8.21.2017

On Poetry

In the July 31st issue of the New Yorker, Louis Menand asks “Can Poetry Change Your Life?” It’s a long and discursive discussion of pop culture, pop criticism, pop music and pop philosophy among other things.

He cites Ben Lerner who in his book, The Hatred of Poetry, says that “poems simply can’t do what people want them to do—create timeless moments, or express individual experiences with universal appeal, or create a sense of communal identity, or overturn existing social mores, or articulate a measure of value beyond money.”

If they can’t do any of these things, what can they achieve? My own view is that questions of this sort, can’t be answered in any general terms. You have to look at the particulars of each individuals experience of reading poetry or even a single poem.

Some might be moved by a poem and want to read more by the same author. Others might learn an important lesson from a poem. And then others might never want to read a poem again. But what about Menand who raised the question about the effects of poetry in the first place?

He finally confronts this matter in the last paragraphs of his essay. He says a book of “Immortal Poems of the English Language” changed his life. “It made me want to become a writer.”

He says he started out as a poet, but soon realized his poems weren’t very good. Then he switched to writing prose, where he learned “the pleasure of trying to put the right words in the right order. And I took away from my experience with poetry something else. I understood the reason people write poems is the reason people write. They have something to say.”

It’s not only that they have something to say but also that they want to try to say it as clearly as possible. And the only way to try to do that is put it to the page.

I also take Menand’s question to mean something broader. Namely, Can Literature Change Your Life? It may have changed my life. When I came across a striking sentence or paragraph in the early days of my reading experience, I wondered if I could write like that. So, I would copy down the sentences and eventually began trying to imitate them. I’ve been writing ever since.

Can literature change lives? was one of the questions I began investigating when I was doing academic work in psychology. Very early on, I found experimental attempts to answer this question wanting, largely on methodological grounds. The samples were too small, mostly conducted in the laboratory under highly artificial conditions, with an unrepresentative sample of readers.

It seemed clear to me that academic research on the effects of literature might best examine anecdotal reports of individuals, as well as the analysis of the literary influences on particular writers. Charles Darwin described a paradigm case of this kind in recalling how Thomas Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population influenced his own work:

I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observations of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work…

In commenting on this example, Edwin Castagna noted:

This was one of the most significant reading experiences in the history of science. A bright light had been kindled in the brain of an obscure young scientist. The tinder was a book in another field. Where can one find a clearer or more convincing illustration of the powerful impact of reading on intellectual progress?

It appears that the effort to determine the effects of reading on the life and work of individuals will have to be content with examples of this sort. Some have claimed that even trying to answer this question in a more systematic manner is folly: that it is impossible to disentangle the various effects of reading experiences. Others have suggested it is unlikely that literature of any form can change a person's life, but that every now and then a book comes along that simply reinforces the way the person already thinks and acts.

The truth probably lies somewhere between these extremes. Lorrie Moore put it this way: "Everything one reads is nourishment of some sort—good food or junk food—and one assumes it all goes in and has its way with your brain cells." When put this way, I think most persons could hardly take issue with such a claim: that even though it is difficult to say much more, they are surely influenced in one way or another by the literature they read, no doubt by some books more than others.





8.14.2017

Near Death Experience

In an excerpt from her book, The Art of Death, Edwidge Danticat writes about the power of near death experiences (New Yorker blog, 7/10/17). Although Danticat hasn’t had such an experience, she says she has come close.

She describes an experience she once had while driving an old used car. Suddenly the car turned on its own and headed directly for a garbage truck coming in the opposite direction. She writes: There were only a few inches between us when both the truck and my car miraculously stopped. If the truck had hit me at the speed we were both going, I might have died.

On another occasion, she was standing on a landing of steps in front of a friend’s apartment. It was a snowy day, ice covered the steps, when she started slipping. “My arms flailed, and for a moment I felt as though I was flying.” Somehow, she managed to catch the railing before falling down those icy steps. Had she not, once again, she might have died or at least been brain dead.

She describes a somewhat similar near death experience that Montaigne had while riding his horse. One day he was thrown off his horse and was unconscious for several hours. Then, as he recovered from his accident, Montaigne realized that dying might not be so bad. He’d felt no pain, no fear.

I felt the same way when I had a near death experience one day in Florence. At breakfast several years ago I drank too much of the strong coffee they make around there and experienced what later was diagnosed as a vasovagal reaction, a mild form of fainting. I desperately wanted to lie down and sleep for a bit. Frankly, I thought it might be the end.

Luckily, I happened to be passing by the Palazzo Strozzi, a center of cultural events in Florence. The Palazzo is furnished on three of its sides with large stone benches originally intended as a shady resting place for servants and the motley assortment of characters the palace attracted long ago. The bench now gives everybody a welcome opportunity to rest for a moment and let their latest vasovagal reaction fade away.

I remember feeling at peace, a sense of serenity overcame me. I didn’t travel to heaven, have my past unfold before me or was not the least bit frightened. I realized then that dying wasn’t so bad after all. To feel such contentment at what I thought was the end was quite simply a perfect moment.

Although there are several ways to describe a near-death experience the dictionary defines it this way:

Noun: an unusual experience taking place on the brink of death and recounted by a person after recovery, typically an out-of-body experience or a vision of a tunnel of light.

Have you ever had a such an experience? If so, what was it like?

8.07.2017

My Life With Bob

The more you read, the more you realize you haven’t read; the more you yearn to read more, the more you understand that you have, in fact, read nothing. Pamela Paul

Pamela Paul’s My Life with Bob is not about her long marriage to her husband, Bob. Nor is it about the special relationship she has with the rapper, Bobby Ray Simmons Jr., known professionally as B.o.B or even about her devoted dog, who I imagine might be called Bob.

Rather My Life With Bob is about her book of books, or Bob for short, the journal she has kept of every book she has read since she was a teenager. Bob is simply a list of those books, without commentary, analysis or even a brief review.

Bob is not a commonplace book that lists the author and title of a book along with passages that in the best tradition also includes some annotation.

Paul is the current editor of the New York Times Book Review and it is clear that reading has always played a central role in her very bookish life. Everywhere she travels, and she travels a lot—France, Thailand, England, China --she takes a load of printed books. She never mentions digital versions or a digital reader, just printed books.

There is no narrative tale that unfolds in her book, no particular relationship between one book and the next or one chapter and the next. But along the way, we learn a little about her life, her husband, children, and yes, all the places she’s visited and why she went there, as well as the books she was reading then.

She admits she doesn’t always remember much about the books themselves. But the list helps her to recall certain periods of her life with clarity. “Whether the emotions are tied to what happed in a book, or what I was going through at the time, somehow everything just comes rushing back.”

Given the importance of books in her life and the fact that she usually remembers very little about them, I find it odd that she never mentions re-reading any book. The reason I’ve started to re-read the books I recall enjoying is because I too remember little of the books I’ve read, especially those I’ve read long ago.

For Paul reading is fundamentally about the relationship between a book and a reader, about the way books provide a reader with the perspective and sensibility of others. Of course, you can’t truly know how something feels unless you experience it, but reading about those experiences gives you a semblance.

It is also, or can be, a way to better understand ourselves. And toward the end she cites Kafka’s often quoted view that:

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?...We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more that ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”




7.31.2017

False Beliefs

The persistence of beliefs in the face of contrary evidence has always puzzled me. It has also annoyed me. “Why don’t facts change our minds?” as Elizabeth Kolbert puts it in an article in The New Yorker (2/27/17).

She begins by citing a number of well-known studies that use the debriefing paradigm to present the facts. For example, subjects are first asked to judge pairs of suicide notes. Then they are asked to distinguish the genuine from the fake ones.

After they had made their judgments, some of the subjects were told they were experts at this task, while others were told they weren’t very good. However, there really wasn’t any difference between the subjects, as what they were told had no basis in fact.

In the next phase of the study, the debriefing procedure, they were told they had been deceived, that they had zero grounds for believing they were any good or poor in judging suicide notes.

In spite of the fact the subjects were informed about the deception, they continued to believe what they had been told. Those told they were good judges of suicide notes continued to believe they were good; those told they were poor continued to believe they were poor. Again, both were equally unfounded.

The researchers concluded beliefs are remarkably persistent in the face of contrary evidence. As a rule, individuals fail to revise their beliefs even after they have been refuted. If anything, they become more polarized, growing further apart as they hold to their beliefs more strongly.

While hundreds of subsequent studies have confirmed these findings, a straightforward explanation remains elusive. Kolbert asks, “How did we come to be this way?” In trying to answer this question, she reviews three recent books that have more or less come to the same conclusion.

The argument runs like this: The biggest advantage humans have over other species is not our ability to reason, but rather the ability to cooperate. “Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data rather it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborate groups.”

For example, say you believe the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is a “disaster.” Even though your belief is baseless, if a good friend of yours agrees with you, even though her belief is also baseless, it will nevertheless strengthen your belief. And if another friend agrees with both of you, that will even further increase confidence in your view. And, so it goes.

The fact that false beliefs persist may have had some original survival value, but that doesn’t necessarily account for their persistence in the contemporary world. I know of many individuals who disagree about Obamacare or, if you will, our current president, but who nevertheless remain on the best of terms.

While we may be extremely sociable and belong to several collaborative groups, not everyone with these groups agree on a variety of issues. And yet the group can function quite successfully and the friendships among its members remain intact.

7.27.2017

From the Archives

I’ve been rereading some of my favorite books. The latest was Jonathan Rosen’s Joy Comes in the Morning. I wanted to write a blog about it but discovered I already had. What I wrote a while back still holds. It’s a wonderful novel.

