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Our Long Lasting Relatives

Neandertals are all the rage these days. People can get their DNA analyzed and learn about their genetic background, including whether or not they have Neandertals – we’ll stay with that spelling – lurking in the family tree. Even if you haven’t checked your DNA, you may be interested in Beebe Bahrami’s Café Neandertal.

Cafe Neandertal cover imageThis is a dense romantic, fact-filled, roaming account of a dig on a Neandertal site in France. Beebe Bahrami, is probably best known as a travel writer, but she’s also a cultural anthropologist with a deep affection for Neandertals and a love for the land and the people of the Dordogne. She has a unique perspective on the Neandertals and a unique way of telling the story of the dig. I’ve not read a book which was simultaneously so fascinating and annoying as this one. It’s a kind of memoir about Neandertals, about the places they lived in France, about the people who live there nowadays, about wine and good food and paleoanthropologists. It leaps back thousands of years and also confusingly shuffles time in the past decade. No matter, this is a book worth reading.


Easter – Drama Is Reborn

Three Marys at the Tomb of Jesus
Three Marys at the Tomb of Jesus

Easter, which for Christians marks the resurrection of Jesus, also resurrected theatrical drama. The fall and fragmentation of the Roman empire brought Roman stage plays, and their Greek predecessors, to an end. Theatrical production ceased, fell out of memory, and there were no stage dramas as Europe entered the Middle Ages. There was pageantry, yes, but not theatrical dramas and plays  as we know them today. Much of the Medieval Christian Mass was — in addition to its sacred ritual — an occasion of  pageantry, and the church knew the uses of such displays.

Quem Quaeritis
Quem Quaeritis – Bodleian Library

Sometime in the 10th century, certain Easter services began to incorporate a bit of drama.The plot was simple:On the third day after the crucifixion of Jesus, the three Marys go to the tomb in search of the body of Jesus and find there an angel who asks who they are looking for. (You can see them in the Medieval illustration at the top of this post.) They say they’re looking for Jesus Christ who was crucified. The angel replies that Jesus has risen, as he had foretold he would. Go an announce that he has risen from the grave.

Here in Latin and English are the alternating questions and answers by the angel and the three Marys. The angel speaks first, asking the Marys who they are looking for:

 Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, o Christicolae? Whom do you seek in the grave, o followers of Christ?
Jesum Nazarenum crucifixum, o caelicolae.
Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, o heavenly one.
Non est hic; surrexit, sicut praedixerat. Ite, nuntiate quia surrexit de sepulchro.  He is not here. He has risen, as he foretold. Go out and   announce that he has risen from the grave.

No one can say whether it began by having a single speaker, a priest or cantor, ask the question “Who do you seek?” and other speaker, or singer, replying, or whether it was a whole chorus. In any case, the little exchange became more elaborate and other crucial turns in the life of Jesus were dramatized. Soon these little plays, or skits, were performed outside the church and eventually scenes from the old testament were added. The dramas were originally intended as lessons from the Bible, but they soon became enjoyable plays that were mounted on wheeled platforms — carts that could be taken from town to town and arranged in a circle so the spectators could move easily from one skit to another. Eventually, the playhouse was born, drama as we know it today was born. It all began at Easter.

Douglas Glover’s Elle

I read Douglas Glover’s novel Elle when it came out in 2003, and over the years I’ve continued, now and again, to read a few pages at random. It’s an excellent book – it won Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Award – with a remarkable narrator heroine and a curious plot, but I go back to it simply because I enjoy the story teller’s voice. The novel is based on an actual event in Canada’s history when a French noblewoman was abandoned on the Isle of Demons in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1542.

Elle book coverThe history is simple. In 1541 Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval, a nobleman privateer, was made Lieutenant General of New France. He set sail from the old to the New France that same year and along with him and the other colonists in his charge he had his cousin, or maybe it was his niece or his sister – the record is confused – but in any case she was Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval. For some unknown reason Lieutenant General Roberval became infuriated with Marguerite and as the ship entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence he had Marguerite, plus her lover and her maidservant, put ashore on a small unpopulated island, providing them with scant hunting and fishing gear. A few years later Marguerite was rescued by Basque fishermen and by then her lover and an infant who Marguerite had given birth to had died, as had the maidservant.

