Monday, November 30, 2009

History Worth repeating

Last week I helped facilitate a luncheon discussion of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky. Subtitled "Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide," the book has generated much conversation here in Pacific-Rim Seattle; it is full of ideas for action and extends its reach through the website The content is enormously powerful: stories of women’s oppression (slavery, rape, death) in the developing world, and their incredibly heroic and tenacious battles for just a tiny slice of the daily personal freedom, physical health and safety, and emotional and intellectual fulfillment that so many Americans take for granted.

The eighteen Seattleites at lunch were women ranging in age from their young twenties to their early seventies. They worked in different fields and most didn’t know each other. Some were already involved in organizations that support women’s educational, health, or employment initiatives in developing countries; some had lived for a time in Asia or India; others were just curious. Some had experienced gender discrimination or violence themselves, some had not. All appreciated the complexity of the issues, and were not afraid of the messiness of reality.

They came together at the invitation of an energetic young woman who has the trick of making tough conversation (slavery, rape, death) honest, productive and not paralyzingly guilt-producing. She arranged to have our lunch catered by a local farm and restaurant that sells its products to our neighborhood farmers’ markets. Our cook and server was the wife of the farm’s butcher. With cheerful panache, and her six month old son strapped to her side, she served up incredibly tasty soups, quiche, pumpkin pie and apple crisp made with the farm’s butter, eggs, cream, bacon, honey, chicken, pork and vegetables. Even the bread was made with wild yeast.
The growth of farmers’ markets and local food-buying reflects the “Think Globally, Act Locally” approach to problem-solving. The idea is to consider the problems of the world, but realize you probably can’t do much to affect global change, so you should focus your charitable efforts in your own neighborhood.

But Half the Sky pleads the opposite case. Imagine you cannot leave your house without your husband’s permission, imagine facing a one-in-ten chance of dying in childbirth, imagine being kidnapped as a 12-year-old, locked in a brothel and beaten daily for not smiling enough during forced sex. Imagine that world was local. Then act globally.

George Santayana wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Often used to encourage students to study harder, the phrase assumes most of history is a record of bad and wrong things. In fact, there are a good many progressive lessons in history that we would do well to remember and repeat.

One of these lessons that Half and Sky urges us to emulate is the British effort to abolish the slave trade in the 1830’s, led by William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson. Slavery didn’t exist on the British Isles. It wasn’t local — unlike in America, the vast majority of British citizens never personally saw the degradation of human slavery, while at the same time they greatly benefited economically from their country’s participation in the global slave trade.

Wilberforce and Clarkson led an unrelenting campaign to describe the moral horrors of slavery in scrupulously fact-checked detail. Public outrage eventually forced Parliament to ban slavery and the slave trade, even though the country lost an estimated 1.8% of its GNP by doing so, effectively transferring wealth and power to its enemies France and Spain.

Half the Sky argues that Britain’s success at ending its association with human slavery in the early 1800s is exactly what Americans should do now with respect to ending our acquiescence to the oppression (out-and-out slavery as well as systematic discrimination in education and health care) of women in much of Asia and Africa. There are more women enslaved in brothels in the world today than were ever transported on slave ships across the Atlantic in the 1700s and 1800s. We don’t see it, it’s not local, but it’s what Half the Sky calls a “transcendent” moral outrage, one in which outsiders (us) can “truly make a significant difference.”

How did my luncheon conversation change me? The opacity of cultures, the overwhelming nature of the injustices, and the sheer “foreignness” of the developing world have been a barrier to thinking that I can, in any meaningful way, alleviate the suffering of an African child or a Indian teenager or a Afgan woman. That barrier is lower now. Useful action is possible.
I think I may start with introducing a few new conversational topics over the Thanksgiving turkey this year. I also have some creative gift ideas for those on my Christmas list who already have everything that truly matters, except, perhaps, the gift of helping oppressed women fight to live a fully human life.

[Kit Bakke is the author of Miss Alcott's Email: Yours for Reforms of All Kinds.]

