Monday, November 30, 2009

A few words on the December cusp

I'm teaching a class on Church History. Some of you know that around this time last year through the Spring I taught a class on the Puritans. This time the class focuses on the Enlightenment through what I'm calling The Birth of the Modern (which means we're ending somewhere around Marx, Darwin, or maybe even Spurgeon. I thought about ending with a composer from the Birth of the Modern period for symmetry, but as much as I'd like to teach on them, I can hardly do a church history class on Brahms or Stravinsky.) This week's class was about the Pietist movement in 1600's Germany and also on the subject of Johann Sebastian Bach who was both The Protestant Composer and, arguably, the pinnacle of church music to date.

I started with a story about Karl Lagerfeld, because that's the kind of church history teacher I am. This is why you should come to my class. They are unconventional and fun. I would publish my notes here for interested parties and, upon reflection, perhaps in the future I can assemble my notes in a way more conducive to that end. My notes from Sunday are written in some complex and alien language that only my brain can understand. Sorry. Come to the class!

Also I've been called upon to give a devotional Advent service in two weeks. The series of four Sunday nights leading up to Christmas are each taught by someone different. This year we are covering the subject of Jesus as Prophet, Priest, King and God. I chose King and will give my message in two weeks. So, I'm keeping busy.

Laurie and I moved furniture to make room for the Tannenbaum and stumbled upon a configuration of the front room which we like so much better than what we had. We trimmed our tree and put on the Christmas albums (I had my annual "where the blue blazes is the second Projekt Christmas compilation?") Tonight I will start reading Dickens' A Christmas Carol to Laurie. Tomorrow we will begin opening the doors of our chocolate Advent calendar.
The above photograph is what it now looks like from the doorway of my office looking into the front room.

Laurie and I decorated the house. When I lived in Orange County, my Yuletide season beginning was marked by the Shakespeare Orange County Christmas Show. I don't remember a lot of Shakespeare in the actual show except for the bit where director Tom Bradac would come in dressed as a mix between Shakespeare and Santa Claus to throw candy to the children. Also a bit where one of the more venerable and hoary Shakespearean actors would read a sonnet to a young lady in the audience and end by giving her a book of Shakespeare's sonnets. The rest of the show comprised holiday songs: The Winter Wassail, Let It Snow, and a particularly heart-breaking war-time focused I'll Be Home For Christmas. It is a tradition that I miss.

Of course, one must wait to even make mention of the holiday until after the Thanksgiving meal. To break that protocol one may as well take to wearing white after Labor Day.

Our nativity set is on the little black table. In the upper right is a picture of Tony as a boy with a frame made by Tony when he was a boy.

To the lower right is Mango.

Here is the finished product of our tree. The little square you see slightly to the right is the Bob Geldolf single "Do They Know It's Christmas?" from deep in the 1980s. I think it's secretly one of Laurie and my favorite decorations. I have to wonder if what the good the artists aimed to accomplish with the proceeds from the song was offset by the environmental damage they did with hair products.

When I started this post, I didn't have anything particularly profound I meant to add to the holiday conversation. I was just going to do a quick "we are getting in a holiday way" sort of check-in post. But, I was moved very deeply by this photograph and thought it might make for a decent ending point.

We aim to have a home marked by the Fruit of the Spirit which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (although I suppose Laurie might mention that my diet habits around the holidays do not seem to fall strictly under the heading of self-control.) I was struck by this image of our rescued cat Agnes. Long time readers remember that we brought her in over the summer. She is old and asthmatic. She has divots out of her ears from fights from when she lived in the alley, and she's very bashful. She's clearly far happier and at peace than she was when she lived in the alley, but she still requires a lot of gentleness.

I had no idea Laurie even took this picture, but Agnes found a safe, secure and warm spot for the night over the holidays.

Whoever and where ever you are, I wish all of you peaceful, good and splendid holidays.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Book Review- Prime by Poppy Z. Brite

Last night I finished Poppy Z. Brite's book Prime which, as you'll remember, is her follow-up to her novel Liquor. Again, with my usual lack of pun intention, I fairly devoured it. I cannot put too fine a point on this: I don't understand why more people aren't excited about one of the most exciting working authors today. At the end I found myself shaking my head thinking, "That was a fine novel. Liquor was also an excellent contemporary novel. My my."

And I am very happy to realize that I still have one more to go. I will again direct your attention to Soul Kitchen by Poppy Z. Brite on my Christmas wish list.

At first I had misgivings but now I am reluctant to even air them here. For the first two thirds of the book, I think my main concern, and I hasten to make clear that it was a very minor concern, that one of the things I liked so much about Liquor was the urgent action of the kitchen. Prime's action is often out of the kitchen or in a kitchen in a different restaurant. I like fiction where the characters have to go to work much like, you know, actual human beings have to work. Also, in Liquor especially, the characters, their relationships, personal lives and so on were present, but the narrative never made camp in those spots. I was a little nervous in the first 2/3rds of Prime that this was not so much the case in this book, but in the end it tied together so well. So masterfully well. Everything comes together beautifully. I didn't go in expecting a mystery, but it all gels in the end so delightfully surprisingly well.

The characters largely recur with a few shifts. Lenny seems to be more of a supporting character in this one. Oscar De La Cerda becomes more of a major (and awesome!) Brite also brings in a whole new world of characters, all of them amazing and none of them treated with kit gloves. In the hands of a lesser author, such precious characters would be treated as precious. With Brite, yes, they are amazing characters now that you mention it, but there's a story to tell! I salute her for that as well.

As usual, I won't give too much of the plot away. At the start of the book, Liquor, the restaurant, is two years old and doing well. They get their first bad review, although the review has almost nothing to do with the quality of the food or dining experience. Lenny gets into legal trouble with the DA who seems to have a grudge against Lenny. Rickey is hired by a restaurant in Dallas as a consultant to revamp their fine dining restaurant to suit Dallas. He runs into a very awkward character from his past and has to work with him. More awkwardness follows. Meanwhile, back in New Orleans, G-Man befriends the head of a successful hip-hop label (whose story about when he was a child eating at Escargot's and meeting the cook is one of my favorite moments in the book. Again, much like a busy kitchen, these heart-breakingly beautiful, glorious moments are there, but the pace keeps going and you can reflect on it in your own time, buddy.) All of these seemingly divergent threads come together so nicely.

The detail work is excellent as well. The boots, the thing cooks get in the hot summer months, G-Man's mom's explanation on how to cook veal in lard. There is so much more I'd like to admire here, but I do not want to spoil anything for anyone.

One thing I will say that isn't so much of a critique as an observation. I had mentioned that the novels stand on their own and are not really in "a series" so much as independent novels with some shared characters. While I stand by that, at the end of this one I do have to say I think one would enjoy this much more if they've read Liquor. Aside from that, I can say that I enjoyed it tremendously.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Reading The Classics Book Group

Book Groupies,

The day has come. Now is the time to begin our reading of Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.

