Where to Pan for Gold

New York Review of Books Titles I Have Read This Month

New York Review Books Titles I Have Read This Month

At different times in my life, I have fallen in love with different publishers: Penguin, Oxford, Dover, Modern Library, New Directions. Now I am mightily enamored with the publications of New York Review Books. The four titles illustrated above are books by authors I had never read before, but which I read this month as part of my Januarius project. Of the three best books I have read this month, two—Andrey Platonov’s Soul and Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight—were New York Review Books. The third, Juan José Saer’s The Witness, was recommended to me by an article in The New York Review of Books, which publishes New York Review Books.

I am always amazed by the editorial acumen of the publishers of New York Review Books: They seek out the best in Twentieth Century literature, whether it be from Russia, Hungary, Finland, Germany, Asia, Africa, or wherever. So many of the best discoveries I have made in the last few years have come from there that I follow their emails and website closely to populate my TBR (To Be Read) list.

Just this month, they came out with Silvina Ocampo’s Thus Were Their Faces: Selected Stories. Silvina and her sister Victoria Ocampo were closely associated with Jorge Luis Borges, who is one of only two or three authors whom I idolize,  collect, and ingest in bulk.

“The Lark Sings for Itself and God”

Hungary’s National Poet, Sándor Petofi (1823-1849)

Hungary’s National Poet, Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849)

Now that I am able to spell Hungarian words correctly, I will try to write more blogs about my exploration of my heritage. Today, we have a poem by Sándor Petőfi who died at the Battle of Segesvár during the 1848 Revolution against Austrian rule, where he was shot by Russian troops allied with the Austrians.

Why Are You Still Singing Gentle Bards? (Mit Daltoltok Még ti, Jámbor Költők)

Why are you still singing gentle bards,
in times like these what good is the song?
The world can hardly hear your words,
the noise of war drones on and on.

Lay down your lute, wholesome boys,
your beautiful music falls too flat.
Even the lark’s melodious voice
disappears amid thunderous claps.

Or maybe not. Birds don’t really care
if down here they are even heard?
In the vast blueness of their air,
the lark sings for itself and god.

When sorrow or joy touches our hearts
songs fly from us so naturally,
and sail on the waves of a steady wind
like the tattered leaves of a rosewood tree.

So let us sing lads, like we used to,
but even louder, so our lutes will vie
with the clamor of a disturbed earth,
and add a note or two to the clearing sky.

Half the world in rubble … a bleak vision
and though it troubles our hearts and heads
let our souls descend on these harsh ruins,
and our songs like ivy gently spread.

At home, I have Petőfi’s complete poetic works in a volume I purchased in Budapest, when I was there in 1977. The above poem was translated by Arlo Voorhees and is one of several that appears at Pilvax Online Magazine. I may also in future add some translations of my own.

The Canadian Op

Optical Illusion Art by Canadian Painter Rob Gonsalves

Optical Illusion Art by Canadian Painter Rob Gonsalves

I saw a fascinating selection of Rob Gonsalves mind-stretching optical illusions on BoredPanda.Com. I would say more about them if it weren’t for the fact they speak so well for themselves. Here are two more:


I AM That Demon


A Representation of the Mandaean Demon Dinanukht

A Representation of the Mandaean Demon Dinanukht

It is strange how reading a few lines on some abstruse subject can set your mind going. I was reading Christian Caryl’s review of Gerard Russell’s book Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East in the December 4, 2014 issue of The New York Review of Books. There I came upon this quote from the book regarding the Mandaeans from the marshes of Southern Iraq:

There is Krun, the flesh mountain, who sounds a bit like Jabba the Hutt; as [E. S.] Drower wrote, “The whole visible world rests on this king of darkness, and his shape is that of a huge house.” There is Abraham, who appears as a failed Mandaean guided by an evil spirit to leave and found his own community. There is the dragon Ur, whose belly is made of fire and sits above an ocean of flammable oil. There is Ptahil, “who takes souls to be weighed and sends his spirits to fetch souls from their bodies.” My favorite was the demon Dinanukht, who is half man and half book and “sits by the waters between the worlds, reading himself.” [Italics mine]

Omigosh, that sounds like me.



