Every Third Thought

Every third thought shall be my grave. Shakespeare, The Tempest

Robert McCrum is an English writer, associate editor of the Sunday Observer and former editor-in-chief of Faber & Faber publishers. In 1995 at the age of 42, he suffered a severe stroke that paralyzed his right side and impaired his speech. In time, he recovered but realized he had to adjust to a slower pace of life.

However, a few years ago (19 years after his stroke) he had a very bad fall. Again, he survived but realized he was now entering “life’s endgame.” His new book, Every Third Thought, is an exploration of his own mortality, as well as the thoughts of others—writers, physicians, psychotherapists, and neuroscientists.

McCrum discusses the multiple effects of old age, the failing brain, the horrors of Alzheimer’s, cancer, how we die and the curse of falling in our later years. “That fall can be a gateway to incapacity and decrepitude.”

He writes: The remorseless passage of time, and the unwelcome intrusion of physical frailty, must finally confront everyone with the same inevitable reckoning. The endgame is also about finding late-life criteria for day-to-day conduct, and becoming reconciled to the loss of early-life ambitions. You might feel thirty-five, but it makes sense to behave as if you are actually closer to seventy.

How true that is, how often I feel that way, the desires that I can no longer fulfill. You reach a point in your life when you are unable to do the things you used to. And that isn’t easy to accept. And, yet, he notes that Oliver Sacks was strikingly calm just before his death writing, “I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

He cites the Jesuit Robert Bellarmine who wrote, He who lives well, dies well, he who lives ill, dies ill. And he turns to Montaigne, who said,” It is not death, it is dying that alarms me.”

Toward the end of Every Third Thought, McCrum made a list of “Dos and Dont's" There are only three: 1. Try to keep fit. 2. Accept your fate/insignificance. 3. Live in the moment. Not easy to follow, are they, especially when you are in considerable pain?

Every Third Thought is not a grim book, but it’s surely not for everyone. I imagine you need to be approaching the endgame or caring for a one who is, to fully appreciate it.


Greene on Capri

Autumn is upon us now and I have the good fortune and the time to reread some of my favorite books. A few are about writers who have been to some of the places in Italy where I have visited in summer’s past. Shirley Hazzard spent many years in Italy, wrote several books about her time there, including Greene on Capri (where Greene refers to Graham Greene).

She writes about the meals she and her husband shared with Greene, the books and writers they discussed, some of whom (Henry James, Rilke, Norman Douglas, etc.) were also part-time residents of Capri. And, as always, it is a pleasure reading the pages of Shirley Hazzard’s books. From the Archives, here’s a slightly edited version of what I wrote about Greene on Capri.

One’s life is more formed, I sometimes think, by books than by human beings: it is out of books one learns about love and pain at second hand.
Graham Greene

For anyone who values humanistic traditions, reading the works of Shirley Hazzard is intellectually refreshing. As Geordie Williamson wrote (The Australian, 3/25/16) in a review of her essays, (We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think), an “antiquated world view comes roaring back into view.”

I have found this to be true in all of Hazzard’s books that I’ve read including most recently Greene on Capri. In this short memoir, she recalls the friendship she and her husband, the Flaubert scholar, Francis Steegmuller had with Greene when they were visiting the island of Capri. Greene owned a house there and together they met frequently for lunch and dinner at a restaurant Greene liked.

For the most part, they talked about literature, the books and authors they had read. These conversational rambles during their long meals and walks constitute the heart of the book and bring alive their mutual joy in reading and writing.

Hazzard writes, “Literature was the longest and most consistent pleasure of Graham’s life. It was the element in which he best existed, providing him with the equilibrium of affinity and a life time to the rational as well as the fantastic.”

Greene on Capri
is not meant to be a complete portrait of Greene but from time to time Hazzard does reflect on his personality. In The Man Within, Greene wrote: “Always while one part of him spoke, another part stood on one side and wondered, Is this I who am speaking? Can I really exist like this?” Hazzard comments:

“I think that Graham was not simply made up of two persons. Rather, that he gave rein to disparate states of mind as they successively possessed him, putting these to service in his work…with years, however, it had come to prevail for its own sake as a mood of defiance, directed against the tedium of rational existence.”

Elsewhere she notes how little Greene valued contentment “…pleasure could not be an assumption and was not a goal; whereas suffering was a constant, and almost a code of honour. Suffering was the attestable key to imaginative existence.”

Is suffering where writers really belong, what they need to experience in order to write fiction? If we can believe Hazzard, it was for Greene. However, I doubt it is necessary for most writers but perhaps it is why many of them become alcoholics.

In The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Lang explores the reasons why some authors were destroyed by excessive drinking. She writes: [Eugene] O’Neill had a terrible problem with alcohol. Most writers do. American writers nearly all have problems with alcohol because there’s a great deal of tension involved in writing, you know that. And it’s all right up to a certain age, and then you begin to need a little nervous support that you get from drinking.



Memory is a willful dog. It won’t be summoned or dismissed but it cannot survive without you. It can sustain you or feed on you. It visits when it is hungry, not when you are. It has a schedule all its own that you can never know. Elliot Perlman

Alan Lightman’s novel, Reunion, is a meditation on memory and its limitations. We are introduced to a 52-year old Charles who teaches literature at a small liberal arts college. He lives alone in a comfortable house that his ex-wife left him after their divorce.

Out of the blue, he decides to attend his 30th college reunion, where, in the midst of meeting his former classmates, he begins to recall his first passionate love affair with an aspiring ballerina, Juliana. These recollections form the bulk of the novel.

Charles muses often about youth. “Could I ever have been that young? Not a wrinkle in my forehead. Not a crease around the eyes. A thick scalp of hair, broad shoulders, erect posture. Flat lean stomach. It makes me want to cry.”

But how much of what he recalls was true or happened in the way he remembered it? Charles begins to confront the vagaries of memory. Did he really skip classes to take the bus to New York to visit Juliana? Did he actually sleep with her one night? Did she simultaneously carry on an affair with a college professor? Or has he made all of it up with the passage of time?

“How pitiful his life suddenly seems compared to hers. Her life is so simple, focused on one single thing. His mind is filled with uncertainty, hers seems to be certain. He tries to make beauty with words, she creates beauty with her body.”

Reunion reminds the reader that the way we reconstruct the past may not be all that reliable, especially for those experiences that retain an emotional impact. At times they seem veridical, at other times, contradictory and then again, more dream-like than anything else

Do you recall your first love? And how much of what you recall in fact happened? I do very vividly recall my college love. It was to be my last, as she is now my wife and has been for almost 60 years.

Occasionally we talk about those days and how she remembers them is not always the way I do. She may also recall an experience I have completely forgotten about and she has also forgotten much of what I recall. And both of us recall experiences that neither of us believe occurred in just that way.

In The Missing Shade of Blue, Jennie Erdal wrote: “Memory is a slippery customer…And in no time at all and with no evil intent, the truth turns into a kind of fiction.”

Yes, the mystery of memory, the elusiveness of memory, the necessity of memory. Without it, what would we be?


Beautiful Animals

PARIS — A French farmer who smuggled migrants across the Italian border was sentenced on Tuesday to a suspended four-month prison term in a case that has shone a light on the government’s immigration policies…. “I will continue my actions because it must be done,” Mr. Herrou said. New York Times 8/8/17

Lawrence Osborn's Beautiful Animals is set on the Greek Island of Hydra, now a favorite of the super-rich. Naomi, 24, is spending the summer as she always did with her wealthy father and stepmother in their villa high in the hills above the port. On her morning swim, she meets the slightly younger Samantha who is vacationing with her parents.

They strike up a friendship, travel around the island together, and share their meals in one of the many port-side tavernas. While sailing around the island one day, they notice an Arab migrant, Faoud, asleep on a distant beach. They begin a discussion of whether or not to help the migrant.

So begins this moral thriller. Naomi is one of those individuals who exerts a strong influence on others. She argues persuasively that it is important to aid the helpless.

“Wanting to help the helpless is not an uncommon desire, and if you want me to explain it I’d say that I’m determined to make a difference. It’s not just an adventure. And if it is, it’s one with a purpose.”

Samantha is not so sure. She thought about ditching the charity and simply going back to her family and their games of chess and backgammon. She thought it would be much easier than the uncertain effort to help Faoud.

