Friday, May 22, 2015

Loren Eiseley: "The Sandburs Say No"

Life is persistent and patient.  I think Life is the source of the saying, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."  Loren Eiseley's poem is an example of this.

The Sandburs Say No

Along the edge of the airfield between the jet blasts
from ascending bombers,
low life, the tougher
seeds from the far Cretaceous, surreptitiously test the concrete,
with the old mindlessness
sow crevices and and wait.

The blue devil's darning needles
dance their mating ecstasy across the bombing targets--
nature's archaic first streamlining,
still magnificent in a small way but useless,
the guns ships deadlier, more purposeful, but

the sandburs say no, the sandburs
are older, the sandburs
toughen the seed containers, the life bombs,
against thermite, napalm, tear gas.  The sandburs
like spendthrift governments pack the little brown
                                            bullets and send them
 out on each wind.

Each season they test the concrete and the bomber's targets.
The explosions are soundless but the stone fractures.      
The sandburs say no with the life bombs,
the sandburs say no.

I like the juxtaposition Eiseley chooses here:  the destructive power of the bomber's weaponry and the life affirming actions of the sandburs.  Although the sandburs' life bombs are at first destructive, the fracturing of the concrete, this destruction then makes life possible as it frees the soil for various plants and animals and insects and provides nutrients and a habitat for other creatures.  It's a duel between the destructive thermite and napalm bombs and the sandburs' life bombs.

A bit of trivia here:

"Field sandbur (grassbur) is a summer annual grassy weed that can be found in home lawns, sports fields, parks and along roadsides. This weed is especially adapted to dry, sandy soils but can be found growing in other types of soils as well. The big problem with this weed is the sharp, spiny burs that are part of the inflorescence. These burs can be painful and are difficult to remove from clothing material. Field sandburs (grassburs) generally start germinating in late spring and will continue to germinate until late summer or early fall months. This weed will continue to grow until the first hard frost or freeze occurs in the fall."
James A. McAfee, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Extension Turfgrass Specialist
Dallas, Texas

"In their 2005 book A Dazzle of Dragonflies, Forrest Mitchell and James Lasswell explain that the dragonfly-epithet “devil’s darning needle” has its origins in the Europe of the Middle Ages. The long and slender shape of the insect’s body, combined with the superstitious belief that it, like the fly—consort of Beelzebub—was in league with the darkest of forces, produced a myth durable enough to make the journey with the colonists to the United States. Today in Iowa, the authors write, “devil’s darning needles sew together the fingers or toes of a person who falls asleep…in Kansas, they may sew up the mouths of scolding women, saucy children…and profane men.”

Monday, May 18, 2015

Favorite Mystery Series--Books

This is the growing list--both in the sense that authors are occasionally added to it and that many of the authors are still providing us with more adventures of their detectives. I have attempted to list them according to the following pattern:

Mystery category
Name of featured detective
Usual location for the series
Time of the novel
Prequel, if any
First novel in the series

Ingrid Black (husband and wife collab)
Former Law-enforcement Officer
Saxon, ex-FBI profiler
Dublin, Ireland 
First novel in the series:  The Dead  (2003)
May move this to a different list as there hasn't been a new novel since 2008

Giles Blunt
Police Procedural
Detective John Cardinal
Algonquin Bay, fictional town near Toronto, Canada
First novel in the  series: Forty Words for Sorrow  (2000)

Karin Fossum,
Police Procedural
Inspector Konrad Sejer
Elvestad, Norway
First novel in the series:  In the Darkness aka Eva's Eye (1995)

Michael Gregorio (wife and husband collab)
Judicial Detective
Magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis
Konigsberg, Prussia
Historical mystery set in Prussia during the Napoleonic wars in 1804.
First Book in Series   Critique of Criminal Reason  (2006)
They may have ended the series as there hasn't been a new one since 2010.

Eliot Pattison
Former Law-enforcement Officer
Shan Tao Yun,
Tibet: Former police officer in Beijing, China, whose duty was to investigate corruption in the party and ends up in a work camp in Tibet for being too diligent in his duties.
First novel in the series: The Skull Mantra (1999)

Peter Robinson
Police Procedural
Chief Inspector Alan Banks
Yorkshire, England
First novel in series: Gallows View  (1987)

C. J. Sansom
Judicial detective
Matthew Shardlake,  lawyer
London, England
Historical mystery, 16th century,  during the reign of King Henry VIII,
First novel in the series:  Dissolution   (2003)

Steven Saylor
Private Professional
Gordianus the Finder
Historical mystery,  1st century BC
Prequel:  The Seven Wonders.
Second Prequel:  Raiders of the Nile
First novel in the series:  Roman Blood  (1991)

Charles Todd (mother and son collab)
Police Procedural
Inspector Ian Rutledge
London, England and countryside
Historical mystery, just after WWI
Prequel:  A Fine Summer's Day, set in 1914. 
First novel in the series:  A Test of Wills, (1996)

Fred Vargas
Police Procedural
Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg
Paris, France
First novel in the series:  The Chalk Circle Man  (1991)

The following is the sad list--those favorite series that have ended, usually because of the author's death but sometimes because of the author's decision to end the series.

