Category Archives: Arts & Entertainment

Desultory reading

I finished reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude yesterday. It came highly recommended–more than 10 years ago, mind you–from a friend who also recommended a number of other books I have loved. Were it not for him, I would not have read Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany or Buechner’s Godric, for instance. It is a book chosen by Oprah for her book club (one wonders if she or any of her viewers actually read it). One friend told me–and this was confirmed in the publishing story in the back of the book–that it was said that this book, along with the book of Genesis, is required reading for the entire human race.

Solitude has been sitting on my shelf for at least 10 years. I made an attempt at reading it shortly after buying it, but didn’t make it much past 50 pages. It was too surreal and I kept losing track of all the names (there are many Aurelianos and Arcadios and Joses) and the plot. I picked it up again about a month ago and started reading from the beginning. This time the story captured me more than the first time, and I kept track of the names using the family tree printed in the front pages of the book.

Midway through I began to realize that the story wasn’t going anywhere. At least, not in any sort of linear sense. Nobody claimed that it would, but still, it really was just events in the lives of one family. I began to hope that there would be a payoff or resolution at the end, as a reward for the work of reading through the middle hump. There was a resolution and a payoff of sorts, but it was underwhelming. I certainly don’t see how it should be required reading.

What am I missing with some of these greats of Western literature? What do I need to “get” in order to understand the acclaim?

Here’s what I need to do: I need to stop reading books out of obligation. Obligation to the canon or to acclaim. If we’re talking about pleasure reading, obligation is opposite of the direction I want to go in.

A couple of weeks ago, Scot McKnight published a post about reading habits. He said this:

I don’t know about you, but I can create a stack of books to read and then a new book arrives in the mailbox and I decide to read the new book. On the day before we left for Israel Alan Jacobs’ new book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, arrived, and I said to myself, “That’s a book to read on the flight.” And I did. Which decision illustrates the whole point of Jacobs’ new book: read at whim.

Why “whim”? Lower case “whim” in Jacobs’ dictionary means “thoughtless, directionless” but upper case Whim means this: “Read what gives you delight — at least most of the time — and do so without shame” (23). One of my favorite writers, who often writes about reading, calls this “desultory” reading — a kind of wandering and meandering from one book to another. More or less, that’s how I have been reading for years. What strikes me today as a “must-read” becomes sometimes a “read later” and sometimes to a “I’m not even interested now.” Whim is a good word for it, and it’s a good habit to establish.

Desultory reading is what I have done in the past, and I have read some wonderful books as a result. I once bought a book based solely on its cover art and the blurb on the back (but mostly the cover art). I liked that book enough to buy another by the same author, which became one of my favourites. Without reading at whim, without the serendipitous choice, I may never have read The Shipping News or Dracula.

Desultory reading choices are made by feeling. If I own the book, the choice is usually made at those times when I spend a few moments browsing my bookshelves and reading the first couple of paragraphs of the book. I’m not sure how it works in bookstores. I just know it’s feeling–guts. It’s serendipitous.

I sometimes muse about what I will read next. For a time, I thought the next work of fiction I would read is Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. But that was again an obligation–it is acclaimed, it comes highly recommended by friends. But I didn’t feel the choice.

I didn’t know it was the wrong choice until a week or so ago, when I was again perusing my books. I opened The Kite Runner and read the short first chapter. I was hooked. The opening words spoke nostalgia and regret, for which I am a sucker.

I sat on a park bench near a willow tree. I thought about something Rahim Khan said just before he hung up, almost as an afterthought. There is a way to be good again. I looked up at those twin kites. I thought about Hassan. Thought about Baba. Ali. Kabul. I thought of the life I had lived until the winter of 1975 came along and changed everything. And made me what I am today.

Yes, this book was recommended to me. But I’m going to read it because it feels right. I might be disappointed. I might think it’s the best thing I’ve read in a while.

The key is serendipity.

Miscellaneous Musings

After two years, I have finally figured out why I have been blogging a lot less since entering seminary. My blogging was already on the wane prior to our move, but I had expected the intellectual stimulation of the seminary classroom to fuel the proverbial fires of this blog. That did not happen.

What I didn’t account for was this: seminary friends. And not just any seminary friends, but seminary friends who enjoy few things as much as discussing theology, to the point that almost anything we do together (such as a poker night) inevitably turns into a theological discussion.

The discussion I would normally try to generate on this blog, I am now having in the seminary classrooms, hallways, and in my home. I therefore feel less inclined to post my thoughts here.

This has made me realize that in this respect seminary is certainly a bubble. Nowhere else will I find so many people interested in which theological book I’m reading, or what Barth or Bonhoeffer or Wright has to say about something. I suspect I will be in for a sort of “culture shock” once I’m finished here. I expect my blogging volume will increase correspondingly.

* * *

There was a time when I thought “best of” and “favourite” lists were fun exercises. “Best album of the 90s”; “Favourite albums of all time”; “5 Desert Island Books”; etc. I am now at the point where I usually think this is a useless exercise, because the details of those lists change almost weekly, depending on mood and current taste.

It occurred to me, however, that a more objective approach to this list business is the “25 Most Played” feature on my iPod. I got quite excited about the potential results–what are my favourites based on actual frequency played rather than on nostalgia (which allows a favourite even if the CD hasn’t been played in years).

Last night I checked my iPod’s stats and was sorely disappointed in the results. Of course I should have expected this.

#1: “Grace and Peace” by Fernando Ortega, which we wake up to every morning.

The other 24 were the songs, sometimes duplicate, from the Barenaked Ladies’ children’s album, Snacktime, which Olivia goes to sleep to almost every night.

Alas.

* * *

I sometimes come up with strange ideas, ideas which probably seemed hilarious or brilliant (or both) at the time, but now seem more embarrassing than anything.

Consider, for instance, a note I wrote some years ago, presumably as an idea for a possible blog post. Dixie found it this morning as she was cleaning out some clutter. It was in a small box filled with notes and old receipts which we for some reason thought necessary to bring with us on our move to Manitoba.

I don’t know how long ago I wrote this, but here it is:

What would a world of uninhibited flatulence be like? A world in which we could fart freely, without embarrassment or fear of social recriminations? A world in which Dutch ovens would be given as loving gifts

Bizarre.

The Pink Panther

IT’S A FACT: “The Pink Panther Theme,” by Henri Mancini, is probably my favourite song of all time. I don’t know why this is, exactly, but it has been my favourite since childhood. It evokes feeling of nostalgia, a mysterious sense of Europe and my childhood, a sense of intrigue and adventure and fun. None of these things do justice to what I feel whenever I hear the song. I can’t quite find the words.

This goes back to early childhood–perhaps even back to when we still lived in the Netherlands. Every so often one of the original Pink Panther films would be played on TV and a number of times I caught it at just the right time to catch the opening sequence, which included the theme song and a short animated feature with the pink panther and the inspector chasing him down.

These short cartoons delighted me. It was always a let-down when the actual, live-action film began. At the time, I didn’t find Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau very funny at all, and there was no pink panther, other than a mysterious jewel!

Since that time “The Pink Panther Theme” has filled me with warm, happy feelings.

I’m having some issues finding one I can embed, so here’s a link to a live version (with Mancini on piano) on YouTube.

Post of the Year

Who am I to say what my post of the year is?  I suppose that should be decided by my readers.

We’ve arrived in Prince Albert and I’m fully into the early stages of the flu: runny nose, aching body, chills, headache. What a way to start the Christmas break!  I suspect it’s as a result of my trying to dig out the van when we hit the ditch the other day. I didn’t have proper snow pants on and spent quite a bit of time out there. Plus, my adrenaline probably ran out when I handed in my last assignment of the semester on Monday.

