The Complementarity of Multiple Loves: The Victorian Philosopher Edward Carpenter on How Freedom Strengthens Togetherness in Long-Term Relationships


“Sympathy with and understanding of the person one lives with must be cultivated to the last degree possible, because it is a condition of any real and permanent alliance. And it may even go so far (and should go so far) as a frank understanding and tolerance of such person’s other loves.”


The Complementarity of Multiple Loves: The Victorian Philosopher Edward Carpenter on How Freedom Strengthens Togetherness in Long-Term Relationships

“A friend is not to be found in the world such as one can conceive of, such as one needs, for no human being unites so many of the attributes of God as we feel our nature requires,” the pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote as she devised her lovely theory of complementarity in intimate relationships, insisting that rather than burdening one person with the expectation of meeting our every expectation, we ought to scatter our needs and desires across a range of intimates, each chosen for their natural and unstrained ability to meet a particular need.

Curiously, while most of us are able to see the clear and radiant truth of this theory when it comes to our friendships, our cultural mythologies, sculpted by millennia of religious dogma, still hold romantic love to the impossible expectation of having one person meet our every need. We speak easily and gladly of a circle of friends, but in romance we contract the circle to the unitary locus of the idealized lover.

Long before the notion of polyamory entered our lexicon and became an acceptable frontier of the heart’s imagination, the philosopher, poet, and early LGBT rights activist Edward Carpenter (August 29, 1844–June 28, 1929) offered an antidote to this limiting cultural mythology in his uncommonly insightful 1912 book The Drama of Love and Death: A Study of Human Evolution and Transfiguration (public library), which also gave us Carpenter on how to survive the agony of falling in love.

Edward Carpenter, 1900

Two decades after meeting the love of his own life, with whom he would spend the remainder of his days, Carpenter — a contemporary of Mitchell’s who, like her, was ahead of his time in myriad ways — writes:

Sympathy with and understanding of the person one lives with must be cultivated to the last degree possible, because it is a condition of any real and permanent alliance. And it may even go so far (and should go so far) as a frank understanding and tolerance of such person’s other loves. After all, it seldom happens, with any one who has more than one or two great interests in life, that he finds a mate who can sympathize with or understand them all. In that case a certain portion of his personality is left out in the cold, as it were; and if this is an important portion it seems perfectly natural for him to seek for a mate or a lover on that side too. Two such loves are often perfectly compatible and reconcilable — though naturally one will be the dominant love, and the other subsidiary, and if such secondary loves are good-humoredly tolerated and admitted, the effect will generally be to confirm the first and original alliance all the more.

Art by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

More than a decade before Virginia Woolf offered her succinct, incisive recipe for what makes love last across the long sweep of time and habituation, Carpenter offers his:

Two people, after years, cease to exchange their views and opinions with the same vitality as at first; they lose their snap and crackle with regard to each other — and naturally, because they now know each other’s minds perfectly, and have perhaps modified them mutually to the point of likeness. But this only means, or should mean in a healthy case, that their interest in each other has passed into another plane, that the venue of Love has been removed to another court. If something has been lost in respect of the physical rush and torrent, and something in respect of the mental breeze and sparkle, great things have been gained in the ever-widening assurance and confidence of spiritual unity, and a kind of lake-like calm which indeed reflects the heavens. And under all, still in the depths, one may be conscious of a subtle flow and interchange, yet going on between the two personalities and relating itself to some deep and unseen movements far down in the heart of Nature.

Beyond this shared attunement to the pulse of nature, Carpenter argues that the coremost element in an enduring love relationship is not merely tolerance for but a largehearted welcoming of the partner’s other loves and interests, buoyed by the understanding that they enrich rather than impoverish the primary relationship:

Of course for this continuance and permanence of love there must be a certain amount of continence, not only physical, but on the emotional plane as well… New subjects of interest, and points of contact, must be sought; temporary absences rather encouraged than deprecated; and lesser loves, as we have already hinted, not turned into gages of battle. Few things, in fact, endear one to a partner so much as the sense that one can freely confide to him or her one’s affaires de cœur; and when a man and wife have reached this point of confidence in their relation to each other, it may fairly then be said (however shocking this may sound to the orthodox) that their union is permanent and assured.