A Dance with Religion

For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime! Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning. Psalm 30:5

Deborah Green is a young, charming, rabbi. Her congregants and the patients she visits in hospitals draw strength from her and see something in her, even when she does not see it herself. In Joy Comes in the Morning by Jonathan Rosen, she is facing a crisis, one that has been brewing for some time.

Deborah has increasing doubts about her faith. She ministers to the ill, delivers her remarks eloquently, sings beautifully, and says her morning prayers with apparent passion. But all the while she senses it’s an act.

Faker! a voice inside Deborah cried. There’s nothing! But she kept talking, kept formulating words and thoughts. Tears ran down her face, not because, as sometimes happened she felt how near God was, but because she felt God was not there at all and that she was speaking aloud in a cold white room, for the benefit of an old lady.

On a visit to the hospital where Henry Friedman is recovering from his second stroke, she meets his son, Lev. He finds her talking to his father and doesn’t know who she is and asks her to leave. She explains why she’s there, they become friends and in time lovers.

Lev begins studying the Torah with her and discovers a vocabulary for what he has always felt. Paraphrasing an old rabbinic precept, Lev found a teacher in Deborah and got himself a friend.

But there was far more to Deborah than her rabbinical self. She likes stupid movies, was not averse to using profanity, and could be quite frivolous. In spite of her responsibilities, she continues to struggle with what she perceives as the emptiness of her life and decides to flee her synagogue, without telling anyone including Lev, who has no idea where she’s gone.

Outwardly she did her work, observing the social and professional and religious forms, but inwardly she felt that a bottomless darkness had opened up and that she was constantly tiptoeing around the rim.

It is to her sister’s home where she goes. There she spends weeks doing nothing, not thinking much, taking long walks and commiserating with her sister, as well as her sister’s partner who gradually helps her to regain her strength. Eventually she returns to her synagogue and to Lev.

Soon thereafter she is informed her contract will not be renewed. Deborah receives a scholarship to study in Jerusalem, marries Lev, and together they embark for Israel.

Elsewhere Rosen has written, Deborah recognized that the rules she lived by—and the rules she ignored—had been devised by humans, though she saw them as divinely inspired and therefore worth maintaining. As a Reform Jew she was not obliged to see Jewish law as immutable and binding and yet she chose to observe a great deal. Something in the tradition transcended the individual…so that she had a sense of spiritual well-being that lived beyond her traditional life. Lev recognized this in her and admired it intensely.

I first read Joy Comes in the Morning ten years ago and remembered it brought me great pleasure. Ten years later it still did. Doubts and questions and paradoxes speak to me. I latch on to those books that do this and find they continue to inform me and often deliver an important message.

7.24.2017

The Third Swimmer

Until recently, Rosalind Brackenbury was a writer unknown to me. Somewhere I read about her novel, The Third Swimmer. I was drawn to the book by its depiction of pre-War London and, much later, by Brackenbury’s portrait of a village by the sea in the south of France.

The novel is the story of Thomas, an architect, and Olivia who meet just before the start of World War II. They are adrift, worried about a possible invasion and the destruction of their country.

Such damage: it made the whole of life so fragile that it almost stopped your breath. People had labored to build here, had lived all their lives trusting to the solidity of these streets; they had bought vegetables in markets here, and seen their children off to school, and come home from work—and it all could all be smashed in one night?

Out of the blue Thomas proposes to Olivia and equally surprising, she accepts. Thomas enlists in the army, while Olivia takes a day job.

In time, she begins an affair with one of the executives. They become close and their affair continues, in spite of the fact that the executive is married.

After the war, Olivia marries Thomas, but right from the beginning he senses that something is not quite right in their joyless marriage. Nevertheless, they stay together and have four children.

He has known, ever since their war-time honeymoon. His guess was that there was somebody else, another love, something impossible for her to forget in spite of what she protested.s

Several years later, Thomas arranges a trip to the south of France to try to recover their lost love. They drive to Cassis a small town on the coast, not far from Marseilles.

Out here in the sunlight, with madame bringing their breakfast, the hum of morning rising from the little town, shops opening, people sluicing water down the streets and across the dust of the square, it’s all right. The world they are in is all right, he thinks, it’s exactly as good as it can be, considering what has happened to it.

Rural France comes alive on these pages and so did their marriage after Thomas, in very rough seas, rescues a drowning woman far off the coast and barely survives himself. This brave act brings the two closer than they have ever been.

The way back always seems shorter than the way out. The roads of the south, which once seemed so endless, are quickly gone; the towns they pass through no longer look strange. On the drive up through France, she sits beside him.


7.20.2017

Summer

A Commonplace Book of Summer
Summer has always been my favorite time of the year. And so I have always been intrigued by how do others view the summer months. To find out, I did a targeted search for the word “summer” in my commonplace book. Below are a few of the passages I found.

Shakespeare

Summer’s lease hath all to short a date.

Hemingway A Farewell to Arms

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees were too dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Henry James

Summer afternoon—summer afternoon: to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.

Christopher Wilkins The Measure of Love

I felt like someone feels who spends a bright summer’s afternoon in a dark, smoky cinema, engrossed in some tenebrous gothic drama, only to emerge blinking into a world where it is still broad daylight and where there are shops and children and safety and laughter and people getting on with their lives.

Ann Patchett Bel Canto

In Paris, Simon Thibault had loved his wife, though not always faithfully or with a great deal of attention. They had been married for twenty-five years. There had been two children, a summer month spent every year at the sea with friends, various jobs, various family dogs, large family Christmases that included many elderly relatives.

Colm Toibin The Master

…he could not stop asking himself what he wished for now, and answering that he wanted only more of this—calm days, a beautiful small house and this soft summer light.

J. M. Coetzee Life & Times of Michael K

But most of all, as summer slanted to an end, he was learning to love idleness.

Andre Aciman Out of Egypt

Summers were long in Venice, she said, and there was nothing she liked more some days than to take the vaporetto and ride around the city, or head directly for the Lido and spend a morning on the beach by herself. She loved the sea.

Carol Cassella Oxygen

…Seattle’s spectacularly brief summertime...

Ian McEwan The Child in Time

I don’t remember a hotter summer than this in seventy-four years. It’s hot. In fact, I’d say it was too hot. Stephen said that was better than too wet and his father agreed.

Elizabeth Hawes Camus, a Romance

“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer.”

Lily Tuck I Married You for Happiness

Anything can happen on a summer afternoon
On a lazy dazy golden hazy summer afternoon


Anita Brookner A Friend from England

One always expects the summer to last for much longer than it does: one forgets the very sensation of being cold.

Natalia Ginzburg The Little Virtues

There are only two seasons in the Abruzzi: summer and winter. The spring is snowy and windy like the winter, and the autumn is hot and clear like the summer.

Alastair Reid Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner

I do not own a watch and pass the summer without ever knowing the time.

Richard Goodwin The American Condition

Now in Florence, when the air is red with the summer sunset and the campaniles begin to sound vespers and the day’s work is done, everyone collects in the piazzas. The steps of Santa Maria del Fiore swarm with men of every rank and every class; artisans, merchants, teachers, artists, doctors technicians, poets, scholars.

Olah Olafsson Restoration

…summer arrived with the most glorious weather imaginable: hot, sunny days and warm nights.


7.17.2017

James Salter The Art of Fiction

At the age of 89, just a few months before he died, James Salter delivered the first Kapnick Writer-in-Residence Lectures at the University of Virginia. The Art of Fiction consists of the three lectures he presented then.

I’ve read most everything Salter has written and while I didn’t expect to learn how to write a novel, I wanted to know about his writing life and the writers who meant the most to him. They include works by Balzac, Flaubert, Babel, Dreiser, Céline, Faulkner.

Salter raises the question: Why does one write? This is a question I have often pondered. To my surprise, Salter answers the question this way: …it would be truer to say that I’ve written to be admired by others, to be loved by them, to be praised, to be known. In the end that’s the only reason.”

I wonder how many writers would answer the same way?

Salter often spent time in France. He said he was always able to write there and that the French generally believe it is worthwhile to be a writer.

He spoke about the important elements in writing a novel. It’s never easy, you need to weigh each sentence, rewrite a great deal, observe closely and learn how to tell a story. “The narrative tells the story and story is the heart of things. It is the fundamental element.”

He spoke about some of the books he wrote, although he didn’t include his novel I like best, Solo Days. He described Light Years ”as being like the worn stones of conjugal life: everything ordinary, everything marvelous, everything that makes it full or makes it embittered—it goes on for years, decades, and in the end seems to have passed like things seen from a train, a meadow there, trees, houses, darkened towns, a station going by.”

The book represented the memory of those days, memories that are probably true for any marriage.

He wrote, A time comes when you are all alone, Celine wrote long before it actually happened to him, when you’ve come to the end of everything than can happen to you. It’s the end of the world, even grief, your own grief, doesn’t answer you anymore…”

And he concludes: “There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.”

In the final analysis, this is the only reason I publish whatever I’ve written.

7.12.2017

String Theory

I am reading David Foster Wallace’s String Theory, a collection of his essays on tennis. I am reading the book at the same time the Wimbledon tennis championships are being played. I’ve become a sort of tennis nut.

While Wallace was a very fine player, he never qualified for a major tournament. He wonders what makes a great tennis player? I think his answer is true for greatness of any sport and, perhaps, any form of superior performance.

It is not an accident that great athletes are often called “naturals,” because they can, in performance, be totally present: they can proceed on instinct and muscle-memory and autonomic will such that agent and action are one…They can withstand forces of distraction that would break a mind prone to self-conscious fear in two.

The real secret behind top athletes’ genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself. The real many-veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player’s mind…might well be: nothing at all.

I am reminded of how Woody Allen defined greatness during an interview at The New Yorker Festival in 2000. He said:

… you do what you do, you do what you do best, and if others like it or think it's great, then that's fine. And if they don't, that's fine too. But you always have to do what you like to do and what you do naturally. Talent is a gift, not something you can try to attain. You can work at perfecting it, but first it has to be there.

Malcolm Gladwell’s view of greatness (or success as he calls it) is a little more complicated. In Outliers: The Story of Success, he says there are five factors determining outstanding success: talent, hard work, opportunity, timing and luck..

Yes, you need to have a natural talent and practice, practice, practice. But you also need a fair amount of luck and be given the opportunity to express yourself, however you can do that.

Timing also plays a role, say in tennis, the opponents you play at that time, the stage of your development and something as simple as the time of the day, the light on the court, and how many hours you slept the night before.

Gladwell’s conception goes well beyond the simplicity of Woody’s and Wallace’s view. It recognizes the multiple factors that govern any behavior and the unpredictable way they combine in any individual. For this reason, it seems to me the most reasonable current account of “greatness” in any field.

7.10.2017

The Lost Letter

But sometimes the only way to fight the enemy is to become them…

Jillian Cantor’s The Lost Letter: A Novel is part mystery, part romance, part history and along the way an introduction to philately.

Katie Nelson is a writer in Los Angeles, currently going through a divorce. Her father, Ted, was a stamp collector but is now suffering from dementia and lives in a memory care facility. While cleaning out their family home, Katie comes across her father’s enormous stamp collection. She takes it to a stamp appraiser, Benjamin, who discovers a rare stamp on a letter that was never sent.

We shift to wartime Austria that has been annexed by Nazi Germany. Kristoff is a young apprentice to a master Jewish stamp engraver, Frederick Faber. He lives with Faber’s wife and two daughters, Elena and Mimi, in a small village on the outskirts of Vienna. Early in the novel, Elena is on her way to to the post office but is presumably captured by the Nazis, since she never returns home.

The chapters switch back between wartime Austria and late 80s and 90s Los Angeles. Cantor skillfully constructs this dual timeline. Fredrick Faber’s wife is captured, he disappears while walking to the nearby village and Kristoff is forced by to engrave stamps for the Nazis.

After Hitler took over Austria, they did a series of stamps to commemorate Austrian buildings and landmarks. This stamp is St. Stephen’s Cathedral, in Vienna. But it’s not supposed to have a flower in the steeple…I doubt it was a mistake…So then how did the flower get there?

Meanwhile, Katie and Benjamin go on a search for the origins of the rare stamp in her father’s collection. Together they travel to Wales to meet Mimi who lives in a retirement home, then to Berlin at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall where they eventually track down Elena who is living in East Berlin.

The story appears complex, but The Lost Letter reads quite clearly. Who is Kristoff and what happened to him after the war? Is Katie’s father really Ted? Why is Elena living in East Berlin? What is in the opened letter and is the stamp of any significant value?

Here I can only pose a few of the questions that make the novel such an exciting mystery. All of them are answered in the end, making The Lost Letter a moving tale of sacrifice, resistance and love.

The stamps were a connection to the past, his past, to this person he once was, this woman he once loved.

7.03.2017

A Long Saturday

There comes a time when it’s too late for many things. George Steiner

A Long Saturday is a provocative exchange between the the eminent scholar, George Steiner and the journalist Laure Adler. The book-length interview treats the many issues that have occupied Steiner throughout his life—languages, culture, Judaism, literature and the Holocaust.

I quote below some of the Steiner’s answers that struck me as most interesting:

First, we have a fundamental philosophical problem. A critical judgment on a piece of music, art, or literature cannot be put to the proof. If I declare that Mozart was incapable of writing a melody (there are people who believe that), you can tell me I’m a poor fool, but you can’t prove me wrong. When Tolstoy said that Lear is an overblown melodrama by someone who doesn’t understand tragedy at all, you can say, “Mr. Tolstoy, I regret to inform you that you are laughably wrong.” But you can’t prove him wrong. In the end it’s scary: opinions are not refutable.

And a good guest, a worthy guest, leaves the place where he has been staying a bit cleaner, a bit more beautiful, a bit more interesting than he found it.

L.A. Do you define yourself as a Jew, as a Jewish thinker?
G.S. No. A European Jew, if you like. A student, I like to consider myself a student. I have teachers.

But really, what fascinates me most is the mystery of Jewish intellectual excellence. I’m not being a hypocrite: in the sciences, the percentage of Jewish Nobel laureates is stunning. There are areas in which there is almost a Jewish monopoly. Take the creation of the modern American novel by Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow, and so many others. The sciences, mathematics, the media, as well; Pravda was run by Jews.

For me, to be a Jew is to remain a student, to be someone who learns. It’s to reject superstition, the irrational. It’s to refuse to turn to astrologists to find out your destiny. It’s to have an intellectual, moral, spiritual vision; above all, it’s to refuse to humiliate or torture another human being; it’s to refuse to allow another to suffer from your existence.
There comes a time when it’s too late for many things.

L.A. I think I’ve read that you distinguish two types of people: those who read with a pencil, and those who don’t….
G.S. You have to make notes, you have to underline, you have to wrestle with the text by writing in the margin.

In the evening the officers played Schubert and sang Mozart; in the morning they tortured people in Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and Majdanek.

Leading historians believe that between August 1914 and May 1945, in Europe and the western Slavic world, more than a hundred million men, women, and children were massacred in wars, in concentration camps, and by famine, deportation, and major epidemics… It’s a miracle that anything managed to survive.

It is inconceivable that we keep people alive against their will, when their only wish is to leave this world. It seems grossly sadistic to me.


6.30.2017

Briefly Noted

A Separation
The winter was bleak, cold, wet, cloudy, day after day, lasting for months. I need some sun, I wanted some sun.

It is why I read Katie Kitamura’s tale, A Separation, in which the nameless narrator travels to Greece to find out what happened to her former husband. She learns he is there or was supposed to be there, when his mother calls her to find out why he isn’t returning her phone calls.

His mother knows nothing of their separation and forthcoming divorce. The narrator agrees to travel to Greece to formalize the state of affairs between them.

He was last heard from in a small village in the southern Peloponnese where he has gone to research a book on the “weepers” who are paid to howl or wail at funerals in this part of the world. What she learns is that he was recently found dead, in a ditch not far from the hotel where he was staying.

The mystery of who killed him and for what reason forms the background of the novel. The narrator casually goes through the motions of learning what happened, as she goes from place to place and from person to person in a sunny Greek village in the Peloponnese.

The winter was a little brighter, a little warmer.

Transit
...whatever we might wish to believe about ourselves, we are only the result of how others treated us. Rachel Cusk

Rachel Cusk's latest novel Transit unfolds in a series of encounters the writer, Faye, has when she moves her family to London after the collapse of her marriage. She chances upon her ex-boyfriend, who finds himself back in London, “straitjacketed in routine.” After Faye buys a run-down house, her remodeler tells her how much he misses his former life in Poland.

Her downstairs neighbors shout obscenities at her, complaining about all the banging and noise that occurs as the walls come tumbling down and the floors are being ripped up. Her children call her about their problems at school, the keys they lost to their apartment, and the difficulties of living with their father.

Then there is a student Faye is teaching how to deal with the thousands of pages she has accumulated but can’t figure out what to do with them. At her hairdressers she engages in a philosophical discussion with her hair stylist.

The chapters proceed in this fashion, as Faye mostly listens and questions the tales of the individuals she encounters. But we know next to nothing about Faye, the underlying conditions of her life or where she is headed next.

Cusk concludes, “I was beginning to see what other people called fate in the unfolding of events, as though living were merely an act of reading to find out what happens next.”



6.25.2017

Earthly Remains

Because this was Venice, the police came by boat.”

If you have been lucky enough to spend some time in Venice, you will delight in Donna Leon’s series of (there are now 26) mystery novels about Commissario Guido Brunetti. It’s summer, a time to read something light, so I turn to read her latest, Earthly Remains. And what a pleasure it is.

Venice comes alive in her novels, the sounds, smells, lagoons, varporettos, gondolas and the piazzas. It’s almost as good as being there. In Earthly Remains, Commissario Brunetti is overwhelmed by the stress of his job and needs a rest. His wife, Paola, sends him to a villa owned by a wealthy relative on Sant’Erasmo, one of the largest islands in the lagoon.

He befriends the villa’s caretaker, Davide Casati, and together they row, swim and share meals with one another. They also visit the many beehives Davide has placed throughout the canals, only to find many of the queens dying. Davide sends samples to a woman on Burano who can determine what afflicts the bees.

After Davide goes missing in a storm, Brunetti begins searching for him, eventually finding his body submerged under his capsized boat with a rope connected to the anchor coiled tightly one of his legs.

Was it an accident, a suicide, or a murder? Davide’s wife had died of cancer a few years earlier and he has been heartbroken ever since. He has also been mourning the death of his bees. And then there is the mysterious scars on his back that Brunetti notices when they are swimming.

We learn that before Davide retired, he had worked for a scrap metal recycling company. I better stop here, for if I say much more, you probably won’t need to read the book. All I can do is give you a hint, although I know it is rather ambiguous--They knew what he knew and they didn't want that to be known. 

I know Earthly Remains is not the stuff of the higher literature. But it is fun. It is beautifully written. And at times, it is as perceptive as anything in the higher literature. Once you start, I doubt you’ll stop before the end.

6.23.2017

Two Notes from My Desk

Obama and Robinson
In a conversation with Maryilynne Robinson (New York Review of Books, 11/5/15) President Obama surprised me when he said, “When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels.”

He also noted that the media places a premium on the sensational and the most outrageous or a conflict somewhere. That’s what gets all the attention. He believes this creates a pessimism about the country because "all those quiet, sturdy voices that we were talking about are not heard.”

He then went on to say: “It’s not interesting to hear a story about some good people in some quiet place that did something sensible and figured out how to get along.”

Wouldn’t it be remarkable if instead of the nightly news reports of murders, scandals, and gossip, we might instead be offered the Nightly Cultural News? Surely poems are written every day, music is composed, novels and non-fiction works are published and films are made.

Why don’t we ever hear about them? Surely there are enough people who want to know about these things to support such a half hour of television programming. Surely there are organizations, charities, corporations, and men and women of wealth would be willing to add their support. Then we might then learn about: a forthcoming film, a poetry reading, musical performance, a new book, an old book, a theater production, an author interview, etc.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis came to town, that is to New York, Washington and Philadelphia in September of 2015. He was driven about in a black Fiat 500L, a small four-door gem. That said it all. No black Ford SUVs, trailing about one after the other.

He spoke of preserving the planet, living simply, avoiding excessive consumption, corporate profit-seeking, economic inequality, and the poor.

It was a display of wisdom not seen in this country in ages. And it was a joy to see the degree of coverage the media gave to him. Of course, all that ended the moment he left.

Nothing will or has changed as a result of his visit. People will continue to consume recklessly, corporations will continue to maximize their profits at the expense of consumers, the poor will continue to struggle and the great divide will increase further.


6.17.2017

Last Hope Island

Lynne Olson’s Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War is a 500+ page epic of World War 2. Rather than focus on a single subject, say a battle, person or group, she ranges over all of them and more.

Throughout her emphasis is on human stories, the individuals who played an important role in the War. She begins with the leaders of the Nazi occupied countries who took refugee in London and the difficult decision they had to make in leaving their homeland.

They include the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina, King Haakon of Norway, King Leopold of Belgium, the imperious Charles De Gaulle, the self-proclaimed leader of the French Republic, and the resistance leaders, code-breakers and fighter pilots of Poland. Together they formed a group in London that was instrumental in guiding the resistance groups in their countries and contributing to the the defense of Great Britain.

At some length Olson describes these groups, their leaders and fates especially those in France and The Netherlands. We learn about the disaster that over took the Dutch resistance, as the Nazis captured their leader, who was forced to reveal their codes and his communications with London.

But on the whole the resistance played a crucial role in the Allied defeat of Germany. She quotes Eisenhower who wrote in his memoirs that the resistance was of “inestimable value to the [French] campaign. Without there great assistance, the liberation of France would have consumed a much longer and and meant greater losses to ourselves.”

She depicts several of the groups in France and their efforts to return captured Allied airmen to England. She writes: “In all, some 7000 American servicemen, most of them air crew were spirited out of occupied Europe during the was…At a time when trained bomber crews were in desperately short supply, it was vital for the Allied war effort to retrieve as many airmen as possible and bring them back to England to continue the fight.”

The transfer worked like an assembly line. The down airmen were taken to the nearest safe house, from there they were transported hundreds of miles over many days by resistance members to a chain of safe houses to the foothills of the Pyrenees. From that point Spanish guides escorted them over the mountains to neutral Spain, whereupon they were flown back to England.

Almost uniformly the downed airmen formed a close bond with the hundreds of ordinary French citizens—men, women, and children—who sheltered, clothed, and fed them during their months in the country. They traveled from one family to another, putting each airmen’s life in their hands while risking theirs. There were hundreds of thousands of these caregivers all over France—people who never carried a gun or threw a grenade but whose willingness to provide safe houses for those who did made them invaluable members of the resistance.

Such people were the heart of the resistance. Most of them won no medals or honors after the war, nor were books written about them, unlike the top resistance leaders and various SOE (Special Operation Executive) agents.

One British airman wrote: “What has continuously irritated me has been the talk about the resistance as if it was created by a few heroes and heroines and they’ve tried to make me a hero, whereas the most important thing was the heroism of the people we were living with….They were sacrificing everything—children, partners, elderly relations, their land.”

Once again, I ask myself, as I did in discussing Nathan Englander’s The Anne Frank Game, would I be willing to offer my home as a safe house, at enormous risk to myself and my family. I’d like to think I would, but I’m fully aware of how difficult it is to predict future behavior or how I would act when confronted with the actual situation.

Throughout her book, Olson depicts the fraught relationship between Roosevelt, (who held off as long as possible before committing the United States to the War), Churchill, Stalin and de Gaulle. But in the end, they put their disputes aside and joined their forces together to defeat the army of the Third Reich.

For me, Last Hope Island recaptured once again the courage of so many individuals who fought in one way or another in World War 2. While it treats the countless traumas of the War and although it is a very lengthy tome (I’ve only touched on a few of the subjects Olson treats), it was, quite simply, a fascinating book to read.



6.11.2017

The Measure of Love

St. Augustine wrote in his confessions, What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain him who asks, I know not.

Seven years ago in the month of June, I wrote a brief blog about Christopher Wilken’s The Measure of Love, that was primarily concerned with the concept of time. However, there was another strand in the book that I completely ignored.

Robert is a student of mathematics at Cambridge; the much older, divorced Elizabeth works at the cosmetic counter in a department store. The two strike up a friendship that develops into a deep romance, leading to their marriage. But when Robert’s father dies, he abandons his studies and takes over the family business of watchmaking.

In my earlier blog I said nothing about the disease that afflicted Elizabeth. In fact, when I reread the book recently, I didn’t recall anything about Wilken’s moving description of the course of her Alzheimer’s Disease.

The chapters in The Measure of Love alternate between a discussion of the measurement of time and the ravages of Alzheimer’s. I confess they don’t blend well together. You read a chapter on Elizabeth’s disease, followed by a chapter on the evolution of watches, or how they are constructed or the history of the fine timepieces. It’s quite disjointed, each could easily stand alone as a separate volume.

The tragic tale of Elizabeth’s decline begins with small memory lapses, she begins to lose things, then forgets to eat and sometimes finds herself in places she had no reason to be. Robert notices she starts to make lists, so she won’t forget. They visit a doctor who suspects she has dementia of the Alzheimer’s type. He says:

I can’t offer much hope, I’m afraid. In fact, to be blunt, I can’t offer you any. Her dementia is is degenerative and unrelenting. …really there is no curative treatment and we are so far from understanding even the cause of the condition that no cure is foreseeable.

Later he reports, One group of researchers thinks it’s connected with some protein in the brain, another group seems to believe that the problem is the synapses. Some of them are convinced it’s a genetic thing. Nobody really knows.

Elizabeth would sometimes leave their bed at night and wonder off outside, regardless of how cold or wet it was. Periods of verbal confusion came and went, Robert begins to feel uncertain if she recognizes him anymore.

The downward spiral continues as she becomes obliviously incontinent, forgets how to chew food, or makes any attempt to communicate. Eventually she was moved to a hospice home that Robert first visits every day, then less and less often, as her degeneration worsens. Finally, she dies of an apparent infection.

Wilkens writes vividly about Alzheimer’s, one of the most emotional accounts I’ve read. And I assume his descriptions of watchmaking and its history are equally informed.

After Elizabeth dies, Robert sets about to create the perfect timepiece. Strangely, it seems the only way he can sustain the memory of his deep love for her and the early days of their romance. And when he finishes, he confesses:

During those days I found myself increasingly at a loose end After five years and seven months of continuous work on the watch, it’s completion had removed the core of my life, and I found myself wishing, perversely that the instrument would reveal some imperfection which would require me to resume my labours. But it was not to be.

6.09.2017

Friday Surprise


The other day a friend forwarded to me these very short stories that were sent to him by his cousin in Lithuania. While not exactly the sort that Lydia Davis writes, they are, nevertheless, fun to read. If I had to choose a favorite, I'd say number 6

1 Once all villagers decided to pray for rain. On the day of prayer all the people gathered, but only one boy came with an umbrella.
That's FAITH.

2 When you throw babies in the air, they laugh because they know you will catch them.
That's TRUST

3 Every night we go to bed without any assurance of being alive the next morning, but still we set the alarms to wake up.
That's HOPE.

4 We plan big things for tomorrow in spite of zero knowledge of the future.
That's CONFIDENCE.

5 We see the world suffering, but still we get married and have children.
That's LOVE.

6 On an old man's shirt was written a sentence 'I am not 80 years old; I am sweet 16 with 64 years of experience.'
That's ATTITUDE.



6.04.2017

Power Outage

If there is a core insight in the podcast boomlet, it may be that, as much as we enjoy tweeting, texting, watching, writing, reading, and snapping, no Internet-born form has supplanted the potency of conversation.

The other day there was a power outage in my neighborhood. While we had electricity, there was no internet and no television. I was beside myself. It was impossible to get online or watch Wolf Blitzer’s latest “Breaking News” report.

Once again I was reminded how much we, or at least, I have come to depend on our technology rich world. I don’t mind being alone with my thoughts or sitting quietly staring into space. But now and then I do like to check into the world.

I began thinking of what I used to do before the arrival of the internet or television. Well, I read a book, magazine or newspaper. And I still do that. So I opened my iPad and began reading what I had already downloaded and then I turned to the printed book I was reading then.

