One More Thing I’ve Been Reading

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With enough books to choose from, you’d think I would have settled on something more interesting. 

I grew up in a family of readers, and it’s rare when I’m not in the middle of at least one book even though it’s more likely that I have three or four going at once. Some books are compelling, some I read for reference, and a few I savor for long periods of time, such as Jessica Kerwin Jenkins’s Encyclopedia of the Exquisite or the collected stories of Flannery O’Connor and Dorothy Parker. Such books bring me back often without tiring of them.

When preparing to move to the woods four years ago, I parted with a number of books that I finally realized that I could live without. I’ve always found it difficult to part with any books, but at one point I was acquiring more than my available storage space allowed. I also decided that the library should become my first source for new reading material. Borrow the book, and if I found I couldn’t live without it, I’d buy it later. There are dozens of books that I own, which I wished I’d borrowed first. They’re good books, but I probably won’t re-read them for many years, if ever.

Among the books I’ve kept are three that I’ve never read in over 30 years of lugging them about. They were gifts that bear special inscriptions that remind me of the giver. The books are first editions, and I never like to part with a first edition of anything lest books become collectible again one day and the sale of one of these tomes provides the means of retiring to the French Riviera.

On three previous occasions I’ve pulled out the first book of this series. Chapter one begins on page seven, but I’ve never made it past page ten. It seems that the archdeacon’s meandering about the graveyard whilst reciting Robert Blair’s The Grave made me dead tired. I’m currently on the waiting list for approximately six books at the library, and I’ve finished with my summer reading list. My only choice was to peruse my shelves for something interesting. I came across this book once again. I sighed heavily and re-read the jacket. Perhaps I was finally mature enough to understand the subject matter even though I couldn’t imagine what I have now that I didn’t have seven years ago on my last attempt.

I’m a great fan of E. F. Benson’s Mapp & Lucia novels. Within those pages, there are dozens of village intrigues centered around two formidable women and their friends. I can also be amused for hours at a time with Agatha Christie’s murderers and the locals trying to figure out whodunit. Since the plot of this novel in question centers on English village life of a certain period, I decided to give it one more chance.

It was best to begin reading when I was fully alert rather than wait until bedtime when the novel had usually affected me like a dose of Midazolam. Adequately caffeinated, I opened to page seven and began reading. The next thing I knew, the book was on the floor and I was achy from having slumped over for a few minutes. Is the book’s page 11 coated in an opiate that my skin keeps absorbing? Why else would this novel induce sleep at the very same point?

I’m a determined person who will see a great number of things through to the end even when a book’s plot is nothing but an old maid darning a curate’s sock while his wife ponders whether to serve beetroot or potato for the cold Sunday supper. I kid you not, and this is coming from someone who has spent many hours delighted by chapters having little more going for them than whether or not some bridge novice inadvertently finessed an ace of out of a veteran opponent who bid no trumps, which eventually led to a grand slam and a war of words.

Three weeks of fortitude, and I’ve made it to page 128. The church organist’s wife is taking the curative waters somewhere on the continent while he remains behind rehearsing the choristers, and the harvest festival bring-and-buy was a success. One of the village’s yarn shops has stocked enough wool for all the single ladies to knit scarves for the clergy’s Christmas gifts, and the lead spinster’s new cook is working out nicely.

I’ve given some thought to this book. The prose is rather nice, but the chapters are less interesting than a fifth-grader’s journal. The characters don’t do much except quote literature and silently worry about what the other characters are silently worrying about.

As with all novels set within English villages, someone is eventually coming for tea. I don’t mind reading a page about how the scones were burned and the marmalade was disastrously runny, but something is going to have to amuse me, touch me, or frighten the hell out of me to prevent my hurling this book against the fireplace. By page 128, the mysterious new cook should’ve begun poisoning the spinster or the archdeacon should’ve run barefoot into the High Street on Sunday morning before Divine Service. As it stands, they’ll all die of boredom before Evensong, and I won’t be far behind.

The best thing about this book is that I’ve been falling asleep effortlessly for a change. Not once have I glanced at the clock to realize I should’ve been asleep two hours ago. You may ask why I continue to stick with this bleak book. Well, I’m number three in the queue for next available library book, and #95 for the new Margaret Atwood. That said, I have a feeling that even if a new library book shows up tomorrow, there is a part of me that wants to reach the end. How else will I find out that the shepherd’s pie was burnt to a crisp and they all had to eat cold pigeon sandwiches for New Year’s dinner?

© 2019 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, especially the two featuring Maggie Lyon, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

Humanizing Our Character

Which of you has a guilty conscience? Please private message me and give me all the details! Did you nick something from the drugstore like the homeroom mom I mentioned in a previous blog post? Did you write an anonymous letter to someone in your supper club telling her that the group was appalled by her liberal use of canned Parmesan? Did you hurt her feelings by restating the club’s purpose to elevate the food and not appease adolescent palates?

