Archive for the ‘Literary’ Category.

I’ve been around the writer’s block before, you know…

I’ve been busy, as you may have guessed, with business business and personal business.  Just returned from a week in Milwaukee, and look forward to making good use of the remaining weeks of summer.  The weather was very pleasant in Milwaukee, and I got out on a few bike rides.  A lot of folks bike around the area where my client and hotel are (north of the city in Glendale/Whitefish Bay/Fox Point), and seeing them cruising around prompted me to buy a bicycle last year and store it at my client’s plant.  Here’s my ride on Wednesday, starting from my hotel parking lot.  About a mile of the ride was on something called Fairy Chasm Road.  Charming name, but puzzling - I saw no fairies, and no chasm, either (maybe they meant sarchasm, which I normally pride myself in recognizing).

As much as I’d like to remain in denial that summer is hurtling to a close, Labor Day is 3 weeks away, and with it comes my annual haj to Columbus to play and march with my OSU Alumni marching band.  It means that within days, I need to break out my trumpet, slink down into the basement and start making the unworldly sounds that a year’s absence portends. I have my plane tickets, as do my two younger brothers, and we’ll hook up with our mom for our Buckeye debauch.

Also, I really need to do something about this laptop.  The screen is faltering - won’t come on sometimes when I boot, and when it does, a little black spot starts to grow in the lower right corner, and the border in that area is as hot as a stove burner.  (I can plug a separate monitor in with no ill effect).  I’m still back & forth with the Dell vs. Macbook issue.  I’m starting to conclude that I’ll be indifferent to the added Mac-ness and will be frustrated by any impediments to running my Windows programs.  And, as Dell tells me every day in my Outlook inbox, “Hurry - the Dell order you saved is about to expire!”  And I worry that they’ll never let me enter another one.

I managed to finally finish a book last week, after 3 or 4 months of incomplete assaults on myriad innocent victims.  The book, Updike’s The Widows of Eastwick, is a 30-years-on sequel to The Witches of Eastwick.  I first encountered Updike when I read Rabbit Run in the 70s.  The Rabbit series, 4 novels written at 10-year intervals, is probably his most recognizable work, although he was incredibly prolific, writing art and literature reviews as well as a cornucopia of his own work.  The Rabbit series to me was like the progression of movies from Black & White through Technicolor and Cinerama to HD; the quality of prose, and of content as Updike gained skill and life experience, burgeoned with each novel. Some have complained of a perceived misogyny in Updike’s oeuvre; I’m not prepared to debate that here, though I don’t dismiss the perception out of hand.  I will say that I am wont to take delight in occasionally positing that “Rabbit is Everyman” to certain of my female bookie acquaintances;  it’s the feminist’s worst nightmare.

In the Widows, the three are in their late 60s/early 70s, and are widowed by the husbands that enabled their diaspora from Eastwick.  They are managing adjustment periods, and, little by little, begin to reconnect via telephone and travel opportunities.  They eventually decide to summer in Eastwick in order to try to recapture some of the excitement their synergy there had afforded, a tacit admission of the failure of their fitful individual attempts at widowed fulfillment.

Like wines in the cellar opened  a bit late, they give whiffs of their former potency, but then languish in unremarkable inertia.  The bodies that they used and abused so cavalierly in the 70s now consume an inordinate amount of their physical and psychological attention:

Jane says to Alexandra (on the phone): “There hasn’t been a day in thirty years you haven’t walked through my mind, lightly clad and quite majestic.”

“How nice, Jane. You haven’t seen me lately.  My face is crackled like an old squaw’s with too much sun, and I’ve gained weight.”

“Listen, doll: we’re ancient. It’s the inner woman that matters now.”

“Well, I’m an inner woman wrapped in too much outer.”

Relationships with men are similarly waning.  Since her husband’s death, Alexandra has been sorta-courted by Ward, a neighbor:

 From there, her mind wandered to why Ward, who had such a handsome genial mouth really, affected that silly little patch of bristle just under his lip.  She was afraid, with enough red wine some evening, she would come out against it, and if he defied her and kept it or complied and shaved it off, it would push them either way into an intimacy she wasn’t ready for.  She didn’t want to get into keeping score with a man again, the unspoken tussle of favors given or withheld, of largesse and revenge.