Monday, November 23, 2009

An American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis)

Imagine my surprise and delight in encountering this newly emerged beauty nectaring in our garden on a sunny day in early November. She stayed the afternoon, earnestly probing the newly opened florets of the Korean daisy blossoms. Generally speaking, we can assume that when a butterfly is in as pristine condition as she, it has recently emerged, or eclosed. But from where had she come? This was by far the latest we had ever seen an American Lady in our garden, or local meadow for that matter. Perhaps it is because last year we planted pussytoes, one of several of the caterpillars’ host plants, and now have a great patch of it. For whatever reason, I was glad to see her.

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Lepidoptera
Family: Nymphalidae
Genus: Vanessa
Species: virginiensis

The American Lady butterfly (Vanessa virginiensis) is often mistaken for the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui). Painted Ladies are holarctic (found throughout the northern hemisphere of Eurasia and North America); American Ladies are found in the western hemisphere from southern Canada to Venezuela. The simplest way to differentiate the two is by observing the ventral (underside) hindwings. Painted Ladies have five spots along the wing margin (four small and one very small) whereas American Ladies have two comparatively larger blue-centered ‘eyespots.’ Several different families of Lepidoptera bear eyespot patterns on their wings. Eyespots are thought to resemble the eyes of vertebrae and are an example of how animals have evolved to mimic other animals in order to confuse predators. The higher the internal contrast, as well as the contrast between the concentric circles and the background, the lesser the risk of predation.

I am frequently asked (especially by children), Where do butterflies live during the winter? Different species differ in their habits, and some species exhibit several methods of surviving cold winter temperatures. We are familiar with butterflies that migrate to warmer climates — Red Admirals and Monarchs, for example. In late summer, newly-hatched caterpillars of the Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly nestle into leaf litter near violet plants. In early spring the awakening caterpillar feeds on the freshly emerging shoots of violets. Question Mark and Mourning Cloak butterflies both hibernate and migrate to warmer climates. The overwintering adults reside in various hide-a-ways such as the sheltering nooks and chinks of bark. Hibernating adult Mourning Cloaks have been observed emerging as early as February to feed briefly on sap. Painted Ladies migrate, as do other Vanessa butterflies.

American Ladies are a bit of a mystery. Able to withstand colder temperatures than other members of its family, American Ladies are the hardiest of the Vanessa butterflies. It is believed some migrate and some spend the winter sheltered in natural overwintering sites such as the loose bark of tree crevices and the eaves of homes.

Two favorite larval host plants of the American Lady caterpillars that grow beautifully in our region are plantain-leaved pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) and pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea). Pussytoes are a low growing and moderately fast spreading ground cover for shade, with smooth-edged oval leaves and kitten paw-like blossoms. A member of the aster family, pearly everlasting grows naturally in dry fields and along roadsides. White petal-like bracts surround the diminutive yellow flowers. Pearly everlasting grows approximately two feet in height and blooms from June to September. The foliage is silvery and woolly, making it an attractive plant for the garden both in and out of flower.

I often plant Korean daisies (Chrysanthemum x koreana ‘Single Apricot’) in my clients’ gardens. I let them know at the outset of its untidy habit. How does a bit of unruly behavior compare to masses and masses of gorgeous apricot pink daisies in bloom from mid-October to mid-November, providing nectar for pollinators of all sorts? Would they prefer the ubiquitous blobs of greenhouse grown mums? With nothing to lose and everything to gain (I freely give the daisies from my garden), if they don’t like it, they can pass it along. Upon seeing the great collection of butterflies and bees attracted, they all fall in love and, as do I, forgive its wildy ways.

