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.
Karen Russell, “Looking for Home”
One late night, having been sucked into a dead end conversation with a drunk old man, it came out that I had studied history in college and that I had focused on Irish history.
"Irish history!?," he shouted. "Why there wouldn't be any Irish history without the English!"
The "great man" theory of history had never been laid so nakedly to me before. The idea that the decisions of British monarchs were not just a major force on Irish history, but the only thing that mattered was so obviously wrong I was flabbergasted.
Between the time when that old man's education and my own, the rote memorization of kings, presidents, and dates, while not completely out of style, had been supplemented by the stories of the people who lived in those times. Ethnic, social, and other groups that rose up in the 60s and 70s awoke people in and out of academia to an interest in what it was actually like to live at different times and places. They started to look not only at how Andrew Jackson dealt with Native American tribes, but in the tribes themselves, their histories, motives, home lives, and what happened after big events like the Trail of Tears.
Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States was among the first and most well-known books to come out of this new school of history. It's a survey of the entirety of European presence in the United States of America, from the landing of Columbus to — in my edition — the bombing of Afghanistan after 9/11. Zinn tries to do this by collecting the stories of people who lived outside of the government: farmers, factory workers, Native Americans, African-Americans, women, domestic workers, miners, and so on.
Most of us by this time recognize the spark notes: disease and massacres against the Native Americans, slavery and stolen rights for black people, insult and deportation for Latinx, hard labor and exclusion for Chinese immigrants, and women of all ethnicities resigned to domestic servitude. These high level facts are enough to be upsetting but Zinn brings us closer in, using contemporary documents to illustrate how these played out on an individual level. What did it mean to be an enslaved black woman or a Native American family marched from their homes in Georgia to an unknown expanse in Oklahoma. These stories are even more devastating than you remember or could have imagined.
In a book that covers a great breadth of human experiences, going into detail requires that he move through subjects quickly. If you want a comprehensive dive into the civil rights movement or women's suffrage you will have to find more pointed books on those topics. Zinn acknowledges this weakness in the afterword, pointing out that he didn't go far enough into LGBTQ issues and the Latinx labor movements in California, for example, and he recommends some books for further reading on those issues, if you are interested. But by taking the time to explore these stories past the statistics, A People's History carries a punch that numbers and charts alone could not achieve.
Because of all the good that is in this book, my critiques feel minor, but there were aspects that I feel distracted from the good of the book and made it harder to finish and embrace.
My first issue actually cuts both ways. Zinn doesn't bother to retread the traditional history of many subjects. He assumes you know what is taught in favor of different wars and our westward expansion or maybe he doesn't care to make other people's arguments for them. In a way, this is clarifying. How we act as a nation, or even personally, shouldn't be subject to how others act against us. In more specific terms, if an enemy targets civilians our responsibility, if we are the force for good we insist we are, to not respond in kind. Usually we might try to soften criticism against our actions by listing off the ways others have done wrong, but Zinn offers no such quarter. This does serve as a challenge because there are almost certainly causes in American history you supported and will feel slighted by when Zinn points out the cruel American actions, say in World War II, without bothering with the disclaimer that "the other guys were worse."
I also found that A People's History works best in the parts where the name is treated literally — as a history focused on people — rather than euphemistically — see: the People's Republic of ______. As the book starts covering the rise of populism and socialism in the early 20th century, Zinn allows himself to get pulled from the stories of people living under government decisions and in a harsh, dangerous industrial economy to the political efforts he would side with. In his defense, mass demonstrations, general strikes, and calls for government control of industries have been pushed to the margins in many books, but Zinn presents a certain kind of movement as the most legitimate. As we push into the Nixon and Reagan eras his argument really gets strained. He raises up mass demonstrations as the voice of the people, but then has to get it to jibe with the electoral victories of angry, pro-capital men like Nixon, Reagan and Bush in moments that seem to be defined by activism. He looks at elections with skepticism, noting that over half the electorate stays home. This means even the landslide electoral victories represent the votes of just over a quarter of the electorate — a fair point. He attributes this to disillusionment then says the elected act undemocratically when they take positions that go against what the people believe according to polls. It's at worst a convenient belief, at best an optimistic one.
Some Democrats are now playing with the idea that a true economic populist would swing working-class voters back to their party, but Zinn seems to believe that such a platform would rewire the whole system, break down the cultural and political lines that divide natural allies in the poor, working and middle classes. I think he has to believe this. Addressing many of the systemic problems would require a huge electoral mandate ... or a turning away from democracy as we know it.
