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March 2014

Anybody seen this Noah movie?

I've read two reviews, one good, one bad. The former did as much as the latter to give me the impression that it's somewhere between bad and extremely bad. I also note that the usual Hollywood vs. Christians arguments seem to be going on: assorted mockers more or less daring Christians to be offended; Christians being offended; other Christians saying "Come, come, we don't want people to think we're fundamentalists." (Surely there are believing Jews who are complaining, too?) Someone suggested that religious people are being consciously baited in the media in order to get publicity for the movie, which is not implausible.

So--does anyone who's seen it have an opinion?

52 Guitars: Week 13

Alex de Grassi.

The term "New Age music" has long since become somewhat pejorative outside of the quasi-religious circles which supplied its name. But there was some very good music that more or less fit that category. There were three guitarists who appeared on the Windham Hill label (more or less synonymous with New Age)  in the late '70s and well into the '80s who were and are very widely admired: William Ackerman (the label's founder); Michael Hedges; and Ackerman's cousin, Alex de Grassi.

de Grassi's Slow Circle was the first of these I heard, and I think still my favorite. If I remember correctly, I bought it in a guitar shop mainly because I was intrigued by the cover. Which sounds a bit odd now, so maybe I don't remember correctly--perhaps there was also something I'd read, or a recommendation from the shop. That would have been around 1980 or 1981. I'm pretty sure I had not heard the term "New Age" and would probably not have found it appealing if I had.

What I do remember very clearly is that I loved the music. de Grassi has an unusual style constructed of arpeggios that move in a sort of slowly flowing dance. The harmonies are somewhat atypical for guitar, at least for non-classical guitar, enabled by non-standard tunings.  I haven't heard the album for many years, but I found on listening to these clips--the first and last tracks from Slow Circle--that they sound as fresh and wonderful as they did more than thirty years ago. I'm afraid the sound quality on these live performances isn't so great; the guitar sounds a bit wobbly. That's too bad because the sound of the LP is stunning. I must delve into the closet where the LPs reside behind a rack of coats and listen to it again.




My apologies to midwesterners who at the moment probably regard snow with horror. Clearly de Grassi was thinking of a welcomed snowfall.

Slow Circle is out of print. Windham Hill was bought by BMG some years ago, and holds the rights to this and other Windham Hill recordings. I learn from de Grassi's web site that BMG won't reissue the recordings, and they won't relinquish the rights. Nice folks. I would be pretty enraged if I were one of the artists whose work had been made inaccessible that way. Amazon shows used copies of the LP at reasonable prices, of the CD at not-so-reasonable ones: 


Some People Think Tolkien Is Boring

And difficult.

I had a surprising, if not startling, conversation a couple of weeks ago with several younger people, by which I mean people in their 30s. All three of them (I think there were only three) were of the opinion that Tolkien is a very boring writer. They had tried to read The Lord of the Rings and either given up on it or slogged through till the end without, as far as I could tell, any great enjoyment. One allowed that if you could force yourself to get past the early chapters it became more interesting.

I was fairly close to speechless; "horror-stricken" is not much of an exaggeration. There are two kinds of people from whom I would have expected that sort of reaction: those for whom any very demanding book would be too much, and those whose taste in literature is for the naturalistic and who find both Tolkien's imaginary world and his style silly and juvenile. I've known people both sorts, and I understand their reactions, even if I don't share them.

But these are intelligent people who read a lot; one of them races through dense works on theology and liturgy that would put me to sleep, or perhaps make my head hurt; another is a graduate of a rather demanding math-and-science oriented college. And all of them read fantasy and science-fiction by other writers: for instance, more or less the complete works of Orson Scott Card, who although he is not Tolkien is not a simplistic writer.

I don't get it. I find it hard to imagine reading more than a few pages of The Lord of the Rings and not wanting to plunge ahead with all speed. I seem to remember that I didn't take quite as readily to The Hobbit, because it seemed more of a children's story, but it didn't take long for me to be fully caught up in it.

What baffles me most is the opinion of a pretty literate person that Tolkien is somehow demanding--that his style requires effort, and his storytelling is dull. Personally I can't think of many books that gave me more pure pleasure in the reading than The Lord of the Rings. I'm tempted to blame movies, TV, the Internet and most particularly the Tolkien movies for making the younger generation unable to appreciate the books. But there are plenty of young people who do appreciate them.

At least I think there are.

At least I hope there are.

I mean, I know of a few, but....


