My intent this time out was to forgo the increasingly bleak political and societal scene in the US and examine a compelling work of fiction instead. The book under review here is A Burning, by Megda Majumdar, and it is a debut novel. Don’t let the word “debut” put you off, though—this is one of the most powerful and accomplished works I have read in quite some time.
However, if you sometimes read fiction to “escape” the cascadingly unpleasant realities of day-to-day American life, I cannot in good conscience recommend A Burning, even though it is set in and intimately concerned with India instead. While the societal particulars are quite different (and in some ways, as bad as ours have ever been), and while there is no pandemic underlying the action, this novel is a razor-sharp examination of basic aspiration in a capitalist society of grotesque inequality, and the ways in which universal human nature can be twisted in such circumstances. Indian setting or not, this book will not let you escape life in the United States.
The plot is streamlined and increases in intensity throughout the novel. A Burning will in fact grip you like a thriller. A poor young woman whose principal ambition is to achieve a middle-class existence is unjustly accused of a horrendous crime. The lives of two other Indians striving to make their way upward in a fundamentally flawed society—a physical education teacher who falls in with a right-wing political party and an engaging Hijra who is determined to achieve film stardom—intersect with hers in ways that seem inconsequential at first, and then increasingly heartbreaking.
If calling a novel “the book of the summer” once conjured up beach reads like Jaws, this novel will instead make you freshly aware of just how much we all have left to achieve. It truly is the one novel you should read this summer, and experiencing Majumdar’s brilliant and savage dissection of Indian society will help fortify you to face the enormous challenges remaining in this country.
Earlier this month, the Nobel Committee awarded two Nobel Prizes in Literature, one for 2018 and one for this year. The double award was necessitated by a scandal involving the husband of an academy member, which resulted in no prize for literature being awarded last year.
The double award proved to be controversial for other reasons as well. One of the winners (Peter Handke of Austria, who received the 2019 award) was denounced by PEN America for his far-right views.
“We are dumbfounded by the selection of a writer who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide….” said novelist Jennifer Egan, PEN America’s president. “At a moment of rising nationalism, autocratic leadership, and widespread disinformation around the world, the literary community deserves better than this. We deeply regret the Nobel Committee on Literature’s choice.”
However, I am writing this post not to call your attention to the controversy per se, nor to Peter Handke, whom I admit I have not read. Instead, I would like to direct your attention to the other winner, Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk, who was belatedly awarded the 2018 prize.
As it happens, I had read the most recent translation of Tokarczuk’s work, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a couple of months before the prize was announced. It instantly became one of my all-time favorite books. I won’t try to summarize the plot; suffice it to say the book is utterly unique. If you believe humankind is capable of doing better (and if you’re at all fond of animals), I totally recommend the wonderful
Antonia Lloyd-Jones translation. The book’s title, BTW, is drawn from William Blake’s poem “Proverbs of Hell.”
The novel, which was originally published in 2009 but did not appear in English until August of this year, has drawn universal raves. Here are some samples:
“Tokarczuk’s novel is a riot of quirkiness and eccentricity, and the mood of the book, which shifts from droll humor to melancholy to gentle vulnerability, is unclassifiable—and just right. Tokarczuk’s mercurial prose seems capable of just about anything.”—Kirkus Reviews.
“[It] succeeds as both a suspenseful murder mystery and a powerful and profound meditation on human existence and how a life fits into the world around it.”—Publishers Weekly.
“It is an astonishing amalgam of thriller, comedy and political treatise, written by a woman who combines an extraordinary intellect with an anarchic sensibility.”—Sarah Perry, in The Guardian.
Only three other Tokarczuk works are currently available in English:
The latter two titles are on my reading list, as is the book often cited as her masterpiece, The Books of Jacob (2014), which has apparently been translated by Jennifer Croft but is not yet available in English.
Like Handke, Tokarczuk is also somewhat political, but she is his complete opposite, liberal and humanitarian—she has needed to hire bodyguards at times in right-leaning Poland. She has received the German-Polish International Bridge Prize, a recognition extended to persons especially accomplished in the promotion of peace, democratic development and mutual understanding among the people and nations of Europe.
If you’re a questing reader (and if you’re here, you almost certainly are), and you haven’t yet discovered Olga Tokarczuk, now’s the time.
Update, 8/5/19: see the footnote below regarding the Writers Studio.
Last Saturday, July 20, I had the pleasure of participating in the summer literary reading organized by the Writers Studio, Hudson Valley branch. The reading was held at one of the Hudson Valley’s best bookstores, the Spotty Dog in Hudson, NY. There was a good turnout, as there generally is (the Writers Studio Hudson Valley Reading Series takes place once each quarter).
