Author Archives: Joseph Barbato

Family Furnishings

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When I was five years old my parents all of a sudden produced a baby boy, which my mother said was what I had always wanted.

-Alice Munro, “The Eye,” in Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014

Lucky Us

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My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us.

-Amy Bloom, Lucky Us: A Novel

Meanwhile There Are Letters & Much More

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“[Eudora] Welty and [Ross] Macdonald saw each other in person only sparingly. They met for the first time, almost by happenstance, at New York’s Algonquin Hotel in the fall of 1971. Welty visited him in Santa Barbara three times. It’s not a lot on which to build a case for a serious love affair.” Here‘s a review of Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald.

“The triumph of ‘Pickwick’ – and [Stephen] Jarvis argues that it was the greatest triumph in English literature, the most popular, recognizable, and widely translated book next to the Bible – all belonged to Dickens.” Here‘s a review of Death and Mr. Pickwick.

The little-known and devastating tale of a young man who, only a century ago, was captured in the Congo and put on display — like an animal — in the Bronx Zoo Monkey House.” Here‘s a review of Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga.

Here‘s James Neff [Vendetta: Bobby Kennedy versus Jimmy Hoffa]:“They really, really hated each other. [Jimmy] Hoffa embarrassed [Bobby] Kennedy. He went out of his way to do so. He was a master manipulator, a master negotiator, and he would use whatever tool he could get. And humiliating, taking the starch out of somebody, belittling them – that was right up his alley. And Kennedy was determined not to lose.”

“How Did I Get Here?, by turns hilarious, profound, and unexpected, leaves us to understand that while our lives may have wound up on a different shore than the one we’d set our sights on, that’s not such a bad thing. The only possible us is the us who happened.” Here.

The Harder They Come

There was no slant to the sun–it was just there, overhead, burning, making him sweat, making his underwear bind and the shirt stick to his back as if it had been glued on, and why he’d ever let Carolee talk him into this he’d never know.

-T.C. Boyle, The Harder They Come: A Novel

A Storm of Witchcraft

If any one factor links all of the [people accused of witchcraft in 1692], it has to be religion. The trials were largely an effort to bolster Puritanism–an orthodoxy under attack on multiple fronts, for in Massachusetts Bay religion was the fabric that held the polity and society together. Many of those accused were perceived as posing a threat to the religious order, either because they were true outsiders, were Puritan saints who stood in the way of moral reformation, challenged Reverend [Samuel] Parris’s effort to build a community of true believers, or were associated somehow with non-Puritan religious practitioners, including Quakers, Baptists, Catholics, and Native Americans.

-Emerson W. Baker, A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience

The Wright Brothers

Success it most certainly was. And more. What had transpired that day in 1903, in the stiff winds and cold of the Outer Banks in less than two hours time, was one of the turning points in history, the beginning of change for the world far greater than any of those present could possibly have imagined. With their homemade machine, Wilbur and Orville Wright had shown without a doubt that man could fly and if the world did not yet know it, they did.

-David McCullough, The Wright Brothers

Edgar Allan Poe

On November 4, 1848, Edgar Allan Poe decided it was time to kill himself. It was a crisp and cold Saturday morning in Providence: after a sleepless night in a hotel room, the author took a brisk walk to clear his mind. The stroll didn’t work–”the demon tormented me still,” he complained–but it did take him past a pharmacy, and that gave him a fine idea. He bought a powerful enough dose of opium tincture to kill most men, boarded a railway car to Boston without bothering to return to his hotel, and proceeded to write a suicide note. Then, upon reaching the city of his birth, he downed an ounce of the laudanum and walked to the post office with his dying words in hand.

He never made it.

“Before I reached the post office my reason was entirely gone, & the letter was never put in,” he later wrote dejectedly. “The laudanum was rejected from the stomach, I became calm, & to a causal observer, sane–so that I was suffered to go back to Providence.”

-Paul Collins, Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living

Dissent

Humor, too, was another form of dissent. From Mark Twain to H.L. Mencken, heirs to the court-jester tradition of medieval Europe, societal critics employed humor as a way to express dissenting opinions. Lenny Bruce, a champion of the free expression guaranteed in the First Amendment, used every four-letter word in the book in his offensive, wry observations about American values. On Steve Allen’s prime-time television show he admitted there were some words that offended even him: “Governor Faubus, segregation offend me;…the shows that exploit homosexuality, narcotics, and prostitution under the guise of helping these societal problems;…motion pictures that exploit race relations.” Other stand-up comedians, from Dick Gregory to Richard Pryor, Mort Sahl to the Smothers Brothers and George Carlin, used their acerbic wit to challenge Americans to question the bourgeois, racist, classist, sexist ethos of the time.

-Ralph Young, Dissent: The History of An American Idea

Lord Fear

I begin this story in a funeral home because I once read a Philip Roth novel that begins over a grave.

-Lucas Mann, Lord Fear: A Memoir

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Aquarium

It was a fish so ugly it didn’t seem to be a fish at all.

-David Vann, Aquarium

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