By: Esther M. Powell
Posted on: Fri, June 22 2007 - 2:14 pm
August 24, 2007
Well, I recently started a biography of "Mad" Anthony Wayne, but I'm only on page 94. All this war stuff is slow going for me, even though I'm sure it is good for me to learn about the revolutionary war.
Today I'll talk about another "mystery," Killer Blonde by Laura Levine (now there is a name I just can't believe! - but ya never know!)
This one is fun. It's a breeze to read, and funny. (One of the lines I like best: "I hear Jamaica's awfully nice if you don't mind the hostile townspeople.") (Yeah, I know, it just happens to be on the same page as my quote in Rumilluminations Now.)
But this book has tipped me over the edge into wondering about the "mystery" genre. In the last few weeks I have talked about mysteries that were really a real novel, a morality play (with crappy values - go figure), a farcical screenplay, and of course this one, part of the fast-becoming-ubiquitous comic mystery.
With books like this one around, why do American's still average one book (or three) a year? Come on, guys, this is more fun than watching reruns! Jeez.
August 21, 2007
Cozy Gaudi Afternoon by Barbara Wilson is not. Or maybe it is, but with a twist! It is not really a mystery, (well, kinda) more a... gee, how do I talk about books without ruining them for you? Let's say I can't help but thinking this would be a great novel to turn into a movie, but maybe not a great movie - lots of fun, though and there are all kinds of great movies!
If you decide to read this wild ride, super-realistic (as opposed to super realistic) book take a look at some pictures of Gaudi's architecture in Barcelona, Spain, first. I wish I had. The book inspired me to see the setting, and I think I would have enjoyed it much more if I had seen the pictures first!
(I am embarrassed to admit that although I have been online at home for six months now, I have not really taken advantage of its wonderful ability to make a book's setting come alive!) The pictures of Gaudi's architecture are amazing! Maybe this book would make a great movie! At least very visually interesting!
Silly as this book is in ways, at least it is not mundane, conventional, or overly domestic!
Yeah, I'll look for more of Wilson's books at the library! Maybe she will start a series around architects. That would be so much fun!
August 20, 2007
Success! I have finished Walter Isaacson's Einstein! I really don't understand what Einstein's problem was with the Uncertainty Principle, though. If gamblers can throw dice, why can't God? And the statistics of particles allow prediction on the macro level, so what's the fuss? (speaking of our perceptual reality.)
I'm not entirely happy with the treatment of the issue of Einstein's first wife, either by him or Isaacson! Isaacson seems to have more faith in the fairness of her two physics failures at the polytechnic than I do. As an oboist who read about the indignities suffered by a female oboe student in France (such as the college oboe teacher breaking her reed right before she was to play!) I am not at all sure Maric didn't deserve a degree!
Too bad the bad behavior of some of the male sex towards the professionalism of women ruins the creditablility of the whole system, but there it is. I'm not convinced that Maric had so little to do with Einstein's early success as Isaacson seems to believe, although the fact that she never claimed much credit bears some weight. (On the other hand, maybe she was completely discouraged and cowed!) The fact that Einstein was willing to turn over to her the money from the Nobel Peace Prize - was that a desperate attempt to get free, or guilt? (I know, it could be both - and not necessarily guilt about not giving her sufficient credit!)
Too bad Einstein let go of his visualization techniques that served him so well and depended so much on mathematics in his later years. I understand that the theories inform the math and the math informs the theories, (the way "the research informs the writing, and the writing informs the research!") but maybe the balance between the two broke down for him. At any rate, great book, well worth reading! (With the caveat that this is the only biography of Einstein that I have read!)
August 19, 2007
Einstein by Walter Isaacson continues to be fascinating reading. It is amazing to me that his worldview seems so much like that of many people I have spoken to over the years, including me! (I talk to myself all the time!)
Of course, it is impossible to know all of the influences that affect even one person's thought, but I think Einstein had a greater influence on many people's view of God and politics than I ever realized.
One thing that he believed in that I'm not sure I believe in is a world federation of nations with a good deal of real power. I actually want the United Nations in there, of course. But make a world federation too powerful and don't you just ask for the same kind of power struggles we have now at the national level? (Hmmm.... I seem to be going into Rumilluminations mode here - sorry!)
A wonderful anecdote recounted in this book is about the invitation the judge made to all the people he had sworn in as American citizens, including Einstein. Evidently... but no, I won't tell you what happened. Read the book!
* * *
I always loved those starry dividers when I was reading books! Now I can use them myself. Yay!
Just finished Mum's the Word by Kate Collins (but copyrighted by Linda Tsoutsouris, can someone tell me what that's all about?)
I only heard about them because I was telling a fellow book sale room at the library lady about my Murders of a Flower Child and she said, oh like Kate Collins' books. I responded, huh? and proceeded to check one out.
