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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.