“Hi! How Ya Doin!” by Joyce Carol Oates

August 14, 2007 at 4:32 pm (books, Eloquence, Short stories)

joycecaroloates.jpg Yikes! a story by Joyce Carol Oates, six pages of nonstop manic motion, propulsive and relentless, spent in the chaotic company of numerous runners, oblivious to one another, except for one, all hurtling toward some unknown fate, not to be avoided, greatly to be dreaded, a lifetime encapsulated in one unending sentence, you will feel as though you have indeed been sentenced, by this master mesmerizer!

Okay – we know Joyce Carol Oates, and I’m no Joyce Carol Oates. Still, I needed to write – I couldn’t help thinking – in stream-of-consciousness after reading “Hi! How Ya Doin!” for the second time. I woke up this morning with the joggers’ feet still pounding in my brain. I’ll probably read the story yet again, but not just now – I need time to breathe!

dr-moses.jpg “Hi! How ya Doin!” is the first in a new anthology of stories by Oates, entitled The Museum of Dr. Moses: Tales of Mystery and Suspense. I’ve read only that first tale. Any more shocks to my system like that one and they’ll have to carry me out!

You can read the first three pages only of this story online, courtesy of Amazon.com’s “Search inside the book” feature. – click on “excerpt.” Go ahead – if you dare. (Or maybe it was just me – I do feel calmer now, at any rate…)

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Many Worlds, Many Portals

August 7, 2007 at 12:01 pm (Anglophilia, Art, books, Eloquence, Music, Poetry)

In one of my favorite passages in Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, Hrothgar, ruler of the Shieldings, describes Grendel and his mother: “They are fatherless creatures, /and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past of demons and ghosts. They dwell apart/ among wolves on the hills, on windswept crags / and treacherous keshes, where cold streams / pour down the mountain and disappear / under the mist and moorland.”

heaney460.jpg When we read works like this, we tend to skim, or even skip, the introduction – or I know I am guilty of this, at any rate. I urge you to read this one though; if you don’t, you’ll miss out on some gorgeous prose writing. Trying to pin down the source of this epic’s astounding power, Heaney observes that “…the poet conjures up a work as remote as Shield’s funeral boat borne towards the horizon, as commanding as the horn-pronged gables of King Hrothgar’s hall, as solid and dazzling as Beowulf’s funeral pyre that is set ablaze at the end. These opening and closing scenes retain a haunting presence in the mind; they are set pieces, but they have the life-marking power of certain dreams..”

Here he describes the dragon:

the-fire-drake-e.jpg “Once he is wakened, there is something glorious in the way he manifests himself, a Fourth of July effulgence fireworking its path across the night sky; and yet, because of the centuries he has spent dormant in the tumulus, there is a foundedness as well as a lambency about him.”

One more quote about the strangeness of Beowulf: “…it arrives from somewhere beyond the known bourne of our experience, and having fulfilled its purpose.., it passes once more into the beyond.” This quote resonated for me in several ways, especially as regards the use of the word “bourne.” There’s Hamlet brooding on “that bourne from which no traveler returns.” Then there it is again, in “Crossing the Bar’ by Tennyson:

Sunset and evening star
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

tennyson.jpg [Alfred, Lord Tennyson]

secretaries.jpg Finally, the idea that this epic poem is some strange manifestation of another world reminded me of something Adam Nicolson says near the conclusion of God’s Secretaries (wonderful title, that; wonderful book, for that matter). In comparing the New English Bible’s version of the New Testament to that of the King James, Nicolson describes “…”the extraordinary and overpowering strangeness of the Bible, its governing sense of the metaphysical somehow squeezed, dragged and stretched, like Christ himself, into the world of men.” (p. 234)

Coming back to Beowulf, one of the things that surprised me most was the mixture of the pagan and monotheistic sensibilities. I wanted to say “Christian,” but there is no mention of Christ in the poem. There is mention, though, of “Almighty God” at line 1314; it occurs about thirty lines before the description of Grendel, his mother, and attendant demons and ghosts, in the passage cited at the beginning of this post.

beowulf-the-king-e.jpg geatish-warriors-e.jpg grendel-scrithing-e.jpg burnett-lament-e.jpg [More Beowulf art can be found at Beowulf in Steorarume]

In the July 30 issue of Newsweek, there is a fascinating article on quantum physics by Sharon Begley in which the author poses the provocative question: Can the Future Leak Into the Present? I’d like to quote one passage in particular; I don’t dare attempt to paraphrase it: “Last week a conference at Oxford University explored the idea that every time a subatomic system reaches a decision point–to undergo radioactive decay or not, say–it chooses both possibilities: in other words the particle decays, while in a parallel world it does not.” Begley refers to this as the ‘many worlds’ interpretation, which is, apparently, accepted by some physicists, for reasons which I won’t elaborate on here. Now this stuff is really hard to understand; nevertheless, one can readily see that it is extremely intriguing in its implications.


rvw2.jpg My husband and I were pleasantly surprised by the large number of hits we got on a search for Ralph (pronounced “Rafe”) Vaughan Williams on YouTube. We have decided that this means there is hope for the world after all! Here is a link to the incomparable Tallis Fantasia, performed by an accomplished group of musicians at Indiana University.

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The Music of England: Ralph Vaughan Williams

June 27, 2007 at 6:28 pm (Anglophilia, Eloquence, Music)

This excerpt from the Times review of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams was written on the occasion of the piece’s premiere in 1910. It is quoted in the liner notes of a compact disc featuring Vaughan Williams’s works for string orchestra (Nimbus NIM 5019):

“The work is wonderful because it seems to lift one into some unknown region of musical thought and feeling…one is never sure whether one is listening to something very old or very new. The voices of the old church musicians are around one, and yet their music is enriched with all that modern art has done, since Debussy, too, is somewhere in the picture. It cannot be assigned to a time or a school, but it is full of visions.”

This commentary is from the notes in Gramaphone’s Classical Good CD Guide (2002). The writer describes the Tallis Fantasia as a piece “…whose majestic unrelated consonances provided a new sound and a new way into large-scale form. The sound, with its sense of natural objects seen in a transfigured light, placed Vaughan Williams in a powerfully English visionary tradition…”

The Fantasia received its premiere at the Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester Cathedral; it was written specifically to fill the acoustic of that vast interior space. You can, however, play it on the CD player in your bedroom (as I have just done) and still be astonished by its otherworldy magic.

rvwcat.jpg Ralph Vaughan Williams
in 1942, with his favorite cat Foxy.

gloucester_2.jpg The interior of Gloucester Cathedral. For more images, click on Hintermeister – Gloucester Cathedral

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On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

June 20, 2007 at 12:16 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, Eloquence)

chesil.jpg On Chesil Beach is a gem of a novel, a small and tightly wound masterpiece. Its very brevity makes it tricky to decribe the plot without giving too much away. The story concerns two young lovers at midcentury, just before the decade of the 60’s broke wide open, spreading wild abandon and sexual heedlessness over the youth of several continents. Philip Larkin’s famous lines have been frequently quoted by reviewers of this novel:

‘Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three/ (which was rather late for me) -/ Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP.”

Of course this novel is gorgeously written, and in addition, it is elegantly structured. We first meet Florence Ponting and Edward Mayhew at a crucial juncture in their shared history. McEwan then takes the reader back in time to the beginnings of their relationship – and even further back, in fact, to childhood and family life. These were drastically different experiences for Florence and Edward; we are once again reminded that falling in love sometimes has little or nothing to do with shared interests or backgrounds. As we learn more about these attractive young people – Edward the robust, life-loving brawler and Florence the gifted musician – we come to care deeply for them both. Our stake in their ultimate fate grows accordingly. After the sortees into their respective pasts, McEwan returns us again and again to the present, increasingly fraught moment. Thus, urgency vies with memory, washing up and then receding, like the waves on Chesil Beach.

Three more points: First, there is a wonderfully titled article in Spectator Magazine: “The Magus of Fitzrovia, in his Prime,” by Matthew d’Ancona. (Fitzrovia, where McEwan lives, is an area of Central London.) Toward the close of this piece, d’Ancona expresses his unabashed admiration for the author of On Chesil Beach: “I admit that Ian McEwan is a hero of mine: a man of letters and liberty, sceptical, decent and free.” Oh, I shall joyfully jump on that bandwagon with both feet, and my literature-loving heart pounding merrily!


Ian McEwan


Second: There is a two minute video trailer posted on Youtube; have a look at it. If you’re lucky, the full length film may be playing in a bookstore near you:


Third: This is a quintessentailly English novel. It put me in mind of Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach:”



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The ghost of Puccini…

June 17, 2007 at 9:24 pm (books, Eloquence, Music)

This review, which appeared in the Daily Express on June 8, 1927, is quoted by Morag Joss at the front of her extraordinary novel of psychological suspense, Puccini’s Ghosts:

“Covent Garden was haunted last night. It was haunted by the gentle and immaculate ghost of Puccini…who died with the final bars of Turandot still imprisoned within his brain, who disappeared to solve an enigma more terrible and profound than any created by the Princess Turandot. We like to think that Puccini revisited the glimpses of the moon last night to observe the opera’s performance in England, where his works are so universally cherished, to watch his tricksy spirits at their revels. We imagined him pleased with the magnificent production and the sensation it created.”


Giacomo Puccini (December 22, 1858 – November 29, 1924)

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Michael Dirda’s review of The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers

June 7, 2007 at 12:10 pm (Book review, Eloquence)

As I was preparing for a program of book talks to be presented at a public library branch this past Saturday, I came upon a review by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post. The book under review was The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers, a novel I love and have taken every available opportunity to recommend to people. I now remember that it was Dirda’s piece that alerted me to this book in the first place; I had not previously heard of it, nor of its author.

I deeply appreciate the beauty and incisiveness of Dirda’s writing. Here is a link to the review on Amazon:


Referring back to an earlier work by Vickers, Dirda notes “…that Henry Jamesian sense of a missed life — of what might have been — suffuses The Other Side of You and reminds us that Vickers is a novelist in the great English tradition of moral seriousness. Her characters suffer, they struggle to be true to both themselves and the promptings of the human heart, and they eventually accept that a quiet accommodation to one’s lot may be the most that any of us can hope for. Yet sometimes, during even the most seemingly drab existence, a moment or a memory of real unclouded happiness may be unexpectedly snatched from the maw of time.”

As I have said before (in a previous post on this blog), maybe they should build a statue to a critic!

[Recent books by Michael Dirda are Book by Book: notes on reading and life (2006), and Bound To Please: an Extraordinary one-volume literary education: essays on great writers and their books (2005).]

I have posted my own review of The Other Side of You .

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson

June 1, 2007 at 12:20 pm (Book review, Eloquence)

Have I ever actually sat down and read this book? I don’t know for sure, but I just finished listening to a reading of it by Alexander Spencer. What is the word to describe the feeling it evoked? “Harrowing,” I think, sums it up best.

I have nothing original to add to the extensive critiques and analyses of this masterwork. I can only recommend the audiobook, this experience of listening to a story that is so genuinely frightening because it strikes so close to the most basic question of existence: Do all human beings, no matter how good, harbor a secret compulsion to do evil? How do we defeat the urge to commit acts of malevolence while assuring that the good in our nature prevails?

There is an interesting story about how this book came to be written. The time was October of 1885. The story had come to Stevenson in a nightmare, from which his wife Fanny awakened him. He told her that he wished that she hadn’t done so, because “”I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.” After he completed his first draft of Dr Jekyll, he shared it with Fanny and stepson Lloyd. Fanny had serious reservations; she felt he was spinning a tale that had profound allegorical implications, which he had neglected to bring forward. Supposedly Stevenson stormed back upstairs. (He was already partially bedridden with the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him at the age of 48.) Hours later, he returned to his family, telling Fanny she was right and chucking the manuscript into the fire. In the next three days, he rewrote the entire novel; that is the version which we have today.

The writing in this novel – more a novella, really; the Barnes and Noble Classic clocks in at 73 pages – is compelling and beautiful, and served to remind me once again of how eager I am to return to the classics (a major retirement project, methinks). Here is a passage that precedes the opening of a bottle of fine wine:

” The fog still slept on the wing above the drowned city, where the lamps glimmered like carbuncles; and through the muffle and smother of these fallen clouds, the procession of the town’s life was still rolling in through the great arteries wth the sound as of a mighty wind. But the room was gay with firelight. In the bottle the acids were long ago resolved; the imperial dye had softened with time, as the colour grows richer in stained glass windows; and the glow of hot autumn afternoons on hillside vineyards, was ready to be set free and to disperse the fogs of London.”

If I had to choose one sentence from this book that chilled me to the bone it would be this one:

“My devil had long been caged, he came out roaring.”




robert-louis-stevenson.jpg jekyll-mansfield.jpg

[Robert Louis Stevenson, and an eerie double exposure (1895) portraying the stark duality of Jekyll/Hyde. In the photograph, actor Richard Mansfield plays both parts, naturally – or unnaturally.]

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Mary White, by William Allen White

April 22, 2007 at 1:36 pm (Eloquence)

The essay “Mary White” came to mind because of this week’s sad and horrific events in Virginia. I first read it as a schoolgirl in New Jersey. I have forgotten much – both in and out of school – in the decades following, but I have never forgotten Mary White.

True, her death was the result of an accident, not of a “motiveless malignity;” still, White’s heartbreaking elegy for his daughter can, I believe, bring solace. And I am really grateful to Bartleby for making editor Christopher Morley’s gracious prefatory comments available to present day readers.


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Maybe they should put up a statue to a critic!

April 12, 2007 at 3:09 pm (Eloquence)

Jean Sibelius is supposed to have comforted a young composer by saying, “No one ever put up a statue to a critic!” It is still a commonplace to deride the efforts of reviewers (especially if you yourself have been badly reviewed!). But I have found of late some exceptionally fine writing in reviews and critiques. Here is an example, from Elizabeth Judd’s review of Anne Tyler’s DIGGING TO AMERICA:

” Tyler, who was raised among various Quaker communities and who turned eleven before she first used a telephone, understands the powerful magic of self-imposed isolation.” (This review appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, a magazine with an outstanding book review section.)

BTW, DIGGING TO AMERICA is a terrific novel; if you haven’t yet read it, please drop everything and do so immediately!

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Poem – Those Winter Sundays, by Robert Hayden

April 8, 2007 at 4:31 pm (Eloquence, Poetry)

Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fire blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,

speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Most great poetry speaks for itself; certainly this piercingly beautiful poem does just that. I want to add a comment, though, and say that the last line is just amazing, conveying so much depth of feeling and that same time turning this painful recollection into a prayer.

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