Guest Post, Matthew Blasi: The Many Lessons of Barry Hannah, Part 3: Break it Down

Here’s a thing. Finish your story and print. Then read that sucker out loud. Does it sing? Does it have rhythm? Have you driven all music from the mouth? Even the best of us run a few sentences to bedlam. Myself, I used to whittle, say, five thousand worn down to three. I believed I’d done the piece justice, a day’s good labor. From there, I believed, there would be little in the way of heavy editing. Just a bit of spit shine here and there.

But think back to my last essay. A good spit shine is neither about whittling nor bulking. Those are just the crude transactions we make upon the page. No, a good polish only comes through purposed editing, a thorough break down of every sentence to better fit it to the writer’s natural rhythms and voice. It’s less the work of rough demolitions, more a careful tailoring. I got another name for it. I call it filling.

Barry Hannah was the master of filling. Take a gander at this excerpt from the Tennis Handsome:

Barry Hannah B&W

Please,” begged Word. “Something to eat. But no coon, no turtle, no snake.”


Daryl went to a wooden box and lifted out a whole cabbage. He walked to the cot Word lay on and slammed it down into the empty pit of Word’s belly.


Word lost consciousness.

Note the second sentence of the second paragraph. A lesser writer might be tempted to trim some of the fluff from that sentence—“the empty pit of”—to get what many of us seek: tight, concise sentences. But such a cut destroys the music, the tone. The threatened clause lends a layer of detail to the scene, informs us on Word’s condition, his gauntness, his privation. When taken with the dialog it’s altogether pleasant medicine whose effect is felt in the belly, the ribs. The next sentence, broken into its own paragraph, is effect. Word blanks out. So too the narrative eye, switching lenses in the following paragraph to the abusive captors until a sudden shift sends us back.

Filling must be used cautiously. That’s about as close to a hard rule as I like to get on it. But I’ll go a step further: filling must be used to preserve the natural rhythms of the storyteller provided it does no harm to narrative functions (plot progression, character development, and so forth). That’s a good deal clunkier than I’d like but you get the idea. Filling’s not about the length of the sentence. It’s about delivery, tone, rhythm. It’s about music. No coincidence music played such a big part in Hannah’s life and stories. The man understood that a good ear for rhythms and melodies, pitches and refrains and all the many parts of a good tune make for a perceptive writer. And mind, I don’t mean perceptive in the traditional sense, that of the eye, the voyeur. I’m talking something else entirely, an awareness of and fondness for space, for sound. I mean a real love for the music of human beings, human things.

What makes Hannah’s work so unique is the abundance, the clarity of the man’s music. It’s in every sentence, rich but never saccharine. Good writers pull it off once or twice per book. Hannah threads it in every sentence. In the strictest sense, his beats are up tempo, somewhere in the range of one hundred and ten, twenty. Unlike Baldwin, Hannah is pure rock and roll, aggressive and driven and rarely cacophonous save for the finer moments of entropy. Late in The Tennis Handsome Mr. Edward, father to French, struggles to get his mind straight. He’s got animals upstairs, a naked wife, beauteous. He’s got noise. He leaves on a rather apt note:

“Mr. Edward’s eyes went shut again.

Olive, the music.”

But here’s a thing in closing. I don’t think such music is beyond the ken and craft of other writers. We can learn from Hannah, take his lessons to heart. We may not have Gordon Lisch but we have Hannah himself. We can break his sentences down, figure out the notes, the melodies. We can ask ourselves probing questions. Where is my music? Where are my notes?

Guest Post, Mimi Schwartz: Second Act

It’s never too late to be what you might have been – George Eliot

Mimi SchwartzWhen I was fifteen, I saw South Pacific and, imagining my name in lights, I signed up to audition for Play Pro, my high school drama club. But before my name was called, I chickened out, fleeing to the bathroom. My best friend, performing Juliet’s balcony speech, was just too good.

That was that, I thought—until a friend, fifty years later, asked me to join OnStage, a group of closet actors, all over 55, who met weekly with a director named Adam.[1] “We learn theater techniques and do documentary theater,” she said. Which meant gathering stories from the community about senior memories and experience and performing them at libraries, schools, senior centers, hospitals— “whoever wants us.”

