna are distinct characters even as they share concerns. She has written a captivating book of lyric poetry that radiates pathos and raw verve, but, as a withered Fortuna explains, that generosity comes at a cost:
and I and my sisters,
ever present always listening,
tended until our hands blistered
bent until our bones snapped
gave until lungs extinguished aflame
Amidst so much isolation and loss over the past many months, Kaminski’s laudable effort cleaves a space for us to listen a bit more attentively; to learn from the accretion of errors we’ve both inherited and bequeathed as a species (and not just in terms of my misplaced musical associations from the ’90s); and to empathetically navigate a way forward through the world she so heartbreakingly articulates and envisions.

The Hunger Artist: Thoreau and the Irony of Performance Art

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After spending almost a year translating English professor Laura Dassow Walls’s most recent biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life, I was finally done. I thought I deserved some celebration, something fun, fiction perhaps. So, I took The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction from my bookshelf and flipped to a random page: “A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka. At first, I was disappointed at the serendipity. As a teenager, I had read the story twice in Chinese —it revolves around a weird man who starves to death for a performance—but I decided to go with the flow. This time, the story made me tremble. You may think I say this because my mind was still full of Thoreau, but it is true: “A Hunger Artist” is a portrait of Thoreau’s life.

Thoreau is now widely regarded as a nature writer and political activist, but a close look at both his life and works suggests an inherent performative quality. Take Walden and “Civil Disobedience,” two of his most famous pieces. He displayed his rejection of industrialization and materialism by living by the lake for two years, two months and two days; after being confined for one night in a Concord jail, he wrote “Civil Disobedience,” which embodied his resistance to slavery and the Mexican-American War. As Laura Dassow Walls beautifully puts it, Thoreau, known for his endeavors in “the experiment of life,” aspired “to turn life itself, even the simplest acts of life, into a form of art.” However, this performance artist side also makes him controversial.

For example, during his Walden years, the practitioner of avowed self-sufficiency went back home every weekend for dinner, and his mother probably did his laundry. Hypocrite? Yes, that’s what Kathryn Schulz calls him in her famous 2015 New Yorker piece, “Pond Scum.” But I wonder if hypocrisy is avoidable in any public staging: any dramatized gesture might strike others as fake. The problem of performance is also far more complicated than that. With any expressive art form, something is always lost along the way; this results in a disparity between what the performers think of their acts and what the audience takes away from them.

Shortly before his suicide, David Foster Wallace wrote a short critique of Kafka’s humor in “Laughing with Kafka”: “Kafka’s comedy is always also tragedy, and this tragedy always also an immense and reverent joy.” It is Wallace’s style to drop bombs of recondite wisdom without further explanation. But he offers an interesting lens through which to view both the hunger artist and Thoreau: while they offer their lives as tragic, the audience always receives them as comic.

Both Kafka’s hunger artist and Thoreau, in their own ways, have very serious religious motivations. The fictional character is a fasting performer, and the climax of his show “was fixed by his impresario at forty days,” a loud echo of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ’s journey into the desert. In American Nonviolence: A History of an Idea, theology professor Ira Chernus argues, “Thoreau’s religious life, which was for him the sum total of his life, was a quest for direct experience of this spiritual process of ultimate reality.” To Thoreau, God’s “Higher Laws” manifest most strongly in nature, where he first saw the interconnectedness of all reality. For example, in his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau was shaken by the image of innocent fishes thrown into the hydraulic machinery of the Billerica Dam. Soon, he saw similar power and injustice rampant in human society: slaves controlled by their owners; Native Americans expelled by Anglo Immigrants; Mexicans threatened by the war of conquest. Thoreau’s various roles—spiritual seeker, writer, abolitionist, naturalist, and environmentalist—aligned with one another in his religious pursuit; he tried to live up to his moral ideals.

However, in a modern world, serious religious practices happen and stay in the church. In the public sphere, a secular audience tends to receive everything—religious performance included—as entertainment. Therefore, the more seriously the performers act, the more entertaining they become. As Kafka writes: “He made no secret of this, yet people did not believe him, at best they set him down as modest, most of them, however, thought he was out for publicity or else was some kind of cheat who found it easy to fast because he had discovered a way of making it easy, and then had the impudence to admit the fact, more or less.” Because nobody fasts anymore, only Kafka’s hunger artist knows that fasting is the easiest thing in the world. But even a simple message like this gets warped by the public’s skepticism.

The last thought in the quote—“some kind of cheat”—is the same accusation Schultz levels against Thoreau’s grand Walden show: he “kept going home for cookies and company.” (Note the secular word choice here.) Yet Thoreau is a bit different than Kafka’s performer. The reason Thoreau had to head back to Concord so often is perhaps more daunting, not more cheerful. As Walls explains in her biography, “Thoreau kept on taking jobs as the town handyman, just as he’d done for years—jobs on which he depended for his modest but still necessary income.” He did carpentry, painted houses, and built fences for a dollar a day. He didn’t live comfortably in his cabin, romanticizing his ascetic life as Schultz implies. Thoreau’s Walden years were as difficult as the rest of his early life. Evidence suggests that he didn’t even have a “loo” in his “lake house.” But in Thoreau’s time, even the poverty he wore as a badge seemed ridiculous to others. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s mentor and close friend, tried to reason with Thoreau’s actions from a secular perspective, but he too ended up with contempt: “I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition.”

Any human flaws and distress can often strike a humorous note in a secular context. Our laughter has a cruel nature; we take pleasure feeling superior to others. Take physical appearance, for example. Centuries ago, Aristotle had already identified the link between ugliness and comedy in Poetics: “Comedy, as we have said, is a representation of inferior people, not indeed in the full sense of the word bad, but the laughable is a species of the base or ugly. It consists of some blunder or ugliness that does not cause pain or disaster…” Charlie Chaplin was devastatingly handsome, but he knew that he needed a toothbrush mustache, a derby hat, and a duck-like gait to appear comical. In “A Hunger Artist,” Kafka adopted an “anti-hero” to add to the character’s absurdity. He looks “pallid in black tights, with his ribs sticking out so prominently.” He is so odd that the only suitable place for him is in a cage among the straws. Nobel Prize Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s  “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is a similar story. The protagonist—the supposed “angel”—is bald, toothless, and has “huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked.” To match his appearance, he is shut in a chicken coop. Similarly, and unfortunately, Thoreau was born ugly. When the soon-to-be famous author Nathaniel Hawthorne came to live in Concord in 1842, he thought the 25-year-old Thoreau “a singular character…ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat macabre behavior Although Hawthorne would later claim that Thoreau’s ugliness suited his honest and agreeable character, I find his use of the expression “ugly as sin” very interesting. Today, the phrase has lost much of its religious connotation; at the time, however, Thoreau’s sorry appearance seemed to suggest some hidden, inner flaw. Not only because he lacked the charisma that naturally accompanies beauty, but because his failure to live up to God’s image seemed to contradict his self-portrait of a god-like, moral man.

Through performance, ugliness—among other human flaws—is received by the audience as otherness. (Consider, for example, our reaction to Chaplin’s characters: it is not that they look ugly—well, they do—but that they look odd, and thus hilarious.) Still, we must remember, as Aristotle says, that the strangeness must not “cause pain or disaster,” or else people won’t laugh. Wallace uses the phrase “entertainment as reassurance” to distinguish American humor (think about Tom and Jerry) from Kafka’s humor. Wallace suggests that Kafka’s jokes are unsettling and thus inaccessible to American college students. But I think the balance between eccentricity and comedy is present in Kafka’s stories; it is the audience, not Kafka, searching for “reassurance.”

From the very beginning, eccentricity offends people because it violates social norms. In “What Is to Be Done about the Problem of Creepy Men?,” her discussion about people’s judgment of “creepiness,” law scholar Heidi Matthews reminds us that our “gut” has more to do with “regulating the boundaries of social mores than keeping us safe.” She has a point there, but I would argue that social norms are our primary source of security. So, to cope with the uncanniness of eccentricity in others, we try to explain their behaviors in a way that will solidify the validity of our social rules.

Consider the media coverage of any appalling crime. The first thing journalists do is to seek out explanations for the macabre behavior, which is usually when the family shit comes in. We are satisfied with the fact that the perpetrator was, for example, abused by his father in his childhood. We feel safe because, as long as we prescribe family values to our children, they won’t grow into psychopaths. Wallace, in the same essay on Kafka’s humor, mentions some of the tropes Kafka plays on in “A Hunger Artist.” The word “anorexia” shares the same etymological root with the Greek word for “longing.” Therefore, we can read the protagonist’s strange behavior as “starved for attention or love-starved.” We don’t know whether or not he fasts in order to build connections with people; yet when we believe that he does, we are not troubled by his strange conduct.

