Thursday, February 23, 2017

Ryokan: the ultimate enlightenment?

Is he enlightened or just lazy?


Without a jot of ambition left
I let my nature flow where it will.
There are ten days of rice in my bag
And, by the hearth, a bundle of firewood.
Who prattles of illusion or nirvana?
Forgetting the equal dusts of name and fortune,
Listening to the night rain on the roof of my hut,
I sit at ease, both legs stretched out.  
                           -- Ryokan --
from  Zen Poetry
edited and translated by Takashi Ikemoto and Lucien Stryk





What I find most intriguing is that he rejects both the spiritual world (illusion and nirvana) and the material world (name and fortune).  Is this the ultimate enlightenment? 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A Minute Meditation

No. 65

Reading these grand mountain manuscripts displayed through every vicissitude of heat and cold, calm and storm, upheaving volcanoes and down-grinding glaciers, we see that everything in Nature called destruction must be creation--a change from beauty to beauty.

-- John Muir --

from   John Muir:  In His Own Words

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Favorite Films: 2016

These are the films that I watched and most  enjoyed in 2016 and would like to view again.  The first group are those films I watched for the first time, and probably not for the last time either.  As you can see, there were 20 film which I would like to view again some time, but only four of them were films I had viewed for the first time.  Sixteen of the twenty were films I had already viewed in the past, viewed again in 2016 and would like to watch again some time in the future.

First Viewings:

Symphonies of Beethoven 
a Teaching Company set of 48 lectures on Beethoven's symphonies.  The only downside was that they were too short.  It's on my "must watch again" list.
 
The Martian   
a very realistic depiction of being marooned on Mars.  

 
 Love and Friendship  
a marvelous transformation of Jane Austen's novella, _Lady Susan_.  It is the best adaptation of a work by Austen that I have ever seen.  Why they changed the name, I don't know.
 
Ken Burns: The Dust Bowl  
Ken Burns' usual production, which would be extraordinary for anyone else--a great and moving documentary on a sad period in our history.  




Repeat Viewings:

THX 1138
George Lucas' first film, directed when he paid attention to character and plot and kept the action sequences at the appropriate level--but, as usual, he just had to get a car chase sequence in there.

Museum Hours
a great film, simple plot and two main characters.  The sights and scenes of Vienna are matched by the dialogue and paintings in the Kunsthistorisches Museum.  This is a link to my post on this film.  http://tinyurl.com/hjdjakl

Man from Earth
one of my favorite SF films--John Oldman tells his friends that he's over 10,000 years old.  What follows is their attempt to determine if he is lying or deceiving them.  They of course rule out the possibility that he's telling the truth.  This is a link to my post on this film:  http://tinyurl.com/z85ebjc

The Name of the Rose
a limited but excellent adaptation of Umberto Eco's great novel of the same name--a mystery set in an isolated monastery in Italy?  moody and dark, an interesting mix of religion and politics, and religious politics. 

Witness for the Prosecution
my all-time favorite  courtroom drama film: strangely, I liked the film better than the Christie story it was based on.



The Qatsi Trilogy
all photography, with no dialogue or plot; the  sound track of music composed by Philip Glass is an integral part of the overall effect.  Must be seen and heard to be appreciated.


---Koyaanisqatsi 
pure graphics, no computer cgi, time lapse photography is the only special effect: -a contrast between wilderness and urban settings--the viewer decides

--Powaqqatsi
again, pure graphics, no computer cgi, time lapse photography is the only special effect:  the contrast is between the developing parts of the Southern Hemisphere and the still undeveloped parts

--Naqoyqatsi
--Life as War is a rough translation of the title.  Released some 14 years after the first two--the technology wasn't available at the time.  This is almost all digitized photography. 




Brideshead Revisited
an excellent adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel.  Seeing this on PBS Masterpiece Theatre got me to go and read the novel.
 

Wages of Fear
one of the most tense and nerve racking films I've ever watched.

 
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Smiley's People
two great BBC adaptations of the Smiley novels by John le Carre'
Alec Guinness is in top form here


The Big Sleep (Bogart and Bacall)

It's Bogart and Bacall in a film adaptation of a novel by Raymond Chandler.  What else need I say?.



