31 DAYS: APOCALYPSE, NOW ~ DAY 18 :: UNVEILED VIOLENCE

metalorbburiedfernKCCExtNLNH29Sept2018Welcome to day 18 of 31 Days of Apocalypse, Now, a month of posts about apocalypse, revelation, uncovering what’s been hidden. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may only peripherally seem related. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.

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Note to those looking for gardening posts: This is not one. This may not be for you.

My thoughts on apocalypse, and my world view in general and thoughts on psychology, sociology, culture, politics, history, and literature specifically, are shaped by mimetic theory and Girardian thought, as articulated by René Girard, James Alison, Paul Nuechterlein, Bob Hamerton-Kelly, and others.

One can get very deep and very heady researching and applying mimetic theory (there are many long books written about it). I want to concentrate as concretely as possible on the concept of apocalypse; but there is a great deal of background to cover to get there.

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When most Western people think about the word “apocalypse,” they think about the book of Revelation in Christian Bible. Gil Bailie, in his book Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads (1995), writes a clear one-paragraph summary of a Girardian view of apocalypse:

The word ‘apocalypse’ means ‘unveiling.’ What, then, is veiled, the unveiling of which can have apocalyptic consequences? The answer is: violence. Veiled violence is violence whose religious or historical justifications still provide it with an aura of respectability and give it a moral and religious monopoly over any ‘unofficial’ violence whose claim to ‘official’ status it preempts. Unveiled violence is apocalyptic violence precisely because, once shorn of its religious and historical justifications, it cannot sufficiently distinguish itself from the counter-violence it opposes. Without benefit of religious and cultural privilege, violence simply does what unveiled violence always doesit incites more violence. In such situations, the scope of violence grows while the ability of its perpetrators to reclaim that religious and moral privilege diminishes. The reciprocities of violence and counter-violence threaten to spin completely out of control.

To go back just a bit and talk about violence from a Girardian perspective, the first thing to say is that humans are made in such a way that our desires are always mediated, that is, called into being by other people. We learn to desire from the very start according to the desire of a social other; desire is wholly dependent on relationship. We think we are individuals but we are entirely interdividuals (Girard’s coinage). We think we have autonomy, spontaneously desiring and acting, but we do not. We spend a lot of energy hanging onto this notion and protecting it, wanting to believe that we originate our own desire. And whether we see ourselves as originals or imitators, both perceptions belie a shoring up of identity based on ‘the other,’ based on relationship with the other … Am I like you or not like you?

Second, our desires are mimetic, i.e., we imitate each other unconsciously or unknowingly, and also consciously and intentionally at times.  We share desires among ourselves and we can either cooperate towards them — this is called love, compassion, generosity, etc., and is related to a sense of abundance — or we can lock into competition, conflict, and rivalry with other desirers — this is called hatred, resentment, envy, and it’s related to an experience of scarcity.

Envy, says Girard (in an 18 Sept  2005 interview with Robert Harrison, transcript available), “is the emotion that plays the greatest role in our society…. The real repression is the repression of envy. … You cannot help imitating your model. It’s the most difficult to acknowledge because it involves your whole being, you know. In a way, envy is a denial of one’s own being, and accepting the fact that you prefer the being of your rival.”

From suppressed envy comes resentment (ressentiment in French, “a psychological state arising from suppressed feelings of envy and hatred that cannot be acted upon, frequently resulting in some form of self-abasement”). When rivals fight (however subtly or outwardly, whether one-on-one or collectively), “one of them may win out over the other and regain his illusion of autonomy; the other will then be humiliated to the point of seeing his adversary as sacred. This attraction-repulsion is at the base of all pathologies of resentment” (Girard, Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoit Chantre, 2010)

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SIDEBAR: Interestingly, Franklin Foer, in an article titled Apocalypse Now: What’s Behind the Volatile Mood of Today’s American — and European — Voters,” a review of Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra in the New York Times (13 Feb. 2017) comments: “The market society, [John Jacques] Rousseau warned, would dangerously unmoor individuals. He saw how humans aspired to surpass one another in wealth and status, which meant they were capable of great cruelty. The modern world weakened religion and the family, the emotional buffers that provided comfort. Without these supports, individuals came to depend on the opinions of others for their sense of self-worth, which inflicted terrible cases of insecurity, envy and self-hatred. This, in Mishra’s argument, remains the nub of the world’s problems: ‘An existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness, ressentiment, as it lingers and deepens, poisons civil society and undermines political liberty, and is presently making for a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism.”

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Third, we’re most likely to imitate people who are similar to ourselves, or whom we see as similar to ourselves. We want what they want, and we want to be them, partake of their being, in some way. But rivals experience each other as totally different, as “other,” though to those looking at it from outside, the two antagonists look exactly the same, and the more they hate each other, the more they resemble each other.

Finally, we’re not only acquisitively mimetic — that is, we imitate each other in acquiring what we desire; we are also accusatively mimetic — that is, we band together to accuse another. The first kind of mimesis seems to divide us (we fight over desires), while the second seems to unite us and bring peace because we are all unified in desiring to do away with someone else.

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To prevent the violence that flows from our conflicted desires, cultures establish boundaries, systems of differentiation: “People are given names, body markings, prohibitions, social roles, moral rules, and so on, to keep them from becoming too much alike. … People who are either too much alike for genetic reasons (like identical twins) or too different (like “colored” people) are considered dangerous. Their biological difference threatens to reveal that cultural systems of sacred differentiation are actually artificial.” (Britt Johnston, in “Why Does God Allow Evil?,” 2006)

Bob Hamerton-Kelly (in an essay that’s no longer online and whose title I didn’t record) explained well the origins of religion in violence:

“Human desire is radically imitative; we learn from the other what to desire, thus come to desire the same thing because the other desires it, and so fall into competition that turns violent.” … Because desire is contagious, violence is like a pandemic. In this turmoil of violence, the war of all against all, the social system reaches a culminating level of disorder and then spontaneously mutates back to order. It is a self-regulating, self-healing system, so there is no question of anyone deciding to enter into a contract, rather spontaneously the war of all against all becomes the war of all against one. … Thus the foundation of society is not a social contract, nor a natural affinity and mutual attraction, but a swerve in the symmetry of a self-healing system that throws up a victim, whose death in turn stabilizes the systemSociety is fundamentally the unity of the lynch mob. …

The mob [way back in history] pauses before the body of the first victim and to its astonishment realizes that it has experienced its first moment of peace and unanimity. Violent desire stops {briefly]. From this surprised tranquility flow the fatal misinterpretations.

The first and fundamental misunderstanding is that the victim was the cause of the violent disorder. If by his death he brings peaceful order, in his life he must have caused the violent disorder. He is, therefore, very powerful; he is a god, the creator of the world, in the sense of the order of culture and society.

This misunderstanding [that the victim was the cause of the disorder] unfolds along three lines, all of which are religious.”

Ritual: If one death brings order to the society at last, regular deaths might maintain order. So the sacrificial death is ritually institutionalized. Girard’s central belief about all religion is that it is founded on a particular ritualthe ritual of sacrifice. Sacrifice – the art of making the victim sacred — occurs in a culture as a way to bring peace and unity in the face of conflicts and divisions.

Sacrifice is seen as a non-violent, or less violent, or justifiably violent, way to keep the community from worse violence. Humans make a solid distinction between sacred violence and profane violence, though they are really one and the same — they’re equally violence; but we perceive them to be completely different from each other and in fact we are very attached to the distinction we make between these violences.

Myth: Creation stories that “occlude the primal murder and present the dying creator as either the victim of an accident, or a mysterious tragic destiny, or willing, or deserving of death. Myth never discloses that he died by the hand of the mob and that his death is a disclosure of your violence and mine in and through the mob. We hold our mob innocent and non-violent and transfer all responsibility for violence to the victim. He deserved it, invited it, or it was an accident; we are not to blame. Culture comes into being as a cover-up of our own violence.”

Prohibitions: Remembering that “the erasure of differences caused the violence of unbridled competition, therefore we avoid behavior that threatens to erase distinctions.” We create prohibitions and taboos to prevent too much similarity or seeming similarity.

So, to recap, as Cynthia Havens writes in her recent biography of René Girard, Evolution of Desire (2018), Girard “overturned three widespread assumptions about the nature of desire and violence: first, that our desire is authentic and our own; second, that we fight from our differences, rather than our sameness; and third, that religion is the cause of violence, rather than an archaic solution for controlling violence within a society, as he would assert.”

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Cultures (as well as individuals and allied groups) elude responsibility for their violence by sacralizing it, ritualizing it, and justifying it as a sacred act — as Paul Nuechterlein writes, “Sacrificial violence is a sacred, sanctioned violence that comes into place in order to keep in check the fearsome profane, random violence” — and to do this the culture requires itself to perpetually misunderstand what it’s doing (Girard uses the French word ‘méconnaissance’ for this necessary misapprehension.)

In his essay titled “Sacrifice and the Sacred,” Matthew Becklo at Strange Notions summarises the situation: “According to Girard, ancient human societies were destabilized by mimetic conflicts: two parties who desired the same object would start to imitate each other’s desire until the rivalry erupted into a kind of contagion which threatened to destroy the whole community. Then, a hidden mechanism was triggered which transferred the blame onto a third party, one that was either uniquely strong (e.g., a mighty king) or uniquely feeble (e.g., a decrepit itinerant). The collective sacrifice and sacralization of this figure, enshrined in religion, was a sort of release valve that restored peace and order in the community.”

Almost all ancient cultures regularly performed ritual religious sacrifices. At least 5000 years ago in Europe, “Danish farmers sacrificed their stone axes and flint tools, their amber jewellery and their food, by depositing them in pots, together with human offerings, in bogs. Probably the earliest case in the world is that of two girls found at Sigersdal near Copenhagen, killed about 3500 BC. One was about 16 while the other, who was about 18, still had a cord around her neck.”

During the Iron Age in Europe ( c.750 BC to AD 43),

many bodies have been found completely preserved in peat bogs” and in places “where people had made offerings to an afterworld [in Denmark, Germany, Holland]. It seems clear that these were not murders, but deliberate, socially sanctioned, killings. Writing much later, in the first century AD, the Roman historian Tacitus tells us that these Germanic peoples executed their social outcasts — cowards, shirkers and those of disrepute — by pressing them down into bogs,” where they also made inanimate offerings.  Human sacrifice was practised in China, Egypt, Rome, and in the Americas; “Aztec priests believed that the sacrifices they performed in the temples on top of pyramids — cutting out the still-beating heart of their victims with the blood flowing down the steps of the pyramid — were necessary to keep the sun on its daily path. … Within the Inca empire of South America, children and teenagers were sacrificed to the sun god, bestowing considerable prestige on the child’s parents and on their local community.

