Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Books 11 and 12 of 2018

Shirley Jackson is the best. If you drew a triangle with Edith Wharton and Flannery O'Conner and Dorothy West at the three points and muttered an arcane incantation Shirley Jackson would pop up in the triangle like in the window of a Magic 8 Ball.

Her stories are often witty and acerbically so, critical of social mores and hypocrisy in a most delightfully precise manner. Distasteful characters are deflated and humiliated. Most often there is a supernatural twist of the sort later associated with Rod Serling. I was pleased to note that a few stories in here are thematically similar to The Haunting of Hill House, which is my favorite novel of all time, and the one I've re-read most often.

I recommend this tight little volume. Some guffaws, some gasps, some grins.

Read this as part of a graduate course on Greek History. I'm taking it in a rush to try and get another few credits to prevent my teacher certificate from expiring in June.

This is a breezy series of lectures about Greek History from the Minoans forward to the Hellenic Period. There are interesting asides about archaeology vs. myth vs. contemporary accounts.

I found it mostly valuable as a refresher in all that shit I read in Herodotus 25 years ago. If you've not read Herodotus, read him first, and then 25 years from now listen to this to remind yourself what you learned. But if you don't intend to ever read Herodotus, and want to know about the Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian Wars and Alexander and all that jazz, then just go ahead and listen to this now.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Books 9 and 10 of 2018

Denis Johnson has passed away. While he was in the process of dying he composed some final stories which feature characters who ruminate largely on mortality and dying. Or at least on finding ways to kill time while waiting for death to arrive.

If you have loved Denis Johnson stories in the past--for example the collection Jesus' Son: Stories, which first caught my eye 25 years ago when I was Literature Department Bookseller at Borders Books & Music store 043 in Towson, MD--then you should definitely get this as a worthy final chapter in the work of a fine writer.

The stories are reminiscent of Cheever, or Carver, or even Sherwood Anderson. They have a thin veneer of middle-class suburban respectability belied by derangement and perversion, obsession and addiction. But there is a deep empathy for the misguided and lost souls in his work, along the lines of George Saunders. And though his work can shock or disgust, often the jolts are hilarious.

I read in this breezy esoteric rumination that Jupiter is the potential Sun of a new solar system, where certain advanced souls who've progressed beyond Earthly re-incarnation gather in order to work out their final karmic debts before becoming a glowing manifestation of perfection similar to our Sun. I've read this idea in Ouspensky as well, and of course if you've seen Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, you are also somewhat familiar with this ancient teaching.

I was of course fascinated to learn that Guatama Buddha has reincarnated on Mars in order to fulfill the Christ mission for its denizens. And that St. Francis is there to help him.

Steiner only achieved access to this knowledge by following Goethe's methods of scientific observation: ie, trying to meditate on plants and seeds until their true impulse was revealed. Soon he was visited by a representative of an esoteric order who initiated him into the Temple and allowed him access to the Reader's Digest Condensed Akhasic Records.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Books 7 and 8 of 2018

Volume 2 is just as satisfying as Volume 1--of course this fantasy/sci-fi series fits the mold of all the fantasy sci-fi series I've read. Essun has powers she half-understands (think Thomas Covenant or Frodo or Paul Atreides) and must take what she can from teachers who either want to control her her kill her or mislead or manipulate her. She is a member of a mutant class of humans who are despised despite having skills necessary to humanity's survival.

The Earth suffers continuous geological upheavals because its moon has been cast into a long elliptical orbit. Earth is pissed about this loss, and tries repeatedly to destroy humans as a result--apparently in the distant past the moon was cast away by the reckless use of magic/science, and Essun and her allies are trying to figure it out.

But her daughter Nassun might be the kwisatz hederach of Earth...will she become the God Empress of Dune (I mean Earth) and restore the moon, or will the Earth succeed in wiping out all humans except for the monstrous stone eaters?

I look forward to finding out in volume 3.

Clever, funny, and charming short stories in intermediate French. They follow a classic Twilight Zone model, with surprise twists sometimes involving supernatural elements. Would be useful for a French 3 class or above if you are a teacher, or a good way to rebuild long lost French literacy skills. About 13 years ago I was reading de Beauvoir and Sartre and Leiris in the original I'm back to rebuilding again, and this was an engaging place to start!

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Book #6 of 2018

Reveals the dastardly machinations of an array of sordid operators who exacerbated and profited from racial divisions in Baltimore City and County. Political machines, bookies, loan sharks, hustlers, lawyers, accountants, future City Councilmen and even a future Vice President of the United States--all had a stake in stoking racial divisions for profit whether fiscal or electoral (or both). There was a lot of indignant embarrassment among residents of Baltimore County recently when Dallas Dance went down for corruption and covering it up. But read Pietila on the routine and profound corruption of Baltimore County leadership at all levels--on a level that even the City couldn't match at the time--up into the 70's and Dance seems a quaint and unworthy throwback to those good old days of truly astounding graft. It was the district where Spirow Agnew launched his political career after all...though most of the corruption was centered in the old Democratic Party machine.

The cast of characters is astonishing. Many are crooks and charlatans who have a genuine drive to desegretate the City by moving Black families into Jewish or white enclaves, but who profit heavily on "blockbusting" techniques while challenging redlined disctricts. Moral ambiguity abounds as some villains prove more empathetic than others.

But there is also plenty of downright acid racism and appalling degrees of hate, often saturating all local civic and public institutions, be they fiscal, secular, religious, cultural, or educational. This history is shameful but deeply fascinating in a city with a long history of economic, cultural, religious and racial diversity. Baltimore, as site of the first bloodshed of the Civil War, and as the hometown and burial place of John Wilkes Booth, serves as an interesting microcosm of the evolution of the civil rights movement and of racial attitudes and relations over the past 150 years.

The book is most entertaining as a rich historical record of race relations and realities in Baltimore from the industrial revolution on. Pietila tells good stories and evokes place and character well. It was fun to read his sympathetic and engaging accounts of people I knew little or nothing about and neighborhoods I know quite well. I recommend Not in My Neighborhood strongly as an indispensible work of popular history by someone with obvious expertise about the city,its past, and its national significance.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Books 4 and 5 of 2018

Taschen has produced hundreds of really well-done art and photography collections over the years. These volumes are high-quality in binding and the reproductions are exceptional--and they are amazingly affordable!

This collection keeps the Taschen standard of quality, and may be my favorite (after, of course, the lavish Butt Book). There is little text, but what there is illuminates the images thoughtfully with quotes from novels, poetry, plays, and hermetic manuscripts. James Joyce and William Blake share space with Basil Valentine and Dr. John Dee and Carl Jung. Occasionally there is commentary by the author/editor who appears to be an Adept or Sage given the wisdom of his guidance to those of us on the Path.

A volume worthy for either the curious dabbler who thinks occult or hermetic art is "cool" or for the serious seeker trying to uncover the hidden Truths.

As a Humanities teacher who works with middle graders in urban schools, I think this book is a great potential anchor text for teaching current events and historical trends in civil rights and "post-racial" America. The characters are not deep--they are types, and at times the dialogue is simply lame (putting "dawg" every sentence is just too much)--but the story is compelling, the issues are real, and I could envision teaching an entire unit about BLM and Martin and Malcolm and all of the recent police-involved tragedies with unarmed Black men using this novel as an engaging centerpiece. Nic Stone presents several points of view and it would be fun to read with a class and have Socratic Seminars after each couple chapters while learning the historical context and then researching the actual events re-hashed in this novel. The media spin on these cases is a key component of the novel, and any "woke" teacher whose kids are becoming "woke" would find something useful here.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Book #3 of 2018

A very satisfying epic sci-fi/fantasy series kick-off. Reminiscent, in richness of setting and imagination, of Dune, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Riverworld, and the Saga of Pleistocene Exile, just to name a few of my faves from back in the day when I used to read these things much more often. The novel is structured in a very clever manner, akin to Cloud Atlas, and has a feel and sensibility similar to the furthest future in that excellent novel.

Now I'm embroiled suddenly in two sci-fi/fantasy series at once: Octavia E. Butler on the one hand and N.K. Jemisin on the other. Should I read Adulthood Rites or The Obelisk Gate next? I'm hooked on each.

Friday, March 02, 2018

The Play's the Thing...

Water in a Broken Glass - Trailer from Lodge Street Films on Vimeo.

Last night Patricia and I went to the historic Senator Theater to see the premier of Water in a Broken Glass. We were invited because our home on Madison Ave in Baltimore was chosen as location for several scenes in the film. The director found photos of the house on AirBNB and immediately contacted us. She rented the bottom two floors for 4 days...our TV room became the dressing room/makeup room, our dining room was the mess area, our kitchen was the equipment space. And our living room and 2nd bedroom became a central character's house.

The opening was PACKED. I haven't seen the Senator that jammed with people since those midnight showings of the Lord of the Rings movies. They had the restored lobby bar open. Everyone was dressed to the nines and getting photographed in front of Art Deco fixtures and a giant vinyl wall hanging with sponsors' logos and the movie title in a repeating pattern.

A bit more than midway through the movie the main character pulls up to our house, parks next to our neighbor's VW, and gets out and knocks on our door. But we don't answer at "our" house. The "owner" lets her in.

