March 2008 Archives

Samuel's Compositions


Music is his language.

Sam's music teacher scheduled an extra lesson with him to transcribe his newest composition. Apparently she strove gallantly to do so, but she was tripped up by it's complexity and couldn't figure out how to represent part of the composition in notation. He'll be performing it in his next recital. I'm thinking that we're going to have to do a little legwork and see what other help we can get him/what other help we can afford. (The two are, unfortunately, not one in the same.) He's amazingly talented but amazingly undisciplined. To have two fairly formal compositions before age 9 has to be a impressive feat, so how do I make certain that it is properly supported?

If y'all have any suggestions, I would be open to hearing them. In the meantime, I'm just so pleased. I hope to record his two compositions so far and put them up on my x-drive. When I do so, I'll see if I can make them public and steer you all in that direction, or I'll post links here if that can be managed.

I'm so pleased for him and so pleased for us to be blessed with such a talented and generally pleasant child. I complain so much about so many things, it is important to note that in all of the important ones, God has blessed me beyond measure.

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Ms. Rice has produced yet another magnificent meditation on the Life of Christ. This book deals with the period just prior to the beginning of the public Ministry. As such, many of the incidents of the book are fictional recreations--meditations as it were on the Life of Christ in novel form.

While I really enjoyed, in fact, loved the first book, I greatly admire the skill and beauty of this second in the series. What Ms. Rice does with such aplomb is to give us a vision of the "second" side of Christ's sacrifice for us. In fact, she kind of opens our eyes to it. Christ not only did things for us, there were things He DID NOT do, all for us as well. And Ms. Rice deftly demonstrates the cost. For example, we have all read the word, "The foxes have their holes and the birds of the air have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head." What could this mean? Do we think He couldn't go to His mother's house and have a place to stay? Surely not. Then what are we to make of it? Anne Rice tells us--Jesus, though fully human and subject to all human desires, needs, and temptations, never takes a wife. This is NOT because He is not interested, but rather because it cannot be for reasons The DaVinci Code makes perfectly clear.

The book starts with a particularly ugly crowd incident in which two young boys are stoned to death because other boys accused them of homosexual involvement. Anne uses this to help us reflect on the fact that Jesus is a 30 year old man in a society that expects no bachelor uncles or unmarried men. This is a society that takes very seriously the Lord's injunction to "be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth." And here is a man who will have nothing of it. What are we to make of Him? James, his step-brother makes it quite clear when he compares Jesus to these young boys.

Throughout the story, we see Jesus, now older and subject to the expectations and anticipations of the society in which He lives, defying that society in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. He isn't married. He doesn't join the young men in their march on Caesarea. He has an awful lot of female friends, etc.

As the story progresses, we approach events we all know and understand from the Gospels. Here Ms. Rice makes some choices the some may take exception to in the ordering of the miracles He performs, for example. She choses the Gospel of Matthew as the "spine" of her story and presents the chronology there with additions from John, etc. And for those who didn't care for "speculation" in the first book, they may still find something to object to here--but that goes with the realm of fiction.

But we should be very careful. While Anne Rice is not writing a biography of Jesus, she has written something more than a piece of fiction. This work is like an extended lectio, a writerly meditation on the Life of Christ which she shares with the whole world As such, it seeks an understanding of Jesus and of His interior life that is only possible through deep reading and reflection on what we already know and through prayer. In a sense, the book is a kind of prayer, and extended and extensive meditation on Jesus and coming to and understanding of who He is and just what His life means. As such, Ms. Rice has done more than a thousand scholarly dissertations can do for some of us. I have read countless faithful and faith-filled biographies of Jesus and have not encountered some of the insights that I derived from this book. For that, I owe deepest thanks and appreciation to Ms. Rice. She opened my eyes to a dimension I never really gave much thought to--the Life of Christ as ongoing and willing sacrifice to bring the world to God. In giving up the woman He has come to love because it does not fit into the scheme of what He must do, He shows the ideal man bringing His passions into alignment with God's will. Jesus lives not so much for Himself, but for every person He encounters (all of us).

Add to all of these features supple and controlled prose that occasionally approaches the poetic, and you have a superb novel. I marked out three passages as examples of simplicity and power:

(I don't think there are any spoilers/surprises here, but read at your own risk.)

from Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana
Anne Rice

I held up my hands.

"We're made in His image, you and I," I said. "This is flesh, is it not? Am I not a man? Baptize me as you've done everyone else; do this, in the name of righteousness."

I went down into the water. I felt his hand on my left shoulder. I belt his fingers close on my neck. I saw nothing and felt nothing and heard nothing but the cool flooding water, and then slowly I came up out of it, and stood, shocked by the flood of sunlight.

The clouds above had shifted. The sound of beating wings filled my ears. I stared forward and saw across John's face the shadow of a dove moving upwards--and then I saw the bird itself rising into a great opening of deep blue sky and I heard a whisper against my ears, a whisper that penetrated the sound of the wings, as though a pair of lips had touched both ears at the same time, and as faint as it was, soft and secretive as it was, it seemed the edge of an immense echo.

This is my Son, this is my beloved.

All the riverbank had gone quiet.

Then noise. The old familiar noise. (pp. 176-177)

[Satan Speaking]

"Since you seem at best to be a sometime prophet," he went on in the same calm voice, my voice, "let me give you the picture. It was in a toll collector's tent that he breathed his last, and in a toll collector's arms, can you imagine, though his son sat nearby and your mother wept. And do you know how he spent his last few hours? Recounting to the toll collector and anyone else who happened to hear all he could remember of your birth--oh, you know the old song about the angel coming to your poor terrified mother, and the long trek to Bethlehem so that you might come howling into the world in the midst of the worst weather, and then the visit of the angels on high to shepherds, of all people, and those men. The Magi. He told the toll colleftor about their coming as well. And then he died, raving, you might say, only softly so. (p. 187)

I heard the flapping, the fluttering, the muffled beating of wings. All over me came the soft touch as if of hands, countless gentle hands, the even softer brush of lips--lips against my cheeks, my forehead, my parched eyelids. It seemed I was lost in a lovely weightless drift of song that had replaced the wind without true sound. And it carried me gently downwards; it embraced me; it ministered to me.

"No," I said. "No."

It became weeping now, this singing. It was pure and sad, yet irresistibly sweet. It had the immensity of joy. And there came more urgently these tender fingers, brushing my face and my burnt arms.

"No," I said, "I will do this. Leave me now. I will do it, as I've said."

I slipped away from them, or they spread out as soundlessly as they'd come, and rose and moved away in all directions, releasing me.

Alone again. [p. 200]

I've chosen three passages from near the end of the novel, and yet, I could have chosen any number of others. Ms. Rice has such fine-tuned control and such masterly rhythm and pattern that this could almost be poetry.

I've said before that we owe it to ourselves, to our Church, and to the world to support writers who support the faith. But more than that, we owe it to ourselves to support such works of fiction if we desire to see publishers print more such in the future. We owe it to ourselves to lavish the gift of such writing on the world (and incidentally ourselves) over and over again. Get this book from the library and read it. Better, go out and buy it and share it with others.

The two books of this saga will be for a long time on my list of favored gifts for those who know and love the Lord and for those who are beginning an acquaintance and do not yet really know who He is. Ms. Rice serves as a fine guide for those who dare not attempt the Gospels themselves. If these books could cause one-tenth the excitement, one-tenth the uproar of DVC, then they serve well the purposes of those about Whom they are written.

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Nighttime Series


Shades of Night

I: Cornflower

Flat cornflower sky at the edge of dusk
the buildings, telephone towers, trees, and traffic
pressed hard against it, only their overlap
providing perspective. Behind a light
winks out and shadow deepens--the shadows
on the ground and pressed against the sky.


They took it out of the spectrum
because no one could quite say what
it was. They had stopped watching
nightfall, when cornflower
mixes with star black
until neither blue, nor black, nor
purple, nor any other color
but indigo rings the world with purpose
before starlight shatters it.

[cayo hueso]

First two of what I hope will be a subsequence in the larger work.

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The Quantum of Desire

I discovered the quantum of desire:
the exact measure
of how much a prize
is treasured, how much
a woman is prized,
how much you will spend
to get what you think
you want. I have made
a measure, a pure
geometry of lust--
with my machine I
can measure what you
want against what I
want and will always
find that my desire
is greater. No one
can want as I want.

[cayo hueso!!!]

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Enjoying a trip to Boston. Arrived at 1:30 or so at the hotel and by 2:00 was out heading for the common and walking the freedom trail. Oh and now my feet are paying for it. Before going to the green, however, I stopped in to pick up the next major read after the truly exquisite Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana. Next up: Henry James's Portrait of a Lady. The version I got, an inexpensive paperback, unfortunately reproduces the New York Edition. I would prefer to read it unredacted, but beggars can't be choosers.

Walked from the Common to Breed's Hill and back, taking in all the sites and the smells of Boston. (The North End at dinner time--I can't begin to tell you about THAT olfactory experience.) Had Curried Pineapple Shrimp for dinner and may enjoy a dessert in my room--I don't really know yet.

Among the many marvels I have seen (some for the second time)--the grave of "Hester Prynne," the grave of John Winthrop, the Graves of John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin's Parents, Samuel Sewall, Paul Revere Mother Goose (yes, THAT Mother Goose), Samuel Adams and the victims of the Boston Massacre. Saw the North Church tower belfry arch from both sides of the water and reveled in the magnificent surroundings near Breed's ("Bunker") Hill.

I hope the business trip will allow for a little more time to see Quincy Massachusetts. If so, I will have visited houses and/or offices of the first six presidents of the United States. I find that unbelievably cool!

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When I finished this book I thought, "What can I say about it that hasn't already been said a million times?" And I realized at once my frustration with writing about great works of literature. I have been given faulty examples. All too often people tend to explicate "texts," and mine meaning from them--sometimes, perhaps the meaning the author had in place. At other times, without doubt, a meaning placed there by the reader. The interpretation of The Sound and the Fury is not something you need from me. That's a fool's errand and I leave it to those who claim to know what the muse whispered into Faulkner's ear.

Reading for meaning is something like eating a sandwich for carbon. Properly done, we do not read merely for meaning, we read to live for a while in the world created by the words, to enjoy the company of the author's creations, and to make from the experience what meaning it may have for us, regardless of the author's inscrutable intent.

While I was in Boston I looked into a "Critical Edition" of Faulkner's masterpiece, seeking from it some key that would magically open up the world of the book. What I discovered is that Faulkner had as little notion of what he had made as most of the critics. When asked about the specifics--why so much shadow in Quentin's monologue, why this detail, why that--he was occasionally able to provide some insight. More often than note his explanation was mundane--something akin to "a blot of mustard. . . or a fragment of underdone potato."

But my service to you in this and in all future reviews, is not to tell you what the book means. That is constructed through the interaction of the person with the text. The contours of the story are set, but the meanings are interactive and multiple and my take on it merely one of many--one that I would enjoy sharing with others who truly enjoyed the book. My service to you is to tell you why and how you can enjoy this or any other book.

Faulkner creates a world far distant from our own with powerful thematic resonances into our own. Does the fate of Caddy, Benjy, Jason, Quentin, Quentin, Jason, Caroline, Dilsey, Frony, Roskus, T.P. and Luster really matter as a question of interacting symbols or enigmas on a page. Does a "text" really matter?

