Hello, those in search of the creative spark. Welcome to the Grassroots Writer’s Guild. This blog began as a collaboration between two writers and friends, on the premise that all writers need a blog. In the past few years, it has become the blog of one of those two friends (Julia Simpson-Urrutia) because the other (Connie Kirchberg) has found so much activity and inspiration in other pursuits aside from writing, which include four dogs, two cats, and a never-ending project list that tends to revolve around carpentry. Most writers are creative in so many ways, and so it is with us.
While many blogs aim to sell something or pedal a philosophy, my goal is to use this platform as a continuing repository of creativity, whether it be from myself or from others, including Connie Kirchberg. Most of my own efforts do center around writing, but some of my artwork has been simply for joy (Which, I believe, is the way it should be) and to find another means of bringing my own creative work to the attention of others who might take interest.
Please feel free to comment on any of our posts. We (I) do our best to keep them writing-related, but let’s face it, a blog is a place to sound off, and sometimes that’s what I might do. Most of the time, however, our posts will relate directly to the business of writing or artistic endeavor.
I am keeping all original posts, including the “get to know the writer” approach that offers personal experiences and family photos. It strikes me, after being assaulted by the din of Internet enterprise and guru know it alls, that some blogs should be for NOTHING else but to say, “Guess what, I am a seeker of the creative spark. I suspect you are, too!”
Whatever artistic activity you enjoyed at 13, you probably should be doing right now. That, at least, is what works for me–no matter who receives a Pulitzer or blue medal from the Group That Knows Better.
Yesterday, my son Yousef and I visited the Van Gogh immersive experience that, in our town, was titled “Beyond Van Gogh.” Because it was probably the last outing I will have with Yousef before he leaves for the other side of the country and because his younger brother has already moved out of state, my thoughts went beyond Vincent to his entire family. How did his life quest impact the rest of the family?
The exhibition was well worth the visit: the force of tormented genius generously mingled with pure joy is what sweeps over the visitor. As flowers cascaded down the walls, birds flew, boats shrank into the horizon and portraits blinked at me, I absorbed the information that Van Gogh was driven by certainty of the need to make something of his talent. Theo, his brother, was his confidant and financial support. The extracts from letters to Theo appeared on the walls, causing me (as surely everyone else) to think about the strength of the fraternal bond. (According to one article I read subsequently, Vincent might have committed suicide because his brother Theo was going mad and dying of syphillis.)
Van Gogh didn’t start out his life as a human being driven by only one career choice (I might as well say “occupation” since he did not support himself through painting). Before trying out a career as a preacher (his father was a Protestant pastor), he spent years working for art dealers in a company where his uncle was a partner. He also worked at a school as a language teacher. Jumping into the fulltime occupation of destitute artist was his ultimate choice, one that left the world an inheritance. I could not help but wonder what his choice left for his mother.
Forget about the mother, people might say. Truly? And the father? When parents watch their grown offspring struggle down paths of inspiration or desperation, they probably do not much think of how that son or daughter’s genius may enrich the world. They grieve for the loss of balance.
Loss of balance can come from many things, like illness and death, of course. Humans have to make peace with our fate, which is to live and to die. Those who believe in God understand that life affords the opportunity to forge a portal to God’s grace at death. Making peace with life means accepting that life is full of instability. Vincent and Theo’s mother outlived her sons. I hope she was able to make peace with that loss and that she found comfort in God.
I was startled and honored early this year to have an Interview request from Zainab bint Younus, a bright young journalist and podcaster for MuslimMatters.org. The podcast can be accessed at the link given here.
I realize that change is inevitable, but college library shelves without physical books are jarring to those who have never contemplated such a reality. The motivating premise behind offloading physical books is the fact that students have not been borrowing print books. Last week, my own college library’s empty shelves found me with red-rimmed eyes, seeking solace in the company of librarians who shared my grief.
