An Interview with Ron Charles of The Washington Post!

Ron Charles Staff Photo Washington Post Book World copy

Ron Charles, editor of Book World at The Washington Post


Recently The Wonderlings Book Club was thrilled to announce a very special guest: Ron Charles, of The Washington Post! Mr. Charles joined us for a live Facebook chat on Thursday, March 1st 12:30 (EST) and a great time was had by all.

Ron is a true veteran of the study and discussion of  great books and authors. He’s been a book reviewer for a sum total of more than 20 years combined, at The Washington Post and prior to that, the Christian Science Monitor, During our Wonderlings Book Club interview, we discussed that work as well as the process of book reviewing and who his own favorite authors have been, along the way.

See Ron’s recent visit to a small town book club meeting HERE as they discuss Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones.

Although his style is decidedly fun-loving,  lighthearted and satirical (as we see in the delightful  The Totally Hip Book Review, which he produces with his wife, Dawn), Charles is a veteran of all things literary.

Born and raised in St. Louis, Ron Charles earned an M.A. in English at Washington University in 1986 and began teaching American literature at Principia College (Elsah, Ill.). After the birth of his second daughter in 1991, his family moved back to St. Louis, where he taught English at the John Burroughs School and began writing freelance book reviews. Those essays eventually led to a job as the book section editor and lead critic for the Christian Science Monitor (1998-2005). In 2005, he became a senior editor and weekly critic for The Washington Post Book World. In early 2009 when The Post closed its stand-alone book section and integrated reviews throughout the paper, he was appointed deputy editor and given a weekly column in Style. In 2013, he was promoted to editor of Book World.

In 2009, he won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. He was also a judge for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction (the year Donna Tartt won for her novel, The Goldfinch.)

Ron also hosts Life of a Poet, a series of interviews in conversation with some of today’s most prominent poets, co-sponsored by Hill Center, The Library of Congress and The Washington Post. He’s interviewed everyone from Jeffrey Eugenides and Joyce Carol Oates to Margaret Atwood, and many, many others. And last week, we were lucky enough to be able to interview him!


The Interview:

Celeste Helene Schantz Today The Wonderlings Book Club is very happy to welcome our very special guest, Ron Charles of The Washington Post. Ron is the editor of Book World, and we’re very pleased that he’s joining us on Facebook today as our guest for this half hour. Ron, welcome!

First, can you speak a bit about what it’s like to serve on the judging panel for the Pulitzer Prize? What was it like? What was the process?

Ron Charles  The Pulitzer process is really exhilarating — and exhausting! The books flood in — more than 400, as I recall. (It turns out all you need to enter your book for a Pulitzer is $50. And a lot of people have $50. Or did. There were three of us on the Fiction committee. We read widely and tried to point each other toward books we really liked.

Shabnam Mirchandani  Ron, I love your “stand-up comic” approach to book reviewing in the videos. Such an eclectic combination of raucous fun and sparking intellect! (and your wife is now my hero!) How on earth do you wade through an ocean of material and come up with such sassy, smart, and crazily addictive productions?

Ron Charles Thanks for watching!

Ron Charles Totally Hip Video Book Review 

Those have been a blast for Dawn and me. We’ve been trying to create one a month. But a lot depends on the books I’m reviewing and my wife’s busy schedule (she’s a high school teacher). Not all books lend themselves to zany comedy, of course — so that’s the first hurdle.

Susan Pigman  Ron, The Washington Post book section is always alerting me to books I would have otherwise missed. How do you choose which books to review out of the many possibilities published?

Ron Charles That’s our major challenge. We get about 150 books a day, but review only about 17 a week, so, as you can see, most don’t make it….. but we’re trying to create a rich selection of reviews on a variety of subjects to meet the interests of our audience. We rely on the trades (PW, Library Journal, Kirkus) and a few publicists we trust, and we poke around and see what we like. Once I identity a book for the THVBR treatment, I write up the review and then spend about a week working on the script and collecting all the props and costumes we’ll need. Come Saturday morning, we film all day and sometimes into Sunday. Then it takes me about eight hours to do the editing.

Shabnam Mirchandani  Wow!  How do you balance comedy and seriousness when confronted with the implications of a “post truth” moment?

Ron Charles I feel entirely free to add little satiric zingers about “post truth” when appropriate. My favorite was a scene of Tom Sawyer/Donald Trump promising to build a fence and get Mexicans to paint that fence. The Post has been very kind about supporting them online, but the audience is still, like Milton’s, “fit though few.”

David Delaney  With that in mind, do you have a specific reader in mind when you review? T. Kooser said he wrote for his secretary. If she didn’t get it , it needed work.

Ron Charles  David Delaney Ha! Kooser is always great. But no, I don’t have a specific reader in mind, though after two decades of doing this every week, I have a pretty good idea who my 18 or so readers are.

Celeste Helene Schantz Well, now you can add the members of our little group!

Ron Charles I’m writing for smart people who like literary fiction and are willing to step outside their comfort zone once in a while; people willing to take a chance on a novel if they think it has a serious enough intent and it done with enough skill.

David Delaney  How has reviewing changed in the last hundred years — if it has?


David Delaney  At least old enough!

David Delaney  I mean has the skeleton of the profession altered over the years?

Ron Charles  The big change, of course, is the death of most of the nation’s newspaper and magazine book sections. And the rise of many, many new online review sites and the prevalence of costumer reviews. That’s a sea-change. Most of the reviews that remain have to be much shorter, much more consumer-advice oriented. People want lists of recommendations, they want thumbs up or down. They want recommendations from celebrities and, especially, their friends, broadly defined.

