George Lakoff and Mark Johnson: Metaphors We Live By (UCP, 1980/2003)

We are concerned primarily with how people understand their experiences. We view language as providing data that can lead to general principles of understanding. The general principles involve whole systems of concepts rather than individual words or individual concepts. We have found that such principles are often metaphoric in nature and involve understanding one kind of experience in terms of another kind of experience.
…Definitions for a concept are seen as characterizing the things that are inherent in the concept itself. We, on the other hand, are concerned with how human beings get a handle on the concept – how they understand it and function in terms of it. Madness and journeys give us handles on the concept of love, and food gives us handle on the concept of an idea.

Any time I read anything about language, whether it’s from a literary or neuroscience or psychosocial point of view, I’m enthralled. This book, or at least excerpts from it, was on several reading lists when I concentrated in linguistics as an undergrad; revisiting it now has been incredibly exciting, since all these years later I have come across other facets that fit into the outlined concepts. Two caveats: I did a recreational read, as opposed to a serious academic read; and in the 40 years since this book was published, many of the concepts have been refined, expanded, or qualified. But damn, it was fun anyway. I need to do this more often.

Key to the theory: metaphors, the handles that help us understand more abstract concepts, emerge from our physical and cultural experience. This implies that different cultures would have different metaphors. The opening salvo of the text was the example ARGUMENT IS WAR (see what I did there? The book is, after all, an argument for a theory). He shows how elements of combat, clear in a personal argument (intimidation, threat, appeal to authority) also show up in what he calls rational argument, such as a formal debate or academic panel, because a great many cultures find the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor fits. Imagine a world in which an argument is experienced differently: ARGUMENT IS EDUCATION, or AFFECTION, or COOPERATION. Imagine Twitter in such a world. Hard to do, isn’t it?

I found certain aspects downright exciting, mostly because they brought in concepts I’d seen in other contexts, usually moocs (how did I read before moocs?). One is the rather obvious CLOSENESS IS STRENGTH OF EFFECT, which barely deserves mention in the real world. Of course we feel warmer sitting next to a fire than if we sit in the next room. But apply it to syntax, and things get interesting.

There is a rule in English, sometimes called negative transportation, which has the effect of placing the negative further away from the predicate it logically negates; for example,
Mary doesn’t think he’ll leave until tomorrow.
Here n’t logically negates leave rather than think. This sentence has roughly the same meaning as
Mary thinks he won’t leave until tomorrow.
Except that in the first sentence, where the negative is FURTHER AWAY from leave, it has a WEAKER negative force. In the second sentence, where the negative is CLOSER, the force of negation is STRONGER.

Lakoff extends that beyond negation. Examples in this section include “I found that the chair was comfortable” vs “I found the chair comfortable.” The first sentence could apply if I looked up product reviews and saw that most people said it was a comfortable chair (or, in the 80s, asked people if it was comfortable) whereas the second strongly implies that I sat in the chair and judged it comfortable. “I taught Greek to Harry” and “I taught Harry Greek” show the same pattern: the first sentence allows some wiggle room (I might have taught Greek to Harry, but I’m not saying he learned it).

In summary, in all these cases a difference in form indicates a subtle difference in meaning. Just what subtle differences are is given by the metaphor CLOSENESS IS STRENGTH OF EFFECT, where CLOSENESS applies to elements of syntax of the sentence, while STRENGTH OF EFFECT applies to the meaning of the sentence. …
The subtle shades of meaning that we see in the examples above are thus the consequences not of special rules of English but of a metaphor that is in our conceptual system applying naturally to the form of the language.

This allows for all sorts of artful dodging on the part of politicians and salespeople. Or, if you want to be more upbeat about it, go see Arrival again, with this on a post-it: “Because we conceptualize linguistic form in spatial terms, it is possible for certain spatial metaphors to apply directly to the form of a sentence, as we conceive of it spatially.” Lakoff uses this to propose that true paraphrase is impossible, since changing anything about a sentence – even word order – changes the meaning, if only in very subtle ways. If paraphrase is impossible, translation is well beyond the pale. And yet we go for it.

Position, in various ways, shows up again and again in these examples. Some of them stem from the canonical person:

The canonical person forms a conceptual reference point, and an enormous number of concepts in our conceptual system are oriented with respect to whether or not they are similar to the properties of the prototypical person. Since people typically function in an upright position, see and move frontward, spend most of their time performing actions, and view themselves as being basically good, we have a basis in our experience for viewing ourselves as more UP than DOWN, more FRONT than BACK, more ACTIVE than PASSIVE, more GOOD than BAD. Since we are where we are and exist in the present, we conceive of ourselves as being HERE rather than THERE, and NOW rather than THEN. This determines what Cooper and Ross call the ME-FIRST orientation: up, FRONT, ACTIVE, GOOD, HERE, and NOW are all oriented toward the canonical person; DOWN, BACK-WARD, PASSIVE, BAD, THERE, and THEN are all oriented away from the canonical person.

This affects word order: we say up and down, good and bad, and the other pairs, in those orders, me-first, unless there’s a reason to reverse them. And previously this preponderance of being upright when healthy brought us to the GOOD IS UP, HAPPY IS UP metaphors: my spirits rose, cheer up, things are looking up, etc.

One of those, UNKNOWN IS UP (something uncertain is up in the air) has all kinds of interesting consequences, even though it’s in conflict with GOOD IS UP, and I admit I’m a bit confused, since an explanation or resolution seems absent. Nevertheless, it matches with the rising intonation of a question (in English; hey, I’m having enough trouble without bringing Mandarin and other tonal languages into things).

And it also matches with one of my other favorite topics: maps! All this GOOD IS UP stuff reminded me of the convention of putting north at the top of a map. So I went poking around and verified that NORTH IS UP is a fairly recent convention, one I thought might be related to mapmakers living in the northern hemisphere using the North Star for orientation and various measurements, and the UC-Santa Barbara Geography department seems to more or less agree with me. But maybe not. Map historian Jerry Brotton of Queen Mary University in London explains explains it differently: in Christian medieval maps, east was often at the top, as, for example, in the oft-seen T-O pattern. Early Islamic maps put south at the top. Chinese maps did indeed put north up. “In Chinese culture the Emperor looks south because it’s where the winds come from, it’s a good direction. North is not very good but you are in a position of subjection to the emperor, so you look up to him”. That’s some cool cultural positional orientation right there. It was Mercator who pretty much sealed the deal on north being at the top, and Brotton considers that to have been an arbitrary choice.

But we’re just getting started on position. Lakoff describes how we typically see a frontless object as facing us, meaning if a ball is between me and a tree, I think of the ball as being in front of the tree. But that isn’t universal. He cites the Hausa, a Nigerian ethnic group, as seeing the ball behind the tree; it’s as if the tree inherits my orientation (that’s my interpretation; Lakoff would come up with a much better metaphor, I’m sure) and is, like me, facing forward, which means its back is towards me, and the ball. This brought to mind egocentric vs geocentric frames of reference, a concept I picked up from (guess what) another mooc, in which a neuroscientist brought in Lakoff. By the way, the book includes an afterword from 2003 which includes some neuroscience, particularly how the brain maps space. Don’t you just love it when everything comes together?

Another really exciting idea, one completely new to me (unless I forgot about it, a not-unlikely possibility) is what Lakoff calls AN INSTRUMENT IS A COMPANION – not a musical instrument (though it might be) but an instrument as a kind of tool. He gives the examples of naming cars, guns, and, indeed, musical instruments, and/or referring to them as travelling companions, participants in the journey rather than mere things: “Me and my old Chevy”. This leads to the observation that, in English, the word “with” indicates both accompaniment (“I went to the movies with Sally”) and instrumentality (“I cut the salami with a knife”).

But given the fact that with indicates ACCOMPANIMENT in English, it is no accident that with also indicates INSTRUMENTALITY….
The reason that this is not arbitrary is that our conceptual system is structured by the metaphor AN INSTRUMENT IS A COMPANION. It is a systematic, not an accidental, fact about English that the same word that indicates ACCOMPANIMENT also indicates INSTRUMENTALITY.
This grammatical fact about English is coherent with the conceptual system of English.
As it happens, this is not merely a fact about English. With few exceptions, the following principle holds in all the languages of the world:
The word or grammatical device that indicates ACCOMPANIMENT also indicates INSTRUMENTALITY.
….Where the INSTRUMENT IS A COMPANION coherence does not appear in a language, it is common for some other conceptual coherence to appear in its place. Thus, there are languages where INSTRUMENT is indicated by a form of the verb use or where ACCOMPANIMENT is indicated by the word for and. These are other, nonmetaphorical, ways in which form may be coherent with content.

I was immediately frustrated that he didn’t indicate the languages that are the exceptions, or give better examples, so I went looking for more detail – and found a surprise (Google is a wonderful thing). In 1997 one Thomas Stoltz, professor of linguistics at the University of Bremen, apparently also went looking to quantify Lakoff’s statement:

However, the large-scale comparison of 323 languages has yielded a completely different result. Contrary to the supposed universal status of the above syncretistic pattern, two thirds of the languages in our sample distinguish between comitative and instrumental by formal, ie, morphological means (Stoltz 1997:127).
…As a matter of fact, coherent languages cluster in Europe whereas incoherent languages are by far more frequent outside Europe (Stoltz 1997:130)

Thomas Stolz, “On Circum-Baltic instrumentals and comitatives” from The Circum-Baltic Languages: Grammar and typology, edited by Östen Dahl, Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm

I would guess that, since 1987, even more research has been done, and somewhere there’s a detailed exposition of which languages do what. If I kept diving down this rabbit hole, I’d never get to another book, so at some point I have to accept that everything is asterisked and move on. But it’s still fascinating to me, how language works.

Much of the book, particularly the early chapters, lay down a framework to hold all these theories together. There’s also a section towards the end on truth, which he roughly subdivides into three camps: objectivist, subjectivist, and experientialist, which combines elements of the other two. The analysis of the limitations of LABOR IS A RESOURCE is politically relevant right now. And there’s a chapter on metaphor creating new meaning which includes an anecdote that’s completely charmed me:

An Iranian student, shortly after his arrival in Berkeley, took a seminar on metaphor from one of us. Among the wondrous things that he found in Berkeley was an expression that he had heard over and over and understood as a beautifully sane metaphor. The expression was “the solution of my problems “ – which he took to be a large volume of liquid, bubbling and smoking, containing all of your problems, either dissolved or in the form of precipitates, with catalysts constantly dissolving some problems (for the time being ) and precipitating out others. He was terribly disillusioned to find that to the residence of Berkeley had no such chemical metaphor in mind. And well he might be, for the chemical metaphor is both beautiful and insightful. It gives us a view of problems as things that never disappear utterly and that cannot be solved once and for all. All of your problems are always present, only they may be dissolved and in solution, or they may be in solid form. The best you can hope for is to find a catalyst that will make one problem dissolve without making another one precipitate out.

Reading a 1980 book in 2019 is sometimes weird. There are lots of references to Jimmy Carter, the energy crisis, and inflation, all of which seem slightly off-key as we’re reinterpreting these things in more contemporaneous terms. Oh, and Pete Rose, pre-scandal. As were so many back then. There are passages that seem prescient: “Communication theories based on the conduit metaphor turn from the pathetic to the evil when they are employed indiscriminately on a large scale, say, in government surveillance or computerized files.…When a society lives by the conduit metaphor on a large scale, misunderstanding, persecution, and much worse are the likely products.”

It’s been a very long time since I read a real academic work on language. So why now? Back in April of 2014 – five years ago, which is a lot longer in confused-old-lady time – I took a Futurelearn mooc about Cognitive Poetics taught by Peter Stockwell out of the University of Nottingham. I’d just started moocing; as became my habit, I followed him on Twitter. This May, he tweeted something that caught my attention: one of the books that was most significant to him was this very text. This was just a day after I posted my reading list for this summer, but I realized just how long it had been and got a hankering to trip down Memory Lane, so I added it. Prof. Stockwell has his own book on Cognitive Poetics in the process of publication; I’m considering this a sort of warm-up, and boy, was it fun.

John Urschel and Louisa Thomas, Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football (Penguin, 2019)

I am a mathematician, a PhD candidate at MIT.
I am also a former professional football player, a retired offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens.
Many people see me as a walking contradiction. They think that the pursuit of excellence in football makes the pursuit of excellence in mathematics impossible. They think that a strong interest in one makes a strong interest in the other improbable.…
I don’t spend a lot of time wondering about the ways in which I’m an anomaly. My life is the only one I know. It’s normal to me. We all have multiple and diverging identities. In different ways, math and football are both essential to me.

I’ll admit, I see football and math – at least, when done at the high levels like the NFL and an MIT doctorate – as an improbable pairing. It’s not that an interest or talent in one would preclude interest and ability in the other; it’s the time and focus needed to reach the NFL or MIT. Urschel managed to pull it off, then wrote a book describing his journey so far.

Don’t expect to find an easy secret; there isn’t one. Urschel points to two innate characteristics that helped: his ability to compartmentalize – to focus on football during football time and to focus on math during math time – and his work ethic. I’d add to that a passion for both fields, which includes curiosity, a need to go beyond showing up for class or practice whether it’s reading extra books or observe expert players and put in the extra work to fully understand or develop skill. I don’t know much about how football players talk about football, but I know a little about how mathematicians talk about math (at least, publicly) and he talks about math like a mathematician. I can only assume football players will see the same feature in his description of practice and games.

I’m sometimes asked about the connection between math and football. People want to know what edge being good in a classroom gave me on the field. I know what they want to hear, and I usually give it to them. I talk about basic physics, intelligence, and problem solving. But the truth is, football and math or disjoint in my experience. When the ball is snapped, I’m not thinking about vectors and forces. I’m not really thinking about much of anything. I’m simply moving.
Math gives me a way of making sense of the world. It helps me see past the confusion of everyday life and glimpse the underlying structures of the universe. It reveals the properties of shapes and the prevalence of patterns. It describes the relationships between things. I’m drawn to the rigor and clarity of mathematics, and to the elegance and simplicity of solutions to even the most complex problems. …
Football put me in contact with something messier, something elemental and deep within me. Its strength and not only my body, but also my confidence and will. …I never had as much raw athletic talent as a lot of the guys I played with and against. I relied on my intensity and competitiveness and desire.

I smiled when I read this. It comes from years of algebra and calculus teachers trying to find ways to make math interesting or engaging to their students, while teaching calculation techniques and assigning twelve differentiation problems that are boring as snot. So they bring in, as Vi Hart has said, shopping and sports, because kids love shopping and sports so of course they’ll be interested in how the path of a ball can be predicted from starting speed and position or the price of an object from the percent markup. No, they won’t, but it’s the best they can do. And in the meantime, Urschel is explaining the birthday problem, which I’ve run into several times in various probability moocs – if you have 23 people in a room, there’s about a 50% chance two of them have the same birthday, and once you get more than about 60 people, it’s almost a sure thing. That’s interesting because it seems wrong, so he explains how it works in terms anyone can understand. Or skip the explanation, if you really want to; it won’t diminish the rest of the book. But it’s fun.

Urschel didn’t realize he had any special math ability for a long time. As a college freshman, he started out in Engineering, but took all the math classes and had to be forced to take any engineering at all. Even when he realized it was math all along, he wasn’t focused on being a mathematician, because he wasn’t sure what a mathematician did all day. It wasn’t until he worked on a paper solving a heretofore-unexamined problem that he finally understood:

And this is what mathematicians did all the time. They didn’t sit around doing really hard homework, which was my old vague conception of the life of a math professor.
In that moment, I realized that this is what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to produce new results. I wanted to discover things that no one else had. I wanted to be a mathematician.

Again, this made me smile. I’ve said before that in high school, I assumed that mathematicians wrote problems for math books. It wasn’t until recently, when I could look over the shoulders of mathematicians at work through moocs and Twitter and blogs and books, that I realized that idea was wrong.

After high school, Urschel had offers from several colleges, including Princeton, which made his mom swoon (she still hoped he’d be an aeronautics engineer – a rocket scientist). But he chose Penn State, because of football, rather than the academic program (forgive me, but apparently Penn State is a big deal in college football?). It was in a class on differential equations, when he solved a fifth-degree polynomial in his head (the professor posed it as a problem that could not be solved by traditional methods, and was shocked when he raised his hand and gave the correct answers) that he realized math was something he was good at – and something that was way more interesting than he’d realized.

He describes being something of an underdog on the football field, and his way of dealing with it:

I didn’t know what the others would see in me either. I was an undersized recruit, and not prized. I had terrible technique. I was well aware that didn’t really to be the one no one wanted to be around. ….
So I kept quiet period there was only one way I knew how to deal with the uncertainty: control what I could. I could keep my head down. I couldn’t turn myself into some outgoing social person automatically I could be respected. So I’d listened calmly when the coaches yelled at me, which they did every day period I’d figure out whom not to mess with and keep my distance. I’d learn who the leaders were.

We see a lot of the football side of his life, but there’s little about individual plays and more about the decisions he made, and his life as a football player. For instance he describes a distinct difference between college and pro ball, which he characterizes as a shift from being in a brotherhood to having professional colleagues. There’s some detail of individual plays, particularly one game with the Patriots involving the strategic effect of an ineligible receiver downfield (I’m lost here, but this might mean something to someone reading), and a few instances of the expected grit of playing football. Like noticing he was walking funny, and discovering he’d ripped a callus off the ball of his foot – so he shoved it back on and kept playing.

I had to laugh at Urschel’s remedy for post-game pain:

On the plane back to Baltimore, I passed out from exhaustion.…My body had never felt so beat up. My hand was throbbing where a nose tackle had to stepped on it; my knee creaked when I bent it; my head had a dull ache. But when I lay in bed, I was too wired from the game – not to mention all the caffeine, equivalent to 10 cups of coffee, that I had taken right before the game period so I got up, found a pen and a clean piece of paper and focused on an unproved conjecture. Immediately, I felt myself calm down.

Like I said, he sounds like a mathematician.

We go through the revelation of the Penn State sexual abuse scandal with him. Sandwiched between multiple declarations of “abuse is way worse than any football team penalty, and the kids suffered more than any of us ever will” is a somewhat bewildered position: this happened years go, why is it affecting us? Those of us who read a lot of racial justice material usually hear this in the form of “I never had slaves, why should I be penalized?” The answer is the advantage one group makes for itself at the expense of another. Urschel himself becomes the front-and-center icon of “We don’t just care about football, we have scholars too”, but no other player is mentioned as serving PR in this way; so my question is, was he the only one who could present such a narrative? And isn’t that a statement, too?

He also takes us through his decision to retire from professional football. Because I follow a lot of mathematicians on Twitter, I remember this: his announcement immediately followed the New York Times article describing a frightening study of brain trauma in football players. But Urschel explains he retired because, when it came time to go back to football, he simply wanted to stay at MIT and continue his math work. As surprising as it may seem to the rest of us, math, like football, is a youngster’s game (I heard that from one of my math mooc profs a few years ago, too). He’d already had one serious concussion, an injury that took months for full recovery, and he was aware of the risks. He also knew the study that got so much attention had a problem with selection bias (another term I’m familiar with, in a primitive way, from another mooc), a point made by the researcher herself and included in the NYT article. So the timing was a coincidence.