I’d just retired from fulltime teaching and this sounded like fun, something different —with “scripts” more like stories you tell over lunch or hear on a bus. What do I have to lose? I thought. The pressure of youth was off.

Every Wednesday afternoon, at the Community Room, I do theater games like becoming a watermelon to my partner’s grapefruit, each of us conversing with our one word –“Watermelon!” “Grapefruit!” “Watermelon!” “Grapefruit!”—saying them loud and soft,  sexy and timid,  fierce and giggly. A whole range of emotions, just like that.

I like morphing into someone else, sometimes younger, sometimes older—all is possible.  I like moving my body on stage, feeling braver than I did at fifteen. And I like how audiences connect to our stories as if we were telling theirs.

Take the large, wild-haired grandmother at the Metuchen Library, who came to see “You Win Some, You Lose Some” –-about everything from losing your false teeth on the subway to dating after 60, to end-of-life decisions. Afterwards, in a lively post-show discussion, she told everyone: “The beach week story is just what happened!” She pointed to me (I had played the grandmother). “Like you, I didn’t want to go to beach week again. Like you, I told my daughter that the bed too uncomfortable. And then she, too, dialed my grandson.” I tried to explain it isn’t really my story, but she ignored me, “How can we say no, right?” She delighted in having her story validated, and I delighted in her delight.

A week later, on a roll, we enter an assisted living/nursing home, our first. Wheelchairs, maybe thirty of them, are lined up. Some residents are sleeping; most are just staring straight ahead. No one except the aides seems to interact with anyone else, and talk is about rearranging wheelchairs. Please God, don’t let me land here!  we whisper to each other as a squat, indifferent man hurries our group into a cluttered room beyond “the theater space,” really the cafeteria. A guy is mopping the floor, something easy to slip on if it doesn’t dry fast.

No post-show discussion, we decide quickly. These people don’t talk; they don’t smile. It is too risky. The floor hasn’t quite dried, but we start anyway–with the refrigerator buzzing and the loudspeaker interrupting every few minutes. Some people keep sleeping (Are they drugged?), but others smile and nod, especially about stories of love, marriage, and sex. Lines like “I learned that a second marriage can be better than the first” get a big whoop.

Forty minutes later we take our bows and head towards the glass front doors as if lingering is contagious. I edge past the wheelchairs waiting to roll back down the long corridor, and that’s when four people take my hand, grip it, saying thank you for coming.  Their silence was not a given, their isolation not inevitable. They want to be reached, need to be reached, and we…I…  fled too quickly—as I did when my grandmother was in a place like this.  I couldn’t conjure up her elegance and what her magic cookies tasted like—and that scared me. I was nineteen.

Suddenly I realize our mistake. We should come back here for a post-show something, despite the sleepers and the silence—for those who gripped my hand or might, you never know. Theater can do that, erase the self of now enough to become who we might be—or once were.

We’d have to ask our director Adam to help, by using his magic to unlock some of what he unlocked in us: that bit of risk that leads to a smile.

It’s worth a try. After all the boundaries between ‘them’ and ‘us’ are fading with each passing year.

[1] Adam Immerwahr’s is Associate Artistic Director at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey and Resident Director at Passage Theatre in Trenton, New Jersey.

To see learn more about Onstage, go to

Guest Post, Matthew Blasi: The Many Lessons of Barry Hannah, Part 2: Ain’t it Weird?

The South’s a weird place. Don’t tell me otherwise.

I spent twenty years mucking about in Florida, various parts. A few in Gainesville, a few in Clearwater, a whole bunch in sleepy New Port Richey with its crab shacks and pawn shops and dangerous proximity to US Interstate 19. You’ve never seen a more dangerous stretch of state pavement. Drivers fall to its rhythms, froth with rage. They seem destined to ram something—each other, poles, the titty bar. I’ve been struck by all manner of vehicle while en route. There was a garbage truck, a limousine, a sleek silver scooter no bigger than ninety in the engine. The pilot, a small woman with frosted hair and aviators, came right up to my window and struck me with her sandal. She was barefoot on scorching asphalt just to make violence and she hit me. The whole time she wanted to know what my problem was, where I was deficient. Did I or did I not see the sign? Was this a turn lane? Who was I?

