Alison Light’s Mrs. Woolf and the Servants

Recent reviews of Alison Light’s Mrs. Woolf and the Servants reveal a similar slant. This bias is a subtle turning away – momentary and understandable – from the hardships of the servants whom Light profiles. With unflinching care, Light looks at the women who worked for Virginia Woolf as domestics. The result is a profound, fascinating biography and one of the best books I have read in recent years.

Light takes us from Woolf’s Victorian childhood to her death in 1941. During these years in England, housework drastically changed because of the increased use of indoor plumbing and improvements in stoves. Early on in Virginia Woolf’s life, the servants around her not only lit and stoked fires but hauled water, both boiled and cold, up several flights of stairs. On their way down, they brought chamber pots to be “scoured in the ‘slop-room’ where the row of brass cans stood.” The work was filthy and hard – the water buckets each weighed around thirty pounds – and the labor denigrated by the upper classes.

Publicly Virginia Woolf spoke of women with sympathy, but privately she wrote about her female servants with viciousness. She once remarked in her journals: “The poor have no chance; no manners of self-control to protect themselves with; we have a monopoly of all of the generous feelings.” The comment was inspired by a request for a raise from her longtime servant, Lottie Hope, whom Woolf admitted “work[ed] like a horse.” The wages Woolf paid were often low.

Light presents Woolf’s classism matter-of-factly. I disagree with Claire Messud, who says in her review in The New York Times that Light is “surprisingly waspish about Virginia’s blindness to her snobberies.” It is Woolf’s own waspishness that delivers the shock. Light ends up creating a deeply sympathetic portrait of the author by showing Woolf’s real need for care. Messud goes on to note this sympathy, saying that Light is “quick to acknowledge, too, the mutual dependence of mistress and servant.”

This phrase about dependence recalls a line from Light’s book. About Woolf and her servant of eighteen years Nellie Boxall, Light writes: “This was a story of mutual &#8211 and unequal &#8211 dependence.” And indeed the dependence was lopsided. Woolf got more from Boxall than she returned in pay, and the two fought frequently. While these emotionally charged conflicts never put Woolf in danger of losing her home, they did for Boxall since she lived with her employer.

Boxall did have certain advantages working for the unconventional writer. She didn’t have to wear a uniform or address her employer as “ma’am.” Woolf clearly saw the benefits her servants enjoyed. In her essay “Character in Fiction,” she famously described the modern servant as being relatively free. She asserted that while the “Victorian cook lived like a leviathan in the lower depths,” the “Georgian cook” was “a creature of sunshine and fresh air; in and out of the drawing-room, now to borrow the Daily Herald, now to ask advice about a hat.”

Light quotes this passage, and so does Mona Simpson in her review of Light’s book for The Atlantic. About Nellie, Simpson wisely adds: “Part of the difficulty of the job must have been the emotional component that required her to act the part of an equal – a daughter or a friend – while bringing Woolf food on a tray and washing her chemises.”

Mona Simpson also empathizes with Woolf at other points in her review, which isn’t difficult; Light shows a deep understanding not only of Woolf’s psychology but her circumstances. She for instance talks about how the Woolfs were not rich when they married: “Nothing in those early years was secure, except for [Virginia’s] private income, and even that must stretch to cover two.”

Simpson brings up this financial insecurity while discussing the couple’s stance on plumbing. For years, the Woolfs refused to install flush toilets, a decision that certainly had to do with money, although in the case of Virginia’s father, Leslie Stephen, who came to the same decision, the choice was also a “moral” one: he found indoor plumbing “mildly corrupting.” About his and his daughter’s idea to go with chamber pots, Simpson remarks: “This must have been exceedingly frustrating for the servants, to whom the Stephens and the Woolfs seemed rich. Why wouldn’t these people pay for the new, sanitary plumbing?”

Ultimately Mona Simpson’s sympathy for the Woolfs in this instance is misplaced since, as Light explains, it wasn’t solely the couple’s refusal to update the WCs that caused problems with the servants. It was their frugality with plumbing coupled with their generosity about having houseguests. The guests needed meals, which they, in turn, transformed into material for the chamber pots, a kind of bookkeeping of the body that the servants understood all too well. They had to stand up to the Woolfs to get another worker brought into Asheham House, the couple’s home in Sussex. In the end, they prevailed, and someone was hired to help with “emptying the chamber-pots (at the most sociable times at Asheham the volume of such work makes one shudder).”

It is hard not to look away from these servants’ lives as these reviewers do at moments. With Messud, this shift comes with a subtle change of words, a loss of the idea of inequality in the discussion of “mutual dependence.” With Simpson, it entails a brief looking away from scatological details &#8211 an understandable reaction. The servants’ work, both its volume and quality, truly “makes one shudder.” If Light were to focus solely on this domestic work, the book would be almost impossible to read. She, however, also looks at Woolf’s struggle to reconcile her concept of personal freedom with her dependency on servants. The resulting analysis is riveting; most reviews have discussed it. But there is another equally absorbing element that has gone unexamined in the reviews I have seen: Light’s analysis of how the servants coped.

And here Light looks at laughter. The servants of Bloomsbury, when interviewed for the B.B.C. in the 1950s, laughed frequently while recounting life with the Woolfs. Nellie Boxall and Lottie Hope shaped an account of the home that at times turned farcical. Lottie, describing mornings with the couple, spoke of having “to clean while Mr Woolf took his bath behind a curtain, then breakfasted, and the same performance all over again while Mrs Woolf took hers.” Nellie then interjected, “Yes, it was bread one end and bath the other!” And both of them laughed. In the final broadcast, though, both the laugher and the comments were edited down, causing Light to speculate: “Too much like saying, perhaps, that the Emperor had no clothes.”

Light, looking at the Emperor, creates a profound portrait of disparate lives: Virginia Woolf’s, Nettie Boxall’s, Lottie Hope’s. Some readers may flinch at the hardship behind the servants’ humor; others may not want to hear the laughter itself, even though Light describes it with complex beauty. About another servant, Happy Sturgeon, who also laughed during her interview, Light writes: “Her laugher was…that of a survivor. A defense against the painful feelings these memories might stir…She laughed with relief, but anyone who wanted to understand what it was like to be in service might listen to the laughter as much as words.” Happy’s pain was as hard as her humor. At the end of her life, she and her husband, also born into poverty, found some justice too. As Happy explained: “We’ve got all the material things we want, and we’ve got family – ’cause he had the same sort of experience – poor little boy on the farm &#8211 ‘open that gate, boy, or you get the riding crop across your shoulders’, you know – [she laughs].”

Originally posted on 5.17.2009

Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men

I was reminded recently, when coming in from the cold, of a chill from Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men. So I reread the classic book of black folk tales, waiting for that chill to come. It arrives in the form of some practical advice from an older man named Dad Boykin. Dad interrupts the storytelling going on around him to explain how best to get warm. What my mind did with his advice since I last read Mules and Men is a story in itself. Or the absence of a story, a cold shutting-out of folk tales.

“You young poots won’t lissen to nothin’!” Dad interjects soon after someone else tells a story about “de King of de Beasts,” the lion. What Dad has to say has nothing to do with these sorts of magical animals found throughout the book. His words are purely pragmatic: “Not a one of you knows how to warm hisself right and youse so hard-headed you don’t want to be teached.” He goes on to advise sitting right in front of a fireplace, not off in the “chimbley corner.” And from the center, it’s best to turn around &#8211 “dat’s to knock de breezes offen yo’ back.”

It chilled me years ago to listen to Dad describe just how the body gets cold when exposed to wind. “You know, all de time youse outside in the weather, de li’l breezes and winds is jumpin’ on yo’ back and crawlin’ down yo’ neck, to hide.” It still chills me, although not as much. When I was younger, I saw Dad’s advice as a long-winded, cold interruption of the fantastic tales. I wanted to hear more about talking animals and God and the devil. When I reread the book, I was surprised to find that Dad speaks for only a few paragraphs. His monologue was longer in my memory. His words had acted like “li’l breezes and winds” that had hid inside my mind and spread.

So here is my advice: When a book comes to you in a shiver, reread it and see how it has changed while hiding inside of you.

Originally posted on 2.9.2009

Inger Frimansson’s Good Night, My Darling

I first heard of Good Night, My Darling by Swedish author Inger Frimansson through Small Press Distribution. At the S.P.D. site, a listing for the recently translated novel says that Frimansson “is considered by many to be Sweden’s premier author of the psychological thriller.” As a longtime fan of one of the masters of this genre, Patricia Highsmith, I couldn’t resist getting the book, and, as it turns out, the novel evokes Highsmith when it comes to the consciousness of its killer.

Highsmith famously created murderers who seem normal rather than overtly troubled. The violence always makes good sense from the killer’s point of view. One can understand, for instance, why Vic Van Allen &#8211 small-press publisher and snail-enthusiast from Highsmith’s novel Deep Water &#8211 drowns the man who has been sleeping with his wife. The two men are in a pool so the water is handy. Vic has been watching his wife cheat on him for a long time, and his method of coping &#8211 looking at the situation with a sense of irony that creeps like a snail &#8211 only aggravates his disgust.

In Good Night, My Darling, Frimansson gives us a protagonist as oddly passive as Vic. An heiress to a candy fortune, Justine Dalvig has an air of desperate sweetness that doesn’t serve her well as a child. When girls at school bully her, she plies them with candy, which only encourages them in their vicious behavior. While trying to escape their cruelty one afternoon, she ends up breaking an ankle and yet still isn’t angry. Frimansson describes Justine’s reaction to the cast on her leg in the stark style found throughout the novel: “Her leg was put in a cast that reached up to her knee. She felt heavy and happy.”

Justine’s ankle continues to cause her problems as an adult. In the opening of the novel, she is struggling with this old injury and other hidden psychological ones. The narrative is layered with several points of view, including that of Flora, the stepmother who abused Justine as a child. Slowly, as the various characters sift through their memories, Justine’s difficult past comes into view. Frimansson portrays all of these characters, including Flora, with insightful sympathy. As a young bride, Flora tries to win over her new stepdaughter with a present &#8211 “a very nice doll, one that she herself would have wanted when she was a girl.” When Justine rejects the offering, the vain, pretty Flora, who often is described in doll-like terms &#8211 her eyes are “porcelain”; her husband calls her “my little doll” &#8211 takes the rejection so personally that she begins to beat the child.

By the time the first murder takes place, moral lines have been blurred so much that killing seems perfectly normal. The conditions are just right, the weapon on hand and easy to use. The motive is as solid from a psychological point of view as frustrated Vic Van Allen’s is when he holds his rival’s head under the pool. With her layered approach, Frimansson achieves one of the hardest goals of fiction: to make the plot seem like the inevitable result of both events and numerous choices shaped, in part, by character.

Where the book falters has to do with gender. Women tend to reach for poison when they kill, not just because, as a group, they spend more time in the kitchen than homicidal men. They also don’t have as much upper-body strength. Not many women, even if pumped up on a heavy dose of adrenaline and malice, would attempt some of the feats that Frimansson ascribes to a female character. Some of the violence in the last third of the book is improbably athletic. In fact, in a couple of places, the killing would come off as ridiculous were it not so tastefully described.

But here is just one suspicious stain on an otherwise wonderful thriller. I recommend the book to anyone as great reading for the holidays. This new English translation put out by Pleasure Boat Studio has a picture on the cover of a sweet young woman and a bird. (Justine has a large bird, rescued from the wild, as a pet.) With its innocent cover, the book provides a great place to hide for the holiday traveler. Instead of getting upset about delayed planes or family conflicts, just open the pages and watch the bodies pile up.

Originally posted on 12.25.2008

Robert K. Wallace’s Douglass and Melville: Anchored Together in Neighborly Style

The “style” in the subtitle of Robert K. Wallace’s Douglass and Melville: Anchored Together in Neighborly Style refers to a line from Herman Melville’s novella “Benito Cereno.” Melville writes of a couple of ships have just come to shore: “To be brief, the two vessels, thanks to the pilot’s skill, ere long in neighborly style lay anchored together.” Wallace explores a proximity between Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass not unlike that of the ships. Early in their public lives, the men lived not far from each other in three cities: New Bedford, Albany and New York.

Did they ever meet? There is no evidence they did. But Wallace sets out to show that the men knew each other’s work. The thesis is simple to prove when it comes to Douglass’s awareness of Melville. In his newspaper the North Star, Douglass published a portion of Melville’s book Typee. Also included in the paper in the 1850s were references to both Melville’s novel Moby Dick and his novella “Israel Potter.”

It is harder to show Melville’s knowledge of Douglass’s speeches and writings. Wallace tries with a detailed, clear analysis of the men’s work. Looking at Douglass’s famous lecture about “Self-Help” alongside Moby Dick, Wallace suggests the former profoundly influenced the latter. Douglass gave his lecture in New York in 1849 when Melville was living in the City too. The day after Douglass gave the speech, a local paper, the Herald, quoted some of his words: “Colored people are now beginning to exercise their gifts. They are now in a position to be heard. But we have no organization among ourselves, in the Ishmaelitish situation in which we are.” Did this reference to Ishmael, the outcast son of Abraham, later shape both the name and perspective of the narrator of Moby Dick? Wallace thinks so: “When Melville’s narrator invites his reader to ‘Call me Ishmael,’ he identifies with Douglass and other black Americans in the ‘Ishmaelitish situation’ while also declaring his own separation from the mainstream white American culture.”

The fictional Ishmael may have lived apart from this culture while on a racially integrated ship; Melville, however, was caught in the mechanics of white supremacy. His father-in-law, Chef Justice Shaw in Massachusetts, enforced the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The law directly threatened ex-slaves like Frederick Douglass by sending them back south. To get beyond the reach of the law, Douglass had to purchase his own freedom with money from friends in England.

Still Melville, in spite of his morally compromised position, managed to address a black readership in his time. Wallace, a Melville scholar, makes some of his most interesting points when discussing how the author accomplished this task. Wallace says Melville developed “a double vision” that allowed him to talk to white and black audiences at the same time. Wallace further explains: “Melville symbolizes his own double vision in ‘The Sperm Whale’s Head’ in Moby Dick, imploring his reader to develop the imaginative equivalent of the whale’s optical ability to see in ‘exactly opposite directions’ in one combining act of vision.”

To expand upon this idea: in “Benito Cereno,” a story about a slave insurrection, this double vision comes together like two ships moving into shore. They arrive with different crews, navigated separately, but come together, “thanks to the pilot’s skill.” Melville, writing with his unique sense of mystery, gives the vessels one pilot, like a lowercase god.

Originally posted on 10.29.2008

A Scrooge Plan Growing in July

After much consideration about how best to sell out, I have decided to become a propagandist for the Raw Foods Movement. I know about the movement, being a “raw foodist.” (That is what we call ourselves.) I can sprinkle my fictional scenes with details that show how a diet of uncooked food dramatically improves health. But how can I make money off my convincing propaganda? This question has sent me to an unlikely place: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Reworking Dickens’ novella, I have created a story that promotes the eating of raw foods while reinforcing the values of the rich. Through the story, which I am offering for free on this website, I want to attract the attention of wealthy raw foodists. Some famous ones include Woody Harrelson, Demi Moore and Carol Alt. The diet generally enjoys more popularity on the West Coast than it does here in the East, probably because of the warmer weather. Cold food seems like a cruel way to go on a snowy night. Also the diet ran into an image problem in New York when one of its proponents and chefs, Dan Hoyt, got caught masturbating on the R train. Surely the raw food way of life could use some good press for the sake of its spas and retreats. I am hoping that a holistic businessperson will find his way to my work and ask me to create more propaganda for the cause.

While I am reluctant to give away my work for free, I am as desperate as author Dubravka Ugresic was a few years back when she offered to put a Miele vacuum cleaner in one of her novels for a price. The offer appeared in 2003 in her collection of essays Thank You for Not Reading. While stating her case, she gave a mini endorsement when she called Miele “the Mercedes of household appliances.” I assume that she received no compensation for the phrase.

I would offer to do product placement myself but want to give more. I must give more. My diet costs a lot, what with all of the produce and the shopping trips. Produce after all has a mere blip of a shelf life compared to pasta and jarred sauce. Furthermore, conditions for fiction writers have declined since Ugresic made her pitch. Recently I read Anne Elizabeth Moore’s Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing and the Erosion of Integrity and learned of how creative artists are selling out for next to nothing these days. Some product placement here and there won’t cut it in today’s market. Anyway, a few fruits and vegetables thrown around a story would be more messy than illustrative and persuasive; truly I have picked a movement that requires an elaborate sell.

And so without further ado, here is “A Raw Christmas,” a short, fresh story.

A Raw Christmas

The ghost of Jacob Marley enters the bedroom of his old business partner Scrooge. He shakes the chains he is wearing, having forged the links over a lifetime of usury.

Scrooge is bored with the ghost. Having the Mercedes of home entertainment centers [insert brand name here], he is accustomed to vivid illusions. His mind wanders. The poor, blah, blah, blah. The real poor people are in other countries – India, Africa. All of the “poor” in the U.S. are inexcusably fat.

But Scrooge pretends to care. He knows he is in A Christmas Carol. He prides himself on his self-awareness and believes that it &#8211 and not acts of generosity &#8211 will be his ultimate salvation.

Marley, obviously confusing Scrooge’s boredom with disbelief, says, “You don’t believe in me.”

Scrooge says the line Dickens wrote for him: “I don’t.”

“Why do you doubt your senses?”

Scrooge continues to try to stick to the script: “Because a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

After Marley leaves, Scrooge realizes that he messed up this line about the gravy and the grave. He forgot to say that Marley could also be “a fragment of an underdone potato.” His mistake ultimately leads him to raw foods. He comes to learn that Marley is not “underdone potato” but overdone. Those ghosts bothering him about 25 percent interest rates on student loans are indeed “more of gravy than of grave.” His digestion is seriously overtaxed from cooked foods.

Scrooge changes his diet and feels better right away. No longer is he bothered by ghosts or, for that matter, thoughts of his first wife. That self-righteous woman had a tongue like a knife when she got home from the soup kitchen. (“Of course you’ve figured out what story you’re in, genius! Your name is Ebenezer Scrooge!”) Now she is a distant memory. She is stuck among the bitter, worrying about “the poor,” while he has moved on. He is healing, his heart having so improved that Viagra is no longer contraindicated in his case.

Originally posted on 7.14.2008

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Not having much time to post here, I wanted to write something brief about Frankenstein, which I reread a few weeks ago. Midway through the book, I realized I had forgotten a major piece of the plot. I couldn’t remember what happens when the monster asks the scientist Frankenstein to make him a female companion. I knew the woman monster never gets completed, but I couldn’t remember why.

As the moment approached in the story for the female to come to life, I tried to guess why she never does. I told myself that it pertained to Frankenstein’s skills as a scientist. He doesn’t know how to make a woman even though he has tried his best to find out. He has traveled to England to learn about “some discoveries” that are “material” to his project. But in the end he doesn’t learn enough about the female form – or so I speculated as Frankenstein started to make a woman out of dead flesh.

Imagine my surprise when he starts to tear up this woman before he has finished. The male monster, who has come to check on Frankenstein’s progress, watches the body being destroyed. The hideous and lonely monster has been promised a mate, but Frankenstein goes back on his word: “I thought with a sensation of madness on my promise of creating another like to him, and trembling with passion, tore to pieces the thing on which I was engaged.”

I was going to write about the sensation of reading this passage, of seeing my own amnesia while watching, like the monster, the half-formed female being ripped apart. But as I said before, I don’t have much time to spend on this blog entry. I am busy writing a manuscript right now, and the sensations I felt while reading the scene would take a while to describe. The feelings were as profoundly weird as the body that gave rise to them.

Which brings me to another point about this book that surprised me this time around: I forgot that Frankenstein builds the monster to a huge scale in the interest of finishing quickly. “As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature; that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionally large.” So in honor of Frankenstein, who learned the hard way about haste – his monster does get him in the end; I didn’t forget that part – I will end this comment here.

Originally posted on 5.22.2008

Ha Jin’s A Free Life

In this blog, I have tried to focus on books that haven’t been reviewed much elsewhere. It’s usually easy to do since many of the books I like come from small presses and don’t get a lot of attention. The novel I want to write about now, however, comes from Random House and has been reviewed widely. Many critics have made similar points about A Free Life by National Book Award winner Ha Jin. The author uses mundane details to tell the story of a Chinese immigrant and his family. Walter Kirn in The New York Times calls the pace of this realistic narrative “slow, implacable and steady.” Previous books by Ha Jin have not been heavy on plot &#8211 his best-known novel is aptly entitled Waiting &#8211 but the slowness here is more noticeable since A Free Life is over six hundred pages. Reviewers have mentioned many of the strengths of this long, meditative book. Kirn remarks on “the Zen-like composure” of the prose while Jennifer Reese in Entertainment Weekly praises the author’s ability to speak “directly to the readers’ heart.” But what compels me to write about A Free Life went unexamined in the reviews that I read.

This omission isn’t surprising since what interests me unfolds in the later chapters of the book. To explore it in a review, therefore, is to risk revealing too much plot. I promise not to do that.

What I will do is touch upon Jin’s use of poetry near the end of the book. At the center of A Free Life is an aspiring poet, Nan Wu, who comes to the U.S. from China in the 1980s. In the beginning of the novel, he leaves Brandeis University where he has been studying political science. His goal is to get a job where he can think about poetry while at work.

But Nan doesn’t just have to support himself; he also has a wife and son to consider. After leaving Brandeis, he works as a security guard and then as a busboy and cook. In a matter of months he has lost some of the thinking that he brought with him from his communist homeland: “he was no longer ashamed of working hard to make a dollar.” With constant work and prudent savings, the Wus achieve financial security relatively quickly for new immigrants. Unfortunately, Nan’s dream of writing poetry ends up getting buried beneath his need to make money.

When this need grows less intense, Nan turns his attention back to what he really wants to do. As he starts to focus on poetry, a curious picture emerges. Ha Jin shows us the largely academic workings of American poetry &#8211 MFA programs, prizes and the importance of having connections to famous poets &#8211 from the unique point of view of his protagonist. Nan’s perspective has been shaped by communist China, capitalist America and the poetry of both countries. He is erudite and idealistic, and these factors come together to give him a fascinating take on both the individual vision of the poet and the paying community of the MFA workshop.

Ha Jin is not only a novelist but a poet, and he draws upon his dual skills to tell this story. As a novelist, he shows how Nan’s choices shape the future; and as a poet, he creates the work that Nan, inspired by unfolding events, comes to write. The result is a moving book that explores the relationship between the many aspects of a poet’s life &#8211 working, personal, professional &#8211 and the work that he creates.

A Free Life is not without its flaws. John Updike in his review in The New Yorker does a thorough job of discussing a jarring one: Ha Jin, who is not a native English speaker, uses odd words here and there. Updike quotes a number of them in his review. These occasional slips, though, do not detract from the book’s emotional depth and cultural relevance. With A Free Life, Ha Jin contributes to the ongoing conversation about how poetry and literature are being produced in America.

I am looking forward to hearing him read at the AWP Conference in two weeks.

Originally posted on 1.18.2008

Sarah Schulman on Publishing

In a new article in Slate, author Sarah Schulman talks about how U.S. publishers are taking on very few lesbian novels. Back in the nineties, Schulman could see how the culture was becoming more conservative. In her 1998 book Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America, she discussed the ways in which the straight mainstream was both appropriating and excluding the work of lesbian writers.

For more of Schulman’s perspective on the book business, visit the Wikipedia entry for her. Make sure to scroll down to the heading “Unpublished Books.” There you’ll find a list of recent work that Schulman completed but couldn’t get published. Judging from the short plot descriptions provided, I would love to read all of these books.

Update 5/22/2008: The “Unpublished Books” section has changed at the Wikipedia entry mentioned above. In the updated version, one book is listed instead of several. The section now reads: “[Schulman] is currently working on The Twist: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences, a book establishing Familial Homophobia (a phrase she coined) as a fundamental social dynamic in the lives of everyone who lives in a family.”

Originally posted in Fall, 2007

Lore Segal’s Other People’s Houses

Like her first book Other People’s Houses &#8211 a novel that reads like a memoir &#8211 Lore Segal’s newest work Shakespeare’s Kitchen has an unusual, shifting form. On the surface, it seems like a collection of short stories about an immigrant from Vienna, Ilka Weisz, and the friendships she develops while teaching at a think tank associated with a college in Connecticut. Ilka comes to the Concordance Institute from New York City where she has been living since she came to the U.S. She is alone and determined to find friends or “elective cousins” (Segal’s twist on the German word Wahlverwandschaften, commonly translated as “elective affinities”).

Ilka’s need for these “cousins” is connected to loss. She left Austria because of World War II and no longer has her extended family near her. But the narrative of her search for friends is often light because of Segal’s approach to her material. In an author’s note, she refers to Ilka’s quest for a new social group as a “sometime-comedy.”

The humor of the comedy is both dry and quick, especially in “An Absence of Cousins,” the second story in the book. In it, Ilka finds herself calling up strangers who live in Concordance. The phone numbers she’s dialing come from various friends and acquaintances back in New York. And one of the numbers is from a man whose name Ilka can’t recall: “[She] was dialing the number of the woman who had dated the man whose name Ilka was never able to remember, so she was relieved when they didn’t answer.” Still she persists. “She dialed the number Leina Shapiro had given her. They didn’t answer. She dialed Jacquelyn Rosen’s number and when they didn’t answer, Ilka felt snubbed.”

Soon her efforts pay off. As she starts to find her “cousins” at the institute, the stories in the book come together like chapters in a novel. These chapters are connected like a small group of witty friends: they keep mentioning the same people, the same events. Ilka starts spending time around Leslie Shakespeare, who heads up the institute, and his wife Eliza. Guests in the Shakespeare’s home tend to gather in the kitchen where Eliza cooks and “keep[s] conversation flying like some high-wire act.”

Segal is remarkably honest in her fiction. Her characters have common flaws which the author renders matter-of-factly. The result is brave, fascinating fiction that makes the characters in most other novels look like prim, false things around the edges. Segal discusses her frankness in a recent interview in Bomb magazine in which she tells playwright and novelist Han Ong: “I believe in a community of rottenness and a community of goodness. There’s nothing I can tell you about myself to which your understanding does not have access.”

This “community of rottenness” rears its head after some minor thefts occur at the institute. Leslie Shakespeare calls a meeting of the faculty to discuss the problem. One solution offered is to rebuild an old wall that surrounds the college. “Put a layer of cement on it and embed broken glass,” suggests a police officer present at the meeting. The idea is to keep people who live in a nearby housing project off of the campus. (The wall also would keep these people from easily getting to the supermarket.) The talk that ensues is like broken glass with people making small, cutting remarks. “Something had to be done about the project,” someone says, which prompts another person to say, “I always wanted to fund a project project.” Here we find the same wit that enlivens the Shakespeare’s home but now it seems like glass embedded in the concrete reality of class prejudice.

Ilka argues against putting up a wall. Unlike Eliza Shakespeare, who has a sharp tongue and a lack of compassion, Ilka is a sympathetic character, at least in the first half of the book. In the second half, she is transformed by the people around her. Segal draws upon Goethe’s novel Elective Affinities to show how the attraction between people in a group can be a powerful force. It can pull apart marriages, rearrange couplings. Acting upon Ilka and the people around her, this force simultaneously creates and destroys. By the last story, the attraction that initially drew Ilka to her group of friends is pulling her apart.

Ultimately the form of Shakespeare’s Kitchen is charged with the energy of its dynamic subject. In her author’s note, Segal says that when she started the book, she had “a theme in search of a plot”: she wanted to write about the human need for a “circle made of friends, acquaintances, and the people one knows.” From this beginning, she ended up creating a masterful collection of short stories held together by a charge, an affinity, that draws the reader toward the book’s surprising end.

And sometimes too the book reads like a novel, the story of a woman, being pulled apart.

Originally posted on 8.29.2007

Maureen Webb’s Illusions of Security: Global Surveillance and Democracy in the Post-9/11 World

George Bush is fond of saying, “9/11 changed everything.” Hidden beneath this expression are the specific ways in which the U.S. government has transformed since the twin towers fell. In her book Illusions of Security: Global Surveillance and Democracy in the Post-9/11 World, civil-liberties lawyer Maureen Webb takes a look at some of these changes. In clear, direct language, Webb reveals what Bush is not so fond of talking about: how the U.S. government is now practicing torture and spying on most of its citizens.

Webb is detailed in her treatment of her subject. She names the locations of many U.S. prisons around the world and discusses the specific ways in which detainees are tortured. Her descriptions can be harsh in their simplicity. At one point, the book provides a sidebar in which methods of abuse such as “torture with a chair” are defined. The U.S. government, in effect, is using these techniques by sending people to countries that permit torture, a practice known as “extraordinary rendition.”

Webb examines one of the most well-known cases of extraordinary rendition, that of Canadian citizen Maher Arar. U.S. officials apprehended Arar while he was waiting for a connecting flight at Kennedy Airport. Denied access to a lawyer, Arar could not find out the charges being brought against him. He was sent to Syria where he was forced into making false confessions. Webb says: “Among other things, he was told to write that he had attended a training camp in Afghanistan. When he objected, he was kicked and threatened with torture with the ‘tire.'” For ten months, Arar suffered abuse, never learning why he was being held. The truth was that no reason for his detainment existed. Webb writes: “Neither Canada, the United States, nor Syria ever had any evidence that Maher Arar was involved in terrorism or any other crime.”

Webb explores the connection between such abuses and U.S. policy under the Bush administration. She talks about how after 9/11 the administration became concerned with “‘preempting’ or ‘disrupting’ terrorist plots before they happened.” She believes that this focus on the “preemption of risk” has caused a “profound policy shift in law enforcement and security intelligence.” The concern has become less with “specific risks” that entail “specific leads on specific suspects.” Instead, the government is taking sweeping measures that violate the rights of the individual. She cites Bush’s domestic eavesdropping program as an example of such a measure. She reminds the reader that, under the program, the government is “essentially wiretapping the majority of people in the country.”

But the wiretapping program brings up questions about the casual relationship between 9/11 and a more invasive government. Bloomberg reported in June of 2006 that the National Security Agency (NSA) wanted to start wiretapping domestically before September 11. The agency contacted AT&T about setting up the program seven months prior to the attacks. This information goes against Bush’s claim, which Webb cites, that he conceived of the program as a way of preventing another strike against the U.S. Webb doesn’t mention the Bloomberg article.

She also neglects to say that the U.S. used extraordinary rendition before 9/11. She only refers to this fact implicitly near the end of the book when she quotes a CIA agent named Bob Baer. Baer covertly worked in the Middle East up until the mid-1990s when Clinton was still in office. Webb quotes him as saying: “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear &#8211 never to see them again &#8211 you send them to Egypt.”

Certainly, September 11 ushered in more illegal surveillance and torture, but the U.S. government was having problems obeying the law, especially in its dealings with Al-Qaeda, prior to the attacks. Webb doesn’t talk about these problems, but she does say that 9/11 has brought about changes that “law enforcement and intelligence agencies have been wanting for years.” She says that the attacks brought about “preventative policing and secret service work on steroids.”

She also warns us that the government is only planning on increasing surveillance in the coming years. Her chapters on new forms of personal ID show a future with even less privacy. She talks about Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips, which quite possibly could make their way into future passports and other kinds of ID. These chips can be read from far enough away that the government “may soon be able to track us wherever we go and scan us wherever we meet together.” And the U.S. government is showing an interest in tracking people. “Among the ideas being tested by the Department of Homeland Security is a technology that would allow the scanning of up to fifty-five passengers on a bus passing through a border point at about fifty mph.”

Here and throughout Illusions of Security, Webb unflinchingly returns the stare of the U.S. government and reports on what she finds. Usually, it’s invasiveness. In the case of what happened on September 10, 2001, it also seems to be either incompetence or an inability to deal with the amount of information that was being gathered at the time. Webb writes: “The Al Qaeda messages that were reported intercepted by the NSA on September 10, 2001 (‘Tomorrow is zero hour,’ ‘The match is about to begin’), were not translated until days later. Three years after the attacks, more than 120,000 hours of recorded telephone calls had yet to be translated by the FBI.” Webb leaves the reader with the impression that what the U.S. government needs is not more surveillance but a better understanding of its enemies.

Originally posted on 6.14.2007