Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Jazz History, Race History

June 30, 2016

A lot of old jazz videos have entered the public domain, and can be seen on YouTube. This one is a fascinating study in so many ways:


Louis Armstrong nearly single-handedly invented the improvised solo, and thus what we now think of as jazz, with implications for rock as well (so-called “guitar gods” like Hendrix, Clapton, etc….). So, this is American history and music history in the making.

It also reminds me of a Miles Davis comment on Armstrong, acknowledging Armstrong’s legacy, yet adding something to the effect of “But I couldn’t stand all the smiling he did.” There’s some clowning in this video, presumably to please a white audience, seemingly a perfect fit for another Miles Davis observation on race:

White people have certain things they expect from Negro musicians — just like they’ve got labels for the whole Negro race. It goes clear back to the slavery days. That was when Uncle Tomming got started because white people demanded it. Every little black child grew up seeing that getting along with white people meant grinning and acting clowns. It helped white people to feel easy about what they had done, and were doing, to Negroes, and that’s carried right on over to now. You bring it down to musicians, they want you to not only play your instrument, but to entertain them, too, with grinning and dancing. –Miles Davis, 1962

Needless to say, a Miles Davis video roughly 30 years later, shows a very different demeanor:

In high school I was best in music class on the trumpet, but the prizes went to the boys with blue eyes. I made up my mind to outdo anybody white on my horn….

I don’t dig people in clubs who don’t pay the musicians respect. You ever see anybody bugging the classical musicians when they are on the job and trying to work?

Of course, there is nature as well as nurture. Armstrong was, by all accounts, a playful extrovert by nature, and that very playfulness probably led him down the path of increasingly improvised music. Davis was, by all accounts, a surly introvert, smiling so rarely he named one of his albums “Miles Smiles” in reference to his reputation (it’s one of my favorite Miles Davis albums, I might add).




Billie Holiday

April 5, 2016

There will never be another….






Veda Hille

March 17, 2015

“Performed by Veda Hille at a glowing 8 months pregnant.”

This isn’t my favorite Veda Hille song, but anyone who makes a music video eight-months pregnant is legit.

Health-food Poetry

May 5, 2014

One of the nice things about health food companies is that sometimes they are run by hippies. So, you take a jar off the shelf to inspect it, and the marketing on the label is poetry. This, off a jar of Maranatha roasted sunflower butter, only slightly tweaked by my, um, poetic fancy……

The huge, seed-filled head
of the sunflower plant, with its
fringe of yellow petals, faces
east in the morning. But by evening
that same head faces west,
so hungry
for the direct rays of the sun’s path
across the sky.
Poetically speaking,
this is buttered sunlight.

Not Skippy or Welch’s.

Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

July 1, 2012

I was disappointed. It was merely clever. The theme was unoriginal.

Life is something you do, something done to you. It’s an old saw. It’s the main theme of Greek myths. Vonnegut didn’t add much.

He re-surfaced it in an amusing way. The aliens, Tralfamadorians, are the Fates. Maybe politicians are the gods.

Both Homer and Vonnegut take war as the stage for their look at fate. Is there a difference? We don’t accept the inevitability of war (do we?). Vonnegut was sarcastic, Homer sincere.

But sarcasm is never deep.

The Colonel’s Lady, by Somerset Maugham

January 5, 2011

What’s it about? A husband who doesn’t understand his wife. His wife’s pursuit of alternatives to passionless marriage, which results in an affair and then a book of poetry about it. Did they have marriage counseling back then? (The story was written in 1946.)

The theme reminds me a little of Flannery O’Connor (in a very different setting). The colonel is too narrow for his own good, but well-intentioned. His assumptions about the world seem mainly intended to please the ego. Like all such assumptions, they can only remain intact by a careful tailoring of circumstance, which he perpetrates until his wife’s book forces a confrontation with some unsettling truths. That’s the gist of the story. His denial of reality never disappears, however, as the ending makes clear. Where O’Connor tends to tell stories about the consequences of inflexibility, this story is more of a study of how ingrained in human nature it is.

It’s sort of feminist, which is interesting. Some of the colonel’s character flaws can be attributed to a patriarchal culture. He is patronizing toward his wife. He assumes all the flaws (that he perceives) with the marriage are his wife’s fault (such as a lack of children). Maybe the feminism is dated, however. I wonder how a contemporary re-telling might differ. It might hold the wife more accountable, or at least explore the topic of her accountability. What did she contribute to the marriage? We know she had an affair. She surreptitiously wrote poems about it, and surreptitiously published them. Neither partner is shown contributing to the marriage. The circumstance of the times, and the slant of the narrative, cast blame on the colonel. What light would modern circumstance, and a balanced narrative, cast on similar events?

Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen by Garth Nix

December 20, 2010

Lately, I’ve been reading young-adult literature (YAL) of types that didn’t exist when I was a kid. This has mainly meant stories with female action heroes. I really liked the Sterkharm Handshake (the first 50 pages are a tad slow, but it’s great after that). Sabriel and its successors, officially dubbed The Old Kingdom Series, are good too.

I like fantasy that has a cosmology behind it. The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings have an explanation of a moral and cosmic order. They are essentially kinds of myth creation, planned for the purposes of young-adult literature. The Harry Potter books lack a cosmological theme.

Sabriel has that. The magic has roots in the creation of the universe; there’s an explanation of how order came from chaos.

A principal theme of The Old Kingdom series is death. It tends to be a principle theme of much modern myth-inventing, but in a simplistic way. Typically, fantasy is based on a struggle betweeen good and evil; good is represented by life and love, while hate and death stand in for evil. These books by Garth Nix are a little different. The protagonist is a necromancer, a sorcerer of the dead. Necromancers are universally evil in literature; Voldemort is a necromancer, for instance.

In Sabriel, necromancers can be evil, but they are also good. They send zombies into death (where they belong). They maintain the order of life by preserving death as a natural part of it. This is a somewhat unusual, and nice, way to treat death in youth literature. Death is not equated with evil, but considered a natural part of life.

Seventeen years ago

April 25, 2008

The other day when I was walking to the laundromat
I saw a dead oppussum lying in the sunlight
on the grass between the sidewalk and street.
Five or six dead young lay near her; one
still lived. Half-propped against another, it struggled
to right itself, and made dog-paddle motions with its forelegs,
the naked head jutting forward into the sun.
It was what would typically be called “a mild Spring day”
— windless, temperate, clear —
and the time seemed perfectly still and quiet.
When I got to the laundromat
a TV showed Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf returning home
to thousands of cheering and happily crying Americans, and on the way back
I saw it was dead.


I wrote this in 1992-ish, and just found it on my hard drive and liked it.

Book of Lights, by Chaim Potok.

January 25, 2008

What’s it about?

Gershon is a rabbi-in-training with an interest in mysticism over law (Kabbalah over Talmud), and a need to connect that mysticism to experience.

He does it through his friend and fellow rabbi-in-training, whose father helped build the atomic bomb (as did many Jews, I think). His friend is full of guilt (and rejection of his parents), which distracts from the quality of his religious study.

Military service, as chaplains, is required, and they go to South Korea. There, Gershon’s experiences separate his values from his religion. The people he admires are not Jews: a Korean boy, a Mormon assistant who is harder working and more open-minded than his Jewish assistant. The difference he sees himself making is practical: improvement of physical conditions. The actual spiritual counseling is presented as minimally important, and consists largely of Jewish soldiers in conflict with the military (prostitution is mentioned several times). The main Jewish advocacy occurs when there is war in the Middle East (the Suez Crisis, I think), and there is talk that the Jews are about to start a nuclear war.

Gershon’s drift away from  seeing value in  his religion continues to a crisis point, producing a severe questioning of faith. After the military service, it’s unclear whether mysticism still has relevance for him.

This passage, spoken by one of his professors near the end, is a good expression of the purpose of spirituality, in contrast to religion:

“What is of importance is not that there may be nothing. We have always acknowledged that as a possibility. What is important is that if indeed there is nothing, then we should be prepared to make something out of the only thing we have left to us–ourselves.”

I wonder: Why not make something out of ourselves regardless of whether there is nothing (i.e. no god)?

At the end, Gershon meditates on a rooftop and has a conversation with some entities (God and/or a tempter…it is not made clear). He resolves to continue study of the Kabbalah.

I like the book because the themes are understated and thoughtful. It’s not a book that will work for you if you expect to be entertained. The reader is expected to make some meaning for himself. Quite a bit is not explained, but there is enough for the pleasure of building your own meaning from what is given.

Darwin and religion

June 11, 2007

I’ve been reading the Origin of the Species. Skimming mostly, but I read Darwin’s introduction and conclusion. He made an interesting change between the first and second editions, indicated by [brackets].

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed [by the Creator] into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.