Stamp out starving writers, buy their books!

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Know what the word of the year is for 2016? Did you know that Oxford Dictionaries actually chooses a word of the year? Really? Scroll down a piece and you'll get the scoop on the Word of the Year.

Renato After Alba

We’re happy to reprint the following essay by Robert Gray which appeared in Shelf Awareness, the online journal essential to critics and booksellers.

A Day for Eugene Mirabelli

You think that their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.

Then they stay dead.
–From “Distressed Haiku” by Donald Hall

Grief is a funny thing. I thought about beginning this column with the previous sentence, then decided not to, then decided I would after all because grief is funny, as in perplexing and mystifying and singular. Anyone who has experienced deep personal loss understands this, but an occasional reminder somehow always has the power to stun and haunt anew. This happened to me recently during a bookstore author event.

Rento After Alba cover imageNovember 4 of this year was proclaimed Eugene Mirabelli Day in Albany, N.Y. In her proclamation, Mayor Kathy M. Sheehan noted that in his most recent book, Renato After Alba–a sequel to his 2012 novel Renato, the Painter (both published by McPherson & Co.)–the 85-year-old author “touches upon universal aspects of human existence by creating lovably flawed characters who subtly express the full range of human emotion and experience, from great joy to crushing loss, from deep love of life to rage against the inevitability of death. All written with clarity and cleverness and craft.”

As part of the celebration, the Book House at Stuyvesant Plaza hosted an event last Friday, with renowned author Joseph Bruchac interviewing Mirabelli. I stopped by the bookstore to learn more about Renato Stillamare before–and after–Alba, but what I heard was something extraordinary about how one writer mourns… and works.

When I read Mirabelli’s two novels back to back not long ago, I was struck by how intricately, and intimately, woven together they were, despite being in many ways quite different reads. Renato, the Painter’s narrator is a 70-year-old scoundrel of an artist, still hungry for fame and not particularly averse to temptation. In the sequel, Renato is 12 years older and trying to reorient himself after the loss of his beloved wife, Alba, a striking presence in the first book and a stunning absence in the second. The borderline between these two novels is life and death.

“Anybody who’s written a first-person novel knows that you’re going to be identified with the narrator,” Mirabelli told his audience. “My wife died after I’d written the book that precedes it. She had read everything in that first Renato book. We were about to go down and see the publisher, in fact, when she passed away. And I had a great sense of revulsion against that Renato, the Painter because I knew instinctively that people were going to identify me with him and I hated the idea. I took the galleys of the book and threw them in the garage, which is usually the stop that precedes being thrown away entirely. And it took about a year before the publisher and I got together and went ahead with that publication.”

Joseph Bruchac & Bruce McPherson & Eugene MirabelliJoseph Bruchac, Bruce McPherson & Eugene Mirabelli

Although he acknowledged that he could have written a memoir after his wife’s death, Mirabelli recalled that “for two or three years I didn’t feel like writing at all. And my friends said, ‘Oh you’re a writer, you’ll write.’ That was the last thing on my mind. I did after a few years come to the point where I wanted…. not to write so much, but I wanted to have the feeling I used to have when I did have a piece of work I was writing. I really liked that feeling and wanted it back again.

“And sooner or later I did write a short story and another short story, but whenever I sat down to write my head was suddenly filled with death, and it became apparent finally that I couldn’t write anything unless I wrote something about death. Something about grief. So the question was what…. And one of the things that had happened to me during that early period, very early, was the recognition that what happened to me, which astonished me, was happening to people every day. All over the globe. I wasn’t unique at all. Grief is a strange emotion…. But grief is something you’ve never felt unless somebody you love has died. It’s a remarkably unique emotion…. One of the curious things is how similar people’s experiences can be while being unique in all the details.”

Mirabelli added: “It’s funny, or ironic that when I wrote Renato, the Painter, I decided that I wanted to write a really life-affirming book. At the end of that book, everybody who could possibly get pregnant is pregnant. I wanted that. Renato is a deeply flawed, but very creative person. I think it’s a life-affirming story…. I didn’t intend to write this book. No one would ever intend to write a book like Renato After Alba. But when I did start to write it, it was kind of weird… I went back to Renato, the Painter and there were all sorts of things that I found in the book that made sense in this book. And I don’t know how that happened, but it just happened.”

