Posted on October 25, 2016
I’m enjoying a book I picked up many years ago at a tag sale called ‘A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman.’
It was one of those books I thought I might read one day and never did. Now I’m culling my library, and I’ve disallowed the category of ‘read some day,’ but I couldn’t bear to give this one away, so I’m reading it.
It’s the life story of Ning Lao T’ai-t’ai as she told it to Ida Pruitt in 1938.
Pruit was one of the founders of the Chinese Industrial Cooperative Association which was designed to give employment to workers in the Chinese countryside and to support the war of resistance against the Japanese invaders.
The organization is best known for its motto, “Working Together,” (gonghe) which entered the American lexicon as “Gung Ho,” meaning enthusiastic support for a cause or enterprise.
Pruitt wrote the book in 1945, when she wasn’t quite so busy defeating the Japanese.
Lao T’ai-tai, whom her father called ‘Little Tiger’ grew up in Penglai, also known as Dengzhou or Tengchow.
“My father told us stories about our ancestors and about the city and how people should act. He told us that the four sins were wine, women, wealth and wrath. If anger does not hurt it makes loss at least.
“He told us stories of the wicked Ming Dynasty eunuch, Wei Chung-hsien (Wei Zhongxian), who wanted to be emperor. He was a native of our city.
“When at last he was torn to pieces by the people in the capital, the people of our city were so angry with him that they tore his house down and dug up the very foundations.
“They dug away the house, thirty feet deep, so that to this day there is a deep hole. That hole may not be filled in. It is to be a memorial to the people always, to teach them the end of wickedness.”
That’ll teach him!
Posted on October 9, 2016
I guess I’ve reached my intellectual nadir. I’m now too lazy to read anything except mysteries by Robert B. Parker and Sue Grafton.
I’ve been a Grafton fan for many years. I love visiting Kinsey Milhonne and her found family in Santa Theresa, California.
I read ‘Double Deuce’ by Robert B. Parker several years ago, one of the Spenser novels that became the television show ‘Spenser for Hire,’ which I’ve never seen.
Then, more recently, I read a couple more Spenser novels, and I was hooked. I love the way Spenser beats the crap out of guys who are used to beating up people weaker than they are. I read ten of them.
But then the Whately Antiquarian Book Center was out of Spenser novels, and there I was in Barnes and Noble, paying seven bucks for paperbacks. For a tag sailor like me that was truly ignominious.
Spenser is a big tough guy with a sexy psychiatrist girlfriend, and he’s always making these obscure literary allusions that he doesn’t explain. You have to Google them, which is tremendous fun.
There’s lots of Shakespeare, of course, and Alexander Pope, and Keats and Shelley and people like that.
Then, in ‘Thin Air,’ Spenser’s sexy psychiatrist girlfriend, Susan Silverman, whom I always picture as Sarah Silverman, alludes to ‘The Wound and the Bow,’ a book by my grandmother’s cousin, Edmund Wilson, known in the family as Cousin Bunny.
A quick Google search found this article by Lee Siegel in the New Yorker in 2013:
“Edmund Wilson wrote a famous book called ‘The Wound and the Bow,’ in which he explored the way artists react against a personal weakness and turn it into a creative blessing.
“The book’s title refers to the legendary Greek archer Philoctetes, who was afflicted with a festering, malodorous wound that would not heal, yet whose prowess with his bow was crucial in the Greek victory at Troy.”
Philoctetes’ wound smelled so bad — even in an open boat! — that his shipmates marooned him on an island in the Aegean, and then they had to come back and get him later.
“For Wilson, the myth demonstrated the idea of, as he wrote, ‘superior strength as inseparable from disability.’
“You think of D. H. Lawrence, the fiery apostle of liberated sexuality, who was plagued by sexual impotence. Or the reckless adventurer and seducer Lord Byron, born with a club foot. Or the deaf Beethoven, or the blind Goya…
“As Malraux, the Resistance hero, adventurer, diplomat, and novelist, who is said to have suffered from Tourette’s syndrome, once wrote: ‘Man is not what he thinks he is; he is what he hides.'”
