WEBSITE UPDATE–7-4-17–MY FAVORITE AMERICANS

WEBSITE UPDATE–7-4-17–MY FAVORITE AMERICANS

A FOURTH OF JULY ODE TO REFUGEES

“The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest toss’d to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Inscription on the Statue of Liberty

In honor of an Independence Day being celebrated amidst the horrors of deportations, Trump’s Muslim ban, and the prospect of a Mexican wall, I thought I’d mention some of the people who’ve come here and made this country great.

My favorites:

1. HEDY LAMARR

Most people know her as the gorgeous actress who starred in movies like ECSTACY, ALGIERS, and SAMSON AND DELILAH and who was dubbed “the most beautiful woman in the world.” But she was a heck of a lot more than that. She was a gifted inventor, a spy for our side in World War II, and a passionate American patriot.

Married to an Austrian arms manufacturer, she attended many Nazi conferences and high-level meetings, looking like eye-candy but actually listening to and absorbing every word she heard. She then escaped out a window with the help of a maid, and fled to Paris, London, and finally the United States, where she reported everything she remembered to the federal authorities.

Hedy then set to prove her devotion to her new country by designing a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes which would be protected from enemy jamming and offering it to the U.S. government. It employed the concepts of frequency hopping and spread spectrum and was too advanced for World War II technology to be able to build it, but twenty years later it became the foundation of cellphones, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth.

Hedy also offered to go to work for the government full-time as an inventor, but they told her she was more valuable as a war-bond seller. She definitely was. She raised more money touring the country and selling kisses than any other Hollywood star, including a record-smashing seven million dollars she raised for the war effort in one night.
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2. IRVING BERLIN

Israel Isidore Baline came to America in 1893. His family like so many others, was fleeing the Tsar’s Jewish pogroms. (Others who did the same thing include Sophie Tucker, Louie B. Mayer, Al Jolson, and George and Ira Gershwin.) Five-year-old Isidore had only one memory of Russia, that of “lying on a blanket by the side of the road, watching his house burn to the ground.” And at first it didn’t look like the US would be any better. He and his brother and five sisters were put in a pen at Ellis Island till they were declared disease-free and their admission was approved.

Once uncaged, Irving set out to earn money by selling newspapers, singing in a saloon, and finally writing songs. And what songs! Here’s a short list:

Alexander’s Ragtime Band
A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody
Always
Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better
Blue Skies
How Deep is the Ocean
Puttin’ on the Ritz
We’re Havin’ a Heat Wave
Let’s Face the Music and Dance
You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun
Dancing Cheek to Cheek
Isn’t This a Lovely Day
I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm
What’ll I Do?
Doin’ What Comes Naturally
Easter Parade
Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails

And that doesn’t even include his three greatest hits–

There’s No Business Like Show Business
White Christmas
and God Bless America
–which Irving said was “not just a song, but an expression of my feelings toward the country to which I owe what I have and what I am.”

Irving’s songs have been sung by everyone from Fred Astaire to Elvis Presley, from Bob Dylan to Ethel Waters, Cher, and Willie Nelson. When fellow composer Jerome Kern was asked to describe Berlin’s place in American music, he said, “Irving Berlin has no PLACE in American music–he IS American music.”
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3. ENRICO FERMI, LEO SZILARD, OTTO FRISCH, RUDOLF PEIERLS, AND ALBERT EINSTEIN

This group of Italian, Hungarian, German, and Austrian physicists who fled from Europe and Hitler’s hatred of (and determination to exterminate) the Jews, were invaluable to the Manhattan Project and the race to beat Hitler in building an atomic bomb.

Einstein jump-started the project with his letter to President Roosevelt about the threat of a German atomic bomb, Leo Szilard came up with the idea of nuclear chain reaction, Enrico Fermi built the first successful nuclear pile, and Otto Frisch and Rudolph Peierls designed the detonation mechanism.

Without them, the war would have been much longer and bloodier, and the thought of Hitler with his hands on the atomic bomb first doesn’t even bear thinking about.
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And last but not least:

4. ANDREW CARNEGIE

Carnegie’s family came to United States from Scotland, fleeing not political persecution, but economic hard times. Once here, Andrew worked as a bobbin boy in a cotton mill and then a telegraph messenger boy. He rose to become a steel tycoon and one of the richest men in America, but it’s what he did with his wealth that makes him exceptional.

He firmly believed that “the man who dies rich, dies disgraced,” and said, “I would as soon leave my son a curse as the almighty dollar,” and he devoted the last years of his life to getting rid of that wealth in productive ways. He founded Carnegie-Mellon University and the Carnegie Foundations for the Advancement of Teaching and for International Peace.

But his most important accomplishment was the building and endowing of nearly three thousand public libraries, many of them in small-towns which would otherwise have had no access to books at all. Those libraries formed the basis of today’s public library system and are still in operation all over the country, from Pittsburgh to little mountain towns in Colorado and hamlets in the Midwest, an amazing legacy of literature.

“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library,” Carnegie wrote, “this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest
consideration.”
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Walter Cronkite wrote of Irving Berlin that he “helped write the story of this country, capturing the best of who we are and the dreams that shape our lives.”

That could be said of everyone on this list. These refugees and immigrants not only contributed to America. They ARE America.

Connie Willis

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WATERGATE II

WEBSITE UPDATE
WATERGATE II

For almost three months after Trump’s election I had no idea what might happen next–a terrible feeling for a science-fiction writer to have, let alone a citizen. But it all seemed so unprecedented and so bizarre. I felt like we were in completely uncharted territory.

I’ve always relied on history to tell me what we might expect from the future, but what was this? Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth? The French Revolution? The RUSSIAN Revolution? Orwell’s 1984? Or none of the above? It didn’t seem to fit any of those categories.

But then, oh happy day, Trump fired Sally Yates (not that I approved!), and I went, “I know what THIS is! It’s the Saturday Night Massacre!” It was like when you’re driving around in a strange part of town, with no idea where you are, and you suddenly spot something you recognize. I knew exactly where I was, and where we were going. This wasn’t uncharted territory. This was Watergate.

I’ve felt that way ever since, and now this week, with Trump’s firing of the FBI Director for either 1) refusing to promise to be completely loyal to Trump, or 2) not shutting down the Russia investigation, and his covering up his real reason by attempting to blame it on the Justice Department, and with the sudden possibility of secret tapes of their meeting and the news that Jared Kushner and Sessions both lied about their meetings with the Russians, I’m more convinced than ever that we’re in Watergate territory.