His publisher, Bruce McPherson, told me: “I’ve been working with Gene for about five years, and, for whatever reason, I think he’s been an underrated and unjustly overlooked author for too long. Renato Stillamare is a remarkable creation, the literary offspring of a comic tradition dating at least from Fielding’s Tom Jones through Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth and Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, with a touch of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. But for all of his irrepressible life force and cranky artistic sprezzatura in Renato, the Painter, Renato is most completely realized and fully human in Renato After Alba, where he ultimately overcomes terrible suffering with wonderment toward life and creation. I now see the two books as necessary to one another, a perfect balance.”

Grief is a funny thing.
Robert Gray, contributing editor (Column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)

A New Word For New Times

Maybe you don’t frequent the Oxford Dictionaries site and you missed their choice for Word of the Year. The folks at Oxford Dictionaries don’t just put a bunch of neologisms into a hat and blindly pick one. In fact it took a lot of discussion, debate, and research before they chose post-truth as the Word of the Year — it’s an adjective they define as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal oxford-dictionaryof-english-220belief. ”

The lexicographers at Oxford Dictionaries are cool. They aren’t working in an ivory tower, remote from the rhetorical muck and fantasy of our eighteen-month campaign for president. They had this to say about the hyphenated word: “The concept of post-truth has been in existence for the past decade, but Oxford Dictionaries has seen a spike in frequency this year in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States. It has also become associated with a particular noun, in the phrase post-truth politics.”

There was a time when post-truth meant “after the truth has come out.” No more. Now the word is used to mean a disregard and discounting of facts and an embrace of whatever you wish to believe. So, greetings to post-truth, the Word of the Year, and to the weird politics of the year 2016..

Who is Anil Menon?

Anil Menon is a writer whose most interesting book you probably won’t find in your local bookstore. Menon, born in India’s tropical Kerala state, has gained broad attention in this country as a writer of speculative fiction. As a kid he aspired to be an accountant – his father was an accountant who delighted in his work – but when that kid had completed his undergraduate education he went to Syracuse University in non-tropical upstate New York.

Anil Menon

Anil Menon

At Syracuse, Menon entered a PhD program and emerged to write papers on evolutionary algorithms. If you can imagine a computer program that mimics the blundering processes of Darwinian evolution to achieve its ends, you might consider exploring the field of evolutionary algorithms. Menon still does work in mathematics, but he has written more and more fiction, short and long, and now defines himself as a writer of speculative fiction. In fact, he’s a writer of complex intelligence, verve and wit.

There can be a playfulness in mathematics akin to the wittiness you hear in Mozart or Bach — and that same playfulness is everywhere in Menon’s recent novel. Half of What I Say, a 436-page work in English, was published in India by Bloomsbury’s New Delhi office, the independent publisher and innovative writer making a good match.

Half of What I Say is structured as a roman policier in which Vyas, an agent of the nation’s powerful Lokshakti security apparatus, is tasked with investigating people involved in making a subversive but unreleased movie based on the Ramayana. At the same time, Vyas himself is desperate to recover a letter he wrote to his wife expressing doubts about the role of the Lokshakti, and the letter apparently had been in the possession of a high-profile intellectual who was murdered, presumably by another branch of the omnipresent Lokshakti. As the story gets going, the author introduces, one by one, a number of apparentlyHalf of What I Say cover image unconnected characters who later turn out to be linked in an intricate chain which includes a bright university woman, a wealthy industrialist and his beautiful wife, an exceedingly popular movie actress, an sexually neutral poet, an upcoming computer entrepreneur, plus their sidekicks, subordinates and dependents further down the social food chain.

