Search Results for: World Literature Today

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: America’s Secret Weapon in World War II

  Jason Fagone | The Woman Who Smashed Codes | Harper Collins | October 2017 | 9 minutes (2,295 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from The Woman Who Smashed CodesJason Fagone’s riveting new book chronicling the work of Elizebeth Smith Friedman and William F. Friedman, a pair of “know-nothings” who invented the science of codebreaking and became the greatest codebreakers of their era. Their contributions continue to influence the U.S. intelligence community to this day. Our thanks to Jason Fagone and Harper Collins for allowing us to share a portion of this book with the Longreads community.

* * *

Sixty years after she got her first job in codebreaking, when Elizebeth was an old woman, the National Security Agency sent a female representative to her apartment in Washington, D.C. The NSA woman had a tape recorder and a list of questions. Elizebeth suddenly craved a cigarette.

It had been several days since she smoked.

“Do you want a cigarette, by the way?” Elizebeth asked her guest, then realized she was all out.

“No, do you smoke?”

Elizebeth was embarrassed. “No, no!” Then she admitted that she did smoke and just didn’t want a cigarette badly enough to leave the apartment.

The woman offered to go get some.

Oh, don’t worry, Elizebeth said, the liquor store was two blocks away, it wasn’t worth the trouble.

They started. The date was November 11, 1976, nine days after the election of Jimmy Carter. The wheels of the tape recorder spun. The agency was documenting Elizebeth’s responses for its classified history files. The interviewer, an NSA linguist named Virginia Valaki, wanted to know about certain events in the development of American codebreaking and intelligence, particularly in the early days, before the NSA and the CIA existed, and the FBI was a mere embryo — these mighty empires that grew to shocking size from nothing at all, like planets from grains of dust, and not so long ago.

Elizebeth had never given an interview to the NSA. She had always been wary of the agency, for reasons the agency knew well — reasons woven into her story and into theirs. But the interviewer was kind and respectful, and Elizebeth was eighty-four years old, and what did anything matter anymore? So she got to talking.

Her recall was impressive. Only one or two questions gave her trouble. Other things she remembered perfectly but couldn’t explain because the events remained mysterious in her own mind. “Nobody would believe it unless you had been there,” she said, and laughed.

The interviewer returned again and again to the topic of Riverbank Laboratories, a bizarre institution now abandoned, a place that helped create the modern NSA but which the NSA knew little about. Elizebeth and her future husband, William Friedman, had lived there when they were young, between 1916 and 1920, when they discovered a series of techniques and patterns that changed cryptology forever. Valaki wanted to know: What in the world happened at Riverbank? And how did two know-nothings in their early twenties turn into the best codebreakers the United States had ever seen — seemingly overnight? “I’d be grateful for any information you can give on Riverbank,” Valaki said. “You see, I don’t know enough to . . . even to ask the first questions.”

Over the course of several hours, Valaki kept pushing Elizebeth to peel back the layers of various Riverbank discoveries, to describe how the solution to puzzle A became new method B that pointed to the dawn of C, but Elizebeth lingered instead on descriptions of people and places. History had smoothed out all the weird edges. She figured she was the last person alive who might remember the crags of things, the moments of uncertainty and luck, the wild accelerations. The analyst asked about one particular scientific leap six different times; the old woman gave six slightly different answers, some meandering, some brief, including one that is written in the NSA transcript as “Hah! ((Laughs.))”

Toward the end of the conversation, Elizebeth asked if she had thought to tell the story of how she ended up at Riverbank in the first place, working for the man who built it, a man named George Fabyan. It was a story she had told a few times over the years, a memory outlined in black. Valaki said no, Elizebeth hadn’t already told this part. “Well, I better give you that,” Elizebeth said. “It’s not only very, very amusing, but it’s actually true syllable by syllable.”

“Alright.”

“You want me to do that now?” Elizebeth said.

“Absolutely.”

