Both Mark and I had noticed at poetry readings that whenever food was mentioned in a poem—and that didn’t happen very often—blissful smiles would break out on the faces of people in the audience. Thus, we reasoned, in a country where most people hate poetry and everyone is eating and snacking constantly, poems ought to mention food more frequently.
Camden County, New Jersey could become the newest location for a tool library. These libraries aren’t filled with books—instead, their contents include hand tools, like The West Philly Tool Library, a non-profit organization with more than 3,000 tools for loan. There are about 20 tool libraries around the US and a few more in Canada. But don’t worry; most of these libraries do have some books: how-to books help members learn to use the tools they borrow.
Some of the things that people think are invented are actually true. It’s also this thing that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about with “The Danger of a Single Story,” where we think one person is the sum total of one thing.
Powerful writing might be just as moving for the writer as for the reader. New research is demonstrating that the old advice about writing through your problems might actually be based in science. Researchers in various studies are gauging how writing about situations can help improve them, like students writing essays about the difficulty adjusting to college.
Nancy McCabein visits the graves of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Emily Dickinson (where her friend left some breath mints) for the Ploughshares blog.
Monday 1/26: Chad Sweeney and Jennifer K. Sweeney read from their new respective works. 4:30 p.m. at the Ide Room at USC.
The Altar Collective release party for Volume VII. Featuring readings by Katelin Wagner, Kris Kidd, Franki Elliot, Christina Schmidt, Jackson Burgess, August Luhrs, Ruth Madievsky, and more. 7:30 p.m. at The Last Bookstore.
Tuesday 1/27: The Women Group present their monthly reading event. 6:30 p.m. at Stories Books and Cafe.
First, Grant Snider’s “Inferiority Complex” explores the inner recesses of consciousness.
Then, Louise Fabiani reviews Scarlett Johansson’s scary sci-fi film, Under the Skin, which “weasels its way into your reptilian brain from its first baffling frames.” Director Jonathan Glazer does a nice job of getting the audience on Johansson’s side, even as she beckons unwitting men to their deaths. “How Glazer’s alien lures, then offs, her victims is staged beautifully, the minimalism pitch perfect,” Fabiani writes.
Finally, Kate Jenkins ponders the consequences of her decision to be an egg donor in the Sunday Essay. To stave off financial hardship, Jenkins tabulates her assets and finds them lacking. “But listen,” she writes, “young women always have something to sell.” The fertility agency is overjoyed to have her. They assure her that natural redheads are in great demand. At least, Jenkins thinks, this is one way to be remembered.
The Guardian profiles Alex Malarkey, co-author of the bestseller The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven. After admitting that, among other things, he’s never actually been there, his publisher looks to backtrack, evangelists work at damage-control, and the Malarkeys try to find their way back to an even keel.
Following his return from North Korea, Christopher Hitchens gave a speech expressing his fear about resorting to a critical cliché: “I know what I’m not going to say about North Korea, I’m not going to say it… They won’t make me say 1984, they just won’t make me do it.”
“But eventually,” he declared, “they make you do it.”
I don’t know when, on my youthful tear through Hitchens’s work, I discovered this excerpt, but I had forgotten it until I read Robert Repino’s debut science-fiction novel, Mort(e). Finishing Repino’s book, I made a similar proclamation, stubbornly swearing I’d make as few references as possible to Animal Farm: I wouldn’t claim Repino’s drunk, daft pig Bonaparte to be a subversion of Orwell’s shrewd Comrade Napoleon, and I wouldn’t insist, despite the likeness, that the animals of Mort(e) and those under Mr. Jones’ tyranny all strive to free themselves from the bonds of human-imposed slavery. But I couldn’t help myself: They made me.
