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Masie Cochran (Associate Editor, Tin House Books): A few birthdays ago, my dad gifted me a subscription to The New Yorker. And even though I have a subscription, when he reads an article or essay he really likes, he will photocopy it and mail it to me. I was recently embarrassed when I opened a package and found a pristinely folded copy of Paige William’s wonderful profile, Composition in Black and White from the August 12-19th issue signed Love, Dad. This came to me in October and I hadn’t read it yet. Over Thanksgiving, I sat down to read and I’m so glad I did.
The stars of the profile are Bill Arnett, a seventy-four-year-old collector of Outsider Art, and Thornton Dial, an untrained artist and one of Arnett’s greatest discoveries. Arnett bet on Dial early in his career—offering the financial backing to let Dial focus on art full-time. And Dial has been successful. Two of his pieces were included in the 2000 Whitney Biennial, though no major museum owns a large number of his works. Sadly, Dial’s hundred-pound paintings have yet to breakout into the mainstream. But Arnett holds out hope: “It is my nervous and trembling, but history-based and always optimistic, prediction that great culture will outlast corrupt bureaucrats and their heavy-handed abuses of power, and the greed-driven, callous, and destructive tactics of bloodless profiteers. So, metaphorically speaking, I am betting on Art.”
Lance Cleland (Director, Writers’ Workshop): “There is nothing like winter in the company of a keg of brandy and the complete works of Simenon.” So says the Chilean artist Luis Sepúlveda, and while I am not going through the complete catalog, I have recently been reading a few of the early Maigret novels (along with a nip of the hard stuff). For those that have never be on a case with the famed French detective, Maigret Stonewalled is an excellent jumping off point. You get all the trademarks of the portly master sleuth: astute psychological observations that have nothing to do with the murder, smoking, exclamation points at the end of every sentence of dialog, and melancholy stops in the pub for a pint and solution to the most seemingly mundane, yet often baffling cases. And here is what sets Stonewalled apart; there is an actually mystery to be solved! Part of the charm and frustration of Simenon’s Maigret novels are the sloppiness and utter disregard the author sometimes has for the case at hand. Facts are rearranged on a whim, logic is disregarded in favor of aesthetic, and solutions are sometimes an afterthought. Stonewalled though is Maigret’s locked room mystery and as such, it offers the reader the perfect blend of a jigsaw puzzle and roman dur. Throw in a keg and you have the perfect winter afternoon reading experience.
Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant, Tin House Magazine): I thought Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight would be a good novel with which to ease back into German—I remember it as a straightforward narrative, with a simple cast of characters, and language that is accessible and immediate. What I forgot was how gripping it is, or rather how it embraces the reader (the German word is umarmen, which fantastically translates to around-arms-ing), and how unforgiving its intensity and humor is to the kind of slow double-half-reading I was giving its German text, referring every other line to Anthea Bell’s English translation in the beautiful Neversink edition from Melville House. Eventually, I stopped relearning German and started redevouring Bell’s translation of Keun’s chilling, heart-sinking story.
Prewar Frankfurt is cold and dark and dangerous. With Sanna, the young woman at the center of the novel, we take a trip from one deathtrap conversation to the next; through barrooms full of alternately affable and terrifying fascists; train stations, apartments, and Nazi motorcades. Sanna and her friend Gerti are preoccupied by preoccupations so typical they defy danger: friendship, fun, infatuation, wondering what love is and where and when it comes. Keun delivers their youthful exploits with as much warmth as can be afforded in 1937 Germany, and with endless hope. It’s hard not to read with an extra chill of historicity, though. Keun had the prescience to leave Germany in 1937, the same year she wrote this book, before the war and the Holocaust. But After Midnight is hardly prophetic. Rather, it’s so of its time that those horrors are felt as a shapeless, crushing atmosphere of fear, rather than a distinct memory.
One day in the spring Olivia’s mother made vichyssoise and black bread with butter and she was allowed a half glass of wine, and afterward her parents led her into the den. There were places, her father said in his gentlest voice, where entire populations were without symptoms of allergic rhinitis. They were backwaters, remote parts of Africa and the Pacific Isles where the eradication of helminths had never even been attempted. Allergies, he said, were evolved as an immune response for expelling parasites, and the hookworm had evolved to shut that response down. You couldn’t get them in the States, but if she wanted, they would take her to Ethiopia or Burma or Papua New Guinea and she could get them there. It could be their birthday gift to her. Thinking bluntness his ally, he explained the process of transmission, which begins when worm larvae enter the feet of someone who has gone without shoes through a place where a host has defecated on the open ground. From the feet they move through the vascular system until they reach the lungs, where they are coughed into the trachea, swallowed, and passed to the lower intestine. There they rivet themselves to the walls and fill up with blood, sending their eggs through the excrement of the new host. Olivia, nonplussed, replied that she would rather die.
The season took root. Angelfire and nettle bloomed. The air was saturated with pollen. Olivia was bound to the indoors, and from the smooth-finished countertops and the waxed and sanded floors a wilderness of desire arose. All her visions of love left her exposed in yellow meadows and flowerfields, grasslands in the surge of thunderheads, leaves stuck like ribbon leeches to Billy Loomis’s skin.
She allowed Billy to kiss her in his urgent way under the stairwell, but whenever he swept his thumbs up her belly or pressed the front of his jeans against her thigh she would step back and announce that she knew where to find the ice cream maker, or whatever it was they’d been pretending to look for. Maybe in the fall, she said, if there was an early frost, she would let him take her to the dunes. When her birthday did come, in the middle of July, it was Billy who brought the mask.
It was wrapped in a white box with a lid tied down by a big white bow, nestled inside with yellow chiffon stuffcloth, an Israeli civilian gas mask. It was a relic from the years of the Iran-Iraq war but the filter was in date and the rubber was uncracked. She pinned up her hair and pulled the harness snug until the chin pocket kept a seal. The eyepieces were round, like a fly’s. The filter hung like a proboscis. She could feel the strain in Billy. She let him press her shoe into his crotch.
They met that night by the trestle, where Billy still associated the oily scent of creosote with the magazines he’d been bringing there for years. Olivia couldn’t smell anything and she wanted the dark woods, so they picked their way downriver to a path through the scrub pine until they came to a clearing on the edge of the old growth. Here the grass was long and the wind brought it down in waves. They undressed. Olivia lay down and the grass blew over her. It was ticklish in an itchy sort of way and when a gust subsided it drew back trembling.
The ground was lopsided and hard. There were ants. They got up and moved to a different spot but there were ants there too. She couldn’t not think of them, the hills flattened underneath her and the tunnels crushed. The panicked melee for the eggs.
When it was done Billy went to look for a place where they could stay and watch the stars without ants. Olivia left her clothes in the clearing and walked with the long grass under her knees. She hadn’t meant to go far but she was pimply with hives and in the effort to distract herself she soon reached the river. The water was silver where the moon hit it and depthless black in the shadows. She stepped in and let it curl around her shins and she stayed like that for a while.
Two boys on a night float came on, innertubes black on the black water, moving as smoothly as satellites. She stayed, and they saw her, but nobody said anything. The boys rotated their faces as they kept steadily on, and that was all.
One of the boys would tell the story many times, about the girl in the gas mask, buck naked, a mile from nowhere in the middle of the night. It illustrated a point he would come to make in his work as a finance adviser, that there were no guarantees, only probabilites. If he stopped off with a client to invest in Johnny Walker, he’d say, there was nothing to stop them running into a yeti eating spaghetti. What he could offer was the calculated odds that they would not.
The other boy, the younger, never told anyone. But he would evoke her image without meaning to, at all the wrong moments, on the Blackfoot when the steelhead struck before the lines could slack, on the crisp night when his team won the Series. For every thing that clicked and coupled there were a hundred of these, bug-eyed products of incalculable events, accidents impossible to anticipate, that left things inside out and backward, love ruined, money burned. His friends said he went around with a black cloud over his head. That was how it had always been and you could point to bad planning, poor decisions, it was no big mystery. But he saw her each time as though from the blue, all tits and blisters in the poison air, augered in his path, still as a stone.
Nate Ochs lives in Missoula, MT, where he works as a smokejumper for the U.S. Forest Service. He is from Minnesota.
Tin House Reels is pleased to screen André da Loba’s “Tuttodunpezzo,” a short film about the too-perfect man. The kind of man who never loses patience, never forgets an item when he travels, and “doesn’t give his heart away to anyone.” One day, he falls into a hole so deep that he breaks in three — then marches on until he puts himself back together.
Da Loba created his animation with Illustrator, creating images reminiscent of linoleum prints, pairing the work with piano music by Renato Diz. Da Loba has said that the process of turning a printed book into a movie contains a balancing act between “a heavy-tangible-static version and a light-intangible-motion version—to see how [a] book [can] benefit from the moving image and vice versa.”
The film was awarded a Gold medal by the Society of Illustrators.
André da Loba is a published and exhibited artist whose work has received international acclaim. As an illustrator, animator, graphic designer, sculptor, and educator, Andre’s combination of curiosity, experience, knowledge and unknowing serves as the constant medium with which he creates and inspires. His work is an invitation and a challenge to change the world, however big or small it might be. Born in Portugal, he lives in Brooklyn where he is secretly happy.
Tin House Reels is a weekly feature on The Open Bar dedicated to the craft of short filmmaking. Curated by Ilana Simons, the series features videos by artists who are forming interesting new relationships between images and words.
We are now accepting submissions for Tin House Reels. Please upload your previously unpublished videos of 15 minutes or less to Youtube or Vimeo and send a link of your work to firstname.lastname@example.org
In “The Isle of Youth”—the title story in Laura van den Berg’s thrilling, punch-in-the-gut new story collection—a character makes reference to the concept of inborn knowledge: “how we hold inside ourselves ideas and experiences that exist on a plane far above our conscious minds.” It’s a beautiful concept, and especially useful when attempting to explain how fiction writers do what they do: boldly inventing new worlds and fashioning characters that could believably inhabit this one. The idea certainly helps to explain van den Berg’s storytelling sorcery, her ability to highlight the magic of the everyday by creating characters and setting scenes that push reality to its limits.
In the eight spectacular stories that make up The Isle of Youth, a mother and daughter struggle to make ends meet as small-town magicians; an American woman reeling from the dissolution of her marriage befriends a group of French street acrobats; and a spunky group of home-schooled cousins run away to become gorilla-mask-donning bank robbers. Laura van den Berg’s tales offer an unnerving blend of the ordinary and the dreamlike—sometimes even the nightmarish, as when a deceitful sister holds her twin’s head under water, or a woman on her honeymoon surreptitiously stuffs her mouth full of sand. It’s a delicious type of fiction—stories that feel simultaneously far-fetched and dangerously, perhaps shamefully, close to home.
Liz Wyckoff: One of the things I’ve loved most about your two story collections is their cohesiveness. The stories just really feel like they make sense together. For example, the stories in What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us revolve around explorers, monsters, and bodies of water. And almost every story in The Isle of Youth involves a crime and some sort of mysterious disappearance. How do you develop these themes?
Laura van den Berg: I definitely go through cycles with subject matter. I wrote the first draft of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us in graduate school. Early on, I was generating these stories about Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster and mysterious holes in the earth, and at a certain point it seemed clear the consistency of these preoccupations could lead to a collection. After What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, however, I had gotten the monstrous—at least in the literal sense—out of my system, but my process for The Isle of Youth was similar in that I started generating a lot of stories that explored mystery and deception and crime, so I followed that impulse until a collection took shape.
I don’t mean for it all to sound accidental. If you’ve written, say, three stories in a row with mythical creatures or private detectives, you’d have to be pretty inattentive to not stand back and say, huh, something is going on HERE. But at the same time, it was crucial for me to not force the next story. With my first collection, each time I started a story with something like, boy, I could really use a story about the Yeti right about now in mind, the result was abysmal. Each story needed to bubble up in its own time, driven by its own urgency and need.
LW: I noticed, too, that you will be teaching a workshop at Grub Street this fall on “shaping story collections.” How (and when) do you begin shaping your stories into collections?
LvdB: When I’m drafting the stories, I don’t think about the collection as a whole; I’m just writing and then writing the next thing and so on. When I think I might have the right content—i.e. the collection is these seven or eight stories—is when I begin thinking of the stories as an interdependent group. I spread the stories out on the floor. I make lists of all the first and last lines, which helps me determine the order, the kind of story I hope to collectively tell. I go back to my favorite collections and examine how they are arranged. I cut and add. Eventually I hand the draft over to a few trusted readers and listen carefully to their feedback. I try to think about questions like: is each story taking the reader someplace new? Where do you get taken one too many times? What questions are these stories asking? When I reach the end, what am I left with?
LW: Was there any object or material that provided inspiration as you wrote a story (or multiple stories) in The Isle of Youth? Or, more broadly, any object that’s important to your writing life?
LvdB: If we can think of a place, the physicality of a place, as a kind of “material,” I would say the landscape of Florida in particular was especially important while writing Isle. As you know, there are a number of other non-Florida settings in the collection: Antarctica, Paris, Patagonia. Some of these places I’ve been to, some I have not (hello, Antarctica!), but out of all the landscapes, I am the most intimate with the “materials” of Florida, because I’m from there. So I thought a lot about the blue-black look of the sky when a storm is rolling in over the water, the feel of the heat in the summer, the palm fronds. Those kinds of materials.
Also, I keep a lot of talismans in my writing space, including a small collection of ceramic Loch Ness Monsters. My dad gave me these two. See the one on the left? The little hat comes off, and the body can be used to store whiskey. That’s my kind of monster.
LW: There’s a fair amount of violence in The Isle of Youth—shootings, explosions, characters leaping from third-floor balconies, black eyes, and oozing bullet wounds. Is it as hard to write these scenes as it is to read them?
LvdB: Yes and no. I mean, I love these characters, so it’s hard when bad things happen to them; I feel the pain of that acutely. And from a craft perspective, it can be easy to descend into cliché or melodrama when writing violence, so those scenes are a technical challenge as well.
But here is what complicates the above: I am terrified of guns—I’ve never fired one before—and it is that very fear, and ability of fiction to move you closer to your fear, that can make the writing of those scenes exhilarating. Culturally there is often the expectation that women should be repelled by anything too ugly, too violent. But the women I write about are often seduced by the ugliness and the danger, by the violence or the promise of it—and they often end up paying a steep price for that seduction, in that moment where the promise of violence falls away and the bare, brutal reality of it appears. When writing those scenes, I allow myself to become seduced too, and I emerge feeling like I have weathered something.
While we still finalize plans for our inaugural Winter Workshop (hurry, the application deadline is December 20th), allow us a moment to dream of warmer days in July. Days that include some of the finest writers this nation has to offer teaching workshops, giving craft lectures, reading from new work, and sharing a drink or two on the greenest of green lawns.
Yes, the dream of the perfect summer workshop is indeed alive here in Portland. As Anthony Doerr says, “The Tin House Workshop is an idyll: big trees, phenomenal readings, and some of the best students in the country. Plus, dessert at every meal!”
Applications for our summer camp (July 13th-20th) go live January 1st. In the meantime, we are excited to announce our roster of faculty all-stars:
“Minor, major—those words have never done much for me. I don’t understand them. The question any novel is really trying to answer is, Is life worth living? That’s a major question, a huge question, but the best way to answer it might not be to crank the novelistic universe into a crude, lurching motion by employing a big inciting incident. Sometimes life provides only the tiniest of inciting incidents—that your left shoelace snaps within a day of your right one. That’s enough for me. When something is beautiful, it can’t be minor. Also I think it’s neat when a novel offers you miscellaneous helpful tips or tricks or facts. When it’s a friendly companion, when it does you good on various levels. A lot of novels bully us into assenting to their importance. I’m tired of that.” — Nicholson Baker, The Art of Fiction No. 212
Clothes have, they say, more important offices than keeping us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us. – Virginia Woolf
Dressing is a function, a necessity, but it can also be something wonderfully indulgent, allowing one the opportunity to escape a certain image of the self, transforming the mundane to the outlandish, the couture to the dishabille. In this way, fashion becomes transcendent, with dressing becoming a daily act in becoming, whether it be through something found in the back of the closet or something new.
Literature allows us a similar chance to reinvent our aesthetic. How amazing is it to read something and trace the way the words on the page bleed over into our lives, changing the way we think, talk, and yes, sometimes, even how we dress?
Driving this column is a curiosity about what people pull from books and onto their bodies, how people make books physical, and how they take on story and are influenced by it.
For The Open Bar’s inaugural foray into the intersecting worlds of style and literature—and this column’s humble beginning—I would like to introduce you to Bernadette Pascua of New York City. Bernadette is a photographer, illustrator and stylist with an eye for the simple line of Agnes Martin and an intuition for the high impact of a few suitably chosen words. Her blog, Decade, is an enviable collection of well-curated sartorial selections set against the backdrop of her illustrations and photographs, juxtaposed with whatever art is influencing her impeccable style at the moment.
I posed to her the question (which will act as somewhat of a guiding principle throughout the lifespan of this column): How has literature influenced your personal style?
Bernadette’s response, in keeping with her aesthetic, inevitably whisks us off to a place of space and light and gently swaying pinons, to the waters of the South of France just before the dawn of the années soixante.
“I ran up the stairs, getting somewhat entangled with my skirt, and knocked at Anne’s door. She called me to come in, and I stopped on the threshold. She was wearing a grey dress, a peculiar grey, almost white, which, when it caught the light, resembled the colour of the sea at dawn. She seemed to me the personification of mature charm.”- Francoise Sagan, Bonjour Tristesse
Francoise Sagan’s concise yet lush prose in Bonjour Tristesse leaves so much room for the imagination to fill in the blanks of the unspoken. For the fashion conscious, it is a movie waiting to be made in the mind, filled with the invented costumes of its three central female characters, each so different from one another. Sagan doesn’t elaborate much on Anne’s show-stopping dress but, as I’ve been lucky enough to witness the sea at dawn, I can see it so clearly in my mind. Gathering from the story that Anne is a pragmatically elegant and lightly made up character who drives a classic American convertible through the 1950’s Mediterranean seascape, I instantly envision her in one of Raf Simon’s stunning strapless pale gray “New Look” style dresses from his final Fall 2012 collection at Jil Sander. It was a collection that spontaneously moved its audience to its feet for a standing ovation.
As Xenophobic as we Portlanders can be, we know our city is not alone when it comes to having a vibrant and eclectic and wild poetry community. In an effort to discover these territories, we have reached out to some of our favorite poets, asking them for introductions to the cities in which they write, read, and live in.
Allison Titus, whose poem “Essay on Urban Homesteading” appeared in our themed Wild issue, gives us a glimpse into her crumbling, haunted, gorgeous Richmond.
Tin House: Where do you live?
Allison Titus: In a neighborhood called Church Hill in Richmond, VA, which is ancient, crumbly, haunted and gorgeous.
TH: Are you from there?
AT: No, I’m originally from Charlottesvillle but mostly grew up across the river on the south side of Richmond.
TH: Describe the poetry scene of your city in a line…
AT: Fragmented but friendly; the city is full of MFA grad students and ex-MFA grad students and slam poets and scholars and solitary writers who are doing their own thing… there’s not much overlap between the various groups. Maybe it’s more accurate to say there are lots of mini-scenes.
TH: What are three of your favorite collections to come out of your city?
Travel, like great writing, makes us look at the world through new eyes. This past summer I searched for stories over four continents, from Florence to Portland to Lima to Brisbane. And I was continually rewarded by narrative, in its many forms, from the 15th century paintings in Florence and Cuzco, to poems I heard read aloud in Portland and Brisbane. After a week deep in the Amazon, I was hardly a local but I became acclimated enough to see and appreciate everything I’d missed when I first arrived. It is the same with reading—we enter every new work of fiction or poetry as a stranger, an outsider, and if the author is a sure and able guide, as Steven Millhauser is in “Arcadia” or Paul Willems is in “Cathedral of Mist,” then his world becomes a place we experience on all levels.
Such authenticity transcends borders, language, and time. Each sentence by Shirley Jackson has the sting of the real. Incredibly, the Library of Congress has just unearthed a previously unpublished story, “Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons,” which feels as fresh and timeless as when it was written fifty years ago. One of Jackson’s creative descendents, Kelly Link, provides an afterword. Robert Stone has always kept it real, from his uncomfortable biopsy of Vietnam-era delusion in Dog Soldiers to his newest novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, which tackles class and privilege at an elite New England college. In this issue he talks to Tin House about his life with Ken Kesey, what still drives him, and the ambiguity of morality in fiction.
In rare moments of transcendence my experience of a story or poem felt like a slap to the face. The alchemical mix of language and idea so jarred me that I was forced to reexamine my previous assumptions. One such instance was when Major Jackson read from his epic poem-in-progress, “OK Cupid,” at our Writer’s Workshop in Portland. There was a collective intake of breath when he launched and it seemed like no one exhaled until the last line. I hope it hits you as hard as it did us.
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“Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love – that makes life and nature harmonise. The birds are consulting about their migrations, the trees are putting on the hectic or the pallid hues of decay, and begin to strew the ground, that one’s very footsteps may not disturb the repose of earth and air, while they give us a scent that is a perfect anodyne to the restless spirit. Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.” ― George Eliot, Letter to Miss Lewis, Oct. 1, 1841
There are these things that happen that we later look back upon with regret. Leaving my almost-fiancé was certainly one of these things.
Keith and I had once vacationed in Waterford, Marseilles, Gettysburg, Stockholm, Puerto Rico. We’d stayed at a bed and breakfast named for Abraham Lincoln and another for an old war colonel. We’d kayaked through Maine’s interior and spread jam over croissants in a Parisian hotel I remember now only for its spectacular view of Sacré Cœur. It was a surprise, that stunning view—we’d found the hotel for cheap and arrived late into the evening, and when we awoke to pull back the blinds, there it was, enormous along the hillside. The break-up was like that, too—suddenly, we were strangers. And when it happened, it happened fully, as if it had been that way all along. I didn’t know anything but our distance.
Of course, break-ups happen all the time and with such startling consistency that people are no longer interested in how they happen, or why. They just do, and are little deaths. Then those people go on to date new people, ones with extensive collections of pantyhose or dogs whose tags read Pepto-Bismol, jingling as they jump off furniture, and then they, too, break up, or else they stay together to the complete resentment of whomever came before. They host rustic, soft-lit weddings in the woods with strung up lights, or oceanic-themed ceremonies on wooden planks along the dunes. You know, the boardwalk lined with linen? The fabric draping down and towards the sea?
Keith seemed to know this the whole time—the idea of our temporal placement—or else he didn’t but it seemed that way. “Look back,” he was always saying, as if my memory was broken, a truth I’d later begin to believe. Look back, look back, look back, already mythologizing what we had. Now it’s how I remember him most.
It reminds me of skinning a knee—you know, how it hurts, but then that hurt is only amplified by the power of its own memory? The image of falling and that urgent pain?
I think now he must have meant at our past: how we met, my sweetest gestures, the view behind us on the road. My hand wrapping around a thermos. Our car tracing asphalt carved into earth. We wound and dipped beneath steely gray machinery as conveyers bigger than my body harvested minerals compressed by time.
Look back, he said so often, but I only ever thought, Regret.
As in the many things—both big and small—that already, we were leaving behind.
I’m okay with letting go, and if my memory’s bad, it’s just as well. But there are these things I don’t now what to do with: memories of life in France together, for example. We were twenty when it happened; it was easy to make the move. We were children in love with losing and what did it matter, how far we were? The absence of a homeland didn’t seem to matter. We agreed it would be hard to miss suburbia, plots of overdeveloped land. And we didn’t think it would ever end—the love, is what I mean. The choosing to be together.
And I thought, which now seems silly, that in choosing to live in France we were choosing one another forever. It didn’t seem the thing—it still doesn’t, when I’m being honest—that people in temporal love go do. Back then, we were interested only in what was essential, and we mimicked this even through language. L’herbe, we learned, l’air. Le soleil et la nourriture. Everything came with “the,” as if it was one kind, specifically, implying the element of choice.
He was l’amour, the love, my one and only.
We spent our days drinking in cafes, touring flowering valleys, viewing rocky cliffs that jutted out above the ocean while I snapped photos of poppy plants I thought to eat. When on Saturdays the cruise ships came, tourists unloaded like kitschy merchandise, moved awkwardly through our streets. What I liked to do most of all—I liked to sit in the square and ad-lib for them.
Would you like to eat a crumpet?
No, I am full from eating fart.
They reminded me of my parents: their evening shirts and slacks and loafers. Their cravings and how they seemed to have a need to buy one of everything: aprons and sachets and teacups, soap and olive oil infused with herbs. They moved densely in thick packs, their plastic bags shifting against each other, and their guides held up tall, white signs affixed with the name of their ocean liner. Tiny Statues of Liberty, is what I called them, on account of the way those men held those signs.
“Petites statues de la liberté,” I joked. “Les touristes Américains.”
“Mon petit chou,” he called me, smiling. My little cabbage, the French term of sweet endearment. “M’épouser.”
Etre ma femme. Je serai votre mari. Be my wife. I will be your husband.
Nous commencerons une vie. We will start a life.
We will start a family.
We will start a home.
I will put on an apron while he builds me to biggest fire.
Of course, you don’t realize when you’re in it that your life has already begun. That the best part—both now and always—is pretending you get to go back and hit Rewind.
Then you can’t and you get disillusioned, so we were nearly engaged and now we aren’t. He lives in a brownstone somewhere in Boston, and I live deep in the Midwest, where tornado sirens whine and wail and I pretend they’re our country’s heartbeat.
Look back, he says. Look back.
And I am, I think.
Amy Butcher is a recent graduate of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program and Gettysburg College. She was the 2012-2013 Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in nonfiction writing at Colgate University and this past winter she was twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, and Salon, among others.
Copyright © 2013 by Amy Butcher.
Because we want nothing more than your
money loved ones to be happy this holiday season, allow us to suggest a few gift ideas for those on your shopping list who might normally be hard to buy for.
From Harriet Fasenfest’s A Householder’s Guide to the Universe comes this no-nonsense take on turkeys, Thanksgiving, and Holiday Hoo-Ha.
Now you’d think, given all the work involved in putting up the quinces (quince paste this year), walnuts (we shelled and froze fifty pounds), and pig (at least the trim bag), that I would be ready for a rest. Silly you. Remember, this is November, and every contemporary cook I know is facing off with the same question: to brine or not to brine? Turkey, that is—Thanksgiving turkey. A Red Bourbon turkey, to be specific. I have to admit that somewhere in this process I begin to feel a little, well, precious. Even I can feel a little overwhelmed by my capacity to separate out the good from the good-ish. Did it matter that I was getting a Red Bourbon turkey at a price few would be willing to pay? Certainly, I understand the importance of raising heritage breeds in an effort to resist the rise of varieties that are bred for one quality or another at the expense of the animal’s well-being. Take, for example, those poor big-breasted chickens. Bred to be the buxom babes of Silicon Valley, these girls can barely walk anymore. Talk about back problems. Today’s industrial chickens have been selectively hybridized to give Hugh Hefner what he wants—big boobs on a small body. So I get it: heritage breeds are important, and every year I get the Red Bourbon, and every year I brine it, cook it, and add it to the rest of the Thanksgiving feast.
Precious or not, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I can haul out the bounty from my pantry, from the garden, and from my stores, and that connection to the harvest makes this holiday a little less surreal for me than for most folks. Others—most Americans, in fact—approach this day with the madness of sailors lost at sea.
Swimming in a Sea of Silly
There’s something frantic about preparing for Thanksgiving. Considering this year’s recipes, what to order, what to buy, how to set the table, whom to invite, and what to wear can be exhausting. Honestly, though, once you start living as a householder, the focus of your concerns will shift to something less influenced by magazine layouts. Thanksgiving in Householderland is about hauling out the goods from the pantry and paying tribute to the harvest. Not by continuing the oddly nuanced traditions of store-bought pumpkin pie, canned cranberry jelly, and Uncle Aldo’s famous Waldorf salad, but in recognition that none of it—not the meal, not the family, not even the roof over our heads—would be there if we did not care for the soil. It was from the soil, the healthy fertile soil, that the foods and opportunities sprang forth for those who came to this land such a long time ago. Only if we remember our responsibility to take care of the soil can we experience the full measure of thankfulness this harvest holiday offers. But even with that understanding—in fact, especially with that understanding—it is not necessary to go overboard. A return to the true foundations of the holiday, to the virtues of common sense and stewardship, will spare you all the hoo-ha of the season.
I think a lot about the fussing around Thanksgiving—why we have gotten so far away from the simple act of cooking what we have, with silent blessings and thanks. Why we do not just cook—not in the spectacular fashion of celebrity chefs and fancy recipes—but in our own quiet moments, in our own simple kitchens, and with our own skilled and experienced hands. Why do we resort to a slavish dedication to one ingredient and recipe or another (this can apply just as much to the local and sustainable crew, present company included), rather than something that would be a little easier to manage. In the end, what matters is not how well you can follow a recipe, or how many fancy cookbooks you reference, but how inclined you are to cook from the available bounty in the first place. My advice on this matter is to take it easy. Set a simple table and cook a simple meal. Roast a squash and cook some cranberries and a flat-chested chicken if that is more in line with your budget. Then give blessings for the soil and the amazing way it continues to supply our needs, despite our tendency to neglect it. If you can do that honestly, I’m sure your meal will taste great.
These are the promises of a November kitchen. It is the beginning of serious pantry cooking and the start of a holiday season that can lead you to a deeper understanding of what gratitude means. Watch out for your own twisted mythology—it can be subtly influential and weighted with the silliest of notions. November is a great time to give thanks for the work that is behind you (if you are a farmer or householder) and for the peace and joy of the season ahead. Like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, and the Solstice invite quietness and appreciation. If you are inclined toward traditions, keep them simple and keep them real. Keep them linked to the soil, since everything springs from it. Giving gifts from the pantry is a great thing to do, because they, too, are of and from the earth. My personal favorite is the backyard fruitcake I make each year. It is a creation born of the gleaned fruits of the season and the politics of the movement.
Harriet Fasenfest is an avid gardener, food preserver, homemaker, and lover of the soil. Born and raised in the Bronx, Fasenfest currently lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, two sons, and the occasional “stranger.” At fifty-six, Harriet officially fled Main Street (and her restaurants) for the greener pastures of the backyard, where she teaches classes on householding.
As Xenophobic as we Portlanders can be, we know our city is not alone when it comes to having a vibrant and eclectic and wild poetry community. In an effort to discover these territories, we have reached out to some of our favorite poets, asking them for introductions to the cities in which they write, read, and live in.
Jillian Weise, whose poem “Pound, Drunk on A Forty, Goes Off” was published in our Winter Issue 30, takes us through eclectic Greenville.
Tin House: Where do you live?
Jillian Weise: Greenville, South Carolina.
TH: Are you from there?
JW: I’m from Texas.
TH: Describe the poetry scene of Greenville in a line…
JW: Eclectic and hip with poetry readings at Coffee Underground, Ford’s Oyster House, and the nearby colleges: Clemson, Converse, Furman and Wofford.
TH: What are some of your favorite collections to come out of Greenville?
TH: What local poet are you most excited for the rest of the country to read?
JW: The creative writing students at Clemson.
TH: Is there a poem that best describes your city?
JW: John Pursley and Sarah Blackman’s poem “Claims for Magnolia and Shadow” is magnificent.
TH: Do you have a favorite local press?
TH: If we were visiting, what reading series would you take us to?
JW: If you come to town on March 26-29, 2014, I will take you to the Clemson Literary Festival. Otherwise, it’s to the oyster house for us, or the café, or the New Southern Voices Reading Series, which is held in the oldest bar in Spartanburg.
TH: Where would you like to see more of a poetry presence in your city?
JW: Here in Greenville, it’s Open Studio Weekend. Local visual artists open their studios to the public. Poets don’t have studios, per se, but I’d love for Greenville to host a weekend of poetry salons.
TH: If you could choose one poet to move to your city who would it be?
JW: Matthew Dickman.
Jillian Weise publishes fiction, nonfiction, poetry and is also a playwright. She is the author of The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, The Colony, and The Book of Goodbyes, winner of the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times and Tin House. Weise has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Fulbright Program, the Sewanee Writers Conference and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is an Assistant Professor at Clemson University.
For all of the bohemian brouhaha of 1920s Paris, a woman still had to wear a hat to be seated in the main room of the popular and posh brasserie La Rotonde. It follows that climbing up on tables to sing bawdy, comic songs in cabarets or posing nude for artists might not be the best way for a single girl to go in the early part of the twentieth century.
It was pretty clear that Alice Ernestine Prin wasn’t too concerned with convention, even after being crowned the Queen of Montparnasse. By then, she was well known as Kiki, and with sovereignty, set out her own rules. Among them, the dictate: “All I need is an onion, a bit of bread, and a bottle of red [wine],” she said, “And I will always find somebody to offer me that.”
Posing for Soutine, Cocteau, Calder, Modigliani and many others, she was also a main muse and model for Man Ray. Her lover for over six years, he took hundreds of photographs of her, including the startling and stunning Le Violin d’Ingres. “There is no progress in art, any more than there is progress in making love,” Man Ray said. “There are simply different ways of doing it.” And his way of doing art—photography, film, rayographs—featured Kiki throughout most of the 1920s.
Not a woman to sit still for long, she also appeared in films like Fernand Léger’s “Ballet Méchanique” and “L’Étoile de Mer,” by Man Ray in collaboration with poet Robert Desnos. Add to that the sell-out exhibit of her paintings in Paris in 1927 and her book Kiki’s Memoirs with a preface by Hemingway. “She was very wonderful to look at,” he writes. “Having a fine face to start with, she made it a work of art.” Published in 1929 in Paris and translated the next year into English, Kiki’s Memoirs was banned in the US and later reprinted in the 1950s with the title The Education of a French Model.
Fresh, humorous and unfussy, Kiki’s Memoirs is a candid chronicle of the rowdy, radical and sometimes fickle Roaring Twenties from the perspective of one of the darlings among the Montparnasse movers and shakers. It’s a rare and exceptional find in Paris, in English or French. Audacious, indulgent and daring, Kiki proclaimed, “Poet, painter, actor. Outside of these three occupations, I admit no other mortal [into my life].”
Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House. She’s the author of Knock Knock, released by Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems and essays have appeared in or on PBS NewsHour, The Guardian, and elsewhere. She has been Co-Director of the Shakespeare and Company Bookshop literary festival and lives in Paris.
If memory serves, it was sometime in the early 90s that I attended a reading at the now-deceased Endicott Bookstore on New York’s Upper West Side, featuring Toby Olsen and some other guy. That other guy turned out to be Norman Rush, and he read from Mating, which quickly became my favorite novel. I found myself taken with its narrator’s erudite, self-deprecating, hyperarticulate voice, but also her brazenness, her willingness to throw away her map, her zeal to understand, exhaustively, everything from Botswana to Denoon, the visionary lover who she pursues. I got swept up in its depiction of a Kalahari whose denizens seemed ever on the verge of vanishing, and the lushness of the prose—headiness isn’t the word, as it had a sort of bodiliness. Hungry for more, I went back to his collection Whites and was surprised to find its prose taut and restrained, if no less potent— each story a knife whose handle has broken off and so has to be held gingerly.
Over time, I came to realize that the gestation periods of Rush’s works would be long; they felt, at times, cosmically so. This was, no doubt, inextricable from what made them great—like the places they depicted, you felt like you could spend a decade wandering around in them; these were novels you could live in. Mortals came out in 2003, and then I kept hearing rumors about a new one so often that, even learning the name, Subtle Bodies, felt like catching a glimpse of something epic. And yet…under 300 pages! And…set in the Catskills!
Subtle Bodies does deviate from his earlier novels, but in a way that’s unmistakably his; I’d argue that it marries the zoom-lens compression of Whites with the thematic largesse of his huge novels. Like everything he’s written, it is at once bawdy and cerebral, morally-engaged, candid and funny. Rush agreed to do a phone interview with me from his house in Rockland County, New York, which initially proved disastrous in that much of the conversation was lost when two recording apps silently collided on my phone. Fortunately, we were able to rebuild the conversation Six Million Dollar Man-style, bigger and, one hopes, stronger, thanks to email and the generosity of Rush and his wife, Elsa.
Tim Horvath: The place I want to begin is with the review you wrote of Caleb Crain’s novel, Necessary Errors, in The New York Review of Books. You bring up this idea of “a utopia of friends” in your assessment, which seems apt, insofar as it applies to some extent to Subtle Bodies, and even perhaps to Mating. First of all, there’s utopia itself as a ground of concern. In Mating, it seems that there’s a struggle of sorts, or at least a tension, between the narrator’s idea of a personal relationship between equals, and Denoon’s idea, whereby he has attempted to flesh out a utopia in the form of a society which affords women greater autonomy and agency. In Subtle Bodies, the notion of friendship is batted around in many ways by various characters.
Norman Rush: It’s an old idea, and one thing I discovered when I began the book is that the subject of male friendship is not a common one in literary fiction.
TH: Can you think of other examples? Are there others you were able to track down?
NR: I did ask around, and the examples that most people came up with were Holmes and Watson – characters in what is not standardly called literary fiction – and Aubrey and Maturin, in the Patrick O’Brian sea novels. There are some odd thrusts in that direction in German literature – in Hesse’s Narziss und Goldmund – but nowhere as a fully developed subject. Do you have any thoughts about the topic?
TH: I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head. Isn’t there a Platonic dialogue on friendship – the Gorgias, I think?
NR: Right, though, it’s not fiction. Anyway, it’s a subject that interests me. Lawrence had an idea of friendship as the basis for an actual utopian community; briefly, it was claimed, realized. Rananim, it was called. An echo of this utopian function of friendship is all through the old New Ages of Whitman and Edmund Carpenter. Anyway, I’ve been drawn to the question for some time.
TH: And why do you think that is? Why hasn’t male friendship been more prominent in the kinds of writing you’re talking about?
NR: I think there are a couple of things that go some way toward explaining that. First, literature has been dominated by men until just about yesterday, and as a subject for dramatization, friendship hasn’t seemed to be very interesting, on the surface of it, to most men. A reflexive tendency to analyze male friendships, closely examined, as homosexual in nature, would undoubtedly be an inhibiting factor. The times have changed radically and there’s more freedom now to address the subject itself. There has also been a shadow interpretation of many male friendships in literature as enactments of the search by a disillusioned son for a replacement father. This, of course, is the figure in the carpet in the Stephen Dedalus/Leopold Bloom friendship in Ulysses.
TH: What exactly is the fate of the friendships in Subtle Bodies? There’s a long gap in between their college days and the present-day of the story, and each of them is in dialogue –in some cases a sort of grappling hold – with the past. The demise of their ringleader is the occasion for their revisiting these friendships. How do you see the idea of a utopia of friendship playing out over the course of their lives?
NR: It is what these friendships were in the past that they keep trying to come to terms with in the present. Clearly, the college friendships at NYU meant most to Ned, as the intellectual apostle of Douglas that he was then. When they reconnect, the others have become more skeptical. Ned is attempting only partly consciously in the convening of these characters to recreate something of what he’d felt a long time ago. History is against him. So are the diverging biographies of his friends.
TH: The obvious thing to say is that in many ways Subtle Bodies is a departure from the earlier books in size and scope.
NR: You could call it a chamber work.
TH: I like that. Can you expand on it a little bit?
NR: That was the original idea. One reason the book took so long to get done is that I had to keep fighting off its expansion into a War and Peace of the afterleft, and that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted this to be a work concentrating, without great digressions, on the themes of work, love, and empire. By ‘empire’ I mean nothing more than the actually existing international arrangements pursued and fought for by the United States as the dominant power in the world, and how these affect individual lives at home and abroad. I’m not making a judgment by using the term ‘empire.’ I’m talking about a vastly complex structure and the assumptions that normally go with it. And I’m talking about culture, of course, as it fits into this scheme.
TH: And was that liberating, challenging?
NR: It was challenging, largely following from my weakness for the long form novel. And from my slightly crazed attachment to my characters as they create themselves.
TH: I read in your Paris Review interview that Elsa reads everything you write.
NR: Indeed. And of course she did that again here.
TH: Did she help you reign in some of those “omni-inclusive” instincts, or was it largely a self-imposed discipline?
NR: Oh, I knew what I needed to do, and she helped me ultimately to get there, and that was how it worked.
TH: Apart from it being a chamber piece, and thus constrained in a very different way, what sorts of continuities do you see with your earlier work? Do you feel like you were revisiting some perennial concerns?
NR: Sure. The most obvious one would be the question of work or vocation, which is a recurrent element in my work, and the question of correctly understanding the world. And then of course there’s the unending question of what makes a good life. All of those things.
TH: Nina has a charged take on the relationship between male friendships and those across gender lines. She wants to provide something that she deems inherently superior to male friendship, and she seems to feel that men don’t actually understand what they ought to desire from friendship.
NR: She doesn’t really understand male friendship, or she’s hard on it in a way that’s not quite fair. In my perception, individual males reach a settled understanding of the world at different times in their respective lives, and these settled understandings, which are supported by a secure grasp on certain basics, including material ones, including – importantly – felt hierarchies, can screw up relationships as times passes, which was not something they could have imagined happening when they were young guys together. Really, the basic assumption was that such details wouldn’t matter, even if a great deal changed.
“Shortly afterwards it started raining, very innocently at first, but the sky was packed tight with cloud and gradually the drops grew bigger and heavier, until it was autumn’s dismal rain that was falling—rain that seemed to fill the entire world with its leaden beat, rain suggestive in its dreariness of everlasting waterfalls between the planets, rain that thatched the heavens with drabness and brooded oppressively over the whole countryside, like a disease, strong in the power of its flat, unvarying monotony, its smothering heaviness, its cold, unrelenting cruelty. Smoothly, smoothly it fell, over the whole shire, over the fallen marsh grass, over the troubled lake, the iron-grey gravel flats, the sombre mountain above the croft, smudging out every prospect. And the heavy, hopeless, interminable beat wormed its way into every crevice in the house, lay like a pad of cotton wool over the ears, and embraced everything, both near and far, in its compass, like an unromantic story from life itself that has no rhythm and no crescendo, no climax, but which is nevertheless overwhelming in its scope, terrifying in its significance. And at the bottom of this unfathomed ocean of teeming rain sat the little house and its one neurotic woman.” — Halldór Laxness, Independent People
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): I have plenty of gripes with the prose in Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer’s blockbuster about the infamous, disastrous 1996 Everest expedition of which he was a part. I have plenty gripes more with the way Krakauer weasels a sort of self-exhonoration by talking up his insufficient respect for the mountain, his own culpability, et cetera, et cetera. And yet, I can’t stop reading and re-reading this book. I’m a sucker generally for adventure narratives–the testing of limits, the provisioning and the training montages, the time spent in real wilderness, the confrontation with problems so much bigger than my own. But what gets me about this book, whatever its flaws, is how shaken Krakauer clearly was, clearly is by the events he’s describing. Even as Krakauer does a certain amount of pandering to his audience, his real feelings of guilt lie just below that surface, and where he lets himself scrape against those feelings, I’m terrified and transfixed.
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): A friend in Seattle loaned me Victoria Finlay’s Color: A Natural History of the Palette, when I mentioned that I’d only packed work for the train ride home. It kept me entertained despite a crowd of rowdy German teenagers and disgruntled businessmen. Finlay offers sordid details on the complex (and sometimes deadly) histories of ten colors. From Aboriginal pilgrimages in search of ochre mines to the connections between black dye, Spanish pirates, and British colonization, Color is an entertaining mix of history, politics, and travel writing.
Meg Storey (Editor, Tin House Books): I just reread Twilight of the Superheroes: Stories and I’d forgotten how brutally and wonderfully honest Deborah Eisenberg’s short stories are. The world is fucked up and we are fucked up: planes fly into the buildings we see every morning from our terrace; soldiers in a faraway desert march across the TV screen; the man we trusted becomes abusive; our sister is in the psych ward; Grandma has dementia; and somehow our older brother has grown up to be a pompous conservative asshole (how are we related to these people?). In the midst of all this, our sister calls to tell us that we really should spend Thanksgiving dinner with our family. Eisenberg portrays her characters and their interactions with a straightforwardness that is cathartic, exposing their (and our) vulnerabilities, neuroses, fears, and shortcomings. If you are having mixed feelings about spending Thanksgiving with your family, I highly recommend you read “Some Other, Better Otto.” Here’s a sneak preview:“Oh, dear!” Laurie exclaimed. She had an arm around Portia, who was crying. “What in hell is going on now?” Wesley demanded, slamming down his newspaper. “I’m afraid Bea and Cleveland may have said something to her,” Laurie said, apologetically. “Oh, terrific,” Wesley said. “Now I know what I’m paying them for.” “It’s all right, sweetie,” Laurie said. “It all happened a long time ago.” “But why are we celebrating that we killed them?” Portia asked, and started crying afresh. “We’re not celebrating because we killed the Indians, darling,” Laurie said. “We’re celebrating because we ate dinner with them.” “Portia still believes in Indians!” one of the little boys exclaimed. “So do we all, Josh,” Wesley said. “They live at the North Pole and make toys for good little—” “Wesley, please!” Corinne said. “Listener poll,” Portia said to her fist. “Did we eat dinner with the Indians, or did we kill them?” She strode over to Otto and held out her fist. “We ate dinner with them and then we killed them,” Otto realized, out loud to his surprise.
And do try to keep in mind what William, Otto’s lovely, even-tempered boyfriend, says to him after they return home from Thanksgiving: family is “broadening. You meet people in your family you’d never happen to run into otherwise.” Happy Thanksgiving!
An excerpt from Adam Braver’s novel, November 22, 1963
The Bell & Howell 414 DP Discovery Series
Thoroughly reading the user’s manual will ensure that the camera captures what it sees in the most accurate way.
Start with the basics:
» How to operate the Start button (Page 7)
» Loading the film (Page 2)
» The Zoomatic lens (Pages 5, 6, 10)
» Electric Eye operation (Page 8)
» Built-in filters (Page 4)
» Zoomatic Viewfinder (Page 5)
And make sure to read the tips:
» “Don’t zoom too much. Like any good technique, it will be most effective when used sparingly.” (Page 11)
» “If your fingers block the Electric Eye when you shoot, your camera will not ‘see’ things in their proper light. Don’t confuse the camera. Make sure it sees everything.” (Page 12)
» “Try to plan your movies so that they’ll tell a story with continuity and interest . . . Once you’re familiar with the Electric Eye camera you can take thrilling automatic movies you’ll always be proud to show.” (Page 9)
It’s all about resisting the temptation to control the camera. To think it can see what you see. Because that’s where the whole process can falter. Forgetting that the camera acts as its own witness.
About an hour and a half after the shooting, Abe Zapruder is in the studios of WFAA-TV. He is seated at a desk next to Jay Watson, the station’s program director, who is not used to being in front of the camera. Watson smokes furiously, his attention scattered, taking phone calls on the air while simultaneously introducing his guest. There’s barely an inch between them. Initially Abe looks comfortable in his jacket and bow tie, as though he’s hosting his own television show. Still, he swivels as he talks. It’s in his eyes. Where the composure starts to wilt.
Watson asks, “Would you tell us your story, please, sir?” and Abe starts at a half hour before the shooting. Talks about finding the spot. Clears his throat. And he hears the shot. Models how Kennedy slumped. In describing the next gunshot (I couldn’t say if it was one or two), he says he saw Kennedy’s “head practically open up, all blood and everything, and I kept on shooting. That’s about all, I’m just sick, I can’t . . .” Here you sense him breaking, but still there is an incompleteness to it all. There clearly is shock. Anguish. But it is deeper than that. As though part of his memory is in that camera.
Maybe sensing this, Watson reminds Abe that they do have the movie camera in the studio, and “We’ll try to get that processed and have it as soon as possible.” Then the station cuts to coverage of the hearse leaving Parkland Memorial Hospital. This is the collective memory. The real-time experience. And, in the interview, you can almost see Abe contemplate trying to hang on to his memories. Somehow knowing that once the film is developed, his memory will become part of the collective. A commonplace experience. Maybe that’s why he ends the interview the way he does. Brings it back to the first blast, when he still thought it was a joke, like when you “hear a shot and somebody grabs their stomach.” Maybe that’s all he has left. Something no film footage will co-opt. That little bit of shame is all his.
Just forty years ago in the Ukraine, Abraham Zapruder was watching his neighbors and fellow Jews being terrorized and slaughtered during the Russian civil war. The Zapruder family escaped because the fight would be futile; an escape that he remembers as both cowardly and brave. They emigrated from Kovel to Brooklyn when he was fifteen. At thirty-six, Abe left Brooklyn for Dallas to found his own dress-manufacturing business, two floors’ worth. Abe is a man who recognizes hope and opportunity when he sees it. He knows it can come in all sorts of disguises. How the unexpected moments can be the ones that most inspire you.
Kennedy was riding on his side of the street. Leaning forward. Smiling. Waving. For just one second, Abe wanted to lower the camera and see the president with his own eyes. But he was determined to capture Kennedy. He was glad he’d brought the camera. He had not intended to. It would only get in the way of seeing the president. That’s what he’d told Lillian, his secretary at Jennifer Juniors. The reason he gave her. He wanted to see Kennedy for himself. Not just steady a camera that was doing the actual seeing. Lillian convinced him otherwise. Told him he had time to go home to get the camera. Twenty minutes round trip, tops. Seven miles each way. She told him he must have been a mind reader to open his dress business on Elm Street. Front row seats for the Kennedys, Mr. Z. Make use of it. He’ll be glad to have this memory. Go on, Lillian kept at him. She got his other receptionist, Marilyn, in on it. Really, Mr. Z, they went on.
He thought about traffic. About parking. How with the expected mob coming downtown, twenty minutes could turn into hours. But it was just a little past eight. He supposed he had time, even in the worst-case scenario. Plus it would be something to have a movie of Kennedy. Think about your grandchildren, Mr. Z. It’s the Kennedys, Mr. Z. Isn’t this just the thing you bought the camera for? And they started to get to him, Lillian and Marilyn. This would be the story to tell his future generations. Not of pogroms or daring yet ambivalent escapes. Rather, of when he was just feet away from John F. Kennedy.
The day had started rainy and hazy, lighting that would complicate any filming. If it did start to pour, would he switch to the Haze Filter, or just leave the Type A all the way out? It wouldn’t make for much of a movie, having to film through all the umbrellas, not to mention that the president likely would be covered up in his car, just waving through the window. But those concerns were soon lost. The sun came out, and, as quickly, the day turned more springlike. The Kennedys bring sunshine wherever they go, one of the office gals said. Abe smiled. He was not one for platitudes. But he did believe it.
Rushing out of the Dal-Tex Building at 501 Elm Street, Abe and Marilyn crossed the street, sidestepping their way through the School Book Depository employees that had crowded the sidewalk. He moved quickly. Glancing back at the route. Seeing it as though he were the camera lens. Looking for the right perspective. The best angle. With Marilyn still trailing, he continued down Elm, toward the underpass. He checked his watch. Looked back up the street. Some other employees from Jennifer Juniors had caught up with them. But he didn’t talk to them. Just kept moving. Getting closer to the underpass.
Finally he found a big concrete square, nearly four feet high. He lassoed the camera to his wrist as he climbed up. The sun was over his shoulder for ideal lighting. He checked his watch again. According to the published schedule, there were at least ten minutes to spare before the motorcade was due to pass through. He took a long breath and wiped the sweat off his forehead.
He pointed the camera at his employees, reviewing the user’s manual in his head. They looked at him. Smiled. One shaded her face, turning her back to him. I’m just testing, he said. Running a few frames to make sure she’s working okay. He zoomed in on them. Standing on the grass. A marble slab in the background. He pushed the Start button. Listened for the clicking. Moved the zoom in, moved the zoom out. He called to Marilyn once he stopped. Can you stand behind me? he asked. I don’t know why, but this telephoto lens spins my head a bit. Makes me dizzy. If you can just stand behind me. Maybe hold my coattail to keep me balanced. And together they stood there. Looking up Elm toward Houston. Waiting for the limousine to make the turn.
The next thing he knew he was yelling out, They killed him. They killed him. Running up the grassy knoll. Toward the pergola. They killed him. They killed him. His body screamed. His mind couldn’t make sense. A moment ago Kennedy had been clowning around. And now. They killed him. He didn’t even know how he got off the abutment. He was ghostlike. Walking through walls. Through people. Calling out, chanting, They killed him. They killed him.
What’s happening? people asked him. What’s happening?
They killed him. And each time he said it, it seemed another person wilted and fell away.
The camera still hung from his wrist. It banged against his thigh. Hitting the same place over and over. Pummeling him black and blue.
At the Dal-Tex Building.
Abe slumps forward on his desk. The television news is playing. The movie camera sits on top of the filing cabinet. It’s unfairly still.
Somewhere there is a breath in his chest.
Darwin Payne from the Times Herald is in his office. Sitting across from him, talking with his hands. Payne will help him get the film developed, he says. This movie is that important. But Abe can barely speak, other than to say he knows Kennedy is dead. He knows he’s dead. The TV news anchors can say what they want. They can talk hopefully about wounds—even serious wounds—but Abe knows Kennedy is dead. He saw it through the viewfinder.
Finally he gathers the strength to brush Payne away, explaining that someone from Life contacted him first, and though he doesn’t know what is what, he is a man of his word. As he closes the door behind Payne, Abe’s not sure if the film is news, commerce, or evidence. At this point, it’s physiology and technology. The rest of the people there witnessed the moment of the killing, and then that quickly it was gone. But Abe Zapruder has a record of what his eye saw. It’s sitting on his file cabinet. Waiting to be processed. A visual replica of his memory. And, looking up at the camera again, he considers just popping open the door and exposing the film. A drastic surgical remedy.
Lillian walks in, saying something he can’t hear. Something about government men. Waiting. She’s walking with a transistor radio in her hand. It’s static and chaos. She’s crying, sniffling while she pats at her pockets for a tissue. She says the men are in the outer office, and then she reports that the radio just said the president is only wounded, to which Abe replies, I know he’s dead. Lillian eyes the TV and then turns up the radio, trying to make out more announcements through the static.
Abe stands to greet the government men. For a moment disoriented. Confused between the noise outside the window and the sounds on the radio and the TV. He could close his window, but somehow it’s reassuring, hearing the sirens, and hearing all those people still milling in the plaza. Hearing their moans and their cries. He is a little less alone.
A True Story.
The night of November 22, Abe had a nightmare that he was walking through Times Square. There he passed a barker standing in front of some unsavory movie house. The barker called out, “Hey folks, come on in and see the president killed on the big screen.”
By 8 am on November 23, Abe is showing the film to Secret Service agents. It’s an empty room on one of his floors in the Dal-Tex Building. There are no windows. No screen. Only a couple of folding chairs and a card table set up in the middle to hold the projector. The overhead lights are off, just the projector’s white light beaming a small but distinct square on the blank white wall.
The fan on the projector whirrs. Almost like a jet engine.
Abe stands beside it and asks, Are you ready, gentlemen?
Ready, Mr. Zapruder.
He fiddles with the knobs, trying to sharpen the focus on the edges of the blank picture. Okay now, he says. So you are ready?
They nod, looking impatient, checking their watches, and documenting the time on their notepads. Abe knows they’re not really ready. He’s seen the film. Seen how the mind plays funny tricks. Experienced how the first twenty seconds fill you with hope and excitement. And there is still the strange possibility that what you know is going to happen may not happen. Yet it does. You realize how vague hope really is.
Abe starts the film. The reels on the 8 mm projector click just off the beat. Turning round and round, repetitious. The makeshift screen has filled in with black. Scratches animate across the wall, lightning storms, off as quickly as they are on.
The agents shift. One taps his foot in time with the projector.
There is a long leader on the film, even after cutting off the home movies and the test footage he’d made before the parade. Then, abruptly, it starts. Here come the motorcycle cops twisting onto Elm, leading the motorcade. The sun is shining. Here comes the president.
Another True Story.
By 10:30 am, after screening the twenty-four-second film over and over for various officials, Abe’s office is flooded with reporters wanting access to the film. They’re all speaking in controlled voices, guaranteeing something. But it is Richard Stolley, of Life, with whom he goes behind closed doors, despite the protests of the others. The garment industry is flat these days, he tells Stolley. Every year the business has been making its way closer to Mexico, and Dallas is as far south as Abe is willing to follow it. He worries for his family’s future. Tells Stolley he wants them be secure. Still, he doesn’t want to be part of exploiting the death of the president. The idea of being a profiteer seems shameful. Stolley reminds him that this is Life. Its reputation is its integrity. Stolley guarantees they’ll be prudent in how they use the film. This is now part of the story of America, and, like it or not, Abe’s film is one of the great documents of history. Through Stolley, Life pays $50,000 for the print rights. Two days later they pay an additional $100,000 for the original film, with payments to be disbursed annually at $25,000. Abe contributes the first payment to the Firemen’s and Policemen’s Benevolent Fund, with a donation suggestion for Mrs. J. D. Tippit. The balance goes to the Zapruder family’s future.
A movie camera connects a series of still pictures. A series of small moments. And each frame is assigned a number. In the case of his film, it is frame 313. That is the one where Kennedy’s head bursts open. That sudden poof of red that is at once abstract and elliptical. Abe didn’t need to lose the whole memory. Just frame 313. If it could have just been edited out. Then the worst part of the day only would’ve been his disappointment at Kennedy fooling around like he’d been shot after the loud pop, before the limousine disappeared beneath the underpass on the way to the Trade Mart.
Giving up the film was supposed to relieve him. But there are some days that he swears he sees it in his head. Starting up with the scratchy leader, and then right to the motorcade. And then it’s frame 313 over and over again. Backward and forward. Forward and backward. Until the motorcade disappears beneath the underpass. Some days it plays in his head several times. Sometimes only once or twice a week. But always the same pattern. Backward and forward. Forward and backward. And it occurs to him that his memory and the film are one and the same. That every time the film is studied in some Secret Service/FBI lab, or cut and spliced in New York at Life, it is somehow projecting through him.
By the time Abe is testifying for the Warren Commission, exactly eight months to the day have passed since he shot his film. Nearly down to the hour. He sits in the office of the U.S. attorney in Dallas, being questioned by Wesley Liebler, assistant counsel to the commission. Abe’s nervous. In a way, he seems more shaken than he was in the hours following the assassination. He can’t seem to get his words right. He knows what he’s thinking, but it just won’t translate. Maybe it’s that the shock has worn off. Now it’s an exposed wound.
Liebler is being gracious. Gentle. They start off with the background information. Abe tells him about not having the camera, going down to Elm Street, searching for the perfect spot until he found the concrete abutment. He’s thorough. Comfortable with the logic of these details.
But shortly the motorcade is in front of him, and Liebler is asking more pointed questions. Frame by frame. Bullet by bullet. As he did on WFAA, Abe confesses he thought Kennedy was joking after the first shot. After eight months, he sounds a little more practiced. Still, the shame remains. He goes on to say, “I heard a second shot and I saw his head opened up and the blood and everything came out and I started—I can hardly talk about it . . .” and he falls forward, dropping his face into his hands, sobbing. He looks up once or twice. Takes in a breath, holding it, trying to compose himself, and then starts crying again.
“That’s all right, Mr. Zapruder,” Liebler says. “Would you like a drink of water? Why don’t you step out of the room and have a drink of water?”
Abe doesn’t move. He looks up, trying to regain his posture, but unable to look Liebler in the eyes. Fixing his stare on a knot in the paneling. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m ashamed of myself really, but I couldn’t help it . . . The whole thing that has been transpiring . . . It was very upsetting, and as you see, I got a little better all the time, and this came up again . . . And . . . It, to me . . . Looked like a second shot.”
They resume the deposition, continuing to take the day apart, frame by frame. He answers steadily. Keeps on track. He wants to be useful. And when Liebler is ready to wrap things up, he lets Abe know how helpful the film has been to the commission. Abe nods. “I’m only sorry I broke down,” he says. “I didn’t know I was going to do it.”
Liebler thanks him. Repeats how helpful the film has been.
“Well, I’m ashamed of myself. I didn’t know I was going to break down, and for a man to . . . but it was a tragic thing, and when you started asking me that, and I saw the thing all over again, and it was an awful thing . . . an awful thing.”
And though they’ll forever call him helpful for what he did, he wishes he’d had nothing to offer. That he’d left the camera at home. Wishes he’d never even cared about Kennedy. Because, in the end, all this has done is brought him shame. For thinking the wrong thing when the first bullet struck. For feeling as though he were selling out the horror for profit, scrambling to donate a chunk of the money as fast as it came in. For breaking down with childish tears. Imagine that. A Ukrainian Jew who escaped the pogroms and terrors of the Russian civil war, who came to America and built himself into a businessman, just to become someone who can’t compose himself, all for what he saw through his viewfinder. At least he was able to provide for his family. For that he can feel no shame.
Adam Braver is the author of five novels, most recently Misfit. His books have been selected for the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers program, Borders’ Original Voices series, the IndieNext list, and twice for the Book Sense list, as well as having been translated into Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, and French. He is on faculty and writer-in-residence at Roger Williams University in Bristol, RI. In addition to having taught for the University of New Orleans’ Low Residency MFA program, he’s also been a regular writer-in-residence at the New York State Summer Writers Institute.
The day Gaëlle forgot language, I was arranging a bouquet of roses and eucalyptus at our house north of town. My husband Fred and I were supposed to have dinner when her nurse called and told me Gaëlle suffered a stroke. I walked out the door, forgot the flowers, and took off for the rest home where my former nanny was housed. Gaëlle stood by the window and the nurse told me she was tired, that she needed sleep. I asked Gaëlle if she would like a glass of milk before bed, as she always had.
I want she said. And then her mouth turned gummy, turned itself inside out as she fumbled for the word. I stepped closer and looked into her pupils. She was eighty-six. These are things that happen. The loss of speech, of memory, motor skills. I lay her down in her cot and propped her head up with two down pillows. I pulled her quilt to her waist, and then left to bring her a glass of whole milk from the cafeteria. Milche, she said. It was subtle and I did not notice.
But the next day, the nurse called again to tell me that it was not a stroke. She had simply become shy. I arrived on Tuesday and she spoke nothing but Deutch. The resident nurses said she had forgotten. Gaëlle stood at the window wearing only her gold ski metals, the red, white, and blue, ribbons flowing over her neck like Fourth of July frosting.
She has forgotten what? I asked.
Gaëlle rubbed her fingers over the solid metal—it was not even plated. She rounded her thumb over them as though making a wish, as though she was not quite certain of them.
She forgot other words: rag doll, asparagus, brooch, the purple ones. She replaced them with Stoffpuppe, Spargel, Nadel, die Violette.
I’m so glad you get a chance to visit, the nurse said. I think she’s lonely.
Despite her loss of English, Gaëlle seemed to be in perfect health. The next day, I told her that I had a surprise for her, and then I disappeared to tell the nurse that I would bring her back later that evening.
Gaëlle smiled at me and spoke in deep “o”s, hard vowels and late-alphabet consonants. My mouth did not upturn, my lips were straight, I shook my head.
I don’t speak German, I said.
Gaëlle nodded pleasantly, and then looked out the window.
She had been the first to introduce us to the mountains when we arrived in town, when our families had both transplanted to Idaho. And so it became my father’s mountains, and Gaëlle taught us how to ski black diamonds and slalom over molehill terrain. And although the mountains of Idaho were not the mountains of Switzerland, she said this was her home, this was her chosen range.
Let’s go home? I said to Gaëlle. Come home with me.
So I took her back to our house where Fred was cooking dinner. He was at work so often those days, he thought of our place as a vacation home, his work as his permanent residence.
It happened like this:
Fred removed the meatballs from the oven. He took the Weimar china out of the kitchen cabinet.
For a special occasion, he said. Welcome home.
He placed four meatballs on each plate, on a bed of lettuce, and drizzled them with apricot sauce.
Gaëlle watched out the window, watched the tiny people as they went down the mountain.
We sat down to eat. We talked to Gaëlle, but she did not respond, as we knew she wouldn’t. We asked: How is your new home? How is the food?
Gaëlle smiled and nodded to everything we said. The answer was always yes.
After dinner, she rose fragilely from the table and grabbed her plate.
Oh don’t worry about that, Gaëlle, Fred said. Tanner can take care of it.
Gaëlle walked to the sink, raised the plate high above her head and smashed it into the basin. The pottery shards flew everywhere. I screamed. Pieces nicked her neck, and when she turned around there were blood beads on her check, neck, throat, and shoulder, like expensive jewels.
Ich will nach Hause gehen, she said. Hause, ja?
House, Fred said. Yes.
Congratulations to Mary Szybist on her National Book Award for Incarnadine: Poems. An incredible poet, caring teacher, and one of the best coffee dates you could ever have, Mary’s speech during last night’s ceremony epitomizes the grace that can be found in all of her work.
“There’s plenty that poetry cannot do, but the miracle of course, is how much it can do, is how much it does do.”
From issue 53, Portland/Brooklyn, here is one of our favorite of Mary’s poems.
Annunciation Cast as Farrah and Michael
[When] the man-child named Michael Jackson and the luminous girl known as Farrah Fawcett-Majors . . . departed Thursday, just a few hours and a few miles apart, they left an entire generation . . . without two of its defining figures.
—Associated Press, 6/25/2009
She fills the form assigned her,
fills it completely.
All slink and vapor,
he glides across the stage
in a mist, shirt billowing white against
stadium lights, his notes
like infant coos
Here we are, in the afterworld,
gathered around the stage.
Here they are, as they were,
when they helped make us.
And what will he say, and she,
the lights cracking open
this holy ghost party
more movement than music,
more beauty than act—
What did they ever have to say
His clear voice dollies and scags
and she throws back her
feathered, sun-touched hair and
smiles. The gossamer strap of her dress
begins to fall and his socks
glitter and spin and
all of us, all of us strain
forward, ready for news not from but
Mary Szybist‘s work has appeared in Tin House, The Iowa Review, The Denver Review, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of numerous awards and prizes, including the 2013 National Book Award for Poetry. She teaches at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR.
There were two people, a couple, who many of my friends and I grew up around. They were mentors to us. I think we loved them more than they loved each other. They were smart and creative; and as educators they believed in us at a time in our life when we most needed people to believe in us. Concerning them, there were rumors of infidelities. Alcoholism. Separate rooms. And forever-pending separations. But those only were stories. Talk among teenagers who understood the adult world as nothing more than a scripted film (or for the more sophisticated, a well-crafted play). Needless to say, it was a curious if not confusing relationship to an onlooker, especially one who really was a distant observer, who had no real stake in their lives beyond essentially a fan’s adoration and curiosity.
Their key backstory, as we understood it, was that as college students in Dallas they had been on an early date. It was late November in 1963, just before Thanksgiving, and they were young progressives in a conservative area, under the spell of the Kennedy promise, and just barely standing on the edge of a scale that soon would tip the world far away from any sense of balance it ever thought it had. And on that date they went to the Trade Mart, where, following his motorcade ride, John F. Kennedy would speak.
I imagine them among a giant, expectant crowd. The room is loud and echoing. There are rows of empty folding chairs, each claimed by jackets draped over the backs. People are standing, too excited to sit, engaged in small talk, all while keeping an eye on the clock as the hands pass twelve, knowing it is only minutes away from the president’s arrival.
Somewhere in the anticipation, I picture them taking each other’s hands, a subtle grasp, charged with the fear of rejection and the tingling rush of anticipation; and once their fingers clasp, they both stare straight ahead, afraid any eye contact or acknowledgement will sever the moment. But again, that’s only what I imagine.
What I do know is the president never arrived. There was a warbled announcement made through a loudspeaker, and word already began circulating through the room, and though people felt wounded, actually physically wounded, they had no idea what they should do. Sit? Weep? Scream? Drop? Run? All of the above? The story we were told was that our couple, just one among so many, bolted out the front door. There was no calculation. No discussion. Or no plan. Some ran, while others jogged or walked with an urgent pace, to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where the gunned-down president had been taken. It was barely a mile. Northeast up the Market Center Boulevard to Harry Hines Boulevard. It was not a route anyone had practiced. Yet I imagine our couple holding hands the entire way, taking turns leading each other when degrees of exhaustion set in. Joined in the swelling mass of people, they trekked to Parkland with a homing instinct, and no idea what they would do once they arrived, no sense of what they would find, but knowing they had to be there.
They were in it together.
What else could they possibly do?