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 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.