Friday, March 27, 2009

Brother Cadfael, the sleuth who can save a soul

I finished Monk's Hood, the third in the Brother Cadfael series of murder mysteries a few nights ago. It's a suspenseful ending, and I was reading quickly for story, and knowing I'd want to go back and read the ending again at a more leisurely pace.

On the second reading, the book brought tears to my eyes. Imagine such a thing from a mystery novel. I haven't read the work of that many mystery writers, but I certainly never started crying during an Agatha Christie or a Raymond Chandler or even a Dorothy Sayers.

The series' sleuth, Brother Cadfael, helps someone find a path toward grace. I don't want to say more than that for fear of spoiling the ending. But I'm really impressed and highly recommend the book. The first in the series (A Morbid Taste for Bones) was enjoyable but the most annoying characters were prominent. The second (One Corpse Too Many) introduced a lovable new character but the mystery wasn't that interesting.

Many of the books in the series, perhaps all, have been made into films starring Sir Derek Jacobi as Cadfael, and they're pretty good, but they by necessity leave out many of the subplots and character turns that give the stories depth.

Back to the glitz and escape of the 30s/40s?

It seems to me that news coverage is changing a little in reaction to what everyone seems to be calling the "economic downturn."

When I glance through headlines at one of the news sites I regularly check (ABC News, Google News, BBC, Huffpo, etc.), it seems to me I'm seeing fewer stories about upsetting international situations and more escapism. The cute dog who's friends with a duck. The seven-year-old who might have died of what killed Natasha Richardson until her family got her to the hospital. An athletic director fainting during an interview. Michelle Obama's arms, for heaven's sake. A rapper singing in front of a McDonald's to persuade them to open early.

No headlines today about Afghanistan or Pakistan or Iran or Mugabe or Russia or any of the other recent sore spots in international news.

And to top it off, a story on Hollywood celebrities wearing a lot of gold clothing.

If there's any truth in what looks to me like a trend, I imagine news editors are finding that viewers/readers are depressed by the news and wanting relief.

Whether or not I'm right about the trend, I find myself drawn to escapist news right now. I turn off NPR when I can't take it any more and indulge in a documentary about the 1800s.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Moving testimony by Vermont teen on same-sex marriage

I found this testimony by a Vermont teen on same-sex marriage via a tweet from Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish blog. What an articulate young man, his testimony is eminently quotable.

Cadfael, Faulkner, and Cather

My overnight caregiving job has ended, my client deciding to make it through the night on her own, for which she deserves a lot of credit for working so hard to get healthy.

Besides the income, I find I'm most sad about the reading. During this job I was able to catch up on some classics that I'm so glad to have read/reread. I was just starting Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Grapes of Wrath and have returned them to the Library in hopes that I'll have time to resume reading sometime soon.

I tried reading The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner and didn't get very far. I had no idea Faulkner was "one of those," by which I mean one of those "language writers" like Gertrude Stein who consider the playing with language more important than story and character. I feel idiotic in saying that I need to know at all times what's happening, or at least to know that I'm likely to find out soon. Woody Allen wrote a very funny story years ago about his difficulty in understanding mimes -- "He's either folding a picnic basket or loading a sub machine gun" (or something to that effect) -- and that's exactly how I feel when reading Faulkner. How disappointing!

I got about halfway through My Antonia by Willa Cather and gave up on that, too. It's well enough written, and I could follow the story, but I found after a while that I didn't much care about what happened to the characters. And then came the story of a large group of people being eaten by a pack of wolves in Russia. Maybe packs of wolves in Russia, pushed to the brink of starvation, would do that, but I'm immediately suspicious of such stories, as wolves have for centuries been scapegoated and misunderstood.

I've been alternating these classics with the Cadfael Chronicles series by Ellis Peters, whose gender (female) I didn't discover until I was into the second book in the series. I'd seen one of the mysteries on PBS some time ago, because Sir Derek Jacobi is one of my favorite actors, and I wasn't much impressed with the mystery. But I'm glad to find the books are much better: more fun, and interestingly, more loving, which is about the last quality I would have expected to find in a detective series. In each of the three books I've read so far, Cadfael's affection for someone is at least notable, if not pivotal to the story. And it's not really fair to say that it's due to the writer being a woman because those of Agatha Christie's novels that I've read certainly don't meet that description.

I have yet to drag out the dictionary to learn the meanings of various terms (poniard and vagation, to name just a few), some of which are probably archaic; it will be easier to do that reading at home than it was at work.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Thomas Wolfe's "Look Homeward, Angel"

Once again, I want to let go of some thoughts about the book I've been reading overnight so that I can settle down to sleep.

I want to let go of the book as well, and return it to the Library today, I think. I don't like leaving a book unfinished, but after 100 or so pages I'm finding Look Homeward, Angel too frustrating a read to continue.

The language is beautiful; it's the kind of book I want to jot down quotes from as I read. But the characters are like patchwork quilts; or rather, like a painting by Grandma Moses (was that her name?), too roughly hewn to be realistic.

Some quotes.

"...his white moist hands could draw from a violin music that had in it something unearthly and untaught."

"O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again."

"...the quick and healing gaiety of children, those absolute little gods of the moment..."

"...'I just had a feeling, I don't know what you'd call it,' she said, her face plucked inward by the sudden fabrication of legend..."

"Still midget-near the live pelt of the earth, he saw many things that he kept in fearful secret, knowing that revelation would be punished with ridicule."

Letting go is a theme for me right now. Letting go of my mother, or trying to, as she is so far beyond wretched that she really is in hell. Thankfully, hell is not eternal. O lost, and by the wind and your children grieved, beloved mother, go on from here and allow the suffering to end.

Letting go of other things, too. Letting go of the portion of my life when I was the most important person in another's life.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers is another book borrowed from the Longmont Library's Classic Paperbacks section (for which I am so grateful, as it places in proximity a great number of books I want to read).

It's very rare that a book "sweeps me away," takes me so out of myself and out of the reading experience that I am "in" the book and no longer aware that I'm reading. And this book swept me away. I might at one time have said that the story was depressing, but even though its ending isn't a happy one, I wouldn't describe the story as depressing at all. McCullers' ability to evoke compassion for even the most difficult of her characters is really impressive, something I would love to achieve myself.

I understand there's a film version, and I can't wait to see it. I've been swept away by the best films I've ever seen -- The Seven Samurai and Goodfellas, to name a few (Goodfellas is seamless) -- and I love that experience of being out of my regular life and in the same world as the characters.

I want to seek out some literary critiques of this work as well, I'm guessing there are essays that attempt to interpret the story in symbolic ways, including the book's most enigmatic characters, John Singer, Biff Brannon and Bubber Kelly. He is almost Christ-like, but I know there are more interesting things to say than that. I so resonated with Mick Kelly's love of music, and it's funny, as I write that, I choke up and tears come to my eyes. There are times when I listen to a Beethoven symphony that I can hardly express the joy I feel, it feels explosive inside my chest. And I remember well the despair she feels upon taking a retail job; it is the despair I felt working as a technical writer in the junk mail industry, wanting so much to add my creative voice to the world and fearing I would never be able to do so.

The text on the back cover says the book is about "moral isolation." I don't know what that means. I just Googled it, and among the top entries are these definitions:

"...the feeling that no one else, dead or alive, understands us, which is a little more subtle than plain loneliness. It is alienation to its extreme." (From the Intelligent Emotions blog.)

That would certainly explain Singer's mysterious devotion to Antonapoulos, a man who seems to care nothing for him.

There is also this definition, apparently by Colonel John Boyd, which doesn't seem to me to apply to McCullers' novel: "Moral isolation is achieved when an enemy improves its well being at the expense of others (allies) or violates rules of behavior they profess to uphold (standards of conduct). Moral rules are a very important reference point in times of uncertainty." (from Global Guerrillas)

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Two remarkable videos

Two friends sent me the link to this video, and one explained it (which was helpful because I couldn't figure out how they'd done it) -- various musicians singing "Stand By Me" to the same background so they're in sync with each other.

And this one, a guy named Matt Harding dancing with people from all over the world. It's impressive, particularly the dancing in weightlessness with astronauts on the vomit comet, and the tribesmen in New Guinea (the Huli Wigmen).

I was able to find a little of the backstory -- Matt apparently saved up his money and traveled around Asia, filming himself dancing in various cities. A company named Stride Gum sponsored his trip around the world in which he visited all 7 continents, and I think there was at least another trip after that, and Matt has become pretty well-known as the guy who dances on the internet.

"Home" gallery trend in New York City

My artist friend Stephen Truax was involved in setting up the gallery walk visiting seven "home galleries" in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick that's mentioned in this New York Times article. Stephen's own work was on display at one of the galleries and seen there by a prominent NYC art critic.

Twain and Steinbeck

It's time for me to be in bed, I'm exhausted after not getting much sleep during the night. It seems I want to blog briefly about the books I'm reading first before I can settle down to sleep.

I finished reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn last night for the first time in I'm not sure how many years, maybe five. My old copy of the book is beyond falling apart, the middle 200+ pages are kept within the broken cover, and I can lift and read them one by one if I want to avoid the annoyance of trying to hold the loose pages together in my hands. I can't remember when or where I bought this copy, I probably picked it up used somewhere.

I enjoyed the humor more in this reading than I usually do, laughing out loud, and the stressful parts (during the con by the king and duke) were less stressful than usual. Here's a line I'd love to use some day: "I lay you'll be the Methusalem-numskull of creation before ever I ask you--or the likes of you." Spoken by Aunt Sally of Tom Sawyer after he's up and kissed her on the mouth while she still thinks he's a stranger. I can't help thinking this book must have been translated into many foreign languages but I'm damned if I can see how it possibly could be translated. What other language contains the term Methusalem-numskull?

Here's another wonderful passage: "I reckon a body that ups and tells the truth when he is in a tight place is taking considerable many resks, though I ain't had no experience, and can't say for certain; but it looks so to me, anyway; and yet here's a case where I'm blest if it don't look to me like the truth is better and actuly safer than a lie. I must lay it by in my mind, and think it over some time or other, it's so kind of strange and unregular. I never see nothing like it."

And his panegyric (is that the right word?) on Mary Jane. "Pray for me! I reckoned if she knowed me she'd take a job that was more nearer her size. But I bet she done it, just the same--she was just that kind. She had the grit to pray for Judus if she took the notion--there warn't no back-down to her, I judge. You may say what you want to, but in my opinion she had more sand in her than any girl I ever see; in my opinion she was just full of sand. It sounds like flattery, but it ain't no flattery."

I began reading what I believe to be my first Steinbeck novel, Of Mice and Men, a shorter one to start with than The Grapes of Wrath which I've intended to read for about 40 years. I've never had the goal of writing a novel because it seemed as if I would need to know when I began what the story was going to be about and why it would be interesting enough for somebody to read. And for some reason as I began this book and read the conversations between George and Lennie, I wondered if Steinbeck painted the landscape and then planted two characters in it and watched to see what they would do.

Steinbeck's writing is so theatrical in some places, it's almost like reading stage directions, or the narrative in a screenplay. "The afternoon sun sliced in through the cracks of the barn walls and lay in bright lines on the hay. There was the buzz of flies in the air, the lazy afternoon humming. From outside came the clang of horseshoes on the playing peg and the shouts of men, playing, encouraging, jeering. But in the barn it was quiet and humming and lazy and warm."

One of the reasons I've often resisted reading "great literature" was that it so often contains some horrific tragedy, the kind that haunts my sleep for weeks. I once read a novel by Alice Walker about a lesbian couple in which one of the partners gets beaten to death with a brick. I sense that something pivotal is going to happen in the lives of George and Lennie, as I guess it should or there'd be less reason for Steinbeck to be writing about them.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The DaVinci Code, redux

I reread The DaVinci Code last week. I enjoyed it a little less the second time because I knew what was coming and was surprised to find how much less exciting the book was with foreknowledge.

After the first reading years ago, I don't think I looked at much of the media responses to the book, and this time I'm interested, so I borrowed several films from the Longmont Library.

The Real DaVinci Code, from Acorn Media and shown on the Discovery Channel, is really very good. Its writer and host, British actor Tony Robinson, is known more for comedy, but he does an excellent job. Perhaps because I'm sleep deprived a lot of the time right now, I'm so impressed with the concise reasoning in Robinson's presentation.

I also enjoy watching him confront people on the lack of evidence for what they're saying. It's unfortunate that DaVinci Code author Dan Brown wasn't willing to be interviewed. Robinson could well use a slogan similar to CNN's Campbell Brown: No bull.