Monthly Archives: August 2015

In Review: Maps of the Soul by Ahmed Fagih

Sawad Hussain reviews part 1/12 of Ahmed Fagih's compelling, complex epic of the heart.

It has been a while since I have come across a novel that not only keeps me spellbound but educates me thoroughly. Maps of the Soul, written by Ahmed Fagih and brilliantly translated by Thoraya Allam and Brian Loo, is such a work.

Set during the early 1930s in a Libya ruled by Italian colonialist Italo Balbo, Fagih introduces the reader to the louche neighborhoods of Tripoli alongside the glamorous lives of the prosperous (mostly Italian) elite. Tripoli, its architecture, markets, residents and nightlife are described in such vivid and palpable detail that it lends the novel a cinematic feel. A piece of historical fiction, Maps of the Soul is actually the first three installments of a much larger, twelve-part body of work.

The book opens with the gripping scene of the protagonist Othman al-Sheikh waiting to be executed. To his right, fellow Italian army soldiers are having their heads methodically chopped off by an Abyssinian warrior armed with a knife the length of a sword. As heads roll and blood spurts across the narrator’s face, we are transported back into time to supposedly understand how Othman al-Sheikh comes to end up with neck exposed, primed to be severed. The author’s decision to write in second person endows the novel with a personal sense of urgency that swiftly pulls the reader into the action, and propels the story forward effortlessly, and the translation has skillfully rendered an otherwise difficult form in English. READ MORE…

Weekly News Roundup, 28th August 2015: Is It Stealing from the Amazon?

This week's literary highlights from across the world.

Happiest of Fridays, Asymptote pals. Did you hear about the good news? It’s more than Close Approximations, our superstar-big-bucks translation contest (judged by the likes of Michael Hofmann, Margaret Jull Costa, and Ottilie Mulzet). Might be worthwhile to check out the Journal‘s recruitment call, which harks far and wide and all across the globe. We’re even searching for fresh blood talent at the blog, where we’ll be hiring some assistant blog editors to pitch in with pitching stories, proofreading interviews, and all things bloggy. Even if you can’t dedicate the kinds of hours our volunteer staff does, tirelessly, be a pal and contribute to our second reader survey—we want Asymptote to listen to its readers, too. And pitch an ear to our latest podcast while you’re jetting off to wherever you’re jetting off to—it’s uncanny, and you won’t regret it.  READ MORE…

Publisher Profile: Ugly Duckling Presse

"I think there’s an interest among the editors in finding new translators, allowing the work of new translators to shine."

Ugly Duckling Presse is a nonprofit publisher for poetry, translation, experimental nonfiction, performance texts, and books by artists. Matvei Yankelevich is the co-founder and co-executive director of the press, and Rebekah Smith is an associate editor who spent the summer in Buenos Aires. We chatted over Skype about the press’s origins, as well as two of its translation series: EEPS (the Eastern European Poets Series) and Señal, which Rebekah and Matvei both curate. 

 

Alexis Almeida: I want to first ask about Ugly Duckling’s origins. I read recently that you started as a zine and over time evolved into a small press. Can you highlight a few major transformations that the press went through during in this time? What were you goals for the press initially, and how have they changed over the years, especially as you expand to include more collective members and publish new kinds of books?

Matvei Yankelevich: Well, it’s important to say first that the press has very little to do with what the zine was, although the name stuck. When I moved to New York, I kept using the name for new collaborative projects with people I met. When we decided to actually do something more substantial, in the late 90s, we were just a group of writers, artists, and theater people. It wasn’t necessarily going to be a publishing house, but we decided to keep the name, Ugly Duckling Presse. What united us, or gave us the idea of working together, was that we were making books with each other, or for each other, so books were a common language. And the original idea was that we would publish things, maybe have a space, have performances and shows, but that was very difficult in late 90s New York. READ MORE…

Resurrection Song: William Tyndale

Fifth in Josh Billings's "Lives of the Translators" series—on God, death, and translation.

One morning in October 1536, in the Flemish town of Vilvorde, William Tyndale was led by his guards from his cell to a cross in the public square, to which he was tied at the ankles and waist with chains, and at the neck with a loose hemp cord.