I have to tell you up front that I was an absolute Watergate junkie. Till it erupted, I had never been particularly political, but I read everything I could find on Watergate, took out subscriptions to TIME and NEWSWEEK, devoured every bit of news, and watched every minute of the Watergate hearings.

This was before the Internet, YouTube, TIVO, or even VCRs, so if you wanted to watch something, you had to watch it then and there. Luckily, I could see the TV from the living room AND the kitchen, so I could get the vacuuming done and dinner cooked while watching and the beds made during commercial breaks. The rest of the time I ironed–that summer not only was every item of our clothing ironed, but also pillowcases, tablecloths, and napkins. Not since then again has my family ever been so neatly pressed.

As I ironed, I took notes, so I could update my husband when he got home. And sometimes I put down the iron and gawped at the screen, because what was happening was more riveting than any soap opera. Like the time someone quoted the Constitution, and Sam Erwin said, “Well, let’s just see what it says,” and pulled out his pocket Constitution. And the time he was questioning Haldeman, who said he’d do anything for the President, and Sam asked him, “Even murder?” and the look on Haldeman’s face was pure malice, and I finally understood what the phrase, “If looks could kill,” really meant.

Or the day Butterfield said, “I don’t know. It might be on the tapes,” and the entire committee leaned forward as one man and said, “Tapes?!”

There’s never been anything like it in American history. Till yesterday. When Trump tweeted, “James Comey better hope that there are no “tapes” of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” And the whole country leaned forward and said, “Tapes?!”.

I know that history never repeats itself exactly. But I see a lot of things going on right now that sure do remind one of Watergate:

1. Nixon saw enemies everywhere and was determined to get revenge on all of them. He kept a secret “enemies list” of politicians and journalists he hated. Woodward and Bernstein were of course at the top, but I vividly remember the day the list was released. “I just got this list,” Daniel Schorr said, standing on the Supreme Court’s steps, and began reading out the names. “Representative John Conyers, Mary McGrory, Paul Newman, Daniel Schorr…” he read. And stopped short, stunned that his own name was on the list.

And don’t think the list was a toothless exercise. Nixon was having the people on the list audited and investigated, using the federal government to carry out revenge for his own personal grudges.

And Trump? After the healthcare debacle, he and Bannon talked about compiling “a shit list” on the Congressmen who voted against him. “He wants a running tally of (the Republicans) who want to sink this…Not sure if I’d call it an enemies list, per se, but I wouldn’t want to be on it.” His longtime aide Omarosa said during the campaign, “Every critic, every detractor, will have to bow down to President Trump. It’s everyone who’s ever doubted Donald, who ever disagreed, who ever challenged him. It is the ultimate revenge to become the most powerful man in the universe.” And, asked after the election about the people who didn’t support him, she elaborated, “Trump has a long memory, and we’re keeping a list.”

2. Nixon absolutely despised the press. Like Trump, he called them “the enemy” and railed constantly about them for refusing to let the Watergate story go. He sent his vice-president Spiro Agnew out to call them “nattering nabobs of negativitism” and say the newspapers were “only fit to line the bottom of bird cages.”

Here’s Trump on the same subject:
“The leaks are real, but the news is fake.”
“You’re dishonest people.”
“Fake News!”
“The news is the enemy of the American people!”

3. Nixon’s downfall wasn’t the break-in, but his attempts to cover it up and his other crimes. He lied about them and got his staff to lie, destroyed documents (including 18 1/2 minutes of tape), suborned witnesses, and tried to pin it all on scapegoats like John Dean when they were brave enough to tell the truth. To quote Paul Begala, “There are two rules in Washington. Number one: The coverup is always worse than the crime. Number two: Nobody ever remembers number one.”

Including Trump. He’s tried to distance himself from General Flynn (as Ralphie from CHRISTMAS STORY would say, “Flick? Flick who?”), he’s claimed he hardly knew his campaign manager Paul Manafort, and never even met Carter Page (who he also said was his top national security adviser and was recently discovered to still be phoning daily.) And none of his staff ever met with the Russians. Well, actually they did, but just to exchange pleasantries. Well, actually they might have discussed sanctions, they can’t remember.

Trump’s national security adviser General Flynn lied about meeting with the Russians and being paid by them, Trump’s son-in-law lied about meeting with Kislyak. It’s been reported that White House staffers are deleting their phones in advance of a possible FBI investigation, and that the FBI, CIA, and NSA were ordered by the White House to “find anything” that might back up Trump’s outrageous tweet that Obama had had him wire-tapped. And now Trump has forbidden the release of the White House visitor logs to keep people from finding out who he’s met with. And fired the FBI Director to shut down the investigation, which looks very much like a cover-up.

But it’s not just that the cover-up is worse than the crime, it’s that the cover-up attempts make it more likely you’ll be found out. When Woodward was sent to cover a break-in at Democratic headquarters at the Watergate, his interest was piqued by the fact that a White House lawyer had showed up to represent the two burglars. But what really made his journalistic antennae perk up was when he asked, “Who called you?” and the lawyer said, “I’m not here.”

Likewise, when Nunes called a press conference to announce that he’d found proof that Obama did wiretap Trump, he refused to say where he’d gotten the information, which made the press curious. But what really perked up THEIR antennae was the fact that his staff said he’d been in an Uber car with them the night before, gotten a call on his smartphone, suddenly ordered the driver to stop the car, and jumped out and ran off into the night. (We’ve since found out the whole thing was cooked up by two Trump aides and that Nunes had gotten the information from the White House.)

And look at these headlines:
“Trump looks like someone with a lot to hide.”–The Chicago Tribune
“Latest leads who Trump sure acts like a guilty person.”–NJ.com
“Trump is Very Guilty, Very Stupid, or Very Much Both”–Daily Banter

4. At first Watergate looked like a bunch of isolated incidents. There was the break-in, and there were a bunch of mysteriously large checks to the Committee to Re-Elect the President and some indications that Gordon Liddy had been investigating Ted Kennedy, but none of them were connected to anything else–or to the President. It was only after many months that the connections linking them began to show up.

