May Reading:

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

April Reading:

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.

Camus continues:

“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.

It’s National Poetry Month!

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.

March Reading:

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

February Reading:

Declaration of Independence 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.

75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz

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.

auschwitz.org

ushmm.org

January Reading:

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
(d) Casals
(e) Mystification

“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.

December Reading:

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.

November Reading:

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.

The Incantation – Shakespeare’s MacBeth, Act IV, Scene I

A dark cave. In the middle, a boiling cauldron.
Thunder.
Enter the three Witches

FIRST WITCH
Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.

SECOND WITCH
Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined.

THIRD WITCH
Harpier cries “‘Tis time, ’tis time.”

FIRST WITCH
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.

ALL
Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

SECOND WITCH
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blindworm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

ALL
Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

THIRD WITCH
Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digged i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver’d in the moon’s eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.

ALL
Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

SECOND WITCH
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

[Enter Hecate, to the other three Witches]

HECATE
O well done! I commend your pains;
And every one shall share i’ the gains;
And now about the cauldron sing,
Live elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.

[Music and a song: ‘Black spirits,’ etc, Hecate retires]

SECOND WITCH
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Open, locks,
Whoever knocks!

Enter MacBeth.

October Reading:

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.

It’s Banned Books Week

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.

September Reading:

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.

July Reading:


W.B. Yeats

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?

June reading:

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.

May Reading:

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.

 

April Reading:

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

 

Listen, children:

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

its bitterness.

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.

The March Book Choice Is:

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 February Book Choice Is:

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.’

The January Book Choice Is:

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 December Book Choice Is:

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.

The November Book Choice Is:

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White

Neil White was incarcerated in 1999 at the federal prison in Carville, Louisiana for bank fraud and soon after found that the prisoners shared their low-security buildings with the only colony in America of patients suffering from leprosy. Carville had been established for over a century and was home to a large population when leprosy was more prevalent. As the medical community learned more about prevention and treatment, leprosy began to die out and thus, unused space at Carville became available. The state of Louisiana deemed it a federal prison in 1990 and began sending low-risk prisoners there. Most inmates believed there was some sort of government conspiracy going on, having to do with experiments and testing. But it was home for the leprosy patients.

“Initially, I couldn’t imagine why the federal government would decide to put inmates in the same facility as leprosy patients … But now I was beginning to realize what an insult it was to the leprosy patients. Despite how the inmates felt about it, for the patients, it was another slap in the face. That the federal government thought nothing of moving criminals into their home said a lot about their standing.”

White is an egocentric guy when he’s admitted. He learns his most valuable lesson at Carville from the leprosy patients, especially Ella, an 80-year-old patient who was admitted when she was 12, abandoned by her family (as all the patients have been). Ella teaches White empathy, and how to really see others. It’s a lesson to everyone: leprosy was once thought to be a contagion and sufferers were unduly removed from society’s eyes and abandoned by their families and communities. Today, we can replace the word leprosy with any other that emits an intolerant tone. Every era has its own prejudices.

The October Book Choice Is:

Autobiography of a  Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

This strange little book with the excellent title is a collection of short stories, each with an underlying layer of psychological creepiness. Here is a diagnosis of three:

In the Pupil begins with a man and woman in a newly formed relationship. But something odd happens: he sees his reflection in her eye: ‘It was then that I saw him, a tiny little man staring at me from out of her pupil, my Lilliputian likeness: He had already slipped in there. I smiled and nodded to him. He nodded politely back.’

Nothing unusual about this except that the little man is real:  ‘One day , as I was nearing my lips to hers, I looked into her eyes and I saw the little man look out from under her lashes and wave to me, then he turned on his heel and trotted away into her pupil.’

What follows is a strange telling of the room in his lover’s eye where her lovers are trapped, not as reflections, but as miniature representations of each.

