Saturday, March 31, 2012

The California Condor

I remember the first time I heard of the California Condor. I would have been age 10 when the last wild bird, AC-9, was captured in 1987. At that time, there were a mere 22 surviving individuals, and it appeared that the Condor would probably become extinct.

For those unfamiliar with these birds, they are a large relative of the vulture. They too are scavangers, eating dead mammals and birds. Contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that they prey on living animals. This misconception was a contributing factor in their near extinction as ranchers killed them believing them to be predators. DDT was probably the biggest cause of their decline, and once the numbers went below a critical amount, their slow rate of reproduction and vulnerability to lead caused their numbers to dip even further.

The Condor’s range once encompassed most of the American Southwest, but had been reduced to a small area north of Los Angeles. It saddened me at the time that an animal could go extinct during my lifetime. Particularly one that lived relatively nearby.

Fortunately, the breeding program was a success. Beginning in 1991, captive bred condors were released into the wild. The population has continued to grow in captivity, where most breeding still occurs. However, in 2002, the first wild-born chick in over a decade was born. Others have been born since – a good sign for the future.

The year 2002 also saw another milestone. AC-9, who had fathered many chicks while in captivity, was re-released to the wild. He is alive today, and has been spotted by observers in locations from Big Sur to the Grand Canyon. 

 Condor AC-9 takes flight as he is re-released into the wild. Photo from the Los Angeles Times, 2002.

Today, there are more than 400 condors, with about 200 of those living in the wild. California and Arizona are the main habitats, with a small population in Baja California as well.

Yesterday, the kids and I and my relatives Kevin and Judy visited Pinnacles National Monument, one of the California nesting sites. I would also list it as one of the best kept secrets of California – a truly beautiful place, filled with interesting hiking trails. While hiking the Condor Gulch trail in the mid-morning, we happened upon a couple of volunteers with the condor recovery program. They had a radio receive and large antenna, and also a spotting scope. There were two condors in the area, one off flying somewhere out of sight to the southeast. The other was sitting on one of the rocks of the “high peaks” across the gulch. Since he was about a mile away, all we could see with the naked eye was a black dot on top of the rock. However, with the spotting scope, we were able to see him well enough to see the markings on his tracking tag. 

 The High Peaks at Pinnacles. The condor is near the left edge of the rocks on the right. Picture by me.

This bird is #411, and is a notorious homebody, preferring to stay at Pinnacles rather than roam around California like the more adventuresome birds. 

 Condor #411 at Pinnacles National Monument, March 30, 2012. Picture by Judy Whitworth.

California Condors are still a critically endangered species. Although the recovery program has been a success, there are still ongoing issues. The worst is the tendency of Condors to get lead poisoning. Apparently, they have unusually strong digestive juices which dissolve lead pellets or bullets found in the carcasses they eat. Every year, several birds are sickened, and have to be recaptured and treated, only some successfully. Still, there is good reason to hope that the Condor will continue to survive and increase in numbers.

I, for one, am thrilled that I was able to see one of these magnificent birds in the wild. I am even more glad that my children were able to have this opportunity. 

For more information on the condors at Pinnacles:  I highly recommend visiting Pinnacles. Bring a flashlight so you can go through one of the talus caves. It is best to visit during the cool season, as the rocks seem to magnify the heat, and there is little shade. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mozart’s Last Aria by Matt Rees

Source of book: Recommended by and borrowed from my long-time stand partner, Donna Fraser

As Donna accurately promised, this book was a light, quick read; and took a few historical liberties while spinning a mostly plausible yarn about a Masonic conspiracy. It is also Chick-Lit, so potential male readers should be forewarned.

The subject of Mozart’s death has fascinated historians, musicians, and music lovers alike in the more than two hundred years since his death. Conspiracy theories have abounded, as his symptoms were ambiguous, and the state of medicine at the time primitive at best. The general modern consensus is that he died of Scarlet Fever, but it is possible that mercury poisoning from misguided medical treatment was a factor.

It has always been a popular conspiracy theory, however, that Mozart was poisoned. This book explores the most popular version of that theory, taking a few historical liberties along the way, but also drawing some reasonable conclusions from historical fact.

The heart of this theory is the historical fact that Mozart was a Mason, during an era in which the Masons were involved in often revolutionary – and dangerous – politics. The basic theory (plot spoiler warning) runs as follows: Mozart took a trip to Berlin soon before his death, ostensibly to apply for a job, but apparently involving a meeting with high ranking Masons in Prussia. This meeting had a connection with international politics between Prussia and Austria which made the Austrian monarch nervous, and led to Mozart being poisoned.

Some of the facts are solidly historical. Mozart was an active and rather passionate Mason. Several of his last works contained blatant Masonic symbolism, and seemed to stand for revolutionary ideas, at least for the time. The Magic Flute, in particular, is laced with Masonic symbols, both hidden (such as the numbers 3, 7, 9, 11, 13, 33, and 39); and barely disguised, such as the references to brotherhood and the Masonic ordeals of initiation found in the story itself. Mozart’s trip to Berlin was an historical fact, as was the bizarre suicide of another mason, whose story features prominently in the book. 

 Stage design for Mozart's opera The Magic Flute by German architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, c. 1815, 
with Masonic symbols.