* * *

She met George Fabyan at a library in Chicago one day in June 1916, when she was 23. She went to the library alone to look at a rare volume of Shakespeare from 1623, the “First Folio,” and to ask the librarians if they knew of any open positions in Chicago in the field of literature or research.

* * *

During the library’s first decades, the masters of the Newberry acquired books with the single-mindedness of hog merchants. They bought hundreds of incunabula, printed volumes from before 1501, written by monks. They bought fragile, faded books written by hand on unusual materials, on leather and wood and parchment and vellum. They bought mysterious books of disputed patrimony, books whose past lives they did not know and could not explain. One book on the Newberry’s shelves featured Arabic script and a supple, leathery binding. Inside were two inscriptions. The first said that the book had been found “in the palace of the king of Delhi, September 21st, 1857,” seven days after a mutiny. The second inscription said, “Bound in human skin.”

In one especially significant transaction, the library acquired six thousand books from a Cincinnati hardware merchandiser, a haul that included a Fourth Folio of Shakespeare from 1685, a Second Folio from 1632, and most exceptional of all, the First Folio of 1623, the original printing of Shakespeare’s plays.

This is the book that Elizebeth Smith was determined to see.

Opening the glass front door of the Newberry, she walked through a small vestibule into a magnificent Romanesque lobby. A librarian at a desk stopped her and sized her up. Normally Elizebeth would have been required to fill out the form with her research topic, but she had gotten lucky. The year 1916 happened to be the three hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and libraries around the country, including the Newberry, were mounting exhibitions in celebration.

Elizebeth said she was here to see the First Folio. The librarian said it was part of the exhibition and pointed to a room on the first floor, to the left. Elizebeth approached. The Folio was on display under glass.

The book was large and dense, about 13 inches tall and 8 inches wide, and almost dictionary-thick, running to nine hundred pages. The binding was red and made of highly polished goatskin, with a large grain. The pages had gilded edges. It was opened to a pair of pages in the front, the light gray paper tinged with yellow due to age. She saw an engraving of a man in an Elizabethan-era collar and jacket, his head mostly bald except for two neatly combed hanks of hair that ended at his ears. The text said:

MR. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARES COMEDIES,
HISTORIES, &
TRAGEDIES.
Publifhed according to the True Originall Copies.
LONDON
Printed by Ifaac Iaggard, and Ed. Blount. 1623.

Elizebeth later wrote that seeing the Folio gave her the same feeling “that an archaeologist has, when he suddenly realizes that he has discovered a tomb of a great pharaoh.”

One of the librarians, a young woman, must have noticed the expression of entrancement on her face, because now she walked over to Elizebeth and asked if she was interested in Shakespeare. They got to talking and realized they had a lot in common. The librarian had grown up in Richmond, Indiana, not far from Elizebeth’s hometown, and they were both from Quaker families.

Elizebeth felt comfortable enough to mention that she was looking for a job in literature or research. “I would like something unusual,” she said.

The librarian thought for a second. Yes, that reminded her of Mr. Fabyan. She pronounced the name with a long a, like “Faybe-yin.”

Elizebeth had never heard the name, so the librarian explained. George Fabyan was a wealthy Chicago businessman who often visited the library to examine the First Folio. He said he believed the book contained secret messages written in cipher, and he had made it known that he wished to hire an assistant, preferably a “young, personable, attractive college graduate who knew English literature,” to further this research. Would Elizebeth be interested in a position like that?

Elizebeth was too startled to know what to say.

“Shall I call him up?” the librarian asked.

“Well, yes, I wish you would, please,” Elizebeth said.

The librarian went off for a few moments, then signaled to Elizebeth. Mr. Fabyan would be right over, she said. Elizebeth thought: What?

Yes, Mr. Fabyan happened to be in Chicago today. He would be here any minute.


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Sure enough, Fabyan soon arrived in his limousine. He burst into the library, asked Elizebeth the question that so bewildered and stunned her — “Will you come to Riverbank and spend the night with me?” — and led her by the arm to the waiting vehicle.

