18 September 2019

March Sisters, a review

March Sisters: On Life, Death, and Little WomenMarch Sisters: On Life, Death, and Little Women by Kate Bolick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Four good essays by four stellar writers, each delving into one of the Little Women

I was most taken by the essays by Carmen María García de Saura on Beth, and Jane Smiley on Amy. In the former, Beth's position in the family is expanded to examine the lives of teenagers whose modern fiction favorites are often tales of dying girls, and to the writer's own history of having a mother whose story about her had to be rejected as inimical to becoming a functioning, grown woman. In the latter, Amy's growth from pretty and petted baby to accomplished (and married) woman is examined in the light of a talented, youngest sister, given the means to observe and select behaviors most likely to ease her way into artistic and personal fulfillment. All four essays are biographical, autobiographical, and sensitively-written to illuminate new aspects of these very familiar characters.

Highly recommended. I read it at one sitting, the same day as I finished reading Margaret Atwood's The Testaments. It was, as I'd hoped, an anodyne to the pain of reading what might become of us by reading what some of us can become.

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26 July 2019


If you think this is acceptable - breaking the window, endangering children with flying glass, harming children in any way in the name of anything at all - get out of my life. Now.

13 July 2019

Surprised by God

Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ReligionSurprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion by Danya Ruttenberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As a longtime follower of Rabbi Ruttenberg on social media, I have been awed by the breadth of knowledge, humor, and all-around life that she brings to her discussions of social activism, religion, and politics. This book did not disappoint.

My reading notes include quotes from Kierkegaard ("infinite resignation is the last stage before faith"), two quotes from Rabbi Heschel (Judaism demands "a leap of action rather than a leap of thought" and "Few are guilty, but all are responsible"), a reference to a game that sounds like something my friends would invent ("gender deconstructionist draydl"), and enough books-to-read to keep me busy for quite some time, plus a Buddhist idea that has both comforted and inspired me: every emotion has a beginning, middle, and end.

The outline of Rabbi Ruttenberg's voyage from punk atheist to Orthodoxy is fascinating in itself,with stops along the way in several continents and much scholarship. This is a deep dive, and one I will revisit.

Highly recommended to anyone who thinks, acts, and hopes for a better planet.

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14 May 2019

obsessed with a book - (she has a most capacious brain)

Medusa, by Harriet Hosmer
I have not finished reading Figuring (by Maria Popova) yet. I could have finished it 2 weeks ago, but it's too delicious to gobble. Its narrative sweeps through astronomy, physics, poetry, music, women scientists (many of them astronomers, including Jocelyn Bell, whose discovery of pulsars was appropriated by her advisor. He won the Nobel. Grrrrrrrrr.) 

Virginia Woolf, Kepler, Frederick Douglass (who, as we know, "is an example of somebody who's done an amazing job that is being recognized more and more"),  Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, Rachel Carson, Harriet Hosmer (whose sculpted Medusa is caught in mid-transformation from beautiful woman to mythic monster), botanists, mathematicians  - the narrative includes so many women and men you may think you know. 

I thought I knew, that is. I love Emily Dickinson, I love Margaret Fuller. I did not know the contexts that Popova provides - historical, cultural, medical, and artistic. I did not put these women in the full context of the patriarchy, and that is the most crucial context of all. As we all know. 

We are told that Emily Dickinson and one of the women she loved read Aurora Leigh to each other. We learn how Aurora Leigh was conceived. We learn that the first photograph that was taken by a woman - Anne Atkins, who studied and collected algae - also created the first book published that was illustrated by photographs. Hers. We learn so much, and it flows. It just flows. 

Maria Popova's own narrative about the book is perfect. Read it. 

By the way - Popova's webpage, Brain Pickings, is addictive. It sometimes opens with a popup. Do you hate popups? You won't hate hers. Today's popup is an excerpt from one of my my favorite poems. It could be almost anything. She has a most capacious brain.

from "The More Loving One" by W.H. Auden

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.


29 April 2019

spoon theory, Spike Lee, Joe Biden, and Charlottesville

Amongst those of us with chronic issues, Spoon Theory is pretty-universally-agreed-to as an explanation of why we may look like normal humans, but looks are very deceiving, indeed.Our energy levels are far more pale than we are, and that's saying something.

If you need a Spoon Theory refresher, please Google it. I'm too tired to do links today.

So, the other day, I was contemplating making myself a literal cup of tea, and I came up with this:

        Even if I had a spoon, I'm too tired to stir.