There’s something about personified animals that elicits comparisons: Within the first few pages, I was thinking of Netflix’s Bojack Horseman, Alice in Wonderland, and the Old Testament. And as odd as it sounds, there are different schools of thought when it comes to anthropomorphism: There’s the allegory, the fairy tale, the fable. There’s the idea, too, of grounding these narratives in alternative realities, where human beings and animals live, if not harmoniously, then together, with the same concerns and emotions and tendencies. (Brian, the rational dog in Family Guy, has opposable thumbs, and no one ever appears baffled.) Like Animal Farm, Mort(e) is a funny and clever mix of these frameworks. It’s a post-apocalyptic story about the prevailing love between two neighboring pets and the animal kingdom’s attempted extermination of the human race. But it’s also a blatant critique—a denouncement not of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath but of the pitfalls in believing in God and an afterlife.
Mort(e) reads as a recorded history, as both the retelling of a catastrophe—a centuries-long plot by giant, super-intelligent ants to defeat the human rulers—and as the origin story of a religion. The novel opens with the concise and unadorned language of the Bible:
Before he took his new name, before the animals rose up and overthrew their oppressors, before there was talk of prophecies and saviors, the great warrior Mort(e) was just a house cat known to his human masters as Sebastian.
What unfolds is a 350-page expansion of that first line, told in a sarcastic and sometimes caustic style by a young writer of promising talent—by which I mean, a talent that is promised on the first page and then, after a series of ant mythologies, feline war tragedies, and inter-species friendships, firmly established by the end.
Repino’s protagonist, Sebastian, belongs to the Martini family (Daniel and Janet and their children, Michael and Delia), and he spends most of his days lounging “in the square of sunlight on the [living room] carpet” and secretly scouring the attic. His life passes by in solitary ecstasy, but all of that ends “when Janet start[s] sleeping with the next-door neighbor,” Tristan. In order to keep the affair hidden, and to prevent a barking outburst in his front yard, Tristan brings his loyal dog, Sheba, into the Martini’s home. Sebastian and Sheba explore the house together, and when tired, they sleep, nestling for warmth.
And then one day, Sebastian—and the rest of Earth’s animals—attains “self-awareness.” They are able to walk on their hind legs, speak (English), and kill their “masters.” After a semi-violent confrontation with the Martinis, Sebastian sets off to rediscover his “lost love,” Sheba, who has reportedly run away after the “Change.” Mort(e) is riddled with the usual ambiguous nouns that arrive at the onset of widespread destruction: Responsible for the “Change” and the “war with no name” is a race of intelligent ants known as the “Colony,” and their leader is the “Queen,” a gigantic insect who can view the past, present, and future. She controls everything, like an all-seeing God, and she communicates between species by use of a “translator,” a helmet-like object that transfers her knowledge—with almost crippling results—to the wearer.
In the search for his friend, Sebastian joins “The Red Sphinx,” a squad that helps fight the surviving homo sapiens. Under the command of Culdesac, a once-wild bobcat, he forms a reputation for bravery, and over the course of many years he confronts the mysterious human bio-weapon EMSAH. As part of his initiation into the group, Sebastian must pick a new name. He lands on “Mort(e),” borrowed from a term “meaning death”:
He had died. He had killed. And he would kill again. So the name fit. But it could also be a normal name, the name of a regular guy named Mort who was meant for a life surrounded by loved ones. That life was still out there, but it would have to wait. Hence the need to keep the letter in parentheses. Things could go either way.
Sebastian takes immense care in renaming himself (Culdesac’s second-in-command, a pit bull, chooses Wawa, the first word she reads plastered on a storefront) and there are obvious parallels between his decision and the novel’s themes, especially between his shifting identities (a war hero and a “normal” cat) and the notion of love trumping all else. The name straddles life and death, and this tension comes to define his existence: whether he will keep living in order to find his old pal, or whether he will remain a pawn in the ants’ plan for domination and die a soldier.
To his credit, Repino packs tons of detail and background into Mort(e), and everything operates, for the most part, in service of the whole. But the text turns dense and saturated at times, and I felt, more than once, like I was wearing a translator on my head, receiving a sensory overload from the omniscient Queen. Within the great trove of technical information regarding the ants’ behavior, certain inconsistencies—plot holes, flat characters, mixed-up motivations, omitted explanations—become apparent. How are the ants so quickly able to “adapt” to chemical agents? How do some humans build an Atlantis-like community on a blimp? What happened to the country’s leaders?
Perhaps most troubling, however, is why so many of the remaining human beings are Christian. Where are the Atheists? The Buddhists? The Hindus? Although Repino’s focus on the formative stages of a religion is captivating (the remaining human resistance believes Mort(e) to be the Messiah), it’s muddled by allusions to Christ and demeaned by the absence of other belief systems. The overt Christianity isn’t completely unacknowledged—Culdesac assures that “not all of them think this way”—but it is a flaw, and it points to a larger mistake: The book has no definite sense of place. It left me wondering, in a world where pigs undergo plastic surgery (a nice touch), why no specific city is ever mentioned. A sense of the area would have solved the issue of why there are only a discrete number of animals featured as well: Where Orwell benefited from limiting himself to farm animals, Repino doesn’t narrow his scope. I was a little upset there was never a giraffe walking around on his two feet.
Yet despite the occasional lapse, Repino never loses sight of his overarching purpose: He desperately wants to convince us this could actually happen, and he seems to know there’s an inherent humor and fear in believing that animals can rise up and slit our throats. (Richard Dawkins predicts it’ll be rats, not ants.) But Mort(e) is not a cautionary tale, and it does not, as may initially be the case, wholly denounce religion. It’s not a warning about how dictatorial pigs and dictatorial humans become indistinguishable. Instead Repino is interested in showing us, if events like these were to somehow transpire, the one shred of hope that would exist.
While the firemen were carrying me on a wheeled office chair out of the conference room, I found myself floating over the bodies of my dead colleagues, Bernard, Tignous, Cabu, Georges, bodies that my rescuers were stepping over or around, and suddenly, my God, they were no longer laughing. We must all be able to laugh again, understand again, more and better than ever before, for their sake…
Look, a music player. Just press the button: (more…)
The question for the day is, why are ants so much better at managing traffic than us?
Checking in on the art of Christian Marclay after The Clock.
Important news: the strepsiptera is a gross and upsetting insect.
Behold! The world’s oldest continuous fire.
Let us now all take a moment from our day to appreciate this Japanese otter enclosure.
Saturday 1/24: Barbara Elovic reads Other People’s Stories, poems. BookCourt, 7 p.m., free.
Sophie Seita and Ron Silliman join the Segue Series. Zinc Bar, 4:30 p.m., $5.
Maxwell Donnewald, Jacob Kaplan, Bill Kemmler, Sam Regal, and Stephen Lloyd launch Sporadicus. Mellow Pages, 7:30 p.m., free.
Sunday 1/25: Shelly Oria and Lee Matthew Goldberg join the Sunday Night Fiction series. KGB, 7 p.m., free.
The Guardian looks at the different games writers play to take their minds off of their work, including chess, poker, and Minecraft.
You know all those movies in which a character is shot in the chest, only to be miraculously saved by a pocket Bible, and everyone in the audience rolls their eyes? Well, it turns out that books actually are bulletproof—to a certain extent. At Melville House, Liam O’Brien delves into the history, fact, and fiction of books as armor.
In The New Republic, David Marcus has a comprehensive essay on Irving Howe, exploring, among other things, how the writer’s generation may have had setbacks by arriving too “late” but also too “early.”
Austin-based indie publisher A Strange Object unleashed a new digital magazine this week called Covered with Fur. The site is an elegant lesson in design, sleek and simple with just two large rectangles to choose from for its weekly offerings, labeled “Fiction” and “Not.” According to their Submissions page, which is currently open, the “Not” category includes nonfiction writings in the form of microessays, essays, or columns about objects including “treatments of found things, repurposings, archival encounters… [also] writing on design or attachment or loss.”
It’s very hard to imagine a president getting up and talking about how damaging the fear of terrorism has been to us, culturally and politically, and how much it’s horribly undermined us. Looking at torture and all the other things that have been done in the name of counterterrorism, it’s really quite disturbing what we’ve done in the name of our own fear.
Essayist Eula Biss, author of On Immunity, talks with Salon about fear, the anti-vaccination movement, and white privilege.
Friday 1/23: Seminary Co-op hosts a panel discussion about diversity in children’s books, 6:30 p.m.
Shermin Nahid Kruse discusses her new novel, Butterfly Stitching, at The Book Cellar. 7 p.m., free.
If you’re 21 or over, get ready to take the Beauty Bar stage for Chicago Zine Fest’s karaoke night fundraiser. The $5 admission charge will support CZF’s efforts to make independent zine-making accessible, highlight the talents of self-published artists, and give independent artists a chance to interact through tabling, community events, and workshops. Hosted by Shameless Karaoke and Quimby’s Bookstore, 9 p.m.
Saturday 1/24: John Hogan and Alex Burkholder discuss lesser known blazes and the heroes that fought them—Forgotten Fires of Chicago at the Edgewater branch library, 1 p.m.
Kirsten Kaschock’s The Dottery is a book-length meditation on the constructed nature of femininity. The “Dottery” – daughtery – “houses women before they are conceived,” and dotters are messy and conflicted broken dolls, schooled in the requirements of femaleness and stored in a red brick building reminiscent of a womb, just this side of birth.
To get inside this book, you have to accept Kaschock’s tweaking of language – dotters, mutters, buoys – for daughters, mothers, boys – but once you’ve gotten comfortable with that, it’s eminently readable. That’s not to say it’s always a permeable book. In fact, there are plenty of moments where you just have to trust where Kaschock is taking you. Puns, misappropriations, words enjambed with other words (“manicures cancer”), thoughts linked by sound (“A dotter mislays, misdirects, misogynies, misses America…”) are Kaschock’s tools, and she uses them with a casual deftness. The book is comprised almost entirely of untitled prose poem chunks:
It’s a wonderful wife. The new year is a sigh. The inner warden opens the floor and swimming pool. Green or blue, but not in color. They take a naked dip at midnight and call it tobacco. Inside the water, the flesh they will repeatedly try to own is reminded of its content. A dotter is a series of membranes. A congregation of seals. Rings around the water: water, only domesticated. One of the dotters chooses her wet name. Some mutter will come for her tomorrow and, muttering, rename her dry. Once renamed, she will be clothed – a tankini perhaps, a single ruffle not quite over the ass, something appropriate. It is, all of it, in the ledgers. But for one hour of one night she will float with the others autonomous. There is a depth of nostalgia here unknown outside the dottery, a missing of some frivolous center. She chooses. Later someone may lasso her, the moon. Or ride her. Or hide her, robe, in a bush. But beyond piano, petals, beyond broken banister, she has not been the always and steadfast marry. If you take the time, or can replay it altered, pull your head out of your suicide and try whispering it. Marzipan.
The decision to write in prose poems lets Kaschock expand, wander, and loop back to make her point – “Skins will shed until no skin is left, and a dotter is all skin.” Femaleness is also confused and recursive, so the method echoes the madness. The downside of this technique is that we sometimes wonder why we wandered down a particular alley.
A dotter can wait. A table. Or a brick wall. And so. What? Accuse me of something. I can hear you under this caterwaul, this dispelled gospel tract as it has been in through the mudroom, heart. I listen to the way you are, hymn of you, so quiet when I am talking of them, them not mine. Just say I shouldn’t. That it is enough. Tell me what it is I’m missing in these boxes, this attic of fucked.
“This attic of fucked” is a great, percussive line. But I felt I was doing a lot of wading in the shallows to get to it. A poet writing in this idiom has to balance against two points: 1) creating a productive sort of chaos that can hold layered images and contradictory voices; and 2) running the risk of inadvertently hiding the through-line from the reader. The through-line here is anger, at times a coldly clinical rage –
The doll is not what the doll replaces. The doll is not what the thing the doll replaces was made to replace. The doll is not the roadtrip. The doll is not the pointe shoe… The doll has two spiderlashed black blinkable eyes. The doll has been pulled apart a thousand times for horror. The head of the doll on the side of the road at the edge of the surf will not watch you back. N’accuse. The doll cannot, in this way, be the subject of mutilation. The subject of mutilation is what you are after, but you must remember it is not the doll. The doll is what every dotter has been fashioned after, save her unfortunate insides.
At times, more direct –
I’m Erica and I do not hate women because I still fuck them, don’t I? I do.
It is required we adopt all slurs now, like purse-fed Pomeranians. But what if I do not feel like a pussy, not for dinner, or if cunt has too many teeth or none…?
And sometimes, the anger is saved for a footnote, literally:
Everyone should… envision herself a mutterer. (Murtherer.) Of dotters especially. … You are probably reading this because you are a poet or a mother, my mother, or some other blood relative, or because you are trying to prove your goatee soul patch tousled hair cock looks good on a feminist. It does.
Hello! I kind of wished Kaschock had gone into a little more detail at this point. I’m not a blood relative, after all; I do want to hear what she thinks “looks good on a feminist.” As I was reading the book, I made a note to myself that “The Dottery is also about not being committed to saying something.” The through-line of The Dottery is both: anger – at the constant mutilations of self that women are asked to submit to; and also the suppression of that anger. The poem even knows this –
The failure to risk is not the failure I want today to bear.
The aggression part I am I am just now learning to reinhabit.
You can read the repeated “I am” as repetition for the sake of prosody, but I don’t – I read it as “The aggression that I am composed of”. The narrator is not ready to own her aggression, and this ambiguity is at the heart of the book.
There is a particular sort of poetic voice that’s popular now – a sort of rushing, maximalist, wall-of-sound voice. Its best function is to open up language and let in some much-needed air. But the technique can also function as more of a screen than a window, so that we feel we’re watching a deft performance of truth, rather than truth itself.
And this is where I go back and forth on The Dottery. What struck me as layered and oblique also sometimes struck me as detached. It was a lot of fun to read either way, but I wished for just a few more of those bursts of cutting honesty. The dottery, after all, is not just an intellectual exercise – it’s a stand-in for our actual, princess-obsessed, Kardashianed culture, where a woman still gets exponentially more attention for being a pin-up than for writing code, or poetry for that matter. So I wished Kaschock would take the whole endeavor a little further, as she does in the last two poems, which are as keenly edged and startling as an Angela Carter short story.
I face my dotter, the one I should never have taken. … She has a heart where her mouth should be, a heart at the crux of her left elbow, little hearts in her fingers, between her legs – a heart. She models them. … We table – share a cup of firemilk. She sips, and the beating of her face makes it a pink almost warm. I stare at the life. When it is time to go I offer my hand. She wraps it in a napkin, tucks it into her pocket. I have seen her do this many times before – with a half-eaten sparrow.
The dotter, finally confronted in person, is at once an oppressed creature and a hazard – both a victim and a sugary-sweet horror. Kaschock captures the truth of how we come to terms with our masks – imperfectly.
He dearly yearns for Harriot as his mistress: “Shall we not,” he asks her, “obey the dictates of nature, rather than confine ourselves to the forced, unnatural rules of—and—and shall the halcyon days of youth slip through our fingers unenjoyed?” (Actually, Harrington says all of this with “the language of the eyes.” Early Americans excelled, you see, at conducting complicated conversations using only their peepers.)
The Paris Review examines The Power of Sympathy: or, the Triumph of Nature, a 226-year-old sentimental book widely considered to be the first American novel.
Using W.H. Auden and his predecessor, Rabelais, Nina Martyris discusses in the Los Angeles Review of Books how irony is being implemented to confront the tragedy of Charlie Hebdo:
So how should one respond? Anger and grief are appropriate enough. Even hatred, however unappetizing, seems only natural given the brutality of the crime. But what if we could temper these powerful emotions with a clarifying tincture of irony?
After partial redaction and six years of legal battles, Guantanamo Diary is now the first-ever published book by a current Guantanamo detainee. Mohamedou Ould Slahi has been imprisoned there since 2002, and his memoir details his thirteen years of confinement and torture. The Guardian has excerpts and a moving short documentary about Slahi and the book.
Are we still listening to the echos of the big bang?
The giants of roadside America (this is the kind of thing I live for, let’s be honest).
Be sure to check back here for all your important Great Horned Owl developments.
Ending on a classy note: Antwerpian expressionists (old, but new to me!)
Remembering Alice K. Turner, the fiction editor at Playboy magazine for two decades.