Contrary to popular legend, he was not burned alive. Thieves and beggars were burned alive, women were burned alive, but Tyndale was a scholar and degraded priest: he was afforded the courtesy of being strangled first. When the procurer-general gave the signal, an executioner standing behind the cross pulled the hemp cord tight around Tyndale’s neck until he was dead. Then he lit the pile of brush and gunpowder that had been built up around the cross, and stood back.

Translation has always had its fair share of occupational hazards, but the execution of William Tyndale is one of rare examples in literary history of a translator killed for his work. It happened in an era when translation was taken extremely seriously, not just because it allowed ordinary people to read the Bible in their own languages, but because it implied those languages were as capable of containing God’s Word as Latin, Greek or Hebrew. Tyndale’s New Testament didn’t just imply this: it proved it, giving readers a Gospel that was both noble and familiar—a book of shepherds, the kitchen, the market, sons. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: Four Poems by Anita Pajević

"technically speaking, you’ll clasp her to your knees. / you’ll clean her fish ponds / to make her laugh."

houpačka

 

it morned. godded.

thin soup enspooned on the stove.

an emotion to match. an H on the access tabulations,

in lukewarm plates. like H, like morn.

i didn’t go to the Hraveyard with dad.

not even when things prayered down on him. READ MORE…

3 Asymptote Announcements (You Don’t Want to Miss)

After announcing Close Approximations, our $4,500 translation contest, we're thrilled to share more exciting news!

As you might remember, we recently announced Close Approximations, our $4,500 translation contest judged by Michael Hofmann, Ottilie Mulzet, and Margaret Jull Costa. But we have more exciting news for you: Our podcast and annual reader survey are back! And to prepare for new ventures, we’re hoping to enlist new team members via our final recruitment drive of the year (deadline: 1 September 2015). Check out the details here: READ MORE…

The Uncanny Listener: Stories from the Shadows (Part 1)

Our newest podcast episode features creepy stories by Bruno Schulz, Ambrose Bierce, John Herdman and Felisberto Hernandez.

The Uncanny Listener: Stories from the Shadows (Part 1)

What exactly is “the uncanny“? We’ve all felt the sensation of a bloodcurdling shiver running down our spines, but when it comes to describing what that means or what caused it, we’re often left with nothing but: “it was just . . . creepy.”

In the latest episode of the Asymptote Podcast, we explore the mysterious and alluring phenomenon of getting the creeps, through the words of some of the best scary-storytellers in world literature. The Uncanny Listener: Stories from the Shadows is a chilling collage of readings that reveal the strangeness of what’s familiar and the familiarity of what’s strange. READ MORE…

Translating Borges into Trees: An Interview with Book Artist Katie Holten

"I think of the book as an archive of human knowledge filtered through branches of thought."

Katie Holten is an Irish artist. She represented Ireland at the 50th Venice Biennale. Solo museum exhibitions include New Orleans Museum of Art (2012); Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane (2010); The Bronx Museum, New York (2009); Nevada Museum of Art, Reno (2008), and Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (2007). Committed to social causes, especially as they pertain to environmental issues, Katie is fascinated with the inextricable relationship between man and the natural world in the age of the Anthropocene. She is the artist behind About Trees, the first book in Broken Dimanche Press’s new series Parapoetics: A Literature Beyond the Human. Her artwork can be found at katieholten.com.

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Asymptote: How would you describe About Trees to someone who hasn’t heard of the project?

Katie Holten: About Trees is a book about trees written in trees. It’s a collection of texts about trees, about the notion of trees, and a constellation of tangential tree-related things. Everything is translated into Trees, a new typeface that I made especially for the project. At the core of the book is a Tree Alphabet with trees replacing each of the 26 letters of the standard English/Latin alphabet. These characters were transformed into a font, the typeface called Trees. READ MORE…

Translator’s Profile: K. E. Semmel

Q&A with K. E. Semmel, translator from the Danish and 2016 NEA Literary Translation Fellow.

K. E. Semmel is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in Ontario Review, Washington Post, World Literature Today, Southern Review, Subtropics, and elsewhere. His translations include books by Naja Marie Aidt, Karin Fossum, Erik Valeur, Jussi Adler Olsen, Simon Fruelund and, forthcoming in winter 2016, Jesper Bugge Kold. He is a recipient of numerous grants from the Danish Arts Foundation and is a 2016 NEA Literary Translation Fellow.