Ditto with Trump. We have a Russian oligarch who bought a house from Trump for a ridiculous price and whose plane (or yacht) seems to show up wherever Trump does, we have Erik Prince (who heads up Blackwater and is Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s brother) holding a secret meeting in the Seychelles, a bank in Cyprus that Trump’s commerce secretary was vice-president of and that has ties to Russian oligarchs and money laundering, and a number of meetings between the Russian ambassador and Trump officials, including an attempt by Jared Kushner to set up a secret “backchannel” in the Russian embassy, and rumors that there was a “golden showers” incident that happened when Trump was in Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant and that might have been taped and is being used to blackmail him, but the connection between all these events has not yet come clear. Trust me, it will.

5. The underlying charge in both investigations is the same–cheating to win an election. The break-in at Democratic headquarters was only one of many crimes–C.R.E.E.P. had broken into Eagleton’s psychiatrist’s office, forced Eagleton to drop out of the race, discredited Democratic presidential campaigns, disrupted their campaigns, leaked “fake news” items to the press, and tried to get dirt on all Nixon’s opponents, all in order to win re-election for Nixon.

The possible charge against Trump is that he colluded with the Russians to rig the election in exchange for a relaxing of the sanctions against Russians and letting them have Crimea (and maybe the Ukraine.). The Director of National Intelligence and the heads of the FBI, CIA, and NSA issued a joint report saying that the highest levels of the Kremlin were involved in trying to defeat Hillary Clinton and elect Trump. It’s known that Carter Page, General Flynn, Jared Kushner, and Manafort had meetings with Russian oligarchs and intelligence agents.

6, It’s a maddeningly slow process. The Watergate break-in happened in June of 1972 and Woodward and Bernstein started writing about it then. By October, the FBI had established that it stemmed from a “massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of the Nixon re-election effort,” but in November, Nixon was re-elected in a landslide, and he didn’t resign till August of 1974.

In between, there was a steady stream of stories about payoffs, dirty tricks, attempts to retaliate against journalists, buggings, abuses of power, denials–“I am not a crook!”, court battles, firings, obstructions of justice, and guilty pleas, each of which should have resulted in Nixon’s immediate resignation, but didn’t.

In the end, it wasn’t any one event that did Nixon in, but the steady “drip, drip, drip” of leaks and evidence coming out on an almost daily basis–and seeming to have no effect at the time.

Looking back, Nixon’s impeachment and resignation seems inevitable. But, trust me, it didn’t at the time. I remember revelation after revelation that seemed to have no effect at all, and I frequently thought, “WHAT will it take before people wake up and realized they’ve got to get rid of this guy?”

My only companion in my outrage and frustration (besides my husband) was our minister’s wife. She was from Czechoslovakia and got out on the last train in World War II before they closed the border, so she recognized all the warning signs. She and I sang in the church choir, and every week we compared notes, commiserated, and tried to convert our fellow choir members but they were a) paying no attention at all, b) thought it was much ado about nothing, or c) knew the President of the United States couldn’t possibly be involved.

The tipping point was incredibly slow in coming. There was no gradual growing awareness of the severity of the situation, no increasing number of people who agreed with us. No nothing–even after the hearings–and Olga and I began to think, “He’s going to get away with it.”

And then, bang, just like that, the tipping point came, and it all went so fast we almost missed it.

For Watergate, the tipping point was the Saturday Night Massacre, when, rather than turn  the tapes over, Nixon ordered his Attorney General Elliott Richardson to fire the special prosecutor who’d asked for the tapes. Richardson refused. So did Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus. Nixon fired both of them and finally got Acting Attorney General Robert Bork to do his dirty work for him. Trumpgate or Russiagate or whatever the hell this will end up being called will not go exactly the same way. As Mark Twain is said to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Here, the Saturday Night Massacre and the firing of an FBI Director came at the beginning, not the end. And we have no idea what the tipping point may be.

But we do know that the firings have led to outrage and more intense investigation. And more leaks, more news stories.

Drip, drip, drip…

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BOOKS I LOVE, PART 2: OXFORD BRANCH

BOOKS I LOVE, PART 2: OXFORD BRANCH

When I visited England the first time, the place I most wanted to go was Oxford, the home of some of my favorite writers.  I wanted to see the Bridge of Sighs where Lord Peter proposed to Harriet, and the gate of Christ Church where Peter’s nephew collided with Harriet and spilled the bag of meringues, and the deanery garden at Christ Church, where Charles Dodgson first met the Liddell girls, and then I wanted to go have a pint (well, of shandy) at the Eagle and Child, where the Inklings used to meet to read and critique each other’s manuscripts.

Many of my favorite writers are associated with Oxford and/or wrote about it.  Here are some of my favorite books of theirs:

THE PERELANDRA TRILOGY by C.S. Lewis

I discovered the Inklings, that band of writers who assembled at the pub, the Eagle and Child (or, as they called it, the Bird and Baby) and which included C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and assorted other professors and writers, through C.S. Lewis, whose work I first read in college.  I loved his religious allegories–THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS and THE GREAT DIVORCE and A GRIEF OBSERVED–and his reworking of the story of Psyche and Eros:  TILL WE HAVE FACES.  It’s probably his best work.  Because his faith is so intertwined with his writing, he can sometimes be annoyingly preachy, but in TILL WE HAVE FACES, he’s working outside that world, so that he focuses entirely on the story, and when he does that, there’s nobody better.

But my favorite C.S. Lewis work has got to be the PERELANDRA trilogy–OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, PERELANDRA, AND THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH.  It’s part science fiction, part religious allegory, and full of fascinating ideas.  Especially about the nature of evil, which Lewis sees not as grandly Mephistophelian or even clever, like Ray Walston in DAMNED YANKEES, but petty and pointless and gratuitously cruel.  His scene with Weston and the Venusian frogs has stayed with me for fifty years.  Plus, THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH has a great Merlin in it.  And Coventry.

Lewis is one of those writers who’s just exploding with ideas, and is full of opinions, with the result that the meetings of the Inklings were often contentious (especially after Lewis, who’d refused to allow women into the group, insisted that his wife be included), and I have a feeling that if I’d been allowed into the Inklings, I would have been mad at Lewis most of the time.  As it is, I disagree with lots of what he says, but he’s still one of the most interesting writers I know, and I highly recommend his work.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS by J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien was responsible for my getting married.  I’m not kidding.  When I was a senior in college I flew out to Connecticut over spring break to break up with my boyfriend (which for some unknown reason I thought it would be kinder to do in person).  Flights took even longer than they do now, so I went to the bookstore to find something to read on the flight, and picked up a trilogy with strange pinkish and purple creatures on the front.

