Monthly Archives: March 2012

Now You’re Cooking, Mr. Goodlooking

Goose chef with a glass of wineDid I happen to mention that I’m an excellent cook? But then again I’m wonderfully modest, so maybe it never came up. I would invite you over to dinner, but the other chair has stuff piled on it, so you wouldn’t have anywhere to sit. I mean, I need to leave that stuff on the chair, because those things are organized. Or maybe we could sit on the couch, if I take things off. That stuff’s not organized. Alright, I’ll think about it and let you know.

Anyway, I’m an excellent cook, except, heh, for that pot of beans last week, but fortunately the old couple who live upstairs lost their sense of smell long ago. I feel sorry for their dog, though. It still looks angry.

I’m also the sort of bold cook who doesn’t follow recipes, but you probably already guessed that about me. I don’t give in to autocratic concepts like “cooking time”. Last week I wanted to cook something new, but I had already ignored all the recipes I had. I didn’t want to go buy a new cookbook because…well, we don’t need to get into what the bookstore told me the last time I was there. It was the old lady’s fault, but right away they believed her. I just hope you don’t believe her.

That’s why I went to the library.

People, have you been to our library? I’m not blaming you if you haven’t. But if you have, you know that the cookbook section is close to the children’s part of the library. When I got there a group of kids was having story hour. I couldn’t believe how well behaved they were. Not a peep as they listened quietly to the story lady. The story lady, on the other hand, what a banshee! She was howling, and making goose noises and waving her arms in the air. I thought If she lays an egg, I’m not eating it.

I went as quietly as a child to the cookbooks, trying to ignore the bedlam in the story room. I was looking for seafood cookbooks, because I’m partial to fish. I was thinking of doing a stuffed anchovy, and I didn’t have a recipe for doing that. I mean, I wouldn’t follow the recipe, it was just for inspiration. Like I said, in my creative world cooking is existential battle. I can imagine you admire that attitude.

In the cookbook section I found a book with a nice fish on the cover, but it was a trick, because it was an Italian cookbook. I don’t know what fish have to do with pasta, but there it was. Then I found a diet cookbook, and listen, I’m sorry but dieting is about not eating. That diet book never should have been there, so I took it off the shelf and threw it out a window into some bushes.

And finally, there was a book just for seafood. It had lovely pictures, things you would want to eat. Nothing had gravy on it to hide the fact that it was overcooked. I mean, not that I ever do that. I just heard about it.

One of the pictures in the book showed a red snapper roasted to perfection, with fresh rosemary and lemon. I was looking at the picture and started to get really hungry, my stomach was growling, and I almost felt like I could eat the pages.

One of the librarians came by and stopped. “Sir,” she said. “Sir, excuse me.”

“What,” I asked her.

“Sir, are you spitting on that book?”

I didn’t realize I had been drooling from hunger.

“I, um, no,” I said. “I was…crying. Those, yes, those are tears. I just remembered my brother, who was a fisherman. He used to fish for this kind of fish.”

She just looked at me. I don’t think she believed me. She probably would have believed the woman in the book store over me, too. “Would you not get tears on the book?” she said.

Now I was too hungry to sit looking at recipes, and the poultry commotion in the story room was getting louder, so I left. It was too late to go home and cook, as hungry as I was. I had to stop at a diner on the way home. It’s not a bad place. They do a lot of dishes with gravy.

Now that you know these things about me, we have something important to do. I need to ask you some questions. I’ll post all the answers here as evidence of….whoof, I don’t know what they would be evidence of. So here are the questions:

  • Have you ever been to our library?
  • Do you believe that woman at the bookstore?
  • What is your favorite recipe to ignore?
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Longing, Love, Loss, and Repeat

Three women floating in a circle

The cycle of life

The oldest piece of literature in existence, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is around 4,000 years old. In terms of human existence, I don’t think that’s very old, but still, it’s been a while. Although there are things in the poem that can seem foreign to a modern reader, there are many things in this short epic that illustrate basic human feelings, things we can identify with: desire for power, anger, fear of death, sexual lust, boastfulness, love of friends, perplexity about life.

One of the elements of the poem with dramatic consequences is love that is not fulfilled. The goddess Ishtar falls in love with Gilgamesh, who rejects her. Unwisely, he does not do this gently. An angry rejected lover can be a problem. An angry rejected goddess can be a Huge Problem.