Agatha Christie
Talented amateur
Miss Jane Marple
St. Mary Mead,  England
Contemporary when written in 1930
First novel in the series:  The Murder at the Vicarage  (1930)

Colin Dexter
Police Procedural
Inspector Morse
Oxford, England
First novel in the series: Last Bus to Woodstock  (1975)
Colin Dexter ended the series

Batya Gur
Police procedural
Inspector Michael Ohayon,
Jerusalem, Israel
First novel in the series:  The Saturday Morning Murder: a psychoanalytic case  (1992)

P. D. James
Police Procedural
Commander Adam Dalgliesh
London, England
First novel in the series:  Cover Her Face  (1962)

Bernard Knight
Technical professionals
Sir John de Wolfe (coroner)
County of Devon, England
Historical mystery, 1196 AD
First novel in the series:  The Sanctuary Seeker  (19980
Bernard Knight ended the series and now has two other series

Ellis Peters
Talented Amateur
Brother Cadfael  (a Benedictine monk)
Shrewsbury Abbey, Shrewsbury,  Shropshire, England
Historical mystery set in mid 12th century
Prequel:  A Rare Benedictine
First novel in the series:  A Morbid Taste for Bones  (1977)

Dorothy Sayers
Talented Amateur
Lord Peter Wimsey
London, England
Contemporary when written
First novel in the series: Whose Body   (1923)

Arthur Upfield
Police procedural
Inspector Napoleon (Bony) Bonaparte
Australia, various fictional locations
Contemporary when written
First novel in the series:  The Barrakee Mystery (1928)

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Man from Earth and "The Gnarly Man"

I just read L. Sprague de Camp's short story, "The Gnarly Man."  It's included in The Best of L. Sprague de Camp.

The Gnarly Man is a Neanderthal, about 50,000 years old.  He says he was "normal" until struck by lightning.  After that he never aged.  He was working in a carnival as the Cave Man in the side show when an anthropologist discovered him.  At one point in the story, he is being questioned in a room surrounded by a number of anthropologists and historians.  This, of course, is the setting of Bixby's The Man from Earth. 

Like Bixby's John Oldman, he says that he moves on every ten or fifteen years because he doesn't age and eventually people begin to wonder about his secret, much as one of Oldman's friends, early in the film,  commented about his secret of avoiding aging.  Both the Gnarly Man and Oldman prefer to keep a low profile.  Like Oldman, he really can't help the historians that much, as the centuries tend to blur after a while.  One of Oldman's friends asked him what happened on this day hundreds of years ago, and Oldman responded by asking what he had for breakfast several days ago, or some such similar question.

Was Jerome Bixby influenced by de Camp's short story?  I don't know, but if  Bixby was, then he certainly expanded it far beyond de Camp's  tale.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Baltasar Gracian: go with the crowd?

No. 133

 "Better a fool with the crowd, than a sage by yourself;  the politicians say, that if all men are fools, no one of them can be counted such; wherefore the wise man who stands apart, must be a fool;  it is important therefore to go with the current:  the greatest knowledge at times, to know nothing, or to affect to know nothing; we have to live with others, and the stupid make up the majority; to live alone one must have within himself, either much of God, or much of the beast: I am strongly urged to turn this aphorism about and say: better wise with the rest of the wise, than a fool by yourself: still some find distinction in making  fools of themselves."


"Better a fool with the crowd, than a sage by yourself;  the politicians say, that if all men are fools, no one of them can be counted such; wherefore the wise man who stands apart, must be a fool;  it is important therefore to go with the current:  the greatest knowledge at times, to know nothing, or to affect to know nothing;"

Numerous politicians in a particular party today frequently begin their speeches by saying "While I'm no expert" or some such statement, and then go on to discuss a particular scientific issue and express opinions about something they have said that they know little about.  I have yet to see anyone point out the contradiction here.   But, to be fair, their opinions do demonstrate their ignorance, or supposed ignorance.  It is clear that Gracian's observations still hold true today.

These politicians, according to Gracian, then go on to say that   "we have to live with others, and the stupid make up the majority; to live alone one must have within himself, either much of God, or much of the beast:"

Of course these politicians never come out and say this publicly for they must flatter their followers into believing that they are the intelligent ones, for they are not blinded by study, knowledge, and research on a particular issue.  And, of course, it is hard to say whether these politicians are as ignorant as they seem to be or are pretending such ignorance or imbecility in some cases, as Gracian suggests, to maintain the support of their followers.  

Within the past few days, we have seen a governor show his support of a conspiracy theory that claims that the US Army plans to take over his state.  ISIS troops are stationed just outside El Paso, and when they invade, the US Army will use this as an excuse to take over the state.  Wal-Mart stores that were closed specifically for that purpose will be used to hold political prisoners.  To prevent this, the governor has now called out the State Guard to protect the citizens of this state from this invasion.  He has now gained the support of at least one of his party's presidential hopefuls.  Several others, no doubt, are waiting to see the results of the governor's actions.  If there is considerable support shown, they will join the chorus of fools.  If the overall reaction is ridicule and laughter, they will remain silent or even join in with criticism.

The question, of course, is whether the governor really is a fool who believes this or lacks the courage to stand up and say this is stupid and thereby possibly lose those whom he might consider to be his strongest supporters.   

Those of you who know this governor well can better answer the question than I can.

At the end Gracian here interjects his own opinion: "I am strongly urged to turn this aphorism about and say: better wise with the rest of the wise, than a fool by yourself: still some find distinction in making  fools of themselves."

Overall, I think Gracian presents strong evidence in support of the theory that human nature really hasn't changed that much over the centuries.  The issues may change, but a fool is still a fool and to gain the support of fools, one must act accordingly.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition--Quatrain XLIII

This is another in my second set of posts about a favorite work--Edward FitzGerald's version? adaptation? interpretation? of Omar Khayyam's The Rubaiyat.  In the first set, I focused on the First Edition and included corresponding quatrains from the Second and Fifth Editions.  However, the First Edition had only seventy-five quatrains while the Second had one hundred and ten, so, I'm now concentrating on those that were added for the Second Edition and including the related quatrains from the Fifth Edition.  Since the Fifth Edition had only one hundred and one, I expect that when I have completed my posts on the Second Edition, I will also have included all of the quatrains from the Fifth Edition. 

