Books by my bedside 2022/February

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least make a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

Non-Fiction

Open copy of unusually wide but short hardcover book Anathema! Medieval scribes and the history of book curses

Autobiography of Janet Frame, To the Is-land (Volume 1) and An Angel at My Table (Volume 2)

Anathema!: Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses by Drogin, Marc

Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever by McWhorter, John

On Tyranny Graphic Edition: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Snyder, Timothy

Fiction

Young Adult

Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America edited by Zoboi, Ibi

Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms: Magic, Mystery, and a Very Strange Adventure by Evans, Lissa

New Kid by Craft, Jerry

Mystery/Thriller

The Crossing Places (Ruth Galloway #1) by Griffiths, Elly

Maisie Dobbs mysteries The American Agent (#15) and To Die But Once (#14) by Winspear, Jacqueline

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (Flavia De Luce #8) by Bradley, Alan

Fantasy

A Darker Shade of Magic by Schwab, V.E.

Library paperbacks Darker Shade of Magic and Autobiography of Janet Frame stacked on bedside table with Kindle reader displaying Black Enough book cover

Reading Notes:

Making democracy great again: modern tyranny & WWII’s British endurance of the Blitz

Pardon me while I tie together my candy floss consumption of mystery novels (here, two of the more recent titles in the Maisie Dobbs series) with Snyder‘s On Tyranny. Ms. Winspear, Dobbs’ creator, has shepherded this particular character from the period just after The Great War to World War II and the Blitz. Invasions and bombings in the 1940’s segue tragically well to a slim, topical volume about tyranny released in 2021.

On Tyranny is the first “graphic novel” I’ve read that isn’t… um… a novel. I’d say “graphic non-fiction” would be a better if unwieldy label. These “twenty lessons from the Twentieth Century” present as a collection of illustrated brief essays.

There’s a whiff of Eric Hoffer‘s The True Believer to it.

Artist Nora Krug absolutely enhances Snyder’s message with her colorful yet slightly creepy style. I find such illustrations particularly haunting when a child-like medium communicates such portentous  messages.

Immersing myself in the fictional experience of Maisie Dobbs enduring the Blitz somehow prepared the fallow field of my mind for open conflict in Europe and the new Cold War dawning along with 2022. Perhaps oddly, I’m made hopeful by the reminder that our grandparents fought similar enemies—and won—in an earlier generation. This awareness sharpens my passion to work against fascism in every way I personally can.

The Maisie Dobbs stories—The American Agent in particular—draw in sharp relief that period when Great Britain stood alone against a fierce onslaught of illiberal governments on the continent. Personal sacrifices by individual English people were many, and the costs were high. It’s easy to forget that “America First” was a slogan used then by U.S. citizens who preferred to let the U.K. sink or swim under Hitler’s assaults alone.

Much of On Tyranny is difficult and distressing to read, but the author’s fundamental argument is against defeatist resignation and capitulation to lassitude. Snyder’s point is that we all must do our bit as citizens if we want to enjoy life in a free, democratic society.

I’m glad I requested this volume from the library when I did, because it was there on my shelf as my news feed filled with oligarchical Russian aggression against Ukrainian democracy.

I Buy Banned Books

Another graphic work I read this month—this one is actually a graphic novel!—was Jerry Craft’s New Kid. My thanks to the reactionary racist snowflake parents in Texas who tried to get it banned: I enjoyed it a lot. Any kid struggling to fit in as “the new kid” will identify with this protagonist. It would be the perfect gift for an artsy kid moving to a new neighborhood or school.

While I disagree totally with those who would ban Maus for children old enough to handle content as tough as genocide, I can at least understand why a depiction of nudity or inclusion of a few bad words frightens school board members in rural America.

This blog post considers a much more realistic reason McMinn County, Tennessee removed Maus from its Holocaust unit.

With New Kid, however? Frankly, unless you object to the very existence of brown people experiencing their own feelings in white spaces, there is nothing ban-worthy in the book. It does not, in any way, shape, or form, teach Critical Race Theory as some parent claimed in an article I read; CRT is never mentioned in the book, which mostly covers typical young teen “fitting in” anxieties at a new school.

