In my sixth grade social studies classroom, my teacher hung a poster with a quote from George Santayana that read, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” In every unit, she reiterated that not only knowing history, but truly learning from it was our most powerful tool in protecting ourselves from the tragedies of the past. Like all sixth graders did, I would stare at this poster and ponder its meaning for a minute or two, then my attention would wander back to class or a more compelling distraction.
Also, when I was in sixth grade (and every year until I graduated high school), I attended a Jewish religious school twice a week. By twelve years of age, my classmates and I were deemed mature enough to begin an in-depth and serious discussion about the Holocaust and the history of anti-Semitism in the world. These things are alive and well, our teacher told us. And to keep another genocide from happening, we must learn from our past. But to a sixth grader, the Holocaust felt unfathomably long ago and anti-Semitism seemed unfathomably far from home. I grew up wearing my Jewish star necklace with pride, and attending my after-school program during the year and Jewish overnight camp in the summers. Though the stories we heard and the pictures we saw were no doubt disturbing and upsetting, we had the luxury of, more or less, putting it out of our minds.
While I was doing my usual scrolling through social media last week, an article from The Kenyon Review popped up, “On Sacred Spaces & Community: Jewish Poets Speak Out.” This article reflected on some recent incidents, such as the JCC bomb threats, the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, and the White House’s decision to not name individuals on Holocaust Remembrance Day, and allowed several contributors to share their cultural and religious experiences in light of recent anti-Semitism. Erika Meitner notes that this should be nothing new to us: “…This is a story we knew—one as the oldest books we have.” Eduardo Gabrieloff claims that, “When groups are dehumanized, we know what comes next.” Rosebud Ben-Oni begs that we need to, “… come together to resist, to persist, in this era of ‘alternative facts.’” The messages among these poets are clear: only from learning from our past can we affect the present. There is nothing more powerful than knowledge, truth, and unity.
This article is not solely focused on anti-Semitism or the value of our history. It recognizes that there are other populations of people--racial minorities, Muslims, and those who are LGBTQIA+--who are the victims of violence and bigotry. If we consider the Jewish notion of tzedakah, of charity and moral obligation to provide to others, then there is no better time like the present. People are afraid, certain that harm will befall them for the color of their skin, their sexual identity, or their religion. But, as Gabrieloff writes, “If we allow an attack on others, we fail ourselves. Solidarity is survival.” It is simple: if we, as Jewish people, are the victims of oppression, then it is our duty to help other victims of the same systemic process. Shamar Hill finishes his contribution to this article with this, “It will serve us, as we fight against anti-Semitism, to remember hate against any group is hate against us all.”
In the last several years, I have taken it upon myself to do several things: to listen to others, so that I may understand. To understand, so that I may help. And when I help, to do so in a careful and intentional way. It goes beyond race and religion. It is the notion that we are all human, that we must do all that we can to protect one another. It is our history and our unity that equips us to move forward, and in the end, understanding that we are all we have.
Grub Street Fiction Team Member
Article link and image source:http://www.kenyonreview.org/2017/03/sacred-spaces-community-jewish-poets-speak/
Image: If Not, Not (R. B. Kitaj, 1975-76)
A lot of people—most, actually—are shocked when I reveal that I am a double major in English and French. It is actually quite frustrating. Most college students—even coworkers and family members—laugh and ask, “What are you going to do with an English major, let alone a useless French major? Are you going to be a teacher? ‘Cause that’s all you can do with that these days.” My favorite questions though are, “Why? Why would you do that to yourself? Are you crazy?” Maybe I am. But these two departments have changed the way I view the world, regard other people, and make connections. These two concentrations, both in language, overlap, build upon each other, and expand my cognitive reach.
Let me start with being an English major. I have learned more about humanity and the human experience, I think, than those who are in the Humanities courses. Literature both reflects and influences the times, and it is literature that captures history. The English track is often scoffed at because it is associated with old croons who sit in dark offices reading novels and romanticizing Great White whales and pioneers crossing distant mountain ranges. It is often forgotten that literature is a study of history, a study of the human mind and evolution. Moreover, those of us pursuing English are forced to learn new modes of communication: different writing styles, writing for various audiences, presenting ideas and connecting them, etc. These skills are mandatory for us—a breakdown in communication is the ultimate failure. We deal in facts, theories, ideas, all of which are weaved within a literary polysystem that makes up everything that the human race relies on—communication.
The study of English is also the study of history; literature records events, ideas, and people. As an English major, I have read extensively on the wars Americans have fought and died in, domestic and foreign works that build on one another, biographies and autobiographies of historic figures, influential texts that have shaped our present, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and so much more. This vast amount of literature enables me to recognize connections between times, movements, continents, and peoples—with the critical thinking skills I have obtained in my pursuit of my education, I am more able to connect my thoughts and make my own conclusions.
This is where my concentration in French comes in. Let me answer some questions before they’re asked: yes, I speak French fluently; yes, I write essays in French; yes, my presentations and conversations are in French. It may seem obvious, but believe me, common sense eludes most people these days. My French concentration, like English, has also pushed vast amounts of literary works. I have read Voltaire, Molière, Balzac, Zola, Proust, Camus, Baudelaire, Verne, Dumas, only to name a few. And yes, I read their works in French. These brilliant authors, like the English-speaking ones, also expand my knowledge on cultural and historic movements, ideas, etc. More interestingly though, French literature and English (and American) literature often overlap and influence one another. Have you ever wondered why, even though English is a Germanic language, French words seem to be the root of so many English words? Two words: The Renaissance. Because of my two majors I have learned about the evolution of language in both English and French, which, in my humble opinion, is amazing.
Being able to connect ideas, events, and cultural revolutions across continents and times may not seem that important in the grand scheme of things. But, it truly is. Critical thinking and logic work hand in hand with both English and French concentrations. To many, it may seem as though I am a sponge overflowing with useless information, but I disagree. We English, and French, majors have become sponges, overflowing with information and ideas that allow us to make connections that others can’t. We are more able to communicate—more so than those of other majors—because we take the histories, lessons, and theories learned throughout literature and apply them to the present.
Grub Street Poetry Team Member
It was my sophomore year of college when I first delved into the world of comics. I had always been a fan of Batman since I was a kid watching Saturday morning cartoons of Batman: The Animated Series or Justice League, but I had never before read a comic book. What made me decide to take a trip to a comic book shop was actually an English class called Detective Fiction. For this class, we had to pick a show or movie with a detective and show how they most relate to the two forms of detective fiction. Some people chose shows such as Bones, NCIS, and Castle as their choices, but when it came time for me to decide I knew I wanted to do it on Batman.
The next day I spent some time looking up local comic book shops with which I could conduct my research on Batman. It took almost no time at all to find a shop called Collector’s Corner off Harford Road. I looked up the address and programmed it into my phone’s map, ready to go on a mini adventure the next day to check it out. I don’t remember what I was expecting when I first walked into the store that day, but I don’t think I ever would have imagined it would entice me as much as it did.
When I walked in, I was nervous because I had no idea what I was looking for in the way of Batman comics; I knew comics had a long history so I was a little overwhelmed with where to start. Luckily, an employee came up to me and asked if I needed any help. I told him my situation and he gladly gave me two different graphic novels to start with, which he thought were good introductions to the character. I bought both and that night I spent some time pouring over the glossy pages. Needless to say, it was not what I expected.
I went in thinking that comics today were just as campy and lame as what I knew Adam West’s Batman to be: cheesy one-liners and brightly clad heroes with their underwear on the outside. Instead what I got was a dark, gritty, and even gory rendition of the hero that I grew up watching. No longer did I see Batman as just the hero who caught the bad guy and sent him off to jail wrapped up in a nice little bow. Now Batman was harsher, there was more at stake for him; you were left with ambiguity as to if he won or if there was more to come. There was tension on each page of whether Batman would make it out of a deadly situation; there were problems within his day-to-day life as Bruce Wayne: politics, secrets, and family issues.
When I read those graphic novels I realized that comics are more than just a flashy form of entertainment. No longer does the story go from point A to B in a straight line, rather, there are twists and turns and failures of the hero along the way. Comics shouldn’t be seen as something that is nerdy or even childish, rather, it should be seen as something that with time could be considered as literary fiction. Batman, in a lot of ways, deals with the same things any character in a literary piece could deal with: the loss of a loved one, coping with trauma, or even not succeeding in a relationship. The only difference between Batman and any other character is that he is a super hero and his problems are more heightened and dramatized than a regular person’s. But who’s to say that his stories still can’t be literary? When I read a literary short story there are things that I look for: a connection or feelings for the main character, and relatability or understanding to their situation, which are things that I also look for when reading comics now. When it comes down to it, Batman/Bruce Wayne is just a man who is living his life dealing with social, political, and personal problems that we too could experience in our own lives—hopefully without any arch enemies plotting our demise.
