Sometimes, When You Look Into The Abyss, You Look Beyond The Abyss

My beautiful wife is traveling for business this week, which means it’s film festival time at Nogglestead. In the olden days, I’d watch two or three a night, but now I have children who like to get up at 5:30 in the morning, so it’s only one a night. Last night, I watched the James Cameron film The Abyss from 1989 (twenty-three years old? How old am I then?).

VHS coverI hadn’t seen it before, but I found it to be a perfectly serviceable little action/science fictioner. It’s a real bummer that the “bad guy” in this is really just a Navy SEAL suffering from temporary insanity induced by the pressure change being under the sea. As such, I really felt kinda bad for him throughout the film and hoped he’d be redeemed somehow.

But that’s neither here nor there. As I’m watching the film, I’m struck by some of the meta considerations about the actors and whatnot in the film.


  • Mary Jane Mastratonio has appeared in two films involving hurricanes: this one and The Perfect Storm where she plays the role of Linda Greenlaw (whose book The Lobster Chronicles I read three years ago.
  • Ed Harris has played more men named Virgil than any other actor in Hollywood, probably. His character in The Abyss is named Virgil, and he played Virgil Cole in the 2008 western Appaloosa, which I watched in January.
  • In a tense moment in the film, Mastratonio’s character says to Harris’s character, “It’s not an option.” Failure, that is. A couple years later, Ed Harris would say “Failure is not an option” in another film, and it would become overly quoted. Was it homage to this film? Perhaps.

At any rate, it was a good enough picture, but I suppose it could be said that it did not draw me into the world enough so that I would forget the actors in it and that it was a movie with its place in history.

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The Secret to Life

So I was at Walmart this morning, checking out the clearance rack for cheap shirts (because you can’t be a cut-rate Cary Grant if you’re paying a full ten dollars for a dress shirt at Walmart). As I got back into my truck with my purchases, I saw an older man, an older man not bent but hunched a bit walking slowly, not with a shuffle but with the short steps of age, eating a candy bar, and I smiled.

Because it’s a candy bar, and it’s a simple treat in the world where young, healthy (and slightly older, healthier) zealots want to purge everyone’s diets of sugars, gluten, and processed-whatever-this-week, and this man has bought a candy bar and he couldn’t wait until he got to his car or his home to enjoy it. Like a kid, he opened it right up and enjoyed a little bit of calorie-laden joy at 8:30 in the morning.

You know what? He’s probably earned seventy-five cents worth of nougat in his life. And he’s not afraid to take it, and he’s not afraid of anyone seeing him take a bit of a preemptory pleasure before the rest of his day begins.

And that made me smile.

(Yes, I know, it’s entirely possible that his one sack was full of bottles of whiskey and candy bars he bought with government assistance money. But come on, I’m trying to break my usual gloominess with a focus on life’s little pleasures, and just for once I’d like to think someone in the year 4bo earned it.)

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Book Report: The Stained Glass Handbook edited by Viv Foster (2006)

Book coverThis book really is a handbook instead of a little crafting book. It starts out like a craft book, with a brief history of the art of working with glass, then moves into the tools used with making stained glass windows or painted glass art, and then it goes into a couple of projects with both stained glass and painted glass. Then it goes into a rich and detailed history of glass artistry from the medieval period all the way to the present, with the rises and fall of different techniques (and technologies), and it includes a couple of profiles of individual artists in their eras.

A fascinating introduction that gives you an idea of how to do it and a history of it. Academic and practical.

But not that tempting to me; I probably won’t do much in the way of stained glass in my lifetime (although painted glass apparently has proved to be something I tut-tutted when I read the books on it and then something I tried with mixed results).

On the other hand, I still maintain the lack of urge to do sand art. So it’s fifty-fifty at this point whether my home’s next transom will be a Noggle original. Okay, way less than that. But fifty-fifty that I would be crazy enough to try a transom.

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Book Report: Meatballs by Joe Claro (1979)

Book coverThis book is a 1979 young adult novelization of the Bill Murray film. It’s quite mindbending, when you think about it. In 1979, Scholastic was publishing 91-page-long novelizations of screwball comedies. A couple decades later, Scholastic would publish weighty young adult fantasy novels that got translated into major motion pictures. A mind bender, huh? An who owns the copyright to the novelization of Meatballs? Haliburton Films. Well, probably not that Haliburton. More likely it’s related to Haliburton, Ontario. But that’s neither here nor there.

