The other day when I was visiting my dad, he handed me a book and told me to read the last paragraph aloud.
As Smith recrossed the bridge, he stopped and stood in one of the recesses to meditate on his immaturity, and to look upon the beauty of the still expanses of white moonlight and black shadow which lay before him. At last he shook his head negatively, and went home.
“That’s how they wrote back then,” he said, listening to the air the paragraph left behind. I admired the sentiment, and probably agreed that it was, indeed, something, the way they wrote back then. The book was a Bernard Shaw novel that I had not heard about, Immaturity. I was holding a 1931 edition. Where was this going?
It didn’t take a moment longer to realize the paragraph and the way they wrote wasn’t why I was handed the book. He started telling me a story about the inside cover, the markings there, and a bit of history I might otherwise have never come across, something called Bletchley Park.
Who knew? At the time and until the 1970s, only those that were supposed to, thanks to the Official Secrets Act. For me, a mystery was unraveling. Bletchley Park was a mansion in Buckinghamshire, England that housed a secret code-breaking operation during the second world war. I was instantly intrigued. Paraphrasing my dad, men were off fighting the war and women were tapped to translate Axis messages encoded by Enigma machines, contributing the secrets of intercepted messages to the war effort, and helping beat the Nazis ‘two years early’.
At its start, the operation at Bletchley incorporated a few hundred — you will have heard of Alan Turing and maybe Gordon Welshman and the Bombe machines that figured out the daily codes the Germans incorporated as fast as they could — and grew to an effort of thousands, all working on decoding daily messages of the Germans. The following six minute clip provides a better introduction. (While it is a video, it is more a slide show of 360 degree images that you can move around in using the tool in the top left of the frame. Have a listen and look around.)
Part of my dad’s version of the story was personal history, working in England years later, and having associates who dated back to the war. I’ll skip all the details, but so-and-so knew so-and-so-and-so and the narrative found its way to explaining the book I had in my hand. Inside the front cover was an oval stamp “B. P. Recreational Library Club”, and, on the facing page, an oddly glued-in, folded-over piece of paper with dates from the forties stamped onto it. Under that was a listing of hand-written month/day dates, all crossed out.
I had no idea what I was holding. He explained the book was part of a lending library created to provide recreation to workers when they weren’t putting in 15 hour days decoding.
The agency itself also tried to facilitate off-duty leisure activities for the staff in addition to amenities to provide for their general welfare. As such, the agency made buildings available for various leisure and educational activities. Hut 2 initially served as a tea room, providing hot beverages, sandwiches and lunch vouchers. The hut also contained a lending library and was the home of the Bletchley Park Recreational club from its formation in October 1940.The Hidden History of Bletchley Park, Christopher Smith, 2015
My dad explained the book had passed into my mother’s hands from the wife of someone he had worked with. It was actually part of the Bletchley Park collection during the Second World War – WOW! (The dates suggest just after, though the style of tracking due dates on the inside pages might have started after the war?) Over the years, the library had collected more books than needed, so this was one of eight or nine that had been decommissioned and given to my mother for keeps — he wanted to make sure I knew possession was legit. The other books in the collection were from Eastgate and Cheltenham, new locations for codebreaking during the war and after as effort, capabilities, and need grew.
Unbelievable, really, that such secrecy should have prevailed.Jane Fawcett, Veteran, Hut 6
Obviously, I grew up in the house with these books and knew nothing of their secret past, that being the way of those who can keep secrets.
Now the story is out and I hold this book in my hands in awe. What a connection to the way they did things back when. We tend to obtain a book for the story written within, but sometimes the book is the story itself, a thing to learn from as it moves from the reaches of history into our moment. Here it is today, a treasure that is monument to heroes of the past, the women of Bletchley Park.
HoCoPoLitSo, Board Co-chair
- Bletchley Park is now a museum. Visit the webiste here online. Next time you are in England, visit the secret itself. It is on my To Do list.
- Click here for an extended documentary on Bletchley Park via YouTube.
- More on the codebreaking efforts of the Allies during World War II can be found Stephen Budiansky’s book Battle of Wits.
- Christopher Smith’s Hidden History of Bletchley Park is also fascinating.
- The Bletchley Circle — what do you do after the war if you were one of the super-smart Bletchley women? Well, back into the normal every day humdrum of ironing clothes and feeding children. This short-lived British mystery series has a few of them getting together to use their wits to solve murders, though. It is an interesting way to share the story.
I swoon at a good love poem. Here’s a quick introduction to two that have me dizzy on my feet.
Both are by Vona Groarke, HoCoPoLitSo’s guest for this year’s evening of Irish writing and music – it’s this Friday, don’t just mark your calendar, get your ticket. I offer these poems here as foreshadowing for the event, a beloved favorite annual occurrence that’s been going on for more than forty years now. Both poems I discovered while reading up in advance of her visit. Each has me in its own way a little breathless, smitten, staring newly in love at their marvel.
“What leaves us trembling…”
“Shale” is just a great little love poem, I think. It left me trembling. Read the the length of the poem here, it’s not long, but I am only sharing a few stanzas in this piece. It starts and ends by a ‘not telling’ device, meanders nicely in-between, but what it ends up saying along the way.
What leaves us trembling in an empty house
is not the moon, my moon-eyed lover.
Say instead there was no moon
though for nine nights we stood
on the brow of the hill at midnight
and saw nothing that was not
contained in darkness, in the pier light,
our hands, and our lost house.
I described it to a friend as perhaps opaque while trying to be translucent, but opalescent all the while. It’s that opalescent surface that’s dazzling and intriguing, then you peer through the shimmer into what the poem’s lovers share as example of us all. There’s the narrator relating a contemplative monologue, a scenario that is part plot, part seeming. I am not sure what is actually moment and what is shared mind, but it doesn’t matter, the poem’s lovers seem to find themselves at that point of realization and action that comes when two bodies/souls make that moment out of circumstance and each other that is a fusing. And that ending, wow, an unsayable understanding just left there. You know what I’m saying?
The sea is breaking and unbreaking on the pier.
You and I are making love
in the lighthouse-keeper’s house,
my moon-eyed, dark-eyed, fire-eyed lover.
What leaves us trembling in an empty room
is not the swell of darkness in our hands,
or the necklace of shale I made for you
that has grown warm between us.
That warming of such a tangible object is quite a making. What a poem. I’ll go back and read it again and again, wanting that answer, finding that stone.
“Let the worst I ever do to you be die.”
An aubade is a first-thing-in-the-morning poem lovers share to each other. Think of the nightingale and the lark in Romeo and Juliet. In that case, the debate was about which bird’s song was determining the moment over, the day begun, and the time together over, or not, one being the voice of morning, the other of night. A clever quartet for the two still in bed.
The poem “Aubade” from Spindthrift takes on a different sort of in-between-lovers morning scenario. As readers, we are on the sickbed where the caretaker of the couple narrates understanding and affection while tending the beloved. It is hardly a place for a love poem, one would think, but oh how it is. The poem is pictured here in its entirety, so have read.
It’s a way more transparent read that the previous piece, but you do gain a sense of Ms. Groarke’s way of presenting the world through her observations and language. Transparent, but the glass is beautifully etched with fern and foam.
And there’s one line that just dropped me:
Let the worst I ever do to you be die.
Such a sober realization of the inevitable, that we will die on those we love and that is quite a thing should we be the first to go. There’s a dearness and commitment in that line that is quite a realization. Ideally, it is the worst we’ll do. Is love ever ideal? And then that last, true-love line, pure presence, able and ideal, and love in action.
I am here, blessed, capable of more.
Beautiful. Love poems aren’t just for the young, the beautiful, the wooing. They are for the lifelong and every moment.
It’s time for you to fall in love… with Irish Evening.
Mentioned above, Vona Groarke will be reading from her work followed by a concert of Irish music and championship step-dancing at HoCoPoLitSo’s 41st Irish Evening on Friday, February 8, 2019 at Smith Theatre in the Horowitz Center for Visual Performing Arts on the campus of Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland.
For this year’s Irish Evening, music will be performed by The Hedge Band, featuring Laura Byrne on flute, NEA National Heritage Fellowship winner Billy McComiskey on box accordion, Donna Long on piano, and Jim Eagan on fiddle. Traditional Irish Dancing will be performed by Teelin Irish Dance, featuring owner and director Maureen Berry and the 2016 World Champion Saoirse DeBoy.
It’s going to be a special evening. You are going to fall in love with Irish Evening.
The program begins at 7:30 p.m. Click here for tickets.
Recently, I posted the Columbia Flier cover story about local bookstores to our Facebook page. The article post, featuring the likes of Books With A Past and the new Barnes & Noble at the Columbia Mall, got lots of attention. It is inspiring to see the love of the local store through thumbs up, hearts, and shares, and it has me thinking of the section of my own bookshelves that features books on books and bookstores, and writers on reading and writing. I thought I would share a few of the treasures there and recommend they find their way to your shelves.
