Soho Press recommends Dan Josefson
Vol. 8, No. 2
If you’re a writer, chances are high that quite a few of your friends will also be writers. But sometimes you’ll have two writer friends that, however close, have yet to read each other’s work. Obviously, that dynamic can get a little strange, which is why most writer friends eventually cave and say, “Show me what you’re working on.” Unfortunately, this is where things can get even trickier. To read a friend’s work is always a risk, on both sides of the equation. Numerous times in my life I’ve felt important friendships shift and slip when I realize I don’t like a friend’s work or sense he or she doesn’t like mine. Where friends go from that realization is always an open question, and sometimes a very unhappy one.
So when I asked Dan Josefson, one of my dearest friends in the world, to give me some pages of the novel I knew he’d been working on for years, I was nervous. So, I suspect, was he. What would it mean for our friendship if I didn’t admire what I read? I started reading the novel Dan would eventually title That’s Not a Feeling on a plane, flying to my then-girlfriend’s home state. In two pages I realized the novel was not only very, very good, but, quite possibly, it was great. Dan’s facility with language—understated, but brain-surgically precise—moved me to grit my teeth in envy several times, but more important than that was what Dan does with characters. In creating Roaring Orchards, a highly troubled school for highly troubled children, Dan was courting all sorts of potential literary disasters. He could have very easily slipped into fetishizing madness, overly romanticizing youth, and feeding like a succubus on the human pain his characters feel and inhabit. But Dan didn’t do any of those things. He pulled his characters out of the deep black imaginative space between his mind and our world with real care. You always feel, reading this book, that you know and understand its characters, even as they grow deeper and more mysterious as the book progresses. Dan understands the crucial difference between surprising a reader and blind-siding the reader. Would that more writers did.
It’s hard enough for a book to have one unforgettable character. Dan has given us, at my count, three. At least three. (Possibly there’s as many as six.) But three definitely. I’m thinking of Benjamin, the book’s only-seemingly-dead-inside narrator; Tidbit, a tough, fragile, habitually dishonest teenage girl; and Aubrey, the bananas headmaster of Roaring Orchards, whose initially and vaguely sensible-sounding pronouncements gradually become a kind of behavioral Dada-ism. These characters became as real to me as I am to myself, which is, I believe, the highest imaginative achievement literature is capable of.
The passage to the left shows Dan’s many strengths. Benjamin has been caught doing something red-handed, as it were, and we read in dread as the school’s crazy, topsy-turvy rules and forbiddances bear down upon him. Ellie, one of the school’s custodians, tries to coax Benjamin out and admit his malfeasance, but at the same time we sense her exhaustion and frustration with the school, her life, and possibly her existence. Also watch for Benjamin’s startling, if brief, flash forward: “It’s embarrassing to remember now.” This smart perspective shift throws the scene, Benjamin’s P.O.V., and the novel itself into a wonderfully uncertain and even cock-eyed temporal position. It reminds me anew how good and serious and smart Dan Josefson is as a novelist. More than that, though, it makes me forget that my friend wrote this book. It’s real, as I say. Gorgeously real. The world Dan created is as real to me as the keys I’m now hitting, the sky beyond the window out of which I now look, the book I know I will soon pick up to read again.
Author of Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation
Is This Worth Subway Fare?
Get the Book: Available Now!
by Dan Josefson
Recommended by Soho Press
OVER THE NEXT DAYS the early snow melted away and fall resumed its course. New Boys and the few students on Reciprocity Detail cleaned the debris from the storm, the fallen branches still flush with leaves. Autumn from that point on proceeded differently. The colors when they came seemed muted, and the drying leaves curled against their branches and clung to them longer. Husks of dead bees collected behind the Mansion’s heavy curtains; tiny white spots of mold appeared on the windfall apples in the orchard.
Dedrick decided to give us a day off from Cooking with Butter to help decorate the Classroom Building for Thanksgiving. He took us to the atrium, which was just a wide lobby with large, potted plants, and dropped an assortment of Magic Markers onto the floor. The heat hadn’t been turned on yet, and the large cinderblock building was drafty. Dedrick gave each of us a poster to draw on. He said we should trace our hands to make turkeys and include Thanksgiving messages.
“But try to make them look as retarded as you possibly can,” he said. “Misspell things, write with your left hand if you need to. Pudding, you just write the way you always do.”
“Ha-ha,” Pudding said.
Everyone thought the project was hilarious, though I did my best to seem morose. Laurel Pfaff carefully made all her Rs face the wrong way, and she drew a big turkey, which she colored in like an American flag. Zach Strohmann drew a crow and beneath it wrote, “Yeesturday we R reeding a Turgee.” Bev covered her poster with an assortment of dark squares. When I asked her what they were, she told me they were brownies. Dedrick heard her answer. “Brilliant!” he said.
Seeing us as objects of fun let the faculty imagine we were somehow protected, I think, as comic figures are able to survive all kinds of harm. I never minded that the staff amused themselves at our expense, although I’ll resent forever the fact that I was so indifferently educated. In part that was my own fault—by the time I got to Roaring Orchards, I was pretty much a lost cause intellectually. What little I know now I’ve mostly taught myself, and it’s come complete with an autodidact’s insecurity and pedantry.
Looking back I can see that the teachers had plenty of reasons of their own to be angry, and that they were occasionally funny, too. Toward the end of the period we ran around the building taping the posters to the wall.
“Are these going to stay up for Parents’ Sunday?” Pudding asked.
“God I hope so,” Dedrick said.
Walking to lunch with Spencer and June, Dedrick asked them about something that had been on his mind for a while. “What the hell is going on with these Decamerons?” They were passing the shelves in the hallway of the Classroom Building where students left their shoes while they were in class and where they left their books when they went to lunch. Among the math and history textbooks lay badly worn copies of The Decameron, their covers curled and bent. “Almost every copy I see is dog-eared and torn, the spines are broken, chunks of pages are falling out all over the place. I don’t get it. They were all brand-new about two months ago.”
June stopped to pick up a copy. There were pages that had fallen out and were now stapled together and stuffed back into the book. The spine was curled, and the pages that hadn’t fallen out radiated from it like spokes on a wheel. “Maybe these are just really cheap editions,” she said. “Where’d we get them?”
“Someone sent them, I think,” Spencer said, taking the book from June. “Maybe they knew there was something wrong with them.” He flipped through the pages only to have a clump of pages fall to the floor. Spencer picked them up, put the book back together, and placed it back on the shelf. “No, it’s probably just that our kids don’t know what to do with books.”
Pudding and I overheard this on our way out. We couldn’t help laughing, but just looked down and kept walking.
The closest any faculty members came to discovering why all the copies of The Decameron on campus were in such bad repair came during a candor meeting that Alternative Boys held because of me in the middle of one night that fall. At two thirty in the morning, I got caught with my alarm clock going off. I’d hidden the clock beneath my pillow, hoping it would wake me and no one else. But William Kay, in the bunk across the room, heard the alarm and saw me, startled, wake and scramble to turn it off. I think he might have seen me set it and stayed up to catch me, either because he thought it would be funny or just because William was a jerk. Maybe the alarm just woke him, and he was annoyed. Whatever his reason, William began shouting that I was running away, although he knew that wasn’t what was happening.
He woke the other students, who woke Ellie, who pulled an oversize tan sweater over her pajamas and called Alternative Boys into a meeting to figure out what was going on. The boys dragged their blankets with them and curled up on the couches. I sat down angrily.
“I wasn’t running away.”
“Then why did you have your alarm wake you up at two thirty in the morning?” William was the only person who seemed entirely awake. He was bouncing slightly on the couch, his skinny arms sticking out of his T-shirt, his white-blond hair hanging in front of his eyes.
“Don’t be a dick, William,” someone said groggily. “You know why.”
“None of us know why until Benjamin tells us,” William said, “and you have to admit it looks really suspicious.” He smiled. “So, why were you getting up when everyone else was asleep?”
Ellie leaned back in her chair. “William, just lay off, all right? Benjamin, you set your alarm for the middle of the night?”
I just looked at the carpet.
Pudding sat up and wrapped his blanket around his shoulders.
“Oh God, will you just tell her so we can all go back to sleep? We’ve got to wake up in a few hours.”
“Pudding, what are you talking about?” Ellie was uncomfortable being the only one not to know what was going on. She tugged on the sleeves of her sweater and crossed her arms.
“Do you want to tell her or should I?” Pudding asked me.
Nobody reads George Egerton (born Mary Chavelita Dunne, 1859-1945). Born in Melbourne, and…
This is the kind of chemistry experiment that saves millions of lives.
Back in 1976 Brookhaven scientists synthesized the first successful radiotracer - called 18FDG - for positron emission tomography (PET) imaging. In this photo, chemist Joanna Fowler is working with an early synthesis apparatus that created the radiotracer, which is still the same compound used world-wide for brain research and cancer diagnosis.
This morning, the New York Section of the American Chemical Society is designating Brookhaven’s Chemistry Building as a Historical Chemical Landmark (a lot of capital letters, we know) for blazing that radiotracer trail.
Curious about how this breakthrough compound works its magic? When injected, 18FDG (fluorodeoxyglucose) serves as a stand-in for glucose, the body’s main source of energy. While traveling through sugar-hungry tissue, the short-lived radioactive isotope of fluorine - that’s the 18F - emits particles called positrons (antimatter electrons!), which interact with the body’s electrons and send off energetic back-to-back gamma rays. Those signals, picked up by a PET scanner, produce maps of metabolic activity in the brain and body.
The Clear Science Staff just can’t get over this glassware setup. (We like that kind of thing quite a bit ohhh boy.) Long time readers may remember our series on antimatter, in which we discussed how the PET scan works. We had no idea FDG was first made at Brookhaven National Lab!
Image by Yichen Shi and Rick Livesey, Gurdon Institute, University of Cambridge.
THIS WEEK’S QUESTION!
Every Sunday, a question will be asked about one of the images from this past week. Be the first to answer correctly, and your blog will be promoted on Monday’s image post and Biocanvas’s main site!
Neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1) is a condition characterized by noncancerous tumor growth just underneath the skin along nerves. A subset of the disease known as mosaic NF1 is different in that patients exhibit NF1 symptoms only on localized regions of the body. That is, where one area may show symptoms of the disease, a neighboring area is completely unaffected.
If NF1 is caused by a genetic mutation in a single gene, how can patients with mosaic NF1 have two different cell populations where some cells carry the mutation and others do not?
Answer: The mutation occurs after the formation of the zygote (i.e. post-fertilization), where one cell acquires the mutation while other cells do not. All the progeny from the mutant-carrying cell will also have the mutation; thus, these cells will display NF1 symptoms. Cells that do not acquire the mutation early on will be unaffected. This leads to a “mosaic” individual and is responsible for mosaic NF1. If the one-cell zygote had the mutation, then all cells in the body would also carry that mutation, and the disease would not be localized to different regions of the body—it would be everywhere.