In The Land of Nots, the narrator travels from his land where the ‘Ises’ live into where the ‘Nots’ live. It is a macabre negative reality as the narrator describes the social system, beliefs, and mythos of the Nots: ‘The succession of events in the head of a Not is as follows: first the soul, then a piece of dead flesh, then decaying detritus, and then, if one peers through the skull’s blind sockets, the Not reduced to naught.’

It becomes an existential question: ‘Imagine the Not’s surprise when out of the window he saw no world at all, as if the whole world, lambent with stars and sun, clad in green and azure, had fallen away, had come unstuck from the panes like a cheap paste-on picture washed off by the rain. Still clutching the cord, the scholar stared into the yawning darkness. There was absolutely no doubt: This was nothing, the most ordinary nothing.’

The Runaway Fingers, a strange little story about a concert pianist’s rebellious appendages, are eager for adventure. But first they need to break free:

‘With a desperate tug the fingers suddenly wrenched themselves free, hand and all, from the pianist’s cuff and jumped – diamond ring on the little finger glinting – down onto the floor. The parquet’s waxed wood struck their joints a painful blow, but the fingers, without missing a beat, picked themselves up and – mincing along on their pink shields of nails, vaulting high into the air with great arpeggio-like leaps – hared toward the hall’s exit.’

Because Krzhizhanovsky just didn’t fit the mold, his work was censored in Soviet Russia. His work was finally published in 1989.

 

The September Book Choice Is:

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee


This is a real meat and potatoes kind of book, and centers on one Korean family spanning the 20th century. Prejudice and racism, obstinance and perseverance, food culture and family life, and sacrifice, they all play a part here. Lee’s characters are torn between the logic of self-preservation and the beauty of an ideal. The conflict between these two themes is salt and peppered throughout the book.

During the first part of the 20th century, government corruption and mismanagement drove many Korean citizens out of their country. Many settled in Japan as strangers in a strange land and settled into a second-class tier. Japan became rife with racism and it became nearly impossible for a Korean to make any gains. The poverty is tangible:

‘At the crowded bar, men were drinking and making jokes, but there hadn’t been a soul in that squalid room — smelling of burnt dried squid and alcohol — who wasn’t worried about money and facing the terror of how he was supposed to take care of his family in this strange and difficult land.’

Japan was no Shangri-La for the Koreans. It is the real world, in all its hardship. ‘Save your family. Feed your belly. Pay attention, and be skeptical of the people in charge.’ More like survival of the fittest on steroids. But even the thought of fitting in was repellent to some Koreans: ’You think I’m an animal, Moazsu thought: Then I can be an animal and hurt you.’

A decent job or education are things that every person should have a right to. With resolve, and a striving for beauty in life, (‘Once tender-hearted people seemed wary and tough’) Lee’s characters make a concerted effort to break the chain.

The August Online Book Choice Is:

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans

“…this is a book about “sharecroppers,” and is written for all those who have a soft place in their hearts for the laughter and tears inherent in poverty viewed at a distance, and especially for those who can afford the retail price; in the hope that the reader will be edified, and may feel kindly disposed toward any well-thought-out liberal efforts to rectify the unpleasant situation down South, and will somewhat better and more guiltily appreciate the next good meal he eats…”

Thus, James Agee presents his theme for this masterpiece of Southern non-fiction. During the 1930s, documentary literature was a popular avenue for a writer to take. Writing of sorrows makes for a better read than happier fare, and there was plenty of sorrow to write about during the decade of the Great Depression.

Agee and photograph Walker Evans stayed a summer with three tenant families in Alabama, and found them hard-working but weighted down with day-to-day endurance, pushed down to Job-like living:

“Why is it things always seem to go against us? Why is it there can’t ever be any pleasure in living? I’m so tired it don’t seem like I ever could get rest enough. I’m as tired when I get up in the morning as I am when I lay down at night. Sometimes it seems like there wouldn’t never be no end to it, nor even a let-up. One year it’ll look like things was going to be pretty good; but you get a little bit of money saved, something always happens.”