It’s a real-world fact that Lok Shakti (People Power) was a political party that rose to prominence in the late 1990s in Karnataka, a state bordering Menon’s Kerala, but the Lok Shakti eventually sank in significance, partially absorbed by a another political movement. Lokshakti, as a single word, is Anil Menon’s invention. Menon told an interviewer in the Indian Express that the novel grew out of his antipathy toward Kisan Baburao (Anna) Hazare’s anti-corruption movement. “Many of my Indian friends were in favour of it,” he said, “but the more I learned about Hazare, the more convinced I became that the proposed cures were worse than the disease.” Menon believes that tyrannies are mass movements gone wrong, and that such movements get started because people are easily led by stories. And those stories can be simple falsehoods, national myths, legends from the past, slanted news items, popular movies – in other words, stories of any kind.

The India that Anil Menon portrays is counterfactual — an India where the anti-corruption movement has succeeded and there’s now a central agency, not answerable to anyone, dedicated to rooting out corruption. Half of What I Say comes to the reader first as a police story, but it’s clearly a critique of trends which Menon sees in India’s political world. The author’s deeper, recurrent preoccupation in Half of What I Say is the role of story in the political life of the nation. Of course, Half of What I Say itself is fiction, so, yes, we have a bit of postmodern gymnastics going on here, too.

At this point we might puzzle out the book’s title which is cut down from the sentence “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it so that the other half may reach you.” In Europe and America, the phrase is most often attributed to the Beatles song, “Julia,” by John Lennon and, possibly, Menon may have had that in mind, but if so, he probably also had in mind the same lines from Kahlil Gibran’s Sand and Foam. So the question arises as to which level of this layered novel was the author’s throw-away part. The danger in writing an adventure tale in order to critique political dynamics is that your reader may simply read for the police story and not take in the criticism at all, or may take in the critique, and merely wonder what the repeated references to story are intended to convey. Many reviewes were content to talk about plot and not much more.

Anil Menon’s very large cast of quickly sketched characters, the broad stretch of society he looks at, his rapidly shifting scenes and the use of public as well as private events to propel the plot — these bring to mind the sweeping novels of John Dos Passos. Menon has said he’s familiar with Dos Passos and, indeed, Menon’s work has many of the virtues and flaws as Dos Passos’. For readers in the United States, the big difference between these two authors is that Dos Passos wrote about the life in the States whereas Menon is writing about India — a country most Americans know very little about and half of what they do know is often wrong.

Despite the very large cast, each person is fully named, and doubtless those names suggest or convey information to Indian readers that American readers wouldn’t be able to grasp, such as where those characters come from, maybe their particular religious affiliation and social class. People in this book sometimes switch from English to Hindi or their home dialect and we have no idea what those nuances might convey to an Indian reader. (There are twenty-two official languages in India and many more that are not official — but you knew that already, right?)  Then there’s the question of dealing with any foreigner as to whether his or her behavior is typical of the culture or unique to the person. It’s hard to figure out whether the boorish sexual groping displayed by some men in this novel is typical of India or is intended to demonstrate class or caste or ignorance or simply to show the guy’s an oaf.

There are wonderful things in Half of What I Say. Anil Menon loves ideas and they pop up, page after page, from the conversation of his characters. Indeed, maybe there are too many allusions to this or that intellectual position; some critics are as upset as cook over a pan of exploding pop corn. But Menon has a deft sure hand at dialog and the conversations of his Indian characters — the vocabulary, the zigzags, the allusions and witticisms — might just as well have taken place among Americans on a university campus in Indiana.

The range of reference is remarkably far reaching. Victor Dorabjee, a general in the Lokshakti, in a talk with his subordinate, Vyas, refers to Charles de Gaulle’ attitude toward the electorate and then asks Vyas what he thinks of The Giving Tree. Vyas replies, “Pretty much identical to Raja Harishchandra, sir.” Readers here probably know about Charles de Gaulle and if they’re acquainted with children’s literature they might well know Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. But they probably don’t know the legend of Raja Harishchandra, though it’s found in both the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

It’s hard to understand how people living in the India revealed everywhere in this novel can also be so Western, so at ease with the lingo, the attitudes and intellectual references of the with-it intellectual class in the United States. Half of What I Say offers a fascinating glimpse – alas, only a glimpse — into an elite Indian society that sounds remarkably American. At one point in this novel, Vyas alludes to a trip he and his wife took to the United States. Vyas tells the reader, I was also curious to study the American in his native habitat, and she was curious, I think, to see if she could pass for one.
He goes on to say:
The main thing that surprised me about the United States was the remarkable similarity with India. The same preening self-satisfaction, the same narcissistic disinterest in the world, the same multiplicity of idols, and the same passion for violence, masked with the same hypocritical claims to a superior morality. It gave me a lot of hope; there’s no reason why our toilets couldn’t be raised to the same superior standards.