Here's how it will work. This week we are reading through what, in my copy, is page 64. You'll notice that the sections are not numbered and it strikes me as entirely possible that your copy's pages may be numbered differently. It's the section slightly over halfway through and the section ends with the line "Well, get the hell out and wash your face." It should be clear when you reach it.
Future books in the series are mainly broken into chapters so the "we're reading to" part will be easier in the future.

Deo Volente, in one week (actually, I may well post them late Thursday night) I will post my thoughts on this section. You can post your own thoughts on this section on your own blog and provide a link in my comments, or, for the blogless or blog-shy, leave your thoughts in my comments section in next week's reading group post, argue with or agree with other people's comments or my own, or, if you so choose, say nothing at all and just take it all in (but may God have mercy on your soul if you use any material by me or readers of this blog to write a paper for school without proper citation.) If you have not signed up for my reading group yet, don't worry. It's not required. You can follow along if you feel so inclined and comment if you like. All you have to do is to get yourself a copy of Of Mice and Men and read to page 64 by next Friday.

Also, we're trotting at this pace with the goal that we leave none behind. If you find yourself reading ahead, don't worry about that either. You can write your comments whenever you like and link to it next Friday. I would encourage you to take a break and write your thoughts at the point we're reading to this week because you don't want to "play the end" as it were. On the other hand, if there are those with raging schedules who are concerned with getting through a whole 64 pages in a week, I assure you that it reads very quickly. Read a few pages each night before bed and you'll be there in no time.

Which I think leaves nothing else for me to say at this point except, thank you for joining me. I think this will be a rewarding experience for all involved. I hope all of you can enjoy a weekend of reading this holiday weekend without the need to set foot in a store.

Happy reading. More soon.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

How it went

Here's my wife on our lovely Thanksgiving day.

There were no pictures of me today, which is probably best as I did not dress nearly as well as Laurie dressed. We were very excited that Tony and his girlfriend Karina were to dine with us.

Hold on there, Napoleon. Laurie hasn't even finished cooking yet!

I got up, went and got Laurie her soda and me my coffee, wrote my News in Review, read for a bit, helped Laurie by rinsing off an oven rack, lifting a few things, stirring here and there. As I mentioned, we got a turkey breast from Trader Joe's. Laurie also made stuffing (which, as she remarked, was so good that when she tasted it she almost started crying), mashed potatoes, bread, brussels sprouts and we, the two grown ups at the table, had a nice white wine. For dessert we bought one of those orange chocolates that you hit on a hard surface to break into "slices."

The dogs took it upon themselves to oversee the action in the kitchen.

There was a moment of panic when we realized at the end that we no longer have a working meat thermometer on hand. All of the "how do you know a turkey breast is done" websites said "use a meat thermometer." All of our neighbors were not home. Finally we decided 15 minutes longer than the package told us was long enough and our current lack of food poisoning is a testimony to the wisdom of the decision to move forward at that rather dramatic portion of our narrative.

Mercifully, that was the most dramatic part of the day.

So, here's Tony and his girlfriend Karina making their first appearance together on my blog. We had a nice chat at dinner.

After dinner, Laurie and I took a plate of food over to Laurie's Mom's house. We came home and had a quiet evening. Laurie thought it might be fun to, for once, see what was on PBS and play Scrabble. Unfortunately, PBS was running a marathon of cooking shows on ways to prepare turkey meat, so we restored our home to its usual state of tranquility (which we take great pains to maintain except for when the dogs need to go out.) Laurie made me laugh harder than I have in months with a suggestion of a word that I could make with my last letter.
Laurie did a spectacular amount of work to prepare a fantastic meal, but I think she would agree that it was a relaxing day for all.

Thursday News in Review!

Classical Music News:

Late into any year ending with a 9, news outlets tend to indulge themselves in "best of the decade" lists in case you hadn't noticed. And this year is no different.
The Times of London released their "Best Classical Music Recordings of the Nougties" list (Don't blame me. They came up with that term. I know it sounds like something I'd make up, but it isn't!) The best recording of the decade, they claim, was the St. Louis Orchestra's Nonesuch release of John Adams' "Doctor Atomic" symphony. Reviewers Orchestral work derived from Adams’s stunning operatic depiction of the fateful moment in July 1945 when J. Robert Oppenheimer’s scientists swallowed their ethical doubts, successfully tested the atomic bomb and changed the world. Coruscating instrumental power, fine lyrical moments.”
Rounding out the rest of the list are a bunch of pieces I've never heard of. I find this both exciting for the prospect of new music being pointed out to me and slightly galling as I am clearly way more of a strict classicist than the Times of London classical music reviewers. I am wondering how one gets that job and why I don't have it. As readers of this blog well know, I can sit around and make pretentious lists with the best of them.
Also in Classical Music News, H. C. Robbins Landon died this past week at the age of 83. Landon was known as a pioneer of Haydn scholarship and also for writing many popular works on Mozart, one of which I can see on my shelf from where I sit. Landon did much work to popularize the music of Franz Joseph Haydn (he edited music scores. In the 1950s he published a book about Haydn's symphonies of which there are 108) in the middle of the last century and you very well may have him to thank every time you hear a classical music DJ play Haydn today. He also uncovered original parts of Mozart's Idomeneo.

Publishing News:

This week the Egyptian government banned the first Egyptian graphic novel. The graphic novel is titled "Metro" and all reports I can find say that it is being banned for "limited sexual content." Who knows what that means. Author Magdy L Shafee vows to fight the ruling saying, "It is unethical to suppress freedom of speech and take books off the market. This is about more than 'Metro.' If we stay passive we will lose our rights."
In a hilarious move,
Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) director Gamal Eid sent the Egyptian court overseeing the case images from the daily newspaper Rose El-Youssef which are far "more lewd" than anything appearing in the graphic novel in question. You will, of course, recall earlier in the year when Egyptian poet Mounir Marzuq was sentenced to three years in jail for writing a satirical piece about Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
Of course, Egypt isn't the only place doing abominable things with books and eliciting controversial satire (how often do you get to use a sentence like that! It's like Christmas has come early for me!) Columnist Michael Wolff wrote a column this week on the current trend of wildly popular books which are neither written by the person to whom they are attributed nor are they meant to be read, but rather to be carried around as an ideology identifying prop (needless to say, Beck and Palin are named.) I thought it was very clever (clearly enough to remark on it) although, hopefully needless to say, if you go read it, I recommend you steer clear of the comments section.

LHC News:

Last Friday, after what seemed to enthusiasts (I can tell you firsthand) like decades worth of delays, the Large Hadron Collider smashed its first proton beams. It was an exciting day which one could follow the progress on CERN's Twitter. A CERN person (I don't know how you get all the way to CERN and end up in charge of tweeting) live tweeted the whole event. If you didn't follow it, don't panic, you'll have plenty more opportunities. For the first time they were able to shoot proton beams at very near to the speed of light and slam them into one another.
As you'll remember, the Large Hadron Collider is a many billion dollar endeavor by thousands of physicists to create the world's largest particle accelerator to smash particles into one another and observe the results. The LHC is housed in a 100 meter tunnel beneath the French-Swiss border. The highest of their aspirations is to recreate conditions very much like the first moments of the Universe and possibly gain information on the theoretical Higgs Boson particle. Such information might put physicists well on the road to a Grand Unified Theory (GUT for short!), a theory comprising everything everywhere always which is kind of the ultimate goal of science. After that it's all just detail work of cataloging the wonky and manky sea critters they keep finding. The Higgs Boson, it is postulated, was a particle that existed for a split second after the Big Bang and quickly broke into smaller particles.
Over a year ago, an earlier attempt was thwarted by electrical problems. In October a scientist on the project was arrested over suspected links of Al-Qaeda. A few weeks ago, someone dropped a bit of their baguette (this is France we're talking about after all) into the power core causing chaos, terror, panic and probably the most well done piece of toast in the history of time. If you've been following the LHC history, those are far from the only problems and issues to come up. People have sued them because they're afraid the LHC will destroy reality. Other scientists have speculated with apparent seriousness that the LHC problems came from the Higgs Boson time traveling to thwart the project. I think the history of the LHC would make a great opera.

More Crashing Things Into Other Things News:

Also this week in crashing things, astronomers are finally harnessing the great, untapped power of human capacity to play video games. They've created Galaxy Zoo. When one is involved in the project, one is shown images of colliding galaxies next to simulated images of separate galaxies and then asked to identify which goes with which. Oxford astronomer Dr. Chris Lintott says, "The strength of the game is that it takes results from many people." The group states that humans are currently better than any technology at detecting patterns and similarities. The project will help them sort through the data and learn more about colliding galaxies. "All we get from the Universe is a single snapshot of each one. [With] simulations, we will be able to watch each cosmic car crash unfold in the computer."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

On Thanksgiving Eve

Thanksgiving came early as both Laurie and I received books today. I had ordered myself a copy of Prime by Poppy Z. Brite through Lyon Books, which is the locally owned new book store here in Chico. Today it arrived. As you know, it's the second in the triptych by Brite that started with Liquor. So there's most of my weekend. It's a little break from the classics reading group. Also the book I'm expecting in the mail any time now from a friend in India. More on that soon.

Laurie's about to read The Meaning of the Pentateuch by John H. Sailhamer. John Piper said words to the effect of "sell everything you own to get yourself a copy of this book (provided everything you own is only worth $40.)"

Laurie is also working on Of Mice and Men. She will be joining the book group. People who have been in reading groups with her before can testify that having the opportunity to interact with such a sharp mind as hers makes the endeavor worthwhile taken on its own.

We're looking forward to a quiet, stress-free day off together. We were blessed enough to have very little grocery store drama and came home with a modest turkey breast and an even more modest Pinot Grigio. I'm thankful for how little time we spent in the grocery store today.

There is, as always, much to be thankful for in my life. We're still in our house and eating, many months after my lay off. In fact, prospects are looking up and, although rabidly anti-superstitious, I shall err on the side of not jinxing anything by going into detail just yet.
I have the best of all wives, step-kids who I love tremendously, a great hoard of individually and collectively wonderful animals to share our life.

I keep remembering a moment from when I was much younger and stupider, if that does not tax your imagination. I was visiting my friend Doctor Oblivious in San Francisco and I made a comment about being poor folk. Without missing a beat he said, "I don't know what you're talking about. I'm one of the richest people I know."
Today I am keenly aware that I am one of the richest people I've ever met in my life. I have love. I have peace in my house. And on top of that I live in a country whose standard of living has me below the level of economic indicators well below the poverty line, yet I eat well, I have the world's knowledge and entertainment at my beck and call, I have perfect temporal freedom. I can worship as loudly as I want without fear of the authorities. I can read whatever I choose.

All of which is really just another one of my trademarked long winded ways of saying I'm looking forward to a nice, quiet day with my wife tomorrow. I don't really have much in the way of original thought on the tradition. It is one of the American traditions I wholeheartedly think is a great idea, a day of thanksgiving and a harvest feast.

First enacted by Washington and first made a yearly tradition with Lincoln. Washington wrote,
"Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me "to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness."

Monday, November 23, 2009

Reading Group Reminder!

Book Groupies,

This is just a friendly reminder. If you're planning on reading along with my book group, we're going to start reading Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck this weekend, so secure yourself a copy with all speed. Fly to the bookstore or library at once and don't forget that it's a holiday weekend which makes store hours all wonky (and, in some cases, unspeakably crowded. Be good to yourself. Don't wait until this Friday to get your copy!) It's a good weekend to start reading as you'll probably be off of work anyway if you're not like 10% of the country and there already.
I thought I would pass this along in case anyone is interested. Again, I am clearly not shilling for Penguin Books, but they are offering all 10 of the books in our reading group as a set, brand new and matching for $99. I've mentioned before that as they are all classics you can probably find all of the titles in thrift stores for less than a dollar each but, I don't know, maybe you're concerned with interior decorating and want a handsome set instead of the comically ragged copies I'm reading. They are very nice looking. I might do it myself if I weren't 1) poor and 2) an owner of all of the titles already. Although also if you go that route, be warned that we may use a different translation of Dante's Inferno.

As a side note and a bit of a fun fact to add a bit of color for those about to read Of Mice and Men, the title comes from a poem by Robert Burns. Now, don't let the text of the poem alarm you. I assure you that the book we're reading is written in very contemporary, very easy to read English. If you struggle with the poem, I think it was composed on the tongue which means you might be better off reading it in a very loud Scottish accent. I know my wife loves it when I do that (and so do my neighbors I'm sure.)
Burns was one of the great Scottish poets. He lived in the 1700s. Another famous poem of his is "Address to a Haggis." There's an event you can celebrate in your own home on St. Andrew's Day (Jan. 25. Mark your calendar) called a Burns Dinner. After saying grace, the haggis is brought to the table piping hot and Address to a Haggis by Robert Burns is read to the plate of sheep innards. When the poem is finished, you dig in.
Anyway, here's the poem from which Steinbeck drew the title for his book Of Mice and Men.

To a Mouse

by Robert Burns

On Turning up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785

Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickerin brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An’ fellow-mortal!

I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen-icker in a thrave
’S a sma’ request:
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
An’ never miss ’t!

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane,
O’ foggage green!
An’ bleak December’s winds ensuin,
Baith snell an’ keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste,
An’ weary Winter comin fast,
An’ cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro’ thy cell.

That wee-bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the Winter’s sleety dribble,
An’ cranreuch cauld!

But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

My Christmas List

My mom asked for my Christmas list, so I'm posting it here. Ever notice how these things kind of turn into personality tests?

