The Count of Monte Cristo: 62%

Count of Monte Cristo
The unabridged, Robin Buss translation. Not sure this picture adequately conveys the massiveness of this volume. At 1,276 pages, this thing’s a door stop.

We’re almost halfway through 2019, and I have to confess, I’m pleased. Specifically, I’m pleased that I’ve “re-discovered” reading.

To be fair, I never really “lost” reading. But I definitely lost a regular reading habit. Many years ago, the advent of full-time employment delegated reading to those precious free hours tucked in and around the work week. Then when I decided to devote a fair portion of those free hours to writing fiction, reading for pleasure went out the window.

In my early days of writing, I was concerned about reading and unwittingly co-opting another author’s style or ideas. So overwhelming was the feeling that I didn’t know what I was doing, I was afraid of confusing a process that was in a very primordial form.

I still might not know what I’m doing, but I’ve gained enough confidence to be able to look outside the confines of my own pages. Some part of me has always known that continued, deep, engaging, reading is absolutely necessary to any growth I hope to achieve as a writer. And I couldn’t be happier about finally arriving at that point in my writing journey.

So, a couple of quick observations about The Count of Monte Cristo, thus far:

  • While I’m still reading via Serial Reader, I discovered that there has been a recent translation, by Robin Buss, done in 1996 (I think). So the friendly folks at the Garden District Book Shop ordered the volume, and I picked it up from them. It’s been very helpful to refer to this huge paperback, when the public domain translation of a choice phrase has me scratching my head. I’m still an avowed fan of Serial Reader, though — because there’s no way I’m lugging around this rock with me. My phone is much lighter.
  • The plot reminds me of the soap operas I used to watch during the summer, when I was a kid. But the historical details make it a bit more educational.
  • I really want to see Tom Hiddleston play Edmond Dantes. All the capes, and the conniving behavior. . .it feels like a natural progression from Loki to the Count of Monte Cristo.

The thing about reading: it’s addictive. Moby Dick was like a gateway drug. Not content to just read one thing at a time, I just recently finished Benjamin Taylor’s The Book of Getting Even, a novel I began in earnest over a year ago. Loved it. “Literary” fiction that isn’t afraid to deliver a good story, and make you feel every last pang experienced by its brilliant protagonist, Gabriel Geismar.

And I’m more than halfway through Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend. The observations about writing that keep coming up in this story are just devastating. In a good way. Like this bit, referring to D.H. Lawrence’s quote:

“But what about ‘Trust the tale not the teller,’ and how the critic’s job is to save the work from the writer? By ‘critic,’ you know, Lawrence did not mean self-appointed. I would love to see the consumer review that saved a book from its author.”

Okay, I haven’t been this long-winded in a while. That’s it ’til next week!

 

Galway and the West

Cliffs of Moher
We stopped at the Cliffs of Moher after leaving Galway.

Last week, I shared some highlights of our time in Dublin. This week, I’ll conclude the Ireland pictorial with some of the sights we saw on our way to Galway and back.

Our first stop as we left Dublin was the Kilbeggan Distillery, about an hour or two west of Dublin in the Midlands Region. This spot began producing whiskey back in 1757, and was in operation for two hundred years. It shut down in the mid-twentieth century, but was later refurbished and re-opened as a “boutique” distillery in 2007. What captured my imagination at Kilbeggan was an ancient steam engine, from the late nineteenth century. It still works, and gets powered up roughly once a year for special occasions. I imagined if I was ever in a post-apocalyptic, agrarian, Ireland — I’d want to find this engine. What for, I’m not sure. . .but that’s where some great story may be waiting to be told.

I didn’t get a picture of the engine, but you can see it on YouTube by clicking here. Here are some pictures I did capture:

Water wheel Kilbeggan
Water wheel at Kilbeggan Distillery.
Pot stills
The wall surrounding the pot stills at Kilbeggan had these beautiful purple flowers in bloom.
Glenlo Abbey
Lobby of the Glenlo Abbey Hotel, where we stayed in Galway. I’ve never watched Downton Abbey, but I imagined it’s just like this.
Glenlo Abbey golf course
View from the golf course at Glenlo Abbey.
Bunratty Castle
Bunratty Castle in County Clare. We saw numerous “tower houses” in varying states of decay during the drive. Bunratty is very well-preserved, and we stopped in and climbed to the top.

Well, that’s it for Ireland! Back to our regularly-scheduled programming next week.

Dublin

So, this past Saturday, we returned from the Republic of Ireland. What a wonderful time! I’m so grateful to have been able to make this trip with Tim, to have seen a new-to-me country and landscape, and to have learned that the most famous of the “high kings” of Ireland was a guy named Brian.

The pictures and captions below offer some of the highlights of the sights we saw around Dublin. One thing I didn’t get any pictures of, though, was a particular exhibit at the National Museum. The exhibit was called “Kingship and Sacrifice,” and it featured preserved human remains, discovered in peat bogs around Ireland, dating from the Iron Age. The “bog bodies” are believed to have been the victims of human sacrifice, and they still have hair, and fingernails, and sinew and stuff — even though some of them are more than two thousand years old. They were really gross to look at, but the whole idea has stuck with me. It’s the idea of encountering preserved remains, so far in the future from when those folks last walked, talked and breathed our air, that really fascinates me.

Hopefully, these pictures are a lot more palatable than the bog bodies.

Matt the Thresher
Our first meal in Dublin turned out to be one of our favorites. Tim had shepherd’s pie and I had the fish pie at Matt the Thresher.
Trinity Library
In the Long Room of the old library at Trinity College.
Guinness Storehouse
Tour of the Guinness Storehouse.
Christ Church Cathedral
The next day, we walked past Christ Church Cathedral on the way to our next tour, which was. . .
Jameson
. . .the Jameson Distillery on Bow Street. I learned and became a fan of the Jameson family motto, “sine metu.” It means “without fear.”
Temple Bar
Not sure if James Joyce actually ever visited The Temple Bar, but his statue resides there permanently.

Next week, I’ll post some photos of the things we saw during the two days we ventured away from Dublin.

Take the Long Way Home

Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash

Supertramp. Wikipedia tells me the band name was inspired by a book, The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, by Welsh poet W. H. Davies.

I’d never wondered about the name until now. I was not even ten years old when “The Logical Song” hit the airwaves, and it quickly became a childhood favorite. The band’s name (and “The Logical Song’s” lyrics) stood out in an era laden with disco one-hit-wonders. Their sound was certainly distinctive, so I just sort of took the name “Supertramp” as a given. You hear Roger Hodgson’s vocals, you know it’s Supertramp.

“The Logical Song” doesn’t hold the same sway over me as it once did. But there is another song from Supertramp’s Breakfast in America album that gets to me, every time I hear it. Every time. That song is “Take the Long Way Home.” Maybe it’s the harmonica, maybe it’s the lyrics, maybe it’s just the way it seems to evoke a certain, specific, plaintiveness in me.

These lyrics, in particular:

Does it feel that your life’s become a catastrophe?
Oh, it has to be for you to grow, boy
When you look through the years and see what you could have been
Oh, what you might have been,
If you’d had more time

Now, friends and family, please don’t read into this. There’s nothing catastrophic in my life, nor am I mourning any lost opportunities. Quite the contrary. I don’t even regret that it took me this long to really pursue fiction writing. It had to be when I was ready, and I didn’t know when that circumstance would occur until I came to it.

Maybe, I had to take the long way home to cross that point.

And, I love certain songs. It doesn’t mean those songs are mirroring my own feelings.

To prove that I’m not feeling particularly blue, I’ll conclude with a somewhat random thought. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Steve Winwood’s “While You See a Chance,” (which would release roughly 18 months after Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home”). When I saw the mega-blockbuster Avengers: Endgame, it felt like Steve Winwood might be having a moment. (Or, at least, a moment with me). His vocals are featured in the opening notes of the movie, as Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” plays while Tony Stark and Nebula pass time in a spaceship.

I thought it was a great transition from the bleak way Avengers: Infinity War ended. Catch these lyrics: “Do anything, take us out of this gloom / Sing a song, play guitar, make it snappy.” Given the devastation caused by a snap of the fingers in Infinity War, I thought choosing that song was nothing short of inspired.

That’s it for now!

The Count of Monte Cristo: 22%

Frioul archipelago
Frioul archipelago, Marseille, France. Near the Château d’If, where Edmond Dantes was imprisoned. Photo by Paul Hermann on Unsplash.

