A Guide To Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia


As it turns out, it’s the sort of glossy covered, trade paperback you would find (and probably do) at the gift shops of Colonial Williamsburg, Monticello, and elsewhere across Virginia (in fact, it helpfully provides the website addresses to such places, where mentioned). Not, perhaps, providing the sort of new information that I am looking for, having already read I don’t even remember anymore how many books and writings by and about Jefferson over the last two years or so.

But, to give it its due, a nice guide to places of importance to Jefferson. And going beyond Monticello to include places like the house of his legal mentor, George Wythe, and his retreat at Poplar Forest (for when the visitors at Monticello got to be too much). And a shallow, but still useful primer on architecture. I learned more about Andrea Palladio, from whom we get the term Palladian, including the title of his most famous book, which Jefferson apparently read and much enjoyed, I quattro libri dell’architettura (The Four Books of Architecture). I also did not know that Jefferson designed a number of Virginia courthouses and also the houses of some of his friends.


Independent Bookshop Week

Ravelstein


You can, at least, say that reading Ravelstein makes you want to read more about and by Alan Bloom, who the title character is a not even really disguised version thereof.

I have read little Bloom. And only one other Bellow (Humboldt’s Gift; it liked me not, and while it inspired me to read some Delmore Schwartz, his poems discouraged me from reading more).

But my suspicion is that the only improvement this novel makes on reading Bloom himself (or a proper biography) is that Ravelstein is a much better name, with its towering, gothic overtones. Bloom is too comically joycean to be a really good name anymore, at least on a man.

I furthermore suspect that I would have better, in general, reading neither Bloom nor Bellow, but simply revisiting Isiah Berlin and Leo Strauss.

The book gets even weaker when it drifts from Ravelstein. The narrator, who is, as you might guess, a Chicago writer with too many marriages in a relationship with a much younger woman (intelligent, but not too intelligent; pretty, but not too beautiful; caring; understanding; indeed, the very perfect fantasy young wife of an old man), is not as interesting as he thinks. He is not uninteresting, but a long stretch where he goes to vacation to Puerto Rico, eats a toxic fish, has to be flown back to the United States, hallucinates in the hospital, and nearly dies, is completely unnecessary. Mortality is a theme that runs all through the novel, but this was, as I said, unnecessary. I didn’t read Ravelstein to spend so much time with someone improbably named ‘Chick’ (I kept thinking of Chick Corea).

I first started reading this book in 2004. I remember reading it a bar in St. Petersburg where my friend sometimes worked. I had left a position at an environmental nonprofit because the head of the Florida was a insufferable fool and a bit of a sadist. She wanted my job and pretending to ask permission. I was trying to read a paperback copy of Ravelstein. I don’t know where that copy went or why I decided I had to make another go at it.

Palm Springs Art Museum


I’m writing this because I saw this article critical of the Palm Spring Art Museum‘s response to George Floyd’s death and related issues of racial violence and racial justice.

I don’t have much to say about that controversy, except to note, #BlackLivesMatter. But I (as a white, heterosexual, cis-male) have fond memories of that museum from nearly fifteen years ago.

My first vacation with my now wife was to Palm Springs, where we visited the museum. We went back several times, because, well, I really liked the town. And I remember especially these highly realistic statues of an elderly couple (click here and look for #17). We were convinced at first that they were real people.

Neither A Limited Government Nor A Hawkish Conservative Be


Jefferson was a revolutionary, but also, by some modern standards, a conservative (at the risk of seeming to laud George Will, which I am really loathe to do, because he really does not deserve it, he might be the closest comparison).

Until digging into these letters, I hadn’t been aware of how much he was engaged in the discussions around the Constitution. He was in Paris, of course, and I am in now way suggesting he was involved in its writing, which I understand to have been mostly masterminded by James Madison. But he was aware of drafts, of the discussion around later including what we now know as the Bill of Rights, and of the Federalist Papers. He has some recurring concerns around the ability of a President to keep running for office more or less indefinitely, allowing a popular one to become a de facto president for life.

While he talks about the need for limited government, he, like the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s supposed originalism, is not a faithful lover to the idea. In 1788, he writes to Madison about what he thinks an addendum to the Constitution (again, this is about the discussions related to what would be known as the Bill of Rights) ought to include.

In his mind, a ban on monopolies should be one of them. He acknowledges that the prospect of a limited duration monopoly can spur ‘ingenuity,’ but does not believe that to be worth the damage caused by monopolies in general (which, in his wording, I wonder if our modern speech might not interpret what he calls monopolies as patents or copyrights).

He also writes the amendments should include something to ‘abolish standing armies in time of peace…”

He then goes on to say that our militia should be sufficient in to protect us in most cases, since we were not at significant danger from European invasion and our militia ought, he thought, be sufficient to stave off Canadian or Spanish[-American] aggression. Again, he didn’t have much to do with directly writing the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights, except insofar as his ideas were influential, but doesn’t this also seem to suggest that the eventual Second Amendment was not intended to reflect a general acceptance of guns in the population, in general?

‘The Middle Temple Murder’ By J.S. Fletcher


Despite myself, I enjoyed this Edwardian mystery. Despite myself, because it had many flaws. From the piling of coincidences to the protagonist’s name (Frank Spargo; it is just men, or does this sound more like a 1930s American noir anti-hero than an early 20th century London scribblers?), nothing should work. But, overall, it does.

While lacking the special genius of Doyle’s iconic detective stories, the forward movement was continuous and propulsive. So much so, that I felt tired reading about Spargo’s late nights followed by early mornings (but in true English fashion, he never seemed rushed). Like any good detective story, all the major persons on interest are introduced early, without giving the game away (or, at least not too much; why wasn’t our intrepid investigator more suspicious when two people claiming relative disinterest also said they really wanted to see the body?). Except for a small village, I never got a good feel for the setting (though there was a nice description that made the neighborhood around Middle Temple Bar seem, for just a moment, dangerous).

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More Flower Fairies


My daughter and I loved reading Flower Fairies of Autumn, so I put the other three seasons on hold a the library. Then, you know, COVID stuff happened and we couldn’t go to the library.

Well, we still can’t go in, but we can stop by and pick up holds and these two were available. We read them at bedtime over a few nights and I want to say again, these are a fantastic way to introduce your children to poetry.

 

Ordinary Misfortunes


A wonderful, moving work of recreated memory. Emily Jungmin Yoon‘s poems (mostly; there’s a glaring exception at the end) cohere around two related themes: the so-called Korean comfort women, taken by Japanese soldiers; and a Korean-American woman navigating race and gender prejudices (and the predatory gaze of men, mirroring, perhaps, the Japanese soldiers).

She tells, in verse form, specific stories of specific women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army, mixed with prose poems (each one titled Ordinary Misfortunes) focusing on the second theme.

There are some variations thrown in and the final poem, The Transformation, though written as more traditional verse, follows the pattern of the prose poems in subject and theme. However, the opening epigram (In early 2016, thirteen sperm whales beached themselves on Germany’s North Coast, their stomachs full of plastic litter.), while timely important, so bluntly introduces ecopoetics into a book about something else, that it badly jarred me out of the melancholy reverie the rest of the book had settled me into.

‘The Beetle‘ By Richard Marsh


The Beetle is a work of horror by a man who seems not in control of his own sexual hang ups.

The characters are mostly too perfect or, in one case, too crippled by a twenty year old attack to be other than cryptic or hysterical at all times. In his defense, he was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a beautiful young woman who was also a divine and immortal beetle.

Only a fellow called Atherton is exempt. He’s excitable, vengeful, and generally relatable in a way everyone is not. He’s an ass, but a normal and understandable one. He is also shown working on a horrifying chemical weapon which… is never used to move the plot forward in any meaningful way. It’s as if Chekhov forgot to fire his gun.

The villain, besides being indicted based on their ethnic appearance, has, when not a beetle, the body a handsome woman with the face of aging and preternaturally ugly man.

Also, nudity is surprisingly frequent for a novel from 1897. A man runs through the streets wearing only a cloak and everyone he meets notes he is naked beneath. When a young woman is forced to wear a man’s rags, the speaker notes that she must first have been forced to undress. Atherton catches a glimpse of the villainous beetle’s alluring feminine body before they transform.

And did I mention the rapes and orgies that preceded the sacrifice of (formerly) virginal white women by burning?

Also: brandy can cure almost all ills (and literally brings a man back from the dead, even if only for a moment).

Something happened to Mr. Marsh and I don’t care to know what.

In the meantime, better folk than I can comment on what this all says about gender roles, masculinity, and the end of empire.

A Huey P. Newton


In light of recent events, Starz has made this free to watch, which I am incredibly happy about. I saw this years ago, back before Netflix was a thing and was powerfully struck by it. An amazing performance by Roger Guenveur Smith (who I had never seen before nor, to my knowledge, since) and powerfully staged and directed by Spike Lee in a very stagey manner, but in a theater that resembles a panopticon.

I will here admit that I had almost no knowledge of Newton before watching this and to this day, not enough, but I can’t emphasize enough what a fantastic film it is and I urge you to watch it as an amazing performance and as an educational and aesthetic event.