“This is Bert,” he growled, nodding at his chauffeur, Bert Williams. Fabyan climbed in with Elizebeth in the back.

From the Newberry, the chauffeur drove them south and west for twenty blocks until they arrived at the soaring Roman columns of the Chicago & North Western Terminal, one of the busiest of the city’s five railway stations. Fabyan hurried her out of the limo, up the steps, between the columns, and into the nine-hundred-foot-long train shed, a vast, darkened shaft of platforms and train cars and people rushing every which way. She asked Fabyan if she could send a message to her family at the telegraph office in the station, letting them know her whereabouts. Fabyan said no, that wasn’t necessary, and there wasn’t any time.

She followed him toward a Union Pacific car. Fabyan and Elizebeth climbed aboard at the back end. Fabyan walked her all the way to the front of the car and told her to sit in the frontmost seat, by the window. Then he went galumphing back through the car saying hello to the other passengers, seeming to recognize several, gossiping with them about this and that, and joking with the conductor in a matey voice while Elizebeth waited in her window seat and the train did not move. It sat there, and sat there, and sat there, and a bubble of panic suddenly popped in her stomach, the hot acid rising to her throat.

“Where am I?” she thought to herself. “Who am I? Where am I going? I may be on the other side of the world tonight.” She wondered if she should get up, right that second, while Fabyan had his back turned, and run.

But she remained still until Fabyan had finished talking to the other passengers and came tramping back to the front of the car. He packed his big body into the seat opposite hers. She smiled at him, trying to be proper and polite, like she had been taught, and not wanting to offend a millionaire; she had grown up in modest enough circumstances to be wary of the rich and their power.

Then Fabyan did something she would remember all her life. He rocked forward, jabbed his reddened face to within inches of hers, fixed his blue eyes on her hazel ones, and thundered, loud enough for everyone in the car to hear, “Well, WHAT IN HELL DO YOU KNOW?”

Elizebeth leaned away from Fabyan and his question. It inflamed something stubborn in her. She turned her head away in a gesture of disrespect, resting her cheek against the window to create some distance. The pilgrim collar of her dress touched the cold glass. From that position she shot Fabyan a sphinxy, sidelong gaze.

“That remains, sir, for you to find out,” she said.

It occurred to her afterward that this was the most immoral remark she had ever made in her life. Fabyan loved it. He leaned way back, making the seat squeak with his weight, and unloosed a great roaring laugh that slammed through the train car and caromed off the thin steel walls.

Then his facial muscles slackened into an expression clearly meant to convey deep thought, and as the train lurched forward, finally leaving the station, he began to talk of Shakespeare, the reason he had sought her out.

Hamlet, he said. Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, the sonnets — the most famous written works in the world. Countless millions had read them, quoted them, memorized them, performed them, used pieces of them in everyday speech without even knowing. Yet all those readers had missed something. A hidden order, a secret of indescribable magnitude.

Out the train window, the grid of Chicago gave way to the silos and pale yellow vistas of the prairie. Each second she was getting pulled more deeply into the scheme of this stranger, destination unknown.

The First Folio, he continued. The Shakespeare book at the Newberry Library. It wasn’t what it seemed. The words on the page, which appeared to be describing the wounds and treacheries of lovers and kings, in fact told a completely different story, a secret story, using an ingenious system of secret writing. The messages revealed that the author of the plays was not William Shakespeare. The true author, and the man who had concealed the messages, was in fact Francis Bacon, the pioneering scientist and philosopher-king of Elizabethan England.

Elizebeth looked at the rich man. She could tell he believed what he was saying.

Fabyan went on. He said that a brilliant female scholar who worked for him, Mrs. Elizabeth Wells Gallup, had already succeeded in unweaving the plays and isolating Bacon’s hidden threads. But for reasons that would become clear, Mrs. Gallup needed an assistant with youthful energy and sharp eyes. This is why Fabyan wanted Elizebeth to join him and Mrs. Gallup at Riverbank — his private home, his 350-acre estate, but also so much more.