I began reading The Count of Monte Cristo via my Serial Reader app on April 1. It’s split into 208 issues, compared to Moby-Dick‘s 79, so I will be at this for the duration of spring and well into summer. But thus far, I find it a much easier read than Melville’s classic. The narrative is straightforward and the language is simpler.

This might be a good time to address my motivation for reading these two particular classics. Or for choosing these two as the “first in line” as I attempt to rekindle my reading habit. My motivation feels, to me, pretty layered, and I don’t want to bore you with all that unpacking. So I guess the simplest way to state it is: there are themes in both these stories that seem to tap into a very rich vein in our collective unconscious, to borrow from Jung. And I’m seeking a deeper understanding of those themes and how those storytellers managed to mine them so successfully.

Or maybe even simpler: I want to improve my ability to write interesting stories with some meaning, and I realize that while some of the best teachers are long gone, their lessons live on through their work.

Some particular observations about The Count of Monte Cristo, so far:

  • Napoleon: It’s been interesting to read a story written when Napoleon’s imprint on the world was still quite fresh. Napoleon’s former reign, and his attempt to reclaim the throne, are pivotal parts to the early part of the story. Since I live in the one U.S. state with a legal system still largely based on the Napoleonic Code, learning some of this history seems like a wise thing to pursue.
  • The south of France: Marseille, France has been the focal point of the story. Dumas’s depictions of the areas around the coasts of France and Italy are very evocative, and have sparked a new longing to see that part of the world, Marseille in particular. I’ve flown into Nice multiple times, and have spent considerable time in Cannes (in a former work life), but I have never made it to Marseille.
  • V for Vendetta: Going back to my motivations for reading The Count of Monte Cristo, V for Vendetta is one of them. It’s one of my favorite movies, and Monte Cristo is a recurring reference in it. It felt like high time to see what those references are all about.
  • Speaking of serials: Wikipedia tells me The Count of Monte Cristo was originally published in 18 parts, over a period of about 18 months.

I’m on track to beat that time by far. I’ve upgraded the Serial Reader app so that I can receive multiple issues in a day, if I choose. My goal is to finish Monte Cristo in under five months, instead of the nearly seven months it would take me at a “one-a-day” pace. At any rate, this is not the last you’ll be hearing from me, regarding Edmond Dantes!

Notre Dame

There seems to be a sense of universal shock over last week’s fire that threatened the 856-year-old building in the heart of Paris. And there are those who would argue Notre Dame is not in the heart of Paris, rather, it is the heart of Paris.

One fact I heard in all the news coverage would seem to support this belief. There’s a marker in the cobblestones right outside the cathedral, engraved with the words Point zéro des routes de France. It’s the point from which all distances from Paris to other cities in France are calculated.

And then there were the social media posts, from friends and acquaintances sharing their past encounters with Notre Dame. Which of course got me thinking — what are my particular memories of it?

It’s a bit of a shame I didn’t remember this right away, but, the last time I was in Paris, Notre Dame was the one non-negotiable item on my list. On prior visits, I had seen the church from afar, from bridges and river cruises on the Seine. But I was fairly certain I had never entered. Being Catholic, and of French heritage, it seemed like something I should do.

My friend Tamara, as the faithful comrade and good host that she is, honored my wishes. We ventured over to the Île-de-la-Cité on May 9, 2017. The pictures of Notre Dame in this post are from that visit.

But here’s the thing, and the reason I likely forgot that Notre Dame was on my “bucket list” during that trip two years ago. Tamara also suggested we visit Sainte-Chapelle while we were in the vicinity, and I was kind of blown away. It’s the memory of Sainte-Chapelle’s stained glass that sticks with me.

And just one year prior, in May of 2016, Tamara and I climbed the towers of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva. Another memory that sticks with me. Going back nearly twenty years, on a solo trip to the Île Saint-Honorat (roughly 950 kilometers from Notre Dame), I encountered some ruins that have never left my mind’s eye. When I imagine a true escape, I return to the remains of an 11th century fort, commanding a spectacularly singular view of the Mediterranean Sea.

By no means do I intend to diminish the tragedy of the fire at Notre Dame with these other memories. I suppose the point I’m trying to make is this: there’s so much beauty and wonder in the world and its history. It just seems a pity that it takes the threat of losing a thing so precious to open our eyes to it.

In the Past Month

Peggy Martin, my climbing rose, is one thing that has burst forth in the past month.

Writing-wise, 2018 was a blur. Here’s the best way to sum it up: my ambitions definitely overshot my capacity. I was so worked up about re-writing my second novel, and finishing a draft of my 3rd, that I put a lot of other things on hold. And that accumulation of other things continued into the first 2 months of 2019.

But on the first of March, I finally turned over a draft of number 3 to my editor. And I’ve spent the past six weeks. . .doing. . .well, I haven’t really accomplished anything, but I’ve done a lot of thinking. About how I want to write and publish moving forward. And about how I can go about balancing my day job with my writing vocation with my family and life in general, while carving out space for the pastimes I really enjoy.

For one thing, I’ve been reading a lot more. And I’m realizing just how much I missed it. The kind of reading that pulls you in for a nice, long, story and opens your eyes to the world and its history. I can’t downplay just how much I’ve relied on the Serial Reader app for my renewed reading habit. After I finished Moby-Dick, I read H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases” by Ida B. Wells, and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

In terms of quick reviews: I was mostly put off by H.P. Lovecraft’s writing, but liked his descriptions of Cthulhu. I’m a new fan of Ida B. Wells, and can’t fathom the courage she possessed to write so plainly about the terrifying reality she lived. And the 2,500-year-old The Art of War has really held up. Though I kept thinking Sun Tzu might have invented the listicle: “There are three ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army,” “There are five essentials for victory,” etc.

I started Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo on April 1, but it’s a long one, and I’m going to be reading it for the next several months. It’s been an easier read than Moby-Dick so far, though. I’m sure there will be some future posts on the tale of Edmond Dantes.

Outside of my phone, I’ve been reading a hardcover version of The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. I’m almost halfway through, and I love it. A blurb on the back by author Cathleen Schine calls it “a novel about loss and the loneliness of writing and imagination. . .” More apt descriptions: “intense and elegant,” “gorgeously spare.”

I only read it at home, on the weekends, because it was loaned to me and I don’t want to mess it up. So I feel a bit guilty for having it so long. (I promise to return it to you soon, Mel!)

So that’s it for now, about me getting reacquainted with my pastimes. And I haven’t even touched my Netflix viewing yet. 🙂

 

Behind the Photo: Garden District

April 6, 2019, 2:38 pm

This may (or may not) be the start of a new blog feature: “behind the photo.” My thought is to give some context to the impulse that compelled me to snap a photo.

Truthfully, I do this very thing in this space all the time. Look for any of my “City Park” posts. So I guess the only thing that’s new is that I’m attempting to brand the effort. The marketer in me dies hard.

A quick Google search tells me that both National Geographic and Time use the phrase “behind the photo” for sections of their publications. But I don’t think anyone who stumbles across this post will confuse it for either one of those esteemed periodicals.

Anyway, on Saturday, I paid a quick visit to the Garden District of New Orleans, to run into the Garden District Book Shop. (If you’re curious to read more about this great independent bookstore, click here.) What captured my attention at this corner was not so much the sign, but the wall in the background, and in particular, the people there.

That wall encloses Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, one of New Orleans’s oldest cemeteries. As I drove past the entrance, I saw a large group of folks milling about. My guess was that they were sightseers, either about to embark on or just finishing up a tour.

My first thought: Only in New Orleans, do you see large crowds gathered around a graveyard.

But then I remembered a time in Paris, just two years ago now, where I wandered about with friends around Père Lachaise Cemetery.

My second thought: Maybe it’s a French thing.

One final observation to finish this up. Both the name of the cemetery, and the reference on the sign to the “City of Lafayette,” can be a bit confounding to the modern-day Southern-Louisiana dweller. To me, Lafayette is the city about 140 miles west of New Orleans, that one can reach via I-10. The Internet says it’s the 4th largest city in Louisiana, which sounds about right to me.

But apparently, a different city with the name Lafayette was once also a suburb of New Orleans. Back in those days, I think the name was pretty popular, given that the Marquis de Lafayette, or General Lafayette here, was “USA all the way” during the American Revolutionary War. By a very quick and non-official count, it looks like 15 of our 50 states have towns named Lafayette, or some close variation.

Back when Lafayette became part of New Orleans, what I know as Lafayette today was called Vermilionville. It didn’t get the name “Lafayette” until 1884.

So there’s your “behind the photo” scoop, and, bonus, a random Louisiana fact.