Bloomsbury Publishing, headquartered in London and with an office in New York city, probably made the right decision not to issue the this novel in the United States. But readers here can hope that Anil Menon will write a novel with an American readership in mind. We need it.

Quantum Mechanics & How Much Math

Faust in Copenhagen is an account of an extraordinary group of people who explored the mysteries of quantum mechanics in the 1920s and early 1930s. The author is Gino Faust in CopenhagenSegre, a physicist himself, and in the Acknowledgments of this finely written and carefully researched volume he says, “Writing this book has been a labor of love, allowing me to spend time in the company of many of the intellectual heroes of my youth.” Indeed, the figures he writes about were heroes to many of us who had a youthful interest in physics.

In Segre’s book, the lines of history converge on April,1932, in Copenhagen. There a group of physicists meets to review the advance they’ve made in understanding the baffling world of quantum mechanics. They’ve made amazing progress and 1932 was a “miracle year.” At the end of the meeting they’re entertained by a small theatrical production, a comic skit written by fellow-physicist Max Delbruck. It’s a light parody based on Goethe’s culturally heavy Faust, but with the names and personalities changed to resemble the physicists themselves. Of course, we know what they did not, that the political storm gathering in Europe would make their swift gain in knowledge look like a bargain with the devil, a Faustian bargain to be paid for with the horrific birth of the atomic bomb.

Faust in Copenhagen is written for the general reader. It focuses on the physicists, their friendships and conflicts with each other, their competing attempts to understand the structure of the atom, the twists and turns in their lives. For readers with an interest in physics and physicists, this is a fascinating stretch of history — those not interested in such things would probably not pick up the book. There are no equations in this volume, no mathematics at all.

I wonder if you can say much about quantum mechanics without saying at least a little about numbers. One of the people at the center of Segre’s story, Lise Meitner, was an experimentalists, but the others — Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Max Delbruck, Paul Ehrenfest — dealt primarily with numbers, the results of experiments which were expressed in numbers. What made quantum mechanics so baffling was that these physicists had to figure out what was happening when they couldn’t see what was happening – they couldn’t peer inside an atom. All they had were numbers and the relationship between certain numbers, and from that they had to work backward to guess at would produce those numbers. It took a while to figure things out because, as they discovered, the weird rules governing the sub-atomic world were nothing like the familiar laws of Isaac Newton that determine the world we experience.

Of course, the same set of experimentally derived numbers can mean different things to different people. Certain numbers might suggest that an electron makes elliptical orbits around the nucleus of an atom. But you can’t really trace the orbit and see it do that; maybe the electron does something else that merely produces the same effect as an elliptical orbit. Werner Heisenberg, very young and very bright, hoped to erase what he felt were false visualizations, and he came up with a way of handling the numbers that didn’t depend on a theory of orbital motion but did produced the right results.Thirty Years that Shook Physics

At the same time, another physicist who wasn’t part of the Copenhagen group, Erwin Schrodinger, did like to visualize the sub-atomic world and he came up with a completely different way of dealing with numbers and, like Heisenberg’s mathematics, his produced the right answers, too. The two men soon hated each other’s math. Of course it’s possible to discuss their conflicting ideas simply as ideas, but explaining a little bit about Heisenberg’s matrices and Schrodinger’s wave equations might allow the reader a better sense of how different those approaches were.

As it happens, one of the physicists not able to attend that meeting in 1932 was George Gamow, who was detained in Russia by the Soviets. He had had a couple of sojourns in Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen in the past and he eventually escaped Soviet Russia, rejoined the physics community in Europe and settled in the United States. Gamow, who was writing important papers in quantum mechanics when he was twenty-four, later wrote a series of books on physics for the general reader; one of those books, Thirty Years That Shook Physics, tells the story of the people who developed quantum theory, much the same tale that Gino Segre tells at greater length and with more detail fifty years later.