If you're in the mood for a film and don't have anything particular in mind, try one of these, and let me know what you thought.  They are all great films and well worth the time spent.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

Jack London: The Scarlet Plague

Jack London:   The Scarlet Plague


Edgar Allan Poe published a short work titled "The Masque of the Red Death" (aka "The Mask of the Red Death) in 1842 about a virulent plague that caused instant bleeding from the pores and immediate death.  In 1912, some 70 years later, Jack London published a novella, The Scarlet Death in which he depicted a plague that caused a bright reddening of the skin and almost instantaneous death.  Did London borrow the idea from Poe?  I don't know as I've never read anything that suggests such a possibility.  Aside from the symptoms and the high mortality rate, the two tales are very different in time and place.  Poe's tale takes place in Renaissance Italy (or so I guess) while London's is set in the San Francisco Bay area in 2013. 

Poe's story focused on a small group of people who fled the city for an isolated "castellated abbey," hoping to escape the plague.  It had a high wall and an iron door.  They sealed the door in an attempt to keep the plague or plague bearers out.  However, as those who have read the tale know, they were unsuccessful  What happened after the plague appeared and apparently killed all in the abbey is not told.

London's tale, however, is a flashback, a reminiscence of one of the few survivors, called Granser by the boys,  told to the next generation, a small group of young males who are the descendants of those few who were immune to the plague.  While the story was written in 1912, London set it in 2013, in the San Francisco Bay area. 

The frame tells us what life is like several decades after the plague.  Granser's  audience consists of teen-aged boys, whose language consists mostly of a very basic vocabulary and they see no reason why there should be more than one word for something.  They deride the old man for referring to something as "scarlet" when "red" is a perfectly good word.  While we never really get a close look at the way the people live then, London does provide sufficient information to suggest that humanity has reverted back to the hunting and gathering stage, a period of savagery, as Granser complains.  But, this is all part of the cycle, for the old man tells the boys:

 "You are true savages.  Already has begun the custom of wearing human teeth.  In another generation you will be perforating your nose and ears and wearing ornaments of bone and shell.  I know.  The human race is doomed to sink back farther and farther into the primitive night ere again it begins its bloody climb upward to civilization.  When we increase and feel the lack of room,  we will proceed to kill one another." 

Most of the tale, though, consists of the horrors experienced during the outbreak of the plague and the breakdown of society, the rioting, looting, and killing that occurred as the terrified population thought only of their own survival at any cost.  What's intriguing is that Granser, a literature professor at the University of California,  and numerous colleagues in the university community attempted to barricade themselves in the Chemistry Building, bringing in supplies and weapons and prepared to do whatever they had to do to keep the plague and plague bearers out, just as the Prince and his friends had done in Poe's tale. And, they were just an unsuccessful.  At the end, the few survivors fled the building.

London doesn't go into any great detail about what had happened during the sixty years that had passed since the outbreak.  He is most concerned with the breakdown of society at the time of the plague and some depiction of life today.

Interwoven though is London's socialist philosophy as the old man tells of society in 2013 as consisting of Masters and Slaves (capitalist owners and workers).  He, in speaking of the events of 2013, tells us  "(t)hat was the year that Morgan the Fifth was appointed President of the United States by the Board of Magnates."

London also makes the point, over a century ago, that he was aware of what we today are only too aware of--the relationship of a large population and the appearance of new diseases and the role of rapid global  transportation in the spread of these diseases.  Improved methods of food production led to an increase in population.  "The easier it was to get food, the more men there were; the more men there were, the more thickly were they packed together on the earth; and the more thickly were they packed, the more new kinds of germs became diseases."

We are certainly well aware of the problem today, especially when we consider the onset of AIDS, Ebola, and most recently the Zika virus.  So far we've been lucky as rapid transmission of information has allowed us to stay ahead of the threat, even though several countries were placed under quarantine during the last Ebola outbreak.

London's tale is a disquieting one, even though it is considered science fiction.  It is not an highly improbable invasion by aliens that poses the threat but invaders from Earth itself.  We see examples of it perhaps every decade or so.

At one time I had considered calling this post "The Three Plagues."  I had planned to write about three plague stories--the two mentioned above and George R. Stewart's great novel, The Earth Abides.   However, the length of this commentary on the first two is long enough, so I will post on Stewart's work separately.

 I would recommend, if you have the time, to read all three stories:  first Poe, then London, and then Stewart's novel, for together they provide an thorough exploration of the theme--the plague and its aftermath.  .  
 



Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain LXXXV

This quatrain is linked to the previous quatrain in which the  Poet/Narrator points out that the Creator has put before us certain pleasures and then denies them to us "under pain/Of Everlasting Penalties..."



Second Edition:  Quatrain LXXXV

What! from his helpless Creature be repaid
Pure Gold for what he lent us dross-allay'd
    Sue for a Debt we never did contract,
And cannot answer--Oh, the sorry trade!