This book wasn’t originally on my reading list for this year. I added it to the category of “writing about work” because I kept seeing it. I follow several mathematicians on Twitter – fallout from all those moocs – and just as Penn State held Urschel up as a sign that football players can be scholars, mathematicians hold him up as a sign that mathematicians can do cool things like play football. Jordan Ellenberg interviewed him for Hmmm. Ben Orlin got a great blurb from him on his first book, Math With Bad Drawings. And just as I finished this book and started notes for this post, Mike Lawler posted about the credit-bearing online Calculus course on outlier.org that Urschel is teaching; if I had $400 sitting around I’d take it for sure. If stuff like this had been around when I was in school, who knows, maybe things would’ve been a little different for me.

It’s an interesting and fun read. This is the book I should’ve read when I was moving, rather than poetic analysis.

Mark Kurlansky: Salt: A World History (Penguin, 2002)

I bought the rock in Spanish Catalonia…. it was, after all, despite a rosy blush of magnesium, almost pure salt, a piece of the famous salt mountain of Cardona. The various families that had occupied the castle atop the next mountain had garnered centuries of wealth from such rock.
I took it home and kept it on a windowsill. One day it got rained on, and white salt crystals started appearing on the pink. My rock was starting to look like salt, which would ruin its mystique. So I rinsed off the crystals with water. Then I spent fifteen minutes carefully patting the rock dry. By the next day it was sitting in a puddle of brine that had leached out of the rock. The sun hit the puddle of clear water. After a few hours, square white crystals began to appear in the puddle. Solar evaporation was turning brine into salt crystals.
For a while it seemed I had a magical stone that would perpetually produce brine puddles. Yet the rock never seemed to get smaller. Sometimes in dry weather it would appear to completely dry out, but on a humid day, a puddle would again appear under it. I decided I could dry out the rock by baking it in a small toaster oven. Within a half hour white stalactites were drooping from the toaster grill. I left the rock on a steel radiator cover, but the brine threatened to corrode the metal. So I transferred it to a small copper tray. A green crust formed on the bottom, and when I rubbed off the discoloration, I found the copper had been polished.
My rock lived by its own rules. When friends stopped by, I told them the rock was salt, and they would delicately lick a corner and verify that it tasted just like salt.
Those who think a fascination with salt is a bizarre obsession have simply never owned a rock like this.

To those of us who buy a 2-pound canister of salt every couple of years (maybe every four or five years, if we do little cooking) and leave it on the topmost shelf until the saltshaker needs refilling, it seems a bizarre notion that salt often determined the population centers and shifting fortunes of the ancient and medieval world. For those of us who have been cautioned about excess salt in the modern diet, it’s surprising that lack of salt halted armies and dissipated cities. And where salt is freely available on every table in America, we have to remember that salt production, transport, and trade was, for several thousand years, the primary occupation of a sizable percentage of humanity, when it was far more life-and-death than seasoning a french fry.

Kurlansky’s book puts salt at the center of every society, from ancient Chinese administration and the Mayan empire to medieval Europe to the American Civil War and Indian independence. It’s not a casual-reading book. I could spend three to six months using this as a text central to a host of other sources on world history and science (and it would require other sources; this presentation is often more broad than deep). A quick read was all I had time (and mental stamina; I’m still pretty befuddled) for right now, so I’m mostly going to stick to the “fun stuff” in this post. But be assured, there’s plenty more within the pages.

What “fun stuff” could salt provide, you may wonder? How about the underground salt cathedrals, just outside Krakow, Poland:

In 1689, the mines began offering miners daily Catholic services at their underground place of work. The miners of Wieliczka begin carving religious figures out of rock salt. Three hundred feet below the surface, miners carved a chapel out of rock salt with statues and bas relief scenes along the floor, walls, and ceiling. They even fashioned elaborate chandeliers from salt crystals.
Increasingly, the mine had visitors. In the early 17th century, as in Durnberg, the Crown began to bring special guests, mostly royalty. They came to dance in ballrooms, dine in carved dining rooms, be rowed in underwater lagoons. In 1830, the Wieliczka Salt Mine Band, which still performs, was started because of the quality of the acoustics in the mine.

Not only is the Band still available, you can visit the mine on your next trip to Europe, and even hold your wedding or business meeting in the rooms carved from salt.

Ancient China was, like most societies, deeply invested in salt, and provide some interesting perspectives. Soy sauce was invented as a way to stretch the preservative and culinary power of salt; it started out as fermented fish sauce, with soybeans added for bulk. Later, the fish was dropped, though it was retained in Southeast Asia. Salt and Iron government monopolies were a long-term source of debate through several early dynasties. And perhaps most interestingly, Kurlansky tells of the brine wells, dug in Sichuan about 250 BCE, where workers would sometimes become ill and even die, or where occasional explosions would occur. Within a few hundred years, the Chinese learned to tame the evil spirits causing these misfortunes by a system of bamboo pipes channeling them to boiling houses where they lit flames to evaporate the brine into salt. This is considered the first use of natural gas in the world. It wasn’t for a couple of millennia, until geology became established as a science, that we learned how underground salt deposits trap organic material, leading to the frequent partnership of salt and oil or gas. In fact, Texas became an oil state when companies drilling for salt discovered oil instead.

Egypt’s salty contribution to the world was, of course, mummification (which used natron rather than sodium chloride) and, culinarily, the olive. It seems olive oil was widely used for thousands of years throughout the Mediterranean region, but olives themselves were considered inedible until some Egyptian discovered they were edible if soaked in brine. But it turns out the best olives for oil are not the best olives for eating, so one had to decide.

Salt was a valuable commodity, so mines turned up in Europe as well. Some of the earliest mines, around the time Julius Caesar approached Gaul, were tended by Celts. This was all pretty normal, until a more recent discovery:

Only in the 1990s did Westerners become aware of the mummies that had been found in the Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. …As with the early Egyptian burials that are 1000 years older, the corpses have been preserved by the naturally salty soil.
….These unknown People were in appearance notably similar to the large blue eyed blonde Celtic warriors described by the Romans almost two millennia later. Their conical felt hats and twill jackets bore a close resemblance to those of the salt miners in Hallein and Hallstatt – not unlike the much later plaids of the Scottish Highlands.…Textile historian Elizabeth Wayland Barber concluded that even the weave was nearly identical workmanship. Why Celts might have been in the salty desert of Asia many centuries before there were known to be Celts remains a mystery.
In the centuries when the Celtic culture was documented, beginning 1300 years after these seemingly Celtic bodies were buried in Asian salt, they did trade and travel great distances, usually selling salt from their rich central European mines.

Kurlansky’s book was published while investigation of these mummies was just beginning. As time goes on, it gets more complicated, with subsequent research bringing in Tocharian linguistics, DNA analysis, and political tragedy (yes, that Uyghur).

Salt became much less necessary after the development of canning and refrigeration/freezing technology. Salt led to other discoveries, such as potash and chlorine bleach. It was a former salt baron, Edmund McIlhenny, who, his salt fortunes in now useless Confederate dollars after the Civil War, happened upon capsicum peppers from Mexico, and created… Tabasco sauce.

The United States is both the largest salt producer and the largest salt consumer. It produces over 40,000,000 metric tons of salt the year, which earns more than one billion in sales revenue. …But little of this is table salt. In the United States, only 8% of salt production is for food. The largest single use of American salt, 51 percent, is for deicing roads.

Plot twist: After millennia of harvesting salt from the earth and sea, we are now putting it back. Some future historian might wonder why.

Kurlansky has written a few dozen books on a variety of interesting subjects, including paper, milk, the Basques, and an album of international culinary adventures with his daughter as they spin the globe and cook a meal from whatever pops up. I’m perhaps more taken with Simon Garfield’s style (and inclusion of far more diagrams, maps, and visual examples of the topic at hand), but don’t be surprised if one of these – perhaps Paper or International Night – shows up on these pages at some point.

C. Michael Curtis, ed., God: Stories (HM, 1998)

This is a collection of stories about spiritual experiences of several sorts. Some are comic, some vaguely anticlerical, some only grudgingly engaged with any sort of denominational mainstream, at least a few outwardly skeptical of a divine presence or intention at any level. Others, however, make their way shrewdly into the perplexities and challenges of belief, explore the hazy perimeter of unconditional love and forgiveness, examine sympathetically the paradoxes of discipleship. Above all, these stories encounter spirituality in its human dimensions. They are about men and women, children and venerables, proselytizers and skeptics, the obsessed and the weak at heart. They tell us something important about our literary culture, point to the impact of religious sensibility in the way we lead or question our lives. Holding them together is a recognition that God, however conceived, challenges our deepest yearnings, provides our greatest comfort, assures us of our fundamental worth, grants us the only absolution we fully trust, makes possible, in ways both mysterious and immense, a loving regard for other characters in the larger narrative of life.

~~ Introduction, C. Michael Curtis

In his introduction, Curtis, a long-time editor at The Atlantic (among other things), tells us this anthology grew out of a cobbled-together text for an adult education class on story and religion. Turns out, it’s pretty middle-of-the-road stuff, the stories by prominent writers spanning the 20th century (1914 to 1997, as far as I can tell). Most of the stories are based in Christianity, though a few are distinctly Jewish, and the writers are predominantly American. The stories feature clergy, believers, and doubters; those who believe devoutly and thoughtfully, and those who casually connect with a religion for reasons other than spiritual longing.

While I was reading this book, the podcast for Jo Walton’s historical-theological-fantasy novel Lent was released. I was surprised to realize that book, for me, was far more powerful and made a deeper spiritual impression on me than this collection. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy these stories; some were delightful, and several raised interesting questions. But apparently the path to my soul is more in history, with Hypa and his battles with Azazeel, and with the tormented Girolamo and his Renaissance humanist friends.

The James Joyce and Flannery O’Connor stories (“Grace” and “Parker’s Back”) were, unsurprisingly, the most deeply symbolic; it was only through a bit of internet research that I glimpsed the intensity under the surface story. Philip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith” was a terrific read, and I was delighted to find an academic paper by Gillian Steinberg proposing a connection to the Haggadah of the Four Sons. Her question: which of the two main characters is the Defender of the Faith, the “good” son? The question doesn’t need to be answered; just raising it is interesting enough.

Brendan Gill’s “The Knife” and William Hoffman’s “A Question of Rain” gave insights into the purpose of prayer. The child in the Gill story is given a rather glib explanation of prayer, giving his father something of a shock when he follows it to its logical conclusion. Hoffman’s minister, taking a more sophisticated view of prayer, is shocked by unexpected results.

And speaking of shock: the minister in Peggy Payne’s “The Pure in Heart” hears the voice of God. Twice. Nothing profound or specific – in fact, its petty cryptic – but what really surprises him is the reaction of his congregation, who debate whether he should be ousted.

“Doesn’t it seem contradictory?” Swain says. Bill is watching him carefully. “It’s okay to believe in God, but only if God is distant. A presence in history. Is that the idea?”

“I thought maybe a few people would be curious about what actually happened. Would want to hear more.” He shakes his head. “They don’t.” It makes him mad to think about it. They’ve decided to put up with him – that’s what they’ve made of all this. They’re being broad-minded and tolerant, that’s all.

“The Rabbi in the Attic” by Eileen Pollack is also a lively, fun read, but here’s where I wish I hadn’t gone researching. Pollack relates that the plot came from an overheard conversation. She added an interesting element, pitting an Orthodox rabbi against a young Reform woman; this presents such wonderful opportunities, I was a little disappointed there wasn’t more. But the moment with the scroll was everything: Solomon speaks yet again.

This was an interesting way to expand my reading of several short-story authors I’ve mostly ignored. And if it wasn’t the most personally meaningful anthology I’ve read, that doesn’t mean it was meaningless. I prefer a more oblique approach: tell it slant, as Emily Dickinson says, and several of these stories did just that.

Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (FSG, 2001)

Alfred gestured at his blue chair, which under the paperhanger’s plastic dropcloths looked like something you might deliver to a power station on a flatbed truck. He was trembling with incredulity, unable to believe that Enid could have forgotten this crushing refutation of her arguments, this overwhelming impediment to her plans. It was as if all the unfreedom in which he spent his seven decades of life were embodied in this six-year-old but essentially brand new chair. He was grinning, his face aglow with the awful perfection of his logic.
…But the chair? The chair was a monument and a symbol and could not be parted from Alfred. It could only be relocated, and so it went into the basement and Alfred followed. And so in the house of the Lamberts, as in St. Jude, as in the country as a whole, life came to be lived underground.

I’m always intimidated by things labeled Great Books, whether they be old classics or more contemporary works like this one. On the bright side, there are so many interviews and analyses and reviews of books like this, I don’t feel like I have to actually come up with anything original, but stick to my experience. In this case, I can appreciate the kind of imaginative detail that went into the book, and I loved some of the individual scenes, but overall, I was kind of meh in the end.

The Corrections of the title refers to numerous actions of the book’s characters, but also references the dot-com bubble of the late 90s and the resultant crash in the first months of the 2000s. Each character has his or her own little scheme going on, and each of those schemes eventually crash. I kept waiting for those schemes to be brought together in some way: the railroad reorg that kicked Alfred out of his job, the various forms of shame-removing drugs variously called Aslan (yes, like the lion in Narnia; one of the kids is reading the CS Lewis books, in fact) and Correktal (yes, like the laxative, but a different spelling, and no, they didn’t want to change it) manufactured by some kind of neuroscience guru who seems to be running a scam rather than treating anything; and the scam website set up by a Lithuanian statesman-turned-mobster; and a high-concept restaurant entangled in the love lives of the chef and owner; and a patent dispute; and a cruise. I was looking for some kind of overall mastermind behind them, or at least a common origin.

But no; these threads never came together. Here, I’m with David Gates, whose NYT review points out that a lot of these whacko threads tend to just peter out without resolution,

…but I can’t scrape together much outrage when I’m basically having a good time. Anyhow, you have to expect a degree of indeterminacy in an ambitious novel these days….it creates the illusion of giving a complete account of a world, and while we’re under its enchantment it temporarily eclipses whatever else we may have read.

He also notices nods to DeLillo and Pynchon, but that’s way over my head; I mention them only for those who want to go find out more.

Much has been made of these being unlikeable characters, but I find them far more sympathetic than unlikeable because of their inability to cope with the world falling out beneath their feet. Chip, the younger son, is an academic until he gets caught screwing the wrong student. To me, it seemed like he was set up, to clear the way for his competition to be awarded tenure, but I don’t see any confirmation of that in any of the reviews I’ve read, so either I’m missing something, or it’s so obvious no one feels the need to state it outright. At that point he goes spiraling down until he’s held by Lithuanian “police” in ski masks. Yeah, he made some very poor decisions, looking for easy outs and quick fixes instead of facing reality. And, oh, he’s writing a screenplay that begins with a six-page lecture on literary criticism. He considers this a “hump” the reader needs to get over in order to get to the good stuff. Here I’m again reminded of the Gates review, in which he feels the first chapters are tough going. But I’m more reminded of an interview – I’m not sure which one, maybe Charlie Rose or Terry Gross, where Franzen says he was writing a more directly serious book, but these characters kept recurring, and he realized they were the story and turned it into more of a tragicomedy. This is also played out in Chip’s resolution late in the book:

His great revelation came when he was a few kilometers from the Polish border. He was straining to hear whether any of the homicidal farm dogs in the surrounding darkness might be unleashed, had he his arms outstretched, he was feeling more than a little ridiculous, when he remembered Gitanas’ remark: tragedy rewritten as a farce. All of a sudden he understood why nobody, including himself, had ever liked his screenplay: he’d written a thriller where he should have written farce.

Chip gets a second compact articulations of the overall theme of the book (he’s something of an alter-ego for Franzen), a theme that I’ve been howling about for a couple of years now: as long as we’re kept entertained by our phones and our apps and our avocado toast, we’ll let the evil powers run the world because, hey, things aren’t so bad for tech-savvy white guys, and all that stuff about kids in cages and rapists in the White House and Russia basically running the country is just so much hot air that has nothing to do with getting our Blue Apron box or listening to cool jazz:

The main difference between America and Lithuania, as far as Chip could see, was that in America the wealthy few subdued the unwealthy many by means of mind-numbing and soul-killing entertainments and gadgetry and pharmaceuticals, whereas in Lithuania the powerful few subdued the unpowerful many by threatening violence.
It warmed his Foucaultian heart, in a way, to live in a land where property ownership and the control of public discourse were so obviously a matter of who had the guns.

I have to keep reminding myself this book was published in 2001. And, by the way, see again what David Gates had to say above, about not being able to complain too much about a book that might seem flawed, but is so much fun to read. Not exactly the same thing – I think the “flaws” are deliberate, but an indication of our fragmented attention and the overwhelming number of forces at work against everyday life – but a similar principle. Entertain people enough, and they’ll forgive pretty much anything.

And, oh, by the way, there’s another interesting side note. The publication date was, in fact, September 1, 2001. I’m sure a lot of books fell by the wayside in the wake of 9/11, but this one seemed to encapsulate so much that was ready to happen, it fit right in. And, as people were stuck in all kinds of places unable to get home for days as air traffic came to a halt, it seemed fitting that Enid Lambert was desperately hoping to get her kids together for one last Christmas.

Enid is both the backbone of the family, and the overlooked matriarch. Somehow she reminded me of my mother-in-law: a wonderful, generous, caring woman, but a little ditzy. She isn’t ditzy, not at all. The fact that she’s managing in the face of the physical and mental collapse of her husband is miraculous. She’s a strong lady, and all she wants is this Christmas that no one else cares about. She despairs of her kids:

[H]er children didn’t match. They didn’t want the things that she and all her friends and all her friends’ children wanted. Her children wanted radically, shamefully other things.

Alfred, the aging father, isn’t unlikeable as much as he is deteriorating with some kind of Parkinson-like condition that includes hallucinations, nightmares, and serious depression. There’s hope of getting him into this neurochemical scam for treatment after the Christmas that Enid wants, but only if they keep denying the dementia.

Gary, the older son, has the stable respectable job and beautiful family, seems kind of insane, keeping track of “factor 3 and factor 6” to track his moods and reactions. I thought at first he was on some kind of treatment, but seems it’s more do-it-yourself neuropsychiatric analysis. His wife, Carolyn, is the character I did dislike; she’s at her most evil when she aligns the kids against Gary.

