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About 2/3s the way through Hungry, Part One of The Gabriels, the family begin to talk about the election campaign supposedly 8 months before election day, and when they come to talk of Hillary Clinton, and talk of how she is disliked, and women are not keen on her because of what seems to be her privileged background, they make this vague reference to Trump without using his name, too “unthinkable” and “dreadful” to contemplate. Then one character says: he feels “something very bad is just about to happen.” The audience as a group made this sound, not a laugh, but a real groan of what felt like semi-distress. The reference in immediate context is now Inauguration Day …

Dear friends and readers,

During this week seeing Richard Nelson’s The Gabriels has taken enough time from my wide awake hours to write about. I was more moved by Parts 3 (“Women of a Certain Age?”) and 2 (“What did you expect?”) than I’ve been at any movie, play or opera, for a very long time. Ben Brantley of the New York Times, comes closest to doing justice to the whole trilogy and making available what is so tremblingly relevant to us, two days before “a very bad thing is about to happen” (a line from Part 1 (“Hungry,” written and first produced months before Trump gained the nomination of the Republican Party).

10gabrielspublictheater
From The Gabriels… Part Three: Women of a Certain Age? (Maryann Plunkett is Mary leaning over the mother, Patricia played by Roberta Maxwell; George, her son is played by Jay O Sanders is comforting his mother who has lost her house; Hannah, his wife to the back, is played by Lynn Hawley; Joyce, Patricia’s daughter round the back (Amy Warren)

Let me begin with Part Three first, Women of a Certain Age, as I began there Saturday afternoon into early evening. Here is a brief synopsis (scroll down).

I loved it. The experience might be regarded as aesthetically old-fashioned, but the realism is done in such quietly rigorous naturalistic ways I’d call the technique innovative: how the talk was delivered, the gestures, the rooting in private realities brought forth indirectly was among the most naturalistic experiences on offer I’ve seen. The directors included Oskar Eustis and Patrick Willingham. It is about previously comfortable white middle class people who have lost out badly. The house owned by the mother, Patricia, is being foreclosed because she fell for a con-artist and went for a reverse mortgage and didn’t understand what this meant; she has been quickly fleeced at an assisted living facility and is now bankrupted by them. Mary, a widow, a doctor by profession, has not kept up her license to practice, as a result of four years of caring for a beloved husband who had Parkinson’s disease, intense grief. We gather over the play that his marriage to Thomas Gabriel, relatively late in life, was her second: she has a daughter from a previous husband (divorce ending it) and her one daughter feels so hostile she tells her mother not only can Mary not count on her for a place to stay however temporarily and to move near, but the daughter wants Mary to stay away from the whole city she lives in (Pittsburgh) or she’ll never even speak to her again. All three plays open with Mary (as the action takes place in what she discovers is nominally her house from her mother-in-law, now foreclosed). The relevance of details is obvious: the foreclosure king is now in charge of one of Trump’s departments of government, Treasury I believe and he was convicted (though had no money to pay or prison term) of foreclosing over thousands illegally to enrich his bank (himself and associates)

Hannah has taken a job as a maid in a hotel working with Hispanic people to try to get some money and keep her son by George (Gabriel), until late years a deeply proud carpenter — in college, which seems their own (however forlorn) hope. What George has had to endure in the last years is the very wealthy no longer think they need to pay him much (when they do pay him). The play has quiet tragedy beyond anguished humor — as the Gabriels are gifted people. Karin, Thomas’s first wife, now teaching play-writing, and come to live with the Gabriels (allowed out of Mary’s kindness) and trying to find a venue for her play on Hillary Clinton, can never tell if she has a date: she shows up for appointments to discover the man wants to exploit her monetarily, to learn about the house Mary has allowed her to rend a room in. The place is the Berkshires where there are many sites of memory, summer culture for the very wealthy. They are hard put to name Trump. At one point someone says what if “he” wins, and Mary replies, well, we’ll just all take a walk to a cliff and jump off.

Among other things, the play puts paid to the notion that it is declining standards of living, a feeling of being left out of globalization and technology led to voting for Trump. This group of people is not super-educated at all. But they are not racist, not bigoted, are mildly feminist (they would be with five women there), not into glamor– the audience for the New Yorker. It’s Edward Albee without the wrenching, Terence Rattigan in American mode.

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Hungry Public Theatre LuEster HUNGRY Written and Directed by Richard Nelson  Featuring Meg Gibson, Lynn Hawley, Roberta Maxwell, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, and Amy Warren Sets & Costumes  Susan Hilferty Lighting  Jennifer Tipton
From The Gabriels … Play One: Hungry: beyond Joyce (Amy Warren) leaning over on one side; next facing us to the left is Thomas’s first wife (Mary was his second wife), Karin (Meg Gibson) who was once Patricia’s daugher-in-law and Hannah’s sister in law (but divorce cancelled that); and then Hannah (Lynn Hawley), George’s wife so Patricia’s daughter-in-law & Mary’s sister-in-law; then facing Joyce on the other side, we see Mary (Maryann Plunkett), also Patricia’s daughter-in-law

Onto Part One, Hungry: there is this problem if you choose to see the plays separately. And I admit not everyone has the time, stamina, to say nothing (at the Kennedy Center where it’s $23 to park in the garage) of the price to see all three plays (nearly two hours each) in a row. Partly (for me and a woman I sat next to who was so un-entertained that she said she would not go on to see the other two when she had planned to with friends) Nelson is expecting too much of a theater experience, which is unique and cannot be replayed, rewound, fast forwarded.