I knew nothing at all about Tolkien at that point–it was way before “Frodo Lives” and decades before Peter Jackson and Viggo Mortensen, but the blurb on the back looked intriguing, and from the moment I opened up the first volume and read, “In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit,” I was entranced.  Here was a fairy tale–for grownups!

By the time I arrived at Newark Airport, I was so deep in the story and so worried about Frodo and Sam and Merry and Pippin I couldn’t think about anything else.  “The Black Riders are after them,” I told my boyfriend, “and nobody knows what’s happened to Gandalf, and I’m not sure they should trust Strider,” and completely forgot to break up with my boyfriend.  As a result, we are about to celebrate our fiftieth wedding anniversary, and I’m still in love with him, and with LORD OF THE RINGS.

Tolkien gets all sorts of praise for creating languages and inventing an entire world, complete with geographic, history, and maps, but it’s the story that keeps us riveted–the tale of a small, ordinary person (just like us) who finds himself caught up in events beyond his control and beyond his abilities, facing enemies of great power, somebody who can’t possibly win but who simply has to.  It’s a timeless story that never gets old.  I’ve read it many times, and it only gets better each time.

If you’ve never read it, you should probably start at the beginning and read THE HOBBIT first.  And I’d also recommend Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy Stories.”  But skip The SILMARILLION.

  1. DESCENT INTO HELL Charles Williams

Charles Williams, the third of the Inkling triumvirate, is the least known of them.  I once got into a fight with a clerk at Blackwell’s because they didn’t have a single one of his books.  “How can you not have Charles Williams?” I said.  “He was an Inkling.  He lived here.  And he worked for the Oxford University Press!”

He may be the least known, but to my mind he’s the best of them.  Tolkien’s the best storyteller, C.S.  Lewis has the clearest prose style, but Williams has the most imagination.  I know that sounds like an unlikely claim when you’re talking about the authors who invented Perelandra and Middle Earth, but it’s true.  Williams’s books are so strange and visionary that there’s simply no way to describe them.

Some reviewers have called them “supernatural thrillers,” which has an element of truth to it, but gives completely the wrong impression.  Others have called them “religious mysteries,” and one even said he wrote about the occult and “talking animals,” which gives totally the wrong impression.

But I can understand their difficulty–I have no idea how to describe them either.  They do deal with the supernatural–and I guess they are thrillers–there are villains and car chases and even murders–but none of those definitions do his books justice or tell what they’re actually about.  WAR IN HEAVEN, for instance, begins with the finding of the Holy Grail in a little church in rural England.  ALL HALLOW’S EVE begins with the heroine standing on Westminster Bridge, looking across the Thames at the plane crash in which she has just been killed, and in THE GREATER TRUMPS, the figures on the Tarot cards come to life and head out into the world. And they’re all full of unsettling insights about love and faith and reality.

DESCENT INTO HELL begins with the heroine, on her way home from a play rehearsal, seeing her doppelganger walking toward her.  It also involves a suicide, trapped in a half-constructed netherworld of two-by-fours and ladders and scaffolding.  It’s also about a martyr being burned at the stake and a play that may be more than a play–and the true meaning of bearing one another’s burdens.  A brilliant book.

It’s like no other book you’ve ever read, eerie and touching and infinitely strange, and the only things remotely like it are Williams’ other novels.

They’re sometimes difficult to read.  Reading Williams’ prose can sometimes be like hacking your way through a thicket, and on several occasions I’ve reached the end of a page only to think, “I have no idea what I’ve just read,” and have to go back and read it again, but his books are definitely worth the effort.

  1. GAUDY NIGHT by Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy Sayers didn’t just live in Oxford, she went to Somerville College and worked at Blackwell’s Bookstore.  She also wrote about it, and her mystery Gaudy Night is probably the best novel ever written about Oxford.

Not only does it have punting on the river, the May Day celebration on top of Magdalen Tower, dinner in a college hall, getting caught out after hours, and a concert at the Sheldonian, but it’s about Oxford, the scholarly research and the faculty infighting and the undergraduate excesses.  And the spell it casts over anyone who spends time in the “city of dreaming spires.”  Plus, it has the delightful romance between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, though to get the full effect of that, you need to read STRONG POISON, HAVE HIS CARCASE, GAUDY NIGHT, and BUSMAN’S HONEYMOON in order.

I took a walking tour in Oxford one time with a bunch of tourists who yawned at the sight of Shelley’s Memorial and Lawrence of Arabia’s college and Einstein’s blackboard.  But when the tour guide showed us the Bridge of Sighs, and said, “This is where Lord Peter proposed to Harriet Vane,” everyone took their cameras out and began clicking madly away, in spite of the fact that they weren’t real.

But that’s just the point–they are real, and they’ve made just as indelible a mark on Oxford as Einstein and T.E. Lawrence and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Sayers’ other mystery novels are good, too.  I especially recommend Murder Must Advertise, Clouds of Witness and Nine Tailors.

  1. ALICE IN WONDERLAND and THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS by Lewis Carroll.

Charles Dodgson is even more of an Oxford writer than Sayers or the Inklings.  Not only was he a professor at Christ Church his whole life, but his rooms overlooked the deanery garden where he saw the Liddell girls playing and were right across the street from the little shop he immortalized in THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS as the Sheep Shop and just up the way from the river up which he took Alice and her sisters on that most famous of all picnics.

ALICE and THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS are quoted far more than they’re read (in fact more often than anything else besides Shakespeare and the Bible and there’s been a sharp increase in these Wonderland-like times.  I must have heard, “We’re really down the rabbit hole now,” at least a dozen times in recent days, followed closely by references to Alice’s telling Humpty Dumpty, “The question is whether you can make words so many different things,” and Humpty Dumpty’s replying, “The question is which is to be master–that’s all” and to the Red Queen.) but you really should read the books themselves, especially if you haven’t since you were a kid.

Alice is wonderful, the voice of common sense in a world in which everyone else is clearly mad.  Except for the White Knight, who’s one of my favorite characters in all of literature.

I’d also recommend watching DREAMCHILD, a movie about the real Alice and Charles Dodgson, and SyFy’s miniseries, ALICE, a Nick Welling miniseries set in Wonderland a hundred years after the original Alice visited.  It’s a science-fictional take on the story, with Wonderland a dystopian place, Hatter as a drug-dealer, and unexpected takes on the Dormouse, Owl, and Caterpillar.

