Recent Reading

Sunday 11 April 2021

Dear Sarah,

Thanks for your question about what I’ve been reading.

Sometimes I make a plan, then other times I act entirely on instinct. So what follows are examples of each.

I’ve long  noticed the some books I will read part of it, then get distracted by something else, so recently I saw a book I started 3 years ago, but didn’t get finished. So, I finished it and then took my notes (something I do with 99.9% of the books I read).  It’s by John Follain, Vendetta:  The Mafia, Judge Falcone, and the Quest for Justice.  Back story: When I was on my honeymoon in Italy and Sicily in 1992 with Mev Puleo, these assassinations of judges investigating the Mafia happened, and we saw the place there the murders took place.  Here’s the author: “The assassinations of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were ’Italy’s September 11′ – just as Americans can say where they were  at the  time of the terrorist attacks of September 2001 in New York and the Washington area, Italians remember where they were at the time of the murders. The prosecutor Luca Tescaroli, who investigated Falcone’s murder, called it ‘the most despicable of the ambushes that the history of our country remembers.’  Since the assassinations, ‘monsters’ like Brusca and hundreds of other Mafiosi have been jailed. The sheer number of  arrests is unprecedented—surpassed only by the crackdown launched by  the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini who refused to tolerate the challenge to his totalitarian rule that Cosa Nostra represented.”

This got me in the mood to read Italian literature in translation, so I started with Italo Calvino, whom I first read in Gaza December 2003, a magnificent book, Invisible Cities, which has the famous conclusion,  “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live everyday, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it.  The first is easy for many:  accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension:  seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”  

This morning I’ve been reading Calvino’s collection of literary essays, Why Read the Classics, and I am sending along to you the title essay for your pleasure.

I reread last month a book I first read back in the late 80s, by Italian writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz.  My first book was on Elie Wiesel, and I have read many books over the decades on that chapter of European history.  Levi’s book takes only a few hours to read, but it’s staggering.  Of the many passages I marked, I offer the following to you: “Now nothing of this sort occurred between me and Lorenzo. However little sense there may be in trying to specify why I, rather than thousands of others, managed to survive the test, I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today; and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror; something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving.”

I’ve been trying to read a chapter a day from Boccaccio’s Decameron, a collection of 100 stories  (by ten young people), set  outside several miles away from  a devastating plague in Florence. Oddly, the stories are entertaining and diverting, a world away from mass death.

I went back to Machiavelli’s The Prince, which I read in graduate school (do you ever reread books you read in grad school?), and here is one of his best-known reflections, “A great many men have imagined states and princedoms such as nobody ever saw or knew in the real world, for there’s such a difference between the way we really live and the way we ought to live that the man who neglects the real to study the ideal will learn how to accomplish his ruin, not his salvation.  Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good.  Hence a prince who wants to keep his post must learn how not to be good, and use that knowledge, or refrain from using it, as necessity requires.”

I’m starting a class later in the month on “The Art of Living: Lights from Asia,” and we will be reading the updated edition of Chan Khong’s autobiography, Learning True Live: Practicing Buddhism in a  Time of War. (We read the 1993 edition  in SJ class in fall 2002).   She’s still inspiring: “Two years later, when I went to the United States to explain the suffering of the Vietnamese people and to plead for peace in Vietnam, I saw a woman on television carrying a wounded baby covered with blood, and suddenly, I understood how the America people could continue to support the fighting and bombing. The scene on the television was quite different from the reality of having a bleeding baby in my arms. My despair was intense, but the scene on the television  looked like a performance. I realized that there was no connection between experiencing the actual event and watching it on the TV screen while sitting at home in peace and safety.  People could watch such horrible scenes on TV and still go about their daily business — eating, dancing, playing with children, having conversations.  After an encounter with such suffering, desperation filled my every cell.  These people were human beings like me; why did they have to suffer so?  Questions like these burned inside me, and, at the same time, inspired me to continue my work with serene determination.  Realizing how fortunate I was compared to those living under the bombs helped dissolve any anger or suffering in me, and I was committed to keep doing my best to help them without fear.”  That phrase “serene determination” is the best!

Some friends and I are working our way through Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, meeting every two weeks to discuss one of the 12 books that make it up—so we will be together a little over half a year by the time we are through. I’ve read it many times, and enjoy seeing what first-timers take from it.  The book has accompanied me through losing people in my life, and offers some temporary consolation. See, for example, here.

Last, a book-in-process  I am reading is from my community college colleague who has been composing a memoir of her 26 years as a grade-school teacher in North County.  One year ago when we would be in our classroom awaiting students, we’d tell each other stories, as we got acquainted. Early on, I asked her if she’d ever written down any of these stories.  She told me that she and her friends wanted to write a collective memoir as teachers, but it was all just pleasant talk. I suggested she do it… and she is.  When we are still waiting for students to show up by Zoom, we’ll be talking, and she’ll tell me something about one of her colleagues back in the day and  I will say, “Sounds like it deserves a chapter.”  And a couple days later she will email it to me


P.S. Have we ever talked about Naikan?

Sicily, Summer, 1992

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