So now seeing Part One I began to better understand Part Three. Bad events are about to happen in Part one (foreclosure on the mother’s property) I hadn’t understood everything in the third play, and upon seeing the first, much was explained. Even the names of the central characters and how they related as “long-time” family and friends. I now from seeing Hungry know a lot more: who the characters are, their relationships. Now I’d like to re-see Play 3 — which one reviewer whose reviews I trust said is the best. There was a standing ovation for Part 3. But understandably, not so Part 1. It was scene setting and character and situation explication. Since I had seen Part 3 I was more moved by Part 1 (relatively hopeful than people who’d seen none: a woman sitting next to me who said she was disappointed and would not come to see the others. I knew more of what these characters were hiding (Hanna about to go to work the next week as a “maid” in a vast luxurious hotel, the only white cleaning woman. Nelson’s problem is he is expecting too much for a theater goer who has literally to get him or herself there. The experience of The Gabriels (cooking and preparing food, political discussions reading aloud to one another taking 4 hours to develop his story to intense engagement.

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THE GABRIELS: Election Year in the Life of One Family Play Two: WHAT DID YOU EXPECT? September 10 - October 9 Meg Gibson Roberta Maxwell Jat O. Saunders Maryann Plunkett Amy Warren
From The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family, Play Two: What did you expect?: George and Hannah the married couple, son and daughter-in-law to Patricia (brother- and sister-in-law to Mary)

Part Two, What did you expect?, the last I saw: I felt unbearably moved tonight (Wednesday) at the close of Part Two. If anything Part 2 is the most moving of the three. Since we are not encouraged to weep, I cannot liken it to Chekhov but the experience is closely analogous.

In Part Two the hard economic conditions under which this group of people are living emerges. What is conveyed is the inexorable lack of any help for the average person from gov’t or any other entity, and how family groups as individuals with no group to belong to (no union comes to mind, but there could be other entities such as I remember in the UK: Friendly Societies for mortgages, Building Societies, school programs), they are fleeced and cheated so fundamentally that they cannot win to security, and in the present gov’t induced “austerity” are condemned to struggle which gets them nowhere. They have lost the family house they are now living in because the mother was preyed upon by mortgage in reverse people — she agreed to give her house away and get payments for it because her social security was so small. She did not understand what she needed to pay and now she has lost the house. She must leave her assisted living because the charges are way too high and she now owes them thousands she cannot pay. The charge is $4500 a month for living in a single room, for meals, and for the individual dinners she had with her son and daughters-in-law. The discussion over this that suddenly breaks out is painful in the extreme to watch because it is the kind of discussion families avoid and allow to come out only in parts.

The one saving that George, the son, and his wife, Hannah have done, has been for the boy’s college and they must use that just to get the mother debt-free; they will have to borrow to pay for the boy’s college. We the audience know he may not get a decent living from this degree. They live in a community where super-rich people come for the summer to their summer homes. George wants to go on a picnic with a rich friend he recently made because they will go on a literary walk, but it emerges he is hoping to be hired to build bookcases for this man all over the man’s house. The man’s wife has three times since buying the house renovated the walls. We have seen how easy it is to cheat him of his pay. Hanna says the man agreed to it because he’s hoping to hire George to carry things for him (be a handyman-drudge). She has been asked to provide the picnic because George told these people she caters sometimes, but it was put as a favor, and she is not to be paid. We see the whole family preparing this picnic in What Did You Expect?

It’s just endless. The election as backdrop is a show, there is no sense that this Hillary or Bill who come round will do anything in gov’t for them. Nelson seems to know that Trump will win. We see a hollow government order. There are hidden powers these people don’t come near that are keeping them this way. They live in a vacuum. These powerful people are what is putting Trump (or Hillary) in power and it is they who call the shots. Nothing will be done to help these people, and they sink more and more. George we are told is not well but does not go to the doctor. He is not an aggressive man and during the second play we see how easy it is for a woman to buy a precious piano for much less than she should pay. It’s an upright no prestige, has these scratches (just what the Toyota store used to give me much less money for the car I traded in); it breaks his heart to lose the piano and he gets so much less for it than he should. He is a kind good-hearted man. I thought to myself that now that Trump won he will take power not because the constitution is being obeyed: when Obama wa sin power the constitution was not obeyed over senate appointments and they congress stopped him from passing everything they could. Becaus of Citizens United (put in place by the courts and corporations who brought the case) huge sums have put Republicans in power in all states and in congress. Now these powers will back whatever Trump does to the to the hilt now no matter what he does or says as long as he gets rid of the New Deal, and runs a gov’t by billionaires for millionaires.