Here I would agree with the postmodernists--no, it doesn't. A "text" cannot matter. But a story, a novel, a poem--all of them can matter. They matter not in the necessary details of the events that form them, but in the dialog that occurs between author and reader.

Faulkner's story certainly tells us something about the decline and fall of one Southern Family. It is every bit as gothic and ornate and detailed as Poe's "Fall of the House to Usher," to which it may own some of its trappings. But it is distinctively Faulkner, giving prominence for perhaps the first time, to themes that he will revisit time and again--purity, incest, honor, time. . . the litany goes on an on. The parallels between this and other works becomes a set of profound harmonics. For example, Caroline ( a thoroughly deplorable and annoying character whose actions or inactions bring about much of the calamity of the novel) bears a sharp resemblance to Cora of As I Lay Dying in her inability to see just how wrong she is in the judgment of her own children. She comes to love the central engine of wrath and destruction--Jason Compson--best of all of her children. Or perhaps so she professes in her constant auto-invalided state to keep a kind of tenuous hold over her shadowy realm.

And that is the realm of Faulkner, the realm of dreams and shadows of promises and denials. Faulkner is the essence of the Southern Gothic. There is violence here without redemption. Some read into Benjy an innocence and a purity that suggest a Christlikeness. And yet, in my reading, that is the furthest thing from Faulkner's mind. Yes Benjy lives in eternity and every moment he has experienced is now and they all flow together in his mind. But Benjy isn't even the idiot of the title, although he is mentally retarded. Indeed, The Sound and the Fury isn't the tale told by the idiot Benjy, but the tale told by the entire doddering, etiolated, effete, impotent Compson clan as they come to embrace the destruction of everything they once held dear. Each person sings his or her own part in the chorus of this tale told by an idiot. If I were to pick a single character to be the idiot of the story I would probably choose Caroline Compson. (Even though, one could drawn some lines of similarity between Benjy Compson and Dostoevsky's Idiot Prince.) Indeed it is chiefly through her telling that the final destruction of the Compson clan is brought about.

So, why read this? Because of its sheer lucious prose, its sinuosity, its strength of theme and of vision, because it creates the vivid and continuous dream, it invites us into the world of the characters, it tells us a story about ourselves at times and our tendencies, and it shows us in the person of Dilsey the way out. The Sound and the Fury does not pretend to be about redemption, and yet redemption is offered in the person of Dilsey who tells her daughter Fronny at the end, "I have seen the beginning and the end." Dilsey is the one stalwart support throughout the book--if more attention had been paid her the precipitate destruction of the family need not have happened.

In Faulkner violence is violence, it is not revelation or epiphany or grace--in that Flannery O'Connor turned Faulkner on his head--rather it is the playing out of the Calvinistic vision of the gothic South. Violence in Faulkner is a sign that the person committing it is not among the elect. And The Sound and the Fury has its share of violence. As in most Faulkner works, much of it implied and off stage. Quentin's demise, Benjy's castration, Caddy's sorrowful marriage and life, Jason Compson the elder's death by dipsomania after he sees his one hope dashed to death in the Charles river.

Read The Sound and the Fury not because it is a masterpiece of modernism, of tone, of the Southern Gothic, not because it is the touchstone of much modern literature, not because it will reveal to you things you've never known and never seen--read it rather because it is a powerful story with interesting characters and much to tell you about them and perhaps about you. The meanings you make from your reading will tell you more about yourself than they will about what Faulkner has written. Faulkner provides us with a mirror (some might say a fun-house mirror). What we see in it is more about who we are than about what Faulkner was trying to get across. Authorial intent is largely unknowable, but authorial effect is directly experienced.

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Last for Today

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She spoke and the world melted with her words;
what was green turned brown, and white became clear
streams flowing to the sea. Of what she said,
no sense or meaning. Simple word simply
spoken, no promise, no threat, no intent
beyond the magic of language.

Who knew how powerful a single word?

[cayo hueso]

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And More


[Chained Fragments]

I have said one thing too many
times, so the words have worn smooth as
pebbles on the shingle and some
have worn away completely.

The eyes I see with today have transformed
the world for me, coloring it with shades
that have taken a lifetime to form.

What we wait for, what we dream, never comes
never because no matter how close
some difference remains.

Three lines are enough to say what needs said,
more lines are just more lines.

[cayo hueso]

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Yet More


Chained to Dust
you'd think the spirit
would move easily
like a wind weaving
through the spaces between
motes setting them dancing.

But it may as well be whistling
between electron cloud and nucleus
for all the motion it makes in this
relentless sedentary waste.

If the spirit moves the earthly shell
contains and constrains it
so that at times a hollow moaning
sounds--a whirlwind echoing in the void.

How could the All-Knowing
make such a marriage of eternal
and ephemeral?

[cayo hueso]

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Cayo Hueso??

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Without offering more:

A Litany of Miracles

Take a look at the hand
that holds the pen or floats over keyboard
as though not attached to your humanity.
Ghost pale in glowing light, flex it, fingers
move in ways at once simple, beautiful,
light, impossible. Who would have thought such a
stretch was mere bone in flesh and not the pure
motion of the divine?
____________________What could be more
perfect, a better pointer to what is
beyond motion? No sign you can see shows
at the surface of skin, and yet it moves
the hand, powered by a stream of human
current, the shocks and jolts of jumping nerve
impulses across a chemical sea--
a distance so vast and so perfectly
spaced that everything moves together, so
a jazz-hand dancer, then a fist, then what?
Whatever the hand has been trained to do,
whenever it has been shown to move--all
motion not its own.

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A Poem


At the End of the Road

What will happen
will. There's no need
to cover plants
in the cold, if
they cannot make
it through the night,
they don't belong
here anyway.

