Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write

Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write is Claire Messud’s answer to who am I?

It starts with personal essays about her family, her childhood, and her life now. You learn about her Mediterranean origins (her father was a pied-noir from Algeria, and he studied the Turks and Ottoman Empire), her childhood that ranged from Toronto to Australia to France, her aunt, her dogs, and more. This section was the most compelling for me, personally. It’s a glimpse into her life and how she was formed.

The second part is essays about books. She has post-graduate degrees and her career has been both writing and teaching creative writing. What I’m trying to say: she has many intelligent thoughts about books, and the first three essays are about Camus and the pied-noir experience in Algeria. It’s a graceful segue from her personal essays to her literary ones.

The third and final section was the one I found least compelling, which is art criticism. This may be a personal issue: I haven’t read a lot of art criticism, so I find it harder to read. I don’t know its form and how it works; I also find it difficult to read about something visual without the actual visual art in front of me. I kept interrupting my reading to search for the artists and paintings she was talking about.

But the who-am-I-ness of it is undercut by a passage in one of the early essays: anything that gets written about necessarily gets flattened from something complex into something digestible and comprehensible. (For example, Kant, instead of being the complicated philosopher full of complicated ideas, becomes a Prussian who liked to think about stuff.) So how much of Claire Messud’s story is a flattening of who she really is and how she really thinks?

So does Kant’s Little Prussian Head tell you who Claire Messud is? To a degree. I know more now than I did before I read it – but it’s a good reminder of how difficult it is to ever really know anyone else. Maybe especially if they’re telling you.

The Anthropocene Reviewed

I get the impression that John Green had a very intense few years. He became well-known by YA readers after The Fault in our Stars was published in 2012 (it became a movie in 2014). He has said that he felt a lot of pressure whilst writing Turtles all the Way Down, his next book. Once that book was out, he stopped being able to write.

So he turned back to reviewing; he started his writing career by reviewing books for Booklist, and this was a return to that, sort of. The Anthropocene Reviewed reflects on various aspects of the human-centered world, ranking them on a 5-star scale. The short essays cover everything from the Lascaux Cave Paintings to The Plague to Diet Dr Pepper. It’s quite random.

The project started as a podcast in 2018 – I would download the episodes, make a cup of tea, and go sit on my front porch while listening to him ponder whatever he was pondering that week. Time passed, and it became 2020 and then mid-March 2020 and beyond, his thoughtfulness about the world and the pandemic and the things changed by it helped me. He talked about only being able to write if he sat next to a local creek, so he would bring a camp chair with his laptop and sit and type away, and I felt that same bizarre anxiety. We all came up with our own ways of getting through: why not a camp chair and a laptop in the middle of nowhere?

The essays included in the book are mostly from the podcast. There may be slight tweaks to them, but by and large they’re the same. Most don’t mention the pandemic, but some do, and it’s jarring to realize that we’ve come so far from the unknowingness of spring 2020 while still not being wholly out of it. I wasn’t sure I was ready to read about how I was feeling last year yet, but I read those essays anyway.

John Green’s earnestness and sincerity and thoughtfulness about everything he writes about makes this book moving and worth focusing on. It’s like a good meditation session or maybe a good sermon, one that moves you and isn’t so long your mind wanders. He communicates what he thinks and why he cares and you start to think that maybe you should too.

I give The Anthropocene Reviewed four and a half stars.

The Silence of the Girls

The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of The Iliad, from Brisies’ point of view. Who is Brisies?, I can hear you asking. She is a teenaged girl, a slave who used to be the queen of a small Trojan town up the coast from Troy (she was already married), but who was captured when the Greeks raided and destroyed it. She was Achilles’ prize.

The main action for The Iliad comes when Agamemnon has to give up his prize slavegirl to her priest father, and so he decides to take Brisies from Achilles. Achilles throws a temper tantrum and refuses to fight, and events continue from there. (Mostly this person killing that person who goes on to kill this other person.) But Brisies, in the original, doesn’t have even a line of dialog. She’s the macguffin that sets the action going. She might as well be a shield.

It’s offensive, quite frankly. So Pat Barker sets out to tell the story from Brisies’ point of view – the point of view of the slavewomen. You get who belongs to whom, which women get along with each other, and there are glimpses of Brisies’ life before her capture. But the story is still largely Achilles’, just told through someone else’s eyes.

Lavinia (Aeneis’ wife – a partial retelling of The Aeneid from her perspective instead of the male hero’s) gets around this by lopping off a bunch of the original poem that she wouldn’t have known about (Dido isn’t mentioned), and it gives her a rich life before Aeneis shows up and shows how she lives after he dies. It’s her story, not his. The Silence of the Girls doesn’t show much of Brisies’ life outside the Greek camp, just enough to give you some context about who she is.

What it does do is take the shine off the Greeks and their camp. It shows you that these are a bunch of entitled rich guys playing with other people’s lives. Brisies is powerless. All of the women are powerless. They are people with inner lives and wants and needs and desires and all of that just goes out the window in the original. Brisies shows us the grossness of a camp that’s been lived in for ten years by dudes who are not good about keeping themselves or their quarters particularly clean. There are dead rats and body odor and everyone is sleeping outside and there are giant trash heaps along the beach. It’s gross and awful and no one who has a big part in the Iliad is shiny or deserves respect. Brisies herself is just getting along and trying to make her life going forward a little bit better.

The Silence of the Girls doesn’t entirely succeed in making this Brisies’ story. The action and the plot are still Achilles’. But she becomes more than a macguffin; the characters and the setting are hers. And while The Iliad deals with anger, The Silence of the Girls deals with the grind of survival. It’s like getting an additional take on something you already know, something that lends complexity to a story fundamental to Western culture. And that’s worth your time.

Suicide Club

Suicide Club is trying to be a more profound, or more robust, book than it is. The author comes from the monied world of London finance; the futuristic world she is trying to build is based on that and wants to be a critique of it. However, the non-Manhattan/London/financial world, non-achiever, non-striving parts of this book felt unrealistic at best.

In the book, a future American society has given over to a corporate wellness culture. A shadowy and ill-explained Ministry has developed products to help people be healthier with the aim of living longer; it pairs these with systems of observation (think of your smartwatch reminding you to stand up periodically throughout the day) to keep people in check.

At least in theory. The only real consequences of not following the exercise and diet requirements seem to be going to therapy. The Ministry isn’t a very scary villain, even though Lea, our protagonist, finds its ability to thwart her high-acheivement self problematic. That’s the level of the threat: problematic. She’s not going to get hurt, there’s no immediate threat of death (the punishments seem to be either being ignored or having to go to ineffective therapy), and the ostensible threat of living forever is presented as a worthwhile goal to strive towards in the book.

The book’s sole solution for fighting the Ministry is for people to self-immolate? Which: don’t get me wrong, the Arab spring of 2011 was started with a man setting himself on fire in Tunisia. It can be a very effective form of protest. But what if people just don’t? What if they don’t buy the products? What if they don’t get the treatments? What if they don’t stand up when they get the reminder to stand up? What if they eat ice cream and fruit and sit around entertaining themselves all day long? Doing nothing and eating badly would be a form of protest against the Ministry and it’s deeply unclear what power they would have over you. But none of those are presented. Nope, it’s setting yourself on fire or nothing. What?

I am clearly not the audience for this book – I find the basic premise confusing at best and problematic at worst. Definitely skip this one.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is seven short stories, and essays about those short stories. They come together to turn into lessons about writing and storytelling.

I took this book in chunks. It’s arranged with story, essay, afterward for one lesson; then the same three sections for the next story. It wasn’t a fill-in-the-holes-in-your-day kind of reading; it was definitely sit-down-and-pay-attention-for-awhile reading.

The writing lessons were somewhat prosaic. The story only needs what matters, but that means you as a reader need to pay attention to everything. Fewer words are usually better, but more words are sometimes good, especially when you’re establishing voice. Keep tinkering with your words. Go back over what you’ve written a few times to make sure that’s really how you want to say it. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it was packaged in such a way that it made the lessons easy to learn.

I say prosaic, but the simplest lessons are the hardest to put into practice. I’ve started being more focused in my writing since reading this book. I’ve been re-writing more too. There’s no good way to get practice writing that isn’t just writing. Just because the lessons are simple doesn’t mean that you automatically use them. Personally, I’m happy to practice more. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is a useful craft book.

Madame de Staël

Madame de Staël is a biography of my perennial favorite, Germaine de Staël. This one is a much more high-level overview of her life than Mistress to an Age was. It doesn’t talk as much about her philosophy or her writing or her politics, but it does give you a good idea of where she was and who she was with. In fact, where Mistress to an Age sometimes confused me with too much detail, especially when she was traveling through Germany, this book had a lighter touch and was able to give me a much-needed 10,000 foot view. This would have been a good first book on her to have read.

The Galaxy and the Ground Within

The Galaxy and the Ground Within is the fourth and final book in the Wayfarers series by Becky Chambers. I love this series; the books are creative, and warm without being treacly. I don’t find her optimism unrealistic, which is a neat trick in this day and age.

This book takes place at the Five-Hop One-Stop, the equivalent of a truck stop on a small planet at the meeting point of a few different wormholes. It’s a place to restock supplies, get more food, fuel up, stretch your limbs. There are three shuttles – one being per craft – docked when a satellite catastrophe happens: one satellite breaks, its parts break off and hit other satellites, causing them to break, and on and on until the sky is a mass of bits and pieces of metal and no one can talk to anyone and everyone is stuck.

Hence the meat of the book starts. Who are these folks? Where are they going? Where are they coming from? How will they band together or not when push comes to shove?

She has a great interview on Imaginary Worlds that I would recommend where she explores how different species would interact with each other, assuming that one isn’t simply trying to annihilate the other. Those are the questions she starts with; this locked-in-a-room plot is how she chooses to explore them.

The Galaxy and the Ground Within is the last of these books and I will miss this universe. She is moving on to write solarpunk; I am excited to read those stories. The world needs more practical optimism, and Becky Chambers strikes me as the perfect person to write it.

The House on the Cerulean Sea

The House on the Cerulean Sea is a lovely little fantasy novel about Linus, an inspector for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY). His job is to go visit orphanages to make sure that the children who turn out to be magical are being treated well and are learning. (There is a separate department for magical adults and it’s important to note that the magical folks are the subject of these agencies without being employed by these agencies. Linus is not magical.)

One day, he is assigned to go visit a particular group of very magical children – not just kids who’ve exhibited the ability to levitate objects, but children who might be classified as magical creatures (not people) in the Harry Potter world. I don’t know who once said that all stories begin with “you go on a journey” or “a stranger comes to town.” This is definitely the former.

There was an educational movement in the 1980s and early 1990s to create a space for everyone to thrive. The goal – many teachers were self-identified hippies – was to make a space for the weirdos, the people who weren’t your stereotypical jocks and cheerleaders to fully be themselves. (This attitude oddly extended into my first adult job, during the 1990s tech boom.) It’s gone by the wayside in favor of measurable achievement now; but then, the idea was that every person could thrive, you just had to figure out under what circumstances, and to give people the space they needed to be who they were.

The House on the Cerulean Sea is that space. DICOMY is part of the conformist world that would have everyone fit into a particular – white, patriarchal – mode. Linus’ emotional journey is predictable: he starts out as a conformist and ends up otherwise. The story is in the journey, the how.

Reading this, I remembered being in that space, thinking everyone would find their own way and thrive. That we could all get along if everyone could just give everyone else their space; if we could all just leave each other be. I miss that optimism. It was nice to visit it.

A Little Devil in America

A Little Devil in America is about Black performances, mostly in America, but there are a few stories of Americans overseas. It covers things like Soul Train, Whitney Houston, Don Shirley, spades, funerals, Merry Clayton on the Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter”, and so much more. Quite frankly, this book is beautiful and you should read it.

Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, and every word in this book is carefully chosen and strung together especially well. From the page this book happens to be open to right now: “The backup singers, man. They get to be memorable for a few minutes at a time and forgotten all the minutes in between. I want to know if Mick saw every wretched tooth in the mouth of the world’s most wretched beasts trembling and falling to the ground. There is some awful reckoning to be had in a song like that. Some awful things to be lived with.”

The other thing is that there is so much love in A Little Devil in America. Love for Black people, who so often don’t get it. You can tell he loves being Black and being a part of Black culture. “I do remember playing spades until the clouds brightened with the promise of a coming sun. I do remember someone I love falling asleep with their face on the table, among the pile of scattered cards. And I do remember the moment when they woke, there was a single card stuck to the edge of their forehead. I never looked to see, but told myself whatever card it was, it had to be the lucky one.”

A Little Devil in America was wonderful. I’m going to go read the rest of his books now.

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo is a story told in three parts about a synagogue in Cairo and the Muslim family bound to protect it. The first storyline is that of the first young man in the family who became bound to protect the synagogue; the second is in current times – his descendant is the son of a Muslim man and a Jewish woman and is studying literature at Berkeley when he gets a package from his just-deceased father that he feels compelled to investigate; the third is a story of two sisters from Victorian England who are interested in Egyptian history and have come to the synagogue to study/rescue its documents.

I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the book, to be quite honest. It read like three interspersed short stories and they didn’t add meaning to each other. They were all fine – they’re not actively bad and the book was an enjoyable read – but there wasn’t a greater meaning to the three of them together.

The point the book is trying to make, if there is a point at all, is that the work must go on. You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it. In the book, it refers to the documents from the synagogue, in your life it could apply to your to-do list or keeping the house or any of a number of things. All you need to do is to keep it going. Whatever it is.