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Author: xensen (Page 1 of 43)

The Lost Poems of Cangjie

Winter Blossom, 2011, by Hung Liu. Woodcut with acrylic; 23.25 x 23.5 in. Copyright © 2011 by Hung Liu, Front cover of The Lost Poems of Cangjie.

Front cover of The Lost Poems of Cangjie: Winter Blossom, 2011, by Hung Liu. Woodcut with acrylic; 23.25 x 23.5 in. Copyright © 2011 by Hung Liu

Subtle, sweet, subversive, and sly, The Lost Poems of Cangjie will leave many readers puzzled – and, equally, delighted. The core of the book consists of two series of lyrical, imagistic poems, both apparently made up of fragmented ancient Chinese verses somewhat in the style of the classic Book of Songs. Individual poems mostly are short, both in line length and in number of lines, and most explore themes of longing and forbidden love.

I’m not kidding when I say ancient. The two poem sequences, as explained in a sort of Borgesian prose frame that describes their origin and discovery, were preserved in scrolls concealed within one of the terra-cotta warriors of the First Emperor’s underground army. One, the “Beta Scroll,” was written near the time of their concealment, which is to say, around 210 BCE, when the Qin dynasty collapsed and was replaced with the Han. (That places these verses roughly contemporaneous with the poems of  Apollonius of Rhodes, author of the Argonautica, and a good century and a half before Vergil.)

But that’s nothing compared to the longer “Alpha Scroll,” which is attributed to Cangjie, the legendary founder of Chinese writing. He is supposed to have lived two and a half millennia earlier still, during the reign of the primogenitor of Chinese culture, the Yellow Emperor. In other words, he is more distant in the past from the author of the Beta Scroll than we are in the present. If these poems are indeed the work of Cangjie, that would make them the oldest extant poems in the world by a considerable margin.

Despite the vast time separation, the two scrolls are similar both stylistically and thematically. This may be attributable in part to the transcription (or translation) of the Cangjie poems by the later Chinese poet, known as “the Sculptor” because of his work as one of the creators of the First Emperor’s underground army. In addition, both poem series are translated into English by a mysterious figure known only as “E. O.” The translator also provides an afterword.

But the book begins with a foreword by John Briscoe, who identifies himself as “a lawyer whose practice takes me to East Asia.” There, we are told, he met E.O., who asked him “to act as agent to bring this work to publication.” (Briscoe in turn asked me to assist in producing the publication — under the imprint of Risk Press, directed by Charlie Pendergast — and I will talk a bit about the book’s design in a subsequent post.)

Seventeenth-century portrait of Cangjie (detail) by an unknown artist.

Seventeenth-century portrait of Cangjie (detail) by an unknown artist.

Briscoe touches on the story of the poems’ creation and their journey into English, but this is explained most fully in the translator’s afterword. E. O.’s prose style is more florid than Briscoe’s (though this is not particularly evident in the poems). This is how he begins:

When words first pealed the ecstasy of sunrise, cried the ache of moonrise, sounded the desolation of this life, we don’t know. We don’t know when sounds first stood as words for we, for home. We don’t know whether a word for home existed before a word for returning home, or for the unutterable ache to return home. We do know, though, that like many words, like whole languages, those clusters of words we call poetry arc like meteors. They blaze brief, if at all. If it is particularly right, for its time, or all time, and if the people who spoke it are not all dead or, if written down, and the libraries holding it have not been put to the torch, then a poetry might persist longer, more like a comet than a meteor, a comet plying the night sky that in the end fades into the cosmos. A poetry that survives centuries, however, much less millennia, stands in the firmament like a constellation, wandering at seasons beyond the horizon, but in time returning to the night sky.

E. O.’s telling of the discovery of the scrolls is cloaked in circumspection for political reasons. “Vagueness,” he tells us, “is the better part of discretion, which is better here than any valor.” A young archaeologist, E. O. explains, chanced upon the scrolls within the torso of a terra-cotta soldier as he was working on the excavation of the underground army. To the First Emperor is traditionally attributed a great Burning of the Books, and these scrolls were apparently hidden to avoid that fate. Worried that the scrolls might even today be suppressed or destroyed for political reasons — because they are critical of political rulers and might be seen as seditious — the archaeologist concealed his discovery and removed the scrolls. Eventually the poems were translated by E. O. into English.

