March 2009 Archives

Book Group Read


This week the book group decided to tackle at least "Daisy Miller" and possibly even Washington Square. Having read "Daisy Miller" before, at least once, possibly twice, I recalled that there are actually 2 different Daisy Millers--one the child of the original 1878 version. The 1909 version was touched heavily, as were many of the books prepared for that New York Edition of the Author's works.

So I thought, perhaps I should read them both. And while I may do that, I found something that may serve even better. For those who are interested in the mind and work of a writer, you might try checking out tha variorum edition you can find here. It presents both versions in a way in which you can see the differences. Perhaps a bit much for some, but given the lightness of the read and the swiftness with which it may be accomplished, certainly something worthwhile.

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I don't properly remember the title and I must confess to having been somewhat disappointed. It is not as though everything good was in the trailer, but it didn't pull off the high comedy I had hoped for. Nevertheless, it is fun and entertaining and certainly diverting for a ten-year-old.

First, the quality of the 3d was absolutely amazing. Best of all, except for one sly reference to some of the old tricks of 3_D (a little paddle ball episode) the use of it was quite in tune with the story and not at all "in your face." The process gave a fully rounded appearance to characters and made the whole thing much less like animation. Still a gimmick, but rapidly becoming a highly effective one. If this could be perfected for mainstream film, film would become more like attending a live performance.

Now to the plot--there's no real need to describe it--suffice to say that there is an alien that wants something that has landed on Earth and transformed the life of one of the characters. In the process of flowing through the natural results of this we meet General W. R. Monger--a man true to his word and the only one who appear to have any sense; a president who has designed a failsafe system with two buttons exactly the same shape and size, one to unleash a nuclear holocaust on the world, the other to deliver the perfect latte; and a score or more of other more or less amusing characters.

One thing I will treasure and carry away from the film is the sharp (extremely barbed) satire of the way that those in charge of things communicate with those of us who are not. The alien who has found this lost substance broadcasts his image to Earth and says something like the following, "People of Earth, I come in peace. I mean you no harm. However, it is highly likely that the majority of you will not survive the next few days and those that do will become my slaves. Now let me summarize--Come in Peace, no harm, most of you will die horribly--yep, that about covers it." When I heard this I couldn't help of thinking of so many things from our involvement in Iraq to the current bank crises to certain statements issued to the underlings by corporate elders (among the larger banking companies). So, for that alone, the movie was worth having seen.


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Third, Fifth, Seventh


Earlier today Sam was practicing Piano--playing an Andante in G. Just as a lark I asked him to play it a third, a fifth, and a seventh lower. To my profound astonishment, he did so without a hitch. And then he played the right hand a third lower and the left hand a fifth lower.

Given that I'm only now coming to terms with all the technical terminology of music theory, I'm blown away that ten year old not only understands it, but is able to interpret and play it.

I'm also extremely gratified to hear him playing The Phantom of the Opera as a cha-cha--very latin rhythm on the left hand ostinato. Really cool. What a constant source of blessing. I'm sure glad that his mother never opted for the easy way out of things.

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Mirror Sunset First Draft


Mirror Sunset (March 15, 2009)

Seven forty-eight
and the waitstaff steps out
onto the porch and patrons
cram up against the eastside windows
to watch the bright contrail
against the dark eastern sky.

Exhaled hush of a cool evening
and everyone returns to work
for a short time soaring.

Certainly reminiscent of and perhaps even unconsciously modeled and derived from the "Rocket Summer" portion of Ray Bradbury''s The Martian Chronicles

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Sans titre

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Ah, what a wonder it would be
if willful words could be made
to obey our own minds and say
as they are meant to
rather than as they do

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Toros and Torsos--Craig McDonald


Take surrealism. Mix in Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, The Lady from Shanghai, the "Big Blow" of 1935, the Spanish Civil War, the Black Dahlia, and Castro's conquest of Cuba and you have the sweep of this book.

Now, mix in noir prose (a hard-bitten style that seems to thrive on language not often spoke by any of my acquaintances), a murderer who arranges victims to look like scenes from surrealist paintings, murder by grenade, a debauched and dissolute Hollywood cabal, and three or four switchbacks in plot, and you have the contours of the novel.

After I finished reading it, I looked at others' reviews and discovered, to my surprise, that they liked it far more than I did. I must admit to having found it compelling reading, but I was often put off by the poor editing job done on it. There were places where the prose sank into near incoherence because of this factor. Additionally, there was a tendency toward repetition in some places that was tiring. These are things than any good, even many great authors arrive at. As I've said before, it is the work of a good editor to assure that they do not come to light--or at least do not do so excessively.

And there was something else I found unsatisfactory about it--something that is hard to put a finger on and may be associated more with the genre that with this particular work. Somehow the ending just wasn't in tune with the rest of the book. Perhaps there were too many switchbacks, or too much slight of hand. It's difficult to say. Or perhaps it was that I just couldn't believe the main character. I was never convinced that this person associated with all the other famous people that he mentions in the book, There was something unconvincing about his interactions with the other characters. Or, again, it could be the conventions of the noir. I often find set pieces in noir fiction to be at least slightly unbelievable.

So, to tell you the truth, the jury is still out on this one. I'll probably think about it for a while. I can wholeheartedly recommend it to people who want to know more about the dark side of surrealism (pardon the redundancy). And as with many books these days, I learned a wonderful little tidbit about surrealist prison cells in repbulican Spain--so it was worth it for that alone. So my recommendation is limited but enthusiastic (because I'd like to talk to someone about this one)--to those who really enjoy and appreciate a good film noir novel.

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Drood--Dan Simmons

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In his review posted on Amazon (derived from the Washington Post), Louis Bayard, author of several novels that play off of Dickensian Characters, took Dan Simmons to task on his newest book:

Louis Bayard on Drood

Drood, as one might expect, bears a nominal relation to Dickens's unfinished final volume, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," but it plays out more as a cross between "Amadeus" and "The Usual Suspects." As hybrids go, that has the potential for some horsepower, especially because Simmons, in earlier days, was a much-lauded sci-fi writer, and the pictorial imagination he brought to that earlier genre pays handsome dividends here. In one hallucinatory moment, Collins sees the audience at Dickens's public reading tied by "hundreds of slender, white, barely perceptible cords." Books are "dalmatianed with spattered ink," a nasty black scarab burrows into a human belly "as if flesh were sand" and a man looks down at himself and sees "the hands of a corpse disappearing into chalk." The most successful of the book's set pieces is in the very first chapter, when the train carrying Dickens and his mistress plunges from the Staplehurst viaduct. . . . It's when Simmons takes his book aboveground that he loses his way -- in a forest of factoids. For long stretches, "Drood" is little more than warmed-over biography, larded with the minutiae of London sewage systems and Dickens's Italian travels and his fistula surgery and the names of the dogs who visited his estate and the titles of every last reference work consulted by Collins during the writing of "The Moonstone" . . . and then more of same. "Perhaps I have already mentioned . . . ," Simmons's narrator murmurs. "Perhaps you also know . . . . Perhaps I have told you, Dear Reader . . . . I may have mentioned earlier . . . ." You have. You have.

That said, Drood is fascinating for those of us not familiar with the life of Charles Dickens nor with the working relationship between Dickens and Wilkie Collins. It may be "warmed over biography," but it is good and interesting warmed-over biography. It is also of interest that neither Collins nor Dickens come out of the book as particularly likeable or admirable characters.

My problem with the book is that I came away unclear about what Simmons wanted to accomplish with it. It is the story of the last five years of Dickens life, during which he did relatively little writing and a great deal of touring and reading. The lead incicent of the book is a horrendous train crash in a place called Staplehurst--a train crash that really did occur and in which Dickens really was involved. From that incident Dickens becomes involved with the man or creature named Drood. While helping the victims of the crash, Dickens encounters Drood and eventually infers that rather than helping, Drood is dispatching the victims of train wreck.

From there we are launched into 700+ pages of a victorian phantasmagoria involving the sewers of London,opium dens, macabre readings during which Dickens "murders" Nancy (from Oliver Twist) over and over and over again. Drood pulls the strings and Collins and Dickens dance. Just before the end of the book Dickens reveals something to Collins that is to cast the whole narrative into some doubt and the reader is left to decipher the rest.

There are all sorts of things unexplained--the nature of the thing in the stairway toward the middle/end of the book, who is the Other Wilkie, and who or what is Drood and why? The explanation offered for this most successful and hideous of serial killers is insufficient to make clear what Drood is or why.

The book is great reading, highly enjoyable, a real roller coaster ride of a narrative. But the ride is over and we leave the car disoriented, and perhaps a little dissatisfied that we waited an hour in line for the end result.

Nevertheless, I would recommend the book to people who like to read very long, very detailed, very macabre, well-researched and well-written books.

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Before and After I

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from Acedia and Me
Kathleen Norris

One of the first symptoms of both acedia and depression is the inability to address the body's basic daily needs. It is also a refusal of repetition. Showering, shampooing, brushing the teeth, taking a multi-vitamin, going for a daily walk, as unremarkable as they seem, are acts of self-respect. They enhance the ability to take pleasure in oneself, and in the world. But the notion of pleasure is alien to acedia, and one becomes weary thinking about doing anything at all. It is too much to ask, one decides, sinking back on the sofa. This indolence extracts a high price. Esther's [from The Bell Jar] desire to "do everything once and for all and be through with it" has all the distorted reasoning of insanity. It is a call to suicide.

The refusal of repetition--the refusal to the small details that make life livable. The refusal, for example, to practice the discipline of the Liturgy of the Hours can, for some, lead to acedia--particularly those who are bound by rules of an Order. But the refusal of the mundane--cleaning house, ironing clothes, being present to friends for conversation, all of these are like items on a checklist that show how far we have sunk into either depression or acedia. The difficulty, of course, is in the distinction between the two.

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The Shepherd and the Sheep


According to St. Asterius of Amasea

from The Office of Hours

Let us look more closely at the hidden meaning of this parable. The sheep is more than a sheep, the shepherd more than a shepherd. They are examples enshrining holy truths. They teach us that we should not look on men as lost or beyond hope; we should not abandon them when they are in danger or be slow to come to their help. When they turn away from the right path and wander, we must lead them back, and rejoice at their return, welcoming them back into the company of those who lead good and holy lives.

It is all too easy to dismiss someone. It is all too easy to do so without even being aware that you are doing so. It is so easy to overlook a voice giving advice or asking for help; it is so easy to be annoyed with those who want something from us. How easy it is to give up on everyone and every thing, to give up the transformation of our own lives and the lives of those around us. How easy it is to bulldoze ahead with our own ideas and our own ways of doing things. How easy it can be to curse someone--particularly someone we do not know well; how simple to wish them ill.

And what an effort of will it takes to invite someone back--especially someone who has done a wrong to us. And yet that it what Lent is about--inviting back all who are children of God. And sometimes that means inviting back someone who has personally offended me.

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A Sobering, Realistic Thought


"For I had become aware that it was possible to reject time, as well as embrace it. If I wanted to I could live just barely, refusing the gift of each day."

Kathleen Norris in Acedia and Me

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Yesterday, I was struck by just what this might mean for us and why it is so important to practice the disciplines of Lent. The particular part of the gospel that we are called upon to repent and believe in yesterday's reading is that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. It is evident that most of us don't believe by the way we behave. I do nothing to help bring it about because I have obstinately refused to repent and believe. Like doubting Thomas, I want to see first and then believe.

But the disciplines of Lent are all about opening us up to possibility and reality. The fundamental reality that we should reflect upon is this one--that the kingdom of God is at hand and it is up to us to make it apparent to those who continue not to see, each one of us included.

Repenting is required. Not just expressing sorrow for sins, but truly rethinking everything about how we approach God and His kingdom. To do this, we must have sorrow for our sins, but that is only the beginning. The heart of where we need to go is that repenting should lead to sight. When we have truly repented, we will realize that the kingdom of heaven is a choice we make each moment of life to either believe the gospel message or to reject it. When we choose the former, we can see the kingdom and the actions of the kingdom in almost everything. When we choose the latter, we can mouth the words, but we will never really believe.

The kingdom of heaven is within our grasp. If we choose to do so, we can reach out and touch it as tangibly as we touch the world around us because it is coexistent. With faith and repentance it is present and life-fulfilling, without it, there is only mundane reality with its teasing reminders of the presence of God.

The other day as I was sitting through hours and hours of dance, I saw for a moment the Kingdom of heaven in which David dances before the Lord and sings still the psalms of old and who knows how many that have been written since. I was able to reach out for a moment and touch the kingdom of heaven and realized that the lives of the saints are lives of people who know this wonder on a daily basis even when they are in the darkest of nights. They reach out and touch the kingdom through their faith and their belief.

So Lent isn't about fasting, almsgiving, and prayer for our own good--although that is part of it. Lent is about fasting, almsgiving, and prayer as a way to repent and see again--and in seeing tell--and in telling lead others there. Because the kingdom of heaven requires constant increase. It is greedier (in a good way) than all of Wall Street because it will not be content until every single person is part of it--until every person can see it--until there is a 100% ROI and everyone is celebrating and rejoicing in the Lord.

So take off the sackcloth and ashes and the sad-sack faces, because this is not the fast that is acceptable to the Lord:

Isaiah 53:5-9

5 Is it a fast that I have chosen,
A day for a man to afflict his soul?
Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush,
And to spread out sackcloth and ashes?
Would you call this a fast,
And an acceptable day to the LORD?
6 " Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the morning,
Your healing shall spring forth speedily,
And your righteousness shall go before you;
The glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
You shall cry, and He will say, 'Here I am.'

To me this sounds more like a party to which everyone is invited--a time of unbridled joy and a time of feasting. The feast is not in food, which is in mere gluttony, but in the joy and the glory of the Lord, which is the real food that preserves and makes of eternity unending heaven, unending joy.

If your Lent is not directed in this way--if it isn't pointed toward the solemn joy that underlies all the discipline, if it isn't about finding your way to the Kingdom so that you may show others, then it is, simply, misdirected--missing the point. Lent isn't about us, it is about the Kingdom of Heaven and the boundless love God has for us and becoming completely aware of and being immersed in that. And THAT is something each of us can do every day. "Repent and believe the gospel--the kingdom of Heaven is at hand."

What a wonderful way to celebrate the season of Lent--in boundless joy at the revelation of the kingdom. Think about it, and find your way there--the disciplines vanish and what is really important comes forth.

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Dance Competition


We spent most of Saturday (8:00 am -9:00 pm) at a Dance competition in which Samuel was in three dances. (For those to whom this means anything--two high golds and a silver star.)

In the course of the day, I learned several things. First, I had been dreading this, as who would not--12 or more hours with a half hour break for lunch. And I wound up having a fantastic time. It amazed me what these young people could do, and it gratified me to see so many giving so much of their time and energy to the arts. That was deeply satisfying. Second, I learned how many ways there are to be illiterate. To be honest, I saw a lot of dance (that was rated very highly) that I just didn't "get." The motions seemed hurky-jerky, arms and legs akimbo and in awkward positions, music choice not the greatest, and coherence simply not there. I realize that I am not in the realm of professional choreographers, but I've noticed the same in dances that are professionally choreographed. I watched ballets in which dancers "pas de chat" all over the stage and it just looks like some kind of weird affliction that one might better expect in the medieval ages. I just don't have the vocabulary and grammar of dance clear--I don't understand it and that disturbs me. And so, I conclude that I must spend a good deal of time studying and coming to terms with it.

Finally, I was amazed at the professionalism and caliber of some of the dances. One poor dancer had her music vanish about midway through her dance and she took it all in stride, continuing throughout the entire routine and completing the dance as though nothing had happened. There was one male dancer who took most of the awards for the competition and who looks like he may have a wonderful career before him as a dancer.

But to come back to the first point--it was fantastic to see so many young people celebrating the arts. Even if they did not understand that they were doing so, and even though the majority will not continue in the arts, for them to have this enriching experience so early in life can only be an advantage as they continue on. It is my ardent prayer that each dancer come to know his or her own ability and use it to celebrate the arts in a way that gives God glory.

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Samuel and the "Poor Sock"


Samuel had a lot of change that he wanted to take into Church and give to the poor box. (But first he asked me if the money he placed there was going to go directly to feeding the poor or whether it would be siphoned off so that the poor only got "like 10% of it." I assured him (and I hope it is true) that the money given to the Church goes directly to the purposes indicated.) Anyway, he was putting this money into a large sock to carry it (in the process pretty much destroying the sock. He called me at work to tell me about this plan and said, "The sock weighs 5.2 pounds, so it is worth 10.4 dollars, right?"

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This page is an archive of entries from March 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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