David Delaney  When you write a review I notice you really strike a chord on the opening line. Is that critical in the material you review?

Ron Charles For various reasons (i.e. our click-based economy) I think reviews have also gotten much more promotional, much more positive, much more happy, much more “shareable.” If you write a meh or negative review of a midlist novel nowadays, so few people will read it that the CIA could store secrets in it. David Delaney,  I spend half my time on the first two paragraphs, so thanks for noticing!

David Delaney It shows.

Susan Pigman  Ron Charles I still miss Book World. But I appreciate the WP commitment to book reviewing, although I wince every time I have to look under Entertainment for them. Also appreciate the reviews of off-main-street books like Poetry and Science Fiction roundups.

Ron Charles  Susan Pigman I miss Book World, too! But the times, they are a-changin’. Print is yesterday. Online is now. I’m glad you enjoying our monthly coverage of Poetry and SF. I instituted those columns because I felt those books were falling through the cracks in our regular coverage.

Shabnam Mirchandani  Comedy as community service and conscience preserver is a fascinating phenomenon at the present time. Your thoughts?

Ron Charles Indeed, I think comedy — satire — may be the only possible response to America’s descent into madness over the last two years.

Celeste Helene Schantz Ron, today’s book reviews primarily focus on commercially successful novels. Our book club, The Wonderlings, currently focuses on provocative short form works (short stories, poetry, essays and novellas.) Is there still a place in book reviewing for shorter writing? Do you have a favorite short story or a favorite poem or poet?

Ron Charles I’m not a big short story fan myself. And novellas are extremely rare nowadays. But I try to make sure we do roundups of short stories periodically so that people know what’s out there. I find reviews of story collections are often exceedingly dull and plot bound….But please don’t tell anybody that.

I’m a big fan of poetry, and have, for the past five years, hosted a series called Life of a Poet, co-sponsored by the Library of Congress. They stream the interviews, but that’s a pretty dead way to experience them, I’m afraid. In the room with the author, it’s pretty electric, I think.

Celeste Helene Schantz  On the other hand, poetry used to be a feature in major publications. It was poetry for the people, accessible and enjoyed by many . . .and stories were serialized and had cliffhangers . . .

Ron Charles  Celeste Helene Schantz , We used to run a popular column called “The Poet’s Choice.” Trouble is, now we can know *exactly* how many people are clicking on each thing. I can tell you that poetry reviews are not burning down our server. But I remain committed to it! Just posted this interesting piece yesterday:…/a11e4558-1657-11e8…

Shabnam Mirchandani Ron, please accept a Wonderlings Oscar (as the mirthful transcender of all categories) from us! Looking forward to your acceptance speech/video!

David Delaney When you read do you read at the speed of dialogue ?(when there’s dialogue of course)

Ron Charles I read about 35 pages an hour when reading for a review. But I can attain much, much higher speeds when reading for other purposes.

Celeste Helene Schantz  Any last questions for Ron?

Rick Williams What writers make you laugh? And has your “Book Monkey” carefully selected any totally hip favorite books for 2018 yet?

Ron Charles Comic novels are disappointing rare, I’m sorry to say. The best recent example is Andrew Sean Greer’s LESS.  Thank you so much for remembering the Book Monkey! She’s in this episode, I think:…/feab7cfc-bd5e-11e6..

I’m happy to hang around longer. If I stop talking to you all, I have to go back to editing….

David Delaney The best critic you have read?

Ron Charles The best literary critic is James Wood at the New Yorker.

Shabnam Mirchandani  As a newly minted honorary Wonderling, do you have suggestions for our next read?

Ron Charles  Sing, Unburied, Sing is very powerful.

Celeste Helene Schantz As a former English teacher, you’ve studied your share of excellent literature. In the world of modern, commercially successful novels, do you still see glimmers of literary greatness and beautiful prose in the novels you review?

Ron Charles All the time! Honestly, I’m amazed at the literary talent! In fact, I think our real problem is a shortage of readers, not great books.

Celeste Helene Schantz Yes! I work at a library (I’m there right now . . .) and I would say the majority of patrons are online playing games. There are very few people in the stacks 😦 That’s one reason I started this group, to gather readers together.

Ron Charles Celeste Helene Schantz You’re killing me….

Mark Ordon On that note, is there anything that can be done? I recently came upon an opinion that there should be more focus on shorter forms, or at least books “in installments” to cater to a readership which is regretfully more distracted and has a very short attention span.

Ron Charles Mark Ordon I seen a few of those attempts (and written about them at least once) but none has survived for long that I know of.

Shabnam Mirchandani Nevertheless, we (the readers) shall persist!!!!!

Ron Charles If you love short fiction, you must subscribe to the wonderful ONE STORY magazine.

And here’s a picture of my desk at The Washington Post:


Le desk du Ron Charles

Rick Williams Nirvana…You probably have not complained of boredom recently!

David Delaney Where’s the desk?!

Mark Ordon Who needs the desk when the books are there?!

Ron Charles That’s our wonderful office manager, Nicole Chung, in the background.

Shabnam Mirchandani Let’s build a wall (of books)…

Ron Charles  MARA! (Make America Read Again!)

Celeste Helene Schantz Okay, that’s our new slogan!

Ron Charles Celeste Helene Schantz I’ll sell caps in the Totally Hip Gift Store.

David Delaney  Thank you Ron. This has been a great treat for me.

