Archive for July, 2012


“It seems the music keeps them quiet, there is no other way…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

“Musical taste is such a private affair that I would no more criticize a man’s choice of music than his choice of a wife,” Lloyd Alexander writes in My Love Affair with Music, his fourth book for adults. “I might question his judgment a little or wonder, out of idle curiosity, what he sees in her. Beyond that, it is entirely his affair.” Alexander apparently expected less discretion from his readers, earnestly justifying his own passion in a memoir that hits a series of wise and frankly surprising notes.

In light, concise prose, My Love Affair with Music skips from anecdote to anecdote: how, as a child, Alexander learned to plink out songs by slowing down piano rolls; how he loved to sneak into the opera for free during intermission; and how, as an adult, he took up the violin, beguiled by the instrument’s “perverse, diabolical personality.” Few people alive can recall the more genteel approach to music Alexander describes here, a lost world in which records were expensive and studying classical music was an ambitious yet common pastime.

Beyond its genial glimpse of yesteryear, what makes My Love Affair with Music engaging is Alexander’s willingness to fulfill the promise of the book’s title. From the outset, music isn’t simply something he hears or plays, but an entity with which he has a concupiscent relationship. Here’s young Lloyd on the eve of his first piano lesson:

That night I tossed and turned in bed, and I am sure I had the hot forehead and dry throat of a man about to approach his beloved for the first time (although I did not think in those terms then).

With jarring sexuality, he writes of the futility of chasing musical highs:

Yet hearing something like the Brahms 4th or the Tchaikowsky 6th for the first time—or the second or third—played magnificently, under a brilliant conductor, overwhelmed me. I underwent all the surprise, and exhilaration, of a man whose beloved suddenly bites him in the midst of an embrace. The first few experiences may be exciting, even charming. After a time, it simply grows painful…

Sometimes, he simply describes childhood awkwardness with witty apprehension:

None of us looked forward to Miss LeBeau’s course, not entirely because we hated her or music—although many of us had strong feelings on both accounts—but mainly because it followed gym class. I for one usually arrived a little late, still damp from the required shower, clothes mostly unbuttoned, my underwear put on backwards as often as not, binding me in a clammy grip each time I sat down. Like gym, the class was double sized, so that as many of us as possible could be exposed to music all at once, for greater efficiency and less waste motion, something like a mass vaccination. After a few minutes, the students began to exude the foxy odour of young people packed closely together while above it rose the post-gymnasium miasma.

My Love Affair with Music teems with memories that make it, arguably, the most personal of Alexander’s early books. He admits to shedding tears over a beloved piano teacher, he writes ruefully about betraying an awkward student teacher, and he casts himself as a drunken fool banging out jazz on a piano in the middle of the night while visiting the home of prim family friends. If Lloyd Alexander later wrote perceptively about the hard task of growing up, perhaps it’s because he remembered his own youth so keenly, and with such exquisite embarrassment.

Of all Alexander’s early autobiographical books, My Love Affair with Music also contains the most full recounting of his time in Europe during World War II. With typical self-deprecation, he describes being assigned to play the cymbals and the glockenspiel in an Army band before taking up international folk singing. “I collected songs,” he quips, “with the absorption of a philatelist on the trail of a rare blue triangle.” Sneaking away from his detachment in a jeep, he plays a broken piano outside a shattered French house and joins a quest for a full set of recordings of Schubert’s Die Forelle, accompanying a German-American colleague to confront the German neighbors who betrayed his family. Alexander finds sufficient music in his Army adventures that it’s easy not to notice that he elides most of the actual war. With half a century of hindsight, I wonder if he ever recorded those experiences, or left the worst of them untold.

In 1960, Alexander seemed on the verge of becoming little more than a gentle humorist who mined his own life for amiable books. Stories about a workplace choir hark back to his banking memoir; his obsession with the violin irritates the cats he wrote about so fondly; and his fondness for Parisian street music recalls his book about his French wife.