Complement this excerpt of Carpenter’s altogether visionary The Drama of Love and Death with Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage, Rilke on the balance between freedom and togetherness in a long-term love, and Esther Perel on surrender and autonomy as the two pillars of romance, then revisit Hannah Arendt on how to live with love’s fundamental fear of loss.


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John Steinbeck’s Stunning, Sobering, Buoyant Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech


“A writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.”


“Mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself. Therein lies our hope and our destiny,” the great marine biologist and author Rachel Carson addressed the next generations as she catalyzed the environmental movement with her courageous exposé of the industry-driven, government-concealed chemical assault on nature.

Six months after Carson delivered her poignant and prescient commencement address, another writer of rare courage and humanistic idealism took another stage to deliver a kindred message that reverberates across the decades with astounding relevance today.

On December 10, 1962, John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) took the podium at the Swedish Academy to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.” Two decades after he contemplated the contradictions of human nature and our grounds for lucid hope, the sixty-year-old Steinbeck proceeded to deliver a stunning, sobering, yet resolutely optimistic acceptance speech, later included in Nobel Writers on Writing (public library) — the collection that gave us Bertrand Russell on the four desires driving all human behavior, Pearl S. Buck on the nature of creativity, and Gabriel García Márquez’s vision of a world in which “no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible.”

John Steinbeck

After some endearing and strangely comforting opening remarks, indicating that even he — one of the world’s most celebrated minds, standing at the podium to receive the Nobel Prize — is bedeviled by impostor syndrome, Steinbeck considers the abiding role of storytelling in human life:

Literature was not promulgated by a pale and emasculated critical priesthood singing their litanies in empty churches — nor is it a game for the cloistered elect, the tin-horn mendicants of low-calorie despair.

Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it and it has not changed except to become more needed. The skalds, the bards, the writers are not separate and exclusive. From the beginning, their functions, their duties, their responsibilities have been decreed by our species.

In a sentiment Iris Murdoch would echo a decade later in her insistence that throughout history “the artist has tended to be a revolutionary or at least an instrument of change in so far as he has tended to be a sensitive and independent thinker with a job that is a little outside established society,” Steinbeck bows to the lineage of great truth-tellers but raises the artist’s duty to a higher plane of humanism, tasked with more than merely exposing fault:

Humanity has been passing through a gray and desolate time of confusion. My great predecessor, William Faulkner, speaking here, referred to it as a tragedy of universal physical fear, so long sustained that there were no longer problems of the spirit, so that only the human heart in conflict with itself seemed worth writing about. Faulkner, more than most men, was aware of human strength as well as of human weakness. He knew that the understanding and the resolution of fear are a large part of the writer’s reason for being.

This is not new. The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.

Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit — for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.

Art by Shaun Tan from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Having witnessed the devastation of the atomic bomb — a gruesome turning point in our civilization’s balancing act of technological ascent and moral grounding — and speaking at the peak of the Cold War, Steinbeck offers a sentiment that has only swelled with poignancy in the half-century since, as we have continually let our technological capacities run unconsidered, outpacing our ethics:

The present universal fear has been the result of a forward surge in our knowledge and manipulation of certain dangerous factors in the physical world. It is true that other phases of understanding have not yet caught up with this great step, but there is no reason to presume that they cannot or will not draw abreast. Indeed, it is part of the writer’s responsibility to make sure that they do. With humanity’s long, proud history of standing firm against all of its natural enemies, sometimes in the face of almost certain defeat and extinction, we would be cowardly and stupid to leave the field on the eve of our greatest potential victory.

With an eye to the dark backstory of how the Nobel Prize was founded, Steinbeck reflects:

Understandably, I have been reading the life of Alfred Nobel; a solitary man, the books say, a thoughtful man. He perfected the release of explosive forces capable of creative good or of destructive evil, but lacking choice, ungoverned by conscience or judgement.

Nobel saw some of the cruel and bloody misuses of his inventions. He may have even foreseen the end result of all his probing — access to ultimate violence, to final destruction. Some say that he became cynical, but I do not believe this. I think he strove to invent a control — a safety valve. I think he found it finally only in the human mind and the human spirit.

