Saturday, July 31, 2010

Excerpt II: Adam Haslett's Union Atlantic

This excerpt from Adam Haslett's Union Atlantic is brought to you courtesy of The Excerpt Reader:

For months now Charlotte Graves had tried to avoid looking at the new place. And yet how could anyone's eyes not snare on the enormity of it? It had been designed to draw attention.

As she and the dogs came down the drive the following morning, it came into view once again: a hulking, white mass of a building, three full stories in the middle, with wings on either side and someone's idea of an orangery or sunroom protruding from the far end. A cupola the size of a small bandstand stood atop the pile, betwixt two fat, brick chimneys. A columned portico framed the enormous front door. Either side of this, along the front of the house, were yew shrubs set in beds of newly delivered wood chips. It looked, more than anything else, like a recently opened country club, and indeed the landscaping of the yard, with its empty flower beds cut from the imported turf like oval incisions on a piece of bright-green construction paper and its perfectly crosscut lawn running to the river's edge without so much as a transitional weed, reminded one of the manicure of a golf course. In line at the drugstore, Charlotte had overheard a real estate agent describing it as a Greek Revival château.
This was what had replaced the woods that Charlotte's grandfather had given to the town for preservation. This steroidal offense.
Over the last year, as it was being built, she had often reminded herself that the house was merely the furthest and most galling advance of the much larger intrusion, the one that had begun decades ago, first at a distance, a sighting here or there, a fancy stroller in the library stacks, a concern for caloric totals voiced over the meat counter. More recently had come the giant cars, the ones that looked as if they should have gun turrets mounted on their roofs, manned by the children glaring from the backseat. For years the news had made so much of bombings in the Middle East, and of course in dear old New York now as well, and of the birds of prey we released in retaliation but they never mentioned the eyes of the wealthy young and the violence simmering numbly there. She had seen it at school, the way her students had grown pointed, turned into swords wielded by their masters. As soon as she began speaking of such things openly the principal had gone to the retirement board and they had got rid of her. Nearly forty years of teaching history to the children of this town and they had hustled her out for speaking the truth.
With the Bennetts on one side of her and the woods on the other, Charlotte had always thought she would be safe from the worst of the intrusion. Her house, the old family place, was a redoubt of sorts. After all this time living in it, its memories were for her neither a comfort nor a haunting. They were simply the traces of beings with whom she shared the place. Time by herself had done that to Charlotte, slowly worn away the hard barrier of the self that had clenched against loneliness for so many years at the beginning but in the end lacked a source of power. Unfed by the barriers of others, social fear tended to wither.
The membrane between herself and the world had begun to breathe. And while this gentle dissipation had put to rest the anxiety she'd endured in the earlier years, when still wed to the story of marriage, it had increasingly opened her to a more profound, if not exactly personal, terror. Say, for instance, not the thought but the unsought intuition of every soul at stake on the planet hour to hour. A thing not to be borne for more than a minute without destroying the integrity of her individual mind. So you let in just a few fates at a time, hoping the blinders would hold. With the dogs, she could just about manage. How comforting it turned out even their ornery presence could be when the dumb quantity of humanity pressed its case.
Before the mansion had been erected, there had been the chainsaws and backhoes, trees dragged like corpses to the road. Then the engines of the diggers, the cement mixers, the nail guns. She had stayed indoors, unable to watch. They removed so much earth, the angle of the land itself had changed. The maples they left along the top of the hill, from where she could now see all the way down to the river, did a poor job of hiding the new site even with the leaves out, and as fall had come round again the naked wood frame of the unfinished house had shown clearly through the bare branches.
As a teacher all these years, seeing for herself the small-mindedness of those who ran the town of Finden, Charlotte should have known it would come, that the town would betray the trust her grandfather had placed in it. Her father might have done something about it.
A man with a bedrock faith in the law, he had prosecuted malfeasance to the last. Episcopalian by birth, Presbyterian by temperament, Quaker in abstention, secular to the bone. He would have found a way to stop these cretins. But not her younger brother, Henry. No. After a few brief discussions with the lawyer, Cott Jr., Henry had suggested that if Charlotte found it too much to bear, perhaps the time had come to sell the house and move somewhere, as he put it, more practical.
Thus it had been left to her to wage the battle. Naïvely, she had begun with an attempt to persuade, writing letters to the selectmen and the newspaper. When that produced nothing but a few polite replies, she'd begun gathering signatures outside the supermarket, informing people of the town's plans. Just a few years earlier, most people would have at least stopped and said hello. She had been their teacher, after all, or their children's teacher, or both. But now they looked upon her with pity.
Budgets were budgets, the town said. They regretted deeply the necessity of putting a parcel of land up for auction. But the referendum for school funding had failed at the polls and they had to look to their assets. Never mind the breach of faith. Never mind the lobotomized, negligent short-termism of it all, as if a one-time windfall could ever fund an annual expenditure. What had government become these days but the poorly advertised fire sale of the public interest?
But, oh, how they would rue the day now! Because at last Charlotte had done what she should have years ago: she had fired Cott Jr., the incompetent, collaborationist son of the old family lawyer who'd done little more than play at resisting the town's grab, and she'd gone herself into the records down at the town hall. And there she'd discovered the mendacity of these idiots. Cott Jr. had said she had no legal recourse. But he was wrong. She'd filed her own suit now. She didn't need an attorney to stand up before a judge. She would crush these scoundrels all on her own. And though it was late in the day, the trees already felled, that monstrosity already erected, still how sweet the victory would be when eventually she evicted that little charmer and razed his house to the ground.
Just thinking of it slackened the muscles of her shoulders and chest, as if for these many months she'd been wearing a shirt of chain mail, the bands of which were only now beginning to warm and expand, allowing her to breathe.
To purchase the book visit AmazonAdam Haslett's Union Atlantic, courtesy of The Excerpt Reader