Fortunately, My Love Affair with Music also looks forward, unknowingly. In a chapter set in the early 1940s, Alexander’s mania for musical instruments takes him to a pawn shop:

Another attraction, stored far in the back amid a jackstraw heap of old furniture, was a harp. Most of its strings broken, dangling from the pegs, the rest completely out of tune, the harp with its fluted pillar rose up like a Greek ruin. I could not look at the curve of the neck without feeling my whole body trying to imitate its sweep.

I moved out one of the chairs, sat down and brought the harp to lean against my shoulder. Starting at the narrow angle of the treble end, I touched what strings remained, down to the pillar which seemed a mile away. I would have gone on caressing it indefinitely if the proprietor had not shouted at me to stop that racket.

Readers of the Prydain books know that harp. It’s Fflewddur Fflam’s, and discovering it on the pages of My Love Affair with Music is this book’s most accidentally poignant note.

I don’t know why a major publisher let a mostly unknown author collect his anecdotes into an entire book about amateur musicianship, but the result is not only charming but also perceptive, especially Alexander’s continual rediscovery of music—and his adult realization that his record collection is filled with “things I had heard before and never really listened to.” Literally grappling with the fiddle, he concludes that for an adult listener, music shouldn’t be “something to dream over,” but a physical, human phenomenon. “The harp, that lovely and innocent-looking instrument, could bite a harpist’s fingers until they bled,” he concedes. “The result was music—not ethereal, unworldly, although it might well sound like it—but very much in the world of flesh and blood.” My Love Affair with Music makes a childhood icon seem equally real: a man of bemusement, frustration, and thoughtful regret.

“In the words of Lincoln, ‘one by land and two by sea…'”

Flags! Explosions! Independence! Power outages! After dousing firework remnants and sweeping away picnic debris, ooh and aah at these sparkling links.

Michael Drout remembers the teacher who taught him Old English.

I find this odd: a play satirizing the International Congress on Medieval Studies. (It’s not that different from most professional conferences, folks.)

Nancy Marie Brown recalls stumbling into medieval Iceland.

The Medieval Material Culture blog finds LEGO castles in Massachusetts.

Megan Arnott surveys medievalism in children’s cartoons.

Scott visits Charlemagne’s Aachen, and takes pictures.

In New York, Gargoyle Girl finds the gargoyles and grotesques of Gramercy Park.

Ephemeral New York spots weeping angels in Brooklyn.

Luminarium makes cookies for the wives of Henry VIII.

Steven Hart remembers how rabbit ears died.

Interpolations administers last rites in the middle of the road.

Benjamin Buchholz tries self-critique through Sudanese art.

Laudator Temporis Actii scans the letterhead of the Society for the Prevention of Progress.

George posits a travel theorem: read instead.

So Many Books likes reading on public transit.

Friend of this blog Lex “Kid Beowulf” Fajardo is featured in A Parent’s Guide to the Best Kids’ Comics.

When the Gypsy Scholar’s blog was plagiarized, he got the runaround from Google.

The Grumpy Old Bookman publishes Daphne Before She Died.

In a poem about the 1980s, Dylan knows there’s no sign of life, it’s just the power to charm. He also, delightfully, spins a ghazal: “’80s Music.”

The Book Haven introduces the North Korean poet who defected.

Rose Kelleher reads forms she hates to love.

Julie Rose asks: What are your books of a lifetime?

Bill Peschel recalls how Shirley Jackson could wield an awesome curse.

Finally tanz den Spatz with Sven van Thom, Berliner popstar turned…rapper?

“…and every time I wonder if the world is right…”

In 2009, after promoting my Charlemagne book and working on projects for other people, I was word-weary and exhausted. To make writing fun again—without worrying about marketability, editors’ impressions, or other people’s needs—I started composing poems inspired by the gargoyles and grotesques that adorn my friendly neighborhood neo-Gothic cathedral.

Three years and more than fifty poems later, this series is complete—and, to my amazement, the gracious folks at the cathedral have granted permission for their typically publication-shy beasties to show their faces in print. Later this summer, Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles will be available as a 138-page trade paperback. I’ll donate the bulk of the profits (whatever they may be) to the cathedral to help fund post-earthquake repairs.

Many of the poems will be freshly polished; here are links to the first drafts. (The final two poems won’t be posted here; they’ll appear solely in the paperback.)