But she was the weaker of the two and gradually succumbs to Naomi’s view. They begin by taking Faoud small baskets of food, then they find him a shelter to live in for a while and finally devise a plan to help him leave Hydra and begin his journey to Greece and then Italy.

Naomi relished the role of a savior. Osborne writes, “It made her feel vital in a new way. To save another person: it wasn’t nothing. It wasn’t exactly and achievement but it was a small shift in the balance of power towards the weak. Such shifts were the substance of one’s moral life—they made the intolerable tolerable.”

But Naomi’s plan to help Faoud leave Hydra goes horribly wrong. So, begins the second half of the novel. Osborne describes Faoud’s motivations and beliefs about Islam and his Western pursuers. Here I must stop or you’ll have little desire to read the book.

I found Beautiful Animals an exciting novel, found it hard to put down and, at times, didn’t want it to end. It’s one of those that are in my mind, among my favorites.

If there is a message to be found in the novel it is that altruism, like anything else, has effects which are impossible to predict at the time. Naomi’s attempt to help Faoud fails, fails badly.

You might find the novel changing your views on the current refugee crisis. What is the nature of your engagement with the issue? At one point, Naomi tries to understand her desire to help Faoud, but she does so without anticipating the possible consequences of doing so.

Osborne writes, “What beautiful animals we are, Samantha thought, beautiful as panthers.”


On Protesting

It’s been 6 years since the Occupy Wall Street protests began on September 17, 2011 in New York’s Zuccotti Park. We are the 99%, they chanted. Similar protests spread rapidly throughout the United States and in some European cities, as well.

And then they were gone. The police cleared the protesters from Zuccotti Park two months after it began and that was pretty much the end of Occupy Wall Street. Has it had any lasting impact?

While it wasn’t the first to highlight the growing income inequalities in this country, it was surely the first large-scale protest movement to do so. And while there was much discussion of the magnitude of the problem and the importance of rectifying it, there was little in the way of doing anything about it.

Some have attributed the success of Bernie Sanders’ Democratic presidential campaign to the receptive audience Occupy Wall Street created. Sanders argued forcefully to increase the minimum wage, reduce outrageous income inequalities, and end the enormous role of money in politics. However, all these issues had been discussed long before Occupy Wall Street and Sanders did not become the Democratic Party’s candidate for President

The same holds for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign when she declared, “the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top.” And later when she compared the annual salaries of the C.E.O.’s to those of kindergarten teachers. While less forceful than Sanders, she nevertheless made it a feature of her campaign. But in the end, she lost the Presidential election

Six years since Occupy Wall Street some of the rhetoric continues, but the problems persist. In a word, nothing much has happened in the intervening years. If anything, income disparities have increased, money still plays a powerful role in politics, and even though some states and cities have introduced minimum wage requirements, real wages have declined as living costs have increased and far too many people struggle to get by.

The larger question becomes, as Nathan Heller puts it in the August 21st New Yorker, “Is There Any Point to Protesting?” He too cites the Occupy Wall Street protest and says, “No US policies have changed.”

He recalls the winter of 2003 “when the world assembled, arms linked, to protest the prospect of war in Iraq…Three weeks later the United States was at war.”

And he points to the Women’s March this past January. “Throughout the nation and in nearly seven hundred cities all across the world, millions of people assembled …. Then on the following Monday the new administration went about its work as planned.”

Protests continue to this day, even more frequently now as a result of our current President and his policies. We express ourselves, we are there, our views spread, sometimes widely. But in the end, they have little effect on policies. We are still an imperfect nation, a developing nation. And as Heller concludes, “The march goes on, and someday, not just in our dreams, we’ll make it home.”


September 11, 2001

We knew we had just witnessed thousands of deaths; we clung to each other as if we ourselves were falling. John Updike

It was a Tuesday, about 9 am, West Coast time, sixteen years ago today. For one reason or another I was in the kitchen of our Portland home. The TV was on: “We interrupt this broadcast for a special announcement.”

The sky was bright blue, not a cloud in sight and the North tower of the World Trade Towers was on fire. A plane was approaching the South tower. It wasn’t clear why until dark smoke began to fill the air and even then, I wasn’t sure.

Eventually we learned about the four coordinated attacks. The Pentagon was hit, a plane headed for the White House crashed in a Pennsylvania field, as the hijackers were overwhelmed by a group of brave passengers.