A few things occurred to me while reading this book. First, the choice of narrator was good. Rees has Mozart’s older sister, Nannerl travel to Vienna in the wake of Mozart’s death to investigate the circumstances. While this visit is pure fiction, Nannerl is an intriguing character. She was also considered a child prodigy, and toured with her younger brother, performing as a sort of a circus show put on by their father, Leopold. Wolfgang himself ended up stealing Nannerl’s thunder, as he was clearly a rare genius, rather than a merely extraordinary young musician like Nannerl. She eventually married a wealthy minor nobleman – no small feat for the lower class Mozarts – but faded from public view. From the modern point of view, Rees exploration of her possible disappointment seems plausible. Other women of the era did continue to perform as adults. Later on, such luminaries as Clara Schumann were world famous, despite their eventual marriages.

Second, notwithstanding the poisoning rumors, Mozart’s young death, at age 33, was hardly unusual for the era. Fevers of various sorts claimed many at what we consider to be young ages.

I also noted that we take for granted in the modern United States that we can speak out against authority without ending up dying under suspicious circumstances. This was not the case in eighteenth century Europe. Indeed, it was not the case throughout most of human history, and even today is largely confined to Western democracies. When our founding fathers pledged their “lives, their fortunes, and [their] sacred honor”, they were not using flowery language for the fun of it. They really were at risk, as were many in Europe at the time who stood for the ideals of self government and equality.

Again, this book was a nice diversion. It was a light and quick read, with a basically well written, albeit thin, plot. It would be best enjoyed, as the cover states, with a mug of something warm, in front of a crackling fire.  

Note on Chick-Lit: Here is my chauvinist version of the Chick-Lit checklist.
  1. Female Narrator, who
  2. Has married an oppressive or insensitive, or boring man, who
  3. Goes on some sort of quest, wherein she
  4. Has catty interactions with other females, and
  5. Meets a man who is everything her husband is not, but
  6. Comes to realize in the end that she should not betray her family.
  7. If the book is historical fiction, it will also contain a proto-feminist point of view which is a bit out of place for the setting, but sells better than period sexism.
  8. The book will also contain excessive emoting and emotional self-analysis. Feelings will play a huge role in the narrative.
This book had to check the boxes, but managed to be an interesting story anyway.

Note on the Masons: Most of the Founding Fathers of the United States were also Masons, and left hidden Masonic symbols behind them. Our currency, for example, has several obvious uses of the numbers, and of the imagery of Freemasonry. This has given conspiracy theorists ample fodder over the years. I could write several posts on the nuances of Illuminati conspiracy theories, if such a thing really interested me. What is more interesting from an historical perspective is the connection of the Masons to Enlightenment thought. The primary reason that the monarchists feared the Masons was that they espoused a rather radical view of the equality and brotherhood of man, and even went so far in some cases as to hint at the equality of women. For the 1700s, these were dangerous and subversive ideas, to be sure.

Note on the music: Regular readers of this blog will already know that I love Mozart’s Requiem. Several of Mozart’s other last works are dear to my heart. Symphony #40 has always been one of my favorites.

The Magic Flute speaks for itself. It remains one of Mozart’s most popular operas, both for the music, and for it’s fantastical and anachronistically modern story. Rees does not stretch when he posits that Mozart was advocating for the equality of men and women – and for women’s admission to the Masonic brotherhood. The heroine is forced to take on a challenge of her own in order to save her beloved – a rather modern notion in many ways. Beethoven, of course, took the idea farther in Fidelio, but the influential idea is present in Mozart’s earlier work.

When I was a teen, I attended a concert by the Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra at the Getty Villa. My then music teacher was a violinist in that august ensemble, and snuck me in for free. I remember that one of the pieces performed was the Masonic Cantata. 

While that work has its charms, the highlight of the evening was the performance of the B flat Piano Concerto. This is my favorite Mozart piano work, for reasons that will be obvious to those who know me well. On its surface, it is a light and happy tune; but it has a melancholy that belies the bubbly surface. Like the 40th Symphony, the music is achingly bittersweet. It is this quality which has resonated with me since my early childhood, and inspired my love of music more than any other quality.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen

Source of Book: I own this – have Ibsen’s major plays in a book club hardback given to me by Dale Brooks.

Preliminary notes: I am pretty sure this is the classic William Archer translation, but I am not sure. For some reason, the book does not bother to attribute the translation. I believe the book was printed in the 1950s or 60s, when Archer's translation would have been the common one. Archer was largely responsible for bringing Ibsen's work to the attention of the English speaking public.

This review contains serious plot spoilers. If you care, read the play first before the review.

Henrik Ibsen was a Norwegian writer who spent most of his writing life living abroad, first in Italy, and later in Germany. He eventually returned to Norway nearly 30 years after he left, and died there at the age of 78. His final words were appropriately curmudgeonly. A visitor asked how he was doing, and his nurse responded that he was doing better. Ibsen sputtered, “On the contrary!”

In his scathing dismantling of Victorian hypocrisy and societal double standards, Ibsen was the literary ancestor of such later playwrights as Shaw, Wilde, and O’Neill.

Ibsen did not like the title, Ghosts, which he felt was an incorrect translation. A more literal rendering would be, “again walkers”, or perhaps, “those who return”. In an idiomatic sense, the term is used, somewhat pointedly, for those who frequent the same places, such as pubs or fashionable parties. I think, in the context of the play, “ghosts” is reasonable, since there really isn’t a great parallel in English.