I’m dying to find out why you’re feeling guilty, and I promise not to make you feel bad. There’s enough guilt going around already.

One of my concerns these days is the guilt we have over the time spent enjoying art, music, books, or anything that we humans take the time to create. There is peer pressure in contemporary society, which is directly connected to the attitudes of commerce. On the job, we must crank out an increasing number of widgets per hour, we must drive up profits, we must streamline. We have to be more informed, we have to standardize, we have to become proficient in the shortest amount of time.

We’re supposed to get an overview of art, listen to snippets of music, watch 30-second videos, speed read books, and scan articles. I am also guilty of having recorded classic films that every American should be familiar with only to fast-forward through what I have determined are less important scenes. I’m sure a film’s director would passionately disagree with my editorial choices, and the director might even become violent by hearing me say, “Okay, got it! Moving on!” as I press the button on the remote.

I’m ashamed to admit that I once watched a certain revered sci-fi film in 25 minutes, but when I savored the entirety of Lawrence of Arabia after having not seen it in decades, I felt terribly guilty for not doing a single thing while it played. I sat and watched with deep appreciation, but I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I could have at least made dinner or ironed a few shirts as the film ran. I was so pleased to have seen that beautiful film again, but it took me a few days to stop wondering how I could have made better use of my time while sitting there.

I recently saw a video clip of a college friend performing The Lord’s Prayer by Alfred Malotte. This is the arrangement familiar to most on the Barbra Streisand Christmas Album. There’s an introduction, a vocal passage, and the piece continues for a few minutes with instrumental interludes, and it all builds to a bold climax until the a-men. My friend is still amazing, and I shared the video with someone I thought would appreciate it.

“Seems like it could go faster,” he said. What?!? What about my friend’s vocal range? The accompanist’s skill? That artful crescendo contrasting the hush of the last few notes? Was he mad?

I didn’t overreact. At least I don’t think I did because I immediately knew what was bothering him about the performance. The music was composed in 1935 when radio was the medium. The country was in the midst of The Great Depression, print news dominated, and talkies were relatively young. There wasn’t as much media to fill the waking hours, and there certainly weren’t a dozen cable stations with 24-hour news cycles. Monthly and bi-weekly magazines didn’t post special articles online every few days with the caption to indicate how many minutes a piece takes to read. Listeners and readers in those days were not pressured into rushing.

For anyone who hasn’t read “Moral Ambiguity” and would like to indulge in some guilty pleasure reading, it’s available at Amazon. Follow the link to my author page at the bottom of this post.

Speaking of captions that indicate how long a printed article will take to read, content providers are obviously aware that we feel guilty for taking more than two minutes to read something that might actually be very important information. Networks with political axes to grind operate in sound bytes because they know the average American isn’t going to actually read a well-sourced investigative piece that took days or weeks to write. Probably not weeks because editors have felt the pressure to get the story out first and earn the biggest profit, so they don’t give their writers the time it takes to really get to the bottom of things.

When I thought about the reaction to my friend’s vocal performance, I realized that my realization of guilt is not unique, and it certainly isn’t new. I’ve been aware of guilt feelings for quite a while, and I’ve scanned dozens of online articles that probably explain our guilt for taking the time to seek answers, discover new information, closely listen to, view with greater understanding, and savor the words that writers have slaved over. I should make a note of all those articles and actually read them when I have the time.

For me to suggest that we resolve to do better and commit more time to the intelligence and beauty within the world will seem like a lecture or sermon that will soon be forgotten. Personally, I know that I’m going to continue scanning dozens of memes each day that make me smile or put that political foe in his or her place because someone attached two sentences to a stock photo in order to say what we’ve all been thinking.

I know myself, and I know that I’m not going to change my ways, but I was shocked to hear someone describe a piece of music that is well under five minutes as “way too long and goes pretty slow.” When researching for this article, I discovered a quote attributed to Ovid: “Note too that a faithful study of the liberal arts humanizes character and permits it not to be cruel.” I’m using this quote as a reminder to once again take my time to go back and look closer at a particular Matisse, re-read a classic novel, and linger over dinner and good conversation with friends.

I might not have realized the depths of my guilt had it not been for Alfred Malotte and my friend’s rendition of his The Lord’s Prayer. You might be interested to know that Malotte was a sports organist in Chicago and wrote musical scores for Disney. He composed the music for Ferdinand the Bull, and he did a bunch of other stuff. I didn’t have the time to read the entire Wikipedia article.

