Rulfo: Immortal Scribe of the Dead

Against the grain of the baroque, overwrought style that had seemed to define Latin American literature, each word of Juan Rulfo’s fiction emerges as if extracted from the soil, leaving readers to apprehend what is held back, to divine the vast unspoken world of extinction, the final silence that awaits us all. Without Rulfo’s groundbreaking work, which blended the regional realism and social critique then in vogue with high-modernist experimentation, it is hard to imagine that Gabriel García Márquez could have composed One Hundred Years of Solitude.

In the Cauldron at Midnight

Can a woman be a muse and an artist? In theory, yes. In practice, the roles seldom overlap comfortably. “All that means is you’re someone else’s object,” as Leonora Carrington put it. Although her early self-portrait, The Inn of the Dawn Horse, conveys an exhilarating self-confidence through both the central figure and the animal surrogates around her, especially the galloping white horse, her Portrait of Max Ernst, which depicts the German Surrealist as his alter ego, Loplop, the Bird Superior, bears a mixed message: he carries a tiny horse trapped in a lantern, and the white horse behind him is frozen stiff.

A Modern Greek Tragedy

Did Greece have any way of breaking out of Germany’s grip? The common criticism of Yanis Varoufakis’s period in office is that he was an intellectual who took the knife of logic to a political gunfight. He was ill equipped from the start. His memoir, Adults in the Room: My Battle with the European and American Deep Establishment, is at pains to show that this interpretation is mistaken.

‘Black Panther’: Choose Your Weapons

Movies often flatten real African cultures into two-dimensional imagery—stereotypes in stereo, a quilt of clichés. But Wakanda, as everyone keeps reminding us, doesn’t exist. This gave Ryan Coogler free rein to create a country in the subjunctive mode: what if…? Given a blank canvas, he chose to sculpt and embroider various materials, genres, and tones. Black Panther is Shakespeare meets Shaka Zulu, Too $hort in Timbuktu.

Words to Live By

From the moment of my diagnosis, I pondered the nature of love: Had I left my sons enough of it? Does love endure? Is love bankable? I stumble upon the answer courtesy of an illness that forced me to look back on a childhood marked by loss and love’s absence. In an orphan’s life such as my own, I only now see that if you’re parentless and live on your wits, you look out for love, take it if you find it, look out for more. But you don’t bank the love; you live off reserves, and do not accrue funds. My sons, by contrast, are emotionally entitled; they default to a state of happiness whose roots reach deep, deep into the constancy of love.

The B&N Podcast: Laura Lippman

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.

Laura Lippman’s new novel Sunburn begins with the arrival in a Delaware town – the kind of town most people pass through on their way to the beach without a second glance – of a woman who is definitely going to be noticed. But for all its film noir atmosphere and slow-kindling unease, in this story of ill-starred lovers readers of the author’s addictive and unique works of mystery and suspense will find all the hallmarks of a Lippman classic: a precise sense of place, a love for certain aspects of the past, and a wry, captivating voice. The author joins us on the podcast to talk about Sunburn, and how the work of James M. Cain inspired this intoxicating tale.


New York Times bestselling author Laura Lippman returns with a superb novel of psychological suspense about a pair of lovers with the best intentions and the worst luck: two people locked in a passionate yet uncompromising game of cat and mouse. But instead of rules, this game has dark secrets, forbidden desires, inevitable betrayals—and cold-blooded murder.

One is playing a long game. But which one?

They meet at a local tavern in the small town of Belleville, Delaware. Polly is set on heading west. Adam says he’s also passing through. Yet she stays and he stays—drawn to this mysterious redhead whose quiet stillness both unnerves and excites him. Over the course of a punishing summer, Polly and Adam abandon themselves to a steamy, inexorable affair. Still, each holds something back from the other—dangerous, even lethal, secrets.