Denise, the daughter, makes some bad romantic choices, but again, she seems sympathetic to me, maybe because she’s pretty much ignored, and she’s given Chip a lot of money to keep him afloat. She’s a chef, and starts a high-end restaurant based on… sauerkraut. This harkens back to the nuclear family: there’s a great dinnertime scene when the boys were children – Denise wasn’t even born yet – with Chip refusing to eat his liver soaked in the juice from rutabagas and beet greens. I don’t blame him. But this becomes pivotal later, when Alfred and Enid have sex during her pregnancy with Denise:

Worst was the image of the little girl curled up inside her, a girl not much larger than a large bug but already a witness to such harm. Witness to a totally engorged little brain that dipped in and out beyond the cervix and then, with a quick double spasm that could hardly be considered adequate warning, spat thick alkaline webs of spunk into her private room. Not even born and already drenched in sticky knowledge.
Alfred lay catching his breath and repenting his defiling of the baby. A last child was a last opportunity to learn from ones mistakes and make corrections, and he resolved to seize this opportunity. From the day she was born he would treat her more gently than he’d treated Gary or Chipper. Relax the law for her, indulge her outright, even, and never once force her to sit at the table after everyone was gone.
But he squirted such filth on her when she was helpless. She’d witnessed such scenes of marriage, and so of course, when she was older, she betrayed him.
What made correction possible also doomed it.

Yeah, Alfred seems a little around the bend even then. Sort of like Gary, who mirrors him in a lot of ways.

Christmas somehow happens, mostly, and everyone has their revelation. Chip understands what’s wrong with his screenplay, Denise understands a sacrifice Alfred made for her a long time ago, and Gary realizes how sick his father actually is. But the threads, as both I and David Gates have noticed, don’t come together. The family is still mostly separate and apart, though there are some improvements.

The book ends with Enid at her most hopeful; I’m almost afraid for what might lie ahead for her, given how many times great expectations have turned to dust.

I’m glad I’ve finally read Franzen. No, I’m not going to go into the whole Oprah thing; at this point, it seems pretty tame. Thing is, he did the work. This isn’t some famous-for-being-famous vanity publication. If I’m less than awed, it’s maybe because the ground shifts so quickly these days. 2001 seems like a long time ago. So does 2008. And in a year, 2019 may seem long ago and far away. But at least I’ve read Franzen.

Bible Old and New – Yale OCW

Course: Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible)
and
Introduction to the New Testament History and Literature
Length: ~25 50-minute lectures each
School/platform: Yale OCW
Instructor: Christine Hayes, Dale Martin
Quote:
This course examines the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) as an expression of the religious life and thought of ancient Israel, and a foundational document of Western civilization. A wide range of methodologies, including source criticism and the historical-critical school, tradition criticism, redaction criticism, and literary and canonical approaches are applied to the study and interpretation of the Bible. Special emphasis is placed on the Bible against the backdrop of its historical and cultural setting in the Ancient Near East.

This course provides a historical study of the origins of Christianity by analyzing the literature of the earliest Christian movements in historical context, concentrating on the New Testament…. the importance of the New Testament and other early Christian documents as ancient literature and as sources for historical study will be emphasized. A central organizing theme of the course will focus on the differences within early Christianity (-ies).

Since several of the books I’m reading this summer concern Biblical materials or religious history, I decided it might be a good idea to run through these online lectures. I’ve done several versions of “Bible history” over the decades, some through religious sources, some academic. When I was organizing my books after my recent move, I noticed the “religion/philosophy” shelf was almost equal to the mass of the “medical” shelf. But I keep forgetting.

The first course on the Hebrew Bible was more or less formal lecture and covered the expected material: the J, P, D, and E sources, which prophets were Northern Kingdom and which were Southern, who was pre-exile, post-exile, and trans-exile, etc. The instructor demonstrated great fondness for the texts, and made convincing arguments that, contrary to later opinion in Christian culture, Judaism was not all about law and rules. The origin of some of the most familiar Biblical stories in ancient mythologies from around the middle East, the changing covenant with God from suzerainty to a more Zionist approach to the less concrete displayed in Job are outlined, along with the history that provoked these changes. I always thought the book of Job was one of the earliest in the Bible; turns out, the basic story is very old, but the philosophical construction reflects a much later period in ancient Israel’s history.

The New Testament instructor took a more casual, interactive approach, injecting frequent humor and asking for input from the in-person class. The formation of the Canon was a running theme, as was the wide variety of Christianities that existed in the first two centuries and the texts that were winnowed from what has now become the standard Bible. Viewing the Bible as a library, rather than as a single book, was a helpful way of dealing with some of the contradictions found between different books. Different views of Jesus as seen through different Gospels – including a few that aren’t in most contemporary Christian canons – were lined up with possible authorships. Paul’s letters were thoroughly covered, as well as the pretend-Paul letters and other letters that show various types of Christianity in the first couple of centuries after Christ.

Both courses generally focused on textual and historical methodologies, but offered several alternatives for reading the texts, and acknowledged the validity of theses approaches for various purposes. Transcripts of each lecture are available; in some cases, handouts are provided, particularly in the NT course. Videos of the lectures can be watched on the Yale Open Courseware site or on Youtube: Hebrew Bible lectures, New Testament lectures.

Many years ago, when I was still paddling around organized religion trying to find something that made sense, I heard a sermon that advised something like: “If you study the Bible a little, you might decide it’s all nonsense, but if you study it a lot, you start to understand its Truth.” Maybe I just haven’t hit the turnaround point yet. Particularly in this age when the Abrahamic religions are often not showing themselves as particularly inspired by a God of Love, I feel like it’s all a giant Rorschach test and what we see in the Bible is more a reflection of what we want to see than of any actual Truth. Man creating God, circa 2019 instead of 500 BCE. But it’s an interesting way into ancient history.

Both courses make it clear early on that the purpose is not spiritual guidance or any kind of theological exploration, but an examination of the Bible as a text. It’s a useful course for anyone interested in an originalist view of scripture, and understanding how history and circumstances at the time of writing shaped the texts. Because it’s an introductory course, there are lots of open questions left and other avenues to explore, but it’s a good way to define those questions and directions for further work.

Tony Hoagland, Twenty Poems That Could Save America (Graywolf, 2014)

…[T]his book begins with a generalist essay on American poetic diction, and it ends with a broad exhortation for poetry’s relevance and vitality in our country’s school systems. In between, not so hidden among other appreciations and critiques, I find, to my own surprise, a recurring complaint about the lack of adulthood represented in much new American poetry. The presence of this theme surprises me because I am an ardent believer in poetical irreverence, spontaneity, informality, and subversion of decorum – qualities not usually associated with maturity.
Though it was not a conscious agenda in writing these essays, I nonetheless stand by my complaint. I believe that poetry has a role to play in contemporary American culture, and that it has lately retreated from that risk, that faith, and that opportunity. …The avant-garde continues to make its dubious claims of political credentials; the uber-theorists and technicians create their Rubik’s cubes of difficulty; and the charming but superficial disco-dance of Personality has crowded into the verbal foreground of many poems, displacing the enterprise of sustained thought, emotional intensity, ethical agency, and even subject matter itself.

Tony Hoagland, Preface

One of the poems I very much enjoyed in the last Pushcart was Hoagland’s “Into the Mystery”. I’m always looking for ways to improve my embarrassingly low poetry reading ability, so when I saw this collection of essays on contemporary poetry, I jumped at it.

Some of the essays review poetic techniques: diction, something he calls poetic housing, and composite poems. Others look at individual poets: Sharon Olds, Robert Bly. Others talk about specific categories of poetry: the New York School, spiritual poems. And the title essay, saved for last, bemoans the teaching of poetry and makes some suggestions for a core curriculum, and what life lessons that curriculum might teach.

Hoagland is critical of a great deal of contemporary poetry, seeing it as populist and fun but not really poetically significant. This made me feel a little less forlorn about my constant refrain of “I don’t know what to say about this” every year as I work through Pushcart. Maybe it isn’t entirely my incompetence; maybe the poems just don’t use what I’m able to recognize.

He takes some swipes at Big Guns, dismissing Steven’s “Emperor of Ice Cream”, though the poet finds redemption in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Hey, Paul Simon got pissed off whenever anyone requested “59th Street Bridge Song” (aka “Feeling Groovy”) and more people know Bobby McFerrin for “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” than any of the truly brilliant genre-spanning work he has done; an occasional trip to Goofytown doesn’t define one’s art.

He’s also rather negative about John Ashbery, who I just struggled with but still feel fondly towards, as he was a mainstay of ModPo:

What’s missing from [John Ashbery’s] Marivaudage and many other such textual experiments, are two related poetic values: emphasis and reciprocity. Without a discernible emphasis, without some hint of authorial allegiance assigned to some moments in the poem over others, we cannot begin the process of response. We need to be able to identify what and where the stakes are in a poem ; where the gravity, or weight, is located. …Without such a stake or declaration, regardless of style, the poem will lack substance.
Similarly, without a reciprocal relationship between a poem and a reader, that is, a relationship that deepens through responsiveness and rereading, one of the most basic reasons for poetry has been inexplicably abandoned. At that point, virtuosity, verbal facility, and intelligence are beside the point. If the poem does not need the reader, the reader does not need the poem.

My problem is, I can’t tell if what I determine is a lack of emphasis is my problem, or the poet’s. For example: in the “Poetic Housing” chapter, he talks at length about two poems by Jean Follet, and while I come away with greater appreciation for them after reading his remarks, I don’t think I would be able to apply anything new to future reading. His housing checklist…

What kind of poem is this?
How big is the whole?
Where is the center? What is the central element?
Am I reading for sound, sense, story, or image?
Is this image centrally significant?
What is the general perspective or tone?
What are the extraneous or secondary parts?

…tempts me greatly, but I’m not sure what the questions mean, or if I would be able to answer any of them in regard to any new poem. And that’s the issue, isn’t it; each poem needs to be approached on its own, and any greatness therein can take any number of forms. So many people – poets, mostly, I guess – seem to have this instinct for grasping what is significant in a poem; it’s usually fairly subjective, described by words like “powerful” or “nimble” or involves images that resonate or contrast, or uses languages in ways that “uplift” or “disorient”. I seem to have lost the rule book for what is powerful, uplifting, etc. At one point he rewrites one of Follet’s poems to make it a “lesser” poem, and I have no idea if I’d be able to tell which was which in a blind test.

The final essay proposes that poetry, the right poetry, teaches all sorts of useful things: “the ethical nature of choice…. respects solitude…. stimulates daring…. rehabilitates language…. rehearse the future.… aesthetics of broad application.” This essay appeared in the April 2013 online edition of Harper’s, but poetry was already being cast in the wastebin in favor of more marketable skills. There were periods of Chinese history during which applicants for government jobs had to display poetic proficiency, but that was a long time ago. His main point in this final piece is that the wrong poetry is being taught badly, mostly by teachers who are insecure about poetry themselves.

Addendum: As I was deleting my notes for this post, I realized I’d left out something important regarding “poetry teaches the ethical nature of choice” – not something important about poetry, but about the highly romanticized vision Hoagland seems to have of our legislative process. As an illustration of this particular poetic effect, he asks his reader to imagine a Congressional committee meeting in which legislators are discussing a bill that involves short-term results or long-term gain. One lawmaker quotes “Travelling Through the Dark” by William Stafford; the committee discusses the two points of view, and a couple of minds are changed on what to do with the bill. First, any representative/Senator who discusses poetry in a committee meeting would be shamed mercilessly for all time. Second, maybe he thought it was different in 2013 when he wrote this piece – I don’t think so, not at all – but it’s my impression that legislators decide their positions on bills depending on a) reactions of campaign donors, and b) effects on re-election polls; every other brain cell is devoted to crafting an explanation in the face of pretty much any objection how that position is right. Bless Hoagland for his naivete. But it’s the kind of “application of Poetry” that further distances the art from any real purpose.

In my mooc travels among mathematicians (will I ever learn integral calculus, differential equations, or continuous probability? I doubt it) I’ve heard many stories about how awful it is to announce oneself as a math teacher and immediately get a response of, “I HATED math!” Hey, try telling people you’re a poet, or teacher of poetry. I’m guessing at least as many people hate poetry as math, and just like in algebra class, the problem isn’t necessarily the subject but the approach to teaching it. The objective in many English classes is to get the answer right on a test, not to feel anything or see anything new in a poem. And for that matter, history is another subject ruined by high school; we come out of it with names and dates (if we’re lucky) and have no idea how things came to pass. I wonder if our present predicament combines all three deficiencies.

Hoagland died last year, so there will be no more poems from him; yet his words can still speak to us. I enjoyed this collection, even though I’m dubious I can apply it; I want to get a used copy for my next trip through Pushcart. I don’t know that it will help, but at least it might give me some encouragement.

I picked a very bad time to read this volume. I’d already packed my books for my move, so I went through the list of library books I’d marked, and picked this rather randomly. I should’ve picked one of the easy-reading fictions, because my concentration has been horrible, and time has been an issue. I’m still not back to reading-weight, let alone writing-weight, but it’s time to start working out.

Constitutional Interpretation (back when some things still mattered): Princeton MOOC

Course: Constitutional Interpretation
Length: 7 weeks, 2-5 hrs/wk
School/platform: Princeton/edX
Instructor: Robert P. George
Quote:

Though the Constitution is widely credited for the success of the United States’ republican democracy, people often disagree about how it should be interpreted. What does the Constitution mean? What does it require, and what does it forbid? In this course, we will examine competing theories of, and approaches to, constitutional interpretation.
More specifically, we ask:
• Should the provisions of the U.S. Constitution be read to give effect to the intent of their framers and ratifiers? If so, what counts as their “intent,” and how is it to be discerned?
• If “original intent” is not the touchstone of interpretation, how is the constitutional interpreter to avoid simply reading his or her own moral beliefs or political ideology into the Constitution?
• Who, by the Constitution’s own terms, has the power of judicial review, that is, to authoritatively interpret the Constitution and give effect to its principles and norms?
• If we accept the principle of judicial review, does that mean that judges always have the final say in disputed questions of what the Constitution means and requires?

One of the main points of this course was that some what we would consider fundamentals of the American constitution aren’t in the Constitution at all, but were established by court rulings. Like the idea of judicial supremacy, for instance: nine judges (at the current time), none of whom were elected, get to decide if laws passed by elected officials are legal or not. How’d that happen? It was hotly contested back in the earliest days of the 19th century, in fact, but somehow it’s managed to survive, even though Lincoln himself took a few whacks at it.

Interesting course, huh. And, in the present moment, kind of depressing, scary. So much rides on these decisions, and everything depends on the red wheelbarrow of precedent and the power of law which doesn’t feel very secure right now. In fact this course finished a couple of months ago, but I didn’t write it up because it felt so frustrating. Time to get up off the mat.

Each week looks at a different aspect, and shows what cases and decisions were crucial in forming what we more or less take for granted now. It’s all very accessible; even the cases are available in full legalistic glory, or in for-the-rest-of-us form. Though it’s large-class lecture, there’s some interaction, which always makes a course more interesting.

After six weeks of general material, five special-topic sessions are offered, of which two are required. It’s hard to pick since they’re all interesting: religious freedom, political speech, equal protection, property/contract (which is a lot more interesting than it sounds), and bodily integrity/family/reproductive law.

Each lecture started with a welcome that included online students and “community auditors”. I was curious about that, so I went looking: it seems that, for $200, pretty much anyone can sit in on most Princeton lectures in person, as long as they sit in the back and don’t say anything unless expressly invited (keep out of the way of the “real” students, so to speak). And then there are moocers, who get much the same deal for free. While edX has upped the pressure to pay – audit courses are no longer available indefinitely, and graded materials aren’t available – Princeton says, screw that, and somehow carved out its own deal. Grades were calculated, the course is available in archive, and they even email a Certificate to everyone who passes. Now that’s open.

Moving

Before a great vision can become reality there may be difficulty. Before a person begins a great endeavor, they may encounter chaos. As a new plant breaks the ground with great difficulty, foreshadowing the huge tree, so must we sometimes push against difficulty in bringing forth our dreams. Out of Chaos, Brilliant Stars are Born.

I Ching, Hexagam #3

I’m moving. I’ve been in the process of moving for the past eight weeks, but the truck actually pulls up on Thursday. Granted, I’m only moving three blocks, but as I learned back in my aquarium days, the worst parts of moving, be it a home or a fishtank, apply whether it’s moving across a room or across country. No, that isn’t really true, but it’s close.

I packed my books first, over the course of a month. That’s sixteen boxes. Everything else pretty much fits into another five boxes, give or take (some stuff I’m just carrying over in shopping bags over the course of a few days) which gives some sense of my priorities. For that matter, when I listed the furniture to be moved, five of the eleven items were bookcases of various kinds.

The new apartment has slightly less square footage (and 30% less rent), but a lot of built-in storage space, and I’ve been feeling like its time to downsize anyway, so I’m getting rid of a few things. My dining room hutch/buffet, and my mother’s wedding china, which was in it. My couch, which is tired and needs replacing (with the rent reduction, I can afford to replace some things down the road). My rolltop desk, which I have loved dearly; it took months of looking to find one I loved and could afford (there was a blonde oak antique with porcelain drawer pulls that I drooled over, but it was way out of my range). I figure, I’ve enjoyed it for 40+ years, that’s good enough. The hardest part was finding out the Salvation Army didn’t want it. “It has a lot of scratches and worn spots.” Well, duh. Every time I deal with the Salvation Army, I end up pissed off. I admire the organization and they do important work, but damn, they’re just annoying as hell.

I’ve thrown out buckets of stuff. It’s amazing to me that, in such a small space, I’ve generated so much junk.

In any case, I’m unable to read, so I’m declaring a moratorium on posting. I’ve been trying to read Tony Hoaglund’s Twenty Poems that could Save America to prepare for next year’s Pushcart read, but my concentration is elsewhere. I jump up in the middle of the night thinking, “I have to clean the vegetable bin!” or “I need to make up the footprints to figure out where things go!” so my mind is on, shall we say, the distinctly non-poetic. I should have chosen something much lighter for this time.

I don’t do well with change. So I’m expecting a few rough weeks. And it’s summer; dealing with heat and humidity is not my strength (though today is beautiful, and the forecast promises more for the immediate future; this is why I live in Maine, the truly awful stuff is kept to a minimum, and six months of winter seems a fair trade).

I’ll be back, probably sooner rather than later.

7/12/19 Update:

The hard part’s over; all that’s left is unpacking and readjusting, which is… come to think of it, the other hard part. Everything requires mindfulness, from coming around a corner so I don’t knock the dictionary stand into the wall or remembering where I put the laundry stuff or adjusting windows and shades for a different light pattern.
Everyone I dealt with, from junk-removal people to moving people (I met my first female mover! So happy!) to the cable installer (I played the old lady card and paid the $50 fee) was wonderful – pleasant, capable, on time, helpful.

What I love so far: looking out a huge window and seeing people! My window overlooked a parking garage before, and while I was grateful the top of a large tree gave me something to look at besides cars and asphalt (and the occasional illicit drunken-teenager party), this is so much better. There’s a rooftop garden across the street with some art sculptures and apparently some kind of doggie patch, not sure how that works, but that’s someone else’s problem. If I turn a little I can see Back Bay in the distance; turn a different way and there’s the harbor, or at least a glimpse of it. And below are sidewalks with people, so I can tell if the snow is sticking or if it’s colder than the temperature indicates.
I also love how they’ve painted: it’s basically beige, but before you groan, there are accent walls of a lovely deep earth-tone blue and darker brown, and there’s little wall space anyway what with all the cabinets and built-in-shelves and windows and closet, so it’s really quite nicely done. Much better than the typical cheap-apartment-eggshell-white. The building skews towards artists since it’s in the heart of the ArtsDistrict and near the art school (the lobby offers exhibits for First Friday art walks), so maybe that was a way to make it more appealing.