A quick summary of the plot: Mrs. Alving, a widow, has paid for the construction of an orphanage using the funds of her late husband, a sea captain. She decides to confide in Manders, the clergyman, that she has concealed a dark secret from the world. Her husband was a notorious philanderer, who was supposed to have reformed. However, he did not, although Mrs. Alving was able to keep up the appearance of respectability. At one point, she fled her husband and took refuge with Manders, who encouraged her to return to her husband. After that, Captain Alving seduced a servant and impregnated her. The servant convinced Engstrad, a carpenter, to marry him and blackmail Captain Alving. The child of this liaison, Regina, later becomes a servant of Mrs. Alving, who has pity on her. Oswald, the Alving’s son, has returned from abroad in broken health. He is discovered to have fallen in love with Regina, who he does not know is his half-sister. After all is revealed, Oswald reveals that he has congenital syphilis which has begun to affect his brain. As he loses his grip on reality, he asks his mother to euthanize him.

Certainly a dark tale, and rather typical of Ibsen. The play is compact and economical – also a characteristic of Ibsen’s work. The entire play takes place within a 24 hour period, in the same location (the Alving residence), and deals with a single theme. It thus adheres to Aristotle’s unities. Only five characters inhabit this play, with the deceased Captain Alving and Joanna as characters which exist only in the memory of the others. Ibsen wastes no time on subplot or comic relief. This makes the play relentlessly pessimistic, but also fairly short. It would seem to naturally pair with a lighter work to make a balanced evening of drama.

A few other things stood out to me while reading this. Engstrad seems to be a foreshadowing of Shaw’s Alfred Doolittle (from Pygmalion and therefore My Fair Lady), except that Engstrad has no likeable or humorous side. His insistence on “what a child owes her father” is quite familiar, however.
Engstrad is backed up by Manders, who also has strong ideas of duty – at least as they apply to women or children. Everything is about keeping up appearances, as becomes apparent when Manders disapproves a certain book (which he hasn’t read) that Mrs. Alving has on her table.
Mrs. Alving: In fact, you don’t know anything about what you are denouncing?
Manders: I have read quite enough about these books to disapprove of them.
Mrs. Alving: Yes, but your own opinion –
Manders: My dear Mrs. Alving, there are many occasions in life when one has to rely on the opinion of others. That is the way in this world, and it is quite right that it should be so. What would become of society, otherwise?
At the apex of the play, the turning point, Mrs. Alving reveals the history of Captain Alving and Engstrad’s wife. She was paid a modest sum to keep quiet.
Manders: Just think of it – for a paltry seventy pounds to let yourself be bound in marriage to a fallen woman!
Mrs. Alving: What about myself, then? – I let myself be bound in marriage to a fallen man.
Manders: Heaven forgive you! What are you saying? A fallen man?
Mrs. Alving: Do you suppose my husband was any purer, when I went with him to the altar, than Joanna was when Engstrad agreed to marry her?
Manders: The two cases are as different as day from night –
Mrs. Alving: Not so very different after all. It is true that there was a great difference in the price paid, between a paltry seventy pounds and a whole fortune.
This is where Ibsen’s point is the clearest. There is a double standard which does persist to this day, although tolerance for promiscuous women has increased a bit. Still, I have a hard time imagining a prominent man staying with a philandering woman.
Ibsen then allows Mrs. Alving to state the theme of the play.
I am half inclined to think that we are all ghosts, Mr. Manders. It is not only what we have inherited from our mothers and fathers that exists again in us, but all sorts of old dead ideas and all kinds of old dead beliefs and things of that kind. They are not actually alive in us; but they are dormant, all the same, and we can never be rid of them.

Ibsen uses the idea of the “ghosts” lurking dormant in the characters as a parallel with the syphilis that is dormant in Oswald, but has eaten his body from the inside out. The actual word used by Ibsen for the disease means “eaten by wormwood”, a euphemism necessary as the use of the actual term would have been even more scandalous. (The most scandalous thing about the play at the time was that it suggested that respectable upper class people could get venereal disease.)

Another interesting parallel in the play is between fiction and Ibsen’s real life. Prior to his marriage, Ibsen fathered a child with a household servant girl. Although Ibsen never saw the boy, he paid for his upbringing. Perhaps Ibsen wished to imagine what would have happened had the facts been concealed from society.

One more literary device intrigued me. During most of the play, the stage directions indicate that it is pouring rain outside. This continues through both the day and the night of the first two acts, but clears at the end of the final act. The coming of day brings with it the revealing light of the sun. The lighting of the darkness is not a positive thing, ultimately; just as the revealing of the terrible truth has no positive effect. The damage has been done by the concealment, and all that comes to light are the sad consequences.

In this respect, Ibsen follows in the tradition of the great tragedians. Oedipus learns he has murdered his father and married his mother. Lear realizes Cordelia is the one child who truly loves him, but she is already dead. Mephistopheles drags Faust to hell. It is for us, who still have hope, to learn from the mistakes of others and attempt to avoid the same fate. At what cost do we keep up appearances?

One final note: It occurs to me that Ibsen and Matthew Arnold would have been finalists in the great 1800s facial hair showdown. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Goblin Market and Other Poems by Christina Rossetti

Source of Book: I own Rossetti’s complete poems

Those who have followed my blog from its beginning may recall that my love for poetry began with two women: Emily Dickenson, and Christina Rossetti. As part of my ongoing poetry project, I decided to revisit Rossetti’s poetry. 