[Kim Smith Designs is an interior and garden design firm. Kim’s first book Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities! (David R. Godine, Publisher, 2009), which she wrote and illustrated, is available through your local bookseller and Barnes and Noble. She will be happy to respond to questions and comments at For more information about Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities!, butterfly gardening, current projects, exhibits, and events, please visit her website at]

Thursday, November 19, 2009

To Trailer, or Not to Trailer

At Slate today, Troy Patterson casts his critical eye on the newest marketing phenomenon of the book world: filmed trailers. He writes that they are "but the latest reflection of the ways that such clips — 'book trailers' — can reveal the hopes and fantasies of readers, writers, and publishers alike." He then looks at a few trailers and dissects them, which we won't wade into here.

What leaps to mind is: What would a Godine book trailer look like? I can't help but envision us all set in the heyday of noir, Hitchcockian black and white, ducking planes on long dusty roads; but, then again, there is a whimsical side to the list as well — the Will Cuppy affect, let's call it. Slightly silly, "punny", occasionally inappropriate: yes, that's probably us too, despite ourselves. We've had books adapted to film before: In the Bedroom (2001) and We Don't Live Here Anymore (2004) were both based on fiction by Andre Dubus. Georges Perec wrote and produced several films. The femme fatale of Russel Hoban's Linger Awhile is a starlet stepping magically off the screen.

Still, no one sums us up and I am, as ever, open to the thoughts and ideas of our readers here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Holiday Offer 2: Children's Titles!

A Children's Gift Pack from Godine
A limited-time holiday offer

In Anna Rosen's The Merchant of Noises, an industrious entrepreneur sells ingenious devices that make wonderful sounds; in Ned Kelly and the City of the Bees, a sick boy is swept away on a magical (and educational) journey through the buzzing hive; in All Around the Block, Judy Plume's visual puzzles will entertain child and parent alike; in Catherine Certitude, a little girl and her father share a special bond, as well as a secret. No gift is more rewarding than a good book: as a companion, as a playmate, and as life-long inspiration. Godine is pleased to offer these four fine titles together for only $30.00, now until December 20. Happy holidays!

List Price $65.80 · Special Offer $30.00 · a $35.80 Discount!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Holiday Offer 1: Adult Books

Great Holiday for Grownups: Stocking-stuffers for the Rest of Us
by Le Clézio, Hoban, Krystal, McMahon and Eschelman

A Nobel Prize-winning novelist, a New York Times essayist, a cult comedic genius, and two award-winning poets: this is the holiday grab-bag special you've been wishing on a star for. From now until December 20 (great for pesky last-minute Secret Santa celebrations), you'll receive these five brilliant volumes — Half-Life of an American Essayist, by Arthur Krystal; Linger Awhile, by Russell Hoban; The Prospector, by J.M.G. Le Clézio; My Devotion, by Clayton Eschelman; and Sentimental Standards, by Lynne McMahon — all for only $35.00!

List price: $97.75 · Special offer: $35.00 · a $62.75 discount!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Genius Goes to Toronto

“So it’s OK to be obstreperous,” Kathleen Wynne, Ontario’s Minister of Education, announced to a group of Toronto high school students. “And there are lots of people in this room who know it’s OK to be obstreperous,” she added, referring to the many activist friends and fans of Jane Jacobs also attending the Canadian launch of Genius of Common Sense: Jane Jacobs and the Story of The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

In the large gallery space of a nineteenth-century industrial building, beautifully refurbished by Margie Zeidler — of Urbanspace Property Group — for artists, non-profits, and micro-entrepreneurs, the convivial crowd was in high spirits as they celebrated the theme of “author-activist Jane Jacobs for a new generation.”

Emcee of the event, Minister Wynne had just read the opening passage of this new book, aimed largely at young adults, in which the obstreperous young Jane had once again challenged her fourth-grade teacher’s contentions. Wynne’s exhortation met with delighted laughter from young and old alike. “We’re here because we all loved Jane, we all love cities, and we all think they are important living things,” Wynne declared to many of Toronto’s movers and shakers, along with teenagers from such intensely urban neighborhoods as St. James Town, Flemingdon Park, and Scarborough.

