From its title, Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities, it’s clear that this book will explore the morphing character of a place that has played a pivotal role in the human story for thousands of years. Bettany Hughes begins by taking the reader back to the prehistoric roots of the city, positioned advantageously on the straits connecting the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara — from there just a short jaunt to the Mediterranean.
Humans have occupied this propitious location for at least 8,000 years. Known as Byzantion in the ancient world, it became an outpost in the Roman Empire. In 330 AD, the emperor Constantine renamed the city after himself, and Constantinople became the “New Rome” as the old empire crumbled.
The continuation of the Roman Empire — eventually called the Byzantine Empire — lasted until the year 1453, when it was defeated by the Turkish warriors known as the Ottomans. This locus of Christianity then became the center of an Islamic empire that stretched even farther than its predecessor.
After World War I, the Ottoman Empire was dismantled, and the capital of modern Turkey moved to Ankara. Yet throughout all of these changes, Byzantion/Constantinople/Istanbul has remained one of the great cities of the world — a source of fascination for writers (e.g., Orhan Pamuk) and historians alike.
The strength of this particular account lies in Hughes’ focus on the totality of the city’s inhabitants, not just the powerful ones. She introduces the reader to emperors and sultans, but also to slaves and refugees.
She gives emphasis to the roles women played in the city over time. Empresses and queens get their due, but so do lower-class women, nuns, and female slaves, whose voices are too often obscured in historical accounts. The result is a more complete presentation of the city’s history.
Religious and ethnic minorities feature prominently as well. We learn of persecutions in the city’s Hippodrome as paganism and Christianity clashed for prominence. The Jewish population was at times welcomed and at times tormented.
After the Ottomans took power, Christians and Jews continued to live and work in the city for centuries. Hughes shows that multiple faiths can and have coexisted throughout history, and that religious differences have been set aside when common purpose called for it.
She also incorporates the history of eunuchs throughout these various empires. Eunuchs were castrated males who had typically been captured as slaves, and after their “procedure,” they were made officials in the highest echelons of the Byzantine government and the Orthodox Church.
The Ottomans continued this tradition, with powerful eunuchs working closely with sultans, their mothers, and their wives. By weaving their story throughout the shifting politics, Hughes demonstrates just how long a non-binary view of gender has been part of the human experience.
This emphasis on the continuity of history is the book’s other great strength. When discussing the Ottoman conquest, she describes it as “neither the blood-crazed depravity nor the banner-unfurling triumph it is portrayed as being by many medieval and modern-day chroniclers of West and East.”
Instead, this city exemplifies the gradual pace of social change: the centuries-long transition from paganism to Christianity, the shift from frontier town to the New Rome, the rebranding of the city as the center of the Islamic world.
Hughes walks the reader through the city’s evolution always with an eye on its past, and she deftly points out the constant cosmopolitanism that defined the city: “Different faiths, cultures, races, all with a stake in the city, many on the make, trading, praying, politicking — ensured this was a hyper-connected place.”
Leaders of all the empires understood that this diversity sustained the city, which explains the persistence of religious tolerance and liberal migration policies, yet also the slave trade in captured peoples.
It is clear that Hughes knows and loves this city. Many chapters begin with an anecdote about a random spot in Istanbul, described in intimate detail, and then connected to a time of grandeur in the past. She describes the sights, sounds, and even the smells of the neighborhoods throughout eras, giving the reader a unique and visceral street-level view.
She also tackles orientalism head on. Rather than portray the city as “exotic” or its inhabitants as “the other,” Hughes shows just how interconnected Constantinople/Istanbul has always been to the rest of Europe. She demystifies the harem — site of so many Western stereotypes — and explains its function in the Ottoman world. This approach captures the unifying power of shared history at a time when divisions around the world are being emphasized and exploited.
Including maps throughout the text would have helped readers visualize both the sweep of empires and the neighborhood-level detail she describes. Clocking in at 600 pages (not counting appendices and notes), this is not exactly a breezy read.
But Hughes’ conversational tone makes the book extremely approachable, regardless of one’s familiarity with the city. Peeling back layers of time and fantasy, she shows us why this city is such an integral part of humanity’s story.
Rose Rankin is a writer outside of Chicago. She focuses on women’s literary history and gender issues.
Why should you come to Politics and Prose, one of DC’s finest indie bookstores, this Friday, Sept. 22nd? Because the Independent will be there, and 20 percent of your purchase will go to support us!
After you’re done shopping — you know you're buying something — tell the cashier you support the Independent, and they’ll make sure a portion of the price goes to us. It’s that simple!
And be sure to come downstairs, say hi, and chat about books with us — we’ll be at a table near the café. We’ll be there all day, and we can’t wait to meet you! (Need another good reason to come? NBC News reporter Katy Tur, author of Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History, will be in conversation with Politico’s Jake Sherman at 7PM.)
See you Friday!
A recent survey revealed that wealthy technology entrepreneurs lean politically left, with one glaring exception: their views on regulation. Not exactly shocking news. Few business leaders in any sector are ardent fans of government regulation. But Franklin Foer’s thought-provoking and cogent book argues that lack of regulatory oversight has allowed tech companies to devalue knowledge and imperil our democracy.
World Without Mind focuses on Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon: the behemoths who control vast swaths of online — and, increasing, offline — life. After briefly tracing Silicon Valley’s cultural history, Foer devotes a chapter to each company, paying special attention to the worldviews of their founders, some of whom — like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos — are now among the wealthiest and most powerful individuals on the planet.
While neither the companies nor the worldviews are identical, these firms are united in that they have developed platforms that they want you, the consumer, to become addicted to. A platform, however, doesn’t amount to much unless it’s a platform for something: information, commerce, social interaction, whatever. And there’s the rub. These companies, according to Foer, don’t care a whit about that something beyond its use to them. But it’s the something, not the platform, that truly matters.
For example, in Facebook’s case, the something is your data, supplied largely by you, which it happily uses to sell ads and run experiments on with little concern for your privacy. Amazon’s something is retail goods, giving it tremendous leverage over companies whose stuff it sells. Amazon isn’t shy about taking advantage of this, leading to, among other consequences, the drastic alteration of the publishing industry.
Publishing is where Foer’s direct experience comes in. He was editor of the New Republic when it was purchased by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. Foer’s firing a few years later led to a well-publicized mass resignation of TNR staff. He discusses this openly and dispassionately, then examines the impacts of technology platforms on journalism and the writing profession, with the operative word being profession. By unbundling and devaluing “content,” he claims, tech firms have de-professionalized writing.
He makes the interesting assertion that the old system of publishing gatekeepers (e.g., the big publishing houses, the Grahams at the Washington Post, etc.) was more democratic than the new one in which anyone can put their writing out there but virtually no one can make a living from it. This is at least partially a matter of perspective. The gatekeepers are still there, and Foer has spent his career as one of them. Aspiring writers out in the hinterlands may feel differently than he does.
But the claim is not entirely without merit, either. Technology will let writers bypass the gatekeepers, but there’s a cost in prestige and esteem, if not in money. Plus, just putting stuff out there doesn’t mean anyone will read it. Unless you’re famous or a marketing genius, the difference between self-publishing your novel and sticking it in a desk drawer can be negligible.
Most importantly, technology may have twisted decision-making about who gets through the gate (here I resist the urge to name a few overrated writers and cultural critics who appear wholly unworthy of their positions). At present, we may be saddled with the worst of both systems.
Content on technology platforms is subjected to two further indignities. First, algorithms help determine who sees it. While the word conjures images of logical and rigorous lines of code, algorithms are underlain by choices and values. Foer writes, “When we outsource thinking to machines, we are really outsourcing thinking to the organizations that run the machines.”
Second, each piece of content’s popularity becomes all-important. Thus, the oft-expressed desire to “go viral.” When clickbait wins, quality often loses…a possible consolation for those wondering about some of the writers getting through the gate these days.
Foer suggests — a theme I’m seeing with increasing frequency, and there’s something to it — that society has ceded to markets not just the assignment of monetary value (e.g., sure, the piece that gets the most eyeballs generates the most advertising revenue), but values writ large (that piece may not be “the best” in any other way). Markets are themselves a form of algorithm, and like computer algorithms, they reflect underlying values. But are these truly society’s values, especially when markets trend toward monopoly?
World Without Mind argues that we must actively fashion the internet we want instead of accepting, by default, what markets give us. The book calls for strengthening and updating intellectual property laws and stepping up antitrust and regulatory action: “The health of our democracy demands that we consider treating Facebook, Google, and Amazon with the same firm hand that led government to wage war on AT&T, IBM, and Microsoft.”
One alternative to powerful companies monopolizing the internet is exemplified by the history of truly democratic technological initiatives like Linux, Wikipedia, and the Creative Commons.
Foer reminds us (as if we needed reminding) that the Framers of the Constitution designed the U.S. system of government to be inefficient. They did so deliberately to favor liberty. He argues, “It’s not worth having free e-mail if the price is our privacy; next-day delivery is nice, but not if the consequence is a sole company dominating retail, setting the market price for goods and labor.” Convenience and efficiency versus privacy and liberty: In a nutshell, this is the values discussion around technology we’re not having.
It would take quite a shift to bring about the changes Foer advocates. He thinks it’s most likely to occur only after enormous and damaging hacks, the kind that disclose enough private information to wreck lives, or disrupt systems in ways that cause death and destruction.
In an environment where we are being governed by the Tweet, but can at least vent our outrage on, well, Twitter…I fear even this sad prediction may be overly optimistic.
Josh Trapani contributes regularly to the Washington Independent Review of Books.
In her debut novel, All Is Beauty Now, Sarah Faber combines the raw splendor of Rio de Janeiro with family tragedy. In 1960s Brazil, the Maurers seem to enjoy a picture-perfect life. But scratch beneath the surface and things are far from idyllic. Hugo, the patriarch and a Canadian expat, battles with a mental illness that slowly withers the dashing man he used to be.
His wife, Dora, tries her best to deal with the strain of a volatile husband and the responsibility of caring for three daughters. Often overwhelmed, she allows herself to be swept up into an ill-advised affair that will have dire consequences for her already-troubled family.
But the true test for the Maurers presents itself when their eldest daughter, Luiza, apparently drowns at sea, although her body is never recovered. As the novel progresses, Dora, Hugo, and their two other daughters will find their lives altered in ways that will either bond them forever or break them up for good.
What inspired you to write this story?
I was largely inspired by my family’s stories about their lives in Brazil before moving to Canada in the early 1950s. I think, in general, I’m drawn to stories of people living in extremis, or in unusual circumstances. My grandfather was diagnosed as bipolar when that condition was little understood, and I was drawn to the contrast of their living in such a beautiful place while dealing with a very unpredictable condition. Their lives could be quite exciting at times, but there were also periods of profound sadness and melancholy, and all the while, they were living in a country associated with celebration, but which also has a strong undercurrent of loss and melancholy.
In the novel, the descriptions of Rio are extraordinarily detailed. Have you lived there?
No! And I do worry that perhaps it was presumptuous to write a book set in a place I haven’t been to, and that Brazilians might read it and be horrified. But I did do a tremendous amount of research. I consulted maps, films, documentaries, and photographs, as well as books. I also grilled my Brazilian relatives and asked my aunt to vet it. But in the end, I don’t necessarily think it needs to be perfectly accurate. Rather, my hope is that it’s convincing.
How did the idea for this novel come about?
I used the basic structure of my family and the broad biographical strokes of their lives in Brazil. I took the idea of the missing daughter from the fact that my mother’s eldest sister died in her early 40s, and while I felt like it would be too painful and personal to write about the particular details of her death, I did want to write about loss and grief, and all the fault lines they can create — or deepen — within a family.
Luiza disappears at a moment when the family is in the process of uprooting themselves from Rio to move to Canada. Is her vanishing a catalyst for, or more of a consequence of, the family’s deterioration that follows?
I think it’s both. The Maurer family has this narrative or mythology they’ve constructed about themselves that their community shares to some degree: that they have — until recently — had a golden, almost Edenic kind of life. They want to believe that it’s the father’s illness and Luiza’s disappearance that have caused their fall. But as the novel unfolds, we come to find that their lives have been unraveling for years.
Why are the lives of the women in the family undone so violently as a direct result of the actions (or non-actions) of the men?
