October 2018

ISAAC’S STORM

Katrina, Harvey, Maria, Florence: everyone knows the names of these recent major U.S. hurricanes that caused immense physical and psychological damage. What few people know about, and which no one alive today remembers, is the hurricane of September 8, 1900 that decimated Galveston Island and part of the Texas southeastern coast. Erik Larson’s 1999 book is subtitled: “A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History.” The lack of scientific instruments at that time (those on the island were destroyed in the storm) can’t prove that it was the deadliest in the U.S., but the extreme loss of life and property, the sheer devastation on the island and along its path through the U.S. as it exited, appear to remain unparalleled.

Galveston Island is a barrier island that stretches off the southeastern coast of Texas. The Gulf of Mexico lies on the southeastern side of the island, and Galveston Bay lies between Texas and the island. In September 1900, a strong hurricane approached from the summer-warmed Gulf bringing a huge storm surge and rain while simultaneously strong north and northeast winds pushed the Bay water onto the island on the land side. With a maximum island elevation of under 9 feet, even the care taken to build houses on stilts and with strong materials proved to be no match for Nature’s ferocious squeeze play. Many people who thought their homes would be a safe haven in a storm discovered otherwise, as their houses washed off the foundations, then disintegrated into mere kindling from the forces of water and wind.

The loss of life was catastrophic. It was impossible to determine the exact number of deaths, but the estimates range from 6,000 to 10,000 people lost, not including those lost along the Texas coast. Many people were simply washed out to sea and disappeared forever. As workers started combing through the wreckage and finding bodies which became less identifiable with each hot passing day, they finally resorted to building funeral pyres on the beach, even if the bodies had not been identified.

Galveston never recovered from the devastation. Prior to the hurricane, it was a vibrant, cosmopolitan, modern city with a busy port. While they were rebuilding, a vast oil field was discovered in Beaumont, Texas, and Galveston lost its competition with Houston. The mainland had the advantage of being nearer main railroad links and a more reliable infrastructure that was less vulnerable to the utter destruction Galveston had experienced. Houston may have been deemed safer then, but in 2017, hurricane Harvey showed us what extensive damage can still be done to one of the largest U.S. cities (minus the huge loss of life thanks to evacuations and better preparations).

So—who was Isaac, and why was this HIS storm? Isaac Cline was a meteorologist, scientist, and physician who was interested in studying the effects of weather on health. He joined the newly-formed U.S. Weather Service in 1882. In 1891, Cline was by then one of the Service’s best men and was sent to run the Texas Section of the U.S. Weather Bureau in Galveston. He and his small staff, which later included his younger brother Joseph, had responsibility for checking and reporting instrument readings and forwarding that information to the Washington D.C. central office, from where appropriate information was telegraphed to the various U.S. offices.

When Willis Moore was named the head of that office, the trouble started. Although trained as a scientist and meteorologist, Moore was what we recognize today as a narcissistic egomaniac who “never missed a chance to burnish the reputation of the Weather Bureau or boost his own political stature.” (p. 74) That meant he would ignore facts which he perceived to be inconvenient, and when it concerns the weather, that’s a problem. E.g., he was “reluctant” to allow the Bureau to use words like “hurricane” and “cyclone” so people would not become “needlessly” alarmed. As a consequence, people made decisions about their activities, such as taking a boat or ship to sea, that in the end endangered their lives or even caused loss of life.

Other action taken by the Bureau added to the eventual catastrophe. Cubans had long experience with hurricanes. They knew a bad one was coming and most likely headed across the heated Gulf waters toward Galveston. Moore had placed a Bureau rep in Havana after the war with Spain. That rep “saw the people of Cuba and the Indies as a naïve, aboriginal race in need of American stewardship.” (p. 103) The forecast of the Cubans, which was accurate, was never released outside of Cuba, and worst of all, never sent to Cline in Galveston. Instead, the Bureau predicted the storm would take the usual path up the U.S. Atlantic coast, indicating it wasn’t much to worry about.

Cline and the Galveston office never received a clear hurricane warning from the Bureau. He had no advance warning in time to allow Galvestonians to leave the island by train or boat. In essence, they were trapped there during one of the fiercest hurricanes ever to hit the island AND with the wind pushing in water on the island’s OTHER side with no shelter beyond their flimsy (in those conditions) homes.

Cline and his brother Joseph realized something was wrong by the morning of September 8. Instrument readings and the booming of deep ocean swells told them both that there might be trouble ahead, but they had no way to judge what or how bad it might be. Cline did suggest to some Galvestonians that they should find shelter that day, but he was careful not to violate the Bureau taboo of spreading alarm among the populace. In hindsight, we might ask why he didn’t act more strongly on the few facts he saw and on his good intuition. He did not violate “an unwritten tenet of bureau culture as it had evolved under Willis Moore: Do not ever let your own star shine more brightly than the chief’s.” (p. 249) It’s my opinion that the blame for what happened in Galveston should be laid at the feet of Moore, making it MOORE’S storm. Cline didn’t have many facts—Moore ignored them.

The Cline family and many other people gathered in the Cline home to ride out the storm. At some point, the house lifted off its foundation and broke apart, casting Isaac and 2 daughters into the water through the window of the upstairs bedroom where they sought shelter as the house rolled. Had they been standing anywhere else in that room, they probably would have drowned, as did most of the others there. Isaac, his 3 daughters, and Joseph survived by hitching rides on floating debris. Isaac’s pregnant wife Cora did not survive. He was devastated. Her body was eventually found, identified by her clothing and wedding ring, which he wore for the rest of his life.

