Sunday Ramble: Travels, Art and Jane Austen Challenge

C.J. and I visited Los Angeles this past week to see the James Kerry Marshall retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the same show we saw last summer in Chicago.  We’ve become big fans of Mr. Marshall’s work.

It was a mad-cap three-day trip–drive down, day in L.A. and drive home–but we managed to visit three bookstores while we were there.  We stayed in West Hollywood, just a few blocks from the Sunset Strip area which is all very nice now, very high-end and very young. We walked down to Melrose Place for breakfast coffee at Alfred’s, which serves beautiful people beautiful lattes.  Lots of window shopping at high end antique stores afterwards on the way back to our very cheap motel.

Up on Sunset, near Book Soup, we found our new favorite bookstore, Mystery Pier Books Inc. which sells only first editions.  It’s a small store in a small building behind the main buildings.  You have to walk down a very narrow alley, the kind typically used as a service entrance, to get to the store which means very few customers find it.  There were just four of us in the store Wednesday afternoon.  The clerks are friendly and helpful, the selection is wide and fascinating, and the prices are high.  I can’t say if they are too high since I have no idea what a mint condition first edition of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show is worth.  It was more than I could afford in any case.

My latte at Alfred’s Coffee on Melrose Place in Los Angeles.

We made it out of Book Soup without going over 100 dollars which is nearly a miracle.  My standard for quality bookstores is based on how many titles they carry that I’ve never seen before but have to have. There were many at Book Soup.  C.J. found several, too.  I’ve already started The Familiar by Mark Z. Danielewski which, turns out, has been on the market for nearly two years now though this is the first I’ve heard of it.  25 dollars and the first of four volumes, all four were on the shelf at Book Soup. I resisted and resisted, but gave in in the end.  I loved The House of Leaves which I highly, highly recommend.


The next night we went to The Last Bookstore in downtown L.A. since the museum is just a ten minute walk away and C.J. had never been there.  The space is wonderful, inside an old bank.  The galleries and studios on the mezzanine are lots of fun, but if I stick to my standards, I have to admit that it’s not that great of a bookstore.  And I feel their prices are always one or two dollars too high. We left glad to have visited but empty-handed.

Mr. Marshall’s artwork, which we drove down to see, shall speak for itself.

In Chicago we spent our time trying to figure out what all of the images in each painting meant, what their history was, what they had to say socially and politically.   This time we were able to appreciated them as beautiful paintings. If you get a chance to see the show, see it.

Finally, on what is a rainy Easter morning in the Bay Area, I’ve been thinking about hosting a reading challenge.  I’ve been collecting Jane Austen novels, I’ve only Mansfield Park to go before I have all six of them, for a couple of months now.  I’m not hunting for them, just checking for them when I’m at a used book sale, looking for very cheap copies of each or for the Vintage Classics edition because I like the cover art. My plan is to read them all in order once I have them, one book a month.

Is that something people would like to join in.

Maybe call it The Jane Austen Read All-along?

It would start in July with Sense and Sensibility and end in December with Persuasion.  

I think it would be fun to do the same thing with Elizabeth Gaskell in 2018, though it will be harder to find cheap copies of hers here in America.  She’s much more popular in U.K

I may set something up later this month if people are interested.

Meanwhile, I’m reading away though I’m not finishing much lately.  I did read one of from the Brilliant but Short list, Jenny Offil’s Department of Speculation which was excellent though it has started to blend with the main plot of Danielewski’s The Familiar in my memory.  I’ll have to get a review up soon.  Besides that I’m still working through the first volume of Kevin Starr’s history of California.  Add to that the Danielewski book which is too large and heavy to read anywhere but on the dining room table and the essays in the James Kerry Marshall catalogue which I bought at great expense–art books come at a premium.  Also I’m reading Chan H0-kei’s The Borrowed in chunks since it’s made up of five separate stories featuring the same characters.

And it’s back to work tomorrow now that spring break has come to a close.

38 school days left, but who’s counting.


Sunday Ramble and Two Books I Didn’t Like. Sorry.

Visited the local Friends of the Library book sale yesterday, in the rain, where C.J. and I managed to spend much more than we intended.  He got several art books and a couple of books full of house plans while I nearly completed my Jane Austen collection. Can you name the book I still have to find.

I’ve decided it’s a good time to re-read all of Jane Austen’s six novels in order.  So, I’m looking for good second-hand copies of each.  I’d like to have all in the newish Vintage Classics paperback editions.  The top middle book is a Vintage Classics edition. I like them for the cover art.