That is the larger political reality this play slowly conveys. Not through speeches and a strong allegorical mirroring situation but in bits and pieces through real talk. In this talk we see a group of people who are good to one another and supportive: these characters are luckier than many. They have known griefs. Thomas whom Mary so loved and who was her meaning and mainstay for the last ten years did divorce Karin who now has come to live with Mary. In the first act Karin comes for a visit to commemorate Thomas’s death (Mary’s birthday), by the second she is renting Thomas’s old office to live in; by the third she has to find herself a new place she can afford. Not easy. She is alone, and at first Patricia and Hannah are not sure Mary should even let Karin stay the night (which is how she begins to insinuate herself into the family group). Mary’s one daughter will have nothing to do with her and it breaks her heart. Joyce, the third child of Patricia’s family now grown has intense “issues” with her mother who favored her two sons, George and Thomas, heavily. She has come each time because of an important occasion: Mary’s birthday where they commemorated Thomas; the mother moving out of assisted living. She is an assistant dress designer and like George services the super-rich. Hanna clearly loves George for him, what he is. The desperation is Chekhovian, the delicacy of the talk that moves into anguish only at heights. It seems that both George and Joyce resented Thomas’s success and his search for an “identity,” which seems to have meant really him trying to break away from this group and be a successful playwright, which he didn’t manage.

Something is omitted: like other middle class vehicles which play to white audiences (all three audiences were mostly white people): the systemic racism that fuels the refusal of the average person to identify with social programs and want to end them. This is a group of people seemingly not bigoted, the only time ethnicity comes up is when Hannah says in play three she will be the only white woman on the staff. Rhinebeck where they live is apparently heavily white in the native as well as the summering rich groups of people. It does show that immiseration does not have to lead to voting for Trump. These people are for Hillary Clinton because they are not racist; they never bring up immigrants either. This is probably improbable. Never to mention these as issues. Only Bill Clinton’s sex life, the bill that let the bank loose on people. Never as women to mention the end of welfare — since they are women who might need to go to unemployment offices. So there’s the flaw if made acceptable by its placement.

There is self-reflexive talk by the playwright too as when Karin is going over Thomas’s plays to see if anything can be sold. Talk about playwriting, what people go to plays to see. Nelson justifies his technique and goals in some of this. When George is pretending the sole reason he is going on the picnic, he goes on with great warmth over Hawthorne, Melville and Emerson and other American writers who lived in the area once upon a time. They read from a novel at one point (a graphic charged description of a scene of sexual intercourse from a woman’s point of view). And how could it not be implicitly truly feminist with five women on stage, and it’s deeply humane social vision. As with Austen’s Emma, the play has other invisible presences or characters so intensely talked about they are there: Thomas, the dead man; Paul, George and Hannah’s son, someone George gives a piano lesson to, the cruel women who drives down the price of the piano and lies she has another she might buy, and plays games like going to leave; the two dates that Karin goes out on, only to return quickly as they wanted only to exploit her (she is too old to attract a man); others they describe in their stories.

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whatdidyouexpect
Women of a Certain Age as title fits this scene: going round the table left to right: animated Joyce, single (never married); Mary, widowed (previously married with one estranged daughter); Hannah, married but now must work as a maid in a hotel; Karin divorced and no where to go, a stray (in patriarchal arrangements that’s what women of a certain age frequently become … )

So I came near tears at the end of the third play, and my last night at the end of the second didn’t dare speak or look at anyone or I would have burst into crying. Each play opened and closed with Mary, and her grief and loss. Here I sit week after week writing what I do? why? it’s the only way I know how to communicate with people.

So many thousands years in solitary confinement in the US. The extreme symbol. It was the play’s human dimension that hit me hard. The acting is so persuasively real and not at all overdone. What a relief. I did recognize people in the audience from Part 1, there for Part 2, and a couple from Part 3 on both nights. So I was not mesmerized alone.

I get so involved with literature that allows me to be with others and talk to others (or write) because (from Virginia Woolf on novels) “they are about people, they excite in us [me] feelings that people excite in real life.” This play attaches itself to an idea of what life is about, what makes it valuable, beyond community people need self-esteem, they need to be comfortable and secure, they need to feel good about themselves, need to value their activities and think of them as worth while. The Gabriels are a form of angels because they do want the finer values, not sheer material wealth, though they need some of that too. It’s about America’s spiritual condition which is being torn down and torn apart. In my solitary life I am representative of a lot of people. Karen in the play is closest to me but I recognized myself in all the women and recognized men I’ve known in George and Thomas (including Jim, in his last years an adjunct dressing down the way George does).

As I looked at the audience last night I saw displeased faces. People there did not like what they were shown. All three times the audience auditorium was about half full at best. There was a standing ovation at the end of the third part, but only applause (and standing has become a new standard) at the end of the second. I almost did not stand at the end of the second, but I so respected these actors for conveying such a depth of intelligent understanding and Maryann Plunkett for what it is to be a widow, containing in herself such stifled emotion and loneliness even amid these family members that I stood. I caught the eye of one of the actresses, Lynn Hawley who played Hannah and saw she was grateful to me. My standing made her feel better. Another woman had stood up too.

