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Fiction and Poetry

Blind

Rachel DeWoskin (GRS’00)
Viking

Invisible Beasts

DeWoskin says she wrote Blind so she could “feel her way through someone else’s experience,” her “favorite part of both reading and writing.” From the moment we meet ninth-grader Emma Sasha Silver, the writer succeeds in having us see—and that is the correct word—the world as it unfolds for, and confounds, someone who has lost her sight at an age even the sighted find difficult to navigate. Blinded by a wayward firework at a Fourth of July party, Emma must learn to hone her senses of smell, hearing, touch, and memory. She strains to hear, for example, “the cold sounds of snow.”

The narrative turns on the drowning death—most likely a suicide—of a popular classmate, and the heartstopping crushes, tender moments, and random humiliations that illuminate or further darken the strange new landscape into which Emma is cast. Her mom “smells like pasta and lavender,” while her dad has a halo of “mint and rubbing alcohol.”

Guided through the cacophonous maze of high school with the help of her loyal, mischievous friend, Logan, and her companion dog, Spark, Emma soldiers on with her cane, sunglasses, and a mixture of feisty determination, occasional self-pity, and newfound wisdom. Her yearlong convalescence, during which she attended a school for the sight-impaired and learned braille, made her realize “that even if I stayed on the couch without moving for fifty years, we would all still get old and die. In case getting blinded hadn’t made it clear, recovering taught me that my small life didn’t matter to the world overall, which I don’t think is something you’re supposed to understand until you’re old.”

The first year of high school is a minefield for everyone, but as the story progresses Emma gains a strength and equanimity that might have come much later had it not been for the freak accident that changed her life. And though she steadfastly refuses to remove those sunglasses in public for more than 300 pages, she comes to terms with the scar on her eye, now “as familiar as my mom’s skin.” Finally, in a quiet but pivotal moment, the glasses come off.—Susan Seligson

Love in a Time of Technology

Sasenarine Persaud (GRS’06)
TSAR Books

Selected Poems

Persaud’s seventh poetry collection is suffused with his gift for evoking a sense of place, and echoes his themes of alienation, exile, and the way safety is shattered by the trappings of contemporary life and the failures of the flesh. But here, the poet and essayist, a native of Guyana who has lived in Canada and the United States, hones in on the many incarnations of love.

As a domicile of the soul, when at last it is discovered and claimed, love is perpetually under threat by contrarians and anarchists, especially those existing in memory. Love is miraculous, complicated, and worth searching for, but these days, Persaud notes mournfully, it is too often mired (and wired) in cyber-shorthand. As the title poem concludes:

You have forgotten
how to speak, to say, “I’m sorry.”
And you will part as you have met
through the portals of the Internet.

Again and again in these spare, at times searing verses, grouped in sections titled “Love in a Time of Technology,” “Elsewhere,” “Storm,” and “Returning to a Far Country,” Persaud glides across the bounds of geography and history and then returns to his emotional core, shifting from wide-angle lens to magnifying mirror.

In “Love Afterwards,” he observes that earthquakes, geological and psychic, recur along the same fault lines, “And you can pace in the same reading room in a dozen different cities…waiting for the same aftershocks.”

In “Orchids,” Persaud, addressing the poet in the third person as he often does, observes a habit of looking “to Scotland or beyond China” while “the shrubs you both planted, dry before your eyes….” Alluding to the vague faraway world of his South American childhood, where zebus graze, Persaud again hones in, unflinching and close:

Look in your own yard
in your own house
on your own bed.

Persaud’s poems are spiced with the imagery of his ancestral India—Hindu gods, rituals, lavish epics, and seductive flowers. Closer to home, in some poems Persaud writes of touring the American South in the company of ghosts from distant shores, always stitching together the crazy quilt of history, forever alert to how we came to be where we are. A trip to Fort Sumter evokes “that other alluvial plain below sea level,” and as the narrator and his travel companion, “dressed like dandies poised atop the rubble,” retreat to their air-conditioned room, “you have to look closely at the photographs to ascertain their colour.” Persaud seems both haunted and inspired by the notion that America shelters so few who have any true ancestral claim to the place. In “Magnolia Plantation, South Carolina,” he writes:

This planter came from Barbados
And further back a contemporary
Shakespeare relative. One ancestor
was there when the world was made.

Reading Persaud’s verse, it’s hard not to feel, and in a way be heartened by, the sense that each of us is, in one way or another, an exile.—SS

A Map of Betrayal

Ha Jin (GRS’94)
Pantheon Books, Random House

Selected Poems

In this haunting novel, his seventh, prize-winning author Jin has created an indelible portrait of 20th-century espionage. Rather than focus on such stock-in-trade conventions as secret drop-offs and eavesdropping, he explores the costs—emotional, physical, and psychological—that spycraft entails.

A Map of Betrayal traces the transformation of Weiming Shang, a young Chinese college graduate recruited in 1949 to spy on Chinese nationalists, into Gary Shang, a top translator at the CIA and China’s most important mole. Motivated less by money than by his own ego and a sense of patriotism for his mother country, Jin’s protagonist is one of the most fascinatingly complex fictional spies in recent memory.

The story begins more than two decades after Shang’s arrest for treason by the FBI in 1980, after more than three decades spent spying for the Chinese government. The story is narrated by his American-born daughter, Lilian, who inherits a series of her father’s journals, which chronicle his espionage career. As she reads through his diary entries, she begins to find tantalizing clues about his secret life. Chief among the revelations is his disclosure that he had been forced to abandon a previous family in China in order to work abroad. Determined to connect the missing dots in her father’s life and to track down his original family, Lilian, a historian, travels to contemporary China in search of answers. The book deftly cuts back and forth between two time frames. In alternating chapters, Lilian recounts her current efforts to piece together her father’s life, and other chapters, told in the third person, offer Gary’s perspective. Those chapters provide a fascinating glimpse of Sino/Soviet/US relations in the last half of the last century.

In previous novels like Waiting and A Free Life, Jin, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of creative writing, movingly explored themes of loneliness and the inability to fit in. He revisits those subjects here, but this time he amplifies the sense of isolation that his main character feels. Cut off from his young wife (he only later discovers that he had left her pregnant with twins), Shang settles into a new life in suburban Washington, D.C., advancing through the ranks of the CIA as a translator and becoming increasingly valuable to China for the intelligence he provides. He becomes a US citizen, falls in love with American movies, basketball, and jazz, and even develops an admiration for supermarkets.

But by his own reckoning, his life is “miserable” and “lonely.” He continues to pine for China and for the family he is prevented from seeing. By the time he is promoted to the rank of vice minister of national security in China, he finds himself stifling the urge to weep, prepared to “trade any heroic name for a normal life.”

A Map of Betrayal has an elegiac tone. Shang is both a betrayer and someone who has been betrayed. He has walked away from his first wife, after promising to return to her, leaves his second wife to take up with a mistress, and betrays his adopted country by passing along vital national security secrets.

But as Jin makes clear, this is a man who has also been duped and used by his handlers. When, in the end, the FBI sentences him to life in prison, the Chinese government exacts the ultimate betrayal by claiming never to have heard of him.

At one point, Lilian concedes that her father has become more enigmatic to her, because she’s unable to “penetrate the armor of detachment he had clothed himself in.” Readers will find him equally unfathomable, but also unforgettable. Even his own delusions of grandeur—he believes himself to be a patriot to both China and the United States, and even compliments himself for having seized “every opportunity to improve the mutual understanding and cooperation between the two countries”— aren’t enough to save him in the end. We’re left with a man who has paid a tragic price for being, in his own words, a “nameless hero…on the invisible front,” a “stranded traveler” who ultimately has little to show for his clandestine life.—John O’Rourke

Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist

Kirun Kapur (GRS’00)
Elixir Press

Selected Poems

The epigraph to Kapur’s powerful debut collection quotes Willa Cather in O Pioneers!: “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” Infused with history and leavened with heart, Kapur’s evocative verse and prose poems are drawn from these universals: how unlikely bonds spawn families, and how, over generations, geography and history shape and inform us. Many of the poems draw on the collision of faiths and cultures that defined Kapur’s parents, an American former Benedictine novice and a polyglot South Asian who survived the orgy of bloodshed triggered by the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. In “Anthem,” the introductory poem, she writes of a country:

Where oranges weep sweetness
And men piss in the street.

This verbal economy characterizes Kapur’s collection, which explores themes of blood memory and the stark intrusion of violence into blameless domestic rituals. In “History (with a Melon Cleaver),” she uses ominous repetition and deft pacing to transport us to a hot summer day in post-partition Lahore, when a boy’s innocent, patient hunger for a “cool slab of sweet melon” leads to a stunning stroke of violence. In “Light,” a singsong lesson in the way “good girls” knead dough for atta and puris is laden with stories of the time “When all the women shared a bed.” But history casts a cruel shadow on these simple moments. Kapur writes:

When the fan chuffed sandalwood and
roses,
I raised my arm above my head.
They named lost aunts and daughters.
I caught hold of my cousin’s hand.

In his praise for the collection, Robert Pinsky, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English and creative writing and a former three-time US poet laureate, remarks that poetry is the medium that can tell such stories “without sprawl or stereotype.” Kapur is a “true, gifted poet,” he says. On reading Visiting Indira Ghandhi’s Palmist, it’s clear that her gifts make it possible for Kapur to glean emotional truths from a historic epic worthy of telling and retelling in all media. These poems in particular serve as a poignant complement to the historic record. Listen to the Hindu and Muslim voices in these verses excerpted from “Chorus”:

Mala, Tara, Devi, Rani. Reports
may be exaggerated. I stopped
believing my eyes.
Hindus halting northbound trains.
Muslims stopping southbound
trains….
I believe some reports were
exaggerated.
Samir, Sadiq, Saleem, Sonny.

Kapur’s verse, beautiful to read and to be read aloud, does more than reflect a fresh voice and budding talent. By listening to the survivors and the ghosts of the slaughtered, she bears witness.—SS

Nonfiction

Rust: The Longest War

Jonathan Waldman (COM’04)
Simon & Schuster

Invisible Beasts

Occasionally a gifted writer can make a seemingly mundane subject riveting and cast it in a revelatory light. This is the case with Waldman’s Rust, a scientific yet deeply human adventure among the ravages of oxidation that will have readers reaching for the WD-40 with a new sense of humility and awe.

Ubiquitous, insidious, confounding, dogged rust—which, says Waldman, one author called “the great destroyer” and another “the evil”—is the bane of army tanks and gas tanks, of infrastructure from water pipes to suspension bridges to railroad tracks. It threatened the integrity of Waldman’s money pit of a sailboat as well as the Statue of Liberty. There is even rust in space; it’s what turned Mars red. Its first recorded mention is a 2,000-year-old notation by a Roman general who noted that the corrosion to his giant catapults was “causing more casualties to our own army than to the enemy.”

Fleshing out the centuries-long contingent of chemists, engineers, industrialists, and others who have worked to demystify and conquer the knife-dulling scourge, Waldman employs well-oiled prose to explain why rust happens and, more important, why we should care. He glides elegantly from the micro to the macro world, from the behavior of electrons to the comparative virtues and drawbacks of iron, copper, and steel. He hangs out with engineers and corrosion consultants as they ponder how to vanquish or prevent rust in food cans, automobiles, and oil pipelines. He chronicles the war on corrosion from the front lines at NASA, the Pentagon, and the nation’s finest academic engineering labs. He attends corrosion forums, hobnobbing with some of the nation’s 15,000, mostly male, corrosion experts.

And who would imagine he’d encounter such an appealing, zany bunch? These engineers have an organization that named an annual conference “Sex and Corrosion.” They write poetry: “We can measure, we can test it, we can halt or arrest it. We can gather it and weigh it, we can coat it, we can spray it….We can pick it up and drop it, but heaven knows we’ll never stop it!”

Managing by a fluke to get himself invited to Ball Beverage Can School in Colorado, Waldman tries to keep his cool in the company of conspiratorial executives suspicious of his presence. The Ball company spends $200 million a year on can coatings, and in light of health concerns over chemicals in the coatings, it is fiercely protective of and defensive about its formula. Waldman devotes several hilarious pages to the unnerving effect of his presence at can school, where he is not just subject to hostile scrutiny but has his project bluntly ridiculed. One Ball representative told him he thought “rust was a silly subject to write about” and he didn’t think “that anybody would want to read about cans.”

He was wrong on both counts. With Rust, Waldman has accomplished something that, unlike his subject, is rare in today’s often numbing, TMI world. He has, with exactitude and flair, created an actual page-turner about rust. Other menaces come and go, but rust, the ravages of which have cost the world untold trillions, is here to stay, and attention must be paid.—SS

My Thinning Years

Jon Derek Croteau (SED’05)
Hazelden

Invisible Beasts

Forget Tolstoy and his criminally overused observation about happy versus unhappy families. Devastating memoirs like Croteau’s are more the stuff of poet Philip Larkin, who observed, “They f*ck you up, your mum and dad….”

By the time Croteau was born, the fight had pretty much gone out of his witty, beatific, chainsmoking mother, whose weary tenderness toward her beloved younger son was no protection against unrelenting physical and verbal abuse by his father. A rabid homophobe, he was the kind of man who managed to be a pinnacle of the community while tormenting his sexually confused son to the point where, as a teen, the boy tries to make himself disappear by starving himself. Even as a toddler Croteau found his father “repellant,” and his earliest memories of the man who would later force him to play football instead of acting in the school play are “entangled with fear and anxiety.”

Eventually nicknamed “BB”—“big balls”—by his wife, Croteau’s father routinely accused his son of being pudgy and effeminate, punished him with whippings, and forced him to go days without food. Though the young Croteau—charismatic and well liked, if not an Adonis like his best friend, Chad, whose beauty he secretly covets—dutifully dates girls, the only abiding obstacle to his coming out as gay is the fear that his father’s disapproval will put an end to life as he knows it. And so it isn’t until a visit to Emerson College, where he enrolls after a grim freshman year at Bates, that Croteau’s long-shackled sexual longings break free. But as his father’s son he pays dearly for that one night of unbound pleasure, doubling the mileage of his daily runs while ingesting so few calories he withers to 112 pounds and ends up in a hospital, diagnosis “inconclusive,” which infuriates his father even more.

At the same time that we ache for Croteau, who eventually graduates, finds a boyfriend, and starts eating and looking to a rewarding future, we want to shake him by the shoulders after reading how his father still manages to reduce him to tears on a visit with a boyfriend to the family’s Andover, Mass., home. “You’ll never love me for who I am!” he screams. “And I can’t change! This is how GOD made me!”

It isn’t until after Croteau meets Justin, the love of his life, that he confronts his father, if only in an email: “I’ve made the best decision: to stay far away from you….I feared, every single day of my life, telling you who I was….I tried starving myself to make it easier for you, but it was never enough. I was never good enough for you.” Croteau goes on to write that he has finally realized he deserves much better.

Several years after he and Justin marry, Croteau’s mother dies, and on the day of her funeral his father undergoes triple bypass surgery. He survives, and one summer weekend as Justin and Croteau sit in church, Croteau is moved to forgiveness. In his epilogue, written four years later, Croteau feels “freer and lighter.” The publisher categorizes this book as self-help/recovery, and Croteau finds these in love and faith. He now strives for acceptance, he says, “acceptance of myself, acceptance of all those around me.”—SS