Mum's the Word is the first in her series, and the only one I have read so far. And no, nothing like my flower child stories, (see for yourself!) Her heroine is the owner of a flower shop. While it is fun to read a book set in one's hometown (Valparaiso, Indiana, though she calls it something else) it doesn't really evoke my home town to me. I've never been to the country club, I don't think, and my absence from here for thirty years precludes me from knowing just how dirty the town might have become.
Along the top of the front cover there's a quote, "Move over, Stephanie Plum...." Well, hardly. Stephanie Plum is kick-ass New Jersey and Abby Knight (Kate Collins' flower shop heroine) is pardon me, altogether too well, Midwestern goody-goody! Her pale efforts at rebellion make my history look like Mata Hari, and many people have called me scared and wussy!
Kate Collins does offer characters humorous and lively in their own muted way. It is pretty good for a cozy. But really, don't we really only want cozy in our real lives? The danger in this novel is not at all convincing, and the chuckles never break into guffaws. Still, a lot better than some of the cozies I've read this year.
Or is that just because of the flower talk, which is pretty thinly sown here....
August 17, 2007
Still reading Einstein by Walter Isaacson. In his fifties Einstein has a worldview that really is quite humble (although, as the author notes, he was better at humanity than he was at personal relations.) Somehow the author continues to promulate his reputation for being this solitary genius, which I still don't really get.
Sure, he had genius, I'm not arguing with that. But without the help of his friends other physicists and the mathematicians, I don't believe we ever would have heard of him at all.
His work at the patent office (at the first job he finally, with the help of his friends, got) had to do, as did his father's livelihood, with electromagnetics! Einstein was hardly working or thinking his creative thoughts in a setting irrelevant to them!
In his early years he had little respect for mathematics, and only later went so far as to accept a mathematical formalism (which he called, if I understand correctly, only a temporary make-shift kind of solution to problems.)
He seems always to have had a problem with uncertainty, always believing that at root nothing was really left to chance. This made him part of a new "old guard" as opposed to Heisenberg and others.
Repeating formulations about the beliefs of Rumi, Einstein, or Johnny Appleseed for that matter always makes me uncomfortable. A person's ideas change so much over the years! Who wants to be accountable forever for how he/she feels or thinks for a few years?
It is kind of fun to speculate, however, whether Einstin believes in determinism because of his desire for physical predictability or a desire to escape guilt for his own past actions?
Ah well, that is all it is - speculation. His attitude made him in some ways, anyway, highly moral, and at the same time highly tolerant of the flaws of others. Sounds like a good way to be, to me!
At any rate, I am now at the point where Einstein has come to the United States and is afraid to set foot in Germany, because of the strength of its antisemitic sentiment. Not that impressed with American culture, Einstein nevertheless became hooked on American cultural freedoms!
August 15, 2007
Well, I am still reading and enjoying the Einstein autobiography a good deal. You do have to give Einstein a lot of credit for his universalism and his intuition about the success of assimilation (although I suspect his initial reaction against Zionism was right on, too! But what choices did the Jewish "tribe" as Einstein called it have in those difficult pre-World War II days?)
But, I really didn't mean to get into Isaacson's book so much today, because I want to talk about The Savage Garden by Mark Mills. I picked it up because - you guessed it - it was about a garden!
Well, it probably should have been put in with the regular fiction instead of the mystery section at the library. It reminds me a little of one of John Mortimer's non-Rumpole novels I read (one that also takes place in Italy) which I didn't really "get" completely. (I guess that is one novel ripe for a reread!)
This novel by Mark Mills is eminently "gettable" and also a great story. I admit my attention flagged a little in the Sumatra/Borneo section, but I do think it had a psychological purpose which I won't reveal....
As a mystery, it depends on what you are looking for in a mystery. One murder I solved long before it was revealed by the author, but the telling of the tale demands the order given. Maybe the solution was obvious to me because I went to a lecture long ago in college that mentioned a certain phenomenon, also psychological....
Read the book and tell me what you think!
August 12, 2007
Einstein by Walter Isaacson is beginning to bug me. Einstein's arrogance is so consummate at times, and Isaacson is so forgiving of it, that I kind of want to spit!
Einstein, according to Isaacson, is so gentle that he doesn't want to play chess (I strongly suspect that as a motive!) and yet he sets demands for his wife for the privilege of having him stay with her that are demeaning beyond belief. I myself would risk starvation rather than settle for them. I think they were terribly emotionally violent.
But, there is violence and there is violence. I guess he just wasn't interested in the physical version of it. Emotional violence and insult - hey, no problem!
And the lack of honesty! It is work and rising above the personal, he tells his wife, for his indifference when it is really just plain old emotional detachment.
Isaacson is altogether too kind to him.
Having said that, I am enjoying the scientific explanations, which really help some of the things that puzzled me in college, including the attitude that the electromagnetic theory, which prompted my teacher to comment that I still hadn't lost my innocence! Well, I guess in that regard, I am in good company, since Einstein seems not to have either!
If I understand it at all. Which, when it comes to physics, is in some doubt!
Very readable. I wonder if there is a good biography of Einstein written by a woman!
