Dewey Decimal Project: 980 GAL Vol. 1 Memory of Fire: Genesis

I’m drawing to a close on this project anNewImaged for the 980s—South America—I saw this book which one of the back cover blurbs describes as “taking vital parts out of everything that has been written on the discovery and settlement of America … arranging them in a kind of verbal collage … something that defies classification into a genre.” 

This was enough to catch my attention and the book delivered on its promise. Beginning with pieces of pre-Columbian myth, legend and memory and building from there, Galeano created a vital accounting of the history of the Americas from the dawn of time until the late twentieth century. Officially, I only read the first volume of the trilogy for the Dewey Decimal project, but I was so captivated, I read the last two volumes as well. There was a great deal that was unknown to me—my history classes in school focused pretty much exclusively on Europe (mostly Western Europe) and the United States. And even with a broader knowledge of Latin American history, there would still be much to catch my attention because Galeano is as likely to have his attention caught by the tale of an Argentine socialite who absconded with a young Jesuit priest and became pregnant with his baby only to end up executed by firing squad at her lover’s side, as he is to consider the history of Christopher Columbus, Simon Bolivar or Fidel Castro.

I feel like this is the book that A People’s History of the United States could have been, something that manages to tell its story through both the “great” men and the commoners, that doesn’t elide the unpleasant aspects of the hemisphere’s history while also giving due to the incidents that most historians would ignore.

Of all the books I’ve read in the course of this project, this is the only one that I’m planning to buy my own copy of, although when I re-read it, I’ll read the original Spanish text.


Writerly resolutions: August status

Chapter 26 is finally done, Graph of my progress on the novel. A long flat patch where I was marking up the manuscript, a dip where I edited chapter 26, a rise for chapter 27 and then a new rise for the rewrite of that chapter.I’ve completed the first draft of Chapter 27 and I’m partway through the rewrite draft. The story continues to reveal heretofore unknown things about the characters, which is a plus (and some inconsequential happenings in the first draft have become a bit more consequential in the rewrite). I feel optimistic that a complete first draft¹ of the novel will be done before month’s end.

 And that story that I’ve been working on all year (and all last year and far too long before that), finally reached a point where I could workshop it last week. My next new story is feeling less resistant to completion and should manage to make it off my computer in time for my next turn workshopping later this month.

Plus, I finally finished revising a story I workshopped back in March, so that’s now out on submission.

  1. It’s kind of the third-plus draft since every chapter has been through at least a rewrite and revision, but there are a lot of first-draft-y things about it, like character names mutating as the story progresses and inconsistent characterization. The plan is, that when I have a complete draft, I’ll read the whole thing, making copious notes on the manuscript, then do a complete rewrite of the entire novel starting with a blank document, and then revise that and then start talking to writing buddies about getting their feedback on it.

Dewey Decimal Project: 973 ZIN A people’s history of the United States

For the last two decades, I’ve Cover of A People's History of the United Sttesheard many people waxing rhapsodic about Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, so when I got to the 970s—History of North America—I decided that this was my chance to finally read it.

What I found was not the life-changing book that many people consider it to be. I imagine a big part of that is that I’ve become familiar with so much of what seemed revolutionary about the book’s retelling of the country’s history. And because I’ve also found myself reading some deeper dives into some of these topics, like Kerry Greenidge’s Black Radical about Charles Monroe Trotter, or Nelson Peery’s memoir about his life during the depression and his time in the army during World War II, at times some of this felt a bit thin. Perhaps if I had little more than the standard-fare American History curriculum, I might have been more impressed.

And then there’s the problem that I often find with thinkers on the left who often get into a self-defeating obsession over ideological purity. The lesson I took from the 2000 election was clear: as uninspiring as the Democratic candidate might be to me, it’s far better to have even the most centrist Democrats in office than the vast majority of what the Republican party has to offer. And yet, I know people who have lived through 2000 and 2016 and yet still seem to think that if only enough of us clap our hands and believe that Ralph Nader or Bernie Sanders will come to save us. And then we get President Trump.

In this book, I was willing to accept Zinn’s critique of Roosevelt. There was a lot he could have done that he didn’t (although at the same time, his remaking of American society and government was absolutely miraculous and it’s unlikely the socialist movements of the first half of the twentieth century could have gotten there even without their vigorous suppression). But Jimmy Carter? I’m sorry, but his critiques of Carter ring hollow to me and strike me as the sort of idealism of the left that leads to its downfall. 


Dewey Decimal Project: 960.3 WES Divide and rule: the partition of Africa, 1880–1914

The 960s bring me to Africa.Cover of Divide and Rule Another part of the world that I know very little of the history of. The selection of options was somewhat uninspiring, and I decided to take a look at this book.

I knew very little about colonialism in Africa. I was most familiar with the history of colonialism in the Americas and India, but almost nothing about Africa, so I decided this might be a good way to introduce myself to the subject.

Certainly, it’s a bit maddening that the book has little to say about the people and cultures that existed before the Europeans’ arrival, but there was some good information about how the curious institutions of South Africa arose, and the transfer of that country from Dutch to British rule (I also discovered that I had been misplacing Rhodesia in my mental map of Africa).

Germany’s meager attempt at colonialism is discussed at least some (it had always surprised me that of all the great powers of Western Europe, Germany had no real colonial legacy), as is the partition of Western Africa between the British and French. 

In retrospect, I think a different book would have been a better introduction to African history, but for what this was, it was not a bad book.


Dewey Decimal Project: 954 DAN A brief history of India

At some pointNewImage in the late ’90s I decided that I wanted to read a history of India. I think it might have been a result of reading the themed issue of Granta on the country. Whatever my motivation, it never went beyond putting “some history of India” on the long list of books that I planned to read someday.

