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Sisters and Lost Worlds

My sister died this week. Her death was easy and not unexpected. At 86, no one can hope for many more years of life. But her loss leaves a hole in my life and a world of memories that can no longer be shared. After parents die, sisters and brothers are the

Janet and Adele 1945 Rockaway

Janet and Adele Mongan;  Rockaway Beach, NY 1945

only people left who have known us as children and remember what our lives were like.

We were born in Queens, New York, and grew up in our small neighborhood in the big city. We didn’t have many models of what sisters were supposed to be like. Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose in England were the most prominent sisters we heard about. But it is hard to find much in common with girls who spent so much time standing on the balcony of palaces and watching troops parading by. The other sisters we read about lived in books like Little Women and spent their lives in improbable good deeds.

But we learned. We went to public school, so every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon after school we would walk over to church for catechism class. I remember one afternoon we walked there silently because I was angry and refused to speak to my sister for some reason I’ve now forgotten. In class the subject was sin, as it so often was, and for some reason I asked Sister Mary Bernard whether refusing to speak to your sister was a sin. “Yes, Adele”, she said fixing her fierce eyes on me.  “Refusing to speak to someone is a sin.”

I’ve forgotten, or rejected, a lot of what I learned in catechism class, but I always remember that stern pronouncement. And I still believe it. Talking to people, and listening to them is what makes us human. If we refuse to talk—to communicate—we are denying our humanity. I wish some of our leaders could learn that. Perhaps they needed a Sister Mary Bernard in their lives.

But our main job during those years was winning the war. We did that by spending our allowances on war stamps and pasting them in booklets until we had enough to buy a war bond. We also stomped on empty tin cans to flatten them for recycling. Sometimes we stayed after school to help in the war effort. I can remember one afternoon we addressed envelopes so the OPA (Office of Price Administration) could let grocers know they could raise the price on filberts. Neither of us had any idea what filberts were, but we firmly believed that sending these notices to every grocer in Queens would help our brave soldiers and sailors.

Eventually the war ended—first the European War and then V-J Day when the entire World War ended. We looked forward to peace forever. Peace meant prosperity and frozen food, television, and no more black-and-white movies.  We finished high school and went away to college.

During college vacations we would come back to the city. The YWCA at 53rd St. and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan played a large role in our lives. We went to a modeling class there one summer and learned to walk and apply makeup in a way we hoped would make us look sophisticated. We also went to the Friday night dances.

YWCA at 53rd

53rd St. YWCA

At one of those Friday night dances I remember meeting two young veterans just returned from Korea. One of them told us stories about the war that horrified me.

Suddenly I became aware that the Hollywood-based stories we had grown up with about heroic, generous and kind American soldiers had not told the whole story. We learned that war meant brutality and cruelty on both sides and that no one was immune. Perhaps those lessons helped prepare us for the later horrors of Vietnam. And perhaps learning about adult lies helped us to really grow up.

We both went on to have husbands and children, even grandchildren, with all the joys and complications an expanding family brings. But whenever someone dies she leaves a hole in the world—a set of memories that will eventually disappear when there is no one left to remember. One by one our time is done. The world goes on with new players and new memories. But good-byes are never easy.

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,

Nor the furious winter’s rages;

Thou thy worldly task hast done,

Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:

Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

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High Hopes and Endless Patience

This past week for me has been a kaleidoscope of experiences and feelings—decades of American life encapsulated in a few hectic days. It started out with a visit to the Summer

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Summer of Love exhibit-DeYoung Museum, San Francisco

of Love exhibit at the DeYoung Museum. Along with crowds of other people I walked through galleries of colorful dresses and posters while listening to music of the 1960s. Is it really 50 years since those dresses were worn and those songs were sung?

Colorful lights played upon the audience, many of whom, leaning on canes and wearing hats and shirts that surely had been in their closets for close to 50 years were reliving the excitement of those days. The world looked bright, people were coming together and celebrating brotherhood and love (sisterhood was not a big topic back then). It’s hard to look at some of the optimistic slogans on display and wonder what has become of all that hope and peace.

The next few days of this week were taken up with high drama over North Korea. Instead of the summer of love, I was swept back into the feelings of five years earlier when the Cuban Missile crisis scared us all. I remember the panic among the nursery school mothers as we watched our children building block towers and wondered whether their lives and ours would be cut short because of a quarrel between Washington and Moscow. Some of my friends went to Washington and demonstrated for President Kennedy to negotiate a settlement with the Russians or turn the whole problem over to the United Nations. Fortunately for us, Kennedy did not follow the advice of the generals. He sensibly believed that U.S. allies would think Americans were “trigger happy cowboys” who would lose Berlin if they could not settle the Cuban missile crisis without war.

The Cuban Missile crisis was finally resolved, we all survived, although it took many years for the true story of that event to be told. Just last year the National Geographic printed a story of the level-headed Russian submarine captain who saved the world from nuclear destruction.

Will the world always have to rely on a handful of people to save us from the hysteria and emotional reactions of leaders and followers alike? As this week drew to a close and we still worry about North Korea, we have been confronted by another disaster in

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Charlottesville, Virginia. The evil forces of racism and hatred that have bedeviled this country from its beginning have not disappeared. After all of the years of progress—all the hopes and plans of generations—we are thrown back into a world where mobs scream hatred and attack innocent people.

Will America always vacillate between high ideals and rabid know-nothing hooliganism? Will there never be a time when rational people of goodwill can finally prevail? It is hard to be patient at a time like this, but that is all we have to offer–patience and determination to make our country and the world a little better year by weary year.

 

 

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Silence and its opposite–Britain 2017

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Gladstone Library

A week ago I spent several days in a most unusual place—a residential library in a small village in Wales. More than a century ago, as a tribute to one of the longest-serving Prime Ministers in England, the library was built to serve the public and allow ordinary citizens to have access to a valuable collection of books in an atmosphere that encourages private study and thought.

The Gladstone Library is a remarkable place, hidden away in a small village and apparently unknown even to many local residents. There are no television sets provided in the library or the residential area and very few radios, although Internet access is available everywhere. The Gladstone Library is open free of charge to anyone who wants to use its facilities. Rooms and meals are provided at a reasonable cost. Small conferences are often held there to allow scholars to get together and exchange ideas as well as sharing research papers, which are often later published.

Although Gladstone himself was not a prolific author, unlike his lifelong rival Benjamin Disraeli, his spirit of gentle liberalism pervades the dark Victorian-style rooms and silent library. I spent hours sitting in a comfortable chair in a dark-green Victorian style drawing room, watching the rain come down on the trees outside the long windows (it is Wales, after all) and doing revisions on my latest novel. I’ve never found a more

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The Gladstone Room

congenial place to work. No sounds of traffic, no fire sirens, no talkative pedestrians passed by. Everyone inside the building seemed to conspire to keep their voices low and to allow the privacy that encourages productivity. No need for the ubiquitous headphones of startups in Silicon Valley as people try to work in open offices.

From the Gladstone Library I took the train down to London where the next several days were spent in the raucous atmosphere of what must be one of the noisiest cities in Europe. Construction work throbs a constant hammering sound all day long, ambulances and police emergency cars with sirens wailing careen through the chaotic traffic, and the hum of human voices in a dozen languages throbs through the streets.

London is an exciting city with a vibrant entertainment industry and thousands of tourists eager to visit the historic sites and great museums of the city. You can walk

 

Westminster Abbeythough one square and find a dozen ideas for stories or photos or music—whatever form your creativity takes. But I wonder how many of the great ideas that are born in vibrant cities like London ever come to fruition.

Perhaps we ought to build little oases of quiet within all of the great, exciting cities of the world. The ebb and flow of quiet and excitement are both important. As our world grows every noisier with more and more stimulation to every sense, we may need to increase our allotment of space and time to quiet pursuits in quiet places.

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Fiction or Biography–Where Does the Truth Lie?

Readers often have a great curiosity about the authors who write the books they love, especially the novelists. And in fact sometimes the life of the author lives on long after

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Constance Fenimore Woolson

the novels cease to be read except by scholars. That’s what seems to have happened to Constance Fenimore Woolson, one of the most successful American authors of the 19th century.

Back in the days when I studied American literature, Woolson was considered a female regional writer—not at all important when compared with the great writers like Twain,
Melville, Howells, and James. One professor of mine commented that she was “the spinster woman who killed herself because she was in love with Henry James”. Years before that she had been ignored when Howells and James set up their canon of important American writers. They included only male writers because they didn’t think women were capable of great writing, or even rational thought.

In recent years, of course, attention has shifted to women writers and several are now studied in college literature classes. Constance Woolson is seldom included, but her books are available in libraries and bookstores and there have been new biographies and a novel written about her life. A lot of the interest in her has developed because of her relationship with Henry James, which is a shame because her life and work are worth reading on their own.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about Woolson’s life is how seriously she took her writing despite the lack of encouragement from “serious” critics. She devoted time and attention to her novels. When she was living in Venice in 1893, she wrote of her daily schedule: “I am now called at 4:30 every morning, and then, after a cup of tea, I sit (in a dressing gown) and write until 9:30, when I have breakfast. This is to get the cool hours for work. Then I dress and go on writing until 4 p.m., when I go to the Lido and take a sea-bath.” This is not a woman who rushed out her books in order to maximize sales.

