Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Fourth of July Parade in Copper Harbor MI

Keep this image in mind; you will see more of it later in the blog.

Copper Harbor MI is a very small town (with less than 100 year-round inhabitants but lots more in the summer) which sits just at the tip of the Keweenaw, about 4 miles from our house.  It consists of about 3 blocks (plus side streets). Every year it has a parade that celebrates Independence Day.  It is  very much Americana.  See for yourself.

The parade starts with its Grandmaster and various town and county vehicles, such as fire trucks and their like.

These are followed by people on trucks, plows, motor-cycles; staff from restaurants: or kids just wanting to be in a parade.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Day at Little Traverse

Yesterday we drove to the other side of the Keweenaw to visit our friend Marilyn and her dog Scout.  This side of the peninsula looks different with many coves and bays on the more sheltered shore of Lake Superior.  The view from Marilyn's house is gorgeous and yesterday was particularly so, with the sun on the water and clouds and then thunder storms forming in the distance.

What I forgot to take a picture of was the wonderful dinner she served (too busy eating), but I did get a picture of her beloved dog Scout.


Thursday, June 15, 2017

Swimming at Lake Medora

June 15, swimming on my (to clarify 69th) birthday.  

Yes, the water is cold.  I am not yet at the point in the summer when I can risk going into the house and putting on my bathing suit after walking or exercising in the heat.  (Afraid I will chicken out.)  But almost there.  First time this summer the water wasn't frigid!

(Pictures courtesy of Tony, who stopped the mowing the lawn to help me mark my day ❤)


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

On the First Day of My Seventieth Year

As I approach the first day of my seventieth year (and reading Proust with Tony), I turn in search of les temps perdu.

With my mother in Manning SC.

At home in Manning.

At the beach (I think this is Myrtle Beach as it was long ago) with my mother.  (Notice the matching Tar Heel tee-shirts.)

At (I think Wrightsville) Beach with my parents Harriet and Sy Somberg.

"Little Miss Manning."  (Yes it is true. . . . )

With my grandparents, Jack and Sally Goldstein, at their house in Manning.

(Thank you Ben for giving me another year!)


Friday, June 9, 2017

"Narrative Desire": Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost

I said I wasn’t going to do another “Back to the Past Holocaust Book” blogpost, because it’s getting too predictable.  But this one is so monumental, so compelling, so filled with narrative desire, I decided I would go ahead anyway.  (And besides, it is my blog. . . .)

The term “narrative desire” comes from Peter Brook’s Reading for the Plot in which he presents a theory of reading narrative that is analogous to enacting sexual desire.  While reading a really compelling novel, for example, one is drawn in—wanting to go forward to see what happens, but delaying as much as possible to keep the pleasure alive.  But the pleasure is only possible because of the assurance that there will be an end.  (Most of his examples are long novels, but it works, as I will suggest, for other kinds of stories as well.)  So narrative desire is a pleasurable process where one goes forward—propelled along a path towards a promised pleasurable end, a climax as it were.  (Oversimplification but moving on. . . .)

The Lost:  The Search for Six of the Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn is a long (654 pages), complex history/memoir/reflection-on-storytelling that created in me an extreme instance of narrative desire.  The book famously begins with Mendelsohn explaining that there was a time when he was young boy who could enter certain rooms and the inhabitants would immediately begin to cry.  The people in these rooms were elderly Jewish relatives in Miami Beach who would, while crying, exclaim “He looks just like Schmiel.” 

Schmiel (Samuel) Jager was the brother of Mendelsohn’s maternal grandfather Abraham Jaeger,  and for much of his childhood Mendelsohn only knew that Schmiel and his wife and their “four beautiful daughters” had been "killed by the Nazis."  As Mendelsohn grew up, he became more interested in the history of his family, particularly the stories told by his grandfather.  Abraham and his siblings were born in what was then Bolechow Poland.  He and all of his siblings, except Schmiel, eventually landed in the US or Israel.  Thus Schmiel (who had immigrated to the US in 1912 only to return to Bolechow the next year to build up the family business) and his wife and daughters were the only ones of Abraham’s immediate family to die in the Holocaust—and the only ones for whom most of the salient life and death details were missing.  Mendelsohn always wanted to know more about them:  who were the daughters, what was the family like, where did they die, when did they die. About 20 years after his grandfather’s death, Mendelsohn embarks on a series of journeys to try to find out who these six people were--to rescue them from anonyimity (lost not only in their deaths but also in any memories or remnants of their lives).  Like other books in the genre, then, The Lost tells two narratives:  the story of the quest to discover, and the story of the lives that are discovered.

