How the Dictionary Is Made

March 17, 2017 § Leave a comment


I don’t do much writing about my day job here, but I’m particularly excited about the release this week of Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by my good friend and colleague, Kory Stamper.

I’ve known Kory since I began working as a Merriam-Webster lexicographer almost 16 years ago. (In fact, for a long time her cubicle was in such close proximity to mine that we’d send snarky emails to each other whenever we’d be privy to the too-loud conversations about our neighbor’s medical appointments.) She is not only one of the best there is at what we do, she excels at putting into words the convoluted mental exercises that come with trying to pin down an ever-shifting language in a way that makes sense.

(Disclaimer: I’m quoted in the book a handful of times.)

You can read one excerpt of the book at Longreads and another at Slate, as well as a thoughtful review by Megan Garber in The Atlantic.

R.I.P. Paula Fox

March 4, 2017 § Leave a comment

At the New York Times, an informative look at the career of Paula Fox, who has died at the age of 93. A writer of books for adults and children, she was best known for Desperate Characters, a novel that had been out of print when it was picked up in a library at Yaddo by Jonathan Franzen, who wrote about it in a 1996 Harper’s essay. I wrote about the book here.

A number of Fox’s novels were subsequently re-released after Desperate Characters, including The Western Coast, for which the introduction was provided by another of my favorite writers, Frederick Busch. That one is now on my wish list. I was also intrigued by the bit of trivia that Fox was briefly the sister-in-law of Clement Greenberg.

Real Property at JMWW

January 31, 2017 § Leave a comment

“I’m sure it was an elegant scream,” he said. She muzzled a laugh into his shoulder. Lovers a few times, they made a comfortable shape. “A New York scream.”

“It takes nerve for anything to occupy that much space,” she said into his chest.

“Sculpture, you mean.”

“Ha. Yes. And limousines, and airports.”

I’m delighted to have a new story, “Real Property,” up at JMWW today. It’s about museum sculptures and terror and new homes in sketchy neighborhoods. Many thanks go out to editor Jen Michalski for giving this piece a cozy home as well as for her sharp editorial insights.

What I Read in December, 2016

January 2, 2017 § Leave a comment

Swallowed By the Cold, Jensen Beach. This collection of interlinked stories is set in Sweden, where the author has lived. The stories are not only made alive by evoking  a strong sense of place, they evoke enough of the country’s own past—such as the country’s involvement in The Winter War in Finland in 1939 or the attack on Stockholm by the Soviet Union in World War II–to make clear that the book partly wants to be about Swedish identity.

Though the stories are linked, the characters seem to ache through a loneliness, knowing who their neighbors are but not reaching them as people. The death of one of them in a bicycle accident radiates out to a number of the stories:

“Lisa,” Helle said, “is that the man with one arm?” The tennis player with only one arm?” They both laughed and then Peter joined in, laughing and saying, “You never told me about him, you never told me about him!” at Helle repeatedly, as though he were happy to have missed out on the joke.

The Door, Magda Szabó. I hadn’t heard of Magda Szabó (1917-2007) before her work was reissued by NYRB Classics, but apparently she was a pretty big deal in her native Hungary. The Door was first published in 1987 and continues the European theme of class discrepancy and the struggle to communicate across divides. The narrator, named Magda, is a writer and academic, perhaps as well known as Magda Szabó was in real life. She had been silenced during the Communist regime, but its fall has led to new opportunities, and she and her husband hire a housekeeper named Emerence, who lives in a cottage near their home. The door to this cottage is the referenced in the title; Magda and other visitors are allowed on the porch, but absolutely nobody is allowed inside.

The relationship between the two women becomes a test of wills, at first coldly professional, and then, after Magda’s husband becomes ill, seeping with an intimacy and a nosiness that seems unavoidable between two strong personalities living in close quarters. Where the novel cashes in is in the moments where their backgrounds rub against one another and Magda’s own bubble comes close to being pierced:

“What is this kitsch?” she asked. “What does it mean? Explain it to me.”

I wracked my brain for a way to explain to her the vices of the innocent, ill-proportioned, cheaply-made little dog.

“Kitsch is when a thing is in some way false, created to provide superficial, trivial pleasure. Kitsch is something imitative, fake, a substitute for the real thing.”

“This dog is fake?” she asked, with rising indignation. “A fraud? Well, hasn’t it got everything – ears, paws, a tail? But it’s all right for you to keep a brass lion’s head on your desk. You think it’s wonderful, and your visitors gush over it, and make knocking noises with it, like idiots, though it doesn’t even have a neck – nothing – just a head, but they go bang bang with it on the stationery cupboard. So the lion, which doesn’t even have a body, is not a fake, but the dog, that’s got everything a dog has, is? Why are you telling me such lies?

Stoner, John Williams. Stoner is one of the more popular and beloved NYRB reissues—The New Yorker, in 2013, called it “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of”—and it’s easy to see why: the prose is lucid with underlying tensions and remorseless in depicting the bumps and derailments in an American life and marriage. It’s also hard not to notice the comments it makes about the suffocating environment of academia. The title character, on track for a career in agronomy, instead takes a liking to literature and becomes an instructor at the University of Missouri. William Stoner is adept at his work and for the most part successful, though he enters into personality clashes with two antagonists, a particularly testing Ph.D. candidate and a calculating department head. His relationship with his wife, meanwhile, turns quickly from one of frolic to one of function and eventually resentment, leading him all too predictably to begin an affair with a student, putting his position and everyone around him at risk.

I suspect it is the convincing jabs at the university culture that gives Stoner its audience of admirers, because any sense of movement in the book is measured out by Stoner’s collapse and moral erosion. But it also demonstrates a balanced ability with language that is fitting to the subject:

But he had room in his office for only a few of his books, and his work on his manuscript was often interrupted because he did not have the necessary texts; moreover one of his office mates, an earnest young man, had the habit of scheduling student conferences in the evenings, and the sibilant, labored conversations carried on across the room distracted him, so that he found it difficult to concentrate. He lost interest in his book; his work slowed and came to a halt. Finally he realized that it had become a refuge, a haven, an excuse to come to this office at night. He read and studied, and at last came to find some comfort, some pleasure, and even a ghost of the old joy in that which he did, a learning toward no particular end.

We Always Treat Women Too Well, Raymond Queneau. Queneau is often identified as one of the co-founders of Oulipo, a school that promotes new and experimental forms in literature, stretching against preset limits. He wrote Zazie in the Metro, which I read several years ago. This comic novel presents a more standard structure, a pulp satire surrounding a hostage-taking at a Dublin post office during the 1916 Easter Rebellion. Since it’s a comic novel, the crooks are their own worst enemies, and their plan goes awry when they try to evacuate all of the workers and leave a young woman, Gertie Girdle, who had been in the restroom. Naturally, the all-male cabal of rebels don’t know how to respond to her presence, which she leverages against them.

The absence of any point to the plot leaves the reader searching for something even of a gratuitous pleasure to hang onto, just for traction. There are clublike allusions to modernist writers, particularly Joyce (never mind that it’s set six years before Ulysses was published); there is Three Stooges-like zaniness; there is rape imposed as a joke. In the introduction, John Updike writes, “This farce feels genuinely sexy” because “we are left with an impression of relations between men and women as lawless and predatory.” But the modern reader needs to be nudged in that direction just to have a frame of reference for what Queneau is trying to achieve here.

This bewildering year ends with me having read thirty-seven books, many of them very good. I think I ended up buying more than that number, because my office floor is covered with stacks of books I haven’t cracked. I was glad to go through all five novels of Jean Rhys, even though I never got to write about them in the comprehensive way I intended. I was glad to see Colson Whitehead get the acclaim he has long deserved for The Underground Railroad; it is a tense and thickly layered book that allows imagination to be used to a weapon for processing the ugly and shameful marks of our past, and as a delivery to hope.

In real life I visited Iceland and Montreal; in books I visited both of those places (via Halldor Laxness, Jon Gnarr, and Mavis Gallant), along with Jamaica (Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings), Hungary (Magda Szabó’s The Door), Sweden (Jensen Beach’s Swallowed by the Cold), Bulgaria (Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You) and New York City in the summer of 1977 (Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire). I was warmed by a little novel called Glaciers by Alexis Smith and the chance it allows in the small acts we undertake.