Second Edition:  Quatrain XLIII

As then the Tulip for her wonted sup
Of Heavenly Vintage lifts her chalice up,
    Do you, twin offspring of the soil, till Heav'n
To Earth invert you like an empty Cup.

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain  XL
As then the Tulip for her morning sup
Of Heav'nly Vintage from the soil looks up,
    Do you devoutly do the like, till Heav'n
To Earth invert you--like an empty Cup.

FitzGerald makes only one change in the first line, and that is to substitute "morning" for "wonted."
"Wonted" means usual or normal, so the change makes it more specific, moving from usual to a particular time of day--the morning.  I'm not sure why he made the change, but perhaps he felt that "wonted" may be confusing and more readers would easily understand "morning."

FitzGerald has replaced "lifts her chalice up" with "from the soil looks up" in the Fifth Edition.  He changes the poetic "chalice" with the more prosaic "soil" as she catches the "Heav'nly Vintage, which is either rain or perhaps the morning dew as suggested in the Fifth Quatrain version.  

In the third line of the Second Edition, we are reminded that we and the Tulip come from soil, as it is related in Genesis, but that reference to soil is moved to the second line in the Fifth Edition and seems to refer now more specifically to the Tulip.  In addition, the Second Edition includes a very strong pairing of  us and the Tulip, "twin offspring of the soil."  By calling us "twin offspring," FitzGerald puts us in the same family, which goes beyond mere resemblance in behavior.  This strong pairing, however, disappears in the Fifth Edition as it now tells us to do the same with no suggestion of the relationship brought out in the Second Edition.

The fourth line is the same for both, aside from the dashes inserted in the Fifth Edition.   I think the dashes act as a pause, forcing us to now think about that empty cup.  The inverted and empty cup is a foreshadowing of themes brought out in later quatrains, especially those that introduce the Potter and also the last quatrain.  The inverted cup is symbolic of death and burial.

The quatrain is one more example of the Poet's philosophy of enjoying what is given us for death awaits us all.  The nature of that "Heavenly Vintage" is ambiguous enough to satisfy most readers: it could be water, it could be wine, and it could even be Grace from above. 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Eric Hoffer: product of dissatisfaction

No. 17

There is perhaps no better way of measuring the natural endowment of a soul than by its ability to transmute dissatisfaction into a creative impulse.  The genuine artist is as much a dissatisfied person as the revolutionary, yet how diametrically opposed are the products each distills from his dissatisfaction.

--  Eric Hoffer --
from The Passionate State of Mind

While I can see how dissatisfaction can move a revolutionary to act, I'm not sure how dissatisfaction can move an artist to create.

Do you think Hoffer is neutral here--showing no preference for either the products of a genuine artist or that of a revolutionary?

Does "creative impulse" refer only to the product of a genuine artist or to the products of both the artist and the revolutionary?

I lean towards the position that Hoffer prefers the products of the genuine artist, but I have nothing to support that "lean."  Perhaps it's my own rather distrustful attitude towards revolutionaries and the results of their actions:  that revolutionaries seldom produce real change--that only the names of the rulers are changed and little else. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Earth Day: April 22, 2015

Mid-America Prayer

Standing again
within and among all things,
Standing with each other
as sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers,
daughters and sons, grandmothers and grandfathers--
the past and present generations of our people,
Standing again
with and among all items of life,
the land, rivers, the mountains, plants, animals,
all life that is around us
that we are included with,
Standing within the circle of the horizon,
the day sky and the night sky,
the sun, moon, the cycle of seasons
and the earth mother which sustains us,
Standing again
with all things
that have been in the past,
that are in the present,
and that will be in the future
we acknowledge ourselves
to be in a relationship that is responsible
and proper, that is loving and compassionate,
for the sake of the land and all people,
we ask humbly of the creative forces of life
that we be given a portion
with which to help ourselves so that our struggle
and work will also be creative
for the continuance of life,
Standing again, within, among all things
we ask in all sincerity for hope, courage, peace,
strength, vision, unity and continuance.

-- Simon J. Ortiz --
from Woven Stone

Simon J. Ortiz is an Acoma Pueblo Native American who was born and raised near Albuquerque, New Mexico and grew up speaking the Acoma tongue.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

It's April

I know--April is two-thirds gone already, but as the old cliche goes--better late than never.  Following are several poems about April, and not all agree about April.  That's what makes poetry so interesting, for me anyway.

While this first poem doesn't specially refer to April, in the Midwest, where I grew up, April would seem to be the best fit.  A frost in March wouldn't really be considered a late frost, while one in May is extremely unlikely.  Moreover, the blossoming appears to be more like April, which seems, to me anyway, to be set between the "orchard bare" and the "orchard green."   But, I'm sure there will be those who disagree with my weather observations.

Frost here uses his name to signify something dangerous, which he has done several times in the past in a number of poems.  Other writers have also suggested that reading can be dangerous to one's ideas or one's perspective.

A Peril of Hope

It is right in there
Betwixt and between
The orchard bare
And the orchard green,

When the boughs are right
In a flowery burst
Of pink and white,
That we fear the worst.

For there's not a clime
But at any cost
Will take that time
For a night of frost.
-- Robert Frost --

The following opening lines to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales provides a different feeling about April--partly I think as a reaction to the escape from winter, as well as recognition of the beauties of Spring.

Prologue to Canterbury Tales

WHANNE that April with his shoures sote
The droughte of March hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veine in swiche licour,
Of whiche vertue engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eke with his sote brethe
Enspired hath in every holt and hethe
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foules maken melodie,
That slepen alle night with open eye,
So priketh hem nature in hir corages;
Than longen folk to gon on pilgrimages,

 -- Geoffrey Chaucer --
 from The Canterbury Tales

For those who don't have a glossary for Middle English handy:

  When April's gentle rains have pierced the drought
Of March right to the root, and bathed each sprout
Through every vein with liquid of such power
It brings forth the engendering of the flower;  
When Zephyrus too with his sweet breath has blown             5
Through every field and forest, urging on
The tender shoots, and there's a youthful sun,
His second half course through the Ram now run,
And little birds are making melody
And sleep all night, eyes open as can be                     10
(So Nature pricks them in each little heart),
On pilgrimage then folks desire to start.

I think the opening lines of this poem plays on Chaucer's opening lines.  Of course, the difference can be seen as due primarily to the differing locations for each poem:  Chaucer's set in England, "Now that Aprils' here,"  while Eliot's is set in a wasteland.  It's sort of related to Frost's poem, in that both speak of thwarted hope. 

The Wasteland, first stanza
  April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

-- T. S. Eliot --
from The Wasteland

Here's another view of April, very different than that of Eliot.  It's very simple and straightforward and echoes Chaucer's "April with his shoures sote ." 

April Rain Song

Let the rain kiss you.
Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops.
Let the rain sing you a lullaby.

The rain makes still pools on the sidewalk.
The rain makes running pools in the gutter.
The rain plays a little sleep-song on our roof at night--

And I love the rain.

-- Langston Hughes --

I can't leave out my favorite haiku, even though I've posted it several times already.

April's air stirs in
Willow-leaves.  .  .  a butterfly
Floats and balances.
          -- Basho  --

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Murder on the Orient Express--Hollywood at what it does best

I just finished a film version of Agatha Cristie's Murder on the Orient Express--the 1974 version.  I'm not going to do a summary or analysis of the plot or even a comparison of the film to the book.  Others have done that, numerous times, so I'm just going to do a very short commentary here on some trifles.

What I enjoyed most about the film was the cast--the cast--the cast.  In an interview, somebody--the producer?  the director?--said that they weren't going to do a tight little black-and-white British mystery.  They were going to do a real glamour job on it--an Hollywood big picture, expensive, marvelous costumes and sets, star-studded cast, and all the trimmings.  They did it and then some.

The film score is excellent and provides an excellent example of what they tried to do and succeeded in doing.  In an early scene, we see the train pulling out of the station at night. The steam from the engine provides a foggy atmosphere.  And the music and sound effects?  It isn't the expected sound of the driving wheels, and the music doesn't provide that sense of imminent danger ahead--something bad is going to happen.  NO!  What we get is a waltz! The train pulls out of the station and chugs through the countryside to a Viennese Waltz, perhaps even a variation on a Strauss waltz.  The feeling is that of a vacation, a fairyland trip, almost a musical.

Well, that's all I'm going to say about the film itself--now here's a list of the cast.

Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot

Lauren Bacall

Martin Balsam

Ingrid Bergman

Jacqueline Bisset

Sean Connery

Sir John Gielgud

Wendy Hiller

Anthony Perkins

Vanessa Redgrave

Richard Widmark

Michael York

I couldn't recognize Albert Finney because of his makeup.  And Ingrid Bergman?  One of the actors in an interview talked about sitting in the makeup room next to Ingrid Bergman who was being "deglamorized." --his term and very appropriate.

Sir John Gielgud--the consummate professional--does more with a look and syllable than most with a long monologue.  At one point, Gielgud, who plays a butler in the film, has just been questioned by Poirot, and as he leaves, one of the others present says very seriously, "The butler did it."  Gielgud, as he leaves the room,  turns his head and with a sneer utters one syllable of a contemptuous sound.  Gielgud's butler is superior to everyone there, and he lets everyone know it.

Great film--lots of fun--go see it, perhaps with a glass of champagne.  That's what I'm going to do the next time I watch it.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XLII, Second Edition

This quatrain focuses on a libation

"A libation is a ritual pouring of a liquid as an offering to a god or spirit or in memory of those who have died. It was common in many religions of antiquity and continues to be offered in various cultures today."  (From the Wikipedia entry)

Second Edition:  Quatrain XLII
And not a drop that from our Cups we throw 
On the parcht herbage but may steal below
    To quench the fire of Anguish in some Eye
There hidden--far beneath, and long ago.

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain XXXIX

And not a drop that from our Cups we throw 
For Earth to drink of, but may steal below
    To quench the fire of Anguish in some Eye
There hidden--far beneath, and long ago.

The only change from the 2nd to the 5th Edition  occurs in the second line where "On the parcht herbage" becomes "For Earth to drink of."  The change makes the pouring of the wine into an event that is broader in scope, from where there are dry plants to any situation where a libation is made.   This makes more sense in that the Poet/Narrator tells us that there is a someone below nearly everywhere one goes.

The first word, "And,"   links back to the previous quatrain which echoed Genesis:

                               "Of such a clod of saturated Earth
                                 Cast by the Maker into Human mould"

What is the Earth "saturated" with?  Water?  Wine?  Perhaps it refers to the life force or soul with which the Maker infuses this clod to create a human.  

The most intriguing line is the third--To quench the fire of Anguish in some Eye.  Both Islamic and Christian religious beliefs include a heaven and a hell.  To suggest that all who have died and are buried below are suffering would be contrary to those beliefs, so I think that the "fire of Anguish" belongs to those in hell.  I do not know where hell's location is thought to be by the followers of Islam, but Christians generally indicate that hell is below and heaven above, perhaps not literally, but symbolically anyway.

This suggests that the libation may ease, even if only temporarily, the suffering of those in hell.  This would seem to go against the religious traditions that accept a hell, which is conceived of as eternal and relentless suffering, and the witnessing of the misery and the pain of the sinners should cause the faithful to rejoice, according to most religious texts I have encountered.  

Is the Poet/Narrator positing a heretical idea here?  Moreover, it appears to me anyway that he seems to be encouraging us to ease the suffering of those condemned to hell for eternity.   Unfortunately, I cannot ask either Omar Khayyam or Edward FitzGerald what they meant here, so I am left with a question, and not the first one that arose while reading The Rubaiyat.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Theodore Sturgeon: "A Crime for Llewellyn"

Theodore Sturgeon:  "A Crime for Llewellyn"

"He had a grey little job clerking in the free clinic at the hospital, doing what he'd done the day he started, and that was nineteen years back.  His name was Llewellyn, and Ivy Shoots called him Lulu.

Ivy took care of him.  He'd lived with Ivy ever since she was an owlish intellectual with an uncertain almost little girl look about her and he was a scared, mixed up adolescent wilting in the interim between high school and his first job.  Ivy was in several senses his maiden experience--first date, first drink, first drunk,  and first hangover in a strange hotel in a strange city accompanied by a strange girl.  Strange or not--and she was--she was his Secret.

A man like Lulu needs a Secret.  A sheltered background consisting of positive morality, tea-cosies, spinster aunts and the violent contrast of  eighteen months as a public charge--after the aunts had burned to death, uninsured--had convinced him that he was totally incapable of coping with a world in which everybody else knew all the angles.  So he fell joyfully into the arrangement with Ivy Shoots and the Secret that went with it.

He was small and he was pudgy, and he wasn't bright, and his eyes weren't too good, and the very idea of his stealing a nickel or crossing in the middle of the block was ridiculous.  It seemed to him that all the men around him emanated the virtue of sin--the winks and whistles at the girls, the Monday tales (boy did I tie one on Saturday night), the legends of the easy conquests and looseness and casual infidelity, the dirty jokes, and the oaths and expletives--and because they seemed to have no scruples they kept their stature as men in a world of men.

In this, Lulu could easily have drowned.  Only his Secret kept him afloat.  He told it to no one, partly because he sensed instinctively that he would treasure it more if he kept it to himself, and partly because he knew he would not be believed even if he proved it.  He  could listen contentedly to the boasting of the men he envied, thinking if you only knew! and you think that's something!  hugging to himself all the while the realization that no one among them had committed  the enormity of living in sin as he was doing."

That was his Secret:  He was living in sin!

Then, his world came tumbling down around him.  Ivy, misunderstanding him, thought he felt guilty about living together.  So, one night, after work, she confessed Her secret.  She brought out their marriage license--they were married after all.  That wild night when Llewellyn met Ivy and got drunk and woke up the next morning in bed with her was very hazy in his mind.  He had blacked out during the evening and never knew that he and Ivy had gotten married.  He was devastated.

But, Llewellyn had a stout heart and was more than ever determined to commit a crime.  After all, it can't be that hard to do something illegal or immoral, could it?  Somebody had once told Llewellyn that there were so many laws that it was hard for the average person to go through the day without committing some sort of crime.  Only luck kept most of us out of jail.  Lulu was confident--it should be easy.  And, it really was important. 

But, our destinies are not completely under our control.  Fate plays a role in determining what happens to us, and Llewellyn was soon to learn this inescapable fact--that if some are destined to be criminals, regardless of what they do, then there may be others who are just the opposite--in spite of theft or bigamy or murder or .  .  .

Poor Llewellyn.   We now follow Llewellyn as he fumbles his way around in his attempt to commit a crime, handicapped by Fate which seems determined that his destiny is to remain a good person. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Kenko: the ideal house

No. 55

"A house should be built with the summer in mind.  In winter it is possible to live anywhere, but a badly made house is unbearable when it gets hot.

There is nothing cool-looking about deep water; a shallow, flowing stream is far cooler.  When you are reading fine print you will find that a room with sliding doors is lighter than one with hinged shutters.  A room with a high ceiling is cold in winter and dark by lamplight.  People agree that a house with plenty of spare room is attractive to look at and may be put to many different uses."

-- Kenko --
from Essays in Idleness

As I live in Tucson, Arizona, I have to agree with Kenko's first statement.  Conquering the hot summers, especially at night, is most important.  When winter comes, I can always add a sweater if necessary.

Is the perceived difference between deep water and shallow, flowing stream real or psychological?   Perhaps more moisture is lifted into the air by a shallow, flowing stream than by a deep pool and that moisture is what gives the impression of coolness?  I must admit though I would find a shallow, flowing stream more interesting than a deep pool, although a deep pool does have its own attractions. 

Some haiku, remotely appropriate

      For deliciousness
Try fording this rivulet.  .  .
         Sandals in hand one hand
                        -- Buson --
from A Little Treasury of Haiku

 This hot day
         swept away
by the River Mogami
               -- Basho --
from The Sound of Water

At the ancient pond
      a frog plunges into
           the sound of water

                    -- Basho --
from The Sound of Water

 The last haiku is probably Basho's most famous; in fact there's a book titled something like 101 versions of this haiku.  This is my favorite simply because it suggests that the frog plunges, not into the pond, but into the sound of water, the sound of the splash.  Just why this fascinates me, I have no idea.      

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Robert Frost: Trial by Existence

Robert Frost:  "Trial by Existence"

Normally I don't post poems this long, but this one I just have to.  It is, to me anyway, one of Frost's most unusual and inexplicable poems.    It is fairly straightforward and understandable on the surface level, but something else is going on here.  Just what this is, I have no idea, which is why I have posted it.  I'm hoping somebody can help me understand this poem and Frost's thinking as he wrote it.  Perhaps that's too much to ask, and I should just read and go with it.  But, I have this itch .  .  .


Even the bravest that are slain
Shall not dissemble their surprise
On waking to find valor reign,
Even as on earth, in paradise;
And where they sought without the sword
Wide fields of asphodel fore'er,
To find that the utmost reward
Of daring should be still to dare.

The light of heaven falls whole and white
And is not shattered into dyes,
The light forever is morning light;
The hills are verdured pasture-wise;
The angel hosts with freshness go,
And seek with laughter what to brave;--
And binding all is the hushed snow
Of the far-distant breaking wave.

And from a cliff-top is proclaimed
The gathering of the souls for birth,
The trial by existence named,
The obscuration upon earth.
And the slant spirits trooping by
In streams and cross- and counter-streams
Can but give ear to that sweet cry
For its suggestion of what dreams!

And the more loitering are turned
To view once more the sacrifice
Of those who for some good discerned
Will gladly give up paradise.
And a white shimmering concourse rolls
Toward the throne to witness there
The speeding of devoted souls
Which God makes his especial care.

And none are taken but who will,
Having first heard the life read out
That opens earthward, good and ill,
Beyond the shadow of a doubt;
And very beautifully God limns,
And tenderly, life's little dream,
But naught extenuates or dims,
Setting the thing that is supreme.

Nor is there wanting in the press
Some spirit to stand simply forth,
Heroic in it nakedness,
Against the uttermost of earth.
The tale of earth's unhonored things
Sounds nobler there than 'neath the sun;
And the mind whirls and the heart sings,
And a shout greets the daring one.

But always God speaks at the end:
'One thought in agony of strife
The bravest would have by for friend,
The memory that he chose the life;
But the pure fate to which you go
Admits no memory of choice,
Or the woe were not earthly woe
To which you give the assenting voice.'

And so the choice must be again,
But the last choice is still the same;
And the awe passes wonder then,
And a hush falls for all acclaim.
And God has taken a flower of gold
And broken it, and used therefrom
The mystic link to bind and hold
Spirit to matter till death come.

'Tis of the essence of life here,
Though we choose greatly, still to lack
The lasting memory at all clear,
That life has for us on the wrack
Nothing but what we somehow chose;
Thus are we wholly stripped of pride
In the pain that has but one close,
Bearing it crushed and mystified.

 Do you find this a strange poem when put up against others of his that you know about?

What does this say about the various religious traditions that concern themselves with guilt and everlasting punishment for sins committed here in this life?

Choosing the life of a saint or hero or some remarkable person would be understandable.  And perhaps choosing a martyr's life could also be understood.   But, choosing to live the life of Hitler? 

In the post immediately preceding this one, Hoffer talked about freedom to choose or not to choose.  I wonder if there's any connection between Hoffer's comments and my sudden decision to provide this poem a day later.  And, it was a sudden decision.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Eric Hoffer: two types of freedom

No. 57

To some, freedom means the opportunity to do what they want to do; to most it means not to do what they do not want to do.  It is perhaps true that those who can grow will feel free under any condition.

-- Eric Hoffer --
from Reflections on the Human Condition

Are these the only types of freedom?

It strikes me that one is positive--able to do what one wants-- and one is negative--not having to do what one does not want to do.  I can see how someone with a positive view can feel free to grow, but how would someone who can grow feel free under the negative view.

Something's missing here.  .  .

Monday, March 2, 2015

PD James: Unnatural Causes, Aunt Who?

PD James
Unnatural Causes

This is the third in the series of mysteries featuring  the cases of Dalgliesh, James' poetry writing Scotland Yard detective.  This one is a bit different in that it really isn't Dalgliesh's case, for he's on vacation, visiting his Aunt Jane Dalgliesh who lives in a small village on the coast that has become sort of an undeclared writers' colony.  However, the officer in charge of the case is very ambivalent towards Dalgliesh.  He doesn't like Dalgliesh, and Dalgliesh returns the feeling, but he wants to draw upon Dalgliesh's experience and expertise.  This makes for a rocky professional relationship.

A corpse is discovered in a small dinghy floating off the coast.  His hands have been cut off, probably after his death, according to the autopsy.  He is soon identified as he had been one of the writers who lived in the small village.  How did he die?  Why were his hands removed after death?  Some sort of warning?  A false trail?  As usual, James provides much to keep us occupied.

This is probably my third, and perhaps even the fourth, reading of this novel.  Even though I knew whodunnit, I still find James' works entertaining as novels about people and their behavior.    And something new always shows up at each reading.  This time Dalgliesh's aunt stood out from the background.  I become aware of her this time, much more than in previous readings.  Just why, of course, is probably a case of over-reading on my part, but I find it interesting anyway.

Adam Dalgliesh and his Aunt Jane are very close, in spite of the difference in their ages, or perhaps because of this difference.  She is in her eighties now and a spinster.  She had been engaged as a young woman back in 1918, but her fiance had been killed six months before the Armistice in November.  Apparently no one has come along since then to engage her affections.  She was the daughter of a minister, and after her mother died, shortly after her fiance's death, she took over the role of housekeeper for her father.

After his death  in 1955, she moved to the coast of Suffolk and lived quietly there.  Her one hobby, ornithology, kept her occupied.  Her careful and meticulous observations provided her with material for several books and she found herself, eventually, considered to be "one of the most respected of  amateur ornithologists in England."  Her reputation in the small village increased when it was discovered that several distinguished individuals, including a famous writer who had been a recluse for many years, were seen in her company. 

Dalgliesh later in the novel remarks that Aunt Jane was not a sentimental woman, quite the contrary.  "To Jane Dalgliesh people were as they were.  It was as pointlessly presumptuous to try to change them as it was impertinent to pity them.  Never before had his aunt's uninvolvement struck him so forcibly; never before had it seemed so frightening."  Jane Dalgliesh seems to be one who see people clearly and objectively, with few romantic illusions about her fellow inhabitants of this small planet and views them coldly and dispassionately.  They are as they are.

Now, why does this suddenly stand out, waving frantically for my attention.  Well, PD James' death last November got me to begin rereading her works again and to also remember an interview I had seen many years ago.  In the interview she said that Jane Austen was her favorite writer and that if she were alive today, Austen would be writing mysteries.

Jane Austen, who,  in the past, had frequently been referred to as "Dear Aunt Jane,"  was also a spinster at her death.  She too had been the daughter of a minister and remained in the family household until her death at 41.  She had never married, but had several chances.  One, at an early age, according to a family tradition, had occurred while they were living on the coast.  According to her sister Cassandra, a young man had fallen in love with Jane.  He had made a favorable impression on Cassandra, and she thought that he would have been successful in his courtship.  However, he had to leave, but he also made it clear that he would return.  Shortly afterwards, however,  they learned of his death.

Jane Austen's novels, based on careful and meticulous observation of the people around her, while never making any top ten list, did attract readers, one of whom was the Prince Regent who apparently kept copies of her works at each of his residences.  Her novels fostered no illusions about people and clearly presented them as they were, warts and all.

I suppose this is a real stretch.  Both aunts are named Jane, both had a minister for a father, both remained spinsters, both when young apparently lost a possibly successful  suitor  through death, both gained some fame as a writer whose works featured close and meticulous observation of their subjects, and both apparently had a clear and unromantic view of those about them, perhaps approaching a cruel and detached vision.

And to push this even further--I can't help thinking of another aunt who also clearly, perceptively, and objectively views her neighbors and sees the evil buried deep within--Aunt Jane Marple.   Obviously, I have a bad case of Aunt Jane fever. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Gene Wolfe's NIGHTSIDE THE LONG SUN--First impressions

Gene Wolfe
Nightside the Long Sun

I've finally managed to get to the book and am now in Chapter 4.  These are some random impressions based on the early chapters.

This reminds me of Wolfe's earlier series,  The Book of the New Sun.  It's the language that conveys this impression.  It is archaic and very formal, with many foreign and obscure English words.
I find myself heading for the dictionary or search function on the browser.  Just now I discovered, after a number of tries (the usual response was "no such word" while the others directed me to Gene Wolfe's novels), the following definition for manteion.  And, it appears to be Greek.

Manteion:  "An oracle; either a person or a shrine but usually a title denoting a prophet and reader of the omens of sacrifice. "

The story is illustrative of the role of the augur: "he does not predict what course of action should be taken, but through his augury he finds signs on whether or not a course already decided upon meets with divine sanction and should proceed." 

Patera Silk is an auger;  in the story he is  one who  reads the will of the gods by studying the entrails of sacrificed animals. It appears as though the term in the far future has become confused with another term--haruspex--for augers observe and interpret the flight of birds while a haruspex is the one who interprets from the entrails of sacrificed animals.  Both augur and haruspex go back to the days of the Roman Empire.

As in his earlier series, Wolfe loves to show us how history and myth and legend become confused and intertwined over long periods of time.

The Christian Sign of the Cross has now become the addition sign that Patera Silk makes. 

patera probably comes from the latin "pater" which means father.

Our Father--pater noster

Pater Silk, so far, appears to be a variation of the Holy Fool, an innocent who understands little of the world about him, but is blessed with almost divine wisdom in understanding the hearts of others.
That he is first seen as playing with children is indicative of the type of person he is.  He is a strange mix of a Christian minister or priest and teacher and a Roman official who reads the will of the gods in bird flight and the entrails of sacrificial animals--two very contradictory actions.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Leonard Nimoy: March 26, 1931--Feb. 27, 2015 RIP

                                                              R. I. P.

Leonard Nimoy died this morning of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  Like many others, no doubt.  I shall always remember him as Mr. Spock.  I saw him once in a play in Chicago, A Visit to a Small Planet, and while the character was nothing like Spock  (he was played by Jerry Lewis in the film version), he was still Spock to me, and perhaps to many others in the audience.

I still can't hear anybody say "fascinating" without thinking of Mr. Spock.     

I also saw him when he joined the cast of Mission Impossible, as Paris, the master of disguise.  It made no difference.  He was still a Vulcan. And, the director?, somebody? played on that also.  In one episode of MI, Nimoy was in the lobby of a large hotel.  He glances over to a stairway leading up to the next floor, and a puzzled look appears on his face.  The camera pans over to the stairs, and we see William Shatner climbing the stairs.  Then Shatner looks around and sees Nimoy, and he too looks puzzled, as if he should know him but can't quite place him.

Fortunately we have him on film, and it's been many years since I last watched Star Trek.  Perhaps now would be a good time to resurrect some happy memories.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Loren Eiseley: Coyote Country


If you should go, soft-footed and  alert,
Down the long slope of shale
Into a tumbled land of scarp and butte
Beyond the pale
Of the herding men, where water is under stone,
You would be in coyote country.  It is the place
Where tumbleweed is blown
Four ways at once, and your neighbors are not seen
Except as loping shapes
Or tangible dust.
Once, if you're lucky, something may pause and lift
One paw and two grey ears
In a moment's trust
That is gone like wind.

