Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ice Storm

Suffering through a snow and ice storm is inconvenient at best and often very dangerous, as we Kentuckians are finding out. However, aesthetically speaking, it is a wondrous thing to behold, particularly if you don't have a tree knifing through your roof and you're not freezing to death. For a day before the snow turned to ice, the birds in my backyard were obviously fueling up. All day, cardinals, house finches, juncos, and sparrows clustered around the feeders. My goldfinch feeder, full of nyjer thistle seed, usually lasts weeks. It was drained within a day and a half. Everytime I looked outside three or four would be fighting over the two perches on the tube. In the picture, two of them sit on the fence, waiting their turn, flanked by house sparrows.

A dead, brown landscape transformed overnight into a glittering, crystalline world, and the birds disappeared. Individual magnolia leaves, coppery-brown, suspend in their own glass boxes like bees caught in amber, but perfectly clear, every vein visible. A heavily beaded dogwood stands against a Wedgewood blue sky, bare barberry hedges drip with diamonds, the holly leaf's sharp points grow into claws of ice. Every surface is brilliant with refracted light and icicles lengthen into daggers and spears, dripping off every roof and gable. The first night of the storm, at 2:30 in the morning, I awakened to the first crash of limbs falling in the neighbor's yard. All night and into the next day you could stand on the porch and listen to cracking, groaning branches giving way and exploding into the surface of ice-crusted snow as if a giant beast was lumbering though a forest.

Today, it is sunny and clear, and the melting has begun. There is a continual drip, slide, crash, and sizzle. Maybe the birds will venture back out from their hiding places.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike, RIP

In that category of public figures that you don't really know, but care about, I always find it particularly sad to say goodbye to writers. Their work, which has been such a pleasure and an education, is at an end. We can only re-read and savor what's left behind -- which is invaluable -- but never will there be anything new.

Even though Updike has never been one of my most-loved authors, he has always been a writer that I have admired for his lovingly crafted and poetic sentences and for an old-school, writerly work ethic. He's always seemed a throwback to writers like Dickens and Trollope in sheer volume, and like those other giants of Victorian letters -- the combined novelist, essayist, and critic who seemed to know everything and be capable of illuminating any subject.

I've read Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux, and a smattering of essays and short stories, but personally, I like him best for Gertrude and Claudius. It takes a certain renegade quality and degree of confidence to take on something as canonical as Shakespeare's Hamlet and transform that story, without doing damage to the original, to something uniquely your own. And, of course, he will always remain memorable to me for the book that I started and couldn't finish. It was probably not a good choice, since I was bound to compare it with Garcia Marquez, but Brazil was a book that I could put down. However, his vivid comparison of yams to a certain part of the male anatomy has stuck in my mind. And the fact that I have never walked through the produce section quite the same person says something about the power of the image and the writer who created it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Austerlitz and after

I just finished Volume 1 and am well launched into Volume 2 of War and Peace. The last bit of V1 was Tolstoy's version of the Battle of Austerlitz. And apparently, it's not just we southern Americans who can't stop fighting wars long gone and lost. Courtesy of the BBC, the picture accompanying this post is a somewhat recent re-enactment of said battle.

I'm very taken with W&P. The characters are marvelous and, although I knew it was set during the Napoleonic wars, I don't think I realized how much of it would be based on the history of those actions. It's always interesting to figure out how writers decide where history and fiction part ways. For example, one of the "characters" is General Kutuzov -- a real person, but I'm assuming the young adjutant Prince Andrei is Tolstoy's creation. I love it. I've always been interested in the Napoleonic wars, but mainly Napoleon's dueling with Wellington, so this earlier part is educational.

I read with nerdly relish the battle scenes and try to imagine how it must have looked. I learned to love battle maps for that reason. I'm not very good with maps, but even I, after staring at them long enough, and reading the descriptions can finally begin to see how the geography shaped the action. I first had this breakthrough when reading WWII accounts of the ground war in the Philippines. Suddenly, some of what I read started to make more sense.

And speaking of maps, I like the way Tolstoy treats the drawing rooms and dining rooms of Russian society in the same way he sets the stage for the war scenes. He's always careful to say exactly where everyone is sitting or standing in relation to one another, and he tracks their movements and conversations with the same careful attention to detail. There are as many schemers, glory-seekers, and adversaries in these settings as on the fields in Austria. There's Anna Mikhailovna with the heavy artillery, Prince Vassily with the feint, and there's poor, blundering Bezukhov in full retreat. I should try to sketch one of those out! One of my favorite scenes has been the deathbed struggle over securing old Count Bezukhov's will before he finally croaks. It's deliciously funny. Well, maybe it isn't supposed to be...but it is. Thankfully, I've managed not to find out too much about this novel -- I suppose people don't find it easy to sum up such a plot and cavalcade of characters, and I've never seen the movie versions. I know Henry Fonda played Pierre Bezukhov but I'm seeing someone who looks a lot more like Oliver Platt or even P. Seymour Hoffman. He needs to be more rumpled and portly (at least, thus far).

On another track entirely, a much shorter and amusing read is John Crowley's latest blog post about his recent run-in with the law.

Monday, January 05, 2009

War and Peace 2009

I've finally decided to tackle Leo Tolstoy's classic. I read The Kreutzer Sonata and The Death of Ivan Ilyich a while back and liked them both. So, for the foreseeable future, if anyone ventures to ask me what I'm reading, then the answer is going to remain the same.

I've also just started listening to the new album (I still call it an album, even though I downloaded the MP3s from iTunes) by Kasey Chambers and her husband, Shane Nicholson, Rattlin Bones. It's one of those rare ones that you love from the first listen and every song is a keeper. Their voices are really beautiful together -- I'm a sucker for a good duet. But it's more than just duets -- it's two people really singing songs together. You don't think of Jack White and Brendan Benson doing duets, for example, or Steven Page and Ed Robertson. The collaboration is a little more involved than that -- from the songwriting to the instrumentation. Anyway, it just made my "best" list of 2008 (I think it was released in September). In no particular order, here are my other favorites from last year:
  • Cardinology, Ryan Adams and the Cardinals
  • Acid Tongue, Jenny Lewis and peeps
  • Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes
  • Evil Urges, My Morning Jacket
  • Consolers of the Lonely, The Raconteurs
  • Angels of Destruction, Marah
  • Vagabonds, Gary Louris
Coming up, I hope to see Brandi Carlile, Louris, and Adams in the next few months, and I'll keep my fingers crossed that the latest incarnation of Marah, comes around sometime this year. I just read at Kelly Willis' site that after a few April shows, she is on extended hiatus from the road, having found that four small children and a tour bus don't really mix. I can't imagine how it could, since her husband is also a musician.