The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin – Book

I always had a secret, and to some family members, not so
secret, interest in all things artsy-New York City. In eighth grade we took a
class trip to NYC. I remember well the mix of butterflies and awe I felt the
first time I saw Fifth Avenue and Central Park, stayed in a real hotel, and went
to a show (even if it was only the Rockettes) (even if some of my classmates
were dropping water balloons out of the hotel windows)
I came from a very poor family and our greatest beauty came
from the care our parents lavished on us. Books and movies gave me my first
glimpses of both material luxury and true deprivation. So I confess, although I
understood that the life of sophistication, style, and wealth can be
superficial and exclusionary, and perhaps even psychically empty; it also gave
access to wonderful art that expands awareness and beauty that drugs the
I devoured Mademoiselle, Glamour, and Vogue magazines. I
poured over the furniture and clothing and the fancy careers in the Doris Day
movies, even more important to me than the romance, or at least part and parcel
of it. Could love really be love without mid-century modern décor, designer
gowns, and furs? This was pretty heady stuff for a girl who slept three-to-a
bed until she was ten or eleven and it was a fantasy world that was never
realized, perhaps because my creation of it was so two-dimensional.
Anyway, Melanie Benjamin, author of The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel seems to have caught the same
bug I did, although perhaps a bit later. Her wealthy role models are from the
70’s, while mine were from the 50’s. She was fascinated by Truman Capote and
the New York scene he briefly “swam” in until he sabotaged himself. (Perhaps
even in the social sphere “what goes up must come down”.) Benjamin has written
a fiction book, but she has done her research. She was as fascinated by these “stars”
as I was when I learned about Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table and
Sylvia Plath, author of The Bell Jar who committed suicide, so
incomprehensibly. (Was it clinical depression or a broken heart, or both, or
So there is some room in my brain for this gossipy
speculation about beautiful, famous (and sometimes infamous) people. Truman
Capote as the author’s words describe him, was very young and charismatic,
smart and witty – on the edge of fame when he attracted the attention of those
five young society swans with their lovely long necks. He was not attracted to
women sexually which made it easier for him to befriend these beauties in this
close-knit group of New York’s most photographed and admired women, who were
really only famous for their style and for who they were married to. The author
shows how Truman courted them, worshipped them, was worshipped by them, and
then betrayed them.
Melanie Benjamin did a great job with a novel that could have
read like a piece of fluff. The details of the lives of the five swans (Slim
Hawks, Pamela Churchill, Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli, and Babe Paley) are
mostly public and have been covered by others in books this author has studied.
The dialogue rings true but was created by the author who tries to explain how
this unusual relationship might have worked well for all involved until it didn’t.
Not my usual fare, but it does tie into my sentimental roots and it is well
done. I enjoyed The Swans of Fifth
By Nancy Brisson

