Friday, February 26, 2016

N. Scott Momaday: "The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee

In their own way, poems teach the reader.  Frequently they teach the reader something about the reader, sometimes about the subject of the poem, and sometimes about poetry itself.  Some poems are relatively straightforward in that one can get an idea of what the poem is about early on and finds no surprises when one reaches the end.  Others?  Sometimes one has an idea of the poem and suddenly one line changes the way one views the poem and frequently forces one to go back and read it again.  Robert Frost does that, regularly, and so regularly that I now read his poems and wait for the turn near the end. 

This is one of those poems that at the end suddenly produces a surprise. It is by N. Scott Momaday, and  I thought I knew what the poem was about, but that line near the end changed my view of the poem.

The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee

I am a feather on the bright sky
I am the blue horse that runs in the plain
I am the fish that rolls, shining, in the water
I am the shadow that follows a child
I am the evening light, the lustre of meadows
I am an eagle playing with the wind
I am a cluster of bright beads
I am the farthest star 
I am the cold of the dawn
I am the roaring of the rain
I am the glitter on the crust of the snow
I am the long track of the moon in a lake
I am a flame of four colors
I am a deer standing away in the dusk
I am a field of sumac and the pomme blanche
I am an angle of geese in the winter sky
I am the hunger of a young wolf
I am the whole dream of these things

You see, I am alive, I am alive
I stand in good relation to the earth
I stand in good relation to the gods
I stand in good relation to all that is beautiful
I stand in good relation to the daughter of Tsen-tainte
You see, I am alive, I am alive

-- N. Scott Momaday --
from In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems

What do you think?  Is there a line that changed your idea about the poem?  Did you go back and read it again?  Do you think this is a major or a minor change?   Does it add something or take away something or does it really make no difference to you? 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Emily Dickinson: "Frequently the woods are pink--"

This poem, reflecting the change of seasons, is one of the most accessible and understandable of her poems,  at least it is for me.  Of course, it appears to be an early one, possibly composed as early as 1858, according to the editor, Thomas H. Johnson, which may account for its unusual straightforwardness.


Frequently the woods are pink --
Frequently are brown.
Frequently the hills undress
Behind my native town.
Oft a head is crested
I was wont to see --
And as oft a cranny
Where it used to be --
And the Earth -- they tell me --
On its Axis turned!
Wonderful rotation!
By but twelve performed!  

-- Emily Dickinson --
from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

Friday, February 19, 2016

Favorite DVDs viewed during 2015

Following are some of the DVDs that I watched during 2015.  Since I don't watch TV, I have considerable time now to read and to watch films in the evening.  Some of the DVDs I have viewed were originally TV shows that are now available at the local public library or on Netflix.  While I might be a year or more behind the world on the TV shows, I figure I've actually gained time by not having to watch the commercials, whether they are marketing products or politicians.


Foyle's War,  S8.
A great mystery series set in England first during WWII and then during the Cold War.  It's one of few "must watch" shows on TV.  It's BBC, naturally.

Another great TV series from BBC--featuring Agatha Christies's Miss Marple.  I re-watched all of the Jane Marple episodes this year (with Joan Hickson naturally) and consider this one to be the best of a great series.

Murder on the Orient Express:  (two versions)
This, of course, is based on Agatha Christie's novel of the same name.  I watched the 1974 version and the recent (sorta) BBC version with David Suchet as Poirot. The two versions are quite different.  The 1974 version has a cast list that almost empties out Hollywood and is much lighter in tone.   It is the longer of the two versions, so it includes more of the story than the BBC version.  The BBC version is much darker and shorter, so the questioning sessions of the suspects are shortened or eliminated.
Watch both.

This film is based on a short story by Robert A. Heinlein, "All You Zombies."  I have no idea of the relevance of the title to the story, so don't ask me.  It is very close to Heinlein's story, but it is set in a frame that has nothing to do with Heinlein's tale.  However, the core of the main character's machinations through the use of time travel remains the same.  All I will say is that the story, and therefore the film, plays games with the paradoxes of time travel to an extent almost unique in SF.  The myth of the Ouroboros has come alive.

The Hound of the Baskervilles:
In a rut here.  It's the BBC dramatization of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's best known Sherlock Holmes' novel, with Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke  (naturally).
Again, I spent time re-watching many of the Brett versions during the past year and consider this to be the best of a great series.  I have a few more to go, so there may be another one listed for 2016.

