To a little kid, the county fair was pure enchantment. There was a puppet show and a 4-H cake booth and animals and gardens. There were kiddie rides, too, and a man who made wonderful charms out of molten glass. My favorite activity was the “fish pond,” in which you were handed a fishing rod, dipped the hook into a wading pool, and came out with a toy. I liked that it required no luck, no skill, and no courage. Read More
Writing the SparkNotes for Go Set a Watchman.
The summer when I was eight, I read two books: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and To Kill a Mockingbird. My copy of Mockingbird was a cheap lilac paperback. Its cover featured the knot of a tree with a pocket watch and a ball of yarn inside, a mockingbird stamped in silhouette. In the corner, a crescent moon as thin as a tea-stain rose above a clot of green trees.
I lived inside that book. I read it, reread it, and reread it again, sitting in an attic bedroom of my grandparents’ house, hunched on the green shag carpet. I remember the book in discrete images: Dill’s duckweed-like tufts of hair. Slimy Mr. Ewell leering at his daughter. Miss Maudie’s house going up in flames, like a pumpkin, and her prized azaleas frozen and charred in the aftermath. Crotchety, liver-spotted Mrs. Dubose with her perfect camellias, ivory and globular against the glossy leaves. The day when Jem, in a sudden rampage, snatches Scout’s baton and shears off all the buds and flowers on the camellia bushes. And then, when Mrs. Dubose dies, the white box that her servant gives to Jem with one pristine, waxy camellia resting inside. To Kill a Mockingbird showed me how to create a fully realized, sensory world. Read More
The other day, I mentioned my grandfather’s fondness for a certain line of poetry: “Hie me away to the woodland stream,” he would say whenever the brook in the nearby woods was running.
We walked that way almost every day on my visits to California—my grandfather was a great walker—but some summers it was too dry, and the brook was just a dusty furrow. Sometimes we walked around the lake at the Naval Postgraduate School, or on the beach. Always, his strides were so long you could barely keep up. Sometimes, we couldn’t, and he’d move far ahead of us, hunched, hands thrust into the pockets of his flight suit. Read More
- Museums around the world are motioning to ban selfie sticks, those, sleek, obtrusive icons of narcissism. “While its elongated form might have some structural merits and it inspires a devoted gaze just from standing below it, it simply detracts from other pieces in the collection in a rather pedestrian fashion. So, like groundbreaking art forms before it, the selfie stick will just have to patiently wait for times to change before it receives its artistic due.”
- On Tom McCarthy’s new novel, Satin Island, as a rewiring of avant-garde fiction: “Convergences, nodes and relays, interstices: This is precisely the lexicon of the midcentury avant-garde McCarthy once found so useful and influential. But where this abstract-concrete thinking … once seemed urgent and perhaps even politically salient, now it just seems like cliché. Actually, worse than cliché: commercial and pernicious. The avant-garde’s work has been inherited by the corporation.”
- This is not your beautiful house. This is not your beautiful wife. This is not your beautiful art: “A retired odd job man and electrician and his wife stand trial on Tuesday, accused of illegally possessing 271 works by Pablo Picasso … Mr. Le Guennec claims that he was given the collection by the artist and his second wife Jacqueline when he carried out odd jobs for them more than forty years ago.”
- Contemporary fiction is cool and all, but why aren’t there more grandparents in it? Grandparents are cool, too, you know. “Look around current adult fiction and there’s little writing about grandparents as grandparents. You can find forever-young baby boomer grandmas falling in love at sixty and novels about spirited older women finding self-fulfillment, but novels about grandparents’ relationships with their grandchildren seem in short supply.”
- Philip K. Dick’s work reveals its prescience yet again: in his 1969 novel Ubik, “characters have to negotiate the way they move and how they communicate with inanimate objects that monitor them, lock them out, and force payments.” Meanwhile, in the reality of 2015, Samsung invents a television that captures “personal or other sensitive” information for transmission to a third party …
Now that it is going to be sold, my grandparents’ house, and the summers we spent there, seem cloaked in romance. I remember the trips to the thrift store, the games in the phalanx of sheds, the maple bars from Red’s Donuts, nature walks with my uncle, reading Green Mansions in the woods. It is easy to gloss over the rest.
It was a place of strong smells. Mint in the yard. Eucalyptus trees on the drive. Talcum powder and Lysol and always a potato rotting somewhere in the kitchen. It would have been a good place to be blind. Or, it would have if every inch hadn’t been covered with constantly shifting stuff.
I can’t seem to stop thinking and writing about my grandparents, lately. Well, they’ve been on everyone’s minds as they clear the property and sort through the family politics. I suppose I’ve been fumbling for some sort of eulogy. I’ve started to write about singing gay nineties songs around the piano, about family holidays and the day we all dressed in costumes for a group portrait. But I don’t think any of that really tells the story. If I were to try to say goodbye with one story, I think it would need to be a conversation I overheard one day. My grandfather called every evening; I walked into the kitchen to find my mother on the phone.
“Has Mom agreed to this?” A beat. Then, exasperated, “Then that’s not a suicide pact, Dad; it’s a murder-suicide.”
My father is a great TV watcher, and he keeps me abreast of the state of American television. Recently, he urged me to watch the U.S. reboot of the British reality show Married at First Sight, which, as the title suggests, introduces two willing strangers at the altar and marries them, albeit with the input of shrinks, matchmakers, sexperts, and various other professionals.
“It’s fascinating,” my dad assured me.
“I don’t want to watch that,” I said. “To see people either that lonely or that desperate to be on TV would only make me sad.”
“There’s that, of course,” he conceded, “but when you think about it, that’s how your great-grandparents met. And I’ve often wished I could arrange marriages for you and Charlie.” I prudently decided to not interpret this as a dig at any of our romantic partners. I suppose he wasn’t wrong about the matchmakers, but it does seem that, with parties of identical upbringings and cultural mores—not to mention not much premium placed on modern marital happiness—the shtetl varietal had a somewhat easier time of it. Read More