The Lake of
Dead Languages

Carol Goodman
Heart Lake is an old-fashioned all-girls' school located in New England on a lake by the same name. Jane Hudson had studied there as a scholarship student, and after much soul-searching, returns in later years to teach Latin.

Immediately we are plunged knee-deep in Tacitus and declensions and snow and the cold waters of Heart Lake. There are dozens of girls and girls' woes and tragedies right out of Medea, Iphigenia in Tauris, and Oedipus. It's a Prime of Miss Jean Brodie look-alike contest: students falling in love with their teachers (the Latin teachers are called Domina) students falling in love with other students, scandal, suicide, and suchlike.

Ms. Goodman is patently a writer who does not believe in dolling up her prose, much less her characters. They are all cut-outs, or should be; the dialogue is certainly not Euripides although the breast-beating is as heavy.

Jane, the lead tragedian, is constantly smitten with doubt, if not love, and she is a certified wish-wash. Her roommate Lucy is lovely and wasted and upper-class and slits her wrists. Roommate #3 --- Deirdre --- can roll a great joint and talks endlessly about sex. When she hears how water molecules, close to freezing, "lie on top of each other," she coos: "Oooh ... Lezzie molecules." (Translation for those of us who have not attended a girl's school in the last twenty years: "Lezzie" = Lesbian.) Deirdre ends up plunging to a mysterious death from a rock above Heart Lake.

Like a Russian novel, each of the characters here has at least two names --- one for the Latin teacher, another from their families. For those who are married, or were married, there are three or more. There is Vesta and Aphrodite, Athena and Melissa, Sandy and Ellen, Helen and Hannah, Deirdre and Lucy.

    Lucy was easy because it meant, like her own name Helen, light, and so Lucy would use the same Latin name Helen had at school: Lucia.


    Jane, she told me, came from the Hebrew for merciful, which was Clementia in Latin. Floyd Miller and Ward Castle spent the rest of the year calling me Clementine.


If we were reading Gogol or Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, the publisher would print a chart up front with little lines connecting the characters so we could known that Andreyvitch Andrevanov was also known as Alexi Alexovitch and he was brother to Dmitri Dmitrivovich which would matter to us because the novel would be interesting, the characters interesting, their interactions interesting. Reading The Lake of Dead Languages, we don't need such a chart because it is all such a tedious muddle and who cares anyway if Athena loves Vesta and Aphrodite rolls her eyes in barely suppressed passion before slitting her wrists all the way up to her elbows.

We made it to page 204 and the only reason we made it that far was that we got stuck in the airport without anything else to read except USA Today and this turkey. Just like The Lake of Dead Languages, it seemed as if our plane would never get off the ground.

--- Lolita Lark


Barbara Kingsolver
Barbara Kingsolver doesn't much care for mega-corporations, drilling for oil in sensitive areas, housecats (world-wide, they eat some 4,000,000 songbirds a day), television, cows, cars, importing exotic foods, the lousy American health-care system, CEOs who pay themselves too much, fossil-fuel emissions, the military, and war:

    Our whole campaign against the Taliban, Afghan women's oppression, and Osama bin Laden was undertaken without nearly enough public mention of our government's previous involvement with this wretched triumvirate, in service of a profitable would-be pipeline from the gas fields of Turkmenistan. If the CIA and some U. S. Corporate heads are romancing the same ilk elsewhere, right now, for similar reasons, then this high-minded talk of "Enduring Freedom" is wearing thin on my patience. The men in charge of our wars are well aware of these complex histories, but they speak to us in terms of simplistic threats without shades of cause or consequence, exactly as if we were all children.

Kingsolver isn't all sour grapes. She does care for kids, ecologically responsible living, gardening, bedtime stories, chickens, the Kyoto Protocol, renewable energy, equal rights for women, and her country:

    In the days and months following September 11, some bully-patriots claiming to own my flag promoted a brand of nationalism that threatened freedom of speech and religion with death... Such men were infuriated by thoughtful hesitation, constructive criticism of our leaders, and pleas for peace. They ridiculed and despised people of foreign birth (one of our congressmen actually used the hideous term "rag heads") who've spent years becoming part of our culture and contributing their labor and talents to our economy.

"In other words," she concludes, "these hoodlum-Americans were asking me to believe that their flag stood for intimidation, censorship, violence, bigotry, sexism, homophobia, and shoving the Constitution through a paper shredder."

    Well, our flag does not, and I'm determined that it never will. Outsiders can destroy airplanes and buildings, but only we the people have the power to demolish our own ideals.

