April is National Poetry Month

April Rain Song by Langston Hughes

Let the rain kiss you
Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops
Let the rain sing you a lullaby
The rain makes still pools on the sidewalk
The rain makes running pools in the gutter
The rain plays a little sleep song on our roof at night
And I love the rain.

Check out more poems at poemhunter.com

March Reading:

A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders

This classroom in a book is based on writing professor George Saunders’ Russian short story class. It is a master class of seven Russian short stories with analysis (before, during, &) after each one. Sometimes it takes a professor to demonstrate the genius behind a well-written story. To get the student, in this case, the reader, to exercise the critical thinking that’s needed to attend to a well-written short story. Have we all been reading underwater? With the professor’s insight, he gives the reader permission to critique.

“A story is a series of incremental pulses, each of which does something to us. Each puts us in a new place, relative to where we just were. Criticism is not some inscrutable, mysterious process. It’s just a matter of 1) noticing ourselves responding to a work of art, moment by moment, and 2) getting better at articulating that response.”

A book for those who want to get psyched to write well, or to read better.

Orwell: Politics and the English Language

Beware the agents of slovenly language. Orwell got it right when he published this essay in 1946.

“When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases … one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them … And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.”

Link here to read the entire essay: Politics and the English Language

And some trivia about his book 1984: It was banned in the USSR for being anti-communist and banned in the US for being pro-communist.

February Reading:

Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes, Through Darkness and Light by Caroline Eden

There are a myriad of ways to describe Caroline Eden’s delectable book: literary narrative, history textbook, travel memoir, and finally, cookbook. What most holds the reader’s attention are Eden’s descriptions of a decaying, romantic world as she circles around the Black Sea. This is something to fall into on a cold February day.

People have been flocking to the Black Sea for millennia, due to its location. The beaches of the sea touch a host of European countries, and over the centuries European rivers and ocean straits brought in a multitude of migrants. Subsequently, cultures have flourished and perished and the buildings offer proof. There is beauty in decay, and in towns well-lived. Here is Eden’s description of Odessa:

Pootling, rusty trams add a muted vibrational hum. In winter, when cold winds scud off the sea, turning the air to ice, these aged cartoonish streetcars, painted in childish yellows and blues, fill with women dressed in thick black fur coats. In summer, when the city sparkles with possibilities, like too-sweet Crimean champanski, the quavering cars swelter and seem to slow down, matching the pace of the city. Easing languidly around bends like slow-moving centipedes, through the heavily scented atmosphere. Dockside, the air smells of rust, tar, salt, brine, and diesel. Inland, the fragrance is gentler, of dust, unaired teahouses, and perfumy jam. Scents that catalogue memories, unchanged for decades.

The recipes in the book are simple enough, and the ingredient lists are achievable, even in our isolated community. A recipe for Jewish challah that Eden discovered at an Italian restaurant is included, along with fare influenced by the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and European cultures that passed through. A spicy strawberry recipe, modified from a dish Eden had in Istanbul, consists of chili, strawberries, sugar, lemon, yogurt, and cream cheese. Truly a beautiful blend of flavors.

Black Sea is available through Prospector here.

Caroline Eden’s latest book Red Sands: Reportage and Recipes Through Central Asia was released last November, and Samarkand is due to be released this autumn.

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.