Friday, July 30, 2010

Excerpt I: Adam Haslett's Union Atlantic

This excerpt from Adam Haslett's Union Atlantic is brought to you courtesy of The Excerpt Reader:

Their second night in port at Bahrain someone on the admiral's staff decided the crew of the Vincennes deserved at least a free pack of cigarettes each. The gesture went over well until the canteen ran out and then the dispensing machines, leaving fifty or so enlisted men and a few petty officers feeling cheated of the one recognition anyone had offered of what they had been through. A number of them, considerably drunk, had begun milling outside the commissary, suggesting it ought to be opened up to make good on the promise. Realizing he had a situation on his hands, the admiral's staffer pulled Vrieger aside, handed him an envelope of petty cash, and told him there was a jeep and driver waiting for him at the gate.
"That place on Al Budayyai should still be open. Get whatever you can. Get menthols if you have to. Just make it quick."
"Come on, Fanning," Vrieger said. "We're taking a ride."
"But I've got mine," Doug replied, holding up his half-smoked pack of Carltons. Three or four beers had done their sedative work and set him down here on this bench by the officers' mess, where he sought only to rest.
"It ain't about you."
Hauling his gaze up from the linoleum floor, Doug saw the lantern face of his lieutenant commander bearing down on him. He wasn't a handsome guy, with eyes too small for the broad circumference of his head and a big jowly mouth. The square metal-rimmed glasses added to the look of middle age though, at thirty-one, he was little more than a decade older than Doug. Vrieger was the only guy in the navy who knew more about him than the town he came from and the bases he'd trained at, and this counted for something.
Lifting himself from the bench, he followed Vrieger out the rear door of the mess.
Outside, the temperature had dropped into the eighties, but the air was still humid and laced with the scent of diesel fumes. A mile in the distance, across the desert plain, the white needle towers and minaret of the grand mosque rose up spotlit against the empty night sky. This forward base at Juffair, a small, island pit stop in the Gulf, consisted of a few acres of outbuildings strung along the port southeast of Manama. If the tour had gone according to plan, Doug would have returned to the States from here. But who knew what would happen now?
He shuffled into the backseat of the jeep, not quite lying across it, not exactly upright either.
"Where to?" the driver asked, as they rose onto the rutted twolaner that led into the capital.
"Just head into town," Vrieger told him.
"That was some dogfight you guys were in, huh?"
"This kid sounds likes he's fifteen." Doug called out: "Kid, you sound like you're fifteen."
"No, sir. I'm eighteen."
"It wasn't a dogfight," Doug said. "No dogs, not much fight."
"Shut up," Vrieger said, leaning into the driver's face to ask if they were obeying some kind of speed limit. The jeep leapt forward. Slumping lower across the seat to escape the wind on his face, Doug closed his eyes.
All morning he'd been on the phone with a staffer at the Naval Weapons Center back in Virginia going over the Vincennes' tapes and then all afternoon with the investigators, the same questions again and again: When the plane first popped on Siporski's screen, what did Lieutenant Commander Vrieger do? Asked for a tag. And it came back what? Mode III. So the first time you tagged the plane it came back civilian, is that right? Yes. On and on like that for hours, every answer rephrased into another question, as if they didn't understand a word he said. Not even so much as a "must have been rough," nothing, not even a handshake at the beginning. He'd told them the truth. To every question he'd told them the truth. They'd listened to the tapes. They knew what Doug had seen on his screen and what he'd failed to report. Yet they never asked him what information he'd communicated to Vrieger, as if they knew in advance the story they wanted to tell. Back home, apparently, the Joint Chiefs had already begun covering for what had happened.
The engagement occurred in international waters. Untrue.
The Vincennes was acting in protection of a flagged tanker. Untrue.
As the kid steered to avoid the potholes, the jeep swung gently from side to side, while a song by Journey played on the radio. Doug had listened to the same song in the backseat of a friend's car in the parking lot of a mall in Alden, Massachusetts, the week before he'd left home to join the navy. Hearing it now — that big, stadium rock anthem with the soaring guitar and hard, wounded voice of the singer, angry at the love lost and the damage done — he pictured his mother alone in the apartment and for a moment he imagined what relief it would be if the jeep were to swing too far into the opposite lane, where it might meet a truck with no headlights, seeing in his mind's eye the explosion that would consume them, a blast as instantaneous as a ship's missile striking a plane.
But this was weakness. He would not be weak.
Three years had passed since he'd left Alden without saying a word to his mother about where he was going. And though in the last twenty-four hours, since the incident, he'd been tempted to call her, that would mean having to account for himself, when all he wanted to do was tell someone the story. Someone who hadn't been there.
Yesterday had been like any other morning. Coffee and cereal in the wardroom, and then a walk along the aft deck, before the temperature rose above a hundred degrees and the railings became too hot to touch. Looking out over the stern he'd seen the milky bellies of jellyfish flipped by the ship's wake to face the sun, floating atop the surf along with the garbage tossed from the sides of tankers.
On the passage out, across the Pacific, he'd written the last of his college applications as well as the letters to the banks and brokerages where he hoped to get a job while he studied, behind the counter or in the mail room if that's all they had to offer him. Most of the guys he knew leaving the service were going for jobs with defense contractors — electrical engineering and the like — but he'd known all along he wanted more than that.
Down in the gloom of the Combat Center his shift had started quietly, nothing on his or Siporski's monitors but an Iranian P-3 doing surveillance down the coast and some commercial air flights out of Bandar Abbas, puddle jumping to Doha or Dubai.
