Category Archives: Essays and Lessons

Friendkeeping: a Primer

Friendkeeping by Julie Klam is the book you will want to give all your bestest friends, not as a nudge-nudge, hint-hint reminder of what it takes to be a good friend, but rather as a celebration of just how great friends can be. And if they (or you) pick up a few hints on how to be a better friend, so much the better for everyone. We all need reminding once in awhile that connection takes more than just showing up for drinks or a walk — and Klam offers the reminders with her usual big heart, goofy humor, and open admissions.

Klam tackles the big issues of friendship in Friendkeeping, including jealousy within the relationship (likening it to Kuato from the movie Total Recall – an ugly little creature that lives in her belly and rears his schadenfreude head from time to time); what happens when you love a friend but hate his/her partner (we have all been there); sharing (despite being a memoirist Klam admits that for years she couldn’t talk about her troubles with friends, either in her own life or with them. Now she understands the two-way street of sharing is vital to a good friendship — but even then, she also understand there are situations when you are there just to listen); and how to let go of friends that just are not right for you (for Julie, the deal breaker was taking a dog out for a walk without a leash — IN NYC!).

Klam also takes on, with wit and grace, the even bigger ordeals of illness, depression, and distance: those moments (or years) in friendship when more effort, understanding, and love is required. You can do it, Klam urges us all, and with her coaching, she is right: we can.

Wonderful Week of Reading

I was on vacation last week and as usual for a beach vacation, I read a lot. Two mysteries, two novels, one epistolary volume, and one non-fiction, all so very different one from the other, and all good.

I started the week with Penelope’s Way by Blanche Howard. A seventy-year old woman decides it is time to figure out the meaning of life, both metaphysically and physically. A memory of a sudden dizziness followed by illumination, experienced during a long ago trip to France, sets Penelope off in search of corresponding experiences — a worldwide wave of heightened consciousness, fertility, and vision — and what she finds affirms both the wonder and the unknowability of life, and the myriad possibilities of its meanings. What matters is what connects us, the bridges between “our lonely, disparate, personal universes.” Penelope is influenced inevitably by circumstances (illness, death, ebbs and flows of friendship) but, relying heavily on her own intuition and memories, stays more or less on course in her quest to find meaning.

Contrasting with Penelope Way‘s exaltation of intuition and self-determination, is the last book I read during my week of vacation, the non-fiction Thinking, Fast and Slow, by the Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman exposes both human intuition and rational thinking (and financial traders) as less prevalent and reliable than we’d like them to be, intuition being a gut reaction derived from evolutionary requirements of survival but too often influenced by our own prejudices and predilections, rational thinking being influenced by the same — and financial wizardry more a game of luck than expertise.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is a fascinating and flowing exploration of the two systems at work in our brain (and body), the first-phase of gut reaction (System 1) and the second-phase of more applied thinking (System 2). Meant to provide a stimulus for discussion at the work place and at home (we’ve already had a number of great dinner table conversations on the topics covered by Kahneman), provoking conversations about rational thinking and motivation and planning, I fear Kahneman’s insights, gleaned from decades of research, will be used in this season of politics to manipulate System 1 and blunt System 2 as much as possible! Rational thinking, after all, has little to do with voting. As Kahneman notes, “A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.”

I also read The Wings of the Dove by Henry James, another fascinating exploration of human motivation, self-knowledge, and manipulation of others for personal gain (and satisfaction).

I loved the story and the characters of this novel but James is not easy to read, and if you have never read him, The Wings of the Dove might not be the best work with which to become acquainted with his writing. I recommend starting with novellas, including The Aspern Papers, Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw, then moving on to the novel The Portrait of a Lady, and then coming to other novels, including The Wings of the Dove. It might be a great project for a year — a year of Henry James!

I read two mysteries on vacation. Don’t Cry, Tai Lake by Qiu Xiaolong provides a unique window into modern China, with its lead character a vacationing police detective who also writes poetry. Inspector Chen not only writes poetry (including a beautiful poem that is delivered in sections throughout the novel) but also quotes extensively from different periods of Chinese literature, using his vast stores of ancient sayings and poems to support his present-day reflections on life.

Inspector Chen becomes fascinated by a young woman, an environmentalist and activist, who becomes embroiled in a murder investigation. Has she murdered to punish a polluter? Chen must use all his wits, and quotations, to solve the crime and save the girl, and perhaps even nudge the power-wielding cadres to care about the pollution threatening China’s natural resources.

