Monday, October 31, 2016

Hodgepodge 2/365 - Hallelujah

Ever since I posted this video on Facebook a few days ago

I've had Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" circling around my brain.

Two friends suggested different renditions:

K.D. Laing:

and Jeff Buckley:

But really—this may or may not be true—the first time I really paid attention to this amazing tune was thanks to Jake Shimabukuro. Here's his instrumental version. You decide which one you think is "best." Maybe it's a matter of mood . . .

(And heck, you might just want to go right back to the source. I came to the party late, considering Cohen first recorded this in 1984.)

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Hodgepodge 1/365 - A New Beginning

I've been missing a daily something. For four years I posted photos daily; then I spent a year doing daily blogposts. I think a daily expectation helps me find purpose, interest, meaning. It helps me maintain a practice—and I think practice is important. Crucial, even.

So . . . even though I swore I was done with a daily blog (because—it's crazy, right?), I'm . . . reconsidering.

But this one will be something of a hodgepodge. Maybe it'll be something I learned that day, or something I noticed, or a new word for me, or a book I read (see my last 50 or so posts), or a photo from my vast archives (or from all the many photos I haven't processed lately because I'm so lazy), or just a memory.

So: here's to it. Project Hodgepodge. And to kick it off, I'll post a photo. It's from Rome, ten years ago. Next March I'm heading back to Rome, following a two-week Sierra Club tour of Israel—and then on to Venice. I hope to visit Pompeii; I might venture to Ravenna; I'd love to meet up with my old, dear friend Ulla, who lives near Lago Maggiore. I'm looking forward to taking my camera and spending some serious time looking, seeing, appreciating. This life!

You know exactly what it says . . .
but I love the way the little yellow moped tucked its way in there

Day 1. Of 365. It feels good to be back, with a (random, haphazard, but hopefully attentive) mission.

Friday, October 21, 2016

61 Books: #56

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–55 are below this post.

56. Hervé Tullet, Press Here (2011) (10/21/16)
I ran across a reference to this author's newest book, Mix It Up about making colors, and I was intrigued. The mostly-***** reviews on Amazon, however, made me want to start with the first of this clever interactive enterprise: Press Here. The cover gives a solid idea of what's involved: by following simple directions, including pressing, shaking, blowing, standing the board-bound book upright, and clapping, the child (this book is geared to 3-to-5-year-olds) is able to make wonderful things happen with mere printed dots—multiply their number and change their color, grow them in size, make them fall off the page, even shroud them in darkness. As Christopher Franceschelli, who brought the French book to America, puts it, "That it’s powered through imagination rather than electronics—that’s the book’s real gift."

Tullet is known in France as "the prince of pre-school books." Here's a lovely video of him in "workshop" mode in a French preschool, learning from his small teachers just how his books really work.

I know a pair of twins who may enjoy this book in another year or so. In the meantime, I'll play with it myself. Sometimes, the simplest pleasures are the best.

Monday, October 17, 2016

61 Books: #55

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–54 are below this post.

55. Ellen Raskin, The Westing Game (1978) (10/17/16)
Sixteen variously unrelated people are invited, first, to move into the newly constructed Sunset Towers apartment building—which faces east and has no towers—on the shore of Lake Michigan and then to attend the reading of the will of a certain Mr. Westing, who lived up the hill in an imposing mansion. He calls them all his "heirs," though none of them understands why. At the reading, he further introduces a game (Mr. Westing loved games): he divides the sixteen up into eight teams of two and gives them all sets of clues, random words. "It is not what you have," the will suggests, "it's what you don't have that counts." And off they go, each relying on their own and their partner's expertise,  wits, and conjectures in hopes of winning the $200 million inheritance.

It's a kids' book: it won the Newbery Medal in 1979. It's clever, and quite silly. It's also like a cartoon: most of the characters are strictly two-dimensional, and it's slapstick in the frenzy of the action, with scenes careening now right, now left. In the end, the various clues—involving "America the Beautiful" and chess, fireworks and the cardinal directions, a limp and disguises—add up pretty well, and everyone involved finds their own measure of success and happiness.

