Archive | books RSS feed for this section

On Writing and the Pandemic

30 Mar

NY-empty-streets

By Lanny Morgnanesi

I’m not sure I’m ready to write.

The Coronavirus pandemic has inspired innumerable blogs, podcasts, articles and commentaries. Photos and videos of ghostly, empty streets circulate widely and never end. Footage of people singing to each other as a salve to the quarantine are reaching large numbers in live, nightly broadcasts. And I’m empty of thought.

In such times, for writers, the bare minimum is a journal. You can start it with vigor, try to shed light on the mundane, neglect it a little then let it trail off, but – unless you are out there and in it, which means you’ve got something – you are writing whatever everyone else is writing. My journal began thusly on March 23:

It’s impossible to put today in perspective, since yesterday was bad and tomorrow most certainly will be worse. At this point, at this time, numbers cannot adequately describe what we ultimately will face and how we will get there. Instead, let a few statistics be a point of demarcation along a road of unknown length. Let them serve not as a measure but only as a backdrop for the very present.

At that time, COVID-19 had infected 292,142 people and killed 1,600. Today, a mere seven days later, there are 729,100 infected people and 34,689 deaths. Experts say as many as 200,000 could die in the U.S.

Aside from my venturing out once for groceries – noting the absence of flour and yeast and realizing that in a panic you can’t outthink people – there really was little to write about at a time when there is a great deal about which to write.

While not writing, I read a little about writing. It was a retro piece in the New York Review of Books from 2016. The author was Joan Didion, whose utter and complete immersion in the art of writing has always fascinated me, and the piece was simply called California Notes. She begins saying that in 1976 Rolling Stone magazine asked her to cover the San Francisco trial of Patty Hearst, the heiress kidnapped by political radicals who became one of them and took part (while armed) in a bank robbery. Didion is a Californian who relocated to New York, but the Patty Hearst assignment would bring her back to California. She would seek inspiration for the piece by reacquainting herself with the state and trying to revive her own emotions about it.

didioncouch

Writer Joan Didion

For me, as I sat not writing, the best part of California Notes was Joan’s confession that she attended the trial but never wrote the piece. There was no explanation, except: “I thought the trial had some meaning for me—because I was from California. This didn’t turn out to be true.”  Her California reflections, however, led her years later to write a compilation called Where I Was From and even later  California Notes.

There’s a famous Nora Ephron quote that reminds me of Joan and has been repeated in this time of crisis: “Everything is copy.” I always thought it peculiar that such a quote would become so famous, since few outside of writing know what “copy” is. The reason must be because writers are the ones always repeating the quote. Anyway, “copy” in this sense means “material” for writing, and now – with the world shut down by a virus — everything is indeed copy. You go outside for a walk and it’s copy. You venture out and drive through town and it’s copy. You cook a meal or seek activities for your kids and it’s copy.

Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, Trancas, California, March 1972

Didion with husband, the late writer Gregory Dunne

Even without a pandemic, everything for Joan Didion seemed to be copy. (Her husband died and she got a book out of it). It might be that everything around Joan Didion, all the clouds she allowed to cover her success and notoriety, seemed like a personal pandemic, so she recorded it. In California Notes, she mentions an airline trip from New York to San Francisco in the 50s and reports that on the flight she had, “a Martini-on-the-Rocks and Stuffed Celery au Roquefort over the Rockies.” This means that while in her 20s she was taking notes on everything she did.

It’s true that in my youth I took notes. Joan got much more out of hers than I ever did. Like with her, the urge still remains with me. Recently, while in semi-retirement, I agreed to take a $25-an-hour job as a census taker, figuring I would get something out of it, a story about the real America, even though I’d only be visiting the homes of people in my mostly white, mostly affluent suburban county. As the virus spread, the government wisely decided not to send people house to house. I never went to even one.

In California Notes, there is mention by Joan of an early newspaper job at the Sacramento Union. Newspapers require reporters to learn local “style” – the proper way to refer to things in print. Joan touches on this and says,  “I learned that Eldorado County and Eldorado City are so spelled but that regular usage of El Dorado is two words; to UPPER CASE Camellia Week, the Central Valley, Sacramento Irrigation District, Liberator bombers and Superfortresses, the Follies Bergere [sic], the Central Valley Project, and such nicknames as Death Row, Krauts, or Jerries for Germans, Doughboys, Leathernecks, Devildogs.”

Patricia-Hearst-front-emblem-Symbionese-Liberation-Army

Heiress Patricia Hearst, after her kidnapping

Everything is copy. Sadly, I didn’t make any kind of record of the local style at my first newspaper, and can only remember this: “Do not use a period after the ‘S’ in ‘Harry S Truman High School.’ A period suggests an abbreviation and in this case ‘S’ is not an abbreviation because President Truman did not have an actual middle name.” In the same way I know I cannot compete with the person who thought to buy yeast before I did, I know I cannot compete with writers who know what food and drink they had on a plane in 1955, or can recite that actual constraints put on them decades ago by local “style.” Maybe Joan Didion came up dry at the utterly fantastic trial of Patty Hearst, but she found inspiration at every other turn in her life.

I’m sitting here now looking for inspiration. I suspect I’ll find it eventually. I’m fairly certain, however, I won’t be writing about my neighbors singing, if indeed they ever do. I prefer instead to write about things we fail to see. And right now, I can’t see anything.

 

On Frankenstein and its free-thinking author, the marvelous Mary Shelly

9 Sep

Mary-Shelley

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

I started reading the highly-praised novel, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley, and immediately thought, “Wow, I’d sure like to have known Mary Shelley.”

 

Just from reading her prose, I concluded she must have been an incredibly interesting person. That was my first reaction. My second reaction was surprise. Her story, I quickly learned, is so different from the one in the Frankenstein movies. It’s deeper, more philosophical and more scientific – and not at all like a product of the 19th century.  I guess literary people knew that, but I didn’t.

 

In the 1931 classic film featuring Boris Karloff, the hideous monster can only grunt and lumber. He is a huge child. In the book, the monster also is hideous, but after coming alive as a blank slate, he manages over time to fully educate himself. He is actually erudite. He reads and speak convincingly, with great logic and force.

Frankenstein

“Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all humankind sinned against me?” the shunned outcast asks. 

 

In the movie, the monster is without motive or even understanding. In the book, he seeks revenge against his creator for bringing him into a hostile, hateful world that abhors him. He reaches a breaking point when Victor Frankenstein, the scientist, refuses to create a bride for him that would provide love and companionship. The monster in the book kills the people closest to Frankenstein so that the scientist will know true suffering.

 

The movie has villagers killing him. In the book, he commits suicide. This takes place in the Arctic, where the monster (unaffected by the cold) has deliberately led Frankenstein, who seeks to destroy him. After the tormented scientist dies from exhaustion, sorrow and despair, the monster experiences remorse. He tells Robert Walton, an Arctic explorer who tried to save the scientist, that he will now build a funeral  pyre on the ice and leap upon it.

 

But back to Mary, whose personality seeps through almost every line of the novel. Speaking as Walton the explorer, she explains why old friends are the best:

 

“ . . . the companions of our childhood always possess a certain power over our minds, which hardly any later friend can obtain. They know our infantine dispositions, which, however they may be afterwards modified, are never eradicated; and they can judge of our actions with more certain conclusions as to the integrity of our motives.”

 

What a conversationalists she must have been – had to have been, since from an early age she hung out with master poets Percy Shelley (whom she ran off with and married) and Lord Byron. On a trip with those two and her half-sister, the group accepted a challenge to each write a ghost story. Frankenstein was Mary’s contribution. The year was 1817. She was 18. Her book, revised several times, is often called the first true science fiction novel.