New Kid does address how characters from different backgrounds respond to being a minority in a setting with a clear majority, it just does so by telling a normal kid’s story in a perfectly realistic way.

No conceptual legal framework required.

That book you can’t recall the title of…

Now I have to mention Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms. This is a bit of a younger kid’s book than most of the Young Adult stuff I’ve read lately. Why? Because it is a book my older teen read many years ago, then misplaced in our messy house, then couldn’t ever find again. He kept looking for it, though.

“What’s the name of that book…?”

It became one of his, “What’s the name of that book…?” novels.

Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms turned up way at the back of the bottom drawer of the younger sibling’s desk. Said sibling has never read the book so has perhaps just been hiding it like a wee punk these past few years. The desk in question was a mess of mighty proportions that got cleaned out during February school vacation week.

I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who does this “What’s the name of that book…?” thing. I’m a little sad that I’ve passed on my tendency to the habit to my eldest child.

Our best shared family example of this: The Valley of Secrets by Charmaine Hussey. My kid and I both found this story wildly unique and unforgettable, but neither author nor title sticks with us the way the moody atmosphere and lush descriptions did. We could both also ID it on the shelf by its distinctive leafy cover. Valley of Secrets will be appreciated by readers who relish a well-drawn world who can tolerate a slower pace to the “action” plot.

Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms is not, as my teen will tell you, “that Hugo Cabret book.”

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick is the one about the kid living in the walls of the Paris train station. When my teen searched for Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms, people kept telling him he must be looking for Hugo Cabret.

There are, in fact, miraculous mechanisms—or, at least, magical ones—in this book about Horten, but, unlike Hugo, Horten himself is not the tinkerer-in-chief. Horten is a fairly average kid, kind of annoyed by his parents, and short for his age. He does move to a new to him town, discover an interesting family legacy that includes a bit of a treasure hunt, and meet new people. Some of those folks turn out to be friends, and others, foes.

Most of the magic in the novel is of the stage magician variety, but the story does dip into more mystical waters by the end.

Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms was a quick read for adult me, but I enjoyed it, devouring it in a single sitting on a snowy afternoon, and I’d say it scores relatively high on the freshness scale. It did not feel like all the other child–has-adventure novels I’ve read.

Anathema ain’t what it used to be

Merriam Webster definition of anathema, 2a, circled: a ban or curse solemnly pronounced by ecclesiastical authority and accompanied by excommunicationFinally, allow me to end with the delightfully specific Anathema!, a semi-scholarly history of the curses often penned into hand-written books by medieval scribes. Though seriously researched, I’d describe this book as more for fun than academic in tone. It’s also printed in an unusual short/wide format that made it feel rather special to read.

Crafting a book entirely by hand was a heck of a lot of work, of course, so the threat of excommunication—literal anathema—was deemed a reasonable one against any who might dare to deface or steal a precious tome inked by a scrivener.

Interestingly, book curses continued to be included in early printed volumes as well, even after the printing press made production somewhat less tedious.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Anathema! is its concluding observation that the librarian no longer has quite so much to hold over the head of his or her wayward reader now that the average person doesn’t literally fear the fires of hell.

Quote from Anathema (book curse history) describing the lack of fear curses now incite, and ending with modern library threat that merely "a fine of 5 cents per day will be charged"

Drogin ends the book with these lovely lines:

“Where once echoed the fury of God now lies an insipid whimper:

A fine of 5¢ per day will be charged…”

Can I call Krug’s work “Beavis & Butthead in the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine” without giving a negative impression? I’d advise you to read the graphic edition of On Tyranny—or peruse the illustrator’s website—to judge for yourself if you’re baffled by my attempt to use my words to describe her pictures.