E. M.

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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blogging-cat
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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herbertshrew-jph
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.

herbertladyanner3
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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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

This month’s song: she plays on a Yamaha PSR, Voice Setting #45, 12STR Guitar:

Springsteen’s lyrics:

I get up in the evening
And I ain’t got nothing to say
I come home in the morning
I go to bed feeling the same way
I ain’t nothing but tired
Man I’m just tired and bored with myself
Hey there baby, I could use just a little help

You can’t start a fire
You can’t start a fire without a spark
This gun’s for hire
Even if we’re just dancing in the dark

Message keeps getting clearer
Radio’s on and I’m moving ’round the place
I check my look in the mirror
I want to change my clothes, my hair, my face
Man I ain’t getting nowhere
I’m just living in a dump like this
There’s something happening somewhere
Baby I just know that there is

You can’t start a fire
You can’t start a fire without a spark
This gun’s for hire
Even if we’re just dancing in the dark

You sit around getting older
There’s a joke here somewhere and it’s on me
I’ll shake this world off my shoulders
Come on baby this laugh’s on me

Stay on the streets of this town
And they’ll be carving you up alright
They say you gotta stay hungry
Hey baby I’m just about starving tonight
I’m dying for some action
I’m sick of sitting ’round here trying to write this book
I need a love reaction
Come on now baby gimme just one look

You can’t start a fire sitting ’round crying over a broken heart
This gun’s for hire
Even if we’re just dancing in the dark
You can’t start a fire worrying about your little world falling apart
This gun’s for hire
Even if we’re just dancing in the dark
Even if we’re just dancing in the dark
Even if we’re just dancing in the dark
Even if we’re just dancing in the dark
Hey baby

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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“The calm and polite unconcern [cold indifference] of Lady Middleton on the occasion [of Marianne Dashwood’s breakdown because of the public betrayal of her by Willoughby] was an happy relief to Elinor’s spirits, oppressed as they often were by the clamorous kindness of the others. It was a great comfort to her to be sure of exciting no interest in one person at least among their circle of friends; a great comfort to know that there was one who would meet her without feeling any curiosity after particulars, or any anxiety for her sister’s health. Every qualification is raised at times, by the circumstances of the moment, to more than its real value; and she was sometimes worried down by officious condolence to rate good-breeding as more indispensable to comfort than good-nature — Austen, Sense and Sensibility.”

Dear friends and readers,

All depends on your point of view. While for Izzy and me, graduating from last year’s indoor tiny tree to this year’s small tree was an expansion of cheer, for our pussycats it means they just cannot see out of the window over the credenza.

Shall I tell you how I acquired that credenza. Laura and I used to drive to a local Salvation Army center and buy used clothes, toys. This was when Izzy was around 2 and in a daycare school for a few hours each day. One day we saw this lovely cream-colored credenza and I know I needed some sort of furniture in the dining room besides the wooden dining table. It was $10. Cash down. Laura and I lifted it together, carried it along the pathway and somehow jammed it into my car, and I drove us home. It has sat under the window since then.

My cats have shown exemplary patience though.

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Clarycat in the afternoon

They are old enough to know we don’t want that tree to come down, and so they sniff hesitantly around it seeking to find if there’s a place they can sit right next to the window. I have thwarted them some more by putting a small stack of book on one side, and a glass decanter of wine on the other so there is no hope to get round — if there was they’d have long ago knocked the whole thing over. But as it is, we’ve lost but one hanging gold bell thus far. And it didn’t break when it hit the floor.

For the first time ever — since 2005 when my then next-door neighbor (she’s moved away since) bought for me a plastic Penguin dressed absurdly as a small child gussied up for winter to go sledding, whom if you plug him in, glitters away — for the first time I say Colin is illumed:

colin

I had no electrical outlet until last year when my now across-the-street neighbor helped me buy a long outdoor chord, and the year the previous neighbor who bought Colin as a gift came over the next morning to warn me not to put him out. It seems her partner had put up a splendiferous sleigh with reindeer, plugged it in, and went inside. The next morning, it was gone. Stolen. An inside job – within the neighborhood. He was shocked. Now he had to think badly of some neighbor, who couldn’t put the thing out on his or her lawn. Perhaps they gave it away as a gift or sold it. I worried about Colin, had an irrational affection for the piece, so kept him inside the house.

He’s still inside, inside the outside screened porch whose door is not easy to open (so safe I hope), and that seems to be enough. He looks like he’s waving to passers-by, so eagerly out there, all alone — I used to dream him the son never had, now I know he’s me …

Izzy and I did go to see an enjoyable Second Shepherd’s Play this past Sunday, and for the afternoon of Christmas Eve will go to the Kennedy Center for Sondheim’s Into the Woods. But other than that, it’s reading, listening to a book read aloud, movie-watching, time with pussycats — and of course writing.

A few nutshells:

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View of Eruption of Vesuvius on a Sunday night, 9 August 1799 by Pietro Fabris

Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover for a book I’m reviewing on historical fiction; truly engaging, even possibly great. Soon Colin Simpson’s superb life of Emma, Lady Hamilton, one of the characters. In the book this inscription: “Being a Christmas Gift from Jim, 1992.” This inscription and the characters the book presents led me to three volumes Jim loved and would read in again and again: the journals and memoirs of Charles Greville, an MP, courtier, and brilliant raconteur of the 1790s and Regency world of England; he was nephew to William, Lord Hamilton, who married Emma (born Amy Lyon) after Greville “unloaded” her onto his collector-uncle. I felt so bad for an afternoon that I didn’t pay enough attention to Jim when he’d read aloud from it. I didn’t realize quite what Greville this man was; I would get him confused with Fulke Greville, Philip Sidney’s best friend, another poet. Small grief amid the larger.