I mentioned that the scrolls share certain themes. The archaeologist’s concern about the possibility of their being viewed as seditious results from a shared animus toward emperors and their high-handed governance. Each poet served a strong emperor: Cangjie the Yellow Emperor and the Sculptor the First Emperor (although the Yellow Emperor preceded him by millennia, Qin Shihuang is known as the First Emperor because he unified China only a couple of centuries before the beginning of the common era). In the words of E. O.,

A number of the verses of Cangjie speak (not at all with affection) of an emperor, the Yellow Emperor. Verses of the sculptor, the transcriber of Cangjie’s poems, also speak occasionally of an emperor, the First Emperor. At times Cangjie’s emperor seems a conjured emperor, at times not. The loathed emperor of the sculptor, though, is not a conjured emperor, no mere metaphor for life’s oppressions and petty oppressors. He is, plainly, the historical figure the First Emperor, the Burner of the Books.

For example, the Sculptor writes the First Emperor

First Emperor is only
an emperor, only
another emperor.
But this emperor burns our books.
Burners of books
in the end burn people.

while Cangjie writes of the Yellow Empeor

Emperor practices jealousy
as if it were an art
like falconry, or archery.
He more than lusts,
he is more than jealous,
he is envious of the beauty
sleeping languid in your skin
and not in his.
He seethes when he sees you before him.
Does he take you thinking
you will ravish him
and he will be reborn as you?

The object of the Yellow Empeor’s lust was one of his concubines, who perhaps resembled the woman depicted in the cover art by contemporary artist Hung Liu.  Cangjie loved this woman, who of course was unattainable to him, and, we are told, invented writing to communicate his love to her. As the Sculptor explains:

Cangjie watched
in mudded shallows
the tracks long-legged
wading birds made,
little prints the feet of song birds
left in snow.

. . .

The prints of feet of song birds
were pictures of words
for moonset, and breast
and yes.

An egret leapt into flight
leaving in sand the etched word
love.

Cangjie perhaps alludes to teaching his love to read his poems in the first fragment of his series (part of which was indecipherable to the translator):

You have listened to my poems. Now
I teach you
to see them        to [?.?.?.?]

Mostly his poems express his love and longing. The poems are imagistic, economical, heartfelt, and lovely. The fascinating prose frame that surrounds them (and sometimes manifests in footnotes to the poems themselves), should not cause us to overlook the poetic quality of the verses themselves. These verses, for example, are typical of Canjie:

Like your lashes
your hands flutter?—
quails in a bush
at an approach?—
mine
this time.

. . .

The court lights — has a sun pierced
clouds outside?
No, it is you entering,
smiling. You have, I think,
drunk more than a cup of wine.

. . .

A band of players pipes
a tune, an air?—
no, it is you
laughing
somewhere in the open court.
I will have another cup
brought to you.

Is it all an elaborate put-on? Perhaps, but the sentiments are real and the verses are moving, informed by poetical tradition and crafted with an awareness of poetic technique. Borges would have loved the deadpan literate frame, and Cervantes — whose Quixote is attributed to a Moorish author, Cide Hamete Benengeli — would have appreciated the possibly deflected authorial attribution. And even more the empathatic impulse to acknowledge universal human feelings across vast cultural boundaries. The Lost Poems of Canjie is one of the most original and fulfilling books I have read in a long time. Highly recommended.

Selections from a Grace Paley Interview

Grace Paley. Detail from a photo accompanying her interview in the Paris Review.

Grace Paley. Detail from a photo accompanying her interview in the Paris Review.

This interview with Grace Paley by Jonathan Dee, Barbara Jones, and Larissa MacFarquhar ran in the Paris Review in 1992. Still of interest.

The best training is to read and write, no matter what. Don’t live with a lover or roommate who doesn’t respect your work. Don’t lie, buy time, borrow to buy time. Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write.

A lot of [my stories] begin with a sentence—they all begin with language. It sounds dopey to say that, but it’s true. Very often one sentence is absolutely resonant…. I begin by writing paragraphs that don’t have an immediate relation to a plot. The sound of the story comes first.

Two things happen when you get older. You have more experience, so you either seem wiser, or you get totally foolish. There are only those two options. You choose one, probably the wrong one.

There’s an idea that there’s this great mainstream, which may be wide but is kind of shallow and slow-moving. It’s the tributaries that seem to have the energy.