The winningest character is thirteen-year-old Turtle, aka Tabitha-Ruth, aka Alice. She kicks people in the shin, protecting her personal space (and creating quite a few limps); she suffers from being in the shadow of her lovely older sister, Angela; she's a whiz at the stock market. And it is she, in the end, who solves the ultimate puzzle—and never tells a soul.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

61 Books: #54

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–53 are below this post.

54. Louise Erdrich, The Plague of Doves (2008) (10/16/16)
Although a mystery—the unsolved murder of a family of farmers in the community of Pluto, South Dakota, in 1897—provides a unifying thread to this book, the overall feel is that of a tapestry, made up of multiple voices, stories, fates and fortunes, joys and sorrows. There are several main first-person narrators, but they often relate others' tales as well. As Erdrich explained in an interview, "I'm trying to tell a story that goes back and forth through time, showing the influence of history on the passions and decisions of people who live in the present."

I have to admit, although I found the writing often achingly beautiful, and many of the characters believably real, the coursing about in time, the way longer stories were assembled in bits and pieces, and the many voices often proved confusing. What I am left with is a feeling not of one story, but of many lifetimes of stories—impressionistic rather than narrative. Now that I've finished, I wonder if I were to go back and read it again, would the parts add up to a more coherent whole? Possibly.

One of my favorite sections was about a fiddle—or, actually, two fiddles. And the hands they passed through. One vanishes, taken away by a broken-hearted man, but not before it inspires a young boy to embrace music; the other appears as if by magic, after a twenty-year hiatus, and ultimately is smashed to bits. The story of the fiddles is told by an old Ojibwe man named Shamengwa, who, together with his older brother, Mooshum (Seraph), was one of my favorite characters in the book.

"Few men know how to become old. Shamengwa did," Judge Bazil Antone Coutts explains midway through the book. "I admired him and studied him. I thought I'd like to grow old the way he was doing it—with a certain style. Other than his [injured] arm, he was an extremely well-made old person. Anyone could see that he had been handsome, and he still cut a graceful figure, slim and medium tall. His fine head was covered with a startling white mane of thick hair, which he was proud of. . . . He was fine-looking, yes, but there were other things about him. Shamengwa was a man of refinement who practiced clean habits. He prepared himself carefully to meet life every day . . . but yet there was more to it.
     "He played the fiddle. How he played the fiddle! Although his arm was so twisted and disfigured that his shirts had to be carefully altered and pinned on that side to accommodate the gnarled shape, yet he had agility in that arm, even strength . . .
     "Here I come to some trouble with words. The inside became the outside when Shamengwa played music. Yet inside to outside does not half sum it up. The music was more than music—at least what we are used to hearing. The music was feeling itself. The sound connected instantly with something deep and joyous. Those powerful moments of true knowledge that we have to paper over with daily life. The music tapped the back of our terrors, too. Things we'd lived through and didn't want to ever repeat. Shredded imaginings, unadmitted longings, fear and also surprising pleasures. No, we can't live at that pitch. But every so often something shatters like ice and we are in the river of our existence. We are aware. And this realization was in the music, somehow, or in the way Shamengwa played it."

Despite the confusion, I have a feeling some of the characters and stories of this book will be with me for quite some time. And that's a good thing.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

61 Books: #53

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–52 are below this post.

53. Marion Bataille, ABC3D (2008) (10/13/16)
When a few weeks ago I issued a Facebook request for recommendations of good short books, one friend suggested pop-up books. I immediately googled "pop-up books for adults." Little did I know what a vast, innovative world lurks out there, populated by creators and collectors of an art form that, wrongly, I had relegated to silly children's books. Nowadays, pop-up books are impressive feats of engineering, imagination, and erudition.

I chose an uncomplicated book for my first foray into the pop-up culture: ABC3D is an alphabet book, plain and simple—no text (not even a title page: the lenticular cover and spine do that job) aside from a letter or two (or in one case, four) on each spread. The letters stand up from the page in full three-dimensional splendor, or assemble themselves via clever sliders or transparent sheets. One of my favorite spreads features O and P, which are transformed into Q and R via an overlay of matching diagonal lines. Here, if you are so inclined, is a video that allows you to read it yourself.

