Before 1983, Grenada was best known for producing, along with its famous spice, the great calypso singer Mighty Sparrow. Afterward, it was known for the traumas left by a sad episode of the cold war whose legacy, for our current political era, is the subject of a welcome new documentary film, The House on Coco Road, directed by Damani Baker.
New York City is in the throes of a humanitarian emergency, a term defined by the Humanitarian Coalition of large international aid organizations as “an event or series of events that represents a critical threat to the health, safety, security or wellbeing of a community or other large group of people.” New York’s is what aid groups would characterize as a “complex emergency”: man-made and shaped by a combination of forces that have led to a large-scale “displacement of populations” from their homes. What makes the crisis especially startling is that New York has the most progressive housing laws in the country and a mayor who has made tenants’ rights and affordable housing a central focus of his administration.
Write those letters now. Call your friends, and tell them to write. If you don’t, this program, I promise you, will pass just as surely as the sun will come up tomorrow. And behind it will come other federal programs that will invade very area of freedom as we have known it in this country. Until, one day . . . we will awake to find that we have socialism. And if you don’t do this and if I don’t do it, one of these days, you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.
—Ronald Reagan, lobbying against Medicare
Medicare and Medicaid were signed into American law on July 30, 1965, both health care plans key components of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” vision. Given Johnson’s landslide victory in the 1964 election and Democratic control of both the Senate and House, Reagan’s warning of lost freedoms and slippery-slope socialism had no legislative impact. In fact, given that it was tied to Johnson’s civil rights agenda, Medicare greatly enhanced freedom for black Americans, because it required hospitals to desegregate their waiting rooms. As described in David Barton Smith’s The Power to Heal: Civil Rights, Medicare, and the Struggle to Transform America’s Health Care System, the decision by the Johnson administration to tie Medicare to civil rights was empowering and revolutionary:
The most common responses to racial and economic disparities in opportunities in our nation’s history have been: “it’s just the way things are” or “it just takes time.” However, for the civil rights activists involved in the implementation of the Medicare program of 1966, the response was, “Now!” In four months they transformed the nation’s hospitals from our most racially and economically segregated institutions to our most integrated. In four years they changed patterns of use of health services that had persisted for half a century.
After a half century of Medicare, argues Elizabeth Rosenthal in An American Sickness, we need a new revolution to overthrow a Big Health system so “fantastically expensive, inefficient, bewildering and inequitable” that “we are all potential victims of medical extortion”:
Imagine if you paid for an airplane ticket and then got separate and inscrutable bills from the airline, the pilot, the copilot, and the flight attendants. That’s how the healthcare market works. In no other industry do prices for a product vary by a factor of ten depending on where it is purchased, as is the case for bills I’ve seen for echocardiograms, MRI scans, and blood tests . . . The price of a Prius at a dealership in Princeton, New Jersey, is not five times higher than what you would pay for a Prius in Hackensack and a Prius in New Jersey is not twice as expensive as one in New Mexico. The price of that car at the very same dealer doesn’t depend on your employer, or if you’re self-employed or unemployed. Why does it matter for healthcare?
Rosenthal argues that “the type of healthcare we get these days is exactly what the market’s financial incentives demand,” and that Americans must force their politicians “to change the rules of the game, with different incentives and new types of regulation.” In The Patient Will See You Now, a follow-up to his earlier The Creative Destruction of Medicine, Eric Topol argues that patient empowerment is not only needed but at hand, made possible by a new revolution in health care “powered by unplugged digitization, with the smartphone as the hub”:
We are embarking on a time when each individual will have all their own medical data and the computing power to process it in the context of their own world. There will be comprehensive medical information about a person that is eminently accessible, analyzable, and transferable. This will set up a tectonic (or “tech-tonic”) power shift, putting the individual at center stage. No longer will MD stand for medical deity.
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The French people in Édouard Louis’s The End of Eddy are not the French that you know. Here you will not find immaculately styled Parisians talking literature or politics at the café. The French in The End of Eddy are not the French whose diet and sophistication are celebrated in how-to guides, whose delicacies of taste and care with cuisine are touted as an example to all us lesser folk.
The “other” French we meet in The End of Eddy live not in Paris or Cannes or Nice but in Picardy, in a village called Hallencourt, somewhere in the post-industrial north of France. Their lives are defined largely by constant and unrelenting need. The events in the book, as the author Édouard Louis has recounted in several interviews, are all true, and they are also terrifying. At their center is the young Eddy Bellegueule (the novelistic incarnation of Louis himself), a boy whose early effeminacy renders him the target of beatings at school and taunts at home. Louis renders both with chilling acuity: his tormentors at school are “tall with red hair and the second, short with a hunchback” who spit in his face and accost him in the same hallway every day. He knows he will be hit, but he also returns every day to “avoid being hit elsewhere,” where he will face the added humiliation of being hit “in front of others.” Those who do not hit him pelt him with torrents of verbal abuse, “faggot, fairy, cocksucker, punk, pansy sissy” and so on, all day and every day.
There is more humiliation awaiting Eddy in his slovenly home. His father, who prides himself on being a “tough” guy, rarely shies from violence and is bent on ensuring that his son grows up to be a “tough” guy, too. It is not to be a successful endeavor, and the man does not take it well. As he grows, Eddy can feel “the terror mounting” in his father and is witness to the man’s “powerlessness in the face of the monster he had created and whose oddity became clearer with each passing day.” Thwarted thus by reality, Eddy’s father turns to cruelty. Laid off from his job at the brass factory that is Hallencourt’s sole employer, he assails Eddy with his virulent homophobia. One evening, Eddy returns to find him drunk with his buddies in the family’s small and grimy living room. Instead of their usual favorite, The Wheel of Fortune, the louts have tuned to a show that features a gay character named “Steevy.” Homophobic jokes and laughter abound, and as . Eddy is scurrying by, his father says, “Hey Steevy hows it goin? How was school?” The men laugh so much that they have tears in their eyes. . Eddy, for whom “crying is not an option,” tries simply not to respond at all to the taunts.
There are in fact very few options for anyone in Hallencourt. The intimate drama of Eddy’s struggle vis-à-vis his sexuality is set against a larger landscape of constraint and claustrophobia that we rarely reflected in literature on or about France. Eddy and his family live in a four-room home with concrete floors and mold crawling up the walls. There are as many television sets as there are rooms, and one of them is always on. A book, however, is an object of suspicion, “an assault,” and so is conversation using fancy words or even very correct French (the family is better at speaking a northern Picardy dialect). Caring too much about homework or books or getting ahead in the world is frowned upon, as it would perhaps be in any milieu where improvement is unlikely and the odds too many. Some do make halfhearted attempts. Eddy’s older sister tells her school counselor that she wants to be a Spanish teacher. He convinces her otherwise; she doesn’t seem to have the grades, he notes. She engages in some feeble persistence, then settles for working the till at the village bakery. There she will be guaranteed a paycheck.
The American infatuation with France demands a France that is markedly different from itself, never common nor louche, always avant-garde and forever superior. The End of Eddy is a dislocation of this arrangement. The post-industrial France within its covers, one in which Eddy is named after the American shows his father has watched on television, is much like post-industrial America. Like their similarly disenchanted counterparts in rural Kentucky or Wisconsin or Kansas, both Eddy’s parents are casualties of a provincialism they long to escape but whose failings in both education and expectation doom their chances of doing so. They rail at the television, at life, at their children, they drink and curse and fight, and for the most part they stay put, sentencing their children to the same cycle of despair. Angry but confused, they lob their hatreds at Arabs and Muslims and blacks and, of course, homosexuals. As Louis notes, there is a central contradiction in their behavior: his mother, for instance, rails against the powers that be, whose neglect is the nub of her misery, yet invokes those same powers to act with “ruthlessness in dealing with Arabs, with alcohol, with drugs, with any sexual behavior” of which she doesn’t approve.
These disinherited of France (and their American and Dutch and British counterparts) present an emerging political class, a new grouping of the West’s discontents. As Louis implies and Americans know, their exclusion is not without consequence, their anger increasingly a basis of electoral change. The results of the 2017 French election substantiate this; even while Emmanuel Macron has eked out a victory, Marine Le Pen’s National Front, the candidate Hallecourt’s citizens have proudly supported for decades, is second in line. It is a reality that could not have been imagined a decade ago.
The End of Eddy ends with an end to the Eddy that once was. Eddy Bellegueule tries hard to be straight and belong; he hangs out with college mates and goes to clubs to meet girls, enacting the initiation rituals of heterosexuality that will reassure his parents. He even pursues sexual relationships with women, and when they fail, he finally confronts the incongruity between his desire to “become a tough guy” and the “desire of his own body,” which pushes him toward men. The pathos of the tussle, poignantly portrayed, lies not simply in the internalized homophobia that has led him to so detest himself, but in the realization that owning the truth of his sexuality inevitably pushes him “away from my family away from the whole village.” The embrace of one part of him is the rejection of another.
He must choose, however, and he does. As he declares at the beginning of the book’s last chapter, “I had to get away.” Eddy leaves, thus breaking a cycle that has kept so many in his family confined to Hallecourt all their lives. We glimpse this other Eddy for a moment in the Epilogue. Away from the suffocations of the village, he is surrounded by the bourgeoisie, the denizens of that “other” France that America and the world know and love and copy. Among them, he owns his sexuality but remains ashamed of his class. In the last pages of the book, the jacket his mother has so proudly bought him to take to lycée is laughed at; ashamed, he throws it in the trash. At the end of The End of Eddy, as all though life itself, there is no complete self-acceptance, no final liberation; for Eddy and for everyone, the struggle to love oneself is always contradictory and never complete.
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A year before leaving Enfield—the Georgian-style school building would later be converted into a train station and then ultimately be demolished—John Keats discovered Books. Books were the spoils left by the Incas, by Captain Cook’s voyages, Robinson Crusoe. He went to battle in Lemprière’s dictionary of classical myth, among the reproductions of ancient sculptures and marbles, the annals of Greek fable, in the arms of goddesses.
Susie Steiner’s fine 2016 novel Missing, Presumed introduced us to Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw and left us hoping for more. Even more of the same would have been welcome. But Steiner is too agile a writer to settle for repetition. In Persons Unknown, her second installment, she changes location and mood, opening with an apparent surrender. “Cold cases is where she’s ended up,” Steiner writes of Manon, “spending quite a few of her days following her Sat Nav inexpertly around the Fens — Turn around where possible — to interview people who couldn’t remember much about last week, never mind a decade ago.” Then coming home to “her nineties house, squat in its tray of mown turf . . . Her key in the plastic door with its fake leaded lights.” Few writers in any genre can equal Steiner when it comes to such details, and from the outset she immerses us not only in her characters’ lives but also in an England stratified by race and class. There’s the sleek London banker, for example, who “has left the Latvian sprat factory of his ancestors way behind” and the homeless winos on park benches “slumped, talking shite, seeping piss, and watching ladies in hijabs on the outdoor gym equipment.”
Manon has retreated from that London to suburban Cambridgeshire to raise her adopted son, Fly, and to await the birth of her first child. Five months pregnant by an anonymous donor (“For £850 she secured the sperm of a Dane, a nationality that seemed to carry a neutral air”), she lives with her sister, Ellie, and Ellie’s toddler, Solomon, to whom Fly is devoted. “Telling herself this is fine. This is what’s called Having It All . . . home by five, pick up some washing powder.” In the old days, a detective’s weakness was the bottle and the blonde. Now it can be pizza and babies. There is even something of Bridget Jones in Manon when she contemplates her expanding body or wheedles, “Ooh, who is it?” to a colleague rushing to a crime scene.
But she is also mean. Mean and effective: “Manon knows she can make people tense — that it is her specialist skill. She contains ruthlessness.” Particularly when a murder victim turns out to be intimately linked to her family and the evidence implicates twelve-year old Fly. “Tall black youth with his hood up?” Manon frets even before danger looms. “He might as well wear a sign saying ‘Arrest me now.’ ” But could Fly be guilty? Does loving someone mean that you can trust him? At every turn in Persons Unknown, the frailty of human connection — within families or murder units, out on the street or inside an affair — is delicately exposed. Yet never at the expense of Steiner’s lean yet textured plot.
On a December afternoon, in a prosperous neighborhood, a man staggers and falls, stabbed in the heart. Relegated to cold cases, Manon can only watch as her colleagues and friends, Harriet Harper and Davy Walker, begin to investigate the murder of a banker whose corrupt world, it turns out, oddly intersects with Manon’s own. All of this happens swiftly. The novel’s opening chapters are models of elegant compression, and Steiner’s use of alternating points of view — now Manon’s, now Davy’s — adds further tension to a drama that interlocks neatly but never mechanically. Early revelations seem inevitable rather than imposed; a passerby who cradled the body, for example, has something to hide. Manon’s sister, too, has a grimy secret. Then a voice breaks in: “I came out like anyone would — to see what all the tooting and commotion was about,” a woman tells her dictaphone machine, “a body on the ground, thrown there by a car, I shouldn’t wonder, but she was coming round . . . And people were beginning to shuffle away with their disappointment at her being alive.” Bernadette, known as Birdie, owner of the Payless Food & Wine store on seedy Kilburn High Street, might have stepped out of an Alan Bennett play. “In his heyday, my goodness!” she recalls of her hero Tony Blair. “All those years the Labour Party suffered with the bad comb-overs, the stumbling on the beach, and then Tony came along, our shiny straight-talking savior.” And now Birdie (“It’s not at all like me to help somebody”) is sheltering Angel, the injured pedestrian — whose name is not Angel and who is running from something.
Steiner expertly unspools these threads and then smoothly braids them together, using each twist — and there are just enough — to advance and deepen her plot. With similar economy, she alternates narratives (a skill that has prompted comparisons with Kate Atkinson), conjuring up mundane lives shot through with bleak humor. Manon visiting a hospital, for example, “passes the dressing-gowned smokers in wheelchairs and the slipper-shufflers trailing their catheters,” while a few miles away DS Davy Walker contemplates the “heavy lid of porridge-colored cloud” that passes for a winter sky. By the end of the story, her family has been tried intensely by fate, but its final scene finds Manon in nearly blissful retreat, newborn at her breast, new man by her side, but still, unmistakably, herself. “I’ll probably fuck it up, she thinks, as she sits up and rubs the baby’s back.”
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“Henry James and American Painting,” a compact but wonderfully heterogeneous show at the Morgan Library, includes a comprehensive selection of Jamesian portraits along with other paintings of and by his friends. James liked sitting, and the exhibition includes a round dozen of his many portraits; more probably than have ever been gathered in one place before.
When I was a senior in high school, I wrote to one of my favorite artists, Maira Kalman, and asked if she had interns and if she’d like one. She said I could come reorganize her moss collection, walk her dog, and meet her mother. It was like peeking behind the curtain and finding the thing you’d both hoped for and dreaded: the actors still perfectly in character.
Bees build around red liver,
Ants build around black bone.
It has begun: the tearing, the trampling on silks,
It has begun: the breaking of glass, wood, copper, nickel, silver, foam
Of gypsum, iron sheets, violin strings, trumpets, leaves, balls, crystals.
Poof! Phosphorescent fire from yellow walls
Engulfs animal and human hair…
—the first stanza of “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” by the Nobel-winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz
The systematic deportations of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto began seventy-five years ago this week, the first railway transports to the Treblinka extermination camp beginning on July 22, 1942. An estimated 300,000 were sent to the gas chamber from the ghetto, many of the earlier victims, encouraged by their two loaves of free bread, believing that they were escaping the suffering and starvation of their Warsaw confinement for “resettlement” or a labor camp.
Milosz’s poem, dated “Warsaw 1943” and one of the first written about the Holocaust, reflects the events of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April of that year, which quickly provoked Nazi retaliation — the ghetto razed, its inhabitants burned, shot, or shipped out. In his award-winning biography Milosz, Andrzej Franaszek notes that the thirty-two-year-old poet was living at the time in the Warsaw area, where he felt protected as a Catholic but defenseless as a human being, as conveyed by this Milosz recollection published just after the war:
In the spring of 1943, on a beautiful quiet night, a country night in the outskirts of Warsaw, standing on the balcony, we could hear screaming from the ghetto . . . This screaming gave us goose pimples. They were the screams of thousands of people being murdered. It travelled through the silent spaces of the city from among a red glow of fires, under indifferent stars, into the benevolent silence of gardens in which plants laboriously emitted oxygen, the air was fragrant, and a man felt that it was good to be alive. There was something particularly cruel in this peace of the night, whose beauty and human crime struck the heart simultaneously. We did not look each other in the eye.
Franaszek makes clear how deeply Milosz’s WWII experiences shaped his view of humanity and history, and how so much of his poetry is fueled by a “look each other in the eye” strain of social responsibility. The first question which scholar Peter Hayes raises in Why?: Explaining the Holocaust is “Why another book on the Holocaust?” Hayes also finds his answer in a sense of social responsibility: to describe the events as “incomprehensible” and “unfathomable” or as an “exclusively German project” is an escapist self-defense mechanism that won’t get us off the hook and may very well bait a new one:
The massacre took shape under specific political and military conditions and intensified in part because it suited the objectives of many other Europeans, at least during the short, ferocious period when most of the killing occurred. In the face of the slaughter, the victims were largely powerless and the onlookers preoccupied with their own, to them more pressing concerns . . . Afterwards, most countries of the old continent delayed acknowledging what they had participated in yet also constructed numerous barriers to its repetition, barriers that now, seventy years later, are under stress.
Milosz spent decades in exile from Communist Poland, where his books were banned. One of his most defiant, affirmative and most famous poems is “And Yet the Books”:
And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion…
In The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance, Anders Rydell tells the largely untold story of how the Nazis systematically looted and dispersed thousands of personal and community libraries belonging to those whom they hoped to annihilate — not just Jews but Communists, Freemasons, Catholics, ethnic minorities, and regime critics, among others. Rydell goes beyond describing the library exterminations and the ongoing attempt to return the dispersed books, telling also the stories of the book owners, individuals who “desperately tried to hide their manuscripts, buried their diaries, and held on to their one, most beloved book on their last journey to Auschwitz.”
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“I’m stubborn as hell,” is Lisa Ko’s pithy self-description in the “About Me” section of her blog. Herself the first U.S.-born child of Chinese immigrants, Ko, forty-two, drew upon a large percentage of bullheadedness reserves in gestating, writing and distributing The Leavers, her much-discussed first novel, published this spring by Algonquin Books after winning the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. In May, Ko discussed her plot, her characters, and her process in pithy conversation with Kaitlyn Greenidge (whose own well-wrought debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, received similarly enthusiastic critical approbation upon its 2016 publication), before responding to questions from the audience that attended the encounter at the Barnes & Noble branch on Manhattan’s East 86th Street. —Miwa Messer, Director, Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Kaitlyn Greenidge: Talk about the story that inspired the book.
Lisa Ko: I started writing The Leavers eight very long years ago. It was inspired by an article I’d read in the New York Times about an undocumented immigrant who had been in a detention center in Florida for over two years. What struck me most about her story is that she had a young son she had tried to bring into the U.S., and he’d gotten caught by immigration and adopted by a Canadian family. This really shocked me, and I started finding out about all these other undocumented immigrant parents who had their U.S.-born children taken away from them by the U.S. courts, adopted by mainly white American families while they were being deported or detained. It just seemed to bring up a lot about how we look at immigrant bodies, why do the parents have to go and the kids had to stay — what that says about who should be assimilated and who couldn’t.
So I started writing about a character named Holly, who paid fifty grand to get smuggled into the U.S. from China. She has a son named Deming, and one day, when he’s eleven years old, she goes to work in New York City and she never comes home. After that, Deming gets adopted by a white family, moves upstate from the Bronx; his name is changed to Daniel Wilkinson, and ten years later he starts to look for his mom. So the book is really about mother and son and what happens to them before and after their separation, and also it’s his search for belonging and family at home.
KG: I was struck that this woman, whose real-life story was so horrible, gets to have an afterlife in your novel. That’s a wonderful thing that novels can do, different from any other way of writing. Also, as I was reading, I was reminded again and again about how society has decided to classify certain bodies; we seem to think that certain people are allowed the natural benefits of parenthood and other people are not. This book plays with that question a lot.
Can you talk about writing about motherhood in particular, and writing about a mother?
LK: My character, Polly, who is Deming’s mom, is sort of ambivalent. It’s interesting that she’s not a very likable character. I like reading about unlikable women. Why do we have to be likable? We can be human. We can be ambivalent, and full of different complexities. I tried to create as human a character as I could, putting some of my own ambivalence and fear about motherhood, while also thinking about somebody in her position. She’s someone who, as a teenager, had the drive to leave this small town in China and make it all the way to New York. She’s a bit of a badass and a rebel; it makes sense that would be her character.
KG: It’s also about the relationship between a mother and a son, which is tricky to write about — a bond that isn’t explored much in fiction.
LK: The book started off with Polly as the main character. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that she had this son. That became the compelling story, one I wanted to keep going with, imagining what it was like for the kids in these real-life stories to grow up in adoptive families, knowing that their parents wanted to take them but weren’t able to. What was it like for them to grow up in these white communities? What was it like to have that conflicted sense of identity and displacement? So I started writing more about his character, and it grew on me. He’s sort of a lost kid. He’s searching for belonging and searching for his mom as well, which parallels his search for identity.
KG: What is so palpable when he’s young is his fascination with his mother. She’s almost kind of a superstar for him.
LK: Yeah, and she was gone for a while, too. She can’t take care of him as a single mom, so she sends him back to China to live with his grandfather — which happens frequently with a lot of recent Chinese immigrants. So when she comes back, it’s like he’s meeting her for the first time.
KG: When you’re working on a project that long, it’s so helpful to find different communities to work in. What different writing communities did you find when you were working on the book?
LK: I started writing this book in my MFA program at City College. I also wrote it juggling many, many jobs, or during my lunch breaks. I went to residencies and sublet my apartment when I could. I’ve been part of a very important writing community through VONA, Voices of Our Nations Arts, which is a national writing workshop for writers of color. They’ve been a big support; we’ve traded work a lot as well.
KG: How did you start writing?
LK: I started writing stories when I was five years old. I was like a super-weird only child and lived in my head a lot — like I think a lot of writers do. I had a lot of imaginary friends.
KG: When did you first feel that writing was something you could do and wanted to put out into the world?
LK: It took a while to get to that path. It’s not like you grow up in an immigrant family being told, “Yeah, you should really write some fiction.” That’s like, “so your ancestors suffered for you to write a novel and not make any money . . . ” I did it on the sly. I took writing classes in college and published a few stories. But I didn’t see it as a career. It was something that I did and did and did and did, and kept doing.
KG: What’s surprised you most as you’ve gone through this book publishing process, or book-coming-out-into-the-world process?
LK: It’s been super-gratifying and amazing to see people read it and connect with it. That’s been beyond my wildest dreams. You write it in your head, alone in your apartment, and then all of a sudden a real human being is reading the words and quoting it back to you.
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