What I read

What I Read – Week of Apr 05, 2020

Mostly *Bleak House*.  Will review that when I finish.  Meanwhile, a review of some of Ivan Bunin’s short stories.  This collection is called *In A Far Distant Land*. 

I’ve read and admired several Russian writers.  The usual suspects.  Tolstoy, Gogol, Turgenev, Chekhov; and my favourite, Dostoevsky.  This is my first encounter with Bunin (1870-1953).  The translation is by Robert Bowie (1983).  Bunin’s language is rich and thick, like honey.  Through this honey you glimpse a world as exotic – to a western or westernised reader – as Tolstoy’s.  In Tolstoy and his contemporaries, you get the sense that it’s the socioeconomic differences between Russia and Europe that produce a psychology, and therefore a literature, so distinct from other European canons.  In Bunin, Russia of the late 19th and early 20th centuries looks no longer so starkly different.  (These stories don’t mention the USSR.  They’re mostly from the 1920s and 1930s, and were perhaps written about pre-Revolutionary Russia.  They don’t mention the Czars, either.)  So, you’re forced to look elsewhere for the source of these stories’ strangeness. 

Not all the stories are exotic.  Several could be set anywhere.  “First Love” is a one-page story about a teenage boy who’s just falling in love.  He doesn’t yet know it.  It’s summer, and after days of rain there’s a break in the clouds.  He’s high-spirited.  The object of his affections sees what’s going on, and preens herself on her conquest.  This story, dripping with freshness, could be set anywhere anytime.

So could “An Unknown Friend.”  This story is a series of letters written over one month.  All are from a woman to a stranger.  She’s a Russian living in Ireland, where her husband works; he’s a famous Russian writer living in Russia.  Ostensibly, our letter-writer has a full and active life; in fact, she’s lonely.  In the writer’s words she identifies (she fancies) a kindred spirit.  She writes to him, she doesn’t know why.  She tries to work out why.  She wants him to reply; then she wants him not to reply.  A one-sided love affair?  Not quite.  An obsession, certainly: after an indirect encounter, a lonely soul reaching out into the void.  This story, too, could be set anywhere.

These and other stories, which are in essence timeless and placeless, I enjoyed.  But I enjoyed even more the stories that seem to me inalienably Russian.  Stories that I can’t imagine being set anywhere but in the magic-realist landscape of Dostoevsky and Gogol.

(Re: magic realism: Gabriel Garcia Marquez told interviewers that it’s only western readers who call his works magic-realist.  Readers back home in South America consider his fiction as journalistic as the news-reports with which Marquez began his career.  One of the reasons I love literature is as a window to cultures so different from my own, that it’s easy to attribute their strangeness to the writer’s decision to take liberties with reality.)

Two stories in *In a Far Distant Land* embody the alienness of Russia.  “The Grammar of Love” recounts the tragic love-story of a small landowner.  As a boy, he fell in love with his chambermaid.  She died soon after; he spent all his life in love with her memory.  He seldom left his estate; soon he became confined to a small room in his house, where presumably he worshipped at his beloved’s shrine.  Meanwhile he married and had a son, but let his estate fall into ruin and his house into disrepair.  Strange?  Yes.  But not bizarre.  It seems a blessing not to have to work for a living – until you realise how much more susceptible idle mind is to certain illnesses.  As illnesses go, spending a lifetime loving someone one knew only briefly, forsaking every other activity and relationship – is a Class One privileged illness.  Here’s what takes “Grammar” from the realm of the merely strange to the bizarre: The narrator, as a boy in a neighbouring village, heard the story of this landowner’s obsession, and himself became obsessed with the same chambermaid.  Sight unseen.  In the present, the narrator travels to visit the now-deceased landowner’s decrepit home.  What he finds punctures any hint of romance or glamour about the whole affair.

“Noosiform Ears” begins with the phrenology of evil, indulges a one-sided discourse on morality, and ends with proof of concept.  Symbolically-named Adam Sokolovich is a man on whose face evil is so plainly written that strangers stop and turn to stare, and shudder, and hurry away.  Two acquaintances treat Adam to dinner; he repays their generosity in the dud coin of a philosophical lecture.  He claims: to do evil without remorse is in the nature of all humans.  He claims that he himself is ‘dissipated.’  A Victorian concept, and Adam’s conception of how one becomes dissipated and what are the effects of dissipation – is idiosyncratic.  Is Adam a sociopath?  Perhaps.  But that’s an impoverished explanation of his behaviour; also one that conveniently alienates the plausible possibility that each of us contains the germ of evil.  This story demands an epistemology of evil, the beginnings of which Adam himself offers us.  A haunting story.