The book reads poetically; Agee breaks into verse at times. He was influenced by the modernist lit movement, and particularly Joyce and Faulkner, memorable for that long, drawn-out written thought. At times, I felt I was reading Faulkner; I was just waiting on the word apotheosis to appear:

“and when the women are through, they may or may not come out too, with their dresses wet in front with the dishwashing and their hard hands softened and seamed as if withered with water, and sit a little while with the man or the men: and if they do, it is not for long, for everyone is much too tired, and has been awake and at work since daylight whitened a little behind the trees on the hill, and it is now very close to dark, with daylight scarcely more than a sort of tincture on the air, and this diminishing, and the loudening frogs, and the locusts, the crickets, and the birds of night, tentative, tuning, in that great realm of hazy and drowned dew, who shall so royally embroider the giant night’s fragrant cloud of earthshade…”

The writing continues uninterrupted from paragraph to paragraph. Almost, I wanted to add the second stress and read it as ‘drown-ed’ because the writing reads so much like poetry.

James Agee was tentative of writing of the sharecropper life and its hardships. He was convinced that Walker’s photographs should tell the story:

“If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement.”

The photographs that Walker Evans recorded for this book are available at the Library of Congress here:

http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003656560/

The July Online Book Choice Is:

Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson


This book is a complete study of Leonardo’s life. Isaacson examines Leonardo’s anatomy and engineering studies to his observations on architectural principles to his artistic greatness. Like Shakespeare as center of the canon, Leonardo was the archetype of artists. Each chapter is an in-depth examination and there are many. It’s an art history course rolled into one book.

The most wonderful thing about Da Vinci was his desire to always learn and to improve on what he did and could accomplish. He became the first artist to successfully use shadowing and chiaroscuro to create depth and fullness, essentially mimicking 3-dimensional objects. One of Da Vinci’s biographers noted:

‘The glory of being an artist, [Da Vinci] realized, was that reality should inform but not constrain.’


A major Da Vinci achievement was Vitruvian Man. Named for the Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, an engineer in Caesar’s army around 50 B.C.E., Vitruvius speculated that the perfect architectural building, or temple, could and should be the dimensions of a human male.

He wrote:

‘In a temple there ought to be harmony in the symmetrical relations of the different parts to the whole. In the human body, the central point is the navel. If a man is placed flat on his back, with his hands and feet extended, and a compass centered at his navel, his fingers and toes will touch the circumference of a circle thereby described, And just as the human body yields a circular outline, so too a square may be found from it. For if we measure the distance from the soles of the feet to the top of the head, and then apply that measure to the outstretched arms, the breadth will be found to be the same as the height, as in the case of a perfect square.’

Leonardo and his architect friends thought and worked together to come up with their own solutions to how this could be artistically and mathematically represented. And also how to combine the circles and planes into a geometrical perfection. Only Leonardo came up with  the symmetry of a perfect representation, the Vitruvian Man, who, it is speculated, is a self-portrait of Leonardo himself. And Leonardo improved on Vitruvius’s calculations, and made his drawing scientifically accurate; thus, perfect.

Isaacson writes of this perfection:

‘…He used delicate lines and careful shading to create a body of remarkable and unnecessary beauty. With its intense but intimate stare and the curls of hair that Leonardo loved to draw, his masterpiece weaves together the human and the divine.

The book is filled with these insights into Da Vinci’s artistry and his search for mathematic and architectural precision. You will be the better for it after reading it. Ready for my Da Vinci final now.

