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Photo taken by Izzy at the Tidal Basin in Washington DC this week

She who sups with the devil should have a long spoon

Dear friends,

I’ve not been writing here because I’ve been so busy with trying to keep up with my teaching, reading with friends on a listserv, on good reads, and seeing if I can develop a project on a literary biography of Winston Graham, author of the Poldark novels — I’m listening to a good reading on CDs of Warleggan.

If this were all.

I’ve also been involved with enclosing my porch, again trying to renovate or improve or alter parts of my house (the doors once again, electricity): among other things, a deeply spiteful neighbor apparently researched records available to discover I and the contractor had not taken out a permit to enclose said porch and registered a complaint with “code administration.” Or so I think — this man has done similar things to others, and once before said something to me which suggested he had been researching my title to my house! I am told he is an ex-FBI agent, retired; he was urging me to move. Maybe my house was bringing down property value — especially the kind of modest renovation we are doing. So today the contractor and I spent a long day at City Hall “pulling a permit” by proving to the city what the contractor was doing was adequate work, although it does need to be upgraded to prevent damp from destroying the room. Sigh. The truth is I’m not sure that this man will do the job and I don’t know how to get back to the screened porch. Jim was against enclosing the porch because it would cost far too much for the small room we would get out of it. The plain truth is also I have not that much use for it: yes another bookcase, a comfortable chair, lamp, table, maybe an exercise machine. I was trying no longer to be the neighborhood eyesore. I may (as last year over Expedia) have lost a lot of money. It won’t result in anyone wanting to buy the house for a larger sum; whoever buys it will regard the house as a tear-down.

So who has the heart to write?

The question that emerges in this newly rotten environment — that humanity, decency, privacy, reciprocal loyalty, obedience to human, civil, legal rights are ignored are nothing to the renewed resurgence of murder of hundreds of people and more to come in the middle east — so what’s a little local tyranny — is, how do I — how do you, gentle reader — avoid the rot.

The rot seeps in
The rot seeps in everywhere

Nowadays the best, maybe the only way to reach my friends as a group is through my own timeline on face-book. It’s time-consuming to click on one at a time and I’ve over 250 friends — all of whom I know in some way, many well. My general “feed” is filled with ads. I read the Republicans and Trump are signing away our privacy: if you use any large company for your email, they have the right to sell your data. Who would have their soul sold? My gmail is filled with junk in two categories. Commercial values, commodification shapes all experiences and people rightly flee back to exclusive pre-set-up groups. Face-book pages on topics seek to belong to institutions and rules are set up to control interchanges which put a damper on what can be said, what can be shared: rules make sure only what’s socially acceptable to belong to the agency or institution, or “on topic” is allowed and that is hemmed in. Only the NSA can read our private emails (we hope)– only! People I meet and talk to live these apart single lives as they obey the demands of capitalism today — for a job, a scholarship, as a groundwork for belonging. Adorno was accurate, prophetic is Patrick Wright on Journey through London’s Ruins. Time is money is no innocent utterance.

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This past week I shut this out by the classes I was teaching in and the class I am now attending: in Virginia Woolf, with a professor who is a better teacher than I am. She has strong self-confidence and doesn’t need to have extensive notes to talk from and is able to coax gently and create an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect whereby a lot of the people in the room exchange views, high-minded on a great fiction, Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.


Rupert Graves as the rightly suicidal Septimus, Amelia Bullmore, Rezia


Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs Dalloway who says it was the only way to protect one’s soul …

I’ve seen three great films: (on a DVD on my computer) Ashgar Farhadi’s The Past (the film is searingly honest about people’s utter selfishness, sudden turns of intensely hot temper and resentment, spite without being judgemental); (on another DVD) the extraordinarily subtle Merchant-Ivory Mrs Dalloway, screenplay Eileen Atkins, where the filmic art captures the verbal art and meaning of the novel exquisitely; at my local Cinema Art with a friend, the moving film adaptation by Ritesh Batra and Nick Payne of Julian Barnes’s latest great novel, Man Booker winner for 2011, The Sense of an Ending.

I’ve kept up my friendships on-line.

This was Izzy’s week home: she’s started a new (if brief) touching song; as I watched her watch the World Championship Ice-skating contests at Helsinki, I suddenly asked, where is the next one: why in March 2018 it’s in Milan, Italy we learned. So she and I are going together next year: we’ll take two full weekends on either side and I can take buses and trains to nearby Italian towns and cities I’ve wanted to go to for years: like Brescia, Veronica Gambara’s home. Laura “signed” on and said she’d come and go to the fashion shows going on at that time. Milan —


Galileo as painted by Giusto Sustermans — but see Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel (better yet, read it)

Tonight I spent 3 hours traveling by public transportation (and on foot) to go to the Folger to see an hour and one half staged reading of excerpts James Reston and Bonnie Nelson Schwartz’s Galileo’s Torch: a series of scenes showing Galileo joyous with discovery with his aristocratic friend-supporter in Venice, gradually driven when he leaves for Rome and Florence (why we are not told) by the power of the relentless church authorities to recant publicly (the threat is torture). The great actors (Edward Gero as Galileo, Michael Toylaydo as the Grand Inquisitor), the accompanying Renaissance music by the Folger Concert, a soprano singing two early 17th century songs, with a screen showing drawings and passages from Galileo’s Starry Messenger as well as beautiful shots of our universe (prettied up of course) — it was worth the travel, gentle reader. This was my second of three times this week at the Folger. The first was to see the HD screening of The Tempest from Stratford-upon-Avon. Sunday matinee Izzy and I go to the Folger for the full concert called Starry Messenger.

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Those are canines, people: as men legislate women’s health care and don’t want to pay for pregnancy …

Shutting the rot out: well here’s a meditation on where we see it continually and how to walk around it.

I admit for the ironic semi-amusement as well as edification of the people in the second course I’m giving (the first is on City and County Victorian novels, plus one Victorian Gothic) here is part of my opening gambit on the Booker Prize niche:

In the last 30 or more years ours has become a prize obsessed culture. Not everybody has won and not everybody’s prize is as good as others, but many win and they are advertised. It’s not just books: I asked Izzy if there are any ice-skating shows any more not connected to prizes? She replied: hardly any. From films, to sports, to classical music, to tattoo art; a concept of art as everything a contest. It does debase the art or sport or whatever: it’s about the relationship of any art to money first and foremost: prizes equate art with money and they enable art and artists to make more money. Then politics of all sorts, power, social and cultural agendas, power, prestige. Ironic that as inequality is still growing apace – or maybe to be expected that an art work is valued by its social capital – that’s a Bourdieu phrase. You can trade in the world with money as capital, but trading cards and chits also include your rank, status, institution, the red carpet extravaganzas are just an obscenely obvious edge of it. BAFTAs, Oscars, Emmy, Grammies, as each one is co-opted the prize is less given for the quality of whatever it was but who the artist is, who connected to. So once upon a time a Golden Globe may have meant a good movie, now it’s just like the Oscars.

It might seem and is a natural human activity but not to the extent it’s taken over. How this has come about and why tells us about our communications industry I suppose, but it’s more than that. Any comments or suggestions. There’s no correct answer. We could give Hitler a great fascist dictator. No one has come near him as yet. As our esteemed tweeter would say “tremendous.” Now in each profession probably a different set of circumstances could and would be produced to explain why.

In the case of books, in mid-century there was this problem distinguishing “serious fiction” from genre and junk fiction as TV and other medias spread and as paperbacks spread. Yes one explanation for the booker is the invention and spread of paperbacks which put books in the hands of people who could not afford hardbacks. The marketplace was flooded with low and middle brow paperback books. There suddenly was a collapse of a number of understood agreements where people didn’t undercut one another. Some of these protections still hold in Germany plus German federal policy works to protect bookstores among other businesses in Germany and not reward them for destroying themselves. – NBA the Net Book agreement – these are policies and practices of major chains of bookstores.


All winners must stand holding their book with the words Booker Prize winner prominently displayed


Short-listed do very well too

What happens is people stumble into things – they also conspire but sometimes they stumble; or one person has the idea and has no sense how workable and efficient it will be if done right. Todd’s Consuming Fictions gives the extraordinary figures as the early success of the Booker was felt. It was a coterie: an in-group of linked people living in and attached to London. It was the brainchild of Tom Maschler, a “rising” young celebrity editor at Jonathan Cape. Booker Brothers were a post-colonial agrobusiness company seeking to diversify and improve their public image with the collapse of colonialism as acceptable. I’m not saying colonialism collapsed; far from it, but it was no longer openly praised to steal another country’s natural resources and put the people into forms of servitude. A couple of other prizes from the 1960s: America Hawthorden and James Tait, Guardian fiction prize 1955.

Nothing remarkable about the Booker in its first couple of years; nothing unusual about their books, venture close to collapse. It’s said in-house correspondence of 1970s reads like a Black Box from a crashed airplane. 1970S a turning years: some extraordinary post-colonial books very like English Patient: V. S. Naipaul. In a Free State. JG. Farrell The Seige of Krisnapur. Books like The Bookshop: Susan Hill, the Bird of Night. Doris Lessing. Briefing for Descent into Hell. Movies helped: ruth Prawer Jhabvala: Heat and Dust is wedded to Merchant-Ivory type films (ah). They included books like Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor – imagine Lady Edith grown old and poor and living in a hotel. Iris Murdoch. The Sea the Sea. Kingsley Amis: Jake’s Thing (just what you think. Barbara Pym with her church jumble sale fiction: Quartet in Autumn – profoundly movingly sad. They cottoned onto the importance of planting stories, of announcing long list, short list, glittering prize ceremony. Series of scandals. J. G. Berger Ways of Seeing accepts his prize by insulting everyone as elite, corrupt, useless. The person who refuses to come pick up his prize – Dylan Thomas who sends the inimitable, unforgettable Patti Smith in his place. . This person gets a prize and that one not and it seems that the one who didn’t wrote the better. Who did she know? Then things like the Ayatollah Khomenai puts out a fatwa on Salmon Rushdie who won for Midnight’s children and has been long and short listed again and again.

All the talk buzzing around the Oscars is just a repeat of this early innovative group. The year of English Patient there were in the end two prize winners; Barry Unsworth no where near as dazzling and about slavery in a intense way ought to have won: Sacred Hunger. English Patient is more fun. Wolf Hall is set off by cult of Anne Boleyn and the marvelous acting talent of Mark Rylance (who can make a whole film come alive with the quiet question when you say shall I do this, “would it help?” So they gave her the prize for Bring up the Bodies. It’s not that good a book at all.

Possession in 1990 was a tremendous moment. It made Byatt’s career and made the prize. The movie wasn’t the center even though Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle were paired again. I find I’m not as enamoured of it as I once was. I prefer Atwood’s Alias Grace – a Jane Eyre immigration story: governess type goes to Canada, based on real woman and murder – Grace Marks accused — in a household of servants. Behind it a classic Canadian memoir: Susannah Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush and Moodie’s career as journalist where she interviews Marks –- and of course the Brontes’ art.

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What are some of the characteristics the Bookers share which do set them off. I suppose that’s the work of this term. What qualities are found in “serious” fiction that set it off from (sorry for the “terribly snobbish term”) middle brow books? I thought I’d call attention to just a couple in the hope of startling or creating interest or maybe opposition.