My Bookstore – edited by Ronald Rice and Booksellers Across America and with an introduction by Richard Russo – It’s hard to put this down, but then it is hard not to put it down. It is a collection of an array of writer recollections of their favorite bookstores, and features towards eighty writers (Isabel Allende, Dave Eggers, Edith Perlman, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and so on) each providing a few pages of personal vantage and appreciation. Now, why would you want to put that down? To get in your car and head out to your own favorite local and live your own experience first hand, silly.
“I still own books that have remained alive and dear in my thoughts since I was a boy, and a part of the life of each one is my memory of the bookstore where I bought it and of the bookseller who sold it to me.” — Wendel Berry in My Bookstore
84, Charing Cross Road – Helen Hanff – I think this was the first bookstore book I ever read and, if I remember correctly, it might have been my dad or mom that gave me the copy (or maybe it was my mother-in-law, we are an extended book reading family and all love this one). Can’t quite remember. I do remember it being absolutely delightful, an epistolary tale of a dutiful reader’s cross-Atlantic relationship with a bookstore that kept her in all the titles her mind wanted to pursue, no matter the whimsy or rarity. Short and sweet and I am thinking I should read it again. So delightful the story and characters, they made a movie. Trying to remember now if there was a sequel book. Hmm.
My Reading Life and A Lowcountry Heart – Pat Conroy – These are another introduction and gift from my dad. They chronicle the writer of The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides reading and writing life. I have only come to them in the last so many years, but am very happy to not have missed either. I binged the both. If you go on a Conroy binge – recommended – make sure to add The Water is Wide to the list. It adds bio of his development as a caring teacher to the reading and writing.
Sixpence House – Paul Collins – It was my mom that gave me this treat: imagine a whole town of bookstores. It exists, and this is the book about it. Well, it is actually the story about the author moving out of his American life and into Hay-on-Wye in Wales to run a bookstore in the town of bookstores. Any sane person would wonder Hay-on-What? Wonder through the pages of this book and you’ll add to your bucket list the desire to have a wander through the place itself one day.
“It really is an APPALLING thing to think of the people who have no books…It is only by books that most men and women can lift themselves above the sordidness of life. No books! Yet for the greater part of humanity that is the common lot. We may, in fact, divide our fellow-creatures into two branches – those who read books and those who do not.” — Paul Collins in Sixpence House
The Bookshop At 10 Curzon Street and A Spy In The Bookshop – Letters between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill. You shouldn’t need more of an introduction than that. I am pretty sure that is what had me pulling these two volumes off of a used bookstore shelf in Chicago a while back. I think it was Chicago. Dig in, they are delightful. (Note: in my mind all the good bookstores tend to blend into one epic thing, a sort of heaven of a place that just drifts shelf to shelf.)
Books and Literary Life – both memoirs by Larry McMurtry. Oh no. I can’t find my copy of Books. Now, would I have lent it out? Hope not. Or did I borrow a copy to read? There’s more than this that makes me mad about these memoirs from the very famous Larry McMurtry. You see, he used to run a bookstore just down the way in Washington, D.C. and I was never clued in enough to the world at the time to know, to go. I never went. I never saw/met him as he worked behind the counter, easy as it would have been. That is a thing I will always regret. Fortunately, I have these two books to stew over, and I love that.
Of course there’s more (who/what would you add to the list? – in the comments, please). But that is enough for a blog post.
Notice that I haven’t linked you to any online opportunities to track down these things? When you are done reading in a sentence or so, get yourself in a car and head out to Books With A Past, Attic Books, Gramps Attic Books, Second Edition Books, or even the new Barnes and Noble outside at The Mall (we want all the brick and mortar books sellers to be successful, stocked and ready for us) or the older one at Long Gate. If you can’t find what you are looking for on the shelves, ask. They’ll track it down for you. It’s the bookstore way.
HoCoPoLitSo Board Co-Chair
“Wait! What? Frank O’Hara lived in Baltimore?! When? Where?”
That ‘Where?’ wasn’t really the question I had in mind as I had the address in front of me – 2044 Linden Avenue, not that I knew where it was off the top of my head. I did want to know when he had lived there and why and quickly found the answers to those questions from what I was reading – he was born at Maryland General and lived in Baltimore for the first year or so of his life. But where? I wanted visual connection. So I did what has since become reflex for this reader, I turned to google, typed in the address, and took a look. The map showed the location of Linden Avenue just off North Avenue. I’ve driven by there before; I never knew. I hit Street View and there it is, the childhood street of Frank O’Hara. Pretty cool, I thought.
I love it when the literary world and the everyday world meet. It brings literature to life, makes you think about what you read in a different way, and often deepens your understanding of both.