Art Spiegelman’s Maus is a multi-volume memoir that depicts the experiences of the author’s own family during the Holocaust. Spiegelman draws Jews as cartoon mice, Nazis as cats, Polish people as pigs, and Americans as dogs in the work. A school district in Tennessee removed the book from its eighth grade history curriculum purportedly due to one instance of cartoon “female nudity” and a handful of curse words.Detail from page 100 of Maus graphic novel of a palm-sized illustration that vaguely shows a female breast on a suicide victim

The nudity in question is a top-down view of bare breasts on a woman dead in a bathtub. It cannot by any stretch be viewed as erotic. The rough language in Maus doesn’t hold a candle to the obscenity which was Nazi behavior during the Holocaust.

I own a two volume, boxed Pantheon set of Maus I & II printed in 1986. My kid who home schools has Maus on his reading list.

Anglo-Saxon ideals aren’t the primary basis of U.S. government

As if her anti-Semitic claim that PG&E and Jewish bankers started California’s 2018 wildfires with space lasers wasn’t proof enough—whether due to mental illness or plain simple-mindedness—that Georgia’s elected Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene is unfit for office, her latest antics show that she lacks even basic education on the history of the government of the United States of America.

Together with Paul Gosar, R-AZ, the befuddled Congresswoman Greene was reported to be forming an “America First Caucus” to  promote nativist policies. Reps. Barry Moore, R-AL, Louie Gohmert, R-TX, and moral powerhouse Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-FL all publicly lent support to this morass of historical confusion.

In a quick search on the day this news broke, I failed to find the complete seven page document referenced, so I can speak only to public claims reported in several major American newspapers. Ms. Greene, it should be noted, backpedaled furiously after this news spread, joining colleagues in statements suggesting they hadn’t even read the mission statement in question before endorsing it.

I wonder how these lazy politicians justify cashing their paychecks? This isn’t a difference of opinion, but a dereliction of duty and evidence of a near total lack of qualification for their sworn duty to support and defend the U.S. Constitution.Reproduction of the oath of office by which new United States congresspeople are sworn in

Teaching U.S. history to my own home educated teen in recent years, I was reminded that our Founding Fathers were influenced by Native American forms of government when crafting the U.S. Constitution. Here’s an entire article on the subject from The History Channel’s website. The Founders obviously didn’t seek to duplicate any indigenous government, but remarks by Benjamin Franklin* amongst others prove they were aware of, and even relatively positively disposed toward, adopting the best notions they knew of—from any source—to form their “more perfect union.”

According to the Boston Globe, “the [“America First Caucus”] document describes the United States as a place with ‘uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions.’”

High school aged children are aware of the Iroquois Confederacy’s influence on the work of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Does the America First Caucus reject those former leaders as patriotic Americans, too? Is Trump the only man any of them will stand behind?USA flag - 1

I’m concerned by this new Caucus’ interest in Anglo-Saxon values in particular. The term Anglo-Saxon is out of date if meant as a reference to the British people, and the simple fact of the American Revolutionary War strongly implies to those of us with critical thinking skills that the Founding Fathers were not interested in maintaining an English form of government where colonies were taxed by the Crown without political representation.

Does the America First Caucus seek to emulate those tumultuous years in Britain between the end of Roman Empire and the Norman Conquest by William the Conqueror (a.k.a., William the Bastard)? Per the Encyclopedia Brittanica:

“[T]he various peoples commonly grouped together as Anglo-Saxons were not politically unified until the 9th century, and their reign over England was interrupted by 26 years of Danish rule that began in 1016 with the accession of Canute.”

Here’s a BBC overview explaining Anglo-Saxon Government written for children. Very little of it reminds me of American government with the exception of trials being conducted with community representation.

Speaking only for myself—but probably reflecting the will of most emotionally stable Americans—I would prefer not to live through centuries of incessant warring by disparate groups. I’m not really keen to be ruled over by Denmark, either, though I’d take orders from the current Danish government before submitting to the purported leadership of a reality-averse reactionary like Representative Greene.

Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania appears to be cut from the same flawed cloth. On April 27th, The Boston Globe reported that he said the following though the emphasis is mine at a Young America’s Foundation event:

“We came here and created a blank slate. We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes, we have Native Americans but, candidly, there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum

Without a doubt, the forebears of most current American citizens arrived in the New World and did not find the trappings of European society to which they would have naturally deferred. The fact that those men could not, due to religious and cultural bigotry, recognize the humanity of those they encountered—let alone their technical and cultural achievements—was their own failing, not that of the indigenous peoples they subsequently massacred.

Modern scholarship now points toward the birth of human civilization in the central Andes (i.e., in the Americas) being of equal moment to the traditional European scholars’ foci of technological and social evolution: Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, and China’s Yellow River basin.

Being too shortsighted to notice the contributions of indigenous Americans is evidence of a lack of mental power—or intellectual rigor—on the part of the observer, not evidence of shortcomings on the part of the targeted society. Conservative culture warriors would do well to make a more careful study of the history they claim to venerate before blundering so ineptly into statements of rank ignorance.

I recognize the many contributions of Western Civilization to the formation of the United States of America. Disregarding great work—whether philosophy, art, or technical innovation—is folly, but so is ignoring the hybrid vigor of multiculturalism that led to the success that still brings scores of refugees from around the world here today in hopes of earning their own piece of our prosperity.

When I was a child, the “melting pot” analogy was falling out of favor due to a greater emphasis on appreciating diverse cultures over demands for cultural hegemony. I still recall a teacher offering the “tossed salad” metaphor to take its place. I reject that notion, too.

Tossed salad sees disparate ingredients jumbled together with no interaction between them until they’re masticated by an outside force. Shared governance and geography might be the salad dressing, then, but greens, carrots, and tomatoes have little influence over each other. They just happen to share a bowl. Separate but equal as policy failed America during that experiment in our past.

Thermal Cooker with stew-filled primary pot insertedHere’s my offering: America is more akin to a pot of stew than a melting pot or a tossed salad.

Every one of us goes into the pot—simmering required, it must be said, perhaps making my metaphor even more apt. Time and cohabitation rub our edges off, softening us from strict segregation and stark differences. Some chunks blur into pleasant similarity; others maintain more distinction, lending texture and complexity to the totality. The mass blends into richness and depth, and the whole ends up much greater than the sum of its parts.

There would be no gravy without every contribution; there could be no stew without admixture and synthesis.

When I consider the meaning of a term like America First, my mind goes to first principles. Our founders spelled out their impetus in splitting from the British Empire in the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Its 56 signatories did not specify that only American men, men of European descent, or Christian men exclusively were who counted; all men, they declared, are created equal, endowed by their creator with the unalienable rights for which patriots went to war, fought, and died. That foundational document should guide any America First Caucus crafted by people informed by the history of the United States.

Rep. Gaetz is currently under investigation for paying to have sex with underage girls, underscoring the lie that the Republican Party as a group in any way deserves its claim to the title of a “Moral” Majority.

* Letter From Benjamin Franklin to James Parker, 20 March 1751:

“It would be a very strange Thing, if six Nations of ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union, and be able to execute it in such a Manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies, to whom it is more necessary, and must be more advantageous; and who cannot be supposed to want an equal Understanding of their Interests.”

We supplemented our studies with the fairly light, quite mainstream Great Courses High School Level Early American History videos. One doesn’t need to delve into the works of Howard Zinn or any left-leaning sources to discover the framers’ interest in our nation’s indigenous peoples’ best practices, which they then combined with European ideas from philosophers such as Locke and Montesquieu to craft the foundations of our own democratic republic.

Books by my bedside 2021/April

I’m a little shocked by how long it’s been since I last posted about what I’m reading. Considering the rather desperate way I escaped into fiction during the pandemic, I might’ve been more forthcoming in sharing what I read for that release.

Now, back to my boilerplate:

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least make a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

Non-Fiction

History

Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia by Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia, Olga

Writing (Short Story as Literature)

A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by Saunders, George

Fiction

Young Adult

Akata Witch and Akata Warrior by Okorafor, Nnedi

The Real Boy by Ursu, Anne

African/Feminist

Nervous Conditions by Dangarembga, Tsitsi

Mystery/Thriller

Billionaire Blend by Coyle, Cleo

A Deadly Influence by Omer, Mike

All the Devils are Here by Penny, Louise

Water Memory by Pyne, Daniel

Open House by Sise, Katie

After Alice Fell by Taylor Blakemore, Kim

Science Fiction

Shift by Howey, Hugh

Reading Notes:

Exploring the world via fiction in a year without travel

The young adult novel, Akata Witch (like its sequel, Akata Warrior), is set in Nigeria. Please see my footnote about the derogatory term in these titles if Nigerian languages are new to you as they were to me. As I have no wish to offend anyone, I will not repeat the word except within the context of the titles chosen by the works’ creator.

Like the author—Nnedi Okorafor—herself, the heroine, Sunny, is American born. Sunny is a teen living in Nigeria, an outsider due to her foreign birth, albinism, and then… all the usual stuff that sets apart the protagonist of a fantasy novel. This is not a cookie-cutter, Western fantasy! I found Okorafor’s created world fresh and fascinating, and the heroine and her friends richly detailed, complex, and very capable of keeping my middle-aged attention. My heart does tend to ache for the girl’s worried mother, however, as Sunny undertakes dangerous quests typical of the genre.

I enjoyed being immersed in the African setting of these titles. Missing my usual travels, this scratched my itch for adventure and “seeing” new places. The American-born teens in the story helped this reader make the transition to a better understanding of Nigerian culture from a perspective with which I’m more familiar.books I read April 2021 - Okorafor fantasy novels

Of course, the bulk of the story involves magical powers and the unseen world. Even if I made it to Nigeria, I doubt I’d encounter most of the creatures or powerful wizards Okorafor brings to life on her pages. As the pandemic has taught me, living through historically exciting events is not always easy or desirable.

Aside from an enjoyable young adult narrative, I appreciate Okorafor’s thoughtful approach to her craft. Regarding her success in a genre whose “great men” were often virulent racists who may well have shunned her, Okorafor wrote on her own blog:

“What I know I want is to face the history of this leg of literature rather than put it aside or bury it. If this is how some of the great minds of speculative fiction felt, then let’s deal with that .…as opposed to never mention it or explain it away.”

I believe this contemplative attitude helps explain why she opted to use a word with heavy connotations in her titles. I use her original titles as opposed to the less racially-charged British ones in an effort to show respect to the author.Copy of softbound library copy of Nervous Conditions by Dangarembga

Also set in Africa but half a continent away, I recently dove into Tsitsi Dangarembga’s masterful Nervous Conditions. It takes place in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the mid-20th Century. I devoured the novel in just a couple of days, perhaps identifying so strongly with its protagonist, Tambudzai, because of her intelligence and drive to get an education against all obstacles.

Tambu reflects upon a new school with: “Most importantly, most wonderfully, there was the library, big, bright, walled in glass on one side and furnished with private little cubicles where you could do your homework, or simply lose yourself…in…books…”

I was a girl just like that.

Quote from page 199 about the wonderful library in a girl's school

Nervous Condition is the kind of book in which I highlight multiple passages. For the library’s sake, I do that these days by photographing myself pointing to the relevant spot on the page. Less typically for me, I even highlighted some of the author’s comments in the “book club” discussion section at the back of this novel.

Tambu’s story isn’t light or easy. Colonialism, racism, sexism, and poverty all conspire against her success, though she’s quite young when the story begins. She’s complex and complicated, and Dangarembga has drawn her beautifully. Even better, the entire novel is peopled by fully dimensioned, believable characters. Dangarembga writes with a deft hand.Quote highlighted from Nervous Conditions page 183

“Marriage. I had nothing against it in principle. In an abstract way I thought it was a very good idea. But it was irritating the way it always cropped up in one form or another, stretching its tentacles back to bind me before I had even begun to think about it seriously, threatening to disrupt my life before I could even call it my own.”

I finished the book quite eager to read its successor, 2006’s The Book of Not. It was unavailable at my local library, though the third volume, 2020’s This Mournable Body could be had. I couldn’t even find book two in our statewide searchable catalog for inter-library loans. Resigning myself to an Amazon purchase, I discovered that a new edition of The Book of Not is due to be released in May of this year. Used copies from 2006 are selling for about $50 each, which is more than I can bear to spend on a paperback. The vagaries of international publishing, perhaps?

I opted to purchase the Audible audiobook version of This Mournable Body—Dangarembga’s only English language audio release, so far as I can tell—because I wanted to directly support the author of a powerful novel that moved me so profoundly.

Also, no lie, it drove me crazy that I still don’t know how to pronounce many names from the story. Unlike European languages and concepts, I struggled to search out definitions for unfamiliar terms, photos of garments about which I was curious, or quick phonetic pronunciation guides. I’m hoping that the audiobook recording will offer me the chance to hear these names spoken by a more educated narrator.

I’ve heard people argue about a lack of rich cultural heritage outside of their narrow conception of the “civilized world;” it’s hard to appreciate what you can’t see because your back is turned!

Segueing not very neatly from far away in distance to far away in time, I must comment on Hugh Howey’s sequel to Wool: Shift. They’re both part of the Silo Saga. These are really good books—if you can tolerate a dystopian future.

My librarian friend The Priestess recommended Wool to me during a weekend away together. I was complaining about how poorly most algorithms do in offering me literary recommendations. I don’t know if that’s true for anyone else, but Amazon and Good Reads do not get me at all. She’d heard good things about it, but not read it herself, I believe.

I enjoyed Wool. It was a fun read, I finished it… then I didn’t think about it again for several years. Somehow, during the pandemic, Shift came to my attention. I think, since Mr. Howey originally self-published via Amazon, that it may have been free to read with Kindle Unlimited. I was definitely hunting that source much more actively than usual in the early shutdown days when I lost weekly library access.

Here’s why I absoluely must mention Shift: I have never before read a sequel and been so much more impressed by it than I was by its precursor. If anything, I’m used to being disappointed by middling follow-ups to novels I loved. That sounds strange, because Wool was a good book. Shift struck me as an even better one, and much more profound.

Consider the Silo Saga if you enjoy Sci Fi and don’t mind reading about the end of the world in the middle of a pandemic disaster.

Myriad mysteries

The string of casual flings I carry on with light murder mysteries continues. Thankfully, our local library opened for pre-ordered, curbside lending after a month or two of darkness, but I have also relied more heavily on the monthly free titles for Amazon Prime members (most of which are mediocre, but they do pass the time) and digital psuedo-purchases, which I loathe on principle.Two Kindle ebook readers, one labeled kids, the other says Mom's

No, if I don’t have a copy of a book or song I can pass to my heirs when I die, I have not purchased it. I’ve rented a license to use my copy during my lifetime. There’s nothing wrong with the model, if it’s what people want, but calling these transactions a purchase strikes me as fraudulent! Stepping down from soapbox…

A Deadly Influence made a pretty fun read, but a single sentence late in the book stopped me cold, prompting me to check the author’s name and confirm that he must be a man. It was a description of an outfit that the protagonist put on to go out and meet a date… and it was so laughably bad, I guessed right that moment that a non-fashionable male had written its description.

The storyline there involves a professional police negotiator, Abby, the calm presence who talks down the guy on the ledge or the hostage holding one with a gun to someone’s head. She (the protagonist) was very believable, except for her dressing up scene, realistically, lightly flawed, yet still likeable. Peeking inside life in a modern cult or two also made this novel stand out from my crowd of similar whodunits. It’s one of the few Amazon freebies I’ve read where I will watch for sequels. I’d like to see Abby’s character develop, and A Deadly Influence ended on a bit of cliffhanger though one I admittedly saw coming, but I didn’t mind.

Better writing through considered consumption of literature

Finally, I can’t leave this post without some discussion of Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. I’m so in love with this book at the moment! Full disclosure: I’m only 4/7 done with it as it was due back to the library and had holds so I couldn’t renew.

