Origin by Dan Brown: an audiobook review

After a murder in an art museum, Harvard symbolist, Robert Langdon, and a younger woman find themselves on the run from the police, who consider them persons of interest. They are also pursued by members of a shadowy organization who think they know too much. Langdon and his companion must decipher arcane clues to solve a puzzle which will prove their innocence and reveal important truths to the world.

No, I’m not having a flashback to Brown’s breakout novel, The DaVinci Code (2003), a riveting mystery-thriller that had me up until 2:00am on work nights until it was finished. Brown’s recently published Origin uses the same structure to reasonably good effect, though I never stayed up late to finish it.

Somewhere along the line, probably after The Lost Symbol (2009), I stopped reading Brown, finding his “thrills of the chase” could not overcome such glaring liabilities as two-dimensional villains, interminable data-dumps, and his seeming attempts to fuse the genres of thriller and travel guidebook.

For this venture back into Brown’s work, I chose an audiobook (a good move) which Mary and I listened to on a sojourn to Yosemite. Origin was a good listen while driving and during the cold and sometimes rainy evenings. It also posed intriguing questions about this point in history and emerging trends.

(Spoiler Alert)

Continue reading

California Writer’s Club, Sacramento – monthly breakfast meeting this Friday

The Sacramento branch of the California Writer’s Club will host a breakfast at Coco’s, in Citrus Heights this Friday, from 9:00 – 1100 am. Featured speaker will be author Barbara Link, who will discuss “Creating Compelling Characters.”

Details are here: CWC First Friday Network

Happy Fourth of July

The Star Spangled Banner, Currier and Ives, undated.

In a recent NPR/PBS/Marist poll, only 77% of Americans correctly identified Great Britain as the country we declared independence from on July 4. Fewer (70%) knew that we did so in 1776.

Aside from what that says about our “informed electorate,” it’s a shame because history, in all it’s messy complexity, becomes more fascinating to me as time goes on.

I was not that interested in colonial American history until I came upon Benson Bobrick’s superb history of the revolution, Angel In the Whirlwind, 2011. In contrast to the present, Bobrick notes that colonial citizenry was generally well informed on matters of politics.

Lest we grow nostalgic for such “good old days,” when (white) men were men, and nobody else had any rights, we can look at another fascinating history, Drinking in America: Our Secret History, by Susan Cheever. We learn that the “shot heard round the world” in 1775 may have been fired by a farmer who was three sheets to the wind. The “minute men” had gathered at 5:30 that morning, at the tavern on Concord green, and by the time the British arrived more than four hours later, they had downed a fair amount of ale.

In a related tidbit, Bobrick says the original duty of congressional pages was to keep the beer steins of our legislators filled. Since reading that, I’ve wondered how many brewskis John Hancock had downed when he famously said, “I’ll sign my name so large that King George will be able to read it without his spectacles.”

This Fourth of July finds most us, I suspect, without the stomach for the usual flag waving piety. Piety is a siren song that traps us into believing our own PR and turning away from difficult questions, and nothing else will serve in times like these. For individuals, tribes, political parties, and nations, there are times when things fall apart. Such crossroad periods end with movement, either toward renewal or destruction, and a key determining factor seems to be a willingness to search for and accept the truth.

This is a time to ponder the words of truth-tellers. I’ve been thinking about this week’s buzzword, “civility,” and realizing that it’s much more than being “nice” or “polite” or “politically correct.” It’s nothing less than a pre-requisite for hearing the truth.

Buried in the paper on September 12, 2001, was a statement by Zen master, Thich Nhat Hahn, a champion of peace and the truth in the world for more than five decades. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, he said, “We will not have peace with the people who did this until we are willing to sit down and ask them why they hate us so much.” After nearly 16 years of constant warfare, with no victory or exit strategy in sight, it is worth remembering his words. As none of our leaders show an inclination to do so, guess what the future holds in store?

Seeds for the divisions that are tearing our nation apart were planted even before our current middle eastern wars, though I think they’re related. Another truth teller, Jimmy Carter told us in 1979 where American Greatness lies and what can destroy it:

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God…too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.  Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.  But we’ve…learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

Unless we as individuals and as a nation, including our elected leaders and their moneyed overlords, are willing to sit down and really listen to each other, things will get more and more dysfunctional. It feels like a worldwide transition is underway, and an unsustainable way of life is ending. Historically, such endings and new beginnings occur at times of disaster, war, pestilence. Are such hard landings inevitable?

I like to think not. I like to think that if enough of our leaders had the wisdom and genuine faith of Jimmy Carter and Thich Nhat Hahn, we as people of America and earth, could steer toward a new course, healthier for the the planet and all its creatures.

I’m not optimistic. With our opportunistic leaders, in a nation where a quarter of us don’t know who we fought in our revolution, I’m afraid it will take more disasters to chasten us enough for any kind of concerted, positive action.

