Friday, December 7, 2007

Norman Mailer

Since the death of Norman Mailer, I have been trying to sort through my ambivalent feelings about the man and his legacy – if there is one.

My first contact with him was his essay, “The White Negro” (1957). I don’t recall if it was that year or the next that the essay somehow made its way down to Fisk University, the small black college in Nashville, Tennessee, which I attended. But I recall being baffled by Mailer’s claim that, beginning with the the Jazz Age of the 1920s, there were, in each following decade, whites who became so enamored of “Negro” culture – music, dance, dress, speech patterns – that they crossed over the racial line and lived with blacks, leaving the world of whites behind. The Beat Generation of the 50s was the most recent example of a cultural phenomenon which saw black culture as representative of an outsider ethos young whites should aspire to.

There was a romanticism and an element of cultural imperialism in Mailer’s essay because he seemed to imply that these “white Negroes” were better at being “Negro” than we were. Mailer’s essay was also insulting because when his “white Negroes” went into the white world, the “Negro” part of their identities evaporated. When we went into the white world, we were subjected to a racism from which “white Negroes” were exempt, and were oblivious to, except in the most egregious instances.

Later, I read Mailer’s first novel, The Naked and the Dead and, still later, his non-fiction Armies of the Night. The latter (awarded the Pulitizer Prize and National Book Award) was about the October 1967 massive anti-Vietnam demonstration at the Pentagon, a demonstration which I photographed. I liked both books, but not enough that I wanted to read anything else by him.

While Mailer wrote well, I also found him to be garrulous and a literary showoff. I could never escape the feeling that he was trying really hard to dazzle the reader with the length of his sentences and the acuity of his images. Rather than letting his language serve his subject, his language became entangled with the subject, to the latter's detriment. To my ear, everything Mailer wrote sounded the same.

However, Mailer, along with his contemporary, James Baldwin, were the first two writers who grasped how to use media, especially television. But Baldwin used it to become a spokesman for blacks, to the detriment of his writing. Mailer used it to advocate for himself. The way he courted controversy kept his name in the newspapers far more his books did. His most aptly named book was Advertisements for Myself (1959).

Mailer was the last of the literary romanticists who believed in some utopian book called The Great American Novel, the one book that would tell Americans who they were, and seeing, they would change. Mailer believed that literature mattered, in the same sense as the English poet, Shelley, who wrote that poets were “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

Yes, literature does matter, but only to those pitifully few of us who love to read. The great majority is afraid of literature because high school English teachers taught them that they could not appreciate a book without understanding symbolism and metaphors. People are not taught that reading can provide pleasure of the highest order, even without understanding symbolism.

I met Norman Mailer once, very briefly. It was in Chicago at the Democratic Convention in 1968. I was there as a reporter for the New York Pacifica radio station, WBAI. I saw Mailer and the poet Robert Lowell walking across Grant Park. I went over, introduced myself, and asked for an interview. I was surprised and pleased that Mailer recognized my name. (My first book, Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama had come out that spring and had been widely reviewed.) Mailer was very nice in the way he refused me, but I walked away doubting he would have refused an interview request from NBC, CBS, or ABC.

However, when I learned of Mailer’s death, it was another memory that came to mind. On an April Sunday in 1984, I interviewed James Baldwin at my home, then in Amherst, Mass., for the Sunday New York Times Book Review. Baldwin and I were friends, and I had thought the interview would be easy, given the many conversations we had had on a wide variety of topics. But that Sunday afternoon the person I encountered was not the Jimmy Baldwin who sat at the round table in my dining room, drinking and talking until the wee hours. That Sunday I encountered James Baldwin, the world famous writer and spokesman for black people. This was James Baldwin the celebrity who had been interviewed by people far more famous than I would ever be.

He did his best to intimidate me, and I refused to be intimidated. When I asked him his opinion of Norman Mailer. Baldwin’s answer was telling: “Well, Mailer is something I’ve been desperately trying to avoid. [Laughs]…One of the hazards of being an American writer, and I’m well placed to know it, is that eventually you have nothing to write about. There is a decidedly grave danger of becoming a celebrity, of becoming a star, of becoming a personality. Again, I’m very well placed to know that….you run the risk that Norman has run and that I run, too, of becoming a kind of show business personality. Then the legend becomes far more important than the work. It’s as though you’re living in an echo chamber. You hear only your own voice. And, when you become a celebrity, that voice is magnified by multitudes and you begin to drown in this endless duplication of what looks like yourself. You have to be really very lucky, and very stubborn, not to let that happen to you. It’s a difficult trap to avoid. And that’s part of Norman’s dilemma, I think….Does that answer your question?”

I knew Baldwin well enough to know that he had just tried to dazzle me. He’s the only person I’ve known who talked exactly like he wrote, and he could turn out these marvelously constructed and worded sentences, and in his mellifluous voice, they sounded like poetry. But I felt he had not been honest, that he was evading the fact that both he and Mailer had courted being celebrities, even enjoyed being celebrities. This was not something that had simply happened to Mailer. It was something Mailer had sought. So when Baldwin asked, “Does that answer your question?”, I responded, “No, but it’s an eloquent evasion.”

I was stunned when he shouted back, “Fuck Norman Mailer! Fuck Norman Mailer!”
(I included this outburst when I submitted the interview to the TBR, but they cut it out.) Baldwin followed his outburst by saying that he didn’t want to talk about Mailer. “Why should I talk about Mailer? I’m very fond of him and have great respect for his gifts. Well, perhaps he’s a perfect example of what it means to be a white writer in this century, a white American writer in this century. It affords to many opportunities to avoid reality. And I know much more about Norman than I’m willing to say in print. After all, I care about him.”

When I learned of Mailer’s death, it was Baldwin’s outburst that came to mind.
I suppose what his imprecation was trying to say was that Norman Mailer was not as important as he thought he was, not as important as he led critics, academics and those who love literature into believing he was.

But neither are any of us. It is important to do whatever it is we are put on this earth to do, to do it (and “it” can be many things) and do it well, to do it with integrity, to do it with love. But it is far more important to be profoundly grateful for the fact that we have been granted oh so few years to be a part of this mystery called life. Our lives begin in the mystery of sperm joining egg , and they end in the mystery of death.

My sense of Norman Mailer was that he was so fixated on his importance that he did not know that what happens between birth and death is the greatest mystery of all, and this very brief interlude we have in the infinite and eternal cosmos is to be lived with wide-eyed wonder.


Vine and Tree Shadows on a Boulder

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Catalog Pollution 2

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

As I wrote in my previous entry, I have started reducing the number of catalogs I get in the mail. As of this writing I have eliminated 58 catalogs from my life. This being the holiday season I would not be surprised if that number reaches a hundred and more, as I am receiving catalogs from companies I have never heard of.

Catalog pollution is a serious environmental issue. The New York Times of November 19 reported that 19 billion catalogs are mailed to American’s every year. The number of trees required to produce these catalogs is 53 million.

This process of trying to take control of the number of catalogs I get is an interesting one because I also have to decide which catalogs I want to continue receiving. For example, I had decided to discontinue the Williams-Sonoma catalog, but I couldn’t do it. I have been receiving their catalogs for 20 years at least, and I was surprised to feel that I would miss them. I enjoy looking at the many different utensils one can buy for the kitchen, and, occasionally I see something we actually need.

I cannot imagine that I would ever cancel the Levenger catalog. As a child when my parents went shopping in a store like Woolworth’s (a precursor to Wal-Mart), I always headed for the aisle where the office supplies were. I have no idea why, but I loved looking at the pencils, pens, erasers, paper clips, rubber bands, envelopes. And I still do. The Levenger catalog offers all these items as well as bookshelves, notebooks, desks, chairs and more, and each object is aesthetically pleasing.

I am not opposed to catalogs. Quite the opposite. I enjoy being able to shop without leaving the house. I enjoy finding an item I need that resolves a problem I didn’t know I had. I enjoy catalogs that make me dream about a day when I could perhaps afford a spectacularly beautiful and spectacularly expensive piece of jewelry for my wife.

However, there are also catalogs that awaken in me the feeling of coveting, the yearning to possess some object I can’t afford, have no need for, and if I bought it, would have no use for. I don’t like the feeling of having my emotions manipulated by the beautiful pictures and the descriptive adjectives of the copy.

So as I engage in this process of choosing which catalogs I want and which I don’t, I am learning which objects I need, which will bring me pleasure and enhance my life, and which arouse in me the ugliness of avarice, an all-consuming yearning for objects whose acquisition would do nothing more than satisfy my ego’s desire to make me feel like I am more important and better than everyone else.

I’ll keep you updated on how many catalogs I eventually keep from my mailbox and how many I choose to continue to receive.

And if any of you are battling catalog pollution, CatalogChoice is the name of the group. They came online on October 9, and since then more than 165,000 people have opted out of almost 1.7 million catalogs. There is no charge for getting your name removed from catalog mailing lists because the group is sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Ecology Center.


This snake was dead when I photographed it, but the look in his eye makes me think this is how avarice looks.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Catalog Pollution

Text and photograph © 2007 by Julius Lester

Maybe I’m the only one, but I am starting to dread getting the mail every day. Not because of the bills but the catalogs! If the post office department ever started charging customers for how many pounds of mail they receive, I would be in debt within a week.

The first two catalogs I remember receiving were from Sharper Image and Victoria’s Secrets. This was back in the late 70’s or early 80’s. Both catalogs represented the beginning of consumer pornography. As a photographer I marvel at how the photographs in catalogs can make me want to buy things I really don’t want, not to mention, need. There is an entire field of photography devoted to photographing products, and there are an array of tricks product photographers, as they are known, use to make an object look not only desirable but irresistible. But capitalism as a system is built on persuading consumers to buy, and what we buy is almost secondary to the need of the system to keep us buying something. Remember how, after 9/11, President Bush exhorted us to go out and BUY!!

I am not opposed to catalogs, (though I do mourn the number of trees who give their lives for glossy photos). As someone who does not leave the house more than once or twice a week, catalogs are convenient, and I have purchased many things from them that I not only wanted but needed.

However, what makes me angry is the common practice of selling mailing lists. I bought my wife a present from the catalog of colonial reproductions sold at Monticello, the home of presidential slaveholder Thomas Jefferson. Lo and behold, now I am receiving catalogs from other places that sell colonial reproductions as well as catalogs from stores in the state of Virginia. My wife gave me a birthday present of fresh fruit from a company called Harry & David. Now I’m receiving catalogs from companies that are in any way food related.

Recently I reached a point of simply not wanting these unsolicited catalogs in my mailbox. If you are in a similar situation, I have a bit of information that may bring as much joy to your life as it is bringing to mine.

There is an organization called Catalog Choice. Click on the link and you’ll be taken to their website. Registration is free. Once registered you go to their very extensive database of catalogs, find the catalog you no longer wish to receive, click on it, type in the customer number from the catalog, if there is one, and that’s it. The organization takes care of the rest. They say it can take up to ten weeks to be removed from a catalog’s data base, and if you aren’t, you let Catalog Choice know.

Since Friday I have eliminated 30 catalogs from my life – Allergy Buyers Club,, Audio Editions, Betty’s Attic, Charles Tyrwhitt, Duluth Trading Co., First Street, Oriental Trading Company, Timepieces International, and What on Earth, among others. I’d never heard of any of these companies until their catalogs arrived in my mailbox.

Now I eagerly get the mail and rush to my computer, unwanted catalogs in hand. As odd as it may sound, I am looking forward to the day in the not too distant future when I go to the mailbox and there’re only bills awaiting me.


"Laissez-faire, noun, An economic doctrine which states that no act can be evil if it earns a profit."

Victor L. Cahn The Disrespectful Dictionary


Mailboxes, Alabama, 1966

Sunday, November 4, 2007

If You Read Only One Book This Year....

Text & photograph © 2007 by Julius Lester

If you read only one book this year, make it Alan Weisman's The World Without Us.

This is one of the best books I’ve read. It asks and answers the hypothetical question, what would happen if people suddenly disappeared from the earth? How would nature respond? Part of the book's brilliance is the quality of Weisman's writing, his extensive research, interviews, and his ability to describe in vivid detail what the world would be like without humans.

If we disappeared tomorrow, nature would reclaim our houses first. In New York City, the subway tunnels would flood almost immediately without people to operate the machinery that keeps the rivers out. And because humans would have disappeared from New York, cockroaches would also disappear.

Besides imagining the earth without us, Weisman also visits places where humans have left nature alone -- the one remaining virgin forest in Europe, the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. Because this area has not been lived in for more than 50 years, it has become a refuge for birds and creatures that might otherwise be extinct now. However, in anticipation of a reconciliation between the two countries and subsequent reunification, real estate developers already have their eyes on the DMZ.

Weisman does not rant about what is happening to the environment. He writes simply and gently, leaving it to the reader to rage or not. Weisman relies on being an engaging science writer, able to write about complex matters with a minimum of scientific language. In fact, Weisman tells a series of stories about our world, and he is such a good storyteller that the book reads easily.

It is also a book rich in insights and ideas because it is not only concerned with describing what a world free of humans would be like, the book is also concerned with how and why we have arrived at this place and time. Weisman writes about our “acquisitive instincts that can’t tell when to stop, until something we never intended to harm is fatally deprived of something it needs. We don’t actually have to shoot songbirds to remove them from the sky. Take away enough of their home or sustenance, and they fall dead on their own.” He presents a plausible explanation as to the disappearance of the Mayan civilization, and he also posits a startling answer about how we can avert ecological disaster in fifty years.

One sad fact: the one human creation that would survive for millions of years is the faces of the four presidents on Mount Rushmore. (Imagine aliens arriving on earth in a million years and coming upon Mount Rushmore. Undoubtedly they would posit that a race of giants once lived here.) Sadly, all the art, literature, music humans have created would not survive. Even more sadly, the waste from the world's nuclear power plants will not only survive, but given how ineptly the wastes are presently stored, the chances of these wastes seeping into the environment are almost inevitable, whether we're here or not.

If you read only one book this year, make it this one. It is science writing at its best. At one and the same time, it is a depressing, enchanting, engaging, and, oddly exhilarating book.

One quote from the book:

“Like our kin the chimpanzees, we’d always murdered one another over territory and mates. But with the rise of slavery, we were reduced to something new: an export crop.” p. 76

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Nooses: Why Now?

Text © 2007 by Julius Lester

* At the high school in Jena, Louisiana, there is a tree called the White Tree. It is the tree under which only white students sat. This past September a black student decided to challenge tradition and sat beneath the tree. The next day three nooses were found hanging from limbs of the tree.

* At the high school in Litz, Pennsylvania, there is a section of the school parking lot known as “redneck row.” This is where white students who wear clothes with Confederate insignia and put Confederate flag decals on their vehicles park.

* At Columbia Teachers College, a black professor finds a noose hanging from the doorknob of her office.

* In Hempstead Village, Long Island, a noose is found in the locker room of the police department. Taped to the wall near the rope was a newspaper article about the new deputy police chief, who is black.

* In the yard of the Nassau County, Long Island Public Works department, a worker finds a noose hanging from a fence.

* In Valley Stream, Long Island, a noose was found hanging from the doorknob of a construction site at a shopping mall.

* There was also a noose found at a Home Depot in Passaic, New Jersey.

For black people a noose is a symbol of the domestic terrorism practiced against them from shortly after the Civil War to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Between 1882 and 1968, approximately 3446 black men and women were lynched. That figure represents only those lynchings for which there is a written record. There were lynchings which were never reported. Estimates of the number of lynchings before 1882 vary from 4,000 to 20,000. A Congressional investigation carried out in 1872 said that “as many as 2,000 blacks had killed or wounded in Louisiana alone since the close of the Civil War.” Of the lower 48 states, only four states never had a lynching – Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.

The origins of the word, lynching, are cloudy, but it is believed it comes from the Lynch family of Virginia who, during colonial times, were given permission by the Virginia legislature to hang criminals without due process of law because of the absence of courts in the area. After the Civil War southern whites began a campaign of terrorism against blacks to deny them the right to vote, to own property, and to live without fear.

I have been wondering why are we seeing this plethora of nooses aimed at blacks in both the north and the south. While talking with a friend recently, an avid supporter of Barak Obama, the answer to my question came to me: A black man is running a serious campaign to be President of the United States.

One of the oddities of the campaigns thus far is that the issue of Obama’s race has not come up. It is as if we are playing this game and pretending that his race is not a factor. The appearances of nooses in Louisiana, a state known for the brutality of its racism, and New York, a state proud of its liberalism, tells me that there are some who are not comfortable with the thought of having a Black president, and they have chosen to express their disquiet through the metaphor of the noose.

But, one could argue, no nooses have been directed at Obama personally or his campaign. But whites who make nooses don’t distinguish one black from another. We are all equally culpable.

These nooses make me fear that Obama’s life is in danger. White racism has gone underground and is emerging to express itself through the intimidating silence of the noose. It is only a short step from that silence to the loud report of a rifle.


"As citizens, we must prevent wrong doing because the world in which we all live, wrong doer, wrong sufferer, and spectator, is at stake; the City has been wronged. Our law codes, with their distinction between crimes where indictment is mandatory and transgressions that pertain only to the private affairs of individuals who may or may not want to sue, take this into account. We could almost define a crime as that transgression of the law that demands punishment regardless of the one who has been wronged; the wronged one may feel like forgiving and forgetting, and there may be no danger for others if it can be assumed that the wrong doer is altogether unlikely to do wrong again. Still, the law of the land permits no option because it is the community as a whole that has been violated."

Hannah Arendt

Comment: America has not reached a consensus that racism violates the community as
a whole.

Friday, October 12, 2007

My Address Book

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

I transferred names last night from my old address book to a new one. But changing address books is more than the copying names, addresses, and phone numbers.

For one thing people have more than one phone number these days. My oldest son has four – home, 2 at work, and a cell number. Today’s address books also have spaces for a fax number, e-mail address, and web site. Transferring information from one book to another is more work than it used to be. You have to be very important to me to write down all that information plus your name, address, city, and 9-digit zip code.

Changing address books is also a time to evaluate what place people have in your lives. As you look at each name you think about the person, your relationship, how often you’ve been in touch with each other. Sometimes there is a small stab of pain when you come to the name of someone who died.

There is a twinge of regret when you decide not to transfer someone to the new address book. My reason for not transferring a name was the simple one of realizing that I had not been in touch with the person since putting their name in my address book.

However, I have kept every address book I’ve had throughout my adult life. It is a record of people who were important to me at one time, of people I loved but somehow we lost each other in the maelstrom of our lives, and of people who have died.

What I noticed last night was how the number of names has dwindled over the years. Even allowing for friends whose numbers I know, allowing for people whose numbers are in the phone book, and allowing for the number of people with whom I e-mail, there aren’t many names in my new address book.

I’m not sure what that means. Perhaps the dwindling number of names is one symptom of how I am entering old age. For me this is the time when I withdraw into myself without explanation or apology. This is the time of life I think I’ve always longed for, the time when I can be still. To be still means weeks pass and no one calls me, and I call no one. To be still means that months pass, and no one is invited to my house. My primary human contact is through e-mail, even with old friends who visit the area and want to see me. I have longed for such solitude all of my life, even in childhood.

An important part of possessing this solitude is having an address book I will seldom use.


From a front page article in the New York Times, Thursday, October 11, 2007 on the number of Americans who do not have access to dental care.

"A child in Mississippi and another in Maryland died this year from infections caused by decayed teeth." p. 1


This phrase describes an "illness" we have all suffered from but did not know it had been put into words:

the hardly able fever
"I had so much to do I came down with the hardly able fever."


Calla lily

Friday, October 5, 2007

Adjusting to Global Warming

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

I am a rabid environmentalist. Whenever there’s an issue which involves cutting down trees to build houses, I’m on the side of the trees. So you can perhaps understand how depressed I am about global warming. I am already mourning what seems to be the almost certain extinction of polar bears.

However, I saw an article recently about the melting of the Arctic and the opening up of a Northwest sea passage from Europe and North America to Russia and Asia. And it occurred to me: where I see only the calamitous side of global warning, others see advantages. Those nations who will gain economically from global warning have no motivation to take measures to slow or stop it, if that is even possibly now.

The New York Times had an article recently about blueberry growers in Maine and Quebec. The export of blueberries, mainly frozen, is an important part of the Maine economy, especially since blueberries have been touted as powerful antioxidants. However, because of warming temperatures Quebec has ceased to have killing frosts into May and June, thus making the cultivation of blueberries there more viable. Already Quebec is rivaling Maine in blueberry production. In Vermont there is the fear that global warming will kill maple trees and maple syrup production will move to Ontario. (And with the maple trees will go the brilliant red leaves of maple trees this time of year, along with the rest of New England's vaunted fall foliage.) In a century or so, there will probably be banana plantations in Mississippi, and the apple trees grown in this part of New England will be peach trees.

The inconvenient truth is that global warming means change, and those who adapt to this fact the quickest will also find it easiest to live with the change.

Not being someone who changes easily, I will be dead by the time people will need to really adapt. Although given the predictions for the rise in the levels of oceans, Massachusetts is going to have a new shore line, one much closer to where I live now. That house I fantasize about buying on Cape Code? I might already be living in it.


I love finding words, in any language, that express something for which I did not know there was a word. Here is an English word I discovered recently which I really love!

Borborygmus (Bor-bor-'rig-muss)
It's a noun and it means "intestinal rumbling caused by moving gas."

I had no idea there was word for the noises your stomach makes.


New York City, 1966.

At the time I took the photograph, I'm sure I paid no attention to the sign in the window which reads: "Is The Computer the Answer?" I had absolutely no idea what a computer was. I think the question the sign poses has been definitively answered. YES!!

Sunday, September 30, 2007

African Orphans? The New Toys?

Text and photograph © 2007 by Julius Lester

I like Angelina Jolie. With her multicultural family she reminds me of the black American and expatriate entertainer, Josephine Baker, who eventually adopted twelve children from all over the world. However, quite unwittingly, it seems that Jolie has started a fad, and children from black Africa are becoming the new "in thing" for the well-to-do and celebrated.

Madonna adopted a black child from Africa. Now actress Mary-Louise Parker has adopted a black African child. Paris Hilton has announced she is going to Rwanda in November. "I want to visit more countries where poverty and children's issues are a big concern. I know there's a lot of good I can do just by getting involved and bringing attention to these issues."

This concern by white celebrities for the black children of Africa reminds me of the differing attitudes southern whites had of American blacks and Africans in my youth. I was 18 when the film “Boy on a Dolphin” starring Sophia Loren and Alan Ladd came out in 1957. I really wanted to see it, but in Nashville, Tennessee, and throughout the south, movie theaters were segregated. Blacks had to buy tickets at the window, then walk down the alley and enter a side door through which there were stairs to the balcony. I had never done that, and I wasn't about to start, not even to see the outlines of Sophia Loren's breasts in a wet shirt, which ads for the movie had focused on.

A friend of mine and I borrowed some robes from African students at the college we were attending. Wearing these robes and speaking in what we felt were African accents, we went to the movie theater, bought tickets at the window, walked in the front door and saw the movie. In the mind of white southerners of the time, blacks from Africa were acceptable; American blacks were not.

Why is it that poor black children from Africa are acceptable to white celebrities, but poor black children from America are not? There are thousands of black orphans in every major city across the country waiting for someone to adopt them. And if Paris Hilton is sincere about “bringing attention” to “poverty and children’s issues,” she does not have to leave Los Angeles.

Fifty years have passed since my friend and I were admitted to a segregated white movie theater because it was thought that we were Africans, not American blacks. It seems like African blacks are still more acceptable.


Mississipi, 1966

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Why Republicans Could Win the White House in 2008

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

I tried to watch the “debate” Wednesday night between the Democratic candidates for President. It took barely ten minutes for boredom to set in. I tuned back in after watching a "Law and Order" rerun and boredom set in after five minutes.

How is it that the Democratic Party has learned nothing from the Gore and Kerry campaigns of 2000 and 2004? With the exception of Bill Clinton, Democratic candidates for president refuse to show passion. Because they don't, they come across as insincere, as people without principles or convictions. While Republican candidates for office at every level make clear what they believe, and they express those beliefs with passion.

Thus far, none of the leading Democratic candidates have garnered my trust. I am impressed with Hillary Clinton’s ambition but nothing more. Barak Obama is criticized for lack of experience. Given what a mess the people with experience have made of governing, his lack of experience is an asset. However, he leaves me wondering if anyone is home behind that handsome façade. And John Edwards? He comes across as a well-manicured lawn. Any of the other candidates - Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, Dennis Kucinich, and Christopher Dodd - are more to my liking because they do have passion, but they do not command media attention, and media attention is the fuel of our presidential election system.

On the front page of my local paper tonight is a story that the Pentagon is asking Congress for $190 billion dollars to support the war in Iraq for another year. “If approved, Congress would have appropriated more than $760 billion for the two wars [Iraq and Afghanistan], having already approved of $450 billion for Iraq and $127 billion for Afghanistan.”

I read this and I am OUTRAGED!!! I am outraged that billions of dollars are readily available for war while scarcely any is available for universal health care, for the homeless, for the environment. I am OUTRAGED, but Clinton, Obama, and Edwards appear not to be. Why aren't they OUTRAGED at how our taxes are spent, at how much worse off this country and the world are after eight years of the Bush administration and his Republican enablers? I think a significant number of Americans are OUTRAGED, but need someone to express that rage for them and meld it with a vision of how things should be and can be. This was the political brilliance of all three Kennedy brothers.

As of now there is no Democratic presidential candidate remotely close to expressing our anger and, at the same time, giving us a vision to live by. But this is what the Republican candidate will do. I don't like where Republicans direct their anger, nor do I like their vision for America, but at least the Republicans profess belief in something and are passionate about those beliefs. Unless the Democratic Party candidate understands this, there will be another Republican president in the White House in 2008.

If the election were held today, I would write in the name of Al Gore. At least he is a Democrat who has found his passion and expresses it passionately.


San Francisco, 1966

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Writing A Blog

Photo and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

When I thought of starting a blog it was because there were thoughts and ideas
I wanted and felt a need to share with whomever would read them. That is still the case. What I did not want was for the blog to begin to feel like an obligation, or, God forbid, work. Because blogging is a form of publication, what I write here is given the same attention as I give to writing a book or an article for print. Thus writing for the blog takes me 1-2 hours or more, because I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.

When time goes by and I have not posted anything for a while, it is either because 1) The blog is beginning to feel like work; 2)I have nothing to say; 3)I am busy writing, scanning negatives from the 60s and making prints; or 4) I don’t feel like talking.

But I have not abandoned the blog and wanted to let you know.


"Rose Sky Evening," the view from my front door.


Having just observed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the following quote from Henrich Heine may seem to be against the spirit of the latter observance, in particular, but Heine's words also express a truth.

"Mine is a most peaceable disposition. My wishes are: a humble cottage with a thatched roof, but a good bed, good food, the freshest milk and butter, flowers before my window and a few fine trees before my door; and if God wants to make my happiness complete he will grant me the joy of seeing some six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees. Before their death I shall, moved in my heart, forgive them all the wrong they did me in their lifetime. One must it is true forgive one's enemies---but not before they have been hanged."

Monday, September 3, 2007

Mindset List for Class of 2011

Photograph ©2007 by Julius Lester

During the thirty-two years I taught at the University of Massachusetts, one of the challenges was having a sense of what information students brought into the classroom and what they didn’t. What could I safely assume they knew and what would I need to explain?

Perhaps the most dramatic example I encountered was the day in class I alluded to “Adam and Eve”. A young woman raised her hand and asked, “Who are Adam and Eve?” That was the day I realized that I could no longer assume that my students knew anything at all, and that was not their fault.

During the past ten years of my academic career (I retired at the end of 2003) a useful tool was a list put out by Beloit College (Wisconsin) each fall describing the “mindset” of each year’s freshman class, “the cultural touchstones that have shaped the lives of today’s first-year students…the experiences and event horizons of students as they commence higher education.”

Here are edited excerpts from the Mindset List for the Class of 2911, most of whom were born in 1989:

1. What Berlin Wall?
2. They probably have never “rolled down” a car window.
3. They have grown up with bottled water.
4. Nelson Mandela has always been free and a force in South Africa.
5. Pete Rose has never played baseball.
6. Rap music has always been mainstream.
7. Russia has never been Communist.
8. They were introduced to Jack Nicholson as “The Joker.”
9. Fox has always been a major network.
10. They drove their parents crazy with the Beavis and Butt-Head laugh.
11. A major in Women’s Studies has always been offered at universities and colleges.
12. They learned about Malcolm X from Spike Lee and JFK from Oliver Stone.
13. MTV has never featured music videos.
14. Jerry Springer has always been on television.
15. They get much more information from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert than from the newspaper.
16. The World Wide Web has existed since they were born.

For the complete list and lists from previous years, click on
Beloit College


San Francisco, 1966


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Friday, August 31, 2007

Doing Good is Hard Work

Photograph & text ©2007 by Julius Lester

In the late 1980s I did a commentary for National Public Radio on the subject of the pollution of space. At the time Air Force Captain David P. Boyarski had the job of keeping track of and identify space debris. There were 7,000 objects orbiting the Earth then, including astronauts's wrenches and cameras, as well as Vanguard I, a satellite the U.S. launched in 1958.

Space debris was interfering with astronomers' telescopes and distorting photographs of stars and galaxies. Captain Boyarski had to establish the orbit of each of those 7,000 pieces of space junk so he could predict its path when it eventually fell to Earth. This way it wouldn't be mistaken for an enemy missile and fired on.

According to a recent article in USA Weekend there are now an estimated 12,000 objects orbiting our planet. These include trash the Russians threw out during their 15 years on the space station Mir. This year alone the Chinese tested an anti-satellite weapon which “created more than 35,000 pieces of debris…single-handedly increasing the planet's debris cloud by 25%.”

Evil has many faces. There is the obvious malevolence exemplified by the likes of Hitler. Far more common, however, is the evil that proceeds from lethargy, the lack of will or energy to do what one knows is the right thing to do. To put it another way, doing good requires effort. Indeed, sometimes doing good requires a lot of hard work. Obviously the nations involved in space programs are merely too lazy or too irresponsible to make the effort to do good. The United States has concluded that cleaning up space would be too expensive. Having blithely polluted the Earth to such extent that the climate is changing in ways that are already killing people in Asia and Africa, the U.S. and other nations are now blithely polluting space.

It is criminal that manufacturers are allowed to create products without considering how those products can be disposed of without harming the environment. There should be laws forbidding the sale of products that cannot be disposed of without polluting. But that will never happen as long as the nation's overriding value is greed.

As I said almost 20 years ago: “Maybe we do not deserve the planet and solar system that were put into our keeping. If someone treats a dog with the thoughtless cruelty shown the Earth and space, the dog is eventually taken away from that person. [In the light of what Michael Vick did, I should add, if the dog is lucky]

“…A mature nation is the responsibility of each of us, for a mature nation exists only when there are mature citizens.

“I'm not sure I know what a mature citizen is, but, at the very least, a mature citizen is one who lives in grateful awe of the Heavens above and the Earth beneath.”

Today I would substitute the word “good” for “mature”, with the understanding that doing good can sometimes require every ounce of strength one has -- and for as long as one lives.


Sunset, Belchertown, Mass., July 30. 2002


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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Sex and Aging

Photograph & text ©2007 by Julius Lester

I wonder why researchers need to do a study in order to learn something that common sense should've told them. I’m referring to the report that came out this week showing that “Most Americans remain sexually active into their 60s, and nearly half continue to have sex regularly into their early 70s.”

The report “provided the first clear and complete picture of sexuality in later life.” Dr. Robert N. Butler, co-author with his late wife, Myrna Lewis, of "Love and Sex After Sixty", commented, “There’s a large perception out there that sex somehow does not occur in the later years, and this study demonstrates authoritatively that for many people sexual activity does not diminish much at all.”

From where did the notion come that sexual desire and activity declined with age? Perhaps this assumption is rooted in notions that aging itself is a process of decline, that it is a time of sadness because the majority of one’s years are in the past, and there is nothing to look forward to except death.

I will be 69 in January, and my experience of aging, even with a chronic illness, is one of a broadening into deeper fulfillment. Yes, the majority of my years are behind me, but that brings a great deal of relief at what I will not have to experience again – the anxiety and uncertainty of wondering if I will get a book published, the financial strain of helping to raise and put five children through college, 2 divorces, paying alimony and child support, etc., etc.

Aging also brings regret for things not done and regret for hurts inflicted, intentional and unintentional, regret for opportunities ignored or missed, regret for risks taken and those not taken. But my love of live has never been more intense, for, as Sophocles wrote: “No man loves life like him that’s growing old.”

Of course sexual desire remains alive as one ages. Why wouldn’t it? Why wouldn’t one want to continue experiencing this most glorious of ecstasies? Indeed, the desire for sex may intensify with age because the years are fewer in which one will be able to shout that Yes, Yes, and Yes that is like no other. The great sadness is that so many who are old have the desire but do not have partners, especially women, and their sexual experiences can only be solitary ones.

The desire to be joined with another through the embrace of body with body, of body to body, of body in body, does not diminish with age. That desire is an expression of life itself.


At age 97 Eubie Blake, the ragtime and jazz pianist, was asked, at what age did the sex drive disappear? He answered, “You’ll have to ask somebody older than me.”

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Mystery Writers 3 - Barbara Hambly

Photograph and text ©2007 by Julius Lester

A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly is the first in an extraordinary series of eight murder mysteries. The central character is a free black man in New Orleans in 1832. He received training as a physician while living in Paris. After the death of his wife he moves back to New Orleans, his home. Unable to practice medicine because he is black, he is, however, also a trained pianist and finds sporadic work as a piano teacher and band leader.

Each novel involves a murder, of course, but what makes this series so extraordinary are Hambly’s descriptions of New Orleans and its complex society of slaves, Creoles, free blacks, French speakers, and the new, English-speaking intruders the residents call “Americans”. I could feel the heat and humidity in her descriptions, smell the filth in the street and the odors from outhouses.

Because her descriptions of race relations, blacks, and slavery are so accurate, I assumed Hambly was black. I was surprised to learn that she is white. She writes about black people and slavery as well as some blacks and better than others.

She is also an amazingly prolific writer, being the author of several science
fiction series as well as a series about a vampire. The Benjamin January series has ended, as she never planned to do more than eight books.

Michael Connelly and Archer Mayor write well, but Hambly's language is more poetic and evocative. The plots in the novels of this series are quite complex, and there are a wealth of fascinating characters. In Notes at the end of each novel, Hambly shares her extensive research and provides more insight into the 1830s in Louisiana.

Here are some quotes from various books.

“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."
A Freeman of Color, p. 48

“We live not how we wish to, but how we can.”
Menander, quoted on p. 122, Graveyard Dust

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

“It does something to you, to know in your bones that justice is something other people get.” p. 127

“A man doesn’t have to be good to write great music. But there must be something about him that is great.” p. 130

Die Upon A Kiss by Barbara Hambly

“…the night air was like warm glue.” p. 44
Comment: If you've ever been to New Orleans, you know this is what the heat and humidity there feel like.

“He [Benjamin] had been hired, many times, to play at the wakes of white people, and had always found them eerily silent and cold. Why stifle your genuine grief, grief at the shortness of life, grief at the vast network of might-have-beens that cover all the earth like a shining nimbus, only because you are not closely connected with the point at which Death has touched this time? p. 158

“Afterward she wept, the way rocks would weep if they could when an earthquake breaks them apart….” p.165

“At night they [mosquitoes] would settle on Jim’s little tent of netting like a thirsty cloud.” p. 193

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

Wet Grave


The Eureka Brass Band, May, 1966.


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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Mystery Writers 2

Photograph and text ©2007 by Julius Lester

The state of Vermont has a mystique I don't entirely understand. Perhaps it comes from the state's reputation for the best in autumn foliage, although foliage in other parts of New England is just as vivid. Perhaps the mystique stems from the fact that in the 1970s many hippies and back-to-the-land types took up residence in the state to live out their fantasies of how life should be lived. Then there is the fact that Vermont is the mecca for winter skiing in the Northeast. Whatever the source, Vermont has been romanticized in the national imagination as a place of pristine nature, stoic New Englanders, and an off-beat liberalism personified in the Senate's only socialist, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

I was lay leader of the synagogue in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, from 1992-2006, and learned that Vermont has an underside of violence against women, a New England version of a red-neck hunting culture, and significant poverty. It is this Vermont that Archer Mayor writes of in his series of mysteries featuring a detective named Joe Gunther. Mayor is one of the best mystery writers working today, and it's a pity he is not more widely known because he is very, very good.

The key to any mystery series is the main character. Is he or she a person that we as readers like? Is he or she a person of fundamental decency, no mater how flawed? Joe Gunther is one of the most likable mystery detectives out there. A veteran and a widower, Gunther is low-key, but with a keen awareness of the complexities of human behavior among criminals and among his fellow policemen.

The author brings a wide range of experience and knowledge to the series. Mayor is a death investigator for Vermont’s Chief Medical Examiner, a sheriff’s deputy for Windham County, a volunteer firefighter, and the EMT captain of his local rescue squad. He also knows Vermont, and just as one could tour Paris by using as guides the Paris-based mystery novels of Georges Simenon and Cara Black, so one can visit Vermont with Archer Mayor/Joe Gunther as guides.

If you are neurotic like me and need to start a mystery series from the first book and read them in order, the first Joe Gunther novel was Open Season. Fortunately, there are 15 books thus far in the series, with a new one about Internet crime due out this fall. These are quiet novels, reflecting the pace of life in Vermont as the gritty tone of Michael Connelly’s novels (see blog of 8/14) reflects life in Los Angeles.

However if you don’t want to commit a portion of your life to a mystery writer, then I would recommend Fruits of the Poisonous Tree as the Mayor/Joe Gunther novel to read. It is about the rape of Gail Zigman, Gunter’s lover, and in agonizing detail, it delineates the emotions of a caring gentleman and a violated woman trying desperately to maintain their love as they also battle their separate experiences of grief and anger.


"Vermontscape #1"

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Mystery Writers 1

Photograph and text ©2007 by Julius Lester

My favorite literary genre is mysteries. It always has been. I was in my early teens when I discovered Perry Mason novels. A few years later I started reading Sherlock Holmes, and I’ve been a fan of the genre since.

This is a golden age of mystery writers. More excellent novels are coming out now than in any preceding decade. Mystery novelists are coming up with ingenious and compelling plots, as well as creating characters with whom I like to spend time. And isn’t one of the reasons we like some books more than others is because we enjoyed spending time with a particular character or characters?

Equally as important as plot and characters are the places in which the novels are set. The best mystery authors evoke a time and place so well that they almost become characters too. And, this is another reason we like certain novels more than others. We get to “live in” a place we know well and enjoy experiencing through someone else’s sensibilities, or we get to ”live in” a place we’ve visited and loved, or a place we have not visited and would love to.

The setting of any novel is important to me, and for whatever reasons, I do not enjoy novels set in England. I realize this means I don’t read Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, or any of the other great English mystery novelists. So be it, but I’ve never had the desire to visit England, and except for Sherlock Holmes, never had much interest in spending time with any fictional characters who live there. And I have tried reading Rendell, James, and others, and I simply didn't enjoy being in even an imaginative England.

France? That’s another story entirely. I will read almost anything that is set in Paris or anywhere in France. That is also true of Sweden, which I visited in 1967.

In the next few blogs I will be talking about some of my favorite mystery writers.

The finest mystery author working today is Michael Connelly. He has been called the “Dostoevsky” of mystery writers, and that is not an exaggeration. His novels are set primarily in Los Angeles, a city I have always enjoyed. His character is Harry Bosch, a homicide detective with the LAPD. Bosch is a compelling character for his flaws - an unhappy personal life – as well as his virtues - an empathy for murder victims. Connelly is a former crime writer for a Miami newspaper, and thus has an eye for detail, a knowledge of police procedures, and he creates believable and compelling characters.

Connelly is a fine novelist; his genre just happens to be mysteries.


New York City, 1966

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

More Odds and Ends

Photograph ©2007 by Julius Lester

Miscellaneous items that I’ve had filed away:

Dogs Sniffing

Letter to the Editor, 2/10/05, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Northampton, Mass.

“There is nothing like taking your dog for a walk for a variety of reasons: one of them being what I call ‘sniff time.’ It is, I believe, important that they get their sniff time in each day so they will not get depressed.”

I’ve held onto this item for more than two years trying to think of what the New Yorker’s comment on this would be, and I’m still stumped. If any of you can come up with a pithy one-liner, send it to me and I’ll share the best ones.

In the meantime, have you ever wondered, as I have, why shit does not smell like shit to dogs and cats? But any object is like an olfactory encyclopedia to them. I get the feeling that dogs come back from a walk knowing more about what’s going on in the neighborhood than anybody. I think I’m jealous.

Zarah Crawford

“She owns more than 2,000 Arabian-horse magazines, but no horses – although she does have an epileptic Chihuahua. Yet collecting books about diabolism might be the writer Zarah Crawford’s most arcane interest.”

NY Times, Spring Fashion Supplement, February 25, 2007

New Yorker style comments are also welcomed for this one.

The Severed Hand

“A young doctor who admitted severing a hand from a cadaver as a medical student and giving it to a stripper he had befriended was given a suspended sentence yesterday in State Superior Court. The doctor, Ahmed Rashed, 27, pleaded guilty last month to third-degree theft. He was sentenced to 15 months of nonsupervised probation during which time he is prohibited from seeking a license to practice medicine in New Jersey. His lawyer, Kalman Geist, said Dr. Rashed took the hand from a cadaver scheduled for cremation while he was a medical student at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. The authorities said the hand was found last summer in a jar on the stripper’s dresser in her South Plainfield home. ‘He made a silly mistake,’ Mr. Geist said.” The New York Times, March 2, 2007, p. B4

Maybe I’m just in a New Yorker frame of mind today, but this one also cries out for a pithy one-liner. I don’t know who intrigues me more – the doctor or the stripper. And exactly what was the conversation between them that led him to give her a hand (all puns intended). And she kept the hand in a jar on her dresser. The article doesn’t say if she was allowed to keep it. But I understand. I’ve owned a human skull for 40 years, which presently sits on a shelf in the wall-to-ceiling bookcase to my left.

French Leaders

“François I (1494-1547) created the Imprimerie royale to publish Greek classics. He also unified his book collections in a royal library, which he opened to thinkers and writers. He even wrote some two hundred poems, beginning a line of artist-kings whose spiritual descendants would include everyone from Louis XIV, a ballet dance, to [modern French leaders] Charles de Gaulle, a gifted writer, Georges Pompidou, a connoisseur of modern art, and Jacques Chirac, a collector of primitive art. Renowned novelist and essayist André Malraux was de Gaulle’s minister of cultural affairs. Before he became prime minister, foreign affairs minister Dominique de Villepiin published an 822-page book of poetry while defending France’s position on Iraq at the United Nations (in the eyes of the American media, he’s never quite lived down either endeavor). The Story of French by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, p. 50-1.

And we wonder why French leaders tend to look with disdain on American presidents? Speaking of which, this item from The New York Times of Thursday, August 9, 2007 about the Bush family:

“When the clan is in Kennebunkport, all the Bush children, the president included, stream into their parents’ bedroom at the crack of dawn for coffee.”

Maybe it's just me, but isn't there something a little creepy about this scene. I mean, why not have coffee with your parents in the dining room, at the kitchen table? And just how big is that bedroom? And whose idea was this?


Window, New York City, 1966


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Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Books I Liked This Year - 3

Photograph and text ©2007 by Julius Lester

French Lessons: A Memoir by Alice Kaplan

This book was sent to me by, Kathy Sloan, a photographer and friend from my days in New York, who knew that I have been studying French. I don’t know why I’ve always been drawn to things French, especially the literature and art. Though my college major was English and American literature, the ideas that shaped me during those years came from the pens of Sartre, Camus, Simone de Beauvoir. Existentialism was the only philosophy that made sense after I dispensed with the Christianity of my minister-father, and it makes even more sense now.

Despite my love of things French, the thought of learning the language, with its strict grammatical rules, filled me with terror. So I took Spanish in high school and college. But, in 1967, when I went to Paris for the first time, I felt at home immediately. After that trip I made my first attempt at learning the language, but eight-to-noon on Saturday mornings was no time to learn anything.

What finally made me overcome my terror was reading The DaVinci Code aloud to my wife. There are many French place names in it, as well as snippets of French. I was disgusted with myself that I did not know how to pronounce many of the words. The least I could do was learn how to pronounce the language. Being an autodidact, I bought some cd’s and started listening and practicing.

After a few weeks, I had a sartorial moment: I didn’t have to teach myself this time. I could take a class. And so I found myself returning to the university where I had taught for 32 years, sitting in classes with adolescents I used to teach.

At age 68 my goal is to become as fluent as I can in reading French. Writing and speaking require thinking in the language, and I don’t think my old brain is supple enough for that. But my facility at reading is advancing, slowly but surely, and I feel like I have, finally, at long last, found the long, lost love of my youth, and this time I was bold enough to take her hand, and I won't let go.

Alice Kaplan’s book captured the feeling for me of what it is like to love this language. Although she is a professor of French at Duke, the book is autobiographical, meaning not academic, meaning, it is beautifully written. She describes her lifelong relationship with the French language. A few of my underlinings:

“…in French vowels are primary and consonants follow from correct vowels. The first priority is for the mouth to be in the right position to make the vowel sounds: lip muscles forward and tighter than in English, the mouth poised and round. Americans speaking French tend to chomp down hard on their consonants and swallow their vowels all together.”

“Paris…seemed to be organized for looking. I had never been in a place where there was so much to observe; the benches, the wrought-iron balconies, the long cars that looked like bugs, the policemen with their huge caps, the food sold outdoors, bookstalls outside along the river. Everywhere I went, there was a new tableau to take in.”

“Mr. D and his wife took me and my mother to dinner that night. He ordered a special soufflé for dessert that came out high in the waiter’s hand; when I put my spoon in it all the whites from the Manet painting came staring up at me, and I ate the truth and light of impressionism in my soufleé.”

“From the beginning I loved the fact that Micheline healed people with language troubles. ‘Dr. Micheline Veaux: Maladies du langage’ (illness of language) was inscribed on a bronze plaque over her doorbell. Micheline Veaux is a phoniattre, a physician who specializes in problems, physical and mental, that show themselves in speech. People recovering from throat operations, stutterers, aphasiacs, immigrants with psychological traumas in their newly acquired tongue. People who, for one reason or another, speak in the wrong pitch -- too high or too low – and hurt their voices. She works with them on a keyboard, and helps them find their register. Her perspective is psychoanalytic; she believes, for example, that it is dangerous to cure someone of stuttering if the stuttering fulfills a psychic need that the person hasn’t understood. Language is not a machine you can break and fix with the right technique, it is a function of the whole person, an expression of culture, desire, need. Her respect for everything that is alive in speech was profoundly new to me, and it corresponded to my need to wonder about language. Inside our language is our history, personal and political.” p. 98

Comment: Two things stood out for me in this passage. One was that Micheline worked with people using a piano keyboard in helping them “find their register.” I find that when I read a French passage aloud to my wife and use the same voice register in which I speak English, I stutter. However, when I use the voice register of the male voices who do voice-overs in French films like Amalie, the French flows easily from my mouth.

I was also taken with Micheline’s observation that it was dangerous “to cure someone of stuttering” because the stuttering might fulfill some psychic need. I stuttered as a child. It probably came from being naturally left-handed and being forced to be right-handed, something done commonly in the 1940s. At some now forgotten point in time, I stopped stuttering, but the stutter returns when I get very excited, and when I read French aloud in my English-speaking voice.


Luxembourg Garden, Paris, 1967

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Monday, August 6, 2007

Some Books Read, January-June, 2007 - 2

Photograph and text ©2007 by Julius Lester

Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier (544 pp.)

“This is probably the best book I have ever read,” I wrote in my personal commonplace book after finishing this, the first novel of a trilogy. I would probably qualify that now, but my use of hyperbole is to indicate what a wonderful experience reading it was. And isn't that one of the major reasons we read - to have experiences we could not otherwise?

The skill of Marillier’s storytelling is breath-taking. How she manages to tell the entire story through the eyes and voice of her heroine is beyond my ability as a writer.

Because the novel uses well-known motifs of fairy tales, knowing what is going to happen only heightens the anticipation for the denouements you know has to come. The characters are engrossing, and the writing concrete and vivid.

I realize I haven’t told you what the novel is about. That’s because plot summaries bore me, but I suppose I should say a little something. The story concerns a pagan family, a widower father, his daughter and four? five? sons. The father remarries; his wife is a sorceress who turns the sons into swans who can only resume human form once a year at the summer solstice. The daughter, who is also the narrator, can save her brothers from the curse if she weaves garments for them out of a particular material and puts them on the brothers before they turn back into swans at sunset on the summer solstice. But if she says one word to anyone about her brothers or her task, the curse will never be lifted from the brothers and they will be swans forever.

The setting is Ireland during that time when paganism encounters the new religion of Christianity. I don’t know why I am fascinated by this period in Ireland, not being Irish and never having been to Ireland, but I am.

This novel is a real feast. A couple of passages I underlined:

“There were those whose love spilled over into their every gesture, and so was shared by all who knew them. But they were rare folks indeed.”

“But there is one thing you must remember, if you forget all else. There is no good or evil, save in the way you see the world. There is no dark or light, save in your own vision. All changes in the blink of an eyelid; yet all remains the same.”

This reminds me of another book set in the same place and time period.

Kate Horsley's Confessions of a Pagan Nun

It is much shorter than Daughter of the Forest, but just as good in its way. This book is also written in the first person and gives a vivid description of life in Ireland at the point further in time when Christianity has just gained supremacy over paganism. However, unlike Daughter of the Forest, in which the one Christian character is a positive figure, Confessions of a Pagan Nun is more of an indictment of Christianity.

I read this novel two years ago and don’t recall any of the plot details, but it was a wonderful reading experience, and I underlined a lot. Here are a few of those underlinings.

“It is a holy duty to know the truth and tell it.”

Comment: That’s tricky and can cut many ways, but it is a carefully written sentence. The initial “holy duty” is “to know the truth,” and that is different than assuming that what I already know is the truth. Telling the truth is the easy part. Knowing the truth; there’s the rub.

“I began then to know words as immortal things one could see and touch, each having a color and shape like a pebble that never suffers disease or death. I dreamed of bags of polished pebbles; each bag a story; each bag holding one precious jewel among the many pebbles or a dark, black stone that was death’s eye.”

“...that which is sacred does not care by what name it is called.”

“He taught me how a man and woman can give each other pleasure and tangle their limbs together. But my soul and his never recognized each other.”

“...believing one thing rather than another does not make that thing the truth.”

“...I saw the living spirit in blades of grass and felt the affection of the rain on my face.”

“I cannot see that any religion is true that does not recognize its gods in the green wave of trees on a mountainside or the echo of a bird’s song that makes ripples on a shadowed pool. Even in the quick snap of a hare’s neck and the gleam of living in the eyes of the fox whose mouth is full of the hare’s fur, there is God, even though He is not understood.”

“But even suffering can be sacred if it compels one to give and receive kindness and to despise harmful acts.”

“I would live in a world full of Christ-like humans, but not one full of Christians, may God forgive me.”

“Receiving kindness is the only comfort for suffering. Giving kindness is the only method of forgetting suffering. The creed is of no concern, and the act may be so simple as to seem insignificant, such as the kindness of the sun drying my leggings, or of a hand offering cheese, or a voice saying, ‘I will stay with you.’”


Church, 5th Avenue, New York, 1966

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Friday, August 3, 2007

Some Books Read, January-June, 2007 - 1

Photograph and text ©2007 by Julius Lester

One evening in December, 2002, I was trying to make room on a shelf already crowded with books for some more books I'd bought that day. I wondered when I was going to have the time to read all the books I couldn't seem to stop myself from buying. Immediately there came a voice: "Retire," it said. And my response was also immediate: "Yes!"

So, at the end of 2003 I retired from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst after 32 years teaching there. And I started in on those shelves of books. My goal was to read a book a week, and I've been able to do a little better.

This is the first installment of some of the books I read over the first half of this year.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

This was one of the big books in 2005. It is about a family's search for Dracula whom they believe is still living. The descriptions of the European settings are quite good, as well as the portrayals of the many characters. However, when I finished it, my feeling was,"So what?" It is well-conceived and well-written, but, in the end, I’m not sure what it added up to. But there were some lovely lines in it.

“For all his attention to my historical education, my father had neglected to tell me this: history’s terrible moments were real. I understand now, decades later, that he could never have told me. Only history itself can convince you of such a truth. And once you’ve seen that truth – really seen it, you can’t look away.” [37]

“…history could be…a splash of blood whose agony didn’t fade overnight, or over centuries.” [50]

“I had thought his eyes bright before, but now they were savage with light.” [575]

“History has taught us that the nature of man is evil, sublimely so. Good is not perfectible, but evil is.” [586]

“I stood watching a wave of loss come through the celestial air toward me, through that beautiful morning. Then my grief reached me, an unspeakable fire.” [614]

Reading The Historian led me to the source, Bram Stoker's Dracula. I read this aloud to my wife, who is something of an amateur expert on Dracula and vampires. However, neither of us had ever read the original.

The novel is quite different from any of the films, even those which advertise themselves as "Bram Stoker's Dracula." The films focus on Dracula. The novel does not. He appears only in the beginning and once near the end.

The novel is written in a series of diaries kept by the principal characters - Van Helsing, Mina, et. al. I can't recall a novel whose entire story is told through multiple diaries, but this is not a literary gimmick. Only after Mina puts together the information from all the diaries are they able to uncover Dracula's presence in England and their subsequent pursuit of him back to Transylvania.

Mina is a central character in the novel, because she holds the key to Dracula. However, in the movies she is reduced to a simpering, semi-hysterical female.

We enjoyed the novel, and we also marveled at the genius of the original movie makers to create the film they did from this book. The movie bears very little resemblance to the novel, and certainly the original film, with Bela Lugosi as Dracula, is a work of cinematic genius. Putting Dracula at the center of the movie creates a compelling, even seductive, look at evil, which the book does not. But the novel still made for compelling reading.

Writing about these novels reminds me of one I read some years ago, Space Vampires by Colin Wilson. I don't recall any of the novel's details but, in general, it is an exploration of vampires as people who suck the energy of others. "There must be certain creatures who can completely drain the lifeblood of fellow creatures - or rather, their vital forces. Certain people seem to drain your vitality - usually rather dreary, self-pitying people. They are also vampires."


Window, New York City, 1966


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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Iraq War and Our Future

Photograph ©2007 by Julius Lester

In response to my recent blog on the absence of protest against the war in Iraq, Rev. Dan Harper, First Unitarian Church, New Bedford, Mass., e-mailed me the following:

"There are some protests happening now. I think part of the problem is that when protests do happen, the media doesn't cover them, so they stay small -- there's no momentum building. Back on March 16, I was at the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq in Washington, D.C. 4,000+ people (including Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, etc.) protested outside the White House, and 200+ clergy and religious leader got arrested. There was no national press coverage to speak of -- just a short piece in the Metro section of the Washington Post. I know that's not a huge protest, but the ANSWER Coalition protest the next day in DC didn't get much more press coverage.

"Not that I think there's some 'media conspiracy.' But let's face it, ownership of the media has been mostly consolidated in the hands of a few big corporations that don't have much interest in seeing an end to the war (e.g., Rupert Murdoch is a supporter, Fox supports the war, Gannett seems to be at best neutral). It's not a conspiracy, just neglect. And with the demise of serious newspapers, and the concomitant rise of news as entertainment, we hear less about the war than about Paris Hilton's arrest -- which admittedly makes a dramatic story, but some perspective is badly needed.

"Thus when you report in Friday's post that Nancy Ewart of San Francisco believes that much of the protest has moved to the Web, I tend to agree with her. Things are happening, but they're 'hidden in plain view.' Which means that policymakers can conveniently ignore what protests there are."


The Boston Globe (Tues. 8/31) reports that a Congressional Budget Office study says "American taxpayers will feel the financial consequences of the war for at least a decade." And that statement was based on the assumption of U.S. troops pulling out today. "We are now spending more than 10 percent of all the government's annually appropriated funds" on the war. Even if the number of troops are reduced from the current 190,000 to "30,000 by 2010, the United States Treasury would still have to provide up to $500 billion more to sustain those troops, as well as pay other expenses."

And what, you might be wondering, are those other expenses? Well, medical costs of $9 to $13 billion dollars if 30,000 to 75,000 troops are stationed in Iraq on a more or less permanent basis as U.S. troops are in Korea. Then there's the money needed for "extended medical care and disability compensation for wounded soldiers and survivor's benefits for the families of the thousands of combat-zone fatalities."

Whenever this obscene war ends, it is going to cost the United States well over one trillion dollars. Representative James P. McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, is considering proposing a "war tax" on all Americans to cover the war's cost.

Maybe, just maybe, he's found something that will make the American people angry enough to fill the streets in protests too large for the media to ignore.


New York City, 1966

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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Fidel Castro

Photograph and text ©2007 by Julius Lester

Last Thursday, July 26, there was a photograph on the front page of the New York Times of Raul Castro, brother of Fidel, speaking at the annual July 26 rally. With a start I realized that on July 26, 1967, I had been sitting on that same stage listening to Fidel Castro gave a two hour talk.

I had been invited to Cuba to participate in a festival of protest songwriters and singers. (From 1961-68 I was a folk singer and protest song writer and recorded two albums for Vanguard in 1966 and 1967. The albums show up periodically on eBay. A cd of songs from both albums was issued last summer by Ace Records in England. The cd is available on iTunes). The day after I arrived in Cuba Stokely Carmichael arrived, and I moved into his suite on the top floor of the Havana Libre Hotel. (Stokely was head of SNCC - Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and he had put the organization on the front pages of practically every newspaper in the world with the cry for Black Power. I had been working for SNCC as a photographer out of its Atlanta office since the summer of 1966, and that was how I knew Stokely.) Only because I was with him did I end up meeting and traveling for three days with Fidel Castro through the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

I first saw Fidel at the July Twenty-Sixth rally. Having read in the American press about his long speeches, “harangues,” the press called them, I was surprised that the reality was far different. I heard him speak on three separate occasions. On this day he talked about the Cuban Revolution and its goals. The third time was a two hour talk on Marxist economics to a packed auditorium in Havana. The second time I describe below. On each occasion my experience was that Fidel was a master teacher. His speeches were more like conversations in which he was able to make you feel that he was speaking only with you.

The photograph above was taken in a small town in the mountains where Fidel gave the second speech, a speech about the artificial insemination of cows. He spoke as a peasant to peasants about increasing cattle production. He talked glowingly about a massive bull the government had recently purchased, of how much semen the bull would produce, and how many cows could be impregnated in how many years. He also spoke of efforts by the CIA to prevent Cuba from buying the bull and of subsequent CIA efforts to kill it.

The next morning Stokely and I met Fidel at breakfast. What was supposed to be a three-hour ride back to Santiago turned into a three-day expedition, whose itinerary was created at any junction where Fidel remembered an agricultural cooperative he wanted to visit, a friend he had not seen in awhile, a hospital he wanted to check on, or a youth camp where he stopped to play basketball.

During those three days and a final visit with Fidel shortly before Stokely and I left Cuba, I found him to be a man without pretense, very personable, down-to-earth, an extraordinary teacher, and a man who cared deeply about the poor. Yes, Cuba was poor, but no one was going without the basics. The same could not be said of the good ol' U.S.A.

Regrettably Fidel will die without Americans having the chance to evaluate for themselves whether he was the demon the U.S. painted him as. Neither was he a saint, and I do not defend the absence of dissent, and civil and artistic freedom in Cuba. Cuban socialism trades civil rights for taking care of people's basic needs. American democracy exchanges tending to people's basic needs for civil liberties. I do not understand why either country can't do both.

Because Castro placed basic needs over satisfying the greed of sugar plantation owners and Mafia families, the U.S. has maintained a boycott of the country for almost fifty years.

Who's to say that we might have learned things of value from Fidel, and he from us. But that did not happen, and when he dies, the Cuban population of Miami and south Florida will dance in the streets.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Odds and Ends

Text ©2007 Julius Lester

1. In my last blog I contrasted the widespread protests against the war in Vietnam in the Sixties and the absence of protests against the war in Iraq now. Nancy Ewart of San Francisco e-mailed me to say that she thinks “that the protests have migrated to the Internet and to a lot of political organizing - some effective, some not. Here in SF, there are weekly protests in front of the Federal Building - mostly by Quakers but also by other church groups as well. I know that there have been huge marches against the war, both in the US and world wide. I know that they have been ineffective in stopping it but I hope (perhaps foolishly) that each march helps educate people a little bit more.”

This is good to know, and I don’t think we should judge protests by their effectiveness in achieving a desired end. There is a Jewish legend about the Just Man who goes into a village and begins preaching about the wrongs in society and what should be done. At first people come and listen, but after a few days, no one is listening. Yet each day the Just Man goes to the marketplace and preaches. One day a child asked him, “Why do you keep on talking when no one is listening?” The Just Man squatted down and looked into the child’s eyes and said, “When I began I was preaching to change them. Now I preach to keep them from changing me.”

2. This year the United States will spend 70 billion dollars on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States will spend 2 billion dollars or less on climate change research.

3. The page at the top is from the July 4 issue of Paris Match. One photo is the famous one of the napalmed Vietnamese girl from the war in Vietnam. The other is of Paris Hilton crying in the back of the sheriff's car as was being taken back to jail.

The connection between the two? Well, it turns out that on June 8, 1972, Vietnamese photographer, Nick Ut, took the photograph of the Vietnamese girl. This year, thirty-five years later, on the same date, June 8, Nick Ut took the photograph of the crying Paris Hilton being returned to jail.

Paris Match considers each photograph to represent “une certaine 'idée' dérangeante de l’Amérique,”-- a certain troubling American idea. (And yes, I did want to translate “dérangeante” as “deranged, crazy, insane,” but with my meager French it was best to go with the dictionary definition.) Of course, Paris Match is conveniently forgetting that France held Vietnam as a colonial territory from 1874-1954 and committed its share of atrocities against the Vietnamese.

Paris Match claims the two photographs are “les plus représentatifs de leur époque” – the most representative of their time. That is certainly true of Ut’s photograph of the Vietnamese girl. The one of Paris? Do we equate the tears of a 9 year old girl running down a road screaming, “I’m burning! I’m burning!”to those of a wealthy heiress whose pain ended when she left jail? Can one person’s pain be compared with another’s? The Vietnamese girl underwent 17 operations to repair the injuries inflicted on her by napalm dropped from South Vietnamese Air Force planes. Paris? She went from jail to a beach in Hawaii.

Incidentally, after taking the picture of the Vietnamese girl, Nick Ut poured water on her burning skin, drove with her for an hour to a hospital in Saigon, and stayed with her until the doctors began to operate. He continues to be in close touch with her. The girl, Kim Phuc, is married, lives in Toronto, and is the mother of two boys. In 1997 she was named an ambassador for UNESCO.