Grub Street Fiction Team Member
Image source: https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/450922981410804451/
My first action after receiving my diagnosis of dyslexia in the third grade was to go home and hold up a piece of paper in front of the mirror in an attempt to read backwards. To my astonishment, the doctors were right. I could indeed read backwards. As my eight-year-old self felt wonderfully proud of my newfound disability–no, skill–my older sister decided to burst my bubble and show me how she, a sixth grader with no learning disabilities, could read backwards even better than I could. Her victory disappointed me because I was no longer special, but also overwhelmed me with confusion. If being dyslexic does not mean I read backwards any better than a “normal” person, then what does it mean? I have come a long way in my understanding of dyslexia since the third grade, but what baffles me is that many of my peers are no better informed than my eight-year-old self.
During my time in college, the ignorance regarding learning disabilities and the misconceptions of what it means to be dyslexic has become apparent to me. If I had a dime for every time someone has asked me if I read backwards, then I would be sitting on my privately owned island right now. The answer is no; I do not read backwards. Nor do I always switch the letters “b” and “d” or read at an elementary school level. In fact, my reading and writing skills are about to earn me a BA in English,writing track, from Towson University. People are often surprised to learn that I am a dyslexic English major. They praise me and tell me how wonderful it is that I overcame this roadblock. All things considered, dyslexia definitely poses a challenge to my academics, but in no way prevents me from getting an education. Before I can discuss my method to school, I must make sure you have an accurate understanding of dyslexia.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Dyslexia is a learning disorder characterized by difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words.” When toddlers are taught the ABC’s, the first step is to identify speech sounds of the individual letters. “A” is for apple because the letter “A” makes the sound “ah.” Once the children are able to accurately identify the sound of each letter, the next step is to arrange the letters to form a word. Take the letters “b”-“a”-“t.” Understand the sounds are “buh”-“ah”-“tuh.” Together, the sounds form the word “bat,” an object used in the game of baseball to hit the ball. A five-year-old must undergo this process every time they attempt to read, but as we age and continue through school, letter recognition becomes instantaneous and develops into immediate word recognition.
The process of recognizing and translating the sequence of letters into a word, aforementioned, is exactly where the life changing difference between a dyslexic mind and a “normal” mind occurs. No matter the age or level of education, a dyslexic mind cannot identify the sounds of letters and form the letters into words as quickly as the average person. For this reason, a dyslexic person reads slower as they must decipher each letter to understand the meaning of every word, sentence, and paragraph. Letter reversal and word confusion occur when the brain unconsciously does not allow for the necessary time it takes to read. A dyslexic brain that sees the word “bat” but reads “rat" results from the delay of communication between the eyes and the brain. In this case, the communication process occurred too quickly, and the person incorrectly assumed the sound associated with the first letter was “rrr.”
So now you see that dyslexia is not reading backwards or a life-sentence of illiteracy. Dyslexia, along with many other learning disabilities, slows the process of perceiving and understanding. Thankfully, Towson has a wonderful Disability Support Services (DSS). I can truly credit my academic success to the help of my accommodations through DSS. My accommodations do not get me special treatment or privileges; they supply me tools to help my studies when dyslexia limits my abilities. I have extra time to take my exams and a computer accommodation for my essays. Towson supplied me with a software on my computer that reads uploaded documents aloud. I have a note taker for my lectures so I do not need to worry about missing something in class. I have found ways to deal with my dyslexia and work around it when it becomes a problem. People wonder if being dyslexic is discouraging. I tell them that if anything, I have used my dyslexia as a source of motivation. My parents used to worry that I would never learn to read and now I write essays on three hundred page novels. I’m pretty sure that I can do whatever I set my mind to.