So Happy Fourth of July!  Enjoy the day and your family. Have another hotdog or slice of apple pie. I fear that before long we may look back on these as the “good old days,” and remember how good we had it on July 4, 2017…

Notes from 2017 – William Stafford

William Stafford, from the announcement of the centennial celebration of his birth, 2014, at Lewis and Clark College

William Stafford, from the announcement of the centennial celebration of his birth, 2014, at Lewis and Clark College

Some poems are prophetic, though readers and the poet alike discover this only after the passage of time. William Stafford (1914-1993) wrote poems like this. Of his process, he said, “It’s like fishing,” and “A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.” (1)

Stafford was born and raised in Kansas. During WWII, as a contentious objector, he served in Civilian Public Service camps from 1942 t0 1946 for $2.50 a month. In 1947, he moved to Oregon to teach at Lewis and Clark College, a post he held for 30 years. He was a late bloomer, who did not publish the first of his 57 volumes of poetry until he was 46.

William Stafford was named “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress” in 1970, a position now called Poet Laureate of the US. He was Poet Laureate of Oregon from 1975-1990. James Dickey said William Stafford was one of those poets”who pour out rivers of ink, all on good poems.” He wrote 22,000 of these in his lifetime, and published 3,000 of those.

He left an unfinished poem, “Are You Mr. William Stafford?” on August 28, 1993, the day he died of a heart attack, containing these lines:

“You can’t tell when strange things with meaning
will happen. I’m [still] here writing it down
just the way it was. “You don’t have to
prove anything,” my mother said. “Just be ready
for what God sends.” I listened and put my hand
out in the sun again. It was all easy.”

In an article in the New York Times Review of Books, Ralph J. Mills Jr. said, “Stafford’s work and attitudes say a good deal indirectly about contemporary modes of living that have lost touch with the earth and what it has to teach. He uncovers and keeps alive strata of experience and knowledge that his readers are in grave danger of losing, and without which, Stafford keeps saying, they will forget how ‘To walk anywhere in the world, to live / now, to speak, to breathe a harmless / breath.'”(1)

All these are reasons why Stafford’s work remains fresh, and seems even more timely as time goes on. One of my favorite poems, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” was published in 1962. It seems to me that out of time, he is speaking to us directly, urgently, pointedly at this solstice season of 2016:

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

–William Stafford, (from The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems)

American Tragedy of Greek Proportions?

The word, “tragedy,” is one of those words, like “awesome” that overuse has drained of meaning. It parallels the way overload has numbed us to the realities behind the headlines, so that our horror, just three years ago, over Sandy Hook has become a shake of the head and a, “Shit, not again,” as we grab our busy morning coffee. And maybe look over our shoulder at the sound of a backfire. And even listen to morons who say, “This is a hunting state,” as if that has anything to do with anything.

Yes, when I lived in Oregon, not far from Roseburg, you would sometimes see cows in the outlying fields, with COW written in big red letters during hunting season, by farmers who had no great trust in the wisdom of “hunters.” But that is another story.

To once more quote the great Walt Kelly, and Pogo, his voice, “We has met the enemy and he is us.”

ipledgeafallegiance

Since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on December 14th, 2012 over 80,000 people in the US have been shot dead. There have been more than 140 school shootings over that span of time, and more mass shootings this year (298) than there have been days on the calendar (293).

There have been 1,516,863 gun-related deaths since 1968, compared to 1,396,733 cumulative war deaths since the American Revolution. That’s 120,130 more U.S. gun deaths than U.S. war deaths. And that’s including the use of the most generous estimate of Civil War deaths, the largest contributor to American war deaths.

And even though homicides represent a minority of all gun related deaths, with suicides comprising the biggest share, that’s still a lot of people shot and killed with guns. According to CDC data, 63 percent of gun-related deaths were from suicides, 33 percent were from homicides, and roughly 1 percent each…

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Her Poison Pen

Dame Agatha Christie, 1890-1976

Dame Agatha Christie, 1890-1976

The Guinness Book of World Records lists Agatha Christie as the best selling novelist of all time. Over the years, I’ve done my part in helping to make her so.

Christie’s preferred fictional murder weapon was poison. Of the more than 300 people who died in her stories, at least 100 ate or drank something they did not live to regret. In a fun segment on last week’s Science Friday, Ira Plato interviewed Kathryn Harkup, chemist and author of A is for Arsenic: the Poisons of Agatha Christie.

From 1914 to 1918, Agatha Christie volunteered as a nurse at a local hospital, and worked in the dispensary when it opened. Back then, all pharmaceuticals were mixed on site, and none of our modern restrictions on drugs were in place, so of necessity, Christie acquired a detailed knowledge of theoretical and applied chemistry in order to pass her apothecary’s assistant exam in 1917. She learned what to do, and more importantly for her future literary career, what not to do with medicines. She was tutored by a local pharmacist who carried a lump of curare in his pocket, “because it made him feel powerful.”

Christie started writing in her twenties and did not meet with instant success. Kathryn Harkup gives an example of the plot complexity of her first published novel, A Mysterious Affair at Styles, 1920.

