“Under the greenwood tree…:” AS YOU LIKE IT at the Folger

October 31, 2007 at 7:33 pm (Performing arts, Shakespeare)

as-you-like-it-playbill.jpg The Folger Theatre in Washington D.C. has begun its 2007-2008 season with As You Like It. I was privileged to attend this past Sunday’s performance. It was the first time I’ve ever seen this play, and the experience reinforced my belief that in order to fully appreciate Shakespeare’s genius, you must both read and see the plays.

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This production starred Amanda Quaid as Rosalind and Noel Velez as Orlando. I say “starred,” but to me, it was great acting – and good chemistry – on the part of the entire ensemble that made the production work. The supporting cast was truly excellent. The review in the Washington Post was generally favorable, with a few reservations, not necessarily shared by me. I don’t have the critical skills or knowledge to evaluate theatrical productions; I tend merely to be very grateful to be there and to be both entertained and enlightened, as I was on Sunday. Favorite moments: jon-reynolds.jpg When Amiens (Jon Reynolds) and one of the shepherds sang “Under the greenwood tree.” I had tears in my eyes, not sure why. (“Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean…”) sarah-marshall-playbill.jpg Also almost any scene featuring Touchstone. The role was played by actress Sarah Marshall; her comic turns and impeccable timing alone would have been worth the price of admission!

One of the many joys of attending a Shakespeare play is hearing phrases and expressions that you’ve heard all your life. msilvermanh.jpg For instance, Celia (Miriam Silverman) exclaims, “Well said: that was laid on with a trowel.” ( Act I, Scene II) And then there is the pleasure of hearing old friends in context, like the famous “All the world’s a stage” disquisition, delivered with a sort of bemused wonder by Jacques (Joseph Marcell). joseph_marcell203_203x152.jpg

Other favorite quotes:

“O, how full of briers is this working-day world!” (Rosalind, Act I, Scene III)

“Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold.” (Rosalind, Act I, Scene III)

“Blow, blow, thou winter wind, / Thou art not so unkind / As man’s ingratitude.” (sung by Amiens, Act II, Scene VII)

“When a man’s verses cannot be understood, nor a man’s good wit seconded with the forward child, understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.” (Touchstone, Act II, Scene III) I have read that the “reckoning” alluded in that line might be an oblique reference to the murder of Christopher Marlowe. Hearing it, even spoken in jest, I broke out in goose flesh!

“Come woo me, woo me – for now I am in a holiday humour and like enough to consent.” (Rosalind, Act IV, Scene I)

“But O, how bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man’s eyes.” (Orlando, Act V, Scene II)

“Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak.” (Rosalind, Act III, Scene II). I hadn’t heard these lines before, but Rosalind/Quaid delivered them with just the right emphasis, causing the audience to burst into laughter!

And my own favorite favorite passage, spoken by Duke Senior in Act II, Scene I, as he celebrates the conditions of his exile in the forest of Arden:

“And this our life, exempt from public haunt, / Finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks, / Sermons in stones, / And good in everything.”

To this Amiens adds, simply: “I would not change it.”

Indeed not.

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Roberta Recommends: Three ( Very Dissimilar) Novels

October 31, 2007 at 2:26 am (Book clubs, Book review, books)

hamilton-case.jpg The Hamilton Case by Michelle de Kretser takes place in the first half of the 20th century in Sri Lanka, then still known as Ceylon. As this small island nation struggles to free itself from colonial rule, first by the Dutch and later by the British, one family’s destiny plays out with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. This novel has a lot going for it: terrific writing, sly wit, riveting characters, a great story, and, of course, an exotic setting rendered in vivid, broad brush strokes by an obviously gifted writer.

de-kretser-michelle.jpg Michelle de Kretser has another novel, The Rose Grower, and a short story collection, both of which were published prior to 2004, the year that The Hamilton Case was published in the U.S. I can find very little information about this author, other than that she was born in Sri Lanka and currently resides in Australia. (De Kretser received an award at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair for the German language edition of The Hamilton Case.)

my-sister.jpg jodipicoult_narrowweb__300x4680.jpg This is the situation at the outset in Jodi Picoult’s novel My Sister’s Keeper: while still a toddler, Kate Fitzgerald was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of leukemia. The only way to increase her odds of survival was to provide a donor who is a perfect genetic match. Tests showed that neither Kate’s older brother nor either of her parents fulfilled this requirement. And so her mother and father, with the help of a geneticist, set about producing another sibling, one guaranteed to be a perfect match. As the novel opens, this third child, Anna, now thirteen years old, is seeking legal representation in order to achieve “medical emancipation” from her parents. She has already donated blood products and bone marrow to Kate; now, she is being asked to donate a kidney. She loves her sister, but she is fed up with the onerous obligation she has lived with her entire life and wants out.