Right? I did make the tea. I also realized I want to make an embroidery piece with that sentence, partly because I love embroidery pieces, and partly because embroidering it would give me the excuse to stabbity stabbity stab at least a few hundred times. (Don't you look at paintings & photos of women embroidering in static, ladylike parlors, and think how they must have loved stabbity stabbity stabbing in public, and being admired for it? I sure do.) 

Do I have enough spoons to design and embroider? We'll see. In the meantime --

It happens that it was the day after I'd seen Spike Lee's film, Black Klansman. Lee is so brilliant. I love his ancillary, humorous, or wry, Greek chorus-like characters that give you a bit of a break, and let you know that your own sense of WTF disbelief is not abnormal. I love the way he can frame scenes that are like brutal jewels. And then, wham, your heart is ripped right out. 

Mine would have been ripped out earlier had I known this bit of trivia from IMDb 

 ---- Spoiler alert ----
  • At a post-film cast Q&A on August 11, 2018, actor John David Washington revealed that right before his character's post-KKK gun shooting scene was filmed, director Spike Lee told him that the metal targets depicting black men running were not props and that they were purchased on the Internet. Washington said filming that scene with that knowledge affected his performance.

As it was, there are scenes at the end from that horrific day in Charlottesville, the ones that T***P described as having good people on both sides. Which was not true, is not true, never will be true. It was also in the same three days of Joe Biden's announcement that he is a candidate, in which he blasted T***P for his disgusting response to Charlottesville, and two days before the synagogue shooting in California. 

My heart (not too sturdy to begin with) was nearly literally ripped out of my body. I don't understand why everyone's heart isn't being blasted out of peoples' bodies.  No one is immune. Trust me on this, trust history on this, trust your own sense of decency on this: no one is immune from being a target of hatred. Not even the haters. 

28 December 2018

adventures with a sock blank

Adventures in sock blank knitting... 

The pattern = cuff-down vanilla, with heel flap.

The yarn is from Color Wheel Yarns, and it's beautiful. Lauren dyes yarn and blanks. I chose the laughing sun because it was so cheerful, and because the background color is periwinkle (which happens to be Lauren's favorite, too).

I started to knit this straight from the blank, and got as far as the middle of the foot before I realized that my insanely loose knitting gauge made for very wonky fabric with kinky yarn. (Kinky, as in, kinked-up…) 

I frogged, skeined, soaked, hung with weight, and voila - beautiful yarn I can knit with! Closeup of second attempt. Much better!

The pair. Delightful.

27 December 2018

disgrace on the wing, disgrace on the ground, disgrace everywhere

He also said we've been "suckers." So, he's telling the men and women who have lost comrades in the field that they died for a country whose policies made us - and them - suckers. How's that for a morale-builder? How's that for respecting our troops and former commanders-in-chief? It's disgraceful, that's how it is.
I imagine my parents on active duty, here and in Southeast Asia, being visited by Truman, and being told that FDR's policies made us suckers. It physically sickens me just to imagine it.Never in our history has such disrespect happened. It is disgusting.
No other president has politicized his visits to troops on the ground. I hope this does not become the new normal. It's awful.

20 December 2018

Let heaven and nature sing - a metaphor.

I want everyone to read the poetry of Theodora Goss. Today, I want you to read this poem because of this excerpt.

Every week, I buy myself flowers
at the market for three dollars a bunch:
Peruvian lilies, which are practical, they last so long,
especially if you remember to change the water.
But I never considered they could ignite,
even if only metaphorically.
Although people have died of metaphor.
Poetry is no safer than these lilies,
arranged in a green and gray pottery jar
on a lace doily crocheted by my grandmother.
Get too close, you will inevitably
start to burn. 

People die every day of metaphor. War is fought over imaginary lines on a map that tell people to classify some as enemy and some as friend. Children are denied food and shelter for the same metaphor. One died of our neglect and meanness last week because Their children are not entitled to the same care and concern as Our children.

Let heaven and nature sing is a metaphor. Think about it. Please.

30 October 2018

1984 is here

Emmanuel Goldstein, the character, never appears in 1984. Nevertheless, the 2-minute hate focuses on him, because the Party claims he is to blame for everything that is wrong in society. He is a Jew.
Only the photo of George Soros appears in the Republican ads. He is assigned the blame for financing the things that the Party denounces. He is a Jew.
Fox News, our president's twitter posts, and Republican ads vilify George Soros. A deranged gunman kills 11 Jews in their synagogue because he believes what they say.
Do not tell me there isn't a connection.