The only character I have been able to bond with or care about is one monkey,Jack, whom William Lord Hamilton buys and at first loves him abjectly and shows it. Hamilton doesn’t want that and teases and is cruel to the poor animal who then does a turn-about and becomes the performing anxious doll-like creature Hamilton wanted. I felt the cruelty of Hamilton’s teasing and so bad for the monkey who died, partly of neglect (the servants would not care for it when Hamilton was away) and partly of a broken heart. Sontag has made this effect deliberately because she has Hamilton think to himself how he has been told to buy two creatures so they will not be lonely as they need their own species but he coolly will not do it. There are depictions of the slaughtering of animals on these false hunts (the animals have no chance, so that the king never misses a shot) and then the desperately poor jumping on the carcasses and tearing them to pieces to eat them. Horrible horrible oh most horrible. Hamilton’s first wife has died and that too is partly a broken heart – so alone the woman. So now we are set up for Emma to enter the stage.

Slowly at night Debbie Horsfield’s scripts for the new Poldark mini-series, the first season (and I have the second): like novels. I then watch the episodes one by one, book in hand. Alas they are insufficiently annotated (no camera angles told, not enough description of settings, and other film decisions). The texts are trying to approximate novels when they should much more like shooting scripts. I’ve changed my mind and find the new Poldarks better (if not different in theme and approach) than I felt originally. I was and am strongly attached to the 1970s conceptions (liking three of the screenplay writers’ work too), but find just watching the new ones and using the screenplays as intermediate texts for the novels, a woman’s and deeply egalitarian point of view emerges, bring home to me a thought-out vision of what is integrity and how should we live, for what, in a hard world. Little omitted in the British DVDs, nothing rearranged.

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Sophie Okenedo as Margaret of Anjou (Queen) mounts seething attack on Sally Hawkins as Eleanor (Nell), Duchess of Gloucester (Protector’s Wife)

Squeezing in very late at night: The Hollow Crown, truly remarkable. I have read all 37 plays (numbers of them several times and the sonnets and at least once the other poems, and at one time longed to major in Shakespeare and write my dissertation on Cymbeline; I taught Richard II, The Winter’s Tale, Hamlet a couple of times each. And i used to read the older criticism — not the last 20 years or so and I know “the conversation” as it’s put has changed a lot, and from what I’ve seen I can guess where it’s at: feminism, reading against the grain, the plays as theater and so on. I say this just to say where I come from (as we used to say). I just love Shakespeare and each time I read a play or go to one well-done I am astonished at how his achievement just towers in thought, language, dramatic interest, the characters, poetry and so on.

The new BBC films are making the plays so accessible: the actors speak the lines as if it were today’s English and yet they make clear what they are saying (by action too). I once saw the original 3 Henry VI plays done (at the Papp theater) followed by Richard III (an all nighter), and I’ve read the Henry VI plays through but once. I’d like to watch the older BBC series available on Netflix. What this one did was make the play far more shapely too. The two adapters turned it into a tragedy with the fall of Humphrey Duke of Gloucester as the central linchpin of the king’s weakness and turning to corrupt advisors. Hugh Bonneville was so good at this kind of part (he can do evil men too), and they somehow rearranged so Dame Eleanor was leading figure in this onslaught clearly. Sally Hawkins does the distraught and disturbed personality to a T; she did it in Persuasion. On the other side to Somerset, the Plantagenet Duke of York is made from the outset to be intensely ambitious and wanting to take the throne when Henry V died.It’s all there in Shakespeare but not so clear. The death of the Talbots (Philip Glenister outstanding) becomes another instance of how the ambitious destroy the good: neither Somerset or York would send men or money. Sophie Okenedo is extraordinary as Margaret of Anjou: of course they added the explicit sex. The way the play is done you don’t see Joan of Arc as opposed to her or a parallel (the latter is felt in Shakespeare) but sympathetically — which is startling but they are Shakespeare’s words.

It seemed so relevant to what’s happening to day as I watched the intense hypocritical councils. How astonishing is how dark Shakespeare is — an easy word but it does — even at the outset. People so rarely today (they used to in the later 19th century when biographical criticism of Shakespeare was common) talk of his relationship to his plays: but here he is at the beginning of his career emphasizing the tragedy of sensitive good people (he develops from that), weak (Henry VI and the actor was very good in it, he did it as a boy out of his depths). This melancholy perspective and the attack on the ambitious as deeply untrustworthy stays throughout the career.

Next “door” to Charles Greville on my shelf, Fulke Greville’s poetry — Greville was in the audiences to Shakespeare’s plays when done live in the 1590s:

In night when colours all to black are cast,
Distinction lost, or gone down with the light;
The eye a watch to inward senses plac’d,
Not seeing, yet still having power of sight,

Gives vain alarums to the inward sense,
Where fear stirr’d up with witty tyranny,
Confounds all powers, and thorough self-offence,
Doth forge and raise impossibility:

Such as in thick depriving darknesses,
Proper reflections of the error be,
And images of self-confusednesses,
Which hurt imaginations only see;

And from this nothing seen, tells news of devils,
Which but expressions be of inward evils.