That last sentence is what I love in Updike: with a deft economy, he universalizes an otherwise mundane transaction.

I have to indulge in another citation, which Updike seemingly larded with loving detail into the novel for no other purpose than because he loved the musical piece as much as I do. They’re listening to one of those public radio programs that is mc’ed by someone with carte blanche to play tunes and pontificate:

 ”And now another sentimental treat,” he growled, “a platter to bring tears to the rheumy eyes of us over a certain age-Bunny Berigan, who played in the Miller band as well as for Paul Whiteman, the Forseys, Benny Goodman, and his own short-lived aggregation-Rowland Bernard Berigan, born in Hilbert, Wisconsin, and dead at thirty-three in New York City, of cirrhosis of the liver, favoring us with his singing voice as well as his moody, stuttering trumpet work, doing his signature rendering of ‘I Can’t Get Started,’ melody bu the great Vernon Duke, lyrics by the ditto Ira Gershwin, recorded in 1937.”

I’m probably a couple of ticks younger than the mc, but this song, with it’s soaring trumpet coda, moistens this trumpet-player-wannabe’s eyes every time.  Those of you who have thrilled to my Valentine podcasts will remember that I included I Can’t Get Started in my 2008 oeuvre (it’s the fourth song in the podcast):

The Widows, then, is a story about aging, decline and death, yes, but also about the powerful vitality that abides us unto the grave, and an admonition to act on that vitality whenever we have the capacity.  The narrative wanders now & then, but the guy was 77 and a year short of dying.  Still, there are strong whiffs of the Updike vintage here.  And for those of you who couldn’t forgive Updike for allowing Rabbit to screw his daughter-in-law, you may take some solace in one of the widow-witch’s extended dalliance with a 30-something boy-toy (even if it’s a Chucky - sort of toy).

Don QuickOats

Not sure if I’ll get all, or any more, reviewing done, but here’s one, anyway:

It’s a testament to the juvenile nature of my mind that, every time I hear “Don Quixote”, it reformulates in my head as “Donkey Hottie”, which is very near the title of the first porn movie I saw as a freshman in college.

The task of staging this rambling novel in two hours seems impossible (as did the task of staging Crime and Punishment with 3 actors in 90 minutes, which we saw at Intiman earlier this spring).  I’ve never read it; my exposure is limited to the tedious translation of parts of it in high school Spanish, a production of Man of La Mancha in college and bedtime anecdotes as Mrs. Perils read both volumes a couple of years ago.

Since most know the basic story line, however, the playright’s task was to select 3 - 4 episodes that would best illustrate the main themes.  The short story is that an old man has so besotted himself with romantic novels of knights-errant and chivalry that his friends and caretakers have concluded that he’s become unhinged from reality, and summon the priest to rescue him from the grip of the poisonous fiction.Instead of succumbing to their ministrations, he outfits himself in various household metallic gewgaws, recruits his neighbor Sancho Panza as squire, and sets out in search of conquest.

The intensity and vividness of Quixote’s fantasies lends itself to conflating these imaginings with the act of writing.  In the play, this is pretty explicit, and Quixote prides himself in being able to confront a perilous situation, say, “that’s not how this is supposed to be” and basically re-write the outcome.  This works a couple of times, and then he confronts a situation with characters that he simply can’t control.  Each time he re-writes a situation, it morphs into something he hadn’t foreseen.

Cervantes himself appears as a character in several incarnations, and is not exactly sympathetic to what appears to be a writer’s plight. In fact, Cervantes sits back and heckles his hero at many critical points.

It’s a sometimes-hilarious romp with moments of serious epiphany regarding the rejection of life as it is vs. what you think it should/could be, and the aging process, with some satisfying sotto-voce swipes at the Catholic hegemony.  And it’s easy to be swept up in the Impossible-Dream vs. grinding reality upon which both the play and the novel trade.

However, there’s a dark side to the idea of his messianic quest here that kept needling me.  I had a literature professor who disdained the Romantic movement, positing that it provided the central myths that the Nazis invoked in their theories of master race.  And Quixote is invoking an idealized Spanish era to try to gather followers in his quest.  The only person who actually follows him is Panza, and I think he does so not because he believes in his master’s fantasy as much as that he simply wants to shirk his duties on the farm.  Still, people are put in peril due to Quixote’s exercises.  You start to wonder how, with a strikingly similar starting point, Hitler succeeded and Quixote failed.