Another time I was reading the absolutely delightful New York Walks, Six Intimate Walking Tours of New York’s Most Historic Neighborhoods , editor). The 92nd Street Y put it out a while back, soliciting the expertise of their Talks and Tours program guides. These walks around the Big Apple are legend. The book is broken up into tours of different sections of NY/NY and a reader gets to worm their way along and learn about the place without taking a step if they are on some out-of-town couch. That is a nice feat in itself, but it is such a good book that makes you wish you were on the streets with each sentence. “Hey, wait a minute,” I thought and reached for google Street View once again. Pretty magic. There I was in lower Manhattan or in one of the carriage alleys near Washington Square. Click. Click. Look around. Click. Visual connection with what the page was sharing. Here’s a sample:
Return across Fifth Avenue (carefully! — you are mid block) for a glimpse of Washington Mews. Your view may be restricted by a closed gate, since the mews is privately owned, both the houses and the alley itself.
This cobblestone alley, built in 1831, provided Washington Square’s elegant houses with access to their private stables or carriage houses. With the rise of the automobile at the beginning of this century, these un-heated one- and two-story structures fell into disuse. Many were rented to artists who were willing to endure cold and any lingering equine scent, simple because the rent was cheap.
I found this trick works for novels, too. I was reading Colm Toibin’s The Blackwater Lightship and was so struck by the idea of the place that I hopped in someone’s google Street View car and took off for County Wexford to have a look for myself. Quaint, kind of stark, beautiful. Here are two shots from the road:
Can you imagine growing up there young and full of ambition?
In real life I associate my own experiences with what I am reading. I supply the picture that goes along with the author’s words. We all do it. It is one of the ways that we can get into a book and it can get into us. Reading is a shared effort between the projection of an author and the a reader’s ability to understand through their own experience-driven interpretation. I have found that I can enhance what I bring to my part of that task with a tool like Street View. It often gives me a sense of place that adds to the text something I might not otherwise be able to contribute. Landscape, architecture, the bustle of a place, the emptiness — these are some of the things you can see for yourself with the tool. It can be very helpful. I encourage my students to use it to enhance their own work with a text. It can help deepen their understanding. So, while you are making a list of supplies for the school year ahead, make sure to jot down google Street View. You’ll be one click away from anywhere you might want to check out for yourself.
HoCoPoLitSo, Board Co-chair
Recently, the siblings went through the home we grew up in. It was time to move on, that is to say, pack it all up and send it in new directions – keepsakes and sales. It is a task I wasn’t quite prepared for, a lot of work, certainly, but also an un-anticipatable rite of passage. Mom’s recently gone and dad has moved into a new place, size-suitable for one and already a wonderful nest of books with him heart and center. It is decorated with a number of precious memories, artifacts of the place that was, the life that is, time unstuck as it moves on, backwards and forwards in the present moment.
The sibling task, as you might imagine, was full of stories. Every single object had history. Our individual histories, our parent’s history, the family history. The six of us latched on to things that particularly resonated with our own hindsight, collected things that in an instant can take us back to the special place that is the family, that is growing into the world, gaining a sense of being from within the nestle of love and care and the forward tromp of formative years. Some of these stories we shared out loud. Some we let resonate in the silence within us, awed and full of emotion.
About this time it just so happened that I had picked up John Berger’s book Here is Where We Meet from one of my own shelves to have another go at reading. Grabbed it from a store when it came out and, for some reason, didn’t settle into it. The narrator visits/re-visits places important to his life and within those places re-meets those now dead who were once key to his own being. “The dead don’t stay where they are buried,” says his long-dead mother as she meets up with him in Lisbon for the first chapter. Pertinent; this time I was bewitched. Towards that chapter’s conclusion, she says, “Do us the courtesy of noticing us.” I love how a book casually picked up can provide such a parallel framework to where one is off the page. It is a breathtaking magic. My world was full of notice waiting to be noticed.
There’s a fork my Mother gave me a few years before she died. It is something that charmed me from the first time I saw it. There’s a curve to its tines, shaped over the decades and generations by vigorous beating against the side of mixing bowls, its mettle not full up to the task. When young, it was the curve that struck me – how cool – and I took in the science of the story: friction, hardness, softness. [Many years later, Mom would give me a copy of the The Dalkey Archive (Flan O’Brien) and I was amused by the bicycle-stealing policeman who was only being protective of the citizenry – you see, he understood the danger of friction and the exchange of molecules, bike riders and bikes shedding themselves into each other; he wanted to protect people from becoming bicycles. Hard to explain in a referentially clear way without the book in hand. Track it down, it’s a good read and will start you thinking. The fork, for us, was a perfect illustration of how this crazy idea was a truth.]