Who says the humanities are not relevant to our world today:

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Anthony Hopkins as Pierre stalking, distraught, in frantic killing world of 1812, Moscow (1972, scripted Jack Pulman)

Coming to the end of our group read and talk on Tolstoy’s War and Peace and for me also a third time through Pulman’s 20 45 minute episode mini-series: what a rich pleasurable deeply moving experience these together with Andrew Davies’s 2016 6 75 minute episode mini-series (I just sit and weep over Andrey’s death done so well and realistically) and some few good books on the novel have been these 5 months for me.

This was on the Victorian Web this week:

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J.W. North: a city tree dreams it is in the country

And so we come to the mid-winter darkness
shivering while the killing goes on elsewhere
for now

Miss Drake

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Friends and readers,

My week of mostly quietly reading, writing in the new world order unfolding all around me, included two masterpiece books I can write briefly about here:

Caryl Phillips’s Cambridge:

By the time I came to the end of the perhaps nameless woman’s journal (and I only realized she had not named herself or had anyone else called her by her first or last name in the last few pages), I felt in a state of terror. Realistic terror, nothing supernatural here. 2/3s of the book an uncanny imitation of an upper class white woman come to live in the West Indies on a plantation where black people are being worked to death, or savagely used for sex, flogged viciously. It’s hard to put why the single word I’d use most strongly is terrifying since so much is left out. We often don’t know why something happened. Phillips imitates diaries in leaving out significant information in the way diarists do. Things suddenly happen without explanation — like Emily (she may be naming herself in her last sentences) is suddenly having sex (an affair) with the white overseer of the plantation she’s been sent to by her father. Quite why we don’t know: her explanation to report on the plantation doesn’t make sense as you need to know something first and clearly she is utterly ignorant of businesses and slavery and plantation life in the West Indies. Maybe her father did this to force her to accept a much older man he wants her to marry whom she is to marry when she returns (and why she realize she doesn’t want to).

The terror insofar as I can account for it does not come from what these human beings are doing to one another or forced to allow others to do to them. It’s presented so prosaically and the white woman repeats the worst ugly cliches about black people — that they deserve this treatment is what her words all amount to, are not worth any other. comes from the evils of slavery which this book has uncovered more than any other I’ve read in the sense of more deeply. It sounds so obvious but what Phillips makes you realize is the true evil of slavery is that the worst aspects of human nature emerge from everyone (slaves and owners, and non-owners and free or partly free black people, and whites in indentured servitude alike) and there is no control, no law. Law is a sham when at any point someone can murder someone else with impunity. White owners can blog a black to death or hang them with them having no recourse (if there is a pretense trial, it’s transparently ridiculous). This leads them to want to murder anyone and everyone who hurts them back. Or at least enough slaves or half-slaves. Everyone lies too, nothing to be depended upon.

So a white woman who has been so foolish as to go to bed with a white man without marriage (unacknowledged desperation) and offered to stay longer and lost her respectability as lost what little safety net she had. Much as I’m led to dislike the unnamed diarist or Emily the terror is for her, as she feels it.

The first text I read which brought all this home to me was Fanny Kemble’s journal of her two years (1839-40 or so) on a South Carolina plantation run on slave labor. Rice the crop. The last two chapters on women: how they are made playthings for violence, scarred for fun, whipped, gang-raped, and then expected to breed; after the birth of the child, forced out within a week to work from dawn to dusk. Mary Prince’s diary tells of how for 12 hours in row 6 days a week she was forced to work in salt waters. Made her blind. Cambridge shows us what life was life in extermination camps too. Today in US prisons. The analogy with the US today is in fact striking. A lawless lying president. Police in the streets permitted to kill with impunity. Fake news that leads white men with assault rifles to come to “self-investigate” and kill people in a family pizza place in Washington, D.C. I begin to be paranoiac and wonder if Trump is manufacturing more fake news to shut down the internet. Now we hear of fake news about Iraq making some of these followers want to go there and kill people.

Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, especially the central section, Time Past, all about death, dying, disintegration, creating both artificial objects and natural ones as animate

The front “story” is like The Years: the text focuses on what is surrounding description, context, the weather, in most novels: nature, natural forces, the weather, air, light shade, with almost as an afterthought, bits of plot, and what are they? death. there is the sudden sentence that Mr Ramsay stretched out his arm and of course Mrs Ramsay wasn’t there “having died suddenly the night before.” Suddenly their daughter Prue is getting married and all say how wonderful, but then we are told in afterthought fashion she died in childbirth (indirectly said).

While there is no ghost in the manner of M.R. James or psychological projections, the whole section is haunted with the presence of Mrs Ramsay: the house is empty because she’s not there. The narrator slips into third person indirect every once in a while and we are in Lily’s mind or near Mr Ramsay’s or the housekeeper Mrs McNab dusting under the empty beds. That last is so characteristic of Woolf: she usually has some old impoverished woman about. She suddenly turns her mind to Andrew, blown to bits on a battlefield, died immediately she says, relieved to think so.