Apparently, true Janeites re-read all six novels every year or so I read somewhere.  I’m not that big a fan, but I am a big fan.  Once I find Mansfield Park I’ll be ready to begin.

I had two near DNF’s this week, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Repetition  and Ray  by Barry Hannah.  While I am a fan of French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, Repetition did not hit the spot for me.  All of his work, the two other novels I’ve read so far at least, is experimental in ways I find interesting once I figure out just what is going on.  Repetition concerns an agent sent on a mission to Germany during the Cold War, I think.  The book opens with him on the train trying to get through to the other side when he enters a compartment to find himself already sitting there. The man, who looks just like him except he is not wearing a fake mustache, appears to be a better version of himself.  Also an agent on a mission, this doppelgänger is one step ahead of the novel’s hero so much so that at times they appear to switch places in the narrative. I’m not sure. I was confused.

I was confused with the other two Robbe-Grillet novels I read, but I enjoyed trying to figure things out. Confusion is a part of reading as far as I am concerned.  But this time,  because I couldn’t quite make out what was going on, I began to lose patience with the whole thing. Additionally, while the other Robbe-Grillet novels I read struck me as inventive and original, this one seemed like a re-tread of ideas Paul Auster has already done in his New York trilogy.

The other book I didn’t really like was Ray by Barry Hannah. Ray was on one of the Brilliant Novels You Can Read in a Day lists that I found a few weeks ago.  I’ve got a little TBR list of them on one of the tabs at the top of this blog.  The other one’s I’ve read so far have been knock outs so I had high hopes.

Ray  is a long rant about the title character’s life, his loves and the people he knows.  A former pilot who flew fighter planes in Vietnam, Ray is a southerner, through and through.  Which, I’ll be honest, was part of the problem for me. I know there are people, not just in the south, who use racist language freely.  I know depicting this is an honest way to depict them. I understand the argument that “realistic” language gives fiction authenticity.  I know, I know, I know.

But I just don’t have patience for it anymore.  If I never read another book with racist, homophobic or sexist language in it as long as I live, I’m okay with that.

So parts of Ray were very tough going.

It’s supposed to be funny, the way Flannery O’Connor is funny.  I like Flannery O’Connor a lot. While I do find her funny, she’s not laugh-out-loud funny for me the way Eudora Welty is.  All the little blurbs on the back mention how funny Barry Hannah is, how he’s the best southern writer since Flannery O’Connor, etc., etc. None of them mention Eudora Welty whom I think is better than Flannery O’Connor.

But I just didn’t see it.

I’m going to keep both books, though, just in case.  Maybe a future re-reading will reveal things I missed the first time around.  While I didn’t really like either one, I do recognize both are well-written books.

Maybe next time….

Meanwhile, I’m still making my way through Kevin Starr’s Eight volume history of California. I’m nearing the end of the first book Americans and the California Dream which covers 1850 to 1915.  I’ve mentioned before how C.J. and I plan on retiring to the Gold Country where we’ll give  walking tours for the local historical society of whatever town we end up in.  So we’re both reading up on California history.  We’re big fans of the stuff.

And I’m reading an import from China called The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei.  The cover promised a modern noir tale covering 50 years of Hong Kong history, but so far it’s a very old-fashioned story. The opening section, set in modern-day Hong Kong, featured what is usually the final scene in an Agatha Christie novel.  All of the suspects were gathered in a single room while the chief detective reviewed the case hoping one of the suspects would crack and reveal too much.  I completely enjoyed it.  It was a fresh take on this old trope to avoid all the business about gathering clues for three-fourths of the book. Why not just skip to final chapters where all the good stuff is.  That a surprise murderer was revealed came as no surprise really. That he turned out not to be the real killer did.  That he turned out to be someone else’s killer did, too.

Each part that follows is set back in time about ten years or so, with the same set of detectives, just in their younger days.

It looks promising.


Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu Translated by D.C. Lau

51oyteatncl-_sx323_bo1204203200_For many years now, I have taught Daoism as part of my 7th grade history unit on China.  I wish I could call back my previous classes and correct all the mistakes and misrepresentations I have made over the years.  Fortunately, what 7th graders take away from a lesson on Daoism isn’t all that deep, so I probably haven’t done much damage.

