The Conversation Continues
Welcome to Page 4 of my “forum.” The subject matter here is anything to do with literature, books, reading, and writing, with a little philosophy thrown in, as well as other tangents and revelations that spring naturally from “intelligent” conversation. To participate, send an e-mail. That’s all there is to it. When I receive your message, I will add it to the bottom of the newest page — unless, of course, it is rude or crude, in which case I retain the right to not post your message. The same goes for blatant advertising. Pertinent recommendations of reading material and related websites, though, are welcome within the natural context of our conversation. We all have plenty to gain from each other’s knowledge and experience. So, whether you are just reading or actively participating, enjoy your visit. I will post new messages as soon as possible after they are received. Be sure to check in often for the latest responses.
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To return to my December 2002 Barbaric Yawp interview with John Berbrich, click here.
To read our original 2001 interview, click here.
William Michaelian: In my old copy of The Reader’s Encyclopedia, I found some interesting tidbits under “Philosopher.” The entry begins, “The sages of Greece used to be called sophoi (‘wise men’), but Pythagoras thought the word too arrogant and adopted the compound philosophoi (‘lovers of wisdom’), whence ‘philosopher,’ one who courts or loves wisdom.” Next comes “Philosophers’ Stone.” This is interesting: “The hypothetical substance which, according to the medieval alchemists, and to the wide and unremitting search that went on for it we are indebted for the birth of the science of chemistry, as well as for many inventions. According to one legend, Noah was commanded to hang up the true and genuine philosophers’ stone in the ark, to give light to every living creature therein. Another relates that Deucalion had it in a bag over his shoulder, but threw it away and lost it.” Flipping back a few hundred pages, I see that Deucalion was son of Prometheus and Clymene, and was king of Phthia, in Thessaly. When Zeus sent a deluge — Gods are always seeking attention — Deucalion built a ship, and he and his wife, Pyrrha, were the only mortals saved. Anyway, blah, blah, blah, and before long there were people again and they made a mess of everything, hence the need for philosophers — also for the old Irish music-hall song, “Phil the Fluter’s Ball,” which describes the festivities when “Phil the Fluter” holds a ball. There are allusions to it, says The Reader’s Encyclopedia, in Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, and echoes of its “bouncing rhythm and its onomatopeia recur throughout the book.” Jethro Tull, on the other hand — well, maybe I’ve said enough. But I do think Nietzsche’s Mustache would be a great name for a story. Say, this pizza is sure good. I didn’t realize how hungry I was.
Anita: Of course it’s a good pizza — my special recipe with pineapple, mushrooms and prawns. Now, that’s quite a catchy title, Nietzsche’s Mustache. Has overtones of Voltaire’s Bastard. Ironically, for the last week I have been reading Nietzsche: A beginner’s guide and have learned the Latin term amor fati meaning to love your fate. I didn’t think I would like Fred because of his statement that God is dead, but now I understand why he said it and he really hit the mark there, but like most brilliant ideas it was way ahead of its time. Was sad to learn that his sister gave him a full Christian burial against his wishes — what is it with families? I am studying a Philosophy as my major for a BA, but I keep coming back to Lao Tzu and Taoism and agree wholeheartedly with John: the Chinese cut to the chase and I reckon it was a Taoist who coined the phrase: Keep it simple, stupid. Life really is very simple and I think once people truly understand that, the whole industry of psychiatry, psychology and psychotherapy will collapse — which may be a good thing.
John Berbrich: That’s my feeling. Somewhere Thoreau writes “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.” But Dali wrote that he hated simplicity. Some people have an unnerving tendency to complicate everything. Look at Japanese art and literature. You’ll find seventeen-line poems and a couple of old stones. What could be simpler? They sit and drink tea and stare at these things until some sort of essence penetrates the thick human skull. Talk about inner peace. There’s that Zen thing we discussed earlier. Compare the Japanese flag with the American flag and that may say it all.
Anita: Could it be that simplicity is only understood after one has spun their wheels doing everything the hard way? Lately, I’ve been tempted to make business cards that just state: “I’ve done all the dumb things,” after a song written by Australian, Paul Kelly. Simple and straight to the point.
Welcome, strangers, to the show
I’m the one who should be lying low
Saw the knives out, turned my back
Heard the train coming, stayed out on the track
In the middle, in the middle, in the middle of a dream
I lost my shirt, I pawned my rings
I’ve done all the dumb things
Caught the fever, heard the tune
Thought I loved her, hung my heart on the moon
Started howling, made no sense
Thought my friends would rush to my defence
In the middle, in the middle, in the middle of a dream
I lost my shirt, I pawned my rings
I’ve done all the dumb things
And I get all your good advice
It doesn’t stop me from going through these things twice
I see the knives out, I turn my back
I hear the train coming, I stay right on that track
In the middle, in the middle, in the middle of a dream
I lost my shirt, I pawned my rings
I’ve done all the dumb things
I melted wax to fix my wings
I’ve done all the dumb things
I threw my hat into the ring
I’ve done all the dumb things
I thought that I just had to sing
I’ve done all the dumb things
William Michaelian: Thank you, Anita, and thank you, Mr. Kelly, wherever you are. You know, for a second there, I thought you said you’d prawned all your rings. Must be the pizza. “I’ve done all the dumb things” would be a catchy slogan, all right. But are you absolutely sure? I feel that way most of the time, only to add to the list. J.B., I like the idea of drinking tea and staring at stones. I have done that with my books, and with simple objects like my uncle’s old briar pipe, with similar results. What I have observed, in general, is that many people are afraid of simplicity, and feel threatened by it. It is the same with being alone in a quiet place.
John Berbrich: It’s true. Some families blast a television all day long even though no one’s watching it or a stereo with no one listening. Musak follows you through the shopping mall, the bland sounds punctuated by announcements, filling in the empty spaces. Silence can be frightening. It can also be awesome and holy, when you stand in the quiet forest and hear your heart beating. And I like the Kelly lyrics, thanks, although I must agree with Willie — I haven’t done all the dumb things yet, but I’m working on it.
Anita: On second thoughts, I haven’t quite done all the dumb things. I haven’t robbed a bank, believed someone when they told me it was safe to touch an electric fence (farm humour?) nor caught a delicate piece of my anatomy in a zipper. I feel so much better now. Thanks, Willie.
William Michaelian: Think nothing of it. But now I’m wondering why you haven’t robbed a bank. It’s so direct and to the point. What could be simpler, at least philosophically speaking?
Anita: Maybe because I don’t want to spend the next fifteen years using soap-on-a-rope.