The reading was divided between Writers Studio faculty and students. There was a nice mix of fiction and poetry and, as you would expect, a reasonably high level of quality. The fact that some of the work was a little uneven—particularly my work—just made things more interesting, especially because hearing the work elicits a somewhat different response than simply reading it would. More on the read aloud-written page symbiosis below.
BTW, if any of you are contemplating the writing life, you should certainly put the Writers Studio at the top of your list for workshops. They’re well-established, well-respected and available in a number of venues: NYC, San Francisco and Tuscon, in addition to the Hudson Valley. Online courses are available as well.* The Writers Studio was founded by Philip Schultz, a Pulizer Prize-winning poet, and has nurtured and partnered with (especially in Craft Class) many fine writers over the years, including Jennifer Egan and James Lasdun.
I read five short poems in my allocated slot. A couple of them, this one and this one, have already been published; the rest are currently making the rounds. What I found invaluable about the reading, apart from the positive feedback of the audience, was the experience of hearing myself sound the words of these poems aloud while watching people receive them. It’s a different experience for writer and reader/audience alike, yet it’s closely linked to the way readers (and writers) experience words on the page.
While reading, some of my own lines suddenly sounded flat to me. (One’s delivery is important too, of course: you don’t want to drone on in a monotone and elicit reactions like this.)
Conversely, some lines in a recent poem that I felt worked well clearly resonated with my audience, too—a number of people came up to me after the reading and singled them out, along with the poem that contained them. That bodes well for publication, I hope.
The moral here, for aspiring writers, is this: even if it looks good and you think it works, if it doesn’t sound right, it’s not there yet. When it does sound right, you know it at once, and so does the audience.
Kudos to Therese Eiben and Anamyn Turowski, the Writers Studio Hudson Valley Co-Directors, along with the Spotty Dog, for organizing and hosting these fine readings, and for contributing to the ongoing development and appreciation of fiction and poetry in the Hudson Valley.
* 8/5/19 update: I stick to this general recommendation for newcomers, but not for experienced writers. The two-page exercises become repetitive and tedious over time, and the workshop students tend to have wildly varying abilities, which has the effect of slowing things down as outsized attention is paid to people with little chance of making much progress. Instruction can be uneven as well.
Here’s another step forward in humanity’s slow, steady march toward … our future. Google, which recently vowed to make privacy a paramount concern, has enlisted the UK artist and stage designer Es Devlin and its own formidable artificial intelligence capabilities to come up with a demo they call Poem Portraits.
It’s actually kind of fun.
The execution is straightforward enough—visit this page, enter a word of your choice (be creative!) and give your device’s camera permission to take a selfie.
Voilà! Your very own Poem Portrait! Poetry courtesy of Google AI in collaboration with Google Arts & Culture; facial mapping inspired by the art of Es Devlin. Have a look:
The word I chose was “fluid,” and the resultant poem reads:
This fluid beauty of the sun is broken on the sun, A sea of stars, where the wild bees are blind.
Hmm. I might have chosen to write a somewhat different couplet. But this does have a certain resonance, doesn’t it? (All “generated” poetry does, if you’re receptive.) Not to mention the ability to imprint itself across one’s face, like tire tracks. I’m impressed, Google!
Actually, this venture is a very clever move on the company’s part (as is the whole arts and culture effort). It makes one prone to regard Google with friendly affection, as I’m sure it wants us all to do.
Cynicism and privacy concerns aside (does AI analyze, tag and catalog all those selfies?), this is really quite an interesting exercise. And in fairness, it should be noted that Google gives you the option to skip the portrait and simply generate a poem if you’re concerned about privacy.
Try it. You may come up with something that speaks to you and matches your own uniquely identifiable face.
And now for something completely different: the Outline trilogy (or the Faye trilogy, if you prefer) by Rachel Cusk.
Cusk’s novelistic trilogy concluded last year with Kudos and has received tremendous praise on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s generally acknowledged that Cusk has created something genuinely new with these books.
Many reviewers have described the trilogy novels as belonging to the “autofiction” category popularized by Norway’s Karl Ove Knausgaard. I think that’s wrong—to me, the books come closer to what one might term “negative literature,” in that they strip away many of the traditional lineaments of the novel, such as plot and dialogue.
Yet describing her books as negative literature doesn’t capture Cusk’s achievement, either. It’s not what Cusk leaves out that’s important, but rather the seemingly random conversations and observations she puts in.
I think Cusk has created a new kind of stream-of-consciousness for the age of Trump and Brexit (the latter of which Kudos observes in passing). It’s no one person’s interior thoughts portrayed here, jumbled together throughout the day, but rather an observer’s—Faye’s—registering of others’ diverse thoughts and observations, alongside and largely in place of her own.
