Corregidor Island, off the coast of Manilla in the Philippines, is balmy but windy, a ceiling fan in Florida. I’m hiking limestone bluffs pot-marked with WWII pillboxes, some say live ammo, and blobs of sunset-colored avian called “mango birds” that flutter in and out of sight. Underneath me is a bunker I’m trying to find. It is multiple airports in size, and I gambled I could stumble on it. Lost, I look out from one of the islands many palm-saturated hills and see a statue tumoring from the beach: General George “Doug-out-Dug” MacArthur. Below the bronze feet, are the words, “I shall return.”
Outstanding books often have a way of catching the reader by surprise, one insight, one unexpected narrative shift at a time. Niña Weijers, a debut novelist from the Netherlands, begins her book as a character study of her protagonist, Minnie Panis. Minnie is a conceptual artist of growing international reputation, whose career has been built on acts of public self-abnegation. With each turn of the page, Weijers extends her subject and thematic reach, keeping her protagonist in focus while exploring contemporary art, mysticism, Mayan beliefs, and early childhood development (among other themes) to enrich our understanding of Minnie’s character and the forces that govern her life.
In fairy tales, the forest is a dark, dangerous place, populated by wolves and other menacing creatures, but for Thomasin and her father, Will, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the forest is a respite, a place of quiet and calm. More than that, it’s their home. For several years, they’ve been camping in Forest Park, an enormous urban park on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. Although they have gone undetected all this time, they still do practice drills in case they should be discovered. In an early scene, Will critiques his daughter’s hiding place, telling her that her socks give her away. Actually, it’s Thom’s eyes that betray her: you can see her loneliness and her restlessness. As a younger kid, 24-7 camping may have appealed to her, but when we meet Thom, she is a young teen, full of curiosity about the outside world and eager to meet new people. The only thing that keeps her in the woods is her deep love and sympathy for her father.
The story of the Immovable Ladder is this: it was left on a balcony of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem by a careless mason in 1750 and has sat there ever since. The six orders of monks, in whose ruthless stewardship the church is kept, have divided the church into blocks of turf, which they guard with fervor, and sometimes with fists. It’s unclear to which sect the balcony (and by extension, the ladder) belongs. Any attempt to answer that question would be a threat to the delicate status quo that keeps the monkish violence at bay. And so the ladder sits. Undisturbed.
Sandy showed us how. She placed the shovel’s tip a few inches from a tuft’s base. Angled the handle back a bit, just enough to loosen the grass before she lowered, hand-pulling. This way, she explained, down to the source. Awards went to the biggest pile, longest root (you cannot burn grass off the dunes; the network just shoots back again), cleanest area too. Tawny tips waved in small breeze from the lagoon, off the lip of sea. But the grass is pretty, C said, and somebody murmured, agreeing. He traced the rake in arcs, looking down, but couldn’t swirl it far. European beachgrass (Ammophila arenaria) grows in clumps from rhizomes that spread four meters each year, so it’s no surprise beachgrass defines large stretches of Pacific coast. Pretty till you get a spine in your glove, E admitted, wincing. Until you get down close.
I found a book by Georges Perec called Tentatived’épuisement d’un lieu Parisien, or An Attempt to Exhaust a Place in Paris. I like Perec very much. He loved word games and wrote crossword puzzles, and very often invented challenges for himself in his writing. In 1969 he wrote a book—La Disparition—in which the letter “e” does not appear. It was translated into English, also with no “e’s” but since the literal translation—The Disappearance—has three “e’s”, the English title is A Void. In 1972 Perec wrote Les Revenents, in which “e” is the only vowel in the book. Perec died of cancer in 1982 when he was only forty-six.
St. Joan of Arc classroom and cloakroom revisited, 2018
Queens, New York
The very sound of it was foreign to our ears. Who wore cloaks? Vampires. Stealthy spies with hidden daggers. And men in top hats who appeared in movies and old-fashioned story books. Certainly no one we knew as first-graders at St. Joan of Arc—except, perhaps, for the nuns whose sleeveless black capes swirled in their hurried winter walks through the schoolyard to the convent. But their habits covered every inch of skin up to their necks; even their brows were partially obscured by fabric stiff as cardboard and white as their bony hands—the only other flesh exposed. So, on second thought, we couldn’t really say we “knew” the nuns when their very bodies were concealed and their lives outside the classroom a mystery.