Librarians do not all agree on what should be done about the increasing lack of interest in print books. In May of 2021, Publisher’s Weekly published an article in which Tim Coates, a London-based bookseller and library advocate, warned of a massive decline in public library usage. If check-out rates fell by 31% over 8 years in the USA and 22% over 10 years in Australia, it fell a whopping 70% in the U.K. from 2000 to 2021 (Albanese).
Some library leaders feel the answer is to follow popular trends. If people do not check out books and prefer digital material, these library leaders feel shelves full of books serve no purpose. I see the logic, although people of every age in my own circle say they like to hold a “real” book in their hands. My own experience with books is that discovery of new titles happens, in the main, when I am amidst books in a library or bookstore. Less often do I find and buy a book, print or digital, after having discovered it online. I try my best to discover books through NetGalley and Goodreads, of course. I read a great deal of digital writing, particularly books, but my eyes don’t appreciate the glare of the screen. My greatest relaxation is with print books. Those are the books I don’t forget to finish because they are there, page marked.
Book lovers may share this trait of reading both digital and print books, but we cannot ignore the trend toward online reading. The question is whether digital browsing through social media posts has the same literary effect on a populace as engagement with books. Not surprisingly, literacy levels have plummeted. Writing for Inside Higher Ed, Professor Steven Mintz (University of Texas at Austin) noted in January of this year (2022) that “38 percent of Hispanic adults, 25 percent of Black adults, and 20 percent of white adults” admitted to not having read a book in whole or even partially in the last year, regardless of whether it was print, electronic or audio. Apparently, the same is true for a full 11% of “adults with a bachelor’s or other advanced degree.” I believe Mintz when he writes that the Faculty Survey of Student Engagement reports increasing unwillingness of students to complete assigned readings. That has been my own experience as an academic.
Does it matter to the nuts and bolts of life whether we are highly literate? Writing in Forbes (Sept 2020), Michael T. Nietzel (former Missouri State University president) noted a study by Gallup on behalf of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy that disclosed low levels of adult literacy could cost the U.S. up to $2.2 trillion a year. How? Literacy goes hand-in-hand with “personal income, employment levels, health, and overall economic growth,” writes Nietzel. Thus if 54% of Americans 16-74 (130 million people, roughly) cannot read beyond a sixth-grade level, their income, health, job security, and economic growth will be impacted. Society works as a chain of dominos. How could struggling incomes and more health problems for some not impact all?
Fluency is the ability to communicate in any language. Good and easy-to-find source material enables a better grasp of a language, be it in the language of words, coding, or something else. Without good source material, which social media posts of dubious veracity, replete with grammatical errors, do not offer, how will mankind effectively communicate?
The name H.G. Wells is more widely known than the names of other literary masters of the same era, if but for the movies based on H.G. Wells’ titles. He was a science fiction writer whose works The Time Machine and War of the Worlds offer readers escapism, thrills, and enough scientific foundation to have made him qualify as a visionary. Tomalin demonstrates Wells’ hold on the young in her preface by describing how George Orwell, as a boy at boarding school, kept borrowing (sometimes without permission) his friend Cyril Connolly’s (editor and essayist) copy of a book by Wells.
Tomalin prepares us in her remark that the boys did not know (as we may not know) that Wells was an atheist, a socialist and a republican. It did not matter to them because his futuristic scientific world full of possibilities seized upon the imagination. We can relate.
The young Wells’ history is unexpected and endears him to us, which is important, for his treatment of others—particularly lovers and wives—can gall. The highly successful 19th century white male writer was the rock star of his day, so he could get away with behavior that would not brand him as a cad and a bounder in his time. (Although it did, actually, and for a long time Beatrix Webb could not see him socially.) His treatment of his long-suffering wife, Jane, is quite interesting. Tomalin speaks well of her, but would anyone want such a fate for a daughter or herself? Yet still spouses put up with such neglect and dismissal if only to pay their bills.