To me, his thinking is clearly indicated in the categories of these awards. They are offered for increased and continuing knowledge of man and of his world — for understanding and communication, which are the functions of literature. And they are offered for demonstrations of the capacity for peace — the culmination of all the others.

Echoing Carson, Steinbeck considers the choice before humanity half a century after Alfred Nobel’s death — a choice that remains the same, though posed with exponentially greater urgency, yet another half a century hence:

The door of nature was unlocked and we were offered the dreadful burden of choice. We have usurped many of the powers we once ascribed to God. Fearful and unprepared, we have assumed lordship over the life and death of the whole world of all living things. The danger and the glory and the choice rest finally in man. The test of his perfectibility is at hand.

Having taken God-like power, we must seek in ourselves for the responsibility and the wisdom we once prayed some deity might have. Man himself has become our greatest hazard and our only hope. So that today, saint John the Apostle may well be paraphrased: In the end is the Word, and the Word is Man, and the Word is with Man.

Couple with the visionary scientist and poet Lewis Thomas, writing another two decades later, on the wonders of possibility of this very choice — a choice that is still before us, and it is not too late for us to make wisely — then revisit Steinbeck on kindness, the discipline of writing, the crucible of creativity, and his timeless advice on falling in love.


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The Universe in Verse: Regina Spektor Reads “Theories of Everything” by Astronomer, Poet, and Tragic Genius Rebecca Elson


Lyrical reflections at the crossroads of truth and meaning.


The Universe in Verse: Regina Spektor Reads “Theories of Everything” by Astronomer, Poet, and Tragic Genius Rebecca Elson

In her haunting ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, Adrienne Rich serenaded “the ex-stasis of galaxies / so out from us there’s no vocabulary / but mathematics and optics / equations letting sight pierce through time / into liberations, lacerations of light and dust.” It is a peculiar meta-miracle, to fuse these complementary modes of sensemaking — mathematics, the language of truth, and poetry, the language of meaning — into something that enlarges both, expanding the horizons of beauty and understanding in the mind beholding the fusion.

This miracle is what The Universe in Verse celebrates, and no person embodies it more exquisitely than the Canadian astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999), who belonged to that rare species of genius with extraordinary talent in not just one but two, and thoroughly different, domains of creative endeavor.

The daughter of a geologist, Elson grew up as a keen observer of the natural world, spending large swaths of her childhood exploring the shores of a prehistoric lake. By the age of six, she could distinguish sandstone pebbles from limestone pebbles. By nine, she had grown besotted with the dazzling nocturnal skies of northern Canada, with the way they emanated the infinite question of what it means for the universe to be infinite, beguiled by the cosmic wonders filling that infinity. By sixteen, she was in university, falling further in love with astronomy. Her first glimpse of Andromeda, our sister galaxy, dazed her with its “delicate wisp of milky spiral light floating in what seemed a bottomless well of empty space.”

The spiral galaxy NGC 7331, located in the constellation Pegasus about 45 million light-years from Earth, discovered by William Herschel in 1784. (NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope)

At twenty-six, having completed her Ph.D. at Cambridge — Newton’s hallowed ground — Elson received a postdoctoral research fellowship at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study — Einstein’s hallowed ground — to work with the first data from the Hubble, which was about to launch later that year. But when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded before the grief-stricken eyes of the world, the horizons of space exploration darkened, the launch of the Hubble was delayed, and Elson’s research assignment vanished. Trapped in Princeton’s unwelcoming atmosphere of systemic sexism, without support and without a riveting project at hand, she found herself withdrawing as a researcher.

One thing solaced and perhaps even saved Elson as her astronomical career took this dispiriting dip — the lively Tuesday evening gatherings of poets, whose company and camaraderie she found to be “far more expansive and congenial” than the stranglehold of the scientific patriarchy. Verse opened up new frontiers of inquiry and observation — not of the universe without, but of the universe within. She came to cherish it and practice it with the same passion she had brought to astronomy.