The June Online Book Choice Is:

A Drinking Life by Pete Hamill


Hamill grows up in a New York Irish ghetto in the middle part of the 20th century, surrounded by poverty and alcohol. His father is disabled, and soothes his depression with alcohol, which lends to hardships at home. Hamill learns early in his life about the bar scene, where his father his king:

‘One Sunday when I was almost eight, he said to me, Come on, McGee. I walked with him up to the corner and for the first time entered the tight, dark, amber-colored, wool-smelling world of a saloon. This one was called Gallagher’s … In that room, the men were jammed together at a high three-sided bar, talking, smoking, singing, laughing, and drinking. They drank beer. They drank whiskey. There was no television then, so they made their own entertainments … Hey Billy, give us a song! someone yelled. And then he started.’

Fortunately for Hamill, he relied on and learned from the wisdom of his mother. But the influence of his father and his environment overwhelmed him:

‘And so the pattern had begun, the template was cut. There was a celebration when you got drunk. There was a victory and you got drunk. It didn’t matter if other people saw you; they were doing the same thing. So if you were a man, there was nothing to hide. Part of being a man was to drink.’

Parts of the book are funny, funny in that characters revolve in a state of drunkenness; so, inevitably, sad. Hamill has a run-in with the law in Mexico:

‘And how did I get here? In the black closet, as I gazed at that sliver of light, the night played out in my mind. If I hadn’t gone to the party, or if nobody had cut in when I danced with Yolanda, or if I’d said no to Manny, said, Manny, I don’t want to go anywhere, if I’d gone home and read a book or made some pictures; if I’d had some money to bribe the cops; if. If, I said. If. I wondered what time it was too. What day. Wondered what my mother would think if she heard I was spending my life in a Mexican prison.’

Hamill eventually gave up drinking. His work as a New York city editor must have demanded it. His family was suffering from it. And the body will demand that costs be paid.

‘Much of my memory of those years is blurred, because drinking was now slicing holes in my consciousness. I never thought of myself as a drunk; I was, I thought, like many others — a drinker.’

The lines between alcoholism and social drinking and drinking for pleasure can be blurred as well.

The May Online Book Choice Is:

Fools Crow by James Welch


White Man’s Dog looked up at this hands. His grandfather had said those many winters ago that if you went to sleep with your palms out, the stars would come down to rest in them and you would be a powerful man. Many summer nights White Man’s Dog had tried to go to sleep this way, but his arms grew tired before the stars would come. He lowered his arms and rolled over. The fire was down to embers, glowing softly in the moonless night.

Fools Crow follows the path of a Blackfoot Indian, caught in the time between American Indian dominance of northern America, and the subsequent encroachment of whites.
White Man’s Dog (later Fools Crow) grows from an unremarkable boy of the Pikunis to become one of the tribe’s most successful warriors. But unlike his friends, he keeps things balanced between physical and spiritual, and recognizes the importance of the tribe’s medicine man, Mik-api. Good medicine can mean the difference between a successful or disastrous raid, and White Man’s Dog learns all he can from the Man-of-Many-Faces.

White Man’s Dog had given five of his best horse to Mik-api upon returning from the Crow raid. They had sweated together and prayed together, thanking the Above Ones for the young man’s return. White Man’s Dog thanked Mik-api and gave him a horsehair bridle he had made the previous winter. He left the old man’s lodge feeling pure and strong.

Besides hunting and living off the land, the Blackfeet know the importance of horse raiding, and counting coup against rival gangs by stealing their horses, which was a tribe’s wealth. They also battled to right wrongs. The Pikunis prepare for battle:

Eight sleeps later the men dismounted in a coulee not far from the camp of the Lone Eaters on the Two Medicine River. They put on their paints, their war medicine; then they painted the horses they chose to ride. White Man’s Dog drew yellow jagged stripes down his gray horse’s forelegs and yellow circles on each side of the horse’s rump. he had been thinking about these signs; from now on they would be part of his medicine.

Mysticism, almost a magic realism, is an important part of White Man’s Dog’s growth. He can contact spirit animals in his dream world. They teach him and bestow good medicine upon him. But it seems that no medicine will heal the rift between Anglos and Blackfeet. White Man’s Dog constantly puzzles over the fact that the Above Ones have left them. Should the Pikunis accept the inevitability of Anglo takeover? One of the book’s central questions: When is it right to fight for one’s land and way of life?

