Germany’s Election: Choosing the Unspeakable

The apparent calm of the election belied the real concerns of the German public, concerns evident in the election results. Chancellor Angela Merkel barely campaigned. To the eyes of the public, the two major parties seemed nearly identical. This provided the far-right party with an opening to be the opposition. If people turned to a party that said the unspeakable, it was partly because very speakable things weren’t being said at all.

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The Art of Wrath

The very first line of the Iliad forces any English-language translator to decide immediately and to declare conspicuously whether he would rather be caught betraying his poet or his own language. The opening word, mēnin, wrath, is the subject of the long poem that follows, but not of the long sentence it begins. This word order in the original creates a markedly stylized but not a strained effect. Poetic Greek can bring off putting the potent single thematic word first and then proceeding to other parts of the sentence, placed in an order that satisfies the demands of rhetoric and versification. Not English, where “man bites dog” means that man bites dog and not the other way around.

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The B&N Podcast: Frank Miller

Every author has a story beyond the one that they put down on paper. The Barnes & Noble Podcast goes between the lines with today’s most interesting writers, exploring what inspires them, what confounds them, and what they were thinking when they wrote the books we’re talking about.

If you’ve read a comic book in the last 30 years—or even if you’ve only been to the movies—you’ve felt the impact of Frank Miller’s work. One of the most influential comics creators of his era, Miller’s work for DC and Marvel comics in the 1980s helped redefine superheroes, bringing a dark, often dystopian sensibility to beloved characters.  Nowhere was that more earthshaking than in 1986’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Miller’s story of an aging Batman battling not just the Joker  but his failing body, a corrupt government and a collapsing social order.  In this episode of the podcast, Miller talks with Joel Cunningham about his astonishing career —  and his return to that grimly exciting Gotham with Batman: The Dark Night: Master Race.

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It’s been three years since the Batman defeated Lex Luthor and saved the world from tyranny. Three years since anyone has seen Gotham City’s guardian alive. Wonder Woman, Queen of the Amazons…Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern…Superman, the Man of Steel…all of the Dark Knight’s allies have retreated from the front lines of the war against injustice.

But now a new war is beginning. An army of unimaginable power led by Superman’s own daughter is preparing to claim Earth as their new world.

The only force that can stop this master race—Batman—is dead.

Long live the new Batman…

Click here to see all books by Frank Miller.

Like this podcast? Subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher to discover intriguing new conversations every week.

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A Novel on the Rise: Robin Sloan and Kevin Nguyen Talk “Sourdough”

Robin Sloan’s acclaimed debut novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, boasted a glow-in-the-dark cover, giving readers even more incentive to purchase his compelling adventure story about an unemployed digital designer turned bookstore employee, his Google programmer love interest, their mutual encounter with a secret society, and their mutual quest to unlock a code and solve a puzzle. Himself a onetime Current TV strategist, Twitter media manager, app developer, and self-described “media inventor,” Sloan, thirty-seven, draws on his experiences on the cutting edge of digital culture in Sourdough, his equally inventive follow-up exploration of modern Bay Area lifeways, this time via the startup culture. It’s a love letter to food in the same way Penumbra is a love letter to books, but with even more heart and charm, as well as a larger sense of and focus on community. The protagonist, Lois Clary, a just-transplanted Michigan-born software engineer at a company that manufactures robotic arms, inherits a magical sourdough starter from a pair of mysterious brothers and becomes so good at baking bread that she is invited to take part in a wild new farmers’ market on a decommissioned munitions base in the San Francisco Bay.

Joining Sloan in conversation at Barnes & Noble’s Upper West Side store on September 12, 2017 was Kevin Nguyen,  digital deputy editor of GQ magazine.  The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kevin Nguyen: Even before you became a novelist, it seemed you were always exploring this intersection between technology and the humanities. We see that clearly in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Do you feel that same extension is happening in Sourdough?

Robin Sloan: I do think it is. One thing I’ve realized, though, about that tension, or that lineup of the old and the new, or one world and the other, is that I’ve tended to focus on the new stuff and tried to convince people that it wasn’t so strange. Digital books are just part of a continuing story. Or maybe new ways of making food are part of this continuing story.

