Sunday, June 26, 2011

Summer Reading Update- A Surprise Upset

So, there's been an amendment to my summer reading list.  I am now anticipating getting through only one or two of the Harvard Classics titles this summer and it's not because I've found anything more interesting that I would rather be reading.  It is very rare that I will put aside a book and very rare that I will take a hiatus on a reading project.  St. Augustine has done it.

It doesn't help that everyone I talk to confirms my feelings.  "Like trying to eat a sweater", "dour", "self-flaggelation masking self-induglence", "great only in short quotes" are some of the phrases people around me who have also read St. Augustine have said in the past week as I aired my frustration.  I suppose it also doesn't help that I'm just coming out of the past year where I feel that I am to religion what Timothy Treadwell was to grizzly bears.  And it furthermore does not help that I am assured by reliable sources that reading the next title in the series, one by Thomas à Kempis, is a similar reading experience.

I always think this time is going to be different with me reading great works of Christian literature, but then I always end up fleeing back to dark, bleak Germanic philosophers.  I worry about what that says about me.  It fills me with ennui and makes me feel so disconnected from the world... wait, I'm doing it again, aren't I?

First of all, I have experienced no discernible edification from having read Augustine.  I am halfway through and while I can empathize with a few experiences that he relates and it did give me a reason to go study up on Manicheanism, I am otherwise at a loss for any take-away.  Maybe the pay-off is coming, but I am assured that it is not.  Second, it is one of the rare times in my life when a book has completely taken the steam out of my reading habits.  I sit refreshing Facebook while Augustine is on the shelf next to me.  It's terrible and something must be done.

I will continue with and finish the Harvard Classics series.  I am determined that I will make it through this series or die trying.  But I have decided to take Augustine in very small bites (perhaps a few pages a day.)  I have also decided to get my groove back with one of my favorite books, which is Death in Venice by Thomas Mann.  It's a book that Mann described as being about the "voluptuousness of doom."  It is a wonderful book about human nature, aging, love, beauty, truth, mortality, fear, and propriety.  It is a joy to read and I would recommend it to anyone.  In fact, after I closed my used book business, I kept all of the copies of it to give away like some twisted version of the Gideons.

So, there's my turgid little announcement.  Thank you for letting me vent.


Monday, June 20, 2011

Let's All Write Some Blank Verse!

Blank verse is one of those emergent forms that pushed a change in consciousness to some extent.  Of course, the percentage of the world aware of the emergence of blank verse in English language poetry was (and I daresay remains) relatively small, but the effects were far-reaching and abiding.  Prior to the mid-1500s, people expected poetry to rhyme.  As I mentioned in my Paradise Lost post, Milton famously had to include a preface to the original edition defending and explaining the blank verse contained within. 

You know, I've been thinking about our own accelerated culture and this particular advance in Western thought to see if I could come up with a parallel.  I contend that in my lifetime I have witnessed a similar shift in cinematography.  Over 20 years ago, a camera that shook or ran or focused oddly was considered poor camera work.  In my lifetime I've watched the lo-fi revolution of camera work in places like Homicide: Life on the Street or famously The Blair Witch Project or more recently Cloverfield.  I quickly noticed other (arguably lesser) works in arts and entertainment adopting the style.  It's sort of the style of the POV of someone who has just run down the block and into the room where the action is taking place, focusing where they can, but also attempting to catch their breath.  Very effective in drawing the audience into the dramatic tension.  Which saves on hiring good actors I suppose.  But what leads me to make the comparison is the accusation, which I heard leveled by critics against all three of those pieces I mentioned, that the movement of the camera will make an audience member vomit.  I am not hearing a lot of reports of people vomiting while watching this sort of camera work.  We've been inoculated by these early pieces employing those techniques.

Blank verse usually had five major stresses or emphases in each line.  I usually struggle with not translating that to mean "syllables" in my mind.  The lines, as I've said, did not end in rhyme.  This is one of those forms that intimidate me, much like Brahms experienced in writing his symphonies, because of the heavyweights who mastered the form so early on.  I speak now of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.  They gave the form wings.

Speaking of poor camera work, Laurie was at work when I recorded this, so it is extraordinarily grainy, there is no movement of the camera, I stand in the doorway to my office, and you get to see me push the stop button at the end.  The piece is from Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe.  It is Faustus' lament over his impending damnation.

As for my own piece in this form, I thought I would tend toward the dramatic in a hat doff to those magnificent Elizabethan playwrights.  I think I've mentioned before that I am currently working on writing my third play.  So often I find it to be the case that one of the many manifestations of distractions in the creative process comes in the form of coming up with other, possibly more immediately attractive ideas while you're still trying to write the thing that you are currently writing.  I already have an idea for my fourth play.  I seem to write about the tragedy of ubiquitous marginalization in our society and while the one I'm currently working on is filled with kinetic action, the next one is looking more like a dialogue driven play.   

So, as a thought-experiment and a bit of preparatory work, I thought I would write a monologue from that fourth play (which doesn't yet exist outside of my brain.)  I thought about setting up the monologue, but I think I'll leave the content up to your imagination.  I find it best to keep creative cards close to my chest up until the first draft is completed.  But this is a monologue that the middle aged, working class intellectual, married, neurotic Andre (me) is giving to the character of Evren, with all of her problems and neurosis, in an attempt to encourage the younger character through a time of great tribulation in her life.  We shan't get into specifics at this time.  You can find out more by waiting a year or so until I write it (and, hopefully needless to say, the actual play shall not be written in blank verse.)  This is what I've come up with:

Discerning an emerging narrative,
I offer some unsolicited advice.
I doubt what I have to say will be new,
But I feel that encouragement is always healthy.
This life is so lonely, harsh and brief.
I should like to always tread kindly.

My own hometown is full of horrid memories.
They are pieces of my own biography
over which I had no control.
Being at the helm of my own life now,
I have no intention of allowing them
to comprise the self that has mutated.

The self is like unto interior design.
It is a job which is never complete.
Even after death we continue to grow.
If one can mine joy from self-creation,
it is a joy that cannot be taken from one
in the darkest prison nor splendid palace.
They cannot touch inside our minds, Evren.
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Eternal Seductiveness of Life

It's been nearly half a decade that we've owned this house.  One of the greatest pleasures and, in my opinion, arguments for home-ownership (now that we've collectively scuttled the "good investment" aspect) is the ability to garden.  Before we purchased this house, I spent many years with little pots and flowerboxes in windows of rented space.  Now I have an entire yard.

We have a mandarin tree, lavender, geraniums, hydrangeas, a whiskey barrel of mint, one of cilantro, a tulip tree, an olive tree, an evergreen, and several oaks which were planted haphazardly by squirrels.  We are very fond of flora and I find gardening to be one of life's great pleasures in which the divine is reflected in our toils.

But for years I've wanted fuchsia.  My grandmother has a profuse fuschia bush next to her home in Orange County.  It's been there for as long as I can remember (I would wager it's been there longer than I would be able to remember) and I've sort of imagined always having that particular flower in my life as a floral motif.  They are so vivid and such a lovely color combination.  But we've tried several times to transplant a cutting from my grandmother, only to arrive home (after a 9 hour drive) with a dead branch.

Tomorrow (perhaps apropos in also being Bloomsday) is Laurie and my 4 year anniversary and I finally decided to bring home a healthy pot of fuchsia in hopes of cultivating it into a mainstay in our yard.  Being a tropical plant, I worry a bit about the cold winters although I am given to understand that fuchsia has been known to flourish (as it were) as far north as England and regenerate after the harsh winters.

We shall see.  It is currently planted in a hanging pot on our front porch.  Wish me luck.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Summer Reading 2011

Taking a cue from my virtual friend Mixtapes and Cupcakes, I thought I might do a post about summer reading (now that the weather and the calendar seem to have finally come to a consensus.)  Specifically, I thought I would post a bit about what I shall be reading this summer, followed by a short list of summer reading recommendations for hypothetical people who are interested in such things.

The books pictured above are my own summer reading, not what I am suggesting for others specifically.  Although it's always nice to have people read along with me, I won't suggest things I haven't finished reading yet.

