Thursday, December 28, 2006

Books I Liked This Year - 2

© 2006 by Julius Lester

As I mentioned in my blog of 12/22, I love mysteries and read quite a few. One of the best people writing mysteries today is Archer Mayor, who does not seem to be known outside New England. His main character, Joe Gunther, is a policeman in Brattleboro, Vermont, with a supporting cast of other policemen. Mayor's characters are always well-drawn and exceedingly human in their frailties.

One of the reasons people read mysteries is to be taken to a geographical locale one may not know directly, or knows and wants to experience through someone else's imagination. Archer Mayor knows Vermont and southern Canada and describes the area in all seasons, in all kinds of weather, not to mention the variety of people from Yankees to former and born-again hippies. His novels also have a perceptive social consciousness. A new novel is just out, but I am one of those people who, when I discover a series, must start with the very first novel. Mayor's Joe Gunther series is worth starting at the beginning.

One of the best novels I read in 2006 was The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach. I knew nothing about it or him and happened to pick it up because there was a short intro by Orson Scott Card, a writer whose books I like a lot. Eschbach's novel is one of the best I've ever read.

It is about a planet on which men make carpets using hairs from the heads of their wives and daughters. So intricate is the weaving process that a man can only make one carpet in his lifetime. When a carpet is finished it is sent to the Emperor, or so the people believe.

What makes the novel so extraordinary is the way the story is told. Essentially, in almost each chapter a new character takes the story forward. Sometimes it is a character the reader met in passing in the previous chapter. Other times it is an entirely new character. Yet, each new character not only advances the story line but also brings new information about the planet and the cosmos of which the planet is a part. Most amazing of all, the very last chapter brings us all the way around to the very first chapter and completes the stories of the characters we first encountered.

The author is German, and he seems to be well-known in Europe. This is his first volume in English. I eagerly await the others.


Since childhood I have liked cemeteries. I liked the solitude and the silence. I still visit cemeteries. This tombstone is from a cemetery in Whatley, Massachusetts. What struck me was the inscription, that Julia Nutting was the widow of one man and the wife of another. Why would the husband at the time of her death have the name of her first husband chiseled into the stone? There's a story on that tombstone, and I wish I knew what it was.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

This Is True, Really!

© 2006 by Julius Lester

I used to clip weird items from newspapers. Here is one that appeared in my local paper on July 12, 2002.


"Woonsocket, R.I. Raymond Champion Dublin, 34, pleaded no contest Monday to charges he followed three women through stores in Woonsocket and licked their feet.

A 30-year-old Woonsocket woman told police that Dublin followed her through a store in Bellingham on June 5 and licked her foot three times while she was shopping.

The woman told police that she reaching for an item on a shelf when she felt something wet on her foot. She said she looked down and saw Dublin on the floor looking up at her. He then licked her a second time.

She told him to get away, but police say Dublin followed her to the frozen food aisle and licked her foot again.

Police filed a criminal complaint in Milford District Court accusing Dublin of lewd and lascivious conduct and assault and battery."

And what about being just plain gross?" I wonder what he told people in jail what he was in for, assuming, of course, that he was sent to jail. Don't you wonder where this guy is now and if he's still licking women's feet?


A llama I met at the Cummington, Massachusetts Sheep and Wool Fair a couple of years ago. If you look very closely, you might be able to see me, or at last the camera, reflected in his eyes.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Books I Liked This Year - 1

© 2006 by Julius Lester

I love mysteries and read quite a few. An author whose work I fell in love with this year was Barbara Hambly. Here is what I wrote about it in the log I keep of the books I read.

"The first novel in this series is A Free Man of Color. The central character is Benjamin January, a free black man in New Orleans in 1832. He received training as a physician while living in Paris, but after the death of his wife, he moves back to New Orleans, his home, and works as a musician and piano teacher.

The seven books in the series are so extraordinary because of Hambly’s descriptions of New Orleans, its complex society of slaves, Creoles, free blacks, French speakers, and the new intruders they call “Americans”, as well as her ability to make you feel the heat and humidity, and smell the odors of outhouses and the mud and filth in the streets.

Most amazing to me is Hambly’s understanding of race. She writes about black people and slavery as well as some blacks and better than many. An extraordinary book."

Having read all the books in the series, I can say that every book rewards the time spent reading it. In some ways it is a mistake to characterize this series as mysteries. They are historical novels, and mysteries have a role in them, but it is the characters, Hambly's ability to recreate a place and time in history, and the quality of the writing that engaged me so powerfully.

Hambly is a prolific writer and writes fantasy and speculative fiction, also. She has a lovely web site ( for those who would like to know more about her and to see a listing of all her books, and there are many!

A quote from A Free Man of Color":

“When January sat at the pianoforte he could look out through the triple doors of the ballroom to the lobby and see men and women – clothed in dreams and harried by the weight of their nondream lives – as they came and went. p. 48

And this quote from Die Upon A Kiss:

“Music. The flesh that robed his soul’s chilled bones.” p. 114

And this one from Wet Grave:

“…the night air was like warm glue.” [44]

And if you've ever been in New Orleans in the summer, you know this is exactly what it feels like.

Finally, from the same novel:

“What does music put over your head?”
“The sun and the stars, Mama,” said January. p. 341

TODAY'S PHOTOGRAPH is "Spider Web and Raindrops".

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Found Poem #4, and More Words We Need in English


"I'm the commander -- see,
I don't need to explain --
I do not need to explain why
I say things. That's the
interesting thing about being
the president. Maybe
somebody needs to explain
to me why
they say something, but
I don't feel like I owe
an explanation."

Pres. George W. Bush, in Bush At War by
Bob Woodward, p. 145-6.


'akihi (Hawaiian) to walk off without paying attention to directions

vybafnout (Czech) to jump out and say boo

curglaff (Scottish dialect) the shock felt when plunging into cold water

a'anu (Cook Islands Maori) to sit huddled up, looking pinched and miserable

achaplinarse (Spanish, Central America) to hesitate and then run away in the manner of Charlie Chaplin

teklal-tekluk (Indonesian) the head bopping up and down with drowsiness

All words are from The Meaning of Tingo by Adam Jacot de Boinod (Penguin Press ISBN 1-59420-086-6)

Monday, December 18, 2006


© 2006 by Julius Lester

"Deadwood", the HBO western, is the most brilliant television series I have ever seen. Every character, historical and fictional, is compelling, and each character is shown in the full complexity of his or her humanity.

The mind behind the show is that of David Milch, who was also the mind behind "NYPD Blue", and one of the minds behind "Hill Street Blues". Milch has written a book about "Deadwood," in which he writes about the west, the town of Deadwood, and the show. The book also includes short essays by many of the actors about their particular characters, how they understood the characters, the back stories they created to help them understand, as well as excerpts from primary sources, primarily newspapers and photographs, and photographs of scenes from the show printed to look like 19th century photographs.

I don't know that I have ever been in the company of a writer as stunningly brilliant as David Milch. I could have read hundreds more pages by him about Deadwood or anything he cared to write about. What he has created in the show and this book is a commentary on contemporary America by looking at a town in South Dakota in the 1870s.

Milch writes: "I settled on a story about Deadwood, because the camp came together in the mid-1870s, deep into the Industrial Revolution, and yet it was a reenactment of the story of the founding of America, and a reenactment, too, of the story of Original Sin. I suppose I accept Hawthorne's definition of Original Sin as the violation of the sanctity of another's heart."

And this quote: "Freud wrote about the 'narcissism of minor differences,' saying that the most violent antagonisms are between peoples or individuals who feel a need to differentiate themselves because they feel so similar, and they are so uncomfortable in their felt similarity."

I've never read a more succinct explanation of the tensions and conflicts in the Middle East, or, for that matter, the United States.

The book is Deadwood: Stories of the Black Hills by David Milch.


I knew the woman only as "Miss Laura". She lived in Itta Bena, Mississippi, a small town on the edge of the delta. I stayed with her for a month when I was photographing and collecting music in the area in the spring of 1966.

Of her dead husband, she said: "Me and the flies was the last ones to leave that black man."

Miss Laura didn't eat fish, because, "So many black folks been through in these rivers for the fish to feed on, that to eat a fish would be like eating myself."

One afternoon a white man came to her house and told her that if she continued to let me stay there, she would be taken off welfare. With tears in her eyes, she asked me to leave, which I did, of course.

Friday, December 15, 2006


© 2006 by Julius Lester

It is seldom in life that one is vindicated for doing something his teachers and parents said was bad for him. But in Tuesday's New York Times I was vindicated. Unfortunately all the people to whom I want to say, "I told you so" are dead, but no matter! I will tell you, whoever you are, and you can share in my victory.

In school I was the kid who slouched in his chair. And no matter how many teachers told me to sit up straight, no matter how often they told me to sit up straight, I continued to slouch. In the "Science" section of the Times on Tuesday, 12/12, someone wrote and asked if sitting up straight was best for one's back.

The answer: "It's a well-known refrain, repeated through generations and based on the theory that anything other than a 90-degree posture places undue strain on the back.

"Despite its persistence, that advice is wrong. Parents may insist that sitting up straight with your thighs parallel to the ground is the best way to sit, but a long list of studies has shown that that position increases stress on the lumbar disks in your lower back....

"In a study that used new magnetic resonance imaging machines that allow people to sit instead of lie down, a team of researchers at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland looked at 22 volunteers who sat in three positions. The first two positions, sitting upright and sitting with the body hunched forward, produced the greatest spinal disk movement, causing the internal disk material to misalign. The third position, in which the subjects reclined at a 135-degree angle with their feet planted on the floor, created the least strain.

"According to the study, any position in which a person leans back, opening the angle between the thighs and the back, is preferable to sitting up straight.

"THE BOTTOM LINE Sitting upright at a 90-degree angle strains your back; leaning back places less pressure on the spine."

So there!!!


A bookcase in the reading room of the Center for Renaissance Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

"Found Poetry"

© 2006 by Julius Lester

"Found poetry" goes back at least to the early decades of the twentieth century. In short, it involves taking words "found" in a newspaper, magazine, ad, etc., and arranging them into lines to be read as one would a poem. I was part of a small movement of "found poetry" in the late sixties and published a fair number of "found poems" in my book Search for the New Land.

As I read through the New York Times each day I sometimes come across articles that leave me speechless that such is happening in the world, that such is normal in our daily reading. "Found poetry" can help us pay more attention to what the daily onslaught of news and images may inure us to.

Somalia 21st century
Found Poem #1

Residents of Bulo Burto who
do not pray
five times a day
will be
an Islamic courts official said.

The edict,
which takes effect on Saturday,
also orders the
closing of shops and tea houses
in the town.

Violators "will
definitely be
according to
Islamic law,"

said Sheik Hussein Barre Rage,
chairman of the town's
Islamic court.

(Associated Press) Dec. 7, 2006

Sudan 21st century
Found Poem #2

Gunmen on horseback
attacked a truck
carrying medicine and aid
on Saturday in the Darfur region of Sudan
and killed about thirty civilians,
some of whom were burned alive.

(New York Times) Dec. 11, 2006

TODAY'S PHOTOGRAPH - "Cemetery in Fog and Snow"

Since childhood I've liked cemeteries.
I would fantasize about growing up and
becoming a grave digger just so I could be alone and surrounded by silence.
I still like cemeteries. This is an old cemetery in the small Massachusetts
town where I live.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Words You Might Need This Week

© 2006 by Julius Lester

Here are some words we don't have in English but ones that might come in handy this week:

pana po'o (Hawaiian) To scratch your head in order to help you remember something you've forgotten.

Backpfeifengesicht (German) A face that cries out for a fist in it.

ngaibera (Pascuense, Easter Island) A slight inflammation of the throat caused by screaming too much.

o ka la nokonoko (Hawaiian) A day spent in nervous anticipation of a coughing spell

mencak-mencak (Indonesian) To stamp one's feet on the ground repeatedly, getting very angry

In the coming week may you not meet a Backpfeifengesicht or have to mencak-mencak.

All words are taken from The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the world by Adam Jacot de Boinod.


My wife is an avid (fanatical) knitter. Each Memorial Day weekend we go to the Sheep and Wool Fair in Cummington, Massachusetts. In addition to people selling wool, spinning wheels, and sweaters, shawls, socks and various other items made from wool, people also bring animals - sheep, goats, llamas, and camels. There are judging contests in which farm children parade around a barn with lambs they have raised, and, my favorite event, the Border Collie Trials. Pictured here is an Angora Goat.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Words and More Words

© 2006 by Julius Lester

Here is a word that should be distributed to everyone who belongs to an Internet discussion group, not to mention a few marriages:

Hai (Japanese noun): It means "'Yes, I am listening to you and I understand what you are saying.'What it certainly does not mean is 'Yes, I agree with you.'" In Other Words by Christopher J. Moore, p. 88

It is difficult to grasp that someone who understands what we're saying would not also agree with us. But is it really understanding we want, or is it that we crave agreement, because when people agree with us, they confirm our identity.

I've started reading a new book, The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World by Adam Jacot de Boinod. The book is filled with words that show what is important in a given culture, as well as words I've needed all my life. Among the former are:

Nakhur, Iranian for "a camel that won't give milk until her nostrils have been tickled,"


Areodjarekput, Inuit for "to exchange wives for a few days only."

And among the latter are:

Torschlusspanik, German for "the fear of diminishing opportunities as one gets older"


Mingmu, Chinese for "to die without regret,"


Termangu-mangu, Indonesian for "sad and not sure what to do,"

and finally, so you won't think I'm depressed, which I am most assuredly am not,

Dil baagh baagh ho giya, Urdu and Punjab: "Literally this means 'my heart became a garden garden,' and it is used to express overwhelming joy.'" (Moore)


"Red Onions and Blue Vase" - I bought the onions at a local farmer's market for the express purpose of photographing them, but I didn't know how I wanted to do that. My wife, Milan, helped me put together the arrangement on the kitchen counter. The only light was that coming through the window over the sink.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Bring Back the Military Draft

© 2006 by Julius Lester

"Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The Statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events."