At that time (and, of course, still in many places), the course of women’s lives were determined to a large degree by men, particularly their husbands and fathers. Even though a woman could have in the early 60s become educated and independent, it wasn’t always encouraged. I think women could sense that change was coming, and were restless for it, but weren’t quite at that point where they could fully define themselves apart from men, from male desire and expectation. So, you sense in both Dora and Luiza the possibility for that change, but also the frustration of not quite yet being able to attain it. Luiza, however, being younger, seems like she might actually make that shift, but the “how” still eludes during the span of the book.
Which character presented the biggest challenge?
I think Dora was the hardest to write overall because she’s the most emotionally restrained (and I’m not!). Also, her choices as a mother are sometimes hard to understand, and even though I was writing her, I sometimes became frustrated with her. But it would be too dull if everyone in the novel had similar temperaments. I’m drawn to contrast, and there’s an interesting tension that arises given that she can be quite remote, while her husband is very demonstrative and mercurial.
Would you say the novel is a study about the difficulty of keeping a family together when dealing with mental illness?
That’s certainly part of it, though I like to think it’s about many things. I think I was really drawn to other themes, as well, such as nostalgia and how it can corrode as well as gild our memories. Also, how families create their own mythologies, and how we all construct various narratives about the people we love and ourselves as a way of dealing with uncertainty, and we can sometimes oppress those we love in doing so.
What projects are you working on now?
I’m working on another novel based on a real murder that took place in the 1920s. I’ve done a lot of research, and I’m really excited about getting into the actual writing.
Adriana Delgado is a freelance journalist whose reviews of independent and foreign films have appeared in Cineaction magazine, on Artfilmfile.com, and elsewhere. She also works as an editorial news assistant for the Palm Beach Daily News (aka, “the Shiny Sheet”) and contributes to Library Journal.
Ben Loory returns with a second collection of timeless fables and fairy tales, inviting us to enter his worlds of whimsical fantasy, deep empathy, and playful humor, in the signature voice that drew readers to his highly-praised first collection. In stories that eschew literary realism, Loory’s characters demonstrate richly imagined and surprising perspectives, whether they be that of dragons or swordsmen, star-crossed lovers or long-lost twins, restaurateurs dreaming of Paris or cephalopods fixated on space travel. In propulsive language that brilliantly showcases Loory’s vast imagination with his minimalist prose, Tales of Falling and Flying expands our understanding of how fiction can work and is sure to cement Loory’s reputation as one of the most innovative short-story writers working today.
At Kramerbooks, 1517 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, DC. Click here for info.
Unlike Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, of whom Robert Service has written separate biographies, Nicholas Romanov did not author history. He lost. His totalitarian entitlement destroyed his perceptions of the unrest in his country, the ruin that Russia was becoming in the lead up to and during World War I. Service tells of Nicholas’ character flaws, but, because this book starts at the abdication, Nicholas himself shows no stress about ruling.
Nicholas was not a reflective man, so once he was out of power, his main concerns came to be keeping his family safe and productively occupying his time. To Service’s credit, the imaginative reader will wonder throughout, “Did they feel the noose tightening around them in real time as I sense it?”
After the abdication, the Romanovs took refuge in Tsarskoye Selo, their palace compound in the suburbs of St. Petersburg. Stripped of power, the family maintained their entourage, comfortable living, and freedom to wander the extensive and beautiful grounds. Nicholas and Alexandra attempted to leave Russia, Service writes, by prevailing upon Nicholas’ cousin, King George of England. Alas, George was politically unable to show pity, afraid to give socialists and radicals in England cause to bring their anger against a tyrant into the streets.
Once escape became impossible, the walls of their prison thickened. But even though Nicholas had been deposed, Alexander Kerensky, the leader of the first (and short-lived) representative government in Russia, showed him deference and respect. Perhaps he would have eventually brought Nicholas back to St. Petersburg for a trial, but in the first months of his government, far more desperate issues had to be acted upon. The Romanovs were passive participants when Kerensky decided to move them to Tobolsk in western Siberia.
The author identifies the books Nicholas read and how they might have affected him in those days, saying that Nicholas was raised to be tsar, answerable to no one. “Nicholas was a human fortress. But he was a fortress with a heart.” He loved to read to his family from Chekhov and Arthur Conan Doyle. For his own entertainment, he read military histories by Kuropatkin and Uspenski. His favorite series of books, though, was Christ and Anti-Christ by Dmitri Merezhovski.
Merezhovski examined, in each book, historical dramas from the Roman empire to the rule of Peter the Great. When Nicholas read Peter and Alexei, he felt a “heavy impression.” In fact, he did not care for Peter’s modernizing ways, and was horrified that he killed his own son. That “Nicholas had given up the throne rather than be separated from his own child” helped him find “some solace in this literature during his own period of drama.”
Kerensky’s grip on power slipped through the summer and autumn of 1917, and eventually Lenin orchestrated his coup in the name of Bolshevism. In order to prevent the Romanovs’ escape or rescue, Yakov Sverdlov was tasked with moving them from Tobolsk to Ekaterinberg (later renamed Sverdlovsk). But the tensions of the dev-eloping civil war, and the anger of the workers, peasants, soldiers, and sailors, meant that threats existed all along the journey. The Romanovs were never safe.
Service highlights various reasons why. While Ekaterinberg was more secure for the Bolsheviks than Tobolsk, the Bolsheviks of the Urals were stunned at the Brest-Litovsk Treaty which removed Russia from the Great War in Europe. They were inclined to believe that the Moscow Bolsheviks were thus beholden to, and in alliance with, Germany.
For months, rumors swirled that the Romanovs had been killed without orders. There were Left-Socialist revolutionaries who governed with the Bolsheviks, but who rejected Sovnarkom, the Bolsheviks’ first government in Moscow. There was the gathering White Army in the south that would soon be plunging the country into civil war. And there was a Czechoslovak legion marching toward the Urals which seemed unstoppable to the newly organizing Red Army.
To say that Nicholas and Alexandra lived in an ever-more-tense crucible is to show that they were microcosmic examples of what any citizen in Russia was going through at the time. The forces of change and violence would touch all. Service’s work in recapturing this story of abdication, incarceration, constriction, boredom, and terror is mundane in the telling but indicative of tremendous drama.
Over this period of months, the Romanovs’ freedom to wander was reduced and restricted. The entourage dwindled. The food became progressively worse. The warders pilfered and became bold and abusive to the family. The rooms got colder, the walls wetter. The bars more clearly set around them. And they all had to adjust to the inevitable, without knowing when and how it would arrive — a desperate situation, like a slow-motion plane crash.
In Service’s telling, it appears as if the Romanovs, and their doctor and chef, were somewhat taken by surprise at the very end. They were woken at midnight to mortar fire from the dreaded Czechoslovak legion and told they were to be moved. They dressed and prepared themselves calmly, then were led to the cellar where a declaration was read out that they were to be executed immediately.
Nicholas Romanov, from his abdication of the throne to his brazen murder 18 months later, is a fine central figure for epic history, as Robert Service illustrates. The forces clashing around Nicholas from February to October 1917, during the subsequent Bolshevik consolidation of power, and then at the outbreak of the civil war by mid-1918, all took energy from him and his “fortress with a heart.” And that is what doomed the entire Romanov family.
Y.S. Fing is a composition lecturer at a local university and a literary gadfly in the DC area. He belongs to the Washington Biographer’s Group, and is a committee member of the Washington Writers Conference. Recently, he has been experimenting with short essay form in Fingism and Finglish.
For more information on this year’s Baltimore Book Festival, click here.
Jonathan Silvertown, professor of evolutionary ecology at the University of Edinburgh, leads off Dinner with Darwin: Food, Drink, and Evolution with a bold assertion. “There are too many books on food,” he writes, and then proceeds with his own contribution to this swelling canon.
Like many of its shelved neighbors, Silvertown’s book discusses the means for producing and preparing the stuff we send down the hatch. But that’s where this superficial resemblance ends. Dinner with Darwin ranges far more widely — and offers vastly more substance — than the common horde of food books.
This is not a candlelit foodie memoir or a “breakthrough” weight-loss manual. Dinner with Darwin is a wide-ranging natural history of our diet, crafted at a pitch-perfect level for the science buff and the general reader alike. Silvertown is also a wonderful writer: erudite, informative, and thoroughly entertaining.
Dinner with Darwin examines the human diet through the multiple lenses of physiology, evolution, and our hominid prehistory. Each of these disciplines has much to teach us about what we eat and how we eat it.
Silvertown takes us on a deep dive into molecular biology, genetics, cultural and physical anthropology, biochemistry, anatomy, ecology, climate science, geology, botany, taxonomy, and a wealth of other subjects. His guiding focus throughout: the evolutionary engine that drives genomic alterations in plant, animal, and human realms, the process responsible for species’ adaptation.
This may sound overwhelming to the non-specialist, but trust me: This book will uplift rather than smother you with detail. This reader couldn’t come up with a single question that Silvertown hadn’t anticipated and answered in his encyclopedic survey.
Here’s a highlight. Early in the book, the author covers in very friendly detail the digestive physiology and cultural ramifications of what we’ve been taught are the major food groups. But Dinner with Darwin throws in a good deal more on the topic.
(Foodies, take note: Silvertown explores, with highly quotable erudition, all the oral and nasal pings and prongs that we experience as distinct flavors.)
I’m tempted to insert a “Did You Know?” roster in this review, but I’ll content myself with just a few highlights. For instance, who knew that shellfish in the Indian Ocean fueled the early human diaspora from East Africa into the Middle East and Southeast Asia? We know this because large piles of fossilized shells tens of thousands of millennia old line our ancestors’ route along the seacoast.
Silvertown’s chapter on bread is his jumping-off point for a discussion of the grain genome and the role of agriculture in the development of human culture. He explains that the cultivation of grains — the earliest and most widespread of food crops — led to the production of bread, and bread was a key driver in the transition to secure communal life and population growth. This opens the way for a fascinating side trip into artificial (i.e., human-aided) selection, as opposed to Darwin’s well-known natural process.
And the topic of desserts gets its own chapter, becoming the platform for discussing how the pancreas, liver, and kidneys metabolize glucose and fructose, those nasty “sweet” organic compounds that plague so many of us. This leads to a long commentary on insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, key factors in the development of diabetes and cardiovascular ailments.
But easily the most thought-provoking chapter is Silvertown’s discussion of vegetables, where he describes the evolutionary “arms race” between plants and their antagonists — invertebrate, vertebrate, and human — that attack and attempt to eat them. The secret weapon of many plants in this war? Poison.
There are 4,000 venomous plants in the human diet, and they need to be cooked, processed, or selectively bred to neutralize their toxins. Tomato and potato plants, for instance, which originated with the Incas and were brought back to become European staples, were all toxic in their original, raw forms. (The skins of potatoes still are, at least when they take on that curious green tinge.)
Silvertown concludes this, his seventh book, with a view of the future, with all its intimidating implications for our diet and food supply. No anti-GMO crusader, he describes the coming challenge of feeding a planet beset by climate change, more frequent drought, and a rise in sea levels (among many other factors) with a clear and hopeful prescription: “While the challenges for a second green revolution are greater than those of the first, the genetic tools at our disposal are enormously advanced over those available to the crop breeders of the 1950s and ‘60s.”
Bob Duffy is a Maryland writer and consultant in advertising and branding.
In September 1981, I was 16, living in Indianapolis with my family. I had an older brother who subscribed to Rolling Stone magazine. I’d tried marijuana, and I’d begun drinking beer. But I had never considered “breaking on through to the other side.” Then the issue with the Jim Morrison cover arrived at our house, with the quotation, “He’s hot, he’s sexy, and he’s dead.”
I’ve since come to realize that Jim was a remarkably immature young man, but at the time, I admired his artistic trajectory, based on my curiosity about drugs. First, I read the book that article was based on, No One Here Gets Out Alive. In it, Jim was described as a seeker after “the end of the night,” like Baudelaire or Rimbaud. He wanted to be a poet, and he was a singer in a great rock band. These were the things that I wanted for myself.
Then I found that the name of his band, the Doors, came from the title of a book by Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception. Huxley had taken mescaline with the express purpose of writing about his experiences. This drew me to find the book. I wanted to know what these drugs did, how they worked, how they felt.