DREAMCHILD is a British film about a real event.  In 1932, Alice Liddell was invited to accept a posthumous honor for Dodgson at Columbia University, and the movie tells the story of her trip to America, during which unsettling memories of her childhood and the books begin drifting to the surface.  It stars Ian Holm and Coral Browne, and is unfortunately nearly impossible to locate, but it’s worth the search.  It’s my favorite movie of all time.  Absolutely beautiful.

Connie Willis

 

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Crosstalk – News and Information

crosstalklg

Crosstalk by Connie Willis is being published by Del Rey on October 4th, 2016.

Part romantic comedy and part social satire, here one of science fiction’s most lauded authors examines the consequences of having too much connectivity, and what happens in a world where, suddenly, nothing is private.

One of science fiction’s premiere humorists turns her eagle eye to the crushing societal implications of telepathy. In a not-too-distant future, a simple outpatient procedure that has been promised to increase empathy between romantic partners has become all the rage. So when Briddey Flannigan’s fiancé proposes that he and Briddey undergo the procedure, she is delighted! Only…the results aren’t quite as expected. Instead of gaining an increased empathetic link with her fiancé, Briddey finds herself hearing the actual thoughts of one of the nerdiest techs in her office. And that’s the least of her problems.

For more information, visit the GoodReads page for Crosstalk

There will also be a signed limited edition from Subterranean Press Note that the book summary there I’d consider much more spoilerly than the one above.

The U.K. edition is being published in paperback by Gollancz on September 15, 2016.

http://www.gollancz.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/9781473200937_Crosstalk_TPB.jpg

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Website Update 4/4/17 – WonderCon

4-4-17–WEBSITE UPDATE–WONDERCON

Just a quick post to tell everybody I’m back from Wondercon in Anaheim and to say thanks to all of you who made it a great con for me, especially to all those people who came to my events. I had two panels and a solo event over the course of three days, with signings after them (signings which were almost the full length of the arena away from the meeting rooms.) In spite of that, many hardy souls came to all three events AND the signings, and I really appreciated it.

A few of you said you were afraid I thought you were stalking me, but not only did I not think that, but I was really happy to see you. Every writer’s fear is that no one will show up at their events, and Comicons aren’t exactly a place where science fiction writers are the main event. Most people are there to see the cast of their favorite show or the author of their favorite comics–or to buy a bunch of T-shirts and collectibles. So I was afraid things might be a bit thin on the ground. Happily, that was not the case, and I loved that I got a chance to talk to so many of you for more than a hurried couple of minutes.

(BTW None of you acted ANYTHING like stalkers. Trust me. I have met stalkers.)

Thanks also to Cordelia’s friends, who came and kept me company at one of my signings and to my handlers, who got me to my events on time and steered me efficiently through the crowds.

And many thanks to Michael Cassutt and Michael Toman, who drove down to see me, braving the traffic and the parking so we could have a great dinner together–and who discovered a Starbucks without a horrendous (we’re talking fifty people here) line and showed me where it was. I spent the rest of the entire convention there. THANK YOU, Michaels.

Connie Willis

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Don’t Kill the NEH

DON’T KILL THE NEH

With the newly-released Trump budget slaughtering everything from the PEA and Appalachian job retraining programs to ebola vaccines, climate change research, Big Bird, school lunches, and Meals on Wheels, the killing off of the National Endowment for the Humanities may seem too small a thing to get worked up about, but it’s a critical program, and one I have a very personal stake in.

For those of you who don’t know about the National Endowment for the Humanities(NEH), it, along with the better-known National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), does a whole variety of things: it gives grants to libraries, museums, historical societies, and schools, and sponsors writing projects, films, and exhibitions.

It’s funded Ken Burns’ documentaries, THE CIVIL WAR, JAZZ, and BASEBALL (which all by itself should make it worth saving); published the Library of America editions of the classics, financed the TREASURES OF TUTANKHAMEN travelling museum exhibition, funded the complication of the DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN REGIONAL ENGLISH, and sponsored the U.S. Newspaper Project, which has digitized (and saved) the newspapers of the early Republic.

It’s also helped literary critics, historians, and other scholars research, write, and publish books. It’s awarded honorariums to American scholars who’ve communicated the humanities “in an accessible and appealing way,” people like Toni Morrison, Robert Penn Warrant, and Arthur Miller. And it’s given grants to poets and writers to enable them to pursue their writing.

In 1980, I received an NEH Writer’s Grant. I had been writing science-fiction stories for 10 years with only marginal success and very little remuneration. I’d been substitute teaching, but I was rapidly approaching a time where I was going to have to “fish or cut bait”: get a real teaching job and give up on my ridiculous dream of being a writer.

Enter the writing grant, which not only enabled me to write for another year, but made me feel like someone had faith in me and I wasn’t just wasting my time.

The money from the grant also made it possible for me to go to England, where I did the research for “Fire Watch” and DOOMSDAY BOOK and first got the idea for my two-volume London Blitz novel, BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR. It also enabled me to buy a bunch of research books, including Leonard Mosley’s invaluable BACKS TO THE WALL, Mollie Panter-Downs’s wartime journal, and the Mass Observation diaries, and to do the initial research which culminated in my writing “Jack,” “Lost and Found,” TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG, and “The Winds of Marble Arch.”

People often say that if you really want to write, you can overcome any obstacle, and maybe I would have continued to write if I hadn’t gotten the grant. But it’s also possible that I would have given up or given in, like so many writers I’ve known over the years who fell by the wayside because they had to take a full-time job or care for an aging parent or deal with illness or divorce or financial reverses. Or all of the above. Who knows what a grant at the right time might have done for them.

I know what it did for me. Thanks to the money it provided, I was able to keep writing and do the research that fueled future works. It tided me over till I could justify writing full-time. By the time the money was gone, my career was launched, I’d won a Hugo and two Nebulas, one of them for “Fire Watch,” and I was publishing regularly in GALILEO and ASIMOV’S SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE. And I’d decided not to go back to teaching, but to keep writing. Which I did for the rest of my life.

Now, I realize that seeing to it that one writer continued to write may not seem like much, but I was not the only writer who benefited from those grants, and if they were anything like me, they worked hard to pay back the government’s investment in them–and to pay it forward.

In my case, I’ve taught writers’ workshops; lectured at public libraries, library conferences, science conferences, and universities; taught elementary, middle-school, high-school and college students; worked with my state’s arts council; donated books, manuscripts, and money to libraries; and tried to share my love of books, literature, and science fiction wherever and whenever I could.

Literature isn’t just some frill of the “elites.” It’s absolutely essential. Our country is what it is not only because of the explorers and farms and miners and steelworkers who forged it, but because of the novelists and poets who wrote about it: Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. And Toni Morrison and Ken Burns. The humanities are what give our country its soul, and we can’t afford to lose that.

As Lyndon Baines Johnson said when he started the NEH, “Art is a nation’s most precious heritage, for it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and others the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.” We are in more need than ever of a uniting vision for our country. Keep the National Endowment for the Humanities alive.

NOTE: Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security weren’t addressed in this phase of the budget (they’re in the next go-round) and Trump’s promised not to touch them, but since his health care plan has already decimated Medicaid, I don’t think we should trust him. So I need to give credit for my success not only to the NEH, but to the Social Security Survivor’s Benefits program.

That’s what got me through college. My mother died when I was twelve, leaving me in the “care” of my stepfather, and when I began applying to colleges, he refused to fill out the financial need forms on the grounds that it was “nobody’s goddamned business” how much he made. Without the information (and his signature), I couldn’t qualify for any financial aid at all and was not sure I could even get into college.

A wonderful high school counselor who understood my situation somehow managed to get me a scholarship that covered my tuition and a job in the dining hall, but it still wasn’t enough to get me through, and without the help of those survivor’s benefits (which I began to collect at age 18 when the payments were transferred from my stepfather to me), I simply couldn’t have gone to college–where I majored in English lit, fell in love with Shakespeare, and was first introduced to Dickens, T.S. Eliot, Trollope, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and all the other writers who’ve inspired me through the years–and who taught me to write.

Ronald Reagan was fond of saying the government’s the problem, not the solution, and that the most frightening words someone can say to you are, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.”

But he was dead wrong. The NEH grant and Social Security survivors’ benefits were from the government, and they both helped me immeasurably. As so many government programs help other people. We need to make sure they’re around to help the next generation, too.

Connie Willis

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BOOKS I LOVE: PART I – BOOKS ABOUT BOOKS

BOOKS I LOVE: PART I
BOOKS ABOUT BOOKS

Recently a reader wrote to ask what some of the books I liked were, saying, “I would love to read authors/stories that she enjoys.” I totally get that. Many of my favorite books were first recommended to me by authors. I read The Pickwick Papers because the March girls had a Pickwick Club in Little Women, read Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” because Anne was acting it out in Anne of Green Gables, and discovered Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat because Kip’s dad was reading it in Have Space Suit, will Travel. So I’d be happy to share some of the books I love.

But making a list of all of them will take far more than one post, so I’ll start with one category of books I’ve always adored, and one which has been on my mind a lot lately since I’ve been writing a story about a mysterious bookshop, and that’s stories about books.

Here are some of my favorites:

1. 84 CHARING CROSS ROAD by Helene Hanff.

I think I saw the movie of this, with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins (before he turned into a cannibal) first, and it’s great, but I’d recommend doing it the other way around and reading the book first. It’s composed entirely of the correspondence between booklover Helene and the bookshop Marks & Company (at 84 Charing Cross Road) as she orders hard-to-find books in the years immediately following World War II and gradually develops a friendship with the owner of the bookshop. Like all epistolary books, the story exists entirely between the lines, which is why it’s so funny and sweet and touching.

2. A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Betty Smith.

This book about a girl growing up in New York City in the early 1900s was loaned to me when I was ten or so, by somebody who thought I’d like it, and I adored it, even though I was probably too young to really understand it. But I totally identified with Francie, who loved to read and spent all her time in the public library. At one point, she decided to read her way alphabetically through the library, so I decided to do that, too, and discovered all sorts of books I’d never have read otherwise: Bess Streeter Aldrich’s A Lantern in Her Hand, Margery Allingham’s A Tiger in the Smoke, Peter Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place (about which more later), and Peter DeVries’s Washed in the Blood of the Lamb, which had the memorable line, “The recognition of how long, how long is the mourner’s bench upon which we sit, arms linked in undeluded friendship, all of us, brief links, ourselves, in the eternal pity.”

Unfortunately, I’d only made it through part of the D’s when I discovered science fiction and I abandoned Francie’s plan to read everything with a spaceship-and-atom symbol on the sign.
And then the Rocky Mountain News published a pages-long insert of “Books Every Well-Read Person Should Read,” and I started my way through that. But Francie’s plan was a great plan, and if I didn’t have a miles-high stack of unread books to get through, I’d start up where I left off.

3. MATILDA by Roald Dahl.

This is another one where I saw the movie first and then read the book, and they’re both wonderful. It’s the story of a little girl living in an awful situation with wretched parents and a truly scary school headmistress who rescues herself with the aid of a little telekinesis and a lot of books. Oddly, since Dahl is such a great writer, it’s the movie that has the best line: “These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message. ‘You are not alone.'”

4. SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES by Ray Bradbury.

This novel about a strange and ominous carnival that comes to town has one of the most evocative and frightening scenes set in a library that I’ve ever seen. Bradbury obviously loved libraries–and books–and he writes them in many of his works, from Zen in the Art of Writing to Fahrenheit 451. My favorite, though, is “The Exiles,” his short story about what happens to books–and the imaginary worlds they create–when they’re no longer read.

5. THE NAME OF THE ROSE by Umberto Eco.

This award-winning book is a mystery novel about a medieval monk investigating a suicide that might be a murder, but it’s the strange, labyrinthine library that’s the real mystery, and Eco has some truly profound things to say about books. Like: “Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside of books. Now I realized that not infrequently books spoke among themselves…(the library) was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a known mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or been their conveyors.”

And finally, my absolute favorite:

6. THE UNCOMMON READER by Alan Bennett.

This delightful little book (it’s actually a novella) tells the story of what happens when Queen Elizabeth II stumbles across a bookmobile parked on the grounds of Buckingham Palace. It’s actually there for the staff, but when the Queen asks if she can check out some books, they’re hardly in a position to say no, are they? The Queen’s never had the opportunity to read for pleasure before and her takes on literary classics are wonderfully original and funny. But reading, as we all know, is a highly subversive activity, and there are all sorts of unforeseen consequences to her launching into literature.

The first time I read The Uncommon Reader, I was very nervous. I hadn’t read Bennett before, though I knew he’d written the screenplays for The History Boys and The Madness of King George. The book ambled along amusingly enough, but I didn’t know whether he actually knew what he was doing, or whether the story would peter out or take some awful turn (like so many books), and I’d be sorry I’d ever started it. But he knew EXACTLY where he was going and what he was doing, and when I reached the end I was both surprised and delighted. So then I promptly read it again–and gave it to every booklover I knew for Christmas.

I hope this list will be enough books to get you started. Good reading!

Connie Willis

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WEBSITE UPDATE 2/12/2017 – ED BRYANT’S DEATH

WEBSITE UPDATE 2/12/2017
ED BRYANT’S DEATH

Ed Bryant in 2016 Photo by Gage Skidmore

I got really sad news on Friday–Edward Bryant, my dear friend and fellow SF writer, had died. I say “sad” rather than “terrible” because he had been ill for a very long time, struggling with the complications of the diabetes he’d had since he was 18 and which was now affecting his heart and eyes and shutting down his kidneys (he was supposed to start dialysis in the next couple of months.) So in some ways his death was probably a blessing to him.

But certainly not to us. My family and I have known him for over forty years. He had dinner with us countless times (and especially one memorably snowed-in Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s house), taught my daughter Cordelia to hang spoons from her nose, and loved talking to my husband about science, especially on the trip to the total eclipse we took to Montana in 1979. (I feel so bad he won’t be here for this summer’s eclipse. It’ll be right in his hometown, Wheatland, Wyoming.)

He was one of my best friends, and I’d rather have talked to him than anybody. He was smart, witty, and full of fascinating stories about horror movies and urban legends and weird news articles. At our last dinner a mere two weeks ago at Cosine, an SF convention in Colorado Springs, he had all sorts of wry and insightful comments about Saturday Night Live, the movie Hidden Figures, and Donald Trump.

But he was not just a friend. He was also a mentor to me before that term even became popular. He taught me how to write, how to critique, how to find my way around the complex maze of the science fiction world without getting in trouble. He encouraged me to go to conventions, introduced me to everyone he knew (and he knew everybody from Jack Williamson to Harlan Ellison to George R.R. Martin) and got me onto panels. He even got me my first Hugo nomination by relentlessly talking me up to everybody.

He was completely without ego, even though he was a two-time Nebula-award-winning short story writer. (He should have won far more, including for “Shark,” “The Hibakusha Gallery,” and his brilliant “Particle Theory,” which, ironically, was about a man facing the prospect of his own death.)

He wasn’t just a terrific writer. He was also a terrific teacher. He founded the Southern Colorado and Northern Colorado Writers’ Workshops and ran Milford, the by-invitation weeklong writers’ workshop established by Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm, bringing together an astonishing array of writers over the years:
George R.R. Martin
James Patrick Kelly
Carol Emshwiller
Cynthia Felice
David Gerrold
Eve McKenna
Kevin O’Donnell
Simon Hawke
Melanie Tem
Steve Rasnik Tem
John Stith
David Dvorkin
Pamela Zoline
John Kessel
Ronnie Seagren
John Peyton Cooke
Marie Desjardin
John Dunning
Catherine Montrose Cooke
David Skal
Pete Alterman
Karl Hansen
Mark Barsotti
Michael Toman
Bill Wu
Wil McCarthy
and countless others. He brought us together, made us into friends, fostered fascinating conversations, and created a community which became a major influence on the science-fiction field.

And in his spare time (ha!) he taught Clarion West and many other writers’ conferences, emceed the World Fantasy Convention, the World Science Fiction Convention in Denver–on roller skates, no less–the Nebulas (with me as co-host) and, on one occasion, a hilarious version of the Dating Game.

He was central to the field, and his influence and importance can’t be overestimated. I’m only one of many authors who owe their career to him.

But it’s Ed the friend I will really miss–the one who gave me Guardians of the Galaxy wrapping paper (I collect wrapping paper) and Edward Gorey’s THE WILLOWDALE HANDCAR for Christmas, introduced me to Peter Straub’s work, found me copes of Charles Williams’ books, who drove with me and Charles N. Brown to Jack Williamson’s Lectureship for years, and who was the kindest, nicest, best friend anyone could have. Oh, Ed, I’ll miss you so!

And yet I’m still not sorry he’s gone. To quote Swinburne:

From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives forever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.

Oh, Ed, may you find rest and peace and a heaven full of horror movies and SF conventions. And may we meet there and be friends all over again!

NOTE: I will be writing a longer memorial to Ed for Locus and will provide a link to it when it’s published.

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MY 2017 NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS

Website Update–2017 New Year’s Resolutions–1-24-17

MY NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS

My New Year’s resolutions are always late and always the same–write more, eat more fruits and vegetables, clean the basement, do my New Year’s resolutions on time. Not this year, though. We’re heading into uncharted territory with our new president (if we’re not there already), and a different set of resolutions is definitely called for. After all, as one of my characters once said, emergency situations demand emergency measures. So here’s what I’m going to do.

1. Speak up.

2. Protest.

3. Write–or better yet, call up– my Senator, Congressman, the Speaker of the House, the head of the Senate, and the heads of committees, and tell them exactly what I think and what I expect them to do. I also intend to remind them they work for me. (Note: According to veterans working in Washington, phone calls are the most effective, followed by handwritten letters, e-mails and online petitions not so much, although (unless Trump abolishes it) petitions with more than a hundred thousand signatures have to be formally answered by the administration.

4. Subscribe to the Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Newsweek, Talking Points Memo, and Daily Kos. Trump’s announced his intention to shut journalism down, make them “pay the price” for reporting negative things about him, and sue papers for libel, and Steve Bannon just told the press to shut up, so I’m going to need reporters to ferret out the truth and tell it to me, and they can’t do it without backing. (I didn’t list the New York Times because I already buy it and read it every day at Starbucks.)

5. Donate regularly to the ACLU, CREW, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, and the Human Rights Campaign so that they’ll have the money to fend off attacks and fight for my (and other people’s) civil rights.

6. Read. Right now everybody’s reading Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and George Orwell’s 1984 (it’s Number 1 on Amazon right now.) These are all excellent ideas, but I think I’ll re-read Scott Peck’s The People of the Lie, which is about the nature of evil and the nature of people who practice it by the psychiatrist who worked with many of the people who participated in the My Lai massacre, instead. Peck desperately wanted to understand how ordinary people could come to commit atrocities, and the answers were not at all what you’d expect. I’ve thought about this book every day since I first read it, but I want to read it again, this time with a focus on what’s happening right now, especially since Trump has said he wants to bring back torture “whether it works or not.”

I’m also going to read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and try to remember that 1) tipping points always take longer than you think they should and 2) while events are building up to a tipping point, it doesn’t look like anything at all is happening.

7. Do some research on Oliver Cromwell and his takeover of England in 1653. He picked fights, started wars, smashed everything connected to previous rulers (the list of destroyed stained glass windows, statues, treasures, books, and people is absolutely sickening), and nearly destroyed England in the process. But not quite. And when the monarchy was returned to power, the people dug up his body, hung it in chains, cut off his head, and put it on a spike. So how did he go from being a successful leader of a movement, beloved by the people, to someone they hated so much they wanted to kill him even though he was already dead? I think the answers to that might be helpful. And I think it might also be helpful to realize that this isn’t the first time something like this has happened.

8. Re-watch Spotlight and All the President’s Men, which are both about how ordinary people brought down people much more powerful than they were, in the case of Spotlight the Catholic hierarchy in Boston (and eventually in much of the world) who were covering up and protecting pedophiles and in All the President’s Men, the President of the United States.

I especially plan to re-watch the last scene of All the President’s Men. It shows Nixon winning the election in spite of his dirty tricks and Woodward and Bernstein’s damning investigation. You can see Nixon speaking triumphantly to cheering crowds on the televisions in the nearly empty newsroom as Woodward and Bernstein sit at their desks, patiently continuing to type their news stories even though they’ve lost the battle. But then, just as you’re beginning to despair, the screen focuses in on the headlines they’re typing: “Hunt Pleads Guilty….Magruder Pleads Guilty…Colson Pleads Guilty… Mitchell, Haldeman, Ehrlichman Guilty on All Counts…Tapes Show Nixon Approved Coverup….Nixon Resigns.”

9. Re-watch Sondheim’s Into the Woods–both the movie and the play. Into the Woods is all about people who suddenly find themselves facing disasters only partly (or not at all) of their making, and realizing the only way to face them is together. I also plan to listen to the soundtrack–especially “Your Fault” and “The Last Midnight,” with its way-too-close-for-comfort line, “No, of course what matters is the blame. Somebody to blame.” And I plan to put the song that really matters on repeat in my car: “No One is Alone.”

10. Keep writing. In the movie Enigma, about Beltchley Park during World War II, one of the characters says, “You can only fight your own war,” and that’s so true. Sometimes it seems like it’s a betrayal to spend any time not fighting against Trump, but literature has a role to play, too. I remember a speech one time that outlined everything happening in politics in 1884 (all of which have been completely forgotten) and then saying, “Why have I spent all this time on 1884? Because something else happened that year. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was published.” It changed the world. Fiction matters. So I plan to keep fighting my own personal war against chaos and violence and keep writing.

11. Put what Ben Bradlee said to Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men up on my refrigerator and above my desk:

“Nothing’s riding on this except the First Amendment of
the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the
future of the country. Not that any of that matters.”

And:

“Wit is the only wall between us and the dark.”
Mark Van Doren

And:

“As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is
one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the
scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to
us in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind
the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness…
Hang onto your hat. Hang onto your hope. And wind the
clock, for tomorrow is another day.”
E.B. White, responding to a letter-writer in 1973

Connie Willis

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BELLWETHER, LIBRARY CULLING, AND SAVING THE BOOKS WE LOVE

In my short novel, BELLWETHER, my heroine Sandra made a practice of checking out her favorite books and the classics to keep them from being summarily discarded by the public library. I did that because I’d had a terrible experience with my own library, who I caught throwing out their entire set of Beany Malone books.

“What are you doing?” I said, horrified. “Those are by Lenora Mattingly Weber, one of Colorado’s best writers. A whole generation of girls grew up on the Beany Malone books. They’re classics.”

“Nobody checked them out,” the librarian explained. “If a book hasn’t been checked out in a year, it gets discarded and put in the library book sale.”

Where if it doesn’t sell, it gets taken to the landfill, she should have added. And it doesn’t matter if the book’s a bestseller or a classic of literature. (If you don’t believe me, go to your local library and try looking for MOBY DICK. Or Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN. Or THREE MEN IN A BOAT.

Or a copy of Arthur Conan Doyle’s THE COMING OF THE FAIRIES, with the original photos taken of the Cottingley fairies (or some fairy paper dolls) by the little girls. My library got rid of that, too, even though it sells for upwards of eight hundred dollars on AbeBooks. “Nobody wanted to read it,” the librarian explained.

“And now nobody will ever get the chance to because IT’S NOT HERE,” I said and tried to explain that I frequently used books for research in the library, so just because they weren’t being checked out didn’t mean people weren’t reading them, but to no avail. So I started making sure I checked out books I wanted the library to keep and ranted about the problem in BELLWETHER, and over the years a lot of people (including librarians) have told me they did the same thing.

Librarians throwing out books is bad enough, but now apparently it’s reached a whole new level, and it’s not just librarians doing it, it’s computer algorithms that automatically select books to be discarded. And things have gotten so bad that one librarian (and possibly more) created a fake library card user to check out and protect books like John Steinbeck’s CANNERY ROW from automatic culling:

http://boingboing.net/…/02/automated-book-culling-softwar.h…

According to the ORLANDO SENTINEL, the librarian’s been placed on administrative leave and may lose his job over it. He’s called it “an overreaction to an action that had only one purpose, and that was to save items for potential patrons’ use.”

I say it’s a disgrace. Books aren’t cans of soup with expiration dates, and the decision to dump (and destroy) them should be made by human beings who use some other standard than how often they’re checked out. And don’t give me some nonsense about libraries having to “be responsive to patrons’ needs.” They’re also supposed to be archives of literature and history. When I was growing up, I owned no books and was completely dependent on my public library–if they didn’t have a book, I couldn’t read it. Luckily, they had LITTLE WOMEN and A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE and THREE MEN IN A BOAT and Frost’s and Sandburg’s and Sarah Teasdale’s poems, all of which would no doubt have been dumped by an algorithm.

The librarian who created the fake reader needs to be defended. And people need to complain to their local libraries and demand they use a reasonable standard for culling books. Plus, they need to go check out their favorite books to make sure they’re there for the next reader.

Connie Willis

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Report From Santa Fe Video Interview with Connie

Connie recently was interview for the “Report from Santa Fe” show on public television.  It is now available to view online here.

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