A wild boar who wants to rule the world.
An octopus reappraising her lobster.
A bitter but alliterative Anglo-Saxon mother.
A Gollum-like monster on All Hallows’ Eve.
A creepy dragon with an Arthurian autumn elegy.
A tiger mother singing a Midsummer goblin song.
A bird and dragon, doomed to dance.
Medusa,
with angels.
A robot camera, conjuring a sprite.
An alligator, delaying salvation.
A rooftop-ruling monster.
A bellyaching, medlar-eating monster.
An insect with an identity crisis.
A skeletal beast decaying on Good Friday.
A unicorn with Easter dreams.
A caveman, soft on the inside.
A scholarly owl with stories to tell.
A dog on the trail of a thief.
Rilke, through raccoonish eyes.
A medievalist goat going all Carolingian.
A skeletal horse, mindful of Mother Goose.
A bird who celebrates Sukkot.
A snake with a taste for antiquarianism, and rabbit.
A smiling dragon.
A tradition-minded frog.
An indefatigable fish.
A monster, begging for silence.
A mouse with his eyes on circling skies.
A devil, exiled from the Garden State.
Two autumn rabbits, one thankful, one not.
A confused Boethian hamster.
Cerberus, barking mad.
A bat-creature, in Nordic disrepair.
A restless, bookish elephant.
An insecure, artsy deer.
The anecdotal basenji.
A lovelorn, molar-clutching monster.
A medieval-minded birdwatcher.
Pan,
not even mostly dead.
Baby Pan,
undaunted by snow.
A rooster, resigned to vicissitude.
Some vegetation, sinning through the weeds.
An administrator on form and façade.
A fish who spouts one slippery riddle.
An angel on an Easter Vigil.
A monster, with a winter warning.
The bishop, recalling Chaucer.
A fallen angel, who knows his Chaucer, too.
A ghazal by a cicada…
…and a cockroach’s reply.

Thank you to everyone who linked, commented, or otherwise supported this project! I hope you’ll enjoy the resulting book.

“And after a while, you can work on points for style…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

In 1963, seven years after writing a memoir about his cats and one year after publishing a book about New York’s first cats-only veterinarian, Lloyd Alexander must have foreseen a future in animal-themed nonfiction. With seven prior books to his name, none of them a blockbuster, he had, I suspect, warmed editors’ hearts as much with his love of animals as with his professionalism—which made him a suitable spokesman when the ASPCA came calling.

Apparently written to promote the ASPCA during a period of rejuvenation and expansion, Fifty Years in the Doghouse offers a brief history of the organization and the animal-welfare movement, but the real hero here is William Michael Ryan, a uniformed ASPCA special agent. Born in New York City in 1893 to a family of horse breeders, Ryan spent more than 50 years protecting animals and rescuing them from abuse, staring down gangsters and thugs while dealing with the banal cruelty of everyday people. Ryan comes across as a tough city kid, but his commitment to animals, even when the rescuee is a toad, suggests a superheroic sense of mission. “Humane work makes demands on the heart as well as on the head,” Alexander admits. “The number of people able to meet those demands is limited.”

Alexander’s publisher treats Fifty Years in the Doghouse as more than a copywriting assignment, letting the author use his familiar, gentle voice to tell Bill Ryan’s story—and letting him indulge his harmless obsession with cats. The resulting encomium is wildly unnecessary, but characteristically nice:

Economic and logistic considerations aside, it would be pleasant to believe that another factor operates in the growth of the cat’s popularity: that more people are starting to like cats purely because of the cat’s own remarkable qualities of affection combined with independence, gracefulness, intelligence—and the ability generally to stay one up on the human he deigns to live with. People with touchy egos can be driven to despair by a cat’s insistence on occasional periods of privacy and time for contemplation and meditation. The owner who prefers wildly enthusiastic tail-wagging to subtler and perhaps more intense demonstrations of love may develop the nagging impression that his cat doesn’t have a very high opinion of him.

But these are childish reactions. It may be that we are starting to enjoy cats more because we are growing a little more mature, a little wiser. In any case, cats have patience enough to wait for us to catch up to them.