But I digress. I confess I have neither the will nor the strength scan through all of my 2010 post. No matter–I’m convinced this is the best one. In fact, it may well be the only post I wrote this year that I think is worth reading.

Written on February 19, 2010, it’s a reflection on good, evil, and God, prompted by a Bruce Cockburn song I was listening to at the time. This isn’t a post putting forward tentative theological ideas, as I usually do. These words came from my heart and my guts, which is why, I think, they continue to resonate with me.

* * *

how faint the whisper we hear of him! (Job 26:14, TNIV)

* * *

Here
is bigger than you can imagine
Now
is forever (Bruce Cockburn)

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about pain and suffering and genocide and natural disasters and…God.  Without diminishing the pain and horror, and without denying the legitimacy of our incredulity, our anger at God for allowing these things to happen, I do have the strong sense that we humans are awfully short-sighted in our assessment of what God is or is not doing in the world. What truths can we derive from our suffering when it is but a blip of an event in the continuum of history?  What do we, with our short lives, know about how these things fit in the great scheme of things?

And what of all the beauty and goodness we see in the world?  Should God get any credit for those things?  Should the bad things outweigh the good?

Perhaps it is easy for me to say this sitting comfortably in my Poäng chair at home, surrounded by books, family, love, health and…a roof and walls, but there runs inside me a deep vein of hope.  There is good in the world and it will prevail. I believe this deeply.

Hope does not do away with the pain and suffering, and neither does it justify or excuse it.  Hope does not mean we cannot or do not weep, grieve, shout at God in anger.  What hope does is see, if faintly and uncertainly, beyond pain and suffering to the time when, in Julian of Norwich’s wonderful words, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”.

Tonight I had Bruce Cockburn’s album You’ve Never Seen Everything playing in the background as I worked.  The title track is quite a powerful song.  On first listen it comes across as a heavily political song, which is not unusual for Cockburn.  It is a dark song, sparse instrumentation, with lyrics spoken in a low, tired, almost pained voice.

The listener is presented with a series of vignettes showing the dark underbelly of the world: viruses, suicide, murder, drug trade, sexual harassment, consumerism, poisoning of women and children, rage, greed, and so on.  After a couple of these vignettes, the words, “You’ve never seen everything”.  For example:

And a car crashes and burns on an offramp from the Gardiner
Two dogs in the back seat die, and in the front
a man and his mother
Forensics reveals the lady has pitchfork wounds in her chest –
Pitchfork!
And that the same or a similar instrument has been screwed to the dash
to make sure the driver goes too

You’ve never seen everything

The listener is shaken out of his or her stupor: there is so much darkness beyond that comfortable little world you’ve created for yourself, he seems to be saying. You think you get it?  You think you understand the world–like watching the nightly news gives you any sense of what’s going on?

For the longest time I would simply skip over the song.  It was too dark, too discomforting.  And the only reason I did choose to listen to it was to get to the chorus, which is a rich, beautiful melody dropped in the middle of those dark vignettes:

Bad pressure coming down
Tears – what we really traffic in
ride the ribbon of shadow
Never feel the light falling all around

Until tonight I wasn’t sure what to do with that chorus, other than enjoy it as a brief reprieve from the dark images being spoken around it.  The song is the shadow, it seemed to me, and the chorus but a thin ribbon of half-light running through it.  But suddenly, tonight, perhaps in confirmation of the things I’ve been thinking about hope, I realized what the song is actually saying.  It ends with the chorus and repeated mantra:

Bad pressure coming down
Tears – what we really traffic in
ride the ribbon of shadow
Never feel the light falling all around
Never feel the light falling all around

You’ve never seen everything

It’s not the darkness we haven’t seen around us, it’s the light!  We think we’ve seen it all when we see the pain and sorrow of the world, but we haven’t seen everything: we haven’t seen the light falling all around, filling all the infinite space in which the ribbon of shadow moves.  We choose to ride the ribbon of darkness when we could just as well ride the light if we are willing to see it.

In fact, the album ends quite abruptly a few songs later on the word “hope”.

* * *
The original post is here if you want to follow the discussion that went with it (comments there are closed, but they are open here).

The Vandersluys Christmas Music Canon

This Vandersluys household has a semi-closed canon of Christmas music.  Here are our favourites, in order of play time:

1. A Charlie Brown Christmas – The Vince Gauraldi Trio

This is the hands-down winner. Some days the first thing we do when we get up is shuffle over to the stereo and press “play” (A Charlie Brown Christmas already being in the cd-player). When I remember, I will set the stereo to “repeat all”, such that the soundtrack will play indefinitely.  The trio’s warm, smooth jazz really marks Christmas (in the sense of “the holiday season”) for us.

2. Christmas – Bruce Cockburn

Bruce Cockburn is one of a handful of artists whom Dixie and I wholeheartedly agree on, and this is a Cockburn classic. It combines sacred music with artistic skill. He takes sacred Christmas standards and puts his own stamp on them. It’s a quality album.

I think it’s fair to say that there is a wide gap, in terms of air-play, between the first two and what follows. But don’t let that fool you, as they are all quality albums

3. Feast of Seasons – Steve Bell

For similar reasons as the Cockburn album, though Steve Bell includes original material as well.

4. Do You Hear…: Christmas with Heather, Cookie and Raylene Rankin (of the Rankin Family)

The opening song–“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”–is what does it for me, but the rest of the album is top-notch as well.  Lots of tight harmonies. It’s Christmas with an East Coast Gaelic twist.

5. A Prairie Home ChristmasGarrison Keillor (and the whole Prairie Home Companion gang)

This one was added to the canon last Christmas. Warm, funny, sometimes sacred. A mix of carols, humourous songs, and comedy sketches on 2 CDs. Our kids particularly enjoy the sound-effects version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”.

Honourable mentions:

• Child – Jane Siberry.  Dixie is a huge Jane Siberry fan. I have mixed feelings. She has moments of brilliance musical beauty and moments of eye-raising oddness. At any rate, this is a 2-disc live Christmas album.

Confession: the live version of her song “Hockey”, which is on this album, once made me cry.

Christmas with James Last – James Last

For purely nostalgic reasons. It gets nothing but eye-rolls and mockery from Dixie, but I better make sure the record gets some airtime this year. Maybe I should download it from emusic.com.

In which James Last almost makes me cry.

When I first got a record player, I imagined myself being very selective in which records I buy. That was before I discovered the glut of 25 cent records available at thrifts stores.  In fact, I haven’t yet spent more than 50 cents on a record.  It’s difficult to keep a music collection “pure”–I’ve tried many times (an the difficulty increases with the absorption of the music that comes with a marriage).

Most of what you find in thrift stores is kitschy: cheesy old gospel records with awkward pictures of the quartets on the front; self-titled albums by where-are-they-now artists with single names (Eva or perhaps Bridgette), the artist’s slightly fuzzy head-shot gracing the entirety of the record sleeve; records with grinning men holding accordions on the cover; and so on.  The truth is, I wanted to buy several of these records just for fun, but I did restrain myself at least that much.

Several months ago–before I even had a record player–I checked the records at the thrift store in a neighbouring town.  I bought The Band’s second, self-titled album for 25 cents, as well as Benny Goodman and his Orchestra Live in Brussels (that one was a bit of a risk, but it turned out well) and a children’s record with Winnie-the-Pooh songs on one side and “Peter and the Wolf” on the other (alas, the kids don’t seem to care for that one as much as I did when I was their age).

Last week, Dixie had a look at the same thrift store and bought several more: The Sound of Music soundtrack; the Obernkirchen Children’s Choir (that one was a miss); some kind of Mexican music (tentatively a miss); and Trapezoid’s Now & Then (a hit! click on the link to go to Amazon.com for sound samples).

Today I went to the thrift store in Steinbach and came back with several more: the original cast recording of Fiddler on the Roof (for Dixie); ABBA Greatest Hits (unexpectedly, given the title, I don’t recognize half the songs on it); and another kids’ Winnie-the-Pooh album.

I also bought two records for purely nostalgic reasons.  First, I bought Zamfir The Lonely Shepherd.  I have loved the title song since I was a young lad (if you’ve seen Kill Bill, you’ve heard it). I have no idea what the rest of the record will be like.  Actually, yes–yes I do.  Nostalgia!

As a joke, I also bought Christmas with James Last (sound bites at Amazon on the renamed album).  I thought I’d give it a quick listen to bother Dixie and then redesign the cover and use it to protect my sleeveless The Band album.  When I played it, however, it turned out to be a nostalgic treasure!  THIS ALBUM IS THE DEFINING SOUND OF THE CHRISTMASES OF MY CHILDHOOD!

Dixie is out with a friend tonight. I played a bit of Christmas with James Last for her before she left. She saw my giddy delight upon realizing just what it was I had purchased for a mere 25 cents.

“Great,” she said. “Now I’m going to spend the evening imagining you at home crying quietly to yourself.”

And the truth is, a bit of water did rise to my eyes at the jingly sound of James Last’s Christmas.

Miscellaneous 2 (LPs; John Irving; O.K. Vandersluys)

So I got myself a record player.  Actually, my mother-in-law was kind enough to give me one of hers. Yes, the thing on which you place a scratchy black vinyl disc which rotates while a needle-tip drags along grooves in the vinyl.

I’m more or less from the post-LP generation (my early music collection was all cassettes), although my first experience of a full “secular” album was U2’s The Joshua Tree on LP.  I still remember it fondly.  My brother had left his record player and a number of his records at home after he moved out.  He had some U2 singles as well. One of them–“Hallelujah, Here She Comes”–had a scratch in it and would start skipping at exactly the same spot every time. I could sing along with the song as if the skipping part was normal.

Vinyl is a bit of a trend for music enthusiasts these days. Some people buy LPs simply because it’s trendy, others because of a reputed better sound quality than CDs.  I didn’t get the record player for either.

I wanted it simply to go back to something that is less about instant gratification, shuffling, skipping, and songs instead of albums.  I’ve been a member of emusic.com for a year or two now and every month I’m presented with the need to download 40 songs (there is no rollover).  I get a lot of recommendations from my brother, but, quite frankly, I can’t keep up with all the new material and the need for find new stuff every month.  My hope is that with records, I’ll go back to choosing carefully–buying only after giving it a good listen.

I won’t stop buying CDs, I don’t think.  In my estimation, some albums are not an improvement on LP (I might be proven wrong).  There are others which might be worth getting on vinyl–I’m thinking of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska or perhaps local favourite Del Barber’s latest album.

A couple of weeks ago, I stopped at the MCC Thrift Store in Niverville and had a look at their records.  I found a couple gems in there: The Band’s second album; a children’s record (side A: Peter and the Wolf; side B: Pooh Songs); and a jazz album: “Benny in Brussels”– Benny Goodman (“Ambassador with a Clarinet” and his orchestra.  Combined cost for 3 perfectly good records?  Less than $1!

* * *

I’m reading John Irving latest book, Last Night in Twisted River.  I bought it at Heathrow Airport in London before we flew home (for some reason I’ve always wanted to buy a book in an airport).  It’s more than 600 pages long and I think I’m just over halfway now.

Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of my favourite books.  I’ve also read The World According to Garp, which was pretty good.  I got halfway through The Cider House Rules before watching the movie, which spoiled the book (Irving wrote the screenplay).  Since then I’ve been meaning to read more of Irving’s works, but it’s difficult to get into an author’s other work when you’ve read what is possibly their greatest and most endearing book.

Anyway, I charged into Last Night in Twisted River and it has turned into both a frustrating and intriguing read.  On the one hand, Irving seems to ramble about minor, unnecessary details and, in my estimation, repeats too many details, which he often does in annoying parenthetical remarks.  On the other hand, I do get the feeling as I read that this is all building to something and each time I nearly throw the book down in disgust never to read it again, something happens which pulls me back in.

I’ve read some reviews of the book, according to which I could be in for a real disappointment at the end or for one of his greatest achievements in more than a decade.  So it’s a bit of a conundrum.  I’m 340 pages in–well past the tentative commitment stage–but I’m a day away from the start of a heavy-reading semester.  I suppose I could just read it for 20 minutes before bed every night.

* * *

A week ago Sunday night, Olivia fell out of bed quite loudly.  She complained of a sore shoulder, but I poked and prodded her and she did not show signs of pain, so I didn’t worry about it.  The next day she would have occasionally fits of pain, so Dixie took her to the walk-in clinic on the following Monday.  The doctor there poked and prodded her and couldn’t find anything.  He said to come back in two days if her complaints persist.  They did persist, so on the Wednesday, they took an x-ray and discovered that Olivia had broken her collar-bone clean through.

What a trooper!  She barely complained about it.  Dixie was reminded that Olivia’s initials are O.K., which seems uncannily appropriate.

“I severely burned my arm on the firepit, but I’m O.K.”

“I just broke my collar-bone falling out of bed, but I’m O.K.”

O.K. Vandersluys.

A dream

Whereas Dixie dreams almost nightly and can recount those dreams in great detail, I rarely dream or at least can rarely remember even one detail.  On occasion, a dream will be so vivid, so real, that I will wake up and ponder the dream for a while and rehearse the details so that I will remember it.

Last night I dreamed that I had dinner with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.  They asked me to be a writer for Saturday Night Live.  In the dream this was a legitimate option for me.  I considered it an opportunity of a lifetime, so I discussed it with Dixie.  We weren’t sure what we should do.  We had felt strongly that I seminary was the right place to be right now, but an relatively unknown man from a small prairie town in Saskatchewan doesn’t get contacted out of the  blue by SNL personnel. Perhaps it was providence–God intending something else.

Typical for me, I was indecisive and kept putting off any sort of commitment to Fey, who approached me several times. Eventually they hired someone else. I wasn’t sure if I would ever get another opportunity.

In the dream I woke up.  The dream was so realistic that I asked Dixie if I had had dinner with Fey and Poehler.  I had not.  I was disappointed.

Then I woke up from the dream (it had been a dream within a dream).  I was still a little disappointed that I really hadn’t had dinner with Fey and Poehler. I’ve always thought being a writer for a sitcom or a sketch comedy series would be fun.

I will console myself by saying this: Well, if Lorne Michaels can’t be bothered to ask me personally, he can take his offer and stuff it!

Mountain Soundtrack

Back in 2005 we had a bit of a Dark Side of the Rainbow moment when the various songs we played from the The Return of the King score matched the various settings of our Rocky Mountain drive perfectly.  I can’t recreate that moment, but I am going to attempt to add some drama to this summer’s drive through the Rockies with some appropriate classical music.

As we leave Calgary and enter the foothills, I will play “The Ride of the Valkyries” at high volume, possibly on repeat.  Then, as we near the mountains and the peaks start to rise and loom over us, I will switch to “Also Sprach Zarathustra“. On high volume. Possibly on repeat.  And finally, after we have entered the imposing peaks and forests of the Rockies, “Carmina Burana” will play.  Possibly on repeat.  At high volume.

No doubt both Dixie and Luke will complain about the volume, but I must be strong.  The effect won’t be the same at hushed volumes.

Feel free to suggest further song options (although I’ve used up my emusic selections for the month, so I won’t be able to download them before we leave.)