Later on I came to understand using that fork was a way the generations could hold hands across time, the gone and the present meeting in the mixed handle of effort. I’ll take it out and use it once in a while, though these days it is mostly artifact and talisman. All I have to do is look at it to reach back and hold on.
Going through the homestead I grabbed the copy of Wilkie Collins’ Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, a Dover Paperback. It reminded me of those Dover catalogues we’d pour through once the mailman brought them to us (see how memory spills out of things?). Opening it, a note in one of the end pages reminded me I had given it to her as a Christmas present in 1984. It is one I hadn’t read, so I set to the task. By the looseness of the pages, it seems like it had been read a couple of times and that comforted me. It seemed a way to share the space and mind of this person now physically gone from the place of living, a way to hold on to a connective something and pass time together again. I imagined how she would have taken to the stories, thrilling in parts, tedious in others, ever so English and of their time throughout.
Books are on the way out, or so I hear. Maybe I’ll be one of the last to hang on to them, especially the keepsakes from the childhood home, the ones the parents once held up to their faces. For me, they are part mirror/window still reflecting/looking on that time and person, a way to reach out and hold on to what was and what is as we all pass through living and linger in the stories of our interconnected lives, a way of noticing and perpetuating each other.
Tim Singleton, board co-chair
Recently, Tyehimba Jess posted an article on his Facebook that caught my attention. The TSA is starting to have people open up their carry on baggage and thumb through any books they might have brought along for the flight. The practice is being modeled in Missouri and California and expected to be expanded into airports across the country.
This idea struck me as problematic, not just because of the invasions of individual privacy – WHAT ARE YOU READING! WHY? – with the probing, but because, well, I tend to pack a lot of books.
Off to somewhere for a week? First, there are the travel books that detail things to see and do. I like the old Eyewitness series full of cut-away illustrations that point out picture perfect details. I’ll also pack a smaller, more efficient guide that shares the speedy info of top ten lists of Things To Do, or Eats, or Watering Holes. That’s mandatory. And maybe another kind because I like the way it’s written, you know, one of those with no pictures or just uninteresting line drawings, but sentences loaded with information. Maybe there’s a novel about the destination that I should have already read, or there’s some other work that’s just good travel writing on the locale. Except for the novel, this batch of must-have-along tomes is for the suitcase. Well, maybe not the smaller one, especially if it has a map to muse over through the flight.
Usually, when I am traveling I’ll take a book (or two) that I am just about to finish. Maybe I’ve saved the last stretch for just such an occasion. Maybe one of these books gets finished on the plane and the reading journey starts out on a high. One book down. These are perfect for the carry on. Maybe two. One down, reach for the next and you are done two books before landing. The vacation is already a success.
But I usually don’t jump right into the second almost-finished book in the air. My tactic is to start something new, get into it as the miles go by so that when the ground comes under my feet again, my mind is firmly settled into the read, ready to integrate it into the days and activities ahead. Since it is the beginning of the vaca, it will probably be something heady, something that will take a day or two to plunder, deep but maybe not quite out and out philosophy with frustratingly chewy sentences. Only enough to make me think, not work — this is vacation after all. The perfect book would be a tool to keep attention from when the wheels touch down through the bovine stand-still of disembarkation, however purposelessly long that might take. That’s three or four books so far. Not bad, certainly nothing too much to worry about.
I always have trouble deciding which books to pack in the suitcase, you know, the ones that will take me all the way through the length of the week. That’s five days worth of pages or maybe seven, depending on the trip. My mind says about twenty books should cover it. I’ve never read that many in a week and I never will, but I like to pack on the safe side. It gives me options.
Truth be told, I probably get out twenty books to take (the travel ones don’t count) and lay them out on the bed while I am packing. I will put a few back. Not really going to get to this one or that. A thousand pages? Who am I kidding? Certainly not me. Not this trip.
I’ll aim to get the suitcase load down to ten. Or eight. But then it might go back up when I remember poetry. Those volumes are thin and shouldn’t count as whole books, right?
Inevitably, I’ll finish the suitcase, having remembered clothes and toiletries at some point, zip it up, and start to wonder about my selection. If it didn’t zip up nicely, I might have to subtract a title or two, but I tend not to take books out of the suitcase once they are in, well, not usually. A week of clothing must factor in and, sigh, maybe some book gets saved for the next trip. If it strikes me that I have left out a particular subject, I’ll throw another book or two into the carry on. I need to be prepared.