Grub Street Non-Fiction Team Member
For more information on dyslexia, check out this link: http://therapytoronto.ca/news/tag/dyslexia/
Image source: Google.com
I have always been a lover of books. Reading has been a big part of my life. My parents started reading to me when I was little and my love of books just kept growing. They became a constant, something I could rely on no matter what I was going through. They saved me during my awkward middle school years; expanding my small existence and making me feel less alone and invisible. Books were there for me in high school when my I felt like I would never fit in. They gave me an escape, so when I first starting applying to college I always thought that I would be an English major. I loved books, reading, and writing, therefore, it was the logical choice. Every school I applied to I checked English major, except for Towson. When applying to Towson, I randomly picked Mass Communications with a track in Journalism and New Media. After deciding to attend Towson, I decided to stick with journalism because, even though reading and analyzing books was something I loved, the Journalism major would forced me out of my comfort zone and allow me to grow. I learned different skills and a new fast-paced, factual way of writing.
Once I became an upperclassman and was able to take a class called Literary Journalism, I realized that creative writing could be found in journalism too and it made me crave the English classes I loved in high school. I started seriously thinking about how I could combine my love of English and my new love of journalism for my future. That is when I thought of publishing, a job where I could work with books and use my journalism and marketing skills. I got a summer internship in publishing and enrolled in Grub Street. I never expected Grub Street to be the experience it has become. It has allowed me to get an inside look into what the publishing process is from multiple perspectives: editing, designing, and marketing. Taking this class has allowed me to see the beauty in writing again and expand what I find aesthetically pleasing. I have learned a lot and hope to take these skills when I enter the next phase in my life. Grub Street allowed me to get one last taste of English before I graduate with a degree in Journalism and New Media.
Grub Street Nonfiction Team Member
Here’s a memory. It was a warm August evening as I walked through the Old City district in Philadelphia. No one looked at me. No one knew me in this area, at this time. Most who walked passed me didn’t look up from their phones, texting or reading or posting, as they went by. At an intersection, there was a man sitting quietly on the curb. His head hung between his knees as his hands rested on the back of his neck. His clothes were filthy, tattered on the back near his shoulders. I stood next to him, off to his right. Looked down at him, and he happened to look up at me. Out of all the people in Philly at this time, walking by, he had been the first that I noticed who looked at me. He stood then approached me. Not knowing what to do, I remained where I was, watching him. When he was close enough, he told me that I was the first person to acknowledge him in hours. He didn’t ask for money, or for sympathy; he only wanted to thank me for seeing him. It was a strange exchange. The kind that sticks with you. Whether he was being honest about that fact or not, I can’t say; will never find out. But I’ve carried that moment with me, and as I sat down in The Gaslight to have a drink and some food, I couldn’t seem to get it off my mind.
Some time later at The Gaslight, the bartender asked me if I was waiting for someone else. I told her no, it was just me. I was alone. She gave me a look then walked away. I didn’t understand why she looked perturbed by the fact that I was there on my own. I tried not to think much about it, and turned back to reading The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.
Eventually, I encountered a period of time where being alone felt intolerable and shameful. I had felt the feeling before, but never with such ferocity and weight as it had this time around. Loneliness had returned. Solitude has vanished. Most days, I couldn’t move, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t think straight; writing had moved from an act of pleasure to drudgery. It was oppressive, dominating; a profound force. And how do we talk about such a thing? How do we translate that sensation of utter alienation and abandonment, even when inhabiting such close proximity to others? Loneliness is a stigma, just as much as it is an enigma. And it was during this time that I understood the significance of the man I had met months prior in Old City.
“Cities can be lonely places,” Olivia Laing writes in her book, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, “and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired.”
I began reading through The Lonely City while struggling to understand my own loneliness. Seemingly, it came out of nowhere. One morning I woke up, and nothing felt as it had before; the sense of normalcy had detached itself from the reality known days prior. Yet, in previous days and months, I had been alone, eating lunch and reading at Artifact Coffee, had been to bars by myself, went on hikes. I couldn’t understand how we move in and out of loneliness and solitude, or how to lessen the intensity of loneliness. At that point, and months leading up to it, I had been spending many hours writing. By the necessity of my process, I have to sit in solitude to write, so the mornings and nights spent devoid of human interaction amounted. There was little intimacy between myself and others; everything between friends felt cold, forced, and distant. The loneliness felt as if it had no purpose; it only existed to cause pain and frustration. Somehow, what I felt became a point of shame. People who don’t experience such an occurrence will not understand it, and will not try to empathize with those suffering due to the amount of energy it demands. Life, for some, is the repetition of rebuilding ourselves, and to do so, we need plans and schematics; guidance is required for us to better navigate the unknown.
