So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

I Went Down to St. James Infirmary

I Went Down to St. James Infirmary: Investigations in the Shadowy World of Early Jazz-Blues in the Company of Blind Willie McTell, Louis Armstrong, Don Redman, Irving Mills, Carl Moore, and a Host of Others, and Where Did This Dang Song Come from Anyway? by Robert W. Harwood
Robert Harwood does a very good job of tracing the roots of the legendary American song St. James Infirmary, finding similarities with the 18th century British folksong The Unfortunate Rake and also the American ballad The Streets of Laredo. He also uses the history of this song to show the beginnings of the music industry's creation of Race Recordings, the recording of African American artists for sales to the Black community. In addition, he uses a copyright trial over the name of the song to illustrate how folk musicians borrowed and changed music and lyrics to make songs their own, and how the music industry used copyrights on sheet music and recordings to profit from the musicians' work.

For those who want to research these topics further, this is a good piece of scholarship with extensive notes, a three page bibliography, and four appendices. I found the writing could have benefited from the hand of a good editor as whole paragraphs appear more than once in the text. It was an interesting and enjoyable read for a fan of this classic song that has been recorded by many musicians in a diverse range of genres including folk, blues and jazz.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Hua Hu Ching: The Teachings of Lao Tzu

Hua Hu Ching: The Teachings of Lao Tzu by Lao Tzu and Brian Walker


Most people who have heard of Lao Tzu know him through his book the Tao Te Ching, a fundamental Taoist text. The authorship and history of the Tao Te Ching is still being debated. And so it is also the case for the Hua Hu Ching which is also often attributed to Lao Tzu. The text has come down to us largely through oral tradition although fragments, although a partial manuscript was discovered in a cave in China.< In 1979 the first English translation by Hua-Ching Ni of the Hua Hu Ching was published by Shambhala Press under the title Hua Hu Ching : The Later Teachings of Lao Tzu.
This 1992 translation of the Hua Hu Ching by Brian Walker, who is famous for his highly accessible translation of the Chinese text The I Ching or Book of Changes: A Guide to Life's Turning Points, is equally accessible to Western readers. Having not read Hua-Ching Ni's translation, I cannot compare the two. However, I have read various translations of the I Ching, and I can agree that Walker's translation makes a very good starting point for a Western reader to the concepts outlined in the text. I found it inspiring and only slightly unclear in certain spots where I felt a Glossary with fuller descriptions of certain terms would have been helpful. E.g. he seems to translate "Tao" as "The Integral Way" without ever sitting the reader down and explaining either term. It is a wonderful companion to the Tao Te Ching and I recommend it to anyone who, after reading the Tao Te Ching, wants to find something else to read to get more information.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

The Discovery of Heaven

The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch

If humans have free will, how does God know how everything is going to turn out? More significantly, how can God create a given outcome using these humans?

I first encountered Mulisch's work with his earlier title The Procedure which examines the way that inanimate matter becomes living organisms by telling the stories of a modern day Dr. Frankenstein, Victor Werker, a Dutch biologist who creates a complex organic clay crystal that can reproduce and has a metabolism, and the late sixteenth century Rabbi Jehudah Löw of Prague who creates a golem by following the procedure outlined in a third-century cabalist text that God used to create Adam.

The Discovery of Heaven is a large novel of 730 pages that deals with God's relationship with the human race, predestination and free will, and the lives of two men, the woman they both love, and the child she conceives to fulfill a divine purpose. Translated from the Dutch by award-winning translator Paul Vincent, the book makes a smooth transition into English. I found it easy and compelling reading with a thought-provoking ending. While this is one of the most read and respected novels in The Netherlands, American readers are not always so enthusiastic. I believe that the philosophical and theological questions raised and the literary style that Mulisch uses to covey them may be difficult to translate, sort of like reading an English translation of the Chinese I Ching.

It has a story within a story construction that opens with two heavenly spirits talking to each other. One is telling the other how complex it was to bring together the right genetic profiles to produce the desired child who would be able to fulfill a mission from God. The story the spirit tells begins with astrophysicist Max Delius and philologist Onno Quist meeting, seemingly by chance, in The Hague in February 1967 when Max stops his car at midnight to pick up Onno who was hitchhiking to Amsterdam.

Their friendship forms the core of the book, which tells the story of first Max, and then Onno, falling in love with young cellist Ada Brons. From this love triangle, Ada produces a son Quinten, whose paternity is uncertain, but we watch as he grows to maturity and the fulfillment of his mission.

This is a story of how heavenly predestination looks like free will to the humans involved as the humans exercise their free will, and yet their situations are manipulated from heaven by a spirit with a mission to accomplish. What does God need from humans at the end of the 20th century? Read the book and find out one man's thoughts on this.