The towers fell, those who were lucky managed to get out, the dust and debris was everywhere and reporters were describing the chaos, hiding in building entry alcoves. Almost 3,000 individuals were killed in what remains the deadliest terrorist attack in this country. And it led to a war in Afghanistan that has become America’s longest.

Not everyone was waving the flag. Susan Sontag wrote: Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a "cowardly" attack on "civilization" or "liberty" or "humanity" or "the free world" but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?

Anyway, that’s how I remember that day. I think I have it right. I wasn’t terribly upset other than being angry. But it wasn’t an emotional experience, the kind that is often incorrectly recalled on repeated occasions, a so-called flashbulb memory.

Right away I thought it was the work of Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist organization, al Qaeda. I thought we need to put an end to him.

Eventually, I learned how complex the plan was, the degree of training and preparation that went into the attacks, the skill involved. And I thought, if you will pardon me, what a clever guy he is.

The next morning, I went back to the open vantage from which we had watched the tower so dreadfully slip from sight. The fresh sun shone on the eastward façades, a few boats tentatively moved in the river, the ruins were still sending out smoke, but New York looked glorious. John Updike



We cast the shadows of our emotions on others and they theirs on us. Sometimes we threaten to choke on them. But without them there would be no light in our lives.
Ancient Armenian grave inscription

In Pascal Mercier’s Lea, two men, the narrator and Martin van Vliet, first meet each other at a café in Provence. Van Vliet has come to the Provence to visit his daughter, Lea, who is patient at a hospital in Avignon.

When the two learn, they are both from Bern, van Vliet invites the narrator to drive with him back to Switzerland. Along the way, van Vliet unfolds the sad tale of his daughter, Lea, and professional life as a surgeon.

The tale begins with the death of van Vliet’s wife. Their grief stricken young daughter, Lea, falls into a deep depression and isolates herself from the world. Then one day by chance, she comes alive, when she hears a violinist playing Bach in a train station.

“Now I heard what had made Lea pause: the sound of a violin. How often I have wondered what would have become of my daughter if we hadn’t done that! If chance had not played those sounds to us.”

She begins to learn how to play the instrument after he buys her a violin and vows to do everything possible to keep her content. In turn, Lea practices relentlessly and in time becomes a superb violinist, winning competition after competition.

“…she picked it up and started to play. Just as if she had been waiting all that time for someone to bring her, at long last, the instrument for which she was born.”

“The aimlessness that had accompanied her grief over her dead mother had come to an end. She had a will again! And what made me overjoyed: I could do something. The time of being a helpless onlooker was over.”

But then, Lea makes a mistake and loses a competition. Once again, she becomes depressed, van Vliet tries to think of what he can do to bring her back to life one more time. He hits upon the idea of buying her a priceless Guarneri Del Gusu violin.

This draws van Vliet into the theft of his research grant, whereupon he travels to Italy to use the embezzled funds to purchase the violin. The auction doesn’t go as planned, nor does Lea’s use of the violin.

However, for a while Lea plays beautifully once again. “After months in which that face had lost all its tension and prematurely aged, it was once again the face of Lea van Vliet, the radiant violinist who filled the whole auditoria.”

After Pascal Mercier wrote Night Train to Lisbon, which I have read at least three times, as well as seeing the movie adaptation, I looked upon anything he wrote as a “must read.” However, I didn’t finish his Perlmann’s Silence and, while I finished Lea, it didn’t bring me as much pleasure as Night Train to Lisbon. Indeed, far from it.

I found the novel repetitious and overly dramatic. On the other hand, I was intrigued by the friendship between the narrator and van Vliet, the fraught relationship between Lea and her father, as well and the power of the violin to both give meaning and destroy a person’s life.


Notes on a Calamity

I’ve been watching the scenes from Houston. The television coverage is as relentless as the rain. The subject is catastrophic. What I see is incredible courage, helpfulness, kindness.

Rain pounding down on the reporters, standing in knee-deep water, interviewing individuals whose homes are uninhabitable.

I cringe when I see the older people struggling to survive. Wheel chairs deep in water. Nursing homes swamped. The confused and mystified elderly. Only the struggle for life.

