Milo loves to read so here is his reading list going back to 2006 along with some notes and quotes he has compiled from some of them. Enjoy!
“The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” Haruki Murakami
After Kumiko and I were marries, a number of occasions arose in which it was necessary for Noboru Wataya and me, as brothers-in-law, to exchange words–if not to engage in actual conversation. As he had suggested, there was no common ground between us, and so however much we might speak words in each other’s vicinity, this could never develop into anything that could be called a conversation. It was as though we were speaking to each other in different languages. If the Dalai Lama were on his deathbed and the jazz musician Eric Dolphy were to try to explain to him the importance of choosing one’s engine oil in accordance with changes in the sound of the bass clarinet, that exchange might have been a touch more worthwhile and effective than my conversations with Noboru Wataya.
She took me into a boutique in Omote Sando that featured designer brands. There she picked out two suits for me, both of thin material, one blue gray, the other dark gray. These were not suits I could have worn to the law firm: they even felt expensive. The did not offer any explanations, and I did not ask for them. I simply did as I was told. This reminded me of several so-called art films I had seen in college. Movies like that never explained what was going on. Explanations were rejected as some kind of evil that could destroy the films’ “reality.” That was one way of thought, one way to look at things, no doubt, but it felt strange for me, as a real, live human being, to enter such a world.
I went on: “How he managed to do it and what the occasion was I have no idea, but at some point Noboru Wataya increased his violent power geometrically. Through television and other media, he gained the ability to train his magnified power on society at large. Now he is trying to bring out something that the great mass of people keep hidden in the darkness of their unconscious. He wants to use it for his own political advantage. It’s a tremendously dangerous thing, this thing he is trying to draw out: it’s fatally smeared with violence and blood, and it’s directly connected to the darkest depths of history, because its final effect is to destroy and obliterate people on a massive scale.”
“Attila” William Napier
Plato said there were three types of people in life, as at the games. There are the heroes, who take part, and enjoy the glories of victory. There are the spectators, who stand and observe. And there are the pickpockets. I am no hero, it is true. But I am no pickpocket, either.
“I am not greatly interested in the finer points of philosophy and theology, as you know,” said Lucius. “So-called wise men drowning in the swamp of their own words, words, words.”
Gamaliel sighed. “I came to that conclusion myself a while back,” he said. “I think it was when Athens got excited over the logical paradox of the Pseudomenos–The Liar.”
Lucius looks blank.
“Quite,” said Gamaliel. “That is to say: If I say, ‘I am lying,’ then if I am lying, I am telling the truth. And if I am telling the truth, I can’t be lying. And yet if it is the truth, it must be true that I am lying. And yet again, if I am––“
“Stop, for pity’s sake. My head’s hurting.”
“Well, you see my point.”
“Station Eleven” Emily St. John Mandel
“Still Life” Louise Penny
“The Silver Star” Jeannette Walls
“The Broken Places” Ace Atkins
“Gone Tomorrow” Lee Child
“Ill Will” Dan Chaon
“Blue Monday” Nicci French
“Ordinary Grace” William Kent Krueger
“Trunk Music” Michael Connelly
“Jolie Blon’s Bounce” James Lee Burke
I wanted to get in my truck and bang down corrugated roads, grind gears, thunder across plank bridges. I wanted to drive deep into the Atchafalaya Swamp, past the confines of reason, into the past, into a world of lost dialects, gator hunters, bust head whiskey, moss harvesters, Jax beer, trotline runners, moonshiners, muskrat trappers, cockfights, blooded boudin, a jigger of Jim Beam lowered into a frosted schooner of draft, outlaw shrimpers, dirty rice black from the pot, hogmeat cooked in rum, Pearl and Regal and Grand Prize and Lone Star iced down in washtubs, crawfish boiled with cob corn and artichokes, all of it on the tree-flooded, alluvial rim of the world, where the tides and the course of the sun were the only measures of time. All you had to do was release yourself from the prison of restraint, just snip loose the stitches that sewed your skin to the hairshirt of normalcy.
Even though Clete made constant derogatory allusions to the population of petty miscreants and meltdowns that cycles itself daily through the bail bond offices, courts, and jails of every city in America, in reality he viewed most of them as defective rather than evil and treated them with a kind of sardonic respect. Drug dealers, pimps, sexual predators, jackrollers, and armed robbers were another matter. So were slumlords and politicians on the pad and cops who did scut work for the Mob. But Clete’s real disdain was directed at a state of mind rather than at individuals. He looked upon public displays of charity and morality as the stuff of sideshows. He never trusted people in groups and was convinced that inside every reformer there was a glandular, lascivious, and sweaty creature aching for release.
“Heat & Light” Jennifer Haigh
He has learned that the dying are not saintly, a shattering discovery. In his years of ministry, he regularly visited hospitals to comfort the sick. Now the memory shames him, the scripture verses he regurgitated, the hollow platitudes spoken in the smugness of health. He believed, then, what all healthy people believe: that the dying are critically, profoundly different from themselves.
“Box 21” Roslund-Hellström
“Die Trying” Lee Child
“The Redeemer” Jo Nesbø
“The End of Everything” Megan Abbott
“Pegasus Descending” James Lee Burke
“Real People” Alison Lurie
“Personal” Lee Child
“The Drop” Michael Connelly
“10:04” Ben Lerner
This I understood, or at least recognized, from experience: most desire was imitative desire. If one university wanted to buy your papers, another university would want to buy them, too––consensus emerges regarding your importance. Competition produces its own object of desire; that’s why it makes sense to speak of a “competitive spirit,” a creative deity.
“The Hanging Girl” Jussi Adler-Olsen
“The Train of Small Mercies” David Rowell
“Shoot” Loren D. Estleman
“Void Moon” Michael Connelly
“The Theory of Death” Faye Kellerman
“Killer Ambition” Marcia Clark
“Land of Echoes” Daniel Hecht
Joe Billie looked a little unsteady on the bumper as he beckoned Joseph toward him with a gesture from his cigarette. There was a glint in his eye, mischief or command. Closer, Joseph could smell both the stale funk of metabolized booze and sharp tang of fresh whiskey that surrounded him.
“I’m full of shit,” Uncle Joe rasped quietly. “I’m completely full up to shit. And Navajos are full of shit. Every one of them, all the things they do and believe, full up to here with it. Disorganized, can’t run their own public services. Politicians in Window Rock corrupt and full of themselves. Old people with their crazy superstitions, kids all spoiled, watching too much TV, doing drugs. Idn’t it? This I believe, just like you. But now for the big secret, Joseph: Everybody is full of shit! Anglos, Mexicans, French, Jews, Chinese, these Arabs––they’re equally full of it! The way they live. What they think. Their old beliefs. They way they treat each other. No more or no less than the Diné.”
The old man leaned back against the tailgate and drew on his cigarette with a hard glint of satisfaction in his eyes, as if having delivered this drunken pearl he’d accomplished a great deal.
No theory of human psychology could be considered accurate or complete unless if accommodated the principle that mind is to some degree independent of brain or body and that the human personality is shaped by psychological and social influences that extend beyond the physical lifetime.
“The Silence of the Sea” Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
“State of Wonder” Ann Patchett
“Now you are being purposefully ridiculous. I have very little respect for what passes as science around here. There’s nothing a Westerner loves more than the idea of being cured by tinctures made of boiled roots. They think this place is some sort of magical medicine chest, but for the most prat the treatments here consist of poorly recorded gossip handed down throughout the ages from people who knew very little to people who know even less. There is much to be taken from the jungle, obviously––I am here to develop a drug––but in most cases the plants are as useless as the potted begonia that grows on your kitchen windowsill. The ones that do have potential can only be medicinal when they are properly employed. For these people there is no concept of a dosage, not set lengths for treatments. When something works it seems to me nothing short of a miracle.”
“Cross the Line” James Patterson
“The Hours” Michael Cunningham
He will not ask the name of the movie star; he actually does not care. Richard, alone among Clarissa’s acquaintance, has no essential interest in famous people. Richard genuinely does not recognize such distinctions. It is, Clarissa thinks, some combination of monumental ego and a kind of savantism. Richard cannot imagine a life more interesting or worthwhile than those being lived by his acquaintances and himself, and for that reason one often feels exalted, expanded, in his presence. He is not one of those egotists who miniaturize others. He is the opposite kind of egotist, driven by grandiosity rather than greed, and if he insists on a version of you that is funnier, stranger, more eccentric and profound than you suspect yourself to be––capable of doing more good and more harm in the world than you’ve ever imagined––it is all but impossible not to believe, at least in his presence and for a while after you’ve left him, that he alone sees through to your essence, weighs your true qualities (not all of which are necessarily flattering––a certain clumsy, childish rudeness is part of his style), and appreciates you more fully than anyone else ever has. It is only after knowing him for some time that you begin to realize you are, to him, an essentially fictional character, one he has invested with nearly limitless capacities for tragedy and comedy not because that is your true nature but because he, Richard, needs to live in a world peopled by extreme and commanding figures. Some have ended their relation with him rather than continue as figures in the epic poem he is always composing inside his head, the story of his life and passions; but others (Clarissa among them) enjoy the sense of hyperbole he brings to their lives, have come to depend on it, the way they depend on coffee to wake them up in the mornings and a drink or two to send them off at night.
“Yes,” Angelica says. Already, at five, she can feign grave enthusiasm for the task at hand, when all she truly wants is for everyone to admire her work and then set her free. Quentin kneels with the bird and gently, immeasurably gently, lays it on the grass. Oh, if men were the brutes and women the angels––if it were as simple as that. Virginia thinks of Leonard frowning over the proofs, intent on scouring away not only the setting errors but whatever taint of mediocrity errors imply. She thinks of Julian last summer, rowing across the Ouse, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and how it had seemed to be the day, the moment, he became a man and not a child.
Yes, Clarissa thinks, it’s time for the day to be over. We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep––it’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. There’s just this for consolation; and hour here and there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.
“The Hunt Club” John Lescroart
“The Last Mile” David Baldacci
“Unlocking Creativity” Michael Beinhorn
“Travels in the Scriptorium” Paul Auster
“Tripwire” Lee Child
“The Silkworm” Robert Galbraith
It was like Lucy to throw him a birthday dinner at her own house. She was fundamentally unimaginative and, even though she often seemed more harried there than anywhere else, she rated her home’s attractions highly. It was like her to insist on giving him a dinner he didn’t want, but which she could not understand him not wanting. Birthdays in Lucy’s world were always celebrated, never forgotten: there must be cake and candles and cards and presents; time must be marked, order preserved, traditions upheld.
“I was with Charlotte sixteen years, on and off,” said Strike, picking up his second burger. “Mostly off. She hated my job. It’s what kept breaking us up–one of the things that kept breaking us up,” he corrected himself, scrupulously honest. “She couldn’t understand a vocation. Some people can’t; at best, work’s about status and paychecks for them, it hasn’t got value in itself.”
“Man In the Dark” Paul Auster
“The Museum of Extraordinary Things” Alice Hoffmann
“The Odds” Stewart O’Nan
“Third Degree” Greg Iles
“The Affair” Lee Child
“Flight Behavior” Barbara Kingsolver
Dellarobia thought Men’s Fellowship had its appeal, all the more so right now as the audience heaved into verse four of “What a Friend,” dragging it like a plow through heavy clay. Certainly in Men’s Fellowship no one ever made you sing. She just wished it had a more welcoming vibe for the female of the species.
Of course she knew why. Why did people ask Dear Abby how to behave, or take Johnny Midgeon’s word on which men in D.C. were crooks? It was the same on all sides, the yuppies watched smart-mouthed comedians who mocked people living in double-wides who listened to country music. The very word Tennessee made those audiences burst into laughter, she’d heard it. They would never come see what Tennessee was like, any more than she would get a degree in science and figure out the climate things Dr/ Byron described. Nobody truly decided for themselves. There was too much information. What they actually did was scope around, decide who was looking out for their clan, and sign on for the memos on a wide variety of topics.
As habitually as a prayer, Dellarobia wished she were a different wife, for whom Cub’s good heart outweighed his bad grammar. Some sickness made her deride his simplicity. Really the infection was everywhere. On television, deriding people was hip. The elderly, the naive––it shocked her sometimes hoe the rules had changed. A night or two ago they’d seen comedians mocking some old guy in camp overalls who could have been anybody, a neighbor. Not an actor, this was a real man, standing near his barn someplace with a plug of tobacco in his lip, discussing the weather and his coonhounds. Billy Ray Hatch: she and Cub repeated the name aloud, as though he might be some kin. It was one of the late-night shows that archly twisted comedy with news. Somehow they’d found this fellow and traveled to his home to ask ridiculous questions. After each reply the interviewer nodded in a stagy way, creasing his eyebrows in fake fascination. So the whole world could see Billy Ray Hatch made into a monkey. Cub changed the channel.
“The Overlook” Michael Connelly
“By George” Wesley Stace
In the middle of the play, the writer, despite his best attempts with the animal-loving Androcles, whom he had provided with a modicum of funny lines, committed the greatest sin of all: he resorted to speechifying, as Frankie called it scornfully, to make his point. When speechifying started, drama and comedy went out of the window. Between the prologue and the final appearance of the lion – now called Tommy, like the cat in Dick Whittington: it was just another skin part – the play sagged like a giant blancmange. Judicious cuts were required.
“A Wanted Man” Lee Child
“There’s no money in any bank. Not in yours, not in mine. Not really, apart from a few bucks in a drawer. Most money is purely theoretical. It’s all in computers, backed by trust and confidence. Sometimes they have gold in a vault downstairs, to make themselves look serious. You know, to suggest capital reserves, like in the Fed in New York, or Fort Knox.”
“Tell me how you talk for a minute without using the letter A.”
Delfuenso said, “You were asleep.”
McQueen said, “I haven’t slept for seven months.”
Reacher said, “Easy. Just start counting. One, two, three, four, five, six. You don’t hit a letter A until you get to a hundred and one. You can even do it real fast and still get nowhere near ninety-nine inside a minute.”
“Duplicity” Ingrid Thoft
“The Burning Room” Michael Connelly
“The Family Fang” Kevin Wilson
“Bad Monkey” Carl Hiaasen
“61 Hours” Lee Child
“Heat Lightning” John Sanford
“Midnight Sun” Jo Nesbø
“An Object of Beauty” Steve Martin
“Broken Harbor” Tana French
“Red Mars” Kim Stanley Robinson
“The only part of an argument that really matters is what we think of the people arguing. X claims a, Y claims b. They make arguments to support their claims, with any number of points. But when their listeners remember the discussion, what matters is simply that X believes a and Y believes b. People then form their judgement on what they think of X and Y.”
“But we’re scientists! We’re trained to weigh the evidence.”
John nodded, “True. In fact, since I like you, I concede the point.”
The weakness of businessmen was their belief that money was the point of the game; they worked 14-hour days in order to earn enough of it to buy cars with leather interiors, they thought it was a sensible recreation to play around with it in casinos–idiots, in short.
He withdrew and listened again, profoundly angry at himself. It was a mistake to speak one’s mind at any time, unless it perfectly matched your political purpose; and it never did. Best to strip all statements of real content, this was a basic law of diplomacy. Out on the escarpment he had forgotten that.
“The brain is a funny animal,” he murmured.
She cocked her head, looked curiously at him. Suddenly he was afraid; they were their pasts, they had to be or they were nothing at all, and whatever they felt or thought or said in the present was nothing more than an echo of the past; and so when they said what they said, how could they know what their deeper minds were really feeling, thinking, saying? They didn’t know, not really. Relationships were for that reason utterly mysterious, they took place between two subconscious minds, and whatever the surface trickle thought was going on could not be trusted to be right. Did that Maya down at the deepest level know or not know, remember, forget, swear vengeance or forgive? There was no way of telling. he could never be sure. It was impossible.
“The Closers” Michael Connelly
“Slow Horses” Mick Herron
“Loyalty” Ingrid Thoft
“The Gods of Guilt” Michael Connelly
“Others of My Kind” James Sallis
“Life Class” Pat Barker
“The Dogs of Riga” Henning Mankell
“What I Loved” Siri Hustvedt
“Fool Me Once” Harlan Coben
“Testimony” Robbie Robertson
“The Return” Michael Gruber
He removed the newspaper clipping about the murders. It had been torn roughly out of the pages of Panorama del Puerta, the newspaper in Lazaro Cardenas; on it his wife had written lines from a poem by Octavio Paz on the occasion of the famous massacre of students in 1968. He translated it silently:
Guilt is anger
turned against itself:
if an entire nation is ashamed
it is a lion poised
The priest was talking about the prodigal son. He said most people identify with the bad son, the runaway, because it’s easy. You do bad, you get forgiven. But most people aren’t like the bad son–they’re like the good son. They want to know how come the wicked prosper, how come they get to eat the fatted calf. They’re full of resentments against the father and full of envy, and their danger is much subtler, because the bad son knows he’s bad and seeks forgiveness, but the good son thinks he’s good and doesn’t, and so the devil gets him.
Statch was attentive to the homily, although its message went in one ear and out the other, because she did not believe in any morality beyond you-can-do-what-you-want-as-long-as-you-don’t-hurt-anyone.
Again that almost smile. Charming! She said, “Fine. Well, when the Second World War broke out, the Japanese cut off your supplies of opium from the Far East. The American government prevailed on Mexico to establish vast plantations of poppies to supply the morphine needed in the war. After the war there was no need for the Mexican opium, and all the farmers in Sinaloa and Michoacan would have been ruined had they not begun to grow for the illegal trade. And, naturally, as in all of Mexico, what is illegal is a source of profit and political deals. The eternally ruling party, the PRI, came to an understanding with the drug lords. The caciques of the party each had his relationship with the local mafias. Things barreled along very well until your government (America) became shocked by the flow of heroin to the United States and put pressure on the Mexican government to suppress the opium farmers, so all the fields were sprayed, using equipment generously supplied by the gringos. The peasants were ruined, but the gangs went on to other things, importing and transshipping cocaine and meth and, of course, tons and tons of marijuana. Now, at around that time, El Norte became displeased with the state of Mexican democracy. A one-party system? It assaulted the fine sensibilities of Washington. Other parties were encouraged, secretly or not, and so the PRI state collapsed and now we have in half the country a regime, or series of regimes, based on murder, extortion, and kidnap, funded by money from the United States and armed with automatic weapons courtesy of your constitutional right to bear arms. That’s what my book is about, Mr. Marder.”
“Started Early, Took My Dog” Kate Atkinson
“The Lazarus Project” Aleksandar Hemon
One morning in Chicago I had tiptoed to the kitchen with the intention of making some coffee. While customarily spilling coffee grounds all over the counter, I spotted a can in the corner whose red label read SADNESS. Was there so much of it that they could can it and sell it? A bolt of pain went through my intestines before I realized that it was not SADNESS but SARDINES. It was too late for recovery, for sadness was now the dark matter in the universe of still objects around me: the salt and pepper shakers; the honey jar; the bag of sun-dried tomatoes; the blunt knife; a desiccated loaf of bread; the two coffee cups, waiting. My country’s main exports are stolen cars and sadness.
Mujo wakes up one day, after a long night of drinking, and asks himself what the meaning of life is. He goes to work, but realizes that is not what life is or should be. He decides to read some philosophy and for years studies everything from the old Greeks onward, but can’t find the meaning of life. Maybe it’s the family, he thinks, so he spends time with his wife, Fata, and the kids, but finds no meaning in that so he leaves them. He thinks, maybe helping others is the meaning of life, so he goes to medical school, graduates with flying colors, goes to Africa to cure malaria and transplant hearts, but cannot discover the meaning of life. He thinks, maybe it’s the wealth, so he becomes a businessman, starts making money hand over fist, millions of dollars, buys everything there is to buy, but that is not what life is about. Then he turns to poverty and humility and such, so he gives everything away and begs on the streets, but still he cannot see what life is. He thinks maybe it is literature: he writes novel upon novel, but the more he writes the more obscure the meaning of life becomes. He turns to God, lives the life of a dervish, reads and contemplates the Holy Book of Islam–still, nothing. He studies Christianity, then Judaism, then Buddhism, then everything else–no meaning of life there. Finally he hears about a guru living high up in the mountains somewhere in the East. The guru, they say, knows what the meaning of life is. So Mujo goes east, travels for years, walks the roads, climbs the mountains, finds the stairs that lead up to the guru. He ascends the stairs, tens of thousands of them, nearly dies getting up there. At the top, there are millions of pilgrims, he has to wait for months to get to the guru. Eventually it is his turn, he goes to a place under a big tree, and there sits the naked guru, his legs crossed, his eyes closed, meditating, perfectly peaceful–he surely knows the meaning of life. Mujo says: I have dedicated my life to discovering the meaning of life and I have failed, so I have come to ask you humbly, O Master, to divulge the secret to me. The guru opens his eyes, looks at Moju and calmly says, My Friend, life is a river. Mujo stares at him for a long time, cannot believe what he heard. What’s life again? Mujo asks. Life is a river, the guru says. Mujo nods and says, You turd of turds, you goddamn stupid piece of shit, you motherfucking, cocksucking asshole. I have wasted my life and come all this way for you to tell me that life is a fucking river. A river? Are you kidding me? That is the stupidest, emptiest fucking thing I have ever heard. Is that what you spent your life figuring out? And the guru says, what? It is not a river? Are you saying it is not a river?
I often caught myself hating his retired-businessman gray hair, his popishness, his insistence on my gratefulness to American greatness, and his constant, stupid questions about my country, questions like; “Do they have opera in your country?” or “Your country if west of what?” My country was this remote, mythical place for him, a remnant of the world from before America, a land of obsolescence whose people would arrive at humanity only in the United States, and belatedly. He feigned concern for the heartening immigrant experiences related in my columns, largely because he wanted to assess how long my journey had been from being a half-ghost in my country to being an attempt at an American, the unfortunate husband of his unlucky daughter. I occasionally amused Mary with mock answers to George’s imaginary questions. “In my country,” I’d say, she giggling already, “candy is the chief currency.” Or: “Airflow is illegal in my country.”
“The Way Home” George Pelecanos
“The Music Lesson” Katharine Weber
I hope I live long enough to make my peace with a world full of people who look but do not see, who listen but do not hear.
“The Witch of Hebron” James Howard Kunstler
This is the sequel to ‘A World Made By Hand,’ published in 2008. It’s a vision of post-oil, post-electricity (except for salvaged turbines using water flow) America, this story taking place in upper New England.
“The Circle” Dave Eggers
After I read this, I found out there’s a film in production to be released in 2017 starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson.
Not a deep read, but an intriguing look at a protagonist who gets caught up in a company (The Circle, a combination of Facebook, Twitter, and Google) that does away with all your privacy, using corporate motivation tools that compel people to be complicit in the scheme.
“Leather Maiden” Joe R. Lansdale
“Affinity” Sarah Waters
I said, ‘And you are aware of spirits, all about you?’––Ah, he said then, he is aware of them when they come to him. He has not the powers of a great medium. ‘I catch glimpses, only––“a little flash, a mystic hint”, as Mr Tennyson has it––rather then seeing vistas. I hear notes––a simple tune, if I am fortunate. Others, Miss Prior, hear symphonies.’
I said, To be aware of spirits…
‘One cannot but be aware of them, when one has seen them once! And yet’––he smiled––‘to gaze at them, too, may be frightening.’ He folded his arms; then gave me this curious example. He said I must imagine that nine-tenths of the people of England had a condition of the eye, a condition which prevented them from appreciating, say, the color red. He said I must imagine myself afflicted with such a condition. I would drive through London, I would see a blue sky, a yellow flower––I would think the world a very fine place. I would not know I had a condition that quite prevented me from seeing part of it; and when some special people told me that I had––told me of another, marvelous color––I would think that they were fools. My friends, he said, would agree with me. The newspapers would agree with me. Everything I read, indeed, would confirm me in my belief that those people were fools; Punch would even print cartoons to demonstrate how foolish they were! I would smile at those cartoons, and be very content.
‘Then,’ he went on,’a morning comes and you awaken––and your eye has corrected itself. Now you can see pillar-boxes and lips, poppies and cherries and guardsmen’s jackets. You can see all the glorious shades of red––crimson, scarlet, ruby, vermillion, carnation, rose…You will want to hide your eyes, at first, in wonder and fear. Then you will look, and you will tell your friends, your family––and they will laugh at you, they will frown at you, they will send you to a surgeon or a doctor of the brain. It will be very hard, to become aware of all those marvelous scarlet things. And yet––tell me, Miss Prior––having seen them once, could you ever to look again, and see only blue, and yellow, and green?’
“Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” Chris Bohjalian
The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.
This is not the most important thing I am going to tell you, but it may be the most interesting: Did you know that a lot of Emily Dickinson’s poems can be sung to the theme from Gilligan’s Island? Not kidding, this is totally legit. When my English teacher, Ms. Gagne, first told me that, I had never heard of Gilligan’s Island. But she explained to me it was an old sitcom, so I looked it up and watched it on YouTube. It’s from the really early days of TV: the 1960s. The first year, they didn’t even use color film, which makes it look prehistoric. And the show is ridiculous. As lots of people before me have pointed out, they’re stranded on this island after a shipwreck and seem to build whatever they want out of coconuts and bamboo…but for some reason they can’t fix their boat. Still, the starting music has a catchy tune, and you can learn it pretty quickly. I bet most of you know it, especially if you’re from my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. So, try it.
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.
“A Cold Day In Paradise” Steve Hamilton
“Day For Night” Frederick Reiken
“The Enemy” Lee Child
“True North” Jim Harrison
She wouldn’t put up with a single moment of the white guilt posture. After my first morbidly unsuccessful day of teaching I movingly said, “They try so hard. I’m not sure I deserve to live on the same earth.” Riva exploded. “Cut that bullshit. That’s all ego jive. You’re here to improve their reading and writing five percent in two months, maybe more but probably less. Why think about yourself in that bullshit way? You got your head up your ass, boy. You’re suppose to be helping these kids and you can’t do it with your head up your rich ass, kiddo.”
What I learned in a few minutes of forced pleasantness was that my father saw himself as the aggrieved one, the insulted and the injured, as if the family were a collective pope that had excommunicated him without good cause. He referred to his shortcomings as “foibles.” My sense of my own mental balance felt a tremor. It was easy to see that to him his victims weren’t quite people or human any more than the loggers or miners that had worked for his father and grandfather were human, or if they were vaguely people it was altogether sensible to ignore them. It was appropriate to ignore them. It was just to ignore them. When I got back in my pickup after relenting and giving him a good-bye hug it occurred to me that as surely as Europe we Americans had developed an aristocracy whose merit depended on how long their money had allowed them to largely ignore the rest of the human race.
The long wet walk in Paris lifted another layer off my confusion. Some rich and powerful men obviously had a firm aesthetic sense. This was far less apparent in urban areas in America than it was in Paris where you come close to not believing your eyes and your skin prickled as if you were looking at a great painting. There was something historically troubling in America’s geopiety that allowed her to become proud of the destructiveness of her creation of ugliness. The capacity to cut all of the virgin timber in the state of Michigan became a source of pride.
I brought up the idea that you can seem normal to yourself because you are who you are and have become accustomed to your oddities. You hope to be rewarded for what you are whether you deserve it or not.
Coughlin’s sister lived alone after two bad marriages and as an aspiring painter she had refused to have children. She was a pretty good painter but not good enough, Coughlin said, adding that this put her in the highest category of the “almost” and made her a clear example of the “wretched” and “mysterious” lack of democracy in the arts. “Many are called but few are chosen,” he concluded pouring himself an amber glass of malt scotch at two A.M.
“Police” Jo Nesbø
“Salt River” James Sallis
“The past,” he said, resting three fingers across the mouth of his cup to keep Bea from pouring yet another refill, “is a gravity. It holds you to the earth, but it also keeps pulling you down, trying, like the earth itself, to reclaim you. And the future, always looking that direction, planning, anticipating–that’s a kind of free fall, your feet have left the ground, you’re just floating there, floating where there is no there.”
“Never Let Me Go” Kazuo Ishiguro
“The Glass Castle” Jeanette Walls
“Continental Drift” Russell Banks
He still can’t decide whether his decision to sit in his chair in the living room until Sarah was dressed and cheerfully downstairs was the right decision, for, like most people, Bob finds it difficult to know right from wrong. He relies on taboos and circumstances to control his behavior, to make him a “good man,” so that on those infrequent occasions when neither taboo nor circumstance prohibits him from satisfying an appetite and he does not satisfy that appetite or even attempt to do so, he does not know what to think of himself. He doesn’t know if he has been a good man or merely a stupid or scared man. Most people, like Bob, unchurched since childhood, now and then reach that point of not knowing whether they’ve been good, stupid or scared, and the anxiety it provokes obliges them to cease wondering as soon as possible and bury the question, as god buries a bone, marking it and promising to themselves that they will return to the bone later, when they have the time and energy to gnaw, a promise never kept, of course, and rarely meant to be kept. One of the more attractive aspects of Bob’s character, however, is his reluctance to bury these bones, his willingness to go on gnawing into the night, alone and silent, turning it over and upside down, persisting until finally it is white and dry and, in certain lights, a little ghastly. His memory is cluttered with these bones, like a medieval church basement, and it gives to hi manner and bearing a kind of melancholy that attracts people who are more educated and refined than he is.
“The Crossing” Michael Connelly
“Valley of Bones” Michael Gruber
He belonged to that small fraternity of extremely bright men who have no patience at all with academics, from which is drawn most of history’s entrepreneurial billionaires as well as those responsible for the physical maintenance of Western civilization: carpenters, masons, firefighters, soldiers, cops. Like most autodidacts, Paz had an original rather than a disciplined intellect, and much of what composed it had been put there across the pillow by a long skein of brainy women, the only sort he liked to take to bed.
“I dreamed I was getting a guided tour of heaven?” Emmylou says. “I was wearing a jumpsuit and a hard hat and my tour guide, he was an angel, of course, but he looked just like a regular man, dressed the same as I was, and we were in this giant building, kind of an industrial shed like in those boron gold movies they used to show us in high school, how they make paper or ice cream. And there was this big huge machine in it, whirring and clanking away, and there was a conveyer belt com in gout of one end of it, and on the conveyer belt were rows of golden bricks, but softer: they looked like giant Twinkies, row after row of them, and when they got to the end of the conveyer belt they fell off of it. I looked to see where they were falling to and I saw that there was a big hole in the floor there and through it I could see clouds and blue sky and the earth far below. I asked the guide what the Twinkie things were, and he said they were blessings, and I remember thinking, in the dream, how marvelous is the Lord showering all these blessing shown on us. Then we moved on, across an alley and into another big huge shed with the same kind of machine cranking away, the same conveyer belt, the same giant Twinkies falling down, and I said to the guide, ‘Oh, these are more blessings,’ and he said, ‘No, these are afflictions,’ and I said, ‘Oh, but they look just the same as the blessings,’ and he said, They are the same!’ Excuse me…”
That’s when she told me the Eskimo story, which I will write down because it’s important for you.
A pilot walks into a saloon in Alaska and the bartender says, oh Fred we have not seen you in church recently. Where have you been? The pilot says, I don’t go to church any longer. I have lost my faith. The bartender says, but why? The pilot says, last month I crashed my plane in the wilderness in the mountains and I was trapped in the wreckage. I prayed to God to get me out but nothing happened. Day after day I am praying, but nothing. I decided that there is no God and I am going to die and there is nothing after death. This is how I lost my faith. So the bartender says, but you did escape from there. You are here and alive. And the pilot says, oh, that had nothing to do with God. Some damn Eskimo wandered by and pulled me out.
Emmylou looked startled for a moment. “Oh, gosh, no, I’m not talking about judgement day. I’m talking about the fact that it’s unreasonable to assume that ten percent of humanity is going to control ninety-eight percent of the world’s wealth forever. I’m talking long time scales here. A thousand years ago Paris and London looked like raggedy-ass trailer parks and Baghdad was the intellectual capital of the world. There were more books and literate people in Timbuktu than there were in England. New York was an Indian village. For all we know the world will be ruled from Wibok a thousand years from now, or someplace we never heard of. It’s no crazier than telling some sheik in Basra in the year one thousand that his descendants would be kicked around by Englishmen. And look around you, Lorna, look at what’s happening to your country, the stupid apathy, the addiction, the violence, the mercenary army, the corrupt political system, the rich and the poor becoming practically different species again, the collapse of religion…
Who can free himself from achievement
And from fame,
Descend and be lost
Amid the masses of men?
He will flow like the Tao, unseen.
Such is the perfect man: his boat is empty.
“The Gravedigger’s Daughter” Joyce Carol Oates
“Fingersmith” Sarah Waters
“The Beast God Forgot to Invent” Jim Harrison
I had reassured myself many times that the three most wildly imaginative acquaintances of mine had come to nothing, but stopped doing so when I realized I had come to relative nothing without being imaginative.
At the time it seemed apparent that a phalanx of officers striding toward lunch was not unlike a phalanx of pissed-off chimps in remote Gombe. These noble thoughts did not diminish my concern over the sign in the restaurant that simply said, “Fried Fish.” There had been a past, silly experience in Kansas when I never did find out what kind of fish was available. The waitress said, “You know, fish fish.” When I said that the ocean contained many types of fish she said, “This is Kansas,” closing off further discussion.
“The Ghost In Love” Jonathan Carroll
Danielle put a flat hand against her chest. “We’re born with everything in here–everything we need to be happy and complete. But as soon as life starts frightening us, we give away pieces of ourselves to make the danger go away. It’s a trade: you want life to stop scaring you, so you give it a part of yourself. You give away your pride, your dignity, or your courage…
“When all you feel is fear, you don’t need dignity. So you don’t mind giving that away–at the moment. But you regret it later, because you’ll need all those pieces. By then they’re gone, though; you can’t use them to help.”
Rats and cats think differently. Rats are much smarter animals but also awfully greedy and can be distracted by anything that is in their immediate self-interest. In contrast, cats generally take a more distanced view of things. They stop eating as soon as they’re full. When anything bores them, they walk away without hesitation or concern for others’ feelings. They are not diplomatic and do not suffer fools gladly. Felines find life both amusing and pitiable in equal measure. They don’t see that as a contradiction, either. Isn’t it possible to smile and sigh simultaneously?
Life’s tough for a rat. Get used to it. Use your nose and find what’s important, get it, and then get out, because everybody else hates you and wants you gone. No animal can smell danger or a threat faster or better than a rat.
“Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands” Michael Chabon
Science fiction has always been a powerful instrument of satire, and thus it is often the satirist’s finger that pushes the button or releases the killer bug.
This may help to explain why the post-apocalyptic mode has long attracted writers not generally considered part of the science-fiction tradition. It’s one of the few sub-genres of science fiction, along with stories of the near future (also friendly to satirists), that may be safely attempted by a mainstream writer without incurring too much damage to his or her credentials for seriousness. The anti-science fiction prejudice among some readers and writers is so strong that in reviewing a work of science fiction by a mainstream author a charitable critic will often turn to words such as “parable” or “fable” to warm the author’s bathwater a little, and it is an established fact that a preponderance of religious imagery or an avowed religious intent can go a long way toward mitigating the science-fictional taint, which also helps explain the appeal to mainstream writers such as Walker Percy of the post-apocalyptic story, whose themes of annihilation and re-creation are so easily indexed both to the last book of the New Testament and the first book of the Old. It’s hard to imagine the author of Love In the Ruin writing a space opera.
Sometimes it’s hard, trying to make art you know you can sell without feeling that you are selling it out. And then sometimes it’s hard to sell the art that you have made honestly without regard to whether or not anyone will ever want to buy it. You hope to spend your life doing what you love and need and have been fitted by nature or God or your protein-package to do: write, draw, sing, tell stories. But you have to eat. Will Eisner knew that. He knew what it felt like to be hungry, to feel your foot graze against the cold hard bottom. He knew how lucky you were to be born with a talent that people would pay you to share. But he was also graced with the willingness (and, when he was lucky, the ability) to get people to pay a little bit more, to drive the price a little bit higher, to hold out for a better deal or a lower price from his suppliers. Will Eisner was a great artist and a skilled businessman; inextricably both. I loved that about him. More than fifty years after the first issues of Blackhawk and Doll Man and the other titles that he and his partner Jerry Iger packaged for Quality Comics had hit the newsstands, he still remembered the sales figures, the distributors’ names, the dime-and-dolor details of hits and flops. And I sensed that all that stuff was every bit as interesting – every but as important – to him as the nuance of an inked line, the meaning that could be compressed into and sprung from three square panels in a row. There may be many routes to happiness for a man; there may be only a few. But in his artistry and acumen – in the way he moved so comfortably through the world as an artist who worked money and as a businessman who worked for art, I think that Will Eisner came awfully close to finding one of those routes. He was lucky like that.
“The Little Friend” Donna Tartt
“I’m not saying there’s not bad colored ones, too. It’s bad ones that’s colored, and it’s bad ones that’s white….All I know is I ain’t have time to fool with any Odums, and I ain’t have time to fool with anybody always thinking about what they don’t got, and how they going to get it from another. No, sir. If I don’t earn it,” said Ida somberly, holding up a damp hand, “and I don’t have it, then I don’t want it. No, ma’am. I who don’t. I just goes on by.”
Harriet, all her life, had heard about this church fire – and about others, in other Mississippi towns, all confused with each other in her mind – but she had never been told that the Ratliffs were responsible. You would think (said Edie) that Negroes and poor whites would not hate each other the way they did since they had a lot in common – mainly, being poor. But sorry white people like the Ratliffs had only Negroes to look down upon. They could not bear the idea that the Negroes were now just as good as they were, and, in many cases, far more prosperous and respectable. “A poor Negro has at least the excuse of his birth,” Edie said. “The poor white has nothing to blame for his station but his own character. Well, of course, that won’t do. That would mean having to assume some responsibility for his own laziness and sorry behavior. No, he’d much rather stomp around burning crosses and blaming the Negro for everything than go out and try to get an education or improve himself in any way.”
