Browsing Category

Literature

No Hausfrau She.

I thought I’d end the week’s musing on reconciliation with something up-lifting.

The clip on top of today’s blog is an advertisement that displayed Melania Trump some years back with a duck voice as well as a duck with Melania’s voice. Or maybe it was a goose. That in itself is strange. Now consider that her husband mentioned this ad in front of the entire group of attendees at the Republican Party Retreat yesterday. Does reference to your wife the quaking fowl look like reconciliation in the middle of a strained marriage? In any event, I happily spend my time not only looking at idiotic things like this but, more importantly, visiting my friends’ events when they are showing their artistic output which provides just the right counter-balance.

And I am reconciled with the fact that that means the housework doesn’t get done, once again.  Thus the title for today’s blog. Although on second thought it fits Flotus as well…..

The two events I want to recommend to one and all are an upcoming reading by my friend Carl from his truly funny book: SLIDE!  With the longest subtitle anyone ever got away with –  read for yourself:

https://carlwolfson.com

And yes, those are frogs on my new socks! The reading will be held here at Annie Bloom’s Books on February 8 at 7 p.m. Seats are limited so be there early. http://www.annieblooms.com/map-directions  

Carl is equal part stand-up comedian and politics aficionado, with a bit of radio talk show host thrown in and enough unusual hobbies that he is a welcome friend in our household. The reading should be quite interesting!

I also urge a visit to Augen Gallery. Henk Pander has a powerful exhibit there of recent drawings which are exquisite in their skill and quite transformative in their content. I took the photographs on the pre-show opening night before the crowds descended, with an i-phone, feeling that there was a stillness in the room that matched my emotional reactions to the works. No words needed. Henk’s Artist Talk is on February 10th at noon.

AUGEN GALLERY (DESOTO BUILDING)
716 NW Davis
Portland, OR 97209
open Tuesday–Saturday 11:00–5:30
and by appointment
(503) 546-5056

http://henkpander.format.com/paintings#1

 

 

 

Fleeting Years. Lasting Words.

The world lost an important voice this week. Ursula LeGuin died on Monday, age 88, after some months of ill health.

Today you could not open a newspaper or journal or relevant website without reading thoughtful obits, intensely varied and in their variety capturing the complexity of the author and the person – and all in awe of her.

I discovered LeGuin’s writings in the 1980s when I taught a psychology of women course at Lewis&Clark and came across a video where she expounded on issues of gender bias: in both directions. I still remember the students’ faces when after long discussions of women’s oppression she turned to the fact that young men have always been perceived to be the most expendable in any society and thus the perfect cannon fodder in wars throughout the ages. She saw the whole picture, not yielding just to please one side.

From then on I read her books with attention and pleasure, and not just her science fiction. Much of  her sharp, incisive observations and analysis first appeared in that genre – science fiction –  that many people unfortunately just shrug off as a literary category to be avoided. Her’s was political writing at its best, ignored by a public that often had stereotyped assumption about what science fiction literature is.

Of course she wrote in many genres, including poetry, and was also quite generous in her collaboration with other artists, be they photographers, writers or musicians. The numerous prizes and honors she won, the unconstrained admiration she received from her fellow writers, speak for themselves.

As much as her writings focused on “freedom from” oppression, bias, patriarchy, injustice and so on, I think her central theme was “freedom to” – in particular freedom to speak up, to act, to choose and create the kind of world you want to leave to the next generation.

Two years ago I attended a poetry reading at Broadway Books where she read some of her new poems. They resonated, among other things, because of their deep connection to a landscape which I count as particularly meaningful in my own little universe. I am attaching a poem that can be found in a book called OUT HERE, a contemplation on the Steens Mountain Landscape (with beyond gorgeous photography by Roger Dorband, a colleague who lives and works in Astoria.)

Check out his website: http://www.ravenstudiosart.com

She is in a different out there  now, with another way to be – or maybe relieved from ways of being, who knows. We are the poorer for it.

Here is her voice, set to the challenging and beautiful music by Eleanor Armer.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGdLXwjyb7w

Photographs of the creatures and landscapes mentioned in the poem are all from the Steen Mountains.

 

 

 

 

Dust and other Particles of Consciousness

Here is Wednesday’s phrase: “He is deeply allusive … and fitfully allegorical, but he seems drawn first and formost to emotional complication, to the pulses of our thinking.

I wish these words described my art. They are, however, about a remarkable author. In a rare confluence of opinions every person in our household liked the same trilogy some 15 years ago: His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, who is of course the subject of the remarks above. The trilogy was an astounding feat of writing that combined straight forward story telling with elements of adventure tales, coming-of-age novels, Bildungsroman and Science Fiction; more importantly, it had enough ideas to keep children and adults on their toes, trying to understand what these books were about, how they placed in the canon of literature with their endless allusions and references, and how to understand them in the context of what is currently happening in the real world.

It didn’t hurt that the main opponents in the story recruited their armies from the religious Right (bordering on the Inquisition) and Science, respectively, with a few undecided characters thrown in. By now there are probably dissertations written on these books, but here is a good review of the early trilogy and the author – for those who have lived under a rock, being left out of the Pullman craze.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/12/26/far-from-narnia

The reason all this comes up is the fact that I have sacrificed my beloved sleep to devour Pullman’s new book La Belle Sauvage (hello, Rousseau),the first in another trilogy, The Book of Dust, that was just published. I am obviously not the only one interested: reviews are in from the NYT, VOX, The Independent, The Guardian, NPR, WaPo, but also the Wall Street Journal and The New Statesman, to name a few. I found the last one particularly illuminating.

https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2017/10/book-dust-philip-pullman-might-not-be-fond-church-he-intensely-spiritual

Details of plot and discussion of deeper meanings can be found there. In a nutshell, anti-science, oppressive religious fanaticism plays a leading role, but also the possibility that scientific overreach leads to potential catastrophe. Our manipulation of nature is shown to have dire consequences, and our ecological survival might depend on resistance.Particles of dust spreading consciousness play a role. All written in simple words that children understand and cherish.

I do want to offer one of my own observations, though. In the parallel world of those epic tales, set in the familiar surrounds of Great Britain, humans have an extension of themselves, their soul, whatever. These daemons, animal alter egos with whom you can talk and who never leave your side, can shift shape long into puberty. So the daemon of a 12 year-old might one minute be a bird, then a mouse, then a cheetah, whatever mood and environmental task requires, you get the idea. With the onset of adulthood they become fixed and settle into a form that bears an (often witty) resemblance to their owner.

What a concept – an externalized version of Self, eternally attached to you, so you are never alone, and communicating with the world, when you are disinclined to do so directly. I find most interesting, however, the ideas of shifting Selves before maturity. You can try on different personae all you want, you can reinvent yourself by the minute, you can explore what fits and what doesn’t, as we probably all did in one fashion or another in our younger years. And then it’s gone, you’re stuck.

I believe, that truly great artists, in all fields, somehow managed to maintain a shape shifting mode represented in their own daemons, their Selves’ extensions known as works of art. Somehow an experimental mode, a curiosity for alter egos, a drive to invent new expressions of Self escaped the petrifying powers of maturity and enabled ever changing externalization of their consciousness.

Pullman’s new trilogy is set in the same geographic location, with many of the same characters playing a role, just a decade or so earlier. When asked if it was a prequel, he dryly commented, “No, it’s an equel.” That alone should make you curious about the book!

Poem for today is Paul Celan’s Psalm referencing another kind of dust.

Read in German, English translation below.

Books about and by women artists

Lesendes Mädchen (1828) Gustav Adolph Henning

A dear friend gave me a German magazine that is devoted to books – a special edition that dealt with women and literature. The photographs of paintings of reading women are taken from it. It made me think about artists and literature and so I thought I’ll recommend some books about fictional artists and some by real artists that were impressive enough that I remember them.

The one that moved me most is A Blazing World (2014) by Siri Hustvedt. Her protagonist deals with issues of aging and trying to make it as a woman in a male-dominated art world. She resolves to take her revenge, in a way that exerts an incredible emotional toll. My admiration for the novel can be traced to the fact that it brilliantly describes suffering, but then balances it out with hope, all the while challenging you intellectually to rethink all the issues of gender wars, specifically located in the arts.

Junge Frau mit Buch (1934)  Alexander Deineka

Virginia Woolf’s classic To the Lighthouse (1927) is probably one we all read as teenagers when trying to find our role in the emergent feminist movement. Her heroine Lily Briscoe struggles with the notions that women can neither paint nor write.

Hotel Room (1931) Edward Hopper

I am also a devoted fan of Margaret Atwood. Her novel Cats Eye (1989) describes an artist’s attempt to sublimate unsavory or painful memories by including them in her paintings. I actually did not enjoy reading that book, several of the issues being too close to home, but I could not forget it.

Lesendes Mädchen (1851) Franz Eybl

Both Possession (1990) and The Children’s Book (2009) by A.S.Byatt contain vividly drawn realizations of artists – poets and writers. The novels are really about the layers of various social interactions and the way secrets can shape lives; both are deep, fascinating and not exactly beach reading.

The two books by female artists that made an impact were Boundaries (2000) by Maya Ying Lin and Hold Still (2015) by Sally Mann.  The former describes the creative processes used for her designs, the most famous of which is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.  The latter is an autobiography by the controversial photographer. Her thoughts on the possibility that taking photographs destroys memory resonate with every photographer I know.

Elegant Women in a Library (no date) Edouard Gelhay

And last but not least there is Emma Reyes. The link below gives you the details.  Happy reading in the rainy days ahead!

http://www.npr.org/2017/08/09/542061880/in-emma-reyes-life-through-a-childs-clear-eyes

If reading is not your thing, here is a fascinating slideshow….

https://www.thecut.com/2016/09/the-moma-is-republishing-its-first-female-focused-book.html

Jove Decadent (1899)  Ramon Casa i Carbó

Der Untertan

Beware of the mother who gives her non-German speaking child the middle name of Heinrich. Never mind, that it runs in the family, and that it was the name of the few German authors who truly stood against the menace of their times: Heinrich Heine and Heinrich Mann. Who would want to live with a name one can hardly pronounce?

Heinrich Mann is one of my favorite authors; he managed to turn his opposition to German nationalistic outrage against democratic values, liberalism and rational thinking into artful satire. His seminal novel, The Loyal Subject, was written between 1906 and 1914, skewering the Wilhelmian epoch and presaging the rise of an authoritarian state. That title, by the way, is one of many translations for the same book.

Mann himself joked that “every time the Germans loose a war, they publish my book.” And the English titles were echoing the Zeitgeist: The Patrioteer (1921), Little Superman (1945), Man of Straw (1947, 1972, 1984) – sort of in tandem with the interest in nationalism, fascism and eventually the authoritarian personality.

(No wonder the book in full form was first published in Russia…)

The novel describes the rise of a small town parvenue who learns to love his emperor Wilhelm II, to outsmart the competition and destroy his liberal home environment in favor of rising nationalistic power. He himself is weak, but desires to be hard, brown nosing his superiors while mistreating those below. He adores and condones violence as long as he is not its victim, except for masochistic tendencies in the bedroom. He is the reincarnation of conformism. The book provided an early blueprint for Adorno’s authoritarian personality, but was more than that. Mann understood and conveyed the roles that capitalism and the ideology of German imperialism played in the destruction of enlightenment ideals. (Which is part of why Heinrich and Thomas Mann really didn’t get along…..)

Now, why am I bringing all this to your attention? Because for years I have been photographing what you see in today’s musings: ubiquitous, varied forms of Lieb Sein glued to or sprayed onto the walls of the cities. The literal translation is: Be nice.  And it could be seen as a playful instruction to increase peace in the world and diminish conflict. Or put some innocuous color into the world. However, every German child knows that the words “Sei lieb!” are the equivalent of “You better obey!” Are these stickers satire then, encouraging disobedience in sly form? I’ve yet to find out. Probably overthinking it, as per usual – yet for the political mind it rings slightly ominous.

The stickers do, regardless, remind me of the quote attributed to some old Prussian:

The loyal subject is forbidden to measure the actions of the authorities with the yardstick of the subject’s limited insight.

I guess I have limited insight into the meanings of graffiti, however I put any yardstick I want to my evaluation of governmental   action….. in Germany and anywhere else!

 

Here is a clip from the movie Tales of Hollywood where Alec Guiness plays Heinrich Mann.

Auf Wiedersehen!

Letters and Treatises

The last entry for this week’s proposed reading list suggests yet another topic tied to religion.

The first items of interest are about Muslim identity. The book review below covers a compilation of letters and a treatise on Muslim as Atheist.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/11/books/review/kareem-abdul-jabbar-letters-to-young-muslim-atheist-muslim.html?emc=edit_bk_20170113&nl=bookreview&nlid=23546060&ref=headline

Reading James Baldwin or Ta-Nehisi Coates we have probably all shared the stirring experience of an elder transmitting their insights, beliefs and warnings to a younger generation. Ghobash’s Letters to a Young Muslim follow that tradition and I look eagerly forward to reading it.

The second of Jabbar’s recommendations, The Atheist Muslim, sounds like a contradiction in terms. Pity the person who inhabits two of the more denigrated identities in this country, Muslim and Atheist…..

Then again, any journey from religion to reason – the subtitle of the book – is worth exploring. Which reminds me of the book of a dear friend and colleague of ours, a treatise which deserves attention.

Peter Steinberger’s The Problem with God – Why Atheists, True Believers, and even Agnostics must all be wrong certainly had my head spinning when I first read it.  I leave our dinner table conversations to your imagination…..

Book

While I finish today’s writing I am, for the first time in 36 years, rueing the decision to have come to this country. The House vote on the ACA repeal has left me – literally – in tears. Maybe I need to write on issues of (a)morality next week. Or maybe on good places to move to. Or maybe I have to do something completely, utterly distracting from a politic landscape that gives me the shivers. I have the weekend to think about it……..

 

Between Continents

A decade or so after my progeny finished high school I am still in awe of their stellar English teacher and lucky enough to be on her list for book recommendations. That way I read Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing this spring and was quite taken by it. The 2016 reviews were picky if benevolent, and not much in line with my own strong emotional reactions to the tale, or more precisely, the tale’s characters. (Clicking on picture should open NYT review….)

The novel describes the lives of several generations of offspring of two African half-sisters, born into different tribes. It takes place on both continents, Africa and America, linked by slavery, and reaches into our own time. I learned quite a bit about Africa, but most importantly I was amazed by the literary craft of creating characters that throughout time and place were memorable and demanded empathy, easily given. In addition, though, the novel describes sensitively and painfully issues of relocation – both forced, in the context of slavery, and half-voluntarily, in the context of the Jim-Crow South, the call of the job-promising North, the call of the US to educated modern-day Africans, and the call home to Africa for those with ancestral roots there.

Seeking a different life on a different continent is, of course, familiar to me in my own biography. But the pressures did not come close to what another novel supposedly brilliantly describes: the search of a young, drug-addicted, gay Black man from Chicago for a better future in the Berlin of the 1980s. Darryl Pinckney’s novel Black Deutschland came with glowing reviews when published last year at the same time as Homegoing. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/07/books/review/darryl-pinckneys-black-deutschland.html 

What sold me, however, to put it on my reading list, was this bit in the Kirkus Reviews: “What sustains your attention . . . is Pinckney’s dolefully witty and incisively observant voice, whether describing the quirks of his hero’s family (‘When the going gets rough, make pancakes,’ Jed’s father advises) or evoking the sights, sounds, and even smells of West Berlin, ‘the involuntary island, that petri dish of romantic radicalism.’ Pinckney’s discursive novel, coming across as if it were a late-20th-century hipster version of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Marte Laurids Brigge, typifies an era in which inventive, idiosyncratic styles flourish anew in African-American writing.”  

Who can resist a hipster version of Rilke????

 
 Some new montages about travel/mobility/transit are on display today.

Knowing History

· Or Not, As The Case May Be ·

The current president of the US announced yesterday that a former president, Andrew Jackson, was angry about the Civil War and would have avoided it. Never mind that Jackson died 16 years before the war started. The media was buzzing with historians pointing out Trump’s ignorance about history as well as his embrace of a populist role model. The implicit message that a strong-man slaveholder would have gotten it right pointed to a position that the assumptions underlying slavery – the racial hierarchy that allows perceived superior Whites to own perceived inferior Blacks – are acceptable. The claimed causes of the war – slavery vs states’ rights – are of course still debated by historians with different political bends.

What caught my eye, though, was an opinion piece that compared Trump to Kaiser Wilhelm II, both with regard to relentless, manic communications that did not mind being self-contradictory and with regard to “idiotic bellicosity.”

 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/germany-used-to-have-a-leader-like-trump-its-not-who-you-think/2017/05/01/0dd9cce8-2e88-11e7-9534-00e4656c22aa_story.html?hpid=hp_no-name_opinion-card-d%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.a329730e859a

World War I started during Wilhelm II’s reign, and many historians have wondered, just as about the Civil War, what led to the slaughter of 17 million people, or what could have prevented it. Cohen’s article recommends Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, a learned treatise on the causal circumstances of World War I. On my reading list is a book that covers the same topic, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1963.

The reason for my choice is first of all that I yet have to read a Tuchman book that isn’t challenging, informative and deeply influential at the same time that it is a fun read. More importantly, this particular book influenced another president of our nation, J.F.Kennedy, to narrowly skirt another war during the Cuban missile crisis. He read. He processed what he read. The lessons from history mattered. Here is a link to a short analysis of how J.F.K’s reading of Tuchman guided his decision making process.

http://blog.loa.org/2012/03/how-barbara-tuchmans-guns-of-august.html

Photographs are from Berlin, Germany where the last German Emperor and King of Prussia lived.

 

Reading List

This week I am drawn to books that are in some ways related to current events. Since two of my friends are currently in France and are posting photos that make me yellow with envy I thought we start with something related to that country.

Of course there was no way I could avoid focussing on the upcoming election drama between LePen and Macron. Or rather focussing on the fact that an anti-Semitic woman bent on destroying the European Union might be the next President of France.

https://theintercept.com/2017/04/27/le-pen-promotes-holocaust-denier-plans-ban-kosher-butchers-yarmulkes/

Given the resurgence of explicit anti-Semitism, I thought the books below, about the fate of French Jewry, might be something to read. Note: NOT YET READ! Several of this week’s books are on my list, not in my head. They all just struck me as interesting.

The first one is authored by Susan Rubin Suleiman, Hungarian immigrant, now a Harvard professor of the civilization of France and of comparative literature. During the 2009-2010 academic year, she was the invited Shapiro Senior Scholar-in-Residence at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.  In  THE NÉMIROVSKY QUESTION  – the life, death, and legacy of a Jewish writer in twentieth-century France – she tackles the fate of an assimilated Jewish writer who thought her relationship with the Petain administration would save her – it didn’t.

The second author is Shannon Fogg, chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Missouri, a European historian who specializes in the history of Modern France from the Enlightenment to the present.  More specifically, her research focuses on daily life in France during the Second World War. Her first book, The Politics of Daily Life in Vichy France: Foreigners, Undesirables and Strangers, described the effects of shortages on attitudes towards the French government and towards minority groups such as Jews and Gypsies. Her most recent book, the one on my list, is Stealing Home: Looting, Restitution, and Reconstructing Jewish Lives in France, 1942-1947. It explores the looting of Jewish apartments in Paris during World War II and the restitution of goods after the war. Or the cruel joke of restitution, as the case may be.

Here are the reviews:

Memory wars

Photographs are from Paris: cemeteries and memorials.

Swan Song

After a particularly trying episode of whooping cough my sister and I were dragged to the Black Forest to “take the air.” Walks through rainy meadows and dark forests, populated by dwarfs and witches in my vivid imagination, did nothing to improve the mood. My mother’s bedside reading, however, did. She had brought Walter Slezak’s biography of his father, Leo Slezak, What time’s the next swan?, and laughed out loud ever so often under our bulging feather beds. Slezak was a Wagnerian Heldentenor, larger than life, with a wicked sense of humor. When singing Lohengrin, the opera technicians sent the swan-like boat, meant for his entrance onto the stage, full force ahead without him in it. He is reported to have drily inquired” Wann, bitte, geht der nächste Schwan?”

https://www.amazon.de/What-Times-Next-Swan-Slezak/dp/B0007DL03Q/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1487961603&sr=1-1&keywords=what+time%27s+the+next+swan%3F

Having no clue what the opera was about, I was subsequently treated to my mother’s re-enactment of the basic story of Lohengrin, fueled, no doubt, by her enjoyment of the local specialty of pear brandy.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWg2UD5kzjA

Decades later I had a similarly wonderful experience, when a bunch of hippies re-enacted, singing and all, another tale unknown to me: The Wizard of Oz. I had tried to mend a broken heart on a Caribbean Island and here I was marveling at flying monkeys and songs of tin men (now, I wonder, why would heartless, hollow men come to mind..)  – all of us, this time, stoned out of our minds. Life can be pretty amazing.

In any case, this next week is the swan song (a metaphorical phrase for a final gesture, effort, or performance given just before death or retirement) for my current exhibit at Cameraworks Gallery. If you have not yet visited, I’d be honored if you did. Here is a review that might help you make up your mind. Today, Saturday, the gallery is open, on Sunday it is closed, and I am taking the whole series down on Friday afternoon….

http://www.orartswatch.org/well-worn-oregon-refugee-dreams/

I photographed these swans last weekend in pouring rain through a car window at Ridgefield, WA – the blurry quality is the distortions from the sheets of rain….