China plays a role in the other mystery I read, The Shanghai Moon, another great Lydia Chin/Bill Smith novel by S.J. Rozan.
I love Rozan’s mysteries (see my review of Ghost Hero) and The Shanghai Moon is another well-crafted, factually fascinating (the exodus of over 60,000 Jewish refugees to Shanghair during World War II), thoroughly entertaining, and thrilling novel.

And finally, I read a collection of letters (of course). The Yage Letters by William Burroughs is a mix of fact and fiction, the amalgamation of letters Burroughs wrote to Allen Ginsberg during his 1953 journey to South America in search of the Yage, famed hallucinogenic of the Amazon. Burroughs is a strange mix (no surprise there) of experimental risk taker, critical traveler, and genuine humorist.

The letters are fun — and sometimes horrifying — to read, and the addition at the end of Allen Ginsberg’s own letters documenting his travels in search of hallucinogenic enlightenment add to the atmosphere of search and (mental health) seizure.

Understanding Where Great Literature Comes From: Inspiration

Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway, by Celia Blue Johnson is explained by its subtitle: “Stories of Inspiration Behind Great Works of Literature”. Blue Johnson takes us into the years, weeks, or moments before a great writer put pen to paper and explains how characters, plots, and backgrounds come from personal experiences — everything from being in love to being in prison, and from watching a spider weave a web in an old barn to watching cousins play in the yard after a funeral, and from reading a newspaper to reading a history book. She offers eager young writers and seasoned old readers a glimpse into how inspiration is sparked, and how great writers fan that spark into a fire of production (although in some cases it is more like a slow burn, with the resulting masterpiece of Anne Karenina or The Great Gatsby taking years to come out of the oven, so to speak, of creation).

Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway is a delightful exploration of where inspiration comes from and will be an especially satisfying read to anyone who has read and loved any of the marvelous novels whose nascence Blue Johnson investigated. The inspiration behind a whopping fifty titles is presented, including The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, The Little Prince by Antoine St. Exupery, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie, and Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs.

The variety of books is wide and Blue Johnson’s research was wider still. A bibliography is included at the end of Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway that will allow curious readers to dig more for themselves. I talked with Celia Blue Johnson about her book, and was fortunate enough to speak on a panel with her about books and reading and inspiration. She told me that much of her research depended on letters exchanged by writers. LETTERS, people, letters! Yet another reason to keep writing letters: for inspiration.

Celia Blue Johnson, Miriam Parker, and me, at the Spencertown Art Academy Festival of Books


Spousonomics: Using Economics To Keep Two Together

I’m not sure economic principles can help smooth out the bumpy patches of marriage but we all need reminding from time to time — in all of our relationships, whether between spouses or friends or child and parent — of the basic rules of togetherness. I for one will try to remember the rule illustrated above of not letting a simple annoyance turn into a death match of “I win, You lose!” We’ve all been there, muttering internally “you loser, me winner” as we refuse to just let it go. With Valentine’s Day coming, a read-through of Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes by Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson might just be the nicest thing I can do for hubby-dearest. After all, I really do love him so much, even at those times when I am clearly in the right and he just cannot admit it.

How To Write A Sentence– and Why — by Stanley Fish

In the first pages of Stanley Fish’s new book, How To Write A Sentence (with the clever subtitle, And How To Read One), Fish admits that “I am always on the lookout for sentences that take your breath away…” Like Fish, I am a sucker for a beautiful turn of words, a devoted recorder of spot-on phrases, and a willing and easy victim of solar-plexus slamming one-liners.  But unlike Fish, I never quite understood why a sentence was as good as it was.  Now I do. In How To Write A Sentence, Fish explains the magic behind all those sentences I’ve loved through all my years of reading.  Lo and behold, the magic is not magic, but form and structure, then discipline and practice, and when the muscles have been built, then talent takes over.

Contrary to the rules laid out by Strunk and White, Fish allows that good sentences come in all lengths, tenses, and styles — but in sync with Strunk and White, Fish stresses the importance of understanding basic sentence structure. Fish begins his book by explaining the form of a good sentence, offering examples and explaining how the form is mastered (practice! practice!); he then explores, again relying heavily (and delightfully!) on examples taken from all realms of literature, the place of content within basic sentence structure.  Finally, Fish reveals — again using marvelous examples — how the full power of the sentence form is released when a seasoned writer twists the form into something new and special and illuminating: “to refuse the confines of the medium and deploy it as a springboard to truths it cannot express…

For both aspiring writer and eager reader, Fish’s insights into sentence construction and care are instructional, even inspirational. The road to the perfect sentence ain’t easy but oh the view when you arrive!  And Fish provides plenty of great views, everything from an Elmore Leonard first line (“One day Karen DeCilia put a few observations together and realized her husband Frank was sleeping with a real estate woman in Boca“) to a Mary Shelley last line (“He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.“). How to Write A Sentence is a fun book to read for the provided quotations alone but don’t skip the stuff in-between.  That’s where the lessons are, lessons on writing and lessons on reading.