In her twenty-ninth year, just as she began teaching creative writing at Radcliffe-Harvard during a fellowship there and became the youngest astronomer to serve on a decennial review committee in the history of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Elson was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma — a blood cancer that most commonly afflicts people in their sixties and seventies. She transmuted the brutality of the treatment into raw material for poetry — “Not outer space, just space / The light of all the not yet stars,” she writes in “Antidotes to Fear of Death” — and continued pursuing her first and greatest scientific love: galaxy formation and the study of how stars are born, live, and die.

Upon returning to Cambridge in her early thirties, with her illness in remission, Elson and her team used the deepest image of space the Hubble had ever taken to determine the limits of how much regular stars contribute to the mysterious halo of dark matter enveloping the Milky Way — a major contribution to our understanding of the universe and a bittersweet metaphor for Elson’s life and body of work, hovering in that liminal space between limit and possibility, darkness and light.

Rebecca Elson, 1987

Elson returned her stardust to the universe at only thirty-nine, leaving behind 56 scientific papers, a slender, sublimely beautiful book of poetry titled A Responsibility to Awe (public library), and the devastating question of what else a person of such uncommon genius would have given the world had chance granted her a longer life.

At the third annual Universe in Verse, I invited Regina Spektor, one of the most intensely poetic songwriters of our time, to honor Elson’s singular, tragic, transcendent genius with a lovely reading of her poem “Theories of Everything” — a meditation on our eternal struggle to discern the unfeeling laws of the universe, over which we have no control and by which we must abide, and to project ourselves onto them, creating cosmoses of beauty and meaning within their indifferent parameters, all the while ourselves remaining mere projections of these very laws.

THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
(When the lecturer’s shirt matches the painting on the wall)

He stands there speaking without love
Of theories where, in the democracy
Of this universe, or that,
There could be legislators
Who ordain trajectories for falling bodies,
Where all things must be dreamed with indifference,
And purpose is a momentary silhouette
Backlit by a blue anthropic flash,
A storm on the horizon.

But even the panting on the wall behind,
Itself an accident of shattered symmetries,
Is only half eclipsed by his transparencies
Of hierarchy and order,
And the history of thought.

And what he cannot see is this:
Himself projected next to his projections
Where the colours form the panting
Have spilled onto his shirt,
Their motion stilled into a rigorous
Design of lines and light.

A Responsibility to Awe is a breathtaking read in its slim totality.

For other highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her stirring homage to Stephen Hawking, U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie, then revisit Regina Spektor reading “The Everyday Enchantment of Music” by Mark Strand — one of the most beautiful things ever written about the power of music.


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Bring on the unicorns! George RR Martin's Game of Thrones surprise


Contending with the TV series spoiling his books every week, can we really blame GRRM for tantalising his diehard fans – with unicorns?

How surreal must it be for George RR Martin right now, to see Game of Thrones viewers cavorting with exultation about this week’s epic battle of Winterfell while his own version of the story of the Starks , Lannisters and Targaryens continues to stagnate in plotlines the TV show covered three seasons ago. However, Martin – who has frequently admitted that he is finding the sixth and penultimate novel in his fantasy series The Winds of Winter “challenging” to write – is keeping us hanging on for his final two books with promises that his version of the story will have its own surprises. And in an interview with Neil DeGrasse Tyson this week, he revealed that he’s bringing in unicorns.

Related: Top that! Game of Thrones pulls off biggest spectacle in TV history

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Writing Wisdom from The Notable19s Debut Picture Book Group


When my debut THE MONSTORE arrived in 2013, there was one kidlit debut group, but it was primarily for YA and MG releases. But I asked if I could be involved because there was no “debut PB” blog. There were a few of us brave PB authors who charmed our way in. But now a debut picture book group is an ACTUAL THING! Hot-diggity-dachshund!

So today I would like to introduce you to THE NOTABLE19s! All these delicious titles will be releasing this year from new talents…

Click to view slideshow.

The Notable19s is a baker’s dozen of authors and illustrators who are debuting with their first-ever book, first author-illustrator book, or first book with a medium-to-large publisher in 2019. They want to share some writing or illustrating wisdom that they’ve learned on their journey to being published.