Part of his turn toward demonstrations, he acknowledges, is to offer some hope. This is a devastating book that highlights how the government has done many truly indefensible things that we now have to live with. America's is a devastating and moving history. It's also very long, and in Zinn's hands, sometimes tedious. I had to put it down for a few months — after the election — partly because it was a lot to handle and because I hit a wall.
For those who have been frightened by the openly antagonistic role of the current administration to immigrants, the poor, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and so on, this is great place to start reminding yourself that America has never been good to these groups and how easily it can slip from bad to worse. There are constant efforts to bury the sins of our past, by removing it from our schools, by decrying these facts as unpatriotic, but knowledge is the first step in making real change to address these deep-rooted problems.
Taking a break from his usual fare of jet cars and martians, Ray Bradbury turns his sights to a setting more alien to us than any red planet or dystopic future: middle class America in the 1928. Such "in the days of yore" fare is almost everywhere now, from TV to books to political speeches, and it is very often pat and awful. But what could have been a book-length nostalgia trip of the most puckering sweetness is saved (somewhat) by Bradbury's writing and his unique sympathy that makes for a more expansive story.
No doubt, this is a book that trades heavily on nostalgia, complete with neighborhood characters, folksy discourses on the old ways, not-so-veiled digs at modern — for the late 1950s — entertainment and conveniences, and long, loving descriptions of typical summer tropes like fresh-cut grass and the buzz of cicadas. It is exceedingly quaint and especially now I find it hard to read such "back in the day" lore without expecting some screed against millennials, minorities, taxes or all of the above to follow. But I was able to pocket my cynicism for a few minutes a day and travel back to 1928 Illinois.
One of the successes of Dandelion Wine is the way Bradbury breaks the narrative up to inhabit different perspectives and experiences. Though Douglas Spaulding is at the center of these summer happenings, Bradbury lets us see through the eyes of other townsfolk, making the story more immediate and real. He does this best through the story of "the Lonely One," a figure connected to a string of murders in the town that lurks through gossip and whispers throughout the novel. To the young boys it's exciting, a story to be shared for titillation and to demonstrate their boldness when staying out late or taking a shortcut home. They even feel sad when the Lonely One is stopped and their game is nearly ruined. Bradbury could have left it there and it would have been just part of the scenery of a youthful summer, but he takes us away from the boys perspective and reminds us of the real stakes the children don't fully grasp.
Our first serious encounter with the Lonely One is in an early chapter seen through Douglas's brother, Tom, on a night that Douglas is late coming home. Tom watches as their mother becomes more and more agitated as it gets dark and the hours go by with no sign of Douglas. She calls out the door, tries to talk herself down, and eventually walks with Tom to the edge of the wooded ravine to call for Douglas into the silent and dark forest. Bradbury draws the experience out, illustrating the signs of tension in Mrs. Spaulding's voice and behavior and how Tom picks up on those worries even if he doesn't fully understand the stakes. A later chapter finds a young woman discovering the dead body of one of his victims, and facing the risk of a nighttime walk back through that same ravine. These are genuinely frightening chapters in a book where you would expect the kind of bandits that would be foiled by a gang of pre-pubescent boys, and they make the novel feel real in a way other sepia-tinged stories don't.
Many writers seem to iron these complications out of their origin stories, but they are what save Dandelion Wine. Coming of age stories are usually locked onto one character or group and a quest of some sort (often to have sex). Everyone else is simply window dressing. But coming of age in Bradbury's novel means learning that everyone has a story. The summer of 1928 isn't about Douglas's quest for new sneakers, that is just one of many stories he has in this novel, and his is just one of many summers experienced in Green Town in 1928. That summer will mean something else entirely to Lavinia Nebbs, William Forrester and John Huff and that is what Douglas discovers. In short, Dandelion Wine is unique because it is specifically about the awakening of a fiction writer.
Bradbury also understands that a book trading in nostalgia is ultimately a book about loss. After all, who would want to bother with a book about the old days and how they were exactly the same as today? Douglas faces two deaths that summer, his good friend moves away, he nearly witnesses an attempted murder. It's handled pretty lightly in this book — despite my enthusiasm for the dark parts of the story, it is really a testament to summer and youth — but this is heavy stuff and it makes you feel that the author respects you in a way that is rare in this class of story.
From the start, the folksy nostalgia is pretty heavy, I definitely put this book away a couple times without being able to finish the first chapter. Obviously, if you like that kind of story you will enjoy this book, but even if that isn't your usual speed, I think you may find some pleasant surprises in Dandelion Wine. I give it 3 stars, a decent vacation read that can fit in your pocket.
