Friday, September 23, 2016

And now for something completely different, Alexander Maksik, author of SHELTER IN PLACE, writes something short and brilliant for the blog

The author's book shelf and book, and the phenomenal LOVE ME BACK

Portrait of the writer's reading chair

The incredibly talented author

The novel you need to read RIGHT NOW

Sometimes books undo you as you read them. Alexander Maksik's Shelter in Place did that to me. About mental instability, prison celebrity, love, loss and desperation, it's shockingly original. I raved about it in the San Francisco Chronicle because it was so audacious and original. A few days ago, I met him at the New England Independent Bookstore Association Reception and he was gracious, funny, brilliant, so I asked him to write something for my blog. And he did.

He's the author of A Marker to Measure Drift, which was named a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for both the William Saroyan Prize and Le Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger; You Deserve Nothing, and SHELTER IN PLACE, which I tell you is like nothing you have ever read. Truly, a favorite book of the year for me. He's also a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler, his writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Best American Nonrequired Reading, Harper’s, Tin House, Harvard Review, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Salon and Narrative Magazine, among other publications. Maksik is the recipient of a 2015 Pushcart Prize, as well as fellowships from the Truman Capote Literary Trust and The Corporation of Yaddo. He is the co-artistic director of the Can Cab Literary Residence in Catalonia, Spain and his work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. 

Alex--thank you, thank you, thank you.

At Night We Slept Beneath the Stars
by Alexander Maksik

“How are you?”

“I am fine,” Hélene answers, biting at her bottom lip.

I am fine. No contraction. Emphasis on the verb.

Hélene is sixty-four years old, soon to retire from her job as a mid-level bureaucrat in a government agency. Hair thinning, complexion of someone who’s spent much of her life beneath fluorescent lights. 

“Do you go out to lunch?”



“Yes, I do.”

“Yes you do?”

She lets out a frustrated sigh.

“Yes I do go out to lunch.”

She knows the drill but does her best to avoid it. 

I smile at her. She shifts uncomfortably in her chair.

“Do you have a favorite restaurant?”

She narrows her eyes. Purses her lips. Is she thinking or does she not understand the question? A silence passes.


I raise my eyebrows.

She sighs. “No, I don’t have a favorite restaurant.”

“Nowhere that you love? Or that you like very much?”

She shakes her head.

I let her slide.  She taps the tip of her pencil against a pad of yellow paper making small dark marks on the page.  She looks up at me. Eyes so flat.

“Where do you eat at lunchtime?”

“A bistro.”

I smile. 

“I eat at a bistro near the place where I am working.”

“Where you work? Near your office?”

“Yes, I eat at a bistro near my office where I work.”

“Do you eat there every day?”

Her cheeks take on new color. She scratches at her neck.

“Yes, I do.”

She pauses.

“Eat there every day.”

Does she think I’ve trapped her? Forced her to reveal something she finds shameful about her life?

“Is it a good bistro?”

“It is fine. The bistro is fine.”

We’re stuck. I’m stuck. I want to talk about what is good, what is better, what is best. That’s the lesson. 

“Why are you studying English, Hélene?”

“It is interesting to me.”

“Really?” I laugh. “Is it interesting now?”

“Yes it is.”

“It isn’t boring?”

She suppresses a laugh as fast as it comes. 

“No, it isn’t boring.”

Her eyes are brighter now. I try another tack.

“Do you like to travel?”

“Yes, I like to travel.” 

She surprises me. She’s sailed across the Indian Ocean, traveled through the Baltics, Patagonia, Easter Island, Senegal, Kenya, India, Tanzania, Botswana, Sri Lanka, Mali. 

She shrugs her shoulders as if to say, what did you expect? Some frightened old lady?

“What was your worst trip?”

“My worst trip was south of France.”

“To the south of France?”

“Yes, my worst trip was to the south of France.”


“I didn’t feel good with my sister.  It wasn’t nice with her.”

She glides her palm over the desk, looking past me.

“You didn’t get along with your sister?”

“Yes. I did not get along with my sister.”

“What was your best trip, Hélene? The very best trip you ever took?”

She watches her hand moving from side to side across the table.

“Tanzanie,” she says, but not to me.


“Yes, Tanzania.  It is the best trip I ever made.”

“Why? Why was Tanzania the best trip you ever took?”

“Why. Why. Why. You always say it.” She shakes her head.

We both watch her hands, her fingers spread out across the Formica, still now, as if to hold the table down.

“We climbed Kilimanjaro mountain.”

“You did? You climbed Mount Kilimanjaro?”

She nods, smiling again. 

“It was very enormous.”

I try to imagine this woman climbing nineteen thousand feet into the air.

“Is that why it was your favorite trip?”

She shakes her head.

“No, it is that we were sleeping outside. In night.”

“At night you slept outside?”

She nods. There’s depth now to her expression.

“At night we slept outside.”

“That’s why it was your favorite trip?”

“Yes. Because we could see the stars.”

I nod. 

“You slept outside under the stars?”

She’s nodding.

“Yes, we slept under the stars.” 

“It’s a beautiful sentence isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is.  It is a beautiful sentence.”  Now she seems gleeful. 

I stand up and uncap a thick marker.  There’s a large tablet of blank pages fixed to an easel. 

I write in full, black letters across the center of the page:


Her eyes are bright. 

“At night we slept beneath the stars.  Will you say that?”

She writes the sentence into her notebook.  She frames it carefully with an elegant rectangle.

“At night. We slept beneath. The stars.”

“At night we slept beneath the stars,” I say, moving my hand as if I might know something about music.

“At night we slept beneath the stars,” Hélene says. 

“Yes,” I say.

“At night we slept beneath the stars.”


“It’s a small poem,” I say.

“Yes,” she says. “It’s a beautiful poem.”

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