You will never forget your reading glasses with a book like this. The Book of Hours dated 1526. Bruges, Ten Duinen, Ms. 66/35. Loys van Boghem Hours, 1526.
April Rain Song by Langston Hughes
Let the rain kiss you
Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops
Let the rain sing you a lullaby
The rain makes still pools on the sidewalk
The rain makes running pools in the gutter
The rain plays a little sleep song on our roof at night
And I love the rain.
Check out more poems at poemhunter.com
A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders
This classroom in a book is based on writing professor George Saunders’ Russian short story class. It is a master class of seven Russian short stories with analysis (before, during, &) after each one. Sometimes it takes a professor to demonstrate the genius behind a well-written story. To get the student, in this case, the reader, to exercise the critical thinking that’s needed to attend to a well-written short story. Have we all been reading underwater? With the professor’s insight, he gives the reader permission to critique.
“A story is a series of incremental pulses, each of which does something to us. Each puts us in a new place, relative to where we just were. Criticism is not some inscrutable, mysterious process. It’s just a matter of 1) noticing ourselves responding to a work of art, moment by moment, and 2) getting better at articulating that response.”
A book for those who want to get psyched to write well, or to read better.
Beware the agents of slovenly language. Orwell got it right when he published this essay in 1946.
“When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases … one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them … And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.”
Link here to read the entire essay: Politics and the English Language
And some trivia about his book 1984: It was banned in the USSR for being anti-communist and banned in the US for being pro-communist.
Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes, Through Darkness and Light by Caroline Eden
There are a myriad of ways to describe Caroline Eden’s delectable book: literary narrative, history textbook, travel memoir, and finally, cookbook. What most holds the reader’s attention are Eden’s descriptions of a decaying, romantic world as she circles around the Black Sea. This is something to fall into on a cold February day.
People have been flocking to the Black Sea for millennia, due to its location. The beaches of the sea touch a host of European countries, and over the centuries European rivers and ocean straits brought in a multitude of migrants. Subsequently, cultures have flourished and perished and the buildings offer proof. There is beauty in decay, and in towns well-lived. Here is Eden’s description of Odessa:
Pootling, rusty trams add a muted vibrational hum. In winter, when cold winds scud off the sea, turning the air to ice, these aged cartoonish streetcars, painted in childish yellows and blues, fill with women dressed in thick black fur coats. In summer, when the city sparkles with possibilities, like too-sweet Crimean champanski, the quavering cars swelter and seem to slow down, matching the pace of the city. Easing languidly around bends like slow-moving centipedes, through the heavily scented atmosphere. Dockside, the air smells of rust, tar, salt, brine, and diesel. Inland, the fragrance is gentler, of dust, unaired teahouses, and perfumy jam. Scents that catalogue memories, unchanged for decades.
The recipes in the book are simple enough, and the ingredient lists are achievable, even in our isolated community. A recipe for Jewish challah that Eden discovered at an Italian restaurant is included, along with fare influenced by the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and European cultures that passed through. A spicy strawberry recipe, modified from a dish Eden had in Istanbul, consists of chili, strawberries, sugar, lemon, yogurt, and cream cheese. Truly a beautiful blend of flavors.
Black Sea is available through Prospector here.
Caroline Eden’s latest book Red Sands: Reportage and Recipes Through Central Asia was released last November, and Samarkand is due to be released this autumn.
The Hills We Climb by Amanda Gorman
The great Italian poet Dante died 700 years ago and this year all of Italy is celebrating. In the spirit, the Uffizi Gallery has done something very special: 16th century artist Federico Zuccari drew images of the Divine Comedy which are in the museum’s care. This year, the Gallery has posted these beautiful images online for everyone to see. Here’s a sampling:
Charon, ferrying across sinners
Cerberus, the three-headed dog
The Forest of the Suicides
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez
Nature and wilderness writer Barry Lopez died on December 25th. His life work is a celebration of the natural world and how we interact with it. Arctic Dreams is one of his finest, but all of his work shines each as their own jewel, filled with light and beauty.
Arctic Dreams focuses on the nature of light and natural light. It is reminiscent of Melville’s musing on the color white, but it is wholly its own:
The evening slipped quietly away from both of us. Eventually, he went to wash his brushes, and I went to my room and lay down to think. If I were a painter, I, too, would be taken with the fullness and subtle quality of light here. You have the color balances from all twenty-four hours from which to choose, the sweeping lines of crisp desert vistas under huge prairie skies, and the rarefied air with which to work. Ice and water push the light up beneath cliffs and into other places where you would expect to find shadows, and back into the sky where it fills the air. At certain hours the land has the resolution of a polished diamond.
Arctic Dreams won the National Book Award in 1986. Link here to Lopez’s short essay ‘On the Purpose of Writing.’
Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich
This book is a collection of interviews by Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich. Russians who lived through the Soviet period and its aftermath, relate their struggles amid the change from communism to authoritarianism. It can be instructive to anyone interested in what life is like in an authoritarian regime. And in this way, parallels can be drawn between present day Russia and the United States.
Though Americans may not have noticed because of other pressing matters, democracy is being fought for on the front lines of Belarus, in real time. Belarus is a country on the border of Russia and has been fighting to remove a power-grab by Putin-supported Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years. Belarus is Europe’s only dictatorship and Lukashenko has publicly admitted to wanting a union with Russia. Thousands of Belarusians march weekly, protesting for a free and democratic country.
A democracy needs to be looked after and each generation that is brought up in a democratic society can’t afford complacency, but must stay frosty, and protect it against any authoritarian uprising. Democracy cannot be sold to the highest bidder, otherwise it becomes a shadow of itself, and ultimately will fail.
Svetlana Alexievich was recently interviewed in Der Spiegel, a German magazine. She spoke of the fight the Belarusians are currently undertaking. Here’s a link:
Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015.
The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson
Take a break from the doomscrolling to read something a little more cheerful. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the Body Snatcher in 1884, an account of the extremes that anatomy instructors would go to in the name of medical research:
“Somewhat as two vultures may swoop upon a dying lamb, Fettes and Macfarlane were to be let loose upon a grave in that green and quiet resting-place. The wife of a farmer, a woman who had lived for sixty years, and been known for nothing but good butter and a godly conversation, was to be rooted from her grave at midnight and carried, dead and naked, to that far-away city that she had always honoured with her Sunday’s best; the place beside her family was to be empty till the crack of doom; her innocent and almost venerable members to be exposed to that last curiosity of the anatomist.”
Stevenson is best remembered as a young adult adventure writer, but many noted writers, among them Henry James and Joseph Conrad, were influenced by his books. For certain, Kidnapped, is a tour de force.
Happy Halloween and here’s a link to Gutenberg: The Body Snatcher
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder
Timothy Snyder begins his small volume with the aphorisms (playing off History never repeats, but it does rhyme): “History does not repeat, but it does instruct,” and “History can familiarize, and it can warn.”
This book is loaded with prime historical examples documenting the ladder of tyranny, most notably from the Nazi regime and then the corresponding Stalinist regime. It transitions into the current American timeline. A mentally lazy nation that believes in conspiracies over facts is doomed to fall:
“The habit of dwelling on victimhood dulls the impulse of self-correction. Since the nation is defined by its inherent virtue rather than by its future potential, politics becomes a discussion of good and evil rather than a discussion of possible solutions to real problems.”
Where does ethics stand in this? Britannica defines ethics as “the discipline concerned with what is morally good and bad and morally right and wrong … How should we live? Shall we aim at happiness or at knowledge, virtue, or the creation of beautiful objects? If we choose happiness, will it be our own or the happiness of all? And what of the more particular questions that face us: is it right to be dishonest in a good cause? Can we justify living in opulence while elsewhere in the world people are starving? … What are our obligations, if any, to the generations of humans who will come after us and to the nonhuman animals with whom we share the planet?”
The obligation of a nation is to each of its citizens, not a select few. Morally, the well-being of every citizen should be considered, otherwise the ethics of the nation has failed.
“We find it natural that we pay for a plumber or a mechanic, but demand our news for free … Why should we form our political judgment on the basis of zero investment? We get what we pay for.”
Snyder includes a book reading list, helpful to the reader to begin engaging and learning on their own, and as a defense against regurgitated internet news feeds or agenda-driven news media companies.
It’s important that none of us look away. Those in good conscience should be prepared to say No to what they deem is unjust.
We are each of us free to determine between right and wrong. An election is our voice in choosing right over wrong.
Check your voter registration here.
Nobody Will Tell You This But Me by Bess Kalb
Bess Kalb is a comedy writer, known for her work on the Jimmy Kimmel Show. This short memoir is a tribute to Bess’s grandmother Bobby, and is filled with memories of their lived history together. Bess and Bobby were devoted to each other. Longer vignettes of family history are weaved throughout the book. Inevitably, humor envelops the whole.
Here Bess receives sage wisdom about futility from Bobby:
Have I told you about your mother’s friend Lisa Belski? She was on her honeymoon in the South of France. And she and her new husband thought it would be a good idea to take a romantic ride on horseback through some vineyard or other. And they were riding along and your mother’s friend Lisa’s horse got spooked — who knows why? Maybe there was a bee! And the horse tossed her off and she landed on her head and she was paralyzed immediately. And then do you know what happened?
Her husband abandoned her for a stewardess.
