Tag Archives: The Book I Read

The Book I Read: I Had An Idea–The Failed Magic Mountain Reaction Videos and a Redemptive Attempt at Podcasting Instead

Listen to the podcast version of this blog entry!

In the summer of 2020, the pandemic beginning to rage, after a school year shut down 3 quarters of the way through, trying not to think about what the next school year might look like, I had a creative impulse. Inspired by a number of what has come to be known as “reaction videos,” but also disheartened by a lack of any real substance in many of them, I wondered if it might be cool to do a literary reaction video. Most of the reaction videos I had seen had been about music–wherein, a listener would film themselves simply listening and reacting along the way to an artist or a song. Some of them were instructive and interesting–for example, a vocal coach would listen to screamo metal. Or a couple of very cool young black dudes would listen to classic power pop. Sometimes the reactions were just funny–mostly the result of some super compelling personality reacting in their idiosyncratic way to something they’d never heard before–the drama heightened of course by how far away the source material was from their own musical experiences or tastes–the stranger it seemed to them, the more over the top would be their response, whether positive or negative. I must confess, I only could stand to watch a few of them–a small handful. But it was enough to peak my interest and my curiosity, as a teacher, as a performer, about what might be possible if the material in question was not a song or a music video, but a book.

I started with a study of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. It was a book on my list of books I felt I should read for a long time. For years, references to it and accolades for it kept coming up for me in almost every corner–so it was my first choice. In these videos, I would simply read passages out loud and respond on the fly. I tried to capture a first take and I didn’t edit. They were short videos, between 8 and 12 minutes long. But after my initial reaction to the novel’s early pages, it occurred to me that I had a dilemma. It would be virtually impossible to read and react to this entire novel. The thing was 700 pages long! It would take years. I could have just read the opening passages of a bunch of different things I’d never read, but I had aspirations that the project would inspire me to read more, and to finish more of what I read. So I made some adjustments right away and committed to read, say, 100 pages before I attempted another reaction video. Then, in my video, I would attempt to bring viewers up to speed with a little crash course summary before I tackled the next passage. I tried to be super expeditious about the summaries–just enough to help people along, and the bulk of the thing, then, would be the cold reading of the next passage and my extemporaneous reactions to it. I figured that, maybe, in six or seven episodes, I’d be done!

In the last podcast episode of The Book I Read, I mention The Magic Mountain as one of my favorite unfinished books. The summer of 2020 was over. The herculean task of reinventing the English Language Arts classroom for on-line consumption lay before me and my colleagues. I had to put my reaction videos, and my copy of The Magic Mountain aside. I had recorded only three episodes. I had read about 230 pages out of 700. And, a year and some change later, I have promised to you and to my own bad self, that I would return to it. I have jettisoned the idea of a reaction video (nope–done with that), in favor of featuring my progress with this great classic 20th century novel in my humble little podcast (and simultaneously on my blog).

A tiny bit of background. Thomas Mann was a German novelist, born in 1875 and he lived until 1955. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929. He lived in exile from Germany during World War II and spent a significant portion of his later years living in other countries, including the United States, ultimately earning American citizenship. Reading the blurbs from the folks at Brittanica.com about his literary legacy, we discover that he’s considered perhaps the greatest German novelist of the 20th century. There are other lovely little tidbits there that sum up nicely his most notable concerns and themes–but I think I’ll spare you that in favor of trying to tease that out in my own discussion of the novel.

I’m going to attempt first to give you a list of what I consider to be the most salient features of the story and the style of The Magic Mountain as far as I have read. And in the last episode, I noted that I was not going all the way back to the beginning, but instead, I would review my notes, peruse the marked passages, and begin exactly where I left off. So I am still in progress with The Magic Mountain, and will probably be for some time. My next episode/entry may feature my progress, it may not. Only time will tell. For now, let’s see where we are in The Magic Mountain:

  • Our hero, Hans Castorp, is a young man studying to be an engineer, specifically one that designs sea faring vessels. His parents died when he was very young, he was raised for a time by his grandfather until his death, and then finally was raised by an uncle. Outside of his early and somewhat traumatic experience with a number of family deaths, Hans has led a life of privilege.
  • Hans is a cigar smoker. He can’t imagine a life without cigars.
  • Hans, as is established in the first four paragraphs of the novel, is on his way from his hometown of Hamburg to Davos-Platz in the Swiss Alps. He’s headed there for two reasons. First, a doctor advised him, that after intense schooling and examinations, the 20-something year-old should have a change of scenery, take in some new air. Secondly, while he is there, he will visit his cousin Joachim for three weeks.
  • Joachim Ziemssen is a young army lieutenant on an extended stay inside a sanatorium in the Alps.
  • What’s a sanatorium, you may well ask. I did. And I found out that during the late 19th century and into the 20th, when tuberculosis killed one out of seven people living in the United States and Europe, a “cure” was believed to be rest and relaxation in a more hospitable climate inside a sanatorium, essentially, a resort for people dying of TB. Joachim does not appear to be seriously ill. In fact, many of the characters living with Joachim do not seem seriously ill–but clearly, as Joachim reports, they are, and residents are dying all the time; in winter, when travel is difficult, their bodies are sent down the mountain on bobsleds, and a resident, he says, died just days before Hans arrived for his visit, a resident who had been living in the very apartment, sleeping in the very bed, where Hans will stay for three weeks. Joachim tells Hans that most of the deaths happen “behind the scenes” and the residents are usually kept in the dark, but on one occasion Joachim witnessed the disturbing death struggle of a young woman who was, in essence, refusing to die, hiding under her bed clothes, kicking and screaming, while the doctor kept telling her not to make such a fuss.
  • It seems grim, yes? And yet, while it’s not a “comic” novel, there are moments of hilarity peppered throughout. Some extremely colorful characters populate the sanatorium. A Russian married couple in the apartment next to Hans are playing some really strange erotic sex games late at night. A woman can whistle with one of her collapsed lungs and that entertains her peers to no end. And there are these wild conversations, between Joaquim and Hans, and between the physicians and residents of the sanatorium, that, while philosophical in nature, sometimes border on the absurd. Conversation, it seems, is a big deal in this novel. Not so much to further the plot, maybe a little bit to develop character, but mostly, it seems to me, to push forward certain thematic threads. This is clearly a novel of IDEAS.
  • Time and space, baby. Which has the most influence? How are they inextricably tied? Is time a thing? Does it really exist? Can it be measured or defined, really? Why does it sometimes go by so quickly and other times so slowly? What is the best use of it? Is being ill so bad? Is dying so terrible? What does it mean to be ill, or healthy for that matter?
  • The narrator of The Magic Mountain is a third person omniscient that sometimes refers to himself in the first person plural, the royal WE. It’s funny, especially as he seems careful not to characterize Hans in a negative light: “As is apparent, we are attempting to include anything that can be said in Hans Castorp’s favor, and we offer our judgements without exaggeration, intending to make him no better or worse than he was.” Well, that’s good to know. Our narrator is an honest narrator.
  • The novel is structured in 7 total numbered chapters, but each chapter has a number of titled sections. Here’s a sampling of titles from Chapter 4: “A Necessary Purchase,” “Excursus on the Sense of Time,” “He Tries Out His Conversational French,” “Politically Suspect,” “Analysis,” “Growing Anxiety/Two Grandfathers and a Twilight Boat Ride,” and “The Thermometer.”
  • The prose, the edition I have an English translation from the original German by John E. Wood, continues to be scintillating. I will share some of it with you before this episode is over, I promise.

As I see it, the dramatic questions seem to be thus: How will this three week stay with Joachim at the sanatorium change our good friend Hans? How is the mountain magic? Is Joachim in serious danger from his TB? Will he survive the visit? Will the questions raised by the above thematic threads be answered? Is TB contagious? Otherwise, why would a husband and wife live there together when only one of them is sick, or a family for that matter? Inquiring minds need to know. A quick little research excursion revealed that, yes, TB is contagious. It spreads, oddly enough, in the same way the coronavirus spreads. Is Hans safe? Might he contract TB? How odd that I chose this book first out of all possible books, I, who did not know what a sanatorium was before I picked up this novel!

Okay, so where are we now, 230 pages in? Well, for starters, Hans has been at the sanatorium a heck of a lot longer than three weeks. Why? You guessed it: he may be ill. There was hilarity around the fact that people kept asking him why he didn’t buy himself a thermometer. Everyone at the sanatorium is somewhat obsessed with taking their temperatures. Finally, he breaks down and buys one. If I remember this correctly (I read these passages a year ago), he discovers a slight fever. Yeah, I just double-checked: 99.7. He makes an appointment with one of the resident physicians. An x-ray is taken–a singular passage in the novel–one which elevates the experience of getting an x-ray to a kind of existential crisis–and here’s the rub: as dramatic as this scene is and as blown away as Hans is by the experience, the reader is somewhat kept in the dark as to the results–except for the advice he gets from the physician–which is: Hans cannot leave the sanatorium–or that he should not. He’s not a prisoner–but it’s kind of like he’s staying at The Hotel California.

Another odd but significant aspect of life in the sanatorium is the lively social life that takes place, mostly, in the cafeteria or dining hall. This is where we meet most of a wide cast of characters that inhabit Hans’ experience–there’s the “bad Russian” table (a mysterious and perhaps bigoted appellation), another table of lively ladies whose conversation is peppered with gossip and judgement over their fellow residents, and a table of intellectuals, the most notable of which is the Italian philosopher pedagogue Settembrini, who, whenever he catches Hans’ attention, goes on some wild and raging lecture extolling the wonders of Western Civilization and poo-pooing Easterners generally and metaphysical ideas altogether. Hans is annoyed by the guy but also drawn to him. Settembrini is loquacious and undoubtedly super smart; he seems at times to be unapologetically progressive, other times backwards and kind of racist. It’s the 1920’s, after all. But is he a positive or negative influence on the young engineer?–at this point it’s hard to say. He seems to want to encourage Hans Castorp to leave the sanatorium in order to escape its “Eastern” influences–the worst of which, according to Settembrini, is the East’s extravagant and wasteful relationship with the big T-word: TIME. A relationship, he thinks, that might be rubbing off on Hans the young engineer.

But finally, where I am, is the important matter of Clavdia Chauchat, a woman who, at first, bugs Hans to no end–he’s especially annoyed by her habit of barging into the cafeteria, always late, and always allowing the door to slam behind her. Perhaps vain and self absorbed, Hans is repulsed by her–at first. But something kind of weird happens. Over time–because she is beautiful, and because (weird of weirds) her illness makes her more so–Hans begins to fall for her, becomes obsessed by her, becomes elated and ecstatic over chance meetings, close-by brushes, a chaste and accidental touch, or just a word: a “good morning” or a “pardon” from her sends Hans Castorp completely over the edge! So much so, (and this is perhaps the strangest bit) that when his temperature starts to drop into normal healthy territory, he becomes terribly upset–he WANTS to be ill so as to continue in her extremely limited company. And there seems to be a bit of that everywhere–I mean, no one seems terribly upset about their condition. If one did not know where they were–you would assume that they were all on some sort of pleasure cruise. Are these folks reveling in their status as TB patients? They do, it appears, look down on those who are only “mildly ill,” say of some that they “hardly have the right to be here.” Are they, in some ways, just happy to be sick? Are they in love with being ill? And is love a kind of illness?!