My favourite story in this collection is “Indulgent Participation.”  On the dichotomy of universal-vs.-only-in-Russia, this story occupies the ‘universal’ end.  Every November, an elderly music-teacher is invited to sing at an annual Christmas concert.  It’s one insignificant concert out of thousands; but to her, in her quiet life, this is the highlight of her year.  Receiving the delegates of the November invitation; the month of anxiety and preparation; selecting her ensemble, getting her hair done; and, on the evening of the concert, receiving her escort to the venue.  It’s The Day.  She’s dolled up.  Silks, velvets, jewellery, satin shoes.  Mouth-freshener, hair-perfume.  In royal state she sails out to meet the two young men who have come to escort her to the stage of her glory.  The house of cards of human vanity collapses when, as he kneels to put on her overshoes, one of the young men smells, from the armpits of her expensive dress, “the rankness of mice.”  He’s polite and straight-faced; she’s none the wiser.  But for the reader, the illusion of our unnamed protagonist’s glory is punctured.  When I first read the story, this phrase struck me like a slap.  It’s stayed with me.  Harmless-looking, an insidious phrase that creeps under your skin.  We make plans.  We dream of our own glory.  We smell in unexpected places.  We are ridiculous.

Bunin’s language is rich, his stories striking.  I highly recommend this writer, and will read more of him this year.

What I read

What I Read — Week of Mar 29, 2020

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What I Read: Mostly short stories from Electric Literature, and Everything Change Climate Fiction Volume II.  Began reading a volume of short stories, and a novel.

  1. Rachel Harrison’s matter-of-fact magic-realist story addresses overdone themes: thwarted love, beauty, #revengebody, and the toxicity and intimacy of female friendship.  As such, “I bought this Goblin App and All I Got Was This Eating Disorder” should be dull and predictable.  It’s not.  As if on a dare, it avoids every predictable trope.  Think the Goblin is a feisty imp?  Wait till you watch the narrator wake up.

  2. In Helen Phillip’s “The Knowers,” the narrator learns the date on which she will die; her partner learns part of the date.  This discrepancy of knowledge, and deeper disagreements about the narrator’s decision to become a “knower” in the first place – weave into a taut narrative, and climax with a sincere, if weightless, hopefulness.

  3. Janet Frame demonstrates mastery of artful artlessness in her flash story “My Last Story.”  She starts off declaring she won’t write any more stories – then dexerously does just that.

  4. Bob Dylan comes home to small-town Thanksgiving dinner in Marie Helene Bertino’s “North Of.”  The narrator has got away, got successful, and feels guilty, but not really.  Dinner-guest Bob Dylan helps cook dinner, gets punched, and throws punches.  Self-absorbed, he’s less a spectator and more a bystander at a chaotic family reunion that slahes open old wounds.

  5. Karen Russell’s novelette-going-on-novella is a striking urban fantasy.  In “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” four adolescent boys find a scarecrow that looks likes someone they know – and are forced to look back into their own past.  This sensitive exploration of why we bully is crafted as an unravelling of the bullies’ own defences.  The horror is subtle but burrows deep.

  6. In Tony Dietz’s “Darkness Full of Light,” the narrator starts off a spoiled brat, and ends up reexamining family loyalties in a post-apocalyptic world where some humans have become Atlanteans.  The epiphanies are somewhat contrived, but this is a well-structured story.

  7. In David Samuel Hudson’s “Luna,” the narrator has stayed back in a dying city to look after an orca.  In turn, Luna the ‘killer whale’ is the last dolphin from her pod who has stayed back with her human friends.  Pregnant, starving, confronting a grim reality clear-eyed.  And Luna’s not the only one about to bring life into a bleak world.  In the background, unifying the story, is the theme of a couple’s love, and their dialectic of despair and hope in a dying world.

  8. In Rebecca Lawton’s “Tuolumne River Days,” water scarcity has spawned new laws and a new psychological disorder.  Our narrator enjoys baseball, and trekking by a now-dead river.  As a journalist, she ends up in the middle of a baseball-player’s public-relations mess.  Even post-Apocalypse, rich people get their way, and will do anything to keep this a secret.

