The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
‘A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the large waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue.’
The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick is available at the Salida Library.
The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffmann
I asked the old woman what sort of a man a sandman was. ‘Oh Nat,’ she replied, ‘don’t you know that yet? It is a wicked man who comes after children when they won’t go to bed and throws handfuls of sand in their eyes, so that they jump out of their heads all bloody, and then he throws them into his sack and carries them to the crescent moon as food for his little children, who have their nest up there and have crooked beaks like owls and peck up the eyes of the naughty children.’
A creepy read for your Halloween pleasure: this short story embraces the macabre. Our hero, Nathaniel, suffers lifelong torments from the sinister Coppelius. He passes from lucidity to madness and back to lucidity again. The recurring images of eyes, vision, glasses, spectacles, scopes, all are interwoven throughout the story. What do we see that is real? What is only an illusion? Eventually illusions lead to madness.
‘Madman! How can you have eyes?’ But Coppola had already put aside his barometers and, reaching into his capacious coat pockets, brought out lorgnettes and pairs of spectacles and laid them on to the table. ‘Here, here: glasses, glasses to put on your nose; they’re my occe, lov-ely occe!’ And with that he fetched out more and more pairs of spectacles, so that the whole table began to sparkle and glitter in an uncanny fashion. A thousand eyes gazed and blinked and stared up at Nathaniel, but he could not look away from the table, and Coppola laid more and more pairs of spectacles on to it, and flaming glances leaped more and more wildly together and directed their blood-red beams into Nathaniel’s breast.
Hoffmann wrote many short stories that have the same sinister tone about them. He is best known for writing The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, a tale that Tchaikovsky softened by setting to music. The original is much darker, with toys coming to life and engaging in battles with mice, the Lady Mouserinks and her threats of ‘Take care, my queen, that the Mouse Queen does not bite your little princess to pieces!’ or the Seven-Headed Mouse King’s rhyme ‘Don’t go to the house, don’t go to the feast, can’t let yourself get caught like a wretched little beast. Give me all your picture books, give me your Christmas dress, or I’ll nibble Nutcracker all to bits and you’ll never have any peace. Squeak!’
If Tchaikovsky had followed the story more faithfully, it would have turned the Nutcracker ballet into a Halloween event.
Hoffmann died in 1822.
Greensboro (A Requiem) by Emily Mann
In November of 1979, a group of Communist Workers’ Party members, both black and white, demonstrated in Greensboro against the Ku Klux Klan. A shootout occurred and 5 demonstrators were killed by members of the Klan and the Nazi Party.
‘We just want the Klan to go – go home. If they live here, go home, if they live there, go there. But we will not have it. We will not tolerate it. If we have to die here, we’ll die here. But there will not be any Klan. Today, tomorrow – NEVER! DEATH TO THE KLAN!’
At the criminal trials, 15 white men were tried and found innocent by all white juries. The demonstrators then filed civil suits and a jury found the Greensboro Police Department responsible for the shootings because they knew beforehand that the Klan had planned violence.
‘Take the Freedom Riders in the sixties, same thing. The Klan’d go to the local police and say: ‘Hey, these integrationists are comin’ down here. We want to go in and bash some heads,” and the police’d look at their watches and say: “Okay — we’ll give you twenty minutes.” So, the buses full of Freedom Riders would arrive on schedule — the Klan was there to greet them and where were the cops? Well — the cops had “gone to lunch”’.
In 2004, the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that ‘the members of the Klan caravan headed for Greensboro with malicious intent. More importantly, Klan members have admitted since the event that they intentionally came prepared to use deadly force in order to be victorious in any violence that occurred.’
The Commission also concluded that ‘the Greensboro Police Department was fully aware of all this information, and in fact its own paid informant, the Klansman Eddie Dawson, acted in a leadership role in bringing the two sides into contact. Dawson’s police handlers had full knowledge of this role. Based on the confrontation at China Grove, we believe that even a small but noticeable police presence would almost certainly have prevented loss of life on Nov. 3, 1979.’
‘What I’m afraid of now is the same prejudices are operating, just attaching to different people … I mean, once there are categories of people who do not qualify as having full human stature — whether they are gays or communist or black people or whoever they are — I mean, once you can separate humanity that way, then you have already created an entire framework in which you can practice all kinds of oppression on people. And you can get away with it. As soon as you have that less than human thing operating, boy, you can do anything to people.’
After the events in Charlottesville this past August 11 & 12, the Greensboro City Council apologized for the massacre.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl survived 3 years in the Nazi concentration camp system. Separated from his family, he learned later that his wife, parents, and brother were all murdered by the Nazi regime. After his liberation, Frankl came to terms with camp horrors by conceiving of the psychotherapy known as logotherapy (logos from greek: ‘meaning’), the basis for this book.
Harold Kushner writes in the introduction:
‘Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times.’
How can a person make sense of his world when it has become insensible? Frankl dedicates the first part of the book to concentration camp life and reflects on how he and his fellow camp mates survived, and why some did not survive. Frankl is clear: these survivors surrendered their humanity:
‘On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves. We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles — whatever one may choose to call them — we know: the best of us did not return.’
After the shock and apathy towards his situation set in, Frankl (and the other prisoners) began to suppress emotion in order to make his situation bearable and to survive. But the mind can essentially bear anything if it has something to work on, whether it be forming ideas, or thinking of a loved one, or imagining what one will do after one is freed. Frankl mentions the Nietzsche quote ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how’ and Frankl survived by using his mind. The Nazis could attack his physical form, but not his mental state.
Where the first part of the book can be read for religious inspiration, the second part of the book is an examination of logotherapy and how its tools can be used to find meaning in life. Frankl used these logotherapeutic tools to come to terms with camp life.
‘Long ago we had passed the stage of asking what was the meaning of life, a naive query which understands life as the attaining of some aim through the active creation of something of value. For us, the meaning of life embraced the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying.’
So, what is the point of it all? Frankl offers that every person’s ‘point’ will be different:
‘One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment, Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated.’
Viktor Frankl died in 1997.
Washington Post article by Philip Yancey
I am going through a personal crisis. I used to love reading. I am writing this blog in my office, surrounded by 27 tall bookcases laden with 5,000 books. Over the years I have read them, marked them up, and recorded the annotations in a computer database for potential references in my writing. To a large degree, they have formed my professional and spiritual life….
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
This book of short stories is notable for its crisp delivery; there isn’t a word wasted. Each story is tied together by the teller’s interpretation of or interaction with India and explores the lamentations and celebrations of the Indian, the American, and the Indian American. The book also moves nicely among the cultural differences that arise from Indians who are expatriated from their country of origin. It is a really well-written book.
The following quote is from the short story ‘A Real Durwan’:
’The only thing that appeared three-dimensional about Boori Ma was her voice: brittle with sorrows, as tart as curds, and shrill enough to grate meat from a coconut. It was with this voice that she enumerated, twice a day as she swept the stairwell, the details of her plight and losses suffered since her deportation to Calcutta after Partition.’
Though this short story is deftly written, it was the only one where I saw the ending coming from a mile away. It felt a little formulaic. But perhaps that is the point with some stories; reiteration keeps the idea in focus.
Interpreter of Maladies won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
Someone is murdering monks in the abbey and it’s up to William and his sidekick Adso to find out who’s behind it. William, a friar and former papal inquisitor, and his apprentice Adso use deductive reasoning to solve the crimes being committed; a medieval Holmes & Watson, if you will.
Forewarning: there is a large cast of characters, and it’s a good idea to keep a Latin dictionary handy since there are a lot of references to the Catholic mass. And William and his fellow monks break into Latin during regular speech without hesitation.
And this book has some great vocabulary: not every day one comes across words like tatterdemalion, hypotyposis, and quodlibetical.
Adso and his mentor William engage in many debates, many involve questioning the path of the church, its past and future, the righteousness of the church fathers, and how both relate to each other. It was a tumultuous time then and the line between politics and religion was muddy.
The nicest parts of the book are the scenes with the scribe monks, who are set to copy out manuscripts in the abbey’s library. The passion that they had for their work can be illustrated in the following quote:
‘The day before, Benno had said he would be prepared to sin in order to procure a rare book. He was not lying and not joking. A monk should surely love his books with humility, wishing their good and not the glory of his own curiosity; but what the temptation of adultery is for laymen and the yearning for riches is for secular ecclesiastics, the seduction of knowledge is for monks.’
Monks prepared to sin? Even enough to commit a murder? The mystery deepens.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
This book is a good dive into modernist lit; like Joyce & Proust, it is a ‘day in the life of’ for essentially 3 main characters. It unfolds with one continuous train of thought which jumps from person to person. And Woolf uses stream of consciousness technique for all of her characters as well, with plenty of light/dark, life/death symbolism thrown in.
The book follows the preparations of Clarissa Dalloway planning an evening party for the upper echelon of London society. Varying thoughts and actions take place throughout; what people think, and of whom, but then there is the stray ribbon of Septimus, a WWI veteran not in Clarissa’s circle, suffering from post traumatic stress:
‘He would argue with her about killing themselves; and explain how wicked people were; how he could see them making up lies as they passed in the street. He knew all their thoughts, he said; he knew everything. He knew the meaning of the world, he said. Then when they got back he could hardly walk, He lay on the sofa and made her hold his hand to prevent him from falling down, down, he cried, into the flames! and saw faces laughing at him, calling him horrible disgusting names, from the walls, and hands pointing round the screen. Yet they were quite alone.’
Clarissa Dalloway is in the upper stratum of English society, which means rich, vain, bored, empty moments are meaningful only because they are what constitute the rich, vain, and bored person’s thoughts. But there is more to Clarissa than her fluff of party planning. She is recently recovered from serious illness which triggers a looking back on her life and the people she knew. Juxtaposed with this is Septimus (unknown to Clarissa) and his doctors who offer a one-fit cure-all for his post traumatic stress. A change of scenery is all he needs. How can he weather it?
‘Scientifically speaking, the flesh was melted off the world. His body was macerated until only the nerve fibres were left. It was spread like a veil upon the rock.’
And in the end, what can be weathered? And what is important? A man suffering? ‘…It must be the fault of the world then — that he could not feel.’ Or a woman planning a party? Woolf saw the importance in even the doldrum daily life of a bored, rich woman. And deftly, Woolf ties the ribbon of the shell-shocked soldier with the hostess.
There is a lyric quality to this book. One almost needs to read it aloud to absorb the full weight of words:
‘Quiet descended on her, calm, content, as her needle, drawing the silk smoothly to it s gentle pause, collected the green folds together and attached them, very lightly, to the belt. So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying “that is all” more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all.’
The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt
This interesting history follows how the book On the Nature of Things survived its path from Ancient Rome to Charlemagne’s Middle Ages to Renaissance Italy. Poggio Bracciolini plays a major role in saving Lucretius’ important work. A humanist and a scribe, Poggio worked in Rome’s papal system for a time, and was noted for his elegant handwriting, which was a commodity in short supply in 13th century Europe. No book is safe from time; they are all doomed to decay and the withering hand of time, and Poggio’s interest was in saving secular works from destruction. Many of these books were in monasteries across Europe and Poggio searched through these monasteries finding many treasures that would not have withstood that withering hand. And after many centuries, even the monks wouldn’t know what they had, especially when they considered Lucretius’s work to be pagan.
‘Who knew what was sitting on those shelves, untouched perhaps for centuries? Tattered manuscripts that had chanced to survive the long nightmare of chaos and destruction, in the wake of the fall of the Roman Empire…’
By finding the book itself and then having it copied out Poggio initiated the ‘swerve’, that would change the direction of how the world thought.
For two millennia, religion had dictated and determined the thinking of most everyone. People worshipped and feared the gods, first the entire swath of the Greek & Roman pantheon and then transitioning to the Christian Church and divinity of one god. There was always an underlying dread to living due to a fear of suffering in the afterlife.
Lucretius was a follower of Epicurus, part of a sect of free thinkers in Ancient Rome, and wrote of the need for free will, and how to unshackle oneself from the bonds of the gods. Life can be good! It can be argued that hyperreligion can stifle the natural course of humanity.
Over time, On the Nature of Things was circulated and soon it began to influence a new generation of free thinkers. Free will and determinism was taking anchor. The Enlightenment was soon to follow.
It is worth noting that Shakespeare, center of the literary canon, was influenced by Lucretius’ work. Certainly, the U.S. would not have the type of governance structure it has without the influence of his book. Thomas Jefferson was a noted epicurean.
King Richard II by William Shakespeare
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…
The Tragedy of King Richard II is one of the few plays that Shakespeare wrote entirely in lyric verse. It is the prologue to the tetralogy consisting of Richard II, Henry IV (parts 1 & 2), and Henry V.
In the play, Richard sees his rule as divinely gifted from providence:
Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king;
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord…
Richard had seized John of Gaunt’s (Henry’s father) properties and wealth (it takes a lot of money to fund majesty), which then provoked Henry to usurp the throne from him.
Holinshed’s Chronicles of England (Shakespeare’s source material) lists the articles that the English Parliament drew up for Richard’s removal from the throne, two of the most prominent being Richard’s order for the Duke of Gloucester’s murder, and that he ‘wastefully spent the treasure of the realm.’ Shakespeare uses these reasons to justify Henry’s ascent to the throne.
It is a strange transfer of power, from a king who relents his crown without a fight. And there is a transfer of sorts within Richard; his character at the beginning of the play is royally conceited but after his removal from power, he is self-reflective and thoughtful. Here is Richard preparing to surrender, speaking of himself:
The king shall be contented: must he lose
The name of king? o’ God’s name, let it go:
I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown,
My figured goblets for a dish of wood,
My sceptre for a palmer’s walking staff,
My subjects for a pair of carved saints
And my large kingdom for a little grave,
A little little grave, an obscure grave;
Or I’ll be buried in the king’s highway,
Some way of common trade, where subjects’ feet
May hourly trample on their sovereign’s head;
For on my heart they tread now whilst I live;
And buried once, why not upon my head?
Because of Henry’s usurpation, the Bishop of Carlisle prophesies the coming calamities, England’s Wars of the Roses, a conflict that lasted more than 30 years and which was brought about by the ineffectual rule of Henry VI, Henry’s grandson.
My Lord of Hereford here, whom you call king,
Is a foul traitor to proud Hereford’s king:
And if you crown him, let me prophesy:
The blood of English shall manure the ground,
And future ages groan for this foul act…
The Hollow Crown is the BBC television program based on Shakespeare’s plays that lead up to the Wars of the Roses. The program’s title comes from lines spoken by Richard:
…Let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits….
The first in the series is Richard II, starring Ben Whishaw, convincing as a pensive king. The Henry plays follow to round out the tetralogy.
Place a hold on The Hollow Crown here.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles
This slim volume is a good western story. The two protagonists, one a war veteran, the other a freed Kiowa captive, travel from one end of Texas to another to fulfill an oath. For one, her destiny is unknown; for the other, it is a mission.
The journey itself is through lawless terrain, and our two heroes must maneuver through the good and the bad. Captain Kidd books halls and reads the London Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Boston Daily Journal as they travel, earning dimes to pay their way.
‘They slipped out of various unnamed establishments, they ran through the rain from their firelit homes, they left the cattle circled and bedded beside the flooding Red to come and hear the news of the distant world … Now he took them away to far places and strange peoples. Into mythic forms of thought and the structures of fairy tales.’
