You Were Temptation

The Screwtape Letters
C.S. Lewis

screwtapeSin. What a quaint term. No one cares about sin anymore, do they?

Maybe they do. It’s hard to imagine that a trilogy about a lion and a piece of furniture is solely responsible for most of the works of a long-dead author still being available in print. Especially when some number of those works deal with sin.

Or maybe a great writer is just a great writer. That could be the case with Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis (1898-1963), who is, as I like to say, the real deal. A first-rate scholar (Oxford-Cambridge branch), a novelist, best friend of J.R.R. Tolkein,  a late-in-life finder of true love and the mind behind some of the most widely read Christian apologetics.  A phony like me is humbled by the likes of Lewis.

More than most scholars Lewis reached a wide public, an even wider public than the typical public intellectual. I think, in part, that’s because he shared similar concerns. Lewis was a native of Belfast, Northern Ireland and the sectarian issues had to impress upon a fertile young mind an awareness of others that comfort doesn’t always.

Nige as CliveThe late, great Nigel Hawthorne on Broadway as Lewis in Shadowlands. This show was my first exposure to Lewis and it has stuck with me.

Nige as Clive
The late, great Nigel Hawthorne, on Broadway, as Lewis in Shadowlands. This show was my first exposure to Lewis and it has stuck with me.

(Lewis’ family pretty obviously had Welsh origins. But he always considered himself Irish and retained a connection to the land of his birth. We’re all Celts, I say.)

The book at hand, more fruit of my Cambridge harvest, seems to have an evergreen place with the reading public. I’ll say flat-out at the beginning that it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.  I think it’s possible to just enjoy the book for  its writing but I tend to think that about most any well-written book. If you’re the sort, though, who feels oppressed by the evangelical aspects of Christianity or thinks religious belief is something best kept to oneself, well then, time to move on.

That’s because Lewis is decidedly Christian (he did, after all, pen a book entitled Mere Christianity). And he is decidedly not a squishy Christian, by which I mean someone who has applied their reason to the New Testament and is ready to help any organized group think their way to a promised land where all people are good and most behaviors are acceptable and the world will live as one. I’m pretty sure that’s postmillenialism and I’m betting Lewis is having none of it.

Lewis was a medievalist. There's a good treason I envision Screwtape as having the full tail, horns and trident thing going on.

Lewis was a medievalist. There’s a good reason I envision Screwtape as having the full tail, horns and trident thing going on.

What he’s having, or more accurately giving us, is the delightful creation of Screwtape.

You see, Screwtape is a devil. More specifically, he is a seasoned, experienced Tempter which appears to be both a calling and some sort of Civil Service designation, a GS13 with a nice adjustment or two.

Technically I believe he is an Undersecretary of Something in the employ of Satan’s, ahem, government. I’ve seen references to an Infernal Civil Service and yet don’t recall actually seeing that in the book which, religiosity aside, is a riotous send-up of civil service and bureaucracy.

The novel, I think there’s no choice but to call it a novel, takes an older form. Like Pamela or Fanny Hill,  it is an epistolary novel. Everything we learn about our characters we learn from the letters written by Screwtape. And what letters. Screwtape has a way with words that most governmental types simply don’t. The recipient of this verbal largesse? None other than Screwtape’s very own nephew, Wormwood, a tyro of a tempter, a blame-shifter and, truth be told, a royal screw-up.

Here’s just a bit of endearing uncle-nephew correspondence, after things have started to go wrong, that gets so away from Screwtape he sends himself into a tizzy:

“So! Your man is in love–and in the worst kind he could possibly have fallen into–and with a girl who doesn’t even appear in the report you sent me. You may be interested to learn that the little misunderstanding with the Secret Police which you tried to raise about some unguarded expressions in one of my letters has been tidied over. If you were reckoning on that to secure any good offices, you will find yourself mistaken. You shall pay for that  as well as your other blunders.” (p. 117, letter 22)

Feel the family love.