Then someone dies. Was it an accident, or part of a plan? By now, Adam and Polly are so ensnared in each other’s lives and lies that neither one knows how to get away—or even if they want to. Is their love strong enough to withstand the truth, or will it ultimately destroy them?

Something—or someone—has to give.

Which one will it be?

See more books by Laura Lippman.

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

Author photo of Laura Lippman (c) Lesley Unruh.

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Luther vs. Erasmus: When Populism First Eclipsed the Liberal Elite

Erasmus was an internationalist who sought to establish a borderless Christian union; Luther was a nationalist who appealed to the patriotism of the German people. Where Erasmus wrote exclusively in Latin, Luther often used the vernacular, the better to reach the common man. Erasmus wanted to educate a learned caste; Luther, to evangelize the masses. For years, they waged a battle of ideas, with each seeking to win over Europe to his side. But in a turbulent and polarized age, Erasmus became an increasingly marginal figure: the archetypal reasonable liberal.

When They Call You a Terrorist

The first time Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a founder of the Black Lives Matter Movement, was arrested she was twelve years old. A police officer appeared at the front of the classroom at her school in Van Nuys, California. He called her name — when she walked up to him he cuffed her in front of all the students present, students gathered to study sixth-grade math and science. The not-yet-teenage girl, her “stomach dropping the way it does on one of those monster roller coaster rides,” was marched off to the principal’s office, where her bag and person where searched: pockets turned out, shoes checked. No drugs were found, but dignity had been duly extracted from a little girl, and no apologies would ever be offered. Finding drugs is not the point. Searching, patting, stripping, violating are acts in law enforcement’s pageant of subjugation and dehumanization. Black bodies, we learn from the pages of When They Call You a Terrorist, Khan-Cullors’s memoir written in collaboration with co-author asha bandele (the writer does not capitalize her name), make up the terrain on which white supremacy parades its power.

The onslaught, as Khan-Cullors documents with empathy and acuity, is unrelenting. Before she is in double digits in birthdays, she is witness to the “War on Drugs,” which is in truth a war on African Americans. Her brothers are “trained and tracked,” thrown in and out of juvenile detention, “readied for longer stretches in prisons far away.” They return from prison hardened, different people: a “human testimony to other little boys” of the future that awaits them. Nor is home a refuge; in one search of the small apartment Khan-Cullors shares with her siblings and single mother, the police go through every drawer and tear apart every room, their ruthlessness unchecked despite the presence of small children. Another lesson, to the children, of how their lives are valued.

As the ’80s march on, a War on Gangs is declared. Kids hanging out with friends in Khan-Cullors’s Van Nuys barrio, where “there are no parks, no green spaces, no community centers,” are now labeled “gangs.” The tax dollars thrown into fighting this never-defined phenomenon fund an advancing army of law enforcement. Helicopters now hover over their homes “at all hours of the day and night,” shining lights, “circling and surveilling, vultures looking for prey.” Their targets, their “enemy,” is anyone “Black or Brown who moved.”

The personal histories that constitute When They Call You a Terrorist highlight the architecture of an all-encompassing surveillance, which sets the stage for the subjugation and removal of those being watched. The black bodies that are rounded up and taken to prison are “disappeared,” both figuratively and literally. When Khan-Cullors’s brother is taken away to Los Angeles County prison, the family, despite her mom’s desperate efforts, does not find out where he is for nearly a month. When the author’s mother finally does get to see him, he is drugged and drooling. In prison, Monte Cullors has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. It is only later, much later, that his sister will discover the extent of the torture he has faced behind bars. After being digested by the system, he is broken in all the ways a man can be.

The losses contained in the pages of When They Call You a Terrorist are acute, but they are rendered with lucidity and lyricism; the endings of many chapters have a lilting, almost incantatory rhythm. The chapter in which Khan-Cullors tells of the impunity with which black children are violated ends with “Twelve and childhood already gone / Twelve and being who we are can cost us our lives / It cost Tamir Rice his life / He was a child of twelve.” In a later chapter, she tells of her brother’s relapse into schizophrenia and the gentleness with which her older brother and her boyfriend come to his rescue, and concludes with the lines: “This is what the love of Black men looks like / This is what our Black yesterday once looked like / And I think: If we are to survive this is what our future must look like.”

It is this effort to reclaim a lost communal love for her generation that radiates through When They Call You a Terrorist. It stands by in moments of uncertainty and in moments of desperation; as a teenage Khan-Cullors struggles with coming out as queer, her cousin Naomi — who has already declared herself — is there to comfort her. When she finally graduates high school but has no real plan for her future, a patient high school teacher takes her in. Then there is Strategy Partners, the nonprofit where she eventually works, which gives her a solid base; and the “intentional family” of friends and lovers she creates carries her through the darkest hours of her life.

It is unsurprising, then, that it is in the strength of communal action — as opposed to only the individual — that When They Call You a Terrorist situates its hopes for the future. In its early pages Khan-Cullors says, “We lived a precarious life bordered at each end by the politics of personal responsibility that Black pastors and then the first Black President preached more than a commitment to collective responsibility.” It is this disproportionate emphasis on individual responsibility, in Khan-Cullors’s view, that imprisons black men like her biological father, Gabriel. Unable to contextualize their own failings against a society that degrades and excludes, they remain engulfed in a shame that never leaves. Struggling with drug addiction, Gabriel swallows the whole prescriptions of his twelve-step counselors, who disconnect his condition from collective failures that surround him. Trailing him into meetings, the author listens to the stock rhetoric of individual responsibility but comes to a different conclusion. As she says at his funeral, he “died of a broken heart in a nation of broken promises.”

Hardship can birth tenacity more formidable than fear, and Patrisse Khan-Cullors’s story, told so evocatively in When They Call You a Terrorist, is proof of it. Even as she acknowledges the dire character of the present, she refuses to bow before it. As she says: “So yes, yes, it is a terrifying time, as an organizer, as a new mother, as the wife of an immigrant living in a Queer relationship to be in this nation.” But for all the terror of it, she also admits, “I can’t leave the work here.”

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Wallis in Love

If you’re feeling sardonic, a frame of mind that veteran crowned-heads chronicler Andrew Morton’s Wallis in Love does a lot to encourage, it’s tempting to see Wallis Simpson as 1930s Britain’s tabloid equivalent of Lee Harvey Oswald. At a literal level, the comparison doesn’t hold water, since no British monarch has died by violence since Charles I’s beheading in 1649. But until the Baltimore-raised divorcée who ended her days as the duchess of Windsor came along, no British monarch had voluntarily quit the throne either.

As fans of The Crown already know, all Wallis had to do to end the brief reign of Edward VIII was to get him besotted with her. Because ardor wasn’t her thing, she never reciprocated, leaving her stuck for the rest of her life miming the charade of a “great romance” with a man she often privately treated with contempt. Yet her public performance was so convincing that you can’t help wondering how she might have fared if she’d turned actress for real. She might be remembered today as a great one, not the termagant most Britons never forgave for existing.

((EAN1}}Putting Prince Charles’s, Princess Diana’s, and Camilla Parker-Bowles’s later soap-opera hijinks in the shade, Edward’s decision to abdicate in 1936 for the sake of “the woman I love” was both a genuine national trauma and the climax of Britain’s worst constitutional crisis of the twentieth century. To her credit, Wallis realized the idea was cuckoo and tried to derail it, but that wasn’t widely known at the time. During the abdication drama, public hostility to her was intense enough that she even incited her own would-be Jack Ruby: an Australian who wrote letters threatening to find her in France — where she’d fled to wait out the hullaballoo — and “put a bullet in her.” For that matter, Australia itself threatened to leave the British Empire if Edward had the gall to try making her queen.

