Excerpt from the memoir “Stet: An Editor’s Life” by Diana Athill (Granta Publications, 2000):
Years ago, in a pub near Baker Street, I heard a man say that humankind is seventy percent brutish, thirty per cent intelligent, and though the thirty per cent is never going to win, it will always be able to leaven the mass just enough to keep us going. That rough and ready assessment of our plight has stayed with me as though it were true, given that one takes ‘intelligence’ to mean not just intellectual agility, but whatever it is in beings that makes for readiness to understand, to look for the essence in other beings and things and events, to respect that essence, to collaborate, to discover, to endure when endurance is necessary, to enjoy: briefly, to co-exist. It does, alas, seem likely that sooner or later, either through our own folly or collision with some wandering heavenly body, we will all vanish in the wake of the dinosaurs; but until that happens I believe that the yeast of intelligence will continue to operate one way or another.
Even if it operates in vain, it remains evolution’s peak (as far as we can see): something to enjoy and foster as much as possible; something not to betray by succumbing to despair, however deep the many pits of darkness.
Publisher’s website (grantabooks.com) and book page here.
* Speck is paraphrasing the first two lines of an anonymous thirteenth century poem, “The Cuckoo Song.” The poem is written in Middle English, so the spellings are odd and the meanings are obscure at times, compared to present day English. (Middle English dictionary here.)
This version of “The Cuckoo Song” is from the textbook “Poems, Poets, Poetry” by Helen Vendler (Harvard University).
The Cuckoo Song
Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude* sing, cuccu! (loud)
Groweth sed and bloweth med* (meadow)
And springth the wude nu.
Awe* bleteth after lomb, (ewe)
Lhouth* after calve cu,* (loweth/cow)
Bulluc sterteth,* bucke verteth* (leaps/breaks wind)
Murie sing, cuccu!
Wel singes thu, cuccu.
Ne swik* thu never nu! (stop)
Though these are the days of clouds and rain in Italy, on Sunday the organizers of the International Orchid Exhibition in the village of Monte Porzio Catone, near Rome, were granted lots of sunshine and fair temperatures for their annual celebration of the exotic blooms.
We dropped by for a few hours to admire the brilliantly vivid displays of exhibitors. I posted my photos of the event at Demotix.com — you can see them here.
I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –
Turbulent waves and high spray yesterday at Ostia Lido, the city of Rome’s Mediterranean seafront, didn’t deter two fishermen from tending to rod and reel. (Photo by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato)
Speck is citing a Guardian newspaper article, “Planck telescope maps light of the big bang scattered across the universe” (March 21, 2013). To see more Speck cartoons, click here.
Speck is paraphrasing a quote from “White Heat” (2008) by Brenda Wineapple, a literary biography about the friendship between the poet Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The full quote is: “No man can measure what a single hour with Nature may have contributed to the moulding of his mind.” (Higginson)
Speck ‘N U is a cartoon series that I do. It is often about books. To see more Speck cartoons, click here.
Speck ‘N U is a cartoon series that I do. It is often about books. To see more Speck cartoons, click here.
Cover of “Charles Dickens A Life” by Claire Tomalin (Penguin Books)
Just finished reading Claire Tomalin‘s lengthy biography “Charles Dickens A Life” (2011). Much recommended for anyone interested in learning more about the work, ideas, passions and human frailties of the great English novelist.
I particularly appreciated the hyper-abundance of details Tomalin lays out about the personal, professional and creative aspects of Dickens’ life. This mass of details of events great and small allows the reader to form his or her own view of Dickens, as well as receiving the particular perspective offered by the biographer.
From 417 pages, plus almost 100 more of Notes and extras, a vivid portrait-photograph emerges. It reveals a blazingly unique human being, passionate, compassionate, often generous and, at times, less than saintly in his relationships.
Click on the video screenshot below to see a short interview with Tomalin about the book.
I saw a thing of beauty this morning. And it was neither one of Italy’s gazillion art treasures or antiquities, nor something exclusive to this country. It can easily be found in many other places.
A piece of a branch from one of the sycamore trees that line the street near where we live had been snapped off and blown to the ground by last night’s winds. The small segment had come to rest near the curb between two parked cars.