William Michaelian: Yes, I suppose that would be a bit of a setback, though I’m sure you’d learn a lot in prison, and teach others a lot as well. But it’s easy to be philosophical where another person is concerned, so I’ll withdraw the question, as Perry Mason used to say.
John Berbrich: Careful, Anita — sounds like Willie’s trying to persuade you to join his gang!
Anita: Don’t worry John, I know William from a previous lifetime. I’ve had his number for a while. Isn’t that right, Billy the Kid?
William Michaelian: Well, it might be a little hard to prove. But one thing is certain: you’re too free a spirit to join any gangs, and I could never be the leader of one. Besides, I couldn’t afford to pay good enough benefits, and there’s all the paperwork to consider. I’m better off doing dumb things on my own. Okay, wipe those smiles off your faces. I was being serious. Hey, I just had an idea. What if philosophers had business cards? What would they say? What would Nietzsche’s say, for instance? Would it say “God is Dead,” and then give his phone number?
John Berbrich: Yeah, call collect. Thoreau’s would be made out of tree bark. Alan Watts’ card would be blank — the Zen mind thing.
William Michaelian: Or how about this one for Descartes? “I think, therefore I am — From Nine to Five.”
Anita: Schrödinger’s card: “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty.”
William Michaelian: Ha! That’s a good one. But was Schrödinger a philosopher? Oh, well. It doesn’t matter. A good card’s a good card. I wonder, though. Judy is rolling her eyes and Mr. Hinshaw is drumming the table with his fingers, so maybe we should return to the business at hand. Wait. Do we have any? John, put down that tree bark, will you? That’s supposed to be a coaster, not a business card.
Judy: I’m rolling my eyes only because I brought up philosophers and then have nothing to add to the conversation. I’m going to be more careful what I bring up after this.
Anita: I don’t think Schrödinger was a philosopher but he should have been reported to the SPCA. I have met many exquisite philosophers, most of them were working as bartenders, beekeepers and booksellers. I suppose one gets called a philosopher when one has his thoughts published and the thoughts that don’t get published just pass for . . . what . . . conversation?
William Michaelian: They do, if the thoughts are spoken. The conversation that goes on in a person’s head doesn’t count. Also, I’d like to add barbers to your list of B-word philosophers. Unfortunately, my own fear of haircuts keeps me away from that noble tribe. I’d visit a barbershop just for the entertainment, but I’d probably drive away business, and that wouldn’t be right.
Anita: William, for all you know you might be the Holy Grail for the local barbers. You should go and visit and be so tantalizingly close but just out of their reach. I think you should get in touch with your altruism, get your hair cut and donate it to a wigmaker so they can make rugs for the baldies. You may not be able to save the world but you can save the rest of us from Donald Trump’s do comb-over. No greater love hath a man that he lays down his locks for his brothers. . . .
William Michaelian: Several people have told me this. They say when you cut your hair, you should donate it, and so on. It might be selfish, but I don’t like the idea of people going around with my hair on their head. On the other hand, I could see using it to make a real rug, or maybe a basket, or some other useful item. It might even be used to make paper. There is probably enough to print a short-run edition of poetry.
Judy: I’ll never think of ordinary haircuts in the same way again.
John Berbrich: I understand what Willie’s getting at. I’m not sure I could be a hair-donor either. I have plenty, but it’s all mine. I’m just not a good person. About the only organs I’d be willing to donate are my tonsils and maybe my appendix. And I have an old Emenee electric organ out in the barn that I’ll never use again — I’d give that to some little kid, my contribution to something. It still works.
Judy: I think that Native Americans believe that their bodies need to be complete for them to enter the good life in the hereafter and therefore abhor the idea of autopsies. I suppose, if you want to keep all your hair now, that donating your bodies to science to be sliced up is out of the question? ;-)
William Michaelian: Well, in my case, I can’t imagine science being interested.
Anita: Judy, you may be interested to know that the Ancient Egyptians considered that the brain was of no importance in the after-life, hence why it was yanked out through the nose with something resembling a crochet hook. However, as they believed the soul lived in the heart, the deceased’s heart was preserved along with other organs that were placed in canopic jars. As those of you who read my blog know, I am a registered organ donor but I have expressly forbidden any of my organs to be used for scientific research. I would rather my kidneys be given to two living people than dissected, embedded in wax and then sliced up, stuck on a slide, allocated a number then shoved in a box. When my father died, an autopsy had to be performed for the coroner’s report and it disturbed me greatly, even more so after I started working in pathology labs and saw an autopsy room, which had the feel of an abattoir. My philosophy is that our physical bodies are not unlike coats and when I take my coat off, they can cut off the buttons and stick them on somebody else’s coat. Say . . . is anyone else hungry?
William Michaelian: Bad timing. Eating now might lead to grave consequences.
Anita: Somebody smack him.
John Berbrich: I won’t slug our host, however foolishly he’s behaving. And however much he deserves a good smack. Anita, regarding your remark about the Egyptians and hearts — I recall reading that Aristotle thought that human intelligence was located in the heart. Apparently he couldn’t figure out what the brain was for, and speculated that it was perhaps some kind of internal heating and cooling mechanism. It’s this sort of coincidence that makes me wonder about the connection between civilizations in the ancient world. I wish some archaeologists would find that ancient library at Alexandria. There are supposed to be thousands and thousands of books there, thousands of years old. Talk about a treasure! That’s the wonderful thing about archaeology — you just never know what you will find. The unexpected awaits beneath every clod of earth.
William Michaelian: I can dig it, man.
John Berbrich: Somebody smack him!
Anita: On second thoughts, John, we better not smack him — he might enjoy it. A week or so ago, I stumbled across this website for the New Alexandrian Library Project, which might solve the problem as to whom to leave the books to. I’ve been downloading the newsletters from the Friends of Nekhen website. I am totally fascinated by Predynastic Egypt and they have been digging up some very interesting artifacts.
William Michaelian: My apologies, friends. I’ll try to be serious, at least for a minute or two. I don’t know about the “new” library project, but I sure like the idea of finding the ancient one. It would be sobering to see how much wonderful knowledge has been lost, and thrilling at the same time. We talk about progress, but look at what we have lost in the last few decades just in terms of understanding nature and reading its signs. If we are out of touch with nature, how can we be in touch with ourselves?
Anita: Very telling though is that if you are a person who is in touch with nature and, to use an example, you say to your neighbour that you can tell it’s going to rain because the colour of the leaves is a lighter green, he will look at you like you are touched — in the head. When, in fact, all you possess is a higher degree of knowledge that he is skeptical about because it sounds rather fanciful. I always thank people when they identify themselves as skeptics for they are admitting that they think with half a brain.