Before I close today, I want to give you a sense of this text–a feel for the prose–and a taste of the novel’s flavor and its ideas–and its often quick turn from the macabre to the absurd. Let’s look at the x-ray scene, for example. Hans’s friend Joachim has just had his x-ray taken and Mann describes in glorious detail the miraculous mechanism by which x-rays were taken in this early era. The “director” invites Hans to look at the picture of his friend. “I can see your heart,” Hans says, but is also somewhat terrified to see his skeleton as well. He’s filled with both “reverence and terror.” His thoughts turn to a clairvoyant ancestor who supposedly could see through people, often accurately predicting their deaths. And then it’s his turn.

A few minutes later he himself was standing in the stocks while the little thunderstorm raged, and Joachim, his body closed from view again, began to dress. Once again the director peered through the milky pane, but this time into Hans Castorp’s interior, and from his mutterings–ragtag curses and phrases–it appeared his findings corresponded to his expectations. In response to much begging, he was kind enough to allow his patient to view his own hand through the fluoroscope. And Hans Castorp saw exactly what he should have expected to see, but which no man was ever intended to see and which he himself had never presumed he would be able to see: he saw his own grave. Under that light, he saw the process of corruption anticipated, saw the flesh in which he moved decomposed, expunged, dissolved into airy nothingness–and inside was the delicately turned skeleton of his right hand and around the last joint of the ring finger, dangling black and loose, the signet ring his grandfather had bequeathed him: a hard thing, this ore with which man adorns a body predestined to melt away beneath it, so that it can be free again and move on to yet other flesh that may bear it for a while. With the eyes of his Tienappel forebear–penetrating, clairvoyant eyes–he beheld a familiar part of his body, and for the first time in his life he understood that he would die. And he made the same face he usually made when listening to music–a rather dull, sleepy and devout face, his head tilted toward one shoulder, his mouth half open.

The director said, “Spooky, isn’t it? Yes, there’s no mistaking the whiff of spookiness.”

Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, translated by John E. Woods

Lastly, as I have said that a major feature of this novel is conversation, and that dialogue abounds, I find it is unlike any dialogue I have ever read in a realistic novel–it is sophisticated in ways that dialogue is not usually sophisticated–in that the characters all seem to have an incredible gift for oratory–and one character displays this gift most exquisitely–to the point where it almost becomes comical, and that is Hans Castorp’s “mentor” Herr Settembrini, the Italian pedagogue. Here is a taste–which begins innocently enough, with Settembrini’s recommendation to Hans that, since he is staying longer than expected, he should have a warm sleeping bag.

“But wait–you’ll need a sleeping bag, one with fur lining. Where are our minds? This late-summer weather is deceptive. It can be deepest winter within an hour. You’ll be spending the coldest months here.”

“Yes, the sleeping bag,” Hans Castorp said, “that’s probably a necessary piece of gear. It has crossed my mind that we–my cousin and I–should go down into town sometime soon and buy one. It’s something I’ll never use again later, but it’s worth it, after, for four to six months.”

“Yes, it is worth it, it is worth it, my good engineer,” Herr Settembrini said softly, stepping closer to the young man. “It is truly hideous, you know, the way you are throwing the months around. Hideous, I say, because it is so unnatural, so foreign to your nature, purely a matter of a receptive young mind. Ah, the immoderate receptivity of youth–it can drive an educator to despair, because it is always ready to apply itself to bad ends. Do not ape the words you hear floating in the air around you, young man, but speak a language appropriate to your civilized European life. A great deal of Asia hangs in the air here. It is not for nothing that the place teems with Mongolian Muscovites–people like these.” And Herr Settembrini pointed back over his shoulder with his chin. “Do not model yourself on them, do not let them infect you with their ideas, but instead compare your own nature, your higher nature to theirs, and as a son of the West, of the divine West, hold sacred those things that by both nature and heritage are sacred to you. Time, for instance. This liberality, this barbaric extravagance in the use of time is the Asian style–that may be the reason why the children of the East feel so at home here. Have you never noticed that when I Russian says ‘four hours’ it means not more to him than ‘one hour’ does to us? The idea comes easily to mind that the nonchalance with which these people treat time has something to do with the savage expanse of their land. Too much room–too much time. It has been said that they are a nation with time on their hands–they can afford to wait. We Europeans can’t wait. We have just as little time as our noble, tidily segmented continent has space; we must carefully husband the resources of the former just as we do those of the latter–put them to use, good use, engineer! Our great cities are the perfect symbol–these centers and focal points of civilization, these crucibles of thought. Just as land values rise in cities and wasted space becomes an impossibility, in the same measure, please note, time becomes more precious there, too. Carpe diem! An urbanite sang that song. Time is a gift of the gods to humankind, that we may use it–use it, my good engineer, in the service of human progress.”

Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, translated by John E. Woods

And he goes on. And on. And on. And this scene culminates in his urgent advice to Hans Castorp that he leave the magic mountain. So, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard anyone talk this way. Settembrini is infuriating and absolutely compelling in one and the same breath. He has a point. He makes it well–and yet, I am left, and maybe Hans Castorp is left, wondering if it is not the East that really has it going on with regard to time, and not the West. Perhaps Mann knew that Settembrini’s way of describing the East was somewhat obscene–his judgment of them borders on xenophobia. Maybe, just maybe, the way we experience time on the Magic Mountain is indeed magic, and despite the fact we might be dying of TB, a good thing.