Christina Rossetti. Portrait by her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Rossetti grew up as the youngest in a family of writers and artists. Her father was an exiled Italian poet. Her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, is the best known of her siblings, both as a poet and as an artist. The others, a brother and a sister, were also writers. Christina fit the profile of the sensitive artist, suffering with bouts of depression, and having poor fortune at love. She was engaged in her teens, but broke engagement when her fiancé converted to Catholicism. She later refused two additional suitors for reasons of religion and temperament. 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's original illustration for Goblin Market

Goblin Market and Other Poems was Rossetti’s first big hit, published in 1862, when she was thirty-one. Since Elizabeth Barrett Browning had died the year before, Rossetti seemed to naturally assume the role as the foremost female English poet.

Rossetti’s work is known for its technical mastery and for its devotional character. Goblin market is in many ways typical of her work. About half of the poems are devotional in character, and references to Scripture are throughout the poems. In fact, a thorough knowledge of the Bible is helpful to the understanding and enjoyment of many of the poems.

In some ways, this interlacing of Biblical allusions reminds me of the “Where’s Waldo” books of my youth. Every page was packed full of incident – one could spend hours on one picture looking for all of the jokes and other hidden treasures. Likewise, a Rossetti devotional poem contains a plethora of one or two word allusions that can be discovered by the careful and knowledgeable reader.

The other poems in the collection are often achingly bittersweet. Rossetti felt deeply and expressed the darker side of her nature in her poetry. Death and disappointment are themes which are revisited often, and with a subtle depth of thought. Her words can often mean more than one thing; a seemingly simple line can conceal a world of emotion.

The title poem, Goblin Market, is a long narrative (nearly 600 lines long) that is, on its surface, a tale of two sisters and their misadventures with goblins. At a deeper level, it is a story of innocence lost, and redemption through love and sacrifice. Others have interpreted it as an allegory of erotic desire, or a veiled commentary or gender roles. I can see each of these as a possibility – Rossetti did bury all of the above in her poems.

Oddly, Goblin Market was cited by Lewis Carroll as an inspiration for Alice in Wonderland. I have tried to figure out what the connection could be, but it remains a mystery to me. The process by which Carroll transformed this poem into the surrealist atmosphere of Alice is hardly obvious.

Regardless, Goblin Market is a good read – an interesting story, with plenty to ponder, and beautifully written language.

Regular readers already know of my fascination with sonnets. I love the form, and the discipline necessary to write a good one.

Two stood out in this collection, both in the Italian sonnet form:

            A Triad

Three sang of love together: one with lips
Crimson, with cheeks and bosom in a glow,
Flushed to the yellow hair and finger tips;
And one there sang who soft and smooth as snow
Bloomed like a tinted hyacinth at a show;
And one was blue with famine after love,
Who like a harpstring snapped rang harsh and low
The burden of what those were singing of.
One shamed herself in love; one temperately
Grew gross in soulless love, a sluggish wife;
One famished died for love. Thus two of three
Took death for love and won him after strife;
One droned in sweetness like a fattened bee:
All on the threshold, yet all short of life.

Rossetti herself fell, perhaps in the third category, yet she spurned the chance at the second, and was too virtuous for the first. The theme of out-of-wedlock pregnancy runs through a number of the poems. Rossetti spent time volunteering at a home for “fallen women”, so perhaps the connection was inevitable. I will note here “Maude Clair”, another narrative poem that tells of a love triangle. One woman gets the aristocrat in the end, but the narrator bears his child while the haughty wife remains childless.

The second sonnet is even darker than the first.

Dead Before Death

Ah! changed and cold, how changed and very cold,
With stiffened smiling lips and cold calm eyes:
Changed, yet the same; much knowing, little wise;
This was the promise of the days of old!
Grown hard and stubborn in the ancient mould,
Grown rigid in the sham of lifelong lies:
We hoped for better things as years would rise,
But it is over as a tale once told.
All fallen the blossom that no fruitage bore,
All lost the present and the future time,
All lost, all lost, the lapse that went before:
So lost till death shut-to the opened door,
So lost from chime to everlasting chime,
So cold and lost for ever evermore.

Such a bitter, bitter sonnet. And yet, it fascinates me. That line, “much knowing, little wise” is haunting. I know those who have become calcified rather than softened with age, a fate I hope to avoid.

Likewise, Rossetti’s thoughts on death affected me as a child, and still touch an inner string. A pair of poems examine the memory of a departed friend from two different perspectives. The first, another sonnet, was a favorite of mine as a youth.


Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann'd:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

In contrast, the speaker in “At Home” is truly disturbed that the living are so quick to forget.

When I was dead, my spirit turned
To seek the much-frequented house:
I passed the door, and saw my friends
Feasting beneath green orange boughs;
From hand to hand they pushed the wine,
They sucked the pulp of plum and peach;
They sang, they jested, and they laughed,
For each was loved of each.

I listened to their honest chat:
Said one: "To-morrow we shall be
Plod plod along the featureless sands,
And coasting miles and miles of sea."
Said one: "Before the turn of tide
We will achieve the eyrie-seat."
Said one: "To-morrow shall be like
To-day, but much more sweet."

"To-morrow," said they, strong with hope,
And dwelt upon the pleasant way:
"To-morrow," cried they, one and all,
While no one spoke of yesterday.
Their life stood full at blessed noon;
I, only I, had passed away:
"To-morrow and to-day," they cried;
I was of yesterday.

I shivered comfortless, but cast
No chill across the table-cloth;
I, all-forgotten, shivered, sad
To stay, and yet to part how loth:
I passed from the familiar room,
I who from love had passed away,
Like the remembrance of a guest
That tarrieth but a day.

Lest it appear that all of Rossetti’s works are this melancholy, I should add that there are numerous poems with humor and hope. One of these, “No Thank You, John”, tells of the rejection of a rather undesired suitor. It begins thus:

I never said I loved you, John:
Why will you tease me day by day,
And wax a weariness to think upon
With always "do" and "pray"?

