I can’t imagine walking around on a day like today. Just — instant sweatbuckets. On a bike? Doable. An electric bike? A breeze.
I’m Craig Mod, an extremely white man slathered in SPF 50+++ sunscreen who just rode past you on an electric bike, and this is your monthly Roden. Thank you for your concerns about my health — I’m feeling much better since getting Covid in May/June. All parts of my body are now functioning “as per baseline specifications.”
Mostly, right now, I’m hiding and writing. Writing and hiding. And electric biking. And reading.
I try to bring new authors into my reading rotation by subscribing to The Paris Review and The Sewanee Review. I get the physical editions delivered to my home in Japan, and it’s always a delight to find the little “review”-sized literary blocks in my mailbox. My thinking: I’m too lazy to keep an eye on the lit world at large on my own, so I hope these publications — helmed by thoughtful, on-the-lookout kinda folks (Emily Stokes and Adam Ross) — will place before my eyes writers I’d otherwise have missed.
Almost every issue I “discover” someone — often to my embarrassment, because they’re not new, just new to me. This month, The Paris Review had an “Art of Fiction” interview with Sigrid Nunez. I had never heard of her (!!) nor read any of her work. These interviews are often fun even if you don’t know the writer. After a couple pages of her sharp, hilarious, prescient voice, it was clear: I had to read her work.
I started with The Friend (2018). Great. A little Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, a little Kathryn Scanlan’s The Dominant Animal, a little Lisa Halliday’s Asymetry, and of course just a lot of Nunez (… and maybe a wee little bit of Paul Auster’s meta-vibes from The New York Trilogy). A love story between a woman and dog(s).
I then jumped way back to Nunez’ A Feather on the Breath of God (1995), her first “novel” — though closer to, perhaps memoir? From her Paris Review interview:
I was at a writers’ residency, and I started thinking about the first time I heard him speak Chinese, which was when we were on a trip to Coney Island. I wrote down my memory of what happened that day, and then I kept writing about him. That became the story “Chang,” and it’s the one part of A Feather on the Breath of God that could have been published as nonfiction, because it’s all true. When I got to the end I found myself writing, “It will be so much harder to write about my mother.” Later I took that line out and gave the piece another ending, but that was how I knew that I had more to say about my parents. So I started writing “Christa,” which turned out to be more than twice as long as “Chang” and became the second part of the book.
Nunez is seventy-one. She writes about her experience having a Chinese dad and German mom, growing up in Brooklyn projects in the ’60s and ’70s, about the unknowability of her father, the sadness of her mother, the complexities of bi-culturalism back then.
Genes. Blood. Soil. Why should I feel a deeper pain on hearing that the Black Forest is dying than on hearing about the dying forests of the Adirondacks? And what is this surge of feeling inspired by a photograph in a magazine: a group of smiling Asian-American children: Those Asian Whiz Kids! Pride?
And I delight in Nunez’ sense of rhythm. Example: On her mother in Germany during the war:
For the first stretch she has company—other people from the train headed in the same direction. But for most of the journey she is alone. She is not afraid. Just days ago she turned eighteen. The sense of having an adventure buoys her up, at least for a time. Also, in the very extremity of the situation, a certain protection: “This can’t be happening.” Blessings: weather (“That was a beautiful April”), and she is in good shape from Alpine hiking.
(She is a skilled parentheticist.)
Susan Choi — another uber-talented bi-cultural Asian American novelist, author of most recently the acclaimed Trust Exercise — writes in the intro to the special edition of Feather:
I had joined an Asian-American literature reading group that year, a time when it still seemed possible to master that subject and maybe even, by extension, one’s own subjectivity, in a single semester. For me everything about the group proceeded from or resulted in discomfort. I had joined the group hoping to alleviate discomfort and instead found myself uncomfortable in new ways I hadn’t thought of before. Everything I read seemed to be a worse fit than before I’d ventured onto hyphenated ground—than had been my blithe trespasses on Austenian estates or to the Ramsays’ lighthouse, which I’d made without a thought to my credentials. Then “Chang” shocked me with my own discomfort—it seemed to have eyes watching me from the page. Of the numerous very good books, stories, and plays the group read that semester I retained nothing but “Chang.” I snuck off to make a photocopy from the anthology, ancestor to the photocopy I have to this day. More than a quarter of a century later, at the end of an introductory fiction-writing class in which I taught “Chang” for at least the fiftieth time, one of my students approached me, near tears. She explained she was the daughter of immigrants, an Ecuadorean mother and a half-Chinese, half-Mexican father, reminiscent of the father in “Chang.” She wanted to thank me for assigning the story. She hadn’t known there was writing like this: writing that could make her feel seen.
Feather is tough to pin down but I love it.
Nunez seems committed to solitude and writes gracefully in Feather about solitude:
A single room. A chair, a table, a bed. Windows on a garden. Music. Books. A cat to teach me how to be alone with dignity. A room where men might come and go but never stay. I began dreaming of this room when I was still in my teens. I saw it waiting for me at the end of a long wavering corridor.
And solitude in old age (again: rhythm):
But was it so terrible to be an old maid? I saw myself traveling in foreign cities. Bright sun, ancient stones, the endless noon of the streets and the eternal dusk of the churches. Straw hat, sandals, a white blouse, and a skirt flaring gracefully below the knee. Dinner alone: bread, cheese, fruit. Long train rides, rocking, dreaming. No one knows me. The unfamiliar peace of a hotel room. The narrow bed with its iron bedstead. Faded wallpaper, original paintings touching in their crudeness. No one knows you, you can make yourself up anew every day. This evening you have written two letters and finished the guidebook. You take a long bath, and when the stranger comes, you make love on the narrow bed, no English, speak with the body.