Fifth Edition:  Quatrain LXXIX

What! from his helpless Creature be repaid
Pure Gold for what he lent us dross-allay'd--
    Sue for a Debt we never did contract,
And cannot answer--Oh, the sorry trade!


Aside from the dash after "dross-allay'd" in the second line of the Fifth Edition, I can see no other differences between the Second Edition and the Fifth (Final) Edition. 

This quatrain develops the theme of the previous quatrain--the injustice of an eternal punishment of Creatures for partaking in pleasures put before them.   We are helpless creatures who are expected to act with perfect obedience, "Pure Gold," when we were given only imperfect and sinful characters to begin with, characters that are "dross-allay'd."  Is it reasonable to expect perfect performance from imperfect creatures?   Moreover, we were not given the opportunity to review this "contract."  It was simply placed upon us without our consent.  Would a human court would enforce such a contract?     

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Down Time

It's time for a mental health and sanity check, as it's been too long since my last one.   I need to reduce my time in front of the little screen. so I'm stopping all blogging and book discussion group activities for the time being. I'll be back when I'm back.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Jane Austen's Mansfield Park: In Defense of Fanny Price

The following is a quotation from Carrots for Michaelmas, a blog belonging to Haley Stewart.  This link will take you to the complete article.  http://tinyurl.com/hthjuep  

I want to thank Di from The Little White Attic  who alerted me to this article, "In Defense of Fanny Price,"from which this quotation was taken.

 
Mansfield Park is about superficiality versus substance. It’s about charm versus goodness. It’s about mere conventional propriety versus true virtue and it’s hard for an entertainment-obsessed culture that glorifies appearances and laughs at the idea of character to understand. All of the characters struggle and are tried and tested…but some fight the good fight and others reveal that they never had virtue to begin with.


This is the best, the most coherent, the clearest statement of the main point of Mansfield Part I have ever read. In a few words she expressed what I've been trying to say for years. 

Thank you, Haley Stewart.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Lawrence Durrell: Justine, Part I

Lawrence Durrell
Justine:  the first book in the Alexandria Quartet

This is my fourth visit to Alexandria with the aid of Lawrence Durrell, my personal tour guide.  Isn't that what writers are, guides to their worlds?  It has been some time since my last visit, so I had only the vaguest ideas of what was coming.  However, once I started, I began recognize some of what I was reading.

What came first was the memory of the initial confusion I felt when I began to read the novel.  Durrell doesn't believe, at least in Justine, straightforward chronological narrative structure.  Instead, I was faced with short paragraphs and brief references to characters, without any help from Durrell.  Here and there characters were brought up briefly and then off to something else.  It was only I had gotten a way into Part I that I began finding introductions to the characters but in a disjointed fashion, though.

This time though I understood what Durrell was doing.  As the narrator explains very early in the novel, the first page or so, he was going to put down on paper the events of the past year.  If I had decided to do something similar, it would have been difficult to begin as I know that all I would have been able to come up with at first would be fragments, disjointed,  and randomly recalled without any chronological order.  However, the longer I worked at it, the more material I would be able to bring up, and each memory would be accompanied by other memories.  So, as I got deeper into Part 1, I found the fragments were now longer and more complete.  If it had been me, though, I wouldn't have had to courage to include those first brief  fragments in my work, for I would have edited them out and produced a standard commonplace traditional account.  That, no doubt, is why Durrell is a great writer, and I am not.

While Durrell introduces some seven or eight characters, he returns again and again to two of them:  Justine and Melissa.  But, at first I found it difficult to immediately know just which one the narrator was referring to.  It's as if  the narrator mistakenly believes we are as familiar with Justine and Melissa as he is, so he really doesn't have to identify them immediately.   The male characters are introduced without the confusion that surrounded the female characters.  The males are named and their relationship to the narrator is spelled out and occasionally brought back into the narrative. 

As I mentioned earlier, the narrator doesn't provide his reader with a chronological sequence.  When we first meet Justine and Melissa, it quickly becomes clear that he is intimately involved with both of them.  It is only much later in Part I that we are told of their first meeting.  Then comes their first sexual encounter, but not necessarily in that order.

The Quartet, I find, consists of a number of character and plot threads that are intertwined throughout the story. Because of this, at times I simply stop reading, go back to the beginning of the novel, and follow a particular thread, ignoring whatever else is going on at that time.  It is surprising what I find when I do this, even if I limit it just to Part 1.

For example, let's follow the Justine thread and stop when we reach when we reach the part when the narrator tells us how and when they first met.  We first meet, or hear of her actually, on the first page when she is mentioned by the narrator as one of his friends: "Justine and Nessim, of Melissa and Balthazar.".  Several pages later, the narrator tells us that he has Justine's diary, which he got from her husband, Nessim, who still hoped that Justine would come back to him.  The narrator tells us that he believes he will never see Justine for he and his friends have "taken different paths now."  However, the narrator does have Melissa's child with him and tells us that he "has not named it yet.  Of course it will be Justine--who else?"

Several pages later we read that he catches a glimpse of her from his balcony.  In fact he has seen her many times and knows who she is, even though they haven't met.  He now mentions their many meetings at the cafe, El Bab. Again, pages later, we get a much fuller description of her, and it is obvious they have just been intimate.

Later, the narrator tells us that  he had once agreed to give a lecture on the 'poet of the city,' Cavafy, which was attended by "a dignified semicircle of society ladies."   Justine was in the audience.   He recognizes her, but they do not speak because they have yet to meet.  After the lecture, the narrator, that evening,  stops at a small cafe.  Justine suddenly appears and asks a question about the lecture.  Then she says, "I want to take you to Nessim, my husband.  Will you come?"  She drives them to the house and searched "from room to room, fracturing the silences.  He (Nessim) answered at last from the great studio on the roof and racing to him like a gundog she metaphorically dropped me at his feet and stood back, wagging her tail.  She had achieved me.


Nessim was sitting on the top of the ladder reading, and he came slowly down to us, looking first at one and then at the other. . .for my part, I could offer no explanation of my presence, since I did not know for what purpose I had been brought here."


If I may cheat here, the narrator believes, later, that  he knows why she approached him, gathered him up, and brought him to her husband.  But that's in Justine.  In the second book, Balthazar, he will hear a different explanation, and the reader will find yet one more in Mountolive.   

It is said that a sign of great literature is that one discovers something new in every reading.  That is certainly true of Justine.  Even though this was at least the fourth reading, I was surprised to discover clues,  interspersed in Part 1, to future events, some that will take place in the other volumes of the quartet.   The narrator would make some offhand remark and then go on to something else and would never refer to it again. It meant nothing to the narrator and nothing to me until this the fourth reading.  I should have picked up on them on subsequent readings.


I wonder what I will find on my fifth reading. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

N. Scott Momaday: In the Bear's House, an overview

N. Scott Momaday
In the Bear's House


In the Bear's House is a rather unusual work, as will be seen from the Table of Contents I will provide shortly.  To be honest, I have only the briefest glimpse of what Momaday is doing here, but I find that what little I do see absorbing, as well as perplexing.  Rather than stumble about, confusing you and me even more, I will Momaday tell you in his own words what this book is all about.

"INTRODUCTION

Let me say at the outset that this is not a book about Bear (he would be spoken of in the singular and masculine, capitalized and without an article), or it is only incidentally about him.  I am less interested in defining the being of Bear than in trying to understand something about the spirit of wilderness, of which Bear is a very particular expression.  Even Urset, who is the original bear and comes directly from the hand of God, is symbolic and transparent, more transparent than real, if you will.  He is an imitation of himself, a mask.  If you look at him very closely and long enough, you will see the mountains on the other side.  Bear is a template of the wilderness.

I am acquainted with Bear,  indeed more than acquainted.  Bear and I are one, in one and the same story.  My Indian name is Tsoai-talee, which in Kiowa means 'Rock-tree boy.'  Tsoai, "Rock tree,' is Devils Tower in Wyoming.  That is where, long ago, a Kiowa boy turned into a bear and where his sisters were borne into the sky and became the stars of the Big Dipper.  Through the power of stories and names, I am the reincarnation of that boy.  From the time the name Tsoai-talee was conferred on me as an infant, I have been possessed of Bear's spirit.  The Kiowas--whose principal religious expression was the Sun Dance and whose most ancient blood memory was of the mythic darkness of a hollow log from which they emerged into the world--believe that the buffalo is the animal representation of the sun.  Bear is the animal representation of the wilderness.

.   .   .   .   .

Something in me hungers for wild mountains and rivers and plains.  I love to be on Bear's ground, to listen for that old guttural music under his breath, to know only that he is near.  And Bear is welcome in my dreams, for in that cave of sleep I am at home to Bear."

N. Scott Momaday
1998"



One comment:  Momaday does not mention that the Big Dipper is found in the Ursa Major or Great Bear Constellation.



Below is the table of Contents that follow the Introduction:

The Bear-God Dialogues
There are ten dialogues.  Some of the titles are  "You are, Urset. I am, Yahweh," "Berries," "Prayer,"
"Dreams," and "Baseball." 

The baseball dialogue is especially interesting for Cub fans.  Urset is the Bear and Yahweh is Yahweh.  Urset begins by telling Yahweh that his children want to play baseball.

YAHWEH
Baseball. . .Baseball?

URSET
Baseball.  You know, played with bats, a ball, gloves. . .

YAHWEH:
(exasperated)
Oh, for heaven's sake!  OF COURSE I know what baseball is.   I was a pretty fair shortstop in my day.  I taught Ernie Banks everything he knew, if I do say so myself.

URSET:
My children, my little brood of bears, they are forming a team. Their enthusiasm is boundless.  Why, they even have a name for themselves.

YAHWEH:
Don't tell me.  .  .the "Cubs."


URSET:
I really don't know why they can't be a football team.  They are bears, after all.  They are thick and furry.  And they are already accomplished at assault and battery.  It is their nature.  It is what they do.  But baseball!  Baseball is a game of swat, catch, and tag--better played by housecats."


.:

Poems
This sections contains nineteen poems, and I will post some of them in the future. 


Passages
Only two passages are included in this section:  "The Bear Hunt" and "The Transformation."


As you can see from the Introduction, In the Bear's House is a very unique work.  One of the major themes that I've managed to grasp is the relationship Momaday has with wilderness and his thoughts on the significance of wilderness for all of us.   


This is one of those works that I think requires at least another reading, and probably a couple of rereadings.  



The NFL team in Chicago is the Chicago Bears.
The following link will lead you to the Wiki article on Ernie Banks, probably the most popular Cub player of all time.. 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernie_Banks

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Lawrence Durrell: Justine

One of my New Year's resolutions was to read as much of Lawrence Durrell's works this year as I could.  Today I begin with Justine, which is only appropriate since my first introduction to his writings was this work.  Several decades ago, I was in grad school and on the reading list for a course in 20th century novels (or perhaps 20th century English novels) was Justine.  I had heard of Lawrence Durrell and the Alexandria Quartet, but I had never read anything by him before.

I started reading and was confused and bewildered by the first three or four pages as it seemed to be nothing but randomly placed paragraphs with no coherent plan to structure them.  I was a bit dismayed, a complete novel like this!   Then the following jumped out at me.  It wasn't the first sentence of a chapter, or even of a paragraph.  It was buried in a longish paragraph, but I had to stop and read it again, and again.  It told me what Durrell was up to.  I was hooked. I read Justine and then went on to read as much of Durrell as I could find.   Now, it's time to do it again.

The sentence:

"The solace of such work as I do with brain and heart lies in this--that only there, in the silences of the painter or the writer can reality be reordered, reworked and made to show its significant side."



I doubt if it grabs others the way it grabbed me, and I can't explain why.  It just did. 







Monday, January 16, 2017

Baltasar Gracian: Luck

No. 139

"KNOW YOUR UNLUCKY days:  for such there arewhen nothing goes right, and even though the game change, the bad luck does not:  you know them after two throws of the dice, and you retire, or play on, depending upon whether this is such a day, or not.  Even the mind has its periods, for no man is wise at all hours, since it takes luck to think straight,  just as it takes good luck to write a good letter, for all good things have their season, beauty not always being in style, judgment itself turning traitor, now making us too soft, now too harsh: thus anything to come off well, must be of its day.  Just so does everything go wrong with some, and everything go right with others, and with less effort.  All they touch stands ready, the spirit is well-disposed, the mind is alert, and their star is in the ascendant.  Then is the hour to strike, and not to squander the least advantage.  But the man of judgment will not let just one throw augur the day unlucky, or lucky, for the former may have been only mischance, and the latter only happy accident."

-- Baltasar Gracian --
from The Art of Worldly Wisdom


I know it's unfashionable to talk about luck nowadays.  We have other explanations for it, I suppose, but do they really explain  those long sequences of fortuitous or unhappy  events that strike us all at times?  Or explain why some people are blessed more often than can be expected, or conversely, cursed more often than others.  Do those explanations really answer why or do they just provide another more sophisticated way of hiding our ignorance from ourselves, a scientific way of disguising our real answer of "I don't know."

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Two by Timothy Zahn

Timothy Zahn 
Pawn's Gambit and Other Stratagems
short stories

Pawn's Gambit  is a collection of  fifteen short stories, many of which made their first appearance in SF magazines and anthologies, ranging from 1981 to 2014.  





"Pawn's Gambit"

This is the title story and also the last story in the book.  It's an alien abduction tale.  Kelly McClain awakens in a strange place, not knowing how he got there.  He has heard recent stories from around the globe about abductions and that all agreed that they had to play some unfamiliar games and were then returned to Earth.  After his initial panic, he settles down to wait.  Eventually he is contacted by one of the Stryfkar who explains what will happen to him.  The games, the alien explains, are their ways of studying other races.

The alien doesn't tell McClain is that the games have a deadly purpose.  The Stryfkar were nearly defeated by another race, the Chanis.   The games are designed to identify those races that possess characteristics similar to those of the Chanis, and they will be destroyed before they pose a threat to the Stryfkar.

Normally, the winners of the games were returned safely home while the losers would remain until they finally won.  After losing several games they would have more experience with the games than newcomers, so they had an advantage, regardless of how poor a game player they were. Eventually they also would be returned. After having played several games, McCain is shocked to find the Stryfkar have changed the rules.  Now, he and his opponent would play three games and the winner would be returned home while the loser would die.

Inserted into the narrative are communications among the Sryfkar which give the reader more insight into them and their actions and which  allow the reader to see the growing threat to Earth which McCain is unaware of.

Several other SF works involving game playing for high stakes are Philip K. Dick's The Game Players of Titan, and The Player of Games by Iain Banks.  There are many others, no doubt.

I found the most interesting part to be the relationship that developed between McCain and his opponent, Achranae, as they struggle to overcome the cultural barriers so as to be able to work together against their common foe.  I can only wish this story be expanded to develop this more thoroughly.




"The President's Doll"

This tale points out something I should have noticed myself long ago, but never did.  I actually don't feel that bad because I know of nobody else who saw it either.    That something is a needle.  This is why I think the story should have been titled "Voodoo Acupuncture."

In the voodoo tradition, a person is cursed by creating a small doll with some bodily parts of  the victim, such as fingernails or hair clippings.  Once constructed and the proper formula recited, needles inserted into the doll result in a corresponding damage to the victim.  In contrast,  in acupuncture, the practitioner inserts needles into the patient at certain specific nerve junctions to block pain or to solve some physical problem.

Two men got a brilliant idea.  Dr. Sam Pak, expert in acupuncture, and Dr. Pierre Christophe, from Haiti, very knowledgeable about voodoo, decided to combine their skills and create, essentially, acupuncture at a distance.  Once Christophe had created the doll, Pak wok insert the needles into the appropriate pain centers when necessary.

Detective Harland  of the Washington DC police becomes involved when he is assigned to work with the Secret Service on a case, the Case of the President's Missing Doll.  The President is a believer in the efficacy of acupuncture, but it wasn't as widely accepted in 1987 (when the story was first published) as it may be today, in some circles.  It would be politically embarrassing if the President were to be seen visiting an acupuncturist or one being seen to enter the White House.  So, acupuncture at a distance seemed the perfect solution, until someone broke into the Pak/Christophe Clinic and stole only one item, the President's doll.

Harland and Maxwell, the Secret Service agent, have one task:  find the doll and get it back before it is used.

It's a clever tale, and probably one that Zahn wisely decided to leave as a short story.  I don't think there's enough here to expand into a novella, much less a novel.

These are just two of  the fifteen short stories in this collection.  There's a post-holocaust love story, a drug sniffing dog tale, aliens who pose a threat to the solar system on their way elsewhere, a strange telephone book, a troll who works at a toll-booth, a wizard who, for fifteen years, has always showed up too late to use his powers to solve a problem,  and an old-boys insider trading network that employs telepaths, among other strange and entertaining tales.  Some are demonstrably SF while others are fantasy, and some are somewhere in-between.




 








Saturday, January 7, 2017

A Minute Meditation



We exist in the element of language.  Someone  has said that to think is to talk to oneself.  The implications of this equation are critical.  Language is necessary to thought, and thought (as it is manifested in language) distinguishes us from all other creatures.

-- N. Scott Momaday --
from the Preface of The Man Made of Words


Is it true then that we can think only about something for which we have a word?  The appendix to George Orwell's 1984 contains a thoughtful essay on this. 


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Resolutions for the New Year

Well, this is that time of the year again, so I thought I would post my few resolutions.  Making them public might encourage me to work more diligently in keeping them.



I will avoid bringing in politics as much as possible. In the past it's been difficult, but I think I succeeded.  However, this year I may find it harder.  I doubt that keeping politics out of my posts will deprive anybody for I'm sure that it will be almost impossible to escape political discussions, reports, haranguings, and tirades.  So, I hope to provide an oasis here.  For those curious about my position, check out my post BALANCE at        http://freds-ramblings.blogspot.com/2016/11/balance.html




My second resolution is to reduce Mount TBR to a molehill, or at least start on it.  That means reducing book purchases and relying more on the library.  I hope this doesn't cause a recession in the publishing industry, but it must be done.  I also need to redouble my efforts in encouraging the various discussion groups I'm a member of to select more books that I have at home.  This, of course, will reduce the number of books to purchase and help reduce Mount TBR.




Last year was the Year of Austen in which I read everything I had by Jane Austen, which includes all of her novels, her juvenalia, and uncompleted works.  It was one of the high points of the 2016 reading year.  I also saw an excellent film adaption of her short work "Lady Susan."  For some obscure reason the powers-that-be called it Love and Friendship.   I thought it one of the best adaptations of her works that I've seen and highly recommend it. 

 Since that worked out so well, I have decided that 2017 will be the Year of Lawrence Durrell, during which I will reread everything I have by him, which is close to his complete output--novels, travelogues, and poetry (that will be THE problem).  In addition,  I have just learned that an unfinished novel of his has been published, so I will have the pleasure of not only rereading him, but of reading something by him for the first time (even if it is unfinished).

I will begin with what has to be the obligatory starting point, The Alexandria Quartet.   After that, I may then revert to reading them in their publishing order,  or perhaps continue on to The Avignon Quintet or The Quincunx.

You are all welcome to join me.   

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Edition, Quatrain LXXXIV

Would God punish us for tasting certain of the pleasures that He created? 


Second Edition:  Quatrain LXXXIV

What!  out of senseless Nothing to provoke
A conscious Something to resent the yoke
   Of unpermitted Pleasure, under pain
Of Everlasting Penalties, if broke! 



Fifth Edition:  Quatrain LXXVIII

What!  out of senseless Nothing to provoke
A conscious Something to resent the yoke
   Of unpermitted Pleasure, under pain
Of Everlasting Penalties, if broke!


After adding this quatrain to the second edition, FitzGerald left it as it was, unchanged through the next three editions.

His point seems fairly straight forward, at least to me anyway. God creates us from nothing and then  provokes us by forbidding certain pleasures that He Himself placed in our path.  The penalty seems cruel and unjust in that it will be everlasting.  The tone, actually, strikes me as indignation, more than anything else:  the unfairness of it all.

Is this why God created us, brought us out of nothingness in order to punish us eternally for violating some arbitrary rules?   If this is an accurate translation and not slanted by FitzGerald's own religious beliefs, then I can see why Omar Khayyam was a controversial figure in his time and afterwards.  Part of the problem is that scholars suspect that a number of the quatrains in The Rubaiyat attributed to him were actually written later by others.

In any case, whoever is responsible for this quatrain has asked an interesting question, and  one that will be answered solely based on one's own beliefs. 

 


Friday, December 30, 2016

Ryokan: time and memory

This poem by Ryokan seems very appropriate for this time of year.


Time passes,
There is no way
We can hold it back---
Why, then, do thoughts linger on,
Long after everything else is gone? 

 from Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf
trans. John Stevens


Another view, perhaps?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?


HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A Vietnamese Poem: The Cherished Daughter

There's a suggestion of a story here in a poetic form.  It took me several readings to pick up several hints.  Part of my problem is my ignorance of Vietnamese culture, so I'm still not certain that I have correctly or fully grasped it. 


The Cherished Daughter

Mother, I am eighteen this year
and still without a husband.
What, Mother, is your plan?
The magpie brought two matchmakers
and you threw them the challenge:
not less than five full quan,
five thousand areca nuts,
five fat pigs,
and five suits of clothes.

Mother, I am twenty-three this year
and still without a husband.
What, Mother, dear, is your plan?
The magpie brought two matchmakers
and you threw them the challenge:
not less than three full quan,
three thousand areca nuts,
three fat pigs,
and three suits of clothes.

Mother, I am thirty-two this year
and still without a husband.
What, Mother, darling, is your plan?
The magpie brought two matchmakers
and you threw them the challenge:
not less than one full quan,
one thousand areca nuts,
one fat dog this time,
and one suit of clothes.

Mother, I am forty-three this year.
Still without a husband.
Mother, look, Mother,
will you please just give me away?

-- Anonymous  (c. 1700 AD)--
trans.  Nguyen Ngoc Bich
from World Poetry:  An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time

I had to smile the first reading at the exasperation in the daughter's voice at the end.  On the second reading, I began detect perhaps a hint of desperation at the end, or perhaps more than a hint?   It wasn't until this point that I seriously considered the title.  Did the mother, perhaps, cherish the daughter a bit too much?

Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Minute Meditation

I found this on Pat Cadigan's blog Ceci N'est Pas Unehttp://tinyurl.com/j835slj



One night, Confucius had a dream about chopsticks.

In the dream, he was transported to Hell where he saw multitudes of people sitting at enormous tables set out with wonderful foods of all kinds.  There was so much food that the tables groaned under the weight and the various aromas were mouth-watering, promising incredibly delectable flavours.  But the people sitting at the tables had not touched any of it--they had been told they could eat as much as they liked but only if they ate with chopsticks that were five feet long.  None of them could figure out how to eat with five-foot-long chopsticks, so all they could do was stare hopelessly at this amazing feast and cry in hunger and misery.  


Then Confucius was taken to heaven where he again saw multitudes of people sitting around enormous tables laden with glorious foods.  They had also been told they were allowed to eat only if they used the five-foot-long chopsticks.  But, these people were not crying with hunger and frustration--they were eating their fill, talking, laughing, and enjoying themselves.

Because in heaven, they were feeding each other.



Simplistic, isn't it?

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

N. Scott Momaday and Emily Dickinson

The following excerpt comes from N. Scott Momaday's The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages.   The chapter title is "A Divine Blindness:  The Place of Words in a State of Grace."   I have often found Dickinson's poetry to be puzzling and enigmatic, but this poem confounds me completely.

I am publishing this excerpt because of Momaday's first comment on the poem:  "This poem, written about 1866 by a then obscure woman poet in the Connecticut Valley of western Massachusetts, is one of the great moments in American literature."  I know what that means, but I can't relate it to Dickinson's poem.  Perhaps you will do better.

The excerpt--poem and commentary:

     "When the subtitle "The Place of Words in a State of Grace" occurred to me, in the back of my mind was this poem by Emily Dickinson.

                            Further in Summer than the Birds
                            Pathetic from the Grass
                            A minor Nation celebrates
                            Its unobtrusive Mass.

                             No Ordinance be seen
                             So gradual the Grace  
                             A pensive Custom it becomes
                             Enlarging Loneliness.

                             Antiquest felt at Noon
                             When August burning low
                             Arise this spectral Canticle
                             Repose to typify

                             Remit as yet no Grace
                             No Furrow on the Glow
                             Yet a Druidic Difference  
                             Enhances Nature now   
                          


    This poem, written about 1866 by a then obscure woman poet in the Connecticut Valley of western Massachusetts, is one of the great moments in American literature.  The statement of the poem is profound;  it remarks the absolute separation between man and nature at a precise moment in time.   The poet looks as far as she can into the natural world, but what she sees at last is her isolation from that world.  She perceives, that is, the limits of her own perception.  But that, we reason, is enough.  This poem of just more than sixty words comprehends the human condition in relation to the universe:

                              So gradual the Grace  
                             A pensive Custom it becomes
                             Enlarging Loneliness. .


But this is a divine loneliness, the loneliness of a species evolved far beyond all others.  The poem bespeaks a state of grace.  In its precision, perception, and eloquence it establishes the place of words within that state.  Words are indivisible with the highest realization of the human being."



As I wrote above, I recognize that Momaday considers Dickinson's poem to be of supreme significance, but I cannot relate his words to the poem.

Any thoughts?


Poem 1068
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
edited by Thomas H. Johnson

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Elizabeth Jennings: "The Diamond Cutter"

Here's another one by Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001) , a recent discovery, for me anyway.  She was born in Boston, Lincolnshire, and moved to Oxford at age six and lived there for the rest of her life. 


The Diamond Cutter

Not what the light will do but how he shapes it
What particular colours it will bear.

And something of the climber's concentration
Seeing the white peak, setting the right foot there.

Not how the sun was plausible at morning
Not how it was distributed at noon,

And not how much the single stone could show
But rather how much brilliance it would shun;

Simply a paring down, a cleaving to
One object, as the star-gazer who sees

One single comet polished by its fall
Rather than countless, untouched galaxies.

-- Elizabeth Jennings --



I think the point is that one must not be distracted by external glories or brilliance to get to its heart.  But, isn't something lost when one does that?   Or, is she suggesting that there are some things that are too grand, too glorious, too magnificent for us to truly appreciate, that we need to focus on a more limited scale to gain at least some idea of just what it really is.

Your thoughts?