That episode, quite real, seems tame compared to what happens in Barry Hannah’s fiction. Take the deranged couple across the lake in Yonder Stands Your Orphan, the orphans themselves, their heavy armaments. Is their assault on the barge, their curious fortifications truly otherworldly? Is Man Mortimer, the deranged antagonist and protagonist of the novel? How about Ned Maxxy and all his watching, his secret touches? Part of what makes Hannah’s work so vivid is the wild imagination at work. Therein lies a peculiar weirdness, one drawn from the strange fiber of the South. This was, after all, a region punted into mechanization after a prolonged and staggered war, a hot bed for carpetbaggers, post-Reconstruction vultures. Is it any wonder madness takes up so much of the stage in Southern fiction? My own theory points to the move from the rural to the urban. It just didn’t take, not like the North. We’re dealing not with two minds but many, cracked prisms with twangy accents.

Yonder Stands Your Orphan

But the weirdness in Hannah teaches far more important lessons to the wary student. The first is that imagination unleashed is a boon, not a hindrance, to the writer with genuine talent, grit, heart. There’s no accounting for all the movements of Ray. You flat out couldn’t outline it. What you get are characters with desires, a thing sadly lacking from much contemporary fiction. Then you get the land, the richness of the place around them. But that’s not on the page, in the paper. It comes from the characters, first and foremost. It springs out of their eyes, their mouth, all the little movements. More than tact, it’s nuance. Gordon Lisch taught Hannah how to trim everything down to the proper rhythms, but the rhythms come from the characters. That’s where we who pretend to the pen need to sit up and take notice. Did your story, your book, spring from your character? Or have we built everything in lieu of them, a way of explaining who and what they are? The latter, we learn from Hannah, is folly, the bone road.

Too, we learn the difference between volume and clarity. This one’s a doozy. How many of us have powered through a workshop (MFA grads, y’all know, oh yes) and heard some cabbage head say, “I want to know more about this character.” This is said with total sincerity, great caution. So and so practically simpers as speaks, paws the desk. Were it allowed, he might lick the table, taste the salts of human nearness. Meek as a doe. And you might be tempted to revise, add in another paragraph or two or three and ruin an otherwise good piece. Because it’s not about volume, friend. It’s about clarity, precision. Go back to your Hannah, The Tennis Handsome. Pick up on Professor Word after French ruins him on the court:

A nurse and a man in white came up to quell the noise from Word. Levaster went back into the closet and shut the door. Then he peeped out, seeing Word and his brother retreating down the corridor, Word limping, listing to one side, proceeding with a roll and capitulation. The stroke had wrecked him from brain to ankles. It had fouled the center that prevents screaming. Levaster could hear the man bleating away a hundred yards down the corridor.

Five tidy sentences are all that’s required to understand James Word post stroke. Much could be made of this neat paragraph, even more extracted in craft and technique. But precision is what we’re after if for nothing more than to silence the cabbage heads. What better way to deliver the weirdness of the South and its many inhabitants than a targeted strike, word by word, into the very heart of the thing?

How’s this for targeted. After that woman beat me with her sandal I didn’t know what was what. I never got her name or insurance, never called anyone. There wasn’t even a dent. At home in the mirror I glimpsed the red imprint of her sandal, a swath of dirt across my face. I might have loved her. I hung around the intersection hoping her scooter would plow into me, mar the door, bust a window. I was ready with a baseball glove, a pen and some paper. The plan was to ask her out, make sweaty love, marry her. But it wasn’t to be.

A month later I saw her at the store. She was buying pickles, all the varieties, a whole cart full. I went up full of my own juice, testy, moral. She didn’t recognize me. Just gave me the eye and went on with her shopping. Me, I slithered away. I went home and checked myself into a chair with some beer. There was no accounting for it. What a weird, weird way to live, to love.