Since June, the Vincennes had been detailed to Operation Earnest Will, escorting Kuwaiti tankers through the Strait of Hormuz. Kuwait was Saddam's biggest ally in his war against Iran, and the U.S. Fifth Fleet had been tasked with protecting her ships from Iranian gunboats. America was officially neutral in the Iran-Iraq war, but everyone knew who the enemy was: the ayatollahs, the ones who'd taken the hostages back in '79, who'd bombed the marine barracks in Beirut.
Their gunboats weren't regular navy, but Revolutionary Guard. Basically a bunch of loyalists in speedboats loaded up with mortars and small arms. A helicopter pilot told Doug he'd seen four guys prostrate on the deck of an idling Boston Whaler, their heads bowed west to Mecca, RPGs leaning up against the rails like fishing poles.
As the duty officer in charge that morning, Vrieger took the call from the frigate Montgomery. Five or six gunboats had been spotted out of the tiny island of Abu Musa heading toward a German tanker.
When Vrieger called the captain — a man eager for his admiral's stripes and the combat he'd need to get them — he immediately ordered general quarters. Boots began stomping above and below, hatches slamming closed, the ladder steps rattling as men poured into the Combat Center to take their stations. Eighty thousand horsepower started churning so loudly it sounded as if the rear of the ship were detaching. They were doing thirty knots before the skipper got down from his cabin, the command net in Doug's ear already starting to fill with chatter, the signal weakening as half the ship began listening in on the Sony Walkmans they'd figured out could be tuned to follow the action.
And then as quickly as it had arisen, the incident seemed to dissolve. Ocean Lord, the helicopter the captain had ordered up to fly reconnaissance, said the boats appeared to be dispersing already, heading away from the tanker. When command in Bahrain heard this, they ordered the Vincennes back to course.
"Is that it, Captain?" Ocean Lord's pilot asked.
"Negative," he replied. "Follow the boats."
On his radar screen, Doug watched the helicopter start to track west, the boats it pursued too low in the water to register a consistent signal on the surface radar.
Less than ten minutes later it began.
"Taking fire!" the pilot shouted into his radio. "Evacuating."
This was all the excuse the captain needed to ignore his command's orders. Soon enough he'd steered the ship to within eight thousand yards of the Iranian boats. There was still no air traffic on Doug's screen except the same P-3 making its way along the coast.
Upstairs, the bridge called twelve miles, meaning the ship had passed into Iranian territorial waters in violation of standing orders. Doug looked back over his shoulder at Vrieger, who shrugged. Vrieger disliked the captain but he wasn't about to be insubordinate. The haze was too thick to get a good visual on the boats; all the bridge could make out were a few glints in the sun. The raiders appeared to be idling, imagining themselves safe.
At seven thousand yards, the captain ordered the starboard five-inch mount to open fire. Doug heard the explosion of the gun but confined at his console he could only picture the blasts disappearing into the hot, sandy vapor. Once it started, it didn't let up. Round after round, the concussions echoed back against the ship's housing.
That's when Siporski first spotted the plane.
"Unidentified out of Bandar Abbas," he said, "bearing two-five-zero."
Vrieger stepped forward from his chair to look at his petty officer's monitor. Doug could see it now on his screen as well.
"Tag it," Vrieger ordered.
They had to assume a hostile aircraft until they got an ID. The plane's transponder sent back a Mode III signal, indicating a civilian flight. Vrieger opened his binder to the commercial air schedule and, squinting to read the print, ran his finger down the columns of the Gulf 's four different time zones, trying to match the numbers up, the arc lights flickering overhead with each discharge of the deck gun.
"Why isn't it on the fucking schedule?" he kept saying, his finger zipping across the tiny rows.
Someone yelled that the starboard mount had jammed. The captain, pissed and wanting to engage the port gun, ordered the ship hard over and suddenly the whole room lurched sideways, papers, drinks, binders spilling off desks and sliding across the floor. Doug had to grab the side of his console to remain upright, the cruiser's other gun beginning to fire before they'd even come fully about.
"Shit," Siporski said, as they leveled off again. "It's gone Mode I, sir, bearing toward us two-five-zero."
Responding automatically to the signal, the ship's Aegis system popped the symbol for an F-14 onto the big screen. Someone over the command net shouted, "Possible Astro." The Iranians had scrambled F-14s out of Bandar Abbas a few times but it was rare for them to get this close. They were the best planes they had, sold to the shah back in the seventies.
Vrieger immediately challenged with a friend or foe.
"Unidentified aircraft you are approaching a United States naval warship in international waters, request you change course immediately to two-seven-zero or you will be subject to defensive measures, over."
No reply.
"Damn it," Vrieger said, having to shout to be heard over the gunfire. "Thirty-two miles, Skipper. What do we do?"
That's when Siporski called out, "Descending!"
Doug didn't see this on his monitor. His screen showed the plane's altitude rising into the commercial air corridor.
"Descending!" Siporski repeated. "Two-five-zero, descending!"
It was Doug's duty to provide his commanding officer with all information relevant to the ship's air defense. That was his duty. And yet he froze, unable to speak.
A minute later, Vrieger ordered fire control to paint the plane. It had popped on the big screen only two minutes before. Standing orders were to fire at twenty miles. Under ten would be too late. Vrieger challenged the plane again but again got no reply.
"Lieutenant Vrieger!" the captain shouted. "What the fuck is the status of that bogey?"
Doug watched the plane rise steadily on his monitor.
A year ago an Iraqi F-1 had mistaken the USS Stark for an Iranian ship and fired two missiles, killing three dozen American sailors and nearly sinking the frigate. Doug had not come here to die.
"Did you hear me!?" the captain yelled. "What is that plane!?"
Vrieger kept staring at Siporski's screen, cursing to himself.
"F-14," Vrieger said at last. "Sir, it breaks as an F-14."


He opened his eyes to see Vrieger reaching back from the front seat of the jeep to shake his leg. "Here," he said, handing him the envelope of cash. "You're the one who speaks the phrases. This guy looks closed up. You got to get in there quick before he leaves."
They were parked on a narrow street lined with darkened storefronts, posters with once bright photographs of soda cans and soccer stars plastered over one another on the walls between shop doors. Closed shutters were spaced in no particular pattern across the beige stucco walls of the apartments above, lights visible between the down-turned slats. A bulb still burned in one vendor's room, a metal grate pulled down over the store window.
Doug felt unsteady crossing the street. The acrid smell of rotting fruit filled his nostrils and he thought he might be sick as he reached the curb. Holding on to the grate, he reached through it with his other hand and tapped on the glass, pointing to the shelf of cigarettes.
The man looked up from behind the counter where he stood over a ledger. More unshaven than bearded, wearing a striped shirt with the sleeves rolled up, he could have been anywhere from forty to sixty. His face was long and deeply creased. He adjusted his eyes to see who it was who had disturbed him and then shook his head and returned to his calculations.
"I would like cigarettes," Doug said in mauled Arabic, his voice raised, uttering one of the twenty sentences he'd learned from the phrase book. "I would like cigarettes."
This time, the man lifted his head slowly, and called out in English, "Kloz'd."
Grabbing the wad of greenbacks in his fist, Doug banged on the glass. The man put down his pen and walked from behind the counter to stand on the other side of the door.
"Lots," Doug said. "I need lots. Ten cartons."
Muttering something he couldn't hear through the glass, the storekeeper unlocked the door and raised the grate high enough for Doug to dip his head under and enter.
"Only because my customers did not buy what they should this week," he said. Turning his back, he added, "Otherwise, I would not sell to your kind. Not today."
From behind a bead curtain, the scent of cooking meat drenched the stuffy air.
More than ever, Doug desired to be gone from these wretched foreign places with all their filth and poverty, to be back in America, starting on his real life, the one he'd been planning for so long. But he found he couldn't ignore the dark hair on the man's neck and his small, rounded shoulders and his baggy cotton pants and the sandals strapped over the dusty brown skin of his feet.
Reports on yesterday's incident were still coming in, Vrieger had told him. At the base, command wasn't letting the crew see or hear any news from the outside.
It was Vrieger who had reached his hand up to the ceiling panel and turned the key, illuminating a button on Doug's console he'd only ever seen lit in the dwindling hours of war games: permission to launch.
"Marlboros," he said, leaning his elbows on the counter, trying to put a stop to the spinning motion in his head. "Give me Marlboros. All of those cartons. I need all of them."
The shopkeeper stepped onto the second rung of his ladder and reached up to the shelf, where the red-and-white boxes were stacked. Down to his left, behind the counter, a television sat atop a milk crate, the sound turned off. A mustachioed announcer in a double-breasted suit spoke directly to the viewers. The screen then cut to an overview of the inside of an air hangar filled with rows of boxes, groups of people walking along the aisles between them; then came a cut closer in: a man in uniform opening a long black bag for the camera, which zoomed in to hold the shot of a young woman, twenty-five maybe, though on the grainy screen, her face bloated, who could tell? Her corpse grasped in stiffened arms a child of three or four, his body and little grayed head mashed to his mother's chest. The dead arms gripping tightly the dead boy.
"Eighteen miles," someone — Doug still didn't know who — had shouted into the waning strength of the command net, "possible commercial air."
The wake of an SM-2 missile looked like a miniature version of the space shuttle blasting off from Cape Canaveral, the launch fuel burning a hot white plume. But down in the battle chamber Doug had heard only its deafening roar and, seconds later, as the symbols on the big screen collided, the eruption of cheering.
"So," the shopkeeper said, placing the stack of boxes on the counter and indicating the television with a nod of his head, "you know these murderers, do you?"
"My ship," Doug said, standing up straight, whatever reprieve drunkenness had offered abruptly gone. "My ship."
It had taken a while for the initial reports to be confirmed. "Iranian Airbus. Passengers, two hundred and ninety, over."
The shopkeeper's coal-black eyes widened, his upper lip quivering.
"These Iranians, they are too much, but this — this, shame!" he said, pointing into Doug's face. "You are butchers, you and your government are butchers."
Doug counted twenty-dollar bills from the wad in his fist, setting them down one by one on the counter.
"I'll need a bag," he said.
"I will not take your money!" the man shouted. "I will not take it!"
Doug counted out another three bills, placing them on top of the rest. Rage welled in the shopkeeper's eyes.
Once he had gathered the cartons of cigarettes into his arms, Doug remained standing there at the counter for a moment. On the television, shawled women keened over a small wooden coffin.
Twenty days of his tour left now. Twenty.
"You should know, sir," he said, "under the conditions, you should know, sir, that we would do it again."
Then he turned and walked out of the shop and across the darkened street, throwing the cigarettes into the backseat of the jeep.
"What's his problem?" the kid asked.
"Just drive, would you?"
As they sped along the road back to Juffair, Doug sat upright, the wind full in his face, figuring in his head how long it would take for the letters he'd mailed in Manila to make their way into the offices of the brokerages and the banks.

