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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Our Bodies Are Maps

Our bodies are maps—not of regions but of history. And not only of our own history, but of the history of our ancestors. So when I learn history, I'm learning and feeling it in my body.

 

I'm reading The Cost of Free Land: Jews, Lakota, and an American Inheritance, the personal research and story of author Rebecca Clarren about her Jewish ancestors and how they came to settle in South Dakota—specifically land that had been stolen from the Lakota, and to this day, still legally belongs to them (the Black Hills), because they refused a monetary settlement from the U.S. government. This is a region where Trump held a rally, and his supporters yelled at the Lakota protestors to "go back to where they came from"—ignorant to the truth that they were standing on Lakota land.

 

To me, this is beyond the pale.

 

Did you ever wonder where the expression "beyond the pale" comes from?

 

The Pale was a region—or more accurately, a reservation or ghetto that Jews were relegated to by the Russian empire.

 

In the bad old days of a dysfunctional relationship with my late mother, she often yelled at me, "This is beyond the pale!"—her judgment about everything from the way I thought and the things I didn't care about to the way I was in the world. This changed after I banned her from calling me and refused to see her, except when I initiated it. The ban lasted for a year, during which she got some behavioral therapy that taught her not to criticize me; she didn't need to understand why. So she practiced it, and we became best friends.

 

But just now, reading about the history carried in her and my own DNA—a history relegating us and life itself to a narrow body of land called the Pale, a region outside of which you would be killed, and even within it, you were subject to chronic terrorist attacks, called Pogroms, from the Cossacks when they would butcher, rape, and burn everybody in a town, I understand the fear that must have constricted my mother and that was behind judgments whose deepest wish was to keep me alive.

 

No wonder that as I read this book, my body feels battered and exhausted.

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Review: James by Percival Everett

James is the 22nd book I read by Percival Everett. When I was at book #18, I met the man when he spoke on a panel here in NYC where I live. I'd brought my copy of Erasure for him to sign. I'd chosen carefully—the newest looking of his books on my shelf. I wanted to present him with something pristine.

 

After the panel discussion, I crept out of the audience, around the circle of panelists' chairs, and, like a teenager with crush, smelling my own sweat, I said, "Mr. Everett, would you sign my book?" He couldn't have been more affable. And as he wrote, I blurted, "I've read 18 of your books." "Oh, so you're the one!" he joked, a line I sensed he used a lot to those of us in what was then a small cult of fans. Undeterred, I further blurted, "When I first discovered your work, I felt like my head exploded."

 

He smiled kindly and handed me my paperback, fully aware that I was as in love with him as a reader can be from only an author's books, and I didn't know what to do with the feelings.

 

Every one of Everett's books is different, but having read so many, I feel like all of them have led to James. James is far more accessible than a lot of his other books, and it is perfectly timed to convey his essence to the huge audience he has "suddenly" evoked due to a movie based on Erasure that he had virtually nothing to do with. (I have not seen it because I like the edge in his books, his anger, his uncompromising intellect—even when it is over my head—and his refusal to mitigate any of it with anything that would make his work more accessible, and I've heard that the movie softens all that.)

 

What is Percival Everett's essence?

 

For me, it is the thing that made my head explode on first contact: he is absolutely himself. He refuses to fit into any box, under any label designed by someone else. There is loneliness to this kind of a life. A loneliness that can become a choice because at some point you know that nobody—or very few people—will see you as you know yourself to be. (He writes about this in not only Erasure, but in I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Dr. No, God's Country, and many of his short stories.)

 

In James, he has parsed this out for the masses, using Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn as a launch pad.

 

Why this book now?

 

Because it's legal—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written in 1884, is now in the public domain. But more importantly, perhaps because the masses are now open to hearing that Black people are and always have been individual people with individual thoughts, ideas, and peculiarities just like all human beings.

 

This sounds obvious, but in our country it is anything but—proved by the stereotypes that make Black men "dangerous" and all the other notions that weave through our culture.

 

As in many of Everett's books, James disarms us with humor. There are the fools, the clowns whose cruelty is matched only by their idiocy. As in one of my favorite of Everett's short stories, "The Appropriation of Cultures" (in his anthology Damned If I Do), there are ingenious absurd yet logically-obvious-except-nobody-has-thought- of-them plot twists. There is the unpredictable picaresque journey (I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Dr. No). And there is also an undertow of "yearning to be seen and known." (I wrote about how subversive this is in the book-within-the-book of Erasure; I have no idea if Everett would agree with my take, but it's what I felt.) This is what gives Everett's books a subliminal heartbeat . . . and it hurts—in a good way.

 

New in this book, although there are aspects of it in other books, is the utter exhaustion of the code-switching Black people have learned by necessity by the time they have social interactions. And, here, that is married to the exhaustion of living in a slave culture of "duplicity, dishonesty or perfidy (195)" where you can't tell who is telling the truth or who might act like an ally but turn out to be the worst kind of enemy. But because of Everett's genius, reading James is never exhausting and always entertaining.

 

And for me, the newest aspect of this book is a full pulsing catharsis—set up by the ending of his remarkable God's Country in 1994, delivered in an almost mythical form in 2021 in Trees, and finally, in James, experienced through the heart of a man who loves his wife and young daughter, who loves the son who didn't know him as a father, and loves life enough to fight for it.

 

Oh, my heart!

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Review: Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think about Race and Identity by Michele Norris

Our Hidden Conversations is an almost 3 lb., 9.5x7.75-inch, 471-page world of all of us. I didn't believe I could finish it in the space of a library loan, so I posted an early review to Goodreads, which I'm replacing with this one now that I have indeed slurped it down well before its due date.

 

This is us. This is everybody—all races, genders, the whole mess.

 

The book is packed with remarkable stories, history, analysis, and real-people quotes. (It's the perfect follow-up to Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns, which I just reviewed.)

 

From a section by author Michele Norris:

 

"I find it deeply ironic that there is such a fierce battle to evade and erase historical teachings about slavery because, in the time of enslavement, there was such an assiduous effort to document and catalog every aspect of that institution, much in the way people now itemize, assess, and insure their valuables. The height, weight, skin color, teeth, hair texture, work habits, and scars that might help identify anyone who dared to flee were documented. The menstrual cycles of enslaved women and their windows of fertility—because producing more enslaved people produced more wealth—were entered like debits and credits in enslavers' ledgers." (178)

 

Michele Norris's commentary is wise, compassionate, objective, and elucidating, and the effect of all these stories—they came out of Norris's The Race Card Project which invited people to send postcards with 6-word thoughts on race—is to showcase how much we all have in common. Everybody is pained by being judged and put in boxes they don't identify with, asked ignorant questions, insulted by others' lack of understanding that they are even being insulting.

 

Everybody is in this book, and so that includes plenty of White people who tell their stories of difficulty and deprivation. There are first-person accounts of the struggles we have at other people's assumptions, biases, and projections. Black, White, Native, Arab, Middle Eastern, Asian, mixed-race people and families, adoptees and adopters, gay people, people with disabilities, poor people, White men who are turned down because of being White men. Nobody is left out. And it seems that most of us believe that nobody but similar people with difficulties really understands what we face.

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3 Novels I've Loved in 2023

 

Shepherd is a fairly new book-finding site that is trying to mimic the experience of browsing in a bookstore and running into someone who waxes poetic about a book they can't stop talking about. This book lover tells you in personal detail what they loved about the book and how the book made them feel.

 

Shepherd invited me to recommend my three favorite books read in 2023. Honestly, I can't choose favorites. But I did choose three books that I love for personal reasons that also inform my own writing. And I got to mention one of my novels that I think embodies a lot about the books I recommend.

 

Here's the link: Shepherd

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Review: Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America by Heather Cox Richardson

 

In Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America, historian and "people's teacher" (via her social media and newsletters) Heather Cox Richardson has created a sweeping connect-the-dots history of how we got to where we are now. Where we are now—grappling between remaining a democracy or becoming an authoritarian country—has long roots, and in Parts 1 and 2, she starts at the beginning of American history and follows those roots into global history (mostly chronologically, but when she backtracks—specifically tracing the Nazi rally in Charlottesville, VA, back to its historical beginning—it is organic and easy to follow). Once we advance into the events of the last few years, people who follow the news will already be fully informed, but this is a book that will stand as a valuable history for future readers, so it is great to have all this documented in story form.

 

I cannot possibly reduce this work (or even retain as much as I'd like—this is a book to read multiple times), so suffice it to say: it is readable, fast, understandable, and rather than throwing in absolutely every detail as a lot of historians do, she opts to tell a specific American story efficiently: the story of American democracy—a belief that all people should have equal rights and have a government by their consent.

 

Because I'm interested in why people are so vulnerable to manipulation, power-greediness, and a herd-like compulsion to move with others even when doing so makes no sense and undermines democracy, I was particularly struck the very first time I read about a nonsense statement that split people into warring cultures:

[In 1971] Phyllis Schlafly said: "Women's lib is a total assault on the role of the American woman as wife and mother and on the family as the basic unit of society. Women's libbers are trying to make wives and mothers unhappy with their career. . . ." (pg. # NA)

This kind of statement, assuming that if anybody gets something (or said another way, if everybody gets equal rights), somebody else must lose something, is key to Movement Conservatism (creating rifts between oneself and others who are deemed "bad") that Cox traces back to 1937. And it is key to the intentional attempt to destroy civil society, establish chaos—which most people will do anything to stop—and thereby lay the foundation for people's desire for a "strong man" to make it stop, evoking authoritarianism and extinguishing democracy.

 

You could plug into this kind of "this causes that hurt/loss" statement any number of things: true history that includes our racist roots; the right to decide what we do with our bodies; climate change causes; etc. This critical false equivalence (lie), I believe, can only be combatted if people decide to think—use common sense—rather than react in fear of chaos. And common sense is a real possibility: In Part 3 of this book, Cox writes about how powerful common sense was in moving us to independence: Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense rejected the idea that any man could be born to rule others and called "ridiculous" the notion that an island should rule a continent. "Paine's spark set to flame more than a decade of accumulating timber," writes Cox, leading to declarations of independence. The real revolution Americans experienced was in thinking rather than fighting.

 

Here's my common sense: It is absolute nonsense that women having equal pay and rights could hurt marriages. How? Women who want to be homemakers will not be forced to work. Teaching true history will not hurt white people; I and most white people I know will grapple with questions about our own commitment to what's right and would we have been strong enough to act as an abolitionist? I don't know anybody who identifies with slave-holders. If somebody does not want to accept equality and history of inequality, they don't have to, but true history can still be taught in schools. If somebody doesn't support the right to body autonomy for themselves, they don't have to; nobody will ever force them to have an abortion and if they don't want to make their own medical decisions, they can find some authority to hand responsibility over to. If somebody does not accept that our actions are destroying the earth, they are free to believe that. Yes, pollution regulation will change lives, but I wager that anybody who wants to pollute their home will still be able to do so. Nobody will have to love people they don't love if others have the right to love who they love. You don't have to believe what you don't believe.

 

There is no loss for anybody if more people do better by telling the truth and having equal rights. The whole notion of consequent loss is nuts! Read More 

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Sun House by David James Duncan

Sublime. That's the fastest way to describe this writing, this story, this world birthed by David James Duncan.

 

For almost 800 pages I've been swimming in the Ocean of Sublime—an ocean you can just as easily drown in as float. I'll get to that in a moment.

 

Second and third thoughts: How the f**k did he write this (let alone get it published) and how on earth can I convey what this is to people who may consider it a foreign language as well as the few humans who live for this stuff?

 

I don't know the answers to either of those questions. In addition, I don't know who besides me would be so drawn into this book.

 

I can tell you that there is a mythically romantic tone throughout and there are two main characters who start the book in separate stories in Portland, OR, and Seattle, WA (location is as much a character as any person): a boy-man, Jamey, and a girl-woman, Risa. I can tell you that they are idiosyncratic, independent thinkers who feel even more deeply than they think. I can tell you that Jamey is a people-loving, irrepressible clown with a father and a dog you fall in love with. I can tell you that Risa falls in love with Sanskrit sounds and language and Vedic sages and the whole world they birth and then lives with Grady, the funniest horniest philosophy student ever written, and then with Julian, a good-looking prick who is threatened by her love of "Skrit" and the inner journey. And I can tell you that the first-person narrator feels like a person-god, who I don't believe in, but he has such a great sense of humor that I more-than-willingly suspended my disbelief.

 

There are plenty of other characters who appear first in their own chapters. For instance: a mountain climber and a singer who love, have a kid, then don't love; an ex-Jesuit priest and his twin brother, a street nonpriest-sadhu who gathers a flock anyway, whose epistolary history of the Catholic Church's persecution of the Beguines mesmerized me (if Herman Melville had been this joyfully light-hearted and in love with his history of whales, he could have gotten away with it).

 

And in a symmetry that makes subliminal sense, these people finally begin to converge in the mountains of Montana exactly halfway through this epic in an "Eastern Western"—meaning "When East [spiritual traditions] touches West [the region of the USA], the central struggle is against cosmic illusion . . . (p. # NA)" And this is when the storytelling starts to crank up, so if you get bogged down in the first 400 pages, but are liking it, stay with it . . . particularly because, very soon after the convergence begins, the god-person narrator actually explains the unorthodox structure of this massive book, and hearing it can make you sparkle, as well as spiritually roar in the backtracked scene when Risa and Jamey finally start their journey together.

 

I found out the hard way that I needed to take breaks. Everybody speaks within a style of cascading thoughts, although it's slightly different for each character. (Think of Shakespeare's iambic pentameter or Aaron Sorkin's smart-smart-smart speed-demon, fact-laden intellectual torrents.) When I tried to read too many chapters without a rest, the spiritual stream-of-consciousness became tedious. So subsequently I took many breaks, and when I returned, I was open to the Voice behind the voice and ate it up; I realized taking breaks also evoked contemplation about what I'd read, and it was in contemplation that the heavy text got light and worked on me. Also, there are enough heavenly narrative actions and descriptions (see sample below) to break up the thought tirades.

 

If your life is completely focused on the surface of here and now—plot-plot-plot—and you are uninterested in awareness, enlightenment, or any kind of transcendent journey, let alone the power of the sounds of language beyond its literal meaning, you will not be interested in this book. In fact, you may feel like the distracted bar crowd who "don't get" what makes Risa, Jamey, and readers like me spiritually roar during their ecstatic convergence over a story of Gandhi's death.

 

But if you are a person who longs for Oneness, who is compelled by the debate between the counter-evolutionary force of ego vs. the evolutionary force of enlightenment (to embody "free nothingness at Ocean's [consciousness, All That Is] service" (p. # N/A)," if you're convinced that enlightening yourself is the only real work to be done in this life, if you pace yourself, eagerly surrendering, even to a language that sometimes strikes your poor undereducated head as chicken-scrawled squawks and the poetry of a holy fool (think Paul Beatty's screamingly hilarious The Sellout, only substitute the literary classics, mountain climbing, and Eastern philosophies for research psychology and The Little Rascals), you may end up in a blindingly brilliant roofless Sun House of indefinable dimensions—happier and more heartbroken than you imagined possible. Read More 

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The Postcard by Anne Berest

To say I was possessed by The Postcard and its author, Anne Berest, is not an exaggeration. I was possessed, obsessed, and grateful. It is 475 pages that I only put down when my eyes felt swollen: a novelized true story of Berest's family's experience when Nazis invaded and occupied France and Berest's investigation of that many years later. It is only called a novel because Berest wanted to write it as a nonlinear novel with dialogue and full characters, changing names of collaborators so that their descendants would not be persecuted, but this is a copiously researched investigation of what happened, who did what, and how Berest came to be a secularized Jew—when she began her investigation, she didn't identify as Jewish, look Jewish, had never followed the religion or been in a synagogue and had no experience in the culture.

 

This mystery, quest, hunt—told with all the dramatic tension of such stories—quickly became one of the most deeply personal experiences I've had. Read More 

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Review & Cover Complaint: "Leg--The Story of a Limb and the Boy Who Grew from It" by Greg Marshall

Leg: The Story of a Limb and the Boy Who Grew from It (Abrams, June 2023) by Greg Marshall

 

What an explosively entertaining memoir! Raucous, ribald, and really well written. I've been reading a lot of history full of pain and statistics, so Greg Marshall's memoir was a welcome and uplifting relief.

 

One complaint: the cover art of a perfectly proportioned naked man bugged the hell out of me. It was chosen by Lithub for a list of best covers for June 2023, but I would love to hear from others who have actually read the book—a book whose title is about a badly distorted leg and a lifetime of experiences that are affected by that.

 

(By the way, I felt the same ire about the original hardback cover of Susan Jane Gilman's equally hilarious novel The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street—a pair of elegant ankles—when a major character feature is the protagonist's damaged leg/ankle. This cover was changed (because of the outcry?) on the paperback and the hardcover is no longer listed on Hachette's website.)

 

Leg's cover design, as noted by Lithub, is striking, but imagine how much more striking it would be if it accurately portrayed what's inside this fabulous memoir about having Greg's leg and body's condition willfully kept from him, being gay, and being part of a family that made all that, as well as cancer, dying, etc. hilarious!

 

Not only is the perfectly proportioned man given in front view, but he's on the back cover in rearview, and as if to put a button on the lie, there is a gorgeous well-muscled leg on the spine.

 

I protest this design and, having worked as a managing editor of a magazine, can imagine the endless meetings discussing it: "We can't show a real crippled body and leg—people won't buy the book; they'll be turned off or shocked. Focus groups have shown people may say they are accepting of differently abled people, but when it comes to spending money, after seeing an image of one . . . !"

 

Have the balls (yes, big balls also make several appearances) to match the cover to the daring, irreverent, explicit interior. Trust the reading public to be intrigued and want to read it even more. (If somebody is turned off by an accurate cover, they would probably not be a happy audience for this fabulously original work.) Because I liked this book so much, every time I picked it up, those pictures felt like an insult, and I can only imagine how a person with a disability would feel.

 

Images matter. If we don't see it/them/ourselves in artistic representations, it is foreign—even to the people who live with being "different."

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The Flip Side of Hierarchies—Spare by Prince Harry

I have never believed in the validity of hierarchies of importance and entitlement. I could not have explained this to you as a very young child, but that is when I clearly saw the fallacy—in my young mind, "craziness"—of the whole notion that grownups were superior because their greater size and strength enabled them to brutalize me, or that boys were more important than girls, as my mother tried to tell me in the 1950s. As far back as I can remember I knew that people were no more important than each other or animals or plants. We all "were" and therefore we deserved to be. And later when I learned about religions, that too made no sense. Deities? Beings or powers so great that they deserved worship? If something is truly great, worship by others is irrelevant, as is fearing or fawning. Great beings see with equal eyes and want everybody to know their own greatness. Perhaps they are lonely and want eye-to-eye company.

 

When I grew up and made my living in offices, my habit of addressing male bosses as equals drove several of them crazy. I believe hierarchies are a good method for achieving certain goals in an orderly way, but that has nothing to do with superior worth or entitlement of individuals, and respect has nothing to do with servile subordination.

 

When I got my first dog, I was curious about who she was, what she liked and wanted. I went to a training school called "People Training for Dogs" which appealed to me; it helped us learn one another's language and therefore become a better team. None of my subsequent dogs were "pets." They were my family, my partners, and we merely had different responsibilities: mine were to take care of them, protect them, love them; theirs were to be in the moment with me, loving and clear.

 

The more I've learned true history and the historical roots of slavery in various monarchies—a hierarchy founded in the belief that monarchists are superior beings directly descended from God and therefore others must obey them for their own good—the more I've been baffled by the insanity that this was accepted by enough people to have it exist and grow into doctrine of Manifest Destiny that made genocide, slavery, torture, and all manner of cruelty rational.

 

I watched Harry and Meghan's interview with Oprah and found myself alone in my interest: to hear from an outlier the true psychology and cost of the distorted values of a monarchy. I was on the edge of my couch as Harry described a family in shackles, constricted, dependent on the press for its existence, on constant edge and undermining one another in a desperate performance to survive. Again, I found myself exclaiming: This is nuts! And yet most people I heard from only wanted gossip on royalty or were judgmental that somebody so privileged was whining.

 

What?! I wanted to scream. Don't you see he is telling us our history—how we came to be and the insanity that birthed it?

 

It was only because I wanted to know more from an apparently sane person who just wants to be free that I read this memoir. When I took it out of the library, the check-out woman smiled and said, "Oh, some royal intrigue!" I thought about just nodding, but instead answered, "No. I really want to understand about the monarchy." She looked puzzled, then responded, "I hope you get whatever you want out of it."

 

Spare starts off as you might expect. You get a heavy dose of the current discomfort between Harry and his brother and father, then jumpcut to the past and dealing with his mother's death with complete submersion into the day-to-day life of a royal family member, boarding school, etc. It's interesting and I thought how much I wouldn't like having to live that way, always in the public eye, but since I don't really care about royals, I got a little bored . . . until in the aftermath of his mother's death, Harry accompanies his father to South Africa where he attends a lecture about a legendary battle between Britain and the Zulus in 1879, and Harry suddenly injects the sanity I was reading for: he says the war was "a source of pride for many Britons, . .  [it] was the outgrowth of imperialism, colonialism, nationalism—in short, theft. Great Britain was trespassing, invading a sovereign nation and trying to steal it, meaning the precious blood of Britain's finest lads had been wasted that day . . . . But I was too young: I heard him and also didn't hear. Maybe I'd seen the movie Zulu too many times, maybe I'd waged too many pretend battles with my toy Redcoats. I had a view of battle, of Britain, which didn't permit new facts. So I zoomed in on the bits about manly courage, and British power, and when I should've been horrified, I was inspired." (33–34)

 

This, to me, tells the whole story of the whole mess: truth vs. our love of the stories we're accustomed to. Our love of drama that turns some people into "other"—be it into superior beings who will protect us or whose lives we can consume like a bowl of sweets because we fancy it is so romantic or exotic, or beings who are treated as property. Harry was twelve when he had his response to this story of theft, but his qualification as an adult gave me hope that I would learn something of value in his memoir—because he has obviously learned something different from what he was conditioned to believe. And in the next few pages, when he displayed his capacity to see the bird's-eye-view absurdity of a grown man frantically dinging a little bell in his boarding school's cafeteria to quiet a roomful of chatting boys who couldn't hear him, I settled down for a good read. Read More 

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The Escape Artist : The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World (Harper Collins, October 2022) by Jonathan Freeland

From out of nowhere" a sound happens. "Someone sings a pitch" and "once someone starts, everyone wants to be a part of it." The sound of the national anthem resonates and "It's completely organic."

 

"We are not a nation of soloists, but a chorus of shared values that when joined together resonate like nothing the world has ever heard," says Steve Hartman in his conclusion to this feel-good story about students who "spontaneously" erupt in an elegiac rendition of the national anthem . . . and become part of a tradition of young people who do this every year in this Kentucky hotel.

 

 

 

 

 

I would agree, with a caveat: somebody starts the hum. One person decides to be first, and then others join.

 

I just finished reading an astounding, devastating, inspiring story of the first Jew to escape Auschwitz—a teenager who was driven to action in order to spread the truth of the industrial murder of babies, old people, men, women and children who had the misfortune by their ethnic heritage to be deemed less than human and a scourge to Aryan society.

 

The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World (Harper Collins, October 2022) by Jonathan Freeland reads like a page-turning novel, at times so brutal that you feel it viscerally. Its subject, Walter Rosenberg, was sixteen years old when he was captured and deported, and his unlikely survival in Auschwitz was due to two qualities: his conviction that if people knew that the Nazis' lies about this being a mere resettlement of people were a public relations act to conceal mass murder, torture, and cruelty as a sport, they would do something; and his paranoid personality that kept him skeptical and therefore safe from rookie mistakes.

 

Rosenberg and another inmate, Fred Wetzler, do the impossible by careful observation and calculation: where others see only that the Nazis are an efficient machine guarding the prison on two concentric fronts, Rosenberg and Wetzler, students of observation, realize that it is the Nazis' predictable actions that produce a loophole for escape. (Read the book to learn what this is.) Rosenberg learns from others in the camp the basics of what not to do. (Again, read the book.) He is meticulous and patient, but also desperate because he is privy to the Nazi plan to shortly deport hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. Rosenberg and Wetzler want to get the news to them so they will rise up en masse and refuse to board the deportation trains. Read More 

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Oh Reader—Oh, What a Gift!

I'm a voracious reader as well as a writer, and therefore a lot of my journalism these days focusses on books.

 

I knew nothing about Oh Reader magazine except that they might be open to articles I'm interested in writing. And I was thrilled when editor Gemma Peckham accepted a piece about finding hilarious books by female writers. She has published it, under the title "Laughing with the Ladies," in the December 2022 (issue 010) Oh Reader and, oh boy, am I surprised and grateful for the discovery of this magazine.

 

I just finished reading it cover to cover, and this is a reader's heaven.

 

Of course, I like my own piece, detailing the difficulty of finding pee-in-your-pants funny books by women, why that has been a problem, and a list with short descriptions of the 13 books that I've discovered since I began my quest eight years ago.

 

But there's more.

 

My favorite stories: how being raised Hindu affected the writer's (Thulasi Seshan) reverence for physical books; the story of a neighbor's book collection and how reading it after her demise affected the author (Rebecca Duras); a fittingly short essay by a writer (Steven Allison) who couldn't read due to his ADHD about the unlikely way he learned he can read whole books; and a deeply moving contemplation by a bookseller (Laura Bridgewater) about what she learned was the true gift of the bookseller-customer interaction.

 

Not only are the articles wonderful, but the art, layout, and high-quality paper make this a magazine to save.

 

The December issue will be on magazine stands on December 8, 2022, and you can learn more at Oh Reader.com.

@betsyjuliarobinson A great magazine for readers #booktok #reading #books @ohreadermag #magazintiktok #readers ♬ original sound - Betsy Robinson
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Vote Like Democracy Depends on It . . . Because It Does

I sought this novel out after reading Kathrine Kressmann Taylor’s perfect goose-bump of a short story "Address Unknown." That story, originally published in 1938, received much-deserved notoriety in its time and was later republished as a stand-alone paperback with an afterword by the author's son giving the back story of this riveting epistolary exchange between two Germans, one a Jew and one a budding Nazi, at a pivotal time in history. It is an international best-seller.

 

I'm guessing Kressman Taylor's son, Charles Douglas Taylor (who contributed back-of-book comprehensive and illuminating histories about and by the real man* on whom Day of No Return was based), was motivated by the short story's success to self-publish (through Xlibris) this 2016 American edition of this out-of-print novel that has only four reviews on Goodreads. I would like to remedy its unmerited obscurity.

 

Day of No Return, first published in 1942, is equally necessary and horrifying. And it should be read by Americans who love democracy and are frazzled by our current history. If you enjoy reading history, this novel may be for you. I'll explain:

 

I was not brought up with a religion and one of the good parts of that is that I have no sense of any religion being superior and am comfortable with a live and let live attitude. But this background has also made me obtuse to the dynamism of religious fervor and power and how it can be used to take over and demolish democracy. For all its flaws, our Constitution and the founders were absolutely brilliant in their proclamation of a republic with a separation of church and state—a separation which insidious forces are eroding as I type.

 

The similarities of the trajectory of Germany into a Nazi regime and what's going on now in the USA are unmistakable. But without the knowledge of the historical precedent, we Americans are missing the chance to do a course correction. Read More 

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10 Books to Help You Cope with Cultural Agony—The Healing Power of Fiction

Maybe the right stories can help heal us in a void.

Yesterday my book club discussed Jason Mott's National Book Award-winning hilarious, heart-breaking novel Hell of a Book, a story of an unnamed Black man's life in a world where he is never seen as who he knows himself to be. What was most meaningful for me was that by the end of our discussion, this white not-particularly-contemplative group of older women settled into a profoundly personal conversation about self-acceptance.

 

All fiction, when done well, forces you to walk in another person's shoes … or into deeper levels of the shoes you are already wearing. And because of this, fiction can take the reader on an emotional journey to healing or coping with pain that may seem intractable.

 

 

What the following ten stories have in common is accepting realities that are personal as well as historical. Racism, genocide, spousal abuse, and more. How do you accept these things? These books leave little alternative. And by dealing with what's true, there is a form of healing, or at least a path to coping. The human journey is just that—no matter what your race, gender, or status—accepting truth on all levels.

 

But what is truth in these days of divided definitions?

 

When I say "truth," I am referring to what Ernest Hemingway meant when he advised writers to ". . . write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know." To me this means truth that comes from one's core. One's Essence—however you define that. It isn't about politics or disinformation vs. fact.

 

When a writer's Essence births a true story, it is told through true characters, and no matter how fantastical or removed from your life they may be, almost everybody can identify in some way and have a personal experience. That personal experience can sometimes be love or a refusal to love, which can manifest as an emotional aversion. If we hate, rather than blame the story, we can follow the aversion down to its root and perhaps learn something about ourselves—learn what we are refusing to accept. And if we can love the truth about ourselves, loving all the other stuff gets easier. Read More 

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