East and West Meet and Greet

Andrew Lam’s collection of essays, very cleverly entitled East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, is a timely ode to the growing Eastern influences on Western, particularly American, cultural traditions.  But even more, it is a moving recollection of how Lam himself, as Eastern as could be when he arrived in San Francisco as a twelve-year old  refugee from the fall of Saigon, fell under the influences of the West.  Lam covers the big three “e”s of everyday life — entertainment, education, and eating — and discusses how Western and Eastern takes on these all-importance endeavors play back and forth against each other, everything from action movies to comics and manga, to the deliciously described Pho stew, prepared worldwide now but a salient and significant memory from Lam’s Vietnamese childhood.  Lam takes on the education question with brave gusto, pitting the Eastern tradition of respect for the teacher, self-effacement, and community against American individualism, egotism (the self-esteem movement in education that may be leaving whole generations with inflated egos and unfulfilled potential), and freedom (he is grateful for the career of writer, a bliss he never could have discovered if he had stayed in Vietnam or on the medical career course proscribed to him by his parents).

Lam writes with honesty, wit, and excitement — this man is never bored by what he covers in his works.  For him words are sacred, and are to be spent only in recording what is deserving of remembrance.  Much as his mother lights the daily incense in honor of deceased relatives, Lam writes his daily words in honor of all the interesting ideas, people, activities, sights, smells, and sounds that make up his marvelous world.  How lucky for us that he shares his words, and his world.

The Beautiful Sound of A Wild Snail Eating

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey is an exquisite meditation on the restorative connection between nature and humans. Bailey, isolated and immobile due to a debilitating illness, finds herself in the company of a woodland snail. The snail becomes both her mirror and her mentor. By observing the snail through all the phases of the day, Bailey reflects on her own constrictions of mobility, placement, and relationships.

The writing is pristine and clear, with sentences of stunning lyrical beauty that I read over and over again. The chapters move along through the months of Bailey’s illness, made bearable now by the presence of the snail. Researching the genealogy and habits of the snail, Bailey finds evidence of the richness of its existence and proof that she herself is still living, and as vibrantly and with as much persistence as her tiny companion: “The life of a snail is as full of tasty food, comfortable beds of sorts, and a mix of pleasant and not-so-pleasant adventures as that of anyone I know.

Interspersed with excerpts about snails from studies, essays, and poetry, and plumped up with tales of snail fascination dating back to the Romans, and up through Darwin, Edgar Allen Poe, and including modern biophiliac Edward O. Wilson, Bailey’s slim book is as richly layered as the soil she lays down in the snail’s terrarium: loamy, potent, and regenerative.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating reminded me of other books in which authors focus in on a unique representative of the wild and find profound lessons for their own human lives, including Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt and The Hidden Life of Deer by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. In terms of the beauty of its writing and the breadth of its inspiration (so much can be found in the life of a tiny snail), The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating matches J. A. Baker’s splendid book on the year he spent following a falcon, The Peregrine.

These books demonstrate that when we stop looking at ourselves (cease the obsession with our own lives) and take the time to look — really look — at what is going on around us, we benefit tremendously, in heart, mind and soul. When a snail helps a desperately sick woman feel connected with life — and so not yet ready to give up on it — I know that my own moments spent reflecting upon a blue-eyed dragonfly clinging to a tennis net or a bright yellow spider sitting fat in its web or a pair of city sparrows bathing in an ice-broken puddle can restore my own tired soul to a state of wild and profound gratitude.

Charles Lamb: Essays of Elia

The 19th century was a great century for writers.  If I could only bring one century of writing with me to a desert island, I would choose the nineteenth without hesitation.  Not only for the literature but for the essays: the essayists of the 19th century were wide-ranging in their interests and witty, smart, and wildly and passionately involved with the world they wrote about.  They immersed themselves in all sorts of activities, writing being only one their passions, and arguing — discussion and disputation — being the foremost.  They ranged from deeply pessimistic (Thomas Carlyle) to profoundly positive (Ralph Waldo Emerson), and they wrote about everything from law and society (Oliver Wendell Holmes) to travels abroad and at home (Washington Irving), to art and politics (John Ruskin) to self-knowledge and civil responsibility (Henry David Thoreau).

My two favorite essayists of the 19th century (or any century, for that matter) are William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb.  They wrote about everything and anything, and they wrote well, with passion and with discipline, and with complexity of argument, acuity of observation, and deliverance of truth.  Yesterday I read a 1913 collection of Charles Lamb’s essays, entitled Last Essays of Elia.  His first Essays of Elia was published in 1823 and his Last Essays of Elia was first published in 1833.  In his absolutely marvelous essays, Lamb writes about life in all its humble and daily, as well as unique and grandiloquent, occasions.  No matter that he wrote from two centuries past: so many of his observations of human nature, predilections, and pastimes are still true today.  Those comments of his that are dated are still fun to read, as when he decries the “modern” art of John Martin and his 1821 painting “Belshazzar’s Feast”.  Lamb was right-on his criticisms, the painting is histrionic, and I would love to read what Lamb would write about the lacerations of Pollock or the cubes of Picasso or the shark of Damien Hirst.

Lamb’s detailed but straightforward descriptions of interiors and of landscapes (as in “Blakesmoor in H–Shire”) are evocative time capsules of England in the nineteenth century and a must-read for any lover of the English literature of the time, as he gives a perfect backdrop of information — what everyone reading at the time already knew — that helps with the atmosphere from the Brontes to Austen.  His essays on other occasions and situations of his 19th century life also provide escape into that world with picture-perfect visual observations as well as  commentary on the social mores of the time, as in “A Wedding”, “The Old Margate Hoy”, “Poor Relations”, and “Captain Jackson”.

Many of his observations are still topical, as well as relevant, as in the “The Tombs in the Abbey”  in which he censures the charging of admissions fees into Westminster Abbey, at a cost of two shillings a head.  Today’s burdensome fee of fifteen pounds falls as heavily and with as little reason.  Lamb argues, “Did you ever see or hear, of a mob in the Abbey, while it was free to all?  Do the rabble come there….It is all you can do to drive them into your churches; they do not voluntarily offer themselves.  They have, alas! no passion for antiquities, for tomb of king or prelate, sage or poet.  If they had, they would no longer be rabble.

Lamb is a very clever and witty writer, as demonstrated by the above logic turning rabble into worthy abbey-visitors, and in such inventive and pleasurable essays as the must-read “Rejoicings Upon the New Year’s Coming of Age” in which all the days of the year gather at an end of year party.  The jesting April Fool places Ash Wednesday next to Christmas Day who proceeds to make that sour puss Lent drink from “the wassail-bowl, till he roared, and hiccup’d“, and began to have a really good time; the poor 29th day of February has a seat off to the side and not enough to eat, and Valentine’s Day plays court to pretty May “slipping amorous billets-doux under the table, till the Dog-days (who are naturally of a warm constitution) began to be jealous, and to bark and rage accordingly.”

Another must-read essay that is both relevant, hysterically funny, and acute in its observations is “Popular Fallacies” wherein Lamb attempts to lay to rest such well-known quips of false wisdom as “Ill-Gotten Gains Never Prosper“, “Handsome is as Handsome Does” (“Those who use this phrase have never seen Mrs. Conrady“), and “Love me, love my dog” ( still so relevant, as a recent house guest proved to me).

I particularly liked his demolition of the saying “Enough is Good as a Feast“.  He argues that no one “really believes this saying. The inventor did not believe it himself….It is a vile cold-scrag-of-mutton sophism; a lie palmed upon the palate, which knows better things.”  He rightly lumps this saying in with the “class of proverbs which have a tendency to make us undervalue money” and seek to make us see gold as “mere muck.”  Lamb argues that “legs and shoulders of mutton, exhilarating cordials, books, pictures, the opportunities of seeing foreign countries, independence, heart’s ease, a man’s own time to himself, are not muck.

Lamb himself was a man not born to money; he worked for years as a clerk, took on the care of his ill sister, and in his spare time, wrote and read and enjoyed life.  He understood money and what its true worth was, as he understood so many things in life.  He was able to articulate in his essays all that he observed and thought about, to lay aside the mundane and accepted ideals and to instead develop and present original, exciting, and enlivening ways of thinking about the ordinary happenings and the exceptional, the minor occurrences and the major ones.  Lamb was thorough in his examination of life, and in his enjoyment, and he was sought to share that understanding and enjoyment to others through his wide-ranging, free-wheeling, and yet wholly disciplined —  and completely gratifying — Essays of Elia.

