Drink by Iain Gately

I just started reading Iain Gately’s brick of a book called Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol. It covers everything from the discovery of alcohol to “becoming expansive” to the dangers of alcohol abuse.

There are some great little tidbits as well, like the fact that a lot of Egyptian pyramid builders were paid in beer, and that they had this proverb: “The mouth of a perfectly contended man is filled with beer.”

Fantastic.

Book (and Bromance) Review: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

It’s been unusually hot in SoCal this summer, so I was feeling the need for a bit of London fog and walking-sticks to cool me down and cheer me up and so delved into The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Since we’ve been on the topic of bromances this week in the Booth, I thought I’d recommend Holmes and Watson for your reading pleasure as well.

Sherlock Holmes is Encyclopedia Brown, All Grown-Up and with a Better Vocabulary. He’s attractive in a maniacal, crazy-chemist way, intriguing and complicated and intelligent and not always aware of the people around him, which is why he needs Watson.

Doctor Watson is his opposite. He’s practical and compassionate and in awe of his friend almost as often as he is irritated by him. Holmes and Watson have the ultimate Victorian bromance: because their language skills are downright astounding and their culture is so refined, they often say casually kind things to each other that are unthinkable to men of today, but it’s endearing rather than strange.

Holmes’ cases are usually bizarre, but Watson rolls with his every whim and has his back in every tight space. Since Watson is the narrator of the book, the reader gets to experience the cases as he does – as a gentle, often disbelieving but generally warm-hearted compatriot would. We feel lucky to be included in their friendship and we want Holmes to share his side of ham with us in the same genial way he does with Watson.

The methods Holmes uses to solve his cases are typically unbelievable and rely heavily on the myth of Sherlock Holmes, Master Sleuth, but that’s part of the fun. Every chapter in the book is a new case and every new case is quirky and unique, so the reader becomes more and more attached to the characters and the unusual traits that make Sherlock Holmes a beloved friend and not simply a joke or stereotype.

Robert Downey, Jr and Jude Law have made the best Holmes and Watson yet for the big screen, and much of their dialogue was lifted directly from the books, which made the movies extra fun for anglophiles like me.

Book Report: From the Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks

Macarius the Great came to Antony on the mountain. When he knocked at the door, Antony went out and said, “Who are you?” He said, “I am Macarius.” Antony went in and shut the door, and left Macarius outside. Afterwards, when he saw how patiently he waited, he opened the door to him and welcomed him saying, “I have heard of you, and for a long time I have wanted to see you.” He was hospitable and refreshed him, for Macarius was tired with his hard work. In the evening Antony put out a few palm leaves for himself. Macarius said to him, “Give me some, so that I can work at them.” Antony said, “I only have these.” So he made a pile of what he had, and they sat late, talking to the good of their souls, and made a plaited rope, and the rope hung out of the window in the cave. At dawn Antony went out and saw the plait which Macarius had made, and he marveled and kissed his hand, saying, “There is great virtue in those plaits.”

I like this ancient tale of friendship. First of all it’s strange, like anything old. The strangeness of old stories makes me pause and ask, what’s going on here? Why are they plaiting palms? Why are they in a cave? Then on top of that it’s tender. I imagine Macarius and Antony (both called ‘the Great’ because of their virtue and wisdom) as sort of hard to get close to: old monks with scattered disciples and with eccentric ways, intimidating, massive. And there they are sitting by candlelight, working at a simple task, talking and laughing, wanting to be near one another. Neither of them expected to stay up late and weave a rope with another monk. And there they are in the morning, the one smiling and bending down to kiss the hand of the other. At the end, I imagine they each go their separate ways. I wonder if they knew they would part with such warm feeling?

This is one of a thousand or so stories of the early Christian monastics who fled to the desert in the declining centuries of the Roman Empire. Some of the stories are easy to chew, they seem to communicate a single moral lesson. Some are as tough as a Buddhist koan. There are a number of stories that seem to teach an oppressive sort of religion: e.g. viewing women as objects of lust, or lauding asceticism for its own sake, or rejecting ‘the world’ as evil.

But if you listen closely you’ll hear a dialogue going on in these stories. One saying may laud a certain attitude, and another may condemn it. There isn’t a monolithic ethics being taught here. It’s a conversation. I am fascinated by the idea of an inner critique in ancient literature. I’ve found this to be an enlightening way to think about scripture.