Desert Dwellers and Polar Ice Caps

How do we get desert dwellers to care that the polar ice caps are melting. We can’t even get Republicans who can see what is happening in Norfolk and Miami to pay attention. When you live in a dry, hot part of the world and you are bent on conquest or survival it is difficult to remember that everything is interconnected, even if some of your best oil wells are located near coastlines. How do we get a terrorist caught up in bringing back the 14th century to look over his shoulder and see the tsunami in his future?
Republicans, if they entertain the notion of climate change at all, refuse to accept that it is caused by human activities. We know why they do this; investments and power structures. If we find alternatives to fossil fuels they fear that their bank accounts will dwindle. They cannot accept that the age of fossil fuels, and, in fact, the Industrial Age is ending. They are starving poorer Americans, hoarding all the money on purpose. Of course they enjoy being rich, but you can only buy so many homes and yachts. Their real aim is to recreate 1890’s America when there were no worker’s rights, no unions, no minimum wage requirements, and no regulations on businesses.
You cannot get factories back to America if workers expect to get paid thirty or forty dollars an hour. You have to get them down around two dollars an hour. No wonder the GOP hates the movement for a $15 minimum wage. If you add addiction into the no-minimum-wage mix, we get to the bottom even faster. Furthermore if you think that humans have played no role in climate change then you can claim that, ergo, there is nothing humans can do to stop such changes and you can carry on blithely with your plan for a fossil-fuel-based master/serf economy. Take all the people’s toys away and make them climb that ladder of opportunity all over again – an Industrial Age do-over.
I know there are those who will say that we have to still have factories, we have to still produce things and, of course, we always will, but it does not take hundreds of workers to run a modern factory. The application of robotics is setting people free of work and creating new problems because then we have no alternative productive role to offer them.
Some may decide to be academics, but not everyone can or will choose that route. We really need to work on the roles societies will provide for people who are not needed to do work, or we need to find work they will feel good about doing. The American work ethic works against this. Rich folks get all huffy about people who don’t have a reason to or skill set for work. In America those who work labor for longer hours with shorter vacations than almost any other developed nation. There has to be a better goal for Americans who are not wealthy than working for the Future Taskmasters of America. I have heard people trying to start a back to the farm movement but farming was not as romantic a lifestyle in reality as it is in memory. Just read One Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley.
How do we get rich people – Capitalist “pigs” as we used to call them – on board to prepare Earth for the 9 billion people who will live on it by 2050? Without their help, with their very active opposition, it is a push-pull operation and basically a wash. Progress is in baby steps when we need giant ones. How do we get megalomaniacs intent on power to tune into anything except their own selfish drive for fame, or historical relevance, or whatever when they may just be, at base, mad men. Without China, without Russia, without the Middle East or Africa who is left to work on this truly existential threat – in the sense of a threat to human survival?
Are humans worth fighting to save or should we just let extinction happen to a species that has proven to be a bit too rapacious to coexist peacefully anywhere. And as for the idea that freedom alone should be attractive to people in every nation, I do not think that we are setting a very good example for the ways in which freedom makes life wonderful. In fact sometimes our notion of freedom makes it impossible to impose an organizational global design that might help us meet future needs.
There are no walls in the ocean (well, except by the Netherlands) so one body of water hits every nation with a coast line. Bodies of water within nations such as rivers and lakes will eventually rise also. We don’t need more salt water. The world will need a lot of fresh water for those 9 billion people. Water levels are just one outcome of polar melting. It is easy to foresee fear and anger growing as changes occur to geography and crowded coastal cities. It is easy to foresee tempers on edge and fights breaking out. Unless we are proactive and devise strategies to deal with negative human interactions, apocalyptic scenes may be as common in the near future as natural disasters are becoming in the present.
Getting people, made ever suspicious of conspiracy by those who oppose change, worried about losing freedom or losing comfort, to create any sort of “matrix” of leadership that can ameliorate chaos seems almost impossible to imagine. Our war/peace dynamic may be so hard-wired into us that we will continue to fight our way right through climate change and beyond (if there is a beyond). We surely need some heroes and heroines who disregard the worst in humanity to save the best in humanity if we are to survive the population explosion and simultaneous climate change. If thinking about these things does not convince people that war is an obsolete and primitive construct then I don’t know what will.

However the militants will not stop their crusades for some probably unreachable ideal in order to give space to find a solution to issues of climate crisis. It is the human condition to strive for a cultural equality or religious purity or manifest destiny that will, most likely, never exist. So actually the question becomes one of finding a way to keep the weaponized bickering at bay while also creating a new schema for a crowded planet that is at an environmental tipping point. I am afraid that I doubt that this will ever happen.Here’s Jimmy Kimmel on the subject.

By Nancy Brisson

Donald Trump’s Way Back Foreign Policy Machine

It is dangerous to listen to someone like Donald
Trump whose nostalgia date (his way-back machine) is set to the 60’s and 70’s.
No problem if you’re just telling stories to your grandchildren but a “huge”
problem if you are the President of the United States. Donald’s idea of winning
– he said in this foreign policy speech – is our victory in WWII and he also
gives America credit for winning the Cold War. Donald is another worshipper of
the only “perfect” American President, Ronald Reagan. He likes an America that
is pugilistic and muscular.
Trump believes we haven’t won a war since World War
Two or the Cold War because we have been weak. He, perhaps, would have liked
Ronald Reagan to be made President for Life. Alzheimer’s, sadly, would have put
the kibosh on that. However, except for Saint Ronald (who if you studied real
history was way less than perfect) no one else has measured up. According to
Trump the weakest leader of all has been President Obama (who is never given
the honorific) and Hillary Clinton will be just as bad.
But what Donald Trump, stuck in the old days, cannot
see is that the very philosophy concerning the ways we participate in the world
has evolved.
We have learned not to go to war lightly – well no we haven’t but we, at least,
are not turning every skirmish into a world war, or every power hungry man into
an existential threat (OK, we’re not perfect at that either but we’re trying).
We have learned that nation building in far-flung corners of the globe is
expensive and not often appreciated or even successful, which doesn’t mean we
will actually refrain. We surely have had plenty of examples of the totally
unforeseen consequences of regime change, although from time to time we still
can’t seem to resist.  We especially can’t
help injecting ourselves into the chaos in the nations of our nearest neighbors,
often with horrifying results.
Donald wants to bring this all back along with
torture and secrecy and threats (even nukes). So while evidence suggests that
tactics that we and others have used in the past will not actually make America
great again, that the only thing resorting to these old military chestnuts can
do is enhance our reputation as “ugly Americans”, Donald Trump, still stuck in
that post-World War II glow, seems unaware of such evidence.
Trump blames Obama and Clinton for “the confusion,
chaos, and disarray” in the world but many of us believe that the Bush
administration opened the Pandora’s Box that has turned into the seething,
painfully transitioning Middle East we see and deal with today. Whether the
region tried to shake off their authoritarian leaders, or whether the Iraq war
had a domino effect, or whether Americas had our hands in their fall from power,
it is clear that the Middle East does not have a tradition of democratic rule
and that is not the setting it reboots to. Perhaps we need to flood the area
with reasons to join the developed world that make sense in relation to Muslim
However, I contend, that we are actually at the
point where war and the environment meet, because if we cannot work across
nations, and stay somewhat peaceful and stable as the inhabitants of this planet
we may be doomed. If we can’t work efficiently as caretakers and help create a
sustainable lifestyle for the exploding population, then confusion, chaos and
disarray will be the order of the day, every day. Old imperialistic and
militaristic strategies may have once made America feel large and in charge,
but these outdated attitudes towards our global neighbors, however
un-neighborly, are not what we need now.