12 May 2018

A Highter Loyalty, and some thoughts.

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and LeadershipA Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The true takeaway from this book is that leadership is hard. Leaders have to make decisions between duelling worst-case scenarios, and they have to accept the probability of being misunderstood.

James Comey's book explains a lot about how his experiences as a lawyer and prosecutor led him to the decisions he made in the run-up to the 2016 election. Early experiences with organized crime taught him that some leaders value loyalty above all else. Other experiences, like his battles over surveillance techniques and targets, taught him that people are complicated, and that agendas can influence even the most celebrated leaders.

Reading the last part of this book, the part in which he explains his decisions about the Clinton e-mail investigations, led me to a greater **understanding and respect** for what he did. I understand now that we still do not know all of the factors surrounding all of the players in the Justice Department, the FBI, and the political circus we all experienced. We can judge, if we wish, based on our familiarity with the facts as they have been reported, but our judgments are going to be based on incomplete evidence. I fear that will not change, because some of what Comey tells us about the existence of still-classified materials is not likely to change anytime soon. And, perhaps, it's not relevant. We'll never know.


** I say "understanding and respect," not "agreement." I may never agree, or disagree. I do hope I'll never have to see so many competing influences colliding in a presidential election again - foreign interference, tribalism, polarization, disregard for norms, deafness to the concerns of those whose views differ from our own, unrealistic expectations, disregard for prior standards that kept our way of electing our president relatively stable for 250 years. It was hideous.

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05 March 2018

how not to ask for a book recommendation, thank you very much

Recently, a friend emailed to ask me to recommend a book for a lady she knows. Said lady likes to garden, read about other countries, etc. Said lady, said my friend, is "a Christian."

That request has caused me enough thinky-time to last the rest of my life. I was a librarian in a public library for over 3 decades, and I have been an enthusiastic book-recommender for most of my life. Never, ever, was a request for a book for someone else delimited by the descriptor, "a Christian."

Had I been at my job, I would have ignored it, recommended books based on the other guidelines, and left it to the patron to opt in or out on the titles. I would have ignored any such descriptor. Why would it concern me that the person who would be reading the books was described as Christian, Jewish, atheist, or Jain? These are such broad terms that they are meaningless in the context of reading preferences. I would never presume to say "oh, Christians want to read/don't want to read (fill in the blank)."

Would you?

I know and have known multitudes of people who self-describe as Christian. Aside from a belief in Jesus as son of God, they have had nothing in common. Being "a Christian" does not mean they like a certain type of book, music, flower, or house paint. 

Am I missing something?

In case you're interested, I recommended two books by Hazel Gaynor: A Memory of Violets, and The Cottingly Secret. I also have asked my friend to refrain from asking me again if one of the descriptors is "a Christian." I hope she will not take it amiss. If she does -- well, all I can do is control my own behavior, right?

22 February 2018

rules of engagement

Forgive me if I'm wrong, but a well-regulated militia would require generals, thorough and regimented training, an arsenal for all of its weapons, and a clear statement of the rules of engagement -- which would never be "kill the children."

16 February 2018

basic humanity

Politics, cruelty, pettiness, and greed aside, each person who would vote to cut away at the Americans with Disabilities Act lacks basic empathy and foresight. If they call themselves religious, they lie: no religion advocates anything but assistance and compassion for the disabled. If they call themselves human, they lie. In the course of one split second or a process that lasts for years, they could become disabled. Any human could.
Do they think they are immune? Do they think it couldn't happen to them?
I read that one of the people who crossed party lines and voted for the bill did so because of a disabled family member. NO. That's not a good reason. You don't have to be involved in a painful family situation to care about other families. You just have to be a human being.

08 June 2017

Save a horse, ride a cowgirl

Save a Horse Ride a CowgirlSave a Horse Ride a Cowgirl by Ann Beattie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although Ann Beattie's characters have aged, their world is still recognizable even if their faces and bodies have changed. Many now can afford luxuries, like a showerhead "which approximated a rainstorm that would fall with enough force to blind frogs." Some live in assisted living facilities, petting dogs brought by well-meaning volunteers. If they still live at home, their garden paths are aglow with "solar spotlights allowing the stamens of flowers to puncture the night like so many silent tongues."

One thing that has not changed: most characters are distinguished by the things they still carry, and the references they learned when they were young. Dr. T. D. Eckleburg makes an appearance at a party celebrating Bernie Madoff's sentencing, and when characters dance, the music is not new.