Toronto City Councillor Adam Vaughan followed the charismatic Wynne, “What I wouldn’t have given as a student at your age to have the Minister of Education give me permission to be — I’ll use a shorter word because I always pronounce that one wrong — a troublemaker,” he said to more laughter. “You have her permission. That is like real power when you are students.”

Vaughan described his fond childhood memories of afternoons at Jane’s house, accompanying his architect father (they first met when Jacobs moved to Toronto in 1968). “What I remember . . . is the endless flow of conversation and ideas and observations and challenges and arguments and disagreements. All respectful. Not quite as defiant as with her teacher. All inquisitive ideas about how cities work, how they build, how they grow, and how they move forward.” The Councilor explained that Jane had changed the way his father looked at the city. “And, as a result, it changed the way I looked at the city.”

“What’s brilliant about Genius of Common Sense,” Vaughan continued, is that “without missing a beat, without simplifying in any way, shape, or form, but by making ideas digestible in sizes that are useful in a classroom, useful to children, it gives them the right, the responsibility, the opportunity to start thinking about how their city works — for them, against them, instead of them, with them. This is a truly revolutionary gesture on behalf of the people who dreamed up delivering Jane’s ideas — the ideas that she worked on with so many in this room — to children.”

The Councilor reached a crescendo, urging the students to take the books to their teachers and school libraries and get involved in civic issues: “One of the challenges we have in the city is to make sure that you as young people are troublemakers. The trouble you make is the trouble we have to find solutions to. So when your housing isn’t right, when the trip to school is too long, when lunch isn’t hot at school . . . and all these sorts of challenges mount up . . . you identify them as problems . . . If we don’t work together with you to solve them, we haven’t read Genius of Common Sense. That’s the magic of this book.”

Education Minister Wynne read two more sections from the book — about the “sidewalk ballet” and cities as the crux of so many subjects. She asked the students what they liked and didn’t like about their neighborhoods, how they felt about busy versus empty streets, or dark streets. Many of these young people had been thinking about cities, and some had worked to create an annual exploratory “Jane’s Walk” of their neighborhood in Jacobs’s honor.

One teenage boy contemplated his neighborhood: “I live in St. James Town, and our community is actually one of the most diverse and most dense communities in North America. So it’s really, really amazing to have the entire world represented in one community. I think that’s the biggest thing our community has.” The audience clapped and cheered in response.

“The people who had the idea to write this great book are here with us,” Wynne went on. “We’re very lucky. You guys are all going to get a copy of the book, and the authors are going to sign them. . . . So if you were going to explain to your teacher tomorrow, why would it be important to read this book in your class?”

“As high school students,” a girl offered, “teachers try to keep us in control and not let us be rebellious. But listening to students is very important, so this book hopefully will help teachers realize that even us young ones can make a difference, no matter how rebellious we might be getting.” The crowd erupted in enthusiastic applause.

Minister Wynne thanked the students for their insights, reminded them that Jane did raise her hand in class, and concluded the event: “We’re so lucky that Jane lived, and so lucky to have this book.”

[Glenna Lang is the author of Genius of Common Sense as well as several other titles from Godine.]

Monday, November 9, 2009

J.M.G. Le Clézio on the passing of Claude Lévi-Strauss

A beautiful consideration of the recently deceased philosopher and anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss by Nobel Prize–winning Godine author J.M.G. Le Clézio at the New York Times:

'What always struck me most about Mr. Lévi-Strauss’s thought was his ability to dodge the traps of modern ethnology, sometimes so much like old colonialism. There is an enormous difference between Mr. Lévi-Strauss and his most notable predecessors, E. E. Evans-Pritchard or Bronislaw Malinowski: his humanity and his melancholy kindness, which made him reluctant to go into the field for fear of intruding on the people he studied or finding himself disappointed by what had been lost to the evolution of modern times.