In some ways this episode with Ishtar is symbolic of a common human experience, the bitter disappointment of rejection by someone who we love. It’s a common motif in literature, as is falling in love, being in love, celebrating the wonders of the loved one, anguish that love is being lost, suspicion that the loved one is not faithful—it’s quite a list.

From looking at art, we see that romantic love is a major human obsession. We find it in the Odyssey, early Beatles songs, nearly every Shakespeare play, Victorian novels like Jane Eyre, all soap operas, most regular operas, 99% of pop songs (even Metallica, a little bit), poems by the Roman writer Catullus, recent popular novels like The Help, or the 800-year-old Japanese novel  The Tale of Genji. It’s an ocean full of longing and celebration, and if you haven’t been there, you’re a robot. I’m adding one of my drops to that ocean, in this case a poem about longing.

Goodbye, Samsara

But of course I’m overly optimistic
to think I might say goodbye to the cycle of suffering,
the Buddhist samsara.
Are we really born and reborn
according to our thoughtlessness or kindness in a previous life?
And if so,
do we really make progress?
Am I making progress?
Maybe.
Maybe a thousand years ago
I was a warrior with the soul of a wild animal,
setting huts on fire with people inside,
and as punishment
I was reborn a slave.
That was to teach me humility.
Perhaps then I made progress
and I was merely a man who beat his wife and children.
For that, I may have been reborn a blind beggar.
That was to teach me empathy.

I must have been rather good in recent lives.
I’m not a slave,
I’m not destitute,
I’m not physically afflicted.
Now I only suffer from an unfulfillable desire to be loved.
Once I get past that
it ought to be smooth sailing.

You are my test.
To stop loving you,
to stop wishing you loved me,
this is my spiritual quest,
my application of Buddhist practice.
“But if she knew how much—”
Breathe in, focus on your breathing.
“Surely I make her happy—”
Your suffering is the path to liberation.

Yes, perhaps I am overly optimistic.
Even 2,600 years does not seem like enough time
to create a religion
that can relieve me of the burden of pointlessly loving you.A drop of water on a leaf
Still
I breathe in,
and focus on my breathing.

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I Went to the Moon For a Few Minutes While I Was Waiting

Painting of girl readingAt the Quaker Meeting that I go to, the practice of the Meeting is to mostly sit silently, unless someone feels moved by the spirit to speak (though sometimes I wonder just which spirit is moving them). I’m told that other meetings are conducted differently, with more talking, but that’s how ours is. At the end, after an hour or so, suddenly everyone turns around to shake one another’s hands and say “Good morning”. It took me quite a long time to figure out what magical signal they were all following, but now that I know, it seems easy enough that maybe you can figure it out for yourself.

At the end of the Meeting, several things occur, including announcements. I often find the announcements rather dull, as I almost never intend to use any of the information provided. So it’s easy for me to imagine that from a child’s point of view, one adult after another adds to the droning stream of blahblahblah.

This past Sunday, I noticed a little girl, who seemed about eight years old, sitting beside her mother and holding a book open on her lap. Children only come into the Meeting at the end, so the girl was present for the announcements, which she ignored by reading the book. I caught sight of the title: Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I’m always pleased to see a child intently reading—it makes me think that someday we may attain civilization, and I was also captivated on Sunday by the slightly rebellious idea that this little girl had found herself in a boring situation and found a way out of it again with a book.

When we’re kids, books take us places, and they need to be interesting places, or we won’t go there. So we go down a hole with Alice following a rabbit, to watch giant playing cards walking around on a chess board. Or in the amazingly popular addition to children’s books, we get on a train and go to a castle where a school teaches children to use magic. When I was in high school, some of the places books took me were colonies on Mars, an outpost on the moon, or the Earth itself a thousand years from now.

Even as adults, we still look for books that will take us to more places than we can travel to otherwise, such as an apartment house in St. Petersburg, Russia, where a man kills an old woman with an axe, or to Chicago, where a man suddenly disappears and travels through time, or to an island where a man meets people who are only a few inches tall.

Sometimes people use the word “escapism” to describe the type of reading that takes us away from where we are, and probably there’s an implication that using books this way is a limitation of what they can do. Here at my house, though, bring me escapism, bring me a library full of it, and keep a backup library standing by.

