THE SWERVE: How the World Became Modern

Congratulations to Stephen Greenblatt, winner of the 2011 National Book Award in Nonfiction.

The Swerve
How the World Became Modern
Norton, $26.95 cloth, ISBN 978-0-393-06447-6

When did the world become modern? The answer, of late, is earlier than scholars once thought. It wasn’t so long ago that modern life was said to begin with Sigmund Freud’s discovery of the unconscious. More recently, writers have traced its beginnings to the French Revolution. Before the revolutionary age that compromised feudalism and asserted the rights of man (but not woman or slave), there were both Cartesian doubt and the stirrings of modern philosophy. Perhaps then we were on the cusp of becoming moderns. Now Stephen Greenblatt, the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University and an articulate new historicist, locates the principles that generated a modern conception of our world in the Renaissance celebration of a long-dormant classical poem.

With The Swerve: How the World Became Modern Greenblatt returns us to the 15th century and to a Europe corrupted by its grasping, materialistic Church. In Heidelberg, Baldassare Cossa—the self-styled Pope John XXIII—lies in jail, condemned by the General Council of Constance. The imagination pales before the image of a pope in chains, charged with 70 crimes, including the murder of his predecessor, Alexander V. Quickly defrocked, Cossa burns at the stake on July 6, 1415. Among the heretic’s last sights are his books, tumbled in a pyre and therefore prefiguring his own wordless end.

The apostolic secretary, Poggio Bracciolini, the man who recorded the pope’s decisions and crafted his correspondence, was, with others in the pope’s retinue, irrevocably terminated. Poggio could find work again, since scriptors of his caliber were in demand, but the Church and therefore Rome were controlled by enemies. What he thought of his change in fortune is unknown; what he did, Greenblatt asserts, is remarkable. Poggio went into southern Germany in search of precious books.

We might expect an employee of the Church to be seeking illustrated manuscripts from earlier, more glorious times for Catholicism. But Poggio, in a delicious irony, seeks texts from the Roman Empire, ones long forgotten in the libraries of European monasteries. To find a pagan classic or even portions of one gave humanists entry into a prestige economy where they could trade and share books with peers who took pleasure from rhetoric of the highest order. The older and more remote from Italy the monastery, the likelier it would hold a text that a monastic librarian would allow, briefly, to be read and transcribed by a stranger who had arrived from afar.

Poggio knew classical Latin and possessed handwriting to wonder at. A master at several trades who had the ability to ingratiate himself with the powerful, he sought uneasy originals that had been copied multiple times by nameless scribes and then, with the Church’s attention on institutionalizing itself, left to decay. Scarcely believing his fortune, Poggio finds several books that have survived the Church’s assault on the past. His prize, however, is De rerum natura by Lucretius, a follower of Epicurus.

On the Nature of Things is a 7,400-line poem, composed in hexameters, and complex in ways that experts in translation cannot replicate. It takes atomism from Epicurus and does its emphasis on indivisible matter and void one better. Specifically, Lucretius too asserts first principles, arguing for the expression of pleasure and the reduction of pain as refined life goals. The early Christians, helplessly in thrall to Paul’s account of the sinful flesh, see in pain a triumph over embodied temptation. But Lucretius is modern in his refusal of even Roman orthodoxy. The gods, he asserts, are distant from humans by virtue of being gods. Trying to propitiate them is therefore folly. If the gods, much like Darwin’s conception of nature, are indifferent to us, it follows that the afterlife too is a human illusion. Life in its myriad expressions is all there is, and our time can only be limited and precious. What Lucretius hastens to reject is something like what the Enlightenment spoke of as received tradition or we call magical thinking. He delights in representing the many ways we unthinkingly go wrong. Happiness, by contrast, devolves from knowing what is right and turning one’s desire to it, whether that desire is felt when exercising reason or lounging with one’s lover during an afternoon that we, complicit in our own victimization, would easily waste in work.

Greenblatt, a master rewrite man, assembles Poggio’s story and the felt dispersion of On the Nature of Things in Renaissance art and literature by attending to what scholars have left us in dusty, monastic libraries of their own. His story is too well imagined to recount fully here, beyond saying that the pleasures of literary detective work like his and like Poggio’s often emerge from historical set pieces—a description of vellum, an account of Vatican infighting, a mention of Lucretian materialism on Shakespeare’s stage—that punctuate more ambitious chapters. The paradox that concerns Greenblatt is that a moment of feeling and thinking as moderns is not modern at all but ancient—traceable, that is, to a recovered poem whose science can only die but whose speculative implications swerve across time. And perhaps that is what becoming modern really means, if something as time-bound as classical physics set to poetry can compel us—excite us—to imagine a different kind of now.

