Wait, Can They Still Study Shakespeare?

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

When news broke that the University of Chicago’s English department would only admit graduate students next year who are “interested in working in and with” Black studies, it was greeted with both applause and raised eyebrows. Leaders of English and African American-studies departments at other institutions called it “an impressive commitment” and a “bold, edge-cutting” position. But the move also attracted derision, including from some sources who don’t typically weigh in on graduate-school admissions policy decisions.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas tweeted that studying authors like Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Austen was “presumably not acceptable” under Chicago’s arrangement, and others criticized the move as “racist” and “anti-intellectual.” Thomas Chatterton Williams, a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and a columnist at Harper’s Magazine, tweeted: “I am obviously interested in black literature. But being strong armed into studying it??” Faculty members at Chicago said on Twitter that the department had received hate mail.

The decision carries extra resonance coming from an English department that is among the most high-profile in the country and at a university that has traditionally declined to take institutional positions on questions of social justice or politics. That stance dates back to a 1967 report, commissioned by the university to stake out the university’s “role in political and social action” in the wake of protests against the Vietnam War, and critics say Chicago’s decision represents a deviation from that policy as well as an abandonment of academic principles.

The statement Chicago’s English faculty released in July begins with a statement that Black lives matter. “As literary scholars, we attend to the histories, atmospheres, and scenes of anti-Black racism and racial violence in the United States and across the world. We are committed to the struggle of Black and Indigenous people, and all racialized and dispossessed people, against inequality and brutality,” the statement posted on the English department home page reads.

The second paragraph on the home page read in part, “For the 2020-2021 graduate admissions cycle, the University of Chicago English Department is accepting only applicants interested in working in and with Black Studies. We understand Black Studies to be a capacious intellectual project that spans a variety of methodological approaches, fields, geographical areas, languages, and time periods.” That language has since been removed from the home page, but is still present on the department’s Black studies and admissions pages. Jeremy Manier, a university spokesman, confirmed to The Chronicle on Friday that the department would admit only those interested in Black studies for the 2020-21 admissions cycle.
The scholars also wrote that English “has a long history of providing aesthetic rationalizations for colonization, exploitation, extraction, and anti-Blackness. Our discipline is responsible for developing hierarchies of cultural production that have contributed directly to social and systemic determinations of whose lives matter and why.” Given that context, they continued, “we believe that undoing persistent, recalcitrant anti-Blackness in our discipline and in our institutions must be the collective responsibility of all faculty, here and elsewhere.”

. . . .

The number of students admitted to Chicago’s English department will be lower than usual for the 2020-21 admissions cycle because of the pandemic and a lackluster job market, the university said in a statement. (A number of other programs have chosen to suspend admissions for fall 2021 entirely in order to allocate more funding to already-enrolled students.) The department will admit only five students this year, though it expected to receive about 750 applications, Maud Ellmann, the interim department chair, said in a statement, noting that the department sees higher application rates in “times of crisis.” “The reduced number of spaces persuaded us to focus on specific areas so as to give careful consideration to all the applications we receive,” Ellmann said, noting that Black studies has become a significant part of the program thanks to the hiring of several new scholars focused on Black studies. The faculty, she said, “wanted graduate students interested in Black studies to know that they would receive the highest standard of mentorship in our program.”

. . . .

The five students who begin at Chicago in fall 2021 won’t be working exclusively in Black studies (the department currently has 77 students). Instead, a statement on the admissions page read, they “will be encouraged to take advantage of the wide variety of courses, not restricted to Black Studies, offered by the Department and the Division.” Manier, the university spokesman, said they’ll be able to select from “dozens of courses in English” and “across the humanities, in modern languages, for example, or philosophy, classics, divinity, etc.”

So it’s not true — as Cruz and others have suggested — that this class of graduate students will be unable to study Shakespeare. In fact, the doctoral curriculum includes a course called “Black Shakespeare,” taught by Noémie Ndiaye, which “explores the role played by the Shakespearean canon in the shaping of Western ideas about blackness, in processes of racial formation, and racial struggle from the early modern period to the present” and examines Black characters in plays such as Othello and The Tempest.

. . . .

Mark Bauerlein, a professor emeritus of English at Emory University, who criticized the decision on Twitter, said the department may have been better served by being less public about its plan. “I’ve been on admissions committees — you don’t have to say all this out loud. Just say, ‘Hey, look, let’s try to emphasize Black studies in this year’s entering class. We don’t have to make some big announcement out of it. We don’t need to talk the talk, we’ll just walk the walk,’” Bauerlein said. “I think that the intellectual reputation of the University of Chicago’s English department has suffered greatly because of this move.”

Link to the rest at The Chronicle of Higher Education

During the past several months, all but those living on isolated islands in the middle of large oceans with no ability to receive communications from the larger world have seen vivid video and read endless news stories about Black Lives Matter activists who have, in many American cities, been associated with or otherwise attracted a meaningful number of individuals of various races who appear to have been primarily focused on creating violent protests involving burning and looting. On more than one occasion, the structures burned and looted are retail stores that have been relied upon by the local African-American and other minority groups for basic needs such as food and medications. In some cases, these business establishments have also been owned by people who are African-American or other racial or ethnic minorities.

Apparently, some Black Lives Matter more than others do.

Prior to the latest round of destruction, business insurance for buildings and their contents in such areas was difficult to obtain and, if obtained, cost more than insurance in other parts of town. PG hasn’t seen any analyses of what percentage of buildings damaged have been insured and what percentage have not been insured. In the short run, it’s cheaper to run a business in a low-income area without fire insurance and you might even be able to lower your retail prices a bit which attracts a few more customers and leaves those customers with a bit more money to spend on something else or save for a rainy day.

Rules governing what risks must be covered by business insurance policies vary from state to state, but, the last time PG knew anything about the subject, damages from riots and civil unrest were not covered under a great many business insurance policies.

Commercial insurance companies can with reasonable accuracy predict the likelihood of various types of losses across a broad area based upon the age, types of commercial structures and the businesses operating within those structures. Given a group of 100 restaurants and 100 automatic car washes, the likelihood of fire loss claims from restaurants is significantly higher than the likelihood of a fire erupting in a car wash.

However, given the historical fire loss experience the insurance company has experienced with insured restaurants combined with data about restaurant fire losses experienced by a wide range of other insurance companies, information which is likely compiled and shared by state insurance officials and/or one or more commercial data services that collect, organize and analyze the claims experiences of a variety of insurance companies) an insurance company is able to set premium prices at an appropriate level to allow it to cover and pay for the damage caused by nearly-inevitable occurrence of fire losses in some restaurants during any given year and still be able to afford to continue in business.

While the number of individual restaurant fires resulting from careless employees, failure to clean grease from kitchen exhaust fans, etc., etc., during a given period of time together with the amount of money required to repair the damage done by such fires can be projected with reasonable accuracy given adequate information on historic frequencies of restaurant fires, etc., the likelihood that a particular city or a particular neighborhood in the city will be attacked by rioters and the cost to repair the damage caused by those rioters is something that can’t be projected with the accuracy necessary to properly price insurance policies and operate an insurance company that won’t go broke, leaving all of its other policyholders without any coverage at all. It’s easier to predict damage caused by lightning strikes than damage caused by riots.

One consequence PG can forecast for the future is that business insurance costs for structures and the contents of those structures in areas likely to be touched by Black Lives Matter protests and violence that is not certain to occur, but certainly has occurred in accompaniment with more than one Black Lives Matter protest this year will be much, much higher in the future than it was in the past. Insurance companies may be required under anti-discrimination legislation not to discriminate on the basis of the racial or ethnic identity of business owners, but insurance businesses are not required to have agents or sales offices located in every geographical location in a city or state. It makes good business sense to focus sales efforts on potential customers that are likely to provide profitable business.

Combine poor neighborhoods that didn’t have an excess of businesses of any sort in the first place combined with significantly higher costs of doing business for small businesses operating in those areas and you end up with far fewer merchants, less competition to help keep prices reasonable and a population that has to spend a much larger portion of its meager income for basic living expenses, including travel costs to go to places where they can buy what they need, than before the city was taught that Black Lives Matter.

So, back to the OP. If a few years from now, a college or university has two applicants for a position in its English Department, one applicant schooled in the Black Lives Matter curriculum of the University of Chicago and another who has been schooled in a high quality English Department of another respectable university, which applicant will have an advantage when the head of the English Department, an individual who already has enough stress in her/his professional life, likely to choose?

If Northwestern University, the other nationally-ranked university in the Chicago area (no offense intended toward other Chicago-area academic institutions) has decided to accept graduate students in its English Department without an express or implied requirement that they focus on Black Studies, which group of future PhD’s will seem like the safer bet for the head of an English Department who would like a relatively quiet life focused on academic excellence for her/himself and the remainder of the faculty and staff?

What We Aren’t Seeing

THE UNICORN RESTS IN THE GARDEN, FROM THE HUNT FOR THE UNICORN TAPESTRIES, 1495–1505

From The Paris Review:

How appropriate that a museum show devoted to the unicorn—a mythical animal whose name has come to mean something so rare and elusive that it might or might not exist—should have failed to materialize. “A Blessing of Unicorns” was slated to bring the fifteenth-century unicorn tapestries from the Musée de Cluny in Paris together with their counterparts in the Cloisters at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, as part of a celebration honoring the Met’s one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary. Scheduled for 2020, the show was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. An exhibit of medieval art fell victim to plague, that most medieval of dangers.

The Met’s beautifully illustrated Summer 2020 bulletin, A Blessing of Unicorns: The Paris and Cloisters Tapestries, not only shows us what we missed but may make us rethink our view of unicorns—a subject that, to be honest, hadn’t crossed my mind in years. I used to think about unicorns a lot. In fact I lived with one, you could say: a reproduction of The Unicorn Rests in a Garden hung in my childhood bedroom. I used to stare at the dark fields so thickly covered with impossibly perfect flowers, and at the unicorn in its small round enclosure, so sweet, so melancholy, so lonely—so like the spirit of a preteen girl infused into the body of a white horse with a single corkscrew horn.

It came as something of a shock to see it again, as I looked through the Met minicatalogue and read the lucid informative essay by Barbara Drake Boehm, the senior curator at the Cloisters. And as I read, I saw something in the image I had never seen before. How could I not have noticed that the unicorn’s hide is streaked with blood, that thin rivulets of crimson trickle down the smooth white flesh as it rests so patiently in its circular enclosure? Some scholars have argued that the red streaks are pomegranate juice, the symbol of fertility, but it looks like blood to me, and it seems unlikely that the dog nibbling the unicorn’s back in The Unicorn Surrenders to a Maiden is dribbling red fruit nectar.

What would I have thought, as a child, if I’d known that this delicate, graceful creature was an animal to be hunted, like one of the endangered-species safari trophies.

. . . .

And what would I have concluded if I’d been told that this slaughter could not be accomplished without the willing assistance of an agreeable virgin?

Apparently, the unicorn was not only swift but strong, capable of killing an elephant with its horn. The hunters could not get near it on their own. That was why you needed the virgin. The unicorn liked to lay its head in a virgin’s lap, and, while it was distracted, the hunters closed in. The virgin was bait. In case the implications escape us and we miss the ramifications—the preciousness of female purity and the relative contamination of female sexuality—here is Richard de Fournival, the thirteenth-century chancellor of the Cathedral of Amiens and author of The Bestiary of Love:

I was captured also by smell … like the Unicorn which falls asleep in the sweet smell of maidenhood … no one dares to attack or ambush it except a young virgin. For when the unicorn senses a virgin by her smell, it kneels in front of her and gently humbles itself to be of service. Consequently, the clever hunters who know its nature place a maiden in its path, and it falls asleep in her lap. And then, when it is asleep the hunters, who have not the courage to pursue it while awake, come out and kill it.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Not much to do with books and writing, but PG had not considered unicorns for some time and the parts of the OP that weren’t political were satisfying to him.

Samuel L. Jackson – celebrity voice for Alexa

Not really to do with books, but definitely related to Amazon.

From Amazon:

We heard you loud and clear! Samuel L. Jackson celebrity voice just got easier to use. Now you can simply say “Hey Samuel” to ask for jokes, weather, and more. To get started, just say, “Alexa, introduce me to Samuel L. Jackson” and choose the “Hey Samuel” wake word. You will still be able to use Alexa’s default voice just as you do now. Check below to see if your device works with “Hey Samuel”.

Already have Samuel L. Jackson celebrity voice? You can set up “Hey Samuel” by saying “Alexa, enable ‘Hey Samuel’”.

GET STARTED WITH SAMUEL – Samuel L. Jackson is here to add extra personality to your Alexa experience. Just ask and Samuel will set a timer, tell you a story, and more.

KEEP IT CLEAN, OR DON’T – Choose whether you’d like Samuel to use explicit language or not. If you change your mind later, simply go to the settings menu of the Alexa app to turn explicit content on or off.

ASK AWAY – After purchasing, try saying:

“Hey Samuel, what’s the weather?”
“Hey Samuel, tell me a joke.”
“Hey Samuel, set an alarm for 7am.”
“Hey Samuel, tell me a story.”
“Hey Samuel, what can you do?”
“Alexa, ask Samuel to give me advice.”
“Alexa, ask Samuel what he thinks of snakes.”

Link to the rest at Amazon

Why Your Book Matters

From Writers in the Storm:

When we publish a book, we want it to be read. Obviously. But what else do we want?

At the most obvious level, we want our book to be bought, liked, shared, and reviewed. We want to see it on lists; we want lots of reviews (and stars) on Goodreads and Amazon. But we want something else, too—that connection with specific human beings who have been touched and changed by what we wrote.

When I published Queen of the Owls, I wanted all of those things—and I got a lot of them. The book earned awards, made it onto several “best of” lists. And yet, the most important results are things I never could have foreseen.

I’d like to share two of these “results” with you today. One has to do with a wonderful and unexpected connection with a photographer whose work took the experience of my fictitious protagonist to a whole new level. The other has to do with how Queen of the Owls saved someone’s life. Literally.

The first experience came from photographer Angelika Buettner, who saw my article in Ms. Magazine entitled Naked: Being Seen is Terrifying but Liberating .  In the article, I personalized a central theme of the novel, which is about the power of “choosing to be seen”— the deep longing to reveal and embrace one’s whole self. 

The article attracted Angelika’s attention because she had recently published a book called I Am: Celebrating the Perfect Imperfect

Through a gallery of 121 nude photos and testimonials that reveal the “inner and outer beauty” of women ages 40 to 99, Angelika’s goal is to empower women (and girls) by portraying the “aging and ageless” beauty of our perfectly-imperfect selves. As she told me in our first conversation: “I invited women to wear nothing but what they are feeling inside. Those women stepped out of their comfort zone and gave me the permission to portray their naked souls. I photographed a feeling they had lost—of loving oneself.”

When Angelika saw the article in Ms. Magazine, she immediately reached out to me, and from there to my novel. She read Queen of the Owls nonstop because, to her, it was exactly what she had been trying to convey in her portraits. “The protagonist is expressing the feeling my ladies have, and she finds why it so important to be seen, the real me, by myself. In the end those images are for ourselves.” We discovered that we were offering the same message—for me, through story; for her, through photographs.

From there, a collaboration began. We’ve been meeting on Zoom to talk about ways to work together, joined by a third woman, Lilianne Milgrom, a painter-turned-novelist whose work also addresses the theme of female embodiment. Our dream is a cross-disciplinary presentation about the female body in painting, photography, and story. A shared message, delivered more powerfully through complementary channels.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

A reminder that PG doesn’t necessarily agree with everything he posts on TPV.

While he is generally tolerant of a wide variety of human behaviors, PG can’t envision himself as a photographic subject unless he is fully-clothed, the more fully, the better.

His personal opinion is that, particularly at his current stage in life and having added a Covid bulge in the last several months, PG wouldn’t feel the least liberated by photos of his aging and ageless, perfect-imperfect self existing, much less circulating among the general population or any subset thereof.

But PG understands that others may disagree (not about PG’s body in particular – there can be no rational disagreement about that – but naked bodies in general).

Can Tech Ever be Good?

From Public Books:

Having thrown privacy and consumer protection overboard long ago, Google, in 2018, officially removed its best-loved maxim, “Don’t be evil,” from its code of conduct. Arguably, the company could no longer ignore the contradiction between self-declared ethics and the relentless pursuit of profit. (In only the final quarter of 2019, Google booked $46 billion in advertising dollars and third-party sales of user data.) And Google is not alone.

Recently, Slate published a list of the 30 most “evil” tech companies. Noting that these companies produced “ills that outweigh conveniences,” Slate’s list flayed the tech giants. This article—alongside recent books like Rana Foroohar’s Don’t Be Evil and Lucie Greene’s Silicon States—illustrates that the very existence of companies like Uber, 23andMe, and Airbnb relies on the exploitation of users and workers. And then there’s the rampant sexism and racism across what Emily Chang calls tech’s “brotopia.” Goodbye, tech exceptionalism; hello, “techlash.”

Skewering Google with its own maxim, Foroohar points out in Don’t Be Evil that Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google (the FAANGs), as well as Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent (the BATs), don’t even innovate anymore, nor do they generate new jobs. Such justifications might have lent their profit seeking and mistreatment some social value. Instead, the BATs and FAANGs of Big Tech mostly focus on keeping people online as much as possible and monetizing their attention.

Perhaps more importantly, as Lucie Greene shows in Silicon States, the amount of money funneling between San Francisco and Washington has correspondingly increased. The top three Big Tech companies each spent around $15 million on lobbying in 2019 (to compare: Boeing spent only $13 million). No wonder a countermovement—the tech backlash—seems to grow bigger and bigger.

Tech—even though its pace of innovation and job creation has rapidly slowed down, even as it exploits people and grabs attention—is very much in power. So, clearly, tech cannot purely be seen as a force for good. At least, not anymore. But could tech still be bent toward better purposes? And if so, how?

Tech’s profits are not purely based on selling its often world-changing products and services; they are also a result of the industry’s lax morality and its political might. Like Google’s abandoned motto, this, too, is a contradiction: Big Tech leans on libertarianism, even as it built monopolies and spends immense sums on lobbying politicians and administrators. Since the Obama administrations, Silicon Valley and Capitol Hill have spun the revolving door at a furious clip.

Critics like Foroohar and Greene, along with labor and social activists and academics, have disrupted tech’s status quo—the “don’t be evil” persona, the exchange between tech companies and lawmakers—by forcing tech abuses into the national conversation. This criticism has focused on Big Tech and its involvement in politics; what hasn’t yet been discussed in depth is the role of venture-capital investors.

Link to the rest at Public Books

PG was about to go on a rant, but, uncharacteristically, he is going to restrain himself.

Three comments:

  • Anything that “labor and social activists and academics” don’t like can’t be all bad.
  • Amazon just announced it would be hiring 100,000 new workers.
  • Unlike labor unions, together with local, state and federal governments, anyone can choose not to be involved with Facebook, Google or Amazon.

Users Being Locked Out

PG has received a couple of emails in the past few days from long-time visitors to The Passive Voice which say they haven’t been able to log in using their regular ID/PW.

If you are having a similar problem, get in touch with me via the Contact link on the top menu bar. PG’s temporary fix is signing you up for a new Subscriber account.

PG doesn’t think he’s made any recent changes to the blog that might have triggered this glitch, but, who knows what he’s done while in one of his too-much-Covid hazes.

If any WordPress experts know about what might be causing this problem, PG would appreciate a tip, explanation, fix, etc., via the Contact link.

FYI, he has over 70,000 people who have signed up as subscribers. An unknown portion of those are undoubtedly would-be comment spammers.

Is artistic nepotism an evil – or a necessity?

From The Critic:

T he other day, I discovered that a talented young writer was publishing her first novel. She seemed to have a good, if not unusual back story; she had been working as a bookseller in the estimable Mr B’s Emporium in Bath and had published her debut collection of short stories earlier this year. And then I caught sight of her name, Naomi Ishiguro. My first reaction was to wonder whether it was merely a coincidence that she shared a surname with the Nobel Prize-winning Anglo-Japanese author Sir Kazuo Ishiguro, but it was not. She was interviewed in The Guardian earlier this year about her writing and was nonchalant about her famous father, saying of his Nobel Prize that “I could barely get to speak to him on the phone because there were all these journalists outside the house”. She also remarked that having a writer as a father made a writing career “feel possible; it doesn’t feel completely mystical” and that “You think: ‘I can make this happen if I want to, it’s just that I’ve got to work hard.’”

There are few issues that lead to such widespread feelings of anger and frustration as the idea of nepotism, especially in an artistic or literary context. For many would-be writers or actors, in particular, the suspicion remains that both industries operate as essentially a closed shop, and entry can only be obtained to the glamorous and well-remunerated professions through having a famous name or similarly high-profile connections.

I still remember the unfortunate saga of the young would-be journalist Max Gogarty, who was commissioned by the Guardian to write a series of blogs about his travels on his gap year. The then-19 year old Gogarty was initially torn to shreds because of the slightly guileless and parodically middle-class way that he presented himself – “working in a restaurant with a bunch of lovely, funny people; writing a play; writing bits for Skins; spending any sort of money I earn on food and skinny jeans, and drinking my way to a financially blighted two-month trip to India and Thailand”, but then it transpired that his father was a freelance travel journalist and occasional contributor to the paper, and all hell broke loose. Had Twitter existed back then, his name would have trended for days.

. . . .

Laurie Nunn is unapologetic about using her privileged status and well-known family name to further her career. As she said in the interview, “Having family in the arts made me feel, from a very young age, like that was an option for me. I’ve got friends who are in the arts whose family aren’t, and it feels like more of a scary prospect. They definitely encouraged me to follow my passions.” It undoubtedly helps to get noticed if your father is the former head of the National Theatre and the RSC, but it is equally true that her programme is a truly outstanding piece of work. The famous surname may have led to the doors being opened and meetings being obtained, but her own talent is what ensured the success of her career.

Questions of nepotism have been central to writing for generations. While most pre-twentieth century legendary English writers – Dickens, Shakespeare, Austen and the like – did not come from literary backgrounds, the profession was then far more reliant on talented individuals being given opportunities on their own merits, rather than attempting to follow in well-known parents’ footsteps. Perhaps the most notable example of this in twentieth century literature is Martin Amis, whose first novel The Rachel Papers was published in 1973, when Amis was 24.

He has made various comments about how his becoming a writer was nothing more than “entering the family business”, as if literature was a trade like being a butcher or a funeral director, and remarked that it was inevitable that any publisher would want to invest in the second generation of a writing dynasty. His father Kingsley was one of Britain’s best-known men of letters in the early Seventies and continued to be one of the country’s major writers until his death in 1995, so it was widely felt that his fame had smoothed his son’s path into creativity. Not for nothing was the winning entry in a 1980 New Statesman competition for the least likely title for a book “Martin Amis: My Struggle”.

Link to the rest at The Critic

A reminder that PG doesn’t agree with everything he posts about.

The author of the OP strikes PG as someone behaving as if he/she feels personally offended because the world is unfair or, at least, unfair in a way that upsets the author.

Is it strange, unexpected or disturbing when the daughter of an auto mechanic becomes an auto mechanic herself? Ditto for a plumber or teacher.

Lawyers and doctors are well-know for having children who go into the family business. A law firm called “Johnson and Johnson” is quite likely to involve a parent and child or, somewhat less frequently, a husband and wife (although PG notes in recent years, in his admittedly limited experience, it has become more common for a female professional to retain her maiden name).

Is “maiden name” sexist these days? Should PG have used the term, “former name” or “birth name” or “surname from the family of origin”?

What if a man takes his wife’s name because it’s fancier or better-known than his own surname? It doesn’t seem that his former name could be correctly termed a “maiden name.” Perhaps “bachelor name” or “unmarried name” or “known to his college drinking buddies as” might work.

People think of the inventor

People think of the inventor as a screwball, but no one ever asks the inventor what he thinks of other people.

Charles Kettering

For those unfamiliar with Charles Kettering, he invented the electric cash register in 1906, two years after graduating from Ohio State University. In 1909, he was a founder of Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, or Delco. In 1911, he invented the electric starter and the first 12,000 appeared in the 1912 Cadillac.

In 1914, Kettering built a house in Kettering, a suburb of Dayton, Ohio. It was the first house in the United States with electric air conditioning using freon, another Kettering design.

In 1945, at the request of Alfred P. Sloan, then Chairman of General Motors, Kettering personally agreed to oversee the organization of a cancer research program in New York City which is today called The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

PC Font

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Polite Type has been developed in close collaboration with a diverse team with wide-ranging backgrounds in anti-racism work, gender research and D&I consulting. Additionally, the initial vocabulary for the font have been co-created with high-school-aged teenagers and youth from diverse backgrounds in Finland, together with The Children and Youth Foundation. . . . The font is an OpenType font file (OTF) that recognises a number of either discriminative and/or offensive English-language words. After typing the word, the font substitutes it with a more neutral, inoffensive word. . . .

The blur is an integrated part of the design for the words that have no literal translation, or their meaning is too broad to replace with just one word or their purpose is only that of hurting someone. Blurring is commonly used as a way to censor or to hide something offensive, but it has never before been used as a symbol in a font. . . .

The library of words deemed hurtful has been put together in collaboration with people from different origins, religions, world views and sexual orientations. Naturally, the library is always changing with the language itself.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

George R.R. Martin Can’t Build Castle Library In New Mexico

From Huff Post:

“Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin won’t be able to build a seven-sided, castle-style library at his compound in Santa Fe that drew objections from neighbors.

The city’s Historic Districts Review Board on Tuesday denied a request to allow Martin to exceed the building height limit in the historic district where he lives, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported. The project included a roof deck and an elevator tower.

“It is a medieval castle, and I don’t understand how we could possibly approve it in this style,” board member Frank Katz said.

Mark Graham lives south of the property and said residents couldn’t “support having a castle in the neighborhood.”

“With the notoriety of Mr. Martin and ‘Game of Thrones,’ we absolutely fear that our neighborhood will become the next treasure hunt, that his fans will be looking to find the castle that’s in the middle of Santa Fe,” Graham said.

. . . .

Alexander Dzurec with the architecture firm Autotroph Inc. filed the application for the height exemption and said Tuesday that the library was intended to house “a very sizable collection” of literature and “other collectibles.”

Link to the rest at Huff Post

Relying strictly on a brief online search, PG came up a couple of images for George R.R. Martin’s house in Santa Fe. It looks pretty much like a lot of other buildings in Santa Fe – reminiscent of Santa Fe’s early history. Here are a couple of links – House 1 and House 2 – PG doesn’t know if either depicts a residence which Mr. Martin owns or not.

Anyone who has spent more than 30 minutes in downtown Santa Fe should reasonably understand that the city is both very proud and very protective of its quite ancient (particularly by US standards) architectural history.

Here are a handful of Stanta Fe photos.

San Miguel Chapel, built about 1610
By Shiny Things – originally posted to Flickr as San Miguel Chapel, CC BY 2.0,  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Palace of the Governors – Built about 1610-1618
Asaavedra32 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Shopping area just off the Plaza, Santa Fe
Asaavedra32 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi of Santa Fe, New Mexico, built in 1869 –
MichaelEBM – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

You Probably Still Need the Soothing Embrace of Cottagecore

From Electric Lit:

Cottagecore—the escapist aesthetic that romanticizes a simple, pastoral lifestyle—has been the internet trend of 2020. As Rebecca Jennings notes in Vox, cottagecore has become a way to make this national quarantine romantic by aestheticizing the joys of crafts and rural life. It’s also deeply rooted in previous pastoral movements, inspired by Romanticism (think: nature poems by Coledridge and Wordsworth) and pre-Raphaelite painters (like John William Waterhouse and William Morris). But as set in stone as the aesthetic seems to be, cottagecore is also a fluid movement filled with contradictions. On the one hand, it embraces returning to nature; on the other, it is an entirely virtual (and thus technology-dependent) phenomenon. Similarly, while cottagecore is coated with nostalgia for a simpler past—it’s been criticized for valorizing colonialism—it is also associated with progressive politics and LGBTQ+ subcultures. Accordingly, the books below showcase the long tradition of pastoral novels, as well as contemporary meditations on nature and cottage life. They offer a variety of takes on what could be called “cottagecore literature,” extending beyond Beatrix Potter and L. M. Montgomery—while still relating to the cottagecore aesthetic in some way.

. . . .

The Way Through the Woods: On Mushrooms and Mourning

A memoir about mycology and mourning, The Way Through the Woods explores the author’s foray into mushroom foraging after her husband’s sudden death. Woon acutely describes the feelings of bleak grief after losing her partner of 32 years, and how mushrooming offered a way to connect with nature, re-vitalizing her life. Woon also offers educational insight into the fascinating forms of fungi all around us, from Norwegian forests to Central Park. After reading her vivid descriptions, you may find yourself taking a second look at the fungal growth on your week-old leftovers—or embarking on a mushroom forest adventure of your own.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

PG didn’t see anything particularly cottagey in the book covers in the OP, so, he located a couple of genuine cottage photos of an English and a French cottage.

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage
Cottage in Kerascoët

Cynicism and The Function of Cynicism at the Present Time

From The Wall Street Journal:

The law of supply and demand, like the law of gravity, applies to just about everything. These days, for example, cynicism abounds—“We are all cynics now,” Ansgar Allen reports—and we value this oversupply accordingly, which is to say not at all.

In ancient Greece, however, true Cynics were few. Hard-bitten dissidents, they lived an aggressive, contrarian philosophy opposed to convention, keen on what is “natural,” and enabled by near-fanatical independence. Diogenes the Cynic, perhaps the best known of their number, scandalized Athenians by flaunting his bodily functions. But these enemies of propriety had a certain usefulness, much like short sellers in today’s financial markets. When human values seem built on thin air, count on a Cynic—or if necessary, a mere cynic—to realign them with reality by sneering at their emptiness.

Neither Mr. Allen’s “Cynicism” nor Helen Small’s “The Function of Cynicism at the Present Time” celebrates cynicism, but both make a kind of case for it. They also concern themselves as well with how we went from the paradoxically idealistic social criticism of the ancient Cynics to the nihilistic cynicism of our own times. The short answer is: Friedrich Nietzsche.

. . . .

Ancient Cynics, in a kind of perverse altruism, embraced extreme poverty, the better to credibly assail the complacent with their radical social critique. The self-interested cynicism of our own times, which sees every motive as ulterior, “prefers to express itself in private, as a grievance,” says Mr. Allen, a lecturer in education at Britain’s University of Sheffield. His book is in part a plea on behalf of “the obscene, confrontational force of Cynicism,” which he values as a mode of revolt suitable to “the predicament of those who look about them and find everything wanting.” One fears he is among them.

Ms. Small, in “The Function of Cynicism at the Present Time,” is also bracingly cynical about cynicism. The cynic’s caustic approach, she observes, means that he “arrogates power to himself over his listener,” and his radical self-sufficiency is a sham, for “despite appearances, the cynic is always on the make for recognition by others.” Yet Ms. Small sees cynical thinking “not as the isolated posturing of a radical or psychologically damaged few” but as a commonplace and useful check on the credibility of people promoting moral ideals.

. . . .

There was benevolent cynicism, the author suggests, in Bertrand Russell’s “Marriage and Morals,” a takedown of outdated sexual mores and regulations that, in 1940, prompted a New York judge to vacate the philosopher’s appointment to teach at City College. (John Dewey defended Russell in the Nation.) Russell’s provocative book exemplified cynicism’s utility by demanding that we justify conventions, taboos and legal restrictions and reminding us of our animal nature.

Cynicism’s bracing challenge comes at a cost. Diogenes, one version of the story goes, was exiled from his hometown of Sinope when his father was jailed for debasing the currency he was in charge of issuing. This history is also a metaphor, since cynicism can undermine confidence in the social coinage of tradition, ritual, civility—all the evolved practices that keep violence at bay and make life tolerable.

But has cynicism really become more pervasive these days? America has always had cynics, but we’ve had Cynics as well. Henry David Thoreau, a figure associated with nature, asceticism, self-reliance and social criticism, must have reminded someone in his day of Diogenes. We can see a family resemblance in Mark Twain, Thorstein Veblen and the Beat poets, too.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

Before reading the OP, PG might have characterized himself as a cynic, but afterwards, he thinks he’s more of a practitioner of targeted skepticism.

While PG believes in the essential goodness of many a human being and in the potential goodness of many more, he also is cynical about certain types and classes of people.

It will come as no surprise to regular visitors to TPV that PG is both cynical and skeptical of a great many people associated with the world of traditional publishing, for example. He is also both cynical and skeptical about nearly all communists and socialists. (This isn’t a political blog. PG was just doing a bit more public self-examination than is probably wise.)

That said, PG is very much convinced that individual human beings and groups of human beings can be improved and even perfected, given enough persistence and some outside help at appropriate times.

Human beings are, of course, intensely social creatures and the influence of those around them can be very powerful. Hence, PG’s problems with the mores and habits of traditional publishing in general. (He readily acknowledges many more than one exception to this generalization.)

In the long run, however, PG believes that working on the bright side is a more successful strategy in business and in life, although there is no doubting the efficacy of dark-side strategies at certain times and in certain places in business, history and society.

PG has run out of philosophizing juice (to the great relief of more than one visitor to TPV).

Who Is a ‘Crossover’ Book For?

From Publishers Weekly:

It’s been a while since I set a book in high school. By the time I finished my fifth young adult novel, I could feel my interest in that particular place waning. When I started my sixth, I made the protagonist a dropout (like me), gave her the keys to a car, and let her drive herself into a vicious unknown: her little sister was dead. She was going to kill the man responsible. A few months later, she’s gone missing and a radio host starts a podcast dedicated to finding out what happened to her. That book is Sadie, released in paperback last month.

Sadie is a relentless, brutal, and gritty testament to a sister’s love that takes its protagonist to the darkest corners humanity has to offer without flinching. With Sadie, my work has become less clearly prescriptive—if it ever was—making it even more at odds with that strange expectation a certain type of reader holds: that YA novels should take on the responsibilities of an authority figure and deal in hopeful, aspirational endings while being devoid of all delicious and interesting four-letter words.

Because of this, some readers feel Sadie should be categorized as an adult novel. Others can’t envision it in any section but YA. Most have settled on calling it a “crossover.” That didn’t feel like a bad thing then—and it doesn’t now—though, at the time, I didn’t realize this designation that easily serves as a point of entry for two audiences can just as easily be used as a tool, by some gatekeepers, to deny its primary target. If a book is seemingly too much of one thing or not enough of the other, who, ultimately, is it for? This response has fascinated me, having spent more than 10 years working in YA fiction, and freely and proudly identifying myself as an author of such. I suspect my February 2021 release, The Project, about an aspiring teen journalist who forgoes the high school experience to investigate a cult, has the potential to yield a similar response.

. . . .

I don’t think the high school setting is a prerequisite in a YA novel, by the way—I’m more versed in my industry than that. But I often think of the cues and tropes we use to define the category when asked. According to Wikipedia, “The subject matter and genres of YA correlate with the age and experience of the protagonist,” and, for many of us, the metal-tinged scent of locker-lined halls is one of the first things that calls to mind. It’s the blush of first love. It’s that specific kind of friendship drama you desperately hope won’t follow you into your 40s. It’s a sense of immediacy, a pace—fast. Or any number of first times. These are the hallmarks of many YA novels, and there’s nothing wrong with them. Teens are growing up in that world, and they deserve to see it reflected.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Best Zoom Backgrounds

As many of you know, Zoom has gone from semi-obscure to famous during the Covid lockdowns because lots and lots of people have gone from working in offices to working at home, communicating via videoconference.

There are a great many other videoconferencing services, but Zoom has become the most famous in pop culture in the US. In a Zoom videoconference where each participant is looking at a computer screen or, perhaps a tablet, a series of boxes shows each participant.

In any video conference, if each participant doesn’t want to look preposterous, she/he is sitting back a bit so they are roughly centered in a horizontal video image that includes whatever is behind them. Countless stories about video conference faux pas in which dirty laundry, disorderly piles of junk, arguing children, etc., etc., show up in the background have spread online like wildfire.

General videoconferencing advice is to clean up and organize the background your camera will reveal so you look a bit more professional. If all participants are in cubicles, however, the image can also be boring – gray or tan cubicle wall material behind each person with various pieces of paper thumb-tacked here and there.

One of Zoom’s features is virtual backgrounds. Virtual backgrounds allow a Zoom videoconference participant to replace their real background with a computer image instead of what is actually behind them. Zoom provides several potential images – as PG recalls – including bland modern offices, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, photos of deep space, etc.

A Zoom videoconference participant can also substitute his/her own background using a computer image file in a couple of standard formats.

After a couple of Zoom videoconferences, PG decided the various Zoom suggested virtual backgrounds had become passé and created one of his own.

PG’s background is a photo of J.P. Morgan’s office in New York City, as preserved in a museum there.

John Pierpont Morgan was an American banker who dominated corporate finance in New York City during the Gilded Age and, as you can see, he had a nice office.

Since PG has started using JP’s office as a Zoom virtual background, he has definitely not looked like a generic talking head in multi-person videoconferences.

So, for those who participate in videoconferences, what other backgrounds might you suggest?

PG has added a couple of possibilities below.

Labor Day

In the United States, Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday in September.

Originally created to honor working men and women and the labor unions that once improved their lives, it still has that meaning, but it is also a symbolic ending of the summer season, the last long weekend. In many places, the public school year begins on the day after Labor Day.

PG is feeling a bit worn out from his recent labors, so, as a man who works with his mind and his keyboard, he is going to take a bit of time off.

He will, however, schedule a series of quotes about working to appear throughout the weekend and will check in on the happenings at TPV from time to time.

Expect him back next Tuesday, refreshed, revived and ready for action (depending, of course, on your definition of action).

Late to the Party: On Being a Debut Novelist at Sixty

From Writer Unboxed:

“Had you told me when I was 20 or 30 or 40 that I would write a novel someday, I would have laughed! Only in my 50s did I realize that I had something to say and that I could use the platform of fiction to say it.”  – Alka Joshi, author of NYT Bestseller The Henna Artist

I never wanted to star in the school play. At fourteen, I had the shakes before my piano recital. I was interviewed on television, once, in my early thirties, and felt ill with anxiety beforehand and for days afterward.

Now, I’m sixty. Yesterday, I did two live radio spots, a taping for a podcast, and a 45-minute, solo Facebook Live takeover. Each of these events scared the hell out of me.

This is publication week for my debut novel, ETIQUETTE FOR RUNAWAYS. My publicist, Ann-Marie Nieves of Get Red P.R., has done a fabulous job booking virtual appearances for me. I’m constantly having to explain to the Facebook page host/radio interviewer/ podcast presenter that I’ve never done a page takeover/podcast/Instagram live before.

But I’m learning.

When I was 53, my youngest went to high school and I decided to take some literature classes. In the advisors’ office at my local community college I met with a harried young woman who said to me, “Now then, Mrs. Taylor.” She smiled, in a way I interpreted as condescending, then continued, “do you want to take this course for credit? You’d have to take the tests and exams. Or would you prefer to audit?” Well, that got my back all up. Audit, my ass. There and then I decided to pursue a second degree, in English. I’d show her. And so it began. I loved English 112; never mind that I was probably older than the mothers of my fellow students. Here, have a tissue. Keep the pack, I have more. Did you forget your pen, again? Who do you think is going to throw out that McMuffin wrapper?

They got used to me.

I went on to take every Literature class I could at Piedmont Community College. I branched out and took Philosophy, then French. This was just as online learning was beginning to take off, and I went on to take a class virtually at Harvard, called Crime and Horror in Victorian Literature and Culture. Me? Harvard? It sounded good. I was in Gothic heaven. When I had a choice, in my third semester, between a dull-sounding course on Literature of the Restoration and a class on writing fiction, I took the writing class, and never looked back. A few years later, at 56, with a published essay and several short stories under my belt, I began the low-residency MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I was not the oldest in my cohort.

I soon came to realize that as an undergrad in my late teens I hadn’t appreciated what a gift learning something new can be. I had taken learning for granted. After all, I had been doing it for all of my cognizant life. The MFA program offered me a sense of accomplishment and creative fulfillment that translated into a new sort of bravery. Yes, I would stand before a room full of people and read my work aloud, even if I started out trembling. Yes, I would complete and deliver my graduate lecture, and learn to make a PowerPoint slide show.

. . . .

Delia Owens published her first novel, WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING, at the age of 68. She had several well-received nonfiction titles published earlier, but we all know that CRAWDADS has been on the NYT Bestseller list for over 100 weeks and Reese is making the movie. It’s been a phenomenon. I met Ms. Owens at a cocktail reception at the Savannah Book Festival in 2019, just as her novel was really exploding. She was with a publicist from her publishing house. At that time, I had a book contract, and we chatted about being debut novelists. She was gracious and soft-spoken, and she seemed ill at ease with the attention she garnered. When I left to refill her publicist’s wine, I was stopped by an enthusiastic gentleman who asked me to tell him about my novel. I gushed enthusiastically, and about two sentences in I realized that he thought he was speaking to Delia Owens. We were both disappointed.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

The Innovation Delusion

From The Wall Street Journal:

‘Do you ever get the feeling that everyone around you worships the wrong gods?” So ask Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russell in the first pages of “The Innovation Delusion.” They are consumed by this question, convinced that America has been seduced by the false charms of innovation, causing us to chase novelty and pursue disruption while neglecting maintenance and infrastructure in both the public and private sectors. We end up discounting the value of “the ordinary work that keeps our world going.” Anyone compelled to “ideate” at a corporate breakout session can surely relate.

Agitated by Walter Isaacson’s triumphalist portraits in “The Innovators” (2014), Messrs. Vinsel and Russell, scholars of the history of technology, became increasingly troubled by what they saw as a broad cultural emphasis on “the shiny and new.” They started to wonder why no one ever celebrates the “bureaucrats, standards engineers, and introverts” who manage to keep established systems running smoothly. We live in an inverted world, they say, where “our society’s charlatans have been cast as its heroes, and the real heroes have been forgotten.”

In this dystopian view, we’ve mistaken novelty for progress and, in the desperate pursuit of growth, confused true innovation—creating things that work—with fraudulent “innovation-speak.” The result is, as the authors put it, an “unholy marriage of Silicon Valley’s conceit with the worst of Wall Street’s sociopathy.” Champions of change—like the late Harvard professor and father of disruptive innovation, Clay Christensen, and the influential thinkers at IDEO, the Palo Alto, Calif., design firm—have garnered hefty consultant fees while offering, the authors contend, little of true substance in return. Despite the frenetic pursuit of innovation stoked by the fear of missing out, “we should resist the notion that anyone on this planet knows how to increase the rate and quality of innovation.”

Privileging innovation, the authors note, costs us all. Localities find it far easier to attract federal funding for new infrastructure projects than to secure support for maintaining what already exists. And the funding for new development typically comes without the resources for downstream maintenance, saddling municipalities with unmanageable future obligations. Better for communities first to fix what’s broken, Messrs. Vinsel and Russell argue, and practice preventive maintenance. In any case, resources should be focused on what matters: Transit riders, one survey revealed, care most about service frequency and travel time, not power outlets and Wi-Fi.

The authors’ most emphatic recommendations involve talent—and our perception of it. When we overvalue innovation, they say, we forget that the vast majority of engineers will wind up maintaining existing systems, not coming up with the next Facebook. While we revere and reward data scientists and algorithm developers, we overlook the humble IT workers who keep our networks humming. Many students who might find “more joy, meaning, and pleasure” working in maintenance roles are shunted toward innovation careers sure to make them miserable. A rebalancing of our priorities is in order, Messrs. Vinsel and Russell contend.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

Free Speech Absolutism Killed Free Speech

From The Wall Street Journal:

Conservatives calling for more free speech as a way to push back against campus cancel culture are trying to repair the stable when the horses bolted long ago. It may seem reasonable to think academic diversity and open debate can counter progressive groupthink, but the intolerance prevailing on college campuses isn’t the result of too little speech. It’s a consequence of too much speech.

Older conceptions of free speech are present in texts stretching back to Plato, but the modern form of the idea is the creation of John Stuart Mill. In “On Liberty” he posited a kind of reverse Gresham’s Law of ideas: Good ideas, he argued, inevitably drive out the bad ones in the court of educated opinion.

Mill believed we are better off giving a platform to the “heretic”—his term—for two reasons. First, he might be right. Second, even if he is wrong, the exercise of combating his bad opinion strengthens society’s capacity for reason and healthy argument. The heretic should never be pressured out of the public square, Mill argued, no matter how many times his views have been refuted in the past. In the spirit of open inquiry, everyone should have a voice.

Mill’s free-speech absolutism has been a guiding light for universities for many decades. But in imagining we could cultivate thoughtful citizens by exposing them to a bazaar of competing ideas and ideologies, we ironically encouraged the decline of truth-seeking itself. As the political theorist Willmoore Kendall predicted in the 1950s, a community that treats every idea as ultimately refutable will eventually conclude that no real truth exists. And once that happens, he reasoned, a formerly “open society” will “overnight become the most intolerant of possible societies and, above all, one in which the pursuit of truth . . . can only come to a halt.”

When no dogma can finally be put to rest, it becomes easier—almost obligatory—to do whatever we like. Ideas are evaluated, not based on their reasonableness or coherence, but by how much they tickle the ears of the in-crowd. Harder truths become offensive. The only intolerable citizen, in such a regime, is the one whose belief in truth compels him to attack beliefs he believes to be false even if his attacks disturb the equanimity of the establishment. His criticism becomes too hurtful—even a form of “violence.” For the safety of the community, he must be cast out.

I once worked at a university that hired a scholar with widely published opinions on bioethics. During an introductory lunch, a faculty member took issue with his position against human cloning, in particular his concern that bereaved spouses might one day clone their lost partners and bring up the replacements, raising the specter of incest. “What’s wrong with incest?” this faculty member asked. “I can’t believe,” our new scholar replied, “I have to explain to an educated adult what’s wrong with incest.”

He didn’t last long in the job.

. . . .

We’re seeing free speech driven from campuses, in other words, because our unthinking commitment to it has kept us from constraining radicals who use their classrooms and administrative perches to persuade the young that freedom is a fiction. These ideologues have a chokehold on our universities and many other institutions. They have no interest in the principle of free speech, and we’re wasting time trying to get them to abide by it.

Consider how even the University of Chicago—birthplace of the 2014 “Chicago principles,” affirming the importance of open debate—has bowed to anti-free-speech fervor. Two years ago, the university that once famously extended free speech to an actual Nazi allowed radical faculty members to obstruct Steve Bannon from speaking on campus, claiming his words were dangerous to students.

The solution is not to issue more bromides about the importance of free speech. It’s to take the principle itself more seriously. Mill believed heretics should be heard, not put in charge of classrooms and permitted to create despotic speech codes. Everybody should be allowed to express his views, but that doesn’t require us to empower and elevate people who would afford themselves the right to speak and take it from everybody else.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

Note that PG doesn’t agree with everything he posts on TPV and PG doesn’t want to see TPV turned into a political blog. There is no shortage of those to be found elsewhere.

However, PG doesn’t need to remind visitors that freedom of speech is essential to authors.

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of nations around the world where someone can get into serious trouble over something they have written.

The unrelenting vision of Lucian Freud

Perhaps a writing prompt or an idea for some character traits.

From Prospect Magazine:

Towards the end of his life, Lucian Freud attended the 80th birthday party of a friend, where a little girl was told not to touch him. “I’m not an object,” he protested. Perhaps she’d mistaken him for one of his portraits, because over the previous decades no artist had been better at manipulating canvas and paint to give the illusion of real human bodies, stilled lives. Everything about a self-portrait like Reflection (1985), from its intent pink-rimmed eyes to the shiny patch on its forehead, makes it look as if it is not a painting but a person, who is on the verge of leaning out of the frame to touch the viewer—though whether to kiss them or headbutt them it is hard to say.

. . . .

Some models failed to return once they realised that, although Freud was fascinated by their bodies, their own names would never appear in any catalogue or gallery; they were merely a way for the portrait to achieve its own form of independent life. Others had to accept that he was going to depict what he really saw rather than perpetuate a more flattering public image of them. Supermodel Kate Moss was painted while she was pregnant, and at the base of her real spine Freud tattooed her with two swallows set like inverted commas. (“An original Freud,” she boasted, adding that if the modelling work dried up “I could get a skin graft and sell it.”) A small portrait of the Queen was commissioned after Freud was awarded the Order of Merit in 1993, capturing a face that appeared to be at once eminently practical and unexpectedly fond of sly jokes. (Both of these characteristics were revealed when the Queen was reported to have said that she stayed as silent as she could during the sittings, “Because when he talks he stops painting.”)

. . . .

Alongside these star models there were ordinary people like the picture framer Louise Liddell, painted as Woman Holding Her Thumb (1992). She once cursed God for her fat ankles, whereupon Freud said “I thank God for them.” There were also plenty of approaches from strangers volunteering their services. “A man wrote to me and said, ‘I’m sure you’d like to paint me because I have no ears, despite which I’m a vicar,’” Freud told Feaver. And of course there were chance encounters with potential models he spotted in bars or clubs, such as a “rather amazing girl with a sore part under her nose as if she’d been up to something,” whom Freud thought that getting to know would be “rather exhilarating.”

Link to the rest at Prospect Magazine

The Physical Traits That Define Men and Women in Literature

From The Pudding:

My book club was reading The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. In the middle of an otherwise unremarkable plot, we found a 35-page interlude about a highly attractive fairy, describing her body in minute, eye-rolling detail.

After slogging through that book, I began paying attention to similarly stereotyped descriptions of bodies in other books. Women are all soft thighs and red lips. Men, strong muscles and rough hands.

I was frustrated by this lazy writing. I want to read books that explore the full humanity of their characters, not stories that reduce both men and women to weak stereotypes of their gender.

Before getting too upset, I wanted to see if this approach to writing was as widespread as it seemed, or if I was succumbing to selective reading. Do authors really mention particular body parts more for men than for women? Are women’s bodies described using different adjectives than those attributed to men?

. . . .

Before we get into the results of the data analysis, let’s play a game to see how well you recognize gendered descriptions.

Here are several character descriptions from actual books. For each one, select whether you think it describes a man or a woman. 

(Screen Grab Only – The OP shows a series of images which you can associate with gender and gives you a score.)

We all have a mental model of how men’s and women’s bodies are described. People who answer the above quiz, on average, guess the correct gender 88% of the time.

Men and women do tend to be described in different ways. Let’s explore those trends more deeply through the data we collected.

. . . .

In other cases, that gaze is more lascivious. Consider this litany of woman-skewed body parts: hip, belly, waist, and thigh.

You don’t need a Bible verse to imagine why these might come to mind more easily for a woman than a man.

. . . .

Some of my absolute favorite books growing up were the Harry Potter series. I particularly identified with Hermione Granger, a bushy-haired know-it-all, just like me.

Hermione’s friends didn’t consider her beautiful until the fourth installment in the series, when she tamed her hair with magical products.

When I read this as a preteen, I felt embarrassed by my own curly head of hair. I’d absorbed the idea that “bushy” was not an attractive way to be described, especially for a woman.

Link to the rest, including many other hand-drawn illustrations, at The Pudding

The Conspiracy on Pushkin Street: The Costs of Humor in the USSR

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

“IF THEY COME for me, I won’t give you up. I won’t tell them what happened in this room.” Vasily Babansky let out a sigh and locked eyes with the four young men around him. It was February 1940 and 18-year-old Vasily had become increasingly sure that the NKVD was closing in on him.

The silence hung thickly in the air, so at odds with the laughter they usually shared here. The five students were gathered together in their usual haunt — one of the dormitories at the Zoological Institute in Stavropolsky District, southwestern Russia. The door was locked, as it always was when they wanted to speak freely, but now the bolt seemed woefully inadequate. If the NKVD was coming for them, all they could rely on was silence and their loyalty to one another.

Silence would be a problem, though. They’d have to tell the NKVD something if they were arrested; Stalin’s secret police didn’t take “No” for an answer. Aleksandr Mitrofanov proposed they should tell the truth, but not the whole truth — they would come clean about anything they’d said or done in front of witnesses at the Institute, “but keep quiet about what went on in our room,” recalled another of the students, Pavel Gubanov.

They all solemnly agreed, and then Mitrofanov rushed off to find the poem he’d written criticizing the Soviet regime. He was proud of his work, and the group had hoped to make anonymous copies and spread them across campus. Instead, after relocking the door behind him, he would ritualistically read the poem aloud one last time to his comrades, then set the paper alight and watch the flames consume his words.

It would be another 11 months before the NKVD descended, but when they did, the lives of these young men would be torn apart. Despite their earnest pact not to inform on each other, in the end they had little choice. The NKVD has gone down in history for its brutality and willingness to extract confessions by any means necessary. All five would break their vow of silence as the interrogators raked through the ashes of their lives at the Institute. Aleksandr Mitrofanov, Vasily Babansky, Mikhail Penkov, and Pavel Gubanov would all be sentenced for the crime of “anti-Soviet agitation” and for being part of a “counterrevolutionary organization” that, the authorities were sure, was actively plotting the downfall of the Soviet regime. Mitrofanov and Babansky received 10 years, Penkov eight, and Gubanov seven. The fifth man, Damir Naguchev, was for some reason treated with a touch more leniency: he received “only” three years for failing to denounce his comrades.

Locked doors, burnt evidence, and a plan for resisting interrogation: at first glance, it certainly sounds like conspiracy was afoot at the Institute. But if we take a closer look at the evidence left behind in the formerly secret Soviet archives, the fate of these five teenagers reveals a very different story. A story of how, under Stalin, a poem, a few jokes, and five open minds could spell disaster.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

As PG reviewed the OP and thought of a novel he is reading that is set, in part, in the all-female 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Red Army Air Forces. One of the characters has to flee from her regiment because her father has been convicted and executed for anti-Soviet, anti-Stalin outbursts and all his family members are to be arrested.

Back to the 588th regiment. This group, which flew all of its bombing missions at night, were called the Nachthexen, or “night witches,” by their targets in the Wehrmacht because the whooshing noise their wooden planes made as they dived into their attacks resembled that of a sweeping broom. There was no other noise because the pilots were instructed to idle their engines at altitude, prior to beginning their bombing glide to drop their bombs on the German troops.

The antiquated bombers, 1920s bi-plane crop-dusters that had been used as training vehicles prior to being repurposed for night bombing were effectively invisible to German radar or infrared defense systems. They were unarmored, built of plywood with canvas stretched on top and most had no guns for defense. Machine guns and ammunition would be too heavy to carry in addition to the weight of a single bomb attached under each wing. Parachutes were also too heavy to carry.

These planes had a top speed of 94 mph and a cruising speed of 68 mph. The most common German fighter plane the Night Witches faced in battle was the Messerschmitt 109, which had a top speed of 385 mph. The maximum speed of the bombers was slower than the stall speed of the German planes, which meant these wooden planes, ironically, could maneuver faster than the enemy, making them hard to target.

The Night Witches continued their attacks through three winters, 1942-43, 1943-44 and 1944-45. Their planes had open cockpits and no insulation. Flying them exposed their pilots and navigators to almost unimaginably bitter cold temperatures. During those Russian winters, the planes became so cold, just touching them would rip off bare skin.

The Night Witches ended the war as the most highly decorated female unit in the Soviet Air Force.

On average, each pilot/navigator crew flew about 800 missions. For comparison, United States heavy bomber crews flew bomber crews’ obligations were between 25-35 combat missions.

(In fairness, since the Night Witches were stationed at airfields so close to the front lines, the flight time spent on each of their missions was much shorter. Many US crews spent far more time in the air because their missions involved much longer flights to reach their targets. On the other hand, the Night Witches were under direct enemy fire far more frequently, sometimes flying 8 missions in a single night.)

This Is Auto-Tune Typography

From Medium:

A few uppercase words, centred or ranged at the top-left corner of a page, set in the regular weight of any grotesque font. More often than not, it’s black type on white, or the reverse, but colours may appear. Be it an international design exhibition, a show for the Venice Biennale, a new artist-run space or the output of a design school, in recent years our western “art-design” bubble is flooded with similar solutions.

While I was vainly waiting for this trend to slowly fade out, like any other tag on Trend List (which doesn’t list this one), I realised I needed a name to define it and to explain the annoyance I felt about it.

Over time I recognised a similar annoyance when randomly listening to music on the radio, and realised there is an audio equivalent to this typographic sameness: it’s Auto-Tune. Auto-Tune was originally developed as a tool to automatically correct vocal tracks in order to make them sound perfectly in tune, by removing accidental deviations from the melody; as we all know by now, it has turned into the standard voice treatment for a great amount of contemporary pop music productions, and is widespread to the point of being almost impossible to avoid.

Likewise, this default, CAPS-LOCK typographic treatment is largely present in our visual landscape. It can be applied to almost anything, and makes this anything instantly look OK, fit for our times (at least from a designer’s perspective). This is AUTO-TUNE TYPOGRAPHY.

In 1995, on Emigre#34, Mr Keedy wrote a piece titled Zombie Modernism. It Lives!, claiming that “modernism is no longer a style, it’s an ideology, and that ideology is conservatism.” What I’m observing in recent years is not a new personification of that conservative take on modernism: this one is apparently devoid of any ideology, and goes even further in renouncing to visually and typographically articulate a thought.

. . . .

AUTO-TUNE TYPOGRAPHY could be considered as one of the many manifestations of “normcore” or “post-authentic” graphic design, two labels currently used to identify reactions to previous visual trends seeking an idyllic “authenticity”; both labels relate to the concept of “default systems design”, which has been discussed for almost twenty years now.

Link to the rest at Medium

PG will admit that typography can be an art and he has seen some printed books that are beautifully designed.

However, type also has a utilitarian function and PG knows that he’s not the only one to find the presence of strange and unorthodox fonts an off-putting barrier to understanding what has been written. At times, he has suspected the creator of not feeling confident enough in her/his words, sentences, paragraphs and story structure to satisfy the reader’s expectations and has decided to throw in a strange font to liven things up.

PG also notes the OP uses the caps-lock to present AUTO-TUNE TYPOGRAPHY. The title of the OP was also produced with caps-lock, likely a sarcastic typographical comment on the subject of the author’s disdain.

PG substituted initial-caps instead so the post title wouldn’t look amateurish when visitors to TPV encountered the headline under circumstances that didn’t provide the opportunity for them to appreciate the original author’s superior disdain for Times Roman and other pedestrian type styles that are the accepted way of doing things online.

And tend to provide the best reading comprehension results for viewers.

Should a groundswell of demand for creative typography on TPV, PG will consider himself in error and might try to comply. However, the vagaries of various programs and apps used to read web content could easily turn cutsie, ironic and/or witty inside font tricks into a visual dog’s breakfast for most visitors.

(For any who wish to start the journey into the typographic avant garde at no expense, click here to obtain a free font, called Pepper Roman.)

The Churchill Complex

From The Wall Street Journal:

The special relationship—or, as they write it in Britain, the Special Relationship—between the United States and the United Kingdom is one of those partnerships that everyone talks about but few understand. Ian Buruma’s stimulating and highly readable “The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit” is a brisk but thorough history of the relationship under the 13 American presidents and 16 British prime ministers in the postwar era. 

The special relationship as we know it today, Mr. Buruma argues, was an emanation from Winston Churchill’s fertile brain. Faced with the decline of the empire he loved, Churchill adapted the hoary idea of a deep bond between the British and the Americans to new conditions. Thanks to a unique ability to influence the United States, Churchill argued, Britain could continue to shape world events even as its power decayed. 

Churchill did more than establish the modern framework of Anglo-American relations, Mr. Buruma shows. In particular, the example of Churchill’s courageous stand against appeasement in 1938-40 haunts both presidents and prime ministers to this day. Whether Margaret Thatcher was standing firm in the Falklands or stiffening George H.W. Bush’s spine for the First Gulf War, she was channeling the Churchillian spirit.

The partnership has not always worked well. Churchill’s immediate successor, Anthony Eden, saw Egyptian president Gamal Nasser as a new Hitler and denounced any compromise over the Suez Canal as another Munich. In the resulting Suez Crisis of 1956, President Eisenhower forced Eden into a humiliating retreat.

Even after Suez, the idea of the special relationship was not something Britain was willing to discard. Harold Macmillan, Eden’s courtly successor, immediately got to work to rebuild the relationship, shifting his attentions from Eisenhower to Kennedy in 1961. Macmillan obtained access to American nuclear weapons research; from Kennedy, Macmillan’s artful sleeve-tugging obtained an agreement to give Britain access to the then-coveted Polaris missile system.

The discussion in Britain of both Churchill and the special relationship has become a battlefront in the debate over membership in the European Union—a debate that continues to rage even with Britain having formally left. For many in the Remain camp, the idea that Britain can still play a world role independent of Europe, and that the best way to do that is to double down on its relationship with the United States, is a Churchillian fantasy that paved the way to Brexit. Britain, critics of the Churchill mystique and the special relationship insist, must put these childish dreams behind it and come to terms with a sober reality in which the EU is its only real option.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

PG claims no expertise concerning contemporary British politics, but will say that a great many Americans of his acquaintance feel closer to Britain than they do to any other European or Asian nation. Most also feel the same way about Canada.

For evidence of this feeling in contemporary US popular culture, PG will point out that Public Broadcasting in the United States would be a much less watched enterprise if it did not air so many British shows, including programs depicting various parts of British history.

For all of its attractions, culture, beauty, history and other virtues, France does not hold a similar place in American hearts and minds despite the fact that the French supported the American Revolution.

Otherwise Occupied

Today, PG was unable to post as much as usual for a Saturday.

His only excuse is that he spent some time assisting Mrs. PG with a promotion for one of her already-published books and also assisted a bit with her preparation of her next book for publication.

The PG’s also went out to lunch and had a good talk, a bit about business, but mostly just chatting, which contributed greatly to their overall mental health and welfare.

PS: Mrs. PG just requested that PG join her in watching a Cary Grant movie, again for their mutual health and welfare. And PG readily agreed to do so.

10 Books About the Importance of the Postal Service

PG acknowledges that this does sound like a Covid story. He does, however, think the post-apocalyptic postal uniform on the cover of one of the books is intriguing.

From Electric Lit:

Given the recent news, we’ve been reminded just how vital the postal service is for our everyday life. With the June 2020 appointment of Louis DeJoy as the new Postmaster General, the USPS has seen a sharp decline into crisis; with the November presidential election rapidly approaching, many are concerned at what this means for mail-in ballots. Furthermore, for many indigenous, rural, and/or low-income communities, as well as incarcerated folks and people who need medication delivery, the USPS is often the only reliable source.

If this sobering turn of events has got you ruminating on the importance of mail delivery, below are ten books in which letters and the postal service—or lack thereof—play a crucial role. Ranging from academic studies about the diverse history of the USPS to a novel with original postcard artwork, these are books to write home about. (You should write home about them, and don’t forget to mail the letter!)

. . . .

The Postman by David Brin

In Brin’s dystopian vision for America, the USPS is painted as the only source of hope. In The Postman’s post-apocalyptic world, a man puts on an abandoned USPS uniform and tries to barter mail for food. However, his initial fraud snowballs, as he claims to work for the “Restored United States of America” and civilians cling to the idea of a centralized government’s return. Meanwhile, the U.S. is ravaged by bio-engineered plagues and a group of white supremacist, misogynist, and hypersurvivalist militia. The Postman, AI scientists, and other opposition groups must band together to fight for the future of civilization. Originally published in 1985, Brin’s sci-fi novel resonates uncomfortably true in our current-day society.

All My Mother’s Lovers by Ilana Masad

In Masad’s debut novel, a woman does her own postal delivery (as we’ll probably also be forced to if things don’t improve). When Maggie’s mother dies abruptly in a car crash and leaves behind five letters, Maggie is determined to hand-deliver the sealed envelopes to each address. Although Maggie always thought her mother, Iris, had the picture-perfect marriage, she realizes there was much more to Iris’s past than she ever dreamed of. All My Mother’s Lovers is a warm-hearted and intriguing exploration of family, the imperfect nature of relationships, the intersections of sexuality, gender, and identity—and how much five letters can change someone’s life.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

A Confederacy of Authors

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

A few years back, I read an on HuffPo titled Sticks & Stones: The Changing Politics of the Self-Publishing by Terri Giuliano. She made the case that a) self publishing or, as it’s now known Indie Pubbing, is growing fast, b) some authors published by traditional houses resent this, c) sales for ebooks are climbing, d) sales of paperback books are declining, and e) a bunch of other points too numerous to detail here but they’re all in the original article.

While the article is well researched and full of juicy nuggets, it climbs like ivy all over the edifice that is publishing, making so many cases that it’s a bit like trying to identify one speck of dust in a maelstrom. But, among all the points tossed out for consideration, one struck me particularly and I’ll focus here only on that. It happens to be about a book I loved and found truly inspired. Here’s the salient paragraph:

In the old days, determined authors turned to self-publishing—or vanity presses, as they were called—as a last resort. Serious authors, concerned about being black-balled, dared not self-publish. As a result, talented authors like John Kennedy Toole, whose posthumously published masterpiece, “A Confederacy of Dunces,” won a Pulitzer Prize (1981), went to their grave believing their work did not measure up.

Now, I do not know what fast track the writer of this article had to author John Kennedy Toole’s conscious, unconscious, or subconscious mind but to state that he went to his grave believing his work did not measure up seems a bit overstated and presumptuous. Not to mention, since she uses the pronoun “their,” other [unnamed] writers who, similarly discouraged by the lack of a publishing contract in New York, did themselves in.

. . . .

Did Hemingway go to his grave believing his work just did not measure up? Or did Sylvia Plath? How about Virginia Woolf, Jack London, Hunter S. Thompson, Jerzy Kosinski, Anne Sexton, and many others, all of whom had publishers solidly in their corners. They also had public adulation and big bucks in their pockets. Yet they still went to their graves by their own hands.

Does this tell us something? Is there a clue lurking in these tales of despair? Is the writer of this article trying to say – in some veiled way – that not getting a publishing deal and recognition by some agent or editor in New York can kill a writer? OMG, hopes dashed, nothing left to live for, no agent likes my work.

Reading between the lines of Toole’s book, and taking a lot for granted in making certain assumptions, one could – let me rephrase – I could venture to guess that John Kennedy Toole, much like his protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, felt very much the post adolescent outcast. Or at least he identified with that feeling enough to write about it in excruciating detail matched only, perhaps, by Holden Caulfield’s adolescent angst.

Ask any psychiatrist and you’ll find that adolescent brains are not fully formed and what’s there is kinda mushy (not especially technically accurate but apt I think). Anyone who’s observed a teen can see it. It’s not a great leap to imagine that Toole could have come out of his own adolescence severely depressed. No one who feels good takes his own life.

. . . .

It seems to me, at this point in our collective culture as writers, there are two kinds of authors, whether self published or traditionally published. 

The first is the group of writers who consider writing a profession like any other. Nuts and bolts, write because you have to make a living, satisfy a market niche, promote the hell out of your work, and deposit your checks somewhere safe because the work is too hard to risk the rewards on a hot stock.

The second is the group – Like Toole – who have something very personal to say, about themselves and the culture that influences and informs them. You won’t find them writing about vampires or shape shifters. You won’t find sex scenes every ten pages in their books. You won’t be inundated in their books by cutesy witches who fall in love with handsome hunks or lady detectives who wear provocative skirts and kick back with the boys in the squad room.

Sometimes the two groups overlap – Jack London comes to mind. So even though some writers, based solely on their writing, are more angst ridden than others, even the nuts and bolts genre writers can be depressed. But depression and suicide are not limited to writers. And I suspect that John Kennedy Toole’s problems pre-dated any rejections by New York publishing houses.

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

An Inheritance of Loneliness

From The Paris Review:

Quarantine has made me a lonelier woman, but I’ve always held the inheritance of another woman’s loneliness. When my mother was in her early twenties, she left her mother’s house in Bangalore to move to New York City, where her new husband—my father— had been living for the previous few years. It was her mother, my grandmother, who arranged the match. My grandmother was thrilled to send my mother to America, even though my mother didn’t want to marry and didn’t idealize coming to America the way her mother did.

You can be happy anywhere, unhappy anywhere, my grandmother told her. The two of them had a mother-daughter relationship like something out of a Jamaica Kincaid novel: loving but contentious, fraught with discipline and warnings about the difficulty of being a woman.

My mother remembers her early life in New York as a kind of self-quarantine. While my father worked, she spent her days isolated in their tiny studio apartment, going stir-crazy, cooking and cleaning and staring at the clinical white walls. A gossipy relative back home had spooked her into believing she’d be assassinated if she opened the front door in America. Occasionally, she spoke to the women holed up in the neighboring apartments. But most of her downtime, my mother spent sleeping. She slept purposefully and often, trying to reenter her old life in her dreams: the long walks with college girlfriends to the pani puri truck, the yipping of a neighbor’s Pomeranian, the pulse of life as an unmarried woman, alive with vagary and freedom. My mother resented her mother for marrying her off. They spoke once a month, on an international call, during which they’d argue about fate. And then my mother would hang up, miss her mother, and sleep away some more of her time.

Experiences like my mother’s are commonplace for many women. They’re often fictionalized and folded into novels about immigrant experiences, novels many readers from immigrant communities have grown tired of. Can’t we tell stories other than the one about coming to America and assimilating? And yet, those narratives have a pull for me—they contain the stories about women’s loneliness that have always absorbed me.

I’ve read Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy over and over. It’s the novel I turn to when I crave the order of a book I have loved before. First published in 1990, Lucy is about a young woman who leaves her home in the West Indies to work as an au pair for Mariah and Lewis, a well-to-do white couple in the United States. At first glance, Lucy seemed to me like the kind of novel I am built to love: I had always wanted to be a woman rising, and so I liked stories about women rising. Lucy’s premise suggests a narrative about social ascendance—a young, wage-earning woman, a modern governess type who pulls herself up by her bootstraps. It seems, on the surface, to promise to be another immigrant bildungsroman, charting the arc of a young woman’s maturation into a society where things like bootstraps are celebrated.

But Lucy doesn’t care about ascendance or assimilation. Kincaid doesn’t concern herself with a woman becoming, but rather with a woman being. How does a person get to be that way? Lucy wonders, over and over again. What she wants to be—all she wants to be—is alone. She wants to isolate herself before society seizes the chance to isolate her. Solitude is an act of self-preservation, whereas loneliness can be an act of violence, and so every choice Lucy makes is in pursuit of solitude. She chooses to leave her island behind. She chooses to leave her mother behind, a mother who, for all the ferocity of her love, raised her daughter with the same patriarchal hand that had raised her.

Once in the States, Lucy ignores the stack of letters her mother sends her, all the notes of love and punishment and longing. She comes to love her employer, Mariah, like a mother figure, and the two form a bond despite the chasm of their class difference. “The right thing always happens to her,” Lucy says of Mariah. “The thing she always wants to happen, happens.” 

. . . .

As I sit, alone, through quarantine, it’s my fourth time rereading Lucy, but I still remember my first. I was in college, and my professor introduced each novel we studied with a chalkboard quote culled from another novel. For Lucy, that quote came from George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Eliot writes, and I have never forgotten:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow, and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we would die of that roar that lies on the other side of silence.

The quote arrives at a point in Middlemarch when the heroine has just married. She’s crying on her honeymoon. Her new husband, of whom she wanted to be an equal, has relegated her to the position of an assistant. The heroine’s pain is visceral—the claustrophobic friction of a marriage, the realization that a man is what he always was—but it’s also ordinary, and Eliot’s shrewd narrator knows that readers don’t sympathize with ordinary pains. To sympathize with the ordinary would be impractical; it would mean feeling too much.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

PG thinks the author’s grandmother was correct, “You can be happy anywhere, unhappy anywhere.”

A lot of people are certainly unhappy everywhere during these days of confinement, but, PG suggests, that doesn’t mean a lot of people everywhere are unhappy all the time.

PG further suggests that, when some people are unhappy, they see unhappiness wherever they look. When he makes this statement, PG is making an observation about human nature as manifested in some people. Human nature also makes it possible for some people to be happy when they see unhappiness all around them. They are able to locate and experience happiness despite what they see everywhere.

PG realizes he is stating the obvious. By these observations, he is not implying any criticism of those who, for one reason or another, physical, emotional or situational, have a hard time feeling happy. He understands that, “If you act happy, you will be happy,” doesn’t always work or even, for some people, ever work.

However, for PG, none of these observations and factors mean that Grandmother’s saying was incorrect.

You can be happy anywhere, unhappy anywhere.

Pete Hamill

For those visitors to The Passive Voice today who think they may have wandered into a parallel universe, PG has several posts written by or about Pete Hamill, an up-from-the streets Irish New York City tabloid newspaper guy from the old school. Pete died on August 5 of this year.

PG gained his appreciation for big-city urban columnists when he attended college near, then lived in Chicago and read Mike Royko’s newspaper columns (Royko wrote over 7,500 daily columns during his career). Royko was entertaining when he wrote about the more idiotic mishaps of the Chicago political machine and various of its personalities, but PG liked Royko’s columns about people who lived and worked in the grittier ethnic neighborhoods of the city.

Among others, there were areas where Polish, German, Greek, Italian, Swedish, Ukrainian, Czech, Chinese and Lithuanian immigrants had congregated during the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. At the time PG lived in Chicago, it was easy to locate and explore neighborhoods where most of the store signs were written in a foreign language and PG would seldom hear English spoken on the streets.

This was a new world for PG, who had grown up in tiny isolated towns that were nothing like Chicago. (Think Lake Wobegon).

As a result of these earlier experiences, PG developed a taste for the writing style of old-school urban tabloid journalists and Pete Hamill was one of the best.

Up the Stairs with Cus D’Amato by Pete Hamill

From The Village Voice:

In those days, you had to pass a small candy stand to get to the door of the Gramercy Gym on East 14th Street. The door was heavy, with painted zinc nailed across its face and a misspelled sign saying “Gramacy Gym,” and when you opened the door, you saw a long badly lit stairway, climbing into darkness. There was another door on the landing, and a lot of tough New York kids would reach that landing and find themselves unable to open the second door. They’d go back down the stairs, try to look cool as they bought a soda at the candy stand, then hurry home. Many others opened the second door. And when they did, they entered the tough, hard, disciplined school of a man named Cus D’Amato.

“First thing I want to know about a kid,” Cus said to me once, on some lost night in the ’50s, “is whether he can open that door. Then when he walks in, I look at him, try to see what he’s seeing. Most of them stand at the door. They see guys skipping rope, shadowboxing, hitting the bags. Most of all, they see guys in the ring. Fighting. And then they have to decide. Do they want this, or not? If they want it, they stay, they ask someone what they should do. Most of them are shy, for some reason. Almost all fighters. They whisper. You tell them to come back, and you’ll see what can be done. They have to spend at least one night dealing with fear. If they come back the second time, then maybe you have a fighter.”

I wasn’t a fighter, but I came up those stairs almost every day in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and in some important ways I learned as much from Cus D’Amato as the fighters did. I was living then on 9th Street and Second Avenue, working nights at the Post, and I’d wake up around three in the afternoon and walk to 14th Street and hang out with the fighters. My friend José Torres was then the hottest young middleweight in the city and one of Cus D’Amato’s fighters. He had lost by one point to Laszlo Papp in the finals of the ’56 Olympics in Melbourne, and when he came to New York from Puerto Rico he placed his career in the hands of Cus.

“I didn’t know anything about New York,” he said. “I didn’t know very much about boxing. Most of all, I didn’t know anything about life. So I learned about everything then from Cus.”

Cus, who died last week at 77 after a long struggle with pneumonia, was one of the best teachers I ever met. He was a tough, intelligent man who was almost Victorian in his beliefs in work and self-denial and fierce concentration. For years he’d lived alone in the office of the gym, accompanied only by a huge boxer dog named Champ; there were books on the shelves (he loved the Civil War and essays on strategy and tactics and almost never read novels, although he admired W. C. Heinz’s The Professional) and a gun somewhere and a small black-and-­white TV set and a pay phone on the wall. After Floyd Patterson became champion in 1956, Cus took an apartment over a coffee shop on 53rd Street and Broadway and bought some elegantly tailored clothes and a homburg; but, talking to him, I always sensed that his idea of paradise was that room and the cot in the office of the Gramercy Gym.

“You can’t want too many things,” he said to me one wintry evening, after the fighters had gone, the speed bags were stilled, and we stood at the large gym windows while snow fell into 14th Street. “The beginning of corruption is wanting things. You want a car or a fancy house or a piano, and the next thing you know, you’re doing things you didn’t want to do, just to get the things. I guess maybe that’s why I never got married. It wasn’t that I didn’t like women. They’re nice. It’s nice. It’s that women want things, and if I want the woman, then I have to want the things she wants. Hey, I don’t want a new refrigerator, or a big TV set, or a new couch … ”

. . . .

He cherished great fighters — Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Sandy Saddler, Willie Pep, Tommy Loughran — but sometimes, late at night, sitting over coffee, he’d talk about the fighter that didn’t exist: the perfect fighter, the masterpiece. “The ideal fighter has heart, skill, movement, intelligence, creativity. You can have everything, but if you can’t make it up while you’re in there, you can’t be great. A lot of guys have the mechanics and no heart; lots of guys have heart, no mechanics; the thing that puts it together, it’s mysterious, it’s like making a work of art, you bring everything to it, you make it up when you’re doing it.”

. . . .

The Mob was all over boxing when Cus brought his first good fighters out of the Gramercy Gym. The hoodlums cut into fighters, arranged tank jobs, fixed judges. Frankie Carbo was called the underworld’s commissioner of boxing, a vicious punk who lived off other men’s sweat and controlled a number of managers. Carbo was friendly, sort of, with Jim Norris, a rich bum with a hoodlum complex who ran the IBC out of the old Garden on Eighth Avenue and 50th Street. There’s no room here to relate the details of Cus D’Amato’s sustained contest with Norris, Carbo, and the Garden. Certainly he was on the moral high ground, but the terrible thing was that his personal crusade also hurt his fighters.

We’ll never know how good Patterson and Torres might have become if they’d been fighting more often, battling those fighters who were controlled by the IBC and the Garden. Certainly Torres would have made more money. I remember one main event he had to take in Boston, when he was still a hot fighter in New York. The total purse came to $28.35. Joe Fariello said, “Joe, you take the $20, I’ll take the $8, and we’ll send the 35 cents to Cus.” Patterson did get rich, and Torres did become champion years later than he should have, and in the wrong division (he was one of the greatest middleweights I ever saw, but had to settle for the light-heavyweight championship in 1965). But the competitive fire of Shaw withered from lack of action; the others drifted away.

“It breaks my heart sometimes, thinking about those kids not fighting,” he said to me once. “But I don’t see any other way.”

Link to the rest at The Village Voice

Farewell to Fosse by Pete Hamill

From the Village Voice:

Fosse was dead and after the urgent calls and the logistics of death, there seemed nothing really to do about it except go for a walk along Broadway in the midnight rain.

This was the square mile of the earth Bob Fosse cared for more than any other. Up there on the second floor at 56th Street was the rehearsal hall where I’d met him years ago. Around the corner was the Carnegie Deli, where he’d have lunch with Paddy Chayefsky and Herb Gardner, trading lines, drinking coffee, smoking all those goddamned cigarettes. On the 11th floor of 850 Seventh Avenue, he and Chayefsky and Gardner had their separate offices, and from Paddy’s they would often gaze in wonder across the back courtyard of the Hotel Woodward, at the man in underwear who was always shaving, no matter what the hour. A few blocks away was the building where Fosse lived the last decade of his life.

And down the rain-drowned avenue was the sleazy hamlet I always thought of as Fosseville: all glitter and neon and dangerous shadows. This wasn’t Runyon’s fairy-tale Broadway; it was harder, meaner, as reliable in its ruthlessness as a switchblade. Yet even in his most cynical years, Fosse insisted on seeing its citizens as human, observing their felonies and betrayals not as a journalist or a sociologist but as the fine artist he was. “I see a hooker on a corner,” he said to me once, “and I can only think: there’s some kinda story there. I mean, she was once six years old … ” On this late night, I could see Fosse in black shirt and trousers, standing in some grimy doorway, looking out at his lurid parish; he had been young here and almost died here and sometimes fled from the place and always came back. In Fosseville the gaudiest dreams existed side by side with the most vicious betrayals; everything was real but nothing was true. And, of course, he believed in some dark way that all could be redeemed by love.

Nobody loved harder. He loved his wives: Mary Ann Niles, who danced with him in the last years of the nightclub era (and who died a year after Fosse), Joan McCracken, who died on him when they were both young, and Gwen Verdon, who was with him when he lay down for the final time on the grass of a small park in Washington. But Fosse wasn’t one of those men who can be married; the emotional core of his masterpiece, All That Jazz, is not so much the romantic attraction of death, but the impossibility of fidelity. There were simply too many beautiful women in this world, with their grace and style and intelligence and mystery; the demand of monogamy was like ordering a man to love only one Vermeer.

. . . .

But he loved other things too: almost all forms of music; nightclub comics; cheap vaudeville jokes (Q. “Do you file your nails?” A. “No, I throw them away …”); the New York Mets; good food (he spent hours cooking in the huge kitchen of the house in Quogue, bringing his perfectionism to the details of the simplest meal); Fred Astaire (there were no pictures of himself in the Quogue house and two of Astaire); air hockey; children; New York Post headlines; boxing and football; his daughter Nicole; good wine, margaritas, and brandy; his cat, Macho, a stray discovered beaten-up and bloodied in the Quogue grasslands and nursed to plump domesticity; and, of course, those goddamned cigarettes.

. . . .

After family and lovers, he admired writers more than anyone else. Among his friends were Gardner and Chayefsky, E. L. Doctorow, Peter Maas, and Budd Schulberg. Although he liked to affect the I’m-only-a-song-and-dance-man pose, Fosse was a careful, intelligent reader. His writer friends knew how high Fosse’s own standards were (whether he failed or succeeded, he never set out to manufacture crap) and they often responded to his subtle urgings that they do better. Some writers who worked with him were angry at the end, as he demanded from them what he could more easily demand from a dancer; those who didn’t work with him had easier friendships.

Yes, Fosse was competitive, and cared (perhaps too much) about the way he stood in relation to other directors. In 1974, after he had his first ferocious heart attack, Gardner and Chayefsky were summoned to Fosse’s hospital room to serve as witnesses to his will. There were two lawyers waiting. Fosse was in critical condition in his bed, silent and trapped in a ganglia of tubes and wires. The lawyers asked the two writers to sign the will; Gardner did so immediately. But Chayefsky insisted on reading the text. He discovered that Fosse hadn’t left him anything, so he turned to the silent Fosse and said: “**** you, live!” Fosse started to laugh; all measuring devices began to go wild; the lawyers blanched; a platoon of nurses arrived to save Fosse’s life. Finally, all was calmed down again. Chayefsky resumed reading the will while Fosse lay silent. Then Paddy came to a provision that reserved $20,000 for a party for Fosse’s friends. Hey, that’s great, Chayefsky said, it’s just what Josh Logan did. For the first time, Fosse spoke.

“How much did Logan leave for the party?” he said, in a thin weak voice.

“Twenty thousand,” said Chayefsky.

“Make mine twenty-five,” said Fosse, falling back, as Chayefsky and Gardner dissolved into laughter. That visit probably saved his life.

Quite simply, Fosse wanted to be the best at what he did. In that impossibly romantic quest, he drove dancers hard (although never harder than he drove himself) and kept demanding more from his stars. He worked hard at understanding actors, studying with Sanford Meisner, reading the basic texts from Stanislavski to Harold Clurman. And he developed his own ways to get his actors to do their best work.

“He could act incredibly humble when he wanted something from you,” said Roy Scheider, who believes his own best work was in All That Jazz. “When he met someone he wanted for the first time, he knew everything about you. He’d done research, he’d seen your movies or plays. He’d say, ‘You know, you were very good in that part, hey, wait, you got a nomination, didn’t you? You won.’ And there’d be a pause, after he did all this praising. And then he’d say how that was nothing compared to what lies ahead in your work with me. And he made you believe it. And then he did it … After three, four meetings you’d be thoroughly convinced that you were not capable of giving him what he wanted. And then he would begin to build your confidence, making you feel that your reflowering would take place in his show.” Scheider laughed. “You see, for him, it was always being done for posterity. Every time out of the chute, it was for history.”

Link to the rest at The Village Voice

Our Jack – Pete Hamill on JFK

From Irish America:

Somewhere in the shadowy land between myth and history lies the domicile of John F. Kennedy. The first United States president of Irish-Catholic descent, Kennedy was a man of many faces: war hero, orator, lover, creator, and visionary. He had it all, and it was all taken away, but in the end he gained immortality.

℘℘℘

That day I was in Ireland, in the dark, hard northern city of Belfast. I was there with my father, who had been away from the city where he was born for more than 30 years. He was an American now: citizen of Brooklyn, survivor of the Depression and poverty, one leg lost on an American playing field in the late 1920s, playing a game learned in Ireland, father of seven children, fanatic of baseball. But along the Falls Road in Belfast in November 1963, he was greeted as a returning Irishman by his brother Frank and his surviving Irish friends, and there were many Irish tears and much Irish laughter, waterfalls of beer, and all the old Irish songs of defiance and loss. Billy Hamill was home. And on the evening of November 22, I was in my cousin Frankie Bennett’s house in a section called Andersonstown, dressing to go down to see the old man in a place called the Rock Bar. The television was on in the parlor. Frankie’s youngest kids were playing on the floor. A frail rain was falling outside.

And then the program was interrupted and a BBC announcer came on, his face grave, to say that the president of the United States had been shot while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. Everything in the room stopped. In his clipped, abrupt voice, the announcer said that the details were sketchy. Everyone turned to me, the visiting American, a reporter on a New York newspaper, as if I would know if this could possibly be true. I mumbled, talked nonsense – maybe it was a mistake; sometimes breaking news is moved too fast – but my stomach was churning. The regular program resumed; the kids went back to playing. A few minutes later, the announcer returned, and this time his voice was unsteady. It was true. John F. Kennedy, the president of the United States, was dead.

I remember whirling in pain and fury, slamming the wall with my open hand, and reeling out into the night. All over the city, thousands of human beings were doing the same thing. Doors slammed and sudden wails went up. Oh, sweet Jesus, they shot Jack! and They killed President Kennedy! and He’s been shot dead! At the foot of the Falls Road, I saw an enraged man punching a tree. Another man sat on the curb, sobbing into his hands. Trying to be a reporter, I wandered over to the Shankill Road, the main Protestant avenue in that city long ghettoized by religion and history. There was not yet a Peace Line; not yet any British troops hovering warily on the streets, no bombs or ambushes or bloody Sundays. The reaction was the same on the Shankill as it was on the Falls. Holy God, they’ve killed President Kennedy: with men weeping and children running aimlessly with the news and bawling women everywhere. It was a scale of grief I’d never seen before or since in any place on earth. That night, John Fitzgerald Kennedy wasn’t “the Catholic president” to the people of the Shankill or the Falls; he was the young and shining prince of the Irish diaspora.

Link to the rest at Irish America

Remembering Pete Hamill, The Tabloid Man Whose Greatest Story Was His Own

From National Public Radio:

Pete Hamill was a tabloid man: a columnist and top name on the masthead, mostly for the New York Post and Daily News, who wrote punchy, passionate, lyrical chronicles of city life, often for people who had to read them while they held onto a strap, standing on the Number 7 train from Queens.

Pete Hamill became tabloid-celebrity on his own, switching in a New York second from rolled-up sleeves and loosened tie on his beat, to black tie for evenings-out, where he squired—that’s a good tabloid verb—Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Shirley MacLaine, Linda Ronstadt, and other women of achievement.

But those years in the 1960s and early ’70s in which Pete Hamill was making his name and telling stories from neighborhoods the more polite and laureled New York newspapers often overlooked, he also spent too many hours on a bar stool in the kind of places tabloids called “watering holes;” and with glitterati literati; and not enough time with his children.

One night Pete put down a drink, and never picked one up again. Some of you may know how hard that is, every day, every hour.

Pete Hamill left high school when he was fifteen, which is when he began to drink. But in sobriety he discovered, as he put it, “I had gained the time I once spent drinking and the time I needed for recovery. And I began writing as never before.”

. . . .

“The culture of drink endures because it offers so many rewards,” Pete Hamill wrote: “[C]onfidence for the shy, clarity for the uncertain, solace to the wounded and lonely, and above all, the elusive promises of friendship and love…In the snug darkness of saloons, I learned much about being human and about mastering a craft. I had, as they say, a million laughs. But those grand times also caused great moral, physical, or psychological damage to myself and others…I started writing this book when some of my friends from the drinking life began to die. They were decent, talented, generous, and humane. But as they approached the end, physically ruined by decades of drinking, I remembered more of their good times than they did. In a way, this book is about them, too.”

Link to the rest at National Public Radio

Remembering Pete Hamill

From Publishers Weekly:

I was sitting on the steps of a building on New York City’s Water Street, on lunch break from my first full-time job after high school, working at a bank that no longer exists. I was reading a copy of the New York Post. It was a different paper back then, in 1973, its pages filled with columnists who worked the streets for their stories instead of sitting inside their homes or office. It was on this day that I read my first Pete Hamill column.

It was the day after then vice president Spiro Agnew copped a plea and greased his way out of a stiff prison sentence, a bag man destined for the dust bin of history. Hamill’s column raged about injustice, how there was one rule of law for the powerful and connected and another for the poor and neglected. It was written with passion and with an elegance I had yet to come across in a newspaper, and I was hooked.

From a young age, I wanted to work on a newspaper. But after reading Hamill, I needed to work on one. From that day forward I read everything he wrote, studying the style that flowed so gracefully off the page, the rhythm of the words and the pace of the column. The stories were about people I knew, had grown up with—people who went to work in the dark and returned home when it was even darker. People who could never catch a break, always living behind the financial eight ball, one phone call or knock on the door away from ruin.

In 1976 I landed a copy boy’s job at the New York Daily News. A week after I started, Hamill and Jimmy Breslin came to the paper, each hired to write three columns a week. And with that, my writing education and friendship with Hamill began.

. . . .

During my nine months as a copy boy, I freelanced for any publication that would take my work. And when the occasional story was published, I would leave a copy on Pete’s desk. He would then take the time to make me a better writer, going over every line, practically every word, telling me what I did right and where I steered off the road. He taught me about the importance of the first and last paragraph, that my words should flow across a page and end on a strong note, similar to a jazz musician ending a riff.

He was at the height of his popularity, writing novels as well as columns, living with a movie star and later dating the wife of a former president. He, along with Breslin, were the true Princes of the City. There was even talk of his making a run for mayor. One afternoon, I asked Pete, “You thinking of doing it?”

“It would be a lot of fun,” he said. “But what if I won? What the hell would I do then?”

Pete introduced me to editors he knew and had worked with. One was Al Ellenberg, then the editor of the SoHo Weekly News. Ellenberg told me any story idea I gave him he would assign and pay $5 an article. “What about expenses?” I asked. “Take it out of the $5 I’ll never pay you,” Ellenberg said. “Pete sent you here to learn. Not to get rich.”

I went back to Pete’s office and told him about the exchange I had with Ellenberg. He laughed that loud, contagious laugh of his and said, “Welcome to newspapers.”

In those years, I did my best to copy Hamill’s style of writing, trying to capture the rhythmic beats of the words, the cadence, the strong opening and the even stronger closing paragraph. This was during the Son of Sam summer, and my friends at the Daily News nicknamed me “Son of Pete.”

I asked him if I was doing something wrong trying to copy the way he wrote. “You’re finding your way,” he said. “Going through the first of the four stages—imitate, emulate, equal, and surpass.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

The OP mentioned that Hamill died on August 5.

PG was also a fan of Pete Hamill and include a few Hamill stories in various posts today.

Why I Actually Prefer Stories With Prologues

From Writer Unboxed:

I’ve been thinking about how many readers say they dislike prologues; how they routinely skip them or even refuse to read them. Are you one of these readers?

I’ve been thinking about how damn near everyone recommends against including a prologue when you’re trying to sell your story. If you’re wondering why prologues have been on my mind, well, I suppose I ought to get it out in the open, right at the top. The newest version of my WIP has one.

In light of that disclosure, you might think I’m biased. But in thinking about prologues—how many say they don’t read them or say not to include one when submitting—I still came to this simple conclusion:

I don’t just love prologues. I actually prefer stories when they begin with them.

. . . .

Perhaps we should start with a definition, so we’re all on the same (first) page: A prologue is a separate introductory section of a literary work. Simple enough, right?

My conclusion regarding my preference began with a quick survey of my own shelves. Even I was surprised by how many of my favorite books and series begin with a prologue. Or at least some version of one. Not all of them are labeled as prologues, so for the sake of my survey, I went back to our simple definition of a “separate introductory section.” For me, being “separate” implies that the story itself does not rely on the content of a prologue in order to begin or to reach its resolution. In other words, the story would make sense without them. Often, prologues take place in another place or time than the story’s starting point. Often without the protagonist present.

Let’s look at a few of the examples from my shelves that helped me reach my conclusion. My survey included (but was not limited to):

*The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien—Labeled as a prologue, this is really nothing less than a twenty page dissertation “On Hobbits,” and oh, how relatable they become. All one has to do to understand its importance is imagine having no idea what a hobbit is (not so easy for those of us raised after the books achieved popularity). Tolkien manages to make hobbits so much more than fairies, gnomes, or any other preconception of fantastical “little people.”

. . . .

*The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan—The series-starting prologue features a dystopian cataclysm, from the POV of a character whose identity and relevance is not fully revealed for several books! We have no idea if it’s a glimpse at a distant past or a terrifying future.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Anna and Her Children

From The Wall Street Journal:

In 1873, soon after abandoning a novel about Peter the Great, 44-year-old Leo Tolstoy wrote a friend that he had begun drafting the book that would become “Anna Karenina” and that he expected it to be finished within two weeks. A year later he had made so little progress that he was still able to tell himself he was composing a trifle: “I think it will be good, but it won’t be liked and it won’t be successful because it’s very simple.” But by the summer of 1874, his attitude had darkened and he wrote that an admirer “got me interested in my novel again, but I just dropped it. It is terribly disgusting and nasty.” November, 1875: “My God, if only someone would finish A. Karenina for me. It’s unbearably repulsive.”

There is a happy ending here, as the novel did of course come to be written, but that was little comfort to Tolstoy, who by 1881 was back to his old song: “Concerning Karenina, I assure you that for me that abomination does not exist.”

This catalog of gripes comes from Bob Blaisdell’s entertaining micro-biography, “Creating Anna Karenina” (Pegasus, 414 pages, $29.95), which focuses on the years 1873 to 1878, when Tolstoy was writing, or more often not writing, the novel many consider to be the greatest of all time. “In about thirty of those fifty-three months” he spent on “Anna Karenina,” Mr. Blaisdell notes, “he doesn’t seem to have done a lick of work on it.” The book is a chronicle of distractions and peevish excuses that also shows how the consuming labor of procrastination became a crucial part of the novel’s texture.

. . . .

He was also addicted to buying land and horses, a fortunate obsession because, as Mr. Blaisdell notes, it was a need for money that pushed him to begin serializing “Anna Karenina.” But as he tried again to focus on the novel, a new obstacle arose. A few years later, in his “religious-philosophical” work “Confession,” Tolstoy would write about the depression that overwhelmed him during the mid-1870s: “It had come to this, that I, a healthy, fortunate man, felt I could no longer live: some irresistible power impelled me to rid myself one way or other of life.”

. . . .

Virginia Woolf observed that, unlike Dostoevsky, Tolstoy wrote from the “outside inwards.” The details of life absorbed him, despite his growing desire to be more spiritually centered. In “Creating Anna Karenina,” Tolstoy’s endless side projects seem at first like nuisances deterring him from the single-minded production of art, yet it’s in the daily minutia, and the passionate convictions his characters could inject into it, that we find his great novel’s soul.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

The Spy Who Read Me

From Public Books:

“Spying and fiction are not entirely different processes,” says historian of British espionage Ben Macintyre, in a conversation with master of spy fiction and former intelligence officer John le Carré. “You try to create an artificial world. And the better and more realistic and more emotionally believable you can make that world, as either a spy or a novelist, the better you are going to be at it.” Yet, Charles McCarry, who was a deep-cover operative for the CIA, and the author of the Paul Christopher novels, doesn’t see continuity between spying and fiction but, instead, between the secret and everyday worlds: “The fact of the matter is, the secret world is too much like the ordinary world to be altogether entertaining. The elements of tradecraft that thrill us in books—cover stories, clandestine meetings, dead drops, telephone codes and so on—are techniques familiar to anyone who has ever covered a big story for a newspaper, negotiated a big contract against serious competition or conducted a clandestine love affair.” Fiction and spying can look like each other, and spying and everyday life can look like each other.

What to make, then, of the new glut of women writing about spying—both in fiction and in memoir? On April 28, 2020, Jung H. Pak—a history PhD who spent 10 years working for the Central Intelligence Agency—published Becoming Kim Jong Un: A Former CIA Officer’s Insights into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator. Pak writes as a former intelligence officer, and as a woman former intelligence officer, about a uniquely powerful, brutal, and secretive male leader. Pak’s biography of Kim was published during an obviously fascinating and enormously consequential context: active, ongoing speculation about his health. It also emerged into a specific literary context: innovative writing by women about the work of intelligence. Intelligence work by women is at the heart of new novels and memoirs about women intelligence officers. Books by Lara Prescott and Amarylliss Fox (not to mention books by Kate Atkinson, Lauren Wilkinson, Nada Bakos, and Tracy Walder) show women serving as spies, writing about serving as spies, and, in doing so, interlacing writing and spying.

Recently, women writing about spying—in memoir and fiction—has moved in two directions. In the past, fiction about espionage synched up with the intelligence concerns and capabilities of its day. But, today, fiction about espionage also sets its stories in the past.1 I focus here on The Secrets We Kept, by Prescott, a novel published late last year but set during the Cold War.

. . . .

The women writers tell women’s stories of writing and spying. The experiences of practicing tradecraft aren’t precisely McCarry’s, and that’s worth discussing. Most importantly, they chronicle what spying looks like and what the everyday looks like, and, meaningfully, insist on their overlap.

For these women, paradoxically, the practice of being a spy and being an ordinary woman are not dissimilar. “I’m neck-deep in a game of make-believe,” laments Fox, “and the game is so convincing, I have no idea when it began. Or the ‘I’ who is playing it.”  Sound familiar?

Link to the rest at Public Books

Barn Sour

From EquiMed:

Barn sour is a term used by horsemen to describe a horse that doesn’t want to leave home, presenting resistance or complete refusal if you try to ride him away from his comfort area.

Horses become barn sour for various reasons – usually human error in handling or training, not understanding how the horse’s mind works.

As a herd animal, the horse prefers to be with his buddies. He may be reluctant to leave them unless he is well-bonded with the human who is leading or riding him.

Link to the rest at EquiMed

While growing up on ranches and farms (“ranch” in the Mountain West = “farm” in the Middle West), PG often heard his father use the term, “barn sour.” Contra the definition above, PG’s father applied it to horses, cattle and many other domesticated animals. (Pigs, the most intelligent farm animal, are their own separate thing entirely.)

Basically, per PG’s father, when an animal was barn sour, it was failing to thrive because it had been locked inside a confined space for too long and needed to get out in the open air where it could talk to its buddies.

PG decided he was barn sour from being confined to his Coronavirus hermitage for too long. Mrs. PG is always excellent company, but still. So, PG arranged a lunch with a small group of attorney buddies yesterday. (Nobody was contageous, the restaurant had half its tables and booths blocked off, etc., etc.)

We had a wonderful time and (typically for attorneys) talked up a storm. PG learned that nobody likes Zoom Court, but it does fulfill legal requirements and can move some cases along the path to conclusion.

However, Zoom jury trials have not been approved locally, especially in criminal cases where, in the United States and elsewhere, the accused has lots of constitutionally-guaranteed rights and appellate courts will reverse and remand for a new trial if those rights are infringed, sometimes by even a teeny-tiny bit.

The authors of the US Constitution made no mention of Zoom trials (at least in writing).

One of our number, a small woman who prosecutes sex crimes, including sex crimes involving juveniles, has three back-to-back jury trials scheduled as soon as flesh-and-blood judges and juries can come back to the courthouse. In PG’s experience, judges and attorneys (on both sides) dread trials involving sex crimes. A bloody auto accident damages trial is easier to deal with emotionally.

For those who have not experienced the misfortune of practicing law, a criminal jury trial is a legal proceeding in which the defendant’s constitutional rights are most carefully protected. One misstep by whoever is acting on behalf of the state or federal government trying to send bad guys and bad gals to prison and it is quite probable that a mistrial will be declared by the judge.

A mistrial means that the trial has to start all over again from scratch with a new jury. Given how much time jury trials take and how crowded criminal dockets tend to be in many places, a new trial may not be possible for several months. If the victim of the crime has testified before a mistrial is declared, the victim has to tell his/her terrible story all over again in a public trial and has several weeks or months to anticipate doing so.

Defense attorneys (who are ethically obligated to put forth their best efforts on behalf of their clients, regardless of what their personal feelings may be or whether they have advised their clients to accept the offer of a plea bargain instead of taking their chances at a trial before a judge and jury that could easily result in a more severe penalty) are almost always happy to have a mistrial (they’re the ones who will make a motion for a mistrial unless the judge decides one is necessary on her/his own) because witnesses may move to distant lands for good or bad reasons and, sometimes victims tell the prosecuting attorney/district attorney/state’s attorney that they can’t stand the idea of sitting in court talking about the worst day of their lives again.

On many more than one occasion, a mistrial results in a plea bargain on better terms (from the defendant’s perspective) than any plea bargain offered by the prosecutor prior to the mistrial or that a judge is likely to order if a jury deems the defendant to be guilty.

Another factor is that, despite careful preparation on both sides, it is quite possible that surprises will happen during a trial. Witnesses will say surprising things when a lot of strangers, including an intimidating judge, are watching them or something different than what they told counsel during a pre-trial meeting them to go over their testimony, etc., etc.

PG provides this lengthy explanation to provide a bit of perspective about the pressures his friend who prosecutes sex crimes is feeling. PG understands from other attorneys that she is a fierce courtroom presence who is noted for meticulously dotting her legal i’s and crossing her legal t’s (a practice which ultimately results in her having to conduct fewer trials than she would if she weren’t so good at her job.)

Usually, this woman’s criminal trials are separated by at least a few weeks, so the specter of carefully preparing for three jury trials in a row with little time in between each would be intimidating for anyone.

However, in the fashion of almost all social gatherings of attorneys which PG has attended, the lunch conversation consisted of talking shop in a light, witty and intelligent manner that certainly lifted PG’s spirits and, he hopes, those of the other attendees as well.

The lingering effects of lunch beat back barn sourness for PG for a few hours, which was fortuitous since he had a great many complex tasks to complete.

Which is why he didn’t have the time to post yesterday.

Jammed-Up Day

PG is having a jammed-up day.

It began with a long out-of-office meeting and continued with a wide range of must-do tasks that took longer than he anticipated (of course).

He has not abandoned TPV or its lovely visitors.

He needs to complete one more must-do task, then he’ll put up some posts albeit probably fewer than he usually does.

The Brontës: the unfortunate and unlikely tale of the world’s “greatest literary sisters”

From History Extra:

Charlotte Brontë steps into her father’s study. In her hand, she holds a book – a hardback volume bound in cloth, with the words ‘Jane Eyre’ stamped on the cover. “Papa, I’ve been writing a book,” she announces, rather understating the true matter of her achievement. In fact, her novel is completed, published, and is selling at almost record speed. “Have you my dear?” the unsuspecting Reverend Patrick Brontë replies, without looking up. As Charlotte continues, the clergyman slowly realises that his daughter has become a literary sensation, in secret, right under his nose. After some time, Patrick calls in Charlotte’s younger sisters, Emily and Anne: “Charlotte has been writing a book – and I think it is better than I expected.” It is good that he approves of Charlotte’s tale, because he’s about to learn that his other daughters have similar stories to tell…

This conversation, recounted by Patrick years later to Charlotte’s first biographer, occurred at the beginning of 1848. It was a tumultuous year for the Brontës, with glorious highs and tragic lows. But at this point, the Brontë women were happy, little knowing that they were on the brink of legendary – if short-lived – careers. They have since become famed the world over for their intense, dramatic and tragic novels, for which they had plenty of inspiration in their own lives…

. . . .

The tragedies started early for the Brontës. In 1821, when Charlotte was five, Emily was three and Anne was not yet two, they lost their mother to illness. Four years after that, their two eldest sisters both died of tuberculosis in as many months. Five Brontës remained: their father Patrick, an Irish-born, Cambridge-educated vicar, the girls, and their brother Branwell, who was a year younger than Charlotte. Their mother’s sister, Aunt Branwell, also lived with them in the parsonage of the industrial town of Haworth, Yorkshire. The unassuming grey-stone building, in its bleak setting between a graveyard and the vast expanse of the moors, became a much-loved home, to which the sisters always felt a painful pull.

. . . .

Over the next few years, the sisters took up various, generally short-lived, teaching positions. “All three girls hated being teachers and governesses,” says Barker, largely as “they couldn’t spare the time to write about their imaginary worlds, and Charlotte in particular resented the servility of the position.” Anne was the only one to maintain a long-term post, as governess to the Robinson family from 1840-45. Shortly after Anne joined the Robinsons, Charlotte spearheaded a scheme to open their own school. For this they needed a more sophisticated education so, in February 1842, Charlotte (aged 25) and Emily (23), went to a school in Brussels.

. . . .

They pushed through their homesickness to make the most of the opportunity, only returning at the end of 1842 after Aunt Branwell died. Afterwards, Charlotte returned to Brussels alone. She became forlorn and depressed, and also fell in love with her tutor. The painfully one-sided attachment would continue long after she left Brussels at the end of 1843. Back in Haworth, lovelorn Charlotte set about sourcing pupils for the school, but none were found and the entire dream was dropped, with surprisingly little regret.

. . . .

In autumn 1845, Charlotte found some of Emily’s poems and read them, uninvited. Emily was enraged by the intrusion, but the incident gave head-strong Charlotte an idea – if the sisters could gather a collection of poems, they might be able to publish in secret and, if successful, they could become professional writers. They would never have to teach again, nor would they have to worry so much about Branwell’s ability to provide. After calming Emily, Charlotte, who as Barker explains “was the only one ambitious for fame,” convinced her sisters of the plan.

Link to the rest at History Extra

Your memory

Your memory is a monster; you forget – it doesn’t. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you – and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you!

John Irving

My First Year as a Mother, I Only Read Women Authors. Here’s What I Learned.

When I was six months pregnant, I moved across the world, and I found myself thinking a lot about containers. First, in order to move I had to put everything I owned, including books, into containers. Then those containers had to be loaded into a shipping container that went across the Atlantic. My old life had to be folded and put away in the trunks of memory as I said goodbye to friends, quit a job I was sorry to leave, broke the lease on my one-bedroom apartment, and signed the paperwork for my spousal visa. And in the third trimester, it had become more and more obvious that my body was itself a container—one that was struggling to contain a writhing, wriggling being.

IMAGE: Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The boxes carrying my things arrived at my new home a few weeks before my due date, and I put my books back on the shelf, not knowing how to organize them. When would I get to read again? As I waited for contractions to start, I read as fast as I could, soaking up the alone time. But it turned out having a baby didn’t mean I couldn’t find time to read. It just meant reading was different. I read on my Kindle app on my iPhone as the baby nursed. I spent long, lonely maternity leave days browsing the shelves at the local library, and then I read my picks while the baby napped.

But what should I read, now that I inhabited this strange, new life? The world was no longer defined by containers—I was outside of all the boxes now, wandering around in a cold new world and watching over a vulnerable, needy being who didn’t know or care what I was thinking about.

I decided to take on a year-long experiment of reading only women authors. My energy to read—and especially to be an engaged, opinionated reader—was dwindling. I wanted to find inspiration and understanding in the voices of other women. It was reductive, I knew, to imagine other women were the solution, but at the same time I craved reductive thinking. I just wanted things to be simple, and to work.

Early in the year, I found a book that let me look inside another new mother’s postpartum mind, and I recognized my own warped perceptions. The book was Little Labors by Rivka Galchen. “She had appeared as an animal,” Galchen writes about her newborn daughter. “A previously undiscovered old-world monkey, but one with whom I could communicate deeply: it was an unsettling, intoxicating, against-nature feeling. A feeling that felt like black magic. We were rarely apart.” Galchen’s book is in fragments, in dream-like observations and factually-presented metaphors that echoed my own disordered internal world. Suddenly, I felt like I was in a container again—a box labeled “Mothers like Rivka Galchen.” I was sure my experiment was working.

Link to the rest at The Millions

Here’s another PG experiment with a new (at least to him) WordPress block.

The two images and the text included with them are called a Media and Text block. PG likes the look and thinks it’s better than putting a big cover photo at the end of the post per one of Amazon Associates SiteStrip embeds.

Feel free to share your responses to intermingled media and images in posts. After viewing other websites that include visual media along with stories/articles, he was concerned that TPV was a little visually boring.

The downside to more image/text combos is that PG tends to wander off into OCD voyages to locate the perfect public domain/royalty-free image, so if he continues to use Media and Text blocks, he’ll do so on an intermittent basis. PG is inclined to match image sizes to text sizes a bit better if he continues to use this particular block (there goes that OCD again), so tweaking the size is likely to be an additional step.