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Who are you? What do you translate? 

First, thank you for asking me to do this interview. I’ve started an interview series with the Santa Fe Writers Project (SFWP) called “Translator’s Cut,” in which I travel the globe, so to speak, interviewing translators about their work. So I’m more used to being on the opposite side of an interview.

Who am I? I’m a literary translator and writer, working from Danish to English (though I’ve translated some Norwegian and would do it again if the right opportunity presented itself). My educational background is in History and Literature, and my professional background is in the nonprofit world. For the past couple years, however, I’ve been translating full time. Like with any translator, I suspect, my primary reason for translating is that I love books and literature and want everyone to experience some really fantastic books that I happen to be able to render in English. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Mal Paso” by Hugo López Araiza Bravo

Spanish/French/English—a multilingual Translation Tuesday, translated by criticism editor Ellen Jones



Select translation:

“But why do you want to go to Haiti?” they asked her in Santo Domingo. “You crazy?”

She only smiled like a naïve foreigner, mumbled something about a sociolinguistic interest in the borderlands, and went out of the department with her Lotman under her arm. While she waited for the bus to the coach station she looked over the timetable that her classmates had reluctantly given her. It was going to take the whole day. The first thing she had to do was leave the city by the Carretera Sánchez.

“I’m only going as far as Barahona,” the driver warned her when he heard where she was going. “From there, you’re on your own.”

She didn’t mind. She sat on the left hand side so she could say goodbye to the sea; she fixed her eyes on the waves while the vehicle moved over the concrete. The blue was giving way little by little to green. When nothing but mountains was visible, she fell asleep. She woke up just in time to see the Arco del Triunfo.

She had a hard time finding someone to take her the rest of the way. Finally she ended up with a lorry driver whose job was to supply sugar cane to the city’s sugar factory. He was loading his vehicle with big water bottles.

“There’s not enough water over there,” he explained. “I’m going to make more on this trip than I make in a month going back and forth like crazy.”

They set off when the driver was sure that he’d made use of every cubic metre of his hold. They left the city behind and went into the sugar plantations. The lorry’s cabin shook with a wave of vituperation against the sugar industry. How they were worked from sun up to sun down. How bateyes still existed. How people were dying from machete wounds. How even after everything slavery still persisted, it’s just that now they called it minimum wage. Then the Laguna del Rincón appeared, and the criticism was directed towards uncontrolled fishing and the loss of heritage as a result of greed.

“They extract gypsum from that mountain,” he concluded signaling towards the other side. “Don’t get me started on the mines.”

She didn’t. She wasn’t about to get involved in ethical debates with a man who was trying to sell water at the price of mercury to the victims of an earthquake. Besides, enough people had confided in her their misfortunes for her to know that all of Latin America was singing from the same song sheet: each country had its own versions of the same general ills.

They stopped in Duvergé for something to eat: rice and pigeon peas. As soon as their plates were clean her companion stood up.

“We’ve got to get to Jimaní before nightfall: it’ll be hard to find somewhere to spend the night.”

They could barely make out the city when it became clear that something was out of the ordinairy. It was seething. For the second biggest cité in the municipalité, there were too many people. And people in the streets. They had to réduice their speed to avoid running someone over. They soon understood that they were principalment refugees. They stopped in front of a house d’aspect humble.

“They’re distant relatives” her guide excused himself. “Tomorrow you can go to the border. It’s only two kilometres away.”

She passéd the nuit on a pallet in the cuisine.

She sortied early, with only a piece of manioc in her estomac. She calculated that she’d have to marche for three quarts of an hour. The streets were as full as the précéding nuit. The soldats from the Fortaleza looked suspicieusely at the people going past. She commenced to move between the multitudes, parfaitly aware that she was swimming à countercurrent. Quand she left the last houses behind, the route became more sauvage. Elle décida to walk on one side so it would be more facile to mouve. Those who were coming in the opposée direction looked like they hadn’t eaten in days. They came with almost zéro, with seulely the robes they were wearing quand tout had se passé. On her right était the Étang Saumâtre, et elle imagina that if the dominicain gouvernment had not permetted the réfugiés to entrer, these waters would now be full de illegaux swimming pour their survie.

