The child enters. "Knock knock" "Who's there?" The father wonders at the enduring appeal of jokes, the older we get the fewer we hear. The child grins through the setup, knowing that it's worked all day long friend to friend playground & cafeteria, a center stage moment he's rehearsed & honed. The child delivers the punch. There's more ah than ha at first before the father shifts from discovery to joy. They laugh together. Let there always be shared moments like this, an assurance for each, a luxuriating in who's there and why. May the doors to their hearts always be open to each other. This is inspired by a writing challenge that Matthew Olzmann gave my students--write a poem that begins with a joke and ends with a prayer. Photo of Diego Rivera with his child here.
May your feet be warm & dry May you hear your name said with a smile today May your nights be peaceful May your work be meaningful May someone you love think that you are smart & funny May your coffee be served just right May you see your child laughing May you enjoy the book you're reading -- and the next one May you feel the warmth of the setting sun May your children be safe & happy May they grow up to love & talk to one another May they have dogs & beloveds that love dogs May the clouds always inspire you This is inspired by a three-part writing challenge that Sarah Freligh gave my students--write blessings for all people everywhere, then blessings for someone difficult to love, then for yourself. The image is by my friend Scott Lewis, from his series God & Globalization.
For four years, I tracked my reading, and as a result, I got to the point where it’s kind of a habit that I read broadly ([ahem] at least within literary fiction), that I read as much as possible in translation, and that I am deliberate about what I read next.
It’s been a while since I read R.F. Kuang’s Babel which I recommend enthusiastically. To aim to write a smart, accessible, thoughtful, & suspenseful novel is quite a narrow target to hit, and that one definitely did. Ada Limon’s The Hurting Kind is similarly smart & accessible, with a really gentle seasonal organization that never feels like it limits the poems. I reread Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, which is an engrossing story about a man pushed too far and the lengths he’ll go to set the story straight (even if it’s not entirely factual). But this post is about a chunk of reading that’s a little more deliberate, a set of books that I hoped would get outside of myself.
Usna Aslam Khan’s The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali is a historical novel about a place I’ve never even heard of–the Andaman Islands. Leave it to an independent press (Dallas’s Deep Vellum) to take a chance on a novel like this one, that deserves a wide readership and will challenge anyone that picks it up. Khan’s Nomi of the title is not the main character, nor is she explicitly any more of a witness or a survivor than her brother Zee (who suffers a terrible fate due to a single courageous act) or her father (bent low, literally, by his punishment for a crime he committed, which brought him to the islands) or her mother (who suffers losses that eventually become unspeakable). Khan makes the reader feel deeply about almost every character, no mean feat, given that some of the colonial administrators are complicit in, at best, cruel & unusual punishment. This might fit under historical fiction or post-colonial literature, and in ways that test the limits of each genre. It is a novel in which the bravest act of all is staying put and trying to find the beauty & the humanity around you.
I’ll update this post when I finish Rodaan Al Galidi’s light-hearted (or is that deep-heared?) refugee novel The Leash & the Ball, Melody Razak’s debut about 1947’s Partition Moth, Ingrid Rojas Monteras’s memoir about a journey into her family’s history in Colombia The Man Who Could Move Clouds
The wind was blowing most of my first day in town, and the snow flakes fell gently, slowly, cartwheeling to me with cartoonish clarity, like a confetti’d welcome for us alone. We were two blocks from a good bar, a decent diner, a video store, and an El stop. We were in love.
She had chosen our home well–not the hippest neighborhood but still one that felt like a city I’d never known, like a place where the rest of my [ahem] … where the rest of our life together would begin.
Instead it was an extended break, not quite vacation not quite holding pattern. I continued teaching but not well. She found a job at company called Oracle. My wife looked her up–apparently, she still works there. She set down roots; I did too, somewhere else.
The wind blows there even now as strong as ever. I saw it on TV the other day. It looks just the same as it did that January.
The image is from Andrew Sullivan’s View From Your Window feature. I saved it as “ChicagoIL930pm” but cannot find the original source or photographer.
You create an account gently, and you construct a password--a nonsense mixture made memorable, letters, numbers, characters made special somehow, a song lyric, a sentence you alone know. You pull the doc from the drive, a last look at a once-inspired miracle, a polished inert version of the original spark, now rendered regular, out of your hand & into gently. Gently receives the doc, a new screen assuring you that the server worked. You forget and wait, gently. Gently managing the impersonal viewable shareable version of you at your most artful, most vulnerable, most hopeful. Three weeks later, gently a message in your inbox. No. Thank you. Sincerely, Gently. This is inspired by Sophia Terazawa, who gave my class the following writing prompt: Personify an adverb. I chose to personify the writing submission platform Submittable as the adverb "Gently". So above every time I originally referred to the platform, I substituted the word Gently.
At some point months ago, I signed up for (and then forgot about) Open Letter Publishing’s Translator Triptych Bundle, which got me three Open Letter books written by Spanish female authors and translated by Katie Whittemore. I wrote about Mothers Don’t already. And I just finished Lara Moreno’s Wolfskin.
Like Mothers Don’t, this one focuses boldly on the interior lives of a mother, and the non-mother parts of that person, the parts that strain against the expectations of motherhood.
In Moreno’s novel, the everyday strain of being an independent fully formed person and a mother is exacerbated by a surprise—the protagonist Sofia is blindsided by her husband Julio’s wish for a divorce. “Wish” is not abrupt a word–more like “steps toward getting” a divorce. She thinks nothing of their regular marital spats or disagreements, and she thinks nothing when his toothbrush is missing one morning. When the conversation eventually happens, there’s little to discuss: He will leave their apartment, he will support her, and he has it all figured out—even with an apartment at the ready. Sofia, he assumes (correctly), need take care of their son Leo as if nothing has happened. Julio will carry on as if what has happened is precisely what he wants, which it is. Moreno renders this emotional turmoil in very relatable & shrewd detail. Tears, worry, unanswered texts, accusations, siblings and parents drawn into the separation, all while Sofia struggles to keep things normal—until she chooses instead to retreat to her recently deceased father’s home for the summer. That’s the opening thirty pages or so.
With this escape Moreno complicates our sense of what a good mother is, what an amicable separation should look like, what sibling support looks like, what stops and what continues when the disruption in our lives does not approach in sheep’s clothing, but instead when we realize that we let the wolf in willingly, we saw his skin all along.
I’d give away everything if I wrote more. Just know that Whittemore manages Moreno’s prose & the characters’ voices deftly, including shifting perspectives & timelines, as well as the sentences that unspool for a page or more when the emotions become … well, when it’s appropriate. Know it’s also a novel about sex, about trauma, about sisters, about innocence, about letting people in. Highly recommend for mature readers.
For four years, I tracked my reading pretty carefully. It was a worthwhile project for four years, but the user interface there got unwieldy. Now I post readings here. I’m proud that these four most recent books are all literature in translation. Four years ago, that kind of flurry of translated lit would have been planned, would have been a choice. Now, it’s a habit.
Since I teach a lot of students of Indian heritage, I had my antennae up for Indian authors. Two short story anthologies really hit the spot.
Dallas’s own Deep Vellum Publishing published The Shehnai Virtuoso, a collection stories by Dhumketu, translated from Gujarati and compiled by Jenny Bhatt. Compiled from his twenty-four collections, this anthology offers a great variety — but for me a kind of single authorial ethos emerged. There is real affection for the characters, even those that make lousy choices, especially those that are in dire straits. There is an adeptness at setting and tone (realistic or fantastic, mythical then or megaurban now), and there is a satisfying wrap up to each. Generally, good things happen to good people, and Dhumketu lets us know why.