I didn't know about this; missed it by three days. Appropriate that it's the feast of the Annunciation.


A Disturbing Line of Argument

In the Hobby Lobby case:

Justice Elena Kagan also vigorously defended the coverage rule, arguing that Hobby Lobby and Conestoga were not being forced to provide insurance coverage and could simply choose not to by paying $2,000 per year per employee—an amount far lower than the cost of health insurance.

We're not going to force you to do anything. You're perfectly free to choose to be punished rather than to obey.

More here.

The Brothers Karamazov

I finally finished it a week or so ago. Here are a few reactions, certainly not intended as any sort of presumptuous "review" of a book almost universally acknowledged to be one of the great literary monuments, but simply a record of my immediate impressions. I'm not making an attempt to summarize the plot, either, as I assume most people reading this blog have either read the book or intend to read it, and if you do want a summary it's easy enough to find one. Suffice to say that it is the story of three, possibly four, sons of one rather wicked father and two, possibly three, mothers, and that one of the brothers is a rowdy hedonist (albeit with a strong sense of honor), one an intellectual with nihilist leanings, and one a Christian.

A friend who had recently re-read it said: "So many of the characters seemed just barely sane." Just now, wanting to quote him exactly, I searched for the email message, and turned up one from another friend saying almost the same thing: "I think about 90% of Doestoevsky's characters are insane." (The two remarks had fused in my mind into one: "Almost every character is just barely sane" was what I recalled.) Moreover, the first friend had followed his remark with "Fevered is the word I kept thinking." And the second friend had followed hers with "I'm not sure I could stand to be in the same room with them for very long."

Well, that makes three of us who are more or less of the same mind. I think hardly a page of Brothers passed without the phrase "just barely sane" coming into my mind. At the time of the discussions above I had just read Crime and Punishment, and had a similar reaction. In both cases my engagement with the narrative was hampered by the fact that the characters so often seemed opaque to me, their motivations obscure and their actions almost random (Raskolnikov's motives an exception, of course).

I liked and admired Brothers rather more than Crime. Part of the reason, I think--a relatively small but significant part--is a difference in translation. I had read the latter in the Constance Garnett translation, which was the standard for many years, and the former in the Peaver/Volokhonsky one which seems to be the current favorite, and seems to me more lively and vivid. I found myself at times in Crime and Punishment having to push myself forward, but that was not the case with The Brothers, though its sheer length and my limited time for reading made it a long haul.

One of the blurbs on the cover, from the New York Times, asserts of this translation that "One finally gets the musical whole of Dostoevsky's original." Well, I don't know about that, obviously, but I can say that if it's true then Dostoevsky is not a very musical writer. At least in English, he is not a writer to be read for his style. His prose is more energetic than beautiful, and in itself is somewhat on the plain side--I almost said "drab," but it's livelier than that. I found myself wishing, absurdly, that he had written in English. I took longer than I should have to finish Brothers--I began it sometime late last fall, was halfway through around Christmas, and then got distracted for some time, during which I read Wuthering Heights (a novel which shares a bit of Dostoevsky's madness), rather quickly and with more pleasure in the immediate act of reading. And I think the difference lay in the color and texture of Emily Bronte's English. It's not that she has an extraordinary style, the sort that makes the reader stop and take notice, but simply that it has a richness and a music which were characteristic of literary English at the time. 

In short, there is a decided sense of foreignness in The Brothers Karamazov. And not only foreignness, but strangeness in a sort of absolute sense: it is, you might say, objectively strange. Is that Dostoevsky's own personal eccentricity, or is it something in the Russian soul at large? There must be something in the latter notion, because surely everyone who reads this book, whether his opinion be high or low, would agree that it is if nothing else very Russian.

It's been too long since I read a novel by any other Russian for me to make a comparison, but I don't think they are all as partly mad as Dostoevsky. Of Tolstoy I've only read Anna Karenina, and that was many years ago--around the same time as my first reading of The Brothers Karamazov, in fact--but I don't remember thinking that its people were crazy.

All this seems somewhat negative, I know, and perhaps it indicates a bit of frustration that I wanted to like it more than I did--I mean "like" in the immediate and almost sensual sense, of taking pleasure in the prose and being avid to follow the story. But these reservations and complaints are minor in relation to an overall enthusiasm: it is a great work, in every sense. It did, and does, fascinate me, and it continues to be very much on my mind. Much of its greatness lies in the sheer force of its ideas. Not many novels treat such powerful and elemental ideas with such profundity. Like Nietzche, and as far as I know like no one else of comparable genius, Dostoevsky understood what was at stake in the struggle between belief and unbelief that has characterized Christian civilization for the past couple of centuries. He understood that a post-Christian society would not be simply and innocently non-Christian, but something considerably darker. 