Elle could déjà see Mal Paso. Le nom was apt: négliged constructions that spat out misérables, infernal portes. She made her way à travers the réfugiés et entréed a totalement chaótique square. There were pleine de gens en the mouve, here et là camions could be seen, still trying to continuer with their commerce. Among them were the improviséd campements for those who still pensaient que they pourraient retourn. Elle parcrossed le perimetre lentement, completely submergéed. Vraiment Mallepasse. Elle vint more proche à la frontière. Un point de contrôle de Casques Bleus garded le passage.

“Eh! La fille!”, lui hurla l’un des soldats. “Tu peux pas passer! Rien que de l’aide internationale y peut traverser! C’est pas du tourisme, une catastrophe pareille!”

Elle resta immobile. De l’autre côté, elle vit l’Ayiti. Tout te sanble diferan de lót bò a.

 

–¿Pero por qué tú quieres ir a Haití? –le preguntaron en Santo Domingo–. ¿Estarás tú loca?

Ella sólo sonrió cual extranjera ingenua, balbució algo sobre el interés sociolingüístico de la frontera y salió de la facultad con su Lotman bajo el brazo. Mientras esperaba la guagua hacia la central de autobuses repasó el itinerario que a regañadientes le habían dado sus compañeros. Le iba a ocupar todo el día. Lo primero que tenía que hacer era salir de la ciudad por la Carretera Sánchez.

–Yo voy sólo hasta Barahona –le advirtió el conductor cuando se enteró de su destino–. A partir de ahí, se ampara sola.

No le importó. Se sentó del lado izquierdo para poder despedirse del mar; clavó los ojos en las olas mientras la máquina avanzaba por el concreto. El azul fue cediendo poco a poco al verde. Cuando no se distinguía más que monte, cayó dormida. Despertó justo a tiempo para ver el Arco del Triunfo.

Le costó trabajo encontrar quién la llevara el resto del camino. Finalmente dio con un camionero encargado de abastecer de caña al ingenio de la ciudad. Estaba cargando su vehículo con garrafones.

–Allá hace falta el agua –explicó–. Voy a hacer más con este viaje de lo que gano en un mes dando vueltas como loco.

Partieron cuando el conductor estuvo seguro de que cada metro cúbico de su caja estaba aprovechado. Dejaron detrás la ciudad y se adentraron en los cañaverales. La cabina del camión se removió con un vendaval de vituperios al sistema azucarero. Que se trabajaba de sol a sol. Que seguía existiendo la raya. Que la gente moría de una herida de machete. Que después de todo se mantenía la esclavitud, aunque ahora le dijeran salario mínimo. Entonces emergió la Laguna del Rincón, y la queja se dirigió hacia la pesca indiscriminada y la pérdida del patrimonio por culpa de la avaricia.

–De ese monte sacan yeso –concluyó señalando hacia el otro lado–. No me haga comenzar con las minas.

No lo hizo. No estaba para meterse en debates éticos con un hombre que pretendía venderles agua a precio de mercurio a los damnificados de un terremoto. Además, ya había protagonizado suficientes confidencias de desgracias como para saber que toda Latinoamérica cojea del mismo pie: cada país tiene sus propias versiones de los males generales.

Pararon en Duvergé por algo de comida: arroz con guandules. En cuanto limpiaron el plato su compañero se paró.

–Hay que llegar a Jimaní antes que anochezca: nos va a costar trabajo encontrar dónde pasar la noche.

Apenas divisaron la ciudad se dio cuenta de que algo había fuera de lo commún. Bullía. Para ser la segunda ciutat más grande del municipio, le sobraba gent. Y gent en las calles. Tuvieron que diminuir la velocidad para evitar atropellar a alguien. Pronto comprendió que se trataba en su majoría de refugiados. Se detuvieron frente a una casa d’aspecto humilde.

–Son parientes lejanos –se excusó su guía–. Mañana tú podrás ir a la frontera. Está apenas a dos kilómetros.

Passó la noche en un catre en la cuisina.

Sortió temprano, sólo con un trozo de yuca en el ventre. Calculaba que devía marchar tres quartos de hora. Las calles estaban tan plenas como la noche précédente. Los soldats de the Fortaleza miraban méfiantes las gens que pasaban. Commenzó a moverse entre la multitude, parfaitamente consciente de que nadaba à contrecorriente. Quand dejó atrás las últimas casas, el chemino se devenió más agreste. Décidió andar par un lado, de sorte que le fuera más fácile déplazarse. Los que veníaent en sens contrairio paraîcían no aver mangiado en varios días. Veníaent casi sans nada, seul con las robes que portaban quand tout se avía passado. À su derecha étaiba el Étang Saumâtre, et se immaginó que si el gouverno dominicain no hubiera permis la entrée de refugiés, esas aguas serían ahora pleines de illegaux nageando pour la supervivencia.

Elle veía déjà Mal Paso. Lui iba bien el nom: unos bâtiments négligéados qui escupían misérables, unas portes al enfer. Se ouvrió paso à travers de los réfugiés et entró en une plaza totalement chaótique. Étaiba pleine de gens en mouvemiento, aquí et là se apréciaban los camions que avían todavía essayé continuer con el commerce. Entre eux étaiban les campaments improvisés de los que pensaient todavía que pourraient retournar. Parcourrió le pérímétre lentement, duramente impressionée. Vraiment Mallepasse. Elle vint más proche à la frontière. Un point de contrôle de Casques Bleus vigilait le passage.

«Eh! La fille!», lui hurla l’un des soldats. «Tu peux pas passer! Rien que de l’aide internationale y peut traverser! C’est pas du tourisme, une catastrophe pareille!»

Elle resta immobile. De l’autre côté, elle vit l’Ayiti. Tout te sanble diferan de lót bò a.

***

Hugo López Araiza Bravo is a Mexican writer and translator. His first book, Infinitas cosas, won the 4º Virtuality Literario Caza de Letras. His second will be out soon, and he's been shadow-boxing with a novel for over four years. In 2012, he won the Concurso 43 de Punto de Partida in literary translation, with a fragment of a novel by Amélie Nothomb. He's currently studying for a Masters in Translation at El Colegio de México.   Ellen Jones edits the criticism section of Asymptote, and contributes the occasional translation. She has a B.A. in English literature and Spanish, and an M.St. in English Language from the University of Oxford. She is now a Ph.D. candidate at Queen Mary University of London, researching English-Spanish code-switching in contemporary fiction, and the particular challenges associated with reading, publishing, and translating this kind of writing.

Different Beauty, Equal Beauty

Can you translate beauty if it isn't beautiful otherwise?

A Ming Dynasty vase and an ancient Greek urn share beauty but not aesthetics. The artisans of the different styles might have appreciated each other’s work—and yet they might have stuck to their own ways, perhaps because they saw no reason to change or perhaps because they simply lacked the material and equipment to produce anything else.

Languages also have different rules for beautiful prose, based both on cultural inheritance and on the possibilities and limits of each language within its grammar and vocabulary.

I translate Spanish to English, and I often face the delightful task of transforming beautiful Spanish prose into beautiful English prose. To do that, I have had to learn to appreciate the standards of beauty for each language, which share little in common due to different historical trajectories.

Spanish emerged from a local dialect of Latin. King Alfonso X the Wise, who reigned from 1252 to 1284, made Spanish (Castilian, to be precise) the preferred language for scholarship in his realm, replacing Latin. To cement that change, he funded scholars in Toledo and elsewhere to translate literature from other languages into Spanish and to write new books. He himself wrote some important works, knowing that a language must have literature. READ MORE…

Weekly News Roundup, 14th August 2015: the Books You Read, the Books You Ban

This week's literary highlights from across the world.

Hey, happiest of Fridays, Asymptote readers! Hope you’re enjoying what’s now—or about to be—the second half of August. For our readers in the United States, that might include a road trip, and what’s more American than a jaunt on the Interstate, as in Vladimir Nabokov’s famed Lolita? Over at the Literary Review, Nabokov falls for America. Or just stay at home, invite friends, open a bottle of wine, and chitchat about your latest favorite read—somehow. What, even, is the social function of the novel?