'Still, Claude Lévi-Strauss overcame his reluctance and went, opening our minds to the extraordinary complexity of the Bororo’s and Nambikwara’s way of life. He expressed in his books the beauty and intelligibility of myths. And he kept in his heart the warmth and the modesty of the young man he once was, a man who was struck by a pessimistic sympathy for dying civilizations, dying people.'

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Political Presbyopia

I recently read a friendly biography of Beatrice Webb, the British reformer. Although annoyed at the book’s general lack of analytic depth, I did find a few nutritious nuggets of thought to chew on. Beatrice Webb (1858-1943) was a self-taught social scientist and political progressive who didn’t approve of a society that allowed so many of its citizens to live without “sufficient nourishment and training when young, a living wage when able-bodied, treatment when sick, and (a) modest but secure livelihood when disabled or aged.” She was good at envisioning a better future, but not so good at seeing the currents of the present.

With her husband Sidney Webb and a group of friends, she shaped the Fabian Society, and later founded the London School of Economics. Members of the group were also instrumental architects of the pre-World War I Labour Party, and launched the New Statesman. Beatrice and her friends believed in preventing poverty, not charitably relieving it. They held sensible — but advanced for their times — views about the value of public health and a minimum wage, and they advocated governmental support for children and the elderly. They believed more and more people would inevitably come to agree with them and then society would gradually evolve into a better place for all.

Like her, I have always had trouble understanding how anyone could be opposed to building a community where no one was starving or homeless or illiterate or (dare I say it?) without access to primary health care. I tend to get impatient at well-fed, sheltered, well-insured people who do not seem to mind that millions of their fellow citizens are not so well protected.

Mrs. Webb thought of herself as “one of the B’s of the world — bourgeois, bureaucratic and benevolent” as opposed to her friend and fellow Fabian Bernard Shaw, whom she saw as one of the “A’s of the world — aristocratic, anarchist and artistic.” The “B’s” of the world tend to think that everyone tries to be as rational as possible when making both personal and political decisions.

Reading the biography, I realized that I also am a “B.” Like Beatrice Webb, I continually undervalue the forces of personal emotion (jealousy, fear, anger) that underlie people’s political stands. “All their lives,” the biographer says in one of her rare on-target comments, “the Webbs were insufficiently aware of the deeper currents of irrational public opinion.” (This sort of sentence is exactly why I keep reading books that might otherwise not be very well-written).

The Webbs really thought people could be swayed by sensible, moral discussion, and that, in the end, rich people could be peacefully persuaded to share their wealth for the good of all.

Reading the book reminded me of my appearance in 1969 in a Chicago courtroom. I had been arrested and jailed, and was now was being arraigned in the aftermath of a violent anti-war demonstration. When given the opportunity to plead guilty, I instead carefully explained the vicious, imperialistic nature of the American presence in Vietnam to the judge, whom I mistook for being a little like my father, an open-minded intellectual who loved philosophical conversation. I acted as if I was in a graduate school political science seminar, not a courtroom. I acted as if I were in a rational environment. My grasp on the present was clearly much shakier than my vision of a better future.

Successful reform requires both.

[Kitt Bakke is the author of Miss Alcott's Email: Yours for Reform of All Kinds.]

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Beauty of Black Sparrow Books

At The Rumpus, Michael Berger writes, 'Black Sparrow Press, a “boutique” press, might have produced some of the most distinctive-looking paperback titles ever. The off-white, mottled, autumnal covers of the book covers are always eye-catching but even more fetching are the distinctive front covers that are always embossed with some futuristic painting or drawing.

It helped too that they almost always published maverick authors of an extraordinary high caliber. Most people know Black Sparrow through Bukowski who was the original Black Sparrow author.

Now that Black Sparrow is being distributed through David R. Godine, itself an amazing publishing house, the original Sparrow paperbacks are becoming harder to come by. I was tipped off to this fact by a discerning customer at my store who bought two Paul Bowles’ novels as well as a Robert Creeley for what I thought was a pretty generous price!

Since then I’ve put a copy of Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles on my hold shelf along with A Brief History of Camouflage by Thaisa Frank.'