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And now we come to the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Girard’s contention (and James Alison’s, quoted below) is that the Jewish texts, starting with the story of Cain and Abel, “gradually dissociate the divinity from participation in violence until, in the NT, God is entirely set free from participation in our violence — the victim is entirely innocent and hated without cause — and indeed God is revealed not as the one who expels us, but the One whom we expel, and who allowed himself to be expelled so as to make of his expulsion a revelation of what he is really like, and of what we really, typically do to each other, so that we can begin to learn to get beyond this.” (James Alison, “Girard’s Breakthrough,” 1996) The scapegoat is the focus of many a Bible story, and the victim is revealed as such over and over again, though not every time. The Hebrew Scriptures show how tough it is for us to kick the idolatry habit, even to come to monotheism.

The Hebrew scriptures are “texts in travail” — struggling to finally, clearly give voice to the victim. Even in the story of Cain and Abel, Abel’s blood cries out from the ground and is heard. Jesus’s death at the hands of his accusers reveals the vacuous power of such expelling violence. His death represents an act of “righteous” violence — i.e., an act of violence justified by one of our violent gods (whom we are deluded in seeing as God). His death reveals our enslavement to violence and reveals God’s righteousness as non-violence, radical non-retaliation, forgiveness of enemies, not vengeance.

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SIDEBAR: I highly recommend Kelly Thompson’s interview in Guernica, “Lacy M. Johnson: Moving the Conversation Toward Justice,” 17 Oct. 2018, in which Johnson says, “our narratives [of redemptive justice] are not necessarily serving us from the perspective of building real justice in the world.” Johnson was kidnapped, held in a soundproofed room, and raped by someone who had been her boyfriend when she was in her 20s:

Everybody assumed I would want him not only punished, but killed, and that was so surprising to me. I was shocked by it. It bothered me so much. I started thinking, and wondering, What’s with that? Where does that come from? But it’s a very ancient impulse, older than the Bible even, the sort of eye for an eye that we find in Leviticus. And it goes all the way back to the Code of Hammurabi, written laws dating back to about 1754 BC, which, interestingly, meant to put an upper limit on vengeance rather than to suggest that vengeance or retribution should be a mandate.

Perhaps it’s an innate instinctual impulse to want to harm the person who harmed you, not just the way that they harmed you, but to completely destroy them as a way to get even. We feel like there would be pleasure in that, or that it is a natural desire. I just wanted to put some pressure on that idea, and see if there are in fact other ways of being, and also to think about what kind of harm we perpetuate by insisting on that mode of justice, if it is justice at all.

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Jesus’s death continues the process of progressive unveiling of sanctioned violence, showing it to be simply violence. It does so because the victim’s perspective is actually available to challenge the perpetrators’ false interpretation. But — this unveiling removes our bulwark against apocalyptic mimetic violence; the only other bulwark against it is to live God’s desire, which is love and pacific mimesis, giving up all claims to difference.

So, in the Girardian construction, Jesus’s death was not a substitutionary atonement — i.e., God killing Jesus instead of us, letting Jesus take the rap for our sin. It’s we who are the killers, not God. Jesus doesn’t win our salvation but launches it through revealing the nature of reality and the nature of human culture. It’s not our sins that put Jesus on the cross. It’s the Satanic sin par excellence of scapegoating: i.e., of accusing, judging, and executing, and lying to ourselves about how blameless we are.

This is radically different from the usual Christian way of understanding Jesus’s death and resurrection.

Mark Heim in Saved from Sacrifice (2006), directly addresses the role of violence in the Bible:

“What is violence doing in the Bible? It is telling us the truth, the truth about our human condition, about the fundamental dynamics that lead to human bloodshed, and most particularly, the truth about the integral connection between religion and violence. …

It is showing us the nature of the mimetic conflict that threatens to destroy human community. It is showing us the religious dynamic of scapegoating sacrifice that arises to allay such crisis. It is letting us hear the voices of the persecuted victims and their pleas for revenge and vindication. It is showing God’s judgment (even violent judgment) against violence, and most particularly, God’s siding with the outcast victims of scapegoating persecution. The Old Testament is an antimyth. It is thick with bodies, the voices of victims and threatened victims. This landscape is either the product of an idiosyncratic, bloodthirsty imagination or the actual landscape of history and religion. If the latter, then what is remarkable is not that the scriptures describe it, but that we should think it normal not to.

Girard says in Evolution and Conversion that “[i]deologies are not violent per se, rather it is man who is violent. Ideologies provide the grand narrative which covers up our victimary tendency. They are mythical happy endings to our histories of persecution.”

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We who live post-Bible, post-Resurrection, we “moderns,” have been in the process of desacralizing violence, of coming to see it for what it is (just violence), a gradual but inevitable process begun when the veil was lifted from our eyes by the Judeo-Christian revelation. Some would say that the Enlightenment got us where we are today, that “[w]e’re growing up out of our superstitious, childish beginnings. For this desacralized modern society, we no longer have recourse, then, to violence sanctioned by the gods. It is simply our own sanctioned violence working to contain the unsanctioned (i.e., profane) violence. The question is whether or not a humanly sanctioned violence is transcendent enough to work. Or will we eventually end up in a sacrificial crisis with no new solutions of sanctioned, sacrificial violence? Enlightenment humanism offers us the truth of desacralization. … But that leaves us with only human possibilities to arrive at the solutions to our violence. [Humanists] are correct to reject the sacralized solutions offered by the false gods. But does this position also preclude the fact that the true God might be trying to offer us a wholly different alternative?” (Paul Nuechterlein, Opening Comments on Apocalyptic)

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Here’s where we finally make a return to the idea — and the likelihood — of Apocalypse. The veil has been lifted: we are coming more and more to recognise that sacred violence, religious violence, justified violence, is in fact, just violence. We can’t whitewash and smokescreen our true motives like we used to be able to do, in pre-modern times. That’s good, and bad:

As more and more people come to see the revelation (apocalypse in the Greek) of sacred violence, however, it also means the increasing ineffectiveness of the sacrificial institutions to contain mimetic violence. The times of sacrificial crises increasingly come closer together, and what looms on the horizon is the possibility of a truly apocalyptic violence: a sacrificial crisis in which a new sacrificial solution cannot assert itself because the revelation of the cross has finally made such solutions impossible. In short, the Apocalypse would be a sacrificial crisis that doesn’t result in a new sacrificial solution — no sanctioned violence to contain the random, mimetic violence.  … Girard contends that this is why the New Testament is realistic about the possibility of apocalyptic violence — because it is the Gospel itself which disarms the powers of sacred violence.

The frightening alternative to enlightenment humanism has been the desperate attempts at sacred violence in the past century, resulting in genocides. Nazism is still the most infamous but, unfortunately isn’t the only one. In our current attempts to wipe out terrorism, how desperate will our sacred violence become?” (Paul Nuechterlein, Opening Comments on Apocalyptic)

It seems to me that this what Girardian anthropology would predict: As humans more and more see (because of Jesus’s death and resurrection, and what it reveals through the intelligence of the victim of the societal mechanism for creating so-called peace) that violence is simply and completely violence — that there is no true distinction between sanctioned violence and any other kind of violence — and as we struggle at the same time to come to terms with our own relational and personal violence — still sometimes attributing our violent acts as imitation of a sacredly violent God, sometimes believing there is no god and that we have to save ourselves from violence and war through meditation, affirmation, good deeds, enlightened thought, and so on — and often fail in controlling our violence impulses, we need an explanation for this cognitive dissonance, a reason why we don’t seem to act on what we believe … OK, so far, that’s just simple psychology, the cognitive dissonance thing, but the explanation we seem most comfortable with is what seems Girardian to me: I have to do this little bit of violence, nasty though I know it to be (maybe), to keep much, much worse violence from happening.

In other words, it’s the same explanation cultures have offered for centuries. It’s how we comfort ourselves as we destroy.

I wrote this in Jan. 2006:

What if human civilisation is entirely founded and maintained upon the entrenched and largely unquestioned belief that the way to live in peace is to kill, expel, destroy, blame, marginalise, root out, get rid of, cut off, exorcise, seek vengeance against, weed out, tune out, slander and libel, speak against, make an example of, mock, attack, go to war against … and in any other way do anything but embrace the other? And what if each of us can see others doing it, but not ourselves, because our own actions seem justified and maybe even sanctified in our own eyes?

This, I think, is our plight as humans. And even when we’re aware of this mechanism, it’s hard to recognise in ourselves in the moment. And when we do recognise it in ourselves, it’s almost but not quite impossible to act differently.

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I was reading recently about how Jews were blamed and killed for the Black Death in Europe in the mid-1300s (almost 600 years before the rise of Hitler). The formulation then for rationalising their extermination was something like this: We’re not persecuting Jews because they’re Jewish and weird (they’re not like us) and somewhat wealthier as a whole than we Christians, and because we envy, loathe, and fear them as “other;” no, it’s not persecution of an enemy at all but simply protecting God-fearing Christians from disease, and in fact have you noticed that many fewer Jews are dying of the Plague [probably due to their sanitary rituals]? Why should that be … unless they are causing it, by poisoning our water and wells, because they hate us and want to eradicate us?

Once the Jews were accused of poisoning the wells, a wave of pogroms ensued. In January 1349, the entire Jewish community in the city of Basel was burned at the stake. The Jewish communities of Freiburg, Augsburg, Nurnberg, Munich, Konigsberg, Regensburg, and other centers, all were either exiled or burned. In Worms, in March 1349, the entire Jewish community committed suicide. In Cologne, the Jews were forced to flee.

In Mainz, which had the largest Jewish community in Europe, the Jews defended themselves against the mob and killed over 200 Christians. Then the Christians came to take revenge. On one day alone, on August 24, 1349, they killed 6,000 Jews in Mainz.

Of the 3,000 Jews in Erfurt, none survived the attack of the Christian mobs. By 1350, those Jews that survived the Black Death itself were destroyed by the ravages of the mobs. The Jewish communities in Antwerp and Brussels were entirely exterminated in 1350. There were almost no Jews left in Germany or the Low Countries by 1351. (Source)

This, despite that the official Church position on Jews was that they should be protected; the Christian people (the mob) by and large didn’t agree.