1. The new Tom Waits album Glitter and Doom
2. Soul Kitchen by Poppy Z. Brite
3. The four Doctor Who episodes from this past year. Hm. Looks like those two are the only ones out on DVD yet.
4. The Complete Ray Bradbury Theater tv series on DVD!
5. The few things by Alan Moore that I don't already own. The absolute V for Vendetta would be awesome. The price explains why I don't own it already.
6. Well, for my book club I'm going to need a version of the Divine Comedy by Dante. I own the Mandelbaum translation which is the one I read before, but I'm not sure if it's the best (or most readable) out there or the one I would prefer. This one interests me, but I'm not sure if when I read it I would actually be reading Dante or the dudes who adapted it. Here's the Penguin one which is, after all, our friends who inspired the book club. As for poetry there's a translation by Longfellow (which I haven't heard the best things about) and one by Robert Pinsky (whose work I've liked quite a bit in the past.) Maybe some reader of this blog could suggest a translation.
7. The Oscar Wilde action figure.
8. As for opera this year, it would put me over the moon to have the best available version of Wagner's Ring Cycle to listen to and play over and over until the CDs were but tiny nubs. Laurie would probably like to see the whole thing on DVD with me and I'm inclined to agree as it is a theatrical form. James Levine is almost always the way to go. I would like a good recording of Mozart's The Magic Flute. I hear the Abbado version is phenomenal. Although, of course, it would be great fun to have the James Levine version on DVD to watch with my wife.
9. The Red Book by Carl Jung
10. a winter coat and winter socks are ALWAYS a good gift.
11. Laurie informs me that "presents for my wife" is a good thing for my list.

Hymnal Dipping

I did not expect or anticipate this one. In fact, I was unfamiliar with this song until this morning when Laurie was looking for a version of "It Is Well With My Soul" for a blog entry (I guess it's the anniversary of when Horatio Spafford's family died which prompted him to write that amazing hymn. Another inspiring story, but not the one I'm on about this morning.) So, we came across a version by the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington D.C. on Youtube and, well, you know how Youtube can be. Laurie checked the related videos and said, "Hey, do you know this one?"
I didn't (it's in neither the Quaker nor the Reformed Baptist hymnals, so this edition of my "Hymnal Dipping" feature didn't really even take me into my hymnal. Laurie and I just had a long discussion on defining a "hymn" and she thinks this might be more of a "spiritual song" than a hymn. I don't know, but it is very content rich and I like it and I wanted to write about it) but very quickly we were both in tears. Such a simple little song with such power. "The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power." It was written by Andrae Crouch when he was just 15 years old. He threw it in the trash thinking it was too simple for his high aspirations as a songwriter. His sister knew better and fished it out of the trash. Today it's probably song he's best know for.
It is such a simple and elegant little song of few words. It says all it needs to say and no more, which is one of the marks of a great work.

Verse 1
The blood that Jesus shed for me,
way back on Calvary;
the blood that gives me strength
from day to day,
it will never lose its power.

It reaches to the highest mountain,
it flows to the lowest valley;
the blood that gives me strength
from day to day,
it will never lose its power.

Verse 2
It soothes my doubts and calms my fears,
and it dries all my tears;
the blood that gives me strength
from day to day,
it will never lose its power.

I was absolutely struck to the core by the passion in this. So often we who are focused on right doctrine and biblical theology can come to worship with tweezers, a scalpel and masks in clean rooms. Not that there's anything wrong with right doctrine. I think we need to be firmly rooted in scripture to keep us from doctrinal oddities and unhelpful superstitions. I was telling this to Laurie and she summed it up nicely, "God deserves all of our passion." We cannot lose our passion, gratitude, joy and wonder for the sake of academics. We really ought not be more excited about movies or popular (or classical, Paul) music or television shows or weekends or mochas or anything than we are when we come to worship. If we can be excited about anything in this world, we should be more excited about worship.
I frequently lose it during hymns, which I think is a good thing. Like Isaiah realizing the extent of his state when before God's glory in the temple that he cries out "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" The full knowledge and awareness of one's sin and one's need for a redeemer is crushing. And the glory, the unfettered love of God's grace toward us sinners is likewise of utmost gravity. Of course, this makes us desire to know Him better and constantly dig deeper in His Word, but that is born from a place of brokenness, a place of love, passion and gratitude.
I was also struck that as Rev. Richard Smallwood plays piano the congregation cannot keep from singing.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Great Outdoors

""Well," said Pooh, "what I like best—" and then he had to stop and
think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do,
there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better
than when you were, but he didn't know what it was called. "
-A.A. Milne

I don't know about you, but in different chapters in my life I fall into different patterns. This is not a bad thing. In fact, I think it's good to be stable (even if some of your patterns are less than stable. To wit, for the past few months, every night I put my asthma medication in my mouth like werewolf teeth and sneak up behind Laurie and growl at her. Every night she falls for it or at the very least is kind enough to pretend like she does.) I also think there can be great vibrancy in a steady life. I'm also quite fond of form poetry (as opposed to the ubiquitous, undisciplined free verse of our modern age) for the same reason. Working in form often focuses one and allows for even greater insight and beauty to be expressed. This is part of why in my early 20s I had sort of an embarrassing over-excitement over the music of Philip Glass for a time. The idea of patterns that shift subtly so that one notices the shifts all the more appealed to me greatly. I still like his music, but I find myself going many months without feeling the need to play the Akhnaten overture whereas ten years ago I rarely went a week without playing it.

Patterns need not be ruts. The difference is attitude. Patterns can be one of life's richer experiences with the correct attitude.

So often I have found that these patterns leave our lives without intent and often without even noticing. Circumstances put us in a new job or a new living space and suddenly we no longer do A, B, and C every day.

We may remember them at odd moments in the far future with some fondness. Some of them we may go to our graves never recalling that we sort of lashed our brains together for a season with a series of predictable actions. Be it going to the library on Thursdays or having a cup of Earl Grey at 3:30 pm or feeding the neighborhood stray before leaving your home in the morning or taking the scenic route home or a friendly person who is in your life every day for a time.

I have one in particular in this chapter of my life which I love and which I'm actually about to do within the next hour. Before bed I take the dogs out and then put Cinco, our garage cat, into the garage for the night with a full bowl of cat food. I then usually check all of the locks in the car, the window of the garage and the lock on the garage door. Then I turn back to the house and there's a moment, just a few seconds really, of looking back at my house.
Having done this every night for several months I've noticed that the moon has changed in the sky. It used to be directly over the roof of the house about the time I'd be doing this little ritual. Also with the season change is that it's very cold outside, especially the past few nights.

The pictures you're seeing in this post come from last night. On Laurie's work nights she often has to wash her cleaning rags and just before we go to bed she puts them in the drier. This causes the whole backyard to fill with the steam from the drier outlet, giving an ethereal quality to the quiet crisp night air and the frost kissed blades of grass.