Guest Post, Matthew Blasi: The Many Lessons of Barry Hannah, Part 1: The Good Love

It is difficult—nigh impossible—for me to contain my surprise when, in heated talk of great American writers, Barry Hannah fails to surface. Such happened amidst a recent conversation with a friend. We were discussing at length great books and writers who have largely flown under the radar and when I broached Hannah my fellow conversant turned curious. She’d never heard of the man or his many good works. So I went into my routine. I thrashed and barked. I got guttural. Not only was Hannah one of the greatest American writers, I told her, he was perhaps the most loving. I handed over Hannah’s The Tennis Handsome and told her to let me know her thoughts. But since we’re on the subject, here are mine.

Barry Hannah Oxford AmericanA strong argument could be made for Hannah to be ranked among the very best America has ever cultivated if for nothing save the depth of love present in his stories. His characters need it, seek it against dire circumstances. The whupping Levaster puts on French Edward at the beginning of The Tennis Handsome is not purely selfish, productive. It’s as much about pity, remorse, as it is the clobbering of the soft-brained tennis pro. Levaster needs Edward as much as us. He’s less a foil than a co-conspirator in the comic drama, the conduit for Levaster’s electricity. No wonder lightning strikes him dead on, gives him strange new wits, canny thoughts. Edward acts on our impulses. We’re often Levaster, like it or not, prodding the tennis prodigy on to haphazard glory. We want him to win because we love the man regardless of the density of his soggy brain. Don’t we too often have heads full of river water, days of foggy acquiescence? There’s a little French Edward in us, too. Maybe more than a little. Hannah’s loving craft gets right down to the truth roots of fiction. His loving shapes us as much as his characters.

Even the most vile of Hannah’s characters—Man Mortimer, villain of Hannah’s last novel, Yonder Stands Your Orphan, for example—desire it, this love, the balm to their poisonous beings. But it is a warped love, deranged, stretched and rubbery over circus tent souls, folk who have no right idea how to get it across, communicate. Levaster’s late-night forays into Central Park, his burning need to confront villainy amidst the trees, the dirt, hearkens back to Southern fiction’s struggle to move from the rural to the urban. Edward’s dangerous play with the crossbow is little different. Love so potent runs the risk of spoiling, curdling like milk left sitting. It’s a journey perilous, the kind defined by the Snopes, by Hazel Motes. Yet unlike Faulkner’s and O’Connor’s characters, the journeys undertaken by Hannah’s characters are not voyages of destruction, pilgrimages of religious catharsis. Theirs are the movements of the loony in love, the moon smoochers who know, the great swaying love made possible through strife. They’re too real for me sometimes. I sit abashed that the man much less his characters might succeed when I often fail to find the words to communicate the pitch of my own combat.

Mostly it’s a warped love because it is not pure. I’m not sure a pure love exists in Southern fiction—it’s the tradition, the Antebellum promise, mythic. It’s present on Levaster despite his many shortcomings, his dark needs, and it’s certainly present on French Edward though the book might easily have treated him as nothing more than a buffoon. Yet he is held up to us, a model of sorts, not only in body but in simplicity of purpose and at times of generous feelings of the heart, a battery of good feelings. Both Edward and Levaster love and are loved by the author, by us. That was Hannah’s plan all along. He served it up, made sure we had our fill, and didn’t leave us wanting.

How about that? Hannah loves his readers as much as his characters.

Three days later my friend returned, book in hand. She told me she’d devoured it, wanted to know what she ought to next read. I was pleased, informed her that a strong dislike or even slight impartiality would have been grounds for immediate dissolution of the friendship. Just about meant it, too. That good love Hannah teaches, it’s not always easy to locate, nurture. I think that’s the point. We got to fight it out the way Baby Levaster and French Edward fought it out, got to get in the dirt and roll around to know what it is we’re mucking up with our ungainly wants, our bad habits. We chew our nails, we spit. We’re bad all through.

