• Category Archives cultural ramblings
  • Books, movies, music…

  • She Hangs On The Western Wall

    I wrote this on Valentine’s Day thirteen years ago. Valentine, Venus, Vesuvius, Venezuela, Vhiessu

    I had several projects I wanted to work on this evening, and a whole bunch of straightening I could be doing, but instead I fell down a rabbit hole — I’d been perusing Anne’s copy of The Dictionary of Imaginary Places last night (after reading some non-Lovecraft Cthulhu stories), looking for the kinds of entries I might like. Plenty of Narnia and Middle Earth, and other things I could do without, but nothing about the Miskatonic River (small blurbs about Arkham and Innsmouth), and then I flipped to the back to read the entry for Vhiessu — nothing.

    So today, after a pretty trying day, I sat down at the computer to do those projects (more on them at some other time), and instead I Googled Vhiessu. There really isn’t a lot about it, though it was used as the title for some rock album, and, on obscure fan pages for Pynchon and Jorge Luis Borges, I found some reference to a fictional travelogue by the “accidental founder of Rosicrucianism,” which also mentioned Vhiessu, and which was in the 1740’s the inspiration for some intentional community outside Prague, which collapsed into “cannibalism, orgies, and mass suicide.” WTF?

    I tried to find more, and found that some of what was referenced was real, but other parts seemed to lead to weird Internet dead ends: circular references, missing articles in archives of dead journals… In the end, I may have been the victim of an elaborate literary prank.

    Now I have to read some Borges, and I’ll have to see if Anne’s book has any references to Ukbar or Tlön.

  • American Psycho

    I finally watched this last night. I’ve been meaning to for years in a not-very-urgent way, since I often come across references to it (references that I sort of get but not quite), and then the other day someone posted a small clip as part of an Internet comment, and I decided to just get it over with. So while Anne was at ukuleles (she’s really not into these kinds of movies) I went online and rented it.

    I paid for the movie, pressed play, and got nothing but cryptic error messages from Amazon. D’oh! I upgraded Firefox and re-loaded the necessary plug-ins, turned the machine off and on, all the usual suggested fixes — nothing. (I also tried Netflix and Hulu, they were similarly borked.) Finally I noticed that I had a plug-in installed that I’d forgotten about, one that blocks video auto-play. I was pretty sure it’s obsolete at this point so I just disabled it, and suddenly everything worked.

    (By this point a good chunk of my “alone time” had been used up, so Anne came home just at the violent, climactic ending…)

    All that troubleshooting was the highlight of the experience; the movie itself was strangely …dull. Everyone in it seemed like a coked-up, hyperprivileged Eighties-era sociopath, which is what they all turned out to be. I found none of them sympathetic — I would not have minded if they were all murdered, and would not have been surprised if they all were murderers. The actual psychology of the main character seemed to come more from a book than anything else — he even used the phrase “mask of sanity” at one point in his internal monologue. In terms of tension or suspense, there didn’t seem to be any, and the ending (no spoilers!) would have seemed less trite if it had been just a little more ambiguous.

    Anyway, there it was — I finally saw American Psycho. It was worth seeing, and worth paying $3.99 or whatever, but that’s about it.

  • Stop. Cthulhu Time!

    So we heard a few weeks ago that The Strand Bookstore was in trouble because they weren’t getting the foot traffic anymore, so — like thousands of others, apparently — we came to their rescue and ordered some books online. Dealing with their website, I can see why they were having trouble. But that’s another story…

    I ordered two books, which came in separate packages. The first, which arrived just over a week ago and which I just finished, was Other Minds, a book about octopus behavior and consciousness by science philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith. He mixes his own experiences as a diver, scientific results from behavioral studies, and the natural and evolutionary history of cephalopods, using these as a springboard to talk about consciousness and its origins, the awesomeness and mystery of cephalopods, and, towards the end, the wonder and fragility of the world’s oceans.

    The second book came Monday. This one is Her Body and Other Parties, a collection of short stories by Carmen Maria Machado. I’ve already read the first three stories, and they are really good: clever and creepy, pure “weird fiction.” I think she’s one of my new favorite authors.

    Last night we watched “My Octopus Teacher” on Netflix.

  • Book Report

    Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

    I saw an extremely positive review in Vox of Susanna Clarke’s new novel (Piranesi) which made me want to read it, but I though I’d check out her original novel — for free, from the library — first.

    Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a honker of a book, weighing in at 782 pages, and tells the tale, set in an alternate-history version of early 1800’s England, of the two men who revived the practice of English magic. It’s written, perhaps somewhat ironically, in the style of the novels from that era — think Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters — which was fun and clever for the first half of the book, but that whole stilted “British landed gentry politeness” thing wears me down after a while (I sometimes joke that the one improvement Pride and Prejudice really needed was a guillotine), and it makes the story, which actually has a very active plot, seem like nothing ever happens.

    So the book rolled along just fine until the midpoint and then became a chore, but then it became interesting and readable again in the last hundred pages or so. I suspect that this is a result of my COVID anxiety: several longish books I read recently had the same effect on me — I liked them at first, they became tiresome as my attention span struggled, and then I enjoyed them again by the end. Like those other books, I am actually glad I read this one to the end.

    Since Piranesi is only about 200 pages, I’ll be adding it to my list.

  • This Side Of The Mountain

    Well, we did it — Anne and I rode the century ride we’ve been working towards. We started with our friend Julie and her brother Peter, who were riding to their family cabin in NY just past the Poconos, but for COVID and logistical reasons we only went about halfway — we left them at Delaware Water Gap and continued from there on our own route, returning along Cherry Valley Road (one of our recent favorites) and picking up Mountain Road, an old favorite, just north of Wind Gap. This was a beautiful section, but it meant that we had to go over Blue Mountain at Little Gap. Luckily, the ice cream place was open at the bottom of the downhill side…

    We got home with about 98 miles and had to circle around the neighborhood a few times, but we finished with 100.1 miles. It seems funny, I used to do century rides on a fairly regular basis back in the day, but Garmin Connect tells me that this was my longest recorded ride. I’ve been using Garmin Connect since 2009, so that means that this was my first century in more than a decade.


    I just finished David Mitchell’s latest, Utopia Avenue. I really liked it, which was good because I’d been thinking lately that I no longer had the patience or attention span to read a book under the current stressful circumstances. (I finally finished The Mirror and the Light, and was sorry to leave it behind, but in the moment the process seemed such a chore.)

    The story follows a British 60’s-era band, blues/folk/psychedelic amalgamation Utopia Avenue through its formative days, with plenty of references to the London music scene and cameos from all sorts of British musicians, but there were also connections to some of Mitchell’s other books like Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas, and the books in the Bone Clocks universe. Apart from a few (relatively drama-free) supernatural passages, and a jarring ending, it just passed by in a smooth and pleasant flow, like a sort of “Forrest Gump of British Rock.”

    I just picked up where I left off in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, since it apparently is a bit of a prequel to Utopia Avenue.

    Happy Labor Day!

  • Independence Socially Distant Quartet

    Posted on by Don

    Happy Fourth Of July! I can’t believe I’m saying this, because I have always loved Independence Day fireworks, but there have been so many fireworks in the neighborhood in the past month that I’m heartily sick of them.

    Anyway, we celebrated this morning by getting together for the first time with our new quartet: Jeff and Anne on violins, Digg on viola, and me with the cello. We met at Jeff’s farm, outdoors and socially distanced but under a barn roof to block sun (and rain — luckily there was none). I was the “new guy” in this bunch, and also by far the weakest player, so had a bit of trepidation but we all took to it right away and played fine. We spent a bit of time on a Mozart quartet, then worked on portions of one by Schubert, and before we knew it three hours had passed. We’ll probably do this again in a few weeks, an I can hardly wait. What a fun morning!

    Tomorrow is a road ride down to Milford.

  • A Movie Recommendation

    Posted on by Don

    It was a total fluke, I just happened to note it among several movie reviews on Vox, but The Vast of Night caught my eye the other day, and since it seemed like something we both would enjoy we watched it over the past two nights.

    We were both riveted, leaning in (along with the main characters) as some old woman tells her creepy tale, bedazzled by incredible camera work, and totally sucked in to what might have just been conventional sci-fi if the story were told less skillfully. But it was told skillfully, almost hypnotically, and the real story was more about the characters and atmosphere than any “and then this happened next” plot, even though that part was pretty good too.

    I suppose it’ll be in theaters eventually, but we saw it on Amazon Prime. See it there, or on the theater, or maybe at a drive-in for that full Fifties vibe, you’ll be glad you did.

  • Make Room For Cellos

    Posted on by Don

    I got in about an hour playing yesterday (not counting my Zoom lesson), and about another hour this morning, which are good things because cello sometimes to seems to sink to the bottom of the priority list, and the day moves along and suddenly it’s too late to play, or I’m too tired or other things are going on… So I have to make the time, preferably in the late morning when I’m fresher.

    I’ve been making some pretty good strides lately though, working with some books of exercises (fingering positions, bowing), which have helped with my two “ambition” pieces: Miska Hauser’s “Berceuse,” and “Bouree” (I and II) from Bach’s Cello Suite in C Major. “Berceuse” is coming along, and I’m starting to feel I’ve mastered the piece, or at least I’m getting there, but “Bouree” is still a struggle. Yo-Yo Ma is doing a live show of all of Bach’s cello suites tomorrow, so I’m hoping for a bit of inspiration.

    Meantime, I did a bit of cleanup on that new map — fixing some bugs and adding features, and changing the marker icons to more closely match the ones in my original QGIS project. I also did a bit of housekeeping here, adding a new menu item at the top for non-blog projects (like the map).

  • Finally Something To Chew On

    So we finished Devs (which, after all that buildup, ended on a disappointing note), and we just started Community, but I’m not really feeling it yet. I’m a reader and I don’t expect to be engrossed by any show for long, but even reading I’ve been struggling to find something I actually like right now. I picked up a few new sci-fi novels recently, but found most of them juvenile and annoying; re-reads of old favorites, in any genre, end up testing my patience…

    Luckily, my streak ended with Hilary Mantel’s new The Mirror and the Light, the final book in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. I’m about a hundred pages in, less than a quarter of the way through the book, and I’m totally engrossed. The story picks up just after the execution of Ann Boleyn, where the last book ended, and though I know how it all ends — after all, everyone in it has been dead, and buried in the history books, for centuries — it’s amazing to watch Cromwell’s virtuoso performance, like someone juggling on a high wire, trying to keep Henry VIII’s kingdom from imploding.