Come time to board… actually, come time to go through this new security procedure, I may have seven or so books in the carry on, throw the Kindle on top. Maybe ten. Add a magazine. That should do it. (How many books am I traveling with overall? Don’t ask.)
What this all boils down to is an apology. If you find yourself late for a flight in the future and some jerk is holding up the security line, it might be me. I am so sorry. Inevitably, I’ll want to share all the reasons why each book was chosen with whoever it is that has been assigned to be curious about my reading. It might take a while. I like to gush. I like to ambassador reading. I’ll be talking to them about David Foster Wallace or James Baldwin or Mary Oliver or Zachary Lazar or the Nibelungenlied or….
Co-chair, HoCoPoLitSo Board
p.s. Packing for the return trip is slightly more problematic. You see, every destination has its own book stores.
One of the rites of Memorial Day Weekend is the opening of public and private pools. The weekend, while not an entrance into summer proper, does set us thinking forward to a more leisurely pace in the days ahead, the cheer of those at waterplay, and, if you are like me, of summer reading. Who doesn’t like an hour or so poolside with a good book?
But pools aren’t just fun, games, or the odd hour with a novel in proximity. They do need their maintenance and the start of the season has me thinking back a few years where I loved being the one to volunteer for the weekly tasks of skimming and filter cleaning the communal family pool at the in-laws. I’d look forward to the Saturday morning activity, put on my shorts and bare feet, plug in the iPod headphones, and head on over to the task where I could use the forty minutes or so to catch up on poetry podcasts. I had discovered the Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Lecture series, thinking a touch of lesson with my work wouldn’t be bad, and found this opportunity for dedicated listening time. It was perfect: an outside activity, knocking off a chore, getting smarter in the process. That there is summer for me.
So, with the odd peeper, dragonfly, or spicebush swallowtail for company, I’d get at the task with Elizabeth Bishop, Kwame Dawes, Simon Oritz, or Dunya Mikhail in my head. Wow, what a joy. The work was mindless: scooping crepe myrtle blossoms, half pink, half beginning to brown, from the surface of the water, emptying the scuppers of that soup of older blossoms and twigs and maybe the bloated last bit of a frog that left its voice behind in its invisible, but ever so loud kin, and the sweeping of other debris from around the pool to keep it from becoming next week’s filter stew: I’d fill my mind with these voices and their work and what others had to say about it. That’s how I discovered the brilliant Ilya Kaminsky, who at the time orchestrated the series, often himself in conversation with the featured writers. I’d look at the lacework of light on the pool’s surface and delight in the mixture of activity and education, musing on what I was hearing. I’d be in awe of the skill and wisdom of those I was listening to: Eavan Boland, Rita Dove, Gary Snyder, Gwendolyn Brooks….
When Les Murray bubbled up in the news a few years ago, I went looking for him and found this gem and bubbled it up poolside into my ears. I loved listening to stories about Frank O’Hara — did I almost fall in? yup — and, then, there is this series of international poets in conversation that is just marvelous, a window into another part of the world that only poets and their work can seem to provide – here’s an example, and another. I might have stopped and rested my arms on the broom handle not to miss a word of some of those. There were so many treasures to discover. One of my all time favorites is when I learned that Elizabeth Bishop in her college days was picked up by the police under the suspicion of solicitation. OK. Listen for yourself in the link above.
Find yourself a pleasant chore to do, one that might last forty minutes or an hour, put on some headphones, and invite these great conversations to join you. You won’t be disappointed and you’ll find you might even be looking forward to that chore the next time it comes round. Happy listening.
Board Co-chair, HoCoPoLitSo
If you have your own list of literary podcasts to listen to, add it below in the comments and I’ll catch up with them. Another favorite of mine is the New Yorker series where one writer introduces another writer’s short story which they then read to you.
If video is your thing, check out HoCoPoLitSo’s own work of recording writers in conversation on our YouTube Channel where you will find a growing collection of episodes of The Writing Life. Here’s E.Ethelbert Miller to tell you a little about that:
I am trying to remember those first attempts. They had to be failures. Probably middle school home economics class where the disaster was no fault of the effort, but – and I can still taste this clearly – a bad ingredient from the classroom cabinet that had been there who knows how long before we read the recipe and reached for it. Bleck. Fortunately, we were graded on the effort and not the ingredient.
That probably wasn’t the first time I cooked, or helped out in a kitchen, but it probably was the first time I took a recipe, printed words on a page, read it and followed its instruction in an attempt to cook something into being. I wasn’t in on the secret then, but it wouldn’t have been long before I was smitten with the practice: cooking is an act of reading.