If you want to learn from history, from the way people thought and spoke long ago, one way is to take up a book like this. But you must relax your judgment. Let the stories speak for themselves. Don’t speak over the top of them. If it helps, imagine how those in the future might judge our stories, with our limited knowledge of God, our narrow convictions of what’s good. We’re all in this together, the ancients, ourselves, and our descendants.

Here’s a story about Moses, a slave-turned monk who was sometimes ridiculed by the other monks for his dark skin. Later in his life, people traveled from all around to sit in his presence. He was known for his gentleness and love.

In Scetis a brother was once found guilty. They assembled the brothers, and sent a message to Moses telling him to come. But he would not come. Then the presbyter sent again saying, “Come, for the gathering of monks is waiting for you.” Moses got up and went. He took with him an old basket, which he filled with sand and carried on his back. They went to meet him and said, “What does this mean, abba?” He said, “My sins run out behind me and I do not see them and I have come here today to judge another.” They listened to him and said no more to the brother who had sinned but forgave him.

Book Report: The Immortal Game

I don’t know how to play chess.  I know that it’s played on a Checkers board, and that Pepperidge Farms makes some pretty good Chessmen cookies. Chess seemed like too much work to be fun…until now!

The Immortal Game: A History of Chess is David Shenk’s examination of chess’s impact on culture and on the people captivated by the game.  Whether or not you know anything about chess, I think you could find this to be an enjoyable read.  It’s sort of a history of civilization as told through chess.

As governments change, the game changes.  A powerful European queen makes chess’s queen powerful. The power of the all pieces, great and small, subversively moves a people from monarchy to democracy.  An exiled dictator’s escape plans are implanted inside a special chessboard.  Artificial intelligence experiments abound.

It would be easy to shrug off the book’s claims that chess has been in the middle of many cultural shifts and personal flourishing.  I’ts a book on chess, of course it will make big claims.  What’s hard to argue against are the facts.  Famous political figures like Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon, and Karl Marx loved the game.  The USA and USSR used the game as a proxy proxy war of sorts.  Many champions have been driven mad by the consuming fire of chess.  It traveled the world with trade routes.  It was, at times, a unifier and a universal. It was banned by three religions.

My favorite tidbit was David Shenk’s remark that chess was a sort of medieval Powerpoint.  Before computer-generated slideshows and flip charts, chess was often used to illustrate all kinds of intangible ideas and ideals.

On a side note, there are also a ton of cool chess boards.  Do a Google image search for “cool chess boards“.  My favorite is the vacuum tube set.

Book Report: If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland

Journaling has been a part of my life since I was ten years old.  My painfully shy rise through the politics of puberty is, thankfully, well-memorialized.  It’s all there.  Who said hi to me in the halls, which Olive Garden waitress seemed to think I was cool, why Jimi Hendrix was the greatest American.  Mixed company gas issues.  (It wasn’t me!)

I spent a lot of time in my room, scrawling my way through Mead notebooks (wide-ruled for fewer hand-cramps).  I also spent a lot of time at Barnes & Noble.  My parents supported my writing and they were happy to purchase a little writing book that I found:  If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland.

It’s not a book about writing as much as a book about divinely-inspired creativity and living.  Ueland’s thesis is that everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say.  Art, she explains, is what happens when someone sees something beautiful in the world and wants to share it. Creativity, she explains matter of factly, is from the Holy Ghost.

I loved all of this, took it to heart, and never stopped writing.  Journaling has been a constant joy in my life. I have no real motivation other than the fact that I like it. I’ve also dabbled in short stories (scenes really) and those are fun.  I wrote a book once and it was pretty boring.  But I like writing.

If you think that you are boring, untalented, and don’t have anything to say, then God, Brenda Ueland, and I all disagree with you. Very strongly.

Read this book. Write a book! Write a letter. Paint a picture. Share something. If it’s from the real you and it’s true then it’s good.

Hafiz

I have some Iranian friends who love poetry. (I think all Iranians love poetry. They take poems in from birth. They speak to one another in poems.) Sometimes they’ll have me and one or two other Americans over for a poetry reading. The rules are simple: bring a poem, read it, say why you like it.

Someone makes black tea with cardamom and sets out a plate of saffron sugar cubes. I bring a good-sized block of feta cheese. Someone else opens a bag of nuts or dried fruit. There are cookies. We start eating, and then we begin to argue.

Of course we don’t aim to argue, we aim to read poetry. But the Persians tend to read Hafiz poems, in Farsi. God bless ’em, I know they don’t mean to. But honestly, they do it every time. And consequently they have to explain Hafiz to the rest of us, in English. Their explanations lead to vigorous disagreements between them. I’ve learned to join in even when I don’t have a clue what Hafiz was trying to say. No one walks away from these arguments satisfied; no one wins. But we all have a good time of it.

Well, I do think Hafiz walks away from these arguments satisfied, because we don’t shut him down. We don’t reduce him to one meaning. Billy Collins tells about his students tying a poem to a chair and beating a confession out of it with a hose. We have yet to do that to Hafiz. Instead we sneak into his study, and pull down all of his books, and spread them on the floor with our eyes white. We tear pages out of them and put them into our back pockets. We steal paintings from the wall. He knows all of this is going on and he’s just fine about it.

I walk away from each poetry evening impressed with Hafiz’s love. We all of us read him differently, but we all read love. Love for a woman, for a man, for a friend, for his spiritual teacher, for all of creation, for humanity, for the wine in his glass, for the farting camel. Hafiz is in rapturous love with all of these, and through them he is in love with God.

I’ve become a convert. Honestly, I didn’t like him at first. He is full of difficult images like John Donne, or like John’s Revelation–both of which confuse hell out of me. Plus I thought he was hacking one theme to its godawful death. Every damned poem is about love.

But the more I read of him (in English), the more I think his images speak a universal religious language. And for Hafiz, his one theme, love, is also a name for the whole world. There is nothing he can’t touch with that one theme.

Granted, I am a new reader of Hafiz, and I don’t have the cultural perspective to read his poems like my Persian friends. But even so I’m beginning to approach translations with more confidence and satisfaction. If you want to do the same here are some random facts that might help.

1) Hafiz lived in the middle ages. When Hafiz was about 20 he saw a woman who filled him with longing, and he kept a 40 day vigil. This was somehow to attain her love. I’ve heard conflicting stories about what happened next. Some say that during the vigil he fell so deeply in love with God that he completely forgot the woman and began writing religious poems. Others point out that most of the poems he wrote are addressed to this woman.
2) Some images recur again and again. I’m told they mean things. Wine and drunkenness can mean ecstatic love, or it can mean wine and drunkenness. Nighttime can mean the unknowable nature of God. The beloved and the friend can stand for Hafiz spiritual teacher, Attar, it can also mean God. Spring and flowers can represent an awakening to new understanding or hope.
3) For a good part of his life he was disfavored (maybe even exiled?) by the orthodox Muslim leaders for what he said in his poems.
4) He signs most of his poems by saying his name in third person in the last line. Imagine a modern poet doing that!

I think a good way to enjoy Hafiz is through Daniel Ladinsky’s I Heard God Laughing. This is a collection of Hafiz “renderings”. Ladinsky calls them renderings rather than translations because he takes extreme liberty. I think he even writes several different poems from subsequent readings of a single Hafiz poem. But this book really captures the joyful spirit and wide embrace of the Hafiz translations I have read. (In the interest of full disclosure, my Iranian friends think it’s crap.) If anyone knows of a good English collection of Hafiz poems, I’d love to hear about it.

Here’s a Hafiz poem translated by Robert Bly, the poet who wrote that best-selling man book about the Grimm Fairy Tale Iron John. (That’s a good book, by the way. I recommend it.)

The garden is breathing out the air of Paradise today,
Toward me, a friend with a sweet nature, and this wine.

It’s all right for the beggar to brag that he is a king today.
His royal tent is a shadow thrown by a cloud; his throne room is a sown field.

This meadow is composing a tale of a Spring day in May;
The serious man lets the future go and accepts the cash now.

Do you really believe your enemy will be faithful to you?
The candle the hermit lights goes out in the worldly church.

Make your soul strong then by feeding it the secret wine.
When we have turned to dust, this rotten world will press our dust into bricks.

My life is a black book. But don’t rebuke me too much.
No person can ever read the words written on his own forehead.

When Hafiz’s coffin comes by, it’ll be all right to follow behind.
Although he is a captive of sin, he is on his way to the Garden.

Book Report: Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton

Are you into sea monsters and transvestite pirates? Do you like explosions, intrigue, and rum? Are you a fan of “high-seas swagger”? Do you fight the Dutch for fun?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then Michael Crichton’s “Pirate Latitudes” could be for you. If you answered yes to all of these questions, then you are easily the most interesting person at any dinner party that you may attend.

While “Latitudes” was published posthumously, it doesn’t feel incomplete or rushed. It’s a trim, fun, easy read all about pirates that cruised the Caribbean back in the 1600s.

Spoiler Alert: There are cannons.

I recommend this book.