Sometimes the October light that flared up suddenly in the west windows on those afternoons was clinical, terrifying in its radiance, and its brilliance and chill seemed like a promise of something unbearable, like the inhuman glow of old memories recalled on a deathbed, all dreams and lurid farewells. But always, even in the most still, desolate lights (leaden tick of mantel clock, library book face down on the sofa) Libby herself shone pale and bright as she moved through the gloomy rooms, with her white head ruffled like a peony. Sometimes, she sang to herself, and her reedy voice quavered sweetly in the high shadows of the tiled kitchen, over the fat hum of the frigidaire:
The owl and pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat
They took some honey and plenty of money
Wrapped up in a five-pound note….
“Make Me” Lee Child
“The Girl In the Spider’s Web” David Lagercrantz
People with a photographic memory are also said to have an eidetic memory, an ability to recall images, sounds, or objects after only a few instants of exposure.
Research shows that people with eidetic memories are more likely to be nervous and stressed than others.
Most, though not all, people with eidetic memories are autistic. There is also a connection between photographic memory and synaesthesia – the condition where two or more senses are connected, for example when numbers are seen in color and every series of numbers forms an image in the mind.
“The Ocean At the End of the Lane” Neil Gaiman
Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the space between fences.
“Oh, monsters are scared,” said Lettie. “That’s why they’re monsters. And as for grown-ups…” She stopped talking, rubbed her freckled nose with a finger. Then, “I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world. She thought for a moment. Then she smiled. “except Granny, of course.”
“Reykjavik Nights” Arnaldur Indridason
“The Unbearable Lightness of Being” Milan Kundera
Our day-to-day life is bombarded with fortuities or, to be more precise, with the accidental meetings of people and events we call coincidences. “Co-incidence” means that two events expectantly happen at the same time, they meet: Tomas appears in the hotel restaurant at the same time the radio is playing Beethoven. We do not even notice the great majority of such coincidences. If the seat Tomas occupied had been occupied instead by the local butcher, Tereza never would have noticed that the radio was playing Beethoven (though the meeting of Beethoven and the butcher would also have been an interesting coincidence).
Franz felt his book life to be unreal. He yearned for real life, for the touch of people walking side by side with him, for their shouts. It never occurred to him that what he considered unreal (the work he did in the solitude of the office or library) was in fact his real life, whereas the parades he imagined to be reality were nothing but theatre, dance, carnival–in other words, a dream.
“You mean you don’t want to fight the occupation of your own country?” She would have liked to to tell them that behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison. But she knew she would never be able to make them understand.
Franz shook his head. “When society is rich, its people don’t need to work with their hands; they can devote themselves to activities of the spirit. We have more and more universities and more and more students. If students are going to earn degrees, they’ve got to come up with dissertation topics. And since dissertations can be written about everything under the sun, the number of topics is infinite. Sheets of paper covered with words pile up in archives sadder than cemeteries, because no one ever visits them, not even on All Souls’ Day. Culture is perishing in overproduction, in an avalanche of words, in the madness of quantity. That’s why one banned book in your former country means infinitely more than the billions of words spewed out by universities.”
For Sabina, living in truth, lying neither to ourselves nor to others, was possible only away from the public: the moment someone keeps an eye on what we do, we involuntarily make allowances for the eye, and nothing we do is truthful. Having a public, keeping a public in mind, means living in lies. Sabina despised literature in which people gave away all kinds of intimate secrets about themselves and their friends. A man who loses his privacy loses everything, Sabina thought. And a man who gives it up of his own free will is a monster. That was why Sabina did not suffer in the least from having to keep her love secret. On the contrary, only by doing so could she live in truth.
Franz, on the other hand, was certain that the division of life into private and pubic spheres is the source of all lies: a person is one thing in private and something quite different in public. For Franz, living in truth meant breaking down the barriers between the private and the public.
Then what was the relationship between Tereza and her body? Had her body the right to call itself Tereza? And if not, then what did the name refer to? Merely something incorporeal, intangible?
(These are the questions that had been going through Tereza’s head since she was a child. Indeed, the only truly serious questions are ones that even a child can formulate. Only the most naive of questions are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer if a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence.)
And again he thought the thought we already know: human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can only make one decision; we are not granted a second, third, or fourth life in which to compare various decisions.
His true goal was not to free the prisoners; it was to show that people without fear still exist. That, too, was playacting. But he had no other possibility. His choice was not between playacting and action. His choice was between playacting and no action at all. There are situations in which people are condemned to playact. Their struggle with mute power (the mute power across the river, a police transmogrified into mute microphones in the wall) is the struggle of a theater company that has attacked an army.
Dogs do not have many advantages over people, but one of them is extremely important: euthanasia is not forbidden by law in their case; animals have the right to a merciful death. Karenin walked on three legs and spent more and more of his time lying in the corner. And whimpering. Both husband and wife agreed that they had no business letting him suffer needlessly. But agree as they might in principle, they still had to face the anguish of determining the time when his suffering was in fact needless, the point at which life was no longer worth living.
“Benediction” Kent Haruf
“The Devil’s Punchbowl” Greg Iles
“Fifty Degrees Below” Kim Stanley Robinson
Frank rolled his eyes at this. For a while they talked in a different way than they usually did, about how things felt; and they agreed that lives were not easily told to others. Frank speculated that many life stories consisted precisely of a search for a reiterated pattern, for habits. Thus, one’s set of habits was somehow unsatisfactory, and you needed to change them, and were thereby thrown into a plot, which was the hunt for new habits, or even, but exceptionally, the story of the giving up of such a hunt in favor of sticking with what you have, or remaining chaotically in the existential moment (not adaptive if reproductive success were the goal, he noted under his breathe). Thus Frank was living a plot while Anna was living a life, and when they talked about personal matters he had news while she had the “same old same old,” which was understood by both to be the desired state, irritating and difficult though it may be to maintain.
Anna merely laughed at this.
Clothing and shelter. At work Frank could see that civilized people did not really think about these things, they took them for granted. Most wore clothing suited to “room temperature” all the year around, thus sweltering in the summer and shivering in winter anytime they stepped our of their rooms–which however they rarely did. So they thought they were temperature tough-guys, but really they were just indoors all the time. They used their buildings as clothing, in effect, and heated or cooled these spaces to imitate what clothing did, no matter how crazy whiz was in energy terms. But they did it without thinking of it like that, without making the calculation. In the summer they wore blue jeans because of what people three generations before had seen in Marlboro ads. Blue jeans were the SUVs of pants, part of a fantasy outdoor life; Frank himself had long ago changed to the Khembali ultralite cotton pants in the summer, noting with admiration how the slight crinkle in the material kept most of the cloth off the skin.
Now as it got colder people still wore blue jeans, which were just as useless in the cold as they were in the heat. Frank meanwhile shifted piece by piece into his mountaineering gear. Some items needed cleaning, but were too delicate to run through a washing machine, so he had to find a dry cleaners on Connecticut, but then was pleasantly surprised to discover that they would take all his other clothes, too; he had disliked going to the laundromat up the street from Van Ness.
So, autumn weather, cool and windy: therefore, Patagonia’s capilene shirts, their wicking material fuzzy and light against the skin; a down vest with a down hood ready to pull onto his head; nylon wind-pants if windy. Thick Thurlo socks inside light Salomon hiking shoes. As an ensemble it looked pretty good, in an Outside Magazine techno-geek way–a style which actually fit in pretty unobtrusively at NSF. Scientists signaled with their clothes just like anyone else, and their signal often proclaimed, “I am a scientist, I do things because they Make Sense, and so I Dress Sensibly,” which could resemble Frank’s mountaineering gear, as it meant recreational jackets with hoods, hiking boots, ski pants, wool shirts. So Frank could dress as a high-tech paleolithic and still look like any other NSF jock.
Take a problem, break it down into parts (analyze), quantify whatever parts you could, see if what you learned suggested anything about causes and effectsL then see if this suggested anything about long-term plans, and tangible things to do. She (Anna Quibler) did not believe in revolution of any kind, and only trusted the mass application of the scientific method to get any real-world results. “One step at a time,” she would say to her team in bioinformatics, or Nick’s math group at school, or the National Science Board; and she hopes that as long as chaos did not erupt worldwide, one step at a time would eventually get them to some tolerable state.
Of course there were all the hysterical operatives of “history” to distract people from this method and its incremental successes. The wars and politicians, the police state regimes and terrorist insurgencies, the gross injustices and cruelties, the unnecessarily ongoing plagues and famines–in short, all the mass violence and rank intimidation that characterized most of what filled the history books; all that was real enough, indeed all too real, undeniable–and yet it was not the whole story. It was not really history, if you wished to include everything important that had happened to humans through time. Because along with the violence, underneath the radar, inside the nightmare, there was always the ongoing irregular but encouraging pulse of good work, often, since the seventeenth century, created or supported by science. Ongoing increases in health and longevity, for larger and larger percentages of the population: that could be called progress. If they could hold on to what they had done, and get everyone in the world to that bettered state, it would actually be progress.
“The Third Rail” Michael Harvey
“Natchez Burning” Greg Iles
Right after reading the book below, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, I ran across this passage in Natchez Burning:
A few hours ago, Caitlin said something that’s resonated ever since: “There’s a secret history here…” That phrase always makes me think of Donna Tartt, the Mississippi-born writer, though that title originated with Procopius and his exposé of the crimes of the emperor Justinian. Every small town has its history arcana, and in Natchez, our secret historian is a woman whom few people have seen in the past ten years. A fabled recluse, she lives with her three servants in one of the finest antebellum mansions in the city. Her name is Pythia Nolan–“Pithy” to her friends–and she’s probably one of the few Natchezians who could read Procopius in the original Attic Greek.
“The Secret History” Donna Tartt
Henry, who generally disliked and was disliked by hoi polloi–a category which in his view expanded to include persons ranging from teenagers with boom boxes to the Dean of Studies of Hampden, who was independently wealthy and had a degree in American Studies from Yale–nonetheless had a genuine knack with poor people, simple people, country folk; he was despised by the functionaries of Hampden but admired by its janitors, its gardeners and cooks. Though he did not treat them as equals–he didn’t treat anyone an equal, exactly–neither did he resort to the condescending friendliness of the wealthy. “I think we’re much more hypocritical about illness, and poverty, than were people in former ages,” I remember Julian saying once. “In America, the rich man tries to pretend that the poor man is his equal in every respect but money, which is simply not true. Does anyone remember Plato’s definition of Justice in the Republic? Justice, in a society, is when each level of a hierarchy works within its place and is content with it. A poor man who wishes to rise above his station is only making himself needlessly miserable. And the wise poor have always known this, the same as do the wise rich.”
Though not nearly so spectacular, this manifestation of grief for Bunny was in many ways a similar phenomenon–an affirmation of community, a formulaic expression of homage and dread. Learn by Doing is the motto of Hampden. People experienced a sense of invulnerability and well-being by attending rap sessions, outdoor flute concerts; enjoyed having an official excuse to compare nightmares or break down in public. In a certain sense it was simply play-acting but at Hampden, where creative expression was valued above all else, play-acting was itself a kind of work, and people went about their grief as seriously as small children will sometimes play quite grimly and without pleasure in make-believe offices and stores.
When I disagreed–strenuously–and asked what was wrong with focusing one’s entire attention on only two things, if those two things were Art and Beauty, Laforge replied: “There is nothing wrong with the love of Beauty. But Beauty–unless she is wed to something more meaningful–is always superficial. It is not that your Julian chooses solely to concentrate on certain, exalted things; it is that he chooses to ignore others equally as important.”
I spent all my time in the library, reading the Jacobean dramatists. Webster and Middleton, Tourneur and Ford. It was an obscure specialization, but the candlelit and treacherous universe in which they moved–of sin unpunished, of innocence destroyed–was one I found appealing. Even the titles of their plays were strangely seductive, trapdoors to something beautiful and wicked that trickled beneath the surface of mortality: The Malcontent, The White Devil, The Broken Heart. I pored over them, made notes in the margins. The Jacobeans had a sure grasp of catastrophe. They understood not only evil, it seemed, but the extravagance of tricks with which evil presents itself as good. I felt they cut right to the heart of the matter, to the essential rottenness of the world.
I had always loved Christopher Marlowe, and I found myself thinking a lot about him, too. “Kind Kit Marlowe,” a contemporary had called him. He was a scholar, a friend of Raleigh and of Nashe, the most brilliant and educated of the Cambridge wits. He moved in the most exalted literary and political circles; of all his fellow poets, the only one to whom Shakespeare ever directed alluded was he; and yet he was also a forger, a murderer, a man of the most dissolute companions and habits, who “dyed swearing” in a tavern at the age of twenty-nine. His companions on that day were a spy, a pickpocket, and a “bawdy servingman.” One of them stabbed Marlowe, fatally, just above the eye: “of which wound the aforesaid Christ. Marlowe died instantly.”
“The Little Country” Charles de Lint
Originally, the function of songs was devotional. Then in the balladeering centuries, they became a vehicle for the spreading of information, stories, and opinions. Now in the 20th century, they have become a way of making money and achieving fame. I think the other two purposes were better. –Mike Scott; from an interview in Jamming, 1985
The thing to remember, is that artists are magical beings. They’re the only people other than the gods who can grant immortality. –Matt Ruff, from Fool On the Hill
A cousin to the mouth organ, the accordion was a free-reed instrument that was invented by a German named Christian Buschmann in the the course of his development of the mouth-blown instrument. He produced a device that had twenty reeds on a brass table, powered by a leather bellows, which he called a “handaeoline.” Further improvements were made by Demian of Vienna 1892, who coined the name “accordion,” but the first serious commercial production of diatonic accordions, or melodeons, was the work of the M. Hohner harmonica factory, situated in the Black Forest’s Trossingen some fifty years later.
Felix had often suffered the ignorance of those unfamiliar with the instrument to whom the word “accordion” conjured up painful versions of “Lady of Spain”–a far cry from the music that Felix and his peers played. Those same souls, once they heard what could be done with both the piano and button accordion in traditional music, were, more often than not, won over with only a few tunes. And they were surprised at the instrument’s heritage.
For before zydeco and rock ’n’ roll, before Lawrence Welk and Astor Piazzolla, the “squeeze box” was being used in traditional music_to accompany Morris dancers in England and clog dancers in Quebec and on the Continent, and to give an unmistakable lift to the jigs and reels of Ireland and Scotland. Without the pedigree of the harp, the flute, the fiddle, or the various kinds of bagpipes, it had still developed a surprisingly large number of virtuoso players who were only just beginning to be acknowledged as some of the finest proponents of the folk tradition.
Their music could make the heart lift, the foot tap, and, as Felix had found so often, bring consolation to him when he was feeling depressed. The only thing better than listening was playing.
“Our worlds need each other,” Edern said. “They grow too far apart now and we suffer for it–both our worlds suffer. Their separation makes for a disharmony that reflects in each of them. Your world grows ever more regimented and orderly; soon it will lose all of its ability to imagine, to know enchantment, to be joyful for no other reason than that its people perceive the wonder of the world they are blessed to live in. Everything is put in boxes and compartmentalized and a grey pall hangs over the minds of its people. Your world will eventually become so drab and drear that its people will eventually destroy it through sheer blindness and ignorance.”
“Trouble” Kate Christensen
I figured I could go into the kitchen and clean up the remnants of dinner, then take a shower, then check on Wendy and make sure she wasn’t on her laptop, being lured to a Burger King by a predatory middle-aged man posing as Zac Efron, and then I could come back to bed and read The New Yorker until I fell asleep. I was so sick of The New Yorker, I couldn’t bear it. I had read just about every issue for the past twenty years, and for a long time now, I had suspected that they recycled their articles and stories and cartoons in five-year loops; the poems were all just rearranged jumbles of the same words over and over: land, sky, light, death, love, cabin, hand, deer, cedar, lake, face, dark, kitchen table, skin, you. It made me want to try my hand at a New Yorker poem myself. How hard could it be?
“Nothing To Lose” Lee Child
The plants were all sharp-leaved things that looked silver under the night sky. Native, adapted to the desert. Xeric plants, or xerophilous, drought tolerant, from the Greek prefix xero-, meaning dry. Hence, Xerox, for copying without wet chemicals. Zeno of Cittium would have been puzzled by Xeroxing, but he would have approved of xeriscaping. He believed in going with the flow. The unquestioning acceptance of destiny. He believed in basking in the sun and eating green figs, instead of spending time and effort trying to change nature with irrigation.
“American Detective” Loren D. Estleman
“Glass Soup” Jonathan Carroll
What Flora and the rest of the world didn’t know was Rick Chaeff and most other self-help gurus floating around out there in gullible land were all creatures of chaos, as was Kyle Pegg/John Flannery. It was a minor but interesting way to fuck people up that worked surprisingly well. All you had to do was make them aware of their shortcomings, which wasn’t hard in this age of guilt and doubt. Next, convince them that they were nevertheless close to “the answer,” the key to happiness, the end of the rainbow, Nirvana…whatever. Only a few baby steps more and you’ll be there if you follow my instructions.
Except there was no there there because people were constantly changing and so were this needs and desires. They could never land on one spot and stay–sure that this was their happiness forever. Because mankind had the attention span of a housefly. How many houseflies do you know that have found their bliss and stay at home evenings?
“Bad Luck and Trouble” Lee Child
“Spark” John Twelve Hawks
Thomas shook his head. “I wouldn’t put a label on my beliefs, and I’m definitely not a member of some political party. Nowadays true ideology has vanished, replaced by fear and fantasy. The right wing wants corporate control and a return to a past that never existed. The left wing wants government control and a future that will never exist. Both groups lose sight of the essential question: How can the individual speak and think and create freely? New ideas are the only evolutionary force that will save us all from destruction.”
“Serena” Ron Rash
“Galileo’s Dream” Kim Stanley Robinson
This is an amazing and sometimes frustrating read. I’m glad I stuck it out. From Amazon (which might help to put some of the quotes below in context): ‘At the heart of a provocative narrative that stretches from Renaissance Italy to the moons of Jupiter is the father of modern science: Galileo Galilei. To the inhabitants of the Jovian moons, Galileo is a revered figure whose actions will influence the subsequent history of the human race. From the summit of their distant future, a charismatic renegade named Ganymede travels to the past to bring Galileo forward in an attempt to alter history and ensure the ascendancy of science over religion. And if that means Galileo must be burned at the stake, so be it. From Galileo’s heresy trial to the politics of far-future Jupiter, Kim Stanley Robinson illuminates the parallels between a distant past and an even more remote future—in the process celebrating the human spirit and calling into question the convenient truths of our own moment in time.’
Slowly they crossed the city, from the great prison on the Tiber to the Campo die Fiori, the square of Flowers. Low dark clouds scudded overhead on a stiff wind. Priests in black prayed at him and tossed holy water on him, or thrust their crucifixes in his face. He preferred the hooded and impassive Dominicans to these grotesque faces, twisted by hatred. No hatred was like that of the ignorant for the learned–though now he saw that even greater was the hatred of the damned for the martyr. They saw the end they knew would eventually engulf them for their sins. Today they rejoiced that it was happening to someone else, but they knew their time would come and would be eternal, and so their fear and hatred exploded out of them, putting the lie to their pretended joy.
She said carefully, “In some people’s eyes, your success includes your immolation. Ganymede and his followers are among them. They have a fixation on you and your work, on what it meant to the rest of history. From that point on, they say, science began to dominate, and religion to recede. The secularization of the world began. Only that saves humanity from many centuries of darkness, in which science is perverted to the will of insane religions. So they think of you as the great martyr for science.”
Winning all those banquet debates had apparently caused Galileo to think that argument was how things were settled in the world. Unfortunately this is never how it happens.
“people are much more likely to kill each other over ideas than over food,” she said. “It’s very clear in the historical record, a statistical fact.”
We all have seven secret lives. The life of excretion; the world of inappropriate sexual fantasies; our real hopes; our terror of death; our experience of shame; the world of pain; and our dreams. No one else ever knows these lives. Consciousness is solitary. Each person lives in that bubble universe that rests under our skull, alone.
Galileo struggled on with his new sickness, his ability that was a disability, alone.
In Sarsi I seem to discern the firm belief that in philosophizing one must support oneself upon the opinion of some famous author, as if our minds remain sterile and barren unless wedded to the reasoning of some other person. Possibly he thinks that philosophy is a book of fiction by some writer, like The Iliad or Orlando Furioso––productions in which the least important thing is whether what is written there is true. Well, Sarsi, that is not how matters stand. Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze. But it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and recognize the letters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures, without which it is completely impossible to understand a single word of it. Without these, one wanders in a dark labyrinth.
“Fights over ideas are the most vicious of all. If it were merely food, or water, or shelter, we could work something out. But in the realm of ideas one can become idealistic. The results can be deadly. The Thirty Years’ War, isn’t that what they called the religious war that Europe was fighting during your time?”
“Yes,” he confirmed, “The world works by mathematical rules. This is much more amazing than people usually seem to realize. Consider it–numbers are ideas, they are qualities in our minds that we abstract by looking at the world. So we see that we have two hands, and that there are two sheep in the meadow, but we never see a two anywhere. It’s not a thing but an idea, and therefore intangible. Like souls in this world. And then we teach each other some games we can play with these ideas–we see how you can add them together and get resulting numbers, as if adding sheep to the meadow. We see for instance that any number can be added to itself by its own number of selves, two twos, four fours, we call them squares because they can be put into squared patterns with the same number of sheep on each side, and we see how larger numbers multiplied by themselves grow larger than the previous number very quickly, and that this rapid growth also happens in a proportion. An interesting idea. It makes a nice pattern in the mind or on the page. Then we look at the world around us. We drop a ball and watch it fall to the ground. It seems to be speeding up as it falls, the eye tells us that much, and so we measure the falls in various ways, and lo and behold, we find that all things fall at the same speed, and that the distance that something falls increases by the square of the increase in the time of the fall–this quite precisely!–and despite the fact that time and distance seem to be very much different things. Why should it be so? Why should the ratio be so simple and neat? Why should the two be related at all? All we can say is, they are. Things fall by rules, acting the same always, and the rules are simple–or then later, not so simple. But the world moves by mathematical laws! The world is proportionate to itself across things as disparate as time and distance. How can it be?”
There was a deep stupidity in ambition, a blindness in it, the way it was so serious, so unplayful. It failed to value the ringing feeling that had come over him, as when he saw a proof, or on that first night with Marina, or sometimes on the dawn barges back over the lagoon to terra-firms. These were the moments that mattered.
There were no words that would reach the youth. You could never teach other people anything that mattered. The important things they had to learn for themselves, almost always by mistakes, so that the lessons arrived too late to help. Experience was in that sense useless. It was precisely what could not be passed along in a lesson or equation.
“Mortal Friends” James Carroll
And what’s more important, Colman thought, is that finally Micko the Pure is throwing curves. Perhaps his son’s zeal would ebb now that he was learning how truths and lies are carved together like the hearts and arrows in ancient bark. If truth could be an act of hatred, so its opposite could be an act of love.
“Secrets Of Eden” Chris Bohjalian
After the service an old deacon – a coal miner who had somehow made it into his seventies without succumbing to any of the grotesque lung diseases that usually mark the end of a coal miner’s life – approached him and asked with a rich voice of irony, “Was you sent or did you just went?” My professor understood instantly what the deacon was suggesting: He, the young pastor, seemed to lack passion and conviction. He seemed merely to be going through the motions.
“The Great Man” Kate Christensen
One thing about getting old was that your openness to new people shrank through the years from a naive embrace to a narrow squint. By the time you hit old age, you barely had the ability to be civil for one minute to any stranger, let alone get through a whole evening of “interesting” conversation.
The real problem was that the human race was so disappointing. Why had she expected it to be otherwise? As a young woman, Maxine had tended to leap with open arms, like a wet-eyed, splayed-out nincompoop, toward everyone she met, but she had quickly encountered enough snideness, selfishness, neediness, cruelty, rejection, and indifference to enable her to gradually develop the social crankiness that had by now become thick and insuperable as an old toenail.
…Maxine hated to be interrupted when she was working, even by Katrina. Being dragged from the world of painting back into the world of life was as difficult as forcing herself from the world of life back into the world of painting. A thick but permeable membrane separated them. Going from one to another required a shape-shifting in the brain. She was never safely ensconced in either world: the demands of the other one could be heard, muffled from whichever one you were in, so no matter where you were, you felt a tug of anxiety that something might go wrong in the other one in your absence, something you’d failed to account for before you left. It would have been much easier if the transition could have been accomplished through a series of soundproof air locks, decompression chambers. It felt as if there were only room in one lifetime to inhabit one of these parallel worlds, but here she was, trying to cram them both in. Each parallel life sucked the air out of the other one. When she was deep in her painting, she felt how short her time there was and panicked because she would never get to do it all before she died. It only got harder as she got older, harder because, as with sleep, she could never be as fully in either world as she’d been when she was younger. The membrane had become worn and weakened with age, like everything else.
“I regret,” said Maxine, “and you can print this, that I let the love of my life, Jane Fleming, get away about thirty years ago. My second-greatest regret is that I wasn’t more famous during my lifetime. I wish I had seized and pursued and hunted down the two things I most wanted and failed to secure for myself. Self-denial is pointless. Niceness is ridiculous. You’re a very smart young woman, to know this already.”
“A Treacherous Paradise” Henning Mankell
“The Son” Jo Nesbø
“All That Is” James Salter
“The Marriage of Sticks” Jonathan Carroll
Because somewhere in the course of their lives I had selfishly used every one of them. Used them in small or large, forgotten or impossible-to-conceive-of ways to get whatever it was I wanted at that moment. I had loved them and tricked them or hated them and forgotten them, ignored them, paid them court, stolen their hearts or said no to theirs when they were offered. I had gone into their lives blind; I had gone in knowing everything. I took their love, I took their hopes; I took their time and I paid it no respect.
Some of them had asked for something back; some had asked for a lot back. Each time I gave only what I wanted or had a surplus of and wouldn’t miss. They gave what they cherished or what kept them alive, what made them tick or gave them faith. What they got from me in return was nothing, wrapped in a fine empty box with tinsel and glitter on it. Most people steal because they believe what they steal should belong to them anyway. To me it wasn’t theft, it was barter: I’ll trade you what I don’t need for whatever it is about you I want. That’s fair.
“The Astral” Kate Christensen
“A Tale For the Time Being” Ruth Ozeki
In reality, every reader, while he is reading, is the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument, which he offers to the reader to permit him to discern what, without the book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself. The reader’s recognition in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its truth. –Marcel Proust, Le temps retouvé
And here’s a funny thing. Americans always call it World War II, but a lot of Japanese call it the Great East Asian War, and actually the two countries have totally different versions of who started it and what happened. Most Americans think it was all Japan’s fault, because Japan invaded China in order to steal their oil and natural resources, and America had to jump in and stop them. But a lot of Japanese believe that America started it by making all these unreasonable sanctions against Japan and cutting off oil and food, and like, ooooh, we’re just a poor little island country that needs to import stuff in order to survive, etc. This theory says that America forced Japan to go to war in sled-defense, and all that stuff they did in China was none of America’s business to begin with. So Japan went and attacked Pearl Harbor, which a lot of Americans say was a 9/11 scenario, and then America got pissed off and declared was back. The fighting went on until America got fed up and dropped atom bombs on Japan and totally obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which most people agree was pretty harsh because they were winning by then anyway.
Instructions for zazen
First of all, you have to sit down, which you’re probably already doing. The traditional way is to sit on a zafu cushion on the floor with your legs crossed, but you can sit on a chair if you want to. Te important thing is just to have good posture and not to slosh or lean on anything.
Now you can put your hands in your lap and kind of stack them up, so that the back of your left hand is on the palm of your right hand, and your thumb tips come around and meet on top, making a little round circle. The place where your thumbs touch should line up with your bellybutton. Jiko says this way of holding your hands is called hokkai jo-in (cosmic mudra), and it symbolizes the whole cosmic universe, which you are holding on your lap like a great big beautiful egg.
Next you just relax and hold really still and concentrate on your breathing. You don’t have to make a big deal about it. It’s not like you’re thinking about breathing, but you’re not not thinking about it either. It’s kind of like when you’re sitting on the beach and watching the waves lapping up on the sand or some little kids you don’t know playing in the distance. You’re just noticing everything that’s going on, both inside you and outside you, including your breathing and the kids and the waves and the sand. And that’s basically it.
It sounds pretty simple, but when I first tried to do it, I got totally distracted by all my crazy thoughts and obsessions, and then my body started to itch and it felt like there were millipedes crawling all over me. When I explained this to Jiko, she told me to count my breaths like this:
Breathe in, breathe out…one.
Breathe in, breathe out…two.
She said I should count like that up to ten, and when I got to ten, I could start over again at one. I’m like, no problem, Jiko! And I’m count in away, when some crazy revenge fantasy against my classmates or a nostalgic memory of Sunnyvale pops into my mind and totally hijacks my attention. As you’ve probably figured out by now, on account of the ADD, my mind is always chattering away like a monkey, and sometimes I can’t even count to three. Can you believe it? No wonder I couldn’t get into a decent high school. But the good news is that it doesn’t matter if you screw up zazen. Jiko says don’t even think of it as screwing up. She says it’s totally natural for a person’s mind to think because that’s what minds are supposed to do, so when your mind wanders and gets tangled up in crazy thoughts, you don’t have to freak out. It’s no big deal. You just notice it’s happened and drop it. like whatever, and start again from the beginning.
…Jiko also says that to do zazen is to enter time completely.
“Foreign Bodies” Cynthia Ozick
The boy was absurd. The boy was contemptible. The self-consciousness off it, lord of the world, commandeering a flock of chairs as if he owned the planet earth, one of those know-nothing Americans besotted with old tattered visions of Sartre, that dolt, that foul communist, that abettor of the worst. Paris was infested with these imitation baby Sartres and Gides sitting in cafés over their inky manuscripts, an apéritif placed just so at the nearer knuckle to authenticate the parody, the foolish superannuated play-acting. And this one in romantic agony over some tragic flaw in his genius! A plaything, their Paris, a toy: they would wear it out, it would wear them out, one or the other would be discarded. And when they were done with it, away they’d go, how easy to fly off with their easy American passports to those waiting rich cities and their movie tone skyscrapers, their happy Clevelands and Chicagos and Bostons! They could come and they could go, ignorant that the ground was scorched, so obliviously soft was it under their feet, and here was this raw entitled boy with his big dirty sandals up on a chair, showing dirty toenails…”
“The Shadow Girls” Henning Mankell
“Homework” Margot Livesey
“Evidence Of Things Unseen” Marianne Wiggins
Whether they call it God or conscience or the manual of Army protocol, people sublime toward where their inner fire burns, and given enough fuel for thought and a level playing field to dream on, anyone can leave a fingerprint on the blank of history. That’s what Fos believed.
Seemingly with no conscious motive she found herself drawn more than once to the edges of the tents where there was a different source of powerful attraction––hucksterism of gospellers and evangelicals, foot-bathers and berserkers, Bible salesmen, healers, layers-on of hands and snakeoil salesmen, roustabouts and self-made prophets, exhorters, raisers of the dead, dead levelers. The revelers. The drama of salvation. She’d stand on summer nights outside these tents and halfway listen to the preachers preach, it didn’t matter what the message was––the message was the same each time––people came to watch the message being sold. The events a tent invites, the alibis and cover stories that a tent invents were as attractive as any force in nature, Opal came to realize, as magnetic as any other, every other, vacuum. The preachers raised their healing hands like magnets and the people came, lined up like iron filings to have their pain relieved their cataracts dissolved their sight restored.
Youth never sees its shadow till the sun’s about to set: and then you wonder where the person went who you were speaking to in all your thoughts for all the years.
“The Shadow Year” Jeffrey Ford
“The White Lioness” Henning Mankell
“Jitterbug” Loren D. Estleman
“Music, In A Foreign Language” Andrew Crumey
’The rewriting of history is not a purely modern preoccupation. Indeed, one could argue that history itself is little more that an accumulation of alterations and amendments; the endless recreating of the past. We need only consider the subtlety of the immediate present, and the infinite malleability of our own perceptions, to realize that the past is a thing without substance, without meaning, unless it is interpreted. And to interpret is to rewrite.’ (written by the fictional surrealist ‘writer’ Alfredo Galli, who is mentioned and quoted throughout the book)
And it was the spirit of anarchism which pervades every aspect of Galli’s work, and which can be so endearing when it isn’t downright irritating, which first attracted me when as a young man I discovered the delightful Racconti Impossibili – the set of ‘impossible tales’ in which a description of a chair, for example, can gradually turn into an account of all the people who have sat upon it, and of all the other chairs on which they sat, and so on, in an endless process of multiplication which Galli cuts short with a comment such as ‘the rest is obvious’. What Galli offers us in his writing is an escape from the tyranny of logic. In literature, everything is contingent; everything can be otherwise. To anyone who had grown up in Britain during the grim decades which followed the war, this fact was very seductive. I came to realize the simple truth that in the world, also, everything could have been otherwise – and the way things are is such a special case as to be almost irrelevant, compared with the full range of how things might be. Why then does history choose one course as opposed to another? This is something I have often thought about, while observing the evolution of women’s fashion.
King imagined a situation which occurred during the war. An SS officer was assassinated by the Resistance, so the local commander rounded up a hundred civilians and held them hostage, guarded over by a single machine gunner. They stood huddled in the market square, with only the lone soldier holding them back from freedom. If one person tried to take action, he would be shot immediately. If fifty ran for the gunner, then perhaps a couple of dozen would die before he was overpowered, and the survivors would run free. But the hundred hostages stood and did nothing. If there had been a million of them, watched over by the gunner, would the crowd have wasted a moment over the puny guard? Surely, they would have pushed forward to overwhelm him without a second thought. But what if there had been a thousand? Or five hundred? What is it that can give a group of people the courage to put aside their individual thoughts of self-preservation, so that others might live? Yet each of those hundred civilians stood from. Each clung to the hope that surviving another five minutes improved their chance of eventually going free. Some time later, the young machine gunner received the command to put an end to them all.
And what, King wondered, if that soldier had made the following humane offer to his hundred hostages; he would spare the first one who tried to escape, but would kill any who tried to follow. What then would be the response? A moment of nervousness, perhaps, and than a stampede.
A nation is oppressed, and does nothing. If one person cries out and protests, he is imprisoned. But then that rare thing appears; a leader who has both power and humanity. And he decides to be lenient with some of those who cry out. Then the stampede becomes inevitable. This was what was in King’s mind as he idly watched the anxious stranger at the counter.
“The Doll” Taylor Stevens
“The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers” Thomas Mullen
“The Age of Miracles” Karen Thompson Walker
“When We Were Orphans” Kazuo Ishiguro
“From the Teeth of Angels” Jonathan Carroll
“My Brilliant Friend” Elena Ferrante
“Drive” James Sallis
“The Coroner’s Lunch” Colin Cotterill
“Innocence” Taylor Stevens
“Bad Intentions” Karin Fossum
“Death At La Fenice” Donna Leon
“Silence of the Grave” Arnaldur Indriðason
“The Diagnosis” Alan Lightman
“The Informationist” Taylor Stevens
“The Litigators” John Grisham
Thought I’d read at least one Grisham novel to see what all the fuss is about. It does keep you moving along but mostly empty calories here.
“Nowle’s Passing” Edith Forbes
A lovely surprise - in-depth characters, and a beautiful tale of family and the complexities of growing older. Fabulous.
“A Swell-Looking Babe” Jim Thompson
“The Other Side of the Bridge” Mary Lawson
When he was younger, Ian had assumed that as you got older things became more clear. Adults had seemed so sure, so knowledgable, not just about facts and figures but about the big questions: the difference between right and wrong; what was true and what wasn’t; what life was about. He’d assumed that you went to school because you had to learn things, starting off with the easy stuff and moving on to bigger issues, and once you’d learned them that was it, the way ahead opened up and thereafter life was simple and straightforward. What a joke. The older he got, the more complicated and obscure everything became. He understood nothing anymore – nothing and nobody, including himself.
“So Brave, So Young, and Handsome” Leif Enger
“Body and Soul” Frank Conroy
“Fun will only take you so far.” He paused, stroking his mustache. “There are deeper pleasures than fun. Fun is good, it helps things, helps to forget things. But it isn’t everything.”
In discussing the merits of music competitions for Claude, a boy prodigy:
“What about competitions?”
Both Levits and Weisfeld shook their heads. “He doesn’t need all that craziness,” Weisfeld said. “He’s already got a sponsor.”
“Between us,” Levits said, “we have the necessary connections. Competitions are for people from Nebraska who don’t know anybody. I agree with Aaron.”
“I’m an artist!” Claude protested.
“Yes, yes!” Weisfeld cried. “We know what that means. We know, but not everybody knows. Even some people who talk like –“ He interrupted himself. “You remember when you used to play for Mrs. Fisk? For her little boy?”
Claude was stunned. Could Weisfeld read his mind?
“You remember Dewman Fisk,” Weisfeld continued, raising his voice, “the famous ballet enthusiast and culture maven for the mayor? and the pretentious Mrs. Fisk, one of our best customers? You think they knew anything about it? About what it means to be an artist?” Claude was doubly speechless – first the talk of the Fisks, and second the controlled anger in Weisfeld.