The men debate this question in the head chief’s lodge: One of the chiefs of the Lone Eaters band says this of the Anglos:

How long before they turn on the Lone Eaters and decide that we too are insects to be stepped on? Are we to go quietly to the Sand Hills, to tell our long-ago people that we welcomed death like cowards? That is not the way of the Pikunis. If we must go to the Shadowland, we will go with our heads high, our spirits content that we have fought the Napikwans [Anglos] to death.

And another chief laments their lack of action:

We would burn up their square houses and cause all trace of Napikwan to disappear. Our long-ago people would once again recognize this land. It shames me that they grow restless in the Sand Hills because their children do nothing … We have become a nothing-people.

James Welch wrote this as tribute to his Blackfeet ancestors. As part of the growing quilt of literature that makes this nation what it is, it should be on the short list for Great American Novel.

The April Online Book Choice Is:

Spy of the First Person by Sam Shepard


There are times when I can’t help thinking about the past. I know the present is the place to be. It’s always been the place to be. I know I’ve been recommended by very wise people to stay in the present as much as possible, but the past sometimes presents itself. The past doesn’t come as a whole. It always come in part.

This little book is classified as fiction, but it has a taste of autobiography about it. Sam Shepard wrote it, later dictated it to family members, as the disease that eventually took his life, took over.

One of the book’s central characters, an old man on a porch, is weakened and ill, but alert. He could be taken as a reflection of Sam himself. And this character takes on shades of another of the book’s characters, so much so that it’s difficult to ascertain who’s who. But maybe that’s the point. At times it seems like the old man is being observed by himself; sort of an out of body experience by himself.

To tell you the truth, I don’t know where he came from. I discovered him quite by accident. Bent backwards, gasping for air. One day I was sitting here much the same way as he’s sitting now, twiddling my thumbs, and I was looking out across the road and I saw this chair rocking back and forth and then I saw that somebody was in it. And there he was. He just appeared. I don’t know whether he rented or bought the house and then invited his people there or whether they were already there and he came to visit them or whether he’s on a short-term lease. I don’t know exactly. Sometimes people appear like that out of nowhere. They just appear and then they disappear. Very fast. Just like a photograph that emerges form a chemical bath.

The structure of the sentences have a hint of Gertrude Stein, short and repetitive. And it’s all in Sam’s slow, easy voice. A reconciling of becoming older and remembering the past.

I remember sometimes you would start whole stories. Sometimes paragraphs. Sometimes sentences with the word ‘sometimes.’ In other words not always but sometimes. In other words sometimes, not always. Sometimes this or that. Sometimes birds. Why birds, you would say. Why birds? Sometimes. Why color? Sometimes. Why … wind? Dogs? Sometimes it made complete sense to me. It made complete sense.

The March Online Book Choice Is:

Journalism by Joe Sacco

Joe Sacco specializes in journalism delivered in graphic format; i.e. comics. The book Journalism is a collection of his reporting from war-torn areas during the early part of the 20th century. Much of the book illustrates the racial and social disparateness between ethnic and intrusive populations. It is a visual representation of man’s inhumanity towards man.

The Chechen War/Chechen Women chapter shows firsthand the humanitarian crisis that issued from the Russian/Chechen conflict that appeared after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Chechen independence was quickly snuffed out by Russian forces and many Chechens were displaced from Chechnya.

Chechen men were slaughtered or disabled to the point that they could not provide for their families so Chechen women had to bear the brunt of making money and raising families, amidst extreme sickness and poverty. The refugees were moved to a neighboring Russian republic and set up in tent camps, or any abandoned place, factories mainly, and lived in subhuman conditions. The despair and hopelessness lifts off the page:

After the wars in the 90s, small bands of Chechen rebels terrorized Russia. There are still displaced Chechens today.

