Sunday Feb. 19, 2017

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A Wake

I called Michael and he told me he just got home from a
wake. “Oh, I am sorry,” I said. “No, no,” he said, “it was
the best wake I have ever been to. The funeral home was
as warm and as cozy as anyone’s living room. We had the
greatest time. My friend looked wonderful, much better
dead than alive. He wore his red and green Hawaiian
shirt. He was the most handsome corpse I’d ever seen.
They did such a good job! His daughter was there and
a lot of old friends I had not seen in years. You know,
he drank himself to death. He’d been on and off the
wagon for years, but for some reason this is what he
ended up doing.” As my friend kept talking, I thought
of Lorca and what he wrote about death and Spain: “A
dead man in Spain is more alive as a dead man than any-
place else in the world” and “Everywhere else, death is
an end. Death comes, and they draw the curtains. Not
in Spain. In Spain they open them. Many Spaniards live
indoors until the day they die and are taken out into the

“A Wake” by Malena Mörling from Astoria. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

The Battle of Iwo Jima began on this date in 1945. The United States aimed to take over the island and use it as a base for their fighter planes, which were involved in fighting over Tokyo, about 750 miles away. The Japanese army and navy defended the island; the U.S. sent in three Marine divisions. The Allies had already been bombarding the island from sea and air for the last two and a half months, and the Marines expected that the ground operation would take a couple of days, maybe three at the most. Certainly, when they landed, the island seemed surprisingly quiet.

But Japanese forces didn’t deploy on the beaches, as the U.S. strategists had expected them to do. Instead, they camouflaged themselves, fought from a network of caves and tunnels, and engaged in guerilla tactics. Their general, Tadamichi Kuribayashi, had given the following order: “Each man will make it his duty to kill 10 of the enemy before dying.” The operation lasted 33 days; by the time it ended in late March, 7,000 U.S. Marines and Navy men and 21,000 Japanese soldiers were dead.

James Bradley wrote about the battle in his book Flags of Our Fathers (2000): “The battle of Iwo Jima would quickly turn into a primitive contest of gladiators: Japanese gladiators fighting from caves and tunnels like the catacombs of the Colosseum, and American gladiators aboveground, exposed on all sides, using liquid gasoline to burn their opponents out of their lethal hiding places.

“All of this on an island five and a half miles long and two miles wide. […] A car driving sixty miles an hour could cover its length in five and a half minutes. For the slogging, dying Marines, it would take more than a month.”

It’s the birthday of writer Jonathan Lethem (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York (1964), and raised in a commune in Gowanus Heights (now Boerum Hill). His father was a painter and his mother was an activist. Lethem always intended to be an artist, and enrolled at Bennington College, where his friends included future best-selling novelists Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt. He dropped out, staying in his girlfriend’s dorm room and eating food stolen from the dining hall, while writing, he says, “an unpublishably bad first novel.” He ended up hitchhiking to Denver with $40 in his pocket, and then moved on to California, where he clerked in bookstores for years before publishing his first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music (1995), a sci-fi detective story featuring talking kangaroos and a cryogenic prison.

Lethem is best known for novels that blend genres like mystery, detective, and science fiction with a pop-cultural sensibility. His novel Motherless Brooklyn (1999) is the story of Lionel Essrog, who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome and is on a quest to find his mentor’s killer. He followed that up with The Fortress of Solitude (2003), a 511-page novel spanning the friendship of two boys, one white and one black, who discover a magic ring. The book examines gentrification, racism, music, and comic books. About the book’s sprawling exploration of childhood, Lethem said, “I did want to portray the kind of dream quality that childhood has.”

The title of the book is reference to the fictional headquarters of Superman. Lethem is a devoted comic book and film fan. When he was a kid, he saw Star Wars 21 times during its original release.

Jonathan Lethem’s other books include Amnesia Moon (1995), Men and Cartoons (2004), You Don’t Love Me Yet (2007), and A Gambler’s Anatomy (2016).

It’s the birthday of novelist Carson McCullers (books by this author), born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia (1917). She’s known for writing about bizarre, twisted characters in novels such as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940), which was published when she was 23 years old. It’s about people in a small town in Georgia — an adolescent girl, a socialist agitator, a black physician, a widower who owns a café, and a deaf and mute man who tries unsuccessfully to communicate with the people around him.

She grew up in Columbus, Georgia, but moved to New York when she was 17 years old. For a while, she lived in a building in Brooklyn that was home to the writers Richard Wright, W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, and Paul Bowles. She suffered two strokes, one in 1941 and one in 1947, and she died when she was just 50 years old.

She wrote in The Ballad of the Sad Café: “The most outlandish people can be the stimulus for love. A man may be a doddering great-grandfather and still love only a strange girl he saw in the streets of Cheehaw one afternoon two decades past. The preacher may love a fallen woman. The beloved may be treacherous, greasy-headed, and given to evil habits. Yes, and the lover may see this as clearly as anyone else — but that does not affect the evolution of his love one whit. […] It is for this reason that most of us would rather love than be loved.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®