Encountering an Old Friend

A Book That Greatly Influenced My High School Years

A Book That Greatly Influenced My High School Years

There it was on the shelf of Iliad Book Store in February 2009: A not-too-beat-up copy of the Committee on College Reading’s Good Reading, circa 1964. Naturally, I picked it up if for no other reason than to walk down memory road when I was a voracious reader. (And, if you read this blog, you know of course that I still am.)

I was the valedictorian of my class of 1962 at Chanel High School in Bedford, Ohio—a school that no longer exists. First it changed its name to Saint Peter Chanel, then, some years later, the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland shut it down. Even though I was in excruciating pain from a tumor that was pressing on my optic nerve, I still read as much as I could. On weekends, I would take the 56A bus downtown, stop in at Schroeder’s Bookstore on Public Square, and then spend some time at the main library, which was built in 1925.

What I felt I needed were books that served as a bibliographic reference to what I ought to be reading. That’s what Good Reading did. There were individual chapters by different members of the Committee on College Reading, all faculty members at various colleges. Just to give an example, here are some of Robert Clark White’s recommendations for 20th Century Continental Novels:

  • Samuel Beckett: Molloy
  • Albert Camus: The Stranger and The Plague
  • Karel Čapek: The War with the Newts
  • André Gide: The Counterfeiters
  • Jaroslav Hasek: The Good Soldier Schweik
  • Hermann Hesse: Steppenwolf and Siddhartha
  • Franz Kafka: The Trial
  • Thomas Mann: Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain, and The Joseph Tetralogy
  • Marcel Proust: The Remembrance of Things Past
  • Jean-Paul Sartre: Nausea and Troubled Sleep

These are not bad titles for the time. I probably would have added something by Iceland’s Halldor Laxness and Portugal’s Fernando Pessoa, but these are mere cavils. Thanks largely to this book, my attention was directed to great writers in every field. And the book covered more than literature: There was also history, philosophy, religion, anthropology, physical sciences, and other subjects.

I was such an earnest young student. Even while on the bus, I would pore over books such as Norman Lewis’s 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary and Word Power Made Easy, taking all the quizzes in the books over and over until I got a perfect score. Despite all the physical pain, I had a good childhood, starting with what my loving parents gave me and adding what I could along the way.


Serendipity: The Rain in Mexico

Thoughts in a Dry Season...

Thoughts in a Dry Season…

I am now reading Eve Babitz’s second book—Slow Days, Fast Company: The World the Flesh, and L.A.—and loving it as much as her first, Eve’s Hollywood. Having been so many moons without rain, I was entranced by the following paragraph:

The rain in Mexico, that humid rain-jungle kind of rain with flashy colors and limes and the idea that if you got jungle rot, the tentacles of the carnivorous vines would cover you up, dead—that Mexican rain, I have to think twice about. I have tried to love all rain, but I don’t know about jungle rain. The tropics are not for me. Birds with flaming plumage and fruits with neon-pink centers in the rain—I bet if I had to have even two unbroken days of that, I’d slip right out of my mind the way that missionary did over Sadie Thompson. I’d rather just be Sadie Thompson and get it over with, but I’m afraid I’d turn into a Calvinist in hot rain, with transparent underlying motives and a worm-eaten, jungle-rotted Bible as my brain’s downfall.

Last year, I saw two incredible jungle storms. The first was while I was waiting to change planes at Sao Paolo, Brazil: I saw this huge front coming fast from the northwest, dumping rain in buckets. By the time my plane arrived, it was all over. The second one was in Puerto Iguazu. I sat under a colonnade by the pool as the storm hit quite suddenly, dumping large amounts of rain and hail. I just sat there sipping a bottle of Quilmes while the hotel staff ran around frantically to bring in the chairs. That, too, lasted about an hour. While it was storming, the air was deliciously cool … but once it stopped, then ….

L.A. Writers: Tyler Dilts

An Up-and-Coming Police Procedural Mystery Writer

An Up-and-Coming Police Procedural Mystery Writer

Actually Tyler Dilts is more of a Long Beach writer than an L.A. writer. I find that exciting because he writes about an interesting locale about which most people know very little. There have been writers about Beverly Hills and Hollywood before, but both places are way too enshrouded in their own myths. Long Beach is the 36th largest city in the United States, and the 7th largest in the State of California. It is an interesting city in its own right, and it is large and diverse enough to sustain a series of crime novels set within its borders.

To date, there are four novels in the Long Beach homicide series:

  • A King of Infinite Space (2009)
  • The Pain Scale (2012)
  • A Cold and Broken Hallelujah (2014)
  • Come Twilight (2016)

All four feature Long Beach Homicide Detective Danny Beckett and his partner, Jennifer Tanaka. Beckett. In the first novel, Tyler’s wife dies in a car crash on Intersate-5. In the second book, Danny is sidelined with pain in his hand to his shoulder for an entire year, but he manages to go on.