Of course, in this moment there is somewhere in my brain the realization that I will, in a moment, walk through that door and into the warm, cozy house where the heaters are blasting forth and there are blankets, a wife and two dogs waiting for me to succumb to sleep near. Walking from the cold outdoors is almost one of the grandest feelings I know, but in truth, even grander, is the moment before when I know how good it's about to be.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


You remember I recently wrote about the Penguin Classics series of 10 classic books that everyone should read? Well, in the hours that have followed I had a brainstorm after passing our bookshelves and side glancing a copy of a book we have called "Reading The Classics with C.S. Lewis."
I thought, "You know, I don't really have a lot of plans for far future reading at the moment and along with never having read Jane Eyre, many of those books on that list I haven't read in many years. And I do love The Classics. I'm all the time yammering on about them on my blog."

So, you're on, Penguin Classics. I am officially announcing my new series on this blog "Reading The Classics with Paul Mathers." I will be reading (mainly rereading) all ten of the books on Penguin's suggested list and discussing them here. I invite any of you who might be interested to participate along with me. I've never done a reading group before and this one seems suited to me.
Some I read once in high school (Oedipus and The Odyssey), some I've read several times for personal enjoyment (Moby Dick and Pride and Prejudice) and some I've been over countless times (I spent two years working on a production of Hamlet.) I thought this would be fun especially as the only two I think I've read in the past 5 years are one reread of Moby Dick and my first time through Dante's Inferno (so they are automatically bumped to the end of the reading list for our purposes. Or, more accurately, for my own selfish reasons.)
So, here, again, is the reading list if you'd like to print the list up and carry it in your pocket for when you're browsing thrift stores or used book stores (you'll note all of the authors are dead, sorry to say, and, with apologies to our catalyst Penguin Classics, you will remember my post on the ethics of bookbuying. I personally do not feel you should feel any compulsion to buy these titles new.) Here is the order in which we shall read them:

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
The Odyssey by Homer
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
Inferno by Dante Alighieri
Moby Dick by Herman Melville

We will start with Of Mice and Men because it's short and I should be able to get through it before my copy of Prime by Poppy Z. Brite shows up (at which time we'll take a very short break because I'm anxious to read that.) I'm not sure what to say about the pace of the reading group... Well, I'm open to suggestions about that although I will say that when I finish a book I'm probably not going to waste much time before I start blabbing about it on this blog. So, let's get crackin', people! Chop chop! Allons zi!

And, of course, should you decide to decline, I will strive to continue to keep the blog interesting anyway.

Also, needless to say, if any of you read a version of a particular book with zombies added, you are immediately expelled from this reading group.

This should be fun. So, do go out and secure yourself a copy of Of Mice and Men and we will get started.

P.S. Laurie informs me that these online reading groups are done a bit more orderly than I'd originally, in my exuberance, suggested. So, this is how it will work:

If you would like to read along, it would be nice for you to leave a little note in the comments signing on. I will continue regardless of whether anyone joins me or not, but conversation is one of the great benefits of something like this.

If you do decide to get on board, we will begin reading next weekend. I imagine one should have no problem securing a copy of Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck in 9-10 days time even if they order one online. If I'm dead wrong about that, do let me know. The rules are here to keep us on track, but I would hate to see anyone left behind who wanted to take part because we started too quickly.

As we read, I may have a few mini-posts of thoughts, but we will have large posts at the end of each week. With Of Mice and Men, I think we can probably do it in two chunks (actually I think we can do it in one, but again, I would hate to leave anyone behind.) So, Book Groupies, you have a little over a week to secure a copy of John Steinbeck's classic Of Mice and Men. You will get a reminder soon. One week after that we will focus on the first half of the book, then the second a week later.

If you have any further suggestions on how to make this run smoothly, please do let me know.

Thursday News In Review

I took two weeks off from my Thursday News in Review feature. The first, as you know, is because my parents were in town and the second I have absolutely no memory why we didn't have a News in Review. Maybe there was no news that week. There may not have been except for the possibly notable op-ed piece where Germaine Greer reveals that, while we've never met, Greer and I think one another are fools. I'm okay with that.

Opera News:

Readers hopefully know by now that at present the West Coast is ruling the Classical Music world in America. The Los Angeles Opera announced workshop performances of a new opera by Laura Karpman with libretto by M.G. Lord and Shannon Halwes. The work is called "The 110 Project" (Laurie will be delighted by this further presentable evidence that people from Southern California do indeed refer to their freeways as "The 5" or "The 22" instead of Chico's "Ya take 99 down to 5 and...") The piece follows a few characters through 70 years of LA history.
I have mixed feelings about modern opera (and, as it happens, mixed feelings about LA.) In some ways the form is more vibrant and diverse than it's even been. Unfortunately along with the greats, it gives rise to some really regrettable opera. I would almost advise a moratorium on operas based on films, but there have been a few really wonderful works based on film (I really liked the Dead Man Walking opera.)
I like the sound of this one and am excited to hear more about it.
Also in mind blowing opera news, apparently Placido Domingo is now singing as a baritone!

News I'd Rather Not Be Giving More Ink To News:

The BBC's shouting head of Robin Lustig told me this morning that Sarah Palin is on a book tour, in case I'd just finished a stint of cave dwelling. As of my writing this she is in Michigan.
Look, I won't waste any more of your time going over how people are actually talking about this book ghost written for the Republican Party's greatest train wreck in my lifetime for no other reason than the television is telling them to talk about it. You probably have all had experiences similar to my own of walking into a major chain store and finding not only that there's a huge display just inside the door for her "book" but also that the display has been ravaged to the point of almost being empty. And I'm not even talking about bookstores. Laurie and I saw this yesterday when we went to buy kitty litter. Were the book cheaper, as it's surely doomed to be clearance rack fodder, I may have considered buying it for that purpose.
You also probably don't need anyone to point to the flaws and falsehoods in the text as the internet is glutted with that information. Or that it's largely a whine-fest. You probably don't need for me to tell you that it's awful. No, I haven't read it and I will not. I don't have a problem saying that anyway because just like 2012 or the Zemeckis Christmas Carol, there are some things in this culture that you can smell the crap on from miles away.
But if you're not going to take my word for it or if you've some improbable person in your life who might want a copy of this as a gift, I do want to say this. Regardless of what happens, no one will ever want this book five years from now. It is a bad book investment. She may be a news story now but, much like Pauley Shore or Borat, people are going to get sick of the act really quick and swing in the opposite direction. Also, if the Republican Party is at long last so out of touch with consensus reality that they actually do run her as a presidential candidate in 2012, it will guarantee another 4 years of a Democrat. As soon as the ballots are cool, the book will be ground up to make school lunch food go further. Take it from a bookseller who has had a book about Hubert Humphrey on a shelf for 6 years, it may be a hot topic in this particular split second, but you do not want to throw money at this book.

Stuffy, Starchy Book Award News:

At first glance, I was kind of delighted to find that the National Book Award went to Colum McCann (who also wins the "best first name for a journalist" award) for his book about Philippe Petit, the French tightrope walker who walked between the Twin Towers without permission in 1974. The book is called "Let the Great World Spin." The NJ Star-Ledger article where I read this wrote,

"Considered to be one of literature's most prestigious honors, it certainly will catapult the Irish author (who lives in New York) to instant prominence.

McCann refers to the book an act of hope written in part as a response to the attacks on 9-11. Accepting the prize, the author praised the generosity of American fiction and its audience. He dedicated the win to a fellow Irish-American writer Frank McCourt."

Which sounded absolutely delightful to me. But then the article ended with "In addition, legendary author Gore Vidal picked up an award for Lifetime achievement." And then I stopped taking it seriously.

Social Literacy News:

I'm not usually in the habit of writing in depth about advertising campaigns. Nevertheless, Penguin Books came up with a new advertising strategy which reeks of someone in Marketing having read Harold Bloom. I'll let their copy speak for itself:

"Penguin Classics has compiled a list of the top ten essential Penguin Classics every person should read. Each of these ten great works—ranging from poetry to plays to novels and non-fiction—has lasted and enlightened audiences throughout the ages, and they all still have something relevant to say to readers. Look over the list, and explore this website to learn more about each of the ten books.

Watch The Ten Essential Penguin Classics, a twenty-minute video program highlighting each of the ten books listed above.

Why read classic works of literature? There are a myriad of reasons, just one of which is to catch the numerous references that appear in movies, television, politics, and throughout pop culture. In the above video, you can see a trailer for a short film we produced showing what happens to a hapless young suitor who hasn't read our Essential Classics."

The list is as follows:

Inferno by Dante Alighieri

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

The Odyssey by Homer

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

And they've put together a video series which will probably only ever be seen by geeks like me which features a really awkward, apparently improvised "at a party scene" featuring what seems to be an avid Will Farrell fan in the local college acting troupe who everyone in his classes thinks is a riot. Interspersed seem to be brief interviews with people found around the Penguin offices on each of the books.

Aside from the dorkiness of the video series, I think it's a fine idea. I could see an astute young person following the list and having a wonderful time. I don't even find myself disagreeing too much with the list although I probably would have replaced Walden with Leaves of Grass or something by Dickens. I can already hear Laurie's objection to 20% of the list comprising ancient Greeks, but I don't personally share her distaste for the ancient Greeks. You'll have to ask her about that. Also I've not read Jane Eyre but, as a testimony to the concept, this morning I find myself thinking more seriously about reading Jane Eyre than I probably ever have.

In fact, I can imagine this working very well. If a non-reader or nominal-reader followed Penguin's advice at the very least they would get a basic, crash literacy exposure. I have a hard time imagining one reading all ten of these books, brushing their hands and saying "well, that's done. Now I never have to read another classic." I would rather imagine it would ignite a lifelong thirst for great literature in anyone. For that, I applaud Penguin.

The only two problems I can see are 1) the authority of Penguin. Why exactly are they the ones who get the establish the Western Canon? Again, not that I have a problem with what they've done. Anyway and 2) again, I think the people who actually hear about this campaign are probably likely to already be readers of classics. I'm not sure Penguin really has the ear of the type of person they feature in their short video series. However, these are not really objections and I salute Penguin in their effort. I would be tempted to make my own 10 books every human should read, but I will not... No, actually, upon reflection, I think I may be pompous enough to actually do that. Stay tuned.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Books That Changed My Life

"My job is to help you fall in love."

In 1991 I was a dorky early teen. Never even kissed a girl, probably still was wearing t-shirts with superheroes on them, still very shy and sensitive. The book in question is partially a book that changed my life, although really it's more tied to a life changing event in my young life than a text which changed my life. The event and book I walked away with wasn't so much a time bomb as a neutron bomb. It's seeped into every corner of me in the years that followed.

I am also aware that thus far the books in this series have all been a little odd, not quite the best known. I assure you that I will get to the major works of, say, Twain, Dickens and Shakespeare in good time. Tonight I'm focusing on Green Shadows, White Whale which is a book by Ray Bradbury. But mainly it's about a night where that geeky young Paul went to see Ray Bradbury give a speech and left a changed young man.

The speaking event was at Chapman University, the university which years later I would end up earning a BFA from. It seems likely and fitting that that was the first time I'd ever set foot on that campus. My education began there in a lot of ways. Bradbury came onstage in his then signature white tennis outfit. I wish I had a recording of that night, but a few specifics burned into my brain. I remember him telling story about when he was a boy collecting the newspaper comic serials of Buck Rogers. He'd accumulated hundreds of them and had shoeboxes full of them. One day some of his peers made fun of him over it and he ran home and ripped up all of the comics. He said it was one of the great regrets of his whole life. From then on he realized he needed to be passionate about and interested in what he was passionate about and interested in, and that he shouldn't give a damn what other people thought. That's stuck with me. Although I've wrestled with "fear of man" issues, probably just like everyone does, that story left a life long impression on me.

He also talked about another theme that left a life long impression on me, and it's one that I even find myself writing about often on this very blog. That is that one should fill one's eyes and ears with greatness and curiosity - not with crap.

"Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories."

I'm sure there was a lot more, but those were the parts that stuck. I also seem to remember him being remarkably optimistic about the future which, coming from a house where the evening news was a nightly given, was like nothing I'd ever heard before.

After his speech he had a book signing. Lord bless him, he stayed until everyone who wanted to got to talk to him and, if memory serves, shy young Paul was one of the last people to dare to walk up to his signing table with a ratty old mass market paperback of The Machineries of Joy and a brand new copy, bought on site, of his new book Green Shadows, White Whale. I remember being extremely awkward and blubbering something about it being a wonderful night. I remember him shaking my hand and, Lord bless him, drawing me out a little in conversation with, as I've later heard is his habit, the realization that while he'd just had a huge long night, the person in front of him was meeting one of their heroes. I remember I did ask him the name of his cat which was in his author's photo in that period of his career (although I evolved as a reader, I was born a cat person.) He said its name was Tigger. I think the flier from the event is framed at my Mom's house and beside himself he signed his name and beside the cat he signed "Tigger." My copy of the book is signed in a sweeping signature on the fep in blue felt tip pen.

The book is a sort of autobiographical novel about his time in Ireland writing the screenplay for the Gregory Peck film version of Moby Dick. In it, he is a young, sensitive, highly imaginative author. He stands up to the bullyish John Huston character in a way that does not betray his own character (which also left a strong impression on the young me who had up to that point suffered a few bullies.) I remember the fantastic, almost magical realistic world of the Irish. If memory serves it's more of one of his "novels of many thematically similarly short stories strung together" and a bit episodic (like The Martian Chronicles or Dandelion Wine) rather than one of his from point A to point B books (like Fahrenheit 451 or Something Wicked This Way Comes.) It's a very good book and probably a bit unfair in not being one of his key texts. Although it's also probably not the first suggestion I would point someone unfamiliar with Bradbury to (that would probably be Fahrenheit 451), personal experience will always put this book in a special place for me.

In the years that have followed, Bradbury has always been one of my top authors. I can see my whole shelf of his books from here. I hardly go six months without reading one of his short stories out loud to Laurie, whether she likes it or not. I've read a good deal of his published works which is no small task. Bradbury has given me a lot unawares over the years. He's given me a writing ethic. He's encouraged me to always wonder, always ask, and always relish. He's also shown me a bold optimism that I constantly fail miserably to live up to, but continue to try.
Also, he provided a tether, a sort of a lifeline, through my teen years when peers and life were beating the people around me into dullards, preserving wonder for my own future. A line that extends back from me sitting right here and now back to a nerdy young man walking off a college campus on a warm Orange County night with distant clouds in his eyes with perhaps an occasional hint of lightning in them.

"Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Walking Tour of Bidwell Park

If you're anything like me (and I know I am) there are days where you've finished your errands and you feel the strong pull to put on a sweater and go walk where there are trees. In Chico we are blessed enough by the great foresight of our forerunners to have one of the 25 largest municipal parks in the country. Carved out in the middle of town is Bidwell Park, named for John and Annie Bidwell, the latter of whom donated the land to the city in 1905 with the stipulation that the land be preserved (They were close friends with John Muir. If you see pictures from my wedding ceremony, the area behind our flowered trellis and communion altar is Annie's Glen, a picnic area of the park named for Annie Bidwell. In fact they've just completed an underground tunnel which extends beneath Mangrove Ave. which connects the park on the other side and Annie's Glen. We drive over it a few times a day and every time I think "Hey, I haven't checked that out yet.") For the most part, the city of Chico has mercifully followed Annie's wish to preserve the area.
I took a walk to clear my head and because I've been meaning to get there to photograph the trees for weeks. Ever since I've moved here I've meant to, starting sometime in the Spring, find a spot in the park to go at the same time every day and take a picture. The trees are phenomenal in Bidwell Park.
A good deal of my visit was spent thinking how much I really should be raking our yard instead. Which I'm still thinking right now.

I used to go to Upper Park several times a week when I first moved to Chico. Upper Park is far less wooded, but has trails that wrap up into the hilly wild lands. About an hour of hiking and one can easily imagine being the last human on Earth. You can go up the steep North Rim Trail around a cliff face and by the time you get to the other side you'll find that very few people have the endurance or desire to make it that far.

Over to the right of the North Rim area is the Bear Hole area which is a pooling area in the creek. People, mainly intoxicated people in their early 20s, go there to swim. I've hiked past it once. There actually is a hole in the rocks at the bottom of the pool, which is the actual Hole in Bear Hole. About once a year a drunk gets it in their head that they can swim through that hole and they die at the bottom of that pool. When I hiked past it, needless to say stone sober at the time, I could see the attraction. It really looks like something one could drive down and swim through with ease like some inland Siren calling to feed your life to the creek.

There's also an observatory which is open something odd like clear Thursday nights. It's a decent little observatory and it's out there and there are signs on the road going to it instructing you to please turn off your headlights when driving up at night. The observatory is a more recent addition next to Horseshoe Lake and the Rod and Gun Club building, but far enough from the golf course that the telescope really should never be in danger of being hit by stray golf balls. At least I've never heard of that happening but I suppose one ought not underestimate golfers.

One Mile is flat and much more like you would imagine a municipal park. There are picnic areas (although next to the trees, as you can see in this picture, everything man-made often looks absurd and toy-like next to the magnificent trees), at one point the creek was encased for a length in concrete back in the 1920s to form a pool (although the fish ladder didn't come until the 1950s) which for some reason Chico novices actually swim in (most people know that the several miles of upstream creek are often campground and, not to put too fine a point on it, also a toilet for indigents. I remember one rather graphic story about one of the major churches in town holding a massive baptism in One Mile and everyone being baptized got Giardia. One finds oneself struggling and apparently failing to not make a joke about the theological position of that church.)

I tend to walk behind the Caper Acres Children's Playground, which was built in 1970 and is a fenced play park which features castles and slides and Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall and a water fountain shaped like a lion and giant hunks of swiss cheese all made of concrete. They don't make play parks like that anymore where you can fall and hurt yourself and things are made of metal and I think we are all the poorer for it. I'm glad Caper Acres exists. Also on that path is the Campfire Boys and Girls Club Fire Pit, built in the the 1950s. The path goes toward the Freeway overpass which always makes me think that a really bitter battle was lost by someone at some point. Like a good deal of Chico, the overpass that passes through the park is one of the few parts of Bidwell Park I am of the opinion ought not be.

The 1930s Errol Flynn Robin Hood film was filmed in Bidwell Park. It's a hoot and a riot if you've never seen it. When they were filming, they built a building as sort of a dormitory for the actors (perhaps to regulate Flynn's movements and activities.) It's now the Youth With A Mission camp north of town. The road must be the original road and has never had a single pothole filled. I used to deliver there. It is the single worst road I've ever driven upon. The building is a wonderful pre-WWII "cabin" big enough to house dozens of people. Not to be crass, but I was always impressed that the bathrooms had all of their original fixtures and that, when using them, I was going somewhere that Errol Flynn went.

Sometimes I walk nearly all the way up to the Five Mile Area. One can take a nice forty minute stroll or one can take a four hour+ hike.

I cross the creek by the freeway overpass and go under. On the other side two roads diverge and I tend toward the unpaved one through the woods that's only wide enough to walk two abreast. Mountain bikes zip dangerously close to you. On the walk I realized about 10 minutes in that I not only had my camera on my person, but also one of the rare times I was carrying a large sum of cash for the business cards I'm having printed. One does hear stories of bad things happening in the park (although, as a testimony to our very good law enforcement community in Chico, I haven't heard any stories like that in a few years.) But sometimes there's something liberating about walking through a secluded area with a large sum of money and getting yourself to the place where you have no fear.

So often, if you go on the unpaved paths and especially on sparsely populated weekdays, you'll turn a corner to a scene that seems like you're likely to meet a hobbit at any moment.
You will also meet wildlife. You'll see hawks, woodpeckers, blue jays, sparrows and vultures instead of the pigeons you see in town. You may happen upon deer, squirrels, coyotes, abandoned cats, and even I am told on occasion in upper park, bears.
And there's a certain time of year when the caterpillars come out en masse.

Chico has a lot of iconic locations. While you see them every day you find if you live here for any length those locations start to become part of your life. The iconic Hotel Diamond is where we spent our wedding night. The alley behind is where, on Saturdays, our friend Augie gives yo-yo lessons out the back door of Bird in Hand. Big Al's, the 1960s burger joint where Laurie and I have probably eaten more often than any other eatery in Chico, is also where we had our rehearsal dinner. Not all of your memories may be good, but that's part of the benefits of iconic and enduring place. You can make new memories there as well.

The stump in this picture is where I sat when I proposed to Laurie.

I walk past it every time I walk in One Mile.

Here's what it looks like from the path. I proposed over on the right hand side. That was a nervous moment in both of our lives. I noticed the lovely yellow leaves on the tree behind it.

And, as is so often the case in natural settings, especially in the autumn, you'll suddenly find yourself facing something absolutely stunning. The yellow tree in the center of the picture stopped me in my tracks.