Ron Charles  Wonderful to talk with you all. this has been great fun for me — and a little crazy trying to see what’s coming in. I’m always available on Twitter and email: @roncharles  and

Rick Williams Fantastic! What a Great Guest‼

Shabnam Mirchandani THANK YOU!

Susan Pigman Thank you!

Mark Ordon Thank you for being with us!

Celeste Helene Schantz Ron Charles of the Washington Post, thanks so much for joining us today, and feel free to be a Wonderling for as long as you like. This has been great!

Ron Charles My pleasure! I leave you with this disturbing image:


Gaga bacon-head RC


Shabnam Mirchandani  Meat head?  Tribute to Lady Gaga’s sartorial adventures?

Ron Charles Shabnam Mirchandani Yes (Lady Gaga). It’s really weird for me to look back at some of the older videos and see once-timely gags that have grown so stale that I now have no idea what I was talking about!

Shabnam Mirchandani Ron Charles, you have a (die hard) fan in me..

Ron Charles  New video coming next week (if the predicted wind storm in DC doesn’t destroy my house this weekend.)


Mark Ordon Whatever it may be, it will certainly keep me up all night


Ron Charles Mark Ordon Then my work here is done!


The Wonderlings book club sincerely thanks Ron Charles  for his willingness to be a part of our crazy book club, and we look forward to more of his videos and book recommendations. Thanks, Ron!


Week Forty-Five: The Works of Jamaica Kincaid






Excerpts from “A Small Place”

This week The Wonderlings will take a look at both physical and emotional landscapes, through the eyes of well-known Antiguan author, Jamaica Kincaid.

First up is an excerpt from A Small Place, a work of creative nonfiction published in 1988. A book-length essay drawing on Kincaid’s experiences growing up in Antigua, it can be read as an indictment of the Antiguan government, the tourist industry and Antigua’s British colonial legacy.

Susan Sontag once described Kincaid’s writing as “poignant, but it’s poignant because it’s so truthful and it’s so complicated … She doesn’t treat these things in a sentimental or facile way.”¹

Here’s an excerpt from A Small Place.

The work has received great praise for it’s no-nonsense-let-me-spell-it-out-for-you prose style, but has also been a source of controversy and criticism from both the white, western community as well as from native antiguans.  Let us know what YOU think, as well.




A study question: 

Why does Kincaid’s narrator employ the second person point of view, addressing the reader as “You?”


“Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid


Once you’ve encountered Kincaid’s  often seething view of the tourist industry on Antigua, her birthplace, it’s worthwhile to explore a very brief (600 word?) but well-known exploration of Kincaid’s emotional territory, in a memoir of her mother.

Here is “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid.


The life lesson narrated by the mother is a set of imperative instructions for how a young woman should conduct herself to be acceptable and agreeable to the world, to a husband and to society. It serves as a wonderful poetic prompt for writers to create their own lists and in a very short space serves as a narrative of what cisgender obedience should look like.


Kincaid’s tone is often described as sarcastic, sometimes even as “rant.” Yet what the author delivers is more a frank, low, steady sarcasm with a cynical undercurrent; often as much at the expense of Antigua as it is of tourists. Regarding criticism of her tone, Kincaid has said  “No one asked Norman Mailer why he was so angry or ranting. No one ever asked Philip Roth why he was so angry.” Her point is well-taken. The very sort of gender-based criticism she receives as a woman is ironically precisely what she caricatures in “Girl.” When her male counter-parts use a dry acerbic tone they are given awards.

Check out two interviews with the author,  here:






Other works by Jamaica Kincaid:




Kincaid is probably best known for Annie John, the biography of a girl growing up in Antigua.

Her writing explores such themes as colonialism and colonial legacy, post-colonialism and neo-colonialism, gender and sexuality, renaming, mother-daughter relationships, British and American imperialism, colonial education, writing, racism, class, power, and adolescence. In her most recent novel, See Now Then, Kincaid also first explores the theme of time.²


. . .A bit about Jamaica Kincaid . . .



Kincaid (Source: Pinterest)

Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson on Antigua in 1949.

In 1965 she left Antigua for New York to work as an au pair, then studied photography at the New York School for Social Research and attended Franconia College in New Hampshire.

In 1972 she changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid and was a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine from 1974-1996, publishing her first book, At the Bottom of the River, a collection of short stories, in 1983. Her first novel, Annie John, followed in 1985 – the story of a wilful 10-year-old growing up on Antigua. Further novels include Lucy (1990); The Autobiography of my Mother (1996), a novel set on Dominica and told by a 70-year-old woman looking back on her life; and Mr. Potter (2007). A Small Place (1988), is a short, powerful book about the effects of colonialism. My Brother (1997) chronicles her brother’s batlle with AIDS.

Her love of gardening has also led to several books on the subject, including My Garden (2000) and Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya (2005), a memoir about a seed-gathering trek with three botanist friends. Her novel See Now Then (2013) won the Before Columbus Foundation America Book Award in 2014.

Jamaica Kincaid teaches in the English, African and African-American Studies Department at Harvard University and lives in Vermont.³










¹Writers Digest


3British Council on Literature

Ron Charles, Book World Editor of The Washington Post, joins us on Thursday, March 1st!

Ron Charles Staff Photo Washington Post Book World copy

Ron Charles


The Wonderlings Book Club is thrilled to announce a very special guest: Ron Charles, editor of Book World at The Washington Post!



The Wonderlings Book Club is thrilled to announce a very special guest: Ron Charles, editor of Book World at The Washington Post! Mr. Charles will join us for a live Facebook chat on Thursday, March 1st 12:30 (EST) so get your questions ready!

Ron is a true veteran of the study and discussion of  great books and authors. He’s been a book reviewer for a sum total of more than 20 years combined, at The Washington Post and prior to that, the Christian Science Monitor, We’ll discuss that work as well as the process of book reviewing and who his own favorite authors have been, along the way.

See Ron’s recent visit to a small town book club meeting HERE as they discuss Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones.

Although his style is decidedly fun-loving,  lighthearted and satirical (as we see in the delightful  The Totally Hip Book Review, which he produces with his wife, Dawn), Charles is a veteran of all things literary.


Ron Charles interviews Lauren Groff (author of Fates and Furies) at the 2016 National Book Festival


Born and raised in St. Louis, Ron Charles earned an M.A. in English at Washington University in 1986 and began teaching American literature at Principia College (Elsah, Ill.). After the birth of his second daughter in 1991, his family moved back to St. Louis, where he taught English at the John Burroughs School and began writing freelance book reviews. Those essays eventually led to a job as the book section editor and lead critic for the Christian Science Monitor (1998-2005). In 2005, he became a senior editor and weekly critic for The Washington Post Book World. In early 2009 when The Post closed its stand-alone book section and integrated reviews throughout the paper, he was appointed deputy editor and given a weekly column in Style. In 2013, he was promoted to editor of Book World.

In 2009, he won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. He was also a judge for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction (the year Donna Tartt won for her novel, The Goldfinch.)



Ron speaks on “The Business of Book Reviewing” at the Virginia Book Festival (March 20, 2010)


The PBS NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown talks with book reviewer Ron Charles of The Washington Post about what he considered four of the best works of fiction (from 2011)


Ron also hosts Life of a Poet, a series of interviews in conversation with some of today’s most prominent poets, co-sponsored by Hill Center, The Library of Congress and The Washington Post. He’s interviewed everyone from Jeffrey Eugenides and Joyce Carol Oates to Margaret Atwood, and many, many others.

We are pleased to welcome him to The Wonderlings on Facebook next Thursday! Be sure to tune in, then, to participate in our interview!


And check out more of Ron’s book reviews here . . .


Week Forty-Four: two poems about snow and “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken



This week, our themes are snow and winter. Let’s begin with two poems about snow.


“The landscapes of winter can seem bleak and unforgiving to many people, but Pablo Neruda latches on to an image that blazed through a Berlin winter–an image of horses. As the poem ends, “I have forgotten that dark Berlin winter.//I will not forget the light of the horses.”                (Writer’s Digest)





. . .A bit about Pablo Neruda . . .

Pablo Neruda was the pen name and, later, legal name of the Chilean poet-diplomat and politician Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto (July 12, 1904 – September 23, 1973). He derived his pen name from the Czech poet Jan Neruda. Pablo Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971.


Pablo Neruda

Neruda became known as a poet when he was 10 years old. He wrote in a variety of styles, including surrealist poems, historical epics, overtly political manifestos, a prose autobiography, and passionate love poems such as the ones in his collection Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (1924).

The Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez once called Neruda “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language.”

On July 15, 1945, at Pacaembu Stadium in São Paulo, Brazil, Neruda read to 100,000 people in honor of the Communist revolutionary leader Luís Carlos Prestes.

During his lifetime, Neruda occupied many diplomatic positions and served a term as a Senator for the Chilean Communist Party. When President González Videla outlawed communism in Chile in 1948, a warrant was issued for Neruda’s arrest. Friends hid him for months in the basement of a house in the port city of Valparaíso. Later, Neruda escaped through a mountain pass near Maihue Lake into Argentina.

Years later, Neruda was a close advisor to Chile’s socialist President Salvador Allende. When Neruda returned to Chile after his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Allende invited him to read at the Estadio Nacional before 70,000 people.

Neruda was hospitalized with cancer at the time of the coup d’état led by Augusto Pinochet but returned home after a few days when he suspected a doctor of injecting him with an unknown substance for the purpose of murdering him at the order of Pinochet.[6] Neruda died in his house in Isla Negra on 23 September 1973 hours after leaving the hospital. Although it has always been reported that he died of heart failure, on November 5, 2015 the Interior Ministry of the Chilean government issued a statement acknowledging a Ministry document from March of that year indicating the government’s official position that “it was clearly possible and highly likely” that he was killed as a result of “the intervention of third parties”. Pinochet, backed by elements of the armed forces, denied permission for Neruda’s funeral to be made a public event. However, thousands of grieving Chileans disobeyed the curfew and crowded the streets.



“Not Only the Eskimos” by Lisel Mueller

Our second poem is based on the experience of a Berlin winter from a poet born in Hamburg, Germany. Mueller’s “Not Only the Eskimos” is a wonderful poem about language in general and snow in particular. As the poem begins, “We have only one noun/but as many different kinds.” 
What is your favorite kind of snow?

Within the poem, Mueller delights in language and mouth-feel as she creates a list of the many personifications and associations we give to snowfall.

 . . .in an old tale, the snow
that covers a nest of strawberries,
small hearts, ripe and sweet,
the special snow that goes with Christmas,
whether it falls or not,

the Russian snow we remember
along with the warmth and smell of furs,
though we have never traveled
to Russia or worn furs,

Villon’s snows of yesteryear,
lost with ladies gone out like matches,
the snow in Joyce’s “The Dead,”
the silent, secret snow
in a story by Conrad Aiken,
which is the snow of first love,

the snowfall between the child
and the spacewoman on TV,

. . .²


. . .A bit about Lisel Mueller . . .



Lisel Muelle

Lisel Mueller (born February 8, 1924) was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1924. She has had a career both writing poetry and translating. She attended the University of Evansville and did her graduate study at Indiana University. She has taught at the University of Chicago, Elmhurst College, and Goddard College. She has also worked at as a social worker, a receptionist and a library assistant.A German-American poet. She won the U.S. National Book Award in 1981 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for Alive Together: New & Selected Poems.

Her other awards and honors include the Carl Sandburg Award, the Helen Bullis Award, the Ruth Lilly Prize, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.



“Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken




In Mueller’s poem, “Not only the Eskimos,” the poet mentions “the silent, secret snow/
in a story by Conrad Aiken.”

If you’re looking for a pairing this week, here is that famous short story, “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken.

What do you make of this snow, and this little boy?

“Silent Snow, Secret Snow”



“Silent Snow, Secret Snow” adaptation for television (Rod Serling’s Night Gallery)


“Silent Snow, Secret Snow” (1934) is not only Conrad Aiken’s most anthologized work, but also one of the most widely read twentieth-century American short stories. The story concerns the degeneration of its protagonist, a young boy named Paul Hasleman, into madness. Critics often view this story in light of Aiken’s childhood, and search for autobiographical aspects to the work. Some interpret the story using a psychoanalytic framework; but it has been noted that the problem of the psychoanalytic interpretation is that it treats the events of the tale too clinically, diminishing the story’s emotional power.

It seems that a valid interpretation of “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” can neither avoid purely psychological issues—the theme of child-parent conflict, for example—nor justifiably ignore the realistic tragedy of a twelve-year-old boy’s world demolishedby madness.³


…….“Silent Snow, Secret Snow” is a short story centering on the thoughts of a twelve-year-old boy as he descends into a psychologically remote state. It was first published in The Virginia Quarterly Review in October 1932.

…….The story is set in an American town in the early decades of the twentieth century. The time of year is December.

Paul Hasleman is a twelve-year-old boy who becomes fixated on thoughts of snow. 

During Miss Buell’s sixth-grade geography lesson, twelve-year-old Paul Hasleman indulges in the memory of a December morning a few days before when he awoke to sounds of the mailman tramping through snow. As the snow mounted, he thought, the world would become peaceful and more and more silent. But when he got out of bed and looked out the window, he saw sunlight and bare streets. He had imagined the muffled sound and the snow. Nevertheless, the comforting feeling that snow had fallen remains with him. His preoccupation with thoughts of snow distract his attention from activities around him.

The narrator tells the story in third-person point of view, presenting the thoughts of Paul Hasleman as he reacts to the external world and withdraws into his imaginary world. (Cumming Study Guides.)

“It was gentler here, softer, its seethe the quietest of whispers, as if, in deference to a drawing room, it had quite deliberately put on its ‘manners’; it kept itself out of sight, obliterated itself, but distinctly with an air of saying, ‘Ah, but just wait! Wait till we are alone together! Then I will begin to tell you something new! Something white! something cold! something sleepy! something of cease, and peace, and the long bright curve of space! Tell them to go away. Banish them. Refuse to speak. Leave them, go upstairs to your room, turn out the light and get into bed – I will go with you, I will be waiting for you, I will tell you a better story than Little Kay of the Skates, or The Snow Ghost – I will surround your bed, I will close the windows, pile a deep drift against the door, so that none will ever again be able to enter. Speak to them!…’ It seemed as if the little hissing voice came from a slow white spiral of falling flakes in the corner by the front window – but he could not be sure.”

(“Silent Snow, Secret Snow”)”
Conrad Aiken, Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural


. . .A bit about Conrad Aiken . . .



Negative, Conrad Aiken, (Paul Nash, The Tate Gallery) Pinterest.

An excellent biography of Aiken exists online at The Poetry Foundation. Please take time to read it, HERE.





¹This poem is difficult to track down.

² “Not Only the Eskimos” by Lisel Mueller, from Alive Together, LSU Press; First edition (October 1, 1996)



Week Forty-Three: “The Golem of Chelm” (traditional) and “By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét.


“The Golem of Chelm” (traditional, video)


Good morning!
This week we’re mixing storytelling forms, and we’re going to begin today with an eleven-minute animation.

We’ve studied a number of legends, fairy and folk tales . . .

Have you ever heard the story of the Golem? This particular Golem is The Golem of Rabbi Elijah; also known as the Golem of Chelm.

Listen as the story’s told, and let us know what you think.


For another Golem story everyone will enjoy, try Golem by David Wisniewski.

Golem is a 1996 picture book. With illustrations made of cut-paper collages, it is Wisniewski’s retelling of the Jewish folktale of the Golem (of Prague, this time, not Chelm) with a one-page background at the end.



This picture book won the Caldecott Medal in 1997


The story is set in year 1580, and the Jews are being persecuted. Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the town rabbi, can think of nothing more than creating a being out of mud and bringing it to life, using the holy name of God, to protect them. Once the Golem stops the persecution, Rabbi Loew erases the letters on the Golem’s head, making the Golem “sleep the dreamless sleep of clay”. The ending is ambiguous, ending with the words: “But many say he could awaken. Perhaps when the desperate need for justice is united with holy purpose, Golem will come to life once more.”


The book won the Caldecott Medal in 1997


. . .for movie fans . . .

Check out this old silent film:

The Golem (1920) by Paul Wegener


The 1920 silent film classic, The Golem

This film stars Wegener as the golem. The film was the third of three films that Wegener made featuring the golem, the other two being The Golem (1915) and the short comedy The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917), in which Wegener dons the Golem make-up in order to frighten a young lady he is infatuated with. The Golem: How He Came into the World is a prequel to The Golem from 1915 and is the best known of the series, largely because it is the only one of the three films that has not been lost. One of the early horror films, the film was sensational upon its release and has left a lasting legacy within the film industry,[citation needed] alongside another early German expressionist horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).¹


“By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét



Painting, “By the Waters of Babylon,” Arthur Hacker, 1858-1919.



Looking for a second optional reading to pair with “The Golem of Chelm?”

John, the son of a priest, is one of the hill people. What will happen when he sets out on a spiritual quest to the forbidden place of the gods? Let’s find out in this often-anthologized science fiction story.

Here is “By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét.

How would you compare or contrast this to the tale of Rabbi Elijah’s Golem? Let us know!

HERE is Benét’s story



Image result for stephen vincent benet


Why do you suppose Stephen Vincent Benét chose this title for his short story?

Benét wrote the story in response to the April 25, 1937 bombing of Guernica, in which Fascist military forces destroyed the majority of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.[5] This story took place before the public knowledge of nuclear weapons, but Benét’s description of “The Great Burning” is similar to later descriptions of the effects of the atomic bombings at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. His “deadly mist” and “fire falling from the sky” seem eerily prescient of the descriptions of the aftermath of nuclear blasts. However, the “deadly mist” may also be a reference to chemical weapons in World War I, particularly mustard gas, a feared weapon of war that Benét’s generation was very familiar with. The story was written in 1937, two years before the Manhattan Project started, and eight years before there was widespread public knowledge of the project.

Elements of the plot and themes of By the Waters of Babylon appear in the 1970 feature film Beneath the Planet of the Apes.

The psalm is a hymn expressing the yearnings of the Jewish people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 607 BCE. The rivers of Babylon are the Euphrates river, its tributaries, and the Tigris river. In its whole form of nine verses, the psalm reflects the yearning for Jerusalem as well as hatred for the Holy City’s enemies with sometimes violent imagery. Rabbinical sources attributed the poem to the prophet Jeremiah,[1] and the Septuagint version of the psalm bears the superscription: “For David. By Jeremias, in the Captivity.”[2]

  1. By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
  2. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
  3. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
  4. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
  5. If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
  6. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
  7. Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
  8. O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
  9. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

The early lines of the psalm describe the sadness of the Israelites in exile, weeping and hanging their harps on trees. Asked to “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”, they refuse. The speaker turns into self-exhortation to remember Jerusalem: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.” (אִם-אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ יְרוּשָׁלִָם–תִּשְׁכַּח יְמִינִי). The psalm ends with prophetic predictions of violent revenge.



 . . .A bit about Stephen Vincent Benét . . .



Stephen Vincent Benét (July 22, 1898 – March 13, 1943) was an American poet, short story writer, and novelist. He is best known for his book-length narrative poem of the American Civil War John Brown’s Body (1928), for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1929, and for the short stories “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1936) and “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937). In 2009, The Library of America selected Benét’s story “The King of the Cats” (1929) for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American Fantastic Tales edited by Peter Straub.








Week Forty-Two: “The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick and “The Watch” by Eli Wiesel




“The Shawl” Cynthia Ozick


Stella, cold, cold, the coldness of hell.”


Thus begins Cynthia Ozick’s short (just five pages) yet riveting story, “The Shawl.”

“Ozick wrote it, she says, in a way she has never written anything, before or since. “I’m not a mystic, I don’t believe in any of that. I’ve been on the side of rationalism. I had an experience, just the first five pages – I hate to say it, it’s the kind of absurd thing that I mock – that I wasn’t writing it, that it was dictated. Just for those five pages.”

For International Holocaust Remembrance Day. I hope you will consider reading Ozick’s award-winning short story, which was chosen for The Big Read by The National Endowment for the Arts.

At less than 2000 words, here is “The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick.


Should you prefer to hear the story read aloud, check out this instalment of Yiddish Story Time, introduced by Leonard Nimoy:



Major Characters in the Book

Rosa Lublin
As a young woman, Rosa is raped by a German soldier, confined in the Warsaw Ghetto, and sent to a Nazi concentration camp in German-occupied Poland with her niece, Stella, and her infant daughter, Magda. Almost four decades later, Rosa lives in Miami, haunted by the memory of her daughter’s death. “Rosa Lublin, a madwoman and a scavenger, gave up her store—she smashed it up herself—and moved to Miami. It was a mad thing to do. … Her niece in New York sent her money and she lived among the elderly, in a dark hole, a single room in a ‘hotel.'”

Teenage Stella’s theft of the shawl leads to her cousin Magda’s death. As an adult, Stella provides Rosa with financial support, but she cannot understand her aunt’s inability to let go of the past. “Stella liked everything from Rosa’s junkshop, everything used, old, lacy with other people’s history.”

A baby hidden in her mother’s shawl, Magda survives infancy in a concentration camp in Nazi German-occupied Poland but is murdered by a guard at fifteen months old.
“The face, very round, a pocket mirror of a face: but it was not Rosa’s bleak complexion, dark like cholera, it was another kind of face altogether, eyes blue as air, smooth feathers of hair nearly as yellow as the Star sewn into Rosa’s coat. You could think she was one of their babies.”

Simon Persky
A retiree whose wife is hospitalized in a mental institution, Simon is a comic character in a tragic situation. His persistent kindness begins to break through some of Rosa’s barriers. “Two whole long rows of glinting dentures smiled at her; he was proud to be a flirt.”

How The Shawl Came to Be Written

The Shawl began with a line, one sentence in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. This one sentence told of a real event, about a baby being thrown against an electrified fence. And that stayed with me and stayed with me, and that was the very explicit origin of The Shawl.

“It began with those very short five pages. We read now and again that a person sits down to write and there’s a sense that some mystical hand is guiding you and you’re not writing out of yourself. I think reasonably, if you’re a rational person, you can’t accept that. But I did have the sense—I did this one time in my life—that I was suddenly extraordinarily fluent, and I’m never fluent. I wrote those five pages as if I heard a voice. In a sense, I have no entitlement to this part because it’s an experience in a death camp. I was not there. I did not experience it.”

“I wrote the second half because I wanted to know what happened to Rosa afterward. I was curious to enter the mind of such an unhappy, traumatized person and see how that person would cope with the time afterward—rescued, saved, safe, and yet not rescued, not safe, not normal, abnormal.”

—Excerpted from Cynthia Ozick’s interview with former NEA Chairman Dana Gioia¹


. . .A bit about Cynthia Ozick . . .



Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick, (born April 17, 1928, New York, N.Y., U.S.), American novelist, short-story writer, essayist, and intellectual whose works seek to define the challenge of remaining Jewish in contemporary American life. By delving into the oldest religious sources of Judaism, Ozick explored much new territory.


Ozick received a B.A. in English in 1949 from New York University and an M.A. in 1950 from Ohio State University. Her first novel, Trust (1966), is the story of a woman’s rejection of her wealthy American Jewish family and her search for her renegade father in Europe. It has echoes of Henry James in its juxtaposition of American and European settings. In subsequent books, such as Bloodshed and Three Novellas (1976), Ozick struggled with the idea that the creation of art (a pagan activity) is in direct opposition to principles of Judaism, which forbids the creation of idols. The psychological aftermath of the Holocaust is another theme of her work, especially in Levitation: Five Fictions (1982) and the novels The Cannibal Galaxy (1983) and The Shawl (1989). She often drew upon traditional Jewish mysticism to expand upon her themes. One of her recurring characters is Ruth Puttermesser. In 1997 Ozick published The Puttermesser Papers, a short novel consisting of narratives and false memories of the aging Puttermesser, who in one story brings a female golem to life in order to save New York City, with disastrous results.


Ozick’s later works turn away from the theme of the sacred and the profane. Her novel The Messiah of Stockholm (1987) is, in part, a meditation on the nature of writing. Heir to the Glimmering World (2004; also published as The Bear Boy) tells the story of a young woman hired as a nanny in the home of two Jewish-German academics exiled to New York City in the 1930s. Diction: A Quartet, a collection of four short stories, was published in 2008.


Many of Ozick’s essays have been collected in Art & Ardor (1983), Metaphor & Memory (1989), Fame & Folly (1996), Quarrel & Quandary (2000), and The Din in the Head (2006).




“The Watch” by Eli Wiesel


Can we return to the past? Get beyond the past?

When we survive horror, does time heal us?


Eli Wiesel interviewed by Oprah Winfrey

If you would like a second optional piece to pair with Ozick’s “The Shawl,”  we suggest “The Watch,” by Elie Wiesel.

The shawl had great symbolism in Ozick’s tale. What will the watch represent, in Wiesel’s?


HERE is “The Watch” by Eli Wiesel.


  1. What sort of feelings does the protagonist have towards the people of the town in the beginning of the story? The end of the story?
  2. What does the watch symbolize, if anything?



. . .A bit about Eli Wiesel . . .

Elie Wiesel was born in 1928 in Sighet, Transylvania, which is now part of Romania. He was fifteen years old when he and his family were deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz. His mother and younger sister perished, his two older sisters survived. Elie and his father were later transported to Buchenwald, where his father died shortly before the camp was liberated in April 1945. elie-wiesel

After the war, Elie Wiesel studied in Paris and later became a journalist. During an interview with the distinguished French writer, Francois Mauriac, he was persuaded to write about his experiences in the death camps. The result was his internationally acclaimed memoir, Night (La Nuit), which has since been translated into more than thirty languages.

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed Elie Wiesel as Chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust. In 1980, he became the Founding Chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. He is President of The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, an organization he and his wife created to fight indifference, intolerance and injustice. Elie Wiesel has received more than 100 honorary degrees from institutions of higher learning.

A devoted supporter of Israel, Elie Wiesel has also defended the cause of Soviet Jews, Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians, Argentina’s Desaparecidos, Cambodian refugees, the Kurds, victims of famine and genocide in Africa, of apartheid in South Africa, and victims of war in the former Yugoslavia. For more than fifteen years, Elie and his wife Marion have been especially devoted to the cause of Ethiopian-born Israeli youth through the Foundation’s Beit Tzipora Centers for Study and Enrichment.

Teaching has always been central to Elie Wiesel’s work. Since 1976, he has been the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University, where he also holds the title of University Professor. He is a member of the Faculty in the Department of Religion as well as the Department of Philosophy. Previously, he served as Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at the City University of New York (1972-76) and the first Henry Luce Visiting Scholar in Humanities and Social Thought at Yale University (1982-83).

