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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