For a long time after I came home from the war, fireworks made me jumpy. They sounded like what they are, shrieking rockets and exploding gunpowder, and every Fourth of July set off Alert Level Yellow. I’d crack another beer and try to laugh it off even as the friends I was with turned into ghosts of the soldiers I once knew.
Thirteen years ago, I spent the Fourth of July on the roof of a building in Baghdad that had once belonged to Saddam Hussein’s secret police. Our command had suspended missions for the day, set up a grill and organized a “Star Wars” marathon — the three good ones — in an old auditorium. But George Lucas’s lasers couldn’t compete with the light show playing out across Baghdad, and watching a film about the warriors of an ancient religion rising up from the desert to fight a faceless empire seemed, under the circumstances, perverse.
Within the highly automated folds of Amazon’s online bookstore, there’s a small team of literary types whose main job is rather old school.
They read books, write about them and rank the works according to their qualities, helping readers sift through thousands of offerings while also planting the tech juggernaut’s flag in the world of literary culture.
In an engineer-driven company ruled by algorithms and metrics, the Amazon book editors are rare birds. Once in a while, they’re misunderstood by authors and publishers who retain a deep suspicion of Amazon.com after years of clashes over the book industry’s future.
“It’s certainly a very healthy time for female crime fiction, but it would be wrong to suggest that women writers only discovered their dark side five years ago,” says Erin Kelly, author of The Poison Tree and co-founder of female crime-writing collective Killer Women. “Current stars such as Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins have their antecedents in Nicci French in the 1990s, Lois Duncan and PD James in the 1980s, Ruth Rendell in the 1960s and Patricia Highsmith before that.”
What’s happening now, Kelly argues, is that the publishing world has finally caught on to the idea that female crime sells. It is an argument the industry itself acknowledges.
There is a powerfully arresting line near the end of Jodi Paloni’s collection of linked stories, “They Could Live with Themselves,” that, when you come to it, you simply cannot push past it.
It is in the story of Charlotte Cook, a young girl who fears that her mother won’t be home for her 12th birthday. Her mother is away being treated for addiction. Charlotte goes out the back door of the house, but skirts the line of crows that always perch on the fence above the trash can. “I hate them,” she thinks. “They want and they want.”
That line rises like the report of a tolling bell, declaring what lies at the heart of all 11 stories in the author’s deeply affecting debut book. The line’s sparse eloquence, naked as a heartbeat, lays bare the yearning of the dozen or so main characters, each with their own regrets and losses, yet striving still to reconcile their lives to the circumstances they find themselves in.
Genuine cosmopolitanism is a rare thing. It requires comfort with real difference, with forms of life that are truly exotic relative to one’s own. It takes its cue from a Roman playwright’s line that “nothing human is alien to me,” and goes outward ready to be transformed by what it finds.
The people who consider themselves “cosmopolitan” in today’s West, by contrast, are part of a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call “global citizens.”