It was the harmony achieved by its contrasting shapes that was most striking – the linear variety of the branch itself, the entangled geometry of the curled and dying leaves, and the delicacy of the seed balls hanging by their stalks. Enhancing all was a single hue of golden brown, saved from monotony by the range of textures composing each part of the branch.
Although torn away from the whole creation of the tree, the fallen piece remained complete in its altered form.
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower…*
* William Blake, Auguries of Innocence
UPDATE: Today, while browsing my photo archives in search of another photo, I came across a long forgotten series of shots I made of the fallen branch (back in 2007). I’m posting one of these photos at the top of the blog, and moving yesterday’s shot of a sycamore tree in Rome to the bottom.
UPDATE 2: U-turn. Decided to take down the close-up photo of the branch and leave the imagination unfettered by the concrete.
We’re having a gray and rainy day here. Reminds me of a beautiful walk we took last year in similar weather along a section of Rome’s old Appian Way. I posted an audio slide show of the walk back then, narrating what we saw as we passed along. Here’s a re-post. (For best viewing, best to watch in full screen mode.)
Speck ‘N U is a cartoon series largely about books. To see more Speck cartoons, click here.
In thinking about a recent publication of a book of poems by Sheila Alexander (1918-1984), I can’t stop wondering what this remarkable poet and writer would wish to have said about her. It strikes me as a question Alexander herself might have pondered, given some confusion and neglect in critiques about her previous published writing.
Very much on the plus side were some encouraging words from the first US writer to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, Sinclair Lewis. The young Alexander took night courses at the University of Minnesota and was fortunate to have Lewis as one of her instructors. In a private letter to Alexander, Lewis praised her first published novel, “Walk With a Separate Pride”:
…Separate Pride isn’t merely a promise that urges you to go on – though it is that too. It is in itself a fine achievement, original and full of power.” (April 28, 1947)
But then there was this damning-with-faint-praise piece from the New Yorker:
Probably only women will want to bother with this novel, another of those stream-of-consciousness stories about a pregnancy. Mrs. Alexander, who is possessed of a lively imagination… and a poetic cast of mind, almost certainly does not speak for the typical expectant mother. It is possible though that she has pioneered a rich field that almost any lady author in search of a subject can make her own.” (April 19, 1947)
Similar ambivalence came in a whirlwind of conflicting commentary in a review in the New York Times:
Probably no mere man could ever properly appreciate “Walk With a Separate Pride”… How could a man be expected to understand all that there is to understand in a book that is entirely about having a baby? Yet, since Mrs. Alexander’s book is not an obstetrical text but a novel of unusual emotional intensity, it is to a certain extent news in the world of books and cannot be ignored. So, doing my best to suppress any natural masculine diffidence, I will now try to describe a completely feminine book… (April 2, 1947)
The NY Times reviewer went on to describe the book as an astonishing performance and an amazing tour de force. Then with a condescension breathtaking in its disdain, the critic summed up by declaring that though women readers may find pleasure in the emotion described in the book, “… it is not remotely likely that any man would choose to read ‘Walk With a Separate Pride’ of his own free will.”
To be fair, the two reviewers were expressing societal views toward women that were overwhelmingly the cultural norm at the time. Pointless here to bash them for airing sexist perspectives. And it’s doubtful that the brutal condescension came as much of a surprise to Alexander. A consistent theme in her writing, presented clear-eyed and without bitterness, is a powerful sense of the world as it is.
Noting the head-spinning confusion in these reviews, however, serves well to illuminate the magnitude of the task the very courageous Alexander took on in writing her first published book entirely about having a baby, to quote the flabbergasted reviewer. How truly extraordinary that Alexander wrote and won publication of this book in a time of such overriding and contemptuous dismissal of childbirth as a minor matter that could possibly interest women, but never men!
Blinded by the unapologetic sexism of their time, the reviewers in two of the most important publications in the country missed completely the true literary feat of Alexander’s novel — creation of a groundbreaking narrative, poetically personal, that explores the inexorable proximity of birth and death. Recognition of this theme did come in an introduction to an excerpt of ‘Separate Pride’ from North Country Reader: Classic Stories By Minnesota Writers, Editor Jean Ervin, (1979/2000):
It was the pervasive atmosphere of death during the Second World War that moved her to write of a young woman about to give birth to her first child.
Though brief, this sentence calls up a vivid image of the worldwide catastrophic events of the times Alexander had just lived through. It locates for us the powerful genesis of the imaginative leap that became ‘Separate Pride.’
Alexander’s depth and ambition of perspective can be seen in the excerpt below from the third chapter of the book. The very pregnant protagonist Nessa is sitting in a waiting room full of other pregnant women, all waiting to see the doctor. It’s titled “Intimately, As Women With Strangers”:
Nessa looked along the row of faces opposite her. She remembered the Chinese poem that began, ‘Since there is joy in suffering for a woman,’ and her ear made soundings for the ripe and authentic word in the harsh flow of their speech. When you only listen, she thought, you don’t impose yourself. When you stare they hate you like an animal would hate you; eyes excite them to a deep rage. But you must get as close to them as they will let you come, even when you have a sensation of suffocation, of oppression; not because they are people only, but ill, people with mortal problems and mortality, with their deaths in them, and living things leaping under their clothes, and not simple as you had once supposed but unendurably complex, each with a labyrinth brain, each heavy with childhoods, mothers, fears, and deaths. They are so excessive, and you try to understand them because that’s all you can do, and they try to understand you, and it is the trying that matters…
Alexander was born in Davenport, Iowa in 1918. While taking night classes in writing at the University of Minnesota, her instructors included both Sinclair Lewis and Robert Penn Warren. She was married and had three children at the time she published her first novel. And even though the praise was restrained, to win reviews of her novel in such prestigious publications as the New Yorker and The New York Times was in itself a remarkable achievement.
Alexander’s second novel, “King’s X” won the Eugene F. Saxton Award, and her poetry was published in Poetry magazine.
Colin Alexander, son of Sheila Alexander, in Rome (Oct 2012)
The son’s tribute
In deciding how to pay homage to the life and work of his mother, Colin Alexander chose to use the writer’s own words. The tribute is a series of nine poems written by Alexander following a first time trip to Egypt in 1974. Previously unpublished, the poetry was transcribed directly from voice recordings and manuscript compositions made by Alexander between 1974-1977 (see introduction).
Each of the poems describes a historic site Alexander saw during the trip to Egypt. Though the places are routine stops on a tourist’s itinerary, Alexander, with her characteristic depth of perspective, offers far more than a mere travelogue view. History, humanity, cosmos, philosophy and metaphor weave together as the poet regards the mix of ancient and modern world before her.
From the opening poem, Son et Lumière, describing a night visit to the pyramids:
Lights kiss the shapes.
The pyramids are on stage
But once you look up,
The sky is full
Of wicked smiles.
Stars think they know everything.
Only the moon
Admits her faults,
Waxing, waning –
A dust ball, a sweet wooer,
Out of her blackness
Like a woman at a window.
Fall days don’t come much more beautiful than the one we had in Rome yesterday. A gently warm temperature and perfect sunshine created irresistible weather for spending time outdoors.
We headed off for a waterfront lunch and a leisurely meander along the wide boardwalk at one of the Eternal City’s best kept secrets at this time of year, its beachfront Ostia Lido.
It reminded me of a similar beautiful day we spent there in January of last year. Here’s a re-post of a slide show I put together of some photos I shot then.
Notwithstanding the disgruntlement of my beloved Speck (above), I am happy to announce the publication of my new book, “How to Live in Italy: Essays on the charms and complications of living in paradise.”
The book is a collection of essays that I’ve written during the past eleven years of living in this uniquely beautiful and bewildering place on the planet. The book is available in print edition and as a Kindle ebook. Pricing is user-friendly and, of course, it’s listed on Amazon.com.
From reviewers and colleagues some favorable words:
Rebecca Helm-Ropelato’s book is about the enjoyment of differences, of what they tell us about others and, above all, what they tell us about ourselves. This voyage of discovery of her other home looks afresh at everything we take for granted, from landscapes, architecture and clothes, through languages, ways of expressing ourselves and of being with others, to food, drink, and pride in what we are and what we do. From Italy, with love.” Back cover blurb, MADALENA CRUZ-FERREIRA, a multilingual scholar, educator and parent.
Rebecca opens by describing herself as an ex-pat. Literally she is correct, but philosophically she’s wrong. It’s that word ‘culture’ which is the giveaway. Having married an Italian and set up home near Rome she has definitively given up her ex-pat status by embracing her new way of life. This is wonderfully expressed in her approach to learning the Italian language – ‘Sheer hard work’ as Rebecca suggests – ‘it also helps me to see my own language in a fresh light and with greater appreciation. Replace the word ‘language’ with ‘culture’ and you have the essence of not being an ex-pat. From Philip Curnow, “Angels, and No Demons” Delicious Italy blog.
Why another book on the pleasures, oddities, and difficulties of living in Italy? It might seem that every stone, ancient and modern, in Bell’Italia has been overturned by every stripe of writer on earth, but for those of us who love Italy–whether through living there, visiting, or even just reading about it from afar–Rebecca Helm-Ropelato’s How to Live in Italy will stir our interest for the varied, rich, exasperating, wonderful life in Bell’Italia… Helm-Ropelato gives us a wonderfully restrained look at today’s Italy, with a self-deprecating attitude that is winning because it is so honest. From Gregorio, Amazon reader comment.
All this tooting of my own horn has exhausted me so I’ll stop here.
For more information about How to Live in Italy, and where to buy, the book website is here. To see the print and Kindle ebook listing on Amazon, go here (or see the book’s widget here on the right-hand column for more options.)
Special promotion: How to Live in Italy is available today and tomorrow to download free as a Kindle ebook (USA time zones apply).
If you have 70 or so minutes to spare and you are interested in the heated, at times hysterical, debate now underway about traditional publishing versus self-publishing, here’s a link to a video I highly recommend.
The speaker is Bradley Abruzzi, an attorney in the Office of the General Counsel at MIT. In this candid and thoughtful talk, however, Abruzzi’s topic isn’t his successful day job or the legal field. Instead he relates a personal story — his own long search and failure to find a publisher for his literary fiction manuscripts, and his decision finally to self-publish his own novel.
Abruzzi doesn’t try to hide his frustration and disappointment. This is fortunate for his listeners because it gives us a close-up view of the dilemma a writer confronts when publishers repeatedly say no. Abruzzi discusses the promise, and difficulties, of digital media for writers, beginning his talk with a concise and informed historical overview of writers and publishing, ranging from the feudal times to present day.
View from childhood home of medieval poet Francesco Petrarch in Incisa, Tuscany
The medieval poet-theologian Francesco Petrarch is grandly known as the “Father of Humanism” and creator of the Petrarchan sonnet. For ordinary mortals, however, it’s more endearing that he could well be the patron saint of the lovelorn and broken-hearted.
As the story goes, while at church one day the 20-something Petrarch’s gaze fell on a beautiful woman named Laura. Though not a word was exchanged between them, he fell in love. Unfortunately for the young poet, Laura was married and happily so. The good news for poetry lovers and posterity, however, is that the heartbroken Petrarch spent the rest of his life writing love sonnets to Laura.
Here is a stanza from Sonnet 101, Ways apt and new to sing of love I’d find:
Ways apt and new to sing of love I’d find,
Forcing from her hard heart full many a sigh,
And re-enkindle in her frozen mind
Desires a thousand, passionate and high;
At the behest of his father, reportedly, Petrarch first studied law. He soon abandoned it, however, in preference for his first loves of writing and literature. His work and literary reputation in Europe were officially recognized in 1341 when he was named poet laureate in Rome.
On a recent visit to Incisa, a small town about twenty minutes south of Florence, we had a serendipitous encounter with a former living space of the medieval luminary. A friend we were visiting offhandedly mentioned that her new apartment is in the childhood home of Petrarch. She shared this tidbit just as we were climbing into our car to follow her through the town’s narrow streets to her front door.
Engraving on facade of childhood home of Francesco Petrarch in Incisa, Tuscany
Three minutes later we pulled up in front of a large medieval Tuscan residence, four floors of rustic design at the top of a steep hill. Originally built in the 12th century, it was the home of Petrarch’s maternal grandparents. Back in the day, it was within the protective security of the small city’s protective walls. The walls are long gone, but the house still has its tranquil view of the green valley below with the Arno river winding through it.
The newborn poet came with his parents from a nearby town to live in Incisa soon after his birth in July 1304, according to historical accounts. He remained there through his early childhood.
