History Is Embarrassing is collection of essays that weaves together threads from one single contemporary life and recounts how that life collides with history. As a girl with polio, a poet, a Jewish woman, a writer, and a painter, the author is an outsider as are most of the characters in these pages—undercover cops, poets, a gay couple in 1500s India, bear poachers, psychiatric patients, even a president. Each of these characters is one tiny dot in the enormous flow of humans from the beginning until now. Whether your dot is large or small, each life is equally a story that adds to the human story, to history.
History Is EmbarrassingKaren Chase
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Coming March 5th! Orders will begin shipping by February 29th.
|6 × 9 in
“One pleasure of being a writer is that you can explore anything,” Karen Chase writes in History Is Embarrassing, and that’s exactly what she does in this vibrant and wide-ranging collection of essays. Her subjects include her experience as a childhood polio victim and her resulting fascination with Franklin Roosevelt; her imaginative journey into the lives, hearts, and voices of two homosexual lovers in 16th century India; a rollicking road trip across the country with her grown son; her baptism and immersion into the world of guns; and her hair-raising investigation into a bear-poaching ring. What binds them all together is her distinct voice, the startling directness, immediacy, and intensity of her writing, and her fearlessness to go wherever her interests and imagination take her. History may be embarrassing, as her title attests, but Chase is not afraid of being embarrassed, or, for that matter, of spending time alone with a slightly menacing man and his arsenal of weapons, if it might lead to the discovery of something she doesn’t know. Yet there are no easy conclusions or phony epiphanies here, no designs on the reader, but instead many surprises, and an openness that “clears the air for unexpected forces to breathe.” Chase prizes authenticity and has it in spades. Believe me, you’ve never read essays quite like these. They will make you feel “like a hunter walking deep into the forest of knowledge to find god knows what.” Enjoy!
—Jeffrey Harrison, author of Between Lakes
Praise for Karen Chase’s previous work…
“Lyric and eros armed with a tattered shield of humor—Karen Chase is present in her life and our times.”
—Andrei Codrescu, author of No Time Like Now
“Karen Chase’s poems modulate from the humorous to the erotic and then to the elegiac. All is held together by her skill and intensity. No line sleeps in these poems in which moments of real experience are isolated and made incandescent.”
—Billy Collins, US Poet Laureate, 2001–2003
from BOOM: A Vaccine Story
Boom. Dennis and Jeff and I are playing Monopoly. I have hotels on Marvin Gardens and Atlantic. I’m on a stretcher, Jeff’s in his wheelchair, and Dennis sits on a regular chair. The radio is on. Wait, wait—what’s this? Someone on the radio is saying that Dr. Somebody made a vaccine from monkeys—from rhesus monkeys. Dr. Jonas Salk minced up tissues from monkeys’ kidneys and put them in test tubes with . . . what? People won’t get polio anymore! Dennis and I start to laugh. We are laughing so hard that a nurse comes over. Jeff is quiet.
I say, “Monkey kidney, monkey kidney,” and we start up again laughing hysterically.
Then Dennis says, “A little late.”
from Befriend Only to Betray
With summer in full swing in the culture-filled Berkshires, I spent day after day transcribing the tapes of my talks with Tom. The slow process of transcription drew me deeper into the story. As a steady stream of tourists arrived to watch dance performances at Jacob’s Pillow or listen to music at Tanglewood, I was listening to Tom give an overview of how Operation Berkshire came about and unfolded.
He outlined the basis of undercover work. “You befriend only to betray. We looked at the boys as friends in a phony context, with the ultimate mindset that we are going to betray you. We are going to expose you. Then arrests can be made.
“It was addictive being inside, seeing how they think. We’re learning about a subculture, the psyche of a subculture. We’re not sure what we have, but we know it keeps getting bigger and bigger.”
He described what it was like for him and for the undercover agents, Jack and Steve, who were always nervous the poachers would unmask them. There were close calls.
One night Jack and Steve were in a pickup truck in New Hampshire, driving up a desolate mountain road on a bear hunt. Another truckful of poachers drove up next to them, and the men passed beers back and forth from one truck to the other. Steve turned on his body wire, which set off a radar detector. The poachers looked around for cops. One said, “There’s never cops on this road. What’s goin’ on?” Steve was able to turn off the body wire, and the radar detector went silent. After that, they stopped using it.
“How dangerous do you think it really was, Tom?” I asked.
Almost whispering, he said, “They were way out in the dark woods with those guys.”
Operation Berkshire contained some of the same elements as fairy tales. Violence was visited upon beasts deep in the forest. Their body parts served as a magic potion, the heart of the struggle between heroes and villains. It was only after I met the men involved in the operation that shades of gray fell over the forces of good and evil, the true story far more complex than any fairy tale.
from Learning to Shoot
The day of Ray’s party, the great rains came. Blue and gray plastic tarps were strewn from tree to pole all across his large yard, and barbecues were stationed all around. From the kitchen speakers, Pink Floyd sang through the late afternoon, and it felt as though the partygoers had boarded one big wet boat harbored in Ray’s backyard. Christmas lights were strung from tarp to tarp, and they blinked as it began to get dark.
I sat on a bench talking to my friend Clay, an experienced shooter from a Southern family. Was he packing right then? I asked. To show me, he brushed aside his oversized shirt. There was his pistol, tucked into the waistband of his jeans. Although he often spoke about handguns, I was taken aback. In a moment, what had been just words became real. Then I wondered who else at the party was carrying a gun.
History Is Embarrassing
Pub date – March 2024
Trade paper – 6 x 9″
Notable Voices, Essays