Friday, June 30, 2023

A Man Without A Country by Kurt Vonnegut

Source of book: I own this.


This book is the last one Vonnegut wrote before his death. It is a series of essays written over a five-year period, and is a bit of a ramble through his thoughts on art, writing, politics, morality, and life. 


The essays are untitled - in the table of contents, there is just the first few words of the essay. As I noted, the essays ramble a lot. I feel like they could very well be Vonnegut giving a speech at a graduation, the way he does. This is not a bad thing, and it is totally on brand for him. But don’t expect a formally organized essay. 


At the beginning of each essay is an “illustration” by Vonnegut - which is really just an artistically written quote, either by him or someone else. And, there are liberal uses of the asterisk, which fans will know is his trademark…and also means “asshole.” Here is one of those illustrations:


Also on display is Vonnegut’s other trademark: deceptively simple language. I mean, it sometimes feels like third grade level, but he is so good at simplicity. And his meaning is anything but simple. 


Rather than attempt to summarize the essays, I think I will just highlight some passages. 


The first one is in a discussion of Marx’s famous statement that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” As Vonnegut points out, this is often misunderstood. It is not an anti-religion statement at all, and wasn’t intended as a prescription for anything. It was a simple observation that those in economic or social distress can find religion comforting. 


When Marx wrote those words, by the way, we hadn’t even freed our slaves yet. Who do you imagine was more pleasing in the eyes of a merciful God back then, Karl Marx or the United States of America?


Just saying. It is puzzling to me that so many supposed “Christians” here in the US seem to think that “socialism” - by which they do not mean the government ownership of the means of production, but any attempts to create social and economic equality - is the epitome of evil. Much of the Torah, the Prophets, the Epistles, and especially Christ’s teachings sure sound “socialist” if taken seriously. 


Here is another great observation:


I think that novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex.


I have noticed that there are a striking number of people who complain about the technology in modern literature - which is given as a reason for either reading the old stuff, or sticking to nostalgia genres set in the past. I think Vonnegut is right that technology is indeed part of life, and refusing to include it is a puzzling misrepresentation. 


One theme that can be found in a few of the essays is that of climate change and fossil fuels. Vonnegut is pessimistic about the whole issue, but I think his biggest insight is that fossil fuels are indeed our most addictive and damaging drug. As he says, we have sacrificed the future of our species to make “thermodynamic whoopie” for a couple hundred years. 


Vonnegut’s dark humor is on display throughout as well. Here is a passage that made me laugh:


Why are so many people getting divorced today? 

It’s because most of us don’t have extended families anymore. It used to be that when a man and a woman got married, the bride got a lot more people to talk to about everything. The groom got a lot more pals to tell dumb jokes to. 


While divorce rates have been on a downward trend for decades, I think that Vonnegut is on to something in terms of our increasing loneliness and isolation. Humans need friends. They need social networks. Extended family is part of that (although I think perhaps a contributing factor to the lack of extended family is the older generations’ determination to control and disrespect the younger - I have too much experience with that already.) 


On a related note, there is a great essay about what Vonnegut calls “guessers.” These are the leaders who purport to explain something - which is what humanity has had to do for much of its history. In some ways, this was a survival technique. In an unpredictable world, being able to assign some sort of causation allowed humans to move forward rather than become paralyzed by the uncertainty. 


The problem is, however, that we now have better techniques for explaining many things. The scientific method and all that flows from us allow us to understand the “why.” Unfortunately, this is not how one succeeds in politics, particularly American politics. Vonnegut goes on to list a whole bunch of (mostly right wing) beliefs that are in the teeth of the evidence. For example, “Loaded pistols are good for everyone except inmates in prisons or lunatic asylums.” 


Vonnegut gets to the heart of the problem.


But the guessers, in fact, knew no more than the common people and sometimes less, even when, or especially when, they gave us the illusion that we were in control of our destinies.


In thinking back on the gradual disintegration of my parents’ ability to recognize truth versus the lies of charlatans (medical, theological, scientific, political), I believe this was at the core of it. The illusion of control. Alternative “medicine” promises an explanation for why bad things happen, and the illusion of being able to avoid them. “Eat this and you will never get cancer.” “Cure anything with this superfood.” And the theological charlatans promised that authoritarian fundamentalism would allow parents to control how their kids turned out. (It didn’t work.) 


This illusion of control is so strong that a shockingly high percentage of our population wants a return to charisma-based authority, rather than empirical evidence. 


It isn’t the gold standard that they want to put us back on. They want something even more basic. They want to put us back on the snake-oil standard.