Thirty Years That Shook Physics is lighter in tone than Segre’s book and has anecdotes, illustrations, sketches and cartoonish drawings by Gamow himself. It also has some mathematics — not a lot, not blindingly difficult, but real and useful in giving the reader a sense of what the physicists were doing. Segre’s work, with its extended conceit of the Faust story, has more artistry to it, and happily Gamow’s book is still available as a follow-up for interested readers of Faust in Copenhagen. After all, if you don’t like the look of an equation you can always skip it, but if it isn’t there, you won’t know what you’re missing.

Intellectual Property Day

Obama's list for creativity and innovation

President Obama’s List

April 26 was Intellectual Property Day. World Wide! It got right by you, right? That’s understandable, I suppose. It got past President Obama, too. Of course, he has the excuse of being really, really busy these days. And you’ve probably forgotten about WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organization of the United Nations. Or maybe you never even heard of it. Well, now you know.

If you were a member of the Authors Guild, as I am, you’d have received an invitation to jot down a list celebrating “the creativity and innovation of the American people.” I scribbled out my list a couple of days ago. Barack Obama got around to jotting down his list today and it includes, among other things, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Thomas Edison’s electric light bulb, and for innovative sports team, the Chicago Bulls — no surprise there.

The theme for Intellectual Property Day this year is Digital Creativity: Culture Reimagined. The Director General of WIPO, Francis Gurry, observed that the internet provides a great opportunity for creators to interact with their audiences. “Now, with the Internet, the audience has become potentially the whole world. That is an enormous creative opportunity. It’s an enormous cultural opportunity. And it’s an enormous economic opportunity,” That’s certainly true.

Unfortunately, it’s also true that digital media, especially the internet and most especially the World Wide Web, provide a great opportunity for theft of intellectual property.The movement to legitimize theft of intellectual property loves the phrase “Knowledge Wants to be Free!” That’s a great slogan if knowledge refers to such things as the French Language, the location of Los Angeles, the shape of a maple leaf, or the atomic composition of water, but it’s not so smart when it refers to a recently composed song or novel. Our slogan is Stamp Out Starving Writers, Buy Their Books!

Probably the most notorious example of theft of intellectual property is Google’s wholesale copying of copyrighted books. It does this for “the public good.” Which is admirable. But Google also gets revenue which it would not get if it didn’t display the books to get readers to the Google web site — and, of course, the authors of those books get no money at all from Google.

Some people — usually not authors — will point out that being accessible on Google makes the work more likely to sell, and raises the writer’s profile. That’s certainly possible. Writers and other artists sometimes do present their work, or some part of it, free to the public, but as the creator of those works the artist wants to be in charge of what is offered free and when. As Google turns a profit from making the books available online, the writer wants a slice of that, too.

In October 2015, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals found that Google’s use of the books without compensation was “fair,” because the search engine’s “primary intended beneficiary is the public.” To many of us, the primary intended beneficiary of whatever Google does is Google — that’s the way capitalism works. The public does benefit, but that’s secondary — Google isn’t incorporated to serve the public good.

Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Authors Guild, has pointed out that “Authors are already among the most poorly paid workers in America; if tomorrow’s authors cannot make a living from their work, only the independently wealthy or the subsidized will be able to pursue a career in writing, and America’s intellectual and artistic soul will be impoverished.”

Yes, we’re grumpy about that.

Time is Money, Money is Time

The saying goes that time is money. On the other hand, you’ve probably heard that rich people live longer than poor people. So we can turn the old saying around and say that money is time. A few years ago, a movie with premise that time and money are interchangeable came out. The action-adventure sci-fi thriller was called In Time and starred Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried.

Amanda Seyfried:  In Time

Amanda Seyfried: In Time

The movie takes place in an alternate present where everyone’s diminishing 25-year life expectancy is visible in luminescent numbers on their forearm. The body-clock stops at age 25, after which you have a year in which to buy more time, if you have the money. If you don’t, you can gamble for it, beg for it, steal it — or give up and die. The premise is very interesting, but the film is disappointingly commonplace with the usual smooth talking rich villains, the lower strata of relentless killers, and the dashing heroic lovers who steal from the idle time-rich to give to the desperate time-poor.

