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.