We all agreed it was a breakthrough, the singularity.— how high we go in the dark, p. 175
Category: short story collections
The reading pace has picked up! Self finished Olga Zilberbourg’s short story collection in four days. The stories in Like Water and Other Stories were absolutely fascinating: not just a record of an immigrant mother’s life in San Francisco, but an indelible record of Russian life in St. Petersburg. It was published three years ago by a small press, Why There Are Words, and is a really good example of why we need small presses.
Self’s current read is The Song of Achilles. Anyone who’s read The Odyssey knows about the tragic end of Achilles and his lover Patroclus (Self is wondering how the author is going to pull that off, since the point of view is Patroclus’s, in first person. In The Odyssey, Patroclus gets killed first, so who is going to narrate the death of Achilles, which happens soon after? She also hates novels with a first-person narrator who dies in the end. It seems like the biggest cheat. But for some reason, she is still reading The Song of Achilles)
As usual, the earthiness of the descriptions of gods and goddesses is part of what self finds so arresting about Madeline Miller’s writing. Achilles’ mother, the sea nymph Thestis, is downright scary. Much taller than any mortal, with eyes that are entirely black, flecked with gold. YIIIIIKES. And self always thought sea nymphs were supposed to be delicate and airy. NOT SO!
Chiron the centaur is huge, too, and the place where horse becomes human — that exact point where horse hide becomes human skin — is given such solidity in the descriptions. Achilles and Patroclus spend three years living with Chiron in a cave. Given how huge Chiron is, it’s a wonder he can move around in there, especially after the two boys move in with him, but move he does, because the cave is also his kitchen, and he cooks all the boys’ meals.
In one scene, Achilles is spirited away by his mother (because she knows about the hanky panky taking place between him and Patroclus in Chiron’s cave, after Chiron’s gone to sleep, LOL), and she hides him on an island that is ruled by a decrepit King and a very nubile Princess. Patroclus comes to the island in search of Achilles, and is entertained at dinner by the Princess and her dancing women. The Princess dances suggestively with one of the dancers in particular, and not until the dance is over and the women go up to the guests does Patroclus realize that the tall dancer is actually — yup, you guessed it: ACHILLES!
HAR HAR HAR!
Achilles immediately falls on Patroclus and introduces him to the Princess as “my husband.” Then Achilles reaches up and tears “the veil from his hair,” whereupon the Princess sets up the most infernal screaming, and the old King turns out not to be that decrepit because he looks dangerous, suddenly.
Self honestly does not know how Achilles got away with pretending to be a woman — isn’t he supposed to be covered with muscle, especially his chest? That scene is pure high comedy!
One has a child with one’s partner, a shared child, only to learn that the relationship with one’s child is individual, solely one’s own. The partner’s relationship with the child has little bearing, and only indirectly, on one’s own relationship with the child. The partner does make the child laugh. That can be shared. A good laugh – and then back to one’s own solitude, now with the child.— “One’s share” is part ot the collection like water and other stories (wtaw press, 2019)
The spring came on hard and much too early this year, which must be why the dimensions of reality shifted. It was a January afternoon in San Francisco. The sun was shining. I was on my way to pick up my son from pre-school, about to cross the street and enter a small undernourished park.
A shiny red jeep veered out of traffic. It made a left turn and pulled onto the crosswalk in front of me. The word “Rubicon” in blocky silver letters shone on its side. Behind the wheel was this kid I used to be close to in Russia, back in the 1990s, still seventeen on this day in 2018, the shock of chestnut hair cresting high over his forehead. On the sleeve of his overcoat snow was quickly melting. He leaned down and through the open window handed me a TDK compact cassette, the exact kind he and I used to exchange in high school.
About Olga Zilberbourg:
- She is the author of three Russian-language story collections. Her English-language fiction and criticism has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Narrative Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Common, and Electric Literature. Born in Leningrad, USSR, she studied at the Rochester Institute of Technology, the Goethe Institute in Germany, and San Francisco State University, where she earned an M.A. in Comparative Literature. She has worked as an associate editor at Narrative Magazine and currently lives in San Francisco with her family.
New book, started just today. It’s by a woman named Rebecca Donner, and the subject is her great-grandaunt, Mildred Harnack, who was married to a German, Arvid, whose fate is a family secret, because it was very bad: it seems she was imprisoned by Hitler and executed, and what family would want to talk about something like that?
Self only heard about Mildred Harnack from a book review in The Economist (August 2021). Self saved the review and now, finally, she holds in her hands All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler.
Mildred was from Wisconsin. She met Arvid when they were both students at the University of Wisconsin. In 1932, she was a part-time instructor at the University of Berlin, where she taught American Literary History.
It’s a good thing her great grandniece knows how to tell a story. She uses present tense, which hints that at least one of her goals is to make this story immersive: it’s not going to be a “Mildred did this, then Mildred did that” kind of thing. No, Rebecca’s actually going to put us in Berlin, which so happens to be a place self has visited, long ago, when she was invited to read from her book Mayor of the Roses by the House of World Culture. Just a few weeks ago, she was in Berlin again, this time April 1945 Berlin, through the eyes of Anonymous in A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City.
1932 Berlin is very different from 1945 Berlin (of course). Mildred would be two years dead by the time Anonymous began writing her diary (Self wonders if Anonymous would have heard of Mildred Harnack? Anonymous was a journalist, so in all probability she would have heard of Mildred’s arrest and execution). Here is Mildred walking through Berlin in 1932:
She reaches a wide boulevard: Unter den Linden. She turns right.
The boulevard takes its name from the profusion of linden trees flanking it, trees that are in full bloom now, cascades of tiny white blossoms perfuming the air she breathes. But all this beauty can’t mask the ugliness here. Swastikas are cropping up like daisies everywhere: on posters pasted to the walls of U-Bahn stations, on flags and banners and pamphlets. A white-haired, walrus-mustached man is leading the country right now, but just barely. President Paul von Hindenburg is eighty-four, tottering into senility. A politician half his age is growing in popularity, a high-school dropout named Adolf Hitler who, Mildred predicts, will bring “a great increase of misery and oppression.”All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, p. 16
Superior’s retired miners talk about “tommyknockers,” phantoms they encountered in the mine. Sometimes it was just a sensation — something you felt on your body, or a presence nearby. A Magma miner named John Sixsmith told friends he saw white boots, walking around without a body.— Chapter Six, Oak Flat: A Fight for Sacred Land in the American West
What an unusual book this is. It’s a book about the Southwest, and a book about mines, and it also has artwork — very simple illustrations (by the author) of her interview subjects. Self finds the art (and the text) very moving. Self just found out that the author received a MacArthur “genius” grant. (Also, her copy is overdue at the Library. Please, nobody out her, she’s having to cope with so many things right now; she snatches reading time in between keeping herself awake with coffee and Coke)
Stay safe, dear blog readers. Stay safe.
There’s still almost an hour before the game begins, so self can squeeze in a few more things. Self’s quote of the day is from Rebecca Thomas, Editor of ms. aligned 3: women writing about men. (Published by El Leon Literary Arts of Berkeley and Manoa Books)
For the past nine years, I have been teaching composition at West Virginia University. I primarily teach freshmen, and one of their first papers is a narrative. In so many of the narratives, students — of all genders — explore issues connected to masculinity, in particular the effects of toxic masculinity. I receive papers about abusive relationships in high school, peer pressure to act a certain way, loneliness in emotionally connecting with peers, and the very real risk and fallout from coming out. My students are young, so it’s natural that they write about their childhood, the childhood moments where they begin to construct their identity. In our class discussions and in their reflections, I see so many grappling with the concept of masculinity. How did it shape their life? How will it shape their life as they journey into adulthood?
In this Me Too era, it’s hard not to think about masculinity and how it can be toxic. Working on a college campus, I know that many of my students have been assaulted. I know that many of them are trying to find the space to talk about it, and I know that many of them are starting to test the waters of self-acceptance, to see if it’s safe to be who they are. Since I am the mother of two young boys, toxic masculinity is something that I have to consider constantly: how do we raise our children in this environment? What conversations do I need to have with my kids?
Contributors to ms. aligned 3, and series editor Pat Matsueda, will be on-hand at an online event hosted by Redwood City Library. Register here.