Well, Anna’s petition precipitates a crisis, of course, but it is only one of many. I don’t think I have ever read a novel in which disaster piled upon disaster with such dizzying speed. Every time you think the worst has happened, something worse happens. The unblinking description of Kate’s symptoms and treatments makes for appalling reading. You would have to be very hard hearted not to feel her pain, although she endures it all with admirable courage and stoicism.

My Sister’s Keeper is as much about Kate’s family as it is about her. Kate’s mother spends most of her time being frantic, angry, or both. Her firefighter father is a good enough sort, but he never seemed quite real to me. There is a subplot involving Anna’s lawyer and her legal guardian, or guardian ad litem. I could not have cared less about these two people and their soap opera, on-again off-again romance. In fact, I (somewhat reluctantly) gave myself permission to skim the sections involving these two people. This is a novel of high drama that veers toward melodrama a little too often for my taste. The ending, which has generated plenty of controversy, is shocking, totally unexpected, and also rather contrived. Picoult’s writing is good but not great; ditto for her character creation. But in all fairness, there are times when she really nails it, and there are some powerful scenes of confrontation and of tender love mixed with anguish that are well done and ring absolutely true.

harbor.jpg adams_l.jpg I am also ambivalent about Harbor by Lorraine Adams. This first novel by a Washington Post reporter is about illegal Algerian immigrants living in a small, cramped apartment in Boston and the American girl who lives with them. We are never told exactly how this young woman, whose name is Heather, has come to be part of this highly irregular household. She is already living there when the novel begins.

This is certainly not the Boston I know and love; the Boston of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Symphony Hall, and so forth. These characters are forced to eke out a marginal existence in exceedingly bleak surroundings. The temptation to make a fast buck by illegal means is ever present, and occasionally acted upon. On the other hand, Aziz, a main character who is an illegal immigrant, does get a job in a restaurant, along with one of his roommates. Both youths show themselves to be conscientious, responsible workers. Even so, all except Heather – and later, Aziz’s brother, who comes into the country legally – live in constant fear of discovery and deportation.

The action in Boston alternates with flashbacks of Aziz’s combat experiences in Algeria. These sections of the novel feature explicit scenes of torture and killing. They are the main source of my ambivalence. The reviews of Harbor – at least, the ones that I read, and that caused me to seek the book out – were full of justified praise for the writing and for the realistic depiction of the Algerians’ desperation, but I don’t recall reviewers commenting specifically on the violence. Maybe you’re considered a literary “wuss” if you can’t stomach it. If so, I plead guilty.

Do I recommend Harbor or not? Actually, I do. The writing is meticulous, and I did care about the plight of the immigrants, especially Aziz. As for Heather, at first, I dismissed her as a foul-mouthed brat, but she ended by surprising me with her loyalty and resourcefulness. But as to those flashbacks, be warned; they are hard to take.

All three of these books would be excellent choices for book clubs. ReadingGroupGuides.com has guides for The Hamilton Case and My Sister’s Keeper. Random House, Inc. features a guide for Harbor.

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“The Worship of True Art:” The Columbia Pro Cantare and Company Rock the House with Mendelssohn’s ELIJAH

October 29, 2007 at 12:58 pm (Music)

widow-z1.jpg [The Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Sarepta, by Bernardo Strozzi]

This past Saturday night (10/27), my husband and I were privileged to attend a performance Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah. The evening was a tremendous success in every way: glorious choral music supported by the outstanding Festival Orchestra and stunning vocalizing by the four principal soloists.

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[From left to right: April-Joy Gutierrez, Mary Ann McCormick, Todd Geer, Lester Lynch]

Although I love choral music, this is not a work with which I was familiar. Our understanding and enjoyment of it were greatly facilitated by the pre-concert lecture, given by David Smooke of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.