I'm on a personal mission to read all the classics I've never read (or read long ago and have partly forgotten), which, given their number and my age, means that many of them will not get another reading. The Brothers Karamazov probably will. In fact, on finishing it I considered turning immediately back to page one. But I'm going to turn instead to Devils, known in earlier translations as The Possessed, also in the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation, and which I also read in my early twenties and don't recall very clearly.

And then perhaps on to War and Peace. These Russians are really pretty fascinating.

52 Guitars: Week 12

Paul Galbraith and his amazing 8-string guitar, nicknamed "the Brahms guitar," because Galbraith developed the idea in order to be able to transcribe and play a Brahms piano work more effectively. I wasn't able to find the Brahms piece on YouTube, but here is a beautiful Bach prelude. And the video, which seems to have been produced by Mr. Galbraith, is very well-done, giving us a good look at the instrument, the unique (as far as I know) position in which it is played, and the performance itself.


Many (many) years ago I had an LP by Julian Bream called 20th Century Guitar, and I especially liked a long piece by Benjamin Britten on it, "Nocturnal, after John Dowland." The LP escaped me somehow long ago, and I've had my eye out for a CD reissue for a long time, but it only materialized recently--as part of a 40-CD set of Bream's complete recordings. Fortunately, the set is available on Rdio, so I was able, finally, to hear the piece for the first time in something close to 40 years. Almost immediately afterward, I discovered Galbraith's recording. And I think I may like it better. It's an angular, astringent, "modern," work, based, in ways too esoteric for my limited musical sense to grasp, on a song by the Elizabethan composer John Dowland, which in more or less its original form concludes the piece.


I see on Wikipedia that it was written for Bream in 1963, and is highly regarded, as well it should be. You can read more about the guitar, and the artist, at Galbraith's web site.

His Incarnation now, in us, is in the suffering world as it is. It is not reserved for a utopia that will never be; it does not differ from his first coming in Bethlehem, his birth in squalor, in dire poverty, in a strange city. It is the same birth here and now. There is Incarnation always, everywhere.

--Caryll Houselander

Lent At The Three Prayers

I went into Lent as usual, like a dog running on a hardwood floor and trying to make a sudden turn--feet slipping wildly, head making the turn while the rest of the body swings out, trying to continue in the original direction. I have managed to sustain a couple of disciplines, so it hasn't been a total failure. But I didn't have a plan for this blog until a week into Lent, and a work crunch of the sort that often happens every few weeks or so has kept me from doing any of the posts I had in mind (and I'm trying hard to contain the venomous remarks about politics and related matters that are provoked every day by something I read).

Janet Cupo, however, at The Three Prayers, is doing considerably better. She was going to post something every day at Lent, and although I think she's missed a couple has done very well at it. More importantly, she's writing some good stuff, very good reading for Lent, and any other time. Try this post, or this one.

52 Guitars: Week 11

John Williams. 

Serious classical guitar aficionados may think this piece overexposed, but I'm going to bet that most readers of this blog haven't heard it that often. And it's very beautiful, as well as technically impressive: "Recuerdos de la Alhambra" ("Memories of the Alhambra"), by Francisco Tárrega.


I mentioned last week that I had once given away a cd of Christopher Parkening playing Vivaldi lute concertos (on guitar) because it seemed to lack something. A couple of these concertos, along with one or two for mandolin, were among the first classical music I ever came to love, and mentioning them made me want to hear them again. So here's Williams doing one. I like this performance better. Thinking back on it, I believe part of the problem with the Parkening recording was that the orchestra was too big and lush. Williams plays here with a very small ensemble, and it works better with the guitar. This video is visually enjoyable, too, for the setting. I believe it's from a dvd called The Seville Concert. Instrumentally the concerto is not a great showpiece, but it's very enjoyable. And deservedly popular: you may well recognize the music even if you don't recognize the title. 


Want to hear that concerto on an actual lute? It sounds a bit smaller and brighter than the guitar, with a distinctive resonance. This performance seems rather...caffeinated, and  almost abrasive in comparison to the one above, but I like it, too.