August 11, 2007
I have begun a biography: Einstein by Walter Isaacson. Already I like it (I am on about page 100.) So far it is very readable, and right now I feel he is explaining the science Einstein was grappling with as well or better than any explanations I have read before!
As a student I remember looking under the microscope and being shown "Brownian motion." My reaction was pretty much, okay, so what? Big deal! This book helps me understand why it was so important to science at the time of its discovery.
It also helps to explain why I was so blase about it. All this quantum mechanics theory has really been assimilated into the world-view of my generation, I believe! The idea that dimension and patterns of natural behavior can extend in all directions and result in different sets of "laws" is just something we have grown up with.
Having said that, I'm looking forward to getting some answers to more physics questions without going through the rigors of a physics course!
This book may also be a great comfort to all those who feel unappreciated in the world. Just read about Einstein in his youth.
And, oh yeah, Einstein never flunked mathematics!
August 10, 2007
My favorite mystery read in quite a while is Death in the Truffle Wood by Pierre Magnan, translated from the French by Patricia Clancy.
I admit I had cosy and research reasons for choosing this mystery set in Provence. It involves truffles, about which I wished to know more. These expectations were not fulfilled in some ways, and more than fulfilled in others, but I did find it to be an interesting book!
Its tone is matter-of-fact, but not cold. The story is really quite ingenious, but not in an I-can't-wait-to-find-out-whodunnit way. And some of the mystery was no mystery to me, because I am both a gardener and of a somewhat bloodthirsty turn of mind! And also (add I cryptically) of a somewhat piglet turn of mind!
Or not so cryptically - read my fables!
Now I want to go to Provence and eat some real truffles!
August 9, 2007
I guess I never logged in to say that I finished Stephen Ambrose's Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1869.
Maybe I'm just biased towards non-war American history, but I think this is a must-read (along with another of his books, Undaunted Courage.) I never prided myself on knowing alot of American history, but these two books are so chock-full of history and a real flavor of what people lived through that not only am I eager to learn more, but I am somewhat ashamed of how little I know.
The way the timing of the railroads and the civil war interlaced was news to me. Also the major role Lincoln played in bringing about the railroads, and one of his personal goals blocked by his assassination.
The fact that the railroads actively recruited the Chinese to come here and build was unknown to me. The railroads sent people over to China to persuade them to come! That the Chinese were the majority of the workforce in some of the hardest, slowest, most miserable and thankless jobs of the construction was a revelation, as was the fact that they supplied some of the (relatively primitive-seeming) techniques for making the project work.
Won't tell you what! You gotta read the book! We are having our book club discussion about this next week. I may have more to comment on after that.
A footnote: that was a different time, and many lives were lost that nobody bothered to keep track of!
(Although I wonder how different a time. Anybody hear any grand totals for the loss of life in the flooding of New Orleans? I have a sinking feeling we are not even close to knowing!)
August 6, 2007
While not exactly cosy, The Boric Acid Murder by Camille Minichino isn't hard-boiled city cold, either. Too fuzzy-warm for guys. Nah, it is probably cosy.
I did learn some scientific stuff, which gave it some interest, and the science was convincing enough that I looked at the back jacket flap and found that yes, indeed the author has real science background.
Since I started writing little murderlettes myself (see Murders of a Flower Child) I realize some guilt comes along with writing about murder (and in the case of these published authors, capitalizing on it!) Murder is murder, and thank goodness it is still not normal! Please don't try to bury the horror of it under pages and pages of church socials and folksy handicrafts!
Minichino doesn't. The first sentence is about a body, and we hear about the book's primary victim of concern itself on page 4 or so. As a scientist, she is also a realist.
Unfortunately, by my lights still only a tepid read. This title I believe to be misleading. Maybe I'll read some of the others to see if the same is true of them. Maybe.
And oh, Ms Minicho, I reserve the right to say "nary" and "folks" without being subject to ridicule. What, it isn't enough that perfectly okay words of our language die a natural death? You want to murder them, too? Well, phooey on yooey!
August 5, 2007
Well, our library book club is reading another Stephen Ambrose winner, Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1869.
Yup, we take the railroad for granted. I knew it took alot of hard work, but even after taking the train from Chicago to Santa Fe several times, through at least one high mountain pass, I still had no idea how much work it was to build!
Of course, this book is about the train track that goes as due West as possible, over the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas! This story is unbelievable. It is a must read!
Having said that, I must confess I am little over half-way through. Been busy!
The chapter I am reading now has several little mysteries. Has Ambrose stuck them in here to keep us guessing? For instance, he talks about an engineer spending the night sleeping and waking up with "a fine herd of cooties!"
Yes, I know as children my friends and I talked about cooties and played "Cootie" but what the hell are cooties? As I recall the game, they look a little like lice!
Anyway, a vivid read about insurmountable obstacles overcome by superhuman endeavor. Full of wilderness beauty, life and death struggle, perseverance. With all of that, who needs novels?
Well, me. But I can't imagine why!