© 2019 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

 

 

 

 

Being Good at Art is Not Required for Appreciating It

While Maggie Lyon’s upcoming adventure is with the publisher, I’ve taken some time to work on other projects, finish a play, improve my French language skills, and explore new creative avenues while keeping up with all the chores associated with a life in the woods. One of those new paths is endeavoring to create art.

Recent proof that my artistic ability wasn’t permanently squelched in first grade.

Until recently, the only proof of my artistic ability had been lost for decades. Art classes were still part of the curriculum when I was in first grade, but the teacher, who described herself as a “full-blooded Irish woman with a temper to prove it,” scared the bejesus out me. My usual response to teachers’ tirades was to keep my head down and do my best to become invisible. This method apparently worked as borne out by all the times that I was presumed innocent when the class was caught out misbehaving. The teacher would burst into the room and find the most extroverted kids out of their seats making a lot of noise. She would start yelling about all the yelling, and I would hunker down. No teacher would believe that that sweet boy sitting quietly in his seat could outtalk every kid in the room. As you can imagine, I avoided writing a lot of “I will not talk in class” sentences.

Miss Smith didn’t assign sentences. She merely kept a large paddle hanging in full view. I can’t imagine what recalcitrance she anticipated in an art class, but maintaining a tight grip on a subject that succeeds with less restraint didn’t occur to her. The added touch of heavy tape wrapped several times around the short-handled boat oar insinuated that at least once she had angrily hit her target with enough strength to structurally crack the weapon. Needless to say, art class did not get out of hand.

My little elementary school was well funded during my first year. The taxes that supported us didn’t have to be spread across a larger district like the one to which we were soon annexed. Sure, we had old textbooks, but we learned to read and do basic math without any trouble. We had fantastic lunches, new desks, and a nice piano, and there was no scrimping on art supplies. We had all types of paints, tools for any project, and we were able to attempt any manner of media our teacher dreamt of.

We filled old milk cartons with a liquid that hardened so that we could eventually chip away at the synthetic stone as though it were Carrera marble. We layered soggy newspaper strips, dripping with paste, over balloons for papier-mâché. I thought Miss Smith had lost her mind with that project, and remained unconvinced by the time my hollowed monstrosity required painting. I was good at nothing, and I never paid attention when I was told that I must use certain colors for whatever was assigned. I wasn’t intentionally disobedient. It’s just that I have an innate ability for tuning out others’ attempts to restrain me when I have a specific vision.

My greatest art class success, however, was purely accidental. Miss Smith entered the art room one morning and passed out sketch paper. She told us that we’d be drawing “free hand.” Upon reflection, I’m certain she’d not prepared a real lesson, but I took a crayon and let my hand wander. I made a series of arcs that smoothly connected, and then I started filling in. The older boy to my right looked over and declared me a genius. Apparently I’d outlined a toucan that could have passed for the one on the Fruit Loops commercial. He was right!

Confusing toucans with parrots, I decided to add color, but the end result was a beautiful bird. Miss Smith had not noticed. I’m sure she’d assessed my abilities earlier in the year, and since I was mute whenever she drew near, there was no reason for us to interact. I displayed nothing that required cultivation. At the end of the session, we were told to pass everything to the right and the work was taken up.

I never saw my toucan until the last week of school when Miss Smith made her rounds to all of the regular classes. She informed us that she was handing back all of our work because an art exhibition would be held during the eight-graders’ graduation reception. She wanted each student to select his or her best example of the year for the show. She pulled out my beautiful bird and held it up as the quality she hoped the students would select. She wanted the very best and looked in my direction to say that she’d saved me the trouble of going through the rest of my awkward oeuvre.

She slipped my toucan into her folder and left. Since my family didn’t know any of the eight-graders well enough to attend the graduation, and I probably lost any note that was sent home announcing the exhibition (more likely there was no one at home who thought that I might ever have a featured piece in an art show), we didn’t attend the exhibition. I never saw my bird again. Nor did I ever see Miss Smith to collect my art. She didn’t come back, and my bird either ended up in her personal collection or the city dump.

Miss Smith resigned because she was getting married. Several decades ago, most of us assumed that she was quitting because her only life choices were marriage or a career. She couldn’t possibly have both. I’m sure the truth is that she moved away and found another classroom with another nail in the wall on which to hang her menacing oar. I wonder how she reacted after being informed that she could no longer hit students. She must have displayed her famous Irish temper over that!

As some of us rejoiced over corporal punishment leaving the classroom, we mourned when the arts followed. I wonder how Miss Smith reacted when her budget was cut? Had she mellowed with age and experience, or did she shout once more to explain why the arts are a necessary part of education? I’m proof that the purpose of arts education is not to make someone an artist, but that exposure to the arts gives one a sense of appreciation for the world’s evocative pieces. May we find our way and renew our cultural appreciation.

© 2019 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, including the two suspense novels featuring Maggie Lyon, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1