William Michaelian: That sounds a bit harsh. Who knows what amount of our brains any of us are using? Thinking itself seems to be an overrated tool in the overall scheme of things. Sometimes it’s downright useless, an impediment to understanding. Thought itself, though, is a word that is generally worshipped — like so many other words that we use as substitutes for the real thing.
John Berbrich: The word that bugs me more than any other is progress, a term used to justify any heinous type of behavior. It’s my belief that progress can be made only in terms of a specific goal, and even then you won’t realize what you’re losing until it’s gone. Why utilizing more complex and pervasive technology is automatically considered progress is a mystery, except of course that someone’s making a buck on it. Why can’t people see this?
William Michaelian: I think there are many who can, but that there aren’t enough — just as there aren’t enough yet who are willing to reject the utter foolishness of war, and to dig deeply enough to see that its causes are a direct consequence of our own daily actions.
Tim Hinshaw: I think we’re making progress here.
William Michaelian: That, for instance. Will someone please smack him?
Judy: Did someone just say Halliburton? Oops, no, I guess not. Anita, I’m an organ donor too, but it was easy to make that decision after years of regular haircuts. As if dismantling bodies isn’t bad enough, a friend of mine and I are thinking about cutting up old books. Hope I’m not banished from this site. Don’t think of it as destruction of books but as prolonging their life. My friend received as a gift some journals that are made from old, interesting hard covers, recycled paper, a few pages of the original book interspersed here and there, and a spiral binding. You can see samples at www.exlibrisanonymous.com. We are going to try a few and see if we can sell them on eBay. Maybe the excerpted pages will inspire people to read the entire book? Maybe Exlibris Anonymous will sue us? (We might make a quick visit to a lawyer somewhere in there.) Also if shopping is one of your daily actions, and who knows what unintended grave and direct consequences that might have, check out www.buyblue.org. Being the vengeful person I am learning that I am, I am willing to spend a bit more money and go to a great deal more trouble to avoid giving certain corporations my money. That should give everyone pause for thought and may help us feel we are making progress. Anita, will they let me on this site again?
William Michaelian: All I ask is that you don’t cut up the books in my presence.
Judy: We will cut them up between midnight and 3:00 a.m. by candlelight or the light of the full moon.
Anita: The Exlibris journals are similar to altered books, which is a new art form and seems to have evolved from scrapbooking. I have trouble bringing myself to even highlight or underline passages in a book, let alone cut up a book. Lately, I have been cruising the Op shops and buying old “coffee-table” books for the images to use in my collages as well as hitting the book sales at the libraries. I’m continually astonished at what great books I am finding for as little as fifty-five cents each. The other day I found two great Australian classics by Henry Handel Richardson, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony and Maurice Guest. Henry is the pen name of Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson, a Melbourne girl and she wrote under a man’s name to test out the assertion that women’s writing was easy to distinguish from a man’s writing. . . . Just picking up on the words that bug thread. The word that bugs me the most is inappropriate. Who decides what is inappropriate and does the word ever not carry a value judgement when it is employed?
William Michaelian: I don’t know. Should we ask Mr. Homeland Security? I think he’s still out there, flailing around in the mud.
Judy: I hope we find books for fifty-five cents. The greatest books are selling for forty-five dollars, and when a journal might sell for seventeen, we need to be careful. I have a phrase that bugs, “family values.” Every politician uses it ad nauseum, and tell me, who is going to get up in front of a bunch of people and say, “Well, I’m your candidate for senator. Sorry to be late, but I had to unshackle my kids before the authorities came around. My wife is in the back trying to cover up her black eye. I’m working on getting my parents declared incompetent — they’re only in their sixties, but rides to the doctor take up way too much of my time . . . ”
John Berbrich: Something about cutting up books by the light of the full moon is . . . is . . . is inappropriate. It’s like creating a sacred ritual or celebration of what is really desecration. I can’t write in my books either — can’t highlight or underline. On a scrap of paper I write down significant page numbers for later study and copy favorite passages into my many notebooks and journals. Even bad books I can’t destroy, although I can without qualms give them away to an appropriate home.
Judy: I thought the cutting up books part might get a reaction. But the books would possibly just be languishing somewhere. This would extend their life after a fashion, analogous to the heart of a person who died in a car crash enabling someone else to live longer. We’ll take the brains, eyes and hearts of the books and leave the kidneys behind. I don’t mark in books either, except to make notes in cookbooks such as “great” or “I wouldn’t feed this to my worst enemy.” You are doing the right thing, John, by making notations on a separate piece of paper. Even the glue on post-it notes can damage the books if left there too long. Part of the charm of some of the books I found though, was annotations previous owners had made — French verb conjugations, for example. Or “To Johnny. Merry Christmas, 1941. Santa Claus.”
Tim Hinshaw: The kidneys are the best parts of books, Judy. I like mine sauteed in olive oil and garlic and served with an appropriate merlot.
Judy: I guess it doesn’t bother you to cut up books. Do you use post-it notes in them too? John, you probably like turkey gizzards too? Excuse me, I meant Tim must like turkey gizzards.
William Michaelian: You guys are disgusting.
John Berbrich: I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a gizzard but I hope not — they sound awful. I don’t like olives or Limburger cheese. Everything else I like. And I do sometimes enjoy the marginal notes made in books by previous owners, Judy, you’re right. Particulary gift inscriptions. Lots of old textbooks start off with copious marginalia but it usually peters out completely after maybe twenty pages.
Anita: What wine would you serve with turkey gizzards?
William Michaelian: Here’s an idea: olive and Limburger casserole, topped with leaves of grass.
Anita: I’m going to change the subject and give you a weather report. Last night we were hit by a once-in-a-century storm that dumped a record 120mm of rain in 24 hours. It’s the middle of summer and it is snowing on Mt. Buller in the Victorian high country! It was a bitterly cold day here yesterday — 30 Celsius drop in temperature compared to the previous day. The historic pier at Albert Park has been completely washed away by stormy seas in Port Phillip Bay. All the major freeways into the city are flooded — nobody is getting to work on time today and the emergency services are flat out removing fallen trees right across the metro area and restoring power. An eighty-metre jib has snapped off a crane on the MCG. This storm front moved in from the East, which the weather boffins say is very unusual. Mother Nature kicked the backsides of all the East Coast capital cities. Was a really wild night. I no longer have to worry about getting the ripe apples off the top of my tree; they are all on the ground but my tomato plants are okay. Lucky I decided to stake them up more securely a couple of days ago.