What I’m not sure about yet: I don’t understand the shower. I don’t get the aversion to cabinet doors; all the cabinets (and there are tons of them) are open, which is fine, but… does that mean I have to dust daily to keep ahead of it?
Back to unpacking. Then I’m going to need to evaluate needs, now that I’ve thrown out a bunch of stuff. Right now, I’m thinking I need a good reading chair with a nice standing light and table, a small kitchen/dining table, and a microwave, which I finally have room for.

7/23/19 Update:

Ok, I’m calling it: I am officially moved. I’ve bought all the stuff I need to buy (with a couple of minor exceptions), have changed all my addresses, have all my books better organized than they have been in years (language/writing on the dictionary stand, contemporary fiction in the corner by my reading chair – yes, I have a reading chair, where I can look out at Back Bay or at Congress Street, the best of both worlds), nonfiction over there, all the books I’d rather not display to just anyone on the shelves in the corner (you know, garbage novels, murder mysteries, golden age science fiction, Miss Manners), and I’ve cleaned up, thrown away all the boxes and packings and detritus. I’m very, very pleased with it all.
But I’m still monumentally confused. Not about anything in particular – I’ve got the bus routes down (not that they’re that different), I finally figured out the shower (and really like it now that I understand how to use all the weird stuff), it’s all a familiar neighborhood, the neighbors I’ve met are really nice. I’m just… disoriented, anxious. I guess two weeks isn’t enough to de-acclimate twenty-plus years. Imagine what people who move a lot farther, and for less voluntary reasons, go through.
I’ll try to remember to look back on this in a few months, see if I’ve calmed down yet.

Kwame Onwuachi with Joshua David Stein, Notes from a Young Black Chef (Knopf, 2019)

Gumbo, in its essential form, arrived shortly after 1720, carried in the taste and muscle memories of enslaved West African people. The word gumbo comes from the Gold Coast Twi term ki ngombo which means “okra” (itself an Igbo word, the language of my grandfather and my father )…..
Like stolen labor, this stew became part of a southern culture whose origins rest on the corrupt scaffolding of slavery. Nothing about what it has become undoes this fact, though the dish never stopped growing and evolving. When Germans arrived in Louisiana, they introduced spicy andouille sausage. When the Spanish took over in the late 18th century, they threw in their famous jamón and added a salty meatiness to the stew. And after the Spanish government brought fishermen over from the Canary Islands in the late 1700s shrimp and crab pulled from the Gulf of Mexico were added, and seafood gumbo, my favorite, became common too.

When I put this book on my list, I had no idea Onwuachi had been a contestant on Top Chef. I stopped watching a long time ago, but still have a lot of residual fondness for the show. I simply wanted to read another chef book, and getting a black perspective appealed to me.

Onwuachi’s life sort of mimics the gumbo he makes. Instead of various cultures coming to him, he’s been born in them, gone to them, and searched them out. He started out in Queens, NYC, was sent to live with his grandfather in Nigeria “to learn respect” when he was eleven, became a gang member in his teens, dealt drugs in college until he got kicked out, and moved to Louisiana with his mother when he decided to pull himself together. He didn’t cook much in his youth, unlike many chefs; his mom ran a catering business so he was around food, but his forays into restaurants were short-term and unsatisfying.

Until he went to work on a ship cleaning up the Gulf oil spill. This guy’s life is a metaphor.

Onboard ship, he developed the kind of appreciation of flavor, technique, and innovation that would serve him well as a chef. But he knew he needed more training, so he talked himself into a spot at the Culinary Institute of America and moved heaven and earth to figure out how to pay for it. That included his first catering company, put together with duct tape and sheer nerve over a thin but resilient layer of confidence. Along the way he got a prized externship at Per Se, and later, a gig at Eleven Madison Park, two of the swankiest restaurants in a city that eats swanky restaurants for breakfast.

As he graduated from the CIA (the foodie one, no spies), the hierarchy at EMP changed, and he decided to leave. The tirade his boss hit him with on his way out is memorable:

“Think of your ancestors!” he exploded. “Think of Carême and Escoffier. Fuck, think of Chang and Keller,“ he said, reeling off the list of famous chefs who had shaped the fine dining world. There was a great irony in Flint echoing what my grandfather had said about my ancestors when I was living with him in Nigeria: “Your ancestors will never leave you. They are part of who you are.“ Here was Flint, a guy who I knew thought black chefs had no place atop the kitchen hierarchy, telling me to think of my ancestors, as if my ancestors were his ancestors too. But no, my ancestors aren’t Carême and Escoffier or Keller or even Daniel Humm or David Chang. My ancestors are the ones I thanked after granddad killed [the rooster] Red, back in the dusty courtyard of Ibusa. My ancestors are those who, like Aunti Mi, ground cassava flour for hours, soaked stockfish, and hit kola trees until the nuts fell down. My ancestors are steeped in the curries and jerk of Jamaica and found in the stews and rouxs, gumbos and jambalayas of Louisiana. It wasn’t something I’d ever expect Flint to understand, but it was something I couldn’t deny any longer.

From there, he developed his catering company, competed in Top Chef, then opened – and quickly closed – his first restaurant in DC. And he was 27 years old. Time to write a book, and figure out the next step.

One of his anecdotes concerns a TV producer, unnamed, who tells him “America isn’t ready for a black chef who makes this kind of food…. Fine dining: veloute. What the world wants to see is a black chef making black food, you know. Fried chicken and cornbread and collards.” I’m not sure about America, but to this TV viewer, this is definitely the attitude of competitive-reality TV producers. I’ve watched (not recently; things may have changed) a host of different shows, and time and again I’ve seen a LatinX and Asian chefs told to abandon ideas of French brunch or farm-to-table and their CIA training and go with what fits with their last name. And here Onwuachi is making what is authentic to him – a fascinating fusion of New York, East Texas/Louisiana, Jamaica, and West Africa – but it doesn’t match with the producer’s idea of what kind of food black people make. This is a theme from the start of the book: “I am an African American chef, so if I cook my food, isn’t every menu I create African American by default?”

The book opens with a wonderful chapter capturing his thoughts while catering the dinner honoring the architect of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He’s aware of every detail happening on the fifth floor as the food is prepared and served, but he’s also aware of the exhibits below, and how his story adds to that larger story. Then we back up and go through the uneven childhood, the growing pains, the twists and turns that got him to the fifth floor, directing a crew that a few months later would staff his restaurant.

That the restaurant failed is not glossed over at all; it’s dissected in detail. I remember reading something in some book somewhere that it’s a workout rule to “never end on failure”, but the book seems to end on failure with the closing of Shaw Bijou. Yet it left me with the sense that Onwuachi viewed it as a low point on which he could plant his feet and take another leap of faith. That attitude seems to be reaping rewards: he’s the chef for a hot DC hotel restaurant, and just won the 2019 James Beard Rising Star award. Seems to fit in my math prof’s theme of “You learn more from your mistakes than your successes.”

Like gumbo, Kwame Onwuachi has picked up a lot from various influences, and has adapted to a wide variety of settings and expectations. Because he’s so young – he’ll be 30 in the fall – it’s a gestation story, a first installment on what promises to be a life that continues to absorb and react and grow. Or, who knows, maybe he’ll settle down, having sowed his wild oats, and run the same restaurant for the next 40 years. We’ll have to watch what happens.

Invasions and heresies: the Early Middle Ages (Yale OCW)

Course: The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000
Length: 22 lectures, ~50 minutes each
School/platform: Yale OCW (lectures/transcripts, no exams)
Instructor: Professor Paul Freedman
Quote:

Major developments in the political, social, and religious history of Western Europe from the accession of Diocletian to the feudal transformation. Topics include the conversion of Europe to Christianity, the fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of Islam and the Arabs, the “Dark Ages,” Charlemagne and the Carolingian renaissance, and the Viking and Hungarian invasions.

I’m beginning to get the hang of it: the Fall of the Roman Empire was more of a slide, the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an Empire, and the early leaders of the Franks had great cat names. Ok, that last one is a particular sentiment of this professor, but he isn’t wrong.

The lecture videos are all on the Yale Open Course site and on Youtube, and apparently on iTunes in some form; transcripts are available on the Yale site. This isn’t a mooc, so there aren’t any questions or assignments or discussion forums. Theoretically, there are midterms and finals in the materials somewhere, but I’ve never been able to navigate OCWs, so I never find them. Think of it as a lecture series rather than a mooc. It’s worthwhile for those who find listening to lectures easier, and more retainable, than reading a history text. I was quite happy with it, and found it filled in a lot of little gaps.

The biggest disadvantage is that maps and handouts are occasional mentioned, and while they may be somewhere in the “download course materials” folder, I wasn’t able to find them. It can be harder than you might expect to find a map showing exactly the time and events being discussed, though I think I pretty much managed to come up with relevant images from determined googling.

The opening introduction to the course featured the “invasions and heresies” line as the features that most characterize the beginning of this middle period (don’t ever call it the “dark ages” to a medievalist). There were other features – entirely new religions, cross-pollination of trade and mingling cultures, decreasing population, emergence of dynasties – and there are so many interrelated pieces, it’s hard to get it to fit together.

These aren’t the most exciting lectures, but they’re clear, there’s enough repetition and cross-referencing to help with retention, and towards the end of the series, some humor comes into play (hence the cat names). I got quite a bit out of it; I have a much better grasp of where France and England came from, though I confess, I still don’t understand the whole “fall” of Rome; I think I’m taking the word too seriously, maybe I should go with “decline”. In any case, Gibbon’s six-volume history seems to have lost its lustre; I’m glad I never got around to reading it.

A second course on the second half of the middle ages was referenced several times, but doesn’t seem to exist in the Yale Open Coursework catalog. Too bad, I would have loved to have taken it.

Jo Walton, Lent (Tor, 2019)

What keeps some things the same, while others change? If history is a tide sweeping down a river, and individuals are leaves being swept along on top of the current, what makes Isabella come back and the emperor stay at home? How much can be changed? Can all of it?

A bit of preliminary housekeeping: in order to write about my experience with this book, I need to include spoilers. Most professional review include some indication of what the book is about (or else how would we know whether we want to read it?), but I will go beyond what they reveal. So be forewarned: SPOILER ALERT.

Most of the aforementioned reviews will tell you it’s Dante-meets-Groundhog-Day, as Cory Doctorow put it in his LATimes review (I would add Milton to the mix). Girolamo Savonarola, the 15th century Florentine monk who is today famous for his Bonfire of the Vanities, lives his life, dies, goes to hell, and does it all over again, trying each time to find a way to stop the cycle. That’s a decent summary, and I impulsively decided to read it (it’s an addition to my summer reading list in the Religion category) since it includes several special interests of mine. Historical fiction meets religion via fantasy, you might call it. Or, “A historical fantasy set in Florence and Hell between 1492 and 1498, pretty much,” as Walton says in her introduction for Tor Books; “The first time through it’s pretty close to what really historically happened, give or take a few demons and the holy grail.” But the heart of the book is much deeper than this playfulness might indicate.

The Groundhog Day repetition is accomplished by structuring the book in Parts, alternating between Florence and Hell; each chapter within Parts One, Three, and Seven, the Florence parts, begins with a consecutive line from the Lord’s Prayer. The even Parts Two, Four, and Six, taking place in Hell, have only one short chapter each. The final Part Seven is a bit different, as it telescopes many, many iterations, and brings things to a conclusion, a single sentence that is climax and denouement. Given there are only two possible outcomes – the iterations continue indefinitely, or they terminate – there is a definitive resolution, yet many questions are left hanging.

Let me again say how much I enjoy a book that teaches me something, and I learned a great deal about the history of Renaissance Florence, her art, and theology from this read; I even created a very small Cerego set so I’d remember some of it. I actually studied a bit before I even started reading by finding a couple of academic lectures on Youtube about Florence and Savonarola (fortunately, I’d already taken a couple of moocs on Dante and Milton). Since the first 168 pages were historically accurate (excepting, as Walton mentions, demons and the Grail, and a few private conversations and a few characters who exist beyond the historical record), it was another read-at-my-computer session, as with Azazeel a few weeks ago. Savonarola, Lorenzo di Medici, Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Angelo Poliziano, and Camilla Rucellai (the Savonarola follower and seer, not the one obliquely related to the Mona Lisa, if I’m reading correctly) are the primary historically documented players, along with assorted religious and government people. The most important non-historical character is Isabella, who is something like a live-in girlfriend to Pico.

I have to admit I had some misgivings early on. I considered putting the book aside, in fact, but given that I’d just abandoned three Sinclair Lewis novels, I thought maybe I was in a bad pattern so just kept reading. I’m very glad I did; the more I read, the more I had to keep reading.

I learned about such things as the Medici Giraffe (which occasionally finds its way into art of the period as a tribute to Lorenzo) and the Pelican of Piety, a symbol used in Renaissance art of the charity of Christ. Then there’s Camilla’s prophecy that Pico would forswear his evil ways (besides a girlfriend, he had written 900 theses that were considered heretical) and take Dominican vows “in the time of lilies”; everyone thought she meant in Spring, which was good news since, in November he seemed to be dying. But he died anyway, as the French, with their fleur de lis flags, passed through Florence by the grace of negotiations and tribute towards other battles. It seems that story has been borrowed by several writers, most notably George Eliot.

Walton’s Girolamo is not at all the fanatical Savonarola that I had in the back of my mind. He disagrees with the Church in many instances, but on things that need disagreement, such as corruption, oppression, and the misbehavior of Popes who not only eschew celibacy but install their children in positions of power. As Walton presents it, the Bonfire of the Vanities was not his idea; it was recommended in a meeting (of all things – a meeting!) as a kind of energizing stunt, since the Medici Giraffe was no longer available. It’s based on a prior event by Bernardino of Siena. Girolamo is seen going over all books and art to determine if they should be rescued; he wavers over Boccaccio, but figures there are enough copies to allow one to burn. Botticelli and other artist donated pieces to the pyre, presumably because they had better works. And, in a fascinating little tribute to Shakespeare, on the night before the Bonfire, a merchant of Venice named Antonio shows up and offers Girolamo a great deal of money for all the items on the pile. The thought process Girolamo goes through before turning down the offer is quite reasonable. This is not an obsessed madman, but a thoughtful monk who appreciates art and literature and philosophy, but has a genuine set of principles.

The Grail comes into things early on as a small stone hidden in a book. Girolamo finds this, wonders about it, hangs onto it, but isn’t sure what it means. And it sits there for about 170 pages doing nothing. Don’t worry; it will come into its own in another lifetime.

In the final pages of Part One, Girolamo is hanged over fire, as he indeed was in history. The superstition is that those who are good, who are going to heaven, fall from the gallows onto the fire on their faces (prostrate before God, perhaps?) so do not feel the flames, while those who are destined for Hell fall backwards and feel everything. This moment after execution becomes a resonating trope opening every Return part. But it is here, in Part Two, that we first learn who – or what – Girolamo actually is (seriously, SPOILER ALERT, it’s the last time I’m telling you):

And the rope breaks, and he falls into the fire, not forward onto his face, like good people, but onto his back, like the damned.
He lands on his back, slamming into Hell with a force that would have knocked out the breath and broken all the bones of a living man. He knows he is not that, nor never has been…. He is a demon, beaked and bat-winged and foul; he was sent into the world to live without this knowledge only to make this moment of returning what it is: Hell.
It is the utmost imaginable anguish. Of course it is, for this is truly Hell, and torment is Hell’s only handicraft. This moment of utter knowledge and despair is his earned and well-deserved punishment for opposing God. For he had been an Angel, long ago, spending all his days praising God, in heaven. …and from that, he had, through his own will, fall into this.

Well, that was unexpected.

If this raises some questions, be assured that Girolamo will spend the rest of the book, his multiple iterations, asking the same questions. Few will be definitively answered, but some light will be shed on most. I’m left with many, but they are questions more of faith and interpretation than of fact; Walton’s answers wouldn’t be any more satisfying than my own.

One of the theological ideas presented again and again over time is apocatastasis, the theory that Hell is itself a kind of purgatory, and that all souls will eventually be purified and redeemed. This was rejected long before, however, by no less than St. Augustine. Apparently it survives in some sects, but in Girolamo’s time, it is considered untrue. Even if true, he doubts it applies to the demons, the fallen angels. Yet he hopes. “Hope hurts,” he says.

What stood out to me, given the whole Dante-does-Groundhog-Day prompting, was the difference between Dante’s Hell, and Walton’s. Dante constructed an elaborate system of punishments for various categories of sins, relating each punishment to the sin with exquisite specificity: wind, water, fire, ice, disembowelment, decapitation. In Girolamo’s Hell, there is only despair of everlasting separation from God. Now, many years ago, the Baptists and Pentecostals tried to sell us on fire and brimstone being metaphorical equivalents this separation, but given the prominence of the former and the occasional mention of the latter, I suspect they would be disappointed in Walton’s version (and tweens-teens are far more impressed by flames and screaming than by despair). However, she is extraordinarily good at conveying Girolamo’s pain, a pain that has little to do with physical discomfort and everything to do with loss and hopelessness:

He could summon up his own cell, as he has done before. Only the crucifix of his bedside he cannot summon, or the painted likeness of the Savior on the wall, or the faces of the Virgin or the Saints. He is filled with the emptiness of where those things should be.
He has done it before. He can do it again. Yet it is only now that he realizes the full horror of his predicament. He has been lent to earth again and again, and in endless iteration will go on being lent, be born again and to go through that same life of hope and ignorance, only to return again and again to this first appalling moment where he must face the fact that he has forever lost God, and all hope and possibility of God’s love.
That is what it means to be damned.

Notice also the punny twist on Lent. The odd-numbered Parts do begin, typically, in the spring, when Lent would fall, but now there is this other meaning.

Milton comes into play as well through the fallen angel thread, though Paradise Lost would not be written for over a century after Savonarola. For while Girolamo’s struggles on earth take up most of the book, it is this falling of angels that intrigues me the most. It’s a topic that’s always been addressed mostly in legend and speculative theology with only a few verses of biblical support. Milton started his poem with Satan, cast out, as an antihero, rebelling against a tyrannical God, then goes on to destroy humanity’s sacredness. As the poem evolves, he becomes less and less sympathetic, until at last God again is victorious over him by having the last word.

In Walton’s book, the details of the rebellion are unclear throughout, a technique I appreciate since more detail would necessarily entail its own theology. There’s a puzzling use of the name Asbiel, similar to Abdiel, one of the angels in Milton’s poem, the angel who tattled on Lucifer; I’m not sure if they’re supposed to be the same being, since that would create a pair of brothers who started the rebellion. My read at the moment is that Crookback (I’ll get there, don’t worry) is indeed Lucifer, Girolamo/Asbiel is his brother, and they were the initial troublemakers. The had “wanted a world without pain, when pain was just an intellectual concept.” They had pride, to believe they knew better than God.

As Bill Murray’s weatherman had to lose his cynical, narcissistic way of viewing everyone else as instrumental to his own needs in order to break out of his loop, so must Girolamo overcome his pride. And that involves his brother, who on earth is the mercenary soldier called Crookback (and sometimes Richard III), who sent the Grail to Florence where Girolamo finds it and discovers it unleashes his memories of past lives, deaths, and his demonic nature.

In addition to the Shakespeare references, I found a few others (and who knows what I missed through my own ignorance): my manuscript-hunting buddy from The Swerve, Poggio Bracciolini; and Michelangelo, who plays a bit part in a couple of Girolamo’s lifetimes:

Michelangelo Buonarroti comes over, a cup of wine in his hand. He is growing a beard. “I have it !” he says delightedly.
“What?” Girolamo asks, but Marsilio knows.
“That huge block of marble that’s been standing about for so long?“
“Yes. I am going to carve the prophet Amos, to go high up on the cathedral. I thought him with the face of brother Giovanni. What do you think? “
Isabella and Girolamo exchange a glance. Marsilio nods gravely. “I think that would be splendid,“ he says.
Michelangelo looks at the others. “And his body too,” he says, with a hint of defiance in his tone.

Yes, there is humor, probably more than I recognized. In one spot, Girolamo offers an apple to a beggar, and sheepishly tells his earthly companion, “I like apples.” In another spot, when a plan involving the Grail goes awry and it is lost to Crookback, Girolamo’s great friend Pico says, “Well, that went badly”, perhaps an anachronistic understatement, but one that, under the circumstances, made me laugh. Out loud.

But again, I come back to the religious component. See the comparison between Girolamo’s Heaven and Hell:

“Will there be poetry in heaven?“ [Angelo, the poet] asks, like a child, as he hands back the cup.
“I think there will be something better, “ Girolamo confides. “Something that poetry reminds us of, and that is why we are drawn to love it. I think loving all earthly beauty is a way to lead us to love heavenly beauty. So there will not be sunsets or poetry, but there will be something like them but even better.“

There is no relief in Hell, so he cannot weep for his innocence, his lost illusions. Will is power here, and he has his place in the ranks of power. That is all he has. … There is no fellowship in hell, the only relationship possible is that of tormenting one another. Spite, Hell’s closest approach to joy.

Through Girolamo’s subsequent earthly lives, some details change a little, some a lot. He has different close allies each time; given that he is a demon and Hell has no relationships, his earthly relationships are wonderful, even as he bears the knowledge of his despair. He formulates plans to break the cycle, to harrow hell, as it were, to free the demons there. This is like Milton’s hell, not Dante’s: Girolamo’s Hell has only demons. Questions of atonement, of forgiveness, of salvation in the face of eternal damnation, of hope and despair, become more prominent as the cycles proceed. It’s truly wonderful. Girolamo may be a demon, but he’s a demon with a mission, and a heart of gold, just about the most sympathetic demon you could ever know.

I am, as I’ve said, left with questions. Where did the Grail come from? Sure, it’s a gift from the King of Hungary, and Girolamo discovers it by chance, but how did that happen? How does it have the power to harrow hell? How does the time looping work: does the entire world loop indefinitely? Does it go back to the day in April when he discovers the stone, or back to the beginning of the universe? If/when he stops looping, will that be the End of Time, or just the End of Hell? And then, not a question but an interpretation I wish I could verify: I see a strong parallelism between Christ harrowing people and Girolamo harrowing demons. Christ is the begotten of God, sent to live on earth, die, and redeem human souls. Girolamo is the brother of Lucifer (my interpretation; in any case he is the brother of a Prince of Hell) who is “lent” to earth to redeem the unredeemable, using the Key to the Kingdom Christ gave Peter. Why is it Girolamo who is the earthly figure for the demon Asbiel, instead of someone else, in another time or place?

None of these questions, or the others that flit by once in a while, are really answerable, since this is a fantasy based on religious imagery and story. I’ve never been comfortable with the category of fantasy, but I keep running into such wonderful examples such as this, and Helen Oyeyemi, and various authors from my Pushcart and BASS editions. And now, Jo Walton, an author new to me.

Given that I gave up on organized religion fifty years ago (though I do hang out in churches sometimes, because, to paraphrase Willie Sutton, that’s where the music is), it’s odd that I’m so drawn to these kinds of stories about holy forgiveness and damnation on such cosmic scales. That’s what story does: it brings us closer to what was far away. Girolamo, Pico, Angelo, Camilla, Isabella, they have all captivated me, and now that I have finished the book, I find I miss them. The good news is: I can come back to them any time, just by opening to page one.

Addendum: FMI, listen to the podcast about this book by Julie Davis and Scott Danielson at A Good Story is Hard to Find

A Sinclair Lewis sampler: Babbitt, Main Street, It Can’t Happen Here

“I tell you, my friends, the trouble with this whole country is that so many are selfish! Here’s a hundred and twenty million people, with 95 per cent of ‘em only thinking of self, instead of turning to and helping the responsible business men to bring back prosperity! All these corrupt and self-seeking labor unions! Money grubbers! Thinking only of how much wages they can extort out of their unfortunate employer, with all the responsibilities he has to bear!
“What this country needs is Discipline! Peace is a great dream, but maybe sometimes it’s only a pipe dream! I’m not so sure—now this will shock you, but I want you to listen to one woman who will tell you the unadulterated hard truth instead of a lot of sentimental taffy, and I’m not sure but that we need to be in a real war again, in order to learn Discipline! We don’t want all this highbrow intellectuality, all this book-learning. That’s good enough in its way, but isn’t it, after all, just a nice toy for grownups? No, what we all of us must have, if this great land is going to go on maintaining its high position among the Congress of Nations, is Discipline—Will Power—Character!”

It Can’t Happen Here

A couple of years ago, It Can’t Happen Here was the hottest book in America. Written in 1935, it painted a satirical picture of the US to succumbing to the same fascism that was overtaking Europe. Hence its recent popularity.

I wanted to read it, but I also wanted to read some other Lewis works (and I’ll admit, I hoped this might help with my persistent tendency to confuse Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis, as a minor side bonus). Because I’m fond of medical stuff, I initially thought of Arrowsmith, but from the description it seemed like medicine was a side detail, so I ruled that out. I decided against Elmer Gantry as being too familiar from more modern situations.

Babbitt was often cited as the book that earned Lewis the Nobel Prize, so that was high on my list. Main Street was one of the few books with a female protagonist, and has also been frequently mentioned in recent years, so that was a definite possibility. That gave me with three possibilities. I couldn’t decide on just one, so I checked all three out of the library.

I didn’t finish any of them. Hey, sometimes that’s how it goes.

It Can’t Happen Here had me pissed off by page 6 (thanks to passages like the one quoted above), and I realized I did not want to read an overtly political novel right now. I particularly didn’t want to read one that could have been taken from Twitter (I’ve muted nearly all the news-and-opinion people, and increased the art, humor, literature, and medicine, but it’s still like running a gauntlet some days). And I don’t need any convincing that of course it can happen here, particularly since it is happening here right now.

Babbitt went better, for a while.

But Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practise, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against motor-speeding; he paid his debts; he contributed to the church, the Red Cross, and the Y. M. C. A.; he followed the custom of his clan and cheated only as it was sanctified by precedent; and he never descended to trickery—though, as he explained to Paul Riesling:
“Course I don’t mean to say that every ad I write is literally true or that I always believe everything I say when I give some buyer a good strong selling-spiel….”

After 200 pages, ok, ok, I get it, they’re all hypocrites, decrying labor unions for forcing membership while insisting every business owner must be a Booster. They’re shallow, letting the Church and the Republican Party and whatever advertisement looks prettiest in the magazine determine what they believe, think, and buy. They measure the perfection of life by the possession of a sun-porch. And then there’s the racism, displayed when the porter on a train doesn’t know the exact time:

“They’re getting so they don’t have a single bit of respect for you. The old-fashioned coon was a fine old cuss—he knew his place—but these young dinges don’t want to be porters or cotton-pickers. Oh, no! They got to be lawyers and professors and Lord knows what all! I tell you, it’s becoming a pretty serious problem. We ought to get together and show the black man, yes, and the yellow man, his place. Now, I haven’t got one particle of race-prejudice. I’m the first to be glad when a nigger succeeds—so long as he stays where he belongs and doesn’t try to usurp the rightful authority and business ability of the white man.”

But my main problem was one of boredom. I knew there would be a turning point, but I didn’t want to read another 150 pages to get there. So I stopped reading and found a quick-and-dirty summary that told me how Babbitt would fall out with the Right People and come to some kind of minor revelation about what freedom is and isn’t, culminating in the final page, a page that is almost worth reading the 400 pages before it, when his 18-year-old son, who Babbitt wants to be a lawyer, shows up married and skips college to work in mechanics. It’s a lovely scene, Babbitt’s “new voice, booming, authoritative, dominated the room.” I’m not typically in favor of a man telling his wife to shut the hell up, but in this case, it feels earned. “Babbitt crossed the floor slowly, ponderously, seeming a little old” to reach his son, and after a few faint protests, the changing of the guard is finally accomplished on several levels:

I’ve never done a single thing I’ve wanted to in my whole life! I don’t know ‘s I’ve accomplished anything except just get along. I figure out I’ve made about a quarter of an inch out of a possible hundred rods. Well, maybe you’ll carry things on further. I don’t know. But I do get a kind of sneaking pleasure out of the fact that you knew what you wanted to do and did it. Well, those folks in there will try to bully you, and tame you down. Tell ’em to go to the devil! I’ll back you. Take your factory job, if you want to. Don’t be scared of the family. No, nor all of Zenith. Nor of yourself, the way I’ve been. Go ahead, old man! The world is yours!”
Arms about each other’s shoulders, the Babbitt men marched into the living-room and faced the swooping family.

Made me feel bad that I skipped 200 pages. But not bad enough to go back and read them.

I had much the same experience with Main Street. After enjoying the first 100 pages or so, I felt jerked around by the midpoint of the book. Carol feels defeated in her quest to liberalize Gopher Prairie; she feels content by some aspect of her life; oops, no, she’s down again; and no, here she is up. I had much the same back-and-forth with myself: as much as I appreciate her zeal for creativity and thought, I was annoyed by her Great White Savior attitude. I sympathized with it as well. I’ve never been able to find a group where I felt comfortable to be who I am; I’ve always struggled to fit in as what the group wanted me to be. Which is why I avoid groups. And even on the internet, I’m mostly alone, save for a few intersections. But that’s my comfort zone; I don’t have to change who I am, and neither does anyone else. And of course, I’m a lot older than Carol, so our approaches would naturally differ.

I see the same sort of irony as in the other books. Take for example, the scene where she’s trying to convey her frustration with small-town life to her husband:

This is an independent town, not like these Eastern holes where you have to watch your step all the time, and live up to fool demands and social customs, and a lot of old tabbies always busy criticizing. Everybody’s free here to do what he wants to.” He said it with a flourish, and Carol perceived that he believed it. She turned her breath of fury into a yawn.
“By the way, Carrie, while we’re talking of this: Of course I like to keep independent, and I don’t believe in this business of binding yourself to trade with the man that trades with you unless you really want to, but same time: I’d be just as glad if you dealt with Jenson or Ludelmeyer as much as you ran, instead of Howland & Gould, who go to Dr. Gould every last time, and the whole tribe of ’em the same way…”

But I still want to ask Carol, hey, you’re the one who married him, how could you not know this would be your life? That, when you tell him you want to “do something with life”, would reply, “What’s better than making a comfy home and bringing up some cute kids and knowing nice only people?“

There’s a nicely done scene that shows, without telling, the exact relationship between husband and wife. When Carol comes home debating herself about whether she’s happily married or not, and does her best to convince herself she is, she finds her husband reading a magazine:

She dropped into his lap and (after he had jerked back his head to save his eye glasses, and removed the glasses, and settled her in a position less cramping to his legs, and casually cleared his throat ) he kissed her amiably ….

She starts up a kind of pre-affair relationship with Guy Pollock, a quiet man she sees as sympathetic. But then she realizes, “he had never been anything but a frame on which she had hung shining garments.” Everyone we meet is a frame on which we hang garments, some shining, some stained. And again I want to tell her, hey, you did the same thing with your husband, and now you’re disappointed, how could you not have known. And then I remember my own marriage. I didn’t know anything. So maybe I should give Carol a break.

I found some perverse enjoyment in the conflict between Carol and the townspeople. When Carol, having worked in the Minneapolis library herself, proposes to the Gopher Prairie librarian that the job of a librarian is to increase reading, Miss Villets disagrees: “The first duty of the conscientious librarian is to preserve the books.” Carol likes that shopkeepers pay attention to her preferences, “even if they weren’t worth fulfilling.”

One thing that struck me while reading this was Carol’s tendency to think, I must go on, I will go on, lending a slight Beckettsian flavor to the novel. Beckett was decades later, of course, but it’s an interesting link. Yet I got bored about halfway through. That’s my pattern for all three books: I feel like, about halfway through, I’m done, it’s time to skip to the end. In Carol’s case, that’s less the minor revelation of George Babbitt, and more the sense of “resistance is futile” as she resigns herself to Gopher Prairie. I think it’d be interesting to see her twenty years hence, as another young, eager-to-reform ingenue moves into town.

I think one reason I had so much trouble with these books is what I call the “Pope and Shakespeare problem”. A wag in a former English class joked, “Alexander Pope has to stop writing in clichés”, the joke being they weren’t clichés when he wrote the them. It’s nearly impossible to read the Hamlet speech, or portions of Romeo and Juliet, or entire Shakespearean sonnets, and really hear the words; the impressions of repetitions over the years make the words a kind of trigger for recollection, rather than an aesthetic encounter. Lewis is credited with writing about small towns, about conservatism, in a less idealistic way (to say the least); since his heyday, so many others have covered this field (especially in the 50s), it’s hard to read him as original. It’s like taking a kid to see the first Star Wars, Episode IV: they don’t understand what a big deal it was – the light sabers, the saloon scene, The Force – back in 1977.

It’s one thing to know a Babbitt is a “a materialistic, complacent, and conformist businessman”; it’s another to have experienced just how hypocritical and boring he is, and to have witnessed the potential for change. This reading was a necessary and positive experience, even if I didn’t finish any of the books. It accomplished what I’d intended: to see more of what is the American canon, to better understand when these works serve as reference points for other works.

Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman (HarperCollins 1998)


Popular myth has it that one of the most remarkable conversations in modern literary history took place on a cool and misty late autumn afternoon in 1896, in the small village of Crowthorne in the county of Berkshire.
One of the parties to the colloquy was the formidable Dr. James Murray, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. On the day in question he had traveled fifty miles by train from Oxford to meet an enigmatic figure named Dr. W.C. Minor, who was among the most prolific of the thousands of volunteer contributors whose labors lay at the core of the dictionary’s creation.

Although the official government files relating to this case are secret, and have been locked away for more than a century, I have recently been allowed to see them. What follows is the strange, tragic, yet spiritually uplifting story they reveal.

No, I haven’t seen the movie. Given the tepid reviews, I don’t plan to. But I was interested in the story, given that one of my three prized possessions is the Compact Edition of the OED [Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically (in slipcase with reading glass)], bought during a BOMC promotion ($25!) when I was studying linguistics in college.

One more housekeeping task: the title above applies to the American edition; the British edition was titled The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words and is the title credited in the film. To my surprise, I rather prefer the American title, since it emphasizes a point made early in the book:

The story that follows can fairly be said to have two protagonists. One of them is Doctor Minor, the murdering soldier from the United States, and there is one other. Just say that a story has two protagonists, or three, or ten, is a perfectly acceptable, unremarkable modern form of speech. It happens however that a furious lexicographical controversy once raised over the use of the word – a dispute that helps illustrate the singular and peculiar way in which the Oxford English Dictionary has been constructed and how, when it flexes its muscles, it has a witheringly intimidating authority.

I would timidly suggest that the book, in fact, has three protagonists. The third is not the OED, but language itself.

As illustrated above, each of the eleven chapters begins with an entry from the first edition of the OED, a word that has significance for the text that follows: murder, polymath and philology, lunatic, sesquipedalian, elephant, bedlam, catchword, poor, dénouement, masturbate, diagnosis. Although the relevance of some of these are obvious, others are unexpected; if you’re curious, I recommend reading the book. It’s part biography, part history, and part linguistic text, and dances among these foci to create a surprisingly emotional experience.

The story is pretty well-known by now: Dr. William Minor, an American surgeon who started showing signs of psychiatric illness while serving in the Union Army during the Civil War, moved to London in the hopes of easing his mental pain. It didn’t work; he murdered George Merrett, just an ordinary guy with six kids and a pregnant wife on his way to the early shift at the brewery, during a psychotic event. Minor spent most of the rest of his life in an English asylum, though obtaining fairly good conditions due to his obvious high intelligence when he wasn’t alarmed by demons only he could see. During the same period, James Murray, a poor Scot who truly pulled himself up to the pinnacle of academia by his intelligence and determination, became editor of the then-fledgling “Big Dictionary”, the first undertaking in the English language to illustrate the meanings of every word, and changes in those meanings, by quotations over time. This required a huge volunteer force to read and submit quotations from 150 years of literature, so flyers were sent out to recruit those who were interested. William Minor happened across one of those flyers, and was indeed interested; he became one of the most prolific contributors from his cell in the asylum, using the uninformative address “Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire”.

But the popular myth story above – which includes a dramatic reveal as Murray greets the governor of the asylum with the assumption that he is the amateur wordsmith and only then finds out his best worker is a madman – is just that, myth, fake news, a Hollywood rewrite. The real story is, I think, far more human and moving. Murray became aware that Minor was not just a country doctor with a lot of time on his hands by way of a visiting scholar who referred to him as “poor Dr. Minor”, and set out to understand just what was so poor about him. That single word, poor, is the turning point of the tale. Murray could have taken several paths, including cutting off all communication and expunging Minor’s participation to protect the dictionary project from scandal. But he chose otherwise:

I was of course deeply affected by the story, but as Doctor Minor had never in the least alluded to himself or his position, all I could do was to write him more respectfully and kindly than before, so as to show no notice of this disclosure, which I feared might make some change in our relations.
…A few years ago an American citizen who called on me told me he had been to see Dr. Minor and said he found him rather low and out of spirits, and urged me to go to see him ….I then wrote to Dr. Minor telling him that, and to that Mr. (I forget the name) who had recently visited him had told me that a visit from me would be welcome.

This did indeed result in a visit, and those visits continued over a period of some years. He did this six years before the dramatic fictional story connected with an elegant formal dinner honoring the dictionary staff, with full knowledge of Minor’s background, and with the respect and compassion deserved by all. Yes, I definitely prefer this account to the “surprise!” version.