In the program notes, we learn that Elijah was originally commissioned by the Birmingham (England) Choral Festival and first performed there in 1846. It was an instant hit. The following year the oratorio was performed for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The latter was moved to write a letter to the composer in which he averred that Mendelssohn “…has been able, by his genius and science, to preserve faithfully, like another Elijah, the worship of true art, and once more to accustom our ear, amid the whirl of empty, frivolous sounds, to the pure tones of sympathetic feeling and legitimate harmony: to the Great Master, who makes us conscious of the unity of his conception, through the whole maze of his creation, from the soft whispering to the mighty raging of the elements.”

mendelssohn.jpg Only a few months later, in 1847, Felix Mendelssohn was dead. He was 38 years old.

Special mention must be made of the baritone who sang the role of Elijah. Lester Lynch conveyed tremendous feeling in softer passages, but he really wowed the audience in the more forceful ones. His voice so filled the auditorium that it seemed too big for the space. I wouldn’t be surprised if he could be heard in the parking lot! I was touched at the end of the performance when the other soloists – soprano April-Joy Gutierrez, mezzo-soprano Mary Ann McCormick, and tenor Todd Geer – turned to Lynch and applauded his performance along with the audience. Lynch accepted this tribute with the modesty of a true artist.

dawson2.jpg As for the Columbia Pro Cantare, one can but express delight and gratitude that this home grown organization has achieved such distinction – and right here in our own backyard! Assuredly, we can thank the artistry and hard work of founder and artistic director Frances Motyca Dawson [pictured above] for this happy state of affairs.

Not to go too swiftly from the sublime to the prosaic, but usually when we want to attend this kind of event, we have to travel to Baltimore or Washington and take the risk of getting mired in sludge-like traffic. Instead, it took us fifteen minutes to drive to the high school auditorium (with an exceptionally good acoustic) that was the venue for this performance. And when we got there, we were treated to world class music-making.

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For the Literate Traveler: Longitude Books

October 27, 2007 at 10:46 pm (books, Travel)

longitude_leftlogo.jpg While cruising the web, hungrily searching for my next travel destination, I noticed that both Smithsonian Journeys and Abercrombie & Kent post reading lists online. These lists are provided by Longitude Books, an online bookseller I had not previously been aware of. (Study leaders for various tours can insert their own particular selections.) Several things make these lists special, the most important being that they are annotated. These annotations are not clipped from review sources; they’re written by staff. They’re brief but articulate, and they make you want to read the book – at least, they have that effect on me! (I’ve had some experience with writing annotations; the shorter they’re supposed to be, the harder they are to write.)

You can access these lists directly on Longitude’s site: just select the region you’re interested in and the apposite list will display. The ones I’ve looked at are divided into two parts: Essential Reading and Also Recommended. Titles are identified as being new, staff favorites, or hard to find. The site also features “Best of” lists and “Neglected Classics.”

stone-voices.jpg neal_ascherson_140x140.jpg I returned from our last trip desiring to read more about Scotland. I was especially pleased with Longitude’s list. One title I’m particularly looking forward to reading is Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland, by Neal Ascherson. With some books, the introduction/foreward/preface alone is worth the price of admission. To wit, this passage from the opening of the Preface to Stone Voices:

“Some countries are tidy with their past. Until recently, English historiography resembled the work of a landscape gardener at a stately home: vistas of Saxon lawn and Norman shrubbery led up past Tudor and Hanoverian flowerbeds to the terrace of the present, where the proprietor sat contentedly surveying his estate. Other countries are restless, grubbing up old interpretations in each generation. Russia, where the past is said to be unpredictable, offers a history scene of churned-up mud and broken-down cement-mixers, loud with disputing gardeners. Twentieth-century France evolved two largely incompatible narratives, a Red republican version and a White or clerical-conservative one, whose respective visitors hardly glance at each other across the fence.

“But there are also countries which have left the past in its original condition: a huge, reeking tip of unsorted rubbish across which scavengers wander, pulling up interesting fragments which might fetch a price or come in handy.” Ascherson then announces that “Scotland has been one of these.” But he hastens to add: “This is nothing to be ashamed of.” (!!) The author proceeds to explain these somewhat bald assertions; among other things, this situation “…allows space for imagination and originality” for those wishing to contemplate and understand Scottish history. Ascherson’s stated purpose in writing Stone Voices is not to provide a chronological narrative but more of a meditation on the country’s past, as seen through discreet tableaux and in myth.

I am greatly looking forward to reading this book!

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Le Mot Juste; or, Pithy Sayings & Quotable Quotes

October 27, 2007 at 5:22 pm (Pithy Sayings)

Before I recycle today’s Washington Post, here are two gems. First:

amy.jpg Amy Dickinson currently writes the syndicated advice column that appears in the Style section of the Post. She has had big shoes to fill: namely, those of the venerable Ann Landers. I personally think she’s doing a terrific job of it!

Today, her column’s first plea for help came from a woman whose husband’s niece habitually turns up at their doorstep with her husband and young child in tow. These visits make it necessary for the writer and her husband to vacate their bedroom and sleep on the couch downstairs. Recently, the niece announced that on her next visit she would be bringing their new puppy along, as it was still too young to be placed in a kennel (but presumably not too young to chew people’s shoes to shreds or to pee – or worse – on the living room carpet!) This is where the hostess presumptive finally put her foot down. Her refusal to accommodate this merry band has naturally caused bad feeling and awkwardness. She inquires plaintively: Was there was a better way to handle the situation?

Here is the first paragraph of Amy’s response:

“Your husband’s niece did you all a favor when she insisted that she bring her puppy along to visit. Sometimes, pushy people push their way right through the end zone and into the parking lot of the football stadium.”

Yes!! You don’t have to be a sports enthusiast – I sure am not – to get her meaning. You’ve been warned, pushy people of the world; reign it in, or suffer the consequences!

The second gem is from a story on the paper’s front page: “A Museum on Woodstock, With a Haircut.” Although this newly built edifice is officially called the Museum at Bethel Woods, it will focus primarily on the Woodstock festival and the culture that gave rise to it. Here is columnist Joel Achenbach’s take on it:

“You could call it a hippie museum with a haircut. It demonstrates more than anything the American capacity to turn even the most unruly and chaotic moments in our history into something orderly, manageable and culminating in a gift shop.”

Now, as a lover of gift shops wherever I may find them, I ask you, Is this necessarily a bad thing? And by the way, it is by no means a purely American capacity. I was thrilled with the proliferation of gift shops in Great Britain.

p1000905.JPG p1000899.JPG Middleham Castle, the childhood home of King Richard III, is now a stark ruin perched poignantly on a hill in Yorkshire. You stand there, thinking sic-transit-type thoughts…and then pop into the gift shop for booklets, postcards, and water bottles!

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California: Land of Contradictions

October 26, 2007 at 7:56 pm (books, California)

odyssey.jpg I have, from to time to time, heard California referred to as Lotusland. This morning, with California on my mind, as it is for most Americans right now, I decided to track down the reference. Turns out, it is from The Odyssey, a copy of which has been on my coffee table for the last week. (The Teaching Company lectures on CD are responsible for my renewed interest in classical literature.) In Book Nine, in Samuel Butler’s translation, the passage reads thus:

“I was driven thence by foul winds for a space of nine days upon the
sea, but on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eater, who
live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take
in fresh water, and our crews got their mid-day meal on the shore near
the ships. When they had eaten and drunk I sent two of my company to see
what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a
third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the
Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus,
which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about
home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to
them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eater
without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept
bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the
benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them
should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they
took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars.

Alas, Southern California resembles anything but Lotusland right now. Rather, the news footage makes it look downright apocalyptic. Thank goodness that as of this writing, the worst appears to be over! We have family in northern San Diego County, so it’s been a nervous time for us. At this writing, they and their house are no longer threatened, but they have harrowing stories to tell concerning friends who have not been as fortunate.

I’d like to recommend a powerful you-are-there piece of reporting by Amy Wilentz in yesterday’s (10/25/07) Washington Post: “When the Hills Are Burning.”

Apparently, the latest trend in development in Southern California is to build further inland, coastal property having become prohibitively expensive for too many potential buyers. The problem is that this move into the hills of California’s interior is creating a whole new sphere of vulnerability. In an article in Wednesday’s Washington Post , Mike Davis, a historian at the University of California at Irvine, suggested that in order to fully comprehend the nature of this newest danger, “‘…you simply drive out to the San Gorgonio Pass, where the winds blow over 50 mph over a hundred days a year and you have new houses standing next to 50-year-old chaparral.'” (Chaparral is a highly flammable, drought-resistant scrub oak which almost invariably provides tinder for California wildfires, although its exact role in these fires is the occasion of some controversy.) Davis then adds, “You might as well be building next to leaking gasoline cans.”

ecologyoffear.jpg mike_davis.jpg Nine years ago Mike Davis published The Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. His chief concern in this book is what ecologists term the “urban/wildland interface” and how this phenomenon specifically affects Los Angeles and the surrounding area. Here is a sample of chapter titles: “How Eden Lost Its Garden,” “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn,” “Maneaters of the Sierra Madre.” Floods, drought, and, of course, earthquakes are likewise covered. I read this book when it came out, so I don’t remember the specifics, but I do remember the mounting sense of dread as I read on. And yet…

Who would be crazy enough to live there? My family, composed of basically sensible people. and, given half a chance, my husband and myself. For California has had that Lotusland affect on us when we have visited the San Diego area and the desert towns of the Coachella Valley, where my parents used to spend their winters. On the approach to the Palm Springs Airport, you descend to what seems like the bottom of a bowl ringed around with mountains. The airport itself is open to the air, with citrus trees in abundance. The air is scented with them; the sky is blue; the mountains are everywhere. My father loved this place, and he bequeathed his love of it to me.

Another memory: I am standing on a corner in the quaint little downtown of Carlsbad. Soft breezes are caressing my bare arms. I close my eyes and simply stand still. This is a time of trouble for our family; these gentle zephyrs seem to impart a kind of consolation. Every time I have traveled to Southern California, I have been reluctant to leave. I have desired, like the lotus-eaters, to stay where I was forever.

I have no desire to post photos of these terrible fires; we have seen plenty already in the mass media. Rather, I would like to post just a few beautiful shots of San Diego: this is why people love it there!

sandiego_skyline_at_night.jpg san-diego-bay-from-harbor-drive.jpg pointlomalighthouse.jpg two-towers-balboa.jpg view-of-san-diego-from-seaport-village1.jpg the_del_overlooking_pacific.jpg

From left to right: the San Diego Skyline at night, San Diego Bay from Harbor Drive, Point Loma Lighthouse, Two Towers in Balboa Park, and View of San Diego from Seaport Village

[The Los Angeles Times has a list of agencies accepting donations for victims of the California wildfires.]

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Dark Doings Down Under: The Broken Shore, by Peter Temple

October 24, 2007 at 2:05 am (books, Mystery fiction)

broken1.jpg peter_temple.jpg Reviews of this novel were glowing – and accolades flowing! – so naturally I had to read it. I dove right in – and came right back out – at least, on my first attempt. Temple’s style seemed deliberately elliptical; there were times when I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. The characters spoke in clipped fragments. I’ve encountered this stylistic quirk in the procedurals of Bill James, but James uses it to savagely humorous effect, whereas I was finding The Broken Shore anything but humorous.

Then Maggie, a friend and former co-worker at the library, wrote to me praising the book. I decided to take another crack at it. (For me, such a recommendation, made by someone whose opinion I value, can trump an unsuccessful first attempt or an indifferent review.) I had the same problem at the outset but stuck with it, and suddenly the novel took off for me on page 87. Temple describes, in heartstopping prose, an attempted intercept by the police – in moving traffic, in pouring-down rain, with guns on board – that goes horribly wrong. From that point on, I was hooked. The fallout from this cock-up occupies the rest of the narrative; that is, when it isn’t being interrupted by woes related to Cashin’s personal life. Temple pushed the boundary there, in my opinion; there were times when I felt that the soap opera elements were impeding the flow of the narrative to an extent that was potentially annoying.

The Broken Shore is set on Australia’s South Coast. Often, novels I read that are set in exotic or unusual places evoke in me a longing to go to that place. This novel did not produce that effect. Of course, it is always – or almost always – desirable to be near the water, but Temple’s descriptions of this part of Australia make it seem almost irredeemably bleak, dotted with broken-down structures and plagued by wind and rain. I gather the coastline itself can be quite dramatic in places; it certainly appears so on the cover of the hardback edition.

Detective Sergeant Joe Cashin is another one of those fifty-something cops living in reduced circumstances, both financially and emotionally. His life is full of negatives: the usual dysfunctional – in some cases, suicidal – family members, a son whom his angry former lover will not let him see, and co-workers from Hell. The most interesting of this latter group – and one who manages, ultimately, to redeem himself – is Paul Dove, an Aborigine. Dove is assigned to Cashin as his “offsider” – slang for sidekick or junior helper. (The Glossary of Australian Terms at the back of the book explains further that this expression originally referred to “…a bullock-driver’s assistant, who walked on the offside of the wagon.”) The rhythm of Temple’s prose gradually grew on me. Then a potential love interest for Cashin appeared on the scene – always a welcome development in crime fiction, but especially so in this case. Finally, a touch of dry humor arrived to lighten the mood – and it needed lightening, believe me!

Apparently Aboriginal policemen are rather thin on the ground, at least in this part of Australia (if not in every part; I really don’t know!). So Paul Dove has to fend off many wisecracks, not to mention some outright racist comments. (The picture that Temple paints of race relations down under is at times pretty dismaying.) Anyway, a woman Dove and Cashin are in the process of interviewing asks if she’s seen them on TV recently. Dove’s instantaneous riposte is: “You may have seen me…I’m the undercover cop. Sometimes I have a beard.”

The Broken Shore won the Duncan Lawrie Dagger for the year 2007. Awarded by the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain, the Duncan Lawrie Dagger (formerly called the Gold Dagger) is a prestigious award with a nifty cash prize of 20,000 pounds (about $40,000) to go with. Do I share the CWA’s regard for this novel? Well, despite my initial reservations, yes. The writing, once you get used to it, really is excellent: not only does Temple write great dialog, but there are some terrific descriptive passages as well. The plot, once it shifts into high gear, is compelling. So, although it might not grab you from the start, yes, do read it; there are rewards aplenty as events unfold!

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Intimations of Mortality: “Toga Party,” a short story by John Barth

October 22, 2007 at 5:38 pm (books, Short stories)

best.jpg “Toga Party” is the second story in the latest edition of The Best American Short Stories. Begun in 1915, and published by Houghton Mifflin since 1978, this annual collection has a series editor – Heidi Pitlor at present – and a different guest editor each year. The editor for year 2007 is Stephen King.

“Toga Party” at first seems to be yet another tale of silliness in the suburbs, but there’s an undercurrent of anxiety from the outset. Prompted by what? The fear and dejection felt by Dick Felton at the prospect of illness and old age. Felton and his wife Sue, now both retired, live on Maryland’s Eastern Shore (a place my husband and I love). He’s 75; she’s in her late 60’s. A strong bond of companionable love has been forged in the course of their forty-plus years of marriage. Lately, they have been working on their wills, a task that almost inevitably evokes feelings of sadness and foreboding. This has been especially true for Dick .

As the story opens, the Feltons have just received an invitation to a toga party from the Hardisons, a couple who have just built a lavish house in their gated community, Heron Bay Estates. Perhaps this rather outlandish celebration will be the tonic they need to help them ward off melancholy. They make preparations to attend; Sue even researches costumes on the internet.

The party is at the outset a great success. As they arrive, guests are supposed to supply Latin aphorisms as passwords in order to gain entry: phrases such as “ad infinitum” and “ars longa vita brevis est” ring out merrily and float over the partygoers. At one point, someone compares the festivities to Trimalchio’s Feast. This is a scene from a fragmentary work that probably dates from some time during the reign of the Emperor Nero (54 – 68 A.D.): “Satyricon” by Petronius. I was forcibly struck by this reference, as I had only recently learned about Trimalchio’s Feast a few days ago while listening to The Teaching Company’s Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition. It is a description of a dinner party thrown by a newly freed slave Trimalchio, an occasion that descends rapidly into vulgarity and debauchery.

The Hardisons’ party does not degenerate into a Trimalchio-style orgy, although guests are encouraged at one point to participate in some rather tasteless, juvenile games. As the evening wears on, Dick Felton’s anxiety reasserts itself and seems to spread throughout the company (or, was it just my feeling that this was happening?). I was reminded of Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.”I began to get the sense that something dreadful lay in wait. I was right. The phrase “timor mortis conturbat me,” while never given explicit voice in this story, kept ringing in my head. It can be roughly translated as “fear of death confounds me” and is frequently encountered in medieval literature, specifically in the prayer called The Office of the Dead. I first encountered “timor mortis” some years ago in a short story by Joyce Carol Oates. (Wouldn’t you know it…)

I don’t want to be misleading as to the cause of Dick Felton’s unease. He is not so much afraid of death as he is of old age and its concomitant decrepitude. And more than his own death, he dreads losing Sue and fears likewise for her should he die first. He cannot help imagining the “raw and overwhelming” grief implicit in the loss of one’s life partner. So, as a reflection of the prevailing zeitgeist, “timor mortis conturbat me” seems more than a little apt…

barth2.jpg barth.jpg Like Paul Theroux, whose Elephanta Suite I reviewed recently, John Barth is a writer more people should know about. In 1960, he published a raucous, sprawling historical novel called The Sot-Weed Factor, a real masterpiece of the genre that, in tone and spirit, hearkens back to the novels of Henry Fielding. Barth was born in 1930 in Cambridge, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and taught from 1973 to 1995 at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Admittedly, this story had a special resonance for me because of the setting, the ages of the protagonists (more or less the same as mine), and the allusions to the classics. Still, I think it is terrific, worthwhile reading for anyone interest in the art of the short story. Every once in a while, I come across one of these gems that, despite its brevity, seems to encompass a world of feeling in the way our great novels do. “The Music School” by John Updike is one such; “Toga Party” by John Barth is another.

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Celebration and Ceremony: The Music of the Armed Services

October 21, 2007 at 3:49 pm (Music)

aaron-copland-legacy.jpg Lately we have had some splendid listening in our house, courtesy of the fine musical ensembles belonging to our armed forces. We’ve especially enjoyed the “Legacy” series, each disc of which highlights the musical contribution of a particular arranger, composer or instrumentalist. boulanger.jpg One disc pays tribute to the legendary teacher Nadia Boulanger, whose students were among the twentieth century’s most notable composers, among whom were Aaron Copland, David Diamond, Roy Harris, and Virgil Thomson [pictured in that order, below; Aaron Copland is with the young Leonard Bernstein].

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The discs in the Legacy series come with copious and detailed notes, which provide historical context and explain the importance and influence of the musician they honor. They reflect scholarship of the highest order. Photographs of great interest are also included.

These fine service musicians play all kids of music, from rock through country to easy listening and classical. The recordings they make are, as a rule, not available for purchase. (I did discover this exception on the Marine Band site.) They are, however, generously donated to institutions like the Howard County Library. The stated purpose of the recordings is to contribute to “troop morale and retention,” but they are obviously also a labor of love on the part of the men and women who participate in their production.

In addition to Nadia Boulanger, the Legacy series features music by such artists as Sammy Nestico, San Kenton, Aaron Copland, Randall Thompson, Benny Carter, and Robert Russell Bennett [pictured below, in that order]. At our library, at least, the best way to locate these discs is to search by the name of the particular service band, orchestra, or chorus featured on the recording. To search specifically for the Legacy series, enter “U.S. Army Field Band” in the author field. (Click on the link provided in the previous sentence for more information on the Legacy series.)

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A wealth of material is available on the websites of these bands. Musical selections can be downloaded, and in some cases, the full text and pictures from the booklets that accompany the discs are available in PDF format. (Select the “Education” option on the navigation bar to access to this material.) Here are the links to the websites of the various bands:

jazz-ambassadors.jpg The Jazz Ambassadors, one of the ensembles of the U.S. Army Field Band

The United States Army Field Band

commodoresportrait.jpg The Commodores, one of the ensembles of the U.S. Navy Band

The United States Navy Band

airmenofnote.jpg The Airmen of Note, one of the ensembles of the U.S. Air Force Band

The United States Air Force Band

marine-band.jpg “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band

The United States Marine Band

charles-ives-us-marine-band.jpg We’d like to recommend this download in particular, from the U.S. Marine Band site: their arrangement of the “Alcotts” movement from the Piano Sonata No.2 by Charles Ives. It’s a real sonic wonder!

Also, the Navy Band released a disc in 1997 entitled Ports of Call. ports-of-call.jpgThe final track on the disc is the last movement of The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi. Get hold of it if you can!

pines.jpg If you can’t, then listen to the recording made by the Chicago Symphony, Fritz Reiner conducting. Or better yet, go to a live performance of this heaven-storming, orchestra-testing tour de force of a tone poem! (Okay, I know what you’re thinking: She’s telling us, with her usual penchant for understatement, that she rather likes The Pines of Rome…)

We who live in the Washington area are privileged to be able to attend a good number of live performances by these fine ensembles. Still, for me, the most memorable such concert took place some thirty years ago when I was teaching English and French in a small high school in southwestern Wisconsin. One of the service bands – I don’t recall which one it was – came to the school to perform big band and rock selections. There we were, crammed into the tiny gymnasium that also did duty as an auditorium, listening to some world class music-making. I distinctly remember, as we were returning to our respective classrooms, one boy – I think his name was Mike – commented that “They played that Van Halen better than Van Halen!” If you look at the performance schedules of these bands (also available on their websites), you’ll see that no town is too tiny or out of the way but that a service band will go there to play and give it their all, as though they were performing for the President!

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All hail the ancients! (And we moderns, as we try to keep our bodies from falling apart!)

October 20, 2007 at 2:07 am (books, History, Mind/body, Mystery fiction)

sappho2.jpg apuleius.jpg I continue to enjoy the experience of traveling to and from aerobics while listening to Professor Elizabeth Vandiver of The Teaching Company as she lectures on the literature of ancient Greece and Rome. Such great mental and intellectual stimulation! Then I get to the gym and it’s all physical, all the time – I knock myself out, and then some, and have great fun in the process. To think, in my previous, pre-Type II Diabetes life – I thought exercising would be such a drag… [Pictured above: Sappho and Apuleius]

Today we kicked off the class with the song “Old Time Rock N Roll” by Bob Seger. Well, just try to stop yourself moving when that nifty little number is blasting away! I really love that song; to me, it represents the essence of what rock music at its best should sound like – pure, uninhibited joy, with an irresistible beat.

Anyway – Back to the classics! plutarch.gif ovid_lg.jpg Now that we’ve progressed to the works of the ancient Romans, I’m able to reminisce happily about my ninth grade Latin teacher Mrs. Gelber. I remember dressing up dolls in tunics and togas as she regaled us with stories of life in ancient Rome. She really made that period live for us, her lucky students! [Pictured above: Plutarch and Ovid]

saylor2.jpg saylor_roman_blood.jpg If you too have similar fond memories, or if you’re just generally fascinated by ancient history, I highly recommend Steven Saylor’s mystery series, called Roma Sub Rosa. You’d best begin with the first book, Roman Blood. Then you’ll have the other eight novels in the series ahead of you to enjoy, plus two volumes of short stories. Saylor is a scholar of the period, but the historical background always stays where it should: in the background. You’ll quickly get involved in the story of Gordianus the Finder, his complicated (and never dull) family, and his fascinating cases, which often involve the rich, the famous – and the secretive. arms.jpg rubicon.jpg

harris-robert.jpg pompeii.jpg I also recommend two novels by Robert Harris: Pompeii and Imperium. Of course, the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD is a hugely dramatic story by itself, but Harris has peopled his novel with characters both invented and historical in a way that I found convincing and absorbing. The action is seen through the eyes and experiences of the Aquarius Marcus Attilius Primus who, as his job title suggests, is charged with making sure system of aqueducts operates as it should. And indeed, it is the element of water that provides advance warning that something terrible is about to happen. (In the area around Pompeii, seismic activity and earth tremors – even earthquakes – were not unknown.) There is a scene in which the Aquarius is seated at a table with a jug of water. The surface of the water begind to ripple and tremble. I read this book when it came out four years ago, but I have never forgotten that scene, with its dreadful portents, whose meaning the reader knows all too well.

imperium.jpg Imperium is the story of Cicero’s rise to fame and prominence, as told by his amanuensis and confidant, the slave Tiro. I had trouble getting into the book at first; it moves at a more stately pace than Pompeii. I switched to the audiobook, beautifully narrated by Simon Jones. The novel became increasingly vivid and absorbing; I really loved it!

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