This is another one I've watched before and decided it was time for another viewing.  It's based on Stanislaw Lem's enigmatic novel of the same name.  It's an SF First Contact novel and film, but calling that doesn't do it justice.  It's one of those films that needs and rewards several viewings.  It's the version directed by A. Tarkovsky.  There's another version out, and I will look around for it.

The Dirty Dozen:
A great fantasy war film that stars Lee Marvin, one of my favorites, along with Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, John Cassavetes, Jim Brown.  George Jaeckel, Richard Kennedy, and a host of other familiar names.  Sheer fun.  This is at least my second and probably my third viewing.  I think the cast enjoyed making the film as much as viewers enjoyed watching it.

In Harm's Way:
Another WWII film set in the Pacific this time, rather than in Europe.  It features John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, Patricia Neal, Carroll O'Connor, George Kennedy (again), and a host of other familiar names.  Great fun.  And, no, it's not a guilty pleasure film, for I see no reason for feeling guilty about watching it.  It's probably my third? fourth? viewing, and it won't be my last.

To Have and Have Not:
WWII again--the first film starring Bogart and Bacall.  That says it all.  Again, I've seen this one several times before and most likely will chalk up one or more viewings.

Another re-watching.  Special effects says it all.  I watched the sequel, but I think they made a mistake when they moved closer to matching the real world and lost that startling digital effect.  


Glass: A Portrait of  Philip Glass in Twelve Parts:
A documentary on the minimalist composer Philip Glass--a very well-done  film on Glass and his compositions through the years.  Major problem is that it's too short,  as the good ones always seem to be.

Into Great  Silence:
Life in a French Carthusian monastery--hypnotic, with images doing the talking.
It took sixteen ears for the German filmmaker Philip Groning to get permission to make the film, with certain conditions:  no narration, no artificial lighting,  and no crew.  If one knows nothing about the Carthusian order, then a little research would be useful prior to viewing the film.  The film is two hours and forty-nine minutes long, but it didn't seem that long to me.

History of World Literature:
A Teaching Company Production: a series of lectures on world literature which includes Asian, European, African, South American literatures.  It inspired me to read The Dream of the Red Chamber (aka The Story of the Stone) last year.  And, this year I will dust off my copy of The Tale of Genji.  Again too short.

Comparative Religion:
Another Teaching Company Production.  The title says it all--a comparison of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism--their differences and similarities.

Dark Energy:Dark Matter--
Yet another Teaching Company Production-cosmologists have come to the conclusion that estimates of the visible matter in the universe indicate there isn't enough to explain the makeup of the universe. So, they postulate a form of energy and a type of matter that are invisible in order to explain the composition of the universe and its increasing rate of expansion.

The Three Tenors: The Original Concert in Rome:
Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras singing individually and together great arias and popular songs.  A feast for the ears.  The human voice at its best.
The first of several concerts.

The Seville Concert: John Williams
Great music for the guitar played by one of the best guitarists in the world.  The visuals aren't bad either.

It must be significant that seven of the ten favorite dramas (not including documentaries) were actually a second or third or even a fourth viewing last year.  What does this say about the more recent productions?

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Kim Stanley Robinson: Aurora

Kim Stanley Robinson

This will, no doubt, show up on  my Favorite SF Novels List for 2016, as it's hard to believe more than ten novels will appear in the next ten months that are superior.  Of course, it is Kim Stanley Robinson, who is one of my top SF writers just practicing his art. And, art it is. 

Aurora tells the story of the voyage of a generation ship that is headed toward Tau Ceti, with several thousand humans aboard.  The novel begins when the ship approaches Tau Ceti, some one hundred and sixty years, and seven generations, after it left Earth.  Their mission is to plant a self-sustaining colony on one of the moons, which they have named Aurora,  in the Tau Ceti solar system

While others may disagree with me, the generation ship is actually the main character.  I think this way because the main plot involves the necessity of the survival of the generation ship, with a subplot about the slow growth of consciousness or self-awareness in a machine-based intelligence.  In addition, the ship's AI is the narrator of the novel.

The humans in the ship have two main problems to resolve: one is the survival of the ship, which is slowly breaking down after one hundred and sixty plus years and the other is the need to maintain control over the human population which has known no other life than that confined to the ship.  If the humans can't live together relatively harmoniously, then all are doomed.  This turns out to be one of the many crises faced by the colonists, and it is resolved in a rather surprising (and potentially frightening) manner. 

Kim Stanley Robinson must have done an incredible amount of research into the physical creation of the generation ship, along with the possible threats to the integrity of the ship from various chemical, biological, and mechanical sources.
 He has also created a number of separate habitats, or biomes, each with its own climate, soil, and life forms.  Part of the problem facing the ship's crew is maintaining those biomes, for they contain a myriad of living organisms, which must work together as they do here on Earth.  And, those organisms are not static--they do evolve over time and not necessarily at the same rate, which poses additional problems.

Robinson also speculates on the psychological and emotional effects of life within a closed environment.  Moreover, he asks a moral or ethical question I have never encountered in any generation ship story before, and to be honest, I have never asked this question myself.  The first generation are volunteers, but the second? third? and so on.  They were never asked whether they wanted to live this way.  Is this a form of child abuse?

Rather surprisingly for an SF novel, near the end of the work one of the human colonists gives a speech in which he insists we will never be able to  leave the solar system and successfully plant human colonies elsewhere, even in our own galaxy, much less anywhere else.  He maintains this is impossible and provides a very strong argument in support.  The opposing argument relies mainly on emotional issues.

This may be true today, but in the future?  I was reminded of  Clarke's First Law:  "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."  There are also numerous examples of scientists who first declared that it was impossible for a ship to leave the planet and others who argued we could never even reach the moon,  much less land on it.

What is Robinson doing here?  Is he really arguing against space travel and the possibility of living on other planets?  This seems strange considering that his Mars trilogy, "RGB Mars" goes into such great detail about terraforming Mars.  I wonder if, however, he is really arguing with a theme that seems prevalent in many SF stories today--that we have ruined Earth and our only hope is to go somewhere else.  Perhaps Robinson is really saying that we should be concerned now with protecting the environment so that future generations won't have to leave in order for the human race to survive.

This is a must-read for all who see SF as something more than sheer and mere entertainment.  There are ideas here to think about, which is true of all of Kim Stanley Robinson's works.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Eric Hoffer and dragons and devils

Eric Hoffer has a unique perspective on the interrelationships among devils, dragons, and humans.  At least, it is unique as far as I'm concerned.  I hadn't really read or heard anything like the inter-workings of the three as described by Hoffer.


"Man made God in his own image.  In whose image did he make the devil?  The devil with hoofs, tail, and horns is obviously a beast masquerading as a man.  Does he, then, personify nature?  Is there a confrontation--God and man on one side, the devil and nature on the other?

It is significant that where men live in awe of nature and see it as inexorable and inscrutable fate, nature is personified not in a devil but in a dragon.  The dragon is a composite of the fearsome strengths and uncanny faculties of the animal world.  Any piecing-together  of parts of various animals result in something like a dragon.  Vasari tells how the young Leonardo da Vinci, wanting to point something that would frighten everybody, brought to his room every sort of living creature he could lay his hands on and set out to paint a composite animal.  "He produced an animal so horrible and fearful that it seemed to  poison the air with its fiery breath.  This he represented coming out of some dark broken rocks, with venom issuing from its jaws, fire from its eyes, and smoke from its nostrils.  A monstrous and horrible thing indeed."  In the course of time the dragon came to embody the menace and mystery of the whole nonhuman cosmos.  "The dragon," says Kakuzo Akakuro, "unfolds himself in the storm clouds, he washes his mane in the blackness of the seething whirlpool.  His claws are in the forks of lightning, and his scales begin to glisten in the bark of rainswept pine trees.  His voice is heard in the hurricane."   Since societies awed by nature tend to equate power with nature, they will invest omnipotent individuals--emperors, despots, warriors, sorcerers, etc. -- with the attributes of the dragon.  Thus, unlike the devil, the dragon is a man masquerading as a beast.

The dragon is infinitely more ancient than the devil.  The earliest representation of the dragon is the painting of the sorcerer in the cave of Trois Freres.  This  Late Paleolithic painting presents a sorcerer decked out as a composite animal with horns of a reindeer, the ears, of a wolf, the eyes of an owl, the paws of a bear, and the tail of a horse.