The effect is remarkably lifelike, far more so than Knausgaard’s autofiction. (I had some minor difficulty making it through the first book in his series, but found each of Cusk’s books to be brisk, engaging reads.) Outline, Transit and Kudos have collectively been termed cool and cruel books. They are definitely cool; there is a built-in distance in these recorded observations. I’m not sure the books should be termed cruel, though.
What they are is relentlessly honest. If they are cruel, then they are reflecting life itself.
This post is intended as a brief personal supplement to all of the 2018 “best books” compilations out there—you won’t find many surprises, as the four books below will likely appear on most of those lists. I’ve restricted myself to fiction because it’s my primary interest, and also because I believe it does a better job of capturing the essence of things than non-fiction can.
None of these four titles directly tackles the strange and dangerous time we’re in. But all of them, The Witch Elm possibly excepted, reflect some aspect of our topsy-turvy present. Actually, The Witch Elm does as well, thanks to the hallucinatory aspects of key parts of its story. Tana French’s latest mystery rises to the level of “literary fiction” (as does most of her previous work) and appears on the New York Times100 Notable Books list.
Here, then, are four very different books from 2018 that will provide you with enjoyable reading and resonate after you’ve finished them.
Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success provides the most direct take on present-day America. The novel, Shteyngart’s fourth, sends his protagonist, Barry Cohen, a rogue hedge-fund manager, on a bus tour of our discombobulated country. There is plenty of sharp social satire, as we’ve come to expect from this writer, particularly aimed at the moneyed class but sparing no one. Barry is a protagonist in the picaresque American road-trip literary tradition but he is also an oblivious, self-centered bungler acting out a privileged midlife crisis. He carries six very expensive wristwatches (Cohen, like his author, is a watch nerd) and a rock of crack cocaine (obtained after chatting with a Baltimore drug dealer) on his journey. I recommend Lake Success for its sharp observations of wide-ranging American inequalities and absurdities.
If alienation is your thing, Ottessa Moshfegh is your writer. And who isn’t alienated these days?
The unnamed narrator, an unhappy woman in her mid-20s who lives on the Upper East Side, resolves to sleep for a year. She is able to do this because both her parents have died, and the cash from her inheritance enables her to buy her apartment and remain free from work worries, at least for a while. (She has a job in an art gallery but loses it for sleeping in a storage closet during lunchtime.) She is also aided and abetted by a loony therapist (“Dr. Tuttle”) who prescribes staggering quantities of sleep-inducing drugs.
The year is 2000, and our narrator believes that “…when I’d slept enough, I’d be O.K. I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories.” She proceeds to embark on her year-long sleep, waking each day for 2- or 3-hour periods to eat and/or watch TV before diving back under the covers. She is periodically visited by her quasi-friend Riva, a former roommate from college. Riva is big on self-help books and frequently dispenses advice which the narrator ignores.
Underneath her escape into sleep, the narrator is interested in art (“I wanted to be an artist but I had no talent,” she says). At the end of her long sleep, she finds herself at the Met in September 2001, mesmerized by a painting which she reaches out and touches. 9/11 is just around the corner.
I recommend My Year of Rest and Relaxation for its unique (if disturbing) voice and its strong, solipsistic focus amid the chaotic daily world.
Richard Powers’s The Overstory presents another unique perspective, this one somewhat more hopeful. Rather than retreating inward, Powers reaches outward to encompass an entire, hiding-in-plain-sight civilization that parallels our own: trees.
As Barbara Kingsolver writes in her Times review of The Overstory, “Trees do most of the things you do, just more slowly. They compete for their livelihoods and take care of their families, sometimes making huge sacrifices for their children. They breathe, eat and have sex. They give gifts, communicate, learn, remember and record the important events of their lives. With relatives and non-kin alike they cooperate, forming neighborhood watch committees—to name one example—with rapid response networks to alert others to a threatening intruder. They manage their resources in bank accounts, using past market trends to predict future needs. They mine and farm the land, and sometimes move their families across great distances for better opportunities. Some of this might take centuries, but for a creature with a life span of hundreds or thousands of years, time must surely have a different feel about it.”
People want to read about people, of course, and Powers accommodates with a wide cast of characters, all of whom have lives that intersect with trees in some way. This sounds formulaic; it’s really not. Nor is it anthropomorphic, as Kingsolver is, deliberately, in the paragraph above—Powers gives trees their due as amazing but horribly abused creatures, but he does so in the service of a compelling human story. In the process, he reveals how closely bound the fates of trees and humans actually are. Given today’s existential threats (climate change, nuclear winter), this could be viewed as an expansion of pessimism—two species in peril rather than one. But I find the implicit threat is offset by the incredible richness, in every sense, that trees convey. I recommend The Overstory as a mind-expanding way to see the wider world anew.
Tana French’s The Witch Elm is nominally a mystery, the first stand-alone novel outside her popular Dublin Murder Squad series. As a mystery, it’s first-rate—some of the story’s surprises will take your breath away. But this book has more than murder on its mind. The Witch Elm is actually a meditation on randomness and personal fate, and I recommend it both as a gripping read and a reminder to feel grateful for each day disaster doesn’t strike.
If you’re the sort of person who believes in moral truths such as murder should be punished, disadvantaged people should be offered a hand and lies should be unmasked (and a majority of Americans still hold these beliefs), then you’ve been having a hard time with the news lately. The ongoing dismantling of American values is a hard thing to witness every day. It’s no wonder that people sometimes turn away, seeking whatever relief they can find elsewhere.
Hobbies are one way to take some time out. In my case, quite literally—I’ve developed a new appreciation of the nuances of horology.
Some time back, I was superficially into watches, primarily as a status thing I must admit. Rolex, Omega and Tag Heuer seemed like essential business accessories. Now, I have a renewed appreciation for the art of watchmaking itself and status is no longer a consideration per se. I’m glad to have outgrown my former shallowness.
The person most responsible for my renewed and deepened interest in fine watches is the novelist Gary Shteyngart. His most recent book, Lake Success, features a protagonist (hedge fund manager Barry Cohen) who is a WIS (Watch Idiot Savant). The novel is quite good in its own right, by the way; it’s made the annual New York Times 100 Notable Books list.
Thus inspired, I proceeded to bring myself up to speed on the current state of the watch industry. Here are a few things I learned:
Rolex is the only high-end watch most people know. They think it is either the ne plus ultra (not true) or gaudy, overpriced crap (also not true).
Since the quartz crisis of the eighties and early nineties, the Swiss watch industry has largely recovered. Most WIS people prefer mechanical movements on aesthetic grounds, though they remain less accurate than quartz.
One company—Seiko—makes very high quality watches at every price point, from $100 or so to $50,000-plus (via the Grand Seiko line).
If you’d like to explore for yourself, check out Hodinkee, Worn and Wound and A Blog to Watch (Shteyngart occasionally writes for Hodinkee). You’ll rapidly pick up nuances along with fundamentals: the very wide range of brands, including some small Kickstarter-launched companies; the technical aspects of fine watchmaking; the rich history behind the storied names. There are many, many video reviews out there (check The Urban Gentry channel on YouTube), along with various helpful forums (try Watchuseek).
I wound up (pun intended) refurbishing a couple of vintage Tag Heuers and buying a range of Seikos at various price points. My favorite watch so far is the Seiko SARB035, the cream-dial beauty in the photo above. It, along with its black-dial sibling the SARB033, have recently been discontinued, so their prices have edged past $500 and are still rising. But they could cost two or three times that amount and still represent tremendous value—see the numerous reviews (for example, here and here) comparing them to Rolex or Grand Seiko models to see what I mean.
My SARB035 was purchased to mark a milestone. I’ve owned a Rolex Explorer II in the past, and it is not unreasonable to compare the Seiko to the Rolex, despite the wide divergence in their price points. As for future milestones, I’d like to mark them with a Nomos, probably a Rolex again, and (ultimately) a Grand Seiko model. But that’s off in the future. For now, my little foray into horology has enabled me to temporarily escape the horrors of the news cycle. But only temporarily.
Whatever outside interest you can find to distract yourself, go for it—everyone needs a break now and then. But be sure to come back. You’re going to be needed.
R. O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries had built up considerable anticipation and buzz before its publication on July 31. In part, this was due to superb marketing, on both the publisher’s and the author’s part (Kwon is a whiz at social media and networking). For the most part, though, it was due to the novel itself, which is arrestingly good.
I had the considerable good fortune to participate in a fiction workshop led by Reese Kwon earlier this year. Kwon is an engaging instructor, as one would expect. She was also generous enough to share several asides about the 10-year gestation period of her novel, such as the fact that she spent the first two of those years compulsively reworking the opening 20 pages. Kwon is on record as being absorbed by language at the molecular, syllabic level—she is acutely attuned to sound and rhythm, and to how these serve meaning. I suspect her original intention was for nearly every sentence in her novel to stand alone as poetry, and in fact many of these sentences survive in the published version. She is a beautiful writer.