You Know I never loved you, John;
No fault of mine made me your toast:
Why will you haunt me with a face as wan
As shows an hour-old ghost?

One wonders if “John” lacked Christina’s intelligence and wit. I found the form of this poem interesting in that the first two lines are iambic tetrameter, the third is pentameter, and the final line is trimeter. The third line’s length is used to accentuate the tedium of the suit, and the short final line feels like a door shut in the face. This continues through the remaining lines to the end of the poem, when Rossetti states the old “let’s just be friends” line in the most poetic, yet final way. The impact would not be the same had the last two words of the penultimate line been placed in the last line instead.

Here's friendship for you if you like; but love,-
No, thank you, John.

The humor in “Winter: My Secret” is less biting, but more ebullient and childlike. The poem is too long to quote, but the beginning is representative.

Perhaps some day, who knows?
But not today; it froze, and blows and snows,
And you're too curious: fie!
You want to hear it? well:
Only, my secret's mine, and I won't tell.

Rossetti wrote a large number of children’s poems, and this one is somewhat in the vein. Older children, such as myself, can still enjoy them, provided we have not become dead before death.

Another positive poem is “A Birthday”

My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water'd shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these,
Because my love is come to me.

Raise me a daïs of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.

The devotional poems have their own interest as a record of a relationship with Christ made personal. To a degree, I would compare Rossetti’s poems to those of George Herbert, another master of the form. The intensely personal nature of Rossetti’s poems make them seem almost like listening in on a private prayer. One of the best short ones is “A Better Resurrection.”

I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numb'd too much for hopes or fears;
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimm'd with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.

My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall--the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.

My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perish'd thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.

I also enjoyed “Advent”, which connects Rossetti’s experience of Christmas with a longing for the second coming. Her depressive tendencies are turned to hope and expectation.

'The days are evil looking back,
The coming days are dim;
Yet count we not His promise slack,
But watch and wait for Him.'

I’ll end this with one that I discovered for the first time in this collection. It made a lasting impression on me, and I am still meditating on its meaning and truth.

            A Pause of Thought

I looked for that which is not, nor can be,
  And hope deferred made my heart sick in truth:
  But years must pass before a hope of youth
    Is resigned utterly.

I watched and waited with a steadfast will:
  And though the object seemed to flee away
  That I so longed for, ever day by day
    I watched and waited still.

Sometimes I said: This thing shall be no more;
  My expectation wearies and shall cease;
  I will resign it now and be at peace:
    Yet never gave it o'er.

Sometimes I said: It is an empty name
  I long for; to a name why should I give
  The peace of all the days I have to live?—
    Yet gave it all the same.

Alas, thou foolish one! alike unfit
  For healthy joy and salutary pain:
  Thou knowest the chase useless, and again
    Turnest to follow it.

 Note on edition:

I own the paperback Penguin edition of Rossetti’s complete poems. The disadvantage is obvious: I prefer hardback whenever possible. However, there is much to recommend this edition. First, it has the complete poems, something hard to find. Second, it has copious endnotes. Of the 1200 pages of this volume, about 300 are notes. Included are citations for all of the allusions, both literary and Biblical; and historical notes such as the original publication date and format, quotes from the author and her close associates regarding the poem; and references to similar poems and themes by other contemporary poets. If I could find a hardback with all of the above, it would be the perfect book.

One more for good measure:

Although it is not in Goblin Market, Rossetti’s best known work is probably the text for In the Bleak Midwinter, set to music by Gustav Holst.

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Source of book: Recommended by and borrowed from my friends Peter and Patty Wonderly

I don’t read a lot of modern fiction. Perhaps I’m a bit of a reactionary, and perhaps I just prefer that time cull the chaff from the wheat. I have, however, followed the recommendations of a select group of people whose judgment I trust.

I was not disappointed in this book, which is well written, thoughtful, and compelling.

The Book Thief is written by an Australian author about my age. (Does that make him young? I’m not sure anymore.) I was a bit surprised to discover this after I finished the book, as his writing seems rather relaxed and unforced for his age. Many younger authors (and great authors in their youth) try so hard to be profound that they let the profundity get in the way of the story. Not so here.

Liesel Meminger, the protagonist, is a young German girl (and later a teen) who is, for all intents and purposes, orphaned. Her father is a communist, arrested by the Nazis, is never heard from again. Her mother gives her up to the foster care system and likewise disappears. Her younger brother dies on the train to meet their foster parents, the Hubermanns.

Just as Liesel is settling into life with her foster parents, they choose to harbor a Jew, Max, whose father saved Hans Hubermann’s life in World War One.

That is all I will disclose of the plot, because the twists are part of the fun. Or torture, perhaps.

Okay, one more disclosure is necessary. Liesel cannot read at age ten, a fact which distresses her. At her brother’s funeral, she steals a book that is left behind. Hans teaches her to read, and Max…well, that would spoil some of the story.

One interesting facet of the book is the creative (if not exactly original) use of the narrator. Zusak chooses Death to be the narrator, which leads to an interesting combination of perspectives. The conceit is that Death himself pinches the book Liesel writes, reads it, and re-tells the story. Thus, there are essentially two narrators. Liesel tells the story, which is then interpreted by Death, who also fills in additional details that he learns from his line of work. Thus, conveniently, we learn plenty about how various characters die.