I suppose we shouldn’t expect civility let alone love between denizens of evil. And make no mistake about it, on the eve of World War II when Lewis conceived and executed this work, evil was real and rampant. I’d venture to guess that one of Lewis’ main points is that evil is always real and rampant and that we dismiss that notion at our own risk.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Screwtape again:

“I sometimes wonder if you young fiends are not kept out on temptation-duty too long at a time–if you are not in some danger of becoming infected by the sentiments and values of the humans among whom you work. They, of course, tend to regard death as the prime evil and survival as the greatest good. But that is because we have taught them to do so. Do not let us be infected by our own propaganda.” (p. 154, letter 28)

Lewis has a deep feeling for where humans go wrong. He’s at is best when Screwtape is instructing Wormwood in just why a particular course of action will lead to a desired end. Screwtape may delight in the souls who fall into eternal damnation; his creator feels the Christian compassion one is supposed to have for his fellow imperfect humans.

Christian soldiers and best buds:C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein. Making the world safe for Protestantism. Catholicism. Fantasy-literature and Initials.

Christian soldiers and best buds:
C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein. Making the world safe for Protestantism, Catholicism, Fantasy-literature and Initials.

So popular was Screwtape that Lewis himself, in a short note after the main text and before a supplemental coda, tells us he was relentlessly implored to write more. Doing so, he tells us, would have been easy but not fun. “The strain produced a sort of spiritual cramp,” are his exact words.

Yet write once more he did. That coda is in the form of Screwtape’s after dinner remarks at the Annual banquet for young devils at the Tempter’s Training College.

His speech is precisely the sort of thing that makes a good liberal-minded person twitch and probably, post-twitching, lament the small-minded views of conservatives. A truly engaged intellect might go so far as to try to establish a connection between religion, conservatism and small-mindedness. That might only prove Lewis’ point.

I’d quote it at length but it’s entirety is too rich to do justice by culling. You can find it in pdf form here. Almost every soul-destroying action proposed by Screwtape in it has been enacted in the years since Lewis last wrote. You tell me if you think things have really gotten better.

Light in the Darkness of Insanity

The Economic Consequences of the Peace
John Maynard Keynes

consequencesOnce I read a novel, by Camilo José Cela, that was published under the most wonderful imprint ever to appear on a spine: Lost Books of the 20th Century.  Judging by the number of extant editions, the present work is anything but lost even though I’m thinking of Continue reading

Hello Old Friend

A Man Without a Country
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

amanwithoutacountryI hate giving up on people although I’m not quite sure why that is. I suspect that it verges on hopelessness and I have this deep, abiding belief that hopelessness is the greatest sin.

Still, you must know what I mean. Everyone has, lurking in their past, a person or two they were once close to and Continue reading

The Rush is On

Looking for Alaska
Peter Jenkins

alaskaGasoline. I couldn’t shake the thought that this entire book, if not the entire state of Alaska, existed only because of the availability of gasoline.

It was not what I’d expected when I set forth.

For decades now Alaska has loomed large in my imagination. In an earlier lifetime, when I had reconciled myself to existence as one half of a couple, I planned to Continue reading

In Walked Bud

Too Soon to Tell
Calvin Trill

too_soonI’ve visited with Calvin Trillin before and it’s usually a reliably enjoyable sojourn. The man is one of the more amusing fellows to peck at a typewriter, especially when the subject is food and/or travel.

Trillin is also one of those guys who is too versatile to be believable. Just when you think you’ve got him pigeon-holed as a humorist, you pick up his Civil Rights era Continue reading

Back in the Garage

Little pink houses have been known to come with built-in bullshit detectors.

Little pink houses have been known to come with built-in bullshit detectors.

We come from garageland….

Roget, were he alive, might be persuaded to list authentic as a synonym of garage.

That thought occurred to me this week as I crisscrossed the back roads of LSD. Prompted, as I often am, by a particular song I realized that there is one genre that Continue reading

The Living is Easy

DE_Beach_codeEndless Summer

Comes the middle of August, when the days are noticeably shorter and the light is longer and yellower, I yearn for the beach.  With the water at its warmest and the crowds beginning to thin there’s no better place to be.

