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Table Manners

Are you the guest who runs late and texts real-time updates? The diner with allergies or the host trying to accommodate them? The social media addict who can’t put your phone down at the restaurant? Whether your manners are a disaster or you simply need some fine-tuning, Jeremiah Tower’s Table Manners is an authoritative and witty guide to table manners for everyone and every occasion. Just in time for the holidays, Jeremiah Tower and his editor, Will Schwalbe, talked through the difference between restaurant manners and home manners, serving a forgotten guest, and the ideal dinner party.


Will Schwalbe: So, Jeremiah, my first question is prompted by the reading line on the jacket. And it’s quite simple: When it comes to table manners, why should we bother?

Jeremiah Tower: If you have good table manners people assume you have good manners in general. When they think that of you, they will take you seriously enough for you to be able to craft the life you want from your community of friends and career associates.

WS: What was it that made you decide to write this book?

JT: It was my publisher’s idea, which, at first, I thought a mad one. When I asked around to those I respect, they unanimously agreed it was a much-needed antidote to an ever-increasing (for the moment) vulgarization of human behavior.

WS: Do you have a pet peeve? Is there one behavior that drives you particularly mad?

JT: Many at the table, but waving a fork around, prongs up and within inches of my face, to make some conversational point otherwise quite ignorable.

WS: When is it okay to point out another diner’s poor manners, if ever? And if it is okay, how do you do so?

JT: If you are a parent or guardian of a child, always. If you are a sibling, never. One points out the errant behavior quietly and firmly, and always explaining why it is errant.

WS: What’s an example of wonderful manners?

JT: Thinking of others’ needs, not your own. Not just offering to help at a party, but actually doing it, and then quietly and without having to ask.

WS: Four people show up at your home for dinner and you completely forgot you invited them. What do you serve?

JT: Always have a larder with dried pasta, fresh quality cheese (white or blue), preserved tuna in jars, capers, dried chilies, perfect olive oil, and butter in the freezer. That and good cheap white and red wine perfectly stored. No challenge there, no matter how many show up.

WS: What’s the main difference between restaurant manners and home manners?

JT: At home alone you can lick the plate. Alone in a restaurant, never. You might scare the servers.

WS: Is there a character from fiction or history that you think has superb manners we should emulate?

JT: Apart from my Russian aunt or those one knows in New Orleans, Lucius Beebe, “the last magnificent.” Harry Cipriani isn’t bad either.

WS: If you wake up with a hangover and a distinct lack of memory about the night before but fear you’ve behaved badly, what should you do?

JT: Call you closest friend also at the party and see how dire, if at all, is the need to send two dozen long-stemmed roses to the host/hostess.

WS: Finally, tell me your ideal dinner party for six. What are you eating and drinking? And who are the other five guests (anyone real or fictional, living or dead)?

JT: It is lunch, not dinner.

Vintage champagne, pressed caviar blini with frozen Żubrówka, wild game bird consommé, aged prime roast beef with Château d’Yquem, nougat ice cream filling pavlova with fresh passion fruit sauce, old madeira, Romeo y Julieta “Churchill” cigars.

Peter Wimsey, Nero Wolfe (persuaded to leave his townhouse), Marlene Dietrich, Fernand Point, Lucius Beebe. The lunch served in Lucius’s private train dining car going through Feather River Canyon.

The Moravian Night

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Jeremiah Tower is the forefather of California cuisine and the author of the James Beard Award–winning cookbook Jeremiah Tower’s New American Classics. He began his culinary career in 1972 as the co-owner and executive chef of Chez Panisse, and has opened numerous highly acclaimed restaurants in San Francisco and around the world. He is the subject of the documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent. He lives in Mexico.

Will Schwalbe, founder of Cookstr.com, has worked in publishing (most recently as senior vice president and editor in chief of Hyperion Books); in new media; and as a journalist, writing for various publications, including The New York Times and The South China Morning Post. He is the coauthor with David Shipley of SEND: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better.

Illustration by Libby VanderPloeg.

spiegelman splash

I never set out to write a memoir. Nor did I set out to become old. Apparently I have managed to do both, first the second, and then the first. Hence, Senior Moments: Looking Back, Looking Ahead, whose title was wittily suggested by one of my friends last year. I can’t remember which one, however.

Senior Moments by Willard Spiegelman
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I wrote a book of essays. If a writer utters the words “book of essays” to even the most sympathetic agents, editors, or publishers, he will find them moving to the door, if not the window, of the office. Essays, to put it politely, do not sell. What does? No one can predict, of course, but essays do not.

Still, this is the form I love most. After decades of writing academic, footnote-laden prose, with occasional forays since 1988 into journalism, I had an epiphany in 2005. That was the year when I gave an English course—repeated several times thereafter—called “Five Poems.” The idea was simple. We read five canonical English and American poems of middle length, and looked at each one carefully, hard and long. Additionally, we read the scholarship and criticism that attended each one. My realization should not have come as a surprise, but I was struck by how much the shelf life of literary scholarship resembles that of a banana. In this, of course, scholarship resembles most human activity. And then I thought: If all creative endeavor is ephemeral, why not try writing something that might appeal to a wider, less academic but still educated audience, and that might earn modest sums of money?

I began contributing essays to literary quarterlies (The Yale Review, The American Scholar) on general subjects like swimming, ballroom dancing, even the charms of walking. If the essay was good enough for Montaigne, who invented it, for Charles Lamb, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Virginia Woolf, and Jonathan Franzen, it was good enough for me. It would allow me to write about myself but about more than myself. My essays are about me; they are also about other things that are not “me.” Combining the personal and the impersonal opens the world to a writer, and opens the writer to his readers.

I accumulated a first book for FSG, Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness. Several years later I approached my editor, Jonathan Galassi, and said I thought I had a sequel for him. “Seven more pleasures?” he politely inquired. “Seven sins, seven pains?” I showed him what I had: an essay on life in Dallas, originally written for a literary magazine that was planning an issue on travel to exotic places (I figured more of its readers had gone to Kuala Lumpur and Machu Picchu than to Texas); an essay called “Senior Reading,” about how reading habits and tastes change as one ages; another on visiting Japan, the only time I was incapable of speaking, reading, or understanding a single word in a foreign place.

My ingenious editor recommended joining the various parts of the book together, bringing them into a more organic whole. I never intended to put my book only into the wrinkled hands and before the dimming eyes of my contemporaries. I thought of it—then as well as now—as a series of investigations, explorations of one writer’s thoughts and experiences, something that others might enjoy and learn from. The chapters are interesting because they are informative and well written: Isn’t that enough for any reader? They treat separate parts of a life, and they also meditate on matters that turn out to have been the cornerstones of that life, my life: talk and language, to start with, and then quiet and silence, to end with. And in between? Places; books; art; encounters with classmates at my fiftieth high school reunion; travels through New York’s five boroughs: all the little things that when taken together make up the bulk of any person’s life.

The book presents no traumas, tragedies, conflicts, or triumphs. My essays constitute the backward-looking diary of a man whose life has been spent largely in the groves of academe, a secular man who believes that there is no afterlife, that this life is not a dress rehearsal but all that we have. For that reason, we had better make the most, the best of it.

I grew up with language. Everyone does. I started with listening and talking. Again: we all do. Then reading: most people at least develop the necessary skill although not everyone absorbs pleasure along with knowledge in this essential activity, and fewer still become addicted. And then, writing. For me it was an easy, inevitable path. I insisted on putting “Talk” at the start of my new collection. (It ends with “Quiet.”) My authorial choices reflect the direction of everyone’s life, from a first squall to the final silence.

They also allowed me to move around among the motifs (thank you, Jonathan Galassi) that have defined my life: language, above all, and its opposite; feeling at home or not at all; wondering where one best belongs.

And this brings me to Montaigne, one of my desert island writers. It has been said of him—and might be said with equal truthfulness of Emerson—that you can take many of his essays and change their titles around, and you will not be lost. And that you will be hard-pressed to find a “thesis statement,” or often any “thesis” at all, certainly no single idea that a student could easily compress into a “message,” or a form the student might carefully outline. The essays—“attempts”—resist all such manhandling. They wander, discursively but not ploddingly or predictably. They work things out, and they usually end up in a place far different from where they began. They are both similar to and different from life. Any life has a trajectory, from birth to death. But its internal shape can be seen mostly in retrospect, if at all. A great essay must end with a sense of appropriate closure, but a reader will not have predicted it.

Consider one of my favorites, Montaigne’s “On the Art of Conversation.” The writer warms to his subject deliciously, calling conversation “the most fruitful and natural exercise for our minds.” It’s hard to argue with that. Talking teaches; it opens the mind. Mere agreement is tiresome; one needs modest combat. And every opinion, even when disagreed with, can bring forth the pleasure of discussion. A sentient person will gain nothing from spending his time only with birds of the same feather. “I like love that bites and scratches till the blood comes,” the wise author says, upping the ante and offering a surprising analogy. Not that bloodshed is really what he seeks. Our man is far too amiable a sparring partner: “All opinions are alike to me; and I am almost indifferent as to who wins. I will argue peaceably all day long, so long as the discussion is conducted according to the rules.”

But even rules and procedures will not suffice to give satisfaction. Montaigne is the master of common sense, of worldly moderation, and, as man and writer, a splendid appreciator of our common humanity, its follies as much as its glories. He relishes talk and reading not just because he is seeking the truth but equally because he values style and tone, those almost immeasurable qualities: “Every day I entertain myself by browsing among books without a thought for their learning; and examining their authors’ style, not their subject.”

He makes the point that I have tried to teach my students, and anyone else who will listen: good writing is that which makes a reader interested in a subject in which he probably has never been interested. By their styles ye shall know them.

But what has happened, in this essay, to its nominal subject? It goes from talking to reading. Both are agencies of knowledge. Montaigne ends his essay on the art of conversation with a consideration of Tacitus. He has moved far beyond his point of embarkation. And yet he keeps circling back to it, almost unconsciously. A good guide, he makes us scurry to keep up with him yet he never fails to look back to bring us along just when we worry we have lost the path. You think that conversation is merely a polemical quest for truth and justice? That the only subjects are the important ones, like what Socrates urges upon his interlocutors in Plato’s dialogues? Not so fast. Right before he heads deeply into his consideration of the Roman historian, Montaigne gives us a momentary rest stop, a reminder of where we have been:

May we not include under the heading of social conversation the brief and pointed repartees exchanged between friends under the influence of mirth and intimacy, when they briskly and pleasantly chaff and poke fun of one another?

And he plunges, in his final pages, into a consideration of Tacitus’s value. This is the kind of writing that would drive a teacher of freshman English wild. This would never get a passing grade. It is the writing of an essayist, not a polemicist. It is unpredictable and wandering. It is a great adventure. T. S. Eliot said, in a more ponderous tone, that it’s the journey, not the arrival, that matters. All readers of Montaigne get the point: on the page, or on life’s path, writers, readers, all human beings keep on the move.

Montaigne’s is the voice of the ideal friend: cordial, tolerant, easily amused, congenial, and never narcissistic, hectoring, or condescending. He is the model companion who can become, in one moment, a Dutch uncle and, in another, a sympathetic booster.

This is also the voice of the ideal essayist. By looking at and telling his reader about himself, he’s also asking that reader to examine his or her own life and ideas. By being himself he allows his readers to become better versions of their own selves.

As another writer (Ira Gershwin, for his brother George’s music in “I Got Rhythm”) asked, “Who could ask for anything more?”

The Gardener and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnik

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Willard Spiegelman is the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. From 1984 until 2016, he was also the editor in chief of Southwest Review. He has written many books and essays about English and American poetry. For more than a quarter century he has been a regular contributor to the Leisure & Arts pages of The Wall Street Journal.

witold 1

I’ve recently been touring around giving talks and readings in bookstores, libraries, and colleges. The subject is my latest book, Now I Sit Me Down, a history of the chair. A common question from the audience is “What is your favorite chair?” I think that the implied question is actually “What is your favorite chair design?” But I prefer to answer it literally. I have come to the conclusion that what makes a chair a “favorite” is not the way it looks, or the fame of its designer, but rather the way it is used.

For me, and I suspect for many people, our favorite is the chair we sit in to relax—an easy chair, the name says it all. For me that’s my reading chair, where I read for pleasure when the writing day is over. Or sometimes reread what I’ve written—I gain a different perspective when I’m sitting in my easy chair. What sort of chair? It’s a wing chair. Hardly an antique, it was manufactured thirty years ago in North Carolina, but it’s based on an eighteenth-century model from Tidewater Virginia. Sometimes it’s hard to improve on a good thing.

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The author at home. (Photo by Steve Legato, The New York Times)

How did I choose which chairs to include in my book? In some cases it was their longevity—the wing chair was already a hundred years old when George and Martha Washington had one in their Mount Vernon bedroom. Two hundred years after that, Archie Bunker pontificated from his wing chair in Queens. The folding camp stool originated in ancient Egypt, and we still use it today. There are chairs, like Michael Thonet’s bentwood café chair, that mark an important historical moment, when the chair ceased to be crafted and became a mass-produced product. The Danish Modern master Hans Wegner deserved a chapter simply because his chairs are so good. In other cases it was ingenuity that counted: Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel side chair and Charles and Ray Eames’s molded wood chairs have no direct historical precedents—they represent conceptual leaps in the dark. Designer chairs have their place, but some of the best and longest-lasting chairs were developed anonymously: the Windsor chair, the rocking chair, the deck chair. And I could not leave out such specialized chairs as the knockdown safari chair, the umbrella stroller, and the folding wheelchair. Or the adjustable ergonomic task chair, the most recent arrival to the chair family, unless of course you count the ubiquitous plastic chair, a scruffy intruder and the first global chair.

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Ergonomic task chair designed by Niels Diffrient
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Monobloc plastic chair

I decided early that the book should have illustrations. Most chair anthologies use photographs, but drawings are actually better at explaining exactly how a chair is put together; a photograph simply records what’s there, but an expressive drawing can highlight one feature and de-emphasize another. And drawings done in the same style underline that all chairs—whether medieval backstools or modern office chairs—are tools for sitting.

I made the drawings myself, using ink pens and pencil shading. Many of the best chairs have been based on craftsmanship, so drawing by hand seemed the right thing to do. There are sixty-five drawings. The most complicated was the Thonet Schaukensofa, a reclined rocking chair whose continuous bentwood pieces curve back and forth to form the back support, arms, and rockers. French eighteenth-century armchairs, with their puffy upholstery and carved cabriole legs, were the most fun to draw. Modern minimalist chairs, like the Jacobsen Series 7 and the Rowland 40/4 stacking chair, proved the most challenging—there is so little to work with.

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Thonet Schaukensofa, c. 1883
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Rowland 40/4 chair, 1963

I made the drawings especially for this book—with one exception. The sketch of an old rush-bottom ladder back chair that forms the frontispiece was drawn almost fifty years ago. I was a freshly minted architecture graduate and I was in Spain, part of my Grand Tour. My traveling companion and I had driven down from Paris, and we were spending a week in Sitges, a coastal Catalan town. We had rented a small house in the old part of town facing the beach. The house came with beat-up furniture—and a cat. It was March and too cold to swim, so I spent a lot of time sketching. Which is when I drew this old chair. Obviously I remembered Van Gogh’s painting, made when he was living in Arles, another Mediterranean town just up the coast. Different time, different place, similar chair. His chair was yellow, mine was green. The rush-bottom side chair appeared in the seventeenth century and it continues to be made today. That is what is so appealing about chairs—they are a living link to the past.