Spoiler Alert

The elderly victim is killed by with a lethal dose of strychnine, which at that time, was given, in measured doses, to the elderly as a tonic.  The killer, however, added bromide, a popular sleeping powder, to the solution, which caused the strychnine to precipitate out as crystals at the bottom of the bottle. The final teaspoon would be lethal, and the killer could arrange an airtight alibi.

Harkup’s research revealed that Agatha Christie had studied the effect of combining these two drugs as a lesson in what not to do, in the course of her apothecary training.

If you have ever watched a Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple movie, or purchased one of the two billion copies of Agatha Christie books that have been sold, you’ll want to check out the Science Friday interview!

Inside Inside Out, a review of sorts

In a culture that imagines a sharp mind-body split, it isn’t surprising to see images of a smart inner being controlling our physical “machinery.” Inside Out gives us a committee at the helm. Among feature length movies, it is unique in this respect, as far as I know.

Inside-Out-Meet-your-emotions-2

There are many points to ponder during the film’s 90 spectacular minutes of Pixar 3D animation, but given my background, I was especially caught by the movie’s alignment with a key post-Jungian view of the structure of the psyche.

Michael Ventura, a journalist who has written at length upon archetypal themes, and who co-authored We’ve Had 100 Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse (1993) with James Hillman, said “There may be no more important project for our time than displacing the…fiction of monopersonality.” 

In Jung’s theory of archetypes, pre-eminent place goes to “The Self,” at once, the center of the psyche and it’s totality. The Self, for Jung, was the god image within us. The problem, according to both Ventura and Hillman, is that none of us ever experience ourselves this way. The idea of a unified, “monotheistic” Self is a longing rather than day to day reality, in Ventura’s words, “the longing of all the selves within the psyche that are starving because they are not recognized.”

Buddha came to a similar conclusion 2600 years ago, but Hillman, chose to rely on western models, and drew from Greek mythology to illustrate his conclusion that the psyche is “polytheistic,” with many archetypal centers.  A contemporary of Jung named these centers, “sub-personalities,” a term I have heard at least one Zen teacher use to illustrate the concept.

The Greek pantheon

The Greek pantheon

Thirty years ago, Michael Ventura wrote,  “It is crucial to every form of human effort that we forge a model of the psyche that is closer to our hour-to-hour experience, because, in the long run, as a society, we can share only what we can express.” (published in Shadow Dancing in the USA, 1985, now out of print but available used).

In the interim, nothing was actually forged – rather, a growing awareness of our “hour-to-hour” experience has emerged. How often do we say or hear others say, “Part of me wants to go left, but another part wants to go right?”

This awareness is now pervasive enough that it’s central to a summer blockbuster, aimed at a PG audience. Even if we don’t spend time studying differing models of the psyche, we understand Ventura perfectly when he says, “If you are alone in the room, it is still a crowded room.”

Thomas Hardy – take two

Let’s try this again…last time I pulled a classic not-paying-attention trick – I hit “Publish” instead of “Save,” and then trashed the previous draft.

So as I was I was saying….

A movie trailer for a new version of Far From the Madding Crowd got me thinking of Thomas Hardy. This is the fourth movie based on Hardy’s fourth novel and the first one that brought him critical acclaim and commercial success. The 1967 film version, starring Julie Christie, Alan Bates, and Terrance Stamp, launched me on a long Thomas Hardy reading jag.

This version of Far From the Madding Crowd is the movie I most clearly remember from my teenage years. Not only did Hardy’s melancholia mesh with my teenage angst, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only teenage boy to fall in love with Julie Christie.  Observe her gaping audience as she sings “Bushes and Briars:”

You can’t read Thomas Hardy without noting his stark vision of tragic fate in human affairs. The simplest act or coincidence can trigger chains of events that lead to disastrous outcomes. In Far From the Madding Crowd, an anonymous valentine, sent as a joke, leads to heartbreak, murder, and a hanging.

In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, also made into four movies, a snatch of conversation overheard at a crossroads by Tess’s drunken father leads to heartbreak, murder, and a hanging.

Gemma Arterton as the doomed Tess, 2008.

Gemma Arterton as the doomed Tess, 2008.

In Return of the Native, Hardy’s sixth novel, the beautiful Eustacia Vye, who longs for greater life than she can find on a remote heath, suffers the fate of a Greek tragic heroine. Her moves to escape her fate bring it upon her. Eustacia and her husband’s mother drown. In grief and despair, the husband becomes a preacher.

Catherine Zeta-Jones as Eustachian Vye in "Return of the Native," 1994

Catherine Zeta-Jones as Eustachian Vye in “Return of the Native,” 1994

With recurrent themes of the conflicting demands of culture versus nature for the individual, as well as liberal doses of illicit sexuality, Hardy’s 19th century works were popular with 20th century readers. Seeming to contrast with that is a tragic vision more purely classical than any other novelist I can think of.

And let’s face it, we Yanks love good British period dramas whenever we can get them, whether set in Camelot or on Egdon Heath. So you better believe I’ll be in line to see the new Far From the Madding Crowd when it’s released. It might even prompt me to take another foray into 19th century literature, something I thought I had long left behind. We never know where imagination will turn…