Of course, I forge ahead with the Harvard Classics Library.  The current volume turns its attention to early Christian writings.  I am currently reading The Confessions of Saint Augustine and next up I have The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis.  The next volume of the Harvard Classics looks like this:
VIII. Agamemnon, The Libation-Bearers, The Furies and Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus
Oedipus the King and Antigone of Sophocles
Hippolytus and The Bacchæ of Euripides
The Frogs of Aristophanes
I may skip Oedipus as I read it about a year ago.  The non-Harvard Classics title which I plan to read this summer is The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  My father recommended it to me on the phone the other day and, as fortune would have it, it had already been sitting on my "to read" pile for a few months.  So, it is my intention to get to it this summer, possibly over our vacation (although it looks like our vacation calendar is rapidly filling with Shakespeare, art museums, and meals with loved ones.  I'm not sure how much reading I'll get done on our trip.)  Realistically, this will most likely take me up to the time of year when the college students are coming back into town, so that is my summer reading list.

I am given to understand that the concept behind "Summer Reading" is similar to the concept of summer dining.  One doesn't take sauerkraut and sausage to a light, white wine and salad beach party and, I would dare to speculate, not a whole lot of people sunbathing down the California coast are going to be laying out on the towel with The Gulag Archipelago.  I am not sure the list above is a Summer Reading list so much as the books I happen to be reading in the season of summer this year.  So, I thought I might make a short list of suggestions for those who are interested in a suggested Summer Reading list.  Here is something light, something dark, something modern, an abyss of a book, and a poetry selection.

The Best of Wodehouse: An Anthology - I think P.G. Wodehouse is the very picture of summer reading: light, smart, compelling, and highly entertaining.  He may be most famous for his Jeeves character and I would say rightly so.  I recommend Wodehouse to anyone and this is a good starting point.

Murder of Angels  - Long time readers of this blog know that I've been beating the Caitlin R. Kiernan drum for many years (probably close to a decade now.)  I still think she is one of the best contemporary authors.  Murder of Angels is, in my opinion, her best work and a great place to start.  I do need to state that her work is exceedingly dark, so please do be prepared for that.  But it is a rip-roaring good summer book for those who like books that grab them by the throat.  I would also add that Amazon seems to currently have this title on extreme sale, so this would be a good time to get it.  Let me say in no uncertain terms, it is a wonderful book.

Nightwood (New Edition)  - Nightwood is one of those books that sticks in my mind long after I've read it, turning it over and over like a stone in my hand that I got from a creek-bed.  It is a dreamlike, modernist narrative.  The language is luscious and heady.   I was first turned onto the book by this article by Siri Hustvedt in which she recalls her strange history with the book and interaction with the author.  I was especially grabbed by the description of copious underlinings and margin notes and, indeed, I found it to be a book, although only about 200 pages, in which one can swim for months.  Highly, highly recommended.  One of the grossly underrated modern masterpieces.

House of Leaves - And speaking of modern masterpieces in which one can swim for months, House of Leaves is one of those books which transforms the reader.  The narrative within starts to seep into the life of the reader and lines between fiction and reality get a little blurry.  I do not exaggerate to say that it is one of the best books of the past 20 years and that everyone should read it.  It also happens to be a rollicking good read.

Letters to Guns - Brendan Constantine is a friend of mine, but I include this selection in this list because he is also one of the best contemporary American poets.  And I'm just going to cut and paste the Amazon product description for this book:

Letters To Guns represents a collection of poems that examine the para-physical natures of love and history, at times re-imagining both. As the poems progress, eight letters arrive written by non-human addressees (a nightgown, a grove of trees, a wooden spoon, others) at random points over the last 2,200 years. They are messages from home and pleas for understanding, warnings and promises of change. These in turn ignite other poems and themes which anticipate the next arrival. Taken together, the letters form an armature, a living skeleton fleshed by real and metaphenomenal experience. Throughout, a variety of styles appear and no single approach to poetry pervades. Singly, these poems should challenge and entertain. As a group they must transform and evolve our experience of sitting down with a book of poems.
So, that should give some of you a lovely summer's worth of reading.  Good Summer to you and happy reading.