Via Amitava Kumar, I recently discovered the work of the poet Lorraine Mariner. Here’s a poem I love:

by Lorraine Mariner

Yesterday evening I finished
with my imaginary boyfriend.
He knew what I was going to say
before I said it which was top of my list
of reasons why we should end it.

My other reasons were as follows:
he always does exactly what I tell him;
nothing in our relationship has ever surprised me;
he has no second name.

He took it very well
all things considered.
He told me I was to think of him
as a friend and if I ever need him
I know where he is.

For more, check out “Bye For Now.”

The Paper Clip

Raymond Chandler writes:

A long time ago, when I was writing for the pulps I put into a story a line like ‘he got out of the car and walked across the sun-drenched sidewalk until the shadow of the awning over the entrance fell across his face like the touch of cool water’. They took it out when they published the story. Their readers didn’t appreciate this sort of thing: just held up the action. And I set out to prove them wrong. My theory was that they just thought they cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, they cared very little about the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of his death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half opened in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death. He didn’t even hear death knock on the door. That damn paper clip kept slipping away from his fingers and he just wouldn’t push it to the edge of the desk and catch it as it fell.

This excerpt is from “The Raymond Chandler Papers”, a marvellous collection of Chandler’s letters and some nonfiction, edited by Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane. It is full of such gems.

Chandler’s insight hurts me when I think of popular English fiction in India. There’s isn’t one writer in that space who can write about that paper clip. I think our readers deserve better.

Hot Water Bath

All you philistines bored by the study of history, read this and reconsider:

Bernier relates one of the adventures of this princess, as “they are not amours like ours, but attended with events dreadful and tragical.” It appears that she received one of her lovers into her apartments, and that, as Shah Jahan was about to enter, she had nowhere to conceal him except in one of the large hot-water caldrons made to bathe in. The emperor feigned to see nothing, but after a long visit sternly commanded a fire to be built beneath the bath, and did not leave till the man was dead.

Now you know why I’m a huge fan of emperors. This excerpt is from Edward S Holden’s “The Mogul Emperors of Hindustan”. My thanks to Devangshu for pointing me to the passage in question.


I found this beautiful piece in Richard Lederer’s “A Man of My Words”:

Writing is…
by Richard Lederer

For me, writing is like throwing a Frisbee.

You can play Frisbee catch with yourself, but it’s repetitious and not much fun. Better it is to fling to others, to extend yourself across a distance.

At first, your tossing is awkward and strengthless. But, with time and practice and maturity, you learn to set your body and brain and heart at the proper angles, to grasp with just the right force, and not to choke the missile. You discover how to flick the release so that all things loose and wobbly snap together at just the right moment. You learn to reach out your follow-through hand to the receiver to ensure the straightness and justice of the flight.

And on the just-right days, when the sky is blue and the air pulses with perfect stillness, all points of the Frisbee spin together within their bonded circle—and the object glides on its own whirling, a whirling invisible and inaudible to all others but you.

Like playing Frisbee, writing is a re-creation-al joy. For me, a lot of the fun is knowing that readers out there—you among them—are sharing what I have made. I marvel that, as you pass your eyes over these words, you experience ideas and emotions similar to what I was thinking and feeling when, in another place and another time, I struck the symbols on my keyboard.

Like a whirling, gliding Frisbee, my work extends me beyond the frail confines of my body. Thank you for catching me.

A Night Owl’s Lament

Balzac may have worked through the night, “fueled by innumerable cups of black coffee,” but night owls are frowned upon at large. As Anne Fadiman wrote in “At Large and At Small”:

The owl’s reputation may be beyond salvation. Who gets up early? Farmers, bakers, doctors. Who stays up late? Muggers, streetwalkers, cat burglars. It’s assumed that if you’re sneaking around after midnight, you must have something to hide. Night is the time of goblins, ghouls, vampires, zombies, witches, warlocks, demons, wraiths, fiends, banshees, poltergeists, werefolk, bogeymen, and things that go bump. (It is also the time of fairies and angels, but, like many comforting things, they are all too easily crowded out of the imagination. The nightmare trumps the pleasant dream.) Night, like winter, is a metaphor for death: one does not say “the dead of morning” or “the dead of spring.” In a strange and tenebrous book called “Night” (which every lark should be forced to read, preferably by moonlight), the British cynic A Alvarez (an owl) points out, glumly, that Christ is known as the Light of the World and Satan as the Prince of Darkness. With such a powerful pro-lark tradition arrayed against us, must we owls be forever condemned to the infernal regions—which, despite their inextinguishable flames, are always described as dark?

I was reminded of Fadiman’s essay when I read Deepa Ranganathan’s piece in Slate, “Can a Night Owl Become a Morning Person?” In my case, the answer would be a resolute no. If I need to be awake at seven in the morning, I stay up, for that is easier than waking up at that undemonly hour, and I find that my best work, such as it pitifully is, is done at night. Like now, when it’s almost 2 am.

So what am I doing writing this post? Bye.

Puppy Dog and Tail

In “Fiddlers”, the last of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, Detective Andy Parker tells Detective Ollie Weeks a story about a little puppy dog walking across the railroad tracks:

“He is a little white puppy dog, and this train comes along, and the wheels run over his tail, and he loses the end of his tail. And he’s very said about this. So he puts his head down on the tracks and he begins crying his heart out, and not paying any attention. And just then another train comes along, and runs him over again, cutting off his head this time. You know the moral of that story, Ollie?”

“No, what’s the moral?”

“Never lose your head over a piece of tail.”

Grains of Wheat

Check out this beautiful passage from Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”, a novel set in early-18th-century Peru:

The Abbess was one of those persons who have allowed their lives to be gnawed away because they have fallen in love with an idea several centuries before its appointed appearance in the history of civilization. She hurled herself against the obstinacy of her time in her desire to attach a little dignity to women. At midnight when she had finished adding up the accounts of the house she would fall into insane visions of an age when women could be organized to protect women, women travelling, women as servants, women when they are old or ill, the women she had discovered in the mines of Potosi, or in the workrooms of cloth merchants, the girls she had collected out of doorways on rainy nights. But always the next morning she had to face the fact that the women in Peru, even her nuns, went through life with two notions: one, that all the misfortunes that might befall them were merely due to the fact that they were not sufficiently attractive to bind some man to their maintenance; and, two, that all the misery in the world was worth his caress. She had never known any country but the environs of Lima, and she assumed that its corruption was the normal state of mankind. Looking back from our century we can see the whole folly of her hope. Twenty such women would have failed to make any impression on that age. Yet she continued diligently in her task. She resembled the swallow in the fable who once every thousand years transferred a grain of wheat, in the hope of rearing a mountain to reach the moon. Such persons are raised up in every age; they obstinately insist on transporting their grains of wheat and they derive a certain exhilaration from the sneers of bystanders. ‘How queerly they dress!’ we cry. ‘How queerly they dress!’

I wonder if, in 2308 AD, this is how they’ll speak of today’s libertarians. How queerly we dress!

Twelve Crabs

I love this bit from ZZ Packer’s interview of Edward P Jones:

ZZP: Do you find that people treat you differently after your having won the Pulitzer?

EPJ: People ask if I’m happy about this and that, especially when they talk about the money. I am happy, but there’s no car in the world I want—I don’t want a car—there are places I want to go, but I’m not hungry to do world travel. There’s no fancy house that I want.

I got some crabs the other day, twelve crabs, and that’s a feast. That’s wonderful. That makes me happy.

I was in graduate school, and I was rooming at this place the first year and we all shared the same bathroom. After I moved I wrote to this one friend of mine, “Finally I got a bathroom all to myself.” He said I’d probably always be happy because there were small things that made me happy.

I remember when that basketball player Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose. Now, he’s from Maryland, he should have gone right down to the crab-house, bought twelve crabs and an orange soda, and that would have fulfilled him. Why didn’t he do that?

This is from “The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers”, which is full of many such gems.

To get a taste of Jones’s work, try his masterful short story, “Old Boys, Old Girls”. I’ve read few stories where time is handled so well, and it’s full of great bits of writing—one that struck me as exceptional was the paragraph about the protagonist’s sister driving him home.

Abu Ghraib

Lewis Alsamari describes it well:

The notoriety of Abu Ghraib was enough to chill the fervor of even the most revolutionary citizens. It was said that thousands of men and women were crammed into tiny cells and that abuse, torture, and executions were daily occurrences. The regime tested chemicals and biological weapons on the inmates, and some prisoners were given nothing but scraps of shredded plastic to eat. Chunks of flesh were torn from the bodies of some prisoners and then force-fed to others. Gruesome tortures involving power tools and hungry dogs were routine, and thousands of people who entered the doors of that fearsome place were never heard from again. It was known that mass graves existed around the country, and it was known in general terms where they were situated; but of course nobody dared to hunt out the final resting places of those poor men and women who had become victims of the enthusiastic guards at Abu Ghraib, for fear of becoming one of their number.

The four AIDS-stricken women were dealt with in a fashion brutal even by the standards of the prison. Stripped of their clothes, they were placed, alive and screaming, into an incinerator so that they and their “vile disease” could be utterly destroyed. In this way Saddam “delivered” our country from the horrific infections of the West and from the inequities of the “evil Zionist state.”

This is part of an excerpt taken from Alsamari’s book, “Escape From Saddam.” It underscores something that many of us seem to have forgotten in our idealogical zeal: Iraq under Saddam was a hellish land. Yes, the Americans bungled their invasion, and with their arrogance created more enemies than the friends they expected. (I foolishly supported the invasion at the time.) But I’m not sure they made Iraq any worse off.

(Link via email from Shrek.)