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.

Serendipity: Roman Street Scenes

Scene from Ancient Roman Drama

Scene from Ancient Roman Drama

I was surprised as I read Juvenal’s Third Satire how vivid the ancient Roman street became. When we think of the ancients, we don’t usually see them in any way as if they could be our contemporaries. Here the satirist says goodbye to a Rome which he feels is going to the dogs as a result of corruption:

So farewell Rome. I leave you
To sanitary engineers and municipal architects, men
Who by swearing black is white land all the juicy contracts
Just like that—a new temple, swamp-drainage, harbour-works,
River-clearance, undertaking, the lot—then pocket the cash
And fraudulently file their petition in bankruptcy.

What is worse, those wily Greek immigrants are taking over everywhere:

One small dose of venom
(Half Greek, half personal) dropped in that ready ear
And I’m out, shown the back-door, my years of obsequious
Service all gone for nothing. Where can a hanger-on
Be ditched with less fuss than in Rome?

During the ten hours after sunrise, carts were forbidden to drive through the streets of the city. During the night, however, it is a different matter: The streets are also crawling with lowlifes:

But for me, a lonely pedestrian, trudging home by moonlight
Or with hand cupped round the wick of one poor guttering candle,
He has no respect whatever. This is the way the wretched
Brawl comes about (if you can term it a brawl
When you do the fighting and I’m just cast as punchbag).
He blocks my way. “Stop,” he says. I have no option
But to obey—what else can one do when attacked
By a huge tough, twice one’s size and fighting mad as well?
“Where have you sprung from?” he shouts. “Ugh, what a stench
Of beans and sour wine! I know your sort, you’ve been round
With some cobbler-crony, scoffing a boiled sheep’s head
And a dish of spring leeks. What? Nothing to say for yourself?
Speak up, or I’ll kick your teeth in! Tell me, where’s your pitch?
What synagogue do you doss is?” It makes not a jot of difference
Whether you try to answer, or back away from him
Without saying a word, you get beaten up just the same—
And then your irate “victim” takes you to court on a charge
Of assault and battery. Such is the poor man’s “freedom”:
After being slugged to a pulp, he may beg, as a special
Favour, to be left with his last few remaining teeth.

Juvenal shows us it’s not all togas and decorum. His Rome reeks of boiled sheep heads and spring leeks.




Tarnmoor’s ABCs: Olives

I Cannot Live Without This Oleaginous Fruit

I Cannot Live Without This Oleaginous Fruit

I was so very impressed by Czeslaw Milosz’s book Milosz’s ABC’s. There, in the form of a brief and alphabetically-ordered personal encyclopedia, was the story of the life of a Nobel Prize winning poet, of the people, places, and things that meant the most to him. Because his origins were so far away (Lithuania and Poland) and so long ago (1920s and 1930s), there were relatively few entries that resonated personally with me. Except it was sad to see so many fascinating people who, unknown today, died during the war under unknown circumstances.

My own ABCs consist of places I have loved (Iceland), things I feared (Earthquakes), writers I have admired (Chesterton, Balzac, Proust, and Borges); things associated with my past life (Cleveland and Dartmouth College), people who have influenced me (John F. Kennedy), and things I love to do (Automobiles and Books). This blog entry is my own humble attempt to imitate a writer whom I have read on and off for thirty years without having sated my curiosity. Consequently, over the months to come, you will see a number of postings under the heading “Tarnmoor’s ABCs” that will attempt to do for my life what Milosz accomplished for his. To see my other entries under this category, hit the tag below marked “ABCs”. I don’t guarantee that I will use up all 26 letters of the alphabet, but I’ll do my best. Today the letter is “O” for Olives.

In his Meditations the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Always observe how ephemeral and worthless human things are. Pass then through this little space of time conformably to nature, and end thy journey in content, just as an olive falls off when it is ripe, blessing nature who produced it, and thanking the tree on which it grew.”

There is something ancient about the olive. It comes to us from the Biblical lands of the Eastern Mediterranean, from ancient Greece and Rome. If it were not for the fact that I live in California, which is known for its olives, I would probably have left it out of my diet altogether. Especially during the Dog Days of Summer, I find olives refreshing, such that I can make a meal out of olives and iced tea, and nothing else. It’s one of the few filling foods that are not contraindicated by my diabetes.

My favorite olives come from Cisneros Brothers in Hanford, California, particularly their Sicilian garlic-stuffed olives: big green fruits with a spicy garlic charge. When the days start getting warmer, I will either drive to Hanford or order a crate of them to see me through.

There are numerous health claims made for olives, about their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities, and they may be true. Perhaps they cure cancer and powerfully increase male libido, but, truth to tell, I’d like them anyhow. I like them so much I even take an olive leaf nutritional supplement called oleuropein for good measure.


“This Moldy and Piety-Mouthing Hypocrite”

King Leopold II of Belgium (1839-1909)

King Leopold II of Belgium (1839-1909)

The writer of these lines was none other than Mark Twain, whose dander was up when he learned of the mutilations and massacres in the Congo attributable to Leopold II, the King of Belgium:

In fourteen years Leopold has deliberately destroyed more lives than have suffered death on all the battlefields of this planet for the past thousand years. In this vast statement I am well within the mark, several millions of lives within the mark. It is curious that the most advanced and most enlightened century of all the centuries the sun has looked upon should have the ghastly distinction of having produced this moldy and piety-mouthing hypocrite, this bloody monster whose mate is not findable in human history anywhere, and whose personality will surely shame hell itself when he arrives there—which will be soon, let us hope and trust. [from King Leopold’s Soliloquy (1905)]

Of course, Twain had not yet seen the likes of Adolph Hitler, Josef Stalin, or Pol Pot because that was to come later.

I have just finished reading Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. The Belgian monarch brought something new to colonialism: He designated the Congo as his personal property, making sure that all the wealth that came in went into his personal coffers. No, the Belgians did not enjoy any of that wealth directly. It went into ostentatious palaces, young concubines, and villas on the Mediterranean—all of which were his personal property. He did not even have the saving grace of being a patron of the arts. He was a patron of whatever enriched him. He even made his people “lend” him millions to develop the slave economy of the Congo.

Congolese with Their Hands Cut Off

Congolese with Their Hands Cut Off

At first, the wealth of the Congo came from ivory. It was not long, however, that Leopold realized he could have a corner in rubber. Trees had been planted throughout Asia and Latin America, but would not come to maturity for a number of years. Therefore, Leopold ruthlessly turned the Congolese to harvesting rubber from the rubber trees that grew wild throughout the region. Women and children were held as hostages while their men were sent out to bring in their quota of rubber.

Woe betide any Congolese who didn’t fulfill his quota. They were killed; they hand their hands cut off; or both—and the hostages being held were likewise brutalized.

Eventually, the world caught on to what Leopold was doing—and many other European colonial powers such as France and Germany were also guilty, but not on the same grandiose scale.