Winston Churchill, My Early Life: A Roving Commission

Rep. Charles Rangel (Dem. - Harlem) announced that he is going to introduce a bill to reinstate the military draft. The idea was declared dead before it was born. Too bad. I still remember the cold January day in 1957 when I went to register for the draft.
Every eighteen-year-old male had to submit to this rite of passage. We were old enough now to be compelled to go to war for our country, old enough to die for our country. An anxiety entered my life which did not leave until I was drafted and subsequently rejected for military service.

In 1973 the Selective Service System was abolished. Since then the country has had all-volunteer military services. This has meant that it is primarily the children of the poor - white, black and Hispanic - who go to war, who kill and die, while the children of the middle and upper classes - white, black, and Hispanic - go about their lives as if there is no war.

If democracy is worth fighting for, isn't it worth requiring the children of all citizens to go to war for it? But the draft will not be reinstated, because the surest way to get American troops out of Iraq is to require the children of the middle and upper classes to go there to fight and kill, to go there to fight and die. If the draft were reinstated, the subsequent demonstrations would make those of the sixties look like a picnic.


This image was taken in 1966 in Itta Bena, Mississippi, a small town on the edge of the Mississippi delta. One factor that led me to take the picture was my surprise that sentiment about the Vietnam War had reached such a remote locale. The other factor was that the sign was hand-lettered, which made it more personal, more immediate, and poignant than even a typewritten sign would have been. Who lettered it? Did that man or woman have a son, uncle, cousin in Vietnam?

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Life is this simple...

"Life is this simple: We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the Divine is shining through it all the time. This is not just a nice story or a fable. It is true."

The Hidden Ground of Love: Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns Selected and Edited by William H. Shannon (1985, ISBN 374-16995-0)

Thomas Merton (1915-1968)was a Trappist monk, who, from his life of solitude at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky, wrote books, essays, poems, and letters that influenced many, especially during the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960's. My mother gave me a book of his essays when I graduated from college in 1960. I had never heard of him. After I read the book, I was surprised my mother had bought it for me because she disapproved of my need/desire for solitude. After reading that first book, Merton became one of my spiritual guides, though he was a Roman Catholic convert, and I would become a convert to Judaism.

Even though Merton lived apart from the world, his appeal to me and others was he wrote about how to be a monk in the world. And, in essence, this is no different than mystical Judaism's urging one to infuse the secular with the sacred each day.

A few years ago I began to feel that the next step in my spiritual odyssey was to learn to see, i.e. to look at a person, a flower, a building, etc., and not call its name and thereby dismiss it, but to truly see its utter aliveness. To see truly is to truly experience that everything and everyone LIVES! When we see truly, we enter into the I-Thou relationship with a blade of grass as well as those with whom we share our lives. Yes. Life is just this simple.


Number 9 in the series, "Alone, Herself." The photograph was taken at a beach in Provincetown, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and transformed into digital art in Photoshop.

Friday, December 1, 2006

What A Culture Values Is In Its Words

To study the words of a culture is to learn what that culture values, what it considers to be important. For example, "the Hanunoo language of the Philippines has ninety different words for rice." [90] How is it possible that something as seemingly simple as rice could be so varied and complex? But "Hungarian has two hundred different words describing the breed and the coloring of a horse?" [42] There are obviously colors in a horse that I don't even know exist. And although many believe that Eskimos have fifty or a hundred words for snow, they have no more than North American speakers of English.

Words not only tell us what a culture values, the words we use determine how we live. In 2000 I published a book, Pharaoh's Daughter. It was set in ancient Egypt, and my research revealed that ancient Egyptians did not have money. I had a problem. How did they talk about time? In English we talk about "spending time", as in "Our daughter spent time with us over Thanksgiving." In the English language, "Time is money." I managed to write the novel without ever using any form of the word "spend", but it was quite a linguistic challenge.

When I read the following description of Chinese, it was immediately clear to me why Taoism came out of China: "Chinese has no tenses and lacks the simple linear approach to time found in Western languages. Temporal relations are treated as 'aspects' or ways of juxtaposing things, which are more subtle and alterable. Events are not lined up one-by-one through a rigorously logical sequence, but may be visualized, so to speak, simultaneously." [80]

I can't imagine what it must be like to live in time without tenses defining and delineating past, present, and future. But in the way James Joyce wrote Finnegan's Wake, wasn't he trying to make concrete the simultaneity of past, present, and future within each of us? Apparently, the Chinese language does this far better than English ever will, despite the heroic attempts of Joyce, Faulkner, and other practitioners of 'stream-of-consciousness.'"

The quotations are from In Other Words by Christopher Moore.


We tend to think of autumn as a time when nature is ecstatic with color. But autumn is also the time when nature reveals something of its architecture, as in this dead leaf.