  9. Ivan Bunin’s selected stories: In A Far Distant Land.  The first Russian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.  He’s also the most recent Russian I’ve read; quite a contrast to Tolstoy, Gogol, and Dostovevsky; even to Chekhov.  Bunin’s language is baroque, and this lavishness feels earned.  He seems to have a mind broader and deeper than the rest of us. 

    “Noosiform Ears” is particularly striking.  (This story is more popularly translated with the title “Loopy Ears.”)  This story gets to the marrow of the existential disenchantment that we too often fancy is a plague peculiar to our generation.  It’s not.  It takes courage to see so far into our heart of darkness, and still keep living.  To face Kundera’s “unbearable lightness of being” and still to keep oneself weighted down with desires and ethics.  The universe doesn’t care what we do or what happens to us.  How do we manage to make ourselves care?

    I rarely feel interested in writers personally: a good story is self-sufficient.  But after reading this one, I turned the book over to examine his portrait with interest and respect.  A great story makes me want to know where it came from. 

    Couldn’t find the story online, but found this article about it:

    Have read half the stories; will review the book next week.

  10. Began reading Bleak House, one of the few Dickens novels I’ve not read.  He’s one of my favourite novelists: I’m embarrassed not to have read him all already, and delighted to read one of his novels for the first time.

Read anything interesting this week?  How are you coping with the pandemic?  Are you interested in the personal lives of writers or artists – or do you prefer to know nothing of them?  Do you seek out biographical information, or avoid it?  How much do you need, or want, to know about the person behind the art?


COVID-19: Past, Present, Future

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COVID-19 is the latest in a long line of devastating zoonoses.  Unless we radically alter our behaviour, it won’t be the last.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is one of a family of coronaviruses, named for the wreaths that ‘coronate’ them.  As of March 16, SARS-CoV-2 has infected 171,000 and killed 6,500.  SARS-CoV-2, first reported in China, is from the same family as 2003’s SARS virus, also from China, that killed 775; and MERS, from Saudi Arabia, that has killed 282 people 2012-2019.  These three diseases have more in common besides their kinship.  They are all zoonoses: infectious diseases that came from nonhuman animals.  SARS-CoV-2 came probably from pangolins; 2003’s SARS from civets; and MERS from dromedaries.  All three coronaviruses jumped from nonhuman animals to humans.  Throughout history, this has been the norm for the origin of human infectious disease.

Zoonoses are the norm

In 1962, infectious disease was declared a problem largely solved: thanks to vaccines, antibiotics, and public sanitation.  Now, “emerging and re-emerging infections have become a significant worldwide problem,” declares PS Brachman, in the Journal of Epidemiology (2003).  Infections like tuberculosis, endemic in Eurasia for centuries, have staged a comeback in drug-resistant forms.  And new infections have emerged.  EbolaZikaSwine flu.  These are all zoonoses.

Like most organisms, pathogens specialise: as a hummingbird specialises in extracting nectar, so a pathogen specialises in exploiting one species/genus.  Yet most major diseases of human history came from nonhuman animals: up to 75%.  How does a pathogen of nonhuman animals evolve to infect humans? 

Wolfe, Dunavan, and Diamond (2012) list the stages.  At Stage One, a pathogen specialises in animals and cannot infect humans (barring blood transfusion etc.): this includes most species of malarial plasmodia, each of which specialises in one species of nonhuman mammal/bird/reptile.  At Stage Two, a pathogen travelling from animal to human can sicken the human, but this infected human cannot spread the infection further (anthrax, rabies).  At Stage Five, the pathogen has evolved to specialise in humans.  For various reasons, many pathogens stay “stuck” at earlier stages.  After millennia of close canine-human contact, the rabies virus remains at Stage Two.  Whereas perhaps just a few centuries of close contact between humans and chimpanzees sufficed for SIV (S for ‘simian) to evolve into HIV.

Most major human pathogens originated in either (i) livestock species: cows alone ‘gave us’ smallpox, tuberculosis, and measles; or (ii) wild animals, generally encountered in hunting: HIV came from chimpanzees hunted in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1920s; Ebola in West Africa came from bats or nonhuman primates; 2003’s SARS came from bats via masked palm civets.  A third route of transmission is indirect: (iii) a domesticated animal becomes a disease intermediary between a wild animal and a human.  Influenza A, which kills 290,000-650,000 annually, came to humans via poultry, who got it from wild birds.