The most interesting scenes are simple visuals where Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried — he with a shaved head and not-quite-shaved cheeks, she in a high-heels and tight miniskirt — run as fast as they can to escape thugs and the time police. The pair are good runners even when holding hands. It’s too bad everything else is so lame, because a movie in which more money means more time alive dramatizes an essential fact of life in the US today.

Nowadays, men in the top 1 percent can look forward to celebrating their 87th birthday, which is about 15 more birthdays than those poor guys in the bottom 1 percent. As a matter of fact, really rich men in the USA can look forward to living longer than men anywhere on the planet. Those other guys down in the bottom 1 percent of in the United States, can expect to live as briefly as men in Sudan.

Raj Chetty

Raj Chetty

These sad facts come from an investigation into wealth and life expectancy by Stanford University economist Raj Chetty and seven other researchers. The surprising news in this news is that for the poor, where they live will help determine how long they live. The rich do well in any city, but the poor – while generally living more abbreviated lives – live longer if they reside in, say, San Francisco or New York city rather than in Detroit or Tampa. According to the researchers, it helps if the place where you live has an abundance of affluent smart people and social policies which encourage a healthy lifestyle. To be specific, if a municipality reduces the areas where you can smoke cigarettes and increases the areas for bicycling and other healthful activities, all people will benefit.

Another effect of wealth is that it tends to even out the differences in life expectancy between men and women. Poor women tend to live 6 or 7 years longer than poor men, but as men and women rise in wealth, the difference in their life expectancy shrinks and at the top, women can expect only 3 or so more years than men.

Of course the movie is, as we tell our frightened children, only make believe. In real life a phone call doesn’t cost you a minute off your life, and breakfast in a really good restaurant won’t chop eight-and-a-half weeks from your lifespan. One of the In Time characters says, “Many must die so that a few can live forever.” The relationship of wealth to life expectancy in the United States isn’t that bad.  Not yet, anyway.


Easter eggsThese Easter eggs were made a generation ago. Delicate little things, real egg shells painted by hand, and the kids who made them have kids of their own now. These lovely ornaments spend most of the year in boxes stored under the eves in the attic, then come into the light for a brief time once a year.There’s no question that for Christians such hollow decorated egg shells came to symbolize the empty tomb of the risen Christ, but precisely when and where the symbol got its start is a vexed piece of history. No matter. Humans have been decorating eggs for thousands of years and for sure a lot of life starts with an egg. For Romans of Christ’s time, all life comes from an egg or, as they say, omne vivum ex ovo.  We too came from an egg and without kids all life would cease. So there they are, bowls of real hollowed egg shells painted by children. There’s resurrection for you!

WinterAconite, Crocuses & Garlic

Winter aconite 2016 450Winter aconite is one of the earliest signs of spring, but it’s rarely noticed. It emerges about the same time as those delicate and highly regarded snowdrops, while a thin blanket of snow still covers the ground. Winter aconite is a hardy plant, thriving and spreading with no gardener to care for it, and when the blossoms are gone the leaves grow ever larger, making a thick green bed. This flowering plant is a member of the same family as the common buttercup, and like the buttercup it’s just there, not much noticed, disregarded and rarely found in flower beds.
crocus 2016 450
For the flower gardener, crocuses are the first sign of spring. Gardeners are by nature optimists, planting seeds and nurturing seedlings in the happy expectation of a thriving, colorful flower bed. And those hopes are often fulfilled — sometimes fully, more often a bit less. But to have crocuses emerge at the end of winter you have to plant bulbs in the fall, and that takes real optimism, for by fall the garden is a hopeless mess and every despairing day is colder and darker than the day before. And you don’t get those masses of delicate blossoms unless you plant masses of bulbs and just the right depth, not so shallow they’ll be torn up by squirrels and not so deep they’ll never grow to sunny daylight.

Garlic 2016 450And for the vegetable gardener, the first sign of spring  is a green shoot of garlic. Like the optimistic flower lover, the vegetable gardener was busy the previous fall, planting rows of garlic cloves, covering them with a blanket of leaves and anchoring the leaves against the winter wind with twigs or light branches. The garlic grows a bit in the fall, takes a winter vacation, then starts up vigorously as the days lengthen and grow slightly warmer. Garlic has a flower but that comes later, meanwhile it puts its energy into growing tall — and, of course, there’s that subterranean garlic bulb that’s growing a bit bigger every day. If you like garlic, you ought to plant some, it takes little or no talent and the reward is great.

College Students & Hunger

Oliver Twist asking for more.You knew that college students in the United States were being crushed under a mountain of debt. In fact, in this country the total amount of college debt now surpasses the total of all credit card debt. But you probably didn’t know that student finances have reach the point where some students are going hungry – they can’t buy food and pay college costs at the same time.

Sara Golrick-Rab, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,is also the director of the Wisconsin HOPE lab which researches, among other things, the financial hurdles that financially strapped college students face nowadays. The lab has uncovered some worrisome statistics. It turns out that poorer students are simply going hungry. Or as the HOPE people put it, “food insecurity is a growing problem on college campuses.”

Food insecurity is defined by the US Department of Agriculture as a “…social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” In other words, sometimes you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. Surveys by the HOPE lab reveal that some students can’t afford to buy enough food to stay in college. They have to choose between food and, say, rent, family needs, or the courses required to graduate.

A survey at ten community colleges across the nation discovered that half the students said they were struggling with food and/ or housing insecurity. A whopping 20 percent were hungry and 13 percent were homeless. Professor Golrick-Rab’s team began to interview low income students at Wisconsin’s public universities and colleges back in 2008. At that time 27 percent didn’t have enough money to buy enough food, and 5 to 7 percent had gone an entire day without eating.

The problem of hungry students isn’t insoluble. One suggestion by the people at HOPE is for our government to make students eligible for food stamps by treating going to college as similar to going to work. That would certainly help.

(You’re right about the image at the top. The kid with the bowl isn’t a community college student. He’s Oliver Twist asking for more.)

Preaching In My Yes Dress

Preaching In MY Yes Dress cover imageJo Page, a friend who has contributed occasional posts to Critical Pages, has now written a lively and engaging book, Preaching in My Yes Dress. Ms. Page is a Lutheran pastor and this publication is partly a memoir and partly a personal report of what it’s like to deal with the bright and dark moments of pastoral work.

The story begins with friendly simplicity — “As Sister Luke in The Nun’s Story, luminescent Audrey Hepburn makes convent life masochistically chic – all that pious obedience and semi-sexual mortification of the flesh. As a little girl, I wanted to be Sister Luke.” The movie made a deep impression on the girl who, when she was nine years old, sensed a cause-and-effect relationship between her own sinfulness and the death of her father. Jo Page moves deftly back and forth between the troubled inner life of that little girl and the zig-zag plot of the movie, keeping the tone precise and light. That same deftness comes into play throughout the book as the author moves from tragic to comic events in her childhood, or from wanting to “get on God’s good side” as a youngster to enrolling in a seminary as an adult with a husband and two children.

The author avoids solemnity, but doesn’t hide or dodge serious problems when they arise in the course of her story. The full title of this memoir is Preaching in My Yes Dress: Confessions of a Reluctant Pastor. And that means Pastor Page is startlingly honest in depicting her doubts and the questions that arise, no matter her role – “Who can really tell what God’s will for us is anyway? Or if there really is such a thing as God’s will? Is it the will of God that we suffer? I just don’t believe that. But we do suffer. Sometimes it seems as though God is strangely distant, strangely silent. That’s when we end up making excuses for God for allowing the world to be as it truly is.”

Preaching in My Yes Dress is thoughtful, refreshingly candid and provocative. And though it touches on subjects such as the rise of the religious right, the patriarchal nature of scripture and church organization, it’s never heavy or belligerent. You can’t tell a book by it’s cover, but the the title of this one is a pretty good giveaway as to what’s inside. Actually, the cover is damned good, too.

You can visit Jo Page at her blog.

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