I first read Isaac’s Storm several years ago and enjoyed it immensely. I thought of it for this blog because of hurricane Florence, and re-reading it has moved it to my favorites list. I wanted to share it with others. Who knew weather could generate such an intriguing story!

Larson did an excruciating amount of research of archival materials, written and oral accounts by survivors, newspaper articles, histories of ships lost in Caribbean hurricanes since the time of Columbus, and every imaginable source that could be found. (My favorite example is this: the list of some of the donors who sent post-hurricane donations includes $12.25 sent by the Kansas State Insane Asylum. p. 244) Larson has the gift of pulling it all together in a form that reads like a novel. It’s a fine example—and a warning—of the dangers of hubris, both personal and national. In the heady times at the turn of the century, technology progressed very rapidly and in ways that made some think humans could even control the weather. In our current times with climate change such an issue, it’s clear humans can AFFECT the weather to a certain extent, which is not the same as CONTROLLING it. Nature will likely always have her way, but we are improving ways to deal with the EFFECTS of weather. Even so, if readers want to experience a hurricane, the safest way is to read Isaac’s Storm in their warm, DRY home.

--Donna Rueff--



September 2018

BARRACOON

Zora Neale Hurston (b. 1/7/1891; d.1/28/1960) was an accomplished ethnographer, folklorist, anthropologist, and novelist. She attended Howard University and received her B.A. from Barnard College in 1927. As an African-American woman from the South at that time, she was driven and found ways to accomplish her goals. Her best-known work which has grown in popularity over the decades is Their Eyes Were Watching God. Her other books and writings (essays, short stories, plays) were published decades ago, some of it for a more limited or academic audience. The manuscript written in 1931 which became Barracoon, however, was never published in book form until May 2018.

Barracoon was on the “New York Times” hardcover bestseller list until August 2018. Hurston has become more popular posthumously, as topics she wrote about have gained widespread interest throughout American culture in the ensuing decades. (Note: a barracoon is temporary barracks-like housing for those awaiting transport via ship to the country where they’ll be enslaved.)

Barracoon is the story of the last surviving person to be brought from Africa on the very last and little-known slave ship named the Clothilda. It was a small and fast sailing ship that 3 brothers named Meaher and a Captain Foster took to the African coast for the purpose of illegally transporting Africans to the American South in 1860 to be used as slaves. Their return was on the brink of the South’s secession and onset of the Civil War. Had they been caught in the U.S., the penalty for the Meahers and Foster would be death. They managed to outrun or evade authorities, unload and distribute their cargo of Africans to be used as slaves, then sank the ship. While the four men each took some Africans for their own use, the remaining slaves were bought and sent to Selma, Alabama.

Hurston was sent to interview the last survivor of these events to get his story—an oral history. She first met Cudjo Lewis in 1927 and spoke with him intermittently over a period of several months. (Note: while his African name was Kossola, he commonly used the name Cudjo Lewis, which I’ll also use here. Cudjo means a male child born on a Monday…one of the many small and wonderful nuggets found in this book!)

His story is told in dialect, and this is the core of the book. He was born in 1841, so in his late 80s when he told his story to Hurston. He was born into an African family that was not poor, but not a reigning family in his tribe, although his grandfather was an official for their king. He had a good and happy life that ended without warning when he was 19. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Dahomans attacked his village, killing or beheading many of the villagers while taking the young, strong men captive. That village was wiped off the map, and the captives, including Lewis, marched to the coast, where they were kept in a barracoon for several weeks until the Clothilda arrived. Arrangements were made to buy 125 of the captives, including Lewis.

This is where Lewis’s life changed forever. As the captives were being loaded onboard, someone sighted attackers coming. All but 1 load of about 15 captives remained, but the ship had to set sail immediately and left them behind…except for Lewis, who called out to a friend being loaded, and was allowed to board, too. Had he kept silent, he would have remained in Africa and probably been killed by the attackers or died of starvation. There was no good choice at that moment.

After 45 days at sea, the crowded ship arrived in the U.S., and after the deceptive moves mentioned above, the captives were dispersed. Lewis was taken by a Meaher brother who treated him comparatively well. He was trained in his work and remained a slave for 5.5 years until he was given freedom at the end of the Civil War. He rented & farmed land until he was able to buy a parcel. He married and fathered 6 children. All of them and his wife preceded him in death, leaving only a few grandchildren by the time Hurston talked to him.

Lewis died not long after their talks. He was lonely, had a challenging life, felt deep sorrow at losing all his children and wife over the years, knew many things were wrong, but he did not feel sorry for himself. He did not whine. Although he dreamed of returning to Africa one day, he could never afford it. My thought is that it’s probably just as well. After his slave and other experiences, it’s likely he’d no longer fit it. In any case, his village had been eradicated, so where would he go.

I was struck by several bits of information that show how different cultures do things. My favorite was how his African tribe handled marriage. Before he was captured, Lewis had his eye on a young woman and asked his parents to start the marriage process. He was captured before this could happen, but he had explained that when the first wife is tired of being the only wife, she tells the husband and starts looking for another wife for him. SHE chooses any additional wives, trains them in their duties, etc. I think that’s a smart way to handle polygamy. In other cultures, if the wives don’t get along, that means trouble and bad feelings for the entire family. This way, the women all get along, there’s help with the work and children, and other wives are trained how to do the work by the first wife. Household harmony should ensue, and who wouldn’t want that!