Posted on September 7, 2016
I’ve been having great fun with a book I got at the Emily Dickinson Museum called Lives Like Loaded Guns by Lyndall Gordon.
The Dickinson family had a grandmother, Lucretia Gunn, who was “tart and ill-tempered.” When anyone said anything nasty, it was excused as Grandma Gunn coming out.
This was probably behind Emily’s line “My life had stood — a Loaded Gun.”
I’ve learned a tremendous amount about the Dickinsons. About Austin Dickinson’s well-documented adultery, about Emily’s liaison with her father’s friend Judge Lord (I guess she didn’t ‘die wondering’ as my grandmother would say) and about Emily’s epilepsy.
Gordon makes a good case that epilepsy is what caused Emily to become a recluse, and also what gave her the insight to write immortal poetry.
In a fascinating footnote about epilepsy, Gordon references Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, who describes his epileptic experience in this way: “Yes, for this moment one could give up his whole life.”
Dostoyevsky suggests that ‘the epileptic Mahomet’ had an attack that provided him with his transcendental visions: “In that second he was able to survey all the habitations of Allah.”
Updated on August 2, 2016
My Life So Far by Jane Fonda is a great read which I picked up for background information when Sarah and I went to Squam Lake in New Hampshire, where she made On Golden Pond with her father Henry and Katherine Hepburn.
You would think that growing up as the daughter of a big movie star would be wonderful and happy, but you’d be wrong. Jane’s mother was confined to a mental institution where she committed suicide by cutting her throat with a razor blade when Jane was 12 years old. Jane was told that her mother had had a heart attack.
All the other students at Greenwich Academy were instructed not to tell her the truth, which they all knew, but she found out when she read a movie magazine.
Later she attended Emma Willard School in Troy, New York.
“I remember times at Emma Willard when someone would pass around a list of every sexual act we could imagine, and we’d check off what we’d done. Carol Bentley could check off just about everything: French kissing, intercourse, oral sex, and all sorts of other things that made my breathing change just talking about them.
“I was in awe of her. All I’d done was kiss (no tongue) and pet, so I’d check off things I hadn’t done, like French kissing and intercourse.
“I had two boyfriends (one after the other), and with each one I tried to have intercourse. But in spite of all the huffing and puffing and rug burns, it didn’t work. My body didn’t seem receptive. It wouldn’t let them in.”
Geez I wish I’d known about those checklists when I was a young feller.
Updated on July 12, 2016
Every once in a while, when I get ambitious, I try to tackle the writings of Edmund Wilson, the great man of letters who was my grandmother’s cousin.
Lately I’ve been trying to slog through To the Finland Station, subtitled “A study in the writing and acting of history.”
The first chapters are about a lot of historians I had never heard of, such as Michelet, Taine, Saint-Simon and Vico, and I can’t make much of them.
But there’s a good explanation of the Paris Commune of 1871, during which 20 to 40 thousand communards were executed by the government in a single week.
More people were killed, imprisoned or exiled during that one week than during three years of The Terror under Robespierre.
Here’s a passage about Karl Marx that illustrates the difficulties I have understanding what Cousin Bunny is talking about:
“Certainly there went into the creation of Das Kapital as much of art as of science. The book is a welding-together of several quite different points of view, of several quite different techniques of thought.
“It contains a treatise on economics, a history of industrial development and an inspired tract for the times; and the morality, which is part of the time suspended in the interests of scientific objectivity, is no more self-consistent than the economics is consistently scientific or the history undistracted by the exaltation of apocalyptic vision.
“And outside the whole immense structure, dark and strong like the old Trier basilica, built by the Romans with brick walls and granite columns, swim the mists and the septentrional lights of German metaphysics and mysticism, always ready to leak in through the crevices.”