Sadly, Huxley was far too scientific for my developing romantic brain, and reading about somebody else’s sensations then, to me, was like dancing about architecture. I couldn’t understand it.
Although I didn’t enjoy the book much, I continued to be attracted and repulsed by the stories of drug use, how quickly the experimental became the excessive, and how excessive became madness or death. Even then, I simply wanted to know what the effects were. I wondered what might be locked up inside my mind.
Then I realized that Huxley had taken his book title from a line by William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” This revealed to me that exploration of the mind was an issue for the classics, not just some modern decadent hippie thing. Great artists since time immemorial have delved into their minds in the same way that the great adventurers (de Gama, Cartier, and Magellan) have surveyed the world.
They had theories of mind they wished to test, and they put themselves in difficult positions to know what was true and what wasn’t. And they left records of their interior travels so that others could be more confident and perhaps go further later. Given my complacent life as a suburban kid in the Midwest, I felt that I could escape and explore, I could trust myself to make an inward journey of discovery and leave a record.
What was this impulse? Where and when did this idea of the artistic quest first enter my mind? I’ve never been able to define it. Perhaps in reading. But so much is bound up in the choice to leave the known, to confidently seek the unknown. Of course, there are people who are simply trying to escape and don’t care about the unknown, and don’t really mind dying. But that was never me.
During the last of my college years, I chose to “deliver me from reasons why” and tried a variety of drugs, basically as they became available to me. Marijuana became a habit. I smoked cocaine (didn’t feel much, didn’t want more). I drank as much as I could without vomiting. I tried a few different hallucinogens — one fabulous experience with two hits of orange micro-dots — but I preferred mushrooms, and it didn’t take long to realize too much would fry my eggy brain.
Was it bad? Was it good? How has it influenced me? I can only say that, beyond the sensory intensifications, the goofy games played, the junk food ingested, the videogames, the music listened to, the movies watched, the running in the woods at midnight, howling, I felt confirmed that the journey was worth taking and observing.
Exploring my mind caused me to have much less fear about residing and working overseas, in places as disparate as Bangkok, Istanbul, and Nagasaki. Because I was confident about what was inside me, because I was cognizant of strong desires and free to pursue them, I allowed for the pain and suffering of transitions and travails.
And I’ve continued to maintain my records. The full scope of my writings would probably give any future explorer at least some pause. You most certainly will suffer if you choose to find a new life for yourself, a life different from familial and social expectations, different definitions of “reward” and “success.” Expanding my boundaries, documenting the expansion, and my responses to it, has been the ultimate purpose of my life. It seems to me the same path lies before everyone.
Can you picture what will be?
So limitless and free
Desperately in need of some stranger's hand
In a desperate land
My father didn’t care much for Jim Morrison, nor for the “highway to the end of the night.” And as I’ve grown, I’ve come to see that going beyond limits, as Jim regularly did, doesn’t have much to offer me. But as an introduction to the literary life, I still appreciate what Jim and Aldous and William were about — noble aspirations.
Chester A. Arthur is not exactly a household name, as biographer Scott S. Greenberger acknowledges. Do you know when he was president — or even that he was president?
Greenberger makes a valiant case for the fact that, while Arthur does not deserve a spot on Mount Rushmore, the nation’s 21st president became a force for good against government corruption. Along the way, according to Greenberger, Arthur transformed from the epitome of that very system to a courageous reformer.
Arthur was born 1829 in rural Vermont and died in 1886 in what became his bailiwick — New York City. He ordered his personal papers destroyed weeks before his death. Thus, Greenberger, an editor of the news site Stateline, had to draw on his reportorial skills to create a very readable biography of an arcane subject without benefit of these sources.
When Arthur assumed the presidency after the assassination of James Garfield, he had a well-deserved reputation as a politician who enjoyed fine clothes, food, and spirits paid for via not-very-kosher means.
It was not always so. As Greenberger details, Arthur came from austere stock. His father studied law until he found religion, taking his large family to parishes in New England and Upstate New York and preaching abolitionism to unreceptive audiences. This life did not appeal to his son.
Ironically, his father’s abolitionist connections landed the younger Arthur a job as an attorney in New York City and led him in a new direction. Although he missed friends and family, he never looked back. He “married up” when he wed Nell Herndon, the daughter of a U.S. naval officer from Virginia. Providing her with the lifestyle to which she was accustomed — and which he soon enjoyed, too — required money and connections. He actively sought both.
Nell sympathized with secession during the Civil War (several family members enlisted in the Confederate Army), according to Greenberger. Arthur followed a different path. The governor appointed him a brigadier general and the state quartermaster general’s New York City representative.
“General Arthur” had control of contracts for everything from ammunition to underwear. When his term ended in the middle of the war, he did not re-enlist. Instead, he used this experience to get rich.
Within a few years, he was deeply connected with Roscoe Conking, a senator from New York. Another barely known name today, Conkling was wily, unprincipled, and very successful as head of the so-called Stalwart wing of the Republican Party.
Greenberger recounts the main activities of the Stalwarts, which mostly consisted of maintaining themselves in power. Stalwart crony Arthur became head of the New York Customs House, a hugely influential post at the time. Paybacks were part of the game, and “Chet” was an enthusiastic player.
Conkling eventually overplayed his hand, leading to his fall and Arthur’s rise. To Greenberger’s credit, his highlights of the backroom machinations that led to the outcome are accurate but fast-paced. We feel and smell the proverbial smoke-filled rooms of powerful white men. A deadlocked Republican convention in 1880 resulted in the nomination of Arthur as vice president.
Even though the country had seen three presidents die in office within the previous 40 years (William Henry Harrison in 1841 and Zachary Taylor in 1850, in addition to Lincoln), no one gave much mind to the qualifications of the person the proverbial heartbeat away from the presidency. Customary for the time, the vice president was not part of the president’s policy-making circle. In fact, when Garfield lingered between life and death in the summer of 1881, Vice President Arthur deliberately stayed in New York, away from government.
After several months of botched medical care, Garfield did die, and “the unexpected president” took office on September 19, 1881. Greenberger reports such reactions as the following: “horror at the death of Garfield, but stupefaction at the elevation of Arthur.” His cronies expected the gravy train. But that did not happen. Arthur froze out Conkling and signed into law Civil Service reform, among other accomplishments.
Greenberger credits Arthur’s pivot to a series of letters he received from a 31-year-old woman named Julia Sands. An avid political watcher and invalid living amongst her wealthy family, she began writing the president to offer advice. We don’t know Arthur’s specific reaction — but, after her many fervent invitations, he visited, showing up without notice on an August evening in 1882.
Greenberger also provides a surprise twist at the end in relation to her correspondence. I was not totally convinced that these missives provided enough of a counterweight to Conkling and the general times, but I accept Greenberger’s hypothesis based on his research.
Greenberger interprets Gilded Age America, especially New York and Washington, through newspapers and other accounts. The political period between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt is murky for most of us, and he is particularly helpful in explaining how Grant’s presidency went astray and was almost resurrected for a third, non-consecutive term.
In The Unexpected President, Greenberger has written a book for readers interested in history but who are not specialists in this era. Those curious about how people can change, against all odds, will also enjoy it.
Paula Tarnapol Whitacre is author of the biography A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time: Julia Wilbur’s Struggle for Purpose (Potomac Books, 2017) about a social reformer in Alexandria during the Civil War and Washington, DC, during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. Her website is www.paulawhitacre.com.
A sea creature so small it cannot be seen with the naked eye could be the harbinger of a catastrophe of global proportions. The creature is a sea snail, called a pteropod, and it is a central figure in Nancy Lord’s new novel, pH. The story addresses the politically charged topic of climate-change denial and its consequences for Alaska.
If you’re an Alaska enthusiast, you’ll want to read this book. If you purposely avoid novels that speak to political issues, I understand, but I urge you to make an exception for this one. The critical role that the pteropod plays in the ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest makes it an important subject. The ethereal beauty of this undersea “butterfly” or “angel,” with its translucent shell and gauzy “wings,” makes it compelling.
The unassuming protagonist of pH is Ray Berringer, a biologist studying the pteropod. He is a professor at the University of the North in Alaska. Twice yearly, he helms a cruise in the Gulf of Alaska with his students to gather data on the status of the pteropods for comparative analysis. The trends are disturbing. The pteropods’ shells are dissolving, and Berringer suspects ocean acidification.
The novel picks up in fictional form where Lord left off in her most-recent nonfiction work, Early Warming, with the topic of ocean acidification. The novel’s title refers to the pH scale, which measures acidity. As the ocean absorbs more carbon dioxide, it becomes more acidic, compromising the pteropod and, in turn, threatening the food chain.
Lord’s insights into environmental issues and the integral part the environment plays in the lives of the Alaska native population come from her own experiences. She has worked in commercial fishing, as a naturalist, and as a trustee of the Alaska Conservation Foundation. These experiences, married with her writing skills (she has an MFA and teaches writing), have given Lord fodder for several other nonfiction books and short stories about Alaska.
She sets pH in the present, in a locale she knows well, rife with complications like corporate corruption and contentious politics. This is a departure from other examples of “cli-fi” or “eco-fiction,” like Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, both of which are set in post-cataclysmic, dystopian landscapes where survival is the main concern.
The trial herein is not a struggle for survival but rather Berringer’s devotion to intellectual integrity. He is a flawed hero trying to manage as best he can in a world that repeatedly misunderstands his good intentions. He’s a borderline recluse and drinks too much. He is married to a woman he considers his better and who pointedly reminds him of it. His jokes fall flat. He knows he’s a good teacher, but he feels awkward around his students.
Berringer initially welcomes news that the university is establishing an Office of Ocean Acidification to study the chemistry of the sea, which would dovetail nicely with his study of pteropods. But the good news is dampened by the man put in charge of the OA office, Jackson Oakley.
First, Oakley backs out of the research cruise on a flimsy pretense. After, he remains aloof, unwilling to exchange information with Berringer or contribute to the publication of the research results. Oakley is reluctant to call out acidification as a causal factor in the changing chemistry of the ocean. Berringer is suspicious that Oakley is receiving corporate payoffs to blunt the evidence supporting climate change. Berringer’s simmering anger makes his ineptitude at university politics worse, setting up a clash with the administration.
Berringer’s students enthusiastically support him, but Helen, a Native Alaskan student who worked on the research cruise, is more reticent in her support. Her situation is complicated not only because Oakley is her thesis adviser, but also because she’s sleeping with him. She’s troubled by his lack of collegiality and his focus on publicity rather than research. She prefers Berringer’s challenging review of her work to Oakley’s cursory oversight.
It is through Helen that we get a glimpse of the challenges facing Alaska’s indigenous people and see how the changing environment is eroding their way of life. A promising scientist, she is caught between her love of learning and her dedication to her family and their traditional ways. The science she pursues is taking her farther away from them.
Add to the mix a wonderfully flaky artist, Annabel. She joins the research cruise to help interpret the arcane scientific work for the public. She brings humor, in her New-Agey dress and mystical salutations, but her flamboyance — she shows up in Berringer’s office dressed as a pteropod superhero to show solidarity with his fight against the administration — irritates his increasingly fraying nerves.
Lord’s book pays homage to the dogged dedication of scientists like Berringer. She seamlessly weaves into the story detailed, but not distracting, explanations of the ocean’s chemistry, the biology of marine life, and scientific methodology, along with descriptions of Alaska Native life and customs. The novel, an anthem to saving the environment, is as educational as it is enjoyable.
It raises an interesting idea, too. Lord argues that neither art nor science alone can save the planet. She makes a full-throated plea to understand and appreciate the interconnectedness of science and art. Both, she says through Annabel, require creativity, and one can inspire the other.
Annabel perceives the pteropods as a representation of the vitality and fragility of life. (I don’t think it’s coincidental that a butterfly, another beautifully fragile creature, foreshadows approaching environmental disaster in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.)
In pH, Annabel uses art to convey this perception on a visceral level that obviates the need for a scientific explanation. She makes sculptures of organic paper that are set alight and launched on ice pedestals off the ship’s stern one night. The paper and ice dissolve, and the flame is extinguished — a subtle reminder that what exists now may not always.
C.B. Santore is a freelance writer and editor in East Hampton, CT.