Luke Strongman: Booker Prize and the Legacy of Empire: nostalgia, he says, the “clue” theme

After reading through our four and reading desultorily and listening to some of them read aloud on tape: beyond the historical turn accompanied by a deep questioning of what passes for history and why we want these stories told:

The central figure in The English Patient and a number of the events swirling round him: the deeply reactionary erudite adventurer, a Hungarian count Laslo Almasy: Ondaatje may have written an anti-colonialist, anti-war book but his hero is something out of The Prisoner of Zenda, related to royals in middle Europe: born 1896, he was a member of the Zerzura Club, desert explorers and adventurers, outlier types, presented themselves as explorers, lovers of fancy cars and women, looking for ancient cities in the desert, loses oases, but like communist spies inside M16 and Oxford in the 1940s and 50s, the Zerzura club were mapping the desert as spies for the fascists and Nazis, as military people in WW2, traitors some would say, Almazy died of dystentery in 1951 in Austria – never would take care of himself – he was awarded the Iron Cross by German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. People might remember the romantic film Out of Africa based on Isak Dinesen’s book with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford (now married in earnest): the hero there was Anglo and part of a group from Kenya. Dinesen wrote great tales, gothics, but was as reactionary (crazy) as Ayn Rand. We have just two of this type but often when you dig a little in the background of a Booker Prize you find really interesting history, characters, authors events.

To continue: stream of consciousness as a central immediate confrontation of imagined mind with imagined reader; anti-colonialist (the legacies of empire) and anti-war: at some deep level –- and not so there is this perception of life, existence at terrifying. You never know what is going to happen next and you often can’t explain why so as to prevent next time. The Judgement scene in A Month in the Country. In the old English of Moon, a dreamer-archeaologist digging up the savage Saxons

And he shal com with woundes rede
To deme [judge]the quicke and the dede … (p. 34).

But as Amy Dodds puts it on the upper level of her twice weekly bus ride to her profoundly mentally disabled daughter, The thing is not to take it as a punishment.

If you are not terrified by the torture and landmines of Michael Ondaatje’s English Patient, you are not reading what’s in front of you. Water and sand as killers. Deep melancholy. But they are also for lack of a better term “quirky” – Mrs Palfrey at her Claremont is quirky, odd, unexpected. All these people living on houseboats, the book that won Fitzgerald her one Booker (all the others were short lists), Offshore seems to be about eccentric people. Fitzgerald’s point is they are not. But they seem to be. She was shortlisted a remarkable number of times: Human Voices about the power of radio really; In the spring time of the year, a kind of condensed Tolstoy. The Blue Flower.

I asked myself why did these two books by Swift win or were shortlisted and not these others. This works better with authors who keep getting short listed but don’t win a lot – egregiously given the number of authors there are some who win twice. So Ian McEwan is short listed frequently, winning for Amsterdam, but what is different about the books that don’t win. To ask such a question is to be non-cynical and say something in the quality of the book counts.

Last: the embedded narrative, the use of a central picture often one that really existed or exists: as in Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier which won other prizes. They are haunted fictions, sometimes by real banging ghosts as in the Poltergeist in The Bookshop or psychological projection. Memories. In The Sense of an Ending, a repeating motif: as you peel the onion, at the center is a mentally disabled person whose existence offers enigmatic explanations for the world of some key characters in the book.

And they are often turned into spectacularly good movies, commercial successes with screenplays occasionally vying in quality, adding to, enrichening the novels.

So the Booker Prize books reach us via people who know how to manipulate the rot use a long spoon.


And Izzy and I may make it to Milan ….

Miss Drake

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dickcavett
Baldwin on the Cavett show

It is very nearly impossible…to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind.

It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep. They suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas
what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be … both from Nobody Knows My Name

Dear Friends and readers,

As the Oscar Academy awards are given out tonight I thought I’d dedicate most of his week’s blog to a movie I saw this week: Salesman was duly awarded but I doubt I am not Your Negro will be noticed to the extent it should be — for someone having to live in the United States (as I must — for where could I go, since Jim’s death I have no second place I could belong to, return to –Teresa May has rescinded right of abode to spouses and widows of British citizens and yesterday a woman living and married for 37 years in the UK with grown children there was snatched up and deported) it is an important film: I am not your Negro, words by James Baldwin, produced and directed by Raoul Peck, mostly spoken by Baldwin in TV interviews, one of them on the late night Dick Cavett show, with Samuel L. Jackson supplying the narration and voice-over of those passages written or spoken by Baldwin which there is no film or audio for.

For quite a number of years I assigned texts by Baldwin in my classes. “Stranger in a Village” was once often found in textbooks for freshman composition: Baldwin comes to a village where all are white, where the environment is all snow, and he stands out as this terrifying object. It is a parable of growing up in America as a black man. I assigned his Notes of a Native Son; Nobody Knows My Name [More Notes of a Native Son]; The Price of the Ticket. I never did one of his novels or his memoir but rather his essays because I wanted to be sure his ideas got across. Mostly these are semi-literary criticism (the very great “Everybody’s Protest Novel”), sociological, and autobiographical. In reading his is an eloquent noble voice. So I was particularly eager to see which strings of quotations, which narratives were chosen.

This film gives us his life story, through an astute weaving together of film clips, it takes us through a history of black people in the US from the time they were forcibly brought here in huge numbers, enslaved and treated abhorrently so the whites here and in Europe could grow rich from their free labors and exploit their bodies, through the civil war (not much time on that) to where in “reconstruction” they were re-enslaved on new terms, through the early civil rights era, with film clips of the 1990s (the savage beating of Rodney King by a group of police officers) and now the common knowledge (though videos and cameras from cell phones and ipads) that every week in the US black people are murdered in the streets, in a mass incarceration system. The focus of Baldwin’s narrative are the murders of Medgar Evers (president of the NAACP), Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Baldwin knew them all, the latter two to talk to. None of them lived until 40. These three men, their lives, why they were killed with impunity, is partly what he is telling us about in what seem to be mainly three live films: one where he, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were interviewed on TV; one of him interviewed by Dick Cavett, and one of him giving a speech to at Oxford University in England. He is also seen talking in front of a fireplace before a group of fellow black people. We see photographs of the murdered men, clips of King speaking, leading marches. All three are seen dead.

medgarevers
Medgar Evers

The thesis is basically for black people their position has changed very little since reconstruction. Yes a middle and tiny upper middle class has emerged; individuals with gifts, especially in music have lived fulfilled decent lives — Baldwin knew and we see clips and photos of Sammy Davis Junior, Harry Belafonte. The black man is given no place in American society; bitterly Baldwin says once he was not needed to pick cotton, he became superfluous and it’s astonishing, there are any black men left. Surely this is a nightmare vision, my reader might say, an exaggeration. Only somewhat. Baldwin is angry: how is it Bobby Kennedy has no trouble being Attorney General and has the gall to say as if this were progress to be thankful for that 40 years from now we could have a black president. We did, and we see clip of Barack and Michelle Obama walking down Pennsylvania Avenue hand-in-hand after he won the presidency. But it seems this was a blip in history and Obama was able to do very little to improve the general condition and status of all black people. Baldwin left the US to go live in Paris in order to protect his life, so that he should not have to fear murder each day as he goes forth on the streets; Ta Nehisi-Coates now lives in Paris for the same reason (he is also protecting his son).
So many photos of lynchings, so many clips of police in the streets beating black people up — some from Fergusson. The photos of so many young children, boys murdered. No police held accountable. How education is denied them; how the real estate and banking industries have prevented them as people from accumulating any money in most individual families.

One can only face in others what one can face in oneself. On this confrontation depends the measure of our wisdom and compassion.

The question is what we really want out of life, for ourselves, what we think is real… has to do with our social panic, with our fear of losing status. One cannot afford to lose status on this peculiar ladder, for the prevailing notion of American life seems to involve a kind of rung-by-rung ascension to some hideously desirable state — again from Nobody Knows My Name

The one caveat I have is it’s the story of black men and not black women. So Baldwin himself is guilty of exclusion, of (in effect) othering. Black women appear only as sisters, mothers, wives of murdered men. They have had an analogous history: used and abused horrifically sexually as slaves, kept as cleaning women, laundresses, cooks, housekeepers. Because their men were prevented from heading their families, many became perforce independent, and educated householders. They have held high office: we have had a black attorney general (under Obama two, Eric Holder and then Loretta Lynch): Truman integrated the military and we have had high ranking military officers, generals (Colin Powell) on down. Black women probably are by percentage doing remarkably well vis-a-vis white women who are not driven in the same way to provide for themselves and their families. But it has been and continues to be a very hard life for most: high mortality in pregnancy, huge percentage desperately poor.

I also regret that nowhere enough was given of his subtle readings of the texts and art and music of black culture. He is no false flatterer and delivers stinging criticisms of Richard Wright’s fiction, of the reasons for the respect given Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He was apparently close to man black artists, among these Lorraine Hansbury, who died so young from cancer. She is the one black woman given individual treatment in the film. You can see her play in YouTube form on the Net.

lorraine-hansberry
Lorraine Hansberry

It’s important to see this film in this era of Donald Trump’s attempt at a (thus far) semi-dictatorship. It is now unsafe to be black, Muslim or hispanic on the streets of the USA. You need not do anything and you can be stopped and frisked, and harassed and humiliated into answering back or doing just anything to justify the officer killing, imprisoning, accusing you of a felony. Then you lose your right to vote. If you don’t have papers to prove you have the right to be here and have been here for two years you are in trouble. You are at risk in schools if you are gay; if you are a disabled person far less understanding will be encouraged by school policies.

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homerblindrescuecat
A rescued cat

It’s been a very hard week. As I am a powerless individual in an as yet republic with a few understood human and civil rights — I have the vote, I can blog, I can speak, I have taught undergraduates. This past week I went to a rally in Northern Virginia in Senator Warner’s office: #resistTuesday where goals are being sought through pressure on Warner and his activities. I am now contributing regularly to ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, Common Cause beyond my membership in WETA (small amount each month), DemocracyNow.org (ditto). But I have to watch the most vulnerable in our society at risk (literally, snatched up in the streets, in churches, meeting places, airports), under attack and know I and my daughters are targets in attempts to deny us our rights to form a society and together make life better for us all (through social security, medicare, public education, arts and science facilities). There is an on-going attempt to destroy a whole way of life, destroy the press, suppress truth. Each day I get upset when I read the latest news of who has been appointed to head an important agency (with the aim of destroying it). This morning the Sierra Club an ancient forest in Alaska is about to be cut down; Trump rescinded an order to protect an area in Alaska where there is much left of the natural world, with many animals, plants. I joined the Sierra Club.

Here are the first 100 lies Trump has managed to promulgate across US life

irst hundred lies: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-trump-administration-lies-100_us_58ac7a0fe4b02a1e7dac3ca6

This is what we are in danger of from him: Timothy Snyder, NYRB: how the Reichstag fire was set and used.

A new attempt to let loose predators to fleece and cheat at will. No more protections anywhere — every effort is being made by the republicans to prevent all consumer protection and allow corporations and businesses to fleece the individual at will. Money for opportunity and self-improvement only at high rates of interest. I feel sick with new grief, anxiety and pity for people — wanton unnecessary cruelty for none of these people have hurt anyone. The super-rich will be more super-rich.

As to what’s called social media: while enjoying friendships and sharing online, one must remember on places like face-book there is a great deal of falsity, of showing off an acceptable social identity to make others admire you, to fit in, to reinforce conformity. Photos of people as successful surrounded by adoring families and friends, sometimes absurdly idealized, with money and ordeals left out. Pay attention to ordinary every day life insofar as it gets through. Pictures of our now hot February.

