Tag Archives: American culture

“The Namesake” by Jhumpa Lahiri

This book is the story of an immigrant child, born in the United States to Indian parents of Bengali ethnicity. I just realized Bengal is divided between two nations, India and Bangladesh, which just emphasizes the elements of uncertainty and confusion that surround the protagonist Gogol, also known by several other names – Nikhil, Nick and even Goggles. 

Gogol grows into an intelligent, handsome architect. Lahiri tells the story of his heart – who he loves, and why. 

This book is richly detailed, and I recommend it highly.


“The Fearless Benjamin Lay – The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist” by Marcus Rediker

“The Fearless Benjamin Lay – The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist” by Marcus Rediker: Beacon Press, 2017, 150 pages plus notes, index and illustrations. 

A fascinating book by a distinguished historian! Benjamin Lay was born in 1682, a third generation Quaker who was more serious about religion than his parents. He described himself as having been “born contentious”. He was radically outspoken. 

Lay was a dwarf, about 4 feet tall. This had so little impact on his life and self image that I don’t know why Rediker put it into the title of the book. I also wonder why Rediker consistently referred to Lay as “Benjamin”. It seems patronizing, when everyone else in the book is identified by his or her last name or full name. 

This books provided me with an expanded perception of Quaker history and the roles of George Fox and James Nayler. Several dissenting movements of the same era (Ranters, Diggers, Levellers,) were suppressed, and left no organized legacy of their aims and accomplishments. George Fox imposed discipline and saved Quakerism from that fate. But he dampened the spontaneity of the first generation of Quakers, and people like Lay wanted to get back that initial wildness sometimes referred to an antinomianism. Lay initially turned his attention to “false preachers” and prideful, dominating ministers. He raised trouble in several English meetings. 

Lay worked as a shepherd, glove maker and sailor (ordinary seaman), after which he settled into trade, dealing mostly in books. His twelve years at sea gave him a wide range of experience and considerable sophistication. Time spent in Barbados opened his eyes to the violence and cruelty of slavery, and he devoted much of his life to abolition, starting with elimination of slave trading by Quakers. 

This book is worth your attention.

Cancer, Covid and Guns – The Worst Winter of My Life

In February, my husband Jamie died of bladder cancer. Covid made everything harder. But guns?

Yes, guns. During Jamie’s treatment, armed security guards wearing bullet proof vests supervised my comings and goings from the hospital. Generally, one hospital employee used a computer to screen and identify visitors. The process had glitches, so sometimes a line backed up. Usually, I was admitted within five or ten minutes. Generally, there were a few additional people working at the desk, often wearing name badges suggesting they were there to help, but, without computer access, they could only handle very general questions. Three or more armed guards watched. I don’t remember use of a metal detector. My bags weren’t searched. 

When I expressed surprise about the “armed camp” feel of the hospital entrances, I was told “something” had happened, and security had been increased. A brief Google search turned up the headline “Hospital Worker Armed With AR-15 Rifle Kills Co-Worker, Shoots 2 Cops”. The date was three months prior.

I wondered about the security guards. They weren’t police officers, whom I saw in the hospital only occasionally. They must have been hospital employees, or staff from professional security companies. I wondered about their training and experience. Some looked very young, but almost everyone looks young to me.

Security was much more stringent at the Emergency Department, which I haunted for three long days while my husband was waiting for a hospital bed. I was not permitted to see him. The closest I could get was the Emergency Department lobby, accessed through a checkpoint with “airport” type security, including metal detectors and x-ray equipment. And three or four or five watchful, heavily armed guards. I couldn’t fault their watchfulness. The atmosphere was grim. People were sick, some in pain, and some looked desperate.

So.. guns. Lots of guns. Entering the hospital, I resolutely ignored the obvious possibility that something could trigger violence, that I could get caught in crossfire without a moments warning. I’m good at ignoring what I can’t fix.

For a month, my husband was in and out of the hospital. I visited daily. Then the gun issue got personal. On the cancer floor, a family member may stay overnight with a patient, and I asked for that privilege, filling out some paperwork. I thought it was approved. I wore a sweatsuit and brought my toothbrush. My husband’s cancer had been declared untreatable, and I wanted all the time with him I could arrange.

At 9:30 pm, I was told to leave. I protested that I had no car and no place to go. I said I had permission to stay, but was told the paperwork hadn’t been signed, and could not be signed at night. Did they plan to put me out in the February cold? I got stubborn, and politely told them I wasn’t leaving unless security escorted me out. I didn’t mention the guns, but that was the point. I’ll leave at gunpoint. (Pardon the drama.) I organized my backpack, coat, hat, gloves and tried to explain to my husband that I wanted to stay but maybe I couldn’t. He was so sick I don’t know if he understood at all.

I heard voices in the corridor. Security? Some discussion. A single person entered the room and identified himself as a doctor. He told me I had to leave. We talked. Without comment, he changed his mind. He asked about my husband, his prognosis, his treatment. He offered advice, both practical and personal. He helped me arrange the chair for sleep, and he wished me well. (I hope he lives forever.)

And now, many weeks later, as gun violence breaks American hearts once again, I think about how differently that winter night could have ended. Of course, I most likely would have left quietly and walked safely enough to a familiar, overpriced hotel. I might have been able to call a friend. The odds were that I would manage to stay safe.

But I know very well that you don’t always get the “reasonable” odds. Sometimes you get the “worst case”.

So…what if? 

What if a guard had entered the room, instead a doctor? What if (in my fatigue and distress) I had argued? What if I panicked? Shouted? What if the guard was having a bad night or hated bossy old women or hadn’t been well trained in escorting uncooperative old people to the exit? If someone had laid hands on me, might I have fought? 

What if I hadn’t been white and old and looked grandmotherly and spoken good English? 

There were so many ways the situation could have ended badly. 

Think about it… a hospital is a place where everyone is under severe stress. Everyone. Adding more guns to make the place safer is both logical and illogical. Let’s just say it is not optimal. The healthcare system has terrible problems (understatement), most of which aren’t improved by lethal weaponry.

When I tell people about this incident, I can make it sound funny. I can joke about playing the “helpless old lady” card. But it was dangerous. I’m now even more afraid of guns. I’m afraid in places that need to be kept safe with guns. I’m afraid of people who think they can only be safe carrying a gun.

And now, I’m afraid of supermarkets. Citizens of Buffalo, survivors of the Tops murders, I am so sorry for what you have suffered.  

Originally written May 19, 2022

“Suicide by Botany – A Rant and a Prayer”

I found the wild blue irises growing in a certain roadside ditch. 

I’m not a “real” botanist.

I knew I took a chance, near homes full of guns. Hostile signs threaten me. 

I don’t trespass, but I fear I might provoke gunfire.

I imagine a confrontation in which I say, “That’s okay, I’m a bit suicidal, so go ahead and shoot me.” 

Feeling sarcastic, I imagine saying, “But you’ll have to clean up the mess, and take care of the paperwork. You probably can’t just leave my body on the roadside…”

I only encounter a polite homeowner who asks if I am “okay”. That’s code language for “Why are you looking at my ditch?”, but I’m good with that.

I’m grateful for my calm neighbor. He was willing to assume I was harmless.

May his day and mine be filled with flowers. 

“Talking Mysteries – A Conversation with Tony Hillerman” by Tony Hillerman and Ernie Bulow

Tony Hillerman (1925 – 2008) is one of my favorite authors. His books prove that novels and mysteries need not be placed in two separate categories. I can’t define “literature”, but I know it when I read it.

Talking Mysteries was published in 1991, when Hillerman was about halfway through his eighteen book Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee mystery series. He had already received the award he valued most, the Special Friends of the Dineh from the Navajo Nation Council. 

Talking Mysteries is the kind of book publishers throw together when they realize they have a winner in their midst. A few interviews, a short story. Some commentary… 

Who was Ernie Bulow? A man of many trades (including trader), he wrote (including a book called Navajo Taboos and two other books of “conversations”) , taught and practiced the arts of photography and silver smithing.

The icing on this cake is a set of sketches from Navajo artist Ernest Franklin, who illustrated some of Hillerman’s novels. On line, I found the even more exciting paintings by Franklin. My thanks to Parrish Books for the thumbnail image reproduced above.

Hillerman was a prolific writer, and we are fortunate he wrote an autobiography called Seldom Disappointed: A Memoir seven years before his death. I recommend it highly. 

“The Vanishing Half” by Britt Bennett

I received this book as a Christmas gift, and I loved it!

It’s about race, about “passing”, about identity and community. The very pretty twin Vignes sisters are identical, and can “pass” for white, but their daughters are opposites, one dark skinned and the other light.

With its detailed portrayal of a small town and its complex, well developed characters (male as well as female), The Vanishing Half reminded me of Marilynne Robinson and her four-book Gilead series, some of the best literary fiction I have ever read. 

“This Party’s Dead: Grief, Joy and Spilled Rum at the World’s Death Festivals” by Erica Buist

This Party’s Dead: Grief, Joy and Spilled Rum at the World’s Death Festivals

At first, this book, with its dancing skeletons on the cover, didn’t impress me. The author discussed a loss she had suffered, mentioning that Americans don’t grant a bereaved person much respect or attention when the person being mourned falls outside of a few clear categories – immediate family being the most prominent.

Then Ms. Buist, able to work without going into an office, departed on a world tour to check out death festivals and practices in various cultures. I didn’t feel particularly responsive to what she wrote about Mexico and Nepal.

But back in the USA, she stumbled onto transhumanismof which I had been wholly unaware! I missed it! OMG. (I don’t like missing things.) Transhumanists, according to Ms. Buist, believe that we can and should develop technology that will permit us to live forever as CYBORGS. Just keep replacing your organic parts (including your brain) with well-designed machinery, and you can live forever.

Transhumanists consider it weak to “accept” death. They detest the contemporary American “death positivity” movement, which seeks to overcome the taboo against talking about death and encourages people to plan for their final days. Ms. Buist analyzes these movements in terms of both gender and socioeconomic status (relative privilege), and it gets VERY interesting. Why are most tranhumanists male and many “death positive” spokespeople female? (Did she miss Atul Gawande?) She also analyzes the Mexican Santa Muerte movement, which translates roughly to “Holy Death”, symbolized by a female death figure to whom one can pray for a delay in leaving this life. (Okay, I missed this, too. And it is somehow related to narcotics trafficking.) Both the Mexican government and the Roman Catholic church disapprove of Santa Muerte, going so far as to destroy shrines. I’m pretty sure this hasn’t gotten to New Jersey.

Will Erica Buist tackle the controversial “medical aid in dying” movement? I’m only on page 139 of 296. Six more countries to go! I definitely plan to keep reading.

“The Sibling Society” by Robert Bly

I think I read this book shortly after it’s publication in 1997. Not just before I started blogging about books, but possibly before I kept even a hand written reading journal! So I doubt that I wrote about it anywhere.

Why think about it now? Because, as we try to figure out how America became so divided and dysfunctional, we sometimes shake our heads and say, “Where are the grownups?” Where is someone to say “That’s enough, now. Settle down and behave yourself.”

The edition of The Sibling Society currently offered on Amazon has a subtitle: An Impassioned Call for the Rediscovery of Adulthood. 

Bly accused my generation (the baby boomers) of refusing to grow up and accept adult responsibilities, as well as lack of respect for tradition, religion and precedent. Bly uses myths from various cultures to illustrate his concerns.

The problem with this book is that Bly made such broad assumptions about American society that he merely became part of the endless complaining of the old about the young. Sometimes I think the real issue is change. Bly doesn’t like it. I don’t like it. We’re told that younger adults THRIVE on it. I wonder…

I think Bly should have stuck to poetry. His excursions into mythology remind me of Joseph Campbell, but Campbell did it better. 

Remembering September 11, 2001

On September 11, I took a picture of the contents of my pockets. Three items. A mask. A rubber glove. Crumpled tissues. This sums up my experience of the 20th anniversary of 9/11. 

THE MASK: Covid is surging again. The joyous “breakout summer” we hoped for turned into one visit (from my sons) and two road trips (MI and VT) for me. All good. I’ve started testing occasionally. I wear a mask for any indoor activity that might include an unvaccinated person or someone who is particularly vulnerable. I worry about “breakthrough” infection. 

9/11 cost us about 3000 lives. The number of lives lost to Covid is so high. We lost 671 people this year on 9/11. Our Covid total is approaching one million, if you factor in some uncounted deaths, like those of people who postponed medical care. The official death toll is about 700,000. We’re numb from loss.

THE GLOVE: Early in the Covid shutdown, we wore rubber gloves because we feared contact infection. That turned out not to be a big problem. I now have a small gash on my thumb from carelessness in the kitchen. I’ve got a huge supply of gloves from earlier. I protect my hands from dishwater, dirt, etc. This is about getting old. The skin on my hands is easily nicked. I’m grateful that I can use rubber gloves whenever I want. 

THE KLEENEX: I’ve been weepy. I listened to the Verdi Requiem live streamed from the Metropolitan Opera House on Saturday evening. The wrath of God. The pictures of the 9/11 memorial, with the lights on. The names of those who died. A woman’s name followed by “and her unborn child”. I cried. I just learned of another (non Covid) death, my good friend’s aunt, last of her generation. Funeral preparations. Covid interrupted our patterns of grief and commemoration, but I think this recent death will be ritually marked according to the traditions of the family. 

So that was my 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001. 

“Days and Nights at The Second City” by Bernard Sahlins

Days and Nights at The Second City: A Memoir, with Notes on Staging Review Theatre

This book was a gift from my son, to expand my knowledge of his world, the world of comedy.

Sahlins is a lively memoirist! His writing is energetic and descriptive. He begins by discussing the cultural importance of theatre, then the importance of acting. He values theatre as a way to connect with great minds, and documents changes in American (and global) society from the time he participated in founding The Second City (1959) until he sold his interest in it (1985). 

What WAS The Second City anyway? It offered “theatrical review” in a cabaret setting (drinks served), a series of unconnected sketches about a topic. Sahlins is quite clear that “improv” (spontaneous theater) is something else entirely. Review sketches are scripted and carefully rehearsed. Second City offered cultural critique with lots of laughs. It was satirical, irreverent and subversive.

My favorite anecdote is as follows:

“A notable visitor was Sir Edmund Hillary, conqueror of Mount Everest, who attended one night with Tenzing Norgay, his Sherpa climbing companion. Despite the fact that Tenzing spoke no English, he hugely enjoyed the show. I watched him from time to time, puzzled at his delighted reactions. Afterward he fell into a voluble conversation with the interpreter. It seems that Tenzing had constructed, from our unconnected scenes, a complete story, something like King Lear, about an old king and his two daughters, featuring an unsuitable marriage but with a happy ending.”

I love this! Art is universal, but that doesn’t mean it always survives translation. 

More seriously, Sahlins writes about a massive cultural shift America experienced in the Sixties. Before that time, “Most working writers, actors, and producers were past their youth. Their target audience was certainly not the very young.” But that changed! “Youth took over…sex, drugs, rock and roll. Their songs moved out of the drive-ins and reached everywhere, even into geriatric centers. Their watchwords…attitudes…anti-war message…love-ins…Woodstock…marijuana took center stage.” “…before we realized it, we were swept up in the rush to an adolescent world.” Sahlins regretted that Second City became more “commercial” as this change progresses.

Does this explain the question we sometimes ask… “Where are the adults”? If someone teaches a course in post WWII America, they should include this book.