Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #5


Duke here... this week's powerhouse poem was introduced to me by Mutt. He had the privilege of hearing the author, Yusef Komunyakaa, read it in person, and was deeply affected by the experience. In fact, why am I telling you this? Let's have Mutt provide the commentary for the poem this week...

Mutt writes:
‘Thanks’ is probably the one poem that for me burst open the notion of what poetry is and what it can accomplish. I first encountered this powerful expression of Vietnam veteran Komunyakaa’s personal experience in 1999 at The New School when I heard him read it, which admittedly made a huge difference in how the poem came across. But the words themselves stand alone, even without his unique inflections and well-timed pauses. Although the recipient of the poet’s gratitude is unnamed here, the depth of his thankfulness for simply being still around is obvious, and in my opinion, moving. This poem reflects chillingly on the arbitrary nature of death that comes in combat to some men and not to others. But it also is infused with a beauty and simplicity that makes us glad we’re here on earth, and still alive.

I couldn't have put it any better than that. Thanks Mutt, for this outstanding contribution to the series...



Thanks for the tree
between me & a sniper's bullet.
I don't know what made the grass
sway seconds before the Viet Cong
raised his soundless rifle.
Some voice always followed,
telling me which foot
to put down first.
Thanks for deflecting the ricochet
against that anarchy of dusk.
I was back in San Francisco
wrapped up in a woman's wild colors,
causing some dark bird's love call
to be shattered by daylight
when my hands reached up
& pulled a branch away
from my face. Thanks
for the vague white flower
that pointed to the gleaming metal
reflecting how it is to be broken
like mist over the grass,
as we played some deadly
game for blind gods.
What made me spot the monarch
writhing on a single thread
tied to a farmer's gate,
holding the day together
like an unfingered guitar string,
is beyond me. Maybe the hills
grew weary & leaned a little in the heat.
Again, thanks for the dud
hand grenade tossed at my feet
outside Chu Lai. I'm still
falling through its silence.
I don't know why the intrepid
sun touched the bayonet,
but I know that something
stood among those lost trees
& moved only when I moved.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Mutt is kicking my Butt

Several great posts in a row here from the mighty Mutt... not only does he post an interesting plug for world literature, but he "walks the walk" by next posting an intriguing review of a Gunter Grass novel! And I can't even manage to get to part 2 of my Flannery O'Connor thoughts... well, he's setting the bar high here at The Secret Thread... which is exactly where it ought to be.

And speaking of Mutt, he doesn't know this yet, but he will be filling in for Duke this coming week as GUEST EDITOR of the Poem of the Week feature... be sure to keep a look out for it! You don't want to miss this jaw-dropping poem (nor his brief commentary)...

I haven't said it for a while, so:

Pax Christi,

A great novel for writers & artists

'Even if they should be stoned and buried in hatred, a hand with a pen would rise out of the stone pile.'

My intent this morning is a short blog with some thoughts on the book I just finished reading about an hour ago, Gunter Grass' 'The Meeting at Telgte', from which the above quote is taken. This is the first book I have read from Grass, and like I have done with other famous writers before, instead of reading the book for which they are best known, I have come into Grass' body of work through a relatively obscure and short novel, first published in 1979. The most famous of Grass' works is his first book, 'The Tin Drum' (which I certainly will read, especially now). This short novel, really more of a novella at 132 pages, will not appeal to everyone. It concerns a fictionally-imagined 17th century gathering of poets and publishers in a small German village, organized for the explicit purpose of combining their pens and talents together to produce a statement or text that could be presented to the rest of the nation in order to preserve the German language and artistic/literary heritage. The historical context is the waning years of the Thirty Years' War which had been ravaging the country from most of the first half of the 17th century. Thus the novel is somewhat timely today in that it imagines artists combining their visions in a time of war.

But the trigger for this story was from Grass' own experience in a group called, simply, 'Group 47', that gathered under similar circumstances in the middle of the 20th century in Germany for the same reason. Grass was a member of the group, and this was where he first read from his 1958 novel 'The Tin Drum'. He clearly saw a parallel in history between the war of his century and the war of the 17th century, which at that point had been the most destructive in German history. So he fictionalized the meeting 300 years before his time, and the result is a book that concerns itself primarily with literary exchanges, hilarious artistic disputes and the dynamics of artists in dialogue and sharing their work with one another.

You see why the book may not interest everyone. It wouldn't appeal to those looking for a cracking story or an historical novel in the traditional sense. But for anyone who is interested in the function of art, especially in connection with the identity of a nation, this is a stimulating and enlightening book. Grass is a political activist as well as an artist. He gets involved in his nation's heritage and preserving that heritage; in short, he is a dedicated citizen. While I doubt I would agree with his political views, his determination to interpret the events of his time for the generations of Germans to follow is admirable.

'The Meeting at Telgte' is a hilarious book in many ways. The poets' petty arguments and disputes are high-falutin farces and their exploits with the local village women are amusingly rendered also. Another interesting aspect of the novel is the fact that some of the artists are Lutherans, which was the predominant religion of Germany at that time, and others are Catholics, and their discussions also reflect the tensions of those two groups at that time.

Finally, the prose is magnificent, and worth reading for its own sake. Even in translation I was amazed at the broad vocabulary and beauty of Grass' sentences. For those who enjoy well-written works of fiction in an historical context with parallels to our age or to any age, 'The Meeting at Telgte' is a worthy investment of a small amount of reading time.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Basking in World Light: In Praise of International Literature

Despite the hoity-toity title there, I really just wanted to express a few thoughts regarding international or world literature. I touched on this in thoughts expressed while reading Rushdie's 'Midnight's Children', but wanted to run with the idea a bit since I more or less subconsciously moved right onto another foreign country (for a guy from Jersey) with my next read, Gunter Grass' 'The Meeting at Telgte'. This is my first foray into Grass' wide body of work, for which he was rewarded with the Nobel Prize immediately after Jose Saramago in 1999. It seems well deserved. Even the first 50 pages of 'The Meeting' have been vastly interesting and rewarding.

In making the transition from Rushdie to Grass, I decided to look back on my reading catalogue so far in 2005, and discovered that world literature has unconsciously dominated my choices. If my reading can be thought of as my travels - and at present, until I start picking up literary prizes (just kidding), that's as close as I'm gonna get - then this year I have already traveled to Australia (with Patrick White, 1973 Nobel Prize), North Korea (Ha Jin), Japan (Haruki Murakami), Iceland (Halldor Laxness, 1955 Nobel Prize), Norway (Tarjei Vesaas), Portugal (Saramago), India (Rushdie) and now small-town Germany (Grass). The point is not to say look at all the books I have read. The point is that I never realized how diversely my tastes have been spreading around the globe, and have not thought, or at least written about, why that might be and what i think that does for me and for those who read other nations' writers.

First of all, it's the only way I'm going to get to most of those places. I do consider reading literature from other countries a kind of journeying of the mind. Why not? You recreate these places in your own thoughts, assisted by the descriptive and narrative powers of the writer. It's a hell of a lot of fun, I think, to make these trips. I think most people, no matter what your interests are, in books, or sports, or decorating, or baking cookies, or whatever, still can agree that traveling is fun, interesting and enlightening. This is a way to do it, especially for the underfunded of the world, like me, heh heh.

Secondly, it helps me from a literary point of view, it makes me a better reader and writer. People from other nations aren't like people from America. They have different traditions, myths, beliefs, rituals, daily modes of existence. It's boring and limiting to a person's creativitiy and intelligence to only know how people live their lives in your own home state or town. Imagine if the whole world was a great big New Jersey suburb with 11,000,000 strip malls. Oh wait, there are already that number in Jersey alone. Well, you know what I mean. It wouldn't be the vast, incredible, extraordinary planet that God created and populated with amazing races and cultures. Reading all these works opens up treasure chests galore. What's not to love?

