Twelve presidents ago, David McCullough made his first visit to Washington, DC — at the age of 15. He gazed up into the Capitol Rotunda with reverence and imagined the myriad conversations that might have happened there.
It was 1948. Harry Truman had ramped up the Marshall Plan in Europe; Israel was declared a new state; the armed forces were desegregated; a Soviet blockade of Berlin was spurned; and the president unexpectedly defeated New York governor Thomas Dewey in the November election.
Despite the heady headlines, the public was optimistic and generally cognizant of its history.
McCullough’s new book, The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For, is a compendium of 15 speeches delivered at college and university graduations, to Congress, and at the White House between 1989 and 2016.
In the 69 years since that introductory junket, the author has remained a proud patriot, but now his “voice” of reminiscence is tinged with circumspection. Americans have disassociated from their past, disengaged from history, downgraded cultural standards, and dumped the study of literary luminaries such as Flannery O’Connor, Willa Cather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Langston Hughes.
“Let’s do something about public education. Let’s stop the mindless destruction of historic America…let’s clean up our language — private and public…Let’s stop the dumbing and degrading and cheap commercial exploitation of American life…please…cure the verbal virus that seems increasingly rampant among your generation. I’m talking about the relentless, wearisome use of words ‘like’ and ‘you know’ and ‘awesome’ and ‘actually’…[Imagine] if in his Inaugural Address, John F. Kennedy had said, ‘Ask not what your country can, you know, do for you, but what you can, like, do for your country actually.’”
Two centuries ago, John Adams — the president McCullough “retrieved” from resolute historic obscurity with the publication of an enormously popular biography — had written to his wife, Abigail, about the education of their son, John Quincy: “The boy should read history. We must all read history, and write and publish and teach history better.”
Although much of Adams’ vision for education has been diluted through the decades, McCullough, in a partial emulation, advises: “By all means read history. We are all where we are, each of us, because others helped…Read books. Try to understand the reason why things happen, why they are as they are…Sometimes, somewhere along the line, memorize a poem…and sometime, somewhere along the line, do something for your country.”
Many milestones — from the heroic to the horrible — have been washed into obscurity. The faces of the Founding Fathers are now indistinguishable to most. Surveys show that 23 percent of the nation’s fourth-graders realize George Washington was the first president, but only 9 percent can identify a photograph of Abraham Lincoln. Twelve percent of the nation’s high-school students are considered proficient in American history, while 10 percent of college graduates believe “Judge Judy” is a member of the Supreme Court.
A recent analysis by the Department of Education also disclosed that one-third of all Americans with a college education had not — in a 12-month period — read a single novel, short story, or poem.
The fixation with technological devices, a swerve from the humanities to “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), large numbers of unqualified or disinterested teachers, and financial curtailments in education have dusted up a matrix with a potentially dangerous destiny, says McCullough:
“[W]e are raising a generation of young Americans who are by and large historically illiterate. Innumerable studies have been made and there’s no denying it. I’ve experienced it myself again and again. I had a young woman come up to me after a talk I had given at a college in Missouri to thank me for coming…because, she said, ‘until now I never understood that the original thirteen colonies were all on the East Coast.’”
While teaching an Ivy League seminar to 25 seniors — all honor students majoring in history — McCullough queried, “How many of you know who George C. Marshall was?” Not one. There was a long silence. Finally, one young man asked, ‘Did he maybe have something to do with the Marshall Plan?’ And I said yes, he certainly did, and that was a good way to begin talking.”
One possible antidote to the nation’s historic illiteracy? “Read. Read, read! Read the classics of American literature…you’ve never opened. Read your country’s history. How can we profess to love our country and take no interest in its history? Read into the history of Greece and Rome… of science…medicine…ideas. Read for pleasure to be sure. I adore a good thriller or a first-rate murder mystery. But take seriously — read closely — books that have stood the test of time. Study a masterpiece, take it apart, study its architecture…and after a few years, go back and read it again.”
And, in “Knowing Who We Are,” McCullough endorses improving the ways in which teachers should be trained: harness them with enthusiasm that can be passed to their students; depend less on textbooks — they tend to be boring or political; press the importance of history at home; and visit historic sites.
Barbara Tuchman, the Pulitzer Prize winning-author of The Guns of August, surmised the secret to making history interesting was to “tell stories.” E.M. Forster avowed that the magic came from stirring up empathy, and the measured Abigail Adams, aghast to learn that her Harvard-bound son, John Quincy — parentally primed for position and power — had gotten a swollen head, rebuked him in a prickly post:
“If you are conscious…that you possess more knowledge upon some subjects than others of your standing, reflect…you have had greater opportunities of seeing the world…you have never wanted a book, but it has been supplied…your whole time has been spent in the company of men of literature and science. How unpardonable would it have been in you to have turned out a blockhead.”
David Bruce Smith is the author of 11 books, including the children’s biography American Hero: John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States. He is the founder of The Grateful American Foundation, which is celebrating its fourth 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.
My last column explored the horror felt by a reader when a favorite author goes on hiatus in the middle of a series. Being an avid reader, I’ve certainly experienced this, and I hate it as much as anyone.
You know there’s a “but,” right?
Buuut…being an author, I also have insight into what factors may make taking a break from writing necessary. It can be a shift in the evil day job. Or a move. Most often, it seems to be because of family situations or some sort of health crisis. Anything that throws the writer’s life off kilter.
I know a number of authors who’ve suffered from debilitating depression, or were diagnosed with cancer, or who lost a close relative. And as much as we might wish they would just sit down and write, the truth is that writing takes a lot of mental and emotional energy. Even those of us who keep writing when the muse is fickle need to be in the right headspace to do it.
But it isn’t always easy.
I have days where I almost hate writing. That’s inevitable. More often, though, I can’t imagine living without it. I don’t write because I like to. I write because I need to. But writing doesn’t just happen.
It probably seems simple. Mental energy, emotional energy, and focus. How hard can that be? For better or worse, there are days when even the most professional don’t have it in us. I’ve never managed to write when in the middle of a bout of stomach flu; I can’t imagine trying to do it after chemo. Or after the loss of a parent or spouse or child. Sometimes the brain and the heart retreat, and there’s not much the writer can do about it.
That sucks for the reader, but it REALLY sucks for the writer. Because, for a lot of us, writing isn’t simply a business. It’s also our happy place. It’s where we go to let our creative sides run wild.
There are also other reasons an author will quit a series. Boredom, for one. Writing isn’t all passion. A large measure of skill and stick-to-it-iveness is required, but passion for a story sure helps.
Sometimes an author becomes known for a particular kind of book and wants to experiment with others, but their readers keep demanding more. Arthur Conan Doyle comes to mind. He grew so tired of writing Sherlock Holmes stories that he tried his best to kill off the poor detective. Fans were outraged.
And authors aren’t the only ones who have a say in whether a series continues. Many times, a publisher will contract for a couple books in a series. Once they’re written, the publisher has to make the difficult determination of whether to continue the series. If it doesn’t have a large enough fan base — or make enough money — chances are it’s going to get pulled. Publishing’s a business. When a publisher decides to end a series, there’s not a lot an author can do about it.
So, although it sucks to have to wait for a favorite author to put out the next book in a series, there’s a whole host of reasons why it may not be happening. Even so, I can’t say that knowing what it’s like makes me any less impatient.
I want the next book in a favorite series in my hot little hands as much as any other fan. I just have a better understanding of why I might not get it.
Don’t miss your chance to meet John A. Farrell, Judith Viorst, Ron Charles, Susan Coll, Michael Dirda, Rion Amilcar Scott, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Ron Capps, Tara Bahrampour, Kelly Kennedy, and many others at this year’s Washington Writers Conference on April 28-29 in College Park, MD. And if you’ve got a book project to pitch? You’ll get three one-on-one sessions with agents, too! Click here to register now!
Tuesday: An interview with Holly Brown, author of This Is Not Over: A Novel.
Wednesday: A review of Post Grad: Five Women and Their First Year Out of College by Caroline Kitchener.
Thursday: A review of The Icon Hunter: A Refugee's Quest to Reclaim Her Nation's Stolen Heritage by Tasoula Hadjitofi.
Friday: April’s Bedtime Stories, featuring Brenda Copeland.
Get the scoop on all our upcoming book reviews, author interviews, and features! Click here to sign up for the Independent’s free biweekly e-newsletter. And follow us on Instagram , Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. (Is this the year you hope to land an agent for your own work? Click here to register for the Washington Writers Conference, and you just may do it!)
Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing by Ben Blatt (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Bruce Arlen Wasserman. “Some books raise a reader’s blood pressure through topic and presentation; others engage the imagination with suspense and intrigue; and still others open vistas for readers to visualize. Ben Blatt’s new work, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, carefully unwraps and analyzes such books, opening a door blocked by supposition and opinion in the literary past, a door previously only entered by statisticians.”
Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History by Bill Schutt (Algonquin Books). Reviewed by Mark Gamin. “Our fascinated horror with cannibalism goes back a long way; it might even seem innate. On the other hand, Schutt says, it may be merely cultural. Herodotus tells the story of the Persian king, Darius, who asked some Greeks if they would eat their dead fathers: They were horrified at the idea. Next, he asked some Callatians, an Indian people who engaged in just that practice, whether they would burn their fathers' bodies on a pyre (as the Greeks did). They were similarly horrified.”
The Night Ocean: A Novel by Paul La Farge (Penguin Press). Reviewed by David Z. Morris. “La Farge’s villain is nothing more or less than a liar so dedicated to fiction that he is monstrous, producing a despair in those he touches similar to that visited on those unlucky enough to see Lovecraft’s abominations in the flesh. This mere man brings his victims face to face, to paraphrase Lovecraft, with the great void of being, making of it something hopeless and nightmarish.”
Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House by Alyssa Mastromonaco (Twelve). Reviewed by Avery J.C. Kleinman. “Ultimately, Mastromonaco convinces us that if you have a little bit of tenacity and aren’t scared of embarrassing yourself, you may just end up working side by side with the president. She’s someone who’s smoked pot more times than she can count, loves the Grateful Dead, and didn’t go to an Ivy League college.”
The Shadows We Know by Heart by Jennifer Park (Simon Pulse). Reviewed by Yousra Medhkour. “This novel brings into play the classic question, ‘Who is really the monster?’ by putting humans beside sasquatches. As the story progresses, we see certain characters lose a bit of their humanity in the name of revenge, and in doing so, become the monsters they seek to slay. However, this novel doesn’t merely set out to expose the monster within us, but sheds a hopeful light on humanity.”
Don’t miss another excellent book review, author interview, or feature! Click here to sign up for the Independent’s free biweekly e-newsletter. And follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. (Is this the year you hope to land an agent for your own work? Click here to register for the Washington Writers Conference — time is almost up — and you just may do it!)
There’s been a recent trend for novels to retell classic fairytales. The Shadows We Know by Heart — Jennifer Park’s debut young-adult novel — continues this tendency, but because the re-telling isn’t of a fairytale, per se, it differentiates itself despite evoking a story we all know: that of Tarzan and Jane.
Park has brought the narrative of a boy raised by apes to modern-day Texas. Only they aren’t apes, but sasquatches — otherwise known as Bigfoots. With a touch of magical realism in a world that is very much our own, Park ensures that the tale goes beyond retelling to explore humanity, the frailty of familial bonds, and the shadows in between what is right and wrong.
Naturally, the sasquatch angle is a vehicle to explore and deepen the reader’s understanding of the aforementioned larger issues. The novel’s plot, on the other hand, revolves around Leah and her family, which has yet to recover from the loss of one of their sons 10 years prior. While they’ve pieced themselves back together publicly, they’re privately broken.
Along with the tragedy, being the daughter of a preacher burdens Leah with many expectations. She’s forbidden from entering the woods behind their house, but defies this rule when she realizes that, under the cover of trees, she can breathe freely and be herself: “This forest is my religion, the towering cathedral of trees my church…”
During her excursions into the woods, Leah discovers the sasquatches but keeps their existence secret. One day, she notices a teenager living amongst them. He seems to have no memory and can barely speak, yet somehow the two connect. When their lives collide, she discovers a truth that shakes her world.
Upon opening the book, the simple, captivating prose immediately draws the reader in. Throughout, the attention to detail is held out like beautiful little gems, and the imagery, especially that of the forest, comes to life at every turn. Because Leah has a connection with the woods — a place that allows her to shed her shell — it makes sense that the scenes involving the forest are the most vivid.
That’s not to say the story’s only substance lies in the woods. On the contrary, the dynamics of Leah’s family are well done and essential to the story. Leah thinks she is the only one with a secret, yet they all wear masks, whether it be her parents — who keep hidden certain facts about her brother’s death — or Matt, her other brother, who can appear nonchalant, as if the loss of his twin no longer phases him. As a result, even the side characters are developed.
The most satisfying may be Matt. He and Leah aren’t just siblings but friends, and the dialogue between them is refreshing and at times comical. Yet Matt still has secrets — some regarding his twin — that torment him. And whereas Leah surrounds herself with the relative silence of nature, Matt seeks out the clamor of people.
This novel brings into play the classic question, “Who is really the monster?” by putting humans beside sasquatches. As the story progresses, we see certain characters lose a bit of their humanity in the name of revenge, and in doing so, become the monsters they seek to slay. However, this novel doesn’t merely set out to expose the monster within us, but sheds a hopeful light on humanity.
At one point, Leah describes her best friend’s reaction to one of the sasquatches by saying, “She stills, and with tears streaming down her face, she slides her hand next to the one that’s not quite human.” Nothing more needs to be said because there is beauty in such a simple description.
The hook that pulls everything together and captures the reader’s curiosity is how secrets are unraveled bit by bit. Rather than being told upfront what happened a decade earlier, the information is scattered throughout like puzzle pieces. In other words, The Shadows We Know by Heart is not a mere retelling of Tarzan and Jane, but a mystery. And one worth solving.
Yousra Medhkour has a Bachelor of Arts in English and is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at George Mason University. She spends her free time reading, a hobby that nurtured her love for words, and aspires to become an author.
In the winter of 1939, Americans were probably thinking about things other than poetry. Spain was crumbling in the face of its civil war; Hitler’s saber-rattling was growing more menacing by the day; and the U.S. economy was just starting to pull out of its nose dive. It was, in other words, a rough time to start a literary magazine.
But poet and critic John Crowe Ransom started the Kenyon Review anyway.
“There is one spot in Paris — it is in the center of a footbridge — that you must visit before the freedom and rest of the City can confer themselves on you,” Ford Madox Ford wrote in that inaugural issue. Take a breath, find refuge, if you can. Let the maelstrom swarm around you.
Since then, the Kenyon Review has evolved into one of the nation’s most prominent literary magazines. Today, readers can find poems, stories, and nonfiction that will surprise, move, or even enrage. Managing Editor Abigail Serfass says she wants readers to be nourished but also challenged by the writing the Kenyon Review publishes.
And publish they do.
The magazine puts out six slim paper journals a year, plus nearly the same amount of content on their online platform, KROnline. (Book-review lovers can find around 100 reviews per year on that site.) Recently, readers have delighted in the stories and poems of Charles Baxter, T.C. Boyle, Joyce Carol Oates, Mary Ruefle, George Saunders, Solmaz Sharif, Safiya Sinclair, and Javier Zamora, among many others.
The Nov/Dec 2016 issue featured the chilling story “When in Bangkok,” which, as Serfass says, drips with menace. “The morning after we landed in Bangkok, my father tossed some baht onto the restaurant table without counting it. Enough eating, he said. My sister and I stood immediately, still chewing,” author Erika Krouse writes. The father hurries off in search of something, pulling his daughters and wife in his terrible wake. The reader follows eagerly, too, wanting to learn how these three women live with a man soon revealed as a monster.
If that center of the Parisian footbridge is a must-see spot, the Kenyon Review seems to argue that art gives us a necessary fulcrum before the world can confer itself upon us. Whether readers fall in love with the exultant poem “X” in the print edition, an online story about a wife who wants to get lost in Rome, or a podcast about art and political engagement, there is much wisdom and delight to be had in the Kenyon Review’s world.
Carrie Callaghan is a senior editor at the Washington Independent Review of Books. Her fiction has appeared in Silk Road, Floodwall, the MacGuffin, the Mulberry Fork Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Maryland with her family and two cats. Find her on the Internet on Twitter at @carriecallaghan or at www.carriecallaghan.com.
Political memoirs are often intimidating behemoths, and despite considering myself a civic-minded woman who follows politics, I tend to avoid them. The sometimes 400-plus-page tomes can be unappealing in their self-righteousness, with their black-and-white jackets featuring photos of the knowing, closed-mouth smiles of this former world leader or that ex-secretary of state.
Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House by Alyssa Mastromonaco is a clear departure from the norms of the genre.
The memoir describes how Mastromonaco ended up in Barack Obama’s inner circle, from her first encounter with politics (jumping on Newt Gingrich’s car in protest as an undergraduate) to becoming, at 32, the youngest woman to hold a senior position at the White House.
On the cover, the author sits in a seat on what we can only assume is Air Force One, with President Obama sitting on the armrest next to her. She’s wearing sandals, and her feet are folded underneath her — a casual, candid photo that reflects the honesty of the book.
That honesty is of the unflinching, self-deprecating, maybe-this-is-bordering-on-too-much sort. Within the first 15 pages, the reader learns about how difficult it is to leave the White House to buy tampons, which leads to a menstrual emergency in which Mastromonaco bleeds through her “blue-and-white houndstooth capris from J. Crew.”
Twenty-five pages later, she describes bowel troubles while accompanying the president to meet the pope at the Vatican.
“The paintings, the architecture — you don’t have to be Catholic to think it’s incredible. It’s an overwhelming place to have an IBS attack…This was the moment when I had to do some reckoning. What are my priorities? Am I going to tell someone I’m about to have diarrhea in the hopes of getting help?”
If the book sometimes feels like it ventures too far into cringe-inducing territory, the no-holds-barred style is ultimately its greatest strength.
Just like tabloid photos of famous actors chewing with their mouths open remind us that “Celebrities are people, too!” this book reminds us that even those in the most high-powered jobs are no different than the rest of us.
Though the White House is locked behind a six-foot-tall fence, requires a high-level security clearance to enter, and is patrolled by armed Secret Service personnel, for the people who work there, it’s just an office. There are birthday parties with cake. There are inter-office email flirtations. There are moments that lead to stern scoldings from the boss.
Only, at the White House, when Mastromonaco is being reprimanded, it’s by the president of the United States. When there’s an emergency at work, it’s because there’s an emergency in the world. The stakes are high, like when she was one of the people leading the executive branch’s response to Hurricane Sandy.
At a meeting on how to respond to that natural disaster, Mastromonaco had to overcome self-doubt to voice her idea of making a PSA informing people how to get help.
“For some people (like me), gathering the courage to speak up in meetings is a skill that requires practice. There are the normal fears — that you’ll sound stupid, that everyone else has already thought of what you’re going to say and has moved on, that what you thought was a foolproof plan has an obvious hole in it. And then there are the fears that you develop when your meetings are with the most important and powerful policy makers in the country.”
Even people at the White House get too nervous to speak up during meetings. Stars: They’re just like us!
Toward the end of the book, Mastromonaco tells us her motivation for wanting to share her experience: “The idea was an advice book/memoir geared toward women between the ages of 15 and 25…I hoped it could help women see themselves in government.”
Alas, the parts when the “advice book” goal becomes too obvious are the weakest. Twice during the book, Mastromonaco breaks away from her narrative to give tips on preparedness and finances. The interludes are awkward, shallow, and inconsistent departures from her story.
There are enough advice books out there that tell us about the importance of credit scores. And we already know about getting a good night’s sleep. Her experiences at the White House, holding the highest position a woman ever held there at her age, are what make her unique. The lessons that stay with the reader are buried within the narrative, when she shows instead of tells.
Ultimately, Mastromonaco convinces us that if you have a little bit of tenacity and aren’t scared of embarrassing yourself, you may just end up working side by side with the president. She’s someone who’s smoked pot more times than she can count, loves the Grateful Dead, and didn’t go to an Ivy League college.
If she did it, you can, too. And, hey, it won’t happen unless you try.
Avery J.C. Kleinman is a producer for the Kojo Nnamdi Show, a program on WAMU 88.5 FM, Washington, DC’s NPR station. Follow her on Twitter at @averyjck.
THE NEWS THAT STAYS NEWS
A special April feature by Grace Cavalieri
THE WORD WORKS has published over 100 titles since 1975, and in addition to "free range" books, it has four imprints: The Washington Prize, the Hilary Tham Capital Collection (open to poets who volunteer to further the cause of literature), the Tenth Gate Prize (for mid-career poets), and International Editions (contemporary translations.) The Word Works is a member of CLMP, launching new titles each year at the AWP Conference.
Here’s a look at new 2017 titles from an EXEMPLAR press.
Okay Cool No Smoking Love Pony by Annik Adey-Babinsky. 77 pages.
This poet is moving — always moving. She’s motion lotion through complex dimensions geographically and psychologically. She seems to say “I don’t know what we are without relationships” and then she positions them in original places with style and high page energy.
I Wanted to Find America
Driving long alone,
this first rest stop after the border
like an epiphany. The woman inside
sells me another phone card.
She is kind and calls me Hon’.
Road signs look more sure of themselves here,
so I load back into the car, feeling very fast.
It’s raining hard in the mountains
and my wiper is broken.
My car keeps shaking on the downhills.
Think of dying in a different country.
Pray to god, the one on the money.
It’s overcast and I’m driving by a river
where men are fishing
up to their knees in freedom.
I want to try that fish. I want
to buy a root beer and an Archie Comic.
I want to own a keychain covered in stars.
Haji As Puppet: An Orientalist Burlesque by Roger Sedarat. 87 pages.
There are many ways to tell the truth and Sedarat does it differently on each page with high jinx. Theater is the matrix and all the world’s Haji’s stage — shenanigans attack every known institution including poetry, complete with puppets, anthropocentric and sassy.
You gotta get a gimmick!
— Bette Midler, Gypsy
at an audience hungry
for ethnic reduction
Haji summons a syringe
rolls up a sleeve
of his silk shirt
to draw first blood
from olive skin
ripe for the pricking.
Armed with fresh ink,
he paints humdrum
red with the shame
of his difference,
signing his name
like the last line
of a ghazal couplet,
conceptual Shia’ martyr
for his art.
Stain by Nathalie Anderson. 90 pages.
In Anderson’s long poems I feel Dylan Thomas’ breath on her back. Her Tableaux are multiple sounds and images, coalesced, turned back on themselves in vowel and consonants. This woman is a beautiful beacon of optics and sonics.
The Moon Path
After a painting by Elliott Daingerfield,
Columbia Museum of Art, Columbia, S.C.
It was on the moon path where I last denied him,
where moonlight gloved the hand he raised in parting, slicked
the side of his face, brightened his white hair. I see now,
he said: I’m no one’s dream or future. It was
just days since he died, but still it took me long enough
to work through the pun of it, his double-edged and
two-faced implication, while he paused a moment
in the ivory doorway, letting it all go. I wonder
how I looked to him then, my throat tight and my hands
clenching, the veil of moonlight cast over my face,
my flesh pearling with it, shawled with it, light whirling
me round like a garment in wind, rippling the leaves
into waves so I walked like the moon on that water –
how any girl looks to the eyes he sees with now.
In my dreams, even still, he’s always propositioning.
In his, it was always proposing.
Hunt by Jessica Cuello. 75 pages.
This is a study of inhumanity framed by “Moby Dick.” The story within the story is best told by Ahab's wife who fears his return; this is a broader tale than mere ‘hunt and capture’ utilizing a classic story; these poems are all coinage of oppression, not the least is that of man to woman. But transformation into art wins the day.
Leave the iron down with me.
Housekeeping and sexless,
I find the unmade bed, the tooth left.
I do not stop to feel. I feed the men.
Chop clams. Think I don’t know
I’m the laugh and lackey?
Think I don’t —
I carry bowls, I nag, begin. Alone
I undress my body — this dark home —
I set my necklace of polished
fish vertebrae on the dresser
and remember Mother’s dry
arthritic hands that served
when they couldn’t bend.
Leave the iron down with me.
I’m stopping death.
I found a body pierced
with a harpoon — an accident.
I’m making soup.
the leftover of woman.
Tsunami Diorama by Fritz Ward. 74 pages.
At the heart of this foot-tapping fun-tipping language is a lot of light and mercy. There’s sweetness even as Ward uses his fine-honed humor to make sense. His craft looks as if he’s invented it, all new and clean. I’m absorbed by this poet’s mind, seeing everything from within with his storied skillset.
Love Letter Rattling the Bell Jar
Dear Less-Than-Judy-Garland, love is merely a suggestion: an Oz-factory of rube-red sequins manufactured from parts of the witch’s heart. Let me propose an alternative plot: a night-edged merlot, a riding crop with a clause, a mildly historical curse. Better yet, you arsoned your way across the room, past the pine needles and the holly. I widened my loneliness to include you. So very so. We gooseberried, then re-married. All afternoon, we lay in bed listening to the early recordings of rain. We floated, but still found ourselves submerged. When the listening ceased, you made a bridge of my fingers. I tore your name in half and let the river decide which vowels to drown. Oh fuck the why, the what and the how — Darling, this time I choose your meatloaf all over again. I choose your naked feet upon my bare chest.
Letter That Never by Ann Pelletier. 62 pages.
Using every kind of form, Pelletier chronicles the very act of being alive. In this book length poem, the poet manages to unify and unite disparate fragments of existence. There are family references, fathers, houses; yet these are voices for portals to a lighter world capturing spirit in form — saying not all questions deserve answers. We have many identities and all of them reach to stay, but must go.
before my blouses had been unbuttoned
before I bore this distinctive name
before the establishment of this new style
before crossing the fraying bridge (or shortly thereafter)
before restrictions and closures
before being chased by the bird faking wing break
how was I to proceed?
before natural forces
before allowing anyone to
before shaking these silver dollar petals
I would sit in my sunny doorway
marvelously lucky and naive
Hen & God by Amber West. 87 pages.
West is a kick- ass poet with a big heart. She has a tone you can’t teach, combining a sharp spark and a good mind. This is out of the ordinary writing and a secret code for success. There’s unlimited space beneath her lines because she’s re-creating the poem in layers. Peel it back the poem’s still game. There’s more meaning waiting.
Poem as God
I am god and my cock
My nipples are thornless
roses, my armpits
a licorice forest
my feet are pianos
every step I take is a song
I am god, I decided
women who starve themselves
will grow long soft fur
on their forearms
Men who sleep
with scores of girls
may enjoy their lives
but not their deaths
I piss liquid gold — hell, I shit
bricks of it — sure, I am god
but some afternoons
I lay in my hammock
turn off the magic, try to play
a fair game of cards, see if
I can survive by my wits —
good looks don’t hurt
neither does a can
of pepper spray
I am god and my ears
are the wings of the world
Seed by David Eye. 73 pages.
“Someone always leaves” the Speaker says, as loss is magnetized and stunned by verse. The Voice lives in a world of longing, an array of loves, something always out of reach. There are parents, a grandmother, people, predicaments. The broader view is that intimacy is a precious stranger that invigorates as it vanishes. Seed is about mortality, while “Love” is immortality.
You Said Listen
It was one of those songs —
shut us up at the turnoff,
kept us in the truck
that night, our dashboard
eyes on the radio dial —
Could you see it like me ....
Now I see you hated it
here in the hills
unnerved by the night
but you never let on
and that — finally —
is a kind of love.
Grace Notes by Jean Cocteau (translated from French, Appogiatures)
by Mary Sherman Willis. 119 pages.
This is part of THE WORD WORKS international series edited by Barbara Goldberg. We may ask what Cocteau is doing in a contemporary poet’s press but this is easily answered as a substantial DC poet is Cocteau’s translator. Cocteau certainly transcends centuries and I’d forgotten he lived till 1963 — seems from another time, maybe another planet. Mary Sherman Willis is the one who’s providing gracefulness to the “Note,” in service of poems with body parts contorted and human behavior so unconnected from human motivation. Cocteau is fascinating and finally accessibly enjoyable here. Cocteau, here, with linear thought:
Poetry Sports Report
A word just took the lead. A verb follows close behind and forces the placement of the period. But no! But no! One simple letter rushes to beat the capital. The period gets away. In a magnificent breakaway, a comma catches up. The opening in the center doesn’t budge. The lead word sees it right away, not where it was supposed to be. It propels the syllables in a turning maneuver that becomes an offensive no one could have expected, and which tips the enjambment off balance. It drops, dragging the whole stanza with it. It’s a real fight when the deleted word dashes off and induces the others to scramble before the lead word notices. The deleted word passes to the left and the referee announces a free kick for the rhyme, which seems to weaken. It recoups. Unfortunately it passes too high. Resumption of play drags off the adjectives, which have been waiting for a chance to play a role in the match.
The Madness of Chefs by Elaine Magarrell. 142 pages.
If ever a press exists it’s to memorialize voices like this. Magarrell led the way with courage and truth, thanks to her time-honored narrative form. The entanglements of marriage and ageing are strong forces here. She says everything we didn’t dare, with dignity and flare, as if she’s next to us whispering secrets; she’s funny, too, because humor is just failed tragedy. When she tries to dye her hair blonde and it turns orange, she’s always saying something a lot more, with herself as the brunt of the joke. But we’re not laughing as much without her. Two poems here:
The Joy of Cooking
She has prepared her sister’s tongue,
scrubbed and skinned it,
trimmed the roots, small bones and gristle.
Carved through the hump it slices thin and neat.
Best with horseradish
and economical — it probably will grow back.
Next time perhaps a creole sauce
or mold of aspic?
She will have her brother’s heart,
which is firm and rather dry,
slow-cooked. It resembles muscle
more than organ meat
and needs an apple-onion stuffing
to make it interesting at all.
Although beef heart serves six
her brother’s heart barely feeds two.
She could also have it braised
and served in sour sauce.
A Surfeit of Desire
Your unerring sense of direction
has always hurried us through
what Merwin calls the anniversaries
of our deaths. You take
the linear route and I follow
describing my loop-de-loops.
Now with bodies shrunk from age
our appetites effervesce
with too much desire; we feel
we must travel farther, exercise
harder, love, love. Wait,
I’m coming. Soon enough we’ll remain
in stasis. For the rest of our days
let’s take all the time
in the world.
throwing off matter and fated
to collapse, our last destination
is inward. That being a bearing
I know how to take, dear heart,
you must let me go first.
Grace Cavalieri’s latest book of poems is With (Somondoco Press 2016). Her monthly column on poetry in the Washington Independent Review of Books is “EXEMPLARS.”
Review copies should be sent to:
Washington Independent Review of Books
7029 Ridge Road
Frederick, MD 21702
THE WORD WORKS is a nonprofit literary and educational organization dedicated to the support and perpetuation of contemporary poetry and literature for the cultural enrichment of humankind. It is a volunteer organization operating without discrimination regarding gender, race, color, religion, age, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, or any classification protected by State or Federal discrimination laws. The Word Works carries out its mission through book and World Wide Web publication, competitions, special projects, and public programs. Developing audience for poetry is a critical goal in its effort to promote and support outstanding literary work.
“It is always heartening to see women step up to the writer’s table. When the results are as adroit and affecting as Marita Golden’s work, it is more than satisfying, it is a cause for celebration.” – Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison
As a respected family court judge, Diane Tate spent her life making tough calls, but nothing could’ve prepared her for her husband Gregory’s diagnosis: early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. As his memory wavers and fades, Diane and her children reexamine their connections with the man they once knew and navigate loving the man he has become.
Daughter Lauren honors her gifted father by following in his footsteps as an architect, while son Sean races the clock to repair his broken relationship with Gregory. Diane remains resolute in her goal to keep her family together—until her husband finds love with another resident of his assisted living facility. Faced with an even more uncertain future, Diane must forge her own path—and discover her own capacity for love.
Author Marita Golden has written more than a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction and has taught writing at several prestigious universities. She co-founded and serves as president emeritus of Hurston/Wright Foundation, dedicated to preserving and fostering Black voices in literature. She received the Fiction Award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association for her novel, After, as well as the Writers for Writers Award, presented by Barnes & Noble and Poets & Writers, Inc.
Presented by Curious Iguana in partnership with Frederick County Public Libraries and Alzheimer’s Association, Greater Maryland Chapter, this event is free and open to the public; no registration required. Books will be available for purchase and signing at the event.
At the C. Burr Artz Public Library, 110 E. Patrick St., Frederick, MD. Click here for info.
In the beginning, there was the story. It told of the creation of the land, oceans, animals, and people. It told of gods and the people the gods chose as their representatives on earth. It gave the people morals, rituals, and traditions, binding them together as a tribe with One True Story. And the people listened to the story and passed it on to their children, who passed it on to their children, and it was good.
As a species, humans are endowed with lips, tongue, teeth, and larynx that we employ to make noises in which are invested the grammar and vocabulary of a native language. Everyone, everywhere, uses that language to communicate stories, whether it be origin myths, historical sagas, epic poems, or romance novels.
Most origin myths share a common plot line: the heroic journey of an anointed savior who delivers his people from evil. Think of George Washington, who could not tell a lie, defeated the British on the battlefield, reluctantly took the reins of power to steer a young nation toward righteousness, and gladly gave up his leadership position to retire to a pastoral life of farming.
But what happens when one origin story clashes with a competing one? If, for instance, George Washington owned slaves whose uncompensated labor permitted him the leisure to read books and ponder lofty political philosophies?
As the world population increased over millennia, tribes were forced to compete for resources, for cultural dominance, for control of the narrative. One origin story clashed with another. Stories that once united began to divide. The story that united a people divided people.
Technology advanced, and people became more urbanized, educated, and wealthy, enabling them to create and consume art, such as music, dancing, theater, and literature. Origin myths, folktales, and religious parables no longer sufficed.
A more sophisticated art was needed for a more sophisticated audience. Thus, the novel was born. And once again, the story united people, not just within tribes, but across space and time: A German schoolboy could enjoy The Tale of Genji, an Indian raja could delight in Don Quixote, a Nigerian housewife could swoon over Wuthering Heights.
By shifting from the all-knowing, authoritarian tone and moral certainty of origin tracts to a more nuanced narrative, the novel encouraged readers to become familiar with other societies and to consider other viewpoints. One could experience both the gilded salons of the tsarist Russian aristocracy and the miserable poverty of their serfs; the grinding hardship of a sailor’s life on a whaling boat; the romantic yearnings of a doctor’s wife in provincial France.
The good novelist is an alchemist who turns the dross of a flawed character into the gold of a hero by building a sympathetic relationship between the reader and that main character. Every reader of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me is forced into intimacy with sadistic psychopath Lou Ford, the first-person narrator. Even as Ford perpetrates horrific violence, by putting the reader inside Ford’s psyche, the author creates empathy for his profoundly flawed protagonist. If the reader didn’t recognize, at the least, a shared humanity with Ford, she would not continue reading. The book, first published in 1952, is still in print.
Recognizing the power of the novel to promote empathy, a judge recently sentenced five Virginia teens who had defaced an historic black schoolhouse with racist and anti-Semitic graffiti to read 12 books from a list of 35, including African-American and Jewish-American classics such as Native Son and The Chosen. Just imagine if, instead of being given jail time, drug addicts were condemned to read Naked Lunch; pickpockets Oliver Twist; clients of prostitutes Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.
While there has been handwringing in some academic circles over Jane Austen’s reported popularity with neo-Nazis, might not some enterprising activist bring people on both sides of the political divide together for lively discussions on the universal truth of the brilliance of her novels?
Due to an exploding population and increased mobility, cultures are colliding more than ever before. Readers today can access a veritable Tower of Babel of world literature, the best of which contemplates the very same issues origin myths did: What does it mean to be human? Where is my place in the world? What are my moral imperatives?
Some feel threatened by the intermixing of cultures and seek to assert the dominance of their One True Story. But it seems increasingly obvious that, on this evermore crowded and beleaguered planet, we must arrive at a way to peacefully coexist if we want to survive as a species. Instead of narrowing our allegiance to one worldview, our future depends on acknowledging the relevance and wisdom of the stories of others.
Alice Stephens’ column, Alice in Wordland, appears monthly in the Washington Independent Review of Books. She will appear on the "Across the Cultural Divide" panel at this year's Washington Writers Conference on Sat., Apr. 29th, in College Park, MD.
Kelly Kennedy served in the U.S. Army from 1987-1993, including in Operation Desert Storm and in Mogadishu. She works as a writer for the So Company, a veteran-owned business, and is author of They Fought for Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest Hit Unit in Iraq. Find out what she can tell you about being an author at this year’s Washington Writers Conference on April 28-29 in College Park, MD. Click here to register now!
Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean is a book about the terror of fiction. It begins as a conflicted love letter to the revered but flawed horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, indulging the writerly joy of embellishing Lovecraft’s enigmatic personal history with fantasy. But La Farge also ruefully interrogates the dangers of that fun, and the book’s winding layers of story-upon-story eventually locate, within the fabulist’s trade itself, a novel twist on uncanny horror.
The book is based on a thread of reality — the relationship between Lovecraft and a young fan named R.H. Barlow. In our world, Lovecraft collaborated with Barlow on a handful of stories and visited him several times in Florida, when Lovecraft was in his forties and Barlow was just a teenager. Barlow was later named Lovecraft’s literary executor and went on to become an eminent anthropologist of pre-Columbian cultures.
Fans have speculated about the details of Barlow and Lovecraft’s relationship, using it as grist for the theory that Lovecraft was gay. The Night Ocean opens with what appears to be a fictionalized vindication of that theory, unveiling purported journals — dubbed the Eronomicon — that chronicle Lovecraft’s gay trysts, not just with Barlow, but with a broad array of men.
Those familiar with Lovecraft will immediately find this section troubling — not because they paint Lovecraft as gay, but because they give us a Lovecraft who is witty, adventurous, and, most improbable of all, comfortable with his body.
This may be salutary; as La Farge later points out, Lovecraft’s dour, repressive misanthropy has become almost mythological as his stature has grown in recent decades (cf. Michel Houellebecq’s nihilist manifesto, H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life).
But (spoilers ahead) La Farge is too smart to simply create a Lovecraft fully out of sync with his popular profile. The Eronomicon attracts the attention of a journalist, Charlie Willett, who becomes convinced that Barlow is still alive (despite his reported 1951 suicide), and unravels a complex story of intrigue and revenge behind the “forgotten” text.
Willett rises to fame thanks to his resulting book, which at its heart is a manifesto for the power of love, suggesting at least a metaphorical redemption for Lovecraft. This arc is driven home by the fact that Willett is black and grapples with loving the author’s work despite Lovecraft’s notoriously vile racist beliefs.
But the Eronomicon turns out to be just the top layer of more fictions than Willett can unravel, and ultimately, La Farge isn’t really advocating a redemption of Lovecraft’s darkest failings. Charlie’s upbeat book is discredited, and after falling into a pit of depression, he disappears. The Night Ocean is framed by the efforts of his wife, Marina, to follow his trail and, she dimly hopes, to find him alive.
It is roughly a detective novel, and happily free of any version of Lovecraft’s own iconic creations. This separates it from a rather pathetic subgenre of work that waves a lot of tentacles around and calls it “homage,” but La Farge does do some slightly more high-minded fan service. William S. Burroughs is a recurring supporting character, a welcome vindication for anyone who treasures the two authors’ shared alienation.
La Farge offers what could easily be lost Burroughs routines, and they’re as fun to read as they must have been to write. The same goes for a section about the House Un-American Activities Committee interrogating horror writers about their communist affiliations — which by all logic should have happened, even though it never did.
Marina’s own investigation unearths a touching portrait of a fictionalized R.H. Barlow, who appears to have faked his premature suicide and taken on a new identity. This Barlow flirted with cosmic despair, but, through his love for Lovecraft, managed to redeem some sense of worth from life. This takes up the book’s hearty middle, and La Farge skillfully draws the reader into a deep empathy for Barlow.
But this empathy is ripped away harshly as the book descends into a grim third act. Not much more can be said without ruining the narrative’s many misdirections, but the core achievement is darkly sublime, a translation of the cosmic insanity of Lovecraft’s work back into the human realm.
La Farge’s villain is nothing more or less than a liar so dedicated to fiction that he is monstrous, producing a despair in those he touches similar to that visited on those unlucky enough to see Lovecraft’s abominations in the flesh. This mere man brings his victims face to face, to paraphrase Lovecraft, with the great void of being, making of it something hopeless and nightmarish.
Inevitably, part of the message here is that La Farge himself is also a sort of monster. That’s not a condemnation of the author, who is clearly aware that by blurring the lines of Lovecraft’s sexuality and personality, he is treating a real man’s legacy as an instrument.
And The Night Ocean’s final message, at least in part, may be more nihilistic than anything Lovecraft ever penned — not only that the universe is indifferent to our suffering, but that we can never truly trust one another’s declarations of love.
David Z. Morris is a journalist, critic, and author whose work has appeared at the Atlantic, Aeon, Pacific Standard, and many other outlets. His dark novella, in night we coax things out of hidden shapes, was released in 2016. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @davidzmorris.
The very word “cannibalism” sets off a traumatic alarm in us, says zoologist Bill Schutt. If, say, a paleontologist discovers what he suspects is fossil evidence of one dinosaur gnawing on the bones of another from the same species, he can call it “conspecific scavenging” and excite the interest of pretty much nobody.
But call it dinosaur cannibalism, and the eons-old "news" goes viral.
In fact, cannibalism is fairly widespread in the non-human animal kingdom, including, one of Schutt’s scientist sources says, in some species that had previously been considered to be herbivores, such as butterflies. It's nature's way of dealing with “too many kids, not enough space, too many males, not enough food.” Thus the title of his fine, entertaining book, Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History.
The first third of the book, which focuses on non-homo sapiens, is of most interest to lay readers for its offering of relatively unknown information. For one example, in an avian species native to the West Coast of the United States, acorn woodpeckers, two females share one nest. They destroy and eat each other’s eggs, one after another, sometimes for weeks — until each one lays an egg on the same day. (The evolutionary purpose: One hatching cannot, therefore, too quickly outgrow the other.)
Another practice that separates some animals from humans — or most humans, anyway — is the chewing off of body parts during sexual mating. As Schutt shows, one such animal, the male Australian redback spider, engages in remarkable contortions to deliver his sperm to the female. Thereafter, she eats him, but his genes get passed on, which must be (what else could it be?) the point. The male’s acrobatics would be hard to fathom in mere words, so Cannibalism includes an excellent six-step schematic that makes the matter clear. (There are a number of such fine pen-and-ink drawings in the book.)
Much of the book concerns human cannibalism and specific historical instances — or supposed instances — of it. As Schutt demonstrates, Christopher Columbus and his contemporary Spanish governors wrongly reported that many of the native peoples he encountered in early expeditions to the Caribbean were cannibals. This permitted the Europeans, under the prevailing mores of engagement, to enslave or kill them. In fact, this emphasis on cannibalism allowed the genocidal treatment of the natives to be all but ignored for 500 years in, as Schutt says, "a terrible disservice to history."
(Indeed, current anthropological thinking says that, throughout history, ritual cannibalism has been practiced by fewer cultural groups than was previously thought.)
There was nothing made up about the cannibalism during the months-long ordeal of the Donner Party of 1846-47 in the American West. The logistics of that episode — who ate whom, when, and where — are still being debated and investigated. (Dogs are renowned for their sense of smell — still, it is amazing they can sniff out buried human remains from over a century before, as a border collie, Kayle, does to open Schutt's chapter on what he calls "The Worst Party Ever.")
There is something in human nature that almost makes any discussion of cannibalism the subject of humor, and Schutt is a talented writer, quick with the apt pun, as he showed in an earlier book, Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures. (Despite the topics, both that book and this one are perfectly safe for the squeamish.)
Other Cannibalism subjects include the presence of it in our literature (such as fairytales, Shakespeare, Robinson Crusoe, and "The Twilight Zone" — who can forget that To Serve Man is a cookbook?); as well as the consumption of placentas.
(Schutt's final topics, diseases such as mad cow and kuru, which results in the destruction of the central nervous system, and which may or may not be related to cannibalism, are a tad tangential and technical.)
Our fascinated horror with cannibalism goes back a long way; it might even seem innate. On the other hand, Schutt says, it may be merely cultural. Herodotus tells the story of the Persian king, Darius, who asked some Greeks if they would eat their dead fathers: They were horrified at the idea. Next, he asked some Callatians, an Indian people who engaged in just that practice, whether they would burn their fathers' bodies on a pyre (as the Greeks did). They were similarly horrified.
This notion of ambivalence is part and parcel of Schutt's book, as reflected in the subtitle. "Cannibalism makes perfect environmental sense," he says, and the only beings who are ashamed of it, the only ones who consider it unnatural, are the human ones.
Mark Gamin is a lawyer and writer based in Cleveland.
In this powerful memoir, Tasoula Hadjitofi reveals her perilous journey orchestrating “The Munich Case” ― one of the largest European art trafficking stings since WWII. With the Bavarian police in place, the Cypriots on their way, 70 under-cover agents bust into the Munich apartment of a notorious Turkish smuggler suspected of holding looted antiquities. Tasoula places everything on the line to repatriate her country’s sacred treasures, unaware that treachery lies in the shadow of her success.
The author will be in conversation with Kathy Barrett.
At Kramerbooks, 1517 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, DC. Click here for info.
Taduno’s music used to bring life to his people. He is the most famous musician in the entire country until he disappears — not only physically, but also from the collective memory of his countrymen. He soon wakes up with his guitar, alone in an unknown town, trying to remember how he arrived. Taduno’s Song, the debut novel by Nigerian-born Odafe Atogun, is the story of Taduno finding his way back home.
Why do you set the beginning of the story off-stage, with Taduno waking up in an unknown city? Is it a way to sort of unground the reader?
Yes, in a way, to unground the reader. I thought it necessary to start off from a place of calm and peace so that, as the story progresses, the reader would fully appreciate Taduno’s dilemma. It is also to help the reader see the contrasts between a peaceful society where civil liberties are respected and one where dictatorship is the order of the day.
In the description of the story, “Kafkaesque” is used. Would you agree? Taduno, the main character, wakes up, and no one recognizes him. Yet, he is not the one who has transformed. Everyone else has, too. You never really tell us how everyone’s memory is altered. Would you tell readers now?
Let’s start with the second part of the question. Memory, individual and collective, can be altered by fear, by intimidation, by brutal force. Joseph K. must have realized this in The Trial. The atmosphere in Taduno’s homeland is unwholesome, made so by ruthless dictatorship. So it wouldn’t be incorrect to say that tyranny destroys memory and violence corrodes the character of a people. One of the great weapons of a dictatorship is the ability to carry out propaganda onslaughts to take control of people’s minds, such that even the dictator is left deluded.
With regards to the first part of the question, indeed, Taduno’s Song could be seen as a sort of homage. But in all honesty, I hadn’t read Kafka prior to writing it. Prompted by the description of the story as “Kafkaesque,” I read a couple of Kafka books. I have since come to believe that, sometimes, it is possible to pay homage without realizing you are doing so.
Do you believe music has the power to save the world? If so, should it be without lyrics?
The idea of “music without words” is born of the fact that music can be enjoyed by all even if the words are alien to the listener. No matter what language we use to make music, the words of our songs cannot be lost. Rather, they are amplified. So, because of this universal nature of music, it makes it possible for us to convey the message of peace and love devoid of the rhetoric of politics and religion. Yes, music has the power to save the world.
Taduno’s guitar seems to lead the way, but is his voice still required?
Taduno’s voice represents his values — what he stands for and lives for. His guitar helps him to showcase his values in the simplest and most endearing of ways.
Star-crossed lovers Lela and Taduno share a romance that is less a reality than an idea. Is it stronger because it’s the stuff of fantasy?
Since the beginning of time, the only way man has been able to measure love is through the sacrifice we make for love. How big is the sacrifice (the ultimate being paying with one’s own life)? The sacrifice both Lela and Taduno must make shows the timelessness of their love; their lives are at stake. So, sharing a love life that lives in the past actually helps to gauge the strength of their love, considering that they are unable to consummate it in the current circumstances. The stuff of fantasy? This is what makes their love, like all true love, stronger and fascinating for us, I believe.
Since we, as readers, can’t actually hear Taduno’s music, which real-life song most embodies it? Can you name a musician who would be like Taduno?
The song “One” by U2. According to Wikipedia, “One” is often used by the group to promote human rights or social-justice causes, and the song lends its name to Bono’s charitable organization, the One Campaign. The musician that would be like Taduno: Bono.
There is a distance in Taduno’s Song between the reader and the narrative, a wonderful sense of a different time, an allegorical tone, as if the story takes place before life begins. Why?
I must admit that I was driven by the desire to write a timeless story. As such, I had to capture it in such a way that the reader can absorb it from another time and place, hence the allegorical tone. Because the decision that Taduno must make is so difficult and unpleasant, I tried to present the story as a phase in human history that marked the end of tyranny. So, it is a story of hope.
Joye Shepperd is senior features editor at the Washington Independent Review of Books.
In publishing, as in life, diversity is a good thing. There’s been a groundswell of concern about the dearth of racial and cultural diversity on America’s bookshelves — and Angela Maria Spring is doing something about it.
In April, Angela opened her new bookstore, Duende District, as a pop-up venture at Artomatic in Crystal City. Her mission is to highlight books by writers of color, and to create a network of authors and publishing professionals with an interest in promoting culturally diverse work. Once Artomatic is over in early May, she plans to follow with a permanent location in the DC area.
Full disclosure: Angela and I are not strangers. In fact, it was a chance encounter at a book club in February that resulted in this new venture. As literature coordinator for Artomatic, I’d been wishing we could offer a bookstore on site — and it just so happened that Angela had been dreaming of opening one.
Two short months later, amidst the frenzy of actually running a store, she was kind enough to answer some of my questions about on literature, diversity, and launching a new venture.
Who do you have in stock, and what made you choose those particular works?
As I’m only carrying about 75 titles, it was important to highlight the bones of what Duende District will carry in its bricks-and-mortar store — fiction, memoir, essays, poetry, social criticism, and teen and children’s picture books. I also have a special section reserved for any Artomatic participants who would like to sell a book through the bookstore.
For the Duende District inventory, all the books by authors/illustrators of color or are authentically supportive of people of color. Some are books I’ve read and loved, like Brit Bennett’s The Mothers and Daisy Hernandez’s A Cup of Water Under My Bed, or were recommended by fellow booksellers of color or trusted PoC book bloggers. A lot of my children’s books came from using resources from WeNeedDiverseBooks.org.
Tell us a little about your journey to get to Duende District — what was your road to working with books?
I’ve been writing poetry since I was 6 years old and obsessed with books since first learning to read. In a way, I can see how my mother’s love of reading and our weekly trips to the bookstore all throughout my childhood would lead me down the path to bookselling. It is one of three branches of my career tree — I’m also a journalist and poet — but it’s the strongest. I had my first bookstore job in Albuquerque at the Waldenbooks when I was 19, and have worked in bookstores in New York City and Washington, DC, since then, with my last job as the floor manager at Politics and Prose. Books are my life, and finding ways to create an amazing bookstore experience for our communities is my passion.
Can you talk about diversity — what role it has played in your life, and why it’s so important in literature?
I’m first-generation Latinx. My family is from Panama and Puerto Rico, and they immigrated to New York City in Queens and Brooklyn. In addition, I’m from New Mexico, which has one of the strongest populations of Hispanic and Native-American people in the U.S. All of these things have shaped me as a writer and bookseller.
I’ve experienced firsthand how rich a combination of cultures can fuel creativity, art, and writing. And DC is such a vibrant city of black and African-American communities, as well. The best literature comes from diverse cultures, backgrounds, and experiences. We must champion these stories, writers, and artists, because they are what gives the fabric of this country color.
Starting a business is a nerve-wracking proposition. How did you get the courage to begin this venture?
This last year has been all about learning to excise fear. Often, we stand in our own way and don’t realize it. It takes a shock to wake us up and move us. For me, it was when I realized I’d been complicit in an industry run by (and often for) very well-meaning white people. I was constantly the only person of color in meetings, and often no people of color were actually in the ultimate decision-making room, especially when regarding curation of programming and book buying for people of color. Then I thought about how few people of color I’ve worked with in bookstores over the years and how even fewer made it to senior positions, such as event planners or buyers.
I am not a person to stand by silently, and I was ashamed that I had been doing it for so long because my own pale skin and upper-middle-class upbringing afforded me that privilege. That’s not who my family raised me to be. I am a seasoned bookseller who has trained many of the booksellers in DC, and our communities of color deserve the best bookstore experience created by book professionals of color. We’ll create that space and then open the doors to everyone, because a bookstore is a conversation, and everyone should be welcome to take part in the conversation we’re creating.
What has been the most challenging part? And what has been the sweetest reward?
It’s two of the same — it’s exhausting and expensive to start something like this from scratch by yourself, but I can do it and it’s worth doing. I’ve had many conversations in the last three months with so many people who connect very strongly with my vision, and now, at the pop-up in Artomatic, I’m seeing customers’ eyes light up when I tell them about my mission and put books in their hands. They see a beautifully displayed space that’s warm and welcoming, with attractive, wonderful books and a bookseller who comes from a similar experience who’s saying, “We are worth this. We deserve this.” And the best part is that everyone can enjoy this experience.
How do you see moving forward after Artomatic?
I’m funding both the pop-up at Artomatic and making Duende District fully mobile with a Kickstarter campaign right now. I’ve had a lot of people talk to me about many different places in the DMV that they’d like to see a bookstore like this, and I want to find the right community, so it’s important that I take the bookstore to as many places as possible to test out where the best place to set up the bricks-and-mortar location should be. So I’ll be everywhere, and if anyone wants to see Duende District in your community, just email me!
Some books raise a reader’s blood pressure through topic and presentation; others engage the imagination with suspense and intrigue; and still others open vistas for readers to visualize. Ben Blatt’s new work, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, carefully unwraps and analyzes such books, opening a door blocked by supposition and opinion in the literary past, a door previously only entered by statisticians.
In the non-literary world, Blatt’s witty approach to parsing the Western canon would make him the equivalent of a magician, except he’d be a magician who reveals the secrets behind his tricks. It is that revelation which makes this book so valuable for writers and students of literature.
Blatt wastes no time showing the secret hole in the table where the rabbit comes out in his hat: He starts with an explanation of the statistical proving of the authorship of The Federalist Papers, right in his introduction. By showing readers how statisticians Frederick Mosteller of Harvard and David Wallace of the University of Chicago applied statistical analysis to those historic documents in 1963, he lays the groundwork for this book.
From that point on, a reader will feel momentum propelling Blatt’s revelation of literary style and sense, something that could be said to have previously evaded the sharp knife of scientific approach. And his skill — at dissecting authors’ preferred words, grammatical peccadilloes, and stylistic idiosyncrasies — as analyst-surgeon is well established, as this book’s chapters show.
Beginning with an analysis of how Hemingway used adverbs, Blatt says:
“If Hemingway believes that the ‘laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics,’ then I’d like to think he’d find this mathematical analysis equal parts illuminating and outlandish. It’s outlandish at first glance because of the way we study writing. Many of us have spent days in middle school, high school, and college English classrooms dissecting a single striking excerpt from a Hemingway novel. If you want to study a great author’s writing, their most remembered passages are often the best place to start...But from a statistician’s point of view, it’s just as outlandish to focus on a small sample and never look at the whole picture.”
Blatt goes on to say that he used “a set of functions” to count the number of adverbs in all of Hemingway’s novels; over 865,000 words were evaluated in total. His disclaimer is that the process is “not 100% perfect,” but close. Close enough to quantify that Hemingway used an adverb for one of every 17 words, or at a rate of 5.8 percent.
Blatt proceeds down this path of analysis further, comparing Hemingway’s use of adverbs with Stephen King’s, at 5.5 percent, and then sets a range previously seen subjectively — e.g., King once commented that Stephenie Meyer’s use of adverbs is “not very good.” But once evaluated statistically, Meyer is found to have used adverbs at a rate of 5.7 percent — in other words, at less than Hemingway’s rate.
Blatt doesn’t stop with this simply understood, statistical look at comparative adverb usage. He delves into the perceived nature of adverbs, claiming that what King considers an adverb is not necessarily the standard paint pot of true adverbs. King’s adverbs are, as he states, “the ones that usually end in -ly.” Those are the words King refers to when he says, “The adverb is not your friend.”
So Blatt refocuses his analysis to strictly -ly adverbs, and, in the quantification of those, provides a chart showing Hemingway as the master of frugality at 80 adverbs per 10,000 words, trumping Twain at 81, Steinbeck at 93, Updike at 102, and King at 105. Topping that chart of -ly users is E.L. James (of Fifty Shades of Grey fame) at 155.
But Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve is not just a book that analyzes adverbs. In looking at the success and simplicity of the works of Dr. Seuss, for example, he scrutinizes the reading level of New York Times bestsellers over the past 60 years relative to the concept that “adult readers are looking for more than your average first grader.”
In discussing a formulaic measure of grade level, the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test, Blatt offers this description and these examples:
“The test works best when applied to large texts but it’s easy to understand with short samples. Take the first sentence of George Washington’s first state of the Union address: ‘I embrace with great satisfaction the opportunity which now presents itself of congratulating you on the present favorable prospects of our public affairs.’”
At 43 syllables and 23 words, the sentence would be given a grade-level score of 15.
Now compare it to the first sentence of George W. Bush’s last State of the Union Address: “Seven years have passed since I first stood before you at this rostrum.”
It has 16 syllables, 13 words, and a grade-level score of four.
Blatt’s findings are perhaps not what a reader would expect. Male and female authors make verifiably gender-specific word choices? Certain big-name scribes routinely embrace clichés? Stellar opening sentences often follow an unwritten (no pun intended) formula?
Can you see how Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve has the potential to hijack a reader? It lightly steps along in its trajectory and, as a reader engages each chapter, the book exerts an addictive force, like a perfect pastry or a smooth yet full wine sipped beside a roaring fire on a frozen night, a fleece wrapped around one’s shoulders for good measure.
Is Ben Blatt a magician, after all, and is Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve something like the combination of stage, velvet curtains, silk-covered table, and top hat all fused into one tangible effect? Perhaps. But one thing is certain: Blatt has done his homework, and his book is a fully engaging and at times amazing revelation aimed squarely at literature’s phantasm and hitting its mark with panache.
Bruce Arlen Wasserman assembled his first poetry manuscript at the age of 17 and farmed and worked as a blacksmith in his twenties. He received an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2016. He works as a reviewer for the New York Journal of Books, and his publications include three poetry chapbooks and a full-length collection of poetry.
At the age of 87, John Julius Norwich can arguably claim the deanship of English historians, if there’s such a title to be claimed. Norwich has authored more than two dozen books that range widely through an enticing catalogue of subjects. His popular histories have tackled the papacy, medieval English kings and their later Shakespearean avatars, the Mediterranean, Sicily, the cities of Byzantium and Venice, and much more.
In Four Princes, Norwich explores the intersecting sagas of four 16th-century rulers who were remarkably close contemporaries: England’s Henry VIII (1491-1547); Francis I of France (1494-1547); Charles V, king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor (1500-1558); and Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566), ruler of the Ottoman Empire.
The historical record indicates that Charles, Henry, and Francis had met personally from time to time, but only Francis had dealt in person with Suleiman, whom he considered a potential ally in his on-again, off-again wars with Charles. As for Henry, who engaged regularly, and largely ineffectually, with both European monarchs in matters of divorce, war, and alliances, the English king comes across as a bit out of the mainstream in the foursome at the center of Norwich’s book.
The middle third of the 1500s was an era where the parallel practices of war and showy diplomacy played out against a roiling backdrop of religion and belief. On one hand, we find establishment, abuse-ridden Catholicism (flanked by well-meaning Erasmian humanism) facing off against a rapidly proliferating swarm of new Protestant denominations, most notably (but not exclusively) in the northern and eastern reaches of Europe.
At the same time, in the Mediterranean and the southeast, Islamic forces — in the person of Suleiman and his seagoing surrogates — were grinding away at Christian hegemony, a continent-wide status newly won only decades before (in 1492), when Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Moors.
As the 1530s approached and passed, though, Ottoman forces were probing as far north as present-day Vienna, and their Barbary pirate allies were ravaging Sardinia, Corfu, and other Mediterranean islands.
There’s another critical factor in this mix as well. The period between 1503 and 1570 saw nine popes come and go. Some were corrupt, a few of an ascetic bent, others indecisive and vacillating, but all of them inextricably entrammeled in the political, territorial, and (obviously) religious wranglings of the day. In 1529, for instance, the French ambassador reported to King Francis that Pope Clement, suddenly struck with a visceral dread of Ottoman armies overrunning Italy, was contemplating scooping up all the money and valuables he could lay hands on and absconding to Avignon.
But Francis was eyeing the sultan as an ally, and he failed to act on repeated papal calls for joint European action against the Turks. And King Henry was even less interested, having his own difficulties with the papal authority as Vatican bluster and foot-dragging continued to impede his divorce and remarriage.
So Henry looked away from the distant Mediterranean and its putative Muslim threat, focusing instead on his stumbling compulsion to shore up the succession, along with his recurrent obsessions over Charles’ and Francis’ occasional diplomatic flirtations in both war and peace.
Charles V was the only one of our four Christian princes (counting the pope) to mount meaningful military action against the sultan’s forces. He took on the Barbary pirates, Suleiman’s surrogates in the Mediterranean, besting them in North Africa and pursuing them across the sea, but only with temporary success.
His second foray against the Ottoman armies was in defense of Vienna, after the sultan’s forces had vanquished modern-day Hungary. As Charles bumped across the continent to take command of the defenses from his younger brother Maximillian, the Ottomans bogged down and withdrew to Byzantium.
With an unremitting mastery worthy of his age and experience, Norwich marshals just the right details, large and small, with compelling and selective elan, and his cross-cutting presentation drives the narrative relentlessly forward, never allowing it to wallow in scholarly miasma. There are scores of evocative “moments” in this book, set pieces that linger pleasantly in the memory.
Among them: Henry and Francis at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, their first meeting. Both are tall, vigorous, and handsome (remember, Henry is not yet 30). They decide to wrestle, and Henry is overmastered in the match. Not surprisingly, only the French observers mention Francis’ victory in their accounts of this encounter.
Another: the gracious mercy of the sultan, otherwise cruel and ruthless in battle, besieging the few hundred Christian Knights of St. John at their then headquarters on the island of Rhodes. After holding out valiantly, they finally surrender. The sultan, honoring their courage and determination, allows them to leave unharmed, and they finally settle in Malta.
Yet another concerns Charles and Francis. The Spanish king, having captured the French monarch at the battle of Pavia, imprisons him for a year. He releases him only when Francis agrees to turn over his two sons, children, who are then imprisoned for another five years.
One last scene: One of Suleiman’s commanders takes it upon himself to snatch a famous Italian beauty, hoping to present her to the sultan for his harem. I’ll let Norwich finish the story: “She, however, clad only in her nightdress, managed to escape on a horse, accompanied by a single knight whom — either because he had shown overfamiliarity or because he had perhaps seen too much of her person — she subsequently ordered to be killed.”
Four Princes is filled with marvelous moments like these. If you’re a reader of history — even an occasional one — don’t miss this book.
Bob Duffy is a Maryland writer and consultant in branding and advertising.
From the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a revelatory portrait of religion in China today — its history, the spiritual traditions of its Eastern and Western faiths, and the ways in which it is influencing China's future.
The Souls of China tells the story of one of the world's great spiritual revivals. Following a century of violent anti-religious campaigns, China is now filled with new temples, churches, and mosques — as well as cults, sects, and politicians trying to harness religion for their own ends. Driving this explosion of faith is uncertainty — over what it means to be Chinese and how to live an ethical life in a country that discarded traditional morality a century ago and is searching for new guideposts.
At East City Bookshop, 645 Pennsylvania Ave., SE, Washington, DC. Click here for info.
In recent conversations with friends who are well educated and well read, I happened to use a couple of words that were familiar to me but drew blank stares from my companions. At one point, I referred to a “parlous situation” (no prizes for guessing what I had in mind), and another time, to the old saying “propinquity breeds contempt” (though “familiarity breeds contempt” is probably more familiar).
Parlous and propinquity are not words I use often in speech, but I have used them often enough in my writing for magazines and books. They are both, as so many of our words are, derived from Latin — parlous, a variation of perilous, from periculum, danger; and propinquity, nearness, from propinquus, near.
This may be sounding a little pedantic, but what these reactions from my friends brought home to me is how much learning Latin has helped my writing. Study of Latin comes in and out of fashion. The argument you hear most often is that it will help you learn foreign languages — the romance languages derived from Latin, obviously, but others as well.
But I think the biggest reason is how the study of Latin enriches your understanding of English. Recognizing the Latin words in an English sentence lets you hear the echoes of nuance reverberating through the centuries. For a writer, Latin is a key unlocking a treasure chest of vocabulary.
Hemingway and Strunk and White have told us to avoid Latinate words in favor of those derived from Anglo-Saxon (i.e., German). These words, we are told, are “livelier.” They lend themselves to short, declarative sentences and are more accessible than the polysyllabic words coming down from Latin.
Whatever merit there is in this dictum, it has been overdone. English is a marvelously supple language with double the vocabulary of other Indo-European languages because it blends Latin and German roots. That is one of the main reasons English has become a universal language.
I have saved my Latin dictionary and grammar, my Loeb bilingual editions of Virgil and Ovid, through many moves with the aim of getting back to the classics in the original when I retire. Retirement, however, continues to prove elusive, and these recent conversations reminded me that if I wanted to get back to Latin, I shouldn’t wait much longer.
It turns out there is a DC Classics Club, organized through Meetup, that gets small groups of would-be classicists together to puzzle through these ancient texts. So I ended up a few days later with a group working its way line by line through Livy’s History of Rome, and specifically Chapter XX in Book I dealing with Numa Pompilius, who succeeded Romulus as the second king of Rome.
One of the passages discussed in this meeting was cited by Wikipedia as summing up the important religious contributions made to Roman society by Numa. It is a passage about establishing temples and a priesthood, paying for it with public funds, what sacrifices to make, and how to celebrate not only sacred ceremonies or the gods, but funeral rites, too.
These few lines contain words that have given us numerous terms in English — sacred, temples, sumptuous, impecunious, public, private, pontiff, subject (verb and noun), consult, plebeian, divine, juridical, negligent, patriot, rites, peregrinations, perturb, celestial, mode, ceremonies, funebrial, remain, docent, prodigies, fulminating, mission, susceptible, cure.
And these are just the obvious ones.
Another group in the club is Latin for Beginners. They are working through Hans Ørberg’s classic textbook, which teaches Latin without translating, but by using illustrations and building gradually in complexity — a method known as contextual induction. (Warning: They have advanced far enough in the text that it is more like intermediate Latin than beginner.)
In any case, it’s never too late to start, or start again. The English speaker and writer can only benefit from delving into the deep root meaning of our words and seeing them in their original context. Tempus fugit!
Like many of my generation, I collected coins, baseball cards, and stamps. I also built models. I remember the pungent, eye-watering odor of Testors paints and sealers, which I applied to balsa models of ships and planes.
While collecting was tactile and joyful, I suspect there was a developmental compulsion to make sense of a wider, mysterious world. Even as a 10-year-old, I pursued complete collections of the ordinary, though I hoped for the elusive rarity.
James Barron, in The One-Cent Magenta, tells a tale about the rarest stamp in the world, a story as compelling as fiction and as real as my childhood memories of collecting. Just as many of our adult collections anchor us in a meaningful past, Barron’s story of a one-of-a-kind stamp is contextualized within its political, social, and economic history.
The author follows that history as the magenta journeys from South America to Great Britain, France, and ultimately, the United States. The stamp becomes, really, the central, if not mute, anthropomorphized character in a kind of genealogical exploration spanning almost two centuries. In fact, the magenta has been referred to as “big baby” and “magenta lady.”
Writing in the first person, Barron makes the real-life characters feel intimate and familiar. But his somewhat folksy style belies the significant research that undergirds the work. Almost casually, he binds biography and autobiography in the family stories of the “relatives” of the magenta. Provenance, after all, is pedigree. But he also pursues a theme about “an arcane parallel universe peopled by collectors who are weird and crazy, obsessed and obsessive.”
Beginning and ending with the process of auctioning the magenta, the author introduces us to David Redden of Sotheby’s. As the frame for the narrative, Barron describes the auction for the very rich as being about high-stakes expectations and tastefully understated drama.
Redden has the task of researching, authenticating, and auctioning the magenta, part of the late John R. du Pont’s estate outside Philadelphia. Redden takes us into a philatelic warren of technology, forgeries, history, and the hopes for the imprimatur of authenticity by the eight members of the Expert Committee of the Royal Philatelic Society London.
In between, the author lays out the stamp’s journey, beginning in 1856 with its printing in British Guiana on the northern coast of South America. There, because of racial unrest, the postmaster ran out of British stamps and instead contracted for the local printing of some “provisional” one-cent stamps to be affixed to periodicals.
The stamp displays “a workman like image of a schooner and a Latin motto.” It has “the dull color of dried blood at a crime scene.” In fact, the magenta is totally unremarkable, relying instead on her singularity for her attraction. Despite her homely appearance, the stamp elicits what Barron calls “addicts [who] know the desperation of desire.”
In 1873, Louis Vaughan became the first “addict.” He was a 12-year-old who found the magenta among his uncle’s papers and sold it for $16.83 (valued in today’s dollars) to leverage other purchases at the beginning of the stamp-collecting era.
From British Guiana, the magenta traveled to Glasgow, London, and then to Paris in 1878. There, Philippe Arnold de la Renotière von Ferrary, an idiosyncratic aristocrat, “bought any stamp that came on the market…Ferrary was the stamp’s first owner who lived in a grand setting.”
Immigrating to the U.S. in 1940, the little red stamp continued to exert its gravitational pull on the arc of collectors’ lives. Then, in 1980, the magenta sold to John du Pont for an astounding $935,000.
The du Pont recluse called the bland stamp “the magenta lady.” And with his spectacular purchase, “The one-cent magenta had passed back into a world of money, privilege and into the odd life of someone who used the fortune he inherited to purchase what he lacked: Friendship, respect, and self-esteem.”
Indeed, by the 1990s, du Pont’s life began to deteriorate into paranoia and distrust. In 1996, he shot and killed Dave Schultz, an Olympic wrestler and coach at the du Pont-sponsored Foxcatcher wrestling center. Du Pont was tried and convicted; he died after 14 years in prison.
In 2014, the magenta in du Pont’s estate sold for $9.5 million to Stuart Weitzman, a shoe designer who said, “[The stamp] took me back to my childhood. It was sort of like going back to the home I grew up in.”
The mere existence of the magenta, the rarest stamp in the world, becomes a Rorschach test: Each collector sees in it a balm, a reassurance, or an antidote to personal insufficiencies. Each acquired the stamp because he could: Each wrestled with mortality and frailties. The magenta more often revealed character than improved it.
In the end, the stamp becomes almost incidental. That dull, ultra-rare one-cent magenta remains captured in amber. However, Barron’s layered, complex genealogy-of-motivations for the stamp’s suitors becomes the narrative’s yeasty and compelling attraction. After all that, I’ve come to hope Barron and I might go for a beer, so that I can hear even more of this engaging backstory.
Russell J. MacMullan Jr. is a former English teacher and head of several independent schools. He has written extensively to school communities on educational issues.
In the midst of our tumultuous political and social times, John Avlon offers an exacting account of one of the most important messages delivered to millions yet unborn: President George Washington’s Farewell Address, which by law must be read on the floor of the United States Senate every year.
Washington wasn’t known as a man of words in, say, the same way as Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln. And while his presidency was full of precedents, perhaps the greatest gift he gave the nation was his Farewell Address, which appeared at the end of his second term in the bipartisan Philadelphia publication American Daily Adviser.
The choice of an independent-minded journal was no accident. The nascent republic, like in our own times, was deeply divided along party lines; then between the Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton.
If there was one thing that rankled Washington, it was what he termed “the spirit of party,” known at that time as factions. Interestingly, Washington would turn to the leadership of each party — Hamilton and Madison — to help him compose his address.
In our schools, the emphasis on Washington’s Farewell Address has mostly been relegated to its repudiation of entangling alliances with the powers of Europe. In fact, most teachers impart upon their students the beginning of American isolationism, marked with Washington’s address, and its termination, in 1898, when the United States went to war with Spain.
Avlon relates how Washington was exhausted by more than two decades of tireless public service, starting with his appointment as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1775 and ending with his two terms as president of the United States (while in between presiding over the Constitutional Convention). By the time he wrote his address, he was more than ready to return to his “vines and fig trees” at Mount Vernon.
Without being paternalistic, Washington issued his farewell as a “warning from a parting friend.” By 1796, the nation was on the verge of being a failed state. Republicans and Federalists wrestled with each other over their conflicting visions of America.
Both sides loved the United States but had different agendas for its future. The squabbles over how to interpret the Constitution, which nations to support abroad, and whose interests to address spilled over into Washington’s cabinet, in which Jefferson, as head of the Republicans, served as secretary of state, and Hamilton, as head of the Federalists, served as secretary of the treasury.
Washington was caught in the middle of the sibling rivalry, and it did not sit well with him. Ironically, his tenure as president would outlast that of both Jefferson and Hamilton in their respective positions. As early as 1792, as the national rupture was becoming more apparent, Washington looked to retire, but Jefferson argued, “There will be a nation to hang on to if that nation can hang on you.”
Convinced, Washington served a second term that proved to be more fractious than the first. During his second term, he was viciously assaulted in the Republican press by writers hired by Jefferson, and came to learn of a letter written by Jefferson to his friend Philip Mazzei in which Jefferson, without mentioning Washington by name, wrote, “Men who were once Sampsons in the field and Solomons in the councils have had their heads shorn by the harlot of England.” Martha Washington never forgave Jefferson for his transgression.
Much of the rupture came to a head as the United States tried to steer a course of neutrality between England and France and their constant state of war. The Jeffersonians argued the U.S. was bound by its 1778 treaty with the French, who helped secure American independence, even though the French Revolution had devolved into the “reign of terror.” The Hamiltonians, meanwhile, supported England, the nation’s most important trading partner.
Washington, to the delight of the Federalists, supported a Neutrality Act, earning him the wrath of Republicans. Known for his temper, Washington exploded during a cabinet meeting when the secretary of war, Henry Knox, brought in a newspaper with a cartoon depicting Washington as a victim of the guillotine.
By 1796, he’d had enough, but before departing the public stage, Washington wanted to remind Americans of what was most important: unity among “citizens by birth or choice”; religious pluralism in all spheres of life; an educated citizenry; and a foreign policy rooted in independence. (Avlon is careful to avoid the term “isolation.”)
In addition to the driving prose that explains the drama behind Washington’s Farewell Address, Avlon takes a deep look at its legacy in American history, bringing into play the stories of how fellow officeholders, including Jefferson, Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan, relied on Washington’s sage advice.
Avlon then challenges all Americans to carry on the task of Washington in these current troubling times and learn a thing or two from our Founding Father. This book belongs on the bookshelf of anyone who has a serious interest in American history and in the subsequent fate of our nation.
James A. Percoco is the teacher-in-residence for the Civil War Trust. He is author of Summers with Lincoln: Looking for the Man in the Monument (Fordham, 2008) and is a member of the national Teachers Hall of Fame, Class of 2011. He will moderate the "Words of War: Beyond the Battlefield" panel at this year's Washington Writers Conference on Apr. 28-29 in College Park, MD. Click here to register now!
Judith Viorst is the author of 23 books for children, including Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (inducted into the Children's Picture Book Hall of Fame), and 17 books for adults, including the New York Times bestseller Necessary Losses. Learn what she’s found out about the writing life during her lunchtime keynote address at this year’s Washington Writers Conference on April 28-29 in College Park, MD. Click here to register now!
New for 2017! Join us at the Iguana on the second Thursday of every month at 7 p.m. for our new Readers’ Workshop. Free; no registration required. Featured books are discounted 20% four weeks prior to each session.
Ever struggle with describing exactly why you like or dislike a book? Perhaps you enjoyed the plot and the characters, but you can’t quite pinpoint the reason why you wouldn’t recommend it to others. Readers’ Workshop will help you read closer so you can recognize what makes fiction writing great — whether it’s beautifully crafted sentences, natural dialogue, or details you will never forget. Using Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer* as a reference guide, we will read a chapter of the guide as well as a work of fiction each month. Our discussions will focus on what we learned from that month’s chapter and how it relates to that month’s featured title. Join us as we slow down and pay close attention, which will make us all better readers.
Leading Readers’ Workshop is Stephanie Yamkovenko, who has lived in downtown Frederick for the past eight years and is convinced that Frederick is a real-life Stars Hollow. She spends her free time reading, running, writing, and walking around downtown. Stephanie grew up in south Louisiana and currently works as a digital editor for a health care association. Read her blog (syciphers.wordpress.com), follow her on Twitter @s_yamkovenko, and see what she’s reading on Litsy @StephanieY.
April 13: Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre
Topic: Narration (Chapter 5, Reading Like a Writer)
At Curious Iguana, 12 N. Market St., Frederick, MD. Click here for info.