“They know practically nothing.” He stroked his mustache as if to calm himself down. “Music is a decoration. A diversion to take their minds off their troubles. Maybe a hobby. To them, the artist is a high-class entertainer. They don’t even know they don’t know anything, those people. It can drive you crazy.” He crushed the washed paper from lunch into a ball and threw it in the trash. “So don’t expect anything. Be careful with those kind of people.”
“Hit On the House” Jon A. Jackson
“The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” Milan Kundera
“The Painter” Peter Heller
“Angels and Aliens” Mary Morris
“Cockroaches” Jo Nesbø
“The God of Small Things” Arundhati Roy
“Savages” Bill Pronzini
“Jar City” Arnaldur Indridason
“The Dog Stars” Peter Heller
“Heading West” Doris Betts
“An Artist of the Floating World” Kazuo Ishiguro
“The Likeness” Tana French
This isn’t just callousness, or self-preservation. The cold fact is that every murder I’ve worked was about the killer. The victim–and imagine explaining this to families who have nothing left but hope of a reason–the victim was just the person who happened to wander into the sights when the gun was loaded and cocked. The control freak was always going to kill his wife the first time she refused to follow orders; your daughter happened to be the one who married him. The mugger was hanging around the alleyway with a knife, and your husband happened to be the next person who walked by. We go through victims’ lives with a fine-tooth comb, but we’re doing it to learn more not about them but about the murderer: if we can figure out the exact point where someone walked into those crosshairs, we can go to work with our dark, stained geometries and draw a line straight back to the barrel of the gun. The victim can tell us how, but almost never why. The only reason, the beginning and the end, the closed circle, is the killer.
Daniel nodded, unsurprised. “Possible you’re braver than I am,” he said. “Or possibly–forgive me–you simply haven’t decided what you want from life yet; you haven’t found anything that you truly want to hold onto. That changes everything, you know. Students and very young people can rent with no damage to their intellectual freedom, because it puts them under no threat: they have nothing, yet, to lose. Have you noticed how easily the very young die? They make the best martyrs for any cause, the best soldiers, the best suicides. It’s because they’re held here so lightly: that haven’t yet accumulated loves and responsibilities and commitments and all the things that tie us securely to this world. They can let go of it as easily and simply as lifting a finger. But as you get older, you begin ti find things that are worth holding onto, forever. All of a sudden you’re playing for keeps, as children say, and it changes the very fabric of you.”
“Await Your Reply” Dan Chaon
“The Golden City” John Twelve Hawks
This is book three of the Fourth Realm Trilogy.
“It’s a game–only much more elaborate,” Miss Holderness said. “We make our citizens march around and fight each other. We make them weep and laugh and pray.”
Mr. Dash raised the bowl and grinned. “ And after we’re done with that, we can always make them die, sometimes in spectacular ways.”
Sweat trickled down Michael’s neck. He felt as if he had just finished running a race on a warm summer’s day. “My world has different governments and armies and religions.”
“There’s no need to fight against any of these groups,” Mr. Westley said. “We’ll show you how to guide them in a particular direction. First you create a frightening story, and then you provide a happy ending…”
“So this is what I’m proposing–not a prison of sullen, unproductive prisoners, but an interconnected structure that creates obedient workers and trained consumers. This worldwide system will guarantee more money and comfort for yourself and your family. We’ll get the stability of the old Panopticon–with a happy face.”
Most of the brethren were smiling and nodding. Mrs. Brewster turned her head back and forth as she watched her influence melt away.
“My plan can become a reality of we don’t waste our resources on limited strategies. Instead of waiting for people to join the system, we need to create a worldwide sequence of threats and emergencies that impels citizens to voluntarily give up their freedom. And why would they do this? That’s easy to answer. Because we’ve turned them into children scared of the dark. They will be desperate for our help, terrified of a life outside their cubicle filled with predators and danger.
“We can achieve this goal in a few years if we’re ruthless enough to consider every option. WE need strength, not diplomacy. We need leadership, not committees. We need to stand up and say: ‘No more half measures. No compromises. We’re going to do everything necessary to create a better world.’
“I stand before you as a faithful servant: ready to obey your orders and create your vision. This ins’t a dream that might come true. What I have described this evening is an inevitable reality…if you’re ready for the next step. All I need is your approval and support. Thank you.”
“Clock Without Hands” Carson McCullers
“A Guide For the Perplexed” E. F. Schumacher
I leave it to the reader to explore the enormous range if inner experiences which fill the lives of men and women. As I have emphasized before, they are all invisible, inaccessible to external observation. The example of bodily pain is instructive precisely because there is no subtlety about it. Few people doubt the reality of pain, and the realization that here is a thing we all recognize as real, true, and one of the great “stubborn facts” of human existence, which nonetheless is unobservable by our outer senses, may come as a shock. If only that which can be observed by our outer senses is deemed to be real, “objective,” scientifically respectable, pain must be dismissed as unreal, “subjective,” unscientific. And the same applies to everything else that moves us internally: love and hatred, joy and sorrow, hope, fear, anguish, and so on. If all these forces or movements inside me are not real, they need not be taken seriously, and if I do not take them seriously in myself, how can I consider them real and take them seriously in another being? It is, in fact, more convenient to assume that other beings do not really suffer as we do and do not really possess an inner life as complex, subtle, and vulnerable as our own. Indeed, throughout the ages man has shown an enormous capacity to bear the sufferings of others with fortitude and equanimity. Since, moreover, as J. G. Bennett has shrewdly observed, we tend to see ourselves primarily in the light of our intentions, which are invisible to others, while we see others mainly in the light of their actions, which are visible to us, we have a situation in which misunderstanding and injustice are the order of the day.In the life of societies there is a need for both justice and mercy. “Justice without mercy,” said Thomas Aquinas, “is cruelty; mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution” – a very clear identification of a divergent problem. Justice is a denial of mercy, and mercy is a denial of justice. Only a higher force can reconcile these opposites: wisdom. The problem cannot be solved, but wisdom can transcend it. Similarly, societies need stability and change, tradition and innovation, public interest and private interest, planning and laissez-faire, order and freedom, growth and decay. Everywhere society’s health depends on the simultaneous pursuit of mutually opposed activities or aims. The adoption of a final solution means a kind of death sentence for man’s humanity and spells either cruelty or dissolution, generally both.
Divergent problems offend the logical mind, which wishes to remove the tension by coming down on one side or the other, but they provoke, stimulate, and sharpen the higher human faculties, without which man is nothing but a clever animal. A refusal to accept the divergency of divergent problems causes these higher faculties to remain dormant and to wither away, and when this happens, the “clever animal” is more likely than not to destroy itself.
Man’s life can thus be seen and understood as a succession of divergent problems which must inevitably be encountered and have to be coped with in some way. They are refractory to mere logic and discursive reason, and constitute, so to speak a strain-and-stretch apparatus to develop the Whole Man, and that means to develop man’s supra logical faculties. All traditional cultures have seen life as a school and have recognized, in one way or another, the essentiality of this teaching force.
“Broken” Karin Fossum
“The Waterworks” E. L. Doctorow
“The Condition” Jennifer Haigh
'The question of what constitutes a story is troublesome. E. M. Forster wrote, " 'The king died and then the queen died' is a story. 'The king died, and then the queen died of grief' is a plot."
– From Lydia Davis's Radical Fiction by Dana Goodyear, The New Yorker, March 17, 2014
"It's odd that the word 'atheist' even exists," he says. "I don't play golf. Is there a word for non-golf players? Do non-golf players gather and strategize? Do non-skiers have a word, and come together, and talk about the fact that they don't ski?"
– Neil deGrasse Tyson, The New Yorker, Feb 17 & 24, 2014
"Socrates taught Plato and Plato taught Aristotle and Aristotle taught Alexander the Great, who founded a city that would house the most voluminous library of the ancient world – until it was burned, until forgetting came back into vogue. The great minds come down through the years like monkeys defending from high branches. Always, a leopard is waiting to greet them – in the tall grass, among the magnetic berries, in the place they should have checked."
– Charles Rafferty, The New Yorker, Feb 17 & 24, 2014
"There's a reason that Duke's players mostly complained of being cheated only of the dough. Originality comes in two kinds: originality of ideas, and originality of labor, and although it is the first kind what we get agitated about, we should honor the second kind still more. There is wit, made by the head and spun out into life; and work, created mostly by fingers engaging tools as various as tenor saxes and computer keyboards. It is an oddity of our civilization, and has been since the Renaissance, to honor wit more than the work, to think that the new idea 'contributed' by the work matters more than the work itself."
– Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, Dec 23 & 30, 2013
“The Lacuna” Barbara Kingsolver
“Ride With Me, Mariah Montana” Ivan Doig
“The Brooklyn Follies” Paul Auster
“Bleeding Hearts” Ian Rankin
“Faith” Jennifer Haigh
“The Dark River” John Twelve Hawks
“The Missing World” Margot Livesey
“The Good Son” Michael Gruber
Gruber is one of my favorite authors and The Good Son ranks with the best of his work. He unwraps insights into the Muslim world with agility and aplomb. I bookmarked six different passages, all worth a read below.
“…My thought is that until we recognize violent nationalism as another sort of mental disease we will get nowhere.”
“Yes, but where is the cure?” says Amin. “Who ever cured it?”
“Well, as to that I have some theories,” the Indian replies, “which I daresay you will hear enough about during the coming week to make you quite ill with the sound of my voice. And while I am not such a fool as to credit the inevitability of progress, I think that if one hundred years ago you had predicted that Western Europe, the greatest hotbed of nationalism of that era, the very source of the contagion, if you will, would be converted less than a century later into what amounts to a single great country, with a tiny armaments budget and utter peace among all its parts – well, people would have thought you a lunatic. But it occurred. And it can occur in South Asia as well.”
Dost Yacub was probably over seventy at the time, and one of the last traditional Pashtun storytellers in Lahore. He’d been a warrior in his time and had probably taken shots at people Kipling had known. He told stories about the war and feuds he’d been in, too, all about zar, zan, zamin – women, gold, and land – and in my child’s mind the stories of his adventures and the stories about princesses and jinns and man-eaters all blended together to make a picture of a different kind of world than my contemporaries in America were being pumped into them through the tube, none of that Sesame Street–Mister Rogers stuff there around the fire or under the hissing lantern. The fairy tales they tell American kids always end with “And they lived happily ever after,” but most Pashtun tales go out with heads rolling “And thus he had his revenge.” I mean, that’s the point of the stories.
“The problem, as I say, with cultural imperialism is that it can be completely unconscious, which I believe is the case here. For example, you used the phrase knuckle under. By that you mean it is wrong or unseemly for people to submit their will – their whim, even – to a traditional authority. Yet all of Muslim society is based on submission to the will of God, and everything follows from that. You look at us and you see oppression; we see stability and harmony. You see corruption; we see tie of family, friendship, and mutual support. You see feudalism, we see mutual responsibility. You see oppression of women, we see the defense of modesty. But then you say, but look at you! See how poor and weak you are and how rich and strong we are, because of our culture, which prizes freedom above every other human value – no, that destroys every other human value to secure absolute freedom. In response to that, sir, I ask you to look at two things. First, yes, we are poor, but until sixty years ago, you Europeans owned all of us, we worked for you and not for ourselves. So of course we are poor – it took Europe eight centuries to recover from the yoke of Rome and its collapse. I say to you, sir, have a little patience! And the second thing is, for all but the last two and a half centuries, the traditional society you condemn was quite successful. A thousand years ago London was a wooden village occupied by starving barbarians and Baghdad was the greatest and richest city in the world. So perhaps it will be that way again; who can tell what God has planned?”
He sits in silence, stroking his beard; she studies his face. For a moment the harsh Pashtun male mask he wears fades and a more contemplative person is revealed. They get that from the secret life they share with their mothers, she thinks. The poor women have only a single opportunity to acquire a fragment of power over their lives, and this is through their sons when they are small. But the women are stupid and beaten down, so they can rarely give their boys the spark of a strong opposite, the feminine introject that leads to individuation. And so the boys never grow up. They retain the brutality and carelessness of boys their whole lives, living on boasts and the good opinion of their gang. And they have the short attention span of boys and the romantic wildness, building nothing, dumbfounded by the civilizations around them, knowing as little of how a political order or modern economy is constructed as a six-year-old knows about what his father does at work. So they are doomed to poverty, the manipulations of others, and early death.
Last words of a man named Ashton about to be executed:
“Everyone knows this, but everyone disagrees about what should be done. Some say, abandon the traditional ways and become just like the rich countries, but no Muslim country has been able to do this except Turkey, which is a special case and only partly successful. Others say socialism – or said, because that has proven a false hope. Still others say, and you among them, let us return to living under the sharia, the law of God. If you meant that, no one would oppose you. Who in the west would give two pins if you all decided to live simply and be devoted to God? In America there are people, Christians called Amish, who live as their forefathers did, without electricity or machines, simple lives of peace, and everyone praises them and even envies them, a little. Or there are Jews who follow the exact law of Moses and dress as they did three hundred years ago, and who bothers them? But you don’t want to live under sharia, if living so means living peacefully in a museum. No, not at all. You want to rule. You want all the goods of the west, you want Viagra and tanks and missiles and electricity and cell phones and computers. But you can’t pay for these things because you also want to remain ignorant and uneducated, so you become tools of oil sheikhs and sell drugs. You become the dogs of anyone who will buy you a gun. Is this the world of God? And who are these strangers you follow, from Arabia, from Egypt, who tell you it is forbidden to do things that your fathers and their fathers’ fathers did for as long as there have been Pashtuns? Were your fathers infidels? O Pashtuns, who taught you to spit on the graves of your ancestors?”
“…None of you would drink from a stream unless you knew the water was pure and unpolluted, or eat meat that was not prepared according to the law of halal, but you don’t take the same care of what you put into your minds, although the mind is the seat of the soul and it is the soul that will live in paradise, as you believe. Would you bring a polluted soul before God? So you must have care with what you believe.”
…He speaks further in the same vein, about the great Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian who first extended these ideas to a condemnation not only of colonial regimes but also to supposed Muslim states that aped the infidels and pursued modernism, socialism, democracy, and liberalism. The poverty and weakness of the Muslim lands was their fault, Qutb said, because that had turned from the true religion. They were apostates, illegitimate, and every real Muslim was bound to resist them. The goal was nothing less than the restoration of the caliphate, a system in which state, religion, and society were again one, unfragmented, guided by the eternal word of God, embodied in the sharia. Qutb died a martyr, but his ideas could not be killed so easily. They spread, urged on by the shame of the Zionist usurpation of Palestine and the holy city, Al Quds, and the assaults on the umma by the Russians and the Americans. They were turned into action by al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and here Ashton tells the familiar story of triumph and defeat and renewal. He says, “These ideas now live on in you. This is why you are here.”
“…The question now is whether you will succeed. Will you bring the caliphate to life again and erase five centuries of history? And the answer is of course you will not. As the poet says, The moving finger, having writ, moves on; the Muslims may yet have another golden age, but it will not be like the last one, not at all. And your terrorism is futile, an announcement of impotence, the rage of a spoiled child. The powers of the earth will never allow a regime forged by terror to survive. The Palestinians have been crushed, the Chechens have been crushed, and the Russians left Afghanistan for the reason that all foreign powers leave Afghanistan, not because of the valor of the Pashtuns but because Afghanistan is worthless, a dry, rocky country that produces nothing but apricots and opium.”
At these words the audience begins to rumble menacingly, but Ashton raises his voice and goes on.
“At some level you know this, and that knowledge is symbolized by the suicide bomber. In all history, no campaign of suicide has ever prevailed. It is the last stage of impotent fury – meaningless, insane. At last we come to that word, and the purpose of the conference you have held hostage, which was to examine the psychological basis of the jihad. I am not a psychologist, but I have a theory. Perhaps my colleagues will disagree and call me foolish, but I will not be around to hear it, and I speak, therefore, without fear of contradiction. The key lies, I believe, in the one feature that marks all Salafist regimes, from Saudi Arabia to the Taliban, and that is the oppression of women.”
“Why should this be? The Prophet was respectful of women, of his wives, Khadija and Aisha, and his daughter, Fatima, and the rightly guided caliphs consulted them in Islam’s early days, those days for which you pretend a deep and reverent nostalgia. The Qur’an is not notably against women, not even as much as the Bible. So I must conclude that the oppression of women is not a by-product of the jihad movement but its purpose. What drives you to murder and suicide is not the love of God but the fear of women, of educated women, of women released from the absolute domination of men. Because women are a true mirror. They are more sensible than you are, they want their children to flourish, and if they were free they would look at you all, and ask, ‘O believers, why so poor, why so ignorant, why so despised by the world?’ And they would despise you too. You fight to prevent this, you fight to preserve not the modesty but the stupidity of women, and where you succeed these stupid women produce evener stupider sons – yourselves – and if there were a God he would laughing in all your faces.”
“well, take yourself, for example. By your own admission you’re a corn-fed midwestern woman, and despite the fact that you’ve been around the world in some pretty rough places, you retain that basic American optimism: folks are the same all over, everyone wants the good things in life, and so on. Being American, and Protestant in the bargain, you’re all for individual responsibility and the individual conscience that goes with it. You’re basically in control. If you’re in a church that doesn’t suit you for some reason, you’re out the door into another or you start your own. And you believe in progress. We can help people to advance, to be like us: bill of rights, elections, clean water, flush toilets, antibiotics, refrigerators, and cars, the works.”
“Up to a point. But as I said, I have the long view ingrained, along with all my co-religionists. Look at us now, locked up in what we think of as the ass-end of nowhere, but this area was once connected to a universal empire that stretched from Spain to Indonesia. A thousand years ago, Baghdad was the capital of the world, the richest city since the fall of Rome. Basra was the intellectual center of that world. Ever been to Basra? Today it’s easily distinguishable from Silicon Valley, but back then they were inventing paper and mathematics based on Arabic numerals, and they had more books per capita than anywhere else. Hell, there were more books and scholars in Timbuktu than there were in Paris. Timbuktu! The metonym for isolation!”
“Peace Like A River” Leif Enger
This book was a fabulous surprise - a book of miracles that take place in the South Dakota Badlands. Read this one!
After Davy Land killed two bullies who had invaded their home, here is Reuben Land, his little brother who witnessed the shooting, musing on his ‘bragging’ to the prosecutor named Elvis:
A person can’t regret honesty any more than other unavoidables – a plain face or a poor history. What I regret is how I said it: like your choice of stupid punks with something to prove. I said it with belligerence, a trait ever cultivated by fools. I said it, I tremble to admit, as Israel Finch might have. And predictably, chaos accompanied belligerence into office. For that putting-down-the-dog remark led Elvis to seek and pull from me other facts pointing to ill intent: that Davy already had his coat on to deliver vengeance when Dad stopped him; that Davy had been angry with Dad earlier, when it seemed to him the locker-room beating hadn’t been nearly severe enough; that Davy, waiting on the stairs for his arrest after the shootings, had grabbed my wrist and spoken the words I meant to. With despair I heard myself answer Elvis’s inquiries, each answer seeming horribly convicting the moment it was uttered. Oh, I was a meek enough fellow now – but it didn’t matter. Elvis drew these facts from me and unfolded them to view and laid them before the court like a series of bloody hankies.
I saw it happening but could not stop it. Humility came to me too late. I’m a living proverb; learn from me.
Later on in the story, Davy is pointing out constellations to Reuben. This moment struck a chord with me:
I could only nod. Having someone point out constellations is pleasant as long as they don’t insist that you actually see them. Aside from the Dipper and Orion and the Teapot, constellations tend to hide in the stars.
“Breath” Tim Winton
It’s easy for an old man to look back and see the obvious, how wasted youth and health and safety are on the young who spurn such things, to be dismayed by the risk you took, but as a youth you do sense that life renders you powerless by dragging you back to it, breath upon breath breath in an endless capitulation to biological routine, and that the human will to control is as much about asserting power over your own body as exercising it on others.
“He Who Fears The Wolf” Karin Fossum
“Badger Games” Jon A. Jackson
“Cloudstreet” Tim Winton
“The Cadence of Grass” Thomas McGuane
“My name is quite close to yours, Evan. My name is Evelyn.”
As she said this, she felt the room grow distant and time awkwardly slow. She couldn’t for the moment understand why saying her own name aloud made her loneliness so evident that it nearly choked her. Now all funny thoughts had fled. She looked at her young dance partner and wondered if he yet understood that all the cures for loneliness failed, that it was a chronic state and that anything used to anesthetize it turned into its own problem. Yes, she thought, we’ll spare Evan that.
The lead singer came rushing across the stage, bent back from the waist, madly waving a handkerchief, his mouth a distorted trumpet. A sort of codpiece slid halfway down one thigh as angry quarter notes from the guitarist drove him back to the microphone screeching, “Don’t need no, Don’t got no –!” while he raped the stand that held it up. This provided an awkward background that Evelyn suddenly thought was funny. At that same moment, when the front door opened and snow flew in, the singer took time out from his throes to actually frown at the weather.
That did it. Evelyn doubled in laughter. Indeed, Evan had to hold her up, even as she recognized this as hysteria and a ghastly form of release. But it was contagious: the dancing stopped. Right after the fraught singer had concluded several pacts with the devil, the air went out of the room. The lead guitarist peered through the lights furtively. The drummer’s blurred arms no longer seemed part of him as he stole furtive glances at the audience. Evelyn’s hysteria was a conquering force. The singer seemed strangely platitudinous when, so soon after his arrangements with Satan, he demanded of the crowd, “Tou want to try this? Anybody like to get up here and show us how good they are?” An unshaven brute in the audience, beer bottle brandished by its neck, his hat on backward, informed the singer that he was “crazier than a shithouse rat.”
“The Undertaker’s Wife” Loren D. Estleman
“Rough Country” John Sandford
“Duplicate Keys” Jane Smiley
“City of Masks” Daniel Hecht
Most human beings thought of physical space as delimited: a room, four walls, ceiling and floor, earth below, sky above. Simple. But in reality we’re walking around blind, he thought. We’re groping our way in an infinite place full of unimaginable happenings. A ghost makes us uncomfortably aware of how tiny and how blind we are, how strange the universe is how right there its unseen dimensions are.
The Wolf was a loup-garou that terrorized the swamps. He could lope through the night over land or water or swamp and turn into a man or a wolf at will. The scariest picture was when he was halfway between. When he came to the house of his victim, he became as stealthy as a shadow and tool great pleasure in stalking his unknowing victim. Before he struck, he’d whisper the name of his intended prey at door cracks and keyholes.
“Snow Angels” James Thompson
“San Miguel” T. C. Boyle
“War Trash” Ha Jin
To be able to function in a war, an officer was expected to view his men as abstract figures so that he could utilize and sacrifice them without any hesitation or qualms. The same abstraction was supposed to take place among the rank and file too – to us every American serviceman must be a devil, whereas to them, every one of us must be a Red. Without such obliteration of human particularities, how could one fight mercilessly? When a general evaluates the outcome of a battle, he thinks in numbers – how many casualties the enemy has suffered in comparison with the losses of his own army. The larger a victory is, the more people have been turned into numerals. This is the crime of war: it reduces real human beings to abstract numbers.
Another question troubled me for some time. Were the arts groups’ creative activities truly artistic, as they claimed? In the beginning I had respected the composers and the painters immensely. Unable to play any instrument, I’d look up to whoever could saw a tune out on a fiddle even if he played with assumed bravura. But before too long I noticed that there was a crudeness un whatever they did, as though the idea of perfection had never entered their minds. I daresay this crudeness originated from their utilitarian conception of the arts. They created every piece of work merely for its usefulness, like that of a weapon: each was made simply for the purpose of rousing people and boosting the fighting spirit. These creations had an instantaneous feel, a dash of spontaneity, but invariably ended in a slipshod fashion. Most of the time a man would finish writing a song or a poem at one go, and he’d be proud of completing it “without changing a single word,” and even brag about it, as though to assert that the work had come purely from inspiration, which was a mark of genius. Patience and refinement were alien to these young men, who couldn’t see that art didn’t have to be useful or serve a purpose other than entertainment. Their works could be powerful at times, but never beautiful. So I began to have deep reservations about their efforts and sometimes felt they were just wasting their energy and time. No doubt these men were talented, ingenious, and passionate, but they always stopped at the point to which their cleverness led them, not going beyond into complexity and subtlety, not to mention depth. As a result, however extravagantly they used their talent, they remained like smart hacks, blind to their own shoddiness. There was no way to explain my thoughts to them without risking my neck, so I kept quiet.
“Solar” Ian McEwan
“Deadman” Jon A. Jackson
“Wickett’s Remedy” Myla Goldberg
“The Hypnotist” Lars Kepler
“The Ice Princess” Camilla Lackberg
“The Time Traveler’s Wife” Audrey Niffenegger
“World Made By Hand” James Howard Kunstler
“A Free Life” Ha Jin
The speech annoyed Nan, whose illusion of this master poet quickly vanished. He wondered why Mr. Chu had let national pride supersede the value of his poetry, as though patriotism and literary arts should be judged by the same criteria. As an accomplished poet, he should see that the function of his poetry was to transcend history and to outlast politics and that a poet should be responsible mainly for the language he used. Instead, he was haranguing like an official in charge of propaganda.
“Known to Evil” Walter Mosley
“Hard Rain Falling” Don Carpenter
This is Don Carpenter’s (1931-1995) first novel published in 1966, now being reprinted by New York Review Classics. He reminds me of the early work of Hubert Selby; tough, honest writing.
As for the true crimes of his life, the crime of being born without parents, the crime of being physically strong and quick, the crime of not having a puritan conscience, the crime of existing in a society in which he and everybody else permitted crime without rising up in outrage: well, he was purely and perfectly guilty here, too, as was everybody else. So that didn’t matter, either. The trick was to keep from being “punished” for his “crimes.” He decided that to fight the authorities, to balk, would in a sense be admitting that they were right and he was wrong. But of course there wasn’t any right or wrong. So it was better to cooperate, to do anything that would lessen his punishment.
“Summerland” Michael Chabon
“Four sides,” Ethan said. “Four worlds! It’s a map of the tree!”
“That’s right,” Thor said. “The white one is the Winterlands. The green one is the Summerlands. The brown one is the Middling. And the blue one is –.”
“The Gleaming. Which is blank. Because no one knows what happens there. Or how you get there. Or even who lives there.”
“I know who lives there,” Thor said. “Old Mr. Wood. And his brothers and sisters. The – what Mr. Rideout called the Tahmahnawis. The spirits. The gods. They – they’re all up there, or over there, or in there. In the Gleaming. They’re trapped there. Yeah. Yeah, Coyote did it. There’s a – there’s a whole story, like, a song, or a poem or I can’t quite…” He shook his head. “Its all about how Coyote tricked them. Got them in there and sealed the Gate. And now it’s been sealed ever since. And none of them, not even old Mr. Wood, can get out. It’s part of all this…data that seems to have been…uploaded to my head since we got to the Summerlands.”
“City of Bones" Michael Connelly
"Depths” Henning Mankell
"I See You Everywhere" Julia Glass
Oh Lucy, I wanted to say, you are a young girl. I felt so moved by the look on her face that I couldn't quite answer. I asked, "Well, are you thinking of, like, revolutionizing your tastes?"
"Revolution is no longer a possibility," she said. "My tastes, like my bones, fossilized decades ago. Reach a certain age and you are obliged to become an anthropologist. It's the only way to ignore that the rest of the world regards you as an artifact, that your culture has faded beyond the horizon, leaving you adrift on your tiny, solitary, life raft." She said this without self-pity or sadness. I'd lived with her for a month and hadn't stopped to think, till then, that she no longer had any friends her own age. Not a one.
Every so often Ralph's gaze shifts to the sky outside the window, over my head, but I know he is also intent on our conversation. "All 'good work,' " he says, "feels foolish at times. Naive and stupid. That's part of the territory. She knew that."
And how about the work that really is foolish? I think. How about parsing and praising the glories of art? Isn't art, strictly speaking, just another form of human excess, even waste? Shouldn't it seem pointless once you think your whole world's been changed by (for example) cancer, then by your own sibling's death, then by a terrorist act? Is it "good" to go on doing the same old oblivious thing, to still enjoy it no matter what? Does perseverance steady the world?
"I don't know what she knew, if you want to know the truth," I say. "I want it not to matter, but it does."
"Of course it matters."
"Daniel" Henning Mankell
"Netherland" Joseph O'Neill
In this ever-shifting, all-enveloping discussion, my orientation was poor. I could not tell where I stood. If pressed to state my position, I would confess the truth: that I had not succeeded in arriving at a position. I lacked necessary powers of perception and certainty and, above all, foresight. The future retained the impenetrable character I had always attributed to it. Would American security be improved or worsened by taking over Iraq? I did not know, because I had no information about the future purposes and capacities of terrorists or, for that matter, American administrations; and even if I were to have such information, I could still not hope to know how things would turn out. Did I know if the death and pain caused by the war in Iraq would or would not exceed the miseries that might likely flow from leaving Saddam Hussein in power? No. Could I say whether the right to autonomy of the Iraqi people – a problematic national entity, by all accounts – would be enhanced or diminished by an American regime change? I could not. Did Iraq have weapons of mass destruction that posed a real threat? I had no idea; and to be truthful, and to touch on my real difficulty, I had little interest. I didn’t really care.
"Touch" Elmore Leonard
"Side-Tracked" Henning Mankell
"I started as a 15-year old trainee at one of the Stockholm newspapers," he said. "That was in the spring of 1955. There was an old night editor there named Ture Svanberg. He was almost as big as drunk as I am now. But he was meticulous at his work. And he was a genius at writing headlines that sold papers. He wouldn't stand for anything sloppily written. Once he flew into such a rage over a story that he tore up the copy and ate the pieces, chewed the paper and swallowed it. Then he said: 'This isn't coming out as anything but shit.' It was Svanberg who taught me to be a journalist. He used to say that there were two kinds of reporters. 'The first kind digs in the ground for the truth. He stands down in the hole shoveling out dirt. But up on top there's another man, shoveling the dirt back in. There's always a duel going on between these two. The fourth estate's eternal test of strength for dominance. Some journalists want to expose and reveal things, others run errands for those in power and help conceal what's really happening.'"
"Mountain Time" Ivan Doig
"Prodigal Summer" Barbara Kingsolver
"Bucking the Sun" Ivan Doig
"Driving the Rim" Thomas McGuane
My sojourn in the Rust Belt certainly made me appreciate my someplace more than before I left. We had beautiful mountain ranges that kept their snow all summer, though very few of those of us who lived there ever went into them. We thought only out-of-towners went into the mountains, as most Westerners lived in town and were town people like anywhere else. My father used to say that the only thing that set us apart was cheap electricity. Some of that had changed of course, once we learned to keep outsiders from glomming our assets by appreciating them more than we had. It had been a long time since we proudly pointed out that you couldn’t eat scenery. That sentiment belonged to an earlier generation, the ones with “Treasure State” license plates nailed to the garage. Tell someone today you can’t eat scenery, and they’ll out you in the old folk’s home. Where I come from, the wind was the big issue, until you figured out the wind was the price of space.
I had never been anywhere as noisy as Florida. Airplanes went back and forth overhead, people sped around on various motorized things, and horn honking was as popular as in New York. The leaf blowers roared from sunup to sundown. That many people with no good reason to be there filled the place with a kind of giddiness, not just everyday giddiness but the kind that precedes despair and catastrophe. It was once to be warm, but the television was dominated by weather reports holding out expectation for more warmth or a rootless fear of cooling. The local weatherman, a black homosexual in a Palm Beach suit, could say, “Some chance of precip” with the air of a man headed to the gallows. Inability to control the weather fed disquiet, since, except for the weather, most would rather be anyplace but here.
Staying in one place long enough, you saw the rise and fall of domestic arrangements and the physical appurtenances that accompanied them. At a certain hormonal stage, tempered by moderate practical knowledge, the couple formed and began to construct the cheese ball. The cheese ball consisted of a building known as the home, the transportation equipment, the sustenance gear including heating and cooking facilities, the investments and liquidity that kept the cheese ball from rolling backwards and ruining its owners; then, in most cases, the eventual collapse of the agreement that had generated the cheese ball int eh first place and the subsequent delinquencies of the cheese itself into its component parts, to be reconstituted int eh generation of new cheese balls by less-fortunate couples or, in some cases, the complete vanishing of the cheese ball entirely.
"When the Devil Holds the Candle" Karin Fossum
"Dirt Music" Tim Winton
He bangs away until he finds a sound. An E, he thinks, but it’s only a guess. Gets himself a four-four beat with a bit of shellgrit footstomp for color and suddenly there’s a groove, a little room in there for feeling. Boom-boom-boom-boom. It’s the righteous one-chord boogie of Mister John Lee Hooker. It’s Long John Baldry. It’s Elmore James and Sleepy John Estes. It’s a jaw harp wangling down the tree into the sandstone just begging for bottleneck and banjo. Okay not bluegrass but browngrass at least and the rest of you has to sing to it; there’s just no way you can’t. Makes you laugh, dammit. Gets your teeth buzzing. Boom-booma-boom-boo! Just one note. One, one, one, one. Yes Bill. You Bill. One command. One joy. One desire. One curse. One weight. One measure. One King. One God. One Law. One, one, one, one – you go up and down your note like a pup up and down a dune until you don’t feel your festering bites or your oozy eyes or sun-scoured neck, until you’re not one moment empty, nor one bit lost or one breath scared. You’re so damn far into ones you’re not one anything. You’re a resonating multiplication. You’re a crowd. You’re the stones at Georgie’s back and the olives shaken to the dirt at her feet. All the hot sweet night you’re the hairs on the back of her arm.
"Saturday" Ian McEwan
How restful it must have been, in another age, to be prosperous and believe that an all-knowing supernatural force had allotted people to their stations in life. And not see how the belief served your own prosperity – a form of anosognosia, a useful psychiatric term for a lack of awareness of one’s own condition. Now we think we do see, how do things stand? After the ruinous experiments of the lately deceased century, after so much vile behavior, so many deaths, a queasy agnosticism has settled around these matters of justice and redistributed wealth. No more big idea. The world must improve, if at all, by tiny steps. People mostly take an existential view – having to sweep the streets for a living looks like simple bad luck. It’s not a visionary age. The streets need to be clean. Let the unlucky enlist.
"Cities of the Plain" Cormac McCarthy
Men imagine that the choices before them are theirs to make. But we are free to act only upon what is given. Choice is lost in the maze of generations and each act in that maze is itself an enslavement for it voids every alternative and binds one ever more tightly into the constraints that make a life. If the dead man could have forgiven his enemy for whatever wrong was done to him all would have been otherwise. Did the son set out to avenge his father? Did the dead man sacrifice his son? Our plans are predicted upon a future unknown to us. The world takes its form hourly by a weighing of things at hand, and while we may seek to puzzle out that form we have no way to do so. We have only God’s law, and the wisdom to follow it if we will.
"Wise Blood" Flannery O'Connor
"The Long-Legged Fly" James Sallis
“Big Joe Williams.” Full screen, then quarter screen above and to the left of Corduroy Steel-rim. “He once told an interviewer that all these young guys had it wrong. They were trying to get inside the blues, he said, when what the blues was, was a way of letting you get outside – outside the sixteen or eighteen hours you had to work every day, outside where you lived and what you and your children had to look forward to, outside the way you just plain hurt all the time.”
Very low behind him, some sprightly finger-picked ragtime from Blind Blake, segueing into Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night.” “Blue, then, developed, ultimately, as another form of dissembling, another way of not saying what was meant. As a ‘safe’ way of dealing with anger, pain, disillusion, rage, loss. The bluesman singing that his baby’s down left him again is not talking about the end of a relationship, he is bemoaning the usurpation of his entire life and self.”
"Cry Me A River" T. R. Pearson
Clifford hadn’t bothered to carry with him the generator manual since he was after all a guy and the generator was a mechanized contraption, and he just guessed guys like him could manipulate a contraption like that without a book to instruct and illuminate him. He’d made the thing work well enough at the chief’s lawn party, but he could not in truth recall how in fact he’d managed to do it as there were valves to shut and dials to set and switches to throw. He figured it would come to him shortly, was waiting there on the shoulder still for it to come when Ellis, who had appreciably more guy to him even half-drunk than Clifford ever would stone sober, manipulated the valves and set the dials and threw the switches and choked the carburetor and pulled the starter cord and brought thereby that contraption to life.
My neighbor upstairs is a homosexual who calls himself Desmond though I know from his mother that his name is instead Bob. Desmond is not a bashful and retiring sort of fellow and seems quite proud of his orientation, incorporates the news of it into every introduction he makes for himself, announces his name and identifies his alignment as stoutly and forthrightly as if he were maybe just a Freemason or a practicing Republican. Desmond is not a dainty manner of creature and I evermore hear him stalking about overhead, pounding the nappy carpet with his bell-peen feet. He can never seem to light and linger in one place or another but wanders and circulates most of the evening hours until I guess he gives out and collapses at last. Desmond owns a pair of tufted boudoir chairs, a couple of claw footed tables, an empire settee and a carved mahogany bed along with a handsome armoire where he keeps his stereo and his extensive collection of recordings, cast albums chiefly from musical productions that sound through the ceiling to have been composed by organ grinders.