Then and later, rumors flew that she was a paid Nazi agent, or had seduced the king with the arcane sexual tricks she’d learned in a Chinese brothel, or was a hermaphrodite. (Why not all three?) Anticipating their American counterparts after That Day in Dallas, the Brits were seemingly ready to believe almost any explanation for their young, popular ruler’s abrupt vamoose — preferably, one that didn’t involve accepting that he’d fallen head-over-heels for a pushy Yank whose attractions were confined to a pair of piercing blue eyes and a minor talent for spiteful wit.

Coming closer to the mark, maybe, were the insiders who guessed that Edward had seized on marrying Wallis as a terrific excuse to get out of a job he hated. Aside from that scenario, Morton can’t explain what goaded him either, but Wallis in Love isn’t the kind of book you read for its psychological insights. You read it because the duke and duchess of Windsor were two of the weirdest gargoyles of their era and because their story is such a dotty combination of historical consequence and unspeakably charmless triviality.

Morton marches his readers briskly through Bessie Wallis Warfield’s shabby-genteel Baltimore upbringing. Its details read like a rejected draft of an Edith Wharton novel: The House of Mirth‘s gloom crossed with The Custom of the Country‘s satire, say. After her father died of tuberculosis during her infancy, she and her mother, Alice, were often dependent on relatives for their upkeep — and, no less important, their social status, such as it was. Wallis went to posh schools, but her clothes were often hand-sewn by Alice.

By late adolescence, her verve was attracting any number of would-be beaux. But you hardly get the impression that she was susceptible to romance for romance’s sake. From the start, attracting male attention was, quite relentlessly, her career: the only means available to her to move up in the world. By contrast, her sometime Baltimore neighbor, Gertrude Stein — whose novel Ida, about “publicity saints,” was partly based on Wallis — at least tried her hand at becoming a doctor, although Stein gets dragged into Wallis in Love, mostly because Morton likes hinting at lesbianism as his protagonist’s never-acknowledged Rosetta Stone.

Her first marriage, to naval aviator Earl Spencer, hit the skids quickly, thanks to his drinking and her apparent allergy to sex. (She later told a confidant that she’d never slept with either of her first two husbands, leaving us wondering whether that was also true of her third.) An affair with an Argentine diplomat in Washington, D.C., was her first “grand passion,” and also her entrée to international political elites. Once that ended, an attempted reconciliation with Spencer took Wallis on a long jaunt to China, where he was then stationed. Hence the bogus story about her Oriental-brothel sexual education, which was quite possibly inspired — though Morton doesn’t say so — by lurid 1930s movies like Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express rather than anything Wallis actually did.

In reality, the lasting value of her “Lotus Year” was her introduction to American expat Herman Rogers, who stayed loyal to her for decades and functioned as her “de facto husband” in crises. Wallis called him “the only man I’ve ever loved,” and it typifies her astounding self-centeredness that she chose to tell this to Rogers’s second wife shortly after their wedding in 1950. In fact, his new bride had pushed for a speedy ceremony after his first wife’s death, fearing that Wallis — by then the duchess of Windsor — would toss the poor old duke aside like stale fish guts once her Herman was suddenly available.

After her return from China, she was back on the prowl, eventually divorcing Spencer to marry businessman Ernest Simpson: “to all intents and purposes,” Morton writes, “Herman Rogers Lite.” An Anglomane so inveterate that he’d given up U.S. citizenship to become a naturalized British subject, Simpson was Wallis’s ticket to London — a place she instantly loathed. “I’m sick of seeing old things,” she was soon complaining. “I want to see something young.”

In his mid-thirties by then, the prince of Wales just barely qualified. But Wallis soon got intrigued with his press coverage and promptly began scheming to insinuate herself into his social circle. Exactly what she was hoping would happen isn’t clear, but she presumably didn’t anticipate what did. Happy to dally with a series of mistresses, the heir to the throne had never indicated any interest in marriage, no doubt to the anxiety of His Majesty’s Government as the succession loomed. There may be no better proof of the adage to be careful what you wish for.

Carried on with her complaisant husband’s help, Wallis’s pursuit was well enough known to her family that she wrote “Mission accomplished” to an aunt once they finally met. But then he got smitten, phoning her constantly and sending her puppyish love letters. On her end, his thirty-eight-year-old paramour was enjoying herself: “I might as well finish up any youth that is left to me with a flourish,” she wrote, implying that a permanent union was the farthest thing from her mind. Once she realized he was serious about forging one, she tried to warn him off — predicting, quite accurately, “I am sure you and I would only create disaster together.”

Even so, the situation might have been resolved much more tranquilly if Edward had surrendered his right to the throne for Wallis’s sake before George V’s death turned him into Edward VIII. Making matters worse, the new king insisted on marrying her before his scheduled formal coronation the following spring. Morton’s fresh angle on the ensuing crisis is to tell the story exclusively from Wallis’s point of view. Stranded in France, barred from seeing Edward until her divorce from Simpson was final, she was unable to sway him in their frustrating long-distance phone conversations. When he called to tell her the die was cast, her reply was succinct and, once again, accurate: “You God-damned fool.”

Wed at long last in June 1937, the newly minted duke and duchess of Windsor didn’t need much time before their behavior made Edward VIII’s former subjects catch on that they might be better off without him. The couple’s ill-considered visit to Nazi Germany in 1937, including tea with Adolf Hitler and too many “Sieg Heil” salutes, was a blunder from which they never recovered, and the duke seems to have remained a more or less unrepentant Nazi sympathizer even after the war began. The Nazis themselves certainly thought so, plotting to kidnap him from his Riviera exile for propaganda purposes once Germany invaded France in 1940. Instead, Winston Churchill packed the pair off to Bermuda for the duration after appointing the duke its governor, largely to keep him — or them — safely offstage.

It was the last even semi-serious post the former king ever held. Afterward came decades of vacuous society life in Paris, Cannes, New York, and elsewhere until his death in 1972, followed by Wallis’s own a dozen years later. While the duke never quite came to despise her, she certainly came to despise him, sending him home early from nightclubs with an ungracious “Buzz off, mosquito.” Notoriety was all they had, and not much else bound them together except bitterness at the way they’d been treated.

Considering what she’d come up from, Wallis’s unmitigated self-pity was remarkable. At her worst, she was capable of saying that she couldn’t feel sorry for the British people’s sufferings during World War II after what they’d done to her. One ongoing source of resentment was the royal family’s refusal to let her call herself “Her Royal Highness,” although the duke was allowed the male equivalent. Beyond that, says Morton, their later lives were consumed by only “two issues: their image and their bank balance.” Despite the author’s occasional (and glib) speculations that Edward enjoyed playing the submissive to Wallis’s metaphorical — well, let’s hope — dominatrix, whatever submerged emotional or psychosexual complexities figured into the marriage stayed largely hidden by the two peculiar wax dolls that several generations of magazine readers grew wearily familiar with over the years.

In our time, both The Crown and The King’s Speech have turned the couple into fascinating reptiles, always good for a laugh whenever they intrude on the royal dullards. Morton knows better than to attempt the fool’s errand of trying to make Wallis sympathetic or even pleasant. Yet it seems charitable to think of her as thwarted. In a less gynophobic age, her brains, drive, and cunning could have been put to better use than seducing an idiot with an impressive title. She probably spoke her truest epitaph when a photographer asked her to smile during the abdication brouhaha: “Why smile?”

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Congo for the Congolese

Beneath Congo’s soil lies an estimated $24 trillion in natural resources, but this wealth is also the source of untold suffering. Today, more Congolese are displaced from their homes than Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis, or Rohingyas, yet their miseries are all but invisible, in part because the identities and aims of Congo’s myriad combatants are mystified by layers of rumor and misinformation, which serve the interests of those who profit from the mayhem. But pieces of the puzzle sometimes emerge.