Nevertheless, I recognize that books can also take us somewhere more abstract, into worlds that consist not just of places, but of ideas. A book may take us to a state of mind where we can understand basic principles of planetary motion, or where we learn about the life of the second American president. In those cases as well, we are still being mentally taken away to some place other than where we are sitting.

The problem with all these wonderful benefits is that books take an effort to read. The physical object has to be manipulated, pages turned, or links clicked. Muscles of the eyes and hands have to move. But the real work is the mental concentration, moving through layers of symbols, interpreting them, to construct words, then sentences, and ultimately ideas. The reason a book exists is because of what happens in the mind of the reader, as if the book as a physical object isn’t there any more. When a book works, ideas have to form in our minds, often constructed of bits and pieces as we read, to be held in our memories, and then worked on and adjusted in the memory as we read farther into the book.

Does that paragraph make you feel a little exhausted? Do you want to just get a donut and go sit on the couch? That’s how many people feel about reading. And while they’re sitting on the couch, it’s easy enough to turn on the TV. It’s so much easier than reading. And of course there’s the internet, and just look at this funny video of a baby and a dog!

It does take an effort to read. Will people stop reading books? Some eight-year-old girls say no.

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Filling the Space With Color

Painting of eggplant and tomatoesYesterday morning community gardeners held a meeting at the Harris Township building. Here in Pennsylvania, we have “townships”, with no relationship that I can see to actual towns. As far as I know, every county is divided into such administrative units, and my township is Harris, though the village itself is called Boalsburg. So on March 17, with the door propped open to the warm air outdoors, with jonquils blooming along the street, and with trees coming into flower, we had a gardening meeting.

Last year I got a plot in the community garden, an activity I approached with a level of ignorance that would have shamed my farming and gardening grandparents. That’s part of the story of America—my rural forebears have been reduced to me, planting tomato and lettuce plants on the same day. If you know gardening yourself, you’re shaking your head thinking “what a garden doofus”. And if you know less than me—well, jeez, if you know less than me, you really need to go learn something.

Here in the middle of a bucolically warm March, I begin to contemplate the impending savory glories of July and August and September: the cornucopia of tomatoes that make angels start slicing bread for tomato sandwiches, fresh brussel sprouts sauteed with garlic, basil whirred into piquant pesto on pasta. I need to find my gardening shoes. I think they’re under the bed.

This week I also came to a working class realization—trying to survive through freelance work is absolutely not working. Though I spend, literally, hours every day looking, I’ve had no work in months. It’s time to face facts (i.e. rent, food, that stuff) and get a job, any job, good or bad. A few days ago I applied to be a barista in the cafe of a new bookstore, but I wasn’t hired. I also discovered that the editorship of a local monthly newspaper is open, and I’ve applied. That job was open a year ago and I decided then not to apply, but now that it’s available again, times is different, children, times is different. But even if I were to get it, it does not pay enough to live on.

Putting aside updates on the sparkle and glitter of life in the physical world, in the life of ideas, my Novel That Still Doesn’t Have A Name is springing up ever more before my eyes. People who never existed before begin to speak, bits of geography appear as if in a movie, as prairies roll out and buildings rise up on city streets, and Benedict and Miramar suddenly reveal new character traits that were not evident before.

For the last few days I haven’t done much writing, but serious writers know that you don’t have to actually “write” to be a writer. You just have to tell people you’re a writer and behave eccentrically. Maybe wear a colorful scarf.

I feel very contented with how my story is going. More than contented—it’s fun, and it makes me happy to see what is happening, as if some other person is doing it. The actual composition process is the same as it always was. To the right of the cursor on the computer screen is a white space, and below that is a challenging white expanse. Theoretically, what follows in that white space could be any possible thing my mind can think of. Since I am a highly trained professional (and you should not try this), what I actually put in that white space brings smiles of familiarity and pleasure, evokes tears of empathy, and stimulates ideas as though beautiful birthday boxes have suddenly been opened. Plus all my commas are correctly, placed.

At this moment, Benedict and Miramar are in Benedict’s SUV, driving north from Denver toward Wyoming, where they will turn west again. They have just spent a wild day at the Firebear Festival, for which I rather obviously took inspiration from Burning Man. I think I have an idea of what will happen for the rest of their westward journey, and they are soon to meet an interesting fat man, based on someone who I talked to in a cafe a week ago.