We could go with America First and decide, as we see
our planet become a less hospitable place to live, to build those walls and
annihilate our enemies (or be annihilated, because people will fight back).
That’s one way to be sustainable, wipe out anyone who won’t accept our
leadership. But where is the challenge in that. It is far more interesting to
try to design global strategies that will give everyone a livable spot in a
world exhibiting rapid climate change. It is far more intelligent to keep
striving to colonize other planets than to turn this one into a radioactive
nuclear wasteland.
Earth probably doesn’t care if we take care of it;
it will live on without us. But if we want the Earth to support human life we
may need to start cooperating pretty soon now. We can’t just take a boilerplate
set of old war policies and rely on them to keep the flaws in human nature from
sucking us under. The nations who understand the risks to our planet need to be
strong, yes, but also cooperative, creative and nuanced; and we need a global design
for where we would like things to go here on Earth – and for that we need peace,
not war-mongering. The reason Donald Trump’s foreign policies, and in fact the
foreign policy stances of the Republican Party are dangerous is because they
will not meet the current and future needs of Americans or anyone else on Earth.
By Nancy Brisson

I Blame Donald Trump

Donald Trump has changed the 2016 primaries in so
many ways. He has been like a deus ex
who popped up in an enormous list of GOP characters with little to
differentiate one from the next. He did not fit the mold but he was no more
acceptable to me than any other Republican.
I didn’t think I could be shocked after six years of
disrupters in Congress making ignorant suggestions to women that would set the
culture back 50 years if heeded. I was afraid when the Supreme Court did not
uphold the most essential section of the voting rights act, the requirement
that certain states get clearance before changing their voting laws, but still
I did not foresee how quickly the states would “celebrate” their “freedom” by
repressing votes. Watching states break the law in respect to Roe v Wade by
imposing bogus rules to close clinic after clinic seemed quite shocking enough,
especially when courts backed them up. I had expected the courts to say “whoa
Nellie” (because that’s the way these guys talk – remember the one who
recommended that women practice birth control by putting an aspirin between
their knees and keeping their knees closed around it). The courts did nothing. That’s
when I realized how many Conservative judges had been appointed to courts in
many of our states.
I could go on but my point is actually that Donald
Trump managed to drive my “no they didn’t” reaction up several more notches.
His remarks about Mexicans, about the “wall”, about China, deporting
undocumented immigrants, Megan Fox, about women in general, about Muslims –
well, you were there – you heard it. Then there was his apparent comfort with a
physicality that we usually avoid in American politics. We usually use our
words. His behavior made the shock waves of the Republican heresies over the past six
years pale by comparison.
As we know the other Republican candidates did not
seem any happier with Donald’s injection of himself into an already crowded
race. He had been a Democrat. Conservatives who had been making a big point
about GOP purity tests had to move over and include this famous person who had
certainly not been tested for purity. And he was winning, pulling large crowds,
taking up all the space on a 24/7 media that usually could be captured only
temporarily by a particularly audacious act. Ted Cruz had attempted frequent
newsworthy nonsense, but Donald did it practically nonstop.
However, Trump has also served as sort of a buffer
between the Democratic primary race and the rest of the Republican slate,
getting picked off one by one before our incredulous eyes. We expected to worry
about Scott Walker and Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush, but instead every eye and ear was
on Donald. For the most part, Hillary and Bernie were left alone to run their
own race.
Trump’s presence in the race has also allowed Ted
Cruz to take up the second position on the GOP side. He expects an open
convention and he expects the coveted Republican nomination to eventually fall
to him. I have watched Ted Cruz throughout the Obama administration and he made
me very worried right from the first time I set eyes on him. In fact I wrote an
article called Ted Cruz: Sinister or Cartoonish about my initial observations.
I have predicted to myself that somehow he would “worm” his way into the White
House and I have tried to speak out against this whenever possible. He is
closer to the White House than he has ever been. He is intelligent, if
inflexible, and he is strategic. He believes he is a genius. As geniuses go I can think of several I would prefer over him.
If Donald had not inserted himself into the primary
would Cruz have made it this far? I don’t know, of course, no one does. But if
I end up with Ted Cruz as my President in 2017, I will blame Donald. Who will I
blame if we end up with Donald Trump in the White House? I will blame the
Democrats. Hillary, there is a lot resting on your shoulders because if you win
the nomination we are counting on you to beat the chosen one of these two guys
and Donald has sort of fogged up everyone’s view. Ted Cruz is advancing almost
under the radar, a stealth campaign. 
By Nancy Brisson