Differential ‘access’ to zoonoses shaped human history

Polymath scientist Jared Diamond’s 1997 bestseller Guns, Germs, And Steel traces the origin of major historical zoonoses to the Neolithic Revolution: when hunter-gatherers settled down to tend to crops and livestock.  Large populations, crowded living, and close human-animal proximity encouraged zoonoses to specialise for human hosts; zoonoses became endemic (like most tropical diseases) or broke out in periodic pandemics (most temperate diseases).  For biogeographical reasons, it was in Eurasia that most of the domesticable animals lived.  It was primarily in Eurasia that these zoonotic ‘crowd diseases’ developed: periodically killing millions, but also conferring immunity to survivors.  Survivors who were carriers.  This accident of biogeography was to have profound historical impact: altering whole continents’ demographics and culture.

Zoonoses were the secret weapon that Europeans carried to the New World.  This is the ‘germs’ part of the thesis of Guns, Germs, And Steel.  Criticised on ideological grounds, the book holds up to scientific scrutiny: it was the advantage Eurasians had in advanced technology, central organisation, and an agricultural package that equipped them with deadly germs – that allowed the Old World to dominate the New.  Guns helped: it was guns that allowed Spaniard Francisco Pizarro’s 168 men to defeat an Incan army 80,000 strong.  But vastly more effective were the Europeans’ germs, notably smallpox of bovine origin: decimating, in many places, 65-90% of the New World’s population.  Europeans also deliberately weaponised zoonoses against each other, and against Native Americans. 

Zoonoses shaped human history and culture in other ways.  Tropical zoonoses (malaria, sleeping sickness) shaped how Africans lived; these novel illnesses impeded Europeans’ progress through Africa and Asia; but Europeans also spread them to the Americas.  Within Europe, zoonotic epidemics including the plague (from rats, attracted to agricultural communities’ surplus food and poor sanitation) increased the wages and bargaining power of surviving workers; they also slowed urbanisation. 

The ubiquitous threat of infection has shaped, also, human psychology.  It equipped us with the behavioural immune system: which makes us over-vigilant to signs of infection, motivates xenophobia, enforces conformity to social norms, and biases our mating preferences.

Zoonoses are emerging and reemerging

To some extent, these historical infectious diseases have been contained (many diseases of temperate origin have been virtually eradicated; tropical diseases have become treatable, but still impose huge costs).  In recent decades, novel zoonoses have caused several pandemics: H1N1, originating in Mexico’s large-scale pig pens, killed 150,000-575,000 in the first year; since it was recognised in 1982, chimpanzee-derived HIV has killed 35 million.  And older diseases have reemerged: malaria, tuberculosis.  As we struggle to contain COVID-19, let’s not forget the huge costs of established zoonoses: tuberculosis killed 1.5 million Indians in 2018 alone.

New patterns of human behaviour are driving both reemerging (tuberculosis) and emerging (COVID-19) zoonoses.  These include: rapid growth of population and urbanisation (many zoonoses are ‘crowd diseases’); contact with wildlife via hunting, transporting wild animals live, and keeping wild animals as pets; frequent long-range travel; and poor sanitation and nutrition in many densely-populated regions.  The reemergence of old diseases has been fuelled by antibiotic resistance: a major challenge for the medical community, and one that has also empowered pathogens once mostly harmless.  Antibiotic resistance also occurs in livestock, partly fuelled by the practice of administering chronic subclinical doses of antibiotics: a cheap way to fatten livestock.  Livestock antibiotic-resistance is a particular problem in emerging economies, including India: affecting not just livestock, but the people who eat them or live around them.  Whether in humans or livestock, antibiotic resistance is not just an economic problem: it is a crisis of global public health.

Highly infectious emerging and reemerging zoonoses have one thing in common: they transcend social boundaries, forcing us to acknowledge our common humanity.  Today, young people, at low risk of severe COVID-19, are being beseeched to take precautions: for the sake of their elderly contacts, if not their own.  (Some governments initially claimed that asymptomatic individuals couldn’t transmit the disease; this is now in question).  Of course, like everything else, zoonoses disproportionately affect those already disadvantaged; influencers are beseeching us to stay home to ‘flatten the curve’ so that everyone who needs care can get it, also to keep in mind what illness and shutdowns may do to those of us who can’t afford to stay home.  (Washington Post’s interactive COVID-19 simulator demonstrates transmission dynamics.)