 

When we think of women from that era, we tend to imagine them as passive and subservient. I can’t envision Mary being anything like that. To begin with, she was born to non-conformist parents who took issue with the norms of established society, including religion, government and morality. They didn’t believe in marriage. Mary’s father was a writer and radical  philosopher. Her mother, in 1792, wrote, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, said to be the first major feminist work in English.

 

What’s shocking to me, sitting comfortably in the 21st century, is that Mary and her parents were not, like the monster, social outcasts. They were part of society and made a living with their unconventional thoughts and ideas. This means those very thoughts and ideas, to a degree, were being at least tolerated and possibly accepted. So I must ask myself, could this also mean that the stereotype of the passive, submissive, ornamental 18th and 19th century woman is a partially a myth? I couldn’t help but wonder.

 

I’m of the belief that the people of today can’t be much different than the people of yesterday. For sure, the burden of child rearing and the need to produce many off springs because of high infant and child mortality undoubtedly kept women tied to home and hearth. Still, that is not to say they couldn’t have had a strong influence over the lives and fates of their families and even their communities. Minds like Mary’s were not easily dismissed, and she could not have been the only female of her era with such a mind.

 

Reading Frankenstein did not make me want to rewrite feminist history, or even look deeper into it. It did, however, make me realize that each century shares something with all others, and that genius can prevail even in the harshest environment.

 

 

The Old Myths Have Faded; New Ones Are Needed

11 Apr

 

Homer

Homer, the blind poet

 

Zeus, most powerful of the Olympic gods, is the protector of guests. Remember this when you sit down at diner with enemies.

 

An ancient Greek tradition requires you to be hospitable to all who visit under your roof, be they friends or enemies. This honored and revered tradition is known as Xenia. If a guest is not treated properly, Zeus could intervene on their behalf.

abduction-of-helen

The abduction of Helen

Paris of Troy ignored Xenia and ignited a war when he ran off with Helen, the wife of his Greek host.  In recent times, a ghastly violation of Xenia was depicted in the famous Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones, where all guests were slaughtered.

Red-wedding

Shock at the Red Wedding

Xenia and other intricate facets of ancient Greek culture come down to us through myths. The myths are extensive and far reaching. They involve great heroics, tales of morality, flawed character, the foibles of gods and humans, desire, lust, misjudgment and so much more.  The myths also help explain the world and how it got here.

Pillars-of-hercules

A statue honoring Heracles and his pillars

For example, it was Heracles (aka Hercules) who connected the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean. While traveling to the end of the known world, he reached an impasse. Rather than climb a mountain,  he broke though one and created a narrow strait to the ocean, leaving what we know today as the Pillars of Hercules. From ancient Greek stories we learn how peacocks got their colorful tails, why once-white ravens are now black, and how two people, told by the gods to build a small ark, repopulated the world after a great flood by tossing over their shoulders stones that turned into men and women.

Fight-between-lapiths-andcentaurs

Drunken centaurs creating havoc

The importance of these myths to Greek culture, and later to Roman and European culture, is shown by the art they inspired. A piece of  pottery from the 6th century B.C. shows Bellerophon destroying the fire-breathing Chimera. A first century Roman sculpture is of baby Heracles strangling a viper sent by Hera to kill him. A 16th century painting by Piero Di Cosimo vividly captures the drunken centaurs creating violence at a wedding feast.

 

That artists desire to retell these stories speaks of their value, even if we don’t understand that value today. While every culture has its stories and myths, the Greek myths are undeniably special. Their depth and originality is unmatched. They took root in multiple cultures and have  persisted over centuries. When we watch Wonder Woman and Gal Gadot, we are being entertained not so much by Hollywood but by the ancient Greeks.

Wonder-woman

The warrior Amazons were a Greek creation

As I now reread some of these tales, I sense a current vacuum in contemporary western culture. With no disrespect to Gal Gadot, or Jason and the Argonauts, or Brad Pitt as Achilles, I don’t believe the legacies of Greek mythology are doing for America what the original myths did for Greece. I don’t think they educate, inspire and set a correct path for us. And I don’t think anything has effectively replaced them.

 

Meanwhile, we are being pulled apart by forces like politics, race and class.

 

In truth, the detailed and fabulous Greek legends never fully unified the Greeks. The Greek city states were almost constantly at war with each other. Yet there is something strong, powerful and wise about using engaging stories to teach people what they are and what they should be. That someone or some group was willing to do this speaks to the inner essence of a humanness that, without help, is prone to chaos. The goal of the storyteller, of course, is to civilize.

Moses

Moses leading his people

The Hebrew prophets had this intention when they wrote and compiled scripture for an uncultured, barbaric tribe. To a great extent, those prophets succeeded and the western world, thriving today in commerce and replete with interaction and exchange, is a reflection of their efforts. Even so, the impact of scripture is waning and its messages, like the Greek tales, are being lost or forgotten. What’s needed now are new insights, new stories, new guideposts. It is time for a 21st century Homer, a modern Moses, a fresh light cutting through an old fog – a Greek revival, of sorts, if you will.

 

Our biggest problem is we have forgotten what we are and what we can be. Teaching this anew,  we can first understand ourselves, then respect and value ourselves. Once we develop true self-respect and visualize a purpose, we can, as individuals, extend respect and dignity to others. Building a culture around respect and dignity will not only strengthen us, it will unify us. And it may do so in ways the Greeks never imagined.

 

So let the stories be told. Let the heroes flourish. Let us see virtue and valor prevail. Let us know all the things that lead to failure, disrepute and disfavor so a place is reserved for harmony and peace and a new meaning is brought to life.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

Do robots get it?

13 May
female_robot

Image by Rhex Firemind

A story of mine was recently published in the online science fiction journal, Ripples In Space.

It’s about artificial intelligence in a young female robot and a visiting scientist who wants to determine if she is capable of comprehending unconventional thought patterns.

It’s short and you can read it in a flash.

I call it   “Learning”

Click to read. Thanks.

Lanny Morgnanesi

A kind of Jewish internet flourished in 900 AD

13 Mar
Ancient Babylon

Babylonia

For this reason or that, I’ve adopted the belief that many human habits date back hundreds of thousands of years, to homo erectus, the Neanderthals, and Gods knows how many other hominid creatures.

 

I won’t go much into this now, but one much-more modern bit of evidence – for me at least – is the preserved Italian city of Pompeii, which remains exactly as it was in 79 AD. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the fallen ash froze it in time. When I toured it several years ago, my lasting impression was: These people lived just like we do today!

 

Now something new to me – but historically old – has added to the idea that we haven’t changed much, even if our technology has. This small piece of information comes from a book called, “A History of the Jewish People,” written in 1934 by Max Margolis and Alexander Marx. It was paid for by the estate of one Rosetta M. Ulman, who during her life wanted such a publication written.

book-history-of-the-jewish-people

In chapters covering the years from 175 AD to 1038, there is a great deal of discussion about two highly respected schools of learning that guided Jewish communities dispersed throughout the known world. The schools, Sura and  Pumbeditha, were in Babylonia (modern Iraq). The two heads of these school was held in the highest regard by Jewish residents of Babylonia, Palestine, Egypt and many other locations. Every word from the leaders on religion, scripture, philosophy and life were sought out and followed.

Map-sura-pumbadita

Even the Arabs paid attention and gave their respect.

 

As I read, I wondered how word got from the schools to the communities. No doubt by heralds, messengers, traders and travelers. Obviously, it must have been a slow stream of news.

 

When Margolis and Marx get into a section on a schism between the two schools, however, it seems as if the news had a much faster way of getting out. The leaders of Sura and Pumbeditha were arguing over nearly everything. One highly sensitive issue was what kind of calendar or calculation should be used to set the Jewish holidays. They differed on this, and the result was that one year Passover was celebrated on two different days.

Ancient Israel

Ancient Israel

Margolis and Marx report that the “confusion” was so great “it was even noticed by non-Jews.”

 

My thoughts were: How did the details of this controversy and the two divergent holidays spread so quickly from Babylonia, through Palestine, to Egypt and North Africa, maybe to even to Spain, Greece, Turkey and Persia?

 

Was there a Jewish internet?

 

Information then and now was powerful and important and clever humans, with or without technology, knew how to spread it. What may be lost, however, is exactly how they did it, at what cost and to what extent. Margolis and Marx don’t get into that, but I’d sure like to know.

Sura-Iraq

The ancient school at Sura

Either way, the results were a lot like the results now.

 

We’ve always been the same and probably always will be. If we ever clone a Neanderthal, he may fit in much better than we’d expect.

Neanderthal

Depiction of a Neanderthal

But I would have known that. The bakeries, butcher shops, whorehouses, living room art, sidewalks and curbs and everything else in Pompeii seem to suggest the truth. And now, as more evidence, we have the ancient Jewish internet.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

No one checks, so go ahead and lie: “What Books Are On Your Nightstand?”

22 Mar

Bookshelf

A person I worked with years ago has since become a famous writer. He has a new book out and was interviewed recently by the New York Times. He did well, especially with the question, “What books are on your nightstand?”

Famous writers who are interviewed know this question is coming. From some of the interviews I’ve read, I’m inclined to think the interviewer should actually go out and check the nightstand.

As I read my former colleague’s interview, I thought about me, not him. He played it relatively straight, with just a touch of levity, and came off looking like the serious writer he is. Should I ever become famous and be the subject of an interview, I’m certain I would blow it with failed humor, misunderstood sarcasm and an attempt to show that seriousness is way overrated.

The worst of it would come with the “book on the nightstand” question.

Have you noticed they don’t ask the more precise, “What books are you reading?” In effect, the interviewer gives the serious writer a polite “out.” The books only have to be on the nightstand, not read.

I can hear myself taking advantage of this loophole and saying:

Mario-Vargas-Llosa“You know, prior to the interview I went to a consignment shop and bought this monstrous piece of furniture. I put it next to my bed and filled it with the great literature of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries –all the books Joyce Carol Oates has read. OK, now ask me that question again”

Even if I forced myself to answer the question properly, I’m sure I would ruin it by injecting too much honesty.

I’d probably say:

“Look, I get up early and really need eight hours sleep. When I go to bed, I’m tried. I pick up a book and in less than 10 minutes I’m out. Homer’s “Odyssey” is on the nightstand now. I plan to finish it by 2088.”

For me, the other troublesome questions are: “Who is your favorite author?” and “What is your favorite book?”

Most people can answer these questions. I cannot.

I don’t have a favorite color, favorite food or favorite movie, and I certainly don’t have a favorite author or book. The world contains so many varieties of great consumables that I just keep consuming and move on.

Memory also is a problem. I can’t remember which book I liked best. And even if I could, I can’t remember enough about a book to fully understand why I liked it.

I read Moby Dick in college and liked it very much – or so I recall. Yes, I can relate the general story, but I cannot recount specific structure or passages or style or the little stories that fell in between the big one.

When I read Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom” and Mario Vargas Llosa’s “The War of the End of the World,” I was convinced these monumental works could not have been written without the help of God or muse. Today, it would be impossible for me to go into detail.

Tolstoy_normalMy old colleague mentioned Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” as one of his favorite novels. I think I first heard about this book in a joke by Woody Allen, who said:

“I took one of those speed reading courses and read ‘War and Peace’ in one night. It was about Russia.”

After the joke, I decided to read the book – in considerably more time than one night. My recollection today is that I liked the war parts much better than the peace parts. But overall, for my taste, the book read too much like a soap opera (although I’m sure it was much better in Russian)

One doubts oneself when an opinion goes against the consensus of experts, and they consider “War and Peace” supreme. So I was relieved to learn Tolstoy didn’t think much of it.

This was documented in a journal kept by the founder of the college where I work. This founder, a humanist and early advocate of reformed Judaism, made a pilgrimage to Russian to meet Tolstoy, whom he greatly admired. At the time, Tolstoy was a messianic, cult figure trying to establish a new world order. He resided with his followers and acolytes on something resembling a hippie commune.

Tolstoy received the Jewish intellectual and asked if he had read his work. Of course, said the visitor, who mentioned “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.”

“No,” said Tolstoy. “Not that crap. I mean my serious work.”

The final difficult question in the standard interview with serious writers is:

“What books are you embarrassed NOT to have read?”

The serious writers save face and stay humble by mentioning one or two or sometimes a single author. I fear I would go on forever.

This is why I prefer the interviewer come to my home. When he asks that final question, I would just point to my monstrous nightstand and we’d be done with it.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Something I recently learned

3 Mar

Chinese-students

The reason Chinese students have the highest test scores in the world is because they cheat.

If that is not entirely true, it is at least partially true.

In the U.S., Asian and Asian-American students appear to work harder than their Caucasian classmates. Anyone who has observed this can easily believe the reports of China’s international dominance in reading, science and math. Test results say students from Shanghai lead the world, with the U.S. as a whole coming in 29th.

Why is it then that Americans always win an unusually high number of Nobel Prizes while the Chinese win very few?

Well, maybe we’ve rigged that system – which is something the Chinese seem to have done with the system of international test scores.

Book-Afraid of the DragonA new book has put a spotlight on the weaknesses of the Chinese education system and exposed fraud and cheating. It was written by Yong Zhao and is entitled, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World.” A full discussion of the book can be found in a Nov. 20 article by Diane Ravitch in the New York Review of Books. (subscription required)

Here are three items plucked from the review:

  • It is not uncommon for Chinese test takers to use wireless cheating devices.
  • Sometimes the students just buy the test answers on the open market.
  • When there was a rare crackdown on cheating in Hubei Province, a riot broke out. Two thousand people reportedly smashed cars and chanted, “We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.”

This is not to deny that there is incredible test preparation in China. One famous test-prep school starts at 6:30 a.m., finishes at 10:30 p.m. and gives homework. But do these students actually learn anything? There is increasing legitimacy, in both America and China, in the argument that teaching to the test does not a genius make.

In the final analysis, creativity and innovation are sacrificed.

PISA-test-scoresZhao points out that the Chinese invented the compass but instead of using it to navigate the globe, they used it to find locations and burial sites with good fengshui. He said China – which had no Renaissance, no Enlightenment and no Industrial Revolution — was the first with gunpowder but never used it for modern weaponry.

Then there is this business of the Nobel Prize. A quick search of the Internet shows the Chinese have won six while the U.S. has won 353.

In his book, Zhao quotes a professor at Beijing University who says that since 1949 there has not been a single Nobel laureate among the 1 billion people educated in mainline China:

“No one, after 12 years of Chinese education, has any chance to receive a Nobel prize, even if he or she went to Harvard, Yale, Oxford or Cambridge for college. . . . This forcefully testifies [to] the power of education in destroying creativity on behalf of the [Chinese] society.”

It’s been said that Zhao wrote his book to convince the U.S. not to discard an education system that emphasizes fresh ideas and the spirit of individualism. It’s for certain he doesn’t want us to be suckered in by reports of China’s high test scores.

Standardized tests and teaching to those test is a growing America practice due to current government policy, but Zhao and Ravitch warn:

If the West is concerned about being overtaken by China, then the best solution is to avoid becoming China.

 

My own opinion is that the Chinese are a lot smarter than Zhao lets on. For one, I think Chinese mariners of old did a lot more global navigation than his statements suggest. And with respect to gunpowder, in some circles China might be considered highly moral and civilized for preferring firecrackers over canons.

I’ve been amazed by both the ancient and the modern Chinese mind. Its effectiveness should never be underestimated or said to lack creativity. If the American mind has dulled – and there really is no evidence of that – it is because it has become too comfortable. Fortunately, the Chinese economic miracle has given it some discomfort.

If it is napping, it will surely wake, and soon.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

%d bloggers like this: