Commonplace Book

May 15, 2016 at 7:36 pm (books, Eloquence)


51r0ee5foBL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_  louise penny greenery2

“None of us can tell the future,” said Gamache. It was an intentionally banal response….
“Oh, I think some can, don’t you?”
Something in his tone made Gamache refocus and give the scientist his attention. “What do you mean?”
“I mean some can predict the future because they create it,” said Rosenblatt. “Oh, not the good things. We can’t make someone love us, or even like us. But we can make someone hate us. We can’t guarantee we’ll be hired for a job, but we can make sure we’re fired.” He put down his apple cider and stared at Gamache. “We can’t be sure we’ll win a war, but we can lose one.”

From The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny

51tg-h9-UML._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_ KateBraverman

There is always a garish carnival across the boulevard. We are born, we eat and sleep, conspire and mourn, a birth, a betrayal, an excursion to the harbor, and it’s done. All of it, done.

From “Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta” by Kate Braverman
(This story can also be found in Best American Short Stories 1991.)

In the silence that followed, Dodd reflected that it was always interesting to watch the way a man held a sword, providing he wasn’t facing you at the time.

From A Famine of Horses by P.F. Chisholm (Patricia Finney)

51VDXbf33EL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_  Patricia_Finney



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Dyspeptic jeremiads and gaseous theologians

May 20, 2008 at 1:59 am (books, Eloquence)

I love the splendid locutions that occur with gratifying frequency in The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby

Here they are in context.


“Americans would move toward a debased culture as generally accepted standards were defined downward; but it was Masscult, not Midcult, that triumphed. And the dyspepetic jeremiads of highbrows looking down on the bourgeois middle class had nothing to do with happened.

‘Masscult’ is mass culture; ‘Midcult’ is middlebrow culture. The quote is from the chapter entitled “Middlebrow Culture from Noon to Twilight.”


“The most aggravating result of the reign of rock was that everyone took it too seriously. Undeterred by the censorious grumbling of the cultural right, the gaseous theologians of the cultural left have long attempted to enshrine the music of the sixties counterculture–as id this particular pop manifestation possesses a mythical and philosophical significance raising it above the level of mere entertainment.

This passage is from the chapter entitled “Legacies: Youth Culture and Celebrity Culture.”

Susan Jacoby

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Weekend Miscellany II…

May 4, 2008 at 7:28 pm (books, Eloquence, Film and television, Horses)

Horse racing is the only sport I care about. This interest is a legacy bequeathed to me by my Dad, who went to the track religiously every Saturday. (This led me as a child to believe that everyone’s father worshipped at the shrine of Belmont, Flamingo Park, Hialeah Raceway, etc. etc.)

So yesterday, we watched the Kentucky Derby and witnessed the triumph of Big Brown and the simultaneous tragedy of Eight Belles. Veterinarian Larry Bramlage called the breakdown of Eight Belles “almost inexplicable,” but according to Sally Jenkins’s angry hit-’em-where-they-live opinion piece in today’s Washington Post, it was anything but.

Big Brown, winning the Kentucky Derby

Eight Belles, as horse lovers will want to remember her


Since leading a discussion of The Professor’s House, I’ve been needing more Willa Cather in my life. Recently I listened to a wonderful reading by Barbara McCulloh of O Pioneers. Then last night we watched the Hallmark Hall of Fame production made in 1992 and starring Jessica Lange and David Strathairn. It was, quite simply, outstanding.

O Pioneers is the story of Alexandra Bergson and her family, immigrants who came to America in the late 19th century in order to farm the rich, open prairie lands of Nebraska. The Bergsons are Swedish, but they count the French and Bohemians among their friends and neighbors. This is a tale of struggle, conflict, sorrow, and ultimately, endurance. The film brings Cather’s story vividly to life: it is beautifully acted and visually very compelling. The drama is abetted by Bruce Broughton’s surging soundtrack- maybe too surging, in some spots? – but never mind; it was great, too, Mr Broughton seems to have channeled Aaron Copland in this magisterial score, for which, BTW, he won an Emmy.