    


Besides the Chechen wars, Sacco also treats with the migration of African refugees into Europe, and the political crisis that is born from a new people populating a new place. He points his pen towards Malta, a small nation that has been flooded with African immigrants. The racial tensions are striking, and are still occurring in Europe today and also now, in America.

Joe was interviewed and asked about the process he uses to tell his story:

‘It’s important to show what’s going on in the field when you are there because you are usually a foreigner, an outside element. That interaction between the outside element and the people who actually live there is very interesting. I never understood why that’s left out of journalistic accounts. You can observe a people, or a group as an outsider and you’re looking at their interactions, but the fact that you’re there you are leaving a footprint and their interaction, even amongst each other, might be different because you’re there.’

The February Online Book Choice Is:

Spring Storm by Tennessee Williams


This is one of Tennessee Williams’ forgotten plays. It failed to be produced either as a movie or a play, so Williams hid it away in his mom’s basement (and then at a university) for about 60 years until it was finally rediscovered in the 90s.

All the typical Southern themes are here: decay and stagnancy of the Old South, family and lineage, the sense of isolation between young and old, and more broadly, social changes in the post WWII South. These are depicted mainly with the sexual attractions/loathings between the 4 main characters.

One of these characters, Hertha, plays a minor role, but her presence is central to the development of the play. It is Hertha who fully understands her place and her inability to rise above her station. She is ‘The Storybook Lady’ and works at the local library:

Hertha: The Storybook Lady — that’s me! Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings, ten o’clock at the Carnegie Public Library.

The irony is she is surrounded by books, stories, that engage the imagination, but she cannot get away. Here is Hertha dreaming:

Hertha: Sometimes I wonder if anybody’s ever gone anyplace — or do we always just go back to where we started? — I guess there’s something significant about the fact that the world is round and all the planets are round and all of them are going round and round the sun! The whole damned universe seems to be laid out on a more or less elliptical plan. But I can’t get used to it, Arthur. I can’t adjust myself to it like you’re doing. You see I can’t get over the idea that it might be possible for somebody — sometime — somewhere — to follow a straight line upwards and get some place that nobody’s ever been yet!

The characters Heavenly and Dick love and fight their way to their relationship’s conclusion. Dick is an honest character, but too infatuated with Heavenly to act, though he does give her hints about their relationship’s immaterial nature:

Heavenly: Still watchin’ the river?
Dick: Sure.
Heavenly: Can’t I compete with the river?
Dick: Not right now.
Heavenly: Why not?
Dick: It’s goin’ somewhere.

Heavenly knows that Dick isn’t anything special either. She tries vainly to mold Dick into what she wants him to be:

Mrs. Lamphrey: Richard is such a nice boy. I don’t blame you Heavenly.
Heavenly: For what?
Mrs. Lamphrey: For finding him irresistible. He has that — that sort of — primitive masculinity that’s enough to make a girl lose her head!
Heavenly: Oh, I think I’ve kept mine.

Tennessee Williams places a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay within his play. All four of his main characters could have recited it but he gives the honor to Hertha. And being a librarian, it makes the most sense:

Hertha: This book? There’s nothing sordid about this book, Mrs. Kramer — Nothing whatsoever!
Mrs. Kramer: Oh, isn’t there? I always consult Reverend Hooker about my child’s reading matter —When I showed him this book he turned directly to this passage and asked me if it was the sort of thing I wanted my child’s mind infected with — here it is —

‘What lips my lips have kissed, and where and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning —’

Hertha: You can’t read it like that, Mrs. Kramer!
Mrs. K.: No?

Hertha:

‘What lips my lips have kissed, and where and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply:

And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.’

[She fixes her eyes on Mrs. Kramer and recites the rest of the poem from memory.]

‘Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone;
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.’

– Now don’t you like it better?

Mrs. K.: No, I think it’s outrageous. Next time Dorothea wants a book, please give her one of the Alcott series.