“Go Big” or Regret It?

Lots of people seem to think that this is the moment to “go
big”, to finally:

  • Get big money out of politics
  • Close the loopholes that have insured that the 1% is too well
    taken care of while the middle class is losing ground
  • Break up the big banks who have done wrong and deserve to be
  • Regulate Wall Street
  • Make sure American workers have certain protections like paid
    leave and a living wage and equal pay.

The “go big” people, the “feel the Bern” people, feel that the
folks who advocate incremental change are killing the buzz. There is rarely a
mass movement to address the way our supposedly democratic society has been set
up to favor the wealthy and to widen the gap between social classes, they
reason, and there should be because this is not the way we expect our democracy
to operate.
Why would anyone back an incremental approach when there is
all this momentum pushing the moment in the direction of “we the people”? It
seems like the times are ripe for big change, revolutionary (peaceful of
course) change. It looks as if this is the moment when “we the people” could
force a fairer economic distribution, could take back some power that has been
awarded, piece by piece, more and more to the elites in America (the wealthy).
The elitism in our election process, which has been recognized
and bemoaned for decades, is suddenly being discussed and critiqued as if it
was slipped by us secretly just last week. (How could Bernie Sanders, in Congress
for 3o years, although not a member of the Democratic Party, not have known
about super delegates?) It is good, however, for a new generation of voters to
be aware of the true depth of actual disenfranchisement of voters who do not
serve in government, to see how the government has set things up so that those
who govern are chosen by the wealthy and by those who govern. This is actually
true to the designs of our forefathers who did not trust the masses to govern
well. Perhaps we will persevere and actually fix this this time, or perhaps we
will get distracted by shinier objects and be surprised all over again in the
next election cycle.
Trying to predict whether “go big” is the way to go, the way
to get the best results from the next 4-8 years, or whether we will gain more
ground from patiently working bill by bill, issue by issue is as fraught as any
attempt to predict the future ever is. Arguments favor incrementalism. If we
look at the makeup of Congress, if we look at years of tantrums that
Republicans say will not end until we get “small government”, six long years of
“go small”, will we end up with just two dug-in sides yelling conflicting
messages at each other. Bernie feels that Americans will rise up, demonstrate,
protest and tip the balance his way. This is not patience; this is passion. It
is good to see such passion, although the fire has not spread to all of “we the
Plodding through Robert’s Rules or whatever regular order
governs Congress, watching the bargaining, vote counting, seemingly cynical
compromising certainly does not sound as sexy as an impassioned storming of the
elitist gates of governance, but it is the process, it is the way the system is
designed. Can we make the system less elitist gradually (but not too gradually)
and stay within the system as it exists? I think people will be so disappointed
it Bernie loses that they may be even more likely to push his goals, which
would help so many non-wealthy Americans. The objectives that make education
affordable or even free are particularly appealing. Money is being extorted
from young people at expensive trade schools and internet “colleges” taking
advantage of high unemployment and fears of economic failure for the
Bernie’s “go big” list of objectives tends to be a bit
narrower than the vast pool of issues that we have been unable to address for
the past six years. He does talk about infrastructure but rarely has a wider approach
to the economy and he almost never talks about climate and environmental
matters except to advocate banning fracking, although some people feel climate
concerns should be the most pressing issues on our agenda (salt water is
flooding Miami.)
It looks like a pragmatic, incremental attack on the wish list
of “we the people” is going to win out. The problem is that once a path is
chosen, you can’t, at least for a period of time, go back and choose the other
path, so there will always be those who feel cheated. Hillary Clinton, so
determined to win, had better be prepared to serve the people well if elected. “A
word to the wise should be sufficient,” isn’t that what we say? 
By Nancy Brisson