However, there were other things that I think dismayed and saddened Hurston; e.g., it was evident that there wasn’t unity among the African tribes. This wasn’t a simple case of white men landing on African soil and trapping people to take as slaves. The Dahomans who brutally killed and took captives from Lewis’s tribe did it for enrichment of their own tribe; quite simply, for money and power.

The Africans and African-Americans on the plantation where Lewis was taken weren’t all helpful in training and helping him adjust. Some made fun of his inability to understand their language upon his arrival and ridiculed his personal ways. I suppose that helped certain people at the bottom of the social ladder to feel superior to SOMEONE, but it was certainly unkind and outright mean. Lewis’s boys were also badly teased when they were in school, to the point where they became very tough fighters in self-defense.

I felt that Hurston wished the Africans and African-Americans acted better than that, that their behavior should be exemplary for humanity. Deborah Plant says in the Afterword:

“The body of lore Hurston gathered was an argument against…notions of cultural inferiority and white supremacy, and it defied the idea of European cultural hegemony as it also questioned the narrative of white supremacy.” (p. 159)

Besides Lewis’s story told in dialect, there’s a wealth of other detailed information in this book from various sources that corroborate what he says and with the historical record. As one often finds with illiterate people, Lewis’s memory was excellent, even at his age, and what he said has been proven. There is much to learn in the additions, and I found all of it fascinating. I highly recommend this book, as well as her others, to anyone who enjoys folklore, but above, storytelling. Hurston is one of the best.

Donna Rueff

***************

When I started reading Barracoon, I remembered an episode of “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. I remembered that he mentioned there was one last slave ship that most people had never heard of; and that Questlove was a descendant of someone on that ship. That was obviously an astonishing piece of news. I include information here for anyone who wants to watch Questlove get the news:

https://www.pbs.org/video/episode-9-southern-roots-2n9c0j/

In case you don’t know who Questlove is, this is from Wikipedia:

Questlove “is an American percussionist, multi-instrumentalist, DJ, music journalist, record producer, and occasional actor. He is best known as the drummer and joint frontman (with Black Thought) for the Grammy Award-winning band The Roots…. Questlove is also one of the producers of the Broadway musical Hamilton…. Additionally, he is an adjunct instructor at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University.”

I think it helps to know that this ONE good thing came out of that horrific tale. Who knows, there may be many more Clothilda descendants in Alabama and nearby states who have contributed greatly to humanity.

--DR--


August 2018

THE HEMINGWAY BOOK CLUB OF KOSOVO

A strange thing happened on my way to this month’s blog. I had planned to discuss something completely different (which I’ll do another time), but Paula Huntley’s 2003 book kept creeping into my mind. Reading the blurbs raised a question for me: can one small, important book really change the lives of people in a far and troubled corner of the world? I needed to answer that question for myself. After reading this book, my intuition has been screaming at me to share this story with others…so here we are.

Huntley’s book is actually her journal of the 8 months she and her husband spent in Kosovo in 2000-2001. Her husband, Ed Villmoare, was a law professor who volunteered to help create a legal system in Kosovo while she taught English as a second language. It would be difficult to imagine a more dramatic change from living in coastal Bolinas, CA to living in a war-torn and traumatized country in much reduced circumstances and not knowing the language. On the other hand, the Kosovars needed help in virtually every imaginable way, so Huntley and her husband offered theirs because they could.

It’s important to know a bit about Kosovo to understand what the “internationals” who came to Kosovo faced. Huntley explains it so well in her “accidental book,” as she calls it: the journal that became an unplanned book. The Balkans have been problematic for centuries, as we in the West have learned. It’s an area of collisions; where the edges of empires, religions, ethnic groups, and codes of living meet, often in conflict. The area known as Kosovo has been occupied for about 10,000 years by various groups, including the Romans. In the 6th and 7th centuries, Slavs migrated to the area, and it was part of the Ottoman Empire from the 15th century until 100 years ago. It was made part of Yugoslavia after WWI, then made an Autonomous Province within Serbia after WWII. Every Kosovar knows their history of greatness, who their heroes are, and what they did. Outsiders must understand the importance of pride in their history, their courage to prevail, which is still strong in their mindset.

After WWII, Yugoslavia fell under Communism and the rule of Josip Tito. He was able to hold together the motley grouping of which Yugoslavia was comprised under a looser form of Communism than Russia practiced until his death in 1980. In the 1990s, Serbian president Milosevic cracked down on the Kosovars in ways that sound exactly like Jim Crow, turning Kosovars into second-class citizens. In 1998-1999, Serbian paramilitary and other forces used Nazi-style techniques (e.g., packed trains) to send nearly 1 million Albanian Kosovars out of Kosovo in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. They then swept through Kosovo in a genocidal wave, killing many males and brutalizing other Kosovars and especially females (Huntley gives more details). In March-June 1999, NATO conducted armed intervention, including bombing Serbian parts of the capital city of Pristina, to push out the Serbs. The city and country were in shambles. Few people survived with their entire families intact, & virtually everyone was traumatized to some extent. Kosovars were by no means going to accept Serbian rule again and wanted independence. This is the Pristina and Kosovo that Huntley and her husband encountered in September 2000.

Huntley describes her feeling of terror at making this change in their lives. That fear disappeared once they were on the ground in Kosovo, however, despite the environment of destruction, rebuilding, lack of dependable services and supplies, huge piles of uncollected garbage in the streets, not understanding the language, and just general “otherness.” She found herself opening to the people and accepting the situation, something she credits in good part to her age. At 56, she reacted differently than she feels she would have in her 30s. She was in turn accepted happily by the generous Kosovars, who loved Americans. While Serbs were hated for what they had done to Kosovars, they felt that the Americans helped them push back the Serbs.

Huntley secured a position teaching English as a second language at the Cambridge School, a privately owned English language school in Pristina. She wasn’t sure anyone would come to her class, given the condition of the city, transportation difficulty, etc. The class eventually grew to nearly 20, most in the high school-college-age range. The students all had some basic command of English, and her goal was to increase their vocabulary and command of the language. Huntley wrote about each student as she got to know and love them—and they to know and love her.

She wondered why these students were trying to learn English at that time in their country. That’s when she learned about the deep and strong family ties in Kosovar society. Family was everything (which makes what happened to family members even more horrifying). Young people wanted and expected to stay with their families, to do whatever they could to support the whole family. That meant having a good job, and the best way to get one, often abroad, was to know English, the common language of business. That made sense.

Huntley looked for various creative ways to improve her students’ English ability. By chance, she found a copy of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. She felt the simple language, short story, and classic tale was a good choice, so made a copy for each student. Since this “book club” was outside of their classwork, she invited them to her rented home to meet and talk about their assignments. It was this story, this relaxed and informal meeting place to talk about it, that Huntley says cemented the class into a family. While she didn’t think at first that the students could relate to the old man, the sea, and the fish, she says that it turned out to be the perfect work for them. “Hemingway’s fable of the spirit’s victory over loss and adversity turned out to be the story of my students’ lives.” (p. 206) His courage inspired them to keep up their courage and not bend under adversity.

What touched me most deeply about this book is how the best aspects of humanity emerged from loss and sorrow by disparate people coming together. Yes, there was hate…Huntley gently tried to temper the “all Serbs are killers” statement to a more moderate “some Serbs are killers;” the “all Romas collaborated with Serbs” statement to “some Romas collaborated with Serbs.” People have to stop being seen as people, as humans; they must be seen as objects, as “the other,” for the kinds of atrocities that were committed to be perpetrated. Perhaps with time, Kosovars will feel more moderate, but the loss and brutality were too fresh just then. These students and Huntley were able to give each other hope, support, and love; to be able to give of themselves to each other.

In her final meeting with her students, Huntley spoke from her heart:
“We all have a responsibility to think about the purpose of language—what we do with our words. I encourage you to use your new language to try to understand people who are different from you, to help them understand you. And use your new words to say kind things to one another, to help other people, to encourage them, to make them feel better about themselves. To express the things I know each of you feels in your heart: love, generosity, compassion.” (pp. 204-205)

To revisit my initial question, I’d say: yes. Hemingway’s small book really did change the lives of the students and the teacher by allowing them to talk about things they’d never have discussed otherwise; by doing so in a safe place and emotional space; and thereby creating a new type of family (the most precious thing in Kosovar culture) for them all. Huntley and her husband have kept in touch with most of the students, even helping some financially when possible, and in whatever other ways they can.

I will be re-visiting Huntley’s journal-turned-book often to remind myself of its wisdom. It is as relevant today as it was when it was written.

--Donna Rueff


July 2018

SEVEN SEASONS IN SIENA

Summer is here, it’s vacation time--we’re off to the Tuscan town of Siena, Italy!

Robert Rodi wrote Seven Seasons in Siena: My Quixotic Quest for Acceptance Among Italy’s Proudest People in 2011 after spending seven seasons in Siena between the summers of 2003 and 2010. He is an American of Italian descent on his paternal side, and traveled to various cities in Italy prior to visiting Siena to attend his first Palio horse race in 2003. He had felt a connection to the Italian culture, but it wasn’t until the visit to Siena that he “found what I didn’t even know I’d been looking for: the ideal Italian society. And hence the ideal society, period.” (p. 15) His interest in the Palio expanded to become an interest in the culture and people of Siena, and he returned as often as he could in his effort to become part of it.

Before we go further, it’s important to know a bit about the history of Siena because that’s what makes it a unique place and gave rise to the Palio and customs. The Etruscans originally inhabited the area centuries before Christ. Later Siena became a wealthy and powerful independent Republic because it was on a route which pilgrims passed through on their way to Rome. The Republic flourished for four centuries, although it began to wane with the onslaught of the Black Death in 1348. At least one-third of the population died in the plague. After that, there weren’t enough men to staff the army to its previous levels of power, and the decline ended in 1555 when it had no choice but to surrender to Florence and its ally Spain.

Florence instituted an extremely oppressive rule over Siena which cut it off and kept it from flourishing. “The entire Renaissance just glanced right off it, as though it were under a bell jar.” (p. 9) In defiance, the proud Sienese turned inward and created their own customs and traditions, among which is the Palio. Much of what visitors see today has been passed down from those times with some variations over the centuries. What has NOT really changed is the deep animosity and bitterness toward its near neighbor Florence. This is a place where history isn’t deep in the dusty past, but lives today, as evidenced by an anniversary Rodi mentions of an event that occurred 750 years ago!

This is the background, then, for the Palio. The people of Siena are divided into 17 contradas (districts) which are named and whose residents sport their chosen identifying colors. Most of the names are of animals, but not all. The contrada that Rodi became involved with was the Caterpillar—Bruco in Tuscan Italian—because his friend and host, Dario Castagno, was a member of that contrada. Sienese are members of a contrada by being born into it—if you ask a Sienese where he’s from, he’ll tell you his contrada. Since Rodi is American, you can see the difficulty in his attempt to become a Bruco! That didn’t stop him from trying.

There are two Palio races a year: July 2 and August 16. The July race is dedicated to the Madonna of Provenzano. The August race is dedicated to the Feast of the Assumption. The prize for each is a banner (drappellone) custom painted by an artist, but it must include the Madonna somewhere in it. The drappellone is proudly displayed somewhere in the contrada through the years.

Of the 17 contradas, 10 run in each race. There’s an intricate method of selecting which contradas will race each time. Drawings are held to determine which horse each contrada will have to race, & the contrada selects their own jockey to ride it bareback. They run 3 laps clockwise around the track, which is the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo at the center of the city, in 90 seconds. If a rider falls off but the HORSE finishes, that counts. More than one fallen jockey has been seriously injured or trampled over the centuries.

You wouldn’t be alone in thinking: each race is NINETY SECONDS??? All this fuss for THREE MINUTES TOTAL each year for centuries?? Yes, indeed, and there is an amazing amount of time, money, effort, and bickering throughout the entire year involving scouting horses, selecting the jockey, bargaining and making deals with a variety of people, other contradas, etc. There are NUMEROUS delicious dinners feeding hundreds of people at a time, celebrations, and parades for all sorts of reasons during the year. There is a lengthy parade before each race where (for example) teen boys in medieval dress display awesome skill with flags. Those appearing in that parade practice throughout the year. Everyone has something to do throughout the year and has some part in the Palio and/or surrounding events.

Rodi describes all this wonderful activity in a loving way that makes clear how much he cares about this place, the people, and the culture they’ve created. He’s brave enough to include many stories of his own and others’ missteps, as well as his successes, and to admit his own insecurities. I particularly enjoyed his humor and certain things he pointed out, like the winning contrada sporting baby pacifiers! It turns out that winning the Palio is equated to rebirth, hence the pacifiers. Who would have guessed. In another instance, an elderly Sienese couple asked where he was from. He couldn’t understand why they began to laugh hysterically when he said “Chicago” until he later learned that “Ci cago” is Italian for “I s**t there.” Hmm, I’m guessing whoever named Chicago wasn’t a Tuscan Italian. He also included a Tuscan saying I’ve heard before: “Better a corpse in your house than a Pisano on your doorstep.” (p. 185) (Pisano is a person from Pisa, not to be confused with “paisano.”) That’s harsh!

My favorite part of the entire book, however, is his eventual understanding of the nature of the Sienese people as being “defined by a competition. By a game. One that provides them a constant source of renewal and of hope. Is it any wonder they seem to be the happiest, most self-reliant people I’ve ever met?” It seems their defeat & oppression by Florence centuries ago, while it might have crushed others, provided the Sienese with an opportunity for their strength to blossom into something positive and uplifting.

Another observation by Rodi involved Sienese teens. He noticed that they happily and willingly took part in events and activities without all the drama and resentment that American teens tended to display. “There’s no gang activity within Siena’s ancient walls, no juvenile delinquency, nary a trace of hoodlumism or vandalism; why would there be, when all the aggression and acting out that drives such activities are already accorded a fixed place in the culture? In that way, the contrade system comes with its own safety valve.” (p. 36) “I’m deeply moved by the enthusiasm and commitment of these kids; they seem so ordinary, so familiar in many ways, yet their zeal for their community and its traditions is something absolutely singular…. The teenagers of the Caterpillar…know exactly who they are. They always have.” (p. 252) In this time of violence, drug use, and suicide in the U.S., it seems that we might learn a few things from the Sienese.

Although Rodi is a writer, he seems to have written nothing further like this book or about the area. His Tuscan host and friend, Dario Castagno, has written a few books about Tuscany and Chianti which are available on Amazon. My favorite remains Rodi’s Seven Seasons in Siena, even—or especially?—upon my third reading. He has captured the spirit of the Sienese people and culture, described them with love and humor, and shown readers that there ARE places on earth where people have created a special society where everyone has and knows their place.

Oh, and he DID get baptized into the Bruco contrada—his wish came true.

If you want to see a Palio race, you can search youtube.com for: il palio di siena. Both races for 2017 are available for viewing. The next one is on July 2, 2018 (don’t forget the time difference).

Donna Rueff


June 2018

TELEX FROM CUBA
by Rachel Kushner

I’ve been thinking about the recent end of the Castro era in Cuba (both Fidel and Raul), which led me to think about pre-1959 Cuba. Even though I was still in grade school when Batista was overthrown and the revolutionaries took over, I remember it. I don’t know why, as I probably couldn’t even find Cuba on a map then, but it’s stuck in my mind for all these years. I decided I wanted to find out more about the BEGINNING of the Castro era, now that we know the end.

Rachel Kushner’s 2008 debut novel Telex from Cuba received several prizes and nominations, as well as wide acclaim. It covers the period from 1952 to early 1959, with bits from more current times. This novel focuses on the eastern end of Cuba where the revolution grew in the more uninhabited, backward, and poverty-stricken areas far from Havana. It is centered in an American-owned and -run enclave including a vast United Fruit Company sugar cane plantation and a nearby nickel mine. Kushner has given a voice to the motley collection of ex-pats who work and reside in the enclave through her selection of characters who tell their stories.

Kushner studied political economy with an emphasis on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America at University which served as excellent grounding for this story. Later she made several long trips to Cuba, where her mother grew up on the actual United Fruit Co. land, and did extensive historical research as well. It’s no wonder that her book feels so REAL; feels autobiographical in its extreme and astonishing detail. Readers can almost smell the sugar cane during its various steps in the process…and when it’s burning in fires set by the rebels.

The key characters telling their stories include:

--K. C. Stites, a young boy of 8 in 1952. His father is the top man in the Cuban UFC branch. His older brother Del actually joins the rebels (obviously a traitorous act) and participates in the actual revolution. K.C. was born in Cuba, has never lived anywhere else.

--Everly Lederer, a young girl a bit older than K.C. and new arrival to Cuba. Her father oversees the nickel mine.

--2 lesser characters are Rachel K (K is her full last name), a Havana cabaret entertainer who also functions as a spy of sorts at high levels such as mistress to President Prio, then President Batista after he overthrows Prio; and a mysterious man named Christian de La Maziere, who becomes her lover when he’s in town. The latter is involved in a variety of nefarious and secret dealings involving arms sales and whatever else comes his way, as he has done since WWII.

--The remaining ex-pats. The various families & family members represent just about every social class, financial, and marital situation, even including a few on the run from crimes for which they would be jailed if they returned to the U.S. Some have re-located from various South American and Caribbean countries. As long as they do their jobs well in Cuba, other issues are overlooked.

Perhaps the facet of this novel that interests me the most are the class/racial/ethnic divisions. Kushner is very good at depicting the lives of the Cubans and blacks at that time. Their home living conditions were appalling. Many of them were employed as servants for the ex-pat families in large modern homes. Those who did not live in would return after work to literal shacks, usually without running water, electricity, or proper sewage disposal. Wages were very low, barely enough for their families to live on, and certainly nowhere near what their employers could afford to pay.

Even worse was the treatment and plight of the cane cutters. These were mostly blacks brought in from Jamaica and Haiti to harvest the sugar cane for processing. Kushner describes what back-breaking and dangerous work it was; how the sharp leaves could cut the men. Time was of the essence in getting the cane cut and processed, so long hours and fast work were required. She also describes how the men were allotted a certain “wage” which they could spend at the company store during their time in Cuba. The Jamaicans and Haitians came to earn money, but often returned home with little to show for their work. In some cases, cutters would spend their entire allotment and return home with no income at all.

In addition to extreme poverty, ordinary Cubans had to deal with a repressive regime led by (at that time) Fulgencio Batista; the Rural Guard, a “police force” of thugs who acted with extreme violence up to and including torture and murder; and the ostentatious flaunting of wealth and privilege by top members of the government and non-Cubans, while they themselves were near starvation and lived barely better than animals. For them, it was a life over which they had little control and in which they were subject to the whims of others, including imperialist outside forces. It’s inevitable that some emerged who felt deeply they needed to change the status quo.

Telex from Cuba is not the easiest book to read—but it’s well worth it if a reader has any interest in Cuba at that time. There are many characters, and readers need to pay attention to keep them straight. Personally, I didn’t have an issue with that and don’t think she made it difficult for her readers.

What I like best about Kushner’s book is that she presents a uniquely HUMAN view of conditions that led to the Cuban revolution. There are many accounts of the dry POLITICAL facets and facts. Kushner provides such detail of the environment that one FEELS as though one has visited that time and place; that it’s now placed in the reader’s own memories.

Donna Rueff

Rachel Kushner has published 2 more novels since Telex from Cuba:
The Flamethrowers (2013) was equally well-received.
The Mars Room was released on May 1, 2018.


May 2018

THE QUEEN’S CORGI: ON PURPOSE

This month’s offering is in celebration of the third child born to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (William and Catherine) on April 23, 2018; and of the pending marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on May 19, 2018.

It also marks the passing of the Queen’s last corgi in the line started by Susan, who was a gift to then-Princess Elizabeth on her 18th birthday. Willow, a 14th generation corgi in that line, passed away in April 2018. The Queen’s love for that breed is widely known throughout the world.

Several of us in the senior reading group have become extremely fond of the Dalai Lama’s Cat 3-book series by David Michie. The books follow a kitten born in reduced circumstances who finds her way by accident—or perhaps Fate—into the Dalai Lama’s life and home through various stages of her life. Each book offers not only a lovely and heartwarming story, but also passes along lessons learned as she encounters people and events in the process of Living. As it turns out, lessons the cat learns are also pertinent and helpful for humans—what a coincidence! Now Michie has written another book every bit as heartwarming and helpful as those three books, but this one is “written” by a male corgi.

Like the DL’s cat, Nelson (as he is finally named about half way into the book) was born in unfavorable circumstances and rose to high office by sheer happenstance. He was born into a household that bred corgis in bad conditions, and whose humans were interested only in the corgis as money-making entities by selling or showing them. Nelson was the runt of his litter, but the one unforgiveable thing about him was that one ear refused to stand up straight. The breeders saw this floppy ear as a flaw, an imperfection, and saw Nelson as worthless to them since he could neither be shown nor sold…so they thought. He was, in fact, saved from a death sentence and whisked away to castle and Queen!

Nelson was very young at that time with many things to learn, starting with the most basic habits and training. Luckily, he had two older, more experienced corgis to help acclimate him. Winston and Margaret—like Nelson—were so named to fit aspects of their personalities. Winston was very old with special characteristics. He saw that the new corgi had potential to take over from him, and took on the new corgi as a trainee of sorts. And so the story unfolds.

As one might imagine from the treatment he had received in his early days, Nelson had a bad case of low self-esteem. The ear that flopped over made him flawed as a corgi in the eyes of many people. What could he do; what could he be? What was his purpose?

Of course, it’s not only this little corgi who asked that of himself. Every human with any sense of self wonders the same thing at some point in life. What is my purpose? Why am I here? This wonderful story provides some guidance to help us. Each chapter focuses on a particular issue that helps us look at our own lives to search for our purpose. Like the DL’s cat books, the lessons are so beautifully, painlessly, and gently taught that we absorb them without realizing it.

I leave it to each reader to discover for him- or herself what these lessons are. Each of us will take something personal and a bit different from this book.

I offer here Nelson’s description of the Queen:

“When you meet the Queen, she is exactly as you would expect her to be—in appearance, at least. But she has another quality that catches most people by surprise…Such is the Queen’s sense of calling that, wherever she goes, she carries with her an almost-tangible expectation that your own deepest wish, like hers, is to serve a greater purpose. To say that most people are caught unawares by this sensation would be an understatement. Expecting restrained and aloof, when they encounter Her Majesty’s gentle but firm expectation of benevolence, they find themselves wishing…to be the best that they can be. To act in accord with their highest ideals.” (p. xiii)

Perhaps that—to be the best that we can be—is the purpose we all have in common. We may each arrive there in different ways, each face different challenges, and Michie’s The Queen’s Corgi: On Purpose can offer gentle help with that part. Our individual best selves will be different, as well. That is as it should be. But the purpose we all share—maybe even our obligation—is to find and live our best selves.

**********

If you wish to find out more about the Queen’s REAL corgis, this article is interesting:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/18/world/europe/corgi-dogs-queen-elizabeth.html

Oh, one more thing: I leave you with the challenge to discover who Michael REALLY is.


April 2018

NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: THE COSMIC PERSPECTIVE

When I was in high school all those decades ago, I was firmly anchored to Earth and on the liberal arts track. I had little interest in the sciences, and NONE in physics. All those equations… are you kidding?? What would I need that for? What would I do with it, anyway? I don’t think it was unusual for most young women in those days to have the same attitude. I grew up and spent most of my adult life thinking: I don’t like science, and physics and astrophysics are WAY beyond anything I can comprehend.

Then I encountered the work of Neil deGrasse Tyson, who proved me wrong.

Chances are very good that you’ve encountered Tyson’s work in some way, too. He’s been at the forefront of discoveries about our universe for what turned out to be the most prolific decades of discovery and progress in his field. He has followed in the footsteps of Newton, Einstein, Sagan, Hawking, and many others. He and Carl Sagan met when Tyson was just 17 and already displaying his intense drive to pursue his field.

In fact, it was Tyson’s miniseries remake of the Carl Sagan classic Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey that snagged my attention and subsequent interest. (Sagan’s wife, Ann Druyan, wrote and directed the 2014 Tyson version available on DVD.) I surprised myself by understanding the material, and enjoying stepping back in time and learning about historical figures and discoveries. Since then, I’ve made a point of learning more about this subject--but I still stay away from equations.

Tyson’s latest work is Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, now on the New York Times hardback non-fiction bestseller list for 46 WEEKS! That figure astonishes me, as does the indication that there must be millions of other people who are now interested in astrophysics--it’s not just for nerds anymore!

This book does exactly what it’s designed to do: it makes astrophysics accessible to any untrained reader in a way that can be consumed and digested in small, easily understandable bites. Readers don’t even need to read the chapters in order, although I do think it’s preferable.

Tyson tells us that the universe definitely is expanding, and why that’s known to be true. It’s also a fact that the same laws (e.g., gravity, speed of light) we’ve found and observed pertain throughout the universe. Following chapters discuss light; what exactly is out there in space; dark matter and dark energy. The latter two especially interest me, as their existence can only be divined by how the things AROUND those areas react to something unseen and (so far) invisible. They remind me of the mysteries where the dog DIDN’T bark.

Tyson explains what quantum mechanics, quarks, quasars, pulsars, protons, neutrons, electrons, hadrons, and many other things, are and what they do. Did you know that “for large cosmic objects, energy and gravity conspire to turn objects into spheres?” (p. 136) Or that our Milky Way “galaxy is flatter than the flattest flapjacks ever made?” (p. 139) We may not have the telescopes available to view “large cosmic objects” or our galaxy, but descriptions such as these allow the reader to visualize them. Also, an index is provided in case a reader just wants information about specific topics.

Tyson has done far too much in all forms of media throughout his career to include here. He’s primarily an astrophysicist at his “day job” as the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. He’s written a number of books, countless articles, makes public appearances to talk about his work, and my favorite, hosts Star Talk on radio and the NatGeo TV channel.

He interviews people from a wide variety of fields, and incorporates those interviews with the chosen topic for that show. Examples are: astronauts Mae Jemison and Scott Kelly; surfer Kelly Slater; singer Katy Perry; film directors James Cameron and Kevin Smith. Every person on shows I’ve seen has surprised me in a good way. Tyson also interviewed Stephen Hawking for his March 4 show—that’s just 10 days prior to Hawking’s death.

I noticed another job description listed for Tyson: that of “science communicator.” In fact, he won the Stephen Hawking Medal for Outstanding Communication in June 2017. I can’t think of anyone more deserving of such an honor. Tyson has promoted the learning and understanding of Science relentlessly for many years. He speaks and writes in a way that makes complicated concepts understandable and ACCESSIBLE to anyone who cares to listen or read this book or others he’s written.

He has a knack for peppering his talks and writings with little nuggets of humor, and his writing flows easily and plainly. He’s mastered the art of getting people to relax and not be intimidated by the material so they can learn almost effortlessly. Best of all, he’s inspired untold numbers of children to become interested in science; lit that spark of interest in their minds. In a nutshell, he’s made Science cool again. THAT, discoveries, and space exploration are what has changed since I was in high school. Science is now part of our everyday lives.

Tyson always ends his shows with closing thoughts that leave us thoughtful and reflective. His comments can be profound in their simplicity. It’s not surprising that the last chapter is the best part of this book and not to be missed. In his own words:

“The cosmic perspective flows from fundamental knowledge. But it’s more than about what you know. It’s also about having the wisdom and insight to apply that knowledge to assessing our place in the universe.” (p. 205)

He goes on to list several things, of which my favorite is:

“The cosmic perspective enables us to see beyond our circumstances, allowing us to transcend the primal search for food, shelter, and a mate.” (P. 206-207)

Neil deGrasse Tyson has given the world many gifts, but perhaps the greatest one is the cosmic perspective.

************

For complete information about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s career, publications, and everything you’d ever want to know about him:

http://www.haydenplanetarium.org/tyson/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neil_deGrasse_Tyson

************

Once can’t think of Neil deGrasse Tyson without the now late Stephen Hawking also coming to mind. Thus, the author wishes to offer the following.

IN MEMORIAM: STEPHEN W. HAWKING 1942-2018

Hawking’s eerie timing: SH born 1/8/1942; Galileo died 1/8/1642; SH died 3/14/2018 (“pi day”); Einstein born 3/14/1879.

Rare early-onset ALS: ravaged his body, but left his brain unharmed.

Technical and computer advances extended his life by 50 yrs. beyond expectation. In an odd way, it’s almost as if he was freed with nothing to do but THINK.

Discoveries & writing of others set precedents so that the world was more receptive to his ideas than they would have been in earlier times.


March 2018

The House of Unexpected Sisters
By Alexander McCall Smith

Whenever a new book in the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is released, it’s an occasion to retreat to our favorite reading place for an uninterrupted afternoon of enjoyment with our old friends who remind us of the important things in life. Alexander McCall Smith’s 18th offering in this series, The House of Unexpected Sisters, is every bit as insightful and meaningful as its predecessors. Smith has maintained his high standards throughout this entire series, and #18 does not disappoint.

Although he is currently a Professor of Medical Law in Edinburgh, Scotland, “Smith was born in what is now Zimbabwe and taught law at the University of Botswana,” according to his Amazon biography. This series takes place in Botswana, and it is obvious that he has a deep love for the country, culture, and people of that nation. In fact, “the old Botswana morality, the kindness that lay at the heart of that,” (p. 190) and respect for others constitute the basis for this series.

The detective at the heart of this series is Precious Ramotswe, a “traditionally built” Botswanan woman, and owner of the Agency. Her idea to start such an unusual business in the city of Gaborone, Botswana, typifies her unusual approach to solving her cases. She is also an astute observer of human nature, particularly Botswanan human nature. She uses her creative mind and innately gentle nature in solving whatever odd or confounding cases come to the Agency. Her talent is in finding the correct solution to each case after gathering the facts, as she knows things are not always as they appear to be. She then seeks a solution that will be the best outcome for all involved.

This book, like the ones before it, presents several different cases or situations for Precious and her eccentric staff to resolve. Sometimes “cases” are merely favors for friends or family, with no monetary payment involved. Precious is a person for whom “payment” can mean bringing justice to an unjust situation, and her first case does just that. Charity, a widow with children to support, has been fired from her job at an office furniture store for supposedly being rude to a customer. Precious and her staff dig into the case to find the real reason for the firing. They find that this is one of the cases where the truth is not what it appears to be, and orchestrate a just correction.

In this book, Precious faces two issues of a personal nature. Her first husband, an abusive musician and probably the last person on earth she wants to see, has been sighted in town. While he makes no attempt to visit her (she made it clear in the past that she wants nothing to do with him), the information causes her to dread that he might contact her and will want something from her. Readers who remember Note from previous books will be surprised to learn how he has changed.

The second issue speaks to this book’s title. Precious thinks she has been an only child for all of her 42 years, and that she knows all of the few people who share the Ramotswe last name. However, a visit with a woman in her hometown reveals that this may not be true. She is given a newspaper clipping with a photo of 3 nurses, one of whom has her same last name. Naturally she must discover if they are related, and finds they are indeed half-sisters! Instead of feeling joy, she feels shock and dismay that her late father, whom she has revered and deeply loved for her entire life, seems to have fathered a child with another woman while he was married to her mother. That’s the only conclusion she can draw based on the information she has…but is it correct? If it is true, it would be completely out of character for the man she knew. Her world is suddenly shaken by what seems to be his betrayal.

I won’t spoil it and give away the answer (or why the title uses the plural “sisters”), but readers of this series can trust that the resolution is a good one for all concerned. The only question is HOW it is resolved, and readers will not be disappointed. As always, Smith cleverly manages to show us how a good resolution to one issue helps bring about the same for the remaining ones. In setting Precious’s world right, he does the same for his readers.