In Ukraine, that dinner conversation might include a list of books that no one around the table has read—as the country’s recently released a list of 38 banned books, all of which hail from Russian publishers and are deemed “hate” books. The whole thing is rather suspect, especially coupled with news that a Russian publisher has released several pro-Putin tomes using Western-sounding names.

In Japan, everyone’s favorite Nobel point of speculation/runner/baseball fan/novelist Haruki Murakami has published an eight-part e-book release of responses to the questions he had been asked in a crowdsourced, massively hyped advice column earlier this year. Italian anonymous phenom Elena Ferrante is of a slightly different slant when it comes to self-promotion, perhaps: before publishing her debut novel, Troubling Love, in 1991, she “made a small bet” with herself that “books, once they are published, have no need of their authors.” But we’re frothing at the mouth to meet you!

Trivia—more or less. You may have read French surrealist Mallarmé in the English translation (which one?), but have you read English in Mallarmé, Peter Manson’s erasurist, collaborative response? And have you wondered what the great English bard William Shakespeare may have been or possibly was smoking?

Finally, if your novel isn’t taking off yet, blame the trailer. You just don’t find them like this anymore.

Translator’s Profile: Susan Bernofsky

Q&A with Susan Bernofsky, translator from the German and Director of Literary Translation at Columbia University.

Susan Bernofsky directs the literary translation program in the School of the Arts MFA Program in Writing at Columbia University. She has translated over twenty books, including seven by the great Swiss-German modernist author Robert Walser, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Hesse’s Siddhartha and, most recently, The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck. Her many prizes and awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship this year, as well as the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize and the Hermann Hesse Translation Prize. She blogs about translation at www.translationista.net.

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Asymptote: Describe your current/most recent project. Why is it cool? What should we know about it?

Susan Bernofsky: I’m working on a gorgeous and bizarre novel about polar bears by Yoko Tawada called ETUDES IN SNOW. It’s a three-generation story inspired by the short, tragic life of Knut, the baby polar bear born in the Berlin zoo in 2006, but that’s just the jumping-off point for her novel. It’s really a book about identity (national, species, etc.) All the main characters in the book are polar bears, and are described in their physicality as polar bears, but at the same time they move in human society, without any acknowledgment that there might be a contradiction here. The grandmother character, born in the Soviet Union, becomes a writer. As an author of polar bear extraction, she’s an ethnic minority. She later emigrates to Canada, from where her daughter returns to Europe, landing in East Germany, where she takes a job at a circus and experiences the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s a funny, sad, moving book.

READ MORE…

New in Translation: Rock, Paper, Scissors by Naja Marie Aidt

Our India editor-at-large reviews Naja Marie Aidt's long-awaited first novel.

 

See here a picture of prosperous urban life—clean, quiet, well organized, polite and considerate—now lift up the top and see the unfounded rage, the explosive violence, and the metaphysical distress bubbling just under that calm surface. This is what Danish poet and writer Naja Marie Aidt conveys to us in her latest novel, Rock, Paper, Scissors (Open Letter, 2015), translated from the Danish by K. E. Semmel.

Thomas O’Mally Lindström is a small business owner who lives in an upscale apartment with his girlfriend, Patricia. The novel begins with Thomas and his sister, Jenny, making arrangements for the funeral of their father, Jacques. We see Thomas as a man who has his life put together: he runs a successful stationary business with his partner, he’s in a relationship with an attractive, intelligent and kind woman, he is an affectionate brother to Jenny and a good uncle to her daughter, Alice. Thomas seems to have successfully left behind his poor, abusive childhood; in which he and Jenny had suffered at the hands of Jacques, a petty criminal and drug-pusher.

Things start to fall apart when Thomas, while helping his sister sort out Jacques’s things at his rundown apartment, finds a huge sum of money hidden in an old, broken toaster. Thomas decides to keep the money even though he knows his father probably came by it illegally. He hides the money in his basement; but it makes him sick with anxiety every time he thinks about it. At his father’s funeral a few days later, Thomas is surprised to find himself overcome with grief; he begins to sob uncontrollably when his sister Jenny hugs him after the service. The funeral is one among a number of great scenes—the generic service, the chapel’s “white walls, hard benches,” the tacky flowers, the awkward handshakes and nods, Jenny’s pretentious eulogy—all of it sets Thomas down a fresh spiral of panic. READ MORE…