REVIEWER: Larry Shillock is an associate professor of English and assistant academic dean at Wilson College. He divides his time between Pennsylvania and Montana.

From The Bloomsbury Review©, Volume 31/Issue 2; November, 2011

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Living in Words

Living in Words: Interviews
The Bloomsbury Review, 1981-1988

Edited by Gregory McNamee
This wonderful time-capsule collection from the early years of The Bloomsbury Review contains interviews with Kay Boyle, William S. Burroughs, Wendell Berry, Joseph Campbell, Douglas Adams, Barry Moser, Robert Creeley, Bernard MacLaverty, Margaret Drabble, Farley Mowat, Alastair Reid, John Nichols, Raymond Carver, Michael Dorris, and Louise Erdrich.

From the very beginning, The Bloomsbury Review has had a particular concern for the craft of writing and the making of fine books, along with a concomitant desire to bring important authors and their thoughts about writing more intimately into the lives of our readers. This rare collection of interviews is a snapshot of where some of these important writers were during the early days of Bloomsbury’s life.

The Bloomsbury Review: The “Don’t Panic” phrase that first appears in Hitchhiker’s Guide seems to have caught on with many readers, if only because it contrasts sharply with Arthur Dent’s usual response to his predicaments.
Douglas Adams: Well, I suppose in a way the words “Don’t panic” are really to remind people of the fact that there is a very great deal to panic about. Now if you’re walking down a street on an apparently normal day, and somebody says to you, “Don’t panic,” in that instant you may think, “Why, what’s gone wrong?” I think that’s one of the things behind it. Asking people not to panic is a way of reminding them that there’s an awful lot we’ve got to be panicking about.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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“And So Make Peace . . .”

Talking Story with Maxine Hong Kingston
by Trevor Carolan
Maxine Hong Kingston
For more than 30 years, National Book Award-winning author Maxine Hong Kingston has written on the complicated chains of history, nostalgia, and spiritual yearning—on the soul of place and home. For many readers her masterworks The Woman Warrior, China Men, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, Hawai’i One Summer, and The Fifth Book of Peace have come to seem like having a wise older sister in the next bunk whispering stories to us late at night. Long a committed antiwar activist, since the early 1990s she has led writing-and-meditation workshops for veterans of America’s wars and their families. Her new anthology Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace harvests their work in presenting a broad view of the power of story to help redeem and heal the wounds of unspeakable history. Reading these words of men and women tragically affected by war, we witness how it is possible to rebuild lives and to truly believe that we can be one people again, living in harmony. An edition for our time, it serves as testament to Hong Kingston’s conviction that community is not built once and for all: it must be imagined, practiced and re-created.

TBR contributor Trevor Carolan spoke with her recently in Oakland, California.

The Bloomsbury Review: Maxine, how did you get involved with veterans and the veterans’ writing workshop?

Maxine Hong Kingston: The start of it was Thich Nhat Hanh. I had gone to a couple of retreats that he had led and there came a time when he said he wanted to hold a retreat for veterans of the Vietnam war. He called for veterans of the war to meet Vietnamese people, and also other Americans. So he had a ceremony with all these old soldiers and himself as a veteran of that war, and they had all kinds of ceremonies including hugging meditation. There’s Vietnamese and Americans together, and Thich Nhat Hanh said when you hug one Vietnamese you hug them all. These soldiers who had been in the war were now embracing another person in their arms, and that leads to reconciliation. I was observing all of this and I thought, “They need one more thing; like, ah … a spiritual life is not enough! These veterans need to have artistic expression!” They needed an artistic life. I continued to participate in these retreats, and I brought a writing workshop. Actually, the writing workshop became the center of what veterans do in these retreats. Thich Nhat Hanh called it a retreat within the retreat. We did our own rituals and our own ceremonies, and the main practice was writing, to get their stories down. Once in a while we would break out into a larger group and listen to a dharma talk and we’d meditate with a larger group. But on the whole we would have our own room, our own separate table. Thich Nhat Hanh only came to America every other year, and Therese Fitzgerald, Arnie Kotler, and I were thinking this isn’t enough; so we held these retreats on our own, always emphasizing the writing, some artistic expression. Somewhere in this I got a Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award that said that I should use part of the money to do some community social work. I used it to carry on these writing workshops for veterans and their families. We met once a month for three years. At that point I tried to disband them; I didn’t want it to be like therapy that goes on for a whole lifetime. It all seemed natural at the end of the grant.

TBR: Are these people working writers themselves?