The center of my life used to be, its staff, was Jim; I have fought a hard fight to make a new life and have realized this is out of the question for a 70 year old woman. I cannot re-make myself and have learned how alone a widow in our society is made. In order to remain calm because this fourth year of being mostly alone is making me worn, so I must focus my mind on that some stable secure center of existence. I would like to reach people like myself but I’ve found travel deeply anxiety-producing and unless I have a companion, I suffer a great deal. The longer and further away the trip, the worse. Sometimes when I am there the experience is ambiguous; alone at night in a hotel is hard on me. Tiring. This is what people need one site I trust tells me: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity, and freedom. Others might make a slightly different list, but the important concept is that meaning stems from addressing real human needs. Where it’s tenuous for me as yet is affection, understanding, participation. So for me what can I hold onto: books, writing, movies, study. In these I find some peace. In sharing them with others — reading online with others, talking, friendships, art I can find understanding, participation, friendship. How other widows fare I pay attention to also as I find many analogously like myself.

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goodactors
Tom Story and Jacques Aaron Krohn were strong — melancholy the one, funny the other

I went to As You Like It (see Marshall Bradshaw’s far too favorable review) at the Folger Shakespeare Library this past Saturday. It was not a successful production: the director seemed determine to ignore the bitter and hard meaning of many of the words, the whole difficult framework in which the characters have to live, that the time in the forest is an interlude. Thus its kindness, generosity, love and forgiveness lose their heft and context. The actors did not know what to do with the enormous amount of wit; at times the play felt like Love’s Labor’s Lost without understanding. But some of the actors played their roles very well: especially the Touchstone, Jacques, and Rosalind.

goodmoments
Lindsay Alexandra Carter carried the play (Rosalind) with Lorenzo Roberts as Orlando and Antoinette Robinson as Celia her supports

It was such a relief to hear sentiments of trust, friendliness, cooperation in public after outside the building having to endure the continually spouted spite and threats of the US gov’t attempting to torment the majority of US citizens with fear. And it was lively, without pretension, with wit, music that was contemporary and effective dancing.

By contrast, my first attempt to go to the Shakespeare Theater Company the Sunday before landed me in front of Charles III: ludicrously reverential, so tame. The comedy was we were supposed to laugh at “Harry” as having unacceptable (black) girlfriends and being given the most juvenile advice by a street vendor. It was about Charles taking power he didn’t have in a good cause (on behalf of immigrants) but the slightest real knowledge of British politics would tell you he couldn’t begin to get away with it, of culture he wouldn’t care about was he was said to. It was for a naive complacent American audience. Embarrassing. I left after the first act.

My books for this week included many on the picturesque, Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices, Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out, Kenneth Johnston’s Hidden Wordsworth. I’m watching Donald Wilson’s 1978 Anna Karenina, brilliantly well done, moving, adult (about 10 parts). I’m studying ekphrastic poetry by women. Adrienne Rich’s Matilde in Normandy, Love in a Museum. Marianne Moore’s Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns. I spent an hour this afternoon reading her very great Transcendental Etudes. I was moved and comforted as I drank wine.

My pussycats are well. Nowadays Ian does not hide in the morning though he goes off to have his quiet private time: on his cat tree high in the front room where he can see what’s going on. The assistant to my IT guy came this Thursday to update my garmin (a GPS) for me and Ian didn’t run away! He growled as the young man walked up the sidewalk, but then quieted down. Around 2 each day Ian comes into my room to sit on my lap and for the rest of the day be with and around me.

Miss Drake

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openingshot
An shot early in The Salesman before Rana has been attacked

Dear friends and readers,

In my mostly literally solitary widowhood — though I’m online with friends a good deal (letters) and participate in reading groups, Future Learn courses, and these blogs to the point I feel companioned and some of what I do regularly are these joined-in activities (more reading, more writing, occasional f-t-f meetings) — in my mostly solitary state (as like some Defoe character, I say), I’m finding that the love of characters so many readers attest to when they talk of what they read has come upon me more strongly than it used to. I feel this especially when I watch a great film adaptation of a great novel where there are many episodes. Good films, moving books. Beyond these imagined congenial souls, I have my cats — such my topic this week.

shahab-hosseini-and-taraneh-alidousti-in-salesman
A close up

I burst into tears at one point while watching the Iranian film, The Salesman, written, directed, produced by Ashgar Farhadi’s (2016): fine sensitive intelligent (keep adding good words). I saw this in a nearly empty theater late yesterday (Thursday) afternoon — a first it seemed I and one couple were the only people in the audience, but by the end of the film there were about 10 people I saw when I got up at the end and turned round to look. I urge you to see it if it comes near you. It is a touching realistically done story of a couple in Iran who are part of a theater group putting on Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Emad Etesami (Shabab Hosseini) teaches English in what seems the equivalent of an American high school, except all boys. Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), his wife has no job or occupation beyond being his wife — though she is very capable one can see, even well educated (how I don’t know). Emad plays Willy, and Rana Linda. The play is acted in English and it seems everyone in the audience understands without subtitles.

[It has proved impossible to find any shots of the play within the movie; frequent shots are of Rana looking out a door from the side, through glass-y barred windows; standing behind Emad — these reinforce stereotypes.]

I asked about Iranians’ knowledge of English on two listservs but no one answered. I know few Americans can speak or read Arabic; even the state department under a decent president had limited resources this way. Miller’s is also apparently a story Iranians are familiar with. Does anyone who reads this blog know if Iranian education includes a thorough grounding in English? I used to have a loving friend on the Net, an Iranian woman and poet who shared my love of poetry, of Virginia (my friend has translated Woolf into Farsi), of books, and cats. She no longer can reach me by email. A great loss for both of us. She wrote beautiful English and Arabic and Farsi are both “Greek to me.”

As the movie begins, the building Emad and Rana are living in collapses, and they must move hurriedly, and get into an apartment where the previous female tenant’s things are still there. One afternoon while he is gone either teaching or rehearsing, she goes to take a shower and thinks he has buzzed her from the ground floor. She buzzes back without checking to see it’s him, and goes off to the shower. We stare at the door ajar — an allusion to Hitchcock’s famous sadistic scene. We hear screams, see a shadow. When Emad comes home she is gone, blood all over the floor, on the stairs. Cut to the hospital: he has learned she is there, her face badly bruised, arm wrenched, back sore, but apart from these ailments physically unhurt. She was taken there by a neighbor, Babak (Babak Karimi), also part one of the players. He found the apartment for them we later discover.

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After the assault

So that’s the initiating situation. The results in their emotional and economic (the play doing, the teaching) causes havoc. We see the problems in calling the police; she can’t tell. She is terrified to be in the apartment alone; she won’t let Emad near her at night. The rapist (? — we are not sure what he did, the wife seems to indicate not) left his pick-up truck downstairs. This furnishes the clue for the husband to find the man is a set of keys and pick-up truck downstairs; the keys are in the apartment and they fit the pick-up truck. Since Rana won’t go to the police (she’ll be blamed she says for opening the door to let the man in), Emad begins to have a need to find the man and punish him himself. It’s a telling detail (to my or American eyes) how no one in the apartment building appears to get excited over this pick-up truck. The women seem to turn a blind eye; the men say ignore it. Slowly we (and he) realize that other male neighbors, especially Babak,, were also this woman’s lovers. Babak (and everyone else) knew the woman supported herself by having lovers. Emad becomes furious: why did you not tell me? The film is not explicit but it seems that men are casually promiscuous in this society but they are also intently hypocritical and hidden and they do all they can to hide such behavior from wives and families. When wives find out they wax fiercely angry. The men seem to dread shaming of any kind.

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Emad pacing on the roof — he has much more active visible agency than Rana but she has power over him because he needs to be a respectable married man with seemingly loving respectful wife

The sex and family lives of these people is a different combination of hypocrisy and interwovenness than our own, and we are studying Iranian society from the angle of this situation. Rana cannot bear to be in the apartment alone; she wants to go everywhere with Emad. She appears angry with him and won’t let him near her at night (he says, accusingly); she can’t eat. One of the women in the cast who plays Willy’s on-the-road mistress, Sanam (Mina Sadati), is herself divorced with a child. Or separated. Sanam has accused the cast members of disrespecting her for the role she plays: Willy’s casual mistress upstate for whom he buys stockings. It hurts her reputation further to play such a role. She has her child with her always and it is a relief when Rana offers to take him home one night to keep Rana company. We see a family-group when Emad comes home and the two attempt to have a decent evening because the child is there. They are cheerful; she has cooked some food she bought in a store, but soon the pretended cheer breaks down when he realizes she uses money she found in a drawer that must’ve been this intruder’s. The marriage is now under terrific strain as he asks her to go to the police, and she says no, and she won’t leave him alone. He follows the pick-up truck to a restaurant and finds Majid (Mojtaba Pirzadeh), the young man who drives it. This is his rapist; Emad has to corner and pressure him to get him to work for Emad at a wedding (Emad claims — weddings appear to be sancrosanct and all bend before its needs and demands).

The play and teaching carry on. Emad can’t sleep and falls asleep as his class and he are watching a movie. The young men begin to cut up; we saw they were not disciplined much before. Their gender makes them all important. Maleness must be allowed aggression? Emad is now ridiculed by them, but he holds his own when he threatens to tell their families. At the theater, Emad and Rana are having trouble carrying on with their roles. Emad moves into a rage at Babak at one point — Babak is one of the characters in the play. Rana’s speech over Willy’s dead body was what hit me. Her grief let loose as Linda’s grief, mine at hers. I began to keen and sat there silently shaking and weeping.

At one point, cut to a new apartment Emad and Rana have found. The next day or so, not Majid, but his father-in-law, an old man shows up at this new apartment. And again slowly it emerges this old man knows is there as a substitute for his son-in-law because it was he who was an ex-lover, angry at the woman for something, who came into the apartment and then “tempted” attacked Rana. The confession is tense with shame; Emad is determined to make the man’s family know, especially his wife. We see how important are family ties in this society, far stronger than ours. The old man tries to run away, but Emad locks him in and he has a heart attack.

When Emad returns, with Rana (from another day of playing theirroles), they find him semi-paralyzed. Emad is still determined to humiliate the man before letting him go, and calls the family to get him. The family arrive, Majid all tender loving care for this old man, and the old man’s daughter, and a hysterical wife who says the old man is her whole life. Rana takes Emad aside and says if Emad tells them the truth, she, Rana, will leave him. She will go home to her family. She is making this family’s harmony more important than anything else, including her terror. They are at first grateful to Emad for saving their father as they know nothing it seems of this history of the man, but when Emad demands he take the old man into a separate room, they begin to be frightened. Emad is unstoppable and when he gets the old man alone Emad hits him hard. Another heart attack ensues. Emad had claimed to call an ambulance but hadn’t, now Rana or he does, and the family follow the instructions by phone to revive this father.

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An intense emotionalism characterizes the behavior of this family — yet in dialogues with the old man it seems that underneath there is distrust and all demand strict conventional behavior from one another; my father used to say among naive people emotionalism is prevalent (one reason for Dickens’s popularity)

The last scene shows us Rana being dressed for her part as Linda and Emad for his as Willy. They have stained unemotional looks on their faces. They have not broken up, but they have not made up. It’s probably significant that Rana has had no child, but I am not sure what how this would be read by an Iranian audience.

I was startled at the overt sentimentality of the families towards one another because at the same time the women overlook the men’s promiscuous behavior as long as they are not told or do not have to learn explicitly the men are unfaithful. The society is so interwoven and desperate economically (most buildings are aging, supermarkets are full but it’s clear that lots of better goods are not on the shelves for most people). Many people make it by odd jobs — taking in one another’s laundry I used to call it. Family members utterly need one another. They have no one else to turn to.