Guest Post, Sam Gridley: Literature and the Season of Depression

“We have to honor our depression,” my friend Stephen Berg said to me a few years ago. It was a passing remark, the context now lost, but it seemed a profound idea at the time. Later I discovered that the expression had been used by psychologists and therapists (James Hillman perhaps the first) since the 1970s, but I refrained from finding out what they meant by it or what my friend meant by it (likely quite different, Steve being a poet and an original thinker). Instead, I’ve let the notion molder in the back of my mind like an old shoebox in the closet, occasionally bringing it out for inspection.

On the surface, the idea suggests to me that our culture’s approach to depression—as a mental disturbance to be eliminated as fast as possible with feel-good drugs—stifles the important truths our minds are trying to tell us. There are so many things to be sad and upset about that depression in a sense is simple realism. If we gulp SSRIs and play with our smartphones and multitask ourselves into concealing our despondency, what are we missing?

I opened the shoebox again this December, a month that for me has become a depressing lead-in to a dismal season. Why dismal? Partly it’s a touch of what many people experience, the reaction we now call seasonal affective disorder (“prevalence in the U.S. ranging from 1.4% in Florida to 9.7% in New Hampshire,” says a 2007 article in the New York Times). More deeply, winter dismays me because it begins with the holidays we used to spend at my grandmother’s house, the one place I experienced a true sense of family.

When my childhood nuclear family fissioned, my grandparents became the new emotional nucleus, the stable point, throughout my youth and into adulthood. As young marrieds, my wife and I would drive from the big city to Grandma’s small town, children in the back seat, presents in the trunk, looking forward to days crowded with relatives, cheap decorations, ugly sweaters  and foods we would never cook ourselves (potato soup laden with salt and butter!). With Grandma gone and the children dispersed, the winter holidays now seem empty, as fruitless as a cardboard fruitcake. It’s not that I envy those who are celebrating with their families; rather, I kind of wrap them in my own self-pity, feeling sad for them as well as myself, and that state of mind permeates the months that follow.

This year in addition, at the start of winter, I’ve been reading some books with depressed protagonists. Is it stupid to dig into these at this time of year? One is Lauren Grodstein’s latest novel, The Explanation for Everything, in which a widowed biologist finds his trust in science challenged by a student who believes in God. The protagonist, Andy Waite, has been researching the effects of alcohol ever since his wife was killed by a drunk teenage driver. His experiments aren’t going well, though—the mice he carefully tends and then dissects aren’t proving what they’re supposed to prove—and he might lose his funding as well as his chance for tenure. His romantic life is dead, and a female neighbor’s attempt to revive his libido does not go well. He’s a decent father to his young daughters, but otherwise his life seems perpetually on hold.

“Depressed people,” says Wikipedia, “feel sad, anxious, empty, hopeless, worried, helpless, worthless, guilty, irritable, hurt, or restless,” and Andy Waite matches at least several of those adjectives. He might continue in that mode for many more years, but a challenge arrives in the form of Melissa, a Christian student who asks him to supervise her independent study on Intelligent Design. As a scientist, and in particular as the instructor of a course on Darwinism, he considers Intelligent Design a ludicrous attempt to dress religious irrationality in scholarly garb, but Melissa maneuvers him into agreeing to work with her, and the more he gets to know her, the more she undermines his emotional and cognitive foundations. Without quite succumbing to her beliefs, he begins to find them comforting. He reads and rereads passages from a book written by her pastor: “how he was here for a reason, how everyone is on this earth for a reason, and the reason belonged to God.” And without exactly falling in love with Melissa, he finds himself romantically connected, which presents a further threat to his career.

Another book I’ve read recently is Joan Didion’s best-selling memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, a dissection—with as sharp a knife as Andy Waite uses on his mice—of the author’s own deranged state of mind in the year following her husband’s sudden death. Grief, she points out, is a truly disturbed condition, one of both mental and physical changes, and in her case no Melissa arrives with a Good Book of Succor; instead Didion uses her journalist’s work ethic, driven by the need to “get it right,” to catalog and analyze the distortions of mind, body and spirit that she endured. “Grief turns out,” she says, “to be a place none of us know until we reach it.” And when we do all reach it, we will be unprepared, even though she tells us the particular ways we will be unprepared:

“Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.” (Chap. 17)

Immediately after this passage, she describes how, as a young woman, she found meaning in geology, the “inexorable shifting” of the earth being evidence of some “scheme in action.” Though the scheme she intuited was indifferent, not benign, contemplating it was “deeply satisfying.” This recognition in turn gave significance, in her mind, to a key passage from the Episcopal litany: as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.

