Monday, May 29, 2006

A Week of Torpor

Torpor, great word that. Hot Humid and not much doing. Had to turn the air-conditioning on before the end of May. Nasty. Finished reading THE SIXTEEN PLEASURES by Robert Hellenga. That's three of his four novels in the last month. It tracks inbetween FALL OF A SPARROW and PHILOSOPHY MADE SIMPLE in both quality and interest for me. The character of Rudy in PHILOSOPHY MADE SIMPLE just seemed so real and close that there were times when I could imagine myself in his shoes. In THE SIXTEEN PLEASURES our heroine is a young book conservator having pangs of the heart and soul during the great flood of 1966 in Florence, Italy. There is not quite as much empathy for her in my bones. It's a good book; better, I believe than FALL OF A SPARROW, as it doesn't force the plot coincidences quite as much.

A nice little article on souvenir collection caught my eye. Check it out. As I read it I looked around my study. There was my Tudor London Map poster, my plastic Shakespeare doll, my Japanese mask refrigerator magnet, Guiness sign and phony Anasazi canyon wall painting. The fake Egyptian papyrus is downstairs.

Son David just celebrated the fourth year of his Minneapolis web site called How Was the Read all about it if you wish.

Thanks to every veteran on this Memorial Day. Whether one agrees with an individual war or not, the people who are being shot at deserve every ounce of our respect. A bullet has no politics.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Books and Bits

The fight to save the Theatre Museum in London has been partially successful. THE STAGE reports a stay of execution for a time while various interests, including the Royal Opera House, talk about potential solutions. We wish them well.

Have polished off a couple more books this week. THIS JUST IN by Bob Schieffer, the CBS newsman was a little twenty five cent purchase from the Warren County Library and is a pleasant trip through the last 30 years of CBS. Schieffer has never been a major player like Dan or Walter, but he has been a solid and reliable presence. The book is much the same. It is solid, pleasant, unasuming, occasionally droll and offers ultimately nothing much new. Good light history.

The other book was a bit heavier. Monmouth College's former president Bruce Haywood has written a commentary on the state of American liberal arts education titled, THE ESSENTIAL COLLEGE. It essentially chronicles his career at Kenyon College prior to his assuming the presidency of Monmouth in 1980, but the reach is far more extensive and does make a compelling case against some of the more outrageous excesses of the Viet Nam era and of their resultant impact on modern educational institutions.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Hellenga Appears at OFTA and Library

Bob Hellenga, long time professor of English at Knox College and nationally recognized author of four novels, made appearances at the Buchanan Center for the Arts and the Warren County Library in the past week. Over thirty people at each venue were treated to readings from his latest book, PHILOSOPHY MADE SIMPLE. Its main character, Rudy Harrington, is a retired produce seller who has lost a wife and is now seeking answers to the mystery of life by purchasing a Texas avocado grove. It is a superbly written, thoughtful, and delightful book that should resonate with anyone--but particularly with retirees. Rudy, like many aging Americans, has given up his job long before his mind or his feelings have stopped. In the course of getting his new farm into production, Harrington meets a series of fascinating characters, but his relationship with a remarkable elephant named Norma Jean is the one that stands out. Local Monmouth folks know that Norma Jean was a real circus elephant whose grave lies about fifteen miles from here in the Mississippi river community of Oquawka,IL. There is no evidence that the real Norma Jean created abstract art paintings like the one in PHILOSOPHY MADE SIMPLE, but according to Hellenga there is ample evidence that elephants have done so. For his final reading Hellenga read a part of a chapter where Rudy sings a Blues melody to the sad elephant whose Russian master has disappeared. The frosting came when the author got out his guitar and sang the song for us.

Bob Hellenga is a charming and talented guy. If you can't spend an evening with him for real, do get a copy of his book. You'll enjoy it.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


We are back in the gracious company of Mma. Ramotswe, her family, and her friends at the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency in Botswana. In short order Mma. puts to right a series of life's problems with a dash of elan, a sprinkle of philosophy, a dollop of white lies, a spoonful of common sense, and a gallon or two of bush tea. When it is over the snake has been corralled, the fear mitigated, the blackmailer cowed, the medical shyster exposed, and a marriage is back on track. In McCall-Smith's world the villains just seem to melt under the beneficent umbrella of Mma. Ramotswe's "traditional" presence. God is revered; the sun bakes down, and our faith in humanity is renewed. It only takes an hour or two, but it is mighty good for the soul.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Some Pictures from Arches National Monument

North and South Window looking like a huge flying eagle

Canyonlands Vista 
The Bloom of the Prince's Plume
A prickly pear close up
On the Devil's Garden Trail
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I have just finished a book that makes me despair of ever writing another word.  Edward Abbey’s DESERT SOLITAIRE is about as evocatively written as anything can be.  It sings, it makes me yearn to go back to Arches National Monument and see what we missed, while it also makes me realize that what we missed was already going missing in the late 1950’s when Abbey spend the summer there as a Park Ranger. The best that can be said from the vantage point of 2006 is that some of it is still there even if now it is well beyond the paved roads and hook-up campgrounds with asphalt pads, gas grills, and hot showers.  

I need to explore Abbey more fully. He has written a number of books and a quick Google has also disclosed that this maverick environmentalist, poet, and poseur has inspired at least two biographers. Like Mark Felt (BobWoodward’s “Deep Throat) Abbey was apparently a man of multiple contradictions.   