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So, to a greater or lesser extent,  we no longer quite believe our own lies about why we expel others, indeed why we are so intent on demonizing “others” (who resemble us in many ways, in fact who may demonize us for exactly the same reason), and about why we do violence to each other on an interpersonal, societal, international level. We don’t think we can restore order, bring peace, allay existential anxiety, solve the contagion of all-against-all conflict by scapegoating the king or the diseased or the demonic or by sacrificing the pure — though we still try, over and over, in small and enormous ways over the centuries, but in modern times in almost all cultures around the world, there are always those who would, by refusing to do violence, shame us for this, who shudder in compassion at our injustice, who would call us out on our scapegoating. No one wants their scapegoats revealed to them. It’s hard to really enjoy that temporary feeling of tranquility and pseudo-order that the ritual of sacrifice lent a society, when increasingly the society is noticing a sort of pattern of “violence to cure violence” and wondering where that will end.

sacrificial crisis … occurs when the effectiveness of the sacrificial institutions is waning such that the sacrificial violence loses its effectiveness in containing profane violence. If a new sacrificial solution does not come into play, then the profane violence grows into apocalyptic violence. Throughout human history we see cycles of being on the verge of such violence and then new sacrificial solutions come into play to again bring relative peace. During the sacrificial crises, there are often cries of the Final Apocalypse, a violence that will finally consume us. And in sacralized settings, this apocalyptic violence is attributed to the deity: the gods will bring a resounding judgment that will punish the wicked and reward the just. To the mind under the influence of the Sacred, apocalyptic violence is the ultimately divine sacred violence.

But Girard argues that the continuing effect of the Gospel in history is to desacralize, i.e., to make it clear to us that violence is not of the true God; violence is ours alone. (Paul Nuechterlein, Opening Comments on Apocalyptic)

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An apocalypse, as we’ve said, is an unveiling, a revelation, a seeing. When our own violence is unveiled, it has ‘apocalyptic’ consequences. Before the unveiling, our own violence seemed respectable and justified; afterwards, we see it for the violence, hatred, rivalry, and envy that it is.

Girard writes extensively about apocalypse in “On War and Apocalypse” in the Aug/Sept 2009 issue of First Things, including this:

… [D]emystification, which is good in the absolute, has proven bad in the relative, for we were not prepared to shoulder its consequences. We are not Christian enough.

The paradox can be put in a different way: Christianity is the only religion that has foreseen its own failure. This prescience is known as the apocalypse. Indeed, it is in the apocalyptic texts that the word of God is most forceful, repudiating mistakes that are entirely the fault of humans, who are less and less inclined to acknowledge the mechanisms of their violence. The longer we persist in our error, the stronger God’s voice will emerge from the devastation. …

A scapegoat remains effective as long as we believe in its guiltHaving a scapegoat means not knowing that we have one. Learning that we have a scapegoat is to lose it forever and to expose ourselves to mimetic conflicts with no possible resolution. This is the implacable law of the trend to extremes. The protective system of scapegoats is finally destroyed by the Crucifixion narratives as they reveal Jesus’ innocence and, little by little, that of all analogous victims. The process of education away from violent sacrifice thus got underway, but it moved very slowly, making advances that were almost always unconscious. It is only today that it has had increasingly remarkable results in terms of our comfort — and at the same time proved ever more dangerous for the future of life on Earth.

To make the revelation wholly good and not threatening at all, humans have only to adopt the behavior recommended by Christ: Abstain completely from retaliation and renounce the trend to extremes. Indeed, if the trend to extremes continues, it will lead straight to the extinction of all life on the planet.

Girard writes in Battling to the End that “Christ took away humanity’s sacrificial crutches and left before us a terrible choice: either believe in violence, or not; Christianity is non-belief.”

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pophamdunesandcrossapril2008

Resources

René Girard, Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoit Chantre, 2010. French title: Achever Clausewitz; Clausewitz is Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), the Prussian military theoretician who wrote On War.

René Girard, “On War and Apocalypse”, First Things, Aug/Sept 2009.

René Girard, Entitled Opinions, interview with Robert Harrison, 18 Sept  2005. Partial transcript availableAudio of whole interview (mp3).

René Girard, Intellectuals as Castrators of Meaning: An Interview with Réne Girard. Girard interviewed by Giulio Meotti in Il Foglio, March 20, 2007, reprinted at First Principles in Sept. 2008.

Paul Nuechterlein, Opening Comments on Apocalyptic, Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, last revised Nov. 2015.

James Alison, “Girard’s Breakthrough,” 1996. Really everything by James Alison is worth reading.

James Alison, Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination, 1996.

James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes, 1998.

Cynthia Haven, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, 2018.

Cynthia Haven, “History is a test. Mankind is failing it: Rene Girard scrutinizes the human condition from creation to apocalypse,” by Cynthia Haven, Stanford Magazine, July/Aug 2009.

Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross, 2006

Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads, 1995.

Featured photo is of part of the “Sorrow” sculpture at the Path of Life, Windsor, VT. Final photo is at Popham Beach, Phippsburg, Maine.

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2017 Book Summary

A la Jessamyn

number of books read in 2017: 52
number of books read in 2016: 71
number of books read in 2015: 54
number of books read in 2014: 52
number of books read in 2013: 47
number of books read in 2012: 50
number of books read in 2011: 55
number of books read in 2010: 34
number of books read in 2009: 74
number of books read in 2008:
number of books read in 2007:
number of books read in 2006:
number of books read in 2005: 37
number of books read in 2004: 46
number of books read in 2003: 40
number of books read in 2002: 30+ (3 months forgot to count)

2017 stats

average read per month: 4.3 books
average read per week: 1 book
number read in worst month: 2 (October)
number read in best month: 7 (January)

percentage by male authors: 40% (21 books)
percentage by female authors: 60% (31 books)

fiction as percentage of total: 88% (46 books)
crime fiction as percentage of fiction total: 57% (26 of 46 books)
non-fiction as percentage of total: 12% (6 books)

percentage of total liked: 58% (30 books)
percentage of total so-so: 13% (7 books)
percentage of total disliked: 29% (15 books)

Notes:

I have time and inclination to read more but have trouble finding books I want to read.

My favourite books of the year were A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) by Amor Towles, The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers (2012/2016), short stories by Fouad Laroui, The Voyage (1999) by Philip Caputo, and the Elena Ferrante 4-book Neapolitan novels. The only book I didn’t finish — just could not get into it — was Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. I read almost as many novels that were not crime fiction this year as I did crime fiction, which is unusual. Full book list.

Books Read 2017

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Once again (2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009,2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002), I kept track of what I read this year; here is the full list.  As always, my reading is limited each month by being able to find books I really want to read. Recommendations always welcome!

January

Chaos (2016) by Patricia Cornwell, in the Scarpetta series. Set entirely in Cambridge, MA. Much more personal detail in this one, about her relationships with Lucy, Benton, Dorothy (her sister), Marino — which I like. All the action takes place in a 24-hour period, though there are memories and reminders of the past; if you haven’t read others in the series, the plot — a young woman is killed while riding her bike in a park — and musings may be a bit difficult to follow. I enjoyed it.

Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England (1997) by Tom Wessels. For permaculture group. A sort of identification guide for central New England landscapes, looking at the signs of disturbance — fire, pasturing, logging, blights, beaver activity, blowdowns from various  kinds of storms — as a way to understand how the land has been used, how healthy it is, what kind of substrate underlies it, what woody and non-woody plants characterise it and why, etc.  Interesting and relevant.

A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) by Amor Towles. For a bookgroup. Spoiler below. One of the better books I’ve read in recent years (including his first book, Rules of Civility, which wasn’t nearly as good, IMO). Briefly, the plot is that in June 1922, as the Bolsheviks take over Russia, Count Alexander Rostov (Sasha to his friends) becomes a ‘Former Person,’ sentenced to live his entire life in the grand Metropol Hotel in Moscow and threatened with death if he steps outside it. As the book jacket puts it nicely, “the Count’s reduced circumstances provide him entry to a much larger world of emotional discovery as he forges relationships with the hotel’s other denizens,” including an earnest child called Nina who later has to leave her own child, Sophia, with the Count. The plot is simple, the book — moving among times and places; examining motives and intentions; and briefly but effectively considering such topics as the peppered moth of Manchester, the measurement of gravity, the movie Casablanca, bits of philosophy from Aristotle to Montaigne to Hobbes to Locke, etc. — is richly and elegantly complex.

The Trespasser (2016) by Tara French. Police procedural (most than most), crime fiction. A woman — dressed up, made up, “blond hair, straightened and sprayed so ferociously that even murder hasn’t managed to mess it up …. [s]he looks like Dead Barbie” — is found dead in her home, obviously interrupted while preparing a cozy dinner for two there.  Antoinette Conway, fairly new to the Murder Squad but already made wary and cynical by harsh hazing/sabotage, and her ready-to-please partner Steve Moran are given what looks like a simple domestic violence case. Excellent plot — much of it involving police work, suspect interviews, the delicate dealings within the team — with complex and interesting characters and relationships. Page-turner. Recommended.

Missing, Presumed (2016) by Susie Steiner. Crime fiction, another police procedural, set in Cambridgeshire, told in short chapters from multiple points of view, mainly Manon Bradshaw, the 39-yr-old single DS; Miriam Hind, the mother of the missing woman, Edith; and Davy Walker, Manon’s colleague on the police  force; and also Helena, Edith’s best friend. The police don’t have many leads after Edith disappears from her house one night and weeks go by as they investigate various possibilities. Well-written, heavy focus on Manon’s singleness and her attempts to find a man, offshoots about children in need of social services, lots of drinking, shagging, girl talk. I liked it but it probably has more appeal for women.

Less Medicine, More Health: 7 Assumptions that Drive Too Much Medical Care (2015) by Dr. H. Gilbert Welch. Extremely important book that I wish everyone would read. Welch — a Dartmouth medical school professor, internist at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, VT, and a medical researcher — looks at the beliefs physicians and patients have that lead them to make poor decisions concerning medical care and provides evidence to show why we are mistaken. He makes convincing arguments that risks can’t always be lowered and trying to do so creates risks of its own; trying to eliminate a problem can be more dangerous than managing it; early diagnosis can (and usually does) needlessly turn people into patients; data overload can scare patients and distract doctors; action (vs. inaction) is not the reliably right choice; new interventions are typically not well tested and often end up being ineffective or even harmful; a fixation on preventing death diminishes life. If you have ever had CTs and MRIs that show nodules in organs, if you are considering surgery for lower back pain, if you are taking cholesterol lowering medication, if you are thinking about an ablation for a heart arrhythmia, if you are a woman at average risk of breast cancer getting yearly mammograms or a man at average risk of prostate cancer getting yearly prostate tests, if you are someone with a serious chronic disease trying to make decisions about what to do, if you are a well person who spends a lot of time worrying about your health — please read this book.  And if you smoke, stop!

Depraved Heart (2015) by Patricia Cornwell, in the Scarpetta series. (Read out of order). Like the one that follows, this one is also set entirely in Cambridge, MA, in about a one-day period, and also focuses on Carrie Grethen, Lucy’s psychopathic former girlfriend, who two months earlier had tried to kill Scarpetta underwater with a spear as she was diving in the Bahamas. The plot starts with Scarpetta and Marino at the home of a woman who seems to have fallen and died while trying to change a lightbulb; as their perceptions of that scene shifts, Scarpetta is also watching a video on her phone, shot in 1997 when Lucy was at FBI school in Quantico. Scarpetta, made anxious by the video, rushes with Marino to  Lucy and Janet’s mansion, to find the FBI there with a blanket search warrant. The fun never really ends for this family. Reading it now, in the early days of Trump’s administration, is spooky, because at the heart of the novel is something called data fiction, or completely false data and information planted in official places like FBI records, medical records, criminal records, airline reservation databases, etc., to create chaos and suffering.

February

The Lost Boy (2009/2016) by Camilla Läckberg, in the Fjällbacka (Sweden) series with Erica and Patrik. Sort of a police  procedural — in the sense that the police solving crimes, and the character development of the officers, is central to the plot — but it’s even more of a creepy thriller. Multiple narratives are intertwined in alternating chapters; the one thing they all have in common is a heavy and usually not particularly happy focus on parents and their children (the last line of the liner jacket blurb asks “Is there anything a mother would not do to protect her child?”). There’s something for most everyone here: ghost stories about a small island, with a supporting 1870s flashback; domestic violence; bad childhoods; grandparents caring for kids; loss of a child and the grief that follows; adjustment to having infants; drugs, biker gangs, etc.

Stone Coffin (2011, 2016) by Kjell Eriksson. An Inspector Ann Lindell crime novel, set in Uppsala, Sweden. The novel starts with a brief glimpse of pharmaceuticals researcher Sven-Erik Cederen’s visit to the Dominican Republic, then switches to the hit-and-run deaths of his wife and their 6-year-old daughter in Sweden. Along the way, we’ve got animal rights’ protestors forcing a statement to be read on TV, a trip to Malaga, Spain, to work with detectives there on the case, and Ann, almost 40, considering whether and how to continue her relationship with Edvard, who is living on the isolated island of Gräsö. Eriksson’s writing and tone are always understated.

Crucifixion Creek (2014) by Barry Maitland, the first Harry Belltree crime novel (of three) set in Sydney, Australia. Harry is a homicide detective with a personal interest in the current case, which seems tied to the crash that killed his parents and blinded his wife, Jenny, three years ago. Joining forces with reporter Kelly Pool, he gets involved with an outlaw motorcycle gang, the Crows, as well as local politicians, lawyers, accountants, real estate developers, and others whose professional façades hide their degenerate hearts. Complex and engaging plot.

The Undesired: A Thriller (2015) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. Two intertwined stories, one set at a juvenile detention home an hour outside of Reykjavik in 1974, the other set now, in Reykjavik, involving the death of a woman who falls out of a window, leaving her young daughter in the sole care of her ex-husband. Both stories are interesting but there are unresolved questions at the end, I thought.

March

The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J.D. Salinger. Re-read, for a bookgroup. A book about teenage angst and alienation. I’m not sure whether it’s meant as a parody or not. Sixteen-year-old Holden Caufield comes from a wealthy NYC family and is now flunking out of his third prep school, not because he’s not smart enough but because, if we take him at his word, he can’t stand all the phony and mean people at this school and the other schools. Holden narrates the story, which he writes while in a mental institution for a nervous breakdown, which covers the week or so from the time he leaves his prep school (a few days before his expulsion would be enforced) after a fight with his roommate over a girl and heads to New York City, where he drinks a lot, sleeps little, and has disturbing and unsatisfying meetups and conversations with taxi drivers, an ex-girlfriend, a former teacher, a former prep school classmate, some women he dances with in a bar, a prostitute and her pimp, and finally, his beloved sister Phoebe. He’s a pathological liar with most people but less so with Phoebe. Other aspects of Holden’s life are told through an essay he writes about his late brother Allie, and some memories he shares with the reader, including about a classmate who jumps to his death after being bullied. Throughout his time in NYC, he is preoccupied with whether the ducks in the Central Park lagoon migrate in winter; people react oddly when he asks them. He is frequently depressed by what he sees, hears, and thinks, his thoughts seem to run in circles, and often he’s “not in the mood” to do things. He feels sorry for people frequently, gets a kick out of things that kids do and say, and he tells Phoebe that what he really wants to do in life is save children who are about to go off a cliff (the cliff of innocence?).

Garden of Lamentations (2017) by Deborah Crombie, #17 in the Kincaid/James series set in London. Much of this book is set around Duncan and Gemma’s home in Notting Hill. Gemma is investigating the case of a young nanny found murdered in the gated communal garden of a posh Notting Hill housing development, while Kincaid, after his former boss is brutally attacked moments after a clandestine meeting with Kincaid, is following through on his suspicions about corruption in the police force dating back 20 or more years. Complex plotting, which frankly lost my interest a few times as one too many names was introduced. I have read the previous book, of which this is a sort of continuation, but it had been a while and I didn’t remember exactly what happened; the events of the past (involving Angus Craig, Ryan Marsh, and others) are alluded to but not really stated clearly until page 300! Not her best effort, IMO.

The Master and Margarita (1967) by Mikhail Bulgakov. A book I have tried to read before without luck, but I finally got through it this time (for a bookgroup)! A sort of fantastical, dreamworld book — blurring the line between what’s real and false, what’s imagined and actual — apparently about life under Stalin and choices authoritarian leaders make believing (perhaps) that they are for the good of the state, but also a Faustian book about good and evil, the bargains we make in our lives, how to evaluate what we envision or sense when it seems impossible, etc.  Woland (the devil) and his retinue — consisting of Koroviev aka Fagott, wearer of checks and a pince-nez, an illusionist, “former choirmaster,” and nominal translator for Woland;  Behemoth, a large black who likes firearms and who can transform himself into human shape for a short time; and Azazello, a short broad-shouldered man with flaming red hair, a fang, a wall-eye, wearing a bowler hat — come to Moscow and wreak havoc, particularly among members of the Variety Theatre, with decapitations, lots of arson, black magic, abductions, counterfeiting. It’s one of those books that reminds me of a lot of other books I’ve read, especially Alice in Wonderland (with things turning into other things — like the Russian money turning into bottle labels and illegal foreign currency; things and people appearing and disappearing suddenly and impossibly; secret doors; grinning cats; people turning into pigs (the Duchess in AiW, Margarita’s downstairs neighbour in M&M); the imperious and nonsensical authority of the Red Queen; Alice‘s confusion and dismay and wanting things to make sense; and so on), and also The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, a little of The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco, and the Pontius Pilate story reminded me of Jim Crace’s Quarantine. The Master of the title is the author of a novel (within the novel) about Pontius Pilate’s decision to have Jesus executed and the guilt he holds because of that decision; Margarita is his married lover. I’m not sure why this novel is such a favourite of so many. Chapter by chapter annotations are online.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (2015) by Peter Wohllben. Read for my permaculture discussion group. Thirty-six short chapters about trees, with a focus on central Germany (and beeches) but nevertheless applicable to Europe as a whole, to North America (which is mentioned from time to time), and perhaps to other places. Wohllben — a forester who now runs an “environmentally friendly woodland” — is a tree sympathizer, cheerleader, and supporter. Sometimes his purple prose concerning trees’ feelings and body parts is scientifically suspect — as when he talks about pruning as “actually more like a massacre” and girdling as a brutal slow death; when he speaks of trees as having nerves, brains, and blood, and says that they “analyze” information; when he tells us that it’s “really painful” for a tree when chunks of its bark are pulled off or its roots are snipped; when he talks about trees’ alarm calls and their screams; and so on — but he also explains clearly and simply how trees communicate and share resources with other trees and defend against predators, how transpiration works, how trees reproduce and avoid inbreeding, how they age, what happens when they are wounded, how tree species adapt to climate and terrain (become specialists) over time, how trees interact with soil microbes, how various birds, insects, and other plants use trees, etc. His main case is that, for various reasons including how comparatively slowly trees grow and act, we maintain a false moral barrier between animals and plants, which, if we understood plants, and especially trees, better, we would realise is in error.

Death and the Maiden (2011/2012) by Frank Tallis, 6th in the crime series featuring turn-of-the-20th-century Viennese psychoanalyst, fencer, and amateur crime-solver, Dr Max Liebermann, who helps his friend, detective Oskar Rheinhardt, solve the murder of an opera diva in Mahler’s opera house. I read the other five in 2012 but missed this one. Set in 1903, already the menacing shadow of incipient Jewish persecution hangs over the city and the novel, as Vienna’s powerful and anti-Semitic mayor Karl Lueger is front and center. (Lueger, like Mahler and Freud, was a real person; he established the Austrian Christian Social Party, kept Jews from serving in his administration, and Hitler viewed him as an inspiration.) Meanwhile, Liebermann makes the moves on his heretofore friend, Amelia, who is more than ready for him to act.

April

The Soul of An Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness (2015) by Sy Montgomery. For a bookgroup. Loved it. Well-written book that’s packed with information and yet flows like a narrative. We get to know the individual personalities of four octopuses who have lived at the New England Aquarium in Boston, learn a bit about scuba diving and observing octopuses in the wild, get a play-by-play account of two octopuses mating, and learn a lot about the intelligence, cleverness, curiosity, and individuality of octopuses.  Recommended. 

Heart of  a Dog (1987, but written in 1925) by Mikhail Bulgakov. For a bookgroup. Satire. Much shorter than Bulgakov’s The Master & Margarita, for which I was thankful, but just as unaffecting for me. The back of the book advertises it as “hilarious” and “brilliantly inventive,” but I didn’t find it either particularly, though at times it was amusing; this 123-page book felt to me like a simple conceit dressed up as a novel: Two scientists transplant the pituitary gland  and testes of a small-time criminal into a hapless stray dog, resulting in an ugly man who’s lecherous, vulgar, proletariat, a poor dresser, an alcoholic, a glutton … and who still likes to chase cats.

The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers (2012/2016) by Fouad Laroui (transl. Emma Ramadan). For a bookgroup. Loved it … resonated for me in many places, and it’s very funny. The book is only 130 pp long, a series of short stories that sometimes verge on philosophical meditations about — and explorations of the nuances of — feeling foreign, displaced, dislocated, an outsider, surrounded by the unfamiliar. The stories are somewhat connected by allusions, characters’ names, settings (a couple of stories are told in a coffee shop, the Cafe de l’Univers). Laroui is Moroccan and most of the stories are set there, with two in the Netherlands, one in Brussels. “Born Nowhere” really made me laugh, as did “The Invention of Dry Swimming.” “What Was Not Said in Brussels” felt so true, the way random phrases insert themselves in our brains and sometimes direct our thoughts.

May

The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture: Creating an Edible Ecosystem (2013) by Christopher Shein. Re-read, for permaculture group. Good intro to the basics — principles, soil and mulch, seed starting and seed saving, fruit guilds, perennial and other vegetables, fruits and nuts, mushrooms — with lots of photos, sidebars, and illustrations.

A Glass of Blessings (1958) by Barbara Pym. Fiction. It’s hard to beat Pym for a certain kind of fiction: British cozy (but not mystery), insightful as to human psychology and motivation, brimming with observations about the nuance of relationships that look simple. In this one, Wilmet Forsyth is a woman of leisure in her 30s whose marriage, without children, is somewhat staid and settled; her husband gives her cash on her birthdays and is indifferent to what she does with her days. As she goes about her prescribed life of church-going, doing good works (but not nearly as earnestly or often as some of her friends, for which she feels guilty), and shopping, she imagines minor dalliances with a friend’s brother and her best friend’s husband. My favourite character is her mother-in-law, Sybil, who lives with them and who sees Wilmet as a complete individual despite her marriage to Sybil’s son; Sybil doesn’t seem to expect Wilmet to be anyone other than who she is (and never laments her lack of grandchildren).

No Fond Return of Love (1961) by Barbara Pym. Fiction. I loved that this one references Wilmet and Rodney and Piers and Keith from A Glass of Blessings (pp. 191-193), visiting a church that the main characters in this book, middle-aged unmarried women (and temporary housemates) Dulcie and Viola, are visiting. Pym was post-modern before post-modern was cool. This book is quite funny, because both Viola and Dulcie, free-lance researchers by profession who meet at a literary conference, are a bit obsessed with literary journal editor Aylwin Forbes, for reasons the reader really can’t understand other than his good looks; his unsuitable-by-all-accounts wife Marjorie is divorcing him, and he seems a rather weak and typical fellow, dodging devoted “suitable” women right and left as he falls in “love” with girls half his age and younger. Dulcie and Viola use their research skills and curiosity to track him down in various places, and they also track down Marjorie, her mother, his mother, and his celibate vicar brother, surreptitiously visiting their homes, churches, the bed & breakfast in Tavistock run by his mother, the family cemetery, and so on.

Bilgewater (1976) by Jane Gardam. Unfortunately, I read the Europa (2016) edition, which had at least 10 glaring typos that detracted and distracted from the story. I really liked Gardam’s Old Filth Trilogy, but this story, about a 16-year-old girl — intellectually precocious but socially stunted, and naive, isolated, used to the company of eccentric adults, now coming into her own — was not terribly engaging for me.

The Dollhouse (2016) by Fiona Davis. For a bookgroup. Debut novel. Rather run-of-the-mill “women’s novel” (focus on relationships among women and romances with men), told in alternating chapters, of a young woman (Darby) who came to New York City from Ohio to study at the Katherine Gibbs’ secretarial school in 1952, boarding at the Barbizon Hotel along with other wanna-be secretaries and models, and of a journalist (Rose) in her 30s living now in the same building. There is some intrigue concerning jazz clubs, a Korean spice store, the hotel maid, and Darby herself. All in all, a pleasant, undemanding read that gives a little flavour of 1950s New York.

June

The Wonder (2016) by Emma Donoghue, for a bookgroup, a novel set in the Irish countryside in the late 1850s (several years after the potato famine ended) about an English nurse, Lib Wright (trained by Florence Nightingale), who is brought to a small Irish village on a 2-week temporary assignment to observe — along with another nurse, a nun — what appears to be a miracle: an 11-year-old girl who is said to have survived for four months without food. It’s part mystery, part romance, part historical fiction. The most interesting aspect of it for me is Lib’s ambivalence about interfering to change a situation that she has been hired only to observe and report upon. When she feels a conflict between obeying her contract to the community to be a detached observer and obeying her conscious as she becomes attached to her patient, how does she resolve it? In that way, the book explores a deep question; in other ways, it’s somewhat formulaic and the ending much too pat and fantastic.

The Chalk Pit (2017) by Elly Griffiths, ninth in the forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway series. Bones found in Norwich’s tunnels and homeless people being stabbed to death converge in a ludicrous plot. If you can overlook that, the storyline of Ruth’s relationship with DCI Harry Nelson advances a bit, and there are some funny lines in the book. Cozy, but a bit inane this time.

Pastoralia (2000)  by George Saunders, for a bookgroup. Six short stories, all more or less contemporary, on themes of self-worth, status-seeking, shame, blame; the difference​ ​between​ ​how​ ​people​ ​present​ ​themselves​ ​and​ ​what​ ​they’re​ ​really​ ​thinking; the dichotomy​ ​between​ ​what​ ​we​ ​think​ ​and​ ​what​ ​we​ ​do; how ​we​ ​elevate​ ​and​ ​then​ ​degrade​ ​ourselves​ ​(and others)​ ​in​ ​seconds​ ​in​ ​our​ ​minds.​ ​Most of the characters are pathetic to some degree (weak, self-absorbed,​ ​unattractive​ ​physically,​ ​anxiety-ridden,​ ​callous​ ​and​ ​cruel, desirous​ ​of​ ​power​ ​and​ ​status,​ ​vengeful​)​, living demeaning lives, trapped in dysfunctional ​relationships — and yet sometimes it seems there’s more worth there than meets the eye. Someone else has said that in​ ​each​ ​story,​ ​”defective​ ​characters​ ​are​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​operate​ ​outside​ ​their​ ​comfort​ ​zones.” The tone is grim and sordid mixed with relentlessly optimistic dreams of grandeur. I enjoyed them.

July

The Voyage (1999) by Philip Caputo. For a bookgroup.  Historical fiction set at the turn of the 20th century (1900 or so), about a family with deep dark secrets and four boys (three Braithewaite brothers plus a friend, aged 13 to 18 or 19) with dreams of glory, love, adventure. They begin a 3-month journey in a schooner from Maine to Cuba as relatively naive and protected boys and end it much more worldly-wise, wearier, and still unaware of the Braithewaite family secrets, which great-granddaughter Sybil, living in Arizona in the 1990s,  tries to piece together from scrapbooks, letters, the ship’s log. Fascinating and definitely worth the read.

The Second Deadly Sin (2012./2013 transl) by Åsa Larsson, crime fiction set in northern Sweden, featuring Rebecka Martinsson and Kister Ericksson. Complex and engaging plot, with two alternating and related stories, one set in Kiruna today, the other in Kiruna in 1914, concerning multiple deaths in the same family, spanning several generations. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll say that the author’s choice to put Rebecka in the situation she did in the last action scene angered me and seemed totally unnecessary.

My Brilliant Friend (2012) by Elena Ferrante (pseud.), first of the four Neapolitan novels. I could not get into it for 2/3 of the book, but by the end, I wanted to read the next one in the series. Story of two girls and their impoverished, rivalrous, close-knit Naples community in the 1950s, as Lena and Lila grow up together from about age 8 to age 18, as friends, as competitors, and as models for each other in school, in love, in life. What finally won me over was the writing and plotting; as one Goodreads reviewer puts it, “The most beautiful part of the story is the way it is told: in a simple, anecdotal way without any intention of moving towards any climax.”

August

Police (2013) by Jo Nesbø, 10th in the Harry Hole series set in Norway (Oslo and other locations). Briefly, someone seems to be killing cops who were involved with unsolved cases. There are serial (gruesome, as usual) murders and multiple murderers, making for a complex, twisting, surprising plot. Enthralling but like all of Nesbø’s novels, not for the faint of heart.

Deadfall (2017) by Linda Fairstein, in the Asst. DA Alex Cooper series, set in New York (mostly uptown and the Bronx). Sort of a spoiler but it’s revealed on the second page: District Attorney Paul Battaglia, Alex’s boss, dies in her arms on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, after being shot. The feds wonder if Alex lured him to the killing spot, so she’s under serious and hostile scrutiny by the U.S. attorneys as they investigate his murder. Meanwhile, NYPD detectives Mike and Mercer, along with Alex, follow their own lines of investigation, which lead to the Bronx Zoo, the St. Hubertus Society (which Justice Antonin Scalia belonged to), Animals Without Borders, and a quick trip to a Montana big game hunting ranch.

Two Nights (2017) by Kathy Reichs, a stand-alone (or perhaps start of a new series) NOT in the Brennan series. There’s no forensic talk in this fast-paced thriller. Sunday (Sunnie) Night is a recluse of a woman who lives (with a feral squirrel) on an island off of Sullivan Island in SC, reachable only by boat. A former police officer and military veteran who saw action in Afghanistan, Night has deep psychological (and physical) scars and a small arsenal of Glocks and other assault artillery, though her sarcasm may be her most deadly weapon and her wariness her best defense. She’s asked to find a missing girl and the four perpetrators who killed the girl’s mother and brother in a terrorist bombing, which takes her to Chicago, Los Angeles, and the Kentucky Derby in Louisville. I wasn’t sure if I’d continue for the first 30 pages or so but then got into it.

The Thirst (2017) by Jo Nesbø, 11th in the Harry Hole series set in Norway, following immediately on the plot of Police, though taking place three years later. The vampirist is back, meeting women at bars through Tinder and then ambushing in their homes and killing them in gruesome ways. A vampirist expert is called in. Meanwhile, Rakel is having headaches and gets checked out at the hospital.

Walking on My Grave (2017) by Carolyn Hart, in the Death on Demand/Annie Darling series set on (fictional) Broward’s Rock Island, SC. These aren’t very good and I haven’t read any in a while but sometimes you just feel like a cozy, involving mostly rich people, set on an island, and this is the series for that time. The six or seven future heirs of Ves Roundtree’s considerable fortune all need money now and some resent her continued existence. How far will one of them, driven by greed, fear, or desperation, go? Meanwhile, Henny, Emma Clyde, and Laurel are all writing chapbooks about, respectively, classic crimes, the wisdom of her crime fiction detectives, and “merry musings” on life; these comprise the final pages of the book.

September

The Story of a New Name (2012) by Elena Ferrante (pseud.), second of the four Neapolitan novels. Lena continue her memoir, telling her story of growing into her 20s, her sexual coming of age (particularly one summer vacation), her time at university in Pisa, and she tells Lila’s story of marriage, adultery, having a child, continuing her tumultuous life. The two women grow apart, come together, grow apart, come together, grow apart.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2013) by Elena Ferrante (pseud.), third of the four Neapolitan novels, this one set as much in Florence as in Naples. Here, with the women in their 20s and 30s, Elena marries, has children, publishes a book that is provocative and makes her a bit famous and then struggles with her writing and in her marriage. Meanwhile, Lila works in a meat factory and lives with another man, Enzo, in a low-rent district, raising her son. Eventually both Lila and Enzo work as programmers for IBM. Both women become involved in the politics of the time, and this book focuses on social activism, feminism, socialism, the rights of the worker. As in book two, Elena and Lila move uncomfortably and ambivalently in and out of each other’s lives, often not seeing or speaking with each other for months. As Elena has expressed before, she comes again to the realisation that “I had wanted to become something — here was the point — only because I was afraid that Lila would become someone and I would stay behind. My becoming was a becoming in her wake. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her.”

The Maytrees (2007) by Annie Dillard. A hard book to get into. It’s a novel of a couple and their life together and apart, set mostly in post-war Provincetown, Cape Cod. Lou, not much of a talker, and Toby Maytree, a poet — who thinks a lot about how various kinds of natural light represent Aristotelean or Platonic thought, — meet and marry, have a son, make friends among their bohemian artist and fisherman neighbours (characterised early on as “social thinkers”), and care for each other and their friends in ordinary and remarkable ways. They are both big readers and laughers. The writing is often uber-poetic, spare yet awkwardly descriptive, as if trying hard to pack the array of short sentences to the brim with unheard-of word combinations, to the point where it doesn’t really make sense at times, even on an emotional level. I stopped reading about halfway through and read another book, coming back to this one afterward. I appreciated the focus on “the meaning of life” and how love manifests itself over a lifetime and among many relationships, but I didn’t actually care about any of the characters, whose self-containment was admirable but distancing. Lou is described as “throughout her life … ironic and strict with her thoughts.” She is described, when they are courting, as having “no agitation in her even gaze. …. Her silence made her complicit, innocent as beasts, oracular.”

Sleeping in the Ground (2017) by Peter Robinson, in the Banks/ Cabbot series, set in Eastvale and surrounds (Yorkshire). On the same day that Alan Banks attends the funeral of his first true love, Emily, several members of a wedding party are shot and killed or critically wounded by a sniper. Lots of twists and turns as the detectives — newbie Gerry Masterson is featured in this one — trace relationships backwards to find the motive for the killings. Very readable but not as engaging as some.

October

The Story of the Lost Child (2015), by Elena Ferrante (pseud.), last of the four Neapolitan novels, this one set almost entirely in Naples. Elena is with Nino, and she becomes pregnant with their daughter, Imma, while Lila becomes pregnant with Enzo with their daughter Tina. At Lila’s urging and for other reasons, Elena moves back to Naples, where the women live one floor apart. The years pass, the children grow, Elena has writing successes and failures, Lila struggles with some illnesses and her dissolving boundaries feeling, and at one point there is a crisis that forever affects Lila’s outlook and actions. When the book ends, the women are 60ish, their children grown, their lives still somewhat unsettled.

The Optimist’s Daughter (1969) by Eudora Welty. For a bookgroup. I read this short novel (180 pp but in big type with large margins) in about 2 hours. The plot is that Laurel’s father, Judge Clinton McKelva (age 71), undergoes eye surgery, dies soon thereafter in hospital (in New Orleans) as he is recovering, and Laurel (in her late 40s?) and her graceless, jealous, narcissistic step-mother of one year, Fay (also in her 40s), go home to the family house in small-town Mississippi, where friends and family await, to have the funeral and sort through things. It all takes place in about a week, with a little bit of flashback, mainly to Laurel’s brief marriage to Phil (he dies in the war), the Judge’s first marriage to Becky (Laurel’s mother), and Becky’s early life in West Virginia and the deaths of her parents (Laurel’s grandparents).  It’s the tone or attitude of the book that just escapes me. Fay and Laurel are counterpoints to each other in some way, some of the women in town are like a Greek chorus, and the book seems to explore the realms and limits of empathy and compassion. My favourite line is spoken by one of Fay’s relatives, a man who has spent most of his visit in the yard, who tells Laurel that “You got a lot of fat squirrels going to waste here.” The moral seems to be that “any life, she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of its love.”

November

Mansfield Park (1814) by Jane Austen, for a bookgroup. A complex, long novel about Fanny Price, one of nine children of a disorganised “slattern” and an unmannered alcoholic, who goes to live with her wealthier aunt and uncle, the Bertrams, and their four children when she is ten years old. Edmund, the second Bertram son, who is 16 when Fanny comes to live with his family, is empathetic and kind and takes a particular interest in Fanny when he sees how miserable she is. He teaches her manners, honour, kindness, etc., and she in turn falls in love with him, but she can’t ever let that be known to anyone. Five years later, wealthy, agreeable Henry  Crawford falls in love with Fanny and wants to marry her; she wants none of it, seeing him as shallow and not very honorable, having observed him trifling with both her female cousins’ affections.  Still he perseveres, enjoying the challenge. Meanwhile, Edmund has fallen for Crawford’s sister, Mary, who is also a bit superficial and who, though she has feelings for him, is not happy that he has no inheritance and wants to be a lowly clergyman. The novel is nuanced, and though it’s written of the kind of society that doesn’t exist (at least in most places) anymore, many of the themes and truths are universal and timeless.

The Scarred Woman (2017) by Jussi Adler-Olsen, a Dept. Q novel (#7), set in Copenhagen, Carl Mørck. A bunch of cases, some cold and some not, come together, sending Carl and Assad investigating young women being hit by cars, another young woman shot, two beating deaths, and the death of their colleague Rose’s father. Complex and engrossing. I really like this series.

Death in the White Mountains: Hiking Fatalities and How To Avoid Being One (2017) by Julie Boardman. Non-fiction details of 219 deaths from 1849-2016 of hikers, ice- and rock climbers, and backcountry skiers in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Sections on death by  hypothermia (body temperature going too low), falling, avalanche, drowning, lighting and other freak accidents, hyperthermia (overheating), murder, and also from natural causes (mostly heart attacks), as well as a few accounts of lost hikers who have never been found. There’s some info about every death and longer stories about a handful in each category, some conclusions about common mistakes that lead to injury or death (e.g., not heeding weather reports, not turning back when weather worsens, not packing enough clothing or other items, hiking or climbing alone), plus warnings and suggestions about how to avoid dying in these ways when hiking, climbing, or skiing in the White Mountains or any wild place.

The Mistletoe Murders (2016) by P.D. James, four short stories. The first, third, and last are set at Christmas time and rather Agatha Christie-ish. The last two star detective Adam Dalgliesh. The second one (“A Very Commonplace Murder”) is quite different from the others, not at Christmas, no Dalgliesh nor any detective, rather sordid. In “The Boxdale Inheritance,” the third one, Dalgliesh investigates a murder that took place on Christmas Eve, over 50+ years ago.  I read them all in about 1-1/2 hours.

Dead Woman Walking (2017) by Sharon Bolton. Crime fiction/thriller. Fairly gripping throughout, quite gory and deeply unsettling at the start. Police detective Jessica and her sister, Isabel, a nun, go on a balloon ride with others in the north of England for Isabel’s 40th birthday. Mayhem ensues, entangling one sister in the black market organ market.

Murder at the Old Vicarage (1988) by Jill McGown. I read this in the early 1990s but it was a nice re-read before Christmas. It’s in the Inspector Lloyd and Sargent Judy Hill detective series, set in Stansfield, England (Suffolk area). Lloyd and Judy have their own issues, which pale in comparison to those of the Wheeler family — George, the non-believing vicar; Marian, his controlling wife; Joanna, their protected daughter; and Graham, Joanna’s frustrated husband. On Christmas Eve, things come to a head in the Wheeler household and then the lies and misdirection begin. A nice romp.

December

The Other Woman (1992) by Jill McGown, in the Inspector Lloyd and Sargent Judy Hill detective series, set in Stansfield, England. Complex crime novel with names/characters I could never keep straight. Well-written, and I think the convoluted plot hangs together,  but it didn’t compel me.

The Witches’ Tree (2017) by M.C Beaton, in the Agatha Raisin series, set some place in England (fictional Sumpton Harcourt). Pretty awful. The writing is clunky, the plot — involving witches, sex, money — convoluted and dumb, and the editing atrocious (lines repeated from one paragraph to the next, improper punctuation, and the last name of key characters in the cover flap doesn’t match their surname in the book!

Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story (1937; 2016) by J. Jefferson Farjeon, a classic crime novel republished recently. The story starts on a train but soon moves to a recently deserted manor home in the country where a disparate group of people (who have left the stalled train in a snowstorm to try to reach another station) finds shelter … and more. Part creepy ghost story, part traditional murder mystery, the novel is set at Christmas, with blinding heavy snow all around a well-provisioned house — food, fires, beds — and a cast of characters animated by complex motives and desires.

The Devil’s Wedding Ring (2015, transl. 2017) by Vidar Sundstøl, a crime novel set in Telemark, Norway, involving a 13th-century stave church and pagan midsummer rites, and spanning 30 years, from the time a folklore researcher disappears on Midsummer Eve in 1985 to the disappearance of a woman researching the same rituals in 2015 and the apparent suicide of a former policeman, who had been a colleague of Max Fjellanger, now a private investigator living in Florida. Fjellanger returns to Norway to attend his friend’s funeral, suspicious that he didn’t die by his own hand. He soon partners with quirky, insightful librarian and single mother Tirill Vesterli, and together they investigate, becoming convinced an ancient ritual is behind the violence. OK but not all that engaging.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83-¼ Years Old (a novel by Hendrik Groen, 2014/2017). Groen, an “inmate” in an Amsterdam old age home, colludes with several other oldies to form the Old But Not Dead Club dedicated to keeping life lively and worth living; the club members plan interesting outings and meals for each other, look in on each other, and resist the unexplained rules and regulations of the institution where they live. Eventually, since most of the members are over age 80, illness and infirmity cast a dark shadow over the lighter aspects of living in community. Written with a light touch, but sometimes darkly humourous, the novel references many real and difficult issues of growing old.   

Dream City Home

Welcome to day 31 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society.  Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They are all listed here.
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To be an outlaw you must first have a base in law to reject and get out of, I never had such a base. I never had a place I could call home that meant any more than a key to a house, apartment or hotel room. … Am I alien? Alien from what exactly? Perhaps my home is my dream city, more real than my waking life precisely because it has no relation to waking life…  — William S. Burroughs

Dream city as home. This idea works for me. My dreamspace, which feels like a place where I live even more vividly, more sensually, than usual, is often architectural in form and setting, with past houses (which obviously do have a relationship to waking life) — especially this one …

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Maine house, Feb. 2001
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partial kitchen, Maine house, 1994
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Thanksgiving in Maine house, 1995
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fireplace and living space, Maine house, 1994
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stairs and warming oven, Maine house, 1994
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Christmas 1996 (with Cactus) in Maine house

… and apartments, hotels, restaurants, frequently other people’s houses, auditoriums, hospitals, bridges, schools, bathrooms, meeting rooms, buildings and built spaces that I don’t think I have ever been in except in dreams (and there they are typically recurring settings) — all common in my dreams. Of course, dreams have to be set somewhere, like plays, but what interests me is the transformation of knowledge and memory of the building, and the exploration of it in the dream, and how often dreams are set in places I don’t recognise except perhaps from previous dreams. (This dream, e.g., about my dad a year or so after he died, takes place in several buildings I’ve never been in in waking life.)

My “dream city” feels like a multiplicity of places — some real, some not real as far as I know (or at least not remembered by me in real life) — that are significant for various reasons: because of my emotional and aesthetic memories of a real place; because of the feeling evoked by its architecture or layout; because of some association with it through other people’s stories (what my imagination conjures — from novels, from what friends have described, from song lyrics or lines of poetry, from what I’ve heard on the radio — or what my eyes have actually glimpsed, momentarily, in paintings, on TV or in movies, riding past, etc.); or who knows what reason.

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Yemassee SC Dec. 2013
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Rocky Mount MC Dec. 2013
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somewhere in Rhode Island, Feb. 2008
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somewhere in Connecticut, Feb. 2008

Why do buildings and other places resonate and spark imagination? Why do they “make us” feel a certain way, evoke moods and sensations (e.g., “haunted houses”)? Is it because they contain us, hold us, bring us together or split us apart, both exclude and include us? Do they somehow form an external correspondence to our interior spaces?

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More to Burroughs’ point, my sense of homelessness, placelessness, alienates me from real life sometimes. My family moved often — due to my dad’s corporate life promotions and transfers — so when asked, e.g. as a security question on a financial site, “what is your hometown?,” I have no idea. I have no hometown, and my home is pretty much where I am at the moment, so in one sense I feel “at home” almost anywhere. But coming home after being away feels jarring — home is familiar, a place I know well and am comfortable, but re-entry to normal life after being away feels oppressive, constrictive; I feel restless, like I’ve lost something. I think it’s partly that on the road (hotels, motels, trains), there is much less stuff and therefore less emotional tiredness brought on by the emotional and physical demands of stuff.  But I think it’s more than that, perhaps something to do with the way, as I’ve mentioned previously, that travel disrupts, questions, and subverts conventional thought and behaviour. Coming home, I feel the demands (that word again) reinstated, the sense of what I am expected to be and do limited by the circumference of “home.”

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Unlike Burroughs’ experience (“I never had such a base. I never had a place I could call home that meant any more than a key to a house, apartment or hotel room”), I have in my life almost always had a base, a room, apartment, or house to come home to day after day — and yet these places have always felt transitional to me. (I’ve written about this before, 5 years ago, in Oct. 2012). I can’t help but notice that all our lives and all our places are transitional, ephemeral, not made to last. In the short run, someone will dig up my garden or terrace it, a storm or fire may take out trees and destroy homes and towns, objects and materials constantly wear out, living things die (some exceedingly quickly, others at a slower rate) and everyone I know, including me, including friends’ children and their children, including all the animals now alive on earth, will die soon. In the long run, all bodies, all buildings and things, all governments, all human constructions will disappear and wild nature will take over, as it is wont to do now when given half a chance.

seaweedgrowingonseawallrockSeasideInn29Dec2014
seaweed growing on rock, Kennebunk ME, Dec. 2014
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fern growing out of rock, brick, in Colonial Park Cemetery, Savannah, GA, Dec. 2015
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trees growing out of rock ledge, Northern Rail Trail, NH, April 2015
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watermelon plant growing on beach, Jekyll Island, GA, Sept. 2013

And in the longer run, land, sea, and all mortal beings, all species of flora and fauna, will disappear.

Which is why perhaps a heterotopia appeals to me so deeply … the placeless place, neither here nor there: a ship between shores on which an ad hoc society exists only as long as a cruise or passage; a tourist town, which shutters up and closes down after a few months; a public garden, where antiquity meets modernity (and as Louis Marin says, “the unsurpassable contradiction, where art and nature, artifice and truth, imagination and the real, representation and being, mimesis and the origin, play hide-and seek”); a museum (hard on the back and wearying though they are), where the past is reinterpreted by the present (“Foucault’s museum is not a funereal storehouse of objects from different times, but an experience of the gap between things and the conceptual and cultural orders in which they are interpreted”- from Beth Lord); a cemetery, where past and present collide and almost all of us have a relationship with it. A place, in other words, where here-there-everywhere and now-then come together in some ambiguous, disturbing, provocative way. A place that deviates from conventional norms, a constant reminder that ‘normal’ is always and everywhere just a temporary construct. These heterotopic places are where I feel I belong, if one can be said to belong to such a place, because they match my sense of what’s real.

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my mom, Evergreen Cemetery, Roanoke, VA, 13 Dec. 2014
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Dad’s ashes, scattered in Mt. Rogers National Recreational Area, Virginia, June 2013

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We each exist in a place now, places that seem real, solid, geographically tangible. At the same time, or in another time that runs alongside the chronology we obey, we are placeless, standing at a threshold, that liminal space, waiting, one foot here and one foot there, waiting, inhabiting multiple realities, multiple places and times in one moment, in one space. That’s how it feels to me, and I guess it’s why hotels, motels, lodging, and the movement of travelling resonate for me, reminders of the non-linear world beyond and inside and overlapping this other world we are inexplicably placed in. They remind me that we’re here for the moment, we’re in this spot in each moment as we move toward another spot in each moment, places we’ve never been, or have visited in dreams and in memory.

We live out of suitcases, uncertain in the middle of the night how to find the bathroom and the lights; we wake up disoriented, aware of strangers coughing, flushing, moving about next door; we check ourselves in the mirror before opening the door and stepping through.

MollysinkmirrorConservatoryLongwoodGardens13Oct2017

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Thanks for traveling with me on this part of my journey.

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Almost Certainly Not Axe Murderers

Welcome to day 30 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society.  (More about heterotopias and liminal spaces.)  Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.

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exteriormorningFairfieldInnhotelKennettSquarePA12Oct2017

“The man behind the check-in counter gives the impression that he has just axe-murdered the motel’s owner (and family, and family pet) and is going through these procedures of hostelry so as not to arouse suspicion.” ― Paul Quarrington, The Ravine

I mean, how could I not use that sentence in this series. But seriously, the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Kennett Square, PA (the Brandywine Valley) is nothing like this! It’s just a clean, simple, normal chain hotel in a medical/corporate park alongside Route 1, perfectly located for visits to Longwood Gardens, exactly two miles away from the hotel. It’s also only about a mile to charming Kennett Square, with shops and restaurants, and about 1.5 miles to Victory Brewing, a brewpub on the outskirts of Kennett Square. Spouse and I have stayed at the Fairfield Inn three times now for six nights total — in Aug 2015, July 2017, and Oct. 2017 — and will use it in the future when we visit the area.

I’m not sure what so appeals, besides primo location and hotel staff who in no way resemble or suggest axe-murderers.

It’s not the Pumpkin Spice coffee.

pumpkinspicecoffeeFairfieldInnhotelKennettSquarePA12Oct2017

It’s not the wacky carpets, although it is kind of fun to try to walk only on the straight lines.
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The breakfast is variable, though usually the oatmeal and fruit are good.

partialbreakfastroomFairfieldInnhotelKennettSquarePA12Oct2017

I think it’s really just the combined sense of comfort and anonymity that appeals. The staff is friendly and efficient but non-intrusive. They look up when you walk in and out, so you feel someone is noticing your presence, but their eye contact, body language, and spoken words (if any) don’t suggest they are watching too closely or monitoring your movement. Housekeeping comes at a predictable time. The public space is impersonal but there is coffee and tea and sometimes lime water offered at all hours, as well as candies at the front desk sometimes, and complimentary newspapers on weekdays.

The private space, the rooms, are comfortable, too, with all the basics provided.

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view into room, Oct. 2017
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two double beds, Oct. 2017
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one king bed, July 2017

The desk has additional electrical outlets and jacks. There’s a microwave, fridge, and coffee maker. There’s ample drawer and closet space.

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microwave, fridge, desk and chair, dresser and TV, coffee maker, lighting, Oct. 2017
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microwave, fridge, desk and chair, dresser and TV, coffee maker, lighting, July 2017

The bathrooms are big enough with capacious counters and lots of space for shampoos and such in the shower.

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bathroom, Oct. 2017
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sink, counter space, mirror, Oct. 2017
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tub/shower, July 2017

The rooms aren’t cheap — from $105-$165 per night depending on what season and nights we stayed — but they’re comparable to other places in the area, and I feel there’s good value for the money (just the location near Longwood alone means we can return to the room and then back to Longwood easily during the day).

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Speaking of Longwood, and since this is a garden blog, a few pics from our visit this month, starting with the almost-futuristic bathrooms in the conservatory:

toiletsinkbConservatoryLongwoodGardens13Oct2017

This is what they look like from outside:

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I’ll be doing a longer post on this trip to Longwood soon, but for now, a few teasers:

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old beech tree, meadow
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monarch and red admiral butterflies on dahlia
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mimic fly on chrysanthemum
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lanterns in conservatory
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dahlias
HarpageantEasyDoesItFloribundarosepinkorangeLongwoodGardens13Oct2017
‘Easy Does It’ floribunda rose … pink and orange

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Next time I’d like to get to Chanticleer, Mt. Cuba again, and maybe even Tyler Arboretum in Media, PA. Might need a trip to the area just for garden-going. And a few more nights in the cheerfully disinterested Fairfield Inn & Suites.

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Myrtle Beach Days

Welcome to day 29 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society.  Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
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I grew up going to North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, for summer vacations with my dad and sisters, and in recent years we (spouse and I) have considered retiring in that area, so in June 2014 we stayed in a condo there for a couple of days to look around at houses and amenities and get a feel for the place now.

When we went, three summers ago, we reserved a one-bedroom oceanfront condo at the Wyndham Towers on the Grove in NMB three weeks ahead of time for $255 per night. Looks like about the same pricing for June 2018. Off-season prices are quite low, with availability of $102 per night for a 1-BR oceanfront, and for a week around Christmas (18-26 Dec), a 1-BR oceanfront is going for $62/night! Hmmm ….

WyndhamTowerontheGrovehotelsignNMB20June2014

The Wyndham Towers on the Grove is actually a timeshare condo building, and when we checked in we could have had a reduction in cost and some goodies if we sat through a sales pitch for one. Having done the condo-sales-pitch thing once before in New Orleans (hours of my life that I will never get back), and with only 2 days to spend here, we decided against it. (We’re not looking for a condo to retire to, particularly not one that’s a quasi-hotel.)

As a hotel, the place is fabulous. It’s on the beach. View from room:

viewfrombalconyWyndhamToweronGrovehotel8pmNMB21June2014

The hotel room is really two full, separated rooms plus a real kitchen with stovetop and oven, dishwasher, sink, cabinets (with bowls, plates, glasses in them), fridge, microwave, coffee maker, etc. The bedroom is the first room you walk into (in ours; layout varies by unit), then through the galley kitchen to a living room and balcony overlooking the ocean and the pools below — there are outdoor heated pools, a hot tub, plus a lazy river partly underneath the building.

LazyRiverWyndhamToweronGrovehotelfrombalcony815pmNMB20June2014

In all, the space was almost 400 square feet, with two TVs and a washer and dryer in the unit. The wifi worked well once we got some kinks ironed out. Parking in a big garage across the street was a bit of a pain, but that inconvenience was totally offset by having the washer and dryer in our condo.

livingroomintokitchenWyndhamToweronGrovehotelNMB21June2014
view from living room into kitchen (door between), and bedroom is beyond. Note washer/dryer!!! And you can see the handle for the pull-down Murphy bed should it be needed.

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In Myrtle Beach — part of the 60-mile Grand Strand — the beach is the thing and that’s where we spent most of our time when we weren’t driving through neighbourhoods looking at houses.

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beach looking north, 8:30 a.m., 22 June 2014
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underside of live worm on beach, 22 June 2014
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brown pelicans in flight, 21 June 2014
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beach looking south, 8:30 a.m., 22 June 2014
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view of Wyndham Towers from beach, 21 June 2014

As I recall, from the condo we could walk to a grocery, a couple of restaurants, a few souvenir shops.

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It’s much quieter in North Myrtle Beach than in Myrtle Beach proper. A drive from the hotel but still in the North Myrtle Beach area are ziplining (Go Ape in Little River, SC), mini-golf, arcades, bowling, a winery, music shows, a small boardwalk, and Barefoot Landing, a sort of golf resort and upscale eating/shopping area — with 100 stores, restaurants, and attractions — that’s also home to Alligator Adventure and Alabama Theater. We ate at the Joe’s Crab Shack there.

onpatioatJoesCrabShack21June2014MollyatJoesCrabShack21June2014

And of course Myrtle Beach itself has the boardwalk and is an extravaganza of amusement parks, the Skywheel, Ripley’s Believe it or Not franchises (Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium museum, Aquarium, 5D Moving Theater, Haunted Adventure, and Marvelous Mirror Maze), pirate-themed attractions, museums, outlet shopping, eating, brewpubs, beachfront bars, golfing (including many mini-golf and par-3 courses), on and on. Broadway on the Boardwalk, on the Route 17 bypass, is a “shopping complex set on 350 acres … with 3 theaters, 17 restaurants, more than 100 specialty shops, attractions, nightclubs, and 3 hotels, surrounding Lake Broadway. It is the largest festival entertainment complex in South Carolina. It has an IMAX theater, Ripley’s Aquarium, Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, and The Pavilion Nostalgia Park.”

South of Myrtle Beach are Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge, Huntington Beach State Park, and quite a bit further south in the state are the Yawkey Wildlife Center, the Santee Coastal Reserve, and the 400-square-mile Francis Marion National Forest. We’ve spent a little time in the Francis Marion National Forest but not much.

We didn’t actually do anything in Myrtle Beach itself, except drive through a bit of the town (on a Sunday morning) — so many little motels! —

inMyrtleBeach10amSunday22June2014

and then divert to Route 17 …

HollywoodWaxMuseumMyrtleBeach21June2014

… for the drive south of Myrtle Beach to Brookgreen Gardens in Murrells Inlet.  We really enjoy this hybrid sculpture garden with plantings, a short boat tour, historical signage and sculpture related to rice plantations and slavery, wild and tame animals (some in cages and some not), etc. I posted lots of photos (and some info about Brookgreen) in July 2014 from that visit.

daylilygardenbedBrookgreenGardens22June2014.jpg

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Christmas at Myrtle Beach has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

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Elephants, Swans, & Monkeys, Oh My!

Welcome to day 28 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society.  Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
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I still enjoy traveling a lot. I mean, it amazes me that I still get excited in hotel rooms just to see what kind of shampoo they’ve left me.  — Bill Bryson

Or, what kind of animal the towels have been arranged to make.

At The Cove Motel in Orleans, MA (Cape Cod) — the sixth of our favourite motels and hotels — one of the housekeeping staff is remarkable for leaving fairly elaborate towel animals on the beds and we also heard, but did not see, that for guests with children she makes towel monkeys to hang in the closets, too.

We came back to find this elephant one day, with real cedar or yew cuttings for the eyes:

elephanttowelCoveMotelOrleansCapeCod17Sept2017elephanttoweleyesjuniperorcedarCoveMotelOrleansCapeCod17Sept2017

I wanted to bring it home but that sort of behaviour is frowned upon at most lodgings.

The day before, it was a swan, similar to the swans in the cove –Town Cove, off Woods Cove, off the Atlantic Ocean — from which the motel gets its name.

 

Even before these enchanting creatures appeared in the room during our September 2017 visit, we had decided that The Cove would be our go-to spot on the Cape, after staying there in April and having tried two other motels (another in Orleans, and one in Hyannis) on previous visits.

The waterfront location, on the cove, is tranquil and quiet.

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April 2017 cove view – note gazebo and patio
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another April 2017 cove view
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the cove view in mid-Sept. 2017
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a song sparrow at the cove, April 2017

It’s also walking distance to some restaurants (e.g., Hole in One for full breakfast; Mahoney’s Atlantic Bar & Grill for dinner — love the sole almondine; the wonderful Hot Chocolate Sparrow coffee shop most mornings and many evenings) and to the Ice Cream Cafe in season. Also walking distance to the bike rental shops and access to the 22-mile Cape Cod rail trail. It’s well located for exploring walks and beaches in our favourite parts of the Cape — Eastham, Wellfleet, and Truro — but it’s not too far from Chatham’s restaurants, Dennisport, parks and trails in Harwich and Brewster, or more shopping, eating, and entertainment action in Yarmouth and Hyannis. (It is, however, a longish drive to the Heritage Museums and Gardens in Sandwich.)

Location and charming housekeeping staff aside, the Cove is just a pleasant and agreeable spot to rest. The wifi works well, beds and pillows are comfortable, windows can be safely opened to let in fresh air …

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window that can be opened in bathroom

… ample parking is available …

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… there’s seating and a firepit by the cove, and “quiet hours” are posted (and enforced) for all guests, from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., which I really appreciate. When I couldn’t figure out how to work the newfangled TV, someone came right over from the office and got it going. There’s also an outdoor heated pool (which we haven’t used), ice, vending, the usual motel amenities. Some rooms have a kitchenette (most have at least a microwave), fireplace, and/or water view.

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In April, we had a deluxe queen room; this is how it looked:

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sofa, table, queen bed, microwave, coffee maker, fridge … I like that they leave a roll of paper towels in the rooms, too.
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dresser, TV, chair, mirror, closet door, closed door to bathroom
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closer look at ‘kitchen’ area
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computer table, chairs, window, door to outside & deck
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bathroom with sink, lighting (the soaps etc are Terra Green brand)
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bathroom toilet, shower

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In September, there were two queen beds and no sofa:

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beds, nightstand, closet (different from the April room)
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one bed with elephant, closer look at closet and kitchen area with microwave, coffee maker, and fridge (and paper towels)
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the beds and the table and chairs
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computer table and chairs by window, door to outside & deck
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dresser, TV, armchair, mirror, exterior door
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bathroom sink and toilet
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bathroom tub/shower combo, sink, mirror, lighting

Of the two, I preferred the one queen bed with sofa, but both were perfectly accommodating.

If you visit, make sure to walk a couple of blocks to the little Orleans Conservation Area pocket garden; it also overlooks a cove.

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cove fog, boats, through grasses and wildflowers, Sept. 2017
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wildflowers, Sept. 2017
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asters and goldenrod, Sept. 2017
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purple asters, Sept. 2017
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sumac and goldenrod, Sept. 2017
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tansy flowers, Sept. 2017

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