Marguerite returned to France and her story became known, maybe even well known. The chronicle of Marguerite’s adventure was first put into writing by Queen Marguerite of Navarre, and other elaborated versions by other writers have followed. Douglas Glover, limiting himself to the skimpiest handful of facts, has written the most spirited and strangest story of all.


Time Flies

We received the following communication on the Nature of Time from the writer Francesca Forrest. We don’t know when she wrote it, but the typeface suggests sometime in the 18th century. That’s only a guess. Besides, she’s a contemporary writer of fantasy and science fiction.
Time Flies 480 A

Aristotle & Super Bowl LI

There are a lot of dramas on TV and no matter how the plot zigs and zags you know how most, or maybe all of them, are going to turn out. The only time that’s not true when you’re watching a sporting event – like, say, Super Bowl Fifty-One. Only an incomplete mind, or a terribly deprived one, fails to engage the drama inherent in any game, and the Super Bowl Fifty-One was certainly dramatic.

Aristotle – Nice sculpture, but nobody knows what he looked like.

Aristotle – I’m thinking of the Greek philosopher born in 385 BC, not “Big Aristotle,” Shaquille O’Neal – had some interesting things to say about the dramas that he and his countrymen saw performed in Greece. The play, Aristotle said, should have one action from start to finish, should occur in one place, and should begin and end in one day.Those happenings on stage, he said, weren’t true actions or events but “imitations of an action.”

Despite this, the spectators, were engaged as if the imitations were actual events – as if the actor on stage were really Oedipus, as if, at the close of the play, he has murdered his father and bedded his mother and now, blood streaming down his face, he has actually put out his own eyes in self-punishment.

Adults have the strange ability to simultaneously know that what they’re witnessing is merely a imitation of an action, and at the same time, says Aristotle, they are moved by genuine pity and terror by what they see. We know what the characters in the drama are scripted to feel, we identify ourselves with them and feel the emotions we’d feel if we were in the little world portrayed on stage. The drama played out in a football game engages us the same way, but it’s greatly heightened by our knowledge that what we witness is not bogus, but is actually happening to the players on the field.

The New England Patriots were favored to win by three points.    Most New Englanders identified with the Patriots, of course, but despite the odds, the rest of the United States poured their emotions into the Atlanta Falcons. To put it bluntly, the Patriots had become the team to hate. Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady was thirty-nine years old, had already won four Super Bowl games, tying the best performance by any other quarterback in Super Bowl history, but he had also been tainted by a cheating scandal for which he was punished by being sidelined for four games, a staggering penalty. On the other hand, the Falcon’s quarterback, Matt Ryan, at thirty-one, was in charge of a team of comparative youngsters and had just won the Associated Press NFL Most Valuable Player award. Ryan was leading an exceptional team, a team with a very bright future — a future that might arrive with this game. Maybe Brady was the past.

The trajectory of Super Bowl LI had a stunningly dramatic arc. Over 111 million viewers watched the game on TV, caught up in the emotion of a championship game that tied and went into overtime, a first in Super Bowl history. It obeyed the unities of time, place and action, but no spectator felt terror for the losing Falcons or Matt Ryan – pity, perhaps, but not terror. Super Bowl LI wasn’t an Aristotelian drama and nobody noticed. They were too caught up in the action, real action, not an imitation.

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.


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.


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.

More Notes

The World Happiness Report, released by the United Nations, ranks countries on six key variables that support well-being: income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support and generosity. This year, Finland is first, followed by Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland, followed by Netherlands, Canada,New Zealand, Sweden, Australia. The United States, which has never been in the top ten, silpped down four places from last year and is now 18th. President Trump may make American Great Again, but apparently not happier.

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