Sunday, March 12, 2017

Recent Books

After a half-decade of precipitous decline in book learning, I'm back on track for a fifty-plus volume year. Of course fifty-plus volumes is about half what I used to read, but it beats the abominable and inexcusable past five years. But being a teacher is hard. The last thing I want to do after work is read!

SPQR is a tidy and engaging exploration of current scholarship about Roman history from its beginnings to its fall. Of course doing all this in one volume means one gets a SKETCHY history, but Beard knows what she's about, and her focus on a few key themes (such as the foundational myths of the Roman state and their resonance and recurrence and use by the powerful) keeps the volume from bogging down or seeming too light. I enjoyed it immensely.

A passionate, heavily documented, and well-argued case for the re-establishment of John Brown as more than just a fanatical curiosity in US History. At times there's a bit TOO MUCH hagiography, as in the chapter about poetry and music which seems to claim that John Brown was the topic of every poem ever written...but I agree that his impact on the fabric of America cannot be understated, and that he was purposefully diminished by a century of haters in order to make him appear a crazed terrorist and no more for a reason.

Brown's raid terrified the South and inflamed their passionate fear-mongering of Northern aggressors, and his martyrdom was latched onto by propagandists in the North who created a myth and a series of patriotic and religious songs about Brown's scaffold equating to the Crucifix. It was his speeches and correspondence between capture and hanging which made him a substantial man of letters, words that inflamed the Transcendentalists to memorialize him, and which laid the groundwork for the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Brown believed more ardently than 95% of his fellow Abolitionists in the humanity of black folk, and their equality, and that God hated slavery. He also knew it would require tons of blood to cleanse it from America. It has yet to be cleansed.

H,P. Lovecraft imagined bizarre and bleak alternate realities which have captured the imaginations of introvert nerds for decades. I include myself in that category, though I must admit that since adolescence has passed I find much of his stuff completely unendurable. But the impact he had on my imagination lingers, despite the fact that I learned later he was an irascible racist and would likely have found Hitler's Final Solution quite satisfying had he lived to know about it.

So this "novel" (actually a series of interconnected novellas) sets a family of African Americans in a Lovecraft Mythos tale, replete with a wizard family, subterranean chambers in New England, inbred small town communities harboring ancient lore, etc, etc. Of course the complications of racism and racial intolerance and violence against persons of color are the TRUE horrors in this story, as the heroes and heroines of the tale are more than a match for their white wizard opponents and the many eldritch terrors they encounter. Lovecraft Country is not on a par with Junot Diaz's stuff, but is in the same vein--kind of Chabon-ish in tone and humor and delight in mining a vein of pop culture and fleshing it out with social commentary.

Stories without exception of a very high quality. Bobbie Ann Mason, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Shirley Jackson, Flannery O'Connor---Gaitskill belongs right up there. Includes the source story for that kind of crappy "Secretary" movie, which isn't nearly as funny and sad as it should have been,

Sunday, January 22, 2017


A couple years back I read an interesting article in Harper's about some dude who was using ancient Greek tragedies to help soldiers with PTSD and addicts and communities of color following tragedies.

Last night we had the opportunity to see one here in Baltimore. Antigone in Ferguson was necessary medicine for a community still suffering following the Uprising. Paul Giamatti went deep and when I used the restroom at the end of the show he was in there bawling following his powerhouse performance. The discussion afterward was potent and honest, though a few speakers took too much time tooting their own horns. The panelists were wise and compassionate (even towards a poor young soul whose heart was in the right place but whose exasperation and "exhaustion" at having these conversations over and over was handled with care). And local activists and artists like Sonja Sohn and Adam Jackson and Kwame Rose and D. Watkins were in-house.

(sidenote: When we left the auditorium Rose and Sohn were outside. I thanked Mr. Rose for opening eloquently for Bernie Sanders at a rally at Royal Farm Arena last year, and Sohn yelled "Yes, if it had been Bernie we wouldn't be dealing with ANY of this BULLSHIT." We'd met Sohn at a Heather Mizeur event at Black Olive 2 years back).

What we need in the US is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, much like South Africa had after Apartheid. We need to bare our souls and concerns and guilts and fears in public, focused on ways to heal--otherwise we'll continue refighting the same battles. Because it is unlikely our dysfunctional public institutions will give us the opportunity to air grievances and mea culpas, the arts can help. Kudos to Bryan Doerries and his team for bringing Antigone in Ferguson to B'more.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Recent Books

This is not the first time travel novel I've read. It's not even the first time travel novel I've read which takes place in and around Vienna (at least for a while). This IS the first John Wray novel I've read, and I will likely read others based on its strengths.

The Lost Time Accidents puts Wray into the current crop of male writers of a "certain age" (meaning about my age) who rely on deep and sophisticated knowledge of  4 decades of American pop culture and esoteric nerdy references to Lovecraft and Dungeons and Dragons type fantasy and sci-fi shit. In Wray's case, the novels of Orson Scott Card, L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, Asimov's universe, Relativity; these are blended with deep knowledge of history and literature and we get a references to Fascism, Dickens, Einstein and Bohr--I could go on. If you've read Lethem or Diaz or Chabon or one of those other cats in a similar vein you know what I'm talking about.

The book pegs these things to larger questions about the nature of Time and reincarnation and destiny and cycles of justice and injustice and propaganda. But its sophistication and geeky intellectualism don't ruin the fun of a simple sci-fi romance story. Boy meets girl, gets manipulated by girl, fails to see her for what she is and pursues girl through Time and Space only to get his heart broken. With Nazis and evil religious cults thrown in for fun!


Lorrie Moore cracks me up. I mean just out of the blue one of her sentences will make me guffaw. And at the same time she is precise and acerbic and insightful about the Human Condition suffering the rampages of Late-Model Exploitative Capitalism and its associated environmental degradations.

One gets the delicious sense that all her characters are complicit in awful things about which they remain wholly ignorant, or perhaps they are fully aware of these crimes but the desire for convenience and self-medication allow them to justify their many disgusting behaviors.

I like these first sentences from the story "Paper Losses":

Although Kit and Rafe had met in the peace movement, marching, organizing,
making no nukes signs, now they wanted to kill each other. They had become, also,
a little pro-nuke.

These stories are high-quality, like perhaps the highest quality. The story "Wings" is a modern retelling of James's Wings of the Dove. James was another master of the short story, with an eye for repressed guilt and the callous manipulations of "good" civilized people whose entire existence was predicated on awful institutions like slavery and colonialism and patriarchy and classicism. This story is a nod to The Master from a master who learned good lessons about craft at his knee. But Moore likes to have more fun with her readers.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Third Reich in Power

Every two years I teach a Learning Expedition about the Holocaust. In between I like to read another handful of books about the topic (broadened out to include WW2 and other context-building avenues).

I use what I learn to think about revamping both the Expedition and its arts-integrated final product. And now the school year looms so I'm busy churning over changes and refinements

I just finished Richard J. Evans's The Third Reich in Power, and as was the case with its predecessor The Coming of the Third Reich I cannot imagine another more comprehensive and yet engaging history of this place and time period appearing in my lifetime. The level of detail marshalled, the attention to different social strata and regions, the careful coaching of readers through complex contextual doesn't get better than this. The index alone runs to nearly 150 pages, and is a valuable resource for further teaching materials and research.

In class we'll have to approach Trump's radical faux populism and demagoguery a bit...the kids can decide if he is really a fascist or not.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Earthly Delights

I think the two artists I knew best before I ever stepped foot into a museum were Hironymus Bosch and Salvador Dali. I still really like Bosch, and have stumbled upon his work in museums in several countries on multiple continents. I wish I had some cash to fly to Europe this summer, because...

For the 500th anniversary of Bosch's death, the Prado in Spain and the Het Noordbrabants in Belgium are staging major exhibitions of the artist's work, gathered from museums all over the world and from their own collections.

Two of my favorite periodicals have chimed in with thoughtful and illuminating pieces--here's Nat Segnit at Harper's, and Ingrid Rowland over at the New York Review of Books.

Recent Reading

I'm trying in my mind to "see" Miriam, but can only summon her outline. Toby is tall and broad, Miriam is tiny beside him. I can see hair but no details. Her face is a blank. She and Toby are at a party--Joan Mellon's penthouse in Philadelphia? It is the early '90s. Toby is my teacher in the Temple University Graduate English Department. He smokes in his non-smoking office, sitting with the window cracked in the bitterest cold.

Toby tries to fill out Miriam's outline in this rich memoir, but she has declined and dissipated and become another woman who is at once still Miriam and at once not her at all.

Three schoolgirls from rural Kansas enter their local National History Day contest with research about a forgotten hero of the Warsaw Ghetto. Their simple play about Irena Sendler--"Life in a Jar"--leads them on an incredible voyage. Makes me want to tackle NHD with my students!

Isha was married to R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz, who taught Fulcanelli, among others. He had made a study of the statuary and reliefs on medieval cathedrals, and had learned anew the secret of the blue glass at Chartres. He realized the great Gothic cathedrals encoded an ancient knowledge also visible in the monuments of Egypt. Isha and Schwaller worked for more than a decade at Karnak, attempting to re-construct the ancient ritual practices of Earth's most enduring and successful civilization. Here she uses a novel to demonstrate the initiation of modern men into these ancient mysteries--"when the student is ready, the teacher will appear."

Thursday, July 21, 2016


For two days I've been watching this little guy flitter from tree well to tree well, testing tiny twigs and dropping them and testing others. When he finds one suitable he flies it up to a tree in front of a vacant house two doors down. Sometimes he pokes at a few and finds them unsatisfactory. Other times he lifts them, fiddles with them, flips them, and does the same. But some are JUST RIGHT.
This is part of the healing process I go through following a school year. As an introvert and an empath of sorts I find dealing with large groups of people emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically draining. And of course teaching in any public school entails the necessity of dealing with large groups of people constantly, daily, and intimately. Teaching in a public school in Baltimore City, with all the trauma the kids experience and their heavy emotional needs, is exponentially more challenging for someone like me.
But sitting on my stoop for a few hours a day in the summer with a pile of books--just being and observing in between bouts of reading--helps me heal.

I had somewhat of a nervous breakdown immediately after the end of this past school year. I tend to be melancholic and have depressive episodes as a matter of routine, but this was different: I completely lost control of my breath and had panic attacks that lasted hours. But sitting, trying to be present, observing without judgment, and acting like a hermit helps.

Any small connection to the natural world--either through daily hikes in Druid Hill Park, or a couple days at the beach, or a walk in the woods just north of Baltimore, or simply watching the birds in my neighborhood go about their business--is a vital means of re-establishing my sanity before the start of the next school year and the inevitable eventual plunge into madness.

One month of summer break is gone--we've reached the halfway point--and I'm starting to feel like a human being again.

I don't know how long I can continue to do this work. But this work must be done.

I envy my little mourning dove friends. He seeks twigs, he tests them, he chooses those suitable. He flies them to the nest. She stays in the tree forming the twigs and weaving them with the others into a suitable shape. Their work does not stress or appear to tax the birds, though they work continuously through the day.

Somewhere is work of a similar nature, suited to me and my nature. Unfortunately late-model neoliberal capitalism does not value this work.