Archipelago Books published The Dog of Tithwal, a collection of stories by Manto, translated from Urdu. These are darker and starker than Dhumketu’s. I’m not saying that it’s a fair or necessary comparison–I just happened to read these collections back to back, so forgive the apples to oranges comparisons. Manto’s cities are a little more unforgiving than Dhumketu’s, the relations between characters a little more selfish and amoral. The prose, as rendered in translations by Khalid Hasan and Muhammad Umar Memon, is direct. It reminded me often of the kind of mindset & prose that Sherwood Anderson called grotesque, that is, a set of stories about people who stick to their own truth and live with it during all their lives, but their truth turns to be faulty or even downright false.
New Directions recently published Yoko Tawada’s Scattered All Over the Earth, a novel I purchased because the cover looked really cool. It’s translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, and in many ways it’s a novel about translation, about trying to connect, about moving beyond who we are to who we hope to become. There’s a fact of the world of the novel that was very compelling that isn’t explained much: Sea levels have risen so much that Japan no longer exists. It’s been so long that Japan hasn’t existed that Japanese speaking people, like one protagonist of the novel, cannot find their language fellows. The hook is for this character to speak her own language with someone who knows it. There are other translators and global wanderers, people looking for a language of love & family, gender & food, friendship & home. It’s the first in a planned trilogy, and it feels like it–the wrap up leaves you in true suspense.
Open Letters published Katixa Agirre’s Mothers Don’t this year, translated from Spanish by Katie Whittemore. The title is the beginning of a sentence: Mothers don’t kill. This novel is about a mother that does, who kills her two infant children. The narrator of the novel is a recently-successful novelist (of a political thriller about ETA) and a new mother (of a fourteen-month-old son) who follows the trial of the mother, a woman she had a passing acquaintance with in college. Like another book I read recently, Agirre’s book draws upon religion, mythology, anatomy, forensics, personal experience, family upbringing, socioeconomic mores, cultural norms, and more to bring this tragedy (crime? temporary insanity?) to life. Agirre is unflinchingly honest about what makes for a bad mother, and how difficult it is to be good in what one does and in what one fights against doing, in what one thinks and in what one tries to banish from thought.
I’m not sure I can convey the charms of Such a Fun Age better than Trevor Noah did when he interviewed author Kiley Reed. It’s a smart readable suspenseful and morally complex story about race and class, and the American dream of reinventing oneself, if not climbing financially and socially. Reid choreographs a tense & sometimes beautiful pas de deux between her two protagonists—Emira, Temple alumna uncertain of what her future should hold, months away from aging off her parents’ health care plan, and Alix Chamberlain, the Instagram-sorta famous girl boss who hires Emira to babysit her child. Black women have been caregivers for white families for years, end this relationship is front at times with a deep strain of racial history and mistrust. Especially when friends get involved, love triangles form, and things go viral.
Ada Calhoun’s Also A Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me is getting some well-deserved raves & attention. Like a couple of books I’ve enjoyed recently, Also a Poet blends cultural history, literary criticism, and personal memoir. Calhoun begins by trying to complete the unfinished project of her father–a biography of Frank O’Hara, a writer known primarily today as a poet but who was referred to famously in his NYT obituary as an art critic and “also a poet”. Through the course of the project, Calhoun battles her frustrations with her father, his friends, his past, and the executor of O’Hara’s estate. For all the insight that daughter & father gain into O’Hara’s life & times, it’s no spoiler to say that the book ends up being more about Calhoun & her father (an art critic and also a poet) than about the original subject, namely, Frank O’Hara. What the reader gets, however, is a complex & painfully true account of the process of writing, as well as the process of acceptance–of our families, ourselves, our pasts.
Even though I can’t remember reading a book like Juniper & Thorn by Ava Reid, I feel like I’ve confronted this story before. And I mean that in the best way. It’s got magic & love, sisters quarreling & dads exerting unreasonable control. Marlinchen is the youngest of the X family—Undine, the eldest sister, can read the future in water reflections, Rosenrot, the middle daughter, can create just about any potion or cure from herbs. And they’ve all been kept to their home (the mother deceased long ago, naturally) for years. Reid opens the novel with a rare, and fateful, journey outside the family’s grounds, a trip to the opera, which introduces a love interest in the main dancer, and which summons the father’s deepest rage that they have gone out into the city, full of temptations & modern conveniences (electricity, for example) that is making their magic obsolete.
Over these past few years, we’ve had an embarrassment of riches with respect to cross-generational cross-cultural novels. Not all are immigration novels, but many are. Not all are trauma narratives, but many are. Not all are novels in translation, but many are. I’m sure you can think of many. Each time I read one of these important works, I’m humbled by the care with which the novelist crafts a difficult & deep personal truth. Dalia Azim’s Country of Origin is just such a novel.
Country of Origin begins and ends with women in transition, with women looking to the skies.
In the beginning of the novel (Cairo, 1951), a young woman looks to the skies from the roof of her comparatively luxurious, comparatively safe family home. She sees a city in ruins, a country in turmoil but one that her powerful, politically-savvy father can just navigate. Despite this father’s deliberate plotting & maneuvering, the young woman imagines, seeks, and secures an escape, an independence, a vista of safety & love. Sadly, it is not a permanent one.
By the end of the novel (Colorado, 1984), a young woman looks to the skies from the safety of a mountain preserve, part art project, part insect lab. She sees nature in its beauty & savagery, a landscape that has its hopes and its cruelties. This second young woman—the only child of the first young woman—has endured much: first-gen struggles, neurodivergence, family illnesses, and family losses. Despite all of this, the young woman sees in this mountain vista—one she will soon leave—a series of possibilities. Some of them quite firm, but many of them fleeting.
It’s that kind of novel. Every generation with its hopes, every generation with just enough to survive & testify to the next one.
I read somewhere that G-d is merciful, watching, judging, understanding, but still merciful. The quality of mercy, I read somewhere else, is not strained. It droppeth like ... well, it's freely flowing. It isn't meted out like some precious resource (though it is). It is worth much more than it costs to give. There is always a person to forgive and a reason to forgive, if for no other reason than that it gives you practice in feeling how little it takes to bless a person in error, in distress, deep in shame. Even when we know that they'll just mess up again, in our mercy, we bring a part of heaven to earth. "kyrie eleison" means "Lord, have mercy." This was my last sprint write with my students on May 18, 2022, modeled after Clint Smith's "Meteor Shower".
An orange shirt hangs in my closet. My second ever. It's got a sheen & a stretch altogether unnatural, some space-age material that doesn't breathe & doesn't fade. It's a golf shirt from another era, a stiff broad collar, more buttons than are necessary, and a deep breast pocket. There's a duck on the pocket also from another era. Summer 1988, north Austin, I'm watching my girlfriend shop in a fabric store. We were young enough & in love enough to do everything together then, even things I didn't want. I rotated one of those product kiosks, bored & annoyed. And there the duck was on a tiny card, a bright impulse that I knew would make her smile. She sewed it right on an orange t-shirt I wore probably once a week. Decades after we broke up, the shirt lost its snap, and I lost my taste for it. I threw away the shirt but kept the duck. I showed it to my wife, who sewed it right on a new orange shirt. My second ever. Here in the closet, in the home we share, a bright sign of how to adorn a simple thing, of how to keep love near your heart.
Inspired by the love of two women and by this poem.
Look, like most people who read Trust by Hernan Diaz, I had the immediate impression that this was going to win a lot of things. It’s a shame when that is one of my first instincts, but it wasn’t the only one. I didn’t only think “this one has a high literary fiction written all over it.” I thought about how elegantly Diaz navigates paths that are difficult to make accessible and relatable.
He writes about money in an exciting way, and in a way that doesn’t shirk moral questions. So many stories about money track the way that it can pull a person away from what they value. This novel by contrast demonstrates how money, particularly loads of money, reveals what we value.
He writes about gender in an unsettling way, a way that reveals itself the further you get into the novel, a way that reveals your own gendered perspective the further you get into the novel.
I guess I should say that this is a novel that plays with what a novel can be. It is in four parts, the latter two parts (and much of the second of the four parts) written in the voice of female characters. The further you get into the novel, the further Diaz moves you away from the fiction of part one, the kind of story that we have come to know of the novel at its best, at its peak.
There are spoilers that I’m avoiding here, as you’ve probably noticed. All I can say is that each part in each voice of Trust will have you thinking and feeling, and then thinking and feeling anew.
You wear a white shirt, grey slacks, and a plaid tie. A uniform of academic seriousness & middle class. You roll your sleeves up & unbutton your shirt at the neck. You feel there's little on the surface you choose. You are freest on your paper route, especially Sunday mornings weaving slowly from curb to curb, crossing the double yellow line. All four lanes yours. The city asleep. Inspired by Erika L. Sánchez's "The Poet at Fifteen", which was inspired by Larry Levis's "The Poet at Seventeen".
I recently read a book that was part investigative journalism, part literary criticism, part feminist meditation, and part motherhood memoir. Now I’ve read another one.
I’m glad that I was not familiar with the story of Marguerite de la Rocque, otherwise I might have been frustrated by how often the author centers herself, or how often she calls previous evidence in the question. This herky jerky style and approach turns out to be the one that mirrors the action of writing, and wondering, and drafting better than any “straight” history or memoir could have. Surprises land hard, both personal and academic; blessings abound (just the right library recommended to find just the right centuries-old map).
Ramqvist has several challenges in the telling. She must navigate the paths taken by three previous authors who have told their versions of the story, sometimes centuries earlier, and thus, sometimes restricted by personal connection to Marguerite, by connection to the uncle that banished her, by connection to centuries-old ideas of propriety & euphemism. She also cannot help but read her current self through the lenses of her selves — as a mother, as a Swede, as a once-young woman making risky choices with dangerous men.
What was most pleasurable about the book turned out to be this personal reading of the self. Her travels & frustrations with her teenage daughter reveal a lot about the blessings Marguerite lost as a mother, a lot about Ramqvist’s own understandings of independence and adventure, a lot about how we read the rare stories extant of famous women from centuries ago.
There is a tree at the heart of our house. A live oak reaching up in three directions, waist-thick master branches rough & mossy. I imagined it as mine the moment I saw it. The house would belong to all. The tree to me. From beneath it, I can see into each room. I don't look up often enough. I look around, from window to window, at my family, my house alive & secure. A life-size diorama I'm growing old in. Every few years the tree gets trimmed, sometimes as much as a third of it gets sawn off, mulched, & driven away. The dust settles bright & aromatic, a sandy pattern within the ridges of the roots. The canopy lifted, the shade dappled anew. And my tree bounces back, quickly dense again with leaves, stretching up imperceptibly, inch by delicate inch over the chimney, over me. I sit, book & wine at hand. Breathing deep & waiting to be called back inside, back home.
I’ve seen Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Française popping up on my Twitter feed for a long time. The colorized cover photo, which originally I thought was a little sentimental, turns out to be precise & appropriate. Though it’s got a cast of dozens, the heart of the novel is the drama of a man & a woman in a time we think we know well (WWII). The photo shows a man & woman of a certain age … no longer young, but still full of vigor & life & possibility, and in this case, full of uncertainty. They’re united but looking in different directions; I’d say that they’re in an embrace, except for the fact that each of them has a hand free.
It’s that kind of novel. One of uncertainties during a time of turmoil in Europe, here, in occupied France in 1940 & 1941. Nemirovsky, a Jewish novelist living in Paris, begins Suite Française with a kaleidoscopic energy. The Germans have moved from air bombing France and are marching on it, swiftly and successfully.
The opening part of the two-part novel focuses on several different families & citizens fleeing Paris with what little they have, with what little they can not bear to leave behind. Their fates are as varied and as shocking as … well, the fates of refugees in a time of war. Nemirovsky makes these continental events domestic & interpersonal — the wounds & kindnesses, the good luck & the bad fortune. The struggle for shelter & bread, for petrol & a shave.
The second part of the two-part novel focuses on a single occupied village, tracking the uneasy routines that emerge over months. Soldiers billeted in private homes; French officials compelled to (& enjoying the safety) of collaborating with the occupying German forces; children & survivors of the Great War dazzled openly & quietly (respectively) by the precision & strength of the Germans. And finally the women, performing obedience and politeness, while meditating in interior monologues about the beauty and natural novelty of young men in the village — their village’s men having left for war months and months earlier. Nemirovsky centers the drama of part two on the newlywed Bruno (a German officer skilled at music and eager to make the occupation civilized) and the newlywed Lucile (a girl from the forests waiting for a husband that doesn’t love her to return, enamored with the walks & talks, the talent & promise of Bruno).
Nemirovsky meant for this to be a five-part series. She was arrested in 1942 “and deported to Auschwitz, where she died. For sixty-four years, this novel remained hidden and unknown.” As a result, the novel ends with an unintended verisimilitude — none of the characters know and the author cannot hint at what is in store for these characters, for their way of life on part two’s last pages, set in July 1942 as the Germans leave the village for the Russian front.
I have heard great things about Betty Smith’s autobiographical A Tree Grows in Brooklyn all my life—the book and the movie. I finally got around to this readable, accessible, emotionally & historically nimble story.
To say that it’s a coming of age story is accurate, to a point, as accurate as it is to say that it’s a family story or a bootstraps story or a … well, we’d call it historical fiction now, but it was written originally with the psychological & emotional precision that the best stories have.
Betty Smith shapes the protagonist Francie & her family through the lens of what Toni Morrison once called Homeric fairness. That is, it is a story told bravely & honestly, a growing up ennobled & complicated by surprising empathy & honesty. Francie endures the fact that she is less loved by her mother than her brother is — but Smith depicts the mother chides her disarmingly to the effect of, “Oh, honey, don’t make a fuss — you know that he needs my love & support more than you do.” And you believe the mother. Francie bristles at the indignities & consequences of her father’s drunkenness — but Smith also centers the father’s love & struggles, his talent & tragedy.
I could go on. There’s no single antagonist, no enemy (unless it is poverty). There is instead the ambiguities of life & the everyday heroism of love & hard work, the gentle daily blessings that get people through the persistent daily burdens & losses.
It is a beautiful & hopeful book, made all the more beautiful by the direct style (which has moving flourishes & shifts in POV) and made all the more hopeful by the realization that we are not alone, or at least not alone for long.
Every few summers right before the kids return, the cones & ropes come out directing traffic somewhere else. There's a potbellied trailer spattered & smoking, surrounded by men in fluorescent vests & tarred steel toed boots. The asphalt goes down thick & clean, the oily heat rainbowing & distorting the new view. Then a slower process, stencils & block letters, striping & labeling: students & faculty, visitors & diagonally reserved spots we hope never to need, a reminder of the everyday horrors that happen somewhere else.
Years later the colors return to the earth, as we all must. Cracked & bubbled, a broad mottled stripe thrown into relief by sun & time. The lines, faded & crumbling, can still keep us safe. We remember where we belong.
On April 27, I sent my students outside with their phones to return with photos of different colors. This is inspired by a color I found.