O Pioneers was shot entirely on location in the Cornhusker State. There’s plenty of “waving wheat” – the place looked gorgeous! If you have a chance to see the film, watch for the scene in which several dozen young men on horseback ride out to meet the bishop. They have come to receive his blessing and escort him safely back to their church, where is to officiate at a funeral. It is a deeply stirring sequence.

There is much great writing in the novel. I was really pleased that the film included this sentence: “The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”

And speaking of terrific writing…

I continue to make my way, slowly and carefully, through The Age of American Unreason. Susan Jacoby’s erudite book – is it a treatise? a jeremiad, perhaps? A polemic? – demands close and careful reading, filled as it is with history, philosophy, and portraits of fascinating – and often infuriating – people.

Anyway, in order to describe certain metaphysical theories, such as social Darwinism, that fly in the face of actual facts, she came up with a phrase that I just love: “bloviating arrogance.” From now on, I shall have my antennae attuned to pick up signs of bloviating arrogance in everyday life. Something tells me I won’t have to look far!

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Quotes for a Sunday

March 2, 2008 at 2:15 pm (books, Eloquence, Mystery fiction)

Michael Pollan, on the subject of nutritionism:

“Ideologies are ways of organizing large swaths of life and experience under a set of shared but unexamined assumptions. This quality makes an ideology particularly hard to see, at least while it’s still exerting its hold on your culture. A reigning ideology is a little like the weather–all pervasive and so virtually impossible to escape.”

food.jpg In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan


From The Doomsters by Ross MacDonald:

“We passed a small-boat harbor, gleaming white on blue, and a long pier draped with fishermen. Everything was as pretty as a postcard. The trouble with you, I said to myself: you’re always turning over the postcards and reading the messages on the underside. Written in invisible ink, in blood, in tears, with a black border around them, with postage due, unsigned, or signed with a thumbprint.”

doomster.jpg The Doomsters, written in 1958, has been reissued by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. It exemplifies the way in which great crime fiction endures across decades.

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Death, where is thy sting?

March 1, 2008 at 2:30 am (Eloquence, Film and television, Magazines and newspapers, Poetry)

buckley.jpg William F. Buckley was an iconic figure for those of my generation, even if our politics were diametrically opposed to his. That wit, that urbanity, the multisyllabic vocabulary, the faux-British accent – it all added up to a package that was hard to resist.

George F. Will has a nice valedictory piece, “A Life Athwart History,” in today’s Washington Post. In it, he quotes a stanza from “Vit(ae) Summa Brevis Spem nos Incohare Longam” by Ernest Dowson. I have seen this poem before but forgotten its haunting beauty. Here it is in its entirety:

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate;
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

Poor Ernest Dowson! He was one of those wayward, sensitive souls doomed to flame out at an early age. Here is a brief, poignant memoir of his life by the poet and critic Arthur Symons.

Some will recognize the phrase “days of wine and roses” as the title of a terrific film from 1962 starring Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon. The film depicted the ravages of alcoholism in a way that has rarely been equalled, before or since. And from another poem by Dowson comes the title of an acclaimed American novel that became an even more acclaimed movie. See line 13 in “Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae.”

dowson.gif Ernest Dowson 1867-1900

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The Art of the Short Story: “Dr. Henry Selwyn” by W.G. Sebald

February 1, 2008 at 1:08 pm (Eloquence, Short stories)

sebald_emigrants.jpg W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants consists of four lengthy narratives, each concerning a German living in exile from his native land. Sebald’s style is unique and enigmatic. He employs little if any dialogue in these stories; there’s also not much in the way of a discernible plot. They have a semi-documenary feel to them. Black and white photos of (deliberately?) poor resolution are scattered throughout the text. The atmosphere is suffused with melancholy.

I read this book in the late 1990’s, shortly after it was published. I remember being especially affected by the first story; in particular, I have never forgotten a sentence that occurs near the end.

The story starts out in a most ordinary way: “At the end of September 1970, shortly before I took up my position in Norwich, I drove out to Hingham with Clara in search of somewhere to live.” The narrator and his wife come upon a house in the country which, although in a state of falling-down neglect, has a strange appeal. They find the owner, Dr. Selwyn, lying prone in the orchard, engaged in counting blades of grass.