Winchester presents evidence that Minor earned the compassion bestowed on him with behavior before and after the murder. He was, after all, a surgeon, and though that was a very different prospect in the latter half of the nineteenth century than today, it had a humanitarian aim. He also was a military officer. After his confinement, he apologized to Merrett’s widow and sent her money out of his army pension; she forgave him, and came to visit him several times, often bringing books he’d requested.

One point that’s emphasized is how different and similar Minor and Murray were. Minor was from a wealthy family, and had education easily available, while Murray was from working-class people and left school at 14, as was the practice then. He later made up for it, but it was a struggle. They were both of high intelligence and strongly motivated. It seems they were similar in appearance, particularly in the cultivation of long beards. One was, of course, mentally ill, and the other quite sane; yet they were united by their shared love of words. Murray arranged for a photographer to complete a portrait of Minor, which adorns the cover of the book. I’ve put a background of both men on the header image; without knowing, would you be able to tell which was the professor and which the madman?

While the history and process of the creation of the OED is well-described, Winchester has written another work, The Meaning of Everything, to more fully cover the details of the seventy-year process. James Murray was not the first editor, and he did not live to see the work completed, though he did produce several of the first volumes. Minor also did not live to see the final publishing. His psychiatric and physical illnesses worsened to the point where he was no longer able to participate in the project. He was eventually returned to America, where he spent his final year in a hospital.

It’s a book that wraps together several separate threads. For all its focus on historically documented facts, it has quite an emotional impact. In fact, I had a lot of trouble dictating the final paragraphs to include as quotes, because I kept tearing up as I read:

… The only public memorials ever raised to the two most tragically linked of this saga’s protagonists are miserable, niggardly affairs. William Minor has just a simple little gravestone in a New Haven cemetery, hemmed in between litter and slums. George Merrett has for years had nothing at all, except for a patch of grayish grass in a sprawling graveyard in South London. Minor does, however, have the advantage of the great dictionary, which some might say acts as his most lasting remembrance. But nothing else remains to suggest that the man he killed was ever worthy of any memory at all. George Merrett has become an absolutely unsung man.
Which is why it now seems fitting, more than a century and a quarter on, that this modest account begins with the dedication that it does. And why this book is offered as a small testament to the late George Merrett of Wiltshire and Lambeth, without whose untimely death these events would never have unfolded, and this tale could never have been told.

It’s not a book about a dictionary at all; it’s a book about being human.

Finn Murphy, The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road (Norton, 2017)

My own baptism into life as a driver for a major van line was not smooth. I was nervous and cocky when I first got on the road…. Almost 40 years later, I am a calm, meticulous, and imperturbable driver. I am highly sought after and exorbitantly paid. That didn’t happen overnight.
You are about to go on the road with me, a long haul mover. It’s a road uncongested by myth. You’ll see the work, meet the families I moved, and visit with the people who populate this subculture. You’ll smell the sweat, drink in the crummy bars, eat the disgusting food, manage an unruly labor pool, and meet some strange people. But I hope you also experience the exhilaration and the attraction, of the life out there. ….
Come on, let’s take a little ride. ..

A few months ago, the PBS News Hour aired a segment with Finn Murphy and mentioned his book. I was interested in knowing more about a kid from Cos Cob, Connecticut, who drops out of Colby College after his third year (!) to take up truck driving, so I put it on my To Be Read list; in fact, it got me started on the category of “books about jobs, especially those rarely written about” that’s part of my interregnum reading this year.

The book is mostly about Murphy’s particular niche in the industry, long-haul household moving, usually for executives relocating or retiring. These movers, called bedbuggers, are low-status to other truckers, but earn pretty good money. Boy, do they work for it, though, and this book shows exactly how.

There’s plenty of trucker slang and details about trucks, for those who are hoping for that. There’s some autobiography. About half of it is about individual moves, some for nice people, some for real dickheads. And sprinkled through it all, we get a glimpse of Murphy’s views on his industry, on economic tradeoffs, and on life in general. For instance, the first moving job he handled on his own, at 21 years of age, generated the aphorism we could all take to heart: “Don’t let anyone ever tell you what to do with your truck.” He’s also developed an interesting view of possessions:

After more than three thousand moves I know that everyone has almost the exact same stuff and I certainly know where it’s all going to end up. It’s going to end up in a yard sale or in a dumpster. It might take a generation, though usually not, but Aunt Tilly’s sewing machine is getting tossed. So is your high school yearbook and Grandma’s needlepoint doily of the Eiffel Tower. Most people save the kids’ kindergarten drawings and the IKEA bookcases. After the basement and attic are full it’s off to a mini-storage to put aside more useless stuff. A decade or three down the road when the estate is settled and nobody wants to pay the storage fees anymore, off it will all go into the ether. This is not anecdotal. I know because I’m the guy who puts it all in the dumpster.
Movers are there at the beginning point of accumulation and all the points to the bitter end, so we tend to develop a Buddhist view of attachment…. Sentimental value of stuff is a graven image and a mug’s game. The only beneficiary is the self storage guy. What my customers need to know is that it’s not the stuff but the connection with people and family and friends that matters. Practically everyone I move gets this wrong.

I find myself half agreeing and half disagreeing. I’m particularly interested in this because I’m getting ready to move – just a couple of blocks, but I still have to figure out what to take and what to toss since I’m downsizing. I find I’m letting go of a couple of pieces of real furniture because they’re less useful than the IKEA shelves (except they’re Staples shelves). I figure I’ve had my rolltop desk for 35 years now, so it’s provided plenty of enjoyment. As for my mother’s china, I feel like I’m betraying her by giving it away, so I’m keeping a few of the unusual pieces. When I sold my piano 25 years ago because I just couldn’t afford to keep moving it, I was devastated for days; it was just part of me for so long, to lose it was to give up a piece of my self-image of a person-with-a-piano. So while I agree that stuff is just stuff, some stuff has more importance than other stuff.

There’s a fairly big omission in the book. Murphy took what he calls a long hiatus from trucking, from the 80’s to 2008, and doesn’t really explain it. When I hear something like that, my mind goes to dark places: jails, rehabs, hospitals, homeless shelters. It turns out, on rewatching the PBS segment, it wasn’t that dark at all. He started a business and got married. It’s odd he’d omit that. His return to trucking after the collapse of both, however, is beautifully conveyed:

In 2008 I found myself washed ashore in a city out west where I knew nobody; I was fifty-one years old, single, with no job, no plans, no nothing. I was unmoored. It was the most difficult period of my life. I didn’t want to think about how I’d lit the fuse to my previous life and watched it explode. All I wanted to do was to go back on the road. I wanted to climb into a truck, hit that start button, watch the air pressure build up, and go. In that respect I knew I’d have plenty of company among other drivers. That’s what we do.
Fifty-one years old is not a propitious age to go back to building tiers in a moving van. I was in decent shape, but moving furniture is a young man’s work. I wasn’t at all sure I could make the grade. What I did know was that I could certainly perform other tasks much better than before. I was no longer a young man in a hurry. I wasn’t a young man at all. I was another piece of flotsam hitting the road because I thought I’d run out of options.
Another thing I knew now was that moving, for the shipper, was to experience an emotional nosedive. Maybe I couldn’t lift like I used too, but maybe, just maybe, I could use my own failures and hard-earned understanding to grease the wheels of my work and make the experience easier for the people who were moving. Maybe I could breach the wall of suspicion and enmity people have about movers. That felt attractive. I wanted to do it the right way, the way I never had done it before. I wanted to interact with my shippers and helpers applying compassion and professionalism. I wanted to approach the work itself with serious intellectual intention toward performing even the smallest tasks properly.

I greatly enjoyed these introspectives. He wonders why people hate movers so much. I do, too; I’ve always been grateful someone was willing to do what I couldn’t. He’s not going to stand still for any myths about the trucker as modern-day cowboy, either; there are log books, weigh stations, and plenty of paperwork. He’s not big on myths in general. “The myth of the trucker as a latter-day cowboy is the same narrative that the urban rapper or the southern rebel adopts to accept his place at the bottom of the American dream.” He has tremendous respect for people who work their way up from nowhere, but recognizes that they are exceptional, not typical. Every time I hear that crap, I want to ask why the speaker hasn’t become incredibly rich because after all Bill Gates started Microsoft and Steve Jobs started Apple so what’s wrong with you? I find it idiotic when, at the end of something like American Idol, the winner says something stupid like, “See, if you work hard you can accomplish your dreams” when tens of thousands of people worked just as hard and most of them never saw the inside of a studio. Fact is, some people are incredibly talented (and that includes traits like perseverance, dealing with disappointment, and motivation), and some are lucky. Murphy had the intense motivation, the interest in physical work, from the start, but never forgets his privilege.

His mover-stories are both entertaining and meaningful. An obstetrician, originally from India, is moving to LDS country for the high birth rate, and maybe for the polygamy. A family watched as a staircase collapsed and their treasured piano smashed on the ground, then invited the crew to stay for dinner. A high-rise delivery requires clever negotiation skills when another move has commandeered the elevators. One exec refused to let the movers use any of the 11 bathrooms in the house, telling them to use a Porta-Potty a mile away.

My shipper, after helping topple his bank in 2008, caught another plum job with another troubled public company that was paying for this move. Without getting all Eugene Debs about it, it seems to me that while many bad movers end up in orange vests picking up trash on roadsides, many bad executives get new million dollar jobs running other companies into the courtroom.

Sing it, bro.

One of his stories is about a bar, connected to a motel, that caters to long-haul movers, the only such set-up he’s seen. Since, for whatever reason, they’re the bottom of the totem pole at most trucking-oriented restaurants and bars, it was a real oasis. The bartender checks to make sure he’s done driving for the night before serving, then shows him around. A guy at the end of the bar would sell excess packing and loading supplies, as well as drugs. The hookers who populate other cheap motels, looking to roll any trucker dumb enough to take them on, are chased away. And best of all: moving company shirts with logos from all over the country, and even around the world, are pinned to the wall. Murphy tries to get his best friend and company owner to come out and put up a shirt, but it doesn’t work out. Spoilsport – it would’ve made a great ending. But, to be honest, that he didn’t do it made me trust that the rest of the book was real, which in this era of 86% true nonfiction and alternate truth, is no longer a given.

Finn Murphy doesn’t fit into any convenient category. Maybe that’s why, after reading his book, a couple of interviews (including an extended one with PBS’s Terry Gross, who he admits in his book having a bit of a crush for) I don’t really feel like I know him at all. He’s very open in the book about a lot of things, from outlooks on life to the client wife who jumped his bones to the two-year estrangement with his parents when he left college (his father presented him with a bill for tuition spent), yet I feel there’s a curtain there. Maybe it’s just the confounding of my expectations. That’s a good thing, because I need to remember, especially now, that everyone is their own category.

I lay quietly, snug in my cocoon, wondering why people think it’s odd that a guy like me is a long-haul mover. I just helped another family navigate a major transition. What else could possibly matter? This is why we’re all here: to help each other navigate.
My last thoughts before drifting off were about navigation. A mover’s job is to shift people from where they are to where there supposed to be. Lucky for me, every once in awhile I find the place where I’m supposed to be too. It’s a priceless gift that I only get when I’m out on the road.
It’s the best job in the whole world.

It’s not the life for me – I prefer stability and predictability – but his enjoyment comes through loud and clear. It’s a rare thing, to find work that suits you so well. It’s even rarer to recognize what suits you when you run into it.

Youssef Ziedan, Azazeel (translation, Atlantic 2012)

Where should I begin my narrative? The beginnings are intertwined, teeming in my head. Perhaps, as my old teacher Syriana used to say, beginnings are merely delusions we believe in, for the beginning and the ending exist only along a straight line, and there are no straight lines except in our imagination or on the scraps of paper where we trace our delusions. In life and in all creation, however, everything is circular, returning to where it began, interwoven with whatever is connected. There is in reality no beginning and no ending, only an unbroken succession. In the universe the connections never break, the weft never unravels, and the branching never ceases, nor the filling and the emptying.

I know exactly what he means. I’ve spent a couple of days now staring at my computer screen, or mulling over how to write about this book, and I still don’t know. The theme of writing is, indeed, part of the book, but it’s a book that has many themes, and which one stands out at any moment is likely to be more about the reader than the book itself.

Like most stories, this one is told out of order. Let’s start with the basic plotline: a 5th century Egyptian monk/physician who refers to himself as Hypa (we never learn his given name; he renames himself after Hypatia of Alexandria) leaves his Coptic monastery/school and travels to Alexandria to study medicine, in the hopes of returning to his homeland. He runs into some trouble in Alexandria, but eventually settles in, then runs into more catastrophic trouble, at which point he heads eastward in despair. He spends a few years wandering the Holy Land in the footsteps of Christ, then makes his way to a monastery in Jerusalem, where he meets up with the priest Nestorius. At his urging, he heads towards a monastery between Aleppo and Antioch, where things go fine until they don’t. After a fevered illness, he writes up the story of his travels, buries the manuscript in a chest, and heads off for who knows where. The manuscript, which is the novel itself, is discovered in a 1994 archaeological dig, though occasional margin notes indicate someone writing in an Arabic script of the 10th century had found the manuscript, and reburied it with the notation: “I will rebury this treasure, because it is not yet time for it to appear.”

So this gives us several levels of storytelling: we have the monk Hypa writing his autobiography; we have a 10th century commentator; we have a fictional contemporary translator presenting the work; and we have the reader and the book in reality (or what passes for it these days). The novel opens with a “Translator’s Introduction”; this is the fictional translator, not the actual translator (the book was originally written in Arabic), whose translator note appears at the end.

I adopted a time-consuming but necessary reading process for most of the book: I’d read 20 or 30 pages, then spend an hour or two at my computer, looking up references for the people, places, and events referenced. I’ve had some introduction to all of this through a variety of moocs, but I wanted to be sure I understood what I was reading. Several of the characters and events are historical, some (including Hypa himself) are fictional.

I also wanted to figure out the timeline, since the story starts in Jerusalem and refers back to some horror in Alexandria for the first half, then proceeds more or less chronologically, referring forward to a character named Martha who will have some major impact later. I still don’t feel confident about the timeline. Hypa seems to be 20 years old in Alexandria, 30 in Jerusalem, and 40 at the end, but don’t quote me on that. And then there’s all the fifth-century ecclesiastical and political history. Oh, and philosophy: knowledge of Plotinus (and the fine points of Catholic Christology) helpful.

See why it took a while to read? But oh, I enjoyed it. It’s a book that’s going to require several readings over time to really nail down.

Let’s go back to a basic question: who or what is Azazeel? Those who paid attention in Sunday School might recognize it as a word for the devil, but it’s a lot more complicated than that, and there’s little agreement. The Bible mentions Azazel (one e) in Leviticus as part of an annual cleansing of sin from the Hebrews wandering around the Sinai after escaping Egypt:

6 And Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. 7 Then he shall take the two goats, and set them before the Lord at the door of the tent of meeting; 8 and Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Aza′zel. 9 And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer it as a sin offering; 10 but the goat on which the lot fell for Aza′zel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Aza′zel.

Leviticus 16:6-10 RSV

The King James Version translates the word to scapegoat (the goat that escapes with the sins of the people). So it isn’t the goat itself that’s evil, but the sins of humanity placed on it. Other material shows the goat was led to a cliff, where it was hurled to its death, and it was the cliff that was called Azazel.

In the non-canonical (to most religions) Book of Enoch, Azazel comes up again, this time more clearly as a person, angel, or demon who teaches people to make weapons, and jewelry: “And there arose much godlessness… and they were led astray and became corrupt in all their ways.” Yep, you throw weapons and money into the mix, that’s gonna happen. Devil knows how to corrupt.

I advise a grain of salt here since I have no idea of the reliability of this source, but I’m very taken with one particular interpretation, as it relates extraordinarily well to Hypa:

Each goat represents one type of person. The goat selected for YHWH represents the obedient servant who is committed to God; this one sacrifices his life to serve before YHWH. The other goat represents the haughty and proud who is free to live his life his own way, separate from YHWH and sent out into the wilderness.
While it would seem that the goat released into the wilderness has the better deal, this is not true, the goat that is sacrificed to YHWH is completely dedicated to YHWH while the other is sent out into the wilderness, probably to die from starvation. The Jewish tradition actually says that the goat was taken to a high place, a cliff, and thrown over it.

Jeff A. Benner, Ancient Hebrew Research Center

This is Hypa’s primary dilemma, the choice between the monastic life and the joys of the world, which range from sex to philosophy to music. This conflict is made more real by his conversations with an imaginary voice in his head who he comes to call Azazeel, a voice that can only be from a part of Hypa himself; a repressed subconscious, if you will. It is this voice that expresses doubts and alternate interpretations, and eventually tells Hypa to write his story. But it is his own voice that raises questions like, Was Jesus really crucified? And, did Mary truly bear this child? Throughout there are references that could be interpreted as biblical allusions: the walk across the Sinai out of Egypt, the three temptations over his life, and, of course, this conversation with the devil.

All of this plays out in a time when not only was the Church of Alexandria on the warpath against pagans (several slaughters in the book are historical events), but divided in itself over the fine points of the nature of Christ: homoousios or homoiousios. Priests and bishops were excommunicated as heretics, even murdered, over that one letter, this fine point over whether Jesus was begotten or created, as the lyrics of “O Come All Ye Faithful” put it. Nestorius, Hypa’s eventual friend and confidant, rejects the doctrine of Theotokos, Mother of God, in favor of Christotokos, mother of Christ, and thus is one of those cast out. This final loss breaks Hypa.

Several characters refer to this conflict over insanely small details – which lasted for the first thousand years of the Church, by the way, and eventually caused the Great Schism in the 11th century – as motivated more by power than by the love of God. Nestorius, for example, privately denounces both events in Alexandria, and the Council of Nicaea of 325, to Hypa:

The truth is, Hypa, that it is all a fraud. Satan was the driving force behind everything that happened one hundred years ago at the council of Niceae. By Satan I mean the devil in the form of temporal power, which goes to people’s heads. Then they challenge the authority of the Lord and tear each other to pieces, then they lose heart and are scattered to the wind. Their passions overwhelm them and they act foolishly and violate the spirit of the faith in seeking to obtain the vanities of the transient world. What happened in Nicaea, Hypa, was null and void through and through.

This fictional conversation is particularly interesting, since I have read in several places that Nestorius was in fact vigorously anti-Arian. I don’t have the background to assess the issue, but I wonder why Ziedan would include it, possibly to further underline the confusion of the time. Towards the end of the book, when Nestorius is proclaimed Bishop of Constantinople, Hypa finds many of the reports he hears of his edicts to be disturbing and not at all in keeping with the priest he came to admire and consider a mentor of sorts.