Third, on a broader scale, but perhaps my own personal reason, I find I can appreciate the broad reach and appeal of the Christian message and influence, and even the scope and majesty of the Church to which I belong, the Roman Catholic one. Even the atheist/a-religious writers I have read recently like Saramago or Haruki Murakami touch on the power of God, either in their nonbelief or commentaries on what those who do believe in God have done in the world. It's all grist and it's all interesting. The Catholic Church has a presence in Halldor Laxness' World Light, Grass' Meeting at Telgte, Rushdie's Midnight's Children, and Patrick White's Riders in the Chariot. But it looks different in all of these places - not the message, but it's multifaceted appearance, and it helps me look upon the Church's universality with wonder. Furthermore, for non-Catholic Christians, Jesus is an unescapable figure in all of these books, and again, you wind up appreciating the breadth of His great influence and the pervasive power of the parables He told and and the purpose for His life and his death.

These are just rambles, and when I go back and read them in a minute here, I'd be surprised if they made any sense. But hopefully anyone who sees this post will grasp the main thrust. Get into world literature. Step into the world light of great writers and great books. Or, as Delmar puts it in the Coen brothers' superb 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?': 'Come on in, boys [girls] - the water is fine!'

Monday, August 22, 2005

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #4

Sometimes great things come in small packages. This poem from the Polish poet Bronislaw Maj both epitomizes and expresses this profound truth. Makes for an admirably succinct apologia for the existence of poets and poetry...


A Leaf

A leaf, one of the last, parts from a maple branch:
it is spinning in the transparent air of October, falls
on a heap of others, stops, fades. No one
admired its entrancing struggle with the wind,
followed its flight, no one will distinguish it now
as it lies among the other leaves, no one saw what I did.
I am the only one.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Mutt's Book Review #1

All, here is a review I wrote for the Jose Saramago novel, 'The Double'. It's long for a blog post, so only bother with it if you are interested. - JJL/Mutt


The Double by José Saramago; translated from the Portugese by Margaret Jull Costa; Harcourt, Inc., 2004; 324 pgs.

‘One of us is a mistake,’ remarks one duplicated human being to his counterpart in José Saramago’s recent novel The Double. This assertion would startle anyone to whom it was directed, but I would submit, at the outset of this review, that the concept is less shocking to me. For I am a ‘copy’ myself, an identical twin. At some point in the journey – indeed, more than once – all twins share the joke that one of them was intended and the other wasn’t. Even though it is all done in good fun, sometimes there remains behind, once the joking is over, a tiny, nagging feeling of discomfort.

Is it true? Am I a mistake? Should I be here or not?

It is this fundamental unease – questions over identity and provenance – that lies at the heart of Saramago’s riveting novel. A cautionary tale about the dangerous potential consequences of human cloning, related without ever mentioning the word or the science used to achieve it, The Double uses this latest manifestation of humankind’s hunger for dominion as a means of exposing our deepest, undeniable fallacy. For Saramago, man is a profoundly fallible creature; how can learning to reproduce ourselves artificially lead to anything but destructive chaos?
José Saramago, the only Portugese writer to have received the Nobel Prize in Literature (1998), has created an entire oeuvre of work that seems bent on exposing humanity as, in the words of the French essayist Michel de Montaigne, ‘the fool of the farce’. His protagonists are frequently represented as tired, pessimistic types whose attempts to discern the answers to ultimate questions seem like doomed, pointless exercises, yielding little to no fruit. As Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, the history teacher protagonist who may or may not be the title character of this novel, expresses it, ‘Great truths, great lies, I suppose in time everything becomes trivial, the usual dishes in the same old sauce’ (pg. 77).

Indeed, José Saramago has few positive things to say about his fellow man or for the ways in which he has responded historically to the most difficult questions surrounding his existence. An avowed Communist and atheist, Saramago not only rejects Western Christianity and democracy; he seems convinced of the ultimately fatal flaws in the design of the human creature itself – a pessimist in the strictest sense of the word. Yet this does not prevent him from expressing sympathy for some of his characters; there are even moments when some of them – women, more often than not – are presented with a degree of tenderness.

At 82 years old, still endowed with lucidity and creativity, Saramago is not afraid to take on complex moral subjects. It’s nothing new to him to do so. In his controversial 1991 novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Saramago attacked Christianity without hesitation by recreating the story of its founder in bizarre and blasphemous terms. Christians seeking an unapologetic, blunt-object viewpoint of their religion from the other side of the boundary of belief need look no further than this bitter novel. Saramago has also more than once used allegory to cast ‘organized’, authoritarian government structures against the wherewithal and resourcefulness of common people in novels such as Blindness and The Stone Raft. In these novels, fantastically unusual calamities occur to groups of people, and it is in the way these occurrences are handled that Saramago is given a forum for his outlook on human nature.

In The Double Saramago again examines human responses to a kind of phenomenon, but in this case the phenomenon is imposed on two men only, and, it is implied, does not necessarily have natural causes. The story centers on the aforementioned history teacher, who has become weary of what he perceives to be a dull and meaningless existence. ‘Everything tires and bores me,’ he tells a colleague. ‘The wretched routine, the repetitiveness, the sense of marking time’ (pg. 5). His colleague, who may not be the best source of advice, suggests he rent a particular video to watch at home to take his mind off things.

The history teacher takes his friend’s suggestion, returning to his bachelor pad with the video, an inconsequential comedy. He ignores answering machine messages from a young woman named Maria da Paz, with whom he is going through the motions of a relationship; a facet of his life that is clearly only there (for him) to suit his whims and appetites, despite the obvious damage it inflicts on the other party. He prepares himself a miserable single man’s meal and settles on to his couch, which Saramago forebodingly describes as ‘not large enough to contain the physical and moral collapse of his body’ (pg. 19).

Instead of a breezy and amusing entertainment, he finds a mundane and uninspired film – until he spots a bit player, a secondary actor who resembles himself exactly as he looked five years before. The stunned teacher views the scene again, and then confirms his suspicions by tracking down an old photograph. The actor, Daniel Santa Clara (whose real name turns out to be Antonio Claro), is another ‘version’ of himself. Before long, Afonso has determined that he must locate and confront his double, out of extreme curiosity, and both the action and the consequences of the choices made begin in earnest.

It is at this point in the novel, still early, where the following passage appears:

There are moments in a narrative, and this, as you will see, has been one of them, when any parallel manifestation of ideas and feelings on the part of the narrator with respect to what the characters themselves might be feeling or thinking at that point should be expressly forbidden by the laws of good writing. (pg. 27)

This random observation provides an appropriate opportunity to address the quirks of this challenging writer’s narrative style.

Throughout his career Saramago has shown a deliberate disaffection for the ‘rules’ that govern most ‘good writing’. Thus, the majority of his novels are narrated by a third person, omniscient voice that frequently interjects into the narrative with thoughts, comments and random observations, such as the one cited above. This must be an amusing device for the writer, for it allows him to pontificate and make off-handed remarks. Saramago’s narrators frequently indulge this opportunity, often at the expense of other parties or groups, such as religions or governments. In the example that follows, Saramago pokes fun at his own sex:

Pride, especially among the male half of the world, is like one of those supposed friends who, at the first hint of trouble in our life, make themselves scarce or look the other way, whistling loudly. (pg. 57)

These interjections frequently interrupt the flow of the story, which no doubt many readers would find distracting or even irritating. But they include keen insights on the nature of our humanity, observations that this veteran writer is far more adept at making than most of his peers.

Perhaps even more of a distraction is the author’s fondness for abandoning accepted guidelines related to punctuation and narrative flow. Readers unfamiliar with Saramago’s style will need to steel themselves for initial bouts of confusion when they first encounter Saramago’s dialogue, which forsakes the use of question marks, exclamation points, returns between speakers and, above all, quotation marks. A new speaker is only discernable through the deployment of a capital letter. For example, a conversation between Tertuliano Máximo Afonso and his mother on the subject of his treatment of Maria da Paz appears as follows:

People don’t tend to get married so much these days, you must have gleaned that from your novels, Now I’m not stupid and I know perfectly well the kind of world I’m living in, it’s just that I don’t think you should keep the girl dangling, But I’ve never promised her marriage or even suggested that we live together, As far as she’s concerned a relationship that’s lasted six months is like a promise, you don’t know women. (pg. 134)

Leaving aside for the moment the richness of insights that is strikingly clear in this passage (of which this is merely one of countless examples), any newcomer to this writer’s work can see how this method crafting dialogue could lead to confusion. For some, no doubt, it would be too much of an effort and not worth the reading and re-reading that is sometimes required to follow one of these conversations.

I do not think too much should be made of these quirks. One gets used to them quickly. In addition, there is nothing wrong with demanding an effort of one’s readers. One of the recognizable characteristics of good literature is that a work of fiction or poetry, or even of art in a broader sense, often increases in overall quality in proportion to the level of effort it demands from its consumer. ‘Working’ harder yields greater rewards. This is a sign of the novel’s sophistication, to say nothing of the casual confidence of the writer. Saramago has enough belief in what he has to say that he is willing to risk the dismissal of those who cannot be bothered to ‘hear’ it.

Once the history teacher makes the fateful decision to seek out his duplicate, events in the novel begin to spiral in a grand descent towards cataclysm, accelerating as they accumulate. The remainder of the book chronicles the scheming of Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, initially, to bring about this ill-considered encounter; then the double-crossing practiced by both men, neither of whom are particularly sympathetic, in order to one-up the other; and significantly, ultimately, the consequences of their actions, which affect primarily the women with whom they are associated, but which also have broader implications.

These women – Maria da Paz, Tertuliano’s mother, and the wife of his ‘double’, Helena Claro – all become victimized by the obsessions and the lack of judgment of their men, and are portrayed as intelligent, clear-thinking figures in the novel. Saramago seems to implicate in a general way members of his own sex, who seem to be more or less responsible for the state of the world we’re living in. If women were in charge, one might conclude after reading this novel, we might not be faced with such escalating moral conundrums (and Saramago might be out of work). As Maria da Paz succinctly puts it to her lover, whose stubborn unwillingness to listen to her proves disastrous, ‘be careful, watch yourself, once a person starts falsifying things there’s no telling where it will end’ (pg. 122). It is not a spoiler to state here that where it ends in this novel, both for the characters and for humankind in general, is not and cannot be a pleasant place.

Following this lucid, darkly funny, but ultimately terrifying novel to that place makes for both an engaging and enlightening experience. But it also raises broad concerns about man’s abuse of his scientific aptitude and intellectual impulses. The conclusion of the book – a very brief chapter that is brilliantly executed and particularly impressive in that the reader never sees it coming, but feels that he should have – is a chilling blast of air. It manages, in the space of two pages, to transform what has previously been a miserable situation for a handful of characters in an unnamed city in Portugal into a formidable demon slouching towards the rest of the world. Suddenly we realize it’s our problem. It’s all creepy fun and games, until we reach the final chapter.

Anyone of a suspicious bent … would probably shake his head, put on a pitying air, and say in oracular fashion, If you invite your enemy into your house, don’t complaining to me about it afterward, you were warned and you took no notice. (pg. 231)

The Double is a Nobel laureate’s warning, and it is timely enough.

In recent weeks it has come to light in the international news that scientists in South Korea have successfully cloned a dog, something that had been considered impossible for years because of the species’ complex and unique reproductive processes. What began thirty-plus years ago with tadpoles and progressed to a sheep called Dolly has continued on it perilous course and has now reached man’s best friend. Certainly now it is probable that cloning our own species will become a reality under the ‘noble’ auspices of medical research and the instinct to defend ourselves from disease.

The Double suggests that we do this at our own peril. In taking the mantle of Creator onto our own shoulders, unworthy and unable of bearing such weight, we will further dilute our understanding of the value of life. The novel also demonstrates that works of art created even in the absence of faith, in God or in man, can still serve as a conductor for the electric shock of the unimpeded truth. We need not share in a writer like Saramago’s disdain for some institutions or certain ways of life to appreciate his accomplishment. He has managed to entertain us and remind us of our own capacity to doom ourselves in the process. Whether we listen or not falls on us: the writer’s work is done.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

'Ain't bothering with trifles': Some notes on the urgent fiction of Flannery O'Connor

Having just finished re-reading both of the novels (would that there were more) of she who I consider to be the greatest American fiction writer of the 20th century, Flannery O'Connor, the time is ripe for me to share some reflections on her work on The Secret Thread. Not that my reflections will make a valuable contribution -- so much has been written about her work already, it's hard to say something new -- but because hers is that rare kind of fiction that just makes you sit back and ponder and marvel. And scratch your head and puzzle too. Because if there's one thing you can most certainly say about her novels, it's that they don't provide any easy answers, and they don't leave you with a feeling that all is well with the world... or well inside yourself, for that matter. And (this hits on the title I have selected for this reflection), they don't deal in trivialities or 'trifles'. This is fiction that dives well below the shiny surface of the world and plumbs the murky, mysterious depths of the spiritual realm churning just underneath that which we see, hear and feel.

In fact, if I can take a slight diversion off the path here for just a minute, this kind of fiction is what The Secret Thread exists to celebrate and explore... in fact, I would argue that it is indeed this awareness in a writer of the spiritual, existing and acting just underneath the surface of things, that is "the secret thread" that binds "the books you really love" together. I (and certainly others before me) call this awareness a "sacramental view of reality". The shortest way to describe it is this way: matter matters. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins so famously put it, "the world is charged with the grandeur of God." Not surprisingly, Hopkins' poetry was a major influence on O'Connor, and also not surprisingly, both of these spiritually keen writers were Catholics. I have a theory that the very best fiction always comes from writers who understand and adhere to this sacramental view of reality, this notion that our primary contact with God is through the stuff of this world. (Jesus Christ Himself, of course, taught us this spiritual truth in so many ways, such as when He said we would encounter Him in the "least of these my brothers," and when he instituted the Eucharist with the words, "This is my body.") This is NOT to say that the best literature the world has to offer can only come from Catholic or Catholic-influenced writers -- although much of it inarguably has (St. Augustine, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare (arguably), Balzac, Hugo, Conrad, Wilde, Joyce, Hopkins, Undset, Mauriac, Waugh, Greene, Camus, O'Connor, etc. etc.). But it is to say that the best literature always humble in the face of the Divine: it knows that we are but dust, and to dust we shall return... O'Connor herself understood this so well... she once said, "The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn't try to write fiction." (Credit where it's due: it was Mutt who first turned me on to that quote, and to O'Connor in general. That in itself vaults him into the elite league of Readers Whom I Immensely Respect.) The literature most admired and sought after here at The Secret Thread is the kind which acknowledges that there is much more to the universe than what we feeble-minded human beings know and understand... there is, in a word, mystery.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand, which was supposed to be Flannery O'Connor... specifically, her two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear it Away. Now, for those of you don't know, Mutt has published an excellent article that examines the former novel, O'Connor's first, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its publication. Entitled "The Ragged Figure: On the 50th Anniversary of Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood," the article ran in the November 2002 issue of Touchstone magazine, and can be found by clicking on the Touchstone link in our right hand column there, in their "Archives" section (or by Googling "The Ragged Figure"). I highly recommend this fresh and compelling analysis of O'Connor's darkly comic masterpiece.

As for me, I can't hope to come up with such an insightful examination here, but I would like to share some of my own personal thoughts and observations after reading straight through both of these powerful novels, back-to-back (each for the second time). C. S. Lewis once made a comment that was something to the effect of (I can't remember the exact wording he used, no doubt it was more eloquent than this will be), "Only a fool says he knows a book after having only read it once." I used to laugh this idea, but now that I am just a bit older and have done a lot more reading, I am, as is always the case with Lewis, beginning to see the deep wisdom behind such a seemingly casual statement. Especially with literature that touches deeply on the mysteries of human existence, you're not going to understand all that the author is trying to convey on your first reading of it: indeed, it may take several reads to even begin to scratch the surface of the writer's meanings and message (anyone who's ever tackled Melville's Moby Dick can back me up on this point). As I said, this is only my second time through O'Connor's novels, but now I know enough about them to at least know that I'm never going to know enough about them!

(more to come... not enough gas in the tank tonight! sorry to bring up a sore subject these days, fuel... $3.00 for a gallon of gas??? who would've thunk it?)

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Forthcoming stuff to watch for from Mutt

I was mellowing out on my way in to the office today to the sounds of a folk music mix called 'For Folk's Sake' made by my kid sister, known in the blogoshpere as 'the Runnin' Bookworm', who has done me the service, among other things, of ensuring that I will never like a single song by Joni Mitchell, no matter what. However, there was also a lot of great stuff on there, like Dylan, the great John Gorka, David Gray, etc. Hilarious title to the mix too! Folk music always has a place on this site in my mind.....as readers of the forthcoming 'Lonesome Traveler' article will soon find out........

Anyway, this post is to preview some forthcoming Mutt Ploughman posts for the literary types.......1) Shortly I will be posting a book review of Jose Saramago's recent novel 'The Double'; if you haven't read Saramago, hopefully this review will entice you to, as long as you can take dark and somewhat cynical stories......2) Soon I will introduce Mutt's 'Book of the Month' feature, highlighting the best book I have read in the last 30 days....might not be an easy choice.......and 3) Be watching this fall for my ANNUAL CHUCK DICKENS feature, a written companion to my 4th Annual Charles Dickens Novelfest. I make it a point to read one novel a year by Charles Dickens, possibly the greatest novelist in the English language. This year's selection is MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT, the only Dickens novel to be partially set in America (should be interesting to see our country get skewered by Dickens). Be looking for that sure-to-be exciting post. Let me make a general statement, sharing a lesson I learned far too late: if you like novels, and you aren't reading Charles Dickens, you gotta go back to that well and take a long drink. It took me years to appreciate his stuff, but if you can hang with the length, Dickens brings great, great rewards. No one could create characters or epic, sprawling plots like Charles Dickens. Not to mention the fact that you just feel culturally super-charged after reading one of his epic novels.

Happy reading, only a few weeks til Fall hits.......

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week (#3)

Given the title and the content of this poem, best for me not to dull its impact with lame commentary... except to say, this is one to ponder deeply.

(From Dana Gioia, an amazing poet, currently serving as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.)



So much of what we live goes on inside--
The diaries of grief, the tongue-tied aches
Of unacknowledged love are no less real
For having passed unsaid. What we conceal
Is always more than what we dare confide.
Think of the letters that we write our dead.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Important clarification! ALL books, ALL traditions welcome here...

I want to post a clarification here based on something Mutt mentioned in his last, brilliant post on Midnight's Children (great post, Mutt!)... not because I am trying to correct him or anything like that, buit because I want to be clear on what this blog is all about. Perhaps in my inaugural post (see under the Archives header on right side of page, August 2005 link, for the post "Welcome to The Secret Thread!", dated August 10), I was not totally clear on what this blog would cover and what it wouldn't. Regardless, Mutt wrote in his last post that the book Midnight's Children "falls more or less outside of the direct scope of Duke's stated objectives for The Secret Thread, because it is more or less secular in nature..." It is emphatically NOT the case that any book written from a perspective other than a Christian/religious one falls outside the scope of this blog, and I want to make that really clear if I didn't before.

It is the firm belief of the creators of this blog that ALL true art has something important to contribute to our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. This is true whether it is created by a Christian, a Hindu, a Buddhist, an agnostic, a Socialist, a pantheist, or even an atheist (read The Stranger or No Exit to prove that last one). To cite just one of about a billion examples, I recently re-read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, and though he was a socialist and nothing close to a Christian, I still learned some valuable lessons about the nature of community, the universal human struggle for freedom from oppression and exploitation, and our obligation to respect the dignity and rights of the poor, while we work to put an end to poverty.

I have absolutely no doubt that there is an abundance of wisdom and insight to be gained from reading Salman Rushdie. Just as there is from reading Rabindranath Tagore, his fellow countryman, a brilliant Hindu poet and storyteller (who incidentally was the first non-Westerner ever to be honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature). He is the author of these magnificent lines:

It is the sorrow of separation that gazes in silence all night from star to star, and becomes lyric among rustling leaves in rainy darkness of July.

It is this overspreading pain that deepens into loves and desires, into sufferings and joys in human homes; and this it is that ever melts and flows in songs through my poet's heart.

Now, whether you are a poet or not the least bit interesting in poetry, or a Hindu or not the least bit familiar with Hinduism, I think you can recognize the truth that weaves through those lines like... well, shoot, like a secret thread! Everybody experiences the pain of separation in their life in one way or another, even if they might not possess the poetic gifts to describe that yearning as something that "gazes in silence all night from star to star." That's just an inevitable drawback of our shared human condition, that no one can possibly avoid entirely.

(Note: I may be reflecting on these lines too much because we are about to send our oldest son out into the "real world" of full time school, in which for the first time, he will be under the watch of others for more hours of the day than he is under ours... and my wife and I don't want to let go of him, we want to keep on protecting his precious innocence forever, even as we know we can't.)

Anyway, the point is that ALL literature falls well within the scope of this blog, if it is indeed that: literature. That is, great writing (on virtually any subject, as long as it is not intentionally offensive or hurtful without good reason) that stands, or will stand, the test of time. One of the overarching principles that guide this blog is the simple belief that "all truth is God's truth," and therefore, all truth, regardless of its source, is worth reading and pondering and exploring. The great monk, writer and poet Thomas Merton is sort of our "patron saint" in this regard: he embodied the relentless pursuit of truth from wherever it can be found, from any tradition or culture, and the effort to reconcile and cross-pollinate his firmly-held Christian beliefs with the wisdom of the entire human family (without diluting or compromising those beliefs).

That is what this blog is ultimately all about, I feel. In fact, that is actually what reading great literature is all about, in the end. C. S. Lewis, one of the most widely-read men of his time, certainly understood this (there's good reason why this blog borrows its name from him). He hilariously quipped once (although I doubt he was joking when he said it), "Your book bill ought to be your greatest vice." In that spirit, then, may this blog continue!

Happy reading!

Pax Christi,

A modern classic: Midnight's Children

Here are some thoughts to share concerning the book I am about 3/4 of the way through now: Salman Rushdie's 'Midnight's Children'. This book falls more or less outside of the direct scope of Duke's stated objectives for The Secret Thread, because it is more or less secular in nature and when it does concern itself with religion it is primarily Islam and some Hindu references that are made. Although there is a kind of flirtation between one character in the novel and Roman Catholicism. Religion on the whole does not seem to be the focus of this book. It is far more interested in the history, complexities and paradoxes of modern India, which is why it seems to have taken root almost immediately as a modern classic - few novels that preceded it seem to accomplish anything close to what this book does in terms of wrapping up all of the fascinating aspects of this culture, which is little known and less understood in the United States. If a reader was interested in a novel that touches on Indian culture but examines it in the light of contrast with Western Christianity and/or Catholicism, there is a book you can turn to for that, albeit from an unlikely source: check out the great Japanese writer Shusaku Endo's 'Deep River', which places a group of Japanese tourists on an exploration journey of the Ganges River in India. This novel examines the spiritual lives of the various members of the group, and since Endo was a reluctant Catholic, it explores the incongruity of the Catholic religion in the context of two different Asian cultures. A curious mix but a fascinating novel.

You have to respect the massive accomplishment of 'Midnight's Children', which was published back in 1980, and put Rushdie firmly and permanently on the world literature map. It is a wild, sprawling, strange book, containing historical anecdotes, flights of magical fantasy, Indian mythology, violence, and madcap comedy all in one expansive story. The story is narrated by Saleem Sinai, who by chance was born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the date of India's independence (tomorrow, incidentally, and I heard on the radio that some guy from India is going to be ringing the bell on the NY Stock Exchange tomorrow in order to celebrate that anniversary - I hadn't planned to be reading this book at that time, it just worked out that way!). Saleem is telling the story from some point far ahead in the future, and seems to be rushing to get it down against a debilitating illness that has fissures - cracks - appearing across his entire body - he is literally coming apart at the seams, for reasons not clear to me yet. Anyway, the novel is a retelling of his life, starting back with his grandparents, leading up to his dramatic birth amidst a volatile and historic moment in the nation's history as it acquires its independence in a handoff from Great Britain, and proceeding onward to its conclusion with a mysterious figure foreshadowed only as someone called The Widow. Saleem realizes early in his life that he has been endowed with telepathic powers which allow him to see into the minds of the thousand other children born within an hour of the first strike of midnight on the same day, and he forms a kind of telepathic 'club' called the Midnight's Children's Conference, in which he visits them all mentally and acquires knowledge of their thoughts, dreams, and intentions. Meanwhile, questions arise for Saleem surrounding his birth into a well-off family that has raised him when he discovers the existence of another child born at the same stroke of midnight, who is a kind of coutnerpart to himself, and who has been raised in the slums and gutters of India rather than comfortable affluence. The two may have been switched at birth, and the counterpart, Shiva, may have knowledge of having been denied his birthright, and may be concocting his own plans for revenge.

At rare moments in the history of world literature, an artist will come along with the determination to try to capture everything about his culture and his time in the world in one sweeping drama; as you read the pages of these extraordinary works you can sense the intense effort that they must have required, the near-obsessive labor, the long hours of writing, the passion demanded of the artist to get the story written. These works of fiction must have been written at great cost to the artist and to the people that love them. Witness the amazing story of Marquez laboring to complete 'One Hundred Years of Solitude', chain smoking through huge quantities of tobacco, selling off his family goods to keep his children fed, risking the well-being not only of himself but his whole family to get the novel done. And we have seen the results of his labor, but it could so easily have gone the other way. Imagine the consequences of failing once you have taken the plunge into writing such an epic. 'Midnight's Children' is this kind of book. I do not know how much it cost Rushdie to write it, but it must have been a massive task, and an incredibly difficult one to see through. I admire the intense passion of these writers, who must have had clear visions of what they thought their books would accomplish in order to risk so much to write them. We are lucky to have novels like this. It has some quirks that are irritating, some passages that are less interesting than others, but the fact remains that without a novel like this in the world, people like me who grew up in some sheltered house in the United States with all the freedoms and advantages anyone would ever need would probably never know much about how people lived in a culture so far removed as India. Reading this book is a great experience.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Duke Altum's Notable Books of 2004 (Part II)

Here's the second half of the list...

6. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe -- Another novel considered a "modern classic" from a foreign land, this debut from perhaps Nigeria's most honored writer took the Western world by storm when it was released in 1958, in that it took what was basically an American/European art form (the novel) and used it, for the first time, to express the African point of view towards "Western civilization." Achebe was provided a thorough Western education (the title phrase comes from W. B. Yeats' famous poem 'The Second Coming'), and it's interesting to note that the novel was written partly out of angry reaction to his reading of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Obviously, Things opened the eyes of a great many Westerners as to what it must have felt like to be colonized and force-converted to a strange religion (unfortunately, Christianity), and the fascinating thing is, it had the exact same effect on me: I had never thought much about the threat Christianity must have seemed to be to people in African tribes... to their families, their communities, their way of life. (In other words, the novel has lost absolutely NONE of its power to open jaded eyes and awaken sleepy consciences.) It sure made me think twice about the history of missionary work, and the need to share the saving message of Christ with careful sensitivity to other cultures (so that their own contributions to human wisdom are not lost), and respect for the dignity of every human person (so that their hearts are not closed to Truth). On top of these broader issues, it is also a fascinating inside look at the customs and beliefs of one African tribe, as well as a heart-rending tale of conflict between a father and son, a man and his community.

7. The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape, James Howard Kunstler -- Huh? Who would have thought a book on civic planning and the 'suburbanization of America' would ever have made this list? I certainly would not have. But I have to say: this book about the way our suburban areas and cities have been planned (poorly in the author's opinion, as should be obvious from the title), and the consequences of our long-since-made national decision to become totally dependent on the automobile, really got my mind mulling over subjects I've never spent more than two seconds thinking about in my life. For that reason alone, it deserves mention (meaning, any book that can get you interested in a subject totally foreign to your own experience is probably worth the time). At any rate, I heard an audio interview with the author, and was quite surprised at how fascinated I was in his analysis of the way certain of our cities and communities have been planned, and the mistakes that have been made in this country along the way... being a New Jersey resident for most of my life, I never spent much time thinking about needing a car to get to everywhere we need to go: it's just the way things are... but did they necessarily NEED to be designed this way? This book awakened me to all that has been casually left behind in the building up of our car- (and, oil-) dependent suburban landscape. It also made me start thinking about what makes a community "work," and why it is important to design our living spaces with PEOPLE, not machines, in mind. A provocative, at times irreverent, hard-hitting book that takes our culture to task for its shortsightedness, and its misguided prioritization of "progress" over persons. Not exactly uplifting, but definitely thought-provoking.

8. A Curtain of Green, Eudora Welty -- Welty's debut collection of stories immediately established her as a master of the short story form... and now that I've read it, I can certainly understand why it met with such acclaim. These were easily the most interesting, finely-crafted, haunting short stories I read this year. The amazing thing to me is that such a young woman (she was 25 at the time), who lived in the same small Southern town (Jackson, Mississippi) for almost her entire life, could create a collection of stories with such an astonishing variety of tones, voices, styles and moods... in one story, you're laughing at the vain, twangy dialog of Southern ladies gossiping in the heat, and then in the next, you're haunted by her dark, evocative descriptions of a harsh winter field, upon which a poor farming couple slowly freezes in their sorry shack. She mixes the grotesque and the comic with seemingly effortless ease (like her contemporary and fellow Southern writer, Flannery O'Connor) – the collection sometimes feels like visiting one of those old-fashioned traveling freak shows, and sometimes like a leisurely stroll through a sun-drenched country garden. Rich and evocative storytelling by a writer of rare insight, wit and powers of observation. Various scenes and images from this book are still lingering in my mind, dream-like, and don't seem to be leaving any time soon...

9. The Clearing, Tim Gautreaux -- An immensely satisfying, deeply moving novel that explores the complex relationship between two brothers struggling to run their father's saw mill (and keep Italian mobsters off of their backs) in 1920's Louisiana. There's so much richness and power to this contemporary novel (first released in 2003), it's hard to pinpoint what makes it so memorable -- is it the powerful moral undercurrents running through the story? the poetic descriptions of the bayou backwater country, so evocative that you can almost feel the heavy wetness in the air, or hear the constant scream of the saw blades? the slowly-building tension throughout the story between one brother's desire to cultivate healing and forgiveness, and the other brother's instinct (learned in the death-haunted trenches of WWI) towards violence and revenge as the only real answer to life's dilemmas? This gripping story simmers like a big ol' pot of Cajun shrimp gumbo, slowly getting hotter on every page until the boiling point is reached... but I hasten to add that this is not your ordinary page-turner. Gautreaux's real talent and worth as a writer lies (as it does with all great writers, I believe) in the depth of his characterization, and the insight he offers us about ourselves through his characters' strengths and weaknesses, thoughts and actions. Anyone who appreciates elegantly-written fiction that acknowledges the sacramental nature and moral order of the universe ought to RUN, not walk, to check out the work of Tim Gautreaux (who, I should add, studied creative writing under no less a writer than Walker Percy)... as this answer of his in a recent interview (responding to a question about his debut novel) should make clear:

>>Q: What is your first novel The Next Step in the Dance about?
>>A: It's about the moral decision you make when you abandon your roots, your class, when you think you're better than your raising. But it's more than that. It's about bailing out of a marriage that could be fixed, and about what it means to be in a relationship for the long haul. Every marriage is broken when it starts. When young people get married, they have no idea what marriage is about. They think they do, but I can tell you as a veteran of 32 years, I learn something new about marriage almost every day.

10. The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God, Robert Louis Wilken -- To give you a flavor of this outstanding study of the thought of the Early Church Fathers, I am going to quote from the opening paragraph of a review that appeared in America magazine:

"...Robert Wilken states his book's purpose in the introduction: 'to depict the pattern of Christian thinking as it took shape in the formative years of the church's history.' It is a large task, but one that Wilken carries out with great learning and deep appreciation. This is not a book written for the academy but for all readers. It is not driven by theoretical or ideological agendas but is the fruit of years of patient and affectionate reading. It is not a young scholar's bid to make a name but a senior scholar's effort to share the fruit of learning...."

These brief sentences contain what, to me, is the essence of what makes this such a significant and valuable book: it is the distillation of one man's 30+ years of studying the early Church and the ancient cultures that surrounded it, in a form that is readable, accessible and (significantly) tailored to a non-academic audience. Reading it is like having a man steeped in the history and culture of the early Church over for dinner, and just listening to him speak of the intellectual and spiritual legacy of those great believers who handed down our ever-rich, ever-inspiring Catholic traditions and beliefs to us. This book really opened my eyes to the incredible sophistication and wisdom in the thought of well-known early theologians as St. Justin Martyr, St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great... but also provided fascinating glimpses into the works of lesser-known fathers (to me anyway) like St. John Damascus and Maximus the Confessor. Now I realize that early Church history is not everybody's cup of tea... however, when a noted scholar who has devoted his life to the subject writes with such obvious warmth and enthusiasm about the "faith of our fathers," I think it is worth recommending to this audience! A last important note: Wilken's book is unique in that it covers areas of early Christian thought that are often overlooked -- he includes entire chapters on early Christian poetry, the hymns of the period, the writing of icons, and the intellectual debates between Christian and Roman thinkers during that period. I thought it was a very wise move for Wilken to open up the scope of his inquiry a little bit (beyond just theology and philosophy and into the arts), because it helps increase the books' appeal to the heart/soul as well as the mind... after all, don't we learn more sometimes from a great novel or painting than we ever would from a philosophical treatise? That's part of the point of this whole dumb list, come to think of it...

-- END --

Duke Altum's Notable Books of 2004 (Part I)

For the past two years now at around Christmas time, I have been compiling a list of some of the most significant, memorable books I've read during the last twelve months... usually I just share the list with Mutt, since he's the only other nerd I know who would really care. But now that The Secret Thread has emerged as an outlet for such offerings, I figured I would share the list that I came up with at the end of last year... these are ten books which struck a chord in my soul and made an lasting impression on me... some of them are familiar, a few veer towards the obscure, but they ALL are well worth checking out (in my humble opinion). I've included a description/comment on each one.

I'm splitting the list up into two posts, as it's a lot to read in one take.

If nothing else, maybe you can browse the list, see which books you know/recognize, or read about one you're not familiar with.

Without further ado, then, here's the first five (these are listed in no particular order):


1. As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner -- Here's an American classic that just about everyone has likely heard of, but (I am almost ashamed to say) I had never read until this year. After I finished reading it, I understood why it is so highly regarded. It's difficult to finds the right words to describe and/or recommend this book... on one level, it is simply ingenious and fascinating fiction (with its shifting points of view and innovative structure)... but on another level, it is a dark, but profound, philosophical exploration of death and its physical/emotional/spiritual affects, on both the immediate victim and those around her (a woman, in this case). Because death is something that affects us all, and because I have never read a novel that presented so many different characters' points of view so powerfully and effectively, I would recommend this short novel to anybody, whether they've read William Faulkner previously or not. It is a challenging, but thrilling and rewarding reading experience... one from which I highly doubt anyone could emerge unaffected.

2. Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry -- Ascending now from the dark, into the light! Although it would be hard to top Faulkner's technical wizardry and originality, I still think that if I had to pick only one novel as my favorite selection of 2004, Jayber Crow would be my choice. Recommended to me by a noted literary critic/theologian/social worker/family man (my uncle U.D.), this poetic and deeply felt novel follows the life journey of a man (orphaned at an early age) who believes he may be called into the ministry, but ends up living out a totally different vocation (or is it?) as the only barber in a fictional Kentucky river town (as the poet Dana Gioia writes in his remarkable short poem 'Curriculum Vitae': "We shape our lives/Although their forms/Are never what we meant.") That may sound humdrum, but when Walsh (my uncle) first told me about it, I remember him saying, "There's more theology in that book than in most theological textbooks," and was he ever right... this book offers an abundance of spiritual insights, especially when it comes to questions about God's providence, discerning one's own personal vocation, and the meaning and value of simple things. This novel is saturated with the
True, the Good and the Beautiful. I honestly believe it will linger in my memory throughout my life, it is that profound and moving. (By the way: Berry, who is a highly regarded poet and essayist as well as a novelist, lives in Kentucky, and has a written a series of novels/stories set in this same fictional town he calls Port William. He has been a farmer there for decades, and writes with an amazing, quiet beauty about the land in that region.)

3. Saint Thomas Aquinas: Meditations for Every Day, Saint Thomas Aquinas -- As someone interested in both the theology and history of Catholicism, I had always wanted to dip into the work of "the Angelic Doctor," but was just too daunted by the sheer breadth (not to mention difficulty) of his vast writings to even attempt it. How do you approach the work of someone who wrote a massive, 3000-page theological treatise, only to stop before finishing it, saying, "I have seen things that turn all of my writings to straw"??? And yet, I had always heard that there was no better teacher of the riches of the Catholic faith and Tradition than Aquinas. But then, in November, my dilemma was solved! My brother-in-law gave me (as a birthday gift) this magnificent volume, which draws from ALL of his vast corpus (including his prayers, hymns, etc., not just theological works) and breaks it down into daily readings organized by topic, which can be followed in sequence along with the liturgical year. I started reading them at the beginning of Advent, and I have been utterly amazed at how much they have helped me to understand my faith better, AND, how they have inspired me to deepen my own personal
devotion to God. I told Mutt, "It is like being set up with a continuous IV of Truth." (Maybe my recent surgery had something to do with the choice of analogy there.) The readings are only 1 1/2 pages each and are loaded with scripture, making each one a substantial, yet manageable, nugget for reflection. Outside of the Bible, this book has undoubtedly been the most valuable to me this year in terms of growing in my understanding of my faith... even though I have only been reading it for about two months!

4. Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems, Billy Collins -- I think most of you know that in recent years I have been trying my hand at writing poetry (pause a second here for guffaws/chuckles from the peanut gallery). Alongside of that, in this past year I decided that I needed to read a lot more of it if I was going to have any success at all in writing it (brilliant deduction, I know). To that end, I have been checking out various poets whose work seems to resonate with me... one poet who has truly delighted and entertained me, but also made me ponder deeply the mysteries of our existence here (as all great poets do), is Billy Collins, the former Poet Laureate of the U.S. Collins has a warn, humorous, very readable style
which draws him some fire from smug academic circles, but also makes him very accessible to a wide audience of readers. However, I have learned that his casual style should not be mistaken for a lack of intelligence or perception: once the first layer of wit and whimsy of one of his poems has been penetrated, there are often deeper and more serious undercurrents roiling underneath. To anyone out there who feels some attraction to the wisdom poetry can offer, but does not want to spend the time/money to go get a PhD first in order to understand it, I would heartily recommend reading Billy Collins. I found this collection (which covers most of his work to date) to be entertaining and challenging to both mind and soul: in other words, the best kind of reading.

5. Barabbas, Pär Lagerkvist -- Some of you might remember the film version of this novel (starring Anthony Quinn) by Sweden's 1951 Nobel laureate, but this terse, powerful tale of the earliest days of the Church goes far beyond Hollywood storytelling. It's amazing that an author from Scandanavia could be so successful at immersing the reader not only into the cultural milieu of first-century Jerusalem, but also into the heart of a man as he struggles with the same question every man has grappled with since John the Baptist: "Are You the Christ?" Lagerkvist's Barabbas is continually haunted by this question as he comes into contact with earliest Christian communities (who literally cough out their liturgies in the choking dust of hidden caves and tunnels), and Gentiles who are willing to sacrifice their lives for their belief in Him... and as he struggles with the unimaginable burden of being the one whose place Jesus took on the cross. And now you can probably see the genius of what Lagerkvist was up to in this short novel... because, as one songwriter I know of put it, "Barabbas, oh Barabbas/It should have been you/Barabbas, oh Barabbas/It should have been me too." Here is a very potent parable that reminds us that "grace is free, but it ain't cheap."

(stayed tuned for part II of the list)

Administrative note

A reminder to readers of The Secret Thread: don't forget to use the "Comment" link to either see what others have had to say about a posting, or post some thoughts yourself... Mutt & I check them regularly and will respond to your posts as often as possible! We want to hear from you... also, feel free to contribute your own reading lists, book reviews and recommendations, film and music plugs, or whatever else... we don't want anyone to miss out on any conversations that are continuing on "behind the scenes."

It's a vast country here, with many little dirt roads and hidden trails to venture down... choose your own adventure... remember, your code name is Jonah...

Pax Christi,

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week - BONUS ROUND

Since it's the first week of this feature and we're still celebrating the debut of The Secret Thread, here's a bonus poem for readers to enjoy. Another American poet, Jane Kenyon. I love this one for its simplicity and grace, like a sturdy old hymn softly sung before bed... what does it say to you???

Let Evening Come

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don't
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

A few things...

Yo, it's the early morning blog from Mutt, and for those of you who are still asleep, GET UP! It was fun to see the addition of a comment from the 'Runnin Bookworm' - wonder who THAT is? - to my last blog. Someone needs to slow that kid down. It is great to have you on board!!! RB, I have never read The Thorn Birds, but it's kind of a modern classic epic from what I have heard .... anything that was turned into a Richard Chamberlain flick is automatically a cult classic. Long novels rock......I'm in the middle of a massive tome myself, see more below.

Lonesome Traveler update: JJL tells me that more news has arrived on his new publication, "Lonesome Traveler". He has just signed his entire life away in the form of a contract to give Rock & Sling first rights to his piece, which will appear in Volume 2, Issue 2 in December 2005. Next step, they will send him galleys to read and approve/edit, and then we wait for the article to appear. He hopes that it will interest however many readers this journal has in Bill Mallonee's music and that if it ever gets seen by Mallonee himself, he isn't taken aback by anything said.

The Quest for #3: Incidentally, JJL is pitching a review to another small magazine called Crux of the Jose Saramago novel 'The Double'. Saramago is a great Nobel prize winning novelist from Portugal, and 'The Double' is a riveting cautionary tale about human cloning. Ultimate message: NOT a good idea......no word back from Crux's editor, who contacted HIM to pitch an idea, not the other way around. As Springsteen says, 'from small things Momma, big things one day come....' The review is called 'You Were Warned' - later I might get a hold of an excerpt and post it here with JJL's permission. Isn't that half the point, to share your work? Speaking of that, why the heck isn't Duke posting any John F. Lovell poems of the week? Talk about writers to watch ......

Rushdie's Epic: Has anyone read Midnight's Children? I have long aspired to read anything by Salman Rushdie, widely considered one of the great writers of our day. World literature is particularly appealing to Secret Thread members - you'll read the names Saramago, Halldor Laxness, Marquez, Murakami, Tarjei Vesaas, etc. on here repeatedly - and this is one of the most invigorating forays into that category I've read in some time. Slow read though - massive at 520 pages, but it feels even larger. The last comparable book I've read in terms of its size and exotic feel was Patrick White's 'Riders in the Chariot', another hefty job. (Also a Nobel winner.) I didn't know a blasted thing about Midnight's Children before taking it on, save one fact, but it's a good one: it was awarded a special Man Booker Prize in the UK for being the BEST novel of the last TWENTY FIVE YEARS around the time of the new millennium, which is saying a heck of a lot. The fact that the best novel for 25 years in the entire UK was awarded to a guy of Indian descent is wild enough in itself, although Rushdie himself is British. This book immediately draws appropriate comparisons to Marquez' '100 Years of Solitude' for its scope and 'magical realist' approach - overused term - and it has the feel of a classic, sprawling epic. There are few other writers, if there are any, who can bridge East and West like Rushdie can. He's from the UK, descended from Asia, and he clearly knows both eastern and western ways of life. He's written extensively about the United States too, and is hip enough to have published on subjects like rock n' roll ('The Ground Beneath Her Feet'), u2, American politics, etc. He also has a 'New York' novel ('Fury') and one of the most interestingly titled books I've ever heard of ('Haroun and the Sea of Stories' - how could you NOT read that?). I also like one of his essay collection titles, 'Step Across This Line'. One of the things I enjoy the most about reading in general is when you come across a writer you think is in possession of great storytelling powers and keen insights, and as you are realizing this you are also becoming aware that the writer has about 15 other books you can check out in the future. This is how the joy of reading perpetuates itself - there's always some influential writer you haven't heard or checked out yet, just waiting to be discovered by you......if you're willing to hunt.

Go back and re-read that great poem posted by Duke Altum. It's easy to miss but the insights are profound....in just 4 lines too.......God bless the poets!

More on MC in the next blog.......keep 'thonnin', as the Runnin' Bookworm and I like to say......that means 'reading' to those not in the know.......!

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week

Introducing my new "poem of the week" feature, in which I hope to share (on a more-or-less weekly basis) a poem that has struck me as profound, inspirational or thought-provoking in some way. Good poems cram a lot of moral/spiritual force into a small, explosive packages... if we take the time to read and think about them, our hearts will be edified more often than not, I have found. I hope you fellow pilgrims will have just such an experience in reading these.

Here is my first entry then... coming from an American poet who has been writing powerful poetry for over 70 years now. A real national treasure... Richard Wilbur. Enjoy!


On Having Misidentified a Wildflower

A thrush, because I'd been wrong
Burst rightly into song
In a world not vague, not lonely,
Not governed by me only.

JJL to Publish for the Second Time

My better half, i.e. writer Jude Joseph Lovell, has informed me of the upcoming publication of his feature profile on singer-songwriter Bill Mallonee in the upstart West Coast literary journal Rock & Sling (Fall 2005 issue), his second nonfiction work to be published. The profile is entitled 'Lonesome Traveler: Bill Mallonee's Flair for the Cathartic' and features reviews of the singer's solo albums from 2001-2005, book-ended by accounts of two live performances. The profile was a total of seven months in the writing and revising, and Jude tells me he's very gratified to know his work will be published for the second time. Small stuff, but these writer types have to start somewhere. 'At this rate,' Jude jokes, having had his previous essay published in 2002, 'look for my collected prose in approximately 45 years'. Not sure where you might find a print copy of Rock & Sling, unless you live in and around Seattle, and it's not yet clear if the article will appear on the journal's web site (link soon on the right side of this page).

For the uninitiated, you'll want to check out Jude's piece: Bill Mallonee is one of the most interesting and honest singer-songwriters around. He writes from a Catholic-Christian perspective, but is unpretentious and candid - he does not preach. Mallonee led the underground cult classic rock-folk band Vigilantes of Love for more than a decade, and since 2002 he has been a solo artist. Check him out at billmallonee.net and if you need more convincing, see if you can get a hold of Jude's article in the Fall. Or contact him and he will try to send you a copy.

Jude dedicates his article to his two children and to 'the ragged ones'......

The Secret Thread hooks another fish.....

Greetings 'Secret' weavers! I'm pleased and honored to join The Secret Thread, created by the mighty "Duke Altum", a man born to blog on topics such as this if ever there was one. This is "Mutt Ploughman"'s maiden voyage in blogging, so bear with him. I'm the 'J.' referred to in the opening blog on this site, and add my thanks to my commentary here for Duke's dedication. He's a good man. He knows his books. I'm glad to join the discussion. I hope we will see more bloggers in the future but will be glad to kick it all over with Duke in all the interim spaces; we've been doing it forever as Duke alluded to. Since we're in the blogosphere here, I will cut to the chase and offer these opening words: I am an avid reader and a writer-in-training, trying to develop my skills in the literary craft. So this site has valuable potential for me as a place I can air out my views and hear yours. I am looking forward to kicking around literature, films, and music, and to plugging any writing I can get out there mercilessly. I know Duke's re-reading both Flannery O'Connor novels (to his credit) and I'm reading Rushdie's "Midnight's Children", on which I plan to blog soon. As we used to say in my military days, "Watch your lane, and fire when ready."

Two interesting book reviews to check out

There are two new book reviews on the Guardian UK book page, which I found to be of interest... one for Jonathan Lethem's The Disappointment Artist (hilarious cover art!!), and one for Michael Cunnigham's Specimen Days.

Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn was an interesting and inventive book, and I know Mutt has read at least Gun, With Occasional Music as well. I know because I gave him that one... as for the second, I've never read him before, but this genre-blending book sounds creative and ambitious.

Click on the link for the Guardian (UK) book page to the right here to read the reviews. Not life-changing, but both books certainly sound like a departure from the ordinary... normally I preserve a healthy skepticism for "critic's darlings" like Lethem and Cunningham, but these books look intriguing.

Pax Christi,
Duke Altum

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

What this blog is not...

In the interests of stating things clearly from the outset (for all the masses that are out there reading this), I wanted to write a few words about what this blog is NOT. This is not one of those blogs where you come in and read about all of the tiny little mundane trials, tribulations and triumphs of some random person's life, which no doubt mean a lot to him/her, but don't make for very compelling reading, even in an "anything goes" environment like the web. "Brushed my teeth this morning in a daze... don't you just hate the inevitable toothpaste stain that ends up on your front shirt pocket? Has anyone ever successfully removed such a stain? Spent most of my morning commute wondering from whence this dark omen came and what it would mean for the rest of my day..." You know, that kind of stuff. That's not what The Secret Thread is about.

In my mind anyway, for what it's worth, this blog can be considered my best attempt at an Inklings meeting in virtual form (minus the beer and the smoky atmosphere, alas). For those of you who may not know, The Inklings were a group of friends/writers/professors that would meet on a weekly basis at a pub called The Eagle & Child (near Oxford University, where most of them taught) during the 1950's and 60's for two commendable purposes: first, to simply enjoy the fellowship and comraderie of each other's company over a pint of beer; second, to discuss and read great literature. Among this famous group were such revered (and rightfully so) authors as C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. (On occasion, they would wander off into the dense thickets of philosophy and theology as well... which is another reason I find the group to be a perfect model for this blog, as it is inevitable, given the "dangerous terrain we're attempting to traverse," that we will also do so here.)

So you're not going to find a lot of boring details about my personal life, or anyone else's for that matter (hopefully). Collective sigh of relief. And anyway, I have a wife and young kids to protect here. (OK, so I guess I gave up one detail there. This is harder than it seems.) What you WILL find here, I hope, is a lot of interesting, free-ranging discussion on both classic and contemporary fiction, essays, works of history, sociological works, poetry, journals and just about any other printed material that's worth reading. For anyone who's ever asked the question of another person, "What are you reading lately?" and actually cared to hear the answer... perhaps this blog will be of some interest to you. And if you're interested in discussions on great books and the insights they may or may not provide about our common human condition, I invite you to read along and/or join in.

DISCLAIMER: For anyone who reads or contributes to this blog, or (better yet) reads or discusses any of the books featured on this blog, we would like to offer the following reminder/warning, as expressed by one of The Secret Thread's Hall of Fame writers:

The life you save may be your own.

Pax Christi,
Duke Altum

Welcome to The Secret Thread!

"You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words . . ."
C. S. LEWIS, The Problem of Pain

It is my distinct pleasure to introduce The Secret Thread to the "blogosphere"... I am going to keep this first post brief since I am a blogging neophyte (believe it or not -- I know, I may well be the last one, at least under the age of 40), and want to make sure all is working according to plan... but allow me to offer a few tantalizing hints with regard to the purpose of this here site. It is the latest manifestation of a life-long (and I do mean life-long) conversation that my twin brother J. and I have been conducting about great books, and how they lead us to deep truths and even (at their best) wisdom about God, the universe, and the human condition. For literally as long as I can remember, J. and I have been sharing thoughts, ideas and questions about stories and other writings that have touched our hearts and souls in one way or another, and in my adult years I have started to get interested in the relationship between literature & the spiritual life: what is it about certain books that seems to awaken in us a desire to know, to understand, to seek that which is greater than ourselves? What makes a Classic a classic, and a Great Book great? Why do the best stories always seem to provide not just entertainment, but somehow increased knowledge of our own nature? How is it that some prose and poetry can literally cause our hearts to ache?

J. and I have been kicking around and debating these questions, and many many others, for decades... but now that technology has caught up with our ability to ramble on ad nauseam about books and life and Truth, I thought it might be time to open up the conversation to anyone else out there who has been following that "secret thread" in the books they love... the one that I am firmly convinced will help lead us, if our hearts and minds are receptive, Home... to the great Author and Creator of all life.

I dedicate this blog, then, to my twin brother J., who I hope will be ringing in here very soon. And to the patronage and prayers of Saint Francis de Sales, patron saint of writers, and the future saint John Paul the Great.

Until next time, then... join us as we cast out into the deep.

Pax Christi,
Duke Altum