June 2007 Archives

I've heard the name, I've never read a book by her until now, and I'm struck with the impression that that is probably a real shame.

Reading Like a Writer subtitled A guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them is every bit the splendid guide that the one might think.

The first, most impressive thing Ms. Prose does is to encourage the reader to slow down and to read carefully and deeply--to savor the book that they are reading. Problem is, as good as that advice is, it's terribly difficult to follow in a book as fine as this. I've tried, believe me, I've tried, and I've succeeded to the point where I haven't devoured the whole thing in a day. Nevertheless, I've failed.

Ms. Prose offers some pointers and some pointed advice contradictory to much you may have heard about the writing life. In addition, she provides observations on the academic life that are wonderful. For example:

fromReading Like a Writer
Francine Prose

Alternately, I would conduct a reading seminar for MFA students who wanted to be writers rather than scholars, which meant that it was all right for us to fritter away our time talking about books rather than politics or ideas.


You can assume that if a writer's work has survived for centuries, there are reasons why this is so, explanations that have nothing to do with a conspiracy of academics plotting to resuscitate a zombie arm of dead white males.


Part of a reader's job is to find out why certain writers endure.

Ms. Prose goes on to inform us that contrary to what we were often taught in school, our job as readers is not so much to form an opinion about a book as to thoroughly explore it and enjoy it. Sometimes these two things come together, but more often than not, we allow the inner critic to rob us of some of the joy that can come from sitting back and letting the writer lead us where he or she will. Throughout the book there are references to writing as music or art; the writer as a conductor who orchestrates all the pieces of a work to result in the grand finale, a coda that encourages a slowing of pace and a gradual dimenuendo.

I haven't finished the book yet. But its advice is helping me enjoy the enforced slow pace of reading Georgette Heyer. I am far better able to appreciate some of the subtleties of prose, plot, and character even if in a frothy, light-hearted romp.

If you are interested in writing or reading, this book is an important must-have for your collection.

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Another Amusing Moment


Please forgive me, I have so little time of my own of recent date that I snatch a second here and there to regale you with what amuses me.

A conversation regarding a duel from

Powder and Patch
Georgette Heyer

"I shall write an ode!" threatened Philip direfully.

"Ah no, that is too much!" cried De Vangrisse.

"And I shall read it to you before I engage. Well?"

"It is a heavy price to pay," answered Paul, "but not too heavy for the entertainment."

And having been "graced" with a sampling of Philip's poetry earlier in the novel, I must confess to sharing de Vangrisse's sentiments. Although my reaction might ahve been more, "L'horreur!"

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Unfortunately with my present obligations reading goes very slowly, so I'm still maundering through Georgette Heyer's delightfully literate Regency Romance Powder and Patch. However, I've stumbled on something that I can't seem to google my way out of and so I ask for my reader's help.

What, pray tell, does it mean when one has "gold-clocked stockings." For the longest time I thought it meant stocking with gold pocket-watches embroidered on them. But that doesn't seem to make sense because they come in all varieties-pink gold-clocked stockings, red gold-clocked stockings. Have I misinterpreted the meaning?

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Two Surfers


Father's Day weekend was spent in movie theaters--not the best of situations, but certainly one that has its advantages.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer is typical fare for a comic book movie. It has all the depth and emotional appeal of a comic book, and all of the fascination with the impossible, outr&eaucte;, and bizarre. By far and away better than its predecessor, Rise of the Silver Surfer gives us in all its unalloyed oddity, the story of the Herald of Galactus and his arrival on Earth. Interestingly, Galactus is morphed from a person having shape and form into an intergalactic devourer of planets. Nice.

High points include (of course) the sky surfing and Johnny's "flame on" pursuit of the surfer early on to the draining of the River Thames. (An interesting possibility given its tidal nature.)

What I won't tell you, because you can guess, is whether Sue and Reed actually manage to tie the knot. The "demise" of Von Doom and of the surger himself, leave this movie open to a sequel. Given that this one is better by far than the first, that bodes well. What the producers did right in this case is kept the movie svelte. As a result there is a punch that many other such films, more larded and angst-ridden, lack. Surfing in at just about an hour and a half, this is one of those rare pleasures, a movie that moves quickly and leaves you wanting more even though your a satisfied with the roller coaster ride you've just experienced.