On one level it’s an ode to Mrs Ramsay, to mother. The lead-in to the central section is Mr and Mrs Ramsay in bed, he reading Scott’s The Antiquary to reassure himself his kind of writing and his hegemony with Scott not superceded, but the emphasis is on the death of Steenie – sudden, grieving his frustrated-in-life father so, for many one of the best passages Scott ever wrote, and the sonnet by Shakespeare that Mrs Ramsay quotes is also haunted, “as with your shadows I did play – the lover is absent, has gone, and you are left darkling and deeply at a loss.” Mr Ramsay apparently doesn’t approve of his wife’s pessimism. There is a luxuriating in death as release at last. And we catalogue the dead (for Mr Ramsay goes too) – there’s a futility in all human beings do is one part of the feel.

The film adapted from the last two of Proust’s novels, Time Past, was one of Jim’s favorites: he’d watch it over and over again.

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My beloved well-taken-care of Clarycat photographed in the room where I read these books and type on this computer this week ….

Abigail Tucker’s The Lion in your Living Room:

among much twaddle (the sign you have a book meant for a popular non-reader is that you are given only a couple of nuggets of information or insight every four pages or so lest that reader be intimidated by “too much density”) she is on about how house cats became domesticated by interacting with human beings chasing the same food supply (meat) and what a tremendously successful species they have become. There’s a downsize to this as one could take away from this book, cats are a danger to the earth as this all too numerous predator. She writes in this non-focused meander so her perspective has a way of oozing in unintended directions. She also does not want to offend her readers’ pride so the deep reason we like cats — because they love us, cling to us, create a private hidden world of play, physical affection, interspecies communication omitted.

In Ian’s mind you see he and I are together for say several hours. He is nearby, in various postures close, he does small things, puts out a paw once in a while, when I get up, he follows; he makes a meow; he jumps on my lap, squats, then turns and pushes his whole body against my chest. We are together. Clarycat is just loving me on and off all day. Once in a while she retires to rest in another room or rests in her catbed as you see in the photo. This aspect of the cat Tucker doesn’t acknowledge. They are not lions in living rooms. They are domesticated small feline deep companions.

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Ian this morning, walking around breakfast things, nearby his catnip mouse —

He likes to play with toys still. A small catnip mouse has been a great success. He pushes it around the house with his paw; he has a small bird with a rattle and feathers on a string that he pulls about with his mouth. then he stops and wrestles with it.

I mean to write much more at length, separate blog, on Margaret Oliphant’s The Marriage of Elinor, Jane Hill’s The Art of Carrington (to say nothing of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, book and 1972 BBC mini-series).

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Camille Pissarro — Chestnut Trees at Louveciennes — it’s 20 degrees outside as I type this

So, outside activities: Three times to the gym in the morning for “body strengthening” classes (a large bunch of older people first semi-dancing and then semi-exercising with chair, plastic ball, weights and stretch chord) at a gym. I put up that tree at the top of this blog. I climbed a ladder thinking to try to put the lights into the higher branches, but realized I’d fall so gave it up. My across-the-street neighbor helped me put a cap on my outside faucet lest the pipes freeze

I have a volume of poetry by women which is titled The Widow’s handbook. It’s very fat, one or two poems each poet. One of the many things it taught me was how varied widowing is — some women lose their husbands to death as early as their 30s (not just an accident but illness) and there’s a great variety of circumstances as well as how he left you. Some husbands don’t tell their wives the truth and she finds herself badly in debt or without a pension. There are devastating reinforcements. The book is organized so as to begin in grief, show some interim time and then the last more upbeat.

I’m finding I can hardly believe 4 years have gone by. They felt in the experience but swift now that it’s 4. When I first was widowed I knew a woman who was so hurt when I seemed to imply that after 4 years she should be doing something other, moving on; now I know I was naive and why she was so hurt.

I came home yesterday late afternoon to discover that my machine had updated itself, and would no longer support “safari” and my gmail was gone to pot, back to some incoherent html system. I emailed my IT guy in a shaking panic and he sensed I needed him NOW. Came right on, and within half an hour I was using a new browser, Internet Explorer, with all my stuff from safari transferred over. I’m having some minor trouble with Yahoo as not all my mail is going there, and each time I come on I must fill in my password once again. But I can live with it. A huge glass of wine gulped down while I watched him. It calmed me, I was able to cope then. He said, “Good way to begin Friday night, Ellen.” I wasn’t so sure.

I had seen a remarkable film, Manchester by the Sea, well worth going to (I became so involved I cried out at one point). Tides of grief the reviewer says. It is a relief to see some accuracy in depicting the economic and social lives of average Americans today, only it’s fake because no one anywhere isn’t white and none of them are overtly desperate for money, or even complain about their status, no one angry but our hero.