We have such a wonderful resource in Bidwell Park. When I go too long without partaking in this resource I feel as if I'm wasting a wonderful opportunity. Like being poor and desiring to read but never going to the library or being laid off and broke but not applying for unemployment benefits. We need to be out in the wild areas like this or our soul goes all wonky. We forget the important things. We forget to live. Bi-secting the middle of Chico is a vast reminder.

We need to remind ourselves, as we go around in our mad and dinky little lives, that somewhere all the while there are trees, there is a creek running, there are birds pecking trees and there probably still will be when all of your nonsense is finally over.
To me there is never a moment wasted in Bidwell Park.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Book Review- Liquor by Poppy Z. Brite

I've just had a wonderful reading experience that left me walking 4 inches above the pavement for the rest of the day. This has been a very good year for books for me, although I'm sure people are getting a little sick of each time I read a book hearing me say, "No, really, you must go right out right now and get this book and read it. No, don't stop to put pants on. Really." Poppy Z. Brite wrote a wonderful novel in 2003 (yes, I'm a little late to the party, but please do bear in mind that I recently reviewed a 160 year old book) called Liquor. It is a fantastic book and, yes, I think everyone should read it.

The story takes place in New Orleans. As usual I don't want to give away too much, but it revolves... mainly around a character named Rickey, although the Third Person's eye wanders to other major characters, and meanwhiles, and characters in the periphery, fleshing out the lives of the supporting characters as well. But I do think the story is mainly Rickey's journey; and it's a bit of a rite of passage into a fullness of person-hood story for him. It's mainly about Rickey and his partner G-Man's journey from being unemployed line cooks to opening their own restaurant. There are many problems and stumbling blocks along the way as one would expect (many of which are actually stumbled over.) There are a few conventions that in the hands of a lesser story teller might have grated on me. For example, there is a wealthy man who swoops in bleeding money early on, but the character is so well done, so well fleshed out, with sharp edges and history, vast plains of moral grey areas in his character, personal goals that benefit those who serve his desires and destroy those who are in his way, that his parts were actually some of my favorite parts of the book. The chapters that follow the antagonist are so well done taking us right into the brain and reasoning of a very creepy and ugly character. I marveled at how well that terrible little man's terrible little brain is expressed, especially as one comes to, at the very least, an understanding, if not empathy, for why he is the mess that he is. The book is dark and gritty and, occasionally, a bit gruesome, even a bit on the macho side although not in a contrived way, but it really has the feeling of a walking tour or a well made documentary more than a novel. It was incredible in the narrative's plausibility.

There are many side notes about "a guy who..." or glimpses into the thoughts of the guy who owns the bar in the middle of the book, or regional bits about what the high school a local went to says about them to other locals. On a strictly technical level, you don't really need to know these things for the sake of forwarding the story, but it by no means detracts, and really makes the world so much richer. So, in a way, and I think Brite must have been fully aware of this, these seemingly throw-away side bits are absolutely essential to the story. Again, much like I said about Kiernan's, The Red Tree, while on the surface there seem to be digressions, I ardently feel that not a word was wasted. It all flavors the tone, which is of the essence. One of my favorite side bits, the guy in the family run fine dining grocery supply store who finds great joy in researching and relating encyclopedic knowledge about the items they sell. Fantastic. If anything, one of the most interesting characters in the book is the third person narrator, which is to say, Brite herself.

Having worked in produce delivery, I was very much reminded of some of the fine dining kitchens I've witnessed - the fevered pace, the high emotions, the tendency to be working with people who either love one another closer than family or always want to kill one another (and sometimes they do), the foul language and rampant vice. There's a stark honesty in the world of kitchens. Two of the characters put me in mind of two men I knew in those days so much that my brain, actually quite by subconscious, cast them as those characters. Lenny, in my brain, was one of the chef's of Johnnie's in the Hotel Diamond, except with hair. She really does take you into the restaurant kitchen. The book should serve to further ignite foodies and create new ones. It's the perfect example of a modern novelist at full command of her craft.

I haven't followed her career too closely, and Liquor was one I've meant to read, but hadn't, for six years now. I was the poorer unawares. Brite first appeared on my reading radar when I was in high school with her novel, Lost Souls. I read it while I was in high school and, while I can still recall a few scenes from it, which speaks to her capability as a writer even then, in all honesty I have no interest in her earlier horror work anymore.

Liquor is kind of her Swordfishtrombones album or her Stardust Memories in that she had established herself in a genre and then began with Liquor writing books distinctly not in that genre at all. Suddenly from one book to the next it was in an entirely different gear. Although I'm not sure that's entirely correct. There was apparently a book called The Value of X, which follows some of the major characters chronologically before Liquor which I believe came out first. Next in the series is Prime and then Soul Kitchen. Series is probably the wrong term for me to use as this and, as I understand it, each of them stands on its own as a book, and while some of the characters recur one does not need to have read anything else by her to fully enjoy this book as a work of art. There is word that there are three more to come; although through a quick wiki-search I see that Brite has declared a writing hiatus.

Something I do not understand is why this novel was not her breakthrough. Or, rather, I assume it wasn't from my experience. I have no idea why everyone isn't reading this and why, instead, they are reading the sort of things they seem to be reading (or are at the very least buying new. It occurs to me that people may not be reading at all. Gatsby's so clever he's even cut the pages!) I finished reading and ran right out, while my copy of Liquor was still warm from my hands, to buy Prime. I'm in a large college town and could not find a copy. Nor could I find a copy of anything besides Liquor by her. It really should not be that I bought my copy new from the major chain bookstore's shelf in 2009 and it was a first edition from 2003. That alone was a bit of a shock into awareness that reading in America, or at the very least in Chico, is in a bad way in this particular period of history.
Finally I ordered Prime from Lyon Books, the local new bookstore, but I was struck by how much crap is readily available while something like this is a challenge to find. This ought not be. I would highly encourage everyone reading this not only to purchase yourself up a copy, but also to harangue your nearest bookseller for not having her books in stock.

Of course, all of that should change now as I officially award the book the Paul Mathers Award of Literary Merit which further editions can put the little medallion on the cover. You all know the P.M.A.L.M is awarded to books that I think everyone should read and should be in print indefinitely. You also all know that so far the award has caught on with nobody, but that's not going to stop me from giving it out.

Personally I think Liquor is one of the better novels I've read in years. And I say that even after some of the recent novels I've been gushing over on this blog. It is as good as books in the contemporary novel form get. While it's not reinventing the form in any way, I do think I very well may have just finished a contemporary novel that will be read hundreds of years from now. I do not say that often or lightly. I also think the book could potentially have a profound effect on you. I think it could awaken a strong desire for you to cook, to visit New Orleans, to open a restaurant or to decidedly never want to open a restaurant.

I do hope that Brite does not take a very long hiatus. In fact I hope her next one is released right around the time I've caught up with these books I've only just discovered. Regardless of what happens in the future, Poppy Z. Brite has written a fine novel in Liquor.