From the bestselling author of Caucasia comes New People, a subversive and engrossing novel of race, class and manners in contemporary America. As the 20th century draws to a close, Maria is at the start of a life she never thought possible. She and Khalil, her college sweetheart, are planning their wedding. They are the perfect couple, "King and Queen of the Racially Nebulous Prom." Their skin is the same shade of beige. They live together in a black bohemian enclave in Brooklyn, where Khalil is riding the wave of the first dot-com boom and Maria is plugging away at her dissertation, on the Jonestown massacre. They've even landed a starring role in a documentary about "new people" like them, who are blurring the old boundaries as a brave new era dawns. Everything Maria knows she should want lies before her--yet she can't stop daydreaming about another man, a poet she barely knows. As fantasy escalates to fixation, it dredges up secrets from the past and threatens to unravel not only Maria's perfect new life but her very persona.
Heartbreaking and darkly comic, New People is a bold and unfettered page-turner that challenges our every assumption about how we define one another, and ourselves.
At East City Bookshop, 645 Pennsylvania Ave., SE, Washington, DC. Click here for info.
If one spends enough time reading the Bible, that strange, disparate collection of ancient texts, one begins to notice that something significant has changed between the end of Chronicles (for Jews) or Malachi (for Christians) and the beginning of Matthew. Those differences, at least for the Christian believer, might well become uncomfortable.
Why is there a hell in the New Testament and not the Old? What happened to Sheol, the shadowy abode of the dead from earlier Jewish thought? Where did all the angels come from in the Gospels, and where were they in the Old Testament? What can account for the absence of the resurrection of the dead from the Tanakh, which was the only scripture Jesus and his followers knew?
The answer, according to Baylor University historian Philip Jenkins, is “a tectonic theological shift” between 250 BCE and the birth of Jesus that “left an indelible mark on the scriptures.” In Crucible of Faith, Jenkins tells the story of this time of political and religious upheaval in ancient Judaism and, in the process, shows us something about the world we inhabit today.
That story is mind-bendingly complex. It begins in the years after Israel has returned from exile in Babylon and rebuilt the temple, stories readers may know from the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah. But for non-specialists, that familiarity will be short-lived. Jenkins quickly plunges into nearly forgotten histories where, after the break-up of the empire of Alexander the Great, Judea is squeezed between the powerful Ptolemaic (Egyptian) and Seleucid (Syrian-based) empires.
Ethnic cleansing and violence were common, intrigue a constant part of life for the priestly and political elite. In response to this unrest, Jewish writers began to explore new theological and literary paths, and the genre of apocalyptic writing was born. Though Daniel and Second Zachariah emerged within this tumult, they were important, but not genre-defining works at the time.
That distinction, Jenkins writes, belongs to the 38,000-word, 108-chapter tome that today we call 1 Enoch. One Enoch was quoted by the New Testament author Jude, and Jewish writers at the time found it exhilarating. But it was destined to be mostly forgotten by both Jews and Christians. A look at the first chapters of the text explains why.
The authors (there were several) take the reader through the deepest abysses and hells and relate the strangest visions (one is usually called the Animal Apocalypse). We read the names of angels, something rare before this time. There is much speculation about a passage in Genesis — one of the weirdest passages in scripture — where, according to 1 Enoch’s interpretation, in primeval times, fallen angels slept with human women, and giants came from their union.
One Enoch had major political significance, too, though it would be anachronistic to separate political and religious concerns here. Political critique would become a standard feature of apocalyptic writing generally, from the messianic readings of the biblical book of Daniel through Revelation’s cryptic, drama-filled criticism of Rome. It was, in fact, the reason the genre was invented.
But the most important wrinkle 1 Enoch and other apocalyptic works threw into ancient Near Eastern politics at this time was fairly simple: a radicalized monotheism. It is the change which accounts for many of the others. In documents from pre-exilic Israel, one runs across evidence of henotheism, the idea that there are other gods than the one your tribe worships.
By Jesus’ time, the gods worshipped by Greeks, Romans, and other oppressive empires were increasingly thought to be frauds. We see this in 1 Enoch, in the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran, and in many other works Jenkins examines. For these ancient writers, Zeus, Isis, and the emperor were not gods at all since there is only one God, and He was on Israel’s side.
Some readers might wonder why Jenkins did not trace the birth of radical monotheism in Israel to what historians of religion call the “Axial break.” That term indicates a time a few hundred years before Jenkins’ “crucible era,” when metaphysical statements start to appear in the writings of the prophets and “theoretic culture,” as Robert Bellah put it, began to form in Israel for the first time.
But Jenkins’ story is a cultural and political one, and including an examination of this earlier period would have needlessly complicated an already extraordinarily complex narrative. As it stands, Crucible of Faith manages to weave an astonishing number of movements, texts, and political figures into one story, a story that illuminates connections between biblical books and forgotten political movements, Jewish sectarianism, Greek Gnosticism, Roman realpolitik, and the rise of early Christianity.
Above all, Jenkins shows us how political turmoil in an ancient, provincial kingdom at the friction point between empires helped form the beliefs held by billions in the world today. For that reason alone, Crucible of Faith is quite an achievement.
Joel Looper is a Ph.D. candidate in religion at the University of Aberdeen.
September 17th is Constitution Day! (Hope your shopping’s done.) In its honor, we offer five good reads about how the U.S. got its start.
I heard someone once say that movies are the only artistic entertainment Americans view collectively. And despite this second (and enjoyable) golden age of television we're in, I think that assertion is still largely true.
I've been thinking about movies a lot lately, especially since writing my column a couple of months ago about feminism and Wonder Woman. Art is almost always a reflection of its time, and movies arguably still have higher critical appreciation than television series (likely in the same respect that novels do over short stories).
I thought it would be interesting to come up with a list of older movies that are relevant to contemporary times, but I lack any knowledge of cinematic history (there were fewer explosions in movies back then). Fortunately, I know smart cinephiles who were happy to offer up some suggestions and do my work for me.
Radha Vatsal was inspired by 1910s action-film heroines to create Kitty Weeks, an aspiring journalist who finds herself plunged into the tumultuous world of 1910s New York. Vatsal was born in Mumbai and has a Ph.D. in English from Duke University, with a focus on silent-era film history. Her newest novel, Murder Between the Lines, is available from SourceBooks.
Dr. Marguerite Rippy focuses on 20th-century film and drama, particularly the work of filmmaker/actor Orson Welles, and adaptations of Shakespeare, race, and performance. Her research has been published in the collection Weyward Macbeth; in her own book, Orson Welles and the Unfinished RKO Projects; in the co-authored Welles, Kurosawa, Kozintsev, Zeffirelli; and in numerous journals. She also serves on the American Film Institute's screening committee for AFI Docs.
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“The Hazards of Helen” (1914-1917). One of a spate of silent-era action-film serials featuring female leads, “The Hazards of Helen” had a long run. Its eponymous heroine, Helen Holmes, works as a telegraph operator who takes her fate into her own hands. In episode 13, Helen loses her job when two tramps steal from her till. She spots them riding on the roof of a freight train and shimmies over a bridge, jumps onto the train, and fights them in hand-to-hand combat. All this in 1915 — when women wore long skirts and didn’t have the right to vote. Needless to say, Helen gets her job back. “The Hazards of Helen” and other serials like it show that women’s progress had reached high levels even a century ago, and that while there has been forward movement between 1915 and 2017, there have also been lulls and steps back.
“Go West Young Man” (1936). All of Mae West’s films from the 1930s are well worth watching because West was way ahead of her time. In fact, I’d argue that there really hasn’t been anyone like her before or since. West takes what’s usually a male point of view and makes it her own, without apologies and without plot twists that result in her being cut down to size. In “Go West,” which West also wrote, she plays a lusty movie star stranded in a small town where she sets her sights on handsome, buff farmhand. Her one-liners, delivered in her inimitable drawl, always hit the mark. For my money, there are no women comedians today who get to be overtly sexy, witty, not neurotic, and get the guy. It’s worth asking why.
“Kiss Me, Deadly” (1955). The threat of nuclear destruction has become front-page news again, and with this threat comes a helpless feeling. In a world that’s gone awry in so many ways, we never know enough yet also grasp that there’s nothing we can do to prevent what may happen. Will the human drive to achieve complete destruction finally win? Around us, there’s a sense of free-floating dread. Few films capture this haywire world and sense of dread related to “the bomb” like Robert Aldrich’s adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s “Kiss Me, Deadly.” It’s a private-eye story in a vicious world where the so-called hero is a brutal jerk who can’t see the big picture of the case he’s working on. Overconfidence and limited vision lead to nothing less than nuclear annihilation. This is a film time hasn’t dulled. Bleak as they come but charged with energy, it thrills while leaving you terrified.
“Journey to Italy” (1953). Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders play a British couple who have come to Italy to dispose of a house Bergman inherited. They travel through Italy by car, and they realize that this is the first time in eight years of marriage they’ve been alone. There are no friends around to distract them, no work, no daily concerns. The result: they see they have little in common and less to talk about. Their marriage disintegrates. Virtually plotless, “Journey to Italy” charts the complexity of one relationship through the nuanced, changing moods of the characters. Their difficulty feeling and communicating, their shifts between boredom and pain, their emotional indecision feel contemporary. It will strike a chord with anyone who’s been in a failing relationship where you couldn’t pinpoint exactly why things fell apart. Richard Linklater referenced the film directly in “Before Midnight.”
“Zero for Conduct” (1933). Before Wes Anderson, before Steven Spielberg and Francois Truffaut — to name three directors who’ve made strong films about children — there was French filmmaker Jean Vigo, whose 41-minute film, “Zero for Conduct,” is a blast of anarchic surrealism set at a boarding school. As long as there are institutions in place where the adults’ role is to impose order on children, and the children, through their unruly behavior, resist that control, this film will be relevant. It doesn’t analyze youthful rebellion so much as simply portray it, and this portrayal is funny and charming. Of course, it’s entirely on the children’s side and shows no sympathy whatsoever for the school authorities. Down with stifling institutional rules and the bureaucracy, and up with imagination and the spirit of play. “Zero for Conduct” lays out this formulation with guiltless purity.
“Front Page” (1931) and “His Girl Friday” (1940). Depending on whether you’re in the mood to see director Lewis Milestone’s original adaptation of the Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur stage play, or Howard Hawks’ gender-flipped 1940 remake, either film will draw you into the intersection of crime, politics, and journalism, probing the grey areas of morality through comedy. Hawks’ remake with a female lead transformed the banter between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell into a style of flirtation that became a cliché of witty working couples onscreen. The film plays with issues of corruption, law enforcement, and mass-media politics that continue to resonate. Milestone’s original is more radical in many ways, however, since pre-code treatment allows the depiction of an explicitly sexualized, gendered workplace, complete with nude pinups and the abuse of a self-sacrificing woman of ill-repute. The explicit representations of harassment, violence, and destruction, all within a comic frame, transform the film into a piece of cultural evidence as well as cultural commentary.
“Within Our Gates” (1920). Director Oscar Micheaux’s answer to D.W. Griffith’s white-supremacist epic, “Birth of a Nation,” matures before the viewer’s eyes, moving from melodrama to social commentary as the multiple plot turns unwind. Micheaux’s silent film may be the earliest feature film by an African-American director, and it hints at the rich variety of stories that were silenced and censored by institutionalized racism and sexism in Hollywood. Micheaux’s film depicts the outrage of lynching, the dependency of American capitalism on white supremacy, and the institutionalized rape of black women, all shrouded within the veil of commercial melodrama. Its bold storytelling is a stunning achievement for its time and, unfortunately, would be an achievement for contemporary Hollywood, as well.
The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017 is the third entry in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s most recent addition to their longstanding Best American series. The series editor, John Joseph Adams, selected 80 pieces of short fiction that appeared in North America last year, and celebrity guest editor Charles Yu winnowed that number down to 20.
Yu, who rose to prominence with his lauded novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, brings his playfulness and penchant for the metafictional to the volume, on display in his excellent introduction.
Cast as a series of dialogues between Yu and interdimensional travelers at his local coffeeshop, Yu addresses the current political crisis, saying that “America in 2017 isn’t one reality. It’s two separate ones, mostly distinct but with some overlap.”
He suggests that science fiction and fantasy, genres unique in imagining other realities, offer hope, because they are proof that “at least a few people [are] interested in imagining better worlds, other worlds, the existence of alternative points of view.”
It’s a strong argument for the importance of genre fiction as both a salve and a step toward a solution for a world in which reality has become a subjective term. That might be too heady a claim to lay upon any one book, but regardless of how well the various stories in this anthology reach that height — or even attempt it — the sentiment feels true.
Anthologies often suffer from variable quality, forcing a reader to wade through a lot of mediocrity to reach the gems. Adams and Yu have managed to avoid that pitfall. All of the stories in the 2017 Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy are good, and many are brilliant.
The best of them have a layer of social commentary. That’s not an essential component of fiction by any means — the editors haven’t lost sight of the fact that fun should still be an essential element, and these stories are fun. But the stories with direct social commentaries end up being the most satisfying. Adams’ foreword invokes the television show “Black Mirror,” and the comparison is apt. Both present stories that reflect back on our world by showing us an alternate world with a strange twist.
In “When They Came to Us,” a story that reads like "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" crossed with "Mrs. Bridge," Debbie Urbanski shows the effects on a suburban town when the government relocates aliens there. The “blues” are reluctantly tolerated, but not accepted, and ultimately resented and hated in a way that echoes the anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric prevalent in our own America.
In “Openness,” Alexander Weinstein imagines a world in which Facebook profiles are on psychic display at all times, allowing everyone on the street some entry into each other’s personal life. With that premise underlying a simple love story, Weinstein reveals how taking the wanton openness of social media to that extreme can destroy human relationships.
In “Not a Wardrobe, Tornado, or Looking Glass,” a portal story in the Narnia, Oz, and Wonderland tradition, a young temp watches everyone in the world disappear through a private portal, abandoning everything for the comfort of his or her fantasy world. Meant as a commentary on what makes the world fantastic to each individual, the way in which all these people escape life is unintentionally reminiscent of the way the current opioid epidemic has ravaged some communities, slowly taking over almost everyone while people on the outside watch helplessly.
Other stories address Black Lives Matter (Joseph Allen Hill’s metafictional “The Venus Effect”); the media (“Caspar D. Luckinbill, What Are You Going to Do?” by Nick Wolven); and the inanity of the medical system (“Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station/Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0” by Caroline M. Yoachim). But even the stories that don’t directly tackle such grave topics still achieve the goal of great fiction: to explore and expose the human.
Yu received Adams’ selection with no bylines, and it’s heartening to see that out of 20 stories, his blind reading resulted in choosing 10 that were written by women, one by a “queer nonbinary writer,” and five by people of color.
At the end of the book, each author provides a contributor’s note, a short behind-the-scenes snapshot similar to the special features on a DVD. In his note, Wolven writes about the “natural affinity between science fiction and satire, since both depend in some sense on the art of exaggeration…science fiction sets out to make the strange seem ordinary — or anyway, plausible — while good satire often succeeds at making the ordinary seem strange.”
The best of the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017 definitely achieves that goal. But all of the stories are worth reading, for the pleasure and the humor, if not for Yu’s lofty “hope.”
Ariel S. Winter was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Shamus Award, and the Macavity Award for his novel The Twenty-Year Death. He is also the author of the novel Barren Cove and the children’s picture book One of a Kind, illustrated by David Hitch. He lives in Baltimore.
Meet Nancy Pearl, the NPR books commentator fondly hailed as “America’s Librarian,” and celebrate the release of her debut novel, George & Lizzie (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 9/5/17). This author talk and signing is presented by Curious Iguana bookstore in partnership with Frederick County Public Libraries. Free event; registration not required, but seating is limited. Q&A and book signing will follow author presentation. Books will be available for purchase at event. For more information, contact Curious Iguana at 301-695-2500 or email@example.com.
At the C. Burr Artz Library, 110 E. Patrick St., Frederick, MD. Click here for info.
I grew up in Richmond Hill, a working-class neighborhood in Queens whose residents liked to boast that they were middle-class. It was a community of Italians, Jews, Puerto Ricans, Lithuanians, and others, all immigrants or second- and third-generation Americans, all mixed together in a salad bowl of cultures that struggled to maintain their traditions as best as possible.
There were Jewish neighborhoods, Italian neighborhoods, African-American neighborhoods, etc.; somehow, we all got along in our daily lives, mingling in area restaurants, bakeries, and butcher shops, yet maintaining our very distinct identities. In short, it was a life that many outside of big East Coast cities could never imagine or feel comfortable navigating.
Rafael Alvarez’s Basilio Boullosa Stars in the Fountain of Highlandtown is a collection of short stories stitched together to read almost like a novel that captures the very essence of that ethno-urban experience.
Set in mid-20th-century Baltimore, it follows the life of Basilio Boullosa, whose paternal grandparents hail from Spain and Italy and whose mother is of Lithuanian descent. Through his eyes, we experience the hopes and dreams, the ups and downs, the tragedies and joys of the characters who populate Highlandtown (or, as Basilio likes to call it, the Holy Land,), a section of downtown Baltimore made up of wharfs, rowhouses, and factories.
Basilio Boullosa is nothing if not authentic. Basilio, the hero of these stories, is a would-be artist who sketches on anything from pennies to canvas and who paints crabs on the sides of seafood trucks just to get by.
Through him, Alvarez crafts a picture of a once-bustling neighborhood of immigrants who survive by blue-collar labor (shucking oysters, working in the shipyard) and who cobble together lives made up of modest homes and rich memories of the old country.
Eventually, however, Highlandtown loses its luster. As one generation leads to the next, the area becomes rundown, the factories begin to close, and the immigrant dreams start to crumble, leading to disappointment and despair as a life with echoes of the old world slowly slips away.
Soon come the 1970s and, with them, cultural change — the Beatles populate the national conscience, the drug culture arises, and this once-Catholic enclave transforms into a slum filled with drugs, whores, and the homeless, eventually replacing the wonder days of old with a new and stark reality.
But Basilio Boullosa isn’t just a story of immigrants and their families. It’s a story of change, a story of people clinging to their past. (Basilio’s grandfather, a jaded old man, hoards memorabilia, lives out of the first refrigerator he ever owned, eschews the present, and secretly longs to return to his former life and his wife, whose “hair was black, black as an olive.”)
At the same time, it’s a story of people caught in a time warp trying to reclaim a past that no longer exists, people wishing to escape from a life in which they’re now trapped. The characters become stuck, finding release only with pills, booze, and sex, or through remembrances of things past — a time that was filled with family, friends, and a strong sense of community.
This sense of hopelessness is just one of the things that makes this book so real. But more than that is the way Alvarez shades the environment and fills it with characters who are both vulnerable and affable. Like Basilio, Alvarez’s palette is rich and colorful, and the characters and scenes pop out almost in 3D:
“It was cold enough for the fish to sit in the back of the car while Grandpop indulged Basilio in a visit to Kramer’s, the candy store on Eastern Avenue where corn popped in the front window and a fan pushed the scent of hot caramel out onto the sidewalk. The scent was the only advertising Kramer’s ever did: caramel and fresh popped corn mixed with the clean, brisk wind and the snow as Basilio walked inside with his grandfather.”
Basilio Boullosa is a must-read for those who grew up in evolving neighborhoods, for immigrants who strive to understand the new life they are creating for themselves and their children, and for anyone who wishes to comprehend the forces that have helped fashion the country we call America.
Ashbery, Collected Poems, edited by Mark Ford. The Library of America. 767 pages.
Dots & Dashes by Jehanne Dubrow. Southern Illinois University Press. 71 pages.
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith. Graywolf Press. 104 pages.
Appearances by Michael Collins. Saddle Road Press. 80 pages.
Abloom & Awry by Tina Kelley. CavenKerry Press. 79 pages.
Dear All, by Maggie Anderson. Four Way Books. 70 pages.
Fragments from the Fire: The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of March 25, 1911. Poems and poetics by Chris Llewellyn, edited with essays by Michelle B. Gaffey. Skye’s the Limit Publications. 82 pages.
The Color Blue by Alexis Rotella. Red Moon Press. 69 pages.
Vixen by Cherene Sherrard. Autumn House Press. 53 pages.
Ordinary Beast by Nicole Sealey. Ecco. 80 pages.
Plus, four more on the “Best Books for Fall” by poets Hayden Saunier, Susanna Lang, Gabriel Fried, Miranda Field and Chana Bloch.
Ashbery, Collected Poems, edited by Mark Ford. The Library of America. 767 pages.
The Library of America celebrates the late John Ashbery’s 90th birthday with a second volume of his collected poems. Ashbery has used every phonic in the English language to interconnect our sensibilities to the potential of language. And this is what he’s taught us: Language isn’t a destination place, but a porthole to observe a sea that is otherwise unfathomable. I remember in the 1960s holding one of his books and feeling the energy of unpredictability and possibility go through me like electricity. Ashbery, as an art critic, brings us the knowledge that the viewer (the reader) must also be a participant. His poetry comes from opera, art, film, human relationships, with a catbird seat on the 20th and 21st centuries. What we honor is poetry not as prophetic statements, but as deeds that stay. The collection includes some unpublished poems, and his 41-page poem, “Girls on the Run.” Here’s one of the poems premiered in this volume (2000):
A Lot of Catching Up to Do
Dark days, lit by a falling flame
from time to time. A door stands open
or not. It’s much the same.
Only the top layer is of any importance,
the rest, why the rest is immanent,
It hurts only when you think about it.
To my friends in the rough:
When all the toys were swept out of the attic
only a bluish pitcher remained,
as though marking time. Shadow of wing in the air,
the dream nevertheless wanted to be congratulated for its
It took off prudently, however.
Then there were many napkins, many knives in the Seine.
Dots & Dashes by Jehanne Dubrow. Southern Illinois University Press. 71 pages.
It easier to leave then to be left, but how does a military wife transform that emotional experience into art that will last? Dubrow approaches her marriage of values with the most substantive work on the theme written today. Loss is ubiquitous, loneliness universal, so to magnify these traits is dangerous — too much unleashing is hard on the consumption — but the poem is a perfect vehicle to hold tumult, a mechanism of service for this narrative. Dubrow holds it in check through complex tapestry — every poem a new viewpoint — pulling a guiding thread we follow with painful recognition. The reader doesn’t have to be left on shore to know what we all know — that the good exchange in love is missed, like the dead. Its grief. What does Dubrow do with this — her poems are like dreams that are accomplished and remembered with exquisite care. Vulnerability in itself is not a virtue until artistry transforms it to a wound we can each share. This is rare in any art. Sometimes a reader just admires the work — with Dubrow, we are at the epicenter. All this raw material about being alive is disruptive, so the poet whips it into something we can own. As a vintage Navy wife myself, I was afraid of what I’d feel; but I welcome this uncompromising excellence that reminds me of my finest yearnings. There’s nothing good about war but what’s found in this book — and this is damn good, by one of our really best.
Combat Veteran Lives Here Please
Be Courteous with Fireworks
Fourth of July lawn signs for veterans with PTSD
Our weekend brings its long barrage — the flare
and cherry bomb, the snap, the thunder-flash.
A rocket streaks the sky. Green mortars crash.
A roman candle lacerates the air
with sparks, a hissing brilliance everywhere
that wrenches shadows from the grass. Each splash
of lights sets off the dogs — they smell the ash,
they scurry from the missile’s steady glare.
Small parachutes drift paper-frail as thought.
There’s smoke, a shattering of shells, a crack
which sounds the way a rifle might when shot
into the night. Our neighborhood is hot,
alive with waiting, one moment powder-black
then bright, as if we’re all under attack —
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith. Graywolf Press. 104 pages.