As would be expected, Death would have a very short story to tell if there were not an abundance of souls to collect. Sadly, this book does not need to exaggerate by a bare millimeter the devastating impact of World War Two. If anything, this book is positively idyllic compared to some of the true stories. (The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom comes to mind – my mom read this to us as children, and it instilled a hatred for the Nazis and their philosophy that no history book could ever inspire.)

Despite all this death, and the horribly devastating conclusion, this book is full of hope and goodness. It is a reminder that even in the dark pit of evil that Germany housed, there were still those who risked their lives, suffered grave consequences for doing the right thing, but nevertheless did what they knew was right.

There are a host of sympathetic characters, each admirable and flawed. Liesel, the emotionally damaged girl. Rudy, who loves Liesel as much as he hates the Hitler ethic. The mayor’s wife, who recognizes a kindred soul in Liesel, as she too has never recovered from her grief. Rosa Hubermann, who is capable of great love despite her obnoxious exterior. Hans and Max, who should really be discovered through the story itself.

One thing I did find just slightly off in this book was Liesel herself. She is highly believable as a person, but just ever so slightly less so as a female. Zusak doesn’t do badly here, but one cannot help but wonder if a woman would have written Liesel a bit differently. I can’t really put my finger on it.

The scene that cemented this for me was early in the book, where Rudy and Liesel are playing soccer with a group, and Rudy clobbers her in the ear with a snowball. Death’s aside here is, “A snowball in the face is surely the perfect beginning to a lasting friendship.” From the male perspective, yes. A thousand times yes! To a girl? Perhaps to the right sort of girl.

I also felt that the asides by Death were risky. I think Zusak walked the line well, but the asides could have become a distraction. As it is, they serve as a break from the increasing darkness of the narrative – much as comic relief is used in other works.

I particularly enjoyed Death’s complaint about war.

            They say that war is death’s best friend, but I must offer you a different point of view on that one. To me, war is like the new boss who expects the impossible. He stands over your shoulder repeating one thing, incessantly: “Get it done, get it done.” So you work harder. You get the job done. The boss, however, does not thank you. He asks for more.

And this gets to the heart of why this is a book that contains light, but is ultimately quite dark. The historical facts don’t change. Hitler slaughtered six million Jews. An estimated sixty million people worldwide died as a result of the war. (For an even more depressing thought, this was 2.5% of the world population. WWII killed the most people by total numbers, but not as a percentage of population.) And then Stalin and Mao…the history of the 20th Century is simply ghastly.

As Death confesses at the end, “I am haunted by humans.”

Despite the darkness, the ultimate point of the war and of the book is that evil can and should be defeated, whether on the grand scale of the war, or the small scale of individual lives. The small sacrifices and the small acts of kindness are important too, and ultimately, each of us is responsible to take a stand in our own way against the darkness.
Note #1: Dachau

The setting of this book is in a (fictional) suburb of Munich, along the road to the Dachau Concentration Camp. Dachau was the original Concentration Camp, the model that the others were built on. Originally, (particularly before the war) it housed political prisoners. Later, it was used, like the rest, for Jewish prisoners.

Unlike many of the other camps, Dachau probably did not utilize a gas chamber. Prisoners were exterminated the old fashioned way: by being starved or frozen to death. The iron gates of the camp still read, “Arbeit macht frei” – “Work sets you free”. 

 During my law school days, in October of 1999, I spent a couple of weeks in Europe, including three days in the Munich area. Our trip to Dachau came on an appropriately rainy day. I had a cold I picked up somewhere, so I was doubly miserable.

Dachau was an unforgettable and haunting experience. Only one of the barracks is still standing – the rest are represented by the old concrete foundations. Rows of gray squares surrounded by barbed wire. 

The hardest part, though, was the crematoriums, which are still standing. Although everything has been cleaned throughout the last 60 years, the ash of human bodies still remains in the cracks, and the acrid air is still tainted. 

Note #2: Death as the Narrator

The use of death as the narrator of this story is an unusual touch. The author originally conceived the role of death as a harsh and cynical character – very modern in outlook, perhaps. However, it didn’t work, so Death was rewritten as a more likeable and comforting personality. In this, the author looks backward, not forward.

The motif of “Death and the Maiden” dates to medieval times, an offshoot of sorts from the Danse Macabre, but with femininity, and therefore added pathos.

Der Tod und das Mädchen, Hans Baldung Grien, 1517

Franz Schubert wrote a magnificent string quartet on this theme, entitled, of course, “Death and the Maiden”. The second movement of the quartet is the melody from his song of the same name, which uses the words of a poem by Matthias Claudius:

The Maiden:
    Oh! leave me! Prithee, leave me! thou grisly man of bone!
    For life is sweet, is pleasant.
    Go! leave me now alone!
    Go! leave me now alone!

    Give me thy hand, oh! maiden fair to see,
    For I'm a friend, hath ne'er distress'd thee.
    Take courage now, and very soon
    Within mine arms shalt softly rest thee!"

The tune itself was probably inspired in part by the similar funeral march from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, composed six years prior.

Note #3: Hans and Art

A longtime friend of mine, Hans, is a violin maker. We have known each other both professionally and personally since I was a child, and we attended the same church for several years. He officiated at my wedding.

Hans grew up in southern Germany. As a child, his neighborhood was bombed much as described in this book.

Years later, he met his American wife Nancy at a training for violin makers, they married, and took over Nancy’s father’s violin shop in Los Angeles.

The story took an interesting turn when he met a man named Art at our church who was an airman in the bomber division for the United States Air Force in the war. (I seem to recall he was a gunner – but don’t quote me on that.)

After comparing notes, they determined that Art had in fact bombed Hans’ town during the war. They became friends – a testament to the power of reconciliation. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

Source of book: I own this. A gift from my sister, who is also a Gladwell fan.

Gladwell is one of a handful of authors that I will read whenever I see their bylines attached to an online article, regardless of the topic. (Others that come readily to mind are Gregg Easterbrook, Marvin Olasky, Seth Stevenson, Emily Yoffe, and the late Christopher Hitchens.) While his work is usually well thought out and researched, I think there is a more important facet that always draws me in. Gladwell is, above all else, a great story teller. Whether in the opening paragraph of an essay, or in the first chapter of his longer works, there is always a fascinating and well told story. 

As I noted in my review of Outliers, Gladwell can be classified as a writer in the “popular sociology” field. While he does examine the research, and cites the statistics and studies he quotes, he writes to an average reader, not the expert. For this reason, I enjoy the storytelling more than his conclusions, which can seem a little too neatly packaged for the real world. (Outliers suffers from this fault more than Blink, because Gladwell proposes sweeping social engineering, rather than personal change.)

The central idea of this book is the examination of how we make decisions. As humans, we appear to use two basic methods. In some cases, given enough time and information, we reason things out, carefully drawing a conclusion from our knowledge. In other cases, we make a snap decision intuitively. How these two interact, and how we can utilize the best both skills is a fascinating topic, and Gladwell manages to find the perfect anecdotes to illuminate it.

To begin with, Gladwell introduces what he calls “thin slicing”, wherein we draw conclusions from a small sample size. We do this, for example, when we size up social situations. Most of us can tell within a few moments of entering a social event that two persons dislike each other. Or, as Gladwell points out later in the book, a skilled musician can tell within a few notes whether another musician is legitimate.

Throughout this book, I recognized intersections with two significant areas of my life: law and music.

The first was introduced along with the “thin slice” concept. Gladwell interviewed a researcher who was attempting to gain insight into marital (and similar) relationships. He had couples discuss a source of friction in their relationship while he observed and recorded it. Later, he broke down the words, inflections, and body language into a variety of categories. He then followed the couples for the next fifteen years to see who had stayed together. So far, this sounds like a typical long range study, where a large aggregation of data eventually leads to an insight. More information equals better prediction. Except that this turned out to be wrong. The more categories and the more complexity the researcher introduced, the worse the predictions became.

A different approach succeeded. The decision was made to try to simplify the information by eliminating most of it and focusing on just a couple of important factors. With further refining, the researcher was able to predict with 85 percent accuracy who was going to divorce, despite having seen a mere 15 minutes of interaction. Startlingly, this percentage did not go down much when he reduced the time to 3 minutes.

The entire story is more detailed than this, but one conclusion in particular stood out. The most important indicator that a relationship is doomed is contempt. Once one party shows contempt for the other, the relationship is over. The concept of “contempt” is broader than we usually think. It isn’t necessary to call the other party a bitch: all that is needed is that one party place him or herself on a higher plane than the other. (See endnote for more on this.)

Also on the law side of the spectrum was the similar research attempting to predict whether a doctor would be sued for malpractice. It turned out that the doctor’s skill and competence was irrelevant. It was all about the doctor’s attitude. It was so much about the attitude that they were able to play a short conversation between patient and doctor, with the recording altered so that the actual words were unintelligible, and the result was still predictable based simply on tone of voice.

After establishing some situations in which the intuitive response leads to better results, Gladwell explores the mechanism by which this works. In many cases, this is not easy. The mind makes its judgments, and these judgments remain mysterious. In some cases they are even opposed to rational thought.

Gladwell writes about association tests. I played around with these tests myself at the California Science Center, which was an interesting experience. They test association of ideas using a computer program which records both accuracy and speed. The explanation of the tests is beyond the scope of a book review, but I recommend playing around with the tests, which can be found here:

The upshot of the tests is that our unconscious biases are often in opposition to our beliefs and statements. We may say, for example, that we think short people are as intelligent as tall people, but our snap judgments will show the opposite.

I appreciated that Gladwell noted that being short is as much of a barrier to becoming a CEO as being African-American. (Gladwell is half Jamaican, so this is a real concession on his part.)

The result of this is illustrated by the story of how Warren Harding, perhaps the worst president of all time, was elected on the basis of his looks and voice, rather than ideas or ability. William McAdoo said of him, all too accurately, that his speeches were “an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea."

This is where our intuition lets us down. It dwells too near our prejudices. Thus, the inherent issue is how to determine when to rely on instinct and when to slow down and analyze in greater detail.

The problem with the additional information is that it is not always helpful. Again, here this book touches on the law. In an additional research on medical diagnosis, it was discovered that additional information did not increase the likelihood of a correct diagnosis. It did have an effect, however. Those with more information became more convinced and sure that their diagnosis was correct – even if it wasn’t.

How does the law come into all of this? Eyewitness identifications are unreliable. This has been proven time and time again. We simply cannot identify a stranger in a lineup with any degree of accuracy. However, the more time spent viewing and analyzing the lineup, the more time spent focusing on remembering the details, the more certain the identifications become. Even – perhaps especially – the incorrect ones.

Gladwell’s point here is that the irrelevant details need to be eliminated. This is where the more extensive research can help reduce the clutter. In the medical example, the accuracy was increased by removing two categories of facts. One was the facts that were secondary to the key issue. The second was unconscious prejudices. (For example, that men were more likely to be having a heart attack.)