Hopefully, we’ll say a lot more about this in our next episode/entry. Until then, thanks for reading or listening, and cheers. See you in a week or two!

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The Book I Read: Works Unfinished, Finishing the Appalachian Book of the Dead, and a Prayer for October

Listen to the Podcast version of this blog entry here!

True confession: I often abandon books before I finish them. Sometimes I go back, sometimes I never do. The reasons for the abandonment vary–but rarely, is it because I am disinterested. Only a couple of times have I ever stopped reading because I thought the book was awful. I’m not going to talk about those books. I’m staking out a philosophical stand here, in this podcast, that I’m really not interested in slagging on books. So, most often, I will stop reading a book because I have been distracted by another reading, wooed away, if you will, by something more tantalizing and shiny (and likely, less challenging). Often, I am interrupted by the beginning of the school year, and here we are–when there are so many other responsibilities in preparation and in keeping the ball in the air for September and October. I just run out of time for recreational reading of any kind. Sometimes I will abandon a book simply because I have bit off more than I could chew. I’ve chosen something ambitious or difficult. I have read IN Finnegans Wake, for example, but I have never even attempted to go from cover to cover. In a similar vein, I think I tried Ulysses four or five times–each time I’d go back to the beginning and start all over again, get about as far as I got the last time, and then give up again. I am proud to say, that one year I did finally read all the way through the great Joyce novel. I felt pretty good about that, even though I knew that I understood it poorly–knew more from things I had read about it than I did from the actual reading of it. It’s on my bucket list to read again; Finnegans Wake, too, is a book that I would like to tackle before I die–just so that I could say that I did it. No–I’m sure it would be more than that. I don’t think I read ever simply for bragging rights. Although, that would not be nearly as bad as bragging about not reading. I hate to hear people speak about getting all the way through school without reading a book from cover to cover as if it’s some great accomplishment. Just stab me in the heart, why don’t ya.

Two of my favorite books I’ve never finished are The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I think I got maybe 100 pages or so into Melville’s masterpiece on a couple different occasions, and it was a simple lack of stamina or commitment that stopped me–much of it I found absolutely engaging and astonishingly MODERN. I really loved it. Ishmael and Queequeg and Ahab–just fascinating characters. Someday soon I will return to those guys. Writing it, or saying it out loud like this, I think, makes it more likely to become a reality. What is that pattern? Thoughts become words become actions. This is how things happen. I spoke about the Thomas Mann novel very briefly in my last episode, and I think it is, in this time and moment, a book that I must come back to–like right about now. It’s a pandemic novel, for crying out loud. And I think I will experiment. I put that novel down a year ago. Instead of what I have done with Ulysses and Moby Dick, that is, every time I pick it up I go back to the beginning, Sisyphus-like, and start again, I think what I’ll do this time is just simply review passages that I’ve marked, jar the old memory banks, and begin exactly where I left off a year ago, about 230 pages into a 700 page tome. It won’t be that hard. I did leave behind a series of reflections on my progress–an experiment with the ubiquitous “reaction video”–that petered out after about 4 episodes.

. . . So, while I am diving back into–or climbing back onto–The Magic Mountain, I have finished Appalachian Book of the Dead by Dale Neal. So let’s talk about that. In the last episode I introduced you to the main characters, an aging couple recently married (Cal, the retired commodities trader and his younger wife, Joy, the pottery artist, formerly a physical therapist), Ainsley, a young bohemian woman practicing Tibetan Buddhism, and Doyle, the superstitious and handy caretaker of the abandoned Camp Bee Tree for girls–all of them living in the wilds of the Appalachian Mountains–pretty isolated save for each other’s strange company. However, there may or may not be an escaped convict–a psychopathic murderer, no less, hiding in the woods. When Ainsley, our Buddhist yurt dweller, who has recently shaved off her dreadlocks and is completely bald, starts feeding a visiting coyote, can we be sure it’s the coyote and not the convict that’s taking the food she leaves out? And who or what is killing Joy’s barn cats? Are these folks in danger? So that’s part of the drama, always percolating, but just beneath the surface. If you were to call this novel a “thriller,” you’d be on to something–but you wouldn’t be capturing the essence of this thing–which is, to my understanding, realistic, literary fiction–and I say literary for two reasons. One, the writing is exquisite, beautiful, finely crafted. And the characterization is deep. It seems to me, a standard kind of horror story or thriller novel turns mostly on plot–what’s gonna happen next. While literary fiction often turns on character. Who are these people? What makes them tick? And why do I care so much? What am I learning? How have I been confronted with new ideas? While you’re likely to be entertained by a popular thriller, you’re more likely to be CHANGED by literary fiction. That’s what we have here with Dale Neal’s novel.