One other thing these characters have in common: they all want to retain control and to shape the narration of the rest of their lives. The reader sometimes listens in as a character relates his or her own actions, blurring the authorial line between showing and telling. Even a dog, whose ears "looked like someone had given up while folding origami," tells us about his view of the lifelong search for love.

Not all of these character-driven stories hold together in the longer form they are given. Maybe Ms. Beattie means for us to lose patience with some. Some characters, though, open themselves to live in old age with people they might not have noticed before, sometimes literally. Those make the reader cheer, and cheer up.

Ms. Beattie's writing is a bit less sparse than it once was, but no less wry or sharp. The details still matter -- the boots, the music, the wine. One looks at people disappearing up a flight of stairs, perhaps "to the roof, from which they'd take flight and clutter the night sky, for all she knew." The reader doesn't know either, but she has met them, and they are real.

Highly recommended. I received this book as an electronic ARC from Net Galley.

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27 April 2017

At the existentialist cafe

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and OthersAt the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others by Sarah Bakewell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It begins with some hard slogging if you're not (I'm not) used to reading philosophy (any more) - but - once you get the focus, it is fascinating, especially once the personalities of the various philosophers begin to interact with each other's thoughts, lives, and politics. I was struck by how truly unpleasant some of the guiding lights of philosophy were, and how ugly their choices in the 1930s.

I was also struck by how similar systems of thought could lead to different conclusions - such as how Albert Camus's decision to oppose the death penalty for war criminals conflicted with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre's support, and Sartre's support for a clearly totalitarian regime in the USSR after his experience as a prisoner of war under National Socialism.

My favorite quote came from Hannah Arendt after the execution of the Rosenbergs: "An unimaginable stupidity must have taken hold in the USA. It frightens us because we are familiar with it." Oh, if she only knew ...

One star taken off because of the dense beginning (although, in truth, it's probably my own brain that was dense, not the writing). 

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20 February 2017

The Orphan's Tale

The Orphan's TaleThe Orphan's Tale by Pam Jenoff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pam Jenoff, former diplomat for the US State Department and noted writer of historical fiction that focuses on WWII, learned about the Unknown Children and European circuses that helped to rescue Jews when she visited Yad Vashem. The two women protagonists in this novel, Astrid and Noa, meet each other and become allies - almost sisters - because of these two specific aspects of the Shoah.

Pretty blonde Noa, driven from her Dutch home by her enraged and shamed family for becoming pregnant by a German soldier, is forced to give up her baby boy by a German home for unwed mothers. The only work she can find is cleaning a tiny train station, through which cars pass daily, carrying Jews. One day, she dares to investigate faint sounds from a stopped train. She opens the door and reels from the stench surrounding piles of babies, some living, most dead. No one is guarding this train; these prisoners are unlikely to escape. On an impulse, she takes one of the babies from the car and runs - and runs - almost dying in the bleak cold of a German forest.

Astrid, a Jewish circus trapeze artist, had left the circus to marry a German soldier. He divorces her, one day, on orders from above: the Reich has ordered all Aryan soldiers to divorce their Jewish wives. She finds her way back to where a rival Jewish circus is rehearsing for its spring season; her own family's circus has been destroyed, its members probably shipped to camps or killed on the spot. The owner, Herr Neuhoff, remembering her from childhood and knowing that she is a star aerialist, hires and protects her to the extent of his power - mostly bribes of money and cognac to the soldiers whose inspections terrify them all.

Noa and the baby, Theo,are taken in by the circus and allowed to stay - if she can become a trapeze performer. Astrid is tasked to train her. The reader meets other circus members, including a Jewish clockmaker and a bitter, disillusioned clown - once Russian royalty - whose act becomes too political for safety.

The novel is told from two viewpoints - Astrid's and Noa's. Each woman is given extraordinary powers of description and observation, giving the reader a gritty, ultra-realistic experience of the life these itinerants have lived, and continue to live as they make do with rations, deprivation, and virtual enslavement in a country becoming more brutal as its power begins to wane.

This is an engrossing, nightmare-producing, rich book. I read it in a day, a long day, punctuated by dark thoughts and tears. Rating it has been difficult. The writing is pungent and specific. But it fails, to me, in the sameness of the voices of the two young women, whose lives have been so different but whose vocabulary and phrasing are so alike, and in plotting, especially in the last third of the book. Nonetheless, the book is important, and gives the reader a glimpse into lesser-known aspects of the Shoah.

I received this book as an ARC. 

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