Highly recommended for older children (seemed fine for Sam, despite some mild sexual innuendo) and adults. May be too intense for younger or more sensitive children (scary earth-devouring things).

On the other hand, the second surf movie of the weekend Surf's Up, was an animation delight. Entirely unexpected, and therefore even more delightful, this story of the importance of friendship and of doing what is right as opposed to what makes you win, is a wonderful parable.

Filmed as a documentary of the world Penguin surfing championship, it starts with the recruitment of our lead character Cody Maverick, from his Antarctic home. We see him fall in love, develop a close friendship with a flaky chicken who introduces everyone to "Squid on a stick," an ultimately enter and . . . well, that would be telling.

The delights of this movie are its charming jokes, its deadpan documentary delivery, the remarkable voice cast, and the dead-on portrayal of certain aspects of the surf culture.. But its heart is the gentling and much-needed message that winning isn't the only thing, nor is it even the most important thing. In giving this message a real home and a real substance to children, the filmmakers give us all a great gift.

High recommended for all older children (8-up) and adults. And make certain you stay through the credits roll.

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Opus Dei


In a word, this book by John Allen Jr.--superb. Out in hardcover last year, this year's paperbound version has a bonus that makes it worth looking into--an introduction in which John Allen proposes, and largely proves the following controversial proposition: With the possible exception of Pope John Paul II, Opus Dei never had a better friend than Dan Brown.

The central notion there is that the calumnious inventions of Mr. Brown forced Opus Dei into a more open stance and posture than had hitherto been the case. Up until Mr. Brown's Opus, Opus Dei had largely ignored the world, its seductions and trappings. As a result a cloud of misunderstanding, misapprehension, and downright horror and disgust had built up around the group. Mr. Brown simply portrayed Opus Dei as the next in a long line of caricatures extending from Henry VIII down through Matthew "Monk" Lewis and others of more recent vintage.

Setting aside the content of the preface, with which I was duly impressed, the book itself is a masterpiece of even-handed journalism. There is no muck-raking, no dwelling on the macabre and fascinating world of mortifications, in short, as I've come to expect from Mr. Allen's works--no agenda. What is here seems to be a fairly equitable and veracious recounting of the facts of Opus Dei--its found, practices, and mission. He helps to untangle such knotty threads as exactly what is a "personal prefecture," and why is it such an innovative and useful approach for this group.

Truth to tell, there is much in Opus Dei with is very appealing. None of it unique to Opus Dei, nor much of it particularly new. The sanctification of life through ordinary work well done, the emphasis on the family as the unit of religious life, and other such points have been made by other groups through time. Even the idea of bringing the contemplative life to ordinary people and making them part of the greater mission of the Church is as old as the Church itself. But what is new is the approach, the charisms, and the institutions of this group within the Church.

If you do not know enough, but have heard the rumors and the detractors, it's a good time to get the facts. That some are discontent with the group and its practices comes as no surprise. That some abuse some of the disciplines prescribed by the group, is simply part and parcel of a human institution. However, knowing the facts, the good and the bad, makes it possible to decide whether Opus Dei holds any appeal, any attraction, any possibility of strengthening one's attachment to God.

High recommended.

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The following excerpt from her relatively early novel--a version of Pygmalion:

from Powder and Patch
Georgette Heyer

He even refused to buy a wig, but wore his own brown hair brushed back from his face and tied loosely at his neck with a piece of black ribbon. No powder, no curls, unpolished nails, and an unpainted face--guiltless, too, of even the smallest patch--it was, thought Cleone, enough to make one weep. Nevertheless, she did not weep, because, for one thing , it would have made her eyes red, and another, it would be of very little use. Philip must be reformed. since she--well, since she did not dislike him.

Gentle irony and subtle humor in prose that is not uncomely and sometimes rises to Austenian heights--Georgette Heyer a much underrated, underread master of the historical romance. It's a shame because there is much fun to be had with Ms. Heyer's magnificent novels.

Interestingly, the roles are reversed here and Philip wants to be loved for Philip

"Little Miss Cleone will have non of you an you fail to men your ways, my son. Do you not know it? What has that dainty piece to do with a raw clod-hopper like yourself?"

Philip answered low.

"If Mistress Cleone give me her love, it will be for me as I am. She is worthy a man, not a powdered, ruffled beau. "

I guess, as the saying goes, we shall see.

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On Chesil Beach


It has taken me a while to decide how I feel about Ian McEwan's most recent book. I finished it some days ago in a flurry of distaste, or perhaps better disgruntlement. Reflecting on it since then, I have changed my mind and decided that my reaction was shaded by how I wanted the book to be and the possibilities I saw in the characters. Unfortunately, I did not write the book.

And I say unfortunately advisedly because it is very much a book I would have like to have written. It is beautifully understated and very controlled. The action takes place essentially in one evening--the wedding evening of a young couple who have gone to the beach for their honeymoon. The subject is the anxiety that is brought to a moment when two inexperienced young people are about to become experienced.

Interestingly, as I started to read the book, I was under the impression that it dealt with a couple in Edwardian times. As I continued, I discovered that it actually begins in 1962. Now, I haven't any basis to reflect on the attitudes of 1962; however, this portrayed quite a different picture than I had conceived of for the time. There are phrases in it like "before it was a virtue to be young" and other such attitudes that I wouldn't have placed so late in time. And yet, perhaps it was so.

The ending. . . ah, the problematic ending, where everything comes together and flies apart--as I said at the start, it isn't what I would have had the book be, and yet there is a post-modern logic and a pre-modern sensibility that informs it and dissects it in a way that is subtle and pointed. I don't know whether I like it yet; however, it is clear from the beginning, foreshadowed throughout, and the obvious capstone on the tale. One cannot fault the story for being consistent.

If you want to read a beautiful, sensitive, incisive, study and deconstruction of the post-modern attitude, you could hardly do better than On Chesil Beach. Obviously, given the theme, recommended for adults only.

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Google Books


Google books provides a search that doesn't merely give you key word associations, but allows you to search the entire text for a phrase or word. In addition, you can use the advanced search to carefully limit how the search is conducted and how it is displayed. If you set the parameters accordingly, the results of the search can be a downloadable PDF.

Bill White has been touting this for some time and rightly so. You do have to become fairly expert at searching if you want to avoid a frustrating experience; however, the resources that become available to you as a result are enormous. And given the partnerships that Google is forging, those resources are likely only to become larger.

Yes, I know we love our books, but welcome to the digital age--PDFs are not the most comfortable volumes in the world, and yet the vast universe of things they make available to us may well be worth a little trouble. And in a proper time there will be some clever maker of PDAs who will do the Sony E-Book thing, producing a paperback sized eInk readable screen--who knows what other wonders await?

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Fierce Poetry, Fragile Poet


I post these because they speak for me when I have no tongue or sense and they say what cannot be said by me even were I longing to say it.

To My Lady of Poetry
Alfonsina Storni

I throw myself here at your feet, sinful,
my dark face against your blue earth,
you the virgin among armies of palm trees
that never grow old as humans do.

I don't dare look at your pure eyes
or dare touch your miraculous hand:
I look behind me and a river of rashness
urges me guiltlessly on against you.

With a promise to mend my ways through your
divine grace, I humbly place on our
hem a little green branch,

for I couldn't have possibly lived
cut off from your shadow, since you blinded me
at birth with your fierce branding iron.

Note "My lady" not "Our lady." The poem seems to be about the Blessed Virgin and is certainly strewn with her trappings, but what is adored here is not Mary, Mother of God, but the muse of poetry. And what is said here is said thoroughly in the last tercet because it seems to me that there is a way of seeing that cannot be undone or unseen, a blindsight that is the gift and curse of the poet and no amount of undoing can change it or alter it one iota--it is laid upon one at birth, or at least very early on and it is through that lens that all is seen that can be seen and seen in ways that it seems others do not. Although that last may simply be pretension and pride.

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Confused Love


And love can be most confusing:

I Do Not Love You Except Because I Love You
Pablo Neruda

I do not love you except because I love you;
I go from loving to not loving you,
From waiting to not waiting for you
My heart moves from cold to fire.

I love you only because it's you the one I love;
I hate you deeply, and hating you
Bend to you, and the measure of my changing love for you
Is that I do not see you but love you blindly.

Maybe January light will consume
My heart with its cruel
Ray, stealing my key to true calm.

In this part of the story I am the one who
Dies, the only one, and I will die of love because I love you,
Because I love you, Love, in fire and blood.

And another, quite lovely even in translation:

Saddest Poem
Pablo Neruda

I can write the saddest poem of all tonight.

Write, for instance: "The night is full of stars,
and the stars, blue, shiver in the distance."

The night wind whirls in the sky and sings.

I can write the saddest poem of all tonight.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

On nights like this, I held her in my arms.
I kissed her so many times under the infinite sky.

She loved me, sometimes I loved her.
How could I not have loved her large, still eyes?

I can write the saddest poem of all tonight.
To think I don't have her. To feel that I've lost her.

To hear the immense night, more immense without her.
And the poem falls to the soul as dew to grass.

What does it matter that my love couldn't keep her.
The night is full of stars and she is not with me.

That's all. Far away, someone sings. Far away.
My soul is lost without her.

As if to bring her near, my eyes search for her.
My heart searches for her and she is not with me.

The same night that whitens the same trees.
We, we who were, we are the same no longer.

I no longer love her, true, but how much I loved her.
My voice searched the wind to touch her ear.

Someone else's. She will be someone else's. As she once
belonged to my kisses.
Her voice, her light body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, true, but perhaps I love her.
Love is so short and oblivion so long.

Because on nights like this I held her in my arms,
my soul is lost without her.

Although this may be the last pain she causes me,
and this may be the last poem I write for her.

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In the Season of the Spirit


Veni Creator
Czeslaw Milosz

Come, Holy Spirit,
bending or not bending the grasses,
appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame,
at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards,
or when snow covers crippled firs in the Sierra Nevada.

I am only a human being: I need visible signs.
I tire easily, building the stairway of abstraction.
Many a time I asked, you know it well,
that the statue in church lift its hand, only once, just once, for me.
But I understand that signs must be human,
therefore, call one person, anywhere on earth,
not me-after all I have some decency-
and allow me, when I look at that person,
to marvel at you.

And as a result, my life is better.

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Lest We Seem Too Far Gone


A contemporary British haiku, thank you.

[Haiku] Wendy Cope


November evening:
The moon is up, rooks settle,
The pubs are open.

That never-ending Japanese obsession with the pubs here creeps into British poetry.

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A Purgatorial Poem


Being of a melancholy cast of mind this morning, a purgatorial poem seems best to fit the mood:

Cuchulain Comforted
William Butler Yeats

A man that had six mortal wounds, a man
violent and famous, strode among the dead;
Eyes stared out of the branches and were gone.

Then certain Shrouds that mutter head to head
Came and were gone. He leant upon a tree
As though to meditate on wounds and blood.

A Shroud that seemed to have authority
Among those bird-like things came, and let fall
A bundle of linen. Shrouds by two and three

Came creeping up because the man was still.
And thereupon that linen-carrier said
'Your life can grow much sweeter if you will

'Obey our ancient rule and make a shroud;
Mainly because of what we only know
The rattle of those arms makes us afraid,

'We thread the needles' eyes and all we do
All must together do.' That done, the man
Took up the nearest and began to sew.

'Now we shall sing and sing the best we can
But first you must be told our character:
Convicted cowards all by kindred slain

'Or driven from home and left to die in fear.'
The sand, but had not human notes n or words,
Though all was done in common as before.

They had changed their throats and had the throats of birds.

Something about these shades resonates within me. The poem speaks out of shadow and into shadow and is shadow-strewn all about.

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MIT Open Courseware

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Here. Interesting and provocative. One wonders how effective it would be with most. As we are well aware self-pedagogues are among the rarest of individuals--at least "complete" self-pedagogues. It's probably a worthwhile source for "dipping into" from time to time.

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Samuel Report


I know this subject is not of the moment to the world at large, but to the small coterie of readers I'm privileged to call friends, this will be important because it occupies a major part of my world at present.

In recent days Samuel has been involved in several matters musical. To start with, a few weeks back he went for his Royal Conservatory exam--this consisted of playing three different pieces of music (surrounded by all sorts of incomprehensible criteria), several pentascales identified only by their key (C major, A minor, G major, etc.), listening and playing back a melody played by the examiner, clapping out a rhythm played by the examiner, and perhaps a few other things I'm not recording here.

Last week we received the results of that exam--1st class honors with Highest Distinction. We haven't received back the full exam commentary yet, but I'm looking forward to it. It will have some places to coach Samuel and help him to improve playing.

At the same time, he's begun to compose short pieces and even notate the compositions. Naturally, they are short and at this point a little repetitive, but he's learn the style of elaboration and development that will foster a full-fledged ability to compose (I hope).

More--he was in four different dances in the dance recital this weekend. This was his first experience with multi-performances as two of the dances were repeated on the second day of the recital. In each of these (his tap and ballet), he was a featured performer because boys are so rare in dance classes. On the first day he performed his tap, his acro, and his ballet. Between the tap and acro he even had a quick-change (only two dances between them). On the second day he performed his Jazz, his ballet and his tap, the performance occurring at the very beginning, approximately in the middle, and at the very end. Samuel is a very charismatic performer and really engages audience attention. He had literally dozens of people come up to him and tell him after each show how well he did. And he did do very well.

The stage is much larger than the usual performance area they practice in. As a result to get to center stage in the same number of steps at the same count as he would do in the usual space he had to take exaggeratedly large steps. It was both hilarious and charming. In both tap and ballet he was playing the center of interest of a bevy of young ladies. The songs--"Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" and "Build me Up, Buttercup." The performances went off without a hitch despite disastrous rehearsals and every dancer did his or her very best. It was remarkable to see that much talent in so small a physical and temporal space. The shame of it is that so little of that ability will ever be shared beyond a very small circle. It is my sincere hope that it is not so with Samuel. Nevertheless, whatever may ensue, for now it is the stuff of great memories and tremendous fatherly pride.

I have been so richly blessed by this young person.

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The Children of Húrin

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I have been a long-time admirer of the ability of J.R.R. Tolkien to weave a story. I loved both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings despite some misgivings about both the implicit theology of the works and of much of the writing (most particularly the poetry.) The same problems hold true for this book, only more so.

The Children of Húrin is a long narrative cobbled together from the bits and pieces of a variety of writings--many of them previously published. Christopher Tolkien took upon himself the task to creating a coherent narrative of the whole story and he has done a very fine job.

The problem I have with this book is that it is as though Tolkien were thumbing through the Index of Folklore and Mythology and pulled out some random threads that he then inserted and interpreted with a ruthlessness that may have served the first age of Middle Earth, but doesn't leave the reader satisfied. The net effect is to create a lay, book, story, or what have you in which evil unequivocally triumphs over good. Perhaps only temporarily, but resoundingly, thoroughly, and disastrously. And this is a strain in Tolkien I don't quite trust. He seems to have greater confidence in evil than in good.

At the end of Lord of the Rings the triumph of good leads to the destruction of nearly everything good. Lothlorien is abandoned, the Shire is overrun with foulness, and the elves all leave Middle Earth.

It is naive to assume that the triumph of good means good results for all; however, it is equally naive to assume that evil consistently betters good.

Okay, my quibbles aside, how is The Children of Húrin. For a cobbled-together story it is quite readable and very entertaining. The tale is a bit disjointed, and perhaps because of its origin has bits and pieces that seem extraneous to the main point--but even these extraneous moments are of high interest and so perhaps extraneous only in the sense that we do not have the fuller story that might have resulted had Tolkien ever been led to finish it himself.

The story is told in a convoluted difficult diction that is orotund and epic but doesn't approach the turgidity of some sections of The Simarillion. Overall, once one gets used to the effects of the language, it flows smoothly in its course and helps to create the atmosphere.

So, net recommendation--certainly for Tolkien completists, and perhaps for those who want some insight into the Earlier ages of Tolkien's mythos without the investment of a huge amount of time and energy. But for those who have not found Tolkien easy going, this certainly will not change their minds

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