I have about 20 more pages left and am savoring them, sad for it to end.
I love the energy / vision of the founders so I’m helping them out a bit behind the scenes. Excited to see what they turn out in the coming months.
Over on my side of things, I’ve been cranking away on my next book — a followup to Kissa by Kissa. I’ve been publishing a SPECIAL PROJECTS members-only writing diary called Nightingalingale, and we just hit issue 101. (!! It was originally supposed to be 21 issues — ha ha!; that photo above is from issue 100/101 showing a recent outline I was going through in a cafe.) I’m currently transferring the manuscript from text files to InDesign, re-typing the beast, placing the text in conversation with images. It’s a painful process but one which has been more revealing and useful than I would have thought.
Venice is cursed. I walked cursed Venice in a cloud of confusion. Why did so many people bring so many roller suitcases? Did they not know they were coming to Venice? Did they not know Venice has a bridge of stone steps every fifty yards? Sweat soaked beneath the savage sun, they heaved their suitcases — all of which were big enough to hide a dismembered body or two — up and down and huffed and seemed distraught at the amount of heaving required to make headway. I helped one woman carry hers. She had a broken foot, walked on crutches. Her presence in Venice mystified like an apparition of Christ in a New Jersey hedge. As I lifted her substantial luggage, careful to do so only with my legs, not my back, she intoned in German-accented English: Thank you, this broken foot of mine vould not keep me avay, nothing vould keep me avay from my dear Venice.
Her deranged veneration seemed omnipresent and fundamental to the city. I felt surrounded by cult worshipers. But they all vanished when I ippon ura’d (“one street backed” as we call it in my Japan pop-up newsletters) the sinking town. It seemed as if very few were here to explore.
The true power of a museum exhibition is the power of the walk, the stroll. So I focused on just that. A few thousand steps, around and around. Stopping, stepping back, getting close, nearly pushing my nose against the glass. Each room had a bench and I sat on those benches and looked, just looked at how other people were looking. Folks in pairs and alone, pointing, bending, dipping, eyes often growing wide. Which images caught their attention? Which were tough or “embarrassing” for folks to look at? (A nude couple sitting in the corner on a carpet rarely got more than a cursory glance whereas Soth’s “classic” tourist shot of Niagara Falls made huge often commanded minutes of gaze.)
I picked up a 1986 pre-“Leica” Leitz Summicron f/2 35mm lens and shot with it in Europe in June. My plan was to review it here but the focus tab broke off, and then the focus ring got funky, and it has been in the shop (Map Camera) for the last month, and looks like I won’t get it back until end of August. This is the great joy of owning Leica gear — you pay an arm and a leg for it, it breaks, and then it takes them forever to fix it. I really dug the lens though, that short time I had it. I’ll write more about it when I get it back. It’s a beautiful sized jewel.
In other upcoming/recent book-release news, Lynne Tillman has a new non-fiction book coming out on August 2 called Mothercare. I will read any and everything Lynne puts into this world of ours, so you bet this thing is arriving at my doorstep on pub-day.
Alan Heathcock, author of the potent Volt (2011), has his first novel also coming out next week. It’s called 40 and looks wild. BEHOLD THAT COVER.
Werner Herzog’s The Twilight World came out last month. It’s about Hirō Onoda, the (in)famous WWII Japanese soldier who refused to believe the war had finished and continued fighting on a Philippine island from 1944 until 1974. Yes, ~thirty years living in the jungle fighting after the war had finished. Herzog’s account is essentially “historical fiction” but it probably gets to the heart of what Onoda experienced during those years. A quick read, fascinating, heartbreaking.
I’ve learned that a walk used well becomes a platform or tool. Asking a carpenter what they think of their hammer is sort of silly. It’s a hammer. Similarly for a walk. It’s just a walk. But a walk done well ― over days and weeks and months, offline, with a camera and pen and paper in hand, looking closely, performed with a so-called “open heart” and curiosity and kindness, a desire to connect with folks along the way and to approach each day with minimal judgement ― whatever that is, is something entirely different. So I guess I’ve learned: Most tools are boring, until they’re not, and then they become miraculous. The onus is on the craftsperson to figure out how to escape the boredom.
I just got access to Dall-e this morning. Not “perfect” by any means, but fascinating, and already useful as a “first draft” sketching tool.
(An aside: I watch almost all YouTube documentary-style / talking-head explainers in at least 1.75x or 2x speed. I used to think this was somehow “sullying” the experience or intent of the video producer, but now I’m fully committed. I’m not a big podcast or audiobook listener, but I suspect for those of you who are, you’ve already figured out that this is (for certain kinds of content!) the ideal way to listen?)
Fireworks in coastal night skies, Covid cases going bonkers, heat records broken daily — yep, feels like summer.
My plan: Spend the next few weeks getting this book of mine into InDesign and creating a fully fleshed out text+images draft. I’m going to run a short seven-day pop-up newsletter in the middle of August (14-21) which I am excited for. More on that soon. (I’ll announce on Ridgeline.)
“Only fools don’t ventilate” — stay busy and cool out there.