* * *

From the book THE WOMAN WHO SMASHED CODES: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone. Copyright © 2017 by Jason Fagone. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

The 1923 Novel That Helps Us Understand Today’s Racial Climate

First published in 1923, Cane is a series of lyrical vignettes about life in rural Georgia told from the point of view of an ambivalently black teacher from the north. Cane’s protagonist is loosely based off of the author, Jean Toomer, a black man descended from mixed-race former slaves. Throughout his life, Toomer traveled across the color line, insisting that he wanted his work to be known beyond the confines of black literature.

Andrew Mitchell Davenport looks at the creation of Cane alongside his own personal history as a black man with racially ambiguous features in an essay for Lapham’s Quarterly, where he beautifully muses on the difficulty of forming a solid black identity in the wake of violent white supremacy, past and present.

I took the train north to New Haven one evening this spring. I had just read Cane for the first time as an adult, no longer in college. I am now twenty-seven, the age Toomer was when he wrote his masterpiece. I thought of how Toomer drafted Cane on trains returning to Washington from Georgia—did he sit in the black car or the white car?—and how he might have timed the rhythms of his words to the ringing of the rails, striking downhome talk and folksong into modernist poetry. I caught the reflection of my white-looking features in the train window and wondered at how my appearance eases me through time. How so many of my people have lit out for whiteness, never to return. My “white” Mormon cousins out West. Would there come a time, even worse weather, when I too might deny my past? I remembered my enslaved ancestors, their courage, the land they purchased when freed by the Union forces. At the Yale library, reading through papers Toomer kept during his time in Sparta and in his later time of exile, I witnessed how pain and fear—of the world, of one’s self—could be twisted into a terrible, haunting beauty.

Read the essay

Smearch, Fidgital, Skinjecture: Creating New Terms for the Modern World

Jessica Gross | Longreads | April 2015 | 18 minutes (4,597 words)

Lizzie Skurnick is a voracious writer, critic and, now, head of a young adult publishing imprint. She began her career as a poet, then wrote young adult novels, a longstanding litblog called “The Old Hag,” and a Jezebel column about YA books that became the memoir Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading. Lizzie Skurnick Books, an imprint of Ig Publishing that launched in 2013, republishes those very books: YA classics from the 1930s through the ‘80s, by writers including Sydney Taylor (my own childhood beacon), Norma Klein, and Lois Duncan.

I met Skurnick at her apartment in Jersey City, where she served me tea and sat across from me in an armchair. The occasion for our conversation was the publication of her new book, That Should Be a Word, a compendium of imaginative neologisms—like “smearch: Google someone in hopes of finding bad news”—drawn from her New York Times Magazine column of the same name. (Disclaimer: the column was published on the Times’ now-defunct “One-Page Magazine,” for which I also wrote.) We spoke for several hours, during which Skurnick jumped up repeatedly to show me family photographs or books she’d written or reprinted (or, at one point, to grab a water bottle that approximated the size of her son, Javier, when he was born). Our conversation ranged from how she goes about creating such inventive new words to what the current backlash against YA literature is all about.

How did your New York Times Magazine column come about?

It was actually a very happy circumstance and coincidence. They asked Maud Newton, who I’ve known since 2003, from our blogging days, “Would you like to do a column on word play?” She said no, but Lizzie Skurnick can do it! [Laughs] It was good, I could really do them—I think because I’m a rhyming poet and I’m always doing loser puns. They came very naturally. It’s not like I was sitting there and being like, “How do I write these words?”

What do you mean, they came naturally? Like a new word will pop into your head as you’re walking down the street?

Yes, I do what my mother always calls “submit the query,” which means I submit the query to my brain. And then in the meantime, it’s like warm-up stuff. I’ll look at rhymes for the word. I’ll look at related words and I’ll go through the thesaurus and I’ll do those rhyming things online. But that’s never the word. It’s never usually even related to the word, but it gets my brain juiced up. And then I take a walk and it usually comes on the walk or in the shower.