The January Online Book Choice Is:

Time Was Soft There by Jeremy Mercer


‘For the better part of a century, an English bookstore by the name of Shakespeare and Company has served as a haven for artists, writers, and other wayward souls of Paris.’

The setting of Shakespeare and Company is presided over by then-octogenarian George Whitman, owner and king of his bookstore, which is a notable spot for the foreign tourist. Shakespeare and Company is a destination in travel guides and bibliophiles are very welcome. In this store, there are books in every nook and cranny.

George lets his poverty-stricken employees live at the store for free (there are beds in some rooms of the store along with bookshelves), as long as they work a bit selling books, and more importantly, as long as they are writing and reading. The literary pursuit is the most noble profession. George Whitman declared: ‘Not reading is worse than not knowing how to read.’

George opened Shakespeare and Company in 1951 and the expatriate crowd were frequently seen there. Notable writers drifted in and out: Richard Wright, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Samuel Beckett, and William Burroughs being just a sampling. Jeremy and his fellow employees were the latest in this long lineage. And Jeremy recalls his luck at finding Shakespeare and Company when he was feeling desperate:

‘In a place like Paris, the air is so thick with dreams they clog the streets and take all the good tables at the cafes. Poets and writers, models and designers, painters and sculptors, actors and directors, lovers and escapists, they flock to the City of Lights. That night at Polly’s, the table spilled over with the rapture of pilgrims who have found their temple. That night, among new friends and safe at Shakespeare and Company, I felt it too.’

At Shakespeare and Company, the dankness of the residents/employees who have no shower facilities along with the books of varying age and the bustle of Paris rolling in day after day, the store is a little earthy. But poverty can be a minuscule problem when one is surrounded by friends and Jeremy learns the cheapest way to get by in Paris. And once a week George serves a communal meal for his employees:

‘The food did smell appetizing, but I was slightly distressed by the state of the kitchen. Along with the dried cockroach husks I had seen the day of the tea party, there were now several live ones scurrying among the sticky jars and empty tins. — ‘Aren’t those a problem?’ I worried over George’s shoulder. — ‘Bahh, they’re nothing,’ he scoffed, and tried to swat a roach or two into the potatoes. ‘More protein for us. Don’t you like protein?’

Regardless of the living conditions, Jeremy is surrounded by books, and is taken care of by his friends. And throughout the book, George always, notably, argues his communist point of view.

‘People all tell me they work too much, that they need to make more money,” George told me. ‘What’s the point? Why not live on as little as possible and then spend your time with your family or reading Tolstoy or running a bookstore? It doesn’t make any sense.’

George Whitman died in 2011 at the age of 98.

The December Online Book Choice Is:

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro


‘Memory, I realize, can be an unreliable thing; often it is heavily coloured by the circumstances in which one remembers, and no doubt this applies to certain of the recollections I have gathered here.’

The narrative of this book hops between post-WWII Japan to England, past to present. It is intentionally disorienting, which is significant for plot development. And there is an underlying thread of horror that pervades the novel. Etsuko and her relationship with Sachiko is a strange one. Sachiko is a mysterious character. With her daughter Mariko, she is living on the tattered edges of post-War Japan and barely making it. Her relationship with her daughter is distant.

The 20th century themes are all here: psychological ambiguities, culture clash, generational conflict, and ghosts from the past; the weight of the past and also hiding from it. For most of the characters, hands are tied, they can’t seem to make a human connection to each other. Remembering, listening, knowing, are all placed in a sort of fog.

The only break from all the strangeness is Etsuko’s close relationship with her father-in-law. Interestingly, by the end of the book there is no difference between Ogata-san’s words and Etsuko’s.

And at the end, the characters Etsuko and Sachiko collide. It is evident that some sort of mental block on the part of Etsuko has been lifted. And it is significant that the definition of the name Mariko means ‘genuine child’.

Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017.