The power outage reminded me of what Haruki Murakami wrote about life before and after the development of the electronic revolution in his story “Town of Cats,” published in The New Yorker.

By setting the story in 1984, before cell phones and e-mail and the Internet had become common, I made it impossible for my characters to use such tools. This in turn was frustrating for me. I felt their absence slowing down the speed of the novel. When I thought about it, though, not having such devices at the time—both in daily life and in the story—ceased to be an inconvenience. If you wanted to make a phone call, you just found a public telephone; if you had to look something up, you went to the library; if you wanted to contact somebody, you put a stamp on a letter and mailed it. Those were the normal ways to do those things. While writing the novel (and experiencing a kind of time slip), I had a strong feeling of what the intervening twenty-seven years had meant. Sorry to state the obvious, but maybe there’s not much connection between the convenience of people’s surroundings and the degree of happiness they feel.

I would have enjoyed talking to someone, but no one was around for most of the day. Indeed it would have been an unusual day to have a real conversation without the interminable distractions that occupy so much of our life now.

On his blog, Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick Kurp describes how he once spent a day in conversation. “For the first time in a long time I spent most of my waking hours on Saturday in conversation.” This was not your ordinary hello-goodbye talk, but rather a serious exchange of ideas about literature.

It was a give and take of “memories, thoughts and stories” as he describes it. It wasn’t a monologue or the least bit strident. In the morning he spent two hours with a teacher he had 46 years ago. He says she was as sharp as she was when he took an English class with her in high school. They talked about “books, old friends and the ongoing decline of Western Civilization.”

In the afternoon he spent more than seven hours talking with a couple, both artists, who have been his friends for 41 years. “The talk was effortless and never stopped.”

After describing the day he turns to Boswell who reports “the great man" [Samuel Johnson] saying, “The happiest conversation is that of which nothing is distinctly remembered but a general effect of pleasing impression.”

When was the last time you spent a day like this? When was the last time you had conversations like this?



5.31.2017

Known and Strange Things

You write not after you’ve thought things though; you write to think things through. Andre Aciman

It took me a while to finish Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things, reading the sixty or so essays from time to time, over the course of several weeks.

Cole divided his essays into three sections: Reading Things, Seeing Things and Being There. Many of the essays deal with Cole’s love of photography, the pictures he takes, what is important to him in doing so and the works of other photographers he admires.

The essay I remember best is one he wrote while being in a somewhat remote Swiss town, Leukerbad, one that James Baldwin wrote about when he was in the same village (“Stranger in the Village”). Cole, also African-American, retraces Baldwin’s steps and what being a black person in an otherwise all white community felt like.

You are a black body first, before you are a kid walking down the street or a Harvard professor who has misplaced his keys…The remote village gave him [James Baldwin] a sharper view of what things looked like back home.”

Another of Cole’s essays explores the peculiar way Andre Aciman sometimes writes, a way that appeals to me greatly. Quoting Aciman:

What was missed was not just Egypt. What was missed was dreaming Europe in Egypt—what we missed was Egypt where we’d dreamed of Europe.

Monet “realized that he liked painting this town [Bordighera] more than he loved the town itself, because what he loved was more in him than in the town itself.


In writing about why he voted for Barack Obama in 2008, Cole says he voted not because my doing so would change the outcome, but because it would change himself.

Now voting for Obama, in spite of my strong objections both to some of his ideas and to much of the system in which he functioned, was a declaration, mostly to myself, that we participate in things not because they are ideal but because they are not.

Cole wonders how the “reader in chief” could now be embroiled in wars in all but name in Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and Syria. What became of literature’s vaunted power to inspire empathy? Why was the candidate Obama, in a word and in deed, so radically different from the president he became?

And in one of the last essays Cole writes about the rarely acknowledged freedom the military gives to us. I am not naïve about the incessant and unseen (by most of us) military activity that undergirds our ability to read, go to concerts, earn a living, and criticize the government in relative safety.

Comments like this appear throughout Cole’s essays and make Known and Strange Things such a pleasure to read.


5.26.2017

The Weather Rules

“It is commonly observed, that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.” Samuel Johnson

I was walking outside recently in an unexpectedly warm 80 degrees. It was impossible not to smile. A woman, about my age, was passing by me. “So” she said, also smiling. “ You like it when it’s warm outside.” “Around here, how could I not?” I replied.

I know it’s trite to talk about the weather and what we might say about it is little more than a cliché. And I know there are far more important matters to write and talk about than the weather.

But let’s face it: We all experience the weather in one way or another. And where I live in the Pacific Northwest, the weather is on everyone’s mind, everyday of the year, including this Memorial Day weekend, which, unlike previous years, promises to be rain-free.

“Cold enough for you today?” “When are we going to see the sun again?” Even though it may be boring to talk about it the weather, doing so is often a stepping stone to more significant matters.

Then there are the generalities that are often made about the weather.

• It is said we may be more helpful when it is warm.
• Or that we spend more money when it’s sunny.
• It is also claimed that warm weather elevates our mood and makes us more productive.
• The cold and cloudy days of winter are also believed to be one of the sources of depression.

Yet it is equally clear that some people are more affected by the weather than others. I am one who is and so over the years of my reading, I have added passages about the weather to my commonplace book. Here are a few representative examples:

Life is weather. Life is meals.
James Salter LightYears

Spring. The weather is warm, the chestnut trees are in flower, brilliant tulips bloom in the Luxembourg Garden.
Lily Tuck I Married You for Happiness

Weather forecasting is one of the success stories in this book, a case of man and machine joining forces to understand and sometimes anticipate the complexities of nature. The more fundamental issue is that we can only observe our surroundings with a certain degree of precision.
Nate Silver The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—but Some Don’t

The weather. A variety of weather doom. The weather made me her feel as if there was no point to life: whether you worked hard didn’t matter, whether you found someone to love didn’t matter, because even if you worked hard and found someone to love, a day like this would come, when a strange damp coolness seeped in through the windowpanes and seeped in through you, making you see that everything was meaningless.
Brian Morton The Dylanist

Summer afternoon—summer afternoon: to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.
Henry James

And yet the image of the south, the image that all northerners have, was irresistible. All the clichés came into play: markets, cafes, a more relaxed and indulgent way of life. And the sun, the sun!
Anita Brookner The Rules of Engagement

Anything can happen on a summer afternoon
On a lazy dazy golden hazy summer afternoon
Lily Tuck I Married You for Happiness

But I do so enjoy the feel of the sun on me…
Janice Y. K. Lee The Piano Teacher

Today, in this place [Auschwitz] our only purpose is to reach the spring. At the moment we care about nothing else…In the morning while we wait endlessly lined up in the roll-call square for the time to leave for work, while every breath of wind penetrates our clothes and runs in violent shivers over our defenceless bodies, and everything is grey around us, and we are grey; in the morning, when it is still dark, we all look at the sky in the eat to spot the first signs of a milder season, and the rising of the sun is commented on every day: today a little earlier that yesterday, today a little warmer than yesterday, in two months, in a month, the cold will call a truce and we will have on enemy less.

Today the sun rose bright and clear for the first time from the horizon of mud. It is a Polish sun, cold, white and distant, and only warms the skin, but when it dissolved the last mists a murmur ran through our colourless numbers, and when even I felt its lukewarmth through my clothes I understood how men can worship the sun.

We fought with all our strength to prevent the arrival of winter. We clung to all the warm hours, at every dusk we tried to keep the sun in the sky for a little longer, but it was all in vain. Yesterday evening the sun went down irrevocably behind a confusion of dirty clouds, chimney stacks and wires, and today it is winter.
Primo Levi If This is a Man

5.21.2017

The Light Between the Oceans

It’s the 1920s on a fictitious island in South-Western Australia, at the confluence of two oceans. A dinghy washes up on the shore with a dead man and infant child. Tom a WW 1 veteran and his young wife, Isabel, grapple with what to do.

Tom is meticulous, a rule-governed lighthouse keeper; Isabel has suffered two miscarriages and a still birth. She views the child as a “gift from God.” Against his better judgement, Tom agrees to raise it on their own.

This is the moral issue that drives M. L. Stedman’s, The Light Between the Oceans, and one that was uppermost in my mind as I read the novel. The issue comes into focus when we learn that the infant’s true mother lives in the nearest town to the island and the dead man was her husband.

Tom and Isabel battle back on forth, as the child, who they name Lucy becomes deeply attached to Isabel, while both Tom and Isabel, in turn, become equally attached to Lucy.

Isabel says, "How can you be so hard-hearted? All you care about is your rules and your ships and your bloody light.”

On leave from the island, they return to the small town of Partageuse for Lucy’s Baptism. While there, they discover that Lucy’s grieving mother, Hannah, lives in the town, having lost her husband and daughter Grace. At this point the conflict between Tom and Isabel escalates.

“For better or worse, Tom, we did what we did. What about her loving mother? Her living bloody mother! How can this be fair, Izz?” “Of course it’s not fair, Tom, not fair at all! We just have to take what life dishes up!”

Unbeknownst to Isabel, Tom sends a message to Hannah that her daughter is alive, eventually leading to his arrest and the traumatic return of Lucy to Hannah. As Tom’s trial is about to begin with the prospect of a long-term imprisonment or hanging, Isabel finally realizes she cannot betray Tom any longer and tells the truth to the police:

“…none of it’s true!” cried Isabel. “Frank Roennfeldt was dead when the boat washed up. It was my idea to keep Lucy. I stopped him reporting the boat. It’s my fault.”