So what’s the book like? The movie, maybe. I haven’t seen the film yet. It’s a screwball comedy, with young men trying to attract members of the opposite sex and with a camp of lessers pitted against a camp of athletes and well-to-do. There are a couple set pieces and an uplifting plot of a young boy being taught how to be a better person by the whacky camp counselor portrayed by Bill Murray.

As a book, it’s a collection of disjointed scenes with little continuity between them. In a movie, which I suspect in the matter matches the novelization after a fashion, this works better with the visual comedy and such. But in a book, it’s very juxtaposed to the point of just being juxt.

So take that for what it’s worth. It’s not a bad read, I suppose, if you’re thirteen years old in 1982 and your parents have coughed up a buck and a half for the book club order and you don’t have cable or a Betamax to watch the actual movie (which was a real condition in 1982, and it explains why books like this exist). But the book holds up less well than the film, probably.

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Wherein a Simple Mistake Shows The True Source of Brian J.’s “Classical” Education

So my wife and I are discussing female cat names the other night. It’s easy for me to come up with literary male cat names; all of history and literature is rife with them. But female cat names are a different story. I don’t know many female literary names with the same zing of male protagonists. I mean, who wants a cat named Warshawski?

So in a moment of inspiration, I turned to Norse and Celtic mythology. Brigit, I offer (leading to the inevitable discussion of how you pronounce Brigit). Boadicea, I say, undoubtedly pronouncing it wrong without any ensuing discussion. Lady Sif, I offer.

However: I characterize her as the Marvel Comics rendition, not the actual Norse rendition.

Which betrays the fact that I have not read a single edda in my life. Saga, either.

I really do try to punch above my intellectual weight, though, and I’ve got a pretty good façade going. Do you see the ç there? BECAUSE OUTWARD DEMONSTRATION OF LITERARY HIPSTERISM!

Strangely, though, although I’ve thought of it before, I did not bring the name Morgaine into the discussion.

Not because of the Mallory. Because of the literary Rosenbergism.

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Brian J. Noggle, Literary Hipster

I was having an imaginary conversation the other day, and I was slightly thunderstruck to discover something disquieting about me. Not that I spend a lot of time alone, and I run through a number of imaginary conversations in my head–I have known that about myself for some time. But something more sinister. Well, maybe not sinister, but certainly some adjective that needs to be italicized.

I was talking about classic British literature, and I was naming some my favorite books from various authors, and none of the books were widely known or collegiately studied classics.

Charles Dickens?
Cricket on the Hearth.

Thomas Hardy?
Under a Greenwood Tree.

Rudyard Kipling?
Puck of Pook’s Hill.

And suddenly, in my head, I’ve got horn-rimmed glasses on (with plain glass, natch), a striped sweater, maybe a scarf, and some ironic headgear (maybe a “contemporary” fedora (::spit::)), and I’m talking about how everyone loves A Tale of Two Cities or Kim.

I’m a literary hipster. Which is almost as bad as an academic.

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Book Report: A Hand to Hold, An Opinion to Ignore by Cathy Guisewite (1987, 1988)

Book coverThis book dates from the 1980s, so it is dated in some regards, but only in minor ways. Well, minor ways if lived through the 1980s. No one uses a computer or a cell phone, for example. Cell phone? Geez, even that’s dated; I’m the only one in the world except Jitterbug customers still carrying around anything but a smart phone these days. My poor children have no diversion when we’re waiting somewhere except for horning in on other children whose parents have provided them with a digital pacifier. But I digress.

Some of you might remember this strip, which ran for 34 years in the newspaper (geez, that’s dated, too). It dealt with an 80s career woman who was perpetually on a diet, sort of involved with a lightly stereotyped 80s man named Irving, and dealing with older, traditional parents who did not get her at all.

The material seems to hold up well; although I’m not a career woman, I have seen some struggle with the same issues that Cathy makes light of. Except they have cellular phones now, sorry, smart phones, and computers. It’ll probably hold up a little better than, say, Dilbert, which depends on technology and on surreal humor that will be about as funny and relevant as Bloom County remains today. Sorry, Scott Adams, but there it is. Cathy, like Calvin and Hobbes, comments on the human condition, not just the contemporary workplace or political landscape.

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Paladins I’ve Played

So Paladins was right in my wheelhouse as a fantasy enthusiast, at least as much fantasy enthusiasts as I am. When I played Dungeons and Dragons (so long ago that I spell out the and now), I often played characters who were of the class Paladin. As you might know, gentle reader, the paladin is a holy warrior, a Crusader of sorts fighting for a mythical god or church.

To most kids who play D&D, the Paladin is something like a televangelist with a sword. Unfortunately, a lot of kids who play role-playing games have a sort of slanted view of church-attending folk, so they don’t see a lot of depth in characterization within them. Paladins are always stuffy, self-righteous, and two-dimensional buffoons played for laughs as NPCs.

Which is sad. As I mentioned, I often played paladin characters as people, with quirks, foibles, and self-doubt.

  • At GenCon one year, as part of this huge open game that took over one of the skywalks, I played a paladin of Tyr, the Forgotten Realms god of justice. This fellow was risk-averse to put it mildly, borderline cowardly in most situations where he could think about the risks involved in combat, but had the right instincts. So while he might shrink from a fight if he thought about it, but if confronted with danger without the chance of overthinking it, he would defend his faith and friends instinctively.
  • In another one-off, I rolled up a paladin for a game and picked from the Forgotten Realms book the god of mornings and beginnings. This fellow carried a halberd, but he used it mostly as a walking stick as he jaunted along. Genial and genuinely optimistic, he didn’t have too much chance to do much before the fellows hosting the game ended the session so they could toss my friends and I to smoke some dope. I later learned my friends returned for another session without me–I had something of a reputation as a misanthropic ass even then–but that one session did lead to the halberd on my office wall as it was December, and when one of my guys asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I said “A halberd.” So it was. But I was talking about paladins.
  • Another character I played was not directly a paladin, since it was in the Dangerous Journeys system. Caryn was the third son of minor nobility in England, a ne’er-do-well brawler who hung out with the wrong people in the bars and whatnot until his older brother was killed Crusading. So Caryn, who did not like his brother, reluctantly takes his brother’s armor and goes off, indecisively, to avenge him with no clear plan in mind and no zeal to do it. He’s not a real paladin, just a Crusader, but he’s adopted the blandishments of churchliness and holier-than-thou behavior. Akin to the stereotype, but he doesn’t believe it, really. It wouldn’t have worked in D&D because the special abilities for the class come from belief, but in the context of Dangerous Journeys it was possible. Given the nature of the module we were on, I’d mapped out a character arc for Caryn to improve, become a better person, and maybe even a believer, but the hosts of this group, with which I gamed off and on for a couple years, (::cough, cough::) didn’t like me and forgot the character’s back story (he’s just a paladin, hey).

So, as I said, there’s a lot of room in the paladin class for interesting characters, but in most cases I’ve seen, that’s marginalized, probably because the normal D&D gamer doesn’t know a lot of healthy, church-going folk and only have their resentments and stereotypes of the same to draw from.

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Good Book Hunting, October 12, 2012: Friends of the Christian County Library Book Fair Preview Night

On Friday, my beautiful wife and I went to the members-only preview night of the Friends of the Library book fair in Ozark, Missouri. We’ve been off-and-on members since we’ve been down here, but this is the first time we’ve deployed our membership to get a look at the books before the general public could. Well, the general public could pick through the books and pay a $5 premium at the end to join if they needed to, but that’s neither here nor there.

It was a little crowded at a little after 8pm when we got there. The main library was closed, and the book sale was a little bit of light in a sea of darkness. It was just crowded enough and we were on short enough time before picking our children up that I didn’t tip into the buying frenzy I sometimes get into, but I got a few books.