Still.  It’s symptomatic of the general practice in American schools to provide lots of professional development on pedagogy but none at all on content knowledge. I’m probably one of a handful of teachers in California, probably the country, who has taken the trouble to read Lao Tzu, beyond what’s in the text book, if they even have a text book anymore.

For several years now, I’ve been enamored of Lao Tzu’s idea that one should be like water.  Water takes no action, resists nothing, simply goes where it is easiest to go, yet water exacts terrific change on the world in spite of this.  Be the water, is a mantra that gets me through many a staff meeting lately.

This year, for some reason, I decided to get a copy of Lao Tzu’s book so I could read it for myself.

I read it like my mother used to read Guidepost magazine, just a little daily meditation to think about. Much of the Tao Te Ching strikes me as very wise, though I’m not sure how one could truly follow The Way in 2017 America.  Much of it confused me to no end.

I’m going to have to read it again.

The book is a set of 81 writings, some poetic in form some expository.  If they come together in a single argument, it escaped me.  Rather, each describes one general idea about what Lao Tzu called “The Way”.  Some apply to the individual, some to the empire, some to both. The Way is the way of heaven, I’m not sure I can define it nor that I would know it if I saw it.  But I like this idea from LXXVII:

Is not the way of heaven like the stretching of a bow?

The high it presses down,

The low it lifts up:

The excessive it takes from,

The deficient it gives to

It is the way of heaven to take from what has in excess in order to make good what is deficient. The way of man is otherwise  It takes from those who are in want in order to offer this to those who already have more than enough.

Lao Tzu wrote this in the fourth century BCE, but it’s still profound advice both for individuals and for governments.

According to legend, Lao Tzu grew tired of China because the government and the people refused to take his teachings to heart, so he decided to retire to the south. On his journey, he encountered a border guard who refused him passage until he wrote down all of his teachings.  The 5000 character document he gave to the guards before he vanished from history became the Tao Te Ching.

Whether or not Lao Tzu was actually a real person is a subject for debate.

Whether or not he still has something to say about how to live is up to individual readers.  I’ve been focused on the final page for several days now:

Truthful words are not beautiful; beautiful words are not truthful. Good words are not persuasive; persuasive words are not good.  He who knows has no wide learning, he who has wide learning does not know.

The sage does not hoard.

Having bestowed all he has on others, he has yet more.

Having given all he as to others, he is richer still.

The way of heaven benefits and does not harm; the way of the sage is bountiful and does not contend

It’s a bit like a puzzle, yes.  Just when I think I understand, I realize there is more to it than first met the eye.  Compare it with John Keats who wrote:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all. Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

While I admire Keats, while I think Ode on a Grecian Urn is terrific, Lao Tzu strikes me much closer to the bone.  Truthful words are not beautiful, beautiful words are not truthful.  In a time when manipulation of language is so prevalent in public and in private life, Lao Tzu’s ideas could prove very useful.

To Walk the Night by William Sloane

Willaim Sloane’s novel To Walk the Night is the first of two featured in the NYRB edition The Rim of Morning; Two Tales of Cosmic Horror with an introduction by Stephen King.

It’s a perfect little read for a dark and stormy night.

Mr. Sloane takes his time.  As Mr. King says in his introduction things have to simmer before they can boil. Simmer they do.

To Walk the Night begins with the discovery of a body.  Two life-long friends find the body of an old professor of theirs burned to death inside a locked observatory where he worked nights on his studies in astronomy and mathematics.  But was he dead when they found him or was he just on the verge of death. The burns form a single line, as though a ray had been projected along his back.  The book was written in the 1930’s, the early days of science fiction when terms like ‘ray’ were still in use.

For a while, the story is a locked room mystery.  The two friends and the local police detective try to find out who the killer is, with no success. Then one of the friends falls in love with the professor’s widow, a beautiful woman, much more beautiful than either of them would expect to marry the professor.

The two friends largely part ways when one marries the professor’s widow just a few months after the murder.  After a time, the local police detective meets with the still unmarried friend to tell him what his investigation has revealed.  A few months before the professors marriage, a young woman disappeared. This woman was an “idiot,” the term used in the 1930’s. Unable to do anything to take care of herself, she lived with her elderly parents who doted on her until the day she vanished outside a local gas station while her mother was in the restroom.

After he has finished his story the detective shows the unmarried friend a picture of the girl.  She looks exactly like the professor’s widow, exactly.  So much so that both are suspicious that the two are the same woman.  How can this be?

This would all read like pulp fiction were Mr. Sloane not such a capable writer.  His prose is good enough to evoke earlier horror classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. That the entire story is told to one of the boy’s fathers long after the events have taken place helps give the novel this feeling.  It all works very well.  I read it in a single sitting, on a slightly windy Saturday night, when I would have been watching Creature Features if Creature Features were still on.  To Walk the Night would have been perfect for it.

In the end, there is a second “murder” and a supernatural explanation that must be accepted as there could be no other cause.

It’s a perfect little horror story gem.  I liked it as much as Stephen King did.

Sunday Salon: I Trolled Someone On Facebook And I Liked It.

a lot is two wordsUsually, I make it my policy not to correct people on Facebook, though there are many people who are frankly wrong out there. Except for the occasional stray bit of punctuation, and spelling “a lot” as a single word, I make it my policy to let things slide.  Though many people want to make the world a better place through linking, I believe sites like Facebook should have fun as their goal.

But now and then someone pushes one of my buttons making it very hard to look the other way.

A few weeks ago, someone I know liked a post about the stand off in Oregon between the local sheriff and Ammon Bundy’s followers who were holed up in the visitor center of a national wildlife refuge.  The post was about how some people had taken to writing fan fiction satires featuring romantic plot lines between the men in Bundy’s gang.  I never read any of them, but with the hashtag #BundyEroticFanFic we all get the idea.

So I left a comment calling out the underlying anti-gay bigotry in this sort of thing.  It bugs me when gay people are expected to laugh along with our hipster friends about “those bigots who are all probably gay anyway.”  No one ever implies that someone they admire is in the closet about being gay.  (Oh, those wonderful young men who rescued all those people from that burning church, you just know they’re going to grow up to be gay after they’ve done something so brave.)  I tried to funny about it, wondering why the authors didn’t also make the Bundy Bunch Jewish or trans-sexual, too.

The original poster, who found #BundyEroticFanFic funny, didn’t see the humor in my comment.  He replied back that I was missing the point, that #BundyEroticFanFic’s weren’t homophobic since they were satire, that the Bundy Bunch were probably homophobic anyway so it was fair to call them gay, that you can’t really explain humor, that if you can’t make fun of things like this, then there is no comedy, etc.

Normally, I would have stopped there, but I replied again.  I pretended to understand his comments and to agree with them.  But why not make the Bundy bunch secretly Jewish, too, since they were just as likely to be anti-semetic as they were to be anti-gay.  Why not have them secretly reading the Torah.  And if they are anti-gay they are almost certainly anti-trans, so why not show them cross-dressing or something like that.  Maybe when they look for snacks after having an intimate moment, they could put on women’s robes and complain that they had run out of the good lox.  Wouldn’t that be funny?

While I was having fun, I knew that I was deliberately goading the original poster on, hoping to get a rise in response.  It was kind of exciting.  He did  reply, but I didn’t read it.  I knew I was becoming a troll; I knew I had to stop.  The only way to avoid trolldom was to give someone else the last word, so that’s what I did.

But the temptation was great.  I could really understand why so many people become internet trolls.  It was fun.

Now I’m back to my more typical policy of only correcting grammar mistakes on Facebook once in a great while.  This may not make the world a better place, but it will help with my tiny corner of social media.  People should be nice; people should have correct grammar.

In other news…..

We have this week off! Hurrah!  No real plans for the week, perhaps a trip to Coppola Winery since we have a gift card.  Some work around the house, maybe finally get the doors on the time machine we’re building in the back yard, make a few things in my studio downstairs, read a bunch of books from my TBR shelves.

The dogs do need a bath, so there’s that.  The taxes forms are all in so there’s that to be done, too.  And we need to trim the rose bushes.

But we’re basically footloose and fancy free for the next seven days.

I have three reviews to type up:  a kids book on Noah Webster, a Simenon crime story not about Inspector Maigret and a wonderful little novella by Flauberd called  A Simple Heart.

So, a perfect vacation.



Cat Country by Lao She

cat countryI admit, I feel quite pleased with myself for understanding so much of Lao She’s 1932 satire Cat Country. Consider that most of my knowledge of late 19th/early 20th century China comes from movies, The Last Emperor  in particular, and a couple of books, Boxers and Saints and The Painted Veil to name most of them.  A few teacher seminars over the years.

I did pretty well recognizing just what Lao She was satirizing in Cat Country.