Now that I’ve reached the end of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (this edition translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) I have begun to see it as the story of a man scandalized by a world that disappoints nearly every effort at goodness. A man, the prince and maybe the author, who, having ventured into the world, extended sympathy out to the people he saw but has been broken by them and retreated to a shell of conservatism and safety.
The (relatively brief) synopsis: A young man of the Russian aristocratic class, Prince Lev Nikoláevich Mýshkin, arrives in St. Petersberg after having been raised in Switzerland where he was treated for what we assume is epilepsy. It’s told that he has seizures and was an “idiot” as well, mute and developmentally challenged as a child from the sounds of it. Arriving back in Russia he becomes known for extending sympathy and withholding judgement and for this naivete the label follows him throughout the novel as a term of abuse. He encounters several groups of people his first day back that become the basis of his social circle in Russia. Among these, a rich merchant Rogózhin, who is bullish and immediate in pursuing his desires, the Epanchin family that serves as a sort of “straight man” (or family) tumbled about by these external forces, the Ívolgin family, and Nastásya Filíppovna, a beautiful young woman who has been sexually abused by an adopted father-figure and has grown to be a troubled figure who tends to sow chaos.
Driving the story along is a tortured love triangle between the prince, Rogózhin and Nastásya Filíppovna, with Agláya Epanchin, the youngest and most beautiful of three Epanchin daughters, eventually being thrown into the mix.
This is all hardly a skeleton of this 610 page story and if I had one piece of advice to impart before reading this book it would be to remember that it was published serially and to view it more like a television series than today’s more plot-driven novels. Chapters, much like episodes, are little stories within themselves that involve our main characters but often do not move the main story arch forward, much like a sitcom that weaves tidbits of larger romantic plots into the self-contained 30 minute adventures.
So if you find yourself wondering how a 20 page reading of the suicide note of the prince's consumptive neighbor ties into these primary goals, it doesn’t really, but not everything has to. Much of it is a way to imagine the simple, kind prince into contemporary — for its time — debates and conversations, which can make it feel dated. But while the specifics have changed, the conversations never change that much: faith, government, sexual mores, frivolous lawsuits, and stab-happy rival suitors.
The prince handles himself well in many circumstances, though is often scoffed at for some reason not necessarily related to the argument. But stepping back now and taking the novel as a whole, especially the ending, the story leaves a rather bleak impression.
If you are one to read the introduction or footnotes you should be tipped off by the association between this book and “Christ’s Body in the Tomb,” a painting by Hans Holbein depicting a gruesomely realistic dead body about which the prince says, “A man could even lose his faith from that painting!” Dostoevsky seems interested in what it would take to do just that.
The sensitive characters of this story: the prince, Nastásya, even Aglya and Ippolit, get ground down by the world they encounter. It’s a world they wish to embrace but one that is full of awful people and acts, where goodness is nigh impossible. While those who thrive in this story are the savvy and amoral. They are practical folks like Iván Fyódorovich Epanchin or cynical like Gavríla Ardaliónovich, Lebedev and Evgény Pávlovich.
Rogózhin seems a special case to me, too sensitive to be practical but certainly not sympathetic. In the end, he too gets broken down but he recovers mentally if not financially. He lives in a passion for the now and these can bring him as far as the breaking point but he is not introspective and doesn't really care for others so he is not haunted by the deaths and misfortunes of others. Nastásya proves almost too much for him and drives him to a sort of ruin for him though he lives and even recovers his wits. He chases a desire, lets it consume him even to disaster, but he picks himself up, dusts off his shoulders and runs headlong into the next disaster.
I don’t know how soon I could read this again after the couple months I spent in this world, but I would be interested to. Dostoevsky uses many long monogoues broken up only with brief descriptions of tone or intention in the character that more often confused me than enlightened. I wouldn't be surprised if whole scenes turned on a new impression of how Aglaya, Varvára Ardaliónovich, Gavríla, and others spoke or bore themselves in these conversations if I were to read them again with foreknowledge and in a different mood. Were they mocking or playful, obtuse or merely cautioned.
Lizavéta Prokófyevna Epanchin (Aglaya’s mother) may be the most fascinating character to revisit as she is in so much of the book and may be the most dynamic character. Lizavéta is drawn strongly to the prince and seems fascinated by him, is dedicated to being his friend, but at times it seems she is ready to throw him over for his lack of social savvy and too forgiving nature. Aglaya too acts and speak in a way that confounded me often and as she became a love interest I wondered if her feelings was genuine or cruel or something else.
This confusion may stem from many things, the author’s intention, different understandings of the world over 100 years apart, but leading them is a narrator whose role wasn’t entirely clear. Dostoevsky, like Charles Dickins in A Christmas Carol, let the narrator fade in and out of the story and gave them unclear powers. The narrator is not a named character, but is self-aware. They break the fourth wall, referencing what we know or can know and even expressing difficulty in describing characters or situations. They seem omniscient, recounting private goings on and the inner thoughts and motivations of various characters, but then at moments take up a voice and explain why they do or do not know the content of some conversation or event. One story came through some reliable gossips in town and seemed the most likely version of the story, another was recounted in testimony or written in a letter. At one point the narrator says they can’t know what was said in a private conversation though just pages before they write word-for-word a long private discussion between the prince and Nastásya.
It can frustrating in its inconsistency, but I’m being generous and will take for granted that Dostoevsky was using the uncertain narrator to heighten moments when other characters are kept in the dark. When our protagonist is trying to learn something, when the author wants to build tension for a reveal by leaking that something is coming but making you read through to discover what it is.
If you’re a fan of Russian literature I hardly need to encourage you to pick up a Dostoevsky novel but if you’re not I’m not sure this is the best introduction. The best I can offer is that it is very much of the 19th century, and if you enjoy society types such as Henry James, I think you’ll find much to like in The Idiot, only a lot more of it and perhaps a bit more philosophical. Don’t treat it as a race to the finish and allow that this novel could take a while. But overall expect a thought provoking and often moving story.
Could Seymour Krim make a comeback? Could a little-known holdover from the beat generation, a writer who died nearly 30 years ago, have something new to say to the iPhone generation? Not likely, but for my money the collection of essays in Missing a Beat felt among the most present discussions of celebrity, ambition, envy, doubt, and optimism in modern America that I have read recently.
Krim comes across in this collection as a disappointed striver. A writer who came up through the beat generation and kept plugging through the era of New Journalism, but never quite found that pearl Kerouac had promised: “Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything.” He is constantly in the shadow of more famous friends — recounted most directly in “Norman Mailer, Get Out of My Head!” — and frustrated in his efforts to achieve the kind of fame/notoriety or the wild adventures everyone around him seemed to be having. But Missing a Beat isn't merely a collection of regrets. What makes Krim's writing meaningful is the way he interrogates his own sense of failure. Why is it that he has to measure himself by Mailer’s fame? What is wrong with being a struggling artist? Isn’t that what he had wanted? How should he measure his own success?
In essays like “For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business,” Krim reckons as much with his own expectations and faults as he does with the terms of success society has handed him. Krim recounts how limitless possibilities have led him to chase dream after dream without settling into one place or occupation. He writes about a quiet movement of dreamers like him who have missed out on the middle class comforts of a stable career path — a savings account, a house, a family, a title, a legacy — and must sate themselves on the hope for something new and better tomorrow.
“I’ve published several serious books. I rate an inch in Who’s Who in America. I teach at a so-called respected university. But in that profuse upstairs delicatessen of mine I'm as open to every wild possibility I was at 13, although even I know that the chances of acting them out diminish with each heartbeat.”
Krim wrote “For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business” when he was 51 years old — that’s better than 20 years my senior — and I’m not sure if I should be comforted or very, very worried about that fact. What Krim saw as a freak community of dreamers is just reality for many of us today for whom “careers” at one company have gone the way of the Studebaker. He seems to warn of a future where unfavorable comparisons to the financial success of peers is constant, a future that's easy to imagine as I scroll the vacation photos of my friends on Instagram.
In fact much of Krim's writing seems eerily suited to the social media landscape, despite preceding it by decades, a fact I think that makes it only more applicable. Too many writers get hung up on the latest app or feature, sure that society will be redeemed or destroyed by a new filter on Snapchat. Social media may highlight our insecurities, but Krim reminds us that these have been around long before we ever started carrying them around in our pockets.
“You may sometimes think everyone lives in the crotch of the pleasure principle these days except you, but you have company, friend. … It is still your work or role that finally gives you your definition in our society, and the thousands upon thousands of people who I believe are like me are those who have never found the professional skin to fit the riot in their souls.”
