Sunday, August 18, 2002

When I lived in Cambridge, Mass. in the early and mid 1970s, I had one Saturday ritual for awhile. The Boston Globe published a column on Saturdays called "The Lit'ry Life," by George Legendary (note: sometimes I make up names to protect the innocent, sometimes the guilty, and mostly myself, but in some cases-like this one-because I can't remember the real name...) It was mostly odds and ends about people in various print media: the Boston book authors and publishers, periodical poets and the newspapers, including the ones I wrote for (the weekly alternatives, and a couple of rock music/pop culture regional rags).

I lived in east Cambridge, in the ragged end of what I believe was John F. Kennedy's old congressional district. It was a healthy walk up to Mass. Ave (pronounced "Mass Ave") at Central Square. I got my major groceries at the Purity Supreme supermarket, which had a deli attached next door. Before or after my weekly shopping, I stopped there for a sandwich (always had the same kind--tuna, I think, but I definitely remember the pickle) and coffee, and to read "The Lit'ry Life" column in the Globe.

Even though I was at various points the book review and book supplements editor, and then the Managing Editor (Arts) for the Boston Phoenix, and had some poems published in Arions Dolphin and other locally produced magazines, I never got a mention in that column. (Though I did get a complimentary one in the famous "Ear" in the Washington Star some years later.)

At the moment I have no lit'ry life to report on but my own, so in what I gather is the true spirit of Blogging, I'll do my own Saturday chatter.

Current Reading: Apart from the books I'm examining or reading for assigned reviews (My two-book review of The Atrocity Paradigm and Altruism and Altruistic Love is nicely placed at the top of page two of the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Book Review tomorrow, 8-18-02. The Chronicle is at, and the Sunday sections are retrievable for the week, and the reviews are searchable. But I won't have an actual link until tomorrow.)-

As I was saying, apart from those, I am reading:
Almost finished Milan Kundera's short novel, Slowness. On the surface his books are very absorbing, entertaining monologues, you can almost hear him inventing. He explores ideas through character and story, and I often wonder which came first (assuming at least some of the characters and events are based on "reality"), the character or story that suggests the idea, or the idea that he works out by inventing characters and story. I suspect it's a mixture, but that's one of the things you don't usually get to explore in reviews-maybe a very astute reading group with a penchant for research would be interesting-so you can go into detail about which parts are invented from ideas, which involve actual people (several in Slowness are public figures.)

I'm also re-reading the first book I ever took out of the library as a child. It's called The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree by Louis Slobodkin. I remember it was a hardback with a red cover, with white letters and a white flying saucer line drawing. I found a thrift store copy of the paperback edition. The basic plot is a lot like E.T. More as I get into it.

On my visit back in Pittsburgh this May, I had dinner with an old friend, Jim Hayes, who later emailed me a list of the books he'd talked about. I've started with Mark Epstein's "thoughts without a thinker", which is excellent. This is one of the areas of what you might loosely call spirituality that I'm exploring, and at the moment the chief one: which is Zen. (The other would be Native American spiritualities.) I've read a few really good books in the field, Joko Beck's books, Shunryu Suzuki (he makes me laugh). For a bit I was into a book called Zen and the Brain but my interest in neuroscience is limited. This one is more like it---it relates Zen and western psychotherapy, and it's very, very good. Thanks, James!

One of the reasons I re-reading "Space Ship..." is that I'm getting into the science fiction section of the book I'm writing, SOUL OF THE FUTURE. I've spent part of the spring and all of the summer so far on the first sections: introductory chapters about apocalyptic futures, which involves 9-11 but mostly the nuclear age apocalypse scares that I grew up with in the 50s and 60s; and many chapters about London in the 1890s, H.G. Wells and The Time Machine.

Now I'm bridging the science fiction gap between Wells and Gene Roddenberry, since Star Trek is going to be a major focus for the next set of chapters (right now they're tending to be about 2,000 words long.) I'm about to read through (rather than just reference) Brian Aldiss' Billion Year Spree, a history of science fiction that so far is the most nuanced of the several I've already read. I don't share all of Aldiss' tastes but I do share his enthusiasm for Olaf Stapledon, the obscure (in the U.S. anyway) novelist of the 1930s on. Something of a disciple of Wells (they came to know each other, and eventually it was Stapledon who influenced Wells' last science fiction and other books) I'm almost finished with what I regard as Stapledon's masterpiece (and Aldiss does as well), called "Starmaker."

My book-in-progress addresses scenarios for a hopeful future of the two basic kinds (which, with a different outcome, are also the two basic kinds of apocalyptic fictions for a really bad future), and they are: with technology, and without technology (meaning without so much, or so dominant.) So science fiction-particularly through Wells and Star Trek, and the familiar stories they tell---addresses a hopeful future in which technology is emphasized. Then comes the second kind of story, which emphasizes ecology and spiritual emphases. Then finally a synthesis of the two, to suggest what qualities and activities today can help create a hopeful future.

Which is a long way to saying I'm only getting started. (Though a lot of research and preliminary writing is accomplished. After all, I've been working on this stuff for several years.)

But I've got a lot of other work to do before I can get back to SOUL OF THE FUTURE-and a lot of work to FIND. The paying kind. So progress on reading these books is apt to be slow. I'm also tempted by Robert Johnson's "Ecstasy," another thrift store find, partly because he's an easy read, and it's short.

FILMS OF THE WEEK: We saw "Signs" at the theater, which I suppose is obvious from the preceding column. (Although I guess it's the following column in this format...) What I liked most about it is the director's style of storytelling, and how well Mel Gibson and the other actors responded to it. The mixture of (realistic) family comedy, the dead-on characterizations, along with how the suspense aspects are structured, are all admirable, and advance current filmmaking. The scene in which dad is outvoted by the kids on whether to stay or head for the hills (or the lake) to escape the aliens is really good. Shamalyan (I'm probably not spelling that right) has absorbed Speilberg (of E.T. and Poltergeist, say) as well as suspense directors, and he is very good at the pacing etc. necessary to keep his elegantly wrapped mysteries moving, and keeps you surprised, even when you sort of know what has to happen. The man of the cloth loses faith and collar, regains same, is still a cliché and is a serious flaw. I don't quarrel with spiritual content, but that was too heavy handed.

Another film we saw was on video, Preston Sturges' "Christmas in July." I had a big Sturges phase a few years ago, and this was the first time since then I'd screened this one, his first. It's a very interesting film to watch during the current corporate revelations. The idea of businesses being "a family", and of people thinking of others first, all seem sadly obsolete. Sturges movies are utterly unique-nobody else does comedy like his, and his scripts are gems. The characters are at once recognizable as movie characters and with complexity and individuality. You pan in on some of the minor ones, convinced you're going to meet a cliché, and by the time they start talking they turn out to be more nuanced and surprising, like the office manager in this film who at first seems to be the stereotype of the bean counter, but turns out to be a dignified, intelligent and kind man, bearing his disappointment and compromise with honor.

Poetry: In the past few weeks I've read A. R. Ammons for pretty much the first time, read a little Shelley, but find myself fascinated with Yeats. Really for the first time-I read the required work in college, even saw one of his plays performed, but didn't care for him much in comparison to the other Moderns of that moment, Pound and Eliot. Now I'm content to let Pound and Eliot fight in the captain's tower, and explore Yeats, from the early work to The Tower.

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