Even in death, Bess’s Bobby makes light of life and her family:
It’s a terrible thing to be dead. Oh, how boring. How maddening. Nothing to do. Nothing to read. No one to talk to. And everyone’s a mess … I never understood why they make the family shovel dirt onto you. What an awful thing. I appreciate you refused, Bessie. What’s next? They make the kids push the embalming fluid into my veins?
Bess Kalb is working on a screenplay for Nobody Will Tell You This and the film rights have been sold so expect a movie release in the near future.
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Published in 1855, Walt Whitman reworked his masterpiece throughout his life. When Whitman died in 1892, the volume had developed from twelve poems to over 400.
Whitman wrote in the original preface: “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.”
Long, Too Long America
Long, too long America,
Traveling roads all even and peaceful you learn’d from joys and prosperity only,
But now, ah now, to learn from crises of anguish, advancing, grappling with direst fate and recoiling not,
And now to conceive and show to the world what your children en-masse really are,
(For who except myself has yet conceiv’d what your children en-masse really are?)
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
“Racist ideas have done their job on us. We have a hard time recognizing that racial discrimination is the sole cause of racial disparities in this country and in the world at large. I write we for a reason … I held racist notions of Black inferiority before researching and writing this book. Racist ideas are ideas. Anyone can produce them or consume them … anyone can express the idea that Black people are inferior, that something is wrong with Black people. Anyone can believe both racist and antiracist ideas, that certain things are wrong with Black people and other things are equal. Fooled by racist ideas, I did not fully realize that the only thing wrong with Black people is that we think something is wrong with Black people. I did not fully realize that the only thing extraordinary about White people is that they think something is extraordinary about White people.”
Stamped from the Beginning won the National Book Award in 2016.
My Appetites by Jerry Saltz
Jerry Saltz is an art critic for the magazine New York and a former critic for The Village Voice. He wrote this autobiographical sketch of how he came to be in his profession. It is honest and raw. And one of the more peculiar aspects of Saltz is his relationship with food.
Each person has a different way of savoring their life. With some it is with food, and the delicate complexities of a good meal, prepared and devoured: the sweet tang of a balsamic vinegar drizzled onto an aged cheddar cheese, the bright spring crisp of spinach greens from the garden, the buttery richness of a chicken gravy atop a homemade biscuit. Not so with Saltz. He has a real food peculiarity. There is no gusto to his eating and he prepares nor purchases interesting meals to eat with gusto. His friends question it, but is it really necessary to enjoy one’s dinner? Life offers many options for pleasure. Saltz, as an art critic, has found his bliss.
Growing up, his passion for art was immediate. The first time he beheld a masterpiece, it changed his life:
When I was 10 years old, my mother drove me in her powder-blue Buick Wildcat to the Art Institute of Chicago…. I had never been to a museum before. I wandered around. Bored, I started looking back and forth at a colorful little diptych. The light in it was intense; the colors were like coral-reef fish. In the left panel, a man in a prison cell chatted through the bars with two friends outside his cell. In the next image, his head is on the ground; blood spurts everywhere from his neck, which is still sticking through the window; a swordsman holsters a huge blade with blood on it.
(Decades later, I realized these were Giovanni di Paolo’s 15th-century depictions of the imprisonment and beheading of Saint John the Baptist.) Then it hit me: This painting was telling a story. I looked around and realized everything here was. I thought I could “hear” all these stories if I looked close enough. My mind was blown.
After some twists and turns, and dead ends, Saltz finally became free to write and read and think about art. Along with his wife, they devoted themselves more fully to critical thinking. Which is a pleasure in itself.
Here’s a link to the article, available at New York magazine: My Appetites
Lyrical and Critical Essays by Albert Camus
“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”
This collection of essays is in contrast to the novels and plays of Camus, a notable divergence between lightness and conflict. Though his two major themes are absurdity and rebellion, Camus also wrote poignantly of happiness:
“What is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?”
It may not have come easy for him. His novels are more expressive of how he viewed the world, not how he wished it to be:
“A certain kind of optimism, of course, is not my strong point. With the rest of my generation I grew up to the drumbeats of the First World War, and our history since then has continued the tale of murder, injustice, or violence.”
Camus wrote truthfully from his experiences of growing up in a post WWI – pre WWII (the Interwar Period) world. We can take lessons from this. At present, it is not easy to find happiness in the despair of nowadays. We are living with the uncertainties of chaos and pandemic.
But it is the simple moments, each one as they pass, that are pieces to the bliss. This is from Love of Life, written of time spent in Spain:
“When we are aware of every gift, the contradictory intoxications we can enjoy (including that of lucidity) are indescribable. Never perhaps has any land but the Mediterranean carried me so far from myself and yet so near.