Soon they will also go through a time door back to Indianapolis, Indiana, where they have just had some rather traumatic adventures involving memory. I’ll send them on from there, across Ohio and toward Philadelphia, and there is a big difficulty coming when they get to Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania can be like that. But we have gardens.

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Get the Bard a Beer

Woman writing

Woman writing a poem, probably

A few days ago it was so warm that I felt inspired… No. That’s not the right word. I was…I felt…perspired. That’s it, I was sweating. I was jogging at the time, in that way I have that makes passersby turn their heads in wonder. “I wonder why he doesn’t walk,” I’ve heard them say. It’s not surprising that they’re impressed, gazing after my flighty strides, my upright form, as I break from the norm, like the very wind itself. “Look at the way he breaks the wind,” I hear them say in admiration. I’m sure you’re feeling some admiration now yourself.

At the risk of redundancy, I’ll reiterate once more that it was a warm day. I hear you saying, “Hmm, mid March, how warm was it?” And I don’t want to be rude, but you can’t be interrupting me like that. I’m trying to tell you. It was rather warm, that’s how warm it was.

Spring has stepped her gentle foot onto the greening scenery. This advent of the balmy season inspired me, which I’m sure you’re glad to hear, and I haven’t even told you yet what it was I felt inspired to do. It’s lovely of you to offer such unconditional support. I take back that part about not interrupting me. Come over to my house and I’ll make you a drink. I’m sure there’s something here I haven’t drunk up… Or anyway, we can go to the store. I’m assuming you’re allowed to drive.

So because it was a warm day and spring had stepped in with her gentle foot, I felt inspired to write a poem. I happen to know something about poetry. I’ve read, my gosh, a couple of dozen maybe. When I was a kid we had a set of poetry books for children, and every one of those poems had a title. That’s how I knew I needed a title. You’re nodding in appreciation? It’s only natural that you would be surprised by what I know about poetry.

Since my poem was going to be about spring, I thought the word “spring” needed to be in the title. There’s a set of rules somewhere, and I think I had a copy until my brother came by one day. He needed something to take to court to prove he was still in school, and I couldn’t find the rule book after that. But I think the rule says if you write a poem about something, that thing has to be in the title.

I considered “Spring Is Here” as my title, but I thought “is” is kind of a dull word, and I don’t believe a poem should be dull. That’s just me talking. You might have your own ideas. Then I thought what about “Spring Was Here”, except that would have been a poem about last year, and I wanted something for now. Finally I decided to use “Spring Flew Here”. I know that doesn’t make sense to you. It doesn’t make sense to me either, but this is poetry, so it’s OK.

Now I was up to the first line. I wrote “I saw a bee” because bees come out in the spring. Maybe I should explain something. I didn’t really see a bee. Here in central Pennsylvania it’s still too early in mid March, although I did see some other bugs already, and when I was jogging a bug landed on my arm, so I started yelling and shaking my arm to get it off because who knows what it might want to do. It might bite me. It might deposit something.

People saw me yelling and waving my arm, and one man came walking toward me. “Are you OK?” he asked. By then the bug had flown away. I didn’t want to say I had a bug on my arm because…I don’t know, I just didn’t want to. “I was doing vocal yoga,” I said.

Anyway, on my poem, the next line needed to rhyme with “bee”, and you know how it is with us writers. Or maybe you don’t know. I don’t blame you for not knowing. Stuff just comes into our heads. So the next line I thought of was “I need to pee” ha ha! but I couldn’t use that. After thinking for a while and waking up from a nap I wrote “It flew by a tree”. Now I had two lines and a title, and I’m sure you’re thinking “Wow, that was fast!”

That’s how it is with us writers, like a river running by sometimes. My third line was “It wanted a flower” and you can see why I would say that. I just had to refer to what bees actually like. After that I needed a rhyme with flower, so I started going through the alphabet: aower, bower, cower, dower, eower, gower, hower—it didn’t seem to be helping.

And then—because I’m a writer, and stuff just comes into our heads—the word “power” occurred to me. Ah hah! “The bee had such power.” Bees do have a kind of power. They can sting you, and that’s power. Last summer a bee came after me and I ran around the house four times yelling for help, until my brother-in-law said he thought it was just a dragonfly. I’m not trained in insects. I don’t know.

Anyway, now I had a fourth line. So my poem read

Spring Flew Here

Man asleep on computer

Me writing a poem

I saw a bee

It flew by a tree

It wanted a flower

The bee had such power

People, after that kind of creative outburst, I felt like I had contributed something to human civilization. So I went off to look for a beer. I wish you good luck with your own creative endeavors. I hope you have enough beer to be creative.

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I See Invisible People

A writer with magical eyes

The special vision that writers have

Some people say Homer did not exist. We also talk about what he wrote, the Iliad and the Odyssey. So someone wrote them, but was it a guy named Homer? Perhaps there is some mythology going on here.

Writers not only write about mythology, even modern mythology, like baseball stories, but writers can become mythology, like Jack Kerouac as a symbol of the wide-open physical (and by implication, political) freedom of America. Because writers are inherently liars, and because in order to do what we do, we must also have unreasonable egos, I think we probably like the idea of becoming mythological. I stride the earth scattering the vivid verbal fruit of my creations.

Within our scribal tribe, sometimes—maybe just once in a little while—we help to manufacture our own mythology. Who’s going to stop us? Did I ever mention that I was an Eagle Scout, that I became high school Valedictorian, that during a vacation in France I ended up living for a week drinking wine with a woman who sang in a night club, that once during a thunderstorm I helped my grandfather recapture two horses that had gone wild and escaped, or that during a stay in Russia (when it was still the Soviet Union) I snuck away illegally from Moscow and took a train to Leningrad for a few days?

Some of those things are true. Some are not. Maybe.

But aside from a tiny tendency to tuck away the rough edges of reality, I want to consider something here more at the heart of what a writer is. To begin with, writers have an inherent ability with and interest in language. Such an interest and ability are not really to our credit, we’re just born that way. Being born is nothing you can honestly brag about—not that this will stop us from bragging. What we’re born with we can call talent, but without development, no talent is worth much. Serious writers learn the technical skills of the vocation, like how to properly use an apostrophe, goddamnit. Or more subtly, how to make it sound real when two people fall in love.

As writers, we act like we’re special…but so do all humans beings. In fact, everyone is special. It’s not just a cliche that we’re all unique, with our amazing, unlikely existence in the universe. Writers are not unique in wanting to be recognized for our existence, though we also claim to have a special talent, and no doubt that is sometimes true. Some people have a talent for language, or for stories, for creating characters, and so on.

There’s a question here that I’ve been sort of heading toward, in my sloppy, rambling way. Writers often want to claim, and sometimes maybe we believe it, that we have a unique way of seeing the world. But is that really true? What would it mean “to see the world differently”? My inclination is to say that seeing the world in a unique way (whatever that might mean) has nothing to do with being a writer. Probably philosophers see the world in a special way, and God knows they’re not writers.

Or consider Salvador Dali. Whatever was going on in his head, if his paintings are any indication, wasn’t what I see. Similarly, in an auditory way, with Mozart or Miles Davis. And really, I think you could find an auto mechanic somewhere, or a school janitor, that if you talked to them long enough, you’d come away asking, “How did they think of that?”

Here’s a possibility that seems most likely to me. Everyone, right down to the last untouchable in some dreary little village in India, has a unique vision of the world. The difference with writers is just that we have a voice—we talk about it. So I’m going to use my voice to describe how I sometimes see the world, though of course you have your own way.

Picture a marble floating in space. One hundred yards away is another marble, and in a different direction, also a hundred yards away, is another marble. Between these marbles there is no physical matter, just emptiness. If you look at this in the right way (in my analogy) the marbles are too small to be seen, so you see nothing but emptiness. Now imagine a thousand marbles just as spread out, then a million, then a billion billion. There is still mostly emptiness. The marbles represent atoms, or parts of atoms, or quantum particles if you like. Some of those marbles have energetic attractions to one another and stick together. By doing so, they make things, such as our bodies, but our bodies and everything else are mostly empty space. Within that space, there is energy, though no one really knows what energy is. And within that energy there is thought, which we know because we think about things.

The universe is a network of almost nothing in the emptiness, filled with energy and thought. Almost 3,000 years ago, one of the beings in that emptiness thought about what it would be like if a guy had magical difficulties getting home from a war, and he wrote the Odyssey. We call him Homer.