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Rybczynski, Sitges, 1967
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Van Gogh, Arles, 1888

Now I Sit Me Down

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Witold Rybczynski is a writer and an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of How Architecture Works and Mysteries of the Mall and has written about architecture and design for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Slate. Among his award-winning books are Home, The Most Beautiful House in the World, and A Clearing in the Distance, which won the J. Anthony Lukas Prize. He is the winner of the 2007 Vincent Scully Prize and the 2014 Design Mind Award from the National Design Awards. He lives with his wife in Philadelphia.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:
Judith Stein on the Influential 60s Art Gallerist, Richard Bellamy
The Uses of Beautiful Places
A Conversation between Hans Ulrich Obrist and Marina Abramović

All illustrations in Now I Sit Me Down by Witold Rybczynski

GopnikSplash

Although there’s much more research to do, playing and learning go together. Letting children play is important. But is there any more to say about the role of caregivers? Can parents somehow help children play better?

A depressing finding is that grownups can actually get in the way of play. Elizabeth Bonawitz and her colleagues contrasted the playful, exploratory learning in the Pop-Bead experiments with the direct instruction you get in school. They gave preschoolers a toy with many plastic tubes that did different things. If you pushed on one tube, a beeper squeaked, another held a hidden mirror, a third lit up, a fourth played music.

The Gardener and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnik
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For half of the children, the experimenter brought in the toy and said, “Oh, look at this neat toy! Oops!” Then she “accidentally” bumped into the tube so that the beeper squeaked. For the other half, the experimenter acted like a teacher. She said, “Oh, look at my neat toy! Let me show you how it works,” and deliberately pushed the tube that squeaked the beeper. Then she left the children alone to play with the toy.

Both groups of children immediately made the beeper squeak—they’d learned how the beeper worked. The question was whether they would also learn about all the other things the toy could do. When the experimenter activated the toy accidentally, the children were fascinated and they played. Just by randomly trying different actions they discovered all the things that the toy could do. But when the experimenter acted like a teacher, the children would squeak the beeper, and then squeak it again and again, ad nauseam, instead of trying something new.

The children played with the toy longer, tried more different actions, and discovered more of the “hidden” features when the experimenter squeaked the beeper accidentally than they did when she deliberately tried to teach them.

So teaching is a double-edged sword. The children were remarkably sensitive to the fact that they were being taught, just as we saw in previous chapters. But teaching seemed to discourage the children from discovering all the possibilities the toy had to offer. The children were more eager to imitate the teacher than to discover things themselves. (College teachers like me will recognize that this syndrome continues into adulthood.)

In my lab, we found much the same result in a different study. In that experiment, four-year-olds saw an adult act on a toy in a complicated sequence, shaking it, squeezing it, and then pulling a ring; or tapping it, pushing a button, and then turning it over. Sometimes the toy played music and sometimes it didn’t. The pattern of events indicated that there might be a much simpler way to make the machine go. For example, all you really had to do was just pull the ring.

When the adult said that she had no idea how the toy worked, the children discovered the more intelligent strategy. But when she acted like a teacher and said that she was showing the child how the toy worked, the children imitated everything the teacher did instead.

So do grown-up teachers always screw things up? Not necessarily. By its very nature spontaneous play is undirected and variable. But how about if you want to teach children something in particular, as we often do in school?

In one study, the researchers tried to teach preschool children a challenging geometry concept, the concept of shape. Preschoolers don’t yet know some basic principles about shape that are important for geometry. They don’t initially get that a triangle is a shape with three sides, no matter how long or short, acute or obtuse.

The researchers gave four-year-old children a set of cards with different kinds of shapes on them—both more typical shapes, like an equilateral triangle or a square, and more unusual ones like a parallelogram. One group just got to play with the cards.

For a second group, the experimenters joined in. They donned detective hats and explained that they were going to discover the secrets of the shapes. Then they pointed to a group of geometrically defined triangles or pentagons and asked the children to figure out their common secret. When the children responded, the grown-ups elaborated on what they said and asked them questions as part of the game.

For a third group of children, the experimenters acted like teachers. They said all the same things as the experimenters in the second group. However, rather than encouraging the children to generate the secret themselves, they simply told them what it was.

A week later the researchers asked the children to sort out a new group of shapes into “real” shapes that obeyed the geometrical rules and “fake” ones that didn’t. The children in the second, “guided play” condition did a much better job than either of the other two groups. They had learned the nature of the shapes more deeply, and understood the principles more completely.

This kind of guided play can serve as a model for teachers and educators. Scientists use the word “scaffolding” to describe this kind of interaction. It’s not that the grown-up builds knowledge for the child. Instead, the grown-up builds a scaffold, and the scaffold helps the child to build knowledge herself. This work on guided play parallels the work on children’s learning and listening I described earlier.

There are many ways that caregivers can contribute to play without telling children to play or trying to control how they play.Play is such a fundamental part of human childhood that it emerges even in awful circumstances. Children played even among the horrors of Nazi concentration camps. But clearly, play flourishes in a stable, safe environment. Caregivers have a more important role than anyone else in finding the resources to create that environment. It’s not easy or particularly fun, and none of us do it perfectly, but it’s a gift that lets children play.

Second, caregivers can contribute to the richness of a child’s world. Children play differently in different cultures partly because they are surrounded by different things to play with, from sticks, rocks, and corncobs to iPads. Grown-ups can provide those playthings. They can give children a chance to master the tools of their particular culture, like the adult crows that let
the babies play with their sticks and leaves.

A Wired magazine contest awarded sticks the prize of the all-time best toy. But they can be joined by pots and pans, watering cans and flowerpots, goldfish and caterpillars, and even iPhones and tablets.

And grown-ups can sometimes join in the play themselves. If children are exploring the minds of others, then the actual minds of actual others are the best toys of all. “Guided play” is a nice example. The grown-ups allow the children to lead the way, but they are also there to suggest or elaborate (and wear those silly detective hats).

But there is a more important reason to play with children. Play is really fun for grown-ups, too.

The Gardener and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnik

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Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and an affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. She is an internationally recognized leader in the study of children’s learning and development. She writes the Mind and Matter column for The Wall Street Journal and is the author of The Philosophical Baby and coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib. She has three sons and lives in Berkeley, California, with her husband, Alvy Ray Smith.

9780374114015

MONKEY DONKEY OWL

(1998)

He woke every night at the same time, the small hours — when it was darkest. His upper torso jerked; his eyes opened. His hand flailed for the lamp on the bedside table but met the impediment of the mosquito net. It took a moment or two to lift the net and find the switch on the base of the lamp, then he would sit upright, breathing heavily, absorbing the paradox of having woken so hot that he was damp and cold.


Black Water by Louise Doughty
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The electricity supply was unreliable during the day but at night the light came on immediately. The net was made of tough, opaque cotton and surrounded the bed. It was like being in a tent: outside, out there. The blood would rush in his ears so loudly that he could hear nothing else for a moment or two. He would breathe deeply, trying to still his heart and listening, then remind himself that he was not out there but in a large and comfortable hut, with ornate wooden doors and a rectangular block held in thick brackets barring them shut.

The hut was halfway up the hillside but the sounds of the rushing Ayung River filled the valley, the clamour and clamber of water over boulders. The rainy season had ended late that year and the river was still full. Night did something odd to the sounds around the hut: it was hard to tell how far or close they were — the scud and scramble of squirrels across his roof, the thump of something heavier, a monkey perhaps, also on the roof, or was it on the veranda? The veranda would creak, on occasion — it was supported by tall stilts and so impossible for anyone, or anything, to walk across it without making a noise.

Sometimes, he thought he heard a light scratching at the base of the wooden door. A river rat, perhaps? Did they come this far up the hill at night? He had seen several of them on his walks along the valley, black and quick, lolloping between the fat green leaves of undergrowth. At other times he would think, yes, there is definitely a creature on the roof. He would listen to the claw scratchings above him become more regular, and the scrit-scrit would turn into a pit-pit, pause, pit-pit-pit, which blossomed into the sound of rain. The clamour mounted rapidly then, until it was so deafening even the river became inaudible, water drowned beneath water.

In daylight hours, he liked to stand on the veranda and watch the rain, a wall of it so solid it seemed to fly upwards as well as down. In daylight it was beautiful — as long as you didn’t have to go out in it — but during the hours of darkness the torrent closed the world down, masked all other noises: there was nothing but rain.

* * *

He had only been in the hills for a week but it felt much longer. The errors of judgement he had made still filled his head. Henrikson, that knucklehead, walking in like he owned the place. Well, at least Wahid and Amber had seen through him; and that journalist — he couldn’t believe he’d let her play him — then, to cap it all, Amsterdam constantly questioning his ability. He went over and over his conversations with them in the hot dark hours when he lay awake, trapped in a maze of reasoning.

The last two nights, the fear had got worse. The noises on the roof had begun to mutate. He would wake now, more violently each night, certain that what he could hear was the sounds of feet on floorboards, not outside on the veranda but inside the hut, creeping closer and closer to his bed. At such times, his fear would mount so rapidly that all he could do was lift the mosquito net and climb down from the bed and patrol the hut, restlessly, looking under the table, opening the cupboard in the corner, peering into all the dark corners where the lamplight could not reach. Then he would need to urinate, and he would force himself to slide the block from its wooden brackets and push one of the doors outwards. He would defy the darkness by standing there for a moment, staring out at the pitch black, the dim light behind him casting a huge shadow across the veranda, and he would step over the carved doorframe towards the rail, piss mightily out into the dark, go back inside, slide the wooden block across and check every corner of the hut all over again, as if someone or something might have sneaked past him, although this time the ritual was calmer, because he had invited an intruder by opening a door and so it was less likely to happen. He had proved to himself that he was not afraid. They only came when you were afraid.

Eventually, he would get back into bed and turn off the lamp, his heart stilled. The ritual search, the bravado of opening the door, had convinced him that his fears were groundless, nothing more than the irrationality of night. He would lie back and close his eyes, pulling the sheet over his shoulder. He would just be drifting back to sleep . . . And it would come, then, when he was at the point of sinking back into unconsciousness. Always then: the ghekko’s honking cry, on the roof right above his head, only feet away, sudden and loud in its malevolence and echoing above all the other sounds. Eh-ur! A derisive, taunting pause. Eh-ur! He would be upright again, sweating again, furious and terrified at its warning. Eh-ur!

He would cry out then, shout out loud, and bang the sides of his hut to frighten the creature away. Wasn’t it dawn soon? Where was Kadek?

* * *

That particular night, the night he knew, the ghekko’s call was so loud, so inevitable, that he didn’t even bother to bang against the walls of his hut, just sat up, breathing heavily, put the light on and slumped with his head in his hands, as if to say to the ghekko, okay, you win.

It came to him then, what was going to happen. They were going to kill him. Take a break for a while, Amsterdam had said. Go up to the hills, we have a little place outside of town, it’s been used before. Have a rest, you’ve earned it. When we’ve talked to the West Coast, we’ll let you know. He had wondered, at the time, why they had to talk to the West Coast at all. They had sent in Henrikson, after all. If Amsterdam was certain he was finished they should have recalled him immediately. Why send him up to the hills — unless they wanted him out of the picture if the press ran with that story? Well, that was what he had thought at the time. Now though, in the dark of night, the decision to send him here took on a different meaning.

So, that was it. He had become a liability. He had outlived his usefulness, even though it wasn’t him that had wanted to come back out here in the first place; they had had to twist his arm. How ironic was that?

This certainty was something new; something solid at last. He lay back on the bed and, for the first time since he had arrived on the island, allowed himself to close his eyes and listen to the ghekko without fear.

The roof above him creaked, the night insects chirruped and hollered – but there was no rain. One thing he was sure about: they would wait for rain.

* * *

In the morning, he was woken by the dawn light and the cicadas’ tuneless chorale. A dream had come to him in the night, just before waking, it felt like — he couldn’t recall it, but was sure he had dreamt. There was an image in his head of a man in an open-necked shirt, smiling at him in greeting, and a feeling of fear and horror. The image made no sense. He shook his head to rid himself of it.

As soon as he started to walk around the hut, heavy-footed and exhausted as he was each morning, he heard the sound of Kadek on the veranda. He was never sure what time Kadek arrived but it was usually as dawn broke, in order to be there when Harper awoke.

He went to the doors and slid back the wooden block, a task that seemed so easy and natural in daylight he didn’t even think about it. He pulled the doors wide open and stepped onto the veranda. Outside, it was grey and hot. The valley was flung before him: the hillside opposite his hut rose almost vertically, a vast steep wall of misted palm trees and in the distance, Gunung Agung, holy mountain, the volcano, its lower slopes wreathed in cloud so that it looked, as it often did, as if it was floating above the forest. His hut was kaja, it looked towards the mountain, which pleased him. Perhaps he was getting religious in his old age.

Kadek stood at the far end of the veranda as he did each morning, keeping a respectful distance until bidden. He was holding a bucket of water.

‘Good morning, Mr Harper,’ he said, with the slightest of bows. And then, the expressionless statement: ‘I hope you passed a peaceful night.’

Kadek’s vocabulary was not wide but he spoke English with precision. His plain oval face was open and concerned and Harper had the feeling that the man knew nights were bad for him. He wondered what Kadek really thought of him. The hut belonged to the Institute and must have been used by other operatives but there was no trace of them, not so much as a few battered paperbacks in the wooden cupboard in the corner. As a result, Harper felt possessive about the hut, and about Kadek, although he was not naïve enough to imagine his feelings were reciprocated.

He wanted to say to Kadek, take a good look: do I look like a bule to you? He had spoken Indonesian to Kadek when he first arrived but they had soon slipped into English. It was often the same on these islands. In Europe and America, those demanding lands, he was a man required to explain himself, his thick black hair, his large black eyes. On the plane coming here, he could feel his skin colour changing mid flight: he got whiter and whiter the further east he flew.

He would have liked to discuss this with Kadek but he didn’t want to embarrass the man, who probably thought that Harper looked pretty damn white to him and either way worked for a large and powerful organisation with some hard dollars to spend. Wasn’t trying to befriend Kadek as insulting, in its own way, as giving him orders? So he did indeed behave like all the other white men who came to this island and all the islands on this vast archipelago. Perhaps that was why he woke in the night. It wasn’t fear: it was hatred, hatred of himself. It was the knowledge that if — when — the men with machetes came, he, like all the other bule, would probably deserve it.

He nodded to Kadek. Kadek stepped forward with the bucket and poured water into the bowl on the small table to the right of the door, placed the bucket by the table, then lifted the towel that was hanging over his arm and folded it neatly next to the bowl, knowing that Harper liked his morning wash here, looking out over the valley. Later, he would pour more water in the bak mandi to the side of the hut.

Terima kasih.’

‘Shall I bring your breakfast, Mr Harper?’ Kadek replied.

He stepped up to the bowl and splashed his face with water, then stood upright again with his face dripping. ‘Thank you Kadek, if you could leave it on the desk. I’m going for a walk down to the river.’

Kadek gave another small bow, retreated. Harper pulled his T-shirt over his head, dropped it in a small crumple on the table, to the left of the bowl, and bent to finish his wash. He submerged each of his arms in turn, splashing water under his armpits, feeling, as he always did, the looseness of the muscles on the upper arms, muscles that had once been as taut as wire, or so he liked to think. He could pull his own weight up and down on a bar dozens of times in a row when he was a young man: not any more. He picked up the half coconut shell next to the bowl, filled it with a little water, rinsed it in case there were ants invisible against the dark grain of the wood and tossed the water over the balcony, filled it again and, bending his head, tipped it over his hair and the back of his neck, inhaling at the shock of it.

He dried himself with his T-shirt, then plunged it into the water, immersing it, pressing down on the blisters of air that rose in the fabric. A picture came to him, black water, long strands of hair, clinging like seaweed across his wrist: he dismissed the picture. Instead, he played the game of pressing at the bubbles of air beneath the T-shirt until they formed smaller bubbles, mobile beneath the thin material. Then he was impatient with the game and held the whole T-shirt down, crushing it between his fists. It was like drowning a kitten.

* * *

The path down to the river was narrow and steep. Black and yellow butterflies sprang amongst the foliage. It took ten minutes to descend but twice that to go back up, three times if you attempted it in the full heat of midday. After his disturbed night, it was calming to be walking in the grey, hot morning. His old boots &mdash how many years had he had them? Expensive tan leather when new, from a shop on Oud Zuid, they were now so beaten and pale they were as comfy as slippers. The noise of the river rose to greet him, pure and deafening.