While You See a Chance

April’s quote: “Whenever you find yourself doubting how far you can go, just remember how far you have come.”

There’s something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, now: Steve Winwood’s song “While You See a Chance,” from the album Arc of a Diver, released in February 1981.

Wikipedia tells me it made it all the way to Number 7 on the “Billboard Hot 100” by April of that same year. Thirty-eight years ago.

I remember that song pushing all the right buttons for me. I was a pre-teen, my tastes and predilections beginning to form, starting to diverge from those of my six older siblings. While those tastes never developed me into a die-hard Steve Winwood fan, that song has always ranked pretty high among my all-time faves.

A few months ago, I got a yen to hear it, and looked it up on YouTube. It’s a truly bizarre video, featuring proto-Blue-Man-Group performers and really bad visual effects, including light flashes that feel seizure-inducing. If you’re curious, click here.

Spotify’s audio-only version is preferable. Not only because I don’t have to shield my eyes, but also because it’s apparently been re-mixed. There’s a weird dub spot that I remember from the radio version, that’s still on YouTube. At around 2:19, Steve Winwood’s vocals go up and end abruptly, at the end of the lyric “And don’t you wonder how you keep on moving? / One more day your way.” How “your way” comes out never sounded right to me. It’s fixed on Spotify.

And speaking of the lyrics, they’re still one of my favorite things about the song. These are perhaps my favorite verses:

“When some cold tomorrow finds you
When some sad old dream reminds you
How the endless road unwinds you

While you see a chance take it
Find romance, fake it
Because it’s all on you”

Looking back to the Spring of 1981, I couldn’t have fathomed the many ways the endless road would unwind me. But deep down, I’ve always known that it’s all on me to find a way to re-wind.

And nowhere do the words “it’s all on you” feel truer than when you’re trying to write a story. Solo, without collaborators. I’m pretty sure that’s why I got the yen to hear this song in the first place. It does a great job of reminding me of my youthful enthusiasm, and helping me tap into an energy I had before I started down this endless road. 🙂

Nine Years In

Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

March 27 has significance to me. And not because it’s a nephew’s birthday (sorry, Matt.) Specifically, the date of March 27, 2010, is a date I note for very personal reasons.

It’s the day I became a writer.

But that’s an oversimplification. Big time. The process of “becoming” anything is more evolutionary than instantaneous. It’s more accurate to state that March 27, 2010, is “the first day I committed words to paper, with the intent of weaving those words into a long-form story.” Or, it’s “the day I began to write fiction.” But I think saying it’s the day I became a writer sounds more compelling.

I’ll set the stage. I was six months into my forties. I had run my third marathon about two months prior. It was a Saturday night, and I was in New Holland, Pennsylvania on a business trip. (I’ll save the details on that trip for some other post, that I may or may not ever write).

There was definitely a “what’s next?” question looming in my mind. And there had been amorphous story ideas floating around in there, too. But those were all laid atop a lifelong desire to write that I had managed to tamp down, or ignore, up to that point. I would tell myself, “I’m too busy trying to make a living,” or, “it’s not a practical use of my time.”

I was in need of a catalyst. And that quick, quiet, trip to New Holland provided it.

That weekend, I saw a lot of horse-drawn buggies like the one pictured at the top of this post. Add a covering, and a prominent caution triangle fixed at the rear, and you’ll get the idea. Perhaps it was an appropriate symbol for the speed of my nascent writing career. It would be three years before I’d share anything I’d written, and another three before I was ready to share with the wider world.

So, on this nine-year anniversary, do I have any regrets? Absolutely. There are plenty of things I would do differently, now that I have the benefit of hindsight. But things don’t work that way. And I have ZERO regrets about embarking down this path.

There’s a piece of writing advice I keep bookmarked on my phone. I go to it whenever I need encouragement, which is often. So I’ll conclude by sharing this excerpt — it’s an apt description of my beginnings:

Write a lot. Maybe at the outset you’ll be like a toddler—the terrible twos are partly about being frustrated because you’re smarter than your motor skills or your mouth, you want to color the picture, ask for the toy, and you’re bumbling, incoherent and no one gets it, but it’s not only time that gets the kid onward to more sophistication and skill, it’s effort and practice. Write bad stuff because the road to good writing is made out of words and not all of them are well-arranged words. — From “How to Be a Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit”