In Person

Racetrack Diary: Down the Home Stretch

1. Two weeks before the end of the meet, I go on a tour of the backstretch. They run trolleys out from the side gate every morning, chugging around the first turn and depositing tourists in the center of the backstretch, on an expanse of dirt, gravel, and hay. We stand between endless rows of stables and the Clare Court jogging track, where horses pass by in steady succession, a bluster of hooves and loose dirt in the early-morning haze. I’d been out to the backstretch just once before, many years ago, assigned to the tiny row of pari-mutuel windows there. Every day at a regular window, I take bets from people who view horses as an abstraction — playing lucky numbers, or betting on odds alone, or covering their racing forms with complicated arithmetic. At a window on the backstretch, bettors include owners, trainers, grooms, exercise riders, hot walkers, starters, and stable hands: the bets may still be abstractions, but these are the people who touch the horses, every race, every day — that alone was a novelty. I don’t remember much about that afternoon, beyond wishing I had more than Sesame Street-level Spanish. Wherever your window is located, the monotony of a long day of taking bets is just like any other. On the tour, we are shuttled through the backstretch, and I learn more about the horse side of racing in an hour than I probably have in a decade as a mutuel clerk. I have certainly never seen this many horses at once — on the track itself, it’s like Grand Central for a while, dozens of thoroughbreds galloping past in both directions, maybe practicing, warming up for future races, and we all stand there gawking while the professionals cluster a ways down the rail, assessing their charges. Back on the trolley, back around the first turn, and as we walk down the broad sidewalk on East Avenue, my friend remarks that it’s odd how ubiquitous the horse once was. There are places, in this country and around the world, where horses remain a part of every day life. But here, they are an attraction, a rare and welcome sight, animals prized for simply existing, for the way they run, for the way they stand, the delicate interplay of musculature resting on the most fragile-looking sets of legs. But then, even when horses were bought and sold for work and for everyday transport, people still flocked to watch thoroughbreds race. I am a generation or two removed from having living relatives who grew up in a horse-bound era, but, by some odd coincidence, both of my grandfathers dealt with horses, if only briefly. My father’s father, who was a doctor, worked one night a month at a harness track in Buffalo. And my mother’s father, who died just before I was born, enlisted in the army early in 1941, joining the cavalry, the family story goes, because he wanted to ride a horse. A few months later, the army was mechanized, and he had to learn to drive a jeep — but he still got his horse: her name was Jackie. Back home in Queens, he’d walk to Aqueduct from time to time, to watch the races. Sometimes I think that I’ve spent so long taking bets because it is a convenient summer job, because the racing seasons rise and fall like clockwork, because I will always know how to punch out a ticket. But sometimes I think that this was all meant to be. The racetrack brings out my fatalism, after all. 2. There is a reliable shape to the final two weeks of the Saratoga meet, and it starts with an exponential rise, a palpable excitement in the days leading up to the Travers Stakes, the million-dollar race always run the second-to-last Saturday. I spend the lead-up sharpening my patience and teaching novices how to bet. One large group proves to be one of the densest I’ve ever encountered — a woman asks me if Orb, the winner of this year’s Kentucky Derby, is running in the first race that day; another seems convinced, despite my explanations, that the same horses are running in every race. They are uniformly confused, and they bet that way, handing over cash and then taking it back, laying one jumbled bet on top of another, and at the end of the day, I count my money and find that I’ve gone short. I’m quietly furious as I open my wallet to make up the difference — it’s only $20, but it adds insult to injury. You hear a lot of horror stories, of tellers getting scammed by customers out of thousands, having to work for months to pay back the money. My first year on the job, I counted my box one day and found exactly $200 missing. They took it out of my paycheck — I was essentially working for free that week — and the head of the department took one look at me, sobbing uncontrollably in his office, and sent me home. My patience is rewarded, though, because on Travers Day, I am blessed with a wonderful crowd: a group of real gamblers, people who clearly love the racetrack, and the whole affair is joyously bombastic. There are fourteen races, a tremendous slog of a day, but they go off at a surprisingly fast clip. The good cheer is infectious. All of my customers are loose-limbed and generous, throwing down huge bets with a smile and a wink. (This year I sometimes feel as though I am wearing a sign that says, ‘Please wink at me,’ because I am a recipient of an unseasonably high number of them, even for the racetrack: some from saucy elderly men, who are permitted, and some from guys my age, who honestly should not be winking at anyone under any circumstance. And then there’s my new, company-issued nametag, inexplicably introduced halfway through the meet: I am startled every time someone calls me by name, because I have long-since stopped wearing my ID. “Do people call you Betty?” a man asks. I shake my head. “Well thanks, Betty!” he calls out, and then every customer after him follows suit, a chorus of “Thank you, Betty!” as I punch out tickets with a frown. One man, hilariously drunk, leans against my machine as he tries to remember the horses he planned to bet on. “Give me the three with...give me the...what’s your name again? Beth? Macbeth?”) The last tickets are cashed and we count up, turn in our money, and wander out into a sea of destruction: mountains of discarded betting tickets and crumpled plastic cups, and it smells just like an outdoor concert festival, or maybe, like the end of a long Saturday in August at the racetrack, smoke and spilled beer on muddy grass. The town is packed — I can hear it from my bedroom, live bands and djs blasting from rival bar patios, and groups of partiers, probably drunk since the sixth race, hollering outside our windows. I fall asleep by ten o’clock. 3. We are like bartenders, or maybe we are like bank tellers, or maybe there’s no analogous job for the strange rhythm of taking bets, for working to unravel the person standing on the other side of the window, if only for a second or two. I spend time thinking about the remarkable variety of human faces, studying the odd and the interesting, perfectly circular heads and perfectly rectangular ones, the way a single feature can dominate, a nose that never healed correctly after a break, a lazy eye, a comb-over gone wrong. Some guys park themselves at my window, and I stare at them while they stare at their programs, cataloguing details, the message on a pro-Tea Party hat, the make of a watch or the number of rings, a Star of David pendant peeking out beneath the lapels of a Hawaiian shirt. I look for cues in how they bet, for the gaps between confidence levels and correct terminology, in whether how much they’ve lost over the course of a day will affect how polite they’ll be, or if they’re so drunk that a joke will be wasted on them, or taken the wrong way. It’s all a subtle interchange, and sometimes, it feels effortless, as if we are reading from a script — “C’mon babe, let’s make some money today” — and sometimes I try to imagine these lines being delivered anywhere else, here in this day and age. A man makes small talk with me as we wait for the last race to be finalized one evening. I ask if he’s had a good day, and he kind of shrugs and says that it was up and down. But that’s what gambling is all about, he tells me. “You have to take the losses with the wins.” That’s a healthy attitude, I say, and he shrugs again. “It’s like with relationships,” he goes on. “It can start out great, but then it can go really bad.” I nod slowly, because I believe that this is actually not a fantastic analogy for taking a gambling loss with grace. He says, “You know, you see those shows on TV — ” And then he is talking about shows on which women go crazy and kill their boyfriends and are handed life sentences for somewhat psychotic crimes of passion. “It’s official!” I cut in, because they have finally calculated the prices, and I can cash his ticket. As I hand him his money, he leans in and says, “You have a beautiful smile, you know.” 4. If we can count on that exponential rise, we can also count on the sudden drop the day after the Travers. A hangover blankets the track on Sunday, and the week that follows is a slow, sad coda, to the racing season and to summer itself. It’s always like this, bittersweet and sleepy, and every day the sunlight slants a little lower as we leave the racetrack. In years past, we’ve all had to bundle up in sweaters for the final days of the meet, but this year, the humidity hangs on, and we begin much as we started, sweating through the card, machines jamming up with the heat, torrential downpours sweeping through without warning, leaving the track a sloppy mess for the last of the stakes races. I am thoroughly sick of taking bets, and I wonder if it shows on my face, because multiple customers say something along the lines of, “Don’t worry — it’s almost over.” On Labor Day, my first customer looks as weary as I feel, and I ask him how he’s doing. “Oh, you know, just another day in paradise,” he says with a sigh. “It’s the last day in paradise,” I remind him, and he nods with grim satisfaction. People talk about where they’re headed next, and I can feel everyone collectively shucking off their summer personas and reassembling their real lives. The full-time tellers in the union return to their families in Queens; Belmont’s fall season begins just three days later. Many co-workers talk about setting up classrooms, conference days, a return to their students, half reluctant, half hopeful. But more people than I ever realized don’t have another step — the six-week season was a temporary relief from unemployment, and I eavesdrop on conversations about job prospects and troubles (“Before that, I’d never been fired in my life!”) and I am left awkwardly telling people that I am moving to England, apparently the strangest answer anyone could possibly hand out. “Good luck,” I’m told, by co-workers and customers alike. It is a reversal of fortunes, and I am grateful for the well wishes, because, to echo my customers’ mantra, “I need it.” My final tip of the season comes from a quiet woman I’ve seen throughout the meet, who asks me what my plans are as I cash her ticket. She hands me $5, and says, “Go and buy yourself a pint.” The chill finally settles in the next day, and I walk into town after dark to find it utterly deserted, save a couple or two at each of the outdoor seating areas, and some kids practicing skateboarding tricks on Caroline Street, which had been teeming with people just a few days prior, shouting and lighting cigars and toasting the end of summer. It is like any seasonal resort town, just as the season ends, but then, there’s something slightly special about the idea of the Saratoga racing season, something so removed from time. I am too tired to be wistful, but I will be, unapologetically; I always come around to it eventually. I will miss counting out stacks of hundreds and handing them over disbelieving and lucky bettors. I will miss the long, uncomplicated afternoons, the cadence of transactions and the banter, the sense of feeling slightly out-of-synch with the rest of the world. It is a finite season, but in the middle of it all, it feels unending, a single moment in time, stretching out across the call to the post, the starting bell, over ten races a day, six days a week, six weeks a year, for a century and a half. Previously: On Luck Image courtesy the author
In Person

The Love Carousel: Literary Speed Dating at Housing Works in SoHo

“HELLO MY NAME IS MARX,” read the candy cane colored name tag handed to me. One woman actually said that I looked like a Marx, the scruffy beard and omni-directional head of hair. Another teased that she and I ought to make Marx the latest mintage in Manhattan baby name trending by starting a blog to promote it. A University of Chicago grad said, “Go” -- she was ready to talk me under the table with Marxist theory, and when I protested how little I actually remembered off the cuff, she said she would settle for Durkheim, Weber, or Mills. Wasn’t there someone? Goffman? I responded, Nietzsche: Down with the old gods, up with the mania for replacing them! Then our time was up. I joked about how I intended to use the event and number of dates I would meet as a chance to rally support for socialist thought and motion toward a groundswell to upend the capitalist system, which, didn’t they agree, had gone on long enough? Nobody said they didn’t. With doomed grandeur, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “there are no second acts in American lives” -- not accounting, perhaps, for the fortune and fame that could follow publication of a memoir premised on there being no second act. Fitzgerald lived true to his word: his twilight in Hollywood, the mythic cradle of American radical self-reinvention, figured as a long wait for the notes of the nightingale’s song to sound. Marx, on the other hand, declared that everything that has ever happened happens twice: “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” The third time, fourth, fifth, and so on, we are on our own. Not everyone knows, per Jonathan Sperber’s recent bio, that Karl Marx’s earliest manuscript was called The Book of Love. Student Marx composed the collection of romantic poems for childhood sweetheart and lifelong partner Jenny von Westphalen. Over the course of their lives together, his romance with Jenny transformed into a romance of a different kind, a belief in the inevitability of international revolution whose contours were somewhat hazy, if keenly felt. This is what happened on the day before Valentine’s Day, 2013, a Wednesday, at the Housing Works Bookstore on Crosby Street just south of the Calvin Klein billboard in SoHo. A first ever. A good cause: “I Like Your Glasses: Literary Speed Dating.” Each participant found at the entrance a neon green envelope, including a library card in manila sleeve for taking notes on each “date,” and a name tag featuring the handle of a character from a favorite book (favorites requested earlier by e-mail). These would be our pseudonyms for the night. Each date would last an almost militantly enforced four minutes. A single case of lingering -- whether affectionate, desirous, or uncertain -- could cause the entire caterpillar crawl to go legs up. There was to be no lingering. Lingering is for books. We each were to have brought one, a title to display for the sake of conversation. From my messenger bag I drew John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse. Each “date” station had a name -- my point of origin dubbed Heorot for Beowulf’s banquet hall where Grendel was a regular gate-crasher. Café tables set in rows through the heart of Housing Works Bookstore’s assembly space formed the stations, solicitous waiters snaking around them to offer speed-date refreshment, tonic of composure or forgetting. Two emcees spoke over a scratchy sound system by the bathrooms, raging like Dylan Thomas against the frenetic buzz of our voices. They joked we would hate them and use our hatred of them as grist for conversation with the strangers across from us. I succeeded at not mentioning them until my final match of the night, a brunette with an anchor tattooed on her bare shoulder. Her pseudonym was Estha, one plucked by the organizers’ naming committee from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. I looked at her and she looked at me, fleetingly at one in our total disdain for the emcees as they pleaded everyone be quiet. In that moment, I am sure of it, we both wished for their overthrow. This was as close to authentic connection as I found. Estha was probably about five years my senior (although, impossible to say: she could have been 29, too, a lover of the wind and the rain and the sun on her cheeks). She said that she was bouncing back from a divorce to the guy with whom she had cofounded a restaurant in Brooklyn -- the same restaurant, it turns out, I went to on my first date with the last woman to cohabitate with me. I was touched by the coincidence and the total lack of rationale for verbalizing the coincidence to Estha, as we had about a minute left in our exchange, and a top 10 rule of first dates, the real kind, is not to mention exes unless desiring to come off as a pet pitifully leashed to a station wagon pulling obliviously away and gaining speed. My eyes might have gone a little fuzzy, all the same, and Estha took my expression of fuzziness for susceptibility, emphasizing how she always made sure to mention the name of the restaurant she and her ex founded when possible. I realized Estha, like me, was attempting to find a purpose for the evening, what it had really all been about, if it had not been what it was supposed to be about (the exceedingly worthy charitable cause, notwithstanding). What it had all really been about, I decided, was capitalism, making a product of ourselves and pitching it to strangers at four-minute intervals: life as an ad incarnate. Estha, at least, had the class not to be promoting specifically herself but a physical location in the world that she had played a part in dreaming a reinvention for, one that we, any of us guys carouselling by, could go visit. There was also Karenina from Idaho -- a girl from Idaho! -- and June, who was quiet, and Ruth, whose pseudonym’s source text was, for me, a winner, and Grace, who knew her political and sociological thinkers, and Kit, who laughed at me or an awareness of the cool, amusing film through which we saw each other, the cattle stall of the standard speed dating experience retrofitted with funhouse literary mirrors. I tried not to steal peeks at the next woman over both because it was rude to the woman I was speaking with and because I wanted every meeting to be a surprise with a genuine response, not performed or calculated. Though, Reader, I tell you, my naïve ambition became difficult to maintain as I stood up to move on to Calliope of the Marx babies, then Babette, who had the air of a cigarette-smoking beauty queen, and Anne, and Hazel, and Lizzy, and my consciousness of the fact that the more I repeated myself in response to the same questions, the less sincere I became, our comedian hosts droning on, their voices insistent, their words incomprehensible, the face presently across from me feeling more and more like a test-marketing subject for a new product which was My Projected Self. Shame at projections gone awry sloughed away as new conversation played immediately over old, like a new album in place of last year’s, with Daisy, who wondered whether or not she ought to read The Corrections, and Margaret Peel, who was significantly older and to whom I said I was probably not the guy she imagined meeting that evening, but what about her make-believe name, its literary origin? (Lucky Jim, she explained, our organizers having conflated her favorite author, Martin Amis, with his father, Kingsley, then named her after a character in Kingsley Amis’s most famous novel, a novel she had never read...although I had, I was reminded then), and Isabel, whose expression was like a runner’s in the early miles of a race, and finally, Estha, of the anchor tattoo and lovable Brooklyn restaurant. One thing about capitalism, I have noticed, is that its appeal is never stronger than in the aftermath of a breakup, love spilling forth from the vessel that shaped it, all that energy and longing to be known and to know in turn seeking new forms to cleave to, things that did not previously define you.  Conceivably a human being could live this way forever, making bonds, breaking bonds, and reaching out through expenditures of concentration and will to take on more trappings, assume other forms, a kind of perennial runaway from the prurience of small-town gossip and stifling judgment, glorying in the purity of the new. There is what we forget and what we remember, and I cannot say for certain how accurately I have recalled an event now seven months distant, or where fiction, despite conscious intention, has blurred the edges of fact and so made them softer, the facts, but thematically more concentrated, molding from a chaos of temporarily overlapping paths something that reads as almost retraceable. A moment of possible return. To find yourself speed dating is to acknowledge, at least to yourself, not without humor, a waywardness of romantic course, to become increasingly conscious of yourself as an advertisement for yourself, a mercurial herald, as you move from one table to the next, one consciousness and then another and another flitting by image-saturated eyes. In your remove, the recognitions you have but don’t speak, a story begins to build, refined by each new face, each curious glance, the unspoken attempt to find a hold in the world everyone shares. It is almost possible to believe that the world consists entirely of surfaces and that the ones presently before us are the only we will ever know. If it is true that capitalism is the final organizing principle humanity will ever know, the snaking tables around which we are to carousel forever, but not just capitalism in the abstract, but this capitalism, where big companies merge with big companies, big publishers with big publishers -- the fewer meaningful players on the field, the less actual competition, the closer our capitalism resembles Soviet Russia, a state ruled by one all-encompassing company whose elite direct the bureaucratic circus -- then I might have been seeing symptoms in the material conditions of the speed dating scene, or the shape the material conditions gave my sense of self, those of us on the carousel that night in February. As we passed each other by, our personalities become weightless, the stories inside the books we carried felt more and more real. Image Credit: Flickr/Alan O'Rourke
Essays, In Person

Chasing the Light: On Not Quitting the Writing Life

Tonight, they are filming on Fourth Street in front of KGB Bar. On the opposite sidewalk, skinny bearded Brooklynites with watch caps and girlfriends with boxy Ray-Bans are acting casual while covertly (but obviously) laser-eying the actors under the boom mics. Star fuckers. I refuse to gawk at the glitterati assembled here. Hustling up two flights to KGB, I arrive just in time to start the reading -- good thing, as I’m the host. This is my sixth year as the curator and host of a reading series for emerging writers. I can judge the shape of a crowd long before we settle down to hear the first reader. I can tell that we’ve got a good if shy crowd tonight, and so during my warm-up patter, I ask if anyone knows what’s being filmed on the street outside. A girl says, “I think it’s Smash.” A gasp from the back: “You are not serious.” I can’t tell if this is an ironic jest or not; it has become de rigueur in 2013 to say things you do not mean at all in order to get laughs at the expense of the things you are pretending to believe. I am aware that television is experiencing a Renaissance of narrative; perhaps, I think, Smash is one of those shows I should learn more about. I don’t settle in front of the tube often. (Tube is the wrong word, of course. It’s all just flat panels and plasma and LCDs now. But television will always be the Boob Tube for me.) One of the readers tonight, Josh, looks a lot like me -- or at least he looks like the me who moved to New York in 1998. We look like we could be lost siblings. We both have trim little goatees and professorial jackets over v-neck sweaters. He has red pants, trendier than my indigo jeans; and he has trendy black frame glasses, whereas my eyes are bare (it adds to the gravitas when I have to squint to read introductory bios, right?). Josh brings two copies of Ploughshares to the podium for his turn. He reads a piece from the magazine’s spring 2012 issue. And, damn, but it’s good -- I mean really good. And then, to add insult to injury, he announces that he wants to read a second quick selection. The rules for the reading series are that you get just 10 minutes, and Josh has already eaten up eight; but before I can give him the hook, he says the second selection is from the current issue of Ploughshares. In other words, this kid, this knock off of me, has had two separate editors select his work for one of the country’s most prestigious short story venues. His second piece, about a woman hired to tutor a dead girl, is even better than the first. After Josh finishes, I send everybody to the bar for a break. We always take a break between readers, but today I really need to pause and grab a stiff one. The readers rarely send me into a vertigo of jealousy, but Josh has kicked off some real self-doubt. I have submitted half dozen stories to Ploughshares over the years, with predictable results. The regular bartender is not behind the counter tonight; for most of my tenure as host and curator of the series, I always enjoyed between two and three rum and Cokes gratis. But owing to my very recent diabetes diagnosis, tonight I can’t have more than a single rum and Coke, and I feel guilty about even that. KGB Bar has a sterling literary reputation; it appears on pretty much every Literary New York map. The idea behind the reading series is to provide new writers with a venue where editors and agents might stop by and make a connection. That’s all the theory, at least. Tonight, nobody from the publishing world has showed. Or at least no one from the trade is admitting their allegiance for fear of being mobbed. I made my own public debut at this podium nearly seven years ago. After I finished my excerpt, I looked into the crowd for someone, anyone waving a publishing contract in the air like an autograph book. No one did. But a few days later, out of the ethereal blue, an editor from Persea emailed me, saying her boss had been present and loved what he heard. For a few months we flirted about the book. I corresponded with them while in India as they read and re-read it and considered whether to publish or let me perish. In the end they passed. They weren’t sure they could really give the book the attention it deserves. I would have been satisfied with a half-assed effort on their part, but no one gave me the option. Both of the other two readers tonight are also impressive, if not as widely published, and after the last reader finishes her piece, I make a circuit of the room to thank everyone. I find Josh at the back of the room, paling around with two people whom I presume are his friends. “Yeah, I got my idea to write about a tutor for a dead girl by watching Jay Leno,” he is saying, and all his buddies crack up. Again, I have no idea if this is meant to be sarcasm, or if perhaps he really was moved by something said by the King of Late Night Lantern Jaws. “You’re an excellent writer,” I tell him. He nods in a calm genuine manner, like someone who came to New York for just this kind of moment and is pleased but not surprised to find himself inhabiting it. “Thank you so much for putting this together,” he says, and I really believe he is genuinely grateful. He has no idea what kind of powers I wield -- or, as the case may be, what power I don’t wield. I don’t get paid for this gig. The process of screening and selecting and scheduling readers is tedious and without charm. The only kickback I get -- besides a free drink at the bar -- is the look in the eyes of the readers after a good night. Handshakes, a hug now and then, an earnest thank you: all the readers here are doing everything they can to build up what is known as The Writing Life, an improbable daisy chain of lauded works and actions that lets one avoid slaving full-time in cubical farms somewhere hundreds of feet above Times Square. They are hungry, all of them, and they believe in their own future with such urgency that you can see their dream life playing like an inspirational movie over and over again on their retinas. I remember the feeling. I am back on the street shortly after eight o’clock. The reading has taken less than one hour tonight. The film crew remains, and I cross to the other side of Fourth Street. This time, I am paying more attention to the actors under the kliegs. Not sure why -- I don’t have any idea what the show is and what it’s about even if I know the name. Heading west on Fourth Street, I feel primed to notice everything, as if I have been stirred from a slumber. I see clearly how much the block has changed over the years. No one would have filmed here when I first came to drink at KGB, shortly after I graduated from college in Chicago. There were none of these chocolatiers, no bakery, no Rivington Guitars, no antiquarian map shop, nothing but boarded up doors and the flickering lights of low rent vestibules. One of the few unchanged features is the fire plug where I sat one evening and read The Plague while waiting for two friends to join me for a drink. I was engrossed in the book when this girl who was a friend of a friend meandered up and said hi to me. I’d never met her before, but we fell into chatting like we had a deep back story. It felt so easy to connect back then. We were all here to pilfer New York for its riches. We chatted and the sun went down and the street got darker and I thought, geez, is it safe around here? I met my wife a year later at the office, but for some reason when it came time for our first kiss, we debuted in the darkest corner of KGB. The bar was deserted but it felt like a risky public outing because I had all too recently broken up with a girl. That night, I put my future-tense wife in a taxi for home and then stumbled off myself, exhilarated, freed, searching the sky for stars, and never once worrying about shady characters on Fourth -- partly because of intoxicating hormones and partly because the block, two years after I had first set foot on it, had already gentrified so much that fear felt foolish. Tonight the street is laughably safe. On the other end of the block, near Bowery, the pub called Phebe’s is still there, but as I wait for the crosswalk I notice the new hotel rising up from the low buildings. And let’s not forget the contemporary grandeur of Cooper Union, and the building across the street from the black cube where there used to be a parking lot with a sketchy dude who sold old Playboys out of crates in the back of his battered van. I keep walking in this haze of nostalgia and heighted observation. The past and the present seem more visible than usual. I should go home via the station on Eighth Street, but instead I keep walking west into the NYU campus. Just before Washington Square, I pass a building where the actress that I once dated took her classes about the Theatre of the Oppressed and Augusto Boal and the idea that art was something you participated in, not something you absorbed as an audience or created as an artist and broadcast to others. Washington Square evokes its fair share of memories from me as well. The place where I am standing now was once a den of drug dealers after sundown. It is now bucolic and as calm as the library, which is lit up like an orange Japanese lantern. In one of the novels I have written and failed to sell while in New York, the antagonist is a kid whose big idea is to sells drugs to NYU students in Bobst Library rather than in the Square. Maybe it’s a lingering sense of embarrassment from the reading -- or maybe it’s simply because I am cold and I’ve worked all day and I should be home. But as I glance around and identify landmarks and addresses that I know, I think to myself: Is it a sign that I am too old, that I am past my prime, that I am no longer someone with potential when everything that I see or hear has some kind of singsong tie back to yesterday? As time passes, I seem to know more and more of New York. Once upon a time, it felt impossible to learn even the patterns of a few streets. Now, even as venues come and go, as restaurants are born and die with the span of a Mayfly, I feel as if everything conforms to the same loose pattern, one that has me bound up in it; and so I think to myself, with smug disdain, tear it all down, then, burn down everything. I wish for a moment that New York’s famous proclivity for change would accelerate and obliterate all the places I once knew. For a moment, stationary at the center of the Square, I can see both this emotion and the place that it came from. The disdain itself is real, but reflexive, like something my brain has hardwired as a means for protection. Like the disgust you feel as a kid when you taste something sharp and new. In the case of childhood tastes, this kneejerk disgust protects you from straying too far from what is safe to eat, even if it’s sweet and delicious. So you think you hate mango as a kid till you grow up and taste it and realize in fact you love mango and want to eat it ravenously on blazing summer days when the air conditioner fails and you’re standing shirtless in the pathetic breeze of a shelf fan and tearing the stringy sweet pulp from the kotlo with your teeth while juice runs down your neck and you’re thinking just this and this and wonderful. Here’s my theory, then: maybe being so fiercely in love with New York’s constant change is a way to protect yourself from regret and the facts of failure after living here long enough; maybe forgetting the past is a means for ensuring that we not castigate ourselves for failing to change the world as much as we’d hoped. That kid who was reading Camus on a fire plug probably would not be too impressed by my six-year tenure as a reading curator. Where are the published books, he’d ask. Where are the prizes and honors? I start to walk again, cold from the bitter winter wind. But I am not walking so much as I am thinking, considering, weighing all these thoughts. I don’t really notice the steps down to the subway platform at the West Fourth station. I have my phone out and I’m tapping some thoughts into the Notes app. Somehow I get on the train without tripping on the platform. The words quickly bloom into phrases, long lines, and before I know it, I am writing a poem in long lunging gulps, like a horse that has been kickstarted into a canter from a dead stand still. I have not written a poem, not a real poem, in more than half a decade. At Northwestern, I had a professor who strongly advocated writing in longhand first. She was a brilliant professor, but not entirely someone that was strongly tethered to the modern world. I typed everything that I ever wrote back then. Now, I type some material first with my thumbs. My professor would disapprove even more strenuously, I think. Yet if the train has to be my writing studio, then the train’s just going to have to do. Old Nabokov would understand. I am given to understand that he wrote his first English novel in the loo of his Paris flat -- setting his valise over the bidet as a makeshift writing desk. And so, tonight, like an animal spooked into action, I am writing. The likelihood of creating something profound has vanished with the years. All that is left is the impulse to make something. It is a primal, indivisible thing. In addition to the poem, I thumb into the phone the rough outlines of a story. These pieces are a pair, I realize. Maybe it’s even written by a character in the piece? Maybe there is a third piece, an essay, that acts as a capstone to connect everything into one work about ambition and identity and New York and my life. The ride home is 20 minutes and I compose the entire first draft of the poem before the train reaches the Museum of Natural History. Rereading it and making edits, I am standing on the corner of a street in Harlem. Someone is walking his dog, and I can hear a jazz guitarist in the bar at the ground level of my building. Yes, it’s a good start, I think. I am home, transported, through some kind of alchemy, despite what felt like a brain fugue of sorts. What is it that can still seize me, after years of failure, and make me seek to write, to make art? I have no idea. All I know is that I do not have it in me to give up. I lean forward and push into the revolving door, all while the shape of this piece, the poem, a story, all taking shape. The doorman, a Haitian in a navy suit, hails me and I nod in return. The bright steel elevator doors slide open. I smile at my own feet. I am home. My children are asleep upstairs. My wife is waiting with food to be warmed and conversation to be had. I belong here. Is this the life that I dreamed I would have after this long in the city? Is that really a question that needs to be answered? I feel I understand, Existence, or at least a minute part Of my existence, only through Art. This comes from the fourth Canto of Nabokov’s Pale Fire and it illumines all I am trying to do when I write. You see, at my age, after the youth burns out, and the long sweet middle years lie ahead, what happens after the writing is done simply does not matter. The point is the chemical burn itself, the molecular exchange, not what is produced or left behind. The point is being, not having done. That would certainly explain the reason why I’m still here, after all these years, chasing the light in a city unwilling to lie down and sleep. But enough thinking. Enough writing. It’s time to see my family, to enjoy the real life that I’ve painstakingly assembled here, and to stop dreaming about poets and novels and the world of sweet lies and pretend people. Let’s live. Let’s be. The elevator doors close, and up, up, up we go. Image Credit: Flickr/Francisco Diez
In Person

Racetrack Diary: Opening Day

1. A Friday morning in mid-July: opening day at the Saratoga Race Course. We’re in the final throes of a heat wave that’s been smothering the entire Eastern Seaboard for days on end, and this morning the thermometer reads 97 — with the humidity, it tops 100 in the shade. I’ve worked days like this before, and it’s daunting, thinking of the eleven sticky races that will stretch on into early evening. I head across town, following the long dip of East Avenue down and then up again, and as I pass the Oklahoma training track, the festooned iron gates of the main race course blossoming out before me, I worry absently about the temperature and the safety of the horses. If the crowd inching towards the admissions gates looks diminished, perhaps it’s because they’re drooping beneath the punishing sun. A good number of them will give up by the sixth race or so, throwing out a rash of perfunctory bets for the rest of the card. “I’m melting out here,” half a dozen men tell me, soaking through their tank tops, beads of sweat colonizing their upper lips. “You guys got air-conditioning in there?” I manage to bark out a laugh every time. “Don’t worry, honey, you still look good,” one woman assures me — without provocation — and I am surprisingly relieved. We’re all melting, outside and inside the Paddock, the converted barn in which two long rows of pari-mutuel clerks sit taking bets and counting cash. Sweat collects in the corners of my eyes, blurring my vision as I punch out $2 exacta boxes. The heat eventually breaks after dark, when a series of violent thunderstorms sweep in and knock the weather into submission. Half the town loses power. Finally, maybe a little inexplicably, it really feels like summer to me; I throw open the windows and listen to the thunder retreating, the gentlest rumble now beneath the steady pulse of the rain. 2. I’d returned to Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York, four days prior. My hometown had seemed largely unchanged as I drove in (as if I were coming home from the war or something — in fact I was here at Christmas), though the sidewalks are now littered with enormous disembodied feet encased in ballet slippers, each one individually painted and nearly as tall as man. It’s some sort of project to showcase local artists, but the freestanding feet are perhaps creepier than anyone probably intended, like the collected crime scenes of a giant serial killer. I’m happier with the track’s anniversary logo, a red oval with a golden horse blazing through it, which has been plastered all over town — affixed to front doors and printed on flags and at the track itself, on banners and t-shirts and tote bags. The Saratoga Race Course opened in August of 1863, though it hasn’t quite been 150 consecutive seasons since — it was shuttered a few times, like when gambling was outlawed in New York state in 1911, and during the Second World War. Still, it’s billed as the oldest continually running thoroughbred track in the country. The track is a constant in this town, the six-week season an anchor around which the year rises and falls. Saratoga is humming in anticipation, the population visibly swelling as crowds collect and loiter along Broadway. It’s hard for me to avoid sentimentality when it comes to the racing season, but I can almost feel a sort of romantic momentum picking up as the town sails towards August — the ornate Victorian mansions, thrown open for six weeks of garden parties, or the bars, heaving with tourists flush with winnings from the big race, waving cigars and spilling beer in the streets. We all cast our glances backwards a bit when the races begin, and before long the real world ebbs away, at least for a few weeks. I’ve always found it a little funny, though, that for all the nostalgia and the celebration of tradition, at the track you have to take it one race at a time. Thirty seconds, a minute at most — if you’re lucky, a tight, dramatic finish, and if you’re luckier still, a winning ticket — and then it’s on to the next race, just twenty-eight more minutes to post. 3. I join the crowd trudging through the stultifying heat on opening day and it all seems to be the same as it ever was: the admissions gates give way to a long, broad footpath and a sea of red-and-white-striped awnings, and there’s the Dixieland band, wailing away, and there are the hat sellers, the boys hawking the Daily Racing Form, the stands charging obscene prices for lemonade — it feels like nothing so much as the distillation of summer, everything lazy and affable beneath the unrelenting sunshine. The park stretches out on both sides, swaths of patchy green covered with picnic tables and banks of televisions displaying the morning odds, and the back of the grandstand looms ahead, white lattice and flowers and ushers standing guard at the entrances. A ribbon of gravel flanked by a pair of white fences cuts a sharp channel through the park: the route along which horses are led from the stables to the paddock. Security guards pull chain-link barriers across a gap in the fences as the horses pass, and they are an astonishing sight up close, sleek and muscular and so much larger than I ever expect they’ll be, tongues lolling out, nosing slightly to one side or the other as they are led with what appear to be the lightest of touches at their reins. Today they pant a bit in the heat. I won’t see another live horse for the rest of the day. Eventually I reach the grandstand, and as I walk inside I am greeted by a blinding expanse of white: maybe a few hundred people milling around, greeting each other after eleven months away like it’s the first day of school, clad in white-collared shirts and toting lunch boxes and already a bit weary, as if the first race has gone off and some angry drunk is shouting that their mistakes have cost him a huge trifecta. These are my people: these are the pari-mutuel clerks. 4. We take bets. It’s the simplest explanation for a job that’s more nuanced than I’d ever have guessed, before any of this, before the track was something more than a disruptive abstraction on the east side of town. I learned the basic logic of horse gambling ten years ago, hovering over a keyboard as seasoned tellers called out sample bets, struggling to understand the terminology and the different combinations, exactas and doubles, keys and partial wheels, ten-ten on the eight horse, Seabiscuit in the fifth. I’ve learned a lot in the intervening decade, like how to harness the patience to explain the fundamentals to a novice, or how to decipher the ramblings of a drunk. I work hard to be effortlessly adept when professional gamblers come to the windows, printed stacks of racing stats clipped together, the carefully-calculated permutations of a morning spent handicapping printed at the top in neat pencil. Each series of bets, each exchange is a single moment encapsulated: beneath the numbers, horses and dollar amounts, it’s flirtation or anger or joking banter or the drudgery of playing a game only the very lucky can seem to crack. I am assigned a window in the Paddock, a self-contained bay of sixty betting machines populated by cheerful crowds on both sides of the windows. The customers are a mixed group, but on the weekends, it’s a lot of picnickers, juggling their programs and Miller Lite tallboys, cigarettes dangling from their lips. I draw the first bills of the day, close to $1,000, and as I count my money and the reunions continue around me, I feel unexpectedly out-of-place. It’s been three years since I worked a regular season at Saratoga, and I have lost both my seniority and my points of reference. I’m not eager to talk about how it’s been just a few days since I left behind my entire life in New York City. In the slow minutes before the first race, I am eager for the steady flow of customers, for the grounding effects of a long, impatient line of gamblers. Eventually a nondescript man saunters up and leans in against my window. “I’ll take a dollar tri box: 1, 6, 8,” he says distractedly, laying a pair of bills across the top of my machine. I punch the ticket and as he plucks it out I wish him luck. It’s extraordinary how quickly everything slots back into place; taking bets is mostly habit by now. By the time the horses are called to the post, I’ve travelled back across the past decade, suddenly deep in a long stretch of late summer spent sitting behind the betting windows, fingers working in a sort of rapid, monotonous variation, rote transactions punctuated by the most genuine human interaction, when then entire world narrows to a fine point, just me and my customer, exchanging cash and one-liners and the smallest slivers of each others’ lives. Another man comes to my window, and then another, and then another. 5. Once the heat breaks, the threat of rain hangs over the rest of opening weekend. It’s around the seventh or eighth race on Saturday and the strip of sky I can see is growing murky. A customer is lingering at my window, checking over his tickets, and I ask him if he thinks it’s about to rain. He leans in, eyebrows raised. “Why?” he asks. “You got a tip for the mud?” It does rain soon, a few quick, furious downpours, sending the crowds sprinting for cover. A woman wanders past my window in polka-dotted cowboy-boot galoshes. They’re just flash storms; the track isn’t sloppy yet. A supervisor once described a steadily rainy afternoon as a “telephone-number day,” when track conditions made things so unpredictable that the only way to pick a winning combination of horses was to toss out random numbers, an address or a birthday. “Little old ladies will be cashing ’em in like crazy,” he said. I know the type — women who come up and tell me, slightly abashed, that they’re here to “play my numbers.” We’re not quite there yet: the professionals are still hard at it, betting slightly too much in the heady rush of opening weekend. “Will you be my lucky girl?” a few guys ask, and I assure them that I am an especially lucky teller, but this weekend, the lie feels more barefaced than usual. I sell a lot of tickets, but I cash next to nothing. I collect tips in dimes and quarters rather than bills, relegated to weary offers to keep the change. Men are down hundreds, thousands already, and it’s only day two. A large, ruddy-faced man with a Boston accent cashes a big ticket — a few dollars bet, more than a few hundred won back — and as he’s about to pocket the stack of money, he pauses. I do my best to avoid looking too eager. Then he holds up a hand and indicates I should cup my palm, and when I do, he drops forty cents into it. “There you go,” he says. “For your scholarship fund.” 6. I like the little dramas of the racetrack, the smallest fortunes, rising and falling from one race to the next. I like the completely bizarre cross-section of people, the brusque and the flippant, or the guys that lean in and tell me their life stories. They wear shirts unbuttoned too far and masses of gold chains resting on curling chest hair, or white linen suits with matching pocket squares and straw boaters, or the blandest suburban dad uniforms, khaki cargo shorts and neatly-tucked-in polos. When the rain begins, the lines dry up, and in the slow stretches, I watch people walk by — groups of women in dagger-like platform heels, hunched in on themselves for balance; groups of women strutting past in flip flops beneath super-short dresses; a woman wearing a tiny top-hat fascinator, feather jutting from the band, maybe something swiped from an enormous bird of prey. A man hollers across the pavement, “I gotta use the can!” He is wearing a Hawaiian shirt open over a red t-shirt that reads THING 1. There is no sign of THING 2. The Monday after opening weekend, the weather has settled into something spectacular, mid-seventies and sunny, fluffy white clouds and a light breeze; the track is fast and the turf is firm. Early this morning, an essay I wrote about leaving New York was published, and it is hard to think about all of that as I key out dollar pick-3 part-wheels, but I do think about Joan Didion a little bit — my essay is partly a meditation on her famous leaving-New York essay, “Goodbye to All That.” There is a line in there that gave me pause, something about New York, like the rest of it, but a phrase that followed me up through the Hudson Valley to Saratoga Springs: “...the trees just coming into full leaf, the lament air, all the sweet promises of money and summer.” Didion is on 57th Street; I am at the betting windows, but the phrase turns perfectly here. It’s only money, some of my customers say. But it’s only money, for a lot of them. Across the park, through the grandstand, past the bleachers and out on the dirt, the horses are being led to the starting gate. I walk up and down the long row of tellers, catching dozens of single moments encapsulated, people handing over cash, people calling out combinations, people laughing, shaking hands, fist-bumps for luck. It smells like sunscreen, and the cloying heaviness of cigar smoke. I return to my window and flip open my money box, and a customer appears out of nowhere, bets scrawled across the top of his program. “Are you ready for me, sweetheart?” he asks. I look down at the screen, the simple architecture of a bet laid out and waiting — dollar amount, type, horse, and the tiniest stroke of luck — and then back up at him and nod. “Go ahead.” He squares his shoulders and begins to rattle off numbers; I begin to take his bet. Next: On Luck Images courtesy the author
In Person

Does Speaking English Rot Your Teeth?: On Wanting to Be Mavis Gallant

1. The room where we meet is on the fourth floor of an apartment house in Paris, in a district perhaps better left unnamed. It holds a matrimonial bed, a big old wardrobe, and, on a desk, a carafe of tap water and a hinged mirror glazed with spittle. Also present, waving a felt-tip pen like a baton, is a little man with a comb-over the color of boot black on his brow -- my French diction teacher. In the early evening and sometimes of a morning, he receives me in the foyer and shakes my hand and I follow him into this bedroom at the rear of the flat, singing out, "Bonjour Madame!" to the guardian wife at the bedroom door who never returns my greeting. Why a diction teacher? Because delicate French nerves are choqués -- shocked! -- by the erratic phrasing, intonation, and just plain wrong sounds that émigrés are prone to. An aspiring novelist from New York, I am not an émigré, not yet; but I’m preparing to become one by modeling myself after my literary hero, the Anglo-Canadian writer Mavis Gallant, who arrived in Paris more than 60 years ago already speaking exquisite French. The problem is, I see myself ending up like the unfortunate displaced people who inhabit her fiction: adrift, irrelevant, subject to ridicule, alone. Unless, of course, I can finally shed what's left of my foreign accent. Reviewing Jorge Luis Borges’s Collected Fictions for The New York Times in 1998, Ms. Gallant deplored the multitude of writers who fancied themselves disciples of the Argentine master: ‘To write like Borges would require reading the same books in early childhood (in his case, everything), seeing the same films in early youth...It would need wide erudition and an imagination set free.’ I knew, of course, that I’d never write as well as Mavis Gallant, not even if I read the same books and saw the same films and drank the same water and took the same vitamins. Would never write a story as wise and sly as "An Alien Flower" or as wise and sly and heartbreaking as "Potter" or even a minor comic delight like "The Assembly," presented as the minutes of a general meeting -- an assembly, they call it -- of the apartment owners of a Paris building, convened after the adult niece of one of their number was "intimately molested" by a stranger on a landing. (So perfectly does Mavis Gallant render, in standard English, the pompous double-edged formality of haute bourgeois speech, you feel as though you are reading an account of the characters' observations in French.) This being the case, I felt I should start modestly and emulate her in some fundamental way. Surely elocution lessons would give me the confidence I needed to follow in her formidable shadow? 2. According to his promotional materials, Monsieur is the inventor of a form of phonetic notation, a sequence of morphological signs representing the tongue and mouth. Students achieving proficiency in his methods are said to progress from poor articulators to respect-worthy producers of aspirates, uvulars, nasal vowels, and other French phonemes we foreigners tend to mangle. With persistent training, he insists, one can learn to speak without any accent at all! Ch-a-a—a-r-me. In a high reedy tenor that carries through the open casement and over the noonday clatter of plates and silverware from the apartments across the courtyard, the phonetician stretches the word out like a death gasp. On a sheet of paper, he draws a crocodile. The width of its miniature jaws, he says, represents just how wide the average Parisian opens his mouth every time he articulates a word with the letter "a." The average American feels ridiculous, affected, trying to do the same, and I understand better why the mirror on the table is slimed with spittle. Nonetheless, we proceed with this exercise until the end of the hour when Monsieur sees me out, conducting me past that wife or whoever she may be, still policing the bedroom door. Could she be a Pole? (As Mavis Gallant explains in "Potter", "Polish women had always just been or were about to be deserted by their men. At the first rumor of rejection...they gave way at once, stopped combing their hair, stopped making their beds.") To my cheery farewell, Madame responds with a glare that seems to say, What are you doing here? What the hell are you up to? By now, I’m asking myself the same thing. 3. It didn’t seem like a fantastical proposition, not at the start, especially since an heiress I was helping with a book project was eager to dispatch me to Paris to meet with her contacts. There, I’d heard, lived a genius phonetician. This man claimed that achieving native-like speech was a matter of mere mechanics, after which, were I to be invited to appear on a talk show like La Grande Librarie to discuss all the novels I have in mind, viewers would say to themselves, "Dis donc! A young Mavis Gallant! What a pleasant change from that English poet they had on last week, setting us on edge with every half-vowel and slack e-aigu." On my next visit, Monsieur ushered me in to the flat and scurried ahead, as if to guarantee safe passage. Crossing the sitting room to the bedroom where he awaited me, I offered Madame my gentlest "Good day." She remained silent. Installed at his desk, Monsieur said, "Alors, Mademoiselle, have you noticed how we French, unlike our Anglo-Saxon friends, use all the muscles in our face and mouth when speaking? Raise your upper lip toward your nose. When performed correctly, this action will cause the nostrils to flare. Now tip your neck back -- a bit more, that’s it -- and without slackening the tension, articulate a pure clear U-sound, thinking of a bird gliding up to a high branch." In the mirror, I could barely recognize my flaring nostrils and contorted mouth. The diction teacher bounded out of his chair, poured himself a glass of water from the carafe and drained it, then flung back his neck, thrust out his lower jaw and chanted "U, u, u. U u. U. See how it’s done?" Hèlas, I did not. Pausing to compose himself, he smiled, baring a set of crocodilian teeth. "Try this. Imagine I’m putting my hands around your throat and forcing you to produce..." To distract him, I fired a question about some obscure point of grammar, making my r’s and t’s especially violent and explosive. Like a dog swerving after a rabbit, he changed course, exclaiming, "Ah! That depends on Monsieur le Verbe," and lectured me contentedly on that point for the rest of the hour. On the way home, I stopped at a café and ordered a pot of tea in "proper" French, but my bizarre rictus only spooked the waiter, an old hippie with whom I’d previously enjoyed perfect communication. The incident put me in mind of a scene from a Gallant story "The Captive Niece" (1969), which takes place in a dingy Paris hotel room and has only two characters: an unnamed British newspaperman who, having walked out on his wife and children, is plagued with guilt, also lumbago; and Gitta, the self-absorbed and insecure ingénue who has been his lover since she was 17. When the girl returns to their lair in a state of high excitement after an audition with an influential French theater director, the man realizes she is about to make her next career move. "Leget wants me," she said. "I don't mean for this film, but another next summer. He's getting me a teacher for French, and another only for French diction. What do you think of that? He said it was a pity I had spoken English all my life, because it's so bad for the teeth." I couldn't help but wonder if this scrap of hearsay was true, in which case my pursuit might well be doomed. Mavis Gallant, the daughter of an American mother and an Anglo Scottish father, never had any such concerns, having been banished, aged four, to an austere French convent school in Quebec where she effortlessly absorbed French speech and sound patterns. To be consigned to such a place must not have been pleasant, but behold the results! No worrisome plosives or aspirates or nasal vowels, flawless elocution, and, to judge from the author photograph on the front cover of Going Ashore -- a collection of mostly out-of-print stories and short satirical pieces -- a magnificent set of teeth. Back at my rented studio, I sped through my elocution exercises (which consisted of repeating, ad infinitum, formulas such as "We must reanimate Charles") so that I could read more on how foreign languages are acquired. Thus I learned that for most of us, the end of childhood marks the beginning of phonological old age, prior to which it is possible, with enough exposure, to master any language, whether French or Pashto. Most linguists agree that a person who takes up another language at, say, 18, probably won’t ever entirely succeed at replicating the new sound patterns. (A modern-day Eliza Doolittle, for example, might manage to pass herself off as an English duchess, but in French she would be a duchesse manquée.) "The Joseph Conrad phenomenon," as this misfortune is known, was named after that novelist’s intractable accent. And yet scattered throughout the literature are mentions of driven, freakishly gifted late learners -- could I be one of them? -- who, by dint of sheer will, longing, and countless hours of phonetics lessons, are taken for natives. To extrapolate from my research, the successful conversion of an English sound system into French is a simple matter of creating and storing new language files in long term memory, gaining control of the speech muscles, and abandoning a sense of self by forsaking one’s mother tongue. Voilà! -- "deviant phonetic production" shall cease. Surely such an attainment would guarantee admittance to the lowest as well as the most elevated strata of Paris society, with all that might promise in the way of original material for my future novels. First, however, I really must discipline my "r's," which my diction teacher has declared tolerable but too throaty. "To pronounce a nice pure ‘r’-sound, purse your lips and imagine you are a fish," Monsieur instructed the last time I saw him. "Unless," he cautioned, "that letter is followed by a vowel, in which case it’s pronounced like ‘e-aigu.' Conversely, when there’s a consonant before an 'e,' the 'e' is silent. But if that 'e' is followed by a double consonant..." He stopped long enough to give me a pitying look. I've forgotten what inspired this detour; all I knew was that once again my "r’s" had been found wanting. And as I listened to his stupefying peroration, it came to me that my efforts to improve myself were folly: if I continued with these lessons, I'd sound less like an almost-native than an outsider trying to scrape acquaintance with the locals through mimicry or arrant imposture. At worst I might become so self-conscious I’d stop speaking altogether. (Oddly enough, I experience a similar feeling of despair every time I re-read Mavis Gallant. If there is a point when admiration for another's work leaches all the inspiration and energy from one's own, I had passed that, too.) Although I still cling to the dream of a golden tongue, there are plenty of other, more pertinent skills I should acquire if I am ever to metamorphose into Mavis Gallant (high literary talent, for example). What the hell was I up to? I even forgot to ask Monsieur if it was true that English rots the teeth. Were all those hours in which I parroted him no more than some misplaced longing to refashion myself in the image of Mavis Gallant? A natural corollary of literary admiration gone wrong? Or were they an attempt to learn how to listen, with her keen ear, to the undertone that thrums beneath every conversation, to the noise between words, to the strange harmonics of the world? On the way out, I take my leave of Madame. Seated in her raincoat on her window bench, she could be waiting for a bus. She doesn’t reply to my last wave, but no matter, I’ve worked out who she is. She’s a failed student, bewildered into a stunned silence. Image Credit: Moyan Brenn
In Person

My Little Library in Anatolia

1. In 2009, when I was a graduate student in Istanbul, I worked full-time in a newspaper, editing the paper’s books supplement. I was a busy man with lots of editorial assignments on my plate. I had little time to concentrate on my doctoral dissertation -- a study of Hegel’s influence on late-Victorian authors. Instead of writing in academic Hegelese, I spent my days behind my office desk where I commissioned, edited, fact-checked, and proofread. A week after my 28th birthday in March, while hard at work on the first draft of a book review, I received a call from the university’s student affairs department. The voice on the other end of the line said there had been a “strange problem” with my academic credits some months ago. The mistake had led to the termination of my enrollment: from this moment onwards I would be subject to the draft. “Ah, Mr Genç, I am so sorry for you,” the student affairs woman said with a genuine feeling in her voice, “but there is nothing I can do.” There was nothing she could do. In less than two weeks I would be running on the hills of some distant Anatolian town with a military rifle in my hand. The news was difficult to digest. So difficult, in fact, that when I heard the dial tone I decided to put away the unfinished review and drink a glass of whisky instead. Come April 10, I had cleared my desk at the office and arrived at an Anatolian city where my six-month-long national service in a gendarme squadron officially began. I was immediately nicknamed “journo” by the commanders. After the initial month of training came to an end my fellow gendarmes were assigned to various positions related to their education. I, the academic-cum-journalist, meanwhile, was given the most intellectual post the commanders could think of. “I have just made you the squadron’s librarian,” said our lieutenant, a muscular man whose every word was law and from whose super cool sunshades I could see the reflection of my face. “Here are the keys to the library. Take them! From now on it will be under your responsibility. Clean the place every day! Don’t give books to everyone! Give them only to soldiers you trust! Now get lost!” I did get lost. And when I hid myself in that room, which was hardly bigger than 100 square feet, I found myself surrounded by a series of dusty books. Although the books were old and deep in hibernation, the people who came to read them were very much alive. So in my small library in a distant Anatolian town I learned an awful lot about what young Turkish men enjoyed reading under the gun. I watched them as they read for relief. I watched them as they read for pleasure. I watched them as they read for keeping sane. It was during the first days of my librarian career that I found copies of Harlequin books in the drawer of my little metal desk. The previous librarian, who was less than a week away from being discharged, informed me that the dogeared pages of those romantic books would always be hotly sought after by soldiers. “Be mindful of those Harlequins,” he briefed me. “Never let soldiers bring them to their barracks. Or it will be YOU who gets into trouble.” 2. I was asked to recommend books so many times that I ended up feeling like Jorge of Burgos, a post-modern recreation of Borges in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The blind librarian wants to decide what his fellow monks read in their spare time, taking drastic measures to impose his scholastic beliefs. Whenever I heard others asking me what they should read, I came up with a recommendation that I expected they might follow, and tried to be less insistent than Burgos. But my small library was something more than a miniature version of Amazon’s recommendations sidebar. Gradually it became a place where soldiers socialized. Young commanders visited me and talked at length about their dreams, which they then asked (or ordered) me to interpret. There was much talk about books and films. Politics, too, was discussed: “When I retire come visit me in Ankara and I will give you an interview about my political beliefs,” said one commander. I will need to wait for almost two decades for that but still I am curious about what he has to say. Others had more personal stories to tell, and they told them instantly: a book was always a great beginning point, an unmistakable icebreaker. As I tried to come up with intelligent-sounding solutions to the problems of the Turkish military, I began to feel like Lucy van Pelt in Peanuts -- of course there was no way to charge each commander five cents for my services but if I did I would surely be a rich man now. So what did they read apart from the Harlequin books? To my surprise it was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s oeuvre that was most popular. I heard from more than one private that the military life resembled the life described in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a book in high demand among the bored and the depressed. Then I discovered two shelves of 19th-century Russian classics; from that point onwards whenever a soldier asked for a trashy novel I handed him one of those tomes. I even attempted to describe the classics' qualities, in one memorable occasion pontificating about the eternal question of Russian literature, “Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky?” (Tolstoy writes better, but Dostoyevsky’s world is more similar to ours, I said.) My friends who worked at the canteen were offering free chocolate pudding and hamburgers to their fellow soldiers, while I gave my friends copies of The Possessed, War and Peace, and "The Nose." How did all those Russian classics end up there? The answer had more to do with politics than with refined literary taste. Turkey had decades-long ties with NATO; the country had been seen as a frontier of the free world and was an outpost of the struggle against communism during the Cold War. Therefore Turkish military officials had long been well-versed in Russian culture. For the last few decades, the best translations of works by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov were delivered by high-ranking soldiers. Meanwhile, the rest of the books in the library (all those dusty sermons, military handbooks, and well-bound editions of Turkish state literature) went unread. 3. Nowadays whenever I visit one of the new fancy libraries in Istanbul, I think of that distant room in Anatolia. I think of my readers, those loyal visitors of the library, who found happiness in the solitude provided by the pages of a book. Even under the gun, they could find reflections of their lives and dreams among words on paper -- a discovery that made me an even firmer believer in the strange and limitless charm of books. Image Courtesy of the Author.
In Person

The Bee Years: The Tales of Two Spelling Bee Hopefuls

Laura is on the far left; Jenna is third from the right. I routinely refer to my childhood friend Jenna Le, now a physician, poet, and literary translator, as the smartest person I've ever known. Jenna and I were both friends and rivals on the Minnesota spelling bee circuit from 1995-98, when we were 11-14 years old. Eventually we both grew up to be writers, publishing our first books — her book of poems, Six Rivers, and my YA novel, Sister Mischief — within months of each other in 2011. Jenna's poems have also appeared in AGNI Online, Barrow Street, Bellevue Literary Review, and other publications, she has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the PEN Emerging Writers Award, and she received her B.A. in math from Harvard and her M.D. from Columbia. Last Thursday night, in Washington, D.C., Arvind Mahankali, a 13-year-old boy from Bayside, Queens, beat 280 other contenders to win the 86th annual National Spelling Bee. The Bee is a multi-stage event that begins with classroom spell-offs in tens of thousands of elementary and junior high schools each winter, and culminates each May in a televised showdown in which contestants fidget and sweat and stammer their way toward a prize of $30,000 and national fame. On this occasion, Jenna and I mutually reflected on our bee experiences and found them to be deeply embroiled with race, class, gender, competition, achievement, and the American Dream. JL: Hi, Laura! Thanks so much for coming up with the idea of having this conversation about spelling bees: what they mean to us personally as former spelling bee competitors and what they have to do the larger questions of language, identity, race, gender, and (dare I say it?) the American dream. The first time my older sister Mina competed in a spelling bee, she was a fifth-grader, and I was a second-grader, sitting restlessly between my parents in the audience. It was the ’90s, and Mina and I were among a handful of nonwhite students enrolled in our ritzy suburban Minnesota elementary school. Flanked by my Vietnamese immigrant parents, I shuddered as hundreds of alien-sounding words winged over my head. “Lasagna”? A food that I, raised on rice- and fish-sauce-based dishes, had never tasted. “Yacht”? A type of boat I had never seen. To everyone’s surprise, my sister won that bee, and the next one, and the next. My parents’ nervousness quickly gave way to hard-bitten pride. Overnight, the winning of spelling bees became a key component of our family identity, the yacht we never had. My sister’s bee victories were a tangible family asset, something my mother could use as collateral when she marched off to parent-teacher conferences, determined to convince the skeptical teachers that an Asian immigrant family was as well worth betting on as a white one. My sister’s streak of bee triumphs culminated in a first-place finish at the 1995 Minnesota State Spelling Bee. Beaming, she appeared on TV and in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Sporting enormous glasses and an equally humongous pink bow in her hair, her face smiled benignly from the front page of Asian American Press, a free newspaper distributed in local Asian supermarkets. At age 9, I was well aware that my parents had high hopes for me to carry on my sister’s bee-winning legacy. I resisted, though. Poring over blurrily Xeroxed lists of alphabetized words in my room all summer ignited a rankling impatience in my gut. I was a typical preadolescent, overflowing with messy emotions, and preparing for these emotionally dry and existentially meaningless contests struck me as a waste of time. I preferred to immerse myself in the dark world of Charlotte Bronte novels, reading those heartrendingly romantic dialogues again and again until my lacrimal glands spilled over. I preferred to bask in the colorful language of the movie reviews in the Star Tribune and imagine the faraway day when I would be the heroine of my own life. My first bee was a disaster: misspelling the word “maneuver,” I shuffled back to my seat in ignominy. The following year, I stumbled on “dilute.” The year after that, the word “flourishes” undid me. Mina, now 16, had just started applying to colleges. Watching her assemble her application, it began to dawn on me how high the stakes were. Spelling bee victories led to college acceptances, which in turn led to a new life, a life far removed from this cloistered suburban world where parents’ and teachers’ and peers’ approval meant everything. Bolstered by this secret knowledge, I rallied. The 1998 Minnesota State Spelling Bee. Only five competitors remain on stage, including me. I approach the microphone and listen for my assigned word: “nascence.” The word is new to me (it means “birth”). It is months before I will write my first poem and realize I was meant to be a poet. Years before I will discover the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. A decade before I will move to Manhattan and read Millay’s greatest poem, “Renascence,” for the first time. I fumble it. It’s a clear-cut defeat, but it’s also an escape, a leap into freedom, a birth. I am born, so that I can be reborn. LG: While there seems to have been, resultant of Mina’s success, an expectation that you would both participate in and succeed at bees, I remember my entrance to them as much less inevitable. At the beginning, in 5th grade, I remember being surprised to discover I was good at spelling. I wasn’t studying, but I kept winning — first the class, then the school, then I placed at the district level and went to regionals (where Mina thoroughly trounced me — that was the year she went to nationals). I was shocked to have made it that far. Unlike you, books were my only siblings, but like you, I loved Gothic novels; Jane Eyre, that lost and lonely only child, has saved my life once or twice. For me, the bees were entirely involved with my obsession with reading — I drilled on the word lists some, but halfheartedly, and I think whatever spelling talent I had was just derived from reading and reading and collecting all the new words I could find. As a combined result of books and bees, there’s a lot of words I knew how to define and spell without having any idea how to pronounce them, and in that way, I think the bees quite literally helped me to find my voice. For me, the bees represented a similar moment of feeling visible for the first time, which I wasn’t sure how to feel about then. When I went to the regional bee, my elementary school put a notice about it on the sign outside, and driving by it on my way to school every day was simultaneously the proudest and most embarrassed I’ve ever felt. My identity had suddenly been cast for me — Smart Girl — in a way that guaranteed my placement on an elite track that eventually led to a lot of good things, but that also guaranteed a social alienation that, accompanied by my glasses and braces and gangly exploding limbs, definitely threw me off for a number of years. There is so much in the connection you draw from bees to college that I relate to. This was a primary concern of my novel Sister Mischief — the exalting of college as the great escape, the destination where we could all suddenly, miraculously be free to be you and me, and the resultant positioning of achievement itself as escape. It reminds me of the root of the word “ecstasy,” the Greek ekstasis, which literally means to stand outside oneself. That was how I felt every time I spelled a word right — I got high off the absence of the bell. For a moment, I would stand outside myself in that moment of victory. Then, later, it was how I felt when I got into Columbia. When I published my first book. Winning is a drug; it’s how you learn to claw your way up, however you can. That said, to hear your first-generation perspective on the significance of the bees is fascinating to me, because for that reason alone the bees’ stakes were higher for you than for me, full stop. There’s just no arguing that point — to your family, to your establishment of identity, to your future, the bees carried an onus that I simply didn’t have to carry, and that feels important to acknowledge here. That’s a poignant thing to consider when you stand back and look at it — that in all my 12- and 13-year old ignorance, stressing about the next bee, I really had no idea both that the bees didn’t matter as much for me as they did for you, Mina, and every other first-generation kid, and that, due to my parents’ native English-speaking, I had a natural advantage in the lexicon of their competition. That feels like an allegory for how white and Asian kids integrate and relate to each other at large, and to extend it, I’d venture that the Asian American dominance of spelling bees is a dramatic mode of assimilation — a new way to claim the English language, a silver bullet for the college application, an article in the paper. The bee is an emblem of fluency, of literacy, and of tenacity. So I guess in all these ways, I see spelling bees as this deeply rich microcosm of what America’s stratified, unequal achievement culture is, and a barometer of where the melting pot is at — there’s a really naked kind of competition within bees, and one I find almost grotesquely synecdochic of the American Dream. Gatsby’s on the tips of everyone’s tongues right now, so I’ll ask you this way — do you think the bees are a green light at the end of the dock? Do you think they’re a false flash of promise, or one that panned out for you? Don’t you think you would have gotten into Harvard without them, or do you really think they affected your family’s path in the way they’ve tended to believe? Also, not to harp on the race point, Jenna, but I’d actually love to hear a little about how your parents came to Minnesota, and Edina specifically (the predominantly white, affluent, first-ring suburb of Minneapolis in which we both grew up, not coincidentally the home of the best public school system in the state). JL:  First, thank you for bringing up the topic of etymologies! I grew up in the no-man’s-land between two languages, English (that kleptomaniac bastard child of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French) and Vietnamese (part of the Mon-Khmer language family). So I was always vaguely conscious that etymologies were something worth caring about. It was only when I started competing in the bees that etymologies became a life-or-death matter: being ignorant that “flourish” and “fluorine” have different roots and therefore different spellings caused me to flub my 1997 spelling bee chances, for example. Since then, etymologies are constantly on my mind, and they play a critical role in my present-day work as a poet. Maybe I should thank the spelling bees for that! “Achievement = escape”: what a neat way of phrasing the traditional conceptualization of the American dream. On their surface, the events that led to my parents settling in Edina, Minnesota, embody and ratify that traditional conceptualization. My parents were Vietnam War refugees: along with millions of others, they fled their country when North Vietnamese troops stormed the South Vietnamese stronghold of Saigon in 1975. My parents had one trait many refugees didn’t: they were college-educated. Not only that, they had marketable math and science skills. Because of this, my dad was offered a job in Minnesota. And because their experiences had reinforced their faith in the power of education, my parents chose to resettle in the suburb of Edina so that their children could be educated in Edina’s reputedly excellent public schools. This is a story I like telling because it’s the story of my family, but I sometimes need to remind myself that it’s the idiosyncratic story of one individual family, and it doesn’t speak to the experiences to many families that were not so lucky as mine: families of all races and ethnicities that are failed every day by the American dream. Being involved in spelling bees as a kid, I got to meet some kids from different backgrounds — kids who’d been subjected to poverty and flat-out racism and all kinds of travails that made them stronger — and that’s probably the most important thing I took away from the whole bee experience. And yet: writing my first poem when I was 13, going away to math camp when I was 15: those events shaped my life’s trajectory more profoundly than the bees did. I guess I’m more of a Nick Carraway than a Jay Gatsby? I guess you and I both are, being Minnesotans. I’d love to hear more about how you personally experienced the bees, Laura. We were both born and raised in Edina, but I didn’t really meet you until 10th-grade gym class. I remember seeing this super-tall girl walking around the locker rooms and thinking, “Hey, isn’t that the girl I was always running into in the spelling bees?” LG: It’s endlessly intriguing to me how two people can remember the same experiences so differently. I’d remembered and kept an eye on you ever since the bees, so your reappearance in high school wasn’t a surprise for me. The way I remember you from high school, after the bees, is a mixture of awe and envy — I could have killed you in AP English for all the 99s you scored on those blue books. I wanted to be the best one in that class so badly, and that role was stalwartly occupied by you. But I could never really be mad about that, because you deserved it, and because I liked and respected — like and respect — you too much. There it is again, that unique blend of competition and camaraderie. I’m developing an overarching theory that women should be less apologetic about their competitive impulses — if we can keep those impulses away from bitterness and destruction, they’re tremendous motivators. Which is to say: it’s always been my privilege even to bat in your league. You keep me striving. I have a vivid memory I wanted to share with you — when I got knocked out of the regional competition that Mina won (we were in 5th grade, she in 8th, I think I placed 5th or 6th in that bee), I was completely distraught and burst into tears — again, the intense emotionality, the sheer adrenaline of that silent moment before the judge beeped your answer wrong, or said “That is correct.” The word was “gubernatorial,” which I stupidly spelled with a “gouber”; I’d never found it in any of my books before and was completely stumped. Anyway, as I made my way into the audience, your parents came up and comforted and complimented me, and it meant the world to me — I had been so in awe of you and Mina, and at that point we’d all seen each other at so many bees, and that moment made me feel like there was some weird and lovely niche community of us, the awkward clever spellers and the people who produced us, that we were competing against each other but also in it together. It’s also worth noting that after 5th grade, I had two years of losing bees before I had another winning year, and I was absolutely mortified by losing. With each year I lost, the stakes for winning the next year were raised. We competed at the same state bee in 8th grade, didn’t we? I think I placed 11th that year you placed 5th, and I remember crying harder after that knocking-out than any other one. Once I recovered, I was proud of how I’d placed, but the way it felt when the bottom fell out of that adrenaline surge, and realizing the bees were all over for me — it was painful. Okay, HOW is it POSSIBLE that we have not brought gender into this yet?! Honestly — I don’t even remember the boys from bees. I only remember noticing the other girls. Did you feel particularly pitted against other girls in the swath of competitors, or what was the gendered aspect of this experience for you? Also, do you feel like there were actually more girls in competition, or is this totally a distortion of my addled memory?  (Note: Jenna has ascertained that the competitors in the 2013 Scripps Howard national spelling bee are 52% female and 48% male.) JL: Well, first, I want to address your theory about competitiveness. I think you’re absolutely correct that spelling bees ultimately amount to a distillation of the idea of competitiveness in its purest (and therefore, from a certain perspective, its silliest) form. Competitiveness in America has such a tangled history. On the one hand, the theory of capitalism, which shaped 20th-century history so profoundly in both my parents’ native Asia and the western world, argues that competitiveness is a force for good. Many of the social phenomena around us, things we take for granted, like the U.S. News and World Report prestige rankings of colleges, have this assumption at their root. And yet, we both know competitiveness can sometimes be destructive: the pain of losing spelling bees taught us so. In my life, I’ve been involved in quite a few subcultures that are lopsided, gender-wise. The “mathlete” subculture, which more or less consumed my life between the ages of 13 and 21 (I was an undergrad math major before heading to med school), was heavily male-dominated, for instance. In contrast, the gender breakdown of the spelling bees was roughly 50:50, as I recall it. But I’ve noticed that Minnesota women speak with a loudness and confidence virtually unique to their kind, and I wonder if this contributed to your impression that Minnesota females had a more salient presence at the bees than their male counterparts. LG: I, too, have often found myself the woman in a man’s world, and never more than working in film. (Sidebar: Especially as, like you, the daughter of a woman in science, I’ve always felt as though I somehow betrayed feminism by not being better at math and science. I was good, maybe even better than I thought I was, but I had to TRY, and I didn’t much like that.) I like your analysis of the gender breakdown in the bees, and feel conspicuously identified by your characterization of Minnesota women here. I think that loud confidence you name is embroiled with that singularly Midwestern friendliness that Minnesota is known for — my mother and I both pride ourselves, derivatively of this quality, on being able to talk to anyone. Minnesota women are loud, confident, and most of all, chatty. I’ve never shaken that quality, and it confused the hell out of people when I first moved to New York — the hostile looks I would get as I instinctively made small talk in elevators! I was so oblivious, so naive, but I find that quality to be an asset now — it really disarms the coastal folk. Since you’ve detailed your family’s role in all this so beautifully, perhaps my own ought to find some relevance here. My mother’s path was very similar to my own in many ways — she grew up in Fargo, even more a place that no one leaves than Minneapolis, and she was a bee kid too. I don’t remember exactly how she placed — somehow I remember she didn’t do quite as well as I eventually did — but she described it to me as a formative experience, and took a lot of pride in my replicating it. Her Midwestern experience was one of getting out by working her way up, too, and her departure from Fargo to Wellesley College, where she became part of that hallowed Seven Sisters 1960s generation that included Madeleine Albright, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Nora Ephron, was the first time she’d ever traveled by plane. So that paradigm was pret-a-porter for me, that way in which the Midwest becomes a kind of farm league that you swing your way out of if you’ve got the chops, and the bees had already been reified as a key part of it. That American Dream aspect, again. There’s a passage in Gatsby that always makes me choke up a little in its resonance, that I think describes the immigrant experience so truly. When I say “immigrant” here, I mean it in a regional, class-based, and cultural way, too — not just geographical migration itself, but also class mobility. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all — Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life. That’s who I am and who I always will be — subtly unadaptable to anywhere but that cold place where people chat so warmly. You can swing your way out of the farm leagues, so to speak, but you can’t actually acquire native understanding of anywhere but the place you knew as a child. So looking back, I think the bees were the beginning of something rich and wild and wonderful for me, but also something bittersweet — the idea that through talent, you can ascend to someplace where you can live for years but will never truly belong. That’s an allegory for both your family and mine, and for both you and me. JL: So true. My whole life, I’ve been drawn to quotations like Theodor Adorno’s “It is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home” and Ezra Pound’s “What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage.” The idea that one can and should dissociate oneself from one’s native turf, coupled with the related idea that the voluntary servitude of love can be an adequate replacement for the knotty bonds of heredity: my poems often flirt with these ideas, these attractive, seductive, quintessentially American ideas. It’s a strong undercurrent in my book, Six Rivers, as well as in the new poems I’m working on now. In the end, however, we can’t escape that harsh truth: we will never fully belong. Our discussion of female moxie reminds me of a word I think I first encountered in a spelling bee, a word that is virtually obsolete now: “adventuress.” This word, as I’m sure you already know, was once used to label social climbers — female social climbers, in particular. Think about the implications: not so long ago, women like our mothers who tried to improve their social station, women who surged forward to claim their share of the American dream, were slapped with this derogatory label. Isn’t that staggering? And isn’t it a fine thing that spelling bees preserve our country’s social history by never letting us forget that words like this were once in common usage? By the way, if you haven’t yet, you need to watch the 2002 documentary Spellbound, which profiles eight kids who competed in the 1999 national spelling bee. It’s hilarious: one of the kids who attended the summer math camp I worked at in college (Harry A.) features prominently in it, and he’s a great comedic talent. There’s a somber side to it, too: I recently read an article that investigates what those eight kids are up to now, and it said one of them later struggled with a teen pregnancy while another died in his 20s. LG: OMG of course I’ve seen Spellbound, have we not ever talked about that film? That would be remarkable. My college friends made me go see it in theaters with them and sat next to me the whole time snickering, “DORK.  D-O-R-K,” and then later that night — I think it was that night — we ended up at a gay piano bar in the Village and heard a very rotund tenor with the most heartbreakingly beautiful Broadway voice sing Radiohead’s “Exit Music (for a film).” It was one of those nights. I looked up the article you mentioned and it made me very much want to go back and watch the film again. It’s probably one of my favorite docs of all time. What that movie captures that I love, and that we’re noting here, is the way the bees built a kind of community and haven for all of us terribly awkward smart kids, the way it allowed us to find others like us. It’s a competitive community, but as in any gathering of outcasts, a deeply bonded one, too. JL: Yes, exactly. I love that entire genre of documentaries, by the way; I was also riveted by the documentaries about the national Scrabble championship (Word Wars) and the national crossword puzzle championship (Wordplay). I considered watching the one about the Tetris nationals, but decided I had to draw the line somewhere.
In Person

Losing My Book Fair Virginity at the BEA Swag-A-Thon

Can't say they didn't try to warn me. When I told my agent I was planning to attend a book fair for the first time in my life, this year's Book Expo America in New York, she said, "I avoid it like the plague. It's basically a lot of people -- primarily made up of aspiring writers -- scrambling for free books. The London Book Fair is far more professional and focused. Everyone's there trying to conduct business, as opposed to trying to score a free carry-all from a publisher to fill with free books. BEA really is a madhouse." Fellow writers sounded similar alarms. Don't go, several advised, because it will swallow you whole -- so many books, so many people, so many writers (more than 600 this year). You'll despair, these writers warned. You'll come away convinced that no book of yours could ever possibly cut through such a typhoon of clutter. One writer told me that going to BEA is an especially bad idea if you're in my current delicate condition: author of a novel that's making the rounds of publishers. But I like to think that, even as the years pile up, I'm still willing to try anything once. Especially if I can score a free pass. Which I did. Which explains why I found myself elbowing my way through the mob at the Jacob Javits Center on Thursday morning, desperately seeking Snooki. By the time I found her in the Perseus Books zone, the former star of Jersey Shore was well on her way to a major case of writer's cramp. Fans snaked the length of the display area, then around the corner and out of sight. They were waiting for Snooki, nee Nicole Polizzi, to autograph something that is not, technically, even a book. It's a pamphlet containing the table of contents and a five-page introduction to Baby Bumps: From Party Girl to Proud Mama, and All the Messy Milestones Along the Way, a book about Snooki's recent pregnancy that will be published next January. Dressed in a short short dress and high high heels, her arms draped with pearls, her skin as smooth and brown as warm caramel, Snooki signed as fast as she knew how, exchanging pleasantries and patiently posing for pictures with every fan. A real pro. Standing nearby was a guy in a sportcoat who looked more Princeton than Jersey Shore. This was Scott Miller, Snooki's agent, who has sold all four of her books -- two novels and now two non-fiction books. He waved at the throng. "It's great to see so many people interested in books," Miller said. "This is crazy but it's not Comic Con, where people wear costumes. I haven't seen any Hemingways here. Yet." "How's business?" I asked. "Everyone says the book business is dying," Miller replied. "But books are still selling and there are new ways to sell them. Every business has challenges, but print books are stabilizing. I'm happy." He has a point, I thought. This might be a madhouse, but would the alternative be better -- this vast airplane hangar of a building with nobody in it? Imagine if they threw a book fair and nobody came. Now that would get the doomsayers lathered up. Her signing duties done, Snooki paused to reflect on the relative difficulty of writing fiction versus non-fiction.  "Making up things in your head is hard," she said. "Writing Confessions of a Guidette was easy. But this book, Baby Bumps, was the easiest because I'm telling stories that actually happened. This is not a how-to book about pregnancy, like What To Expect When You're Expecting. That's a great book, but it has no humor. I need relatable stories with a sense of humor." Point taken. What to Expect must be doing something right -- it has been on The New York Times bestseller list roughly since the invention of bread -- but it can't touch lines like this from Baby Bumps: "My pregnancy began with the thought, 'Holy shit!  My egg hatched!'" Or: "Since my 'eggs hatched!' moment, my life has changed 180 degrees -- all for the better. I'm a different person now. I love who I've become...I'm sure people who think of me as a wasted smurf on Jersey Shore might find it hard to believe that, these days, the only bottles I care about are full of formula or milk. I'd rather go to the gym than a club. The only men who see my boobs are my fiance and my son." Determined to shift gears, I made my way for the stage where Pulitzer Prize-winner A. Scott Berg was getting ready to speak about his forthcoming biography of Woodrow Wilson. On the way I spotted a bunch of brand-name authors signing their books, including Allan Gurganus, Jonathan Lethem, and Daniel Handler, d.b.a. Lemony Snicket. The major autograph area had dividers that funneled the fans to the long tables where authors autographed books by the metric ton. The vast autograph area brought to mind the cattle pens in a Midwestern feed lot. Indeed, many of the people waiting in line looked like beasts of burden, draped with bulging bags of swag and hankering for more. My agent wasn't lying. The turnout for A. Scott Berg's talk was modest, more like a graduate seminar than a cattle roundup. "The real reason why I devoted 13 years of my life to Woodrow Wilson is that it's a story filled with tragedy, romance, and compassion -- unlike anyone else who has ever lived in the White House. A personal story is what I tried to capture -- Woodrow Wilson the man. I wanted to humanize this guy." And I wanted to get out of there. It hadn't been the soul-crushing experience I'd been warned about, but enough is enough. Just before I reached the exit, I was stunned by the sight of four slabs of beefcake flexing their muscles as cameras clicked and book lovers gaped. Had I been teleported to a male stripper convention in Vegas? No, these guys were the frontmen for Ellora's Cave, publisher of "erotic romance" books that made $30,000 a dozen years ago and now grosses upwards of $15 million a year. Why is the company so successful? "Because sex sells," said Patty Marks, the CEO, as though I must be one dim bulb. "Another reason is technology. Traditional publishers said women wouldn't read this stuff. And let's face it, most women are less comfortable with going into a drugstore and buying a copy of Playgirl than men are with buying a copy of Playboy. But with e-books, no one knows what you're reading. And our books are not just erotica -- they're erotic romance. Sex has to be part of the plot, but so does romance. And just like romance novels, the books have to have a happily-ever-after or a happy-for-now ending." Ellora's Cave is now paying royalties to more than 800 authors who have put out more than 5,000 books, with titles that pull no punches, including Nailed and Buck Naked and Top or Bottom? One of the company's most visible authors is Desiree Holt, a 76-year-old grandmother known as "the porn queen of Texas hill country." So it turns out that Scott Miller, Snooki's agent, was right. The book business isn't dying. Books are still selling and people are finding new ways to sell them. I asked the four slabs of beefcake to flex for my camera. They happily complied. They understand that sex sells. Amen. I was out of there, a virgin no more.
In Person

Zora Neale and My Sister

1. Over the two week period when I finalized my plans for a trip to my home state of Alabama, I went from sunny optimism about the trip to downright depression. My visit had two purposes. One was to visit Notasulga, the birthplace of one of my favorite authors, Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston (the source of my optimism) and the second was to spend a little time with my sister... Less than a year earlier on another trip down to Alabama I had participated in my sister’s wedding, where there were plenty of side conversations with relatives and friends at the reception in the small church hall about how Debra, emaciated by the ravages of colon cancer less than a decade earlier, was now a pretty, slightly plump bride. By the time I arrived in Alabama the second time, most of the relatives knew as I did: the cancer had returned. We didn’t learn any of this from Debra. “I’m doing fine,” she always said whenever we talked by phone and my probing questions about when she had seen the doctor last or what the doctor had said during a last visit got me anywhere. Our mother was still in her long recovery from brain surgery so my niece (Debra’s only child) was my only lifeline to the truth. My niece was with Debra when I arrived at the hospital in Tuscaloosa. Although I had been warned that Debra had lost a lot of weight, the sight of her lying in the hospital bed, her narrow face staring at me through metal rimmed glasses I had never seen her wear before, sent my body into immediate rebellion. I felt as though it was trying to forge some reaction from me, but not yet sure what it was, I didn’t know whether to fight or give in. The best I could do was manage a boyish grin, the same one I had probably brandished when I had surprised her by showing up at her wedding rehearsal eight months earlier. “Pull up a seat,” Debra said, sounding much more robust than she looked. She pointed at a metal chair shoved against the wall near the door to the small bathroom. I reached for the chair feeling her studying me in that way big sisters do and feeling the panic I felt years earlier when I first heard the news from my mother that Debra had colon cancer. I was surprised at how easily the chair lifted, like it was made of some newly discovered lightweight metal with titanium-mitered joints. Where was the science to help my sister? Before sitting down near her bed I leaned over and kissed Debra’s forehead. Her dry skin was a surprise from the moist ninety degree air that had soaked my neck and arms on the short walk up from the sweltering underground parking lot. “You’re as skinny as me,” Debra said, looking up at me over the rim of her glasses. “What’s your excuse?” As we talked, I wanted to ask about her husband, a man she had known for years before she married him, but I had heard the relationship had been strained lately and I didn’t want to upset her. We talked until the nurse came in and began busying himself around the bed. On the walk outside to the elevator, my niece and I talked about how hard it was to accept Debra’s decision to take a break from chemotherapy. Debra’s doctor had advised investigative surgery to find out what was causing her inability to digest food. “She refuses to do the surgery,” my niece said, her voice sounding like she was struggling to remain calm. The news came just as a crowd exited the elevator. My niece and I remained quiet as the crowd passed. I knew that once Debra’s mind was made up about a matter, there was little chance of changing it. I suspected my niece knew that too. “The doctor says she can go home today,” I reminded my niece. “That’s a good sign. I’ll talk to her when I return tomorrow evening.” 2. On the highway later during most of the two hour drive, I worried about my next visit with Debra, It had never occurred to me to imagine a world in which my sister was not alive. As adults we had grown apart with brief visits during the rare trips I made back to Alabama to attend funerals, including the funeral of Debra’s son who drowned when he was barely twenty. Now I began to consider death as a real possibility. Soon my optimism about my first trip to Notasulga, in which I imagined myself an investigative journalist, evaporated into hard fatalism. This was not the state of mind I imagined myself to be in the summer before at the Norman Mailer Center where I had greedily soaked up the interview techniques that I imagined star reporters use: develop a good list of questions before hand, tape as many interviews as you can, start with the easy questions. This is going to be a fiasco, I told myself a few miles outside Montgomery. I became interested in Zora Neale Hurston after reading about other early 20th century literary figures like the poet Langston Hughes, the editor Alaine Locke and the novelist Nella Larsen. Hurston’s name appeared in articles about Harlem Renaissance writers, but I paid her name passing notice until I learned that she had been born in Alabama. I later realized that Zora Neale and I had more than that in common. We both spent time in the Washington D.C. area, both lived and wrote in Harlem, both studied at Columbia University. Until then the only writers that readily came to mind with ties to Alabama were Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Both had produced captivating works. Perhaps Zora Neale had too. Half an hour on the other side of Montgomery, I exited the highway, beginning to imagine that my quest to visit Hurston’s birthplace seemed silly. Yes, Hurston was born in Notasulga, but her family moved away when she was still a toddler. Did she even remember living in the town? Moreover, throughout her life Hurston claimed she was born in Eatonville, Florida. I understood the enticement: Eatonville touts itself as the first town in America incorporated by African Americans. Hurston’s father served several terms as mayor. Notasulga is no Eatonville. With barely nine hundred residents within sixteen square miles, the hamlet sits a short drive from Tuskegee and Montgomery which offer museums to Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington, civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, even Hurston’s literary contemporaries F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The important role Notasulga played in Hurston’s literary career became apparent to me after reading her first novel. Though Hurston had early success with stories set in Florida, it was the critical and commercial success of Jonah’s Gourd Vine that catapulted her from a talented but unknown writer to a commercially successful one. Many of Hurston’s important early critics and readers first came to her writing immersed in the setting of Notasulga. The Wednesday afternoon in June I arrived, downtown Notasulga -- several blocks of low buildings running in several directions from a two-bulb-traffic light -- had the quiet feel of a small town on a Sunday. The only enterprises that looked open were Hughes Auto Parts, Ben’s Bargains, Citizen’s Hardware and Supply and Town Hall. On the main corner, I walked through the white pillars at the entrance of Town Hall wondering if anyone inside had heard of Zora Neale. Hurston left the area over a century earlier in 1894, but she returned to the south many times. In 1927, she and fellow Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes spoke to summer students at Tuskegee Institute, and in nearby Mobile, Hurston, interviewed Cudjo Lewis, the man believed to have been the lone surviving passenger of the last slave trip to land in the U.S. On other trips, Hurston collected the folktales, character sketches, and historical artifacts that informed her four novels, her autobiography, scores of plays, essays, and her many short stories. What intrigued me most about Hurston as I read more of her work was her success at telling stories about African Americans living in the south that resonated with readers no matter what their background.  I was familiar with Hurston’s most famous work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937, but I was surprised to learn of the critical praise heaped on her first novel. Carl Sandburg, among others, praised Hurston’s debut as “A bold and beautiful book, many a page priceless and unforgettable.” The novel’s title alludes to the biblical story of Jonah, who during his travels to preach in a foreign land, is swallowed by a whale. After deliverance from the whale’s belly, Jonah reaches his destination angry and frustrated at God’s refusal to punish those who had sinned. As Jonah watches the city from a place to the east, a divine gourd plant grows over his head and provides shade. But later, a worm attacks the plant and it withers. Under a burning wind and searing sun, Jonah becomes faint and eventually says, “I would be better off dead than alive.” Before this trip to Alabama, I had a vague notion of what manner of suffering might make a person accept death. But seeing my sister in the hospital bed, surrounded by overturned pill cups and hanging feeding tubes and buzzing wall devices -- witnessing the frail remains of what had once been a vibrant healthy-looking body -- though I still did not want her to refuse the operation, I began to understand how her suffering might have opened her up to such fatalistic thoughts. Hurston herself suffered a variety of health maladies before she died in 1960. And though the publication of Jonah’s Gourd Vine initiated a decade-long period of critical and commercial success for Hurston, after she published her last book Seraph on the Sewanee in 1948, her literary reputation waned. By the time she died, publishers and readers had lost interest in her work. Inside Notasulga Town Hall, the elderly clerk at the counter gave me a puzzled look when I mentioned Zora Neale. She also gave me my first piece of bad news: “The town records burned twice,” she said, sounding sorry to be delivering the news. “You might try the county seat.” Which county? I wondered outside as I stood on a small bridge at the edge of the business district looking east toward the county line. Most of Notasulga sits in Macon County but a small north-east corner lies in Lee County. Hurston’s father was born in Lee County in 1861, the year Alabama seceded from the Union. Zora Neale used to say that the area had an abundance of creeks, but below the small bridge were only railroad tracks, a reminder of the post-Civil War period when Notasulga was a whistle stop on the rail line than ran from Montgomery then east toward Opelika and the Georgia border. Photographs from the period show a post office, express office, and cotton gin. In addition to cotton, local farmers also marketed rice, tobacco, soy beans, sweet potatoes, and peanuts. Jonah’s Gourd Vine opens with the protagonist, John “Buddy” Pearson under threat of being “bound over” to one of the Reconstruction-era plantations, to toil there under conditions little better than those offered during legally enforced slavery. Pearson is not yet twenty when his step-father announces the news. His mother, unable to reverse her husband’s decision, decides to send their son into Notasulga to seek work at a farm that she hopes has better working conditions. Much of the novel is autobiographical, and John Pearson’s yearnings -- like those of Hurston’s own father-- eventually lead him to Florida where he becomes an influential preacher and community leader. But first, Pearson has to face the challenges of being driven out of his home in Alabama. On the plantations and lumber camps where he finds work, he has strained relationships with the first of many jealous men and inviting women he encounters often over the course of the novel. He also courts a local girl named Lucy Potts by attending Macedonia Baptist Church. The original Macedonia Baptist Church no longer exists, replaced by a stately red brick building along the highway just outside of downtown. I wandered the grounds in a fruitless attempt to find remnants of the old school house that might have been on the property. Half a mile down the road were the Spanish-style buildings on the campus of Notasulga High School, but those buildings were constructed by WPA workers in the 1930s for white students. Farther south, the Rosenwald School, financed by Julius Rosenwald, the head of Sears and Roebuck, to educate black students, was not built until the early 1900s. The schoolhouse that inspired the early scenes in Jonah’s Gourd Vine was probably one of the first schools built in the south to educate recently freed African American children. 3. After multiple trips down a few side roads in Lee County, I fumbled my way through several interviews of people from the town. Yet, the main interview I was looking forward to seemed to be slipping away from me as soon as it started. I sat down with Mary Potts-Travis inside a small hair salon not far from the picturesque town square in Tuskegee. Mary was a small woman with drawn-in shoulders and a thin face. She had a strong profile, the bearing of someone who might have been a professor or an engineer had she been born a century later. She wore a plastic smock over a simple dress. Less than a minute after I started my questions, Mary looked at me with heavy concern and said: “Young man, I have no idea what in the world you’re asking. What is it that you want?” In the midst of fear and panic I reverted to the one tactic I remembered from my seminar: “What is your earliest memory of Notasulga?” I said quite tentatively. That seemed to do the trick. Mary, who I had been told might be a distant relative of Zora, said she had been born in Notasulga ninety-one years earlier when there was a single grocery store that sold shoes and hats and eggs and ground corn in the back. She recalled a clothing store, and a woman who sold Nehi sodas out of her house. She described the cotton farmers and the bankers and the two-room school in the church yard. I was still scribbling furiously nearly an hour later when the salon’s manager walked over and informed Mary it was time for her appointment. Whatever bit of confidence I had garnered from salvaging my interview of Mary deflated when, at the records’ office in Tuskegee, I asked the clerk how I might find out when the Potts had purchased their land, and who owns it now. “Give it up,” the clerk said, but still directed me to a musty side room crowded with stacks of enormous leather-covered record books. “The records are probably not here.” Addled from several fruitless hours turning hundreds of yellowed pages, I later drove past the Potts homestead several times before realizing it. In the novel, Lucy’s parents (like Hurston’s maternal grandparents) are one of very few land-owning families in Macon County and strongly opposed their daughter marrying the uneducated and landless John Pearson. During his first visit to Lucy’s home, John Pearson notices the “Flowers in the yard among whitewashed rocks. Tobacco hanging up to dry. Peanuts drying on white cloth in the sun. A smokehouse, a spring-house, a swing under a china-berry tree, bucket flowers on the porch.” The place I had been told was the Potts homestead presented a more modest face the day I visited. A patchy yard surrounded the yellow clapboard house, which was trimmed in brown. I walked to the back yard later, unable to separate the real Lucy Potts presented in Hurston’s autobiography from the Lucy Potts in Jonah’s Gourd Vine. Both Lucys got dressed on their wedding days unsure if any family members would accompany them from the house to the church. Both Lucys later suffered a challenging marriage. And both Lucys died relatively young. The backyard, overgrown with tall weeds and thick vines, was more evocative of the two Johns whose metaphorical vines continued to grow after they moved their families to Florida. Both became popular preachers and community leaders, but eventually both their vines withered. In the novel, John Pearson’s metaphorical vine is eaten away by many worms: the wrath of jealous men, the problems of chasing women, his own hubris, and especially his grief over the death of Lucy. Late in the novel when adultery charges threaten to destroy John Pearson’s new marriage and his standing in the community, he finds solace in resurrecting memories of Lucy and Notasulga: So John sat heavily in his seat and thought about that other time nearly thirty years before when he had sat handcuffed in Cy Perkin’s office in Alabama. No fiery little Lucy here, thrusting her frailty between him and trouble. No sun of love to rise upon a gray world of hate and indifference. I left the Potts homestead deciding to make more visits to Notasulga, and to learn more about the town that Hurston had mined to fashion an enduring love story. The road from the Potts homestead winds past nice houses next to dilapidated ones, reminders of the economic disparities that threatened that long ago courtship and marriage that was not without its challenges. Love, I suspect -- or at least companionship — sustained my sister during her initial round of therapies and doctor visits after the return of her cancer. The next morning, before leaving my hotel along the highway outside Montgomery, I dialed my sister’s number, remembering how happy she was the day of her wedding. Her relationship had gotten rocky since, but I had heard that she and her husband were working at it. “Yes, I’m back at home,” Debra said, her voice hoarse but slightly cheery, when she answered the phone. “Of course, I’m up for another visit. I feel fine.” Image courtesy the author
In Person

Young Novelists, Old Institutions: Granta at the Book Club of California

On Monday last, mere days after the announcement of Granta's fourth installment of young British novelists, I went to hear two of said novelists read at the Book Club of California, one of the great California bibliophilic clubs--a book-lined, womb-like suite of rooms in a building near Union Square. The novelists, Ross Raisin and Nadifa Mohamed were ferried to California through a joint effort of Granta and the British Council, and feted through the somewhat startling collaboration of the aforementioned Book Club and City Lights Books, venerable but in many ways dissimilar San Francisco institutions. The Book Club is kept alive by the efforts of patrons who wish to keep old-fashioned pursuits like bookmaking and book collecting and book reading alive. I had been before Monday; I have rolled dollies through its hallways for employers, and bundled up priceless items in bubble wrap while kneeling in the deep nap of its carpet. It is the kind of place where you might encounter a manuscript leaf from The Hound of the Baskervilles, or some press book monumental in its beauty, person-hours, and price. It is clubby, but not snobbish, with weekly programs that are open to the public. It is staffed most of the time by a beautiful poet and a former finance man who has latterly devoted himself to the arts. The Book Club is a place of wonders, but it does not generally feel very current. I mean it most affectionately when I say that during the reading you could hear people hack and gurgle, and when the cell phones sounded, which they did rather a lot, it seemed less a function of callow youth than of people who couldn't figure out how to turn them off, or needed to keep them on for reasons relating to LifeCall. The Book Club is not hip, but on Monday evening, I felt the spiritual glamour of a place, which, despite its age and sometime pokiness, is founded on the fundamentally sound principle that if you have three glasses of wine in a plastic cup and listen to something beautiful or see it, it can change the whole complexion of the world. The world, as you walk out the door into an unseasonably warm night, and stride down Grant Avenue lined with exquisite narrow buildings, is imbued with possibility. I was obviously besotted with wine, but also by the talent of Ross Raisin and Nadifa Mohamed and John Freeman, Granta editor, who moderated so smoothly and well that I spent a few moments trying to figure out how old he was, and whether his smoothness was the smoothness of years or divine spark. For my companion and me, the wages of the Book Club's unhipness were proximity; we sat in the second row, a yard from the podium. Freeman said of the novelists, "In 10 years they won't be in this room, they'll be in an auditorium of 500," and I feel now that this is true, and am grateful for this early-career intimacy. Both novelists read from their pieces in the current Granta. Raisin, who is the author of God's Own Country and Waterline, went first and read only part of his story, called "Submersion." It began without fanfare:  "We were out of town, drinking in an empty beachside bar in a small resort down by the coast." A barman's patter, a "you," a television set showing a hard rain. Raisin later told the crowd that he read a lot of Hardy, and Hardy was perceptible a few sentences in, when these seasonal rains were invoked with unexpected pastoralism: "Morris Peake danced in the square. Groups of children ran down to the swollen river to play and smoke and cut channels into Van Stamen's soft wet fields," upon which, less pastoral, drowned parsnips eventually floated like "baby's limbs." And then a quick shift to surreality: The helicopter camera has panned down, and it's following an object that at first looks like some kind of dark box, but as the image grows closer I see that it is in fact our father, asleep in his armchair, drifting down the high street...Our father is drifting now past the barbershop...the skin on his face is red and peeling, the scalp blistered, hairless...its charred black shape...the remote control deformed and melted onto the armrest. I found the thing electrifying. Mohamed, the author of Black Mamba Boy and the upcoming Orchard of Lost Souls, read from a story called "Filsan." The titular Filsan is a female soldier in the Revolutionary Somali Army, assigned to Hargeisa, where Mohamed herself was born. Like "Submersion," the story had elegant pacing.  The reading began with Filsan and her comrades in a dusty village, where a rebellion is or is not brewing, and the mission is ostensibly to destroy the water supply to save the water supply. The villagers don't heed Filsan, although she is there "with the full authority of the Revolutionary government." Later, they heed: she is surprised by the bullets spilled from her own gun, and by the shells of those bullets when they become "bronze beetles scuttling" over her feet. Three men are dead.  At the end of the passage, Filsan's colleague congratulates her while she asks, "What happened? Who killed them?"  Again, electrifying. After these relatively brief readings, John Freeman took over and asked Raisin and Mohamed about their storytelling influences and motivations. "I'm a Yorkshireman, and I'm from a family of quite quiet, recalcitrant, gruff Yorkshire people," said Raisin, in what might make a nice, to-the-point epitaph. His formative reading, he reported, ranged from James Herbert and Dean R. Koontz and Stephen King all the way to Graham Greene and the aforementioned Hardy. There is another novelist in his family tree, but not one, evidently, who appears on any Granta lists. Mohamed talked about her father, a "Forrest Gump" whose stories tended to begin and end in provocative clips like "The last time I had a headache was in Ecuador in 1963." She spoke of intentionally addressing the "small lives caught up" in history in her writing--people like her father (or a woman, no relation, who saved her whole life to buy an English Bible she couldn't read, only to be executed for it by Bloody Mary.) Place came up a lot. It is a central conceit of the Granta list, an enterprise that leaves "Britishness" open to relentless interrogation from all sides. The catholicity of the list, in terms of birthplaces and borders and varieties of government documents, has been remarked upon at length:  grumpily, by the right-wingers in The Guardian's Comment is Free ("Amazing what passes for being British these days isn't it"), and earnestly, by Granta itself. Freeman sprung surprise passages upon the two novelists to read and show the ever-increasing lexical depth of English: Raisin's passage in Glaswegian, Mohamed's invoking jinns and half-men. And then he sprung something even harder, his final question: "How do you feel about Britain today, and if you had to explain to someone who's been living on the moon for the last 204 years, how the British cosmology of literary life works, how would you do that?" And we all had some laughs and they spoke well and there was no answer, because what is the answer to How British is it? I thought about places when Raisin quoted the climactic augurs--"If it floods, it floods"--with "flood" shaped the same way as "gruff" (as in "gruff Yorkshire people"). Or when Mohamed read her characters saying "Stop" and "Get back, back, back," with the full meaning of the words in her delivery, and the texture imparted to the words by her pleasant, infinitesimally stuffy-nosed voice.  I thought about places, how people might look at the sky over Somaliland, "counting the stars as they one-by-one bowed and left the stage," or how a man might dance in Raisin's rainy town square. Like all good stories, though, these readings also took me back to my own territory (where, for reasons inscrutable and presumably risible, Raisin's novel God's Own Country is called Out Backward).  Mostly the associations were grim: hearing Raisin's passage on helicopter footage of flooded-out people on roofs, what American could fail to think of Katrina? When his beer-drinkers see their be-armchaired, waterborne dad with peeling skin and melted remote, different footage leapt unbidden to mind: the man from last week, photographed in the wheelchair with his legs blown off, whose father found out from the news. At the end of Mohamed's story, I thought about people who are very young, whom I can't believe mean for bullets to spray out, or want for things to end with men on the ground and their wives weeping upon them. Later, I read several peevish things in The Guardian about Freeman, who allegedly maligned Leeds as a provincial outpost in a recent interview. But the first words out of his mouth at the Book Club of California were "I grew up in Sacramento," which, despite being the former stomping ground of Joan Didion and Raymond Carver, is a somewhat unsexy capital. I know this, having spent a summer toiling behind the hostess stand of the now-defunct Pyramid Alehouse on its main drag, so when Freeman said this, I thought simultaneously I'm surprised and I feel you.  And when it was all over I thought about the prosiness and unexpected glamour of places, like Sacramento, or the Book Club of California, 100 years old and hosting world-class novelists I am grateful to have seen in the flesh. When I got home, still high from the evening's triumphs, I finally became a member, at the reduced-price rate for the young novel reader. Image Credit: The Book Club of California