Thursday, December 29, 2011


Up in a pocket in the mountains
A place where no one's "just passing by"
The town of Crested Butte lies waiting
For ski-bums and villagers getting high.

Fred and I came here to spend a week,
Shedding the pressures of daily lives
Flying on skis under cobalt sky,
Cheered when the youthful pair arrives.

Up the pass then, Heinz and I,
Exploring a nearby trek, we trailed
And found the powder, soft and deep
Up Gunsight Pass - till sense prevailed.

Cooking up feasts in another's kitchen,
Game hens and steak, cookies and pie,
Champagne breakfast and gorp for the trail,
Yes, you could say we're getting by.

Laughter and Scrabble and movies we like,
A record collection to explore
Canoe on the ceiling in this rental home,
Myriad joys - we'll be back for more!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Midnight in Paris

I've found Owen Wilson to be more a pretender than an actor. But in Midnight in Paris he channels Woody Allen, down to the vocal inflections, neuroses and challenges to intellectual pomposity. And he's wonderful because the story is so good. A young man Gil (Wilson) and his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) are visiting Paris with her parents. She drags him along to tourist sites with her friends Paul and Carol, but Gil would rather wander the city and dream. A successful hack screenwriter, he aspires to be a Real Writer, and one midnight an old Peugeot full of partygoers picks him up. They transport him to the 1920s where he is delighted to meet all the luminaries you know about if you love the era: Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Josephine Baker, Picasso, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and Alice B. Toklas, Dali (Adrien Brody), Bunuel and Man Ray, "Tom Eliot", and an enchanting young artists' model, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who helps him to see that his fiancee is not the right match for him.

The music, the lights, the costumes and laughter wonderfully evoke the Jazz Age atmosphere in which Gil immerses himself by night. During the day he dodges Inez and the pedantic Paul, using his midnight experiences to toss in some unknowable mots about the artists they admire from a safe and stuffy distance. While Inez and her mother furnish a house the young couple do not yet own in Malibu, Gil is eagerly rewriting his novel, which Stein is critiquing for him.

Woody Allen has been playing with history (and time itself) for much of his career, from parodies of historical figures in Bananas, Love & Death, Zelig and Broadway Danny Rose, to time travel in Sleeper and Stardust Memories. By elevating comedy to this level of enchantment, he has struck the truest note yet in his exploration of time, nostalgia and memory. We're with him all the way, bumbling along with 21st Century rube Gil in wide-eyed awe of a milieu just out of reach of our recollection, but legendary.

If you know nothing about the Twenties in Paris, you will miss many of the references, but maybe this charming film will entice you to find out more.

Friday, December 9, 2011

War & Peace and Russian Soul

Up to now the book has been, with the exception of recounting scenes of war, somewhat dry: we linger in the salons of Petersburg and Moscow society, where snobbery and currying favor dominate, with jockeying for advantageous marriages and alliances that will lead to better positions. Tolstoy shows us how stultifying it all is - Pierre, now a Mason, walks through this phony maneuvering with the social clumsiness of a man who cannot conceal who he is.

But in Book II Part Four, Russia herself comes to life: Andrei Bolkonsky, whose wife died in childbirth, falls unexpectedly in love with the 16-year-old guileless Natasha Rostov, who in her enthusiasm, spirit and heartfelt honesty represents true Russia. The reader wants to stop the future for these two because their love is so painfully strong and direct - surely tragedy is drawn to such fortunates. Having secured her promise to marry, he goes abroad for a year in deference to his disapproving acerbic father.

Young as she is, she cannot stay gloomy waiting. And so we have the hunt: her brother Nikolai's passion for wolf-hunting galvanizes the household, and though it is not proper, no one can keep Natasha from joining in. She rides well, she doesn't impede the serious hunters, and afterwards they end up at the humble country place of their uncle. She eats the plain peasant fare with gusto, she dances a Russian peasant dance no one has ever taught her, she sings and plays guitar -
"She did [the dance] exactly right, and so precisely, so perfectly precisely, that Anisya Fyodorovna, who at once handed Natasha the kerchief she needed for it, wept through her laughter, looking at this slender graceful countess, brought up in silk and velvet, so foreign to her, who was able to understand everything that was in Anisya and in Anisya's father, and in her aunt, and in her mother, and in every Russian."

As though Tolstoy himself is enchanted by the vibrant young women of the Rostov household, he then gives us Christmas, when the young people join the mummers who come calling. With everyone in disguise, Nikolai Rostov, on leave from his regiment, sees his cousin Sonya distinctly as if for the first time, in her disguise as a Circassian man with a moustache drawn on her face in burnt cork. He is dressed as an old woman, and this pair who have grown up together fall completely in love. Though it is a disaster for his parents, who counted on him to rescue them from penury by marrying a wealthy woman, he must have penniless Sonya.

The joy we see in Natasha's vivacity and Nikolai's unabashed passions are tempered by their sense that never again will life be so wonderful. As readers, we have a similar dread: that not quite halfway through the novel, we have seen its most joyous moments. From here, surely tragedy and grief await us.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Movie Review - The Swell Season

I wouldn't have seen this film if I'd realized it was a documentary to me the charm of the 2007 indie hit Once was the story: An Irish busker Glen Hansard meets a shy Czech single mother Marketa Irglova who lives with her toddler daughter and an assortment of cheap-apartment-block denizens. He notices her playing piano at a music store, and convinces her to accompany him on some songs. Their chemistry pulls them into a hopeful relationship. Rarely does life make as good a story as a well-crafted fiction does. I already knew as much about Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova as I wanted to. But I stayed. This film is about the success of the musical couple in the wake of their Oscar win for the song "Falling Slowly" from Once.

Popularity isn't for everyone, as soon becomes apparent. Intercut with performance bits and a lot of lounging around the random concert halls, hotels and bars familiar to any musical tour, were interview scenes. Those with Hansard's mother were particularly pointless. Overwhelmed by his Oscar, she opens the floodgates of her satisfaction and sense of immortality conferred by the award. But since Hansard, in solo interviews prior to her gushing, gives away her punch-lines, watching her teaches us nothing. Likewise, he explains his father was an undefeated boxer who turned down an invitation to compete in America he used the excuse of his young wife being pregnant, but admits on camera that the only part of him primed for success was his boxing ability, and everything else was lacking. So he repressed his ambitions and became such a dedicated drunk that when he realized he was dying, he told his son he planned to spend the rest of his life drunk. And did. So when we see the former boxer, we have already been coached on what to think.

Marketa and Glen have some of the conversations any young couple does, who are serious about each other. In that sense their observations are both profound, because as each of us arrives at these revelations they have genuine power, and banal, because everyone has or should have exactly these thoughts: How much should I sublimate my own wishes to this other person's, so we can get along? Am I postponing expression of my true feelings because I believe this situation is temporary, when in fact our situation is what it will always be, precisely because it is an extension of who we are?

Her sweet and ringing conviction is that through all this discomfort of dealing with well-wishers and adulation, and the sense that she and Glen are growing apart because of these stresses and their individual maturing despite all this she recognizes the breadth of their love, which she believes transcends this existence. Maybe they won't stay together in this life, but the next time around this love will draw together the different people they will be, and perhaps then they will be able to live in that love all their lives. So she hopes, and makes no apology for the way she and Glen are diverging.

He performs one song in a solo practice session, noting that it has a prophetic ring to it. "That happens," he says. "You write a song about an imaginary breakup – which is the furthest thing from what's happening with you in your life, and then it comes true." These two don't really fight, though the accumulated anger between them galvanizes their concert performances. Both seem too matter-of-fact and grounded to just explode at each other he needs her to smile so she does. She's in love with him so she sublimates herself. And we can tell it won't last.

I have one catty remark, which is to say that Irglova's singing rides the edge of notes, which I found agonizing in her solos. One number in particular, with an out-of-key drum in the background, was really hard to listen to. Hansard shouts and plays his guitar furiously (though the camera does not show us his rapidly strumming hand, instead giving us a view of his elbow and shoulder), and his out-of-tune singing occurs deliberately. We know he can hit those notes when he wants to. But her voice has the uncertainty of someone unschooled in vocals, who sings as an adjunct to her piano and guitar playing. She sings somewhat better than I do, which I'm sorry to say is not a compliment.

If you are interested in the achievement and fallout of success, and if you don't mind yet another musician-road movie, you may enjoy this sweet-natured film. But if you want a story, there isn't one really. Consider yourself warned.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Time to do some holiday shopping for the readers on your list!

Buy physical copies of Karmafornia at http://FoolCourtPress.Net
on sale through December 31.

Or for that e-book reader on your list, the Smashwords edition
is now priced for the holidays:

Here's what Publishers Weekly said:
In 1978, two young lovers leave Boulder, Colo., and head to Berkeley, Calif., where they struggle with life's messy problems and intrusions in this capable, well-developed look back at an edgy, bygone time. Arriving at the University of California, Berkeley, Laura--with free-spirited boyfriend Walt in tow--begins graduate studies in biology. It isn't long before she meets fellow student Cob, an irresistible fruitarian from Nebraska with whom Laura eventually has a passionate affair replete with unbelievable orgasms. But the relationship with Cob--and the sex--lacks love, and Walt is summoned to the rescue. This love triangle plays out against the background of the political and social upheaval of the time, with Weil referencing everything from the controversial Proposition 13--which rolled back property taxes--to the mass suicide by cult members of Jim Jones's People's Temple in Jonestown, Guyana. Weil ably captures the period, while convincingly delineating her characters.

Monday, November 21, 2011

War and Peace

I'm at the 200 page mark, and had my first taste of battle.
For Tolstoy, leadership has to do with morale more than strategy -
The Russian general Bagration rides among his few thousand Russian soldiers as they prepare to face the main body of the French army. He agrees with what they say they're going to do (while his aide Andrei Bolkonsky, who has spent time and effort prior to this review taking the grand view of battle, envisioning troop movements, feints and counter-attacks, worries about his commander's casual and apparently thoughtless acquiescence to the fusiliers, the infantry and the cavalry). "Owing to the tact shown by ... [General] Bagration, Prince Andrei [Bolkonsky] noticed that, in spite of the chance character of events and their independence of the commander's will, his presence accomplished a very great deal. Commanders... became calm, soldiers and officers greeted him merrily and became more animated in his presence, and obviously showed off their courage before him."
At the far end of the deployment, two officers, one Russian and the other Austrian, engage in a personal squabble, ignoring the battle; their soldiers are disorganized and fearful, their training forgotten. "The troops... both infantry and hussars, sensed that their superiors themselves did not know what to do, and the indecisiveness of the superiors communicated itself to the troops."

Meanwhile, Nikolai Rostov is struck by an artillery shell, his horse killed out from under him. He wanders in a daze, unaware of his own wounds except that one arm is useless. In many ways he is still the child of his soft upbringing. "Something must be wrong, " he thought, "it's impossible that they should want to kill me... Me, whom everybody loves so?"
But the soldiers the general has encouraged in his uncommanding way, meet battle with cooperation and fortitude. The artillery gunners fight valiantly while their fellows die around them, creating diversions they have thought of themselves (setting the town behind the French lines on fire, which draws off French soldiers to battle the blazes) and displaying that unhesitating courage a general can only dream of.

This small detachment holds off the French, enabling the main body of the Russian army to escape being cut off from its allies and annihilated by Napoleon's troops.

Tolstoy uses such phrases as "Pleasant buzzing and whistling noises were heard rather often" (they're being fired upon); "his face expressed that concentrated and happy resolve"; "Prince Andrei felt that some invincible force was drawing him forward, and he experienced great happiness"; "there was established in [the artilleryman's] head a fantastic world of his own, which made up his pleasure at that moment. In his imagination, the enemy's cannon were not cannon but pipes, from which an invisible smoker released an occasional puff of smoke."

Tolstoy's soldiers love being in battle.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

War & Peace

Since it now feels like winter (temp never got out of the 30s today) I have undertaken War & Peace, in the new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
My 4th year Russian class was supposed to read it, but the Soviet (showing my age here!) powers-that-be sent copies of Resurrection instead. So we read that, but it wasn't the same. Who knows if we would have made it through this tome? Guess I missed my chance - by now my Russian vocabulary is so buried I have to read it in English.

This pair of translators promise a more accurate rendition than their predecessors. Where Tolstoy liked to repeat words and phrases, translators took it upon themselves to "clean up" his sentences by minimizing the repetitions. But surely we can admire Tolstoy the writer enough to believe that his technique was deliberate. Pevear and Volokhonsky have decided he knew what he was up to, and respect him enough to leave his phrasing intact. Thus, I detect the flavor of the Russian through their English text.

I came late to Tolstoy - my first love among Russian writers is Dostoyevsky, followed by Solzhenitsyn (particularly The First Circle and Cancer Ward). But when I named a character Anna Karenina Brubaker, I had to find out who she was. Soon after, I read Hadji Murad, a beautiful novella about a warrior chieftain in the Caucasus - and if War & Peace is too daunting, I highly recommend you read this fine book.

Some years ago the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland, screened the 7 hour Soviet War & Peace (released 1967-69) in its entirety, on successive evenings. When it was made, it was said to be the most expensive film in cinematic history, employing tens of thousands of extras in nineteenth century battle garb, arrayed for vast panoramic shots. Now a film studio would use CGI for those armies (which, yes, would make them look like video game images). It's a breath-taking epic, though the ending was politicized in heavy-handed Soviet fashion - "oh, the heroically suffering Russian people, oh the vain and stupid French invaders" - but even at 7 hours I knew I was getting just a taste of the book. When I heard about this translation, I decided "it's time."

Time is what it takes - so tag along as I post my progress.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Publishers Weekly Select Review

Tonight the postman made his way through snow and dark of night, to deliver my Publishers Weekly - and I'm glad he did!
On page 41 is a review of Karmafornia. This is what it says:

"In 1978, two young lovers leave Boulder, Colo., and head to Berkeley, Calif., where they struggle with life's messy problems and intrusions in this capable, well-developed look back at an edgy, bygone time. Arriving at the University of California, Berkeley, Laura - with free-spirited boyfriend Walt in tow - begins graduate studies in biology. It isn't long before she meets fellow student Cob, an irresistible fruitarian from Nebraska with whom Laura eventually has a passionate affair replete with unbelievable orgasms. But the relationship with Cob - and the sex - lacks love, and Walt is summoned to the rescue. This love triangle plays out against the background of the political and social upheaval of the time, with Weil referencing everything from the controversial Proposition 13 - which rolled back property taxes - to the mass suicide by cult members of Jim Jones's People's Temple in Jonestown, Guyana. Weil ably captures the period, while convincingly delineating her characters."

So if you know anyone who's a buyer, who reads PW, tell them to turn to page 41.
Or you could refer them here.
And thanks!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres
Reviewed by NC Weil

This is a greater work than de Bernieres' previous novels, the best known being Captain Corelli's Mandolin which was made into a movie. Birds Without Wings is an epic historical, tragic, stirring. Graphic.

The nineteenth century is a time of relative peace for the Anatolian village of Eskibahe, but all joy is undone by the horrors inflicted by the wider world. One of the characters through whom the author weaves the story of the creation of Turkey is Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern state. We see his rise, his philosophy developed in different places and his liberal outlook: the education of women, adoption of Western dress and customs, the separation of religion from statehood. And we watch as the machinations of politics and accidents of history overtake his noble mission, perverting his dream into a blood-stained facsimile he could never have wished for and yet must carry forward, having no alternative.

Wonder what the war in Gallipoli was like?

"I will tell you about the dead. There had been fighting for one month, and the dead had never been collected. The bodies were of different ages, and so they were all in different stages of decomposition. Some bodies were swollen up, and some were black, and they were seething with maggots, and others were turning to green slime, and others were fully rotted and shrivelling up so that the bones stuck out through the skin. A lot of them were built into the parapets and fortifications, so that you might say they were being employed as sandbags. Most of the dead at that time were ours."

"One day there was a tempest of rain so violent... The air was solid with water, the rain fell in huge lumps, and it would have been possible for fish to swim in it... and I saw the drowned bodies of my comrades floating past below me, and a dead mule, and old corpses that had floated up out of the floor of the trench, and old bones, and packages of supplies, and knapsacks... and we were as miserable as the damned, and the winds picked up ground sheets and blankets and whirled them about in the air like giant birds afflicted by madness."

The novel opens in Eskibahe, inhabited by a mix of religions and ethnicities peacefully unaware of the greater allegiance the world will come to expect of them. The villagers speak Turkish but write it using the Greek alphabet. The Muslim men are drafted to fight the Franks, and the Christian men who would join them are rebuffed because "this is jihad," even though Arab Muslims are deserters and Indian Muslims fight with the Frankish enemy. After the war the Greeks (meaning Christians) are expelled to Greece, even though they can speak no Greek and have never ventured beyond Anatolia.

Everywhere gendarmes and soldiers follow orders in the performance of atrocities, while their personal humanity is assaulted by their obedience to ghastly demands. But we also see a man with nobility of heart, the aga of the town. He travels to Istanbul to find a Circassian concubine, who is really a Greek, and they come to love one another despite the contempt of the townspeople for "the whore". During and after the war he looks after his villagers, hunting to provide meat, buying anything they can sell so they will have money, protecting the town from roving brigands.

Early in the story a mother addresses a group of children convinced they can fly. "I can fly," insisted Karatavuk, "I can." "Arms aren't wings," said Polyxeni, trying to quieten and cajole him with the softness of her voice. "If we had wings, do you think we would suffer so much in one place? Don't you think we would fly away to paradise?" And in the Epilogue, this same Karatavuk, now an old man addressing his thoughts to a childhood friend he will never see again, writes, "You and I once fancied ourselves as birds, and we were very happy even when we flapped our wings and fell down and bruised ourselves, but the truth is that we were birds without wings.... For birds with wings nothing changes; they fly where they will and they know nothing about borders, and their quarrels are very small. But we are always confined to earth, no matter how much we climb up to the high places and flap our arms. Because we cannot fly, we are condemned to do things that do not agree with us. Because we have no wings we are pushed into abominations that we did not seek."

