Recent Reading


Because Derek Walcott died, I started carrying Omeros in by satchel and reading from it, though not, necessarily, reading the book length (history? digression? epic) poem on the Caribbean in systematic fashion.

I finished Patrick Modiano’s In the Cafe of Lost Youth, my first stab at the Nobel Prize winner (as was Walcott, by the way). Similar to the next book on the list, I felt an immediate stab of disappointment at the ending, but then came around to it (coming around more fervently, though, than with the next book). The ending seemed too abrupt and unearned, but I came around to an understanding that the book itself was about the unknowability of others.

I finished the final book of the Tearling trilogy, Fate of the Tearling. I’m still not sure if this isn’t actually a young adult book. I’m still not sure if that statement says more about me than about young adult literature. But actually, I’m pretty sure that it says more about me. And, even more than it says more about me, it says a lot about the fantasy genre (and not in an entirely good way, however much I love it). I came around to the deux ex machina ending, but that didn’t make it earned and the book lost much of the goodwill earned from the first two, but credit where credit is due: this was a genuinely feminist series, with serious advocacy for birth control and female sexual agency. The final book also become decidedly anti-religious. Earlier books had posited the fantasy world’s church leaders as enemies, but now it got pretty anti-religious. Meh. Not going to argue that point.

Finally, I really loved The Dragonbone Chair, the first book in a series I had long heard about (and mentioned as a precursor to Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice, though this series has more magic in it, though it’s not necessarily hugely heavy on magic). Tad Williams hooked me pretty quickly (though he also takes his time, with something like half the book taken up with careful world building, done through the eyes of an awkward kitchen boy in his early adolescence) and as soon as I was done, I immediately downloaded the second book (sadly, not available at the library). My one quibble is that some of the world building uses some lazy thievery from the ‘real’ world. The great king, whose death opens the way for the turmoil that makes up the plot, is Prester John. Some of the cultures and their naming customs are too obviously taken from Western Europe. Not a major issue (and the world itself is quite unique), but just felt lazy.

It’s A Brave New World, As They Say (I Think That My Father Used To Say That, Even Though He Was Never A Particular Fan Of Aldous Huxley; For Myself, I Think That ‘Crome Yellow’ Is An Underrated Novel If You Want To Read Something By Him That’s Not, You Know, ‘Brave New World’)


Perhaps it is because I (and other residents of the District and, indeed, almost everyone in America) have been protected by what has become a comforting layer of incompetence that covers everything he does like a bulletproof vest whose actual purpose is to protect everyone around the wearer.

Or maybe it’s because he’s never here and is busy inflicting himself on the patrons Palm Beach County’s Mar-A-Lago retreat for the super wealthy.

More likely though, I have been deluding myself.

After all, I have spent my career trying to make things better for this country. More specifically, I have spent more than a half decade helping to make tangible improvements in the lives of several groups working people in the DMV (that’s DC, Maryland, and Virginia). And this administration really has no time for that kind of thing. Insofar as they have an interest, it is in seeing that kind of work stopped.

Because his comforting incompetence has stalled so many of his priorities (so many of them hilariously and depressingly opposite from those he campaigned on), I haven’t had to think too much about the ways they would devastate the lives of my friends, my family, my neighbors, etc.

I assume the United States of America will survive this. It seems an article of faith. We survived a Civil War. We survived moral blights like chattel slavery, Japanese internment, and a mixture of accidentally and deliberately genoicidal actions towards native peoples, and while we didn’t come out as well as we might have hoped, we did come out a little better, surely. Of course, that ‘we’ is a white people ‘we.’ A reminder of an easily slippery slope. unless you somehow think American Indians came out better for my ancestors arriving and eventually founding this country, in which case, you are too stupid for me to even bother trying to sell you a bridge or mineral rights of a magazine subscription.

That easy slope is why he is so dangerous, too, right?

And maybe I’ll be fine, because I’m white and male and straight. And maybe my person of color better half will be fine because she will be protected by my beneficent aura of whiteness.

Or maybe we are all simply f–ked.

Choral Works At The National Cathedral


First of all, I was glad to see that nets were gone at the Washington National Cathedral. For a long time, post-earthquake (which was in 2011 or 2012, I think), there nets strung up inside the Cathedral to protect visitors and worshipers from falling bits of cathedral. While appreciated, from a safety perspective, it took away a bit from the sense of awe, grandeur, and general aesthetics.

The last time I saw a concert here, it was period pieces from the 17th and 18th centuries, composed or performed for the French court (and played using period pieces). The music was beautiful, but the acoustics just swallowed the orchestra’s sound (maybe it was the nets).

This time, the sound just soared wonderfully. It was the cathedral’s resident chorus, plus New York Polyphony (an all male vocal quartet), a guest soprano soloist, strings (roughly the size of chamber music orchestra, which is to say, larger than a quarter, but smaller than a full orchestra), and the cathedral’s own organ.

The selections were actually dominated (marginally) by either pieces by contemporary composers or else by pieces arranged by contemporary composers. With a few, arguable, exceptions, they were religious works – often liturgical. I say arguably, because one of the works set some stanzas by Whitman to music and, especially in America, Whitman could be considered to be almost religious.

That said, there wasn’t as much variety among the pieces as I might have liked. At a certain point, one Ave Maria starts to sound like another. That being the case, I could make the argument that they might have been better off taking a longer piece by someone like Tallis and playing that as the entirety of either the pre- or post-intermission half.

Reading


I’m always reading several books at a time. Sometimes, too many. They pile up beside the bed in the dozens (to the consternation of my better half).

But I like to vary my reading based on moods (though lately, they have all been linked by classical Greece and Rome). I have a copy of some works of Cicero nearby and I finished On Duties but can’t seem to get into On Friendship nor On Old Age, but they’re all in the same tome and I feel like I should just finish the physical book.

I just finished reading though Stone’s The Trial of Socrates (not in the least because it vocalizes some of my nagging complaints about the Socrates of the Platonic dialogues, namely, that he’s a bit of a flat track bully; it’s also got some wonderful sounding close reading of the original Greek texts; I saw wonderful sounding because I don’t read Ancient Greek and have, really, no idea if his translations and interpretations of individual words is better or worse than others). If I have one criticism, it’s that he closes weakly, by going into a discussion of the etymology of terms for ‘freedom of speech.’ Not that it’s not interesting, but like the ending of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, it brings the (for lack of a better term) ‘narrative’ momentum to a crashing halt.

I finished the second volume of the sci-fi/space opera quartet, The Hyperion Cantos (the names of this one is The Fall of Hyperion). It’s not nearly so pretentious as the word ‘cantos’ implies. I’d compare it to some of Samuel Delaney’s wild space operas, but less formally complex and also less lyrical (even though the reconstructed personality of John Keats is a major character in The Fall of Hyperion). Shouldn’t keep you away from these books, if you like good sci fi. It’s a well thought out, well realized universe with some excellent literary flourishes.

Sally Wen Mao’s Mad Honey Symposium lies beside my bed and the title would have drawn me in, even if the poetry weren’t excellent (which it is).

‘Waiting’ By Ha Jin


waitingThough short, Waiting moves slowly, working by accretion. Changes and revelations are not stated, except towards the end, but that doesn’t it stop from lovingly, subtly depicting the changes that occurred in China between the sixties and eighties.

The title comes from an unambitious doctor waiting to be able to divorce his wife (a peasant; the marriage having been arranged by his parents) so that he can marry his girlfriend. He’s finally able to… but only after eighteen years (a complicated quirk, apparently, of the law at the time).

The revelation is that the protagonist, Lin, is passive and he starts conversing with himself, suggesting that he waited for so long (no sex, incidentally) because it was easier than actually being with another person (in a real, paired up relationship).

But it is more about the small details about life and the passage of time. Events that I, as an outsider, assume to be earth shattering, like the Cultural Revolution, hardly happened for them in their military hospital serving a mid-sized city.

Holiday Reading…


…has so far been weighted more towards trashy than classy.

Trashy has included Deryni Rising, by Katherine Kurtz, who is a name I’ve seen a lot, as a fan of fantasy, but have never read. It’s high fantasy in western medieval setting. A first novel (though written and published before I was born) and it shows. Characters are thinly sketched, but the potential is there. The entire novel takes place in a small geographic area and at least half of it takes place over thirty-six hours or so, which I as good sign – an attempt to do something a little different, as well as something focused on internal politics. That said, still needed some ‘seasoning.’ Also, there were characters known merely as ‘Moors’ who all work for bad guys and get exactly zero additional characterization, which I would suggest is borderline racist, if it weren’t so obviously fully racist.

Michael Moorcock has earned some literary cred, but he also wrote a lot of trash. Fun trash, but trash. Of his interlocking, slightly revisionist, high fantasy novels, the original Elric stories are, without doubt, the best. And the novels of Dorian Hawkmoon are, beyond a doubt, among the worst. Which makes the number of times I have read those novels inexplicable. And makes reading the original tetralogy again, during my holiday, incomprehensible. Hawkmoon, as a character, is boring (though on his companions, Huillam D’Averc, is, if thinly drawn, at least interesting and fun), the post-apocalyptic world of science and sorcery is not nearly as clever nor as relevant as Moorcock clearly believes.


But, at least I read the latest edition of Foreign Affairs. Too bad it was about how Trump is going to blow up the liberal order of progress and justice-based structures. So, um… yay! I read something worthwhile!