5 Following

Words, Words, Words

A catalog of my comments and thoughts on books, reading, and writing as well as anything I come across that seems interesting. I used to sell other people's words at an independent bookstore but now I hope to get by on selling my own.

Lincoln in the Bardo - by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

It would seem convenient, career-wise, for George Saunders to have found a novel in him after the success of Tenth of December, but if timing makes Lincoln in the Bardo seem shrewd, the writing inside will assure you that it was, in fact, inspired.


I'm not sure why I try to temper my enthusiasm for this book and Saunders generally; I suspect years of cool outlaws make siding with any sort of consensus group uncomfortable. Saunders has certainly garnered a mass of critical and audience praise but yeah, I'm going to jump on board because his writing is very good and original and relevant.


Lincoln in the Bardo is a strange and ambitious novel. It is structured almost like a play, a 300 page dialogue. The main story takes place in a graveyard among ghosts including Willie Lincoln, who has just arrived (i.e. died) and will be visited by his father, Abraham. This part is based in contemporary stories of Abe visiting his son at the cemetery at night and holding the body. Willie was just 11 when he died. Willie is greeted by our protagonists, Hans Vollman and Richard Bevins III. They, like all the other ghosts, have not accepted their situation and, as ghosts tend to, have unresolved business in life.


Interspersed throughout the novel are chapters of actual historians and contemporaries describing the times and life with the Lincolns. I was a bit concerned going into these sections, but Saunders uses a device that is common through the novel, splitting the account among many voices. The effect is kind of like a mosaic, with the scene being built, one sentence or paragraph at a time, each from a different perspective. It brings the scene home a little, like a group of friends talking over to recount some interesting event. They diverge at points, and come to consensus at others, but it comes off as something more interesting than a straight recounting. Saunders is able to dwell on interesting points, like a city of candy for a party at the Lincoln's, or the weather the night of Willy's death. It was probably much more work on Saunders point, but it removes some of the formality of the history while puncturing his story with the weight of real events, real deaths, and a real war not far to the south of these events.


The ghosts do this as well and often you'll find Bevins telling us what Vollman said then Vollman telling us what Bevins said. Being a chorus of souls who can't even acknowledge they are dead -- though they know they are dissociated from their bodies which reside in "sick-boxes" -- this is the most honest way of accounting for beings that are too busy looking at everyone else to notice their own situation. Everyone apart from the two Lincolns. 


Saunders' voice is something like the literary equivalent of artisinal hamburgers or secret shows in Brooklyn speakeasies, it's high art masquerading as everyday objects. For the most part, he reflects spoken language, often dropping articles and subjects, or inflecting statements with interrogative properties. (Like, writes it so it sounds unsure, as if you're asking a question.) But it's not really speech, that would make for shit writing. He's always leading, pulling you to a particular emotional state where he can drop the next reveal on you.


Lincoln in the Bardo does what I think is most amazing about Saunders: His most sorrowful stories are somehow his most heartening. I saw Saunders speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia and he ended talking about the book as an acknowledgement not just of our own mortality, but everyone's: everybody you love will die. This was on Valentine's Day. 


Loss is a pretty clear theme in the book, it is about ghosts, after all. Lincoln is having to bury his child, and deal with the fact that he is sending many young men to die in a war at the same time. The ghosts are powerless in the world, they cannot find resolution through their actions. The futures they see will never come about, and what comes next is, if nothing else, inevitable, and the focus on postponing that next place is ultimately fruitless. 


Still, this realization comes with a (relatively) light touch. Something in how Saunders makes it common, makes his characters one of many. It's not the sad, impotent thrashings of a raving hero striking at the sea, it's a family at the end of a tough day sitting together for a quiet moment. It reminds me of Whitman:

"That you are here -- that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse."

The point isn't that life/love/humanity/Firefly will end, but that life happened, isn't that miracle enough? Saunders is more clever than to hammer you in the head with it like I do, but that's what I take from it, and what many seem to -- his work is often noted for it's "humanity" whatever you make of that. Despite the real horror of some of his novels, and many decidedly tough endings, there is something affirming in the story, something hopeful. Bravery, usually, often of the less obvious sort.


The novel has its flaws, most noteworthy I'd say that Saunders has trouble smoothing out some very modern speech patterns. I'm not holding him to a real high standard on this one, he said in his talk that he wasn't trying to go full method actor or anything though he worked to strike things to obvious like "friggin". Still, in a couple parts it was a little distracting to hear someone who spoke like they had seen more than one Keanu Reeves movie. 


I highly recommend this to all readers of fiction. One nice thing is the dialogue structure seems to pull you along and also depress the word count so it is a very quick read. 


Happy Reading!

"None of it was real; nothing was real.
Everything was real; inconceivably real, infinitely dear.
These and all things started as nothing, latent within a vast energy-broth, but then we named them, and loved them, and, in this way, brought them forth.
And now we must lose them."

George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo

How to Think About Sex (Without Overthinking It)

Action: A Book About Sex - Amy Rose Spiegel

Action: A Book About Sex is the cool guy/gal you hooked up with in high school or college who was way too attractive and confident for you but helped you find your way from theory to concept (in a sexual sense). After years of euphemisms and pseudo-psychology, and (worst of the bunch) seduction guides and self-help books, Action is the grown-up (but not too grown-up) discussion about sex we never knew we needed. It's direct, sensitive, encouraging, and mostly just a lot of fun -- alone or with friends!


Sex writing usually wavers between the sensual and the technical, Action doesn't much bother with either. It's crass and straightforward, but not demeaning. Spiegel shows that sex doesn't have to be so self-serious to be mind-boggling enjoyable, or to be meaningful for that matter. She doesn't really present any new information here, at least not to anyone buying a book about sex who isn't a 15 year-old boy, but she kind of opens the blinds on all the kind of unspoken assumptions many of us harbor about sex/dating/etc. and exposes them to the daylight. This happens in a number of ways but I wanted to focus on three themes that come out of the book. They're kind of suggestions but also demonstrated in the way Spiegel writes.


The first is openness. Spiegel says we should really be talking more about sex. About consent, about identity, about sexuality and kinks, about relationships, about positions, and everything else. Especially with your partners (obviously), but in public life too. It's kind of like talking about money, decorum tells us to hush up, but some frank discussions would do a lot of good in both realms.


Spiegel starts with a section saying as much right away, which makes openness less a theme than just a thing she says, except it continues popping up throughout the book. I mean, if the branding wasn't so bad it could be called "Talking: A Book About Sex."  Talk to new people you might want to sex! Talk with people you already sex to make sure your sex is as good as it can be (for both involved)! Talk with someone your maybe about to sex to see if they're really down with that! Talk about trying something new! Talk about a trip to the sex store! It touches on a bonus theme of embarrassment I won't really discuss, but by not talking about sex we are closing off possibilities we can really enjoy. We've all been frustrated by situations where everyone is deferring and nobody will make a decision where to go for dinner, it's like that except no one bothers to mention dinner and just hopes to happen into a restaurant and then order food for the other person.


Second: Spiegel reminds us that there are two people (or three) in the bed. Note the emphasis on people. Gender always comes second to humanity in this book, because this is obviously the treatment we've needed for a very long time. Action is a book about sex, largely for entertainment but with a lot of practical content too, and that content is about having a better sex life. What it is not is a book about seducing women, or pleasing men. Spiegel is always working under the assumption that the other party in this matter is a thinking, feeling person and would like to be treated as such.


Of course, Action gets more specific when it comes to handling genitalia, but when it comes to seduction technique or being better in bed it's not about some technique or trick or pseudo-psychology, it's about respect and openness (see above). Success isn't about who you have sex with, it's about how you feel about that person and both of you having a good time. There's no shortcut there, you just have to think about it and work it out. Actually, there's one technique she says will make you as insightful as Mel Gibson in What Women Want but you'd have to go back and read point 1. (Edit: more insightful than Gibson, he mostly uses his gendered mind-reading in that movie to be a manipulative dick.)


Lastly: Spiegel grounds the discussions in real terms and situations. Some jargon does appear here -- intersectionality, non-binary, cisgender, BONE-A-ZONA -- but Spiegel uses it sparingly and playfully. Like I said above, she is unflinching, as it should be: she's writing a book about sex, now is not the time to get coy. Her candidness makes everything better and more clear because she describes something real and specific. Here she talks about just meeting people:


"Eight times out of ten, if you introduce yourself to a new person, assume some air of great purpose about you, and tell them something honest and enticing in its irregularity (especially if it also happens to be funny), that person will talk to you."


Spiegel then spends most of the chapter on talking: good pick-up lines, having something to say, asking questions, pushing when they answer "good" or "not much." It's five pages on what is essentially you're time-tested, basic script hook up, but she demystifies it. Here's where you are, here's what you do, there's no script, just some prompts, because the biggest problems are getting the gumption up to talk with someone and have the grace to move on when it doesn't pan out. Again, it's not about seduction, it's about meeting people (see point 2). If you're open and outgoing, opportunities will arise, but if you fixate on someone you forget they are a real person with their own feelings and tastes that has no obligation to return your attraction.


When Spiegel does share tips they are broad and she doesn't claim universal, though they seem like a good idea. Spiegel admits she's into good posture, or how she digs getting oral sex while lying on her stomach, but everyone has their own preferences, it's what makes the world go 'round.


Then it all cycles back to point 1, or maybe they're all one point: talk respectfully about sex in clear terms, you wild lovechild.


SUMMARY: This was kind of a weird review, but this was also an unusual book and I was really interested in the way everything was presented. The result was something about style and about what spoke to me, but also recounting some messages from the book. This makes some sense because form is important and the way Spiegel presents the information reflects the approach she is advocating: direct, unashamed, sensitive and curious. I hope this review made sense is all I'm saying. Thanks for reading!



Synthesis, Story, The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov, Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov doesn't lend itself to summary, it throws a lot at the reader and keeps you off balance. A summary would probably be more confusing than anything else. Depending on what you have seen or heard, the devil is involved and a cat somehow plays a significant role. Also Soviet Russia, and whomever those title characters are, which -- like in the story -- I won't get to until later. But I'd like to write about technique, because the way Bulgakov has put together this story is enough to recommend in itself.


So, the lot of it. To start, there are a lot of characters -- including a Nikanor Ivanovich, a Nikolai Ivanovich and an Ivan Nikolaevich none of any relation to the others -- and it takes a while to try to sort out who is important and who isn't. Indeed, the important characters show up pretty late. We meet Berlioz right away and spend much of the first 50 pages with him, but then he is dispatched with. We don't even meet Margarita until more than halfway through the book! This isn't a critique. As I've said, the way Bulgakov withholds information makes the book exciting, we don't know what to make of this devil, and everything proceeds with this air of menace, especially when it touches characters we actually care about.


Lending to that menace, the first 200 pages seem to take from Kafka as much as Goethe, who comes up frequently in the footnotes. Nobody called for the devil -- not intentionally anyhow -- and mostly people want to get away from him. The punishments seem arbitrary at first and are convoluted. The devil and his crew are not above threats of violence but they seem to prefer going through official channels. It's surprising that Bulgakov was able to publish, even if he leaves the most unsavory aspects of Soviet life merely implied. The point is, there's no evil bargain, the devil here is more trickster than tempter. 


The ensemble in The Master and Margarita is unlike others I have come across, like Anna Karenina or even The Corrections, in which individual characters or plots occupy distinct tracks. In some stories they kind of balloon, the characters start together then go off in different directions and finally collide again at the end. In others, say in Anna Karenina, they sort of orbit each other, Anna's story and Levin's don't seem to affect each other, though they do both serve certain thematic elements. 


The Master and Margarita makes sense more as one of those perspective statues that are assembled from junk but at the perfect angle create some cohesive image. Here, the devil roams around menacing various bureaucrats in what at times feels like a series of vignettes. One chapter is even called "Hapless Visitors" which just sounds like a bunch of unrelated stories. But the devil also links them, forming a center from which all these stories spring, and back to which they ultimately point us, before the design starts to bear out in Book 2. Saying he is the center seems a weird way to phrase things, but it would be wrong to say the story is about the devil. The perspective is usually tied to the people he encounters and the story does seem to belong to the Master, Margarita and Homeless than to Woland (the devil), but he is more present. He is what happens to the protagonists, and all of Moscow.


Seen from the end The Master and Margarita is a much more structured and complete novel than it sometimes feels while you're reading it, but you don't have to get there to enjoy it. The story is fun throughout, mischievous and funny, and melancholy enough to give it weight.


Four and a half stars. This feels a bit generous but I'm in a generous mood, and it's a book I would like to read again, which says a lot.