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Bow Down, Bow Down

Dweeb definitionThe slang word “dweeb”, I’m guessing, did not exist when Louis Auchincloss wrote The Rector of Justin. Now that we have that word, we can make it one of the choices for describing the major narrator of the novel.

If instead we are feeling flush with word-money and in the mood to pay for a more elegant term, the sort of word we might find wearing a white tie and holding a glass of champagne, let’s say that Brian, the narrator, is a pathetic sycophant. Or yet again, let’s drag out some literary hardware, build a suitable metaphor, and stand that up in public. Then we can say that Brian, a man in his early 20s, could well be described as an anxious elderly woman, looking timidly around her and unsure of what to do. In his own words, Brian “trembles” sometimes from the emotion of speaking to someone.

Yeah, that Brian. He’s not very likeable, but he’s also not the main character, just the narrator. We do learn things about Brian, because the book is written in first person, and the novel is somewhat framed as the story of how Brian comes to work at the private boys school called Justin Martyr, how he eventually goes to seminary, and then returns to work at the school.

But the real subject of the book is Dr. Prescott, who created the school and runs it for most of the book. We see Prescott as a young man with an ambition to create a school, and we see a few incidents when he is in his prime, but for most of the book he is elderly and the book ends with his death. Dr. Prescott is the Rector of Justin Martyr, thus the title of the book.

An approach used by Auchincloss in this book is to tell the entire story through the writings of various characters. Each person tells their piece of the story, relating their own interaction with Dr. Prescott. They speak in first person and talk about themselves, yet since their subject is always Prescott, his story—the real story—is told in third person as they talk about him. I think it is clever that Auchincloss used a series of first-person narratives to tell a story in third person.

Soon after the beginning of the novel, Brian comes to adore Dr. Prescott, which seems to be the core of the book. Consider this sentence from Brian’s journal, written after Prescott has retired: “It was as if God had paused and withdrawn to a misty mountain-top to see how man will manage his creation.” Maybe you don’t find Brian’s attitude revolting. Some people apparently don’t. I wondered where the author could be going with that sort of thing. Satire, perhaps. A subtle condemnation of Brian’s irritating sucking up, perhaps. But no, no satisfying smacking of this pusillanimous puppy occurs.

In fact, as irritating as it becomes to read about Brian’s obsequious worship of the Rector, it turns out that every important character in the book is completely obsessed with Dr. Prescott. Granted, not every character wallows in adulation the way Brian does. Two characters speak of Dr. Prescott very negatively—but positive or negative, one gets the feeling that every person in the book thinks of almost nothing else but him. One character even hates the Rector as much as other characters adore him, but the sick obsession is exactly the same.

I read a discussion suggesting that the author, Louis Auchincloss, followed in the tradition of Edith Wharton and Henry James. I could see both of those comparisons. Wharton wrote about the extremely wealthy parasite class in New York around the 1890s, and although The Rector of Justin partially takes place during World War II, there are references to “old New York” and “old Boston”, and there is a very strong feeling in this book of class and wealth. The comparison to Henry James I would see partly based on style, with a meticulous parsing of psychological nuances. Unlike James, however, Auchincloss creates characters who actually breathe air and seem alive.

Though I didn’t like the story or the characters here, I can see that Auchincloss is a skilled and capable writer. He can create characters and he can move a story forward using imaginative techniques. He is also quite good with language, with a style that may be a little fussy for some readers, but his writing is elegant and erudite. I’ll try to illustrate why I think so with a couple of quoted examples: (1) “Soon, only too soon, reality will burst the walls and swell the gutters of the school to boiling livid streams, but the interim is ours and is not the interim as real as reality?” (2) “That morning he took his text from the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, and he described amusingly the natural exasperation of those who had borne the heat and burden of the day only to receive the same wage as the Johnny-come-latelies of the afternoon.”

Though my overall reaction to the book has been largely negative, you don’t need to trust me. This book was loved by people who publish in better places than I ever have. A review in The New Yorker said of the novel that “Its poise and taste and intelligence strike one on every page…” From the New York Observer we read that this novel is “a certifiable masterpiece”.

Not to me it ain’t. Maybe you will like it better.

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