Along with the usual noises (washing machines, wind chimes), this house has other voices. Scratches, creaks, murmurs, all times, all corners of the house. Like a conductor tapping a baton, a critter's feet ticks out a path across the roof, lighting upon the shingles faintly. Beneath the deck, deep in the shrubs, a bit of digital-ish noise beeps & chirps, then drops out, an abrupt small wild world alive, persistent -- but each time I approach, silent, just out of reach.
which is to say in the darkest of hours there's a flickering, an easily snuffed light. You can lift it, you can move it, but you must protect it. A hope chest holds soft elegance, handstitched care for the body & the bed. A hope candle can last if you're careful & still. Keep it close. Keep it dry. Watch hope dance then stand to reveal dangers, to ennoble wide eyes. Windowed, mirrored, it even grows. Hope throws big shadows, darkening what's behind. So look ahead, look close. And hold your breath.
The light comes before the rumble. The longer the gap between them, the further the storm from you. The first flash woke me. For once, my wife slept through it all. I lay alone with the sound and light, watching, listening, and counting. Light, one Mississippi, two Mississippi, then a rumbling menace above the roof. Windows rattled, the dog burrowing between us. In the next flash, a silhouette, a child midstride, framed by the illumined window. He climbed through the thunder into the flannel & heat a safe dry place between father, mother, and dog. The sound got as close as the light. It rained till morning.
Written in response to this writing challenge.
There’s a rusty chair left over from your grandparents in law, one the squirrels haven’t yet torn to shreds. Pull it from the corner of the yard and right to the center, the pollen crunching under your feet. There’s a neighbor behind you, his garage door open. Music is playing. Something is being fixed or installed. Push that from your focus, and avoid being annoyed by his perpetual busy suburban nesting. There’s a deck before you, decades old, creaking & buckled from rain & sun, boards warped & bleached, nails reaching upward. Some slats mossed over fold beneath the lightest of footsteps. Give thanks for the long years this space has given you, and avoid being annoyed at this crumbling hazard. There’s a vista before you, a roof that’s never leaked, a tree above it, right at the center of this part of your life. Cross your legs. Palm the glass of wine. Watch for mosquitos. And look up. There are clouds & birds, branches & wind. It’s all starting again. It always will.
Written in response to this challenge.
There’s a place for your hands And another for your feet. You look. You breathe. You count. You play. It’s just as responsive as you would hope wood would be. Eventually you learn to play with your whole body like you’re gently blessing the music into the keys, your elbows nudging, your wrists pliant, your fingers curved and lifting, a fragrant sheet caught on a line.
These days my mornings begin outside with the sun in my face. Texas makes this difficult most days what with heat and mosquitos. But it’s a habit now -- a tan line on my nose where my glasses sit. “Here’s another day,” I think. And here too am I. Thank God.
This is another tanka poem. Sorta.
The day's first email -- subject line: "Confidential." A kid in crisis is bravely getting some help. Looking up from the email, I see her come in like it's just another day -- which, I guess, it is. Still, every word & gesture becomes a sign, a warning. If you or someone you love needs help, please know that there are resources out there. This is a kind of tanka poem. Sorta.
Far down the page -- past news of war, past opinions & perfume ads, past covid charts & thinkpieces (this one about arctic penguins) -- "Rain Boots We Love". And I recall: It's April now ... spring has returned. I saw it just today, parking under budding trees -- a sky grey with the promise of that patter that redirects human focus. And tomorrow all of the girls will reach way back in their closets for the right shoes. Pulling bootstraps over bare legs, toes & soles gleam wet & bright with long awaited rain, finally just underfoot. This was written in response to a challenge to compose a poem based on a news item.
I was the first in my line because I was the shortest boy.
Across the aisle, Claudia was at the head of a long line of girls in white, veiled & serene, palms pressed in prayer. Two by two, we received the Body of Christ & returned to the pews, solemn, sacramental. Later, a man leaned over me, his hand on my shoulder. "Now you're one with God." I thought I already was. This one is another cherita.
Those Who Knew isn’t the kind of story you’d call sweeping, but it is. In a taut novel, Idra Novey creates the broad gaze of a brutal history, both political & personal, shifting between perspectives & characters, genres & times. You open the book on an unnamed island with characters who have inherited much from a brutal regime: Lena, the granddaughter of juice manufacturers & upper-class supporters of Cato (the now deposed brutal ruler); Olga, the former political prisoner mourning the loss of her beloved S. and now running a bookstore slash weed business; Victor, a former student protestor become senator, with a history & a tendency for violence; Freddy, his brother, a playwright recollecting & interrogating the role of his family in the suffering of the country.
Novey moves between Freddy’s scripts (all thinly veiled political criticism against his brother), Olga’s transaction log (all lovesick attempts to keep S. alive in her heart), and a more traditional narration. The novel moves forward in two big shifts—the now of Part I, resolving in 9/11; Part II, six years later when some figures have had children; and Part III, where several characters must confront choices & realities that have merely weighed on them up until now. There are business fortunes & romantic fortunes, political campaigns & public relations catastrophes, as well as moral dead ends & restorative second chances. It’s a lot, but it never feels like a heavy or difficult novel.
The resolution is a kind of baptism & escape, one in which bad things happen to bad people and we know why, good things happen to good people and we know why. It’s a really satisfying and rich read. You can read about other stuff I’ve read here.
Once we hit the highway, she said, “I think we should get married.”
Two hundred miles from home. No stops planned. No one else in the car. No way for me to avoid what this lovely girl said.
Three hours, two people, one question: How much longer did I need to know that she was the one? One thing I knew for certain. She knew how to pick the right moment -- and for her, the right guy.
This is a cherita, that is, a six-line poem that consists of three stanzas — one line in the first stanza, two in the second, & three in the third.
A match aflame is held aloft. Fire focuses the eye, the mind. But these eyes aren’t a match. A flame won’t catch these eyes, any of them. The field once green, now roaring from a match, a flam- ing horizon. Make a wish. Then a quick escape. Behold, beware a match aflame. This poem is my response to a writing challenge--four stanzas of four lines each, four syllables per line, with one line repeated in lines 1, 2, 3, 4 of stanzas 1, 2, 3, 4.
i've underestimated the pleasure of things catalogued, things put in place. to know that we agree "this is a badger. this is not not a badger" satisfies like a well built chair. rest & know that we can rest & know, that the cataloguing, the naming can be beautiful, that a name can fit & fit well. we can even refit, replace: firefly. lost love. still life. artwork. plaything. like this girl in her place, still, pale, except the color of life on her mouth, the glistening gaze behind the brittle thicket surrounding, adorning her. the babe in the wood, aflame in twigs, clothed in dried delicate proportion, packaged & shelved, awake & alert to all on the other side of the glass.
I don’t read enough nonfiction, and when I do, it’s usually a first-person memoir. Not a lot of footnotes, not a lot of history — all big ideas & institutions, thorny questions & issues narrowed to the snails-eye view of a single person. I need to grow out of this reading habit, I know. Novelist Alia Trabucco Zerán guided me down a nonfiction path that I don’t often walk.
Her When Women Kill: Four Crimes Retold offers readers like me a powerful & accessible blend of research & reckoning, of storytelling & reporting. Focusing on Chile in the 20th century, Zerán revisits four notorious crimes, notorious not only for the shocking brutality of the murders but also for the way that the brutality challenged contemporary notions of femininity, of wifehood, of sanity, of hysteria.
Throughout each account, Zerán interrupts her accounts for detailed research notes–a look at how the research happened, how librarians react to her curiosity, how she herself unveils her own understandings of her country & herself.
The recurring threads (hysteria as a defense, the misogyny standardized within Chilean law, the deployment of psychology as a way of understanding the crime & shaping the punishment) got me thinking anew about how gendered my lens is personally, as a reader, as a teacher, as a father.