A few more notes will have to suffice. The book is excellent reading for all of the above examples, and many more.

The chapter on advertising and marketing is amazing. The use of three glasses to test Coke and Pepsi, for example, is illuminating.

I also would like to draw a parallel between the chapter on a police shooting gone bad and The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh, which recounts an arrest gone bad that ended with a dead officer here in Kern County. Both show the many things that can go wrong in the space of a couple of seconds, and how both incidents led to the reconsideration of how we handle certain situations – and how to avoid them.

Finally, Gladwell ends his book with a series of stories about music. To those of us who play classical music, the story of Abbie Conant is well known. To those of us who follow employment law, the case of Abbie Conant is also familiar. Conant is a world-class trombone player, who happens to be female. European orchestras are notoriously monolithic – white, and male. The Vienna Philharmonic remained an all-male group until well into the 1990s.

The Munich Philharmonic decided to hold auditions behind a screen, because one of the applicants was related to someone in the orchestra management. When Conant won the audition, the judges were mortified to discover she was female. After multiple attempts to remove her or relegate her to a lesser status, she finally had to take her case to court. She won, and then had to sue again when she was intentionally paid less than her colleagues.

Gladwell tells the story well, although he omits much of the legal details. (Only someone like myself would complain.)

There are additional stories regarding the use of blind auditions, which further his point. When we know of a particular risk of prejudice, the use of a screen or other device to eliminate the prejudicial cues can focus the decision making process on the essentials. He makes an interesting surmise that this same screening process could potentially work to reduce racial bias in criminal trials. I must admit that he has a point – and I suspect many who work in the legal profession would be likewise intrigued. Some people just “look” guilty, whether they are or not.

In any case, this book is thought provoking, full of well-told stories, and one of Gladwell’s best writings.

 Note on “contempt” and relationships:

This hit home for me, because I have the skill of prediction as well. Divorces are a part of my practice, so I see the aftermath of failed relationships on a daily basis. For good or bad, I have noticed that, while I cannot accurately identify a good marriage, I can certainly detect a bad one long before others do – even the couple themselves in some cases. Not only that, but I can usually tell when a marriage will end due to an affair by the husband. How? Contempt. Within the space of a short conversation, it will become apparent that one spouse has contempt for the other. Inevitably, when the object of the contempt finds someone that doesn’t contemn them, the result is predictable.

I will refrain from using anecdotes of my own here, so as to preserve the privacy and feelings of friends and acquaintances. However, there is one of my legal cases that is on point, and is unfortunately typical.

A woman came to my office seeking help in filing a “move-away”. She had a 16 year old daughter who lived with her. She wanted to relocate to another state, to marry a man she met online, and had only seen in person once. Usually, in these cases, the father of the child objects and the kid is put in the middle. In this case, the daughter had informed her mother in no uncertain terms that she wished to stay where she was and finish high school with her friends. She could live with her father, who lived around the corner from her school. Mom was completely, and I mean completely unglued at this prospect. Why shouldn’t her daughter live with her father? “Because he is so selfish, and she will learn to be selfish from him.” Selfish? It turned out that dad liked to hang out with his friends, and ride his motorcycle. Apparently, he should have spent more time at church. (Or, reading between the lines, doing what his ex-wife wanted him to do.) The contempt here was tangible. “My desires are good, yours are selfish.” And the marriage ended. I refused to take the case. Even if I could have held my nose and done what I considered to be a rather immoral thing, this woman had no chance of winning the case. A 16 year old with good grades has a great deal of say in her living arrangements here in California. Thank goodness.

This holds true in other relationships as well. Once one side realizes, “You really think you are better than me,” the relationship is over. It’s just done, and it will probably never come back.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley

Source of Book: I own this. (Thanks to the community property law of California)
Date originally posted on Facebook: May 26, 2010

This book was suggested to me by my wife and my mother-in-law. Since both of them are well read and have excellent taste, how could I refuse?

I have a little bit of a weakness for murder mysteries myself. I suppose I should blame my mother for this one, who introduced me to Nancy Drew at age 9, and Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” soon after. Now my library includes the complete Father Brown (G. K. Chesterton), a bunch of Dorothy Sayers, and plenty of Christie, of course.

Alan Bradley is a Canadian author who wrote this, his first novel, at age 70. The book is set in England in the ‘50s.

I intentionally mentioned Nancy Drew, as I believe this was a major inspiration for the book. Plenty have already cited Harriet the Spy, which is plausible. However, I am ready to out Bradley as a closet Nancy Drew reader. The plot follows a familiar line, to be sure, although the writing is both more grown up, and less boilerplate. The heroine in this novel is Flavia De Luce, age 11, with a precocious interest in chemistry. Poisons in particular. Back when Nancy Drew first entered the literary scene, 18 seemed to still be an age of relative innocence. Now, 11 better fits the bill.

In addition to a well conceived plot and well polished writing, I enjoyed several other facets. Bradley is obviously well read, and sneaks literary and artistic references into the story. Discovering these is a little like a treasure hunt, as they often appear buried in the narrative. I also particularly enjoyed the fact that the chemistry is correct. Too often, this is more approximate than a science should be. (I recall an article that referred to sodium bicarbonate as having two carbon atoms…) The particulars of this plot made me imagine a person poisoned by cyanide gulping cheap hot dogs for the sodium nitrate.

In all, I would say that this book is well worth the time, and may be the start of a promising series. Likeable characters, and the combination of the American and British style of mystery make this a promising new addition to the genre.