Monday, April 27, 2009

Reading Together The Razor's Edge

In the next eight weeks, I am going to read again one of my favorite books, which I associate closely with Katie, W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge.  It is the story of several friends' attempts to find enlightenment and meaning in life by following different paths through the 1920s and 1930s. The central character (as imagined in the 1984 film adaptation starring Bill Murray) is Lawrence "Larry" Darrell, a socialite drifter whose tragic experiences during World War I lead him on a reclusive path across the world, while reading much of what we might now find in translation in the Norton Anthology of World Literature.  Here is a link about Maugham's life and here is a brief summary of the novel's plot.  The title of the novel comes from Isherwood's translation of The Upanishads, by way of an interesting story:

"The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over;
thus the wise say the Path to salvation is hard."
--"Katha-Upanishad" (Chapter 3, Verse 14, 1.iii.14)

If you'd like to read along with me, I will be reading roughly a chapter a week, and writing some commentary each Friday.  I'd love to hear what other people think of this book, its plot, characters, and thinking, though I guess I'm not really looking for treatises on Maugham's shortcomings as a novelist, thinker, etc. (mostly positive stuff, here).  The book is unusually organized with few chapters and many sub-chapters.  Roughly, I will try to read and respond to the following sections by the following dates:

Friday, May 8 - Chapters 1

Friday, May 15 - Chapter 2

Friday, May 22 - Chapter 3

Friday, May 29 - Chapter 4

Friday, June 5 - Chapter 5 (i-viii)

Friday, June 12 - Chapter 5 (viii-ix) and Chapter 6 (i-vii)

Friday, June 19 - Chapter 6 (vii-viii) and Chapter 7

Hope to hear from, and read with, any of you who are interested to do so!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Promised Land

I have arrived finally to the Bruce Springsteen party, with all the full affection, admiration, and exaltation of someone who wants to make up for lost time.  I come by my enthusiasm honestly (if unremarkably).  Like everyone else I grew up on the Greatest Hits.  But only later, at FIU, did I learn the finer points of Boss Apocrypha from (Miami) Mike Creeden, whose steel-trap mind can parse the legend and the man better even than Fred Schruers or Jon Landau.  I stood two weeks ago with my buddy Joe (and his gal, Justine) at the San Jose Pavilion and watched the kickoff show of the Working on a Dream Tour, which went on for three-and-a-half heartstoppin', pants-droppin', Earth-shockin', hard-rockin', booty shakin', earthquakin', love-makin', Viagra-takin', history-makin', legendary hours of E Street Band exceptionality.  In addition to having perhaps the best back catalogue this side of The Beatles, Springsteen does one thing better than anyone else working in the arts today: the man plays his heart out, and what he plays is meticulous, sincere, passionate, diverse, and incredibly well-orchestrated.  Not a moment of the gospel-tent-show mania goes off with a hitch.  A Springsteen live show rattles something deep inside the chest.  It creates a sense of communion with strangers, a feeling of optimism about the world and its inhabitants, it embodies age-old ideals that feel fresh and reborn in Springsteen's songs.  For someone who has lived most of his life by the mantra, "it'll never sound better than it does in the studio," a live Springsteen show embodies that quasi-religious, transformative feeling long made dormant by our ironic and self-first age: Hope.

In the current issue of The Paris Review, Kay Ryan gives an interview the likes of which I've rarely seen on the contemporary American poetry scene.  Ryan is a deeply talented and impressive poet, whose frank lines are mirrored in the perspective she offers about poetry in the discussion. (I paraphrase)  Did you crave success?  Oh yes, desperately.  Do you write every day?  No.  I sometimes take long periods of time off from writing to shingle my roof.  Do you enjoy poetry readings?  I enjoy reading my own poems out loud.  I don't enjoy hearing other people read their poems.  (Me again here:) There's something of a contradiction in contemporary poetry, I think, in that poets are expected to be both encyclopedically-informed scholars and also detached bards whose minds are kept clear to perceive, record, and transform the world around them.  Ryan's answers are too well-informed to not have a good portion of the former, but she also has kept things well enough in order to do the latter.  A poet recently pointed out that the advent of psychotherapy in the early 20th century created a new field for poetic thought.  No longer was the mind just a vehicle for receiving the divine will of nature; now, the thing itself was worthy of scrutiny, could be calibrated, and in doing so the act of perceiving became a subject to explore.  There is a kind of inward turn in contemporary poetry that makes sense, but that seems to sometimes exclude ideas about consensus and community.  No wonder, I guess, that even the poets sometimes find catharsis in rock arenas.

Cait and I went to a nearby wine bar last Friday, sat down with our wedding to-do list, and over the course of a few hours (and a few glasses of wine), made an organized first run through everything that needs to get done before the July 11th wedding.  Off the list, now, are the bounce house, taco truck, and Barack Obama cut-out that was to stand-in as one of the groomsmen.  New to the list are things like hiring a real photographer, cleaning up the fish pond, and figuring out who will watch the cats during the honeymoon.  Fun holdovers about which we're still excited, that continue to make the cut, include the candy table, a Western swing band, and Cait-family-planned catering, flowers, cakes, monogrammed stickers, and gardens.  Two other good details: Cait's nephew who calls us "The Marriagers" has firmly committed to wearing his Superman costume while serving as part of the "flower herd" but worries he might throw the flowers really hard at people.  And, our friend Eric has written the first song of what looks to be an excellent revival of the Peace Corps musical spectacular tradition.

I have been listening on iTunes download to the audiobook of "Live From New York," the oral (and uncensored) history of Saturday Night Live, which was published a few years back.  It's fascinating to hear how the show came together and what it did to change television.  But more interesting to me is the sense that no one on the show had any real idea, until after the fact, that SNL was a success, save its creator, who either made a huge gamble or understood something no one else did (probably a mix of both).  After the first show, before seeing any ratings returns, etc., Lorne Michaels walked up to a colleague and simply announced, "Well, I guess it's a hit," and then acted on the assumption that it was a hit until it became one several shows later.  There seems to be, there, something of a historical pattern.  I have been listening regularly to the How Stuff Works podcasts--Stuff You Missed In History Class and Stuff You Should Know--for the last few months.  While they may never usurp my favorite podcasts (NPR: It's All Politics, Slate Political Gabfest, Diane Rehm Show Friday News Roundup, NPR: Only A Game), it seems that more than a smattering of historical and cultural moments follow this same kind of logic: why the Spanish-American War began; how Ponzi schemes work; what the Special Forces do; and, how the USA and USSR have historically negotiated arms reductions. 

Springsteen's The Rising is an album I have listened to repeatedly in the last five years, as a source of strength in difficult times.  Especially, "Lonesome Day" always gives me a sense that I can handle what I need to handle, that fear and failure are only one part of being alive.  Mike Creeden burned The Rising for Katie and me, and we used to listen to it driving up to my folks' place in Stuart.  Or, we'd listen to the first three songs.  I remember that Katie used to insist on changing the album after that, saying that listening to the album (which she liked) just flat-out exhausted her.  Considering how many key changes, power chords, and frank assessments occupy that album, it makes sense to take it in in small doses.  Springsteen wrote The Rising as an album-length response to the epic loss of the September 11th attacks, and there's something both unique to that moment about the album, as well as something more universal.  Like Jack Gilbert, Springsteen seems to have honed his craft with an eye toward the "big" ideas that are excluded from much writing and music today, and so it makes sense that he wrote powerful, balm-like stuff for an occasion of national tragedy and collective mourning.

There are two Springsteen classics that I can't stop listening to, both from the 1978 album, Darkness on the Edge of Town (I have it on good authority from both Miami Mike and Joe that "Darkness..." is perhaps Springsteen's best album), "Promised Land" and "Badlands."  Both are optimistic, full-hearted anthems about enduring hard situations and finding in them hope.  I'm making the hour-long drive to campus three times a week this quarter, and often find myself alternating repeats of each song with excerpts from the SNL book.  The experience makes for a strange intertwining of late 1970s-era underdog stories.  There's this frequently-told story (that I first heard from Mike) in which Springsteen was approached to make an appearance in a documentary film about nuclear proliferation in the early 80s and he refused, saying he wished that the film looked more like Scorcese's Mean Streets.  I wonder sometimes if, among so much prosperity, we've inured ourselves to the kind of tensions that permit the flourishing of writing and the arts.  Given the economic ambiguity of these times, I also wonder if there isn't on our own horizon some inevitable creative fracturing that will release new creative energy.  If so, here's hoping that poetry starts to sell out some arenas.  Short of that, here's hoping the E Street Band keeps bringing to town its revivalist rock shows, long after our current hard times have (we hope) passed on.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Kayla's Visit

Kayla Yearout, my niece and blogger extraordinaire, came out west from Wisconsin for a visit last weekend. Traveling by herself, braving 4+ hour plane rides, the harsh San Francisco winter, and the profound contrasts of sunny California, Kayla took it all in stride and we had a great time in the Bay Area, visiting Stanford, Dolores Park, the Metreon Theater, the farmer's market at the Ferry Building, Union Square, Chinatown, North Beach, Crissy Field, and last but certainly not least, the community gardens behind my building and Faye's espresso and video store, where we bought the Sunday NY Times before sending Kayla back home for the last week of school before spring break. It was a whirlwind, wonderful weekend, and I'm posting some of the photos from our visit together below.