Friends of the Christian County Library book fair, October 12, 2012

I got:

  • Several films on both DVD and VHS. Given that I watch six new movies a year, these should hold me a while, especially coupled with the others I’ve stocked up over the last couple of years. And yet sometimes when I want to watch something, I don’t have anything that jumps out right at that moment.
  • Science, Numbers, and I by Isaac Asimov. One of his short nonfiction books. I like them, although I haven’t read one in a while. So how much can I say I actually like them, then? I dunno.
  • Spectrum II, a collection of sci-fi short stories.
  • Monster from Out of Time, a book whose title sounds an awful lot like a Lovecraft story. I haven’t checked up yet, but I think Long was in that milieiu.
  • Knight of the Scimitar, a novel about the Crusades. Given its age, it probably has a clear-cut moral idea.
  • The Broken Snare, an ex-Library book about someone building a ranch in the Canadian Rockies.
  • One of William Shatner’s many autobiographies. Internet, how come no one has done a parody of the theme from Shaft called “Shat”?
  • Richard Marcinko’s guide to success. As you might remember, I read his autobiography Rogue Warrior in March.

I was a little disappointed that the sale didn’t have any Gold Eagle pulp paperbacks; I have found my first Executioner and SOBs titles at this sale in previous years. Also, one of other attendees was a twit scanning all the books with his smartphone to find what he could sell for more than a buck on Ebay, and I have a whole post’s worth of disdain for that behavior that I’ll have to get into later.

At any rate, I ended up with fewer books than I got at the Friends of the Clever Library book sale, but I did get a new FoL t-shirt in black. I’m also just about ready for the Friends of the Springfield-Greene County Library book fair coming up the penultimate week of the month. Since I’ll hit that one on half price day or bag day, I might end up straining my bookshelves again.

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Free Republican Voters

You know what would make a couple Republican voters or at least discouraged Democrat voters? Subjecting urban homesteads, especially those with chickens, to USDA inspection.

Here me out, I have a bigger point.

I swim in the milieu of Generation Xish information worker types. They came out of college in the 1990s, often into jobs that paid middle class wages or better at age 22, and moved into urban environments (not "urban clusters"). By and large, they didn’t have children, or maybe just one. In short, they were the Yuppies of our youth, but they voted Democrat and worked in IT instead of financial institutions.

As such, their perceptions are a little askew from much of America, and their experience with government is a little different than that of other people.

I’m sure I mentioned it before, but I run into the government doesn’t stop entrepreneurs! line of thought over and over again. Because, to a person with this skill set, you only need a laptop and an idea to start programming or a little bit more to start a home-based knowledge consulting conference hopping profession.

This runs counter to other-skilled workers, such as nail painters, who in many places need hundreds of hours of professional training and continuing education to meet state requirements to provide manicures plus government-compliant space to work in (one does not professionally trim toenails at Starbucks, after all, although one can still do one’s own there from time to time at least until they ask you to leave, or so I’ve heard). If you like to work on cars, you’ll run into a bunch of environmental regulations, zoning regulations, building inspections, and so on.

So the idea of how businesses work and the government’s relationship to a business are skewed based on the types of businesses they imagine themselves pursuing.

It’s a little similar thing with the having chickens in your back yard thing. Once you get the local zoning board to sign off on it, you’re home free. But if you wanted to do it for a living, you’d be subject to a plethora of regulation from the Federal government. The news feeds and blogs of the urban homesteaders are full of outraged stories of people selling raw milk running afoul of those regulations, but the outrage never extends beyond that instance into hey, maybe the government shouldn’t step on this.

Another person on one of my feeds complained about HOA boards and the power mad people who get onto them. Busybodies who want some power. The Home Owners’ Association, for those of you who are fortunate to be unfamiliar with it, are an optional, private level of governance over suburban developments that are in charge of setting rules for household and yard appearance (to protect the property values, natch) and to levy fees to maintain amenities shared by the development. You know, things the local governments used to handle before they got into the creative-financing-of-strip-malls thing. Personally, I won’t buy a property in such a development because it represents another level of intrusiveness into individual lives. A voluntary one.

But the person complaining about the HOA isn’t someone who extends the disdain for overweening, overbearing people getting power over others to either elected or merit-based government officials and employees.

Because somehow the government remains unsullied by the unsavory portion of human nature.

If only, somehow, we could reach out to these people and convince them that we have a better shot, together, of steering the Republican Party into better stewardship and less intrusiveness, we might grow the tent (to the disdain of party purists, I’m sure). Unfortunately, when I reach out reasonably, I get the LALALALA you’re a Republican response, with the hands clapped over the ears in spirit.

But they’re out there, and maybe they’re reachable, eventually.