In the ecosystem of poetry, Danez Smith is greening America. He’s new, he’s bold, he’s birth giving. You only THOUGHT you knew what you knew until you read his one-page-prose-poem-epistolary-statement “dear white america.” While I’m still rocking on my heels from recent books by wake-up poets like Claudia Rankine and Evie Shockley, now we have the anthem that brings HOW IT IS to public consciousness. This is why poets are faith leaders. Once we thought intellectual honesty and smart changing it up on the page were enough for a life’s work. But the poet has always been a prophet leading cultural change to the good, and Danez Smith makes a revival of death into song in Don’t Call Us Dead. Integrity to Smith means Let Us Not Forget the black men killed by police; it means disease does not win unless it’s a disease of moral righteousness. There’s love and pain and stories that tell it all with lasting impressions. The notion that poetry doesn’t make anything happen is just plain wrong. Danez Smith is making a high niche in evolution, by sourcing his life into indelible art.
just this morning the sun laid a yellow not-palm
on my face & i woke knowing your hands
were once the only place in the world.
this very morning i woke up
& remembered unparticular Tuesdays,
my head in your lap, scalp covered in grease
& your hands, your hands, those hands
my binary gods. Those milk hands, bread hands,
hands in the air in church hands, cut-up fish hands,
for my own good hands, back talk backhands, hurt more
than me hands, ain’t asking no mo’ hands
everything i need come from those hands,
tired & still grabbing grease, hum
while she makes her son royal onyx hands.
mama, how far am i
gone from home?
Appearances by Michael Collins. Saddle Road Press. 80 pages.
In one poem, Collins says, “My balance once betrayed me in the snow”; he’s talking about breaking bones here, but I think it’s a great line to take away because the book is all about balance and equipoise. This comes from watching the natural world and breathing in every particle: sunrise by the water, frozen paths, herring, mallards, leaves floating on the harbor — it’s a Thoreau world Collins brings to this century. How many of us truly pay attention, only the poet does, Michael Collins does. The gold of the realm is in what streams and grows; and the creatures that are on our earth; so an entire book framing it into poetry is a meditative practice. The world will bring its words to you, depending on what world you see. This is a book of appreciation. I find the modest signpost a worthy introduction to the work.
I wanted to promulgate it a great violation.
But when I quit pretending to be the harbor’s
righteous witness, I see it is just
a little spill — Someone must have slipped
while filling a gas tank — My soul compels me
to take in this translucent painting before me,
circles of beige and grey mixed with light
metallic blue crescents, slivers of clear water
curling through the colors, a tiny child’s fingers
first grasping the thumb of the unfathomable
giant from whom he’d fought toward that awful light.
Abloom & Awry by Tina Kelley. CavenKerry Press. 79 pages.
Tina Kelley’s poetry has, along with the sacred, some pique, and a spit-in-the-eye-of-death- humor. Motherhood, sketched liberally in anecdotes, is never platitudinous. These poems are a mix of seriousness and wit you’ll want to read without interruption. What I like best is the natural speech quality to these well-made poems. It’s as if you’re across the kitchen table listening to someone who’s sharing her “well warming world” with personality and intelligence.
The notes sound sad and whole, a cream of tone.
The foghorn stops but the sun does not come out.
Everything’s always next, and nothing’s now.
“Did his heart fall asleep?” Kate asks about Grampa.
Who knew I’d feel so sad to feed you, baby boy,
to watch carrots drip from rubbery spoon and mouth,
stain the bunny shirt? And to go back to work
with this sweetness barely tasted? Wave bye-bye.
Later on from someone else you’ll learn forks and clapping.
I feel the worldwide weight of dust settling on the sea.
We discover our loved ones over again, backwards.
The slipknot Dad tied on balloons, absent, ruined July 4th.
The buckeyes he’d hand me every walk, emptied the fall.
He won’t know this child as much as I’d like. Neither will I.
Dear All, by Maggie Anderson. Four Way Books. 70 pages.
Reading this reminds me of the Beatles’ lyrics, “Something in the way she moves…” The poems are all about motion: emotional, physical, spiritual — but these qualities would be nothing without careful movement on the page. Lots of knowledge, here, about how space is a character in any play and that lines are the way we talk. These poems are addressed to ‘the others’ in Anderson’s life — the one who loaned her gloves on a cold day; the one who noticed she was tired and should rest, a father who’s dying and trying to utter his last. These are the ones we write for; and never better than in this ensemble. For what’s the use of poetry if we don’t want to send memories and messages to the world, and it they’re not about the ones who loved us, who should they be about? And for? Words suggest realities but the poet knows reality’s not a permanent fixture, so she uses the gift of language to make a space where the past comes out of its cave and lives with the present just for a moment, just for a page. Anderson is good at this, and I enjoy the people and places she illuminates.
The Thing You Can’t Forget
It won’t let go of your mind,
the over-and-over can’t figure it out,
all the secrets, big nuisance, big excuse.
Impatient, unruly, it chokes the imagination
like kudzu sprawled across the roadsides,
overweening “mile-a-minute vine,”
vegetation with no brakes on fecundity,
litter after litter it keeps on.
Kudzu roots make an aromatic jelly,
said to cure a tendency to drink,
and the leaves of the kudzu plant
cover over the useless, the derelict
and abandoned. From this we invent topiary,
fantastic shapes of palaces and creatures,
until the mind can catch what
runs away with it and slow it down,
turning our relentless narratives
into a story we will have to live with.
Fragments from the Fire: The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of March 25, 1911. Poems and poetics by Chris Llewellyn, edited with essays by Michelle B. Gaffey. Skye’s the Limit Publications. 82 pages.
This is the 30th anniversary issue of this award-winning book, now with additions, emendations, revisions and commentary. The author, Llewellyn, notes “At about 4:45 PM, just before pay envelopes had been distributed, a fire broke out. Not everyone was able to reach the elevators and stairways. On the ninth floor, because the bosses had kept the doors locked to keep out union organizers, workers were forced to jump from windows. One hundred forty-six people, some as young as fourteen, perished.”
If poets won’t say it, who will? Columnists and journalists reported this event, and historians hark back to it, but it’s the voice of the workers in this book, the photographs of faces, the images of human destruction that the poet brings to life. Imagination is just the backdrop for real time events here — they need no adornment — the truth is palpable and made beautiful in a book dedicated to sisters who died in the fire: Bettina and Frances Maiale, Rosaria and Lucia Maltese, Teresina and Sarafina Saracino, Maria Lauletti and Isabella Tortorella, among the other 138 deceased.
You don’t have to be a marcher, a protester, a picketer. You just have to be a reader; and you’ll be doing your part to navigate society so that, together, we can wish for what can be made better. Language has an impact and these girls are brought back to life, just for a moment, and just for a time, as fundamental forces to reorient our thinking. Poetry is the method of address here bringing reality into language. Sometimes horror is saved by love.
Ninth Floor Reprise
Fifty-eight girls crowded into a cloakroom.
The glass blackens and shatters.
Who will come for us?
Up on Tenth, typists and bookkeepers leave
ledgers to ashes, machines to melt.
The packers and switchboard-lady gone
the phone cords and crate slats spurt
split into stars and meteors.
Up on Tenth, our finished shirtwaists unfold,
crack the crates, jump upright, join sleeves,
dance the hora and mazurka, spin like dreidels.
They call to us, their makers:
Stitcher, Presser, Cutter, Tucker.
“I saw them piled,” testified Fireman Whol.
“they pressed their faces toward a little window.”
The Color Blue by Alexis Rotella. Red Moon Press. 69 pages.
Rotella is a practitioner of Japanese style poems and active in the Haiku world. This doesn’t confine her, however, for she often expands her art(s) combining original illustrations with words. In The Color Blue, we get the best of her short forms, tiny as teardrops refracting the whole world. Read this and learn how to SEE, NOTICE, PAY ATTENTION to the world, and then make it permanent. I’m not a vendor but this is the book to buy to initiate that friend who thinks “poetry” is too obscure, and out of reach. Rotella is in reach, like an arrow to the heart.
she doesn’t catch it
wearing my father’s
You were prettier last night
he tells me
in the elevator
Vixen by Cherene Sherrard. Autumn House Press. 53 pages.
It’s all about the vixens here, the wonderful women who are commemorated; and even a dictator’s wife and Mussolini’s mistress (real vixens) thrown in. The women. Poems dedicated to Rihanna, and Ruby Dee; and especially fine, a suite of poems “The Seditous Saga Of Annabelle X As Told to the Abolitionist Mrs. Sarabeth Clarke of Rochester, New York, In Nine Parts,” — a masterwork — and then (Lady With A Lamppost.) “Hilda Simms,/ pinned-up on a lamppost in Harlem,/ her hair waves winsome, shellacked/ as her cheesecake smile, a tea-length skirt/ grazing at her knees. I want to rip the cover,/tape it to the oval mirror.” The soundtrack is jazz, the subjects are about identity, historical and personal, from a writer who doesn’t subordinate herself to make a poem. Each page is unexpected, with a fresh view, meeting someone new, filled with poetic change and intrigue. These poems are edgy; and yet smooth, and strong, as silk.
Our neighbors inform us they have applied for a license to raise chickens.
I tell them my grandmother grew collards between stalks of sugarcane.
Everyone cultivated something on 28th Street. They parked Cadillacs on
Roughdry lawns to make way for the corn and cucumbers lining the drive.
Roosters strutted the stoops. Children cupped hands to catch avocadoes
That rivaled grapefruit before they busted on the sharp, green crabgrass.
The new coop will not prevent grazing on our side of the unfenced yard.
What will happen to my floral ambitions? We recycle. We endure: coffee-
ground compost, rain gardens, solar ovens, electric mowers & water barrels.
I can tolerate the hunger of hares, thieving squirrels & rabid raccoons
But yardbirds pecking at my daylilies is too much like what I left behind:
Laundry on the line and foulness of fowl strung by their toes, drying,
then shorn, then fried.
Ordinary Beast by Nicole Sealey. Ecco. 80 pages.
There’s nothing ordinary about these poems. Sealey is smart, inventive and fearless. These are three good things for a writer. She likes humor and stories that come to life, like her faux mystery poem (clue) all satire and style. Another achievement is my favorite, a 12-page Cento — an Italian form where each line is taken from another poet’s work — and a work of art it is — then the fun is going to the book’s notes to identify which line goes with which poet. So much here that’s heart-and-soul felt, along with real body heat — words swing with skill and energy, at the same time delivering critical narratives. No easy feat. We know how tragedy makes comedy and so does Sealey. “It’s on the head of a pin,” once said Billy Collins. The delicate balance is accomplished by taking a perfectly rational idea and epitomizing it, all the while using easy-going language. Sealey’s won a host of awards and her future looks like it has another gold star in.
This time, this poem, is the best idea
I’ve ever had — the best in history
even, the best any has had, I swear…
and I should know, I’ve kept inventory
of them all; this poem is the alpha,
omega, middle, and the laterals —
literally the conceit of a far
off blank stare or a volta with virile
tendencies to talk about it and be
about it, it being the best sonnet
to ever sonnet — formal guarantees
of a good time, ready rhymes, and, I bet,
this poem is, with enormous success,
the only poem entirely imageless.
ALSO: BEST BOOKS FOR SEPTEMBER
Imaginary Royalty by Miranda Field. Four Way Books. 68 pages.
Formal Photo at Dusk on Adirondack Chapel Steps
A back brace for the mother.
A ghillie suit of roses, awkwardly fitted, for the father.
Sporrans of cut sod for the interlopers, the appended men.
The bridesmaids’ French braids wreathed with grass snakes.
The bride’s black hair waiting to fade-out to white.
Squirrels enough to stain and eat through folds of silk in storage.
Jays to eat the rice grains from the grass.
Crows for the roast. Worm casts.
The groom’s feelings floating faraway, New Jersey, New Jersey.
Later, a rose-tinged supermoon.
The Children Are Reading by Gabriel Fried. Four Way Books. 70 pages.
The Roly-Poly Pudding
O dough ball, O child.
Here I find you: gagged,
sooty, bound with strings
from a toy guitar.
I know I say
there are no monsters,
that we are safe,
as safe as houses,
but no one ever knows
what creeps the attic,
flue, or crawl space
once we break from day,
when the door is shut,
when the cat’s away.
Travel Notes from the River Styx by Susanna Lang. Terrapin Books. 89 pages.
I, beast, carry the blind moon on my back,
copper coin with the sheen worn off
and the face hammered out.
I go by the old rutted roads.
A boy dreamed me, four backward feet
and a curly tail, when he wasn’t dreaming battles,
himself victorious against all enemies.
But I outlived him.
I, beast, enter the stories you remember
as if they were inns by the side of the road,
the sheets turned down for me.
At times I walk upright in a mask and coat.
Now the boy is gone; the blood moon weighs
heavy, its bag worn and fraying at the seams.
I am afraid it will slip back into its place
above the trees, while I must keep to my road.