Maybe next year I’ll kick  summer off with music. This year, I was set to thinking by a Mark Spitz post on Salon. Spitz has a late summer ritual built around a Continue reading

The Values that we had Once Upon a Time

Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties
Murray Kempton

time_kemptonIf print media are dinosaurs then newspapers are  apatosauruses .

But I grew up with these now-lumbering beasts. We were a two-paper a day household and my first job was delivering the now long-defunct Long Island Press, a broadsheet like the Times. Our competitor was Newsday.

I don’t know why we were a Press household. We also took the Daily News and that was the paper I preferred–it had better (and more) comics, including Bill Gallo in the sports section. Like Newsday, it was Continue reading

Fruit of Sweating Golden Inca

The Tupac Amaru Rebellion
Charles F. Walker

TupacWhat do a dead rapper, a failed group of urban guerillas and colonial era insurrectionists have in common? Stick around, you’ll find out.

History grabbed hold of my imagination more strongly than fantasy ever did. And if it happened in the western hemisphere I was on top of it. I honestly can’t keep all the dynastic nonsense and interminable warring of Europe Continue reading

Upside Down

Photo by Grey Villet/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images no infringement intended

Photo by Grey Villet/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
no infringement intended

When I was trying to get into the  ad business I quickly learned to be shameless. Wallflowers and polite young people taught to say Mr. and Ms. were at a distinct disadvantage.

So I changed my ways in order to get someone, anyone, with a job in advertising to hire me. A friend of a friend worked for legendary copywriter Tom Messner, pictured at right, who was part of an attempt to reconstitute the Tuesday Team, that group of top shelf ad guys who created Continue reading

When Your Bird is Broken

That Girl from Arizona

LRWhen it comes to writing about music I seem to find myself stuck in the 70s. Maybe it’s easier to make sense of the songs I’ve been listening to  for most of a lifetime.

Or maybe I just can’t stand today’s Swedish-produced pop music.

In any case, no female performer from my teen years stands out more than Linda Ronstadt. More than once I’ve referred to her as the first Mexican-American girl I ever had a crush on. That ethnic bit is true. The Ronstadts were immigrant farmers from Continue reading

From Diego to tha Bay

Where I Was From
Joan Didion

Didion-WhereOver the course of my life I have, on more than one occasion, had the opportunity to meet a ‘native’ Californian, a rare breed that harkens back to covered wagons and geographic touchstones in the middle of nowhere in a way that certain New England families, even those of what might be termed a lesser station, trace their origins to the Winthrop Fleet or the Mayflower.  So aligned are the tales that one wonders whether the proper way into either is through a frame labelled immigration, flight or protest.

There’s a reason that paragraph reads the way it does that I’ll come back to. For the moment let us turn to this early 21st century work by Joan Didion, formally Joan Didion Dunne,  which she published in the year of her husband’s death. That event led Continue reading

It’s a Gas Gas Gas

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt
Michael Lewis


In a perfect storm of coincidence the subject of this book was legitimized the week I finished reading it. Legitimacy is welcome since this is a tale, in part, about selling the immeasurable as the irreplaceable even though what it may really be about is behavior that is irredeemable.

That’s a lot of  words starting with im- and ir-. If I were you I’d be wondering just what had gotten  ahold of me.

The subject, once again, is Wall Street. Most of the time I Continue reading

I Must be Rhythm Bound

The Anthologist
Nicholson Baker

AnthologistI had novel-reading days. Great heaps of literary fiction inhaled at a ferocious rate. Then I stopped and I’m still not sure why.

Maybe I got to a point where the thrill of the first encounter was gone.  Maybe I was dismayed, having burned through all the writers I’d discovered whose work resonated with me. Maybe feeling I was always missing something finally caught up with me and I gave up.