William Michaelian: Wow! Thank goodness the tomatoes were saved. Otherwise, it would have been a real disaster. By the way, I just finished Bob Dylan’s book, Chronicles. It’s well done, and especially interesting from the standpoint of his artistic development. For what it’s worth, J.B., Dylan’s writing is a lot like yours. He never beats around the bush, and there is a compelling rhythm and music to his prose. There are lines scattered throughout that could be in poems or songs. Tell me, did you ever play in one of his bands? You weren’t mentioned by name, but I wonder about the influences.
John Berbrich: Me? No. The bands I played in were thankfully quite obscure. But I wondered about the book, thought it might be really interesting, especially if he goes on about the old days and all the old names. Fascinating to read behind-the-scene accounts. And I don’t mean to sound stupid, but how much is 120mm? I mean in inches.
William Michaelian: I don’t know. I’ve never been good at math. Dylan goes on about the old names and old days, all right. As you would expect, there are plenty of larger-than-life characters, rugged individuals who would be outraged by the current corporate mentality. He talks some about recording, too, so you can get a feel for how those sessions really went. I do recommend the book. It’s interesting, and he really keeps things moving.
Anita: John, 120mm equals 4.72 inches.
John Berbrich: Thanks, Anita — that is a lot of rain. When I was in elementary school, we were told that pretty soon the Metric system would take over the USA. I’m happy to report that this is not the case. Who cares if the rest of the world measures things decimally? But that’s a lot of rain, whatever scale one uses. I read a book by Andrew Loog Oldham a couple of years ago. He was the Rolling Stones’ first manager over in England way back when. I remember he mentioned that Dylan was over in England at the time — as an actor. At least, that’s the way I recall it. Is this mentioned in his book, Willie?
William Michaelian: Now that you mention it, I think there was a brief reference to some acting, but it was very brief, and I don’t think England was mentioned, at least in that context. He covers a lot of ground and jumps around quite a bit. Yet he always manages to get back to his original subject and ties it all together. A great many names and places are mentioned — people he met, places where he flopped on the couch, coffee houses where he played, and other musicians and artists — contemporaries and influences from the past. He definitely captures the mood and excitement of his early days. He writes his way into the Eighties, talks about doing some recording in New Orleans, and listening to one of his favorite DJs down there on WWOZ, a woman who calls herself Brown Sugar. He was crazy about her voice. Then he comes back to the early days again, back to the time he was signed for his first album. Quite a journey.
John Berbrich: Well, whether or not you like Dylan, you gotta admit that he has been one extravagantly influential character. And he’s still going. By the way, speaking of music — our website difficulties at the radio station have been ironed out by our marvelous cadre of techies. So if you wanna listen to the show later on it can be found at radio.clarkson.edu. That’s Saturday afternoons, 2:00-4:00 EST. Today’s theme is FOOD. It’s the Food Show with Howie and the Wolfman. We’re gonna have fun so check it out. I was up all night going through my old records and rediscovered some edible gems.
William Michaelian: That reminds me. Has anyone seen my strawberry alarm clock? I’m all out of incense and peppermint. The Dylan influence can’t be denied, but it’s easy to see why he’s not everyone’s favorite. He certainly isn’t mine. Occasionally he is downright irritating. Some songs are classics, though, and he did come up the hard way. On the other hand, you have Paul McCartney playing at halftime of the Super Bowl. I’ll bet John Lennon and George Harrison are having a private snicker over that one. Then again, they might prefer to sleep through it.
John Berbrich: The least foolish rock stars seem to be the ones that died young — Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and there are plenty more. Playing rock and roll at age fifty-five just seems wrong. Well, playing lusty crotch rock anyway. When a guy explores blues or jazz or celestial space-rock, that makes more sense. Some artists get into country, which is always a mistake. Folk ain’t quite so bad, but you gotta maintain an edge or it all sounds facile and false, like the great Rock Hero is weary and wants to sleep. Sh-h-h-h, just buy the CD but don’t wake him up.
William Michaelian: Writers, on the other hand, just get better and better as they grow older. Man, I hope so, anyway. Our youngest son was given Leaves of Grass for Christmas and is reading that now. There’s a picture of the Good Gray Poet on the cover with a long flowing beard — really inspiring. I’m wondering. What tends to be the age of most of the writers you guys read? I guess that’s sort of a double question for you, J.B., considering your editorial duties at Barbaric Yawp. And what do you think about the work of writers in their twenties and thirties that you have come across, if any? Does anything stand out, or bug you, or inspire you?
Anita: Interesting question. Going by the books that I am currently packing — yes I am moving house — it seems that the majority are written by authors aged forty-plus at the time the books were written. I can’t recall reading any books written by authors in their twenties or thirties or it could be I don’t gravitate to the genre of books that are written by younger authors. Speaking for myself, when I was in my twenties and thirties, I did not feel I had enough life experience behind me to write anything that would be worth reading. Now I feel that I do have enough life experience to write a book that would be worth reading. However, finding a publisher who feels the same way is another matter.
Tim Hinshaw: I like the old guys (and gals).
Judy: The authors I read now are mostly in their fifties or sixties, so they’re my age or not a great deal older. For the most part I agree with Anita that someone needs a little life experience in order to have something to say, but there are exceptions. Stephen Crane was only twenty-eight when he died. I see books that come into the library that are written by youngish people — under thirty, and they can be a bit, shall we say, self-absorbed.
John Berbrich: Well, for regular books on the shelf, I always prefer the experienced writer — say, forty or older. When I read for the magazine, I give everyone an equal shot. Of course the work of mature writers is, well, mature. But very often the poems and stories of young authors sparkle with energy and striking forms of expression. I generally end up going with prime-of-life to older authors but have published high school students too. I smile at the latter’s bizarre combination of timidity, arrogance, and enthusiasm.
William Michaelian: Most of what I read tends to be by older authors as well. But there are several exceptions, as Judy mentioned. By and large, though, they are from the pre-television era. Several years ago, I received a copy of Granta’s The Best of Young American Novelists, young in this case being under forty. I had a hard time getting through it — didn’t, in fact. Most of the prose was lifeless and predictable. Young writers of yesteryear were more likely to be well-read and up on the news of their time. Dostoevsky wrote Poor Folk in his twenties. Saroyan wrote The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze when he was twenty-six. Théophile Gautier wrote Mademoiselle de Maupin when he was twenty-four. Thomas Wolfe wrote Look Homeward, Angel in his twenties. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a handful of young writers out there at this very moment who are capable of rising up and changing the literary landscape. Not all young people have been paralyzed by the current media bombardment. The trouble is, it will be hard for them to become known. The corporate publishing model wants a sure thing. They don’t want to invest in a young writer’s future, and in the future of literature. Individuals within the system might want to, but there is steady pressure on them to “perform.” That’s the current scene. On the bright side, things also change. They will change. We need writers of all ages who are willing to do more than play at writing. As John and I discussed early on, there are many pretenders, and many who prey on the pretenders. They probably deserve each other, but neither do anything for literature.
John Berbrich: Someone has said that ninety-five percent of everything is garbage. It seems to be a fact of nature. Just turn away from the bad and go with the best. And always do your best. But you never really know where you’re gonna find something outstanding. Sometimes it seems like every tiny scrap matters so much. I think that’s what John Cage was after — trying to wake everyone up to the idea that everything is music and is worth listening to: the wind in the willows, the gentle rustle of turning pages, even the rattle of clean silverware being placed in a drawer. In this sense, Cage was more of a musical theorist or philosopher than a musician, although he also was a fine musician when he felt like it. Don’t you just wanna grab hold of the universe and give it a good shake? — All the secrets drop out of little cracks, you see a glimpse of eternity, you really really finally wake up.
William Michaelian: Thanks, old friend, for putting a positive spin on my diatribe. I had never heard of John Cage. A brief introduction to the man and his work can be found here, and a biography here. And, on this page, is a short autobiography. How right you are about the rattling silverware and the cracked universe offering glimpses of eternity. But a long time ago when we got to talking like this, Mr. Hinshaw piped up and told us we were full of, as he put it, crap. But you know what? So is he. Not only that, I had never thought of giving the universe a good shake. I like that image. Give it a shake and watch Hinshaw fall out of the cracks. Now, to backtrack a little bit, Judy mentioned Stephen Crane. Have any of you read The Red Badge of Courage, and if so, what did you think?
Anita: I haven’t read The Red Badge of Courage. However, I am reading The Singing Bird, which is the story of Tina Lawton, a young Adelaide folk singer, graphic artist and world citizen, who died at the age of twenty-four in a plane crash in Kenya on Christmas Eve in 1968. I picked this book up from a Goodwill store last week. Have never heard of her but she packed a lot of living into her very short life. In 1967, she was asked by the Australian Forces Overseas Fund to join entertainers going to Viet Nam to perform for the newly-arrived troops from July to October 1967. The book contains many letters she wrote home to her parents and she also received a Certicate of Appreciation from General W.C. Westmoreland of the U.S. Army for her contribution to the morale and welfare of the U.S. troops. Reading this book has reminded me of something that touches on how we mostly read books written by mature writers. While I can’t recall reading anything written by younger writers, I have read a lot of biographies about young people, like Tina, who have lived extraordinary lives and died young. I suspect these young people who are leading interesting lives are just too busy living to sit down and write books. When Tina was in Viet Nam she drew many sketches which were displayed at a posthumous exhibition. Under a sketch of a ghoulish head in a gas-mask; the skeleton of a child, holding a tattered doll; imperious hands beckoning ranks of young civilians towards an atomic cloud, she wrote:
The age demanded that we sing — and cut away our tongues;
The age demanded that we flow — and hammered in the bungs;
The age demanded that we dance — and jammed us all in iron pants;
And in the end, the age was handed the sort that it demanded.
I sense if one shook Tina Lawton more than a few of those secrets of the universe would have come tumbling out.
Judy: I’m going to have to live a long time to get as much living in as some people who live so passionately and die so young. I have not read Red Badge; it’s one of the many books that’s on my mental list of books to read.
Tim Hinshaw: To quote the Coasters: “Why’s everybody always pickin’ on me?”
William Michaelian: Sufferin’ succotash. Listen to that boy whine. Hey, Anita, that page about Tina Lawton was great. I clicked on the “next” buttons all the way to the end. Sounds like you were lucky to find a copy of The Singing Bird, since apparently there aren’t many around. What a sad story — or, rather, a sad, unfortunate ending. Her story was inspiring, and nicely told by librarian John Low. “The age demanded that we sing — and cut away our tongues” is not a statement we’ll hear from Britney Spears anytime soon.
Anita: For sure, William, my jaw dropped when I read that copies of The Singing Bird are scarcer than hen’s teeth to find. Was a lucky find as was the web page, which is very nicely done by John Low. It seems quite a lot of very talented musicians shuffle off this mortal coil assisted by small aircraft — Patsy Cline, Richie Valens, Jiles Perry Richardson aka The Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, Aaliyah, Jim Croce, John Denver, Glenn Miller, Otis Redding, Jim Reeves and Stevie Ray Vaughan to name a few. Makes you wonder about that appointment in Samarra and just how much chance plays in whether you miss it or keep it. Waylon Jennings gave up his seat to the Big Bopper, who had the flu and wanted time to have a rest and see the doctor when they landed. “The age demanded that we fly — beneath the earth now we lie.” Somebody smack me.
William Michaelian: Yes, I’m afraid that will be necessary. But not until later, when you’re not expecting it. In the meantime, since I asked about The Red Badge of Courage, and you’ve all found that subject so gripping, I suppose the least I could do is say something about it. I did read the book some time back. The Civil War battle scenes are vivid, and Crane writes eagerly and with much feeling. It’s a short novel about a newly enlisted Union soldier named Henry who runs during his first battle, and his struggle to justify his actions in his mind. His mental journey during subsequent battles is not a simple one, and reveals him as less than noble. In that way, Crane avoided a dangerous romantic trap. My view is that the book is somewhat overrated, and I feel a little guilty for saying so, since Crane was only twenty-four when he wrote it and so willingly took on such tough subject matter. I think the book’s reputation has a lot to with the timing of its appearance in 1895, and its realistic rather than romanticized approach. So what about Ayn Rand, J.B.? You mentioned you were reading her Romantic Manifesto awhile back. I haven’t read a word of her writing, but for some odd reason I know she took the name Rand from her typewriter. It isn’t much to go on, I’m afraid.
John Berbrich: Oh, Aynnie. The Romantic Manifesto is a good book. Rand’s ideas appear simplistic in one way, yet they are strong in another, and she presents her case powerfully. Basically, she defines the Romantic Movement in art and literature as the beginning of rational thought. I always equated Romanticism somehow with Individualism. Then I realized that what Ayn is saying is that the only ones who can truly think rationally are real individuals, cuz the others are merely perpetuating received knowledge — a part of the herd of freethinkers, if you will. She highly recommends the novel Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo. She calls Hugo “The greatest novelist in world literature.” So then I had to read Ninety-Three. I enjoyed the majority of it — the dialogue and action were swift and sharp, but the long pages of names and places connected with the French Revolution wearied me. What it gets down to, Rand suggests, is values, human values. That’s what is so compelling about a story like that of Hugo’s; a Revolution is a titanic clash of values, and as such makes a great bloody story. Sound good?
William Michaelian: Which — revolution, or The Romantic Manifesto? Both sound appealing. I haven’t read Ninety-Three, but a number of years ago I read Les Misérables, which contains two or three ponderous side excursions by Hugo that are the length of short novels. He is one of Literature’s grand masters, to be sure — and was the first to admit it. He has a way of making you swallow things that are preposterous in and of themselves, but which combine for such a powerful effect that you are left weeping in the end. Such are the books that stand the test of time. Another classic is Don Quixote. Cervantes doesn’t take himself as seriously as Hugo — few do, or at least have a legitimate right to. His humor is brilliant. After finishing the book, it takes several days to emerge from the world he weaves. When you finally do, you want to go back.
John Berbrich: That’s almost exactly what Rand says. She writes, “Do not look for familiar landmarks — you won’t find them; you are not entering the backyard of ‘the folks next door,’ but a universe you did not know existed.” She continues: “Do not look for ‘the folks next door’ — you are about to meet a race of giants, who might have and ought to have been your neighbors.” What a marvelous creation is a good novel. I read Don Quixote years ago, in a translation that I found to be not readily accessible. That is a continual frustration of mine with World Literature — translation. I speak only English and thus am dependent upon an intermediary. But that’s okay. I love the Russians, the French, and the Japanese.
William Michaelian: Translating is an art. Just for the record, the translation of Don Quixote I read was done by J.M. Cohen in the late Forties. His introduction begins this way: “Some excuse seems necessary for reintroducing in a fresh translation a book which has been one of the world’s best sellers for three centuries, and which already exists in seven or eight English versions. But, for all that, the modern reader would be hard put to it to choose a good Don Quixote. The best and raciest version, Shelton’s, being almost contemporary with the original, is the nearest to Cervantes in spirit. It suffers, however, like other seventeenth-century work, from a lack of familiarity with the idiom; many of Shelton’s most picturesque touches bear little resemblance to Cervantes’ phrases which they purport to translate. The eighteenth-century versions, available in cheap editions, are all of them readable, but none of them appreciably closer to the Spanish than Shelton’s, and all prone to omit the passages they do not understand; and what the nineteenth-century translators gained in accuracy they lost in style.” This gives a good idea of what a translator is up against. As it is, even if you are reading a book written in your native tongue, you are in fact translating the author’s original work — a different thing than giving it your interpretation, though the two processes are definitely related. And of course languages change themselves, making it necessary for us to have someone translate Chaucer or Shakespeare, for instance, into what passes for modern English, which we boldly claim to understand. Now, to veer off in another direction, what do you guys think of good old-fashioned potboilers? I’m thinking in terms of Raymond Chandler and The Big Sleep — that sort of thing. Any authors you like, dislike, or would care to recommend?
Tim Hinshaw: Can’t beat Chandler, but there have been some good ones since then. About every other month or so I go on a binge of detective/crime novel reading, alas mostly of marginal authors, in search of a gem or two. I broke into the genre in my teens with John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series set in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and will still re-read them every once in a while. Jamie Lee Burke writes good crime novels out of Louisiana, and I’m a big sucker for anything by Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake. Leonard, in particular, has a way with dialogue unlike any other crime novelist I’ve ever read. When I grow up I want to be like Elmore.
William Michaelian: You mean if, don’t you? In my collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales and poems, it says that Poe deserves some credit for establishing the detective genre. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter” are given as examples. We are certainly familiar with the type of “crimes” that erupted from his pen. And then there’s good old Sherlock Holmes. My son, Vahan, has read all of the Holmes stories at least twice, and really likes them. He has the eleven-episode TV series starring Jeremy Brett on DVD as well. As funny as it sounds, Crime and Punishment is another good potboiler. After committing his gruesome murder, Raskolnikov is pestered by a detective throughout — I forget his name, but he reminded me of Columbo. Of course, the real detective is Raskolnikov’s conscience. I do believe Chandler is the greatest at hardboiled dialogue, but, like my other beliefs, this springs from my own ignorance, because I haven’t read his competition. And now I have another question for each of you, or for anyone who is interested. How much time do you actually spend reading, and why do you do it?
Tim Hinshaw: I spend anywhere from twenty to forty hours per week reading (of course, reading is part of my day job, but that doesn’t count). Why? Lack of imagination forces me to borrow others.’ Another reason is because I’ve always been that way. Problem is, I can’t remember anything important I’ve read. If I could, I’d be smart.
John Berbrich: I read maybe twenty hours each week. That’s not counting editorial work for the magazine, which totals perhaps another eight to ten. I wish I had more time to read. I’ve missed whole genres, including cowboy novels and that hard boiled stuff. I’ve never read anything by Chandler or any of those guys. If it means anything, Ayn Rand rated Mickey Spillane very high.
O. Henry too. I’ve read lots of O. Henry, no Spillane.
William Michaelian: I have a massive volume of O. Henry’s stories. I read one last night called “The Whirligig of Life” that was entertaining, despite being predictable. And that was all I read last night — about fifteen minutes. My eyes were too tired to continue. Usually I read half an hour to an hour, then I have to take a break. I guess I spend too many hours at the computer during the day. Of course I’m reading all that time, but it’s my own dreadful stuff. All told, I average about ten or twelve hours a week. I also do some reading online. But for me, reading is one of the great joys. I don’t read for the distraction, and I don’t listen to music while I read. I like to read where it’s quiet. I keep telling myself that one of these days I’ll take a break from writing and do nothing but read and chop wood for six months, but it hasn’t happened yet. It might require a mountain cabin with no writing implements of any kind, though I suppose I could write with a spoon if I had to. Anyone for a chocolate-covered filbert?
John Berbrich: Thanks. And just think of all the money you’ll make selling firewood.
Judy: My answers to the two questions, respectively, are: not enough time, and because I have to. I haven’t kept track, time-wise, of how much I read. I have kept a list of books read for a few years now. Years ago, a joke circulated among library people, specifically catalogers, about having to read introductions, prefaces, title pages, title page versos, abstracts, summaries, and tables of contents (all this to determine subject headings), and not having time to actually read books. When we are done with this subject, I’d be curious to know if any of you listen to books and consider it a worthy substitute for reading? I don’t listen to books because my mind wanders as soon as the narrative starts, so I don’t consider it a worthy substitute. I used to watch Booknotes on C-Span, and when Charles Lamb was interviewing Tom Daschle as an author, Senator Daschle talked about how many books he listened to on tape while he was jogging, etc., and how he chose some of them to actually read the written word. I was hoping Mr. Lamb would follow up with a question on what he thought the difference was between listening and reading, and why he felt compelled to sometimes follow up a listen with a read, but he didn’t.
William Michaelian: I’d be willing to bet my next stack of firewood that there are no book-listeners among us. Although, I must say, some of the books I have make noises during the night. Mostly, they seem to be whispering to one another — what about, I don’t know. The thought of listening to a book while jogging makes me ill. I am completely against that sort of “double-tasking.” I have heard of truck drivers listening to books out on the open road. I like the sound of that a little better. On the other hand, we should remember that there is such a thing as spoken or performed literature. At least I think there is, or used to be.
John Berbrich: I don’t listen to books, but I do listen to taped lectures on philosophy and literature when I’m washing the dishes. I also read magazines while I wash the dishes, hanging them up on a clipboard above the sink. But I don’t listen to tapes and read magazines simultaneously. Real books get my full attention; I sit down in a quiet place and read them.
Judy: I believe that as far as our brains go, we are “doing” more when we read than when we listen, and that’s why many of us don’t consider listening to a book as good as reading it. Fascinating idea — books talking to each other. Does a translation speak in its native tongue or in its acquired language?
William Michaelian: Depends on whether it’s a good translation or not, as well as the mood it’s in. As far as listening and reading go, I like the printed word so much that the idea of listening to a book just isn’t appealing. But I might change my tune if I were to lose my eyesight. I think listening can be just as active an involvement as reading. Like anything, it’s the quality of attention we bring to the experience. Whether reading or listening, we still form pictures in our mind, and thereby “see” the action. For example, we have the priceless image of John standing at the sink with his hands in the suds and his eyes glued to a magazine pinned to a clipboard, or you and Mr. Hinshaw cutting up books and turning them into salads. Either way, you can’t lose.
Judy: Yes, that is a priceless image, isn’t it? One of my co-workers talks about reading and doing household chores such as dusting at the same time when she was a child. You are right about quality of attention. We very actively listen to music at a concert. Unless it’s a concert of a fifth grade offspring, in which case we may be sorely tempted to read, or at least look through a catalog.
William Michaelian: Ah, but a school concert is no place for reading. It’s all about how you look, and the impression you make on the other parents, whose off-key kids are inferior to yours. Which reminds me — no one talks about War and Peace during intermissions anymore. In fact, when was the last time you heard anyone talking about a book in public? I hear people talking about TV and sports all the time, but never books. Maybe I should switch taverns.
Anita: Don’t laugh but I am reading The Da Vinci Code — finally. Does that come under the heading of a “potboiler”? I think I read between ten to fifteen hours a week. Depends on the book really. I just received my study material for this Philosophy major I am doing so I have a funny feeling I am going to be reading a lot more. Headline news: I have just started a position as a Personal Assistant/Sales Co-Ordinator for the CEO of info design print. A small one-man-band company that dabbles in publishing among other things. I am also closer to moving house and have spent a few days down by the beach inspecting houses and am going to be submitting applications early next week. Landing this position has greased the wheels significantly with having said application approved in the first instance. The good news is that my new position is thirty minutes from where I propose to be living and that, in time, I will be able to buy more books! New books even — be still my beating heart. Grab some glasses, Will E Yum, I have come back to this round table bearing a bottle of the finest champagne. Work with me — a vivid imagination and a sense of play is a wonderful thing, don’t waste it.
William Michaelian: I have no intention to. Let’s pop that thing open right now and celebrate your good news — and the books, and the food and shelter your new income will buy. Good luck to you, and congratulations.
Judy: Way to go, Anita! About The Da Vinci Code — it is very formulaic, yes. But some of the ideas, such as Mary Magdalene being Jesus’ wife, are not new to the book. Some Biblical scholars consider it a possibility. Myself, I like the idea a lot.
John Berbrich: If Jesus was a real man then I think it’s an error to assume He was celibate. That is so totally unnatural. Seems as though He would model life for others, doing good works for people and keeping His women on the side and out of sight. Congratulations on the position, Anita, and thanks for the champagne.
William Michaelian: Jesus and champagne — now we’re getting somewhere. Although my guess is, He was into something much stronger. Remember, there were Armenian hooch makers even then. When Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” John the Revelator said, “Heavy, man. Lay some o’ that juice on me. I like what you’re seeing.” Hic! Oops. Forgive me. As my old friend Omar Khayyám FitzGerald once said, “Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.”
John Berbrich: I’ll drink to that!
William Michaelian: Heh, heh. I thought you might. Say, we haven’t talked much about poetry. I know J.B. publishes the stuff, and I think I remember Mr. Hinshaw liking Robert Service, who gained fame, and, if I’m not mistaken, wealth, for his “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” I’d be interested to know what you read as kids — or were subjected to — and how that affects your ideas of poetry now. Anybody care to wade in? The water’s fine.
Anita: Apart from my mother’s poetry, I can’t recall being subjected to any poetry at school whatsoever. It was like it didn’t exist or maybe the powers-that-be figured that poetry would be lost on the children of the great unwashed of the Northern suburbs. After all, most of us were fated to join the ranks of hairdressers, grease monkeys and public servants according to some teachers I had the dubious pleasure to be taught by. Funny thing is that I went to high school in 1987, when I was twenty-six, to do my higher levels and there were no poems on the curriculum then either and this school is purported to be one of the best schools in Melbourne. Strange to have received an education *cough* that had no soul for it is my understanding now that poetry comes from the soul. Would you not agree?
John Berbrich: In grade school I preferred Poe, Eliot, and curiously enough the extracts we read from Beowulf. I’m not sure that I understood any of this work, but I loved the atmosphere — all of it gloomy, morbid stuff. Further along my bookish travels I encountered Frost, Pope, and Tennyson, all of whom found a spot in my heart. In my twenties I plunged deeply into Homer and Byron, emerging with great trunks dripping with ancient treasure. I also discovered Japanese poetry at this time, the haiku of Basho, Issa, Buson, and Shiki. Poetry is a colossal, marvelous universe — with room for both Homer and haiku and everything in between.
William Michaelian: We were given poetry to read in grade school, I remember that. But I don’t remember the poems themselves. I know Frost was among them — possibly it was “The Road Less Traveled.” Poe came a little later, in seventh or eighth grade. But the first poet who made a real impression on me was Whitman. All along, I was intrigued by the poetry in songs, and by the way certain words and sounds worked together, and, when combined, resulted in new meanings. Yet most people I knew and grew up with hated poetry. Of course, what they hated was the way it was being taught. Poetry was a job for both teacher and student, something to suffer through. It wasn’t really a natural part of life. No one was reading it at home, or talking about it over supper, or being encouraged to try making some of their own. My father’s uncle was a poet and artist, so this kind of thinking wasn’t foreign in our family. We were basically crazy anyway. That helped, too. Poetry is a wonderful thing. But it’s hard, and in some cases impossible, for people who have all sorts of terrible misconceptions about it to recognize its value and importance, as well as the results of its absence. We need poetry whether we realize it or not — just as we need music. The assumption that either is something outside us, or can only be made by others, further closes the door on the wonderful universe John was talking about — also the assumption that poetry must be serious or somehow difficult to understand in order for it to be poetry. Well, I could go on and on, but now it’s someone else’s turn.
Tim Hinshaw: “A bunch of the boys were whoopin’ it up in the Malemute Saloon.” Other than Bobby Service I haven’t paid much attention to poetry over the years. While in Japan in the Army I became acquainted with the haiku form, and greatly enjoyed that although I couldn’t write it myself. By the by, good on ya, Anita. Glad the lemons turned into lemonade for you.
Anita: Wow, I’ve just remembered the contents of the first book I ever wrote and illustrated back in primary school when I was ten years old and in grade five — it was a collection of haiku I had written and the illustrations were in oil pastels with egg tempura. Obviously I was exposed to poetry in grade five. It’s also been a long time between drinks . . . thirty-five years since my first book was published. I have to get a wriggle on and write my second book. That was some fine champagne or at least I thought it was. Maybe it was really a bottle of the finest lemonade. Anyhoo, apart from making lemonade, I am up to my ears in Roma tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and strawberries. It’s real good that I’ve been able to stay on in this house long enough to enjoy the harvest. I found this quirky little website about tomatoes and haiku but I prefer the haiku I saw on a discussion board posted anonymously by someone known as Muse.
Tomatoes for lunch
Tomatoes for breakfast and
Tomatoes at night.
Say, Will E Yum, was that your story about Chance in One Hand Clapping the other day?
William Michaelian: It might have been. Depends on which story you mean. Was it about tomatoes? I’ve always felt that everything, at some deep level, is about tomatoes.
Judy: At various points in school, I studied poetry. We were required to memorize one or two verses from “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” by Longfellow. We also read Sandburg, Frost and Poe — others I can’t remember. We did a project centered around the long poem “Snowbound.” I do enjoy poetry but don’t make it a point to read it in the same way I make it a point to read other things. I often just happily run across some poetry.
Anita: Judy, do you remember years ago that thin quilt book called “Snowbound” that had the pattern for a collage-like quilt by the same name? The blocks were all different sizes, applique and piecing. Always meant to make that quilt.
William Michaelian: Remember, Judy is scissor-happy. I’ll bet she could make quilts out of books. Hmm. An interesting thought — reading one’s quilt on a cold winter’s night.
Anita: I do believe Judy has already made a quilt that features a bookcase full of books and I’ve made a quilt out of men’s ties. Nothing is safe from the scissors with two quilters in the house, William.
William Michaelian: I see. In that case, I’d better hide my Tristram Shandy. But I do have an old tie or two I can donate. Haven’t worn ’em in years. At least they’d be put to a good use. Meanwhile, have any of you read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge? That’s another classic.
John Berbrich: Yeah, read it years ago. Remember a wounded albatross and a weirdly becalmed sea beneath an orange sky. A good ghost story in verse.
Judy: I have to admit I’ve been eying the curtains on the windows and the cloth napkins, but the host hasn’t turned his back long enough for me to make off with them. Anita, I missed the “Snowbound” quilt somewhere along the way. Rime of the Ancient Mariner was required reading, yes, and if I recall I liked it. Currently I’m reading The Piano Tuner, a first novel by Daniel Mason. I see in the Gale Literary Database that he was born in 1976. Gasp! I’m easily old enough to be the guy’s mother. . . . Psssst, Anita . . . when the fellas aren’t looking, will you hand me a couple of those hard-bound books from the case? Real casual-like?
William Michaelian: All right, there’ll be none of that. Next you’ll be after my doilies. Judy, if you would, please keep us informed on Daniel Mason’s The Piano Tuner. My favorite edition of Ancient Mariner was published by Dover in 1970. It features the haunting woodcuts of Gustave Doré. If you haven’t seen it, this site contains beautiful examples. And here’s an excerpt from the poem that you might find familiar:
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
Wow. Kind of makes you thirsty, doesn’t it?
Judy: Piano Tuner has swept me along so far. I’m eager to see what happens next. Mason is a medical student turned novelist and has spent time in Burma or now, in certain circles, Myan-Mar where the action takes place. Before the protagonist leaves on his adventure, we catch a glimpse of his Victorian-era marriage, and it is interesting for me to compare it to the main marriage seen in Angle of Repose. It doesn’t occur to Mr. Drake, the piano tuner and head of the Victorian household, to discuss the commission with Mrs. Drake before accepting it, and when Mrs. Drake finds out another way, of course he has to jump through all kinds of hoops to placate her, assuage the hurt indignation, dry the tears. Speaking of tears, the thought of all that salt water does make me thirsty.
William Michaelian: Then by all means, have another glass of lemonade, or champagne, or whatever this is. Sounds like Mr. Mason has been getting around. It’s interesting how often the word “piano” turns up in titles. It is used more than “zither,” for instance, or “harmonica.” I think a good story title would be “Zithers on the Rio Grande.” Almost sounds like Zane Grey. Pianos of the Purple Sage. Nah, that’s no good.
Judy: Champagne for me, please. How about Wild Harmonica Mesa? Some of Zane Grey’s books have changed titles since I first read them on the ranch, and I believe Wild Horse Mesa is an earlier title for Riders of the Purple Sage. How about “Writers of the Purple Sage” for the name of a western American writers’ group? I think perhaps there is such a group by that name. Anyway, Mason has done a good job of helping me escape from old familiar Bozeman to surreal Asia from time to time. So glad that boy interrupted his medical studies to write a novel. We haven’t gotten Mr. Drake to his final destination in Burma yet, but he did spend some time in Mandalay, which inspired me to look up Rudyard Kipling’s poem. The last stanza starts with:
Ship me somewhweres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be —
By the old Moumein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea . . .
So maybe Mr. Kipling would like some champagne or lemonade. And Mr. Homeland Security — is he thirsty yet?
William Michaelian: I don’t know. Does anybody want to go outside and ask him? Personally, I think we should start a new page instead.