Best of all it made Iranians utterly human. I hope the empty theater is not the result of Americans not wanting to be associated with Muslims lest they somehow get into trouble. The Trump administration is demonizing these people so such a film is important. Iranians are so dependent on family members because the US among other powerful gov’ts and the leaders of factions in Iran prevented a social democratic gov’t which was elected in the 1950s from developing. A coup put back a dictatorial theocracy; then the Shah tried to develop capitalism, freeing women as a sop and as necessary for a modern society. We know where that went. A huge proportion of people were left in poverty. Men find keeping women submissive, under their control, soothes and bucks up their ego and pride. Today in our gov’t the Republicans are removing or trying to all our social helps outside the family, including a meritocracy through education so that they can keep their enormous, take in more, live off us more, and in the process destroy outer non-religious (and thus free and progressive) social world insofar as they can.

Don’t miss it! It won awards and is nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. The director is famous, his films are events, so are the leading cast members stars.

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William Wordsworth when young — endorsed as strongly accurate by Kenneth Johnston in his Hidden Wordsworth, which I’ve been reading also

So, another week or so and now on bonding with characters in fiction. Take Wordsworth’s Prelude: it brought back memories. The natural world for me as a child. Not very much. I grew up in the Southeast Bronx. When I think of nature, I think of how Shakespeare says when we live in an artful world, the art comes from nature. Say the word nature to me and I remember a terrifying hurricane my family drove through when I was about 3 — my father’s family had a sort of cottage, home-made where we stayed for a few weeks in summer, on the north shore of Long Island, Suffolk county, a pump in the yard for water, an outhouse. Hurricane Carol hit not far from where we were, and the water coming miles up and high as the cliffs, roofs coming off, trees ripped.

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Turner’s Buttermere Lake — this image is the cover illustration for my parallel texts of two of Wordsworth’s Preludes (1805 and 1850; there’s a third, a short plain evocative 1799)

[I have no pictures of myself when young by a pump in Long Island, no photos of myself climbing up and down fire-escapes in the Southeast Bronx, anyway the block I lived in was torn down decades ago after it was (in my father’s words) abandoned by people, left to the dogs. Now it is rows of small private houses with hispanic families living in them. There is a Crotona Park, in bad disarray when I lived there. In the 1980s, my father meet other older white men from the suburbs there who once lived in these communities, and eventually these other white men brought their equipment from the suburbs and rebuilt the handball walls. Those playing, all male, all hispanic were grateful.]

When he gets to university, Cambridge, wow, the son of a high level agent of a ferociously mean high ranking super-wealthy man, his father dies and the lord refuses to pay the legacy the man had garnered up, so the boy or young man now has a precarious future. Still he is among the privileged boys of his era. As I read I see him as coming there with a group of expectations and a sense of his place. Myself I think how we measure our success or what we define as success comes from where we started out, and what we expected from life from that place. When I went finally to Queens College at age 18, public though it was, I was ecstatic, so relieved. College was not assumed in the cards for me at all. I never thought about — really — the lack of status or where I was going to go afterwards. To me this was a height. I didn’t want it to end. I was there to study, not to get somewhere. It was probably too painful for me to think about what might be my future. I did so much better than others in the class not only because I chose an area or areas that I find myself good at (English, humanities, history of art) but because I valued what I was doing. I knew all around me at the time many didn’t. Dorothy didn’t get to go.

He also says that when he was supposed to leave, maybe he was better off not to have a place to go to. He admits he missed out on something — did things he regrets, but doesn’t say what. For me I grieve not; happy is the man/Who only misses what I missed, who falls/No lower than I fell. Happy is the man is an old Horatian formula.

Well for me years after being in school I knew that I had not profited from “learning” forced on me,for which I had no aptitude — like math, physics — which I did poorly in. Rousseau in the 18th century says we must follow the child or person’s bent. That was a radical idea then: you were paying attention to the individual and saying he (not she in Rousseau) matters; you weren’t forcing them to do or become something for the family’s sake, as part of the family business. Rousseau also says that’s the way a child learns.

I wasn’t badly off in my undergraduate years. I was naively happy in my studies, though it took shutting the future out from my mind. I liked all my courses (even some of the required ones outside humanities) but the honor courses I found myself simply in in my last and have to agree I did read more interesting books in such courses. The shock was to come back and see this institution which had meant so much to me — it did free me, it gave me the scholarship to England I did leave the social class I had been born in basically forever — and that to another (my daughter) it was irrelevant as a place and worse. She couldn’t learn in it even if it’s academic program in music for a librarian was excellent. The social world mattered in her case.

We’ve also talked of Coleridge this week on Trollope19thCStudies: I’ve long loved best “This lime-tree bower, my prison” to Lamb, but as others spoke of Coleridge rhythmic ballads I conceded:

It’s both hard and easy to get back to an earlier self. I’ve said a few lines in Michael confirmed my resolve to be an English major, to go and study British literature for the BA. In that term where I first read Coleridge too I was swept away by the intensity of the “faery” side of his poetry, the unfinished romance, Christabel was it called, also loved and reread over and over Frost at Midnight. And Kubla Khan started — especially with the story about it. But I remember this and cannot feel the same today. I don’t mean to say they are at all inferior to the contemplative type poem only that as I look at them now, I remember how naive I was. I admit I was never “gone” on The Ancient Mariner. Him stopping one of three and the rest of the ritual type chant, even the moral with the albatross at the end seemed something imposed.I grant though lines have stayed with me all my life . Ah sleep it is a blessed thing/Beloved from pole to pole. How many times I’ve repeated that one. It is a mismemory I’ve just discovered: “it’s gentle thing ….” For me until I began with my nightly trazadone it was something often out of reach, only gotten in 3 hours snatches at best. Coleridge ended his life living in a kindly person’s attic, giving free lectures to those who could appreciate great literary criticism, among others of Shakespeare

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Kay Spark: Virginia Woolf or Seraglia

I’m now read/skimming and listening in my car to Woolf’s The Voyage Out as read by Nadia May. I remembered my “voyage out” as I read/listen. Over on Trollope19thCStudies I said going to Queens College transformed my life, but I was plucked out of the limited frustrating environment to which I was born by a scholarship offered through Queens: to go to Leeds University, half paid by Queens and half by a Chancellor’s scholarship from the UK. I took a boat trip that took 12 days. For 12 days I was aboard a boat loaded down with students my age — I had been married and had some adult experiences they hadn’t, but they had had all sorts of social experiences I hadn’t. Fine art films all day long, one of 4 in tiny rooms (Bunk beds). I’ll never forget that experience and coming up the channel to see the white cliffs of dover. Much as I didn’t understand was going on round me, and had a week long nervous collapse in Leeds as result of what to me was also an ordeal — I was with a group of 12 students shepherded by an British history teacher teaching at Queens for the great salary — but fascinating, all so news, 3 weeks in London, arrive at Leeds, a flat shared with another student in a private house (attached), Leeds itself and then I met Jim.

It’s a book much influenced by Austen — as her next, Night and Day, is much influenced by the Brontes. There is a trek the characters take up a hill to look down. It’s not that they go on donkeys or that the breaking into groups is uncomfortable, some of the conversation (though some sublime and refreshing), but Woolf’s characterization of the whole long incident as a group of people “very dull, not at all suited to each other,” and not really wanting to come (some of them). There’s a scene strongly reminiscent of everyone sitting on blankets in a circle and talking. At the end as in the 2009 Emma for some they’ve had too much of a good thing. Then there’s a dance, how Rachel loves dancing, the partners — just very like. She has Austen in mind.

And for a backwards proof, as with male critics writing about Ferrante’s fiction, so Mitchell A Leasla, resentful of Helen (shepherding Rachel in something of the spirit but much smarter, more generous, for the girl’s interest) of Emma with Harriet, Leasla cannot understand what this book is on about.

As for bonding with characters in films that go on for episode after episode and are taken from deeply felt realistic fiction, see my latest blogs on the new and old Poldark films and the 1972 BBC War and Peace (Anthony Hopkins Pierre, Morag Hood, Natasha, Joanna David Sonya …. )

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A Caturday entry: on bonding with my pussycats:

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We don’t credit animals the way we should. To my mind this is part of our defense from treating them with equal respect and affection. Since becoming so close with my cats my understanding of animals has improved and my general behavior. I now buy only “free range” chicken, and I look at labels where I ‘ve read the packaging or company treats their pigs or lambs decently — or not cruelly anyway (so it’s claimed). I try to eat much less meat. I wrote a couple of blogs on books that tell the history of the increase of animal protection laws and companionate relationships. For years when I taught Adv Comp in the Natural Sciences and Tech I had a unit where we read Jane Goodall, and a couple of times showed Wiseman’s Primate. We are such a cruel species it’s hard to get my mind around what scientists do to chimps: primates to other primates.

I was thinking that one of my narcissistic impulses is when I feel glad to see my cats react to things that are recognizable that seem more like a human reaction, something we wrongly do not expect from animals. So for example, when a car drives up to my part of the sidewalk — not close to my house, my boy growls and often the girl will get off her perch and trot to a front window — or she’ll scurry away. They know immediately when someone is coming down the path.

For a couple of weeks I lived with a woman friend who was vegetarian: her diet included cheese and eggs and she was wonderful cook so we had all sorts of vegetables and pasta. I didn’t mind being without meat for the time. I’ve never tried it otherwise but I nowadays understand the logic of the position. You’d have tobe careful to get the vitamins and nuitrition you need. I “use” far too much sugar, wine but we don’t eat much processed food. When we first brought our kittens home, they had one another and (it’s hard to remember) it seems to me pretty fast the problem was how to keep them out of the bedroom. They were too lively to sleep all night and Jim was very bothered by the whole thing. I somewhat forced the cats on him with my older daughter — I wanted them for myself, to find common ground with this older daughter (didn’t work) and to provide Izzy with more creatures to interact with. At the time she was not working and having a very hard time.

My two have been with me since birth. They are frightened to go out the door and start away from it. I know if I were to leave it open they would go out and so keep all doors shut. They both twitch with intensity when they see birds, squirrels outside but I doubt they’d know how to kill them. The boy, Ian, does stalk and by playing with kill insects and occasionally he has brought one to me to show his stuff. It is all routine. I wake with them cuddled into me. We get up when it’s fully light.Into the kitchen where I top up their dry food. Then they just stay round me all day as I go about my routine. They know when I’m going out of “our” workroom from when I turn off the computer or put on my coat. Clarcat looks sad then. They can tell time duration; when I’ve been away on trips, at first they are not friendly and then get intensely affectionate. Usual times away — say an hour or so or 4 at most – one or both come to the door. Around 5 or so they seem to know it’s time for wet food. They do know their names I think; at least they respond to them They know “wet food” I think. I go open a can and pour myself a glass of wine. So all are content. I do differ routines in food: sometimes I give them tuna with or instead of the wet food. About an hour before I go to bed, they go into my room and wait. I have a high cat bed near mine and Ian sleeps there. We have play periods and sitting on lap periods, and he presses himself against my chest and nudges my head. She thinks I’m another cat and licks me industriously sometimes.
Going to the Vet is an ordeal I have described here before.

They do love string. They can’t resist playing with me with string — like people, me, in front of a movie.

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New Yorker Cartoon

Last night I knew a strange moment of intense peace, highly unusual. I had read hard all day, written, and when I drank that glass of wine, and this mood came over me. My mind collapsed. I could no longer read or write. Suddenly I felt so deeply in my gut, What did it matter if I didn’t want to put myself through an ordeal of travel to a Jane Austen and Arts conference. I felt I could choose to not go without telling myself, where does it stop here? Lose contact? what am I talking of? what mad dreams obeying? I just relaxed into myself. I shall have no grandchildren. I re-watched Last Orders, the film I watched the day of Jim’s funeral as it only lasted for 3 hours and by 3 I was home alone again. i’m going to teach the book this coming spring, listen to it read aloud by Juliet Stevenson when my MP3 comes. I sat and tears came and went as I wiped my eyes. And went to bed.

I am now in the fourth year of widowhood and have no words for the kind of grief I live with all the time. Nameless because society refuses to recognize this, give it a vocabulary.

Next up: Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices, on the BBC radio worlds. I’m nearly to the end of her nearly perfect The Bookshop: desperation as courage who loses out to the machinations and human instruments of silent ruthless power enacted, controlled, by one blight of a woman. Any hope I ever had of a full-time contingent position at Mason was destroyed similarly years ago by Rosemary Jann, the chair of the department. So bonding again …

Miss Drake

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From Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1990 film, scripted by Harold Pinter, featuring Natasha Richardson and Elizabeth McGovern)

Dear friends and readers,

It’s probably not a pure coincidence that a new version of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is going to be screened on Hulu, a new computer channel which shows movies, that they have chosen this distopian tale for their first venture. I’ve read that top sellers for this week at Amazon (which by the way operates with Trump businesses, so if you want to boycott these you can at least try to find other online stores to buy your books from), as listed in the New York Times Book Review include Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. If you want genuinely to understand what we are living through, what we appear to be watching happening at its final visible phase (it’s been mostly stealth or only seen in local instances for some 40 years) — the setting up of a dictatorship, you might do better to read a serious history of the first hundred days or say six months of Hitler’s regime.

I’ve not read It Can’t Happen Here, but have read the others, probably with the mistaken impression in my mind that in fact this is a democracy, people, real individuals in the millions, believe in voting and having their votes properly counted. I have now seen how such a certainly in the mind (I thought) of every American citizen makes it hard truly to believe in the dystopia of your choice. Trollope wrote one: The Fixed Period, taking place on an island that seems coterminous with New Zealand. All people at age 67 are required to “deposit” themselves in an asylum, a year later they will be killed. (His New Zealander, first published in 1972 in an edition by N.John Hall, is a somber analysis of 19th century British political culture as he so lucidly understood it.)

The roll out of destructions by the Republican rump and their ignorant malevolent shamelessly self-centered leader has been and continues to be done piece-meal. He’s putting it together with remarkable ease. His vicious people in the powerful places. Firing the staff just below. Slowly felt contradictory vague executive orders are an attempt to divide people by when they are hard hit – all the while lying. So I have not yet personally felt anything economically critical gone. Just heart. Just. The grief is hard to characterize. This morning I tried Dance Workshop again: they have a new woman, just relentlessly cheerful. Talks about the 45 minutes as a party. I wilt under such treatment.

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Kathryn Schulz

I recommend to my reader Kathryn Schultz’s “Losing Streak,” or When Things Go Missing, in this week’s New Yorker (13, 20 February 2017): she begins with the word loss, which apparently goes back to “Old English” and means “perish;” it was in the 13th century that “lose” meant failing to win; in the 16th century we began to lose our minds (so mental distress, trouble), in the 17th century our hearts. It’s been expanding so now it includes all those hundreds of losses of things we endure over the course of our lives, from “mittens” to money, to beloved people. Now we are feeling our whole future has been stolen from us, robbed by the gerrymandering, politicization of our courts, electoral college, insane campaign against Hillary Clinton; all that we could had in improvement is now reversed and our very republic, safety from all-out war, civil and human and women’s rights about to be lost and in a way that might be irretrievable for decades and more to come. Losing a beloved, losing her father, she talks of death, not of losing friends, which has been part of my losing streak this year.

But in the meantime I’ve met an honest man! My neighbor-friend recommended as a contractor, a German man, semi-retired, and he has offered to do all I want (enclose porch, and make a fully functioning room, paint outside of house cream color, update electricity in house &c&c) for what may come out to be less than the kitchen renovation cost. It seems the demand I have the foundation dug out is a way for builders to make huge sums; the way veterinarians to clean a cat’s teeth want to put them under anesthesia and stick a tube down them (risking their lives) in order to make $500. So after all I’ll have what I’ve longed for for so many years. Too bad Jim is not here now. I’ve no one to take pleasure in it but myself. Izzy approves but it does not mean for her what it does for me. The neighbors will like this as it will help property values. I will have more space for my books 🙂 and not be ashamed any more.

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I can link the two entertainments I’ve gone to over this week to our present dystopia. I was finally able to remember the name of the woman who ran an inexpensive and sometimes innovative and intelligent repertoire company in DC: Carla Huber; her group, The In-Series, located in DC just off 14th Street, a walk along U Avenue (from the Metro). It was a show made up of songs of Irving Berlin with a narration carried on by the performers situating songs in his life, his career, the particular musical or just song cycle. The songs were chosen to reflect some characterization of a type in one of his musicals, the actors and singers people one knew would put the material across. I conquered driving there and back by car, so learned where it was, and then going there by Metro on Saturday evening. One song prompted long, strong and extended applause: a black woman singer-actress, Krislynn T. Perry, sang “Supper Time,” in a deeply moving way, belting it out. I did not know before this that it’s a song by a black woman whose husband has been lynched. Here’s Ethel Waters performing the song:

I attended the first of our Washington Area Print Group’s lectures for this spring: Deirdre Johnson discussed popular series fiction by two American women: their circumstances and what they produced are typical of the era: Adelaide F. Samuels (1845-1941) and her much more upper class sister-in-law Susan Caldwell Samuels (1846-1931). Middling educated white people with connections to publishers, especially through a father, Emanuel Smith (1816-86, zoologist, botanist, collector) and Susan’s husband, Edward Samuel (1836-1908, naturalist). The stories focus on central characters who live individualist successful lives, attached to churches, looking now and again to their family for help. Although strongly teleological, the titles tell an occasional tale of lives stranded and broken (Adrift in the World). Susan and Edward’s divorce led her to concentrate on how the power a husband has can inflict cruelty and failure on those in his charge. Adelaide had come from much poorer people and when she was widowed, with one son, she listed herself as a “writer” and attempted to live off her earnings. Her stories are less moral than Susan’s. But (what the lecturer didn’t say) all these stories are a depiction of a large (taken as a whole) ceaselessly on the move culture treating itself as ever so moral. We got to talking as a group about children’s literature, how it’s changed in the last half-century, and how in contrast to American, British books for children were a melange of fantasy and realism (e.g., The Borrowers). What American children were give was imagined communities. British children were offered an escape from local reality.

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Robert Southey’s desk in Greta Hall as drawn/painted by Caroline Bowles Southey: it’s the world as seen from her husband’s desk; he had the biggest best room in the house; not entirely unfairly as he supported himself, his nuclear family and Coleridge’s, as well as women and children attached to other romantic and dispossessed poets and writers when needed

On Trollope19thCStudies we are into Wordsworth’s Prelude and I’m reading Kenneth Johnston’s excellent The Hidden Wordsworth (it’s really a history-biography of the realities of intimate oppression in the later 18th and early 19th century in Cumberland), and I’m trying to accompany it with reading a fine woman poet’s autobiographical poem, much less well-known, Caroline Bowles Southey: The Birthday: A Life in Verse. I hope by the time we finish I can wrote my first foremother poet blog in a long time. For now, in case you’ve never heard of her (talk about the enemies of promise), here’s a brief literary biography by me:

Caroline Bowles’s years were 1786-1854 so she crosses the 18th and 19th century eras. She was born to people with money but as when her parents died her guardian absconded with the money that was to support her, she grew up very poor. She was educated (she was a genteel hanger-on in a big family and I imagine might have loved Jane Eyre and identified readily with Lucy Morris in Trollope’s Eustace Diamonds or Kirsten in Oliphant’s wonderful novel of that name). She published other books of poetry; The Birthday was originally compared with Cowper’s Task. She does write in the poetic diction of Cowper. Wordsworth’s greatness is based on his original use of a natural spoken English not seen before. At the time Wordsworth’s Prelude was hardly known. Robert Southey met, introduced her to Wordsworth, and they collaborated on a poem called Robin Hood. It never saw the light (was not completed). When Southey’s wife died, Southey married Bowles, but he was very ill by that time and his illness blighted her later life. She received a crown pension in 1854. Unhappily too she has been blamed for marrying him, blamed for somehow getting between his wife and him (she didn’t) and then her own work seen as super-influenced by him — which it wasn’t.

There’s a wonderful essay on Bowles Southey in Romanticism and Women Poets: Opening the Doors of Reception, edd. Harriet Linking and Stephen Behrendt: Kathleen Hickok, ”’Burst are the Prison Bars: Caroline Bowles Southey and the Vicissitudes of Poetic Reputation,” pp. 192-213. There has been an edition of Caroline Bowles Southey’s poetry and a biography by Virginia Blain:, Caroline Bowles Southey, 1786-1854: the Making of a Woman Writer .

“The Birthday” is a longish blank verse poem telling of the growth and development of a poet’s mind through retelling her story. It’s called “The Birthday” because it’s imagined that she begins to write it on her birthday one year. “The Birthday” gives us a woman’s version of Wordsworth’s Prelude. It’s shameful “The Birthday” is not better known. Unlike Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh as it hasn’t got a melodramatic story at its center, but a real one. In the excerpt I sent the poet goes to a filthy shop in London where she meets a laboring man who loves to read and has aspirations to write. He can’t. He can’t begin to get the books he needs (shades of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure) and hasn’t got any time to himself at all. He must work from early morning to late at night. Wordsworth refers to poor people but does not give them reality; in her Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning gives us this melodramatic story of the seamstress in love who has a baby out of wedlock and (in the poem) deserved to be dropped. Not Caroline’s heroine, herself.

To the reading and papers I’m working on (described in previous diary entries), tonight I begin the second of my chosen books for the course I hope to teach at the OLLI at Mason, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop (short-listed), a kind of distilled Cathy Come Home, starting late March. I’m now listening to Nadia May read aloud Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out: it focuses on the coming into maturity of a super-sheltered, minimally educated intelligent young woman, Rachel Vinrace. Much water imagery. This from The London Scene which I read with someone on Wwtta last week:

A group of sketches, all at most 5-7 pages or so; like much of Woolf’s work, it’s a posthumous publication carefully staggered/staged and packaged by Leonard. I have separate thinnish books of non-fiction by her and for the first time I understand how they came to be and why they are so heterogeneous. This is a late book, first published in 1975, put together by Angelica Garnett and Clive Bell, niece and brother-in-law, published nominally by Hogarth Press but really a small press hired and in a limited edition. These feel bright, seemingly cheerful excursions — the sort of thing one sees in a magazine. I say seeming because the undercurrent leads us to her The Waves. Time is doing its work across the centuries and in single hours, days, weeks, years, all is going to rot or was once (so relics, remnants)

What strikes me as I’ve finished The Waves, and begun The Voyage Out, how water (as in Shakespeare) is central to Woolf, waterways of the world, oceans, rivers, streams. While the sun controls the seeming 24 hour structure of the Waves, the imagery is watery or about stream, life as ooze. Orlando crosses time as in a reverie: Eva Figes’s greatest novella is The Seven Ages of Women. Here we have a eye going through the river recording different phase sof English history by different classes at different times – in 8 pages the eye bypasses very different ships and boats, from Liner and streamers with crowds of ordinary people on the shore, to a dingy warehouse area (very Dickensian), to left over village, with a desolate pub (note desolation), church, a cottage or house gone to ruin, trees, bells once rung here. Then barges, rubbish and Indian, next to the Tower of London, commerce, the city, factories with chimnies. On we go to indefatible cranes unloading and loading according to exquisitely understood plans by mazes of peple. (Le Carre’s Night Manager shows all this replaced by these intensely dull boring containers and very few people employed.) I have read the ships which carry these containers can be dangerous for passengers if not enough of them. Jenny Diski traveled on one in one of her books. Then the beautiful things packed, the oddities, the jewels, sports of nature – Woolf imagines all this. Now we realize if we didn’t before this is a kind dream. Then the wine-vaults: Cask after cask. Customs officers. No smuggling here: stamped out in the mid-19th century by England’s first determined army of police effort.

The phrase “use produces beauty as a bye-product” could sum up all Jane Austen on the picturesque … Then words have been invented out of all we see.I don’t understand a couple of them, nor understand why flogging is there but that sailors were once flogged to get them to do this work, flogged if they mutinied and disobeyed. (Will Trump bring flogging back; there is nothing he can do which bothers his followers or the Republicans. I am waiting for him to beat the hell out of his wife, and the tweet: “I lost it – my temper.” ) Last: all we see is the result of us, of our bodies. All the things and animals that made these products were created and used by us – Australian sheep say. And this rocking rhythm and final peroration. L’ecriture femme with the full stamp of Virginia Woolf

pytorkonchalovskyrussia1876to956poetswindow
From my window where I sit most of the time there has hardly been any snow: very summery days, so here to remind us of winter: Pytor Konchalovsky’s Poet’s Window (1875-1956)

I handed in a proposal for teaching at OLLI at Mason for this coming summer (how relentless is time and it’s been just about accepted:

Romancing 18th century historical fiction

Our topic will be the nature of recent post-modern post-colonial historical fiction as well as how as a genre historical romance differs from historical fiction, and what happens when the two subgenres mix. We’ll read as examples the older traditional The King’s General by Daphne DuMaurier (1946) against the recent innovative The Volcano Lover (1992) by Susan Sontag. Bringing in as part of the discussion, other popular novels set in the 18th century (from Poldark to Outlander) and 18th century historical films (from Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon to Scola’s That Night in Varennes), we’ll explore these questions: How do such books use documents and relics (e.g. houses and paintings) from an era; landscape then and now, history, biography, life-writing; biographical fiction and fantasy, to reach and recreate the irretrievable, the unknowable past, to persuade us to imagine we are in the past as presences with the author. Why do we want to do this? Why is it important for the text or film to be authentic and yet familiar? For us to bond with the characters? And be fascinated by their era?

I end on yet another woman poet-writer, 19th century, American: Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919). In Cox’s case what’s telling is she was very popular, and part of the 19th century progressive or populist socialist movement (Bernie Sanders is a rare unashamed modern representative), which has been crushed since the advent of the FBI and ceaseless repression from the 1950s on.

Protest

To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,
No vested power in this great day and land
Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry
Loud disapproval of existing ills;
May criticise oppression and condemn
The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws
That let the children and childbearers toil
To purchase ease for idle millionaires.

Therefore I do protest against the boast
Of independence in this mighty land.
Call no chain strong, which holds one rusted link.
Call no land free, that holds one fettered slave.
Until the manacled slim wrists of babes
Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,
Until the mother bears no burden, save
The precious one beneath her heart, until
God’s soil is rescued from the clutch of greed
And given back to labor, let no man
Call this the land of freedom.

I just thought that I’ve never focused on Scarlett Johansson’s eloquent speech at the Women’s March, on January 21st:

It is still hard and brave for most women to speak before a huge audience, and she’s telling intimate realities of her life. Elizabeth Robins’s The convert is about how hard it was for the first suffragettes to talk before a crowd. It is harder yet to be sincere.

Miss Drake

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treeputout
January 2nd, 2017

… as to be hurt is petty, and to be hard
Stupidity; as the economists raise
Bafflement to a boast …
… the flat patience of England is a gaze
Over the drop …
There is not much else that we can praise.
— Wm Empson, from Courage Means Running (not!)

Dear friends and readers,

Given that I live in a country where those who have the power to stop this a fascist regime from taking over its central gov’t, at its headed a narcissistic sociopathic man whose public positions veer like some weathercock, it’s hard to look forward to kind any of certainty in the future, much less count on or plan for a good one. I’ve spent the time since I last wrote a diary entry (nearly two weeks ago) in the usual ways of reading, writing, watching movies at home, punctuated by going to the gym, or shopping, two times out to lunch, once with a real friend. It’s been cold, rained, snowed.

(i)
As ghosts obscurely trail the past
She is posthumous
She haunts the future.

(ii)
Late in the night
The lit house she comes back to
Is empty, echoing
— “Widow,” Barbara Everett

What can I share? It’s that time that people assess where they’re at, and so here are a few areas of my continuing life I’ve thought about a bit.

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A blogging cat …

Blogging itself.

The nature of blogging has changed over the 15 years or so since I began blogging and what’s called the blogosphere emerged. I find I blog less because more is expected: blogs like mine (literary, semi-political, life-writing) could be seen as a form of privately-run mostly unpaid journalism, especially if you write about books where your reader is probably literate and wants good information and insight. I try for four a week (one on each of my four blogs), and know I invent projects (women artists is my latest series)-— the way other bloggers join in web-ring marathons: a group of people who’ve met somehow or other all read but more importantly write about a specific author or books published in a specific year around a certain date; or they agree to blog about this kind of movie or by this director in for a given month. Then they comment on another’s blogs, link into one another’s blogs. These are planned and controlled performances where a social world you belong to is presented.

I’m not bored with what I do. I pick projects that I love to develop: read about, write about as I learn what I’m thinking, enrich my experience by writing, it’s almost as if I didn’t have the experience or make it real to myself unless I write. But it’s hard to balance this with say my teaching, or doing papers for conferences, or going out to do something. There is a conflict: I would read more if I wrote less, watch another movie. I find I also respond to the audience: so if a particular topic gets more clicks I develop it more: so for example, my Poldark blogs are responsible on some days for as much as 3000 clicks (hits!) — though I don’t read the books or watch the two mini-series to get an audience. I love them: last night I was much moved by the death of one of the heroes in Warleggan and its presentation in the new Poldark as well as Debbie Horsfield’s script.

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Susan Herbert’s Taming of the Shrew — the key to all of these is they re-contextualize by replacing people with cats, and are done with a slightly parodic feel

Teaching and offering readings of books and films

Since we already are suffering from a surfeit of false news-stories and popular entertainment which is becoming more frankly racist, sexist, intolerant pro-violence every day another topic to think about at this point for me is teaching. I choose to carry on teaching, if not quite for free, for very small sums. In a way writing blogs on books and films and the kinds of topics I chose (or postings to listservs and face-book) are forms of teaching, sharing insights and knowledge. I teach to get out and write to be part of a social world, but if I didn’t think these activities valuable in some way or other I would stop.

What should one do in such eras as a teacher? or writer? I re-watched John Berger’s famous four-part 1970s mini-series Ways of Seeing (he died recently) the other night and remind us all of what he said. (You can find and watch all four on YouTube.) I found I had forgotten or never realized some aspects of it.

I did not realize how quietly feminist it was. I say quietly because at no point is Berger overt about feminism, never goes near any of the terms associated. The first half hour seems t be the most famous: like people starting a book. Here he argues how the context of a work enforces how we see it, how hard it is to ignore this: it’s not just an imaginative understanding of the time of the work (he hardly goes into this) but how the era the person lives in, where they see it, how it is framed there (as a precious object in a museum), where it’s discussed, if reproduced what surrounds the image in the book. He has a funny imitation of the usual hushed tones within which the pictures are discussed. They are fetishes because sold for such huge sums. This contextualization and re-contextualization is so important that one must stop and consider it a bit.

Berger teaches us why a text that in itself is an enlightened and good one (teaching say good values or meaning) can in a different context, different era, different audience, have a pernicious effect. That’s what happened to the class I tried to teach Huckleberry Finn to. No matter what I said, the way they saw it was racist: several of the whites triumphing, the black kids feeling pain and (the one who gave a talk) anguish.

Trump is said to have read All Quiet on the Western Front (he seems to be a functional illiterate). I went back to it: it is characterized by very easy language, simple sentences, a very easy reading book, one you could give to junior high school students (12 and up). I remember teaching it — like HF fruitlessly to even most in a sophomore level general education literature class, though not with the same evil effect. When we came to the end of AQWF, a number of the students raised their hands (a number) and said how disappointed, dismayed, angered (!) they felt at the hero dying — I added so meaninglessly, hopelessly. Today I’ll add the same is true of the death of Francis Poldark in Graham’s Warleggan which I watched last night. I tried to tell them the book is anti-war, anti-heroism, that it fits the meaning; if I wrote that in huge letters and talked with examples till i was blue in the face it would not matter. Many in the class had actually read it; it was seen as a man’s book. But they had read the book in the context of 2006, many of them having fought or having relatives who fought in of our colonialist wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. It must be for them something
that was pro-war and pro-fighting people. They were able to read it literally but not able to understand what was meant in 1929.

What they objected to (even vociferously was not having an ending where the hero was rewarded. Again it was useless to argue a book can have ambiguous endings. I have been told most in American audiences do not accept ambiguous endings and British movies are changed to have them or the larger numbers in US audiences object, won’t go. I remembered how Hitler hated the book, burned it, and to take revenge on the author had his sister beheaded (literally did this).

As I stopped teaching ghost stories after I realized so many in the class believed in ghosts and I was reinforcing atavistic ideas, never assigned HF again, so after that I knew it was useless to assign All Quiet on the Western Front to class of American college students of average intelligence. I brought up Graham because I discovered that for reasons I don’t quite understand they did respond in the way intended to Ross Poldark (the novel); hence I assigned it again and again. Also Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. Why they understood this one or were capable of understanding (empathizing with) Bolt’s play as intended by the author I never figured out.

Re-contextualization is inescapable Berger says. Learned books surround pictures with abstract discussions that deflect the reader’s attention from the content of the pictures and what the viewer might intuitively see accurately if left out unintimidated. Berger says it is also the whole context in which the work of art is experienced, the photograph, the sounds. Many people don’t read literary criticism because it asserts things about texts they can’t see themselves and in classrooms there are students who don’t believe or don’t like when teachers present readings of books — it’s elitist. They can’t see what you are saying or react negatively from their culture.

I know my attitude is not common in the academy. I have no faith I’ve made any difference whatsoever (like Leonard Woolf) and when I see a person in pain in classroom (as in the HF experience) I know in my gut I’ve done wrong to that person. I can see that. As in the movie adapted from LeCarre’s The Constant Gardener, the heroine (tortured, raped, murdered for her pains) says we can do good for that one person if we act like our brother’s keeper and the hell with the law so I can refrain from doing harm. Maybe there were people in the classroom who learned from reading AQWF but no one said. It was me talking and I won’t do it again. It was feeding the beast. One can find books where there is no harm done and something good in it. I mentioned two, another was Jane Goodall’s books on chimps.

dejeunersurlherbe
Edouard Manet, Dejeuner sur l’herbe

For the second segment Berger demonstrates and reiterates over and over how women are made to see themselves first and foremost as they assume (from this culture) how others see them which turns out to mean how men see them, and then a particular man. Their destiny is defined by how they look. The woman before the mirror is the truest way women see themselves. He shows so many pictures of women, how they do dominate advertising, how attention-grabbing they are made. Men he says are not self-conscious about their looks in the same way at all: they see themselves more generally in society as free agents. Naked women; he goes over Kenneth Clarke’s famous book filled with beautiful reproductions of naked women in European art where he said he was looking at nudes, not naked woman. The difference seems to be these are fine art, not coarse salacious calendars and presented as goddesses or Biblical figures in Bibles or high culture stories.

After this second half hour the third and fourth can be seen to have these images of women throughout, which I would not usually notice. He has made the point and now it lingers. And endlessly for four half hours the The pictures of women with unreal bodies (only gotten for a few short years after dieting, exercise, efforts of all sorts) to resemble a white European norm of sexual objectification (recently intense thinness is associated with youth) or nurturing women for strong agressive men.