Vonnegut ends with the tragic story of Semmelweis. You know, the guy who proved that hand washing when delivering babies saved lives. He was forced out by those in power, and died by suicide some time later. Here is what Vonnegut concludes - and he is spot-on: 


The guessers revealed something else about themselves, too, which we should duly note today. They aren’t really interested in saving lives. What matters to them is being listened to - as, however ignorantly, their guessing goes on and on and on. If there is anything they hate, it is a wise human. 


If you want to understand the fury of the right wing, this is it. They want to be listened to, no matter how foolish or ignorant they are. And they cannot handle a wise human contradicting them. About anything. 


In a later essay, Vonnegut talks about a similar and related sort of person - the psychopathic personality. 


Some people are born deaf, some are born blind or whatever, and this book is about congenitally defective human beings of a sort that is making this whole country and many other parts of the planet go completely haywire nowadays. These were people born without consciences, and suddenly they are taking charge of everything. 

PPs are presentable, they know full well the suffering their actions may cause others, but they do not care. They cannot care because they are nuts. They have a screw loose!


Now, I would dispute the “suddenly” part. Psychopathic personalities have alway tended to come to power. It is a weakness of human nature that we tend to be attracted to narcissists and sociopaths - I don’t really understand it, particularly since I tend to be repelled by those sorts, but the phenomenon is well known. 


However, he definitely gets some things right. They are presentable - you have to get to know them to really understand who they are. And they do know they hurt others…but they do not care. I grew up with a malignant narcissist, and it took me decades to understand that it wasn’t a lack of empathy, but a lack of conscience that was the issue. I thought if I could just understand better, make them understand me better, we could have an actual mutual relationship. I thought there was some ability to understand the give and take that normal people take for granted in a relationship. I eventually realized that what I was doing was just giving them more ammunition to hurt me. And I eventually terminated the relationship altogether. 


Narcissistic and psychopathic traits are tremendously destructive, to families, to societies, and to our planet. One of the greatest challenges we face in solving the other challenges we face, is how to reduce the outsized influence that people without consciences have on policy, whether at the family or national level. 


I’ll end with a highly unexpected discovery in this book. Vonnegut says something I have been saying for years:


If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:




I have long said that I believe in God for the same reason that I believe in music. Neither can really be understood on an intellectual level, but they can be experienced in spacetime in a way that defies description. Sure, I can explain how mathematical relationships determine pitch, but why that should have a transcendent effect on humans is not purely rational. 


Vonnegut was an atheist, so I found this line rather surprising. But I should not be surprised that he was complicated - or that he responded to music. 


I came to Vonnegut in my 40s, which is rather late. (For some reason, Slaughterhouse-Five isn’t a standard part of high school literature like it was for my parents’ generation.) I find that I have a lot in common with him these days. 


Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Coal by Audre Lorde

Source of book: I own this


So, if a child decides she wants to drop the “y” from her name, because she likes the artistic symmetry of two five-letter names ending in “e,” she might grow up to be a poet. 

 Photo by Elsa Dorfman

Audre Lorde was more than a poet, of course. She was an activist for racial justice, for gay rights, feminism, civil rights, and disability rights. She wrote extensively in prose as well as poetry, but it is her poetry that most puts her in the pantheon of American writers. 


One could definitely mention her contributions to 3rd Wave Feminism, to the development of Womanism (black feminism, more or less, but that is an oversimplification), and to intersectionality. Hey, how about a pithy quote to start this off? 


“Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society's definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference -- those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older -- know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support.”


Lorde had terrible eyesight - she qualified as legally blind - and had multiple bouts with breast cancer, which finally killed her at age 58. She wrote about all of this too. 


I selected Coal from my collected poems for two reasons. First, it was the book that catapulted her to popularity as a poet. Second, it came out the year I was born. 


The poems are on a wide range of subjects, from the political to the personal, from nature to social justice, from introspection to a broad view. Furthermore, they span from traditional forms to free verse. Overall, they are excellent, so picking a few to feature was tough. Here are the ones I decided to go with:


Let’s start with the title poem. 





Is the total black, being spoken

From the earth's inside.

There are many kinds of open.

How a diamond comes into a knot of flame   

How a sound comes into a word, coloured   

By who pays what for speaking.


Some words are open

Like a diamond on glass windows

Singing out within the crash of passing sun

Then there are words like stapled wagers

In a perforated book—buy and sign and tear apart—

And come whatever wills all chances

The stub remains

An ill-pulled tooth with a ragged edge.

Some words live in my throat

Breeding like adders. Others know sun

Seeking like gypsies over my tongue

To explode through my lips

Like young sparrows bursting from shell.

Some words

Bedevil me.


Love is a word another kind of open—

As a diamond comes into a knot of flame

I am black because I come from the earth's inside   

Take my word for jewel in your open light.


