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.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Conference of the Birds

"Bird-Brained" is a compliment, not an insult. Anyone who observes birds and their behavior closely knows that we are the dummies, cut off from our true nature and potential by ego and distraction.

Learn the Language of Birds and the keys to enlightenment in Peter Sis's lovely graphic novel retelling of an ancient Persian story.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016


In 1919 Sherwood Anderson wrote Winesburg, Ohio, wherein a collection of related short stories painted a portrait of a small town and its inhabitants. The stories on their surface were simple and ranged in tone from mysterious to quaint to alarming. There was a Biblical simplicity and urgency to that book, an interesting psychological depth, and I revisit it every decade or so.

About three-quarters of a century later, Russell Banks did the same for a Vermont trailer park and its denizens. The stories are realistic in style and often devoted to moral lessons around the activities of the people renting these temporary shelters in a beautiful but often brutal landscape.

I bought my copy used at Rhino Books in Nashville. Someone had scrawled on the frontispiece the words "Realist fiction--like Country and Western music, it's all about the TRUTH." Seems appropriate! At any rate, I had a fine talk with the proprietor of Rhino about the state of bookselling in Bmore and about how much I liked his little venture, and about my own experiences during most of a decade in book retail back in my 20s. Russell Banks might have enjoyed our conversation, and it could fit right into a book like Trailerpark.

I've written about Mr. Banks before.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Noam if You Want To

One of the chapters in Chomsky's latest slim volume of ponderings is called "What can we understand?" My response is: MOST of this book.

It's deep.

Chomsky, with elegance, marshals his profound knowledge of science, philosophy, and history and distills all of this down to about 120 pages on problems and interesting avenues for exploration in the cognitive sciences. Hold onto your hat because the first chapter with its scientific linguistic jargon might have you squirming!

I have read dozens of works by Chomsky, but with one exception they were all books about politics. Politics only makes a brief appearance here as a slim chapter called "What is the common good?" This was the most accessible chapter, but the most interesting IMO was "The Mysteries of Nature: How Deeply Hidden?" Chomsky spends a lot of time explaining the concept of mysterianism and how some attempts to understand the origins of language and consciousness might indeed be doomed as scientific enterprises, with mere speculative "storytelling" taking the place of actual proof.

So if you are up to finding out what one of history's most interesting and sophisticated minds is thinking about--Noam if you want to!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Wash, Rinse, and Repeat Cycle of Violence

David Cole, at NYR Daily:
But in this instance, it is the “war” on crime itself that is most to blame. More than any other nation in the world, we turn to the state-sanctioned compulsion of the criminal justice system to “solve” social problems, including mental illness, drug addiction, poverty, homelessness, and lack of opportunity. Our “first responders” are too often the police, bearing handcuffs and guns rather than public assistance or life support. We arrest and incarcerate our fellow citizens at the highest per capita rate in the world. And those targeted are disproportionately black and Hispanic men living in poverty-stricken inner-city neighborhoods. We can’t seem to find the resources to invest in those neighborhoods to support adequate schools, job training programs, after-care for children let out of school before their parents come home, or economic development. But we are more than willing to pay enormous sums for more police to patrol the neighborhoods and prisons to house inmates taken from these communities. Our prisons in turn are ruled by violence and the threat thereof, from both guards and fellow inmates.

Cole goes on to conclude: "As Americans we have been far too complacent in the face of state-sanctioned violence. As long as the guns are pointed at others, we turn our heads and look away. But until we begin to demand alternatives to state violence, the killing will not cease."

It's a point that others have made before. Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine connected the manufacture of nuclear missiles in Columbine and Clinton's bombings of Kosovo and Sudan to the mindset of people who shoot up schools or malls. Noam Chomsky has been saying for years that the best way for the US to end terrorism is to stop participating in it against others.

So read Cole's piece and meditate on it, then go read:

I thought I knew a lot about the history of our drug prohibition. But here are more valuable pieces to the puzzle beyond the Reefer Madness, chemical-company funded and racist Chamber of Commerce shenanigans which resulted in marijuana criminalization in the US. And the book is entertaining as hell on top of being contrarian and smart.