The couple take rooms in the house. At one point, Dr. Selwyn has a guest for dinner, and he invite his tenants to join the party. Later in the evening, the talk turns to Switzerland. (Dr. Selwyn’s wife Elli is Swiss; they are estranged.) The doctor tells of his sojourn in that country many years ago as a young man, shortly before the outbreak of World War One. While there, he became an ardent mountain climber. He was aided in his pursuit of this passion by an alpine guide named Johannes Naegeli.

I don’t want to tell any more of the story. I do want to say, though, that something amazing happens at the end; the reader receives a revelation that is like the sun breaking through a heavy cloud cover.

The penultimate sentence, to which I alluded earlier, is this: “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.”

On the matter of Sebald’s fiction, E.L. Doctorow observes:

“The memories that are evoked are so specific and detailed and thickly textured that they are humanly impossible: they are memories beyond the capacity of actual nonliterary memory. Time and time again we are given reminiscences of the loveliness of ordinary living before the sweep of the scythe: life that is exquisitely modest, preciously unassuming, family oriented, charmingly eccentric, and above all rooted, deeply rooted, in the presumption of European civilization, and so, doomed to be betrayed.” [from the book Creationists]

In December of 2001, W.G. Sebald died in an automobile accident near his home in East Anglia. He was 57 years old.


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Magazine Love – and “Best American” anthologies

January 30, 2008 at 9:02 pm (Book review, books, Eloquence, Magazines and newspapers)

I love magazines! Wheat would we do without these often-unheralded repositories of terrific writing? And now, here come a slew of “Best of” anthologies, to help us catch up on quality items we may have missed.

crime-reporting2.jpg I have just finished – or, almost finished – Best American Crime Reporting 2007. This little baby made it home with me from the library while I was working on my true crime post. Let’s just see what’s in it, I said to myself. After all, one does not wish to take in too much of “this sort of thing” at one gulp. Well, you know what’s coming. I read pretty much the whole collection, finding “this sort of thing,” for the most part, irresistible.

As with most collections of this sort, there is a series editor and a guest editor. The job of series editor is shared by the venerable Otto Penzler and writer Thomas H. Cook, with Linda Fairstein doing the honors as guest editor. I like what Penzler and Cook have to say in their preface:

“The common thread of crime is crisis, which has the striking power to generate suspense in its development and poignancy in its outcome. How, the heart asks, did this crisis come about, by what means will it be resolved, and at what human cost?”

The fifteen articles in this anthology were originally published in a variety of magazines, most of which are associated with a particular city or state. Where sheer numbers are concerned, New York Magazine was the clear winner, with four entries. Esquire and The Atlantic each had two. The Boston Globe Magazine, GQ, Texas Monthly, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Chicago had one each.

texas-monthly.jpg new-york-mag.jpg esquiremay-2002_sm.gif atlantic-monthly-magazine.jpg

The selections vary widely, as does the nature of the crimes delineated by these authors. In “The Loved Ones,” Tom Junod tells the story of family-run nursing home, St. Rita’s, located just southeast of New Orleans. From all accounts, Sal and Mabel Mangano, with help from other family members, tended the home’s residents with loving care. Yet they made a fateful decision not to evacuate their charges and their staff when Katrina hit the Crescent City. The home was completely inundated; as a result, thirty-five residents lost their lives. The Manganos were subsequently hauled up on charges of negligent homicide:

“Now they were notorious–icons of abandonment whose mug shots after their arrest personified more than just the prevailing stereotype of unscrupulous nursing-home owners. An entire American city had been left to die, and sixty-five-year-old Sal and sixty-two-year-old Mabel Mangano had somehow become the public faces of a national disgrace.”

So what happened, exactly, at St. Rita’s on that fateful Monday, August 29th 2005? I can tell you, once you read Junod’s moment-by-moment reconstruction of how catastrophe overtook the nursing home, you will not forget it.

I was initially tempted to skip this story, feeling, probably like many other people, Katrina’ed out. Once again, the lesson was brought home to me: the stories of individual people, even in the midst of the heavily-reported melee created by a killer hurricane, deserve to be heard. Tom Junod has told this story with urgency and eloquence. He is not a writer with whom I was familiar up until now. I would like to read more of his work.

Some of the criminal behavior recounted in these stories is more bizarre than vicious. Angela Platt managed to embezzle nine million dollars from her employer, construction magnate John Ferreira. Granted, Platt was a trusted and seemingly conscientious employee, yet she was using ill-gotten gains to finance a lavish, ostentatious lifestyle for herself and her perpetually out-of-work husband. Did she think she could keep it up forever and not be found out? And how do you not miss nine million dollars stolen from what is essentially a family business? Read all about it in “The Inside Job” by Neil Swidey (Boston Globe Magazine).

“The Devil and David Berkowitz” by Steve Fishman (New York Magazine) was another story I was tempted to forego. But Fishman’s tale of Berkowitz prison transformation from serial killer pariah (“Son of Sam”) to Evangelical preacher is fascinating, if surreal. This scenario presented Fishman with the challenge of portraying ardent Christian fundamentalists in an evenhanded way and without irony or snarky asides. He succeeds beautifully.

“The Double Blind” by Matthew Teague (Atlantic Monthly) is the story of how British intelligence infiltrated and ultimately disabled the IRA. Teague tells this story through the prism of the experience of one man, Kevin Fulton, who was caught in the crossfire of a turbulent, often deadly war of attrition. You would think this would be a straightforward story of good guys triumphing over bad guys. You would be wrong.

Betty Williams is a vibrant, headstrong teen-ager who yearns for death. Her ex-boyfriend helps her to achieve her goal in Pamela Colloff’s immensely disturbing “A Kiss Before Dying” (Texas Monthly). And novelist Douglas Preston tells the harrowing tale of “The Monster of Florence” (Atlantic Monthly). Yes – that’s Florence, Italy, cradle of the Renaissance, repository of fabulous art treasures, surrounded on all sides by gorgeous countryside – countryside in which a serial killer stalked amorous couples and killed them (and worse). Preston and his friend, journalist Mario Spezi, decide to investigate the case on their own; they are stunned when they are accused by the Italian authorities of obstruction of justice and concealing evidence. This is a classic case of truth being stranger than fiction.

monster.jpg (Preston and Spezi’s book, The Monster of Florence, is due out in June.)

I think the story that will haunt me the most is “Last Seen on September 10” by Mark Fass (New York Magazine). On September 10, 2001, at eleven o’clock in the morning, Ron Lieberman said goodbye to his wife Sneha Ann Philip and left for his work as an emergency-room intern. He returned around midnight to an empty apartment. He wasn’t unduly alarmed at first; apparently Sneha, also a physician in training, sometimes stayed out late, or even overnight with friends or relations, and did not call her husband. When Ron awoke early the next morning and Sneha was still not home, he was more annoyed than worried, knowing her habits as he did.

Then the unthinkable happened. And then Ron Lieberman panicked. With good reason. Sneha had still not been seen or heard from. The search for her became entangled in the search for survivors of the September 11 attacks. But no trace of Sneha Ann Philip has ever been found.

There is one story in this fine anthology that I was unable to finish. Written by C.J. Chivers, “The School” (Esquire) is the story of the siege of School No.1 in Beslan, a city located in the Russian republic of North Ossieta. It was September 1, 2004, the first day of the new school year. Festivities welcoming the children were under way when a hoard of Chechen terrorists descended on the school as if out of nowhere. A bloodbath followed. I have no doubt, from the little I could get through, that this is a terrific piece of reportage, an up close, true picture of what a gang of pitiless fanatics is capable of perpetrating on innocent people. )

Probably the single most harrowing magazine piece that I have managed to get through bears the deceptively modest title “A Sea Story.” It’s the story of the sinking if the ferry Estonia in the Baltic Sea on September 28, 1994. Written by William Langewiesche, “A Sea Story” appeared in the May 2004 edition of the Atlantic Monthly. It is also included in Langewiesche’s book The Outlaw Sea. outlaw-sea.jpg Don’t read it if you have a weak heart!

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“All creationists are mortal”

January 24, 2008 at 8:38 pm (books, Eloquence, Spiritual)

creationists.jpg doctorow.gif “Genesis” is the first essay in E.L. Doctorow’s collection Creationists. In it Doctorow makes a provocative observation on the art of the storyteller: “If not in all stories than certainly in mystery stories, the writer works backward. The ending is known and the story is designed to arrive at the ending.”

Later, there is this passage:

“The cosmology of Genesis is beautiful and for all we know may even turn out to be as metaphorically prescient as some believers think it is. One imagines the ancient storytellers convening to consider what they had to work with: day and night, land and sea, earth and sky, trees that bore fruit, plants that bore seed, wild animals, domesticated animals, birds, fish, and everything that crept. In their brilliant imaginations, inflamed by the fear and love of God, it seemed more than possible that these elements and forms of life, this organization of the animate and inanimate, would have been produced from a chaos of indeterminate dark matter by spiritual intent–here was the story to get to the ending–and that it was done by a process of discretion, the separation of day from night, air from water, earth from sky, one thing from another in a, presumably, six-day sequence culminating in the human race.”

genesis.jpg This essay was originally written for the Pocket Canons Bible Series, published in 1999 by Grove Press.

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The Power of Words

January 22, 2008 at 8:44 pm (Eloquence, Spiritual)

In a section of Classics for Pleasure entitled The English Religious Tradition, Michael Dirda quotes a passage from the Gospel of Luke, as rendered in the King James Bible.I love what he says after the quoted passage:

“The solemn harmonies of such prose are largely ignored in these days of text-messaging and political newspeak. Nonetheless, sometimes only the full organ roll of liturgical English can match the sacredness of weddings, funerals, and religious holy days.”

the-common-book-of-prayer.jpg Dirda then goes on to quote from The Book of Common Prayer‘s Order for the Burial of the Dead:

“Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up and is cut down like a flower; he flieth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. In the midst of life we be in death…”

This seems bleak to the point of hopelessness. Where is the consolation? But wait…”These magnificently somber phrases eventually build to one of the great climaxes in English literature:

‘Behold, I show you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, and that in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye by the last trump. For the trump shall blow, and the dead shall rise incorruptible, and we shall be changed….Death where is thy sting? Hell where is thy victory?'”

Surely in the annals of great oratory there is a straight line from this triumphant declaration of faith to Martin Luther King Jr’s equally triumphant “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”


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The Horned Man by James Lasdun

August 20, 2007 at 1:34 am (books, Eloquence)

lasdun_james2.jpg horned-man.jpg I’ve mentioned James Lasdun before, but I’ve just come across a passage I photocopied some time ago from his novel The Horned Man; it compels me to mention him yet again. In my previous post, about thrillers with brains among other topics, I said that I’d had singularly bad luck when recommending this novel. As a rule, people hadn’t liked it; I think very few finished it.

Unfortunate: If they’d at least made it to page 115 of the hardcover edition, they would have encountered the following:

“I had come to realize that I no longer wanted a ‘lover’ or a ‘girlfriend’; that I wanted a wife. I wanted something durable about me–a fortress and a sanctuary. I wanted a women whom I could love–as a character in a book I’d read put it–sincerely, without irony, and without resignation. I had been observing a self-imposed celibacy as I waited for the right woman to come along; partly so as not to be entangled when I met her, but also, more positively, in order to create in myself the state of receptiveness and high sensitization I considered necessary for an auspicious first meeting. I believed that human relations were capable of partaking in a certain mystery; that under the right conditions something larger than the sum of what each individual brought with them, could transfuse itself into the encounter, elevating it and permanently shielding it from the grinding destructiveness of everyday life. And just such a mystery, such a baptism-in-love, was what I felt to be sweetly impending as I stood beside Carol in my room that afternoon.”

When I reviewed The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers, I commented on her Ian McEwan-caliber writing. In my view, the same could be said of Lasdun. The Horned Man is a disturbing novel, but I deeply appreciate being disturbed when it is done in this way, provocatively and profoundly.

And I have to add one more thing: a phrase that leaps out at me from the above passage is “the grinding destructiveness of everyday life.” When I think of the marriages that I have known of, that have fetched up irretrievably on the rocks, victims of just such destructiveness, among other things, I could weep.

And now I think I’ll do some research on Celtic mythology. More on this later… matronae.jpg

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