Author Archives: Jennifer Bort Yacovissi

NaNoWriMo: Yes or No?

This column originally appeared in Late Last Night Books on 20 November 2017.

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Grant Faulkner, Executive Director of NaNoWriMo, in an 11/14/17 tweet: “I just stumbled on this quote and thought it was good advice for this point in NaNoWriMo. ‘One never goes so far as when one doesn’t know where one is going.’ — Goethe . . . Sometimes you have to write as if you’re Mr. Magoo.”

In a month otherwise dominated in America by Thanksgiving and the increasing notoriety/hysteria that characterizes Black Friday, NaNoWriMo has become a thing, to the point that even non-writers have heard about it. Having originated in San Francisco almost twenty years ago, National Novel Writing Month urges its participants to do one thing: write.

Yes, there are “rules”: the stated objective is for participants to write 50,000 words of a novel within a thirty-day period. For reasons unclear to folks responsible for planning, preparing, and hosting a major holiday—not to mention being on the hook for the one that follows hard upon—that period was chosen as November 1-30. Not April (taxes, I suppose), June (end of the school year), or September (start of the school year). The Scots have copied the concept as “Write Here, Right Now,” with the less-overwhelming objective of producing 28,000 words during February (29,000 in leap years?). Certainly, it’s hard to be overly ambitious in February.

Perhaps the inherent point is that there is never an optimal time to write, and we can all deliver a universe of excuses for why right now is worse than any.

Many structures have sprung up nationally in support of NaNoWriMo—a bureaucracy of sorts—and activities are organized at state and local levels to urge writers forward in achieving their word counts. Oddly, many of these are social activities, on the theory that being around similar-minded folks will serve as a focusing function rather than a distracting time sink. Writers can officially upload content to the NaNoWriMo servers so that word counts can be toted up and graphed, and official prizes are awarded to those who slog or blast across the finish line with 50K words or better.

(I’ve listened in on earnest discussions about the validity of word counts, since it’s entirely possible to cheat, as well as the concern voiced by so many over the possibility that, by uploading their work, someone will steal their words and ideas. Turns out someone has come up with a solution to that anxiety: feed your words into the app and it neatly replaces all the letters with Xs, complete with original word breaks, ready to be uploaded and counted. I wonder if someone programmed that app instead of making their word count.)

People who consider themselves “real” writers are typically dismissive of NaNoWriMo, finding it both laughable and insulting that anyone could imagine they will produce a viable work of fiction banged out over thirty days. These folks are missing the point as much as those who worry about word count cheaters.

I consider myself a “real” writer, but the amount of time I have spent avoiding or procrastinating, forgetting to write or preventing myself from writing, taken together, could legally go out and buy itself a drink by now.

I don’t participate in NaNoWriMo as such—I don’t announce my intention or join any of the groups, nor do I agonize about achieving a particular word count—but I completely appreciate the intent behind the hoopla: Write. Write. Write. Stop over-thinking it, stop pre-editing yourself, stop stopping. Sit down, shut up, and write.

Writers are often asked whether they are planners or “pants-ters”: that is, whether they plan out their story in advance or write by the seat of their pants. My problem is that I’m an inherent pants-ter who somehow believes that it must be preferable to be a planner. But I’ve learned the hard way that forcing myself to plan causes me to freeze into inaction. The best way for me to figure out where to take a story is simply to start writing. I figure out solutions to problems on the fly. Ideas flow, characters and situations emerge onto the page, sometimes fully formed, like Athena erupting from Zeus’s forehead and bellowing a battle cry. I find myself wondering, “Where did that come from?” The answer: it came from writing.

Leading up to this November, I made a pact with myself that I would write something on my novel-in-progress every day, which I have not been doing for the better part of a year. It’s my intent to use my thirty days to re-establish the habit, the discipline, of working on this project daily, because—another thing I’ve learned—that is what keeps my brain working in the background on all those characters, situations, and solutions, so that when I sit down to write, they might erupt onto the page as though I never needed to think them into existence at all.

At the end of November, I will not have a completed novel. Nor, I would argue, will anyone who delivers their official, award-eligible 50,000 words. What we will have, though, is wildly more written material than we would have had otherwise, and—at least for me—a reminder that this is how the work gets done. After all, it’s impossible to get to your second draft if you’ve never written your first.

Book Review: Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History

This book review originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on 16 October 2017.

In Unbelievable, Katy Tur had me at her dedication. Rather than “For Mom” or “For Pooky-Bear,” it’s “For the love of God.”

Amen, sister.

In life, timing is everything, for good or ill. (“If I hadn’t decided to turn right at the corner just then, I never would have [met my soulmate] [been hit by that dump truck].”) Tur was a young NBC foreign correspondent living the life in London and spending romantic weekends in Paris, when a quick trip back to the States just happened to coincide with NBC’s decision to put someone on Donald Trump’s improbable (“ridiculous,” “hilarious”) presidential campaign.

Learning she was about to be tapped to follow him full-time, she called a veteran of earlier campaigns for advice. He told her to accept. “If you hate it, at least it will be short.”

Sure, it was funny at the time.

Trump’s bizarre love-hate relationship with Tur reared its head at the first campaign event she covered, just two weeks after his entry into the race. In the rain in a donor’s back yard in Bedford, New Hampshire, she was startled to hear him call her out, mid-speech, with a telling complaint, “I mean, Katy hasn’t even looked up once at me.”

Tur covered Trump longer than any other reporter, despite never having done political reportage before; without wanting to, she became part of the story she was covering. By not backing down in the face of personal attacks from her assigned candidate, or from the resulting death threats from his followers, she earned the respect of her colleagues, her own hashtag (#ImwithTur), and equal footing with her hero, Andrea Mitchell, as one of the indomitable “road warriors” of the campaign.

Plus, unlike most of the seasoned political reporters she found herself among, Tur, living as she was on a steady diet of packed and screaming Trump rallies across the U.S., never discounted the candidate’s chances of winning.

Tur takes an inspired approach to telling a story that we just finished living through — at least from our view in front of the stage. She slingshots back and forth between accounts from the long campaign (“May 23, 2015: 535 Days Until Election Day”) to the minute-by-minute ticking clock of Election Day itself. The stomach-clenching suspense is unexpected.

Along the way, she fills in the backstory of her from-birth training as a newshound and pulls the curtain back on the less-than-glamorous life of a press-corps journalist.

For those who still experience the election of 2016 as a raw, open wound, Tur’s intimate recounting may need to be read through splayed fingers. The rest of us just want video of the drunk Trump press corps’ early-morning election-day plane ride, with CNN’s Jeremy Diamond attempting to sled in the aisle during take-off, and Jim Acosta and Tur taking selfies with a passed-out Mark Halperin.

The author’s storytelling is earthy and accessible, and — as in the chapter, “Pop the Trunk. I’m Going to Run for It,” about dragging a couch-sized suitcase a mile through the snow to LaGuardia to beg her way onto an already-closed flight to Iowa — helps us to laugh through some of the otherwise truly chilling episodes she recounts of Trump’s whipping up his crowds against the “lying, disgusting” media, which often included his pointing out “back there…little Katy.”

In one telling episode, at a rally just days before Christmas in 2015, Tur spends a lovely, impromptu half-hour in the ladies room with a hair dresser and Trump supporter who offers to help her get her hair TV-ready. During the rally, Trump ruminates on the idea that Vladimir Putin kills reporters, and considers whether he might do the same. “I hate them, but I would never kill them.”

As usual, Trump’s press corps is corralled together behind barricades, as Tur observes, “caged in the center of the arena like a modern-day Roman Colosseum.” She notes the poinsettias, the wreaths, the holiday sweaters, “and the crowd is cheering about the idea of killing journalists…[T]o the lady who curled my hair in the bathroom, who is now somewhere in the crowd that is laughing at the idea of Trump killing me: Thanks, my hair looks great.”

Tur proved her mettle during a long and painful campaign, surviving that and much more — not the least of which was Trump’s grabbing her by the shoulders and kissing her, apparently because he liked her relatively softball coverage of him moments before on “Morning Joe.”

Unbelievable.

Book Review: The Complete Ballet

This book review originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on 8 October 2017.

Chances are good that you’ve never read a book quite like The Complete Ballet: A Fictional Essay in FIve Acts, a genre-bending mix of dance criticism and novel/fictional memoir that is unique in concept and execution. It is by turns engaging, illuminating, ridiculous, funny, heart-wrenching, and educational.

Each of the five acts of the subtitle is focused on a famous ballet, the themes of which author John Haskell ties into his running story. The ballets are La Sylphide, Giselle, La Bayadère, Swan Lake, and Petrushka. Not only does Haskell describe the stories the ballets relate, he discusses the history of their creation and famous productions, as well as the outsized personalities who brought them to life.

All the big names are illuminated here: Nureyev, Fonteyn, Baryshnikov, and Sergei Diaghilev, the latter of whom “brought ballet into the twentieth century with the Ballets Russes, which he founded in 1909. Pavlova danced for him and Coco Chanel designed for him and Balanchine choreographed for him.” And he was paired for many years with the legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.

Where did the author’s own interest in ballet originate? Page one introduces the writing of Arnold Haskell, the renowned ballet critic and force behind the Royal Ballet School. Coincidence? If there’s any relationship, it remains unacknowledged, though it would be interesting to know whether something about the shared last name prompted the idea for this intriguing project.

The unnamed first-person narrator, on the other hand, explains almost immediately that his interest in ballet began when his young daughter fell in love with The Nutcracker, and the two began reading ballet stories together.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that we’re not hearing directly from the author. Repeated references to Arthur Haskell’s writing convey the sense that John Haskell and his narrator are alter-egos:

“Unlike Haskell, I’m not interested in writing a guide to dance. I’m trying to find for myself a version of life that expresses itself like dancing, like the moving body thinking itself into existence.”

In its barest outlines, Ballet’s “story,” set in the L.A. of the 1980s, relates, in bits and pieces, how our hero plunges deeply, desperately into debt to some truly dangerous characters, and where he goes from there. At the time, his life is shambles anyway, though he still seems hopeful enough to be seeking that version of himself and his life that might think or move or will itself into existence.

A case in point is the guy he thinks of as his best friend: Cosmo, a good-time schmoozer who owns a strip club. Though Cosmo is not a great role model, our hero keeps trying to act like him, hoping that it will stick and he’ll become that guy, but no luck. “Although his self-sufficient relaxation was worthy of emulation, when I tried to sit like he sat…I didn’t feel what sitting like him felt like.”

At the same time, the object of his hazy affection is one of the club’s dancers, Rachel, who also happens to be Cosmo’s girlfriend. It’s a classic ballet plot.

The narrator uses the stories of the ballets to echo his own, and to weave in details of his life, though it’s the story from an opera, Rigoletto (inspired by a Victor Hugo play, just as Giselle was inspired by a Hugo poem), of a father’s failed efforts to protect his beloved daughter, where he draws the closest parallel to his own life:

“And I don’t know if I ever had a curse laid on me but I remember watching my daughter, on her blue scooter, scooting along on the sidewalk in front of me, and she was a cautious person but don’t take your eyes off her for an instant, that’s what I told my wife and she told me but all it took was that one time she didn’t stop at the corner, and it was like a curse.”

The entire narrative has that breathless, stream-of-consciousness quality to it, helped along by the fact that, though there are section breaks, there are no paragraph breaks. In relating his story, our hero approaches and then backs away from various subjects, then returns to them later from another oblique angle. You can almost see the corps de ballet advancing, retreating, advancing, like waves on the shore.

In virtually every ballet, someone dies tragically. Often it’s the heroine, and very often she dies through the obtuse blundering or fickle-heartedness of her beloved. Sometimes both lovers die, but sometimes there’s a happiness to it, a transformation that allows them finally to be together on some other plane. It may not be as satisfying to the audience as a corporeal happy ending, but finding a measure of fulfillment at the ragged end of tragedy is hardly the worst outcome.

When, in The Complete Ballet, our hero finally achieves his own transformation, paradoxically willing himself into existence by disappearing into a different character, it’s more satisfaction than he or we might reasonably have hoped for.

The Joys and Sorrows of (Writing) Historical Fiction

This post originally appeared in Late Last Night Books on 20 September 2017.

A friend of mine is an author whose favored genre is contemporary noir fiction—hard-boiled, edgy, dark. Since that’s what he writes, that’s also what he reads. Without prompting, though, he read my novel of historical fiction set in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Washington, D.C., a story that could never be described as “edgy”. Graciously, he told me what he liked about it, but concluded by saying, “I write fiction so I can make [stuff] up. Historical fiction seems like way too much work.”

He’s got a point. Fiction is supposed to be fictional, right? Why go to the effort of having to do a ton of research and ensure detailed accuracy (because you know how those historical fiction fans are about that) when the story is supposed to be invented?

Sometimes I do find myself envying my contemporary fiction peers, who seem to have a much easier job of it. Historical novelists could pump out books a whole lot faster if they didn’t have to slow down for all that pesky research.

But even contemporary writers need to do research depending on the subject. If they’re writing about an unfamiliar field or area of expertise, or a different culture or geographical region, all of that takes investigation to get it right. But putting any of those issues two hundred — or two thousand — years in the past increases the extent and complexity of research by orders of magnitude.

Consider Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing, a bestseller that received the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Leonard Award for a debut, along with many other accolades. The novel is astonishing in its sweep: not only does it span three hundred years, it spans three hundred years in parallel on two continents, inhabits multiple cultures on both continents, and changes the characters it follows with each new chapter. Even for an historical fiction writer, that’s an exceptionally tall order. But that scope was critical to the book she wanted to write, which shows the reverberations and repercussions of slavery across time, geography, culture, social fabric, and — most importantly —people.

When it comes to research, the danger for writers of historical fiction is knowing when to say when. Most learn to let the story drive the research, doing just-in-time homework to understand historical context or events, and to fill in the details.

The other peril of research is the author’s being so proud of what she’s learned (or having spent so much time learning it) that she wants to shoehorn it all in. The mark of a talented writer is that the story is infused with a sense of the time and place, and that any details are organic to the story and placed correctly in time — so that a character in 1920 would button a garment rather than zip it.

The trick for authors is to understand for themselves what something looked like, how it worked, or how it was used at that time so that the words they choose are appropriate. No contemporary fiction author would describe what a telephone looks like, and neither should an historical fiction author, but he needs to be capable of picturing the phone his character is using, and to be aware, for example, that the phone is connected to a party line.

Historical fiction tends to go in and out of popularity over time. Twenty years ago, when Richard Lee established the Historical Novel Society (HNS), he says, “it was a genre everyone said was dead. Or if not dead, it was at the nadir of fashion.” Now, a reader can find historical fiction in every single sub-genre imaginable: romance, mystery, horror, thriller, YA, LGBT, sci-fi, and fantasy. Westerns are by definition historical, as is Steampunk, a relatively new addition to the histfict cannon. Of course, there is also the “alternative history” sub-genre of historical fiction.

I write reviews for the Historical Novels Review, HNS’s quarterly publication. Each issue contains hundreds of reviews, organized by general time period, beginning with prehistoric, and moving through biblical, classical (that is, ancient Greece or Egypt) into the centuries from first through twentieth, then on to the hard-to-categorize, such as “timeslip” — think Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. A committed reader could read nothing but Edwardian or Regency-era fiction and never run out of books; I’ve heard (but have no evidence myself) that books of U.S. historical fiction, particularly early to mid-twentieth century, are especially “hot” right now.

So when people tell me, “Oh, I love historical fiction,” it’s a natural impulse for me to ask, “Yes, but what kind?”

For anyone asking why an author would bother with the extra labor that comes with historical fiction, part of the answer may be that there is a huge market for it. But for most writers, I think, it’s that even the most cursory glance backwards can generate a lifetime of compelling story ideas. So often, a writer will catch a snippet of an historical account and just know there’s a great story in there, with just “a little” digging. Author Carrie Callaghan saw a seventeenth-century self-portrait of Dutch painter Judith Leyster hanging in the National Gallery of Art. Carrie’s debut novel, A Light of Her Own (due out next November from Amberjack Publishing), is a direct result of that encounter.

I look for ideas everywhere.  I review a lot of non-fiction, both for HNS (yes, even the fiction guys read non-fiction sometimes) and for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Often, I choose books because I think I’ll find interesting historical information that might be useful later, such as in Greg Jenner’s A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Everyday Life from the Stone Age to the Phone Age, and Steam Titans: Cunard, Collins, and the Epic Battle for Commerce on the North Atlantic, by William M. Fowler Jr. — and, yes, I did, in both cases.

For myself, I write historical fiction to remove myself — and, I hope, my readers — from the clutter of the known, everyday “here” and to go to a different place, to be, as it were, transported. I also find that it’s sometimes more effective to make an observation about the lives that we live today by approaching that point from a remove, through the reflection of history. My current project takes place in the U.S. of the early twentieth century, but I’m drawn to the specific topics because of the parallels to today’s social, cultural, and political climate. Writing a contemporary story about these same issues, while we’re in the midst of them, would, to my mind, feel too raw, and would overshadow the story I want to tell. Coming at a subject obliquely allows readers to put their guard down and simply let the story seep in.

And no matter what kind of fiction an author is writing, any reader knows: we just want a good story.

Book Review: The Ninth Hour

This book review originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on 5 October 2017.

Novelists are often drawn back to the same time and place again and again in their work, to an emotional geography that formed them as people and as writers. For Alice McDermott, that place is among the working-class Catholics of 1950s-era Brooklyn and Long Island. Her work consistently involves the quietest stories focused on lives of little note.

And yet.

In the Catholic canon, the Liturgy of the Hours, such as vespers and lauds, marks the time of day for certain prayers; none, the ninth hour of the day, 3 p.m., is the time for mid-afternoon prayers. It is around that time on a cold and rainy February day that a young man sends his pregnant wife out to do the marketing so that he can close up their tiny apartment, kill the pilot light, and lie down in the bedroom for a permanent nap.

We see the aftermath of the explosion and fire through the eyes of neighborhood nun Sister St. Savior. Despite her desperate need for a toilet after a day spent begging at the Woolworth’s for the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, the nun walks into the house rather than pass by, and immediately takes matters into her capable if arthritic hands.

Thus begins the story of Annie, the new widow, her daughter, Sally (christened St. Savior), the nuns of the convent of the Little Nursing Sisters, and the various characters that inhabit their work-weary neighborhood.

As unassuming a writer as McDermott is, she sometimes surprises readers with her willingness to break rules. In her 1998 National Book Award winner, Charming Billy, she got away with using a first-person narrator for a closely told story, the bulk of which took place before the narrator was even born.

Rebel McDermott is here again, this story narrated by an even more captivating “we,” signifying the children of Sally and her husband, Patrick Tierney, who grew up together. The Tierney children — how many? boys? girls? — tell this story in intimate detail, describing their grandfather’s last solitary moments, Sister St. Savior’s internal considerations of God, and countless other hidden moments. It’s a delicious little twist of narrative expectations that McDermott pulls off effortlessly.

The story unspools gradually, alluding to certain incidents and episodes, returning to them, adding flavor and depth at each pass. Sally and Patrick’s children recount the stories they grew up hearing. That their grandmothers, Annie and Liz, were fast friends from before their parents were born means the stories of the two families bleed into each other to become one.

Many of the stories involve the residents of the convent of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor — primarily Sisters Lucy, Illuminata, and Jeanne — women who understand what needs to be done and simply do it. They are by necessity practical and tough, and have few saintly illusions about life. Their devotion to God is primarily manifest in the unceasing labor they pour into easing the suffering of others.

If Lucy is brusque and unsmiling while Jeanne’s eyes twinkle perpetually on the brink of laughter, both women prove themselves equal to any task, starting with making Annie’s apartment habitable again and finding the money to employ her to help Illuminata with the convent’s mending and washing. They also see things clearly, including the developments between Annie and the convent’s milkman, Mr. Costello.

Sally grows up in the warm embrace of Annie, the various sensibilities of the convent nuns, and the messy, tumultuous household of Liz and Michael Tierney and their six children. Sally and Patrick knew each other from infancy, and in Patrick’s stories they were destined for each other.

One of Patrick’s favorite stories involves Red Whelan, Aunt Rose, and the lasting enmity between his father and grandfather, for whom young Patrick is named. The Tierneys paid Red Whelan to take the elder Patrick’s place in battle during the Civil War.

When Red came back missing an arm, a leg, and an ear, the Tierneys bestowed on him permanent residence in their third-floor bedroom, and their young daughter Rose to be his lifetime caregiver. So much given to ensure the future of a son on whom all hopes rested. As Aunt Rose later said, “Weighed down all his life by the burden of gratitude.”

Hence the bitter and permanent break between father and son when young Michael, carelessly throwing away a generation of advancement that came at such a cost, insisted on marrying a mere immigrant servant girl — Liz.

The final insult, in the end, is that Red survives the old man. “I wonder if it irked my father, to see Red Whelan outlive him,” Michael tells Patrick. “I wonder if he thought, as he lay dying, that perhaps for three hundred dollars more Red Whelan would take his place again.”

As told to the children, the story is an object lesson in being sure the thing you think you want is worth the price you have to pay to get it. It’s the same object lesson that Sally learns when she thinks she wants to become a nun, and yet again when she thinks she wants to spend her mornings with miserable, self-pitying Mrs. Costello.

Sister Jeanne tells the children stories, too, in her old age but still with a twinkle in her eye, discussing with them the ideas of God’s sense of fair play and the joys of Heaven, something she is certain will be denied to her. How sweet, stalwart Jeanne could permanently be out of God’s grace is the central mystery of this story, while the reader’s central question, for her and several other characters, is, “Was it worth the price?”

McDermott, the master of understated storytelling, leaves us to ponder the answer.

A Lesson in Every Object

This column originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on 28 September 2017.

In June 2013, author/philosopher/videogame-designer Ian Bogost and Loyola University New Orleans associate English professor Chris Schaberg introduced a series of books and essays called Object Lessons, described as “a series on the hidden lives of ordinary objects.”

Bogost and Schaberg serve as the series’ editors, while the 2,000-word essays are published in no less a venue than the Atlantic (in their online Technology section), and the 25,000-word books are published by Bloomsbury.

Bogost explained the origin of the idea as having grown out of the concepts he explored in his book Alien Phenomenology; in particular, “a call for more frequent and more sustained attention to specific things.”

As he described it in the announcement of the series, “Each Object Lessons project will start from a specific prompt: an anthropological query, archeological discovery, historical event, literary passage, personal narrative, philosophical speculation, technological innovation, anything really — and from there develop original insights around and novel lessons about the object in question.”

Since then, 31 installments have been published, with at least 15 more in the offing, and the team continues to solicit proposals for additional projects. Besides being beautiful little hand-sized objects themselves, showcasing exceptional writing, the wonder of these books is that they exist at all. A couple guys champion the idea of establishing an open-ended essay project to a pair of big-name publishers, and they say yes! To essays!

The list of existing and forthcoming books is a random walk through a heap of objects, from the large-scale and encompassing (Earth by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Linda T. Elkins-Tanton) to the small and specific (Sock by Kim Adrian); things of which we have too much (Waste by Brian Thill) and too little (Silence by John Biguenet); things whose time has come (Drone by Adam Rothstein; Pixel by Ian Epstein) and gone (Phone Booth by Ariana Kelly; Shopping Mall by Matthew Newton); things that are a phenomenon of modern life (Jet Lag by Christopher J. Lee); and the things modern life is excising (Whale Song by Margret Grebowicz).

I wonder what object lesson lies in realizing that the two most politically charged objects in the series are head coverings: Veil (by Rafia Zakaria) and Hood (by Alison Kinney).

To read a few of these books is to understand generally what you will find in any of them. That’s in no way dismissive. The writing is uniformly excellent, engaging, thought-provoking, and informative. Each one uses its base object as a jumping-off point to range widely through a surprising collection of interrelated topics.

So, if a book called Sock makes you think, “Twenty-five-thousand words on socks? Uh, no,” then you’re unclear on the concept. You’re also missing out on a thoroughly delightful discussion of, among other things:

  • Why humans no longer have fur, but instead have many sweat glands and a layer of fat.
  • Georges Bataille’s essay fragment “The Big Toe,” which posits the subject body part as the true evolutionary launch point for humanity, because its forward orientation enabled bipedalism, which in turn allowed us to develop and exploit the opposable thumb.
  • How tracing the evolution of clothing lice (a.k.a. body lice) as a distinct species from both head lice and pubic lice, allows us to date the emergence of the use of clothing by humans.
  • The many delicate, nuanced adjustments needed throughout the body to keep humans from pitching forward onto our faces with every step.
  • Foot odor, which is not caused by the quarter-million sweat glands in our feet, but rather the poop from the bacteria that flourishes in our laced-up shoes and feasts on dead skin.
  • The distinction between a partialist — one whose sexual obsession is aimed at a part of the body — and a fetishist — one whose obsession is focused on an object — so that it’s no longer considered entirely correct to speak of a “foot fetish.” (Author Adrian addresses many facets of our complicated sexual relationship with feet, though one imagines that Sock serves as the hors d’oeuvre for this subject ahead of Summer Brennan’s forthcoming Object Lesson, High Heel.)

Imagine, then, that the less-prosaic of the Object Lessons are at least as wide-ranging as Sock. For me, it’s illuminating to understand the reason each author chose the subject she or he wrote about. The whimsical Eye Chart arose from author William Germano’s lifelong issues with myopia, while Anna Leahy’s project, Tumor, is informed by her intensely personal experiences of her father’s death from liver cancer and her mother’s from pancreatic cancer.

After digesting several of the OLs, I began to consider what mine should be. It didn’t take long to decide: Paper Route. True, it’s not an object quite like Remote Control (by Caetlin Benson-Allott) or Personal Stereo (by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow), but I’d argue it’s as much an object as Jet Lag or Traffic (by Paul Josephson).

Like many of the OLs, the launch point here is from my own personal narrative. I’ve had a job since I was 9, and that first one was delivering the now-defunct weekly Montgomery County Journal. Later, I progressed to delivering the now-defunct daily Washington Star.

It was never my idea to get the paper route, and I was not always a willing or gracious participant, but I had to save for college since, in my household, it was a given that 1) we kids were going to college, and 2) we kids needed to find a way to pay for it.

Thus, Paper Route, should it ever exist as an OL, will address certain obvious topics, though I would hope to make it more than just a misty-eyed elegy on the disappearance of both paper and news, or a grumpy lecture on the value of hard work and saving money (and walking barefoot uphill both ways in the snow).

Some of the less-obvious paths I’d like to explore include debt, higher education, the plummeting participation of able-bodied men in the workforce, and the need to recognize licensed trades as being of equivalent value to college degrees in a healthy, functioning economy and society.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Book Review: Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution

This review originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on 30 August 2017.

For those of us who aren’t evolutionary biologists, it may come as a surprise to learn that there is such a field as experimental evolution. (Is now the time to admit not knowing about evolutionary biologists, either?)

This and other surprises both fascinating and a bit discomfiting await the non-expert reader of Jonathan Losos’ Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution, a thoroughly accessible analysis of whether evolution is one big crapshoot or rather mundanely predictable. No spoilers here, but the evidence presented on both sides makes for some thought-provoking reading.

Losos made his early bona fides as the Lizard Guy, doing lots of undergraduate, graduate, and later fieldwork with anoles in the Bahamas (he agrees that it’s a tough life but somebody’s got to live it).

He is now a professor of biology and director of the Losos Laboratory at Harvard, and Curator of Herpetology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Being a university professor, he publishes often in scholarly journals, but also writes for a popular audience in places like the New York Times.

The great proponent of evolution as an unpredictable and unrepeatable series of happenstance is Stephen Jay Gould, who posited that you could hit the rewind button on evolution and replay it infinitely and never get the same outcome twice.

This is a concept known as “contingency,” in which any outcome is dependent upon the tiniest factors all lining up in exactly the right sequence. Yet much of the evolutionary record — as well as plenty of extant species, including those anoles — illustrates the concept of convergent evolution, where similar environmental pressures in disparate locales give rise to virtually identical evolutionary adaptations.

(Personally, I am crushed to learn that I missed out on the “Shetland pony-sized” pigmy elephants that apparently evolved independently on islands around the world, “some recent enough to have coexisted with modern humans: Malta, Corsica, St. Paul off the coast of Alaska; Flores, where they lived with Komodo dragons; even the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California.” What?)

On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of once-and-done species that evolved a single time and remain unique, including most of New Zealand’s fauna (where mammals never evolved), a good chunk of Australia’s, and, lest we forget, us.

The Gould Camp would say we’re a one-in-infinity outcome, while others, like Dale Russell, theorize that, even if that asteroid had missed Earth and mammals had never gotten their evolutionary shot, it’s completely plausible that evolution and selection would have favored dinosaurs that were big-brained and bipedal, eventually resulting in — voila! — the dinosauroid.

Evolutionary biologists are probing the “contingency vs. determinism” theories through both lab and field experiments to assess evolution’s general predictability. One of them, Rich Lenski, took Gould’s “replay the tape” challenge literally, establishing a long-term evolutionary experiment (LTEE) with E. coli that started in 1988 and continues today through tens of thousands of generations.

By starting with a single parent strain and growing 12 separate colonies under identical conditions for years, Lenski was seeing whether they all behaved identically. The findings over time from this and other LTEEs offer some surprises but generally show significant predictability.

While many of us tend to think of evolution as an eons-long process, we also intuitively understand that rapid genetic changes give rise to such organisms as antibiotic-resistant bacteria and pesticide-resistant insects.

Fast changes happen in larger creatures, too. Losos introduces us to many examples of field-based experiments in evolution that demonstrate just how quickly natural selection works to change the make-up of a given population.

His long-running work with anoles had already documented examples of consistently convergent evolution in which nearly identical lizards evolved on different islands to fill nearly identical ecological niches.

His later work took that a step farther and put genetically similar anoles on tiny, lizard-free islands to see what would happen. When the populations did not get wiped off the map by hurricanes, they evolved in ways the research team found to be fairly predictable.

In Trinidad, experimental evolution fieldwork with guppies demonstrated how predation pressure affects coloration. Again and again, experiments showed that, under low predation, male guppies quickly became more brightly colored, apparently something that held appeal for female guppies. Under high predation, issues of attractiveness were thrown out the evolutionary window as duller colors helped males to survive long enough to mate. (Better dull but alive than sexy but dead, as evolutionary biologists like to say.)

The speed with which these changes occur — within a few years or even just a few seasons — is pretty stunning, but it’s also a little worrisome how the researchers choose to jigger around with wildlife, introducing species where they weren’t, including adding predators into the mix where they previously hadn’t been.

Losos discusses this somewhat, arguing that the introductions mimic what often happens naturally. Still, it sure feels like we’ve seen this “Man Monkeys with Nature: Bad Outcomes Ensue” movie before.

So why do we care about evolutionary predictability, anyway? As Losos points out in discussing diseases such as cystic fibrosis, any level of predictability is better than none if it gives us hint in advance about how these diseases might shape-shift in the face of drug therapies.

All this goes to presume that a reader is willing to face the concept of evolution in the first place. Losos notes that the National Science Foundation asks evolutionary biologists, when writing up the description of their funded grants for public release, to avoid the “E” word so as not to trigger an ugly backlash.

Indeed, it seems that however it is we humans came about, we still haven’t evolved a consistently open mind or a thicker skin.

The Datum is Clear: Language Shifts in Real Time

This Write Now column originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on  24 August 2017.

Back in June in this column, I ruminated about the decline of editing as a valued element of the book-publication process. That column anticipated by about ten days the brouhaha that erupted at the New York Times when its management decided to eliminate a copy desk and spread its duties out among the remaining editors.

A scathing open letter from editors to Executive Director Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Joe Kahn was followed by a walkout on June 29th by what even the Times characterized as “hundreds” of newspaper staff.

(Lest we think that the term “copy desk” denotes one or two rumpled, ink-stained grammar curmudgeons, the desk under discussion consists of more than 100 editors, who are now forced to compete, gladiator-style, for about 50 editing positions.)

Social media loves to find and skewer the burgeoning examples of copyediting fails, such as the East Oregonian’s now-famous “Amphibious Pitcher” headline (even funnier that the word the headline writer was casting about for appears in the second sentence of the article), and the Kennebec Journal’s headline trumpeting, “Trump warns of ‘fire and furry.’”

The same day as the “furry” headline, I was heartened to see the Washington Post headline, “Data shows an unabated opioid crisis,” not because I’m happy about the crisis, but because I welcome the common acceptance of data as a collective, singular noun. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read articles whose authors and editors have the most tenuous grasp of proper usage but remain punctilious in treating data as plural.

I don’t have the Post style guide in front of me, but I’m guessing they’ve gone all in on data-as-singular, while both The Chicago Manual of Style and language god Steven Pinker (who describes himself as being in the “fussy minority” on this point) sigh wistfully in acknowledging the gradual shift from plural to singular.

Really? Why?

Yes, of course data is the plural of datum, but can anyone define what a datum is, or cite the last time it was ever used meaningfully? (I wonder if Steven would shudder at my use of media as a collective, singular noun a few paragraphs back.)

This is an instance where I’m all for the language shifting to what makes sense, not remaining frozen in etymological purity.

These gradual but somewhat predictable shifts are being replaced, courtesy of that pesky all-connectedness of social media — and, perhaps, a lack of editing — by sudden, surprising leaps. I’ve been watching one of these with personal fascination.

For many years, I have wondered about a word that, as far as I can tell, is missing from the English lexicon: one that means the worst, basest form of cynicism, the kind that uses naked manipulation to achieve a morally corrupt end. Given the number of times in modern history that such a phenomenon begged to be described, you’d think that our ever-elastic language would have evolved one.

I kept circling back to craven as having exactly the right sound and feel of the word I’ve been searching for, but, of course, craven — though its origins are cloudy — means cowardly, defeated, abjectly fearful.

A few years ago, however, I was pulled up short in reading an article in which the author used craven in exactly the way that I wanted to use it, even though there is no support for such usage. Sure, great minds think alike, but where was the editor saying, “Wrong word, buster!”?

Suddenly, though, the somewhat archaic word craven has begun popping up in mainstream usage all over the place, and it’s quite the education to watch its usage and implied meaning shift in real time.

Let’s take a walk through just a few instances over the last handful of weeks, ordered to illustrate a shift in meaning (all of these are from my go-to daily, the Washington Post, except where noted):

“Others on the GOP side have as well, but they are — how to put this delicately? — too cowardly in most instances to do anything about it. But McCain? Why should he now — of all times — suddenly stoop to their level, the level of craven politician?” — Jennifer Rubin, 25 July, “Why has McCain returned?”

“There was craven, cover-your-behind politics at work that had high costs and promoted anxiety worldwide.” — David Rothkopf, 9 August, Global Opinions, “A rogue state squares off against a rogue head of state.”

“The least respected of today’s leaders are, of course, politicians. The public largely views them as craven and cowardly, pandering to polls and focus groups.” — Fareed Zakaria, 17 August, “The mealy-mouthed cowardice of America’s elites after Charlottesville.”

“It was a day of craven ignorance and cynicism that moved the presidency of the United States away from global leadership into a narrow little niche of ideological, political self-preservation.’’ — John Kerry, quoted by Matt Viser in the Boston Globe, 2 June, “Kerry says Trump’s decision was ‘a day of craven ignorance’” (on the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord).

“Such a cravenly cynical quote — with its tacit acknowledgment that a major change in social policy was announced with partisan advantage in mind — is both breathtaking and scandalous.” — James Hohmann, 27 July, the Daily 202, “Growing GOP backlash to transgender troop ban underscores Trump’s political miscalculation.

“But because the Trump Organization and related companies haven’t seen fit to produce their own goods in the United States, that means either their products aren’t the best or Trump is engaged in a craven manipulation of his fans. Or both.” — Sarah Posner, 17 July, the Plum Line, “Trump’s ‘Made in America’ week is a hypocritical joke.”

It’s Posner’s use of craven in that last instance that nails the new definition (“cynicism manifest in naked manipulation to achieve a morally corrupt end” — J. Yacovissi), but it’s easy to sense the flavor that the word is taking on as it steeps in its new favorite-word status. Certainly, with politics squarely at the center of every one of these uses, the shift in meaning is not a big leap, since so much of politics appears to involve an abject fear of defeat that leads to all sorts of twisted manipulation.

(For an entire article that embodies this new definition of craven, read Amy Davidson Sorkin’s 24 July New Yorker article, “When Anthony Scaramucci fell in love with Donald Trump.”)

What’s most fascinating to me is that we’ve all been drawn, somewhat independently, to the same word. Development of language is much like the development of case law: Once the first instance appears, subsequent ones point back to it as their definitive source.

I do wonder whether this particular shift has been made with the consent of, or due to the absence of, copyeditors. Will language change faster now that editing is less prevalent? Hmmm. Before we can say, we’ll need to collect another datum or two.

Book Review: Get to Know KNOW THE MOTHER

This column originally appeared in Late Last Night Books on 20 July 2017.

Though she loves to read novels, author Desiree Cooper found that her fiction comes from her in a much shorter form. “If there was no such thing as flash fiction, I would have had to invent it,” says the 2016 debut author of the collection of flash fiction entitled Know the Mother. If you’re not terribly familiar with flash fiction, which works to tell an evocative story in a very compressed space, this lovely, haunting collection demonstrates just how effective and affecting this genre can be.

Mother’s stories have a strong common thread of dreams delayed or abandoned — suppressed under the weight of obligation — and of how identity is tied to those dreams. Who are we, really, if we’re never allowed to be who we want to be? Can anyone really know us if our true selves are hidden behind society’s expectations of us or the demands of roles we did not freely choose?

The title story in the collection asks these exact questions, as a daughter mourns the gradual loss of her mother to Alzheimer’s, tenderly caring for her as she watches for any sign of recognition. The daughter senses that her mother, even as she gradually ebbs, enjoys an interior life that her daughter has no share in. “She is leaving me so easily, I wonder if her love ever rose above duty.”

Another story, “Nocturne”, beautifully renders a life through a series of losses, all that point to the loss of a dream: “At age seven, Jeanine lost the family dog. She had been practicing scales on the piano . . . Jeanine was thirteen when she lost the citywide Chopin competition to Grace Lee . . . she couldn’t forgive herself for putting passion ahead of perfection.”

Most of these stories run just a couple pages — and some just a few paragraphs — but Cooper’s ability to evoke entire lives in just a few strokes is magical. Because so much is packed into such compressed space, attempting to describe or illustrate any one of them risks draining them of their wonder. You simply have to read them for yourself.

Cooper writes to the dynamics of race, gender, age, culture, and families, often all at once. She illustrates the universality of experience through situations that are fully recognizable to all of us, such as the jumble of thoughts and emotions that course through a mother who sits and waits through the night for her errant daughter, in “Mourning Chair”. She envisions all the worst possible scenarios: “My daughter is easy to recognize, officer. She’s the one with her heart beating in my pocket.”

And what American of a certain age can’t identify with either the parents or the kids — or both — in “Reporting for Duty, 1959”?: a family trapped together in a hot car on an endless cross-country road trip, the kids restless and bored, tormenting each other, Mom’s increasing threat level incapable of making them behave, until the moment Dad — silent until now, authority held in reserve for the nuclear option — pulls over and stops the car.

In this case, however, the family is African-American, the dad is an Army sergeant in uniform in the south in 1959, moving the family from a base in San Antonio to another in Tampa. The kids are two boys, twelve-year-old Junior and nine-year-old Curtis, and the story is told primarily from their point of view. At one point, Junior watches as his father pumps gas into their car. “All the other dads were sitting in their cars, waiting for the gas-station people to serve them. His was the only dad who knew how to pump the gas himself.” Cooper expertly builds the tension in this story such that I almost felt the need to close my eyes.

There are many other gems in this collection — heartbreaking, elegiac, fraught, nuanced, thought-provoking — and they stay with the reader long after the volume’s covers are closed. One of the wonderful things about flash fiction, of course, is that you can re-read to your heart’s content. You’ll want to do that with Know the Mother, knowing that you’ll notice something new each time.

Between Obligation and Desire: An Interview with Des Cooper

This Write Now column originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on 20 July 2017.

In June, I found myself at my first-ever writer’s retreat at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in tiny Interlochen, Michigan. A music camp since the early 20th century, Interlochen now also plays host to all types of artists, including writers.

There, I had the pleasure to meet and learn from Michigan-based author Desiree Cooper, who was leading the short-story seminar. Cooper’s 2016 debut, Know the Mother, is a collection of flash fiction (short-short stories). After hearing a craft talk that she gave, which drew from a recent essay of hers for Origins Journal called “Writing into the Blindness of Race,” I knew I needed to read her fiction. Once I did, I asked if I could interview her for the Independent.

Like my own, Cooper’s debut came rather later in life, her creative writing having taken a backseat to a career as a lawyer, journalist, and advocate for women’s reproductive rights, and been squeezed into the spaces between caregiving for children, then grandchildren, and now parents.

The theme of obligation overtaking dreams, desires, and even identity is strong in Know the Mother, no more so than in the title story. In the following interview, Cooper and I discussed that theme, as well as — both of us being debut authors of a certain age — understanding that time is not to be taken for granted.

Did you initially set out to develop a collection of stories that speak to a theme of caregiving/mothering, or did you simply find that you had a large body of work that took that path?

It took me 20 years to write this slim collection of stories. Being a mother and wife had everything to do with both the themes of the book and my laborious process. The conflict between the imposed role of caregiving and my life’s desire to be a writer has had me feeling creatively stifled, repressed, and unfulfilled most of my adult life. It’s no surprise to me that every time I sat down to write, my stories touched the theme of gender and the trade-offs women must make in order to be themselves.

Your story “Nocturne” explores the lifelong tension between obligation — even when it’s a loving obligation — and desire, which seems like something you’ve had to wrestle with. Do you have that sense of needing to make up for lost time?

That’s so funny. When I had a desktop computer, I had a Bible verse taped below the screen. I’m not particularly devout, but the verse was from Joel 2:25: “I will restore to you the years the locusts have eaten.” I have a profound sense of lost time when it comes to my art. That verse spoke to my grief for all that I haven’t yet had the time or resources to write. I love the idea that somehow the reward for my commitment to family will be warp-speed productivity in the latter half of my life. If there is a God, that would be one of my prayers.

Unlike the main character in that story, who wanted to be a concert pianist, it’s never “too late” for a writer, is it? Don’t we get better with age?

I remember my friends happily telling me that Doris Lessing won a Nobel Prize in Literature at age 89. (Read: There’s still plenty of time for you!) But the idea made me furious. Are we as women really supposed to wait until old age to self-actualize — and be grateful for that? (This does not apply to Lessing, by the way, who was as prolific her whole life as she was profound.)

While writers may have a longer work life, it’s not true that they have all the time in the world, or even that they get better with age. I was in an accident in 2015 and have been recovering from a traumatic brain injury ever since. Rather than affecting my mobility, the accident has affected my facility with language and concentration. At the same time, I’m taking care of my parents — both in their 80s — who have memory issues. I can’t help but wonder how much longer I will be able write a cogent paragraph, even though, at 57, people will try to assure me that I’m still “young” (in writer years).

Tomorrow is not promised, no matter your age. At this point in my life, I feel a healthy urgency to get it done before it really is “too late.”

Do you feel like you’re winding down on having so many obligations and can now allow yourself more freedom to pursue the track you want?

Yes and no. The accident pulled me out of an intense professional and political life advocating for women’s reproductive rights. In some ways, it’s been a forced retirement, if only a temporary one.

But at the same time, my family obligations are only multiplying. My parents can no longer live alone, and I’ve had to leave my home of 30 years to move to Virginia to stay with them. My millennial children have not fully launched, and my two grandchildren need a vast amount of daily support from me. I often say that this isn’t the Sandwich Generation, it’s the Hero Sandwich Generation. The pull of caregiving has only gotten more powerful.

But there is a difference. I have learned to manage boundaries and guilt. Actually getting a book published has made a lifelong dream become tangible, and with that reality has come a commitment to myself to be more disciplined in my practice. I don’t know if it will mean another book. But it will most certainly mean that I will put my writing first.

How did your career choices affect your fiction?

While practicing banking and bankruptcy at a major Detroit law firm, I learned so much about privilege and money. The pressure of working at a corporate firm taught me how to assimilate information efficiently, digest it, and use it to make a point.

My longest professional stint has been as a journalist — mostly as a columnist for the Detroit Free Press, and also as a commentator for public radio. I wrote about gender, race, and child welfare, with a generous number of profiles sprinkled in. Journalism clearly taught me compression, so much so that when I had room to stretch as a fiction writer, I couldn’t. If there was no such thing as flash fiction, I would have had to invent it.

My activism has been around women’s rights and reproductive freedom. As an activist, I’ve learned that storytelling is far more powerful than rhetoric. When I sat down to write fiction, I wanted to illuminate how the subtle forces of racism and sexism work in the most intimate spaces, influencing relationships and life choices. I have no interest in preaching. I only care about creating empathy.

Would you describe your going to law school as part of that sense of obligation, or was it what you truly wanted at the time?

Obligation. I was born to middle-class, striving parents and was part of the first generation out of the Civil Rights Movement. It was our job to walk through the doors that had been opened for us by those who marched, protested, and gave their lives. In that milieu, writing was not a job, it was a hobby.

I majored in journalism as an undergraduate because that was the closest thing to a writing job. I went to law school because I knew I couldn’t live independently without more education. I was five years into law practice before I realized that I couldn’t thrive in a life devoid of creativity. I left to join the nonprofit sector, but it was 12 years before I landed in journalism as a columnist.

Do you consider one story in particular as serving as a climax of the collection?

I’m not sure I have a story that represents the climax of the collection. But the title story was the first that I wrote decades before my own mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It remains the axis of the stories: Women’s lives are so invisible and so overshadowed by the mantle of “mother,” that we really don’t ever learn who they really are.

In both “Reporting for Duty, 1959” — the story I was most haunted by — and “Home for the Holidays,” the car becomes a fraught space, a space that magnifies the everyday frustrations we all share, but then it also becomes an acute source of vulnerability for African Americans. Instead of representing freedom, a car trip is a gauntlet to be overcome, or even survived. Thoughts?

I didn’t realize until I’d finished the collection how many [of the stories] include a scene in the car. The car is iconic in American history but, for different reasons, in black history as well. It was a safe bubble in which black families could travel this country, as long as they stayed in the car and followed the rules of the road. It represented freedom as well as danger. To this day, the predominant reason for African-American tourism is to visit family (especially family reunions). There’s a reason for that.

In Detroit, it was the thing of lore for African-American auto workers to pile the family in their new American car and visit the folks down South. There was no greater pride! From a craft point of view, however, the car is perfect for flash fiction. It’s a setting of ready-made compression in terms of emotion, tension, and action. It also gives the story a temporal arc: something has to happen between leaving and arriving.

My sense is that Michigan seems to have a particularly strong support network for writers. I often hear about Michigan writing programs, and obviously we met at Interlochen. Is that the experience that you’ve had — beyond, for example, having a publisher call out across the parking lot for you to send your manuscript even before you had one?

Yes! The whole reason that the publisher suspected that I was sitting on a horde of stories was because he heard me read at a number of community events. Detroit is crawling with creative energy, reading series, and writing groups, especially now. I find great collegiality and a significant amount of cross-pollination among Detroit writers (i.e., writers are crossing racial, gender, and geographic lines).

I was pushed to take my craft seriously while sitting at coffeehouse sessions with the Detroit poet, Vievee Francis. She took many writers under her wing and was personally responsible for preparing them to be professional. I can’t say enough about Wayne State University Press, whose Made in Michigan Writers Series has opened the doors to so many diverse voices, and Kresge Arts in Detroit, which has catapulted so many Detroit-area artists into the national limelight.

Read more from Desiree Cooper at descooper.com and follow her on Twitter at @descooper.

[Photo by Justin Milhouse.]