The underlying third character of the novel is the state of Texas:
‘They came downhill to a stream crossing where the clear water made its way between great curving bluffs. Level strata of limestone in stripe after stripe carved back into a deep hollow with the big trees hanging down from overhead. It was like being in a tunnel. Maidenhair fern in bright lime-colored bouquets grew out of the limestone where water seeped through and it smelled of water and wet stone and the green fern … Two great live oaks overhung the stream from above. They dropped their leaves one at a time into the water. The new leaves were coming in and pushing off the old ones slowly, slowly. They fell like pennies.’
The novel itself is small. It could have been more expansive. The author had room to grow her characters, but instead keeps them, and subsequently her story, focused.
‘Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government, yield to it their allegiance and support, are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacles to reform.’ — Thoreau
Contact Colorado Senator Michael Bennet
Contact Colorado Senator Cory Gardner
Contact Colorado Representative (5th District) Ken Lamborn
Dubliners by James Joyce
‘Most people considered Lenehan a leech but, in spite of this reputation, his adroitness and eloquence had always prevented his friends from forming any general policy against him. He had a brave manner of coming up to a party of them in a bar and of holding himself nimbly at the borders until he was included in a round.’
Dubliners is hard, gritty, and real. There is no tidy finish to each story. Every character plays his part for good or bad. Joyce called these stories epiphanies and he was certainly influenced by the Catholic concept of epiphany. Some are failed, but some offer a glimpse of hope, and a chance for renewal. These are wretched characters, desperate, disenchanted, or suffering from an abuse, inflicted on them by others or by themselves. Though the characters in each story are separate, they move together in the same time and space of Dublin.
‘He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances. He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense … He lived his spiritual life without any communion with others, visiting his relatives at Christmas and escorting them to the cemetery when they died … his life rolled out evenly—an adventureless tale.’
The writing is luminous:
‘As she was naturally pale and unbending in manner she made few friends at school. When she came to the age of marriage she was sent out to many houses, where her playing and ivory manners were much admired. She sat amid the chilly circle of her accomplishments, waiting for some suitor to brave it and offer her a brilliant life …’
January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon with a bright future who was diagnosed with cancer while still in residency. How does a surgeon keep working once such a bleak diagnosis has been made? All the time and training and effort were now placed on a balance scale with family, and writing, his other passion. It became a time of doubt. And of determining what was important.
‘I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.’
Paul comes to terms with the loss of a life before it’s lived, and subsequently loss from death. He asks the central question Is There Meaning to Life? Scientifically? And what about philosophically? What does it mean to have lived a worthwhile life? Is there meaning in a life lived intensely but also in a life lived without distinction? None of us has much time.
‘That morning, I made a decision: I would push myself to return to the OR. Why? Because I could. Because that’s who I was. Because I would have to learn to live in a different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor but knowing that even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.’
Paul Kalanithi raged against the dying of the light. He died in March 2015 from lung cancer.
Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
This book feels like Faulkner and for good reason. Anderson was mentor to the young writer in the mid 1920s, and also to Hemingway and Steinbeck, among others. Thomas Wolfe credits Anderson as being the ‘only man who ever taught me anything.’ His book can be considered the first Lost Generation novel, and that would have a huge influence on these young writers. It is worth reading for that reason alone.
The book is a book of stories that read like vignettes in a play. Anderson plays on this by announcing his intent:
‘Alice’s step-father was a carriage painter, and given to drink. His story is an odd one. It will be worth telling some day’
‘The story of Louise Bentley, who became Mrs. John Hardy and lived with her husband in a brick house on Elm Street in Winesburg, is a story of misunderstanding’
‘The story of Wing Biddlebaum is a story of hands.’
The town of Winesburg, its characteristics, and the daily life of the townspeople, is the common thread in each story. Each story is unique and carries its own weight but is tied to the others. Here is some lovely writing:
‘The story of Doctor Reefy and his courtship of the tall dark girl who became his wife and left her money to him is a very curious story. It is delicious, like the twisted little apples that grow in the orchards of Winesburg. In the fall one walks in the orchards and the ground is hard with frost underfoot. On the trees are only a few gnarled apples that the pickers have rejected. They look like the knuckles of Doctor Reefy’s hands. One nibbles at them and they are delicious. Into a little round place at the side of the apple has been gathered all of its sweetness. One runs from tree to tree over the frosted ground picking the gnarled, twisted apples and filling his pockets with them. Only the few know the sweetness of the twisted apples.’
Sherwood Anderson died in 1941.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
This book is a letter from an aged father to his young son. The effect it has is quiet, like a sermon. The book follows the trail of the Ames Family, from grandfather to father to son to grandson. 3 of the 4 are preachers, and each has a different religious direction, for themselves and their flocks. The spirit moves each one differently.
One son to the grandfather of the story is an atheist, a source of disappointment and disbelief. But the ministerial son still feels love for his brother, despite his father’s judgment.
‘My father asked him to say grace. Edward cleared his throat and replied, “I am afraid I could not do that in good conscience, sir,” and the color drained out of my father’s face. I knew there had been letters I was not given to read, and there had been somber words between my parents. So this was the dreaded confirmations of their fears. My father said, “You have lived under this roof. You know the customs of your family. You might show some respect for them.” And Edward replied, and this was very wrong of him, “When I was a child, I thought as a child. Now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things.” My father left the table, my mother sat still in her chair with tears streaming down her face, and Edward passed me the potatoes. I had no idea what was expected of me, so I took some.’
The son’s preoccupation with aging and dying can seem despondent, but it is insightful. There is hope in it.
‘I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.’
Marilynne Robinson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Gilead in 2005.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
‘Black beauty was never celebrated in movies, in television, or in textbooks I’d seen as a child, Everyone of any import, from Jesus to George Washington, was white … History books spoke of black people only as sentimental ‘firsts’ — first black five-star general, first black congressman, first black mayor — always presented in the bemused manner of a category of Trivial Pursuit.’
This book is relevant and relentless. A letter to his son, Coates explores the question of what and how it means to be black in America, and more importantly, how being black has changed since emancipation. How does one protect oneself if they are black? Why does being black mean adding a layer of defense (and deference)? And how does one explain that to a child?
Coates’ most grievous example is when a white woman shoves his son. Immediately, he rises to his son’s defense with angry words, and immediately after that a group of white people gang up on him, threatening to have him arrested and thrown in jail.
‘More than any shame I feel about my own actual violence, my greatest regret was that in seeking to defend you I was, in fact, endangering you.’
The revolution has been moving glacially for the last 150 years, and every once in a while there is an outburst and a push for democracy. I used to think that only generational die-off would bring about a change in attitude, but now I think that once we all accept the dirty underseam of our country, that’s when change will happen. Maybe this time it’s really starting.
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
For this small classic, Steinbeck based his hero ‘Doc’ on the life and work of marine biologist Ed Ricketts. Besides detailing the work of marine sample collecting, the book includes all the interactions and connections with the locals of Cannery Row. A small town where everybody knows everybody else.
‘Early morning is a time of magic in Cannery Row. In the gray time after the light has come and before the sun has risen, the Row seems to hang suspended out of time in a silvery light. The street lights go out, and the weeds are a brilliant green. The corrugated iron of the canneries glows with the pearly lucence of platinum or old pewter. No automobiles are running then. The street is silent of progress and business. And the rush and drag of the waves can be heard as they splash in among the piles of the canneries. It is a time of great peace, a deserted time, a little era of rest.’
Doc is everyman’s hero, forbearing to his friends, and thoughtful:
‘It has always seemed strange to me, said Doc, the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism, self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second.’
Steinbeck and Ricketts sailed into the Gulf of California in 1940 to analyze the perils of dredging and overfishing. They were both (but especially Ricketts) environmentally aware of the devastation that was occurring to the water’s ecology. And they were decades before their time. Ricketts had documented the ecology of the intertidal pools in his 1939 book Between Pacific Tides, which is still used today by students of marine biology.
Steinbeck wrote his Log from the Sea of Cortez about his trip with Ricketts. I include the following quote from this book because of its simple elegance:
‘Our own interest lay in relationships of animal to animal. If one observes in this relational sense, it seems apparent that species are only commas in a sentence, that each species is at once the point and the base of a pyramid, that all life is relational to the point where an Einsteinian relativity seems to emerge. And then not only the meaning but the feeling about species grows misty. One merges into another, groups melt into ecological groups until the time when what we know as life meets and enters what we think of as non-life: barnacle and rock, rock and earth, earth and tree, tree and rain and air. And the units nestle into the whole and are inseparable from it. Then one can come back to the microscope and the tide pool and the aquarium. But the little animals are found to be changed, no longer set apart and alone. And it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things – plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.’
The U.S. Congress instigated the Coastal Zone Management Act in 1972 to address the problems of dredging and and to protect and preserve our coastlines and their ecological habitats.
Night by Elie Wiesel
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.
Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.
Elie Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. Link here to his Nobel acceptance speech.
The Living by Annie Dillard
This book about intertwined families and communities was written in 1992. The book follows the 19th century settling by whites in Washington. It is a hard existence, hard to get a toe hold, but community, no matter what tribe you’re from, is ready to help.
It reminded me of Faulkner, or Garcia Marquez, particularly with her treatment of time. It is epic in nature, and written fully. This, describing the northern coastline of Washington state:
‘This high, precarious latitude, and its snowy peaks visible from everywhere on the farm, and its heavy timber and blue light, overwhelmed Green Randall. The plants by the roadside bore white, smooth berries, or pink hairy ones, or thorned leaves or glossy ones, and looked, among the ferns and moss, like trial plants of the beginning world … Here in this extravagant country, here on this buckling edge of the world, he was sensible already of the days’ shortening, and the winter darkness bearing down.’
And, what always draws me to a writer, a touching on death. It’s always good to have the reminder that our days are numbered:
‘Death was ready to take people, of any size, always, and so was the broad earth ready to receive them. A child’s death was a heartbreak — but it was no outrage, no freak, nothing not in the contract, and not really early, just soon.’
Annie Dillard is a former writing professor.
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
Rilke’s responses are moving, mostly because he was motivated to help the student. Rilke had unsuccessfully attended the same military school that the student was currently attending. Rilke’s time at the academy was a devastating experience. He was abused physically and emotionally by his peers. He was not soldier strong and his artistic side was constantly being beaten down. He finally dropped out when he was 15 and then concentrated on becoming a poet and writer. He was just beginning to become popularly known when the student wrote to him.
‘Therefore, my dear sir, I know no advice for you save this: to go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create … The point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.’
This speaks to the pain that Rilke felt:
‘And if there is one thing more that I must say to you, it is this: Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. His life has much difficulty and sadness and remains far behind yours. Were it otherwise he would never have been able to find those words.’
I include a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke:
I Am Much Too Alone in This World, Yet Not Alone
I am much too alone in this world, yet not alone
to truly consecrate the hour.
I am much too small in this world, yet not small
to be to you just object and thing,
dark and smart.
I want my free will and want it accompanying
the path which leads to action;
and want during times that beg questions,
where something is up,
to be among those in the know,
or else be alone.
I want to mirror your image to its fullest perfection,
never be blind or too old
to uphold your weighty wavering reflection.
I want to unfold.
Nowhere I wish to stay crooked, bent;
for there I would be dishonest, untrue.
I want my conscience to be
true before you;
want to describe myself like a picture I observed
for a long time, one close up,
like a new word I learned and embraced,
like the everday jug,
like my mother’s face,
like a ship that carried me along
through the deadliest storm.
How to Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher
This is a book of economy, written during the midst of World War II, and gives helpful advice (and recipes) to cooks who are dealing with the slimness of their larders, and the inconsistencies of public utilities, not to mention the expense of grocery purchasing, due to war time rationing.
With chapter titles such as How to Boil Water, How to be Cheerful through Starving, How Not to Be an Earthworm, Fisher puts a neat spin on how the home cook can vary and expand a war-time diet. This, regarding chowder:
‘There is another well-worn controversy among chowder-lovers as to which is correct, the kind made with milk or the kind made with tomato and water. Long ago it may have been dependent on transportation and climate and so forth, so that in the winter when the cow was still fresh there was milk, and in the summer when the tomatoes were plump and heavy they were used…
Who knows? Furthermore, who cares? You should eat according to your own tastes, as much as possible, and, if you want to make a chowder with milk and tomato, and crackers and potatoes, do it, if the result pleases you…’
And every so often, Fisher brings her typical touch of her love affair with gastronomy. This remembrance, from her time in Switzerland:
‘One (recipe) I remember that we used to make, never earlier than two and never later than four in the morning, in a strange modernistic electric kitchen on the wine terraces between Lausanne and Montreux. We put cream and Worcestershire sauce into little casseroles, and heated them into bubbling. Then we broke eggs into them, turned off the current, and waited until they looked done, while we stood around drinking champagne with circles under our eyes and Viennese music in our heads. Then we ate the eggs with spoons, and went to bed.’
Here is Fisher’s splurge of a recipe for:
8 good fresh eggs
Half a pint rich cream…or more
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Grated cheese, herbs, whatnot, if desired
Break eggs gently into cold iron skillet. Pour cream in, and stir quietly until the whole is blended, but no more. Never beat or whip. Heat very slowly, stirring from the middle bottom in large curds, as seldom as possible. Never let bubble. Add seasoning at the last stir or two.
This takes perhaps a half hour. It cannot be hurried.
Serve on toast, when it is barely firm.
And the one vegetable that might save us all:
‘It is easy to think of potatoes, and fortunately for men who have not much money it is easy to think of them with a certain safety. Potatoes are one of the last things to disappear, in times of war, which is probably why they should not be forgotten in times of peace.’
Quick Potato Soup
1/4 pound good butter
4 large potatoes
4 large onions
2 quarts whole milk
Salt, pepper, minced parsley if agreeable
Melt the butter in large kettle, or in fireproof casserole in which the soup can be served. Grate the clean potatoes into it. (I like to leave them unpeeled, but the soup is not so pretty unless chopped fresh herbs, added at the last, change its natural whiteness enough to hide the bits of brown skin.) Grate the peeled onions into it, or slice them very thin. Heat the mixture to bubble-point, stirring well. Then reduce the heat, and cover closely for about ten minutes or until the vegetables are tender but not mushy, shaking the pot now and then to prevent sticking. Add more butter (or chicken fat) if it seems wise. Heat the milk to boiling point but not beyond, add slowly to the pot, season, and serve.
Though I got the shudders when Fisher mentioned cooking with canned cream of mushroom soup (too many flashbacks to the church fundraiser cookbook recipes), war time cooks didn’t have a lot of options. You had to do what you had to do, with what you had. Fresh food was not much of an option, unless you got it from your own back yard garden, be it through vegetables and/or small livestock. A recipe for Tomato Soup Cake? Hunger will change anyone’s opinions about any food oddity.
‘But in each one of them there is a basic thoughtfulness, a searching for the kernel in the nut, the bite in honest bread, the slow savor in a baked wished-for apple. It is this thoughtfulness that we must hold to, in peace or war, if we may continue to eat to live.’
With a hat off to all the churches, schools, and libraries that have published a fundraiser cookbook, here is a recipe from the Arthur Public Library’s Centennial Cookbook, 2001:
1 pkg. instant beef bouillon per serving
1 c. tomato juice per serving
Empty the bouillon into each cup. Add the spice or spices of your choice (red pepper, oregano, garlic salt). Heat the tomato juice to boiling; pour into each cup with the bouillon. Stir and serve.
My Struggle: Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard
My Struggle is a rough, humorous, and strangely mesmerizing read. Knausgaard wrote Book 1 in 2009 and followed it with five more volumes. Not just for that reason, Knausgaard is compared to Proust. No doubt, the epic nature of his 6 volume work mirrors Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. They both write of autobiographical events and shape them into a novel, or rather, multiple novels.
The book is not an autobiography, and Knausgaard states in an interview:
“I was never after representing episodes from my life, which an autobiography does but rather to search a life for meaning. My life was just the raw material.”
Abend, Lisa. “Norway’s Proust.” Time 183.21 (2014): 50-52. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Mar. 2016.
Recounting all the minutiae in a life. Why isn’t it boring to read? The language he uses is straight and to the point, nothing fancy, nothing that sings, and he recalls moments big and small and recalls them both in the same manner. Most of our days don’t sing. Most days are filled with physical or emotional difficulties, or with nothing at all. Same old, same old. To write of this in a direct manner and to keep the reader from putting the book down is a great accomplishment.
Here is Karl Ove, contemplating:
As I sit here writing this, I recognize that more than thirty years have passed. In the window before me I can vaguely make out the reflection of my face. Apart from one eye, which is glistening, and the area immediately beneath, which dimly reflects a little light, the whole of the left side is in shadow. Two deep furrows divide my forehead, one deep furrow intersects each cheek, all of them as if filled with darkness, and with the eyes staring and serious, and the corners of the mouth drooping, it is impossible not to consider this face gloomy.
What has engraved itself on my face?
You won’t read this book and have your breath taken away by his words, but you might have it taken away nonetheless. It is worth the read. On to Book 2.
Barefoot in Baghdad by Manal Omar
Omar is an idealist and works purposefully to help the women who are on the outskirts of Iraqi society. These are the widows, single mothers, the abused, the rape victims, any women that carry a stigma. It is difficult work in a male hierarchical society, not to mention a war zone. Her fellow workers in other aid organizations see the futility when Omar tries to see solutions. This from an orphanage director:
‘Manal, you need to understand that we are tired of fighting,’ Asma said. ‘That’s all I have been doing; it’s all my mother did. We don’t want to fight anymore. It doesn’t mean we have given up. Far from it. It just means we want to find a more peaceful way to live something that may resemble a normal life.’
During my six months in Iraq I had met with women from a wide range of backgrounds. Although their circumstances were different, they all had in common the fact that they wanted to share their stories. And a common thread in those stories, a thread repeated in almost all my interviews with Iraqi women across the county, was that idea. They were the words that bridged the gap between rich and poor, literate and illiterate, and ethnic and religious: ta’abna (we are tired) and malayna (we have had enough)…..My strategy was to remain focused on the individuals in front of me. I convinced myself that if I could help one, two, perhaps even ten women, then I had fulfilled my role. I had become so focused on maintaining an optimistic viewpoint that perhaps I had lost perspective.
When international aid workers began to be kidnapped and murdered in Iraq, then everything fell apart in terms of helping the Iraqis. Sides were drawn, between Sunni, Shia, and the occupying American forces. And the unrest kept growing until Omar became completely overwhelmed by it. There was no escape for those who lived there and it became impossible for Omar to lend a helping hand to them. Most depressingly, given the current state of affairs in the Middle East, are her following lines:
At the same time, the number of my Iraqi friends now settling in Amman began to increase. Even more of them headed to Syria. We all waited for the end of 2004 with the belief that 2005 would bring some new promise.
Manal Omar currently works for the United States Institute of Peace, Middle East and Africa branch.
Since this book was published in 2010 and Iraq and the surrounding countries have disintegrated under the rise of ISIS, here is a good way to keep up on your current events. The Salida Library offers a host of foreign policy periodicals you can read online through our Ebscohost databases, which are available with a quick login of your library card. Use the Academic Search Premier to find Foreign Affairs’ Nov/Dec 2015 issue which is dedicated to ‘The Post-American Middle East’ and Aaron David Miller’s article from American Foreign Policy Interests, ‘Gulliver’s Troubles: America in the Middle East’.
Mrs. Engels by Gavin McCrea
With Gavin McCrea’s first book, he has written the hell out of his main character. Lizzie Burns was the Irish-born common-law wife of Friedrich Engels, brought out of Engels’ industrial factory and into society life with zero training for it. It was survival of the fittest and the shrewdest for any woman, and Lizzie was ready for it. This is Lizzie:
Take warning. This is a changing world, we don’t know today what’ll happen tomorrow, and the man you go with will decide where you’re put, whether it’s on the top or on the bottom or where. The fine feelings love will bring won’t match the volume of problems a pauper will create … Love is a bygone idea; centuries worn. There’s things we can go without, and love is among them, bread and a warm hearth are not … Establish yourself in a decent situation and put away what you can, that, please God, one day you may need no man’s help. Take it and be content, then you’ll journey well.
McCrea does not paint a pleasant portrait of Marx or Engels in their treatment of women. This is Engels’ treatment of Lizzie’s sister:
No doubt he goes with other women — he’s been seen wandering alone down the District — and the thought of it makes her suffer, deep and miserable. He stays away for weeks on end. She sees him in the mill and pours all her hurt into her eyes, but he resists her willing and stays upstairs where he is. Then when it suits him, he appears again, raps his ashplant on the door, and goes to the end of the passage to wait. So strong is her wanting, she throws a shawl around her pain, and runs out.
But Lizzie gets it. After a rough and life-changing ordeal with an STD, she still sees the endgame of surviving in her world:
It’s men are at the bottom of every plague in this world. We come to the lock with this frontmost in our minds, and as we lie here stewing in our cures, and wondering if we’ll be next to go cripple, or walk off into fits, or turn so childish we’ve to be washed in bath chairs and given to drink with a spoon in a teacup, our knowledge turns to action: sometimes screams or fists but most often somber vows of chastity breathed out into the late-night miasmas … And we make the same vow the next night and every night after, till we’re told by some twist-whiskered pup that we’re saved and can likely leave in the morning … More than that, when we see them biding by the door to take us home, it’s Lucky me! we think. Lucky me to have such a morsel worrying after me!
The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett
This is a regional read, centered around island life off the coast of Maine. The narrator, a female writer taking retreat, remains unnamed throughout the story; she learns from the locals what a life lived sparsely can be. Jewett writes with a very basic realism of her characters lives. Here is the narrator at Joanna’s grave:
I drank at the spring, and thought that now and then some one would follow me from the busy, hard-worked, and simple-thoughted countryside of the mainland, which lay dim and dreamlike in the August haze, as Joanna must have watched it many a day. There was the world, and here was she with eternity well begun. In the life of each of us, I said to myself, there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the unaccompanied hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they may belong.
And a portrait of the local fishermen:
These ancient seafarers had houses and lands not outwardly different from other Dunnet Landing dwellings, and two of them were fathers of families, but their true dwelling places were the sea, and the stony beach that edged its familiar shore, and the fishhouses, where much salt brine from the mackerel kits had soaked the very timbers into a state of brown permanence and petrifaction. It had also affected the old fishermen’s hard complexions, until one fancied that when death claimed them it could only be with the aid, not of any slender modern dart, but the good serviceable harpoon of a seventeenth century woodcut.
Sarah Orne Jewett died in 1909.