In some ways, this might as well be a biography of significant writers and thinkers of the late 19th/turn of the 20th century, for the portrait Tomalin paints of Beatrice Webb (née Potter) is as fascinating as the one she colors in of Wells. I loved Tomalin’s apology for following the “young” Wells all the way to his death. Her excuse was the adolescent behavior that gripped him throughout his life. Agreed.
It is charming to find Wells a hypocrite. Such creativity cannot be without flaw. If you are a reader of 19th century writers, you will value Tomalin’s exposé of the ever-transmuting relationships that existed between Wells, Shaw, Tolstoy, Henry James and more. My one critique is with the sub-title. To show how he “chang[ed] the world” would entail more of a textual analysis whereas this is a biography of success, ego and relationships.
The murder of Mlle Schwartz, a teacher at Château Mont Rose, destroys the reputation of the oldest finishing school for girls in Switzerland. It goes out of business.
For eight years, the estate remains locked and boarded up until re-opening as an inn and wax museum. Former students receive notification. They visit. Then they disappear.
When the number of missing women mounts, Interpol alerts Detective Cloquet of Lausanne Sûreté. Cloquet pressures his young deputy, Paul Junod, to shadow expected arrivals Lauren Briant and Rachel Gordon, both alumni of the boarding school. In order to stay close to Lauren and Rachel, Paul has to join their paranormal film team.
Meanwhile, Cloquet revisits Château Mont Rose and finds its headmistress, a woman long dead.
You might have heard of Dostoevsky—might have decided to read one of his novels—but if you haven’t read one or have only just learned his name, know that Dostoevsky is considered one of the most representative writers of 19th century Russia in the same way that Charles Dickens is considered one of the most representative writers of 19th century Great Britain and the English-reading world. They both focused on the poor and the dispossessed in their literature, insisting on the humanity of the downtrodden, and through characters and circumstances presented, both writers helped give recognizable qualities to national identity.
The title of this book may have the potential reader thinking it is about Dostoevsky’s romantic life, but it is about so much more. It is about his love of life, mankind, philosophy, God and literature as well as his driving passion to understand why he was dealt the circumstances he and the rest of his nation lived in. He was quite honestly in love with Russia. Though he enjoyed inexpensive (then) places to live and write like Switzerland, he always felt the need to be in the most dynamic centers of Russia.
When Fyodor Dostoevsky was little, his father, a hard-working doctor, was recognized for zealous medical service, for which he was awarded the Order of St Anna. This recognition by the government lifted the family from its poverty to a position at which they could afford to hire staff—a coachman, cook, maid and nanny. The boost up the hierarchical caste system placed the family at the lowest level of gentry and gave the family rights that people in the free world take for granted. I paused every time I read that Dostoevsky or his family gained a right or permission because the situation reminded me of almost two decades living in a monarchical autocracy, where I could not work or own property or inherit (due to being a foreigner). Similarly, 19th century Russia had (and many other countries today still have) a far different societal system than what is familiar to Western readers. The Order of St. Anna bestowed upon Dr. Dostoevsky gave him the right to purchase land and own his own place. Before that, he could only rent. Still, gentry could go into debt, which fate befell both Dr. Dostoevsky and his son after him. In (Fyodor’s case, however, much of the debt was senselessly self-inflicted.)
The reader must imagine that the child, Fyodor, and his brother Mikhail, would have been thrilled by the rise up the ladder and proud of their father for achieving the recognition that made them gentry. That career boost probably created a sense of gratitude towards the tsar in Dostoevsky, which helps to explain why Russians had a hard time trying to figure out what side Dostoevsky was on—that of the poor or the ruling elite. Like Dickens, he knew people on both sides of the train tracks, but the Russian writer could be said to have suffered far more than the British. Dostoevsky’s mother died of tuberculosis when he was a teen and the family broke apart, just like that. Dostoevsky showed his love of literature early and belonged to a group that discussed books critical of tsarist Russia for which he was sentenced to many years in a Siberian prison camp and then more years of military service in exile. His sufferings seemed to have known no bound. I read about them with a cold hand gripping my intestines, wondering how he could possibly have endured all he did and still have found love and acclaim.
But he managed, with his latter marriage being a happy one and his years of literary endeavor bringing him the kind of recognition every writer dreams of—with all kinds of misery filling the gaps. Even the most dedicated reader of literary greats will wonder whether Dostoevsky did not arrive at good luck through sheer happenstance, for he lived in a political climate with nothing but traps and holes. This is the kind of book that will have readers rummaging through the end notes, sorry there is not more to read. I adored the comments about the influence of Dostoevsky’s writing after his death.
Writers will love this biography even if they are not ardent Steinbeck fans. The studied insights into Steinbeck’s pursuit of his own writing success do not convey any sort of blueprint for achieving the New York Time’s bestseller list but rather demonstrate how a doggedly stubborn individual with an ego inflated enough to fall back upon when kicked in the gut and psyche and a willingness to suffer isolation and penury might, if the stars align, achieve the kind of writing stature he or she wants to achieve. The ingredient list might without too much effort be construed as demanding: a combination of dire circumstances afflicting an entire populace in a specific widespread part of the country might be considered as necessary as beef in Beef Wellington, and to report on that situation and show any level of empathy would turn one into a symbol of compassion. Possessing a popularly approved gender and race during a given era, and roping in an unrecognized lover/editor/typist who can give the useful, sensitive feedback are also essential ingredients. Having parents who are supportive, both financially and emotionally, also figure into the chances of a good launch for such an aspirant.
There were many elements that made this biography special for me, foremost being the author. This book could have been a boring chronicle of successes if not for William Souder’s nuanced evaluation of the circumstances and people in Steinbeck’s life. He is a writer’s writer, and makes reflections that will resonate with anyone who has ever thought about writing. Souder’s total immersion in all things Steinbeck is persuasive, so that the reader feels trusting of the author’s comments regarding all three wives and his many friends, which comments are made without damning anyone nor indeed Steinbeck. Souder keeps his distance, conveys his respect and fascination and shows without telling so that his conclusions become our own. It is a stupendous feat.
Finally, for a resident of California who lives a stone’s throw from many places that were part of Steinbeck’s early formation and his later life, I found Mad at the World (who isn’t, especially today?) a travel itinerary I intend to retrace with eyes wide open. No longer will I race from Salinas to Pacific Grove thoughtlessly, not now that I realize it took the Steinbeck family a whole day to travel the distance to their summer (Pacific Grove) vacation spot!#MadattheWorld #NetGalley
Much of the world is steeped in the idea that Western civilization represents progress and reason. According to Western (economic and political) mythology, historical events by and large represent progress (so long as the victors become wealthy and the standard of life, for a large cross-section in the winning culture, is acceptable). This historical “truth” is embraced by most college students even though real history is a stream of wars, destruction and oppression of the weak. Scheidler explains that the root cause of this myth is not really liberalism favoring free market capitalism so much as a much older predatory system that seeks increased gains for those in power, forever justified by a publicly announced mission to bring about religious salvation, and when that justification was scuttled, the mission was modified to bring about development, a free market, and a higher standard of living.
No matter what we blame wars on, the promotion of consumerism and exploitation of the earth is running into two 21st century walls: a structural global economic crisis that “can no longer be explained away by the usual economic cycles” (loc 157 of 5298) and the steady dwindling lack of security for a growing number of people (let alone the issues of global warming and ecological crisis). The End of the Megamachine is no mere exploration of a theory; it is a prophecy.
Scheidler supports his thesis with a historical study of cultural commercialism, and in so doing, he proves that we do not have to put up with the economic structure that we are saddled with today. The beginnings of the modern free market are tied to state gain. Scheidler asserts that those who “cultivated European market expansion at the threshold of modern times were not peaceful merchants” but they were in fact VIPs from militarized city states who used warfare “to assert their commercial interests” (1171). By contrast, Arab merchants did not use physical force and were not part of state policy making and were removed from state power.
The First Crusade involved the conquest of the port city of Acre in Galilee in 1104, for which Genoa received a third of the port city’s revenues. The First Crusade “led to the enormous enrichment of Genoese merchants and was the basis for much of the city’s subsequent power.” Scheilder cites William of Tyre’s eyewitness account of the massacre at the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and it is horrific. The knights and soldiers from the Christian West massacred without mercy, and the “‘whole place was flooded with the blood of victims.’” Tyre described his revulsion at “‘the spectacle of headless bodies, mutilated limbs strewn in all directions that roused horror in all who looked upon them’ and insists that the victors themselves, dripping from blood from head to foot,’” brought terror to the beholder. In the Al Aqsa Mosque alone, ten thousand died, and a similar number of victims were dragged out from wherever they hid in the city and slain like sheep or “‘dashed headlong to the ground from some elevated place so that they perished miserably.’” All the spoils went to the victors by agreement before the slaughter, explaining the pitiless lack of humanity among the victors (1197).
Scheidler observes that a similar fate awaited the inhabitants of the Americas, calling the phenomenon “destructive violence produced by the combination of capitalism, militarism and Western missionary zeal”(1197). He furthermore brands the Crusades (in which Europe was the victor) as revelatory of what the rest of the world would soon taste. From the Crusades, the West moved into new forms of mercenary combat that threw out old rules, evident in the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between England and France. The age of chivalry died when rules of combat were tossed aside and the number of dead were not limited—not even of other Christians. The “Black Prince,” Edward III’s son, resorted to a scorched earth policy that devastated large parts of southern France. His armies were financed by the Florentine banks, investors.
If the world’s wars have seemed disjointed or part of convoluted political maneuvering on a world stage, reading Scheidler’s assessment in the light of economic aggression and entitlement will have the advantage of tying everything together. He makes a tremendously strong argument for the driving force that could lead to mankind’s ultimate destruction. There is a section of the book that appears to argue that the belief systems supporting a dominant god have played into the global economic aggression, and that very well may be, but that segment (which many religious followers will take at least some issue with) does not detract from the overall convincing thesis that concepts can be distorted. He draws attention to this idea by quoting Levi-Strauss, who wrote, “The primary function for writing as a means of communication is to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings”(366). One would hardly imagine that Scheidler would advocate a cessation of writing and reading lessons; here, he simply makes a good point about propaganda and the power of disseminated ideas.
It is ironic that religious and philosophical playbooks for living at peace and in harmony with each other and the earth have been in existence for centuries, but mankind has chosen to applaud the road of greed. This is not a book without hope, for at the outset Scheidler explains that the entire world agricultural system could be shifted to organic within a few years, if people wanted. It was good that he started on such a note, because one needs a little hope in the face of such a tidal wave of evidence. #NetGalley #JohnHunt Publishing
Natchez, Mississippi, exists in a time warp; the longer you linger, the more its essence gets under your skin. British-born travel writer Richard Grant takes the reader on an amazing journey in The Deepest South of All through his friendships and interviews with key players in the Natchez cultural tapestry, demonstrating how the history of Natchez spins a web of fascination and frustration around all who dally. Stay long enough and your name will be sure to get crunched into the gossip mill: you will no longer recognize your own doings. Some residents might say that syndrome typifies Natchez more than any other trait. While its residents and groups are known to be odd, delightful, decadent, disputatious, discriminating, dignified and demented, the city’s mere existence demonstrates the foundation of irony and injustice upon which Natchez stakes its claim to fame.
Take the jaw-dropping fact that this center of slavery, which had more millionaires in its heyday than any other region of the U.S., was a Union army stronghold. Ulysses S. Grant stayed at an antebellum home named The Towers and allegedly rode his horse up and down the hallway on Christmas Eve of 1863. The city’s decision not to vote to secede from the Union caused Natchez planters to (albeit reluctantly) open their doors to the Union officers: for this reason alone, Natchez’s beautiful antebellum homes stand today with tours granted primarily by white women in hoop skirts. If not for that strategic decision, the mansions would probably have been burned to the ground.
Stanton Hall, where Richard Grant is invited at the outset of his book by the charming Natchez-born Regina Charboneau, a cookbook writer and former San Francisco restaurateur and blues club owner, takes a prominent position in The Deepest South of All. The name of Stanton Hall caught my attention because of a Californian high school friend who visited the Natchez mansion often (through family ties). A similar loyalty brought Charboneau home, and partly through her endeavor to keep Natchez alive while acknowledging its slave past, readers can feel the struggle that steeps the city in tension.
Charboneau runs Twin Oaks, another Greek Revival antebellum home dating from 1832. Richard Grant stayed here in the old slave quarters, and he does not hide his sense of grief or awareness of the misery that brought so much splendor to the city. Almost immediately, at the party thrown at Stanton Hall, a mansion that sits on an entire block and whose new roof cost $750,000, Grant discovers the fairy tale of happy servants promoted by more than one strong, elegant dowager in her 80s who won’t concede that any of the house servants who were called family were actual slaves.
That fairy tale is promoted by the locally famous Tableaux, a yearly theatrical event put on by rival garden clubs (who battle each other while keeping the antebellum homes running) at which children dance in more than one event and where each garden club’s Royal Court presides with a king and queen. Mothers in Natchez want their children to perform in the Tableaux, and therefore can be influenced to help in the activities that keep the city running. Those enlightened women who try to bring the tragedy of African American history into the Tableaux are met with ridicule, scorn and outrage from the fundamentalists who want the Tableaux to keep to the mythology of happy servants and singing field hands.
Grant shows how the mantle of resistance against racism and the Gone with the Wind romance has been taken up by many notables in Natchez, including the family of Natchez’s most famous resident, Greg Iles, a best-selling thriller writer. When his daughter Madeline was elected as Queen by the Pilgrimage Garden Club in 2015, she decided to use her power to make the Tableaux less racist. But in the poor part of the city, notable African Americans have worked just as hard to draw attention to the cauldron of misery that Natchez represents as a stronghold of pre-Civil War slavery.
The streaming racial debate that has spread swiftly into every artery of the USA during its 2020 pandemic crisis finds one of its chief sources (a never-stilled geyser) here in this spot on the Mississippi river where tens of thousands of manacled (men) or roped together (women) slaves were transported on riverboats. Here, these poor souls were sold at auctions after being rested and fattened up, the men dressed in outlandish top hats, the women in calico dresses and both sexes forced to submit to the grease of vegetables boiled with pork fat rubbed into their skin. Of all stories, none is more heartbreaking or more written of than that of the man nicknamed Prince.
Truly no story from The Deepest South of All so much got under my skin (and I yearned to get back to the book at the end of each work day) as the tale of the African Muslim prince born as Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima. Son of King Sori in Timbo in the highlands of Futa Jalon in what is now Guinea, Ibrahima was an educated young man who read, wrote and spoke Arabic as well as five African tongues. He was a valiant warrior who was the favored son of his father. One day, while returning home after a victorious battle, he and his men were caught by a warring African tribe and sold into slavery. If not for accidentally running into the same Irish doctor who visited West Africa and enjoyed his father’s royal hospitality decades earlier, Ibrahima, who accepted his fate as a slave for forty years and who was known to never smile, might never have had the chance to return to Africa (if only to die there).
It is easy to deduce that the controversy of slave-trading’s origins in Natchez has much to do with its draw on so many odd characters. Despite the gossip mill, no single character or set of characters can claim more attention than the issue of slavery itself and Natchez’s undeniable glory at the expense of human rights. It may be the oddest place in America and yet it serves a purpose as a mirror of ourselves. The Deepest South of All, one of the most fascinating books I have read this decade, dares us to look at our own reflection. #NetGalley #The Deepest South of All #Simon&Schuster