But particularly with this book, I think it got flipped around, and I found myself more interested in trying to convince people almost of the opposite, that the things we think of as old or familiar, traditional or boring, are in fact super weird — and of course, they are all forms of technology. So I’m trying to convince people to look at this traditional stuff with new eyes.

Kevin Nguyen: Why baking? It seems it wants to be a food book, and baking is very specific.

RS: The actual seed of the book came from the world of wine. I had heard some stories about wine grapes being snipped from their vines in old vineyards in France and smuggled to California, and that whole vibe seemed delicious to me, full of story and totally with potential for a novel. As I started learning more about that world and building these possibilities. I realized that, one, I wasn’t that into wine, or at least not enough to write a whole novel about it; and two, that the tempo, like the clock of wine and wine grapes, was too slow. Almost by definition, you’re going to learn more about the grapes and the wine and the secrets that they hold, presumably, year by year, vintage by vintage. It was like: OK, you could write that story, but it would have to be this, like, generational tale. It would happen very slowly, and characters would age, and the seasons would change, and all that. It wasn’t the kind of book that I wanted to write, and it wasn’t the kind of book that I thought I would be good at writing. So I set myself the challenge of finding something else that, one, had some of those same characteristics, some of the same qualities; two, that I knew about; and three, that worked on a faster clock. It came to me almost like a vision. It was, like, “Oh yeah. Sourdough starter.”

KN: Do you bake bread?

RS: I do bake bread. I have to confess that I am not a great baker. In fact, I have remained a pretty poor baker. But I had a sourdough starter, and I was baking sourdough bread before I ever thought that I would write this novel. The problem is, I never actually formed that accord with the starter that the great bakers have. It was and still remains mysterious and temperamental to me.

KN: I think actually not a lot of people know what a starter is. Or they don’t even realize the weird chemistry involved with baking bread specifically. Because I think a lot of our impression of baking is it’s like cookie mix — you just put it in. Bread is not like that.

RS: I didn’t know this before I got this well-known baking book called Tartine Bread. There’s a sequence where my protagonist is learning how to bake, and she buys my fictionalized, somewhat satirized version of that book, and as she is sort of pecking in the name of the scale in a search in a general e-commerce site, it says, “Customers who bought this also bought . . . ” — all these other things it recommended, and then finally, the bread book itself. She’s like, “Oh, OK. I see what’s happening here.”

So I did that. I bought all that stuff. And my bread never looked like the bread in the pictures. It was always a little flatter, a little denser . . .

KN: Though you’re obviously crossing a lot of genres, there are science fiction elements here. Now, I’ve read a decent amount of science fiction, and food rarely comes up. It’s such a base thing, the survival of humans. Why did you want to make something that was kind of sci-fi about it?

RS: Actually, I had a plan. I am hoping to collect evidence, one way or the other, about whether my plan came to fruition. The intention is to lure people into reading this book who think it’s one of those books about how wonderful and warm baking is. Oh, so nice, like South of France stories. Then, as you know, having read it, about halfway through, you’re like, “This is not what I thought it was going to be.”

KN: It gets kind of dark.

RS: It gets weird. I don’t want to give anything away, but it gets kind of blobby and alien. So my hope is that I basically tricked those people into reading this book, and at the end they’re not mad about it — they actually think it was pretty cool.

KN: I work at what is historically considered a men’s magazine, so we still have a little bit of that audience. So whenever we do something smart, we always call it “Hiding the vegetables.” This is kind of what you’re doing here.

RS: Yeah, I’m hiding the sci-fi.

KN: I want to talk to you about the tone of the book. Some people have asked me if it’s like Penumbra, and I tell them it’s like Penumbra but a lot darker.” It sounds like that was deliberate. What changed? Is it just a different story? Or is it a different time?

RS: All those things. To write about the San Francisco Bay Area today and not have it be a little darker — or at least more fraught — than Penumbra, would be naive, or you didn’t bother to pay attention to what was happening around you. The place has changed, and the way that people talk about it and the way that people live there has changed. The other thing that gave it that shade, particularly in the beginning, is an autobiographical experience. When Penumbra opens, you’re perched on the shoulder of a mind that stands toward the world as, like, “What’s next? All right, cool, let’s see what’s around this corner.” In this case, the protagonist is pretty stressed out in the beginning, and her stress has a lot to do with this basic question of feeding herself. Not that she doesn’t like food, but she has this job and she’s young and she’s from Michigan, and so she just doesn’t know what people eat. She doesn’t have that literacy. That was me for many years.