You can’t write without a lot of pressure. Sometimes the pressure comes from anger, which then changes into a pressure to write. It’s not so much a matter of getting distance as simply a translation. I felt a lot of pressure writing some of those stories about women. Writers are lucky because when they’re angry, the anger—by habit almost—I wouldn’t say transcends but becomes an acute pressure to write, to tell…. The pressure doesn’t have to be anger. It could be love. One could be overcome with feelings of lifetime love or justice. Why not?

Read the rest here.

 

 

 

Eliot Weinberger, literary renegade

On an overcast evening last November, I met the American essayist and translator Eliot Weinberger at a gentrified West Village coffee shop. Having got there early, I was looking out the window to see him approach: an impressively balding man dressed in austere literary attire—faded navy jacket, plain t-shirt, lit European cigarette—placidly weaving his way through a crowd of suited professionals and hip yuppies.

It was an apt image, in its gentle anachronisms. The village, once a cheap artistic refuge, has today turned into a playground for supermodels and hedge funders. Most of its (and America’s) writers have in turn gentrified themselves, leaving society for this or that university. But through these dismal decades of late-capitalism, Weinberger has remained heroically independent: a lonely polymath upholding American modernism from his apartment.

This principled independence is one reason that he’s developed a cult following home and abroad, even if his books have been largely ignored by the American press. I first came across him when a renegade Chinese professor handed me a roughed-up copy of his 1987 pamphlet on translation, ‘19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei’, with the following words: “Weinberger is the only Westerner who understands Tang poetry.” A new version of that book, along with his latest collection of essays, The Ghost of Birds, were recently published in the U.S. They were my pretext for meeting him, though of course I hardly needed one….

From a profile by Ratik Asokan of my friend Eliot Weinberger in The Hindu. Please continue reading there.

Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty

Jade suit, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Unearthed from Tomb 2, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Jade and gold. Nanjing Museum, EX2017.1.1. Photograph © Nanjing Museum.. Unlike jade death suits that have been seen here in the past, this one was made for a royal woman.

Jade suit, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Unearthed from Tomb 2, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Jade and gold. Nanjing Museum, EX2017.1.1. Photograph © Nanjing Museum. Unlike jade death suits that have been seen here in the past, this one was made for a woman.

In 210 BCE Shi Huangdi, the “First Emperor” of China, died at the age of forty-nine, likely from poisoning by the very elixirs that were supposed to make him immortal. He was placed in an underground tomb where he would be protected for eternity by thousands of life-sized terra-cotta warriors. In 2013 some of those warriors took a break from their guardian duties to visit San Francisco as part of the Asian Art Museum’s exhibition China’s Terracotta Warriors.: The First Emperor’s Legacy.

Above ground, things did not go well for the emperor’s people. Less than four years after his death, his empire collapsed. A new power, based first in Chang’an and later in Luoyang, controlled China. It would be known as the Han dynasty, lending its name to the country’s majority ethnic group. It would endure for more than four hundred years (while the West was dominated by imperial Rome). The new dynasty was marked by economic and technical development, as well as a great cultural flourishing. It too left elaborate tombs full of spectacular and intriguing artifacts. Now a new Asian Art Museum show presents 160 such objects, most never before seen outside China, in Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty (through May 28).

Few fields have advanced as rapidly as the archaeology of ancient China in recent decades. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, not many archaeologists were systematically exploring sites in China. This omission began to be remedied in the second half of the twentieth century, resulting in the first major exhibition devoted to the new discoveries, Archaeological Finds of The People’s Republic of China, organized by the U.S. National Gallery and the Nelson Atkins Museum in 1974. Twenty-five years later, the same institutions teamed up on another major exhibition, The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology. Since that time there has been an explosion of archaeological activity in China, and scholars are still working on making sense of the ongoing discoveries.

Belt hook in the shape of a dragon, unearthed from Tomb 12, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Silver. Nanjing Museum. Photograph © Nanjing Museum.

Belt hook in the shape of a dragon, Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Unearthed from Tomb 12, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Silver. Nanjing Museum. Photograph © Nanjing Museum. The two pieces making up this belt hook are inscribed with characters reading “Forget me not.”

Traditional Chinese histories tended to treat the nation’s development as the passing of the mandate of heaven from one monolithic dynasty to another. But the archaeological discoveries have suggested that ancient China was more multiplistic and multicultural than had previously been acknowledged. Chinese culture, to judge from the archaeological finds, did not arise in one place and then spread throughout China so much as it arose in multiple and varied locations, with several regional cultural groups all contributing to the mix.

Under the leadership of director Jay Xu, the Asian Art Museum has intensified efforts to strengthen working relations with sister institutions in China, as well as to keep abreast of the rapidly changing developments in the archaeology of ancient China. (Xu received his doctorate from Princeton University with a specialization in early Chinese art and archaeology.) The objects in this exhibition mostly come from mausoleums excavated in 2011 belonging to the Jiangdu Kingdom at Dayun Mountain, and from royal tombs of the Chu Kingdom at Xuzhou, first uncovered in 1995. They were borrowed from museums in Nanjing, Xuzhou, and Yizheng, all located in Jiangsu province, near Shanghai, where the new archaeological discoveries were made.

Co-curated by Xu and Fan Jeremy Zhang, the museum’s senior associate curator of Chinese art, the exhibition is organized into three areas built around Han-era phrases found on period objects:

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Left face / Right face: Abe Lincoln.

Mailbag: Left Abe, Right Abe Makes Textbook Appearance

Left face / Right face: Abe Lincoln.

Left face / Right face: Abe Lincoln.

A representative of Oxford University Press writes requesting permission to use this image of Abe Lincoln (one of the 44 U.S. presidents better than the current one) in a textbook entitled MYP Biology 4&5. Of course I am delighted.

The image is part of a project I did about a decade ago comparing the left and right sides of people’s faces. I divided a series of face in half and showed what they would look like if both halves were like the right size versus both halves being like the left side.

I noted when I posted this image that “Lincoln had a condition called cranial facial microsomia — the left side of his face was much smaller than the right.” Above are, left to right, two-right-face Lincoln, actual Lincoln, and two-left-face Lincoln.

 

What’s New at Tom’s Garden

Tom's Garden home page, February 2017.

Tom’s Garden home page, February 2017.

I’ve been a bit more active recently over at Frisco Vista (that could change). Among the more recent posts there:

  • photo magic
  • an aromatic bitters triumph
  • the best online guide to DIY vermouth resources
  • one of the best posts on making ginger beer (bug or yeast?)
  • anatomy of a flower
  • bioregions of the SF Bay Area
  • an appearance from the great Sir Oliver Hardy
  • more

Mailbag: 10 Design Trends

Design trends graphic (detail).

Design trends graphic (detail).

I received an e-mail from Katie Smith of Creative Market calling my attention to their infographic on design trends of the past year. “f you feel this article is a good fit for your audience then please feel free to pass it along with your blog post,” she wrote. As it happens, I do think it is worth sharing. The ten trends are “Flat 2.0; bold, playful typography; whimsical illustrations; the new retro; motion; minimalist logotypes; geometric shapes; print-inspired (analogue printing influenced); abstract Swiss; movies and cartoons.” Has abstract Swiss been trendy for eighty years now?

I’m not a trendy designer myself, but still, it’s worth keeping up with what’s going on. The graphic itself is a good example of  a type of current information design (which I generally like). Note that the graphic is followed by discussion further down the page. Click through the portion of the graphic displayed above or click here for the original post.

Ginger Beer Label

ginger beer label

Since I’m taking a batch of my homemade ginger beer to an event in a few days I slapped up this little label for it. It goes on a recycled orange juice container.

The font is Bau Pro.

For odd-sized labels I use full-sheet Avery labels and trim them down with a paper cutter. (Mine are for my color laser printer, but they also make an ink-jet version.)

I can see I need to top this bottle up a bit!

 

 

Bonds and Fractures: Asian Art Museum Exhibition Sheds Light on the Rama Epic

Ravana takes the fields against Lakshmana and Hanuman, detail of a page from the Mewar Ramayana, 1649–1653, by Sahiubdin (Indian, active 1625–1660). Opaque watercolors on paper. The British Library, Add. 15297(1) f.60or. Front cover of the exhibition catalogue.

Ravana takes the fields against Lakshmana and Hanuman, detail of a page from the Mewar Ramayana, 1649–1653, by Sahiubdin (Indian, active 1625–1660). Opaque watercolors on paper. The British Library, Add. 15297(1) f.60or. Front cover of the exhibition catalogue.

This winter, projects and holidays conspired to prevent me from catching the Asian’s current exhibition, The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe until late in its run. Now there remains just a week left to see the show, and before I say anything else let me say that you should stop reading this and go catch it right now.

The Rama Epic is a major exhibition that was organized by the Asian under the direction of Forrest McGill, Wattis Senior Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the museum, and it draws materials from a wide region. Included are 135 objects from India, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia. The objects, of the highest quality and carefully chosen to highlight the exhibition narrative, were drawn from institutions including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Asia Society, the British Library and British Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Harvard Art Museums, LACMA, the Met, the Guimet, MFA Boston, the Peabody Essex, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Museum Rietberg Zurich, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, the V&A, and several others, in addition to the Asian’s own respected collections. This is an extraordinary gathering together of materials that must have been a formidable undertaking for the organizers.

The Rama epic, best known in the West through the Ramayana of Valmiki, is of course, along with the Mahabharata, one of the key sources of narrative in South and Southeast Asia, not only (as the exhibition illustrates) for Hindus but also for Buddhists, Muslims, and others of the region’s peoples. (McGill compares it to the King Arthur stories; comparison could also be made to the Homeric epics and tales of the Bible.) As a result, many variations of the stories exist. The exhibition conveys the diversity of the Rama stories, as expressed in a wide range of places and times, while also distilling them down to their underlying essence.

It does this by focusing on four key figures, presented as the Hero, the Heroine, the Ally, and the Foe. These are Rama, his wife Sita, the monkey warrior Hanuman, and the demon king Ravana. Through a succession of artworks arranged to highlight these four figures, the complexities and controversies of the epic emerge, while even visitors who are not much familiar with the stories gradually come to understand its essential structure.

Reduced to bare bones, the story is this: Rama, an avatar of the Hindu deity Vishnu, is born a prince of an Indian kingdom. His worthiness is evident and also proven by challenges, yet he is prevented from ascending to the kingship by palace intrigues. He meets and weds the faithful Sita. Always he is accompanied by his constant companion, his brother Lakshmana. Exiled from the city of his birth, Rama and his companions live for years in a forest wilderness. There a female demon attempts to seduce the brothers. Appalled by this prospect, Lakshmana hacks off her ears and nose, which must have done little to improve her presentability. She complains to her brother, the powerful demon Ravana, and things go downhill from there. Soon warfare engulfs everyone.

Through trickery, Ravana succeeds in kidnapping Sita, and Rama must lead an army to find and recover her. Chief among his warriors is the bold and powerful Hanuman, who succeeds in locating the captive and who distinguishes himself in the ensuing battles. Eventually Rama kills Ravana, Sita is freed, and Rama is crowned king. But false rumors circulate that Sita might not have been faithful to Rama during her captivity. To prove her fidelity, she enters and emerges unscathed from a bonfire. In many versions of the story this dubiously happy ending settles matters, but in others Sita’s trial by fire still does not satisfy some of the kingdom’s malicious gossips, and Rama, putting good governance over his own feelings for Sita, sends her packing. After many years in exile, she is returned, only to be asked once again to submit to the fiery proof. But by this time she has finally had enough. Calling on her mother, the goddess of the earth, as a witness, she is swallowed into a great opening in the ground—whose fault was that?—and she disappears forever. In this bittersweet version of the ending, Rama then abandons his earthly form and ascends to the heavens.

In many ways it is a story of bonds and fractures. Constancy and inconstancy are the, well, constant themes. Some works that highlight these motifs can give a sense of the content of the exhibition (though the diversity of works is far greater than I can show here).

The invisible Indrajit fires arrows at Rama and his allies; end panel from a box (detail), ca. 1500–1600. Sri Lanka. Ivory. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Friends of Indian Art and the Robert A. and Ruth W. Fisher Fund, 2004.16.

The invisible Indrajit fires arrows at Rama and his allies; end panel from a box (detail), ca. 1500–1600. Sri Lanka. Ivory. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Friends of Indian Art and the Robert A. and Ruth W. Fisher Fund, 2004.16.

Among the bonds is the constant friendship of Rama and his brother Lakshmana. Lakshmana never wavers in his support of Rama, and the two experience many adventures together. This sixteenth-century ivory relief from Sri Lanka depicts the brothers’ falling victim to arrows fired by Ravana’s faithful son Indrajit, who has become invisible.

 

Hanuman returns with medicinal plants, 1775–1780. India; Himachal Pradesh state, former kingdom of Guler. Opaque watercolors and gold on paper. Museum Rietberg Zurich, collection of Eva and Konrad Seitz, B40.

Hanuman returns with medicinal plants, 1775–1780. India; Himachal Pradesh state, former kingdom of Guler. Opaque watercolors and gold on paper. Museum Rietberg Zurich, collection of Eva and Konrad Seitz, B40.

Hanuman is equally constant. After the brothers are grievously injured by Indrajit, Hanuman brings healing herbs from the Himalayas to revive them. Unsure which herbs would work best, he carries back the entire mountaintop, as shown in this eighteenth-century painting from northern India.

The demon giant Kumbhakama battles Rama’s armies of monkeys and bears, ca. 1605. India; possibly Madhya Pradesh state, former kingdom of Datia. Opaque watercolors and gold on paper. Asian Art Museum, gift of the Connoisseurs’ Council with additional funding from Fred M. and Nancy Livingston Levin, the Shenson Foundation, in memory of A. Jess Shenson, 2003. 3.

The demon giant Kumbhakama battles Rama’s armies of monkeys and bears, ca. 1605. India; possibly Madhya Pradesh state, former kingdom of Datia. Opaque watercolors and gold on paper. Asian Art Museum, gift of the Connoisseurs’ Council with additional funding from Fred M. and Nancy Livingston Levin, the Shenson Foundation, in memory of A. Jess Shenson, 2003. 3.

Constancy also features on the demonic side of the conflict. Ravana’s giant brother, Kumbhakarna, is something of a comic figure, but a complex one. Despite disapproving of Ravana’s actions, he feels obligated by fraternal bonds to fight on Ravana’s behalf. Here, in a seventeenth-century Indian painting, he battles an army of monkeys and bears, allies of Rama.

 

Mourning for the death of Ravana, and preparations for his funeral, from the Mewar Ramayana, 1649–1653, by Sahibdin (Indian, active ca. 1625–1660). Opaque watercolors on paper. The British Library, Add. 15297(1) f.173r.

Mourning for the death of Ravana, and preparations for his funeral, from the Mewar Ramayana, 1649–1653, by Sahibdin (Indian, active ca. 1625–1660). Opaque watercolors on paper. The British Library, Add. 15297(1) f.173r.

Kumbhakarna’s decision to battle to the death for Ravana is contrasted with the path taken by another of his brothers, Vibhishana. Like Kumbhakarna, Vibhishana was outspoken in criticizing Ravana. Unlike him, he goes over to the enemy and fights alongside Rama. What does fidelity mean in this case? By being true to his beliefs is he untrue to his brothers? In the lower left of this seventeenth-century painting depicting mourning for the death of Ravana, Vibhishana— who has refused to carry out traditional funeral rites, arguing that Ravana was cruel and despotic—is upbraided by Rama, who says that Ravana was nonetheless heroic in battle.

 

Sita’s trial by fire, ca. 1940, by Jamini Roy (Indian, 1887–1972) or workshop. Opaque watercolors on cardboard. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Given by Mr. J. C. Irwin, IS.49-1979.

Sita’s trial by fire, ca. 1940, by Jamini Roy (Indian, 1887–1972) or workshop. Opaque watercolors on cardboard. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Given by Mr. J. C. Irwin, IS.49-1979.

Many more instances of fidelity and infidelity appear in the epic. A Structuralist critic could have a field day diagramming all the binary oppositions. But the core case is that of Rama and Sita. Sita remained faithful throughout her long captivity, despite Ravana’s pressures. Yet Rama appears to treat her as if she had been sullied, despite never believing this had happened. Many will feel that Sita—“an abused wife and yet a feminist heroine,” according to Sally J. Sutherland Goldman in the exhibition catalogue—has been treated unfairly. In this 1940 painting by the modernist Indian painter Jamini Roy (or his workshop), Sita sits enigmatically amid the flames during her trial by fire.

Sita, ca. 1893, by Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916). Pastel, conté crayon, and charcoal on paper. The Art Institute of Chicago, Joseph Winterbotham Collection, 1954.320.

Sita, ca. 1893, by Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916). Pastel, conté crayon, and charcoal on paper. The Art Institute of Chicago, Joseph Winterbotham Collection, 1954.320.

Equally enigmatic is a painting of Sita by Odilon Redon. Redon said of it that “a title is only justified when it is a little vague, and even aims confusedly at the equivocal.”

Moral dilemmas abound in the Rama stories, and people have debated them for centuries. I have only been able to touch on a few here. I strongly urge anyone who can make it to go see this show, now in its final week, before its marvelous artworks return to their lenders or to storage.

For those who can’t make it to the city this week, the exhibition catalogue (handsomely designed by Wilsted & Taylor) is organized along the same lines as the exhibition. It is a must-have for anyone with an interest in South or Southeast Asian art and culture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanksgiving playlist

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

This playlist mainly features traditional jazz, R&B, and Latin.

Enjoy!

My Nightmare

trump as the white queen

I’m having the most terrible dream. Please, somebody wake me up.

Nerfy Po

nerf hoop

nerf hoop

Nerf ball stuck at the net. In the early to mid 1990s I often engaged in epic nerfball contests with Po Brons0n., Who had the upper hand? I can’t say, but Po was ever a formidable opponent, that’s for sure.

 

 

The current workspace

workspace

The hummingbird visits the iochroma outside the window at left every day  midmorning to early afternoon.

Ten thoughts on Carl Hiaasen’s Razor Girl

razor-girl

I read Carl Hiassen’s Razor Girl after seeing several rave reviews, such as two in the New York Times (“irresistible”  and “elegant”), one from NPR (“hilarious”), and one in Kirkus Reviews (“unbridled fictional invention”). The book is currently no. 2 on the NYT hardcover fiction best-seller list.

I had read Hiaasen before, so I knew what sort of thing to expect. While the novel mostly delivered on expectations, I did not like the book so much as those reviewers. A few thoughts:

  1. The book could be thought of as a kind of parody detective story, similar to The Big Lebowski. Donald E. Westlake and John D. MacDonald seem to be influences.
  2. Hiaasen’s characters are mostly stereotypes: the ruthless mob boss, the rapacious lawyer, the slutty gold-digging girlfriend (a favorite: there are a number of these), the weaselly Hollywood agent, the dumb-as-subsoil thug, the racist cracker, and so on. He disguises their conventionality through grotesque flourishes and exaggerations. Grotesquery is one of his strengths, but some experienced fiction readers might find this an insufficient alternative to actual character development.
  3. The manic character exaggerations are matched by an overheated storyline. Together with the lack of character depth and story-oriented exposition, this gives the book a brittle quality.
  4. Hiaasen is an efficient writer. His grotesque elements are made more effective by a clear, compact prose. He  has a talent for colorful compounds  — shitweasel, fuckwit, numbnuts, thundercunt, fuckwhistle, shitsucker, and so on.
  5. This sometimes manifests in dialogue: “Baby, you kiss like a blowfish on batteries.”
  6. The best idea behind Razor Girl is a Duck Dynasty parody. A television reality show features four brothers who are presented as Louisiana poultry farmers. The kidnapping of the alpha brother by a crazed fan who as ransom demands being added to the show as a fifth brother is the fulcrum for the plot. The kidnapping occasions a crise de foi in the victim —an excellent concept, but Hiaasen never really gets sufficiently into the victim’s head.
  7. The bayou brothers are presented as Louisiana poultry farmers; in fact they are accordion players from Milwaukee. But as a former Wisconsonian, I can report there is rich material there that remains almost entirely unmined by Hiaasen, whose backstories are always sketchy.
  8. The title concept, which alludes to car crashes perpetrated as a con by a young woman engaged in mechanical vaginal hygiene, is not as fascinating as Hiaasen appears to believe.
  9. Hiaasen’s heroes are stoners who love nature and sex and his villains are connivers who love money and sex. Mostly they fight over nature and money but sometimes they meet over sex.
  10. Potentially the most interesting character could have been Buck Nance, “Captain Cock” of the Bayou Brethren clan, as he is the only character who undergoes any development over the course of the novel. Unfortunately, his development is sketchy.

The story arc did not contain many surprises, though Hiaasen certainly makes the details distinctive. This is a diverting book that you will probably want to read quickly so that it doesn’t take up too much of your time.

Razor Girl
by Carl Hiaasen
Powells.com

 

 

 

Carol and Max near Desert Hot Springs

Carol and Max near Desert Hot Springs

Carol and Max near Desert Hot Springs

Carol and Max near Desert Hot Springs.

I think of this photo as having a bit of a Richard Misrach quality.

Again. And again.

Again. And again. SFMOMA promo mailing.

Again. And again. SFMOMA promo mailing.

Museums, let’s face it, tend not to be good at marketing their product. This envelope contained a membership pitch. Is “Experience it all. Again. And again.” supposed to whip me into a frenzy of art lust? Or is it supposed to be ironic?

Who knows? But all it actually does is make me as weary as Madeline Kahn’s character in Blazing Saddles (she’s been with hundreds of men, again and again).

“Writing” posts at blog.rightreading.com

A few of my books

A few of my books.

Here you will find posts tagged “writing” on blog.rightreading.com. But really the majority of posts here pertain to writing.

For a page devoted to some of my own books, go here.

A new look for blog.rightreading.com

The former look of this blog (since around 2006)

The former look of this blog (since around 2006).

It’s been a long time since I’ve updated the look of this blog, mainly because I had customized so many features that I never had the heart to undertake an update. But it’s gotten long in the tooth, and as you can see from the above image, it wastes a lot of screen real estate in the empty screen areas at right and left. It was a thing at the time, and I don’t even remember why.

In addition, the blog was not designed to be responsive. You could use a plugin like wp-touch or the newer mobile feature in jetpack (currently experiencing bugs) to get a mobile version, but those are ultimately makeshifts. This design by Anders Norén is distinguished by thoughtful typography and a clean look, and it is fully responsive. I decided to go ahead and effect the transition, even though I’ve only just begun my customizations, and I’m sure much will turn out to be broken. But in the end I think it will be good, and for now it is, I hope, readable.

Shaky times at the Met

 

New York Times article on Met layoffs

New York Times article on Met layoffs (click through for web version).

After a $3 million rebranding that was “widely derided,” the Met is cutting some 100 jobs (following voluntary buy-outs). Facing tens of millions of dollars in deficits, director Thomas Campbell plans to rack up profits through what we all know is the easiest possible way: “We are putting greater emphasis on our publications.”

Old (left) and new (right) Metropolitan Museum of Art logos, and 1970s-era Metropolitan Opera logo (center)

Old (left) and new (right) Metropolitan Museum of Art logos, and 1970s-era Metropolitan Opera logo (center).

The Met rebranding was supposed to make the museum look more contemporary. Yet it bears a striking resemblance to the Metropolitan opera logo from about forty years ago. Back to the future?

 

Fame un spritz : the lyrics

Sir Oliver Skardy & Fahrenheit 451 - Fame un spritz

Sir Oliver Skardy & Fahrenheit 451 – Fame un spritz.

I found the lyrics to this tune, which I posted here in 2010 and recently reposted over at Tom’s Garden.

I make out the first line to be “Make me a spritz, make me a spritz, make it good with a slice of lemon.” But the Italian is unconventional, I guess a Veneto dialect, and if anyone more accomplished than me can provide a full translation I would love to hear it.

This would be a good tune for a ukulele.

 

Fame un spritz – Sir Oliver Skardy & Fahrenheit 451

Fame un spritz, fame un spritz, famelo bon co ‘na fetta de limon
Che caldana par Venessia in camminada umido, suori, maieta petada
le alghe fa spussa da fogna
se bevo so come ‘na spugna
A mexogiorno so come ‘na fritata go la gola che par carta vetrata l’oasi del campo se ciama ostaria xe meio ‘na sosta, dopo vado via
Sta ostaria che xe sempre be?a piena
chi xoga le carte chi va via a pansa piena ti magni, ti bevi e ala fine ti paghi
vecioti o studenti va tutti imbriaghi
Costava poco un spritz ai nostri tempi desso xe un lusso par fighetti dementi
‘Ndemo fora a ciapa?r un fia? de aria caigo fisso dal Lido ala Baia
bicieri de carta, bicieri de vero
ma queo de sora xe incassa? nero
Largo ai giovani, va remengo el vecio, gerimo in cale el ne ga lava? col secio
el dise che el xe stufo, che ciama la Polissia e dopo i se domanda perche? i fioi scampa via
Fame un spritz, fame un spritz, famelo bon co ‘na fetta de limon
tanto ‘ndemo fora a tirar su un trombon

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