The plot opens with a bang, deliberately so. The rest of the book is then given over to an exploration of the elements and events leading up to the terrorist blast. This in accomplished by interweaving vignettes from the point of view of the three principal characters, always in the same sequence: Will, a student at a leading Hudson Valley college, John Leal, a cult leader with a mysterious past seemingly tied to North Korea, and Phoebe, Will’s sometime girlfriend.
Will’s point-of-view is the dominant one, because he is deliberately trying to achieve a coherent and comprehensive explanation for the events that take place. Will wants meaning. But no such explanation, at least with the comprehension Will desires, can be reached. Its absence does nothing to impede the interest generated by the novel’s characters, though, and indeed the absence of “complete” answers for all complex human affairs seems to be part of the novel’s message. Loss of faith is the major theme here. There can be no all-encompassing answers, ever.
The Incendiaries has one of the finest, most beautifully rendered endings I’ve read in quite some time. I’d quote it for you, or at least a portion of it, but I’d much prefer you read this short novel in its entirety instead. Highly recommended.
Two recent opinion pieces in the New York Times sum up the miserable state of the country as another July 4 has come and gone. The first, published on July 3, is headed “America Started Over Once. Can We Do It Again?” It describes the post-Civil War Amendments to the Constitution, with particular emphasis on the 14th Amendment, which includes these lines:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Simple, straightforward, but of course still unfulfilled. Yet the promise is there, clearly evident in the words “any person.” Unfortunately, as the Times notes, the promise is receding even further as the Supreme Court continues to tilt right.
The second piece, published by columnist Roger Cohen today, is headed “America Never Was, Yet Will Be.” The line is from the Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again,” and it too deals with a promise that remains unfulfilled. A deep, magnificent promise that was once resonantly symbolized by our Statue of Liberty. A promise still alive for many around the world, even in our current dark times, even if it can never be realized under Trump’s appalling administration.
In his poem, Hughes addresses America’s downtrodden, still plentiful today. Such people are the spiritual ancestors (I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart) of many of Trump’s current supporters, and those supporters remain fooled, too distracted by “fake news” to see the truth and act accordingly.
Here is “Let America Be America Again” in its entirety:
Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed— Let it be that great strong land of love Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, But opportunity is real, and life is free, Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. I am the red man driven from the land, I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek— And finding only the same old stupid plan Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope, Tangled in that ancient endless chain Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land! Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need! Of work the men! Of take the pay! Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil. I am the worker sold to the machine. I am the Negro, servant to you all. I am the people, humble, hungry, mean— Hungry yet today despite the dream. Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers! I am the man who never got ahead, The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream In the Old World while still a serf of kings, Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true, That even yet its mighty daring sings In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned That’s made America the land it has become. O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas In search of what I meant to be my home— For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore, And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea, And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me? Surely not me? The millions on relief today? The millions shot down when we strike? The millions who have nothing for our pay? For all the dreams we’ve dreamed And all the songs we’ve sung And all the hopes we’ve held And all the flags we’ve hung, The millions who have nothing for our pay— Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again— The land that never has been yet— And yet must be—the land where every man is free. The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME— Who made America, Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain, Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose— The steel of freedom does not stain. From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives, We must take back our land again, America!
O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath— America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, We, the people, must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain— All, all the stretch of these great green states— And make America again!
How does one cope with today’s endless stream of poisonous news? People have wide-ranging methods, none of which completely suffice. They console or goad one another on Facebook. They distract themselves with a binge-worthy streaming series or a good book. They (quite reasonably) decide to get drunk or high on occasion.
Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker tells himself, and us, that life is actually getting better in his new book, Enlightenment Now.
I decided to post this love poem, a bit belatedly after Valentine’s Day. The poem originally appeared in Antiphon’s Issue 21 last year.
Sometimes I wish I were still back
in the city, astonished to find her
standing tremulous outside the door of
my fifth floor walk-up, radiating belief
and determination. Yes and yes and yes
and yes again, as a sudden cascade of
comprehension sweeps my wits away.
I feel my soft defenses dissolve
in a quickly rising light that seems to come
from everywhere as we embrace
and exchange our silent vows. The glow
envelops us and cushions us and lifts us up
to float on a stream of bodily joy
down the narrow stairwell to the streets below.
And now the city’s raucous throb drifts
outside as we walk hand-in-hand within our cloud
along the crowded sidewalk, awash in reflected
traffic lights, illuminated windows and the shimmer
of a thousand strangers’ eyes, who recognize us
and yet do not. We breathe in and leap up,
far above New York, to a night sky High Line
where our bodies feel free
to stroll forever
weightless and without pain.
We are amazed how time has flown.
We would do anything to fly again.