Friday, November 30, 2012

A Doodle

Quick Review

The Futurological CongressThe Futurological Congress by Stanisław Lem

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Really, it isn't fair to say that I "abandoned" this book.  I simply haven't bothered to look for it since I misplaced it.  That says something, doesn't?  May well say more about me than it does this novel, or it's celebrated author, Stanislaw Lem.

I did not dislike reading what I did of this book.  There was a certain pleasure in the hectic invention, and a flat detachment that somehow marked this book as being very different in kind from much of the SF satire of roughly the same era that I remember reading back in the day.  Those books, by Ellison, Vonnegut and others, all had a determined, almost dog-like desire to be liked, an audience pleasing insistence, however dark the comedy, on some fundamental optimism, if only in the hope of other worlds, new species, etc.  Lem's burlesque is intentionally unlovable, or so at least what I read of it seemed to me.  Not the width of a gnat's hair does Lem allow for either optimism or sentimentality here.  With Lem, it is just one fucking disaster after another.

That may be why the little I read now feels like enough.  How much of that is really required to make his point?  And then there was the expiration of much of the comedy here, at least for a reader old enough to remember the times being lampooned.  If the hairdos always date historical epics on film, it is the undifferentiated, rather tediously mild misogyny and general misandry that reminded me of just how unenlightened those dark days in the Sixties and Seventies could seem.  Witness female academics and revolutionaries in boots and minis, if wearing clothes at all, and little better than Bond girls throughout.  Then there is the grainy loop of sex as "spectacle," something no one could quite pull off even then, forgiving the pun, and which turns out to have been roughly as culturally significant as the hula-hoop.  O, you can almost hear the synthesizers pulsing whenever the clothes come off, man.

Even as dated as much of this persiflage now seems, there is a remarkable level of pure invention here that demands a certain respect still.  From the Huxley-influenced drug-premise, to the seemingly endless dream-cycling of the narrative, no one could fault Lem for ever not exploiting every joke to the full or for ever letting things flag.

Maybe I just remember enough of this trip to not need another hit, thanks much, man.

View all my reviews

Daily Dose

From Winter's Tales, by Isak Dinesen


"Even in winter the warm rooms behind the silk curtains were filled with the perfumes of flowers named heliotrope and oleander, and the chandeliers that hung from the ceilings were themselves made of glass in the shape of bright flowers and leaves."

From The Dreaming Child

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Doodle

Daily Dose

From Hamlet, by William Shakespeare


"Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time."

From Act I, Scene 1

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Bookstore Doodle

Quick Review

Engineers of the Soul: In the Footsteps of Stalin's WritersEngineers of the Soul: In the Footsteps of Stalin's Writers by Frank Westerman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Westerman is a journalist and an accomplished traveller, with something of a preference for what strikes me at least as unlikely places; a biblical mountain (Ararat,) Srebrenica, or here, the traces, physical and cultural, of the blessedly dead Soviet empire.  The author walks into things, often as not; to see for himself, to confirm or refute his researches, in search of not just history but experience and even mystery.  It is a very clever, post-modern strategy, particularly when addressing anything as unwieldy and plain weird as Stalin's "Soviet Realism."  What better way to see the rewards of popular success -- and the mutability of all things -- than to go where a hugely popular writer of the era may or may not, as it turns out, have ever been, despite describing the place in his most popular work.  What better way to describe anew the consequences of dissent at this late date than to see the ditch into which so much time, talent and hope was left to rot. 

It's a very clever strategy, keeping the reader grounded in the trip; even as Westerman, rather gleefully, details the surviving physical ruins of the Stalin era -- including a handful of actual survivors; academics, grounds-keepers, old believers -- he is simultaneously reviewing the extraordinary course of the highest days and lowest lows of Stalin's writers.  No story here ends well.  From the great Gorky to the last hack, it seems rather obvious as Westerman's book goes on, there have been few more successful co-options of writers and art than this, and little enough likely to last hereafter.

It's a fascinating story, told here with infectious curiosity, even a certain elan, but without mockery or disdain for life and writing in a very different place.  Neither an apologist nor vicious, Westerman has a nimble gift for negotiating dead ends.