The devil is coetaneous with Jehovah, the God who is not nature but its creator.  It was the feat of the ancient Hebrews that though without an advanced technology they lost their awe of nature, and saw it as man's task to "subdue the earth."  And once man, backed by Jehovah or a potent technology, assumes a cocky attitude toward nature, the devil comes upon the scene and takes the place of the dragon.  The devil personifies not the nature that is around us but the nature  that is within us--the infinitely ferocious and cunning prehuman creature that is still with us, sealed in the subconscious cellars of the psyche.

Outside the Occident, where nature has the upper hand, the dragon is still supreme, but the Occident proper is the domain of the devil.

It is of interest that at his first appearance in the Garden of Eden, before clothes were invented, the devil came undisguised, and contrived the fall of man from a paradisaical existence.  Nowadays the devil is decked out in the latest fashion, and quotes the latest scriptures.

We of the present are vividly aware that the slaying of the dragon is the opening act in a protracted, desperate contest with the devil.  The triumphs of the scientist and the technologist are setting the stage for the psychiatrist and policemen.  We also know that we can cope with the devil only by using the tension between that which is most human and nonhuman in us to stretch souls in a creative effort."
-- Eric Hoffer --
Reflections on the Human Condition

Any thoughts?

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Favorite mystery novels read in 2015

The following is a list of my favorite mystery novels that I read in 2015.  All but one of the authors were already on my search list and these most recent reads kept them there.  There are others on my search list, of course, but I either didn't have time to read one by them last year or found that, while they were interesting enough to keep the author on my list for another read, they didn't make the top ten list.  I added several authors to my search list this year, but only one was intriguing enough to make this list.

Barbara Nadel                  Body Count
Police procedural set in contemporary Turkey

Michael Stanley               A Death in the Family
Police procedural set in contemporary Botswana

Steven Saylor                   Wrath of the Furies
PI series set in first century BC Rome

Peter Robinson                 In the Dark Places
                                          Children of the Revolution
Police procedural set in contemporary England

Eliot Pattison                    Soul of the Fire
ex-Chinese police officer solves crimes in contemporary Tibet

Karin Fossum                  The Drowned Boy   
                                  The Murder of Harriet Krohn
Police procedural set in contemporary Norway

Henning Mankell             The Troubled Man
Police procedural set in contemporary Sweden

P. D. James                       Reread all of her novels
Police procedural set in contemporary England

C. J. Sansom                    Lamentation
Talented Amateur
A lawyer solves crimes in England during the reign of Henry VIII

Charles Todd                   A Fine Summer's Day
 Police procedural set in post WWI England

The following is an author that I added to my search list in 2015.

Ben Winters                    The Last Policeman
Police procedural set in contemporary New Hampshire set against the background of an impending catasrophe:  a meteor is going to hit the Earth in about six months. It's the first book in a trilogy.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain LV

This quatrain is thematically linked with the previous quatrain and several of the following quatrains with its recommendation that wine is the best solution to the quandaries presented by our existence here.


Oh, plagued no more with Human or Divine,
To-morrow's tangle to itself resign,
    And lose your fingers in the tresses of
The Cypress-slender Minister of Wine. 


Perplext no more with Human or Divine,
To-morrow's tangle to the winds resign,
    And lose your fingers in the tresses of
The Cypress-slender Minister of Wine.

One of the changes made between the Second and the Fifth Editions occurs early in the first line where "Oh, plagued" becomes "Perplext," where, instead of being bothered by the "Human of Divine," one is now confused by it.  The second change takes place in the second line where the "To-morrow's tangle" is left to itself in the Second Edition and in the Fifth it is left to the winds.  Since the winds will simply blow it away, that suggests the problem is insolvable whereas if it's left to itself, that hints that it may resolve itself.

In both quatrains the poet advises to leave the tangle be, although with differing consequences, and instead to become enamored of wine, the ultimate solution to all tangles, be they human or divine.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Favorite novels read in 2015

The following is a list of the novels that I had read in 2015 that impressed me the most among all the others I had read. 


Anthony Powell:        A Dance to the Music of Time  (twelve novels)

Sarah Orne Jewett:    The Country of Pointed Firs and Other Stories

Harper Lee:                 Go Set a Watchman

Tsao Hsueh-chin:        Dream of the Red Chamber (aka The Story of the Stone)


Dostoyevsky:              The Gambler, The Double,  Notes from Underground

Jane Austen:               Pride and Prejudice

Balzac:                         The Black Sheep

Mikhail Bulgakov:      Heart of a Dog

It doesn't appear to be a long list, but Anthony Powell's series consists of twelve novels.