700th Anniversary of Dante’s Death

The great Italian poet Dante died 700 years ago and this year all of Italy is celebrating. In the spirit, the Uffizi Gallery has done something very special: 16th century artist Federico Zuccari drew images of the Divine Comedy which are in the museum’s care. This year, the Gallery has posted these beautiful images online for everyone to see. Here’s a sampling:

Charon, ferrying across sinners

Cerberus, the three-headed dog

The Forest of the Suicides

December Reading:

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez

Nature and wilderness writer Barry Lopez died on December 25th. His life work is a celebration of the natural world and how we interact with it. Arctic Dreams is one of his finest, but all of his work shines each as their own jewel, filled with light and beauty.

Arctic Dreams focuses on the nature of light and natural light. It is reminiscent of Melville’s musing on the color white, but it is wholly its own:

The evening slipped quietly away from both of us. Eventually, he went to wash his brushes, and I went to my room and lay down to think. If I were a painter, I, too, would be taken with the fullness and subtle quality of light here. You have the color balances from all twenty-four hours from which to choose, the sweeping lines of crisp desert vistas under huge prairie skies, and the rarefied air with which to work. Ice and water push the light up beneath cliffs and into other places where you would expect to find shadows, and back into the sky where it fills the air. At certain hours the land has the resolution of a polished diamond.

Arctic Dreams won the National Book Award in 1986. Link here to Lopez’s short essay ‘On the Purpose of Writing.’

November Reading:

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich

This book is a collection of interviews by Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich. Russians who lived through the Soviet period and its aftermath, relate their struggles amid the change from communism to authoritarianism. It can be instructive to anyone interested in what life is like in an authoritarian regime. And in this way, parallels can be drawn between present day Russia and the United States.

Though Americans may not have noticed because of other pressing matters, democracy is being fought for on the front lines of Belarus, in real time.  Belarus is a country on the border of Russia and has been fighting to remove a power-grab by Putin-supported Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years. Belarus is Europe’s only dictatorship and Lukashenko has publicly admitted to wanting a union with Russia. Thousands of Belarusians march weekly, protesting for a free and democratic country.

A democracy needs to be looked after and each generation that is brought up in a democratic society can’t afford complacency, but must stay frosty, and protect it against any authoritarian uprising. Democracy cannot be sold to the highest bidder, otherwise it becomes a shadow of itself, and ultimately will fail.

Svetlana Alexievich was recently interviewed in Der Spiegel, a German magazine. She spoke of the fight the Belarusians are currently undertaking. Here’s a link:

“I’m Horrified By What is Happening in Belarus.”

Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015.

October Reading:

The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson

Take a break from the doomscrolling to read something a little more cheerful. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the Body Snatcher in 1884, an account of the extremes that anatomy instructors would go to in the name of medical research:

“Somewhat as two vultures may swoop upon a dying lamb, Fettes and Macfarlane were to be let loose upon a grave in that green and quiet resting-place. The wife of a farmer, a woman who had lived for sixty years, and been known for nothing but good butter and a godly conversation, was to be rooted from her grave at midnight and carried, dead and naked, to that far-away city that she had always honoured with her Sunday’s best; the place beside her family was to be empty till the crack of doom; her innocent and almost venerable members to be exposed to that last curiosity of the anatomist.”

Stevenson is best remembered as a young adult adventure writer, but many noted writers, among them Henry James and Joseph Conrad, were influenced by his books. For certain, Kidnapped, is a tour de force.

Happy Halloween and here’s a link to Gutenberg: The Body Snatcher

September Reading:

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder begins his small volume with the aphorisms (playing off History never repeats, but it does rhyme): “History does not repeat, but it does instruct,” and “History can familiarize, and it can warn.”

This book is loaded with prime historical examples documenting the ladder of tyranny, most notably from the Nazi regime and then the corresponding Stalinist regime. It transitions into the current American timeline. A mentally lazy nation that believes in conspiracies over facts is doomed to fall:

“The habit of dwelling on victimhood dulls the impulse of self-correction. Since the nation is defined by its inherent virtue rather than by its future potential, politics becomes a discussion of good and evil rather than a discussion of possible solutions to real problems.”

Where does ethics stand in this? Britannica defines ethics as “the discipline concerned with what is morally good and bad and morally right and wrong … How should we live? Shall we aim at happiness or at knowledge, virtue, or the creation of beautiful objects? If we choose happiness, will it be our own or the happiness of all? And what of the more particular questions that face us: is it right to be dishonest in a good cause? Can we justify living in opulence while elsewhere in the world people are starving? … What are our obligations, if any, to the generations of humans who will come after us and to the nonhuman animals with whom we share the planet?”

The obligation of a nation is to each of its citizens, not a select few. Morally, the well-being of every citizen should be considered, otherwise the ethics of the nation has failed.

“We find it natural that we pay for a plumber or a mechanic, but demand our news for free … Why should we form our political judgment on the basis of zero investment? We get what we pay for.”

Snyder includes a book reading list, helpful to the reader to begin engaging and learning on their own, and as a defense against regurgitated internet news feeds or agenda-driven news media companies.

It’s important that none of us look away. Those in good conscience should be prepared to say No to what they deem is unjust.
We are each of us free to determine between right and wrong. An election is our voice in choosing right over wrong.

Check your voter registration here.

August Reading:

Nobody Will Tell You This But Me by Bess Kalb

Bess Kalb is a comedy writer, known for her work on the Jimmy Kimmel Show. This short memoir is a tribute to Bess’s grandmother Bobby, and is filled with memories of their lived history together. Bess and Bobby were devoted to each other. Longer vignettes of family history are weaved throughout the book. Inevitably, humor envelops the whole.

Here Bess receives sage wisdom about futility from Bobby:

Have I told you about your mother’s friend Lisa Belski? She was on her honeymoon in the South of France. And she and her new husband thought it would be a good idea to take a romantic ride on horseback through some vineyard or other. And they were riding along and your mother’s friend Lisa’s horse got spooked — who knows why? Maybe there was a bee! And the horse tossed her off and she landed on her head and she was paralyzed immediately. And then do you know what happened?

What happened?

Her husband abandoned her for a stewardess.

Even in death, Bess’s Bobby makes light of life and her family:

It’s a terrible thing to be dead. Oh, how boring. How maddening. Nothing to do. Nothing to read. No one to talk to. And everyone’s a mess … I never understood why they make the family shovel dirt onto you. What an awful thing. I appreciate you refused, Bessie. What’s next? They make the kids push the embalming fluid into my veins?

Bess Kalb is working on a screenplay for Nobody Will Tell You This and the film rights have been sold so expect a movie release in the near future.

July Reading:

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

Published in 1855, Walt Whitman reworked his masterpiece throughout his life. When Whitman died in 1892, the volume had developed from twelve poems to over 400.

Whitman wrote in the original preface: “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.”

Long, Too Long America

Long, too long America,

Traveling roads all even and peaceful you learn’d from joys and prosperity only,

But now, ah now, to learn from crises of anguish, advancing, grappling with direst fate and recoiling not,

And now to conceive and show to the world what your children en-masse really are,

(For who except myself has yet conceiv’d what your children en-masse really are?)

June Reading:

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

“Racist ideas have done their job on us. We have a hard time recognizing that racial discrimination is the sole cause of racial disparities in this country and in the world at large. I write we for a reason … I held racist notions of Black inferiority before researching and writing this book. Racist ideas are ideas. Anyone can produce them or consume them … anyone can express the idea that Black people are inferior, that something is wrong with Black people. Anyone can believe both racist and antiracist ideas, that certain things are wrong with Black people and other things are equal. Fooled by racist ideas, I did not fully realize that the only thing wrong with Black people is that we think something is wrong with Black people. I did not fully realize that the only thing extraordinary about White people is that they think something is extraordinary about White people.”

Stamped from the Beginning won the National Book Award in 2016.

Ibram X. Kendi’s selected essays