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19th century Venice

Woolson started publishing in 1870, first magazine stories  and then novels. She was a success from the beginning and was able to support her mother as well as help her brother and sister. After her mother died in 1879, Woolson traveled to Europe in order to meet Henry James, a writer whose work she admired. She did meet him, in part because he was impressed that she was a relative of James Fenimore Cooper, and their relationship continued for the rest of her life. It is this relationship that has fascinated both critics and general readers through the years.

During the past year I have read two books about Woolson and enjoyed both of them thoroughly. One is a biography by Anne Boyd Rioux, Constance Fenimore Woolson; Portrait of a Lady Novelist, which gives a full account of her life and travels. She did not have an easy life because her hearing began to fade while she was still a young woman. Her deafness was a barrier that kept her from enjoying the music she loved and from easy exchanges with friends and colleagues. She sometimes said that she valued Henry James because she would never run out of things to talk about with him. Conversation was important to her, although not as important as her writing. James envied her success in writing and continued to patronize her because he recognized—they both recognized—that he was a greater artist.

The second book I read about Woolson this year is Elizabeth Maguire’s novel, Open Door, based on Woolson’s years in Europe and her relationship with Henry James. The author invents many details of Woolson’s life, some more convincing than others, and readers

Henry James nypl

Henry James

may quarrel about whether she successfully portrayed the connection with Henry James and whether Woolson did indeed know about his carefully closeted homosexual life.

Woolson’s death, after a jump or fall into a canal in Venice, is still a subject of speculation. Could it have been just a fall? Was it suicide? Was it caused by chronic depression or perhaps by the intense pain caused by her deafness and brain cancer? There will probably never be a definitive answer.

So where is truth? Is it in a fully-documented biography or in an imaginative  novel? My answer would be that it is in both. We need a solid biography like the one Rioux has given us so we can understand Woolson’s background and life and better appreciate her work. But there is also truth in trying to imagine what Woolson’s life must have felt like from the inside. I think we all try to do that instinctively when we read biographies. Maguire gave us intriguing speculation about what it might have felt like being Constance Woolson. Both books deserve to be read.

 

 

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A binge is a binge is a binge–going overboard on reading

Summer is coming up and for many people that is the prime season for binge watching reading-bookTV series they missed during the year. But television isn’t the only media that is ripe for binging. Binge reading is a perennial favorite especially during rainy summer weekends when the beach is sodden and hiking trails are muddy.

Some people define binge reading as reading a book obsessively and not putting it down until you’ve finished it, whether that is 2 a.m. or sunrise. But equally satisfying is the binge reading done in bits and pieces but covering a whole series of books, usually genre books like mysteries, romances or science fiction. I remember one stressful holiday season when I gulped down one Ruth Galloway mystery after another, relishing the excuse to leave my crowded household for the north shore of England filled with mysteries about archeology and with patient sleuths. (In case you’ve never read them, the Ruth Galloway mysteries are by Elly Griffiths).

Binge reading can be by subject too. I remember spending a snowy Christmas week, stuck in the house with small children, reading one book after dellaRobbia_Dorothea_(2)another about Renaissance Italy. It was almost like having a vacation.

Binge reading could be difficult in the old days when ending one book and feeling the urgent need for another meant a trip to the library or possibly even a bookstore if one was available. Now with ebooks, it takes only a few clicks to have the next book in the series delivered electronically from your public library or ebook supplier.

Most readers don’t think about the people who supply the books for us to read, but the enthusiasm for series books to read has put a lot of strain on writers. In the days before the indie publishing revolution—five years ago or more—there was usually a wait of two or three years between books. Traditional publishing is a time-consuming business. Now, if you look at writing blogs, you will see writers complaining that their publishers want at least two books a year from their series of mysteries or romances. It’s not easy for a writer to come up with several new ideas for books every year. As a result, a sparkling series may dwindle away as old plot twists are reused and irrelevant padding dragged into the story. It can be as sad to see a good, lively book series die away as it is to watch a TV series wither in its final season. It is much better for writers and publishers to aim for “limited series” as the TV shows are now doing. A quartet of lively books using the same characters and setting is better than a dozen books of repetitious stories.

On the other hand, some writers could be called binge writers. They keep turning out books and finding an audience year after year after year. One of these was Barbara

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Barbara Cartland

 

Cartland, who wrote more than 700 books in her 80-year-long career before her death in 2000. And her fans kept on loving them. Another was Isaac Asimov, who wrote more than 500 books both science fiction and non-fiction. He contributed so much to our culture that he deserves a separate post.

There should be a special award for binge writers whose energy and ideas feed our need for more stories to feed our passion.

 

 

 

 

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The climate, it’s a changing…

It has taken me two days to absorb the information that President Trump has decided the United States will drop out of the Paris Climate Accord, which was signed with such cheering only last year. I have to wonder how much the President looks around the world that both he and I live in.

The first time I really noticed how a changing climate can affect people’s lives is when I visited Mali in 2003. We flew to the small airport in Timbuktu passing over miles of empty sandscapes. Timbuktu looked like no place else I had ever seen–the buildings are

Timbuktu

Timbuktu 2003

made of mud or stucco, and the roads and open spaces are covered with sand. It’s impossible to tell whether the roads are paved or not. They curve around the city and our drivers zoomed around buildings, donkeys, children, men in long robes and women in subdued colors walking along the streets. Everything tastes slightly of sand; even the bread had a grittiness from the fine sand that blew into the dough as it was being prepared. Our guide told us that people who live in the city often lost their teeth early because the sand in their food slowly grinds down the enamel.

The following year, I went to Argentina and saw the glaciers of Patagonia. Many of them are now sliding inexorably into the sea. The loud crack of huge chunks of ice breaking off and being swallowed up by the ocean punctuated our trip. Now, more than ten years

Blue glacier

later, the ice is breaking off even faster. Huge cracks are appearing in the glaciers of Antarctica. How can anyone believe that climate is not changing?

It’s not as though the idea of climate change hasn’t been discussed for many years. The medieval idea that the world is unchanging and that human beings have no influence on it was challenged more than 200 years ago by Alexander von Humboldt, one of the greatest scientists the world has ever known.

Humboldt traveled to South America in 1800 to explore nature and culture in the Spanish colonies there. When he saw the changes that Europeans has brought to the country by cutting down forests and cultivating lands, he developed his theories of how men affect climate. “When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by the European planters, …the springs are dried up or become less abundant.”  He noted how this allowed the soil to be washed away during heavy rains, causing erosion and a loss of fertile soil. He did not know that in the years that followed his visit, mankind would change the landscape and the climate even more by all the carbon emissions from the cars, airplanes, and factories that people have introduced all over the world.

Knowledge is a slow-growing plant, but Humboldt planted new ideas that have blossomed during the centuries since he started his explorations. In a recent book, Andrea Wulf, has explored Humboldt’s life and ideas in The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in seeing how scientific ideas have developed over the years and how long it takes to persuade people to accept new knowledge and to change their ideas.

The recent five-year drought in California has brought home to me the conviction that we should all think about what we can do to prevent climate change from destroying our fragile planet. Droughts cause deserts to be formed and to expand. A warming ocean creeps up our shores and makes larger and larger areas unlivable. Violent storms eat away at cliffs destroying homes  and exposing communities to danger. The cliffs in the picture below are in Pacifica, California.

No matter what our leaders may tell us, all of us as citizens must look for ourselves and decide what we can do as individuals and communities to keep our planet safe for the future.Pacifica_2016

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Who told you to read that?

Recently I came across a small relic of my teenage years–a reading log that was given to Read_logme the Christmas before I turned fifteen. I kept it faithfully all year long, recording the books I was reading outside of school—all 46 of them. I wonder how it would compare to a teen’s reading today.

My usual opening of the evaluation section was pretty undiscriminating: “This is a swell book…” which was used for a book about the St. Louis Cardinals as well as for Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith. I managed to change that a little when I described David Copperfield as “A fascinating book—long but not boring”, which is probably the way many kids today would describe the Harry Potter books. It’s a good thing no teacher was grading the comments.

Another interesting item in my log was the entry for who recommended the book. In my case that was sometimes my father, who kept mentioning books he was reading, or Seventeen magazine, but most of the books were recommended by May Lamberton

May Lamberton Becker

May Lamberton Becker

 

Becker. That’s a name that is not heard very much anymore, but she was an influential critic of young people’s books back in the day. My mother picked up a copy of Becker’s Adventures in Reading at a secondhand bookstore and I used it as a source of inspiration for years. I am forever grateful for her introduction to some of the books I still love.

Like most teens, I read books of all kinds—bestsellers, classics, mysteries, humor—that’s the way people become readers. You have to sample everything before you know what you like. And the source for all these books? The public library, of course. There were no bookstores in our neighborhood, and we wouldn’t have been able to buy all these books anyway. The only way kids can become avid readers is to be exposed to lots of books from which they can pick and choose. Later on perhaps people can buy the books they love, but for young people school and public libraries are the way to go. Long live libraries!teen library

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