So I stopped almost cold turkey. There were a few false starts, moments when I hoped I’d encountered a new voice–maybe one more Continue reading

Running into the Sun

The  Best American Sports Writing 2015
Wright Thompson, Guest Editor; Glenn Stout Series Editor

Best_Sports_15Cutting corners. It’s what we do to survive.

And yet I have a suspicion that doing so doesn’t sit easily with many of us. In my own case, blessed with the near-eidetic ability to recall every flub and deliberate act of incompleteness, it’s a glued-on hairshirt. Others, I  hope, have saner ways of coping.

Perhaps that explains the general  fascination with sports. I have said before that I have a complete inability Continue reading

My Grammar Ain’t So Good

grammarTrue confession: most of what I know about grammar starts with ABC. That’s why this post about language will devolve into math.

I’m certain that would be unwelcome news to the Sisters of St. Joseph who did everything in their power to make the prescriptive case for language. Their chosen texts, as I recall, were arranged in numbered sections, like a technical Continue reading

It’s Memorial Day: A Six Pack and Playlist

Park_Ridge_Memorial_Day_Parade,_May_2012On Monday morning, like many Americans in many towns, I’ll wander down the block with my son to watch the Memorial Day parade. For him it will be about the candy the paraders throw at the crowd (and it is a crowd). For me, though. it’s always about something more profound.

War is an ugly word. It draws out the worst in us and Continue reading

An Old Man Kind and Wise with Age

Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year Old Author
Herman Wouk

Wouk_SailorAfter my mom died my dad took on more charitable activities. Already involved in Parish Outreach, he adopted, seriatim, a string of what he sometimes referred to as his “old ladies.”  The first of these was Ida.

Ida lived about 5 blocks from my dad, in a tiny house on a neat lot that I remembered from my childhood because my grandparents lived across the street. I have no childhood Continue reading

Amber Waves of Grain

The Pit
Frank Norris

the_pitOpen outcry. It may be the romance in finance, to turn the old Tiny Grimes lyric on its head,

Readers of a certain age may not even recognize the term. But from the earliest days at the buttonwood tree until about 10 years ago open outcry was a way, and for a very long time the only way, traders communicated with each other. A trading floor in full roar may be the ultimate Continue reading

And Men Plunder

Plunder and Deceit: Big Government’s Exploitation of Young People and the Future
Mark R. Levin

plunderEver since I was a kid I’ve enjoyed getting a package in the mail. Paradoxically, the mystery contained in the big envelope or box remains even when I’ve place the order myself.

So when I found a Jiffy bag on my doorstep one day last fall I was intrigued. I hadn’t ordered anything. What could Continue reading

Science is Mankind’s Brother

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2012
Dan Ariely, Guest Editor; Tim Folger, Series Editor

Best_science_12Human beings love patterns. We seek them even when they don’t exist. So I’m not in alien territory when I wonder whether the pattern I’m stuck in with these science annuals is reading them at 12- to 18-month  intervals or picking volumes from  years divisible by two.

More likely there’s no pattern at all although I do have a common reaction which is that I cheat myself by not Continue reading

Turning Rebellion Into Money

Has it Come to This?
Rolling Stone’s 40 Greatest Punk Albums of All Time


The streetscape that defined an era. You can’t go back again. East 14th Street at 3rd Avenue, I think.
Photo (c) Ann Sanfedele and borrowed from Jeremiah Moss’s inspired blog ‘Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York’ with apologies. Click the shot to visit this fabulous site.

The first kid I knew who listened to punk rock was Danny Perlowitz. I have a distinct memory of him in 1978 bouncing on the balls of his feet, clad in a leather jacket that never came off and blue jeans, making his way through a crowded high school Continue reading

There is a Road

Tao Te Ching
Lao Tzu
Trans. by Stephen Addis & Stanley Lombardo

taoThere are three books I reread in more or less constant rotation. While you’ll never see them written about here they mean the world to me and keep me sane.

This is not one of those books.

It is however the basis for one of those books. More importantly, it is one of those books lying at the core of human civilization that we really ought to read. Think of the Continue reading

Social Structure Seemed a Simple Thing

Selected Works of Herbert Blumer: A Public Philosophy for Mass Society
Herbert Blumer, Stanford M. Lyman and Arthur J. Vidich, Eds.


If you wait long enough, everything comes around again.

At least that’s how it seems to me. Those long gaps between acquiring a book and actually reading it are just me waiting for the zeitgeist to align with the author at hand and my interest of the moment.

So as soon as I picked up Blumer there he was in The New Yorker. Well not him, of course–Herbert George Blumer’s Continue reading

The Ghost of a Romance

Indian Summer
William Dean Howells

Indian_SummerI was raised on classic romantic comedies. True, you couldn’t escape the endless stream of WWII movies in constant rerun, but if there was a choice Mom always picked the chick flick. Which is why I have a weakness for the form.

William Dean Howells has convinced me that before we Continue reading

I’ve Got the Fever

Fever Pitch
Nick Hornby

fever_pitchI hate to say this, but I think my mom was wrong.

Growing up my mom was the reader in the house even though the demands on her time had reduced that to mostly newspapers and magazines with the occasional book borrowed from the local library.  The hard evidence was locked away in an antique oak bookcase with a glass door that lived in the basement. There stood several Continue reading

Ready to Tear Up the World

Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel

Wolf_HallI grew up lost in historical fiction. Johnny Tremain,  was big. So was The Link Boys, set in London a bit earlier than 1700.  I can’t explain the fascination. I only know it faded sometime after I read Ragtime. Too many coincidences for one family, I thought.

And so, when I read a profile of Hilary Mantel I wondered what the fuss was about. In part it was the Continue reading

Oh Mickey You’re So Fine

The Reversal
Michael Connelly

reversalHere’s my crime fiction trifecta: Los Angeles, murder and an Irish Catholic writer. There’s something about the City of Angels and writers raised in such self-identified ethnic homes that makes for an entertaining read.

At least for me and at least when the writer is James M. Cain.

Or Michael Connelly. Continue reading

History Never Repeats

This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly
Carmen M. Reinhart & Kenneth S. Rogoff

this_timeLong ago I took a class in economic history. It was taught in the history department, by visiting faculty not terribly well versed in economics.

Let me qualify that last  bit. Not terribly well versed in the quantitative, equation-driven neo-classical post-Samuleson economics most often taught in the Econ Continue reading

Could Spark Up Nostalgia

FramptonFrampton Comes Alive 
Peter Frampton
Originally Released: 1976

More than a few decades back it seemed like every high school-aged white kid in America was issued the same five albums. On Long Island, there was a bonus sixth record.

I owned most of them but even if you didn’t you couldn’t escape. None of us could and in certain precincts of the FM dial you still Continue reading

A Man With A Calling

The Charm School
Nelson DeMille

Charm_SchoolReturn with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. No, not the wild west, or even The Wild, Wild West, but to the days of East versus West.  Around these parts vacation means light reading and nowadays Cold War thrillers seems downright quaint.

This time Mr. DeMille takes us a little farther afield than Long Island, the site of the last Cold War tale we read from him. If you’ve been here before you know that one  of my Continue reading

Cos’ it Runs in the Family

The Politics of the Family and Other Essays
R. D. Laing

polticsI first encountered the title of this book’s central essay in college where it was used to label one of the courses in the nascent Women’s Studies curriculum. I sat in on a session, and opted not to take the class, but I did pick up a useful phrase and concept.

Eventually a First Edition of the original fell into my hands and I dove in. I already knew who R.D. Laing was. At a formative stage–actually I think I’m eternally in a Continue reading

I Ran So Far Away

Readling Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
Azar Nafisi

Reading“There ain’t no such thing as a coinky-dinky.” I’m pretty sure Tennessee Ernie Ford, playing Cousin Ernie on “I Love Lucy,” said that. And whether or not I scrambled the facts in my Cuisinart of a memory, I think I’ve always sort of taken it as received wisdom.