How to Wear This Body by Hayden Saunier. Terrapin Books. 70 pages.
Epiphany with Trashcans, Ice Pond, and
Late-day-tired, I look up
from dragging trash cans down the lane
to gauge how much light is left to finish
what’s never finished:
firewood, garbage, sweepings, ash,
as an unremarkable low flat cloud takes light
dead west in the bone-ache cold of a winter afternoon,
begins to climb its own body, crystal
by frozen crystal, builds itself up
into a steep-peaked mountain from a Chinese print
above my neighbor’s ice pond with its quartet
of black-spined hemlocks already stocked with night.
I wait silently with them, watch the day’s last fire pour out
cold and straight across
what little we are made of —
water vapor, temperature, hard clean curve of stone.
So little and so much.
It sums us up.
The Moon Is Almost Full by Chana Bloch. Autumn House Press. 63 pages.
my own, my only, it is you I conjure
as I take in the mail and the paper,
impatient to open and unfold.
Your low clouds threaten the morning.
Are you listening?
All that living of mine must have
some use. I’m not greedy,
just curious to know
the uses you will make of me.
Your Honor, I have been innocent
after my fashion. May it please the Court
to commute my sentence
to life without parole —
I section the grapefruit,
spoon a little honey into a cup,
hope a little hope,
and here you are already,
waiting to tell me:
“All that hoping —
I could have told you.”
Review copies should be sent to:
The Washington Independent Review of Books
7029 Ridge Road
Frederick, MD 21702
Grace Cavalieri is founder/producer of “The Poet and the Poem” on public radio, now from the Library of Congress. Her new book is just released: Other Voices, Other Lives, a compendium of poems, plays, and interviews (Alan Squire Press, 2018).
Lynn Kanter’s novel, Her Own Vietnam, uncovers a slice of the forgotten story of women who served in that war. Kanter performs the novelist’s magic act — although she didn’t serve in Vietnam, and has never visited there, she brings the experience alive through Della Brown, a nurse forced to confront her buried wartime memories. Her Own Vietnam was published by an independent feminist press, Shade Mountain, and is now available on Audible. We asked Lynn to share her publishing journey all the way through to her audiobook.
For readers who have not yet had the pleasure of reading Her Own Vietnam, could you tell us about how you came to write about this subject?
My teenage years were shaped in part by the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement. A few decades later, I got the opportunity to meet a woman who had been a fierce social-justice activist for many years. When I saw her, I was shocked. She looked…harmless. The camouflage of middle age entirely hid her radical past.
These two things — the long shadow of Vietnam and the transformation of age — combined to spark a question I felt drawn to answer through fiction: What would it feel like to be a middle-aged woman, going about your ordinary life, with the experience of the Vietnam War burning inside you? I had no idea it would take me more than a decade of research, writing, flinging away the manuscript in despair, etc.
We’d love to hear more about the book’s publication process, and about Shade Mountain Press’ journey.
I tried to interest literary agents in Her Own Vietnam, but got no takers. Although deeply discouraging, it gave me multiple opportunities to revise the manuscript.
Meanwhile, writer and editor Rosalie Morales Kearns was growing baffled and frustrated that so much excellent writing by women was not finding a home in traditional publishing. She decided to launch a small press dedicated to literature by women — particularly women of color, women with disabilities, women from working-class backgrounds, and LGBTQ women. Rosalie is a fantastic writer; Jaded Ibis Press will publish her novel, Kingdom of Women, in December.
Along with Robin Parks, Rosalie and I met in the Feminist Women’s Writing Workshops in the early 1990s. We three have remained friends and supporters of each other’s writing, although we live in different states and rarely meet. When Rosalie started Shade Mountain Press, she turned first to manuscripts with which she was familiar: Her Own Vietnam and Robin Parks’ luminous short-story collection, Egg Heaven. (Fun fact: Robin designed my book’s beautiful cover and interior.)
Shade Mountain has acquired its subsequent books through public calls for submissions. The press has published one or two books a year since 2014; a book of poetry is coming out this year, with novels by African-American women forthcoming in 2018 and 2019.
Tell us about how you’ve worked to get Her Own Vietnam out in the world (before the audio version).
Rosalie is avidly committed to helping her authors get attention for their books. She sent [advance reading copies] of Her Own Vietnam to review outlets far and wide, submitted it for awards (it won two!), mentioned it in interviews, and bought ads for Shade Mountain books in publications such as The Women’s Review of Books. On my end, I set up bookstore readings, launched a blog about books written by women, and visited book groups that read Her Own Vietnam.
You’ve written about your long relationship with audiobooks, and their important role in your reading life. Tell us how you navigated the process of recording your book.
I love audiobooks because they enable me to turn commuting time and household chores into opportunities to read. I wished Her Own Vietnam could become an audiobook, but I knew that was beyond what Shade Mountain Press could take on, which is why their contract specifies that audio rights belong to the author. I realized I could work through Audible’s self-publishing arm, ACX. The ACX website walks you through the whole process and explains the decisions authors need to make, starting with choosing the narrator.
Tell us about your decision to invite Robin Miles to record your book, and what it’s been like to work with her.
I’ve listened to many books that were beautifully narrated by Robin Miles, such as The Book of Night Women by Marlon James. I knew she was in demand; it seemed unlikely she would narrate a novel by an unknown writer, published by a small feminist press. I sent her the first chapter of the book and held my breath. When she said yes, I was thrilled.
Robin is very professional to work with. We discussed major characters and the pronunciation of names and places. And she probed about the background of minor characters. Where had they grown up? What kind of accent might they have? Also, she’s meticulous about sound quality. She recorded the book in a top Manhattan studio, and hired an engineer, editor, and quality-control person to make sure everything met her specifications. I couldn’t be happier with the result.
Listening to a book can be a different experience from reading it. How has hearing Her Own Vietnam affected your understanding of the book?
The audiobook brings the emotional content of the novel to the forefront. I once got an email from a man who had served in Vietnam, who told me he related to Della’s “psychological suffering.” At the time, I thought that term was a little strong — yes, Della was struggling, but suffering? Listening to the novel, I feel a little bad for how much I made her suffer.
Robin’s narration also gives surprising depth to small characters. For instance, there’s a soldier who taunts Della on the flight to Vietnam. He only says one sentence, but you can picture his grin and the easy way he sprawls in his seat.
What’s your advice for writers who want to get their work recorded?
If you own the audio rights to your book, you should consider producing an audiobook, particularly if you enjoy audiobooks yourself. Audible and other companies have programs designed to help authors, and you can choose an approach that costs the author nothing. It’s another outlet for your book — and it’s a remarkable experience to have your novel transformed into a story that someone else tells you.
What writing/publishing projects are you working on now?
I’m noodling around with some research for my next novel.
Anything else you want to add?
[This month], a new documentary series about the Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick will air on PBS. I hope people who watch the series and want to learn more will turn to the rich body of literature inspired by the war.
Martha Anne Toll’s nonfiction has appeared in NPR, the Millions, Heck, [PANK], the Nervous Breakdown, Tin House blog, Bloom, and Narrative; her fiction in Slush Pile Magazine, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Yale’s Letters Journal, Poetica E Magazine, Referential Magazine, Inkapture Magazine, and Wild. Her novel in process, represented by the Einstein Literary Agency, was shortlisted for the 2016 Mary Rinehart Roberts fiction prize. She directs a social-justice foundation focused on preventing and ending homelessness and abolishing the death penalty. Visit her at marthaannetoll.com and tweet to her at @marthaannetoll.
Stories of women who left the United States for the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s offer long-forgotten case studies in personal motivation and the meaning of success in Julia Mickenberg’s new book, American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream.
These women, from a variety of backgrounds — including a fascinating group of African-American intellectuals who were originally slated to act in a Soviet film on American race relations — were excited by the prospect of life free from the social constraints of their homeland. The Soviet Union was full of both tremendous practical need (primarily in the form of the millions of homeless and starving children displaced by war) and of progressive ideals and creative promise.
Mickenberg explains how the USSR had begun by officially abolishing sexual and racial discrimination, and offered women opportunities outside traditional familial roles, along with ready access to abortion, divorce, and collective childcare. American women who came to the country helped found schools, children’s colonies, and newspapers; worked as journalists, lecturers, and artists; and observed Soviet women of multiple ethnicities in many other responsible positions in industry and government.
The Americans also enjoyed passionate (if often temporary) liaisons with locals and fellow expatriates. Mickenberg quotes extensively from diaries, correspondence, and books written by these women, who spoke of their excitement and frustrations in this new land of opportunity. Milly Bennett, for example, a journalist newly arrived in Moscow, described sharing a room with Ann Louise Strong, managing editor of the English-language Moscow News:
“For three weeks, for 24 hours a day, I worked, ate, and slept in the same room with a woman who cried and moaned all night in her sleep,…who banged typewriters or screamed over the phone all day…She resigned twice a day…she beat up on the maid…and toward the end…she ran screaming into the kitchen one morning and threw dishes crashing into the sink.”
Strong was, in Bennett’s words, trying to “win friends for Soviet Russia” via a “subtle, witty, sophisticated story of Russian life,” but the local censors had turned her efforts into “a horrible, bland chunk of typical…propaganda.”
As Mickenberg’s research shows, in one instance after another, planned performances, creative colonies, and industrial communes that were begun with enthusiasm eventually ended unrealized, leaving the Americans disillusioned and disappointed.
Notably, besides conflicts with the burgeoning Soviet bureaucracy and increasingly repressive political forces, there were occasions when these women were sexually and ethnically marginalized by other American women: Journalist Margaret Bourke-White dismissed fellow broadcaster Williana Burroughs as an anonymous “South Carolina colored mammy,” and Ruth Epperson Kennell clashed in Siberia with an expat engineer’s wife who expected her to “perform those household tasks which tradition had imposed upon my sex.”
With the exception of brief remarks by a couple of young adherents of Isadora Duncan — who expressed initial excitement at the dancer’s revolutionary style, but later voiced disappointment upon seeing the middle-aged performer in the 1920s — Mickenberg does not include details of how Russian women viewed the Americans, or of the substance of their interactions.
Although Mickenberg reaffirms the profound and predominately positive impressions that their Russian experiences left on the Americans — in the pre-Civil Rights era, the equitable treatment that non-whites were accorded by their Soviet hosts contrasted drastically with the miseries they endured at home — she doesn’t go into detail as to the post-Soviet lives of her protagonists, with the exception of Anna Louise Strong.
Isadora Duncan, of course, was famously (and accidentally) garrotted by her own tangled scarf just three years after her departure, but other women lived for decades in the West, and the practical domestic repercussions of their Russian experiences upon their American lives could have offered a useful context.
The latter chapters of the book briefly note effects of the Stalinist Purge of the 1930s on the remaining foreigners in the Soviet Union — particularly the circumscription of their lives as comrades were arrested and disappeared, and others became informers — and describes Bourke-White’s, Lillian Hellman’s, and others’ depictions of Russian women during WWII.
Scholarly practice always affects its outcome: Mickenberg’s progressive perspective did allow her access to some Russian-held research materials that have been off-limits to researchers of other ideological viewpoints. She reports in the final chapter, “Red Spy Queens?” that “conservative” scholar John Earl Haynes had told her that, in Moscow, she wouldn’t be given access to any personal files, but she was actually permitted to view “just about every” one she requested.
She speculates whether an archivist surmised that she would interpret the files differently from Hayes; my own 2009 research in St. Petersburg, attests to this, as at one repository I was bluntly asked, “What are you going to say about it?” before permission was given to see any material. This is a peculiar way to conduct research, but American women in Russia have to accept unfamiliar circumstances as we try to tell our stories and those of other women.
Christina Petrides, co-translator of Maria Shelyakhovskaya’s Utverzhdenie v liubvi. Istoria odnoi russkoi sem’i: 1872-1981 (Being Grounded in Love: A History of One Russian Family, 1872-1981), and formerly a doctoral candidate in Russian history at Georgetown University, is currently chasing the South Korean dream as an English teacher on Jeju Island.