Over the last few years, we've read and reviewed several essayists who write --- as Kingsolver does --- for the likes of the New York Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe. Many of them suffer from the Sickness of the Thoughtful Critic: much hand-wringing, much despair, little art in their writing. Kingsolver is an exception, and a glorious one. She is funny, curt, concerned, caring, bothered by fools, and a dandy stylist to boot. Her phrasing delights even as she's making very precise points:

  • On writing --- "I'm patient with most corners of my life, but put a book in my hands and suddenly I remind myself of a harrowing dating-game shark, long in the tooth and looking for love right now, thank you, get out of my way if you are going to waste my time and don't really want kids or the long-term commitment."
  • On the Gulf War --- "I heard plenty of words about freedom's defense as our military rushed to the aid of Kuwait, a monarchy in which women approximately the same rights as a nineteenth-century American slave."
  • On her over-long pregnancy --- "In the summer's awful heat I am a beached whale, a house full of water, a universe with ankles."
  • On beef --- "The lively web of farmhouses, schoolhouses, pasture lands, woodlots, live-stock barns, poultry coops, and tilled fields that once constituted America's breadbasket has been replaced with a meat-fattening monoculture... If I were a cow, right here is where I'd go mad."
  • On her office --- "My writing desk looked the way it usually does: as if a valiant struggle involving lots and lots of papers had recently been fought and lost there."
  • On keeping a garden --- "The vegetables are forever trying to get out of hand, the melons want to squash, and the spinach tries to bolt, but I keep them in line."
Kingsolver is a dream Op-Ed writer. She can be bewitching, she does her research, and her prose is alive and scintillating and pithy. She sticks it to those who deserve it, but always with care and succinctness. She deserves your love and attention.

--- Lolita Lark

A Palpable

Portraits of
Genius and

Jonathan Williams
(David R. Godine)
Jonathan Williams is one of those disgusting people who got to know --- or at least meet --- all the people that you and I have wanted to meet and know all our lives, people like Kenneth Rexroth, Buckminister Fuller, Lou Harrison, Wendell Berry, Thomas Merton, Harry Partch, Henry Miller, Booker Ervin, Kenneth Patchen, Ian Hamilton Finlay ... I'm not going to name any more because I am sick with envy and want Williams to feel ashamed for having lived such a colorful life filled with too many colorful characters while I am here slaving away reading books and writing reviews and not hanging out with the likes of Rexroth and hearing him say when someone asks, "Why do you write?"

    To overthrow the capitalist system and to get laid --- in that order.

I opened this volume expecting to be irritated by all the name dropping, and stayed to admire one who can find art not only through artists, but in what some might think of as the artless, the innocent, or the dead.

Further surprise: I find on the first page that Jonathan Williams gave a reading at Haverford College when I was a student there, that he stayed at the house of my English teacher, Ralph Sargent, and he never asked to meet me. There you go. I was probably hanging around my dorm room drinking B&L Scotch and sulking and feeling sorry for myself while I could have been hanging around with him, and he would have introduced me to his world of great, good and funny friends. I even might have had my photo taken to appear in this very volume. We missed each other. So near so far. I am pissed. Let him eat cake.

Not only has he met such folk, he was smart enough to take his camera so he could capture them at the drop of a hat, not only shots of Miller, Partch, Rexroth, et al --- but of interesting tombs: e. e. cummings, Jelly Roll Morton, Walt Whitman, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Charlie Parker. I mean, not only does the old bastard meet these fascinating people --- those he can't find alive he goes off to find dead.

And not being satisfied with that, he scouts out what some call (because they don't know any better) "primitive" artists. People like James Harold Jennings, the Artist of the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars. Vollis Simpson who made Wind Machines ("Figures with a touch of Miró and Dubuffet play guitars; wagons and horses move; a pole with a hung colored metal parasol on top; two men use a long saw on a big log.")

And there is Howard Finster [Fig. 1 above], a picture-painting preacher of North Georgia country who "talks about queery boys just as you would expect."

    No matter [says Williams] I have never heard him speak unkindly of his great contemporary, Eddie Owens Martin, who was gayer than a square grape.

The photograph you want, the shot that outshines all the rest, the one that makes the whole book with its seventy-or-so pictures and rambling, silly essays worth it, is the one of Ezra Pound [Fig 2, below]. Oh is he sullen; he's pissed off. Maybe he's pissed because Williams didn't take him along with him on his adventures in the world of writers and painters and the dead.

But, no: Williams says he went to see him at St. Elizabeth's, the loony bin where they stuck him to punish him for his antics in Italy during WWII (he advised Americans on radio that it was useless to fight the Fascists). Pound told his wife to tell Williams to go away --- that he "didn't want to see people who were friends of Charles Olson." How picky can you be?

The second time they met, in Venice, Pound was in his last great years of silence. Guy Davenport had dinner with him one evening reported, "all Ez said was gnocchi." Obviously, he also said nothing to Williams, but his turn-away face says it all.

--- Carlos Amantea

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