(Click on an author’s name to be transported to their website.)

When Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic wrote THE END OF SOMETHING WONDERFUL (Sterling), she thought she had an idea of what the illustrations would look like on every page, particularly the last one. But then George Ermos brought his amazing vision to the story and captured all that was darkly funny and sweet about the book. The last page of the book is both so perfect and something Stephanie never would have thought up herself. When you’re a text-only author, remember that the book is not just yours anymore and be open to the magic that comes from collaboration.

Teresa Robeson feels that being part of a larger creative community is integral to her publishing success. She recommends: joining SCBWI and attending events both regionally and in other chapters; participating in challenges like 12×12 (where she connected with her first agent), Storystorm, and NaPiBoWriWee; applying for opportunities like We Need Diverse Books; and being in one or more critique groups. Winning the WNDB mentorship with Jane Yolen led to a polished manuscript that became her debut picture book, QUEEN OF PHYSICS (illustrated by Rebecca Huang; Sterling).

Marcie Flinchum Atkins, author of WAIT, REST, PAUSE: DORMANCY IN NATURE (Millbrook Press, 2019), thinks you shouldn’t let your busy life hold you back from writing. Since her kids were toddlers, she’s been carrying a “writing bag” around stuffed with manuscripts in different stages, craft books, and research articles. This enables her to work on the go–in the pick up line at her kids’ sports practices, in the orthodontist’s waiting room, or in the ten-minute break between conference sessions.

Cathy Ballou Mealey, author of WHEN A TREE GROWS (illustrated by Kasia Nowowiejska; Sterling) suggests pasting your PB draft into a word cloud generator like WordItOut or Wordle to visually gauge the frequency of words in your text. A word cloud can help you find terms to cut or replace with stronger choices.

Cassandra Federman is the author-illustrator of THIS IS A SEA COW (Albert Whitman, 2019), in which a child writes a school report about sea cows and the subject is not happy with her portrayal. Sea Cow—or Manatee, as she prefers to be called—comes to life on the pages of the report and decides to defend herself with her own fascinating facts about manatees. Cassandra’s advice is to have honest, respectful conversations with your editors and art directors. Don’t be afraid! Discussing intentions, what works, what doesn’t, and why, will always lead to improvement.

In Sara F. Shacter’s picture book, JUST SO WILLOW, a type-A polar bear learns to let go. “Ironically, Willow helped me do the same! Early versions of my manuscript received the same comment from multiple editors: the end fell flat. I tweaked to no avail. Then editor Brett Duquette had the insight that led to my ‘ah-ha’ moment: the first three lines were bigger and funnier than the rest of the story. So I deleted everything but those compelling first lines and began anew. Success! Moral: experimentation is freeing. You can always go back to the original version.”

Lisa Anchin’s debut author-illustrated picture book, THE LITTLE GREEN GIRL (Dial), is about a persistent and curious little plant. Lisa, like the Little Green Girl, has learned that persistence is key in publishing. Her book took three years and thirteen drafts before it found a home at Dial, and it will be almost exactly five years from the very first sketch to publication. Don’t get discouraged if a project feels like it’s taking too long. Stick with it, and keep revising until it’s the best it can possibly be.

Richard Ho is the author of RED ROVER: CURIOSITY ON MARS, illustrated by Katherine Roy and published by Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan (October 29). In choosing a planet (take a bow, Mars!) as the narrator of a story about the Curiosity rover, Richard wanted to explore how far outside-the-box he could venture when it comes to matters of POV and story structure. As it turns out, Mars’ voice perfectly mirrored the wide-eyed innocence and wonder of a child observing Curiosity’s epic journey across a vast red landscape.

BRAVE MOLLY (Chronicle), by Brooke Boynton-Hughes, is a nearly wordless picture book that tells the story of a girl who has to overcome her fears in order to find her own voice and make a new friend. Molly’s story was born of Brooke’s frustration with her own shyness, social anxiety, and self-doubt. Telling our personal stories can feel vulnerable, but there is strength in sharing our own experiences. Be brave, like Molly, and tell the story that only you can tell.

Jessica Lanan is the author and illustrator of THE FISHERMAN AND THE WHALE and illustrator of over five other books. She finds it important to develop a habit of artistic exercise, regularly attending figure drawing groups, drawing and painting from life as often as possible, and keeping a sketchbook on hand at all times. Technical ability opens doors; the more artistic skill you can develop, the more options you will have to visually tell your story.

Shauna LaVoy Reynolds, author of POETREE (illustrated by Shahrzad Maydani; Dial), tells kids that passionate readers make the best writers. It’s true for adults, too! If you write picture books, take the time every week or so to raid your local library’s new releases. Bring home and read a stack of books, taking note of what works (and what doesn’t.) This will help get your brain into picture book voice mode, keep you aware of market trends, and of course satisfy your story-loving inner child.

Hannah Stark, author of TRUCKER AND TRAIN (illustrated by Bob Kolar; Clarion/HMH), considers herself a student of picture books more than a writer of them.  Ann Whitford Paul’s book WRITING PICTURE BOOKS recommends typing up the text of recent picture books you love and those you thought were dreadful. With illustrations removed you can better study what works and what does not in the text.  As a writer this has helped me learn so much about pacing, page turns, word count
and craft.

James Serafino, author-illustrator of THIS LITTLE PIGGY (Philomel) says, “The best advice I can think of for any writer is to work on your whole story. Don’t just focus on the beginning or your favorite part. I’ve spent days on writing the perfect opening line only to get to the end of the story and realize it wasn’t where the story should begin at all. Whenever you sit down to write go through the whole story arc from start to finish, every time. Don’t get stuck on small details until later when you can enjoy writing them into a story that works.”

To visit ALL of these fabulous authors and illustrators, visit Notable19.weebly.com and subscribe to be alerted when each title is available! Also follow along on Twitter @notable19s.

 



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Reading group: Which James Ellroy novel should we read in May?


With a new volume due in his second LA Quartet, it’s a good time to read this justly self-declared master of fiction. But which book?

It’s a big month for James Ellroy. The self-described “demon dog of American crime fiction” has a new book on the way: This Storm, the second instalment in his second LA Quartet. Several of his older classics are due to be re-released by the Everyman’s Library, including the original LA Quartet and his follow-up Underworld Trilogy. In Ellroy’s own words, these new editions will canonise him in the “hellaciously hallowed halls of the Great American Novelist Brigade”. He’s also due to appear in London for the first time in five years. Finally, and best of all, we’re going to discuss him here on the reading group.

Ellroy has already been named as “the modern master of hard-boiled fiction” (the Guardian) and “one of the great American writers of our time” (LA Times). He himself says, modestly: “I am a master of fiction. I am also the greatest crime novelist who ever lived. I am to the crime novel in specific what Tolstoy is to the Russian novel and what Beethoven is to music.”

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?


Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

Let’s start with some love for the great Penelope Fitzgerald. MarGar65 has been enjoying Offshore:

I cannot possibly express eloquently enough how much I loved Offshore. I am in awe of Penelope Fitzgerald. I will have to go trolling through the used bookstores nearby looking for whatever books of hers I can lay my hands on.

In a poor and remote village in India, a Doctor and his pharmacist struggle with long hours at the most basic of clinics, and one that lacks equipment and is highly unsanitary. After a particularly testing day and late at night, as they close up, a young couple and their eight year old son arrive begging for treatment after a vicious assault. On closer inspection the Doctor realises their wounds mean they could not possibly have survived the attack. So is this a horror story? One of zombies? I was intrigued. But it is neither, and far more intricate than that, defying the usual genre labelling. I suppose it might be termed contemporary or speculative fiction, though I don’t like the term ‘speculative’ as surely every piece of writing seeks to tread some sort of new ground. It’s certainly original, about redemption and faith, and a very human story, tremendously well told. Also, it has that most wonderful thing, a last sentence that goes a long way to explain everything that has gone before. Immensely satisfying.

It’s not my usual cup of tea, but I am absolutely gripped – very ordinary characters and events brought into amazingly vivid life by sheer command of language.