July 27, 2007
Well, I picked up another cozy mystery with fear and trepidation. I got this one mostly for my mom because she is more of a cook than I.
When she (the lead character of Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Crime by Tamar Myers) talks about her entwined family tree as being the reason she can attend a family reunion when she is the only one present, well I can relate to that (for totally psychological reasons.) It was endearing.
But the warm fuzzy feeling did not last long. Then it came back, then it went away, along with any hope for a good mystery. Maybe her crappy hypocrisy is funny too, but only sometimes.
At least this writer is funny - I will give her that. The first two recipes - main ingredient - flour. They must be wartime dishes.
But I like to learn something when I read a mystery, and Myers is too out of touch with reality for me (e.g. when she has movie set people quilting. Sure.)
Her wit takes her a long way, but not 270 pages worth! Honestly, have mystery writers taken to trying to horn in on the market niche that romance novelists have held so long?
(Don't respond to that - the answer is undoubtedly yes - as of twenty years ago!)
Well, maybe I'll stop reading any cozy mysteries! Maybe the change is in me! I'm bored.
July 25, 2007
Rumi: Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalal al Din Rumi by Franklin D. Lewis is an incredible accomplishment. I wonder, was its publication by Oneworld Publications Lewis' choice, or did he have to go to England for a publisher who felt there was enough of a market for it?
I wonder, also, if Lewis, after this publication, has become a full professor! (Honestly, what does it take these days?)
Since the book I am reading was due back at the library two days ago, I probably did not due justice to the final pages. But if you want to know the options when you are looking to find out about (or find more!) Rumi, I can't think of a better place to look than this mongo resource!
Lewis points the way not only to literary texts, but also CDs and musical performances. He, in his pursuit of Rumi, deals not only with poetry, but with music and musicians. He has organized his subjects so clearly that if you don't have time to read the whole book, you can easily find the information you are looking for. (As I have said before, it even has an index!)
Definitely worth reading - even if you have to go beyond the limits of your public library's renewal policy to do it! Oh, and of course, worth buying, if you are a Rumi aficionado.
July 23, 2007
Still not done with Rumi: Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalal al Din Rumi by Franklin D. Lewis but I'm so pleasantly surprised by the "Translations" section (Chapter 14) that I must comment on it all on its own.
Perhaps I should have said "unpleasantly surprised" because my lack of understanding of the contemporary use of the word "translation" sure makes me feel like a rube!
Yes, this "average reader," when told that someone "translated" something, would certainly assume "from the original language of the creator." Evidently this is often not the case.
Now I know in some ways I'm still an innocent. Stubbornly so. And certainly I have read texts which admitted that the writer was basing his commentary on another's translation, or taking a creative leap from someone else's work.
Evidently, however, some people feel they have the right to call themselves translators without knowing the original language. This is a shock! Who knew? Well, lots of people, evidently since Lewis quotes Dryden as complaining about this tendency in the 17th century and offering other words to represent different processes. Read this exciting book to find out more!
Other things are a pleasant surprise, though. Robert Bly is quoted as calling Rumi a "preserve of wildness!" I had not thought of what little I have read of Rumi that way, but I felt a jolt of recognition. Wildness - to be in it and in touch with it - is really important to me.
Another delightful surprise is Coleman Bark's perception (also quoted by Lewis) that Rumi is a great spiritual teacher who "can see what each soul needs at any particular moment." Now, maybe that is obvious to most people, but that idea is wondrous to me. I never really "got it." Are there really teachers like that around? I might try to provide that a little, here and there, (I mean, I have had children!) but I certainly am under no illusion that I know what anybody needs at any given time (including, unfortunately, the aforementioned children, now grown up!) or that I have the right to give it to them!
If these examples don't impress or move you the way they do me, I bet there will be other ideas and information that do!
July 22, 2007
More on Rumi tomorrow or the next day, by which time I hope to have finished Lewis' book.
Today I'm reporting on Mary Daheim's The Alpine Quilt, which I checked out largely because I'm a quilter. And she's a nationally bestselling author!
Well, that's all the good about this book you will hear from me, except, oh yeah, I did get a bit of a belly jiggle around page 131 or so.
Yawn. I began, and almost put it down. Just couldn't manage to care about the characters, but thought, oh give it a chance. On page 41, we finally had a body. Now I'm not bloodthirsty, in spite of my "Murders of a Flower Child". But still, this is supposed to be a mystery! (Sorry, one of her co-workers acting funny over the phone doesn't count.)
On page 61, the death begins to look like a murder. This mystery isn't cozy, it's coozy. I've never seen one so padded, although I'm afraid I've been seeing more of its kind lately. The real insult is that twice the lead character comments on the ability of other characters to spin out and pad thin material!
So, she's a hypocrite, to boot.
Neither wise, very funny, nor of any interest to a quilter (except one dying to preserve the delusion that she is going to create a $100,000 estate by sitting at home stitching!) this is definitely one to miss.
But hey, who am I, a mere unpublished writer?
This is who I am. I am not the kind of reader who prides on solving the mystery before the "detective" does. I am lousy at anagrams, and I figured out one in this book 16 pages before the author reveals it! That's how lame this book is!
What's more, it has no values! What's truth? Not important! Lie to everyone all the time to protect yourself or them - who cares? What's beauty - not competence or aesthetic perfection!
Now, I don't think I'm hurting the author by saying these things. She can get red in the face if she wants, but I don't think she will! After all, she's a PUBLISHED AUTHOR! What does she care?
Reminds me of what Bill Mahr said about the Republicans: they're good at getting elected!
Oh, I can say one good thing, after all! This 314-page book would have made an okay 15-page short story!
July 19, 2007
The last of my recently read Donald Westlake novels, What's the Worst That Could Happen? fully measures up to the others. As usual, nothing is sacred, and Westlake has great fun with the I Ching in this one. The major anti-anti-hero (note - in this case two negatives do not make a positive!) uses the I Ching to help him make decisions, and doesn't even follow through the proper way to use it! (I don't know if this is Westlake's ignorance, or his poetic license to simplify.) At any rate, 'The Book' figures mightily, but thanks to its ambiguity is of no help to its user.
Westlake has several repetitive comic devices, like his bar regulars' conversations. With this book he spins them out longer than ever, with great comic effect.
Still, to read these books demands a life that is sailing smoothly, sinfully smoothly, perhaps. They are amusing, but it makes you wonder about the state of your soul that you are willing to spend time on them. Well, thank God for small vices!
July 18, 2007
I'm still perusing Rumi: Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalal al Din Rumi by Franklin D. Lewis. The parts I have just finished, about the Mevlevis and Rumi in the Muslim world, display Franklin Lewis' wonderful scholarship, but are too in-depth for me! Nevertheless, any reader of these sections is bound to get some fascinating insights.
To me the section on Rumi in the Muslim world was of more interest than the history of the Mevlevis through the centuries. I especially liked the point Lewis attributes to an Iranian scholar named Soroush, that separation of church and state are necessary on the grounds that it keeps these "two fundamental spheres" - religion and politics - from corrupting one another.
This is wonderful to me. As an American I have always heard of freedom of religion and the separation of church from state as something that should be maintained for the freedom of the individual. To say that that value is not compelling in the Middle East and the rest of Asia too, probably, is an understatement. Freedom (possibly to make bad choices) is not held in high esteem in many parts of the world!
But the aim of keeping the very important institutions of our lives separate for the sake of keeping them pure has a good deal of appeal even for me. It really rings true. Hopefully it is a convincing argument for other countries considering what forms of government they should adopt.
(Interestingly, the history of the Mevlevis and other Sufi sects almost seems designed to convince the reader of the truth that politics and religion are not a good mix. Rulers have helped the Mevlevis, true, but religious support should not wax and wane with political power, if possible!)
Not only is there a lot of infomation in these sections, which end about page 500, but the reader is given a WEALTH of other sources of information about and poetry of Rumi. (There is even a real index - something almost non-existent these days in a book of nonfiction (at least the level of work I usually read!) This will be very helpful to those who have very specific interests related to Rumi and his many scholarly followers, and the history of the Mevlevis.)
July 13, 2007
I would like to briefly revisit the subject of The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson.
A thought - maybe the other side of the bridge is the insecure underside!
The more I think about the book, the more it disturbs me. One character's shenanigans and downright irresponsibility are made to seem like pure evil, and another character's out-and-out loss of control and murderous violence are made to seem justified! Shame on you, Mary Lawson!
Can we please not have any more incitement to class warfare?
And please, in the future, please give us some female characters that are self-realized, or that at least have some reality other than what's of importance to the men in their lives!
Honestly, are you a male that has had a sex change?
July 12, 2007
Well, yesterday I tried to rave some more about Rumi: Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalal al Din Rumi by Franklin D. Lewis, but my errant thumb did its sometimes unconscious censorship and I lost it all. I was so demoralized by this that I just played games, shut down the computer, and went to read more of the book.
The rave is this: Chapter 9, "The Teachings" is great! It really shows why Rumi has made it so big in this country. His ecumenism was exceptional in his time, his thinking in many ways really seems compatible with modern times.
Having said that, he did practice the Islam religion and it doesn't seem as if he really concerned himself much with other faiths. (But hey, I've read half a book, what do I know?) But the last poem of his quoted has the sentiment: hell is a room with no windows, and it is the job of religion to open windows.
That image, of course, is much more poetically expressed by Rumi (what is the copyright law, anyway, can I directly quote stuff from the book in a setting like the internet?) This section is just chock-full of worthwhile stuff.
So, on to the next section, which is about the descendants (both physical and spiritual) of Rumi and the Mevlevi Order of the Sufis. I am trying to get through it, partly just to prove I can, and partly because I know it puts everything else I'm reading in this book into more of a setting.
Why else is Frank Lewis doing it? Because if he has other motives, like for instance the promotion of Sufism, really this book's title is misleading. This book has way greater scope than the life of Rumi. But that's okay. That will be my excuse if I can't hack my way through the whole thing. "Well, really, I was just interested in learning a little more about Rumi!"
What's keeping me going? Pride and the desire to read about Rumi and the Western world - yet to come!
July 10, 2007
Got some catching up to do here. Read, for escape, Don't Ask by Donald Westlake. It took me a long time to get into it because it is about international stuff, which tends to make me anxious, even if it is supposed to be funny. Threats of torture, etc. Don't like. But in the end he won me over. The "don't ask" of the title is probably referring to the diversity in subject matter, as in "What's this one about, Donald?"
Very funny. Silly, of course. Very. But certain characters, like the querulous archbishop who hates anticlerical letters about overpopulation, can't help but appeal to me, because, well, if I wrote an anticlerical letter to an archibishop, that is what it would be about unless it would be about.... well, you know....
Westlake goes out on a limb as far as bugs bunny off a cliff over the ocean to get a laugh, and it works.
Then, very quickly, I read Mary Lawson's The Other Side of the Bridge for the Valparaiso Book Club. I liked it - it was an easy read - but at the same time it disappointed me. Kind of reminds me of the old myths about the noble savage and all that. Reliable man of few (almost no!) words good. Mercurial man who has very different aspirations and talents than his father (and 'good' son) - he's all bad. Now, if the author didn't intend this interpretation, it's too bad, because that seems to be what most of the people in my group seemed to get out of this book.
Setting - great! Descriptions of farming with a plow team of horses - great! Depictions of World War II ravages on the population - ravaging - (but typical? I dunno.) Actually I liked a lot about this book. But I am getting more and more uncomfortable with stories that would have been avoided entirely with more acceptance, love, and respect among the characters and that then leave you with a feeling of little resolution of issues on the part of any of them.
And really! Can't we have novels without always having to kill someone? I've read lots of good novels that weren't so life-and-death! Haven't I? Help me out here!
Honestly, I think that's one reason I like the traditional murder mystery so well. There's a death, but you get it out of the way at the very beginning and from there it's uphill all the way....
Unless, of course, there's another murder but usually the victims in these books are not exactly loveable.
Oh well. That's why I'm in a book club. This novel, however, did not take me to peaks and depths of emotion. Just entertainment and irritation.
Makes me think that for this author the veil of illusion is still so thick (Ha! I almost said, "think!" Beam in my own eye!) that I (still) wonder if she provides any help for anyone.
And what gives here? Can anyone tell me about a contemporary novel with a classic feel written in this century about this century in the U.S.? Or have we lost the knack for the timeless - too many watches making our wrists itch and luminous electronic clocks disturbing our sleep?
If I think of one that fits what I'm talking about, I'll let you know. If you have one in mind, let me know!
July 6, 2007
Now I know why I have spent all this time reading the book Rumi: Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalal al Din Rumi by Franklin D. Lewis. The first part of the book was interesting, but the poems he has chosen for notation are fascinating.
This section, 'The Poems' begins with a metric analysis that almost made me put the book down. (I am the student who was bound and determined, despite all 'poetic' rules (hah) that I was not going to recite, "gailee bedight the gallant knight...")
Not knowing any Arabic, this discussion of meter almost made me give up. In the dim light I was trying to read by (in bed) I could hardly tell the short symbols from the long ones. But I just plowed through, all uncomprehending, until I got past that part.
A good thing, too. Well, there was a lot in those poems that a person could be inspired by, reproach oneself for, admire, swoon over. I am told (not by this book!) that in addition, these poems in their original languages (Persian and Arabic) contain layers of meaning and symbolism and artistry that just cannot all be translated. Even more than normally in translating one language to another.
Call me a cynic (or a parrot! In joke - read the book!). Maybe too much has happened in the way of corruption in the Christian churches but I have trouble believing anyone is as holy as these saints are made out to be. This is just speculation, and is not necessarily meant to be a negative judgment on my part. I'll explain.
One theory I have read ((was it in The White Male System? Addiction to Perfection?) anyway, I think it was Marian Woodman) has said that our behavior can appear outwardly the same at different levels of consciousness. That is, the road to spiritual growth is like a zigzag line. (I think one of the examples she gave of this is that people of lower consciousness might use a racial slur word seriously. At a different level of consciousness (separated from the former by the practice of not using such words), would be the usage of such words in a humorous, ironic way - mocking the ordinary usage, in other words.) She gave a drawing illustrating this that looks like a stylized mountain range, I think it had at least five or six peaks!
At any rate, all I am trying to say is that it is really hard to look at much of this spiritual stuff with the eye of a convert when you aren't one. I am not saying these men are not blessed by an abundance of spirit. I'm just not sure that that guarantees any particular behavior. (See above about Moses and his teacher. That is, see below. Or before. Whatever.)
In addition to the doubts above, I'm a little manic depressive (at some points of my life, (while on a vegetarian diet) more than a little. Not clinically so, perhaps, but...) and forgive me, but much of Rumi's stuff reminds me of me on a manic high. (This is not so unusual among poets, by the way. I have read (many years ago, don't ask me where!) that a higher percentage of poets are manic depressive than are non-poets. (For what it's worth, about 16%.))
I'm not saying that this destroys the spirit of the poetry, but I am saying that seeing this kind of inexhaustible passion (for how many years did Rumi carry on like this?) is not necessarily for me an inducement to follow in his footsteps. Too scary.
But hey. Fasting seems to be a sine qua non for the spirituality of Rumi's tradition. I only fasted one day of my life with no fluids but water. I worked for that day, went home, felt fine. The next morning I threw up after downing my usual bowl of crunchy granola. So I felt that fasting was maybe not for a worker bee like me. (My diet-induced or at least -exacerbated mood swings were still in my future!)
Oh, and when it comes to children fasting, well we would call that child abuse now...
Okay, okay, I'll shut up. But doesn't this book stir up alot of thought? Maybe for you, too!
July 5, 2007
I'm now in the middle of the book Rumi: Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalal al Din Rumi by Franklin D. Lewis. After talking at length about the people and environment of Rumi, the author has a section called "Toward a Biography of Rumi." It is interesting how shadowy a figure Rumi still is to me, in spite of his fame in his own time. People often spoke of him in superlatives, which while they indicate the reverence in which he was held, do not help much in knowing who he was, really! But of course, as author Lewis says, we Westerners are mainly interested in Rumi's poetry.
What I have seen of his poetry on the Rumi website I mentioned before (somewhere!) really fascinated me. What I have read in a book of mainly quatrains (Rumi: Gardens of the Beloved offered up (and copyrighted, I notice) by Maryam Mafi and Azima Melita Kolin have a much less consistently positive effect on me. There are some that are wonderful and some that just leave me cold (admittedly I haven't read many yet, but that does say something, doesn't it?)
Some of the poetry quoted in Lewis' book is wonderful, some what I would call obscene. Lewis comments that these spiritual teachers were not above vulgarity. I'd say! I am one of the more verbally vulgar people I know and still.... (And what happened to one of these sage guys' admonition not to complain of others?)
Rumi's sexuality is also more completely explored in this section. The cultural divide between spiritual and sexual love in his milieu seems much more defined than in ours.
The what-seem-to-me extreme expressions of love are wonderful (in his poetry) and spiritual (from all the evidence) and, to me, a little puzzling. Sometimes I think these people are so histrionic because they are always on the brink of starvation, but spiritual enthusiasms have inspired the well-fed also! (The paroxyms of modern faith-healing come to mind.)
To me the intertwining of emotion, practice of dancing as worship, politics, and family relationship in Rumi's life is fascinating, and I am glad Lewis has gone into all these subjects so deeply. In Rumi's case, mysticism does not go hand-in-hand with hermitism! (hmm, was that a real word?)
July 1, 2007
Still plugging away at the Rumi biography, but for escape I read Donald Westlake's Good Behavior. I got a couple more of his John Dortmunder novels out of the library and thought I would talk about all three at the same time, but I am spending so little time reading lately that I will go ahead and mention him. Well.
Now, I know this is a comic novel. But the economic-political view of the U.S. (and the modern corporations thereof) Westlake puts forth in this novel, is, I fear, altogether too true and he published this in 1985! Why, I first heard that we are not really a democracy but a republic, when? In high school? Then, in college, I learned that well, maybe republic isn't really the right word for what we are, either. We have more like what is called an oligarchy.
Now this novel, written in 1984, probably, is telling us that we are really living in, well, 1984. Or were. When I thought we were under the regime of an oligarchy.
I thought I was really clever, when, a few years ago, I figured out how dangerous and big the corporations which rule our lives really are. Now I find out they have been for a long, long, while. Or did Westlake just prefigure (perhaps inspire?) life (or rather, corporate non-life.)
But of course, I didn't really know. Still don't. Like all the people, maybe including the mayor of Chicago (great guy - he's done a lot for the city! Just hope the Olympics don't break it! Oh, no, that's right, the corporations who are sponsoring this won't let the people of Chicago pay if it turns out to be a costly bust. The corporations. Right.) who still call the U.S. a democracy.
It's true that denial isn't a river in Eqypt. It's a great big wonking flood in the U.S.
Huh? The book? Oh, yeah, it's scary - and funny.
June 27, 2007
Supposedly Rumi was a best-selling poet in the United States in the mid nineteen-nineties (see below, or above, or however the hell you get to the virtual past). I spent those years in a pediatrics clinic and its file-room, and didn't get a hint of it. Did I know people who read his poetry? Somehow doctors and nurses don't seem like the most likely candidates, let alone staff slaves who, like me, were probably only good for a flop in front of the TV or refrigerator when that slave-driver, the hospital, was done with us for the day.
