Old Elementary School

I had occasion to visit an Elementary School in St Louis for admin purposes. It is old and empty right now, the limestone balusters outside weathered and failing. But bright and clean inside as if the building hoped to teach given the opportunity. I saw only two people when I was there, a security guard and the woman I had business with. I asked how the school year was going during this pandemic and regretted doing so. She was bothered by the question, grief tinged with a little anger. She was clearly stretched emotionally. It is a strange time.

There were not schools as these in the town where I grew up, great grand things built to a giant scale with marvelous carved stone decoration. When I first came to St Louis schools like these were what I always imagined a New York PS was like, or a school in Boston or Philadelphia. Old America with roots to another time. They were certainly not like the single story flat-roofed school built in 1957 that I attended. First viewed I recall thinking what an education could have been had there in one of those buildings. Funny to think I was susceptible to the idea of “Halls of Learning” making a difference and not the school system. I am not sure if I do now. Maybe the grandeur of a place of learning can inspire. It is certainly something to consider.

Girding the front door there were two statues, one with a book and another with the demeanor of a dullard. I imagined teachers in times past requiring the children to make a decision which type of student they would be. I laughed. That little lecture would have worked on the child I was.

Grapes of Wrath again.

I started reading The Grapes of Wrath again. I like to reach a level of forgetfulness about the book before I re-read it but I wanted to look closely at the POV Steinbeck used. I guess you would have to call it 3rd person omniscient, but he never completely lives in the characters’ heads, rather letting their actions and words relate their feelings.

“The driver, getting slowly into the truck, considered the parts of this answer. If he refused now, not only was he not a good guy, but he was forced to carry a sticker, was not allowed to have company. If he took in the hitch-hiker he was automatically a good guy and also he was not one whom any rich bastard could kick around. He knew he was being trapped, but he couldn’t see a way out.”

That is about as deep as he gets in a character’s head and he doesn’t do it often. It is powerful the way he tells the story, lets the reader make most of the decisions. 

The alternating chapters, describing a situation, the failure of the land, the people being driven off etc, and then relating how the Joads fit into it all, it is just so well done. He sets up the situations and places the characters into the situation. I just can’t recall it being done so well, so smoothly.

Another thing I like is how the parts with the characters are filled with little stories, little asides. 

“An’ Ma ain’t nobody you can push aroun’ neither. I seen her beat the hell out of a tin peddler with a live chicken one time ’cause he give her a argument. She had the chicken in one han’, an’ the ax in the other, about to cut its head off. She aimed to go for that peddler with the ax, but she forgot which hand was which, an’ she takes after him with the chicken. Couldn’ even eat that chicken when she got done. They wasn’t nothing but a pair a legs in her han’. Grampa throwed his hip outa joint laughin’.”

So much richer than “You couldn’t push Ma around.”

This guy Steinbeck is a hell of a writer. He was my favorite before I was my own man, he had a part in making me.

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Jim Casey quotes;

Casy chuckled. “Fella can get so he misses the noise of a saw mill.”

“There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing. And some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain’t nice, but that’s as far as any man got a right to say.'”

I haven’t gotten to the eulogy for Grandpa yet. It is still one of my favorite pieces of literature.

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Good job Ruth, we will miss you.

Choosing Books

I took the Goodreads Reading Challenge and set my goal as 100 books this year. I may or not reach my goal but it has been a very interesting thing to do. I am up to 70 books so far. The collection is mostly fiction with some classics, some popular contemporary stuff, some kid’s books, one graphic novel, and some real crap as well. I don’t care for mysteries or romance or thrillers so much. Most of the stuff I like is categorized as literature, whatever that is supposed to mean. I write reviews with no details whatsoever and make ratings on how I feet about the book. I don’t pretend to know how to describe why one book is better than another. I do know a well written book when I read it though. I also like a believable story. As it turns out, there are many good books out there, but at times they are very hard to come by. (I don’t care as much for writers who might have used the word “paradoxically” in that last sentence, it is a style thing.)

I tried to read more living authors this year. I send them emails sometimes with questions and comments. I get responses too, and am always grateful. I owe a letter to Chrisry Lefteri for “The Beekeeper of Aleppo,” and Chris Cleave for “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven.” I sent Kim Edwards a nice email about “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” but have heard nothing back. I should write something to Glendy Vanderah for “Where the Forest Meets the Stars.” It is not the greatest book but it has some good moments and I hope she writes more.

