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Showing posts from April, 2010

Hail to the Harp

I haven’t been able to read for a few days.

Needless to say, this is like insomnia. Nothing feels the way it should and my room which used to feel so womb-like and warm is estranging.

So let’s talk music.

Ben Ratliff wrote in the New York Times: “Why is it that compression is considered the best way to make a mark in the world? People like to talk about Joanna Newsom because she gives them a lot to talk about.”

True: She’s a vocalist, a harpist, a word-smith, a story-teller. Her variable voice is characterized by vocal squeaks and piercing upper notes, has been characterized as “child-like” by reviewers and as “un-trainable” by Newsom herself.

I am most familiar with Ys, an album with five songs which range from seven to sixteen minutes in length. The title refers to the Breton legend of a damned drowned city, the inverse of Paris (Par-Ys), a reference that had popped up in Possession and in Debussy’s Sunken Cathedral.

In Ys, Newsom is a bard, a traveling storyteller accompanying hersel…

Pablo: The Other Man in My Life

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda's sensuous and often fantastical poetry is filled with images and song: with oranges, the salty sea, odes to seagulls, dictionaries and chairs, freshly-baked bread, straw for a broom, a cry for liberation.

His volume of poetry is the best thing to carry around (a happy brick) and dip into from time to time with funny phrases: "What a world! What deep parsley!" or (his specialty) love poems: "I love you as one loves certain dark things,/ secretly, between the shadow and the soul./ I love you as the plant that doesn't bloom and carries/ the light of those flowers, hidden, within itself..."

His world is ripe and reading him is like laying out in the sun.

Here from his One Hundred Love Sonnets is a unusually tender and domestic poem:


Here are the bread-the wine-the table-the house:
a man's needs, and a woman's, and a life's.
Peace whirled through and settled in this place:
the common fire burned, to make this light.

Hail to yo…

The Man in My Life

I look at this every day because it makes me so happy.

An Old Friend

Confession: I saw the movie before I read the book. Between high school and college I worked for six months in a small bookstore called Wordsworth’s which was the first bookstore George ever had. One night towards the end of my stint there, my manager Liesl invited the predominantly female staff to her house to watch I Capture the Castle, a marvelously melancholic film, saturated with color and inter-war shabbiness and Dario Marinelli’s beautiful score (he also did Pride & Prejudice and Atonement).

The next day I bought the book and devoured it.

I Capture the Castle is structured as journal entries in a series of diaries by seventeen year old Cassandra Mortmain, beginning with the iconic “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink…” Cassandra and her impoverished bohemian family live in a run-down castle in Suffolk. Her father was the author of a single book, a mixture of fiction, philosophy and poetry called “Jacob Wrestling” (something like Finnegan’s Wake or Ulysses, I imagine),…
Fortunately, as the years have gone by, the word "spinster" has gone out of fashion. We no longer fear Miss Havisham or pity old maids. This may change after reading Stephen Benatar's Wish Her Safe At Home which, like the Grey Gardens or Jean Rhys's Good Morning, Mr. Midnight, might be subtitled "A Cautionary Tale."

It starts with a delightful (though not surprising) premise: Rachel Waring, a middle-aged spinster (there's that hated word) has been left a Georgian mansion by her mad great-aunt. It has been left in decrepitude and some work is required to fix it up. With wild abandon, Rachel throws off her grey pre-inheritance life, her desk job and chain-smoking roommate, and immerses herself in a life of determined vivacity. She begins a garden, discovers the house’s history, and starts to write a historical novel.

But, with more than a little Blanche Du Bois and Scarlett O'Hara, Rachel's gay enthusiasm and imagination is tainted by a whiff of de…


Allow me, for one moment, a soapbox.

The biennial Calvin College for the Festival of Faith and Writing, held last week, was an ideal venue for Image, a quarterly literary arts journal. Image seeks to publish artists and writers who struggle to “integrate faith, reason, and imagination” and showcases art which “grapple[s] with religious questions even when their makers profess no faith at all.” Greg Wolfe, founder and editor of Image, strongly disagrees with the modern assertion that religious art is an anachronism, and Image is the proof. As an arm of the Center for Religious Humanism, Image embodies the Renaissance view that religious faith is not incompatible with art, craft and belles lettres. The journal has published Pulitzer Prize winners, Nobel Laureates, and more. Many of the writers, poets and speakers at the Calvin Festival have been published in Image, and many are friends.

I interned at Image for six months, a job Greg warned me should be avoided for those suffering “sentim…

Little Girl Lost

Henry James is a man I met by an extension of an accident involving the television.

During the summer of 2006 (I say as though it were fifty years ago) I lived with my parents in our house in George, living the luxurious life of a waitress terrified to death by a tyrannical Italian who had the power to turn me into a cross between a mouse and a jellyfish by requesting a cup of coffee. Most mornings I spent leaning against my bed with a book in hand, hiding from the inevitability that Work Would Happen.

But I caught several colds, a reprieve from the late hours, meager tips, and humiliating wine-bottle-opening incidents of the restaurant. One orange-juice-sodden morning, I caught a showing of Edith Wharton's House of Mirth on e-tv with Gillian Anderson and Eric Stolz. It promised lame mid-morning period drama, but I watched the whole thing with increasing fascination and then limped to the library to read the book. It was followed by Age of Innocence (not as good, though it won the …

Stopping in the Middle

To finish or not to finish? It seems to me that, like finishing all the food on one’s plate, it is rude not to finish a book once it’s begun. How can you adequately judge a book by its contents if you flake out sometime in the middle? Perhaps you use the Page 69 Litmus Test advocated by people I overheard at CafĂ© Allegro’s last Friday and turn to the 69th page of the book which should apparently – in a nutshell – tell you whether to keep reading or not.

I am sorry to say that I have put aside many books begun this year. I have become a quitter. I did not finish Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, I did not finish the Story of Britain, or Agaat, and just last week I did not finish John Banville’s new book The Infinities, or Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. All of these books are good. I was attracted to them suddenly and fell away from them in degrees.

I both disapprove and approve of this new habit. On the one hand, it suggests moral laxity, intellectual ineptitude, restlessness and a disincli…

Feast Day

I am thrilled to have Diarmaid MacCulloch's new book Christianity: The First Three thousand Years, a historical tome weighing in at 1016 pages. As a self-professed "candid friend of Christianity" and a Professor of Church History at Oxford University, MacCulloch covers not only the two thousand years of Church history from the crucifixion of the Jesus to it's current state, but also investigates the inheritance the Jews and the Greeks gave to the faith.

This history is written for Christians and non-Christians, for those who love and hate it, and the author is a conscientious host who invites the reader into the web. MacCulloch writes:

"I make no pronouncement as to whether Christianity, or indeed any religious belief, is 'true'. This is a necessary self-denying ordinance. Is Shakespeare's Hamlet 'true'? It never happened, but it seems to me to be much more 'true', full of meaning and significance for human beings, than the reality o…

Poem for Easter


Spring comes (no-
asks his name)

a mender
of things

with eager
patient eyes)re


ing remaking what
-wise we should
thrown a-

way(and whose

-bright flower-
soft bird
-quick voice loves

and sunlight and

mountains)in april(but
if he should

nobody'll know.

- e.e.cummings

photo from local artist Jenny Vorwallerhere
Dorothy Edwards’ single novel, Winter Sonata (1930), much admired by David Garnett, was meant to model itself on the musical sonata form. Having spent many hours once upon a time with a pencil and sheaves of music, parsing the harmonic progressions and the form’s variations, I tried to engage the novel with musical analysis. (Not for long; it is too metaphorical a comparison.)

This isn’t a long novel, nor is it dramatically complex. Arnold Nettle has gone to winter as a telegraph clerk in a small village for his health. He plays the cello and it is because of his cello that he is invited to visit the home of Eleanor and Olivia Neran, two beautiful neighborhood girls living with their aunt Mrs. Curle and portly pseudo-philosophical cousin George. Nettle is vaguely in love with Olivia, having seen her through a window, though he cannot seem to gather enough strength or courage to continue an ordinary conversation – with anyone.

Nettle lives in the village with a landlady and her daughte…


I had the privilege of contributing to a film blog, Bright Wall, Dark Room, this past week. If you're interested at all, go Here.

Funnily enough, watching this film was the first time I've ever taken a pen and paper into the theater. I clearly had not depressed the pen nib enough because at the end of the film, after scribbling on my lap in the dark for two hours, I was rewarded by a largely blank page.