A Cold and Broken Hallelujah was the first Dilts I had read, in Cusco, Peru, of all places. It is about the murder of a homeless man. In an interview with Craig Lancaster, Dilts describes his novel thus:

At the opening of the new novel, Danny’s come to terms with much of what was haunting him in the first two books, but a murder he investigates—a homeless man who is burned to death by a group of teenagers—tests his resolve, especially in mourning his late wife, who also died by burning. Danny’s the kind of detective who carries the weight of the past with him. It’s a quality that is certainly not healthy for him, but it keeps him connected to the victims of the crimes he investigates and allows him to maintain a sense of empathy. He knows that it is his greatest strength as a detective, so he can’t bring himself to let go, even though he’d be healthier and happier if he did.

As for the fourth book, I am reading that now.

The latest Novel by Dilts

The latest Novel by Dilts

What I like about the Danny Beckett novels is the empathy he feels for the characters with whom he comes into contact. He himself lives a life of occasionally disabling physical pain. Yet he works well with his colleagues in the LBPD and with both witnesses and even suspects. While there is no romance as such between Beckett and his partner Jennifer Tanaka, there is a closeness and mutual consideration that could potentially develop into one.

Tyler Dilts is the son of a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department detective. In the Craig Lancaster interview, he continues:

My father was Sheriff’s Deputy for Los Angeles County. He worked in quite a few different capacities—in the county jails, on patrol, as a trainer at the academy, and as a detective. I think I realized that I wouldn’t follow in his footsteps sometime in high school. But I didn’t know what path I would take until I got to college and discovered theatre. I got my BA in Acting and Directing and spent several years working in theatre in LA. I’m a big guy and found myself getting typecast, so a good friend, after hearing me complaining about the fourth time I played Lennie in Of Mice and Men, suggested that I start writing my own plays. That led me back to grad school, this time in English Lit and Creative Writing. In a way, writing about Danny Beckett feels like coming full circle and returning to that desire to follow in my father’s footsteps.

Dilts is still early in his writing career. I look forward to following it with great interest.



Wild Nature

“Mare au Crépuscule” (1850) by Theodore Rousseau

“Mare au Crépuscule” (1850) by Theodore Rousseau

When I went to the Getty Center last Sunday, there was a traveling exhibit of the mostly landscape paintings of Pierre Etienne Théodore Rousseau. I had never heard of him before. I even asked one of the docents whether that was the same as Henri ”Douanier” Rousseau. Then, when I saw the paintings, I realized that here was a very different artist.

Théodore Rousseau painted nature as she is seen, not as a manicured garden. Here were trees that were alive and dominated the landscape. And man does not figure as a dominant force in most of his work.

“The Pond Near the Road” (1848)

“The Pond Near the Road” (1848)

Étienne Pierre Théodore Rousseau (1812-1867) was considered to be a painter of the Barbizon School, which takes its name from the village of Barbizon near the Forest of Fontainebleau, where many of its adherents would gather. Their work was marked by “its tonal qualities, color, loose brushwork, and softness of form” according to Wikipedia.

After all these years, I am getting a little fatigued with many of the impressionist painters; so it was a relief to see someone who work made me stop in my tracks admiring an artist who was new to me.

February 30

Perfect If You Hate Birthdays

Perfect If You Hate Birthdays

This is for those of you who absolutely hate to celebrate birthdays. The problem is you would have to have been born in Sweden in 1712, on a day which was officially listed in the calendar as February 30, 1712. Since there has never been another February 30 in Sweden, you would have died before reaching your first birthday. No cake or presents or Happy Birthday songs for you! (I wonder how many Swedes were so affected.)

According to Futility Closet, where I saw this story, Sweden had some calculation problems in switching from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. At first, they omitted all leap days between 1700 and 1740, but in 1712, hey decided to have both a February 29 and a February 30. It was not until 1753 that the Gregorian calendar was fully implemented. Until then, there remained a lot of confusion.

Speaking of which, has Sweden ever had any notable mathematicians. Just wondering.

Up Escalator, Down Escalator

At One Time, Going on a Down Escalator Was My Greatest Fear

At One Time, Going on a Down Escalator Was My Greatest Fear

When I was a young lad, I was paralyzed with fear every time I had to go down an escalator. I didn’t mind going up one; but going down, I saw how far I had to fall. My parents and my brother made fun of my fear. Eventually, I confronted my sense of terror and had no more trouble.

In today’s China, escalators can kill. There are stories of people stepping on the floor panel either at the start or the end of their ascent or descent, and having the panel break, plunging the victim into the works of the escalator and crushing him or her to death. See the YouTube video by clicking here.

Nowadays, back in the U.S., I am usually more annoyed by escalators being out of service for long periods of time. At the Central Library in Los Angeles, the up escalators to the second and third floors have been out of service for months. At the 7th Street Metro Center, the topmost up escalator to the 7th and Hope exit has been down for at least two weeks for “preventive maintenance.” This leads me to wonder if escalators are just getting too expensive.



Where It Says Snow, Read Teeth-Marks of a Virgin

Where It Says Snow,
Read Teeth-Marks of a Virgin

The name of this poem is “Errata,” written by the Serbian-born poet Charles Simic, who in 2007 was appointed as Poet Laureate of his adopted country. As an Eastern European myself, I find myself drawn to poets like Simic, Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska, and Joseph Brodsky. Perhaps it is because, in their struggles with the vise-grip of Communism, they found a way out.

