Thursday, June 14, 2007

O Lord, what fools these mortals be!

I kicked off my summer (a bit early) appropriately by re-reading A Midsummer Night's Dream. One of the things that I like about Shakespeare is that he remains so darn funny. I was chuckling all the way through the Pyramus and Thisbe scene, which is so silly and touching at the same time. All the while Bottom and his fellows are murdering the play with their literalness and malapropisms (Ninny's tomb!) and the royal onlookers are making their snarky comments, you are acutely aware of their earnestness and their sense of duty. They are the best of good 'ole boys paying their respect to king and queen on their wedding day having spent their zero leisure time preparing their lines and being set upon by mischievous fairies!

I was reading something the other day about the play that reminded me of all the spells lifted to put things to rights at the end, Demetrius was left under a spell. He didn't love Helena until the potion was put into his eyes, but the fairies didn't mend their magic, so essentially, it's only magic that ties him to Helena. For Shakespeare, of course, it paired off all the lovers neatly at the end. If he had indulged in sequels as much as we do today, he could have written a further tragedy (or maybe one of those dark romances) in which Demetrius awakens from the spell and is married to a woman that he doesn't even like! Possibilities!

I think I'm going to read The Tempest again too; then Faust -- both Marlowe's and Goethe's. It's all John Crowley's fault!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Endless Things -- last of Crowley's Aegypt series

I just finished Endless Things, after reading the four novels of Aegypt in succession. I've been a big Crowley fan for a while now, but I never read this cycle, which began twenty years ago (Aegypt came out in 1987)! I think you could think of the four volumes as one very, very long novel. I usually do that terrible thing where I try to compare a writer to a similar writer, but I don't think I can do that with Crowley.

To the uninitiated, this series focuses on the scholar/historian Pierce Moffett, who finds himself out of a job, then "buswrecked" in a small town where he decides to remain, or doesn't "decide" -- Moffett tends to let things happen to him , and is, in fact, almost incapable of making decisions about anything pertaining to his future plans. So, the peripatetic Moffett drifts, or is pulled, on a journey through four novels that echoes the thinking, yearning, searching quests of Renaissance philosophers John Dee and Giordano Bruno. It would take entirely too long to explain the intricacies of this story or the cast of characters, but if you are interested in such things as ancient religions and mythologies, alchemy, magic, the occult, the Renaissance, the Inquisition, werewolves, Appalachian lore, witches, angels and demons, literature, the nature of time, astrology, possession, and of course, love... well then, this might be for you. You get the picture. It's complicated, but in a delightful way.

Crowley is, by far, one of the more erudite novelists around, and you do have to pay attention. The reading is demanding in equal measure to the pleasure you will get out of it.

If my rambling is too vague, then you might want to check out the laudatory review in the Washington Post. Also look out for a piece by Michael Dirda in the Post; he mentioned it in one of his weekly online chats, which I highly recommend for book nerds everywhere. Not many mainstream reviews out there. But they're just scared of him, no doubt. Awed to silence!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Summer reading bonanza

It's challenging when all of your favorite authors have new books at roughly the same time! My summer reading is usually decidedly not new. I believe last summer I was reading Colette and Robbe-Grillet, for instance. I like to catch up on quirky old novels or the forgotten classics that I never got around to. But this summer, already waiting for me, are new novels by Ian McEwan (On Chesil Beach) and Michael Ondaatje (Divisadero); I'm currently in the middle of Crowley's Endless Things, following up the third volume, Daemonomania. I keep changing my favorite, of course, but I really loved D. It was dark, sad, and of course, beautiful and mysterious. The Solstice Masque scene near the end was amazing. I don't know how he does it. But I digress....

I'm pretty darn sure Suite Francaise was on last year's list, but it's on my nightstand still. And scattered 'round the bed, the sacred and profane: King James Bible, The Way of Hermes, May issue of Vogue, an encyclopedia of occult philosophies, Bullfinch's Mythology. Most of these point their way back to Crowley, except just possibly, the Vogue.

I was also planning to finally read something by Michael Chabon -- the new one seems pretty interesting (Jews in Alaska! A minyan for Fleishman...); Haruki Murakami, Don Delillo; I've never read anything by Martin Amis -- is it skipping ahead to read the son before the father? Oh, and The Keep by Jennifer Egan, also on my list for about a year. And it's not like I don't have anything else to do. I suppose I feel compelled to make up for that 60 appalling-percent of my country people who confess to reading nothing at all! This explains much, eh?

Monday, June 04, 2007

Jim James and James Brown ...sort of

I had another really cool weekend of music -- just by happenstance I attended two benefit concerts. The first was a benefit for Kush Griffith, trumpeter and arranger (I think) for the Godfather of Soul James Brown. Kush was in a wheel chair but still very capable of delivering the funk. Playing along with him were two other members of the band, drummer Melvin Parker and his brother Maceo on saxophone. We went on the spur of the moment; it was a show also featuring Brigid Kaelin on keys and vocals. I've seen her a couple of times, as a guest artist at other shows and she's always impressive. We do have a wealth of local talent in Louisville. It was a lot of fun--and the music was great.

We were lucky enough to get tickets for Jim James (featuring Sarah Elizabeth and Ron Whitehead) along with local artist and musician Andy Cook, and Jim's My Morning Jacket bandmate, Carl Broemel. The concert benefited the owners of the venerable Rudyard Kipling -- a performance spot for artists of all types for a couple of decades in Louisville. The first set was Ron W.'s poems interspersed with Sarah's songs (including several duets with Jim). Sarah has a beautiful voice that blended very nicely with Jim on House of the Rising Sun, Sound of Silence, and (way cool) White Rabbit.

It's hard to overstate what an immensely entertaining, warm, lively, and sometimes dreamy set that Jim and friends put on in the second half of the evening. I've never seen MMJ live and I've only seen Jim on Austin City Limits, so it was quite a revelation. First of all, we're in a room that probably holds about 100 people, sitting and standing, and although there were a few feedback issues, the sound was really beautiful and rich. I know I'm lucky to have been in on this show in such an intimate setting. Jim is an unflagging powerhouse of a performer. He played for at least two hours just in his set, so I now understand why those marathon Bonnaroo shows are so legendary! I think his voice can't be appreciated as much if you only hear the recordings -- it ventures somewhere between the poles of ethereal and wailing, swathed in the dreamy reverb.

Inasmuch as you can get a vibe about someone just by observing them on a stage, Jim exudes a very gentle warmth, part down-home Kentucky boy, part Buddhist monk. There is something incantatory about his songs; they have a quality of snatching after something elusive. I suppose sitting in such an intimate setting, musically beguiled for such a length of time, tempts one to deconstruct the experience, but I'll heed the warning of Wordsworth -- to murder is to dissect -- and leave the rest to the imagination.