Fortunately, Fifty Years in the Doghouse isn’t just another Lloyd Alexander cat book. Most of the time, the author steps aside, and Bill Ryan’s adventures speak for themselves. In short order, Ryan confronts a horse stuck under the front steps of a brownstone, a grizzly bear in Brooklyn, a Russian trade delegation’s pet wolves in a Midtown hotel, and a bull in the Madison Square Garden ladies’ room. As it turns out, Bill Ryan invented the standard cat-rescue grappling device and a sling to lift horses, and in 1963, few uniformed officers in New York could rival his barstool yarns:

When he reached the boardinghouse, Ryan saw that the policeman had not been accurate. The monkey was not a monkey, but a red ape. He was not the size of an airedale; he was much bigger. He was also in a foul temper. He squawked, huffed, grunted, bared his teeth, and Ryan could easily understand why the landlady had considered herself insulted.

“Well,” Ryan mused, “he is a big one, isn’t he?”

“Just put on a pair of gloves,” one of the officers advised, “and put him in the cage.”

Among the amusing stories of human inattention, Alexander relates examples of blatant cruelty, such as crippled ducklings, starved cows, and burned rodeo horses, pointedly, but without gratuitous detail. “Only a psychiatrist could unravel the motives of a 200-pound giant of a man who calmly beat a kitten to death with a rake,” he offers. “Or another man who stabbed his own wire-haired terrier with a pocket knife and left her to die in a trash can.” Although pathological cruelty is, he says, infrequent, “[o]f all the strange byways the Society has followed in its efforts to protect animals, the strangest has been the human mind itself.”

This realization leads to some of the better stories in Fifty Years in the Doghouse, such as the case of the fall-down drunk who denies owning a dog:

The man walked briskly to the desk. “I believe you people have my dog here.”

“What!” Ryan exploded. “At three o’clock this morning you didn’t have a dog. You didn’t even have a puppy.”

“My dog is here,” the man said firmly. “I want him back.”

“Mister,” Ryan said, “you can have any dog you want. Just tell me one thing. Why didn’t you make up your mind before? You knew damned well it wss your dog; and I knew damned well it was your dog. Why didn’t you save yourself a lot of time and trouble?”

The man drew closer to Ryan and lowered his voice. “That dog’s the best friend I got in the world. He’d give up his life for me if he had to. And I guess I’d do the same for him. But there’s something else,” he added sheepishly. “I go off the reservation sometimes. Once in a while maybe I drink too much. You got to understand this. I respect that dog and I don’t want nobody thinking he runs in bad company. So what else am I gonna do? What kind of a reputation would a dog get, hanging around an old drunk? Sure I let on he wasn’t mine. I didn’t want to embarrass him.”

Perhaps that’s the sort of kindly, aw-shucks anecdote most of us expect from Lloyd Alexander, but he knows to give the darker stories minimal adornment:

For many of the city’s anonymous millions, New York can be a lonely, unhappy town and their animals suffer in consequence.

Dear Doggie, a woman wrote to her pet chow, for three days I have waited for some kind of word from you . . .

Too emotionally disturbed to realize that animals can’t read, the woman finished her note, propped it on a table and swallowed a massive dose of sleeping pills.

A rescue squad found her barely alive and rushed her to the hospital. The dog waited patiently at the Society’s shelter throughout its owner’s long and difficult period of therapy. In time, she returned to claim her pet. She had learned something easy to overlook: that an animal’s love, like a human’s, no matter how strong it may be in reality, truly exists only when we recognize it.

Now forgotten, Fifty Years in the Doghouse got a fair amount of press in 1964. Half a century later, the book’s litany of animal anecdotes—monkeys in Manhattan! lions in the theater district!—becomes a blur, but poignant stories about forlorn pet owners, and the sort of daily heroism Michael Ryan embodied, make the book memorable, thanks to an author who puts animal-rescue tales into perspective.

“Ryan does what most humans would do—if we knew how,” Alexander concludes with a strange optimism, before clarifying: “And, also, if we were willing to take the time, to go a little out of our way.” One year away from publishing The Book of Three, Alexander turns a book about pets into a book about people, fostering a notion that would run through his writing for decades: the promise of human decency.