Something odd has happened though. As a youth and a younger man, if I liked a book by an author I would have run out to the local used bookstore and bought copies of other books by the same author. At this point in my life I don’t do that. I can’t explain why. I think the only authors I have repeated this year are Vonnegut and Gaiman, though Gaiman doesn’t count because the book he co-authored with Pratchett is nothing like his individual work. Also some of the classics I have re-read have changed significantly with the passage of time. Or rather, as the words on the page are the same, I feel differently about the books as I have changed since I first read them. It is as if the books are a mirror that shows me how my mind and sensibilities have aged.

I might not finish this 100 book challenge. I haven’t enjoyed everything I have read and at times felt needing to read was a burden. Next year I think I will do another challenge and pare it back to 50. That would be one a week and if the books were of sufficient quality that would make opportunities to really enjoy a good book again. Choosing books becomes important.

Esoteric Art thoughts

I got to thinking about the painting at the St Louis Art Museum the other day, “Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion.” When I was a kid, when posters were a big deal, I had the poster. I didn’t have a Farrah Fawcett like the other boys, or Walter Peyton, but for some reason I had a poster of that painting. I wasn’t one of the kids who got stoned and had a black light and a lava lamp or anything. I would read without stopping, the reality in the books more palatable than my actual reality and after literally hours in one position, usually laying flat somewhere, bed or couch, I would rise not certain of my surroundings or what narrative was the real one. The theme of the painting fit well in the fantasy world I was a part of. Strange memories I have, with light slanting in from a window while I read.

So, many many years later, when I first visited the Art Museum in St Louis and actually saw the painting, the event had a mystical feel to it. The Art Museum has a smell that you don’t find anywhere else, not mildew, not old exactly, or catholic church-like, but other than ordinary with the humidity strictly controlled to a not quite natural level. Sounds die in the air in a museum, there is an unnatural quiet at times, especially if there are not a lot of patrons. All things lend themselves to an idea of the supernatural, not the fearful kind, but the bigger than mankind sort of thing, not so unlike a church, or being deep in a forest in the quiet and the cool. There were moments during that visit that my brain perceived as transcendent. It was not an average day.

I recall walking through the museum amazed at the collection. It happened that the unfinished portrait of Washington by Gilbert Stuart that was in my high school history book was there on loan from The Boston Art Museum. There was an exhibit of Sandy Skoglund’s photos that included the original of “Radioactive Cats,” and a couple of the huge canvases by Chuck Close.

It was a memorable visit. But when I stood in front of the Sadak painting the first time I was confused because the colors seemed wrong. The sheer size of the painting amazed me and it seemed unrealistic that I could be there looking at it. It brought to mind some mythical life that I was not at that then leading, one with purpose and meaning that I felt was unattainable to me at that time. From then till now I always spend time in front of it when I go to the museum and feel just a little of the wonder I felt the first time I saw it. Life can be amazing. My visit that day was one of those times, feeling as if I were watching myself in a movie. How fortunate we are to live moments like that.

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“Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion” was by a 19th century painter named John Martin. Wiki says “For many years the painting was known only in a reduced version in the Southhampton City Art Gallery. The full-size original was discovered in Sweden and acquired by the Saint Louis Art Museum in 1983.” That is why the colors seemed off to me when I first saw the large painting, my poster was a copy of the smaller version. The bigger is much more red in color without the same bright contrasts in the smaller version. I like the large version much better, and the man is not as prominent in the painting.

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John Martin painted “Sadak” from a story in a “The Tales of the Genii: or, the Delightful Lessons of Horam, The Son of Asmar” by an 18th English author James Ridley. It is available online and I took a look at it but it uses f for s and is hard to read. The blurb on the Museum website says, “Sadak is a Persian nobleman whose wife is abducted by the Sultan. In exchange for her safe return, Sadak undertakes a perilous journey to get a sample of the Waters of Oblivion.” Popular serialized fiction where a hero must fulfill a quest for his love. Yawn.

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The names of these painting and the artists I had to look up. I know the work the same way I know a number of chess openings. I recognize them when I see them but don’t know what they are called. The “Waters of Oblivion” is an excellent phrase as well.

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I intend an action narrative entry soon with dialogue. That is my intent, anyway.