Auld Acquaintance (Part Four)

Boston, Mass.  1996.

The oranges never came.  I got a check for $100.  Bob Edwards didn't call.  Harper's never approached me.  I called Florida State's Writing Program and asked about the oranges.  They said they worked with a particular grove and if I never received the oranges, I should take it up with them.  I called the grove on three separate occasions, an answering machine each time.  My Homicide phone did not ring.

(Shyness is nice, and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you'd like to.)

"The Custodian" appeared in Sundog, and has been reprinted in a couple anthologies and a textbook, and it showed up as the topic of an article by Ron Wallace in AWP Chronicle.  It lives on in the Web in interesting and complimentary ways, and family, co-workers, and friends across the country have reported coming across it in writing classes, teacher trainings, and Google searches.  My wife read the story online before our first date, doing her due diligence to dig up any digital dirt.

In some ways, that story's out there having the career I always wanted for myself.  On the cusp of its eighteenth birthday, that story is not so much a child of mine as a doppelgänger, a shade using my name and making something of itself while I stay home and do the washing up.

Anyone who says they have no regrets is either lying through their unreflective teeth or living such a charmed life as to be contemptible beyond all measure of reason.  Even Sinatra reported having "a few" regrets, and who lived a more privileged existence than Frank effing Sinatra?

I regret that I didn't push harder for the deluxe treatment -- pushing back on Florida State for NPR connections, for a little box in the Readings sections in the front of Harpers.  I know other writers who've sparked their careers by nudging editors.  Just wasn't me, still isn't.

(Coyness is nice, and coyness can stop you from saying all the things in life you'd like to.)

For lack of a crate of oranges, I went to one of the futon stores that serve all the underfunded students of metro Boston, and bought a table that fairly looked to be made from old fruit crates.  I stenciled the thing with red spray paint and made myself a crate where none had appeared.

I stayed in Boston until August of 2002, then brought that coffee table back to Milwaukee with me.  I published a few more stories in disparate places and I worked on a novel for a while, but sputtered at it and back-burnered it, and worked more and got married and had two kids through adoption and a book appeared in my local bookstore that traded on exactly the same high concept character idea I'd been working on in my book except written by someone else, which crushed me, and though work I invested myself into issues of student retention and success and always sort of thought the whole time that I'd get back to writing fiction, and then one day you realize you've entirely run out of excuses.  "Read less, write more," a friend wrote to me at the end of last week.  "Seriously."

In Pam Painter's Short Short class, everybody had their particular trick when it came to in-class recitals.  I recall Ted Adams rubbing hell out of his eye socket while trying to bring back the opening paragraphs of A Hundred Years of Solitude.  And I remember the otherwise unflappable Jessica Purdy in full voice-quake, maybe reciting the tip-of-the-tongue-to-the-top-of-the-teeth bit from Lolita.  I squinted, head down, trying to imagine the page I'd studied, saying...

When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight o' clock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather's and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it's rather excruciating-ly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father's. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools. 

Previously:  Parts One, Two, and Three.



Auld Acquaintance (Part Three)

Brian Hinshaw

The 1996 World's Best Short Short Story
Sundog: The Southeast Review, Vol. 16, No. 2

The Custodian

The job would get boring if you didn't mix it up a little.  Like this woman in 14-A, the nurses called her the mockingbird, start any song and this old lady would sing it through.  Couldn't speak, couldn't eat a lick of solid food, but she sang like a house on fire.  So for a kick, I would go in there with my mop and such, prop the door open with a bucket, and set her going.  She was best at the songs you'd sing with a group -- "Oh, Susanna," campfire stuff.  Any kind of Christmas song worked good too, and it always cracked the nurses if I could get her into "Let It Snow" during a heat spell.  We'd try to make her take up a song from the radio or some of the old songs with cursing in them, but she would never go for those.  Although once I had her do "How Dry I Am" while Nurse Winchell fussed with the catheter.

Yesterday, her daughter or maybe granddaughter comes in while 14-A and I were partway into "Auld Lang Syne" and the daughter says "oh oh oh" like she had interrupted scintillating conversation and then she takes a long look at 14-A lying there in the gurney with her eyes shut and her curled-up hands, taking a cup of kindness yet.  And the daughter looks at me, the way a girl does at the end of an old move and she says "my god," says, "you're an angel," and now I can't do it anymore, can hardly step into her room.

Previously:  Parts One and Two
Next: Aftermath


Auld Acquaintance (Part Two)

Previously: Part One  
Charlestown, Mass.  Early Summer, 1996.

I'd bought the phone at Office Max, likely the cheapest model on offer.  It was only fate or kismet that it had the exact ring as the office phones featured on NBC's Homicide, a show that made it okay to spend Friday nights alone.  A show that kept me at my cathode-tube iMac until 10 Eastern, writing away, because what else could I do with the time?  If hunger is the best gravy, loneliness is the best punch-clock.  This is how my phone rang.  Mine and Detectives Pembleton, Munch, and Lewis.

So one Saturday morning that summer following Pam Painter's Short Short course, my phone burbled.  It was Janet Burroway, a name that was familiar but one I couldn't place.  (Had my back not been turned to my bookcase, where Burroway's Writing Fiction was the bulk of my personal Self-Help, Advice, and How-To section, I might have gotten it.)  I hazily realized she was calling to tell me that my story had won Florida State's Short Short contest for that year.  She told me how much she liked the story, explicating the part that calls back "Auld Lang Syne" in the mother's cupped hands, told me last year's winner had not only won the promised $100 and a crate of oranges but also had this story reprinted in Harper's Magazine and read aloud on Morning Edition.  She told me I sounded young -- I wasn't even aware I'd spoken -- and asked what I did.

I told her I was a grad student in Emerson's writing program and working in Human Resources for a mutual funds company.  She said she was thrilled that a young person had won, that others had spent years trying to win their contest.  (To someone with my esteem issues, this meant she was already regretting the decision.)

She asked if I knew of Jerome Stern.  Again, familiar but not clicking (and again, Stern's Making Shapely Fiction was right there in the room with me.)  "He was," said Burroway, "but there you've already heard me say 'was.'"  The Florida State contest had been Stern's labor of love, and he had just that Spring died of cancer.  "So I can't promise you that this year will be like last year, in terms of the exposure," Burroway said.  "We're all fumbling in the dark here, after such a loss."

The call came to end, and I hung up, and holy shit, I think I was just talking with Janet Burroway.  And I won, and I'm going to be in print and I'm going to eat oranges and be in Harpers and Bob Edwards is going to interview me on the radio.

I called my parents.  "Oh," they said, "that's great."  My effusing embarrassed them.  I felt like I was telling them I'd discovered all the eldritch secrets of the Kingdom of Atlantis.  "Mmm-hmm," they said, "how wonderful.  One hundred dollars, you say?"  I'd borrowed $40,000 from the federal government to go to art school and write stories, and here I'd just made enough off of professional writing to pay for about two weeks' worth of interest on that loan.  They didn't see the victory.

So I called Pam, who was genuine and thrilled.  She asked if I'd called my parents.  I told her I had, but that I felt like they didn't totally get it.  Pam said we'd need to get the class back together when the oranges arrived.  "We'll inject them with vodka and have a party!" she said.

I was over the moon.  Could not sit still.  Everything was about to change.

And then, for an awfully long time, nothing happened.


Auld Acquaintance (Part One)

Emerson College.  Boston, Mass.  Spring of 1996.

I wrote a 250-word, two paragraph story on assignment for Pamela Painter's short short class.  This story concerned a woman who visits her mother, dying of Alzheimer's in a nursing home.  Together, they sing Christmas carols, though the dying mother has otherwise lost all powers of language and recognition.  This story was pulled directly from my own mother's experience with my grandmother, who'd passed away a few years before after a long slow decline.

I read the story aloud in class.  "That's sweet," Pam said after I'd finished.  "Now make it cruel."

Make it cruel.  This is the genius sting of Pam Painter's teaching in three little words.  (Janet Burroway has similar advice:  "Only trouble is interesting.")  Pam was the best writing teacher I've had, and I've had more than a few.  Pam killed your darlings.  She had no patience for those who didn't do the work, or who didn't invest their all into their writing.  She required her students to memorize and recite good writing, however we might define it, so that we'd learn to attend and respect the language.  (I memorized the last paragraphs of John Cheever's "Farewell, My Brother" and the opening of Quentin's section of The Sound and The Fury.)  Once, Pam made a student delete a Word document from his laptop computer so the he'd have to rewrite -- not just revise -- the short work of half-assedness he'd just shared with the class.

Fellow grad students at Emerson feared Pam Painter, and with good reason.  If you took Pam's class, you had to have the confidence enough to know you could do the work, and lots of it.  Years later, I was invited into Pam's writing group.  Another member mentioned having spent the previous day meditating in praise of Pam's great mentorship.  "Well," Pam said, "you should have been writing."

So...I rewrote the story, changing the point of view character and clicking into "Auld Lang Syne" as lodestone for memory, cutting away explanation for inference, hanging everything on this notion of cruelty.  Probably I'd been listening to a lot of Nick Lowe.

We were asked to bring stamped envelopes to class along with our final drafts, all of us sending off our manuscripts to Florida State University's Sundog: The Southeast Review.  I'd sent out stories before, and I'd slowly been wall-papering my Charlestown apartment's bathroom with rejection slips: The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Kenyon, Agni, Antioch, Cream City.  So far, I'd been published only in Drake University's student literary magazine (1989) and in a short-lived Marxist newspaper in Chicago (1991).  An unpublished runner-up in Milwaukee's Shepherd Express 1992 short story contest.

You learned to accept rejection, and you came to relish those notices that came on full-sized paper or with a human touch -- a signature, a few words of encouragement.  "This came close!" someone had written (by hand! blue ink!) on a form that came back to me from Story Magazine.

You've heard writers compare their works with children -- you raise them from nothing into near-adulthood, send them out in the work and hope they do well, etc.  Not in my experience.  For me, submitted stories were like the mash notes I passed to crushes from the 7th grade through way too late into high school: awkward and needly, both full of and unsure of themselves, bombastic but fragile.  Do you like me?  If so, check here.  So much pressure on 22¢ postage.

So off went the latest and last version of the story, its title changed from "Adeste Fideles" to "The Custodian," motoring to Florida under the protection of a security envelope and an Elvis stamp.


Put Up a Parking Lot

Boston, Mass.  Spring of 1995.

One of the other grad students was hosting a party out in Braintree.  I don't remember anything about the actual party beyond a general sense of red:  a walk from the Red Line T, a new construction condo of faux red brick, red Solo cups for your bottle beer.  (No one did kegs in grad school, as the transportation issue got in the way: no one had a trunk.  Better to ask that all comers BYOB, carry in twelve's from the package store on the corner.)  I feel like Chris was at that party, and also Chris.

What I do remember well is leaving.  A group of us called a cab, either in an effort to catch the last northbound train or because we'd missed it entire.  We filled the cab, one of us shotgun and the rest crammed in along the backseat.  I ended up in the middle, on the hump, pressed forward a bit to allow others to have girls on their laps.  (Yes, they were women -- aspiring poets and memoirists, women who'd go on to high profile jobs at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Brace, but because they were on boys' laps, they were girls too.  Alluring, intimidating, unknowable girls.)  I did not make friends easily that Spring, if indeed I ever have.

The cab held a thick tong of incense, masking something earthier and less legal.  The driver was thick and coal-black, a ringer for the actor Yaphet Kotto -- Lt. Al Giardello on NBC's Homicide, Fridays at 10 Eastern, a panacea for smart young men with inactive social schedules.

The cabbie wore a dyed orange dashiki and a little pillbox hat to match.  He was chanting along with some lush rhythms coming through the radio.

I could not talk comfortably with girls, less so women or children.  I inverted in the company of strangers or teachers or authorities of any stripe.  Small talk was a foreign language.  My tools were nervous laughter, self-consciousness, and lame attempts to look engaged without engaging with anyone.  I inspected bookshelves or stayed close to the booze.  Cf. Jona Lewie, "You'll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties," Stiff Records, 1980.

Who could I talk to?  Without any crippling self-awareness whatsoever?  Cab drivers.

I met the driver's bloodshot eyes in the rearview, his skin so dark that the whites of his eyes looked jaundice yellow.  Lined with weariness or herb, maybe both.  "What are you listening to?" I asked.  There was other conversation in the car, but it didn't involve me.

His answer in a kind of Carribean patois: "West African chant, man."  He issued some groove, spreading his hands wide and shimmying in his seat: picture Little Richard just about to hit the keys.

"Right on," I said, then ducked down to watch Boston at night out the side windows.  I felt him flicking his eyes towards me in the rearview: to the road and to me, the road and to me.

"Ay man, ay," he said after a while.

I gave him my attention, some negotiating going on with the couples to my right and left.

"Ay man," he said.  "You got beeg head, man.  You know you got
beeg head, man?"

I needed clarification on the direction of the conversation.  "You're asking," I said, "if I know that I have a big head?"

"Yeah, man.  You know?  Beeg head fill up whole window."  He gestured as to indicate all of the moon and stars.  He had the attention of us all, by now.

"I--," I said.  "Yes, I'm aware that I have, I guess, a large head." (It's true.  What can you do with a head this big?  Hats don't work -- they only serve to make the head look even larger, the hat by comparison a tiny monkey fez.  I can barely comb my hair.)

The cabbie met my eyes and nodded, proud of me.  "Beeg head," he said to himself.  "Ay, Beeghead Man:  what you do with beeg head, man?"

Again, needed clarification.  "What do I do with my big head?"

"Yeah, man:  whachu do?"  The others in the cab useless now, not daring to laugh for fear they'd miss something.

"Right now," I told the cabbie.  "I'm in graduate school..."  I wasn't sure how far out he wanted me to report.

"GOOD," said the cabbie.  "You fill beeg head up with BOOK."



Don't Stand So, Don't Stand So

A friend of mine coordinates English Composition courses for a college in a Midwestern state not far from here.  Every now and then, I get a copy of a student message worth consideration, much as we used to bark about students when we were both teachers here in Milwaukee.

Got this from female students this week:

Mr. [redacted], I was wondering who I should talk to regarding my current professor, [also redacted]. I am not satisfied with his teaching at all, he shows no respect for the students. If anyone walks in late he rolls his eyes at them every time. I got marked off on a rough draft because I didn’t have any resources, but no where in the requirements did it say that I needed any outside sources. I talked to him after a class and asked him and he then just told me that I need one. I was trying to understand and it felt like he was just shooing me away. I haven’t learned anything in his class because he uses examples from the 1990’s and doesn’t explain things very well, getting off topic in class sometimes. Then in a class period a couple weeks ago he was showing us a pepsi commercial from when he was a kid and when the clip was done on YouTube it showed suggestions for other related searches. There was a video of commercials that have been banned from TV and it was a girl eating a hot dog seductively making it look like something sexual. He then points it out to the class and laughs. I was disturbed at this, he then clicks on [another ad] because he was curious, the video then was a bunch of women eating different foods very seductively. It was very unprofessional and it should get brought to someones attention. Just wondering what I should do or who I should talk to?

I also have had meetings with other female students re: his showing of videos. One said "I felt that his desires [for the women in the ads] were on display for the whole class to see."
ME: "You mean that he was, um, 'interested' in the images?"
HER: "Oh, yeah.  he was totally creeping out on them."   
I have two more meetings scheduled today and tomorrow with yet other female students about, I am guessing, his porning out in class.   

This is followed by the firm but forgiving message he'd sent to the teacher in question.  But the "examples from the 1990's" stuck with me.  I felt the need to write a response in the character of the writing instructor in question, creating him out of the student's message and also getting in an old shot at the curse of the 3-Paragraph Theme, because there are some things of which I can never let go.


Your three paragraph theme regarding how much Rebecca Solnit hates the gym has led me to respond at length in writing of my own, not least because without proper context you might later off yourself like that one guest who was bullied so horribly on the Jenny Jones talk show.  Remember Jenny Jones?  She looked a little like Debra Norville, but was far sexier, particularly if you’ve seen her as I have, on internet video, taking down a footlong meatball sub.

In any case, I suppose I can’t fault the structure of your essay, in which you charge Solnit with first hating technology, then cars with a bit more specificity, and ultimately the modern practice of driving one’s car to a health club in order to walk on a treadmill.  Do they still call them Nordic Tracks, or perhaps Tracs, as we did in the 1990’s?  (By the way, is it just me or does that decade seem like only a few years back, rather than 20 years ago now?)  While your essay’s content may be questionable, your efforts to first introduce your topics, then enumerate them in order and in distinct paragraphs all to their own, and then succinctly summarize all you have to say in a one-sentence bang-and-done final sentence is, as we once said, pretty rad. 

Structure-wise, you’ve constructed a taught triple-decker BLT sandwich whose content looks larger and more glistening in your hands than it might otherwise. If we can remember the movie titled “Almost Heroes,” which nominally starred the late Chris Farley and the pre-post-Friends Matthew Perry, we might remember that something that seems like it might be good on paper will actually come out sort of bloated and half-dead.  While your paper goes only onto the top of a second page, I still had to take several breaks to watch an image gif of Ginger Spice licking a lollipop just to invigorate me to press on. I mean, your second paragraph was shorter than Urkel!  Some ideas need time and length — say, that of Arsenio Hall’s fingers — to develop. (Maybe it’s the word “develop” that reminds me, but do you know if any footage exists of Anna Nicole Smith visiting a Hardee’s?)

If I were to rate your paper between 1 and 10, with 1 being Janet Reno chewing a Chicket and 10 being Heather Lockyear sucking a bratwurst out of a bun, I’d put your essay at about a 4.  In other words, Courtney Love and rope licorice.

Please see me for conferences in the darkened basement hallway of the engineering building.  Also, I just want all the student’s to know that I’ll be providing Nathan’s Hot Dogs as a free snack to whomever’s interested.  (Have you seen the SBTB episode where Screech joins a competitive eating contest? That was a good one, right?)

Your Mack Daddy Composition Instructor,

Brian Hindshank

She's My Soft-Touch Typewriter

Franklin Bruno's book for 33 1/3  has struck a really interesting way to write about music. It's an abecedary of Armed Forces' song titles, motifs, themes, important figures in 20th century fascism, etc., with only passing regard to Elvis Costello's private life (beyond those things that illuminate or problematize items listed above). By organizing the book alphabetically by key terms, Bruno can deal with the album's themes of militarism and imperialism in both the political and personal arenas in a way that connects by inference and foregrounding and callback. The album itself isn't Costello's best, and may not even make it into my All Time Favorite Desert Island Costello list, but it's probably the most worth examination and consideration in exactly the way Bruno goes about it. 

Really the only aspect of Costello's personal life that plays a part in this book has to do with an ugly argument with Bonnie Bramlett and the Stephen Stills Band in a hotel bar in Columbus, OH, in 1979.  Costello says things in this altercation that, whatever the motivation (i.e., trying to irritate Bonnie Bramlett) and how great the intoxication, are pretty unforgivable.  (Although apparently his targets, James Brown and Ray Charles, did, or sort of did, forgive him.)  Bruno's concern is only how that complicates, underscores, and cross-cuts Costello's aim on this album to twin interpersonal behavior with imperial and impersonal state actions, particular in regard to Costello's own connection to black American beat music.

I've not read much of the 33 1/3 books but this was far different from the "fan's notes" I was expecting -- it's hard (and probably beside the point) to even detect whether Bruno even cares for Costello's record all that much, except as a kind of text to be read against its author's concerns.   If more of these 33 1/3 books approach their subjects in this sort of lit-crit way, rather than in a "How They Made It" or "What the Lyrics Mean" fashion, count me in.  I'm looking towards Lethem's book on Fear of Music, or maybe the one covering Paul's Boutique.


A Jumped-Up Pantry Boy Who Never Knew His Place

If an auto-biography involves a tale that is at least partially based on the writer's own life, I'm going to coin auto-bibliography as a tale that informs the reader about his or her own experiences.  Maybe often we say we "identify" with a character, but I think that's usually kind of froth of empathy and character motivation that parses to readers as sensible and real.  But these are books that I identified with in a more personal way -- I saw myself in them.   I mean -- if I can paraphrase Morrissey --  they something to me about my life.

2. Five Auto-Bibliographical Novels

Steven Millhauser, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943-1954 by Jeffery Cartwright.  A close read of the title gives it away, but this is a faux-biography of a ten-year-old novelist by his eleven-year-old best friend and biographer.  The appeal is an incredibly detailed chronicle of childhood imagination, in such a way that vividly captures the spirit of play.  For me, at the time I read it, it led to treasure trove of recovered memories -- the non-traumatic sort. (The conceit, spoiler alert, is that the genius artiste Edwin is really no different than any other particular boy who fascinates over comics and spaceships and toys.)

Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude.  Again, here is the exactness of the tween/teen years that resonates, in a novel that uses superhero powers as a metaphor in all kinds of cross-wired ways.  I explained some of what I love about this book here (in a post whose title also quotes Morrissey -- I may be more of a Smiths fan than I thought I was).  While I was reading this book, I wanted only to be reading this book.  Not because it's particularly suspenseful or compelling in its plot, but because I really felt at home in reading it.  I did not grow up in Brooklyn, my father was neither a painter nor a soul singer, and these characters would have been a few years older than me, and yet I more closely identified with this book than any other I've ever read.  

Colson Whithead's Sag Harbor is  The Fortress of Solitude on summer vacation. In a way that Lethem captures late 70's/early 80's teenagerdom, Whithead does the same for mid- to late-80's summer vacation on Long Island.  He covers the rise of the waffle cone, the summer of Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, when everyone said "dag."  There's also, here, a whiff of the teenaged fear/suspicion of dads -- one's one, others -- that resonated for me.

David Shields, Dead Languages.  Another novel about a teenaged middle-class boy, this one with a stuttering problem and journalist parents.  It's been a long time since I'd read this, but feeling pangs of identification with it.

Sam LipsyteThe Ask.  At the start of this book, its point-of-view character has a bureaucratic job with a third-tier university.  It's a very funny book, particularly the daycare-in-a-minivan bit involving The Passion of the Christ.

Extra non-novel bonus: Sam Lipsyte, "The Dungeon Master," The Fun Parts.  A short story that recalls for me the Weir's Downer Avenue basement, playing D&D -- a game designed for 5-7 role players -- with one other person, with the game being far more about story-telling and problem-solving than dice roles and dwarf vs. beholder melee.


There's Money In New Wave

A friend -- my oldest friend, in fact -- asked me via text message to send him a list of the 50 books that have most influenced me.  I like a good challenge, and I'm game to talk about good books, so I'm going to make use of this space to do it.  In chunks, thematically linked, over the next ten posts -- and with the caveat that influences wax and wane (as do obsessions, phases of the moon, and/or friendships) so this may be biased towards the now.  (Raymond Carver, for example, was a huge influence on how I wrote stories in pre- and early graduate school, but he doesn't hold much sway on me any longer.  I guess we'll see if he makes the fifty.)

So: this is for Rob Weir. Feel free to eavesdrop.

1. Five Books that Merge the Fiction and History

All five of these books sprawl without necessarily being long-- multiple characters and points of view, "plots" (such as there are any) covering long periods, connections drawn or suggested between disparate situations.  None of these books would rightly be called "historical fiction," but yet they all are tethered in certain ways to events and people we'd recognize as having actually existed.  These books appeal not because there are "real historical figures" in them, but because the merging of what we think of as "real" with fiction infuses mystery into what we think we know.  Each of these books suggest some kind of invisible layer of meaning, some unknown connective thread, between what is real and what isn't, between what we know and who we are.  Maybe when faced with the unknown or the insensible, we create meaning.

Jake Arnott's The House of Rumour is a fantastic novel, and it's a crying shame you haven't heard about it.  It shares the literary DNA of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. In 22 chapters mapped on to the arcana of the tarot deck, Arnott links together a secret history of the 20th century.  Actual historical figures interact with fictional characters, and different literary styles infect particular chapters.  Ian Fleming appears as a point-of-view character, as does a character that could be a stand-in for George Michael (the pop star, not the founder of FakeBlock).  As in Infinite Jest, the plot -- such as there is one -- concerns a mysterious and important document related to Rudolph Hess' strange 1941 peace mission to Scotland.

E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime. Race relations in the early 20th century, written with a cool kind of distance.  Houdini, Freud, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Stanford White.  Doctorow said, "I'd never read that J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford met. But for me their meeting was unavoidable ... So have they met? They have now." 

Don DeLillo, Underworld.  The long prologue first appeared a novella in a 1992 issue of  Harper's Magazine as "Pafko at the Wall."  At that time, Harper's Magazine used a different paper stock -- less shiny, thicker -- for the long-read folios in their magazine, paper that was gravid to the touch. I may have read this in the Cafe Demi.  In it, Frank Sinatra, J. Edgar Hoover, Jackie Gleason, and NYC restauranteur Toots Shor watch the Giants play the Dodgers at the Polo Grounds in 1951.  The baseball from that game ("Giants Win the Pennant!  Giants Win the Pennant!") carries through the rest of the book -- a talisman like the Hess documents in House of Rumor, the videotape in Infinite Jest, or...

...the desiccated penis removed from Napoleon's corpse in John Vernon's Peter Doyle, a book which is sadly out of print.  I wrote about Peter Doyle here a few years back.  (I'd also put Peter Doyle on a list of books that seemed to promise a sequel that is yet to arrive, along with Peter Carey's The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith and Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.)

Brooks Hansen, The Chess Garden.  This novel involves letters sent home to Dayton, Ohio, by an elderly doctor assisting in a refugee camp in South Africa during the Boer War.  The letters themselves become a kind of fable, though the "real" world the novel sets up includes a young Paul Lawrence Dunbar.  There's a bit with a horse stuck in an attic during the Dayton flood.  The horse is named Cow.  It's fun and sad and weird in the right sort of balance.


Short People Got No Reason

Andrew Solomon's Far From The Tree is a project.  It is work.  It's a hefty book in hardcover, and it demands and deserves acuity from its readers.  Mostly, that work feels rewarding, but it also feels like work.  Many episodes with that book ended with clapping its cover down, sighing like a hard day had ended, swearing at its relentless punches at one's facility for empathy.

The introduction sets out a thesis on parents dealing with children they might not expect -- children with disabilities, gifts, mental illnesses.  Solomon grants these children "horizontal identities," whereby they fit or identify more with others (even strangers) than the families, ancestry, social groups in which they have "vertical" identity.  This carries into early chapters on the politics of deafness and dwarfism, areas that split over adherence to or an identity apart from the mainstream.  Through surgery or DNA testing, modern medicine can "correct" or even (through eugenics) eliminate such populations, and Solomon argues with a great charity of humanity about why this is a dangerous and threatening idea.

Middle chapters break away somewhat to deal with families with greater issues, and the family stories in these chapters seem to get increasingly bleak to the point where one has to take regular breaks to hug one's own children, thankful that as tenuous or difficult as they can sometimes be, they are still a far lighter burden than some parents face.  I found myself looking forward to the incongruous chapter on musical prodigies, figuring it would be a break from all the dire and the sad, but even there one finds tragic stories and broken lives.

It's also about that point in the book where attention turns from genetic conditions discovered at birth or early on to illnesses and behaviors that first manifest in later childhood or adolescence, which brings in a whole 'nother level of fraught anxieties.

What's important about Far From The Tree, despite or because of the work it demands, is how it reframes thinking about the types of children Solomon discusses and the need for parents, medical and mental health practitioners (and particularly ob/gyn and pediatric doctors), and all of the kinds of people who have operating hearts to deal more deeply with these children as persons, as beings with lives worth our time and our critical faculties and our work.