I bought a little TV at a tag sale and it had there at the outset a bright, crisp picture, but come one Saturday afternoon I wrenched off the antenna trying to bring in the bowling which I took as a sign and a visitation and concluded on my own that a fellow who’s watch people bowl on television probably doesn’t deserve an antenna or have much claim to decent reception. It wasn’t even like I could so much as hear the thing in the first place due to Desmond upstairs whose schedule seemed often enough to coincide with my own. Whenever I was disposed to lay about and watch some species of idiocy on my TV Desmond would invariably grow inspired to tour his premises at a trot, race sometimes between rooms or up and back along the hallway and raise on occasion his voice with the cast members who would sing alone or sing in pairs or join all up and sing as a chorus with near as much modulation and charm as a sack full of pie pans dragged along the ground.
Mr. Shumate, however, in the tradition of poetical sorts the world over, was far too transported by the delicate beauty of his declamations to take much notice of their anesthetic effects which allowed him in time to become, in the hoary tradition of poets, friendless and solitary but for the occasional company of versifiers otherwise of which there were assorted local specimens who were prone to exchange sumptuous poetical phrases like mortar rounds. Blessed consequently with the disposition and the occasion both to work largely undistracted by regular human commerce, Mr. Shumate began to enlarge the scope of his endeavors and progressed presently beyond mere lines and phrases, improved his leisure by cobbling together entire stanzas and full-scale poems outright.
"The Outlander" Gil Adamson
Even here, solitude was impossible, as if the world were a nerve-jangling carnival where grotesqueries might swing out on springs and cackle at him – lost and wild girls beckoning, dead men aping his own likely future. He stepped wide around the shallow lump, wide and quiet, and went on quietly, as if some unseen spirit hung in the trees, watching. Then he started toward higher ground. Moving not north or west, but up, higher, toward the peaks. Away from man and woman. Away from life itself.
They came from a family of fifteen boys, an incredible assault on the laws of probability. The mother dead of exhaustion when the youngest was two – lucky for her, the family wisdom went, otherwise she would have just gone on having boys. How many could she bear? As with any family of more than four children, the older ones looked after the younger ones. Most of the boys knew how to sew and change a diaper, and they all knew how to cook, though badly.
"Crow Lake" Mary Lawson
He told me that all creatures, from the single-celled to the most complex, the main purpose in life was to reproduce. I remember being puzzled. It seemed strange that something should exist only in order to cause something else to exist. It was unsatisfactory, somehow. Rather pointless, like traveling for the sake of it.
"The Bartender's Tale" Ivan Doig
"In the Garden of the Beasts" Erik Larson
"The Troubled Man" Henning Mankell
"The History of Love" Nicole Krauss
Bird asked what a paleontologist was and Mom said that if he took a complete, illustrated guide to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, shred it into a hundred pieces, cast them into the wind from the museum's steps, let a few weeks pass, went back and scoured Fifth Avenue and Central Park for as many surviving scraps as he could find, then tried to reconstruct the history of painting, including schools, styles, genres, and names of painters from his scraps, that would be like being a paleontologist. The only difference is that paleontologists study fossils in order to figure out the origin of life. Every fourteen-year-old should know something about where she comes from, my mother said. It wouldn't do to go around without the faintest clue of how it all began.
"Night Crew" John Sanford
"Blood Ties" Jennifer Lash
Truth was, she felt, such a transitory thing. One man's certainty might well be another's incredulity. The only dimension civilization depended on, was a kind of calm; the strength of order; the presence of coherent patterns; the regulation of chaos. Too many questions, too much acknowledgment of alternatives, other angles, other points of view, might lead to fresh chaos and greater disorder. It was the way to anarchy, to the blind, blood-letting pursuit of that wild freedom advocated by the ill-educated mob who sought only for themselves, totally disregarding the balance, the complete picture.
"After Silence" Jonathan Carroll
One of my favorite "new" authors. Also recently read White Apples and Outside the Dog Museum. Highly intelligent and swiftly moving fiction.
"Sunset Limited" James Lee Burke
My experience has been that the physical and emotional transformation that eventually comes aborning in every bully never takes but one form. The catalyst is fear and its effects are like a flame on candle wax. The sneer around the mouth and the contempt and disdain in the eyes melt away and are replaced by a self-effacing smile, a confession of an inconsequential weakness, and a saccharine affectation of goodwill in the voice. The disingenuousness is like oil exuded from the skin; there's an actual stink in the clothes.
"Where You Once Belonged" Kent Haruf
"Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children" Ransom Riggs
"White Apples" Jonathan Carroll
After Coco scattered some tiles on the bar in front of her friend Isabelle –
"No one can ever leave their design alone once they've started tinkering with it, and everyone does. If you move this tile, now that one needs realigning. Then another. Your whole life you're moving your pieces around and around, always trying to get the big picture just right. Sometimes it looks okay for a while, it looks perfect. But then you get older, or the things in your life change, and suddenly the pieces need to be shuffled again. Again and again, like what you're doing now."
Isabelle had been staring at her design. Looking up, she saw Coco put one of the unused tiles in her mouth and start chewing it. She picked up another and ate that too. After she'd swallowed, Coco continued talking.
"There are two mosaics. The first is the life that you create and live. When it's finished, that life is placed into a greater mosaic. The one where everything goes at the end."
"That Old Ace In the Hole" Annie Proulx
LaVon snorted. “Forget that pioneer and first-settler stuff,” she said. “They didn't have much to do with town locations. It was all the rayroads. The rayroad corporations said where the towns was goin a go and that's where they went. Nothin a do with pioneers. It was all corporate goals and money and business. Then they sold lots and hoped it would all work out. The rayroads didn't care about the towns – they was after the long-term wheat and cattle freight charges. They had plans for the whole region, the whole state – the whole country – and they run things. What the rayroads done is break things up.Used a be a special kind of panhandle region here from Dodge City to Mobeetie to Old Tascoa, all tied together by the trails. I agree there was some towns away from the rayroad that people started, like Cowboy Rose, but most of them was out in the boondocks and they wasn't worth much. Funny, now it's those little places that people like. A course Cowboy Rose got the spur track in later but it never started out as a rayroad town. Rayroad towns was strictly about money – business street, depot, bank, couple a merchants. Not much else. It was a different place then. But everything changes.”
Headaches, sore throat, dizziness. Them hogs are pumped full a antibiotics and growth hormones. Eat that pork and it gets in you. Bacteria and viruses adapt to the antibiotics so the day is comin when if we get sick the antibiotics can't help.
He came out of the bakery with his warm sack of cookies and drove to the tiny park with its shade trees, where he planned to enjoy the first half dozen. He found an empty bench near the playground, swept the fallen leaves and twigs from it and, while he ate the cookies, watched two or three preschoolers play, their mothers sitting on the concrete curbing around the sandpit. An older girl, certainly old enough to be in school, perhaps the fifth grade, was twirling around a maypole affair, clutching a leather strap attached to a nylon cord. Each time she swung herself off the ground for a spin she cried, 'Wheee!' in a high, put-on voice. He was instantly, with the speed of a slammed door, transported to some swing in his childhood, a tire swing tied to the branch of a shady tree and himself swinging and saying 'Wheee!' in exactly the same way, saying it, not out of glee, but because it was what you said when you swung around, and remembered himself alone and marked for solitude, beneath his feet the oval of hard dirt where the grass was worn away, feeling sick from the motion of the swing but still saying 'Wheee!' as thought he were having fun, although there was no one to see nor hear him. He could smell the tree and the tire with its little slosh of water from the last time it had rained, and a very bad feeling of desolation, of aching loneliness, flooded through him and into the taste of the cookies, which he knew he would never like again.
"Man With An Axe" Jon A. Jackson
Jon Jackson has become one of my favorite detective murder-mystery novelists. This one is the 7th in a series that features Detroit Detective Sergeant "Fang" Mulheisen. I'm sure I've missed some continuity so now it's time to find the first six. Lot's of Detroit references and it's also helpful if you have some knowledge of jazz history. Why is this? How can it be? Is it just that most of us have such an unassuageable hunger for community that even a squad of avowed mercenary athletes, all dressed up in the same costume and proclaiming that they are the Detroit team, suffices to bind us into a semblance of unity? Is it because we followed the fortunes of the team on radio and television and in the papers from our youth on, so that even when the names of the individual heroes change the corporate image remains and that image is cloaked in our childhood dreams and heartbreaks and longings, to the extent that at the age of forty, or fifty, or even ninety, we pick up a newspaper and automatically look to see how the Tigers, or the Red Wings, are doing?
"Freedomland" Richard Price
Detective story. Movie made from it. I can't seem to get enough of these quick read whodunits…
Quote of the Day
From a previously unpublished excerpt of a 1978 interview with Susan Sontag by Jonathan Cott (Harper's, Aug 2013):
Sontag: "…Somebody once asked Picasso why he never traveled abroad. He went from Spain to Paris and then moved to the south of France, but he never went anywhere. And he said: I travel in my head. I do think there are those choices, and perhaps you don't feel them so much when you're young – and probably you shouldn't – but later on, if you want to go beyond something that is simply good or promising to the real fulfillment and risk-taking of a big body of work, you have to stay home."
"False Friend" Myla Goldberg
"Sudden Prey" John Sanford
"Three Junes" Julia Glass
Of the virtues his father preached, discretion began to seem the most rewarding: It kept people guessing and sometimes, by default, admiring.
"All I did for years, all I remember doing, was practice. Practice: such a limp word for the context. You do not, if you are serious, practice your instrument. You flay, eviscerate, excoriate the thing until it surrenders its thingness, until its carapace cracks open and it bleeds. Even a voice. You belabor it until any sound but the sound of that instrument is, to your ears, gelatinous babble.” As he lectured me, he gazed imperiously at a billboard showing a tight-bodied boy in underpants that were tighter still. Mal's face glowed blue, then red, then orange as trade names winked above the avenue before us.
"Before the Frost" Henning Mankell
"Life Is Elsewhere" Milan Kundera
Revolution and youth are closely allied. What can a revolution promise adults? To some it brings disgrace, to others favor. But even that favor is questionable, for it affects only the worse half of life, and in addition to advantages it also entails uncertainty, exhausting activity and upheaval of settled habits.
Youth is substantially better off: it is not burdened by guilt, and the revolution can accept young people in toto. The uncertainty of revolutionary times is an advantage for youth, because it is the world of the fathers that is challenged. How exciting is the entry into the age of maturity over the shattered ramparts of the adult world!
"Bee Season" Myla Goldberg
Aaron's friendships up to this point have been circumstantial, fellow targets and picked-lasts banding together for safety's sake. Conversations have been confined to sanctioned topics: sports, girls, television, school. Any slight departure from this limited docket could open up the potential for further singling out, a rick that none of them, already at the bottom rung of the social ladder, dared take. When Aaron was younger, a friend was anyone he played with at recess, a good friend anyone with whom he also shared lunch. Only recently has Aaron realized that he knows as little about the remaindered boys he calls friends as they know about him. The years they have known each other have buttressed, rather than eased, their conversational boundaries. Rules established long ago have become the fabric of the friendships themselves. Aaron cannot imagine asking the religious views of Marvin, a compulsive reader of fantasy paperbacks featuring beasts and busty virgins on their covers. Or Steven, who brushed his teeth after every meal and wears his headgear in school, if he's ever felt God. He knows too well what would happen should he interrupt a cafeteria comparison of NBA coaching styles with a question about meditation – the silence, the strange looks, the unspoken excitement that one of their number had opened himself up for attack. Thought the benefits of Aaron's membership in this group are limited to a regular lunch table and someone with whom to split a bucket of popcorn at the next Superman sequel, it is better than complete lonerdom, that lowest caste forced to scramble for unoccupied cafeteria seats, suffering the slings and arrows of the other diners. It is better than having to see a movie alone. Aaron had comforted himself with the idea that college would offer the opportunity for an improved him to gain a new set of friends.
"The Snowman" Jo Nesbø
"84" Haruki Murakami
On October 6, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by radical Islamic terrorists. Aomame recalled the event with renewed pity for Sadat. She had always been fond of Sadat's bald head, and she felt only revulsion for any kind of religious fundamentalists. The very thought of such people's intolerant worldview, their inflated sense of their own superiority, and their callous imposition of their own beliefs on others was enough to fill her with rage.
Again Ushikawa raised his hand to stop Tengo. It was a small hand, but the fingers were short and stubby. “Now, now, please don't get worked up over this. I don't mean any harm. All I am trying to say is that selling off one's talents and time in dribs and drabs to make ends meet never produces good results. It may sound presumptuous of me to say this, but your talent is a genuine diamond in the rough, and I don't want to see it wasted and ruined on pointless things."
"No need to explain," Tengo said. If you can't understand it without an explanation, you can't understand it with an explanation.
Whenever the sixth tune on the flip side of the LP, 'Atlanta Blues,' began, she would grab one of Tengo's body parts and praise Bigard's concise, exquisite solo, which was sandwiched between Armstrong's song and his trumpet solo. 'Listen to that! Amazing – that first, long wail like a little child's cry! What is it – surprise? Overflowing joy? An appeal for happiness? It turns into a joyful sigh and weaves its way through a beautiful river of sound until it's smoothly absorbed into some perfect, unknowable place. There! Listen! Nobody else can play such thrilling solos. Jimmy Noone, Sidney Bechet, Pee Wee Russell, Benny Goodman: they're all great clarinetists, but none of them can create such perfectly sculptured works of art.
"Outside the Dog Museum" Jonathan Carroll
Somehow the noise suddenly moved a step closer. As if one moment it was out there, the next here, inches away, close enough to feel its breath on my face. Although my eyes were closed, I felt a kind of vertigo. My brain didn't even have to click in before my stomach wailed, 'Get back!' Only here it wasn't fear of falling from a great height, it was because noise had so totally invaded and taken over. Perhaps we need five senses because singly they're too intense and concentrated. Hearing alone, for example, would drive us mad. Life lived only through sound. That's what vertigo is – suddenly life goes only through the eyes and it's too much.
I don't know about Morton, but the ten days we spent together in Zell am See were some of the best of my life. As an adult, I have never had a real man friend, and I use that term in all the rough and tumble, us pals, drink into the night, talk about women, spill your male guts way it was intended. As friends, women interest me far more than men. Women's minds are more intricate and labyrinthine, their perceptions deeper, and what they tell you is generally new stuff. Male friendships are ham and eggs, toast and coffee meals. Men-Women friendships are an exotic, foreign taste – delicious in odd ways, like fresh paprika, like fennel.
"Listen, I want to tell you something last. My speech is coming apart, everything is, but stay with me. I'll try to make it clear enough to understand for you. Mankind's always paid too much attention to the dead. It's been a fundamental part of life itself. Don't you do this, Harry. Forget the dead. Forget dying. It was never part of God's design. Man invented death, and so long as it continues to fascinate him, God allows it to remain." The next time the big man tried, he was able to get up again and make it to the door. "Threaten the dead. Make them afraid with what you create. Any man who loves his work forgets the dead, even his own. Any human work that is finished shows them again how incomplete they are."
"The Leopard" Jo Nesbø
"The Valkyries" Paulo Coehlo
"A Dog's Ransom" Patricia Highsmith
"The Phantom Tollbooth" Norton Juster
"SILENCE," suggested the king. "Now, young man, what can you do to entertain us? Sing songs? Tell stories? Compose sonnets? Juggle plates? Do tumbling tricks? Which is it?"
"I can't do any of those things," admitted Milo.
"What an ordinary little boy," commented the king. "Why, my cabinet members can do all sorts of things. The duke here can make mountains out of molehills. The minister splits hairs. The count makes hay while the sun shines. The earl leaves no stone unturned. And the undersecretary," he finished ominously, "hangs by a thread. Can't you do anything at all?"
"An Echo In the Bone" Diane Gabaldon
"Life" Keith Richards
Even for non-guitar players, it's worth trying to describe what he does. At the 5 chord, instead of making the conventional barre chord, the B7th, which requires a little effort with the left hand, he wouldn't bother with the B at all. He'd leave the open A note ringing and just slide a finger up the D string to a 7th. Believe me, it's the laziest, sloppiest single thing you can do in that situation, and (b) one of the most brilliant musical inventions of all time. But that is how Jimmy Reed managed to play the same song for thirty years and get away with it. I learned how to do it from a white boy, Bobby Goldsboro, who had a couple of hits in the '60s. He used to work with Jimmy Reed and said he'd show me the tricks. I knew all the other moves, but I never knew that 5 chord move until he showed it to me, on a bus somewhere in Ohio, in the mid-'60s. He said, “I spent years on the road with Jimmy Reed. He does that 5 chord like this.” “Shit! That's all it is?” “That's it, motherfucker. You live and learn.” Suddenly, out of a bright sky, you get it! That haunting droning note. Absolute disregard for any musical rules whatsoever. Also absolute disregard for the audience or anybody else. “It goes like this.” In a way, we admired Jimmy more for that than his playing. It was the attitude. And also very haunting songs. They might be based on a seemingly simplistic bedrock, but you try 'Little Rain.'
The beauty, the majesty of the five-string open G tuning for an electric guitar is that you've only got three note – the other two are repetitions of each other an octave apart. It's tuned GDGBD. Certain strings run through the whole song, so you get a drone going all the time, and because it's electric they reverberate. Only three notes, but because of these different octaves, if fills the whole gap between bass and top notes with sound. It gives you this beautiful resonance and ring. I found working with open tunings that there's a million places you don't need to put your fingers. The notes are there already. You can leave certain strings wide open. It's finding the spaces in between that makes open tuning work. And if you're working the right chord, you can hear this other chord going on behind it, which actually you're not playing. It's there. It defies logic. And it's just laying there saying, “Fuck me.” And it's a matter of the same old cliché´in that respect. It's what you leave out that counts. Let it go so that one note harmonizes off the other. And so even though you've now changed your fingers to another position, that note is still ringing. And you can even let it hang there. It's called the drone note. Or at least that's what I call it. The sitar works on similar lines – sympathetic ringing, or what they call the sympathetic strings. Logically it shouldn't work, but when you play it, and the note keeps ringing even though you've now changes to another chord, you realize that that is the root note of the whole thing you're trying to do. It's the drone.
"My Friend Dahmer" Derf Backderf
"Naked Prey" John Sanford
"Headhunters" Jo Nesbø
"The Forgery of Venus" Michael Gruber
"I was thinking the robber barons of America or the aristocrats of Europe. And the artists themselves have always been freebooters, living on the edge of society. When art becomes domesticated into a branch of show business, it becomes flaccid and dull, as now."
"Sorry, but that's nonsense, like Harry Lime's remark about Switzerland and the cuckoo clock in The Third Man Velazquez had a steady job –"
"Yes, and in his lifetime he did fewer than hundred fifty paintings. Rembrandt, living on the edge, did over five hundred."
"And Vermeer, who was even more on the edge, did forty. I'm sorry, it won't was, Krebs. You can't generalize about what kind of temperament and what social conditions produce great painting. It's a mystery."
I could see he was starting to get a little steamed to have his pet theories exploded like this, but it's always gotten me steamed to hear theories about how art happens dumped on my head by people who never handled a brush. But then he shrugged, and smiled, and said, "Well, perhaps you're right. It is a life I am used to, and we all tell ourselves stories to justify ourselves to others, because we wish to have some company in these little scenarios. But I see it is not to be, you have a head as hard as mine. And really, it does not matter in the least, as long as you do not forget that the sword that hangs over us is harder than both our heads. Ah, good, here is our meal."
"…You ingest a drug and you experience events outside the bounds of rational explanation. Tell me, are you familiar with the theory that we have five bodies?"
"No," I said, "but I'm not sure I want to know about it, if it's going to scare me worse than I am already."
He smiled like the mad scientist in a bad movie, mock sadistically, or maybe not that mock. "Yes, so first we have the body that science and medicine deal with, the meat, the nerves and chemicals and so on. Then we have the second, the representation of the body in the mind, which does not always match the reality of the first – phantom limbs and so on – plus the sense of ourselves and the recognition that this thing also exists in others, as when we feel the loom of another person close to us or look into another's eyes."
He looked into my eyes and grinned.
"Third we have the unconscious body, the source of dreams and, we think, of creativity. It is the task of the mystics to merge the second with the third body to find the soul, as they would put it. Those who accomplish this are the only ones who are truly awake – everyone else is a robot enslaved to the mass mind, as pumped out by the media or established by social norms. Then fourth is the magical body, by which adepts can be in two places at once or walk through walls or heal the sick or curse their enemies. Finally there is the spiritual body, which Hegel called the zeitgeist. The one who can control all the other bodies and also controls history."
"You believe all this?"
He shrugged. "It's just a theory. But it does explain some things. It explains how you could become Velasquez. It helps to explain why the most cultivated and educated nation in Europe should have submitted itself happily and enthusiastically to the absolute power of an ill-bred corporal. I can tell you, Wimot, I was there, just a boy perhaps, but I was there. I felt the power. For my first years of conscious life I was living entirely in someone else's dream, and my father, who is no fool, was the same. Even now, it is hard for me to believe that such power was entirely of this world. And when it was over, as soon as he blew out his brains, I felt a sense of release, of waking out of a long dream, and every German who was conscious at the time will tell you the same story. We looked around at the ruins and asked ourselves, how did this happen? How did ordinary Germans do such terrible things? Some people have argued that Germans are naturally brutal and undemocratic, at your knees or at your throat, as they say, but this is unsatisfying. The French terrified Europe for far longer than the Germans ever did, and they are always held up as the model of civilization, and the Scandinavians were monsters of destruction for three centuries and are all lambs up there now and don't hurt a fly. And besides that, if we are naturally so awful, how come we are today the least militaristic nation on earth? So my point is that, if such a mysterious and unexpected thing could happen to a whole nation, I think that when a man tells me he is living for periods in a different time and having the thoughts of a man long dead, I say, why not?"
"The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian" Lawrence Block
"Gob's Grief" Chris Adrian
I read The Children's Hospital a few years ago and Gob's Grief falls in the same surrealistic and allegorical method of storytelling. This one, like the other, took some time to read as I had to put it down several times for a spell and move to lighter reading material. Walt Whitman appears as one of the central characters who befriends Gob, one of the sons of radical feminist Victoria Woodhull.
"Of course I do," Walt said. "Of course I am sad. If I let it, it might consume me. His heart tore, and I wonder if it was not the accumulated burden of madness and woe that tore his heart apart as hands might tear a paper bag. Sometimes I think I can hear him, raving and crying and dying. I can think on his life – what it might have been if madness hadn't claimed him, and I can love that lost life as I can love Andrew's lost life, and grieve for him. A person could live his whole life like that, in service to grief. You've said as much yourself. What does it do? It will not bring them back, to hollow yourself out, to crush your own heart from loneliness and spite. My friend, it does not bring them back."
Walt liked these words less and less as he spoke them, because they seemed conventional and cowardly and stupid, and at odds with his own experience. Hadn't Hank come back to him, in a sense?
Surely, said Hank, Surely I did. And Gob said, "It might, too."
…He was still a physician and a photographer, but though he still labored at these professions, they were no longer his work.
…It's the greatest open secret, that death will take everyone, that every person is as transient as a shadow. Embracing this knowledge, she came to realize, was how sane people managed their grief, and she thought it had served her pretty well for as long as she remained sane. It's me it's me it's me, her impostor hand would write all through the winter, and all through the winter she'd reply, "How dare you say that?"
"Sacred" Dennis Lehane
OK, I'm on a detective novel lick right now. This could last for awhile. This one's a quick detective page-turner with recurring private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro.
"Hit and Run" Lawrence Block
…and another quick-read murder mystery with professional killer John Keller.
"The Man Who Smiled" Henning Mankell
My fifth Mankell book featuring Ystad detective Kurt Wallander. These stories are quick-paced and simply written, designed to keep you up nights until you can read no more. There are thirteen Wallander books in the series beginning with "The Pyramid" in 1999 and ending with "The Troubled Man" in 2009.
"Talk Talk" T.C. Boyle
"A Breath of Snow and Ashes" Diana Gabaldon
"A Short History of A Small Place" T.R. Pearson
"So Daddy said what in Tuesday had been your simple fiasco got elevated to an atrocity lunchtime Wednesday and then was distributed as such on the bottom half of the front page of the Tuesday Chronicle, and consequently all those people who were previously not exactly sure if a pigeon massacre was or was not an atrocity got told for certain that it was and all those people who had not even suspected that it might be also got told that it was and so at least had to consider the possibility whereas otherwise, Daddy said, they probably would have just gone around ignorant and would never even have suspected that Pinky was guilty of atrociousness. But he was, Daddy said, anyway Mrs. Ira Penn said he was right there on the bottom half of the front page of section A of the Chronicle, which is actually the only section aside from the advertising inserts which are called section B but are not a section at all and are only snuck inside of section A, according to Daddy, in order to make the Chronicle feel like fifteen cents worth of newspaper. At first, Mrs. Ira Penn said she was 'scandalized' by what Mr. Pinky Throckmorton had 'instigated,' which would be the pigeon fiasco, and then she was 'scandalized and distressed,' and then she said she was 'scandalized, distressed, and deeply saddened,' and as far as Mrs. Ira Penn saw it Neely could not yet but would soon 'fathom the myriad reverberations of the innumerable death knells sounded Tuesday last for the companions at our feet,' all of which the reporter Mr. Upchurch called 'pigeons' in parentheses. And Daddy said even though Mrs. Ira Penn could not tick off any specific reverberations right at the moment, just the hint of some on the way stirred up about half of Neely, which would be mostly the female half since not much of the male half paid any attention to Mrs. Ira Penn except for Mr. Ira Penn, who Daddy said was the sort of man who always knew what was good for him."
"And Mrs. Phillip J. King said before Mrs. Granddaddy Gottlieb and Mrs. Buster Gottlieb could draw themselves back into the kitchen and exit properly through the door a pair of drakes shot past the peak of the house and dipped below the pine trees and the two women together screamed, 'Ducks!' and Buster hollered behind them, 'Get the gun!' and Granddaddy Gottlieb rolled the comforter down below his chin and shouted, 'What Ducks?' And Mrs. Phillip J. King said Mrs. Buster Gottlieb fetched her husband's shotgun out from behind the bedroom door and stormed into the backyard with it while Mrs. Granddaddy Gottlieb grabbed up her husband's single shot rifle from the closet in the hallway and hit the porch at a gallop. Unfortunately Mrs. Granddaddy Gottlieb was not nearly so spry and sure-footed as she had once been and she stumbled somewhere between the porch planking and the first stairtread but happily managed to catch herself on the bannister and a little less happily managed to keep her hold on the rifle by the only piece of it her fingers could find to latch onto, which turned out to be the trigger, and Mrs. Phillip J. King said the gun didn't discharge into the sky exactly but more into the backyard so that Mrs. Granddaddy Gottlieb very nearly bagged her own boy Buster who in leaping wildly sideways touched off one barrel of the shotgun which did not discharge into the sky exactly either but emptied itself against the back part of the house with a tremendous racket, and Mrs. Phillip J. King said somewhere amidst the uproar and confusion Granddaddy Gottlieb, wrapped up to the neck in his comforter, stuck himself partway out of the bedroom window and with his pistol blew the topnotch out of one of the pine trees. 'I got him' Granddaddy Gottlieb hollered. 'I got the son-of-a-bitch,' and he threw his arms up over his head by way of celebration, Mrs. Phillip J. King said, which caused him to fall over frontwards partway out the window but not entirely to the ground and he hung upside-down against the siding with his thighs caught on the windowsill and Mrs. Phillip J. King said what with the lingering pneumonia Granddaddy Gottlieb was too weak-limbed to pull himself back up into the house and too weak-headed to shut up for five seconds about the duck he'd been too weak-eyed to see was not a duck at all but just a piece of pine tree. And Granddaddy Gottlieb beat the clapboard with his pistol butt and yelled to his wife to go off through the pine grove after his bird until finally he wore himself out and dozed off just as he was."
"The service commenced when Mrs. Rollie Cobb, who was the pianist at the Seventh Day Adventist Church and who played entirely by ear and mostly in ragtime, stood up from her place on the front pew and approached the commander's upright piano, which was situated just shy of the alter and somewhat to the left of it. Mrs. Cobb was probably nearly four feet tall from the bottoms of her feet to the tops of her shoulders and then was another two feet taller from the base of her neck up to where the heap of hair on her head reached its highest altitude. Understandably, then, she was not a woman of any appreciable velocity since balance was a matter of some consequence with her, so once Mrs. Cobb stood up to approach the piano she was in the process of approaching it for a measurable spell before she finally succeeded in setting herself down on the stool, and when she stabilized her head where it would sit properly upright she launched into a lively prefatory melody that gradually degenerated into 'Onward Christian Soldiers' as Mrs. Cobb got her bearings on the tempo."
"We were treated to a minute or two of coughing, sneezing, nose-blowing, and general uneasiness among the congregation once Reverend Wilkerson had returned to his chair, and following some elaborate arm waving between Mrs. Rollie Cobb at the front of the chapel and Miss Fay Dull at the back of it Mrs. Cobb got herself properly set and anchored at the piano and then assaulted the keyboard but with such a limited success that she had to break off and start in again and the second time around she got underway in fairly good form. However, Mrs. Cobb commenced to put a little pace on the melody directly and it became so frantic with embellishments and excesses that Miss Fay Dull had a difficult time cueing the sopranos and the altos, which was all she could cue since the baritones were still on the outside on the landing and could not quite see her from there. So the sopranos and the altos simply jumped aboard at the first available chink in the tune and the baritones waded in shortly thereafter and they all managed to draw together presently into what sounded very much like singing. This particular selection called for a solo and Miss Fay Dull had nominated herself, so once she choked off the competition to her satisfaction she made a fine entrance into the melody and brawled with it all the way to the refrain where the rest of the choir showed up to help her vanquish it entirely. Then they all sang together for a couple of bars before things got a little uptown in the middle and called for the baritones and sopranos to bark back and forth at each other while Miss Dull trilled away between and underneath them and Mrs. Rollie Cobb bludgeoned the whole business with some rather ponderous fingerwork. We were entertained in this fashion for what seemed an inconsiderably lengthy spell and by the time the melody began to shut down, the whole business had turned into a kind of slugfest for soprano, choir and Seventh Day Adventist and we were all pretty much relieved to see the animosities brought to a close, especially Daddy whose ears had become red as firecoals."
"Tropic of Night" Michael Gruber
"Later we had Sunday dinner. We always have some guests. Tonight's a guy named Bryan Banners and his wife, Melanie, he's an art historian, she's and anthropologist. Midwesterners both, both large and pink and blond. Banners had bought a little statue in the market. He had it with him and showed it around. It was an Ogun ax, a thin spindle of three figures in ebony, with a triangular ax blade of iron attached to the head of the topmost. Greer looked it over and said it was a nice piece & Banners asked if it was authentic. Greer said that depended on what he meant by authentic, said it was an Ekite carving from the Kwara region, but what Banners probably meant was, 'was it old or recent?' Greer said it wasn't appropriate question to ask about African art. Age = European fetish. I could see that Banners hadn't ever thought that Europeans had fetishes & he said that he only meant did it come from a tribe with an intact tradition, or was it tourist trade? Greer said that wasn't the right question either, because you could ask also if Robert Motherwell was in an intact tradition or making stuff for the trade when he sold a painting to his New York gallery.
Greer said the reason why the Africans don't fetishize antiquity is that nothing organic lasts in Africa. Old masks and statues are routinely buried and new ones are made by clans of carvers. It's the spirit, the ashe, in the thing that counts, and this particular thing os full of ashe, so it doesn't matter if it was made a hundred years ago or last Wednesday. There is a lot of junk, of course, you have to discriminate, as the locals do. Like in New York."
"His faith in the church remained the faith of a child, which is supposed to be a good thing, and his tastes remained the tastes of a boy: hot dogs, burgers, ice-cream sodas, tinkering with cars, messing around with small boats. Small children adored him, of course, except his own, although even I adored him for a time."
"The Thin Place" Kathryn Davis
"The Honorary Consul" Graham Greene
"Inanimate objects change at a faster rate than human beings. Doctor Humphries and Charley Fortnum were not noticeably different men that night than they were now; a crack in the plaster of a neglected house grows more quickly than a line on a human face, paint changes color more rapidly than hair, and a room's decay is continuous: it never comes to a temporary halt on that high plateau of old age where a man may live a long time without apparent change. Doctor Humphries had been established on the plateau for many years, and Charley Fortnum, though he was still on one of the lower slopes, had found a reliable weapon in the fight against senility – he had pickled in alcohol some of the high spirits and the naivete of earlier days. As the years passed, Doctor Plarr could discern little alteration in either of his early acquaintances – perhaps Humphries moved more slowly between the Bolivar and the Italian Club, and sometimes he believed he could detect in Charley Fortnum increasing spots of melancholy, like mold, in his well-bottled bonhomie."
"What have you got there?"
"Only a detective story. An English detective story."
"A good one?"
"I'm no judge of that. The translation is not very good, and with this sort of book I can always guess the end."
"Then where is the interest?"
"Oh, there is a sort of comfort in reading a story where one knows what the end will be. The story of a dream world where justice is always done. There were no detective stories in the age of faith – an interesting point when you think of it. God used to be the only detective when people believed in Him. He was law. He was order. He was good. Like your Sherlock Holmes. It was He who pursued the wicked man for punishment and discovered all. But now people like the General make law and order. Electric shocks on the genitals. Aquino's fingers. Keep the poor ill-fed, and they do not have the energy to revolt. I prefer the detective. I prefer God."
"Blood and Thunder" Hampton Sides
"When Madeline Was Young" Jane Hamilton
"Forests of the Heart" Charles de Lint
"Futureland" Walter Mosley
"Home For the Day" Anderson Ferrell
Audiences fell in love with him, I along with them. Whenever I saw him dance, which was nearly overtime he did, it was as though I was seeing him for the first time. Not just seeing him dance for the first time, but seeing him. I'd sit there in the audience with my heart breaking. For when he dance, he went to a place I could not follow. We were separated by his talent, for it was the thing about him which I could not claim or partake in or keep private between us. It was something which even he didn't own. It left no mark. I have pictures of him dancing, but they rob what is essential to it, movement. And words cannot retrieve the effort or the effect of something drawn in space on a phrase of music and the silences between tones. If he owned anything about his dancing, it was simply the right to disperse it. When he danced he was off to a place from where he could not be called back, and I just had to watch and wait, hopeful that he would return. Except for that, it was like now. He was, in way, dead to me, and I watched a vision of him through an invisible wall, thick as plate glass.
"The Magician's Assistant" Ann Patchett
Kitty bent over and started digging around on the floor. “When you're young and want to have a baby because babies are so cute and everybody else has one, nobody ever takes you aside and explains to you what happens when they grow up. Maybe they all think it's obvious. I mean, if you know enough about biology to know where babies come from, then you should that sooner or later they turn into teenagers, but somehow you just don't ever think about it, then one day, bang, you've got these total strangers living with you, these children in adult bodies, and you don't know who they are. It's like they somehow ate up those children you had and you loved, and you keep loving these people because you know they've got your child locked up in there somewhere.” She stopped with two pairs of jeans in one hand and a windbreaker in the other and looked at the wreckage that she couldn't seem to make a dent in. ‘”You love them so much and yet you keep wondering when they're going to leave."
"Nothing But Blue Skies" Thomas McGuane
Frank could only go along with these spiraling witticisms. These days, everything took such a long explanation, it was turning smart people into mutes. Combining the knowing look with absentmindedness was the great modern social skill as far as Frank was concerned, and he thought he had it down pretty fair. It would never occur to the doctor that was a new Frank, certainly not the one who acquired and managed the clinic so acceptably over the years. This was the night Frank. This was the solitaire who feared that happiness was past. This was the roaming dog.
Phil wore a shirt that seemed to be made out of pillow ticking and Frank was reminded how he often thought Phil looked like a Gallatin County pioneer, maybe a small stock farmer or someone who sold whiskey to the Indians. He had that blank look he associated with local frontiersmen in photographs, which probably had more to do with the instructions of the photographer to not move and spoil the portrait than it did with the actual personalities of the subjects. From that, Frank, like most people, had surmised that a bleak view of the world prevailed a hundred years ago. If it weren't for their written materials, which revealed a new Eden, this great technological breakthrough would have maligned them for all time. Phil looked like a victim of photography; Frank knew he was full of enthusiasms but he didn't let them show very much.
"Four Souls" Louise Erdrich
Later, as I devoured the beef tea myself, I reflected. I realized that I missed being privy to brother-in-law’s treatments. For much of my life I was not acquainted with what may seem the obscure derivation of the adjective “sincere.” It is from two latin words, sine, without, and cera, wax. What a rare thing it is to be treated without wax. My desire is always to conduct relationships based upon honest regard. As I sipped the last drops of the beef tea I tried to enumerate moments stripped of pretense and all I could come up with was those efforts of mine, with brother-in-law, when he grasped my hand in desperate gratitude, unknowing, and allowed me to really see him. As I relived those moments of extremity, a strange thought met me unawares. Were I not to know him, or someone, some person, at this radical depth, I fear my time on earth would be hideous. I was surprised to think this. But it crossed my mind that to know others on a superficial level only is a desperate hell and life is worth living only if the veneer is stripped away, the polish, the wax, and we see the true grain of the other no matter how far less than perfect, even ugly, even savage at the heart.
Along with rules, there came another affliction. Acquisition, the priest called it. Greed. There was no word in our language to describe this urge to own things we didn’t need. Where before we always had a reason for each object we kept, now the sole reason was wanting it. People traded away their land for pianos they couldn’t play and bought clothing too fancy for their own everyday use. They bought spoons made of silver when there wasn’t food, and gilded picture frames when they had neither pictures nor walls. A strange frenzy for zhaaginaash stuff came over the best of us. Where before we gave our things away and were admired for our generosity, now we grew stingy and admired ourselves for what we grabbed and held. Even Margaret, whose eyes were sharp for foolishness, was overcome.
"The Maytrees" Annie Dillard
"The Plain Sense of Things" Pamela Carter Joern
"An Unfinished Life" Mark Spragg
"Eventide" Kent Haruf
"The Sweetest Dream" Doris Lessing
"Cut and Run" Ridley Pearson
"Spooner" Pete Dexter
Spooner wrote the column as if the kid mattered to him, and he didn’t. The truth was that he couldn’t picture the dead boy, and picturing him was the ground-floor requisite for this sort of newspaper column. Without it the column came out of Spooner’s typewriter as dead as the boy himself, as ordinary as a box of cereal. There were two things Spooner absolutely knew about writing, and the first one was that you can’t get away with pretending to care. The other one, if you’re interested, is that nobody wants to hear what you dreamed about last night.
"Be Cool" Elmore Leonard
"Homer and Langley" E. L. Doctorow
Doctorow wrote of his novel of the notorious recluse Collyer brothers of 5th Avenue: "In one sense I think of Homer & Langley as a road novel--as if they are two people traveling together down a road and having adventures, though in fact they are housebound. It turns out that the world will not let them alone--others intrude on their privacy as if it is the road running through them. As for their collecting, I think of them as curators of their life and times, and their house as a museum of all our lives. That is my idea of them, that is my reading of the Collyer myth. I make them to be two brothers who opted out of civilization and pulled the world in after them."
And so do people pass out of one's life and all you can remember of them is their humanity, a poor fitful thing of no dominion, like your own.
Langley said: Who cares who our distinguished ancestors were? What balderdash. All those census records, all those archives, attest only to the self-importance of the human being who gives himself a name and a pat on the back and doesn't admit how irrelevant he is to the turnings of the planet.
I wasn't prepared to go that far, for if you felt that way what was the use of living in the world, of believing in yourself as an identifiable person with an intellect and desires and the ability to learn and to affect outcomes?
"Air Guitar" Dave Hickey
So, I have always wanted to tell this story, because it is a true story that I have carefully remembered, but frankly, it is a sentimental story, too – as all stories of successful human society must be – and we don't cherish that flavor of democracy anymore. Today, we do blood, money and sex – race, class and gender. We don't do communities of desire (people united in loving something as we loved jazz). We do statistical demographics, age groups, and target audiences. We do ritual celebrations of white family values, unctuous celebrations of marginal cultural identity, multiethnic kick-boxer movies, and yuppie sit-coms. With the possible exception of Rosanne, we don't even do ordinary eccentricity anymore. In an increasingly diffuse and customized post-industrial world, we cling to the lad vestige of industrial thinking: the presumption of mass-produced identity and ready-made experience – a presumption that makes the expression, appreciation, or even the perception of our everyday distinctions next to impossible.
And, finally, American business stopped advertising products for what they were, or for what they could do, and began advertising them for what they meant – as sign systems within the broader culture – emphasizing what every collector wants to know: who owned them and where they were owned. Thus, rather than producing and marketing infinitely replicable objects that adequately served unchanging needs, American commerce began creating finite sets of objects that embodied ideology for a finite audience at a particular moment – objects that created desire rather than fulfilling needs. This is nothing more or less an art market. If you don't think so, price out a 1965 Ford Thunderbird.
All the while, the minions and mavens of the 'serious jazz world' stood on the sidelines, exasperated that on the one hand that (Chet) Baker refused to do something 'historical', like Miles, that they could write about and teach in their college courses, and annoyed on the other hand that he continued to play so beautifully, that he refused to quit and be the bum they wished he was. “It really pissed them off,” Lowell George told me once, “that they couldn't learn anything from Chet's playing, not anything they could teach. All they could learn was that he could do it, and they couldn't. It was all about thinking and breathing in real time, and they couldn't grasp that. It had too much to do with life, with how you live in time.”
But there is more to it than that, because Baker's music and his way of making music has had its influence beyond the parochial world of high-modernist jazz theory. It provides the classic model for a new tradition of steady-state, postmodern popular music which is probably best exemplified by Lowell George's Little Feat and Lou Reed's Velvet Underground. These bands operated on Baker's premise: that the song plays the music and music plays the player and that, consequently, the song, as played, is not a showcase for the player's originality, but a momentary acoustic community in which the players breathe and think together in real time, adding to a song's history, without detracting from its integrity, leaving it intact to be played again. “The thing you learn,” Lou Reed told me in an interview, “is that popular music is easy. The song will play itself. So all you need to de is make it sing a little, make it human, and not fuck it up.”
The song's too simple, and we're too complicated and too excited. We try like hell, but the guitars distort, the intonation bends, and the beat just moves, imperceptibly, against out formal expectations, whether we want it to or not. Just because we're breathing, man. Thus, in process of trying to play this very simple song together, we create this hurricane of noise, this infinitely complicated, fractal filigree of delicate distinctions.
The vogue of Andy Warhol was my gaudy emblem of this occasion, and, looking back, I can honestly say that Andy showed me the way out of graduate school – that he freed me from its smothering obsession with intentions and intentionality. Because Andy’s rhetoric of fame meant that “what Andy meant” was irrelevant. The work was its public vogue. I attributed this moral to Jasper John’s flags as well, because a flag does not derive its “authority” from the fact that Jasper Johns or Betsy Ross made it. It is invested with power and significance by the faith and commitment of those who salute it. So I can see now that, by becoming an art dealer, I was positioning myself to exacerbate the effects of art rather than to speculate on its causes.
If you can't tell one universe from another, that's your problem, but not an unusual one, since art and money are very much alike, in both embodiment and conception. To put it simply: Art and money are cultural fictions wit no intrinsic value. They acquire exchange value through the fiduciary investment of complex constituencies – through overt demonstrations of trust (or acts of faith, if you will) of the sort we all perform when we accept paper currency (or, even more trustingly, a check) for goods or services. This is the act of faith that I performed when I traded the Kenny Price for the John Baldessari – but with a difference, since, even though I sold the Baldessari for more that I paid for the Kenny Price, I still want both of them back, because I prefer the universe of art to the universe of money.
The point, however, is that the issuing institution or individual can never guarantee the value of art or money sent forth into the world. It must be sustained through investments by complex constituencies of individuals, public institutions, and private corporations. The government may say a dollar is worth a dollar. Fiduciary investment tells us it's worth thirty-five cents. The Whitney Museum may say that Wanda Whatzit is the next big thing, but only the sustained investment of money, journalism, exhibition space, scholarly prose, foundation awards, loose talk, and casual body language can maintain Wanda's work in public esteem. So it helps to remember that the language of external investment extends this far – all the way from the casual shrug at a gallery opening to the gaudy résumé on some bureaucrat's shiny desk.
People kept telling us how country songs had to be simple and true to be great. Fred and I knew that was bullshit. We knew that had to clear and perfect. Because, if they were, they's be the only clear and perfect thing in the stinking ditch most of us live in. Let me take an example, She's my Eskimo baby, she's My Eskimo pie. Now, that's George Jones, and that's simple. And that, God help us, is probably true. But it's also bullshit. Today I passed you on the street and my heart fell at your feet. That's not simple and that's not true. But it will never come undone. Because it is clear and perfect about the feelings, which, unfortunately, your average Southern boy would no more admit to having then he would admit to having the clap.
For all of us, I think, Perry (Mason) and his legal secretary, Della Street, and his detective sidekick, Paul Drake, must constitute a kind of trinity – the Trinity of the Professional Family. They evoke for us a kind of ideal collegial atmosphere, which, if it actually existed, would make steady employment less onerous – although we are used to its nonexistence by now, accustomed to our disappointment. In the beginning, back in the fifties, Perry and Della and Paul were enacting this fantasy of happy, serious, collaborative work at the moment it became a fantasy, at the moment in history when the American ideal of the working family was finally supplanted – first in the workplace by corporate formalism, and then, in the domestic sphere, by this tarted-up, late-Victorian paradigm of Arcadian households tucked away from the tumult of commerce in tidy suburban cloisters.
My dad called them “looky-loos.” He would come home from playing in some bar or listening to someone else play, and Mom would ask, “How was the crowd?” If those in attendance weren’t up to his standards, he would say “looky-loos.” Or sometimes he would just mutter “civilians,” which meant the same thing. We all knew what he meant: Civilians were non-participants, people who did not live the life – people with no real passion for what was going on. They were just looking. They paid their dollar at the door, but they contributed nothing to the occasion – afforded no confirmation or denial that you could with or around or against.
With spectators, as Waylon out it, it’s a one-way deal, and in the world I grew up in, the whole idea was not to be one of them, and to avoid, insofar as possible, being spectated by any of them, because it was demeaning. You just didn’t do it, and you used the word “spectator” as a term of derision – not as bad as “folksinger,” of course, but still a serious insult. Even so, it wasn’t something we discussed or even thought about, since the possibility of any of us spectating or being spectated was fairly remote. It is, however, something worth thinking about today, since, with the professionalism of the art world, and the dissolution of the underground cultures that once fed into it, the distinction between spectators and participants is dissolving as well.
So here’s my suggestion: At this moment, with public patronage receding like the spring tide anyway and democracy supposedly proliferating throughout the art world, why don’t all of us art-types summon up the moral courage to admit that what we do has no intrinsic value or virtue – that it has its moments and it has its functions, but otherwise, all things considered, in its ordinary state, unredeemed by courage and talent, it is a bad, silly, frivolous thing to do. We could do this, you know. And those moments and those functions would not be diminished in the least. Because the presumption of art’s essential “goodness” is nothing more than a political fiction that we employ to solicit taxpayer’s money for public art education , and for public housing of works of art that we love so well their existence is inseparable from the texture of the world in which we live.
These are worthy and indispensable projects. No society with half a heart would even think to ignore them. But the presumption of art’s essential “goodness” is a conventional trope. It describes nothing. Art education is not redeeming for the vast majority of students, nor is art practice redeeming for the vast majority of artists. The “good” works of art that reside in our museums reside there not because they are “good,” but because we love them. The political fiction of art’s virtue means only this: The practice and exhibition of art has had beneficial public consequences in the past. It might in the future. So funding them is worth the bet. That’s the argument; art is good, sort of, in a vague, general way. Seducing oneself into believing in art’s intrinsic “goodness,” however, is simply bad religion, no matter what the rewards. It is bad cult religion when professing one’s belief in art’s “goodness’ becomes a condition of membership in the art community.
So consider for a moment the enormous benefits that would accrue to us all, if art were considered bad, silly, and frivolous. Imagine the lightness we would feel if this burden of hypocrisy were lifted from our shoulders – the sheer joy of it. We would stop insisting that art is a “good thing” in and of itself, stop pretending that it is a “good thing” to do – to do “good” – and stop recruiting the good, serious, well-educated children of the mercantile and professional classes to do it, on the grounds that they are too Protestant, too well-behaved, too respectful, and too desirous of our respect to effect any kind of delightful change. We could abandon our pose of thoughtful satiety, reconceive ourselves as the needy, disconsolate, and desiring creatures that we are, and dispense with this pervasive, pernicious, Martha Stewart canon of puritan taste with its disdain for “objects of virtue” and its cold passion for virtue itself.
What if works of art were considered to be what they actually are – frivolous objects or entities with no intrinsic value that only acquire value through a complex process of socialization during which some are empowered by an ongoing sequence of private, mercantile, journalistic, and institutional investments that are irrevocably extrinsic to them and to any intention that might embody? What if we admitted that, unlike seventeenth-century France, institutional and educational accreditation are presently insufficient to invest works of art with an aura of public import – that the only works of art that maintain themselves in public vogue are invariably invested with interest, enthusiasm, and volunteer commitment from a complex constituency that is extrinsic both to themselves and to their sponsoring institutions?
If we do this, we can stop regarding the art world as a “world” or a “community” or a “market” and begin thinking of it as a semi-public, semi-mercantile, semi-institutional agora – an intermediate institution of civil society, like that of professional sports, within which issues of private desire and public virtue are negotiated and occasionally resolved. Because the art world is no more about art than the sports world is about sport. The sports world conducts an ongoing referendum on the manner in which we should cooperate and compete. The art world conducts an ongoing referendum on how things should look and the way we should look at things – or it would, if art were regarded as sports are, as a wasteful, privileged endeavor through which very serious issues are sorted out.
"Keep the Change" Thomas McGuane
"The Echo Maker" Richard Powers
"Little Bird of Heaven" Joyce Carol Oates
"Man Walks Into a Room" Nicole Krauss
Samson, a Columbia University English Professor, is found wandering the desert near Las Vegas. He has a tumor removed from his brain along with all memory save the first twelve years of his life. No memory of his wife, Anna, his years as a professor, all gone. He heads west again to take part in a mysterious mind project being conducted in the desert where a Dr. Ray inserts some of another man's memory into his own.
"On the way back they pulled off the road to watch a small crowd gathered in front of a mall: cars parked sideways, doors flung open, people swaying on tiptoes gently held back by security guards. The group was struggling in numbers, with just barely enough bodies to qualify as a crowd, but a long way from being a full-blown mass whose voices might mesh into a single electric roar, powered by adrenaline, capable of trampling people alive. Everyone – the cored, the security guards, and the former star who eventually rolled up in a limousine van – seemed to be going through the motions, having pledged to protect at all costs the illusion of fame, without which the city would be swallowed by a brutal wave of sadness and banality. The aging rock star got out of the car. He clasped his hands in the air and shook his fists. He gyrated a few times, and the people shouted encouragement and playfully dodged with the security guards, who let a few of them get through to touch the hem of his coat."
"Without memories to cloud it, the mind perceives with absolute clarity. Each observation stands out in stark relief. In the beginning, when there's not yet a smudge, the slate still blank, there is only the present moment: each vital detail, shocked color, the fall of light. Like film stills. The mind relentlessly open to the world, deeply impressed, even hurt by it; not yet gauzed by memory."
"Her name was Patricia but everyone called her Pip, something that often happened in WASP families, she explained, the names that had been in the family for years getting replaced in childhood by sporty nicknames, Apple or Kit or Kat. Like Kathleen Kennedy, who of course wasn't Protestant, but in the same spirit was called Kick. Punchy names that rang of a certain brawn, of the ruddiness of coming back from a football game in the early dark, cheeks flushed with autumn and cheer. Pip and kick and Apple and Snap and Crackle and Pop, Samson added mentally. And Chip and Pebble, Pip went on, like the members of a corny seventies band."
"He studied the flacks of tissue, matter produced by his own brain. There was something uncanny and miraculous about it, he thought now: the dimensionless mind breeding dimension. A year ago he had tumbled down a hole, a trapdoor into a place that seemed to have depth and width, distance and perspective – that seemed habitable. He had stumbled and landed in the immaculate geography of the mind. But from the beginning memories had assaulted the emptiness, forcing him back into the world. His mind had filled with the detritus of recollection, and then, as a final humiliation, it had been broken into and vandalized. What Ray had refused to see was that no matter how great the desire is to be understood, the mind cannot abide any presence but its own. To enter another's consciousness and stake a flag there was to break the law of absolute solitude on which that consciousness depends. It was to threaten, and perhaps irrevocably damage, the essential remoteness of the self. This transgression was unforgivable."
"Creation In Death" J.D. Robb
"Appetite For America" Stephen Fried
"The Fifth Woman" Henning Mankell
"Kennedy's Brain" Henning Mankell
"Faceless Killers" Henning Mankell
"The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter" Carson McCullers (1940)
"… Talk – talk – talk. The words came out of his throat like a cataract. And the thing was that the accent he used was always changing, the kind of words he used. Sometimes he talked like a linthead and sometimes like a professor. He would use words a foot long and then slip up on his grammar. It was hard to tell what kind of folks he had or what part of the country he was from. He was always changing. Thoughtfully Biff fondled the tip of his nose. There was no connection. Yet connection usually went with brains. This man had a good mind, all right, but he went from one thing to another without any reason behind it all. He was like a man thrown off his track by something. "
"…But say a man does know. He sees the world as it is and he looks back thousands of years to see how it all come about. He watches the slow agglutination of capital and power and he sees its pinnacle today. He sees America as a crazy house. He sees how men have to rob their brothers in order to live. He sees children starving and women working sixty hours a week to get to eat. He sees a whole damn army of unemployed and billions of dollars and thousands of miles of land wasted. He sees war coming. He sees how when people suffer just so much they get mean and ugly and something dies in them. But the main thing he sees is that the whole system of the world is built on a lie. And although it's as plain as the shining sun – the don't-knows have lived with that lie so long they just can't see it."
"…The people dreamed and fought and slept as much as ever. And by habit they shortened their thoughts so that they would not wander out into the darkness beyond tomorrow."
The following paragraph illustrates that the notion of the haves and have-nots is nothing new. This was written in 1940 and is as relevant today as it was then.
Jake turned the globe again and pressed his blunt, grimy thumb on a carefully selected spot. "Here. These thirteen states. I know what I'm talking about. I read books and I go around. I been in every damn one of these thirteen states. I've worked in every one. And the reason I think like I do is this: We live in the richest country in the world. There's plenty and to spare for no man, woman, or child to be in want. And in addition to this our country was founded on what should have been a great, true principle – the freedom, equality, and the rights of each individual. Huh! And what has come of that start? There are corporations worth billions of dollars – and hundreds of thousands of people who don't get to eat. And her in these thirteen states the exploitation of human beings is so that _ that it's a thing you got to take in with your own eyes. In my life I've seen things that would make a man go crazy. At least one third of all Southerners live and die no better off than the lowest peasant in any European Fascist state. The average wage of a worker on a tenant farm is only seventy-three dollars per year. And mind you, that's the average! The wages of sharecroppers run from thirty-five to ninety dollars ore person. And thirty-five dollars a year means just about ten cents for a full days work. Everywhere there's pellagra and hookworm and anaemia. And just plain, pure starvation. But!" Jake rubbed his lips with the knuckles of his dirty fist. Sweat stood out on his forehead. "But!" he repeated. "Those are only the evils you can see and touch. The other things are worse. I'm talking about the way that the truth has been hidden from the people. The things they have been told so they can't see the truth. The poisonous lies. So they aren't allowed to know."
"Hank & Muddy" Stephen Mertz
"Firewall" Henning Mankell
This is my first Henning Mankell book borrowed from my neighbor. Firewall is the ninth book in a series with Detective Kurt Wallander as the protagonist. This is smart, sharp writing and a serious page turner. I read the last half in one afternoon as I couldn't put the book down. I'll be starting the rest of them from the beginning of the series. Here's the line-up: 1. The Pyramid, 2. Faceless Killers, 3. The Dogs of Riga, 4. The White Lioness, 5. The Man Who Smiled, 6. Sidetracked, 7. The Fifth Woman, 8. One Step Behind, 9. Firewall, 10. Return of the Dancing Master, 11. Before the Frost, 12. The Grave, and 13. The Troubled Man.
"The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" Stieg Larsson
You've read it. Now I've read it. Everyone's read it. Now Hollywood is cashing in on it. Folks, the movies of the series have been made. In Denmark. With Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander and Michael Nyqvist as Mikael Blomkvist. All released in 2009. See them.
That aside, Here's an interesting exchange on corporate salaries with SMP (news) editor Erika Berger, the CEO (Borgsjø) and the owner of the paper (Sellberg):
"Of course the board approved your measures, because you guaranteed a dividend each year. That's what has to stop, and now."
"So you're suggesting in all seriousness that the board should decide to abolish dividends and bonuses. What makes you think the stockholders would agree to that?"
"I'm proposing a zero-profit operating budget this year. That would mean savings of almost twenty-one million kronor and the chance to beef up SMP's staff and finances. I'm also proposing wage cuts for management. I'm being paid a monthly salary of 88,000 kronor, which is utter insanity for a newspaper that can't add a job to its sports desk."
"So you want to cut your own salary? Is this some sort of wage communism you're advocating?"
"Don't bullshit me. You make 112,000 kronor a month, if you add in your annual bonus. That's crazy. If the newspaper were stable and bringing in a tremendous profit, then you could pay out as much as you wanted in bonuses. I propose cutting all management salaries by half."
"What you don't understand is that our stockholders bought stock in the paper because they want to make money. That's called capitalism. If you arrange for them to lose money, then they won't want to be stockholders any longer."
"I'm not suggesting they should lose money, thought it might come to that. Ownership implies responsibility. As you yourself pointed out, capitalism is what matters here. SMP's owners want to make a profit. But it's the market that decides whether you make a profit or take a loss. By your reasoning, you want the rules of capitalism to apply solely to the employees of SMP, while you and stockholders will be exempt."
Sellberg rolled his eyes and sighed. He cast an entreating glance at Borgsjø, but the CEO was intently studying Berger's nine-point program.
"Parable of the Sower" Octavia E. Butler
Prodigy is, at its essence,
adaptability and persistent,
positive obsession. Without
persistence, what remains is an
enthusiasm of the moment. Without
adaptability, what remains may
be channeled into destructive
fanaticism. Without positive
obsession, there is nothing at all.
EARTHSEED: THE BOOKS OF THE LIVING
by Laura Oya Olamina
So begins the Parable series by author Octavia E. Butler. She had me at the gem written above. It's 2024 and the U.S. is in economic turmoil where the haves have so much more than the have nots (hmmm, sound familiar? She wrote this in 1993) that folks have put up walls to surround a small enclave of houses to protect their lives and belongings. It's not unusual during this time to be killed for your shoes or your shirt. Eventually, her family's walls are overtaken leaving Laura and a couple friends to escape heading north of the LA area. She is not even 20 years of age but has the wisdom of someone much older. She has been writing her 'Earthseed: Books of the Living' for years and lives by her convictions.
After her father, a minister, was killed outside the wall, Laura took over preaching at his church. Here's a brief account that. I think, relates directly to the Occupy Movement going on in 2011:
"I thanked them for all the ongoing – emphasize ongoing – efforts to find my father. Then . . . well, then I talked about perseverance. I preached a sermon about perseverance if an ordained kid can be said to preach a sermon. No one was going to stop me. Cory was the only one who might have tried, but Cory was in a kind of walking coma. She wasn't doing anything she didn't have to do.
So I preached from Luke, chapter eighteen, verses one through eight: the parable of the importunate widow. It's one I've always liked. A widow is so persistent in her demands foe justice that she overcomes the resistance of a judge who fears neither God nor man. She wears him down.
Moral: The weak can overcome the strong if the weak persist. Persisting isn't always safe, but it's often necessary."
"Last Comes the Egg" Bruce Duffy
"Which gets to the hidden nature of fixing. See, these were the days when things were still fixed at home – when things were still worth fixing. Still, the process totally mystified most people. It wasn't just fixing they failed to understand, Dad said. What people totally failed to grasp was the hidden nature of breaking, which Dad's cardinal rule was, nothing breaks all at once.
Think about it! Everything's going fine, when, fssst, your clock, radio, fan, or whatever, conks out! And why? It's just this busted pin or burned thinga-majigger, but after a few rough shakes, people say, 'It's broken,' like suddenly it's all broken, totally smashed to bits, not one screw salvageable. And not just busted, hated. Why, it's gypped and betrayed them! Worse, it's made them feel inept. Whump, into the trash.
Just bugged the hell out of Dad, how people who'd go to any length to save a sick cat or pry a quarter from under the molding would heave out a perfectly good clock or toaster that only needed a little oil or tinkering. Whump. Out on the curb it goes, there for some kid to kick down the street, and people are so haughty and ignorant they don't even know the love and familiness that gets accumulated into things, which somebody somewhere had sweated blood to invent and make for them, and all their lives they'd camped around it like a little fire with our ever seeing the soul inside it or anything. People being what they are, they wouldn't even dispose of it with any respect, say, in the way they's burn and old Sunday missal or wrap a poor sparrow in a cheesecloth and give him a decent burial. Whump."
"It's a surprise party. Floating across our living room in the morning sunlight, there's a cloud of smoke, and, beneath it, the huddled barn smell of all your grieving, perspiring, freely drinking relatives. Already Dad's been beat up so bad, and he's so pooped out, that he abandons ship for his room. Down the gauntlet I go, hugged, kissed, gazed upon, stuck with tie clasps and earrings, then smeared with tears and lipstick from various ailing, fleshy old aunts seizing up from creaking chairs, wall-eyed Rose with the polio leg, Marge with the elephantine arm that she cradles like an infant and Alice who kisses me with the teary abruptitude of a Vichy general. The doorbell rings. A pot of drooping lilies flies past me – passed down the family bucket brigade – back to the sideboard to be stacked with the other gaudy, poisonous looking flowers, beside which my Uncle Jim, the cop built like a fullback with the red combover, where cool Uncle Jim tends bar with his handsome, philandering brother-in-law and A&P butcher, Dave – 'Dog Dave' – or simply the 'Bellyman,' forDave's knack of boosting out porterhouse steaks and cold cuts strapped to his belly. Playing the nags, running the girls, it's Dave, happy Dave, with the transistor radio bulging from his shirt pocket and the little earphone dangling from one ear. You think life stops for game three of the World Series?"
"And these make such great stories. Trouble is, though, they always turn on me, making me think, So what's wrong with my life? It's like I'm staring through the wrong end of a telescope. Suddenly I'm feeling small instead of large, and wrong instead of right.
And that's the problem with the stories adults tell. They're not your stories. They're not your life at all, and they can't be – can't because as you must know by now, the real stories are the ones that adults'll never tell."
"And what a life! Grammaw can't even cook, unless you call boiling cooking. The bubbling pot clanks and foams until the steam's running down the windows. Steaming corned beefs and cabbages and roots. Boiled tongues and chickens that totally disintegrate under blisters of yellow grease. Frying at extreme heat – that's her other technique. Seared beef heart. Fried liver and onions smothered in evil oniony gravies. Coughing and smoking, she's forever pacing, her pink fluff Indian moccasins scuffling across the kitchen linoleum, past the black scorch like the flaming imprint of my butt. Suddenly, Titti-Titti seems a long way off.
And God, does that old lady wear me out. One night, I'm so worn out from her pacing that I flop down in the middle of the kitchen floor. What kind of crazy pervert am I? Because as Grammaw shuffles by, under her skirt I stare in disbelief at the heavens, a giant black widow of hair in the center of her slack, pantyless rump! But night's the worst. Her grief's like an avalanche. In the middle of the night she'll wake me up, her cold-creamed skin hugging my face like a rubber mask as she sobs, 'Do you remember her now? Don't you remember her? Can't you remember anything?' As she rocks and sobs over me, of course I can't help but see her old tithes hanging out through her chiffon nightgown. Still, like remembering – remembering or feeling anything now – it only lasts a second. The minute I see her old tits it's cauterized, it's erased completely, my eyes foaming over like two cuts doused in hydrogen peroxide."
' "Now here," says Mrs. Bayard, her voice a dry whisper, "now here's a truly great story." Slowly she cracks the binding, then smooths back the page with those bristling rings of hers, But Dr. Bayard could't afford to bury her in them, could he? Flings her rings in the mud? Mrs. Bayard's chest quivers. I feel her breath rising over her glasses, and sometimes she stops. But slowly, she reads me parts from Jack London and Stephan Crane. She even reads me those Nick Adams stories, complete with every last 'bastard' and 'son of a bitch.'
"But Mrs. Bayard," I ask. "Hemingway couldn't actually write that, could he? He could actually write that in a book?"
"Frank, it's not a bathroom door. He wrote it as an artist."
Another revelation, that you could write and be an artist. What Mrs. Bayard always hammers on, though, is that no matter how wild or made up, the story's gotta be true, with no holding back or phoniness. And no suckering people with 'pretties' so a lot of prissy dumdums can warm their hearts and say how nice it's written – like the idea, ever, is being 'nice.' No, she's real tough on books, Mrs. Bayard, not at all Dad's idea of a lady, much less a rich lady. And feeling like a vulture, my guts'll rumble, Liar. You wouldn't even like her if she wasn't rich and gonna die.'
"Look At Me" Jennifer Egan
Thirty-five-year-old Charlotte, a thoroughly unpleasant Manhattan-based model who escaped the middle-class nothingness of her upbringing in Rockford, Ill., then spent her adult life getting by on appearances, literally loses her face in a catastrophic car accident back in Rockford. As Charlotte's rebuilt face heals and she goes unrecognized at the restaurants and nightclubs that were her old haunts, she must grapple with the lives and losses she has tried to outrun a fractured childhood friendship, the fiancé she betrayed and "Z," a suspicious man from an unidentified Middle Eastern country. Anthony Halliday, an attractive, tormented private investigator, interrupts Charlotte's isolation. Hired by a pair of nightclub owners to track down Z because he absconded with a pile of their money, Halliday carries the scent of romance, but he also kicks off a chain of introductions that bizarrely lands Charlotte in the "mirrored room" of great fame. She is reconnected with her past at the same time that she becomes part of a brave new Internet world, where identity itself is a consumable commodity. Oddly, this narrative alternates with that of her old friend Ellen's daughter (also named Charlotte), whose life in Rockford centers around two older men. Though expertly constructed and seductively knowing, Egan's tale is marred by the overblown trendiness at its core. Charlotte (the model, who progresses from horrid to just bearable by the end) and the others come to the same realization: a world ruled by the consumerist values bred by mass production and mass information is "a world constructed from the outside in." The Buddha said it better. – Publisher's Weekly, © 2001
Incongruously, he smiled. So exceptional had Mark been for much of his life, so unaccustomed to being ignored and disregarded, that the normal responses – anger, bitterness – seemed never to have developed in him, and he reacted to each new slight and disappointment with an almost childlike bafflement. He didn't understand. He didn't understand and there was no way for Irene to explain what she barely understood herself: that fashion was ruthless, reputations variable, that the slightest intimation of failure could drive people away. Lately she had begun forcing herself to see these things coldly, dispassionately, because one of them had to; otherwise they would be trampled underfoot by everyone else.
The answer lay in the vision itself: a different man than Moose was the one who thrived in this new world, a sociopath who made himself anew each afternoon, for whom lying was merely persuasion. More and more they ruled the world, these quicksilver creatures, minotaurs who weren't the products of birth or history, nature or nurture, but assembled for the eye from prototypes; who bore the same relationship to human beings as machine-made clothing did to something hand-stitched. A world remade by circuitry was a world without history or context or meaning, and because we are what we see, we are what we see, such a world was certainly headed toward death.
"The Book of Illusions" Paul Auster
After Vermont professor David Zimmer's family perishes in a plane crash, he is pulled out of despair when he comes across a reference to a silent film director named Hector Mann who mysteriously disappears in 1929 and has been presumed dead. He locates Mann's biographer, Alma Grund, falls in love and embarks on a journey to find what became of the man and his work.
…The book fell open somewhere in the middle, and I saw that one of the sentences had been underlined faintly in pencil. Les moments de cries produisent un redoublement de vie chez les hommes. Moments of crises produce a redoubled vitality in men. Or, more succinctly perhaps: Men don't begin to live fully until their backs are against the wall.
"Last Car to Elysian Fields" James Lee Burke
"Falling Man" Don DeLillo
"The Crystal Frontier" Carlos Fuentes
Before he was twenty, Dionisio had taken as an article of faith that there were only five great cuisines in the world: Chinese, French, Italian, Spanish and Mexican. Other nationalities had dishes of the first quality – Brazilian feijoada, Peruvian chicken soup with chiles, Argentine beef were excellent, as were North African couscous and Japanese teriyaki – but only Mexican cuisine was a universe unto itself. From Sinaloa's chilorio, with its little cubes of pork well seasoned with oregano, sesame, garlic and fat chiles, to Oaxaca's chicken with mountain herbs and avocado leaves, the uchepo tamales of Michoacan, Colima's sea bass with prawns and parsley, San Luis Potosi's meatloaf stuffed with cheese, and that supreme delicacy which is Oaxaca's yellow mole – two so-called wide chiles, two guajillo chiles, one red tomato, 250 grams of green jitomatillos, two tablespoons of coriander, two leaves of hierbasanta, two peppercorns – Mexican cuisine was for Dionisio a constellation apart that moved in the celestial vaults of the palate with its own trajectories, its own planets, satellites, comets, meteors. Like space itself, it was infinite.
Dioniso would be speaking to dozens of Beavis and Butt-head wannabes, the offspring of Wayne's World, legions of young people convinced that being an idiot is the best way to pass throughout the world recognized by no one (in some cases) or everyone (in others). Masters always of an anarchic liberty and a stupid natural wisdom redeemed by an imbecility devoid of pretensions or complications. Knowing consisted of not knowing. The depressing lesson of the movie Forrest Gump. To be always available for whatever chance may bring… How could the successors of Forrest Gump understand that, when a single Mexican city, Puebla, can boast of more than eight hundred dessert recipes, it is because of generations and generations of nuns, grandmothers, nannies, and old maids, the work of patience, tradition, love, and wisdom? How, when their supreme refinement consisted in thinking that life is like a box of chocolates, a varied pre-fabrication, a fatal Protestant destiny disguised as free will? Beavis and Butt-head, that pair of half-wits, would have finished off the nuns of Puebla by pelting them with stale cake, the grandmothers they would have locked in closets to die of hunger and thirst, and of course they would have raped the nannies. And finally, a favor of the highest for the leftover young ladies.
From "Malintzin of the Maquilas"
"We all change jobs," chimed in Barroso merrily, "Even you. If we enforce work-safety rules, they move on. If we're strict about applying the Federal Labor law, they move on. If there's a boom in the defense industry, they move on. You talk to me about job rotation? That's the law of labor. If the Europeans prefer quality of life to profits, that's their decision. Let the European community subsidize them."
"You still haven't answered my question, Len. What about the loyalty factor?"
"Anyone who wants to hold onto a loyal labor force should do what I do. I offer bonuses to workers so they'll stay. But the demand for labor is huge, the girls get bored, they don't move up, so they move sideways, and that way they fool themselves into thinking they're better off for changing. That does generate some costs, Ted, you're right, but it avoids other costs. Nothing's perfect. The plant isn't a zero-sum situation. It's a sum-sum one. We all end up making money."
…"Ted, the real business here isn't the plants. It's land speculation. The location of the plants. The subdivisions. The industrial park. Did you see my house over in Campazas? People laugh at it. They call it Disneyland. But I'm the one laughing. I bought all those lots for five centavos per square meter. Now they're worth a thousand dollars per square meter. That's where the money is. I'm giving you good advice. Take advantage of it. The girls have to travel for more than an hour, on two buses, to get here. What we should do is set up another center due west of here. Which means we should be buying land in Bellavista. It's a dump. Shitty shacks. In five years, it'll be worth a thousand times more."
From "The Bet"
"You and your friends didn't look at one another. They were afraid of offending one another with a glance. Eye contact was worse, more dangerous than the contact of hands, sexes, or skin. It had to be avoided. All of you were manly because you never looked at one another; you walked the streets of the town staring at the tips of your shoes and always you gave other people ugly looks, disdainful, challenging mocking or insecure. But Paquito did look at you, looked directly at you, frightened to death but direct, and you never forgave him that – that's why you beat him up, beat the shit out of him."
"Ignorance" Milan Kundera
The Greek word for 'return' is nostos. Algos means 'suffering.' So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.
Irena and Josef, Czech immigrants, return home (Joseph was in Russia, Irena in France) after twenty years in exile only to find 'You Can't Go Home Again.' Memories are fragile from both the returning parties and the ones who stayed behind along with the social, political and physical changes of the city of Prague.
I imagine the feelings of two people meeting again after many years. In the past they spent some time together, and therefore they think they are linked by the same experience, the same recollections. The same recollections? That's where the misunderstanding starts: they don't have the same recollections; each of them retains two or three small scenes from the past, but each has his own; their recollections are not similar; they don't intersect; and even in terms of quantity they are not comparable: one person remembers the other more than he is remembered; first because memory capacity varies among individuals (an explanation that each of them would at least find acceptable), but also (and this is more painful to admit) because they don't hold the same importance for each other. When Irena saw Josef at the airport, she remembered every detail of their long-ago adventure; Josef remembered nothing. From the very first moment their encounter was based on an unjust and revolting inequality.
Couples have a continuous conversation that lulls them, its melodious stream throwing a veil over the body's waning desires. When the conversation breaks off, the absence of physical love comes forward like a ghost.
We will never cease our critique of those persons who distort the past, rewrite it, falsify it, who exaggerate the importance of one event and fail to mention some other; such a critique is proper (it cannot fail to be), but it doesn't count for much unless a more basic critique precedes it: a critique of human memory as such. For after all, what can memory actually do, the poor thing? it is only capable of retaining a paltry little scrap of the past, and no one knows why just this scrap and not some other one, since in each of us the choice occurs mysteriously, outside our will or our interests. We won't understand a thing about human life if we persist in avoiding the most obvious fact: that a reality no longer is what it was when it was; it cannot be reconstructed.
"T is for Trespass" Sue Grafton
"Havana Bay" Martin Cruz Smith
"Middlesex" Jeffrey Eugenides
I found a review of this book that is concise and to the point by Debbie Lee Wesselmann (trutor.net/Welcome.html):
"From the first sentence of Jeffrey Eugenides' MIDDLESEX, I was hooked by this complicated tale of a young girl who grows into a man. The story of Cal Stephanides begins generations before his birth, in a small Greek village, when his grandparents succumb to incestuous desires. Immigration to the United States keeps Desdemona and Lefty's secret intact - until their grandchild Cal reaches puberty. Told with both humor and earnestness, the story grows more engaging with every page.
The brilliance of this book emerges not from the superficial story of a hermaphrodite but from the context - historical, scientific, psychological, political, geographical - of Cal's birth and subsequent rebirth. MIDDLESEX is about much more than gender confusion. Cal's mixed gender can be taken as a metaphor for the experience of first- and second-generations born of immigrants. While the context of this story provides the substance, the characters provide the vibrancy. Cal emerges as a reliable and likeable narrator. He is sensible, good-humored, and intelligent. The spectrum of his experiences provides a smooth transition between childhood and adult, enabling the reader to embrace the character as both male and female. Cal's family is affectionately portrayed, even with their failings. (Cal's brother, Chapter Eleven, annoyed me with his name, a running gag, but even he ended up a full-blooded character by the end.)
Eugenides has written an expansive, compelling book. Despite its length of over 500 pages, the novel is not a slow read - unless the reader wants it to be, to make it last. Accessible, intelligent, well-paced and plotted, it should appeal to a wide range of readers.I can't recommend this novel highly enough."
And here are some segments to whet your appetite:
Emotions, in my experience, aren't covered by single words. I don't believe in 'sadness,' 'joy,' or 'regret.' Maybe the best proof that the language os patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I'd like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, 'the happiness that attends disaster.' Or: 'the disappointment of sleeping with one's fantasy.' I'd like to show how 'intimations if morality brought on by aging family members' connects with 'the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age.' I'd like to have a word for 'the sadness inspired by failing restaurants' as well as for 'the excitement of getting a room with a mini-bar.' I've never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I've entered my story, I need them more than ever. From here on in, everything I'll tell you is colored by the subjective experience of being part of events. Here's where my story splits, divides, undergoes meiosis. Already the world feels heavier, now I'm part of it. I'm talking about bandages and sopped cotton, the smell of mildew in movie theaters, and of all the lousy cats and their stinking litter boxes, of rain on city streets when the dust comes up and the old Italian men take their folding chairs inside. Up until now it hasn't been my world. Not my America. But here we are, at last.
In their support for Johnson's Great Society, in their applause after To Sir With Love, our neighbors and relatives made clear their well-intentioned belief that the Negroes were fully capable of being just like white people – but then what was this? they asked themselves as they saw the pictures on television. What were those young men doing carrying a sofa down the street? Would Sidney Poitier ever take a sofa or a large kitchen appliance from a store without paying? Would he dance like that in front of a burning building? 'No respect for private property whatsoever,' cried Mr. Benz, who lived next door. And his wife Phyllis: 'Where are they going to live if they burn down their own neighborhood?' Only Aunt Zo seemed to sympathize: 'I don't know. If I was walking down the street and there was a mink coat just sitting there, I might take it.' Father Mike was shocked. 'That's stealing!' 'Oh, what isn't, when you come right down to it. This whole country's stolen.'
"Armageddon In Retrospect" Kurt Vonnegut
"Where do I get my ideas from? You might as well have asked that of Beethoven. He was goofing around in Germany like everybody else, and all of a sudden this stuff came gushing out of him. It was music. I was goofing around like everybody else in Indiana, and all of a sudden stuff came gushing out. It was disgust with civilization."
These short stories were all written after Vonnegut returned from WWII, except for a speech written by Kurt but delivered by his son Mark after Kurt's death in 2007. They are not his best work but it's clear that his disdain for war lasted throughout his life.
An excerpt from the speech in 2007:
"Communism is what Karl Marx hoped could be an economic scheme for making industrialized nations take as good care of people, and especially of children and the old and disabled, as tribes and extended families used to do, before they were dispersed by the Industrial Revolution.
And I think maybe we might be wise to stop badmouthing Communism so much, not because we think it's a good idea, but because our grandchildren and great-grandchildren are now in hock up to their eyeballs to the Communist Chinese.
And the Chinese Communists also have a big and superbly equipped army, something we don't have. We're too cheap. We just want to nuke everybody."
"The Traveler" (Fourth Realm Trilogy, Book 1) John Twelve Hawks
I didn't know until after I read this book (I picked it up at a library book sale) that it was the first volume of a three part series and that the author, John Twelve Hawks, is a pseudonym and is unknown to both his editor and agent.
The story could be used as a metaphor for our current political and economical climate as a secret organization called the Tabula is working to gain control of all aspects of the population. The opposing faction is the Travelers, individuals with the power to travel to other realms to bring back wisdom and insights to enlighten the sheepish nature of the general population. There are also the Harlequins, sword-wielding fighters dedicated to protecting the Travelers.
This volume deals with a reluctant Harlequin protagonist named Maya who feels forced into duty after her father's death. She is assigned to protect Gabriel and Michael Corrigan, Travelers with little knowledge of their own power.
"There's just a Harlequin way of looking at the world. Some Harlequins fight because it's our destiny. Some of us fight to defend freedom. I'm not talking about the opportunity to buy fourteen different kinds of toothpaste or the insanity that drives a terrorist to blow up a bus. True freedom is tolerant. It gives people the right to live and think in new ways."
"Don't you understand, Michael? These days people are frightened of the world around them, and that fear is easily encouraged and maintained. People want to be in our Virtual Panopticon. We'll watch over them like good shepherds. They'll be monitored, controlled, protected from the unknown.
"Besides, they rarely recognize the prison. There's always some distraction. A war in the Middle East. A scandal involving celebrities. The World Cup or the Super Bowl. Drugs, both illegal and prescribed. Advertisements. A novelty song. A change of fashion. Fear may induce people to enter our Panopticon, but we keep them amused while they're inside."
"Meanwhile you're killing Travelers."
"As I said, that's an outdated strategy. In the past, we responded like a healthy body rejecting different viruses. All the basic laws have been written down, in a multitude of languages. The rules are clear. Mankind just has to learn how to obey. But whenever a society was close to some degree of stability, a Traveler came along with new ideas and a desire to change everything. While the wealthy and the wise were trying to build a vast cathedral, the Travelers kept undermining the foundation – causing trouble."
"Remember what I told you? It's all just fear and distraction. Fear will get people into our Virtual Panopticon and then we'll keep them happy. People will be free to take antidepressant drugs, go into debt, and stare at their television sets. Society might seem disorganized, but it will be very stable. Every few years we'll pick a different mannequin to give speeches from the White House Rose Garden."
"One of many places. There are between three and four thousand splendida in the silo. It's their breeding area." Sophia went down two steps and stopped. "Do the snakes bother you?"
"No. But it seems a little unusual."
"Every new experience is unusual. The rest of life is just sleep and committee meetings. Now come along and shut the door behind you."
"The Book of Air and Shadows" Michael Gruber
Michael Gruber's thrillers are a cut above the rest of the genre…interesting dialogue, creative plot twists and page turners all. The crux of this novel involves the hunt for a possible unearthed Shakespeare manuscript which would be worth untold millions. Hilarity ensues……….kidding. Actually, this may be a bit slow paced for some but I could hardly put it down.
Our Revels now are ended: These our actors
(As I foretold you) were all spirits, and
Are melted into Ayre, into thin Ayre,
And like the baseless fabric of this vision
The Clowd-capt Towres, the gorgeous Pallaces,
The solemn Temples, the great Globe is self,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial Pageant faded
Leave not a racke behinde: we are such stuffe
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleepe . . .
– William Shakespeare;
The Tempest, act IV, scene i,
The First Folio, 1623
Since the coming of Arnold, people tend to confuse the use of weights to sculpt the body with competitive weight lifting. They are completely different enterprises. Weight lifters almost never have cut or pretty bodies, which are in any case more to do with the absence of subcutaneous fat than with strength. Any serious heavy-class weight lifter could break Mr. Universe over his knee. Only potentially, of course: I have found it to be the case that large, strong people are mild of temperament unless they are into steroids, which is more and more common nowadays, I fear. I remain nonsteroidally mild, however.
I love my children as much as I love anything, which I have to say is not all that much. I am able to maintain the simulacrum of a good father simply as an act of imagination, as previously I maintained that of a good son, a good brother, a friend, and so on. It is more easy than you might think to fool people, and until I met Amelie I thought everyone was like that, I thought people picked a script from a cultural box and played it out, I thought that, really, there was no difference beaten Jake Mishkin playing Mercutio and Jake Mishkin playing Jake Mishkin, except that Mercutio was better written.
He said (a teacher from Columbia named Charlton) there are three kinds of history. The first is what really happened, and that is lost forever. The second is what most people thought happened, and we can recover that with assiduous effort. The third is what the people in power wanted the future to think happened, and that is 90 percent of the history in books.
Paul's theory is that our civilization is collapsing into a dark age and that the advancing edges of this are visible in urban ghettos. He says dark ages are all about forgetting civilization and its arts and also the increasing reluctance of the ruling classes to pay for civic life. This sealed the fate of Rome, he claims. He doesn't think that the ghetto needs uplift, however, but rather that when the crash comes, the poor will survive better than their masters. They need less, he says, and they are more charitable, and they don't have to unlearn as much. This was why Jesus preferred them. Yes, quite crazy; but when I observe the perfect helplessness of my fellow citizens of the middle class and higher, our utter dependence on electricity, cheap gas, and the physical service of unseen millions, our reluctance to pay our fair share, our absurd gated enclaves, our "good buildings," and our incompetence at any task other than the manipulation of symbols, I often think he has a point.
So . . . this Polanski. He has had a horrid life. He is born at just the wrong time. He is a jew, his parents taken to death camps, he grows up wild. He makes success through hard work and talents and marries beautiful wife, band she is killed by some madman. Why should he believe anything but that devil rules this world? But I was born somewhat earlier in same time, not a Jew but still, life was not so happy for Poles either, the Nazis thought we were almost so bad as the Jews, and so I say I was, if not same as Polanski, at least, you agree, in same class. Father murdered by Nazis, mother killed in uprising, 1944, I am on streets, a baby cared for by my sister, she is twelve years old, my first memory is burning corpses, a pile of bodies in flames and the smell. How we survived I don't know, a whole generation of us. Later, I should add, like Polanski I lost my wife, not to a madman but also tortured to death, months of it. I was by that time not very well in with the authorities and it was difficult to obtain morphia for her. Well, not to talk about personal trouble. I meant to say, after the war, somehow, despite the Germans and the Russians, we look around and discover there is still life in us. We learn, we make love, we have children. Poland survives, our language lives.
People write poetry. Warsaw is rebuilt, every brick, same like before the war. Miloscz wins Nobel, Szymborska wins Nobel, and one of us is pope. Who could imagine this? And so when we make art, this art most often says something more than, oh, poor little me, how I have suffered, the devil is in charge, life is trash, we can do nothing. This is what I mean.
The boy responded to a polite question about the computer game he was playing with a continuous stream of information about his entire history in the Warcraft universe, every feature of his game persona, every treasure he had won, every monster fought. The spiel was uninterruptible by any of the conventional sociolinguistic dodges and the boredom was so intense it nearly sucked the flavor out of the excellent filet and the Chambertin. Crosetti wanted to stab the child with his steak knife.
"Surely not," Mishkin objected. "Surely it's the other way around – filmmakers take popular ideas and embody them in films."
"No, the movies come first. For example, no one ever had a fast-draw face-to-face shoot-out on the dusty Main Street in a western town. It never happened, ever. A screenwriter invented it for dramatic effect. It's the classic American trope, redemption through violence, and it comes through the movies. There were very few handguns in the real old west. They were expensive and heavy and no one but an idiot would wear them in a side holster. On a horse? When you wanted to kill someone in the Old West, you waited for your chance and shot him in the back, usually with a shotgun. Now we have a zillion handguns because the movies taught us that a handgun is something a real man has to have, and people really kill each other like fictional western gunslingers. And it's not just thugs. Movies shape everyone's reality, to the extent that it's shaped by human action – foreign policy, business, sexual relationships, family dynamics, the whole nine yards. It used to be the Bible but now it's movies. Why is there stalking? Because we know that the guy should persist and make a fool of himself until the girl admits that she loves him. We've all seen it. Why is there date rape? Because the asshole is waiting for the moment when resistance turns to passion. He's seen Nicole and Reese do it fifty times. We make these little decisions, day by day, and we end up with a world. This one, like it or not."
"Regeneration" Pat Barker
Based on the true events, this story focuses on British soldier Siegfried Sassoon's breakdown, or "shell-shocked" as it was termed then, from his time on the front lines during WWI in 1917. Sassoon is in a mental hospital for a statement he penned condemning war:
Finished With the War
A Soldier's Declaration
I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance if military authority, because I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.
I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defense and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.
I have seen and endured the suffering of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.
I am not protesting against the conduct of war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.
On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced in them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callus complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.
Some things never change. The first sentence in his statement strikes home 90 years later.
Sassoon is placed in the care of Dr. W.H.R. Rivers in Edinburgh's Craiglockhart Hospital, along with another patient, Wilfred Owen. Barker walks us through the effects of war on the men who are deep in the midst of the horror, and how the relationship of doctor and patient changes all three.
In leading his patients to understand that breakdown was nothing to be ashamed of, that horror and fear were inevitable responses to the trauma of war and were better acknowledged than suppressed, the feelings of tenderness for other men were natural and right, that tears were an acceptable and helpful part of grieving, he was setting himself against the whole tenor of their upbringing. They'd been trained to identify emotional repression as the essence of manliness. Men who broke down, or cried, or admitted to feeling fear, were sissies, weaklings, failures. Not men. And yet he himself was a product of the same system, even perhaps a rather extreme product. Certainly the rigorous repression of emotion and desire had been the consent theme of his adult life. In advising his young patients to abandon the attempt at repression and to let themselves feel the pity and terror their war experience inevitably evoked, he was excavating the ground he stood on.
He could see why Layard might use the term. Layard's relationship with his father had been difficult, and he was a young man, without any personal experience of fathering. Though fathering, like mothering, takes many forms beyond the biological. Rivers had often been touched be the way in which young men, some of them not yet twenty, spoke about feeling like fathers to their men. Though when you looked at what they did. Worrying about socks, boots, blisters, food, hot drinks. And that perpetually harried expression of theirs. Rivers had only had ever seen that look in one other place: in the public wards of hospitals, on the faces of women who were bringing up large families on very low incomes, women who, in their early thirties, could easily be taken for fifty or more. It was the look of people who are totally responsible for lives they have no power to save.
Rivers's inspection of the menu was confined to identifying which particular variety of poached fish was currently on offer. Sassoon gave the matter more thought. Rivers watched him as he pored over the menu and thought how much easier his life would have been if they'd sent Siegfried somewhere else. It wasn't simply the discomfort of having to express views he was no longer sure he held – though, as a scientist, he did find that acutely uncomfortable. No, it was more than that. Every case posed implicit questions about the individual costs of the war, and never more so than in the run up to a round of Medical Boards, when the MOs had to decide which men were fit to return to duty. This would have been easier if he could have believed, as Lewis Yealland, for example, believed, that men who broke down were degenerates whose weakness would have caused them to break down, eventually, even in civilian life, but Rivers could see no evidence of that. The vast majority of his patients had no record of any mental trouble. And as soon as you accepted that the man's breakdown was a consequence of his war experience rather than of his own innate weakness, then inevitably the war became the issue. And the therapy was a test, not only of the genuineness of the individual's symptoms, but also of the validity of the demands the war was making on him. Rivers had survived partly by suppressing his awareness of this. But then along came Sassoon and made the justifiability of the war a matter of constant, open debate and that suppression was no longer available.
Obvious choices for the east window: the two bloody bargains in which civilization claims to be based. The bargain, Rivers thought, looking at Abraham and Isaac. The one on which all patriarchal societies are founded. If you, who are young and strong, will obey me, who am old and weak, even to the extent of being prepared to sacrifice your life, then in the course of time you will peacefully inherit, and be able to exact the same obedience from your sons. Only we're breaking the bargain, Rivers thought. All over northern France, at this very moment, in trenches and dugouts and flooded shell-holes, the inheritors were dying, not one by one, while old men, and woman of all ages, gathered together and sang hymns."
They talked for over an hour. Near the end, after they'd been sitting in silence for a while, Burns said quietly, “Do you know what Christ died of?”
Rivers looked surprised, but answered readily enough. “Suffocation. Ultimately the position makes it impossible to go on inflating the lungs. A terrible death.”
“That's what I find so horrifying. Somebody had to imagine that death. I mean, just in order to invent it as a method of execution. You know that thing in the Bible? ‘The imagination of a man's heart is evil from his youth?’I used to wonder why pick on that? Why his imagination? But it's absolutely right.”
A horse's bit. Not an electrode, not a teaspoon. A bit. An instrument of control. Obviously he and Yealland were both in the business of controlling people. Each of them fitted young men back into the role of warrior, a role they had – however unconsciously – rejected. He'd found himself wondering once or twice recently what possible meaning the restoration of mental health could have in relation to his work. Normally a cure implies that the patient will no longer engage in behavior that is clearly self-destructive. But in present circumstances, recovery meant the resumption of activities that were not merely self-destructive but positively suicidal. But then in a war nobody is a free agent. He and Yealland were both locked in, every bit as much as their patients were.
Here Rivers passes on a story to his own therapist relating to a trip to the Solomon Islands:
“I don't know whether you've ever had the … the experience of having your life changed by a quite trivial incident. You know, nothing dramatic like the death of a parent, or the birth of a child. Something so trivial you almost can't see why it had the effect it had. It happened to me on that trip. I was on the Southern Cross – that's the mission boat – and there was a group of islanders there – recent converts. You can always tell if they're recent, because the women still have bare breasts. And I thought I'd go through my usual routine, so I started asking questions. The first question was, what would you do with it if you earned or found a guinea? Would you share it, and if so who would you share it with? It gets their attention, to them it's a lot of money, and you can uncover all kinds of things about kinship structure and economic arrangements, and so on. Anyway at the end of this – we were all sitting cross-legged on the deck, miles from anywhere – they decided they'd turn the tables on me, and ask me the same questions. Starting with: What would I do with a guinea? Who would I share it with? I explained that I was unmarried and that I wouldn't necessarily feel obliged to share it with anybody. They were incredulous. How could anybody live like that? And so it went on, question after question. And it was one of those situations, you know, where one person starts laughing and everybody joins in and in the end the laughter just feeds off itself. They were rolling round the deck by the time I'd finished. And suddenly I realized that anything I told them would have got the same response. I could've talked about sex, repression, guilt, fear – the whole sorry caboodle – and it would've got exactly the same response. They wouldn't've felt a twinge of disgust or approval or…sympathy or anything, because it would have all been too bizarre. And I suddenly saw that their reactions to my society were neither more nor less valid than mine to theirs. And do you know that was a moment of the most amazing freedom. I lay back and I closed my eyes and I felt as if a ton of weight had been lifted.”
“That, too, But it was more than that. It was…the Great White God de-throned, I suppose. Because we did, we quite unselfconsciously assumed we were the measure of all things. That was how we approached them. And suddenly I saw not only that we weren't the measure of all things, but that there was no measure.”
A society that devours its own young deserves no automatic or unquestioning allegiance.
"The Little Stranger" Sarah Waters
Touted as a ghost story, this is really a gothic tale of the Ayres family residing in their decaying mansion in post WW II Britain. A local physician, Doctor Faraday, narrates this tale as his relationship with the family slowly becomes more complex and complicated. A somewhat dense read but worth the time.
"Juliet, Naked" Nick Hornby
Hornby once again delves back into rock 'n'roll and relationships. The tale involves Annie and Duncan, a struggling couple, and Tucker Crowe, a former pop icon who quit the music biz many years back. Duncan is a devout fan of Tucker; he blogs obsessively about him, theorizes on his whereabouts and analyzes his lyrics to death. There are many priceless moments sprinkled throughout, some laugh-out-loud funny. In the end, the book is about Annie finding a way to take more control of her life in the midst of the boys club.
Annie wondered whether there was, anywhere in the country, a DJ wondering how to break into the business. It seemed unlikely, given the number of establishments that seemed to think they needed one. On the contrary, she suspected demand was such that young people had to be coerced into playing music in bars whether they wanted it or not, like a form of national service. Anyway, the Rose and Crown had a jukebox that offered Vince Hill's version of 'Edelweiss,' an offer that was only rarely taken up, in Annie's experience. It was hard to imagine many sex plans being drawn up in there. And if any were, they would be safe-sex plans, drawn up slowly, and running to several pages of warnings.
"The Scarecrow" Michael Connelly
Another fast-read mystery thriller from Connelly, this one reviving the protagonist Jack McEvoy, from The Poet. McEvoy, laid off from the LA Times, is searching for one last big story. He finds it in the tale of a gang member accused of a crime he may not have committed.
Connelly is one of my favorite crime thriller writers; he spins a good yarn, keeps up the suspense quotient and wraps it all with interesting characters. He can be a bit predictable at times but he tosses in enough twists and turns that you just have to go to the finish line.
"Roadside Crosses" Jeffery Deaver
This was in the house so thought I'd give it a go. From what I gather, Deaver, like Connelly, was a journalist turned crime writer. The bulk of his work has featured the quadriplegic detective Lincoln Rhyme. His first appearance was in The Bone Collector which was made into a film of the same name in the late 90s..
Roadside Crosses, however, is his second novel featuring CBI Agent Kathryn Dance. A page-turner, as it should be, with twists, turns, and enough tech talk for you cyberspace junkies.
"Crooked Little Heart" Anne Lamott
This is the story of Rosie Ferguson's 13th year. She is a junior tennis champion who excels on the court but her insecurities drive her to cheat during matches. Her parents, her tennis partner Simone and a mysterious tennis lurker named Luther all play a role in this tale of youthful peril.
There was a snapshot of Charles in a rowboat somewhere, young and handsome, wearing an old-fashioned T-shirt, like a muscle-man shirt. She almost said out loud to her mother that Charles looked like her dad would have looked if he'd lived another forty years, but if she said that, her mother would just try to make everything come out okay. Rosie wanted to feel these terrible empty held-breath feelings, this extremely sad thing that had happened, Charles dying, and she didn't want her mother to take it away and define it for her and then hand it back. She didn't want a guide. She felt like she had to be mean if she wanted to be herself, while all the grown-ups wanted her to be soft and sad and loving like they were being, and she did not want them to mess with her. She raised her elbows higher, like the turrets of a castle, to keep the grown-ups away. She felt fiercely alone, and she wanted to feel that way.
"Tinkers" Paul Harding
George Washington Crosby is hallucinating and on his death bed as he recalls images of his own father, Howard, an epileptic, tinker and traveling salesman. Not a book for thrill-seekers. This is a narrative to savor slowly with a hot cup of tea.
I will remain a set of impressions porous and open to combination with all of the other vitreous squares floating about in whoever else's frames, because there is always the space left in reserve for the rest of their own time, and to my great-grandchildren, with more space than tiles, I will be no more than the smoky arrangement of a set of rumors, and to their great-grandchildren I will be no more than a tint of some obscure color, and to their great-grandchildren nothing they ever knew about, and so what army of strangers and ghosts has shaped me until back to Adam, until back to when ribs were blown from molten sand into the glass bits that took up the light of this world because they were made from this world, even thought the fleeting tenants of those bits of colored glass have vacated them before they have had even the remotest understanding of what it is to inhabit them, and if they – if we are fortunate (yes, I am lucky, lucky), and if we are fortunate, have fleeting instants when we are satisfied that the mystery is ours to ponder, if never to solve, or even just rife personal mysteries, never mind those outside – are there even mysteries outside? a puzzle itself – but anyway, personal mysteries, like where is my father, why can't I stop all the moving and look out over the vast arrangements and find by the contours and colors and qualities of light where my father is, not to solve anything but just simply even to see it again one last time, before what, before it ends, before it stops. But it doesn't stop; it simply ends. It is a final pattern scattered without so much as a puss at the end, at the end of what, at the end of this.
Your cold mornings are filled without the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn't it?
"Train" Pete Dexter
1953. Train, a black golf prodigy caddy. Miller Packard, police sergeant and golfer. Norah Rose, rape victim and Miller's lover. Murder, highjacking, suspense, read-noir. Enjoy.
"The Alchemist's Daughter: A Novel" Katherine McMahon
Nineteen year old Emilie Selden has been raised by her stern alchemist father in early eighteenth century England. She becomes a first rate student, but not of the ways of the world. Along comes a stranger, Robert Aislabie, who wins Emilie's hand, much to the chagrin of her father. As Emilie discovers that Aislabie is not whom he appeared to be in the beginning of the courtship, it takes our protagonist some time before she is able to peel back the blinders and take charge of her own life.
"The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" Junot Diaz
Diaz successfully blends the fictitious lives of a Dominican family in the U.S. with the horrors of the non-fictitious Trujillo regime. The family blames their misfortune on a curse known as the fuku which is tied to their long history with the dictator.
The family is Oscar de Leon, who is a 300 lb outcast (for his size and his love of fantasy fiction and Dungeons and Dragons), his mother, who has had a series of bad choices in men and has long ago lost her physical beauty, and sister Lola who has inherited many of her mother's traits.
As dour is this all sounds, the book is a highly entertaining read, not only for the exploration of the characters and the Dominican street slang but also for the weaving in of the troubled history of the Dominican Republic under Trujillo.
"Paris Trout" Pete Dexter
Paris Trout is a man with no remorse. He is feared in Cotton Point, Georgia, as the white shop owner who makes loans, sells insurance policies and used cars to the black community. Of course, the cars have been painted over the rust, the policies are really no good and a particular loan was paid in blood. Trout is surprised that anyone's making a fuss about it, let alone going to trial.
This is the story of Trout, his long suffering wife Hanna, Harry Seagraves, the town's prominent attorney who has nightmares about defending Trout and the wronged Sayers family, who are paying dearly for Trout's bigotry and arrogance. Dexter nails this one and is one of my favorite writers.
"White Noise" Don DeLillo
Released in 1984, White Noise refers to the aural and visual propaganda in the life of an American family of that time period. With today's constant bombardment of information, this may seem rather tame, but for the time period, it is chillingly prescient. If you like your humor black, this one's your baby.
"Immortality" Milan Kundera
I read this book in 2006 and decided to crack it open once again. It's one of those so densely layered with philosophical nuggets that I'll most likely crack it again in 2014.
Here Kundera weaves a tale centered around the German writer/thinker Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and his relationship with Bettina von Arnim. I use the word 'tale' loosely as what we are given is his musings on the nature of relationships and existence all the while weaving in historical characters such as Hemingway and Napoleon Bonaparte. What would come off as lecturing by lesser writers instead becomes seamless elements of the story.
There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time. Perhaps we become aware of our age only at exceptional moments and most of the time we are ageless.
Up to a certain moment our death seems too distant for us to occupy ourselves with it. It is unseen and invisible. That is the first, happy period of life.
But then we suddenly begin to see our death ahead of us and we can no longer keep ourselves from thinking about it. It is with us. And because immortality sticks to death as tightly as Laurel and Hardy, we can say that our immortality is with us, too. And the moment we know it is with us we feverishly begin to look after it. We have a formal suit made for it, we buy a new tie for it, worried that others might select the clothes and tie, and select badly.
Let's recall Agnes in the elevator that shook as if seized by Saint Vitus' dance. Even though she was a cybernetics expert, she didn't have any idea what was going on in the head of that machine which was as strange and impenetrable to her as the mechanism of the various objects with which she daily came into contact, from the small computer next to her phone to the dishwasher.
In contrast, Goethe lived during that brief span of history when the level of technology already gave life a certain measure of comfort but when an educated person could still understand all the devices he used. Goethe knew how and with what materials his house had been constructed, he knew why his oil lamp gave off light, he knew the principle of the telescope with which he and Bettina looked at Jupiter; and while he himself could not perform surgery, he was present at several operations, and when he was sick he could converse with the doctor in the vocabulary of an expert. The world of technical objects was completely open and intelligible to him. This was Goethe's great moment at the center of European history, a moment that brings on a pang of nostalgic regret in the heart of someone trapped in a jerking, dancing elevator.
Kundera devotes a chapter to imagology. Here are a couple choice paragraphs:
The politician is dependent on the journalist. But on whom are the journalists dependent? On those who pay them. And those who pay them are the advertising agencies that buy space from newspapers and time from radio and TV stations. At first glance it may seem that the agencies would unhesitatingly approach all the high-circulation newspapers capable of increasing the sales of their products. But that's a naive view of the matter. Sales of products are less important than we think. Just look at the communist countries: the millions of pictures of Lenin displayed everywhere you go certainly do not stimulate love for Lenin. The advertising agencies of the Communist Party (the so-called agitprop departments) have long forgotten the practical goal of their activity (to make the communist system better liked) and have become an end in themselves: they have created their own language, their formulas, their aesthetics (the heads of these agencies once had absolute power over art in their countries), their idea if the right life-style, which they cultivate, disseminate, and force upon their unfortunate peoples.
Public opinion polls are the critical instrument of imagology's power, because they enable imagology to live in absolute harmony with the people. The imagologue bombards people with questions: how is the French economy prospering? is there racism in France? is racism good or bad? who is the greatest writer of all time? is Hungary in Europe or Polynesia? which world politician is the sexiest? And since for contemporary man reality is a continent visited less and less often and, besides, justifiably disliked, the findings of polls have become a kind of higher reality, or to put it differently: they have become the truth. Public opinion polls are a parliament in permanent session, whose function it is to create truth, the most democratic truth that has ever existed. Because it will never be at variance with the parliament of truth, the power of imagologues will always live in truth, and although I know that everything human is mortal, I cannot imagine anything that could break this power.
Here he writes of personal perception:
He suddenly realized, too, that people saw him differently from how he saw himself or from how he thought he was seen by others. He was the only one among all his colleagues at the station who was forced to leave, even though (and he had no doubt about it) the Bear had defended him as well as he could. What was it about him that bothered the advertising men? For that matter, it would be naive of him to think that it was only they who found him unacceptable. Others must have found him unacceptable, too. Without his realizing it in the slightest, something must have happened to his image. Something must have happened and he didn't know what it was, and he'd never know. Because that's how things are, and this goes for everyone: we will never find out why we irritate people, what bothers people about us, what they like about us, what they find ridiculous; for us our own image is our greatest mystery.
How we use language to couch what we say everyday is often overlooked. This paragraph speaks volumes:
Just open any dictionary. To fight means to set one's will against the will of another, with the aim of defeating the opponent, to bring him to his knees, possibly to kill him. “Life is a battle” is a proposition that must at first have expressed melancholy and resignation. But our century of optimism and massacres has succeeded in making this terrible sentence sound like a joyous refrain. You will say that to fight against somebody may be terrible, but to fight for something is noble and beautiful. Yes, it is beautiful to strive for happiness (or love, or justice, and so on), but if you are in the habit of designating your striving with the word “fight,” it means that your noble striving conceals the longing to knock someone to the ground. The fight for is always connected with the fight against, and the preposition “for” is always forgotten in the course of the fight in favor of the preposition “against.”
Here's an interesting perspective on Descartes' "Cogito ergo sum":
I think, therefore I am is the statement of an intellectual who understands toothaches. I feel, therefore I am is a truth much more universally valid, and it applies to everything that's alive. My self does not differ substantially from yours in terms of its thought. Many people, few ideas: we all think more or less the same, and we exchange, borrow, steal thoughts from one another. However, when someone steps on my foot, only I feel the pain. The basis of the self is not thought but suffering, which is the most fundamental of all feelings. While it suffers, not even a cat can doubt its unique and uninterchangeable self. In intense suffering the world disappears and each of us is alone with his self. Suffering is the university of egocentrism.
Musing on a story oft told of Beethoven refusing to remove his hat for royalty, he says:
Thus, if our allegorical picture shows Beethoven striding past a group of aristocrats without taking off his hat, it cannot mean that aristocrats were contemptible reactionaries while he was an admirable revolutionary, but that those who create (statues, poems, symphonies) deserve more respect than those who rule (over servants, officials, or whole nations); that creativity means more than power, art more than politics; that works of art, not wars or aristocratic costume balls, are immortal.
(Actually, Goethe must have been thinking exactly the same thing, except that he didn't consider it useful to reveal this unpleasant truth to the masters of the world at the time, while they were still alive. He was certain that in eternity it would be they who would bow their heads first, and that was enough for him.)
The allegory is clear, and yet it is generally misinterpreted. Those who look at this allegorical picture and hasten to applaud Beethoven completely fail to understand his pride: they are for the most part people blinded by politics, who themselves give precedence to Lenin, Guevara, Kennedy, or Mitterand over Fellini or Picasso. Romain Rolland would surely have bowed much more deeply than Goethe, if he had encountered Stalin on a path in Teplitz.
In our time, the pace of life has quickened considerably just in the past 50 years. We do tend to think of time as linear, moving from one point to another. Here Kundera uses roads and highways as metaphors for this condition:
Road: a strip of ground over which one walks. A highway differs from a road not only because it is solely intended for vehicles, but also because it is merely a line that connects one point with another. A highway has no meaning in itself; its meaning derives entirely from the two points that it connects. A road is a tribute to space. Every stretch of road has meaning in itself and invites us to stop. A highway is the triumphant devaluation of space, which thanks to it has been reduced to a mere obstacle to human movement and a waste of time.
Before roads and paths disappeared from the landscape, they had disappeared from the soul: man stopped wanting to walk, to walk on his own feet and to enjoy it. What's more, he no longer saw his own life as a road, but as a highway: a line that led from one point to another, from the rank of captain to the rank of general, from the role of wife to the role of widow. Time became a mere obstacle to life, an obstacle that had to be overcome by ever greater speed.
Road and highway; these are also two different conceptions of beauty. When Paul says that at a particular place the landscape is beautiful, that means: if you stopped the car at that place, you might see a beautiful fifteenth-century castle surrounded by a park; or a lake reaching far into the distance, with swans floating on its brilliant surface.
On the writing of novels, Kundera places himself in this scene having a conversation with one of this characters:
At last Avenarius broke the silence: “What are you writing about these days, anyway?”
“That's impossible to recount.”
“What a pity.”
“Not at all. An advantage. The present era grabs everything that was ever written in order to transform it into films, TV programs, or cartoons. What is essential in a novel is precisely what can only be expressed in a novel, and so every adaptation contains nothing but the nonessential. If a person is still crazy enough to write novels nowadays and wants to protect them, he has to write them in such a way that they cannot be adapted, in other words, in such a way that they cannot be retold.”
He disagreed: “I can retell the story of The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas with the greatest pleasure, anytime you ask me, from beginning to end!”
“I feel the same way, and I love Alexander Dumas,” I said. “All the same, I regret that almost all novels ever written are much too obedient to the rules of unity of action. What I mean to say is that at their core is one single chain of causally related acts and events. These novels are like a narrow street along which someone drives his characters with a whip. Dramatic tension is the real curse of the novel, because it transforms everything, even the most beautiful pages, even the most surprising scenes and observations merely into steps leading to the final resolution, in which the meaning of everything that preceded is concentrated. The novel is consumed in the fire of its own tension like a bale of straw.”
“When I hear you,” Professor Avenarius said uneasily, “I just hope that your novel won't turn out to be a bore.”
“Do you think that everything that is not a mad chase after a final resolution is a bore? As you eat this wonderful duck, are you bored? Are you rushing toward a goal? On the contrary, you want the duck to enter into you as slowly as possible and you never want its taste to end. A novel shouldn't be like a bicycle race but a feat of many courses. I am really looking forward to Part Six. A completely new character will enter the novel. And at the end of that part he will disappear without a trace. He causes nothing and leaves no effects. That is precisely what I like about him. Part Six will be a novel within a novel, as well as the saddest erotic story I have ever written. It will make you sad, too.”
Avenarius lapsed into a perplexed silence. After a while, he asked me in a kindly voice, “And what will your novel be called?”
“The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”
“I think somebody has already written that.”
“I did! But I was wrong about the title then. That title was supposed to belong to the novel I'm writing now.”
On starting a new life:
Supposedly, astrology teaches us fatalism: you won't escape your fate! But in my view, astrology (please understand, astrology as a metaphor of life) says something far more subtle: you won't escape your life's theme! From this follows, for example, that it is sheer illusion to want to start all over again, to begin "a new life" that does not resemble the preceding one, to begin, so to speak, from zero. Your life will always be built from the same material, the same bricks, the same problems, and what will seem to you at first "a new life" will soon turn out to be just a variation of your old existence.
"Deaf Sentence: A Novel" David Lodge
This is a chapter in the life of retired linguistics professor Edmond Bates, who is growing more despondent due to lack of respect, his hearing problem (which lands him into a predicament with an unstable grad student) and his parts not behaving quite as they used to. I wasn't wild about this one but it's a relatively short read. The most poignant parts are Bates' ruminations on deafness (of which I understand Lodge also suffers).
I enjoyed this bit from the opening paragraph of which I think most can relate:
This is known to linguists as the Lombard Reflex, named after Etienne Lombard, who established early in the twentieth century that speakers increase their vocal effort in the presence of noise in the environment in order to resist degradation of the intelligibility of their messages. When many speakers display this reflex simultaneously they become, of course, their own environmental noise source, adding incrementally to its intensity.
I've also found this to be the case with many bands I have played in.
"Sarum" Edward Rutherfurd
I haven't cracked an epic historical novel for some time so dove into this 1350 page tome on the recommendation of my mother-in-law. It was a surprisingly fast read as Rutherfurd knows the tricks to keep you engaged.
In essence, it entails the history of the Salisbury region of England from the stone age up to 19th century with a bit thrown in of the 20th century toward the end. It follows a handful of family lines through the ages so we are privy to the trait and physical similarities of many generations, while the protagonists are mostly unaware of their heritage.
Highlights are the design and building of Stonehenge, the creation of the first Roman made "highways" in that part of the world and the construction of the infamous Salisbury Cathedral.
NATHANIEL: But can you not see – once you destroy kingship, you destroy the natural order. Even if the king be wrong, he is the anointed monarch: our ancient privileges are bound up with his. Take away the king, and who governs?
OBADIAH: Men of God.
NATHANIEL: Presbyters. Why, their tyranny would be worse than the king's. I have heard it said: new Presbyter is but the old priest writ large.
EDMUND: The king may rule, but only by consent of parliament.
NATHANIEL: Then Parliament usurps the king – steals his ancient rights. Tell me this, by whose authority do they then rule instead? Who calls them to govern? I say, if the old order is gone, then there's no authority in England. The Parliament might as well be summoned by the people themselves.
EDMUND: That is a foolish charge.
NATHANIEL: It is not. If you destroy the authority of the king, Brother Edmund, then it will one day be the mob, the people themselves who will rule. And that would be chaos and tyranny combined.
EDMUND: I see will shall never agree.
He was not stupid, but like an animal whose body is not yet coordinated, his brain often seemed to move clumsily and at times, to his shame, a kind of fog seemed to descend upon its operations. The year before, when in order to bring the English calendar in line with that of continental Europe, the date had been moved by eleven days, he could not shake off the feeling, shared by many of the illiterate folk, that the eleven days had been lost. And when he heard his father laughing at a little group of labourers in the street who were crying, "Give us back our eleven days," he began to defend them.
"They were on the calendar but they've been taken away."
"Of course," his father replied, "but that doesn't make the sun rise and set any less does it?"
"No but..." Blushing, he felt the fog descending upon him before breaking off, embarrassed by the look of wonder on his father's face. It had taken him another two days to sort the business out clearly in his mind, to his own satisfaction.
He was slow, and did not pick up received ideas as well as the cleverer boys, but the conclusions he slowly and clumsily reached were his own.
"The Cement Garden" Ian McEwan
Most will find this story disturbing. Three children, two teenagers and a younger child, are left to fend for themselves after both parents die rather suddenly. They have no friends and perhaps the parents did not as well as no one comes calling or to check in on the family. When left to their own devices, such as in this Lord of the Flies type of predicament, a certain primitive behavior creeps up and takes over.
"The Master Butchers Singing Club" Louise Erdrich
This is a tale of struggle in post WW1 America that spans nearly forty years. Fidelis Waldvogel, a German sniper and butcher by trade, emigrates to Argus, North Dakota with his pregnant wife. Enter into the picture Delphine Watzka, a traveling vaudeville performer who's father resides in the same small town where Fidelis sets up shop. Delphine and her performance partner, Cyprian Lazarre, are drawn back to Argus as Delphine's father, Roy, needs attention, being the town drunk and all. Cyprian is Delphine's lover but he's also struggling with his attraction to men. Any more information would be a spoiler. A great read as Erdich writes with eloquence and humor.
"Manhood for Amateurs" Michael Chabon
Here's yet another writer that I've read in multiples; The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay, Gentlemen of the Road, A Model World and Other Stories. He's a self admitted geek (he espouses on that very word in this book under the chapter The Amateur Family) which he has passed on to his children, and it is in that spirit that has resulted in this very entertaining and smart collection of stories about his life as a husband, father and son. Here are a few gems...
There is no more useless activity than that of periodization, the packaging of history, in particular cultural history, into discreet eras – the Jazz Age, the Greatest Generation, the Eisenhower Years, the Sixties. Such periods can never be honestly articulated without resource to so many demurrals and arbitrary demarcations, and the granting of so many exceptions, as to render them practically useless for any kind of serious historical purpose. In times of supposed license, repression reigns freely all around; in eras renowned for their conventionality, oddballs and freaks hoist their banners high. And yet when I heard the gifted and intelligent Ann Druyan wondering, fervently but not without a sense of her own goofiness, if perhaps ages hence some technomagical future alien race might be able to reconstitute, from the record of her brain waves, her feeling of incipient passion for her man and for the work they undertook together, as equals, as partners, and lovers – to re-create the sense of how it felt to be Ann Druyan on an afternoon in New York City during those infatuated, boundary-breaking, termination-shock-crossing years – I knew that I was listening, carried as by a lonely probe across the distances, to the voice of the 1970s.
"You're going to put that up?" my wife had asked me when I brought the rack home form the store. She didn't sound dubious so much as surprised, as if I were also proposing to weave a new set of bath towels from cotton I had grown and harvested myself.
"Duh," I said coolly. "No biggie."
This is an element of the business of being a man: to flood everyone around you in a great radiant arc of bullshit, one whose source and object of greatest intensity is yourself. To behave as if you have everything firmly under control even when you have just sailed your boat over the falls. "To keep your head," wrote Rudyard Kipling in his classic poem "If," which articulated the code of high-Victorian masculinity in whose fragmentary shadow American men still come of age, " when all about you are losing theirs"; but in reality, the trick of being a man is to give the appearance of keeping your head when, deep inside, the truest part of you is crying out, oh shit!
It's in this last element, so crucial to the work of Henry Miller, that gives away the game. When I was twenty years old, the following statement would have at once outraged me and made sense to me: You know nothing about women. It's just a sappy and worthless generalization to me now, empty of meaning. But at the time I thought women was a category, a field, like post-Parker jazz or the varieties of marijuana, that you could study and master and "know something about." If you are a callow young man at twenty – and I think the man of twenty pretty much defines the term – then your callowness consists almost entirely in this type of belief, that life is made up of mastering the particulars, memorizing the lineups, accumulating the trivia and lore, in knowing how to trace the career of drummer Aynsley Dunbar or to get a girl to go to bed with you and your best friend, as an expression of your existential freedom and complete disregard for the fact that she is a person, and she likes you or him, and you're actually kind of breaking her heart.
"The House on Fortune Street" Margot Livesey
"Moo" Jane Smiley
Have I mentioned how much I love to read Jane Smiley's work? I love it. There.
This particular novel, published in 1995, was a bit more complex than her other novels, mostly due to so many characters, plots and sub-plots. If you don't read it in one sitting (who has time for that?) it makes it that much more difficult. There was a time or two where I wanted to put it away as I couldn't quite remember what happened last with a particular character. But her writing is so witty and liquid, it didn't matter and before you know it I'm sailing along once again in Smiley land. This story takes place at Moo University, a fictional campus in the midwest, and addresses the hypocrisy, egomania and delusion that surrounds academia.
I marked several passages to share with you, this first one the thoughts of Cecilia Sanchez, a transplanted professor from L.A. to the midwest:
Cecelia Sanchez, assistant professor of foreign languages and teacher of Spanish, too found the midwest eerie, but it was not only the flatness that threw her. Each day of the past two weeks she would have picked a different source of dislocation. Right now it seemed eerie to look out on twenty-one blond heads, in rows of five, unrelieved by a single brunette. Last night she'd thought the humidity was going to suffocate her. A few nights before, her rented duplex had seemed uncannily muffled by trees. Sometimes it seemed that everyone she saw, everyone on every room, was determined to be very very quiet. In the almost empty streets there was no shouting, no music. When she went into stores, the customers seemed to be gliding around on tires. Salespeople appeared beside her, smiling significantly, murmuring, apparently ready to flee. No one wanted to negotiate or even talk about a purchase. You were supposed to make up your mind in some kind of mysterious vacuum. The smiling itself made Cecelia uneasy, because it didn't seem to lead to anything, and whatever the distinctions were between types of smiles, they were so fine that she couldn't make them out. On all sides, her neighbors were dead quiet, the hum of air conditioners substituting for conversation and argument. She saw men in gas stations exchanging sentences a single word long and understanding what they were getting at.
In Bob's former opinion, girls had been generally unremarkable. Some future one had your name on her, but her likeness to your sisters or aunts or mother was major, and reassuring. He had long assumed a relationship to the whole realm of girls that was very similar to his father's relationship to his mother – respectful, with much understood, little actually declared. He had been subtly warned against anything else, for one thing. Hi father and grandfather spoke disapprovingly about boys and men who followed their dicks around; his mother and aunts reserved their most puzzled scorn for girls and women who didn't fit in, didn't ask for recipes, and thought themselves better than other people. It was easy to see the rational basis for all of this disapproval, too –– that kind of man and those kinds of women made no one happy, least of all themselves.
A book, she had emphasized in her paper, was a negotiable commodity. Above a certain level of obscurity, the public paid for it in either money or praise, rarely both. All American writers of books (makers of films) considered themselves artists, because they defined artistry as the creative manipulation of materials. Through accidents of heritage, upbringing , psychological profile, and temperament, every artist found her(him)self more or less in conflict with the prevailing cultural norms and forms. Choice on this score would be as impossible as choosing one's own fingerprints. Artists from the mainstream of the culture would locate themselves on a single continuum, and if they were in agreement with cultural norms and forms, their reward would be money and no praise (Danielle Steel), and if they were in conflict with cultural norms and forms, their reward would be praise and no money (Ishmael Reed). The restlessness of American cultural norms and forms was well known, however, and any bit the most hermetically sealed writer could hope(fear) that the ever-darting spotlight would one day focus on her(him).
A paragraph on fraternity/sorority culture:
The thing about these guys was that they had no secrets. Their high opinions of themselves, and their sense of entitlement to things like sexual favors, nice clothes, good cars, and a future in which everything would go their way, were fully on display. What you saw was what you got, and she did not believe, as some of the other girls said, that the boys at the parties were separate form some sober incarnation of the same boys. The boys at the parties were being who they wanted to be, and while at one time she had harbored illusions about who they were, and while she had lost some of her enthusiasm for them, she still didn't doubt that their world was where she was headed. Now she just thought that forewarned was forearmed.
The enemy was across campus, in Agronomy, the war was played out in terms of row planting vs. food crops, and a thousand other antitheses, and the horticulturists really believed that gardening would save the world that agriculture was destroying. 'How do you think everyone was employed for thousands of years?' he would rage. 'In growing food and fiber! Is idleness on the streets actually BETTER?' They loved his lecture on how agriculture actually promoted starvation by first promoting overpopulation. They would surge out of the classroom, electrified by the passionate vision of agriculture as a catastrophic historical mistake –– he could produce fifty new revolutionaries every semester without any classroom preparation.
She had never wanted to marry Dean, but now, perversely, considering how deeply she disapproved of calf-free lactation and how firmly convinced she was that their couplehood would cease sometime soon, she wished they had gotten married, so that their life together would go out with a bang, rather than passing away in the vapor that now seemed inevitable. Partly she wanted this so that the surprising pain she felt at the breakup would be publicly marked and noted. Partly she wanted it because in retrospect her whole life seemed mostly vaporous, undifferentiated by events –– no children, no marriages, no advanced degrees, not even any big-time championships, many pretty good horses that she'd brought along well enough, but no great one. Okay, and no grand lover for an extraordinary and unique lover, either, just many days and years with Dean, an ordinary man of ordinary tastes who was terribly afraid of seeming ordinary, itself a characteristic that Joy had noted in almost every man and most of the women she had known.
"The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" Sherman Alexie
This is the semi-autobiographical story of Arnold "Junior" Spirit, a Spokane Indian whom, at 14, goes to a neighboring school for mostly whites. He's bright and ends up being a basketball whiz as well. As he deals with becoming an outcast on the rez, we are witness to how Arnold deals with balancing both worlds:
"It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you're poor because you're stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you're stupid and ugly because you're Indian. And because you're Indian you start believing you're destined to be poor. It's an ugly circle and there's nothing you can do about it."
"Hey, Dad," I said. "What do Indians have to be thankful for?"
"We should give thanks that they didn't kill all of us"
We laughed like crazy. It was a good day. Dad was sober. Mom was getting ready to nap. Grandma was already napping.
"Ah, it's my best friend, Rowdy. Well, he used to be my best friend. He hates me now."
"How come he hates you?" he asked.
"Because I left the rez," I said.
"But you still live there, don't you? You're just going to school here."
"I know, I know, but some Indians think you have to act white to make your life better. Some Indians think you become white if you try to make your life better, if you become successful."
"If that were true, then wouldn't all white people be successful?"
Man, Gordy was smart. I wished I could take him to the rez and let him educate Rowdy. Of course, Rowdy would probably punch Gordy until he was brain-dead. Or maybe Rowdy, Gordy, and I could become a superhero trio, fighting for truth, justice, and the Native American way. Well, okay, Gordy was white, but anybody can start to act like an Indian if he hangs around us long enough.
For a book that deals with such serious and sobering issues, it's also laugh out loud funny.
"The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox" Maggie O'Farrell
This is the story of Iris Lockhart, a stylish, young dress shop owner, who is informed that she has power-of-attorney for an aunt that has ben locked away in a mental institution for over sixty years. Esme Lennox was put away years earlier due to her inability and perhaps unwillingness to abide by polite society. In those days, a family could just institutionalize a young woman with independent spirit.
Just before chapter one, O'Farrell includes a poem by Emily Dickinson that nicely prefaces what's to follow...
Much Madness is divinest Sense ––
To a discerning eye ––
Much Sense –– the starkest Madness ––
'Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail ––
Assent –– and you are sane ––
Demur –– and you're straightaway dangerous ––
And handled with a chain ––
And here are a couple passages I marked along the journey...
From all her family –– her and Kitty and Hugo and all the other babies and her parents –– from all of them, there is only this girl. She is the only one left. They have all narrowed down to this black-haired girl sitting in the sand, who has no idea that her hands and her eyes and the tilt of her head and the fall of her hair belong to Esme's Mother. We are all, Esme decides, just vessels through which identities pass: we are lent features, gestures, habits, then we hand them on. Nothing is our own. We begin in the world as anagrams of our antecedents.
And on the idea of parents "breaking the spirit" of a child...
"Mother,” Esme begins tremulously, “I don't want to ––“
Her mother brings her face down to hers. “What you want,” she murmurs, almost lovingly, into her ear, “does not come into this. The boy wants you. Goodness knows why, but he does. Your kind of behaviour (sic) has never been tolerated in this house and it never will be. So, shall we see if a few months as James Dalziel's wife will be enough to break your spirit. Now, stand up and get yourself dressed. Here's your sister with your frock.”
The idea of Esme being put away for the length of her life in a home for the 'mad' is heartbreaking. Well worth the read.
"A Thousand Acres" Jane Smiley
"Souls Raised From the Dead" Doris Betts
"The Lecturer's Tale" James Hynes
"Up In the Air" Walter Kirn
"Lush Life" Richard Price
"Four Kinds of Rain" Robert Ward
"Gentlemen of the Road" Michael Chabon
"The Mind Box" A. J. Diehl
"Killing Time" Caleb Carr
"Brother Odd" Dean Koontz
"Plainsong" Kent Haruf
"Good Faith" Jane Smiley
The review below by Regina Marler of Amazon sums this one up nicely:
Opening a Jane Smiley novel is like slipping into a warm bath. Here are people we know, places where we grew up. But the comforting, unassuming tone of her work allows Smiley incredible latitude as a writer, and her books are full of surprises. Good Faith, a novel about greed and self-delusion set in the economic boom of the early 1980s, is no exception. Joe Stratford is an amiable, divorced real estate agent in an unspoiled small town called Rollins Hills. He takes it in stride when a married female friend pursues a love affair with him; he is more suspicious when a high-rolling newcomer named Marcus Burns begins to influence the business affairs of the men closest to Joe. Nevertheless, the promise of easy riches draws Joe into one of Burns's real estate development schemes, and then, ominously, into gold trading. The steps by which a nice guy can be lured into betraying his principles are delineated so sharply in Good Faith that you wonder how Joe cannot see them. Although he never quite manages to understand what has happened to him, he's granted a moment of grace at the close of the novel, a second chance that has nothing to do with money, ambition, or the tarnished American Dream. Since we live with the legacy of the self-serving 1980s, Smiley's novel seems as timely as if it were set in the present. Penetrating, readable fiction by one of our best writers and social critics.
"Indecision" Benjamin Kunkel
"Black Dogs" Ian McEwan
"I can see you think I'm a crank. It doesn't matter. This is what I know. Human nature, the human heart, the spirit, the soul, consciousness itself – call it what you like – in the end, it's all we've got to work with. It has to develop and expand, or the sum of our misery will never diminish. My own small discovery has been that this change is possible, it is within our power. Without a revolution of the inner life, however slow, all our big designs are worthless. The work we have to do is with ourselves if we're ever going to be at peace with each other. I'm not saying it'll happen. There's a good chance it won't. I'm saying it's our only chance. If it does, and it could take generations, the good that flows from it will shape our societies in an unprogrammed, unforeseen way, under the control of no single group of people or set of ideas..."
"The Darkest Evening of the Year" Dean Koontz
"The Widow of the South" Robert Hicks
This tale begins with the telling of the most horrific battle of the Civil War: the battle of Franklin, Tennessee on November 30, 1864. This is based on the true story of Carrie McGavock, who's colonial southern mansion was taken over as a hospital to tend the wounded. Little did they know that 9,000 men would lose their lives that day. Her empathy for the dead and wounded became so strong through this ordeal that she and her husband John eventually buried and marked graves on their own property for well over 1,000 confederate soldiers that were dug up and transferred from the original shallow graves they were dumped into shortly after the battle.
I pitied Becky for reasons other than her station in life. What was station anymore? I could feel my own station slipping away, and good riddance. I wore plain clothes and quit bothering to powder my neck. I swore occasionally in front of the men and committed to memory the new curses I heard the men sputtering. I thought of the curses as passwords, the lingua franca of my new life, one I could not yet envision but which I knew would be coarser and not possessed of the layers of fine scrim that had kept me in gauzy ignorance of the clang and stink and sharpness of things outside of Carnton.
"The Double Bind" Chris Bohjalian
A term came to her that they used on occasion at BEDS: the double bind. The expression had a clinical origin, referring to Gregory Bateson's theory that a particular brand of bad parenting could inadvertently spawn schizophrenia. Essentially, it meant consistently offering a child a series of contradictory messages: telling him you loved him while turning away in disgust. Telling him he needed to go asleep when it was clear you merely wanted him out of your hair. Asking him to kiss you good night and then telling him he has offensively bad breath. Over a long period of time, Bateson hypothesized, a child would realize he couldn't possibly win in the real world, and as a coping mechanism would develop an unreal world of his own. The double-bind theory had not been completely discredited, but Laurel knew these days that most clinicians viewed nature - brain chemicals - as a much more significant determinant than nurture in whether a person became schizophrenic. Nevertheless, at the shelter they used the expression in much the same way that they would a term like catch-22.
"Run" Ann Patchett
Not her best effort (read Bel Canto) but Patchett weaves a tale of family that reminds us that the life we lead is sometimes not what we think it is.
"Up In Honey's Room" Elmore Leonard
I like a good murder mystery and Elmore Leonard ranks with the best.
"Baudolino" Umberto Eco
This is from the author of "Focault's Pendulum" and "Name of the Rose". I wanted to stop reading this tale several times but stubbornly kept at it. At times witty and throughout fantastical, Eco has woven a tale as told by the self-admitting liar Baudolino about his life-long adventure, along with his longtime companions, to find the legendary priest Prester John, a character he himself conjured up. This one requires patience as it's not to be skimmed through. Due to the weaving of historical references, theology, philosophy, languages and medieval allusions, having your laptop with google handy is not a bad idea.
"The Witch of Portobello: A Novel" Paulo Coelho
The story of Athena, an orphaned Romanian gypsy, is told post-mortum and chronologically by people who knew her throughout her life. Just on the heels of reading the book below, the idea of embracing 'chaos' into a way of life reared its head.
"Seven Life Lessons of Chaos" John Briggs and F. David Peat
This is one that I'll be picking back up again soon. It's not a 'how-to' book, but a meditation on embracing life's unpredictable nature. Here's a short paragraph that gets to the heart of what chaos is and is not:
Just what is chaos? The answer has many facets and will take a little explanation. To begin with, chaos turns out to be far subtler than the commonsense idea that it is the messiness of mere chance - the shuffling of a deck of cards, the ball bouncing around in a roulette wheel, or the loose stone clattering down a rocky mountainside. The scientific term 'chaos' refers to an underlying interconnectedness that exists in apparently random events. Chaos science focuses on hidden patterns, nuance, the 'sensitivity' of things, and the 'rules' for how the unpredictable leads to the new. It is an attempt to understand the movements that create thunderstorms, raging rivers, hurricanes, jagged peaks, gnarled coastlines, and complex patterns of all sorts, from river deltas to the nerves and blood vessels in our bodies.
They discuss the way we view living as a timeline "much like a journey between two railway stations. Instead of it being our companion and friend, it is what is being eaten up fast, just as the train eats up the track ahead of it.
This attitude is also reflected in our conventional view of history. History is a procession along a road whose milestones are battles, the death of kings, and the elections of presidents. Virginia Woolf suggested another sort of history, one in which women are engaged in continuous small acts of nurturing and holding our society together. Woolf challenges our preoccupation with a historical time demarcated by dramatic 'events' strung out along a line of time. She suggests that the real significance of time lies within the realm of subtle, human interactions and enfolded, multi-layered moments of human contact.
It's difficult to change the basic paradigms that have been drilled into our beings as we've been socialized from day one to ride the track. This book may help to upset the cart a bit...gently unscrew the top of your head, pour in new ideas, shake gingerly, drink lots of water, share with others.
"Music For Torching" A. M. Homes
We've all read or heard of novels filled with dire suburban angst and the middle class dilemma of achingly unfulfilled lives. Well, here's another...kinda.
We really do not want to care for Paul and Elaine, the lead characters, and Homes has a way with her black humor to keep us in the game long enough to empathize and have quite a few laughs along the way. Somehow she's able to reveal just enough of the creative vacuum of the any-town suburban void yet manages to make it a fun read. Nothing profound here, but worth putting on your list.
"Another Thing to Fall" Laura Lippman
Another Tess Monaghan crime thriller...I actually had to turn the pages myself on this one, unlike "What the Dead Know".
"Voodoo Dreams" Jewell Parker Rhodes
The imaginary story of the notorious voodooienne Marie Laveau, the third Marie in a line of voodoo practitioners, in 19th century New Orleans.
"My Son's Story" Nadine Gortimer
The story of one complex family relationship set in South Africa focuses on a father Sonny, a black schoolteacher turned revolutionary, and his affair with a white activist. The young son Will unwittingly discovers his father's deception and the story evolves around his struggle to deal with that along with his loyalty to his mother Aila.
There came a point, not possible to determine exactly when, at which equality became a cry that couldn't be made out, had been misheard or misinterpreted, turned out to be be something else – finer. Freedom. That was it. Equality was not freedom, it had been only the mistaken yearning to become like the people of the town. And who wanted to become like the very ones feared and hated? Envy was not freedom.
For them, their kind, black like the others, there was only one meaning: the political struggle. (As he loved the magnificent chices of Shakespearean language, the crudely reductive terms of political concepts were an embarrassment to him, but he had to use them, like everybody else.)
Joy. That was what went with it. The light of joy that illuminates long talk of ideas, not the 60-watt bulbs that shine on family matters.
"Samaritan" Richard Price
"Oh My Stars" Lorna Landvik
A novel of hope, a good read and timely.
"Drowning Ruth" Christina Schwarz
Another fast, suspenseful read...well done.
"Impossible Vacation" Spalding Gray
I really loved this book. Spalding writes as if he's reciting one of his monologues; engaging and surreal.
"The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton" Jane Smiley
I stood up and moved away from the vent, suddenly weary of the certain outcome of their speculations. Back to Alice, back to the strange languor of life. It vexed me, too, that though their afternoons of complaint and self-justification would result in nothing new, they would make their way through it, anyway, like cows following the same old meandering track through their all too familiar pasture and coming upon the same old over-grazed corner as if it were fresh and unexpected.
I thought of something brother Roland Brereton had sometimes said about why he wasn't particularly neighborly: "Why should I look after those who can't look after themselves? When the time comes, they'll be too behindhand to look after me."
In fact, in many ways it seemed as though fate or luck was separating all of our acquaintances into layers...but I thought, Well, Americans always sort themselves out one way or another into rich and poor, and then everybody gets blamed for however he ends up. Lawrence was the biggest town for gossip I ever saw, and it was only during a war that what folks said about each other was either respectful or kind.
"Three Cups of Tea" Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
This book is about Greg Mortenson's incredible works in Pakistan and, for the last several years, Afghanistan. This story outlines in detail his quest, starting with one humble school for both boys and girls, to his successful completion of more than a hundred schools in the Northern Provinces and valleys. The non-profit group that he founded to make this all happen is the Central Asia Institute.
What struck me first is that education, more than anything else, will be the killer of extremism of all types. The Taliban and Al-Queda have both recruited uneducated children (and adults) who are much more susceptible to propaganda than even the mildly educated.
Secondly, Mortenson approaches the projects with the philosophy to empower the various communities to do the work themselves, and not impose his own cultural background upon them. This has been an exhaustive and truly remarkable achievement.
A small donation to this amazing group can garner many miles of American Karma. That $6 oversized Carl's Jr. behemoth you're chokin' down while leaning against your manly $35,000 pickup truck could buy a couple weeks worth of provisions for an entire family. Please take a minute to check out the web site.
"The Professor and the Madman" (A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary) Simon Winchester
This is a drier read than the subtitle indicates but well worth the effort.
"The Children's Hospital" Chris Adrian
This all takes place within a floating hospital after the world is flooded by God. Or flooded, by God. It sort of reminded me of the trend of current TV series such as 'Heroes' that go on and on and never quite resolve, with subplot after subplot. This was another one of those, however, that I had to finish...semi-satisfying, lovely bouquet.
"Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons" Lorna Landvik
This tale spans forty years of a group of women friends (also neighbors in a Minneapolis suburb) who form a book club that becomes an important social bond for all of them. Landvik knows how to maintain your interest in her characters making for a quick and entertaining read.
"Independent People" Halldør Laxness
If you are a fan of the music of the Icelandic band Sigur Røs, here is the literary equivalent. Both capture the eery and remote lay of an untamed landscape still minutely populated. Independent People was written in the 1930's but like all great literature, the theme of mans struggles are timeless. This is the story of Gudbjarter Jonsson, a stubborn self made man, as he endures the hardships of tending his own hard earned land...but it's not all dour. Laxness weaves in humor and satire effortlessly as the tragedies of everyday life unfolds. Not an easy read but I encourage those who stick with it a great reward.
Forenoon, noon, and afternoon are as far off as the countries we hope to see when we grow up; evening as remote and unreal as death...
Few things are so inconstant, so unstable, as a loving heart, and yet it is the only place in the world where one can find sympathy.
...there is much comfort in the thought that time effaces everything, crime and sorrow no less than love.
...two human beings have such trouble in understanding each other, there is nothing so tragical as two human beings.
In its own way misery no less than revelry is varied in form and worthy of note wherever there lurks a spark of life in the world...
Below is his rant of the wealthy politician, that begins with a miserable description of the worst behavior but moves to a more hopeful prognosis...
Wherein lay the secret of Ingolfur Arnarson's success? To what gifts, what accomplishments, did he owe the speed of the ascent that had carried him so rapidly from obscurity to fame, from nonentity to national eminence? Already, in spite of his youth, he was one of the most important and most influential men in the country, a national figure whose photograph was the daily delight of the newspapers, whose name the euphonic pride of the fattest headlines. Did he perhaps owe his rise, like great men before him, to a constant rooting and grubbing for personal profit? Was he always on the hunt for anything that people in need might have for sale, so as to be able to sell it again to others who could not do without it and were driven, possibly, by an even greater need? Had he, for example, appropriated a croft here, a croft there in years of depression and sold them again when prosperity returned and prices rose? Had he perhaps lent people hay in a hard spring and demanded the same weight in sheep as security? Or food and money to the starving, at a usurious rate of interest? Or had he achieved greatness by stinting himself of food and drink, like an ill-provisioned criminal in flight through the wilds, or a peasant who, in spite of slaving eighteen hours a day, has been told by his dealer that his debts are still increasing and that he has now reached the limit of his credit? Or by having one solitary chair in his room, and a broken one at that, and shambling about in a filthy assortment of mouldy old rags all day, like a wretched tramp or a farm labourer? Or was the method he employed that of accumulating thousand upon thousand at the bottom of his chest until he was rich enough to found a savings bank and start lending folk money at a legal rate of interest, and then standing in front of destitute men and informing them that the depth of his poverty was such that soon he would have to sell the very soul from his body if he wished to escape imprisonment for debt?...No Ingolfur Arnarson's road to honour and repute had been neither the miser's nor the merchant's bloody career, hitherto the sole paths to wealth and true dignity recognized as legal by the Icelandic community and it's justice. What made Ingolfur Arnarson a great man was first and foremost his ideals, his unquenchable love of mankind, his conviction that the people needed improved conditions of life and better facilities for cultural advancement, his determination to mitigate his fellow men's sufferings by establishing a better form of government in the country. This government, instead of being a helpless puppet in the hands of the peasant's ruthless oppressors, the merchants, would be the small producer's, especially the peasant's, most powerful ally in his struggle for existence.
But a more bitter reality seems to creep to the surface...
Then did all the grants and the subsidies, the benefits and the bargain offers pass over these poverty-stricken peasants when Ingolfur Arnarson's ideals were at last brought to fruition? What is one to say? It so happens that it signifies little though a penniless crofter be offered a grant from the Treasury towards the cost of tractors and modern ploughs. Or a forty years' loan to build a concrete house with double walls, water on tap, linoleum, and electric light. Or a bonus on his deposits. Or a prize for cultivating a large expanse of land. Or a princely manure-cistern for the droppings for one or one and a half cows. The fact is that it is utterly pointless to make anyone a generous offer unless he is a rich man; rich men are the only people who can accept a generous offer. To be poor is simply the peculiar human condition of not being able to take advantage of a generous offer. The essence of being a poor peasant is the inability to avail oneself of the gifts that politicians offer or promise and to be left at the mercy of ideals that only make the rich richer and poor poorer.
"Well, personally," he said (Gudbjarter), "I've come to the conclusion that a fellow has no more chance of becoming an independent man these days than he had in the old days, if he does and builds himself a house. Never in the whole history of the country, from the time of the settlement onward, has an ordinary working man managed to build himself a house worthy of the name, so I don't see what good will come of it by starting now. We'll just have to let the old turf walls suffice. And anyway, what does it matter if a man has to live in a little mud hut all his life when his life, when you can really call it a life, is so short? It would be another matter altogether if folk had souls and were immortal. Only in that case would there be any point in trying to get oneself a house built."
Once again they had laid waste the lone worker's farm; they are always the same from century to century, for the simple reason that the lone worker remains the same from century to century. A war on the continent may bring some relief, for a year or so, but it is only a seeming help, an illusion. The lone worker will never escape from his life of poverty for ever and ever; he will go on existing in affliction as long as man is not man's protector, but his worst enemy. The life of the lone worker, the life of the independent man, is in its nature a flight from other man, who seek to kill him.
"Miss Garnet's Angel" Sally Vickers
"Blue Angel" Francine Prose
This is a witty satire on higher education, focusing on the creative writing departments. Well worth a read.
Swenson argued for Claris. He'd dragged in Chekhov to tell the class that the writer need not paint a picture of an ideal world, but only describe the actual world, without sermons, without judgement. As if his students give a shit about some dead Russian that Swenson ritually exhumes to support his loser opinions. And yet just mentioning Chekhov made Swenson fell less alone, as if he were being watched over by a saint who wouldn't judge him for the criminal fraud of pretending that these kids could be taught what Swenson's pretending to teach them. Chekhov would see into his heart and know that he sincerely wished he could give his students what they want: talent, fame, money, a job.
"Skeletons on the Zahara" Dean King
This story is based on the true-life account of twelve American sailors who shipwrecked in 1815 off the coast of Africa and were taken slaves for the better part of a year. It really made me thirsty.
"S is for Silence" Sue Grafton
Another quick read and thrill ride by Grafton, featuring the protagonist detective Kinsey Millhone. Wheeee.
"What the Dead Know" Laura Lippman
This is a cold case tour-de-force by Lippman. A page turner. Yes, the pages actually turn on their own. Amazing. Maybe it's just my copy...
"Special Topics in Calamity Physics" Marisha Pessl
I kept saying to myself "I'M NOT GONNA FINISH THIS IT'S GOING ON FOREVER AND CHOCK FULL OF ACADEMIC AND LITERARY REFERENCES THAT NEVER END AND I CAN'T TAKE ANY MORE!!!" Like that. The two quotes below are actually references from other authors:
"As far as one journeys, as much as a man sees, from the turrets of the Taj Mahal to the Siberian wilds, he may eventually come to an unfortunate conclusion - usually while he's lying in bed, staring at the thatched ceiling of some substandard accommodation in Indochina, " writes Swithin in his last book, the posthumously published Whereabouts, 1917 (1918). "It is impossible to rid himself of the relentless, cloying fever commonly known as Home. After seventy-three years of anguish I have found a cure, however. You must go home again, grit your teeth and however arduous the exercise, determine, without embellishment, your exact coordinates at Home, your longitudes and latitudes. Only then, will you stop looking back and see the spectacular view in front of you."
I present Paragraph 14, the section entitled "Zeus Complex": "The egocentric Man seeks to taste immortality by engaging in demanding physical challenges, wholeheartedly bringing himself to the brink of death in order to taste an egotistical sense of accomplishment, of victory. Such a feeling is false and short-lived, for Nature's power over Man is absolute. Man's honest place is not in extreme conditions, where, let's face it, he's frail as a flea, but in work. It is in building things and governing, the creation of rules and ordinances. It is in work Man will find life's meaning, not in the selfish, heroin-styled rush of hiking Everest without oxygen and nearly killing himself and the poor Sherpa carrying him."
"Blackwood Farm" Anne Rice
I admit it...I love reading Anne Rice.
"Hello the house!"
"But you love books, then," Aunt Queen was saying. I had to listen.
"Oh yes," Lestat said. "Sometimes they're the only thing that keeps me alive."
"What a thing to say at your age," she laughed.
"No, but one feel desperate at any age, don't you think? The young are eternally desperate," he said frankly. "And books, they offer one hope – that a whole universe might open up from between the covers, and falling into that new universe, one is saved."
"Oh, yes, I think so, I really do," Aunt Queen responded, almost gleefully. "It ought to be that way with people and sometimes it is. Imagine – each new person an entire universe. Do you think we can allow that? You're clever and keen."
"I think we don't want to allow it," Lestat responded. We're too jealous, and fearful. But we should allow it, and then our existence would be wondrous as we went from soul to soul."
Aunt Queen laughed gaily.
Yep, imagine a world where everyone read literature...there'd be no more religion as there would be no more sheep, and people might actually start exchanging ideas on a mass scale.
Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people. - Eleanor Roosevelt
"The Pact: A Love Story" Jodi Picoult
An American Dream gone awry. A suicide/homicide? I'm not telling but, to Picoult's credit, there's no happy ending here. An imperfect but engaging read. Here's an interesting exchange that very tidily describes an aptitude that most artists strive for and few achieve:
"Thank you," Jordan said. "So Emily's paintings developed fairly logically as she went through high school?"
"Technically, yes. There was a lot of heart there from day one, but as she progressed from ninth grade to twelfth grade, I stopped seeing what she was thinking of her subjects, and saw instead what the subject was thinking of being a subject. That's something you rarely see in amateur painters, Mr. McAfee. It's a measure of real refinement."
"The Feast of Love" Charles Baxter
Another one I wasn't sure I'd finish. Did. Here are a few passages...
...What a midwesterner he was, a thoroughly unhip guy with his heart in the usual place, on the sleeve, in plain sight. He was uninteresting and genuine, sweet-tempered and dependable, the sort of man who will stabilize your pulse rather than make it race. He proposed. And I accepted.
You know what I hate? I hate it when someone turns to me and says, “What're you thinking Bradley? Tell me. What're you thinking?" Well, no. If it's a-penny-for-your-thought time, here's your penny back. Because, first of all, it's private, whatever my thoughts are – and don't think I'll tell you all my thoughts, either – but secondly, most of the time I don't, in the way of things, have any thoughts. There aren't any thoughts, per se, is what I'm saying. Day after day it's a long hallway up there, just a yard sale, interrupted with random images of my paintings, or my dog, or the coffee store, or memories, or a woman, her face or her body or something she said, all of it in free fall through the synapses.
We do what we do in tandem when you belong together. We go to movies, we go dancing (she's a better dancer than I am), we go to the grocery store and hold hands in the aisles (scandalizing the racists), we decide about furniture, we cook, we make love, we talk about the future, we play with the dog and take him for walks, we talk about our plans to get married, where and how and when. We fit together. (I avoid saying these things in public; people hate to hear it, as if I'd forced them to eat raw sugar.) There's nothing to talk about to strangers anymore, if you know what I mean. Everything I want to say, I say to her. Life has turned into what I once imagined it was supposed to be, as complacent and awful as that sounds. In fact, I don't really want to talk about this anymore. As the poet says, all happy couples are alike, it's the unhappy ones who create the stories.
I'm no longer a story. Happiness has made me fade into real life.
"The Stones of Summer" Dow Mossman
This has an interesting back story as the author wrote this in the mid 70's and disappeared from public life. I picked up a copy after hearing about it on NPR a while back. Another of those thick tomes that I almost threw out the window a couple of times but glad I stuck to it. Being a midwesterner myself may have helped, and I knew a few peers growing up who may have possessed the anger and resignation that drowns the Iowa native Dawes Oldham Williams (D.O.W.). Autobiographical? Maybe it's why Dow disappeared. In some ways it's as if Mossman was a seer as he jokingly refers to the outrageous notion of the actor Ronald Reagan becoming President. This was in 1972.
And he laughed, remembering it, sitting on the hill and saying the name, but he could see that words were only vessels for defining place, not time, because time had no vessels for defining itself, even in shadows, the way water forms itself in a jar. Words.
