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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

The Arabian Nights

Tales of the Arabian Nights
Sir Richard Burton

The Arabian Nights
One of the great ironies of a graduate education is that there isn’t actually time to read anything. Sure, you’re assigned several books per week, but unless you’re some sort of literary demi-god that can digest a hundred pages an hour and still retain the information, you don’t really read. You spend a lot of time with open books in front of you, “getting the gist” of the material. As for non-academic reading, forget about it. There becomes no such thing.
So I did the only sensible thing this spring, and started reading a fairly archane 900 page book. Burton’s version of The Arabian Nights ain’t much like Walt Disney’s. There’s quite a bit more fornication and subsequent castration, for one. There’s also a bit more burning people alive in bags of lime, group sex with Moorish slaves, gouging out of eyes, and other things seldom committed to technicolor animation. Naturally, the stories are quite a bit more compelling, as well. My first impression (as a good American boy) is that the Islamic world must be insanely violent. And then I remember the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Bible. I mean, let’s face it — Eurpoean Christianity has been about as violent as any worldview could possibly be. Although Walt Disney doesn’t bother with that too much, either.
So yeah, it took me a few months to get through this one, in between reading about the history of American chemical engineering and the background to the Piltdown hoax. The good news is that I’ve decided to retire from graduate education, at least for the time being. What this is supposed to mean is more time actually to read actual books. It also means months of uncertainty ahead, which I think is probably a good thing at this point in my life. Keeps me from turning into too much of an adult. And if I end up burning alive in a bag of lime cast into the Arabian sea, hopefully at least somebody will make a good story out of it.

Angel Band: The Classic Mercury Recordings

Angel Band
The Stanley Brothers
Angel Band: The Classic Mercury Recordings
Two years ago, I couldn’t really have told you the difference between bluegrass and old-time music. Now, in my continuing quest to make sure that family doesn’t understand anything I do, I can say that I have a distinct preference for the latter. I’m still not quite able to articulate exactly why. It may be because it’s more approachable. During my tenure in southwest Virginia, I’ve learned to play the fiddle and banjo, and relearned some things that I used to know about the guitar but had forgotten. I’ve been playing the local old-time music a couple of nights a week on average, and it’s easy to understand and easy to get into, like an old pair of pants or certain other metaphors that would be inappropriate for a family web site. On the other hand, I don’t feel like I understand bluegrass music at all. I think I’m probably bothered by it for the same reason that I’m bothered by Yngwie Malmsteem. I don’t really care how fast that guy can play the guitar. It just doesn’t impress me. I think I respond the same way to most of the instrumental solos in bluegrass music. Whether you’ve got big fluffy hair or a cowboy hat, the more somebody tries to impress me, the less likely I am to be impressed.
I Hear My Savior Calling
Which brings us to the Stanley Brothers. Angel Band is definitely not Malmsteem-style bluegrass. It includes much of the Stanley Brothers’ material while they were recording for Mercury Records in the mid-to-late 1950’s. The instrumental breaks are, for the most part, tasteful and understated. But I still don’t quite respond to the style of the thing. I guess it sounds too much like it was recorded in a Nashville studio somewhere, rather than on somebody’s back porch. The pacing of the songs is just too calculated and too tidy. There’s nothing in the music that gets my blood up the way that a good old-time string band can.
I will, however, admit that the vocal harmonies on some of the tunes set my hair on end. There’s something about Ralph’s hound-dog howling that completely spooks me, and I love it. Add that to the fact that those tracks that haunt me the most are the gospel tunes about dying performed by a fellow in the process of drinking himself to death, and there’s a rough core here that’s brilliantly heartbreaking. With a bit less production and a bit more raw energy, Angel Band could be a fairly great record. It stands out as one of my favorite bluegrass albums, but that may not be quite as high of a compliment as it seems.