Tom is sent to prison for six months and Isabel is given a suspended sentence. The novel ends twenty years after Grace is returned to Hannah. They have moved to a small town 400 miles away, Isabel dies after a long battle with cancer and Lucy-Grace visits Tom to express her condolences. She has forgiven the couple and hopes to come back to visit Tom again.

A beautiful novel in the old tradition, well written, a pleasure to read with a moral quandary whose resolution captured my interest.


5.15.2017

A Sense of Community

In Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger proposes that lacking a sense of community is the source of the alienation so many individuals feel today. He argues that while all our technological miracles have delivered many benefits, they have only deepened the individualistic trends in modern society and isolated us from the wider community.

“First agriculture and then industry changed two fundamental things about the human experience. The accumulation of personal property allowed people to make more and more individualistic choices about their lives, and those choices unavoidably diminished group efforts toward a common good. And as society modernized, people found themselves able to live independently from any communal group.”

Junger supports his claim from a range of sources. He points to the way individuals come together in disasters—earthquakes, civilians in wartime, troops on the battlefield.

“What catastrophes seem to do—sometimes in the span of a few minutes—is turn back the clock on ten thousand years of social evolution. Self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside group survival, and that creates a social bond that many people sorely miss."

Junger also discusses at some length the experience of soldiers returning from recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is nothing close to civilian life that can match the deep social bonds formed on the battlefield. He suggests that Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD) may reflect the estrangement soldiers feel when they return home, rather than a serious psychological breakdown

“A modern soldier returning from combat—or a survivor of Sarajevo—goes from the kind of close-knit group that humans evolved for back into a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities and personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good.”

It’s important to note that Junger’s claims are speculative, based on historical examples and anecdotal evidence, with few statistical measures. At the same time Tribe is an important call for a stronger collective society, one based less on individualism and more on group solidarity.

5.14.2017

By A Running Brook


On this Mother’s Day, I would like to quote from as essay I wrote about my mother several years ago. It has been edited and shortened quite a bit:

My mother was a reader. I can see her clearly: I am returning home from school, walking in the living room, and there she is lying on the couch munching an apple with a book in hand. I sit down and we talk about my day at school. That was our practice every day when I returned home from school. It never occurred to me to ask her how her day had been or to inquire about what she was reading. I wish I had known enough then to have asked her.

I wonder now if it could have been the same serious literature it was by the time I left for college? Now that I have succumbed to the power of literature, I have thought more and more about her reading, when she started, what it meant to her, who she spoke with about it.

Eventually she developed a keen interest in D.H. Lawrence. He became her obsession. She read everything that he wrote, everything that had been written about him. She loved talking with me about his life and work and why I should read him more often. And then she started collecting his works, all his works, the first editions of everything.

From time to time she would part with one and send it to us for a gift on a special occasion. A carefully composed letter always accompanied these gifts, as well as the countless other books that came from the “Librarian” as she came to call herself. To my daughter on her 16th birthday, she wrote:

George Bernard Shaw said after reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover: “All young women should be given this book on their sixteenth birthday.” I want you to read this book very slowly and carefully word by word and page by page…. contrary to what many critics have said it is not pornography. It is rather a serious social document with several layers of meaning. It portrays the contrast between the privileged landowning nobility and the poorly educated laboring miners. It portrays the contrast between the natural world of the Forest (Eden) surrounded and encroached on all sides by the ugliness of the industrial city. Mellors, the games keeper is the natural man, or if you wish, the man who is happy only in an environment of nature, who is symbolic of Osiris born and re-born in the yearly cycle of the seasons. Connie the heroine is the symbol of Woman, or Isis, constantly seeking her mate who will provide her with the seed of her re-birth. Sir Clifford is the symbol of Death in Life Dis or Pluto—consuming, demanding but sterile—unable to pro-create and therefore a destroyer. As you can see this is a book that needs to be read more than once and I hope that over the years as you grow and become more experienced you will turn to this book and find more and more rewarding insights.

Each time I read her note I have to admit to a certain astonishment. My mother was not a Lawrence scholar. She may have taken a university course on Lawrence, but to the best of my knowledge she had never written an extended commentary or paper about his work. Yet here, in this note, is an expression of considerable erudition, understanding, and deep appreciation of the novel. No advanced degree. No graduate dissertation. Not even an undergraduate degree. And yet who would not conclude from such a note that she was a Lawrence scholar who had all three?

In 1973 she decided to put her love of books into practice by opening a bookstore of her own. It must have been a life-long dream of hers, as it is for many devoted readers. She called the store, The Running Brook:

Find tongues in trees,
Books in the running brook,
Sermons in stones and
Good in everything
From As You Like It

She created a warm and inviting store that was much too lavish for the community of nearby students. The bookshelves were made of handsome wood finishing, the walls were adorned with attractive paintings, and comfortable armchairs were placed throughout the store. She was really far more interested in poetry readings, book discussions, and chess matches than selling books.

In a newspaper article on the store it was reported that she graced the store with her two kittens who delighted in climbing over prospective buyers. And in discussing her plans for recycling books she is quoted as saying, “When the person is finished with the book and no longer has a use for it, he should bring it in so that others might also derive enjoyment from it.”

In time The Running Brook became too much for her and I am sure it was with relief, rather than regret that she closed the store. She had done it, done something she had dreamed about for years, and she had done it well and beautifully and with love.

One of her favorite literary passages, one that my grandmother placed in center of one her most beautiful needlepoints read: To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. This passage from Tennyson’s Odysseus is framed and has always hung above the hearth of our family home. In a few years, I will pass it on to my son and his family and hope that they will come to appreciate and be guided by it, as I have been.


5.08.2017

This Is London Calling


In the early days of the 1940’s, everyone listened to the radio. This was long before the age of television, the Internet and the Web. After dinner, we used to gather round the big, clunky radio and listen to the news and whatever else was on that night. On Sundays it was the comedies, Fred Allen, Jack Benny and Fibber McGee & Molly.

But it was also news of how the war in Europe was going. I was reminded of this while reading Lynne Olson’s Last Home Island: Britain, Occupied Europe and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War. She speaks of the important role the BBC played then.

For as long as the war lasted, Europeans engaged in a precious nightly ritual: they retrieved their radio sets, which had been outlawed by the Germans, from a variety of hiding places—beneath the floorboards, behind canned goods in the kitchen cupboard, secreted in the chimney. Then, in whatever the setting, the owners of the sets switched them on and tuned to the BBC in time to hear the chiming of Big Ben and the magical words “This is London calling.”…

During and after the war, Europeans described those furtive moments listening to BBC news programs as their lifeline to freedom. A Frenchman who escaped to London late in the war recalled, “It’s impossible to explain how much we depended on the BBC. In the beginning, it was everything.”

We didn’t receive the BBC in America, but we did get the CBS news broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow and Eric Sevareid. Both reported from London and other locations in Europe during World Was II. I remember Murrow used to sign off his evening broadcasts, “Good night, and good luck.”

I suspect the most likely situation in which people listen to the radio today is in their automobile, where tinkering with their iPhone is dangerous and in some states illegal.

The radio continues to find its way to offices and homes in England, where the BBC is still a major presence. National Public Radio in this country has equally popular radio programs. And then there are the conservative talk radio shows.

It is said that Rush Limbaugh’s program is number one with 14.25 million listeners, that’s 14.25 million listeners, during an average week. But surprisingly NPR is not far behind.

In an essay on the radio Bill McKibben claims that: “National Public Radio’s flagship news programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, featuring news and commentary alongside in-depth reports and stories that can stretch over twenty minutes—are the second- and third-most-popular radio programs in the country, each drawing about 13 million unique listeners in the course of the week.”

That’s a bit of good news, isn’t it?



5.04.2017

The Other Side of You


...how little of another person’s reality is visible to us. We see their form, their features, their shifts of expression, but all that constitutes their sense of self remains unseen. And yet this invisible self is what to the individual constitutes their real identity. Salley Vickers

In The Other Side of You, Salley Vickers tackles the big, vital themes—love, art, communication, desire, suicide, death, self-knowledge, etc. She writes about these issues with considerable erudition and sensitivity. Her background in art history and psychotherapy make a major contribution to her novel.

The story--Elizabeth Cruickshank tries to end her life after the death of her lover, an art historian. Her failed attempt brings her to the analyst Dr. David McBride, who has also known the loss of a loved one-- the accidental death of his brother. Over the course of the novel, patient and therapist slowly begin to know one another, while sharing their respective grief.

…we had the kind of good-natured intimacy which is only possible between a man and a woman where sex will never be a factor.

In a single session, lasting the better part of seven hours, the two uncover the depths of their personal tragedies.

We all long for someone with whom we are able to share our peculiar burdens of being alive.

Along the way, Cruickshank introduces McBride to the paintings of Caravaggio. In them, they see their own world of pain and passion.

The Other Side of You is an engrossing novel, one that considers the variations of love-- between friends, siblings, doctors and patients. It plays a fundamental role in each person’s life, not only by its presence, but by its absence, as well.

Love is letting be. Letting the other one be as they are….Wanting to help them be that, not by doing anything—you can’t do anything for anyone anyway—but simply by want them to be nothing other than they are…

The Other Side of You is a deeply reflective meditation on psychotherapy at its best and the wisdom to be found in art. It is a philosophical novel of the first order.

5.01.2017

Rogue Heroes




The year is 1941, the place is North Africa where British troops are under pressure from Edwin Rommel’s German forces. The ground war in the desert is going nowhere. Two young British soldiers conceive the idea of attacking behind the lines with a small force of rigorously trained commandos



Their mission is to blow up German and Italian planes, war material and supply lines. At first their attempts are utter failures. Eventually they become more skillful and while each mission is perilous, over time they begin to play a major role in defeating Rommel’s forces, as well as subsequent victories of allied forces in Crete, Italy, northern France and Germany.


Ben Macintyre’s Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War is an exciting account of their mixed fortunes during the war. Many of their men were killed, captured or murdered by the Nazis and successful missions were often followed by the destruction of entire villages in retaliation by the Germans.

The concept of such a group of commandos influenced the creation of the US Delta Force, the Navy Seal Teams and the Israeli Sayeret Matkal, a special forces unit of the Israeli Defense Forces.

Macintyre writes: The SAS has become a legend, but the true story contains darkness as well as light, tragedy and evil alongside heroism: it is tale of unparalleled bravery and ingenuity, interspersed with moments of rank incompetence, raw brutality, and touching human frailty.




9.06.2016

Break to Continue

Marks in the Margin’s summer break will continue for an indefinite period. There are several other projects I’m working on now that prevent me from giving the blog the attention it deserves. Meanwhile, here are some briefly noted comments I wrote during the past three months:

The End of Reflection
In the Times (6/11/16) Teddy Wayne writes about the end of reflection. He says we no longer spend time alone with our thoughts. Instead, whenever we are walking or waiting somewhere or riding the subway or bus, we have a look at our mobile phone to see what’s up.

The days of ruminating or contemplating are over. The devices we carry around are simply too distracting. We read, text, email or listen to tunes. No more simply having a look at our surroundings or pondering a verity.

Well, I spend a good part of every day brooding about something or other. Yes, I check my emails and the sites I go to on the web. But I don’t spend a great deal of time doing that. I rarely text, don’t get many emails and the number of phone calls I receive or make each week are not many more than none.

The thing is, I don’t carry around my cell phone. If I go anywhere it remains in the dock on my desk. I suppose I should take it for emergencies and I may start doing that, but if I do, I’m not going to browse the web or use one of the few apps I have. Very simple. Leave your phone at home.

Wayne spends some time discussing the effects of using the phone on cognitive and introspective abilities. But as in most research on such questions, the results are relatively uninformative. In my judgment, they fail to adequately capture the nature of reflection. Moreover, there are not many studies on the topic and those that have been conducted usually don’t agree with one another.

Third Place
People often make fun of McDonald’s. Their food is greasy, full of calories and fats, and they are everywhere. But in fact, McDonald’s has become a place where friends can gather, spend time talking and bringing a sense of community to their life.

In this sense they have become a Third Place, namely a place as central to a person’s life as their home and workplace. To be sure, those who gather there are largely lower income Americans who feel isolated from the privileged and cannot escape the emptiness of their jobs.

Instead, they drop by McDonald’s to visit with their friends, share an inexpensive meal, and discuss the news of the day. Who can sneer at that? As Chris Arnade writes in the Guardian (6/8/16), in many places it has become “the glue that holds communities together.”

A Hero of France: A Novel
France, the spring of 1941. The war in Europe intensifies. The British are bombing the hell out of Germany. Some of their aircraft are shot down.

The pilots manage to parachute into a German occupied area of France. They hide until they somehow manage to make contact with someone in the French Resistance, who have organized escape lines to Spain, where they are able to return to England.

Alan Furst’s A Hero of France tells the story of one such Resistance group and their leader. He describes the other members of the cell—a nightclub owner, a 17 year-old high school student who is a bicycle courier, a professor of ethnology at the Sorbonne, a chic socialite, and a young Jew. They all want to find ways to find ways to sabotage the Germans and send them packing

Yes, the story has been told many times. But it is still exciting.

Members of the Resistance are always on the alert, sleep is hard to come by, so is warmth and food, the pressure of clandestine work ages them. Somehow they avoid the Germans, transport the British flyers to safe houses on the routes to Spain.

Once again I ask myself what would I have done in occupied France? Would have I silently tried to get by? Would I have saved Jews seeking a hiding place? Would have I lent a hand to the Resistance at great risk to myself and family?

I hope I would take the risk like the members of cell Furst describes. I hope I wouldn’t keep my head down when a German soldier passed me by. I hope I might have done everything I could to harass the Germans.

Courage. That is what attracts me to these stories.

“When we lost the war, the heart went out of the people here. It was as though the city had died. This reached me, and soon enough I began to do things, small things, but they made me feel better. And the more I watched these arrogant bastards strutting around the city, my city, the more I did.”

Alice and Oliver
“I have to remember that we all have our own times and journeys.”

Charles Bock’s Alice and Oliver describes a two-and-a-half year battle with leukemia, not his, but his wife’s, Alice. She undergoes grueling chemotherapy, spends most of her time in hospital beds and can’t decide whether to accept her fate or fighting it.

“You have acute myeloid leukemia, or AML,” began Eisenstatt. “What this means: inside your bones there is marrow, a spongy red tissue responsible for producing your blood cells. AML is a mutation, or disruption, inside that marrow. Instead of producing a normal blood cell, your marrow produces purplish cells called myeloblasts.”

It was almost as grueling to read the long tale of her suffering and Oliver’s endless negotiations with insurance companies, the difficulties in starting his software company, and caring for their baby.

The story is based on the journals Alice kept throughout her ordeal. In an interview he said, “They became a baseline, I would write over them or take moments, and I would change them, but I felt, I get to keep her spirit in the word.”

After a while, reading about Alice’s suffering and Oliver’s grief and pain became too much for me. I skimmed the final third, rather than abandoning the book.

“The First Noble Truth is the Truth of Suffering: “You are born. You live. You suffer and get sick. You die.” But of course nothing is so simple.”

Taste
I’d like to go to Italy, she would prefer to explore Oregon. I’d like to see the latest French film, she wants to see the latest comedy. I like philosophical novels, she craves the mysteries. And so it goes. In these and other areas, we have different tastes.

In "What It Is Like to Like", Louis Menand reviews (New Yorker, 6/20/16) Tom Vanderbilt’s You May Also Like, a book about taste and whatever it is that shapes our preferences. According to Menand, we can’t account for our tastes. We don’t know why we prefer one thing over another.

“But where tastes do come from is extremely difficult to pin down. Taste is not congenital: we don’t inherit it. And it’s not consistent. We come to like things we thought we hated (or actually did hate), and we are very poor predictors of what we are likely to like in the future.”

From time to time I try to account for the taste differences between my wife and my tastes. Yes, we come from different backgrounds, have had widely different life experiences, social needs and economic concerns. But I am a loss when I try to nail down the factors that account for the variability between us.

Italy is very special to me, so are philosophical novels and foreign films. But she doesn’t share these tastes. And that’s about all I can say.

It’s also impossible for me to try to alter her tastes. Even when I point out inconsistencies in them. Can a marriage be built on such differences? Can it last? All I can say is that we’ve been married for almost 58 years and going strong. That’s pretty well answers my question.

Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano
So many friends whom I never knew disappeared in 1945, the year I was born..

Dora Bruder is the story of a quest, a quest into the past. The narrator happens to read a note in a 1941 Paris paper: “Missing, a young girl, Dora Bruder, age 15…Address all information to M. and Mme Bruder, 41 Boulevard Ornano, Paris.”

He had long been familiar with that area, waiting in cafes in the morning when it was still dark and early in the evening as night fell. This sets him off on a search for Dora Bruder, what he can find out about her and her fate during Nazi occupied Paris.

The search takes him into administrative offices, libraries, research centers as he tries to hunt down photos, information about Jewish individuals in Paris and anything he can learn about Dora Bruder.

He traces down her parents, where they lived and the work they did. In time, he learns that Dora ran away from home once, was sent to a Catholic school from which she ran away again. He wonders how she got by, where she hid, as she was Jewish.

Finally, he discovers: “Father and daughter departed Drancy on 18 September, in company with thousands of other men and women, on a convoy of trains bound for Auschwitz.”

Everything falls into place, the quest is over, a deep sadness overcomes the narrator, as well as the reader. Memories of those times begin to haunt the narrator, one year merging into another, that of 1965 when he writes the book and those of wartime Paris.

“I shall never know how she spent her days, where she hid, in whose company she passed the winter months of her escape, or the few weeks of spring when she escaped for the second time. That is her secret. A poor and precious secret that not even the executioners, the decrees, the occupying authorizes, the Depot, the barracks, the camps, History time—everything that defiles and destroys you—have been able to take away from her.”

35 Years
“Who are you? Who have I been married to all this time?” David Mason News from the Village: Aegean Friends

Do I know everything about my wife? How much has she concealed from me and, indeed, how much have I concealed from her? And what happens when the truth of either one of us is revealed?

Much depends, of course, on how long we have been married. Perhaps in the early days, we didn’t know everything about each other. And as the years went by, there are more and more experiences that we might have concealed or revealed to one another.

In the film 35 Years Cate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) are about to celebrate their 35th Wedding Anniversary. They seem a very happy couple, both retired, living in a rural area in English countryside. They read, walk their dog, visit friends, have tea in the afternoon.

Then one day a letter for Geoff arrives from Switzerland. The body of Katya, a former girlfriend who had died in a mountain climbing accident has been discovered. Geoff has been named as the next of kin.

Cate knew nothing about Katya, about her death in Switzerland, or Geoff’s desire then to marry her. What has been concealed all these years is suddenly revealed.

The film depicts Cate and Geoff’s reaction to this long-ago, now-revealed romance. Their anniversary party is on the verge of disarray. Their marriage doesn’t seem quite so contented after all.

Secrets. Sometimes we keep them, sometimes they unexpectedly make their appearance. We don’t always know everything about one another, even after 35 years of marriage.

Shadow Doctors

Ben Taub’s article, “The Shadow Doctors” in The New Yorker (6/27/16) was utterly depressing and, at the same time, remarkable. Depressing as it depicted the death of so many Syrians and the total destruction of so many towns. But remarkable in Taub’s descriptions of the techniques doctors are using to transmit medical techniques and advice to the remaining doctors there.

Taub meets David Nott in London at a dinner with other doctors in a upscale Chelsea restaurant. As Taub sat down for dinner he noticed Nott reading a series of text messages from a young medical worker in Aleppo. He told Nott how he had removed several bullets from a patient, “slowly dying on the operating table.” But he didn’t know what to do next.

Nott asked a couple of questions, immediately received the answers, and then told the medical worker how to proceed. Taub then describes other such distant communications between physicians and doctors in Syria.

There were once thousands of physicians there, as well as several hospitals and treatment centers. But they have all but destroyed by the Syrian government. And now the very few medical personnel who remain there must work underground or move their facilities from one place to another.

Taub says Assad’s government has killed almost seven hundred medial personnel. How can this be, how can this continue in the 21st Century? What has come over those individuals who commit such atrocities, destroying hospitals, doctors, indeed, their entire country?

Its Life Went On: Weddings, Births, Deaths
Greece itself was not the cure. No country is a Cure

Who has not dreamed of chucking it all and heading to a place in the sun? The poet David Mason and his wife Joanna did just that when they headed to a friend’s house in Greece. Mason describes their times in Greece in News from the Village: Aegean Friends.

…this was merely an opportunity to get away from our families, to see our homeland from a distance, to slough off accumulated anxieties and inhabit dreams remembered from the long, long nights.

The settled in a small village by the sea in the Peloponnese. They “regressed” to a simpler, lazy life of swimming, eating the best food, bread and oil, much less meat, more fish and plenty of fruit and vegetables.

Mason says he now had the time and freedom to read widely and with “total immersion.” When the weather was warm, which it was most of the year, they slept under the stars, “the cicadas having finally silenced when the breeze soughed down from the mountains.”

They made long lasting friendship among the villagers, as well as the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor and his wife, Joan, who had a home there. Mason says meeting Fermor was one of the great gifts of his life. Together they talked literature, took long walks together, swam in the warm Mediterranean.

“Over the years, Paddy and Joan have meant more to me than I could ever convey to them—as models of graciousness, always curious about the world.”

It was a life you dream about, not a life you can live for very long. And when it was time to return to America, nothing was ever the same.

“For Joanna and me, it would take great suffering, divorce and marriage to others to begin to place ourselves in the real world, and when I returned to Greece sixteen years later it would be almost as another man, hopefully better equipped to love the place for what it is, to accept its many changes not to desire it only for my own gratification.”

News from Greece was a delight to read, Mason writes well and clearly reproduced what it was like to live in Mani, as well as what it meant to return to a place where he was happy in the past, to see it after many years and in different circumstances. I read the book as quickly as I ever do, always eager to soak up that sun, bread and olive oil.

“Here was a country of worldly people who were far less puritanical than many Americans, who worked hard and took their relaxation when they could, who valued friends and family above all else, who respected education and eloquence, who were skeptical of government but aware of their precious freedoms, who knew about corruption but weren’t entirely soured by it, who were polite about my Greek and didn’t expect me to stand in for all American policies.”

Nuclear Warning
Jerry Brown, the governor of California has written a brilliant review (New York Review of Books, (7/14/16) of William Perry’s My Journal at the Nuclear Brink. Normally I wouldn’t read about this topic, but Jerry Brown, yes THE Jerry Brown drew me to the article and once I got into it, I was impressed by how well it was done.

Brown describes Perry’s six-decades of nuclear studies and research. Perry makes it clear that the danger of nuclear terrorism is great at the present time. He says it was by sheer luck that we avoided a nuclear holocaust in the Cuban crisis and the several accidents that have also avoided a nuclear explosion.

There is a central point to Brown’s review, namely that the “the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater that it was during the Cold War and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.”

Perry argues that rather that provide security, nuclear weapons, “they now endanger it.”

Brown concludes his review by noting that many complain about the various problems and dysfunctions in our country, “few see the incomparably greater danger of nuclear doom.”

A brilliant review of a very unsettling book.

The Kindergarten Teacher

The premise of The Kindergarten Teacher, a provocative film from Israel, there’s little room for poetry in the modern world.

Of course, this ignores the fact that poets are still writing poems and readers are still enjoying them.

No matter, the film is about the relationship between a kindergarten teacher, Nira, and one of her 4 year-old pupils, Yoav. I have a poem, he says, proceeds to walk back and forth, reciting the poem. A modern day Mozart of the word.

Nira deeply appreciates poetry and writes poems of her own. As Yoav continues to recite his poems, she worries that his gift will be smothered as he grows older. “Being a poet in our world is going against the nature of the world,” she says.

Then things become a little weird. Presumably in an effort to keep Yoav’s poetry talent alive, she kidnaps him and together they drive to a remote hotel in the Sinai. They settle in to their room, Yoav locks the teacher in the shower room, calls 911, and the police arrive to bring the film to an end.

The film is a parable of the decline of culture. I have trouble with this view. Yes, the world seems to have no place for poetry, for writing and the culture of reading. But hasn’t that always been the case?

There have always been a few who have valued the arts, who have fought to preserve the intellect by their actions. Just look at the web today, the current periodicals, and the research in countless disciplines to confirm this view.

Is the Dream Over?

What is it like for a foreigner to come to America now with hopes of starting a new life? Consider the experience of Sayed Kashua (New Yorker 7/9/16) who came to this country from Israel with her family to become a writer-in-residence at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign-Urbana.

They arrive eager to begin living in this country. At once, they are confronted with reality. They were not prepared for the heat and humidity of the summer. The mosquitos were “brutal.” The cicadas were maddening.

They had difficulty getting electricity, water and cable TV without a Social Security number, couldn’t buy a car without credit, couldn’t get a credit card at their bank without a credit history.

They ruined the garbage disposal because they didn’t know to turn on the water. A letter arrived from the neighborhood association that they would be fined if they didn’t mow the lawn. Their children didn’t speak English and they had no friends or relatives here.

And so on and on. Until one day things begin to look up.

They went out to dinner one night. When their son finished his Fanta, he asked for another one. Ms. Kashua went to the counter to order another. She was told refills are free, as many as you want. “Refill was the first word my toddler son spoke in English, and when I heard him say it, I felt some small new hope about our prospects in America.”

Pianos Everywhere
I was walking along the street in downtown Portland, when I was startled to see a piano placed in a park. There it was, a piano in a park. How strange, I thought.

Then a couple of days later my wife and I drove out to a park at the junction of the Columbia and Willamette rivers. And once again, there was a piano sitting all by itself in the park.

On further investigation I discovered a program, “Piano! Push. Play”. that rescues old pianos and puts them on the street or park for everyone to enjoy. They’ve been doing this for the past four summers.

Megan McGeorge the founder of “Piano. Push. Play” said, “I want people to have access to pianos all the time, especially for pianists who can’t afford one in their homes.”

Currently the program has eleven pianos in parks around Portland. It has also developed an app that displays where the pianos are located and “pings” users when they are close to one.

This year the program is placing the pianos in 30 different parks, with some pianos spending two weeks at each location. The pianos are donated by Portland Piano Co and sponsored by various organizations throughout the city. After the summer months, the refurbished pianos are given to schools and community centers.

Apparently, Portland is not the only place where you might hear someone playing a piano in a public setting. In an article in the Times (8/20/16) Aurelien Breeden reports that the French national railroad company has installed pianos in nearly 100 stations. The company rents the instruments from Yamaha which maintains and tunes them.

“The pianos have proved to be very popular, and the music, blending with the sounds of shouting passengers, screeching trains and rolling suitcase, can give French stations a peculiar soundscape.” I’d say a pretty terrific soundscape.”

The Next Big Thing
We are now very old and only one thing can happen to people our age.

Anita Brookner’s, The Next Big Thing, is like all her other novels—slow going, a bit repetitious and, yet, I read them until the predictable ending. It is clear why I continue to read her novels; they capture much of my life.

Julius Herz is 73 years old, he lives alone, no longer married, stuck in a London flat. He is without visitors, friends, anyone who can talk to other than a cashier or salesperson. His only companions are the anonymous people he observes on the streets, mostly young people drinking and laughing outside pubs.

He lived like a recluse, for that was how he thought he must, as if his destiny had reclaimed him. As time wore on the future seemed less accommodating, continuity not to be taken for granted. He revised his expectations, resigned himself to living in an uneasy present.

Julius great battle is with solitude, how to get through the days without succumbing to loneliness, isolation unsupported by family, friends or the pleasures of art and science. Like so many other individuals today, he is also without work or substitute other than the routines that fill upon his long days and sleepless nights.

Julius is also haunted by an unfulfilled love for his willful cousin. Her life has worked out much like his and they exchange long and tedious letters that try to arrange a reunion. But Julius recognizes he can manage much better on his own rather than in the company of others.

The fundamental subject in The Next Big Thing is old age and how to face its consequences. “As he eased himself out of bed, he reflected that survival was a mixed blessing. It involved surrendering that once young self to time and time taught harsh lessons.”

Julius’ solitary life had bred an endurance of life’s vicissitudes. Brookner writes, “better a stoical pessimism, a hard look at life’s realities, and most of all a determination to enjoy that life, certainly to value it.” And so he clung to his routine, although it bored him and was without pleasure but at least preserved his dignity.