There are books you read for pleasure and books you read for ideas, and one book that filled me to the brim with both was Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. For a domestic book, it reveals so much of what a writer can do in a limited space, even with physically limited characters, tethered either literally to hospital beds or to their responsibilities. Berlin lets her characters share the wisdom they have gleaned from their experience, not explain from the bottom up like so many books do, and so her stories have a depth and subtlety I’ve rarely seen replicated anywhere else.

In Curious Squalor

December 28, 2016 § Leave a comment

It’s not often that you remember the exact point in your life when you learned a word.

In the November 21 New Yorker, Jill Lepore writes about the deal that almost came to pass between J. D. Salinger and an Emmy Award-winning television director, Peter Tewksbury, to make a movie out of Salinger’s story “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor,” from 1950, which appears in the collection Nine Stories.

As Lepore writes, the eight-thousand-word story attracted interest almost immediately after it was published in The New Yorker:

For a long time, Salinger had the same policy for “Esmé.” A month after the story appeared, “an English film maggot,” as Salinger called him, said he wanted to make a movie out of it; Salinger wasn’t interested. In 1953, “Esmé” was reprinted in Salinger’s “Nine Stories,” a collection whose U.K. edition was titled “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor: And Other Stories.” The following year, the BBC tried to acquire the rights to adapt “Esmé” for a radio drama series hosted by Laurence Olivier. Salinger said no. In 1958, Salinger’s U.K. publisher sold paperback rights to the story collection to a publishing house that issued a cheap pocketbook whose flashy cover pictured Esmé as a dishy blonde, with the tagline “Explosive and Absorbing—A Painful and Pitiable Gallery of Men, Women, Adolescents, and Children.” Salinger never spoke to the publisher again.

If it’s possible for there to be a Salinger trope, the precocious child is it. Lepore quotes the writer from 1955: “Some of my best friends are children. In fact, all of my best friends are children.” It’s conceivable to argue that the seven Glass children, featured in Franny and Zooey and a number of other stories, were a precursor to the reality TV family; they were, after all, known to America as regular contestants of a panel-quiz show. If a Salinger story were to be filmed, the Glass kids would be too-perfect subjects; it’s not hard to picture a treatment along the lines of Whit Stillman or Wes Anderson.

What’s remarkable about the choice to film “Esmé”—as opposed to the cruise-ship-set “Teddy” or “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period”—is its containment: it’s essentially about a girl who bugs a stranger in a restaurant. The narrator, stationed in Devon before the D-Day invasion, kills time by ducking into a choir rehearsal, where Esmé is one of the singers:

Her voice was distinctly separate from the other children’s voices, and not just because she was seated nearest me. It had the best upper register, the sweetest-sounding, the surest, and it automatically led the way.

Esmé later shows up at the tea shop with her little brother and a caretaker whom the narrator presumes to be their governess. Esmé’s father was killed—she spells out s-l-a-i-n so her brother can’t hear—in North Africa. She wears his oversized army watch on her wrist. The narrative heft is packaged in Esmé’s polished mannerisms and embarrassments around this older man: her “blasé eyes” that “might very possibly have counted the house”; her “clear, unmistakable voice of a small-talk detester”; and her upper-school vocabulary (“Usually, I’m not terribly gregarious,” she confides).

“I’m training myself to be more compassionate,” she tells him. “My aunt says I’m a terribly cold person.”

Upon learning that the narrator is a writer—or at least thinks of himself as one—she requests that he write a story just for her.

“It doesn’t have to be terribly prolific! Just so that it isn’t childish and silly.” She reflected. “I prefer stories about squalor.”

“About what?” I said, leaning forward.

“Squalor. I’m extremely interested in squalor.”

I remember when I first encountered the word squalor. It was in a newspaper article about a friend’s family, describing the trailer in which they lived. (Not that I really want to get into it here, but he had done something horrible to merit making the news.) I remember looking up squalor and realizing just how damaging my class advantages would be to my understanding of the world. We were by no means rich, but we were safe.

And so then, after going through my late-blooming Salinger phase—we never read The Catcher in the Rye in high school, too full of ideas perhaps—it was jarring to encounter the word uttered from the mouth of this character with her liberty of curiosities. Later, a woman I knew at a job would sign her notes with the closing, “Love and Squalor,” which I thought was pretentious, even though by then I had forgotten what the story was about.

Holiday Haul 2016

December 26, 2016 § Leave a comment


I’m not sure it was intentional, but a theme of salvage and recovery threads through the books I received for Christmas this year. Let’s hope the message is less about survival and more about treasure.

What I Read in October and November

December 2, 2016 § Leave a comment

This is not a complete list. Plus I seem to have skipped a couple months, but part of those were dedicated to City on Fire and the Catapult workshop, then the country went and torched itself.

The Fun Parts, Sam Lipsyte. I received this book for Christmas a couple years ago, even though some of the stories, like “The Dungeon Master” and “The Worm in Philly,” I had already read elsewhere. The stories pull characters from the wildest scenarios—a serious neighborhood Dungeons & Dragons gamer, a doula who is a guy, a competitive shotputter—and gives them real struggles. But one of the effects of such setups is that it feels like the characters, with their blind courage, are meant to be laughed at from the start, with the knowledge that their journeys are doomed. It becomes easy, then, to laugh off even their slight progresses.

Notably, these protagonists tend to create false worlds that justify and magnify their importance and give an illusion of control over their paths. Many of them, like Mitch, the barely-qualified doula in “The Wisdom of the Doulas,” are like characters out of the sitcom Arrested Development, with more energy put behind explaining away why they’re there than trying to emerge as something better:

People crave something else during this precious time, barren spinsters overgentle with envy, or else those doughy breeding machines in pastel-colored sack dresses. But I knew something the Gottwalds didn’t. It was an extremely busy season. Maybe my name sat at the bottom of their list, but they’d call their way down to it. They wouldn’t be sorry, either. These uptight success types with their antique Ataris and sarcastic sneakers make me sick, but it’s not about them. It’s not even about the baby. It’s about the job.

Nobody’s born a doula. Or maybe the early doulas, those slaves, maybe they were born doulas. I’m no historian. It’s the future I care about. The future of the families I assist in this first fragile and hugely awesome hours. The future of my bank account, too.

It’s true I just sort to fell into this work while stalking my ex-girlfriend, but once I came under the tutelage of Fanny Hitchens, former doula to the stars, I knew I’d found my calling, even when the calls never came.

It’s these kinds of setups that makes me think of stories like Gordon Haber’s “UGGS for Gaza,” which coincidentally also features a protagonist named Mitch, whose ridiculous scheme to do something meaningful-sounding (but not actually meaningful) is given away in the title. We have a word for these kinds of people:

We were poseurs, but why do you think poseurs pose? Because they want to be invited to the dominion of the real, an almost magical zone of unselfed sensation, and they know their very desire for it disqualifies them.

That’s from “This Appointment Occurs in the Past,” one of the better stories, which gets a couple of bonus points for its rare allusion to candlepin bowling. In a marriage with a sex life “down to resentful tugs and frigs,” the anti-hero hero is given an ultimatum, and naturally whiffs:

Martha enrolled for a master’s degree at the university. She demanded that I concoct a passion she could bankroll, a “doable dream.” What would it be? Poetry journal? Microlabel for the new jam rock? Nanobatch raki boutique? I mulled over these and other notions but mostly focused on my favorite pursuit: grilling premium meats. I grilled grass-fed beef, saddles of rabbit, bison, organic elk. My mulled projects moldered. I’d always pictured myself the genius in the journal, on the label, not running the damn things. Moreover, wasn’t there bookkeeping involved, basic math?

King of the World, David Remnick. King of the World makes sense when you realize, one hundred pages in, that the book is not going to be about Muhammad Ali, as the title and cover suggest, but about how mid-twentieth-century America put itself into a situation where it needed someone like Muhammad Ali to become one of its most magnetic personalities.

That’s the only explanation for why Remnick begins not with the early years of Cassius Clay’s life, or even those of the man that Clay defeated for the heavyweight championship, Sonny Liston, but with forty pages on the man Liston defeated, Floyd Patterson. The suggestion is that Cassius Clay, with the help of his upstart predecessor Liston, broke the mold, flipping the tables on a violent sport whose caretakers did everything they could to protect it from any social narrative.

Clay is literally given the time and setup for a grand entrance. There’s also a good amount of actual boxing writing in King of the World, and Remnick’s transitions are smooth. (Coincidentally, much of the reporting on Clay from the time comes from the New York Times sportswriter Robert Lipsyte, father of Sam). When Cassius Clay is out of the ring, a lot of the book becomes about the charismatic personalities whispering in the new champion’s ear—notably, Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.

But whether the press understood it or not, he had quietly forsaken the image of the unthreatening black fighter established by Joe Louis and them imitated by Jersey Joe Walcott and Floyd Patterson and dozens of others. Clay was declaring that he would not fit any stereotypes, he would not follow any set standard of behavior. And while Liston had also declared his independence from convention (through sheer don’t-give-a-shit truculence), Clay’s message was political. He, and not Jimmy Cannon or the NAACP, would define his blackness, his religion, his history. He was a vocal member of an American fringe group and America would soon be learning about it.

Boulevard, Fall 2016. I don’t know how to feel about the fact that Joyce Carol Oates is still publishing in the same literary journals that I submit to. Does she log her story submissions on Duotrope? Was the 32-pager that leads off this issue particularly hard to place? Imagine being one of the new or emerging writers in this issue, getting to share a Table of Contents with a National Book Award winner.

“Dis Mem Ber,” at least, is a gripping and fast-moving read told in the voice of a young girl who has been molested by an older male relative. There’s the right mix of pinned memory (the smell of kerosene) and immediate uncertainty:

Jill-y! You’ll get a kick out of these.

In the glove compartment of the sky-blue Chevy smelling of kerosene and cigarette smoke are magazines Rowan Billiet keeps hidden he says except for special passengers.

Pulp-paper magazines Rowan Billiet shows me. Given to him by a friend (in Port Oriskany) he hopes I will meet someday. A friend who is a colonel (I think this is what Rowan says) who wants to meet me.

Why’d anybody want to meet me. This makes me laugh, it is so silly and improbable and scary.

If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin. There is no street called Beale Street in If Beale Street Could Talk; the title, I later learned, refers to W. C. Handy’s song “Beale Street Blues,” and the location is an entertainment district in Memphis. I heard about this book after it was discussed on the Book Fight! podcast at the recommendation of guest Annie Liontas.

The novel is strikingly told, in the voice of Tish, a teenager who is pregnant with her boyfriend Fonny’s child. Fonny, a sculptor, sits in prison awaiting trial for a rape he did not commit. A lot of the novel’s energy comes from the interaction of the two lovers’ families, including their stubborn patriarchs, and their several siblings; they are both willing to test the waters to support their respective family members and protective of the judgments dealt from the other side.

Where the book is less engaging is when Tish’s mother, Sharon, at the advice of the family’s attorney, flies down to Puerto Rico to meet the woman who is Fonny’s accuser. It’s a move that doesn’t seem like it would fly at all today, ripe with witness intimidation.

This happens to be the book I was reading when Donald Trump was elected president, and, while reading the flashback scenes, it was hard not to see patterns in the depiction of this young black couple’s interactions with suspicious eyes and a law enforcement officer, Bell, motivated by racism and looking to throw his elbows around. And in spite of there being no Beale Street in New York City (the families live in and around Bleecker), the title hints toward the menace of urban neighborhoods and being gossiped about:

Maybe I used to like it, a long time ago, when Daddy used to bring me and Sis here and we’d watch the people and the buildings and Daddy would point out different sights to us and we might stop in Battery Park and have ice cream and hot dogs. Those were great days and we were always happy—but that was because of our father, not because of the city. It was because we knew our father loved us. Now, I can say, because I certainly know it now, the city didn’t. They looked at us as though we were zebras—and, you know, some people like zebras and some people don’t. But nobody ever asks the zebra.

Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song, Kara Vernor. A particular brand  of popular culture threads it way through this chapbook of short  and flash fiction from Split Lip Press, with references to Don Johnson, David Hasselhoff, Wheel of Fortune, and Magnum, P.I. But rather than date the stories, they aid in injecting a youthful energy, among the groups and cliques there, they amount to a kind of social currency.

The characters have a silent wisdom as they judge and manipulate one another in increments:

Working at Hamburger Hut when you’re a meth addict and a lesbian is just like working at Hamburger Hut when you’re a meth addict. But you can’t tell Cassie that. She thinks being gay makes her special, makes her “lesbionic” she says and flexes her bicep, the one with the inked portrait of Jesse James. (“Lesbionic”)

Vernor has a knack for the well-timed cutting line and is unafraid to let her characters bleed a little. It’s a voice that works well for the flash format here; even after a few hundred words, the impressions are etched and lasting.