George Saunders teaches creative writing at Syracuse. The premise of the book is to explore seven classic works of Russian short fiction, then tease out lessons to improve our own writing from literary greats Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol.

The stories are magnificent. So are Saunders’ essays!Section heading for Tolstoy's Master & Man (1895) from the book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain

Perhaps the author selected just those few stories which are truly special. More likely, I have failed to read enough of the Russian masters. Technically proficient? Yes. Moving, emotionally rich? Definitely. Yet, somehow, this book is also a great deal of fun. I wish Saunders were my teacher though I’ve already spent far more time in Syracuse than I ever wished to.

I picked this up in order to plan a literature unit for my home educated teen. I thought it would complement the Russian History we’re doing this year. Note to home schoolers: it really, really does! I planned to peruse it, make some notes, then set the child to work on Saunders’ readings and my assignments over the summer term. Instead, I fell into the book myself, only reluctantly returning it on time because I’d foolishly let it sit too long on our library shelf before starting in.

Consider pairing A Swim in the Pond in the Rain with viewing the Great Courses video offering History of Russia: From Peter the Great to Gorbachev taught by Mark Steinberg. Lesson 21: Peasant Life & Culture is particularly apropos, but everything from Lesson 8 (The Decembrist Rebellion) to 25 (War & Revolution) will enhance your appreciation for the context of those stories Saunders offers.

† IMPORTANT NOTE: Please be aware that the unfamiliar word—if you only speak English—in the title, Akata Witch, has derogatory connotations for some Africans and African Americans.

The first book was given a new title for publication in the UK and Nigeria for that reason (What Sunny Saw in the Flames.) My internet research was cursory, of course, since I know no African languages. In spite of many contradictory definitions across the web, my best understanding is that the word is Yoruba—or possibly originated from the Fanti tribe—and is literally defined as an animal (maybe cat or fox.) The emphasis is on an uncivilized creature living outside his/her/its appropriate milieu. I’m not qualified to explain the term beyond this attempt at literal translation.

I wanted to discuss this book, but I hesitated to blindly post a sensitive phrase without this acknowledgement. Read about the term’s slang usage on Urban Dictionary if you’d like to learn more.

Where is the line between infrastructure and socialism?

Where do you, personally, draw the line between infrastructure and socialism?

Merriam Webster dictionary definition of infrasctructure, the system of public works of a country, etc.I ask this sincerely, with no desire to engage in polarized internet snipe-fests, but in the spirit of attentiveness to what government services various individuals might deem “necessary” and which are “overreach.”

Even more interesting than the what, is the why.

Only deep ignorance of history allows one to pretend there’s anything universal about this question. Our republican forebears in Rome—whose architecture we aped in the United States capitol in part due to the Founding Fathers’ lionization of that civilization—prioritized very different governmental interventions than we do today.

Proving myself, as always, a true dilettante and no real scholar, I’ll begin by pointing to a series of mystery novelsthat I read years ago. They turned me on to a startling fact: the ancient Romans had no police force.

police car parked at justice centerRome, civilization par excellence, did not feel that it owed average citizens the protection of civil police. The military kept order to an extent that suited the needs of the state, but there was no one to call when your silver was stolen. It wasn’t until the great republic became an empire that Augustus formed the Praetorian Guard in 27 BCE… to protect himself.

And all this in spite of the fact that the Ancient Greek city of Athens had seen the nascent formation of a police force (c. 400 BCE) to keep order and arrest and manage prisoners using publicly owned Scythian slaves. Investigating and detecting crime, in the ancient world, was the responsibility of individual free citizens.

So, is a police force a basic piece of infrastructure, a right that should be available to all, or is investigation and detection by paid government agents an imposition against individual freedoms as the Romans seemed to believe?

In spite of our turbulent times and the fraught political environment, I’ll admit it: I think this is a fascinating question. In a democracy, it is, in fact, the duty of every citizen to ponder these essential assumptions.

Do modern American people on the right and on the left really have such different ideas about what a government ought to do, or are our differences more about degree and descriptive nomenclature?

Continue reading