Our Ratty Old Constitution

How Can These Bewigged Lawyers and Farmers Understand What We Have Become?

How Can These Bewigged Lawyers and Farmers Understand What We Have Become?

Oh, I have nothing against the Constitution per se. Except it was just peachy for a rural slave-owning society. It always amuses me that certain people who don’t profess to read anything but their Bibles have suddenly started sporting tricorne hats and taking on the appearance of the men in knee-breeches in the above patriotic painting.

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 could not have imagined what was to follow: Manifest Destiny. The Civil War. Immigration. Two World Wars bracketed on either side of a global Depression. The atomic bomb. The Cold War. Global warming. A completely deadlocked congress.

Our Founding Fathers did not trust the people, so they opted for a form of representational government in which there were “buffers” between the rabble (that’s us) and power. The States forming the Union were all important—particularly in the U.S. Senate, where Wyoming’s 0.5 million people has as much political power as California’s 38 million. Now I like Wyoming a lot, but for all us Californians to have to kowtow to a mere handful of them cowboys is a bit of a stretch to me.

The whole system of checks and balances was a brilliant invention, but when a majority of ultra-conservative Supreme Court justices appointed by past Republican presidents can make their own law in the face of the will of the people, the result is chaos. Now corporations are being treated as people, and money rules supreme in elections (cf. Citizens United).

There are a number of ways that things could have gone, but they didn’t. The political stasis of the last decade will be how this era will be remembered. Look at the faces in the news: You can start drawing mustaches on them, because they will be the villains of the future.

In the meantime, all we can do is try to keep the ship afloat while the Three Stooges pound holes in the keel so that the water coming in can flow out easier.


Looking East

Károly Ferenczy’s “The Gardeners”

Károly Ferenczy’s “The Gardeners”

I know next to nothing about academic Hungarian art, but I would like to know more. Today I searched the website of the Hungarian National Gallery looking for paintings that caught my eye. The one above looks like a typical folk subject, a gardener and his son. The gardener works at potting what looks like a yellow rose while his son holds an empty pot and a watering can while blankly staring into the distance.

From my childhood, I know a bit about popular art, which consists of all sorts of peasant scenes, with picturesque cottages, rustic wells, and galloping Magyar cowboys (we called them csikosok). We had one such reproduction in our living room which actually scared me. If one stared at the shadows of branches and leaves against the wall of the cottage, it looked like a sinister face with a hand raised threateningly.

Here is another work that caught my eye:

Jenö Gyárfás’s “Youth and Age”

Jenö Gyárfás’s “Youth and Age”

From time to time I will return to this subject, hopefully becoming a little more learned in the process.

“Heart of Oak”

The Oak Forest at Descanso Gardens

The Oak Forest at Descanso Gardens

“Heart of Oak” is and has for more than 200 years been the official march of the Britain’s Royal Navy. If you want to hear the lyrics, see below:

For me, the connotation is somewhat similar: There is something about oak trees that exude both strength and beauty. At Descanso Gardens in La Cañada-Flintridge, there is a massive oak canopy protecting a host of other plants, most particularly the acres of camellias that Descanso is famous for. According to the park website:

Experience the giants in the Descanso landscape, the Coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia). These trees, some centuries old, are the remainder of a forest that once blanketed the region. The Coast Live Oak typifies the natural Southern California coastal landscape. These trees are flowering plants and belong to the beech family (Fagacea). There are 19 species of Quercus native to California. The Coast Live Oak is an evergreen tree oak. Its natural distribution ranges from California’s Mendocino County along the Coast Ranges down to northern Baja California.

The Coast Live Oak is known as a “keystone species,” meaning that the tree supports the existence of hundreds of other species, including mammals, birds, insects, fungi, plants, and even reptiles and amphibians. The Tongva [Gabrielino] people who made this region their home relied on acorns as an important food source. The importance of the Coast live oak in the interconnected web of life cannot be overstated.

For me, the oak forest is the principal year-round draw. Because California is in the middle of a drought, the camellias are not as lush as in previous years, but the oaks are always evergreen. The pattern of intersecting branches as in the above photo are Zen-like in heir intensity and always make my heart glad.