“The emotion I felt at the cafe in Palma probably came from this. On the other hand, what struck me in the empty district near the cathedral, at noon, among the old palaces with their cool courtyards, in the streets with their scented shadows, was the idea of a certain ‘slowness.’ No one in the streets. Motionless old women in the miradors. And, walking along past the houses, stopping in courtyards full of green plants and round, gray pillars, I melted into this silence, losing my limits, becoming nothing more than the sound of my footsteps or the flight of birds whose shadows I could see on the still sunlit portion of the walls.”
Camus did conclude that ‘there is no love of life without despair about life’ and he did wish to be rid of the theme of ‘the extreme situation’ that he was irrevocably tied to. This volume is a respite to the turmoil he wrote about.
Lyrical and Critical Essays can be checked out online at the Internet Archive.
Patrick Stewart has been reciting a sonnet of Shakespeare’s each day on his twitter feed. Here is Sonnet 2:
When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a totter’d weed of small worth held:
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Ann Porter
“Look, don’t be afraid, it is nothing, it is only eternity.”
This short story is autobiographical in nature, Katherine Ann Porter having also survived the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. She is one of the few writers to write specifically of this time and also wrote the most dramatic narrative of what it was like to be ill with the flu. Katherine’s illness was so severe that it permanently turned her hair white, a lasting souvenir of the Pandemic.
Main character Miranda quickly becomes ill, losing her grip on reality while ironically, sharpening her senses:
“It’s as bad as anything can be,” said Adam, “all the theaters and nearly all the shops and restaurants are closed, and the streets have been full of funerals all day and ambulances all night —“
“But not one for me,” said Miranda, feeling hilarious and lightheaded.
Miranda walks around in an influenzal miasma, soon passing from waking nightmare into a whirling delirium of clarity:
Miranda sighed, and lay back on the pillow and thought, I must give up, I can’t hold out any longer. There was only that pain, only that room, and only Adam. There were no longer any multiple planes of living, no tough filaments of memory and hope pulling taut backwards and forwards holding her upright between them. There was only this moment and it was a dream of time, and Adam’s face, very near hers, eyes still and intent, was a shadow, and there was to be nothing more….”
The title quote comes from the Book of Revelation:
And I looked, and behold, a pale horse. And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.
Ironically, the 1918 Influenza Pandemic struck a quarter of the world’s population at the time, 500 million. It killed 50-100 million.
No need to go to the library to check this one out, stay home and stay healthy. Here’s a link to the text:
Pale Horse, Pale Rider at archive.org
Declaration of Independence: The List of Grievances:
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
Vilma Grunwald wrote the following note to her husband before she was sent to the gas chamber with her disabled son, John. A guard got the note to her husband and he was later liberated, along with the little golden boy, Frank.
Frank did not read the letter until after his father’s death and he later donated it to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
1.1 million people were murdered at Auschwitz before liberation.
Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme
Donald Barthelme is generally viewed as the most under read and underrated author of the 20th century.
Postmodernist, deconstructionist, and absurdist: Barthelme parceled, cut, and altered language into literary collages. Influenced by modernist painting, he was director of the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum for a time.
I was wrong, Peterson thought, the world is absurd. The absurdity is punishing me for not believing in it. I affirm the absurdity. On the other hand, absurdity is itself absurd.
Barthelme was ‘overwhelmed’ by Samuel Beckett. He believed that the way for a writer to emulate another writer is to write in opposition to them. Thus, Barthelme writes in opposition to Beckett, who in turn writes in opposition to Joyce. Besides Beckett: Camus, Kafka, Faulkner, Stein, one can feel the ghostly touches in Barthelme’s writing.
Similarly Shotwell pretends to watch my .45 but he is really watching my hand resting idly atop my attache case, my hand resting idly atop my attache case, my hand. My hand resting idly atop my attache case.
Barthelme experiments with language, some stories descending (ascending?) into technobabble and jargon, juxtapositions, and repetitive listing. But it is not just a word salad. There is thoughtfulness for the craft here. Writer T.C. Boyle called it ‘postmodernist hijinks.’
The Achievements of Capitalism:
(a) The curtain wall
(b) Artificial rain
(c) Rockefeller Center
“Capitalism sure is sunny!” cried the unemployed Laredo toolmaker, as I was out walking, in the streets of Laredo. “None of that noxious Central European miserabilism for us!”
Barthelme once said that painters “had to go out and reinvent painting because of the invention of photography and I think films have done something of the sort for us [i.e. writers].”
They can pick up a Baby Ruth wrapper on the street, glue it to the canvas (in the right place, of course, there’s that), and lo! people crowd about and cry, ‘A real Baby Ruth wrapper, by God, what could be realer than that!’ Fantastic metaphysical advantage.
Donald Barthelme died in 1989.