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Book Report: Dogbert’s Clues for the Clueless by Scott Adams (1993, 1996) and Shave the Whales by Scott Adams (1994, 1996)

Book cover Book coverThis book and this book are a couple of titles early in the Dilbert series (the years on them are 1993 and 1994 respectively). They predate, okay? Scott Adams invites you to mail him or email him at his email address. I was still in college when these cartoons were in the paper. Wow.

The first volume (actually, the third in the series) is centered on strips featuring Dogbert’s etiquette advice, and the second (fourth) is just a run of topical strips. As such, each book offers a certain continuity theme. They’re amusing, but they’re missing a number of the characters that have come to represent the Dilbert world. Wally doesn’t make many appearances (and he shows with a different name in one). The boss’s hair is not yet pointy. You know. If you’re steeped in the later Dilbert, this might be strange.

At any rate, amusing enough, but it’s a while before Adams reaches his stride and becomes part of the zeitgeist. Or maybe it’s a while before I’m working in the IT office environment and I recognize and share the geist. Since I’m out of that now, the cartoons might have lost a certain resonance. Or maybe it’s because they’re just not the peak of the Dilbert world.

At any rate, worth reviewing if you’re into Dilbert.

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Just In Case

House-Size Asteroid Comes Closer to Earth Than the Moon Friday:

A newfound asteroid the size of a house will fly closer to Earth than the moon on Friday (Oct. 12), but poses no danger of impacting our planet, NASA says.

I’d like to believe NASA here, but they’ve cut the collision detection slide rule budget for more outreach efforts.

As a precaution, I’ve put a Mok and a sorceress on speed dial.

UPDATE Thanks for the mention, Ms. X. and for the link, Ms. K. Hey, readers, did you know Ms. X. once said my novel John Donnelly’s Gold was “quite an adventure” and “a satisfying story”? Really. You can own it on Kindle for 99 cents, in trade paperback, or for your Apple devices.

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Book Report: “Sad Victory” by Jan Christensen (2004)

Book coverThis book is a short story chapbook published and, I presume, distributed to promote Christensen’s 2004 novel Sara’s Search.

This particular volume, if you can call it that, is 14 pages long and first appeared in a 2000 anthology of some sort. It’s a British-style mystery, with a rich great aunt whose sister recently fell down the stairs pretty sure that her great neice and great nephew are about to marry two ne’er-do-wells only looking for the future inheritance. So she gets them to tell their fiances (fiance and fiancee) that they’ve been disinherited, and sure enough, the two scram. The great aunt then tells the two about her suspicions regarding the death of her sister and leaves instructions as to her will if she should die suddenly, which leads to her sad victory.

Hey, it’s a British style story, with tea and domestic help. If you like that sort of thing, it’s your bag. It’s the sort of thing you read a couple of in any given month of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine or whatnot.

But it counts as a book, because as I mentioned, I’m trying to make the annual hundred while reading, slowly, through 1000+ page books (and 450 page books).

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Book Report: Paladins by Joel Rosenberg (2004)

Book coverOn July 24, sometime commenter A. Rothman friended me on Facebook, prompting me to comment “Brian J. Noggle got friended by a Minneapolis concealed carry instructor. Noggle feels compelled to read a Joel Rosenberg book now.” This book is the one that sprang into my hand. Which means it took me several months to read it. Wow.

The conceit is this: Magic exists, and Mordred defeated Arthur. Hundreds of years later, the British crown is in a power struggle with the Dar al Islam and another empire whose provenance I’ve forgotten. Priest warriors for the crown carry swords imbued with the souls of either saints (white swords) or very evil men (red swords). Apparently, the swords were made in ancient times and are the magic that has created them has been forgotten or driven from history. But in the Eastern Mediterranean, where the three empires clash, a new red sword has been found. Two active members of the holy order, the paladins of the title, bring a former member of the order, their former mentor, out of retirement to investigate. Their former mentor recruits and deputizes a local fisherman–fisherboy really–to their order and gives him the sword, which has been infused with the soul of a baby (but somehow, this becomes a red sword). The young paladin and the mentor depart to investigate on their own, leading the other paladins, including a conflicted paladin bearing a red sword carrying the soul of Genghis Khan, to follow them.