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Herbert’s Lady Anne (seduced, enthralled, abused, murdered by Richard III)

The third and fourth had a series of themes: how pictures are still and silent. He reads aloud typical academic style literary criticism which ignores the relationship of the author’s life at the time to the picture, and is general and abstract and often erases what people are seeing in the content. He has a group of youngsters and then women simply give their uneducated responses – in one we are show the famous Manet where men fully dressed sit on a blanket with a naked woman (Lunch on the Grass). One woman frankly says how she hates the Manet. It’s mortifying. This lead to the most refreshing discussion of his famous cool portrait of Olympia (a prostitute) I’ve ever heard. The last ten minutes allow us to see (or he interprets for us — for he’s not neutral nor can anyone be) how painting and today most photography are about presenting wealth, most often people but sometimes landscapes and rooms and the point is see all the objects this person has and what they mean symbolically about the person’s prestige, the room and landscape as a symbol of wealth, power, control.

The last segment ends on advertising and shows modern ads all around us are utterly ideological, teaching us that we will be happy if we have all these wonderful things. The thing sold often has nothing to do with the image attached to it for real.

Nowadays when I go to museums I am so alive to the third perspective — all this is the patron showing off — I am sickened and need to go to rooms of paintings of landscapes or mythical figures or simply pictures which don’t do this, but I equally find deeply distasteful deliberate ugliness, over the top preaching (so that I need to read the card next to the object to understand why it’s there), grotesqueries. If our large and sometimes local social political and economic world is vile, and so the psychological one underneath this, presenting vileness doesn’t help. This does come out in the fourth half hour of series where he juxtaposes photographs of the powerful, of displays of luxurious food,dresses and so on with photographs of refugees and the poor, miserable, and imprisoned and tortured. These latter are not vile and grotesque; they are simply photographs.

What Berger does enable, encourage me to do (paradoxically) is carry on. His idea is to encourage people on their own to discover what they think and feel by becoming aware of how they are manipulated. The idea is to help them free themselves to feel and think. To show also how to go about conventional close reading. The task though thorny and often vexed can do a little good if genuinely throughout with the underlying notion of do no harm. So my last are trying to enact something of what Berger encourages.

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Two films: the HD Screening of Nabucco and Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 Much Ado About Nothing (on DVD)

Izzy and I went on that Saturday (January 7th) and left at the first intermission. I don’t say it wasn’t interesting — the opera is one of these museum pieces, and I felt watching it, How different from most previous operas, the music was different, and whole sense of some natonalistic seriousness. We probably listened to one of the best or famous arias. A soprano (Liudmyla Monastyrska) who has sung Santuzza (Cavaliera Rusticana) was Abigaile (she thought herself Nabucco’s daughter but has learned she is a slave) was powerful: seething, angry, and singing away. There was a man who was priest of some sort, Ismaele (Russell Thomas) with an aria like the one in Magic Flute — base voice. Very Verdi though. I noticed the parallel with Mozart’s Magic Flute: the women aria singers are all seething, spiteful, erotic, powerful; the men singing low base music, also powerful aria singers are singing of reason, enlightenment, and are commendable. The gender faultline never ceases.

nabucco-lyudmila-monastyrska-placido-domingo

I couldn’t stand the story matter: wikipedia quoted some contemporary critics who were candid enough to express loathing of its material: rage, bloodshed, murder. If in modern context (a la John Berger) it could be seen or felt as pro-Israel, all it did was make me remember a video online I saw briefly of a Palestinian man lying on the ground and then a Israeli officer comes over and shoots him point-blank in the head; a towel is fetched to cover the eye-sore, and when the officer is not indicted even a judge protests some Trump-tweeter in training tweets how the judge should be cut up into pieces and fed to dogs. There are Bible stories where this happens. Izzy said it was Christian opera because we are to rejoice at conversions. The set an imitation of the barbaric — and seemed thus to connect to our present political era.

escena-nabucco-placido-domingo

Domingo sang the part of the aging Nabucco who has declared himself a God and is a murderous tyrant. He is now too old; his voice didn’t carry; he just doesn’t have the strength. I felt sad to remember another video (a feature in one of these HD operas where a young “Jimmy” Levine playing a piano and a young Placido singing next to him. Now we saw Levine already set up in that chair of his looking so weak. But I often do think such operas are better in concert form.

I felt sorry for Eric Owens who was host and trying so hard to be unnaturally ebullient and just going on about how ecstatic he found the whole thing; I know he’s paid very well so I must not be embarrassed for him. He repeated what one scholar has said is not true: that the audience was so deeply moved by an aria about freeing Israelis as a metaphor for themselves (“Va pensiero”), according to this scholar, it was another aria altogether, a hymn thanking God (for what I don’t know) TMI

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Susan Herbert’s Shakespearean Cats — this is too charming not to offer an enlargement

I had brought in the New Year in typical evening fashion. A kind friend had sent me a DVD of the Kenneth Branagh film of Much Ado About Nothing. As a film or interpretation of the play it didn’t work: he did all he could to eliminate the Hero-Claudio plot, downplay it, and what we were left with was a brilliant performance by him and especially good Emma Thompson of Beatrice and Benedict but it was not rooted in anything, they were deeply emotional in fact, more than these characters usually are. But all around all the actors were grinning for nearly 20 hours, hectic dances, silly pictures of Italian rural life as a happy place. Early on it seems Branagh liked to have a whole concept within which he would pour Shakespeare …

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izzy
My daughter, Isobel, with whom I am fortunate to live

The TLS carries on

I sometimes think that if I had to give up all my subscriptions and just keep one, it would be the Times Literary Supplement. When Murdock first took over, it took a bad dive: became 1/4 its size, the reviews began to be so reactionary that you could no longer trust the information. About three years ago, it changed back: never as long, but the reviews suddenly improved, went back to the previous mostly disinterested or at least seeming neutral point of view (literary) that had dominated. Recently the editor has begun to include more political reviews (with the excuse books on politics) but by no means do they overwhelm the issues. It’s not as good as being in London, but I do learn what has been on in all sorts of venues with a review that gives me a real sense of it. Where else can you learn the latest in academic politics about classics? Their bloggers are very good (include Mary Beard).

Last month they had a fine review of poetry published in pamphlets and by small presses: “Safe from Devaluation” by Paul Batchelor, two pages of four columns each: 12 books covered and much apt quotation. That was followed up by a “Seven Poems” by Barbara Everett. I know I must not quote the whole set but only a selection in good critic’s fashion. She was capturing the experiences of a day: who the poet might see (“Workmen”), what she might experience (“Storm”), a dog and his or her owner hard-put but happy because together). Here are three (the fourth is my preface): the first a tragic story, austerely told; the second reminds me of how I am now so close to my cats, we are one another’s company on and off all day, in communication, the boy daring now, he persists in keeping both Izzy and my doors open; the last how I feel when I come out in the morning to pick up my copy of the Washington Post:

Partners

Seeking answers, she
Plunged, and finding the water
Lethally cold, drowned.

Wiser, luckier,
He skated on thin ice, always
Upright, in motion

Alzheimer’s

(i)
He walked the streets by
Night, and when retrieved, asked the
Way back to Warsaw

(ii)
The loved dog saw no
Difference, or at least chose
Not to speak of it.

Snails

The world was sometimes
So empty the slow grace of
Snails stealing breadcrumbs

From the paving-stones
Outside in early morning
Was almost welcome

To conclude:

I have decided to hold off on enclosing my porch. Given the attitude of those in power to federal workers (Izzy’s job), to people on social security and medicare (me), the looting of the US treasury for corporations that is about to begin (justified as giving them tax breaks to hire people with no guarantee they will), it’s foolhardy. I have longed to do this for years. The porch floor is cement; it becomes filthy easily; the screens have again torn. Had Jim lived, even with my mother’s money, he might have said this is unnecessary: you don’t need the extra space for living. I know if I sold the house it would still be a “tear-down,” so I’d gain nothing there. I guess this was not in the card for the likes of me. I will still pay to have my fuse or “switch” box replaced later this spring as it is so old. I have been embarrassed for twenty years now about the blueness of my house. So I may yet pay to have it painted a decently unobtrusive cream color, but next year, and then I’ll put out for the first time a little sign with the house’s address (from Home Depot or some such place).

I am beginning to teach myself to accept my mostly solitary life. Sometimes I am quite cheerful. Almost at peace. Because of my real long-standing friends here, my cats, my reading presences, the Internet, my movies it doesn’t feel so solitary. Better than seeking elsewhere for what is not going to be there. I am trying harder to go to better plays, concerts, movies I might really enjoy, and if there is nothing out there I’m sure of, stay in.

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New Year’s Eve night this year — looking out my window

Miss Drake

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Susan Herbert for Anne Boleyn (her Shakespeare’s Cat)

Friends, readers,

It’s common to list the ten best new-to-me books one read this year as the year ends; my problems with this are

I often cannot remember what I read specifically this year, so at first I included Jenny Diski’s Apology for the Woman Writing (a historical novel centering on Marie le Jars de Gournay, her maid and Montaigne); Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (a revelation of sorts);and Linda Porter’s Katherine the Queen [Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife], but they were what I remembered best from last year. Paula Byrne’s A Life in Small Things [Jane Austen] was the book I most remembered from the year before (no new good books on Austen, though some superb individual essays on Austen films): I so love Austen and she shed genuine new insight into Austen and her texts, taught me new relevant contexts, evidentially sound facts about Austen (though she’s wrong on her new portrait, it’s the only book on Austen’s texts to do this written in the last couple of years).

I reread a lot and in rereading I find new things, re-discover old in a new way — as I just did in Oliphant’s ghost story, “The Library Window;” and

It’s hard to choose and impossible to list in any meaningful order

Books are so different; genres, functions matter.

Nonetheless, to join in and look back on what I took real pleasure in: which books taught me, absorbed me deeply, I felt sorry when I came to the end, enjoyed so much. That’s a lot to ask, so let’s say did some of the above. In the order I remember them (which must say something)

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Herbert’s Russian Blues (Movie Cats)

My very favorites:

1) Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (mostly Maude’s translation; spent best part of year if I include listening to David Case’s reading of Constance Garnett’s text, deeply satisfying text)
2) Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover (most brilliant and relevant for politics today book of the year for me)
3) Anne Boyd Rioux’s Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist (you are missing out on a great American later 19th century writer if you’ve not read any of her books)
4) Judith Cook, Melissa Hardie, and Christiana Payne’s Singing from the Walls: The Life and Art of Elizabeth [Armstrong] Forbes (moving, beautiful pictures)
5) Daphne DuMaurier’s Vanishing Cornwall: The Spirit and History of Cornwall (uplifted and told truths)
6) Charlotte Smith’s Collected Letters (about courageous abused woman alone)
7) Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf (for the first time, close to Woolf)
8) Angela Rosenthal’s Angelica Kauffmann: Art and Sensibility (on women’s art)
9) Jane Jill’s The Art of Carrington (revelation)
10) Miranda Seymour’s Mary Shelley (about 3/4s of Shelley’s life I hadn’t known and her other great writings)

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Herbert’s Adelaide Labille-Guiard with her pupils (a painting cat, imitating Labille-Guiard’s picture)

Runners-up or a not-quite my very favorites:

1) Diane Reynolds’s The Doubled Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (I won’t forget her portrait of Nazi Germany)
2) Carla Sassi’s Why Scottish Literature Matters (insights into how literature works, into an unusual colonialized people)
3) Virginia Woolf’s Memoirs of a Novelist (three brilliant novellas, historical fiction one of them: “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn;” the extraordinary feminist “Mysterious Case of of Miss V” (a woman alone, how thwarted, how silenced)
4) Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop (unforgettable, a middle class kind of Cathy Come Home)
5) Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (taught me the mini-series distorted this deeply compassionate book about a wise woman not well understood)
6) Adhaf Soueif’s Map of Love (deeply Middle Eastern historical novel as Neo-Victorian epistolary narrative)
7) Charlotte Smith’s Marchmont (for its depictions of life in a debtor’s prison)
8) Carol A Martin’s George Eliot’s Serial Fiction (for reading Eliot)
9) Margaret Oliphant’s The Ladies Lindores, together with Lady Car (a continuation) (so rich and painfully insightful)
10) Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter (I’m just now reading Frantumaglia: mothers-and-daughters her true theme)

Best new-to-me greats plays I read (and saw) — texts becoming plays and/or movies:

John McGrath’s The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil (Scotland’s history, a masterpiece of song and words)
1979 Danger UXB (everyone should watch this profound anti-war mini-series once a year)
Debbie Horsfield’s Poldark Scripts for Seasons 1 and 2 (bit of a disappointment because no indications of camera work or thinking behind choices & themselves could have been better but drew enormous strength from where faithful to Graham’s historical fiction)

My favorite long poem reread this year: Charlotte Smith’s Beachy Head
My favorite (new) movie (not a mini-series): 45 Years
My favorite mini-series: 1972 Jack Pulman’s War and Peace (one of the best of the 1970s BBC and that’s saying something)
Undefinable: both series of the BBC The Hollow Crown (Shakespeare’s history plays, Wars of Roses and Henriade)

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Susan Herbert’s drawing for Duchess of York (Shakespeare’s Cats)

Old books made new, seen in some new way:

1) Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones
2) Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

I did not like yet read to the end (worth citing because they are strong, possibly widely-read and/or reviewed texts as what is bad in them is importantly bad):

1) Henry James’s Aspern Papers and The Other House (I detested the cruel spiteful Greville Fane) (perverse in who he critizes and accepting evil)
2) Patti Smith’s M Train (she’s posing as a man, seems hardly to have heard of any woman writers or musicians)
3) Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander (pernicious in several crucial ways, pro-violence, and against women, seriously anti-LBGT, yet as women’s historical romance and about Scotland in others it sent my spirit soaring; the mini-series, especially from its adapted scripts & acting much better)

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Jacobite cats (Herbert, from Millais’s “Proscribed Royalists”)

I asked Izzy if she could name some new great best books for her this year, and she cited two I know she read and re-read slowly:

1) Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy Caste: Hamilton: The Revolution [stageplay, music book)
2) Mary Beard’s SPQR: The Senate and People of Rome

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Herbert’s “Ice-Skating” (from Victorian Cats) — Izzy read and wrote a lot (professionally too now) about ice-skating

I promise you I omitted some: many good ones were rereads e.g., first five Barsetshire books by Trollope, read and taught; Rachel Ray; Shelley’s Frankenstein, read astonishingly eye-openly aloud by Gildert Jackson (and taught); several I didn’t finish but recognize I should have e.g., Adhaf Soueif’s very great In the Eye of the Sun; Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights on 19th century women of letters, especially on Jewsbury Sisters, Jane Carlyle; some I reviewed and wrote about for conventional journals and/or blogs (Martha Bowden’s Descendants of Waverley), a few more novels, literary critical books, film studies, biography, autobiography …

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Susan Herbert’s “Train Riding” (Victorian Cats)

Miss Drake

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Santa into the woods

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Beatrix Potter, Christmas Pudding

Dear friends and readers,

I have felt that I and all the people around me are living in some unreality, something I used to read about as occurring elsewhere, or in time past. A fascist gov’t takes power, a party brazenly determined to destroy democracy since their leaders and followers are a minority, where seemingly quite inexplicably (it’s not really) even a majority of the people living within the land mass where this gov’t will have a monopoly on legal violence and control of laws, courts, prisons, are against all that is happening. Yet the process continues to occur since there is no political will among those with some power to stop it so that soon the worst and corrupt decisions are about to be enforced. But we are all not in a novel about horrifying perniciousness though, since one need only take a train to Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue to see the circus and military-armed police there (forget Guy Fawkes). I probably assumed without admitting this to myself that it could not happen where I live. Encompassed. This is more than a winter solstice. More than a matter of short days and cold winds. I thought of a line from the author of Game of Thrones: Winter is coming.

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From the Disney movie we saw a couple of years ago on Christmas Day: Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife

Within this soon-to-be directly dislocated, yet more war-threatened (with a nuclear arms race according to a man who performs to his public through tweets) beleaguered world, Izzy and I managed a few cheerful rituals. Life goes on. She and I and Laura went to the Kennedy Center on the afternoon of Christmas Ever and enjoyed a performance of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, which seemed to have mostly understudies that afternoon. Izzy pointed that out saying we had a diverse cast. Then out to a restaurant where we had the yummiest Chinese food I’ve had and seen in a long time. As I’ve done before I began to cry

Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood.
Do not let it grieve you,
No one leaves for good.
You are not alone.
No one is alone …

Careful the things you say
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see
And learn …

Careful the spell you cast …

Though it’s fearful
Though it’s deep, though it’s dark
and though you may lose the path,
Though you encounter wolves,
You can’t just act,
You have to listen …

Into the woods but not too fast,
Or what you wish you lose at last,
Into the woods but mind the path

The way is dark
The way is dim ….

The truth is I miss Jim more than ever. Now that this horror of a gov’t is taking charge and will do cruel acts across the world and inside the US (privatize and thus destroy social security, abolish medicare by whatever means they can, cut the federal govt where what jobs are good are), and their bully leader floods the media with poisonous, menacing lying tweets, I feel more alone and vulnerable. Into the fourth year without his loving companionship and the perpetual satisfaction with living he created. I have no substitute for him. Can find none. Books, good movies, my daughters, friends help to sustain.

The night before I had gotten through by watching once again (a yearly ritual for me) the exquisitely melancholy-comic Huston film adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead. I’ve watched it now for a few years. I enjoy the party and love the ending peroration by Donal McCann:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

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Closing images of Irish landscape under snow

And that evening Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, an appropriation of Mansfield Park set during Christmas week, with very realistic NYC Christmas time scenes — ones I recognize, bringing in Christmas by watching a film of a fake yule log burning in a fake hearth. It reached only innocence soiled: Audrey goes shopping blithely enough:

audreyshopping

I was going to try for a third movie, Love Actually, but decided perhaps this year its fierce resistance to anguish, even accompanied by the brilliantly satiric Bill Nighy’s Christmas is All Around Us would no longer work. That is not what is all around us. Christmas day we didn’t do too well, but our Boxing Day sojourn at the National Gallery brought us into two good exhibits, one of drawings made by Dutch Renaissance painters for some good pictures,

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The painters did not paint while outside, but drew what they saw and brought in the drawings and proceeded

and another of photography (a few good pieces, the early ones by Cindy Sherman, one from a series on artists who restore pictures, but many pretentious as if seeking to make up for their show-offy “low” content), lunch out.

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What women made to look like in the 1950s

I thought of Jane Austen’s quip about a couple of days she passed in travel: “we were very little crowded and by no means unhappy.” Especially over our bowls of spaghetti at home on December 26th.

I managed to clear a space between our Christmas tree (sitting on its piece of furniture under a window) and said window so that the cats can look out the window again, and so they can be comfortable … staring out once again at the clear mild winter day scene …

We’ve decided for New Year’s Eve we’ll stay in once again.

Today I was deeply stirred by the close of what I now think a very great historical novel, Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover: soliloquy diaries by three women: Catherine Barlow Hamilton (Sir William Hamilton’s wife, a man who wanted to be remembered for his collection and as having loved volcanoes though what he is remembered for is having married) Emma Hart, Lady Hamilton, her mother, Mrs Cardogan, and stunningly Eleanora de Fonseca Pimentel:

I feared I never would understand what would allow me to protect myself … I would lie to myself about how complicated it was to be a woman. Thus do all women, including the author of this book. But I cannot forgive those who did not care about more than their glory or well-being [modernized: their place in the organization]. They thought they were civilized. They were despicable. Damn them all.

I now see that showing a character after death as talking to us from the perspective of what happened later is a brilliant stroke. I’m seeing some of the fantasy conventions permit needed instruments for creating truths.

Fonseca Pimentel was a remarkable journalist, poet, radical, senselessly murdered, a historical novel about whom I will read next: Enzo Striano, Il resto di niente. Storia di Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel e della rivoluzione napoletana del 1799, Napoli, Avagliano 1999; Milano, Rizzoli 2001 (available on Amazon for $4.91). I had only heard of her vaguely before: the novel almost exists to tell her story finally. Nell and her 20th century author (in the novel too) require a separate blog as did my watching of the BBC The Hollow Crown; this week too. All so newly relevant.

My plan for New Year’s Eve: read Jonathan Bate’s book on Shakespeare, Soul of the Age, dip into two I’ve been meaning to look at: Lynch’s Becoming Shakespeare and Rosenbaum’s The Shakespeare Wars, Randall Jarrel’s poetry, then a favorite mini-series. Or shall I subside into a favorite Jane Austen movie? or continue with the new Poldark?

We (two of us on Wwtta) carry on reading Hermione Lee’s astonishingly deep biography of Virginia Woolf which has enabled me to come closer to her than ever I did, and over on Trollope19thCStudies a few of us Christmas stories, tonight for me the excitingly visionary ghost story, “Library Window” by Margaret Oliphant: I entered utterly into her dream of a young girl writer who sees across the street in a window a vision of the inexorable demands, price, and rewards of writing, reading, as a way of sustaining oneself hour-by-hour.

It’s a nightmare story about being a writer; about what one has to give up to become a writer, and also what one has to let into one’s soul and allow that perception of reality (however much it’s trauma, however much it takes such hard work) to sink in; one must loose one’s moorings from the social world around and pick up the currents of inward life. Since it is one of Oliphant’s last stories it is her looking back from the perspective of what she was when she set out. There is a luminousness about the tone too. I felt deeply stirred by how she experienced the depths of imaginative reverie as shown in the story. There’s an allusion to Scott which suggests she did see herself as following him finally, not Trollope; the story is set on a street in St Andrews she visited many times when young.

On face-book Christmas day some of the facades were cracking, but not enough to register; a mother and daughter who loved one another dearly have died and twitter shows the grief some feel at the loss of Carrie Fisher, from a massive heart attack at age 60, a remarkably candid writer and iconic actress (Princess Leia, Star Wars) whose memoir, Postcards from the Edge, suggests a Dorothy Parker manque following Carolyn Heilbrun’s prescription to tell. I did not realize her mother, Debbie Reynolds, had phases of her career where she acquitted herself beautifully in serious plays and movies; I wouldn’t discount the brilliance of her performance in the the great “Singin’ in the Rain.” She was living next door to her daughter, outlived her but two days — the blow brought on a stroke.

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My daughters seem to feel about Carrie Fisher’s death the way I felt about Jenny Diski’s death from cancer this year. I am so touched over how the mother died of a broken heart, her grief was too much for her heart to sustain.

And on Wom-po, a poem by Dunya Mikhail as translated by Elizabeth Winslow, about how she turned around to discover she had lost the country she thought she had been living in, which I’ll quote these lines from:

Please, if anyone passes by
and stumbles across it,
perhaps in a suitcase
open to the sky,
or engraved on a rock
like a gaping wound,
or wrapped
in the blankets of emigrants,
or canceled
like a losing lottery ticket …

please to let her know, where, how it has gone, how find it again, who will return it.

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This week’s massacre: Aleppo

Miss Drake

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