I would have first learned how to cook standing by my mother’s side, watching and helping here and there, marveling at what came out of her mind and hands. She knew her way along. Or so it seemed to me at the time. I now know there was a box of index cards in a container on the fridge top, and, of course, a book case along the wall that grew from time to time as a new series subscription began, expanding the family menu beyond the basics.
It is probably there that something really took hold, that bookcase and the words it held. I can remember Saturday afternoons, probably winter and gray with not much to do: I’d open the pages of one of the books in the Time Life series Foods Of The World and dig in.
Spellbound, I was traveling. I was delving into cultures. I was imagining creations and thinking they were just a listing of words away from appearing in the very room I was in. Actually, at first I was probably just looking at the pictures and wholly captivated, whether it was in consideration of a beautiful landscape from a far away place, a joyous collection of people being who they were wherever it was they lived, a collection of ingredients from what seemed like it had to have been another planet, not a part of the world I lived in (decades on, the grocery stores have caught up), and, of course, the food exactingly prepared and brightly photographed, though, looking back, nothing compared to the food porn poses of many a modern day Instagram account. I was smitten indeed. Eventually, probably after a year or two or three of drooling over images, maybe after having started to work in a local restaurant as a day cook, I reached for the picture book’s companion recipe volume and had a go. Such reading has been a life long endeavor since.
These days, I reach less for those quaint Time Life books, though there are recipes still in the repertoire (and, I’ll admit, they also take me time traveling back to childhood and the family kitchen, or at least lazy, dreamy Saturday afternoons). Over the years, they have given me the confidence and the inclination to pick up cookbooks and have a go at whatever I am looking at. My work in the kitchen won’t be masterly, but it often is enough to have taken words on a page and turned it into bright and happy taste.
Lately, I am enjoying reading and bringing to life the words of the Thug Kitchen series, and I want to make every recipe in Ottolenghi’s Plenty, a gift received from a friend after a visit – I’ll have perfected a few things for the next time they drop by. Moosewood’s books are go to favorites – I remember going to their restaurant once, ordering something and then, after that first taste, exclaiming too loudly, “I made this!” as if I had made that particular batch. At least that was the look on the faces of those around me. I had to explain that I had made the recipe before and it tasted as right proper from my hands as from the Moosewood kitchen itself.
There is nothing like a favorite restaurant’s cookbook, especially if the restaurant exists out of town: I have both the Vedge and Vstreet books as well as Zahav’s. Both bring tastes from far away to the kitchen table. There’s a cookie recipe from one of Emeril’s books that I have made a hundred times. I am not good at cakes, yet. Perhaps I need to start reading more dessert.
Some of my mother’s cookbooks have made it to my collection. They are cherished, though I am reading them differently than I once did. While there’s the personal nostalgia of the Time Life ones and the connection to my mother throughout, there are books in the collection I wasn’t as clued into at the time, particularly the ones generated by the women’s magazines of the day. They gave us some of the everyday recipes, more easy, economic fuel than edible taste, like tuna casserole — I would have never learned to love reading recipes into being had I started there. They also share a window on the culture in America back not that long ago, sexism and racism steaming off the pages in places. But that is a subject for a future post. For now, go grab yourself a cookbook and feast your eyes.
Recently, I reached for something hopeful to read. I wanted to get out of the funky funk current affairs has had me in. I wanted a bigger picture, something that might observe, teach, and inspire. Basically, a tonic for these blues I have been dwelling in. I reached for Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us.
Open your imagination to how we began – as semi-upright apes which spent some of their time in trees; next as ragtag bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers; then as purposeful custodians of favorite grains, chosen with mind-bending slowness, over thousands of years; and in time as intrepid farmers and clearers of forests with fixed roofs over our heads and a more reliable food supply; afterward as builders of villages and towns dwarfed by furrowed, well-tilled farmlands; then as makers, fed by such inventions as the steam engine (a lavish power source unlike horses, oxen, or water power, and not subject to health or weather, not limited by location); later as industry’s operators, drudges and tycoons who moved closer to the factories that arose in honey-combed cities beside endless fields of staple crops (like corn, wheat, and rice) and giant herds of key species (mainly cows, sheep, or pigs); and finally as builders of big buzzing metropolises, ringed by suburbs on whose fringes lay shrinking farms and forests; and then, as if magnetized by a fierce urge to coalesce, fleeing en mass into these mountainous hope-scented cities.
That’s about as big picture as you can get, the 150 thousand or so years of Homo sapiens developing like a Polaroid right in front of your eyes. It is the kind of scope that shares what a grand thing life is and what we on the now end of existence should consider as we take on the seemingly insurmountable troubles of our own day. The tribe can survive, adapt, invent.