This book was deeply satisfying in the sense that it describes in loving detail some parts of the country that my wife and I traveled through in the past two years.  Moab, Arches, Canyonlands,  Capitol Reef, Dead Horse Point, the La Sal mountains, and Glen Canyon are all there and seen in an almost pristine state--a state that they shall never return to.  Abbey's litany is “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, as vital to our lives  as water and good bread.”    Though he would gaze with distain at my photos of these places, I found great pleasure in returning to them after reading the book. A number of those pictures will appear in the next entry.

A constant counterpoint to Abbey's love of the natural world of the desert was his clear hostility to the encroaching hordes of tourists who he is sure will dilute and then destroy forever the land around them.  “Industrial tourism” is the coming villain and it will accelerate with every new paved road and overlook parking lot. Abbey sees the “motorized tourist”  as a double victim.  He claims they are “being robbed and robbing themselves” simultaneously.   They must be pried out of their cars, but when they are set loose they often turn into that dreadful species--“Slobivius Americanus.” When asked by some of these creatures what he does for amusement in the park, he says with a smile on his face that he "talks to the tourists." They laugh and he cringes inside for he has told them an awful truth that they cannot see through from the interior of their wheeled metal boxes. Sometimes he boils completely over. There is an echo of Jonathan Swift when he opines that we need more coyotes not more domesticated pets.  He would have all dogs ground into hamburger and fed to the coyotes.  

The latter part of the volume is tinged with sadness. Part of this is the natural sequence of seasonal change from spring, when he takes up his post at the Ranger Station, to the fall when he must leave in front of the cold winds of the fast approaching winter. This is neatly attenuated with the larger losses that the increased traffic and development will bring to the area. The key example is found in his chapter devoted to a trip down Glen Canyon just as the huge dam project is beginning. He foresees clearly that the six mile hike to Rainbow Bridge will become just another “geologic oddity” to be pointed out by the captain as the tour boat cruises by. He missed his prediction only by a bit. On our trip two years ago, the tour guide apologized because the drought had lowered the water level in the ironically named Lake Powell so far that what had been only a ten minute walk a few years ago was now a trek of over a mile. Fifty years ago Abbey noted that a wise man had said, “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare, . . . If so, what happens to excellence when we eliminate the difficulty and the rarity?”   

And so the idyll ends. As he opens his eyes one chilly fall morning he sees that “The old moon, like a worn and ancient coin, is still hanging in the west when I awake.” It pressages the final cold, dispassionate, and timeless message. “Whether we live or die is a matter of absolutely no concern whatsoever to the desert.” 

Friday, May 12, 2006


Bob Woodward’s new book THE SECRET MAN, finally tells his side of the story of “Deep Throat” and Watergate. He identifies “Deep Throat” as Mark Felt, who was the number two man at the FBI during the early 70’s. Like Yogi Berra, Felt has spent a good portion of the years since Watergate saying “I never said most of the things I said.” He is still alive, though now suffering from severe dementia, but has at least obliquely owned up. For that and other reasons covered in the book, he remains an enigma. Toward the end of his story Woodward rues, “I am disappointed and a little angry at both myself and him for never digging out a more exacting explanation, a clearer statement of his reasoning and motivation.” The answer, he opines, may lie in the definition of personality as offered by Peter Gay, one of Sigmund Freud’s biographers, who wrote that personality was not “the resolution of an individual’s various impulses but rather the organization of those impulses.” You can’t always conquer your less noble traits, but you can hope to have them dominated by your more admirable ones. A human being’s total essence will always contain multiple contradictions. Felt, says Woodward, is a classic example of that contention and will no doubt forever challenge the speculative imaginations of future historians.

It’s a quick read and brought back some memories for me.

An additional short passage that caught my eye was the mention of an old reporter’s truism that, “All good work was done in defiance of management.” I’ve heard lots of faculty members say that in reference to college deans or presidents as well.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

London Still on My Mind

I have just finished a slow slog (but still an appealing one) through John Morris’ Londinium: London and the Roman Empire. It was first published in the early eighties; the paper edition I used was found at the bottom of a bin at a book barn in Cedar Rapids. The print was small and the details got too precise for my taste (or my limited background) at times, but there was also a fascination with the way the book brought known events into confluence with archaeology and analogical social behavior to develop a picture of the way in which a country was enveloped and a city developed by a conquering force. We discover that the plotting of coin finds enabled scholars to locate the routes of Roman roads and who lived along them and where and when. We discovered how geology determined the ford points for the invading armies and ultimately the location of defensive works, then settlements, and finally whole cities. Morris writes with scholarly thoroughness and yet somehow retains a sense of humanity and compassion for the many nameless souls whose lives went unrecorded except as revealed by their scattered detritus, building stones, and bones. A most pleasant and pleasurable read.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Open Road

Great article in recent New Yorker
about the evolution of mapping. With GPS and various internet sites more and more people can get somewhere and still not know where they are. I have noticed this long ago when I set out to write my London Theatre Walks book. If you take the tube in London (or any Metro or Subway) you get to your destination, but you have no idea what was inbetween your entrance and your exit from the earth. The sense of contiguity and movement has been replaced by a picture of isolated pockets with nothing at all around them. This is made even more ironic by the internet generation's potential to reach any place instantaneously and yet not know how to locate it. The Chicago Tribune the other day had another survey of young people and noted that in spite of the constant volume of information on Katrina over a third of the kids surveyed could not find New Orleans or Louisiana on a map.