Purity by Jonathan Franzen – Book

Much has been said about purity in recent years. Food is one
area where claims to purity add retail value for those who feel that eating
healthy is actually now a cultural responsibility. Purity in relation to our energy
sources – that they need to be carbon neutral and simple mechanisms that tame
natural forces for our use (like heat from the sun and wind from earth’s air
currents) – is another way the idea of purity has become an obsession for
those who can choose. One test mentioned often in Republican circles is the
test to determine how closely Conservative politicians adhere to right wing
orthodoxy, or, in other words, a test of purity.
All these ideas of purity and more sit behind this story. And
lots of impurity sits behind this story also. Purity is the birth name of the
main character who leads us into the events Franzen creates for us. What some
may find difficult about this offering is the way Franzen jumps to seemingly
unrelated characters and then shows us the connection when he’s ready. However
it all comes together in the end and I am guessing that the story structure is
very deliberate.
Purity lives in a derelict house with Dreyfuss who is one loan modification away from losing his only possession. Three other people
share the space with Purity and Dreyfuss; Stephen, Marie and Ramon. Purity is a
telemarketer whose main goals in life are to get out from under her student
loans and to have a relationship with Stephen which she cannot have because he
is married to Marie. A strange German visitor, Annagret, offers Purity – known
as Pip right now – an internship with a group called The Sunlight Project,
which has far more humane goals than Pip’s current employer. The Sunlight
Project is headed by a man named Andreas Wolf who is considered a cult hero.
Annagret has Pip complete a weird interview and tells her she is qualified for
the internship.
We jump to the story of Andreas Wolf, the legendary project
leader of this WikiLeaks- style operation designed to expose world actors whose
motives are less than pure. Wolf grew up in East Berlin in the years before the
Berlin Wall came down. Does this tough beginning justify some of the traits we
find in Andreas Wolf? You must decide.
Pip (Purity) spends lots of time talking to her agoraphobic
mom, Anabel, who has every other possible phobia also, but who obviously loves
her daughter, although we wonder who takes care of whom in this relationship. Would Anabel
have had any kind of life if she did not have Pip? Purity has never been
allowed to know who her father is and in fact Anabel says he abused her and
that he is dangerous. Pip still wants to find her father. We eventually hear
about the romance between Pip’s mom and a man named Tom Aberant (emphasis on
the Ab), a relationship which was good for a while and then devolved into spite,
anger, and revenge.
There is also a connection between Tom Aberant and Andreas
Wolf which I will not explain because it is at the heart of this novel and
because it might spoil the book for you.
Franzen wants, perhaps, to prepare us for how very difficult
it is for flawed humans to attain anything approaching purity unless it is a
name you give your child – a name that she is not even allowed to use. It is a
pretty good microcosm of the way the developed world rolls in these early
decades of the 21st century. 
Jonathan Franzen is a great storyteller. He’s the kind of
writer with enough craft that we forget to even be bothered by the words on the
page because there are no flaws to distract us. The story is in the foreground,
the writing underlies it, but we don’t notice it. Character development is more
problematic in Purity because at times Franzen almost seems to be writing
separate short stories. We are yanked out of one set of characters and settings
into new characters and settings with little transition. But eventually Franzen
ties his new characters back to the old characters and voila, the plot thickens
and unfolds almost like a mystery story which we solve with the author’s help.
Another difficulty some may find with this story is that the
message does not seem unique or profound enough to justify the length and
complexity of the story or even to turn this into a truly great novel. On the
other hand, it is a good social commentary and it is more substantial than some of the popular novels that are its
contemporaries. Perhaps time will change my take on this. Some novels require a
lengthier digestive period than others. I still recommend Purity by Jonathan Franzen because, although not perfect in my
estimation, it is still a good read.
By Nancy Brisson

Sad That We Can’t Discuss Politics

Today I went to the post office and I ended up being
there for quite a while because I used the wrong envelope and I had to start
over. I let people go ahead of me but by the time I finished my new envelope
the line had not moved at all. Someone was getting a passport, apparently a
very exacting and time-consuming task. If you ever get behind someone filling
in passport paperwork and having it checked over you might as well leave, do
another errand and then come back. There was one other clerk but she had an
Aussie gentleman with very complicated insurance and packaging issues. So we
stood in line. (At least we had a counter to lean on.) We began to discuss our
pets who are, apparently, all spoiled rotten.
As our wait continued we began to discuss the
conditions that were keeping us waiting. We were nice and did not try to make
anyone feel too badly. The man next to me in line knew that the desk was one
clerk short because the missing clerk was his wife. She had a vacation day. We
were pleasant and civil and just chatting. But it was primary day so I
mentioned my anxiety as I waited to find out the results of the voting. I
mentioned that I was looking forward to seeing Hillary Clinton win the New York
primary. I was hoping people would pipe up and say who they would like to see
I know that politics is not a topic that is supposed
to be discussed in polite company. But I, of course, can’t help myself. I
wanted to know what people were thinking on this primary day. Sadly I believe
it has become more difficult for us to discuss politics than ever. We should at
least be able to talk about what we think we know about the candidates and
where we got our information.
However, as soon as I said Hillary’s name a woman
down the line made a sour face and said Hillary is a liar. Now I don’t think
this woman knows Hillary personally. I could not really ask where the woman was
from, although she had an accent, because as soon as I said Hillary’s name she
made that disapproving prune face. If she came from another country maybe
Hillary did something there that had upset her. After all, Hillary was the Secretary
of State. I tried to probe gently, because I couldn’t accept an insult without
some kind of backup, but the woman just repeated that Hillary is a liar.
Perhaps Hillary Clinton is a liar, after all everyone
says she is, but I just tried to argue that the only way we know about Hillary
is through the media and that it is always important to consider the slant of
the particular media that is supposedly offering evidence against Hillary. When
I have traced many of the “proofs” back to their source I have found the media
to be right wing media. I would bet that the main source of news for this woman
was FOX news. I will never know if that is true though.
The woman made an instant decision to dislike me
because I had an opinion about Hillary Clinton that did not agree with hers. I
would have loved to listen to the reasons why she had concluded that Hillary is
a liar. I would have loved to share my reasons why I do not believe Hillary to
be quite the monster that the media paints her. But the conversation was over
and it was over with rancor on the part of one of us and dismay on the part of the
other. Everyone else in that long post office line (we were there for about
half an hour) said not one peep either during or after the exchange.
I can’t help thinking that it is sad that we can’t
talk about politics at all in our free society, at least with anyone whose
opinions differ from ours. People have chosen their favored media outlet and
are not the least bit curious about what other media outlets have to say. We no
longer take in all sides and try to make sense of all of the evidence. We make
up our mind and any attempt to offer another point of view meets with a stone wall
of anger and defensiveness. I know this has probably been true of every society
from time to time when passions run high and answers are tough to come by, but
it’s a shame and I hope such inflexibility disappears and that we will be able
to try to analyze and decide important cultural matters with some
sophistication and a spirit of mediation at some point in the near future.
By Nancy Brisson

The Primaries Come to the Boonies

This is truly an unusual primary. Usually New York
State conducts its primaries quietly in solitary splendor. In general, the
Empire State does not play a deciding role in selecting a general election
candidate for either party, even though we have a lot of delegates. The New
York primary is so late that the early states have already settled the issue.
So it is really quite bizarre to have the candidates
I have been writing about traipsing around even the most out-of-the-way places
in NY, such as my city (Syracuse), Utica, Rome, Dexter – Dexter!
It started two weeks ago with Hillary. She met her
public in a large roofed shed usually used by crafters at the Farmer’s Market
on summer weekends. I thought I would have to stand in a long line for hours,
and I did stand in a longish line for about half an hour, before I walked
through the metal detector and slid my shoulder bag over to the secret service
so they could pat it down.
I did see Hillary. She looks nice in orange (SU was
in the Final Four) and, when I left, when the concrete floor got too hard to
stand on any longer, I still liked her and wanted to vote for her. I took a few
pictures. One is of Adam (no last name) who was in line by me for a while. He
is in the teacher’s union and had on his AFT tee shirt.

The second person is called Jovan (John to us), an
eighty-four year old man who came to America from Macedonia and still has a
thick accent. (He worked in Bldg. 7 at GE, my Dad was in Bldg. 5.) His children
have done very well, one graduating from an Ivy League school, one a doctor
trained at Johns Hopkins. He wants nothing to do with socialism even if it does
have the word Democratic in front of it. Jovan has boundless confidence. He
wended his way to the very front of the rally.

My third picture is of Hillary and was taken by the
tall man in front of me – the one I had to sway back and forth to see beyond,
taken with my camera. We yipped and cheered and raised our arms in the air and
even did a slightly disorganized wave. No signs were handed out but I don’t
know if the concerns were for security or cost. I bought three Hillary buttons
on my way out.