"Ya," he said, "but the ones he found by the frozen sled when no one else would go out and look? The half-dead ones and the baby he found lying under the only half-warm, pure-dee dead horses!?! How about the orphanage and school he built? Wasn't that part of it?"
"Yes," she said, "provided you need orphanages or schools in places you live, provided you live in a place that doesn't take in people and teach them, I guess some good along the way was a necessary accident, too"
It is an old dream. In the end a clown comes on stage. He is dressed like Charles J. Chaplin, and in black distances at the end of a candle he mimes his own face; he takes it off and examines it at length; he is distended, ballooning, and his motions fill in the light. He talks of social democracy. His eyes fold themselves, roll, are vaguely lost in the yellow sockets, and he is crying now. Slowly he begins miming himself mime himself. He becomes lost in fits of forgetfulness.
"Well," Travelin' Tommy said, "he thought about the fact that if you're a natural genius, with no place to go, and if you're floatin' down the river at night, just hearin' the dogs on the western shore howlin' at the fire in your pit, you either learn humor and humanity or you go mad in the end."
…The Catholics were holding another moonlight wake, behind him, across a yard of black and blowing trees. The air was dense, dreaming, heavy like ancestors...
...He moved on toward the bridge, rustling the sand and the long night-blooming edges of grass, learning only the small lesson that you carry yourself along, wherever you go; trying to unlearn the Americas myth that by changing place, you are also changing identity...
"Listen," Dawes Williams said, "screw on your ole bonnet of an attention span, Dorothy, and try concentrating on this very hard for awhile. Ready? Any," he began, "social science, a contradiction in sanity to begin with, constructed like soft religion upon absolute relative knowledge drawn from structured learning, reason, and assimilated research is mostly dangerous bunk that operates on the level of self-confirming prattle. It is not only an illusion in progress, a highly pseudo exercise, it is actually recessive in nature. An outgrowth of pragmatism really, it remains true to itself – the merest rote function – the great and inferior butterfly ghost of this century–and it, therefore, ranks unintuitive, unimaginative, unstoned and non-a priori disciplined social scientists – the great and misled butterfly nets of this century – a great deal lower on the chain of being than Celtic Druids drunk on the witch's eye of the moon. In fact," Dawes Williams said, "when one is drunk enough, one is more than tempted to say that all backward-moving evil in this century which cannot be directly traced to that false, unquestioned god mask Technology can be indirectly, irrevocably and finally traced to the nub-headed priests of that electric god mask, to social scientists – i.e., the New 'Methodists' – the leading ninnies...and ninn-y-poops."
"Disobedience" Jane Hamilton
What my mother and Richard were able to do, once they were at last inside, in the alcove, once they'd pulled back the counterpane, once they were safely in bed–what they were able to do, beyond exhaust themselves in the usual way, was make a story out of nothing. That is easier said than done. There was, without the ballast of daily life, very little to hold them in their private world. And so they set about conjuring, doing the impossible work of building what they thought might be a solid structure, out of what proved to be flimsy materials in the end, out of words and touch and some musical notes.
It's a dismaying thing, to be known long enough so that you cannot even try out a new expression. To avoid that particular type of humiliation, my mother traveled to Wisconsin, where she could experiment with alternate gestures and phrases, becoming someone other than the usual and approved Beth Shaw. For a brief honeymoon period nothing she would say to her stranger man could smack of phoniness.
"The Patron Saint of Liars" Ann Patchett
"Gun, With Occasional Music" Jonathan Lethem
"Clown Girl" Monica Drake
This book came to me as a premium for my pledge to local community radio KXCI in Tucson. Monica Drake is a former Tucson-ite that now makes her home in Oregon. It's a dark, quirky tale of a girl trying to hone her ideals for art in the clown world and keeping her head just above the rising tide of desperation and illusion. I loved the title but I also picked it up because Katherine Dunn (Geek Love) gave it a positive review on the back cover.
"Underworld" Don DeLillo
This book has over 800 pages and jumps randomly from character set to other character sets. Not only that, you are left guessing what year you're in and who the new characters are. It was an exercise in frustration every time I picked it back up and yet I couldn't stop...madness.
Famous people don't want to be told that you have a quality in common with them. It makes them think there's something crawling in their clothes.
I noticed how people played at being executives while actually holding executive positions. Did I do this myself? You maintain a shifting distance between yourself and your job. There's a self-conscious space, a sense of formal play that is a sort of arrested panic, and maybe you show it in a forced gesture or a ritual clearing of the throat. Something out of childhood whistles through this space, a sense of games and half-made selves, but it's not that you're pretending to be someone else. You're pretending to be exactly who you are. That's the curious thing.
He didn't want to be a father. Being a husband was bad enough, what a burden, you know, full of obligations and occasions he couldn't handle. He was a loner, to use the romantic word, only worse than that, clinically self-involved, not out of vanity or stupidity, but out of some fear, some inbred perspective, some closeness of perspective that amounted to fear. It made him unable to see other people except as encumbrances, little hazy shapes that interfered with his solitude, his hardness of being.
That night she leaned over the washbasin in her room and cleaned a steel wool pad with disinfectant. Then she used the pad to scour a scrub brush, cleaning every bristle. But she hadn't cleaned the original disinfectant in something stronger than disinfectant. She hadn't done this because the regression was infinite. And the regression was infinite because it was called infinite regression. You see how fear spreads beyond the pushy extrusions of matter and into the elevated spaces where words play upon themselves.
A plain black everyday clerical shoe.
"Okay," he said. "We know about the sole and heel."
"And we've identified the tongue and lace."
"Yes," I said.
With his finger he traced a strip of leather that went across the top edge of the shoe and dipped down under the lace.
"What is it?" I said
"You tell me. What is it?"
"I don't know."
"It's the cuff."
"The cuff. And this stiff section over the heel. That's the counter."
"That's the counter."
"And this piece amidships between the cuff and the strip above the sole. That's the quarter."
"The quarter," I said.
"And the strip above the sole. That's the welt. Say it, boy."
"How everyday things lie hidden. Because we don't know what they're called. What's the frontal area that covers the instep?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know. It's called the vamp."
"The vamp. The frontal area that covers the instep. I thought I wasn't supposed to memorize."
"Don't memorize ideas. And don't take us too seriously when we turn up our noses at rote learning. Rote helps build the man. You stick the lace through the what?"
"This I should know."
"Of course you know. The perforations at either side of, and above, the tongue."
"I can't think of the word. eyelet."
"Maybe I'll let you live after all."
"Yes. And the metal sheath at the end of each lace."
He flicked the thing with his middle finger.
"This I don't know in a million years."
"Not in a million years."
"The tag or aglet."
"The aglet," I said.
"And the little metal ring that reinforces the rim of the eyelet through which the aglet passes. We're doing the physics of language, Shay."
"The little ring."
"You see it?"
"This is the grommet," he said.
"The grommet. Learn it, know it and love it."
"I'm going out of my mind."
"This is the final arcane knowledge. And when I take my shoe to the shoemaker and he places it on a form to make repairs–a block shaped like a foot. This is called what?"
"I don't know."
"My head is breaking apart."
"Everyday things represent the most overlooked knowledge. These names are vital to your progress. Quotidian things. If they weren't important, we wouldn't use such a gorgeous Latinate word. Say it," he said.
"An extraordinary word that suggests the depth and reach of the commonplace."
"The Telephone Booth Indian" A. J. Liebling (Library of Larceny)
The Library of Larceny, published by Broadway Books, is a delicious array of tales by such authors as J.R. 'Yellow Kid' Weil, Donald Dunn, Robert Byrne, Willie Sutton and, of course, A. J. Liebling who wrote the book above. Liebling knew how to spin the tales of New York hucksters (Telephone Booth Indians were "entrepreneurs" that conducted their business in telephone booths in the lobbies of New York office buildings), scammers and other petty nomads of the time. Liebling wrote for the New Yorker from 1935 until his death in 1963.
"Like Normal People" Karen E. Bender
"The Verificationist" Donald Antrim
One of the more quirky and joyfully odd books I've read in a while. Using a Pancake House as the setting, it mixes the surreal tone of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel with Woody Allen-esque humor.
What is a pancake? Cooked batter, covered in sugar and butter. Condiments are applied to it. It is food. But it is not as a food, not as sustenance, that we crave the pancake. No, the pancake, or flapjack if you will, is a childish pleasure; smothered in syrup, buried beneath ice cream, the pancake symbolizes our escape from respectability, eating as a form of infantile play. The environments where pancakes are served and consumed are, in this context, special playrooms for a public ravenous for sweetness, that delirious sweetness of long-ago breakfasts made by mother, sweetness of our infancy and our great, lost, toddler's omnipotence. Look around. Notice, if you will, these lighting fixtures suspended from the ceiling like pretty mobiles over a crib. Notice the indestructible plastic orange seating materials designed to repel spills and stains. Notice these menus that unfold like colorful, laminated boards in those games we once played on rainy days at home, those unforgettable indoor days when we felt safe and warm, when we knew ourselves, absolutely, to be loved. We come to the Pancake House because we are hungry. We call out in our hearts to our mothers, and it is the Pancake House that answers. The Pancake House holds us! The Pancake House restores us to beloved infancy! The Pancake House is our mother in this motherless world!
We pulled each other down onto the floor. The cat got between us and curled up for warmth. I had the beginnings of a cold. Jane, making love, has such poise. We weren't kissing. In the middle of everything, Jane began talking. She talked and talked, for the longest time, and it was fantastic to hear her. I kept my mouth shut. I breathed and listened. She said, “I used to love you so much, Tom. It was a simple thing, loving you. I didn't worry about us loving other people. I thought about that, the possibility, but I never worried. I thought I could care for somebody else and still love you. It didn't seem like a problem. You know? Why wouldn't we love other people? Loving other people isn't bad. But it's wrong to think everything won't change. You feel like a different person when you make love with someone new. Falling in love with a new person is a way of becoming a new person. Well, not a new person. A different version of yourself. It's true. That's the wonderful part, and it's the difficulty too, I suppose. I don't want you to be a new person. I always want you to be the man I fell in love with. We're different people and we haven't kept track of who we are. That's why we're in this room, isn't it? This is where we can come to find out who we want to be when things change and we feel strange to each other. I think we each have versions of ourselves that we don't know are in us. Are you scared? Don't be. You're a man and I'm not a girl. Do you remember how young we used to be? We were so young in our twenties. We were children. I was riding the enormous man's bike I used to have, remember? It was about a million billion sizes too big for me, and I was riding on the sidewalk, which you're not supposed to do, and then there you were in front of me and I ran into you. Well, I guess I didn't run into you, did I? You jumped out of the way. What happened? You tripped over the hedge, and that dog came tearing out of the yard on the hill. God. The dog's owner ran after the dog and yelled at us to leave his dog alone and get the hell off his property. All of a sudden, because of that man and his dog, we were united. We were a couple. Think of the ways people meet! I get off my bike and it felt like, ‘Oh, hello.’ We walked together, and you were sweet and took my bike and walked it for me, and we weren't paying any attention to where we were going, and the next thing we new it was nighttime and we were in that scary part of town where the book factory is, so we went into that bar, remember, but we didn't drink anything, did we? We ordered club soda, and the bartender turned out to be the father of a kid who beat you up in high school, then later got killed in that terrible loading-dock accident. The father wouldn't stop talking about how death was everywhere, and he got impatient with us for drinking club soda, and we gave him a huge tip, because of his dead son, and just to get out of there. We went right to bed, that night, didn't we? I was afraid to take off my clothes. You kissed my back and told me it was beautiful, my back. I believed you. Do you ever want to be a different kind of man? Could you be a different man with a different woman if I were the woman? Don't be hurt, don’t take it personally. Who else did you fuck, anyway? Tom? Actually, do you want me to tell you something? I'm not sure I want you to say. How would you feel about that? Would you think I don't care? Can you fuck me like I'm all the people you might ever love? Why am I telling you not to be hurt? It's because I want to fuck like I'm everybody and not just me. Is that a crazy thing to want?”
I was not, at this point, making a very good showing as a flying man. I might have done better if I had not eaten the pancakes. We eat pancakes to escape loneliness, yet within moments we want nothing more than our freedom from ever having so much as thought about pancakes. Nothing can prevent us, after eating pancakes, from feeling the most awful regret. After eating pancakes, our great mission in life becomes the repudiation of the pancakes and everything served along with them, the bacon and the syrup and the sausage and coffee and jellies and jams. But these things are beneath mention, compared with the pancakes themselves. It is the pancake – Pancakes! Pancakes! – that we never learn to respect. We promise ourselves that we will know better, next time, than to order pancakes in any size or in any amount. Never again will we be tempted by buckwheat or buttermilk or blueberry flapjacks. However, we fail to learn; and the days go by, two or three weeks pass, then a month, and we forget about pancakes and their dominion over us. Eventually we need them. We crawl back to pancakes again and again.
"Blue Ridge" T. R. Pearson
Author of The Sweet Hereafter
"Once Two Heroes" Calvin Baker
He is not certain, until it happens, what kissing her will be like. She had been his childhood heroine, but he knows fame in and of itself is a condition more grotesque than anything else P. T. Barnum ever found to display. He has driven by and been beside it a thousand times in Los Angeles, or seen it in magazines, and always sensed some organ of wanting, as an extra hand devoted only to manipulation. Fame, he has always thought, is frightening. He glimpses in it an endless hole of emptiness. But she is more than fame and celebrity. She is pure starlight and, like any furnace in heaven, generates her own energy, heat.
She radiates it out to him, and sends it through the room like a present bestowed, not a giftless pulling in. It is the heat of a fire already received. She pulls him into the warmth and energy stars exude, as he realizes, with an increase of gravity the nearer he gets to her face, that the humming molecules belong not to the celebrity but to the woman. She is a magnet of human depth and charisma. An omnisexual love. As their lips touch, he realizes she would be a star even if her picture were not plastered all around Europe. Even if no one except those who knew her had any idea what her name was. She would be the beloved of some small town, because her existence was a reminder that the universe's true gifts are equally distributed, and be proud that this one had been born to them. She would be the waitress who, night after night, picks up the most gold from her table, or the washerwoman who sings to herself on the street as she walks home from work, making every passerby's day the better for it. She would be the legend of only her husband's eye, or the eccentric, favorite aunt of all her nieces and nephews, because she lived in the rare world of the possible instead of the arbitrariness of ifs and must. The Queen of the City knows what she has, as any magician knows magic to be real, and possesses her gifts fully enough that they no longer belong to her, but to all the room, and to Mather's own cells. The closer he gets, the more he hears them buzzing inside of himself, as some small portion of misery flees. The war is really over.
"A Mist of Prophesy" Steven Saylor
"Don't the Moon Look Lonesome" Stanley Crouch
I used to read Stanley Crouch's writings on jazz music in the Village Voice throughout the 80's. I stumbled across this book at the Pima County Library book sale. Highly recommended.
The main two protagonists are Carla, the white jazz singer from South Dakota, and Maxwell, her black lover, a renowned tenor saxophonist.
Carla musing about Maxwell's wood-shedding cycle:
Those were periods of increasing grouchiness because he was at war with his own limitations and saw new information not only as an area of intrigue but as an opponent. Maxwell believed that the things you didn't know were trying to stay beyond your grasp. He had said as much. Weird. So there was a fusion of curiosity, determination, anger, and superstition as he worked and worked at the details until he had them down. Her man ceased being irritable once his fluency in a new area of expression had been brought home to his horn.
Yes, that tone was big, full, not loud and offensive. It was a statement in and of itself, which is what he had aimed for, explaining to Carla that the musicians who could play the very fastest weren't those who shot out scads of notes, lickety-split. Not them. The champs when it came to speed were actually people like Louis Armstrong and Ben Webster because the very sound each of those special people made was an immediate musical experience; no phrase was needed. They didn't have to build up. You were taken away instantly. One note against the ear. Boom: There, instantly. You can't play faster than somebody who always has the sound of the music in his horn.
"The Muse Asylum" David Czuchlewski
I've always found the term “postmodern writer” distasteful and vague. Dickens used multiple and sometimes conflicting narrative voices in Bleak House. Conrad was writing about alienation and absurdity at the turn of the century. Wells was writing about the collision of society and during the same period. These are supposedly postmodern concerns, but they belong to a much wider range of authors. Forster said that all the great authors should be thought of as sitting together in the Reading Room of the British Museum, rather than separated into different centuries and movements. That's a much better way to think about literature than this absurd pigeonholing so common among small minds.
"Mr. Dynamite" Meredith Brosnan
This book is not normal.
"Under the Banner of Heaven" Jon Kraukauer
EeeeeEEEwwwwwwww...there are some really scary folks out there.
The prologue to Part III begins with a excerpt from Bertrand Russell's "Why I Am Not a Christian, and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects":
One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it...
You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world...
My Own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as disease born of fear and a source of untold misery to the human race. I cannot, however, deny that it has made some contributions to civilization. It helped in early days to fix the calendar, and it caused Egyptian priests to chronicle eclipses with such care that in time they became able to predict them. These two services I am prepared to acknowledge, but I do not know of any others.
Kraukauer states that "the genesis for this book was a desire to grasp the nature of religious belief.” The last chapter is really the Author's Remarks which leads off with this excerpt from Annie Dillard's "For the Time Being:"
There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: A people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful, and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and skip death. It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time – or even knew selflessness or courage or literature – but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less.
"Doghouse Roses" Steve Earle
Singer, songwriter and storyteller Steve Earle has come out with this gritty little collection of short stories. If you're a fan of his music, you'll love this read.
"Getting Things Done" David Allen
I have to admit that I am a fledgling organizational freak. I just have too much stuff to manage most of the time. This book has helped me to change some bad habits, which can suck the life force out of a Tasmanian Devil, with some fairly simple yet effective ideas.
"Motherless Brooklyn" Jonathan Letham
"Hard Freeze" Dan Simmons
"Chasing the Dime" Michael Connelly
Connelly consistently spins a good detective yarn...great for a fast, easy and brainless read.
"A Model World and Other Stories" Michael Chabon
"The Devil's Highway" Luis Alberto Urrea
The Mexican government's border sign near Sasabe doesn't actually say "Coyotes." It uses the hipper slang of the border. It says "Los Polleros."
A pollero would be a chicken-wrangler. The level of esteem the smugglers hold for their charges is stated plainly. They're simply chickens.
Of course, if you know Spanish, you know that the word for "chicken" is gallina. "Pollo" is usually reserved for something else. A pollo, as on arroz con pollo, has been cooked.
They gawked at the worms of snow on the highest peaks. The stared at the pine trees, the roadside deer. The big cities were no more amazing than the dry lands they entered, the maguey and burros of the heartland, the cacti and plains of the north. The ones who knew geography told the others where they were–the states with the strange names: Zacatecas, Chihuahua. They passed through a hundred towns, a scattering of cities. They crossed little rivers, watched a thousand beaten cafés and gas stations whip by, burned out hulks of ancient car wrecks, white crosses erected along the highway where their ancestral travelers had perished. The whole way was a ghost road, haunted by tattered spirits left on the thirsty ground: drivers thrown out windows, revolutionaries hung from cottonwoods or shot before walls, murdered women tossed in the scrub. Into the Sierra Madre Occidental, the opposite side of their continent.
Numbers never lie, after all: they simply tell different stories depending on the math of the tellers.
The same facts and figures add up to different sums. The Center for Immigration Studies did a number crunch in 2001, and they came up with the alarming data that each illegal costs the United States money. "The estimated lifetime net fiscal drain (taxes paid minus services used) for the average adult Mexican immigrant is negative $55,200." That is, welfare, medical services, school services, various outreaches, cost us $55K+ over a lifetime of menial labor. The Mexican Migration Project (MMP) points out that harsher border policies, including the famous Operation Gatekeeper and its ilk, ensure that illegal immigrants stay for long periods - thus ensuring some percentage of that $55K+ prophecy comes to fruition.
Several studies have also pointed out that illegal immigrants actually depress wages. They help keep the minimum wage down. This means savings for the managers: Captains of Industry and loyal Dittoheads in the grand cirque du capitalisme are saving money on low wages and cheaper product. That can of peas we eat doesn't cost $9.98, not until the Wobblies get in there and organize a real union. Vicks VapoRub is bottled in Mexico; Big Macs are cooked by Mexicans. Shaving points off both ends.
Although the federal tax figure is decried in some of the reports as minimal - after all, these are poor folks who make $4.50 an hour - it is still worth considering. If there are eight million tonks slaving away in the United States right now (and one of the Mexican pols interviewed for this book crowed, "We have inserted twelve million workers into the United States - it is already Mexico! We have won the war!), most of those workers pay federal income tax: shaved right off the top. No choice, just like you. They pay state taxes: shaved right off the top. They get tapped for social security and FICA. There's a whole lot of shaving going on. If you multiply $4.50 an hour by eight million workers, that would mean there are 36 million taxable dollars being accrued every hour by illegals getting tapped for some percentage by Uncle Sam. Those workers will not receive a refund. State tax? Has the governor of California gotten a new swimming pool lately? How's the governor's mansion in Baton Rouge looking?
Lower wages, cheaper product, unclaimed federal taxes, unclaimed state taxes, unused social security. Over a lifetime, does it start to ameliorate the $55K+? What about sales tax, gas tax, rent? What about pampers at the local Vons supermarket? Cigarette tax. Beer. Tortillas and BVDs and cable and used cars and speeding tickets and water bills and electric bills and tampons and Trojans and Mars bars. Movie tickets. Running shoes. CDs. Over a lifetime, how much does it add to the American commonwealth?
But they take away our jobs! Interestingly, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that by 2008, there will be five million more jobs in the United States than people to do them. This is after the tide of illegals. After the post-Iraq economic doldrums. Even if we vacuum up the homeless and set them to sweeping and frying, we'll have a few million vacancies. Who you gonna call?
UCLA's North American Integration and Development Center (you can hear the talk radio hosts protesting already - UCLA! Commie Bastards!) releases a twenty-first-century study that found that "undocumented immigrants" contributed "at least $300 billion per year to the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP)." If you put their numbers at a mere 4.5 million, they still add between $154 million and $220 billion, the report says. Researcher Marisol Sanchez told the EFE News Service, apropos of this study, that "although conservative groups claim that undocumented immigrants are a social burden," illegals tend to shy away from seeking social services because they don't want to be deported. Wherefore $55K+?
How many toys. How many phone bills. How much in the poor box at church. Hoe much for pencils, steaks, charcoal, glasses, panties, bras, bikes, skateboards, concerts, Blockbuster, Monistat, Head & Shoulders, Listerine. AOL. Computers. Backpacks. Uniforms. Night School.
What of the Devil's Highway itself, the tormented border in Arizona?
In June 2003, right in the heart and heat of the killing season, Thunderbird, the American Graduate School of International Management, released a study. Sooner or later, everyone will release a study. But this one made the Mexican consuls of Arizona happy. No doubt Vicente Fox faxed it to the White House.
Thunderbird learned that Arizona "gets $8 billion in economic impact annually from the relationship" with Mexico. That's profit, not costs. Mexico makes $5.5 billion. Reymundo and his son would have been stunned to know they were dying under a high tide of money. Critics will be stunned to learn that the United States makes more money in the deal than those wily Mexicans.
"Mexican immigrants paid nearly $600 million in federal taxes and sales taxes in 2002...Mexican immigrants use about $250 million in social services such as Medicaid and food stamps...Another $31 million in uncompensated health care..."
That leaves a profit of $319 million.
The Arizona Republic further quotes the report:
• The average annual wage for Arizonans is $28,355; for the state's Mexican immigrants it's $12,963.
• The total buying power of Arizona's Mexican immigrants is estimated at $4.18 billion.
• The state's Mexican immigrants spend an estimated $1.5 billion in mortgage payments and rent annually.
• Mexican tourists and visitors spent $962 million in Arizona in 2001, while state residents spent about $328 million in Mexico.
• Remittances from the state's Mexican immigrants to their homeland reached $486 million last year, with those transactions generating about $57 million in fees to Arizona banks and financial institutions.
We not only gonna get it back, but we gonna pay for it, too...
"The Center of Everything" Laura Moriarty
"Taft" Ann Patchett
"Reservation Blues" Sherman Alexie
"Murther & Walking Spirits" Robertson Davies
"Zydeco" Rick Oliver and Ben Sandmel
"Django" Michael Dregni
"Blowback" Bill Pronzini
"The Salterton Trilogy" Robertson Davies
"Cavedweller" Dorothy Allison
In the weeks after Billy Tucker tried to kill Dede, she and Nolan reminded Tacey of those puppies. sleepy-eyed but always watching. and jumping up happily when the other approached. There was no doubt they were in season, tuned to each other and vibrating to the same measure. They were like dogs and children in summer, their tongues always hanging loose and their hair smelling sweet and slightly acrid at the same time, like sugar and piss and love. Sometimes Tacey would take a breath of them and laugh despite herself, but once in a while coming in on them when they were pressed to each other, she would feel as if something would hit her in the heart, stopping her utterly and making her whole life feel useless and uncertain. No one affected her like that, no one speeded her heart or altered her breathing. No one in her life had ever even made her think of changing anything. Watching two who in one moment had been remade rendered everything she had ever known questionable. Tacey pulled out some of her stories and read them through. With the smell of all that lust in the house, the stories seemed thin and bloodless. Tacey rocked on her mattress and tried to imagine what it felt like, the reeling passion that had overtaken Nolan. She felt cramped, uncertain and fearful that there were things she had not yet prepared herself to face.
"Cavalier & Clay" Michael Chabon
"Cloudsplitter" Russell Banks
And yet are there not adult men and women, with all the powers, privileges, and prerogatives of adults, who secretly think of themselves as children? Is it not as if our large, hairy bodies are merely fortunate disguises, and some of us are children going about in the adult world like spies, our hearts breaking daily at the sight of what our fellow children must suffer solely as a consequence of their not being as cleverly disguised as we? In cautious silence, we observe the cruelties and indignities, the inequities and powerlessness they must endure, until at last their bodies, too, grow large and hairy like ours and they are able to pass into the general population of adults, where, like most people, they either forget that they were ever children themselves or else they, too, become spies. We dare not identify ourselves one to the other, for fear that we would lose the powers and privileges of adulthood, and so we remain silent, whilst other people's children are beaten instead of nurtured, whilst other people's children are humiliated and bullied instead of taught, whilst other people's children are treated as property, as objects of little value, instead of as human beings no less valuable in the eyes of the Lord than we ourselves.
Whilst I was in the midst of this task, I heard a group of horsemen approach from the direction of Harpers Ferry and stop before the house. "Hello, the house!" one of them shouted. "Anyone there?"
"A Man" Orianni Fallaci
"Immortality" Milan Kundera
Road: a strip of ground over which one walks. A highway differs from a road not only because it is solely intended for vehicles, but also because it is merely a line that connects one point with another. A highway has no meaning in itself; its meaning derives entirely from the two points that it connects. A road is a tribute to space. Every stretch of road has meaning in itself and invites us to stop. A highway is the triumphant devaluation of space, which thanks to it has been reduced to a mere obstacle to human movement and a waste of time.
Before roads and paths disappeared from the landscape, they had disappeared from the human soul: man stopped wanting to walk, to walk on his own feet and to enjoy it. What's more, he no longer saw his own life as a road, but as a highway: a line that led from one point to another, from the rank of captain to the rank of general, from the role of wife to the role of widow. Time became a mere obstacle to life, an obstacle that had to be overcome by ever greater speed.
Biography: sequence of events that we consider important to our life. However, what is important and what isn't? Because we ourselves don't know (and never think of putting such a silly question to ourselves), we accept as important whatever is accepted by others, for example by our employer, whose questionnaire we fill out: date of birth, parents' occupation, schooling, changes of occupation, domicile, marriages, divorces, births of children, serious diseases. It is deplorable, but it is fact: we have learned to see our own lives through the eyes of business or government questionnaires.
A bust of a laughing Julius Caesar is unthinkable. But American presidents depart for eternity concealed behind the democratic convulsion of laughter.
"Waiting" Ha Jin
"Deadwood" Pete Dexter
"A Widow For One Year" John Irving
The novelist, Ruth Cole, putting up with a Q&A session following a reading:
"Where do you get your ideas?" some innocent soul asked the author; it was someone unseen, a strangely sexless voice in the vast hall. Allan rolled his eyes. It was what Allen called "the shopping question": the homey speculation that one shopped for the ingredients in a novel.
"My novels aren't ideas–I don't have any ideas," Ruth replied. "I begin with the characters, which leads me to the problems that the characters are prone to have, which yields a story–every time." (Backstage, Eddie felt as if he should be taking notes.)
"It is true that you never had a job, a real job?" It was the impertinent young man again, the one who'd asked her why she repeated herself. She hadn't called on him; he was at her again, uninvited.
It was true that Ruth had never had a "real" job, but before Ruth could respond to the insinuating question, Allan Albright stood up and turned around, doubtless in order to address the uncivil young man in the back of the concert hall.
"Being a writer is a real job, you asshole!" Allan said. Ruth knew he'd been counting. By his count, he'd been nice twice.
On the subject of childhood, Ruth preferred what Greene had written in The Power and the Glory: "There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in." Oh, yes–Ruth agreed. But sometimes, she would have argued, there is more than one moment, because there is more than one future.
"The Most Beautiful House In the World" Witold Rybczynski
"The Death of Sweet Mister" Daniel Woodrell
"No Country For Old Men" Cormac McCarthy
"The Fortress of Solitude" Jonathan Lethem
"A Case of Curiosity" Allen Kurzweil
"The Blind Assassin" Margaret Atwood
"Interpreter of Maladies" Jhumpa LahiriHere are a few books that I read for a bit then pick back up, all started in 2006:
"The Discoverers" Daniel J. Boorstin
"How the Mind Works" Steven Pinker
"Crossing the Rubicon" Michael C. Ruppert
"Genesis of Music" Harry Partch
...and there's Vonnegut:Published on Wednesday, May 12, 2004 by In These Times
by Kurt Vonnegut
Many years ago, I was so innocent I still considered it possible that we could become the humane and reasonable America so many members of my generation used to dream of. We dreamed of such an America during the Great Depression, when there were no jobs. And then we fought and often died for that dream during the Second World War, when there was no peace.
But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America’s becoming humane and reasonable. Because power corrupts us, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power. By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.
When you get to my age, if you get to my age, which is 81, and if you have reproduced, you will find yourself asking your own children, who are themselves middle-aged, what life is all about. I have seven kids, four of them adopted.
Many of you reading this are probably the same age as my grandchildren. They, like you, are being royally shafted and lied to by our Baby Boomer corporations and government.
I put my big question about life to my biological son Mark. Mark is a pediatrician, and author of a memoir, The Eden Express. It is about his crackup, straightjacket and padded cell stuff, from which he recovered sufficiently to graduate from Harvard Medical School.
Dr. Vonnegut said this to his doddering old dad: “Father, we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” So I pass that on to you. Write it down, and put it in your computer, so you can forget it.
I have to say that’s a pretty good sound bite, almost as good as, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” A lot of people think Jesus said that, because it is so much the sort of thing Jesus liked to say. But it was actually said by Confucius, a Chinese philosopher, 500 years before there was that greatest and most humane of human beings, named Jesus Christ.
The Chinese also gave us, via Marco Polo, pasta and the formula for gunpowder. The Chinese were so dumb they only used gunpowder for fireworks. And everybody was so dumb back then that nobody in either hemisphere even knew that there was another one.
But back to people, like Confucius and Jesus and my son the doctor, Mark, who’ve said how we could behave more humanely, and maybe make the world a less painful place. One of my favorites is Eugene Debs, from Terre Haute in my native state of Indiana. Get a load of this:
Eugene Debs, who died back in 1926, when I was only 4, ran 5 times as the Socialist Party candidate for president, winning 900,000 votes, 6 percent of the popular vote, in 1912, if you can imagine such a ballot.
He had this to say while campaigning: "As long as there is a lower class, I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I’m of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
Doesn’t anything socialistic make you want to throw up? Like great public schools or health insurance for all?
How about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes? "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. …"
And so on.
Not exactly planks in a Republican platform. Not exactly Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney stuff.
For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.
“Blessed are the merciful” in a courtroom? “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon? Give me a break!
There is a tragic flaw in our precious Constitution, and I don’t know what can be done to fix it. This is it: Only nut cases want to be president.
But, when you stop to think about it, only a nut case would want to be a human being, if he or she had a choice. Such treacherous, untrustworthy, lying and greedy animals we are!
I was born a human being in 1922 A.D. What does “A.D.” signify? That commemorates an inmate of this lunatic asylum we call Earth who was nailed to a wooden cross by a bunch of other inmates. With him still conscious, they hammered spikes through his wrists and insteps, and into the wood. Then they set the cross upright, so he dangled up there where even the shortest person in the crowd could see him writhing this way and that.
Can you imagine people doing such a thing to a person?
No problem. That’s entertainment. Ask the devout Roman Catholic Mel Gibson, who, as an act of piety, has just made a fortune with a movie about how Jesus was tortured. Never mind what Jesus said.
During the reign of King Henry the Eighth, founder of the Church of England, he had a counterfeiter boiled alive in public. Show biz again.
Mel Gibson’s next movie should be The Counterfeiter. Box office records will again be broken.
One of the few good things about modern times: If you die horribly on television, you will not have died in vain. You will have entertained us.
And what did the great British historian Edward Gibbon, 1737-1794 A.D., have to say about the human record so far? He said, “History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.”
The same can be said about this morning’s edition of the New York Times.
The French-Algerian writer Albert Camus, who won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, wrote, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”
So there’s another barrel of laughs from literature. Camus died in an automobile accident. His dates? 1913-1960 A.D.
Listen. All great literature is about what a bummer it is to be a human being: Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Red Badge of Courage, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Crime and Punishment, the Bible and The Charge of the Light Brigade.
But I have to say this in defense of humankind: No matter in what era in history, including the Garden of Eden, everybody just got there. And, except for the Garden of Eden, there were already all these crazy games going on, which could make you act crazy, even if you weren’t crazy to begin with. Some of the games that were already going on when you got here were love and hate, liberalism and conservatism, automobiles and credit cards, golf and girls’ basketball.
Even crazier than golf, though, is modern American politics, where, thanks to TV and for the convenience of TV, you can only be one of two kinds of human beings, either a liberal or a conservative.
Actually, this same sort of thing happened to the people of England generations ago, and Sir William Gilbert, of the radical team of Gilbert and Sullivan, wrote these words for a song about it back then:
I often think it’s comical
How nature always does contrive
That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative.
Which one are you in this country? It’s practically a law of life that you have to be one or the other? If you aren’t one or the other, you might as well be a doughnut.
If some of you still haven’t decided, I’ll make it easy for you.
If you want to take my guns away from me, and you’re all for murdering fetuses, and love it when homosexuals marry each other, and want to give them kitchen appliances at their showers, and you’re for the poor, you’re a liberal.
If you are against those perversions and for the rich, you’re a conservative.
What could be simpler?
My government’s got a war on drugs. But get this: The two most widely abused and addictive and destructive of all substances are both perfectly legal.
One, of course, is ethyl alcohol. And President George W. Bush, no less, and by his own admission, was smashed or tiddley-poo or four sheets to the wind a good deal of the time from when he was 16 until he was 41. When he was 41,he says, Jesus appeared to him and made him knock off the sauce, stop gargling nose paint.
Other drunks have seen pink elephants.
And do you know why I think he is so pissed off at Arabs? They invented algebra. Arabs also invented the numbers we use, including a symbol for nothing, which nobody else had ever had before. You think Arabs are dumb? Try doing long division with Roman numerals.
We’re spreading democracy, are we? Same way European explorers brought Christianity to the Indians, what we now call “Native Americans.”
How ungrateful they were! How ungrateful are the people of Baghdad today.
So let’s give another big tax cut to the super-rich. That’ll teach bin Laden a lesson he won’t soon forget. Hail to the Chief.
That chief and his cohorts have as little to do with Democracy as the Europeans had to do with Christianity. We the people have absolutely no say in whatever they choose to do next. In case you haven’t noticed, they’ve already cleaned out the treasury, passing it out to pals in the war and national security rackets, leaving your generation and the next one with a perfectly enormous debt that you’ll be asked to repay.
Nobody let out a peep when they did that to you, because they have disconnected every burglar alarm in the Constitution: The House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, the FBI, the free press (which, having been embedded, has forsaken the First Amendment) and We the People.
About my own history of foreign substance abuse. I’ve been a coward about heroin and cocaine and LSD and so on, afraid they might put me over the edge. I did smoke a joint of marijuana one time with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, just to be sociable. It didn’t seem to do anything to me, one way or the other, so I never did it again. And by the grace of God, or whatever, I am not an alcoholic, largely a matter of genes. I take a couple of drinks now and then, and will do it again tonight. But two is my limit. No problem.
I am of course notoriously hooked on cigarettes. I keep hoping the things will kill me. A fire at one end and a fool at the other.
But I’ll tell you one thing: I once had a high that not even crack cocaine could match. That was when I got my first driver’s license! Look out, world, here comes Kurt Vonnegut.
And my car back then, a Studebaker, as I recall, was powered, as are almost all means of transportation and other machinery today, and electric power plants and furnaces, by the most abused and addictive and destructive drugs of all: fossil fuels.
When you got here, even when I got here, the industrialized world was already hopelessly hooked on fossil fuels, and very soon now there won’t be any more of those. Cold turkey.
Can I tell you the truth? I mean this isn’t like TV news, is it? Here’s what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey.
And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we’re hooked on.
© 2004 In These Times