Elie Wiesel is the author of more than sixty books of fiction and non-fiction, including A Beggar in Jerusalem (Prix Médicis winner), The Testament (Prix Livre Inter winner), The Fifth Son (winner of the Grand Prize in Literature from the City of Paris), two volumes of his memoirs, All Rivers Run to the Sea and And the Sea is Never Full, and most recently The Sonderberg Case.

For his literary and human rights activities, he has received numerous awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, the National Humanities Medal, the Medal of Liberty, and the rank of Grand-Croix in the French Legion of Honor. In 1986, Elie Wiesel won the Nobel Prize for Peace, and soon after, Marion and Elie Wiesel established The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.

Elie Wiesel died on July 2, 2016 in Manhattan.²









¹ The Big Read, NEA website

² The Eli Wiesel Foundation





Week Forty-One: “I Have a Dream” and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.


“I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr.


I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.  -Martin Luther King, Jr.


Few speeches have been as often quoted or anthologized as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We would be remiss, in the study of the best short form literature available, if we didn’t include it on our reading list.

Happy Martin Luther King Day! Have you ever read the entire speech? This week we’ll be looking at speeches, letters and essays related to civil rights. Please share your thoughts with our group!

You can find King’s speech HERE.

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.



A recreation of King’s Jail Cell


If you found King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech meaningful, here is an OPTIONAL second Wednesday piece:

King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

‘The Birmingham campaign began on April 3, 1963, with coordinated marches and sit-ins against racism and racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. The nonviolent campaign was coordinated by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) and King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). On April 10, Circuit Judge W. A. Jenkins issued a blanket injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.” Leaders of the campaign announced they would disobey the ruling. On April 12, King was roughly arrested with SCLC activist Ralph Abernathy, ACMHR and SCLC official Fred Shuttlesworth and other marchers, while thousands of African Americans dressed for Good Friday looked on.


You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.”


King was met with unusually harsh conditions in the Birmingham jail. An ally smuggled in a newspaper from April 12, which contained “A Call for Unity”: a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen against King and his methods.

The letter provoked King, and he began to write a response on the newspaper itself. King writes in Why We Can’t Wait:

“Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly black trustee, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me.” (Wikipedia)


for discussion: what elements of rhetoric does Martin Luther King Jr. use in his writing to persuade and excite the listener?


For Further Study . . .

Listen to “The Idea of Ancestry” by the poet Etheridge Knight, written from his jail cell in 1968.

The Idea of Ancestry

Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black
faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand-
fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,
cousins (1st & 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stare
across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know
their dark eyes, they know mine. I know their style,
they know mine. I am all of them, they are all of me;
they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee.
I have at one time or another been in love with my mother,
1 grandmother, 2 sisters, 2 aunts (1 went to the asylum),
and 5 cousins. I am now in love with a 7-yr-old niece
(she sends me letters written in large block print, and
her picture is the only one that smiles at me).
I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews,
and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just took
off and caught a freight (they say). He’s discussed each year
when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness in
the clan, he is an empty space. My father’s mother, who is 93
and who keeps the Family Bible with everybody’s birth dates
(and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is no
place in her Bible for “whereabouts unknown.”
Each fall the graves of my grandfathers call me, the brown
hills and red gullies of mississippi send out their electric
messages, galvanizing my genes. Last yr / like a salmon quitting
the cold ocean-leaping and bucking up his birthstream / I
hitchhiked my way from LA with 16 caps in my packet and a
monkey on my back. And I almost kicked it with the kinfolks.
I walked barefooted in my grandmother’s backyard / I smelled the old
land and the woods / I sipped cornwhiskey from fruit jars with the men /
I flirted with the women / I had a ball till the caps ran out
and my habit came down. That night I looked at my grandmother
and split / my guts were screaming for junk / but I was almost
contented / I had almost caught up with me.
(The next day in Memphis I cracked a croaker’s crib for a fix.)
This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream, and when
the falling leaves stir my genes, I pace my cell or flop on my bunk
and stare at 47 black faces across the space. I am all of them,
they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I have no children
to float in the space between.                          -Etheridge Knight





And . . .check out The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.

. . .A bit about Martin Luther King, Jr. . . .




Martin Luther King Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) was an American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement from 1954 through 1968. He is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using the tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs and inspired by the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi.


King became a civil rights activist early in his career. He led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, serving as its first president. With the SCLC, he led an unsuccessful 1962 struggle against segregation in Albany, Georgia, and helped organize the nonviolent 1963 protests in Birmingham, Alabama. He also helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.


King received the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance. ] In 1965, he helped to organize the Selma to Montgomery marches, and the following year he and the SCLC took the movement north to Chicago to work on segregated housing. In the final years of his life, he expanded his focus to include opposition towards poverty and the Vietnam War, alienating many of his liberal allies with a 1967 speech titled “Beyond Vietnam”.


In 1968, King was planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C., to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, when he was assassinated by James Earl Ray on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee. King’s death was followed by riots in many U.S. cities. Ray, who fled the country, was arrested two months later at London Heathrow Airport. Ray was sentenced to 99 years in prison for King’s murder, and died in 1998 from hepatitis while serving his sentence.


King was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a holiday in numerous cities and states beginning in 1971, and as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986. Hundreds of streets in the U.S. have been renamed in his honor, and a county in Washington State was also rededicated for him. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in 2011.¹



¹Source: Wikipedia