In his latest novel, acclaimed sports-writer Mike Lupica takes readers onto the football field, where the hits come fast and hard. After witnessing a few particularly scary tackles, Clay finds his love of the game tainted by fear. This fear grows when Coach Coop starts forgetting things and getting lost. Clay wonders if the decline is a result of Coach’s former pro football career, and decides to take action. Recent questions have emerged about the long-term medical effects of contact sports. Lupica contextualizes this issue in a heartfelt story about when life on the field alters life afterwards. Ages 10-13.
At the Chevy Chase Branch of Montgomery County Public Libraries, 8005 Connecticut Ave., Chevy Chase, MD. Click here for info.
Jesmyn Ward’s latest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, is a mesmerizing saga that infuses a contemporary road narrative with a timeless vitality and urgency of the likes of Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, and Jean Toomer. It starts as an unassuming family drama but ends as a profound invocation of the human condition.
Thirteen-year-old Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, have been living with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Their mother, Leonie, is an addict. She spends more time getting high than caring for her children, forcing Jojo to become the caregiver for Kayla.
Jojo learns about manhood from Pop, who is dealing with his own challenges as Mam slowly succumbs to cancer. When the kids’ white father is released from prison, Jojo and Kayla accompany Leonie, along with her friend Misty, on a road trip to the upstate penitentiary to retrieve him.
Their journey takes the shape of a classic road story, replete with Leonie’s failures as a mother, the woes of drug addiction, and Jojo’s attempts to protect Kayla from the family’s plight. Leonie is haunted by the ghost of her brother, Given, who died a violent death years ago at the hands of a belligerent white classmate. But Given’s spirit only appears to her when she is high.
Jojo, in turn, is haunted by a ghost named Richie, a young man from Pop’s dark past. Richie’s experiences with Pop decades ago at a work camp thematically overlap with Jojo and Leonie’s odyssey through rural Mississippi and establish a generational lineage of remorse that the family struggles to overcome.
The book is told through the voices of Jojo, Leonie, and Richie. The alternating perspectives offer insight into why Leonie cannot provide motherly love, why Pop avoids certain topics of conversation, and how Jojo is able to alleviate Kayla’s worries.
Each character has distinct concerns, but they all narrate with a similar heightened language full of poetic notes. Which is not to say that the book is overly flowery or riddled with abstraction. On the contrary, Ward’s sentences embody the rawness, the mugginess, and the intense heat of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The terrain is palpable through her characters’ words and observations, oscillating between their felt senses and the reveries those sensations invoke:
“She’d marked the route with a pen; it scrawls north up a tangle of two-lane highways, smudged in places from Leonie’s finger running up and down the state. The pen’s marks are dark si it’s hard for me to read the route names, the letters and numbers shadowed. But I see the prison name, the place Pop was: Parchman. Sometimes I wonder who that parched man was, that man dying for water, that they named the town and the jail after. Wonder if he looked like Pop, straight up and down, brown skin tinged with red, or me, an in-between color, or Michael, the color of milk. Wonder what that man said before he died of a cracked throat.”
At its heart, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a study of the 21st-century American family. The ties that exist among an interracial family are put to the test by America’s pernicious demeanor toward people of color and poor folk. Their lives suffer the toxic whims of racism and classism, of nefarious law enforcement and unrelenting addiction. Leonie wishes she could be a better mother. Jojo wishes he could keep Kayla safe from hunger and violence. Pop wishes he could save his wife.
At times, it seems as though their shared pain might offer redemption. By acknowledging that the past and future coexist in the present, their mutual agony empowers them to endure. Mam says, “We don’t walk no straight lines. It’s all happening at once. All of it. We all here at once.” The ghosts of times gone past are always with us.
Readers who are looking for an intricate plot will not find one here. Ward minimizes plot — the lion’s share of events takes place inside a beat-up car. But that doesn’t mean the modest plot has no narrative value. What’s powerful about Sing, Unburied, Sing is not necessarily what happens in the plot, but rather what that plot signifies.
Southern black poverty, with all its fraught nuances, is the central force of the book, and through its matrix of hardships, the characters confront their passions, fears, and familial bonds. Contemporary life thrums with an intense heat in Ward’s exquisite depiction of an impoverished Black South. The book is an ode to the South, but also an indictment of it.
Like most great books, Sing, Unburied, Sing suffers from one unfortunate shortcoming — only once can you experience the joy of reading it for the first time. Luckily, there’s no limit to how much you can sing its praises. Sing, Unburied, Sing further solidifies Jesmyn Ward’s place as one of this country’s most incandescent voices.
Nathan Blanchard currently lives in Tuscaloosa, AL, where he is an MFA candidate in the creative writing program at the University of Alabama. His work has appeared in the Missouri Review, decomP, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. He was the runner-up in comedy for the 2016 Miller Audio Prize.
Once I’d made the decision to self-publish, it meant I would be the one to do everything that my publisher would normally do for me. If you ever want to appreciate your publisher, self-publishing will make you do it! The first five steps:
1. After completing my draft, I submitted it to a developmental editor. A developmental editor looks at story structure, character development, plot, theme, etc. Prices can vary widely, but on average you pay about $100 for every 10,000 words. My book is 76,000 words. That’s a big cost out of pocket. Could I go cheaper? Yes, of course, but you also get what you pay for.
I selected an editor, Annetta Ribken, whom I’d heard great things about. I contacted her with plenty of lead time – 12 weeks before I’d need to have the work done. She had a six-week waiting list, so it was a good thing I’d contacted her early.
2. After the developmental edit and my next round of changes, I submitted the final to a line and copy editor. No matter who you are, please, please, please don’t skip this step and do it yourself. Even if you personally are a line/copy editor, you still want a fresh set of eyes on your draft. For those who don’t know, a line/copy editor is interested in the both the craft (voice, word choice, sentence and paragraph structure) and the text (spelling, grammar, punctuation). They make sure that no grammatical and spelling errors leap out of your text to piss off your readers. There’s nothing worse than reading a novel that’s riddled with grammatical and spelling errors.
3. While I had the novel out to the editor, I was also working with cover artist, Lou Harper, to come up with a cover design. I had the option of a premade cover, which is less costly, but means that I would have less input into the final product and could only make a small number of changes. I really wanted a cover that represented my fantasy romance.
Honestly, cover design was a lot more challenging than I’d anticipated. I’d never had free rein over what my cover should look like, and I struggled to articulate what I wanted. After several attempts, we had a final design. It took a lot of back and forth. Cover design prices can vary immensely. Sites like Fiverr offer book covers for as little as $5, but again, you get what you pay for.
If you want to use original photos instead of buying them from a stock site (which I did), you could spend anywhere from $25 to $1,000 for the original, which doesn’t include the price of the cover design. The advantage to using an original photo is two-fold: first, no one else will have your photo on their cover (which happens a lot when you use stock photos, especially in romance) and, second, you can get exactly what you want. Since I used stock photos, it was included in the price of the designer.
4. Once I had the final copy of By Fairy Means or Foul back from the line/copy editor, I needed to put it into a format that I could upload to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, and CreateSpace. Each one requires a slightly different format. After reading over the differing requirements, I decided to pay the money and get Vellum. It’s $250 but can be used for any future books I publish and it includes formatting for both e-books and print versions. It’s AWESOME!
Look, I could have done everything myself, but Vellum does all the little details for you, for each venue, and it adds some nice extras that make it look just a little more professional. I want to make sure that my self-pub will look just as professional as any of my other work. That’s a tall order. Vellum delivered, and it’s easy to use. However, if I had decided to do all the formatting myself, I could have used Calibre, a well-known free program that enables the writer to put everything in the proper format for each venue (but not automatically like Vellum does).
5. Finally, I set up my Amazon and CreateSpace author account. I used Amazon’s KDP for the e-book version, but CreateSpace for the paperback version. I had to sign up with each, accept all the terms, set prices, upload the files, and read all the fine print. In many ways, this was the scariest step because I was afraid I would do something wrong and goober up the process and all my hard work. It’s actually pretty user-friendly once you set your fear aside and just do it. Since I was able to upload my novel early, I made the decision to offer the e-book as a pre-order that will release on September 29th.
But my work is not done. My next article will cover ARC reviews, blog posts, advertising, release-day reviews, and other marketing strategies that I must now do on my own.
Meg Opperman’s first self-published novel, By Fairy Means or Foul, will be released September 29, 2017.
The Crows of Beara is a love song to Ireland that combines dazzling views of wild, sweeping landscapes with a hard, honest look at the need for jobs in the country’s rural west. This contrast drives events in the novel as the community at the center of the story struggles to decide whether the environmental risks of a proposed copper mine outweigh the promise of economic development.
Enter Annie, an American public-relations specialist sent by the mining company to win over the locals, and Daniel, an Irish artist passionate about the land but wary of getting dragged into the limelight. Both are dealing with their own turmoil, haunted by tragic mistakes from the past. Romantic, but unrequited, sparks soon fly between these two, and the plot thickens with intrigue, feuding, loyalty, and love.
Johnson’s novel may appeal to readers who prefer an accessible writing style and straightforward story, particularly if they are interested in Ireland’s culture and natural beauty. The book includes many lyrical passages describing the land, although the best of this writing is simple and spare: “Kenmare Bay winked in the distance; clouds drew shadows across the brown skin of the eastern hills.”
Johnson does not shy away, however, from a stark portrait of Ireland’s challenges after the end of the “Celtic Tiger” economic boom 10 years ago. She describes “an Ireland stupefied by failure, depressed, her eyes glazed over with shock. The high times had vaporized.”
Johnson’s writing is assured and passionate when she talks about the country’s post-boom situation:
“Behind the tidy gardens set against houses painted in rainbow-bright colors, beyond the postcard fields of wildflowers and woolly sheep were families trying to hold together lives that had gone from economic boom to bust in a decade. In those very fields lay the ruins of famine houses — homes abandoned during the Great Famine of the mid-1800s — left to crumble as a testament to the sorrows of the past.”
This picture of the Emerald Isle is an outsider’s view — the view of the book’s American protagonist, Annie, and of Julie Christine Johnson, its author. The ideas are reminiscent of ideas presented by Irish writers, but flavored by Johnson’s outsider stance.
The fact that both the threats and the opportunities in The Crows of Beara come from beyond Ireland’s borders complicates this outsider view. As Daniel wonders, “Who were any of them to determine what the region needed and who could best meet those needs?”
The economic issues that Johnson explores are ones that have parallels in the U.S. and around the world, which makes her commentary even more compelling. For example, the low-paying service jobs that accompany the new economic reality “might pay a pittance, but that pittance could keep a family off public assistance or pay a son’s tuition at a technical college or home care for an elderly parent.” These are trade-offs that many societies, and individuals, face.
The portrait of corporate culture in the book is also interesting — in particular, the way it depicts international corporations’ treatment of women. Annie fights for her place in that culture and proves herself brave and tough, although this only causes the men surrounding her to treat her more ruthlessly.
They are undoubtedly threatened by her competence, but this makes it no less painful when they humiliate her, as in one chilling scene in which a colleague condescendingly, and very publicly, slows down his speech to her to make her feel like a child.
Much of the novel’s plot, unfortunately, is predictable — the ending comes as no surprise — and the steps along the way often falter. The attempt to incorporate myth and magic, with the characters hearing mystical voices on the wind, is clumsy. Annie’s alcoholic relapse is unconvincing, lacking the attention and development it deserves.
The writing depends too much on exposition and, in places, this exposition waxes sentimental, as when Daniel discovers he “was drawn to her, drawn in by the vulnerability and pain that he knew so well, had worked so hard to slough off his own soul, like a snake shedding tired, used skin.”
At the end of the novel, the scene in which the two protagonists finally get together happens off stage, depriving readers of the chance to experience what the book has been building toward since its start. Missing, too, at the end, is any focus on the continuing issue of the lack of jobs in Beara, even though the problem of unemployment has been a theme throughout the story.
The Crows of Beara is a love song that goes up and down in pitch. It sings to landscapes, mythology, culture, and politics in a land far away for American readers. It misses some notes, but the melody is clear. Readers interested in a song of contemporary Ireland may find themselves humming along.
Sally Shivnan is the author of the short-story collection Piranhas & Quicksand & Love. Her fiction and essays have appeared in the Georgia Review, Antioch Review, Glimmer Train, and other journals, and her travel writing has been featured in anthologies including Best American Travel Writing, as well as in the Washington Post, Miami Herald, Nature Conservancy Magazine, and many other publications and websites. She teaches at University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC).