“The Way He Liked Chicken”

Here are the first lines of “The Passion” by Jeanette Winterson:

It was Napolean who had such a passion for chicken that he kept his chefs working around the clock. What a kitchen that was, with birds in every state of undress; some still cold and slung over hooks, some turning slowly on the spit, but most in wasted piles because the emperor was busy.

Odd to be so governed by an appetite.

It was my first commission. I started as a neck wringer and before long I was the one who carried the platter through inches of mud to his tent. He liked me because I am short. I flatter myself. He did not dislike me. He liked no one except Josephine and he liked her the way he liked chicken.

It’s hard to put down a book that begins like this.


This excerpt is from “African Psycho” by Alain Mabanckou:

Yes, I love vulgarity. I claim it loud and clear. I love it because only it says what we are, without the hideous masks we wear by nature, which turn us into mean beings, hypocrites, ceaselessly running after decency, a quality I couldn’t care less about. I’m not the type who can control himself when someone comes after me in my territory. I’m not asking anything of anybody. All I want is peace and quiet in my native corner. Those inclined to judge me vulgar will be shown not to have understood a thing about my personality. Fundamentally, does this bother me? I have learned not to take people’s opinions into account anymore…

Bound For Life

This is a wonderful excerpt from “The Virgin Suicides” by Jeffrey Eugenides:

Like everyone else, we went to Alice O’Connor’s coming-out party to forget about the Lisbon girls. The black bartenders in red vests served us alcohol without asking for ID, and in turn, around 3 am, we said nothing when we saw them loading leftover cases of whiskey into the trunk of a sagging Cadillac. Inside, we got to know girls who had never considered taking their own lives. We fed them drinks, danced with them until they became unsteady, and led them out to the screened-in veranda. They lost their high heels on the way, kissed us in the humid darkness, and then slipped away to throw up demurely in the outside bushes. Some of us held their heads as they vomited, then let them rinse their mouths with beer, after which we got back to kissing again. The girls were monstrous in their formal dresses, each built around a wire cage. Pounds of hair were secured atop their heads. Drunk, and kissing us, or passing out in chairs, they were bound for college, husbands, child-rearing, unhappiness only dimly perceived—bound, in other words, for life.

Black, African American, Nigger

Yesterday I read Sudhir Venkatesh’s “Gang Leader for a Day,” in which he describes his years as an embedded sociologist in the Black Kings, a Chicago gang. In the excerpt below, he describes his first meeting with the ganglord JT:

He took the questionnaire from my hand, barely glanced at it, then handed it back. Everything he did, every move he made, was deliberate and forceful.

I read him the same question that I had read the others. He didn’t laugh, but he smiled. How does it feel to be black and poor?

“I’m not black,” he answered, looking around at the others knowingly.

“Well, then, how does it feel to be African American and poor?” I tried to sound apologetic, worried that I had offended him.

“I’m not African-American either. I’m a nigger.”

Now I didn’t know what to say. I certainly didn’t feel comfortable asking him how it felt to be a nigger. He took back my questionnaire and looked over it more carefully. He turned the pages, reading the questions to himself. He appeared disappointed, though I sensed that his disappointment wasn’t aimed at me.

Niggers are the ones who live in this building,” he said at last. “African Americans live in the suburbs. African Americans wear ties to work. Niggers can’t find no work.”

He looked at a few more pages of the questionnaire. “You ain’t going to learn shit with this thing.”

I’d been looking forward to reading Venkatesh’s book for a while, and it was riveting enough for me to finish it in one sitting. But I was disappointed. I expected much more insight on a variety of issues. For example, the way in which the drug gangs ran the housing projects of Chicago seemed to me a fascinating illustration of how informal systems of government and law & order function where there would otherwise be anarchy. I also expected to learn much more about the drug trade and the informal economy. (Venkatesh’s other work tackles these areas.) I suppose this book was meant for a general audience and kept reasonably light, with more storytelling and less analysis.

Also, the characters seemed like cardboard to me, and barring Venkatesh himself, I did not feel I knew any of them well enough. But this wasn’t a novel, and that’s excusable. For a book that takes about three-to-four hours to read, this is certainly worth the cost.


Tyler Cowen’s review.
Venkatesh’s home page.
Venkatesh’s guest posts on the Freakonomics Blog.

The Two Ways of Loving a Book

The greatest happiness, even greater than sex, is reading a good book. I’ve got lucky the last couple of days with Anne Fadiman, whose “At Large and At Small” was kindly gifted to me by Nilanjana a few days ago. It’s a book of familiar essays, and I derived great consolation from her essays on coffee and circadian rhythms, instantly losing my guilt at staying up every night drinking coffee by the barrel. I demand you go out and grab it and devour every word.

The excerpt below, though, is from “Ex Libris,” her book on the joys of reading. Here you go:

When I was eleven and my brother was thirteen, our parents took us to Europe. At the Hôtel d’Angleterre in Copenhagen, as he had done virtually every night of his literate life, Kim left a book facedown on the bedside table. The next afternoon, he returned to find the book closed, a piece of paper inserted to mark the page, and the following note, signed by the chambermaid, resting on its cover:


My brother was stunned. How could it have come to pass that he—a reader so devoted that he’d sneaked a book and a flashlight under the covers at his boarding school every night after lights-out, a crime punishable by a swat with a wooden paddle—had been branded as someone who didn’t love books? I shared his mortification. I could not imagine a more bibliolatrous family than the Fadimans. Yet, with the exception of my mother, in the eyes of the young Danish maid we would all have been found guilty of rampant book abuse.

During the next thirty years I came to realize that just as there is more than one way to love a person, so there is more than one way to love a book. The chambermaid believed in courtly love. A book’s physical self was sacrosanct to her, its form inseparable from its content; her duty as a lover was Platonic adoration, a noble but doomed attempt to conserve forever the state of perfect chastity in which it had left the bookseller. The Fadiman family believed in carnal love. To us, a book’s words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel, and it was no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated. Hard use was a sign not of disrespect but of intimacy.

Even better, if I may add to that, one does not need to expend energy seducing a book, for it is always compliant and often, if the writer is skillful enough, enthusiastic.

I was a courtly lover as a child, and my father, a devout collector of books, instilled in me a sort of reverence for them. In India, of course, it is considered disrespectful to touch a book with your feet, as if it is an idol—and I don’t anymore believe in idle worship. Now I am carnal, happily writing notes in the margins of books, leaving them facedown, reading them while eating and allowing my gravy-stained fingers to turn the pages, as if to leave a mark that says You are part of me now, and here, I am part of you as well.

“Ex Libris” is a beautiful book: if you love books, or are “bibliolatrous” like the Fadimans (what a charming word!), you will love every essay in it. I hope that love is carnal.

Listen Very Carefully

Here’s a lovely excerpt from the short story “Oh, Joseph, I’m so tired” by Richard Yates:

That small room of ours, with its double function of sleep and learning, stands more clearly in my memory than any other part of our home. Someone should probably have told my mother that a girl and boy of our ages ought to have separate rooms, but that never occurred to me until much later. Our cots were set foot-to-foot against the wall, leaving just enough space to pass alongside them to the school table, and we had some good conversations as we lay waiting for sleep at night. The one I remember best was the time Edith told me about the sound of the city.

“I don’t mean just the loud noises,” she said, “like the siren going by just now, or those car doors slamming, or all the laughing and shouting down the street; that’s just close-up stuff. I’m talking about something else. Because you see there are millions and millions of people in New York—more people than you can possibly imagine, ever—and most of them are doing something that makes a sound. Maybe talking, or playing the radio, maybe closing doors, maybe putting their forks down on their plates if they’re having dinner, or dropping their shoes if they’re going to bed—and because there are so many of them, all those little sounds add up and come together in a kind of hum. But it’s so faint—so very, very faint—that you can’t hear it unless you listen very carefully for a long time.”

“Can you hear it,” I asked her.

“Sometimes. I listen every night, but I can only hear it sometimes. Other times I fall asleep. Let’s be quiet now, and just listen. See if you can hear it, Billy.”

And I tried hard, closing my eyes as if that would help, opening my mouth to minimize the sound of my breathing, but in the end I had to tell her I’d failed. “How about you?” I asked.

“Oh, I heard it,” she said. “Just for a few seconds, but I heard it. You’ll hear it too, if you keep trying. And it’s worth waiting for. When you hear it, you’re hearing the whole city of New York.”

I read Yates’s story a few minutes ago in The New Granta Book of the American Short Story, edited by Richard Ford, which contains some lovely stories—check out the ones by John Cheever and Raymond Carver. But this one is my favourite.

For more on Yates, try these links:

Rebirth of a dark genius by Nick Fraser.
The Lost World of Richard Yates by Stewart O’Nan.
Out of the ashes by James Wood.

And here’s a fine interview of Yates in Ploughshares.

(Fraser link via Antiblurbs.)

Nothing Left To Steal

The anecdote of the day comes from Paul Collier’s book, The Bottom Billion:

Some years ago I found that my neighbor at a conference was was a former vice-president of Ghana. He explained that he was delighted to have been invited to the conference: the invitation had actually prompted his release from prison. He had been imprisoned following a coup d’état, and so we talked about that. He told me how unprepared the government had been for the coup; it was totally unexpected. Surely not, I said; coups are pretty common. He explained why the government considered itself safe: “By the time we came to power, there was nothing left to steal.”