“For my Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business" is a standout, but the same themes carry through many of his essays including “Making It!” and “The American Novel Made Me” without becoming repetitive. Each essay seems to come from a different angle: lack of direction, envy, and ambition, respectively. The writing itself crackles throughout with the energy of the beat generation. He writes in long sentences, each with several parenthetical phrases and catalogs that go to ten items or longer. He deploys slang but sparingly and to good effect. The descriptions are grounded in real sensations using onomatopoeia and analogies to the items and people around him instead of reaching for more academic language (like onomatopoeia). His essays seem always anchored in place, even as zooms out for a wider view, the world is recognizably his.
Missing a Beat is a good read for anyone a few years out of school who is starting to rethink their career choices and sometimes Googles “how to work abroad” while at work.
I've spent months with the writings of Anaïs Nin collected in this book, reading much as she might have written them, at night in the hours winding down to sleep a page or two at a time. The writings come from her diaries, written in 1931 and 1932 when she came to know June Miller and her husband, the writer Henry Miller, culminating in a passionate affair with Henry.
The writing here can be fantastic, though as you might expect in a diary, it can also be uneven. There are transcendent passages, even more compelling in many cases than Henry's fictional(ish) accounts of the same world, and it tells in real time the story of a woman awakening to some knowledge in herself she's tried to ignore.
The Millers become a conduit for Nin's sexuality to open in a way she couldn't have imagined. Nin first finds herself enthralled with June then, after June leaves the country, gets drawn into a physical relationship with Henry and she lives the whole affair through her writing. There are entries full of rapture and passion, but there are many others about her doubts and fears. Nin, who was married at the time, struggled with her passion and how her actions could hurt her husband. What's more, she is haunted by the promise of June who holds a strange power over both Henry and Nin and will return at some point threatening their relationship.
If you are the type who reads one book at a time, Henry and June can feel tedious, as I learned during some periods when I was more consistent in my reading. It was not written as a self-contained story so it reflects the uneven way life actually moves. Nin has remarkable character shift in these years but it happens in fits and starts. On one page she may come to a declaration like, "I want passion and pleasure and noise and drunkenness and all evil." But an entry or two later she may again be convinced that Henry is cruel or she is.
If you're able to stick with it, Henry and June is a remarkable book both for Nin's honesty and her ability to charge the writing with such emotion without going over the top. Her cruel moments, her insecurities, her lust, her indiscretions, Nin spreads it all out on the page and we're lucky enough to get to read it.
Henry and June is a great read for this and for anyone who has been avoiding the big questions in their head, about a relationship or sex or work or even religion and politics. Nin's willingness to explore her passion — intellectually, physically and in writing — may embolden us to face the doubts and dark corners of our own minds honestly.
Vivian Gornick's book on the art of essay writing was bound to get good marks from me, if only for its extensive drawing of examples from famous books and essays.
Criticism — as compared to reviews — is a singularly rewarding experience, especially in the hands of a good writer such as Gornick. It can open your eyes to a new way of seeing a piece you have already read or turn you on to writers you have never experienced. In the course of this book I was turned on to Seymour Krim, I reopened an essay by Joan Didion, and I've hunted down a PDF of Edward Hoagland's "The Courage of Turtles."
The point is theoretically to help in the writing of essays, but I was delighted to discover that what drew me in was perhaps the point all along. Gornick does not reveal until the conclusion her suspicion of studying "craft" (as it were) and the idea that one can teach writing at all. It's not how to write but how to read, critically and with an eye toward story, that drives The Situation and the Story. Gornick is asking the reader to dig deeper, discover what it is about Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant" that makes it compelling.
"Who is speaking, what is being said and what is the relation between the two," is a repeated admonition as you read into a story. Orwell going out and shooting an elephant could be an act of bravado, it could be an act of cruelty, but in the way he writes it is an exploration of colonialism. What it means to represent a ruling nation among a people who aren't keen to have you there, and especially when you're not too keen on the idea either. What does that position do to someone? This comes through in his voice, in the way he describes "the situation" as much as in the actions he takes. Asking these questions will make such readings more enjoyable and meaningful, but should also inform your own work.
The crux of this lies in a story about one of who students writing an essay about her grandfather — a man she has never met. The story isn't quite working until someone realizes that her learning about her grandfather is the situation, it provides a structure for the story, the actions on which the writer can hang meaning. The story, the meaning itself, is actually about the girl connecting with the grandmother. From there the essay starts to come together in a more satisfying way.
I am not convinced with all of Gornick's stances, her belief in the inborn gift of writing skill is maybe just said wrong or maybe it is magical thinking. And the way her distaste for post-modernism is slipped in does not serve any end except to let you know she is not a fan. But if you are interested in personal writing, either to write or read, this is a good place to start.
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.
George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
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!
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.
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.