With Which I Am Well Pleased (Redux)

While our State of residence is opening up prematurely and irresponsibly, Marcia and I are still doing our part to protect ourselves and others through smart adherence to science-based guidance on social distancing and personal protection. So that means we’re spending a lot of time at home, still, even as we have diligently worked through our dire local climate to get good, healthy walks in every day, usually way out in the countryside away from the selfish, oblivious idiots who are bumbling around our neighborhood as though COVID-19 were a thing of the past already. We’re not exactly experiencing the sabbatical year that we had planned for 2020, but we have our health and we have each other and we have a variety of things, both mundane and meaningful, that are filling the hours and satisfying our souls. At the risk of repeating a titular heresy, I revisit my earlier With Which I Am Well Pleased post for a peek at 15 other specific things that have been keeping me entertained over the past month or so. Maybe you’ll be easily amused by them too.

TELEVISION SHOWS

MOVIES

MUSIC

BOOKS

OTHER

With Which I Am Well Pleased

I ended my prior post with the words titling this one. It’s a phrase I often use in written pieces, and one that we as a family often say around our household. I must confess that there’s a spot of respectful blasphemy in using it as often as I do, since the quote is actually culled from a piece of New Testament Scripture, within the story of Jesus’ baptism by John:

And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3: 16-17 RSV)

Having been raised in a strong scripture teaching tradition, I know there are other bits and bobs of the Bible that dot my speech and writing in odd ways. Those words are deeply ingrained in my mental filing cabinets, easily drawn forth when certain points and positions require comment or exposition, usually completely unrelated to their original occurrence or intention.

“With which I am well pleased” seems particularly resonant right now, since there are so many things that so many of us find displeasing, from the minor nits associated with confinement, to the macro unraveling of the global economy, hyper-partisan politics, and the ever-rising infection and mortality figures that frame and define the news cycle, hour after hour, day after day. So at the risk of further damning myself through misuse of scripture, today I share 15 odds and ends in a quintet of categories that have brightened my days of late, in the hopes that you, too, may find yourself well pleased with them.

And, of course, on the “with whom I am well pleased” question through Life During Quarantine Time, that answer should be quite obvious . . .

(Note: All the images are linked to relevant pages, if you wish to explore further).

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Five by Five Books #10: “The Vorrh Trilogy” (2015 to 2018) by B. Catling

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences. Scroll down to the bottom of this article to see the complete list of books reviewed).

What’s it about? The Vorrh Trilogy is an immense creative work (1,390 pages spread over three books in its initial American print run) that takes its name from a massive, mysterious forest at the heart of the African continent, which may or may not host within its confines the Garden of Eden and/or various flesh eating monsters and/or angels buried in the soil and/or vast wealth to be exploited by European colonialists, among other things. Few visitors can be quite confident of any of these things with any certainty, because the Vorrh erases the memories and time senses of those who penetrate its depths, thus requiring the Europeans to raise and employ an army of baby-eating ghouls to work its plantations. The colonial community lives at the periphery of the Vorrh in the city of Essenwald, transported in toto, brick by brick, from Europe (where other segments of the epic are set), and riddled with its own mysteries, including a house where brown plastic robots raise a human cyclops with loving attention and care. A dizzying assortment of characters (including some non-fictional ones) and plot lines come and go, some returning later to advance the narrative, some never to be seen, heard from nor resolved again. It’s such a sprawling web of content, context, and confusion that, at bottom line, any attempt to answer “what’s it all about” must ultimately default to this: The Vorrh Trilogy is about The Vorrh Trilogy.

Who wrote it? B. Catling (the initial stands for “Brian”) is an Emeritus Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University’s Ruskin School of Art, with an accomplished career history as a poet and artist, in both the visual and performance realms. The Vorrh (2015 in its U.S. edition) was his first novel, taking its title and inspiration from a forest mentioned in Raymond Roussel’s proto-surrealist novel Impressions of Africa (1910), a fantasia carefully composed via a series of arcane rules of Roussel’s creation, its setting bearing no semblance to any other Africa, real or fictional. The first book of Catling’s trilogy prominently features a nameless analogue of Roussel as a core character, along with a variety of Victorian era (and earlier) historical figures, despite the fact that the trilogy’s nebulous chronology regularly includes inventions and devices that would seem to place it in the first half of the 20th Century. Catling followed The Vorrh with The Erstwhile (2017) and The Cloven (2018), extending the trilogy’s narrative both forward and backward in time, and across continents, rich with language that often leaves it feeling more like an impressionistic stream-of-madness poem than a linear prose work. After completing The Vorrh Trilogy, Catling published a novella, Only the Lowly, and his next standalone novel, Earwig, will be published in the United States in the summer of 2020.