So it’s a very rich book, and it clock in at 450+ pages, so there’s plenty of room to spread the wealth and depth. We have well-rounded Marines and side adventures in taking a pirate ship. We have a little battle with darklings, the nature of which is unclear (and whose presence is remarkable, according to the characters, but is not resolved). We have an aging Navy man in port duty intriguing within the Navy and with the enemies of the crown. We have hints and some details about the past, why the mentor left the order, some history regarding the other members of the order, and, as I said, a lot of depth.

Which is then lost on the plot.

The story of the new live red sword runs through it, but the ulimate resolution takes place suddenly by comparison. I won’t spoil it for you because the book might be worth reading on its own–I’m a bit ambivalent because of the ultimate weakness of the plot or at least how the main plot is resolved–but the climax comes out of left field with some unheard of people working on their own plot unrelated to the things investigated, off and on, by the paladins for 350 pages. Then there’s a scene with the king at the end, a sort of Star Wars award ceremony, except R2 D2 doesn’t come back to life (although his return might have been foreshadowed).

There’s only one more book in this series, so I don’t know what Rosenberg had planned. Maybe a series of seven or eight which would have made more use of the deep background. I haven’t read the early books in the Guardians of the Flame series, so I don’t know if that’s how he did it with that series. Or maybe these books didn’t sell well enough to continue.

Jeez, it took me since July to read this, and it’s not even one of the big books I’m sorta reading.

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Rest in Peace, Alex Karras

Alex Karras was 77 when he passed away today. How did that happen? He was just in his forties thirty years ago. When I was a boy.

I never saw him play, but I read of him in Jerry Kramer’s Instant Replay, and I read his book Tuesday Night Football five years ago, and I’ve mostly thought of him as an actor.

Somehow, I’m sad to see him go. Sometimes it’s the b-players and bit memories in your life that are the most acutely sad in passing.

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Appealing to the Ronbots

An email from the Romney campaign has a subject line that might appeal to the followers of a certain cranky Texas congressman:

Meet Dad or Paul

I suspect though the text of the message made clear, though, that you’d meet not Ron Paul but Paul Ryan.

I don’t think the Ron Paul fans would be fooled after all.

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Book Report: Rembrandt by Trewin Copplestone (?)

Book coverOf all the picture books I’ve been browsing lately, this book has a distinction: I actually started looking through this book last football season, and it remained on the side table, often-dusted, until I finished it this season.

This book, as its title might indicate, is a retrospective of Rembrandt’s work and a pretty detailed biography of the man. Too much text, almost, to read and keep one’s place while watching the intermittent plays of a football game. I learned a bit about Rembrandt’s rise and fall and the meaning of chiaroscuro. That might be the only thing I retain long term, but it’s enough.

Related story: I’ve had two copies of Rembrandt’s Man in a Gold Helmet in my life. The first I bought when I was in college with a freshmanly minted credit card. The Alumni Memorial Union had a print sale in it, and I wanted copies of Wyeth’s Christina’s World and Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Since it was three for $15 or $6 each, I picked a third. The third was Man in a Gold Helmet.

Sometime later, I divested myself of those prints, but I found a framed one inexpensive at a garage sale or an estate sale back when I was hitting them all the time. I bought it, and I hung it in Casinoport, and I hung it in Old Trees, and I hung it at Nogglestead. But when I was talking to my beautiful wife about the painting, I couldn’t remember where we’d hung it. The living room is rife with Renoir, the bedroom has a Monet (I’ve discovered recently it’s a Monet) and a couple of Hargroves, but I drew a blank on the Rembrandt. I didn’t know if we’d stored it or if we’d donated it, but I’ll be darned if I remembered it or could find it.

Until my wife and I were sitting in a chair together, a chair I don’t normally sit in, and I saw it: it is in the small hallway between our offices, a hallway that we rarely light. I pass by it several times a day, but I’d lost it there until such time as I was sitting somewhere I normally don’t and looked into that hallway.

So I still have it, and now that I have reviewed this book, I can definitively and with more authority say that it’s my favorite of Rembrandt’s work. Probably partly because of the history I have with it, but also probably because the affinity I have for it thematically and stylistically I would have had with it even if I’d seen it in the book for the first time.

So the book’s worth checking out. Rembrandt was a very interesting painter, and he lived a very interesting life.

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