Asimov was born on this day in 1920. Follow the link to one of his favorite short stories, written in 1956:
Last Orders by Graham Swift
Jack’s dead and his mates are taking his ashes off on a final journey. One of Jack’s mates is an undertaker, and was charged with cremating his remains. In the car, one of them wonders:
Whether it’s Jack in there or Jack mixed up with bits of others, the ones who were done before and the ones who were done after. So Lenny could be holding some of Jack and some of some other feller’s wife, for example. And if it is Jack, whether it’s really all of him or only what they could fit in the jar, him being a big bloke.
Friends since WWII, and with that in common, they’ve grown into men with families and responsibilities. During the trip, driven by Jack’s adopted son, they look back internally on their friendship and their failings.
…what a man does and how he lives in his head are two different things.
Anger, guilt, resentment, stress and growing old, these are all themes. The book is laced with humor, too, black and otherwise. They are a hormonal bunch, close to death, dreaming of liaisons and carnality. Then there are flashes of a beautifully-turned phrase. This is Jack’s wasting and the subsequent effects of illness on his body:
He ought to look less like himself but he doesn’t, he looks more like himself. It’s as if because his body’s packed up, everything’s going into his face and though that’s changed, though it’s all hollow with the flesh hanging on it, it only makes the main thing show through better, like someone’s turned on a little light inside.
It’s the memory that is the point of it all:
…The dead are the dead, I’ve watched them, they’re equal. Either you think of them all or you forget them … And it doesn’t do when you remember the others not to spare a thought for the ones you never knew. It’s what makes all men equal for ever and always. There’s only one sea.
Last Orders won the Booker Prize in 1996.
A Wild Swan and Other Tales by Michael Cunningham
Cunningham takes the fantasy right out of the fairy tale in this dark book, going beyond the safety and comfort of the words ‘The End’.
What happens after the story ends? Misunderstood and misused, the characters in this book have failings, whether they be hero or villain. There are erotic idiosyncrasies and immovable convictions, lonelinesses, and very human emotions. The reader has no choice but to empathize.
This is Rumpelstiltskin, willing to help someone who has 24 hours to spin a room full of straw into gold; otherwise, the king will cut off her head:
‘It’s instinct then, that tells you, Help this girl, good might come of it. Maybe simply because you, and you alone, have something to offer her. You who’ve never before had much to offer any of the girls who passed by, laughing with their boyfriends, leaving traces of perfume in their wake; perfume and powder and a quickening of the air they so recently occupied.’
And the Tin Soldier:
‘He knows about damage the way a woman does. He knows, the way a woman knows, how to carry on as if nothing’s wrong.’
Cunningham crafts the two-dimensional fairy tale world into full 3-D.
Michael Cunningham won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999.
Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson is one of those overlooked writers, maybe due to the fact that The Lottery is required reading in high school lit classes. Kids grow up thinking she’s a one-hit wonder.
Shirley’s writing is tight, focused. A sign of a true professional is when the writing is so effective it doesn’t need an adjective. Those tend to bog things down. These stories have movement. At times, Shirley uses repetition but for the right reasons. In The Possibility of Evil, the roses are mentioned so often they can be smelled right through the page.
It’s not all grim. Some of it is dark but funny: I snorted out loud reading Louisa, Please Come Home.
Then there is the Kafkaesque quality of Paranoia. Maybe everyone is out to get you.
Shirley had a miserable marriage with her husband. She birthed out some kids and then settled into her house and her writing in Vermont. She became ever more reclusive as the years passed.
Maybe this misery contributed to the disturbing stories she wrote. The Haunting of Hill House is one of the best horror novels of the 20th century. As an aside, it was made into one of the best psychological thrillers of the 1960s.
Shirley died of heart failure when she was 48, in 1965.
The Biloxi, Mississippi school board just removed To Kill A Mockingbird from its 8th grade curriculum. Their reasoning: “It makes people uncomfortable.”
The writer Wole Soyinka said: “A book if necessary should be a hammer, a hand grenade which you detonate under a stagnant way of looking at the world.”
Here’s a link to the ALA’s most frequently challenged books.
A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Patrick was best known as a travel writer (see A Time of Gifts) but he was also a soldier; after fighting in WWII for Cretan resistance, he lived in Greece. And as a scholar, he had no peer. Patrick was self-taught in multiple languages. He was a bon vivant in the best sense, a charismatic character who lived life to its fullest.
Patrick made a pilgrimage of abbeys in the 1950s to read and write, and learn from the abbey libraries he visited. At one, the father librarian handed him a key and let him take as many books as he’d like to his room. It was a book reader’s dream:
‘The library was beautifully kept, and considering the Abbey’s vicissitudes, enormous. Vellum-bound folios and quartos receded in vistas, and thousands of ancient and modern works on theology, canon law, dogma, patrology, patristics, hagiography, mysticism and even magic, and almost as many on secular history, art, and travel.’
The monasteries commanded silence, perfect for a writer. They were ‘beyond the reach of ordinary troubles and vexations.’ And Patrick was there to write, and to learn. His details of the rituals of mass are lovely:
‘The anthem was followed by a long stillness which seemed to be scooped out of the very heart of sound.’
When speaking was required, during the canonical hours, it was a complement to this long stillness. There is a soothing quality that comes with communicating in different languages. It is the prism of sliding between languages throughout the liturgies, all sides of the same glass. The abbots slip from Latin to French to Latin; then Patrick follows with the English narrative.
The book is more than a book of stillness; it is a history of monasteries, abbeys, and sects. It is a thank you letter from Patrick to each monastery he visited.
Patrick Leigh Fermor died in 2011. This is The Guardian’s obit for him.
The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery by Witold Pilecki
Pilecki in 1922
Captain Witold Pilecki spent much of his life fighting against the tyranny of the Nazi regime and then the Stalinist communist government. He was an officer in the Polish underground Home Army and made it his life’s work to infiltrate these regimes to shine a light on the atrocities being committed.
To that end, Pilecki volunteered to enter into a concentration camp as a prisoner. In 1940, he was arrested by the SS and subsequently spent 2 1/2 years in Auschwitz before he escaped. He then wrote a report on his time there, this book, which became the first evidence of the mass murders that were taking place under Hitler’s regime. This is a grim recollection during his early days there:
’I had noticed that fewer people returned from work every day, and I knew that they had been “finished off” at one task or another; but now I was to discover the hard way what a day “in the camp” looked like…’
Pilecki suffered greatly during his time there; starvation was his most difficult plight, and then illness, which terrified him greatly. The sick were the first to be sent to the gas chambers. Auschwitz Birkenau, where the gas chambers and crematoriums were, was less than a mile away.
Maps from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Pilecki recalls this from August of 1942:
’The SS men quickly surrounded the block. I have to admit that watching that scene for a moment my blood froze and then boiled …
What I was shortly to see, was also distressing.
The sick were pulled out and shoved into vehicles. Those who were unconscious and those who were now well, those convalescing having been ill a month earlier but who were still in quarantine, they were all packed into the vehicles and taken off to the gas chambers in several waves …
I saw an SS man throwing two small inmates into the vehicles. A little fellow, who was eight years old, asked the SS man to spare him and knelt on the ground. The SS man kicked him in the stomach and threw him into the vehicle like a puppy.
They were all finished off the same day in the gas chambers at Rajsko.
Then for two days the crematoria worked away, with new batches of inmates continually being brought in from the camp.’
After Pilecki escaped, he continued his work for the underground Polish army. But when the nazi regime to the west was overthrown, Soviet communism swept in from the east. Pilecki was arrested in 1948 by the Polish communist regime and executed. He was 47.
It can be argued that Stalin’s gulags were even more brutal than Hitler’s concentration camps. Historians agree on roughly 20 million killed in the gulags, though writer Solzhenitsyn places it closer to 60 million. 17 million died in the concentration camps, though this number gets conflated because around 80 million people total died during World War II.
Have you never heard of Witold Pilecki? It is no wonder, the communists in Poland expunged all memory of him. When the Soviet Empire fell in 1989 his story was revealed. Today, he is revered as one of Poland’s greatest heroes.
Educated by Tara Westover
This memoir recounts how Westover pulled herself out of and away from her fundamentalist upbringing, one that denied her an education. It is filled with moments of ignorance and danger, and both physical and mental abuse. The moment Westover realizes her potential, that she is autonomous of her parents is a revelatory moment:
Not knowing for certain, but refusing to give way to those who claim certainty, was a privilege I had never allowed myself. My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.
How does one go from zero education straight to college? Without any basic knowledge of history, or the perceptions gained from living a childhood amongst what’s considered commonplace. How does one gain enough insight to learn that fear no longer needs to be an everyday occurrence and that the suspicions and anxieties born from survivalism can be overcome? Westover proves that it is possible. She is a study in the potential of the human spirit.
It’s April and that’s National Poetry Month: Daljit Nagra noted ‘Poetry is an espresso shot of thought.’ Here is a sampling:
Lament by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Your father is dead.
From his old coats
I’ll make you little jackets;
I’ll make you little trousers
From his old pants.
There’ll be in his pockets
Things he used to put there,
Keys and pennies
Covered with tobacco;
Dan shall have the pennies
To save in his bank;
Anne shall have the keys
To make a pretty noise with.
Life must go on,
And the dead be forgotten;
Life must go on,
Though good men die;
Anne, eat your breakfast;
Dan, take your medicine;
Life must go on;
I forget just why.