Olivia Laing, in her pursuit to rebuild from the crippling loneliness she experienced while living in New York City, turned to four different guides who all suffered similarly: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger, and David Wojnarowicz. Each of these artists all suffered through loneliness, yet took what they felt to create art that allowed those who viewed it to feel less alone, to feel more connected. Later in her book, she moves into a commentary on the contemporary digital age and how it affects us, writing, “I can’t count how many pieces I’ve read about how alienated we’ve become, tethered to our devices, leery of real contact; how we are heading for a crisis of intimacy, as our ability to socialise withers and atrophies.” It’s a sad realization of the direction we’re heading in, and, from the consequence of our over-involvement with technology, we’ve tossed out our relationships, our connections, and intimate moments for it.
Here’s another memory. About three weeks ago, on a warm day in February. I was walking through Baltimore, and for once I wasn’t merely staring at the ground, but I was observing and taking in all that I could. It had been an occasion where I did not feel weighed down or burdened, and I wanted to make the most of it. Yet, there was something I noticed that discomforted and made me feel lonely, isolated. Each individual around me was staring down at their phones as they walked. I stopped in the middle of the walkway and looked around at the sight in awe. At that moment, there was the sense that I was dreaming, though I knew very well I wasn’t. A man ran into me and, without so much as acknowledging me, continued on.
Of course, there is a silver lining to this.
After finishing The Lonely City, I had something of a revelation, or an epiphany; what is required to combat loneliness—painful, isolating, crippling loneliness—is empathy, kindness, and trust in each other. Olivia Laing’s entire exploration of this stigmatized concept, by way of the maps and schematics her selected guides left behind, is to reveal that though we may perceive our realities at times as a hell, it is much more significant than that. She points attention to the fact that loneliness cannot be cured through the pursuit of others, but rather the acceptance of ourselves in all that we are: “I don’t believe the cure for loneliness is meeting someone, not necessarily,” she writes. “I think it’s about two things: learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seem to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted.”
We must remember, always, to be open and to be honest; kindness is a force we will always have, and acknowledgement goes farther than we may give it credit. Through loneliness, we learn about who we are, about other people, and we are able to recognize that being alive is a gift. It’s a way of learning what to do with the unknown.
“Loneliness is collective; it is a city.” This sentiment repeats itself in my head. As I look around my house—some walls bare, while others accumulate the torn pages of books, words from those writers who’ve departed—I feel a sense of calm. Each day we face a new experience with loneliness, and there are no set rules on how to cope with that feeling, but to appreciate what we have and to take notice of each moment experienced is to begin to acknowledge what brings us joy and meaning; there’s much to learn in the face of loneliness. I think about the man in Old City from time to time. Together, we are alone, and we are not.
Grub Street Fiction Team Member
Image: Photographed by Coty Poynter
The Book Escape
Red Emma’s Bookstore
The Ivy Bookshop
Wed, Thurs, Sat: 11:00AM–9:00PM
Grub Street Managing Editor
There's no longer any real case against feminism, is there? All people (who are at least semi-intelligent) can understand that there should be equal rights and opportunities for all people, regardless of sex or gender. In this modern era, equality is something that we are all expected to propagate through our daily actions, but is there a line between active and passive feminism? The New Yorker's Jia Tolentino says absolutely yes in her Page Turner article, “The Case Against Contemporary Feminism.”
Has feminism become too rigid in its rules (Death to all men!), or too soft (if I wear a t-shirt that says “Down with the patriarchy,” I'm supporting feminism!)? Some feminist critics, such as Jessa Crispin, a “post-feminist” writer, and Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch magazine, author of We Were Feminists Once, and creator of the term “marketplace feminism,” say that by turning feminism into such a well-known movement, it has lost its zing, as well as the meaning of its ideology.
Remember all of Hillary Clinton's feminist election tactics? The “Girls just want to have fun-damental rights,” the “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people,” or the “The future is female” accessories? Who did the sale of this apparel benefit? What functional purpose did it serve? Crispin calls this a “decade-long conversation about which television show is a good television show and which television show is a bad show.” By saying “this is feminism” and “this is not feminism,” we seem to have lost touch with the roots of the movement.
So, what exactly is modern-day feminism? Is it just a way for corporations to make money by shilling “feminist” slogans for their own profit? Or is it still a real living, breathing movement? By universalizing feminist viewpoints, feminism has become something in the middle of these two categories. On one hand, there are still many women (and men!) who want to promote equality for all people, but there are certainly many individuals and companies who are pushing products with “Girl Power!” written on them—and there are too many people who will purchase these same accessories in an attempt to show their support for feminism, all while contributing nothing to the movement themselves.