Unlike the celebrated and elegant villa Arquà Petrarca (now a museum) in a northern region of Italy where Petrarch lived out his last years, the more humble Incisa structure is much less wellknown. Its history also is more troubled. The line of family inheritance to the property was broken in succeeding centuries, according to local sources.
The residence did continue to be recognized up until the end of World War II as a one-time home of Petrarch. It housed a small museum and library dedicated to the poet. In the chaotic aftermath of the great war, however, the residence fell into abandonment and neglect.
City councilman Gianfranco Mazzotta overseeing the restoration of childhood home of Francesco Petrarch
On our recent sunny day in Incisa, we were fortunate to bump into a lead player in the restoration of the former Petrarchal home there, local city councilman Gianfranco Mazzotta. In fact, when we first saw him, Mazzotta was energetically wielding a mop to clean the floor of the newly completed public meeting room on the lower level of the Incisa structure.
Do your city council members in the US do this? he calls out, smiling as he held the dripping mop aloft.
In a complicated arrangement, the ownership of the former Petrarch home was previously held jointly by private owners and by the Italian state. Mazzotta recounted to us the sometimes thorny process of negotiating a fair sales price of the state’s share of the property to the city of Incisa. His pride in his ultimate success in the battle is evident.
Completion of the full renovation of the Casa Petrarca is expected to be a year from now, at which point it will be open to the public. In addition to the public meeting room, the residence will comprise a small museum and a library celebrating the poet.
Casa Petrarca, childhood home of Francesco Petrarch in Incisa, Tuscany
Speck’N U is a cartoon series mostly about books by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato. To see more Speck cartoons, click here.
As she was in the beginning (Angela Merkel)
What is the nitty gritty of what precisely is happening with the European Union — the Europe project — in these days? An answer to that puzzle is set out clearly, shortly and sweetly by Irishman Jason O’Mahony in a blog post today.
O’Mahony rests the matter of Europe’s future squarely on the shoulders of the remarkable Angela, the current Chancellor of Germany. Merkel faces a very clear choice between saving Europe or destroying Europe, O’Mahony argues. Check out what he has to say here.
My favorite part of the post, though, is this excerpt.
British eurosceptics constantly remark that the euro was a political project, as if that is a killer argument. It was. It was supposed to be, and whilst it is malfunctioning from bad design, the fact with European integration is that it has been the great success story of post-war Europe.
A few days ago in an email conversation with my daughter I mentioned that the political and economic turmoil in Europe had intensified this past two weeks. Writing back, she asked me to send her a few links to news stories that could give her some insight into the situation.
Harrumph, I mumbled to myself, I wish I could ask the same of some wise news guru.
And I suspect I’m not the only one. It’s much more difficult than it should be to find news reports that aren’t simplistic re-cyclings of various prejudicial stereotypes or political ideologies posing as expertise.
As an example, just last week economist Bill Black strongly criticized the mighty New York Times‘s coverage of the European crisis as “overwhelmingly written from the German perspective.” You can read the post here on the Naked Capitalism website.
So when I found these two videos this morning featuring Harvard University economist Richard Parker talking about Greece, I decided to post them. Parker has a bit of an inside track on Greece especially. He served as an adviser to former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou from 2009 to 2011 (see bio).
In the first video (click on screenshot above), Parker advises against falling for easy answers “about the character or moral values of other people to explain a crisis of the kind we’re seeing in Greece.” He then quickly refutes some of the worst stereotypes against the country that are found in daily news headlines.
I particularly liked Parker’s summing up comment because he calls for citizen activism as part of the resolution. Here it is:
Now in Europe as in the United States there have been attempts to rein in the power of an unregulated financial system. But it’s very difficult to do. So the way forward in the 21st century in the wake of this crisis that we’re still living through is going to require a kind of intelligence and vision that transcends national borders. And that will have to come in part from citizens demanding behavior of public leaders of all sorts that moves us to a new world.
This video is a concise three and a half minutes and was posted online earlier this week (May 14).
The second video I found, via Googling, is a six-minute excerpt of a lecture Parker gave last October to the World Affairs Council of Connecticut. In this video, the economist traces step by step how the Greek economic crisis began some years ago to its current deepening turmoil.