I am not going to rehearse the details of the two compelling narratives Mendelsohn creates.  The book has been well reviewed and there’s lots on-line about it. And if you find this kind of thing interesting, then this, I say, is the book for you.  It is larger in its scope, complexity, and ambition than the many other historical quest books I have been recently reading (only some of which I have written about on the blog.).  And it will probably be the last for a while, because I cannot imagine another one compelling me as strongly as this one did.  Instead, I want to write briefly about how Mendelsohn creates “narrative desire.”  How he writes a book that is at once about something as big as the Holocaust and at the same time as intimate as the fate of one family, and in the process pulls the reader into this long and complicated story that makes one read as quickly as possible (because it’s so good) but also as slowly as possible (so that it will last as long as possible): narrative desire.

The structure of The Lost is quite complex, and Mendelsohn spends a lot of time writing about how he has chosen to tell his stories.  At the beginning, he describes his grandfather’s stories as “vast circling loops, so that each incident, each character. . . had its own mini-history, a story within a story, a narrative inside a narrative, so that the story he told was not (as he once explained it to me) like dominoes, one thing happening just after the other, but instead like a set of Chinese boxes or Russian dolls, so that each event turned out to contain another, which contained another, and so forth” (39).  This looping narrative he associates with the Greeks, Homer and Herodotus, as opposed, for instance, to Genesis which tells its story in a  “straightforwardly chronological, this-happened-then-this happened way” (41).  Mendelsohn preferred the looping Greek-like storytelling and became a classicist, specializing in Greek tragedy.  However, he also had a (desultory) education in the Bible, particularly the first five parashah (weekly readings) of Genesis (Creation, Cain and Abel, Noah, the wanderings of Abraham, and the appearance of God to Abraham demanding the sacrifice of his son Isaac) while he was preparing for his Bar Mitzvah--a study he returned to years later.

The difference between the Greek and the Hebrew ways of narrating can be partially described by terms from narratology (the study of how narratives are structured): story and discourse.  Story is the events that happened, the order in which they happened and the causal links between them.  Discourse is the way the story is told.  In some texts, like Genesis, story and discourse are structurally aligned, as the events are narrated in chronological and causal order.  In other texts, like Mendelsohn’s grandfather’s tales of his family and the Old Country, story and discourse are often divergent or oddly linked.  Dominoes vs Russian dolls. 

In first reading The Lost, I thought  it was going to be a primarily looping tale (discourse).  It starts several times.  It goes back and forth.  It digresses, regresses.  But as I gradually realized, it also progresses.  It moves not just around and about, but also forward towards a desired end (story).  This progressive movement is signaled by the five sections in which the book is organized, each corresponding to one of the first five parashah of the Torah.  And in fact along with meditations on a variety of subjects—in the distant past, recent past, present—Mendelsohn meditates on the first five sections of Genesis, using them as a skeleton for his own two narratives.  Thus Mendelsohn tells two looping tales that eventually tell us “what happened”: one the narrative of his search to find the truth about what happened to Schmiel and his family, and the other discovered “truth” about what happened to Schmiel and his family.  And it is this combination of moving around (discourse) and moving forward (story), slowing down and speeding up, that created for me narrative desire.

The best way I can explain this is to turn to one literary device that Mendelsohn uses consistently in The Lost: foreshadowing.  Foreshadowing is a kind of “flash forward” which Mendelsohn uses to remind us that there is more to know—a sort of rhetorical prolepsis.  Just when he has found out something that seems to solve at least a part of the mystery of what happened to Schmiel and his family, Mendelsohn will remind us that this is “what we thought then," or “as we so thought then,’ or “it wasn’t until later that we. . . ." In one of the most dramatic examples of foreshadowing, appearing early in the book, Mendelsohn writes of his first trip to interview Jewish people who had lived in Bolechow during World War II, “it was in Australia, when we met with Jack Greene and the four other Bolechower Jews who after the war had chosen to settle on that remote continent, as far as it is geographically possible to get from Poland, that the contours of the story came into focus at last, and we began to get the kind of concrete details that we wanted, the specifics that can transform statistics and dates into a story.  What color the house was, how she held her bag.  And then Australia led to Israel, where we met Reinharz and Heller, and Israel led to Stockholm, where we met Mrs. Freilich, and Stockholm led to Israel again, and Israel led to Denmark, where we met Kulberg, with his remarkable tale ” (182)

In The Lost, foreshadowing is a major constituent of narrative desire.  It reminds us that  the story is not yet "over."  (And indeed, in a way, narrative desire survives the end of the book, as the full history of Schmiel Jager and his family can never be completely known.)  Moreover, foreshadowing has the virtue of reminding us that the Holocaust is a category that is made up the lives and deaths of multiple individual people.  As a category  it defies narrative in many ways because the ending is almost always the same (or some variant of the same).  But the numbing sameness of the Holocaust events can be rescued (partially?) by the specific details of the individuals whose unique stories make it up, details that are consistently foreshadowed in The Lost.    

Narrative desire is built on details, specifics.  Details provide the pleasure and pace of engagement.  They are what allow us into “what happened” in a way statistics cannot.  But they are both powerful and powerless because they are always experienced at several degrees remove.  “[A]s I stood in this most specific of places I knew that I was standing in the place where they had died, where the life that I would never know had gone out of the bodies I had never seen, and precisely because I had never known or seen them I was reminded the more forcefully that they had been specific deaths, and those lives and deaths belonged to them not me” (641).  This, of course, is one of the many ethical dilemmas that must be faced in narrating the Holocaust.  But the search to "rescue" to memory these six—to make them at least to some degree  knowable and identifiable—is not Mendelsohn’s alone.  By writing the book and creating the narrative desire that engages us so powerfully, Mendelssohn lets us as readers, in some sense, participate in the search as well.


Monday, June 5, 2017


(If you don't like politics in a blog post, you'd better skip this one.)

There are so many things I am angry about right now: the Russia mess, the "travel ban," the possibility of draconian hits to health care, the bellicose macho posturing.  That is a lot.  But the thing I am angriest about of all is the US pull out of the Paris Accord on climate change.  (Joining us in an unholy trio of Syria, Nicaragua, and the US as the only nations ON THE PLANET who do not take responsibility for the FATE OF THE PLANET.)

I had so many reasons not to vote for Trump, but the most pressing, for me, was his claim that climate change is a hoax.  I think that climate change is the most serious issue facing us (aside maybe from nuclear annihilation, which I hadn't really worried about since childhood: think Cuban Missile Crisis.)  Climate change is inexorable, unless something pretty major happens.  It will not affect me personally (I won't live long enough to see the worst of it), and I don't have any children.  But I feel a responsibility to the future.

So here I am, sitting in a comfortable retirement, thinking what can I do?  I can vote; give more money to the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the Democratic Party; write my senators (but given that they are Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul I don't think my communications are having much effect).  I can march.  During an election I can make phone calls.  But it just doesn't seem enough.

When I was employed, I thought that a lot of my work for social justice came from my teaching.  Not that I proselytized my own political views.  But I did try to help my students think critically: to make ethical, evidenced-based arguments; to question not merely accept.  I miss that.

I have (perhaps selfishly) arranged a life in retirement where I'm not in any one place for more than several months, so volunteering is difficult for me to pursue in any sustained way.

So my question is what can I do that might make even a small difference (aside from giving money, voting, recycling, etc.)?  Do other people feel helpless about the environment, knowing what will inevitably happen should we not do enough to reverse our course (or even slow things down)?


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Reading in Retirement

I have always read a lot.  My whole work career was built around reading (and writing), and I always read regularly during times I wasn't working.  So reading a lot in retirement isn't itself new.  However, the way I read has changed in some ways, though not in others.

What's different?  I no longer have to read for class or for research.  So I have a great deal of freedom in what I choose to read.  Also, because I don't have a job anymore, I have more time to myself and thus more time to read.  So more freedom and time are the main differences.

What is the same?  I read mostly novels but also (increasingly) non-fiction.  I read different kinds of novels, often having a couple going at the same time: one that may be more serious or longer or more difficult, and another (usually read on my Kindle in bed at night) less taxing, such as a detective novel.

How do these differences and similarities come together to shape my reading.  Here is what I have come up with so far.

1.  I read a lot more non-fiction.  I often go on "jags," getting interested in something and pushing ahead.  Some of my jags have included bog people the search for the Nile, polar exploration,  Recently I've been reading a lot of books about World War II, such as the two books I blogged about earlier where someone tried to find out the truth of family artifacts.  I then read The Collaborator by Alice Kaplan which is about her search of the archives to narrate the biography of Robert Brassillach who was executed for his writings (rather than actions) by the Provisional DeGaulle government after the fall of Vichy.  I am about to start  Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn, about his attempts to discover the truth of what happened to six members of his family who were killed in the Holocaust.  The link in this latest jag, I think, is archives, narratives that go back to fill in the past (a narrative shape that I have always found alluring), and World War II. I think my "jags" have to do with wanting to explore a topic (often one I found haphazardly) in more depth and also with the principle of  one-thing-leads-to-another.

2.  I read novels all the time.  Even while on my non-fiction "jags," I always have a novel going.  If my serious reading is non-fiction, then my novel is usually pretty easy. But more often than not it is the novel that requires serious attention.  I try to alternate long novels with short ones (just to vary the pace) and serious with fun.   But I say this in all seriousness (and some of you will know exactly what I mean):  I would be a nevous wreck (and no fun to be with) if I didn't have a novel close to hand.  My nightmare is to be stuck on a plane without something to read.

3.  I look for opportunities to read with others.  I belong to two book groups, one in Louisville and one in Copper Harbor.  Tony and I often read a book together: something big and ambitious, which we divide into sections and talk about at dinner over several weeks.  (Last year we did Little Dorritt; this year we are cautiously trying Proust.)

4.  I keep a list of the books I read, something I have done for over 20 years. (Otherwise I can forget what I have read.)  I sometimes look at the list to keep track of what I am doing

5.  I still (and will always I believe) have this feeling that reading is "work," as well as "pleasure."  Work in the good sense of using my brain and accomplishing something important; pleasure in the sense that it makes me happy and gives me the sense of a larger life.

This is a kind of meandering blog post.  I feel like I should be able to write something more coherent--something that really illuminates why I read and what it means to me, especially now when, except for a few instances, it not connected to anyone but my retired self.  Sometimes I feel like I am in Paradise, being able to wake up in the morning and read anything I want to.  Sometimes I feel like I should be doing something else--though I'm not sure why or what that would be.

My Life as a Reader.  That's probably the best I can do.


Saturday, May 27, 2017

Pure Michigan. On the Road to Lake Medora

After a boring first day of driving across Indiana, we entered Michigan for our next two days of the 900 mile drive to our part of the Upper Peninsula:  Lake Medora, situated in the Keweenaw, about 5 miles south of Copper Harbor.

As our drive progressed, the scenery got wilder, and the season receded.  While it was almost summer in Louisville, we saw spring turning backwards as we went north.

At the end of Day 2, we crossed the Mackinaw Bridge and were on the Upper Peninsula.

Day 3, we headed west and the north, up to the very top of the UP, where everything becomes even wilder and more beautiful still..

Finally comes the drive from Houghton to Lake Medora.

And now we are home, waiting for our second spring.


Monday, May 22, 2017

Glenn Kurtz. Three Minutes in Poland. More Trails to the Past.

Continuing my reading jag. . . .

This is a fascinating book.  In August 1938, Glenn Kurtz's grandparents went to Europe, visiting famous European cities, such as Paris and Brussels.  As part of their trip they also visited a small city in Poland named Nasielsk.  While there, his grandfather shot about three minutes of film, both in black and white and in color, of the people of this town. By the next year, all the Jews in this town will have been deported, first to the Warsaw ghetto and then to the camps.  Of the town's three thousand Jewish inhabitants, less than 100 survived World War II.

Kurts finds this film and recognizes its  potential interest.  He sends it to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is able to salvage the film's images.  (Just in time, a few years later and it would have deteriorated beyond repair.)  Kurtz wonders who these people were.  The film is one of the very few home movies made of pre-WWII Poland, and one of the very few in color.

Kurtz wants to find out as much as he can about these people, but it isn't until someone sees the movie on the Holocaust Museum's website and sees her grandfather--whose face remains recognizable over 70 years later.  Once Kurtz meets the man in the movie, now the 80+ year old man named Maurice (Morrie) Chandler of Florida, Kurtz and Chandler try to name as many of the people in the film as they can.

Meeting Morrie, Kurtz begins to find connections and those connections spur further connections.  He travels to Canada, the UK, Israel and Poland.  He becomes, as he admits, obsessed with documenting as much as he can.  But as he eventually recognizes, each connection spins out and the connections almost become infinite.  

When I first viewed my grandfather's film, I imagined it might still be possible to identify a few of the individuals who appeared in the beautiful color images.  But my conversations with survivors quickly spilled over from the frame of the film, from individual identifications into much larger networks. . . .  Jewish Nasielsk  that exists in memory is the chance artifact of those who happened to live longest."

Kurtz recognizes how arbitrary it is that this remembered Nasielsk survived:  arbitrary that he found the film in time, arbitrary that someone happened to see it and recognize her father as a child.  But even more arbitrary, who survived, who lived long enough to tell the story.

Three Minutes in Poland is a glimpse into a lost world and a profound meditation on what makes "history,"  It is a narrative dream.

You can see the move here.


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Sarah Wildman. Paper Love. Paper Trails to the Past (A Reading Jag)

Recently I've been reading a lot of books that center around someone's discovery of a cache of papers (or film) that reveals a secret history of a family member during World War II.  The best of these "look back" "memoirs was probably In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi which I wrote about earlier. Another fascinating book is Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind, by Sarah Wildman

Wildman discovers a cache of letters that belonged to her grandfather Karl Wildman. The letters were notable, first because Sarah thought all her grandfather's personal papers had been destroyed, and second because the letters were from a German woman named Valerie (Valy) Scheftel.  Valy was the woman Karl left behind when his family emigrated to the US, shortly after Hitler annexed Austria in 1938.  Only Valy's letters remain, but it appears that during the course of the correspondence, Karl promised to love Valy and to help her escape.  As the years went by, the correspondence became more despearate as Valy's circumstances worsened.  Sarah Wildman sets out to discover as much as she can about Valy and, she hopes her grandfather, who--by the end of the war had married an American woman and began a medical practice in the United States.  Sarah Wildman is quite emphatic about how her grandfather's resources were limited--financially (little money and many relatives to support) and logistically (the difficulty of getting exit permits from Germany and entry permits from the US).  However, it is Valy with whom Sarah was becomes fascinated.  And the book becomes the attempt to find out what happened to her.

Sarah Waldman writes for Salon.com where parts of the book are published.  Thus she has resources the amateur genealogist lacks.  Sarah travels to archives and museums in Europe and the US and visits relatives of people who knew Valy.  She is able to get documents translated and to visit sites in Valy's life.  The book records to an amazingly detailed degree Valy's life, particularly in the years between 1938 and January 29, 1942 when she was deported to Auschwitz and eventually murdered.  Sarah can, in fact, trace her to the very train that carried Valy to the death camp, where the record ends. That is, it's not clear whether she was immediately selected for deathh or died sometime later in the camp.

During the course of her research, an important museum at Bad Arolson is finally opened to researchers.  It includes lists of names and was initially a sort of clearing house by which people could trace the fate of relatives.  As Sarah begins looking at Bad Arolson for traces of Valy, she speaks to one of the major archivists who tells her "It's not a Holy Grail.. . . but it will change the direction of research.  "It's not revolutionary--it's not like Hitler's order to kill the Jews. . . .  [I]t will become a place of instituionalized memory" (106).  Later, he explains that "a list of names takes on a different meaning when it is observed through the eyes of a researcher or someone who knows the history, or through the eyes of someone who wants to understand the dynamics among populations, or what brought survival rather than death" (110).   In other wourds, the "lists of names," the "raw data" must be organized, arranged, and interpreted.  Thus history becomes not simply a set of names or places but a narrative.

In particular, Sarah asks whether the kind of small history she wants to write is important.  "Are small stories important?"  "Yes," the historian immediately answers: "As historians we can describe what happened, Where it happened.  But we can't exactly describe why it happened.  [Or as a historical narratologist would say, we need chronicle and plot, a story and discourse.]. The historian cannot describe the suffering of the individuals.  Therefore, we need  the memorials.  We need the letters, the diaries, the the memories of the individuals,  As the main part of the picture of what happened" (94).

In reading this book, one participates in Sarah's search.  It is a book that I found hard to put down because, like Sarah Wildman, I desperately wanted to know what happened to Valy

(More on my reading jag to come).


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

From My Window: Watching the Spring Come In.

 We have been watching spring and the trees coming in through our window.

 In the middle of all this bursting and blooming, we had a tremendous rainbow,  It arched over the building and was at one point almost a double.  So hard to take its picture.

Then a few weeks later we were treated to another explosion of color.  Every year, two weeks before the Kentucky Derby, Louisville puts on a big fireworks show called Thunder Over Louisville.  We were completely surprised to discover we could see it from our very own window. (Again, very hard to take its picture, but it was definitely another spectacle.)

Now we are pretty much in full green mode.

But next week we plan to leave for Michigan, where spring has barely begun.  Get to see the leaves come in all over again!

(Picture courtesty of the wonderful Jill Burkland, who has a cottage just across the lake.)