Recently, NPR's Science Friday ran a short segment called "Engineering the Perfect Pop-Up," "about how pop-up designer Matthew Reinhart constructs paper cut-outs that can extend to nearly two feet in height, and how their underlying structures generate movement and depth." ABC3D is much simpler than that, but even so, some of the letters had me peering under and in to see just how the designer did what she did. Meanwhile, the website Best Pop-up Books, run by a couple in the Netherlands, presents reviews, interviews, and more on this specialized subject. There's a whole world out there to discover, and I've only scratched the surface.  

I will be seeking out more pop-up books, for sure. I'm considering The Pop-up Book of Phobias, as "reference" for an essay I'm working on—only it's expensive . . . Then again, I'm surprised these books aren't more costly than they are: what it must take to manufacture them!  

Monday, October 10, 2016

61 Books: #52

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–51 are below this post.

52. Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You about Being Creative (2012) (10/10/16)
A quick little artist book full of drawings, newspaper blackout poetry, diagrams, quotations, a few photos, making the task of reading the ten tips that much more fun. The target audience is probably someone just starting out in a creative career, but I enjoyed the quotes and some of the author's insights.

The ten things?
1. Steal like an artist
         Nothing is original; school yourself: "The only art I'll ever study is stuff that I can steal from." —David Bowie
2. Don't wait until you know who you are to get started
          Fake it till you make it: "Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find your self." —Yohji Yamamoto
3. Write the book you want to read
         "My interest in making music has been to create something that does not exist that I would like to listen to. I wanted to hear music that had not yet happened, by putting together things that suggested a new thing which did not yet exist." —Brian Eno
4. Use your hands
         Step away from the screen: "I have stared long enough at the glowing flat rectangles of computer screens. Let us give more time for doing things in the real world . . . plant a plant, walk the dogs, read a real book, go to the opera." —Edward Tufte
5. Side projects and hobbies are important
          Take time to mess around. Get lost. Wander. You never know where it's going to lead you.
6. The Secret: Do good work and share it with people
7. Geography is no longer our master
          Leave home: "Distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything." —Jonah Lehrer
8. Be nice (the world is a small town)
         Make friends, ignore enemies: "There's only one rule I know of: You've got to be kind." —Kurt Vonnegut
Also: Stand next to the talent.
9. Be boring (it's the only way to get work done)
         "Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work." —Gustave Flaubert
10. Creativity is subtraction
          Choose what to leave out.

"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn." —T. S. Eliot

61 Books: #51

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–50 are below this post.

51. John Hart, The Last Child (2009) (10/10/16)
A relatively straightforward, in the end, mystery gets solved by way of multiple other mysteries that beset a quiet North Carolina Tidewater community. Along the way pedophiles get their just desserts, power is shown to be frangible, and a gentle giant of a man, a "Mustee" whose ancestor was saved from a lynching by the great-grandfather of the thirteen-year-old protagonist, Johnny, hears voices and performs miracles.

An especially interesting part of the book, and of the plot, concerns a "hush arbor," a secret place where African and Indian slaves would go to practice their Christian religion. "Nobody here wanted them learning about Jesus and God and stuff," explains Johnny to his best friend. "They didn't want a bunch of slaves thinking they were equal in the eyes of God. Do you see? If you're equal, then nobody should own you. That was dangerous thinking if you owned slaves. . . . They were too smart to build a church because they knew somebody would find it. But woods are just woods, a swamp is just mud and water and snakes and shit. So that's where they'd go. They'd sing their songs to God, dance on the dirt, and testify to their new faith." It was also where, when they were found out, the miscreants were hung as punishment and the freedmen's cemetery sprung up.

A perfectly satisfying mystery, with good emotional complexity. Although one of the bad guys caught my attention early on, the actual resolution was a good solid surprise.

Friday, October 7, 2016

61 Books: #50

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–49 are below this post.

50. Kimi Kodani Hill, Topaz Moon: Chiura Obata's Art of the Internment (2000) (10/7/16)
I am working on a piece of literary fiction that will treat, in part, the internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. I am in the research phase on so many levels—there is so much to know about and understand. But one thing I do know: at least one of my characters will be an artist. I expect I'll base that character at least partly on Chiura Obata.

I first encountered Chiura Obata in a book called Obata's Yosemite, comprising paintings, drawings, and letters from a trip he made to the High Sierra in 1927. I later learned that he was imprisoned at Tanforan, near San Francisco, and Topaz, Utah, during the war.

Obata came to the U.S. in 1903, at the age of eighteen. His father was an artist, and Chiura followed in his footsteps, training in the art of sumi-e starting at age seven. By the 1920s he was becoming established as an artist, painting murals and designs for leading department stores and designing sets for the San Francisco Opera. In 1928 he had his first solo show, and in 1932 he began teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, where he remained until 1954&mdash—absent the gap caused by his internment and subsequent relocation to the Midwest. In 1954, when Japanese were finally allowed to become U.S. citizens, he and his wife, Haruko, did so. He died in 1975, having spent fifteen years after retirement leading cultural/artistic tours to Japan: his second career.

This book, written and researched by his granddaughter, brings together many photographs, letters, and especially drawings and paintings that pertain to the war years, when the Obatas spent five months at the Tanforan Assembly Center and then eight more months at Topaz Relocation Center. He never stopped drawing, so we have images of the camps, of the train rides in between, of assembly areas, of the hospital—you name it, he got it down on paper. Notably, in both camps, he started and led art schools, with a professional faculty teaching hundreds of students, from children to seventy-year-olds, in all manner of classes: figure painting, still life, mural painting, and art appreciation; interior and fashion design; architectural drafting and cartooning; and many techniques, including sumi-e. Haruko taught ikebana.

The book is rich with details, but even more, it's rich with humanity. Obata was fifty-seven when he had to leave everything behind (fortunately, he had good friends in the Berkeley community who took care of his most prized possessions—something most internees did not have), but his attitude was consistently positive. He found solace and meaning in his art. As he put it in 1946, "In any circumstance, anywhere and anytime, take up your brush and express what you face and what you think without wasting time and energy complaining and crying out. I hold that statement as my aim, and as I have told my friends and students, the aim of artists."

Throughout the text, we are treated to line drawings, and at the end of the book many of his color paintings—watercolors on paper and silk mostly—show us Obata's sensibility and the beauty of his vision, in the context of one of the more tragic periods of our nation's history.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

61 Books: #49

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–48 are below this post.

49. Robert Olen Butler, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction (2005) (10/5/16)
This book derives from lectures Butler gave in 2001 and 2002, in classes that Janet Burroway attended, made copious notes of and then recorded, and finally turned into the twelve chapters presented here. It's a rich discussion of, not so much craft, but process. As Burroway says in her introduction, Butler's "self-declared obsessions have to do with the descent into the dreamspace of the unconscious in order to discover the yearning that is at the center of every person and therefore of every character, and with the moment-to-moment sensual experiencing of that character's story. . . . Butler's 'dangerous system' of novel construction . . . allows the simultaneous emergence of structure, character, and motif."

The book is in three parts. The first, "The Lectures," comprises five chapters. In "Boot Camp," Butler focuses on how emotions are experienced through the senses—"the special problem here [being] that the artistic medium of fiction writers—language—is not innately sensual." In "The Zone," he suggests ways to enter the creative zone of the unconscious (these basically have to do with continuity—writing every day—and consistency—writing every day at the same time, in the same, carefully prepared place, say). "Yearning" addresses what Butler considers the keystone of successful fiction. In this chapter, he analyzes four passages from works that he admires, which is most useful. (Indeed, this book is especially valuable for its many thorough examples.) "Cinema of the Mind" covers—you got it—cinematic techniques, and how they translate into written language. One of his examples is from Dickens's Great Expectations, the opening, and I have to say, his discussion of that passage made me want to rush out and buy that book and get to know Dickens better. (I've barely read him; in fact, I think GE is the only book of his I have read, but that was over forty years ago.) And in "A Writer Prepares," Butler describes his own process of "dreamstorming." As he explains in a 2015 interview, using this system "I can free-associatively anticipate a wide range of possible paths for the book. Early in the process, I go into the zone of my creativity and make a long, long list of possible scenes in the book. These scenes are recorded very succinctly—no more than a dozen words—and I make no attempt at this stage to arrange them or structure them or even to resolve incompatibilities. Then I transfer these to index cards—one scene per card—and I lay out possible sequences. But those are done and redone numerous times, even during the writing of the book, and they never ossify into an outline."

Part 2 is "The Workshop," comprising four chapters: "Reading, Lit Crit, and the Workshop," also including comments on revision; "The Bad Story," in which Butler shares one of his own early, bad stories and compares it to a many-years-later story using the same material that he considers successful—and why; "The Anecdote Exercise," which is just that: an exercise in which an off-the-cuff anecdote is redrawn literarily (and in which he demonstrates just how hard that is to do, using four students as guinea pigs); and "The Written Exercise," where he presents a coached writing exercise in seven stages, as well as three of the students' results. 

And part 3, "The Stories, Analyzed," presents three student stories along with discussion. As I said above, the examples and analysis are very informative. 

All in all, an excellent book. I read it on the Kindle and highlighted liberally, but this is one of those books I think I'd rather have had as a real book: I'd have flagged it liberally. But no matter the format, I will be going back into this one and using some of Butler's tips and exercises, for sure. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

61 Books: #48

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–47 are below this post.

48. Jack London, The Call of the Wild (1902) (9/30/16)
A couple of weeks ago I asked the hive mind of Facebook for some short book recommendations, to help me finish this project. I got lots of good ones, including several I really should have read by this time in my life. One of them was The Call of the Wild. So I bought it and devoured it on a plane ride from LA to Boston.

Wow. What a story: positively Dickensian in the range from genteel civilization at the start, through vicious and cruel, ending up with love, liberation, and finding one's true home.

The story, if you haven't read it, involves a dog, Buck (half St. Bernard, half Scotch shepherd—he weighs in at 140 pounds), who is kidnapped from a bucolic ranch in the Santa Clara Valley in the late 1890s and sent to the Klondike to become a sled dog, transporting materials and mail back and forth across many hundreds of miles, from Skagway to Dawson. Along the way he meets handlers of various degrees of humanity (the "man in the red sweater" breaks him—almost—teaching him to obey, if not necessarily to conciliate, and in the process teaching him self-preservation). He also meets many dogs of various personalities and temperaments, many, many of which don't survive the harsh treatment and conditions (and simple stupidity of the humans). In the end, Buck is saved by a man, John Thornton, who is kind, and so finds a reciprocated, true love—though even that ends tragically, when Thornton is killed by Yeehats Indians. Buck takes his revenge, then, merging with a pack of timber wolves, disappears into the wild, a wild that has been calling him more and more strongly.

The writing is lyrical, pastoral, allegorical you might say, with the animals standing in for human traits. It also celebrates the will to survive and make it on one's own, a curiously American desire. Here is a (somewhat random) passage from late in the book when Buck is beginning to answer the call of the wild, shortly after he encounters a timber wolf for the first time:

"He began to sleep out at night, staying away from camp for days at a time; and once he crossed the divide at the head of the creek and went down into the land of timber and streams. There he wandered for a week, seeking vainly for fresh sign of the wild brother, killing his meat as he travelled and travelling with the long, easy lope that seems never to tire. He fished for salmon in a broad stream that emptied somewhere into the sea, and by this stream he killed a large black bear, blinded by the mosquitoes while likewise fishing, and raging through the forest helpless and terrible. Even so, it was a hard fight, and it aroused the last latent remnants of Buck's ferocity. And two days later, when he returned to his kill and found a dozen wolverenes quarrelling over the spoil, he scattered them like chaff; and those that fled left two behind who would quarrel no more.
     "His blood-longing became stronger than ever before. He was a killer, a thing that preyed, living on the things that lived, unaided, alone, by virtue of his own strength and prowess, surviving triumphantly in a hostile environment where only the strong survived. Because of all this he became possessed of a great pride in himself, which communicated itself like a contagion to his physical being."
     And so forth, as his physical being is beautifully described, at length.

I was gobsmacked by the story, the beauty of the language, the range of behavior from kindness to cruelty, and the huge heart and soul of Buck himself. So glad I finally read this. And I will always think of Buck as the "Ghost Dog" told of by the Yeehats, who every summer visits a valley that the Yeehats themselves never will again, inhabited as it is by the Evil Spirit. (It is where they killed Thornton and got their just deserts.) There, "he muses for a time, howling once, long and mournfully, ere he departs" and returns to his new family, "running at the head of the pack through the pale moonlight or glimmering borealis, leaping gigantic above his fellows, his great throat a-bellow as he sings a song of the younger world, which is the song of the pack."