Errata by Charles Simic

Where it says snow
read teeth-marks of a virgin
Where it says knife read
you passed through my bones
like a police-whistle
Where it says table read horse
Where it says horse read my migrant’s bundle
Apples are to remain apples
Each time a hat appears
think of Isaac Newton
reading the Old Testament
Remove all periods
They are scars made by words
I couldn’t bring myself to say
Put a finger over each sunrise
it will blind you otherwise
That damn ant is still stirring
Will there be time left to list
all errors to replace
all hands guns owls plates
all cigars ponds woods and reach
that beer-bottle my greatest mistake
the word I allowed to be written
when I should have shouted
her name

“Tears of the Lord”

Paul Pletka’s Paintings “Tears of the Lord” at the Autry National Center

Paul Pletka’s Paintings “Tears of the Lord” at the Autry National Center

One of the paintings I saw on Saturday’s visit to the Autry National Center is Paul Pletka’s “Tears of the Lord,” which depicts a bloody crucifixion on an Aztec cross, with native Americans in ceremonial garb walking by the foot of the cross.

It reminds me of the strange mix of Christianity with Andean religions that I saw in Peru in 2014. As one who has had a Catholic education through age 17, I was amazed by the beauty and ornateness of the churches in Lima, Arequipa, Puno, and Cusco. The farther I got from the larger cities, however, the more I saw signs of local religious practices alongside the Catholic images.

In the 1980s, when my brother and I visited the State of Chiapas in southern Mexico, we saw something even more extreme—so extreme, in fact, that we were made to sign statements in advance that we would not photograph inside the church or any of the religious ceremonies. The penalty for violation? Tourists had been killed for disrespect of the local customs. In the church of San Juan Chamula, the Christian statuary was decked out with corncobs and flowers. All pews had been removed, and the Mayans prayed by lying on their stomachs with their arms outstretched. The altar was de-emphasized altogether. Instead, there were various worship stations scattered around the nave.

And where was the local priest? The Catholic clergy had been kicked out more than a hundred years previously as part of a revolt. The churches they left behind were adapted to highland Mayan religion.

As I look at Pletka’s painting, I see the native peoples of the Americas incorporating all or part of Christianity, but insisting on their own brand of religious syncretism as well. At the tiny church in Corporaque, Peru, near Colca Canyon, I felt very far indeed from the Cathedral at Cusco. The only modern touch was that I was being filmed. Apparently, a nearby church was ransacked by thieves; and many of the small churches took measures to protect their ecclesiastical treasures.


Bodhisattva and Guardian God

Bodhisattva and Guardian God

It is over a thousand years ago. Caravans with goods from Europe and the Middle East are about to enter China, right near where the Great Wall sputters to an end near Mogao and Dunhuang. There, at an oasis wedged between the sand dunes of the Lop Desert and the Qilian Mountains, is a series of caves which have been hollowed out and converted into Buddhist temples.

Although Buddhism was the predominant religion of the time, works have been found among Dunhuang’s treasures that included scrolls about Christianity and Judaism, not to mention the oldest printed work on the planet, a scroll of the Buddhist Diamond Sutra.

Notice the western edge of the Great Wall in the map below.

Dunhuang Is Located North of Tibet in Chinese Turkestan

Dunhuang Is Located North of Tibet in Chinese Turkestan

The Getty Center in Los Angeles is running a major exhibit of items from Dunhuang and replicas of the most impressive Buddhist temple caves, including 3-D images. Today, when we visited, the Dunhuang exhibit halls were thronged primarily with Chinese tourists. Still, it was the most interesting of the traveling exhibits now at the Getty Center. Fortunately, the caves at Dunhuang have not been vandalized by jihadist thugs such as were the giant Buddhist sculptures at Bamiyan in Afghanistan.

We tend not to think much about the Silk Road, because it was so thoroughly shut down by Western European naval exploration and the new markets that were created by it. But as long ago as the Roman Empire, silk and spices and other goods from the East were being traded to Europe via camels on the Silk Road that extended from China to the Middle East.


Licenced to Die in Droves

Moonraker’s Hugo Drax (Michel Lonsdale) and Minions

Moonraker’s Hugo Drax (Michel Lonsdale) and Minions

I have been slogging through Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels—for the first time since my college years. (Instead of studying for my English Comprehensive Exams at Dartmouth, I was picturing myself as an ultra-suave British spy licensed to kill.)

But what about all those uniformed minions in yellow or orange that were to be found working for such supervillains as Dr. No or Hugo Drax or Auric Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld. I wonder how they advertised for them:

“Work for destruction of earth for Bond supervillain. Must be willing to be shot dead or blown up in the last reel. Snazzy yellow (or orange) uniform and sexy short dresses for the babes. Absolute loyalty to lost causes and total lack of moral compass required. GOP registration a plus. Apply Box GX-1234.”

In the end, these minions almost always went down with the ship or secret laboratory or supervillain’s hideout. There wasn’t enough screen time to show how each and every uniformed minion met his or her violent end, but the corridors were sure to be running with blood.