The book doesn’t pose a pretty picture — our current environmental concerns weigh heavy within it. But it doesn’t look at just the real, rough edges of how we live on Earth and how we treat our home. It also looks at ways we are currently taking on our challenges through imagination, ingenuity, persistence, care, action, and number – the world’s problems are not to be taken on individually, though that is often where engagement starts, but with a growing collective effort and resource. Some lead by expertise and example, others take it from there. In that light, it is inspiring. One reads as an individual, but as the pages turn, one realizes that they describe the efforts of your kin and kind hard at work to do the right thing and mind this wonderful home for all of us, making better today so that our story will carry on into the future.
Ackerman’s sentences are beautiful, full of words that touch up to each other perfectly as they flow into informative paragraphs and chapter-length essays. She has a wonderful sense of observation and detail. The way she names species specifically like the pearls they are, or identifies the detail of cultures or individuals she is describing are testament to her expertise on what she is writing about. It deepens one’s understanding of the world. It is clear and full of insight, compassion, and, yes, hope. I don’t know if it was an odd choice or not to reach for on a whim, but I am loving it and it is mending me.
Board Co-chair, HoCoPoLitSo
So we are at the end of one year and the beginning of another. For many, it’s the time to make a few resolutions. For me, I like to take a look back at what I have read and ponder what to read next. I don’t know which is more of a treat: looking backward at the cache or looking forward, ambitiously. Here’s a bit of both.
Surprise of the year was Jen Grow’s book of stories My Life as a Mermaid. Not sure I have been as excited reading a collection of stories for the first time since Edith Pearlman. Get it; read it. Can’t wait for her next collection. The pressure is on, Jen, the pressure is on.
There were many things I expected to be great and they were. Pearlman’s Honeydew, Toibin’s Elizabeth Bishop, a number of works translated by Ted Hughes (magnificent), The Odyssey (Fitzgerald trans.). There were surprises, things that I wasn’t really expecting to have in my hands, but did and was thankful for them: Zachary Lazar’s first novel Aaron, Approximately, Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, Edmundo Paz Soldan’s The Matter of Desire, to name a few.
This was the year I finally finished Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker. It had been sitting bedside for dip-ins every now and then since it was published. It’s been replaced with Words In Air. Wonderful stuff. Thank goodness she was a prolific letter writer – years of joy ahead.
As you would expect for a HoCoPoLitSo-er, I do try to fill they year with a good selection of poetry. I’ll only name drop here as I tend to binge read, going through what I have on the shelf for a particular writer (if you see your name here, time to start publishing a few next books [hint hint Patricia Smith]). Patricia Smith, Bruce Ross, Saigyo, Marie Howe (she’s coming to Columbia in April), Eamon Grennan (he’s here in February), lots and lots of Maxine Kumin, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Breyton Breytonbach, Grace Paley, a Rilke revisit… I’ll stop there or you’ll stop reading as it’s just a list of names.
On to that year ahead: Susan Sontag suggests one should read a book a day. That is a mighty goal, completely unrealistic for a mortal. In fact, I’d find two books a week and a day job to put a roof over those books unattainable. A book and a half a week: more realistic, though probably just as dreamy. (I bet I might bring books into the house some years at one a day on average — I’ll not stop to figure that out, it might get me in trouble – does that count for anything?)
There are a few things already in the pile to read next-ish. I have already started Rebecca Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. A couple of years ago I started reading the works of Agatha Christie. In order. All of them. There’s always one to read next-ish. (Why? The story is for a future post.) I know I’ll be reading more Grennon and Howe in advance of their visits. James Hillman’s A Terrible Love of War awaits with its insights into our bellicose behavior. Julian Barnes Keeping An Eye Open was a Christmas gift that won’t be waiting long, as is Rahael Jerusalamy’s The Brotherhood of the Book Hunters. And I do aim to have Jane Kenyon’s A Hundred White Daffodils in the mind soon, long overdue to do. Sontag is also on the list.
The treat I have been saving to start the year is Belinda McKeon’s Tender, though. So looking forward to it. I had wanted to read the copy that crossed the Atlantic for me as summer ended, but I started teaching a semester of Philosophy 101 and that had me reading other things. Lots and lots of other things (Helen Buss Mitchel’s textbook Roots of Wisdom is excellent). I’ll start reading the McKeon after I put down Patti Smith’s delightful M Train. I think it is time to go back to that now. Happy reading, everyone, and Happy New Year!
Co-chair, HoCoPoLitSo Board