J by Howard Jacobson
J is set in a dystopic, futuristic world, where WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED has happened. Ailinn and Kevern are misfits in a miserable world, and the community they live in is inhabited by brutality and melancholy. Social thought is tightly controlled, books are edited by those in power, and no one speaks of what did happen. Jacobson offers clues throughout. This from Ailinn:
At first Kevern thought it was his fault. He’d been tossing and turning, perhaps, or snoring, or crying out in the night, stopping her sleeping. But she told him she had always been like this — not morning grumpiness but a sort of species desolation, as though opening her eyes on a world in which no one of her sort existed.
And from her confidant, Esme:
Of the thoughts that flew at her, as the weeks passed, this last was the most persistent, skimming her cheek with its quilled wing, as though it wanted to scratch her into waking — we are poorer by what we took away.
It’s clear that a mass genocide has taken place. Were all complicit? Jacobson never tells the reader what ‘J’ stands for but it’s simple enough to deduce. There are passages throughout the book that recall pogroms. This quote from a character describing the mob mentality and subsequent murders from the time of WHAT HAPPENED.
I am who I am because I am not them — well, I was not alone in feeling that. We were all who we were because we were not them. So why did that translate into hate? I don’t know, but when everyone’s feeling the same thing it can appear to be reasonableness. Can you understand that? What everyone’s doing becomes a common duty. Besides, it wasn’t for me to play God. These people had their own God, I thought — let Him look after her.
Eventually, Ailinn and Kevern struggle with the truth and identity, and how to change the world they live in. But the changes come with a price.
I don’t hate myself either. But criticism rubs off. How could it be otherwise? Sometimes the glass through which others look at you tilts and you catch a little of what they see.
Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen
It’s easy enough to read through Ibsen’s play and think of Hedda Gabler, ‘What a dreadful woman’; harder still to empathize with her. For certain, Hedda is without conscience. She is jealous, conniving, and maneuvering. But Hedda lived in a time when women lived predetermined lives, boxed away into houses and made into mothers. Perhaps her only way to react to her situation (and her marriage to that dolt Tesman) is to be an aggressor and to be truthful to herself, everyone else be damned. Ibsen was a great feminist and gives this theory credence. And it’s important to note that the play is called Hedda Gabler, rather than Hedda Tesman.
Henrik Ibsen died in 1906.
The Haircut by Ring Lardner
One of Ring Lardner’s best known short stories, The Haircut is somewhat satirical, fairly dark, with plenty of vernacular thrown in. That’s Lardner’s style. You will be forced to become involved in the story. Was the character John Kendall murdered or did he die accidentally? And how many people were involved in a conspiracy if he was murdered? Is the barber a sympathetic character? He defends Kendall’s antisocial behavior, but is it all an act?
Here’s a taste:
It was a Saturday and the shop was full and Jim got up out of that chair and says, “Gentlemen, I got an important announcement to make. I been fired from my job.”
Well, they asked him if he was in earnest and he said he was and nobody could think of nothin’ to say till Jim finally broke the ice himself. He says, “I been sellin’ canned goods and now I’m canned goods myself.”
You see, the concern he’d been workin’ for was a factory that made canned goods. Over in Carterville. And now Jim said he was canned himself. He was certainly a card!
Ring Lardner died in 1933.
The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler
A book about water and the sea, drowning and not drowning, this book had enough entertainment and mystery to keep me going. And it’s leading character is a librarian, so how could I resist? Good summer read; enjoy.
This in reference to Amos, the character abandoned by his family and adopted by a traveling show:
People may live for a century without discovering the secret of vanishing. The boy found it because he was free to listen to the ground humming, the subtle moving of soil, and the breathing of water – a whisper barely discernible over the sound of a heartbeat. Water was the key. If he listened to its depth and measure and matched his breath to it, slowing his heart until it barely thumped, his slight brown frame would fade into the surrounding world. Had any watched, they would have seen a grubby boy turn sideways and vanish into the trees, becoming like a grain of sand – impossible to differentiate from the larger shore. Hunger, his enduring companion, was all that kept him certain that he lived.
And this, on the naming of the character Enola:
Once I learned about the atomic bomb I was never able to think of parents or my sister in quite the same light. I asked Dad about it once. His response was that Mom had ideas about reclaiming painful things; that if something terrible was made out of a beautiful thing there was an obligation to restore beauty; to reinstate meaning. The attempt with my sister failed; she exists like an explosion.
This House of Sky by Ivan Doig
This is Doig’s memoir about growing up in Montana with his widowed father. They kept their living by ranching cattle and sheep and there are many vivid scenes of the Montana landscape. It was hard living. Doig’s dad spent a lot of time in bars, and so, Doig did as well. Luckily, Doig’s grandmother came to live with them and kept them both sorted out.
The book reminded me a lot of Faulkner’s sketches of Yoknapatawpha County and there is actually a definition (fairly new) that describes this type of writing. James Shortridge called it ‘place-defining.’ These are ‘regional novels (that) provide concise statements of perceived regional values. As a group they suggest that the West has been dominated by the single, enduring image of youthful self-reliance; the Northeast by a set of small-scale characterizations; and the Midwest and South by more complex depictions of egalitarian pastoralism and cavalier society, respectively.’ Doig proves this. He and his family are strong and self-reliant, raised in and by Montana.
Ivan Doig died April 9th of this year.
Shortridge, J. (1991). The Concept of the Place-Defining Novel in American Popular Culture. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.0033-0124.1991.00280.x?journalCode=rtpg20
H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
Don’t let the primer title fool you. This is really well-written, and it will stay with you for a long time. It is one of those books that are worthy of being in your home library. Here are some passages:
I sat down, tired and content. The goshawks were gone, the sky blank. Time passed. The wavelength of light around me shortened. The day built itself. A sparrowhawk, light as a toy of balsa-wood and doped tissue-paper, zipped past at knee-level, kiting up over a bank of brambles and away into the trees. I watched it go, lost in recollection. This memory was candescent, irresistible.
She disappeared over a hedge slant-wise into nothing. It was as if she’d found a rent in the damp Gloucestershire air and slipped through it. That was the moment I kept replaying, over and over. That was the recurring dream. From then on, the hawk was inevitable.
What is she looking at? What is she thinking? I hear the click of the nictitating membrane that crosses her eyes as she blinks, and now I see them closely her eyes begin to disturb me. They look like discs of pale paper stuck to the side of her head, each with a hole-punched black pupil housed under a transparent dome like a bubble of water. The hawk is stranger than I’d thought.
And wisdom from a fellow falconer:
‘It’s simple. If you want a well-behaved goshawk, you just have to do one thing. Give ’em the opportunity to kill things. Kill as much as possible. Murder sorts them out.’
There is a hawk that has been breakfasting upon the birds that throng in our backyard. I’ve come to terms with it. It is a beautiful bird.
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
Though Hero and Claudio’s story is the main plot of the play, Beatrice and Benedick steal the show with their lively bantering, engaging in a war of words with each other. It’s elevated language, used by the master of all writers.
Beatrice: I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick. Nobody marks you.
Benedick: What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?
Beatrice: Is it possible Disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to Disdain if you come in her presence.
Benedick: Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted; and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart, for truly I love none.
Beatrice: A dear happiness to women! They would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of a humor for that. I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.
One of the better editions to read is the Pelican Shakespeare. It’s annotated well, with nicely written essays. And the library’s Overdrive digital catalog offers an audio copy of BBC Radio Shakespeare’s production of the play. Playwrights prefer their plays to be seen rather than read, but, in our time, it’s nice to read the play first to get the gist of the story, then watch (or listen) to the play being performed.
This week is National Library Week and the American Library Association has released its annual 2015 report on the state of American libraries. The top 10 frequently challenged books are listed in the report and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian gets the top honor of most challenged book in 2014. Included in the list are Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Satrapi’s Persepolis, Dugard’s A Stolen Life, and Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.
If there is one truth about humans, we all want the forbidden fruit. Adults who try to ban books create that forbidden fruit. In the immortal words of Evelyn Carnahan, ‘No harm ever came from reading a book.’ Happy National Library Week!
Want more? Here’s a partial listing from Books Under Fire by Pat R. Scales:
The Fighting Ground, by Avi
My Brother Sam is Dead, by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis
Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George
Summer of My German Soldier, by Bette Greene
Dead Man in Indian Creek, by Mary Downing Hahn
Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, by Jeff Kinney
The Giver, by Lois Lowry
Shiloh, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson
Harris and Me: A Summer Remembered, by Gary Paulsen
Mexican WhiteBoy, by Matt de la Pena
In Our Mothers’ House, by Patricia Polacco
Harry Potter series, by J. K. Rowling
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor
The Dirty Cowboy, by Amy Timberlake and illustrated by Adam Rex
Stuck in Neutral, by Terry Trueman
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie was born in Nigeria in 1977 and divides her time nowadays between Nigeria and the U.S.
Americanah centers on Ifemelu, a young Nigerian immigrant to the U.S. After living in America for some years, she learns what it is to be American and how to be American without losing her Nigerian identity. Race and racism (both subtle and obvious) are dominant themes in the book. The book is filled with great insights but what were particularly nice were Ifemelu’s blog postings, filled with sharp truths:
Understanding America for the Non-American Black: American Tribalism
In America, tribalism is alive and well, There are four kinds—class, ideology, region, and race. First, class. Pretty easy. Rich folk and poor folk.
Second, ideology, Liberals and conservatives. They don’t merely disagree on political issue, each side believes the other is evil. Intermarriage is discouraged and on the rare occasion that it happens, is considered remarkable.
Third, region. The North and the South. The two sides fought a civil war and tough stains from that war remain. The North looks down on the South while the South resents the North.
Finally, race. There’s a ladder of racial hierarchy in America. White is always on top, specifically White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, otherwise known as WASP, and the American Black is always on the bottom, and what’s in the middle depends on time and place…Americans assume that everyone will get their tribalism. But it takes a while to figure it all out. So in undergrad, we a had a visiting speaker and a classmate whispers to another, ‘Oh my God, he looks so Jewish,’ with a shudder…like Jewish was a bad thing. I didn’t get it. As far as I could see, the man was white, not much different from the classmate herself. Jewish to me was something vague, something biblical. You see, in America’s ladder of races, Jewish is white but also some rungs below white. A bit confusing…How can Americans tell who is Jewish?
The longer you are here, the more you start to get it.
For all the stern subject matter, it’s a funny book and easy to read. Enjoy it. And: Adichie’s book Half of a Yellow Sun is a Judy’s Shelf choice.
The Falcon : a narrative of the captivity and adventures of John Tanner
John Tanner was kidnapped by the Shawnee when he was 9 years old and was subsequently raised in an Ojibwe family. His narrative was published in 1830.
The book is straightforward, diary-fashion of day-to-day life. It could be a little banal but for the fact that his life was completely difficult. Tanner and his Ojibwe family were survivors and many, many days were spent looking for food and protecting themselves from the elements. And the struggles of alcoholism are present. When Tanner would bring in pelts to sell for goods, his mother, Net-no-kwa would inevitably sell some for alcohol to escape her situation.
Tanner became a guide in later years, which is how his story gained interest. He mysteriously disappeared in 1846.
The following scene is Tanner nearly succumbing to freezing weather:
‘Early one morning about mid-winter, I started an elk. I pursued until night, and almost overtaken him, but hope and strength failed me at the same time. What clothing I had on me, notwithstanding the extreme coldness of the weather, was drenched with sweat. It was not long after I turned towards home that I felt it stiffening about me…I was conscious I was somewhat frozen, before I arrived at the place where I had left our lodge standing in the morning, and it was now midnight. I knew it had been the old woman’s (Net-no-kwa) intention to move, and I knew where she would go, but I had not been informed she would go on that day. As I followed on their path, I soon ceased to suffer from cold, and felt that sleepy sensation which I knew preceded the last stage of weakness in such as die of cold. I redoubled my efforts, but with an entire consciousness of the danger of my situation, it was with no small difficulty that I could prevent myself from lying down. At length I lost all consciousness for some time, how long I cannot tell, and awaking as from a dream, I found I had been walking round and round in a small circle…After the return of my senses, I looked about to try to discover my path, but while I was looking, I discovered a light at a distance by which I directed my course. Once more, I lost my senses, but I did not fall down. If I had, I should never have got up again…’
This book is available for loan through Prospector.
Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia
This book was written in 1992 and feels an appropriate choice given the new revolution happening in Cuba right now. There are nice doses in the novel of Cuban life juxtaposed with American life, and typical of much Middle American writing, there are instances of magical realism.
Here are a couple of examples of Garcia fashioning her words:
‘If she had a son, she would leave Jorge and sail to Spain, to Granada. She would dance flamenco, her skirts whipping a thousand crimson lights. Her hands would be hummingbirds of hard black sounds, her feet supple against the floorboards of the night. She would drink whiskey with tourists, embroider histories flagrant with peril, stride through the darkness with nothing but a tambourine and too many carnations. One night, Gustavo Sierra de Armas would enter her club, walk onstage, and kiss her deeply to violent guitars.’
‘Celia remembers Felicia in another bathing suit, a tiny lemon-yellow one she wore the year the sea retreated beyond the horizon, the year the archaeology of the ocean floor revealed itself – catacombs of ancient coral, lunar rocks exposed to the sun. Felicia squatted, examining the shells as if they were unexpected gems, then rearranged them on the sand. Around her, neighbors scrambled with wooden buckets, looting the beach for stranded fish and crabs. The sun baked their footsteps hard as fossils. Then the tidal wave hit, wiping their traces from shore.’
The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell
William Maxwell, long-time editor at the New Yorker, wrote part time and did it well. He won numerous awards for his writing.
The Folded Leaf follows Lymie and Spud as they grow into men. Maxwell said, ‘the whole of my youth is in (The Folded Leaf).’ It is a nice account of the pain of growing up, the monotony of school, and the grating nature of living with one’s parents.
Maxwell’s concise language hits all the right notes and he places strategic little maxims throughout the book. Here is one:
‘to live in the world at all is to be committed to some kind of a journey’
‘It is always disturbing to pick up an acquaintance after several years. The person is bound to have changed, so that (in one way or another) you will have to deal with a stranger.’
and another great passage, in reference to the small talk that occurs at a cocktail party:
‘Everyone knew everyone else and it was a good deal like progressive whist, or some game like that, since it involved a frequent change of partners. You went to any group you felt like talking to. They opened automatically and amiably, and there you were, allowed to pick up the threads of the old conversation or start a new one.’
William Maxwell died in 2000.
link here to interview that includes Maxwell’s quote
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Of the 3 principal authors of American Lit in the 19th century (Hawthorne, Melville, Poe), Melville was the writer for everyman; Poe, the father of the mystery/horror, Hawthorne, the chronicler of puritanical America.
Some of the best writing in the entire book takes place in chapter 9, Father Mapple’s sermon. The book is worth the read, even if you only make it to chapter 9. You will feel like you have been churched.
‘Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters- four yarns- is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul Jonah’s deep sealine sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us, we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God.‘
The book turns through typical subject matter at times, characteristic of epic literature; the biology of whales, usage of oil, history of ships, sailing, whaling, among other points, while weaving in the storyline of Captain Ahab’s mental illness and his taking of the ship’s crew with him into his madness.
‘They think me mad–Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened!’
And how the whiteness of the whale can contribute to that madness:
And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues- every stately or lovely emblazoning- the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge- pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?
The hunt and gore of the whale slaughter can be a little intense. The anthropomorphization of whales in general (in the sense of practicing good or evil, rather than just exhibiting their whale nature) is an archaic tendency of writers back then, which may have been justification for some of the indiscriminate slaughter. The 19th c. reader would more readily relate to this book than a reader of our age, though it seems that Melville gives consideration to a future reader’s more sensitive ears.
Melville on the justification of the slaughter:
Though refusing, from conscientious scruples, to bear arms against land invaders, yet himself had illimitably invaded the Atlantic and Pacfic; and though a sworn foe to human bloodshed, yet had he in his straight-bodied coat, spilled tuns upon tuns of leviathan gore, How now in the contemplative evening of his days, the pious Bildad reconciled these things in the reminiscence, I do not know; but it did not seem to concern him much, and very probably he had long since come to the sage and sensible conclusion that a man’s religion is one thing, and this practical world quite another, This world pays dividends.
but then writing of the whale:
…how nobly it raises our conceit of the mighty, misty monster, to behold him solemly sailing through a calm tropical sea; his vast, mild head overhung by a canopy of vapour, engendered by his incommunicable contemplations, and that vapour–as you will sometimes see it–glorified by a rainbow, as if heaven itself had put its seal upon his thought.
You can download this amazing book from gutenberg.org here
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Satrapi’s autographic (or autobiographix or graphic memoir: the language is still being worked out) is a snapshot of what life was like in Iran before, during, and after the Islamic Revolution, with a historical overview thrown in.
This autographic is worth the read, though it’s difficult to see why Satrapi wishes to justify her country when so much injustice is happening there, in this century and the last. This is from the introduction:
‘Since then, this old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentlaism, fanaticism, and terrorism. As an Iranian who has lived more than half my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth…I believe that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists.’
The basis of the 1979 Islamic Revolution was Iran’s rejection of the Shah and his western-backed support. Ironically, the western education and influences that Satrapi’s family and other Iranians enjoyed during the Shah’s rule were now outlawed. With no benefit of hindsight, Iranians traded a puppet Shah for an extremist government. Iran became a male-dominated theocracy and women became subordinate to men. Women were not oppressed under the rule of the Shah.
Depressingly, not much has changed since the 1980s. Sure, living in Iran is great if you’re a guy and you don’t question authority. For a woman? Here is a case in point: wearing the hijab has become a symbol of oppression instead of a modest Islamic custom. In Iran, within the last month, four women had acid thrown at them for not following the strict dress code. Their attackers are still at large and little progress is being made to find them. Link here for the news article.
Cawdor by Robinson Jeffers
Educated in the classical tradition, Jeffers was a scholar and scientist, before settling on poetry for his living. He lived near Carmel, California and centered much of his poetry on the natural landscape around him. And these moments of natural beauty are what shine brightest in his work.
Jeffers based his narrative poem Cawdor on Euripides’ tragedy of Phaedra and Hippolytus; woman marries husband but falls in love with son. Before the requisite confusion can be resolved, Phaedra commits suicide and Hippolytus is killed. In Greek tragedy the gods are always inventing our doom: not so in Jeffers’ world:
‘…There is something within us knows our fates from the first, our ends from the very fountain; and we in our nights may overhear its knowledge by accident, all to no purpose…’
The backdrop of coastal California lends to the hardness and savagery of the poem. Life and death become intertwined and he moves with sure steps between the two. When describing the moments after death, Jeffers is particularly resonant:
‘…one might say the brain began to glow, with its own light, in the starless darkness under the dead bone sky; like bits of rotting wood on the floor of the night forest warm rains have soaked, you see them beside the path shine like vague eyes. So gently the dead man’s brain glowing by itself made and enjoyed its dream.’
As with all poetry, read it slowly, take it in. And if you are a fan of Cormac McCarthy, you will enjoy this poem. He was influenced by Jeffers work.
Our colleague TaAnna has just put together a shelf of her favorite reads. Check them out! They are located above Judy’s Shelf, right near the Front Desk.
Link here to get the complete list.
The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer
Recounting the AIDS epidemic in New York during the mid 80s, this play is fairly angry in tone but succeeds in getting the point across about the devastation the disease was inflicting on the gay population. Most of the characters are frustratingly weak in the face of the epidemic which I found a little disheartening. I thought of parallels today of the Ebola crisis and how many Americans are paranoid about any Ebola victims being brought into this country. It seems to be the age-old fear of the segregationist. Instead of studying the disease and trying to find a cure, many would still rather treat the victim as a pariah and closet them away. This can only keep us all in ignorance. Better to see each other as fellow humans and not just statistics or news items. This line from Kramer’s play sums it up (and any group that’s been ostracized can be substituted) :
The only way we’ll have real pride is when we
demand recognition of a culture that isn’t just sexual.
It’s all there – all through history we’ve been
there; but we have to claim it, and identify who was in
it, and articulate what’s in our minds and hearts and all
our creative contributions to this earth. And until we do
that, and until we organize ourselves block by neighbor
hood by city by state into a united visible community
that fights back, we’re doomed.
This play is also available in book form here
B. Traven’s The Night Visitor and Other Stories
‘The creative person should have no other biography than his works’.
Traven could be literature’s most overlooked author. His life was shrouded in mystery, with no information certain about his nation of origin. Possibly American by birth, Traven had many aliases. As Ret Marut, he was an actor and revolutionary in Germany in the early 20th century. After his arrests for printing inflammatory pamphlets, he fled to London, and then Mexico, where he settled in to writing as B. Traven. After the publication of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, he worked with director John Huston during the filming of the movie using the alias Hal Croves. A few of his other short stories were filmed during this time as well. Traven died in March of 1969.
Some of Traven’s writing reflects the literary style magic realism. Interestingly, he has never been tagged as a writer of this genre, it usually being applied to Latin American authors such as Garcia Marquez or Allende. In this case it appears that a writer’s close proximity to the land, regardless of birth, could affect his writing style, a nice testament to the style that is magic realism, which is infused with the myth and the history of the land. Perhaps the technique of magic realism infuses the writer, rather than the writer employing the technique.
Traven’s narrative flows well; he’s a good read. Try the cycle of ‘The Jungle Novels’ for a glimpse into the oppression of the Mexican people during and after the Mexican Revolution.
True At First Light by Ernest Hemingway
This book (part-memoir, part-fiction) has some glimpses of good writing in it, but could have used a few more rewrites. That said, it is based on Hemingway’s ‘Africa manuscript’ and was published 38 years after Hemingway’s death by his son, who edited the final product. There is another edition of the manuscript entitled Under Kilimanjaro (published in 2005 by different editors) which won a literary prize.
The book gives a good impression of life on the African plain, and the blood lust (and arrogance) that European-born hunters felt when on safari during the mid-20th century. The prose wanders and is long-winded at times, but does enough to maintain interest.
Whether Ernest Hemingway would have approved of its publication is up for debate.
The library will have displayed a World War I showcase through the rest of the summer. Our colleague, Annie Quinto, has generously given permission to let us show some of her grandfather’s memorabilia that he had from his time of service in this war. Display is located to the right of the circulation desk.
Link here to The Atlantic’s photo essay series by Alan Taylor.
Link here to CNN’s article about language and WWI by Jonathan Lighter.
This book won the Pulitzer Prize this year and seems to be on everyone’s ‘To Read’ list. The Washington Post’s book critic called it ‘disappointing.’ Do you agree?
Do American readers have a ‘lemming complex’ when it comes to reading certain books? Do you feel like you must read The Goldfinch?
Fair warning: this book has a waiting list at the library. Book club readers who have already read it and own it may consider donating their copy to the library.
The Double by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
link here for full text version
Feel free to comment as you read by using the ‘leave a comment’ button on right side of page.
link here to art historian and archaeologist Zainab Bahrani’s story:
And check out the library’s copy of A Universal History of the Destruction of Books by Fernando Baez