I looked up ‘septentrional,’ and it means northern or boreal — having to do with the septentrion, the seven stars of Ursa Major, the Big Dipper, a constellation in the northern sky.
It can refer to the northern reaches of a region, or to the culture of northern peoples like the Vikings.
So that clears that up.
Posted on July 1, 2016
For the disaffected Bernie supporters who say Hillary Clinton stole the nomination, I say “I cannot disagree.”
For those who say, it doesn’t matter which party wins the presidential election, I say, “You are tragically misinformed.”
For one thing, there’s the Supreme Court. For another, there is international funding for family planning, which is automatically cut off when a Republican becomes president. It’s not up to me to list the devastating consequences of a Trump presidency, but believe me, it will take decades to scrape the shit off our shoes.
But I do have a suggestion for disaffected Bernie supporters who have seen with their own eyes the loathsome corruption of the Democratic Party: join the Republican Party!
Right now the Republican senators and congressmen who we might expect to act responsibly are afraid of a primary challenge from the right. What if they were afraid of a primary challenge from the left?
I’m going to do this myself, and I think it’s going to be immensely entertaining. Can’t you see the bumper stickers if hordes of Bernie supporters joined the Republican Party? ‘Republicans for Reproductive Rights,’ ‘Republicans for Immigration Reform.’ ‘Republicans for Background Checks,’ Republicans Against Fracking’
This could be a huge amount of fun for everyone. I confess one reason I suggest this is that Abraham Lincoln has been bugging me for years to restore his party to the principles he espoused. So when you go join your town’s Republican Committee, take a lot of Lincoln quotations with you.
Just don’t vote for Donald Trump. That’s something you’d regret for the rest of your life.
Posted on May 26, 2016
I read a poem in the Frontier High School (Deerfield, Massachusetts) Red Hawk Report which I think should be read by every educator in America, especially by “special” educators.
The poem is titled “Ignorance is Bliss,” by Will Bliss, and it was published in volume II issue 4.
In this poem, in calm, simple terms, the author challenges the assumptions made by thousands of educators who are paid millions of dollars by us, the taxpayers.
“One day, on a whim, I decided to/ Maybe do a bit of reading on a/ Disorder that I’ve been told I have/ Attention Deficit Disorder is its name…
“Apparently, I have the Hyper subtype/ Meaning being still is not my forte./ I was given a 504 plan and that’s it./ After seventeen years of life, only now/ Have I sat down to learn about it & myself/ Resulting in a mind-numbing revelation.
“My most discerning qualities, what I/ Thought made me stand out from the rest/ Were suddenly in front of me, right on the page/ In a list titled ‘symptoms,’ printed in ink./ As I read on, I couldn’t help but feel empty.
“Everything that made my personality unigue/ As merely symptoms. I thought, I was sure/ That I’m that outside thinker, puzzling tinkerer/ Curiosity & energy nearly never ceasing
“Coupled with ‘an eccentric view of the world,’/ Too much feeling for the things I believe in/ And little empathy for things I do not…”
“All I can think of, over and over again/ Echoing in my now vacant thinking space, ‘Am I really nothing but a disorder?'”
I think every educator, and every taxpayer, has to ask, “Are we spending millions of dollars on a system designed to eradicate individuality?”
Personally, I think the world is insane, and a lot of people think that because they can’t adjust to it, they must be insane, but this just isn’t true.
I believe the answer is for everyone to find kindred spirits who have made successful adjustments to an insane world.
Updated on May 8, 2016
I have always had difficulty understanding the great books written by my grandmother’s cousin Edmund “Bunny” Wilson, but I have come to appreciate the great contribution this great man of letters has made to the field of literary criticism.
In Axel’s Castle, for example, I learned all kinds of things about William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot and Marcel Proust which I never could have found out on my own.