Since then John Kasich came to town, Bernie Sanders
has been here, then Ted Cruz, then Donald Trump, then Bill Clinton. I don’t
think we have ever, in my lifetime been romanced by so many politicians in any
election season. I did not go to any other rallies – I watched them on TV as if
they were happening somewhere else. There are only so many concrete floors I
will stand on in any two week period. But my spidey sense felt them buzzing
around and I wish I could have hovered comfortably overhead, or been the
proverbial “fly on the wall”. (I have no idea where all these bugs came from.)
It was interesting to see that Ted Cruz held his
Syracuse rally in a northern suburb, Cicero, where a group of locals publish a
newspaper called “The Patriot”, full of some well-known right wing conspiracy
theories from which I culled the phrase “Luciferian Church of the United
Nations”, because Agenda 21 and the UN plan for world domination.
Dexter – Donald Trump went to Dexter – a small rural
town west of Watertown, NY on Ontario Lake, a town full of campers, hunters, fishermen, aging hippies, and
farmers, and these days, very few factories. Fort Drum is nearby though, so
perhaps he attracted a lot of soldiers and their families. That would have to
be fact-checked. I’m sure Dexter is still in shock having rarely been singled
out by such a famous (infamous) personality. It’s been a helluva* two weeks in
the North Country (*also, until recently the name of a local cheese company).
It’s sort of fun feeling like the hot center of America for a while. We can use the
excitement. Primary day is Tuesday, April 19th and then the
entire circus will move on. Most candidates have left already. I think Donald
Trump will be the last one out.
By Nancy Brisson

April 2016 Book List

(Editor’s Picks for Spring)- these might not all be available yet
Zero K by Don
De Lillo
The Nest by
Cynthis D’Aprix Sweeney
Murder of Mary Russell
by Laurie R. King
by Lyndsay Faye
Sellout: A Novel
by Paul Beatty
Brave is Forgiven
by Chris Cleave

by Richard Russo
A Novel
by Saleem Haddad
Fool Me

by Harlan Coben
by Lisa Scottoline
LaRose by
Louise Erdich
by Anna Quindlen
Stories are Love Stories
by Elizabeth Percer
As Close
as Breathing: A Novel
by Elizabeth Poliner
The 14th
Colony: A Novel
by Cotton Malone
Trials of Apollo Book One The Hidden Oracle
by Rick Riordan
Unashamed by
LaCrae Moore
Midnight (The Dark Artifices)
by Cassandra Clare
Lust and
Wonder: A Memoir
by Augusten Burroughs
Booksellers  – Always report what people
have been buying.
The Nest by
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
to Munich
by Jacqueline Winspear
Summer Before the War
by Helen Simonson
Little Red Chairs
by Edna O’Brien
My Name
is Lucy Barton
by Elizabeth Strout
Fool Me

by Harlan Coben
Murder of Mary Russell
by Laurie R. King
Ancient Minstral
by Jim Harrison
At the
Edge of the Orchard
by Tracy Chevalier
Waters of Eternal Youth
by Donna Leon
by Martha Hall Kelly
Walk: A Novel
by Richard Wagamese
Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry
by Fredrick Backman
by Paul Beatty
by Richard Price
Emma by
Alexander McCall Smith
Uprooted by
Naomi Novak
by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Outline by
Rachel Cush
Sunshine Away
by M. O. Walsh
Turner House
by Angela Flournoy
I Am
by Rief Larsen
A Darker
Shade of Magic
by VE Schwab
Dangerous Place
by Jacqueline Winspear
Swans of Fifth Avenue
by Melanie Benjamin
What is
Yours is Not Yours
by Helen Oyeyemi
Off the

by CJ Box
Other Side of Silence
by Philip Kerr
by Fiona Barton
The 14th
by Steve Berry
Felicity by Mary
Nights in 1980
by Molly Prentiss
The Last
Painting of Sara de Vos
by Domenic Smith
by Lyndsay Faye
by Stuart Woods
For a
Little While
by Rick Bass
The Year
of the Runaways
by Sunjeev Sahota
to the Night Vale
by Joseph Fink
The Passenger by Lisa
Over Everything
by Kathleen Grissom
Story of Kullervo
by J. R. R. Tolkien
All the
Birds in the Sky
by Charlie Jane Anders
Weekly – Some of these titles have not been published here yet
Booked by
Kwame Alexander (Language, Literature and Soccer)
The Wild
by Peter Brown (Robot on rocky island) (YA)
I Will
Find You
by Joanna Connors
A Spirited Manifesto
by Lesley Hazelton (NF)
Girl in
the Blue Coat
by Monica Hesse “riveting Holocaust novel”
Nameless City
by Faith Erin Hicks (Trilogy) (YA)
Golden Condom and Other Essays on Love Lost and Found
Jeanne Safer (NF)
Passion of Dolssa
(1241) by Julie Berry
Boys: A Novel
by Sonya Hartnett
by Justin Tussing
Agony by Mark
Fool Me

by Harlan Coben
Wink Poppy
by April Genevieve
I Will
Miss You Tomorrow
by Heine Bakkeid
Savages, 4th volume
by Sabri Louatah
Affections by
Rodrigo Hasbùn (Bolivian) (not out yet)
Badlands by Arne
Dahl (Swedish) (not out yet)
by Daniela Tully (German) (not out yet)
Substance of Evil
by Luca D’Andrea (Italian) (not out yet)
Now Let’s
by JC Lattés (French) (not out yet)
Yoro by
Marina Perezagua (Spanish) (not out yet)

Compiled by Nancy Brisson

Global Concerns

It is
difficult to watch the strife and human abuse that we see daily on our planet,
but it seems, at least on a global scale, that is all we can do. We have seen
the consequences of meddling, or even just trying to tweak the progress of
those who seem to have “right” on their side, those who seem to promise the
best outcomes for their own people and everyone else on our world. And we have
seen the fallout from trying to wreck those who seem to promise the worst
We want to
bridge the differences in the Middle East, we want to feed starving people
(everywhere except in America it sometimes seems), we want to open up North
Korea and reunite the North with the South, we want to be rid of crazy
megalomaniacal leaders, we want some economic parity across nations and within
nations so as to produce an income for each person that meets and exceeds basic
needs. And we are told that small acts of mercy are not too intrusive, but
stepping in like some kind of overlord, however benign, is not acceptable and
more often than not has unintended consequences and possibly unconscious, but astonishingly
selfish motives.
So what does
a person do as s/he watches, as if human events are some kind of spectator
sport, the parade of inhuman behavior which surrounds us (think of that awfully
amazing Bosch painting, the Garden of Earthly Delights). We try to intervene
gently here and nudge events there and stop, if at all possible the worst of
the horrors, while repulsing any attempt to bring the mayhem to our side of the
After all,
we have our own internal concerns to attend to, our own problems to solve and
we cannot even choose between some kind of self-interested tough love and good
old-fashioned human compassion. Half of us want the Industrial Age back and half
of us are looking to see what the future will bring and we hope it is something
less materialistic, less back-breaking, and less harmful to the planet.
While it is
tempting to turn inward and wall out the rest of the world, we know in our guts
that it is impossible. We would just atrophy in a kind of unproductive
inbreeding that would eventually destroy us. Injections of new energy are ever
more necessary as the temptation to stagnate and rusticate grows stronger.
We hold
before us, in the chemical pathways of our brains, a gleaming future where
technology enfolds and surrounds us (perhaps also separate us), a sort of
engineer-centric future in which governance is settled (although possibly quite
ponderous) and ingenuity is the “coin of the realm”. The planet still has dark
places and sad corners and back alleys but the main thrust is towards a
mechanics that will propel us outward from this too tiny,
destined-for-extinction planet, out into the vastness of the universe or
universes, one human colony at a time. (What terrible imperialism will be
practiced then depends on whether the universe is populated by others or exists
just for our future expansion.) We call it Space, and it is the only future we
can imagine that gives scope to our restless adventurous spirit and our
insatiable need to know.
We are not
ready to occupy all that beckoning Space right now. We are earth-bound on this
beloved planet to either learn to survive this present chaos or not. So we
watch. We watch the upheavals here on Earth. Is it just growing pains? Is it
the beginnings of a better future? Will it resolve in decades or will it take
centuries? Or will it be back to the Dark Ages, reboot, start over after
whatever annihilation we perpetrate on each other?
 Some people don’t want the world’s leaders to
have a vision of a global future. They believe it betrays America to discuss
some kind of orderly progression towards a more peaceful, and yet still free,
global society. They believe the plan that exists (if there is one) get rid of nations
(in other words gets rid of America) in favor of some kind of world government,
world military, world police force, and global social structure. They want the
future of the world to be an American future. They want America to govern the
world (a prospect that is not looking at all doable right now seeing that we
cannot even decide how to govern ourselves). I also harbor a desire to have the
whole world become an American world. This is the nature of chauvinism. I think
I could let this incarnation of America go if I thought a global government
would strive for the same ideals. A global government seems almost as distant a
goal as populating Space.
We may be
able to sit back and watch the rest of the world as if through a VR headset,
but we will not be able to keep our hands off world events in every case. We
will be inspired to push here, prod there, rescue when necessary and if
possible. This is a very difficult position we are in right now. I doubt we can
maintain our distance for long. There is a cycle to this kind of seemingly
omnipresent upheaval, I think, but are we at the low point or the high point?
In the meantime we still need, at the very least, to call attention to atrocity
where ever and whenever we see it. I think that it helps us to stop in the
midst of all the myriad detailed problems to be addressed to step back and
picture a hopeful future and to take a wide view at the entire world of human
endeavor and possibility.
By Nancy Brisson
Become a Global Citizen  at