Helicopters hauling people from rooftops. Parents hugging their children. Volunteers pulling boats in chest-high water down the main streets of Houston. Densely crowded shelters, long lines to get inside.

Each day I hear of new rainfall records. I am informed schools have been closed all week. I see wreckage everywhere. And now the storm is making a new landfall now in Louisiana, as if they needed another one.

I read a blogger who lives in Houston. Normally he writes a scholarly comment on a book, poem, writer, or issue every day of the year, weekends and holidays included. However, he hasn’t written much all week. But here are a few thoughts he has somehow transmitted:

Wednesday, August 30, 2017 Dispatch from Houston IV
We have sunshine, blue skies and a modest breeze. The first hummingbird of the season visited this morning, briefly. The pavement is dry again. Still no power but with the generator, we have a functioning refrigerator.

"Tell me, Apollo, tell me where
The sunbeams go, when they do disappear."

Tuesday, August 29, 2017 Dispatch from Houston III
The joy of coffee and dry clothing; friends with gasoline-powered generators and mechanical know-how; books crisp on the shelves.

"Grief is a puddle, and reflects not clear
Your beauty's rays.
Joys are pure streams."

Monday, August 28, 2017 Dispatch from Houston II
"Sometime the flood prevails, and then the wind;
Now one the better, then another best;
Both tugging to be victors, breast to breast,
Yet neither conqueror nor conquered."

Sunday, August 27, 2017 Dispatch from Houston
Power out. Car flooded. Books dry.

I listen to the Governor calmly describing the situation, the mayor justifying his decision not to evacuate, the President making the most of it.

People say they have lost everything, their homes, their furniture, possessions, their car(s), everything. What are they to do? Where can they possible go? Imagine yourself in this situation.

Is a tragedy necessary to bring us together? It seems the only way now.


There Goes the Sun

Here comes the sun, here comes the sun, And I say it's all right. George Harrison

A week ago, on Monday, August 21st, the eclipse in Portland (Oregon) began round 9:45. It started to get dark.  Then it became darker and darker over the next half hour.  But never totally, not like the middle of the night.  And then it grew lighter and lighter so that by 10:45 it was back to normal sunlight.

The State was mobbed. People from around the world made their way to Oregon. The traffic was terrible. The population in the town of Madras in central Oregon must have increased six-fold.  The TV made it into a media event.  For some it was almost a religious experience.  Then it was over.  But they are still talking about it.

It is not difficult to understand why some cultures worshiped the sun. In a way, I worship the sun, the summer sun, the months of light and warmth. And when sun disappears here during the long and dreary winter, I turn into a lapsed sun worshiper.

In ancient Egypt, the sun god Re was the dominant figure among the gods. Sun worship in one form or another also occurred in medieval cultures and during the later periods of Roman history. I am also aware of solar cults among the Plains Indians in North America and ancient civilizations in Mexico and Peru.

In “Ode to the Sun,” a short section in his Autumn, Karl Knausgaard writes, “Every single day since I was born the sun has been there, but somehow, I’ve never quite got used to it, perhaps because it is so unlike everything else we know.”

He goes on to point out that we cannot get close to it, any effort to do so would be obliterated. And as we were reminded over and over again, we will ruin our eyes if we try to look directly at the sun.

We take the sun for granted, like fresh water, the food on our plates and electricity. It’s important to be reminded of this from time to time. Be grateful for it as a sun worshiper is. Without it would there would be no life.

Knausgaard concludes his Ode this way, “When we eat dinner outside, beneath the apple tree, the air is full of children’s voices, the clatter of cutlery, the rustle of leaves in the mild breeze, and no one notices that the sun is hanging right above the roof of the guest house, no longer blazing yellow but orange, burning silently.”

I was raised in the land of sun, but have spent most of my life in the land of clouds and rain. I miss the sun most of the year. And that is why I traveled to Hawaii, whenever I could.

But those days are over now and I will have to learn how to accept living in the far Northwest of this land. It won’t be easy, as it is mostly sunny on average only 68 days of the year and partly sunny on average another 74 days of the year. Partly sunny days have cloud covering from 40% to 70% of the sky during the daytime. The rest of the days are mainly overcast, with at least 80% cloud cover.

As a friend of mine always says, “It is what it is.” The latest philosophy of life.


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.


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?


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.”


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

...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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.'


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?