Moving forward

How should we act to contain, not only COVID-19, but all zoonoses – and, more broadly, all infectious disease?  Clearly, not by killing animals.  After 2003’s SARS outbreak, palm civets were decimated: a tragedy for the cat, whose only fault was being hunted by humans.  Nor will the international blame game do any good: zoonoses have come from everywhere, and are a risk anywhere humans come into close contact with any nonhuman animal.

What we must do is to ban, or strictly limit and regulate, the international wildlife trade.  This trade, driven largely by Chinese demand, includes wild rhino horns; ivory; and bones, skin, and genitalia from farmed or poached tigers.  The origins of SARS-CoV2 are still being investigated; it probably came from pangolins in a live wildlife market in Wuhan.  (Wuhan was also the origin of 2003’s SARS outbreak.)  Chinese traditional medicine encourages consuming wild animal parts: though there’s no evidence for their benefit, and though synthetic substitutes are often available

It was in the 1970s, when the Chinese government responded to famine by opening up agriculture to private industry, that China’s longstanding appetite for wildlife began to be met.  Today, China’s farming and trade of wildlife is a massive market: in 2016, the food-related sector alone was worth 125 billion yuan, and employed 6.3 million people.

The Chinese government has sent mixed messages about wildlife trade.  South China Morning Post reports: “The Chinese government has long encouraged the commercial use of wild animals.”  2003’s post-SARS ban on wildlife trade lasted only six months before lobbyists got it reversed.  Even when laws do exist – e.g. banning the trade of specific animals – China has enforced them poorly.  Pangolins, the probable source of SARS-CoV-2, are an endangered animal, and were illegal to trade in China: but were nonetheless found at Wuhan’s market, suggesting that what laws do exist are poorly enforced.  On the other hand, in 2018, China legalised sale of rhino and tiger parts: though both animals are critically endangered.

Clearly, so massive an industry, and so deeprooted a cultural demand, cannot be erased overnight; a premature law would only drive the business underground, increasing its potential for harm.  But a series of zoonotic outbreaks – and now this pandemic – forces us to confront that, besides ethics and conservation, public health is threatened by the wildlife trade. 

Polls indicate overwhelming Chinese support for a permanent ban of the wildlife trade; many consumers simply don’t know the costs of their consumption, and are horrified to learn it.  Since the COVID-19 outbreak, China has already imposed another ban; as of now, it’s unlikely to be permanent, or to be actually enforced if permanent.  The world must pressure China to do better.  China houses much of the demand in the wildlife market: but the origin of the goods is often in countries across Asia and Africa, where legal loopholes and poor enforcement allow poaching.  We must petition international governments to amend laws and improve enforcement.  To protect wildlife and to protect human health.

Further, we need decisive action to improve international cooperation during epidemics, and public health access within nations.  World citizens must be educated in the dangers of wildlife trade.  Individuals in close contact with wildlife must be monitored.  Antibiotic resistance must be addressed.  The anti-vaccination movement has already caused an outbreak of measles, which had been virtually eradicated; this baseless and destructive movement must be swiftly dealt with.  More than any other advantage of civilisation, vaccination works only if everyone participates.  Liberty of thought is important: even the liberty to hold baseless beliefs.  But the right to life is more important still.

As citizens and as advocates, we must demand structural reform to reduce the enormous cost of zoonoses.  If we don’t, sooner or later business-as-usual will resume, and the clock will start ticking down to the next zoonotic pandemic.


What I read

What I Read — Week of Mar 15, 2020

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Short stories from *The Sun* and other magazines; and a few stories from Vol. II of *Everything Change Climate Fiction.* The latter are beautiful, but depressing — as is fitting. I cheered myself up by rereading one of Dickens’s box-of-chocolate books of sketches. Highly recommend this pick-me-up.

  1. Samanta Schweblin’s “Birds in the Mouth” – The narrator and his wife, divorced, deal separately with their teenaged daughter’s unusual appetite.  Sparely told, an astonishing story.
  2. Samuel Barnhart’s “And a Humbug New Year” takes up the narrative after Dickens’s Ebeneezer Scrooge has a change of heart.  “Humbug” captures a tragedy: most epiphanies fail to transplant back into everyday reality.
  3. Dulce Maria Cardoso’s “The Normal Life” is a narrative seemingly meandering, in fact artfully strophic: of the relationship between a woman, her daughter-in-law, and her granddaughter.  The latter is our narrator, Eliete: who resists becoming either woman.
  4. In Vedran Husic’s “Admir and Benjamin,” two boys form a friendship based on their exclusion.  First-generation immigrants to the U.S., these Bosnian refugees soon go different ways, then reunite for tragedy.
  5. Latoya Watkins’s “Took us like we was all his” documents an elderly couple’s loneliness.  The man is becoming demented; getting a dog was supposed to help.
  6. John Jodzio’s “The Narrows” is a magic-realist tale of two sisters who spend their time – and give back to society – in an unusual way.
  7. In Barbara Litkowski’s “Monarch Blue,” global famine has set in.  Bridget, pregnant with an unwanted child, befriends Carmen who desperately wants a child.  The two women work as pollinators: manually fertilising, on one of the world’s last few plantations, luxury foods for the elite.  The pollen is artificially enhanced with carcinogenic chemicals.  “Monarch Blue” lays bare suffering on every scale: personal, communal, and global.  Its image of cream almond blossoms phosphorescing blue with pollen-clouds still haunts me.
  8. As the narrator in Sandra K. Barnidge’s “The Last Grand Tour of Albertine’s Watch” paddles around her flooded coastal town, she wonders about limits.  Most other families have left town: each of them found its limits long ago.  What will hers be?  Climate-change tourism provides for her family, but intellectual property conflicts eat into their income.  The ending reveals the narrator’s name: thus tying together the story’s threads, and offering one view of what’s just happened.
  9. Vajra Chandrasekera’s “Half-Eaten Cities” is written in quasi-Biblical style: many sentences start with conjunctions, there’s a sense of aeon-long timespans, and the narrator is “we,” not “I” – for reasons that soon become obvious.  A fable told on the cusp between magic realism and science-fiction, “Cities” exposes picturesquely, unsentimentally the tragedy at the heart of climate change: it’s a law of nature that they who are most culpable and they who suffer are never the same.
  10. I reread Charles Dickens’s “Sketches of Young Couples.”  This little book brings you, in a small package, the master’s remorseless observation, acid humour, and deep human sympathy.
What I read

What I Read — Week of March 08, 2020

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Short stories from Granta, The Atlantic, and North American Review. Note: To read the stories in North American Review, you need to log in to JStor. Worth the effort. This is North America’s oldest extant literary magazine.

1. Caoilinn Hughes’s “Prime” is an evocative group portrait of loss and healing. Children on the cusp of adolescence have lost a classmate; their teacher has lost a son. In the perfect setting for magic realism, teacher and students collaborate in the alchemy of making meaning.

2. Alexander MacLeod’s “Lagomorph” traces the coming together and growing apart of a couple through the narrator’s connection with the world’s longest-lived rabbit. The rabbit’s growth pains, adult misfortunes, and apparently supernatural hearing — ground a life in transit.

3. Clemens Meyer’s “Late Arrival” is a poignant portrait of incipient senility. An aging train-cleaner steps out of her routine to form a friendship, perhaps something more. The narrative starts off orderly; its fragmentation is at first disorienting (“Did I miss something?”); then clearly falls apart (“Oh. It’s not me.”). The effect is chilling. But the ending is pregnant with possibility.

4. Anthony Veasna So’s “The Shop” is the deliberately rambling narrative of a graduate frittering away his youth. Helping at his immigrant father’s auto-shop, feeling ambivalent about committing to his lover, wanting to help his family but not clear how. You feel the jolt when it all comes together via an insight that will, let’s hope, galvanise the narrator into action. A sharp cross-section of the generation that refuses to grow up. Mine.

5. A. B. Hemenway’s “Wolves of Karelia” is a fictionalised true story. Of a Finnish sniper demoralising Russians during the Winter War (1939-40). Vignettes about his harsh childhood, his wartime activities and comrade, and his postwar attempts to build a life unfold with a stark and luminous clarity.

6. Maria Reva’s “Novostroika” documents one family’s life in a tenement in the Soviet Ukraine. A tenement that, on the books, doesn’t exist. Poverty, overcrowding, and bureaucratic inefficiency are distractions from sheer primal hunger. There’s stark irony: a man has died, and so many people are crowded into one flat that there’s no room to pivot the coffin doorwards. Hope flickers like a candle in the wind.

7. In Samanta Schweblin’s Kafkaesque “Toward Happy Civilisation,” one man gets stranded at a railway-station. (Or is it just one man?) Trains come and go. Stockholm syndrome.

8. Setting: the horse-races. In Michael Rosenbaum’s “Daily Double,” father and son flirt with confronting their addictions. The son’s include: resistance to romantic commitment. The father, a professional addict, dispenses advice. A third wheel from Gamblers Anonymous resurfaces to puncture everyone’s facade.

9. In John Smolens’s “The End of the World,” two women confront an artist’s death off the shore of Scotland: a place he loved, and called “the end of the world.” His wife and daughter start off cold, the daughter hostile. As truths come out, the two women recognise, through the dead man, their own bonds.

10. Zdravka Evtimova’s “For Sava” is a rollicking tale about a spunky young Bulgarian girl: who defies the whole village, and her own family, to claim her own honorific.

***Special Mention: Ted Chiang’s “The Great Silence.” If you only read one thing this week, make it this. A tiny story that lucidly links disparate ideas. A story told with love. Heartbreaking.

Read anything interesting this week? I’d love your recommendations. If you get time to read any of these, let me know what you think!

What I read

What I read – Week of Mar 01, 2020

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Mostly short stories from a few magazines: especially *Electric Lit* and *Fabula Argentea*. Some stories I particularly enjoyed:

  1. Peter Kispert’s “In the palm of his hand” is an urbane story of ambition, vanity, self-centredness, and moral emptiness. Only when the narrator falls does he experience any urge to connect with another person.
  2. Margaret Meehan’s “A beautiful wife is suddenly dead” is a story of suburban boredom, repressed libido, and the willingness of consumer culture and true-crime shows to fill our voids.
  3. Ross Feeler’s “Parisian Honeymoon” examines the most potent threat that terrorism poses to civilisation: a willingness to play into the game of “them” vs. “us.” The plotting is contrived; but the ending is sharp, subtle irony. As we sleep, our own hatred creeps back and hovers. Watching.
  4. Alice Adams’s “Love is a yellow hotel in Yugoslavia” traverses young love, two marriages, and the conflicts of a mother and a teenage daughter in pleasingly meandering fashion.
  5. Mario Pilla’s “Gramercy” is, at one level, a gentle sendup of an excess stringency about rules of punctuation; at a deeper, a reminder that though the way we say things changes, the things that matter don’t.
  6. Paul Hardy’s “Whoso pulleth out this sword” is the risk, comic monologue of a kingmaker sword brought down to earth.
  7. Matt McHugh’s “Well-regulated” asks what’s more important: the right to carry concealed weapons, or the right to information? The characters are flat — stodgy politicians vs. woke tech CEOs; but this speculative piece is a timely commentary on the chasms that open up in civic life when governments lose touch with citizens’ priorities.
  8. W. T. Paterson’s “Song of Tinnitus” references *The Matrix*, *Woman in White*, *The Machinist*, and *Inception* to good effect for an out-of-left-field horror story.
  9. On *100-Word Stories* magazine, I particularly enjoyed: Kim Addonizio’s “Mysteries of sex” (even masturbation is emotionally complicated) and “Plans” (who needs to meet friends, when we can get what we need right here at home?); Adam Schuitema’s “Palm funeral” (with climate change, the earth is wizening long before it will die); and Heather Bourbeau’s “The quiet sadism of the powerless” (overwhelmed by tragedy, the narrator is frustrated at the lack of something too small to kill).
  10. In Chestnut Review’s Summer 2019 Issue, I enjoyed the sole short story, Laura Gill’s “Mary and Martha” — a series of vignettes analysing the role that religion, persistent patriarchy, sisterly rivalry, and admiration play in relationships between women. It isn’t enough for women to give, and give, and give — they must also abandon their work, fawn, and trust to faith when god/man shows up.

If you read any of these stories, I’d love to know what you think!

Read anything interesting this week? I’d love to get recommendations for short stories / literary magazines.