‘Burr’ By Gore Vidal

Vidal signed my copy of his early novel, The Judgment of Paris, at the West Hollywood Book Festival some ten years ago. I read it, enjoyed it, but did not give him much more thought.

When The Best of Enemies, about the 1968 Buckley-Vidal debatescame out, I rushed to see it with a friend at the E Street Theater downtown and, for the first time, saw Vidal as a monumental figure.

But, in a way like Christopher Hitchens (who had a fraught relationship with Vidal), you wonder whether there will be any cultural memory of him twenty years after his death. Will his books and essays be read?

So, I decided to read one of his most famous (and best reviewed) novels, Burr.

Will Burr last?

Maybe. Yes. No.

A little, is probably the best answer. Much better than middlebrow (midcult?), but a shade below masterpiece or classic. It’s far, far, far, far, far, far better than Gone With the Wind, but I can see it having a similar lifespan. Mitchell’s novel has maintained an incredible cultural cachet and readership over the years, but is, I think, finally fading (mainly because it is unreconstructed claptrap).

But the real novel in question.

The character of Aaron Burr himself is a fantastic creation and the novel acts as a fantastic apology/redemption for the figure. For those who don’t the story of the novel, a man named Charles Schuyler finds himself becoming the biographer – or, really, the scribe for a memoir – of Burr. The novel jumps between first person sections from Schuyler’s perspective on his own life in New York City in the 1830s and then first person sections from Burr’s perspective, narrating major parts of his history (and, necessarily, the founding of America).

Based on my own (admittedly slight) readings of original texts from the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Vidal has a nice sense of an earthy, pre-Victorian mindset for Burr (though it’s still a modern novel; also, thankfully, with regular and recognizable spelling) – less so for Schuyler. His Burr’s depiction of a craven, political Thomas Jefferson is as frighteningly hilarious as his thin-skinned, conniving, and barely competent George Washington.

American history during this period is not really my forte and I’m not going to act as judge on much of the accuracy of this – I just don’t know enough of Revolutionary and early post-Revolutionary American history to stand in judgment – and I know enough about Vidal to believe that, even if he would fudge for literary reasons, he did voluminous research. It’s certainly not news to say that Vidal is deliberately revisionist, in the sense of changing how we view the sacred icons of our founding fathers.

I have read that Vidal’s so-called ‘Narratives of Empire’ (of which this was the first book) is intended to show the evolution of America into an empire, but Burr ultimately feels elegiac. You could say an elegy for a dream lost to dreams of empire, but that’s not what it feels like to me. Schuyler missed the Revolutionary War and is somewhat in between epochs. Around long enough to hear the myths and truths of a great age, but not old enough to have experienced it.


‘Elective Affinities’ By Goethe

I found this book in a used bookstore in Singapore and first heard of it from the great French film, Jules et Jim. But all you can ever find of Goethe in America, if you can find anything at all, is The Sorrows of Young Werther and (maybe) Faustus.

I can’t believe it’s not more widely read. It’s got a strong current of sexy running through it and it’s relatively short. In some ways, it reminds me of J.K. Huysmans’ The Cathedral, except it’s digressions are not so much philosophical-theological as philosophical-psychological and about gardens and landscape, rather than the great cathedral at Chartres.

Basically, there is a couple, previously married, but in love for years, who married each other after their first spouses died. They seem happy, but then some other feelings interfere, when the husband, Eduard, invites his friend, ‘The Captain’ (later, ‘The Major;’ and never given a proper name) to stay with him and Charlotte in their country house. Charlotte invites Ottile, her ward (semi-adopted to be a companion to her daughter from her first marriage).

Charlotte and the Captain fall in love over their shared love (though differing philosophies) of landscaping. He leaves so as not to break up the marriage.

Meanwhile, Eduard falls passionately in love with young Ottile.

Where it gets tricky for the modern reader is that Eduard is clearly showing signs of being an abusive type. Possessive and manipulative and childish. It’s actually kind of scary and you worry that he will actually be granted a divorce and marry the poor girl. The fact that he hardly seems to care or be discouraged by the fact that Charlotte gives birth to his son while he’s sulking in a country cottage far away is not a good sign.

I would love to keep this book, but it’s got some mold or mildew on it (Singapore is pretty tropical) and my throat gets itchy when I read it, which is too bad.

It’s A Mystery!

…was the corny name of a fun little event put on by WETA, one of our local public radio and television stations. Professor Rebecca Boylan from Georgetown spoke about (primarily) British mysteries and the distinction between truth and justice, insider and outsider, etc.

It wasn’t as academic as I would have liked, but she did talk about three philosophical ‘truth theories’ and how various detectives use them to reach the ‘truth.’

First was the correspondence theory, which is building relationships or correspondences between facts to arrive at the truth. She mentioned Wallander of the detective show (and books) of the same name, though the classic Sherlock Holmes would have been a more obvious one, I think.

Secondly was the coherence model, which is less observational and more introspective; more about building a internally consistent model for the truth, for which the models were Luther (love Luther!) and Poirot.

Finally, was the pragmatic model, which was less about absolute ‘truth,’ than what worked.

Also, a neat and counter intuitive comparison of Luther and Morse, with Luther posited as the urban Morse and both being primarily representatives of the detective as outsider.

And they gave me this cool mug!

‘Beating Again’

At least that’s what they called it on Netflix. Because I got mildly obsessed and did some googling, I gather that the Korean title would translate to Falling for Innocence (the lead character’s name, Soon-Jung, translates to ‘Innocence;’ or it doesn’t, because we can’t fully rule out the possibility that there is an elaborate con out there, run by the internet equivalent of a Korean Cartesian demon, to make me think that is a better translation of the title, when actually the ‘real’ title [if this is, in the Korean Cartesian demon world, even a real show] is actually something about bananas and giraffes and a three legged tree-climbing, Moroccan goat).

I have a bit of a pattern of getting into silly soaps, especially when my better half is away, as she has been for the last four months.

As much as I loved the show, staying up late and showing up sleepy to work in order to binge watch, it’s also highly problematic in its treatment of women. Without going into great detail, an evil corporate raider falls in love with a secretary and switches sides to save the company. There was a slight stigma against relations between secretaries and management, but only slight. That wasn’t the bothersome part; what ate at me was the constant assumption that a man must always be in the superior role in the workplace. Whenever there was an opening for a senior position at one of the corporate interests, a woman was never considered. Sure, she could wield some power through her institutional knowledge, but never was it even conceived during the show that a woman could be in charge. The male lead was upset because his father had founded the company, but his uncle and others had summarily kicked his father out. But Soon-Jung’s father had been a vice-president of the company and while the guy grows up to be a big time exec with a financial firm, she grows up to be a secretary in the same company where her father was been VP. Where’s the nepotism? At the very end, there was  beautiful moment when the writers could have down a twist and made her CEO (while still keeping the happy ending that I desperately wanted, and which I still got, but with a side of male privilege), but… I was about the write ‘they balked,’ but they didn’t, did they? They didn’t balk, because it didn’t even cross their mind.

But here’s the theme song anyway:

The Sunday Paper – Kung Fu!

14.-D.A.-Jasper_Two-Champions-of-Death-652x1024Did you know that there was a tradition in Africa of hand painted posters for martial arts movies? Me neither. But now I want one.

Reinventing Shakespeare(‘s book covers).

The Etruscan language is nearly lost and much of their culture a mystery, so, while this stele is not a Rosetta Stone, it is something rather big.

On a related noted (in that it’s also a question of archaeology), some folks were tipped off on the location of a second Viking settlement in the New World by some photographs taken from outer space. Actually, I hadn’t realized we’d only found one Viking settlement. Honestly, because their presence in North America has been known for so long, I’d just assumed it was more widespread. And it might have been widespread, but this is the first evidence that were was more than one (semi-)permanent settlement.

The fine folks at DCist have compiled a list of the best used and independent bookstores in the District. Of course, with the closure of the downtown Barnes & Noble, there are only used and indie bookstores in DC: not a chain in sight. And I appreciate this list acknowledging the truly magnificent poetry selection at Bridge Street Books.


‘Iraqi Nights’ & Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here

On a Wednesday, I saw Dunya Mikhail at the Hill Center, where she was interviewed/conversed with the Post‘s Ron Charles. Sadly, it was the most disappointing of these events that I’ve attended. Whether it was the language barrier (Arabic being her first language and the one she writes in) or something else, the conversation never quite took off. Ron couldn’t seem to get an extended reaction nor dialogue out of her. It didn’t help that she wasn’t very familiar with the English language translations of her poetry that Ron was reading from.

I read her collection, Iraqi Nights and enjoyed it, but didn’t love it. The idea that this was a poetic take Iraq’s travails through the lens of The Arabian Nights never quite came through and some of the poems bordered on being just pithy lines.

On the following Saturday, I dragged a semi-reluctant friend for an event honoring the ninth anniversary of the bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad’s ‘Street of Booksellers.’ Poets and musicians, including Dunya Mikhail, were there.

Unfortunately, there was a solid forty-five minutes of self-congratulatory back slapping by some white people that was just… too much.

This is Washington, DC and the year 2016 and we don’t need to be told that Bush’s invasions were colossally incompetent, misguided, and deceitful farces not worth the tiniest amount of the blood and treasure they cost. If you really want to drive this idea home, though, the best way would be to get out of the way and let the Iraqi artists speak through their works.

The last part of the event was a musical performance that sounded almost liturgical in chant-like signing accompanied by an oud and a piano (and wind chimes), but I left early, not because the music wasn’t wonderful (it was), but because those ridiculous opening ceremonies/lectures/chidings/backslappings had left a wound that festered and drove me out.

Fortunately, I did get to see a short video while I was still there – a video the showed the pointlessness of the opening lectures by older white people. It was a simple video. Some footage of the street, including archival footage from before the bombing, but mostly it was just focused on a man who owned a cafe on the street and had lost four of his five sons and one grandson in the bombing. Absolutely heartbreaking, especially once you realized that when he was talking about his son missing a leg, he wasn’t saying that his son was now crippled. He was saying that they couldn’t find all of his son’s body parts. When a man is telling you that story, you don’t need an anti-war lecture.

Slow Burn To A Big Payoff

That title is kind of a bait and switch. I saw Only Yestersday the other day. It was a slow movie, that seemed to drag, but then when the ending came, my eyes started getting teary (my friend, who joined me, admitted that he also got watery-eyed). Bouncing between a young woman named Taeko taking a working vacation in rural Japan (she goes to her sister’s husband’s family to help pick and process some crops) where she engages in a chaste courtship with a youthful organic farmer and the memories of her fifth grade self.

There is a famous scene with a pineapple (google it, people), but also so much more. It’s episodic, but the episodes all illustrate the mystery of being young. A father’s actions seem random to her; one moment magnanimous and another, mysteriously cruel.

And it’s not initially clear how the contemporary and the memories relate and, even in the end, it’s not an easy connection (the audience doesn’t gasp, and say, oh, she’s fulfilling her youthful dream of being an actress, for example) nor a pat one. They are in oblique dialogue, rather direct correspondence.

Little effort is made to make the life of farming nor the life of an eleven year old interesting to the modern viewer. It’s not boring, per se, but artificial drama is avoided. So, as I said, it seemed to drag, but that was all part of a wonderful plan, it seemed, because, at the end, when the memories flood back in a positive way and she made her decision, it inspired those wonderful ‘happy cry’ feelings.

Ceramics & Alpacas

On our way to visit an alpaca farm (long story), we stopped at the craziest ceramics factory. They had a big yard that was a Tim Burton-esque wonderland (though his Alice in Wonderland movie; that sucked; I mean good Tim Burton).

Inside the large warehouse itself, people were busy making stools, tables, pots, jars, and more, decorating them all by hand.

Later, an alpaca chased my better half around.


Evernew Bookstore (Singapore)

  Towards the end of our visit to Singapore, we had a little time to kill before we had to board the metro for the airport. So what to do? The National Gallery had a twenty (Singapore) dollar admission and we don’t have that much time, so it seemed a poor investment.

Me being me, I dragged us, our luggage in tow, to the possible location of a bookstore with a possible English language section.

Finally, after rounding the corner from the post office (we wanted to send off some postcards), I found Evernew Bookstore, a used bookstore in a little shopping center.

I didn’t get very far beyond a stretch of shelves (with only a very narrow space for human beings) that was filled with the orange spines of Penguin classics. And what did I find but a book that I’ve been wanting to read that is not in the DC Public Library system and which is never available at your local bookstore: Goethe’s Elective Affinities.

If you’ve ever seen the great Truffaut film, Jules et Jim, you might remember there is a reference to it. When Jim visits Jules and Catherine in their wooded Austrian retreat, he asks to borrow the book, which is a signal that he intends to do a little wife swapping (not really swapping, though; Jim isn’t married; so not so much swapping as just sleeping with his friend’s wife; it’s complicated).

‘Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction’

9780192804631My father gifted me this book just before I left for Thailand – a fortuitous thing, because lightweight (physically speaking), thin and interesting are very important for something that has to be carried around for an extended period of time and compete with clothes, meds, and tchotchkes for space.

The author came it the subject from the perspective of a philosopher and quickly moved into a fairly spirited defense of conceptual and avant-garde art, which, as an appreciator of conceptual and avant-garde art, I appreciated.

The place where she lost was in talking about film, which is odd, because she has, apparently, written a book on film studies. She totally missed that Starship Troopers is a biting and vicious satire. She also got The Matrix wrong, but I tend to think that movie is overrated – less an intellectual achievement than fine popcorn actioner that figured out how to use Keanu Reeves limited, but still excellent talents (when properly harnessed).