This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

★★★★☆ (4/5)
A selection of my favourite passages from the book

• Climb up time’s threads into the past and make sure no one survives this battle to muddle the futures her Agency’s arranged—the futures in which her Agency rules, in which Red herself is possible. She’s come to knot this strand of history and sear it until it melts.

• Not every battle’s grand, not every weapon erce. Even we who ght wars through time forget the value of a word in the right moment, a rattle in the right car engine, a nail in the right horseshoe . . . It’s so easy to crush a planet that you may overlook the value of a whisper to a snowbank.

• Who’s infecting whom? We know from our hoarse Trojans, in my time. Will you respond, establishing complicity, continuing our self-destructive paper trail, just to get in the last word? Will you cut o , leaving my note to spin its fractal math inside you? I wonder which I’d rather.

• Red curses into the silence. Remembering the era, she invokes local fertility deities, frames inventive methods for their copulation. She exhausts her invective arsenal and growls, wordless, and spits into the abyss. After all that, as prophesied, she laughs. Thwarted, bitter, but still, there’s humor in it.

• Will you go still or turn sharply when you know that I’m watching you? Will you see me? Imagine me waving, in case you don’t; I’ll be too far o for you to see my mouth.

• Icicles drip and snap as the great trees fall, and felled, the trees leave gaps in green that bare the cold white sky. Warriors like those at clouds better than the forest’s gloom, but not so much as they loved the blue of home.

• Tell me something true, or tell me nothing at all.

• The usual nonsense. I imagine you have something of the same: The Agency squats far downthread, issues agents up; then Commandant doubts the agents who return. Yes, we diverge in our travels; yes, we acquire shades; we round; we behave asocially. Adaption is the price of victory. You might think they would realize that.

• There’s a kind of time travel in letters, isn’t there? I imagine you laughing at my small joke; I imagine you groaning; I imagine you throwing my words away. Do I have you still? Do I address empty air and the ies that will eat this carcass? You could leave me for ve years, you could return never—and I have to write the rest of this not knowing. I prefer read-receipts, all things considered—the instant handshake of slow telepathy through our wires.

• Have you ever had a hunger that whetted itself on what you fed it, sharpened so keen and bright that it might split you open, break a new thing out?

• London Next—the same day, month, year, but one strand over—is the kind of London other Londons dream: sepia tinted, skies strung with dirigibles, the viciousness of empire acknowledged only as a rosy backdrop glow redolent of spice and petalled sugar. Mannered as a novel, lthy only where story requires it, all meat pies and monarchy—this is a place Blue loves, and hates herself for loving.

• Adventure works in any strand—it calls to those who care more for living than for their lives.

• You ask if I’ve been lonely. I hardly know how to answer. I have observed friendship as one observes high holy days: breathtakingly short, whirlwinds of intimate endeavour, frenzied carousing, the sharing of food, of wine, of honey. Compressed, always, and gone as soon as they come. It is often my duty to fall in love convincingly, and certainly I’ve received no complaints. But that is work, and there are better things of which to write.

• We treat the past as trellis, coax our vineyard through and around, and harvest is not a word for swiftness; the future harvests us, stomps us into wine, pours us back into the root system in loving libation, and we grow stronger and more potent together.

• but I look at you, Red, and see much of myself: a desire to be apart, sometimes, to understand who I am without the rest. And what I return to, the me-ness that I know as pure, inescapable self . . . is hunger. Desire. Longing, this longing to possess, to become, to break like a wave on a rock and reform, and break again, and wash away

• It is difficult—it is very difficult, to befriend where you wish to consume, to nd those who, when they ask Do I have you still, when they end a letter with Yours, mean it in any substantive way.

• So I go. I travel farther and faster and harder than most, and I read, and I write, and I love cities. To be alone in a crowd, apart and belonging, to have distance between what I see and what I am.

• but Red’s letters she keeps in her own body, curled beneath her tongue like coins, printed in her ngers’ tips, between the lines of her palms.

• So in this letter I am yours. Not Garden’s, not your mission’s, but yours, alone. I am yours in other ways as well: yours as I watch the world for your signs, apophenic as a haruspex; yours as I debate methods, motives, chances of delivery; yours as I review your words by their sequence, their sound, smell, taste, taking care no one memory of them becomes too worn

• In fourteenth-century Axum, Islamicized and strong in Strand 3329, Red, in shadows, stabs a man who’s about to stab another man who’s wandering home buzzed on espresso, sugar, and math. The man Red stabs dies. The mathematician wakes up the next day and invents a form of thought that, in another strand, much later, will be called hyperbolic geometry. Red’s already gone.

• Red wrote too much too fast. Her pen had a heart inside, and the nib was a wound in a vein. She stained the page with herself. She sometimes forgets what she wrote, save that it was true, and the writing hurt

• To paraphrase a prophet: Letters are structures, not events. Yours give me a place to live inside.

• I like you to know, with my words in your mouth, the places and ways in which I think of you. It feels good to be reciprocal; eat this part of me while I drive reeds into the depth of you, spill out something sweet. I wish sometimes I could be less erce with you. No—I feel sometimes like I ought to want to be less erce with you. That this—whatever this is —would be better served by tenderness, by gentle kindness. Instead I write of spilling out your sap-guts with reeds. I hope you can forgive this. To be soft, for me, is so often pretense, and pretense does not come easily while writing to you.

• You wrote of being in a village upthread together, living as friends and neighbours do, and I could have swallowed this valley whole and still not have sated my hunger for the thought. Instead I wick the longing into thread, pass it through your needle eye, and sew it into hiding somewhere beneath my skin, embroider my next letter to you one stitch at a time.

• When Garden embeds an agent—as I’m sure your Commandant has noticed—they are near impossible to approach, indistinguishable from their surroundings, so thoroughly enmeshed in the fabric of strands that to cut us out would tear unsightly holes through which Chaos pours, Chaos no one downthread wants, not even your Oracle, who lives and breathes the stu . Too unpredictable, too dicult to manage, the cost/benet all askew—so you catch us on the move, in between, while we’re dancing the braid as well, touching lives only lightly. Even Garden has diculty reaching us with the more nuanced branches of their consciousness; to be an agent out of time and approach someone embedded you’d need to practically wear their skin before the braid would allow you within fty years or a thousand miles of their position.

• I make metaphors to approach the enormous fact of you on slant

• I’ve never felt it before this —I’ve had joy in sex; I’ve had fast friendships. Neither feels right for this, and this feels bigger than both. So let me say what I mean, as well as I can. I sought loneliness when I was young. You’ve seen me there: on my promontory, patient and unaware. But when I think of you, I want to be alone together. I want to strive against and for. I want to live in contact. I want to be a context for you, and you for me.

• You’ll never see, but you will know. I’ll be all the poets, I’ll kill them all and take each one’s place in turn, and every time love’s written in all the strands it will be to you.

• The twist of you in me. The writhe. You’re a whip uncoiling in my veins, and I write between the rearing and the snap. Of course I write to you. Of course I ate your words.

• Suppose we reached across the burn of threads and tangles, cut through the braid’s knots—suppose that we defected, not to each other’s sides, but to each other? We’re the best there is at what we do. Shall we do something we’ve never done? Shall we prick and twist and play the braid until it yields us a place downthread, bend the fork of our Shifts into a double helix around our base pair?

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Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

★★★★☆ (4/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

On Friction Within Friendship

• Bobbi and I discussed at length what Bobbi would wear to the dinner, under the guise of talking about what we should both wear.

• I was lying. Except in the sense of enriching my life, Bobbi didn’t help me write the poetry. As far as I knew she had never written creatively at all. She liked to perform dramatic monologues and sing anti-war ballads. Onstage she was the superior performer and I often glanced at her anxiously to remind myself what to do.

• I didn’t have the courage to really dislike her, but I knew I wanted to.

• This phrase, ‘if I can’, made it clear that Bobbi was trying to tell me something serious, something that couldn’t be communicated in words but instead through a shift in the way we related to each other. Not only was it nonsense for Bobbi to say ‘if I can’ at the end of her sentence, because she came from a wealthy family, read diligently and had good grades, but it didn’t make sense in the context of our relationship either. Bobbi didn’t relate to me in the ‘if I can’ sense. She related to me as a person, maybe the only person, who understood her ferocious and frightening power over circumstances and people. What she wanted, she could have, I knew that.

On Seeing Inwardly

• My ego had always been an issue. I knew that intellectual attainment was morally neutral at best, but when bad things happened to me I made myself feel better by thinking about how smart I was. When I couldn’t make friends as a child, I fantasised that I was smarter than all my teachers, smarter than any other student who had been in the school before, a genius hidden among normal people. It made me feel like a spy.

• At this point I felt a weird lack of self-recognition, and I realised that I couldn’t visualise my own face or body at all. It was like someone had lifted the end of an invisible pencil and just gently erased my entire appearance. This was curious and actually not unpleasant, though I was also aware that I was cold and might have been shivering.

• Was I kind to others? It was hard to nail down an answer. I worried that if I did turn out to have a personality, it would be one of the unkind ones. Did I only worry about this question because as a woman I felt required to put the needs of others before my own? Was ‘kindness’ just another term for submission in the face of conflict?

• I panicked, I wanted to tell her. I started thinking about the heat death of the universe again. I called Nick and then hung up on him. But these were all things I did because I thought something was happening to me which turned out not to happen. The idea of the baby, with all its huge emotional gravity and its potential for lasting grief, had disappeared into nothing. I had never been pregnant. It was impossible, maybe even offensive, to grieve a pregnancy that had never happened, even though the emotions I’d felt had still been real at the time that I felt them. In the past Bobbi had been receptive to my analyses of my own misery, but this time I couldn’t trust myself to deliver the argument without weeping into the phone.

• People were always wanting me to show some weakness so they could reassure me. It made them feel worthy, I knew all about that.

On Seeing Inwards from the Outside

• These were long and intense conversations, and felt so momentous to me that I secretly transcribed parts of them from memory in the evenings. When Bobbi talked about me it felt like seeing myself in a mirror for the first time. I also looked in actual mirrors more often. I started taking a close interest in my face and body, which I’d never done before.

• I enjoyed playing this kind of character, the smiling girl who remembered things. Bobbi told me she thought I didn’t have a ‘real personality’, but she said she meant it as a compliment. Mostly I agreed with her assessment. At any time I felt I could do or say anything at all, and only afterwards think: oh, so that’s the kind of person I am.

• I didn’t know what caused this process, but I was glad the poems were only ever performed and never published. They floated away ethereally to the sound of applause. Real writers, and also painters, had to keep on looking at the ugly things they had done for good. I hated that everything I did was so ugly, but also that I lacked the courage to confront how ugly it was.

• They took her radical politics as a kind of bourgeois self-deprecation, nothing very serious, and talked to her about restaurants or where to stay in Rome. I felt out of place in these situations, ignorant and bitter, but also fearful of being discovered as a moderately poor person and a communist.

• Nick said nothing, and neither did I. His silence was significant and mine was not because his opinion on whether things would be fine, unlike mine, was important.

• I thought of myself as an independent person, so independent that the opinions of others were irrelevant to me. Now I was afraid that Nick was right: I isolated myself from criticism so I could behave badly without losing my sense of righteousness.

On Cruelty

• As a woman I have no county, I said. It felt good to belittle Nick’s friends, although they seemed harmless.

• He had screwed me up in his hand like paper and tossed me away.

• His voice wandered up and down the tonal scale when he spoke. His drunkenness made me feel unclean. I wanted to shower or eat a fresh piece of fruit.

• Bobbi herself was the only person who found it amusing, but that didn’t seem to bother her; she looked like it had played out just as she intended. I realised, stupidly late, that she had almost certainly put my name into the bowl in the first place. I was reminded of her wildness, her tendency to get inside things and break them open, and I felt fearful of her, not for the first time. She wanted to expose something private about how I felt, to turn it from a secret into something else, a joke or a game.

• I couldn’t tell whether she was being affectionate or vitriolic; she had a way of making them seem like the same thing.

• That I had managed to leave any lasting impact on Valerie filled me with a sense of spiteful triumph. Although she had ignored me at dinner, I was now the interesting thing she wanted to unravel. In this triumphantly recriminatory mood, I sent her the new story, without even looking it over again for typos. The world was like a crumpled ball of newspaper to me, something to kick around.

• I thought of the story I had sent to Valerie that morning, a story which I now remembered was explicitly about Bobbi, a story which characterised Bobbi as a mystery so total I couldn’t endure her, a force I couldn’t subjugate with my will, and the love of my life.

• In short if you’re sleeping with my husband because you secretly believe that one day he will be your husband, then you’re making a serious mistake. He’s not going to divorce me & if he did he would never marry you. Equally if you’re sleeping with him because you believe his affection proves you to be a good person, or even a smart or attractive person, you should know that Nick is not primarily attracted to good-looking or morally worthy people. He likes partners who take complete responsibility for all his decisions, that’s all. You will not be able to draw a sustainable sense of self-respect from this relationship you’re in. I’m sure you find his total acquiescence charming now, but over the course of a marriage it actually becomes exhausting. Fighting with him is impossible because he’s pathologically submissive, & you can’t scream at him without hating yourself.

• And I mean, you took such enjoyment in destroying it. Suddenly I’m looking around my own fucking house, thinking: is this sofa ugly? Is it kitsch to drink wine? And things I felt good about before started to make me feel pathetic. Having a husband instead of just fucking someone else’s husband. Having a book deal instead of writing nasty short stories about people I know and selling them to prestigious magazines. I mean, you came into my house with your fucking nose piercing like: oh, I’ll really enjoy eviscerating this whole set-up. She’s so establishment.

On Nuances of Love

• It was at this point I saw Nick enter from the door at the back. He looked slightly breathless, like he had taken the stairs too quickly. Instantly I looked away and pretended I hadn’t noticed him. I could see that he was trying to catch my eye and that if I returned his gaze he would give me a kind of apologetic expression. I found this idea too intense to think about, like the glare of a bare lightbulb.

• He drew away from me after a few seconds and wiped his mouth, but tenderly, as if he was trying to make sure it was still there. Neither of us gestured or waved, we just looked at one another, as if we were already having a private conversation that couldn’t be overheard.

• The inside of my body was hot like oil. I was possessed by an overwhelming and intense energy which seemed to threaten me. Please, I was saying. Please, please.

• The moment he touched me I felt hot and passive as if I were asleep. Any strength I had seemed to leave me completely and when I tried to speak I stammered.

• At times I thought this was the worst misery I had experienced in my life, but it was also a very shallow misery, which at any time could have been relieved completely by a word from him and transformed into idiotic happiness.

• Frances, I want you so badly, he said. I closed my eyes. The words seemed to go past my mind, like they went straight into my body and stayed there. When I spoke, my voice sounded low and sultry. Will you die if you can’t have me? I said. And he said: yes.

• But what happens if I do tell her? he said. I mean, what would you want to happen? I don’t get the impression that you want me to move in with you. I laughed and so did he. Although we were laughing about the impossibility of our relationship, it still felt nice.

• The problem isn’t that you’re married, I said. The problem is that I love you and you obviously don’t love me. He took a deep breath in and said: you’re being unbelievably dramatic, Frances. Fuck you, I said.

• Even though I had known Nick didn’t love me, I had continued to let him have sex with me whenever he wanted, out of desperation and a naive hope that he didn’t understand what he was inflicting on me. Now even that hope was gone. He knew that I loved him, that he was exploiting my tender feelings for him, and he didn’t care. There was nothing to be done.

• I read his email again and again while I tried to decide. On one reading it might give an impression of devotion and acquiescence, and on another it appeared indecisive or ambivalent. I didn’t know what I wanted from him.

• Things like this can be undone. But I knew that he would never come back again, not really. He wasn’t only mine any more, that part was over. Melissa knew things that I didn’t know. After everything that had happened between them they still desired one another.

• If two people make each other happy then it’s working. You could smile at a stranger on the street and make them happy, he said. We’re talking about something more complicated.

Thought Provoking Instances

• I was appropriating my fear of total disappearance as a spiritual practice. I was inhabiting disappearance as something that could reveal and inform, rather than totalise and annihilate.

• “There’s something beautiful about the way you think and feel, or the way that you experience the world is beautiful in some way.” This remark returned to me repeatedly for days after the email arrived. I smiled involuntarily when I thought of it, like I was remembering a private joke.

• You can love more than one person, she said.

• Bobbi: if you look at love as something other than an interpersonal phenomenon Bobbi: and try to understand it as a social value system Bobbi: it’s both antithetical to capitalism, in that it challenges the axiom of selfishness Bobbi: which dictates the whole logic of inequality Bobbi: and yet also it’s subservient and facilitatory Bobbi: i.e. mothers selflessly raising children without any profit motive Bobbi: which seems to contradict the demands of the market at one level Bobbi: and yet actually just functions to provide workers for free

• I wanted to hurt myself again, in order to feel returned to the safety of my own physical body.

• Maybe niceness is the wrong metric, I said. Of course it’s really about power, Bobbi agreed. But it’s harder to work out who has the power, so instead we rely on ‘niceness’ as a kind of stand-in.

• My relationship with you is also produced by your relationship with Melissa, and with Nick, and with your childhood self, etc., etc. I wanted things for myself because I thought I existed. You’re going to write back and explain what Lacan really meant.

Beautifully Crafted Sentences

• Although I couldn’t specify why exactly, I felt certain that Melissa was less interested in our writing process now that she knew I wrote the material alone. I knew the subtlety of this change would be enough for Bobbi to deny it later, which irritated me as if it had already happened. I was starting to feel adrift from the whole set-up, like the dynamic that had eventually revealed itself didn’t interest me, or even involve me. I could have tried harder to engage myself, but I probably resented having to make an effort to be noticed.

• How’s your mother holding up? Oh, it’s migraine season again. We’re all tiptoeing around like fucking Trappist monks.

• Her hands were large and sallow, not at all like mine. They were full of the practicality I lacked, and my hand fit into them like something that needed fixing.

• I couldn’t stop the tears so I just laughed self-effacingly instead, to show that I wasn’t invested in the crying.

• I looked out at the garden, at the bird-feeder hanging off the birch tree. My mother favoured some species of birds over others; the feeder was for the benefit of small and appealingly vulnerable ones. Crows were completely out of favour. She chased them away when she spotted them. They’re all just birds, I pointed out. She said yes, but some birds can fend for themselves.

• The non-existent baby entered a new category of non-existence, that is, things which had not stopped existing but in fact had never existed.

• I loved them both so much in this moment that I wanted to appear in front of them like a benevolent ghost and sprinkle blessings into their lives. Thank you, I wanted to say. Thank you both. You are my family now.

• We were silent for a few seconds. I felt blissfully tired, like each cell in my body was winding down into a deep private sleep of its own.

• You know I went up to my room and waited for you, right? I mean for hours. And at first I really thought you would come. It was probably the most wretched I ever felt in my life, this kind of ecstatic wretchedness that in a way I was practically enjoying. Because even if you did come upstairs, what then? The house was full of people, it’s not like anything was going to happen. But every time I thought of going back down again I would imagine hearing you on the stairs, and I couldn’t leave, I mean I physically couldn’t. Anyway, how I felt then, knowing that you were close by and feeling completely paralysed by it, this phone call is very similar. If I told you where my car is right now, I don’t think I’d be able to leave, I think I would have to stay here just in case you changed your mind about everything. You know, I still have that impulse to be available to you.

• I closed my eyes. Things and people moved around me, taking positions in obscure hierarchies, participating in systems I didn’t know about and never would. A complex network of objects and concepts. You live through certain things before you understand them. You can’t always take the analytical position. Come and get me, I said.

Educated by Tara Westover

★★★★★ (5/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Opening Lines

  • I’m standing on the red railway car that sits abandoned next to the barn. The wind soars, whipping my hair across my face and pushing a chill down the open neck of my shirt. The gales are strong this close to the mountain, as if the peak itself is exhaling. Down below, the valley is peaceful, undisturbed. Meanwhile our farm dances: the heavy conifer trees sway slowly, while the sagebrush and thistles quiver, bowing before every puff and pocket of air. Behind me a gentle hill slopes upward and stitches itself to the mountain base. If I look up, I can see the dark form of the Indian Princess. The hill is paved with wild wheat. If the conifers and sagebrush are soloists, the wheat field is a corps de ballet, each stem following all the rest in bursts of movement, a million ballerinas bending, one after the other, as great gales dent their golden heads. The shape of that dent lasts only a moment, and is as close as anyone gets to seeing wind.

Setting the Stage

  • Dad worries that the Government will force us to go but it can’t, because it doesn’t know about us. Four of my parents’ seven children don’t have birth certificates. We have no medical records because we were born at home and have never seen a doctor or nurse. We have no school records because we’ve never set foot in a classroom. When I am nine, I will be issued a Delayed Certificate of Birth, but at this moment, according to the state of Idaho and the federal government, I do not exist.
  • Mother didn’t want to be a midwife. Midwifery had been Dad’s idea, one of his schemes for self-reliance. There was nothing he hated more than our being dependent on the Government. Dad said one day we would be completely off the grid.
  • Of all the strange statements from the past half hour, for some reason this was the one that shocked me. The mere fact of them had never shocked me before. Everything they did had always made sense to me, adhering to a logic I understood. Perhaps it was the backdrop: Buck’s Peak was theirs and it camouflaged them, so that when I saw them there, surrounded by the loud, sharp relics of my childhood, the setting seemed to absorb them. At least it absorbed the noise. But here, so near the university, they seemed so unreal as to be almost mythic.

On Familial Dynamics

  • The other possibility is that Mother didn’t ask Dad. Perhaps she just decided, on her own, and he accepted her decision. Perhaps even he—charismatic gale of a man that he was—was temporarily swept aside by the force of her.
  • Mother fell into silence. I studied her as she drove. Her face was illuminated by the lights in the dashboard, and it appeared ghostly white set against the utter blackness of country roads. Fear was etched into her features, in the bunching of her forehead and the tightening of her lips. Alone with just me, she put aside the persona she displayed for others. She was her old self again, fragile, breathy.
  • in his younger years, Grandpa-down-the-hill had been violent, with a hair-trigger temper. Mother’s use of the words “had been” always struck me as funny. We all knew better than to cross Grandpa. He had a short fuse, that was just fact and anybody in the valley could have told you as much. He was weatherworn inside and out, as taut and rugged as the horses he ran wild on the mountain.
  • That’s when Mother announced we were going to Arizona. She said Dad was like a sunflower—he’d die in the snow—and that come February he needed to be taken away and planted in the sun.
  • It happens sometimes in families: one child who doesn’t fit, whose rhythm is off, whose meter is set to the wrong tune. In our family, that was Tyler. He was waltzing while the rest of us hopped a jig; he was deaf to the raucous music of our lives, and we were deaf to the serene polyphony of his.
  • Grandma was even worse, Dad said. She was frivolous. I didn’t know what that word meant, but he said it so often that I’d come to associate it with her—with her creamy carpet and soft petal wallpaper.
  • There was something in the hard line of my father’s face, in the quiet sigh of supplication he made every morning before he began family prayer, that made me think my curiosity was an obscenity, an affront to all he’d sacrificed to raise me.
  • The play opened a week later. Dad was in the front row. When the performance ended, he marched right to the box office and bought tickets for the next night. It was all he talked about that Sunday in church. Not doctors, or the Illuminati, or Y2K. Just the play over in town, where his youngest daughter was singing the lead.
  • That was how Dad and Shawn became comrades, even if they only agreed on one thing: that my brush with education had made me uppity, and that what I needed was to be dragged through time. Fixed, anchored to a former version of myself.
  • There was a pause, then more words appeared—words I hadn’t known I needed to hear, but once I saw them, I realized I’d been searching my whole life for them. You were my child. I should have protected you. I lived a lifetime in the moment I read those lines, a life that was not the one I had actually lived. I became a different person, who remembered a different childhood. I didn’t understand the magic of those words then, and I don’t understand it now. I know only this: that when my mother told me she had not been the mother to me that she wished she’d been, she became that mother for the first time.

On Fractured Relations

  • We understood that the dissolution of Mother’s family was the inauguration of ours. The two could not exist together. Only one could have her.
  • The embalmers hadn’t gotten her lips right—the gracious smile she’d worn like an iron mask had been stripped away. It was the first time I’d seen her without it and that’s when it finally occurred to me: that Grandma was the only person who might have understood what was happening to me. How the paranoia and fundamentalism were carving up my life, how they were taking from me the people I cared about and leaving only degrees and certificates—an air of respectability—in their place. What was happening now had happened before. This was the second severing of mother and daughter. The tape was playing in a loop.
  • That person was Shawn, and I was looking at him but I wasn’t seeing him. I don’t know what I saw—what creature I conjured from that violent, compassionate act—but I think it was my father, or perhaps my father as I wished he were, some longed-for defender, some fanciful champion, one who wouldn’t fling me into a storm, and who, if I was hurt, would make me whole.
  • I hung up, not sure what I’d just heard. I knew it wouldn’t last, that the next time we spoke everything would be different, the tenderness of this moment forgotten, the endless struggle between us again in the foreground. But tonight he wanted to help. And that was something.
  • I could tolerate any form of cruelty better than kindness. Praise was a poison to me; I choked on it.
  • What was needed was a revolution, a reversal of the ancient, brittle roles we’d been playing out since my childhood. What was needed—what Emily needed—was a woman emancipated from pretense, a woman who could show herself to be a man. Voice an opinion. Take action in scorn of deference. A father.
  • As I listened, I felt a strange sensation of distance that bordered on disinterestedness, as if my future with Tyler, this brother I had known and loved all my life, was a film I had already seen and knew the ending of. I knew the shape of this drama because I had lived it already, with my sister.
  • Our parents are held down by chains of abuse, manipulation, and control….They see change as dangerous and will exile anyone who asks for it. This is a perverted idea of family loyalty….They claim faith, but this is not what the gospel teaches. Keep safe. We love you.
  • But what has come between me and my father is more than time or distance. It is a change in the self. I am not the child my father raised, but he is the father who raised her.

On Memory and Truth

  • My strongest memory is not a memory. It’s something I imagined, then came to remember as if it had happened.
  • At first I merely believed this, until one day it became the truth. Then I was able to tell myself, without lying, that it didn’t affect me, that he didn’t affect me, because nothing affected me. I didn’t understand how morbidly right I was. How I had hollowed myself out. For all my obsessing over the consequences of that night, I had misunderstood the vital truth: that its not affecting me, that was its effect.
  • My loyalty to my father had increased in proportion to the miles between us. On the mountain, I could rebel. But here, in this loud, bright place, surrounded by gentiles disguised as saints, I clung to every truth, every doctrine he had given me.
  • Curiosity is a luxury reserved for the financially secure: my mind was absorbed with more immediate concerns, such as the exact balance of my bank account, who I owed how much, and whether there was anything in my room I could sell for ten or twenty dollars.
  • If I was insane, everything could be made to make sense. If I was sane, nothing could. This logic seemed damning. It was also a relief. I was not evil; I was clinical. I began to defer, always, to the judgment of others.
  • My journals were a problem. I knew that my memories were not memories only, that I had recorded them, that they existed in black and white. This meant that more than my memory was in error. The delusion was deeper, in the core of my mind, which invented in the very moment of occurrence, then recorded the fiction. In the month that followed, I lived the life of a lunatic. Seeing sunshine, I suspected rain. I felt a relentless desire to ask people to verify whether they were seeing what I was seeing. Is this book blue? I wanted to ask. Is that man tall?
  • I had come to reclaim that life, to save it. But there was nothing here to save, nothing to grasp. There was only shifting sand, shifting loyalties, shifting histories.

On Guilt and Fear

  • We thought it was a great joke, once the black rings had been around for a few weeks, long enough for us to get used to them and make them the subject of jokes. We had no idea it was a medical term. Raccoon eyes. A sign of serious brain injury. Tyler’s guilt was all-consuming. He blamed himself for the accident, then kept on blaming himself for every decision that was made thereafter, every repercussion, every reverberation that clanged down through the years. He laid claim to that moment and all its consequences, as if time itself had commenced the instant our station wagon left the road, and there was no history, no context, no agency of any kind until he began it, at the age of seventeen, by falling asleep at the wheel.
  • Dad lived in fear of time. He felt it stalking him. I could see it in the worried glances he gave the sun as it moved across the sky, in the anxious way he appraised every length of pipe or cut of steel.
  • I walked out of the room. Dad was still shouting when I reached the kitchen. As I moved down the hall I looked back. Mother had taken my place, crouching over the VCR, groping for the wires, as Dad towered over her.
  • The instinct passed through me in the form of a word, a bold lyric, strong, declarative. The word was not new. It had been with me for a while now, hushed, motionless, as if asleep, in some remote corner of memory. By touching me Charles had awakened it, and it throbbed with life. I shoved my hands under my knees and leaned into the window. I couldn’t let him near me—not that night, and not any night for months—without shuddering as that word, my word, ripped its way into remembrance. Whore.
  • While they plotted how to reconvert me, I plotted how to let them. I was ready to yield, even if it meant an exorcism. A miracle would be useful: if I could stage a convincing rebirth, I could dissociate from everything I’d said and done in the last year. I could take it all back—blame Lucifer and be given a clean slate. I imagined how esteemed I would be, as a newly cleansed vessel. How loved. All I had to do was swap my memories for theirs, and I could have my family.
  • I did not study. I tried to read but the sentences meant nothing. I needed them to mean nothing. I couldn’t bear to string sentences into strands of thought, or to weave those strands into ideas. Ideas were too similar to reflection, and my reflections were always of the expression on my father’s stretched face the moment before he’d fled from me.
  • I’ve apologized to Tyler more times than I can count for what I’ve cost him, but the words are awkwardly placed and I stumble over them. What is the proper arrangement of words? How do you craft an apology for weakening someone’s ties to his father, to his family? Perhaps there aren’t words for that. How do you thank a brother who refused to let you go, who seized your hand and wrenched you upward, just as you had decided to stop kicking and sink? There aren’t words for that, either.

On Education

  • Learning in our family was entirely self-directed: you could learn anything you could teach yourself, after your work was done. Some of us were more disciplined than others. I was one of the least disciplined, so by the time I was ten, the only subject I had studied systematically was Morse code, because Dad insisted that I learn it. “If the lines are cut, we’ll be the only people in the valley who can communicate,” he said, though I was never quite sure, if we were the only people learning it, who we’d be communicating with.
  • In retrospect, I see that this was my education, the one that would matter: the hours I spent sitting at a borrowed desk, struggling to parse narrow strands of Mormon doctrine in mimicry of a brother who’d deserted me. The skill I was learning was a crucial one, the patience to read things I could not yet understand.
  • The misery began when I moved beyond the Pythagorean theorem to sine, cosine and tangent. I couldn’t grasp such abstractions. I could feel the logic in them, could sense their power to bestow order and symmetry, but I couldn’t unlock it. They kept their secrets, becoming a kind of gateway beyond which I believed there was a world of law and reason. But I could not pass through the gate.
  • I wanted to tell Charles about the Illuminati, but the words belonged to my father, and even in my mind they sounded awkward, rehearsed. I was ashamed at my inability to take possession of them. I believed then—and part of me will always believe—that my father’s words ought to be my own.
  • I had discerned the ways in which we had been sculpted by a tradition given to us by others, a tradition of which we were either willfully or accidentally ignorant. I had begun to understand that we had lent our voices to a discourse whose sole purpose was to dehumanize and brutalize others—because nurturing that discourse was easier, because retaining power always feels like the way forward.

On Journey of the Self

  • I became erratic, demanding, hostile. I devised a bizarre and ever-evolving rubric by which I measured his love for me, and when he failed to meet it, I became paranoid. I surrendered to rages, venting all my savage anger, every fearful resentment I’d ever felt toward Dad or Shawn, at him, this bewildered bystander who’d only ever helped me.
  • To see one would be to ask for help, and I believed myself invincible. It was an elegant deception, a mental pirouette. The toe was not broken because it was not breakable. Only an X-ray could prove otherwise. Thus, the X-ray would break my toe.
  • I have so many bills I can’t imagine how I’m going to pay them. But God will provide either trials for growth or the means to succeed. The tone of that entry seems lofty, high-minded, but in it I detect a whiff of fatalism.
  • When other students asked where I was from, I said, “I’m from Idaho,” a phrase that, as many times as I’ve had to repeat it over the years, has never felt comfortable in my mouth. When you are part of a place, growing that moment in its soil, there’s never a need to say you’re from there. I never uttered the words “I’m from Idaho” until I’d left it.
  • “You must stop yourself from thinking like that,” Dr. Kerry said, his voice raised. “You are not fool’s gold, shining only under a particular light. Whomever you become, whatever you make yourself into, that is who you always were. It was always in you. Not in Cambridge. In you. You are gold. And returning to BYU, or even to that mountain you came from, will not change who you are. It may change how others see you, it may even change how you see yourself—even gold appears dull in some lighting—but that is the illusion. And it always was.”
  • I knew my yearning was unnatural. This knowledge, like so much of my self-knowledge, had come to me in the voice of people I knew, people I loved. All through the years that voice had been with me, whispering, wondering, worrying. That I was not right. That my dreams were perversions. That voice had many timbres, many tones. Sometimes it was my father’s voice; more often it was my own.
  • My father and I looked at the temple. He saw God; I saw granite. We looked at each other. He saw a woman damned; I saw an unhinged old man, literally disfigured by his beliefs. And yet, triumphant. I remembered the words of Sancho Panza: An adventuring knight is someone who’s beaten and then finds himself emperor.
  • As I walked home carrying the heavy manuscript, I remembered attending one of Dr. Kerry’s lectures, which he had begun by writing, “Who writes history?” on the blackboard. I remembered how strange the question had seemed to me then. My idea of a historian was not human; it was of someone like my father, more prophet than man, whose visions of the past, like those of the future, could not be questioned, or even augmented. Now, as I passed through King’s College, in the shadow of the enormous chapel, my old diffidence seemed almost funny. Who writes history? I thought. I do.
  • That peace did not come easily. I spent two years enumerating my father’s flaws, constantly updating the tally, as if reciting every resentment, every real and imagined act of cruelty, of neglect, would justify my decision to cut him from my life. Once justified, I thought the strangling guilt would release me and I could catch my breath. But vindication has no power over guilt. No amount of anger or rage directed at others can subdue it, because guilt is never about them. Guilt is the fear of one’s own wretchedness. It has nothing to do with other people. I shed my guilt when I accepted my decision on its own terms, without endlessly prosecuting old grievances, without weighing his sins against mine. Without thinking of my father at all. I learned to accept my decision for my own sake, because of me, not because of him. Because I needed it, not because he deserved it.

Thought-Provoking Aphorisms

  • The past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, & thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.—Virginia Woolf
  • I believe finally, that education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience; that the process and the goal of education are one and the same thing.—John Dewey
  • “When the hour of need arises,” Dad said, “the time of preparation has passed.”
  • “Negative liberty,” he said, “is the freedom from external obstacles or constraints. An individual is free in this sense if they are not physically prevented from taking action.” “Positive liberty,” another student said, “is freedom from internal constraints.”
  • But sometimes I think we choose our illnesses, because they benefit us in some way.
  • The distance—physical and mental—that had been traversed in the last decade nearly stopped my breath, and I wondered if perhaps I had changed too much. All my studying, reading, thinking, traveling, had it transformed me into someone who no longer belonged anywhere?

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • I had been educated in the rhythms of the mountain, rhythms in which change was never fundamental, only cyclical. The same sun appeared each morning, swept over the valley and dropped behind the peak. The snows that fell in winter always melted in the spring. Our lives were a cycle—the cycle of the day, the cycle of the seasons—circles of perpetual change that, when complete, meant nothing had changed at all. I believed my family was a part of this immortal pattern, that we were, in some sense, eternal. But eternity belonged only to the mountain.
  • There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation, even of dominion. In that vast space you can sail unaccompanied for hours, afloat on pine and brush and rock. It’s a tranquillity born of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence. Gene was formed by this alpine hypnosis, this hushing of human drama.
  • 12:10. I waited for the screen to flicker and die. I was trying to take it all in, this last, luxurious moment—of sharp yellow light, of warm air flowing from the heater. I was experiencing nostalgia for the life I’d had before, which I would lose at any second, when the world turned and began to devour itself. The longer I sat motionless, breathing deeply, trying to inhale the last scent of the fallen world, the more I resented its continuing solidity. Nostalgia turned to fatigue.
  • There was a date beneath the image: 1955. I realized that Mother had been four years old in 1955, and with that realization, the distance between me and Emmett Till collapsed. My proximity to this murdered boy could be measured in the lives of people I knew. The calculation was not made with reference to vast historical or geological shifts—the fall of civilizations, the erosion of mountains. It was measured in the wrinkling of human flesh. In the lines on my mother’s face.
  • “I am called of God to testify that disaster lies ahead of you,” Dad said. “It is coming soon, very soon, and it will break you, break you utterly. It will knock you down into the depths of humility. And when you are there, when you are lying broken, you will call on the Divine Father for mercy.” Dad’s voice, which had risen to fever pitch, now fell to a murmur. “And He will not hear you.” I met his gaze. He was burning with conviction; I could almost feel the heat rolling off him. He leaned forward so that his face was nearly touching mine and said, “But I will.” The silence settled, undisturbed, oppressive.
  • The Princess had been haunting me. From across the ocean I’d heard her beckoning, as if I were a troublesome calf who’d wandered from her herd. Her voice had been gentle at first, coaxing, but when I didn’t answer, when I stayed away, it had turned to fury. I had betrayed her. I imagined her face contorted with rage, her stance heavy and threatening. She had been living in my mind like this for years, a deity of contempt. But seeing her now, standing watch over her fields and pastures, I realized that I had misunderstood her. She was not angry with me for leaving, because leaving was a part of her cycle. Her role was not to corral the buffalo, not to gather and confine them by force. It was to celebrate their return.

Last Lines

  • That night I called on her and she didn’t answer. She left me. She stayed in the mirror. The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones she would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self. You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

★★★★☆ (4/5)

My favourite short essays were Go Carolina, Genetic Engineering, You Can’t Kill the Rooster, The Youth in Asia, The Great Leap Forward, Nutcracker.com, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Remembering My Childhood on the Continent of Africa and 21 Down.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Go Carolina

  • I ran down a list of recent crimes, looking for a conviction that might stick. Setting fire to a reportedly flameproof Halloween costume,
  • I liked the idea that a part of one’s body might be thought of as lazy – not thoughtless or hostile, just unwilling to extend itself for the betterment of the team.
  • Baking scones and cupcakes for the school janitors, watching Guiding Light with our mothers, collecting rose petals for use in a fragrant potpourri: anything worth doing turned out to be a girl thing.
  • I tried to avoid an s sound whenever possible. “Yes,” became “correct,” or a military “affirmative.” “Please,” became “with your kind permission,” and questions were pleaded rather than asked. After a few weeks of what she called “endless pestering” and what I called “repeated badgering,” my mother bought me a pocket thesaurus, which provided me with s-free alternatives to just about everything.
  • Plurals presented a considerable problem, but I worked around them as best I could; “rivers,” for example, became either “a river or two” or “many a river.”
  • Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities
  • Mr. Mancini had a singular talent for making me uncomfortable. He forced me to consider things I’d rather not think about – the sex of my guitar, for instance.
  • Beneath my moral outrage was a strong sense of possessiveness, a fury that other people were sinking their hooks into my own personal midget. What did they know about this man?
  • I’d always thought of Mister Mancini as a blowhard, a pocket playboy, but watching him dip his hamburger into a sad puddle of mayonnaise, I broadened my view and came to see him as a wee outsider, a misfit whose take-it-or-leave-it attitude had left him all alone. This was a persona I’d been tinkering with myself: the outcast, the rebel. It occurred to me that, with the exception of the guitar, he and I actually had quite a bit in common. We were each a man trapped inside a boy’s body. Each of us was talented in his own way, and we both hated twelve-year-old males, a demographic group second to none in terms of cruelty. All things considered, there was no reason I shouldn’t address him not as a teacher but as an artistic brother.

Genetic Engineering

  • MY FATHER ALWAYS STRUCK ME as the sort of man who, under the right circumstances, might have invented the microwave oven or the transistor radio. You wouldn’t seek him out for advice on a personal problem, but he’d be the first one you’d call when the dishwasher broke or someone flushed a hairpiece down your toilet.
  • To me, the greatest mystery of science continues to be that a man could father six children who shared absolutely none of his interests.
  • We enjoyed swimming, until the mystery of tides was explained in such a way that the ocean seemed nothing more than an enormous saltwater toilet, flushing itself on a sad and predictable basis.
  • I’d heard once in school that if a single bird were to transport all the sand, grain by grain, from the eastern seaboard to the west coast of Africa, it would take… I didn’t catch the number of years, preferring to concentrate on the single bird chosen to perform this thankless task.

Twelve Moments in the Life of the Artist

  • Physically she’d been stitched up more times than the original flag, but mentally nothing seemed to touch her. You could tell Gretchen anything in strict confidence, knowing that five minutes later she would recall nothing but the play of shadows on your face.
  • True art was based upon despair, and the important thing was to make yourself and those around you as miserable as possible. Maybe I couldn’t paint or sculpt, but I could work a mood better than anyone I knew. Unfortunately, the school had no accredited sulking program and I dropped out, more despondent than ever.
  • Am I smart enough? Will people like me? Do I really look all right in this plastic jumpsuit? These are questions for insecure potheads. A speed enthusiast knows that everything he says or does is brilliant.
  • Speed heats the brain to a full boil, leaving the mouth to function as a fulminating exhaust pipe. I talked until my tongue bled, my jaw gave out, and my throat swelled up in protest.
  • It seemed as though I should play hard to get, but after a moment or two of awkward silence, I agreed to do it for what I called “political reasons.” I needed the money for drugs.
  • I thought briefly of checking myself into a hospital, but I’d seen what those wards looked like and I’ve always hated having a roommate.

You Can’t Kill the Rooster

  • We might not have been the wealthiest people in town, but at least we weren’t one of them.
  • The drug laws had changed as well. “No smoking pot” became “no smoking pot in the house,” before it finally petered out to “please don’t smoke any more pot in the living room.”

The Youth in Asia

  • When it looked as though one of them had died, our mother arranged the puppy in a casserole dish and popped it in the oven, like the witch in Hansel and Gretel. “Oh, keep your shirts on,” she said. “It’s only set on two hundred. I’m not baking anyone, this is just to keep him warm.” The heat revived the sick puppy and left us believing that our mother was capable of resurrecting the dead.
  • When finally, full of worms, she collapsed in the ravine beside our house, we reevaluated our mother’s healing powers. The entire animal kingdom was beyond her scope; apparently she could resurrect only the cute dead.
  • When she was six months old, Mädchen was hit by a car and killed. Her food was still in the bowl when our father brought home an identical German shepherd, which the same Cindy thoughtfully christened Mädchen II. This tag-team progression was disconcerting, especially to the new dog, which was expected to possess both the knowledge and the personality of her predecessor.
  • My father loved the Great Dane for its size, and frequently took her on long, aimless drives, during which she’d stick her heavy, anvil-sized head out the window and leak great quantities of foamy saliva. Other drivers pointed and stared, rolling down their windows to shout, “Hey, you got a saddle for that thing?” When out for a walk there was the inevitable “Are you walking her, or is it the other way ’round?”
  • A week after putting her to sleep, I received Neil’s ashes in a forest green can. She’d never expressed any great interest in the outdoors, so I scattered her remains on the carpet and then vacuumed her back up.
  • My mother sent a consoling letter along with a check to cover the cost of the cremation. In the left-hand corner, on the line marked MEMO, she’d written, “Pet Burning.” I had it coming.

The Learning Curve

  • I’d always hated it when a teacher forced us to invent something on the spot. Aside from the obvious pressure, it seemed that everyone had his or her own little way of doing things, especially when it came to writing. Maybe someone needed a particular kind of lamp or pen or typewriter. In my experience, it was hard to write without your preferred tools, but impossible to write without a cigarette.
  • My students had been admitted because they could admirably paint or sculpt or videotape their bodies in exhausting detail, and wasn’t that enough? They told funny, compelling stories about their lives, but committing the details to paper was, for them, a chore rather than an aspiration. The way I saw it, if my students were willing to pretend I was a teacher, the least I could do was return the favor and pretend that they were writers.

The Great Leap Forward

  • I’d never devoted much time to envy while living in Chicago, but there it had been possible to rent a good-size apartment and still have enough money left over for a movie or a decent cut of meat. To be broke in New York was to feel a constant, needling sense of failure, as you were regularly confronted by people who had not only more but much, much more.
  • In the late afternoon we would often be visited by one or more of the failed Beat poets who always, very coincidentally, seemed to find themselves in the neighborhood. They were known for their famous friendships rather than the work they had produced, but that was enough for Valencia, who collected these men much the same way that her neighbors collected Regency tea caddies or Staffordshire hounds.
  • Somewhere along the way she’d got the idea that broke people led richer lives than everybody else, that they were nobler or more intelligent. In an effort to keep me noble, she was paying me less than she’d paid her previous assistant.
  • I’d never cared for any of the self-proclaimed Marxists I’d known back in college, but Patrick was different. One look at his teeth, and you could understand his crusade for universal health care. Both his glasses and his smile were held together with duct tape.
  • In an effort to impress his latest parole officer, Richie was trying to improve his vocabulary. “I can’t promise I’ll never kill anyone again,” he once said, strapping a refrigerator to his back. “It’s unrealistic to live your life within such strict parameters.”
  • I began to change in subtle ways and quickly lost patience with people who owned too many books. What had once seemed an honorable inclination now struck me as a heavy and inconvenient affectation. The conversation wasn’t as sparkling, but I found that I much preferred the stuffed-animal collectors. Boxes of records made me think that LPs should be outlawed or at least limited to five per person, and I soon came to despise the type who packs even her empty shampoo bottles, figuring she’ll sort things out and throw them away once she’s settled into her new place.

Today’s Special

  • In yesterday’s restaurants it was possible both to visualize and to recognize your meal. There were always subtle differences, but for the most part, a lamb chop tended to maintain its basic shape. That is to say that it looked choplike. It had a handle made of bone and a teardrop of meat hugged by a thin rind of fat. Apparently, though, that was too predictable. Order the modern lamb chop, and it’s likely to look no different than your companion’s order of shackled pompano. The current food is always arranged into a senseless, vertical tower. No longer content to recline, it now reaches for the sky, much like the high-rise buildings lining our city streets.

City of Angels

  • That was the root of the problem right there. Visiting Americans will find more warmth in Tehran than they will in New York, a city founded on the principle of Us versus Them. I don’t speak Latin but have always assumed that the city motto translates to either Go Home or We Don’t Like You, Either. Like me, most of the people I knew had moved to New York with the express purpose of escaping Americans such as Bonnie. Fear had worked in our favor until a new mayor began promoting the city as a family theme park. His campaign had worked, and now the Bonnies were arriving in droves, demanding the same hospitality they’d received last month in Orlando.

A Shiner Like a Diamond

  • My father has always placed a great deal of importance on his daughters’ physical beauty. It is, to him, their greatest asset, and he monitors their appearance with the intensity of a pimp. What can I say? He was born a long time ago and is convinced that marriage is a woman’s only real shot at happiness. Because it was always assumed that we would lead professional lives, my brother and I were free to grow as plump and ugly as we liked. Our bodies were viewed as mere vehicles, pasty, potbellied machines designed to transport our thoughts from one place to another.
  • Following the photo shoot, she wore her bruises to the dry cleaner and the grocery store. Most people nervously looked away, but on the rare occasions someone would ask what happened, my sister would smile as brightly as possible, saying, “I’m in love. Can you believe it? I’m finally, totally in love, and I feel great.”

Nutcracker.com

  • I didn’t know about them, but I was hoping the people of the world might be united by something more interesting, like drugs or an armed struggle against the undead. Unfortunately, my father’s team won, so computers it is.
  • Call me naive, but I seem to have underestimated the universal desire to sit in a hard plastic chair and stare at a screen until your eyes cross. My father saw it coming, but this was a future that took me completely by surprise.
  • Word processors made writing fun. They did not, however, make reading fun, a point made painfully evident by such publications as The Herald Family Tribune and Wossup with the Wexlers!
  • The word phobic has its place when properly used, but lately it’s been declawed by the pompous insistence that most animosity is based upon fear rather than loathing.
  • Unlike the faint scurry raised by fingers against a plastic computer keyboard, the smack and clatter of a typewriter suggests that you’re actually building something. At the end of a miserable day, instead of grieving my virtual nothing, I can always look at my loaded wastepaper basket and tell myself that if I failed, at least I took a few trees down with me.

See You Again Yesterday

  • living in a foreign country is one of those things that everyone should try at least once. My understanding was that it completed a person, sanding down the rough provincial edges and transforming you into a citizen of the world.
  • The French have decided to ignore our self-proclaimed superiority, and this is translated as arrogance. To my knowledge, they’ve never said that they’re better than us; they’ve just never said that we’re the best.
  • Things began to come together, and I went from speaking like an evil baby to speaking like a hillbilly. “Is thems the thoughts of cows?” I’d ask the butcher, pointing to the calves’ brains displayed in the front window.

Me Talk Pretty One Day

  • My fear and discomfort crept beyond the borders of the classroom and accompanied me out onto the wide boulevards. Stopping for a coffee, asking directions, depositing money in my bank account: these things were out of the question, as they involved having to speak. Before beginning school, there’d been no shutting me up, but now I was convinced that everything I said was wrong. When the phone rang, I ignored it. If someone asked me a question, I pretended to be deaf. I knew my fear was getting the best of me when I started wondering why they don’t sell cuts of meat in vending machines.
  • Understanding doesn’t mean that you can suddenly speak the language. Far from it. It’s a small step, nothing more, yet its rewards are intoxicating and deceptive. The teacher continued her diatribe and I settled back, bathing in the subtle beauty of each new curse and insult.

Jesus Shaves

  • In communicating any religious belief, the operative word is faith, a concept illustrated by our very presence in that classroom.

The Tapeworm Is In

  • There are only so many times a grown man can listen to The Wind in the Willows, so I was eventually forced to consider the many French tapes given as subtle hints by our neighbors back in Normandy.

Make That a Double

  • Having undertaken the study of Hard French, I’ll overhear such requests and glare across the room, thinking, “That’s Mister Steak to you, buddy.” Of all the stumbling blocks inherent in learning this language, the greatest for me is the principle that each noun has a corresponding sex that affects both its articles and its adjectives. Because it is a female and lays eggs, a chicken is masculine. Vagina is masculine as well, while the word masculinity is feminine. Forced by the grammar to take a stand one way or the other, hermaphrodite is male and indecisiveness female.
  • Nothing in France is free from sexual assignment. I was leafing through the dictionary, trying to complete a homework assignment, when I noticed the French had prescribed genders for the various land masses and natural wonders we Americans had always thought of as sexless, Niagara Falls is feminine and, against all reason, the Grand Canyon is masculine. Georgia and Florida are female, but Montana and Utah are male. New England is a she, while the vast area we call the Midwest is just one big guy.

Remembering My Childhood on the Continent of Africa

  • Having protection suggests that you are important. Having that protection paid for by the government is even better, as it suggests your safety is of interest to someone other than yourself.
  • Rather than surrender to my bitterness, I have learned to take satisfaction in the life that Hugh has led. His stories have, over time, become my own. I say this with no trace of a kumbaya. There is no spiritual symbiosis; I’m just a petty thief who lifts his memories the same way I’ll take a handful of change left on his dresser. When my own experiences fall short of the mark, I just go out and spend some of his.

21 Down

  • WHEN ASKED “What do we need to learn this for?” any high-school teacher can confidently answer that, regardless of the subject, the knowledge will come in handy once the student hits middle age and starts working crossword puzzles in order to stave off the terrible loneliness.
  • Because my former boyfriend was so good-looking, I had always insisted that he must also be stupid, the reason being that it was simply unfair for someone to be blessed with both chiseled features and basic conversational skills. He was, of course, much smarter than I gave him credit for, and he eventually proved his intelligence by breaking up with me.
  • The New York Times puzzles grow progressively harder as the week advances, with Monday being the easiest and Saturday requiring the sort of mind that can bend spoons.
  • I found myself delighted by genuphobia (the fear of knees), pogonophobia (fear of beards), and keraunothnetophobia (the nineteen-letter word used to identify those who fear the fall of man-made satellites). Reading over the lists, I found myself trying to imagine the support groups for those struggling to overcome their fears of rust or teeth, heredity or string. There would definitely be daytime meetings for the achluophobics (who fear nightfall), and evening get-togethers for the daylight-fearing phengophobics. Those who fear crowds would have to meet one-on-one, and those who fear psychiatry would be forced to find comfort in untrained friends and family members.

The City of Light in the Dark

  • Fortunately, going to the movies seems to suddenly qualify as an intellectual accomplishment, on a par with reading a book or devoting time to serious thought. It’s not that the movies have gotten any more strenuous, it’s just that a lot of people are as lazy as I am, and together we’ve agreed to lower the bar.

I Pledge Allegiance to the Bag

  • Whenever my government refuses to sign a treaty or decides to throw its weight around in NATO, I become not an American citizen but, rather, America itself, all fifty states and Puerto Rico sitting at the table with gravy on my chin.

Picka Poeketoni

  • People are often frightened of Parisians, but an American in Paris will find no harsher critic than another American. France isn’t even my country, but there I was, deciding that these people needed to be sent back home, preferably in chains. In disliking them, I was forced to recognize my own pretension, and that made me hate them even more.

I Almost Saw This Girl Get Killed

  • We paid our admission and joined the hundred-odd spectators seated on the collapsible bleachers. They were our neighbors, the people we saw while standing in line at the bakery and the hardware store. The mayor breezed by, followed by the postman and the train conductor, and each of them stopped to say hello. While others might find it stifling, I like the storybook quality intrinsic to village life. The butcher, the stonemason, the sheep farmer, and the schoolmarm: it’s as though these figures came in a box along with pint-size storefronts and little stone houses. In a world where everyone is known by their occupations, Hugh and I are consistently referred to as “the Americans,” as if possessing a blue passport was so much work that it left us with no time for anything else. As with the English and the Parisians, we’re the figurines who move into the little stone houses once the tailor flies out the car window or the cabinetmaker has his head chewed off by the teething dog. Sold separately, we are greeted with an equal mix of curiosity, civility, and resignation.
  • I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so cheap, but I rationalized it by reminding myself that it wasn’t my fault this person was trapped. I hadn’t told her to go on the ride. The management clearly had no plan for getting her down, but that wasn’t my fault, either. I told myself that my interest was compassionate and that my presence amounted to a demonstration of support. I didn’t know about the others, but I was needed.

Smart Guy

  • I failed to realize that intelligence tests effectively muck with both your past and your future, clarifying a lifetime of bad choices and setting you up for the inevitability of future failure.
  • The Late Show I’M THINKING OF MAKING a little jacket for my clock radio. Nothing fancy or permanent, just something casual it can slip into during the wee hours. I’m not out to match it with the curtains or disguise it to look like something it’s not. The problem is not that the clock radio feels underdressed, the problem is that I cannot bear to watch the numbers advance in the heartless way common to this particular model. Time doesn’t fly – it flaps, the numbers turning on a wheel that operates much like the gears on a stretching rack.
  • After prison I publish a novel under an assumed name. The book is Lolita word for word, and I’m allowed to write it because, under the conditions of the fantasy, Vladimir Nabokov never existed. Because it is so magnificent, my book creates a huge stir. Reporters go hunting for the author; when they discover it’s me, I think, Goddamnit, can’t you people find anything better to do? I now have a reputation as both a dignified enigma and a genius, but I don’t want people reading Lolita because I wrote it. My masterpiece is demeaned by their pointless search for a hidden autobiographical subtext, so I give up writing, live off of the money I’ve made from careful stock investments, and quietly spend the rest of my life sleeping with professional football players.

I’ll Eat What He’s Wearing

  • Why would a full-grown man place a foreign object into his mouth, especially if it was brown and discovered in a rarely used suitcase?
  • The reference to figs was telling. My father hid them until they assumed the consistency of tar, but why did he bother? No one else in the family would have gone anywhere near a fig, regardless of its age. There were never any potato chips tucked into his food vaults, no chocolate bars or marshmallow figurines. The question, asked continually throughout our childhood, was, Who is he hiding these things from? Aside from the usual insects and the well-publicized starving people in India, we failed to see any potential takers.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

★★☆☆☆ (2/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

  • I decided that Orion needed to die after the second time he saved my life. I hadn’t really cared much about him before then one way or another, but I had limits. It would’ve been all right if he’d saved my life some really extraordinary number of times, ten or thirteen or so—thirteen is a number with distinction. Orion Lake, my personal bodyguard; I could have lived with that. But we’d been in the Scholomance almost three years by then, and he hadn’t shown any previous inclination to single me out for special treatment.
  • If I did give in and start using malia, I’d be sailing through here borne on—admittedly—the hideous leathery bat wings of demonic beasts, but at least there’d be some kind of wings.
  • my great-grandmother took one look at me and fell down in a visionary fit and said I was a burdened soul and would bring death and destruction to all the enclaves in the world if I wasn’t stopped.
  • I would instantly trade in my room for the yurt in the woods, even after two full weeks of rain when everything I own is growing mildew. It’s an improvement over the sweet fragrance of soul-eater. I even miss the people, which I’d have refused to believe if you’d told me,
  • I’d explain what the void is, but I haven’t any idea. If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to live in the days when our cave-dwelling ancestors stared up at this black thing full of twinkly bits of light with no idea whatsoever what was up there and what it all meant, well, I imagine that it was similar to sitting in a Scholomance dorm room staring out at the pitch-black surroundings. I’m happy to be able to report that it’s not pleasant or comfortable at all.
  • the problem with living in a persuadable space is, it’s persuadable in all sorts of ways. When you end up on the stairs with six people rushing to the same classroom as you, it somehow takes you all half the time to cover the distance.
  • there’re only three academic tracks here: incantations, alchemy, or artifice. And of those three, incantations is the only one you can practice in your own cell without having to go to the lab or the shop more than the minimum. Alchemy or artifice tracks only make strategic sense if you’re someone like Aadhya, with a related affinity, and then you get the double advantage of playing to your own strengths and the relatively smaller number of people going for it.
  • One of the girls once told me I was the color of upsettingly weak tea, which isn’t even true but has occupied a niche in my head ever since, as persistent as a vilhaunt.
  • People seem to have no trouble convincing themselves that I’m dangerous and evil even when they aren’t actively looking for reasons. Of course, I could have killed him just by draining his mana, but I didn’t want to actually become a maleficer and then go bursting out of this place like some monstrous butterfly hatching from a gigantic chrysalis of doom to lay waste and sow sorrow across the world as per the prophecy.
  • There’s no such thing as a sick day in here. Staying in the residential halls all day just means that whatever things are making their way up from below for the nighttime feasting get a midday snack. No one stays in unless they’re all but dead anyway.
  • If you happened to look too long at a sliver of papyrus while going past, the school might decide you were now studying that language, and good luck figuring out the spells you’d get then. People can end up spell-choked that way: you get a dozen spells in a row that you can’t learn well enough to cast, and suddenly you can’t skip over them anymore to learn any new ones, even if you trade for them. Then the spells you’ve already learned are all you’ve got for the rest of your life.
  • If an aisle is taking longer to walk, there have to be more bookcases on the same subject, and the more books the library has to dredge up out of the void to fill them. If you’re going slow enough to look at all the spines, you’re almost sure to find a really valuable and rare spellbook among them. So the school is almost sure to let you make progress instead.
  • It’s not that she thinks he’s the product of irresistible historical forces or anything. She says it’s too easy to call people evil instead of their choices, and that lets people justify making evil choices, because they convince themselves that it’s okay because they’re still good people overall, inside their own heads.
  • Scholomance decides how to reshuffle the walls to hand out the extra space. The only way you can deliberately change to another room is if you take it, and not by killing someone. You have to go into their room and push them into the void.
  • The unwritten rule is, if you fix a broken piece of school furniture, you get dibs on it for the rest of the term. The rule goes out the window often enough when there’s someone more powerful on the other side,
  • And this time was worse, because I couldn’t make excuses for them. All these years, whenever someone took advantage of me, shoved me out of the way, left me exposed, for their own benefit, at least I’ve been able to do that. To tell myself that they were only doing what anyone would do.
  • That’s all that magic is, after all. You start with a clear intention, your destination; you gather up the power; and then you send the power traveling down the road, giving the clearest directions you can, whether it’s with words or goop or metal. The better the directions are, the more well-traveled the road, the easier it is for the power to get to where you want it to go; that’s why most wizards can’t just invent their own spells and recipes. But I can blaze a trail to Mordor anytime I want,
  • We’re cannon fodder, and human shields, and useful new blood, and minions, and janitors and maids, and thanks to all the work the losers in here do trying to get into an alliance and an enclave after, the enclave kids get extra sleep and extra food and extra help, more than if it was only them in here. And we all get the illusion of a chance. But the only chance they’re really giving us is the chance to be useful to them.
  • It felt strange to have that thought, like it didn’t belong in my head. It’s always mattered a lot to me to keep a wall up round my dignity, even though dignity matters fuck-all when the monsters under your bed are real. Dignity was what I had instead of friends.
  • when a construct goes malicious, one of the first people it heads for is its maker, and anyone around them who might have contributed to its creation. It creates a tidy vulnerability that helps the construct suck out their mana.
  • Oh, how I’d enjoyed all that sweet crisp righteous anger, my favorite drug: I’d nearly ridden the high straight into murder. This sensation felt murky as sludge by comparison, thick with exhaustion.
  • There were a thousand spells in my mouth ready to go: I could have killed all five of them with a word, or for variety’s sake I could have imprisoned their minds and made them my helpless slaves.
  • If someone’s giving you a hard time, that’s your problem; if you’re giving someone a hard time, that’s their problem. And everyone else will ignore any situation that’s remotely ignorable, because they’ve all got problems of their own.
  • And all of that was what induction meant to everyone. A tiny infusion of hope, of love and care; a reminder that there’s something on the other side of this, a whole world on the other side. Where your friends share whatever has come to them, and you share back.