Then, to further strengthen our wounded sense of security, we emphasize the otherness of the “other” even more. When someone commits a horrifying crime, the newspapers are eager to interview his classmates, teachers, neighbors, and even those who only had chance encounters with him; they are searching for any possible hints to the nature of his otherness. Therefore, as readers, we feel relieved that we can always detect those signs in a potential criminal and thus avoid danger. Also, because the odd—as the word and its synonyms suggest—are rare, once we lock them up, we will be fine. Once we feel secure, we can devour their eccentricity with pleasure in the same way we relish celebrity gossip.

It is no coincidence that the stories mentioned above—“A Hunger Artist” and “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”—both apply metaphors of confinement: the cage and chicken coop. We keep distinct boundaries between us and the other; as long as these boundaries are in place, freak shows are amusing. Yet, the most disturbing moment comes when the eccentric claim they are no different than us, that they abide by social norms, and that we should see ourselves in them. Towards the end of Kafka’s story, the hunger artist confesses he is a normal person:
“Are you still fasting?” asked the overseer, “when on earth do you mean to stop?” “Forgive me, everybody,” whispered the hunger artist; only the overseer, who had his ear to the bars, understood him. “Of course,” said the overseer, and tapped his forehead with a finger to let the attendants know what state the man was in, “we forgive you.” “I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” said the hunger artist. “We do admire it,” said the overseer, affably. “But you shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist. “Well then we don’t admire it,” said the overseer, “but why shouldn’t we admire it?” “Because I have to fast, I can’t help it,” said the hunger artist. “What a fellow you are,” said the overseer, “and why can’t you help it?” “Because,” said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and speaking, with his lips pursed, as if for a kiss, right into the overseer’s ear, so that no syllable might be lost, “because I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.” These were his last words, but in his dimming eyes remained the firm though no longer proud persuasion that he was still continuing to fast.
This is the moment when we lose our laughter. The artist hints at a possibility that any of us could become him as simple as that. But Kafka is still able to maintain the comedy by showing people’s desperation in clinging to their safety nets. In the story, the way people forget the strange artist is by buttressing his otherness. After his death, a panther is put into the cage to replace him. Unlike the pathetic fasting performer, the animal is full of life and shows no nostalgia about his freedom. The ending achieves two things. First, it erases people’s sad memories by offering something completely different. Second, it reassures people of otherness. For example, if someone should mention the hunger artist again, people can point at the animal cage, suggesting the late performer was not even human.

There is a similar tension between Thoreau’s lifelong performance and his spectators. Many readers, though they admire him, find his self-righteous and didactic tone unbearable. (Consider this quote in the opening chapter of Walden: “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”) I tend to view these “teachings” as his confessions; I can even imagine him speaking in the same voice of the hunger artist: I have to live a principled life, I can’t help it…I couldn’t find an existing ethical lifestyle.

Thoreau, like Kafka’s hunger artist, was addicted to confessing. He admitted his hypocrisy. He fussed about human nature. Take his attitude toward eating meat: when he was with friends, he ate whatever was served. But alone in the woods, he interrogated himself about the ethics of eating animals. “I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized.” He also groaned about the immoral modern world of which he was a part. After he took to natural science, he questioned its ethics: “The inhumanity of science concerns me as when I am tempted to kill a rare snake that I may ascertain its species—I feel that this is not the means of acquiring true knowledge.” When land surveying finally brought him steady income at the age of 32, he found himself becoming an accomplice in destroying his beloved nature. The forest he had surveyed just a year ago was clear-cut and subdivided into fifty-two house lots by its owner. “Trade curses everything it handles,” Thoreau remarked. His reaction resonated with his antipathy towards commerce back in his Harvard years: materialism, he said in a debate, “enslaves us, turns us into brutes. To be human is to cast off these material desires and walk forth, freely, into paradise.” Ironically, even his most honest gesture to fight against immorality seems suspicious and hence quixotic. “You all know,” he warned his neighbors in his first public speech in Concord, “the lecturer who speaks against money is being paid for his words—and that’s the lesson you remember.”

Thoreau’s words are disturbing to us because they reveal our hypocrisy. We don’t want to be plagued by moral quandaries every minute of our lives. In truth—like the aforementioned fictional characters—Thoreau “lived in a cage” throughout his performance career, as he spent much of his time in isolation. On the one hand, he never joined any political organization. His faith in individualism was consistent with his faith in moral freedom promised by God. Thoreau was cautious to avoid any coercion and believed “shared religious or moral values will enhance community only if they are adopted voluntarily.” On the other hand, the public was eager to paint his heroic singularity into eccentricity. After that work was done, his audience could proudly conclude that Thoreau’s solitude led to his isolation; it was his personal fault, and the spectators were let off the hook. “Poor Thoreau,” Schulz derides him in her New Yorker article. “He, too, was the victim of a kind of shipwreck—for reasons of his own psychology, a castaway from the rest of humanity.” Schulz’s criticism was typical during Thoreau’s lifetime. After Thoreau’s imprisonment, Emerson defended his own adherence to the social norm—paying tax—by scolding his young friend: “Your true quarrel is with the state of Man.” When people laughed at Thoreau’s quirkiness, they successfully simplified and silenced his message. That is why, in her same-titled essay “Civil Disobedience,” Hanna Arendt doubts Thoreau’s politics by quoting scholar Nicholas W. Puner: “Civil disobedience practiced by a single individual is unlikely to have much effect. He will be regarded as an eccentric more interesting to observe than to oppress.”

For Wallace, the central comedy of Kafka’s work is the horrific struggle that Kafka’s characters undergo to establish and confirm their human selves. Wallace’s view reminds me of Albert Camus’s final analysis on Sisyphus in The Myth of Sisyphus: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Whereas one can only speculate about the heart of Kafka’s characters or Sisyphus, Thoreau exuded joy and hope. Since the Fugitive Slave Act passed by Congress in 1850, he had been grilling himself with this dreadful query: “I walk toward one of our ponds, but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base?” But Thoreau never let himself wallow in despair. In a journal entry that would later appear in the ending of “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau captured a silver lining in nature: “But it chanced the other day that I scented a white water-lily, and a season I had waited for had arrived. It is the emblem of purity.” As Walls argues, rooted in “the slime and muck of earth,” those pure, fragrant flowers symbolize Thoreau’s belief in the “purity and courage” that will be born of “the sloth and vice of man, the decay of humanity.”

Though Thoreau and Kafka’s characters may experience a similarly absurd reality during their lifetimes, their afterlives are as different as night and day. The characters in Kafka’s fiction are often trapped in time. The hunger artist has to repeat the 40-day performance over and over again. Gregor, in The Metamorphosis, is first urged by human time and then tormented by bug-time. In the eponymous short story, Kafka’s Poseidon is burdened with endless paperwork and never gets to see the oceans. (Yes, another tragedy turned comedy!) The only thing that saves them from the labyrinth of time is death—which, then again, leads to nothingness, meaninglessness, and the irredeemable. In contrast, as Walls shows in her biography, Thoreau was able to believe in “the constant slow work of creation” by enlarging the scale of time:
It was easy to see destruction, which is sudden and spectacular: everyone hears the crash of a falling tree. But who hears the growth of a tree, the constant slow work of creation? “Nature is slow but sure.” She wins the race by perseverance; she knows that seeds have many uses, not just to reproduce their kind. “If every acorn of this year’s crop is destroyed, never fear! She has more years to come.” Here was his [Thoreau’s] solution to the baffling waste of the white oak crop: what made no sense on a human scale could be understood by lengthening the measure of time to the scale of the planet. The man who was running out of time now thought as if he had all the time, literally, in the world.
Consequently, Thoreau’s death transcends him into a living soul in his books—pure and bodiless—the state he longed for when he was alive. Over time and space, he himself facilitates creation in the way he favored: he inspires his readers to grow voluntarily, freely, and deliberately. Among them, probably two of the most famous Thoreauvian readers are Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Roughly a century after Thoreau’s death, both Gandhi and Dr. King put Thoreau’s philosophy into practice. In India and the United States, officers resigned their posts, jails were filled with conscious objectors, and the “machinery” of the unjust system was “clogged.” Through his seemingly ineffective political struggle, Thoreau was able to elevate those that came after him to a different point in that struggle.

While people today still find themselves stuck in absurd, Kafkaesque situations, we mustn’t deny the slow but sure progress of human civilization: the abolition of slavery, the creation of the national park service, women’s suffrage, the end of segregation—just to name some of the most visible examples in the United States. Indeed, as Thoreau once wrote in a letter to Harry Blake, a Harvard Divinity School graduate, “It is not in vain that man speaks to man. This is the value of literature.” Despite all the voyeurism, blasphemy, and suppression, Thoreau’s life of performance art is truly an immense and reverent joy.