In 1975 I met someone who had gotten involved with Sufi doings (so she told me with downcast eyes and a Mona Lisa smile) but other than that I have heard nothing, nothing... until I read I Wabenzi. Rafi Zabor was definitely in search of something spiritual when he took off for Sufi country in England.
Now I am definitely interested but I don't quite know why. I think it is not so much the god-concept as far as I can tell what that is (not much) but the wonderful power of emotion and imagery of the poetry itself. Ecstasy! How attractive and compelling that is!
But what strange people Rumi and his fellow spiritual leaders seem to be! Erudite teachers educated in the Koran and in the law, yet mystics and lovers of each other with an enthusiastic orgy of emotion which seems to me (forgive me!) almost infantile! The disciples of Rumi seem to me ill-intended to a very unspiritual degree (they make the power struggles among the apostles and Mary after Christ's death seem innocent by comparison (but we don't know details about that well-suppressed happening, do we? Even talking about it I have to admit that my belief in it is only that - fed by the Discovery Channel and the Gospel According to St. Mary. It just rings so damn true!)
Anyway, Rumi. Rumi: Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalal al Din Rumi by Franklin D. Lewis. Intrigued yet? I'm still not half-way through!
June 26, 2007
Continuing with my pursuit of Rumi: Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalal al Din Rumi by Franklin D. Lewis I am completely reassured when Rumi talks of lovers and beloved that he is talking spiritually and mystically, not about sensual or romantic love. He and Shams are both highly critical of a teacher who tends to love the beauty of young boys instead of the bestower of that beauty. Some said that he only loved them chastely, but Rumi rejects that statement (whether because he thought it was literally untrue or because he thought it didn't matter, I don't know.)
Perhaps it was not unreasonable for me to have those concerns considering the language of Rumi's poetry, but neither evidently was the tendency toward using ecstasy as a cover for libertine excess entirely unknown in Sufiism, according to Lewis (p. 151, if you want to go straight to that indirect quote. I usually try to avoid such specificity here 'cause I would love for someone else to read this book and talk to me about it!)
Some of the mystical states I've seen described in Christian traditions seem to me to be the result of child abuse of one kind or another, and Shams' childhood experience with his teacher (who is not named) seems to accord with this. It makes me wonder about altered states in general....
June 24, 2007
One of Rumi's teachers, whom he glorified in his speech and poetry, was called Shams - in Arabic, Sun. (That's the short name. Needless to say there are others!) His works were not "published" (I'm still not certain what that meant in those days - copied by hand by a thousand scribes?) partly because he never approved them for such a purpose. He said that he who read texts was lost - that the only way to really learn was by personal contact, interaction with, and being in the presence of the teacher.
It reminds me of the question a friend posed to me twenty years ago, "Why did Jesus never write anything down?" Maybe the statement of Shams is the answer!
The little bit of reading I have done on a Rumi website (the one with the daily Rumi poem, which I am somewhat disappointed in because it seems to be recycling the same poems every month or so instead of truly offering a new one every day) and earlier in the text of Rumi: Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalal al Din Rumi by Franklin D. Lewis has really whet my appetite to learn more about this wise man Shams.
Franklin D. Lewis, I bet you didn't know you were writing a mystery, did you? Well, on second thought I bet you did. You have immersed yourself in it, after all, for many years!
In spite of the fact that this book is a mystery too, it is so long, involved, challenging, and big! (hard to read in bed!) that I simply have to have some escapist relief now and again. Expect more commentary on more escapist mysteries (maybe not the right word, can anybody be more escapist than a mystic? I know, I know, an escape to Love and Truth... I'm not denying it....)
June 22, 2007
Much more history, more foreign words, more multiple names for the same person continue to make Rumi: Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalal al Din Rumi by Franklin D. Lewis a challenge for me.
Because so little is known of Rumi's life, the author is forced to speculate (for example) on which of a number of schools Rumi might have attended during a certain time, based on varied and contradictory reports. This, while not to be helped, makes for heavy going.
The text is considerably lightened, however, by delightful tales, myths and observations about the leading spiritual lights of Rumi's life. One Borhan al-Din, (Rumi's father Baha's first disciple and after Baha's death Rumi's spiritual mentor for years), was obsessed with fasting. Since this was a normal spiritual practice of the time, this observation must have meant he was especially convinced of the virtue of this habit.
It is no surprise, though, that one might become obsessed with it while one is practicing it! Many Americans can relate to that one!
I'm being flippant. But I do believe that fasting (and the lack of sleep it causes) could lead to hallucinations and mystical states. And, I'm willing to admit, to the perception of spiritual truths.
In his later years, however, Borhan stopped fasting. When a female disciple teased him about this, he said he had put himself out to pasture and was fattening himself up as a feast for the Divine Sultan! Makes me see how wiley these old men were. They had an answer for everything. And often an amusing one!
Author Lewis, it seems to me, is in a near-constant state of bemusement when it comes to his subjects (so far.) He tells stories about Rumi which, he says, are certainly hagiographers' exaggerations or descriptions of an archetype.
He relates them with relish, though, and that's how I read them!
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