When and where did I read it?  By 2015, I had (somewhat sadly) already transitioned to the point where I did most of my reading on a Kindle, rather than actually getting the tactile enjoyment of holding paper and ink in my hands, so on the random occasions when I did amble into a bookstore, I was usually looking not to buy anything, but rather for ideas on what I might download later. When I first spotted it, The Vorrh had been recently released in the United States (it had came out two years earlier in England), though it wasn’t (and isn’t) enough of a blockbuster to be prominently placed in the “New Arrivals” section, but was rather tucked away unobtrusively in the Science Fiction and Fantasy stacks. I honestly have no memory of what drew me to pick it up (perhaps just the weirdness of the name?), but the glowing endorsement quote on its cover from The Southern Reach Trilogy‘s Jeff VanderMeer (which and who I adore) quickly sold it for me, no additional questions asked. I remember reading sizable chunks of The Vorrh on my Kindle in its waterproof sleeve while soaking in our back yard hot tub in Des Moines, and I also remember that it took some perseverance to reach a point where I had opened myself to the experience and began to feel the book’s narratives and rhythms, wherever they went, and whether I understood them or not. Soon after I finished The Vorrh, we moved to Chicago, and I acquired The Erstwhile and The Cloven there upon their respective releases, though I was such a road warrior for work at the time, that I read sizable chunks of both books in hotel rooms scattered coast to coast across the country.

Why do I like it? If you’ve read any of the prior nine installments of this occasional book review series, the answer to this question is probably obvious: The Vorrh Trilogy is big, audacious, immersive, surreal, grotesque, written in gloriously florid language, and screamingly unique in just about every way imaginable. I relish epic weirdness of that stripe, deeply valuing the authors who can create it, and the persistence of vision required to birth such fully-formed beautiful monstrosities from their forebrains. The experience of reading Catling’s work is akin to being presented with a vast accretion of elements, amalgamated from the wide range of his varied creative pursuits, at times feeling like a poem, at times like a sculptural assemblage, at times like the script from a deranged performance piece, at times like a treatment for a wordless experimental film. It’s big enough that you can never really look at the whole thing as a singular entity, but instead you must circle around it, never quite sure what the next facet will present, and never quite sure that you can remember what you saw two turns ago. I remember reading one less-than-enthusiastic review that referred to The Vorrh Trilogy as “a mess,” and I actually agreed with that assessment on some arcane plane, considering it to be a compliment when applied to something as gloriously, explosively over-the-top as this intense and immense work.

A five sentence sample text:  “This is where the man-beast crawls, its once-virtuous body turned inside out, made raw and skinless, growing vines and sinews backwards through the flesh, stiff primordial feathers pluming in its lungs, thorns and rust knotted to barbed wire in its loins. Guilt and fear have gnawed the fingertips away to let the claws hook into talons, sharpened by digging a home in the shallow grave. It is seen on all fours, naked, and worse across the broken ground on sharp knees that are red raw from chiseling the earth to gain some purchase. Prowling inside a trench blinded by stark glares of explosions. Another bellowing flash sculpts the rippling muscle of its back and arms and the thick prophet’s hair that has become soured by warfare into itching dreadlocks, mud-filled like the beard of dribble and tangled ginger grit.”

Click here to order the full trilogy.

ALL FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

#9: Gog by Andrew Sinclair (1967)

#10: The Vorrh Trilogy by B. Catling (2015 to 2018)

2019: Year in Review

Marcia and I are hitting the road tomorrow for New Mexico (where we’ll see out 2019, having welcomed it in Paris, France), so it seems a good time for my annual recap and summary of stuffs and things here as a final blog post from a big year, on a wide range of fronts for our family, most of them documented within these pages.

ON THE BLOG:

This is the 70th post on the blog this year, up from 41 in 2018, 35 in 2017, and 27 in 2016. A very positive trend (if not as many posts as I used to poop out annually a decade or so ago), and a good indicator that getting off of social media (a goal established in last December’s “Year in Review” post) was a good way to redirect time and energy to pursuits that I consider more rewarding. Traffic was up a solid 40% over the prior year as well, confirming once again that volume drives reads, as long as quality remains acceptable. As satisfying as that is, given my own goals for the year, I doubt that I will hit the same high post mark in 2020, as I plan to work on some projects for potential professional or commercial purposes, and don’t intend to share them until I know there’s not a market for them. But I do have a couple of new ideas for public writing for pleasure knocking around in my brain, so I may surprise myself.

I completed my planned Credidero writing project this week, an act of thinking out loud in public over the past year about a dozen concepts of interest, looking to see what beliefs might emerge from such active reflection and analysis. It was satisfying to click the final “publish” button, seeing that effort to fruition. Of course, I’m lousy at letting things go cleanly, so I will re-read and mull the entire project output soon, and write one last summarizing article in January, to assess themes or thoughts that emerge from between the lines for me.

As I report each year, here are the ten most-read articles among the 70 new posts here in 2019:

And then here are the ten posts written in prior years that received the most reads in 2019. It always fascinates me which of the 1,100+ articles on my website interest people (or search engines) the most, all these years on since the first 1995 post on an early version of this blog, long before any of us knew it was to be called a blog. (I exclude things like the “About Me” page or the generic front page from the list, even though they generate a lot of my traffic). Here’s hoping that people realize that the perpetually-popular “Iowa Pick-Up Lines” post is a joke . . .

ON THE WEB:

I begin my day, every day, reading two utterly brilliant sites: Thoughts On The Dead and Electoral Vote Dot Com. My deeper thoughts on the former are here, and on the latter, suffice to say they’re my main online source for hard political/electoral news and analysis at this point, and have been since the early ’90s. I will admit that it is hard, sometimes, to decide which one of the worlds they describe in glorious detail (the first a semi-fictional universe built around the exploits of a time-traveling Grateful Dead, the second an academically rigorous view of our Nation’s electoral processes) is the most absurd and unbelievable anymore. I definitely would prefer to live in Thoughts On The Dead’s universe some days when I read the reports on Electoral Vote Dot Com and cringe at the idiocy, if not outright evil, of our ruling class. Beyond that, I didn’t add any new crucial web sites to my roster of favorites this year (see the “Regular Reads” block in the right side-bar), which I suppose is another good indicator that I spent less time trawling and more time creating in 2019 than has been the case in recent years. Good on me.

TRAVEL:

As noted above, we greeted 2019 in Paris, France and will see it out in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We also celebrated our 30th anniversary in June with a great trip to Greece, and our first retirement trip was a jaunt to Spain. In the middle of all that, we consolidated our household in Des Moines, Iowa, after having split time between there and Chicago for three years. I traveled less for work in 2019 than I had in the four prior years (it’s harder to get anywhere from Des Moines than it is from Chicago), though I still got to enjoy my fifth Tour des Trees, this time in Kentucky and Tennessee. Next year the team will ride in Colorado, with Iowa as the target destination the year after that. I hope that health and schedule allow me to continue rolling with them, minus my management responsibilities. At bottom line, 2020 will be mainly about the travel that Marcia and I choose to do, not that we need to do. That will be refreshing. We have trips to Arizona, Ireland, Spain, Costa Rica and Iceland in the family’s conceptual hopper at this point, and we shall see what else the next year brings. Here’s my 2019 map, as a benchmark (with this week’s trip to New Mexico already penciled in):

RECORDINGS:

I’ve already posted my Most Played Songs of 2019 and Best Albums of 2019 reports, and consider 2019 to have been an outstanding music year.

LIVE PERFORMANCES AND ART EXHIBITIONS:

Alas, this is the one section of my annual report that’s ready for retirement, with us having left Chicago. We saw dozens of shows (of both types) each year when we were living just off of The Loop, and we’ve seen, well, close to none, since we moved back to Des Moines. The one concert that stands out was our final one as Chicago residents: King Crimson at Auditorium Theater, where we had front row seats to watch the Seven-Headed Beast work its magic. A wonderful and fitting chapter closer for four great years of concert-going and museum-strolling in a world-class cultural city.

BOOKS:

I set a goal to read more books in 2019. I did read more books in 2019, once again demonstrating the perfidy that Twitter and its ilk impose upon us as time sucks and soul wasters and dumb-down distractions. Here’s the list of my favorite nonfiction works, novels and short story collections of the year. I feel smarter having read them.

FILMS:

We’ve seen a lot of movies this year, many of them quite good. (We’re pretty astute at just not going to see things that we think are not going to appeal to us, so I don’t often get exposed to garbage). Here’s my Top 15 of the year, thus far, in alphabetical order:

  • A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
  • The Art of Self Defense
  • Booksmart
  • Brittany Runs A Marathon
  • Dolemite Is My Name
  • The Farewell
  • Ford v Ferrari
  • Good Boys
  • Jojo Rabbit
  • Knives Out
  • The Lighthouse
  • Midsommar
  • Parasite
  • Ready Or Not
  • Rocketman
  • Us

I still have some Oscar Bait late-in-the-year or below-the-radar films that I would like to check out: Pain & Glory,  The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Monos, and Hagazussa. I’m iffy on The Irishman, as I have a hard time wanting to sit through anything that long, especially a gangster movie, as much as I like the (most of) the film’s cast and director. I thought Little Women was unwatchably bad, so I’m flying in the face of critical consensus on that. In theory, I will amend this to create my final list after I catch the ones I’m going to catch, though once the Academy Awards show rolls around, I usually lose interest in catching up, and start looking ahead to next year.

AND  THEN . . . .

. . . onward to New Mexico and beyond. I assume that I will be back here at my desk (wherever my desk lives at that point) in December 2020 with a similar report (as has become my habit), marveling at that which was, and eagerly anticipating that which is yet to come. See you then?

What’s A Caucus?

We live in Iowa, where our state political caucuses play a crucial role in the selection and election of our next Presidents. (Why is this the case? Here’s my take. Should this be the case? No. Here’s why.) The year before we moved out here from New York (2011), I was managing a group blog called Indie Albany. In anticipation of the then-upcoming Presidential campaign season, I had registered a new blog portal called “Cerberus Caucus,” the underlying premise of which was that it would serve as a three-headed place where a liberal, a conservative, and an independent/centrist could argue political points of merit. I was prepared to play the leftist, and I had a hardcore (e.g. scary) rightist lined up, but was never able to secure a legitimate centrist voice, so that project was shelved in favor of others.

I still own the rights to the Cerberus Caucus domain, and a couple of weeks ago, I received a renewal notification for it. Before re-registering it, I did a Google search to make sure that I wasn’t holding something that had become toxic or noxious. I did not find anything problematic or offensive during that search, but I did stumble across an arcane document from 1844 that tickled me to pieces, given (a) how much I enjoy etymology, and (b) how we throw the word “caucus” around here in Iowa as thought it’s something that everybody in the country understands implicitly.

The document was from a book called Nugæ by Nugator, (which is Latin for Trifles by Jester, or Joker). The version of the document I found bore a stamp saying “Harvard College Library, Sheldon Fund, July 10, 1940.” Searches for the two names appearing on the attribution pages (“St. Leger L. Carter” and “Edward St. O. Carter”) mostly reveal a variety of documents from the Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia. If I had to guess based on what I’ve found, the two Carters are the same person, notwithstanding one source related to the recording of copyright where “Edward” states “I am not the author, but proprietor.” I imagine Mister Carter was a prominent citizen of a somewhat self-indulgent creative bent with sufficient community clout to be worthy of respectful deference by Virginia’s House of Delegates, hence the acceptance of Nugæ into the official record of the Commonwealth’s business. (If someone knows or finds otherwise, I’ll be happy to update this assessment).

I reproduce the cover/credit page of Nugæ, and the particular article that piqued my  interest, below. The piece is framed as an unattributed letter to the editor, but I suspect it’s just the work of Mister Carter being cute, since its tone and language read very much like the rest of  Nugæ to these eyes. Note that the piece (which references ex-President Martin Van Buren, a fave of mine, as a longtime Upstate New Yorker) was written during the 1844 Presidential election, which ended with Democrat James K. Polk defeating Henry Clay of the Whigs. I find the text both entertaining and topical, and it made me do a little research to discover that “caucus” isn’t an ancient Roman or Greek word (as I would have supposed), but is a relatively recent addition to our American English dictionaries, most likely derived from an Algonquian word. Huh!

I hope you enjoy this little nugget of bygone times as much as I did. And in closing, here’s hoping we Iowans use our own upcoming caucus wisely (as the Democrats did in 1844 when they selected Polk at the national convention), whether we really know what the word means or not.

 

 

Best Books of 2019

When I did my 2018 Year in Review post last December, I noted that I was deeply embarrassed by how few new books I had read over the prior year. That was a primary driving reason behind me saying “Ugh! Enough!” when it came to social media soul-sucking time: tons and tons of words passed through my eyes and into my brain in 2018, yes, but very few of them added wisdom or produced pleasure. Goddamn you, Twitter!! Curse you to hell, Russian Trolls!!

In response to that sense of literary embarrassment, I closed out most of my social media accounts last January and made an active commitment to read more books, and less drivel, in 2019. As I look back over the past 12 months, I’m pleased to see that I did indeed devour many more books than I have in most recent years. When picking my reading material, I made a conscious choice to focus on new 2019 books, rather than just defaulting back to reading old books by known favorite authors, and I think I had a better reading year for having done so. The contemporary literary scene seems fertile and pleasing to me.

Over a decade ago, I posited an Eric’s Book of the Every-So-Often Club, noting that my typical reading broke down as follows:

10% Fiction: Usually I will read new books by the the dozen or so authors I know I already really like. Breaking in new authors is so risky and hard. Why bother, neh?

40% Natural History: Ideally books about bugs, trilobites, fish, or birds, or parasites that live(d) on bugs, trilobites, fish and birds, or things that eat/ate bugs, trilobites, fish or birds, or interesting theories about the ways that bugs, trilobites, fish and birds interact with or influence people. I’m a bugs, trilobites, fish and birds kinda guy, y’know?

40% Music Biography: I have read at least half a dozen full-length books about Genesis, to cite but one example of my vast contemporary rock biography collection. And if someone comes out with a credible new book about Genesis next year, I will read that one too. Because someone has to, right? And it might as well be me.

10% Tales of Human Suffering: People falling off of Mount Kanchenjunga, going insane in the Arctic because of the toxins in their tinned food, or trying to walk across the Sahara Desert alone will always be welcome in my book collection. Masochism World, baby! Yeah!

 

Interestingly enough (to me), I pretty much bailed on “Tales of Human Suffering” and “Natural History” in 2019, with “Fiction” playing a far greater role in my pleasure reading than has likely ever been the case in any year of my adult life. There were still several great examples of “Music Biography” in 2019, supplemented by nonfiction works of other stripes. I guess I need to find some good Bug Books in 2020 to make up for this shift in focus. Bug Books make everything better.

I provide my list of the best new release books of 2019 below, divided into three categories: Nonfiction, Novels, and Story Collections. I present each category in alphabetical order by author, with links for further exploration. Forgive the wonky coloration of text and links compared to the normal theme of my website. I created this in a standalone file and spent more time that I should have trying to reconcile it, before deciding that it doesn’t matter, does it? That’s what I’m telling myself anyway, even though it bugs me!

Here’s hoping I can continue to read this many great books in the year ahead.  Check back in December 2020 to see how I do.

2019 NONFICTION (ALPHABETICAL BY AUTHOR):

  1. The Ballad of Jethro Tull by Ian Anderson and Mark Blake
  2. Have A Bleedin’ Guess: The Story of Hex Enduction Hour by Paul Hanley
  3. What We Did Instead of Holidays: A History of Fairport Convention and its Extended Folk-Rock Family by Clinton Heylin
  4. How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States by Daniel Immerwahr
  5. Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974 by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer
  6. The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English by Lynne Murphy
  7. Henry Cow: The World Is A Problem by Benjamin Piekut
  8. Jimmy Page: The Definitive Biography by Chris Salewicz
  9. Baptized Into the Buzz by David Thomas
  10. The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells
  11. In The Court of King Crimson (Revised Edition) by Sid Smith
  12. Underland by Robert MacFarlane

2019 NOVELS (ALPHABETICAL BY AUTHOR):

  1. Interference by Sue Burke
  2. The Silk Road by Kathryn Davis
  3. The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht
  4. Will Haunt You by Brian Kirk
  5. Rabbits for Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum
  6. The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
  7. The Invited by Jennifer McMahon
  8. The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
  9. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
  10. The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada
  11. Lanny by Max Porter
  12. The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling
  13. Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer
  14. Wanderers by Chuck Wendig
  15. Only the Lowly by B. Catling

2019 STORY COLLECTIONS (ALPHABETICAL BY AUTHOR):

  1. Salt Slow by Julia Armfield
  2. Someone Who Will Love You In All Of Your Damaged Glory by Raphael Bob-Waksberg
  3. Exhalation by Ted Chiang
  4. Radicalized by Cory Doctorow
  5. Song for the Unraveling of the World by Brian Evenson
  6. A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs
  7. Raised in Captivity by Chuck Klosterman

My Tree Peeps should check out “Semiosis” and “Interference” by Sue Burke. Trust me on this one.