KN: What was your diet like?

RS: It was super beige. It was a struggle. It was never “Oh . . . what should I eat for lunch?” It was more like, “If I don’t put something in my body, then things will start to shut down, so I guess I have to figure this out.” The answer was usually humus or cheese pizza…

KN: That’s the entire pyramid.

RS: It was dark. That’s not unheard of, particularly for young Americans, I think, because we don’t have that backstop of some cuisine. Our cuisine is freezers and cars. You can really find yourself at sea when you’re becoming an adult and suddenly have to feed yourself for the first time.

KN: In subtle ways, the book is thematically a lot about work and labor. People in Silicon Valley suffer from this, and so do I, especially when I work from home. Lunchtime rolls around, and it seems like so much effort to figure out what the hell I’m going to eat. That anxiety is captured in this book.

RS: Yes. The connection to work is right on. I’m glad that was clear to you. I’m happy to have it marketed as a book about food and have a loaf of bread, a little bâtard, on the cover. But I think it actually is a book about work.

KN: It is easier to sell a book about food than a book about labor.

RS: Yeah. The politics of automation and . . .

KN: Hide those vegetables.

RS: Exactly. Baking bread — it’s so delicious, so warm.

KN: I want to talk about slurry.

RS: People know it as soylent. It’s like a liquid meal replacement. Which, of course, has existed for a long time; what’s different now is that it’s being marketed to young males who are working in tech, particularly through this prism of psychology: “I know this stresses you out, so here, take this.” They claim that they’ve done some work engineering it to be more nutritious. I don’t know if that’s credible or not.

KN: Have you had soylent?

RS: I tried it. It definitely was not repulsive. It just was not anything else.

KN: If you ever want a good time, there’s a Soylent Reddit with pages upon pages of people being, like, “I can’t stop farting.”

RS: But then, at the end, the answers are so blasé. They’re like, “Oh, dude, upgrade to version 2.7, Beta 9.”

KN: Patch your body.

RS: Yeah. In retrospect, there would have been space for precisely that in this book — thinking about your food, your cuisine as software that you’re systematically and deliberately upgrading over time.

KN: There’s a cool parallel with the sourdough and the starter, like it’s an evolving piece of technology or software. Do you think that’s the strongest connection between coding and baking?

RS: I think the strongest connection is actually not a resonance but a tension. Lois feels it, and it actually becomes an important choice, a moment of choosing a path. That’s something that I stress about a lot. Baking and coding involve using the same parts of your brain and a lot of the same skills, like being able to follow directions or create directions in a very systematic way. Fundamentally, you do all this work, you bake a loaf of bread, and you give it to someone and they eat it, and it’s awesome — and it’s gone. So if you want someone else to be able to enjoy it or appreciate it, you have to bake more — every morning, day-by-day-by-day. Whereas of course, the beauty of code and “Let software eat the world” is that you only have to do it once, and it works everywhere for everyone. That is unresolved in my mind. In some ways, books are much closer to that regime of software than they are to baking bread. Like, you write this once, and it’s not consumed . . . I assume. On the other hand, bread is awesome, and the things we eat are awesome.

KN: Was this book always called “Sourdough”?

RS: No That’s actually an important difference from Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, where a lot of things changed, but it had its title from the start. “The Starter” was the first name of the document, which I thought had a cool, a very kind of punchy American energy to it, but was just not clear. The starter? Of what? Starting what? A football game or something? I won’t tell you what all the titles were. But it was actually a somewhat fraught process, until, in fact, my editor did that trick of slicing the Gordian Knot and said, “What if you just called it ‘Sourdough’?” And that was immediately, obviously, the title of this book.

KN: Do you feel science fiction is inherently cynical?

RS: I definitely don’t. I think that some of the archetypes and works of science fiction that have pierced pop culture and stayed there are the darker ones and the dystopias. But there is a whole tradition of science fiction that I wouldn’t want to call “utopian” because that sounds naive and sort of Pollyannaish. Some of these books are complicated, and they present futures — far futures — that are fraught. But they are optimistic, I would say, and I think ultimately suggest good things about human nature. Iain Banks wrote a series called The Culture Novels. These are not boring stories of people just eating snacks in, like, star-domes: “Oh, life sure is good in the twenty-ninth century, isn’t it?” “It sure is.” End of book. They are complicated. There’s adventures and murders and mysteries. But they are definitely not cynical views of the future. That happens to be the science fiction that I find most inspiring. That’s my lodestone.

KN: A lot of the science fiction I’ve read is pretty cynical, which I like. I like things that are cynical. But I love your work, because what you imagine as San Francisco doesn’t seem that far out, if we’re not close to that already, but at the same time, it doesn’t feel judgmental. How do you avoid writing something that looks into the future that doesn’t feel judgmental?

RS: That’s a good question. I’m not sure that I know the answer or that I apply it in any kind of systematic way. I think of something like The Circle, Dave Eggers’s book, which I only read in excerpt, but I know by reputation. I think it’s telling and important that Dave Eggers, by his own admission, did not spend a lot of time in or around the world of computers or the Internet, and there’s no real evidence that he has any deep personal curiosity about how that all works. I do. Why, I don’t know. I was always a computer kid, and I grew up with the Internet and always found it fascinating. That’s one of the things that drew me forward into the world. If you have that kind of native curiosity and, I guess, affection, that becomes your bulwark against, “Man, the future sucks, just the thought.”

KN: I’ve been calling your work “science fiction” all night, but it definitely hews more literary, and everything I’ve found at that intersection, books like The Circle, to some degree some Gary Shteyngart, you feel like those authors went to the mall, saw, like, teens on their phone, and went home and wrote a mad novel about it. But I feel like you go to the mall, and you’re just curious about the teens. “What are they going to grow up to do?”

RS: That’s right. Totally. You want to be like, “Hey! Hey, what’s that app? That’s disturbing. Show me more.”

I have a question for you. Since we’ve entered this slightly more sort of broadly critical mood here: For several years you ran Oyster Review, which is still one of the best online literary reviews. It’s carried my books for many, many years. I think you’re the best capsule reviewer in the game. I’ve been thinking about this, because in the past few years I’ve been asked to write a few book reviews myself, and of course now I’m contending with book reviews of Sourdough. My question for you is: In the year 2017, and in the sort of media milieu that we exist in, what is a book review even?

KN: I used to have strong delineations between what is a book review and what is book criticism. Some hold one higher than the other. I think they are both of value. I think that a book review explicitly should tell you whether you should read a book or not. With criticism it’s more to put something in a broader cultural context, which is I think why people revere it more. I think you just want to find the nugget of it that makes it different from anything else. Whether that thing is good or bad kind of doesn’t matter, though hopefully you’ll get to that in the review, if you’re doing a good job. A book review is a form of service journalism. It’s not this hoity-toity thing. We’re weirdly reverential about writing around books, probably because we’re reverential of books. This thing has happened in the past few years, where we’re, like, Books must be protected at all costs. Which is true. But now you don’t see negative reviews in a lot of major publications.

RS: Very notably, actually. I read this amazing review, a gem of great writing about a recent novel called Less by Andrew Sean Greer, another San Francisco novelist. I had not heard about it, I had not read any of his books, but on the strength of this person’s enthusiasm I picked it up, and it turned out to be one of the great San Francisco books of the twenty-first century. It’s awesome, and I’m so glad that I read it. And I would not have if not for this service, actually.

KN: It’s also interesting that we’re seeing fewer negative reviews. I kind of get that. There’s this thing that you don’t want to run a negative review of, say, a debut novelist, and unnecessarily destroy their career. At the same time, when everything is good, the service function of it dissipates. If a publication is recommending everything, then what value does it really have?

RS: In my own personal, casual reviewing, both on Twitter or my email list, or even to friends, I’ve come up with a mental model that I personally like a lot — to preserve that dynamic range. The problem is that if everything is just great, then everything is actually not great. Everything is sort of meh. So to sort of preserve the option to super-recommend things, I think about it like those old arcade games, where you’d be flying your own ship around and you’d be able to shoot your blaster infinitely, but you only get like three super-bombs that clear the whole screen. I think of those as my super-reviews, and I usually label them as “This one of three I will deploy this year. Please. Heed my words. Buy this book.”

KN: That actually ties back thematically to Sourdough. Again — fear of a post-scarcity world. I think the digital landscape has not just changed, like, the mediums, but now we could hypothetically publish infinite numbers of reviews, and that actually would be a bad thing.

RS: This has been a particularly weird time for publishers of all kinds, as it’s been a weird time for everyone living in this country. One realizes that in this post-scarcity world where there’s basically an infinite number of really good books to read, there’s also all these other competitive draws on your time and your energy. There needs to be some sort of reorganization of the way we talk and think about books — and movies and everything else. It’s not like it was. When a president or a hurricane that happens somewhere else can change what people feel like reading, or change whether they feel like reading or not, that’s actually really interesting.

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Nuclear Apocalypse Now?

The most telling aspect of Trump’s UN speech was, after threatening to “totally destroy North Korea,” his calling the possibility of nuclear conflict “unthinkable.” On the contrary, we must think about it. And crucial to any understanding of the moral import of the possible use of nuclear weapons is to go back to the foundational moment of this nuclear age and ask again: Were Hiroshima and Nagasaki war crimes?

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Splendid Isolation

Christopher Nolan’s epic movie about the rescue of the British army from the beaches of northeastern France in May 1940 has become a worldwide box office success. This is splendid news for its makers, and can do no harm to American, Taiwanese, or for that matter Rajput audiences. In the eyes of some of us, however, its impact upon the British people is calamitous at this moment in our fortunes. Dunkirk contains no foreigners except a few understandably grumpy French soldiers. It is a British tale that feeds the myth that has brought Churchill’s nation to the cliff edge of departure from the European Union: there is splendor in being alone.

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Great Expectations

On one of my many daily scrolls through Instagram a few months ago, I came across one of those typically beautiful photos of a book and a coffee, the kind of aspirational post that makes it impossible for a book lover not to double-tap. But my friend’s caption gave me pause: “There isn’t too much I miss about my pre-baby life, but getting a break and sitting in a coffee shop for an hour to leisurely read makes me feel like the old me for a while.”

Once I confirmed I was indeed pregnant, I was shocked at how much time of the day I spent just thinking about it: searching online for medical advice, going to doctor appointments, anxiously awaiting doctor appointments, trying to decide how to answer sideways looks from my friends when they see me pass on a martini at the bar. I went through the entire first trimester without having made my way through a single book — a long time for me, and when Twin Peaks premiered on Showtime I only got two episodes in before I just stopped watching.

Unfortunately, you don’t have to be pregnant to be distracted in 2017. Social media is full of memes about the world burning down around us, and the endless stream of push alerts coming from the White House are enough to distract anyone from making progress on anything except therapy bills, much less the ability to focus on a great novel. But as I entered the third trimester I realized if I wanted to read, I had better do it now.

So what does one read when she finds herself on a one-way collision course with a major life-changing event that may prevent her from finishing any books in the near future that she doesn’t read aloud?

Before my pregnancy, I had never read Proust. In college I attended a lecture about Bloomsbury and Proust given by the brilliant Mary Ann Caws. When I shyly admitted that I hadn’t read Proust, she asked how old I was and told me that I shouldn’t read Proust until I was older, “with a little more life behind you.” Thirty-two and with child, I figured it was now or never, so I asked my husband to get on the ladder and pluck down the copy of Swann’s Way I had purchased at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris many moons ago.

Proust is a revelation. As a lover of Virginia Woolf, Swann’s Way brought her work back to life for me. I had flashbacks of long afternoons spent reading and underlining. And I could see the link between Proust’s endless, breathless sentences and the work of some of my other favorite writers, like W. G. Sebald, Javier Marías, and Thomas Bernhard. Maybe Dr. Caws was right. Reading the narrator’s obsession with his mother coming to kiss him goodnight in the Combray section not only made me think of my own childhood but of my baby as well. Would he wait in desperation for me?

