She tore open the plastic pouch with the long cotton swab and said, when they did this to me they had to hold me down, let me tell you, I mean they were two people holding down my hands, I said lord help me, I don’t want that. But you’re going to be brave, I know. So I decided I was going to. She waved the swab around a little and said, Oh, me, I hate to do this to people, knowing how it feels. You know what’s going to happen, don’t you? And I said I did. Watching the swab. My mother was there, not to hold my hand but because we were both getting the test at the same time. So which one of you wants to go first? I wanted to volunteer but Mother said she would go. To show me how easy it was, she said. Though later she told me she did not want to watch me get that stick shoved into my nostrils and then have to go through it herself. So the nurse did the test on my mother. I refused to watch. She said to Mother, you’re doing good. Not like me, I’m telling you what. I couldn’t stand it. Burns, don’t it? But it won’t be like that for long. And now, she said, it’s your turn, and looked at me, and opened another pack. You want your mama to hold your hand? Well, she can’t, even if you do. Because she might have the Covid and same with you. Tilt your head back, now. All right here we go. And the long stick just went deeper and deeper and she wrung it around with a good deal of enthusiasm, and my body felt the surprise. Nerves that had never been called on to respond to that kind of touch. Then she pulled it out and put it into my other nostril and I breathed out the way I had been told to do and she said, Look how good you are sitting still like this. They had to hold me down. I told you that, didn’t I? But she was smiling. Then it was done. Mother and I picked up our paperwork and walked out to the car. A poor lady was sitting in the middle of the parking lot crying, propped up by two health care workers at her back, two children crying in front of her, all of them waiting for an ambulance to help them lift her back into her wheelchair and take her inside. It had the look of a scene that ought to be private, but there we were in a parking lot. Mother and I hurried into the car and tried to get out of the way of the emergency medical technicians. We went home. My test was positive. Naturally.
A Tale of Flowering Fortunes: Annals of Japanese Aristocratic Life in the Heian Period by William H. McCullough
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I read about this book when trying to learn more about The Tale of Genji and again when reading books about Japanese history. The descriptions of the tale, its importance as an evolution in history, and the description of its idiosyncrasies, were intriguing enough that I found a copy and read it. At first I thought I had made a mistake; it is a manuscript that’s mostly of interest to scholars and to serious students of the period and of early Japanese writing. But the fact that it was written by a woman, a courtier, and a contemporary of Murasaki Shikibu made it more interesting and the reading of it was pleasurable. (The authorship is a subject of much discussion, of course; but the manuscript itself presents a first person point of view of a contemporary of the Fujiwara constellation of families and connections.) As a companion to Genji, it is illuminating, being a blend of the luxurious, stately activities described in the novel and the history of the Fujiwara family’s dominance over the offices of emperor and empress. I am familiar enough with the period that I could see behind the action to the power politics that are submerged in the writing, the infighting between the branches of the family, and the all-important series of marriages, births, and liaisons that made up life in the capital. Nevertheless it was disconcerting to read in the footnotes the various places where the author made up incidents and cited incorrect dates. In one passage she borrowed to the point of plagiarism from Murasaki Shikibu’s diary. The notes within the body of the text and appended to the volumes are the richest part of the reading, full of detail about the imperial calendar and the elaborate ceremonies that drove its life.
Katori Hall Plays One: Hoodoo Love; Hurt Village; The Mountaintop; Saturday Night/Sunday Morning by Katori Hall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Katori Hall’s plays are marked by such fierce honesty and incandescent writing that they stand head and shoulders above most other plays that I have read, and her voice is among the truest of any I have encountered. The Mountaintop is a study of the last evening of Martin Luther King’s life, a metaphysical journey into his final hours, a flight of fantasy that captures the reality of the moment moreso than could any literal rendering of events. The closing pages of the play take such risks and reap intense rewards. Hoodoo Love, her first play, is an enviable debut that points toward the appearance of a special writer, nothing ordinary about her. But Hurt Village is the most spectacular of the pieces, a study of a poor community in Memphis in which every day is a battle to the death among the residents, who are desperate in all their circumstances. The characters are hard to bear and the play terrified my students when I assigned it for their reading. Hall is better known now as the author of Pussy Valley, but these early plays are a clear indicator that there is no part of human life she cannot face head on.
The Major Works by Samuel Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I have been slowly making my way through this volume for some time now, and devoted a few days to completing the reading while fall settles the leaves and Thanksgiving approaches. I can’t pretend to know the period in which he wrote in any detail, though reading him has been an education in who was prominent at the time. He was clearly one of the masters of the literary scene in the eighteenth century and his opinions range so broadly over writers and literature – framed with such assumption of authority – that it is clear he won his eminence by main strength. The breadth of what he wrote is daunting. One contemplates the compiler of a dictionary with awe. His essay on the dictionary was one of the high points of the volume, as was his essay on Shakespeare, his portrait of Pope, and his account of his travels in Scotland. What kept me reading was his ornate style with his sentences long and flowing as the Nile. He speaks with such an air of authority that one believes his judgments of all his subjects when he speaks of literature. When he speaks of morals, religion, and the way life ought to be conducted, he appears more childlike, prone simply to point toward God and the church and say, because of God I am right in my opinions. In an age where that certainty is no longer universal by any means, his sureties are unconvincing. In the end, this further undercuts his literary criticism, since he includes in it many moral judgments, and bases his assessment of similes, diction, and poetics on foundations which he supposes to be equally enduring. It is tempting to call him quaint, though I think that is more my attempt to shrink him down to size a bit. The few fictions presented here are stifling; Rasselas scarcely offers a hint of life, so busy is it in its purpose of teaching and affirming a moral system. This has been a work of reading for which I have only to say that I achieved it, admired the man’s mind, and am likely to read it further only to remind myself of the rhythm of his sentences. The last pages of the book are excerpts from his diary and his letters, in which I could see him human and frail and accessible for the first time.
Later the Same Day by Grace Paley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When I first read this collection years ago I must have been going through a period of distraction; the voices of the stories were clear but the stories themselves never came through. This was clearly my own failing. On rereading the book I found it to be wrought cleanly and sparely, reliant on the voices of this particular set of women – Faith, Ruth, Ann, sometimes others – to do the work of narrative. Paley is preoccupied with politics, justice, the idea of enlightenment through intellectual engagement; with children, perhaps more than any other aspect of family. “Dreamer in a Dead Language” ends with such a beautiful moment, a woman asking her children to bury her in sand, snapping at the one son who takes her too seriously, who fails to see she means to be buried as people are at the beach, not in a graveyard. “So I can give you a good whack every now and then.” The final story, “Listening,” ends with a gorgeously angry Cassie demanding to know why she and her love for women have been left out of Faith’s tales, and a moment of love at the end, along with the promise from Cassie, “I will not forgive you.” I vacillated at times in irritation at the obsessive politics – obsessive being my own judgment, of course – though it is examined and critiqued even while its essence is upheld. This is particularly the case in “Somewhere Else,” about a trip to China, where we see the characters coping with the fact of China when they had preferred, perhaps, to visit the ideal China of their politics. “Zagrowsky Tells” is another example of the self-critiquing aspect of the stories, Faith’s dialog with a white shop owner whom she picketed and accused of racism, and his defense of himself through his love for his black grandson. There is a clumsiness to that story, however, one of the rare moments of that kind in the book. There is also overall a narrowness to the stories themselves – they are devoted to the same themes, the same relationships, the same politics. This is their mission, after all. But the beauty of the spoken language of these characters is rare. I had enjoyed Paley’s earlier books and am glad to have tried this one again.
Have taken a month off from Facebook, which, when I use it, wastes my time. I have this vain idea that a social platform will help me if I ever publish a book again. (Same with Twitter. What if I could get a lot of followers? I could rule the world a little bit, like other people do.) But the effort doesn’t pay off. So I’ve stopped. Worked with Facebook but I’ve cheated and gone back to tweet a couple of times, mostly late at night when I can’t sleep. Big mistake. Twitter never improved anybody’s insomnia. Sense of doom, sense of how stupid people are. When I am in a thinking phase about a piece of writing and I kill time on social media I find myself overtaken by anxiety and then nausea. Not just the poisonous strangers. People I know typing terrible things about people they don’t know but read about on social media. It’s a culture of vilification in an echo chamber where you can choose voices who will reinforce your thought. In between writing about their last art project, in the case of my friends. Some of it is useful, though, isn’t it? Not if it lures you in for the nastiness or the misinformation or the outright lies, and it always does that. Do I blame both sides, left and right? Well, first let’s allow that it’s a matter of left and right; I’m skeptical but okay, for the sake of saying something, yes, that’s it. Yes, I blame both sides; the utter stupidity of both sides is full-on in evidence. No, I don’t blame both sides equally. Sometimes I enjoy the reading of such well-aimed venom at politicians I hate, for instance, or celebrities whom I find vapid. To name only two. This is where the power of social platforms emerges, after all; one wastes time on them because they feed something, like a drug does, almost exactly like that. In my case they feed my need for Xanax. My thinking spins round as I read and I reach for a pill. One drug to counteract another. For years I’ve said I stay on Facebook because of my family and friends but what’s the good of that if what I find out is my friends are as prone to bullying language as anyone else, and when I see my family spreading rumors and worse. It’s about emotion for us all, what we feel ought to be true. Echo chamber is only a slice of it. Will see how long I can maintain my silence. It’s the politics that kills it. Everybody performing their certainty all the day long. For reassurance. For the maintenance of a well-defended self.
The View from Stalin’s Head by Aaron Hamburger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a strong collection of stories, the most impressive aspect of which is the setting and material, Americans, and particularly Jewish Americans, in the Czech Republic, most in Prague, a city that was the cool destination for artists for quite a number of years. The most memorable of the stories for me is the title story and its examination of (and a very subtle examination of) domination dynamics and betrayal between two boys and an older man who is reliving his days as an opponent of what I would call Stalinism, because of the title. There are other jewels here: the first story, “A Man of the Country” and its subtle portrayal of longing, friendship, and a hope that is marginal and fogged. “The Ground You Are Standing On” has a remarkable power, an evocation of the Holocaust as it is still fought out in the present day. I would call “You Say You Want a Revolution” the weakest of the stories, never quite certain of its purpose, though containing some lovely dialogue moments and portraits. These stories viewed in today’s gender setting are examinations of types of people, not particularly centered on queer themes, though queers are welcome here. The stories hold to their territory with strength and integrity and mark out the further development of a fine writer. I have been hesitant as to my rating because I know Aaron but when I think of the presence of an oversized paper mâché bust of Stalin in the basement of a grim apartment where a strange fantasy is repeated… Well, that settles the issue.
To Let by John Galsworthy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is the best of the Forsyte saga trilogy, a pleasant surprise, since I found the second installment to be tepid. In this novel it feels to me as though Galsworthy is writing of something closer to his own heart, and the depictions of Jon and Fleur are so very touching. The book made me forget the television adaptation, which has been my problem with reading these novels all along: because the adaptations do not do justice to the original in the case of To Let. Galsworthy writes of the full flush of the young lovers and their feelings with such heartfelt clarity that I followed that part of the novel without effort. As for the rest, his characterization of the period after the war covers a part of English history – well, it was not history for him, it was his world, and that shows from his writing. Nevertheless there is something entirely underwhelming about the experience of reading this book. The world is so very much more lively and varied than anything in these pages. The whole of the Forsyte family feels entirely confined within its definition of itself, and the novel is confined to the family, making the whole exercise claustrophobic. It is tempting to read Soames’s nostalgia for the past as Galsworthy’s own. It is clear that there are very many fans of these books; I am grateful for the experience of having read them but I would not say more than that. They are not very memorable. In particular, I was wearied by the beautiful Irene and her constant ghostliness. It is as if the symbolic positions of these characters overwhelm their humanity. I did very much appreciate the use of Timothy, and the delicacy of the ending, which is far less sentimental than the adaptations. Far truer, as well.
In New Orleans a long time ago when drag queens often wore beards and mustaches, when realness was only one way of doing drag, when transgender people were usually called transsexuals, in the bars in the French Quarter we called each other she, girl; look at her with her face in her drink, we would say, look at her about to go to the back room and get on her knees in front of that man, oh girl, she’s got calluses on those knees, or splinters, we would say, and burst into hoots and spill bits of alcohol on the nasty floor. The bar was dark, lights around the pool table where we could watch the butch boys bend over in their jeans. A juke box where the current dance songs were playing. Sometimes the bartender would give me change to get the music going, and I’d pick out something by Donna Summer, Bruce Springsteen, Roberta Flack, Michael Jackson, and we would sing along, harmonizing to the song while he, the bartender, did his dance down the island, flashing his pretty behind at the customers, working the tips. Girl, that man likes you, said my friend. I never made much of it, mostly asexual. Some instinct we had that the notion of he and she had to be fluid, that we had to slide from one to the other as the need arose. Girls had to stick together, run in packs, pick out the real men in the crowd, leave each other alone – what would two queens want with one another, we would ask, all they’d do was fight about who was on the bottom. Not so clear cut as that, of course, but we pretended. Kept the group neutral maybe. Oh, girl, please buy me a drink, these heels are killing me. Even if we weren’t wearing heels. Even if all we really were went something like this: slightly sissy boys in cheap jeans and button-down shirts, a bit pudgy, wearing boat shoes or oxfords. Hair stiff with product, thick with cologne. Talking to ourselves like we were the center of it all, like we were really princesses, and looking about hungry to figure out who in the bar might be worth trying to pick up. Or else frightened at the thought and hoping somebody would just find us and make all the decisions and at least take us home instead of down the end of some French Quarter alley. This was where we figured out gender for ourselves. Heading out for the night we would say, knockers up girls, tonight we’re going to find true love.
In Chancery by John Galsworthy
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
In the case of the first book, The Man of Property, I was less certain of my reaction to the novel due to having seen the most recent television adaptation; any freshness in the story was lost, so my reaction to the novel was dependent on the writing and to the parts of the novel that were not included in the series. My reading of In Chancery was more of a chore, and I believe it likely that I would have felt the same level of disappointment with the book regardless of prior knowledge. While one’s understanding of the characters deepens to a degree, it is a small degree. Irene remains an enigma, a ghost; Soames remains dangerously possessive of her; young Jolyon remains lukewarmish; and the rest of the family has a thin, unrepresented quality. The younger generation were appealing in their youth but only in a Forsytish way – to borrow Galsworthy’s ploy – and what happens within the novel is constricted by the narrowness of the people themselves. The cast of characters is too large for depth or exploration. They change a little, their drama feels deflated, and the book feels like a repetition of nineteenth century novels about manners and class. The writing is exactly as one expects, having read the first volume. I can’t tell whether this is actually a second novel in a series or the weak middle of a very long single work. In comparing this work to Joyce, or Woolf, or Mansfield, or James, or Dreiser … well, those comparisons are unfair, really. Galsworthy is surely trying to break new ground here, but his spade is not up to the task.