His favourite spot was a few minutes’ walk from the bottom of the path, with a large rock that protruded over a pool. It was inviting enough to bathe in but he knew the ticks and parasites that lived there could be as deadly as the gangs of men who, he was convinced, would soon be roaming the countryside at night, just as before. On balance, he would prefer to face the men: and again, it came to him, just as it had in the pitch dark, his certainty, his own calmness in the face of it.

He sat down on the rock, withdrew his notebook and pencil from his pocket and in his neat but tiny scrawl, began to write. He had never needed to use code for his notes, that was how tiny and dense his writing was, but in any case, he would tear this page out later. It was only a first draft, the first draft of a letter that he would transfer onto fragile blue airmail paper when he returned to his hut.

He wrote a few lines, then stopped. Francisca, how will she understand? But he had to write or at least try. His wife — well, ex-wife now — it would be yet another tragedy for her. She wore tragedy well, it suited her, but he felt bad all the same because he knew in some way, she would blame herself. That was what Francisca did. Then there was his mother, Moeder. Ma. Anika. At this thought, he groaned aloud. She was alone now, with her bitter memories, and him the only child living. She was still drinking herself to death in the old house but the harder she drank, the longer she seemed to live. When they told her he was missing, it might not even register, so far gone was she. He watched the cool water of the pool beneath where he sat on the rock and the insects zig-zagging above its surface and thought that, when they came, the men with machetes, they would be very young; no more than boys really, skinny boys with long fingers and wide eyes, red bandanas tied round their foreheads, faces smeared with paint. The black shirts would come later, when the militias had had time to get organised. Did anyone really believe Habibie could prevent that, with the Generals pulling the strings? The boys were more haphazard in what they did but just as deadly. Young men believed in violence, after all: it was their religion, all over the world, whatever god they nominally worshipped — and this time, three decades on from the last, it would surely be no different. He could picture the procession that would come up the side of the valley in the night. They would pass this very spot. He was fairly sure they would come in this direction because the river path led directly to the edge of town.

It will be night, of course, he thought, a moonless night. They will wait for rain to mask their tracks. They will come along the path, walking in silence, the rushing of the river and the downpour on the leaves loud in their ears. Before they begin the climb up the steep side of the valley, they will pause for a kretek, crouching down beneath the large leaves of a tree for shelter, sharing one perhaps, because they have no money and have to steal cigarettes from their fathers and uncles, something they do without compunction. Their fathers and uncles have never spoken to them about what happened before so they believe, like all youths, that they have invented bravado. Their fathers and uncles seem like foolish old men to them. Perhaps, as they crouch and smoke, the water dripping down their necks, there will be some giggling, the kind of cold giggling that boys do before they transgress: the kind he remembered himself doing as he bullied the smaller boys at school.

And all at once, as he sat on the rock above the pool, he thought, yes, at school, I was a bully. He had thought he was defending himself but actually, he was a bully. Black bastard from Batavia, that ginger boy two years older had called him — the final thump landing with extra emphasis on Batavia. But it wasn’t the ginger boy that Harper had beaten up, that boy had too many friends. It was a freckled kid in his own class who did no more than ask, are you part-something? Strange how that should come to him now.

After their cigarette, he thought, the boys will begin the climb up through the undergrowth, the steep sides of the valley. They will use their machetes to push the ferns and creepers aside. That’s something that won’t be covered by the rain — it will leave a clear trail of their progress that would be appreciated by any investigator: except that there will be no investigation. Nobody investigated Joosten, after all.

As they near the hut, they will pause again, crouching down, observing the dark bulk of the construction above them, listening to the clatter of the water on the roof. And now the adrenaline will start to flow in their veins, and the smallest and youngest of them will be overwhelmed with a need to pee, and the one in charge, his big brother, will be most frightened of all, and so hiss urgent instructions to the others, hiding his fear in his commands. Perhaps the bule will make it easy for them, the boy in charge will be hoping: if he roars, or picks up an object to fight back, then it will be easy to cut him down, because then they will be threatened and have no choice. The big boy is hoping this is what will happen.

And he, Harper, alone in his hut, perhaps he will be awake, thanks to the ghekko — or perhaps, just for once, he will be sound asleep.

They will come through the window. The shutters will be easier to smash than the doors — it will make a racket, of course, even above the rain, but out here that won’t matter. It will be too late by then. There is only one window, and one door, and both lead out onto the same veranda. He will have nowhere to hide.

Will they send boys? Harper wondered. If they want him dead, better to send an experienced man, one of the black-shirted militia who knows what he is doing, there were plenty of them around last time although, like the boys, they tended to work in groups. But boys would be easier to finesse if, back home, they were going to portray his death as part of the general disorder that was going on: that would be simplest for them. That was how he would do it, if he were them. There weren’t any shopping malls to loot and burn out here in the forest, but people back home thought of whole countries as violent once they had seen a few television pictures. Yes, poor Harper, wrong place, wrong time. Could happen to anyone. Word would get around the office, just like it always did. And I hear he’d got careless, the drinking, you know . . . At this, the person talking would lift a cup-shaped hand halfway up to his or her mouth and wobble it. Sending him back out there, after the problems he’d had, it was probably a mistake. He had had many of those conversations himself, over the years. Did you hear what happened to Joosten? They tied him to the wheel of his car and poured petrol over it. You don’t mess with those drugs lords, you know. Tales of bad things happening out in the field flattered those back home — look how dangerous our job can be, on occasion. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens. Joosten had been known to smoke a bit. Harper had seen him do it. There was almost always some basis to the rumours. That’s what they did in his line of work: took a thread of truth and wove a carpet out of it.

Once, when they were drinking together back in Amsterdam, Joosten had let slip he had a safe house: a flat somewhere in a foreign city, he wouldn’t say where, not a country that their firm operated in. It was stocked with tinned food in case he needed to lie low for a while, and money and a false passport. Harper had left the bar that night shaking his head at Joosten’s paranoia.

Beginning the letter to Francisca had convinced him that his calm during the night was due to more than exhaustion — he was sure, now, what was going to happen. What was it, to know you were going to die? We all carry that knowledge inside us, he thought: it is the one thing we know for certain.

The black and green water in the rock pool — how cool it appeared. How good it would feel, in the rising humidity, to slip his old boots from his feet and dabble his toes in that water. Up in the hut, Kadek would have placed his breakfast — rice and a little sambal, some chicken maybe and some fruit — on the desk by the window. It would have a banana leaf laid over it to protect it. Kadek would have opened the shutters, to air the room, and folded back his crumpled bed sheets, smoothing them neatly. He should go back. There was the letter he really should write, even though it would be full of untruths and he might not get the chance to send it.

He rose from the rock, stretched his arms upwards, performed a few loose movements from side to side with his hands on his hips, and turned to climb up the path.

* * *

It had already begun before Harper got there — that made it easier; it was well underway in fact. He was with Benni, that fat gangster. He liked his sweets, Benni, which was why he was down to three teeth, one front tooth and two incisors. Harper had spent months cultivating him when he got to Jakarta, on his first visit, back in ’65. Benni was said to have good connections with the military and like all the gangster-militiamen was fervently anti-Communist. The stallholders and shopkeepers in his area were terrified of him but whether or not he dined with Generals was another matter.

They were in the small front area of a disused bar down a narrow alleyway in Pasar Senen. It was mid-afternoon and the sun blazed outside. There was a garage or storeroom of some sort out back where a man was being held. He had been there since dawn; a Chinese merchant who sold bolts of cloth from a shop next to the picture house on the edge of a nearby kampong, one of the cinemas the PKI had closed down recently because they showed decadent Western movies. Benni’s friends had lost money because of the cinema closures. The Chinese merchant had no proven connection with what had happened next door to his shop but he hadn’t paid his protection money in a month.

Harper gathered this and other details as a group of them stood together in the front room of the bar — he and Benni had been lunching nearby when Benni’s driver had turned up and said they needed the boss. Six of Benni’s men plus the driver were gathered round and Harper got the gist, though they were all talking quickly and at once. The men were excited, competing for their boss’s attention. ‘BB! BB!’ they kept saying before they launched into their résumé of the story so far. The man was a Communist agitator who had been holding meetings in the back of his shop after closing hours, one of them seemed to be saying. Another mentioned a pile of chairs. The man was a liar, another interjected. He was worse than a nekolim . . . At the word nekolim, Benni clapped Harper on the shoulder and gave a gap-toothed grin and the other men looked at Harper for a moment until Harper gave a short bark of a laugh and suddenly the men were laughing too. Then they went back to talking at once. Most of them had been drinking arak all morning, Harper decided. They were his age, mid-twenties, or younger, apart from Benni who was maybe ten years older.

Benni’s face became still as he listened further. In his meetings with Harper so far, he had been jovial and hospitable, giving him lunches and imported whisky, but when he was with his men, Benni liked to affect an air of seriousness. Then, without saying anything, he strode towards the back of the bar, his men following anxiously. Harper decided to wait where he was, wishing the bar was still operational. It was the first time Benni had involved him in his daily activities, which was good, a sign he was beginning to trust him — but he would hang back until he was called, let Benni initiate his level of involvement. He rubbed his palms together quickly and tried to ignore the small thumping in his chest.

The others disappeared behind a door that clanged shut, leaving a metallic silence in its wake. Harper went to the front of the building, which was open to the alleyway, and looked down at the cement step to see if it was clean enough to sit on: it wasn’t. The alleyway was lined with drainage ditches that smelt of shit and piss.

While he waited, a very young boy wearing nothing but a dirty T-shirt came and stood opposite him and stared, fearlessly, three fingers of one hand in his mouth and the other hand supporting his elbow, little round stomach protruding. Harper stared back at him. After a moment or two of appraisal, the boy turned and ran, kicking up dirt, shouting out something high-pitched and triumphant, as if he had fulfilled a dare.

The door behind him clanged again. One of Benni’s men was standing at the back of the room, gesturing. ‘Mr BB says come.’

When Harper entered the room, a filthy storage place with a low ceiling and one high, barred window, he saw in the dim light that there was a Chinese Indonesian seated on a low chair, with a table in front of him and his hands tied behind his back. It took Harper’s eyes a moment or two to adjust. It was hard to tell the man’s age. His face was covered in blood, and part of his scalp had been removed: what lay beneath was gleaming, wet and bare. His head was slumped a little to one side, as if he knew that he was going to be killed anyway, whatever he said — which was true — and had simply given up, resolved to endure what must be endured before his final moments.

Benni was standing in one corner. ‘Come, you come stand next to me,’ he said to Harper in English. ‘Stand next to me, watch for a bit. He sees white man, he thinks someone. He thinks maybe, things maybe okay. Maybe he talk.’ Harper understood that his presence was, in effect, to extend the man’s torture. Perhaps they were hoping that by accident they had picked up a Commie after all. He might give them names. Nothing was as valuable as names, back then in ’65, as Jakarta simmered higher and higher, everyone was collecting names — they were a lot more valuable than the plummeting rupiah, which was worth so little now you had to walk around with a duffel bag of the stuff on your shoulder if you wanted to buy a beer. Even he, Harper, the man with access to the hardest currency of all authorised by his organisation, even he was dealing in names.

The man had raised his head as Harper entered. He was staring at him, eyes wide in his bloodied face. Harper stared back. He tried to communicate that there was no hope, that the man should simply go back to wishing, waiting to die, make his peace with whatever god he might worship, say goodbye in his head to his family. The man lowered his head.

This seemed to enrage one of Benni’s men, a small moustachioed type who stood nearest to the Chinese merchant and who was, Harper guessed, Benni’s number two in these matters. He snatched a pair of bloodied scissors from the table in front of the man and began to wave them in the man’s face and scream. It occurred to Harper that this was a test, that Benni had invited him in here to see how he would react — Benni was, after all, under the impression that he was recruiting Harper rather than the other way around. He glanced at the other men. They were all striking various poses around the room — two of them were mimicking the man with the moustache, staring at the merchant, teeth bared, faces gleaming with sweat. Two others were leaning against the wall, arms folded, staring, trying to look as hard as possible; one of the others was turning restlessly to and fro. The last one, the driver, who was about eighteen, Harper guessed, a tall boy with sloping shoulders, stood close to Harper and Benni, motionless but with his arms raised and his fists clenched, his gaze flitting this way and that, as if he were engaged in a high-speed race on a dangerous road and needed to be hyper-alert. Some of them had been drinking but they were all, all but Benni and himself, possessed by a kind of pseudo-sexual excitement. It came off them like a scent. Harper guessed these boys didn’t get much, if any. This kind of activity had to do instead.

The man with the moustache carried on screaming, his face contorted, his voice high-pitched, and Harper found this screaming more unbearable than anything. Just die, Harper thought, looking at the merchant, just close down, make your thoughts leave your body. He wondered if it was possible to make yourself die, in extremis, to will it to happen but of course it wasn’t. Dying was a giving up of will. You could no more will it than levitate.

He wanted to think about something other than the bloodied man in front of him so he thought about his own end. He would like to be able to see the sky, he thought. A perfect death would come in an arbour of some sort, with trees and flowers around, with a woman beside you who loved you and laid a cooling hand on your forehead. Your last thought as you slipped into unconsciousness would be that you were loved; the air full of sunshine, a blue and infinite sky.

Not somewhere like here, alone but for the people who wanted you dead. Not this darkened room, with dank walls and a stinking dirt floor and a little grey light scarcely strong enough to illuminate the faces of the people who were about to kill you. Not like this. Not circling in water, either, unaware — how’s that for fresh air, Bud?

The thought that he pushed to the back of his mind, as he stood and watched a man in pain and did nothing because his handler at the embassy had told him to win the trust of a filthy gangster who may or may not have good contacts with the military, was that he would never know what the look on his own face was like in the minutes before he died. He would never see it mirrored in a loved one. It felt like the most profound of premonitions, that there would be no witness to his departing, or no benign witness, but it was only three decades later, sitting on a rock above a green pool on a beautiful island, with a notebook on his lap, that he remembered it.

Black Water by Louise Doughtry

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LOUISE DOUGHTY is the author of seven previous novels, including Apple Tree Yard, which was a top ten bestseller in the U.K. and Ireland and was translated into twenty-seven languages. It was long-listed for The Guardian’s Not the Booker prize and short-listed for a CWA Steel Dagger Award and a Specsavers National Book Award. Her sixth novel, Whatever You Love, was short-listed for the Costa Novel Award. She lives in London.

They May Not Mean To but They Do

Acclaimed for blending wry humor and crystal-clear truth, Cathleen Schine now explores the quandaries of eldercare through the eyes of a vibrant matriarch who has no interest in aging gracefully. Joy Bergman has stood by her husband for nearly a lifetime, but as he slips further into dementia and their finances dwindle, she faces exasperating choices. When their well-intentioned children try to intervene, they aren’t prepared for their mother’s rebellious streak, especially when an old flame enters her life. A radiant, compassionate look at three generations—including in-laws, ex-in-laws, and same-sex spouses— They May Not Mean To, But They Do is a modern take on timeless questions of love and loyalty.

We hope that the following guide will enhance your experience of this exuberant, heartwarming novel.


Abroad by Katie Crouch
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Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. How do the aging parents described in the novel compare to your relatives? Who will your long-term caregivers be when you’re not able to care for yourself?

2. Aaron is “sentimental and unreliable and brimming with love and obvious charm,” while Joy is “distracted, forgetful, thoughtful, brimming with love, too.” How were Molly and Daniel affected by having lovebirds for parents? In their own marriages, and as parents themselves, are Molly and Daniel very different from their parents?

3. As Aaron and Duncan lose their grip on reality, which one fares better?

4. What is the ultimate role of Walter, Wanda, and Elvira? How does Joy navigate the fact that they are paid workers, yet they are performing deeply personal work for a family that has become attached to them?

5. Cathleen Schine is a master of tragicomedy. Which scenes made you laugh out loud, inappropriately?

6. Where should Freddie and Coco fit into the decision-making for their in-laws? What are the advantages and disadvantages of being on the fringes of a family in crisis?

7. Is “selling Upstate” the best solution to Joy’s financial conundrum? Should children help pay for their parents’ retirement?

8. How does Joy’s life as a museum conservator reflect her perception of the past?

9. Chapter 41 is just two sentences long: “Daniel asked his mother if she was depressed. She said, ‘Naturally.’ ” What do these seemingly simple sentences say about the nature of grief?

10. How do you predict Ben, Cora, and Ruby will treat their aging parents?

11. Would you have said yes to Karl’s proposition, even if it meant giving up a rent-controlled apartment?

12. In the closing scene, as Joy helps Ben with a legal situation, why does she finally feel at home? What does she want her purpose in life to be?

13. In the last paragraph of chapter 20, Joy turns the Philip Larkin lines cited in the epigraph on their head; in her version, “they” refers to the children, not the parents. What do her children mean to do, and why do they create such havoc for her?

14. In each of her novels, which portraits of companionship and solitude does Cathleen Schine create? How do her characters tolerate loneliness, and each other?

Praise for They May Not Mean To, But They Do

“This marvelous novel is emotionally stirring and hilarious on virtually every page. How does Cathleen Schine know everything about everything? Her observations about family life, friendship, loss, aging, dignity, indignity, and the attachments we miraculously make that never seem to unattach are profound and rewarding. I already miss living in the world of this special and winning book.” —Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings

“Cathleen Schine has written an entirely different kind of coming-of-age novel. This is not about how a twentysomething becomes a thirtysomething. It’s about how people making the difficult and at times scary journey into old old age figure out how to live. And it’s about the people who surround them—with love, anxiety, resentment, and sometimes complete misunderstanding. They May Not Mean To, But They Do is a great read: empathetic, and also very, very funny.” —Roz Chast, author of Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

They May Not Mean To, But They Do by Cathleen Schine

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CATHLEEN SCHINE is the author of The Three Weissmanns of Westport, The Love Letter, and The New Yorkers, among other novels. She has contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, and The New York Times Book Review. She lives in Los Angeles.

Miroslav Penkov

Miroslav Penkov’s debut novel, Stork Mountain, is full of “strange and vertiginous language.” It was with great pleasure that we asked him about the Balkan lineage of his book and what he’s reading lately.


Stork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov
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Who is your ideal reader?

Writing simultaneously in two languages—English and Bulgarian—has always put me in a difficult spot. For example, who is Stork Mountain really meant for? Readers in the West who are not intimately familiar with Bulgarian culture and history and for whom certain historical and cultural elements should be streamlined and simplified? Or readers in Bulgaria who would be supremely annoyed by too much simplification and streamlining? I don’t know how to deal with this issue other than to write for one ideal, imaginary reader—someone who knows close to nothing about Bulgaria, yet is not afraid to wade out deep into its history and myth; who is not easily frightened by the politics of an unaccustomed region, but is curious, hungry and excited to learn; a traveler who understands that it is the journey that matters, the winding path with a heart, and not necessarily the straight, easy line which leads us quickly to the final destination.

What’s one book you return to over and over again?

There are a number of writers I return to with regularity. Every year (and this has something to do with the fact that I teach fiction at a university) I reread stories by Chekhov, Carver, William Trevor, Katherine Anne Porter, Ellen Gilchrist, Wells Tower, and Bonnie Jo Campbell (students love the last two). I also reread the novels of Nikos Kazantzakis and John Williams (I’m always deeply moved by Stoner’s elegant and quiet prose). I keep nearby Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and The Cat’s Table and read them like poetry, a few pages at a time. I do the same with Jack Gilbert’s collected poems.

What book would you consider an “ancestor” of your own most recent book and why?

I wanted Stork Mountain to be a proper Balkan novel. I read and reread Nikos Kazantzakis’s Freedom and Death, which is packed with stories—not only of its heroes, but also of its minor characters; characters who appear on one or two pages, yet burn with a blinding flame. But in many ways Stork Mountain is also a novel written in the tradition of the American South. When I was nineteen I moved to Arkansas and studied there for eight years; the literature of the South had a profound influence on the way I think of life and writing; the Faulknerian credo—“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”—truly changed the way I think of personal and collective history.

What’s one book you’ve tried to finish but couldn’t?

I really, really disliked Wuthering Heights and have always felt guilty about it. It has one of the best openings I’ve ever read; so atmospheric, so powerful. And then . . . Heathcliff. A romantic hero to be sure, destructive in his passions, but so much less interesting, so much more of a caricature than someone like, say, Dmitry Karamazov who may very well be my favorite fictional character; a man full of uncontrollable passions, contradictions and corruption that have always felt truly human to me.

What’s the last book that made you cry?

About a year ago I read Shusaku Endo’s Silence and cried my eyes out. It was a book I didn’t think I would like much—I love many Japanese novels (The Makioka Sisters being one of my favorite books), but this one was different; Endo was Catholic and this story is focused on two Portuguese missionaries in the seventeenth century, held captive by the Japanese, tortured and forced to renounce Christ. It’s a really great novel (Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis comes to mind) and I can’t wait to see Martin Scorsese’s adaptation, which comes out later this year (Liam Neeson as a Jesuit priest must not be missed).

What are you reading now?

I’m finishing William Gay’s Provinces of Night. A stunning, stunning novel. I’ve always loved his short stories, but for some inexplicable reason never read his novels. What a silly mistake. His sentences are extraordinary. His characters are so alive. I don’t think I’ve ever highlighted as much in another book; not just paragraphs, but entire pages which I’ll be going back and rereading for years to come.

Stork Mountain

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Miroslav Penkov was born in 1982 in Bulgaria. He moved to America in 2001 and received an MFA in creative writing at the University of Arkansas. His stories have won the BBC International Short Story Award 2012 and The Southern Review‘s Eudora Welty Prize and have appeared in A Public Space, Granta, One Story, The Best American Short Stories 2008, The PEN / O. Henry Prize Stories 2012, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2013. Published in over a dozen countries, East of the West was a finalist for the 2012 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing and the Steven Turner Award for First Fiction by the Texas Institute of Letters. In 2014–15 he was the literature protégé in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, working with mentor Michael Ondaatje. Penkov teaches creative writing at the University of North Texas, where he is editor in chief of the American Literary Review.

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Bulgaria and Fiction by Miroslav Penkov

An Excerpt from Stork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov

They May Not Mean To but They Do

“Over the past thirty-three years, Cathleen Schine has been one of our most realistically imaginative, dependably readable novelists . . . Her tenth and newest novel, however, cuts deeper, feels fuller and more ambitious, and seems to me her best.” —Phillip Lopate, New York Review of Books

Joy Bergman is the matriarch of a tight-knit family, despite generational and geographical distances. When her beloved husband dies, her two children, Molly and Daniel, are sure they know what their mother needs in her old age. What they don’t count on is the reappearance of a suitor from Joy’s college days, and their own mother’s willful and rebellious coming-of-old-age.
We’re featuring the first chapter of Cathleen Schine’s new novel,
They May Not Mean To, But They Do, a radiantly compassionate, deeply funny look at three generations, all coming of age together.


Chapter 1

Abroad by Katie Crouch
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Molly Bergman moved to California, and it broke her mother’s heart. There are daughters who spend their lives trying to escape their mothers, who move to their particular California the minute they’re able to, who never stop moving to California. Molly was decidedly not one of those daughters. It was a painful move even before her parents got, so suddenly, so old.

Molly’s mother was named Joy, and people said, Oh, they broke the mold when they made that one. People who loved her said it, people who did not love her said it, too, for the same reason. They found Joy disconcerting, and they were right. She was so intimate and so remote, as remote as a faraway, nameless planet sometimes; sometimes soft and sympathetic. She was talkative, yet she heard everything you said or thought you might say. She was wise and she was deep, intuitive, the kind of person to whom people confided their darkest secrets; she was scatterbrained and easily distractible and often forgot people’s darkest secrets, which, she always said, was just as well.

She seemed to Molly, growing up, to be the busiest and most important mother in New York City. Joy’s work was her vocation, that’s what Joy said when she was happy. When she was frustrated and tired, she said it was a velvet coffin without the velvet.

She was also beautiful, radiantly beautiful. Like a doe, fragile and supple and quick. She was blond, but her eyes were as brown as a doe’s. When she smiled, everyone around her smiled, and she smiled a great deal, though it was often from abstraction rather than any particular moment of happiness. She loved New York because, she liked to say, she fit in with all the misfits.

Molly and her brother, Daniel, began their lives with Joy and their father, Aaron, in a two-bedroom apartment with dinette on the West Side of Manhattan, the dinette converted into a third bedroom. Their neighbors were immigrants from Eastern Europe, émigrés from Brooklyn, teachers and violinists and opera singers. You could hear the opera singers as you walked down Broadway, arias amid the car horns. There were mom-and-pop dress shops and dairy restaurants and bakeries, and Molly remembered the square rooms, the high ceilings, the shutters that folded in on themselves, the deep windowsills on which she used to sit and look out at the street. But when Molly was eight and her brother six, their father inherited his family’s manufacturing business, and the Bergmans left West Eighty-ninth Street. Aaron said the West Side was becoming seedy.

There were fewer Eastern European immigrants and Brooklyn escapees on Park Avenue, no dairy restaurants, more gentiles. It was a quiet, civilized neighborhood, at least until late afternoon, when the private schools let out. Molly and Daniel still went to their progressive private school on the West Side, but when Molly got off the bus, she could already hear the commotion of the East Side children at the corner store. She always waited for them to leave the store before buying her own candy and secretly envied them their noisy cabal and, even more secretly, their school uniforms.

“Across the park is as far as we go,” Joy declared. “No farther, Aaron.”

Daniel did go a bit farther when he grew up. He and his wife, Coco, and their two little girls lived on the Lower East Side. That was inexplicable to Joy and Aaron, moving to the tenements their grandparents had left behind. Inexplicable, yes, but accessible by subway, Joy said to Molly. The Bergmans were New Yorkers, she said, had always been New Yorkers. This was a fact, in a way that Molly’s move to Los Angeles could never be.

* * *

Each time Molly left New York after a visit, Joy felt the air go out of the city.

“You’re too attached,” one of her friends said. “My daughter lives in Australia.”

Joy shuddered. A daughter in Australia might as well be a dead daughter. Divorce was a terrible thing, and she was sorry Molly had given up a perfectly reasonable husband so she could be a lesbian in California. It was peculiar, having a lesbian daughter, though plenty of her friends did, too, it turned out. But many things were peculiar in this world, and Joy had overcome her discomfort with Freddie. She even called her “my daughter-in-law” now. Freddie was a lot of fun, warm, kind, gainfully employed, and low-maintenance, everything a mother-in-law could ask for. Joy did not blame her for being a woman, or tried not to. Molly was happy, Joy could see that, and it warmed her heart.

But what good is a warmed heart if it is also broken? Joy’s heart was broken. By California.

“California”—even the name had become ugly to Joy, like “Lee Harvey Oswald” or “Sirhan Sirhan.”

Joy’s parents had moved several times during the Depression, first to places where someone could take them in, then to places where they took others in. Each move was a shock to Joy, an almost physical jolt. So many people left behind—shopkeepers, neighbors, the policeman on the corner, the ladies sitting on their stoops. They were what made a place a home. There were so many things one had to give up in this world. Why would you choose to give up your home? For California?

Perhaps she should move to California, too. Aaron might not know the difference.

“Would you like to move to California, Aaron?”

“Come if you dare, our trumpets sound,” he sang. “Come if you dare, the foes rebound…”

He could not tell you what day it was, but he remembered his Purcell.

It was Sunday and she had ordered him a dinner of French toast from the coffee shop. New York was good for the elderly in that way, the deliveries. She had come to include Aaron in the category of “the elderly,” she realized with a pang. And where does that leave me, she wondered vaguely. At any rate, it was too difficult sometimes to herd Aaron and his walker out of the apartment and down the street to the coffee shop. She could have made French toast, she supposed. If there had been eggs. Or bread. If she still cooked.

“Isn’t there a joke, we could have ham and eggs if we had ham…”

“… and we had eggs!”

They laughed, repeated it, “We could have ham and eggs…”

Aaron took a bite of French toast and made a face.

“You love French toast, Aaron, so stop it.”

“Do I?”

He was hunched over the dining-room table. There was a bath mat on the seat of his chair as well as a blue chux pad. Joy leaned over and straightened them.

“You going to work today?” he said.

“No, dear, it’s Sunday.”

“Oh yeah?”

He took a bite of French toast and made another sour face.

“Stop that,” she said. “Anyway, you need a haircut.”

“You going to work today?” he said.

Sometimes Joy thought he was doing it on purpose. “No, not today. Today is Sunday.”

“Oh yeah? What is this, anyway?” he said, poking at the French toast.

“Your dinner.”

“I’m not hungry.”

Joy grabbed his plate and brought it to the kitchen and scraped the French toast into the garbage.

“Joy! Joy!”

She stuck her head back into the dining room.

“You going to work today?” he asked.

“If you ask me that one more time, I’m putting a bag over your head,” she said mildly.

Aaron brought his face down to the teacup and took a sip, then looked fondly at his wife. He pointed to the cup of almost colorless liquid. “Join me, sweetheart?”

He began to sing in his once clear voice, now heavy and hoarse. “Tea for two, me for you…”

He sang pleasantly to himself while Joy fetched herself a cup of tea, and they sat looking out at the traffic’s red brake lights, something they’d both always found festive as the evening drew in.

They May Not Mean To, But They Do by Cathleen Schine

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CATHLEEN SCHINE is the author of The Three Weissmanns of Westport, The Love Letter, and The New Yorkers, among other novels. She has contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, and The New York Times Book Review. She lives in Los Angeles.

sportofkings1-502x271

Henry Forge and his daughter, Henrietta, are the heirs to one of Kentucky’s oldest and richest families. According to Forge family mythology, their lineage can be traced back to the white settlers who first crossed the Cumberland Gap in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War.

Allmon Shaughnessy is a young black man propelled by the twin forces of fate and history who turns up at the Forge farm in search of a job as a groom. Henrietta hires Allmon in a fit of rebellion and attraction, despite her father’s racist disposition. Against the verdant backdrop of Kentucky horse country, Henry, Henrietta, and Allmon are united by one horse—Hellsmouth, the pride of the family farm and the Thoroughbred on which they’ve all pinned their personal dreams of glory. As ambition and prejudice collide, all three must bear the pressures of history—a reckoning with America’s legacies of bondage and subjugation as well as the mysterious inner workings of human nature.


The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
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QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION

1. The Sport of Kings opens with a question that resounds throughout the story: “How far away from your father can you run?” Later, Henry Forge reflects, “That was the game of youth, wasn’t it—murdering one’s father?” (p. 312) Henry, Henrietta, and Allmon Shaughnessy all rebel against their fathers’ identities and values. How far away does each of them ultimately manage to run? What impact do their mothers have, present and absent?

2. John Henry Forge mixes learning with cruelty, arrogance, and isolation as he fashions an education for his son, Henry. How do Henry’s lessons with his father compare to his teaching of Henrietta? And how does this compare with what Allmon learns during his time in juvenile detention? (p. 269)

3. When teaching Henrietta about Thoroughbreds, Henry says, “Evolution is a ladder, and our aim is to climb it as quickly as possible.” (p. 105) There are many references to ladders throughout the book. What might these signify beyond Henry’s understanding of evolution?

4. Unlike the Forges, Jamie Barlow, Ginnie Miller, Penn, and Lou, the veterinarians are not wealthy or powerful. They speak a plain language about a simple world, thereby offering comfort, relief, and sanctuary. What wisdom do they try to convey to Henry and Henrietta? How do they compare with the nonfamilial influences in Allmon’s life?

5. When Henry is at last free of his father, letting the Forge farm go fallow so he can plant clover and raise horses, does he break free of the past or is he somehow perpetuating the legacy of his ancestors?

6. The Sport of Kings comprises a narrative thread about the Forge family and Hellsmouth interspersed with self-contained stories. Some of these stories read like myths or folktales; others have biblical echoes. How do these inform the main narrative, and how do they contribute to the themes of this novel?

7. What are Henrietta’s passions as a girl and how do they shape the woman she becomes? How does she change after her encounter with Penn?

8. Are there times in their lives when the main characters experience real love as opposed to lust, admiration, greed, or other emotions they mistake or substitute for love? Do Henrietta and Allmon love each other?

9. Discuss the culture and codes of the Jockey Club. What is at stake besides money? What are the parallels between Hellsmouth’s captivity and Allmon’s?

10. What does Allmon learn from his grandfather? What is the meaning of his sermon? (pp. 215–221) How does the jockey Reuben Bedford Walker III relate to the Reverend?

11. What does the genesis story, featuring the God of Pine Mountain, say about the origins of human suffering?

12. How does Henry feel about horses as a boy? As a breeder? After Henrietta’s death? Based on the last line of chapter 6, what might Hellsmouth’s future hold?

13. Why doesn’t Allmon kill Henry? When he goes into Henry’s house to set it on fire, what is he seeking to destroy?

14. The book is structured with six chapters, five interludes, and an epilogue. What is the purpose of the interludes? Did they distract from or enhance your experience as a reader? How did you interpret the epilogue? Is there redemption in The Sport of Kings?

15. In The Sport of Kings and in her debut novel, All the Living, what images of longing and hunger does C. E. Morgan create? What is the ultimate source of solace for her characters? How do both novels capture humanity’s relationship to the natural world?

PRAISE FOR THE SPORT OF KINGS

“With The Sport of Kings, C. E. Morgan has delivered a masterpiece. Rich, deep, and ambitious, this book is, by any standard, a Great American Novel.” —Philipp Meyer, author of The Son

“A contemporary masterpiece . . . A novel of vaulting ambition [and] a novel about vaulting ambition . . . In its poetic splendor and moral seriousness, The Sport of Kings bears the traces of Faulkner, Morrison and McCarthy. Remarkably, the novel stands up to such august comparisons . . . There are too many brilliant sentences and richly imagined characters to describe.” —Anthony Domestico, San Francisco Chronicle

“With this extraordinary work, C. E. Morgan moves into the front rank of contemporary writers.” —Wendy Smith, Newsday

“An audacious fiction that breathes new life into the American canon.” —The Telegraph

The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan

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C.E. Morgan lives with her husband, Will Guild, in Berea, Kentucky. She is the author of All the Living.

Guide written by Patricia Daneman

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Read an excerpt from The Sport of Kings

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

While I was writing The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, I surrounded myself with images from the 17th century, especially paintings and engravings of the Dutch Golden Age. My Sara de Vos is a fictional artist, but I drew on the lives of Judith Leyster and Sara van Baalbergen for inspiration, the first two women painters to be admitted to a Guild of St. Luke in the Netherlands.

Although there are some three-dozen of Leyster’s paintings extant, none of Baalbergen’s work has survived (or been correctly attributed). I have had to rely on the male canon to complete the picture of that era.

Looking at these images over the course of a few years, I was reminded how little we know of Dutch Golden Age painting. By some estimates, more than 50,000 Dutch painters were at work across the 17th century but less than 1% of their work has survived. I wanted to write a novel that came out of the gaps and silences of art history.
 


Judith Leyster, self-portrait, early 1630s

Judith Leyster, self-portrait, early 1630s

This was, in all likelihood, the painting that Leyster used to gain admission to the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke. I love the way she’s turned to the viewer, as if we’ve entered her studio one afternoon and she’s welcoming us with her bright eyes and warm expression. In that disc-collar and velvet dress, she’s dressed not to paint, but for the occasion of being seen.

 

Judith Leyster, The Carousing Couple 1630

 Judith Leyster, The Carousing Couple 1630

Although Leyster was well known as a painter during her lifetime, she quickly faded from history after her death in 1660. For the next two centuries, all her paintings would be attributed either to her husband, also a painter, or to Frans Hals. It wasn’t until a London art dealer bought The Carousing Couple in 1892 and found Leyster’s monogram beneath the violinist’s shoe that she was rediscovered.

 

Henrik Avercamp, Winter Landscape, 1608-1609

Henrik Avercamp, Winter Landscape, 1608-1609

In dreaming up the fictional landscape of At the Edge of a Wood in my novel, I kept coming back to Avercamp’s wintry depictions. Many of his landscapes take in a wide expanse and show an entire village out for fun. This one seemed more intimate to me, something I wanted to capture in my own fictional painting. There are no known landscapes by Dutch women painters of the 17th century.

 

Jacobus Houbraken, Portrait of Maria Sibylla Merian,, circa 1700

Jacobus Houbraken, Portrait of Maria Sibylla Merian,, circa 1700

Although it’s often thought that Dutch women of the Golden Age held a rather circumscribed, domestic role, Merian is an outlier. Toward the end of the 17th century she left her estranged husband and took her daughter to Surinam in South America, where she sketched botanical specimens for two years. That seems audacious, even by today’s standards.

 

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting,, 1638-1639

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting,, 1638-1639

As a female artist, Artemisia suffered terribly during her lifetime in Italy. Scholars disagree about whether this is a true self-portrait or not. Regardless, I love the angles and the brooding light, the way her hair sweeps across her forehead. In contrast to the formality of Leyster’s portrait, this is an artist caught mid-motion.

 

Han van Meegeren, Woman Reading Music, 1935-1936

 Han van Meegeren, Woman Reading Music, 1935-1936

The infamous Dutch forger, van Meegeren, sold his fake Vermeers to Goering and the Nazis during WWII. In this painting you can see his close adherence to Vermeer’s use of light, color and line, but the face of the woman isn’t quite luminous enough. And the yellows aren’t bright enough (turns out to be a faulty pigment). I appreciate the fact that the Rijksmuseum still displays this fake as a testament to the power of imitation.

 

Anonymous, 1598

Anonymous, 1598

The first chapter of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos set in the 17th century features a beached whale and a painting excursion with Sara and her family. Renaissance-era Dutch were especially superstitious about beached whales, considering them to be omens from the deep. While writing about the stench and pestilence of the dying leviathan, I kept this picture pinned above my desk.

 

Jan Abrahamsz Beerstraaten, Village of Nieukoop in Winter with Child Funeral, first half of the 17th-century

Jan Abrahamsz Beerstraaten, Village of Nieukoop in Winter with Child Funeral, first half of the 17th-century

When it came time to contemplate what Sara de Vos might have painted aside from At the Edge of a Wood, I turned to this haunting winter funeral scene. The procession, the skaters, the dogs and the clouds—everything feels hushed and sad.

 

Jan Steen, Couple in a Bedroom, 1665-1675

Jan Steen, Couple in a Bedroom, 1665-1675

Just when you think you know the contours of Dutch Golden Age painting, along comes an artist like Jan Steen, with his bawdy, overtly sexual images of marriage and family hijinks. Knowing that Steen was Van Goyen’s assistant and married his employer’s daughter makes me admire the uniqueness of his voice and vision even more. He reminded me throughout the novel that the Dutch of the Golden Age were a paradox—devout drinkers and worshippers both.

 

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

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Dominic Smith grew up in Australia and now lives in Austin, Texas. He’s the author of three novels: Bright and Distant Shores, The Beautiful Miscellaneous, and The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared widely, including in The Atlantic, Texas Monthly, and the Chicago Tribune‘s Printers Row Journal. He has been a recipient of a Literature Grant from the Australia Council for the Arts, a Dobie Paisano Fellowship, and a Michener Fellowship. He teaches writing in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.

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“Forgeries and Figments” by Dominic Smith

An excerpt of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, by Dominic Smith

The Oldest Boy by Sarah Ruhl

When writing my play The Oldest Boy, which involves an American child recognized as a Tibetan tulku, I often called people in the Tibetan community for help and insight. I’ll never forget when I first wrote to an eminent Tibetan scholar, asking to have a conversation about reincarnation, and he wrote back immediately, “I am happy to talk with you, as your play might benefit other sentient beings.”

I thought: oh my goodness. He is assuming that art is helpful.

Again and again, when I looked to the Tibetan community for advice or help, they gave it without question, with the confident assumption that art might be helpful. In helping me put a play on, they felt confident that they might be helping others.

This confidence in art’s helpful quality—“your play might benefit other sentient beings”—is not, I think, a deeply held conviction in the West. Or—to put it another way—it might be a deeply held unconscious belief held by many artists, but it’s not confidently articulated in the culture at large. “Ah! You’re an artist! Well then you must be helping other sentient beings!” One does not hear that kind of reinforcement about one’s usefulness in general.

In our culture (which evolved from the Pilgrims), the utility of pursuits with moral uplift or application is made into the opposite of the solipsistic luxury of art. Art is often defined by both artists and non-artists alike by its very uselessness.

But artists know that art is not useless, else they would not make it. Nor would audiences engage with art if they truly thought it was useless.

What if we confidently assumed that what we were doing was useful, even helpful?

When we rehearsed The Oldest Boy at Lincoln Center Theater, we had two Tibetan lamas visit our rehearsal room to answer our questions about reincarnation and Buddhism. They answered our questions, and they blessed the rehearsal room.

At one point, Lama Pema leaned forward, looked at us keenly, and said, “Art and religion aren’t very different.” Then he started laughing and said, “And someone’s got to do it!” And then he laughed some more. His laughter contained many convictions. That art and religion are difficult. And also essential to a culture that values consciousness and gentleness.

He said, “For Tibetans, our culture is our capital. We have an economy of culture.” He told us that when His Holiness the Dalai Lama went into exile after the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the first thing he did was to set up a training program in Dharamsala, India, to preserve the ancient arts of Tibetan dance and music. The first thing he did was not to set up
an army. He wanted to preserve his people; and in order to do so, he set out to preserve their culture.

Being exposed in a daily way to a culture that confidently assumes that art is valuable (and valuable precisely because it is helpful, and directed towards others) changed my outlook. I thought: art is already helpful. How can it be more helpful? How might this play give something back to the community that so generously gave of itself?

On April 25, 2015, a massive earthquake shook Nepal. Many Tibetans who I know in New York could not reach their families in Nepal for days. Whole families were instantly extinguished. Others lived in tents for the foreseeable future. Countless temples and homes were destroyed.

I wanted to help in some small way. I spoke to James Yaegashi who acted in the Lincoln Center production of The Oldest Boy. After the 2011 earthquake in Japan, James created an event called Shinsei to rally the international theatre community to offer help. I don’t use the term “international theatre community” lightly, though some might call it an oxymoron. I believe that there is, profoundly, an international theatre community—even though theatre is by its nature intensely local. When like-minded artists meet artists from disparate countries and cultures, they often feel a kinship that goes beyond nationality. Art has no flag, and art brooks no nation-states.

After talking to James about his experiences with Shinsei, I hatched a plan to do readings of The Oldest Boy in multiple cities in North America on the one-year anniversary of the earthquake in Nepal, April 25. The readings will serve as a fundraiser to help Tibetan refugees still affected by the earthquake. When I approached theatres about their willingness to help in this endeavor, I found that, just as the Tibetan community was unfailingly generous in their desire to help with the production of a play, so too the theatre community was unfailingly generous in their desire to help people on the other side of the globe. Theatres in Toronto, Minneapolis, Chicago, Boston, Providence, Brooklyn, Portland, Philadelphia, and Washington DC quickly signed on. Theaters who were already producing The Oldest Boy in Marin, San Diego and Kansas City jumped in and raised funds for Nepal.

And I thought: could it be that the desire of art to help does nothing to diminish its status as an art object, and instead allows it more reach? Could it be that our secular theatre, operating quietly and steadfastly in a capitalist culture, still keenly feels its ritual function as a catalyst in
a massive gift culture? If plays are thought of gifts rather than as commodities, how do we give them away?

A challenge for playwrights: write your next play as a gift for someone you love. A challenge for audiences and critics: think of the play you are about to receive as a gift that was given to you in the hopes that you would like it. A challenge for producers: find a way not to charge admission for your next theatrical event. Instead, serve food for free. A challenge to dramaturgs: document radical acts of generosity in the theatre in the hopes of inspiring others. A challenge for actors, directors, and designers, who already give so much of themselves for free: how can we think of ourselves as more full, more fed, every time we give more of ourselves away?


Sarah Ruhl is a playwright living in Brooklyn. Her play The Oldest Boy will be read in ten different cities at ten different theatres on April 25th to raise money for Tibet Fund. For more information on how to participate in the event, or to sponsor your own reading of the play, go to www.sarahruhlplaywright.com and click on “Benefit.”

This piece originally appeared on Howlround.


The Crooked House

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The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

This is what we long for: the profound pleasure of being swept into vivid new worlds, worlds peopled by characters so intriguing and real that we can’t shake them, even long after the reading’s done. In The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Dominic Smith deftly bridges the historical and the contemporary, tracking a collision course between a rare landscape by a female Dutch painter of the golden age, an inheritor of the work in 1950s Manhattan, and a celebrated art historian who painted a forgery of it in her youth. In this excerpt, we are introduced to the eponymous painter.


Amsterdam/Berckhey

spring 1635

In the long unraveling of her life, Sara will always come back to the leviathan. It is not the cause of Kathrijn’s death and all that follows, but it is the omen that turns their days dark. A spring Sunday, the day blue and cloudless. Word has come that a whale has beached itself in the sandy shallows at Berckhey, a fishing village near Scheveningen. Villagers have tethered it to cables and lugged it ashore where, for two days, it has lain moaning through its leathery blowhole. Buckets of seawater have been doused over the monster’s hull, to delay its passage long enough for scientists and scholars to take a proper inventory of it. To Sara’s husband, a landscape painter by training, this is a rare chance to capture a spectacle and render it with precision. The springtime markets bring a swift trade in canvases and this will surely fetch a boon price. But on the sandy track toward the coast, Sara realizes that half of Amsterdam is making a pilgrimage to see this harbinger from the deep. Barent will have plenty of competition from sketchers and painters and engravers. Sara is also a member of the Guild of St. Luke, though she often helps Barent with his landscapes, grinding pigments and building up the underlayers. Barent’s seascapes and canal scenes are popular among burgomasters and merchants; they fetch twice what she makes for a still life.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos
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They ride in the back of a neighbor’s wagon, a painting field kit and a wicker basket of bread and cheese at their feet. Kathrijn is seven and dressed as if for seafaring—a cinched bonnet, sturdy boots, a compass hanging from a chain around her neck. Sara watches her daughter’s face as they follow the caravan of carts and men on horseback, out into the polder and toward the grassy dunes. When Barent told them about the talk of the leviathan in the taverns, about his desire to go paint the washed-up animal, Kathrijn’s face filled with enormous gravity. It wasn’t fear, but steely resolve. For months, she’s been plagued by nightmares and bedwetting, by terrible visions in the small hours. “I must come see that, Father,” she said earnestly. Barent tried to change the subject, commented that it was no excursion for a girl. For half an hour, it appeared this was the end of the matter. Then, over dinner, Kathrijn leaned over to Sara and whispered in her ear: “More than anything, I want to see the monster die.” Sara was slightly appalled by this grim thought leaving her daughter’s delicate mouth, but she also understood it. A monster had washed up from the deep of the North Sea to die in plain sight, tethered with ropes and cables. All the ravages of the night, the demons and specters that had kept Kathrijn awake for months, might be vanquished in a single afternoon. Sara patted her daughter’s hand and returned to her bowl of stew. She waited to talk to Barent about it at bedtime and eventually he relented.

When they crest a hillside that overlooks the coast, Sara is certain that the whole idea is a terrible mistake. From a distance, the animal looks like a blackened, glistening pelt left to wither in the sun. It is surrounded by scores of people, all of them dwarfed by its bulk. A few men have climbed onto its enormous side with measuring rods and wooden pails. A ladder leans beside one of its twitching fins—broad as a ship’s sailcloth. As the wagon makes the final trek down to the beachhead, their neighbor, Clausz, says that when he was at sea he once saw a whale eye pickled in brandy. “Big as a man’s head, it was, and brined up in a bell jar with all the rest of the captain’s specimens from the south latitudes.” Sara sees Kathrijn’s eyes go wide and she tucks her daughter’s hair behind her ears. “Perhaps the two of us can go take a picnic while Father paints,” Sara says. Kathrijn ignores her and leans toward Clausz sitting on the box seat. “What makes them come ashore like that?” The neighbor adjusts the reins and gives it a moment’s thought. “Some say it’s a messenger from the Almighty, an oracle. Me, I’m more inclined to say the beast just lost his way. If it can happen to a ship then why not to the fish that swallowed Jonah whole?”

They ride onto the sandy flats, tether the horses to a tree stump, and trundle their belongings down to the site of all the commotion. They set up a base of blankets and baskets. Barent puts together his easel and strainer. He’s asked Sara to work at his side and grind pigments; she will also make her own sketches that can be used back in their workroom. “I was thinking I would paint from the water’s edge, perhaps with the beast’s head in the foreground.” Sara says this arrangement should work nicely, though she believes the scene will carry more drama if painted from above—the enormity of the glassy ocean for scale, the fish marauded by antlike city-dwellers, the shadows shortening in the noonday sun. Barent might even sketch until dusk and then commit the final impressions in the waning light. But recently she’s learned that Barent prefers her ideas in the service of his own, so she says nothing.

While Barent scouts out a spot for his painting—no more than a dozen feet from the nearest artist—Sara and Kathrijn join the circling crowd. The air is heady with fishrot and ambergris, a sweetly foul odor. Kathrijn plugs her nose and holds Sara’s hand. They get a few admonishing stares from the men in leather aprons who are at work with their measuring rods and pomanders. Sara garners from overheard conversation that an official from Rekenkamer has established claim to the animal and will put the carcass up for auction. She hears: “By noon tomorrow, the devil’s bowels will burst out in all this sun and a foul pestilence will cloud the air.” The blubber oil will be sold to the soap works, the teeth used for carved ornaments, the intestinal unguents exported to Paris for musky perfumes. One red-faced chap with a logbook is arguing with a colleague over the length of the devilish beast’s unmentionable, a difference of two inches on a confirmed length of three feet. They debate it with scientific candor, calling it a sexing rod and a clamper in quick succession. Sara is glad to see that Kathrijn is oblivious to the conversations of the men—she scrutinizes the hulking mass from under the rim of her bonnet, perhaps drawn into the whorl of her own nocturnal visions.

The tail is the width of a fishing trawler, spotted with flies and barnacles and greenish parasites. The whale is slightly curled in on itself, like a sleeping cat, and before they know it, mother and daughter have wandered into an alcove of festering stench and the much-debated three-foot phallus. Kathrijn’s piping voice says, “Look, a giant sucker has attached itself to his belly,” and this gets a rowdy laugh from the nearby men. Sara takes Kathrijn by the shoulders and guides her toward the head. A villager asks them if they want to stare into the eye of the beast himself, for three stuivers each. He’s propped a ladder against the jawbone and anchored it in the sand. Kathrijn looks up at her mother plaintively. “You can go up, but I prefer the view from down here,” Sara says. She pays the man his fee and watches as Kathrijn climbs slowly up the ladder. Sara imagines the eye backlit with bafflement, a dumbfounded predator looking out from the dark cave of his own skull and mind. She imagines Kathrijn staring, awestruck, into the abyss of that eye and coming back down, now at peace with the hauntings of her dreams. But Kathrijn’s plodding ladder climb and the stilted way she leans over the eye socket suggests a girl carrying out a penance. She hoods her gaze and stares into the whale’s eye for a long time, then climbs slowly down onto the beach, refusing to say a word about what she’s encountered.

The rest of the afternoon is taken up with sketching and painting. Sara works beside Barent on a blanket, preparing his brushes and pigments, watching him work up passages of translucent green and gray, stippling in veins of yellow ocher as the light changes. There is something mysterious and commanding about his work, an intensity that evades her in the constrained view of a still life. They work for several hours, Kathrijn at their side with her own sketchbook—the pages brimming with leaves and shells and horses. Barent and Sara have no desire to be present when the animal finally expires or its innards rupture, so they make a plan with Clausz to be back on the road well before dusk. Barent captures as much of the scene and light as he can; in their workroom he will fill in the intricate details of the whale from Sara’s sketches. Kathrijn makes little forays down to the water’s edge with sticks and wildflowers. After several trips, Sara realizes her daughter has lashed together a tiny wooden raft and carefully placed some flowering heather on top. Not a funeral pyre exactly, but something to commemorate the whale or float her visions away. The earnest superstitions of seven-year-olds never fail to amaze her. Not thirty feet away, villagers debate the deeper meaning of the whale coming ashore—approaching flood or famine or Berckhey burning to the ground. “God turn away evil from our beloved fatherland,” one of the fishermen keeps muttering.

The trip back to the city is less crowded. An hour from Amsterdam, they stop on the outskirts of a small village for a snack. A peasant family has set up a roadside stand brimming with salted cod, apples, and cheese. There is a ragged-looking boy, about Kathrijn’s age, helping his parents with their stall. Kathrijn, somehow emboldened by her excursion at the beach, asks if she can be the one to buy their food. Barent gives her some money and she steps down from the wagon with the wherewithal of an East Indian trader. She handles the money with care, selecting some apples and wedges of cheese. The peasant family enjoys her manner so much that they send their own son in to conclude the transaction. Everyone is chuffed by the sight of the two seven-year-olds caught up in roadside commerce—there’s even a little haggling over which apples are perfectly ripe. Sara watches it unfold from up on the wagon. The only note of discord is in the boy’s sickly eyes, a tad yellow and drowsy. His hands are well washed and his clothes are clean. Nonetheless, Sara will remember his eyes.

This will be one of the moments Sara tallies when Kathrijn is overcome with fever three days from now. By then, Barent will have worked up the whale scene in meticulous detail—from the ivory serrations of the monster’s mouth to the leather ties on a fisherman’s jerkin. Kathrijn will pass quickly, on the fourth night, her fingertips blackened and her skin crazed with welts. Sara will watch as the only child God has granted her withers and retreats. In the throes of his grief, Barent returns to the painting for months on end, adding figures and actions they did not witness. It becomes so dark and foreboding that they fail to find a buyer for it at the markets. A hooded figure stands on the bow of the enormous head, his back to the painter, plunging an ax into the blackened flesh below. The sky is overrun with lead and smalt. Sara stops painting altogether until winter arrives and the canals freeze over. One blue afternoon, she sees a young girl trudging through a snowy thicket above a frozen branch of the Amstel. Something about the light, about the girl emerging alone from the wood, rouses her to the canvas. Painting a still life suddenly seems unimaginable.

The Crooked House

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The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Dominic Smith’s fourth novel, will be published on April 5 by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Library Journal calls it “stunning . . . a masterly, multilayered story that will dazzle readers.”

Dominic Smith grew up in Australia and now lives in Austin, Texas. He’s the author of three novels: Bright and Distant Shores, The Beautiful Miscellaneous, and The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared widely, including in The Atlantic, Texas Monthly, and the Chicago Tribune‘s Printers Row Journal. He has been a recipient of a Literature Grant from the Australia Council for the Arts, a Dobie Paisano Fellowship, and a Michener Fellowship. He teaches writing in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.

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The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray

Who better to inaugurate our All in a Day’s Work series than John Wray, itinerant sunpatch hopper and professional novelist funnyman? As he roamed Kings County in search of inspiration and cappuccinos, we asked him to record his wanderings. The result, as you see, is a prototypical Wray in the Life. John’s newest novel is The Lost Time Accidents.


1
8:45am — I wake up to the sound of honking on the street outside, which starts every weekday, for no reason I can determine, exactly at a quarter to nine. I ask myself, as I do every morning, why this should be. I stare foggily at a square of sunlight on the floor at the foot of the bed. Today this lasts just under ten minutes. I could easily have done it for hours.

 

2
9:40am — I get my morning double cappuccino from Melinda, at the cafe down the block. The cafe is one of a chain, but the chain is a small one, and Melinda is nothing if not an individual. She’s also an artist, and she knows that I like cats. This is a hopeful time. I sit at a very small table and think about the work I’ll be doing that day. Melinda expects great things from me, and so do I.

 

3
10:17am — I take the scenic route home, since it’s a beautiful day and the trees on my street are in bloom. The trees on the next street over are in bloom, too, and the next street, and the one after that. I know because I make a thorough check.

 

4
10:45am — I consider myself a connoisseur of sunlight, and keep a mental list of places in the neighborhood that lend themselves to basking, depending on the season and the hour of the day. At this time of year the steps of the Congregation Beth Elohim temple on 8th Avenue are ideal, especially in the hour before noon. I sit on the steps and think about the work ahead.

 

5
11:30am — It’s nearly lunchtime, so I stop in at a local pizza place to get a slice. This will save me an interruption later in the afternoon, when I’m really being productive.

 

6
12:16am — There’s a small painting of a distinctly anthropomorphic cat on the wall above my kitchen table. Usually by this point in the day, if I’ve managed to avoid getting work done, a faint note of reproof creeps into its expression. I go to my office and stare at the pictures and notes that I’ve pinned to the wall.

 

7
[Click image for detail.]
12:42pm — I’m working on a novel set in Afghanistan and Pakistan and I’ve covered most of one wall of my office with pictures—some copied from magazines or found online, some taken myself—in the hope that I’ll feel less intimidated by the project, and by my limited understanding. This trick isn’t working, at least not today, in part because the expressions on the faces of the men and women I’ve selected seem even more reproachful than the cat’s does downstairs.

 

8
1:45pm — I’ve decided that what I need to do, both to get the blood flowing to my brain and as a sort of exercise in focus, is to go down to the basement and play the drums for a while. Playing the drums can be meditative, if you don’t get too flashy. The golden skull on the kick drum was a birthday present. It’s actually a piggy bank, but it makes a nice bright pop when hit. The picture-covered wall upstairs seems less overwhelming from down here. The afternoon once again feels full of promise.

 

1
2:30pm — On my way back to the office I notice that the square of light has migrated from the bedroom out into the hallway. I’m not sure how to interpret this omen.

 

10
2:35pm — Back in my office, I discover that a slightly smaller square of light has singled out an image that I’d been stepping over for days without really noticing. Two women in burqas walking down a village street in perfect tandem. They seem to be dancing, but also to be hurrying away from something. If I were writing nonfiction, this ambiguity might pose a hurdle, but I’m writing a novel, and the enigmatic quality of the photograph is liberating. Playing drums seems to have helped.

 

12
3:35pm — I stand within arm’s reach of the photos on my office wall, wishing I were anywhere but here.

 

13
4:17pm — It will be time for dinner soon. Do I deserve dinner?

 

14
4:42pm — For the first time today I steal a furtive, sidelong glance at the paragraph I wrote the day before. A single paragraph. How is that possible?

 

15
5:16pm — For some reason my thoughts go to Noor, my ‘fixer’ in Kabul, who took me all over the country in his rattling four-door Toyota Corolla. He looks fierce in this picture, but in fact he was irreverent and affable, a lover of Irish whisky and Rihanna. The decal on the Toyota’s rear windshield reads “MAFIA WAR — The King Is Back.” I never could get him to explain its significance.

 

16
6:15pm — The sun would appear to be setting. I’ll just grab a quick dinner.

 

17
10:45pm — Then, at last, I’ll be able to get down to work.

 

The Lost Time Accidents

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John Wray is the author of the critically acclaimed novels, Lowboy, The Right Hand of Sleep, and Canaan’s Tongue. He was named one of Granta‘s Best of Young American Novelists in 2007. The recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Save Room for Pie by Roy Blount Jr.

Roy Blount Jr. is one of America’s most cherished comic writers. He’s been compared to Mark Twain and James Thurber, and in his latest work, Save Room for Pie, he applies his much-praised wit and charm to a rich and fundamental topic: food. Here Blount examines the Yankee distrust of that most litmus-like of vegetables—okra!


Save Room for Pie by Roy Blount Jr.
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When the rock-and-roll band of authors known as the Rock Bottom Remainders got together recently, I learned that my friend and bandmate Stephen King is horrified by okra. Someone—not me, maybe Greg Iles, the only other Southern member of the band—happened to bring up okra, just in passing, you know, as one will. And Steve reacted as another person might to a vengeful psychokinetic wallflower, or a runaway rabid Saint Bernard, or an insanely jealous Plymouth Fury. “Nooo,” he said. “I don’t want okra. No okra. No.”

Not an unusual response, among people who didn’t grow up with okra, also among quite a few who did. Even the definition in The Oxford English Dictionary sounds unsettling: “a five-sided ‘pod’ (actually a capsule), harvested when immature and mucilaginous … Also called … lady’s fingers.”

To me, there is nothing much more savory than cross sections of okra dusted with cornmeal and crispy fried, but I like okra boiled, too. Jerry Clower said the longest dogfight he ever saw was over okra. At his mama’s behest, Jerry dumped a potful of boiled-down left-over okra into the dog pen. “A big old hound run up there, fsllppllp, and it just went down so fast, he thought the other dog got it and jumped on him. Them dogs fought the whole rest of the evening and didn’t but one dog know what they was fighting over.”

Okay, okra is slick. But can’t we appreciate slick? Ernie K-Doe, according to Ben Sandmel’s biography of the singer of “Mother-in-Law,” was proud to say, “I’m so slick, grease gotta come ask me how to be greasy.” In GQ recently, an emcee named 2 Chainz was quoted as observing that “Atlanta people always say slick when we really mean it: ‘It’s slick hot outside.’”

“Okra gets a bad rap,” says Poppy Tooker, author of the Crescent City Farmers Market Cookbook, on YouTube, where she demonstrates “how to keep okra from getting slimy.” (Fry it in “hot-hot” oil.) Someone from the Philippines has posted a comment: “If you don’t want your okra to be slimy then go pick another vegetable because it is made THAT way.”

Also on YouTube, Sarah Sawadogo—slickly hot in a little black off-the-shoulder dress and three strands of pearls—shows us “how to cook okra the most delicious way.” If the gumbo she stirs up, involving octopus, looks a little questionable, she sells it by tasting it so well, mmmmm, and then shouting, “I see my grandmother! ” Comments range from “I am from louisiana i love okra its good 4 da body and yours look delicious” to “Most delicious wayyyy are you crazy!!! look whoever taught you to cook okra soup this way have wrong you big time miss ladie. NONSENCE!!!” And then of course another commenter has to blurt out, “DIRTY NASTY STANKIN’”—which bears out what another member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, Matt Groening, remarked when we were all in Los Angeles: “Never read online comments, because about the fifth one down will make you hate all humans.”

But okra runs deeper than commentary. In Ghana, okra is not only a dietary staple but essential in other ways. There’s a reggae-hop band called Okra and a singer called Okra Tom David, and the word for a mess of okra is nkrumah—the name of Ghana’s founder, Kwame Nkrumah. Ghana’s dominant ethnic group is the Akan people. They believe, according to the Encyclopedia of African and African-American Religions, that one of the three major spiritual components of a person is “the immaterial divine spark from God that is immortal and so vital that life cannot be sustained without it,” and the word for that “soul from God” is okra. “If a person is faced with intense disgrace or attacks by evil, the okra required in order to restore the okra.” I like the notion of, say, John Edwards having to woo his okra back. I don’t like thinking of the soul as slimy. But slick, yeah.

Save Room for Pie by Roy Blount Jr.

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Roy Blount Jr. is the author of Alphabet Juice and books covering subjects from the Pittsburgh Steelers to Robert E. Lee to what dogs are thinking. He is a regular panelist on NPR’s Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me! and is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. Born in Indianapolis and raised in Decatur, Georgia, Blount lives in western Massachusetts with his wife, the painter Joan Griswold.

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The Secret Life of American Musicals by Jack Viertel

Americans love musicals. Americans invented musicals. Americans perfected musicals. But what, exactly, is a musical? And how does love make it onstage? In The Secret Life of the American Musical, which MORE has praised as an “engaging, insightful anatomy of a singularly American art form,” Jack Viertel takes musicals apart and puts them back together. We are proud to share this excerpt with you today!


The Secret Life of American Musicals by Jack Viertel
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Back in the 1970s, when I was a struggling screenwriter, a collaborator and I got hired to write a werewolf movie. It was to be directed (though it never got made) by the great cinematographer Michael Chapman, and, like most werewolf movies, it featured a love story at the center. When we turned in our first draft, Chapman came at us with a barrage of notes, one of which was about the first meeting between the young woman and the older man who would, in the course of the story, fall in love.

“This is awful,” he said, though he may have used a stronger word. “If you want to understand how to write the first encounter between two future mates, there’s a book that will tell you everything you need to know.”

This was intriguing. These scenes are damned hard to write. What was this secret book, the key that would unlock one of the mysteries of screenwriting?

“It’s called The Courtship Habits of the Great Crested Grebe,” he said. We were, unsurprisingly, deflated. A dryly written ornithological monograph was hardly what we had hoped for. But it was only eighty pages long, so we read it. It told us everything we needed to know.

The great crested grebe is a lake bird, and all I really remember about the book today is that it detailed, painstakingly, the odd ritual of courtship that the male and female go through, which is baffling to the human eye but hard not to watch if you are lucky enough to get the chance—ungainly birds approaching each other on water, flapping their wings aggressively, retreating from each other, pecking at each other’s necks, retreating again, shaking their bodies in something that looks a little like a dance and a little like a fit, and then, for no discernible reason, building a nest together.

No one knows why they do it that way, but as a metaphor, it’s a study in fear and desire, and humans do it just like the grebe—awkwardly, with a lot of insecure, wasted motion, overaggression followed by apology, sufficient preening, and sufficient modesty. Bravery and cowardice, hope and hurt feelings play out a tug-of-war, with a big dose of uncertainty about the outcome. It’s the inevitable upshot of seeing someone we want; it will change two lives forever. And it’s almost always compelling to watch. As the Stage Manager in Our Town says, right before he serves strawberry ice-cream sodas to the teenagers Emily and George, “I’m awfully interested in how big things like that begin.”

In a musical, after the protagonist has told us of his or her hopes and dreams and the accompanying determination to achieve them, in the I Want moment, there’s usually an encounter with a love interest. And there’s usually a song, which is called, generically, a “conditional” love song. It’s called that because of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “If I Loved You,” which is embedded in what people in the business refer to as the “bench scene”—Act 1, Scene 2, of Carousel. It’s arguably the most perfect scene ever written in a musical, in part because it beautifully imitates, unwittingly I’m sure, the courtship habits of the great crested grebe.

Carousel goes in and out of favor as its sexual politics are continually put on trial by audiences and critics—it’s about a man who loves his wife and strikes her, and a wife who doesn’t want to and won’t leave. But the magnitude of its achievement tends to overwhelm the objections. Based on the play Liliom by Ferenc Molnár, it treats the fatality of love, as two quietly desperate people choose the freedom of romantic passion over the prison of everyday drudgery, and pay an awful price. Julie Jordan, its heroine, is a naïve millworker, destined to live out her life at the weaving loom in a bleak and gloomy factory, surviving on a menial’s wages. Billy Bigelow is a young tough making his scant living as a carousel barker at a traveling carnival. Neither has much of a future, unless they take it into their own hands.

As previously noted, Carousel begins with a dance prelude (Scene 1) that reveals both the straitened circumstances and the petty pleasures of a life defined by rural poverty and routine. There’s nothing romantic, or even hopeful, about Julie’s existence. The carnival is the best she can expect, and it’s a tawdry thing. “Carousel Waltz” is a beautiful piece of music, and the ballet that accompanies it can be dazzlingly good theater—but the world it depicts is a sad one, bereft of real hope. The magnificence of the wooden horses on Billy’s carousel promises something noble, romantic, and grand, but it seems impossibly far off from the daily life of this hidebound Maine fishing village.

After the waltz, Julie and her friend Carrie are discovered running from the woman who owns the carousel through a corner of the local park, which contains nothing but a bench. The scene begins in action and peril, and the stakes just keep going up. To be fair, considerable credit is due to Molnár, whose play, ironically, is said to have been translated into English by Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers’s first lyric-writing partner. (Hart was an employee of Benjamin Glazer, who got credit for the translation, according to Hart’s biographer Gary Marmorstein.)

Hammerstein shortened the scene by almost half, and while the structure remains the same, the intensity is expertly ratcheted up. From the very first line, there is an argument going on, and the scene is a series of engaging, quickly shifting, and escalating disputes, which result in two lives being changed forever. It begins with the carousel’s owner, Mrs. Mullen, hurling accusations at Julie about her behavior on the carousel. Julie, whom we don’t really know much about, has been “taking liberties” with Mrs. Mullen’s barker, according to Mrs. Mullen. This Julie hotly denies, in a manner that suggests she’s not easily cowed. Soon Billy arrives, and it develops that Mrs. Mullen may only be suffering from a bad case of jealousy. But she may not be entirely wrong, either. Julie has seen something she wants, and she’s not about to back away—from Mrs. Mullen or anything else that might stand in her way. She doesn’t completely understand her own behavior, but something is driving her. She fights off the accusations, and she fights off Mrs. Mullen, and while we’re not sure what it is that she’s after, we do know, in that classic musical theater sense, that she’s the one to watch. She’s “quieter and deeper than a well,” her friend Carrie sings, but not at the moment. In some way she’s unknowable, and unrevealing, but there’s something inside her struggling to get out. She’s the one who is battling the hand she’s been dealt, not wisely, perhaps, but with an unquenchable thirst and the determination that goes with it.

Once Mrs. Mullen has been dispatched by Billy (she fires him in the process), Billy goes to get his gear from the carousel, and Julie and Carrie are left alone. Carrie confesses that she’s found the man of her dreams—an industrious herring fisherman named Mr. Snow—and wants to know whether Julie feels similarly about Billy. Julie can’t say. She just doesn’t know what’s happening to her, as a young but strong-willed mill girl might very well not. But we do. And when Billy returns and Carrie goes off, leaving the two of them alone, we see it start to unfold, as Hammerstein wrote in an earlier lyric, like “passion’s flower unfurled.”

Billy is a risk, but Julie appears to have little to lose. Yet the risk keeps getting bigger and worse. In the course of a few moments, we learn that Julie will lose her job if she stays another minute with Billy. She’ll be locked out. She’s even offered a lifeline: a ride back to her mill dormitory by the mill’s owner, who appears serendipitously, but she turns it down and—like Billy—is fired. Now she has nothing. She learns from a passing policeman that Billy has a reputation for betraying young girls, that he’s up from Coney Island, in the reckless precincts of New York. She doesn’t care. Billy can’t rob her—she has no money. Each black mark against Billy seems to cause her to get closer to him, not further away. As the stakes for her future go up, she becomes more and more determined to ignore them. She wants to stay—that’s all. And once alone with Billy, she can’t really say why.

Hammerstein’s dialogue proceeds in a grebe-like fashion. Billy and Julie work their way toward the subjects of love and marriage through contradiction and defiance. Neither of them knows anything about either subject—but they can’t stop talking about them. Finally Julie explains, “Y’see, I’m never goin’ to marry,” which turns out to be a challenge to Billy that he wasn’t expecting.

“Suppose I was to say to you that I’d marry you…,” he says, not knowing where the thought has come from. “But you wouldn’t marry anyone like me, would you?”

At this point, the die is cast, but neither of them can even begin to admit it. Instead, they sing, and their song is woven through dialogue—a musical scene, really, more than a conventional duet. They leave their fantasies of life with the other in the conditional tense. But nature is working against them. The lyric of “If I Loved You” is almost entirely about fear—fear of confusion, of an inability to communicate love, of a tragic ending. All these fears will be justified by the events to follow, yet something about the scene suggests, counterintuitively, that it will all be worth it anyhow.

Why? Because the blossoms of the trees are beginning to cascade down on them. “The wind brings them down,” Julie says distractedly. But Billy points out that there isn’t really any wind. And suddenly we’ve slipped into a dreamlike space, supported by Rodgers’s stately but trance-inducing music, which perhaps justifies Billy’s next lyric, an unexpectedly philosophical and poetic one, especially coming from the mouth of an uneducated carny. “Ain’t much wind tonight. Hardly any,” he begins, speaking, and then sings:

You can’t hear a sound, not the turn of a leaf
Nor the fall of a wave, hittin’ the sand.
The tide’s creepin’ up on the beach like a thief
Afraid to be caught stealin’ the land.
On a night like this I start to wonder what life
Is all about.

Julie does her best to bring the conversation back to the normal realm of things, but Billy has a point to make, and he makes it:

There’s a helluva lot o’ stars in the sky
And the sky’s so big the sea looks small
And two little people—
You and I—
We don’t count at all.

By this point he, and the magic of the evening, have somehow won Julie over, and she contributes two simple lines—she’s moving toward what she always wanted anyhow, but it’s still a leap. If she’s going to contribute to Billy’s melody and his philosophy, the mating dance is nearly done:

There’s a feathry little cloud floatin’ by
Like a lonely leaf on a big blue stream

Billy answers her:

And two little people—you and I—
Who cares what we dream?

These aren’t the famous lyrics in “If I Loved You”—popular versions of the song eliminate this slightly supernatural interlude—but they are, in some ways, the most important ones: they carry the “two little people” beneath a sky that’s bigger than a sea into the realm of myth and fate, and bond them.

The well-known lines of the lyric are all about how they would want to treat each other if they were in love—with tenderness and reassurance. But they wouldn’t be able to do it. They’d let all their “golden chances” get away. And in fact, by grand design of the authors, that’s what happens. It takes the whole course of the play for either of them to be able to say the words “I love you” to the other. By the time Julie says it, Billy is dead. By the time Billy says it, fifteen years have gone by and he’s a ghost. They have, indeed, let their golden chances pass them by, and by that time there’s no turning back. But here, in their initial meeting, they can’t stop the primal pull, no matter how much they intuit their future failures. The interlude confronts the fact that they can’t stop themselves—they’re going to be together anyhow because they are a part of something bigger: the magnetic force that pulls people together. As a result, at least there will be a moment of passion in what are otherwise empty lives without prospects. What will happen to them now is not really in their own hands anymore; a scene that started out with a noisy but petty squabble has become somehow an examination of the universal state of falling in love. And Billy has joined the little army of American leading men who are frustratingly inarticulate in the cold light of day but who have poetry locked in them, which, in rare and unexpected moments, finds its voice under the stars.

It’s a poetry that cannot be allowed to flower for long, however, or Billy would risk no longer being masculine under the definition by which he lives.

“I’m not a feller to marry anybody,” he reassures Julie after singing about the likely unhappy ending of any such adventure. She pulls back with him, almost to a comfort zone.

“Don’t worry about it, Billy,” she says. But she’s used his name—for the first time.

And just as they seem perhaps to have reached dry land, nature intervenes, in the form of those persistent blossoms, which once again begin to flutter to the ground all around them.

“You’re right about there bein’ no wind,” Julie says. “The blossoms are just comin’ down by theirselves. Jest their time to, I reckon.”

And with that, the conspiracy is complete. Julie and Billy kiss, as we now know they were always destined to do, the music swells, and the next time we see them, they’ll be married.

Hammerstein (sourcing Molnár and improving the source) has held off the kiss for about twelve minutes. The scene has a slow natural tempo, but it is pulled as tight as a high-tension wire. What the writing achieves is a sense that this romance isn’t domestic, isn’t upper or lower class, isn’t constrained in any way at all. It’s bigger than all of that. Billy’s claim that their lives don’t matter at all is both the ultimate truth and the ultimate fiction. Their courtship is the essence of human need—it’s what drives the whole species. It gives Carousel size and stature.

This is part of why musicals endure. Their mythmaking continues to speak to us. And for that to happen, they have to communicate human experience in some way that tells. The bench scene is justly celebrated along Broadway because it does that—and no single scene has ever done it better.

The Secret Life of American Musicals by Jack Viertel

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Grounded in Memory, by Jane Urquhart

An excerpt from Fully Alive, by Timothy Shriver

If We Could Rewind It, by Mo Daviau

Mother’s Milk, by Nayomi Munaweera

What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera

Author Nayomi Munaweera won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia for her first novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, so it was with great anticipation that were able to ask her about her followup, What Lies Between Us, out last week from St. Martin’s Press.


What Lies Betwen Us by Nayomi Munaweera
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What book would you consider an ancestor of What Lies Between Us?

The book is in conversation with Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin both of which explore the themes of motherhood in crisis.

What’s the last book that made you cry?

Books often make me cry. The last one to do this was Hanya Yanagihara’s masterpiece A Little Life. It’s such a cliché but I really didn’t want to say goodbye to the characters at the end of that book.

Who sees your first drafts?

My husband who is an incredible editor. I trust that he will give me exactly the advice needed. He’s careful and ruthless. Both of which are necessary in an editor.

What’s your favorite indie bookstore? What’s the most recent book you’ve purchased?

I love Walden Pond in the Lake Merritt area of Oakland. Also City Lights in San Francisco. The Last Bookstore and Vroman’s in LA. Mrs Dalloways and Pegasus in Oakland. The mothership is of course, Shakespeare and Co in Paris.

Can you tell us what you’re reading now?

Fates and Furies. I adore it. I’m going to be sad when it’s over. It’s a huge reeling tale of a marriage seen up close and under the microscope by both parties. It’s brilliant.

What is the first book you ever remember reading (or having read to you)?

I read a lot before this but my favorite book of childhood was Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. A book quite unknown in America—poor Americans! It’s a gorgeous retelling of the author’s childhood on the island of Corfu. It’s funny, insightful and full of nature, animals, color, characters. A book brimming with life. I read it again recently and loved it all over again. It’s the 50th anniversary of the book so it’s getting some press. Also Gerald was the brother of famous novelist Lawrence Durrell—clearly the writing gene ran in the family.

Is there a piece of writer’s advice that has stuck with you?

“Read much, much more than you write.” Sherman Alexie said this recently but it’s also something writers know instinctively. It’s good to be reminded that reading is a necessary thing to do since there can be a lot of guilt anytime I’m not writing for any reason.

 

Nayomi Munaweera was born in Sri Lanka, and grew up in Nigeria. She emigrated with her family to the United States in her early teens, and now lives in Oakland, CA. Her first novel Island of a Thousand Mirrors won the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize for the Asian Region and was longlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize.

 

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:

Mother’s Milk, by Nayomi Munaweera

Writing From a Distance, by Christobel Kent

Book Keeping with Jennine Capó Crucet

Hemingway in Love by A.E. Hotchnere

What Lies Between Us was published by St. Martin’s Press on February 16, 2016.

What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera

“They must all hang their heads because they haven’t done it perfectly, and motherhood is, if anything, the assumption of perfection.”

—Unnamed Narrator


My second novel, What Lies Between Us, is primarily concerned with the lifelong effects of childhood trauma, how it colors and flavors a person in ways that they must contend with throughout their life.

What Lies Betwen Us by Nayomi Munaweera
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The book is also an exploration of motherhood and maternity in America. It is an attempt to understand what women go through in our society when they choose to become mothers. In my opinion, much of our culture is tragically unsupportive of mothers.

On one hand motherhood is posited as sacred. Women are often primed for maternity to be a wonderful and blissful time. Yet it can be also be a period rife with shame. The examples are legion. A mother will be told that she must breastfeed, and yet may be scolded by a perfect stranger for attending to her hungry baby. She will be told that the first five years set the tone of her child’s entire life, but unless she is wealthy, she will have to spend much of this time working, entrusting her child to the ministrations of strangers.

Once, getting a haircut, I remember thinking that the young woman cutting my hair looked distressed. At some point she burst into tears and ran out of the room. The other stylist told me that the girl had had a baby two weeks before and couldn’t bear to be separated from her newborn. But of course, she needed the paycheck, so here she was, attending to richer, more privileged women. I finished up my somewhat awkward haircut but I didn’t forget that girl, and the despair on her face haunted me for a while.

All this is to say: What does it mean when the society that surrounds one does not support this most basic and intimate of connections?

I think of the incarcerated mothers—of the many, many mothers who have hurt their children, who have ultimately destroyed their children. Along with everyone else I am horrified by these actions. But why are there so many in America, and how does that reflect our society’s views on maternity and children?

I think that in America, childhood is fraught. There is a sort of anxiety around it that I never felt in, for example, Sri Lanka, where I was born and still spend some of my time.

On a personal note, my husband and I have made the choice to be child-free. We were lucky to have found each other, lucky to agree that our work, not our offspring, would be our primary contribution to the world.

Yet I sometimes wonder if living in America has affected my ideas about children and childhood. When I am in Sri Lanka strangers often ask me about my children. When I explain that I don’t have any, there is a reaction of great pity. It’s annoying to deal with as this comes partly from the sexist idea that a woman without children is unfulfilled, but it also speaks to a way in which children are seen as the greatest blessing.

I was recently in Sri Lanka. Every morning because of jetlag, I would wake up at 4am and watch the glorious tropical light dawn over the sleeping city below.

One morning a scene in a garden below caught my eye. It was a Sunday and three children were playing, two girls in dresses to the knee and a boy in shorts. They had devised a very simple game: suspending a pole of some sort over two chairs, they’d run and leap over it in a blur of limbs. The girls flew by with their plaited hair trailing after them. Then the boy would leap, his face alit. They ran, they jumped, over and over. It was the most exuberant and free expression of childhood joy I had seen in years. They left much later, the three of them with their arms around each other’s shoulders, and from above I watched and missed them even as they left.

I have never seen such a thing in America. These children were around 12. By that age (in my admittedly narrow experience), American children seem cynical, jaded. They do not exhibit this pure joy. Already, perhaps, the fraught quality of childhood has affected how they think of themselves and their childhoods. There are of course, dangers in any childhood in the world, as I’ve made clear in my book—but still, those children have stayed with me, making me wonder what my life might have been if my family had not left Sri Lanka in 1976. I most probably would be a mother; I most probably would not be writing.

As with each book I write, What Lies Between Us is another attempt to shed light on these various and contradictory emotions. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you let me know what you think.

 

Nayomi Munaweera was born in Sri Lanka, and grew up in Nigeria. She emigrated with her family to the United States in her early teens, and now lives in Oakland, CA. Her first novel Island of a Thousand Mirrors won the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize for the Asian Region and was longlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize.

 

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:

If We Could Rewind It, by Mo Daviau

Writing From a Distance, by Christobel Kent

Book Keeping with Jennine Capó Crucet

The Voices in My Head by James Sie

What Lies Between Us was published by St. Martin’s Press on February 16, 2016.

Leonard by William Shatner

Leonard Nimoy was more than just a pretty half-Vulcan face. He also enjoyed a successful recording career, conducted numerous photographic projects, and even—you may not know this—published seven books of poetry. In this section from Leonard, William Shatner’s reminiscence of their friendship, he recalls the passion behind Nimoy’s famous impassivity.


Leonard by William Shatner
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When Leonard was asked why he had been so strongly attracted to creative photography, he explained, “I wanted to learn the philosophy of vision, to open my eyes to light and shadow and texture.” But his provocative photographs also were the perfect accompaniment to the written word. When he first began taking studio pictures, he wondered what would be the best format to publish them and decided to produce a book of photographs and words. But rather than explanatory prose, which would have provided information about the pictures but not about the emotion, he decided to write poetry.

His curiosity about poetry began when he was eight years old, he said. He had stopped by a fountain and read the inscription with curiosity: “Cast thy bread upon the waters for thou shalt find it after many days.” Taking that literally, he tossed pieces of bread into the fountain where they were quickly gobbled by pigeons. But he came back for several days, wondering exactly how many days constituted “many” and what to expect.

I did not know those first few years we worked together that Leonard wrote poetry. Rather, I didn’t know that Leonard was a poet. That was a part of his soul that I hadn’t met yet. That part of the brain that I had become most familiar with was his straight-ahead intellect; he was very focused on the reality of his performance, on solving script problems and negotiating a fair deal. He lived very much in the world of traffic jams, bills to be paid at the end of the month, and the next job, always the next job. Poetry didn’t seem to be part of that world; it came from a very different place, and until his first book of poetry, You & I, was published he had never allowed me—or, as far as I know, anyone else from the show—access to it.

I did know he had a love for the English language; that I saw from the way he worked on scripts. To the occasional dismay of our writers, he wasn’t an actor who settled where he thought there was a better way of doing something or saying something. From that came Spock’s precise use of the language. A lot of humor on the show came from the fact that Spock responded to the specific words that one of us used, rather than the nuance that was intended. Whatever they came from, Leonard’s poems were word pictures of emotion. Just as he did with his cameras, he tried to capture feelings with his words.

I am an incurable romantic
I believe in hope, dreams and decency
I believe in love
Tenderness and kindness.
I believe in mankind

That first book was intended to be a small printing, as he called it “an exploratory lifting of the mask on his inner thoughts,” but the desire at that time for all things Spock made the book far more successful. There were five printings and 50,000 hardcover books in print, and—as Leonard proudly pointed out—the first printing of the paperback was 250,000. What helped sell the book, of course, was the fact that Leonard was willing to promote it by doing bookstore signings. It may have been Leonard’s poetry— but fans were getting Spock’s autograph. There was one memorable evening, though, at a book signing in Oradell, New Jersey, that his competition was doing considerably better than he was. The same day he was signing, Linda Lovelace, who had become famous as the star of XXX-rated Deep Throat, was signing copies of her book. “I had a few people in front of me,” he said, laughing, “but her line was stretching around the block.” Leonard did, however, come up with a strong selling pitch; he told them that You & I made a wonderful gift book, then asked, “Would you give your mother Linda Lovelace’s book for Christmas?”

He published seven books of his poetry over two decades, and you could draw a straight line from the first book through the final book and it would become obvious how little he changed over that period. Trying to understand poets through their poetry requires higher degrees than I have, but it is obvious reading his work that from the beginning to the end Leonard was intent on emotionally defining grand themes like love, compassion, loss, and the endless search for roots. For the man who became famous playing the ultimate dispassionate character, his poems successfully bring out the range of important emotions.

While some reviewers of Leonard’s photography wrote that he had found his voice through his art, in fact he actually found his voice through his voice. Making a living as an actor is in some ways a hustle. You don’t let opportunities pass by. Leonard had a melodic baritone. Close your eyes and just listen; your memory will hear him for you. That voice was an important part of his actor’s instrument, and even after he had mostly stopped performing, he continued to act with his voice.

There are singers who fight their whole lives for that single break; for Leonard and me, singing success came easily. I know it was not something I had ever seriously considered, and I can’t imagine Leonard harbored secret dreams about one day becoming a British singing star. I mean, the rock-star look in the ’60s was the Beatles mop-top and various versions of long hair. Spock’s hair was exactly the opposite, more of a scraping-brush top. While we were doing the original series, a Paramount executive told Leonard, “There’s a gentleman in New York who’s producing an album of music from Star Trek. Your picture as Spock is going to be on the cover. Would you like to be involved in the making of the album?”


William Shatner has worked as a musician, producer, director, and celebrity pitchman, and notably played Captain Kirk on Star Trek from 1966 to 1969 and in seven Star Trek films. He won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his role as attorney Denny Crane on the TV drama Boston Legal. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Elizabeth.

David Fisher is the author of more than twenty New York Times bestsellers, including William Shatner’s autobiography Up Till Now. He lives in New York.

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Writing From a Distance, by Christobel Kent

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My Uncle, Gerald Hughes, by Frieda Hughes

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Leonard was published by Thomas Dunne Books on February 16, 2016.

Every Anxious Wave by Mo Daviau

From her new forever home in Portland, Oregon, author Mo Daviau reflects on what makes a writing community, the importance of first books, and her favorite bookstore in the world (which curiously is not Powell’s!). Every Anxious Wave is her first novel.


Every Anxious Wave by Mo Daviau
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What’s the earliest memory you have of writing a story?

I have vivid memories of Mrs. Okada’s sixth grade classroom at Manchester GATE Elementary School in Fresno, California. It was 1988. There was a brown IBM electric typewriter perched on a single desk in the corner of the classroom. That thing was mine. Any sort of classroom free time saw me bee lining to that typewriter. If another student went near it, and they wouldn’t have because I was the writer of the class and that thing was mine, I would have been very angry with them for interfering with my craft. It had a very loud, authoritative, chunky sound that went with every strike of the key. I had a typewriter at home, but it was a manual one and getting replacement ribbon was a pain and the energy it took to strike the key with enough force slowed my process. Mrs. Okada had the class write and illustrate a short story as a class project. My story was a fictionalized screed against the shallowness of popularity.

Who sees your first drafts?

My wonderful writing group, The Guttery, sees my first drafts. In fact, they are providing generous feedback on the new novel I’m cooking up right now, and believe me when I say that if this new novel were a cake in the oven, it would be a mess of liquid batter in the middle. Portland has a lot of writing groups and they tend to have names that would look good on a jersey. I would like to have a jersey that says THE GUTTERY across the front and DAVIAU on the back, number 5. There would be an image of sheets of paper in a gutter on the front of the jersey, maybe in the mouth of a possum. The Guttery includes such titans of the page as Tracy Manaster, A. Molotkov, Susan DeFreitas, and Jamie Duclos-Yourdon. They swing their swift swords all mighty-like, and nobody’s a jerk. I love them.

Do you have a favorite literary character?

Harriet M. Welsch of Harriet the Spy is my favorite literary character, hands down. For all the regular reasons: I kept a notebook as a kid, knew I wanted to be a writer from a very young age just like Harriet, I wasn’t particularly girly or popular as a kid, and I admired her spy belt and her cutting wit. A book about a girl who could cut down a person’s character to the quick with a few pithy sentences? That was a skill I wanted! How many children’s books confront issues of class, ostracism, and the whole “sometimes you have to lie” issue? Harriet is also the first introduction in a young writer’s life to the fact that, if you choose to write, and endeavor to do it well, you will inevitably hurt someone’s feelings and lose friends. Sometimes I wonder how Harriet is doing these days. She’d be about sixty-three now. Maybe she lives in the same neighborhood in New York as eighty-two-year-old Holden Caulfield.

What’s your favorite indie bookstore? What’s the most recent book you’ve purchased?

My favorite independent bookstore is BookPeople in Austin. They are just the right amount of big. I worked there for a time. One of my jobs was to take down a rather extensive display of books from the big wooden table upstairs so that it could be used for author signings, and then, after the signings, to reconfigure the display. We would also place upon the table for the author, once it was made barren, the following: two sharpies, a bottle of water, and a fern. I always enjoyed putting the display back together on the table. It always looked a little off when I was done. A little haggard, maybe slightly wobbly. In BookPeople employee secret code language, this wooden table/display is called The Manatee.

What’s the last book that made you cry?

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch. Lidia makes me cry. I’ve been in her workshop here in Portland and her teaching and philosophies around writing and life reduce me to a sloppy mess. All the pain of life that our bodies absorb Lidia discharges into words with such fire and love. It’s chilling and it’s healing. Of all the stories we can turn to for healing, hers is the one I often go to when life is itchy and uncomfortable.

Can you tell us what you’re reading now?

I devoured The Narrow Door by Paul Lisicky in a long afternoon because I love my people and I wanted to read a book about someone else loving their people. Paul loves his people. Also, Paul recently followed me on Twitter, which felt like an honor. I just started reading Clown Girl by my friend and neighbor Monica Drake. I’m also in possession of an advance reader copy of Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table by Ellen Wayland-Smith. The Oneida Community, America’s mostly-forgotten 19th century polyamorous Christian commune that made silverware, has been an obsession of mine for a long time.


Mo Daviau was born in Fresno, California and proclaimed her life goal of publishing a novel at the age of eight. Mo is also a solo performer, having performed at storytelling shows such as Bedpost Confessions and The Soundtrack Series. She is a graduate of Smith College and the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan where Every Anxious Wave won a Hopwood Award. Mo lives in Portland, Oregon. Every Anxious Wave is her first novel.

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If We Could Rewind It, by Mo Daviau

Writing From a Distance, by Christobel Kent

Book Keeping with Jennine Capó Crucet

Hemingway in Love, by A.E. Hotchnere

Every Anxious Wave by Mo Daviau

The secret to why I wrote a time travel novel is in my book’s dedication. I’m not a big science fiction reader. The inscription reads, For my father, George Daviau (1910-1992), who, by the stretch in our years, made me a time traveler.

Every Anxious Wave by Mo Daviau
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I do not recommend that men in their sixties father children. My childhood was spent worrying daily that each day would be the day my daddy would die because he was old. And then, one day, he did. When I arrived at adulthood, I came to the conclusion that the only way I could have a meaningful relationship with my dad was if time travel were possible. And what fun it would be to transport myself back to New Orleans in the 1930s to visit dapper young George—or World War II naval officer George! How vindicating to say, “Hey, I’m your future daughter, I come from the year 2016, and you were right, we do carry an electronic link to all the world’s knowledge in our pockets in the future.” (My dad predicted the smartphone when I was a child. I’m proud of him for that.)

Love and relationships are often injured by the passage of time. Summer fling ends because school starts again. Father dies because he’s eighty-one. We outgrow our partners and have to face the sense of loss that time’s passage brings. Maybe you have a stack of high-waisted acid washed jeans in your closet that you can’t bear to throw out, but also can’t wear in public for fear of ridicule. Maybe you love those jeans, but they belong to their time.

If love, real love, is taking it upon yourself to try to lessen the hurts, to put good where the bad lives, my novel is certainly an exploration of love. In Every Anxious Wave, Karl, Lena and the gang have the ability to go back in time and remove tragic things from the historical record. How many love stories, after all, ride on the back of loss? Time travel could fix that loss for you. You could go back in time and get it back. But how might that love be different? What would be lost? In the end, we stuck-on-the-space-time-continuum mortals have only one tool at our disposal: empathy.

I wonder if it’s the sum of our hurts that make us lovable. I like the idea of a woman like Lena, one who has every strike against her—super-smart, fat, the opposite of sweet—being adored by a guy like Karl, who gets her. But the conundrum Karl faces: if Lena’s heart were any softer, she’d be with someone else, not him.

So yes: in Every Anxious Wave, I tried to approach the subject of love from many angles. It is a love story in that the guy gets the girl at the end, but not without loss or sacrifice. Maybe love means you accept the story of your life and the lives of others, whichever way they go. You have a hand in writing the stories of the people you love, whether you lose love or find it in unlikely places or packages, whether it’s as transient as a conversation with a stranger on the bus or a long and storied marriage that ends in death. Beginning, middle, end, accepted with grace and wonder. But if time travel were really possible, I don’t think I’d be writing novels—I’d be hanging out with my dad in the French Quarter in 1934, watching all the people in hats walk by.


Mo Daviau was born in Fresno, California and proclaimed her life goal of publishing a novel at the age of eight. Mo is also a solo performer, having performed at storytelling shows such as Bedpost Confessions and The Soundtrack Series. She is a graduate of Smith College and the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan where Every Anxious Wave won a Hopwood Award. Mo lives in Portland, Oregon. Every Anxious Wave is her first novel.

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Writing From a Distance, by Christobel Kent

“The Sweet Spot: Book Keeping with James Renner

The Voices in My Head, by James Sie

Grounded in Memory, by Jane Urquhart