A very interesting language trick caught my attention. Remember, the book was originally in Arabic, so I have no idea if this language is in the original: during a particularly important murderous rampage, the Christians shout, “We will cleanse the land of the Lord” as their rallying cry. Notice this can be read two different ways: We will cleanse (the land of the Lord), that is, we will cleanse Alexandria, OR We will clean the Lord out of Alexandria. It’s a particularly brilliant turn of phrase at a particularly important moment in the book. And, by the way, the rampage follows a particularly vicious sermon preached by Cyril which blamed pagans as the root of all sorts of trouble; historians vary on how much blame falls on him for the subsequent murders. Nestorius will later tell Hypa that an investigation found no fault with anyone. “The people of Alexandria have no mercy and do not fear punishment for their deeds,” says Hypa. It’s interesting to read a novel, written by an Egyptian scholar of Islamic manuscripts and set 1500 years ago, that seems so terrifyingly relevant to today’s America.

Another theme, mentioned a couple of times, is the association of ignorance and bliss. Hypa puzzles over this:

Why was the Lord angry when Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge? …. Why in the first place did God want man to remain ignorant? Was the knowledge that Adam obtained a prelude to him obtaining eternal life? Who are those about whom the Lord said that Adam had become one of them? If Adam and Eve had remained ignorant, would they have lived forever in the Garden of Eden? Is it right that immortality should go along with ignorance and disregard for nature?

Theologists through the ages have had various answers for that one. Again, it rings so true with the contemporary climate, where history and philosophy and art are being forsaken for computer science, where truth itself is what power says it is.

It’s something of a niche book. I don’t remember where I came across it, but I would have been attracted to the historical aspect. It was awarded the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2009 (a division of the Booker prizes), and created quite a bit of controversy in Egypt where Cyril is regarded as a saint in the Coptic Church. To be fair, we have to remember many early Christians were slaughtered by the Romans, so it isn’t completely unexpected that they would become bloodthirsty once power was obtained.

I’ve often said that I’m never happier when a book teaches me something. I did a lot of extra reading while reading this book, and I think I’ve at least gained some idea of the breadth of what there is to learn, even if my learning is still incomplete. I’m glad I got to know Hypa, and I will know him better next time I read this book. He vanishes from our sight with the last sentence of his manuscript; I hope he found some measure of peace.

Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (Vintage reprint, 2007)

It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights—if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different…. If she looked different, beautiful, maybe Cholly would be different, and Mrs. Breedlove too. Maybe they’d say, “Why, look at pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn’t do bad things in front of those pretty eyes.”

Each night, without fail, she prayed for blue eyes… Thrown, in this way, into the binding conviction that only a miracle could relieve her, she would never know her beauty.

Over the past couple of decades, I’ve read so many analyses, adaptations, and references to this book, I felt as if I’d read it. But reading about a book is not the same as reading it. I have a history of reading about instead of reading, of studying instead of experiencing, and I’ve been trying to reverse that somewhat, so I chose to sit down and read the book I’ve been reading about for so long. I can’t say it was a completely new experience, and I have to admit, a lecture and an interview still came into play, but I’m glad to have finally had the experience.

The book was on my mind because I’d encountered what I felt were oblique references to it in two recent readings. To my surprise, I discovered a third reference, though it was several years ago.

The popularity of the key idea – that beauty is something imposed from outside by the powerful, more akin to conformity with an ideal than an aesthetic evaluation – is not surprising. That this supposed ideal is used to exclude and devalue is pretty much a given. It goes way beyond eye color, but that particular symbol was the genesis of the book: Morrison has told the story several times about a childhood friend, a black girl, who longed for blue eyes, though that wish was from nowhere near as devastated a place as Pecola’s. Still, it started Morrison on a train of thought:

When I began writing The Bluest Eye, I was interested in something else. Not resistance to the contempt of others, ways to deflect it, but the far more tragic and disabling consequences of accepting rejection as legitimate, as self-evident. I knew that some victims of powerful self-loathing turn out to be dangerous, violent, reproducing the enemy who has humiliated them over and over. Others surrender their identity, melt into a structure that delivers the strong persona they lack. Most others, however, grow beyond it. But there are some who collapse, silently, anonymously, with no voice to express or acknowledge it. They are invisible. The death of self-esteem can occur quickly, easily in children, before their ego has “legs,” so to speak. Couple the vulnerability of youth with indifferent parents, dismissive adults, and a world, which, in its language, laws, and images, re-enforces despair, and the journey to self-destruction is sealed.

Foreword, Toni Morrison

Since thousands of commentaries on this book are easily available, written by authors from highest academics to ninth-graders (and I will make use of at least one of these), I’ll focus on its relevance to the recent references that snagged my interest.

The first was the novel The Come In All Colors by Malcolm Hansen, a story about a mixed-race boy kept in the dark about his heritage until it becomes cruelly relevant to the white folks of the Georgia town in which he lives. His mother, a light-skinned black woman, is named Peola, the same name as the black child in the Fanny Hurst novel, Imitation of Life, who tries to pass as white as a teen and adult. The high-yellow character in Morrison’s novel, Maureen Peal, notices the similarity in names, though she incorrectly identifies Hurst’s character as Pecola. All of this activity swirling around these names, all of this attention by light-skinned black women! Maureen has the relative privilege of lighter skin, her family line having worked hard to preserve it over generations. Hansen’s Peola serves as a bewildering figure to her son, who isn’t sure who’s what. Hurst’s Peola makes the most of her coloring, turning her back on even her mother. And then we have Pecola, who just yearns for blue eyes, eyes that she somehow believes would counteract the black skin that makes her unlovable. She is, of course, unable to realize that she is not unlovable; it is her parents, and the world at large, who are unloving; the friendship offered by Claudia, Frieda, and Maureen is not enough to undo parental disregard and societal shaming.

Those echoes of whiteness’ attributed beauty indicate why Morrison would name the character Pecola, but why Polly Breedlove would choose the name Pecola for her daughter is never addressed. Hurst’s novel wasn’t yet written when Pecola was born. With my meager research skills, I can’t find anything beyond unauthenticated internet nonsense about the name, and I see nothing that would have been readily available to Polly in the Ohio of the late 20s.

The second reference was the short story “The Whitest Girl” by Brenda Peynado from Pushcart XLIII, 2019. It’s something of a reversal of color roles in a predominantly Latinx high school. Terry is The Whitest Girl who shows up and is seen as both “too good and too white”, a kind of love-hate thing, envy turned into rage implicit in some Morrison characters, most notably Cholly. In Peynado’s story, Terry is much like Pecola: she fades into the woodwork and barely speaks. The Latinx girls seem mostly resentful of her lack of effort to modify her whiteness, as other Anglo girls at the school with their tans and their choices in hair and clothing.

The reciprocal need to modify one’s blackness to more imitate whiteness is also part of Morrison’s book, exemplified by the character Geraldine whose son torments Pecola over a cat.

Here they learn the rest of the lesson begun in those soft houses with porch swings and pots of bleeding heart: how to behave. The careful development of thrift, patience, high morals, and good manners. In short, how to get rid of the funkiness. The dreadful funkiness of passion, the funkiness of nature, the funkiness of the wide range of human emotions.
Wherever it erupts, this Funk, they wipe it away; where it crusts, they dissolve it; wherever it drips, flowers, or clings, they find it and fight it until it dies. They fight this battle all the way to the grave. The laugh that is a little too loud; the enunciation a little to round; the gesture a little too generous. They hold their behind in for fear of a sway too free; when they wear lipstick, they never cover the entire mouth for fear of lips too thick, and they worry, worry, worry about the edges of their hair.

This is another insidious expression of racism: the demand that black people become as white as possible, if not in skin color, in behavior. It’s behind a great deal of “respectability politics” and the disregard for unarmed black youth shot dead by police. Music, clothing, food, dance, language, art; to the white power structure, it isn’t just a preference, it all ends up tainted by association with blackness. The demand to assimilate requires complete subjugation to white standards, and even then, will only go so far.

I was surprised to find a third reference from almost eight years ago in an unexpected source: in her paper on second person narratives, Monika Fludernik referenced The Bluest Eye as a form of skaz narrative, a traditionally Russian form, adapted, she claims, by black women like Morrison:

Skaz narration, as a fictional technique that pretends to reinstitute a specious orality, recuperates the original communal character of oral storytelling, with the effect of subverting the by now established separation of narration and narrated in terms of fictional worlds. Second person fiction utilizes this subversive potential for creating an unsettling effect – that of involving the actual reader of fiction, not only in the tale, but additionally in the world of fiction itself, an eerie effect that can be put to very strategic political use. The technique has been widely applied, for instance, in recent black women’s writing where it allows the fictional narrator both to evoke the familiar setting for the community-internal reader and to draw readers from different cultural backgrounds into the fictional world of the black community, thereby increasing potential empathy values and forcing an in-group consciousness on the (factually) out-group reader. Examples for the extremely successful
application of this rhetorical skaz strategy can be located, e.g., in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Sula…

Monika Fludernik, “Second Person Fiction”

I’m a little hazy on the boundaries of skaz narration, and the book has several narrators, including an omniscient third person and Pecola’s voice in her own head. But I believe this refers to the child Claudia revealing Pecola’s life and circumstances with a kind of closeness a third-person narrator couldn’t match. We also hear from an adult Claudia near the end, in one of the most powerful moments of the book: the acknowledgement that the black community failed Pecola, failed itself.

While I was wandering around just seeing what was out there on this book, I came across a lecture by Prof. Amy Hungerford from the Open Yale Course “The American Novel since 1945” which made several points I would have missed. One in particular (around the 43-minute mark) addresses the potentially malignant effect of reading and writing, which Hungerford sees associated with rape.

Her analysis begins with the scene in which Soaphead Church prepares the poisoned meat for Pecola to feed the neighbor’s dog, as a sign that God will grant her blue eyes. It is this event that finally pushes her into a kind of psychosis, so it’s a pivotal scene. We can be forgiven for almost overlooking the casual line, “A bottle of ink was on the same shelf that held the poison.”

But that line, in combination with the Dick and Jane primer that has been showcased repeatedly throughout the book, a primer telling a story that must seem bizarre to children like Pecola, a primer inculcating the White Ideal in young kids who might not be able to understand why their worlds do not look like Dick and Jane’s: this is the poison. “If you are a young black girl learning to read, you are bringing into yourself a deadly kind of poison” says Hungerford. This is echoed in the “talking to herself” scene at the end of the novel, where Pecola reveals, to herself and the reader, she was raped a second time while she was reading. Reading is, or at least can be, a kind of penetration, of the most intimate kind.

I seem to have turned this into a reading-about-the-book, but at least I started with reading the book. By the way, it’s one of the most challenged books in America, in terms of library and school bans. I was in school when it was released, and I don’t remember hearing anything about it, but that was in Florida. I looked up the original NYT review, and it was very positive, predicting a glowing career for Morrison; little did they know how she would exceed their expectations. But at least they got it right, in a time when they could very easily have gotten it wrong.

Ellen Litman , The Last Chicken in America (Norton, 2007)

I used to have this confused idea, this delirious noble dream – we come to America and I immediately begin to work, an unglamorous, hard job. I support the whole family and they are grateful, grateful and also proud of me because I go to school at night. But things are different. I can’t get a job because of the welfare thing, and I can’t go to school because of the financial aid thing. So instead I translate and interpret for my parents. I make all the phone calls too, while they argue over my head, pushing me to say contradictory things. I told them that if they want to argue they can make their own phone calls. I tell them that I’m tired and nervous, and that my English isn’t good, at least not good enough to deal with them screaming and with an American person on the other end not understanding me. They call me lazy and irresponsible and say that the next time they will have to ask Alick, a stranger, for help, because their own daughter is too damn selfish. Which is fine, they say, because the next time I needed something from them, I better be prepared to wait a long, very long time.

– “The Last Chicken in America”

With all the political focus on immigration these days, it’s easy to forget that immigrants aren’t all alike. Not only do they come from different places, for different reasons, and in different circumstances, but even within those subdivisions, there are differences, differences between generations, sexes, and just differences in personalities, expectations, and goals. Litman’s story collection does a nice job of introducing us to several members of a community of Russian Jewish immigrants who landed in Pittsburgh, and pointing out how, while there are some common threads, each of them has different challenges and different approaches to life in America.

Many of the stories feature Masha, who in the first story is about eighteen. We follow her from shortly after arrival, her anxiety and frustration abounding as shown in the quote above, and through college as a commuter student studying computer science (“The safest job in Squirrel Hill was still in computer programming”); then, in the last story, we catch up with her a few years later and see she left Pittsburgh, and left her programming job, for Harvard’s Slavic Languages graduate program.

In the meantime we meet other members of the community: Liberman, an older widower encouraged – or coerced – by his kids to emigrate for health reasons; Natasha, a divorcee trying to find a social circle; Anya, another teenager torn between obedience and her own desires; Mike, aka Mishka, who gets entangled in a coworker’s personal life; a group of three men and their wives, bound together by circumstance. Among the ancillary characters we see glimpses of twin teenage girls from Donetsk, Ukraine, and how they form a closed circle; we meet Pamela, an American who shows Masha a different way of being Jewish; and we run across a visiting Russian professor who is everyone’s idea of the egotistical visiting professor, and has his own idea of what it is to be Russian, an idea Masha recognizes can’t share.

It’s subtitled “a novel in stories” but Litman tells Arsen Kashkashian of Kash’s Book Corner that was the publisher’s decision for marketing purposes; she simply wrote a set of stories set in the same neighborhood, sometimes sharing characters. There is a chronological progression, particularly in the “Masha” stories, and the hallmarks of a novel – change over a span of time – holds true. I was reminded of Ernie’s Ark, Monica Wood’s similarly constructed, though thematically different, collection of linked about numerous characters in a papermill town in Maine. Wood resisted the novel-in-stories label in favor of linked stories because she feared readers might have different expectations of a novelization. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Masha, the central character of the collection, has a number of similarities to Litman, who came here at age 19 with her family. In an interview with Katharine Whittemore of UConn Magazine (where Litman is a professor of creative writing), she tells of a specific incident in 1990, after Perestroika but before the breakup of the Soviet Union, that spurred her parents to emigrate: a Russian general on television called for pogroms against Jews. This was an exacerbation of the typical anti-Semitic sentiment, as Litman explained in the interview:

In Russia, you simply couldn’t be a writer if you were Jewish. You couldn’t aspire to certain things. We were taught very early that you have to work twice as hard as others to get things. I kept a journal and wrote poetry, but there was no way to “be a writer.”
You have to understand that Russian Jews were never considered Russians. On my passport under nationality, it said “Jewish,” not “Russian.” Being Jewish affects a lot of things, unofficially and officially. Which college you can attend, which job you can get. Some colleges won’t accept Jews because “they have bad vision.” Others admit under a quota from the local party district.

This background is reflected in Masha’s story line in a couple of places.

Several online reviews refer to the humor in the book. I tend to be more finely attuned to darkness, but yes, there are many humorous scenes, not necessarily in a laugh-out-loud way but more in a recognition of our common frailties way. Airplane behavior; expressions of romantic interest; unexpected houseguests; and that great American coming of age story, father-daughter driving lessons.

As might be expected, references to Russian culture abound. Two Russian songs make their appearance in separate stories. Poets are quoted. I did my second read in front of my computer so I could be better acquainted with these elements.

And then there’s the language. Just in the first story, I was struck by two phrases that I figured had to be some kind of reference: God’s dandelion, in reference to an elderly woman, and How many winters? How many springs? opening a phone call to someone not heard from in a long time. It turns out, these are typical Russian phrases, and, in fact, Penn State Slavic Language professor Adrian Wanner used these, and other examples from the collection, in his book Out of Russia: Fictions of a New Translingual Diaspora:

A stylistic feature of Litman’s book that deserves special mention is her loan translations of Russian idioms. The result is a “strange’-sounding discourse which, while not technically wrong, gives English language a vaguely foreign feel. …
Litman’s English language becomes a sort of palimpsest of an imaginary primary text – it is as if the narrative were a clumsy, literal translation of a Russian original, or perhaps the conscious choice of a translator who rejects a “smooth,” assimilationist rendering in favor of a “foreignizing” solution. But in the present case this translational effect is illusionary, of course, since the author wrote the text directly in English. The hybrid discourse, mimicking an English surface rendering of a Russian deep structure, serves as an apt representation of the heroine’s own bicultural background and unresolved tension between her Russian and American identities.

And again I come across that idea of the immigrant as palimpsest.

Norton has a Reading Group Guide that includes some excellent discussion questions and a brief interview with Litman. She mentions the title: it comes from a supermarket scene in the first story in which Lina, Masha’s mother, keeps picking up frozen chickens. “It’s not the last chicken in America,” her husband tells her. This phrase was chosen for the story’s title following the suggestion of a teacher. This is, in fact, how I became aware of the book; the teacher’s advice shows up in Steve Almond’s This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, and I’ve wanted to read this book ever since. So it took me six or seven years, so what.

A brief (hah; I’m not known for brevity) rundown of my favorite stories:

“The Last Chicken in America”
As the lead story, this sets us up with a picture of the early days of a family’s immigration. Teenage Masha struggles to figure out her role in America, while her parents struggle to learn enough English to find jobs, having left good employment as an engineer and a teacher. This all causes a great deal of conflict within the family, but also a good deal of resilience. The ending of the story leaves a lot of room for hope, hope that pays off as we read through the rest of the stories.

This is what’s wrong with immigration. Those who could be your friends at home here become cautious competitors. Parents envy their children. Sisters become dangerous – all that private information they can unleash at a strategically chosen moment. It’s about surviving. Immigration distorts people. We walk around distorted.

In my room I study what it means to be an American woman: strappy sandals, skimpy suits, the hair – straight and shiny. A Russian woman is all about hardships, guilt, and endurance. She waits and forgives and then waits some more. But an American woman doesn’t wait: she puts on a push up bra and has meaningless sex whenever she feels like it.

My parents are irrational, impossible to be around. There seems to be an angry electric current running through their blood. I understand. I try to be understanding. it’s because of the jobs, there are no jobs in Pittsburgh. They’ve been to the resume-writing workshops and to the interview-going workshops ; they’ve memorized hundreds of sample dialogues and know how to write the perfect thank you letter. But nobody wants a former teacher and an engineer with minimal English skills.
They take it out on me and on each other. We don’t look much like a family anymore. But we have to stick together – there are still appointments, phone calls, and Giant Eagle.

And it probably won’t last, the way the three of us are together like this and laughing. But tonight we are perfect. Tonight we’re the way a family should be. It’s warm and the heat is rattling in the basement like a high speed train, sending puffs of hot air through the floor vents. There’s plenty of chicken and frozen pizza in our refrigerator. And there’s Child’s Play 2 starting on the Movie Channel, which we somehow get for free. After supper my mother will distribute the bars of Klondike ice cream and we will huddle together in front of the TV, shuddering and laughing at the horrors of Chucky the doll, feeling warm and fortunate in our American apartment. Feeling like we have everything.

“What Do You Dream Of, Cruiser Aurora?”
Now we get a look at immigration through the eyes of an older man, a widower whose adult children have nagged him to come to America, where his daughter has lived for five years. He’s rather ambivalent about the transition, which isn’t helped by his daughter’s attitude once he’s here, or by his grandson’s fear of him. On the plane, he plays a game of I’m ignoring you with the woman across the aisle from him, a tactic he uses again later in the story. The title comes from a Soviet song about a historically-laden warship, now a museum in St. Petersburg.

Liberman met Mira on the flight to New York. For twelve hours, they sat across the aisle from each other –
stretching, lurching into bleary dreams, stirring awake when there was turbulence, sipping tomato juice from plastic see-through cups, not risking anything stronger – two ponderous old people, both traveling alone. He didn’t want to talk to her. She was a chatterbox; he could tell by the way she’d been going on to her neighbor, an Armenian woman in the window seat. To avoid conversation, he kept his eyes closed. But eventually a restrained understanding developed between them. When Mira’s earphones broke, Lieberman offered her his pair. When he had to use the bathroom, he asked her to look after his things.
They were on a charter flight from Leningrad, an uneasy mass of immigrants, and everybody had a story to tell.

Had he made a mistake? Could he go back now? Or was it too late? He’d left his Leningrad apartment to Arkasha, which meant he would have nowhere to live. He could live with Arkasha, but Arkasha’s wife wouldn’t like it. He wondered now if Mira had ideas like that. Of course they weren’t acquainted enough so he could ask her.

In the lunchroom, Russian seniors were clustered to the right. You could recognize them immediately: men in ill-fitting brown trousers, women in cotton dresses and knitted cardigans, all of it purchased a long time ago and altered repeatedly. Lips pursed sternly, faces stiff. Compared to them, the Americans (mostly women) looked like careless parakeets – bright, excessively painted, and cheerful.

We, she said, and he knew she had come with her family. That was how people at JFK airport had talked – we – perched on top of their orphans’ bags, each family banded together, spreading like a gypsy encampment. That was the proper way to emigrate, so you wouldn’t feel like an intruder later, so your grandson wouldn’t get afraid.

“Russian Club”
We join Masha, still living at home but now in college studying computer science. She joins the campus Russian Club, a lightweight social club light on actual Russians, on a whim. Victor Harlamov, a visiting philology professor from Moscow, shows up at a meeting, and she is bewitched; whether it’s a literary or a romantic crush is never quite clear, but she joins his class and he treats her as a star pupil. The Russian Club works on a trip to Russia, but Masha has trouble arranging the logistics; she might be less than eager to begin with. This causes a rift between her and the professor. This could play as a romcom, but the resonances (all Russians are not alike) allow for much more.

“What do you miss the most?“ he asked.
I said I missed walking in Moscow, traversing old boulevards, the sidewalks glistening in the night, Pushkin Square, the lovers clutching flowers beneath the poets statue – the sentinels of love.
He said he also liked the boulevards, and Eskimo ice cream sticks for twenty-five kopecks.
What Victor missed was the Russian brokenness. He said it was the core of the Russian soul. “You see it in poets: Tsvetaeva’s suicide, Esenin, Mayakovsky. But it’s not just the poets. We are sensitive, foolish, illogical. We live in a state of turmoil, on the brink of being destroyed, steps away from the next drunken bout.”
I knew what he meant. I had my own brokenness.

He was convinced that had I stayed in Moscow, I would have applied to Moscow State. He was mistaken. Philology was too prestigious, the competition rigorous, with tens of applicants contending for each space, and a Jewish person with no connections would have been felled. That’s what we called it – felled – when you did well on the exams, but the committee tricked or failed you.
“This doesn’t happen anymore,“ said Victor.

There were topics we never discussed. My Jewishness, for example. He never asked about my parents or why we had come to America. I wanted to tell him. I thought he’d understand. He was open-minded, intelligent, a boy from a little Siberian village who’d made his way up, first to Moscow, then to America.
But he never asked, never shared his own reasons for I leaving.

Here they were, burning to save my old country, spoiling for a fight. Didn’t I care? Didn’t I love it?
But it wasn’t my country anymore. I’d never really belonged there, in the Russian they imagined, among its fields and chapels, the clamor of its bells, the beggars in black shadows along the walls, the golden light bleeding from tiles, candles, and icons. It had been the fall of my senior year in high school, our class trip to the Troitsky monastery, and the boy I liked was crossing himself by the icon of Nikolai the Miracle Worker. He had a silver crucifix under his shirt, which probably meant nothing, except it was what nationalist patriots wore in those days, when they went on TV at midnight and talked of planned pogroms. No I didn’t miss Russia.

At our last class, Victor said the silver age outlived itself. The best poets perished in Russia, while those who escaped were nothing but pale imitations. He wrote on the back of my paper, “For a true Russian person, immigration is death. A Russian poet can’t survive in immigration. “

“When the Neighbors Love You”
Anya wants to go to BU, her parents want her to go to Pittsburgh and live at home. She resolves the conflict on a secret roadtrip with a friend. This story contains some of the most beautiful writing in the collection.

You think: you were twelve and wore brown corduroys. You once read Père Goriot and Eugénie Grandet , but you don’t remember the plots anymore. The neighbors called you a clever girl and a darling. You weren’t supposed to hear but you did anyway, through the running water in the kitchen, where mother-of-pearl teacups lay in your hands like seashells. Your heart swooped at the praise and you imagined a brilliant future: articles, book jackets, scholarships to Europe. You were Anna Akhmatova , with her choker and rosary beads; you were Marie Curie at the Sorbonne, austere in her grief. You were in love with the handsomest of professors – British, possibly married, with a sarcastic crinkle around his eyes. But the romance, too, had an exceptionally happy ending, because you were a smart girl, a girl who made smart decisions, and nothing bad could happen to a girl like this.

One aspect of the book that initially didn’t impress me at all was the cover. But the more I read, the more I realized the girl-jumping-over-puddle image was perfect. It’s a long leap; she might land on her butt in the middle; she might get her boots muddy. But she’ll get to the other side.

Those who were born here often have the idea that immigrants arrive brimming with eagerness and gratitude. What’s often left out of the picture is the anxiety of adjusting, and the sorrow at leaving behind what – and who – was, for however many years, home. Litman gives us a more complete picture than our imaginations allow, and also shows how heterogeneous the immigrant experience can be. Masha’s journey is very different from her parents’ or Liberman’s, and everyone’s journey changes en route. Moving to a new town can be unsettling; how much more unsettling then is moving to a new country. Give ‘em a break while they work it out.

What’s Next? A Preliminary Reading List for the next Five Months

As I did last year, I plan to fill the time between now and whenever BASS 2019 drops (expected in October; the guest editor is Anthony Doerr) with assorted readings: novels, story collections, nonfiction books and essay collections or anthologies, maybe even a little poetry.

The “For Later” list on my local library account contains over 120 entries of books I’ve seen along the way and thought, I might want to read that; some of them were put there eight or ten years ago. In addition, I have a bookmark list for the interlibrary loan catalog with several hundred items, and an Amazon shopping list with another 50 or so ideas. So I have a lot to choose from.

While the books I’ve selected for this “long list” are eclectic, many fall into a few noticeable categories:

● Fiction using God/religion/spirituality for plot;
● Nonfiction about work, including a few about jobs seldom written about;
● All genres by established authors, and reading-list standards I’ve never read;
● Plus an eclectic assortment of more recent releases that caught my eye, though often I can’t remember when or how.

 
I doubt I’ll get to them all. I expect to be moving at some point in the next month or two, so that will disrupt things for a while. I may give up on some, swap in others. But it’s a start. I’m already in possession of nine of the titles, with two more on the way. Most of the rest will be library borrows (moving is expensive).

I plan to rotate through the categories, though I don’t have any order in mind. I welcome anyone who’d like to read along; I’ve been using Goodreads more regularly than I used to, so when I start a book, I’ll post it there under “currently reading”. But to start: I’m already halfway through Ellen Litman’s story collection, and plan to read Morrison next.

The long list:

God, religion, spirituality:

• Wilton Barnhardt: Gospel (St. Martin’s, 1993). This is sort of cheating, since I’ve read it several times, but not recently. It drove this mini-group of God-centered books, in fact. Borrows a lot from clichés, but I can’t help it, I miss God (the character, in a small but pivotal part) every time I come to the end.
• Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (Pantheon, 2010). This is a novel in 36 chapters, each an argument for… well, you get the idea.
• C. Michael Curtis, ed. : God Stories (HM, 1998) Everyone from James Baldwin to Philip Roth to James Joyce chips in.
• Youssef Ziedan: Azazeel (Atlantic, 2001). Along the lines of Gospel but set in the fifth century, recounting a monk’s travels in Egypt in the early days of Christianity.

 
Jobs, especially those rarely written about:

• Finn Murphy: The Long Haul (Norton, 2017). Murphy took a summer job as a trucker after his third year of college, and kept going.
• Stephanie Land: Maid (Hachette, 2019). The hardest-working people around get the least money, and the least respect.
• Jacob Tomsky: Heads in Beds (Anchor 2016). The Kitchen Confidential of the hospitality industry.
• Sandeep Jauhar: Doctored (FSG, 2015). Yes, doctor books abound, but I can’t resist them, especially, given my recent close encounters with doctors, disillusioned ones.
• Nell Painter: Old in Art School (Counterpoint, 2018). Not exactly a job, but close enough.
• Kwame Onwuachi: Notes from a Young Black Chef (Knopf, 2019). Ok, so chefs also write a lot of books. I can’t resist an occasional nibble.

 
Filling in my literary gaps: literary standards and established authors

• Walker Percy: The Moviegoer (RH reissue, 1998)
• Donald Barthelme: Sixty stories (Penguin reissue 2003)
• Sinclair Lewis: Main Street/Babbitt/It Can’t Happen Here (LOA reissue 1992)
• Umberto Eco: On Literature (HB 2004)
• Toni Morrison: The Bluest Eye (Vintage Reissue 2007)
• Hannah Arendt: Essays in Understanding (Schocken reissue 2018) . Yeah, I know, everyone’s reading The Origins of Totalitarianism but I thought this might be a better place to start.
• Jonathan Franzen: The Corrections (Picador reprint, 2002). No, I’ve never read Franzen. So shoot me.
• Nathanael West: Miss Lonelyhearts/Day of the Locust (LOA reprint 1997). I’ve always wanted to read these.
• Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man (RH, 1982 ed.). Yeah, again, no I haven’t read it, stop judging.

 
Miscellaneous fiction and non, with the possibility of a hint of poetry

• Ellen Litman: The Last Chicken In America (Norton, 2007). A novel-in-stories about a community of post-Soviet Russian Jewish immigrants in Pittsburg.
• Simon Winchester: The Professor and the Madman (HC 1998). Because I’d rather read the book than see the movie.
• N. K. Jemisin : How Long ‘til Black Future Month? (Orbit, 2018). I try to read a little fantasy now and then, and this sounds intriguing.
• John Boyne: A Ladder to the Sky (Hogarth 2018). I tend to like writers as characters.
• Michel Lincoln: Upright Beasts (Coffee House Press, 2015). I’m scared (the one story of his I encountered in Pushcart was bizarre, in a good way) , but I’ll give it a shot.
• Julie Schumacher: The Shakespeare Requirement (Doubleday 2018). A follow-up to last year’s Dear Committee Members.
• Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: Friday Black (Mariner, 2018). How cool is it that there are two widely-discussed fantasy collections by writers of color.
• R. Jay Magill: Sincerity (Norton, 2013). A history and philosophical investigation of the trait.
• Emily Wilson: The greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca (OUP, reprint 2018). I know surprisingly little about the Stoics, and almost nothing about Seneca, so I thought this might help.
• Mark Kurlansky: Salt: A World History (Penguin, 2003). I love books that use something simple as a way to tell broad stories about people, histories, and places.
• Victoria Chang: Circle (SIUP, 2005). One of the Pushcart poets from this year.
• Tony Hoaglund: Twenty Poems that Could Save America (Graywolf, 2014). Another Pushcart poet; this is a book of essays about poetry; I may combine it with one of his poetry collections.

 
Gotta go – I have reading to do.

Pushcart XLIII: Looking Back

And so over the years, with the help of these writers and thousands of others, literary publishing has changed for the better. The point: do not despair about the present situation where truth is denigrated, facts depend on whatever power brokers say they are, and hype and celebrity seemed to rule the national mind. Our struggle is worth it. We are not back in the era when non-commercial writers wrote for their desk drawers only. This is a true, quiet revolution. Let’s keep it.

Introduction, Bill Henderson

I have no idea how the actual business of writing works, but I would imagine that appearing in a Pushcart volume is a big boost to the career of the so-called emerging writer, someone who’s produced some work of quality but hasn’t yet convinced agents or publishers that she’s good for the long haul. If you read the interviews and contributor notes for stories and poems, you notice that a page of poetry, or fifteen pages of prose, can take years to perfect. It’s no small accomplishment to make it past the slush pile and into publication in the first place, then to get through a second round to be chosen for Pushcart. It’s a big deal.

That said: this is the first time in nine years that Pushcart has disappointed me.

Now, I admit I’m not a writer, nor am I a trained critic or reviewer. I’m just a reader, with my own preferences, blind spots, and educational deficiencies. And I’ve been in a terrible funk over the state of the country, the state of the world, for a couple of years now, increasing as justice becomes more and more something for the rich and powerful to use to keep their status. So it’s quite possible this volume will read differently at another time (if there is another time; I fear, truly fear, we are stuck in this one for the forseeable future). Maybe I’ll come to see it more as Jake Weber does; his summary post sees “Unjustified optimism, necessary optimism: American Attitudes about the Future in the Pushcart 2019 anthology”. It’s an excellent summary post; I highly recommend it, as I do his posts on individual stories.

It’s not that I think the stories are bad; with a couple of exceptions, they’re pretty good. In a way, it’s my past experience with Pushcart (and perhaps my recent read of BASS 2018, which I found extraordinarily wonderful) that makes this one seem underwhelming. I’ve come to expect surprise, imaginative craft, things I’ve never seen before, an emotional experience, from the Pushcart material. I felt little of that this time. I could recognize, ok, here’s the part that’s heartbreaking, but, with a couple of exceptions, my heart remained stubbornly whole. Yes, the problem may be my heart, or my reading. But while I saw some interesting stories, I saw nothing that made me want to grab someone and shove the book in their hands and say, You’ve got to read this!

A noticeable chunk of the volume felt downright elegiac, the literary equivalent of the In Memoriam segment of an award show. I’m probably going to get in trouble for this paragraph; the literary community, those who really know what they’re doing, the ones for whom this volume is actually published, probably treasure those pieces. Most years contain pieces by deceased writers, either accidentally or on purpose, but this year included several such pieces, as well as memoirs. I suppose this is a good place to do that – it lends a nice continuity, seeing brand-new writers next to those who’ve shaped their genres over decades – but it started to feel a bit forced. And, next to so many stories about death (not an uncommon feature of literary fiction), the volume started to feel funereal.

My own illness, resulting in an absence of several weeks right in the middle of the book, didn’t help. Oddly, when I got back to work, I felt more confused but less depressed by the pieces, perhaps because I started working at a much quicker pace, batting out five or six posts a week instead of my usual two or three. I probably spent the same amount of time on each post, several hours each morning and additional time as needed in the insomnia hours, but left out a lot of “sleep on it and mull it over” time. That might be the key: I was more in-the-moment. An interesting observation, to be sure. I won’t know for sure if I missed a lot, or just avoided some dreading, until I have some distance.

To get specific:

Things started out with promise. Pam Houston’s opening essay on the down side of irony gave me a lot to bounce off of: I summed it up as “ while I basically agree with the overall theme – caring is better than not-caring, and we can’t afford to be sealing ourselves behind a wall of cynicism and irony – I somehow have a lot of issues with the how she gets there.” Karen Russell’s “Tornado Auction” got a little overcomplicated, but ultimately delivered. “Into the Mystery”, Tony Hoagland’s poem, spoke to me, and even gave me some structure to work with; I’ve noticed my enjoyment of a poem tends to increase when I find something I understand about how it’s written. In a nice piece of editing, “The Whitest Girl” and “The Hunter”, a back-to-back pair of prose pieces, one fiction, one essay, provided interesting perspectives on Latinx-Anglo cultural relations.

My favorite fiction was David Naimon’s “Acceptance Speech”. It combined an unusual narrative approach – a speech at an awards dinner – with a truly interesting relationship dynamic; the title added a little linguistic flair. This was what I came for. Another favorite story was Sarah Resnick’s short story, “Kylie Wears Balmain,” a swipe at the contemporary predominance of entertainment over art and thought captured within a clever structure. It bemoaned exactly Henderson’s point from his introduction: the money is behind celebrity gossip, not a debate of ideas.

Lisa Taddeo’s “A Suburban Weekend” was a learning experience: I eventually realized the story I hated masked a touching emotional piece. It’s a story I can’t say I loved, but I greatly appreciate the craft. It’s quite a task for a writer, like one of those science fiction stories where the received frequency is a carrier for a subfrequency (Sagan’s Contact made major use of this, as did several episodes of ST:TNG; I don’t quite understand the science, but get the concept).

While I enjoyed cross-discussions on the fiction pieces with Jake, I had some similar back-and-forth with my Vermont Poet friend, Patrick Gillespie, on the poetry. I have a lot of problems with poetry: I keep changing my mind about whether the poet’s vision, or the reader’s interpretation, is paramount; whether there is a “right” reading for a poem or whether it’s a free-for-all; if aesthetic experience equals meaning. Can I love a poem and have no idea what it means? What is it that I love, then? Is that the meaning? The question before me as I read this volume was: Why is the poem written in this way, this form, with this language? How does it contribute to meaning / aesthetic experience? I only occasionally had answers. I’m planning to take the Yale OCW on Modern Poetry, but I doubt that will help much. Courses tend to help me with the poems they cover, but not with techniques or approaches for my future reading. I may need to eventually accept that I’m just poetry-stupid, but I do enjoy these annual forays.

In addition to Houston’s opening essay, I found two of the nonfiction pieces particularly interesting. One was Molly Cooney’s “Transition”, which took the transgender journey out of the political realm and made it much more personal. I also found “Powder House,” the closing essay by Molly Gallantine, intriguing reading. I learned a few things, and nothing makes me happier than encountering something I didn’t know, in an interesting and memorable way.

Maybe I was just the wrong reader at the wrong time; maybe Pushcart tried something a little different this time; maybe they accidentally used the “honorable mention” list instead of the award list; maybe they’re feeling as distraught about current events as I am. The Introduction bears that out, though it also includes some of that optimism Jake sees:

For many of us, we too live now in an alien world dedicated to power and lies. It is hard to laugh and smile. This is not the world we cherish. It is tempting to just retreat into tribal clusters, or surrender it all to a drugged wasteland.
But of course we cannot and will not retreat.

So do not despair about our contemporary blasts of power and lies. Stay calm and carry on writing. Eventually the power-obsesssed will destroy themselves.

Introduction, Bill Henderson

I’m not so sure there will be much left if that does eventually happen. But here’s to Pushcart, for keeping the faith.