In Patriotic Gore (great book, stupid name) he tells us all about Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose books I have great difficulty reading. I tried Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but just couldn’t get through it.
Cousin Bunny has read all of H.B. Stowe’s books, and tells us all about them, but he has also read all the letters of her husband, Calvin Stowe, and tells us all about them, too.
Turns out Calvin Stowe was visited by lots of spirits from the other side. In fact, once Harriet came home early from a trip and sat down in the living room and he didn’t even know she was there because there were so many other worldly spirits about.
One of the spirits that visited Calvin Stowe most often he named Harvey, after a classmate to whom the spirit bore a resemblance.
In Patriotic Gore, Cousin Edmund wonders out loud whether this spirit that haunted Calvin Stowe might have been the inspiration for the eponymous pooka (animal spirit) in the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play of that name by Mary Chase, which was later made into a movie starring Jimmy Stewart.
I can’t give an answer to this question. It all depends on whether Mary Chase, a Colorado journalist, ever read the autobiography of Harriet Beecher Stowe.
It’s certainly possible.
Updated on April 19, 2016
Years ago I gave a friend a copy of one of Tony Hillerman’s books. When I visited him six months later I noticed he had a whole shelf loaded with Hillerman mysteries. They’re like peanuts: people just keep consuming them.
Most of Hillerman’s mysteries recount the adventures of Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Officer and later Sergeant Jim Chee. Leaphorn is an older man who loses his beloved wife Emma during the course of the books, and in the later works he’s retired and just kind of nosing around — finding trouble every time!
Jim Chee, in the first books, is training as a hataali, a healer who performs curing ceremonies involving chants and sand paintings intended to bring a person back into harmony. He tries to balance this training with his career as a police officer, but eventually gives it up to focus on law enforcement.
A lot of the early books treat Chee’s love life, which is always coming to grief. At first there’s Mary Landon from Wisconsin, a schoolteacher at the elementary school in Crown Point. They’re in love, but she wants him to leave the reservation, which he can never do, and she really can’t stay there.
Then there’s Janet Pete, a public defender who used to work at a hotshot law firm in Washington. She’s gorgeous and smart and they love each other, but she wants Chee to join the FBI so they can go be a power couple in Washington, and that’s not going to happen either.
In Hillerman’s last books he introduces Officer Bernadette Manuelito, a rookie on the Navaho Tribal Police force. Sergeant Chee is her supervisor, and she feels he’s giving her a hard time, and there are lots of complications, but eventually they find love and get married.
I’ve noticed with older mystery authors like Agatha Christie, Ellis Peters, and Tony Hillerman, the focus is only partially on whodunnit. There’s also the question of when those two nice young people are going to get together.
When Tony Hillerman died in 2008, I felt sorry that I wouldn’t be able to read about Chee and Leaphorn and Manuelito any more, but lo! His daughter Anne has decided to continue the Hillerman tradition, and she has two excellent books: The Spider Woman’s Daughter and The Rock with Wings.
And don’t worry about her coddling the characters too much. At the beginning of her first book, Joe Leaphorn gets shot in the head. That’s not really a spoiler because it happens right at the beginning.
And Chee and Manuelito’s life together, though happy, is no bed of roses. We have a promising source of problems, with Bernie taking care of her elderly mom and her problem child sister, who has taken up drinking and running around.
So I’m looking forward to lots more fine stories in the great Hillerman tradition.
Posted on March 21, 2016
I had a fabulous time at the Casa de Tio Vincenzo in Huntington Beach, California. Everything was exactement comme il faut. I especially loved the rich cherry flooring:
And the extraordinary artwork:
And of course, one of the most important things for Americans these days is keeping ourselves safe from terrorists. I know it is for me. Sure, we’re three thousand times more likely to be killed by a home-grown, native-born gun nut, but still. At the Casa de Tio Vincenzo, I was completely reassured by the diligence of the security staff and felt completely safe: