February 2021 Reading & Writing

Best of what I've been reading, from essays to short stories to interviews.

chloe wise art
Artwork by Chloe Wise: Breaking sugar on someone’s back, 2017


For every fleeting momentum of reading recently-published literary works, I fall back into the rhythm of reading 20th-century authors. This week, it’s been Saul Bellow’s nonfiction writing and George Saunders’ thoughtful and amusing analysis of the Russian short story masters Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Gogol. Reading the former, I was reminded of the opening line of Bellow’s award-winning Herzog: “If I’m out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.”

#essay #reporting | The Resistance by Eula Biss for The Paris Review

Eula Biss is surely one of my favorite contemporary essay writers, equal to The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore. In her essay for The Paris Review, Biss looks back on the historical resistance movements – from the French Resistance of the forties to the Black Lives Matter movement. What does it mean to participate in resistance and what is every individual’s place in the large, almost unfathomable currents of social change?

Here’s Biss on the French Resistance movement:

“Discerning between a resistant and a collaborationist could be difficult, as a person could be both. Some people changed their allegiances, some betrayed their comrades, and some moved back and forth between resistance and collaboration. Resistance was not a fixed position, but a decision that had to be made over and over again. In the end, most people didn’t resist.

Fewer than five percent of the French were engaged in active resistance, but that was enough to undermine the occupation. Another ten percent were passive resisters who read underground newspapers and took no other action. The majority of the population neither resisted nor collaborated. They accommodated, as Eliot A. Cohen puts it. “Accommodation was understandable and reasonable,” he writes. And that is why it haunts me now.”

And here’s another trademark paragraph of Biss’, writing from personal experience and inner inspection:

“Much of the resistance took place in writing, in pamphlets and newspapers. One of the first glimmers of the Resistance was little stickers, “butterflies,” printed with messages and left on mailboxes to let anyone who might want to resist know that they weren’t alone. When I learned of those butterflies, I thought of the anonymous postcard I received shortly after the 2016 election, printed with one word: RESIST. And I thought of the sign a neighbor posted on her porch: RESIST. I passed that sign every morning as I walked my son to school, and it never ceased to bother me. It bothered me, I told myself, because it wasn’t doing anything. What we needed, I thought, was action, not a word, not a sign. But the sign was doing something by bothering me. It was inviting me, every morning, to consider what that word meant, and to face my own bafflement about what constituted action.”

#book | A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders

The writer George Saunders has been teaching creative writing at Syracuse University in the US for the last 20 years. One of the courses he’s warmed up to most is the 19th-century Russian short story in translation. The book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is the written condensation of the course, and Saunders takes us right to the heart of short stories by Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Gogol. He asks us to read a story and then follows it with a raving interrogation into its rich nuances and stylistic trickery. Being halfway through the book, I feel like reading any short story will never be the same again.

One of the short stories analyzed in Saunders’ course is Anton Chekhov’s The Darling. Read it here.

WEEK 7 | 2021

It is 18 degrees outside and it means reading on the park benches, the petit déjeuner’ing French lurching around. Either this was a very good reading week with many lucky finds or I am exhilarated by the weather. Either the books I read this week – Self Help by Lorrie Moore, Se Perdre by Annie Ernaux, and Essays I by Lydia Davis – were all exceptionally written or hitting the right nerve. Both. And befittingly to the spring weather, a duo of articles I read this week covered migration, one by birds and another by butterflies. I am brimming with recommendations.

#photography #reporting | Saving the Butterfly Forest, photography by Brendan George Kovia via The New Yorker

“Every November, around the Day of the Dead, millions of monarch butterflies descend on a forest of oyamel firs in the mountains of central Mexico. The butterflies have never seen the forest before, but they know—perhaps through an inner compass—that this is where they belong. They leave Canada and the northeastern United States in late summer and fly for two months, as far as three thousand miles south and west across the continent. The journey is the most evolutionarily advanced migration of any known butterfly, perhaps of any known insect.”

#essay #reporting | Intrepid Navigators by Robert O. Paxton via The New York Review of Books

An exploration to the latest literature on bird migration, bird senses, and bird habits.

#art #literature #review | When a Museum Feels Like Home by Peter Schjeldahl via The New Yorker

I remember my visit to the old masters of the Frick Collection in New York a few years ago. And I see why Peter Schjeldahl has the habit of saying “Welcome to my house” when introducing people to the Frick. Just click through to discover a magnificent Ingres painting, and consider ordering the recently published illustrated anthology The Sleeve Should Be Illegal: & Other Reflections on Art at the Frick where culturati (Schjeldahl’s word) sixty-two contribute a short personal essay on the Frick.

#literature #review | Tove Ditlevsen’s Art of Estrangement by Hilton Als via The New Yorker

Not only is Hilton Als one of my favorite book reviewers (he makes enviable picks of writers to write on), the much-lauded memoir of the Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen The Copenhagen Trilogy is waiting its turn on my bookshelf.

“Ditlevsen has a dependency not only on Demerol but on the question of what it means to be a wife while also a lovesick daughter and an artist. In a way, being a junkie is her most selfless role; one of the reasons you get high is to forget who you are and concentrate on how you feel as the world melts away.”

#literature #review | Bildungsonline by Clair Wills via The New York Review of Books

Patricia Lockwood’s new novel, and her first, No One Is Talking About This has made the literary circles buzz since the publication of an excerpt in The New Yorker’s Fiction section a few months ago (link below). It is a strange novel, written in fragments and in language that resembles the one we use online. I am not yet sure whether I will read the entire thing or not.

#literature #shortstory | The Winged Thing by  Patricia Lockwood via The New Yorker

#book | Self Help by Lorrie Moore’s book Self Help

Lorrie Moore’s short stories are overjoyingly amusing and purely styled, their embalming humanity absorbs clean to the bone. She explores her way deep into the souls of her characters – good people facing poor life choices or pure bad luck.

As a reviewer in The New York Review of Books noted, “Her characters put their humor to a wide variety of uses: to try to smooth over awkwardness, to defang their terror, to stave off despair, to endear themselves to lovers they sense are drawing away, to armor themselves against the aggressions of others, to put up a brave front when it seems that everything around them is caving in, to gesture helplessly at the absurdity of the world.” And then later: “Jokes, puns, and wit become survival techniques of people who would never be as cruel in life as their internal critics are.”

#shortstory #literature | How to Be an Other Woman by Lorrie Moore

#shortstory #literature | What is Seized by Lorrie Moore

Excerpt below

“Cold men destroy women,” my mother wrote me years later. “They woo them with something personable that they bring out for show, something annexed to their souls like a fake greenhouse, lead you in, and you think you see life and vitality and sun and greenness, and then when you love them, they lead you out into their real soul, a drafty, cavernous, empty ballroom, inexorably arched and vaulted and mocking you with its echoes—you hear all you have sacrificed, all you have given, landing with a loud clunk. They lock the greenhouse and you are as tiny as a figure in an architect’s drawing, a faceless splotch, a blur of stick limbs abandoned in some voluminous desert of stone.”

#book | Se Perdre by Annie Ernaux

When the French writer Annie Ernaux was in her late forties and it was in 1988, she began an affair with a Russian diplomat in Paris. She called him S. in her diaries. S. was married. Se Perdre, published a decade later, is a transcription of her diaries from the one-and-a-half-year-period while the liaison lasted.

The diary inscriptions, regular, almost daily, are what one would expect from reading the diaries of a woman obsessed with a man whose ever-irregular calls become her impassioned lifeline. Obsession is episodic, elusive, and endless. Delirious joy and destructive agony wash in waves over the pages of Ernaux’ diary with no horizon in sight.

The book was an unusually sensual choice, but Ernaux being one of my most revered French writers, her diaries, the diaries of a cool French writer in an all-encompassing affair, sounded intriguing enough. And I was not disappointed, finishing the book a slightly altered, touched, reader.


It’s been a busy work week and a slow reading week. But, but, but!!! I found the autumn 1993 issue of The Paris Review in a bookstore and who wouldn’t want to own the edition published around their birth time. All this week’s recommendations come from the TPR.

#shortstory #literature | The Lives of Saints by Jeanette Winterson for The Paris Review, read as PDF here

It is the best short story (and it literally is short) I have read in a while. The entwining of narratives, beautiful metaphors and figures, and an ambiguously moving final.

“It is true that on bright days we are happy. This is true because the sun on the eyelids effects a chemical change in the body. The sun also diminishes the pupils to pinpricks, letting the light in less. When we can hardly see we are most likely to fall in love.”

“I left her at dawn. The street was quiet, only a cat and the electric whir of the milk van. I kept looking back at the candle in the window until it was as far away as the faint point of a fading star. In the early sky all the stars had faded by the time I got home. There was the retreating shape of the moon and nothing more.
Every day I went to the shop where the Jews stood in stone relief and I bought things that pleased me. I took my time, time being measured in 4 ozs. She never came in. I waited outside her house for some years until a FOR SALE sign appeared and a neighbor told me the woman next door had vanished. I felt such pleasure then, to know that she was wandering the world and that one day, one day, I might find her again. When I do, all the stories that are folded into this one can be shaken out and let loose. But until then, like the lives of saints, more is contained than can be revealed. The world itself will roll up like a scroll taking time and space away. All stories end here.“

#letter #literature | Mea Culpa by Dylan Thomas published in The Paris Review

A self-deprecating-decreating letter of apology from the poet Dylan Thomas written to Marguerite Caetani, the editor of Botteghe Oscure. The latter being another curious find: there was a trilangual literary journal edited from 19 by an American who married an Italian prince, the contributors ranging from Bellow to Camus to Capote, published between 1948 to 1960. But to return to the letter, it may as well be the most artful apology letter in the history, you can feel the author redisovering the joy of writing in the poetic lamentations and vindications. 

“Many times I began a letter, and then put it aside because the piece was not finished. And the drafts of letters piled up, and time lapped on and thickened, putting on skins of distance, and daily, and even more so nightly, I grew more ashamed of my silence and more angry with my procrastination until, at last, I couldn’t write at all. I buried my head in the sands of America; flew over America like a damp, ranting bird; boomed and fiddled while home was burning; carried with me, all the time, my unfinished letters, my dying explanations and self-accusations, my lonely half of a loony may be-play, in a heavy, hurtful bunch. These ostrich griefs were always with me, and whispered loudest in the late night when, indeed, I was all sand. ‘Put it off, put it off,’ ‘It’s too late now,’ ‘You can never be forgiven,’ ‘The past is as dead as you’ll be,’ ‘Burn the daft drafts, unwind the half-play in your head so that nothing’s left,’ ‘Forget, you damned Welshcake, for doom’ll nibble you down to the last loud crumb.’”

“These pages, I think, are wilting in the grey nearly permanent drizzle that sighs down on to this town and through the birdscratched matchboard roof into my wordsplashed hut. It isn’t rain, it must be remorse. The whole fishy bay is soaked in guilt like the bad bits of poems-not-to-be oozing to the marrow on the matchsticked floor, and the half-letters curling and whining in the warped drawers. I’m writing this guilty noise in a cold pool, on a November afternoon, in mists of depression. Forgive me even for this, if you can.”

#Interview #literature | Toni Morrison, The Art of Fiction No. 134, via The Paris Review

Why do you think people ask, Why don’t you write something that we can understand? Do you threaten them by not writing in the typical Western, linear, chronological way?

I don’t think that they mean that. I think they mean, Are you ever going to write a book about white people? For them perhaps that’s a kind of a compliment. They’re saying, You write well enough, I would even let you write about me. They couldn’t say that to anybody else. I mean, could I have gone up to André Gide and said, Yes, but when are you going to get serious and start writing about black people? I don’t think he would know how to answer that question. Just as I don’t. He would say, What? I will if I want to, or, Who are you? What is behind that question is, there’s the center, which is white, and then there are these regional blacks or Asians, or any sort of marginal people. That question can only be asked from the center. Bill Moyers asked me that when-are-you-going-to-write-about question on television. I just said, Well, maybe one day . . . but I couldn’t say to him, you know, you can only ask that question from the center. The center of the world! I mean he’s a white male. He’s asking a marginal person when are you going to get to the center, when are you going to write about white people. I can’t say, Bill, why are you asking me that question? Or, As long as that question seems reasonable is as long as I won’t, can’t. The point is that he’s patronizing; he’s saying, You write well enough; you could come on into the center if you wanted to. You don’t have to stay out there on the margins. And I’m saying, Yeah, well, I’m gonna stay out here on the margin, and let the center look for me.

#shortstory #literature | The Saint by Gabriel García Márquez via The Paris Review

A surreal and compassionate tale of Margarito Duarte, a man who happens to dig out his wife’s an daughter’s coffins in process of a cemetery transfer, discovering his daughter’s body incorrupted and weightless, the corpse of a saint. He takes on a pilgrimage to Rome, a quest to reach one of the four consecutive popes to officially grant his daughter sainthood.

“After so many delays, Margarito decided to take matters into his own hands, and he delivered a handwritten letter almost sixty pages long to the Secretariat of State but received no reply. He had foreseen this, for the functionary who accepted it with all due formality did not deign to give more than an official glance at the dead girl, and the clerks passing by looked at her with no interest at all. One of them told him that in the previous year they had received more than eight hundred letters requesting sainthood for intact corpses in various places around the world. At last Margarito requested that the weightlessness of the body be verified. The functionary verified it but refused to admit it.

“It must be a case of collective suggestion,” he said.“


This week, two Granta magazines, two Times Literary Supplements, a New Yorker, and the latest New York Review of Books all arrived in my mailbox and I’ve been trying to keep up with this magazine blast. I also started and finished Flights by Olga Tokarczuk and found another Annie Ernaux book, Se Perdre, at Gilbert Joseph bookstore that I could not resist but carry home.

The latest Granta magazine (issue 153) explores climate change and extinction and presents an amalgam of essays by scientists and researchers from such a broad range to include a mycologist, lepidopterologist, and several ornithologists. It was the best essay collection I’ve read in a while, not least for its daring achievement to include writers and places as distinct as coral reefs in the Maldives, rainforests in Mexican mountains, and Indian deserts circled by vultures.

#essay #reporting | Shifting Baselines by Callum Roberts via Granta

The opening essay of this quarterly issue of Granta opens up with an introduction of a seaweed species called zooxanthellae that dwell in a coral reef in the Maldives lies at the heart of the Indian Ocean.

These microbial seaweeds have evolved to live within the coral animal’s tissues. As plants, they gift corals with abundant food produced by photosynthesis, enabling the corals to grow more rapidly than their predecessors, whose only source of food was passing plankton. In return, living deep within coral tissues cupped inside hard limestone skeletons, zooxanthellae gain protection and use exhaled carbon dioxide to make food. But this symbiosis, like many other natural ecosystems, is threatened by the constant increase of oceanic temperatures.

By showing the thirty-year demise of coral reefs, here’s where the author is getting at: We tend to not fathom the extent of change happening to the nature surrounding us. “The difference in our perceptions illustrates a phenomenon called ‘shifting baseline syndrome’. Shifting environmental baselines are intergenerational changes in how we perceive our world. Each generation sets its mental benchmark of normality by how the world looked when first encountered, often in youth, and sees change relative to this. Younger generations accept as normal a world that seems tainted and degraded to older people.”

#essay #reporting | Water Is Never Lonely by Judith D. Schwartz via Granta

This essay takes us to central Mexico’s eastern Sierra Madre Mountains, to the forests where the mist and the high altitude guard the chill. The most arresting paragraphs are the ones describing the trees’ role as mediators of the water inside ground and up in the clouds.

“You can think of a plant as a water pump, pulling moisture from the surrounding soil and releasing it as vapor. From the plant’s perspective, this process is vital for regulating its own temperature because transpiration is a cooling mechanism, in that it consumes energy. Turning liquid water into a gas not only uses energy, it also dissipates the heat beaming down from the sun. Solar energy hitting a bare surface – think midsummer tarmac – creates ‘sensible heat’, or heat you can feel. If instead that radiation falls on vegetation, thanks to transpiration it becomes ‘latent heat’, suspended in the water vapor through space and through time.“

As Rachel Carson writes: ‘Up there is another ocean – the air ocean that envelops the whole globe.’ Past a certain threshold, however, tree loss interrupts the dialogue. This worries Roberto Pedraza Ruiz, who says that a patchwork of small, protected forests does not function in the same way as a large wooded expanse.

#essay #reporting | Vultures by Samanth Subramanian for Granta

The article takes a look at Gyps indicus, once an abundant species across India. There were once 40 million vultures in India, a number that had dropped to around 10,000 in 2013.

“This isn’t a mystery story – or at least, not any more. In 2003, scientists working across Britain and India found that the culprit behind the great vulture die-off was not a pathogen but a man-made drug. Diclofenac, a chemical patented in 1965 by a Swiss pharmaceutical company, began to be used widely in arthritis medication in the late 1980s. It eased stiff joints and reduced inflammation; even non-arthritic patients could use it to relieve the pain of a toothache or a migraine. After the patent expired, diclofenac became cheap: in India, just a few cents per tablet. It was made up into a veterinary product as well, so that farmers could buy it for cows or buffaloes suffering from some wound or illness.”

“With diclofenac, the animals could be kept out of pain for a few more weeks of milking or perhaps even to birth calves – valuable revenue for the Indian farmer – before they died and were carted to the dump. But when vultures fed on these carcasses, the diclofenac residues damaged their kidneys and gave them visceral gout; chalky clots of uric acid built up in their organs, eventually killing them. In this too, diclofenac was astoundingly effective. If we’d set out deliberately to wipe the country clean of vultures, we couldn’t have done any better.”

Since 2003, protective laws and breeding centers have been established and the country’s vulture community is slowly rebounding. It is not close to 30,000 birds back in the wild. The author explores the vultures’ extinction and its effect to the local customs and ways of life, presenting a folklore-misted tale of humans’ relationship with nature.