The only problem with reading Proust is that it made me want to read all those other books again. I wanted to re-read To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, The Years — I wanted to re-read Austerlitz and The Emigrants and A Heart So White, The Loser, Frost, the second volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle! But I couldn’t rightly re-read now, there wasn’t time! There isn’t time. Also, reading Swann’s Way made me too full for anything else. I tried to read it on the train, but there kept being sections I wanted to underline, and no one would give me a seat. I tried to read it while waiting at the doctor’s office, but it was too emotional, trying to focus on Swann’s futile search for love while pregnant women endured the anxiety of waiting to hear their baby’s heartbeat, or for test results, to make sure everything was okay.

Even Swann’s Way remains unfinished at this point. I’m stuck at page 219. Should I keep reading? Who can say? I took a break to read — of all things — true crime. On a flight to Los Angeles I devoured Hampton Sides’s Hellhound on His Trail, on the manhunt for James Earl Ray. At first I thought: This is ridiculous, you should be reading Crime and Punishment. (I haven’t read the Russians, either. I’ve only read Anna Karenina; it’s shameful, I know.) But instead I was reading this book about Martin Luther King’s assassination! And though I still want to read Crime and Punishment, I’m glad I read Hellhound on His Trail. I was dumbfounded by just how little I knew about the crime. What kind of a parent would I have been with this huge hole in my knowledge?

But as you can tell, that just opens up a whole other can of worms. What kind of a person will I be — what kind of a parent will I be — if I’ve never read Crime and Punishment?

Then there are the new books. Rachel Cusk’s Transit, the second in her trilogy, has been out for a while, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading it, so I did so on the way back home from Los Angeles. Was I really reading, though? At this point my anxiety over finishing things had reached a fever pitch. I read Transit like a depressed person on a gluten-free diet reaches for that second doughnut. And believe me, that wasn’t just an analogy. Home and exhausted, I scroll through my Twitter feed for what feels like hours, reaching for that second doughnut, that we all know will end in guilt and self-punishment. At night, even though I should be reading . . . A Tale of Two Cities, finally finishing Middlemarch . . . I’m just amped-up on Twitter. And then, with visions of the apocalypse dancing in my head, I can’t sleep.

In one of the early episodes of the popular TV show This Is Us I caught a glimpse of Mandy Moore’s character holding a copy of Stephen King’s novel Misery under her arm while she was preparing breakfast for her many children. I thought: Well, she’s just getting in her reading whenever she can. Maybe it’s possible. Another friend of mine said that she read lots of books when her daughters were little — while she was breastfeeding — but only “trashy” books, scrolling with one hand on her phone.

Curiously, I didn’t immediately think to seek out reading that addressed the central fact of my life. But the same friend who had posted the caption about reading and time on Instagram recommended Rachel Cusk’s wonderful A Life’s Work. It immediately made me feel less alone and terrified — I wanted to give it to all the people close to me who were not pregnant, so that they could understand. “My experience of reading, indeed of culture, was profoundly changed by having a child,” she writes. Uh-oh. But she goes on: “In the sense that I found the concept of art and expression far more involving and necessary, far more human in its drive to bring forth and create, than I once did.”

Another deeply satisfying book on becoming a parent, Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors, acknowledges that there’s no time for reading, let alone writing. But, after her daughter was born, “the world seemed ludicrously, suspiciously, adverbially sodden with meaning. Which is to say that the puma [the baby] made me again more like a writer (or at least a certain kind of writer) precisely as she was making into someone who was, enduringly, not writing.”

So maybe it’s not so bad, after all. Whether you’re expecting, anxiety-ridden, exhausted from other means, or if your thumb is about fall off from refreshing your Twitter feed, maybe we’re just too hard on ourselves. The fact is, none of us know what’s coming. Our “expectations” are just that — expectations. I don’t know if my baby will sleep through the night, if I’ll be able to breastfeed, or if I’ll ever be able to have any time to myself ever again. None of us know when the next news alert will signal the beginning of the end, or if the sun will just cease to shine one day. A friend and father of two children said to me, “Look, lots of people are going to give you advice, and I realize I’m about to do the same thing, but . . . if you aren’t worried about something, don’t worry about it. Just enjoy it.” It seemed like an oversimplification of magnum proportions, but it actually makes sense. So instead of forcing myself to forge through War and Peace, I’m off to re-read To the Lighthouse. And I’m going to enjoy it.