[cayo hueso?]

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Plus ça change. . .


plus c'est la même chose.

Oh my, but isn't it a day for the French?

Lunching with Mr. Faulkner and one of the most deplorable characters in the canon--by which I refer to Mr. Jason Compson the younger. But he has an observation that will probably sound a little familiar.

from The Sound and the Fury
William Faulkner

I went back to the store. Thirteen points. Dam if I believe anybody who knows anything about the dam thing except the ones that sit back in those New York offices and watch the country suckers come up and beg them to take their money. Well, a man that just calls shows he has no faith in himself, and like I say if you aren't going to take the advice, what's the use in paying money for it. Besides, these people are right up there on the ground; they know everything that's going on. I could feel the telegram in my pocket. I'd just have to prove that they were using the telegraph company to defraud. That would constitute a bucket shop. And I wouldn't hesitate that long, either. Only be damned if it doesn't look like a company as big and rich as the Western Union could get a market report out on time. Half as quick as they'll get a wire to you saying Your account closed out. But what the hell do they care about the people. They're hand in glove with that New York Crowd. Anybody could see that.

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mon ami, Charles Baudelaire.

And while I'm not saying the intent is my intent, the capitalization of Toi allows me to read it in a way that perhaps M. Baudelaire did not intend. (Almost certainly did not intend given the title of his chief work--Les Fleurs du Mal.)

De profundis clamavi
Charles Baudelaire

J'implore ta pitié, Toi, l'unique que j'aime,
Du fond du gouffre obscur où mon coeur est tombé.
C'est un univers morne à l'horizon plombé,
Où nagent dans la nuit l'horreur et le blasphème;

Un soleil sans chaleur plane au-dessus six mois,
Et les six autres mois la nuit couvre la terre;
C'est un pays plus nu que la terre polaire
— Ni bêtes, ni ruisseaux, ni verdure, ni bois!

Or il n'est pas d'horreur au monde qui surpasse
La froide cruauté de ce soleil de glace
Et cette immense nuit semblable au vieux Chaos;

Je jalouse le sort des plus vils animaux
Qui peuvent se plonger dans un sommeil stupide,
Tant l'écheveau du temps lentement se dévide!

A translation, more poetic than accurate, but aiming at the spirit:

De Profundis Clamavi
Roy Campbell

Have pity, my one love and sole delight!
Down to a dark abyss my heart has sounded,
A mournful world, by grey horizons bounded,
Where blasphemy and horror swim by night.

For half the year a heatless sun gives light,
The other half the night obscures the earth.
The arctic regions never knew such dearth.
No woods, nor streams, nor creatures meet the sight.

No horror in the world could match in dread
The cruelty of that dire sun of frost,
And that huge night like primal chaos spread.

I envy creatures of the vilest kind
That they in stupid slumber can be lost —
So slowly does the skein of time unwind!

And another, again, poetic, not literal

Out of the Depths
Jacques LeClercq

Sole Being I love, Your mercy I implore
Out of the bitter pit of my heart's night,
With leaden skyscapes on a dismal shore,
Peopled only by blasphemy and fright;
For six months frigid suns float overhead,
For six months more darkness and solitude.
No polar wastes are bleaker and more dead,
With never beast nor stream nor plant nor wood.

No horror in this world but is outdone
By the cold razor of this glacial sun
And this chaotic night's immensities.
I envy the most humble beast that ease
Which brings dull slumber to his brutish soul
So slowly does my skein of time unroll.

And then this, which comes from the same hand that gave us the delights of The Importance of Being Earnest

from De Profundis
Oscar Wilde

Prosperity, pleasure and success, may be rough of grain and common in fibre, but sorrow is the most sensitive of all created things. There is nothing that stirs in the whole world of thought to which sorrow does not vibrate in terrible and exquisite pulsation. The thin beaten-out leaf of tremulous gold that chronicles the direction of forces the eye cannot see is in comparison coarse. It is a wound that bleeds when any hand but that of love touches it, and even then must bleed again, though not in pain.

Which leads us to:

Psalm 129/130

De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine;

Domine, exaudi vocem meam.
Fiant aures tuæ intendentes in vocem deprecationis meæ.

Si iniquitates observaveris, Domine,
Domine, quis sustinebit?

Quia apud te propitiatio est;
et propter legem tuam sustinui te, Domine.
Sustinuit anima mea in verbo ejus:

speravit anima mea in Domino.

A custodia matutina usque ad noctem,
speret Israël in Domino.

Quia apud Dominum misericordia,
et copiosa apud eum redemptio.

Et ipse redimet Israël
ex omnibus iniquitatibus ejus.

Which, in those most magnificent of translations are:

Psalm 130

Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD.

Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.

If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?

But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.

I wait for the LORD, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope.

My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning.

Let Israel hope in the LORD: for with the LORD there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption.

And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

1662 BOCP

OUT of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord : Lord, hear my voice.

O let thine ears consider well : the voice of my complaint.

If thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss : O Lord, who may abide it?

For there is mercy with thee : therefore shalt thou be feared.

I look for the Lord; my soul doth wait for him : in his word is my trust.

My soul fleeth unto the Lord : before the morning watch, I say, before the morning watch.

O Israel, trust in the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy : and with him is plenteous redemption.

And he shall redeem Israel : from all his sins.

To which I append,

[temp title] The Cloud of Unknowing

And so I move from knowing
to unknowing--not merely ignorance
but undoing the knowing I have
untying the knots and staring underneath
at what cannot be known once it is known.

Later: Upon review I discovered that I was remiss in citing my sources. This very fine site presents the original poems from Les Fleurs du Mals with several different English translations. I took the poem and the translations from that site.

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On Reading John Updike


I know, it's Easter and I should be doing Easter things, but after the greeting, there seemed to be very little to say on the matter that isn't better said elsewhere. And so I'm back to report on my latest reading and after some rumination may have thoughts about this season to share.

I've been reading John Updike again. This time the most recent collection of his nonfiction. I find him much less an icon of the degeneration of literature in his nonfictional avatar; however, one does get the idea that he values his opinion far beyond its actual worth. Reading through this collection it seems to collect every scrap of written material beyond his grocery lists and put them out there for all to read. Everything from a note to a magazine about a scene with a kiss to a short list of books to read about lust.

As usual, I'm interested by the sensibility behind the words. Updike is, without doubt, a cultivated and intensely interested man. He reviews a wide swath of what would be considered by most literature. He has neither the expansiveness nor the generosity of spirit of a Michael Dirda. But then a novelist as reviewer or critic enters the arena with an axe to grind and much of what he does in the way of review will represent that.

However, one great thing about Updike is that almost all of his reviews are at least mostly favorable. I think I read somewhere that he doesn't like to review a book if he didn't care for it. As a result, you get some luminous glimpses into the reading life of John Updike and into his very peculiar readings of some great books. Additionally, you get a sense of Updike's aesthetic--what might be better termed the aesthetic of the priapic. I note this because of one comment he makes in a review of Colm Toibin's The Master. He is gently chiding Toibin's implicit (and explicit) criticism of Henry James's "refusal" to come out of the closet. Updike points out that James lived during a time of bachelor uncles and unmarried men and that then, unlike now, not everything was centered around sex--there was a life beyond. This is almost hilarious, as Updike is one of two or three writers who have spent their entire careers convincing the rest of the world that everything does revolve around sex. While I find his brand generally less objectionable than Philip Roth's, I find it perhaps more destructive because it is powered by a sensibility infinitely more refined and more genteel than that of Mr. Roth. His prose can be fluid and enormously powerful, particularly in its description of the natural world. But. . . ultimately most of his stories center around his obsession and his obsession with getting everyone else to buy into his obsession.

All that said, reading through this massive tome is an exposure to a great many books and authors I might otherwise not encounter. There are introductions to great works of literature--most interesting here on some comments on Portrait of a Lady, which, to my way of thinking, presents things almost exactly the wrong way around. But then, that's one of the great things about a work of literature--it has as many readings as it has careful and sensible readers. And reading here some of Updikes comments, I discovered about the book something I was unaware of reading it myself--a view of it from another country.

The rewards of reading Updike are many. He does read good books. He reads good books well and tells you things about them that make you want to read them. The reader of Updike may not always agree with his conclusions or his reasoning, but will almost always enjoy hearing from a person whose own work is remarkable and whose comments on the works of others are generous, insightful, and informed by a sensibility that is congenial and warm.

While I'll never hear about Agatha Christie while reading Updike, I will hear about Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway, and other writers of this ilk. And I will hear about them from a point of view that is both alien and intensely interesting.

While I contend that John Updike is one of the few who have done more than his fair share in leading us to where we are in the arts and in society (I don't see him so much a chronicler as a pusher), and while I am often mystified with his typfication as a "christian" author, I find that I almost always enjoy myself in his company--most particularly in his company as he is talking about things that interest us both--books and the world of literature.

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Synchronicty, not coincidence.

Reading The Sound and the Fury and what should transpire other than a trip to Boston. Why is this remarkable? Well, I can't really tell you straight out without giving away much of the book; however, suffice to say that one of the main characters has something critical and large happen to him in Boston.

So, reading The Sound and the Fury during Holy Week when it occurs during Holy Week, and visiting Boston, the site of one of the main events of the book. Wow! What a tremendous experience.

I have more to share on this. But now a delightful little tidbit. Arrived in Boston, walked down to the commons, stopped in a small used book shop near Emerson College and happened to pick up a first edition of The Collected Short Stories of William Faulkner for less than it would cost me to pick up a paperback edition. Oh, how wonderful to be back in a city where literacy is valued, perhaps even treasured.

One last point--the soaps and lotions and shampoos in this hotel are all verbena-scented. I have to come to the chilly late-winter north to smell "The Odor of Verbena." If the significance of that is not clear, google the phrase in quotation marks.

May God bless all who read this during this Holy Week. Indeed, may He bless anyone who reads this every--so few are my readers, I can afford to cast my blessings far abroad.

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An Evocative Passage--Anne Rice


Anne Rice has published the second book in her extended novelistic meditation on the Life of Christ. The first, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt was an unalloyed success at conveying some of the complexities of the childhood of a man who "was like us in all things but sin." The second promises to be more of the same. I haven't read much of it, wishing to savor it in between passages of Gothic Americana (The Sound and the Fury). But I wanted to share a short excerpt from very early on that exemplifies the style that Ms. Rice has chosen for these works.

from Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana
Anne Rice

I looked at them, the two, lying there as if they were children asleep, amid the heap of stones, and not enough blood between them, really, not enough blood for the Angel of Death even to stop and turn and take notice of them.

Rolling, spare, simple, evocative, lush, and lovely. Trimmed down, to the point and carefully crafted. The story rolls on in sentence after sentence that exhibit this same quality.

I think one of the things that astounds me is this Anderson-like simplicity after the baroque excesses of the Witches novels, the Lestat sequence, and the Ramses book. Ms. Rice has taken care here to produce prose that seeks to evoke its inspiration--straightforward and still poetic, like many of the parables Jesus told.

While it isn't the Passion narrative (one is to hope that that is at least two books away) this will make for fine end-of-Lent reading.

I have said before, and will say again, undoubtedly, in a world full of Sam Harrises , Richard Dawkinses, and Philip Pullmans, it is a pleasure and a relief to come across a novelist who is trying to write something worthwhile and powerful for the reader seeking substance. This series is a departure from all of her previous material and as such, it represents a risk to her. Not much of one, as her other books remain in print and sell well and will support her for some time to come, but she risks her huge fan base and her continued profitability and ability to hand on to a publisher. Like Mel Gibson, she is fashioning a work that is demanded by heart and soul, and it is up to readers like us to support this work. I ardently pray that Ms. Rice's work affects the hearts and minds of some of the fans of the previous books and moves them to explore the beauty of Jesus Christ, Lord, Savior, Friend and Companion. If it is possible for you to do so, you might think of buying this book and sharing it with the next person you see reading Kim Harrison, Anne's previous novels, or other books which, while occasionally fun and entertaining, have as an end escape into unreality. What Ms. Rice is trying to create is an escape into ultimate reality.

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Odd Synchronicity


My reading of Faulkner brings me to The Sound and the Fury as Holy Week approaches. I don't see as mere coincidence the fact that the events of the novel (present day) occur during Holy Week of 1928. (Not that the present means all that much to Faulkner.)

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Reading List


As noted before, I went out to get and reread for the umpteenth time The Sound and the Fury. For some reason, perhaps the difficulty of following some of the narrtive threads, this does not stick in my head as well as some other Faulkner books (for example, As I Lay Dying).

I'm also going to start Anne Rice's newest addition to the chronicles of the life of Christ: Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana. Tom at Disputations gave it what I would call a glowing review. As one of the few parishioners of St. Blogs who really enjoyed the first, I am looking forward to this continuation.

Having just finished a book recommended by the Big Boss of my company--The Science of Success by Charles Koch, I determined that I needed to finish Geoffrey Moore's Dealing with Darwin--largely about managing innovation in companies. To be honest with you, I get very little out of such books except for reinforcement of what seem to me to be obvious truths regarding the state of business and how to run it. But then, if they were so obvious, it would seem unnecessary for anyone to write about them.

And finally, I will continue to trudge my way through the most difficult of the three parts of The Divine Comedy. I remain resolutely opposed to most of the Medieval notion of God, mostly because each era dreams up their own misconceptions of God and refashions Him in their own image. I don't know that anyone has come close to getting it right--but if we cleave to the vision of those closest to Him, we find a continuous and luminous thread of the truth that can serve to guide us onward.

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Light in August--William Faulkner


I'm sure you all must be sick-to-death of reporting on William Faulkner, and yet, I am not sick-to-death of reading and enjoying him. Indeed, as a result of finishing Light in August yesterday, I went out to the library and got Sound and the Fury. (I think I have at least one copy in the house, but it wasn't in the LOA series that I've collected and the shelves are a mess right now.)

What to say about Light in August? Well, let's say that it is one of the most accessible of all of Faulkner's works with some of the most powerful portraits of some of the most unpleasant people you're ever likely to encounter. It plays with time in the way that almost all Faulkner books do, taking place over the period of perhaps 1 week to 1 month, from the arrival of Lena Grove who observes a house burning when she arrives in the small town of Jefferson Mississippi to the end when Lena, escorted by her husband wannabe goes in search of the father of her child. The time encopassed in the book is something like 60-100 years--stretching back to the time of Colonel Sartoris, and perhaps before and moving into the present (late 1920s Mississippi.)

The story centers on Joe Christmas a person who may or may not be of mixed race descent. If so, his skin tone does not betray it and he needs to tell those around him that he is "half-black." He is the ultimately conflicted character, laying his conflict on everyone he meets and it is his actions that precipitate all the main events of the novel.

In fact, that's part of what makes the book so facinating. When it starts, you get the impression that you're going to spend a good deal of time with Lena Burden who is out looking for the man who is the father of her child, who left Alabama (probably when he realized that she was pregnant) with the promise of sending for her. After following her path a little way, we find it convergent with the story of Joe Christmas and the rest of the novel follows him.

There is no point in going into too many plot details. Suffice to say that the events of the book result in an indictment of racism that is as harrowing and as biting as that in Absalom, Absalom!. All of Joe's conflict comes from his own self-indictment for what in today's terms is utterly without stigma (Praise God!) and (1) may not even be true, and (2) even if true was nothing he had any control over. Being part black was nothing he could control and yet the virulanet internalized racism and misogyny that he develops turns what should be not-even-worthy of note (in today's world) into a crisis for Joe and the community.

What is fascinating in Faulkner is his obsession with and dexterity with weaving the past into the present. One example that struck me in this book is that one of the main characters--Joanna is a direct descendant of two people that Colonel Sartoris rides to town to shoot in The Unvanquished. These two were responsible for holding the polls open and encouraging or trying to encourage the blacks in the area to vote. They were buried far away from prying eyes because the son/father of the two though that they might otherwise be disinterred.

The intrusion of the past into the present is one of the themes that makes such rick reading in Faulkner because one gets the sense that he has his fingers clearly on the pulse of something that we have lost any real sense of--even though the truth of it holds today in the same way that it held in Faulkner's day. The present is the living extension of the past: shaped by it, informed by it, and ultimately pervaded by it, if looked at properly.

Faulkner's gothic obsessions get full play in this magnificent work. And it is, for Faulkner, relatively undemanding on the reader--requiring merely the attention of an ordinary novel to keep most of the threads straight. However, it is, as Frost would have it, "lovely, dark, and deep." And it is, as a result, most worthy of nearly any reader's time.

Later: I realize that I've put together a lot of words about Faulkner but have ended by saying very little of import. The problem is that anything I might say would deprive the prospective reader of some of the joy of discovery. Another problem is that I am not a particularly deep reader, pulling out symbols, signs, and meanings at every turn. Indeed, I prefer to enjoy what I'm reading and allow it to mean as it will at the time. Most authors simply don't spend that much time planning and putting these things into motion. And those that do (Rowling and her ilk) often don't produce work that stands up to any kind of scrutiny. It seems that more than 90% of great art is unconscious art--you feel your way around it and end up with a miracle. Authors who pontificate on their purpose either (a) miss the point that their purpose is often subjugated to a greater one if the work is good or (b) haven't written a work that supports the kind of scrutiny it would take to divine the author's purpose.

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Shopping Anecdote

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Yesterday I went out shopping for clothes--a chore that I consider far more onerous than cleaning out gutters, but hélas, I cannot ask my wife to do so because my entire wardrobe would be red. (I'm told that I look good in red--which would be remarkable considering I don't look good in anything at all--I don't know why red would improve on nature.)

Anyway, we went into this trendy urban department store place. You know the kind, patchwork shorts and oodles of orange or fuschia or this season's color, whatever it may be. Walking in past the cosmetics counter we were greeted by this woman whose hair reminded me of the Gary Oldham do in The Fifth Element but was shaggier. The bangs were like a shiny black paint and the hair on the sides looked kind of matte black. The overall effect was such that I thought, "Woman, you really need to do somehting with that hair." Then I realized, much to my horror, that she had already done something with it and this was the result!

Ah fashion, I'll never get it.

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Duma Key

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Stephen King's latest book shows to good effect many of his strengths and some of his weaknesses. Let's start with the weaknesses. After putting the book down, I reflected on the fact that I don't know the people Stephen King portrays--people whose language tends, shall we say, to the salty side. More bluntly, the book is liberally laced with unnecessary and distracting vulgarities that neither give me a sense of character nor enhance my reading experience. They are so common that one finds oneself in the the position of beginning to filter them out. Another less-than-attractive aspect of Mr. King's work is his tendency to give us his opinions in the guise of a character's thoughts. I don't much care what Mr. King thinks of Mr. Bush, the war in Iraq, or the taste of ranch dressing. Moreover, these details are distracting enough to be remember because, once again, they neither advance plot not contribute anything to character.

All of that said, Duma Key is one of the best things Mr. King has written in some time. (Although to be honest, I can't compare it to Lisey's Story so I could be wrong in that evaluation.) The story centers around a man who suffers a traumatic head injury, the loss of an arm, and other injuries in the course of his work. (I was provoked to wonder about how much of what he relates in the book is autobiographical reflection given his own traumatic experience and recovery. No matter, it doesn't intrude or harm the story line--just reader speculation.)

He moves to a house on Duma Key, and the fun begins. Just as a point of information--Duma Key does not exist. When I first started to read, I associated the key with the Southern Keys; however, Duma Key is in a chain off the west coast of Florida near Sarasota and St. Petersburg. Once I got the geography straight, much else fell into place.

The story is a long meditation on the creative impetus and its ability to both heal and destroy the artist. The supernatural intrudes in the way expected in a Stephen King novel, and yet, it is much more subdued, much more subtle and only comes into strong play about two-thirds of the way through the novel. This is NOT a criticism--it shows a markedly altered and, I think, correct sensibility with regard to the use of the supernatural. This full length novel is much closer in spirit to some of the exquisite short works that Stephen King has given us. Reading it, I was reminded of the sheer joy and power of The Colorado Kid, probably a lesser-known but very nicely done King opus in the Hard Case Crime series.

The horror in this book is suggested to be Lovecraftian in nature, although such hints are very subtle, very light touches. The real horror is the horror all of us can understand--the loss of a child or the irrevocable and unspeakable alteration of a child through the growth and maturity process. We adjust to this naturally as time progresses, but King's living metaphor of the shifting sand-and-shell simulcrum at the end of the novel is telling.

I asked in an earlier note on the book whether or not he was taking some lessons or hints from his son Joe Hill. Given the prominence of place and the story-line importance of a certain heart-shaped box in this story, I would say that there are certainly mutual influences. Interestingly, King flips the metaphor on its head and the heart-shaped box in this novel contains the means of redemption and salvation.

The book is atmospheric, well-wrought, powerfully imagined, and written by a King at the height of his powers and sensibility. It's a shame that I find certain aspects of that sensibility appalling, but so it is. Nevertheless, for people who enjoy supernatural fiction, and for fans of Mr. King who were wondering if he would ever return to the heights of the early days, I would say that the chain of the last three books suggest that the answer is "Yes." He has returned to a height that he never occupied--one far superior to that of the early days--potentially that of a true literary master. Now, if only he could bring himself to not so liberally lace his prose with unfortunate vulgarities and unneeded opinions.

Highly recommended for a select audience.

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The first person we have speak to us from the realm of the Inconstant (the lowest and slowest sphere of heaven) is a woman named Piccarda. She is consigned to this realm because of her "inconstancy" to her holy vows of a religious. However:

from Paradiso
notes by John Ciardi

Piccarda was already a nun and living in her convent when her brother Corso, needing to establish a political alliance, forced her to marry Rossellino della Tossa of Florence. Various commentators report that Piccarda sickened and soon died as aconsequence of having been so forced against her will and vows.

It is this kind of reasoning that throughout time has bred atheists. Circumstances that we do not will nor do we consent to force us to actions that we would not take for which God, who created and allowed these very circumstances, then punishes or demotes us.

Piccarda had no choice in this matter. For much of medieval time in many places women were just a step (and a very small step) above chattel. A few extraordinary women did rise above these circumstances--but for the most part your lot in life as a woman was to do what the men around you told you to.

But in Dante's mind, a woman who against her will is forced to marry and is basically raped, is inconstant to her vow. I'm surprised she isn't in The Inferno for being false to her vow. Instead God in his infinite love and mercy says--"you were trapped by circumstance and by the situations my will allows, and couldn't puzzle your way out of it--so off to the lowest circle of beatitude and be glad I don't kick you downstairs."

Yuck! This is what I constantly run up against in Paradise. A strange sort of paradise it makes it.

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Beatrice--Snide and Smug

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Here's an example of what I spoke of before. Beatrice speaks to Dante:

from Paradiso
Dante (tr. John Ciardi)

"Are you surprised that I smile at this childish act
of reasoning?" she said, "since even now
you dare not trust your sense of the true fact,

but turn, as usual back to vacancy?

Charming. Simply charming. There's nothing to inspire love and admiration like some smug, self-righteous, overly informed combatant smiling at your stupidity and then telling you so. I'm supposd to be enchanted/enthralled by this? Color me appalled.

Fortunately Dante's goal was not entirely to make me love Beatrice as he did. If so, his cause is utterly lost. Unfortunately, I perceive that this guide to the celestial realms will not be nearly so convivial as our guide through the other two. We can expect to be laughed at, lectured sternly, and variously assaulted and accosted as we try to enjoy the scenery.

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The Divine Comedy Act III


As often as I have read the Divine Comedy, I have found profound difficulty with the third part--the part that should be so compelling. It seems that all forward motion stops and Dante enters into a realm of airy speculation (mostly wrong) and cosmology that is both weird and vaguely uninteresting. The people in paradise maunder on and on about abstruse theological theories and oddities of the medieval sort. In short, it is the "most dated" and least "useful" of the three acts. And yet, I am sure that I am missing something in the reading. I am sure that as often as I have been through it, I have been left out of paradise through my own fault.

So I try again. And once again I am treated so some odd explanation of the spheres of the cosmos and to Beatrice (who if you ask me isn't some Divine avatar but a relentless and self-righteous harridan--see the end of Purgatorio. One is left to ponder what in the world Dante saw in this woman.

Not that the rest of the comedy isn't riddled with similar lectures, cosmologies, and oddities, but somehow amid the grotesques and the "poetic justice" they seem to fit in. If the realm of perfection is nothing other than an endless lecture series on the Divine glories, unless I become a completely different person (by which I do not mean simply abandoning sin and growing closer to God, but having something approaching a spiritual lobotomy) I think that the suffering there would be akin to the suffering of some of the souls in Dante's Inferno.

But then, why might Dante think that this endless lecture circuit is Divine? Perhaps because knowledge was so highly valued a commodity in a time when its dissemination was so difficult? Perhaps it was just that particular poet's mind? I don't know, but perhaps that is a focus to pay attention to as I try to ignore the lectures that get in the way of a tourists view of paradise.

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Hidden Humor

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Where else, but in Faulkner. Light in August is an interesting study in neurosis and psychosis and how one feeds the other until disaster. It is also a repudiation of Calvinist fatalism, even though there seems to be that about it which suggests inevitability. But regardless of the dire and drear events, we have in the midst of them this:

from Light in August
William Faulkner

Presently the fire truck came up gallantly, with noise, with whistles and bells. It was new, painted red, with gilt trim and a handpower siren and a bell gold in color and in tone serene, arrogant, and proud. About it hatless men and youths clung with the astonishing disregard of physical laws that flies possess. It had mechanical ladders that sprang to prodigious heights at the touch of a hand, like opera hats; only there was now nothing for them to spring to. It had neat and virgin coils of hose evocative of telephone trust advertistements in the popular magazines; but there was nothing to hook them to and nothing to flow through them. So the hatless men, who had desert edcounters and desks swung down, even including the one who gound the siren. They came too and were shown several places where the sheet had lain, and some of them with pistols already in their pockets began to canvass about for someone to crucify.

But there wasn't anybody. She had lived such a quiet life, attended so to her own affairs, that she bequeathed to the town in which she had been born and lived and died a foreigner, an outlander, a kind of heritage of astonishment and outrage, for which, even though she had supplied them at last with an emotional barecue, a Roman holiday almost, the would never forgive her and let her be dead in peace and quiet.

In and among the solemn events, these flies in their brand new and utterly useless fire engine provide the kind of comic relief that Shakespeare (and probably a good many playwright of lesser compass before him) employed so effectively with the drunken porter in Macbeth.

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Advice for Novelists--I


Reading through the most recent Stephen King Opus, which right now promises to be something very different from his usual (did he learn something from his son?), it seemed that it might be advisable to give some suggestions to authors who had become too big for editors to any longer control their tantrums and whims.

As this is the first of several such possibilities, it would be better to confine such recommendations to a single point. If you want to write nonfiction, do so. If you feel the urgent need to editorialize, write to your newspaper. But whatever you do please, please, please do not interrupt the flow of your story, do not intrude so much on your characters, that we are left with the author's political opinions popping out here and there throughout the book.

In Mr. King's case, I have no desire to know that he is a frothing at the mouth Bush hater--and yet, he seems bound and determined to let me know before the end of his book that Bush is responsible for everything from the extrinction of the Dinosaurs to the war in Iraq. While I might have some sympathies with the latter view, I find the need to express any opinion whatsoever in a work of fiction deplorable. This is not versimilitude--it is in fact merely dating the work in the worst possible way.

If you want to write a political novel, disguise it--make it science fiction--set it in an equivalent era or in a place that addresses the particular issue you want to vent on--or better yet, abandon the novel part and write yourself a nice juicy piece of political diatribe--get it out of your system entirely. Everyone will benefit from that--most particularly the characters on whom you are imposing views that may or may not be germane, but views that are certainly quite distracting from your main point.

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This page is an archive of entries from March 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

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