A few choices, though, amp up the thrill and the drama: Neal’s decision to write a few chapters in the Coyote’s perspective as she appears to cross paths with the escaped convict, and his super creepy choice of giving chapters to the convict as well, delivered in second person no less, so that the reader in a sense becomes the bad guy in the story, the bad guy whose chapters are punctuated with instructions in italicized print, which, I’m guessing, are taken directly from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, instructions for passing through the various stages of the Bardo, the in-between, before emerging into the next life. Perhaps, the convict, lost in this in-between of the mysterious and wild Appalachian Mountains, is metaphorically in a kind of Bardo. Meanwhile, we spend a significant amount of time with our four main characters–we learn more and more about them as the novel progresses; questions we have about their pasts are answered–and in some cases, like the fate of Ainsley’s boyfriend Bernie, our assumptions from earlier in the novel are corrected. It turns out that each of these individuals, including our lurking boogie man, have these incredibly vivid and often tragic back stories. And while I call this novel realistic fiction–it’s full of ghosts. They may be psychological ghosts–but they are delivered by our narrator, in the point of view of the character of focus for each chapter, as if they were literal. In one of our convict’s chapters, he sees the smoking, charred–and still alive–body of the man he murdered in the very first chapter. He even hears him speak. But, you know, our convict, Angel, has been out there so long in the wilderness, surviving on what? on food left out for coyotes and on unsuspecting barn cats?–that he might be beginning to lose his mind.

And I must warn you, that the concluding chapters of Appalachian Book of the Dead contain a veritable mountain picnic basket of surprises, that to talk very specifically about anything else that follows, seems like treading in some dangerous spoiler waters. But here are some questions: Will Ainsley realize her dreams of revitalizing her family’s mountain camp for girls? What might be the consequences of her brief and torrid interest in the old man and his interest in her? Why does the old man, Cal, who has been sober for seven years, ask Doyle, the caretaker of Camp Bee Tree, if he can score him some moonshine? Where is that murderous escaped convict? Who belongs here? Who does not? The pinnacle of the action in this novel, oddly enough, takes place around a kind of campfire gathering of the four main characters as they sit by a firing kiln that Doyle has engineered and constructed for Joy’s crazy pottery art. It is, perhaps, the single longest scene in the entire work–plenty of time to build steam. It is an absolutely wild ride from that point on. And answers are forthcoming, I promise. There’s some mighty karmic justice at work here in the end of Neal’s novel. It’s a satisfying ending, not much is left dangling. Appalachian Book of the Dead is a novel that brings together a lovely philosophical swirl of competing beliefs and values, an incredibly wicked landscape, and deep, vivid, believable, fully fleshed out characterization. Two thumbs up. If I had some more thumbs, I’d put them up as well.

I’d like to close, as I have over the last few episodes, with another poem by a friend of mine. On a personal note here, we’ve had significant rain in Portland, Oregon over the last few days for the first time in months. It’s been a warm, dry, summer. Fires are raging all over, but for us this year, the smoke has not reached us. The rain was welcome–and even though it’s been warm, all the autumn pyrotechnics are in full throttle. Before the sky opened up with precipitation, it was raining leaves and acorns from our giant oak trees. In a month’s time we will be buried in them. So my friend David Ruekberg, from his book Hour of the Green Light, has written this poem for the fall, “October Prayer.” It also seems fitting here today for a number of reasons. I’ll leave that open ended for you, dear listener, to play around with. From David Ruekberg’s Hour of the Green Light:

October Prayer

If a grey sky can be indicative
of a life lived in the long echo
of the snap of umbilical cord

and a farewell to the self of pure love
floating in a green light near the origins
of particle and wave,

then let leaves high in the maple
turning to their first autumn orange
be messengers of messengers

from the tallest, most foriegn
angels that death is waiting
for your next accident

and, no matter how cautious
you are, you will only ever
catch one glimpse.

Let the call of crow bobbing
in the pines be the ungainly ugliness
in your life that you must accept,

and let the digging in the yard for grubs
be your digging–acrid food
of your often-rehearsed regrets.

Crow gives way to silence
in which you hear
another kind of stirring.

Perhaps skies stretching,
preparing rain, watering
the suffering earth.

David Ruekberg

As a fiction writer, or essayist, I love poetry and in particular the poet’s close attention to the sentence. I just think that the most exquisite sentences in the English language can be found in poetry–and prose writers of all stripes, and writers, generally, whether they are pros or beginners, would do well to study the sentences of poets. I mean, this is kind of a wonky thing to talk about, but I love that the first five stanzas of this poem form a single, beautiful sentence, the next two stanzas form a single sentence, and then the last two stanzas each form their own, short little sentences, haiku-like. So this poem just has a beautiful shape, a funnel shape, or a kind of leaf-falling shape. But holy cow, more importantly and more beautifully is what the poem says–what it says about birth and death, what it says about a kind of welcoming acceptance to everything, about what is possible to hear or to understand in silence.

Thanks for reading, friends. Coming up next: I think we have to return to The Magic Mountain. Cheers!

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The Book I Read: Wisdom Lit, the Power of Allusion, Lincoln in the Bardo, and the President’s Hat

As a student of literature, always a beginner, and one interested in a wide variety of wisdom literature or philosophical texts, certain books of historical and literary significance have crossed my radar, have maybe even made it into the home library, but have never been read, you know, famous philosophical or spiritual texts like the Tao Te Ching or The Bhagavad Gita or, more modern texts–Gibran’s The Prophet, for example. Among these kinds of work I would include the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Until recently, even though I was aware of the title and its historical, cultural, and spiritual mega-importance, I had no idea what it was about. It turns out–it is, in short, about a place called The Bardo–which I will feebly attempt to describe in the progress of this entry. This word “bardo,” too, was new to me. Only recently was I introduced to the concept of the bardo by the songwriter, composer, and performance artist Laurie Anderson–a huge influence on me, by the way–since the late 80s she has helped shape me as a writer and a musician–being, as she is, one of the most successful artists (in my humble opinion) to bridge the literary and musical worlds. In 2015 Laurie Anderson wrote, directed and produced a film with an accompanying soundtrack album, “Heart of a Dog.” Here we are on dogs again! At any rate, her film is a meditation on a number of things: living in New York in the aftermath of 9/11, her midwestern childhood and early traumatic brushes with death, but primarily, the loving relationship and ultimate loss of her pet terrier Lola–and by thinly veiled metaphor–her loving relationship and ultimate loss of her husband, Lou Reed. Actually, I don’t know that the metaphor is thinly veiled at all, it’s pretty obscure–Reed’s name is mentioned not once in the film–but the film does close with perhaps one of his last recorded songs, the beautiful and haunting “Turning Time Around.” At any rate, at one point in her film, she imagines her beloved puppy in this place–not just as an exercise, but as part of her spiritual practice–her rat terrier Lola is in the bardo.*

Don’t worry, eventually, I will arrive at the George Saunders novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. I’m serving up this long preamble, in part, to kind of demonstrate what we do sometimes when we are faced, from the get-go, (from the title!) with an allusion that we don’t understand. What’s the bardo?–the first question a reader is going ask when they approach this thing–that is, if they do not have the requisite prior knowledge. And I talk about this with my students all the time regarding allusion. What’s are the consequences, for a reader, of not understanding an allusion? If Shakespeare’s character mentions a Greek myth, for example, one that you don’t know, are you completely out in the cold? Can you still move forward without that knowledge with full understanding? Maybe you can. I know that Greek Myth was an absolute hole in my education when I was reading Shakespeare for the first time–and somehow I managed not only to understand Shakespeare but to love him. Here’s the thing I say. If you come across an allusion, and you DO have the requisite prior knowledge, your understanding of the work is enriched, as is your appreciation for how interconnected human beings are by STORY; it is a thread that binds us all together.

So, what’s the bardo? Now, granted, this is, as I have confessed, a new one for me. I have not read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, but, through Laurie Anderson’s work and some time with the google machine, I have discovered that the bardo, according to Tibetan Buddhism, is a transitional space between one life and the next. When you die, you spend, according to Tibetan lore, 49 days in the bardo, at which point you are reincarnated into the next life. Granted, this is a cursory, a superficial definition. Our job then, is not to understand everything there is to know about the bardo in Tibetan Buddhist teachings, but rather, to simply describe the way it is revealed in George Saunders’ novel.

We can get to that in a minute. First, it might be important to establish, quickly, a historical context for the novel, and to describe somewhat the unique, the super-strange, the inventive way, and the very challenging way, this novel is put together. First, it’s February 20th, 1862, about 10 months into the American Civil War, and president Abraham Lincoln’s son, William, 11 years old, dies at home in bed of typhoid fever. And to provide, again quickly, the premise of the novel: William arrives, after his death, in the bardo–where an enormous cast of characters who already occupy this space, are serving out their time, and who become immersed in the drama and tragedy of William’s death and the effort to help him through this liminal space to the other side.

Stylistically, the storytelling method here is singular, unlike anything I’ve ever seen–breaking both with conventions and tradition of narrative fiction, it is a highly experimental work. While the entire novel is mostly delivered in short bursts of prose separated from other bursts by a break or double space, the story is revealed to us in essentially two ways. Some chapters, a full quarter of them, I’d say loosely, are collections of, what seems to me, quotes from primary texts from the era–histories, news articles, essays, op ed articles, letters, oral histories or interviews–and it appears that these pieces of text are recorded faithfully by Saunders without changes. So these are pieces that Saunders has not written, per se, but only selected and then arranged. So that, for example, in several chapters that describe a party the Lincolns host at the White House while 11 year old Willie is upstairs dying, the description, the narrative line, speech and commentary are all made up from these quotes from primary source documents–each one with an identifying source note afterwards. Miraculously, these quotes from this wide range of sources, in the way that Saunders has selected and arranged them, provide a coherent and compelling narrative–a cacophony of voices that nevertheless provide clarity.

The remaining chapters, the bulk of this novel, (and what could be decisively described as Saunders’ own imaginative work), are delivered as a kind of play. Each burst of prose in these sections, then, are delivered by characters who occupy the bardo–unlike a play, however, where the character’s name is placed before the line they speak, in this case the lines the characters speak are followed by the name of the character speaking. This provides a challenge for the reader–the choice between a temptation to look ahead to the end of the burst to identify the speaker, or, to read the speech without knowing who the speaker is, and thus, be kind of guessing all the time until you might be able to identify the voice even before you’re told whose voice it is! This is hardly an issue when the lines from characters are short and follow one another in rapid-fire succession as they often do–the attribution is right there. Identifying characters or not seems to be more of an issue when the characters are given long lines or paragraphs of prose. Does it matter? I think it does–because each of these speakers has been uniquely characterized–they all have their back stories, their histories, their quirks, their syntax and rhythms. Who are these people? One of the questions that I had, which was never satisfactorily answered, was whether the characters in the bardo are also historical figures–or–are they purely the fictional creations of the novelist. Without time for further digging, my gut tells me that the latter is the case here. Still–who are these people?

There’s a mess of them, from all walks of life, it appears, with no common denominator save for the fact that they’re all in the bardo–and oddly, somewhat oblivious to their “condition.” –but primarily, there are three main characters in this bardo cacophony (Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas), characters who take center stage, speak most often, interact with each other, seem to have established in the bardo a long-term relationship, take turns telling the story, each from their own unique perspective, and guide us, the readers, through the drama–while all the others, dozens of them perhaps, interrupt, introduce bizarre side stories or other kinds of historical revelation, sometimes help out, other times provide insight, often provide comic relief, absurdity, and sometimes, other windows into the horrors of the 19th century, slavery, the civil war, occurring in what the characters often call “that previous place.”