The US situation is hard to capture because it is so complicated and made up of so many peoples who are not integrated together, but exist as separate ethnic and other groups, each in tiny world of family, few friends, long hours of work, moving with and to jobs: but basically, reductively, there seems to be a vast body of people living on the edge of economic disaster, just making ends meet, and needing to borrow — sometimes larger sums, but often just using credit cards to do that,”maxing them out” as the vicious man at the head of US power urged his salesmen when they were pressuring people to go to Trump university. There is another group where people seem comfortable, not in debt, have savings, even investments, and houses and cars, but take away some social benefits (pensions) have the stock market collapse and are up shit’s creek. Can’t make ends meet. Evicted, have to move. Now there is a tiny minority of very rich, say 10% and they are not at risk and they want to take back whatever they supply to the others. Massive cuts to social security starts the game. If they manage to do that will there be finally a civil war, an eruption, a revolution. It could go to bring an even more rightist to power as people are so self-centered by every instinct. People don’t revolt easily either; they don’t want to put their lives, their bodies on the line. It’s so easy to kill someone – and with a gun it’s nothing. As yet his Trump followers liking his tweets (oh yes) and only beginning to murmur as they see themselves individually betrayed here and there — like putting in charge of treasury the Goldman Sacks man who was known as a foreclosure “king:” (didnt go to jail for false foreclosures but others did, he just grew richer).

And otherwise Trump leading the pack to “drain the swamp” into which he is stashing alligators. Take away the little people have beyond the bits they can earn. You’re right that they are dependent on consumers buying but do they see that. Apparently Assad thinks he need not have any people in his country. They get in the way of extracting oil and selling it for huge profits. The man put at the head of Labor apparently has said robots are much better as workers at his fast food restaurants; they don’t get sick, don’t ask for vacation, smile at customers, are efficient, never complain. So he’d like to replace as many workers as possible with robots and what does he care of they die of sicken or distress (having no access to medicine, or having it are hounded for debts). Suicides among white women in their 40s going up; life expectancy of US people going down. Minority rule. He and his “mad dog” military demonizing Arabs and Muslims in the ongoing colonialist grabs of oil and natural resources, selling arms (LeCarre’s Night Manager was my topic in a previous diary entry). The real voting choices of the majority stifled, nullified.

The real problem with the movie Manchester by the Sea on its own terms (not its political inferences which are important) is that Kenneth Lonergan thinks in order to make people sympathize with someone going around with such a hurt in him is he has to invent this devastating loss. The hero is responsible — it was an accident but he had been drinking hard, enjoying as it’s said the company of friends over billiards to 3 in the morning, and left the fire on (as his wife insisted she could not bear the heat high in winter) in the fireplace, went out for more beer, and came back to find his home a furnace and his three children dead. But in truth all one needs is to be alive, go through life, see others and be treated by them in various ways for say a few years of teenagehood. Abrasive aggressive and mockery and coldness when I tried to confide, another person telling yet others what I said and a third shocked – you don’t tell such things. Such one small moment. And one can go through life with this terrible hurt within. The hero does have it well before the accident: we see in his eyes how he yearns and how he is rejected — by his wife in bed, by others who don’t understand.

Today Izzy and I saw the HD screening of Kaija Saarianho’s L’Amour de loin (love from afar), libretto by Amin Maalouf. I’ll write a separate blog for this: it was remarkable, taking within its allegory Tristan and Isolde (especially in an 1890s version by Joseph Bedier, in French), the dying fisher king, Aymntas (especially in Wolfram’s Parzival), fear of existence itself (dying and living) so retreat into dreams. Yet it was deeply reactionary: the chorus allowed to bring only parts of their bodies and heads out of some constrained barred area. The worship of the supposed numinous.

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Tomorrow is Sunday and I used to put a poem on this blog every Sunday:

Women
BY: Yannis Ritsos,

translated by Ryan Bloom

Women can seem a world away, their sheets smelling of “goodnight.”
Setting a small loaf of bread on the table so we don’t notice the distance, don’t feel them
missing.
We understand, though, that we are to blame; we rise from our sleep and say:
“Let me burn the flame tonight,” or “You’ve worked too hard today.”
We strike a match; she turns, drifts slowly out of sight, her gaze
inexplicably fixed on the dull kitchen light. Her back,
a bitter slope, bears the weight of death:
family dead, her dead, our own death.
We listen; ancient floorboards creak under her footsteps,
dried streaks of water stain dishes in the dish rack—listen…
there’s the train come to take our soldiers to the front.

What women are enduring everywhere in these crazed wars making terror: Yemen, Syria. What can one begin to say or feel that’s adequate to the case. I began this blog with terror; I had some reference to a cunning clown and his henchman and the immiseration of vast numbers of disenfranchised people I end on horror, dismay, should we not feel helpless rage.

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A photo of a dog and cat huddling together on the streets of Iraq this week

I live vicariously too, gentle reader. My social life is getting on the Net, seeing letters from friends and answering and feeling so grateful when they do answer. One group reading group I manage to stay with by having two other people support it who I can write with. Others I look in on. Blogs where I see others like me spend most of their hours among books. Face-book chatting with like-minded people. Twitter hearing how others are reacting to the day’s news or moments of their outward social lives, what they have just read. Just a thought he or she had.

I do love my long hours with books and writing. I love the movies I spend time watching. I see people from afar and a couple close who live my way. I finally understood what went wrong between me and that women Clare Shepherd who I visited for a week in Cornwall and tried so desperately to be friends face-to-face and living around. The thing, the area that made us friends is a self or experience that comes out in writing and from a distance. When encountering one another directly, a very different self comes out and that was one when both of us saw neither of us could relate to.

And how do you get through your days, gentle reader?

Miss Drake