I remember when the first word, “smearch,” came to me. And it was in the shower after I’d been grumping around on words that didn’t work. Because there is always the obvious word. And then there’s always the Urban Dictionary word, like “hangry.” They must be the harmonics of our language; they’re the words that everybody comes up with, but in a good way—some natural pairing that we all can find. My words never intersected with Urban Dictionary’s. Read more…

Anna Clark: My Top 5 World Lit Longreads of 2011

Anna Clark is a journalist and the editor of the literary blog Isak. (See more stories on her Longreads page.)

The infamous 3% statistic points to the percentage of publications each year in the U.S. that are translated into English. But even that number is inflated, as it includes technical material — manuals, guides, instructions — and new editions of canonized authors like Leo Tolstoy and Plato. American readers interested in the full-throated energy of contemporary world literature, of global book culture beyond their particular location and language, have limited options. Publishers suggest that literature in translation doesn’t sell — excepting a certain Swedish novelist called Stieg, of course — but my thinking is that readers like good things to read, wherever they come from. Readers are a curious sort.

I am ignited by literature of the world. I am fascinated by the stories and styles that come from different places. My Top 5 Longreads shouldn’t be considered a *best* list; rather, a cultivated selection of the year’s most interesting reading on international literature, translation, and storytelling. But this conversation isn’t finished; there is more to be said.

***

1. The Fierce Imagination of Haruki Murakami by Sam Anderson — New York Times

I prepared for my first-ever trip to Japan, this summer, almost entirely by immersing myself in the work of Haruki Murakami. This turned out to be a horrible idea.

2. The Joyful Side of Translation by Adam Thirlwell — The New York Times

The theory of translation is very rarely — how to put this? — comical.

3. Who Owns Kafka? by Judith Butler — London Review of Books

An ongoing trial in Tel Aviv is set to determine who will have stewardship of several boxes of Kafka’s original writings, including primary drafts of his published works, currently stored in Zurich and Tel Aviv.

4. Arabic and Hebrew: The Politics of Literary Translation by Olivia Snaije — Publishing Perspectives

Today, the 60-plus year conflict between Israel and Arab countries has impacted heavily on translations between the two Semitic languages, which are now viewed by many with mutual suspicion and distrust.

5. These Infantile Times by Jessa Crispin — Kirkus Reviews

Crispin interviews Dubravka Ugresic about her new essay collection, Karaoke Culture. Discussed: the author’s relationship to pop culture and how a Hemingway lookalike contest fits into the same essay as the war criminal Radovan Karadžic.

Politics and Prose

Alex Milan Tracy / Sipa via AP Images

Marie Myung-Ok Lee | Longreads | May 2018 | 15 minutes (3,630 words)

 

“Walls are built in the mind.” — Wole Soyinka

“The whole country is outraged and outspoken and you should be too

because if you’re not, then you’re not doing your part.”

— Rachel Coye, “New Year”

As a writer, a books columnist for the literary site The Millions, the co-founder of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and a literary citizen with prolific and brilliant friends whose readings and performances I could probably ink every night on my calendar, let’s say I go to a lot of book signings. Some have food, some have wine. Some have people who wander in and ask irrelevant questions with disarming earnestness.

At one reading where I acted as interlocutor, the novelist I was interviewing took out a package of Swiss chocolate she’d brought with her from Geneva, and instead of putting it on the plate with the wine, handed it to me with a sly smile. I’ve been to several readings where I have been the sole member of the audience. I was asked to do a reading that would involve live exotic animals as accompaniment. I went to one on the Lower East Side, back when it was truly gritty, where the writer was accompanied — overpowered, really — by a person blowing random high notes on a flute. Each reading offers something different, delightful, educational, new.

But I’ve never been to a reading/book signing that had protesters. Especially not for a book the Cleveland Plain Dealer called a “Beautiful, eloquent, and timely” memoir authored by a young writer with a new MFA, a Fulbright, and a Whiting Award. In the era of Trump, where there is something new to protest every day (women’s rights, the EPA, the NEA, gun control, tax cuts for the rich, healthcare…), what would cause the lovely indie bookstore, Books Are Magic to send out a warning on Facebook before the event?

Read more…

When Will Hip-Hop Have Its #MeToo Reckoning?

Kelis performs in Paris, 2014. (David Wolff-Patrick/Redferns via Getty Images)

In a recent interview with the celebrity news site Hollywood Unlocked, singer Kelis discussed her seven-year relationship with ex-husband, Nas, the legendary Queens rapper, with a level of detail she never had publicly. She described a mix of “intense highs and really intense lows,” including bruises from physical fights, alcoholic binges, cheating, and emotional abuse. Kelis also made claims that, since the divorce in 2010, Nas had been a difficult and unreliable co-parent to their 8-year-old son. At more than an hour long, the interview is a marvel of a testimony and rings with emotional honesty. Kelis seemed weary of keeping quiet about her past, saying she simply woke up and thought “not today.” Read more…

O, Small-bany!

Illustration by Senne Trip

Elisa Albert | Longreads | May 2018 | 17 minutes (4,229 words)

They poisoned the water in the lake again. It’s actually more of an enormous pond. They poison it a few times a year. I’m not listening to music, for a change. My battery’s at 10%, anyway, and I want to eavesdrop. Washington Park’s full of people. Just like the Seurat painting, minus the class status and pointillism.

There’s a black man fishing with his tiny son crouching beside him. The man’s biceps are impressively built and inked. The boy says, “Tell me when you see a fish.” There’s a middle-aged white couple with a contented aura, walking a mid-sized grey mutt. There’s a very petite brown woman in tight blue athleisure berating a man who is pushing a baby in a stroller. Not a status stroller. Athleisure woman is on this man about something. He hadn’t been on time to pick her up. He is playing it cool (“Well, I came, didn’t I?”) but she is unrelenting (“Not when you said you would! Not til after you…”) and then they are out of earshot. There’s a young white mother from the nearby cult (I’m sorry: Intentional Community), holding a toddler’s hand. The Intentional Community manufactures the kind of old-fashioned wooden toys for which my bored mom friends and I go wild. They live and work in a huge brick mansion near the park. There’s free literature about their intentionality to be had in a little kiosk at the entrance to their driveway. Books about making peace with death and living in accordance with the laws of nature. When I was a new mother, I used to loiter around that kiosk. Should I join? They wear homemade clothing and raise children communally. I yearn deeply for the latter but I have a quasi-sexual weakness for fashion, and ultimately I’m not much of a joiner. The young mother in her homemade ankle-length skirt and bonnet is talking to a black man on a bench by the boathouse. He rests one arm on yet another stroller (not status), in which sits a toddler with a delightful head of tight, ombre ringlets. The man reaches out his hand to me.

“Hello!” he says, like we know each other; I don’t think we know each other.

“How are you?” he wonders.

I smile, nod: fine, fine, thank you, and you? I do this intuitive sort of bow, and continue on my way. The cult woman slightly glares at me from under her bonnet. Her glare (real? imagined?) trips some anxiety about running into people I’m not fond of, by which I mean people not fond of me. There’s this one woman in particular, your standard bad-vibes-in-small-town situation, and my nervous system goes insane every goddamn time.

***

Officially Albany is a city of a hundred thousand, but it feels like a very small town. Which can make it hard to take a walk sometimes. Small-bany, some call it. Shmalbany, I prefer. Albanality, a friend of mine says, but the syllables don’t work out. There’s not that fantastically freeing anonymity of your big exciting status places. State capitals are often kind of weird places. It’s a small goddamn town. So much chit-chat always waiting to be had. Just around that bend? Just over this hill? Just past that tree? I arrange my face in a blank mask and bland smile, practicing. I catch myself doing so, catch my thoughts circling this dumb anxiety; shake it off. You are safe, I tell myself. My whole goddamn sympathetic nervous system gets caught up in small town anxiety. It’s hard trying to be friends with everyone all the time. It’s okay if not everybody likes you. I used to kind of seek out people with bad energy, try to make them like me, but that only makes them like you less. I learn slowly.

You are safe, I tell myself, and it works. I am safe. Relatively speaking. More often now I seek to avoid or minimize encounters with people who don’t like me, people who bring out the ugly. This is progress, according to the meditation teacher.

Isn’t this the kind of inner drama we all share? Useless, banal. Best kept to oneself, only then how are we to take comfort in the knowledge that we’re all the same!?

Read more…

Forgetting the Madeleine

Frances Leech | Longreads | May 2018 | 13 minutes (3,315 words)

 

I have friends in Paris who are now 4 and 6 years old. When I ring the doorbell at their apartment, I hear a clamor of footsteps and shouts of “Frances” and “Frances-madeleine” as they fight to open the latch, just within reach of small arms.

“What did you bring?” asks the boy, searching me for a telltale tin or box.

Tu es une PATISSERIE,” says the girl: you’re a bakery, or a baked good. I do not correct her.

Then they remember: “bonjour,” “bonsoir,” a kiss on the cheek. They pull me away like tugboats to see their room. At one birthday party they kidnapped me so fast that the adults did not find me for half an hour. I was busy being dive-bombed by toddlers and pretending to be the wolf.

They are curious about many things: trains, love, my cat whom they have not yet met, all of the cooking that happens in their narrow kitchen. They know if they ask “what is it?” they will receive un petit bout: a morsel of chocolate or a scrap of herbed fat, something to test for themselves. Or someone tall will hoist the child up to watch bubbling sugar turn to caramel — from a safe distance — before chasing them out. “Go play with your kitchen!” They have a wide selection of plastic fruit, vegetables, pizza, cakes.

“What did you bring?”

This particular afternoon I only brought a pan. I showed it to them.

“Can you guess what we are making today? It begins with an M…”

“MACARONS!” The boy loves them, for their melting sweetness and array of colors. Whenever I make a butterfly or flower in pastel colors, I save one for him.

“No, it begins with an M and it’s also in my name.”

“MARIE!”

“No, that is maman. It looks like a shell but you can eat it.”

I find madeleines are often bland rather than exceptional, whether it’s the spongy ones in supermarket packets or the pâtisserie ones that are prettier than they taste. I’d rather dip a boring digestive biscuit in my tea and know what I am getting. I’d rather be named after an éclair. But I will make madeleines for these two French children. I can’t resist their big eyes and round cheeks, and neither can their local baker’s wife: she always slips them a chouquette or a little cake when their parents pop in to buy bread.

Read more…

Born Again

Illustrations by Karen Barbour

Michelle Dean Topic | April 2017 | 13 minutes (3,100 words)

This story is featured in collaboration with Topic, a digital storytelling platform that delivers an original story to your inbox each and every week. Sign up for Topic’s newsletter now.

Candace Newmaker was 10 years old when she died in 2000. There are only a few pictures of her, and even fewer biographical details. Here is what we do know: she had dark brown hair and eyes, she liked dogs and horses, and she enjoyed arts and crafts. Candace had been a ward of the state of North Carolina since she was about 5 the daughter of a very young mother who hadn’t been able to hold her own life together, and who had lost her very young children to the Department of Children and Family Services. Jeane Newmaker, a kindly nurse-practitioner who was single and in her early 40s, found Candace in the system when she was 6 and adopted her in 1996. It’s not clear exactly when things got difficult between Newmaker and her adopted daughter. Maybe things were difficult from the start. (Newmaker declined to comment for this article; this account is based on contemporaneous press reports in the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News.) Candace, one of the girl’s therapists later said, could be sweet, but she could also be “mean.” One therapist said it just seemed like Candace had a “defense mechanism for being through so many places” — that “it was like having the average 18-year-old adolescent in your house,” one who was trapped in a 10-year-old’s body. Read more…