It’s a curious book to be excited about, to recommend, but it’s one that is so varied in its style & focus that if you don’t appreciate, say, the Law & Order aspects of it, you just need to hold on for a few pages before Zerán shifts to a different (equally compelling) writerly lens.
before a melody, a mood, rolling waves of sound, resolution always imminent, all connecting a network of electronic ethereal lines. now the voice— open to dreams, to horizons.
to have and to hold
keep clean, keep communicating, keep being funny & nice
from this day forward
keep the past in the past, keep your jealousy to yourself
for richer or for poorer
max out your 401k, decide who pays the bills and how, share taxes, share accounts, don’t buy anything <$100 without checking in with her
in sickness & in health
exercise, wash your hands, don’t expect thank yous for loading the dishwasher. learn to cook. learn to snack. drink moderately
for better or for worse
you’ll think some wrong & petty things a lot — keep it in your head. learn to make sacred everday tasks, everyday beauties — the smell of her hair, the smoothness of her cheek, the calming & ennobling presence of family, the loyalty she shows friends. the love she gives you unearned
till death do us part
learn to care for her. learn to anticipate her fatigue & her worry. learn to be gracious in the little that you do. one day you’ll be reduced to a body to maintain not a personality to cherish, not a coparent or a partner. one day you’ll need help in ways you can’t imagine, in ways that you won’t notice or recognize. one day it’ll all be over, and you will have lived well thanks to her, thanks to these words today. be happy because you’ll leave her as you found her. beautiful, strong, wise, clear brown eyes, soft skin.
Inspired by Jamaica Kincaid & Lupe Mendez. The title alludes to the wedding vows in a Jewish ceremony–“Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li.” Roughly, “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine”, from Song of Songs 7:10.
Back then, back there, if you were a man, you joined the military. Dad did. Mom has photos of him uniformed, ramrod straight on campus, far from home, not yet at war. He graduated & went. 22. An officer. His first day, his first mission: find a platoon presumed dead. He did. They were. Fifty years later, the tears have come back for those that didn't. The VA reached out: You can talk about it. We're here. We'll listen. It'll do you good. It almost always does. These days, if you're a man long alone with your feelings, you move slowly, you mourn privately. After the VA, you pull over the car to weep, the tears coming like a blowout. You'll be home late, dazed by the surprise of what you remember, what you survived. This is a mostly true story. He's alright. Really. I saw him just the other day. The photo, taken June 2019, shows Panel 8E of The Vietnam Memorial, where two men from dad’s unit—64th QM BN—are honored. Donald F. Leuthold (SFC, US Army) and William W. Webb (2ndLT, US Army) died during an ambush while on intel recon 06/05/1966. Click here for mental health resources, information, treatment options, and more — all accessible to veterans & veterans’ supporters.
A man crosses the street in rain, one long last step over the curb. His coffee cup out at an exaggerated distance, a comically small cup to be sheperding through the crowded city street. He's on time. Two more blocks. Past the Thai place, past the laundromat, past the diner. He'll be there soon. Two keys -- one for the gate, one for the door. It's an old building, tight turns on the stairs. Small rooms. No closets. He takes off his shoes & feels the moist cold of his socks as he walks to the window, twisting the fading light into the living room. There's a chair he'll leave behind in eight months when he moves home (but he doesn't know that now), brocaded, low, a color he can't name, springs he can't ignore. He reaches & turns on the TV. His team almost never televised here, far from home. His team will receive. It's a Sunday in January. 1995.
From a project with students, using the first line of Shoulders by Naomi Shihab Nye
I love the title The Memory Police, so I was happy to wait a long time for Yōko Ogawa‘s novel to show up at the library for me. So long in fact that I was able to read another of her books — The Housekeeper and The Professor — while waiting. This was turned out to be for the best, actually, to read the books in the order that they were written and in escalating order of complexity.
The Housekeeper and the Professor focuses on three characters, the two in the title and the housekeeper’s son. The professor of the title is an elderly award-winning mathematician, who can only remember the most recent 80 minutes of his life, due to a debilitating car accident. His housekeeper and her son come to learn a new way to love and to see the world in caring for this eternally-present professor. Ogawa weaves just enough math (like amicable numbers) into the conversation to give the reader a glimpse into the world of the professor and the newly opened mind of the housekeeper and her son affectionately called Root (because his haircut makes him look like the sign for square root).
There are no big conflicts and no huge reveals. Instead, there’s a trip to the doctor’s office, a baseball game, a birthday party, homework & haircuts, comfort food & household artifacts: just the kind of slowly evolving wisdom and daily blessings that an ordinary life can give to those fully present to & for one another.
The Memory Police is also a novel based around three people: a novelist, an old man neighbor of hers, and the novelist’s editor. It’s a much darker story & world than Housekeeper. They live in a devolving world, a world in which items are disappeared, destroyed, and forbidden by the memory police from reappearing. Calendars, harmonicas, roses, books. Ogawa offers no reason for the state-sponsored disappearances, so the novel takes on a quiet and powerful suspense. It’s political story clearly, about a state’s power to shape our stories & ourselves, but there’s no exposition scene, no single Memory Policeman who reveals the machinery behind the political rulers. For some readers that lack of motivation might be frustrating; for me, it meant that I really had to live as the characters lived–that is, with very limited knowledge & no way of digging deeper. As a result, the novel read like almost like a fable, and like a survival story, one in which the novelist hides her editor, who persists in remembering objects lost, thus endangering his life, and who lives in a kind of Anne Frank hidden room in the novelist’s house.
Both novels offer clear and stark lessons in memory and in the power of community, even the smallest of human interaction. They read fast, and they will linger long.
As a kid, I wanted to be a priest. I knew the costume, had seen men add layer upon layer of holiness. I knew the sacristy, the drawers of clothing & cabinets of gold & wine. A bell struck. All rose. He walked. All waited on him. He had it all. The title, the pulpit. I never imagined myself at fifty, feeling young, feeling uncertain, feeling like anything less than a leader, a voice behind a screen offering forgiveness. Holiness, I hope, is everywhere. Sin, I've learned, is nothing to be ashamed of unless it's cowardice. Enter the space. Listen. Speak.
Pitchfork‘s 5-10-15 feature offers artists the chance to talk about the music of their lives, five years at a time. Here’s my headphone journey, five years at a time. I tried to find songs from that specific age, songs that serve as a hyperlink to then, not necessarily my favorite songs of all times–just of those times. So a lot of what I love that’s not here: no jazz, no country, no hiphop, no R&B. What is there shows how blessed we all are for a life enriched by music.
5: I’m old enough to remember when a home stereo was a piece of furniture, a large one. Ours was about the length of a couch, a sensible brown woodgrain cabinet, with a gently lifting lid. Inside was a radio dial, a compartment for about twenty albums, and a turntable.
Parents of five-year-olds in 1974 probably fed their children a steady diet of Carole King, Elton John, James Taylor. Jim Croce, etc. I didn’t grow up with any of that. When I was a freshman at UT Austin, two of my friends teared up at a diner when James Taylor came on — I looked at them like they were from Mars and sneered, “Doesn’t heroin usually lead to good music?” But I digress.
The turntable at Casa Garza in 1974 usually had Eydie Gormé y Los Panchos on. If you’ve been sung to at a Mexican restaurant, you’ve probably been sung to like Los Panchos did — tight harmonies, intricate fretwork, soaring choruses, big finishes. That makes me tear up. “Piel Canela” is a really catchy upbeat song, a love song that’s joyful. It took me years to recognize that Eydie Gormé’s accent wasn’t great, but then again, I’ve always had a thing for Jewish girls.
10: Sometimes after soccer games on the weekend, my parents would take us all out to have a hamburger. There was a jukebox at the place. Around this time (1979), you’d see non-disco acts pulling disco into their bag of tricks. I really like disco. I’m really persuaded also by those revisionist music historians that see a not so subtle homophobic / white supremacist strain to disco haters.
The Doobie Brothers were hippies, the kind of musicians that Jim Henson was thinking of when he assembled the Electric Mayhem. “What a Fool Believes” isn’t really their sound, but then again Hotel California isn’t really the Eagles’ sound. It’s a hit. It’s catchy and bouncy. It has white guys singing really high harmonies. It has a pre-chorus and a chorus. It has a bangin’ piece of modulation in the second verse that introduces a subtle but noticeable high descending keyboard line that you didn’t know the song needed. There’s no guitar solo — and at the end, it’s just Michael McDonald riffing through the fadeout.
If I saw them live, I’d have been very tempted to bootleg them for that song alone.
15: I’m going to have to work sometime soon on how David Byrne shaped me for good. Sometime in high school, I began taking on my own musical tastes and not just leaning on my siblings’ impeccable musical choices. Talking Heads was a gateway into a whole lot: Contemporary bands with similarly angular sounds, the possibilities of blending art & music, of blending Africa & America, the realities of a rock band as a kind of art project, the fact that a drummer could do away with the ride cymbal altogether, the fact that there’s a loopy beauty in / to suburban spaces. Talking Heads also introduced me to Brian Eno’s vision and Eno introduced me to worlds and worlds (again, worthy of his own post).
This song, though, is the end of a kind of era with Talking Heads. This is their third & final album with Brian Eno producing. I’ve always loved when a band sounds like one big instrument, but I’m always disappointed when the band I love no longer sounds like that band. I get growth, I get experimentation. I am disappointed for the bassist I love, disappointed for the drummer I love on a song like this where the whole thing seems hijacked by the singer-songwriter-genius & the producer-genius.
It’s organic & programmed — hand claps looped, shakers & Fairlight beats, spoken word & studio trickery, panning from speaker to speaker in whizzing flurries. A single bubbling of escalating pings, an echoing that dies abruptly.
And then a voice — not singing, but speaking. A story about change & regret, or regretting change or changing from regret. Or something else.
20: I was one of those Gen Xers whose musical tastes got blown away by Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, and David Byrne, bringing back sounds from their travels–sometimes for their own stuff, sometimes for a compilation album. That’s how I ended up in the world beat bin at Sound Exchange on the corner of 21st & the Drag my freshman year at UT Austin. The B-Boy stance of the cover got me, and I bought it without knowing a single song, artist, or even the label.
I never understood the words, and I’ve never looked them up. I could have picked any song on The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, and I chose this one. They’ve all got close rich harmonies, they’ve all got guitar work that is of another world, both rhythm & lead, support & countermelody all at once. And every now & then Mahlathini comes growling in for a verse. Every voice in place. Enduring lesson: Every instrument a rhythm instrument.
25: There is music that makes you smile, and there is music that makes you smirk. Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks work both kinds well. Their instrumentation (circus organ, saxophone, sousaphone, sometimes banjo) harken back to when entertainment was gas lit, when performers used greasepaint, when the man at the mic wore tails and knew how to make you laugh between songs. This live video, although not of the original band, gives you a sense of what it was like way back then, between rock shows that I saw a couple of times a week. Steve Carter sings with no vibrato, no front guy “filter”, no performing tricks –– like Sade, like Chrissy Hynde, like many of my favorite singers, he sings about like he talks. And his lyrics always make you feel like you’re in on a joke and like you’re smart to laugh. Here, he retells the temptation story in Genesis with Frank Sinatra as the hip but justice-dispensing God.
30: Yo La Tengo is a band that, for much of their catalog, breaks down into two kinds of songs: feedback driven lengthy Velvet Underground inspired space jams, and sensitive Velvet Underground inspired love songs. They include a married couple (the singer/guitarist, the drummer/sometime singer); they’re renowned for their Hannukah shows. They have a couple of albums that are titled with complete sentences, a creative decision that I love in any genre. I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One is their pinnacle, I think & Pitchfork thinks. On I Can Hear, the balance of movements and sounds, the arc of the album, the packaging and the moment all came together perfectly. “Green Arrow” is five minutes of countrified calm in an album that is lovely and noisy.
35: Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her is “late” mature Almodovar. Like so many of his movies, it’s a thoughtful & transgressive movie that celebrates full-contact relationships, human bodies, and art in all forms.
Michelle found a theater that was playing it — she’d already seen it but knew I’d really love it. It was about forty-five minutes away. We were the only two in the theater. Caetano Veloso sings “Cucurrucucú Paloma”, a song I knew first as a big brassy mariachi song. I had discovered Caetano through David Byrne’s seminal Beleza Tropical anthology of Brazilian music from the 70s & 80s, music that blended samba with rock & funk. I wasn’t prepared for him to take on this Mexican song, for him to move through it with such languid grace, for the cello to take center stage in a way that made me teary-eyed & woozy, and I looked over at Michelle and knew that, if I stuck with her and kept myself from doing anything really stupid, I’d have moments like this throughout my life. The rest of the movie is amazing but not nearly as good as this few minutes.
A few weeks later, for Valentine’s Day, Michelle & I each got each other the same gift–the soundtrack to Talk to Her–attached to the same non-Valentines card from the same store. Really.
40: I’m recognizing the further I get into this playlist that it’s the playlist of my desk, of my work, of my walking, of my thinking, of my writing. The drive to school is DJ’d by my kids; the soundtrack of my school gym is DJ’d by the coaches there; the soundtrack in class is DJ’d by the students. What remains is a space I recognize as meditative, a compass pointed toward thought and silence. Music that’s almost not music –– lyrics removed, verse-chorus-verse-bridge-etc patterns vanished, an aural mind set. The sound of deep, and sometimes brave, thinking. In this case again, a cello holds the place that in pop music is reserved for the rhythm section. Emerging from the waves of that resonant deep long-bowed line, like a light rotating and fading toward an away from the listener, is a woman’s voice. Beckoning? Encouraging? Enchanting? It’s one note, not even a word. It’s enough.
45: Spiritualized is not a band of subtle gestures. Big guitars, big suffering, big choruses repeated dozens of times loudly (like here at a show I saw in 2019). They emerge from a kind of acid rock group that I loved, but which developed in Spiritualized into a sound with soul. This song, however, is as the album title suggests, pure phase. Voiceless looped keyboard figures, building & building, never letting up. Every couple of minutes into the song, you can pick up a new color, a new pattern, each time convincing yourself that this is the main line.
50: Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians entered my collection sometime early in my twenties. I don’t know who recommended it to me. I never put any of it on a mix tape. I’ve never listened to it with anybody. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve listened to it probably once every three days for decades. There have been entire months of my life when I’ve listened to nothing but this album. This is the first time that I’ve written about it or talked about it. Really.
It’s an austere title and a challenging idea — a mostly instrumental album but with voices deployed as sounds rather than word-vessels, rather than melody centers; an on-the-surface mercilessly repetitive album that reveals even on the first listen a variety of colors & tones, dynamics & movements, motifs & threads. Depending mostly on breath & wood, focus & perseverance, it sounds downright mechanical, like gears moving in varying rotations against & with one another. A classical piece challenging in its relentless non-swinging rhythmical patterns, it is a virtuoso ensemble piece, not a piece to support virtuosos. For 18 musicians, its most dramatic moments depend on single non-flashy entrances (of chimes usually) and abrupt exits (of woodwinds usually).
It still fills me with wonder. All of this music does.
On my thirteenth birthday, we crossed the border. Starched guayaberas & dress slacks, shined shoes reflecting the high summer sun. As often happened when we were down in the valley, we occupied an entire room to feed the extended family. Passing elote stands & kids selling chiclets, a neighborhood dusty & busy. In Miguel Alemán, we were comfortable but conspicuous. Clearly there for the day. A luxurious & easy crossing, lower prices & local color. We took up the whole sidewalk, loudly, happily. My gran'pa paid for the whole thing, including this Virgen I wear still. "Mi'jo, que dios te bendiga." I wrote this with my students on March 10, inspired by Maggie Smith's "Talisman". I suggested that we stick to ten lines of ten words each. If you're not familiar with the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe, click here.
In every city, there's a room full of dreams catalogued carefully, nuances of emotion, scenarios you can scarcely imagine awake: Honeymoons nestled with lost loves. Anniversaries with chores forgotten. Illicit joy with family laughter. They are alive & renewable. The city never runs out of dreams. A map of the city is on a big screen, filling the wall. Streets & fields have been removed. A grid of addresses & numbers, rooms & beds. All accounted for. A man in uniform drags each dream from the margins to a house, through the house to a room, through the room into a bed, the right side of the bed for the right dream. He hovers, uncertain at times. It's artful & important work, work that takes root but not in the mind. Someplace deeper. Does he know the false hopes he drops on unsuspecting people prone, disrobed, mouths agape? Sleep tight. I am not imaginative in the way that fiction writers are. Still, I tried my hand at a subject that I don't understand well, explained through a lens that's not mine, in a voice I don't use often. It's a dream vision.
my mother bruises easily cobblestones in San Miguel felled her i was there but too far to catch her to hold her elbow knee knotted hand swollen an inflated leathery latex glove her glasses hid her color erupted eye wine dark echo dimmed & darkened from the original fluorescent burst of the original fall the first day yellow green rimmed the point of contact right hand outer knee wrapped & clothed unseen her eye alone bruised to the bone reveals & reminds me to watch my step & hers
PS She’s fine. Really. I saw her just the other day. This fall happened twenty years ago.
It’s not perfect. The edges are folded with near precision. More rolled than folded in spots, not quite the crease you’re meant to aim for.
I know how small the hands were that folded this crane. I know the room where where it came to be.
There was a lesson connected to it. The simplicity that could become art. The care that it takes to think & create in honor of a loved one.
The teacher says it’s meant to be one of a thousand. An insurmountable task, a severe & demanding ritual, he thinks, though he doesn’t have those words for it yet.
But, she says, the work can be shared.
At some point, the ritual in the class becomes automatic, hands moving independent of the mind. Eyes looking across the table at loved ones, looking back across at you.
The first folds the easiest. Paper pliant & crisp. You get the feeling you could do anything with it. And then the working area gets smaller, the sharpness muddied. That’s the other lesson.
How hard it is to bring a thought into being, how much work it takes to honor a memory.
In fourth grade, I had a teacher that was passionate about environmentalism — she talked about recycling, about turning lights off, about just not buying things if we didn’t really need them, about species & rainforests, floods & droughts. It’s forty years later, and we need the same lessons, we need to learn & act.
We’ve had nonfiction works galore to persuade us, documentaries & journalism of all types. Several novels that fall under the (new to me) subgenre Climate Fiction, or Cli-Fi — that is, fiction that deals with the effects of climate change on human society. From head-on nature-as-protagonist stories like Richard Powers’ The Overstory to more subtle horror stories about a world mid-crumble like Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind. Now, one of the best I’ve read.
In Eleutheria debut novelist Allegra Hyde tells a provocative & personal, imaginative & realistic story of the challenges & consequences of the Anthropocene era. The novel’s two questions are big ones: “What hath man wrought?” and “What now?”
Hyde writes with historical, sociological, and emotional precision all centered on a well-meaning young idealistic protagonist Willa Marks. Homeschooled by environmentalist preppers, Willa becomes drawn to a utopian project called Camp Hope – a carbon negative sustainable compound in the hurricane-battered Bahamas poised to be an example for how to survive our environmental choices.
In Eleutheria Hyde crafts believable near-future realities (a Green Republican party, Freegan-fueled riots in Cambridge) and sobering actual realities (scholarship weaponized by the eleite, mass natural catastrophes, the consequences of imperialism and consumerism) in a suspenseful and readable blend of a coming-of-age and a falling-out-of-idealism stories. But it’s not all Willa’s story — her story fits into so much more.
In weaving foils & historical echoes, Hyde demonstrates what’s at stake, who benefits, and how we are led astray: from social media to 17th-century history, from global politics to campus politics, from eros to gaia. The last chapter was riveting & moving – as Daniel Peña said in a recent Zoom with Hyde, I don’t think I’ve read a better ending to a novel in a long time.
Race in our age is admitting that we respect advantage, that progress is grievously laid aside. Society developed, yet man senses proof of a force all our fault — degenerating, criminal, rapid.
Children shown the existing body learn and work the new body.
Work and honor free entire groups. Unorganized people govern not. The body politic is taking labor, light, and care. How are profits superhuman? If all ages withdraw cooperation, a fair and free home should make all rise.
Today I’m posting my first ever blackout poem–that’s it up there. Seven sentences gleaned from eight pages. I’m not wild about it.
As a high school English teacher, I’ve been tempted to do blackout poetry projects, but I’ve wanted them to mean something, to be an exercise of true rewriting of text rather than a “fun” standalone lesson on an anodyne subject. As a high school teacher, I’ve also taught Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” a lot. But I didn’t want to blackout a feminist text. Instead, I worked with Gilman’s 1908 “A Suggestion on the Negro Problem“, an eight-page article in which Gilman imagines an enforced labor system of certain African Americans, those who can work factories & fields “without the strain of personal initiative and responsibility to which so many have proved unequal..”
Gilman’s “suggestion” goes into some detail about the alleged benefits and procedure for the state placing those Black Americans that “do not progress” into organized labor. I blacked out each page, aiming to preserve one sentence per page — but it didn’t always work. This whole thing nauseated me — not just the “suggestion” argued but the realization that in blacking out the word “Negro”, I was merely preserving a sanitized version of the racist, self-servingly modest, clinical voice.
With students, I’d lay the groundwork carefully — at the very least, defining & offering examples of scientific racism. I’d also need to prepare them for the content of the article, maybe even looking at the publication itself, maybe even searching its current place within the academic discipline. I’m not certain that many students are used to seeing racism manifest in this way. Not sure if I’ll return to this kind of thing again, but I’m glad I gave it a try, even though it didn’t work. Or maybe it did — I truly cannot tell right now.
The hail stopped. Rain fades. Soft clouds frame & shroud the moon -- a drone hums above.
He rolls up his pajama top, a signal to caress him, to sing him to sleep. Still young enough to need touch, still young enough to ask to be touched often. I kneel & sing. He luxuriates in the ritual, one of his own design.
The boy stands before me, palming the ball, wiggling it at me. "Dad. Outside?" It's hot, I'm comfortable, but I succumb. To the field. Between our house & the field, we toss the ball & watch for cars. Then we're free. Surrounded by the trees. Birds above nearly drown out the leaf blowers. He calls the play, & I imagine a slightly future him, throwing to an emptiness he fills, an invisible target he sees first. I had almost lost the need to sweat for fun, to daydream a heroic me. Then the boy led me outside.
In about 2014, my reading life changed with the establishment of Dallas’s Deep Vellum Publishing, a publisher at the time dedicated to literature in translation. They’ve since branched out, drawing in smaller imprints and recently buying the legendary catalog Dalkey Archive. But for me, they’ll always be a go-to place to read the world. As they were for me this week, when I read Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees.
Kurkov’s Sergey Sergeyich lives in Little Starhorodivka, a village in Ukraine’s grey zone, a region caught between loyalists & separatists. It’s a lonely village reduced to two inhabitants, Sergey a retired mine inspector & beekeeper, and Pashka his lifelong frenemy also retired. They visit each other out of boredom & necessity, eventually even deepening something of neighborly affection & concern for one another. The frequent shelling in & around the village, however, mean that Sergey must leave — not for his own safety primarily, but for that of his bees.
His journey to let his bees take wing draws you into the variety of the region & its people, and into the depths of Sergey’s emotions. The wartime checkpoints & worries, bureaucratic absurdities & cruelties had me on edge a lot — soldiers & militia, governors & petty officials alike wield the kind of control over Sergey & his fate, his friends & his bees, that make for apt comparisons to Vonnegut, Kafka, Bulgakov, and Beckett.
Relationships with women complicate & nurture this journey throughout. One that turns erotic, others that turn familial, and still others that were once familial & strained … Sergey isn’t the bravest or clearest heart you’ll read but he is one of the realest, needing nudges from women to love & to feel & to sacrifice when it’s needed most (for himself & for others & for his bees).
Oh, and the bees.
Don’t worry — Kurkov leans on the apiary just enough. In hands-on maintenance & in nightmarish visions, in liter-by-liter accounts of production and in (quick) allegorical meditations on belonging & endurance, rebirth & sweetness.
This is a (non-exhaustive) list of things that I do that annoy my wife:
When I am nervous, I laugh
Very often when I am certain that I am right about a thing, I am quite wrong about that thing
When I am full, I give her hugs & snuggles, no matter how busy she is
Decades ago, I told her that she was holding an umbrella wrong – she still brings it up
I rearrange dishes that she has already loaded into the dishwasher
Right before I fall asleep, I tuck my socks behind my head on my pillow just in case I need them during the evening
I regularly forget things about our life together
Sometimes if I’m telling a story that she knows happened on, say, a Tuesday, but I say that the thing happened on, say, a Wednesday, she will correct me, and (but?) I will continue talking as if it could have very well happened on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, all, Anyway as I was saying …
I ask for her help loading the washing machine we’ve had for 18 years
I once had a soul patch
I met her great-uncle Henry once at a wedding. After, like, ten minutes of me talking to him, Henry told her, “You’re lucky to have him” — she asked me if her uncle had also said that I was lucky to have her. Reader, he had said no such thing
[redacted ancient history thing]
I add that ’93 Snoop Dogg ‘izz to lots of what I say, to the extent that my own children say Harry Pizznotter rather than Harry Potter
Sometimes I put her used tea mug (which she leaves by the sink with other dirty dishes) in the dishwasher, when I should know by now that she is going to reuse that mug later
I follow behind her turning off lights that she’s just turned on
Just as I’m happily about to drift off to sleep, I pat her shoulder to let her know that I love her, which interrupts her drifting off
I can fall asleep on demand—like, if falling asleep were an Olympic event, I would be a gold medalist
I once broke up with her for a really dumb short-sighted reason
I exercise regularly
I sing along with songs but paraphrase the lyrics so that the song no longer rhymes
[redacted bathroom thing]
I am very happy when I wake up, like whistling happy
I whistle upbeat versions of sad songs—for example, a swingin’ peppy version of Les Miserables’ “On My Own”
My default song to whistle is “As Time Goes By”, which I have been whistling in her presence for nigh-on thirty years
Whenever she drives us home from a nice evening with adults where I’ve been drinking, I curse a whole lot on the drive, like, way more than is necessary, and I usually wind up saying “I was funny tonight” over and over
I am very particular about my coffee. I’m getting worse
Sometimes when I see her around the house and remember that I love her, I’ll just moan, “Oh mama” like she’s leaving on a long trip or something. She’ll interrupt what she’s doing to ask, ”What?”, and I’ll just moan, “Oh mama” again
I once had a beard
[redacted pretentious thing]
When she texts me, chances are greater than 75% that my response will be “Lordy Lou” or “Whatreyagonnado [insert shrug emoji]”
I am listed as a co-volunteer on loads of school stuff, but she does all the work
I yawn loudly
I claimed as my own a soft silk eye pillow that a friend gave her for a gift
[To be updated]
I’ve been trying to read nothing but female authors for the late spring & early summer. I only had one slip-up, but I’m glad I read that one too : )
After Suite Francaise, I was looking for accounts of the daily realities of the Holocaust. Not camp memoirs or novels, not survival stories, but more stories like Nemirovsky’s that showed the way that towns & villages made possible the suffering of six million and more and their families. In that search I came across A Scrap of Time and Other Stories by Ida Fink. Originally written in Polish about Poland, A Scrap of Time is unforgiving in its … I was going to say in its slices of life, but it’s a collection that shows how cruelty and necessity slices through lives. The cast of characters is vast and believable, both those captured and those collaborating to liberate those hunted. Children, young women, the elderly, people alone, married couples, etc. There are moments of relief, but those are recounted in such a way that really had me reeling—was survival about luck? About personal bravery? Some cosmic tragic mix of both?
The blurb at the top of Gayl Jones’ Corregidora had me sold. Toni Morrison, Jones’ editor at one point, proclaims, “No novel about any Black woman could ever be the same after this.” The bar is certainly set high by this novel. It’s an unflinching look at the legacy of slavery & sexual violence, complete with wisdom of the ancients in Corregidora’s memory of her grandmother’s stories of enslavement. It’s a bold novel sexually, complete with frank and explicit depictions of loving intimacy and noncoerced submission. It’s written in a smoothly varied style that readers of Morrison & Hurston will appreciate, shifting effortlessly & powerfully between Black urban vernacular and modern stream of conscious prose and back again, often within the same paragraph. Finally, it’s driven by and complicated by Corregidora’s terrific freedom, in terms of her art, her friends, her family, and her career. A real stunner with a dizzying resolution.
Since I’ve read Dana Stevens’ criticism at Slate for years, I was really excited for her book Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century. It’s a biography as broad as the title. Stevens reconstructs every stage of Keaton’s career and the context surrounding it. The vaudeville stage and the advent of film that transforms / undoes vaudeville; the early days of film and the corporate consolidation of cinematic distribution and talent; the rollicking energy of Keaton in front of & behind the camera and the business errors he makes that compromise his financial stability; the cocktail parties of early Hollywood and the birth of AA; the meritocracy of the performing arts and the female directors, the Black artists that never got their due; Keaton’s struggles with alcohol and his success in his last marriage and as a gag writer for television stars. Like Elvis Costello’s memoir or Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution, this book is gonna be one that you’ll want to read with a device nearby so that you can relive & re-laugh at Keaton’s timeless genius.
I remember hearing about Richard Adams’s Watership Down as a kid. Even then, it was spoken of in reverential terms, spoken of as a book that would move you & change you. It is, and it did. Like most adult readers, I’d say that it’s not really a kids’ book. I don’t doubt that kids will enjoy the suspenseful adventure / survival story—I know that I had a really difficult time putting the book down every night. And I hope that kids and / or suburban readers like me will take the time to follow along in the novel’s map, to look up topographical terms like … y’know, down or copse and botanical terms that show the plentitude of nature, even in a little corner of a little island. When readers like me say it’s not really a kids book, we really tell on ourselves. All great books are books of ideas. In this case, citizenship & power, nature & ingenuity, the self & the Other. One of my desert island books for sure.
I am a sucker for books about books. Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book would count, I guess, as historical fiction. It is a fictionalized account of the Sarajevo Haggadah. A Haggadah is a book used during the Passover celebration to tell the story of the exodus & faith of the Jewish people; the Sarajevo Haggadah is, in history & in Brooks’s novel, a masterful work of art. The novel begins in the near-present with a manuscript conservationist hired to brave wartorn Sarajevo to work on the Haggadah. Brooks looks deep into the book—its fibers, its stains, its spine, its clasps—which take the reader back in history to see the inspiration & construction, the path & peril of this sacred text. The history is woven into the lives of the characters rather than inserted clunkily between their actions & journeys. The people of this book (in 1480s Seville, 1490s Terragona, 1600s Venice, 1940s Sarajevo) is distinct and deliberate in how they see & how they value the Haggadah. Highly recommend.