It was a peculiar and mildly unsettling experience to see our house--our belongings, our furniture--on screen at the Senator. There was our art work--stuff by Matt Muirhead, Sogh, Lance Moore. There were my knick-knacks. My bookcases full of art books and history tomes, and objects from our travels. The Chinese papier-mache painted cabinet found in Singapore, the pottery from Honduras. The Ifugao blanket from Banaue. Our mid-century throwback SCAN furniture. And in the film none of it is "mine" or "ours," but rather "hers"--it all belongs to the character Satin, who owns a bookstore on "The Avenue," but not really on The Avenue. Satin "owns" our house. But Satin's house is somewhat different. She had rearranged some of "our" art. Satin had taken other works down and replaced them with her own. Our ironing board gets screen time. And (spoiler) Satin has sex in our bed, though at the time it was our AirBNB suite's bed..and after 3 three years of AirBNB and hundreds of guests, Satin was not the first to do so. The stagers replaced several ceiling bulbs with purple bulbs for the movie, and it looked kind of cool with the period Victorian wall colors. (I remember spending a Saturday replacing our stuff after the stagers from the film crew had mis-replaced a bunch of it).

Adding a strong nostalgic and somewhat melancholic tinge to the peculiarity of seeing our house and stuff associated with a film character on a big screen, was the fact that the house is vacant now and up for sale. All the colorful Victorian era wall paint is covered up in a generic bright gray, much of the furniture has been sold or donated, and we are currently preparing to sell, donate, and store even more of it. Last year we left that house and down-sized in preparation for an upcoming move. And seeing how beautiful our home looked on screen, and hearing people in the audience commenting about it, and knowing it is no longer like that at all--that the house which was real at the time it was used in this fiction, has in fact become past that only exists now in that film as "Satin's" house--it was all made even stranger by that reality.

The main character hangs out on a bench in Druid Hill Park next to cherry trees. That bench and those trees are now gone as the Park is being renovated substantially. So that Park is now also a fiction, or a past recorded in a fiction.

So while the date-movie love-triangle story washed over me, I was thinking about how happy we were in that place, in that neighborhood, and at that time. What a great palace we had. And Satin is lucky to live there.

Last summer, Single Carrot Theater did a show called Promenade. Patricia and our next door neighbor and several other people from the neighborhood participated in the creation of the show by telling their stories about Baltimore or their neighborhood. As these stories played on headphones, the spectators rode a bus around different neighborhoods in the City. The bus stopped several times for perfectly-timed, finely executed little vignettes to happen on the street. Several extended segments of the audio were my wife and my next-door neighbor telling stories. I heard the local rabbi telling a story. While I was listening to this I was in a bus next to my wife and the rabbi and our next door neighbor were on the bus as well. As I listened to them on tape--as all the spectators did--they also listened to themselves telling stories on tape as part of a performance. Outside the bus window, the City had become a stage where actors were performing on the street right next to "real" people, who often walked through a scene, or stopped to watch because to them there was no way to know this was a show with a bus-full of spectators watching from the parked bus. And watching my own shit on screen at the Senator in a setting which no longer exists was very similar to sitting next to my wife as we watched a theater piece featuring my wife speaking on tape while I was sitting in a bus with her going past our house where actors were acting all makes me wonder if any layer of this Philip K. Dick shit I experience all the time is actually real? At one point in Promenade the bus pulled into a vacant lot and a flash mob of green-shirted people wearing visors ran over and simultaneously washed every window on the bus while staring blankly into the eyes of the spectators. As if to say "this is not a stage, not a fiction, but perhaps you need to see more clearly what is happening."

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Book 2 of 2018

Sometimes I miss working in the book industry. I'll stop simply meandering through whatever books I happen to have decided to read, and suddenly I'll choose to read a buzz book--something that's hot and current. The kind of book I miss because I'm not stacking it in mass quantities on a table or end cap display, and because I don't listen to NPR or watch C-SPAN book shows anymore.

And THIS? THIS is a hot book? THIS?

Synopsis: A whiny, entitled, pseudo-intellectual European dripping with privilege sets about recording his youth and young adulthood and how banal and empty everything is, except for exposure to some art, music, and writing. Everyone is fake and meaningless. We all inhabit a bleak Bergman film where the characters each get to shred themselves and their personae in 15-minute monologues filmed in stark black-and-white close-ups. He calls his work what Hitler called his work in order to underscore some devastating truths or realizations which actually never materialize in the text.

The suburbs are soul-sucking. The middle class are adrift and alienated from their labor, their families, and nature. The death of God and tradition has been replaced with the ascendance of death and materialism unto death.


MY struggle was getting through this monstrosity. And yet there are some quite good passages, passages where Karl Ove is really honest and his writing (in translation) has conveyed a common experience of our era in an interesting way.

But there's not enough there here. And more volumes? Really? FOUR more? Oh hell no...