View all my reviews

Daily Dose

 From As You Like It, by William Shakespeare


Blow, blow, thou winter wind.
Thou art not so unkind As man’s ingratitude; Thy tooth is not so keen, Because thou art not seen, Although thy breath be rude. Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly: Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly: Then, heigh-ho, the holly! This life is most jolly. Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky, That dost not bite so nigh As benefits forgot: Though thou the waters warp, Thy sting is not so sharp As friend remember’d not. Heigh-ho! sing, &c.

From Act II, Scene 7

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Done and Done

 Well, that's another done.  It's still an amazement to me that there are ever forty people, many if not most of them strangers to me, willing to come sit of an evening and listen to me read aloud.  (Half an hour or so before every reading, I'm always passing back and forth -- on very important errands you may be sure -- and checking the empty seats.  Often as not at that hour, there may be one elderly gent dozing cozily over a book, but not a hint otherwise of anything that might be called "my public."  It's right about then I start to "glow" with anticipatory flop-sweat.  So attractive.)

As you can see, people did, in fact, come out out to hear Capote's A Christmas Memory, bless 'em.   In addition to friends and former coworkers and the like, I had friends up from California this year, just to hear the reading, which was terribly flattering.  Since my dear friend C. has been transformed, at 54, into a 14 year old girl by his new-ish smart-phone, he now texts and takes pictures all the time.  (It's really rather charming, as it turns out, having a teenager to stay over Thanksgiving, but a teenager who drinks responsibly and picks up the tab on an expensive dinner for four at Salty's.)  He took the picture below:
 I'd decided that as he was not even the only one taking my picture, that I'd take some of the audience as well, a la Moby and the like.  Rock star!  (I got more than one compliment on my holiday outfit, by the way.  Thought I was stylin' pretty good, until I caught my reflection in a dark window.  Decided I actually looked like an Hasidic tomato.  Oh well.)
 The audience, as I've said, was full of friends, old and new.  Some of them even had the genius idea of bringing their friends as well.  Excellent idea, may I say.
We'd had some copies of my little book printed up, to sell at the event, though my book had absolutely nothing to do with what I was reading.  That's what these women are up to in the photo above, pretending shock at my daring and dazzling wit.

The Capote went well this time, if I do say so myself.  (Someone pointed out that last year?  I was desperately ill with a spell of the vertigo the night I read.  Maybe that's the formula then; alternating sick and not, so that every other year at least sounds frankly better than I've "ever been.")  Afterwards, a number of regulars did make a point of saying how much they'd enjoyed the reading: the Capote of course, but also the Ogden Nash poem with which I'd closed the evening out.
And then there was this.  The piece I wrote last night, I'd intended to just be a brief introduction, as I do every year.  Usually I talk a bit about the history of Capote's story, and my own preoccupation with Christmas, reading literature aloud and whatnot.  I'd decided to dedicate tonight's reading to Bob Quinn, a friend to the bookstore, and someone we recently lost.  Bob was always good about supporting my efforts at the store.  Seemed appropriate then to open the evening with a few words about Bob.

Well, the piece rather got away from me and ended up being considerably longer than I'd anticipated, more of a eulogy as it turned out, albeit a rather narrowly defined and very personal eulogy.  That was fine for what it was, as an essay here, but was it something I wanted to read aloud, at the bookstore, as part of a Christmas event?

As it turned out, yes.  I debated this with myself for a long time last night and again pretty much all day today, right up until it was time to get ready for the reading.  I'd prepared a second story, a funny one.  That's what I will usually read, something very light, to follow after the melancholy final note of A Christmas Memory.  (Back into the file for next year.)  But the thought that Bob's actual memorial, long if haphazardly planned, has yet to happen, and that anything I might have to say may not be appropriate to that more solemn celebration, I determined something more than just mentioning the man's name really was called for.  My next thought was that I might still edit last night's piece down to something more manageable in length and still have time for a second story.  Could not make that work.  Finally had to make a decision, so I did.  I read the eulogy.  I closed with a funny Santa Claus poem by Ogden Nash.  It all worked surprisingly well, despite my nervousness at reading what I did.

Dear P., my boss and fellow reader on more than one occasion, insisted that the Capote reading this time was the best I'd ever done. I mention this compliment because I really rather like her explanation of why that might be true.

"Your heart was already open."

Just so.

Daily Dose

From The Gift of the Magi and Other Stories, by O. Henry


'Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present."