The Ancients Vacationed Here

Shirley Hazzard writes in her introduction to Ancient Shore, a collection of her essays written from and about Naples, that “I wake these mornings in Naples ….realizing, in surprise and gratitude, that….I — like Goethe, like Byron — am living in Italy.”  I was looking forward to feeling some of that same surprise, gratitude and awe through her essays; I anticipated sentences that set me firmly in the port town that dates back to the Ancient Greeks (Naples was their northern most port) and I wanted to be surrounded by neighborhoods, monuments, and churches, ensconced in Neapolitan lore and volcanic epics, and immersed in tastes and sounds specific to this town of such good and bad repute.

But instead Hazzard’s essays are somewhat cold, a cataloguing of historic events, personages, villas, and volcanic eruptions. People have been reviving themselves in Naples for centuries (why do you think all these seaside villas were built?) but nothing personal about Hazzard’s own reviving or enlivening or just plain vacationing is shared.  For me, books about travel should come with connections between reader and traveler through personal moments observed and related, or fun or interesting or sad stories about a locale-specific occurrence.  Details of Hazzard’s own actual experiences, observations, and feelings would have told me why she loves Naples. Instead I’m kept outside of her own experience and given history, ancient and modern, some journalistic renditions of current events, and a lot of described vistas, one not so distinguishable from another.

It was only when I read the included essay by Francis Steegmuller entitled “The Incident at Naples” that I finally landed in Naples. Steegmuller was Hazzard’s husband (not that she mentions the connection in the book) and in his essay he writes about a mugging that occurred in Naples when the two of them were out together and in which he was brutally injured.  The incident and its aftermath, including their up close and personal experience with the public health system of Italy, is marvelously told by Steegmuller.  He shares the entire experience, the personal fears and surprises, the details of the impromptu ambulance service and care in the hospitals, his observations about the other patients and the doctors, nurses, and hotel staff, and his changing and growing affection for the town he thought he knew but after this crime, he knows much better.  Thanks to his meticulous and heartfelt writing, so do I.  His moving piece that told me more about the city of Naples and its people than any of Hazzard’s essays or any of the beautiful but somewhat blank and cold photographs that complement the volume.

In the final essay of the book, Hazzard states that Italy provides its visitors with a respite from the known and the ordinary, and restores them to “unclassifiable experience: we are encouraged to stop defining life, and to live it.  The element of chance regains importance; we recover the capacity for astonishment, and the gift of taking some things for granted.” I would argue that all travel away from home, all journeying that take us out of our known environs and familiar routines, restores within us a sense of wonder and possibility and allows us to throw off cares, roles, and game plans.  Freedom of unknown possibilities:  that is what is so wonderful about travel and why so many people hit the road.  If not to Naples, then somewhere, anywhere.  Anywhere but here (guess who needs a vaca

Evolution of Religion

Letter to a Christian Nation is Sam Harris’ follow-up to The End of Faith.  It is a provoking plea for all religions to take their place within the pantheon of “myths” and to stand down as political, social, and “scientific” forces in the world.  It is time, argues Harris, to stop “cherry-picking the Bible…to justify…every impulse, moral or otherwise” and to recognize the origins of the Bible as man-made, out of date (one example: “slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ...” Ephesians 6:5) and neither prophetic nor scientific.  Islam should be recognized, Harris argues, as advocating violence against non-believers, and as gentle as, for example, Jainism is, it is just a myth, a non-reality, a creation by man to justify man-made desires, needs, and rules.

Harris states that all religions are a “collective disillusion“, “preposterous” phantasms that have caused “the deepest and most dangerous fractures in our world.”  Furthermore, argues Harris, “It accomplishes nothing to merely declare that ‘we all worship the same God.  We do not all worship the same God, and nothing attest to this fact more eloquently than our history of religious bloodshed.”

Harris recognizes the pull of religion and understands it might even have been an evolutionary necessity.  But now that we have evolved beyond needing myths to hold civilization together (indeed, we may be at the point where it is only tearing societies apart), we can apply the same rigorous standards of observation, testing, and conclusions that we apply to other areas of life; Harris states, “While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still holds immense prestige on our society.  Religion is the one area of our discourse where it is considered noble to pretend to be certain about things no human being could possibly be certain about.  It is telling that this aura of nobility extends only to those faiths that still have many subscribers.  Anyone caught worshipping Poseidon, even at sea, will be thought insane.

Letter to a Christian Nation is a thought-provoking and argument-starting essay.  Harris’ argument is both pertinent to where we are in world history and instructive as to we were are going, both collectively and individually.  Religion is a personal choice but at the same time it is a force with worldwide ramifications and influence and so we must discuss its necessity versus its obsolescence. Letter to a Christian Nation will jump start discussion and understanding for many of us.