I cringe at his cynicism and cheer at his brilliant writing style. I’d have loved, though not dared, to engage him in conversation in a pub of my choice. His books are wonderful.

A review quote on the cover (quoting Anthony Burgess) states, “Cronin could not write a dull line if he tried.” Well Cronin appears to have tried extra hard as the first third of the book, covering O’Nolan’s early years and family circumstances, was dry and pedestrian. Things got going a bit once we reached the Myles na gCopaleen period, but I’m afraid I found this a dull read from one who knew the subject and the whole Dublin literary scene at first hand.

I really struggled with it and almost abandoned it twice. I think I’m probably not the demographic. For a book about two very damaged people who attract then repel each other throughout, their motivations were examined in a shallow way. I thought the setting of Trinity College Dublin could have been anywhere. For me it sat uneasily between university novel, tortured romance and class study with no subject deep enough for the book to tilt in either of these directions. Many of the character’s voices were indistinguishable

Each of his books has a special place in my heart and this, his only collection of stories, is no different. Every one is a tiny little treat, always sweet and funny and written in the most creative language you will ever find. He was an unrivalled comic genius.

I am taking it deliberately slowly because it is just so good. He seems to have reached that holy grail of a novel that evokes ordinary characters sympathetically/funnily/tragically, against the background of real history. I have just got through an all-too-convincing account of the dreadful Indira Gandhi presiding over a political rally which nicely foreshadows the more widespread populism of today.

Anthony Burgess on how to write about DH Lawrence.

Ford Madox Ford writing about DH Lawrence and showing how it’s done.

Malcolm Lowry has become a subject of Great Lives on Radio 4.

Sally Rooney is a hit in the USA.

Elizabeth Crook on taking time to write.

Security forces have stopped smugglers making off with a 1,300-year-old book in Turkey.

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Poem of the week: Near Helikon by Trumbull Stickney


Poised between centuries, this sonnet set in a favourite haunt of the Muses powerfully blends mood with landscape

Near Helikon

By such an all-embalming summer day
As sweetens now among the mountain pines
Down to the cornland yonder and the vines,
To where the sky and sea are mixed in gray,
How do all things together take their way
Harmonious to the harvest, bringing wines
And bread and light and whatsoe’er combines
In the large wreath to make it round and gay.
To me my troubled life doth now appear
Like scarce distinguishable summits hung
Around the blue horizon: places where
Not even a traveller purposeth to steer, –
Whereof a migrant bird in passing sung,
And the girl closed her window not to hear.

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Amanda Palmer’s Haunting Reading of “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” by Adrienne Rich, Animated


“…equations letting sight pierce through time into liberations, lacerations of light and dust…”


Amanda Palmer’s Haunting Reading of “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” by Adrienne Rich, Animated

“Mingle the starlight with your lives and you won’t be fretted by trifles,” the pioneering 19th-century astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science, used to tell her Vassar students — America’s first class of women astronomers and the first generation of people trained in what we now call astrophysics: the combination of mathematical physics and observational astronomy.

At the Vassar observatory, both Mitchell’s home and her classroom, she held regular “dome parties” — evenings of telescopic star-study and conversation, during which her students composed poems about whatever they were pondering astronomically.

Maria Mitchell, standing at telescope, with her students at Vassar

A century after Mitchell’s death, humanity launched into the cosmos its most ambitious and versatile instrument yet: the Hubble Space Telescope. “We saw to the edge of all there is — so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back,” the poet Tracy K. Smith wrote in her stunning ode to this triumph of human ingenuity and perseverance, on which her father was one of NASA’s first black engineers and which she read at the inaugural Universe in Verse, held on the telescope’s twenty-seventh birthday and dedicated to Maria Mitchell’s legacy.

Smith — who has since been elected Poet Laureate of the United States — was the age of Maria Mitchell’s students when the Hubble returned its first, enthusiastically awaited images of the cosmos: grainy, fuzzy photographs that were in one sense deeply disappointing to the engineers who had labored on the instrument for years, but in another absolutely thrilling: an unprecedented glimpse of the vast unknown beckoning from the unfathomed depths of the universe.

In the decades since its launch on April 24, 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has helped make landmark discoveries advancing our understanding of the universe and has enchanted humanity with the most beguiling images of the cosmos we have yet seen. It has shown us otherworldly glimpses of galaxies and nebulae. It has studied the light of orphaned stars to illuminate the mysteries of dark matter. It has resolved a longstanding perplexity about the growth rate of the universe and detected the first known interstellar object to visit our solar system. It has challenged us as never before to imagine what may lie beyond the horizons of our own imagination.

“Pillars of Creation,” one of the most recognizable Hubble images, depicting the interstellar gas and cosmic dust of the Eagle Nebula some 7,000 lightyears away from Earth, simultaneously creating new stars and being destroyed by the light of nearby newborn stars. (Photograph: NASA)

Fifteen years into the Hubble’s lifetime, another great poet, Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012), contemplated the existential undertones of its scientific triumphs in another stunning poem: “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho,” which musician, poetry lover, and my dear friend Amanda Palmer read in a haunting performance at the third annual Universe in Verse, held on the eve of the Hubble’s twenty-ninth birthday and benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.

The third annual Universe in Verse. (Photograph: Walter Wlodarczyk.)

In this lovely animation created for the occasion, artist Kelli Anderson brings Rich’s words and Amanda’s voice to life with an inventive animation technique, using a vintage NASA manual to print words and galactic-textured images directly onto the archival paper.

HUBBLE PHOTOGRAPHS: AFTER SAPPHO
by Adrienne Rich (2005)

It should be the most desired sight of all
the person with whom you hope to live and die

walking into a room, turning to look at you, sight for sight
Should be yet I say there is something

more desirable:       the ex-stasis of galaxies
so out from us there’s no vocabulary

but mathematics and optics
equations letting sight pierce through time

into liberations, lacerations of light and dust
exposed like a body’s cavity, violet green livid and venous, gorgeous

—beyond good and evil as ever stained into dream
beyond remorse, disillusion, fear of death

or life, rage
for order, rage for destruction

beyond this love which stirs
the air every time she walks into the room

These impersonae, however we call them
won’t invade us as on movie screens

they are so old, so new, we are not to them
we look at them or don’t from within the milky gauze

of our tilted gazing
but they don’t look back and we cannot hurt them

Below is Amanda’s full performance, including her poetic prefatory meditation on art, science, and life:

“Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” comes from Adrienne Rich’s indispensable Collected Poems: 1950–2012 (public library). Complement it with Rich’s poem “Planetarium”, read by astrophysicist Janna Levin at the inaugural Universe in Verse, and her tribute to Marie Curie, read by Grammy-winning musician Rosanne Cash, then revisit Kelli Anderson’s stop-motion animation of Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism,” celebrating nature’s astonishing, humble resilience.

More highlights from the show can be savored here, including Amanda Palmer’s readings of Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson and his feminist history of science, both composed for The Universe in Verse.


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Cat’s Eye is more than a novel about petty cruelty – but it sure is cruel


By the second half of Margaret Atwood’s novel, her heroine has escaped her bullies. But their stinging unkindness is the story’s signature note

There’s a moment in Cat’s Eye when reading it became too much for me. The narrator Elaine, wandering the house of one of her bullies, overhears her tormentor’s mother, Mrs Smeath, describing Elaine to her sister Mildred as “exactly like a heathen”. It’s a moment of ear-burning agony. “What can you expect, with that family … The other children sense it. They know,” says Mrs Smeath. Are the girls being too hard on Elaine, Aunt Mildred asks. Mrs Smeath replies simply: “It’s God’s punishment … It serves her right.”

At this, Elaine flushes with shame and hatred:

I hate Mrs Smeath because what I thought was a secret, something going on among girls, among children, is not one. It has been discussed before, and tolerated. Mrs Smeath has known and approved. She has done nothing to stop it. She thinks it serves me right.

She doesn’t flinch, she isn’t embarrassed or apologetic. She gives me that smug smile with the lips closed over the teeth. What she says is not to me but to Aunt Mildred. ‘Little pitchers have big ears.’

Related: Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye is a sharp study of a very female torture

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