To purchase the book visit AmazonAdam Haslett's Union Atlantic, courtesy of The Excerpt Reader

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Excerpt II: David Mitchel's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

This excerpt from David Mitchel's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is brought to you courtesy of The Excerpt Reader:

Captain Lacy's cabin on the Shenandoah, anchored in Nagasaki harbor

Evening of July 20, 1799

"How else," demands Daniel Snitker, "is a man to earn just reward for the daily humiliations we suffer from those slit-eyed leeches? 'The unpaid servant,' say the Spanish, 'has the right to pay himself,' and for once, damn me, the Spanish are right. Why so certain there'll still be a company to pay us in five years' time? Amsterdam is on its knees; our shipyards are idle; our manufactories silent; our granaries plundered; The Hague is a stage of prancing marionettes tweaked by Paris; Prussian jackals and Austrian wolves laugh at our borders: and Jesus in heaven, since the bird-shoot at Kamperduin we are left a maritime nation with no navy. The British seized the Cape, Coromandel, and Ceylon without so much as a kiss-my-arse, and that Java itself is their next fattened Christmas goose is plain as day! Without neutral bottoms like this" - he curls his lip at Captain Lacy - "Yankee, Batavia would starve. In such times, Vorstenbosch, a man's sole insurance is salable goods in the warehouse. Why else, for God's sake, are you here?"

The old whale-oil lantern sways and hisses.

"That," Vorstenbosch asks, "was your closing statement?"

Snitker folds his arms. "I spit on your drumhead trial."

Captain Lacy issues a gargantuan belch. "'Twas the garlic, gentlemen."

Vorstenbosch addresses his clerk: "We may record our verdict..."

Jacob de Zoet nods and dips his quill: "... drumhead trial."

"On this day, the twentieth of July, 1799, I, Unico Vorstenbosch, chief-elect of the trading factory of Dejima in Nagasaki, acting by the powers vested in me by His Excellency P. G. van Overstraten, governor-general of the Dutch East Indies, witnessed by Captain Anselm Lacy of the Shenandoah, ?nd Daniel Snitker, acting-chief of the above- mentioned factory, guilty of the following: gross dereliction of duty -"

"I fulfilled," insists Snitker, "every duty of my post!"

" 'Duty' " Vorstenbosch signals to Jacob to pause. "Our warehouses were burning to cinders whilst you, sir, romped with strumpets in a brothel - a fact omitted from that farrago of lies you are pleased to call your day register. And had it not been for the chance remark of a Japanese interpreter - "

"Shit-house rats who blacken my name 'cause I'm wise to their tricks!"

"Is it a 'blackening of your name' that the fire engine was missing from Dejima on the night of the fire?"

"Perhaps the defendant took the engine to the House of Wistaria," remarks Captain Lacy, "to impress the ladies with the thickness of his hose."

"The engine," objects Snitker, "was Van Cleef's responsibility."

"I'll tell your deputy how faithfully you defended him. To the next item, Mr. de Zoet: 'Failure to have the factory's three senior officers sign the Octavia's bills of lading.' "

"Oh, for God's sake. A mere administrative oversight!"

"An 'oversight' that permits crooked chiefs to cheat the company in a hundred ways, which is why Batavia insists on triple authorization. Next item: 'Theft of company funds to pay for private cargoes.' "

"Now that," Snitker spits with anger, "that is a flat lie!"

From a carpetbag at his feet, Vorstenbosch produces two porcelain figurines in the Oriental mode. One is an executioner, ax poised to behead the second, a kneeling prisoner, hands bound and eyes on the next world.

"Why show me those" - Snitker is shameless - "gewgaws?"

"Two gross were found in your private cargo - 'twenty-four dozen Arita ?gurines,' let the record state. My late wife nurtured a fondness for Japanese curiosities, so I have a little knowledge. Indulge me, Captain Lacy: estimate their value in, let us say, a Viennese auction house."

Captain Lacy considers. "Twenty guilders a head?"

"For these slighter ones alone, thirty-five guilders; for the gold- leafed courtesans, archers, and lords, fifty. What price the two gross? Let us aim low - Europe is at war, and markets unsettled - and call it thirty-five per head... multiplied by two gross. De Zoet?"

Jacob's abacus is to hand. "Ten thousand and eighty guilders, sir."

Lacy issues an impressed "Hee-haw!"

"Tidy profit," states Vorstenbosch, "for merchandise purchased at the company's expense yet recorded in the bills of lading-unwitnessed, of course - as 'Acting-Chief's Private Porcelain,' in your hand, Snitker."

"The former chief, God rest his soul" - Snitker changes his story - "willed them to me, before the court embassy."

"So Mr. Hemmij foresaw his demise on his way back from Edo?"

To purchase the book visit AmazonDavid Mitchel's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, courtesy of The Excerpt Reader

Excerpt I: David Mitchel's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

This excerpt from David Mitchel's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is brought to you courtesy of The Excerpt Reader:

The House of Kawasemi the Concubine, above Nagasaki
The Ninth Night of the Fifth Month

In the rice paddy beyond the garden, a cacophony of frogs detonates.

Orito dabs the concubine's sweat-drenched face with a damp cloth.

"She's barely spoken"- the maid holds the lamp - "for hours and hours...."

"Miss Kawasemi, I'm Aibagawa. I'm a midwife. I want to help."

Kawasemi's eyes flicker open. She manages a frail sigh. Her eyes shut.

She is too exhausted, Orito thinks, even to fear dying tonight.

Dr. Maeno whispers through the muslin curtain. "I wanted to examine the child's presentation myself, but..." The elderly scholar chooses his words with care. "But this is prohibited, it seems."

"My orders are clear," states the chamberlain. "No man may touch her."

Orito lifts the bloodied sheet and finds, as warned, the fetus's limp arm, up to the shoulder, protruding from Kawasemi's vagina.

"Have you ever seen such a presentation?" asks Dr. Maeno.

"Yes: in an engraving, from the Dutch text Father was translating."

"This is what I prayed to hear! The Observations of William Smellie?"

"Yes: Dr. Smellie terms it," Orito uses the Dutch, " 'Prolapse of the Arm.' "

Orito clasps the fetus's mucus-smeared wrist to search for a pulse.

Maeno now asks her in Dutch, "What are your opinions?"

There is no pulse. "The baby is dead," Orito answers, in the same language, "and the mother will die soon, if the child is not delivered." She places her fingertips on Kawasemi's distended belly and probes the bulge around the inverted navel. "It was a boy." She kneels between Kawasemi's parted legs, noting the narrow pelvis, and sniffs the bulging labia: she detects the malty mixture of grumous blood and excrement, but not the stench of a rotted fetus. "He died one or two hours ago."

Orito asks the maid, "When did the waters break?"

The maid is still mute with astonishment at hearing a foreign language.

"Yesterday morning, during the Hour of the Dragon," says the stony-voiced housekeeper. "Our lady entered labor soon after."

"And when was the last time that the baby kicked?"

"The last kick would have been around noon today."

"Dr. Maeno, would you agree the infant is in" - she uses the Dutch term - "the 'transverse breech position' "

"Maybe," the doctor answers in their code tongue, "but without an examination..."

"The baby is twenty days late, or more. It should have been turned."

"Baby's resting," the maid assures her mistress. "Isn't that so, Dr. Maeno?"

"What you say"- the honest doctor wavers- "may well be true."

"My father told me," Orito says, "Dr. Uragami was overseeing the birth."

"So he was," grunts Maeno, "from the comfort of his consulting rooms. After the baby stopped kicking, Uragami ascertained that, for geomantic reasons discernible to men of his genius, the child's spirit is reluctant to be born. The birth henceforth depends on the mother's willpower." The rogue, Maeno needs not add, dares not bruise his reputation by presiding over the stillbirth of such an estimable man's child. "Chamberlain Tomine then persuaded the magistrate to summon me. When I saw the arm, I recalled your doctor of Scotland and requested your help."

"My father and I are both deeply honored by your trust," says Orito...
... and curse Uragami, she thinks, for his lethal reluctance to lose face.

Abruptly, the frogs stop croaking and, as though a curtain of noise falls away, the sound of Nagasaki can be heard, celebrating the safe arrival of the Dutch ship.

"If the child is dead," says Maeno in Dutch, "we must remove it now."

"I agree." Orito asks the housekeeper for warm water and strips of linen and uncorks a bottle of Leiden salts under the concubine's nose to win her a few moments' lucidity. "Miss Kawasemi, we are going to deliver your child in the next few minutes. First, may I feel inside you?"

The concubine is seized by the next contraction and loses her ability to answer.

Warm water is delivered in two copper pans as the agony subsides. "We should confess," Dr. Maeno proposes to Orito in Dutch, "the baby is dead. Then amputate the arm to deliver the body."

"First, I wish to insert my hand to learn whether the body is in a convex lie or concave lie."

"If you can discover that without cutting the arm"- Maeno means "amputate" - "do so."

Orito lubricates her right hand with rapeseed oil and addresses the maid: "Fold one linen strip into a thick pad... yes, like so. Be ready to wedge it between your mistress's teeth; otherwise she might bite off her tongue. Leave spaces at the sides, so she can breathe. Dr. Maeno, my inspection is beginning."

"You are my eyes and ears, Miss Aibagawa," says the doctor.

Orito works her fingers between the fetus's biceps and its mother's ruptured labia until half her wrist is inside Kawasemi's vagina. The concubine shivers and groans. "Sorry," says Orito, "sorry..." Her fingers slide between warm membranes and skin and muscle still wet with amniotic fluid, and the midwife pictures an engraving from that enlightened and barbaric realm, Europe...

If the transverse lie is convex, recalls Orito, where the fetus's spine is arched backward so acutely that its head appears between its shins like a Chinese acrobat, she must amputate the fetus's arm, dismember its corpse with toothed forceps, and extract it, piece by grisly piece. Dr. Smellie warns that any remnant left in the womb will fester and may kill the mother. If the transverse lie is concave, however, Orito has read, where the fetus's knees are pressed against its chest, she may saw off the arm, rotate the fetus, insert crotchets into the eye sockets, and extract the whole body, head first. The midwife's index finger locates the child's knobbly spine, traces its midriff between its lowest rib and its pelvic bone, and encounters a minute ear; a nostril; a mouth; the umbilical cord; and a prawn-sized penis. "Breech is concave," Orito reports to Dr. Maeno, "but the cord is around the neck."

"Do you think the cord can be released?" Maeno forgets to speak Dutch.

"Well, I must try. Insert the cloth," Orito tells the maid, "now, please."

When the linen wad is secured between Kawasemi's teeth, Orito pushes her hand in deeper, hooks her thumb around the embryo's cord, sinks four fingers into the underside of the fetus's jaw, pushes back his head, and slides the cord over his face, forehead, and crown. Kawasemi screams, hot urine trickles down Orito's forearm, but the procedure works first time: the noose is released. She withdraws her hand and reports, "The cord is freed. Might the doctor have his"-there is no Japanese word-"forceps?"

"I brought them along," Maeno taps his medical box, "in case."

"We might try to deliver the child" - she switches to Dutch-"without amputating the arm. Less blood is always better. But I need your help."

Dr. Maeno addresses the chamberlain: "To help save Miss Kawasemi's life, I must disregard the magistrate's orders and join the midwife inside the curtain."

Chamberlain Tomine is caught in a dangerous quandary.

