Once again in its long life, the Book of Hours was in danger. And Alphaios had put it there…
While recreating a resplendent fifteenth century Book of Hours as a gift for the pope, Brother Alphaios and archivist Inaki Arriaga discover ancient shreds of parchment thrust into its covers. Though warned away by a visibly shaken Prior Bartholomew, they pursue the few haunting words that remain only to stumble on a dark secret that undercuts one of the very pillars of Catholicism. They find themselves in a battle between the Church, which wants to destroy the parchment or bury it forever, and its owner, real estate mogul Salton Motice, who wants to use it for nefarious purposes.
Meanwhile, the brothers of St. Ambrose learn that Motice intends to buy their mid-town cloister and replace it with a skyscraper. The monks will be displaced from their home of nearly two centuries with no certainty at all about their future.
Wandering the city, Alphaios finds a strange young woman obsessed with painting enormous replicas of master artworks under one of the city’s great bridges, and a couple who, decades later, are still coping with having to flee from… Continue reading
And so we continue…
Just a few months before, I’d had the pleasure of attending a series of seminars on ancient sacred texts—including illuminated books—at St. Martin’s University just up the road in Lacey. They were given by an international panel of scholars of the Dead Sea scrolls and other ancient manuscripts. They were paleographers, all four of them: experts in early languages, writings and religions. Unfortunately for me, none of them had directly addressed the part of the craft I now needed to understand. Even so, I called St. Martin’s and explained my problem. No one here with that expertise, they said, and suggested that perhaps only Harvard University or Oxford might be able to help.
Daunted by that prospect, and preferring to meet with someone in person, I Googled “paleographer” and added the modifier “northwest United States”. Nothing. Deciding that the expertise I needed was more about the forms of scripts rather than their history, I typed in the words “calligraphy, northwest”. Down in the weeds I found a reference to Reed College in Portland (some forty miles south), and an undated press release. In the last couple… Continue reading
On Sundays and too many special occasions to count, my aunt Marian Partner Cornish was for many years–decades–the principal alto soloist at the First Presbyterian Church in Oakland, California. It is a vast and grand venue with a great pipe organ at its front, conceived and built for the performance of great and aspirational music. On Friday evenings and Saturdays, she sang in the same capacity for the Congregation Sherith Israel, a Jewish synagogue in nearby San Francisco. She was a consummate vocalist. (A recording of her singing Mendelssohn’s For the Mountains Shall Depart, is attached below.)
Most often when I think of Marian Gloria Partner Cornish, it is accompanied by a surprisingly vivid image. It is of Marian and her six sisters and one brother growing up in an impossibly small house set alongside an irrigation ditch in far-away Aberdeen, Idaho. It is with Marian and her sister Gayle Partner Hungerford in mind (whom I dearly loved as well), her sister Margaret Lacy, my own mother Florence and my Uncle Bob. I don’t have much memory of sisters Ethel and Josephine and Louise, but… Continue reading
If you’re drawn to stories of the art world (and who isn’t?), the beauty and the money and the chicanery, you might have considered picking up the following books. For me, aspiring writer that I am, they illustrated some of the differences between rather ordinary storytelling and the remarkable. I didn’t set out to make such a comparison, but the rather startling weaknesses of the first were all the more apparent upon reading the second.
The Art Forger is a debut novel by B.A. Shapiro (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013). Glossy and sexy, the cover is clearly intended to draw the attention of what I’ll call the airport patron: quick choice, disposable, and full of positive reviews (“engaging”, “addictive”, “ingenious and skillful”, “blazingly good”, etc.). It was the subject matter, though, that drew this reader.
It’s a twist upon a twist in the art forgery sub-genre: Is the stolen, now-recovered Degas the original work or a forgery? If the latter, is making a forgery of a forgery a crime? It’s an interesting concept, and in more sure hands it might have been pulled off.
For me, the term “insouciance” came to mind. (I can’t tell you quite… Continue reading
One of the reasons I’m convinced of its sublimity is that I’m really not keen on poetry, and in fact don’t care for anything else Eliot ever wrote.
But this particular poem encompasses, encapsulates, the entirety of human existence, in a way no other type of writing could. A novel would make all the subtext into text, and rob it of its nuance; a play would make it mundane and common by forcing the words to be spoken by mere mortals; setting it to music would limit and trivialize it. It has a solemn, tragic beauty that would be diminished in any other form.
The poem isn’t flawless (“I should have been a pair of ragged claws …” is a tad goofy), but the missteps add to the poem’s overall perfection, the way a slightly “off” feature on a beautiful face makes it even more beautiful.
This is my favorite stanza:
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail… Continue reading
It was mountains of sound—vast parapets and promontories and cliffs of sound. The deep bass notes were born of thunder, or the roar of a great fire, or the eruption of a volcano. They filled the space completely, as thoroughly as the air, as densely as water.
Somewhere in the interstitial spaces between the notes, the trills of the higher ranges could be heard flitting overhead. It was as if the very songs of the birds had been captured for the pleasure of the composer.
It was the last few bars of the benedictory song being played one ordinary Sunday morning on the great pipe organ of New York’s Trinity Church.
It shook the air.
It was the roar of an immense waterfall. A roar of booms. It was primordial, as if left over from some great cataclysm. Or beginning.
It shook the air and vibrated the body and the soul.
It was sublime.
Though it was one of my mother’s great joys to finally obtain a Hammond for our small town church, I’ve never been enamored by the sound architecture of the ordinary organ. And though my favorite aunt Marian sang… Continue reading
Several recent blogposts notwithstanding, I have never been one to lean on the quotations of others, great or not. I have preferred most of my adult life—but to less effect, I suppose—a more experiential search for wisdom. So I have been surprised at the strength of my appreciation for the series of literary plaques set into the sidewalk near the New York City Public Library.
From the concrete below, a bronze rectangle faces upward to the sky and warns, “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings.” (From The Awakening, an 1899 novel by Kate Chopin, 1851-1904.)
Lest one think only of race or ethnicity (and why might one not, for it is true there as well), the context for this particular remark is womanhood—the quiet constraints on the freedoms of women at the turn of the twentieth century. It would be two decades before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution finally recognized (not “gave”, as some might say, but recognized) the right of women to vote. That was a necessary step, but a hundred years later we know it was not anywhere near sufficient to dissipate the hard… Continue reading
“Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.”
So says Hanta on the first page of Too Loud a Solitude, a novella by Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997).
What more could any writer wish than to have such a reader?
And, too, the words are so vivid as to create the very physical sensations of which he speaks.
I considered posting the sentence with only a simple “wow,” but found myself wanting to know more about these words and their context.
I was in for a surprise.
This happy sentence, chock full of the delights of discovery (and the savoring of it) stands out in the novella as brilliantly as a diamond—not so much for the quality of its construction or insight (for that is superb throughout), but in its brightness of mood. Too Loud A Solitude is full of oppression and darkness and even the putrid. And… Continue reading
Five full drafts from conception and one major reorganization later, BOOK OF HOURS: Peter’s Parchment is off to the editor. There is no doubt he will provide a full, insightful and constructive critique with his well-pared quill. “He” is Peter Gelfan, Associate Editor at The Editorial Department.
It is a sequel. In BOOK OF HOURS: Peter’s Parchment, Brother Alphaios and archivist Inaki Arriaga discover an ancient parchment, which,if made public, could rock the very foundations of the Church. Or, if allowed to remain in the hands of its unscrupulous billionaire owner, it could provide him immense leverage against the Church for his own illicit purposes. Either outcome would render their magnificent Book of Hours—to be a gift for the Pope himself—into nothing but a hollow, bitter vessel for a religious scandal of millennial proportions.
How does one preserve history against such odds? How does one enlighten it?
Meanwhile, the same self-serving mogul has his sights set on acquiring for himself the real estate upon which the humble Monastery of St. Ambrose sits, for it occupies one of the most valuable pieces of land in the entire city. How do a handful of monks, who seek only salvation in… Continue reading
“Information is light,” announces the bronze plaque set into the sidewalk at my feet. Then it continues: “Information in itself, about anything, is light.” The source is cited down in the corner: Tom Stoppard, from Night and Day, 1978.
Another plaque states: “I want everybody to be smart. As smart as they can be. A world of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.” – Garson Kanin, Born Yesterday, 1946.
The plaques are part of the Library Walk, and set into the East 41st Street approach to the New York Public Library. Looking mostly upward in the vertical city, I nearly missed them. Along with a number of others, they have given me both introspective and instructional pause.
Both of these statements were prescient counsel for our culture, our country. Nonetheless, we seem to have slid into a period of willful, noisy ignorance, of petulant dismissal both of “facts” —information and conclusions which we have long mutually accepted as reliable—and the orderly ways in which we determine them. Science, through no fault of its own or its practitioners, has among many of our fellow travelers become suspect. Knowledge itself, whether scholarly or just widely experiential,… Continue reading