A Man may make a Remark (952) by Emily Dickinson
A Man may make a Remark –
In itself – a quiet thing
That may furnish the Fuse unto a Spark
In dormant nature – lain –
Let us divide – with skill –
Let us discourse – with care –
Powder exists in Charcoal –
Before it exists in Fire –
Fragment by Amy Lowell
What is poetry? Is it a mosaic
Of coloured stones which curiously are wrought
Into a pattern? Rather glass that’s taught
By patient labor any hue to take
And glowing with a sumptuous splendor, make
Beauty a thing of awe; where sunbeams caught,
Transmuted fall in sheafs of rainbows fraught
With storied meaning for religion’s sake.
Moonlight by Sara Teasdale
It will not hurt me when I am old,
A running tide where moonlight burned
Will not sting me like silver snakes;
The years will make me sad and cold,
It is the happy heart that breaks.
The heart asks more than life can give,
When that is learned, then all is learned;
The waves break fold on jewelled fold,
But beauty itself is fugitive,
It will not hurt me when I am old.
Spring Storm by William Carlos Williams
The sky has given over
Out of the dark change
all day long
rain falls and falls
as if it would never end.
Still the snow keeps its hold on the ground.
But water, water
from a thousand runnels!
It collects swiftly,
dappled with black
cuts a way for itself
through green ice in the gutters.
Drop after drop it falls
from the withered grass-stems
of the overhanging embankment.
Sign up for a poem a day at poets.org.
Link to the National Poetry Foundation’s ‘How to Read a Poem’ by Edward Hirsch.
Elegy for Iris by John Bayley
John Bayley’s love letter to his wife Iris Murdoch, the noted British writer, was written during her descent into Alzheimer’s. There is aching honesty here; a memoir of Iris and John’s meeting and marriage, and a life spent with books and each other. This is a reader’s book. John drops titles and allusions throughout, like small sprinklings of salt.
John was smitten when he first viewed Iris at Oxford. And he instantly created a narrative around her, that she was a pure experience that none had ever known or defiled. It is a direct analogy to English epic poetry, Una and her Redcrosse Knight:
‘I noted the lady on the bicycle (she seemed at once to me more of a lady than a girl) and wondered who she was and whether I would ever meet her. Perhaps I fell in love. Certainly it was in the innocence of love that I indulged the momentary fantasy that nothing had ever happened to her: that she was simply bicycling about, waiting for me to arrive. She was not a woman with a past or an unknown present.’
The feelings were mutual. John later found in Iris’s notes a few lines that mentioned their first date:
‘St. Antony’s Dance. Fell down the steps, and seem to have fallen in love with J. We didn’t dance much.’
They married, which was more of an enactment than a betrothal since the idea of marriage was repugnant to them both. John remembers Iris’s hilarious reaction upon hearing someone refer to her as Mrs. Bayley:
‘Iris said that this was the ghastliest moment of what was for her an extremely gruesome occasion. She was now lumped among a lot of Mrs. Bayleys.’
Iris developed Alzheimer’s in the last years of her life and John chronicled the impact it had on the both of them. The ravages of Alzheimer’s manifests differently in each person. Some are aware; some are simply encased in fog. John argues the point that those who subsist with the disease without indignation are those people who are not narcissistic by nature, as Iris was. Still, it is nothing to look forward to:
‘I used to try reading Agamemnon and other Greek plays to her in a translation, but it was not a success. Nor was any other attempt at reading aloud. It all seemed and felt unnatural. I read several chapters of the Lord of the Rings and The Tale of Genji, two of Iris’s old favourites, before I realised this. For someone who had been accustomed not so much to read books as to slip into their world as effortlessly as she slipped into a river or the sea, this laborious procession of words clumping into her consciousness must have seemed a tedious irrelevance … Tolkien and Lady Murasaki had been inhabitants of her mind, denizens as native to its world as were the events and people who so mysteriously came to her in her own process of creation. To meet them again in this way, and awkwardly to recognise them, was an embarrassment.’
The theme of memory runs like a river throughout the book. At times, it’s difficult for John to visualize the person that Iris was. She is ever present and never changing in his life in the 43 years they were married:
‘I know she must once have been different, but I have no true memory of a different person.’
Iris Murdoch died in 1999; John Bayley died in 2015.
The Collected Stories by Lorrie Moore
Writing a short story requires an editor’s mentality. The tighter the writing, the more effective it is. In comparison with the morass of a novel, the short story is more suited to a 21st century sensibility. It is lighter and more intense.
Moore is a master of this art form. She takes the reader into each story and then snaps them back out again. There is some really, really good writing here.
In People Like That Are The Only People Here is a story of The PeedOnk or Pediatric Oncology, where the families of kids with cancer gather, waiting on treatments, and fixes, and death. How do families cope with this?
Cancer is ‘…A tumor with its differentiated muscle and bone cells, a clump of wild nothing and its mad, ambitious desire to be something: something inside you, instead of you, another organism, but with a monster’s architecture, a demon’s sabotage and chaos.’
Moore writes with such clarity, the story feels autobiographical:
‘Total, sweet bald little angels, and now God is trying to get them back for himself. Who are they, mere mortal women, in the face of this, this powerful and overwhelming and inscrutable thing, God’s will? They are the mothers, that’s who. You can’t have him! they shout every day. You dirty old man! Get out of here! Hands off!’
This gem of a line is from What Is Seized:
‘…Forgiveness lives alone and far off down the road, but bitterness and art are close, gossipy neighbors, sharing the same clothesline, hanging out their things, getting their laundry confused.’
In Debarking, recently divorced Ira gets involved in an unhealthy relationship with a woman who has an unnatural relationship with her child. The weirdness of the situation devolves into levels of humor and then pathos: so, comedy. Here’s the foreshadowing scene where Ira gets invited to a Lenten supper where he will meet Zora:
“So you’re doing Lent. I’m unclear on Lent. I mean, I know what the word means to those of us of the Jewish faith. But we don’t usually commemorate these transactions with meals. Usually there’s just a lot of sighing.”
“It’s like a pre-Easter Prince of Peace dinner,” Mike said slowly. “You’re supposed to give things up for Lent. Last year, we gave up our faith and reason. This year, we’re giving up our democratic voice and our hope.”
One of Moore’s funniest stories, How to Become A Writer, follows a working class writer (as most are), trying to make a go of it. It is filled with small wisdoms, relatable to everybody:
‘Decide that you like college life. In your dorm you meet many nice people. Some are smarter than you. And some, you notice, are dumber than you. You will continue, unfortunately, to view the world in exactly these terms for the rest of your life.’
Desert Notes by Barry Lopez
I know what they tell you about the desert but you mustn’t believe them. This is no deathbed. Dig down, the earth is moist. Boulders have turned to dust here, the dust feels like graphite. You can hear a man breathe a distance of twenty yards. You can see out there to the edge where the desert stops and the mountains begin. You think it is perhaps ten miles. It is more than a hundred. Just before the sun sets all the colors will change. Green will turn to blue, red to gold.
Barry Lopez wrote his first book after spending time in the Alvord Desert in Oregon in the late 1960s. He was 24 at the time. He transformed what he took away from that experience into a set of poetic short stories, and it set his writing career into motion. This collection has a running theme of the human relationship with the natural world. His short story ‘Coyote and Rattlesnake’ explores the invasive nature of people, the encroachment and usurping; the big picture reveals that people are just passing through and are part of the wider narrative. Lopez is our country’s finest writer of the natural world and his work has heavily influenced subsequent generations of writers.
When Desert Notes was anthologized with River Notes & Animal Notes in 2014, Lopez wrote about his writing technique in the afterword:
“When I write a story, I am not trying to make a point or demonstrate any particular proficiency as a writer. I am trying to make the patterns of American cultural life more apparent, patterns any individual reader might be able to take further, metaphorically, than I am able to, patterns that I hope will serve the reader’s own search for meaning. In the creation of the story, it is the reader’s welfare, not the life of the writer, that is finally central.”
Barry Lopez’s latest book ‘Horizon’ will be released in March.
The Ravenmaster by Christopher Skaife
Chris Skaife, yeoman warder of the Tower of London, is chief Raven Master there, and though he claims to not be a raven expert, he is as close as it comes to understanding, and more importantly, revering them. Chris is in charge of the general welfare and the keeping of the ravens. Currently there are seven ravens housed at the Tower and it is foretold that if the ravens ever leave the Tower, it will fall, along with London itself. Hence, the importance of the job, not the least being that it keeps the mythos alive. Chris speaks romantically of London with its rich backdrop and substantial past:
‘History and prehistory, legends, fables, and stories, they’re everywhere here. I sometimes think that the Tower is just a vast storehouse of the human imagination, and the ravens are its guardians.’
Yeoman warders are informally known as ‘beefeaters’ and besides being the guards of Her Majesty’s crown jewels, they chaperone the droves of tourists who visit the Tower. Chris guesses that he must be photographed nearly 400 times a day during the summer: ‘I reckon the ravens and I have probably featured in someone’s family album in every country in the world.’ Guilty as charged: I also have a photograph of a beefeater from a trip to London.
As the head of Team Raven, Chris has attuned his senses to his birds’ needs. Ravens are smart birds but much-maligned and they have more in common with us than we might think: ‘Ravens are creatures of habit, and even the slightest change to their daily routine can lead to stress and psychological problems. Sometimes by the time I pick up on a dispute between ravens, it’s too late. Like a lot of us, they tend to hide their sicknesses and their grievances. I assume it’s a self-protection mechanism. I’m not an expert on raven social systems, but I can see that they have complex social lives, with feuds and disagreements between them, just as we humans do.’
Check out Chris’s twitter feed at twitter.com/ravenmaster1 to see images of the Tower’s magnificent ravens.