Cat Country is about a Chinese astronaut who finds himself marooned on Mars where he has landed in a country populated by a race of intelligent cats.  Like Gulliver in Jonathan Swifts book, the astronaut wonders as something of a tourist, trying to survive but also commenting on the world he has accidentally discovered.  Think Charlotte Gilman Perkins’s satire Herland.  (Which is terrific by the way and features a species of highly intelligent cats.)

Lao She’s hero befriends the cat people, learns to speak felinese, begins to write cat poetry, and travels to the center of the country where the capital city lies.  Along the way he begins to understand that he has landed in a country in decline. It won’t be long before the cat country collapses into ruin.

If you know at least as much about China as I do, and there’s a good chance you do, you’ll be able to appreciate how Lao She uses cat country setting to critique his own society.  But even if you don’t, much of Lao She’s critique applies to a large section of human society as is the case in all good satire of this sort.

For example.  The universities in cat country have faced a long series of budgetary crises.  To raise money, in this case not for the university but for the students, they have sold off all of the university’s library books.  Without any books left to arrange, the university librarians have started arranging the library rooms which will soon be converted to hotel rooms as a way to make money for the librarians who got nothing from the sale of the books.

I think that’s pretty good. It also hits a little too close to home for many of us.

Cat Country does suffer a bit from its format.  There are a few plot like elements, there is something of a romance late in the book and the eventual fall of cat country does have some dramatic tension, but most of the time the narrator simply reports on what he learns about the culture and government of cat country as he travels through it.

It’s entertaining.  It’s kind of funny in places.  It still has something to say even in 2016.  But having some knowledge of China will help.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu

art of warThe Art of War by Sun Tzu has been heralded as the book everyone in both the military and the business world should read.  Adopt the principles of Sun Tzu and you will always win, or so we are told.  Some even suggest it will help the average person with daily life.

I bring neither experience as a soldier nor as a business person to the table, so I can’t really say for sure, but I found most of what Sun Tzu says in The Art of War to be painfully obvious.

Use spies in order to know your enemy.  Stay flexible, able to move to suit the situation.  Avoid attacking if you cannot be certain of victory.  Use overwhelming force whenever possible.  Understand the terrain of battle before the battle begins. Attack from higher ground. etc. etc.

This all seems like tactics 101 to me.  Of course one has to start somewhere, and this is as good a place as any to start, I suppose.  But I was expecting something more unexpected from a 2500-year-old text.  Of course, someone had to put down all the basic rules first.

It’s probably useful to have a comprehensive set of tactical rules catalogued in a slim book like this one.  But I found The Art of War too close to the sort of advice books that used to be popular on daytime television shows.  Lisa Adams and John Heath describe this sort of book in Why We Read What We Read.  Here’s how they describe The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Sean Covey:

His treatment of each habit can be monumental; for instance, his presentation of the fourth habit, “Think Win/Win,” reaches nearly mock-epic proportions. To the uninitiated, this practice would appear to need little defence, but Covey spends thirty pages arguing that win-win is generally superior to other possibilities, such as, for example, lose-lose. There are charts listing all the possible permutations, with analyses of the pros and cons of each. Clearly, Covey often doesn’t quite know when to stop (he is the father of nine, in case one is looking for further evidence). And he’s got graphs and pictures. This is a project born for the boardroom, with enough diagrams to inspire even the most ineffective middle-management wannabe.

Take away the charts, the graphs, the pictures, the mock-epic proportions and you have The Art of War —a series of propositions about how to engage in or to avoid combat that seem so obvious they need little defence. So little that Sun Tzu offers none.  Maybe I should say “to his credit Sun Tzu offers none.

James Clavell’s edition contains the examples set down in one of the early mass produced versions of The Art of War. The examples do serve to prove Sun Tzu’s point, but I kept thinking that the question was just more complicated than either Sun Tzu or James Clavell was willing to admit.

Mr. Clavell claims that had the generals involved read The Art of War then the U.S. would not have engaged in Vietnam nor would we have lost in Korea.  Both world wars would have been avoided and the English would still have their empire.  This presupposes that the generals involved did not read Sun Tzu, but do we know that?  Weren’t there simply forces involved in these situations that were beyond the scope of China in the 5th century B.C.E.?

As for whether or not Sun Tzu really applies to the boardroom, I have no idea.  I suppose it does, but I can’t see this as a sign of a healthy society.  Corporations have been annihilating their competition for some time now, and I’m not convinced that the world is a better place as a result.

It may be that The Art of War is still a very useful little book.  I guess I just wish it weren’t so.