 

 

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Yoojin Grace Wuertz: “These Books Gave Me Courage”

I have always loved reading about places and time periods that are new to me. It probably goes hand-in-hand with my love of traveling. Books are much cheaper than airfare, plus the only jet lag you’ll get is if you stay up too late reading.

When I realized that I was writing a historical novel, these books gave me courage. They are meticulously researched to give readers an evocative and precise sense of place, but they are not history books. They are about relationships, family, love, and the minutiae and immensity of human experience in times of great political turmoil.

The God of Small Things
By Arundhati Roy

Each time I return to this book, I’m scared I won’t love it as much as I think I do, which gives you an idea of how much this book was an Event in my life. My fear is unfounded, though, because I’ve read it half a dozen times in its entirety and who knows how many other times in pieces, and loved it more each time. One of my copies is utterly destroyed with notes and tags and dog-ears because I’ve figuratively ripped it apart to understand how it works. I think Ms. Roy wouldn’t mind that, though, because she was trained as an architect, and she has said that “writing is like architecture. In buildings, there are design motifs that occur again and again, that repeat — patterns, curves. These motifs help us feel comfortable in a physical space. And the same works in writing, I’ve found. For me, the way words, punctuation and paragraphs fall on the page is important as well — the graphic design of the language. That was why the words and thoughts of Estha and Rahel, the twins, were so playful on the page . . . I was being creative with their design. Words were broken apart, and then sometimes fused together. ‘Later’ became ‘Lay. Ter.’ ‘An owl’ became ‘A Nowl.’ ‘Sour metal smell’ became ‘sourmetal smell.’ ” (http://ift.tt/2xWCDAI)

That playfulness of language mixed with the power of her themes and plot, which are serious and often tragic, is intoxicating. Maybe because English is my second language (though now it’s my more fluent language by far), Roy’s deconstructed words and manners of speech lit all sorts of pleasure centers in my brain.

The Invisible Bridge
By Julie Orringer

This was a surprise love for me, the kind of deep dive into a book-world that made me resentful of intrusions like eating, sleeping, and remembering to reply to my husband if he asked me a question while sitting four feet away. A 600-page story about World War II and the Holocaust might seem like a heavy burden, and of course it is — it’s a book to read when you have the mental and emotional space to bear it — but the rewards more than compensate. The wartime experience of Hungarian Jews, who suffered from anti-Semitic laws in their country but were “protected” from Nazi camps for the early years of the war because Hungary joined Germany, was a history I had not known about. This story alone would have been an achievement, a 300-page epic. But what makes this novel truly great is how Orringer intimately portrays the main characters’ prewar lives, their “normal” hopes and dreams — to be an architect, to be a physician, to fall in love — and how those ambitions became narrowed to survival with the onset of war. And although this could be considered Andras and Klara’s love story, I was most moved by the bond between the brothers Andras, Tibor, and Matyas, by how these most fundamental, taken-for-granted relationships can be sources of strength and endurance.

Fox Girl
By Nora Okja Keller

I devoured this in one sitting in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep — or more accurately, it devoured me, because this is a story with teeth. Sharp teeth meant for tearing. Keller’s prose here, following the experiences of three teenagers growing up near the U.S. army base in 1960s Korea, is brutal and riveting. Hyun Jin is the narrator, and the distance between her mind and the reader’s collapses to nil as she describes what happens to her best friend, Sookie, the abandoned daughter of an American GI and Korean prostitute. Lobetto is another abandoned child, the son of a black American GI and Korean mother. The three friends struggle to survive and claim their identities in the sex- and violence-fueled economy around the army base, called America Town.

The story of children, particularly mixed-race children abandoned by American soldiers and Korean women in postwar Korea, is one that I hadn’t encountered before in American literature. This was a courageous, unflinching portrayal of a painful subject. After the sun came up and I finally stumbled to bed, I remembered these characters as if I had known and loved them for much longer than a night.

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John Ashbery (1927–2017)

Ashbery’s style was marked above all by a calm, discursive voice, going along at a walking pace, often seeming to have been caught in midstream, maybe half-heard from outside through the curtains. That voice could occasionally sound explicitly poetic or expressionistically fractured, but more often—and more consistently as time went by—it sounded conversational, demotic, mild, even-toned, deep-dish American. Its apparent placidity allowed for all sorts of things to appear bobbing happily in its current: recondite allusions, philosophical asides, foreign idioms, schoolyard jokes, forgotten cultural detritus of all sorts, even the occasional narrative or analysis or argument.

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A Disappearance in Damascus

Deborah Campbell, on assignment for Harper’s, arrived in Damascus in 2007 to begin researching an article on Syria’s Iraqi refugee community. How does a Western reporter show up in an impoverished and insular neighborhood like Damascus’s Little Baghdad, home to hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighboring Iraq, and figure out what the story is and how to gain access to it? The first answer, as Campbell explains in her gripping new book, A Disappearance in Damascus, is in locating a good fixer. Campbell was exceedingly lucky in finding Ahlam, herself an Iraqi refugee, but after they had worked together for months, her fixer, who was by then her friend, was seized by the Syrian authorities. The book is Campbell’s account of her relationship with Ahlam and her efforts to find her during her months-long disappearance.

Campbell deftly deploys memoir and reporting to numerous ends: not only to describe her search for Ahlam but also to capture the damage wrought by the American-led invasion of Iraq and to put in context the devastating civil war that would soon have Syria sending refugees out to the world rather than taking them in. Along the way, Campbell, a Canadian now teaching at the University of British Columbia, provides a fascinating look at how journalists work, an inside perspective that feels particularly useful at a time when the profession is under fire.

A fixer, the author writes, works “in murky times and murky places.” He or she “is the local person who makes journalism possible in places where the outsider cannot go alone. Arranging interviews, interpreting, providing context and background, sensing with their fingertips the direction of the winds, fixers are conduits of information and connections. And when they say, ‘It’s time to leave,’ it is always time to leave.”

Ahlam, fearless, tireless, and fiercely independent, “a cigarette in one hand and a phone in the other,” had been a fixer in Baghdad for the Wall Street Journal during the early months of the Iraq war. Fluent in English (she was the first person in her village, male or female, to earn a university degree), she then began working for an Iraqi humanitarian organization overseen by the U.S. military. Rumors circulated that she was a spy for the Americans, and she was kidnapped, beaten, and interrogated for three days. After her family raised a hefty ransom, she fled an increasingly lawless Iraq for Syria with her husband and children.

Ahlam resumed working with journalists while also getting a school for displaced girls off the ground. She was so well connected in Damascus that Campbell could simply spend the day in her living room, a hub for refugees, in order to get her fill of neighborhood news. But some of the problems Ahlam had faced in Iraq followed her to Syria. Her arrest was in part related to her association with the American military back in her home country. Her work with journalists was risky, too (the authorities believed Campbell was an agent of the CIA or Mossad), leading the author to worry that she was in part responsible for Ahlam’s arrest.

Campbell, whose writing is direct and unguarded, is aware that she has “the status of a lucky birth in a lucky country at a lucky time for women,” while Ahlam is “one of history’s casualties.” Her inability to glean any information about Ahlam’s whereabouts from the Syrian bureaucracy gives Campbell a sense of life on the other side of the divide. “The sense of powerlessness was humbling,” she writes. “It is how most of the world lives.” The depth of the friendship between two women from such different circumstances is both poignant and hopeful, even as the contrast between them is stark. In addition to experiencing the horrors of war, Ahlam has suffered the death of a young child and exile from her country. Campbell’s problems, primarily her protracted breakup with a boyfriend back in Canada who’s upset by her long absences, don’t compare, as she acknowledges. She devotes too many pages to the dissolution of that relationship when the one with Ahlam will be the most interesting to readers.

As I was reaching the end of the book, the president of the United States referred to journalists, in a tweet, as “truly bad people.” As a result of Trump’s original travel ban in January, Iraqis who had worked with the American military were prohibited from entering the country (the revised order removed Iraq from the list of targeted countries). What woefully upside-down times we live in. A segment of the population, from the president on down, sees reporters and Iraqi refugees as villains. One wishes they would read Campbell’s book, in which a reporter and a refugee, each devoted to healing the world in her own way, come off as heroes.

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