Monday, November 26, 2012

There Will Be One Vacant Chair

Addison says somewhere that friendship, by doubling our joys, divides our grief, or words to effect.  That's as may be.  I do appreciate a crowd now and then.  I feel the need of company, as most people do this time of year.  Somehow, what we now call collectively "the Holidays" just wouldn't be much more than shopping and eating and telephone calls, if it weren't for the excuse to congregate here and there when the cold comes on us, mingle a bit, sing maybe, or dance, laugh together, read a story aloud, pray or listen together.

As I get older, I find I have more friends than I ever thought likely.  Certainly who might be my friend has come as something of a surprise, I should think, to all parties.  Little children like anyone who likes them, mostly.  But unless one is very young, the expectation is that one's friends will be very like one.  Not true, I find.  Not true anymore, anyway.  But then, what I mean by the word has changed.

One has old friends, and if one is lucky, new.  A few years ago, I would have thought I'd already met my dearest friends.  I'm glad to say that I don't know that anymore.  In a broader sense though, I've come to believe that friends may be just where we find them or they find us.  Best not to worry about the when or the why of that, or, for that matter, when or why or where they might go.  Nowadays, I'll take my friends as I find them, and be glad of the company.

Recently, we lost a friend at the bookstore where I work.  He was a nice man and I miss him.  Here was an unlikely friend, may I say!  He read Jung, which I never will, and kept a dog, which I don't.  He  was an odd man, in many ways, and a melancholy presence of late.  His best friend, a dog as I've mentioned, died after they were every day together for many years.  That changed him.  He did a remarkable thing, years before I ever met him, and about that I knew very little until after my friend died.  I feel bad about that.  I'm afraid I wasn't very curious about his past.  The little I knew seemed enough.  (To ask too much of or about him seemed indelicate.  Perhaps I was wrong to think so, but I did.)  He wasn't the sort of person to talk much about what he'd accomplished and didn't look, frankly, capable of much but kindness and civility, and I liked him well enough for that.  Turns out, years ago, in the depths of the AIDS crisis, he founded the first needle exchange program in the neighborhood where I work, one of the first needle exchanges in the city for that matter.  It was an admirable thing to do and he did it; without permission from anyone and without being asked.  He saw that something needed to be done and he did it.  Imagine the courage to do that!

Here was a man, it seems, who had more friends, who made more friends in his short life, than might ever have been imagined to look at him.  He was unprepossessing in that way.  He was near to being homeless most of the time I knew him, and he was homeless for a long while there at the end of his life.  He walked other people's dogs as well as his own, and then after, and then finally, just the one.  He was always prompt to point out that that last dog, the last one to walk with him most days, wasn't his.  This was prompted by people, strangers, coming over to visit with the dog, not him so much.  He would always say, "He's not mine, actually," which usually confused people, and right enough.  What he meant, I now think, was a lesson, if that wasn't always clear, and something like a joke.  He had a sense of humor, my friend, that wasn't always easy to appreciate.  He had, however, a very easy laugh.

I wasn't much of a friend to him, really.  He certainly had better.  A woman I work with -- and one of the people I've come most to respect and love over the last decade -- was a good friend to our friend.  She took care of him to exactly the extent he would allow it.  She fed him when he'd let her, gave him a coat, a sleeping-bag, gave him money.  (Sometimes he'd take a little money from me, sometimes not.  When everything he had was stolen one day, our friend raised some money among all of us at the bookstore to replace what he'd lost.   He took that.  He was grateful.  Mostly though, we bought some of the books he found and brought in to sell.  We never took everything he brought in, but we probably took some that we ought not to.  I always thought he knew that and didn't much mind, though we were always very careful of that.  I don't mind who else knows it.  I paid myself for what I thought we couldn't sell.  No one lost anything by such small dishonesties.)    There are people in this world who will take care of us no matter what.  No use resisting such large souls, I find.

What she saw in him, I came to see myself: his own generosity, both in spirit and kind, his sincere affection for his fellow beings, his courtesy, which I've already mentioned.  That last is worth remarking specially.  It's not something that might be noticed otherwise.  Just the other day, we were talking about our absent friend at the Used Books buying desk.  He sat, nearly every day, at the little table just beside where we work.  He might eat his breakfast from the cafe, he might just doze, but he was there, nearly every day.  For years there was at least one dog dozing with him.  Then there wasn't.  Every day, coming or going, he wished us a good morning, a good evening, weekend or afternoon.  He never didn't do that.  Even when he talked, as he did more and more often lately, about perhaps not having the opportunity again, he always said hello and goodbye and wished us well.  He meant it.  That's the point, you see, that he meant it.

He was probably more than a little mad.  He read, I think now, to understand this about himself, but not just this.  He had a genuine and vitalizing curiosity about himself, his own mind, the very idea of mind, and soul, and his relation, however tenuous at times, to reality and to life.  He asked questions.  He didn't always ask relevant questions, but he asked.  More importantly he never didn't listen, whatever the answers.  

We all of us might never have known, or even noticed such a person, had we not known him.  I admit it, easily.  We pass such people every day and express neither curiosity nor compassion as we go.  We are so very busy, most of us, going about our business; earning our living, thinking our own thoughts, worrying about whatever it is that happens to worry us just then.  We notice less than we might.  I notice less than I might, or should.  I'll say just that.

He, on the other hand, never ignored anyone.  There were, there certainly are, people far madder than our friend.  For a time, he might live with this or that insane person, he might avoid someone he knew to be violent or drunk or too desperately ill to be helped, but he would try, you see.  That's what made him such an extraordinary person, rather than just another character on The Ave.  He wasn't a saintly person.  He wasn't a fool.  He had a temper, come to that.  He would not tolerate cruelty of any kind.  What he did do -- and this was truly remarkable if not entirely unique in my experience -- is he would try, he would listen, if at all possible, he would try to help.  He believed in kindness.  It wasn't just a matter of manners for him, or of trying to be kind.  He believed in kindness.  It was, I think, his only absolute.  It was the one thing he still had when he hadn't anything else.

Addison said that friendship doubles our joy by dividing our  sorrows, or something like.  I don't know what joy there was left in life for our friend when he took his own.  I can't know his sorrows.  He told another friend, when the last dog he walked rather suddenly died recently, that he hadn't anything left to take care of.  That seems reason enough, or at least seems it seemed reason enough for him.  In his own modest way though, he took what care he could of us, of all his friends, working and poor, homeless and housed, sane and less so, good and not.  Whatever rest he's found, he earned.  He might have let us take better care of him, but that's nothing he need have thought of when he came to the end.  That's our sorrow, not his.  He did enough.

When I read a story aloud tomorrow night, to mark the coming of Christmas, to give what pleasure I can to such of my friends as may be about me then, there will be one vacant chair.

The loss will be mine.

Rest in peace, my friend, our friend.  I will be thinking of you.

'We do what we can.  It's enough, hopefully."  -- Bob Quinn

Daily Dose

From A Christmas Memory, by Truman Capote


"Excellent decorations, as far as they go, which isn't far enough..."

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Abdication of a Jester

Daily Dose

From Once More with Feeling: A Book of Classic Hymns & Carols, selected by Rupert Christiansen


"It was many a year before I recovered my joy in singing hymns."

From The Introduction

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Quick Review

The Greatcoat: A Ghost StoryThe Greatcoat: A Ghost Story by Helen Dunmore

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'd never read Helen Dunmore, despite her many prizes and her excellent reputation as a novelist.  I found this book looking for ghost stories by contemporary writers.  Despite all the glowing reviews, I was a bit sceptical, still.  I don't much like romantic ghost stories; lovers sadly parted by the grave, love conquering death and all that.  (It's not that I'm not romantic -- that's as may be -- but I don't think much of supernatural explanations for human emotion.)  I might have trusted to the solid, British sound of the author's name, if not to her standing to assure me of the absence here of "soppiness."

There is a romance here, and a quite convincing one, gracefully and discreetly handled throughout, but this is not a Romance in the modern sense, so much as a kind of elegy; for youth, for the assumed moral clarity of the World War, and for that fleeting liberation from conformity and squalor that sex, for a time, and for some of us who are lucky, may be.

The supernatural element at the heart of this story is masterfully suggested, as it might have been in a ghost story by Wharton.  There's no explanation where there needn't be any, no attempt to make such mysteries plain.  The deftness with which Dunmore manages this while writing in an entirely convincing, very contemporary voice comes as a very happy shock, to me at least.  (Not to get mired in endless comparisons, but the last writer I knew who did this this well was probably Muriel Spark.  Again, good company.)

I'll want more of Helen Dunmore's novels now.  I hope she does another ghost story as good as this.

View all my reviews

Upcoming Event!

It's fruitcake weather again.  Do come.  There will be treats -- lovely baked goods and cider -- and general conviviality.  Tuesday.  Seven o'clock.  At the bookstore, same as always.

Daily Dose

From Europe and Elsewhere, by Mark Twain


"A new thing in costume appears -- the flaring hoop-skirt, for example -- and the passers-by are shocked, and the irreverent laugh.  Six months later everybody is reconciled; the fashion has established itself; it is admired now, and no one laughs."

From Corn-Pone Opinions

Friday, November 23, 2012

A Bookstore Doodle

Lines to a Three Name Lady

Daily Dose

From Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays: 1891 - 1910, by Mark Twain


"In the first faint gray of dawn the stately wild turkeys would be stalking around in great flocks, and ready to be sociable and answer invitations to come and converse with other excursionists of their kind."

From Hunting the Deceitful Turkey

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Raw Turkey Porn

Daily Dose

From The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci


"That is called simple movement in a man when he simply bends forward, or backwards, or the side."

From On the grace of the limbs

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Bookstore Doodle

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From Mayakovsky's Revolver, by Matthew Dickman


"And Paris, France,
is stillParis, France,
though we've never been there together
but might
if life were a little longer
and no one ever invented knives."

From The Summer's Over, Jack Spicer!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Mr Barcalows Breakdown

Daily Dose

From This Craft of Verse, by Jorge Luis Borges


"I do not believe men will ever tire of telling or hearing stories."

From The Telling the Tale

Monday, November 19, 2012

Dont Look Now by Ogden Nash

Daily Dose

From Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays, by George Orwell


"The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us."

From Why I Write

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Nevertheless by Ogden Nash

Daily Dose

From The Soul of Man Under Socialism, by Oscar Wilde


"'He who would be free,' says a fine thinker, 'must not conform.'  And authority, by bribing people to conform, produces a very gross kind of over-fed barbarism amongst us."

From Pg. 12, this edition

Saturday, November 17, 2012

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From In Praise of Messy Lives: Essays, by Katie Roiphe


"For a literary culture that fears it is on the brink of total annihilation, we are awfully cavalier about the Great Male Novelists of the last century."

From  The Naked and the Conflicted

Friday, November 16, 2012

Silence by D H Lawrence

Daily Dose

From The Trial of Socrates, by I. F. Stone


"Socrates himself seems to put the hemlock to his lips."

From Chapter 14. How Socrates Did His Best to Antagonize the Jury

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Futility by Wilfred Owen

Daily Dose

From The Critic as Artist and Other Essays, by Oscar Wilde


"In the land of Purgation the air is freer, and the holy mountain rises in the pure light of day."

From The Critic as Artist, Part II

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Two Poems by John Berryman

Daily Dose

From The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs


"Our cities contain people too poor to pay for the quality of shelter that our public conscience (quite rightly, I think) tells us they should have."

From Chapter 17, Subsidizing dwellings

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Seattle Winter Headgear #3

Seattle Winter Headgear #2

Seattle Winter Headgear

Daily Dose

From In Praise of Messy Lives: Essays, by Katie Roiphe


"I begin to notice that when I am a little bit happy, there is nearly always someone there to tell me that I should be serious."

From The Great Escape

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From The Divine Comedy Volume 1: Inferno, by Dante, translated by Mark


"It is their fault I am here with choice family"

From Canto XXX, Line 88

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Elegy for Jane

Daily Dose

From The Way the World Works: Essays, by Nicholson Baker


"If  you want to quote from a book you've bought, you have to quote by location range -- e.g., the phrase 'She was on the verge of the mother of all orgasms' is to be found at location range 1596 - 1605 in Mari Carr's erotic romance novel Tequila Truth."

From Kindle 2

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Talking to Dogs

A Bookstore Doodle

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding


"And here, reader, we must strictly caution thee, that thou dost not take any occasion from the misbehaviour of such a wretch as this, to reflect on so worthy and honourable body of men, as are the officers of our army in general."

From Book Nine, Chapter Two

Friday, November 9, 2012

A Bookstore Doodle

Dead Dog

Daily Dose

From The Way the World Works: Essays, by Nicholson Baker


"For a faker, Defoe had an enormous appetite for truth and life and bloody specificity."

From Defoe: Truthteller