Maybe the Sky isn't Falling, It's Awfully Big You Know

The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism - Kristin Dombek

Nearly halfway through this book-length essay Kristin Dombek admits to using the kind of shallow depictions she is criticizing in other books and articles, but then it is a problem inherent to the form. How does one capture a person in 1,600 words, or even 70,000? 


The problem Dombek is exploring in The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism is a rash of lazy pop psychology online diagnosing pseudo-celebrities, ex-boyfriends, and an entire generation (spoiler alert: it's millennials) of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If Dombek isn't able to adequately sum up the lives of the people she brings into her arguement, it only serves her point. She may not be able to prove someone isn't a narcissist but the takeaway is that it is a very difficult thing to sum up a life, to throw a label around is a dangerous thing to do unless you can really back it up.


The thinness of internet diagnoses is almost comical, but Dombek, being a more serious essayist than myself, gives them an honest hearing and delves into the history of narcissism from the Greek story of Narcissus through Freud and finally to the DSM. It's a troubled history, based on misunderstanding and often reflecting as much on the diagnostician than on the diagnosed.


I could have been satisfied with just her chapter "The Millennial" which goes into the story of Allison, whose callousness on an episode of My Super Sweet Sixteen has become legend in books and essays and in the popular conception of the narcissistic millennial. Except, of course, she has a whole life, almost none of which was the one sentence where she insisted on closing down a street that goes past a hospital for the sake of her birthday party (and I think we've all known since at least 2005 that reality shows have naught but the thinnest relation to the reality they depict, much less any reality we know).


"It takes only a brief Internet search, though, to flesh out a bit more bout Allison's life," Dombek says, as if no one had considered to look past the surface before judging that there was nothing behind it.


She's married, Dombek reports, she and her husband run a foundation to help impoverished school children in Atlanta. She got her bachelor's degree in psychology. She may be a narcissist, she may be a sociopath for all I know, but casting a diagnosis based on one moment, or on any one appearance on MTV, must necessarily be more about our own assumptions about a group than about that group itself.


I don't think our tendency to play armchair psychologist is all that novel or dangerous, but I think Dombek has produced a thoughtful work here that hopefully reminds us that when we decry people who live on the internet we're judging people by what we see on the internet. It's well researched but is grounded in the experience of the writer who has been thinking of these things, witness as we all are to selfies and food pics and the other wonders of social media.


The Selfishness of Others is a slim book for all it contains, it is focused and can be gone through quickly. Be ready for some dense psychology stuff when you get into the thick of things, but it is worth getting through.

"Actually, it was flying that freaked Doc out, but he kept forgetting why, and didn't remember this time till the plane was touching down at McCarran. He briefly considered freaking out anyway, just to keep in practice, but then Trillium might wonder why, which could be a hassle to explain, and besides the moment had passed."
Inherent Vice - Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice p 218.

The Virtues of Reading the Book First

Inherent Vice - Thomas Pynchon

So, I watched the movie first on this one guys. I'm often torn between my own inclinations and not being "that guy" so when Paul Thomas Anderson made a movie that looked really good based on a book that wasn't really on my radar I had three options:


  1. Read the book immediately.
  2. Wait on the movie until I got around to the book,
  3. Damn the torpedoes and see the movie anyway.


I saw the movie anyway.


Honestly though, it wasn't a bad choice, though it's hard to tell. For one, I saw the movie in its theatrical run which was over 2 years ago. Also, the movie was what attracted me, I hadn't heard a lot about the book and it did stick in my mind but I think I would have been happy if I had stuck with the movie which I really enjoyed.


The movie stays pretty close to the book, but by its nature brings a lot more to every scene, the acting, the blocking of the shot, the music, it adds a lot to the tone that is difficult to subtract when you're reading the same event in the book. At times I thought the book seemed a bit goofier than the movie which lays a mysterious noir-like tone even as Doc is trying to remember if he's hallucinating or not. Then I remember scenes from the movie where the comedy was played up more than the book so who knows. 


The one last thing I will say about Inherent Vice the movie, is that it was tighter. Not exactly neat -- it is a sort of noir or commentary on noir after all -- but it returns to the early themes in a way the book doesn't and it ditches a long and confusing trip to Las Vegas from the book that seemed extraneous even on the page.


The Vegas trip deals with the missing land developer's wife's boyfriend and Puck Beaverton who is a thug at the center of the conspiracy but gets a side story about turning a girl onto anal sex and Doc Sportello going along to reunite them resulting in their marriage. When we meet Puck again the whole marriage adventure seems to melt away and you have to wonder what the hell that was all about.


It's one of the strengths and the weaknesses of the novel (as opposed to a movie) even a tight one has to build a world. The movie shows you a shot of the beach and that's where you are, but those of us who never turned on, tuned in or even dropped out in 1970s California, the writer has to build the whole scene for you, or suggest enough to let you build the rest, but what contributes to that world and what is extraneous? We get a lot of passages that fill out Doc's character as someone who has past experiences and baggage, but many of which don't tell us much more than we already gleaned in terms of character. Even great writers need great editors.


At it's best, Inherent Vice is a damn good book. It's my first brush with Pynchon which is a shock and I'm sure he has done better, but I could see why he is a highly regarded writer, there are some vivid scenes that draw you in and pull you down the rabbit hole in this booke. He also shows an ability to twist and toy with multiple literary vernaculars: dissecting them in a way that feels uncanny. That is familiar but not really. 


In any case, noir is a good form for a book that is interested in things that have been lost: the hippie movement, ethnic enclaves of early Los Angeles, the sense of security of the pre-Manson era. It's melancholy, "hard-boiled" as they say, but like most books by those descriptions it retains a weary hopefulness. There's something inherently hopeful in being old fashioned.

"The feeling of my selfishness is absence: the absence from my life of the trash I leave behind, which becomes the structures into which others must live, the broken hearts, the warmer air, the slower fish: whatever I do not feel, that to others becomes the shape of their world."
The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism - Kristin Dombek

Kristin Dombek, The Selfishness of Others p 136

'The Girls' by Emma Cline

The Girls: A Novel - Emma Cline

First thing you want to know is probably about the cult, and why wouldn't you? It's dramatic and different and the kind of thing that sucks all the air out of a room. It's the hook, it's what it said in the newspaper, it says it right there on the book jacket! But pretty quickly in reading The Girls you realize that Emma Cline may not have a lot to say about cults and what the story is really about  was spelled out right on the cover: girls. And girlhood. The cult is just how we get there.


The Girls centers around Evie Boyd, 14 years old in 1969 and in her late 50s sometime in the recent past. And yes, she ends up hanging around a cult that closely resembles the Manson Family, at least in the few facts I know from popular memory. "The Ranch" is a commune of hippie-like folks centered around a charismatic leader who really just wants to be a musician. It all ends in a home invasion and multiple-homicide, including a kid and a young mother.


That sounds really interesting and could carry a novel, I'm sure, but Cline here treats it as an accessory, a shiny bauble to draw our attention to more immediate experiences. It's nearly 100 pages before we even get to the ranch and while the murders hang over like a cloud — Cline reminds us periodically with a page or two of description adding more details to the grisly scene — what is striking is the ordinariness. Cline looks beyond the cult leader show and finds a community of women that joke and play and get annoyed with each other and make the whole thing run in the days when murder is as remote a possibility as it is at any high school party. It is women that carry out the murders and women that he mostly keeps around and while they are all attracted and devoted to him, it is how they are together that attracts Evie.



The story maintains many of the elements of a coming-of-age tale — losing innocence, finding new experiences, discovering sex, friction with parents and childhood friends — but it is also different for girls, more complicated. Where sex is an achievement for boys, for Evie it is a double edged sword. It can be a power to wield, but it also can invite violence. Sex is a thing men think they can possess, and they are not kindly to women who deny them.


Evie being 14 years old adds to the sense of danger and discomfort. Like in Lolita, her youth and the age of those around her colors everything. Experiences that might be valuable and enjoyable, even empowering, are tainted by how young she is, her lack of control over the situations. I don't think I need to say much past the fact that Russell is said to look about the same age as Evie's mother. We see some of these elements replayed for adult Evie watching the young couple that stays with her for a few days, recognizing the young girl's want to be like and accepted and how the older men take advantage.


Cline's scenes are these wonderful pieces of writing that seem to grow exponentially with each sentence, like one of those spiral toys as a kid that just guide your pen in circles that overlap and multiply into a stunning design. Her first lines are generally simple, straightforward, factual, and then the scene builds. She has an eye for the details that make the whole thing turn, that cause you to feel a twist in your chest and keep you turning to the next page even when the characters have all let you down.


I definitely recommend The Girls. Put it on your holiday list, the 2017 reading challenge starts soon.

Reading progress update: I've read 360 out of 768 pages.

A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present - Howard Zinn

After really being drawn in for the first hundred pages or so I've been slogging through this lately. It's a combination of having less reading time recently and perhaps a natural loss of momentum in a book this long, especially nonfiction. The first chapters resemble what the title literally means and match what I knew of "new historicism." Namely it tries to tell the story of people, and peoples. The tribes native to America in their first encounters with Europeans; Africans, how they were brought here and the lives they faced; and the less known of the settlers, the indentured servants, the debtors, the laborers.


I am reminded what someone said about a story they said on twitter, that it wasn't the whole story but the part we don't hear enough about. Seems pretty accurate for this.


I will say, after the Civil War we have moved almost exclusively into class struggles. There is little about the waves of immigrants except as providing member for a certain union, and feminism and civil rights are written mostly in how they intersect with unions and socialism. It's still good history, but it is a different history than we started on and that may be part of what has slowed me down.


"The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald, Matthew J. Bruccoli

Life has begun again as it got crisp in the fall (eventually) and I decided it was time to revisit Fitzgerald's masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, prompted by his 120th birthday and an event celebrating the occasion at the Free Library of Philadelphia.


I admit I sit comfortably in the choir who sing the praises of The Great Gatsby. Even in it's slight 160 pages, it has so much to offer, be it your first, third or 78th reading. It's length also makes it an easy one to revisit. If you find yourself overwhelmed by the number of books you haven't read — as I've written about previously — this is a novel you can revisit in just a couple days.


The Great Gatsby is a devastating piece of writing — in style and form and substance. Even as I have grown in age and through multiple readings to see the characters as peers, I still find myself torn up at the end of each chapter. The closer I have gotten in age, the more human and touchable the characters seem, and the story is even more powerful for it. When I was young, I looked at these doomed loves the same way I watched horror films, substituting, "Just say you love him!" for "He's right behind the door!" But with experience came understanding of how terrible we can be at making choices in love. Would you really trade your whole life — friends, house, city, job, etc. — to be with someone?


And as a writer, how could you not be put on your ass by Fitzgerald? Some part of every writer celebrates seeing a successful piece that seems obtainable, that makes us say, "I could do that." Seeing Greatness is humbling and inspiring and daunting and euphoric and many other things at once. Greatness, like love, is complicated.


If nothing else, take from this post the chance to reread The Great Gatsby, especially if you have not touched it since high school. You may be surprised to find an entirely different story than you remember, different than the movie, different than the play, Gatz. This was at least my third reading of the novel and it is something I intend to read every year or so, as the British comedian Stephen Fry does, both for everything new it has to offer and the beauty of the art itself that never seems to fadeEvery time you read Gatsby it shifts, subtly, like a kaleidoscope. The colors and shapes, the characters and scenes, are all there, but it is never the same novel twice.

Jeremy Scahill at the Free Library of Philadelphia

Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield - Jeremy Scahill Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army - Jeremy Scahill The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government's Secret Drone Warfare Program - Jeremy Scahill, The Staff of The Intercept

We live in a political world and I am a political girl (or boy).


Jeremy Scahill, investigative journalist and author of books about the expanding boundaries of the war on terror (Dirty Wars) and the outsourcing of the military operations (Blackwater) faces a problem when speaking about his new book, The Assassination Complex: how to speak to people about a VERY political problem that doesn't stick to party lines in an election year.


Scahill, to his credit, didn't try to be apolitical in his appearance Wednesday at the Free Library of Philadelphia. He didn't avoid the subject and he certainly was not tousling either candidates hair. He has serious issues to bring up about both the major candidates, either of whom will continue many of the military malpractices he has spent his career exposing. But he doesn't make a false equivalency either: One is a professional, the other a clown. That doesn't mean one gets a free pass on important issues (he would like to see more voices featured on the national stage, not you Jeb!).


Knowing this, Scahill speaks with the patience of people that focus on intractable issues. When you are working on poverty or healthcare reform or the military, you know progress comes slowly through many channels and it seems to take some of the panic out of presidential races. January 20 there will be a new leader and the effort will continue.


The focus of the evening was his latest book, The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government's Secret Drone Warfare Program, which, as the library employee who introduced him pointed out, pretty much tells you what you need to know about the book. Since the very program which he spoke on is predicated on the authority of the president to carry out what he describes as assassinations, the election did come up and the candidates. 


For dark and potentially divisive material, Scahill was an affable presenter and willing to take any questions. He invited anyone, book handy or not, to go through the signing and ask him a question after he ran out of time in the presentation. At times, the talk was a bit conspiratorial, he frames the problem as pressure from the defense department when I think there is plenty of pressure from the electorate before a candidate ever gets a briefing. No one had to tell Trump that there are people we should bomb. But it's not tin foil-hat stuff, it's documented and obvious influence by donors and agencies, so it is bound to sound a bit paranoid, but as we learned in the last few years, it's not paranoia if the government is tracking your phone calls.


Scahill spoke about some of the history that brought us here and the process by which targets are chosen and some of the legal acrobatics that allow it. He doesn't lay blame on wholly on one side: While Republicans get the war reputation, having someone like President Barack Obama carry on this policy of firing bombs at target persons has legitimized it for much of the country. But there was so much to cover. Like why this is such a bad policy. There are the easy answers killing is bad and the legal justifications do sound very strained, but they come kind of cheap in war, for both sides. Fighting and killing, even for good reasons, is ugly business, but that doesn't justify everything.


I guess I will just have to read the book to learn more!


'1984' by George Orwell

1984 - George Orwell, Erich Fromm

Is it bad that I had low expectations for this book? I do really love George Orwell's writing, and to be fair it exceeded them easily. I had the same question going into Brave New World: school's teach these just a year or two after you are reading YA dystopias and everyone conscripts them to make political points. The impression just stuck that these are books making a point and whenever a piece of art has a point to make there are so many traps.


1984 does fall to these traps at times. It gets really involved in the mechanisms of power and tends to drag, not the least because these things become a red herring in the real world. We've constantly got our eyes on technology but any number of books out of the former Soviet Union show the much more usual and practical terror that is other people.


Orwell does grasp this better than most. He does away with the baby farms and shining towers and puts terror in the normal setting of run-down streets. People still present the greatest danger but we do get plenty of description about deeply convoluted government controls. When he gets to the story 1984 really stands out. Because the world is closer to ours, because the people are not cheery zombies but also because they may as well be, the stakes seem higher. Winston Smith isn't some glitch with magic powers, he may not even be that unusual, but like in the Soviet states, snitching is the culture and by design. Not reporting something unusual is punishable and thus nobody can be trusted.


Also, considering 1984 is the standard bearer of dystopian futures, it's a surprise so few have the guts to follow that ending. From the arrest which seems to come so early — too early I thought, surely there will be an escape and then the real conflict — I was completely off balance. Only the movie Brazil has even ventured down this road and, while I loved how that ended, Orwell truly pulls no punches in the finale here. Smith is completely and utterly defeated. There is no opening for hope here except to not reach this world. Smith is playing chess at the end and the analogy is apt, chess doesn't end in a strike, it ends in a trap. Checkmate is when all routes of escape have been cut off.


Why only 4 stars? I couldn't get over the impression that this was more ~important~ than Great. It dragged at points, it was just bad at others and though most of it was very good I just couldn't place it among the books I really admire.


"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale is the reason they tell you not to judge a book by its cover. Nothing, not the cover art, not the blurb, not the recommendations of friends, set me up for what the story I read, even though all were in some way or another accurate. This story is one all its own, so I decided to look at it through the three themes you will surely hear mentioned in relation to The Handmaid's Tale.




Offred lives in a new society where the roles of women are highly regulated and enforceable by law. They wear a uniform dictated by their roles and are permitted only very specific tasks. Marthas take care of the housework, upper class wives bear children and oversee their house, handmaids bear children for wives who are past the age of conceiving and have not had children (there is an environmental undertow here that many are infertile and only one out of four pregnancies delivers a viable child due to nuclear meltdowns, chemical spills and superviruses). The city is lousy with spies and higly patrolled. There are dire consequences for any who refuse or fail at the role they are assigned.


This is all in a near future, however. Unlike Bradbury or Huxley, Atwood is little interested in new technologies. There are no jet cars or baby farms. If anything, at this point it is an alternate history since it was written in the 1980s and does not venture much beyond the technologies of the time. I found it a relief since technology tends to be a distraction for writers from the human story of the novel or even the description of structures that keep them down.




The new government, the new society we see in The Handmaid's Tale is a Christian fanatic sect. The authority of men, the strict observance of chastity until marriage, and the role of the handmaiden are derived from Bible passages and reinforced through "Pray-vaganzas" home bible readings even the language of greetings.


It had to be biblical, how can you talk about sex and gender in America without talking about the bible? Again, this was the 1980s, much closer to the battle over the equal rights amendment and the evangelical congregations leading the charge to keep women in the home. Of course it is a bastardization, the bible is rubik's cube that each church and sect arranges to fit their pleasure. This is why the husband, conveniently "the Commander" by military title in this story, is the only person in the family allowed to read or write and the bible is kept locked away from curious eyes. Which brings us to the main point.




The chorus of internet commentators awakens when I hear this word and I want to explain how this isn't a story of activism, except it is. Of course it is. Because its the woman's voice and a woman's story it is necessarily feminist. Because you can't read a woman's story without thinking about the forces, legal and social, that bear down on them in a society when women still aren't fully represented and their presence in professional setting is still somehow debated.


That said, what makes this story so powerful is not the force with which Atwood makes her points, but fact that she doesn't, that she lets the story tell you what you need to know. It's the story that carries the day, that illustrates what it means to be a woman without freedom, without a society, without ownership of even her own body or identity.


Offred is an imperfect victim/hero, she can be careless and selfish. She does stop fighting at times, she falls in with the crowd sometimes, the belief that you just have to make the best for yourself, and for a while things can seem okay, but there are no happy endings in this world. There is no escape route and that is what brings the story home. We love the heroic escape story, we had presidential candidates talk in a cavalier way about how they would take down a mass shooter if they were ever in that position. But there is no way out. There is no route to success that doesn't cross with sexism, harassment and misogyny and it is not on individual women to have to find their way out, it's on our society to stop enforcing rules meant to keep women out of power.


The afterword:


I was worried this would be just a conceit to tell us how Offred/June lived happily ever after, and I wonder if that is how it started, but instead we got a brilliant satire that deserves it's own post, really. Atwood takes a shot at academia in the form of a lecture nearly 200 years in the future, one in which June's story is completely submerged in the man's game of history. Where she is mentioned it is only as a question of if she existed at all, and how we can determine that. The lecturer jokes about the treatment of women by the Gilead Regime and, naturally, refuses to pass judgement on another culture's behavior or norms, something that turns your stomach after 300 pages of subjugation and horror. The two commanders the lecturer believes could be the "commander" of the story are noted for their brilliance in respectively designing and selling the new order that made women into slaves and pitted them against one another.


Like the rest of the story, it's cold and absurd and cruel and very definitely the way things would go in our world, which is exactly why it is so tragic.

On Translation

Crow with No Mouth (Old Edition) - Stephen Berg

I was turned on to the 15th century poet an Zen master Ikkyū by the writer Peter Matthiessen, author of The Snow Leopard and a practitioner of Zen himself. When he died in 2014 the Paris Review (which he helped found) printed an Ikkyū quote from one of his books with his obituary. I was struck by the quote and have incorporated it into my own life:

"Having no destination, I am never lost"

I used it recently in my employee profile at a new job and decided to look further into the original poet. I took out the only book they have at the Free Library and on the first page came across this couplet:

"if there's nowhere to rest at the end

how can I get lost on the way?"

It is terribly obvious that translations will differ, and this is hardly the most striking example but it stuck with me all week and now I have to learn Japanese so I can understand the original. It will go on the queue with Italian, French, Russian, Spanish, and ancient Greek and Roman. I must know!

What's your favorite magazine for fiction or longform?
What's your favorite magazine for fiction or longform?

I'm taking a few days between books, which feels like a statement on a site where books are treated as the basic unit for reading. I have a few magazine subscriptions I want to catch up on and there are super interesting things that happen in magazines. The New York Times Magazine just did a huge history of the middle east since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Rachel Cusk's book Outline was serialized in the Paris Review last year. The New Yorker regularly turns out great nonfiction and fiction from George Saunders, Evan Osnos, Stephen King, Elizabeth Kolbert. These are just the big players, in small zines around the country the next generation of writers are working out their own styles.


Where do you turn besides books for stories, interviews, journalism, etc.? Have reading challenges and social media made it tougher to look for short pieces and magazines you don't get "credit" for?