Monday, July 30, 2012

The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead


The Coldest Night: a Novel of Love and War (Algonquin, 2012) by Robert Olmstead has a style so immediate and atmospheric, it took my breath away. I found myself wishing there was a little more love and a lot less war, but I stayed with it. Although it is not a suspense story, it had its own constant worrisome tension. Would star-crossed young lovers Henry and Mercy be able to make a life for themselves after running away to New Orleans? And when Henry Childs becomes a Marine and is sent to Korea, every page serves up the pure terror of war.

This epic novel has a timeless quality. Olmstead bears comparison with Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy and Jim Harrison. Often when I came across Olmstead's well-crafted sentences, I felt compelled to read them more than once before continuing with the narrative. And so in my effort to demonstrate Olmstead's literary wizardry, here is one sentence about war that dazzled me:

His fear was hammer-striking at the walls of his heart and he was desperate to kill and not be killed.

Barely eighteen, Henry Childs is the everyman boy soldier, and his acquaintance with death in all its forms haunts the novel.

As for love, here is a short passage between Mercy and Henry:

"I am a fool," he said.
"I love fools," she said, swinging her legs across his lap and her arm at his neck, "because they believe that anything can happen. I am about sure I was made for you."

Yes, it was the style more than the plot that gobsmacked me. Although I might have wanted some of the plot details to have played out differently, that didn't matter. I look forward to reading two other Olmstead novels about the Childs family: Coal Black Horse (Algonquin, 2007) and Far Bright Star (Algonquin, 2009). I don't know where Robert Olmstead has been all my life, but I am going to be chasing him down from now on...




Sunday, July 15, 2012

Hungry Ears


As recently as only five years ago, I mainly listened to radio when I was out walking or bicycling. Now my listening habits are much more diversified. My, how the iPod has enriched my life. First of all, I much appreciate the ability to build a music library and create playlists.The more music I collect, the more I seem to want. I guess you could say I have hungry ears.

When I am making art, I like to listen to all kinds of music, including world, folk, rock, classical, New Age, you name it. Brandi Carlile, Slaid Cleaves, Alejandro Escovedo, Dar Williams, Unbunny, Gipsy Kings, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, Glen Hansard and Natalie Merchant all have places on my Best Rated playlist.When I am writing, I need instrumental music, and don't mind playing Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" or Erik Satie's "Piano Works" over and over.

But most of all, I rely on my iPod for intellectual content via NPR podcasts. I am hooked on "The Splendid Table" for foodie topics, "Krista Tippett On Being" for ethics, spirituality, psychology and scientific topics, and "New Yorker: Out Loud" for at least a smattering of  their great magazine articles I don't seem to have time to read. "All Songs Considered" helps me keep up with the latest music trends. "This American Life" is sometimes goofy, other times serious, always unpredictable. And I would be lost without the "Sunday Puzzle" podcast. I tend to have way more stuff on hand than I can ever catch up with, but that's a good thing. If I am using the sewing machine or doing housework, listening to such shows really makes the work go faster.

Being retired, I am guilty of taking the need to keep my mind challenged, so the podcasts help to flood my brain with new information, in addition, of course, to reading books, magazines and newspapers. I also enjoy attending lectures at the Jung Center of Houston. Right now I am attending a four week poetry lecture, "Singers of the Soul: Five Poets Who Sing What Matters Most" given by Jungian analyst James Hollis. It always feels great to sit down and listen to his multi-layered interpretations of any topic. When I attend lectures, I have to take notes. Whether I will ever read them again or not, it doesn't matter, it just feels good to make that ear-to-mind-to-hand connection. Maybe I like feeling like a student again, for hopefully we are never done learning!

I also attend lectures at the Museum of Fine Arts and the Jewish Community Center. Last but not least, when time and finances allow, I enjoy attending Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) programs, always a good mix of travel, education and recreation. I hope none of this sounds like bragging -- I don't mean it that way. I am grateful for everything I have mentioned, and just wanted to give humble thanks for the many ways culture and media supply me with content. If you have any suggestions for my "hungry ears", please leave a comment!

collage by KAO: "Grace Notes"