MHK: Most are just really veterans. Once they get in, some do become convinced that writing is the way they are going to come home from the war, to heal their wounds. What I tell them is “You went to war, to a terrible place, and you lived to tell the story; you need to tell us what you learned when you were out there. This is your gift, this is what you need to give to society and to your life.” There’s a sense of urgency; all these things are held in them, and when it just comes out it’s so beautiful because they’ve been cooking it all these years, decades. It’s been working in there. It amazes me how good their first drafts are. I can’t do that. They can. It often comes out perfect; they don’t need to rewrite and I think it’s because they’ve lived it and they’ve ruminated and saved it for 20 years. All I need to do is say, “Here’s a piece of paper, a pencil, let it out … ”

TBR: Do they all let it out?

MHK: There’s another side that was sometimes a tough hump to get over with many of them, because their previous experience in communicating had been in therapeutic situations. A lot of them were repeating what they’d said in therapy groups for a long time. Some of the transition was us insisting that this isn’t that same experience, it’s not reaching an emotional high and then going back and climbing the same mountain again. The difference between shouting out your experience in a group and writing it down is that you can perfect it in writing, reach a kind of end with it. You process it and then it becomes art. You turn war and chaos into art. There was a small percentage of dedicated writers who came into the group—they knew that. Their knowledge path was to say, “It’s not screaming out what happened to me in l971, it’s writing it down and perhaps changing it, perfecting it, molding it.”

TBR: And turning it into a product?

MHK: Well, as Buddhists we don’t think about a reward or a product. We’re just supposed to appreciate what’s happening right now. I never promised them that they were going to have a book or readings or money or anything. “You write this story for its own sake.”

TBR: How did this book actually come into existence then?

MHK: It must have been three or four years ago. People were seeing that we were accumulating a huge body of work—all kinds from everybody. Some people were getting impatient and they began publishing on their own. At a certain point I saw that we had lot of work, and I thought, “Is it possible that we could pull this together?” It happened that Arnie Kotler, who had previously established Parallax Press, began Koa Books as a new company, so it all fit. His first book was Cindy Sheehan’s story. Arnie was present at the beginning of the first veterans’ mediations and now he had a publishing company. The whole universe fit and this book could come out.

TBR: Was there any turning point that galvanized for you the urgency of working on this project to promote peace?

MHK: Not a crucial point. It all seemed like a steady, ongoing project. The longer we worked at it the more we began to feel like a sangha, a community. When the Lila Wallace Award was over I tried to disband the group but they refused to leave! I tried to change it a little bit by suggesting that we disband the big group and begin many little sanghas. But nobody left. Then I simply said, “Well, we’re just going to meet for the rest of our lives,” and that’s what we have now.

Perhaps one galvanizing point though was the fire that swept through here in 1991. It burned 3200 houses, including this one where we lived, as well as The Fourth Book of Peace that I was working on. Afterwards I was thinking, “How do you create again after something has been destroyed, after you have experienced destruction? How do you get going again, and how do I write again because my book has burned?” I didn’t want to just go by memory. An idea came up that I mustn’t write alone, that I should have a community. All this was happening at the same time as the veterans’ retreats. I thought, “Because I want to write a book of peace, the people I want in this community are veterans, people who’ve experienced war and know what that is.”

TBR: Michael Wong, one of the book’s contributors who once fled to Canada, writes of the Vietnam War that “Our honor died at My Lai.” Can I ask what you feel may have similarly died at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, or Guantanamo?

MHK: Oh goodness, I don’t know if I can answer that, because we’re always doing such things. We go into these terrible places and we come out of them again and again. Bush and everybody is saying, “We don’t torture.” Well, obviously we do torture and then we deny it. I would hope the idea that we are the good guys has died. In these workshops what I want is for us to write stories. When we write them we can understand them, become aware. If we could just understand the truth of what happened, then maybe we can change what happens in lives. About the idea of changing history, when an occurrence first happens it’s just chaos. Nobody understands what it means, it’s an explosion. But if we can get it into words then we change things from chaos to order, because it’s through order that we understand human events. There’s this amazing faith that artists have, that somehow with art we can change the world and make peace. It’s an incredible faith; I mean, aren’t there times when you don’t believe it for one moment? There are times when it doesn’t do any good; you work as hard as you can and here comes Abu Ghraib and more people killed …

TBR: Even Confucius faced this long ago. Doesn’t he say that the wise person does his duty even though all along he knows it’s hopeless? Yet don’t we have to do it anyway? It’s like the old belief out West that cowboys do the right thing, even when nobody’s looking.

MHK: That’s right—We do it anyway. If your premise is that guns, bombs, bayonets are not right, and that we will not use that power, then you have your brush, your pen, and that’s all you allow yourself. W.S. Merwin is building a rainforest on Maui. He says that with global warming it’s not going to do any good for him to plant trees, but he does it anyway.

TBR: Your writers’ group motto is “Tell the Truth.” Many of their stories reflect how commonly violence in the home begins long before any frontline combat.

MHK: Yes, by the time it gets to war, violence is already way down the line. But in the same way love can also start right here, in the home, in each one of us. We need to learn ways of expressing the pure energy of our feelings—anger and hate feelings especially—in a healthier direction that’s beneficial to the world.

TBR: In your introduction you mention Odysseus and his post-Trojan War saga. Like every wandering mariner he constantly talks about his story as he travels, yet it’s only when he finally returns home that he can discuss it fully. A lot of your book’s contributors talk about returning “home.”

MHK: We’re all existentialists. We create that home wherever we are, and the most important aspect of our writers’ home is the sangha we make around us. I am very interested in the idea of return. The Buddhists talk about how with every breath we return to our body, but you know we also have to return to our consciousness. When you go to war, you become a raging killer beast. Odysseus goes to war, but it takes him 20 years to return. In telling his story all along, he’s changing back from a killer beast into a human being. Now, Aristotle says that the greatest joy in art is recognition. When Odysseus finally gets home, people don’t recognize him. We have one writer in the book, John Mulligan, who went to war, came home, and his own mother didn’t recognize him. His own mother. At least we can speak …

TBR: Speaking of language, you’ve published a collection of poetry with Harvard University Press, To Be The Poet. Have you rededicated yourself as a poet? Are long books too energy depleting, or are you ploughing a new field, rotating the crops?

MHK: It’s all of that. It also tells of my desires that I should have some fun, write something short, and not have all these cares. I admire poetry so much and I want to be able to write in that heightened form.

TBR: Is this something new or an old affection? Ursula Le Guin also made a recursive move to poetry, although this might have alarmed her agent.

MHK: Right, agents don’t like that! I began as a poet when I was a child. I was constantly uttering and singing and writing poems. What’s coming to me now is a long poem. I’m thinking, “What is it that I want to be at the end of my life?” I want to concentrate all of life and look forward to age, to the end. So what’s coming is a long poem, five strong beats to every line, softer beats in between; many, many lines. This is the right form for me. I had about a hundred pages and then went back and did it again. Poetry is a perfect form for an older person because I don’t need to tell everything; I can jump around in time. I can skip a whole lot. It’s not as detailed and as descriptive as prose; it’s more impressionistic, less plotted. I think that’s the big difference between poetry and a prose work—plot. And I never liked plot anyway; plots just contain everything. We don’t want to be constrained, we want to be able to fly all over the place—that’s what poetry does.

TBR: Simone Weil says that the purpose of art and words is to testify—the way the trees blossom and the stars come out at night. Do you think Buddhists might conceive of art and literature as works of metta or karuna—kindness or compassion?

MHK: Aristotle says pity and terror are what drama brings forward in order for us to get the catharsis of art. Because I have a narrator in there, I did think that I was writing in the way of karuna, compassion, with Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book. I wanted to be invisible so that everybody else could go about their drama and their plots. I began to see the narrator as Avalokitesvara, Kuan Yin [the Goddess of Mercy]; the narrator is very close to myself and I didn’t want anything bad to happen to any of my characters. I wanted to give them gifts; I wanted to correct them; I had a sense of being their creator and the person who gives them blessings. That attitude of being the kind narrator began in Tripmaster Monkey, and when I went on to other works I felt very clearly that I could even manipulate situations and atmospheres, so that we could see what kindness and compassion are like. The idea is, “How do we make peace?” Peace is actually created and that means creating a good relationship, creating a good sangha, and writing stories. Technically, writing and telling stories is traditional in all cultures: it’s probably built into our DNA that they have rising action that leads to a violent climax. We all love that sense of drama, that frightening climax. Well, I got thinking, “Can we write a story in which this climax is nonviolent and is still exciting?” That is against everything our culture is teaching us. Television, movies … there’s that violent climax. Can I write counter to this? Will people buy these stories? What will all the critics say?

TBR: The Burmese monks and other protesters were recently chanting metta when confronting the military dictatorship. They want a better social and economic situation for people. Can Gandhian methods prevail in any other context than that of a British-style empire?

MHK: You’re talking about a big stage—Burma, India, China. But the ways of peace are constantly taking place on small stages every moment, everywhere, right now, with each and every one of us, every single moment. We have the opportunity to make peace all the time. With the root of these small practices I’m sure they result in many scenes of love and being together. This Burma situation is at a stage when it’s too late; it comes after many acts of failing to show compassion. So we end up with this horrible situation and we think, “Now let’s practice our compassion.” Well it’s too late. It’s very hard for compassion to win out in such a situation.

TBR: Burma, where the democratic movement is struggling and which is Buddhist, is a thrall of China’s military dictatorship. Next door in southern Thailand Buddhist monks are being assassinated by Islamic terrorists who are basically warlords. With all this realpolitik coming at us, what can a nonfiction style encompass if it’s only peace-speak? Can it be a language of political method and effective action?

MHK: I was talking with Ted Sexauer from the book, who’s a Buddhist practitioner himself, and was complaining, questioning all these ways of nonviolence—do they really work? Look at the Dalai Lama. He practices nonviolence and he loses his country; his people are tortured and killed. The Chinese have totally taken over in a cruel way and are exploiting Tibet—they’ve taken its riches, cut down its forests. What satisfaction is there if you practice nonviolence? Ted looked at me in surprise and said “Yes, but the story isn’t over.” Of course! The story isn’t over. The Dalai Lama gets pressured. There are those who say, “C’mon now, be a leader. We’re going to have a revolution. We’ll fight back.” But he says, “I’m for nonviolence.” The story isn’t over.

TBR: Marshall McLuhan reckoned that words without action are only a cool medium, impractical. What about your simple, and for many, deeply moving strategy in The Fifth Book of Peace? “Children, everybody, here’s what to do during war: In a time of destruction, create something. A poem. A parade. A friendship. A community. A place that is the commons. A school. A vow. A moral principle. One peaceful moment.”

MHK: Right, it doesn’t mean you have to get arrested in front of the White House. Just create one peaceful moment. Amitav Ghosh says we need to find a way of writing in which nonviolence is dramatic. He tells about the riots involving Hindus and Muslims. There’s a group of neighbors who say that the rioters are not going to force them to remain hidden in their houses, so they all set out together to walk on their street. Then they see a group of thugs and we all know what’s about to happen: They get beaten up, right? But silently, the women take their scarves and hold them in a circle around their men. The bad guys don’t move at the sight and the crisis passes. Can that work as a dramatic moment? It’s so brief! How can we write more? As Virginia Woolf said, we leave it to the poets to write these short pieces.

TBR: Is there something here about “the Other”?

MHK: In the writing workshops there’s usually a dislike of officers. Occasionally though, someone of officer material will attend. After meditation and getting to know one another, telling their stories, over time they become less and less officer-like. Another guy in there, Scott Morrison, wanted to be a writer all along. He came to our group because he wanted to play his own mind and thinking against some really hard, right-wing patriots. Wanted to spar with them in putting out his liberal thoughts of peace. He said “I just can’t meet any. They keep disappearing.” They’ve come in, officers, right-wing patriots, then they change. Being quiet with oneself, these ways of meditation … maybe they do change people. But I don’t know if these are the ones we have to change. The people who believe in the [Iraqi] War and romanticize the idea of America coming to the rescue are very difficult to convince otherwise. They are easily led. These are patriots who I think put the religion of the country above their own religion—we’ve become a warrior society and if you simply say “freedom” and “America,” people will react to it.

TBR: When your country becomes your religion that’s nationalism … it’s dangerous.

MHK: Yes, but the real danger is the separation developing between the people and their sense of being able to do anything about it. Support for Iraq is down to around 28 percent. That’s a profound disconnect between the people and their sense of what elected government is. In place of action it all becomes irony, something bitter to laugh at. This is what is dangerous.

TBR: Being an activist is fashionable nowadays, but people can mistake talking about action for actually doing something and really taking action.

MHK: There’s a story from Ted Sexauer in the book. He goes to Fort Benning and makes up his mind to confront a general. It’s such a hard situation. Of course, he tries to meet the general on a human level. But how do we “speak truth to power,” as the Quakers say. Many of us have had a chance to meet these powerful people, at the White House or elsewhere. It’s so easy to be struck speechless. We care about etiquette, about not being rude. If you’re vulgar, you can so easily be dismissed. And if you’re nice you can also be dismissed.

TBR: In the popular media—most of which rolled over like spaniels with their legs in the air during the invasion of Iraq—there’s an assumption that the sixties generation ideals of peace, love, freedom, equality, and happiness were naive and just died out. Do you feel that’s the case, or have these ideas mainstreamed, even percolated underground?

MHK: All of us old sixties people, we’re still here. A lot have been involved with organizations all through the past 40 years. They’re re-emerging: that’s why when the Iraq war started the demonstrations were put together so quickly.

TBR: Growing up, were you exposed to Buddhist teachings?

MHK: When I was a child we had all the rituals and holidays. My parents didn’t call it anything but Confucianism. And even then, we didn’t really call it that. In China they take it all—Taoism, Confucius—and call it “Chinese religion.”

TBR: The missionary mind never quite understood that syncretic “Three-in-One” Tradition—Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism.

MHK: Yes, or they call it “Ancestor Worship,” which is very dismissive. That is so weird. We had the altars, the ancestors, and I feel I had some aspects of Buddhism. So coming across Buddhism as an adult felt natural, familiar. Growing up, we had several buildings—the Confucius Church, the Benevolent Association, also the Chinese Methodist Church. They were the institutions. You also had home. To this day, Chinese people still talk about the “home religion.” So you don’t have to have another place; you can have it wherever you put your altar.

TBR: Have you ever taken the Jukai ceremony, anything like that?

MHK: Yes, several ceremonies. The first was in Hawai’i at the big Honpa Hongwanji Buddhist temple, Japanese. They have a ceremony that they’ve made Hawaiian in which they declare people living treasures of Hawai’i. Out of nowhere, they tapped me and I went there. All the wonderful robes, bells, incense, the drums, chanting … it was really great. I thought everybody was a living treasure, but they recognized me. Another one was being at these retreats with Thich Nhat Hanh and he offered the Five Wonderful Precepts. We took the vows.

TBR: Were there any books or texts that had a major impact on your relationship with peace, dharma, activism? The Spirit of Zen, Alan Watts, and so on?

MHK: I read those, but what really got me was reading the Beats. Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder. It just seemed like so much fun to be a Buddhist. Be a dharma bum!

TBR: David Miller, a Honolulu writer, suggests the key in coming successfully to a new country or place is “assimilation and creativity.” How do you feel about multicultural affiliations, Asian American, etc? Elizabeth Bishop, for instance, declined to appear in anthologies of women’s poetry, preferring to be just “a poet.”

MHK: Ethnic Studies is all around now. I would feel badly if I was pigeonholed into one category. I’ve seen my work in Black Studies, Women’s Studies, Asian American History, American and British Literature—I don’t feel bad about it because I’m in so many categories. There’s a linguistic concept known as etcetera where after every noun you put “etcetera.” Then you say, “I am an American, etcetera.” But I like that phrase “assimilation and creativity”: you integrate everything and you make more. You don’t lose yourself; that’s what some are afraid of. Political correctness often seems tied to a lack of humor …

TBR: To conclude with Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, what are the chances of similar encounters coming out of the current Middle Eastern-Asian conflicts?

MHK: The reason I think our first veterans’ workshops worked is that Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist. Most of these veterans were from the Vietnam war where they had seen the temples, the monks, nuns, the Buddhas, and there was curiosity about that. They would meet the Montagnards, the hill people, who would go to war with a small Buddhist statue in their mouths. So they were interested to get together—there was a chance of reconciliation with real Vietnamese. And they’ve been coming together all these years and have worked out their war stuff and their post-traumatic disorders. Now, will there ever come a day when some of the people coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan can meet with an imam and clerics together—Muslims and veterans—and come together and have these kinds of ceremonies that we have? Will it work better? We’ve met some of these young veterans at a bookstore in New York and that city seems the perfect place for it.

TBR: Maybe it’ll be necessary.

MHK: What’s amazing to me is that after a war—with Japan, in Korea, Vietnam—we get all kinds of loving things: we have “war brides,” we have families adopting Chinese and Vietnamese orphan girls, we have new family situations. First there’s exotic countries, and then we have the war, then we have marriages … I wonder, “Can’t we just skip the middle part, the war, and get on with the loving family and wonderful new foods and restaurants part? Isn’t that more compassionate?”

TBR: You bet! Maxine, thanks and aloha for all your words.

INTERVIEWER: Trevor Carolan writes from Vancouver. His current novel, The Pillowbook of Dr. Jazz, was published by Ekstasis.

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Hilary in Candyland

One of the great joys of being here is having a wonderful bubbling flow of interns to help us wrangle each issue to the ground: fact-checking, editing, re-fact-checking (pause to gather round and watch something blush-worthy, or touching, or hilarious on YouTube), ordering books, e-begging for cover photos, querying reviewers to ask them just what they heck they meant in the 3rd paragraph and just where can we find that source, hmmm? It is an unending delight. Unfortunately, with interns, there always comes the time when we have to say à bientôt to their daily youth and cheer–and they move on. While most of them usually return for a short visit every now and then on their bumpy paths through life–and they’re always welcomed with open arms–their unique presence, their daily spirit is gone. So while they are a great joy to us when they arrive–there’s a sweet but lingering sorrow when they go.

One of our most recent interns, Hilary Wermers, just left–but not without giving us this blog post to remember her by–and you can see splashed throughout her words what a joy it was to have her around. Thank you, Hilary. Come back and see us when you can.


Walking into the office of The Bloomsbury Review is a little like stepping into Candy Land. This candy land, however, caters not to greedy children and their bored but attempting to be enthusiastic caregivers, but to book nerds. Rather than the Peppermint Stick Forest and the Gumdrop Mountains, there is a maze of books to navigate upon entering this magical world. You could lose yourself for weeks browsing through our small library. Whatever your literary interest, you can find it here: short stories, books of poetry, travel books, children’s books. Making your way out of the library, you will come upon the file cabinets containing back issues of TBR, another tasty treat to explore. And, for me, Home Sweet Home is a cozy corner desk that holds what is known as “the intern computer.” Rather than being decorated with cookies and icing, there is a poster of Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ Women Who Run With the Wolves on one side, and a young Willa Cather smiles down on me benevolently from the other wall. A massive stack of CDs towers nearby, daring me to blast Aretha Franklin through the office. As an intern at The Bloomsbury Review, I feel like the ultimate winner of Candy Land.

There are so few places where a book nerd can feel truly at home. Let me define that term for you. A book nerd is one who revels in books: the texture of their pages, their scent, the letters and punctuation marks that create meaning and emotion on their pages. I was labeled a book nerd early in life; while my siblings spent their days wrestling in the mud, I curled up with books—innumerable books. The Bloomsbury Review’s office is now on my short list of places where I can let my book-nerd freak-flag fly.

If curling up with a novel is a treat for you, if your friends roll their eyes when you begin a sentence, “In this book I’m reading … ,” if your favorite local bookstore is your house of worship, The Bloomsbury Review is for you. Visit us on the web (, like us on Facebook, subscribe to our magazine, stop by the office for a visit. We guarantee it will be a sweet and fulfilling adventure!

–Hilary Wermers

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What Hath Harriet Beecher Stowe Wrought?

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

Congratulations to Nicholas D. Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn!

As mentioned on our Facebook page, referring to a fascinating article on Harriet Beecher Stowe, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn was just awarded the inaugural Harriet Beecher Stowe Prize for Excellence in Writing to Advance Social Justice.

Terry Hong recently reviewed Half the Sky for TBR and from her words, you can see why it was an apt choice:

Half the Sky
Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
Knopf, $27.95 cloth, ISBN 978-0-307-26714-6

If you read one book this year, let it be this one. Using a Chinese proverb—“Women hold up half the sky”—Pulitzer Prize winners Kristof and WuDunn seek to rescue women and girls worldwide by

focusing on three particular abuses: sex trafficking and forced prostitution; gender-based violence, including honor killings and mass rape; and maternal mortality, which still needlessly claims one woman a minute.

What these authors miraculously accomplish is to move beyond the mind-numbing numbers and present individual stories that haunt and inspire. Half the Sky is not about victimization but about taking concrete steps to create substantial change. By book’s end, Kristof and WuDunn offer “Four Steps You Can Take in the Next Ten Minutes,” filled with near-instant ways you can make a difference. How can you possibly just sit by?

REVIEWER: Terry Hong frequently interviews authors and reviews books for TBR. Her yearly round-up in celebration of Asian Pacific Heritage Month of New & Notable Books is particularly a welcome addition to our pages. Terry’s blog is called Bookdragon.

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E-bookin’ it.

We are test-driving a new Nook Color, courtesy of our friends at Barnes & Noble to check out its capabilities, usefulness, ease of operation, and just how friendly it might be to those of us here (ahem!) who are truly digital diplodocuses (diplodoci? I really have to look that up).

As we are shoes-in-concrete, true-blue, Gutenberg-style, old-world bibliophiles, it nevertheless seemed that we ought to extract a foot out of one of those cemented shoes and stick at least one toe a little deeper into the waters of the future (well, okay, the Now, to be honest about it) and see how we might fare. I began this weekend, and as the Nook Color also has web capability, I wanted to see how accessible and readable the new Bloomswebsite might be. Busdriver’s weekend, I guess. And it was lovely.

After a bit of struggle connecting the Nook to my wireless—diplodocus, remember?—it was done, and I spent a curious while touch-screening around to see what was intuitive and what was not. Then, as my father always used to admonish, I finally read the instructions. Don’t you hate to admit that your father is right?

The Nook screen is readily responsive, sometimes a bit too touchy at times, and I fell down one rabbit-hole after another more times than I care to recount. With so many different devices around, using different ways to perform the same tasks (Crackberry, Mac laptop, PC desktop, and 14 different remote controls just to watch television (off-topic: has anyone ever found a universal TV remote that actually works and is simple to program?), it’s taking a little time to page my way around and learn all the different rules. But for the next week, we’re going to putt-putt it around the office here (now that I’ve finally been able to connect it to the wireless) and see what we think.

The Nook Color is heavier than we expected: 1 lb. 1 oz, with a 3.25″ x 6.75″ screen size, and the battery life seems alarmingly short when I keep the screen brightness at what is a comfortable level for me. But we’re going to be fair and give ourselves time to adapt/adjust to something new before we race to a hurried conclusion.

My questions to you: How many of you use an e-reader? Which one do you use? And what do you see are the benefits/drawbacks to the e-reader you’ve invited into your home? And, of course, you can admit to being a shoes-in-concrete, true-blue, Gutenberg-style, old-world bibliophile diplodocus as well. No one here would ever blame you.

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Bloomsbury in Wonderland

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked.

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

Helping to lift this new Bloomsbury blog into the Digital Ethersphere is a daunting challenge. Not that I am afraid of writing it—I can happily type on for hours—but because I am surrounded by some of the best editors in the country, who have no qualms about giving one’s knuckles a sharp rap with a ruler, and I’m a wuss when it comes to pain. However, a blog is a creature of our age—always fleeing ahead as quickly as it can to try to keep up with the Now, much like the White Rabbit, glancing at his white iPhone 4, and murmuring, “Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it’s getting!”

This sort of pace and immediacy does not fit easily with the time-honored processes of The Bloomsbury Review. Here, fact-checking is holy, and fact-checking the fact-checking is a solemn rite—even before the rigorous copyediting of the copyediting begins. Let me tell you, not even the writings at The New Yorker receive sterner scrutiny. Therefore, daunting as it is to undertake this launch, it is also a little frightening as this will be published first, then scoured by the editors, and in a few days time, should you return to read this, these words will be rearranged as corrections are made. And I humbly welcome the editors’ help and corrections (in the sincere hope that this sentence will adequately pad my knuckles). No, really. The last gospel writer I know about died years ago.

“I quite agree with you,” said the Duchess; “and the moral of that is—‘Be what you would seem to be’—or if you’d like it put more simply—“‘Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.’”

“I think I should understand that better,” Alice said very politely, “if I had it written down: but I can’t quite follow it as you say it.”

“That’s nothing to what I could say if I chose,” the Duchess replied, in a pleased tone.

Thank you, Duchess. This post is but an introduction and a first step, and all that said, you will be happy to know that my blitherings will not be the only ruminations you read here. We will have guest-bloggers on a number of literary matters, occasionally a review or profile or essay from our pages that is particularly important to share—and this will also be a place for like minds to gather our thoughts together (please, be kind—read the comments policy in “About Us” above).

Most importantly, we turn to you—the friends and family of The Bloomsbury Review, fellow travelers in this our Wonderland—to then ask how shall we proceed? What are the literary paths you would like to see us travel? What bookish conundrums can we conquer together? What can The Bloomsbury Review do for you?

Now that you’ve been good enough to spend a little time in my mind (apologies for the cobwebs), please let us know what’s on yours?

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Bloomsbury at 30[+] by R.K. Dickson, Contributing Editor

How about we begin with this intimate essay from one of our longtime writers, which appears in the Winter 2010-2011 Issue?

Somewhere in Marilyn’s hold pile, my first review for Bloomsbury is waiting for its moment. It was written in 1989 or so, and as I recall, the piece was savaged in copyediting but still ended up unpublishable.

The office was on Bannock Street. That conference table is now in my basement. Later the office was on Emerson Street, and for some years now it has been upstairs, in the back, on Platte Street. I remember helping Geno and others to move the archive of back issues, many fewer than there now are, across town. Having a truck was a mixed blessing with the Blooms family in those days. It has been more than seven years since I moved east and away from that big room of an office.

Tom Auer helped me get into graduate school. I’ll never know what he wrote in the letter, but it worked. He helped me find my life’s work. Sometimes when I was in the office and he wasn’t around–which wasn’t very often–I would doodle a message to him on his typewriter, something incoherent and hopefully clever. He claimed to enjoy these missives. He could take a conversation from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again at lightning speed. Tom remains the most gracious man I have ever met.

Bloomsbury has fed my habit for art books for more than 20 years. Somehow a good share of the Mark Twain books published in that time have come to me too. Because of Blooms I was able to help Rick Bass find some good chili in Denver, hear Dan Gerber read a heartbreaking poem at Tattered Cover, have coffee with Ron Carlson, be regaled by Harlan Ellison and Sherman Alexie, and get a note from Robert Adams. From Kim Long I have learned how valuable the currency of ideas is. Marilyn has shown me how commitment works and that a life of the mind isn’t for wimps but well worth it.

Bloomsbury is, for me, an idea made concrete: Books are good but books shared with friends are better. And books shared with my beloved friends at Blooms and our readers are the best yet.

R.K. Dickson is an associate professor of art at Wilson College in Chambersburg, PA.

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