"You may blame me," Maeno suggests, "for disobeying the magistrate."

"The choice is mine," decides the chamberlain. "Do what you must, Doctor."

The spry old man crawls under the muslin, holding his curved tongs.

When the maid sees the foreign contraption, she exclaims in alarm.

" 'Forceps,' " the doctor replies, with no further explanation.

The housekeeper lifts the muslin to see. "No, I don't like the look of that! Foreigners may chop, slice, and call it 'medicine,' but it is quite unthinkable that -"

"Do I advise the housekeeper," growls Maeno, "on where to buy fish?"

"Forceps," explains Orito, "don't cut - they turn and pull, just like a midwife's fingers but with a stronger grip..." She uses her Leiden salts again. "Miss Kawasemi, I'm going to use this instrument" - she holds up the forceps-"to deliver your baby. Don't be afraid, and don't resist. Europeans use them routinely - even for princesses and queens. We'll pull your baby out, gently and firmly."

"Do so..." Kawasemi's voice is a smothered rattle. "Do so..."

"Thank you, and when I ask Miss Kawasemi to push..."

"Push..." She is fatigued almost beyond caring. "Push..."

"How often," Tomine peers in, "have you used that implement?"

Orito notices the chamberlain's crushed nose for the first time: it is as severe a disfigurement as her own burn. "Often, and no patient ever suffered." Only Maeno and his pupil know that these "patients" were hollowed-out melons whose babies were oiled gourds. For the final time, if all goes well, she works her hand inside Kawasemi's womb. Her fingers find the fetus's throat, rotate his head toward the cervix, slip, gain a surer purchase, and swivel the awkward corpse through a third turn. "Now, please, Doctor."

Maeno slides in the forceps around the protruding arm.

The onlookers gasp; a parched shriek is wrenched from Kawasemi.

Orito feels the forceps' curved blades in her palm: she maneuvers them around the fetus's soft skull. "Close them."

Gently but ?rmly, the doctor squeezes the forceps shut.

Orito takes the forceps' handles in her left hand: the resistance is spongy but ?rm, like konnyaku jelly. Her right hand, still inside the uterus, cups the fetus's skull.

Dr. Maeno's bony fingers encase Orito's wrist.

"What is it you're waiting for?" asks the housekeeper.

"The next contraction," says the doctor, "which is due any-"

Kawasemi's breathing starts to swell with fresh pain.

"One and two," counts Orito, "and-push, Kawasemi-san!"

"Push, Mistress!" exhort the maid and the housekeeper.

Dr. Maeno pulls at the forceps; with her right hand, Orito pushes the fetus's head toward the birth canal. She tells the maid to grasp the baby's arm and pull. Orito feels the resistance grow as the head reaches the aperture. "One and two... now!" Squeezing the glans of the clitoris flat comes a tiny corpse's matted crown.

"Here he is!" gasps the maid, through Kawasemi's animal shrieks.

Here comes the baby's scalp; here his face, marbled with mucus...
... Here comes the rest of his slithery, clammy, lifeless body.

"Oh, but-oh," says the maid. "Oh. Oh. Oh..."

Kawasemi's high-pitched sobs subside to moans, and deaden.

She knows. Orito discards the forceps, lifts the lifeless baby by his ankles and slaps him. She has no hope of coaxing out a miracle: she acts from discipline and training. After ten hard slaps, she stops. He has no pulse. She feels no breath on her cheek from the lips and nostrils. There is no need to announce the obvious. Splicing the cord near the navel, she cuts the gristly string with her knife, bathes the lifeless boy in a copper of water, and places him in the crib. A crib for a coffin, she thinks, and a swaddling sheet for a shroud.

Chamberlain Tomine gives instructions to a servant outside. "Inform His Honor that a son was stillborn. Dr. Maeno and his midwife did their best but were powerless to alter what Fate had decreed."

Orito's concern is now puerperal fever. The placenta must be extracted, yakumosô applied to the perineum, and blood stanched from an anal fissure.

Dr. Maeno withdraws from the curtained tent to make space.

A moth the size of a bird enters and blunders into Orito's face.

Batting it away, she knocks the forceps off one of the copper pans.

The forceps clatters onto a pan lid; the loud clang frightens a small creature that has somehow found its way into the room; it mewls and whimpers.

A puppy? wonders Orito, baffled. Or a kitten?

The mysterious animal cries again, very near: under the futon?

"Shoo that thing away!" the housekeeper tells the maid. "Shoo it!"

The creature mewls again, and Orito realizes it is coming from the crib.

Surely not, thinks the midwife, refusing to hope. Surely not...

She snatches away the linen sheet just as the baby's mouth opens.

He inhales once, twice, three times; his crinkled face crumples...
... and the shuddering newborn boiled-pink despot howls at Life.

To purchase the book visit AmazonDavid Mitchel's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, courtesy of The Excerpt Reader