There is a lot to unpack there. Coal and diamonds, both made of the same carbon. The metaphor is applied to her color, but also to her voice. I think I see something different each time I read it. 


Lorde had a difficult relationship with her parents. They were busy with their real estate business, and often left her alone and neglected. They tended to be cold and unaffectionate - they may not even have wanted a child. And they never accepted her sexuality, so things did not improve later. A number of the poems in this collection talk about her fraught childhood, and particularly the problems with her mother. 


Story Books on a Kitchen Table


Out of her womb of pain my mother spat me

into her ill-fitting harness of despair

into her deceits

where my anger re-conceived me

piercing my eyes like arrows

pointed by her nightmare

of who I was not 



Going away

she left in her place

iron maidens to protect me

and for my food

the wrinkled milk of legend

where I wandered through the lonely rooms of afternoon

wrapped in nightmares

from the Orange and Red and Yellow

Purple and Blue and Green

Fairy Books

where White witches ruled

over the empty kitchen table

and never wept

or offered gold

nor any enchantment

for the vanished mother

of a black girl.


I never read those fairy books - but my wife did. I really love the line in the poem “her nightmare / of who I was not / becoming.” I understand that feeling. From the child’s point of view. I have purposed that I will never do that to my own children (although I fear I may anyway…sigh.) I want to discover who my children are becoming, not try to force them to be who I fantasize them to be. 


She also felt that each generation betrayed the next - a dynamic I feel increasingly aware of these days.  


This one is incredible - I put three exclamation points next to my note after reading it. 




How the young attempt and are broken

differs from age to age

We were brown free girls

love singing beneath our skin

sun in our hair in our eyes

sun our fortune

and the wind had made us golden

made us gay.


In a season of limited power

we wept out our promises

And these are the children we try now

for temptations that wear our face.

But who comes back from our latched cities of falsehood

to warn them that the road to nowhere

is slippery with our blood

to warn them

they need not drink the river to get home

since we have purchased bridges

with our mothers’ blood gold;-

for now we are more than kin

who come to share

not only blood 

but the bloodiness of our failures.


How the young are tempted and betrayed

into slaughter or conformity

is a turn of the mirror

time’s question only. 


In a very different vein is this deliciously erotic poem.


On a Night of the Full Moon



Out of my flesh that hungers

and my mouth that knows

comes the shape I am seeking

for reason.

The curve of your waiting body

fits my waiting hand

your breasts warm as sunlight

your lips quick as young birds

between your thighs the sweet 

sharp taste of limes.


Thus I hold you

frank in my heart’s eye

in my skin’s knowing

as my fingers conceive your flesh

I feel your stomach

moving against me.


Before the moon wanes again

we shall come together.



And I would be the moon

spoken over your beckoning flesh

breaking against reservations

beaching thought

my hands at your high tide

over and under inside you

and the passing of hungers 

attended, forgotten


Darkly risen

the moon speaks

my eyes 

judging your roundness



“Poem for a Poet” is a bit long to quote, but the opening lines are so striking, I wanted to at least mention them. 


I think of a coffin’s quiet

when I sit in the world of my car

separate and observing

with the windows closed and washed clean

by the rain. 


From “Dreams Bite,” there is another haunting line:


The people of the sun

are carving 

their own children

into monuments 

of war.


Here is another devastating picture:


Hard Love Rock


Today I heard my heart screeching like a subway train

loudly enough to remind me it was still human

loudly enough to hurt

but telling me still

you were a ghost I had

better left in the cradle,

telling me still

that our tracks ran around

instead of straight out past the sewers

that I would have nothing for barter left

not even the print of love’s grain

pressed into my flesh from our wooden cross

left splintered and shapeless

after the slaughter.


And when it was over

only pain. 


I wonder what life experience Lorde distilled into that poem? A miscarriage or abortion? A bad breakup? This next poem is on its surface about a mixed race family. But it is also about Lorde’s parents. Her mother was light colored, and could pass for white sometimes. Despite marrying a darker man, she continued to be prejudiced against darker people - including Audre, who took after her father. Man, that’s just a mixed up family dynamic. But Lorde captures it so well in this poem. 


And What About the Children


Now we’ve made a child.

and the dire predictions

have changed into wild



still the negatives

are waiting


and the relatives

keep right on


            and how much curl

            is right for a girl?

But if it is said

at some future date

that my son’s head

is on straight

he won’t care

about his 


nor give a damn

whose wife

I am.


I will end with a bittersweet poem on loss. It is almost too beautiful for words. It is also one of her poems in a traditional form. It reminds me a little of Emily Dickinson, but with Lorde’s own voice, of course.  


Memorial I


If you come as softly

as wind within the trees

you may hear what I hear

see what sorrow sees.


If you come as lightly

as the threading dew

I shall take you gladly

nor ask more of you.


You may sit beside me

silent as a breath

and only those who stay dead

shall remember death.


If you come I will be silent

nor speak harsh words to you - 

I will not ask you why, now,

nor how, nor what you knew.


But we shall sit here softly

beneath two different years

and the rich earth between us

shall drink our tears. 


As usual, this is just a taste of a wonderful collection that is worth reading in its entirety. In fact, now that Norton has released Lorde’s collected poems, I’d recommend just buying and reading the whole thing. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Stories From Quarantine by Various Authors

Source of book: I own this. 


Back in 2021, when my wife was still in the midst of hospital insanity due to Covid, we took whatever time we could to get away, if only for a few days. That summer, we traveled to Sonoma County (if you travel to northern California, it is a great place to visit), and spent some time in the fun little town of Sebastopol. Yep, named after the city in Crimea, and proudly a “Nuclear Free Zone” since the 1960s, it retains a lot of its hippie charm, combined with a NorCal hipster vibe. I’d recommend getting the wonderful and affordable meals at King Falafel, ice cream at Screaming Mimi’s, and hard cider at Golden State Cider. Grab some harder stuff at Spirit Works Distillery if you like, but don’t forget to pop into People’s Music, and Copperfield’s Books. And, even better, check out Second Chances Used Books - it’s a great small store with an ever-changing eclectic selection.


What was I saying? Oh yeah - Sebastopol is where I saw this book first. I ended up buying something else that trip, but kept an eye out for a used copy of this one, which I eventually bought. 

Stories From Quarantine was originally going to be called the Decameron Project. After all, the original Decameron was a collection of tales (in turn patterned after The Arabian Nights) set during the Bubonic Plague outbreak in Italy. To that end, a variety of modern literary authors were solicited to write a short story with some connection to the Covid pandemic. Quite a few responded, resulting in this collection of 29 tales. 


Some of the authors are household names - Margaret Atwood, Edwidge Danticat, and David Mitchell. Others were pretty well known to me from other books I have read - Tommy Orange, Charles Yu, Yiyun Li, Dina Nayeri. But many were names I really didn’t know well at all. One reason for this is that a number of the stories were in translation. I haven’t gone hunting, but I honestly wonder if some of the authors have yet to be translated into English outside of this collection. 


Obscurity, however, does not mean poor quality. While there are some really odd stories in this book, I found all of them compelling and well written. True, not everyone is able to write effortlessly in so many genres as Margaret Atwood - she contributes, of all things, a science fiction story with aliens struggling to understand human story idioms. I was certainly confirmed in my love for Yu, Li, and Orange. Yu’s particular contribution is one of the best portraits of what quarantine felt like in 2020. 


But I feel like I should give some shout outs to the other authors too. Victor LaValle’s ghost story, Mona Awad’s chilling horror, Liz Moore’s casually terrifying account of a sick child (do you take them to the ER where they might catch Covid or not? Damn), Colm Toibin’s account of the freedom of the bike path - in my native Los Angeles no less! The simmering fury of Andrew O’Hagan’s tale of family estrangement. The fully unexpected twist of Rachel Kushner’s story of a chance international meeting and an infatuation that fades. Karen Russell’s time anomaly story. The surreal story of paranoia (“An Obliging Robber”) by Mia Couto (translated from the Portuguese) wherein the narrator believes the health department worker who shows up in a mask and takes their temperature is a robber - but a really nice one - which turns out to be a biting satire on the indifference to the deaths of the poor from other causes that plagues our world. A thoughtful exploration of the dynamics of an interracial relationship by Uzodinma Iweala. Dina Nayeri’s perceptive account of a quarantine with a child. Laila Lalami’s harrowing story of a woman who has returned to her birth country for a family wedding, only to find herself stranded by the pandemic - she has a job in the US, but because she is not a citizen, she is not even on the radar for being allowed to return to her own life. (While Trump wasn’t the only official at fault here, his open contempt for non-white people was a factor in the shit-show that resulted for immigrants working in the US.) Rivers Solomon’s delicious revenge story. Matthew Baker’s hilarious account of how deprivation led to an unexpected culinary hit. Edwidge Dandicat’s sad account of dying in a hospital without one’s loved ones around - that was in many ways the hardest part of what my wife had to deal with in the thick of the pandemic. Later, fortunately, the vaccines made contact safer, but so many still refused due to politics. 


This is barely a taste of what is in this book. I would definitely recommend it for anyone who loves short stories, or who loves literary fiction, or who just wants to re-live some of the feelings of the height of the pandemic. These are good stories, and truly capture so many things of what we experienced.