That line is not exclusive to Episcopalians, of course; translated from the Gloria Patri, it appears in many other Christian doxologies. I remember it from Christmas Eve services, held just before midnight, at my grandmother’s Lutheran church, and though I’m as much a nonbeliever as Joan Didion and Andy Waite, I found it both comforting and inspiring. In a typical translation, the “world without end” line is preceded by “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit” and followed by “Amen”—an appropriate Amen, since after glorifying the world without end, what else is there to say?

As Didion suggests, there’s solace in this evocation of the eternal, whether you connect it with a god or not. It has always been thus. It ever shall be thus. What’s the point, then, of complaining? And isn’t there some beauty in the fact that it all goes on forever (at least until the asteroid hits)?

Grandma’s small-town Lutherans, gathered on a cold Christmas Eve in a drafty church, creating warmth by their massed human numbers, would chant world without end, amen in unison. To me they felt—all these people I saw only once a year, the bald, the fat, the sniffly children, the sexy young mothers, the bored teenagers, the starched businessmen—like extended family. I imagined that by gathering together for ritual we resisted the encroaching freeze outside. For those few moments I believed in these people’s essential nobility, no matter what bastards they were in their daily lives. I believed that human suffering had dignity. I believed there was some point to existence, even if I couldn’t define it.

To conclude the service, we would light handheld candles, each person passing the flame to the next, until the entire sanctuary glowed with tiny lights—for just a minute or two, until we snuffed them out.

These brief flashes of meaningfulness have surprising influence in our daily lives, like an energy bar that keeps us going through the lean times. But for me it’s difficult to recreate them without the congregation snugged in surrounding pews, and especially without Grandma’s hip next to mine. The meaning arises from the people.

Where is all this taking me? To a recognition, I guess, of the courage it takes for all of us to plow through the unavoidable winters of the body and spirit. Joan and Andy and the rest of us—we’re actually pretty brave, aren’t we? Perhaps acknowledging this stalwartness, even celebrating it, is one good way to honor our depression.

And this is something literature can help us do. Maybe it’s not so silly, then, to read books about depressed people in the winter.

Okay, bring them on, the grim tales. With a mug of cocoa, please, for extra comfort.

Guest Post, Kat Meads: The Fun Stuff

In a Paris Review interview Julian Barnes dubbed weekends “a good working time because people think you’ve gone away and don’t disturb you.” Christmas, also. “Everyone’s out shopping and no one phones. I always work on Christmas morning—it’s a ritual,” he said.

Sounds a lovely time for Mr. Barnes.

My ritual during the quieter-time Christmas stretch is to devote an afternoon to excavating the catch-all contents of a dresser drawer in my study. What’s in there? Eleven plus months of paper scraps on which I’ve scribbled notes, ideas, books I’ve read, quotes—whatever my reading/writing brain took in and took up during that time frame. Reacquainting myself with that cache counts as a kind of holiday gift to myself. It can spawn a plan of action, writing-wise, for the year ahead. But even when it doesn’t, there’s fun to be had in the sifting through.

Some of what I took the trouble to write down gets immediately tossed, of course. (Typically the “possible titles” category takes the heaviest hit.) Still, in the sorting process, I try to give even my bad ideas their moment of reverie, if only to recall what prompted the clunker—and when. (It’s good to laugh during the holidays, isn’t it?)

A random sample of what made the cut for further mulling, 2014:
• Remember/use: Southern phrase “Hug on her a little.”
• Remember/use: “dog bread” (Corn meal and/or various leftovers, fried)
• Remember/use: the word noctuary
• Quote: Jane Austen in letter to sister Cassandra: “I hate tiny parties. They force one into constant exertion.”
• Quote: “God is not stoic.” Jack Miles
• Quote: “…the way the color sat…” Julian Schnabel
• Quote: “Hanging on to dreams is like trying to eat a smell.” Robert Coover
•Quote: “Go ahead, Lilly. Buy a sable coat.” Dashiell Hammett
• Character names: Tick. Adabelle. Jaybird. Pess Kight.
• Title: Bugs and Adultery
• Title: The Likelys
• Title: Vic Did His Best, But
• Spam email received, subject line: your life is to (sic) empty try our drugs
• Fact: Highway Act of 1956 funded 42,000 miles of interstate highway
• A thought: Historical characters are by necessity caricatures to us.
• A thought: Irony requires funding.

In 2013, I seemed to have gone on a (by and about) Lady Caroline Blackwood binge (For All That I Found There, The Stepdaughter, Great Granny Webster, The Fate of Mary Rose, Nancy Schoenberger’s Dangerous Muse, Ivana Lowell’s Why Not Say What Happened?). Followed by a Janet Malcolm binge. Followed by an Alan Dugan (rereading) binge. Followed by a Margery Allingham binge. Followed by a Sam Shepard binge. Among the year’s one-off reading pleasures: Claire Vaye Watkins’s Battleborn, David Canter’s Forensic Psychology, Carmen Bugan’s Burying the Typewriter and Philip K. Dick’s classic Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.

And because I haven’t broken free of my Russian obsession—even though my novel For You, Madam Lenin is finished and published—I read Bertrand Patenaude’s Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky. And because a Los Angeles road trip was in the works, I hastened to finish a Ross Macdonald biography that included several of the author’s Santa Barbara addresses which I loaded into the car’s GPS for a bit of literary touristing along the way. And because as an insomniac I am a sucker for any title that aligns itself with my malaise, I read Jacqueline Rose’s On Not Being Able To Sleep: Psychoanalysis in the Modern World.

Best of the best part of my end-of-year assemblage, though, is my find it/buy it/read it note pile. The mere sight of all those titles-a-waiting puts me in a celebratory mood. If I have those volumes to look forward to, how awful can 2014 turn out to be?

Guest Post, Jane Hoppen: The Whip-tail Lizard: Lessons in Nature and Biology

In BetweenMy inspiration for my debut novel, In Between, derived from my reading of the Navajo myth of creation, as translated by Hosteen Klah. Throughout the myth, Klah makes reference to individuals he calls nadles. The nadles are intersex beings, bridges between the sexes, and they are revered by the Navajo nation, never changed at birth. And I think they got it right. Never have there been only two genders, and to date there are more than 15 known biological variations in which a human can be born. Sophie Schmidt, the main character in my novel, is born with a variation called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, in the early 1960s. At that time, and still very often today, parents of intersex babies are pressured by the medical community to have their babies surgically changed into as much of a male or female as possible. Most often the female gender is chosen for these babies, as constructing male genitals is a much more complicated process. Our society, it seems, would rather continue with this strategy, rather than accept the existence of a third gender, or many different intersex variations. The need to protect our society’s male-female paradigm has made this group of people a very secret sect in our society.

In that regard, I think we could learn a lesson or two from nature and basic biology itself. All members of the whip-tailed lizard population found in Arizona and New Mexico, for example, are female. These lizards are perfectly adapted to the environment they live in and, as nature dictates, they don’t want to dilute their good genes with male involvement. The lizards have developed the ability to reproduce asexually, with some of the female lizards stepping up to fill the male’s role with a surge of testosterone.

Many more examples of biological and sexual variations can be found in the animal kingdom. Some oysters can change sex more than once during life. In oysters, the organs that produce eggs and sperm consist of sex cells and surround the digestive organs. From there they branch into the connective tissue and tubules. Some pigs have an ovotestis formation—a melding of the ovary and testes. There are marsupials with pouches even though the reproductive tracts are male. Others have hemipouches and hemiscrotums with female reproductive tracts. To date, scientists have classified and documented more than 470 animal species with sexual variations that are neither male nor female.

The bottom line is that biological variations exist in both the natural and human world, and we need a way to embrace that fact, rather than continue to find ways to work around it. The time has come for us to challenge the long-standing paradigm that insists on the existence of only males and females and to acknowledge the many people who live with one of the many known intersex conditions.