I fear that I could go on and on an on about this novel and only scratch the surface. As I write this thing, conscious of wanting to stay under 2000 words or so, or, 20 or 25 minutes on the clock, my brain just swims with possibility. And I fear leaving out something key–not in the way of a spoiler–because I want to be really conscious of avoiding those, but in the way of capturing the most important and striking features of this novel for me. You know what I think I’ll do–something I do often when stymied about how to proceed organizing big ideas? I’m gonna make a list:

Let’s begin with some observations about the bardo.

The people there seem to be unaware that they’re dead–

The people there, when they are not out and about, inhabit what they all refer to as “sick beds,” which seem, to me anyway, to be a unintentional euphemism for coffin. Unintentional, again, because these residents don’t seem to be aware of their true nature–

The bardo is full of these sick beds–which seems to indicate that the bardo is essentially a massive cemetery–that the people in the bardo have not really travelled that far from their resting place.

Many of the people in the bardo are in various stages of anguish, or self-torture–if one did not know better, you might say that many of them are in Hell–

Or, you might say that they are in a process of repeatedly acting out or experiencing some of their worldly defects or traumas–although, some appear to be content where they are–do not wish to leave.

The environment there seems prone to surreal and bizarre states–people physically mutating in grotesque ways, hats raining from the sky, people being mutilated in an act of violence and then miraculously repairing themselves.

People in the bardo (in this bardo, anyway) seem to have been there a lot longer than 49 days–so, either Saunders is breaking with that particular convention of Tibetan Buddhist belief, or, the residents of the bardo experience time in an excruciating and elongated way.

When someone leaves the bardo, the process is referred to somewhat crudely as the matterlightblooming phenomena. It’s quite something. Clearly, a process that is bewildering to the residents of the bardo.

One of the most exciting features of bardo existence, and one of the devices that moves this story along and provides us with an exhaustive knowledge about the star of the show–not the folks in the bardo, not the young dead 11 year old boy, but the president Abraham Lincoln–is that the folks in the bardo discover they have the ability to inhabit the bodies of others–living others–and dramatically in a few key passages, some of them–actually many of them, inhabit the body, and therefore the mind, of Abraham Lincoln, while he is visiting his dead son in the crypt.

And I guess I would like to stop here to say that for me the single most profound takeaway from this novel is that I feel like I know more about Abraham Lincoln than I ever have–I feel like I have had the privilege of inhabiting that incredibly monumental historic figure–and the central drama of this piece seems to be the inconceivable, incomprehensible burden of losing a child–coupled with the potential loss of a nation that is under one’s charge. Most of us cannot imagine the second–but all of us who are parents or who had parents (I think that’s most of us), can imagine what it might be like to lose a child–and this novel gives us that viscerally. As bizarre as this novel is in its subject and in the way of its telling, it is an incredibly moving, heart wrenching, heavy work. But I am so glad I finally pulled it off the shelf. And I can’t have been alone–again–as strange as it is, it became a best seller for George Saunders and catapulted to many lists of great books made by people who know things about great books.

In my last installment of The Book I Read, I was inspired to end the episode/entry with a poem written by a friend of mine. This seems like a good tradition. Last time, too, that choice didn’t come out left field, but was a logical decision–in that the friend’s book recommendation was wholly responsible for the content of that episode–and the poem I had chosen served as a fitting bookend to the general subject matter under discussion. I want to keep that tradition going–or at least–let it be a motif in this series.

My friend and poet Don Colburn has published a book of poems called Mortality with Pronoun Shifts. It is a brilliant collection of poems that serves as a meditation on, you guessed it, mortality–and while there are no poems specifically about the bardo, there are poems here about great historical figures, two 19th century figures to be precise, Henry David Thoreau and Abraham Lincoln. I’d like to close by sharing with you a poem by Don Colburn, “Abe Lincoln’s Hat”

Abe Lincoln’s Hat

at the Smithsonian Museum

Topper, stovepipe, smokestack, cylinder,
it made him seven inches taller
than he was (and he was tall)
and, at a distance, fashionable.
But here, dim-lit behind glass,
without a gangly, scrabble-bearded president
to dignify and heighten, it looks lost.
Unlike those who saw him, say, at Gettysburg,
I can look down on the hard flat top,
the rub of wear and weather, streaks
like rust, their grainy whorls
a time-lapse of the overbearing stars.
And see, barely, darkness on darkness,
the black silk band he added after Willie died.

Someone named Davis made this hat,
a modest seven-and-one-eighth,
stiff-walled oval pillbox on a plate,
no give or dimple in the plush.
He wore it last and doffed it last
the night they went to Ford’s, arriving late.
After cheers, after the orchestra struck up
Hail to the Chief, the play resumed, Act Three.
Hatless again, he folded his 6-foot-4
into the rocker in the presidential box,
his top hat by his feet, out of the way.

Don Colburn

Oh my god. Right? Lincoln’s hat is perfectly preserved. He probably wouldn’t have thought to leave it on his head while watching a play, but, you know, he could have fallen over on top of it after he was shot. But no–it’s “out of the way.” I love this poem. And it makes me think of what people leave behind after they’re gone, you know, people who aren’t presidents. And I can’t help but think about a musician friend of mine who recently died. I wonder where he put his bass guitar–whether it might be preserved. But he made music and he recorded music. Bob’s bass. Lincoln’s hat. Bob’s music. Lincoln’s hat. Hey Abe, say hello to Bob for me, in the bardo. Meanwhile, I will keep listening.

Here is a link to the podcast version of this blog entry

*I discovered today, that after Laurie Anderson’s 2015 “Heart of a Dog” film and album, in 2019, she released an album called “Songs from the Bardo.” I’m listening now for the first time–kind of embarrassed that it was not on my radar–but I’m thinking that this, for the uninitiated, might be a wonderful introduction to all things bardo–perhaps a more accessible route than tackling The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and one that might provide some insights ahead of time to the imagery Saunders incorporates into his novel Lincoln in the Bardo.

https://open.spotify.com/album/08D0Jby6PtRWX9io6dQamA?si=f9CBUAMoTXitR2VVVVLP6A&dl_branch=1

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The Book I Read: Podcasts (Apparently, They’re Not All That Easy To Do)

https://anchor.fm/michael-jarmer

Recently, Sara Silverman did a stint as a guest host on Jimmy Kimmel Live. One of the last bits in one of her monologues was an uproariously funny satire on the proliferation of podcasts in the world. It was brilliant. I laughed out loud, but it also made me seriously self-conscious. The bit was framed as a public service announcement warning of the podcast plague, a bonafide addiction that requires intervention: the pod squad. After this initial and somewhat violent interruption of forcibly removing the podcaster from their broadcasting desk, the pod squad offers group meetings, à la any 12 step program, where addicts learn “to be content without creating content.” I felt a little bit better at the sketch’s close, when, after saying that every podcast we get rid of makes the world a better place, Silverman tells us to check out her podcast “wherever you listen to podcasts” –before the pod squad takes her away as well. And I feel better, too, because her target (I hope) were folks who podcast about the debate over whether or not gazpacho is a soup or how to identify various balls by the way they sound bouncing on a desk. I’m not sure whether or not anybody in the world NEEDS my content, but at least, I feel like it might be providing something like a service–a content that is not, I hope, vapid, devoid of relevance, or lacking a viable audience.

Getting beyond the questions then, (do I need to be doing this? does this work have value beyond my own self-aggrandizement? is it serving a purpose or a need? might it be possible to do this professionally?), next there’s the technical issue of how and when to get it done.

I realized pretty quickly after deciding to get started (hooked in by the feature on WordPress that promises easy conversion through Anchor), that they are not really all that easy to do after all. I’ve written about my failed initial efforts in a previous entry, but eventually I did discover a way of skirting those preliminary difficulties by recording outside the Anchor environment altogether and then uploading the audio file. As of this writing, I have published a trailer and two episodes of The Book I Read podcast. Early responses have been positive–so I am encouraged, and I think I will continue as long as I have the momentum and the stamina–two things, I realize now, that will be required in this endeavor.

I have a suspicion that the folks out there who are doing professionally produced podcasts, ones that are viable and somewhat successful in reaching a wide audience, are probably doing this work in the context of a job. I mean, I don’t have a personally wide experience as a podcast listener, and I’m aware, as Sara Silverman says, there’s a million of them out there, but I have come across a few really great ones put out by folks in the sort of news/journalism realm of the arts and entertainment industry. I believe these folks are professionals who have serious support and a sizable chunk of time. Producing my first two episodes (especially given the approach to content I am taking), has required, first of all, to read a book all the way through, script a response to it, practice performing that script, actually recording it without or with minimal error, finding and editing the musical snippets to accompany the spoken bits, mixing it all together, uploading the file to the podcast cite, and then afterward, attempting to promote the thing. It takes time. I’m having fun, but I am beginning to worry that as the school year kicks in and I begin working again as a classroom teacher full time, my ability to keep up with near weekly episodes will be seriously hampered, if not stymied altogether.

There may be ways to make it easier, but none of those ways are appealing to me. Let me list a few. 1. I could create podcasts about, not new things I’ve read, but things I’ve read before. I could do podcasts about the books I am teaching. Both of these things seem like passable options, but not ones I’m particularly enthusiastic about. I want my response to be fresh and not studied. I want it to be as new for me as it might be to a listener. 2. Another option would be to improvise my response while recording. Sure, especially if I’m going for “fresh” and not “studied.” But I don’t know how skilled I am in extemporaneous spoken word performance to make this fly. While my responses, I think, have been fresh (in that they are NEW), there’s something about attempting to craft and wordsmith the script that, I think, makes it feel like some CARE has been taken, not just to say stuff, but to say it well. 3. I could have robot lady read my scripts for me! No. If you looked at the entry linked above, you will know how that worked out! 4. I could cut the music. No. I think it serves a purpose. It creates a vibe.

Conclusion: making a podcast is not easy. Save discussing the debate on soup and bouncing balls, improvising wildly, or utilizing the robot lady, I think making a quality thing just takes time. I hope I continue to have time for it. And I hope that soon I reach 50 individual listeners, at which point I understand that sponsorship possibilities open up for me. If that happens, I hope I have some choices and can make ads for things I actually value. For now, I will keep plugging away talking about books I’ve read, trying to broaden that audience, doing the best I can to streamline the process a bit. If you are still reading, you can help. Go to this link below, listen to the first two episodes, feel free to send me an encouraging word, share the links with your friends, and, if you can, support the podcast with a monthly donation. I’ve been out here shouting in the wilderness for a long time, it seems. It would be so lovely to know that my shouting has made some impact somewhere.

Much love and appreciation,

Michael Jarmer, Writer Guy

https://anchor.fm/michael-jarmer

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