This commercial for Covergirl may seem to be spreading a message of feminism: women are equal to men— the #GirlsCan campaign. If this commercial wasn’t branded, maybe it would mean something like that, but it is branded, and so it doesn’t. The point of this commercial is to give women a fuzzy feeling about Covergirl, which will lead to them purchasing their products. Now, is there any way that this commercial was completely altruistic? It’s highly doubtful, no matter how much we may wish it was true.
Look around you—do you see the exploitation of feminist philosophy? It’s on billboards, commercials, ads, clothing, and so many more places! Right now, feminism is the “it” thing. It’s the “trendy” thing. But it’s so much more than that. Now, this “marketplace feminism” is something that can be accessed by everyone and anyone, in many different forms, but is it perpetuating real feminist doctrines, or just superficial mantras that result in big bucks for people who may or may not care about feminist issues?
Feminism is not a brand. It should be a basic moral and ethical standard by which we all abide. Until this happens, make sure you choose your side carefully. Things are never going to change unless there is a separation between commodity feminism and the goals of equality and equity that feminism has always been supposed to represent.
Grub Street Non-Fiction Team Member
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”: Alex George’s Contemporary Handling of Modernism and Our Relationship to It in Setting Free the Kites
Authors constantly write in conversation with their predecessors, by which they not only keep classic stories alive, but also attach themselves to a similar literary tradition or paradigm. Among the myriad of 21st century novelists who play with the ideas, as well as plots and characters, of his or her literary idols, Alex George places a contemporary twist on the quintessential Modernist text, The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, in his recently released novel, Setting Free the Kites. The novel displays ideas that are illustrative to the traditional coming-of-age story, while introducing new, current interpretations on traditionally Modernist themes, like individual identity and mortality.
George’s protagonist, Robert Carter, an adolescent boy, whose brother suffers from muscular dystrophy and demands most of their parents’ attention as a result, experiences neglect firsthand at a critical developmental time of his life. Fortunately, Robert befriends the new kid in town named, Nathan Tilly, and together they explore the local amusement park and an abandoned mill, fueling the romantic yearnings of both young boys who wish for nothing more than to fulfill their wanderlust. Yet, casting a much more melancholic shadow on the remainder of the novel, Robert’s brother passes away, leaving perhaps only Nathan, a friend who becomes some semblance of a brother, to help Robert cope with his loss.
It is at this point that the novel begins to sound particularly Gatsby-esque.
Now working with Robert in the amusement park they once explored, which seems to parallel the Carnival setting of Gatsby’s parties, Nathan falls in love with the neighborhood bully’s girlfriend Faye, aligning him with Jay Gatsby, who, too, tragically pursues forbidden and dangerous love. George has also said that his inspiration for Nathan came from the renown acrobat, Philippe Petit (the man who walked between the World Trade Centers in 1974). So, Nathan is the risk-taker and Robert the onlooker. This leaves Robert, like Nick Carraway, with no choice but to watch his friend inevitably fall victim to his own quixotic imagination. And so, after first, losing his brother and then, his best friend, Robert struggles to find his place in a world that seems to want him to be alone.
George’s novel exists both independent of and dependent on the literary tradition of the Modernists. The story in itself is like something we as a readership have never seen before, in that it is about two boys from Maine struggling with their relationship to the world; but, one the other hand, Robert and Nathan’s story is uncannily familiar to numerous Modernist texts, such as William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and certainly The Great Gatsby, which all deal with the existential question of individual value and purpose. George writes about the same topics that Modernists wrote about, and thank goodness he does! As humans, we still share with each other a sense of unfamiliarity concerning our place in the universe, and it seems that turning to literature might be the only immediate answer.
This, of course, begs the question: how would one describe the literary movement that we are in now? In some of my most recent conversations with fellow academics and creatives–otherwise dubbed, Lit. Nerds–I have heard quite a few different responses. One argues that, “We’re still Postmodernist,” to which others respond, “Postmodernist? Who is to say we’re beyond Modernism?” and then there is the self-proclaimed futurist, who inquires, “We are surely neither Modernist nor Postmodernist. We are Post-postmodernist.” In defense of my colleagues' confusion, we as a culture have not latched onto any such title, and so I suppose these matters are up for interpretation. But, what fascinates me about these responses is the single consistency between them, that is, we seem to agree that we are in relation to the Modernist literary tradition, which undoubtedly surfaces in Setting Free the Kites, making George, one of the fresh new faces of our contemporary discourse.
Grub Street Fiction Team Member
Fitzgerald quote in blog title: Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. 1925. Scribner, 2004, pp. 180.
Image source: (http://www.alexgeorgebooks.com)
We may think that our voyeuristic need to know intimate details about the lives of the rich and famous is a contemporary phenomenon, but in reality everyday people have always desired a glimpse into the not-so-ordinary lives of those above them. Such was the case with the Romanovs, the last Russian royal family. They were the Kardashian family of their time (if you were to replace sexual scandals with health and political ones), and people across the world felt it their business to know the ins and outs of the family's life. The family was, however, fiercely private, and it has only been with time, and access to their journals and letters, that we have been given the luxury of truly understanding what their lives were like during such a turbulent time in Russian history.
As expected, The Romanov Sisters focuses mainly on the Romanov sisters: Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, but plenty of time is spent on their mother, the Czarina Alexandra, their father, Czar Nicholas II, and their younger brother, Alexey. Rappaport breaks down her account into several longer sections, beginning with the early life and courtship of Alexandra and Nicholas, leading into Alexandra’s pregnancies (and the Russian people’s frustrations over her slew of daughters), and then winding it’s way through the lives of her children as they grow into teenagers and young adults. While an account of the Romanovs would not be complete without reflection on their tragic execution in Ekaterinburg, Rappaport’s spends almost no time on their deaths, with at least 95% of the book being dedicated to relating the story of their lives.
Rappaport works to get beyond the sensationalism of their horrific deaths, and instead gives full due to each of the characters, cutting through the royal facade and getting at their personal thoughts and beliefs. She reveals a family deeply religious, fiercely devoted to one another, and unbreakable in spirit. Alexandra, thought to be a frosty and distant empress during her life, is shown to be a woman faced with numerous tragedies in her youth, who spent much of her adult life ill and in bed. Despite this, she gave thanks to God for her daughters and son, with whom she had a deep bond, and remained hopelessly in love with her husband and his empire until the day she died. The Romanov sisters, known mainly for their striking elegance and beauty during their lives, instead strike the readers as intelligent, bold, thoughtful, and humble, carrying on lively friendships with their servants and soldiers, and devoting themselves wholeheartedly to nursing during the Great War. Anastasia, the most famous of the daughters, jumps off the page in all of her goofy, gawky, mischievous splendor. Nicholas, who in the final days of his reign was reviled as a merciless tyrant, is cast in a sympathetic light: a man who loved nature and simple living, one who would have much preferred the life of a gentleman farmer, but instead was pressed, unprepared, into the life of a czar.
And then finally there is Alexey, the invalid son crippled by hemophilia and burdened with expectations of leadership. But, thanks to Rappaport’s perceptive and thoughtful writing, Alexey becomes more than his disease, and more than his title, instead reading as a boy struggling to be independent and strong in the face of pain and illness, one who, while at times petulant and spoiled, had a desire to learn about the empire and become an illustrious fighter who could head the Russian Army. Even Grigori Rasputin, the magical villain of the animated children’s movie Anastasia, becomes far more human once Rappaport pens him, developing into a poor and imperfect man, who nonetheless felt a strong attachment to Alexandra, her daughters, and especially her son, for whom he consistently prayed and helped heal.
In her account, Rappaport makes what is celebrity everyday, and reminds the reader that those with fame and wealth are still merely human. We learn of the girls’ frustrations with schoolteachers, their crushes on military officers (some requited and others kept to the confines of their journals), and their desperate desire to remain optimistic in the face of illness, war, and societal turmoil. We learn of Nicholas’s insecurities, and his joy in living a simple life (he always slept on a military cot, took cold showers, and ate simple fare). We are reminded that wealth does not make us any less human: the famous sleep, eat, pray, laugh, and cry as we do. Instead of capitalizing on the attention-grabbing nature of their lives and deaths (Romanov family lives in four palaces worth of splendor! Romanov family, executed by Bolsheviks in dirty basement prison!), she works to draw the reader past the clickbait, and into the true lives of a family whose outlook on life mirrored any Russian peasant.
Grub Street Editor-in-Chief
The image above is "Flight" by Gillian Collins.