Coyote PhotoThis is the road.  Go down
Over the harsh way.  If you dare, go down
Into the waste, where lonely and apart
The road runs north.  Somewhere here is my heart,
If anywhere, I spy
Nothing at all--and you in turn may try
The thistle and subtle stones,
Or you may go
Southward tonight--be certain you will not know
More of  me than is found
In two poised ears
Or feet gone without sound.
-- Loren Eiseley --
All the Night Wings

I don't know where Loren Eiseley spent most of his time--out in the field or behind a desk or in a classroom--but I think I know where his heart was. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XLI, Second Edition

This quatrain, first appeared in the Second Edition, and remained in all subsequent editions.

Second Edition:  Quatrain XLI

For has not such a Story from of Old
Down Man's successive generations roll'd
   Of such a clod of saturated Earth
Cast by the Maker into Human mould? 

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain XXXVIII

And has not such a Story from of Old
Down Man's successive generations roll'd
   Of such a clod of saturated Earth
Cast by the Maker into Human mould? 

FitzGerald introduced only one change in the quatrain: he substituted "And" for "For."

This quatrain refers obliquely back to previous quatrains that refer to the Potter and his pots.  The story "from of Old" of course refers to Genesis in which God creates Adam out of clay.  What I find interesting is that humans were, supposedly,  created in the likeness of God while the Poet says that this clod of earth was cast "into Human mould."

I suspect that FitzGerald added this quatrain to make more explicit the identification between God and the Potter and its creations and humanity.  While it seemed fairly clear in the First Edition, it was never stated explicitly, and perhaps FitzGerald felt it needed a clearer exposition for some readers.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Two very, very different films

Snowpiercer, an SF Film

Into Great Silence, a documentary

Several nights ago, I watched two very different films.  One was Snowpiercer, directed by the South Korean director  Bong Joon-ho.  It's a post-catastrophe or post-apocalypse film that reflects current events.

In an attempt to deal with global warning, a chemical is interjected into the upper atmosphere.  It, of course, goes wrong (otherwise there would be no film), and, instead, sends earth off into a planet-wide ice age, killing off everything.  The only survivors are the lucky ones who managed to get aboard a long, powerful, and self-sufficient supertrain created by the mysterious and wealthy Wilford.  Obsessed with trains, Wilford uses his wealth to create a world-wide railway system for his train. 

It's now seventeen years later, and a strict brutal class/caste system has evolved.  The train is a linear depiction of this system, with the train tailenders at the back living in a few overcrowded and rundown cars, on rations barely above the starvation level.   any grumbling is met with a lecture about how ungrateful they are to be allowed to live.  They are at the back end and others at the front because that's the way it is and they should know their place.  This is the natural order of things.   Sound familiar?

As we move forward, the conditions improve until we reach just behind the Eternal Engine where the rich live idle lives with a variety of rich foods, clothing, and drugs, with no concern for the less fortunate at the train's back end. At the front is the Eternal Engine compartment, occupied only by Wilford, who is seen almost as a deity at this point and visited by only a few.

However, yet another revolution by the ungrateful powerless poor is brewing.  Curtis, one of those trapped in the rear of the train, leads the poor and dispossessed through the train which provides numerous fight scenes, violence, and a high body count. 

The number of interesting characters among the rebels and the ruling elite is one of this film's strong points.

One point made by the film perhaps explains the behavior of the very rich and powerful today.  They seem unconcerned about the dangers brought about by global warming at this point, and spend millions of dollars fighting legislation that is designed to reduce the threat if that legislation reduces either their power or their profits.   The film suggests that they believe that, while global warming or any severe climate change may cause problems, they are rich enough and powerful enough to ensure their own comfortable survival. 

Into Great Silence

Fortunately that wasn't the only film I watched that  night and doubly fortunate that I watched Into Great Silence, a documentary about life in a Carthusian monastery, the Grande Chartreuse monestery in the Chartreuse Mountains of France, afterwards.   The non-stop action in Snowpiercer would have kept me awake for a long time.  Into Great Silence was the exact opposite-- almost a silent film, with only one instance of the monks engaging in conversation and that at a permitted time.  The only other examples of the human voice was the chanting during ceremonies and a formulized question-and-answer dialogue when a novice took his temporary vows.  Oh yes, one other bit of talk occurred when the monk, whose job it was to feed the monastery cats, called them for dinner.  He talked a little to them and noted that one was the big boss. 

Philip Groning, the director, had contacted the monastery in 1984, requesting permission to do the documentary.  They responded that they weren't ready yet.  Finally, 16 years later Groning was told they were ready. 

The film is a visual documentary:  there is no narrative voice explaining what is being filmed.  The viewer is forced to guess.  Groning shot the film in natural light so the viewer sees the monastery and its inhabitants going about their daily routine without any artificial lighting.

The monastery does have electricity, but its use seems to be limited to when it is absolutely necessary; for example during night time services, small lights are placed by the music stands so they can see the music.  Clearly it replaces candles.  The Carthusians do not have tonsures, but instead get all of their hair cut off regularly.  (Reminded me of my time in basic training in the USAF)  They use electric hair clippers instead of hand clippers. 

The monks were shown going about their daily lives of prayer, work, meditation, and rituals without commentary.  They never spoke, except for the examples noted above, and seemingly spent most of the day silently and solitary, at least outwardly so. 

The combination of the silence and the beautiful photography both inside the monastery and outside made this an extraordinary film.