Essays

A Long Winter of Oblivion: On the Forgotten Genius of Irish Literature

James Joyce discarded Catholicism, but he religiously observed Groundhog Day. February 2 was his birthday, and Joyce took his birthday seriously throughout his adult life. He didn’t look for the groundhog’s shadow, however. He looked for his own, and believed he’d found it in the person of another, lesser-known Irish writer who he came to consider his spiritual twin. Joyce claimed the other man had also been born on Groundhog Day in Dublin in 1882, just like him, though scholars have been unable to verify the exact birthdate of this other, lesser-known scribe. Little of the other man’s biography is in fact known with certainty. The man may have been two years old when his father died and possibly six when he entered a Dublin orphanage, never to return home. It’s all a bit unclear; a fog of rumor hangs over his origins as it does over John Henry or Jesus Christ. This much is known: he was very small as a child; when he grew up he was still so short that one journalist said he was no taller standing than sitting; others called him a leprechaun, and he didn’t much like that; he told a cartoonist, “Eh, you want to caricature me, eh? Well, the Almighty beat you to it.” This too is known: notwithstanding his diminutive beginnings, great men would come to worship at his feet. The Irish playwright Seán O’Casey called him “the jesting poet with a radiant star in his coxcomb.” Eugene O’Neill asked him to name his children and so Oona and Shane O’Neill got their names. James Joyce asked him to complete Finnegans Wake should Joyce himself go blind. He published plays, novels, stories, and poems, including a series of them in The New Yorker in 1929, and his voice once pervaded the Irish airwaves like rainbows south of Skibbereen. This so-called leprechaun with a voice “nimble as a goat’s foot,” as one commentator puts it, was called James Stephens. Some evidence suggests Stephens was born not on February 2, 1882 like Joyce, but rather on February 9, 1880. Perhaps Joyce asserted they were twins because he regarded Stephens as a particularly worthy rival, and because Joyce conquered his rivals by appropriating them -- and because, after being enemies, they became good friends. In a letter dated May 31, 1927, Joyce reports that for years he carried three portraits in his pocket: one of his father, one of himself, and one of James Stephens. When Ulysses was published on February 2, 1922 -- on Joyce’s 40th birthday, by his own design -- he inscribed a copy to his poetical twin. Stephens in turn wrote a theosophical poem called “Sarasvati” for Joyce’s birthday and for the rest of Joyce’s life gave him the kind of respect that Joyce demanded of every animal, mineral, and vegetable. Stephens called Joyce a king, encouraged him to carry on with Finnegans Wake, and when it was published, told Joyce that its last chapter was the “greatest prose ever written by a man” -- praise that deeply moved Joyce, and with which he surely concurred. But the two men didn’t like each other at first, and one senses that their rivalry forever chafed at Stephens, beginning with their first meeting in 1912, when Joyce feared and envied Stephens. In 1907, Joyce had published a small volume of poetry called Chamber Music that garnered its author little attention; Stephens’s poetry meanwhile had so impressed the famous Irish poet AE (a.k.a., George Russell) that in 1907 Russell adopted Stephens as his protégé. Stephens had by 1912 furthermore upstaged Joyce in prose. When the two first met on Dawson Street in Dublin, Stephens’s second novel The Crock of Gold was already at the printer, while Joyce was still struggling to publish his first prose work, Dubliners. According to Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellmann, Joyce dumped his publishing frustrations on Stephens, the writer whom Joyce described to his brother as “my rival, the latest Irish genius.” Stephens had of course faced trials and difficulties himself, but Joyce neither knew nor cared. Stephens says that Joyce gazed down at him in Pat Kinsella’s pub with blues eyes so magnified by his spectacles as to be “nearly as big as the eyes of a cow” before commencing a verbal assault. Stephens narrated the meeting thus on the radio in 1946: He turned his chin and his specs at me, and away down at me, and confided the secret to me that he had read my two books; that, grammatically, I did not know the difference between a semi-colon and a colon: that my knowledge of Irish life was non-Catholic and, so, non-existent, and that I should give up writing and take to a good job like shoe-shining as a more promising profession. I confided back to him that I had never read a word of his, and that, if Heaven preserved me to my protective wits, I never would read a word of his, unless I was asked to destructively review it. Stephens had had the upper hand in 1912, but by 1946 Joyce had thoroughly overshadowed his old rival. The word “non-existent” in the foregoing passage calls out the name of another of Stephens’s wounds, a possible turning point in the Stephens-Joyce rivalry. It was in a 1915 essay in The New Age entitled “The Non-Existence of Ireland” that Joyce’s influential champion Ezra Pound dismissed Stephens as “a mild enough writer.” It enraged Stephens, who wrote a bitterly funny letter to The New Age deriding Pound in doggerel form. Stephens concludes that having written Pound’s name, he had to go “fumigate” his sullied pen. Such injuries were perhaps fresh in Stephens’s mind when, in a 1917 letter, he conceded to his American publisher that Joyce was “a clever, competent writer, but...by no means a great writer.” Stephens went on in that letter to slag Joyce as “a disappointed, envious man” and Joyce’s work as “unpleasant” and “thin.” In later years, after Stephens and Joyce had become close friends, and after Stephens had affably accommodated himself to Joyce’s international fame, he repented of those criticisms and praised Joyce at every opportunity. And the two friends celebrated their shared birthday together. On February 2, 1933, Stephens wrote from Paris to thank his children Iris and Seumas for their birthday wishes. His letter calls February 2 “that most noble of dates.” “Tis Candlemas,” he writes, “and it is also the end of most things, and the beginning of everything...[W]ill go thence at 8.30 to the Joyces where a party of some kind is to be held to celebrate our mutual birthday...It was bitterly cold here until three days ago, and I had a cold -- your mother has it now, but I didn’t need it anyway.” Stephens was famous for his wit, and Richard Ellmann and others have observed that his humor depended on his modesty and self-deprecation. Being under five feet tall, he identified with the little guy. An editor of Stephens’s letters, Richard Finneran, asserts that Stephens celebrated his birthday on February 2 long before his acquaintance with Joyce; if so, perhaps that’s because, as Ellmann speculates, “Stephens was invariably sympathetic to the intrusions of small creatures into the universe.” Those sympathies are plainly evident in Stephens poems like 1924’s “Little Things” in which Stephens writes, “Little things that run and quail, / And die in silence and despair. / Little things that fight and fail, / And fall on earth and sea and air.” Ellmann notes that unlike Joyce, Stephens “often chose to appear as elfin.” He was unlike Joyce in his temerity before the possibility of oblivion. David McCord wrote in 1962 of Stephens: “the man put his books out the way one would plant a tree, each to grow to its own size, each to gather in its shade those who have traveled a long way through the mire, the dust and the anxiety of the world.” There is something sagacious and honorable in Stephens’s retiring attitude to posterity, but one sad outcome may be that “the readers of Joyce -- a big lot of them too -- have overlooked a fellow genius,” as McCord says. Stephens is for one thing much funnier than Joyce, McCord contends, and it’s impossible to disagree with him. “The surrealist in Stephens is always spacious,” McCord goes on, “his hells and heavens (for me at least) have both an altitude and depth that I do not find even in Finnegans Wake.” Could it be that the shabby, out-of-print volumes that keep custody of Stephens’s legacy are, as McCord argues, “vintage wine in a rain barrel?” Could it be that underneath a homely title like Irish Fairy Tales, which Padraic Colum notes was “never sufficiently praised” and which is now mislabelled as children’s literature, there lies a work of true genius? Having read Irish Fairy Tales, I add my voice to those who sing in praise of the long-lost leprechaun of Irish literature. For Irish Fairy Tales is more than good. It’s a work of genius on the Joyce and W.B. Yeats level, though stylistically different in almost every way from that of his taller and more famous peers. Stephens writes in that work: I became the king of the salmon, and, with my multitudes, I ranged on the tides of the world. Green and purple distances were under me: green and gold the sunlit regions above. In these latitudes I moved through a world of amber, myself amber and gold; in those others, in a sparkle of lucent blue, I curved, lit like a living jewel: and in these again, through dusks of ebony all mazed with silver, I shot and shone, the wonder of the sea. No wonder no one ever wrote Stephens a fitting epitaph; no one could say it quite as well as him! But perhaps what Stephens wrote of the king of the salmon is good enough for himself. He is brave, skilled, honorable, and as unconcerned with either fame or revenge as his hero Fionn. In “The Boyhood of Fionn,” a piece of magical realism in Irish Fairy Tales to stand aside Gabriel García Márquez and Franz Kafka, Fionn encounters a wise poet sitting on the bank of a wild, remote river. He asks the poet, “Why do you live on the bank of a river?” The poet answers: 'Because a poem is a revelation, and it is by the brink of running water that poetry is revealed to the mind.' 'How long have you been here?' was the next query. 'Seven years' the poet answered. 'It is a long time,' said wondering Fionn. 'I would wait twice as long for a poem,' said the inveterate bard. Retiring into Joyce’s shadow, Stephens remarked that Finnegans Wake is both “unreadable” and “wonderful.” His own works are readable and wonderful. Groundhog Day seems a fitting time for Stephens to step back out into the light after a long winter of oblivion in Joyce’s shadow. Or, if that’s not to be just now, later then. However long it takes. Stephens would wait twice as long for a poem. Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Essays

Beautiful Deaths: On the World of Gabrielle Wittkop

1. Readers would be well advised to don a Hazmat suit before wading into the thrilling, pestilential world of French writer Gabrielle Wittkop. In a jungle, one is confronted with the “effluvia of rotting carcasses or the fetid exhalation of orchids and carnivorous plants;” in a Baltimore tavern the face of an old sailor “being eaten away like a pumpkin by phthisis;” in the New York City sewers the “eternal fungus of putrefaction” and the “sweet slime of the deep darkness;” and in Venice “baskets and pails are overflowing with filth...snot, purplish riches, gray-green defecations, iridescent stews, buzzing with life.” These are only some of the fleurs du mal that blossom in Murder Most Serene (translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie) and Exemplary Departures (translated by Annette David), two works recently published in gorgeous editions by Wakefield Press. Wittkop’s only other novel to appear in English, The Necrophiliac, supplies some choice mephitic bits as well. Wittkop was born in Nantes in 1920 and home-schooled by her father, devouring the books in his extensive library. In her translator’s postscript, David charts Wittkop’s literary influences from her early immersion with Marquis de Sade and other Enlightenment writers through her lifelong fascination with the “decadent romantisme noir” of Joris-Karl Huysmans, Comte de Lautrémont, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, Edgar Allan Poe, the subject of one of her stories, and E.T.A. Hoffmann, about whom she wrote a biography. While living in Paris during the Occupation, she harbored and then married a deserter from the German Army, the bisexual Justus Franz Wittkop. Both Wittkop and her husband would commit suicide in their 80s, he while suffering from Parkinson’s and she after receiving a diagnosis of lung cancer in 2002. Wittkop is best known for The Necrophiliac, the narrator of which is an antiques dealer, a “situation almost ideal” for his off-hours pursuits: digging up freshly buried bodies, secreting them back to his Paris apartment and keeping them there, sometimes for weeks. Amid lurid, loving descriptions of his disinterred guests -- he rhapsodizes over his “boyfriends with anuses glacial as mint, my exquisite mistresses with grey marble bellies” -- there are occasionally moments of dark levity. Upon being propositioned by a prepossessing young man, he politely rejects him while thinking to himself, “I would love your eyes sunken in, your lips silenced, your sex frozen, if only you were dead; unfortunately, you have the bad taste to be alive.” The Necrophiliac is ultimately about the intoxication and isolation of genuine connoisseurship. “The dead,” the narrator tells us, “are full of the unexpected,” a knowledge, and pleasure, he is condemned to savor alone while hiding from a “hostile world” that sees him as a monster. Of course he is a monster of sorts, but Wittkop succeeds, remarkably, in illustrating the perversely empathetic (“All these sexes under the earth, does anyone ever think of them?”) and elevating quality of the necrophiliac’s depredations: The smell of the dead is that of the return to the cosmos, that of the sublime alchemy. For nothing is as flawless as a corpse, and it becomes more and more so as time passes, until the final purity of this large ivory doll with its mute smile and its perpetually spread legs that is in each one of us. The devotion to his sordid obsession reveals, to him at least, a seldom glimpsed purity. As both translators note in their accompanying essays to these new releases, and as should be evident from the The Necrophiliac's subject, death and decay are two of Wittkop’s idées fixes. Take a representative description of a tree in a rainforest from the story “Mr. T.'s Last Secret” in Exemplary Departures: Insect humors travel through the veins of the bark; liquefied, the reptile is reborn in the fetid pulp of fungus; the feather becomes leaf; the flower changes into a scale; eggs and soft roe burst into living myriads; death embraces resurrection, the two of them twinned like day and night Passages like these adequately communicate her Eros-and-Thanatos aesthetic, and Wittkop’s prose usually glimmers as her subjects decompose. However, her decadent style is not without its flaws. Of a casino in Monte Carlo, she writes: Like the vulva of some huge primeval hussy but also the secret charm of a Ganymede at its zenith, it gapes before the onrush, at the exact moment when the act is consumed in the triumphant erection of porphyry columns, so thick that they look as though about to burst, in the gold decorations reflected in the mirror where the chandeliers’ infinite galaxies explode, and in the simultaneous ejaculation of the innumerous thrusting palms, eternally soaring, as far the eye can see, toward the nudity of the ceilings. Wittkop is not finished, still having to explore the “sphincter of the circular banquettes,” the “titanic birth labors announc[ing] themselves on the lips of the drapes,” and the spacious bathroom, “sanctuary for excrements.” (God knows how she would have allegorized the furnace room.) It is hard to defend such delirious imagery except to say that at least when she’s bad, she’s very bad. Contrast this architecture porn with an enticing, restrained, and more representative passage from another story, this one describing the spiraling staircase of a donjon that is Unspeakably inviting, promising enchanted glimpses as it coiled itself despite the angular bones of its planks, forming a kind of sirens’ tail. It was, in short, as staircases admittedly are, destined to all kinds of betrayal. Wittkop comes alive when she injects an element of sardonic sadism into her observations, the sense that there is enjoyment to be had at watching the dissolution (natural or violent) of a body. Her intense focus on the death throes of her protagonists, and on the post-mortem decomposition of their corpses, could be interpreted as a curious quest for self-knowledge. “But why this obstinate dwelling over a corpse’s pluck?” the narrator of Murder Most Serene asks after exhaustively describing a poisoned woman’s “spectacular final agony” and her autopsy. She provides the answer herself: “Simply because it is there inside us all, day and night.” Wittkop frames her macabre voyeurism in the tradition of the ancient injunction inscribed on the Delphic temple: Know thyself. 2. Set in 18th-century Venice, Murder Most Serene is a novella concerning the not-so-gentle art of poisoning. Over the course of 30 years, a Venetian nobleman and bibliomaniac, Count Lanzi, witnesses each of his four wives perish -- his “conjugal monomania” unflagging despite their particularly gruesome deaths. Count Lanzi is too busy wandering in his library, a “boustrophedonic labyrinth” wherein he indulges his “blind, vehement, irrational passion” for books to look too deeply into the matter. Poison is usually involved, or suspected in each case; when one of the curtailed marriages produces a deformed child, the unfortunate offspring is dispatched with less finesse. The short work begins with a theatrical nod, Wittkop likening herself to a “bunraku master” who “controls his puppets’ movements” to the audience’s, and his own, delight: “I enjoy presenting their spectacle, and I watch it, too, my own spectator.” The action itself commences on a stagey note, with an exasperated Count Lanzi complaining, “Can a man not read without being constantly disturbed?” When the interruption turns out to be an announcement that yet another one of his wives has died, he responds “Again?!” This sounds like a Wildean quip: to lose one wife may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose four looks like carelessness. And indeed, the “strange, cruel drama” to come is accompanied by a laugh track of sorts, the peals of mirthless, diabolical laughter of a decadent society in the throes of “misrule:” “It is almost always Carnival, that endemic epidemic.” The case of the murdered wives concludes in 1797 just as Napoléon Bonaparte comes into the city with cleansing wrath that will abruptly put a stop to the Most Serene Republic’s cackling: “We cannot always be laughing...” read the novella’s last lines. The mystery is largely an excuse for Wittkop to present the unfortunate spouses in their “spectacular final agon[ies]” and immerse us in the “flamboyant misrule” of Venice, “city of appalling gravity, where even the corpses weigh more heavily than elsewhere.” At one point, after pausing to describe how an old lecher places pornographic drawings between the pages of the missals in a church, the narrator dismisses it as “of no importance, merely anecdotal interest, a flourish.” On the contrary, the entire novella revolves around such “anecdotal interest,” lurid, impressionistic snapshots of a gossipy, shadowy world. Murder Most Serene, in other words, is mostly local color, concerned with effects rather than causes. This explains the scant attention paid to interiority and the lavish attention paid to the aesthetics of how certain poisons, “painterly magicians,” act on the human visage: Their effects are played out in color: suddenly, we see a sky-blue iris turn the rich purple of the abattoir; a camellia complexion takes on a tint of bluish mauve, coral-pink lips turn to coral-black, which is infinitely more precious, as everyone knows. Note the touch of the aesthete’s snobbery. As with precious jewelry, so with poison: refinement is king. 3. If Murder Most Serene Wittkop revels in the corruption of a society approaching a crisis (“the time of the Atreidae is come...”), Exemplary Departures casts an icy gaze on individual reckonings with death. The five titular “exemplary departures” are as follows: A shady American intelligence officer-cum-antiquarian disappears into a Malaysian jungle without a trace; a young Scottish girl on vacation in the Rhineland starves to death after being trapped atop a dilapidated castle tower, where she had gone to sketch the countryside; a delirious Edgar Allen Poe, “haunted by angels,” breathes his last in Baltimore’s Washington Hospital; a feckless shoe salesman drifts into homelessness and is beaten to death in a New York City sewer; and hermaphroditic twins -- noble, sensual, completely absorbed in themselves -- cavort in pre-Revolutionary Paris as seemingly immortal deities. Only at the moment of their grisly death are they bestowed a “fragile and derisory crown of a brief humanity.” As Wittkop notes about one of these “departures,” it represents “a situation characterized by misunderstanding and revelation.” “Exemplary” is therefore used somewhat ironically, as the stories are neither models of noble deaths nor cautionary tales. These five stories are tragedies stripped of pathos, clinical examinations of creatures governed by a “conditioned determinism,” and moving inextricably, and heedlessly, toward their fates: “It is while blindly dancing the Dance of Death that we make our way toward our downfall.” Again, a rire diabolique is usually audible in the background, a derisory chorus here comprised of monkeys, rats, crows, and grotesque statues. Straightforward Oedipal drama and fairy-tale villainy reign. The tales are less psychological than physiological; how a character thinks matters less than how a body moves, or perishes. Wittkop is an anatomizing narrator. “Idalia on the Tower” begins by zooming in on Idalia’s foot, the “slender low-arched foot with rosy nails cut straight and bluish skin the color of thin milk” that will eventually slip on the rotten stairs of the castle tower and leave her stranded: “Here we have what, moved by muscles, nerves, a very complex and dynamic mechanism, would cause the determining event, the very slow and painful death...” Later, Wittkop will redirect her anatomical gaze to the stranded, starving girl’s contracting “maxillary muscles,” her convulsing neck (“opisthotonus”) and various internal injuries so severe that the once supple body has “metamorphosed into a machine.” The “dynamic mechanism” highlighted in the story’s opening has begun to malfunction. In “Claude and Hippolyte,” Wittkop’s anatomical gaze is primarily erotic, focusing on the twins of “unrestrained narcissism” who couple in front of mirrors, the better to revel in the “reflection of their strange genitalia...a hortus deliciosus...unfolded on the cold glass.” The more the merrier. Finally, we have the opening of “A Descent,” which mercilessly dissects its protagonist in a piece of body shaming par excellence: Seymour M. Kenneth had a slight paunch. Not much, in fact, a small deposit of fat evenly distributed over the flabby musculature of his abdomen, a pad just visible when Seymour was naked, but only then, an adiposity giving way to the pressure of a finger that would sink in no deeper than a few millimeters, in short, a concession. Had one been given the task to examine it...this paunch might have represented an avowal rather than a failure or a deficiency. One might have seen in it the symbol of a formless destiny, a propensity, to spinelessness. It wasn’t the elastic balloon of a cheerful, desperate person who eats his way to ruin, but the slowly accumulated burden of omissions, of wear and tear, of self-neglect, a pitiful gravidity that, so utterly unwarranted, would never reach its term, because nothing, not even failure, could be properly fulfilled in Seymour M. Kenneth’s life. In fact, the hapless character does properly fulfill his lifelong, if not particularly ambitious, dream, which is to return to the womb. Our last view of him alive is in the tunnels below Grand Central Station, laying “curled up...a silent embryo,” his paunch morphing into either a fetus’s or mother’s stomach: “Spongy now, his belly was swelling up, spherical.” I wrote earlier of Wittkop’s sardonic sadism, which is omnipresent but most evident in Exemplary Departure's finest story, “Idalia on the Tower.” Consider how Wittkop describes how an exhausted Idalia, the girl trapped in her tower, repeatedly fails to build a stone plinth on which to stand and attract help. Rest assured, Wittkop informs us, the length and intensity of the girl’s struggles will make for an entertaining show: In spite of its repetitions the spectacle is not as monotonous as one might fear. It is possible to see in it the delicate leitmotif of a choreographed figure and find much delight in observing Miss Dubb’s gestures. A certain duration of this pleasure can also be expected, seventeen being the age of great battles when one, even though deprived of both water and food, does not die quietly like a lamp that goes out for lack of fuel. Elsewhere, Wittkop pauses a long description of a feast the starving girl has hallucinated with the following parenthetical: “You may have noticed the pleasure I have in presenting all this foodstuff for Miss Dubb, but who doesn’t like to present beautiful things?” That would be icy enough, but then Wittkop coolly resumes her mouthwatering inventory once again. This commitment to finding aesthetic pleasure in suffering is accompanied by a view of the universe as an indifferent, amoral universe in which divine retribution is illusory: “The eye that watches Cain is pure fiction.” 4. “There is purity each time that a new threshold is crossed,” Wittkop writes in The Necrophiliac. The great threshold, of course, is between life and death, and the best deaths, at least according to Wittkop’s morbidly decadent philosophy, are stage-managed. In that same work, she describes the final moments of Gaius Petronius Arbiter, author of The Satyricon, who, upon being accused of treason, chose to have his veins opened in a bathtub rather than contest the charges. His exemplary departure is narrated thusly: Surrounded by his concubines and his Greek slaves slipping their tongues into his mouth and caressing his hair...He heard their tender words pull back towards another planet because he himself was about to leave the earth...He sensed nothingness invade the network of his veins...while the dancers stuck their vulvas to his body like barnacles onto a ship and the fingers of these ephebi explored his secret parts. Floating into his bath as if into the maternal liquid, Gaius Petronius Arbiter sensed his life escaping him as sweetly as it had once come to him. That’s how death should be. No objections here.
Essays

Flossing Your Teeth and Reading Dickens: Resolutions for the New Year

Every new year, my husband and I quit drinking for the month. Sober January is a healthy and smug time, filled with sparkling water and peppermint tea and discussions about what kind of red wine would have gone well with the lamb shanks. This year, we've also given up sugar for the month. We joke that we should also take away bread, dairy, meat, salt. Anything with flavor, anything that makes us happy. Next year we will consume only paper towels soaked in water for 31 days. A more pleasurable new year's resolution is one that adds to your life rather than subtracts from it. One year, for instance, I vowed to wear more dresses. I did, and it was a fabulous (and feminine) year. Reading resolutions, if they aren't too onerous, also fall under this category. For example, vowing to read a poem a week isn't a huge challenge and, wow, how it can render a Saturday morning more ponderous and magical! A couple of years back I devoted a summer to E.M. Forster, and, aside from the splendor of reading Howards End and Maurice, I loved saying, in my best mid-Atlantic, Gore Vidal-inspired accent, "I find myself on a Forster kick lately." This year, I resolve to read James Baldwin's nonfiction, in particular The Fire Next Time. The desire to read Baldwin emerged from discussions, both in-person and online, about Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I own but haven't yet read. Beyond the obvious similarities between the two books (the letter writing device and race in America as subject matter), I'm interested in other ways these two texts interact, and where and how they diverge. I also resolve to read David Copperfield. I'd already planned to read it this year after spending 2015 with one contemporary novel or another, and then I read Meaghan O'Connell's Year in Reading, wherein she not only recommended many of the same books I had read and loved in 2015, but also mentioned that she was waiting for the Charles Dickens to arrive in the mail. This seemed fated. We have agreed to tackle the book together, in a kind of two-lady book club, this February. In figuring out my own reading resolutions, I realized how much fun it is to hear about what others plan to read this year. In this spirit, I asked some people I admire to share their 2016 bookish resolutions. The Essayist David Ulin, former critic for the Los Angeles Times and the author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, always writes about books with such perspicacity and grace. He told me he generally doesn't believe in resolutions since he almost never follows through with them. He went on: But when it comes to reading in 2016, my main goal is to relax. To step back from the treadmill, and to read in a more integrated way. In part, this will mean as a critic, since I plan to continue writing about books; in part, as a writer, reading books that connect to, or address, various projects; and (perhaps most importantly) in part, as a reader, reading for no agenda other than my own. I've long believed that reading as a writer (and certainly as a critic) condemns one never to read for pure pleasure again. What I mean is that we are reading, inevitably, from within our own processes, with an eye toward how the sausage is made. I don't imagine that will change for me, but I want to read recklessly this year, to put books down in the middle, to start and stop and start again. I want to read old books, new books, books by friends and books by strangers, books from all across the globe. Next to my bed, where I am writing at this moment, there are two piles of books, each about a foot and a half high. I'd like to read down those stacks, which include memoir, poetry, short story collections, detective fiction, books I wasn't able to get to until now. Will I be able to read all of them, or even most of them, this year? Unlikely. And yet, they perch there like a promise or a dare. The Poet My friend Tess Taylor, who is the poetry critic for NPR's All Things Considered, and who will publish her second collection Work & Days this April, also plans to follow her bookish desires, wherever they may take her: My biggest goals in 2016 are to read deeply, to read works as a whole, and to read off the grid. I think in the whole buzzy Facebook news-cycle thing, we get caught in a book-of-the-moment phenomenon. That is totally fine for the engine of selling books but maybe not as great for the part of us that makes us hungry to write them. Wearing my book reviewer hat, I am often reading for deadline or for money. I’m glad I get the to write things, truly, but this can be far from the wayward, unplugged feeling that made me a bookworm as a kid. So this year I want to get lost more.  It can be very sustaining to engage one artist deeply, for pleasure, to get the measure of the craft and the life. Right now I’m reading all of Ted Hughes. I admit that this started out of a journalistic assignment, but the poems and the letters and the mind caught my attention and suddenly I’ve been ploughing through them almost obsessively. It’s a big private enterprise, and I mostly do it late at night or first thing in the morning. For now it’s not for sale. It feels really dreamy, like it feeds the writer in me. I want to do more of that. The Debut Novelist Would this desire to "get lost more," as Tess puts it, extend to someone just stepping into the publication game? The year I published my first novel, I bought and read so many other recently released first novels because I was curious about what my colleagues were writing, and because I  wanted to feel like I was in solidarity with my fellow debut novelists. (Class of 2014 in the house!) I asked fellow staff writer Hannah Gersen if the impending publication of her first novel, Home Field (out in July, y'all!), was affecting her reading resolutions. Yes, she said, but in a different way. She told me she's planning to read Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time: Or maybe it's better to say I'm planning to finally read the whole thing from start to finish without skipping sections. I'm not sure how much this impulse is related to being a debut novelist, but Proust is definitely comfort reading for me because I’ve read and reread certain passages at different points in my life. The idea of reading the entire novel, knitting together all those favorite scenes, a little each day, feels very grounding. Maybe I also need a break from thinking about contemporary literature, to have a kind of cork-lined reading experience. The Book Editor I envy Hannah's plan and the break she will get from the now-now-now! of our contemporary book-making machine (even as she gets to be a part of it.) It also made me wonder about those working within the industry. Do you make reading resolutions if you read and edit manuscripts for a living? Turns out, you do -- or at least Laura Tisdel, executive editor at Viking, does. Every year, she told me, she attempts such a resolution. Three years ago I read nonfiction titles to bone up on an area of reading, and general knowledge, I was woefully uneducated about (I tackled mostly history stuff, including Operation Jedburgh by Colin Beavan and The American Revolution by Gordon Wood). Two years ago, I focused on classics I hadn't read as a student (Middlemarch and Giovanni's Room? Check and check!). Last year, I had a baby (*crickets*). As a relatively new mother, one with just enough sleep to begin regaining some self-awareness, I've found myself missing the conversations I used to have with my friends catching up over a beer or even just disappearing down the rabbit hole of a text message thread. So this year, I'm going to read books that my friends recommend to me. I know darn well I don't have the time in my schedule or the capacity to be a book club participant, but I'm going to make a sort of book club of one: I'm going to ask the people I care about and respect to recommend a book they loved, and then I'm going to read that book and write to them about it. I'm starting the year with Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object by Laurie Colwin, which a dear friend recommended to me just before the holidays when we grabbed a long overdue coffee date together. I'm thinking of this project as a way to commune with my friends, and to discover stories and writers that might never have surfaced in my nightstand pile otherwise. (I now have strong motivation to start texting recommendations to her!) The Bookseller I get the sense that Tisdel, like the others I asked, wants to step back from the machine. Not with a beloved classic, like Gersen, and not by reading "recklessly" as Ulin suggests, or associatively, like Taylor. But by reading a particular book for, and with, and because of, a particular person. It's reading, and talking about reading, as intimacy. Mary Williams, the general manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, is another integral member of the book-making machine, and her resolution echoes those of the others: Free books are one of the perks of being a bookseller. But they are also a curse; there are just so many of them. I have never been able to keep up with all the books coming out each season that I want to read. Cue desperate feelings of inadequacy. Also, the world is full of great books that came out before I became a bookseller and my professional obligation to stay current began. So my resolution is to forgive myself for the new books I can't get to (wish me luck), and to make some time for the aging heroes lodged in the middles of stacks of unread books in my apartment. Already Dead by Denis Johnson. Stoner by John Williams. More short stories: especially Lorrie Moore and George Saunders and Lydia Davis. Basically, more reading without deadlines. Reigning Authoress While Mary is tossing off the shackles of professional obligation to read Stoner in the break room (Oh, how I envy her! I'd love to read that for the first time all over again!), Dana Spiotta's next book, Innocent and Others, will be released. It comes out in March, which is motivation for me to finish that stupid Dickens as fast as I can -- and for Mary to put those shackles back on. While every smart person is reading her novel, what books will Spiotta herself turn to? She told me, "When I was in my teens, I loved to read any kind of novel about growing up. he Bildungsroman(s), the sentimental educations, the coming-of-age/loss-of-innocence stories. It was the job at hand, and I needed help." She continued: This year, since I am reaching the milestone of what is optimistically referred to as “middle age,” I want to return to those books that I read so long ago. From The Red and the Black and Jane Eyre to Manchild in the Promised Land and The Basketball Diaries. And many more books that I remember loving. Will I still love them? They are the same of course, but maybe it will be a measure of how much I have changed. What I now think is engaging and moving and beautiful. What I think is funny. What I think is true (with all my experience as a person and a reader). Or maybe not, maybe my connection to these books of my youth will be exactly the same. I wonder if my young self will be in those pages, waiting for me. Spiotta, too, is stepping away from the publishing hoopla. She will re-read; she will look backward as a way, perhaps, to look forward. I'm sure that all of us will succumb to diving into the latest hot new book, because it's fun to join those conversations, and because who doesn't want to experience what promises to amaze and rearrange us? But I hope we also fulfill our personal reading goals, too, even if it's to not have a goal: to read for pleasure, for comfort, for connection, for knowledge about the world and ourselves. What's your reading resolution for 2016? Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Essays

The Art of Anonymous Intimacy: My Life as a Reluctant Landlord

| 1
This piece is being published anonymously in order to protect the privacy of individuals mentioned. Names and select details have also been changed. 1. The e-mail from Mary reads: I hope you and Henry are happy and well; enjoy the spring days that are just around the corner. Your wonderful home has become 'another home' for me, and I thank you for that comfort. She goes on to let us know her travel schedule -- she will be leaving in two days’ time, a few days earlier than expected, for Delhi, then on to Palampur in the north -- and shares her concerns about the earthquakes in Nepal. Thankfully, she writes, all her friends, and most of their loves ones, are safe. We trade another set of emails about what’s sprouting in the garden, the neighbor’s dog (she seems to be barking more, maybe there’s a bear or a coyote?), and light bulbs that need replacing. Do we need anything from the house? If so, she’s happy to bring it to the city; she’ll be spending a few nights with her son in Brooklyn before flying out. I write back that I can’t think of anything, and I wish her safe and peaceful travels. When we arrive at the house following Mary’s departure, everything is, as usual, in perfect order. There is a butternut squash and cut flowers in a mason jar on the dining table. Epsom salt in the bathroom. A half-full box of pasta, a can of tomatoes, some oatmeal in the pantry. The refrigerator is spotless. Later, we will find colorful good-fortune trinkets upstairs. I imagine Mary’s son as a lucky young man (or maybe he is closer to middle-age?), whose mother is both a lovingly consistent presence in his life, and a woman with fiercely independent energies. But then again, maybe he resents her independence, not to mention her far-flung spiritual pursuits; if that’s what they are, these regular trips to India. I suppose I’ve assumed this -- unconsciously imagined ashrams and meditation retreats. On another occasion, however, Mary has written from Kuala Lumpur, where she was “teaching.” Teaching what? I had not been inclined to ask. Are there grandchildren? She has never mentioned any. Surely she would have. Or would she? It seems her son’s father is long out of the picture; one reads between the lines. But really, who am I to imagine or assume anything about Mary? After all, despite the fact that she has spent nearly six months living in our home over the last three years and has intimate knowledge of our books, music, movies, kitchen cabinets, maybe the contents of bedroom closets and drawers too -- why not? -- I’ve never actually met Mary. 2. About halfway through his month-long stay in August -- a solo retreat to launch his retirement -- Jack writes: Bailey [the Labrador retriever] and I have gotten into a Zen-like rhythm of morning coffee and a walk, time spent reading and working, a quick trip to the L-ville store or perhaps G-dale in the afternoon, another walk and porch sitting time while the sun goes down, more reading and a little work, followed by restful, quiet slumber. It’s a perfect August for us. I spent my childhood summers in Maine and this experience reminds me of those days. The boys came last week to cut the grass so I chatted with them briefly about their new mower which, they proudly showed me, can turn on a dime. Bailey and I went to the landfill once just for fun because I’ve discovered landfills are a great way to get a feel for a place and its people. Up in Springfield, Ellen and I would call our occasional trips to the dump a “date” because it’s just plain fun seeing all the neighbors, and sorting & tossing trash. When I pulled out my wallet and the crusty gentleman gruffly informed, “We don’t take plastic -- ain’t got no electric here,” I felt right at home We exchange other, briefer emails -- sometimes logistical, more often a new installment re: the adventures of Jack & Bailey. At one point, Jack addresses one of these installments to three of us -- his wife Ellen, me, and my husband Henry -- as if we are all one happy family. When we arrive at the house the day after his departure, we find it squeaky clean -- almost no trace of Jack, or Bailey, at all; our own dog circles his bed calmly and plops down without event. What we do find, prominently displayed in the center of the dining table, is a homemade booklet, filled with poems that Jack read during his stay -- Wendell Berry, Rabindranath Tagore, Robert Creeley, Dorianne Laux, James Wright, et alia -- each accompanied by a watercolor printout, and occasionally a notation: Jane Hirshfield’s “Tree” -- "For the wolf pines that have been here so long…" Frank Stanford’s “Everybody Who Is Dead” -- "upon reading of several tragic Syrian massacres" Ha Jin’s “Ways of Talking” -- "I looked, read, enjoyed your wonderful books -- including yours…" 3. Sarah also pulled my novel off the shelf (we keep many books at the house, and mine is not displayed in a prominent spot, so I always find this interesting) and read it. She wrote: "Your novel rocked my world!" A musician and yoga teacher, Sarah was our first tenant. Our first successful tenant, I should say. The first was Wendy. We’d put a lot of hope in Wendy, since our financial situation had changed and the foray into renting out our little farmhouse upstate was our best chance of keeping it. Wendy was a marketing design manager from Dumbo and was so excited to spend a month in the country working on a writing project. Her initial messages were full of exclamation points and over-the-top enthusiasm for sustainable living. I wrote that we had a large vegetable garden and an active compost pile, and she was thrilled. “Your home is sounding more and more exciting each passing moment,” she wrote. “I can't wait to get there!” We were not able to meet Wendy when she arrived, but we’d planned to stop in and say hello halfway through her stay. Upon arrival, she texted, “The house is so adorable with such great character!” I found myself getting caught up in Wendy’s enthusiasm: she was our first tenant! We were so glad to host her! We hoped she would have a peaceful and productive stay and would adore the place as much as we do! (Generally, I do not use the word “adore.”)  And we looked forward to meeting her. Within a week, however, there was a marked shift: every day brought a new complaint, tinged with a passive-aggressive tone. She asked for the name of our cleaning person, while insisting there was no problem. On the second day of 90-degree heat, she asked if we had an extra fan; we did, and I told her where to find it. When I reminded her that the house stays cooler when the windows are closed, she wrote that it was fine, “just stuffy.” Then we didn’t hear from Wendy for a few days and hoped she had settled in. By the 11th day of her month-long booking, she left. We didn’t know this until day 12, however, when she wrote us an eight-paragraph email that began, “I gave it my best shot, but I just couldn’t take it.” She went on to describe everything that was wrong with our house: mainly, that it is creaky and the floors are uneven (in other words, it is an old farmhouse), there is no air conditioning (this we made clear in advance), and there are insects about (as there are wont to be in humid summer weather in the woods). Also, “there weren’t enough options for farmers’ markets in the area” -- never mind that she hadn’t tended to or harvested any of the vegetables we’d planted right there in the garden, and that we’d left the names and locations of actual farms nearby that sell produce. We arrived at the house to find all eight bath towels used and in a pile, a completed jumbo-sized jigsaw puzzle, an excess of expensive organic cleaning supplies, and wilted green beans, lettuces, and tomato plants in the garden. There was a feeling of such clashing and dejected energies all around -- including, now, our own. We did not try renting the house again for a year. We cut back on extras and took on freelance projects. We held out as long as we could, until it was clear that we had to rent it or lose it. We lowered the rent -- and thus expectations, we reasoned -- and would do all the cleaning ourselves. We would try again, but this time instituting a new policy: we would be attentive but impersonal; we would conduct all interactions in a dispassionate, non-“amazing” fashion (absolutely no exclamation points). We would decidedly not meet the tenants in person. This was business in the modern world: we would be decent and respectful landlords, responsive but disembodied. Nothing more nothing less. This policy worked well with Sarah. We were in touch frequently, but always brief and neutral-toned -- even when she mentioned my novel: "Thank you, Sarah," I replied, "glad you’re enjoying it." Before booking, we reminded Sarah about the age of the house and to bring insect repellent. We planted some vegetables but maintained low expectations for garden upkeep. We provided detailed answers to occasional questions about kitchen appliances and the workings of the gas grill. Everything went fine. Sarah had a productive and restful stay and assured us she’d be back again. On the coffee table she left a thank-you card, as well as information about her website...which I have never visited. 4. Kelly was a painter, her boyfriend, Paul, a philosopher-academic. Kelly’s emails matched mine in both clarity and reticence, and I thus found myself at ease. We hardly heard from them and didn’t learn too much more about them -- other than their robust drinking habits. At the last minute, they’d texted apologetically that they’d run out of time to take the recycling to the transfer station, and we responded that it wasn’t a problem, we were happy to take care of it. Waiting for us on the porch were two gigantic, full bags, almost all bottles -- beer, hard liquor, wine, the cheap stuff and a few bottles of the good stuff, too. Henry was amused, even vaguely excited to study the contents. One of them also liked to bake, we guessed, based on the heavy usage of flour and sugar. They left behind plastic champagne flutes, a lovingly tattered copy of Michel de Montaigne’s essays for the bathroom -- in exchange for a recent issue of Dwell magazine, we realized later -- and a note: 5. With Mary and Jack especially, it was tempting to loosen our policy. Why not plan to meet Mary upon arrival next time -- it would be her sixth stay -- or even rendezvous in the city when she was visiting her son? Once, I caught myself writing, "Safe travels!" (I changed the exclamation point to ellipses before sending.) And why not see Jack and Bailey off before they begin their cross-country road trip back to Ellen? But we would do no such thing. I knew this. 6. David presented a new challenge: he was an oversharer to the extreme, evidently tone-deaf to our preference for keeping things businesslike. Within two emails, I knew the fine details of his divorce battle, along with his very raw emotions about it. He was in fact renting our house as a means of escaping the “toxic environment” of the Tribeca apartment he still shared, for financial reasons, with his soon-to-be ex. A few weeks into his stay, things became more dire: the ex was issuing threats, and David’s lawyer advised him not to let anyone know his precise whereabouts. Thus followed an email requesting that I not mention his stay to anyone. “Please don’t worry,” David wrote, which of course made me worry. Was a weapon-wielding ex about to show up on the doorstep and make a scene? A few days later, the threat of immediate drama seemed to abate: Right now I am not able to speak about anything due to the &^%$ing litigation. Word of advice...on your most loving and appreciative day of one another sit down and write down agreements about everything. Week by week, he shared new developments, on both the financial and relational fronts; which inevitably led to pleas for payment extensions, discounts, and barter arrangements. I did my best to be reasonable and compassionate, yet firm and clear. David shared a lot other things: what he was eating/cooking/pickling; encounters with wildlife and with several of our neighbors, with whom he became fast friends; photos of dog Molly curled up by the fire and romping in the snow; photos with exuberant captions of his newborn niece; lists of items he was buying and selling on eBay as a new cottage business. He had a wry sense of humor, and his messages were not infrequently entertaining: on Christmas he sent a photoshopped digital card -- “Cher” instead of “Cheer” in sparkly red -- and wrote: "May all your days be Sonny in 2015." David was a force of nature. His messages were epic; my responses brief. He wrote and wrote and wrote, regardless of my decidedly laconic responses. It was not a particularly stable time in my own life, but I was not inclined to mention it. The pattern grew exhausting, and with each manic message, I had to restrain myself from writing, “David, please, we don’t know each other. I am neither your friend nor your therapist.” Occasionally, David seemed semi-aware of the unilateral dynamic: "lol, I just caught myself signing XO and realized although you are my most frequent correspondent we’ve never met and you’re basically my landlady. ;)" On more than one occasion he referred to a “kindred spirit vibe” he felt with Henry and me. David is the one tenant I am quite certain investigated every closet and drawer. He stayed four months, through a snowy, icy winter. He was conscientious about leaving the house in good condition, though not without a significant footprint -- things missing, things left behind, things moved around, broken, repaired, replaced. But how else could it be? We did not mind. Clearly he needed to live in our house those four months, not just stay. A year later I received an email from him, “saying hi and thank you again” -- for sharing our home during a dark and sad time in his life. Things were on the upswing now in his life, though not completely resolved. He asked that we pass along his regards to our neighbors, and wrote almost as if there had been no financial transaction involved; as if we’d opened our home out of charity and, well, friendship. I wrote back that it was good to hear from him, and I was very glad to hear that things were settling down. I sent a few vague personal updates and wished him well. And I meant it. I did not suggest we meet up for coffee. 7. The truth was that we had become intimately connected to these people because we would not be meeting them in person. The irony is not lost on us: our initial inclination to protect ourselves from all expectation of personal connection gave our guests a comfortable distance from which to entrust us with their kindness, their tokens, their troubles -- authentic bits of their authentic selves. I feel close to these people, or at least a warm affinity; we’ve entrusted them with bits of our authentic selves, in the form of a home we have cared for and loved, and they’ve shown not just respect but genuine appreciation. If or when they return, we will take care in preparing -- Moosehead Lager for Kelly and Paul, Mason jars for David, maybe Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs for Jack -- and we’ll do so with pleasure. Then, we’ll get out of their way. Henry sometimes Googles our tenants. I do not. He knows not to share with me, within reason, what he finds. He knows some things about David’s ex, from a 20-year-old wedding announcement. He’s seen a picture of Kelly and some of her paintings, found one of Paul’s course syllabi. He’s visited Sarah’s website. Once, he discovered something surprising about Mary, about her son’s father; I told him I didn’t want to know. Maybe she would share it with me someday, in her own way. Shortly after receiving that thank-you email from David, during a season when I was particularly active on Facebook, I gave in to temptation and looked him up; he wasn’t there. We both like to speculate and imagine. Henry goes straight to the refrigerator and pantry, and doesn’t at all mind hauling the recycling. We can usually tell what books the guests have read (or at least inspected) and what movies they’ve watched. We sometimes curate the shelves in advance, turning certain DVDs and books face out, just for fun. I think of Wendy every so often. I never responded to her departure email; but maybe now I should. We have become the landlords we were meant to be, and really, we owe that to her. I could write, simply and honestly, Thank you. Image Credits: The author; Wikimedia Commons.
Essays

Death and Heirs: A View from the San Francisco Housing Market

As I rode the train home from work one afternoon a little over a year ago, I read the “gnostic truth of real estate” put forth by the realtor Frank Bascombe in Independence Day: People never find or buy the house they say they want. A market economy, so I’ve learned, is not even remotely premised on anybody getting what he wants. The premise is that you’re presented with what you might’ve thought you didn’t want, but what’s available, whereupon you give in and start finding ways to feel good about it and yourself. A moment later -- timing that would have been ham-fisted had it taken place in a novel -- my phone buzzed with a text from my husband. “Pack your bags” it read, accompanied by screenshot from Redfin showing a dilapidated property with a “sold” banner plastered across.  We had gone to look at this house the previous week -- a teardown monstrosity in an unhip San Francisco neighborhood adjacent to our own unhip San Francisco neighborhood. Listed for $338,000, at that moment the lowest price in the city, the house was called a “contractor’s special;” two of its three bedrooms were qualified on the listing agent’s half-assed flier as “legality unknown.”  When we went to the open house, the same agent eyed my eight-months-pregnant stomach and advised me to cover my mouth and nose before stepping inside.  My husband’s screenshot indicated that this house had been purchased by someone for $550,000, ostensibly in cash. Add to this the cost, whatever that should happen to be, of building an entirely new house in its place. At the time, my husband and I lived in a rented, one-bedroom, 750-square-foot house that, like any standalone single-family dwelling in San Francisco, is not subject to rent control.  When we learned that we were expecting a baby, we thought we should try to find something with more space (and rent control). Our landlady, who we think was born in the 1930s, cautioned us against a month-to-month lease.  Her health was not good, she told us, and she mentioned, not for the first time, an ominous set of people she called “heirs” who would swoop in from the Central Valley and sell the house out from under us in the event of her death. She also told us that she had lived in the house with her parents until she was 23 years old, sleeping in the small dining room. Her counsel notwithstanding, obsessed with bourgeois aspirations of a second bedroom, we went month-to-month and began looking at Craigslist listings.  The appearance of heirs, it turns out, would cast us -- with baby, two cats, student loans, and no car -- into a rental market where a transit-accessible two-bedroom apartment could exceed $5,000 per month in San Francisco and $3,000 in the East Bay. Ludicrous prices are old hat to people in the Bay Area, who find themselves in the tiresome position of having thoroughly exhausted the topic of the housing situation but being nonetheless unable, most of the time, to talk about anything else.  That is a feature of housing bubbles; in Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in that House, Meghan Daum’s account of her real estate travails in Los Angeles circa 2004, she wrote: “At the risk of making a perverse and offensive comparison, I truly don’t think I’d observed so much absorption with one topic since the attacks of September 11, 2001.” We punched numbers into questionable online mortgage calculators and began touring open houses. Houses that listed for $279,000 and sold for $365,000 (East Oakland). Houses that listed for $365,000 and sold for $500,000 (West Oakland). Houses that listed for $499,000 and sold for $700,000 (San Francisco, barely). And these were the low, low prices of 2014. Median home prices reached $1.3 million at the end of last year. People who have actually experienced home-ownership advise the uninitiated against getting romantic about it. But when you have a bun in the oven and are looking at Craigslist rentals, it is easy to invest the condition with near-sacred profundity (even before totting up the tax breaks that the government has seen fit to bestow upon the property-owning class).  I began placing an outsize burden on every undistinguished property we saw; every dubious condo, every termite-eaten hovel miles from the train, none of which we could afford in any case. I pictured the dour heirs, and our growing family in one of the illegal basement in-laws listed for more than our current rent. Like V.S. Naipaul’s unforgettable Mr. Biswas, it seemed critical to find a place to call our own: “How terrible it would have been...to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth; to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and accommodated.” Unlike that of Mr. Biswas, though, this is the housing account of an intensely privileged person, in both the local and the world-historical sense. We began our search at a time when the U.S. news was just starting to register the desperate people streaming out of Syria, when there were already one million displaced Syrians in Lebanon alone. A month before the baby was born I watched a presentation at work about an entire nation’s middle class decimated in only a couple of years -- a cataclysm that will take generations to repair. And this is only the most recent and the most vivid cataclysm. There are people who have been living in camps for decades -- people whose children and whose children’s children will be born outdoors. In our local context, we are privileged because we do not live in a state of economic precarity, like many people in San Francisco and the East Bay who are being rapidly pushed out (often by people like us sniffing around for cheaper housing). Low-income people are disproportionately affected by the outlandish housing costs, and while it is a nice feature for us to live near family and friends, it's a necessity for people who cannot afford regular childcare or do not get paid sick time. Just last Monday, activists shut down the Bay Bridge in a truly breathtaking action, protesting not only police killings of black people, but gentrification; first on their list of demands was "The immediate divestment of city funds for policing and investment in sustainable, affordable housing so Black, Brown and Indigenous people can remain in their hometowns of Oakland and San Francisco."  The housing concerns of people with a statistically high household income are not in and of themselves compelling, as this author points out, and if we have to leave the Bay Area we will find somewhere else to live. Like everyone we know who lives in San Francisco, we have thought -- we think every day -- about moving away. And like everyone, we hope to stay. My husband works for the City of San Francisco and I work for UC Berkeley, which seem like important local institutions. Neither of us grew up in San Francisco, but four generations of my foremothers were born in California (although if you're white, which I am, that just means your people were in on the ground floor of some original displacement). Even so, my baby, now a year old, has a grandmother and a great-grandmother a short train ride away. Why should we be the ones to move?, we think, just like everyone else. Self-righteous defiance is never a good feeling; add to it the knowledge of complicity in a fundamentally unequal society, evident in every public housing-adjacent Victorian flipped and sold for enormous profit, every gingerly-worded spiel from a realtor about Oakland neighborhoods, every crowd of white house-gawkers on streets where black people have lived for a century. Our situation is not remotely dire -- it is merely one of recalibration. Most Americans our age are letting go of the cherished, unexamined assumption that they will be able to give their own children the comforts -- or preferably more comforts than -- they themselves had.  These are comforts captured in movies and books from the very recent past: I idly remember the movie Home Alone and my first thought is How the fuck did they afford that place?  (Don’t get me started on Full House.)  In The Sportswriter, the first of Richard Ford’s Bascombe novels, Frank is a writer and his wife doesn’t work; they have three small children and live in a house that they own: We went on vacations...We paid bills, shopped, went to movies, bought cars and cameras and insurance, cooked out, went to cocktail parties, visited schools, and romanced each other in the sweet, cagey way of adults. Yesterday’s magazine writer is today’s millionaire. As one of Meghan Daum’s friends lamented in her book: “...boomers live in mansions they bought for $67 in the early 1980s and we’re destined to live our lives paying rent to guys who wear tinted eyeglasses and Members Only jackets.” The beloved children’s writer Beverly Cleary enshrined a much humbler vision of middle-class life on Klickitat street in Portland, Ore.; her characters Ramona and Beezus Quimby live in a modest but pleasant house with parents who haven’t finished college and who have a series of jobs that couldn’t comfortably support life in most urban areas today: shop clerk, office worker for a moving company, medical receptionist.  Beezus and Ramona live in Portland, but many of Cleary’s less-well-known books -- Mitch and Amy, Sister of the Bride, Fifteen -- describe middle-class families giving their children good lives in nice Bay Area dwellings, the air scented with eucalyptus. Cleary herself was a California transplant; she attended UC Berkeley and lived around the Bay with her husband Clarence.  In 1948, they bought a house in the Berkeley hills. She was a librarian-turned-writer and he was a contracts analyst at the university, a job which today commands a respectable annual salary between $49,000 and $65,000. But I’ve seen a two-bedroom, 792-foot-square-foot house in the same area list for over a million dollars. After the news that our local wreck, the “contractor’s special,” sold for $200,000 over asking, I began to cling desperately to the rental we were in. Heavily pregnant, I lumbered around the place with loving purpose, directing my husband in the hanging of new curtains, adjusting the crib in the baby’s corner of our room, filling our closet with elaborate stacking drawers. I moved so far from my original position about the house’s size that I even schemed to buy it from our landlady, until it became clear that we couldn’t afford it at its current valuation. There are spiritual implications for a person’s dwelling. As Frank Bascombe puts it, thinking about this anxious clients, the home they buy will ...partly determine what they’ll be worrying about but don’t yet know, what consoling window views they’ll be taking (or not), where they’ll have bitter arguments and make love, where and under what conditions they’ll feel trapped by life or safe from the storm. I understood that the manic bursts of scrubbing and fussing and considering pillows that afflicted me during pregnancy were something called nesting, and were a known biological phenomenon. I was not expecting this mania to stick around. But, a lifetime slob, I now find myself in the kitchen making the practiced gestures of somebody else’s mother -- wiping away a piece of wet fuzz or straightening a placemat, putting all of the puzzles together and stacking them in a corner at night. Some of this, I’m sure, is garden-variety patriarchy stuff that is bound to pop up after millennia of foremothers tidying up. But I am surprised by the feeling of total, whole-body well-being that comes over me when I’m in my special corner of the couch surveying the clean living room. And by the way this feeling seems obscurely connected to the panic-making wave of love that overcomes me at odd moments as I watch my daughter play on the living room rug (a rug, as it happens, that I coveted and lobbied and hoarded for and finally bought when it went on sale). "Home is so sad," wrote Philip Larkin, but he probably never held a baby on a soft rug on a sunny day in a nice room that he made for her. I know it’s very irritating to hear people describe the ways that having a child changed them, but this is one that really caught me off-balance: I’ve become house-proud. I think of all the other house-proud women leaving their special corners and favorite rugs in Syria and Iraq, holding close their precious children and stepping into the waves. When we consider the people in camps, the people in the frigid sea off of Lesvos and Ayvalık, if we believe that all humans are brothers and sisters, none of us deserve stability in the broad moral sense. Aim the telescope back at America, where we have codified a national myth that if you have a good job you’ll have a nice place to live for as long as you want to live there. Articles like this one show how untrue that myth has been for vast swathes of our citizenry, and for how long it has been untrue. If you are a narcissist who was raised in a religious tradition you might feel that your own, absurdly mild housing anxiety is the opening sally of an absent-minded deity who has finally put down his paperback and noticed that things seem off-kilter. I know that I don’t deserve to have a nice place to live for as long as I want to live there, apart from the idea that all human beings deserve this. But that doesn’t mean I don’t -- the we all don’t -- want it real bad. The “contractor’s special” went on the market again for $850,000, and sold for $1.1 million a couple of months ago. From the outside it’s still one of the ugliest houses in San Francisco. What ended up happening to us is the thing that you find happened to any San Franciscan who isn’t rich but has a good living situation: we got unreasonably lucky. When our baby was three months old, our next-door neighbors did the almost impossible and managed to buy a short-sale house with a special loan from the city. Our landlady, who also owns their place and is a deeply decent person, let us move in without significantly raising the rent. Deus ex machina. The people, meanwhile, who moved into our old place had been evicted from their decade-plus rental in another neighborhood; they are in their 50s or 60s and clearly paying more for less space than they used to have. Last week a woman strolling up and down our block told me she had grown up a few houses over, but that she couldn’t afford to live in the city anymore. “It should be me in there,” she said, gesturing at her old house. And begrudgingly corrected herself: “I wish it were me.” We are favored, for now, in San Francisco's zero-sum housing game. We dearly love our new place, even though it has wall-to-wall carpeting and it isn’t ours. We still don’t have rent control, but we hope for the best. We walk to the BART; we walk to the daycare, where our baby learns Cantonese words from her fellow sixth-generation Californians. What will the gods exact from us, for our good fortune? The twin specters of death and heirs loom all around. But death and heirs are waiting in the wings, I suppose, whether you rent or own.
Essays

Worlds Upon Worlds: On Growing Up Book-Rich

I grew up in a middle-class family in rural upstate New York. We had a mortgage and a car loan, and my brother and I wore hand-me-downs. It was a nice, ordinary American upbringing: quietly blessed, reassuringly average, except for one thing: in books, I have always been rich. My earliest memories are of books, the crammed shelves a backdrop for birthday parties, family dinners, and Saturday morning cartoons. We read every night, my brother and I perched on my dad’s lap, Goodnight Moon open before us, or Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present. When we got older, my mom dug through her old boxes of books from when she was a girl, rediscovering along with us Nancy Drew, The Bobbsey Twins, and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. At summer camp, I traded books with my friends, devouring with illicit pleasure the likes of The Baby-Sitters Club series, Tiger Eyes, and Izzy, Willy-Nilly -- books my small town library didn’t own. These books taught me to have crushes, do my nails, and flirt. They informed me about sex and my body, and probably empowered me to make smart choices about those things throughout my life. From my parents’ shelves, I drew down books I probably wasn’t ready for, but no one ever told me to put a book back. From dog-eared, underlined college textbooks, I learned about extreme poverty and AIDS, the Holocaust and cancer, war and rape. I read Stephen King, which kept me up at night for years. In perusing those adult shelves, I learned an expensive lesson: nothing I read could ever be unread. Still, I wouldn’t trade those books -- each one of them -- for anything. To me, books were the world, transported to my teenage bedroom in my tiny upstate town. Growing up, I never stopped to notice who was and wasn’t reading. I didn’t yet understand what books represented -- privilege, education, even wealth, relatively speaking. Reading is a leisure activity, a luxury, and it demands time. I travelled abroad after graduating from college, and backpacking through Asia, I was mostly -- embarrassingly, now -- amused at the illiteracy I encountered. From Laos to India, I took pictures of signs spelled ridiculously wrong, and I never questioned the relative absence of bookstores, or libraries, or books in general. I worked on farms, but I never tried going into a school to see what it was like. For better or worse, I never noticed the problem enough to even...notice. Instead, I managed to find the books I needed at hostels. Every hostel had a cycling shelf, a tiny library, Lonely Planets mixed in with trashy romances, travel novels, the rare Bill Bryson, the more common Paulo Coelho. The books were almost all in English. I did fine. It took me until 2010 to “check my privilege,” as the kids are saying nowadays. I was in Antigua, Guatemala -- a colonial, touristy city an hour southwest of Guatemala City -- and I was starting to write my own book, about Latin America, traveling alone, and teaching English. Antigua, one of Guatemala’s most modern cities, had one library, and every morning I went there to work. The library, one long room, was usually empty, except for the librarian and me. She sat behind a desk, and behind her were the shelves. If I needed a book, she had to retrieve it for me. My Spanish wasn’t good enough yet to ask for anything, anyway, so I spent my mornings seated at a perpetually empty table. No families came in, no young couples, no retired folk. No one. No one touched the books, or wandered from one subject to another, or opened books at random and then put them back. No one sniffed the pages. I didn’t quite understand why the library was always so empty until a book fair set up shop in the plaza outside. As I browsed, I discovered that each book cost at least $15, an amount that could cover my hostel bed for a week. Books, I realized sharply, suddenly, are too expensive. They’re a luxury item, designated for the rich, for the privileged. Guiltily, I remembered the crammed shelves of my childhood. The literary world is a sealed one, and as I held the expensive books in my hands, I realized finally how hard it is to break in. I traveled another year, and then I moved back to the States and became a teacher. I work in New Mexico at a community college, and in the time I’ve taught, I’ve learned that illiteracy is a domestic issue, too. Many, many of my students don’t read. Some legitimately don’t know how. Some have learning disabilities, reading problems, and a lot don’t have the money or insurance to get any issues checked out. New Mexico is a poor state. A lot of students speak only Spanish at home, and many, especially if they moved here within their lifetimes, didn’t learn to properly read in Spanish. Now they’re being expected to read -- and write -- in English. Some students just don’t have the time, and some lack the courage. Many don’t see a reason; reading, they believe, has never helped them before. My students who read almost always do better than the ones who don’t. Of course, I teach English, so that would make sense, but I’m still amazed at how reliable the correlation is between good writing and frequent reading. I can tell which students grew up reading books -- even if they don’t anymore -- and I can see that they are better communicators. I took over the college’s literary magazine last year, and at our annual reception, I could count on one hand the number of ethnic minorities in the audience. In a largely Hispanic town, the event was dominated by white people, because they are the ones who know about our magazine, submit to it, and read it. The problem is simultaneously no one’s fault and everyone’s. Meanwhile, I do my best. When someone falls asleep in class, or admits to not having done the reading, or disrespects some piece of writing I fell in love with years ago, I don’t take it personally. Instead, I call on a student to read aloud. I make sure we read as a class every day. I give extra credit to students who submit to our litmag, and I spend hours contemplating writing prompts. Still, it’s hard to teach someone to love something if they don’t. I think that to want to read, you have to love books, at least a little. You have to know what reading has the capacity to do. You have to have seen for yourself where it can take you, what it can show you. So many people never have. And it isn’t just my students. These are strange times, and today, living in a rich country doesn’t necessarily mean you read. In 2016, images speak louder than words -- and usually do. Time is tight and must be budgeted carefully. Our media sources barrage us with too many words to process, and so we’ve become a society of skimmers. Indeed, the reasons for illiteracy are more complex now than ever before, but one is that we don’t have the space for reading, or the silence that reading demands. We don’t fit it into our lesson plans, our evening routines, our Saturday mornings, because increasingly, we don’t see the point. It’s happening to me: I skim my emails along with my Twitter and Facebook feeds, and the books I’ve been meaning to read languish on the table beside me, ignored. And I am the one percent, the girl who grew up rich in books, who put in her 10,000 hours of reading by the time she was 18. Now, though, she reads much less. Last winter, I went home for Christmas. My mom dug boxes from the closet, and my brother and I pored over the things she’d saved from our childhoods: postcards from camp, Christmas lists, sloppy paintings. At the bottom of my box was a story I wrote when I was 10 or 11, a Christmas tale about a girl who sees a beggar in the street. She gives him her shoes, or something -- I can’t quite remember the plot. What I recall is being struck by the quality of the punctuation, the spelling, the formatting. I had known as a young reader what many of my students, community college students, have yet to learn: how to spell "there" and "their," how to use a comma properly, how to capitalize the first letter of a name. It’s the fault of many things: our poor state, our bad high schools, the challenges facing our bilingual population. It’s because we don’t read with our children, though that seems the beacon of hope, the kernel of change, for I’ve always heard that literacy begins at home. This year, my resolution is simple: to drink profusely of the written word. I will pass along good books; I will write reviews; I will read excerpts in my classes with my students. I will work to cultivate in my community a love for reading. I will check my privilege, because I have something that many do not: I have access to worlds upon worlds. I will make the time to read, for those who read grow rich. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Essays

My First Book: Adventures in Learning to Read Japanese

I don't remember reading my first book. From the memories of my childhood there is only a vague list, incomplete and out of order, of the books I have read but not necessarily the specifics of where, or how, or why. Gone with those memories, too, are the ones of what I did when I didn't know a word or came across a particularly complex sentence. I don't remember using a dictionary. No one read to me. Only, there was a time when there was a lot I couldn't read; now, there isn't a lot that I can't. What happened in between? It took me six years of study to finish reading my first book in Japanese. That book was Rui Kodemari’s Kokoro no mori (Heart's Forest), a fifth-grade novel I found in the Japanese elementary school where I teach. The plot, somewhat fittingly, follows a Japanese boy in the sixth grade who moves to America without knowing any English. Though Kokoro no mori was the first book I finished, it certainly wasn't the first book I tried to. In the last couple years of studying Japanese, there were plenty of times when I picked up a volume intending to diligently go through it, looking up every new word or grammar point if necessary, and close the book both triumphant and possessed of an automatic near-fluent grasp of the language. First there was Banana Yoshimoto's Kitchen, which I'd read in translation before picking up the Japanese version at a used Book-Off in San Diego. I got through five pages, laboriously checking every new word and writing it down in a notebook before getting hopelessly bored at the slow pace. I already knew what was going to happen, after all. A year later I tried the first volume of Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore, because I'd read that he wrote an easier, non-traditional Japanese that was closer to English. But that, too, proved to be a bust. After that there were e-books of Natsume Sōseki's Kokoro and Botchan, a volume of poetry by Shuntarō Tanikawa, and a short story collection by Yōko Ogawa not yet translated into English. I fingered them furtively in the aisles of used bookshops or in aisles of the school library that no one ever went to. I bought them with my eyes lowered, not exchanging words with the cashier, afraid they’d assume a competence in me I hadn’t earned. One by one, I opened them, got out my dictionary or smartphone app, muddled through a few pages, and then, inevitably, gave up. When you first start learning a language, it’s easy to make a lot of progress: You go from knowing nothing at all to being able to read a new alphabet or make a basic dialogue in a couple of months. In the early stages, there are a lot of benchmarks indicating concrete advances in your language proficiency, like saying hello, asking for directions, listing your hobbies, writing your first paragraph. But in the intermediate and advanced stages, progress is less obvious and painfully slow, if not invisible altogether. I spent one unit in my intermediate Japanese class reading a dialogue about a college student who spent a summer working in a fish cannery in Alaska. "When the hell," I thought to myself, "am I ever going to need to know the word for fish cannery?" It was around this time I started picking up Japanese books, but never finishing them. For two years I lingered at a learning plateau; I was pretty good but not, to my mind, good enough. After moving to Japan, I could give instructions to my students and understand most of what my coworkers said, but I got by with what I had without feeling any sense of improvement. And the knowledge of how much more there was still to learn was overwhelming. Though I'd come a long way, the level of fluency required to read a book or become a translator -- one of my ambitions -- seemed paradoxically more achievable and still impossibly far. Then came the fifth-grade classroom and Kokoro no mori. I opened the book idly during a lunch period. The first sentence -- Who are you?  -- was so short, direct, and easy to understand that, without thinking about it, I immediately read further. And it was easy. Or rather, it was easier: I got through the first page without a dictionary, though there were a few places where I stumbled. I found myself on the second page in less than five minutes. I brought the book home with me. Three weeks later, after starting, stopping, and starting again, I turned the last page and shut the book with an odd sensation: So that was it? I'd done it? Though of course, that wasn’t it. I’d finished the book, but along the way, I had to shed the hubris I unwittingly carried when reading English. I was so used to being able to pick up whatever I wanted go through it, if not always quickly, at least with some measure of ease, that I carried that over to reading Japanese. It was no surprise I was easily frustrated. Now, I was forced to relearn all my old techniques: I had to go slowly, I couldn’t skim. Sometimes I stopped over a particularly long sentence or involved description and parsed it out on a piece of paper. Sometimes, I just skipped it. Sometimes I read holding the book open with my left hand and the dictionary with my right. A lot of vocabulary I guessed at, or took from context. Tsuga, I knew, must be a type of tree, but what kind? Imori was some kind of animal -- but which one? I had to start looking at each sentence holistically -- to look at the text to see the forest, not the trees. If there was a word or phrase I was stuck on, sometimes I just had to let it go. Rather than fixating on how the verb was conjugated or the choice of one adverb or adjective over another, I had to ask myself if I even understood what was going on. Often, I didn't; there were many times when I had to go back, rereading a passage the meaning of which, later passages showed, I had completely misunderstood. I couldn’t use most of the critical apparati I had developed, the tools and skills of close reading I'd been trained to apply. For instance, I couldn't decide if the prose in the novel was good or bad, if it had a voice, if there was good pacing or flow. I didn’t know whether the dialogue sounded natural or if there were clichés. I had nothing to compare it to. Even the book cover was humbling -- I didn’t recognize the first word in the title, which was printed in a round and curly font. I assumed it was a kanji character I hadn’t learned. Then a couple of second graders who saw me reading one day read the title out loud: “Kokoro no mori.” I gripped the book and felt foolish -- kokoro is one of the easiest characters there is. When it came to Japanese, I had none of the confidence I had when it came to English. More than anything, Kokoro no mori made me a beginner in reading again. But being a beginner has its own particular pleasures. No longer complacent about my ability to understand, whenever I did get a sentence or new word down, I felt a sense of achievement in a way that I hadn’t in years. I relived the excitement and pride of learning how to read when I was a child; piece by piece, I was unlocking the story, the language -- and by extension, a whole new world. I had my first instance of critical pleasure when I read about the three American friends Hibiki makes at his new school: Tom, Jack, and Bob. He refers to them as a collective: "My American friends, Tom and Jack and Bob" -- those three names, always together, always in that order. They tell Hibiki about American holidays, play ball with him in the park, and that's it. Throughout the entire book they never appear on set or even interact with Hibiki. Ultimately, they are simply cardboard cutouts -- typified, generic "American friends.” This is what it must be like, I thought, when a Japanese person runs into a character named Tanaka who only likes to eat sushi. There they were: my first stereotypes. It became a private running joke between me and the book. All readers are familiar with the sensation of falling into a book. By their very nature, books invite you to immerse yourself in the world they have constructed. When it comes to a book in another language, however, such immersion feels both familiar and alien. While reading Kokoro no mori, I felt like a seasoned explorer suddenly sent to scope out Mars: the process was the same, but everything else was totally different. I had to attune myself to the rhythms of another language, to slowly gather an instinct for its patterns and structures, its particular logic. After spending so long in comfortable, well-trod terrain, finding myself in a new one was intimidating, exhilarating, and mesmerizing, all at once. Now on the other side of my first book, I can safely say that I am still not very good at Japanese. I don’t know much more than I did when I started, except maybe the names of some trees and how to say turkey. But at the same time, something has changed. The longer I read, the more I fell into the cadences of Japanese. Rather than simply following the rules, I started feeling a deeper instinct for the language. I felt more confident in discerning what sounded natural and what didn’t. I started adapting to Japanese more. After I finished the book, I went back to school; I handed Kokoro no mori to the teacher I’d borrowed it from. Then I went to the library. Hesitantly at first, then a little more boldly, with a growing sense of anticipation, I started browsing the books on display at the counter. They were still a little daunting, but they looked friendlier. The first book is not special only because it’s a sign of progress. The first book is special because it holds a promise: there will be books after.
Essays, Screening Room

The Filmable Miss Highsmith

1. “Oh god, how this story emerges from my bones!” After her debut novel, Strangers on a Train, was made into a hit movie by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951, Patricia Highsmith was under pressure from her publisher and agent to go back to the well and write another “novel of suspense.” But Highsmith, who could be mulish, had different ideas. She had taken a job as a sales clerk in the toy department at Bloomingdale’s during the Christmas rush in 1948 -- publication of Strangers was still months away and she was strapped for cash -- and in that unlikely setting she received the spark for a new novel. As she would recall 40 years later: One morning, into this chaos of noise and commerce, there walked a blondish woman in a fur coat. She drifted toward the doll counter with a look of uncertainty -- should she buy a doll or something else? -- and I think she was slapping a pair of gloves absently into one hand. Perhaps I noticed her because she was alone, or because a mink coat was a rarity, and because she was blondish and seemed to give off light...It was a routine transaction, the woman paid and departed. But I felt odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision. The plain clerk had fallen in love with the radiant woman in the fur coat. Highsmith went home that night and, head still swimming, dashed off eight pages of ideas, plot, and story that would become her second novel, The Price of Salt. The book astonishes on several levels. First, no one gets murdered, a rarity for a Highsmith novel. Second, it tells the story of a wealthy wife and mother named Carol Aird and a much younger clerk named Therese Belivet (pronounced the French way, Terez) who fall in love with each other and embark on a scandalous, sexually charged cross-country road trip that carries strong undertones of mother-daughter incest -- in 1952, the year Dwight Eisenhower was elected president, the year the American Psychiatric Association proclaimed homosexuality a “sociopathic personality disturbance,” and three years before Vladimir Nabokov gave us his account of Humbert Humbert cavorting with his beloved nymphet on their own scandalous cross-country road trip. Third, Carol and Therese are shadowed by a private detective, who tape-records their pillow talk, damning evidence that causes Carol’s tattered marriage to fall apart and forces her to make a wrenching choice: Will she give up custody of her beloved daughter so she can pursue her taboo love for Therese? The answer is yes, which, in Highsmith Country, qualifies as a “happy” ending. All this, as Highsmith noted, in “the days when gay bars were a dark door somewhere in Manhattan, where people wanting to go to a certain bar got off the subway a station before or after the convenient one, lest they be suspected of being homosexual.” Finally, and most astonishing of all, when the novel came out in paperback it sold hundreds of thousands of copies and generated an avalanche of letters from grateful readers thanking Highsmith for daring to write a book in which two gay lovers wind up happy. The mass-market paperback carried a sizzling kicker: “The novel of a love society forbids.” As Highsmith noted, “Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing -- alone and miserable and shunned -- into a depression equal to hell.” This is largely, though not entirely, accurate. In 1948, four years before The Price of Salt appeared, Gore Vidal published The City and the Pillar, a novel the homosexual characters of which also manage to avoid the fires of hell and achieve something like happiness. That quibble aside, there is no doubt that Highsmith, who preferred women as sexual partners, was both leery and proud of her controversial book. Fearing career suicide, she published it under the pseudonym Claire Morgan; and years later, after finally acknowledging authorship, she exulted, “Oh god, how this story emerges from my own bones!” 2. Something Appalling Yet Irresistible Now, more than six decades after it was published, The Price of Salt joins the long list of Patricia Highsmith books to be made into a movie. This latest adaptation has been renamed Carol by its director, Todd Haynes, who tackled similar taboo material in Far From Heaven, his reimagining of Douglas Sirk’s 1955 movie, All That Heaven Allows. This new adaptation features Cate Blanchett in the title role and Rooney Mara as Therese, two inspired casting choices -- the blondish woman in a fur coat who gives off light, and the dark plain pretty girl, perfect yin and yang. The screenwriter, Phyllis Nagy, has been faithful to the novel without being slavish (she has changed Therese from an aspiring theatrical set designer to an aspiring photographer, and she has cleverly jumbled the time sequence). Since this is a story of infatuation and fuzzy moral boundaries, the movie has an appropriately gauzy look and feel (shot by Edward Lachman). And the ending is perfect, the lovers’ reunion lifted straight from the novel: “Therese waited. Then as she was about to go to her, Carol saw her, seemed to stare at her incredulously a moment while Therese watched the slow smile growing.” Cate Blanchett’s slow smile gives off light, and it announces that, against all odds, these two women are going to stay together and they are going to be happy. With Carol, Todd Haynes joins an illustrious roster of directors who have mined Highsmith’s fiction for source material, including Hitchcock, Wim Wenders, Claude Chabrol, René Clément, Anthony Minghella, and Hossein Amini, among others. I first came to Highsmith’s work through Minghella’s 1999 adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, which I watched again recently and found just as shamelessly seductive as it was 16 years ago -- all seaside sunshine and sex, with a relentless undertow of evil. Since talented Tom (played by Matt Damon at his very best) gets away with three murders and doesn’t appear to feel a shred of remorse or guilt, I assumed that the appeal of Patricia Highsmith’s fiction is that it operates in an amoral world, where evil deeds not only go unpunished, but are rewarded with a major lifestyle upgrade. This formula brazenly contravenes the Hollywood commandments that evil must be punished and everything must come up roses. Minghella, like Clément before him, bravely embraced it. But this dark formula, it turns out, is not universal in Highsmith Country. Consider her 1964 novel The Two Faces of January, which was made into a 2014 movie of the same title. It returns us to similar terrain from the first of the five Ripley novels: Americans with lots of money on the loose in the Mediterranean. An alcoholic American con man named Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) are touring the Greek ruins when they’re spotted as easy marks by a guide/hustler named Rydel (Oscar Isaac). When Chester kills a detective who has tracked him down, he manages to implicate Rydel as an accessory. Then Chester, in a fever of paranoia and jealousy, goes one better by killing Colette and framing Rydel for her murder. Eventually Chester is chased down and shot by the police, and as he dies he confesses to killing Colette, thus exonerating Rydel. It’s a far more conventional -- and tepid -- ending than The Talented Mr. Ripley. Hossein Amini, the writer and director of The Two Faces of January, has said he was attracted to the jealous alcoholic con man at the center of the story. “What I love about Highsmith,” Amini wrote, “is the way that she puts us in the shoes of traditionally ‘unlikeable’ characters, often criminals, and then makes us not only understand their motivations but recognize something of ourselves in them.” Highsmith attributed her enduring appeal to filmmakers to her obsession with duality, her tendency to let two mismatched characters have at each other -- Guy and Bruno in Strangers on a Train, Tom and Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Chester and Rydel in The Two Faces of January, and now Carol and Therese in Carol. As Highsmith told The New York Times in 1988, “It’s always interesting...when two people opposite in nature get tangled up. I’ve always done that; it’s like pitting good and evil, putting two strong boxers into the ring.” What sets Highsmith’s characters apart is not only that they are willing, even eager, to commit transgressive acts, but that they are so adept at covering them up and blithely living a lie, or, better yet, seeing to it that someone else gets the blame. As Amini said, we recognize something of ourselves in such people, and we find them both appalling and irresistible. It’s worth noting that Highsmith’s most indelible character, Tom Ripley, is such a slippery chameleon that he has been played, with varying degrees of success, by some very dissimilar actors, including Damon, John Malkovich, Alain Delon, and Dennis Hopper. There’s something appalling yet irresistible in every one of their interpretations of the talented Mr. Ripley. 3. A Bad Bag of Applesauce Patricia Highsmith was no one’s idea of a warm and fuzzy human being. She kept pet snails. She was a mean-spirited, alcoholic, racist anti-Semite who freely admitted that her mother drank turpentine when she was pregnant with her, in an attempt to abort the fetus. The editor and writer Otto Penzler is a great fan of Highsmith’s writing while acknowledging that she was “a horrible human being.” She was what Fatty Arbuckle would have called “a bad bag of applesauce.” For all her documented flaws -- there have been two scrupulous biographies -- Highsmith was also a fanatical maker of fascinating lists. Here’s a beauty she tossed off on Nov. 16, 1973, while living in the French village of Moncourt: Little Crimes for Little Tots. Things around the house -- which small children can do, such as: 1.) Tying string across top of stairs so adults will trip. 2.) Replacing roller skate on stairs, once mother has removed it. 3.) Setting careful fires, so that someone else will get the blame, if possible. 4.) Rearranging pills in medicine cabinets; sleeping pills into aspirin bottle. Pink laxative pills into antibiotic bottle which is kept in the fridge. 5.) Rat powder or flea powder into flour jar in kitchen. 6.) Saw through supports of attic trap door, so that anyone walking on closed trap will fall through to stairs. 7.) In summer, fix magnifying glass to focus on dry leaves, or preferably oily rags somewhere. Fire may be attributed to spontaneous combustion. 8.) Investigate anti-mildew products in gardening shed. Colorless poison added to gin bottle. This list is at once hilarious and chilling and it contains, in distilled form, all the essential elements of Highsmith’s fiction: it’s highly practical, it’s written in unfussy prose, and in the end it’s all about murder. Item #3 is the most telling on the list, with its admonition to set “careful” fires so that “someone else will get the blame, if possible.” Here is the duplicity that lies at the heart of Highsmith’s enterprise -- the urge to do evil and not only get away with it, but make sure that someone else gets the blame. In a Highsmith story, culpability for a single crime frequently passes onto two characters (think of Chester and Rydel). Or the victim becomes the victimizer, as in The Cry of the Owl from 1962, which has been adapted for the screen twice, the story of an “innocent” stalker who winds up getting stalked by his “victim.” Highsmith uses this duplicity to ratchet up her favorite states of mind, including anxiety, jealousy, paranoia, dread, self-delusion, and resentment. Small wonder that Highsmith considered herself a writer of psychological novels, not “novels of suspense,” or that one of her favorite writers was Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It isn’t much of a stretch to suggest that inveterate list makers are trying to lasso unruly demons, bring some sort of order to inner chaos. My late father was such a person, and it got to the point where he admitted, only half jokingly, that he had started making lists of his lists. That was when I knew he was in trouble. But Patricia Highsmith put my father in the shade. As her list of "Little Crimes for Little Tots" attests, she wasn’t trying to lasso or tamp down her inner demons; she was nurturing those demons, trying to make them as monstrous as possible. She understood that her demons were the source of her dark genius. They are also what will keep drawing filmmakers to her books for years to come.
Essays

Alone Together: At Book Riot Live

Early in The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, Laura Miller talks about what it feels like to fall in love with a book -- and to want to keep it all to yourself. “Discovering Narnia felt like a breathtaking expansion of the boundaries of my world,” she writes, “yet it was also an intensely private event.” Throughout her bibliomemoir, Miller talks to dozens of other Narnia lovers, including Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, and Jonathan Franzen. But perhaps more importantly, she talks to the teacher who introduced her to C.S. Lewis's fantasy series. “You were so excited you couldn’t talk about it. I tried, but you sort of clammed up,” Wilanne Belden tells her. “I knew how important it was to you, but I think you thought that if you talked about it, it would get away.” Among all the people she interviewed for The Magician’s Book, Miller describes the few friends who remembered an eagerness to discuss and share Narnia -- or Middle Earth -- as exceptions to the rule. Most people described childhoods in which they selfishly guarded their most beloved books, the memories of falling into fictional worlds wrapped up with memories of deep solitude. It’s a sentiment I’ve been encountering with some regularity recently, talking to friends and colleagues and a number of authors, notably ones who write books for younger readers -- people who arguably have a more acute recollection of the formative power of books at that age. When I cast back to my own childhood, I don’t remember a burning desire to share the books I loved with other people -- but I don’t remember worrying that the magic would slip away if I tried to share any of that, either. I had no trouble tumbling head-first into fictional worlds, and I would linger there, writing the sort of un-networked fanfiction that lots of children dabble in. In adolescence, I came online, and saw that millions of other people were eager to talk about books they loved (and to write networked fanfiction, the kind that I study and write about, that’s meant to be shared, texts talking to texts). I lurked for years, sitting in a paradoxical place where I felt like I was a part of an enormous conversation about my favorite books -- but I never said a word. Is reading an inherently solitary experience? For many of us, our earliest encounters with books probably weren’t solitary at all: if we were lucky, adults read to us until we were skilled enough to take matters into our own hands. If late childhood is the time of unfettered solitary reading, it’s in adolescence when we learn to read together again, critically now, in classrooms as well as outside them. If we keep reading into adulthood, our habits are mostly dictated by preference: if we choose to share the experience of a good book, it’s with a friend or two, or a book club, or 1,000 other people in an online community. Sometimes it’s the book itself that dictates how much or little to share; more often, it’s a reader’s inclination. And sometimes readers are like my paradoxical lurking self: they want to experience something very private together. In my capacity as a fandom journalist, I’ve spent the past few years attending fan conventions of various shapes and sizes, from the bombast of San Diego Comic-Con to the organic inclusiveness of NineWorlds in London. But I love books more than most of the pop culture on display at these cons, so I prefer gatherings that have books at the heart, from YALC at London Film and Comic-Con to Book Expo America’s consumer-facing BookCon to GeekyCon, which began years back as LeakyCon, named after the Harry Potter fan hub “The Leaky Cauldron.” These events are usually a mix of author panels and signings, and the publishers come out -- with books to sell -- in full force. But there’s something notable about the crowds at these bookish conventions, and it’s something I’ve puzzled over: they’re mostly young, mostly female, and while you spot plenty of groups geeking out over books, you see a fair number of readers on their own -- actively reading. Tucked up in the corners of convention centers, these cons are full of people skipping out on all the programming to read, a curious sort of collective solitude on display. Last weekend I trekked to the far, far west side of Manhattan to attend the inaugural Book Riot Live. It was the first major event for Riot New Media, the group that owns the popular bookish site Book Riot, and it brought in about 50 speakers, two dozen vendors, and more than 1,100 guests over the course of the weekend. “Book Riot Live came out of our desire to get the community together in real life,” Riot New Media’s events and programming director, Jenn Northington, told me. “Making sure that [it] reflected and celebrated our community was our number one concern. It influenced everything -- programming, the layout, the vendors we invited, everything...What are they interested in, which authors have we seen people get the most excited about, what topics have created the most dynamic conversations.” It was a weekend characterized by dynamic conversations: on the various stages, there were live podcast recordings, panels on bookish topics ranging from specific craft-related challenges to issues of inclusion and diversity in publishing at large, and authors like Margaret Atwood and Laurie Halse Anderson to get the crowds riled up (they were talking about sexism and censorship, respectively). Thankfully for me, it had a far more fannish feel than, say, the programming at BEA, where panelists (in my experience, at least) often seem like they’re confused by things they’re observing rather than speaking with authority about book fandom. These panels were populated by actual fans of books -- and that was reflected pretty visibly in the audience, too. But one of the most interesting things at Book Riot Live was up front, near a set of floor to ceiling windows that offered up a great view of the tourists approaching the Intrepid, moored in the Hudson. There were a few large, circular tables, and beside them, a circle of little beanbag armchairs, all occupied by people reading silently -- people sitting alone together. “I can’t remember exactly when we had this idea, but it was part of the planning from very early on!” Northington told me when I asked her about it. “I cannot tell you how many times at other conferences and conventions I’ve heard people say ‘I wish there was a Quiet Room’ or ‘I wish there was somewhere I could just go and sit and look at all these books I now have.’ We definitely all wish for that on staff! So it was a no-brainer to set up a space for it.” Whenever I took a seat in the quiet area, at a table or squashed down on one of the beanbags, I was struck by what a thoughtful space it was. If you took out a book in any random public space, you’d have to work to block out the rest of the world. (When I forget my noise-cancelling headphones, I often feel like I’m doing battle with the rest of the world when I’m trying to read or write -- especially if the book’s a drag.) At Book Riot Live, that exchange was seamless, and silently negotiated: people seemed to sense exactly who wanted to strike up a conversation with another book-loving stranger -- and who just wanted to be alone with a book they loved. Northington and her colleagues seem to have a deep understanding of the duality at play here. “We are all big-mouths about books, all the time,” she told me. “Book Riot as a site came out of the litblogger community and was originally conceived as a blogger collective, and that’s a self-selecting group. You don’t start a blog unless you're dying to talk with other people about what you’re reading. But I can completely understand folks who just want to sit with the work. There are stories that become so intensely personal that talking about them in public can make you feel mentally naked, and very vulnerable. There have certainly been times I’ve had to process my reaction to a book for a while before I could talk to anyone about it.” When I write about book fandom, especially for an audience that’s less broadly fannish and more broadly bookish, I often sense a tension from people who can’t imagine reading being a communal experience. For them, it isn’t. I see that same tension with every book start-up that emerges and eventually folds: so many of them have aimed to socially network the reading experiences of the types of readers who just want to be left alone with their books. What a lot of these attempts fail to acknowledge is the people who want to read communally don’t need a new app to do it. If you want to talk about books with other people, you’ll find your spaces online, ones where you get to dictate how -- and how much -- you share what you’re reading. These spaces are plentiful in the digital world; perhaps in the future, they’ll be just as easy to find in the analog world as well. If digital technologies have made our private spaces more public, maybe we need more squashy beanbags to make our public spaces a little more private. Maybe we’ll regularly be able to say, “I’m going to go out -- and curl up with a good book.” Image Credit: Flickr/Erin Kelly.
Essays

Atlas of Interest: On the Hidden Life of Marginalia

“We have all seized the white perimeter as our own,” wrote Billy Collins in “Marginalia.” (When I first read the poem, I dutifully scored the passage with a checkmark in my copy of Picnic, Lightning -- surely a meta-marginal inscription if there ever was one.) Collins’s words, jubilant, even triumphal, may strike the seasoned marginalist as overly dramatic, if not absurd; however, lest we forget, the tyranny of “the white perimeter” is not easily repealed in those whom it has been cultivated. Our culture is less than forbearing in matters of extra-textual scribbling, its very presence analogous to vandalism or, perhaps worse, the intellectual’s vague sedition; our training, therefore, begins early. For a child overly fond of the library, the rituals of card and stamp and due date quickly (and, for some, permanently) accord the book a kind of material sanctity: to write in one would be akin to relieving oneself in the narthex. So we may forgive Collins his exuberance in conquering the margins (what he elsewhere refers to, quite beautifully, as having “planted an impression along the verge”); after all, when one has finally and irrevocably transgressed -- say, a furtively penned “IRONY” in a battered copy of Oscar Wilde as a teenager --- the act of reading opens like a paper flower dropped in water. The text, thus defaced, provoked, enriched, no longer appears as chantry but rather something approaching a bordello, a blackboard, a battleground. What do we know of the hidden life of this richly historical, eminently malleable literary practice? As we continue to inundate our texts with scratches, exes, pentagrams, aggressively enthusiastic exclamations, stains, imprints, and doodles, a parallel text, possessed of its own narrative thrust, begins to emerge. What are the stakes of this reading record that is somehow neither public nor private, but rather limbic, brazenly interstitial, a farrago of heiroglyphs, incantations, surfeits, and asides? Is marginalia, finally, truly marginal? Mortimer J. Adler, in his seminal How to Read a Book, lays out the purview of marginalia thusly: Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake -- not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author. There is much wisdom here, as in much of Adler, though that last sentence feels incomplete to me. If marginalia helps the reader “remember the thoughts of the author,” a far more important function, I think, is that it helps the reader remember her own resolves, her reactions, her quibbles and queries. It is a flash of insight or anger, ossified, trapped in literary amber where it can be retrieved for a later reckoning. A book, after all, is a form of confrontation, and one of the most compelling motivators behind marginalia is a kind of engaged hostility. This quarrelsome brand of literary corrective, whether a byproduct of zealous critical engagement or the basest jealousy, is both compulsively readable and often very funny. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose collected marginalia runs to six volumes, took such a disliking to Robert Southey’s Joan of Arc that he created a kind of abusive shorthand to deploy at will in the guilty margins: the New York Public Library, which owns the Berg Collection of which this text is a part, lists “J” (a “discordant jingle of sound”), “L.M.” (“ludicrous metaphor”), and “S.E.” (“Southey’s English,” an idiom which, apparently, exasperated Coleridge), among a great many others. Similarly adversarial, though more judicious in the levying, was David Markson, whose light checkmarks and fragmented erudition belied a forcible literary temper. Next to a particular passage in Don DeLillo’s Mao II -- “That the withheld work of art is the only eloquence left” -- the late novelist wrote, rather eloquently it must be said, “Bullshit.” The margins, too, are often used to democratize a reader’s engagement with the text, to level the playing field as it were so that the act of reading becomes a form of robust conversation, something vigorous that approaches an act of interrogation. David Foster Wallace’s annotated books, in which his slanting words are corralled into labyrinthine honeycombs of red-penned shapes, are a fine example of this readerly dynamism. His blooming bubbles of thought, copious to the point of claustrophobia, can have the not unpleasant effect of literary vertigo: who is writing in whose margins here? Which is text and which is commentary? Wallace, of course, employs what is merely an outsized mode of what, I think, most readers use the margins for: that is, a piercing of the veil, a textual cohabitation in which lulling passivity is shed. No longer content with mere perusal, we become enabled participants, capable and correcting, or else fierce and fiery lovers, leaving notes we hope the author -- or some distant reader -- will linger over. And herein we stumble upon one of the most intimate and empathetic dimensions of marginalia: that it is often a form of failed privacy. When we mark our books, we affix a particular meaning to a text-in-time, one meant for, at the very least, a temporally inaccessible self -- though in my own reading, the intended recipient is often a figment of literary fantasy. I converse with the dead, with strangers who may own this book in the far flung future on whom I wish to make a striking impression. Or, admittedly discomfiting, I sometimes aim to astound myself 10 years hence, an eerie longing for the adoration of my own eyes grown older. I do not do these things consciously (or, at least, not always); rather, it would appear that in my own marginalia, desire is an animating principle, a need to relate -- or to prove something -- to figures not living, not present, not born. Alternately, who hasn’t succumbed to the delicious voyeurism of a stranger’s scrawlings? In following along with the previous reader’s checks and brackets, their snarks and synopses, their tangents and revelations, we read a text doubly, illumined by the spectral presence of past engagement. Used bookstores are graveyards of casual epiphanies, awaiting the resurrective animism of fresh consciousness. And whether we are of like mind with the erstwhile owner or we find ourselves adversaries in interpretation, it is a literary haunting the seductive power of which depends on the worth of its abandoned concealments. And, too, how confidently we build physical profiles and intellectual dossiers based solely on these laconic remnants. Outstripping obscurity, their marks remain generative, capable of a surprisingly rich composition. A character materializes before us: spotted scalp, natty loafers. The banalities of life discoloring the page -- a spot of coffee, an egg salad stain -- achieve an eloquence difficult to explain. We scorn their misspelled words. We admire their lyrical wit. We marvel at the decades-old Sear’s coupon doubled over in the book’s yellowed center. We wince where pens ran dry, a familiar frustration in the empty spirals pressed against the page; a new color (we pronounce judgment on their choice) begins its work. More present, more articulate ghosts we will not find. If, as James Wood has it in The Broken Estate, “every book is its own reality and its own realism,” marginalia grants us a footpath back to our reality. It renders the passage fluid between book and life, a floodlit corridor through which we might transport and retain our hard-won insights. These humble marks are the seams and scars borne in the service of reading, the places wherein we rushed heedlessly toward a ripple, an intuited glimmer. Taken together, they comprise a kind of atlas of interest, a map of literature’s ability to quicken the opaque substance of the reading mind. Bequeathing our words, we bequeath ourselves: there, lit up suddenly, a life inscribed. Image Credit: Flickr/romana klee.