But that dark side is in my head, and nowhere to be found in the play.  It was staged outdoors in the Elizabethan theater, under balmy, starry skies.  I have to remark upon a hilarious scene wherein one of the long-time actors in the company, Robin Goodrin Nordli, lurchingly sneaks into a bedroom shared by Quixote, Cervantes (in mufti) and Panza, intending to jump Cervantes’ bones but instead alighting upon the indignant (and immediately enraged) Quixote.  If you go, watch for this scene.

Wherein I Actually Finish Reading A Book

I only made one New Year’s resolution this year, thought it’d give me a better shot at keeping it, and that was to write a blog entry every day.  I’m beginning to think I suck at New Year’s resolutions.

I’ve been pecking away at E. Annie Proulx’s collection of Wyoming short stories, Close Range, and finally finished it over the weekend.  The last story in this collection is Brokeback Mountain, from which the film was made.  I don’t have much basis for determining whether her characters in these stories ring true or if they tend toward caricature.  I haven’t spent that much time hanging out in ranchland cafes.  In some cases, I think she intended to caricature; in others, including Brokeback, they’re more carefully crafted and nuanced.  She keeps a chilly distance from virtually all her characters.  She’s not their buddy, and I remarked at one point that I didn’t think any of her characters got out of her stories alive.

I do have enough visual knowledge of the West to know that she’s got a wonderful talent for describing the landscape:

 You stand there, braced. Cloud shadows race over the buff rock stacks as a projected film, casting a queasy, mottled ground rash. The air hisses and it is no local breeze but the great harsh sweep of wind from the turning of the earth. The wild country–indigo jags of mountain, grassy plain everlasting, tumbled stones like fallen cities, the flaring roll of sky–provokes a spiritual shudder.

I’ve been there, and she takes me vividly back.  I also liked this description of a sunrise up on Brokeback:

Dawn came glassy orange, stained from below by a gelatinous band of pale green. The sooty bulk of the mountain paled slowly until it was the same color as the smoke from Ennis’s breakfast fire.  The cold air sweetened, banded pebbles and crumbs of soil cast sudden pencil-long shadows and the rearing lodgepole pines below them massed in slabs of somber malachite.

She may not be sympathetic to her characters, but she’s clearly taken with the country.  I see she’s published two further collections of Wyoming stories, and I’ll have to put them in the queue.  That one that already stretches to the time when I’ll be too blind and addled to read them.

I saw the very tail end of the Brokeback Mountain film in my hotel room last month, and really want to see the whole thing now that I’m finished with the story.  Also intriguing: Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) was involved in the screenplay.

Game Over

Struggling up out of the murk of sleep this morning and shedding the patina of dream residue (I usually never remember my dreams), a bit of flotsam remained that could both make my fortune and open the exciting world of video gaming to us sedentary sods who have trouble winning at MS Solitaire.

It’ll be called The Editorial Wii.  Wielding the Wii remote like an angry red pencil, the player will slash furiously as a stream of execrable prose comes at him from the console.  Points will be awarded for sniffing out “lead” for “led”, “It was a dark and stormy night”, “A pirate ship appeared on the horizon” and “share with you”.  One of the buttons on the remote will plant “awk” adroitly on clumsy passages.

An advanced version of the game, and something that will get some hardware sales going, will feature electrodes at the end of each finger and thumb.  With these, the player can indulge the play-editor’s greatest fantasy, air-typing withering rejection letters.

I think I’ve really nailed it this time - leave your congratulations in the comments, and start nursing your jealousy.

Unless I’m mispronouncing “Wii”.

Belabored Day

 Hectic and compressed week.  I mean, it’s always a gong show after I’ve been  out of town, but this is a 3-day work week for me, as I depart tomorrow morning on my annual haj to Columbus, there to pray at Mecca on Saturday.  I will again play and march with my Ohio State alumni band, and mingle with my mom and brothers and their wives.

I’m not sure if I actually have a new reader or two since the last iteration, but just in case: I was in the Ohio State marching band while slouching towards my accounting degree, as was my youngest (10 years younger) brother.  The alumni band celebrates a reunion each year, and the athletic department allows us to either cavort or waddle through pregame and halftime shows at an early-season football game.  My family has been using this occasion as a family reunion as well, and we have a fine old time.

Something like 700 of us alumni bandsmen return each year for this event, and that’s about 100 too many to be able to participate in our signature formation, the venerable Script Ohio.  So, they conduct a lottery to see who gets the coveted marching spots for the halftime extravaganza.  I had to sit out last year, but I’m on the field this year.  Here’s a nice video of what we do:

The game itself is a snooze to contemplate - against Youngstown State, ferchrissakes.  It annoys me that teams like Ohio State pack their schedule with cupcakes like this.  And it’s not like you can’t lose one of these (see Michigan vs. Appalachian State last year).  But, whatever, the weather is supposed to be good and it’ll be a fine way to spend an afternoon.

On the way, I’ll be finishing A Heartbreaking of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers.  I’ve had the book around for a year or two, but it only made the traveling team because it was on top of a pile, and I grabbed it as I ran out the door to the airport a couple weeks ago.  It’s a strange book, a rambling memoir that details a young person’s launch into adult life in the 90s.  What would have been a fairly unremarkable journey of a suburban Chicago kid graduating from college and dipping his toe into the world is complicated immeasurably by the unlikely deaths of both of his parents from cancer within a month of each other, and the consequent need to care for his middle-school brother.  Not the usual path to becoming a single parent.  I’ll say more about it when I finish.

Decompress

It’s nice to be back in Seattle, and I’m home for the rest of the year. The first best thing was to fire up my espresso machine Saturday morning, after drinking hotel drip all week. Cartersville, GA, where I was working, is over-church’d and under-Starbuck’d.

The next best thing was to be able to lounge in bed and read, and, finally, after a nearly 4-month siege, I finished George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Our online book group discussed the book in August, and that’s when I started reading it. It’s a wonderful book, perhaps the best I’ve read in 2 - 3 years, but it’s just under 700 pages long, and I read slowly. Eliot has a marvelous ability to both discern and convey nuance in relationships and psychological states. Here she’s describing a fellow who had assumed that his work as a physician would lead him to renown as a medical researcher, just as he perceives that financial fetters would keep him far closer to the ground:

and it seemed to him as if he were beholding in a magic panorama a future where he himself was sliding into that pleasure-less yielding to the small solicitations of circumstance, which is a commoner history of perdition than any single momentous bargain…We are on a perilous margin when we begin to look passively at our future selves, and see our own figures led with dull consent into insipid misdoing and shabby achievement.

Here’s another, coincidentally (because I’m just randomly checking the numerous dog-ears with which I’ve defaced the book) referring to the same character:

Among our valued friends is there not some one or other who is a little too self-confident and disdainful; whose distinguished mind is a little spotted with commonness; who is a little pinched here and protuberant there with native prejudices; or whose better energies are liable to lapse down the wrong channel under the influence of transient solicitations?…Our vanities differ as our noses do: all conceit is not the same conceit, but varies in correspondence with the minutiae of mental make in which one of us differs from another…How could there be any commonness in a man so well-bred, so ambitious of social distinction, so generous and unusual in his views of social duty? As easily as there may be stupidity in a man of genius if you take him unawares on the wrong subject…

Just one more, drolly describing the discovery of an inconvenient will codicil:

Who shall tell what may be the effect of writing? If it happens to have been cut in stone, though it lie face downmost for ages on a forsaken beach..it may end by letting us into the secret of usurpations and other scandals gossiped about long empires ago, this world apparently being a huge whispering-gallery…As the stone which has been kicked by generations of clowns may come by curious little links of effect under the eyes of a scholar, through whose labors it may at last fix the date of invasions and unlock religions, so a bit of ink and paper which has long been an innocent wrapping or stop-gap may at last be laid open under the one pair of eyes which have knowledge enough to turn it into the opening of a catastrophe.

It’s not for everyone, perhaps, this luxuriant density of prose, but, like attending a Shakespeare play, your ear attunes to it if you let it work, and rewards you with its richness.

Mrs. Perils was so enamored of Middlemarch that she greedily acquired every scrap that Eliot wrote, and there was a melancholy couple of days when she’d finished them. There they are, on my nightstand.

The last best thing was to get down to the gym after 7 days in which I’d done exactly 15 sit-ups and 15 push-ups, and congratulated myself for walking from the terminal to D-concourse at ATL instead of taking the tram. The crowd I work with in Cartersville likes to head straight to dinner from work, obliterating the time when I usually get my exercise in. And, our hotel there is on a busy highway in the middle of nowhere, offering no opportunity for walking or running. A younger me would have frenziedly manufactured the opportunity for exercise; the contemporary me, embroiled in a surprising struggle to maintain my grip on my physical self, let another finger slip. Looking for better things this week.

Culchah

A week or so ago we saw a play by Steven Dietz called Halcyon Days at a little theater down by Greenlake, a couple miles’ walk from the house. We’d seen a play of his about 10 years ago called Lonely Planet, a two-man play about dealing with the AIDS epidemic. I remembered the snappy dialogue and droll humor, and so looked forward to seeing something else by Dietz. As an example, here’s a speech from Lonely Planet by a guy named Carl, who claims to have several occupations, each of them a total fantasy. What he really does with his days out in the community, we eventually learn, is a much more sober mission. Here he is talking about one of these fantastical occupations, a reporter for a tabloid newspaper:

Continue reading ‘Culchah’ »

Reading Circle

I cruised home from Milwaukee on my usual 11 pm arrival Friday night. On the plane home I read a fair amount of an issue of The New York Review of Books. We subscribe, and the thing sits around the house for a month, but plane rides seem to be the only time I sit my ADD ass in one place long enough to read it. Helps that I have to have my laptop off for portions of the ride.I always learn something when I do page through it. For instance, this issue had:

  • a review of Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia plays currently on Broadway. We’ve enjoyed his Arcadia, Rough Crossing, and Travesties, and we’ll see another (On The Razzle) in Ashland (in less than 2 weeks!!!). The Utopia series is 3 plays about mid-19th century Russian intellectuals - all performed in one day, apparently. I would trust his depth of research and spell-binding command of language to make it worthwhile. A friend of mine saw the cycle in New York and enjoyed it.
  • David Lodge (author of The Art of Fiction) reviews a biography of Kingsley Amis, and I learned a bit of lore about the pre-post-modernists.
  • A review of a book about the Indian Mughal dynasty and how its devil’s bargain with the East India Company helped morph it from a regime tolerant of many religions and sects into a hapless participant in the bloody Indian Mutiny. This is the second piece I’ve read this year that spoke of two phases of the British adventure in India - a comparatively benign first phase wherein East India operatives were symbiotic with the Indian culture and often assimilated, and a repressive second phase characterized by evangelical Christian missionaries. I’m interested enough to read some actual books about it.
  • Reviews of a re-release of Casanova’s autobiography, titled, with characteristic humbleness, History of My Life. The memoir comes in two flavors - a 6-volume, 4,300-page set and an abridged 1,400-page edition. Always a one-word caricature to me, he turns out to be a pretty interesting figure. It seems like he was everywhere at once - Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Britain. He hob-nobbed with the age’s great philosophers and politicians, and apparently only (!) a third of the 4,000 pages is about his sexual adventures. It seems he actually wrote quite a bit (there is an allusion to a trunk full of life-long note-taking that he mined for the memoir), and his prose seems entertaining and droll. Here, he wanders into an Amsterdam nightclub:

It was a musicau - a dark orgy in a place which was a veritable sewer of vice, a disgrace to even the most repellent debauchery. The very sound of the two or three instruments which made up the orchestra plunged the soul in sadness. A room reeking with the smoke of bad tobacco, with the stench of garlic which came from the belches emitted by the men who were dancing or sitting with a bottle or a pot of beer to their right and a hideous slattern to their left…

I find myself admiring his sheer exuberance for living, and I might be tempted to try reading his account of it.

Is This A Dagger That I See Before Me?

I’ve spent the week since coming home from Milwaukee shuttling between two clients, each of which has a new bookkeeper/accounting manager for me to train, support and comfort. Indications are that both will survive my tuition and succeed anyway.

For reading, I’ve been pecking away at a couple of back issues of the New York Review of Books that have been lying around here. I feel compelled to pass on this excerpt. Admittedly, it doesn’t have much, if anything, to do with the process of governing, but it does add a dimension to Bill Clinton that takes me a little bit by surprise. I’m hard-pressed to imagine anything remotely similar happening in a receiving line with the current White House occupant.

Biding my time until we take burnin’ wood to the dunce inane.

Yo’ Mamet

For the past few weeks, I’ve been seeing this poster at our health club promoting a production of Boston Marriage, a play by David Mamet, at a nearby little theatre. I would encounter this poster while working on a particularly challenging leg machine (Nautilus) that brought it to eye level. As I settled into the machine each visit and set the weights and seat, I would consider that I liked what I’d seen of Mamet’s work (Glengarry Glenross, State & Main, Wag The Dog), and that I’d like to attend the play being advertised. Then, I’d launch into my reps on the leg machine, all the blood from my brain would flow to my hams and calves, and I’d forget all about more intellectual pursuits.
When I got home from Milwaukee last weekend, I again considered the play, but the poster said its run ended 2/19, so I’d missed it. Then, this week, I saw a blurb for it and noted it had been extended through 2/26. So, yesterday, I took the developmentally important step of actually acting on a thought that I’d formed, and bought tickets to last night’s performance.
The venue was a transformed bathhouse on the shores of Greenlake, so we determined to walk down there after dinner for the 7:30 performance. Since, as everyone who knows me is aware, I’m always spot-on-time for everything, we had to hurry a bit, especially since our tickets were at will-call and seating was general admission. I set a fairly smart pace and Mrs. Perils (trimmer and in better condition than I) nonetheless lagged behind a bit. I knew from long experience, however, that if I slowed down, she’d slow down, so I plunged ahead. I mean, it wasn’t exactly Olympian. We arrived in plenty of time.
I’ve never seen a Mamet play, I’ve only seen films he’s written or directed or both, but I’ve always felt like his films were play-like, in that they were centered on language, plot and character rather than the visual. Star Wars, for instance, could never take place on a stage; the films above could (and Glengarry Glenross was a play before it was a film). So, I was looking forward to snappy language and wise-guy riffs, and I wasn’t disappointed.
The basic premise of the play is the relationship of two women at the turn of the 20th century who are cohabiting in what some call a Boston marriage (first I’d heard the term). These two women, plus a maid who pops in now and then for a dose of abuse, comprise the entire cast. The elder (more mature?) partner has just apparently achieved their financial security by becoming the mistress of a wealthy patron. The younger challenges her about this, but the elder (who possesses the sharpest tongue and control of language) assures her that it’s strictly a business transaction. The revelation that he’s married, and thus won’t be more than an occasional interference, seems to assuage the younger.
The younger, it seems, has some news of her own: she’s “in love”, it turns out, with a younger woman. And, due to her circumstances (dependent upon the elder for support), needs to convince the elder to allow her new interest to tryst at their residence. This is clearly the more hurtful breach and won’t be shrugged off nearly as quickly. Much of the rest of the play involves the importunings and negotiations attendant to accommodating this tectonic shift in their relationship.
Through a combination of Machavellian scheming and genuine feeling for one another, things are resolved, but the cross/double-cross mechanics of it don’t end until the final line of the play. And you’re not sure, in the end, which motivation has had more effect - manipulative acquisitiveness or indefatigable love. There’s a case to be made for each. That’s probably right were Mamet wants us.
The dialogue is fast-paced, packed to the brim and gut-bustingly funny. The language is a sort of high-flown Victorian vocabulary and diction, with some jarring modernisms thrown in. Reviewers have compared it to Oscar Wilde meets Harold Pinter, which my functional dramatic illiteracy can’t speak to. It’s significant, though, that I find myself frustrated because I don’t have a copy of the play to extract quotes from. I mean to get my hands on one.
The social situation and sensibilities of the women were a reversal of the more-accustomed plight of a couple of rakes toying with women. If you shut out the gender references and just concentrated on the banter, you could envision a pair of 30-ish fellows in their club’s bar or drawing room. In fact, it evoked echoes of the GB Shaw play The Philanderer that we saw last year in Ashland. But the play, for the most part, is not a gay or women’s rights manifesto, it’s an excellent and witty exploration of love and the particular way these women assay it.