So much so that I went to graduate school to get a degree in why that shouldn’t be so. Yet I remain the superstitious Continue reading

By Night Beware

Night Vision
Randy Wayne White

12v6_Night-VisionThere are probably worse jobs than professional fishing guide. Sun, sea, fish, fun.

I suppose, though, if the fish aren’t biting the customers might get unhappy. And bad weather probably directly affects your income. But all in all it’s like the bumper Continue reading

Another Year Over

The Year in Music: A Titular PlaylistLP

Earlier this year I started using song lyrics to title my posts. The first time was a fluke. But since I drive people crazy with lyrics I kept it up as a challenge to myself.

I’ve taken some time off to repair and enjoy my family. So the writing has diminished but the listening never does. So here’s a year-end present for you: a play list (on Spotify and Continue reading

A Walk on the Slippery Rocks

Memoirs of Socrates & The Symposium
Xenophon (trans. by Hugh Tredennick)

xenophonI feel sorry for philosophy majors.

Because somehow, somewhere along the line, philosophers came to be the whipping boys and girls of higher education. Who’d have thought it would ever come to that?

Quite some time ago, as a freshman, I had to take a year- Continue reading

There’s a Rat in Mi Kitchen

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
John le Carré

tinker tailorEspionage. It’s probably one of the cooler words we English speakers borrowed from the French even if we’ve had a word with a similar sounding root bouncing around since 1200 or so. (For the curious, that word is espy.)

A great word ought to serve a great purpose and so it does. At least when it comes to the 20th century version of the craft. You could be forgiven for thinking that the practice somehow emerged full-blown from the foreheads of the US and Soviet governments after Continue reading

The Music Goes ‘Round and Around

MusicophiliaMusicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
Oliver Sacks

Earlier this year, at the age of 82, Oliver Sacks passed away.  Along with Lewis Thomas (and, arguably, Benjamin Spock) he broke down the doors between the high priesthood of medicine and the poor supplicants who require medical help.

Sacks was a neurologist  whose notoriety grew over the last 4 decades or so as he published case studies of his most interesting patients. If the old saw is that medicine is as much an art as a science, Sacks did his best to live up to that. His writing was never fussy and while he never Continue reading

Soft be Her Tears

Le-TricoloreParis grieves and I do with her.

It seems pointless to stick to a normal schedule in the wake of such madness. Those of us who were in Manhattan on a September morn fourteen years ago know too well the shock, sadness and anger Paris is experiencing.

Paris is the world city I know best after New York. I’ve rambled all over its streets, ridden the Metro to points more distant, relaxed in its cafes and ambience. It is difficult to remember that the City of Light has often seen, as it is seeing now, war.

War is a harsh word, one Mssr. Hollande, I am sure, chose carefully.  But it is the apt word. The grand strategists, the students of von Claussewitz and von Metternich, like to say war is diplomacy by other means. But what if diplomacy is not the desired end?

Because before there was grand strategy there was harsh reality: war imposes a cost in blood and treasure so high that at some point it forces a change.  That is the goal that terror seeks, expending lives to take lives in the quest of who knows what end. The logic of war–the lesson of the century just past–is that halfway measures don’t even achieve halfway results.

I fear for the children, my own included. The world seems unlikely to cooperate in delivering security.  I hope for the best but the madness of this moment seems too deep.

For now, I mourn with Paris.



Food for the Thinkers

Young_A-TECHNIQUEA Technique for Producing Ideas
James Webb Young

Like everyone, okay, like many people I know, there are days when I doubt the choices I’ve made. I’m talking about the big choices and among the biggest is what I’ve chosen to do to earn my bread.

On the best of days–and oh how I wish there were more of those–I’m pretty certain I could have made another choice. But I’m also pretty certain that the Continue reading

Sugar and Stress

The Trouble with Testosterone
And Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament
Robert M. Sapolsky


Last I looked,  Mighty Mouse had little to do with science.

Yet an editor agreed to use his image on a book cover–and a science, no, not just a science, a biology book cover at that–for a reason. And it wasn’t just to crack me up.

(It probably was intended to draw my attention to the book on the shelf. Alas for the bean-counters and the Continue reading

La Mer

The Outlaw Sea: A  World of Freedom, Chaos and Crime
William Langewiesche


Who remembers this favorite grade school question: Which direction do all rivers run? The answer: to the sea.

Strictly speaking that’s wrong. It’s the word all that messes everything up. But in a more general sense it’s true because no matter how you slice it, this big, blue ball is blue because there’s more water on it than land.

William Langewische wants us to know just how much water that is. While he’s at it, he’d also like us to Continue reading

Change is Hard

The Ordeal of Change
Eric Hoffer

The Ordeal of Change by Eric Hoffer

Imagine this if you can.

Suppose you were a fan of Sunday-morning talking-head shows. Or maybe its easier to picture yourself as the type who prefers a weeknight alternative, say Charlie Rose or the PBS News Hour.

Whichever, I’m sure you have some sense of who you’d expect to see. There’s a great leveling force at work on those shows such that  academicians, experts and everyone Continue reading

What Becomes of the Broken Hearted

H_is_for_Hawk_coverH is for Hawk
Helen Macdonald

The Pope was in town while I was reading this book.  So I had plenty of opportunity to contemplate just how inventive human beings can be when they set their mind to it. How otherwise to account for so many disparate viewpoints finding a common advocate in Francis?

It’s the same with books, as any honest English professor would tell you.  It’s just that sometimes the blank slate the book offers is more apparent than others. In the present case you might say that the Continue reading

Don’t Go Back to Rockville

Nelson DeMille

Let me state the obvious: there is no song lyric about Spencerville, at least that I’m aware of. And so I find myself stretching to make a completely unrelated burg serve as a stand-in so I can maintain a conceit about post titles.

Well, I had to fail sometime. And since none of this has Continue reading

Everybody Eats (When They Come to My House)

McWilliams_RevolutionA Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food
Shaped America
James E. McWilliams

New England Boiled Dinner. Can there be four more fearsome words in the English language? I grew up in a boiling household and the idea of enshrining that flavor-destroying technique  in the name of the meal strikes terror in my tummy.

So you can imagine my confusion when confronting a litany of the typical New England kitchen garden circa 1700 or so. This is just a patial list of things I didn’t expect to see: leeks, currants. mint, asparagus. artichokes, basil, garlic, Continue reading

The Things That We’ve Learnt

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2004pinker_best Steven Pinker, Guest Editor; Tim Folger, Series Editor

Birds. I can’t help it, they irk me even though I love birdsong. But as creatures, unh unh. Count me out. What with their unblinking eyes and ability to poop on me from above. I just know they’re waiting to take the planet back.

Which is why I’m shamefaced to point out that the most enjoyable piece of writing in this decade-or-so old Continue reading

A Walk-on Part in the War

the-end-of-the-battleThe End of the Battle
Evelyn Waugh

My tombstone was going to read, “Never Tweeted. Never Texted. Never Wrote a Blog. He was a Human Being.” Having failed  on all three fronts there’s no alternative but the former front-runner: “Never Saw Star Wars.

That didn’t keep me from seeing the rest of the original trilogy. I’m just not a lunatic completist, even if that means Continue reading

(Ain’t but) One Way Out

Wendell_HolmesWendell Holmes

In my current suburban dad existence the things I used to be on  top of take longer to find me. So it was almost two months before word of Wendell Holmes‘ passing made its way onto  my radar screen. He was only 71.

Wendell was the guitar player in The Holmes Brothers, a blues trio–sometimes a Continue reading

Rocket Man

It's always best to begin at the beginning. Sun Ra and co in 1955.

It’s always best to begin at the beginning.
Sun Ra and co in 1955.

What did rebels do before Elvis? And what happened to them once he arrived? Some, I think, reconnected with their home planet.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The place to start is Birmingham, Alabama in the second decade of the 20th century. In the year that Europe began its descent into madness, the Blount family welcomed their Continue reading