But with the Dewey Decimal project, I found myself having to pick something from the 950s, History of Asia, and I could finally fulfill that goal.

I suppose picking a book by a non-Indian might have been a mistake, but perhaps one that made it easier to see the flaws than if I had read a book by an Indian author. Danielou, it seems, was a convert to Hinduism and had, of course, chosen as his caste, the Brahmin caste.

Danielou has all the convert’s zealotry and jingoism. The contributions of non-Hindus to the development of India are at best denigrated. Gandhi—Gandhi!—is dismissed as a member of the merchant caste who was out of his element.

But even with these flaws, some insight into the rich tapestry that is Indian history was evident from the book. I’ll likely have to read more books to really understand India, but I have, at least, a bit more knowledge of the country’s background than I did before I read the book.


Dewey Decimal Project: 940.5318 LEB Memories, miracles & meaning: insights of a Holocaust survivor

The 940s are the hNewImageistory of Europe and I decided to pick up something that might be useful for the novel. One of the things that I’ve learned in the course of researching the novel is that women’s accounts of the Holocaust have been largely marginalized. There is an explicitly stated claim that to treat women’s experiences as something special somehow diminishes the male experience during the Holocaust. As a result, not only was there a movement to normalize the male experience, but to diminish if not completely hide the female experience. So many of the books about women’s experiences of the Holocaust have had to battle this. 

One consequence of this is that I’ve made a point of seeking out women’s Holocaust memoirs, looking for the useful or interesting details of life before, during and after the Holocaust. There is a tendency in survivor memoirs (I can’t say whether this is unique to women’s stories or not—it’s been a long time since I’ve read Primo Levi or Eli Wiesel) to make an effort to put some sort of positive spin on their experiences after their liberation, to make certain that the reader knows that they’re grateful to have survived. I kind of wish that some of the writers would exhibit some trace of the bitterness to which they’re entitled. Whether this is, in fact, a consequence of their character or their environment, I cannot say.


Writerly resolutions: July status

I finally finished the rewrite of NewImageChapter 26 this month. I have two books covering the events that this chapter hangs on with numerous dog-eared pages indicating useful information that I need to go through and make sure that everything in the book is historically correct or includes some useful details to enrich the narrative, so preparing for the revision phase on this chapter will take a little longer than usual, but then I come into the final two chapters of the novel. I continue to have little surprises about what happens so it’ll be interesting to see what these last two chapters reveal.

I’m close to finished with a rewrite on the short story which has been kicking my butt for a year and a half now. I’m hoping to be ready for workshopping at my next turn up in August.

And then there’s an acceptance of three poems for an anthology due out later this year. More about that when publication comes.

Dewey Decimal Project: 933 JOS Flavius Josephus: selections from his works

The 930s are the history of the ancient world (not surprisingly, Cover of Flavius Josephus ith the majority of the numbers reserved for the ancient world that was under the rule of the Greeks and Romans). Looking over the options, I spotted this collection of the works of Josephus. 

Josephus is best-known as being one of the earliest non-Biblical attestations to the existence of Jesus,¹ but it provides a good overview of the status of the Jews in the Roman era in the first century AD. One of the more dramatic incidents that Jospehus describes is the siege at Masada (which, like a lot of the history I learned in my youth, I learned about through an “event” mini-series on network TV. Overall, it was an interesting account of personages that I knew primarily from Biblical sources along with other context that I might not have otherwise known.

  1. I remember knowing only that he was mentioned in Josephus and finding it absurd that the people who would deny the historicity of Jesus (i.e., that there never was such a person executed by the Romans around 33CE), would discount this as a witness—although looking at the actual text, it’s a bit more understandable. But having investigated it a bit, it seems likely that the surviving testimony is a modified version of what Josephus originally wrote with later Christian emendations.

Dewey Decimal Project: 920.72 DIN Alone! Alone! Lives of Some Outsider Women

The 920s are biography. My library, like Cover of Alone Alone any others, shelves most biographies separately, alphabetically by author (this is one of the things that I like about the Library of Congress system—there, literature, for example, is shelved by country/language and grouped by era and biographies and critical work are shelved alongside the authors’ work. Similarly, biographies of notable people in other fields are shelved with other books in that field). As a result, there aren’t a large number of books in this part of the shelves. I decided that this might make for some interesting reading, but alas, it turns out that here Dinnage is largely repurposing reviews that she had written elsewhere rather than approaching her subjects for their own sake. 


“The Norton Anthology of Self-Destructive Behavior”:

This story was one that unfolded itself gradually over time. It started with the title which came to me one day during a residency NewImage for my MFA. I wrote down the title and even got so far as writing down a list of self-destructive behaviors, but put it aside for a while after that.

I picked it up again a year later and wrote the first draft pretty quickly and painlessly. The “zeroeth-person” point of view of the story was something that just evolved as I wrote the story when I was about halfway through and realized that I hadn’t written in first, second or third-person, exactly. Pretty much everything emerged from my subconscious in the writing process.

Then I put the first draft away and didn’t look at it for three years. When I worked on the rewrite, I found my self thinking that I had something really good here and I worried about ruining it. I spent some time revising it and then in May of 2018 I sent it out on submission.

It got rejected, but it had a very high level of positive responses. I let it lie fallow for a while longer, and then pulled it back up once I was back in a writing group. Probably the single most important thing was identifying one of the sections, “Violence towards others” as problematic. That was enough to, I thought, make the story perfect or at least close to it. It garnered a few more rejections, but now I was getting personalized rejections from journals who had only ever sent me form letters before. Eventually, it was picked up by Meniscus, the Journal of the AAWP.

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