Washington Independent Review of Books
The Washington Writers Conference Presents Caroline Kitchener
February 21st, 2018, 01:30 AM

Caroline Kitchener is an associate editor at the Atlantic and author of Post Grad: Five Women and Their First Year Out of College. Her work has appeared in Vogue, the Wall Street Journal, Vox, the Daily Beast, and the Guardian. Find out what she can tell you about getting your work off the ground at this year’s Washington Writers Conference on May 4-5 in College Park, MD. Click here to register now!

W.E.B. DuBois’ Birthday with Ibram Kendi and Dana Williams
February 21st, 2018, 01:30 AM

To mark the 150th birthday of W.E.B. DuBois, join us for a conversation between National Book Award winner Ibram Kendi and Howard University English Department Chair Dana Williams. Dr. Kendi and Dr. Williams will be discussing Souls of Black Folk, DuBois’ seminal text and a beacon in the fight for civil rights. Penguin Classics has released an updated version of Souls of Black Folk to mark Dubois’ birthday. IBRAM KENDI is the author of the New York Times bestseller Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, for which he became the youngest winner in history of the National Book Award for Nonfiction. He is also the author of the award-winning The Black Campus Movement. A professor of history and international relations and the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, he lives in Washington, D.C. DANA WILLIAMS is the Chair of the English Department at Howard University and a specialist in contemporary African-American Literature. Her work has been published in CLA Journal, African American Review, Bulletin of Bibliography, Langston Hughes Review, and the Zora Neale Hurston Forum, among others. She was previously the president of the Association of Departments of English Executive Committee and was nominated by President Obama to serve on the National Council on the Humanities.

At Kramerbooks, 1517 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, DC. Click here for info.

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A Wilder Time: Notes from a Geologist at the Edge of the Greenland Ice
February 21st, 2018, 01:30 AM

Bill Glassley spent his formative years in Southern California, skipping class so that he could surf. In college, he looked for a path that would allow him to keep surfing and maybe put in a little time as an oceanographer.

Unfortunately, he had to get through undergrad studies first. So he “reluctantly chose geology.”

He was uninterested until a professor, carting students on a required field trip, pulled over and gave an impromptu, mesmerizing lecture on the formation of a particular rock outcropping. Glassley was hooked. (Thank you, professor!)

Traveling along with Glassley here on his explorations of Greenland is likewise just as mesmerizing for those of us who didn’t know we were interested in geology. He is a thoroughly accessible guide whose wonder at the landscape that surrounds him is infectious.

Ten percent of the world’s fresh water sits frozen atop Greenland, rising to a height of 10,000 feet. The land itself is of relatively low elevation, having been ground down over billions of years and multiple ice ages; however, Glassley and his Danish colleagues, Kai Sørensen and John Korstgård, were seeking to prove that mountains the size of the Alps or Himalayas had existed on the land as of about 2 billion years ago.

The ice itself presents a challenge to that kind of discovery, since only a small fringe of land is accessible; however, the ice is “receding faster than plants can take hold,” so there are opportunities for exploration. Their selected research area on the west side of the world’s largest island was a spot about 100 miles wide at the widest point — where the ice begins — and 250 miles long.

When Glassley first accompanies Sørensen and Korstgård to Greenland, the expedition is motivated by the desire to quell a controversy over interpretations of the “areas of intense deformation” studied and reported on during earlier fieldwork. Based on work done in Greenland since World War II, a community of geologists had carefully crafted a theory of the collision of two small continents.

The space in between the landmasses, which is eaten up as the continents approach and finally meet, has to go somewhere. That somewhere, eventually, is up. If that’s true, where are the mountains? Well, even in geology, 2 billion years is a pretty long time, and, as Glassley observes, “Erosion always wins.”

Unfortunately, all the work of Sørensen, Korstgård, and their predecessors had been summarily dismissed as flawed by a team that had been in the field for a single season and cherry-picked its data. Most distressingly, that rebuttal had gained traction within the geological community — apparently, false equivalence happens in more than just politics and journalism.

Though A Wilder Time describes the men’s exploration and explains their findings —their original theory is vindicated, and then some — it is the author’s joy and sense of wonder at the land he’s exploring that makes this slender notebook so compelling.

When the team finds what turns out to be “the very edge of one of the continents involved in the collision,” formed of rock that is 3.3 billion years old, the discovery is also one of the most visually stunning:

“Bands of pink, white, gray, tan, and black, some no more than a fraction of an inch wide, some several feet thick, draw the eye along stretched-out, languid, folded forms, flowing as though the bedrock had once been as soft as butter…From a scientific point of view, it is a treasure. From an aesthetic point of view, it is a masterpiece.”

Glassley is a careful observer of everything around him, and he shares that with us, from the utter silence he experiences on his first midnight walk, to the dense velvet carpet of moss that hides man-eating spaces in between the rocks he’s traversing, to the phenomenon of a stream of fresh water visibly layering on top of denser salt water below, which he is drawn to touch: “[M]y fingers penetrated the slithering boundary layer. Painlessly, I watched as flesh disassembled into a dance of swirling abstractions, my fingers becoming nothing I knew.”

Clouds of mosquitoes and ice-water bathing aside, he makes us long to be there, too.

Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Jenny is a member of PEN/America and the National Book Critics’ Circle, and writes a monthly column and reviews regularly for the Independent. She is chair of the 2018 Washington Writers Conference and is president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers Association.

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An Interview with Daniel Ellsberg
February 20th, 2018, 01:30 AM

Edward Snowden calls him the father of American whistleblowing. Henry Kissinger once labeled him the most dangerous man in America.

Patriot or traitor? Depends on whom you ask, but there’s no denying the impact Daniel Ellsberg has had on American history. His leak of what became known as “the Pentagon Papers,” a secret history of the Vietnam War written for the American government revealing the nation’s duplicity in the Asian military action, helped turn the tide of public opinion against the disastrous conflict.

Ellsberg is back with another warning — this time about the terrors of nuclear war. His new book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, is a terrified insider’s account of how close we’ve come to Armageddon in the past — and why we’re now at the greatest risk since the height of the Cold War.

I’d like to kick off the discussion with a quote from a recent article in Foreign Affairs: "Like President Donald Trump, the Pentagon's new nuclear policy document sees a dark and threatening world. It argues that potential U.S. adversaries such as China, North Korea and Russia are rapidly improving their nuclear capabilities and gaining an edge over the United States. But rather than laying out a plan to halt this slide into a more dangerous world and working to decrease reliance on nuclear weapons, the Nuclear Posture Review…hastens its rise by accepting the reasoning of U.S. adversaries and affirmatively embracing nuclear competition." So, it seems like your book's extremely timely.

Unfortunately, yes. That, of course, corresponds at the same time with President Trump's exchange of epithets and priming for war with North Korea, which would be the first two-sided nuclear war the world has ever seen. It wouldn't be the event that would cause near extinction…but it would mean more violence than the world has ever seen in the period of a day or a week. I think it would confirm this race toward more nuclear weapons in the false belief that those would increase the nations' security, whereas, in fact, they would reduce world security in general, including the nation that did it. This seems an extremely bad direction to be going, and my book is a warning.     

Even the title, The Doomsday Machine, perhaps it's slightly tongue-in-cheek, or maybe not, but that comes out of “Doctor Strangelove,” where there is a so-called “doomsday machine,” a Russian device that will destroy the world if we fire a nuclear missile at them. Maybe not so farfetched?

No, the title’s not tongue-in-cheek at all. As I say in the book, what I concluded in 1964 when I was working in the Pentagon and went there with my boss to see a viewing of “Doctor Strangelove,” we both concluded that it was a documentary at that time. Of course, it's a satire, it's a comedy, a black comedy, dark comedy, but everything in it could have happened then. I think that's been true ever since, including what we didn't realize then, in '64, was that our existing apparatus of nuclear war would have caused near extinction — not literal human extinction of every last human on earth, but, perhaps, 98 or 99 percent of humans with some surviving on fish and mollusks near the Antarctic or in New Zealand, possibly.

We didn't know then about nuclear winter, the phenomenon that the smoke generated and lofted into the atmosphere by the cities we were burning, we ourselves, without the necessity even of Soviet retaliation, that that smoke would encircle the globe and would cut off 70 percent of sunlight, killing harvests worldwide and leading to worldwide starvation. Whereas Herman Kahn, my colleague at Rand, when he invented the concept of a doomsday machine, he said at the time that there was no doomsday machine and never would be, that no nation would ever choose to make that.

Well, without knowing it, we had made a doomsday machine. Nobody knew that for another 20 years, but we have known it now for about 35 years, since 1983, and our planning has not reflected that at all. The weapons that both Russia and the U.S. are planning to buy now are directed, in theory, toward reducing damage to ourselves in a nuclear war by hitting and counterforce attacks, hitting the ICBMs, basically, and the command and control of the opponent. Actually, that would have no effect. The cities that would burn from the submarine-launched missiles and the ICBMs that weren't hit would wipe out the attacker as well as the attacked and everybody else inside of a year. It wouldn't be immediate, but by nuclear famine.

The Doomsday Clock recently moved to two seconds before midnight, saying we're at the most dangerous threat for some sort of nuclear conflict since 1953.

Right, well, that's the efforts of the Federation of American Scientists to alert people, to warn them, to wake them up. I don't know how much effect it has, but we're all doing what we can. In my case, they were moving the clock forward for these same reasons I've been talking about, and, in addition, the backwards movement we're making on climate, attenuating the putting of carbon dioxide by the burning of fossil fuels into the atmosphere, which will, on a somewhat slower time scale than a nuclear war would do, also threaten civilization. For both reasons, they said we're closer to doomsday than we used to be. Well, we'll see whether they have an effect in alerting people.

Steven Spielberg has a new movie (“The Post”) about the Washington Post publishing the Pentagon Papers after the New York Times had been temporarily blocked.

It's a good movie. It's very timely and very well done, well-acted, and directed. It certainly brings up two themes here, very much the freedom of the press and necessity for the press to confront and to challenge efforts to stop it, which are very much happening under Trump, of course, and I think will get worse than we've seen. Already, under President Obama, there were three times as many prosecutions of leakers for leaking classified information as all previous presidents. President Obama, who I voted for, increased that, and I think that Trump, before he's through, even if he's in only [one] term, will probably surpass that. So, it's a very timely film in showing how important it is to resist that effort by the Executive [Branch] to silence the press.

Finally, I have to ask you about whistleblower Chelsea Manning. She’s running for the senate here in Maryland.

Yes, well, I could say that I would rather go to prison than run for senate, but, then, I didn't have to go to prison in the end, so I can't speak from experience as she does. I take it she thinks that's better than being in prison.

Michael Causey is co-host of the Monday-morning program “Get Up!” on WOWD 94.3 FM Takoma Park.

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Cut You Down: A Wakeland Novel
February 20th, 2018, 01:30 AM

What a pleasure it is to encounter a new voice, a new kind of edginess, a contemporary formulation of detective fiction that has the heft and distinction of the genre’s classics. Cut You Down is a true puzzler, filled with unusual characters and majestically described places — though many of those places are not at all majestic.

There’s a lot of the seamy side of life here, and much about human behavior that rings true even in its repulsiveness. Is this Canadian noir? Perhaps.

This second title in the Wakeland Novel series presents a sequence of murky challenges for former policeman and youngish private investigator Dave Wakeland. One of them is to redefine his relationship with former girlfriend Sonia, who maintains her career on the Vancouver police force.

Another is to maintain a productive balance with his business partner, Jeff, who is taking their company into the realm of security work while Wakeland continues with the PI effort in the missing-persons arena.

The third is a nightmare of a new case that comes his way, a case that will test his limits.

When Wakeland gets a call from Dana Essex, his world changes. Essex wants him to find a missing college student named Tabitha Sorensen. The caller, a professor, has been a mentor and friend to Tabitha — perhaps even more than that.

Wakeland’s path is rocky and dangerous because Tabitha’s disappearance may be connected to a scandal at the college. She served on a committee that managed a large fund for school programs — a fund that has been stolen. Moreover, it also appears there are connections to local gangs.

In his investigation, Wakeland is aided by his sister, Kay, who works for him, and by Sonia, who is crossing lines that might end her police career. She is entangled with a cop who turns out to be dirty. Wakeland must work with and around unscrupulous characters to make headway, and he does: even wrestlers who moonlight as paid muscle. Even a professional assassin. Even a pair of hardened criminal brothers.

Wakeland moves through a murky world. Everything and everyone he touches has something to offer and something to hide. The investigation takes him to several locations in and around Vancouver and across the border into Washington. Most of the locations of these interrogations are unsavory, depressing places which author Sam Wiebe makes come alive.

Much of the book’s appeal derives from the author’s skill in etching these settings. Remember these creative-writing exercises? Describe someone’s character by describing his room, the inside of her glove compartment or purse. His back yard. Her kitchen cabinets and drawers. Closets. Offices. Wiebe must have excelled at them.

Over and over, he communicates the intangibles, the cultural ambience or atmosphere, through well-chosen and effectively combined tangibles. It’s a sophisticated form of telling by showing.

As Wakeland moves closer to exposing the hidden truths, he also exposes himself to greater risks. The missing-person case turns into a murder case, Wakeland becomes a target, and the pulse of the narrative climbs to higher and higher peaks of suspense.

It’s easy to see why Sam Wiebe, still early in his career, has already received accolades and awards. This thriller really thrills.

Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English at the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore magazine, he is the author or editor of 20 books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom. His reviews appear in a wide variety of regional and national publications.

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Love You — Literarily
February 19th, 2018, 01:30 AM

With Valentine's Day just last week, I've been thinking about literary crushes — fictional characters that made you fall in love with them. I asked my husband who his crush was, and he told me Lady Brett Ashley from The Sun Also Rises.  

"It’s been a while since I’ve read it,” he said, “so I’m not sure I can recapture what I felt as a teenager encountering her for the first time, but she struck me as modern and independent and worldly but vulnerable, too — that mix — and ‘damned good-looking,’ of course. That’s how Hemingway put it, sexy and sexual both in ways that seemed everything a guy would want. And all the guys in the novel wanted her, too.”

Then he asked, "Well, who are yours?" And that's when the wheels started to fall off this column idea. Because, you see, I realized that I am actually mortified by my literary crushes.

Well, most of them. The biggest ones — the ones that burned brightest in my memory (and in my fluttering heart) — are terribly, terribly embarrassing in hindsight. I do not have any Victorian hero to cite. No obscure French villain. No artfully written tragic figure from a classically trained writer.


The characters I most fell in love with? Well, for starters, Howard Roark, the cruel, megalomaniac sociopath from The Fountainhead, of all books. Oh, man, did I love him! And I loved that book! I lay on my college dorm-room bed, turning those pages, eating it all up, certain that I'd never love a book as much as I loved that one. (cue scratching record needle, please.)

And then there was Robert Kincaid, my high school crush from the crazy-sappy and yet oh-so-effective The Bridges of Madison County. How could you not pine for that kind of strong yet lost love? I had the whole thing pictured in my mind, and it was all so achingly beautiful. I distinctly remember going to see the movie in the theater and being so angry that they hadn't gotten Francesca's dress right.

And then, made much more embarrassing by the fact that I was a full-blown adult when I read these, Edward from Twilight. Ughhhhh…….Really, Tara?

I remember reading articles about how grown women were going nuts over the Twilight series (here’s one from a psychotherapist that cautions that the books aren’t good for your well-being), and I was embarrassed that they’d hooked me. I had to step away from those novels because they had been unearthing some strange, awkward adolescent version of myself that I had no desire to return to. 

The only literary crush that I’m not embarrassed by is Jupiter Jones from The Three Investigators series, a middle-grade mystery series I devoured growing up — and still read today! Jupiter is the leader of a trio of boys who solve strange mysteries and crimes in their hometown of Los Angeles, and although he's always described as "pudgy" and "stocky" in the books, he's super smart, funny, serious, and kind.

Also, the books are great. (So stop judging me.)

Here’s the thing, though. It turns out that I’m not alone. Lots of people are embarrassed by their literary crushes. I did a Very Scientific Poll of my Facebook friends, and many of them prefaced their choice with, "This is embarrassing, but…" or "Don't judge me, but…" or, "Well, I was in college..."

In fact, though I never specifically asked for “first” crushes, most people immediately pointed out a character from their childhood or adolescence. Not surprising, since that’s the age when most of us are crushing on things — whether it’s another person, a fad, or a fictional character.

Some of the more popular choices were Meg, Calvin, or Charles Wallace from A Wrinkle in Time, Rhett Butler, Lord Peter Wimsey, Archie Goodwin, Encyclopedia Brown, Harriet the Spy, and, of course, Mr. Darcy. 

Several friends enthusiastically proclaimed James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser (with ALL the names) from Outlander (to quote one friend: “Because of all the sexin’”).

The bad boys and girls got some thumbs up, as well — from Wuthering Heights' Heathcliff and In Cold Blood’s Perry Smith to Therese Raquin. We also had a literal beast — Curious George made the list.

So even though we might be a little embarrassed by the characters we're drawn to in books, ponder this: How cool is it that writers can create characters that lead us to fall in love with them? So much so that even decades after reading the book, we can still remember those feelings?

As Sonia Perea-Morales writes, characters can be "written so beautifully…that we can't even imagine a world without them, yet we live in a world without them. They exist simply because a book of words is arranged in such a perfect way that they gave birth to some of our best friends."

So, yes, I may have outgrown my first literary crushes, but even so (like the first boyfriends I’ve also outgrown...ha ha) I have to give them credit for the importance they held in my life. Each one of those characters carved out, for a time, a space in my imagination that helped to feed my cravings for stories. And even if our relationship didn’t work out in the long run — well, there are lots of fish in the sea.

So, here’s to my next loves — in whichever pages I find them.

Tara Laskowski is the author of Bystanders and Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons.

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Gunpowder Moon
February 19th, 2018, 01:30 AM

When a book mixes genre, must it follow all the rules and corresponding tropes to succeed?  David Pedreira’s debut novel, Gunpowder Moon, is a science fiction/mystery/thriller. The story’s tagline — “The moon’s first murder is just the beginning” — tries to encapsulate all of the above: The book is set on the moon (science fiction), it’s about a murder (mystery), and the killing sets off a chain of events with dire consequences (thriller).

Pulling off any one of these genres is challenging, but mastering all three requires a level of mastery that might be overly ambitious for a first-time novelist.

It is 2072. The United States, along with several other countries (most notably China), has established permanent mining stations on the moon, extracting helium-3, a nonradioactive isotope that is used in generating fusion power.

The smallest and most remote of the American mining operations is Sea of Serenity 1, commanded by Caden Dechert, an ex-military officer who went to the moon to get as far from conflict as possible. But conflict finds him when one of his miners is murdered.

The American Space Mining Administration is quick to blame the Chinese. The two countries “had been bickering about mineral rights for months,” and both are leaning toward war to settle the dispute. Dechert, however, feels there is no evidence to support Chinese involvement. As business, political, and military interests close in, he seeks to stave off the war by getting to the bottom of the murder.

Throughout, Pedreira offers a convincing experience of inhabiting the moon: the constant dust that requires filters and blowers and “clean” rooms, and the danger of radiation that requires the base to be buried below ground for extra shielding. There’s also the requirement that everyone wear 1-g suits when inside to approximate Earth’s gravity, so their bodies don’t atrophy.

Pedreira’s attention to small details, such as using LPS (lunar positioning system) instead of GPS, and consideration of logical outcomes of human habitation — “We’ve increased the Moon’s atmosphere by seven hundred percent since we’ve been here, just through the gas emissions of our stations and propellant-driven craft” — makes the reader believe these people really live on the moon. This is hard-science fiction at its best, believable because the facts are accurate.

The events happening on Dechert’s base are equally convincing as the government deliberately sets the grounds for war. Evidence is moved to another base, taking it out of Dechert’s reach. A representative from the Space Mining Administration arrives the day after the murder — a reporter in tow — and announces that the marines will be arriving shortly.

Dechert, who has PTSD from his time in the military, feels the mounting pressure of a situation he can’t control and worries that more lives will be lost. The march of these outside forces serves to heighten the tension — especially when people do start to die — in the way of all good thrillers.

But what of the mystery? It might appear that a murder set on a lunar base could function like a Clue-style whodunit, but in those types of house-party stories, the participants don’t know each other, so everyone suspects everyone else.

In a remote lunar base that houses only six people, it is much harder to arouse feelings of suspicion. This is further hampered by the fact that moving from one room to another on the moon requires preparation and communication, and that every movement is recorded by the computer systems.

How do you make a compelling mystery when there is so little room for subterfuge and discovery? With such tight quarters, the only solution is to have the murderer off screen for most of the book, which all too clearly points to his identity. And with the war gathering momentum, finding the guilty party becomes less important anyway.

Pedreira, as a former journalist, writes clean, clear sentences and the occasional brilliant metaphor: “The mining field [lights] radiated out in a giant circle like a pushed-over Ferris wheel on the dark center of the Moon.”

He is less adept, however, at character development and readily defaults to caricatures: the boy-genius hacker, the tomboy, the stuffy bureaucrat, the military man who’s just following orders.

Even Dechert, the most rounded of them all, is a bit one-note; we are told again and again that he lost a lot of soldiers when he was in command, and now his one purpose is to keep his mining crew — his surrogate family — alive.

It is inevitable that Gunpowder Moon will be compared to Andy Weir’s Artemis, which also relates a thriller/mystery in a lunar settlement. The books, however, navigate two very different moments in human lunar history. Weir’s moon is already home to a city, which allows for a large cast of characters with a much greater freedom of movement. Gunpowder Moon, with its more restrictive settlement, provides a world that seems, at only 54 years in the future, much more plausible.

In the end, Gunpowder Moon succeeds as a hard-science fiction, military parable. The thrill of living on the moon is tangible, and as the plot kicks in, it becomes hard to put the book down. As a mystery, however, it is less successful, and that, unfortunately, detracts from the overall satisfaction.

Ariel S. Winter was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Shamus Award, and the Macavity Award for his novel The Twenty-Year Death. He is also author of the novel Barren Cove and the children’s picture book One of a Kind, illustrated by David Hitch. He lives in Baltimore.

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How America Lost Its Secrets
February 18th, 2018, 01:30 AM

Whistleblower Edward Snowden has become a worldwide celebrity because of his 2013 role in exposing our government’s indiscriminate capture of citizens’ phone and internet records. Based largely on media revelations from the files that Snowden smuggled out of the super-secret National Security Agency (NSA), the courts moved quickly to declare this government program illegal.

Since then, scores of international honors have rained down on Snowden, and he’s been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and was runner up to Pope Francis for Time Magazine’s 2013 Person of the Year.

Rare is the media outlet — print or electronic — that hasn’t retold the saga: NSA contractor Snowden downloads top-secret files to thumb drives, walks them out the door of a federal installation in Hawaii, flees to Hong Kong, releases some of his downloaded materials to select media, and at last seeks sanctuary in Russia, where he remains today. There, under Russian guardianship, Snowden has been interviewed by Vanity Fair, Wired, the Washington Post, and NBC News, among many other international outlets.

Today, Snowden is revered in many circles as a self-sacrificing teller of truth to power. Filmmaker Laura Poitras was awarded an Oscar for “CitizenFour,” her 2014 documentary shot mostly in Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room after his escape.

And just last year, his story — or at least director Oliver Stone’s thriller-style adaptation of it — hit the big screen. Stone’s “Snowden” portrays his hero as an introspective boy-genius who gradually shapeshifts, mid-film, into a latter-day Jimmy Stewart, calmly unflinching in his moral duty.

Even so, there have been a few naysayers in the face of Snowden’s bottle-rocket rise from obscurity to global celebrity. Predictably, they’ve come mostly from Congress and the Feds, who are still looking to slap the cuffs on him. But “60 Minutes,” for one, has raised questions about Snowden’s motives and the extent of the damage to U.S. national interests that his breach occasioned.

Now along comes author Edward Jay Epstein. In How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft, Epstein plunges in boldly against the tide of kudos for young Snowden, suggesting that the boyish techie we read about or see onscreen is a singularly destructive player in the game of international espionage.

Snowden, declares Epstein, likely made off with a massive haul of potentially damaging national secrets ranging far beyond the files that exposed illegal NSA surveillance. And worse, according to Epstein, all the evidence suggests that Snowden — maybe a clueless dupe, perhaps a conscious agent of espionage, or possibly something in between — has delivered his haul to his Russian hosts and their intelligence-sharing partners the Chinese. Lacking further revelations, or an outright confession, the real extent of harm done is unknowable, although the DoD and intelligence community have called it unprecedented.

Epstein is no rookie, but rather an established author with a contrarian streak. Since 1969, he has written 15 print books on topics ranging from the Kennedy assassination, to the global diamond trade, to business and finance in Hollywood. Here’s a rundown of a few elements Epstein finds noteworthy in the Snowden saga:

  • Although he was a high-school dropout who fell far short of the minimum educational prerequisites for his CIA job, Snowden was still hired by the agency in 2009. Possibly related: Snowden had strong IT skills and, oh yes, he came from a “military” family that included his grandfather, a retired Coast Guard admiral then working as a senior FBI liaison to the intelligence community.
  • In 2013, effectively forced out of the CIA, Snowden moved on, his clearance intact, to a contractor position at Dell that gave him administrative access to many intelligence “compartments,” meaning the online sectors deliberately kept separate for reasons of security, with each requiring unique clearances. (Epstein sees the intel agencies’ almost casual reliance on consultants as enabling Snowden’s unauthorized penetration, which, he suggests, began here.)
  • Snowden applies for, and gets, a position at Booz Allen, another NSA contractor. It pays less than his Dell job and ostensibly means considerably less access to classified materials. Epstein, hinting darkly at another partner-spy already in place at this new assignment, questions why Snowden would take this seeming step backward. He also ponders how Snowden could have acquired the passwords of 14 other analysts, and thus gain encyclopedic access to NSA’s inner sanctum of secrets. (Oliver Stone seems to address this question obliquely by showing Snowden quietly galvanizing the submerged moral sensibilities of his techie coworkers. In the film, this Hawaiian-shirted band of lost boys is winkingly complicit in Snowden’s escape with his cache of classified materials.)
  • In Hong Kong, Snowden meets documentarian Poitras and Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian, and represents himself (on camera) as a “senior CIA advisor.” He spends 34 days in the territory, first in a luxury hotel and later in a mysterious safe house. (WikiLeaks says it paid the bill at the hotel and provided Snowden’s subsequent hideout. Epstein, well sourced on the workings of Chinese intelligence, questions this.)
  • While Snowden is under the radar at his safe house, the U.S. invalidates his passport (except for travel back home). Snowden falsely maintains that this revocation happened while he was in midair on the way to Russia and that it effectively “trapped” him there, a hero without a state. After a period in the transfer zone of the Moscow airport, he settles in Russia under a year’s grant of temporary asylum, recently extended to 2020.

So, has the wily fugitive who once styled himself with revealing self-aggrandizing aplomb, as Wolfking Awesomefox, turned over his haul to his accommodating hosts? Or has he bravely, as he has tweeted, not given them anything?

Epstein builds an admittedly speculative case for treason, and he supplements his narrative with fascinating digressions about intelligence practices in general and the sorry cavalcade of recent moles who have burrowed into secrets that should be better safeguarded.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in February 2017.]

Bob Duffy is a Maryland writer and consultant in branding and advertising.

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Not a Scientist
February 17th, 2018, 01:30 AM

The title of Dave Levitan’s Not a Scientist comes from a speech given by Ronald Reagan in 1980. Reagan was addressing a major environmental concern of the time, acid rain, which is caused in part by sulfur dioxide.

“I’m not a scientist,” Reagan admitted in his folksy way, and continued: “But I just have a suspicion that that one little mountain out there [Mt. Saint Helens] has probably released more sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere of the world than has been released in the last ten years of automobile driving or things of that kind…”

The facts were otherwise, but that hardly mattered. With his canny bit of syncrisis, Reagan had essentially admitted that he considered facts unimportant, or anyway less important than his own “suspicion.” In effect, Reagan’s phrasing established a contrast between science and common sense.

Who you gonna trust, he might as well have said — those snooty folks in the white coats? Or decent, levelheaded people like me?

Levitan sees Reagan’s trope as a hallmark of science denialism, a rhetorical license for unrestrained flimflam. “I’m not a scientist,” a politician begins, and goes on to butcher scientific knowledge in whatever way suits his purposes. Sometimes the speaker cites a scientific claim but muddles or distorts the facts. Sometimes the speaker presumes to speak for the scientific community, but only cites maverick or disreputable sources. And sometimes a speaker says things so nonsensical that concepts like truth or evidence hardly apply.

All these tricks have one thing in common: they subordinate the long-term interests of scientists to the immediate needs of politicians. Those who value science must be alert for such deceptions, and for the caveat, “I’m not a scientist,” that so often precedes them.

As a guide for the perplexed, Levitan offers a taxonomy of common ways in which politicians undermine science — “a catalogue of swindles and perversions,” to borrow a phrase from one expert in political perfidy. Among these are such familiar intellectual errors as cherry-picking and oversimplification, ad-hominem arguments that demonize people who make unpopular claims, and old-school political maneuvers like insincere flattery or stealing credit for others’ accomplishments.

Levitan’s powers of classification are sometimes strained by the breadth of his subject. Politicians are mistaken or disingenuous so often, on so many subjects, in so many ways, that a full account of their foibles would become a general study of human nature. He often strays from covering the misrepresentation of scientific research into exposing legislative tussles and everyday chicanery.

One of Levitan’s case studies, for instance, concerns Robert Lucas, a man imprisoned for illegally building apartment complexes on Florida wetlands. Levitan describes how Lucas’ story was sensationalized by cynical politicians, who used it to level cheap attacks on the EPA.

The case has some bearing on scientific issues, like the study and conservation of wetland environments, but most of the facts Levitan checks here are legal ones: the length of Lucas’ sentence, the laws under which Lucas was charged by federal prosecutors, whether or not Lucas was subject to any civil lawsuits, and so on. (Many politicians are trained as lawyers, but that doesn’t keep them from mangling legal matters as badly as scientific ones.)

Still, any book covering both science and politics is bound to get a little bogged down in policy. As a primer in the sins of spin, Levitan’s list looks hard to beat. I particularly recommend chapter six, which shows how politicians dismiss groundbreaking research by describing it in deliberately silly language — a ploy that can be used by cynics and simpletons to mock almost any pursuit. (Ya hear about that guy Newton? Spent all this time trying to prove how if you drop something, it falls on the ground. What a dope!)

This isn’t a book about how politicians in general abuse science. It’s a book about how certain kinds of politicians abuse science — the kind who garner approving coverage on Fox News. Levitan avers that Republicans as a party have “largely abandoned mainstream scientific viewpoints.”

Is that fair? A reviewer ought to admit his biases. I think liberals can be overeager to declare scientific questions “settled.” And garbling complex research is a universal tendency. But overall, I’d say Levitan has chosen his targets well.

If anything, he’s too generous. He refrains from probing politicians’ intentions, looking instead at the substance of their claims. That’s a revealing omission. What’s striking about the enemies of science is that they talk mostly about intentions, while scientists prefer to talk about probabilities.

A scientist asks, in all earnestness, “How likely is it that humans are warming the atmosphere?” An enemy of science asks, “Why should we trust what scientists say? They could all be deranged by groupthink, or corrupt tools of the government, or perpetrating a giant hoax.”

Maybe we should ask the question scientifically: “How many scientists are likely to be deranged, corrupt, or hoaxers?” That’s a tricky question. It would take an excellent scientist to answer it.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in February 2017.]

Nick Wolven’s writing has appeared in The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016, Asimov’s Science Fiction, the New England Review, and many other publications.

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The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War
February 16th, 2018, 01:30 AM

Much like Kleenex and Xerox, the term “Marshall Plan” has taken on a generic meaning in our lexicon. Today, we think of using a Marshall Plan to bolster any ailing nation’s economy and to bring it into the democratic capitalist fold.

As author Benn Steil explains in The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War, the original plan — with its $13 billion aid package — used in Post-WWII Europe had far-reaching geopolitical implications given the unique circumstances surrounding its development.

The goals of the Marshall Plan (officially the Foreign Assistance Act of 1948 or the European Recovery Program [ERP]) were to assist post-war Europe, foster economic recovery, combat the rise of Communism, and improve trade for all involved.

The Allies, especially Russia, had concerns about granting such generosity to Germany. After losing 20 million people to the Germans, Russia was in no mood to help its former enemy. France, England, and many in the U.S. felt the same. Still, men like Secretary of State Dean Acheson; Republican senator Arthur H. Vandenberg, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations; and President Harry Truman believed it was necessary to rehabilitate all of Europe, including the former Third Reich.

These men were all too familiar with the disastrous WWI Treaty of Versailles, in which the victorious countries demanded reparations from — and that additional punishment be meted out to — Germany. The result was chaos. Ultimately, that “peace” treaty planted the seeds for the Second World War. Now, after WWII, the Allies were again seeking reparations and the prevention of German re-industrialization.

While it was Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill who had planned the war and its aftermath, it was Harry Truman’s fate to ultimately lead the post-war United States. Abandoning FDR’s “One World” vision, Truman and his new secretary of state, George C. Marshall, adopted an adversarial “Two World” vision, a high-stakes duel to contain Communism.

Internecine political fights broke out in the U.S. over the proposed massive aid bill. Truman wanted a strong German economy and encouraged the ERP to focus on that. Unfortunately, his secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, and many other politicians advocated for the emasculation of Germany.

Powerful Senator Vandenberg was in Truman’s corner and became the most important political figure to shepherd the bill through Congress. Acheson, supported by his brilliant colleagues George Kennan and William Clayton, was a staunch supporter. General Lucius D. Clay, the military governor of Germany, also advocated for the plan to include Germany. He knew that Germany’s industrial recovery was critical to the post-war world and to the European and American economies.

After the war, Germany had been divided into four zones administered by the United States, England, France, and Russia. Berlin was located completely within the Russian zone. (It had been the Russians who first reached the capital city at the end of Hitler’s reign.) This gave them substantial leverage over the Allies.

As the aid package was being debated, the Russian bloc avoided participating in the process. However, during a crisis involving East and West Berlin currency, Stalin took bold action. He suddenly cut off all access to Berlin by train, canal, or highway. The result was the Berlin Blockade, which began a siege of West Berlin that lasted from June 1948 until May 1949.

In response, thousands of Allied planes began flying supplies into Berlin. Over the course of a year, more than 2.3 million tons of goods were brought in for civilians. Eventually, the Russians relented and ended the blockade, a devastating public defeat. The collateral damage included greater tension between East and West, exposing the need for (and resulting in the creation of) NATO in 1949.

Author Steil is the senior fellow and director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations. His book — which features extensive endnotes, appendices, and statistics — offers a detailed history and analysis of the persons and events that shaped the Marshall Plan.

While the topic is dramatic, the details sometimes trip over themselves. The result is an important, scholarly text that may pose a challenge to lay readers. Still, the author skillfully presents the gestation of the multifaceted stimulus package that threw down the gauntlet to the Communists. It remains unclear whether the Marshall Plan caused the Cold War, but it surely was a contributing factor.

Paul D. Pearlstein is a retired lawyer and aspiring writer.

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Elif Batuman in Conversation with Carrie Callaghan
February 16th, 2018, 01:30 AM

From New Yorker Staff writer Elif Batuman comes The Idiot, a portrait of the artist as a young woman. With superlative emotional and intellectual sensitivity, mordant wit, and pitch-perfect style, Batuman dramatizes the uncertainty of life on the cusp of adulthood. Her prose is a rare and inimitable combination of tenderness and wisdom; its logic as natural and inscrutable as that of memory itself. The Idiot is a heroic yet self-effacing reckoning with the terror and joy of becoming a person in a world that is as intoxicating as it is disquieting. Batuman's fiction is unguarded against both life's affronts and its beauty -- and has at its command the complete range of thinking and feeling which they entail. Batuman will be in conversation with the Independent's senior assignment editor, Carrie Callaghan.

At Kramerbooks, 1517 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, DC. Click here for info.

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February 2018 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri
February 16th, 2018, 01:30 AM

Voices in the Air, Poems for Listeners by Naomi Shihab Nye, with an introduction by the author. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. 208 pages.

Saying Your Name Three Times Underwater by Sam Roxas-Chua. Lithic Press. 85 pages.

Virgin by Analicia Sotelo. Milkweed Editions. 112 pages.

Paul’s Hill, Homage to Whitman by Shelby Stephenson. Illustrations by Jacob Stephenson. Sir Walter Press. 65 pages.

all blue so late by Laura Swearingen-Steadwell. Northwestern University Press. 80 pages.

House of Fact, House of Ruin by Tom Sleigh. Graywolf. 120 pages.

Plus, Best Prose; Best New and Selected Poems; and Best Literary Journal.


Voices in the Air, Poems for Listeners by Naomi Shihab Nye, with an introduction by the author. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. 208 pages.

Naomi Shihab Nye’s book is one waited for by 20th- and 21st-century readers and writers: now ready to be introduced to the next generation. She’s an American icon — not the marble pillar kind or one of those in portraiture — but an active teaching citizen of the poetry world who is moving us forward word by word. This time she’s inspired by “Yutori” (life space) found from teaching poetry workshops in Japan. The book’s introduction leads us from this moment of stillness — to listen, and then to hear. This book comes from listening to many people — some great and some unknown. The poems are elegiac, reverential and celebratory; addressing more than 75 individuals in 100 new works. Each character suggests an idea within an historical story. It’s a streaming of cultural happiness observing others.

Emily Dickinson is featured in a poem called “Emily”: “What would you do if you knew/that even during wartime/scholars in Baghdad/were translating your poems/into Arabic/still believing/in the thing with feathers? /You wouldn’t feel lonely/that’s for sure. /Words finding friends/even if written on envelope flaps/or left in a drawer.” Coincidentally, Naomi Shihab Nye also has poems saved and read in prisons, halfway houses, schools, therapeutic institutions; and why is this? Because she writes sharply and clearly of a wholesome reality where we find something to like in each line. Her work is completely understandable while maintaining a high level of language and poetic identity. She presents a reality without artifice and lets a poem speak for itself without getting in its way. These poems seem to say: this is what I saw this is what I heard I stopped long enough in (life space) “Yutori” to hear. Just take a look at people and places — each is a portal you can see into.

A gentle rebuke is in the poem Oh. Say Can You See it begins, “I’d like to take Donald Trump to Palestine, /set him free in the streets of Ramallah or Nablus/amidst all the winners who never gave up/ in 69 years. /… I’d wrap a keffiyeh around his head, /tuck some warm falafels in his pockets, /let him wander alleyways and streets, / rubble and hope…”

I love the prose piece where the author, at age 20, visits Jack Kerouac’s widow (whom she barely knew via telephone) and grieves with her. Her parents drove from Texas to Florida to deliver her to this visit. We see early on the meaning of tenacity.

Naomi Shihab Nye is an intermediary between the reader and a language that dignifies ideas. There’s moral leadership here in an excellent book where on every page poetry subordinates the bad in this world. This is why she’s one of our country’s most beloved poets.

In Transit

I mailed a package to myself, it never arrived.

Months later, wondering what it contained…

the package was oversized, I paid extra.

Mailed it from a place under trees. Surely shade

and sunlight was in the package. Mailed it

from a place compassionate to refugees.

Unopened envelopes inside the package,

poems from kind students hoping for response.

How do we answer without knowing

who they were or what they said?

This is why you must smile at everyone,

living and dead, everywhere you go.

You have no idea what has been lost

in transit.



Saying Your Name Three Times Underwater by Sam Roxas-Chua. Lithic Press. 85 pages.

Poet Joseph Stroud says these poems “will take you on a journey to where you have never been before.” This is true and it’s miraculous, for all of us to have the same words in English — yet a poet can, by virtue of his fantastic vision, combine them magically. Roxas-Chua is dreamlike, mythic, imagistic, bringing forth spirits from his ancestral China and the Philippines. All poetry is made of mystery but this poet transports us to a realm that is both primitive and exalted. There’s a ritual of the mind, as well as a boy inside a man, who speaks a vivid language in After His Great Fires: “…Death’s gift/is in the lifting/of limbs, of forearms, /strong like the breast/of a horse carrying/a boy on its back /its muscles and chambers/moving the clack/of his skeleton, echoing in/the interior of a boy whose/mind like a carousel spins/against a reflection/of mad ghosts in odd/shaped mirrors.”

The father figure features predominantly in his work as a source of energy and the inequities of childhood — not forgiveness and reconciliation but something more like longing and remorse. There’s a beautiful haunting we’ve not seen exactly like this before and may not until he writes again. I wish to focus on this. The same poem (“After His Great Fires”) begins, “When my father turns his wrists/to unbutton his flannel sleeves, /I pull half the world like a mule/and sing diphthongs/ to a somnambulist God/who failed my father, /my drum, my bakunawa, /neighing tied against/the great catalpa/where he left me his shirt, /his flannel shirt/that I inhale to believe that I am a boy:/ a bastard a bastinado, a dab/ of blood in his compass…”

And in “The Adoration & Mystery of The Fifth Thorn,” he writes: “The sound of early footsteps/presses against the wood, it is my father, //light in his substance now little tides/under his translucent feet. An inch//is all I saw of his levitation/to the kitchen, to the back door, //to the flat chest of the yard/where I once hug on to him, //cheek on the back of his neck /my first nosebleed//coating the white cotton of his starched collar.…”

See the poem “After the Carnival”: “I carry you, /my Strongest Man in the World, //your bloated stomach on my back /our beard songs so beautiful//tonight I walk home. /Father, I didn’t mind the mud//or the breaking of illuminated creatures/under my boots.… I never did close your eyes//when I sold you to the seas. Never did I take a sea palm// …/Tonight, // our fealty belongs to the sirens, /their long hair our beds, //Their hands of soft ambulances/stitching the silver lines//back into your graying eyes.”

Roxas-Chua is also a visual artist and I believe this with all my heart.


Last night I watched my mother

milk a memory into a letter.


The fading days are here,

fiddleheads are falling


from her silver hair,

umber stems are crawling out


of her mouth as she coughs

into a pillow.


Her bed, a brittle star.

Her hands, light —


the paltry soul of paper.

Her eyes are vellum coffins


dimming in the whirl

of a lifeline.


She sleeps with folded hands —

a dorsal.


Our dancing days are over,

my hands are ledges,


my fingers drink from a bleed

in the oyster.



Virgin by Analicia Sotelo. Milkweed Editions. 112 pages.

This is a new voice for me and it’s a dazzling one. The book has major sections — taste; revelation; humiliation; pastoral; myth; parable; rest cure, all with an overlapping theme: male/female relationships. Others have written this, in fact everyone has, then how can it feel so new, so exciting, and so dangerous. Whether it’s about a mother and father, an old lover, or male summoning, Sotelo goes in two directions at once. She embraces her own autonomy while evaluating understandable attractions and thirst.

I love the way fantasy grounds reality with unexpected imagery. Each line has its own life then takes on another identity when set up against the next line. It’s rare to have a poet allow each line a special place and give it such a big life; for this writer makes words alive, surprising, with unintended consequences. She’s intuitive and has never outgrown the childhood ability to play, changing the dynamics of a gray world by instinct, daring and the totality of intelligence. I’m crazy about this poet. She’s deeply meaningful about human relationships and has the ability in this book to reframe poetry.

A Little Charm

She floats like a lost brain cell.

Her body is a sleek brown lamp from 1929.

She arches and slurs.

Gentlemen in winter coats would like to cover her.

Gentlemen in thick winter coats hand her new cigars.

She nods like a child under the influence of milk.

She appeals with eyes as wide as money.

Even in alleys, her legs look like unfiltered honey.

Her moods are expensive. She’s all lit up.

Gentlemen order her whiskey and whiskey

and horses dip her gloves

into the whiskey with their mouths.

They love her. They want to sweep her up

with their tongues until she learns to stand straight.

She never learns. I did not suspect I would like her.

I did not expect to give her

this loving little push out the door.



Paul’s Hill, Homage to Whitman by Shelby Stephenson. Illustrations by Jacob Stephenson. Sir Walter Press. 65 pages.

Whitman would love this book. Stephenson’s Homage is filled with all of his culture. The sounds and sights of the earth float free in fractional lines, natural phraseology ringing with song. Stephenson reaches deeply into the soul of the south, living life every day with the natural world. This book-length poem allows us to see things never seen before via Stephenson’s bucolic setting. Birds and foliage represent the truth and background for the Stephenson’s family history, sustained for generations. Stephenson lets people know what poetry is, as Whitman did, allowing the words to carry us through the world.

“The old house” becomes a character filling emotional space. We hear his mother walking on the floorboards when he’s ‘home from school.’ We meet teachers, the fire department, Smith’s nursery, every corner where people used to live “among the honeysuckle.” With the extraordinary listing of “melons in the garden, roasting-eared corn, September peas, turnips, collards, cabbage, yams,” we see the details of southern life delineated in atomized measure. This is a lesson about how the poet notices every blade of grass — but even more — makes the noticing proportional on the page to make the space beautiful. The poet, as observer, as singer, as visual artist, has never been combined better than here. There’s one entire page of people’s names listed — a column of names — each one evoking a memory, time and place. The past becomes a ribbon on the page technically and strategically placed simply by the naming.

We learn that “a stroke slapped Shorty” and we know Ms. Caro wanted to be ridden around her house in her coffin when she died. We learn hundreds of secrets and dreams. These are characters you’ll never forget; and here’s what I believe — we should read one page a day of this monumental poem to savor its sensuality and tapestry. This is poetry not about ideas but sensations, where time has stopped, where every page leads us more toward wonder. We are back in North Carolina. There’s nothing like this on the shelf, physically beautiful, made of prayers, mythology, and symphony — drawings that carry the notion of the poems. Sweet courtesy, storiography, and empathy are the themes. Here’s a place where nothing is lost. It’s all remembered within sight of Paul’s Hill.


From Paul’s Hill and my birth-house,

Farmsteads fade into tree-clumps and housing developments.


The ninth-month trees turn their coats in Cow Mire Branch.

The tulip-poplar, sourwood, hawthorn, beautybush, sweetgum, pine,

The southern oak with the elbow like a kettle’s arm —

Fall’s upon us — frost, October’s ovens, winter’s snow.

I hitch my britches for spring.

The bluebirds come home again and again.

The purple martins make their long trips here and back to Brazil.

The little ones churble from their nesting gourds.


The moon over the terrace hangs full of cotton blooms.

The Nimrod Stephenson Memorial Cemetery lights up for July and her sawbriars.

The street lights the field where the June Peter house was.

The path’s paved to the Peter Hole on The Creek.

I wait out the pumpkinseed and the channel-cat

And daydream over the beans.

The patrolling jay comes for an acorn.

The cardinals feed early light and dark.

The bluebirds fold insects in the air.

The downy, hairy, red-bellied, tanager, jay,

The Carolina Wren of the dashing eye-stripe —

The garden floats blulup blulup.


all blue so late by Laura Swearingen-Steadwell. Northwestern University Press. 80 pages.

Sometimes very good poetry comes from the very dark feelings. At 14 years of age, that’s where we all were, in the deep morass of emotion. This poet reaches back to a certain time to center her book. Several poems are actually titled “Fourteen,” with a strong writer describing the way it felt, struggling with gender, race and oppression — these are the flame-throwing words of our time but that’s where the spirit is — poems pried out of memory to be burnished into powerful stories. They describe and dramatize psychological states of being that are autobiographical but become fictional when made into art. And that’s what I admire: changing the reality while original feelings remain on the page. They guide us toward the bigger message that incidents are only seen in a half-light until they become “truth” in a critical infrastructure such as poetry. Although there is a variety of perspectives in these poems there’s only one point of view and that’s a good thing, for that’s how oppositional forces become clear. It’s always interesting to have an adult writer recreating a younger self, looking at scenes with a connection that almost gives off sparks. I praise very much both the adult and the teen for courage. Happily, Swearingen-Steadwell has honesty plus skill — that’s the challenge for the writer, and reward for the reader.


It all goes down in the cafeteria, the warehouse

where throngs of wild children congregate,

jostling for space with their gangly bodies, their plastic trays,

trading jokes, rumors of hookups, fights, suspensions, the news

that matters. Everyone sits with their own: the mostly white

table, kids from Southeast, basketball players, the black girls

with good grades and no white friends, the kids whose infant English

still wobbles. Your chest rustles with broken glass as you scan

the tables, hungrier than you’ve ever been. If only

you had the look (Hoyas Starter jacket, hair ironed flat),

the markers of belonging — but you want to be the star,

the one whose life goes nova. The standout. Look at you now,

standing alone among hundreds of people. Nowhere girl

hunched over her food at an empty table. Don’t look up.



House of Fact, House of Ruin by Tom Sleigh. Graywolf. 120 pages.

Sleigh reveals that “fact” and “ruin” are the same, as much as we’d like to believe our little mortality is a real commodity. He takes meaning to its extreme, pushing logic to become philosophy — taking the rough stuff of this earth, rolling it around in his hands and then letting us know just what it’s worth. The book has a great portion devoted to war (Libya, Baghdad) when he was witness to devastation, and writes of what he saw. But even more, he made a promise to young combatants to “tell their story.” Some of the poems are first sight, and others retelling. Because Sleigh was trained as an anthropologist he can realistically replicate cultural events. Although one doesn’t have to be an anthropologist to record the chilling horror of death, destruction and loss, the transcendent task is to never let it descend to reportage if poetry is the goal. Poetry is Sleigh’s task here and he’s one of a handful of writers today upholding the brightest part of our canon.

“Down from the Mount” is a four-page poem that’s heartbreaking, “all are dead ones like after-party/stragglers who//keep showing up in dreams, /saying, I want you/to keep this for me.” Later: “The dogs are terrorists to cats, the cats/terrorists to rats, the rats terrorists/to each other watching each other’s/terror. The rock band warming up to shut//inside its wall of noise…” Although there’s death at the ending, nobility in the writing overrides this. Sleigh, again and again, shows that poetry is a mechanism of service tapping into something more eternal than what we think is present and substantive. What is the substory of Sleigh’s poetry? He’s carrying on history — his own as well as others. The eight-part poem titled “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” presents windows into the treatment of POWs in perfect 14 line “sonnets.” (Talk about containing the tumult!) And with each narration is an actual interrogation technique combined with dreamlike surreality (poem 5): “We’d have three strobes/going at once, we’d lock this guy in a little box/and like me he’s afraid of insects and I’d have to turn into ants.”

The chaos and human defeats through the poems are dignified by a musicality and coherence. In the title poem “House of Fact, House of Ruin” — another long one — seven pages — listen to the glorious start of the fifth section titled “The Last To Be Excused”: “Remember the old aunts, sarcastic,/chain-smoking, gesturing with their canes,/scoring point after point with their widowed lungs?//How was I to eat with them as they pushed/ around their plates not peas and carrots/but distance and disdain for their silly nephew//still trying, at his age, to forget/how being old is as new to the old/as being just born is to the just born…”

Since Sleigh is known for his prose, it’s not surprising that several prose poems are in this book. My favorite is “Autobiography,” with an epigraph by mystery writer Raymond Chandler. (Ah, the romanticism.) A postmodern “intimations,” it’s a story of growing up, a permutation where Sleigh presents events, finally leaving “my promised land of Raymond Chandler”…“That was when I left the steppes forever, when/the tangled underlife entwined with voices that pricked/and burned, were now flattened to black squiggles on a page/where what comes from the tribe the tribe has lost…” He wisely notes at the end he knows he needs life insurance, plus, “I needed a vacation, /I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, /hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.”

No matter how imagination becomes fantasy, there’s always a gravitational field in Sleigh’s work, so we don’t dare allow ourselves to be seduced. We know it’ll be fact to ruin, after all, although never said better; and when each piece is written it leaves, in spite of itself, a tough love that outlasts its life. Sleigh makes poetry go beyond itself. Like Wallace Stevens there’s an imperative beneath the line, words as a consequence of fine-grained thought. The complexities of experience can only be written with complexity, but the fundamental gift of craft makes poetry responsive to the world and allows the reader to respond in kind. He couldn’t do this without clarity and irony, making the consequential burdens of life beautiful things.

The Fox

Marine helicopters on maneuver kept dipping

toward swells at Black’s Beach, my board’s poise

giving way to freefall of my wave tubing


over me, nubs of wax under my feet as I crouched

under the lip, sped across the face and kicked out —

all over Southern Cal a haze settled: as if light breathed


that technicolor smog at sunset over

San Diego Harbor where battleships at anchor,

just back from patrolling the South China Sea, were


having rust scraped off and painted gray.

This was my inheritance that lay stretched before me:

which is when I felt the underbrush give way


and the fox that thrives in my brain,

not looking sly but just at home in his pelt

and subtle paws, broke from cover and ran


across the yard into the future to sniff my gravestone,

piss, and move on. And so I was reborn into

my long nose and ears, my coat’s red, white, and brown


giving off my fox smell lying heavy on the winds

in the years when I’d outsmart guns, poison,

dogs and wire, when the rooster and his hens


clucked and ran, crazy with terror

at how everything goes still in that way a fox adores,

gliding through slow-motion drifts of feathers.



Best Prose:

The Land between Two Rivers; Writing in An Age of Refugees by Tom Sleigh. Graywolf Press. 272 pages.

This is Sleigh as journalist, with a stunning exegesis on our current wars. I’m soft, however, on his essays about childhood and, another about a friendship with Seamus Heaney, but as the teens like to say, “It’s all good.”

On World War I poets Wilfred Owen and David Jones:…

The Earth is nothing but unfeeling rock, and if it pulses, that pulse is only the soldier’s heartbeat as it speeds up from the adrenaline rush of fear, from the physical effort of combat. In Keats and Wordsworth, there would have been no qualification about the cause of the earth’s palpitations: it would have been assumed that the earth was in cosmic sympathy with human beings, that the pantheistic reciprocity among all things, animate and inanimate, human and divine, was still available as a mode of feeling in an Owen poem, summer can still close into a soldiers veins; but in the Jones poem, “dark gobbets” of bodies, or body parts, are oozing out blood, staining torn uniforms of dead soldiers skewered to barbed wire supports…


Best New and Selected Poems:

The Clinic, Memory by Elaine Feinstein. Sheep Meadow Press. 181 pages.

Poems from 11 books, plus new poems.


Suppose I took out a slender ketch from

under the spokes of Palace pier tonight to

catch a sea going fish for you


or dressed in antique goggles and wings and

flew down through sycamore leaves into the park

or luminescent through some planetary strike

put one delicate flamingo leg over the sill of your lab


Could I surprise you? or would you insist on

keeping a pattern to link every transfiguration?


Listen, I shall have to whisper it

into your heart directly: we are all

supernatural every day

we rise new creatures cannot be predicted



Best Literary Journal:

New Letters, Vol. 84, No. 1, edited by Robert Stewart. University of Missouri-Kansas City. 141 pages.

  1. contributors, poetry, prose, art. Here’s a poem by Albert Goldbarth:


One of the usual friendly arguments:

Is poetry the greater art — or music?

Maybe it’s like the sky above us

on the porch as Nathan’s bottle of vodka goes

increasingly empty and the talk

correspondingly full: it’s not as if the moon

and the stars are a competition.

And yet

we argue, if only to use it as a vehicle

of friendship. You won’t be surprised I say

that words are music and idea both, and thus

superior. This gains much support,

and yet not all, and someone offers


up a dream: how at the graveside, toward the end

of an elegiac song, when the weight of the mourning

stretched the web of the humans vocabulary

that held it…a man became a wolf,

a woman became a loon, and the keening sounds inside their throats

changed too — left the words

behind, the way those water lilies late in his life

by Monet stretched out of botany,

out of the very idea of “flower,” and entered that space

where the universe takes its matter back

and returns it to energy.

“That is,” he said, “what my saxophone does.”


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Grace Cavalieri’s new book is Other Voices, Other Lives, a compendium of poetry, theater, and prose. She produces/hosts “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio.

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Meet Tayari Jones
February 15th, 2018, 01:30 AM

Jones’ eagerly awaited fourth novel starts with newlyweds Roy and Celestial. A rising young executive and a talented artist, respectively, the couple has everything to look forward to. Then, while on a trip to visit Celestial’s family, Roy is accused of rape by a woman in their hotel. He’s innocent, but is convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison. By the time he’s exonerated and released, Celestial has started a relationship with his best friend. As wrenching as it is heartwarming, this masterful novel by the author of Silver Sparrow is both an illuminating examination of how the country’s justice system tears apart African-American lives and a powerful, complicated love story.

This event is free to attend with no reservation required. Seating is available on a first come, first served basis.

At Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, DC. Click here for info.

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The Plot Thickens
February 15th, 2018, 01:30 AM

Yesterday, a friend tagged me in a tweet to offer up #firstlines, a popular hashtag that gets passed among writers. Her tweet offered the opening line of her upcoming novel. I looked at the first line of my work in progress, winced, and immediately went to find the beginnings of two of my favorite novels. Here they are:

“When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her.” Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (HarperCollins, 2001).

“On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra (Hogarth, 2013).

So many questions erupt from both. There’s a frisson of sex and mystery in Patchett’s opening, with the sudden darkness and the lyrical tongue-twister of “accompanist kissed.” The missing comma underscores the suddenness.

Marra’s sentence juxtaposes horror with a jarring note of beauty and innocence, and its own poetry: “woke from dreams of sea anemones.”

It’s useful for a writer continually to remind herself of what brilliant writing looks and sounds like when she’s in the middle of trying to pull off the same thing — useful and often demoralizing.

But just as a junior tennis player gets better by competing against those higher on the ladder, every writer needs to read voraciously above her skill level to understand how it’s done.

I happened to read both Bel Canto and Constellation at about the same time, while I was working on my first novel. (I came late to Patchett, though I’ve since made up for that lapse by reading all her novels and a solid chunk of her nonfiction.)

Both books made a big impression. At the time, I was in particular awe of Marra’s debut, in which he demonstrates his trifecta mastery of language, character, and plot. In each case, though, it was the author’s ability to weave a complex, multilayered plot that truly stayed with me. Neither one was showy or loud, simply stunningly executed.

By definition, literary fiction is character-driven, but Patchett has made this point herself: Plot is the crucial differentiator between merely lovely writing and writing with a purpose. A writer needs to give her beautiful language and finely wrought characters a place to go.

Writers sometimes describe themselves as either planners or “pantsters” — that is, those who write by the seat of their pants. Perhaps because in my day job I get paid to plan, my writing is a decidedly seat-of-the-pants affair. But does that mean I can’t conceive and execute a tightly woven plot that gives my complex characters a run for their money?

We’ll see.

To be fair, though I don’t outline or storyboard, I typically do work things out in my head before I try to write. If the ideas percolate long enough, by the time I sit down to put them on paper, they have coalesced into something like coherence.

Interestingly, that’s exactly how Patchett wrote her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars. She composed it in her head over the course of a year while waiting tables at T.G.I. Friday’s.

In my head, I have worked through most of the plot points that drive the narrative of my current novel, including a critical one that’s been bugging me almost since I conceived of this particular story, and on which its credibility hinges. I kept asking myself, “Is it because…?” or “What if…?”

The answer came to me out of nowhere while I watched the bluebirds fluttering at the feeder. Maybe I could have gotten there faster if I’d storyboarded — I seriously doubt it — but then I would have missed the bluebirds.

So, what about that first sentence? I rewrote it before tweeting it out to #firstlines and immediately realized that I needed to rewrite it again. I’m sure I’ll rewrite it plenty of times before I’m done, attempting to invest it with intrigue, unanswered questions, and perhaps a little poetry of its own.

Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Jenny is a member of PEN/America and the National Book Critics Circle, and writes a monthly column and reviews regularly for the Independent. She is serving as chair of the 2018 Washington Writers Conference, and is president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association.

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Eat the Apple: A Memoir
February 15th, 2018, 01:30 AM

Thirteen years ago, an 18-year-old boy — with no particular accomplishments — got drunk, crashed his car into a fire hydrant, and joined the Marine Corps.

Matt Young’s Eat the Apple is an up-from-self-loathing memoir about his three deployments to Iraq between 2005 and 2009, which coincided with bumpy rites of passage in the desert.

The surprise to a lifelong civilian is that a Marine’s existence, outside the days of rigorous training and combat drills, is maddeningly monotonous, mournful for home, mindful of menace, and, if one has a wife or girlfriend — this is definitely a "boy's" book — an inevitable opportunity for a miscarriage of monogamy.

Unlike previous well-known war stories in the pantheon of American literature, such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, neither humor nor science fiction particularly propels the progression of Apple.

Young is angrily ambivalent about having been successfully recruited — at first:

“Our instructors are like drill instructors if drill instructors weren’t like hermetically sealed action figures…gritty and lean, with hollow eyes and acid wit. …they fidget…and fuck with our time, make us clean, make us run, make us hurt…They expect us to see in the dark, to anticipate the movement of our enemy, to act as magnanimous killing machines.”

When Young has his first stateside leave, it addles familial relations, convulses his unprocessed separation anxiety, and fires up his fermenting distress about how the homecoming will unfurl after having been so far away in miles and milieu: “He finds his family wandering the basketball court…calling his name. Grandparents, aunt, fiancée — he wants so badly to be happy when he sees them.”

But, in time, Young learns to pilot the poignant passages between field and furlough, his family falls from the foreground, and the platoon becomes his priority:

“I feel guilty because the longer I am here the less I think about my family and fiancée…and the more I think about my new family…my loyalty to them and the fear that strikes my heart when Marines are traded between platoons.”

As coming of age starts to reside in Young’s mind, there is a parallel, platoon-wide upsurge in hesitant yet expressed intimacy that mutes the caustic corporals and supercilious sergeants, and domesticates the predictable loneliness and other atrocities yoked to war:

“We pop one another’s back zits and apply baby oil to naked shimmering backs to ensure even tans.

“We call this brotherhood.

“You’re all a bunch of queers, says an outsider.

“Spartans fucked each other all the time, we say.

“You fight harder for someone you love, we say.

“Don’t you want to be loved? We ask.

“What happens in the field stays in the field, we say.

“We say those things for shock, for a laugh, but there is truth to them…We are trying to figure it out, trying to find ourselves in a world of testosterone and violence…we’ve learned to fear those intimate feelings, those intense moments of love that swell inside us.”

Young’s saga is infused with trauma, toughing it out, and TLC. But, ironically, it is not a work that defines battle directly because Young never gets to kill. Apple is about the myriad psychological conflicts associated with concentrated exposure to combat.

The war in Iraq was apparently a poorly envisioned response to 9/11 and alluring opportunities for oil. According to Young, terrorism could have been contained in the airports. Despite his objections to some policies, however, this Marine’s love for America — a separate issue altogether — is staunch, steadfast, and sound — from enlistment to exit.

David Bruce Smith is the author of 11 books and founder of The Grateful American Foundation, which is celebrating its fifth year of restoring enthusiasm about American history for kids — and adults — through videos, podcasts, and interactive activities, and The Grateful American™ Book Prize for excellence in children’s historical fiction and nonfiction focused on the United States since the country’s founding.

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The Washington Writers Conference Presents Peter Cozzens
February 14th, 2018, 01:30 AM

If you love works about the American West or the Civil War, you already know Peter Cozzens, the prolific author or editor of 17 books on those subjects. His latest, The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, was awarded both the Gilder Lehrman Prize for Military History and the Caroline Bancroft Award. Find out what epic stories he can tell you about the writing life at this year’s Washington Writers Conference on May 4-5 in College Park, MD. Click here to register now!

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir
February 14th, 2018, 01:30 AM

“Like many of the people who embody our movement, I have lived my life between the twin terrors of poverty and the police,” writes Patrisse Khan-Cullors. In When They Call You a Terrorist, which she co-authored with asha bandele, the history so many of us willfully push away is inscribed on the page:

“We are the post-Reagan, post-social safety net generation. The welfare reform generation. The swim or motherfucking sink generation. And, unlike our counterpoints on Wall Street, where crack is used and sold more, we don’t have an employee assistance plan.”

The first section of this powerful, visceral book tells of Khan-Cullors’ youth, stories about her fathers, her mother, and, especially, her brother, who was jailed from a young age because of being black and because of his struggle with mental illness.

And while all the personal anecdotes tie Khan-Cullors to the Black Lives Matter organization she, along with two other radical black activists, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, founded, a story I’d like to highlight is that of Gabriel Brignac, one of Khan-Cullors’ fathers.

After Brignac was released from prison, where he’d been held because of drug addiction, he died of a heart attack. “What is the impact of not being valued?” Khan-Cullors asks.

“My father was part of a generation of Black men who spent a lifetime watching hope and dreams shoved just out of their reach until it seemed normal, the way it just was. I lost my father at a time when 2.2 million people had gone missing on our watch, buried in prisons that were buried in small towns, but somehow and unbelievably this man kept coming back…This man. My father. Gabriel Brignac, who loved me deeply and fiercely. Who spent every moment with me telling me how my Black life mattered.”

When They Call You a Terrorist is divided into two sections and moves back and forth in time, shifting its focus from the Black Lives Matter movement to Khan-Cullors’ brother, Monty:

"My brother was in an episode and although he never touched the woman or did anything more than yell [after a car accident], although his mental illness was as clear as the fact that he was Black, he was shot with rubber bullets and tased. And then he was charged with terrorism. Literally.”

She speaks of the cognitive dissonance surrounding society: of her brother’s experiences as a mentally ill black man in jail; of a young black man incarcerated for 10 years for a non-violent robbery while Trayvon Martin’s killer, a menacing white man with a past, is acquitted; of white college student Brock Turner being given a six-month sentence for felony sexual assault because, said the judge, “Turner couldn’t make it in prison.”

And on and on and on.

It’s from this place of crushing emotional pain — and righteous outrage — that Khan-Cullors first types the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.

There is a long history of black women organizing social-justice protests and reshaping the world, women like Rosa Parks — who did much more than simply sit down — and Angela Davis, who wrote the foreword to When They Call You a Terrorist.

It’s a pleasure and an honor to read and to witness — with the full understanding that witnessing isn’t passive and entails action — bandele and Khan-Cullors’ lyrical yet harrowing words.

Because of that, I don’t believe it’s in the spirit of this book, or the movement, to end with my own voice. Instead, listen to Khan-Cullors and bandele. To their voices. To this movement. To the indisputable, forever truth that #BlackLivesMatter.

“We deserve to be our own gardeners and deserve to have gardeners. Mentors and teachers who bring the sunlight, the rain, the whispered voices above the seedling that say, Grow, baby, grow.

“We deserve love. Thick, full-bodied and healthy. Love.”

Jenny Ferguson is Métis, an activist, a feminist, an auntie, and an accomplice with a Ph.D. She believes writing and teaching are political acts. Border Markers, her collection of linked flash fiction narratives, is available from NeWest Press. She lives in Haudenosaunee Territory, where she teaches at Hobart and William Smith colleges.

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A World of Three Zeros: The New Economics of Zero Poverty, Zero Unemployment, and Zero Net Carbon Emissions
February 13th, 2018, 01:30 AM

Muhammad Yunus wants us to know that capitalism is doing just what it is meant to do: create and concentrate wealth. But in his book A World of Three Zeros, Yunus advocates rethinking the basic tenets of capitalism, given that poverty and unemployment demean so many, and that climate change threatens so much.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner, known for his creative solutions to alleviating poverty, questions Adam Smith’s assumption that a “human being is basically a personal-gain-seeking being” and asks us to consider the social dimension to the decisions and investments we make. He lays out a new framework, supported by his own successful economic experiments, for better tapping human capital to solve the world’s problems.

The author’s basic premise is that “people are both selfish and selfless, and that both motivations can be applied to economic activity.” He notes:

“The central problem with capitalism as it is now practiced is that the system recognizes only one goal — the selfish pursuit of individual profit. As a result, only businesses designed around this goal are recognized and supported. Yet millions of people around the world are eager to pursue other goals, including elimination of poverty, unemployment, and environmental degradation. All three can be dramatically reduced if we simply begin designing businesses with these goals in mind. And that is where social business plays a crucial role.”

A social business, as defined by Yunus, is “a non-dividend company dedicated to solving human problems.” Investors who provide the capital to launch these businesses receive back their initial investments only. After the investment amount is paid back, profits from these companies are plowed back in and used to expand their services or products so more people can benefit. Unlike nonprofit organizations, there is no need to constantly apply for grants or fundraise because social businesses are “designed to create revenues and thereby become self-sustaining.”

Yunus makes clear with many examples that solutions are available and ready to be applied and expanded in both developing and developed countries. “For too long, we’ve tolerated the persistence of poverty, unemployment, and environmental destruction, as if these are natural calamities completely out of human control, or, at best, unavoidable costs of economic growth. They are not. They are failures of our economic system.”

His efforts to address unemployment center on entrepreneurship. He asks us to consider what would happen if we directed young people from the hunting for jobs, in which too many are unsuccessful, to creating jobs for themselves and others. And what if we made it much easier to do so through institutions designed to provide equity financing based on business ideas and not on the typical requirements that the poor or youth can’t meet?

He criticizes the messages we send to our children:

“No job, no life — this message is sent loud and clear from every direction: home, school, media…When you become an adult, you offer yourself to the scrutiny of the job market. A job is your destiny. If you miss it, you show up in the bread line. Nobody tells young people that they are nature-built to become entrepreneurs rather than waiting in line to get hired.”

His framework is thought-provoking and has real potential to make a difference, but his strong political views and anti-capitalism rhetoric are likely to turn off some readers. For example, “The top 1 percent will find they have fewer people at their service. All the micro-entrepreneurs who are busy running their own businesses will no longer be available to work for the 1 percent as mercenaries.”

The book is inspirational, but it becomes repetitive if you’re reading for recommendations, and I wanted to learn about what institutional framework would be needed to implement the author’s models. Chapter 10, “The Legal and Financial Infrastructure We Need,” provided those recommendations. And I was surprised (and somewhat relieved) to read that what Yunus proposes, with changes to laws and regulations, could easily sit next to existing systems in most countries — developed and developing.

The topic and the engaging stories of success should interest all types of readers. I would make it required reading for high school and college students; they are at a good age to question systems that are not serving us as well as they should be.

A system wherein just eight people (Oxfam’s announcement in January 2017) own combined wealth exceeding that of the bottom half of the world’s population is due for a tune-up, if not an overhaul.

Linda Nemec, who once chatted with Dr. Yunus on a flight from Tashkent to Almaty, is an economic-development practitioner, analyst, and observer. She is vice president of Nathan Associates, an economic consulting firm established in the 1940s by Robert Nathan, an economist at the U.S. Department of Commerce involved in the creation of the concept of GDP.

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An Interview with Joan Watts
February 13th, 2018, 01:30 AM

I’m going to assume that none of you ever babysat for Henry Miller’s children. Or that Joseph Campbell, Aldous Huxley, or John Cage would pop over now and again.

That’s because you aren’t Joan Watts. For the oldest daughter of philosopher Alan Watts, the author of Brave New World swinging by for potluck was just another Tuesday night. In other words, life with Dad, an influential and charming intellectual who mesmerized college students and others through enlightened lectures and insightful writings bringing Zen Buddhism and other new ideas to the West, was sometimes as interesting as his work.

While never forgotten completely, there’s been a resurgence of interest in Watts. Many of his ideas are timeless — and a prominent “role” in the 2013 Spike Jonze film, “Her,” with Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson probably didn’t hurt, either.

Now, Joan and her sister, Anne, have lovingly culled from their father’s vast correspondence to produce The Collected Letters of Alan Watts. It’s a fascinating glimpse into one of the 20th century’s most fertile and interesting minds.

Joan and I spoke in early February.

Can you talk about your dad, the impact he had?

He became popular in the 50s, early 60s. He was a philosopher and a proponent of Eastern philosophies, specifically Zen Buddhism. He lectured, he had [considerable] TV and radio exposure. He wrote a number of books throughout his life. He was born in 1915 in England and came to the United States in 1938, and he died in 1973. During that period of time, from the 50s, 60s, and early 70s, he became a…Well, he would hate to hear the word, but “guru” of the counterculture.

Now, in recent years, he's becoming popular again throughout the world. Through YouTube and the internet and through the republishing of many of his books and now, of course, this book that my sister and I have put together. His letters are just a wonderful source of information and beautifully written. He's the kind of person that could stand in front of the podium and speak without notes. He wrote wonderfully to explain things in terms that people could understand.

I read that he referred to himself as, opposed to a guru, more of an entertainer. I think one of the nice things about his work is that he’s funny. It's not this dirge of a heavy-handed lecture. It's entertaining in the best possible sense of the word. Let's talk a little bit about the letters. I know you and your sister had different relationships with him. Talk a little bit about the relationships you had with your dad and how that manifested itself through the letters.

Our relationship with him was quite a loving relationship. He was an incredible person to be around. For about the first 10 years of my life, he was quite present because I was young. The family unit was whole at that time, and my sister was born towards the end of my mother's life, deepening their relationship. When they were divorced, we all were sent off to private school. For the next 10 years of my life, I really didn't see much of him except on vacation. And then I got married, and so I saw him even less at that point. All of us continued to have some communication, and he was definitely somebody that I had a deep attachment to. My sister, likewise, in many respects, although her childhood was a lot more difficult than mine.

The letters came about in 1992, when his widow died. We had possession of his literary works, and the letters came with it. When I retired a few years ago, I started looking into them. Eventually, we met with the publisher who's republishing another of his books at the New World Library. When he first heard the word "letters," he kind of perked up. He suggested we might be editors, and I thought, "Well, I think we could handle that." They were actually quite thrilled with what we came up with. That was very nice.

In one of the letters, he’s pitching article ideas to a magazine. In one, “What to Do on Sunday?” he writes, "Why don't we have the consideration to realize that God must be utterly bored with most of our church services, with being flattered, wheedled, and told how to run the universe? If you were God, what would you like people to do in your honor for you, with you, or about you? [The article would offer] revolutionary suggestions on what to do with all that real estate called church." This is controversial; some people, when you say you're an atheist or an agnostic, they suddenly become a bull with a red flag in front of their face. They attack. Talk a little bit more about that idea for you and for your dad.

I think that one of the things he really wanted to have people understand was that you're not just an individual, you're not just this one person on this planet. You're a part of a whole, which includes the earth, which includes the universe, which includes other universes, God knows where. Saying "God" loosely there. I think that people have limited themselves so much when they think of God as a person sitting up on a throne in the sky and directing whatever. It's just not the way it is. We are just a little speck in a huge, huge universe of universes, and to think somehow we're special and we're all going to go to heaven or whatever seems sort of bizarre to me.

Your father figured prominently in the Spike Jonze movie “Her.” What did you think of it?

I have to be honest with you, I thought the movie was very boring. I also felt that they could have done a lot better with their Alan Watts [voice character]. It should have been Jeremy Irons. Frankly, the script that was written for whatever Alan Watts imparted there was very banal. It was just nothing, basically, which was disappointing. I had no idea [it was coming]. I do hope it will spawn more interest in his work.

Michael Causey is co-host of the Monday-morning program “Get Up!” on WOWD 94.3 FM Takoma Park.

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Grace Cavalieri in Conversation with E. Ethelbert Miller
February 12th, 2018, 01:30 AM

During the course of her 40-year career, Grace Cavalieri, best known for her legendary radio program, "The Poet and the Poem" (not to mention the Independent's monthly "Poetry Exemplars"), has published nearly two dozen collections of poetry and had 26 plays produced. This selection gathers representative samples of Cavalieri’s work in poetry and drama, and excerpts her interviews with Robert Pinsky, Lucille Clifton, and Josephine Jacobsen. Drawing on work from all stages of her life, the volume is a mini-retrospective of an award-winning artist and her arts. Cavalieri will be in conversation with poet and nonfiction writer E. Ethelbert Miller. This event is free to attend with no reservation required. Seating is available on a first come, first served basis.

At Politics and Prose at the Wharf, 70 District Square, SW, Washington, DC. Click here for info.

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Good Neighbors: A Novel
February 12th, 2018, 01:30 AM

Joanne Serling’s Good Neighbors should come with a trigger warning for adopted people. The plot revolves around a girl who is adopted from Russia, but the child is depicted as almost less than human, a mere reflection of the fears, desires, and opinions of the adults around her. Their opinion of her teeters between suspicion and weepy-eyed admiration for “how a person could be saved with love and will and a little bit of money.”

Four families live “on the nicest street in the nicest neighborhood” of a far-flung suburb of Boston. They share the same goals — to look picture-perfect as they raise their children — and the same lifestyle of elaborate entertaining and competitive home decorating. They have worked hard to create a chummy camaraderie complete with annual parties and spontaneous get-togethers.

But that all changes when Paige and her husband, Gene, adopt Winnie, a 4-year-old Russian girl.

The narrator is stay-at-home mom Nicole Westerhof. She thinks in sentence fragments. With lots of exclamations! Constantly worrying about her standing in the community. Trying too hard to be liked! Careful not to cause offense! Unless she’s interacting with Nela, a high-powered lawyer and a Puerto Rican, the only person of color in the friend group.

Nela’s ethnic difference bothers Nicole. A lot. So does her refusal to comply with the ethos of the others, instead wearing “corporate attire to a Saturday-night holiday dinner” and covering her dining room table with “ugly brown vinyl table protectors.” Nicole feels that Nela dismisses the others as “the white folk who didn’t understand hardship.”

Still, she judges Nela much more harshly than she does the other two women in the group, Lorraine and Paige, claiming disingenuously, “We didn’t judge her, at least not openly.”

Meantime, Nicole bends over backward to give Paige the benefit of the doubt, even when she witnesses several extremely disturbing incidents. From the very first, Paige claims Winnie has an ever-growing list of adoption-related behavioral problems, complaining bitterly about her to friends, excluding her from events, and irrationally disciplining her for minor infractions. Nicole swallows Paige’s explanation that adopted children are different and don’t respond to love and discipline like other kids do.

True, she is a little bothered when Paige first tells her that Winnie doesn’t like to be hugged and then, a short time later, tells her, “She’ll hug anyone…It’s part of the orphanage thing.” But Paige is rich, thin, and white. She belongs to a country club! She has a giant-sized bonus room on her third floor! Nicole excuses her behavior again and again, accepting the couple’s descriptions of a never-ending litany of afflictions that adopted children suffer from.

Nicole assigns Winnie intentions and manipulations far beyond her years: “devilish”; “flirtatious”; “looked like she was posing”; “hint of artifice”; “her will to be admired”; and “she wasn’t as innocent as I’d hoped or once imagined.”

Yet Winnie is also special-needs, or something like that. It’s never really clear, for Nicole only has Paige and Gene’s word for it, and her own fretful observations as she spends a few hours alone with Winnie, including a visit to a Build-a-Bear shop where Winnie is slow to follow the clerk’s instructions, causing Nicole to perseverate, “Which meant what exactly? That she was slow? Or that this particular activity didn’t make sense to her? I wasn’t sure.”

What does become clear is that her friend is emotionally, if not physically, abusive to her daughter.

Nicole has her own challenges, illustrated by a side plot depicting her difficult relationships with an alcoholic sister and a whiny, obstreperous mother. She didn’t come from money, as some of the others in the group did, and feels both guilty about her prosperous life and awe for people who flaunt their wealth.

Finally, as Paige’s abuse of Winnie becomes too much to ignore, Nicole makes a call to the Department of Children and Family Services. Even though it’s not the first they have received, the caseworkers are indifferent and apparently as dazzled by wealth and class as Nicole, with one saying, “I doubt something bad could happen in a neighborhood like this.”

This means that the drama is allowed to continue until its not-quite-logical-but-definitely-tragic conclusion. As for Winnie, Serling gives her a slightly hopeful ending, one that adoptees and their advocates will view as the final insult to the egregious injury inflicted by the rest of the book.

Though Good Neighbors uses adoption as a catalyst to push the plot forward, this book is not really about adoption. If it were, the author wouldn’t traffic in tired clichés and then refuse to rebut them. Winnie is left a cipher, and the reader takes away the message that adoption is an ugly, messy business, a “risk of bad genetics,” a plot contrivance that teaches the rich, white woman a small life lesson.

Alice Stephens writes a regular column for the Independent, Alice in Wordland. Her novel, Famous Adopted People, will be published by Unnamed Press in winter 2018.

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What to Expect from “Great Expectations”
February 12th, 2018, 01:30 AM

“I had it always in my fancy to surround the lonely figure of a child with grotesque and wild, but not impossible companions,” wrote Charles Dickens in 1848. The “figure” he was referring to is Nell Trent, from The Old Curiosity Shop. But for Dickens, the “lonely child” was a theme he would return to, a haunting narrative kept alive by his lifelong preoccupation with parental desertion.

Thirteen years after these comments, Dickens was back on the subject with Great Expectations, the serialized story of an abused orphan whose destiny to be a blacksmith is redirected by the generosity of a secret donor.  

As the novel shivers open, we meet 8-year-old Pip and his first of many “grotesque” companions: in this case, the gravestones of his parents. Less than one page in, and already Pip’s hands are on our hearts, his experience of the world as a confusing mix of wonder and emotional laceration familiar to anyone who remembers childhood.  

Pip invokes his elder sister’s saying, “raised by hand” — an expression suggestive of bottle-feeding and surrogate motherhood — as a mantra for the beatings he receives from her. Here, in the literal interpretations of his child-mind, in the painfully sweet way he misperceives the world, Pip draws us to his side.

At the graves, Pip’s musings about the parents he never knew are tender, but also sad and wild, like the churchyard that claims them. This nettle-infested “bleak place” is the gothic primer for the struggles that lie ahead and serves as the perfect setting for that fateful meeting with equally “wild” Magwitch, who intimidates Pip into procuring his next meal.  

But it’s at Satis House, another grotesque and wild place, with damaged Miss Havisham and her “sick fancies,” where Pip takes his first real step toward adulthood. Falling instantly in love with Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter, Estella, he sees himself for the first time through the eyes of another, and to devastating effect: “Her contempt for me was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it.”

Pip’s stumbling in on another mean world echoes the pivotal event in Dickens’ own childhood, when, at the age of 12, he was sent to work for three months in a blacking factory. Young Charles’ father, John, had fallen into debt and was sent to prison, along with his wife and the rest of their children.

Whether Elizabeth and John Dickens thought they were sparing Charles from something worse by allowing him to work 10-hour days gluing labels on bottles no one can say. But on the subject, there are a few famously known facts: Even after the family was released from prison, Charles’ mother wanted her son to stay on at the factory.

For his part, Charles never forgot about this period of his life, nor would he ever forgive his mother. (Dramatizations of Elizabeth Dickens can be found in Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield.)

Thus, Great Expectations has the sensation of being piped in directly from Dickens’ ever-pooling reservoir of sorrow. The story’s central themes spin off from the abuse cycle, which gets driven further into readers’ psyche through elements of horror that storm the novel: the rotted remains of Miss Havisham’s wedding day; Magwitch’s middle-of-the-night footsteps when he comes back into Pip’s life; and even Estella’s ghostly figure in the mist near the so-called “happy” ending — one of two that Dickens wrote.

For Pip, though, the real source of horror is his own pressing anxiety. It haunts him into the self-hating belief that he is at fault for all the wicked events that befall him and the people he holds close. But Dickens knew readers could only take so much. Like his own father, who spared him from additional time at the factory, Dickens gives Pip a countervailing force, a benevolent father-figure in Joe Gargery.

The gentle blacksmith, who marries Pip’s sister and endures her beatings along with Pip, loves the boy first and certainly most — a key force in driving away menacing spirits. But like many young people, Pip won’t be able to see this; at least, not until life humbles him again.  

Pip’s emotional journey from lonely child to lonely adult is edged by the physical journey he takes from marshy village to London, and the nonlinear social journey from working-class to upper-class, and then to middle-class. So long as Pip struggles with his class origins, he won’t be able to accept Joe’s love and support.

From the beginning, Pip’s dreams of upward social mobility pit Joe and haughty Estella against each other, prompting Pip to reinvent himself as a scholar. The consequence? A flaring up of mistaken identities.

The surprise allowance that elevates Pip to the level of a London gentleman is erroneously attributed to Miss Havisham, who suffers from once having mistook a conman for her true love. Estella mistakes herself as the empty vessel for Miss Havisham’s deranged teachings, and Magwitch (Estella’s secret birth father) mistakes her for dead. Pip, who learns napkins don’t go into tumblers but not much else, mistakes himself as being above the working-class.

The bildungsroman cycle in Great Expectations is complete upon Pip’s damping down the fires of fakery. Those who can’t live without their illusory selves must flame out, and those who go on living, Pip especially, must cool off and learn to make way without the wistful consolations some call hope.

Or, put another way, Pip must learn to manage his expectations. Indeed, he is never so kind or mature as when he finally parts with the fantasies about what life owes him; for even Pip himself can’t fully live up to the expectations of his benefactor, nor the family-bound hopes of his first teacher and dear friend, Biddy.  

By turning the idea of expectations around and asking what type of conduct he expects from himself toward those he loves most, Pip can recover from his childhood and that strange false start in London. Estella will also come to terms, in more brute fashion, with the expectations that were set out for her, the ones she never bothered to question. From here, Pip and Estella might find themselves in good company, after all.

Dorothy Reno is a senior review editor and classics columnist for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Her short fiction has been published in literary journals in Canada and the United States. She lives in Tbilisi, (former republic of) Georgia. If you would like to share your thoughts on Great Expectations, please respond in the comments section of this article. You can join Dorothy in reading Forty Stories by Anton Chekhov (translated by Robert Payne), which will be the subject of her next column.

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Release Your Inner Roman
February 11th, 2018, 01:30 AM

Despite its playfully anachronistic title, Release Your Inner Roman packs solid information about culture and custom in the waning years of the Roman republic and the first century of the empire. Author Jerry Toner, a Cambridge University fellow and mischievous expert in such matters, has crafted this slim volume as a self-help book inscribed by one Marcus Sidonius Falx, a sturdily upright (but imaginary) Roman from the privileged (i.e., slave-owning) class of the day.

Toner’s fictional persona — not to mention the title of the book itself — gives the game away from the start. In Toner’s hands, the ever-earnest Falx is unswervingly deadpan and often unintentionally comic, but he’s always reliably informative.

He’s a wellspring of juicy nuggets about tempora and mores among the nobility, and he tees them up as exempla to be followed rigorously by readers hoping to move up the Roman social ladder. Hence the “self-help” designation Falx applies to his book, which author Toner conveniently organizes into nine chapters that cover topics like family, romance and marriage, personal advancement, recreation, and religion.

While Release Your Inner Roman is at times laugh-out-loud funny and at others shocking and disillusioning, it’s worth your attention for its thoroughgoing accuracy about ancient Roman social life. At the end of each of Falx’s chapters, Toner himself presents a brief commentary on the literary and historical sources for the assertions his narrator has made. And, yes, they all check out. And that makes Release Your Inner Roman a very useful guide to the real-life customs of its era.

Falx is nothing if not comprehensive, covering topics such as washing your toga in urine to keep it blindingly white; instructions for inducing vomiting after a meal to clear the way for another go at the groaning board; and eating a bear’s testes to deal with epilepsy.

Falx is no laggard with his anecdotes, either. He recounts how one admirable dinner host graciously anticipated his guests’ post-prandial urges: “So don’t hold back if any of you need to go…Everything’s ready to go outside — water, a commode, a slave with a sponge stick to clean you.”

Falx also reports how the Emperor Caligula gave his favorite horse a house and a squadron of slaves to answer the animal’s needs. He also promised the steed a consulship — a pledge that went unfulfilled due to his untimely demise (Caligula’s, not the horse, who we have to presume got to keep his new residence but never received a fancy toga.)

And the hits keep coming. Here’s a selective list of Falx’ bromides on women as wives and lovers:

  • “A modest wife…should be seen in public mostly with her husband, but when he is away on business she should stay at home.”
  • “A wife should have no emotion of her own but should reflect the mood of her husband, laugh at his jokes when he is happy and be sad when he is sorrowful.”
  • “A sensible wife will stay quiet during her husband’s tantrums but do her best to raise his spirits if he is sullen or moody.”
  • “A wife should serve her husband as if he were her master, even though he should, of course, treat her better than he does his slaves.”
  • “Just as it is natural for a wife to be utterly faithful to her husband, so it is with a husband to seek sexual gratification with others.”
  • “Excessive movement from a woman during intercourse often results in a child with an unstable mind.”

Quite the enlightened lot, those Romans.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in Feb. 2017.]

Bob Duffy is a Maryland writer and consultant in branding and advertising.

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Divided We Stand
February 10th, 2018, 01:30 AM

Like most of us, publishers probably expected Hillary Clinton to win. That’s what I anticipated when I agreed to review Divided We Stand, Marjorie Spruill’s comprehensive history of the National Women’s Conference of 1977. Better known as the NWC, the conference was born of a 1975 congressional act that instructed delegates “to set goals for the elimination of all barriers to the full and equal participation of women in all aspects of American life.”

Spruill’s book looks very different with Donald Trump in the White House.

But the NWC featured people and political trends whose significance is all the greater given the election’s outcome. The book details how the conference provoked a bitter debate between feminists and conservative women activists. The resulting antagonism, Spruill contends, spilled over into party politics: “Whereas in the early 1970s both Republicans and Democrats supported the modern women’s movement, by 1980 the GOP had sided with the other women’s movement, the one that positioned family values as in opposition to women’s rights.”  

Spruill offers substantial evidence that women’s rights had long been a bipartisan cause. Both Republicans and Democrats had endorsed passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) since the 1940s. In 1970, Spruill reports, “Women’s rights supporters from across the ideological spectrum and across the nation” marched to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. The following year, a “kaleidoscope” of women from both parties formed the National Women’s Political Caucus to encourage women’s participation in electoral politics.

Bipartisan congressional majorities also supported women’s rights. In 1972 alone, Congress passed Title IX (barring sex discrimination in educational institutions), the childcare tax credit, and stronger enforcement authority for the EEOC. And it was 1972 when both Strom Thurmond and Ted Kennedy voted for the ERA. Three years later, Congress established the conference and directed it to recommend a National Plan of Action to the president, who in turn was required to propose implementing legislation.

At this point, Spruill asserts, ideological differences began to emerge. Led by right-wing icon Phyllis Schlafly, conservative women fought the establishment of a national women’s rights policy. After years of combating communism and liberalism, Schlafly had taken up the anti-ERA cause in 1972. Later, she established the Eagle Forum as “an alternative to women’s lib” to contest feminism across the board.

Under Schlafly’s deft leadership, conservative women turned out en masse to oppose the conference. Many women responded to anti-abortion appeals from the Catholic Church. Schlafly also convinced Mormon leaders to instruct the Women’s Relief Society to resist the NWC’s feminist policies. And Schlafly continued to work with her longtime collaborators in the John Birch Society and other right-wing organizations.

Schlafly and her allies succeeded in sending 200 conservative delegates to the conference in Houston. But they were outnumbered four to one by feminist delegates. The NWC overwhelmingly endorsed 26 policies designed to promote women’s rights. It was a forceful and comprehensive plan.

Recognizing their inability to change the event’s feminist tenor, conservatives convened a competing pro-life, pro-family rally across town. The crowd of 15,000 cheered Schlafly and other speakers “enthusiastically urging women to subordinate themselves to the will of God, their pastors, and their husbands.”

The tensions that surfaced in Houston ultimately doomed the NWC’s recommendations. President Jimmy Carter balked. His report to Congress was “primarily a statement about accomplishments already made, not promises of further action.” The National Plan of Action was dead.

As Spruill documents, the 1980 presidential campaign cemented the parties’ split over women’s rights. The Democratic platform broadly endorsed feminist positions, including government-funded abortions for poor women. By contrast, the GOP abandoned the party’s 40-year support for the ERA and endorsed a constitutional amendment banning abortion. Republican orthodoxy embraces these anti-feminist policies even today.

Spruill’s blow-by-blow description of the NWC and its aftermath reflects exhaustive research. Her interviews of key participants both illuminate the narrative and preserve first-hand accounts for future scholars. Unfortunately, at times, the details overwhelm.

Is it essential to tell us that the San Jacinto Girl Scouts presented the colors to open the conference? Listing the titles of articles in the May 1973 issue of the Phyllis Schlafly Report seems excessive. These and similar minutiae can make it hard to follow the larger story.

And it is a story worth telling. Gloria Steinem’s 2015 memoir calls the NWC “the most important event nobody knows about.” Divided We Stand rectifies that omission. The book is the definitive record of a critical event in 20th-century American history.

To the extent that Spruill links today’s “seemingly intractable” political polarization to the NWC and its reverberations, she is less convincing. How did the conference contribute to the toxicity of present-day American politics? Spruill’s account goes a long way toward answering that tantalizing question, but not quite far enough.

In an eerie echo of 1977, feminists and conservatives are still gathering to promote conflicting agendas. The 2017 version featured hundreds of thousands of women’s rights supporters marching in protest the day after a far smaller group of conservatives attended Trump’s inauguration.

In her keynote address at the Women’s March on Washington, Steinem declared, “[W]e're never going home. We're staying together. And we're taking over.” I look forward to the next chapter.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in Feb. 2017.]

Susan Green is a lawyer who has represented working women and men for over 20 years. She teaches women’s history and literature in Washington, DC, and was a senior review editor for the Washington Independent Review of Books from 2011 to 2014.

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Meet Bart D. Ehrman
February 9th, 2018, 01:30 AM

In just 400 years, Christianity grew from a handful of mainly illiterate believers into a rapidly spreading global religion with some thirty million converts. Among those converted was Constantine, whose support has been seen as a pivotal factor in Christianity’s growth. Ehrman, professor of religious studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, and the author or editor of more than thirty books on Christianity, poses a different scenario. Noting that we don’t know what Constantine converted from, he points out that Christianity erased the pagan cultures it replaced. In a masterful synthesis of history and biblical scholarship, he argues that Christianity spread by “everyday social networks [and] word of mouth,” not one influential role model, and he shows how the new religion’s emphasis on the church as family, on compassion for the less fortunate, and its promise of an afterlife would have appealed to citizens of the late Roman Empire.

This event is free to attend with no reservation required. Seating is available on a first come, first served basis.

At Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, DC. Click here for info.

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