Absurdity, beauty, atrocity and community inhabit the pages of this fine novel. Read it and weep.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Shana Tova

The rabbi (Adam Morris, aka Rabbi Mo) at the temple Fred and I are about to join (Temple Micah in Denver) had a couple of stories tonight. The second, which resonated particularly with me, was one of the Baal Shem Tov's -

A man goes from town to town in search of justice, and is continually disappointed in the people he encounters - "Does no one care?" he asks himself. "Is no one righteous?" He enters a very dark forest, and when he is far within, sees a strange light. He approaches - it's coming through the windows of a tiny hut. The door is ajar so he steps in. The hut is filled with an unimaginable number of wicks in oil, each wick alight. The flames flicker and dance, and he stands transfixed, utterly amazed. An old man appears who explains these lights are souls - each represents a living person.

Naturally the man wants to see his own, so the old man leads him to another room where he points out one of the scores of lights. But as the man looks at his own wick, he realizes it is dwindling, and its oil nearly gone. The old man has disappeared, leaving him alone with this soul of his. The man is grieved and disturbed to see how soon he will die. A wick near his has much more oil. He reaches out his hand to give himself just a little more, when a hand clamps upon his outstretched arm.

"Is this the justice you seek?!" the old man thunders.

The man awakes in the forest, alone, in darkness.

I thought that was a fine story, but in the garden of forking paths* which is the creative mind, I had a different version. In mine, the man comes to the hut, and seeing the door ajar, steps inside. There he sees countless wicks, their flames dancing, and every wick draws its life from a single great bowl of oil. Some wicks are small and others long, but they have one source from which to burn.An old man appears who explains each flame is a living soul.

And when the man sees this, he understands he draws his life from the same pool of spirit that sustains all souls. Some give greater light, some lesser, but each is alive with the flicker of its own fire even as it feeds from a common origin. In appreciating the wholeness that is the basis of these individual lights, he sees that the notion of separateness is mere illusion.

When he can recognize in others what he is proud to believe about himself, he will find the justice he seeks.

* a concept for which we thank Jorge Luis Borges.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Karmafornia Road Trip, California Edition

From Chico, where I'm standing in
front of the now-gentrified house
Fred and I lived in 25 years ago, with
my friend Nancy who still lives in this
small Sacramento Valley town,

To San Francisco, where there's art
pretty much everywhere you look,
such as the Tractor Book
in a bank window,

To the early morning thrill of
Big Sur in the fog,

I've enjoyed my travels
through this great state.

And here in Venice,
the sights are always a wonder -

check out these bikes!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Karmafornia Road Trip, Second Leg

I thought I'd be blogging more but I've been enjoying my travels & encounters too much!

Visit with a long-time friend in Eugene - hadn't seen her for decades, but we just picked up where we left off.
Then over to the Pacific and down the coast into the redwoods - camped in the forest then drove through Avenue of the Giants where I had to hug & kiss one of those ancient wonders.

Among the giant trees are horsetails, one of the most primitive of plants (dinosaurs ate them). They make a fine contrast to their immense neighbors.

Across the Trinity Alps into Redding, then to Mt. Lassen Nat Park for a hike into Bumpass Hell.
This completed our volcanic vista trifecta - Craters of the Moon in Idaho (giant lava flows and weird formations), then Crater Lake formed in the collapse of a massive volcano 7700 years ago (in the historical memory of the Klamath tribe), and now the youngest of them all, seething, spewing and sulfurous, Mt. Lassen.

Arriving in the evening in Chico we took up residence with friends I haven't seen in 25 years. Shared stories, rode bicycles and devoured the most marvelous tomatoes in the world (so ripe they remind one tomatoes are fruit - sweet!).

Friday evening attended a potluck at another friend's house where I gave a reading and sold the most copies of Karmafornia yet on this journey.
So far the calling card that gets the most attention is that the chapter on New Wave (punk rock) music was vetted by my friend Jello Biafra.

Sunday I came along to a woman's 65th birthday party, attended by a group of adventurous creative older women (and some younger ones).

Tomorrow I'm selling books at San Francisco Arts Market down by the Civic Center - hope to see you there!