Tuesday, October 31, 2023

the last book I ever read (Onlookers: Stories by Ann Beattie, excerpt eleven)

from Onlookers: Stories by Ann Beattie:

She drove past the theater where her nephew had acted in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days when the actor who played Willie came down with meningitis. When she went to the performance, she realized, she’d been wearing the same coat she was wearing now, which she’d left folded on the seat reserved for Case, though he hadn’t been able to make it, working late on his upcoming trial. She remembered Ashton’s saying that in England, willie was slang for penis. It had been distressing, seeing Jonah in that play. In a way, it only slightly exaggerated how unemotive he already was, put upon by the chattering, heartless Winnie, whose name—now that she thought of it—might have come from the sound horses make. What staging! Jonah and the actress had been plunged into matching mounds, painted to look like duplicate heads of Donald Trump, so that the audience instantly understood the political implications of everything they heard. Hadn’t Beckett been one of those playwrights who insisted on having things staged exactly as he wished? Though, of course, he was dead.

Monday, October 30, 2023

the last book I ever read (Onlookers: Stories by Ann Beattie, excerpt ten)

from Onlookers: Stories by Ann Beattie:

If I’d been Dawn, I’d have opted for a thick fringe of bangs to cover my too-high forehead. Otherwise, she was pretty. I didn’t know what to say. I found myself taking out my phone, saying, “Let me show you something.”

Saturday, October 28, 2023

the last book I ever read (Onlookers: Stories by Ann Beattie, excerpt nine)

from Onlookers: Stories by Ann Beattie:

Charlottesville was a changed town when I got back. The entire nation knew what had happened at Lee Park. It was hard to think of it by any other name. After what was in retrospect a too-long period of contemplation, it had been decided that the statues must be removed. There was even greater pressure to do the same thing in Richmond. It was going on all over. In Charlottesville, everybody had an opinion—living in the South was synonymous with having an opinion—though the bottom line had become that the provocative reminders of the South’s shameful status quo of slavery must disappear.

Friday, October 27, 2023

the last book I ever read (Onlookers: Stories by Ann Beattie, excerpt eight)

from Onlookers: Stories by Ann Beattie:

I was fifteen and knew nothing about photography; certainly, no one in the family hung photographs on their walls. There were only framed snapshots placed here and there. I had, therefore, never heard of Diane Arbus. Esther Straighter, Alice’s birding companion, also came to the house for the first time that day. The next door neighbor stopped by with cookies and swore that she had no idea why she’d been left a vacuum cleaner.

“What’s that supposed to be?” Kay asked, standing beside me, frowning up at the framed photograph.

What we were looking at was a woman in a wheelchair—I assumed it was a woman—who sat in front of a house onto which trees cast shadows. She was wearing a witch’s hat, and held a mask to her face that made it look like she had many missing teeth, pointed eyebrows, and a big nose with widely flared nostrils.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

the last book I ever read (Onlookers: Stories by Ann Beattie, excerpt seven)

from Onlookers: Stories by Ann Beattie:

A light atop the truck arriving from the local TV station illuminated the statue. All these protests had begun after the white nationalists gathered at Lee Park in 2017, and would continue until every monument had been viewed in the most skeptical light. Someone carried a sign that jabbed the darkness, though it was raised and lowered too fast to read. Two figures linked arms and briefly danced in a circle, like a Cuisinart blade whose purpose was to turn everything to pulp. It was an open question as to whether the statue of Jefferson, the father of the University of Virginia, would remain standing on the Grounds. Her thoughts raced. It was certainly possible the sculpture would be taken down, even if Jefferson was not, at the moment, in complete exile. She couldn’t fail to see the situation from another perspective that was at once valid and ludicrous; maybe a dirigible with Sally Hemings’s face on the side could hover above the heart of the place as a reminder of the way things had really been, her visage looming above the grassy lawn that stretched between the Rotunda and Cabell Hall. She could look down on everything, like Dr. T. J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

the last book I ever read (Onlookers: Stories by Ann Beattie, excerpt six)

from Onlookers: Stories by Ann Beattie:

She began to fall into her new routine of teaching. She didn’t like the long walk to the building (barricades everywhere, even if you were on foot; if you were driving, forget it), but the students’ generally alert manner (eight were female, four were male) was encouraging. She told them she was happy to be there, because it had gotten her out of having to explain The Waves, a notably complex book by Virginia Woolf. After class, Lauren Li asked where she stood regarding Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, vs. Mrs. Dalloway. (Later, though she had assigned nothing by Raymond Carver, Lauren had asked what she thought about Gordon Lish’s “extreme” editing of Carver’s stories.)

Soon the semester was half over. (Her initial condition for continuing had been that she could add some books she liked and forget about The Executioner’s Song; no one could care what tree the murderer Gary Gilmore would be, and the book was interminable.) This day, when class ended, she’d started down the hall, when Fritz came up behind her. He wanted to know if he could ask her a personal question.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

the last book I ever read (Onlookers: Stories by Ann Beattie, excerpt five)

from Onlookers: Stories by Ann Beattie:

They’d been at this ridiculous task too long, Case was saying. And why did people not call when they said they would? This rarely happened when there were landlines, but a cell phone apparently provided the opportunity to blame technology. Was there, or was there not, a problem about the potential resettling of Richmond’s statue of Robert E. Lee? He did the windup to the pitch and threw another bulb. He agreed entirely: Jonah shouldn’t be wasting his time trying to plant flowers that might or might not bloom, considering climate change. That asshole, Case was saying, who ran off with that polo player—they deserved to be ruled by Boris Fucking Johnson, who was nothing but another tarted-up Trump on Halloween. Case strode off, frowning furiously.

Well, that was cool, at least: his uncle totally got the relationship between Boris Johnson and Trump.

Monday, October 23, 2023

the last book I ever read (Onlookers: Stories by Ann Beattie, excerpt four)

from Onlookers: Stories by Ann Beattie:

Springtime would be such a—what was the cliché?—a riot of color. Or was that fall? The redbuds would be blooming along the highway—the South’s weedy equivalent of dandelions. After today, Jonah doubted he’d ever see Delusional Folly again.

But that wasn’t what bothered him. What really worried him was that he’d never be as good a writer as Sam Shepard, who’d lived not very far from where Jonah was right this minute, back when Sam Shepard was with Jessica Lange. They’d lived there, and Jonah never even knew it.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

the last book I ever read (Onlookers: Stories by Ann Beattie, excerpt three)

from Onlookers: Stories by Ann Beattie:

Monica had been an employee at a lamp store that sold and repaired new and antique fixtures. The owner, Sterling Schuler, had closed up shop shortly after she left. How that job could have been fun, Jonah couldn’t imagine. Sterling had made the bad decision—the images of blazing fires in California proved it—to leave Charlottesville for LA, where he hoped to restart his earlier (much earlier) career as a character actor. Jonah could understand that impulse, though at twenty-two he was too young to have anything that he might restart. To stay chuffed, Jonah tried to imagine himself an already famous playwright, one who wryly considered the strange actions of others, while wearing an assortment of fabulous scarves.

Friday, October 20, 2023

the last book I ever read (Onlookers: Stories by Ann Beattie, excerpt two)

from Onlookers: Stories by Ann Beattie:

Bronwyn thought nothing would alert anyone. That they didn’t want to be alerted. “Paul Revere has been replaced by misinformation shouted shrilly on Facebook,” Bronwyn said. Ginny was as taken aback as everyone else, though she admired how forceful the woman was. Bronwyn insisted there were more Trump sympathizers than anyone realized, and that worse was sure to happen next time.

“Charlottesville’s always congratulating itself,” she said, “and if it can’t do that, its default position is to be noble and brave, like the whole incident was out of a Hemingway novel, the running of the bulls in Pamplona—except that no red flag was being waved, only the flag of the Confederacy, and it was a young woman who’d gotten killed, not a tortured animal. And after the chaos in Lee Park everyone went away, commended by the president of the United States. Read James Baldwin,” Bronwyn had said. “The Fire Next Time.”

After one such evening, Ginny asked Robbie (he again in the Barbour jacket he preferred to his robe; she in his fleece jacket, pulled on because it was the nearest warm garment) if he thought that once summer came, more people would want to socialize the way they had in the past, or if they’d still be too anxious, even with the vaccine, to attend an outdoor concert or go see a movie. He smiled and asked if she was contemplating making her own “great escape,” and asked how his son really seemed to her, how she was doing herself, because he was quite aware, living in such a literary town, of the writer’s struggle.

“One midnight sake doth not a drunken Faulkner make,” she’d replied.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

the last book I ever read (Onlookers: Stories by Ann Beattie, excerpt one)

from Onlookers: Stories by Ann Beattie:

“You knew him?” At Cornell, she’d read a book Steegmuller had written about Flaubert. It had been assigned by her favorite professor, Alison Lurie, who was lucky enough to spend winters in Key West. She’d probably known the anagrams players. Robbie actually knew the biographer? How amazing.

“Friend of Peter Taylor’s. Our local Charlottesville writer—those times he wasn’t off at Harvard. You know Peter Taylor’s work?

“My friend Jeannette’s a big admirer, but—”

“Well, get on it! He won the Pulitzer. Wrote about how the fold in Memphis didn’t understand the folks in Nashville, and vice versa. His wife was a brilliant poet, though she never got her due. They lived in Faulkner’s house on Rugby Road. Very convivial people. His real name was Matthew, but when he was a baby, somebody gave him the nickname Pete, and Pete stuck.

Convivial, there’s a word you don’t hear anymore.”

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

the last book I ever read (Self-Help: Stories by Lorrie Moore, excerpt eight)

from Self-Help: Stories by Lorrie Moore:

From here on in, many things can happen. But the main one will be this: you decide not to go to law school after all, and, instead, you spend a good, big chunk of your adult life telling people how you decided not to go to law school after all. Somehow you end up writing again. Perhaps you go to graduate school. Perhaps you work odd jobs and take writing courses at night. Perhaps you are working on a novel and writing down all the clever remarks and intimate personal confessions you hear during the day. Perhaps you are losing your pals, your acquaintances, your balance.

Monday, October 16, 2023

the last book I ever read (Self-Help: Stories by Lorrie Moore, excerpt seven)

from Self-Help: Stories by Lorrie Moore:

Step away from him. Outside, in front of the streetlight, something like snow is falling. Think back again to MacNeil-Lehrer. Say in a level tone: “You know, there are people who know more about it than we do, who say that there is no circumnavigating a nuclear war, we will certainly have one, it’s just a matter of time. And when it happens, it’s going to dissolve all our communications systems, melt silicon chips—”

“Trudy, please.” He wants you to stop. He knows this edge in your voice, this MacNeil-Lehrer edge. All of the world knotted and failing on your tongue.

Sunday, October 15, 2023

the last book I ever read (Self-Help: Stories by Lorrie Moore, excerpt six)

from Self-Help: Stories by Lorrie Moore:

At home the cat refuses to dance to Dionne Warwick with you. She sits on the sill of the window, rumbling in her throat, her tail a pendulum of fluff. Outside, undoubtedly, there are suitors, begging her not to be so cold-hearted. “Ya got friends out there?” When you turn off the stereo, she jumps down from the sill and snakes lovingly about your ankles. Say something you never thought you’d say. Say: “Wanna go out?” She looks at you, all hope and supplication, and follows you to the door, carefully watching your hand as it moves for the knob: she wants you to let her go, to let her go and be. Begin slowly, turn, pull. The suction of door and frame gives way, and the cold night insinuates itself like a kind of future. She doesn’t leave immediately. But her whole body is electrified, surveying the yard for eyes and rustles, and just to the left of the streetlight she suddenly spots them—four, five, phosphorescent glints—and, without a nudge, without ever looking back, she scurries out, off the porch, down after, into some sweet unknown, some somehow known unknown, some yet very old religion.

Saturday, October 14, 2023

the last book I ever read (Self-Help: Stories by Lorrie Moore, excerpt five)

from Self-Help: Stories by Lorrie Moore:

I try not to look at my chest. It is ravaged, paved over, mowed down by the train tracks and parking lots of the Surgical Way. I know there are absences, as if the hollows were the surreptitious marks of a child’s spoon in tomorrow night’s dessert. The place where I thought my soul was located when I was five is no longer there.

Friday, October 13, 2023

the last book I ever read (Self-Help: Stories by Lorrie Moore, excerpt four)

from Self-Help: Stories by Lorrie Moore:

Make attempts at a less restrictive arrangement. Watch them sputter and deflate like balloons. He will ask you to move in. Do so hesitantly, with ambivalence. Clarify: rents are high, nothing long-range, love and all that, hon, but it’s footloose. Lay out the rules with much elocution. Stress openness, non-exclusivity. Make room in his closet, but don’t rearrange the furniture.

And yet from time to time you will gaze at his face or his hands and want nothing but him. You will feel passing waves of dependency, devotion, and sentimentality. A week, a month, a year, and he has become your family. Let’s say your real mother is a witch. Your father a warlock. Your brothers twin hunchbacks of Notre Dame. They all live in a cave together somewhere.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

the last book I ever read (Self-Help: Stories by Lorrie Moore, excerpt three)

from Self-Help: Stories by Lorrie Moore:

Your mom will try to pep you up. She’ll say: Look! Pat Benatar! Let’s dance.

Tell her you think Pat Benatar is stupid and cheap. Say nothing for five whole minutes.

When the B-52’s come on, tell her you think they’re okay.

Smile sheepishly. Then the two of you will get up and dance like wild maniacs around the coffee table until you are sweating, whooping to the oo-ah-oo’s, jumping like pogo sticks, acting like space robots. Do razz-ma-razz hands like your mom at either side of your head. During a commercial, ask for an orange soda.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

the last book I ever read (Self-Help: Stories by Lorrie Moore, excerpt two)

from Self-Help: Stories by Lorrie Moore:

My mother was the only mother I knew who wore her hair long. Sometimes she would wear it in a single braid that hung like a dark tail, marbled with auburn sun streaks, down the middle of her back; other times she wore it in two side braids that would swing back and forth when she bent over. “You look like a featherhead Indian lady,” James would tell her. He was just being made aware of the distinction between India Indian and the kind you saw on TV. “How,” my mother would joke, holding up a hand. And James, not getting it, would tug impatiently at her braids and say, “Because of these, because of these.”

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

the last book I ever read (Self-Help: Stories by Lorrie Moore, excerpt one)

from Self-Help: Stories by Lorrie Moore:

When you were six you thought mistress meant to put your shoes on the wrong feet. Now you are older and know it can mean many things, but essentially it means to put your shoes on the wrong feet.

You walk differently. In store windows you don’t recognize yourself; you are another woman, some crazy interior display lady in glasses stumbling frantic and preoccupied through the mannequins. In public restrooms you sit dangerously flat against the toilet seat, a strange flesh sundae of despair and exhilaration, murmuring into your bluing thighs: “Hello, I’m Charlene. I’m a mistress.”

It is like having a book out from the library.

It is like constantly having a book out from the library.

Sunday, October 8, 2023

the last book I ever read (President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier by C. W. Goodyear, excerpt fourteen)

from President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier by C. W. Goodyear:

Not all callers were turned away. A few citizens approached the White House staff in early July with ideas on how Garfield’s room might be artificially cooled—no small feat in a Washington summer. A machine shop staffed by naval engineers started droning away in the cellar to cobble their designs together. After some trial and error—necessary steps in invention—they produced a fan-powered apparatus that forced ambient air through fabric saturated with ice and salt. Garfield’s doctors switched it on to find the device cooled their space by almost thirty degrees. It was the first air-conditioner.

Saturday, October 7, 2023

the last book I ever read (President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier by C. W. Goodyear, excerpt thirteen)

from President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier by C. W. Goodyear:

Enlightenment glimmered in far-off corners of the profession. A British surgeon named Dr. Joseph Lister had theorized that bodily infections were not due to internal fluid imbalances, but rather tiny invisible organic invaders entering patients from without. Lister’s experiments dousing cuts, operating theaters, and scalpels with carbolic acid promptly cut rates of “paennia, hospital gangrene, or erysipelas” in his wards to near-zero. Afterward, he shared his findings (and new revulsion for pus and “putrid exhalations”) with medical societies in Britain and overseas. Yet America’s ruling class of doctors had tutted in dismissive disdain. “In order to successfully practice Mr. Lister’s antiseptic method,” one sniffed, declining even to give the Brit his due title, “it is necessary that we should believe, or act as if we believed, the atmosphere to be loaded with germs.”

A few more open-minded American practitioners did, albeit imperfectly or half-heartedly. They would flick acid over a patient’s wound, only to then sneeze into their hands and spit onto their needles before setting to work. Others tried to innovate upon Lister’s idea. One man in Missouri even invented a custom antiseptic solution named in the doctor’s honor. “Listerine” would sell middlingly, however, until sellers learned to market it as a way to clean mouths instead of wounds.

Friday, October 6, 2023

the last book I ever read (President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier by C. W. Goodyear, excerpt twelve)

from President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier by C. W. Goodyear:

Regrettably, though, a modern reader must conclude that this eminence did not really count for much. None of Garfield’s doctors exemplified the immature, underdeveloped state of their profession better than their leader, Willard Bliss—the rare physician to have, by middle age, earned the esteem of statesmen and poets: Lincoln had appointed him to be a division surgeon in the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War, while Walt Whitman (impressed by Bliss’s skill with a bonesaw) described him as “one of the best surgeons in the Army.” Bliss also possessed that most invaluable and timeless of medical traits: an immaculate bedside manner. His peers had never seen another doctor be so attentive to patients.

And yet, Bliss’s mastery of the tactile aspects of his craft was countered by a curious faith in metaphysics and pseudoscience. Deft at fixing torn arteries, Bliss also had a near-irrepressible curiosity for quack treatments, which he mistook for scientific breakthroughs. The intangible inner processes of the body remained in great part a mystery to him—so much so, that he did not understand how little he knew about them. Bliss had spent years promoting an Andean herb as the cure for “cancer, syphilis, ulcers… and all chronic blood diseases.” This belief helped get him booted, briefly, from the District of Columbia Medical Society.

The exile did not last long, though, for the entire field of American medicine was also in a state of flux—oscillating, like much of the rest of the country, between rational and irrational forces by the end of the nineteenth century. The nation was mechanizing, but its doctors still often conducted their work as if it were the dark ages. Bloodletting and blistering remained in use—the same treatments that had hastened the death of Garfield’s father, Abram, a half-century before. More “fashionable surgeons” in other wards looked down on such outdated ideas, but still used animal sinew instead of thread to sew up incisions.

Thursday, October 5, 2023

the last book I ever read (President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier by C. W. Goodyear, excerpt eleven)

from President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier by C. W. Goodyear:

Garfield’s were only beginning. His right arm stung; in his back throbbed a deeper ache; his feet prickled with electric, nervous pain. But, not five minutes after the shooting, worse discomfort started coming from an outside source: his doctors. The first to arrive poured brandy and ammonia salts down the president’s throat, then turned him over for what established practice deemed a necessity. Flicking aside a clot on the small of the patient’s back, the physician sank a finger into the gunshot wound to try tracing the path of the slug still within.

As new medics reached the depot, each insisted on repeating the torture. Grimy digits, attached to men who did not yet believe in washing their hands, tunneled past shattered ribs to burrow into the president. Metal probes followed, but got hooked on bone shards at a depth of three inches. Pushing down on Garfield’s sternum was necessary to free these instruments. Coating them, imperceptible to the naked eye (and fictional, to many of those in the American medical community) were millions of living microbial poisons, now seeded across the president’s abdomen.

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

the last book I ever read (President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier by C. W. Goodyear, excerpt ten)

from President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier by C. W. Goodyear:

The stricken president had since been hauled on a hay-and-horsehair mattress to the station’s second floor. Opening his eyes, he beheld a strange collection of faces: his sons’, weeping; his cabinet’s, stunned. Few were paler than that of Secretary Lincoln, who had witnessed the attack from about forty feet away, then sprinted to the station’s telegraph room to summon troops and doctors to the scene. That done, the secretary of War had realized how ironic his presence was.

“My god,” Lincoln was soon saying aloud. “How many hours of suffering I have passed in this town.”

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

the last book I ever read (President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier by C. W. Goodyear, excerpt nine)

from President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier by C. W. Goodyear:

An escape was in order; halfway through June, the president took Crete and his secretaries to Elberon, a town on the New Jersey shoreline. Cabinet meetings were held beside the azure-blue Atlantic. “The worry and work of Washington seems very far away… I have always felt that the ocean was my friend,” Garfield mused.

Monday, October 2, 2023

the last book I ever read (President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier by C. W. Goodyear, excerpt eight)

from President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier by C. W. Goodyear:

Secretly, in another part of Chicago, one of them considered doing so anyway. Despite what millions of Americans thought (for much mud had been thrown on his name by the White House’s current tenant) there was decency hidden under Chester Arthur’s swooping whiskers and oval frame. It had always been there, albeit buried beneath more evident traits: an affection for high living, a yearning for camaraderie, and a moral spine just pliable enough to yield to both. A friend recalled that, as a child in Vermont, Arthur was good at directing other boys as they built miniature dams out of mud, only standing just far enough away to keep his own hands clean.

A career that began in civil rights law and military service in New York had tapered off into the cozy confines of Conkling’s postwar power structure. Arthur rose through the Stalwart ranks quickly, putting his cut of the spoils to use along the way. Starting his days in fine, fuzzy tweed, he liked to throw on darker attire in the afternoons; by dusk the “Gentleman Boss” would typically change into a tuxedo that kept his folds hugged tight. He did not stay nearly as attentive (or close) to his wife, the socialite Ellen “Nell” Arthur. The customhouse collector instead spent his nights tinkering with machine business over brandy until the early morning.

In the second half of the Hayes administration, Arthur’s good fortune fell apart: the president finally managed to oust him from his prized customhouse role in 1878. Then, in January 1880, came a more rattling blow: Nell caught a fatal case of pneumonia while Arthur was again away on business. He would forever regret how he lived before Nell’s passing, and he did not know how to do so after. “Honors to me now are not what they once were,” Arthur told a friend.

Except, it seems, the vice presidency. Arthur was shocked to be offered the job by the Ohioans. His expertise lay in rigging elections as a boss, not winning them as a candidate—he had never even run for office before. Meanwhile, other Republicans were already hailing Garfield’s nomination as a Waterloo for the Stalwarts. “My mind enjoys inexpressible peace at the breaking up of the machine,” one reformer soon expounded to a journalist in New York.

Sunday, October 1, 2023

the last book I ever read (President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier by C. W. Goodyear, excerpt seven)

from President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier by C. W. Goodyear:

In 1887, President Grover Cleveland would sign the Electoral Count Act into law, expressly to ensure the fiasco of a decade prior could never repeat. Hereafter, Congress would have to be in session at one o’clock on the afternoon of January 6 following every presidential election to formalize the results; representatives and senators would have limited authority to challenge certificates submitted by states; the vice president would serve as presiding officer but, likewise, not have the power to invalidate election returns.

“Should another Presidential crisis ever confront the country, this new law will be found of vital importance,” predicted the San Francisco Examiner.