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Thursday, September 18, 2014

TBT (2008) - "At the Feet of the Master"

Looking through some old files, I found this little post I wrote for an earlier incarnation of a blog back in 2008. So much has changed in six years, but more about that after you hear about an evening with the great Gene Wolfe and friends at a nearby second-hand bookstore of happy memory...

Last evening I was at the bookstore my daughter Claire manages with her friend and empress, Katie Redding, for a reading from a new novel by local auteur celebré Gene Wolfe. Gene is a congenial and garrulous tree trunk of a man, a lover of words and a storehouse of fascinating and often delightfully useless information. His genre is fantasy and science fiction, and in that literary world, he is a god. Critics cannot find superlatives superlative enough to describe his novels and stories, so it does my heart no end of good that this lovely man, most of ten years ago when we did not know each other well, took my daughter Claire, a fledgling writer in the genre with dreams of being something like Ursula K LeGuin meets H. P. Lovecraft, as something like a sorcerer’s apprentice. As far as I can tell, this arrangement, for whatever literary effect it might have had upon Claire’s writing, has blossomed into a terrific friendship between the two of them and Gene’s delightful wife Rosemary, who worships the ground upon which Gene walks.

How does this fit into a liturgical musician’s blog, you might ask? I’m glad that thought crossed your mind, because I was just about to tell you. Gene and Rosemary are parishioners at St. Anne. They are almost always at the 9:00 mass on Sunday, almost always in the same general area of our church, seated across the aisle from the music ministry. Rosemary sometimes erupts into single-minded applause if she happens to like a song we sing at the preparation of the gifts. In 1999, when the parish was planning various aspects of a millennium celebration, Gene and I worked on a committee together to prepare a “midnight mass” on New Year’s Eve with a champagne celebration following, and it might have been during this time that we connected (as artists?) and became friends.

Well, what all this is leading to is this: Claire briefly introduced Gene to the modest group that huddled in a circle in the tiny open space at the front of the quaintly cluttered shop that is Top Shelf Books of Palatine. Then Gene informed us that, though Claire had suggested that he read chapter eleven of his new work, An Evil Guest, he intended to read chapter seven. I thought nothing of this; a disagreement among friends, and since one of the friends is the author and guest, he wins. But get this: he’s reading along in chapter seven when our heroine whose name seems to be Cassie Casey is asked to sing a song by her dresser. And what song does she break into? Well, don’t take my word for it: here’s the excerpt:

“I’ll try to get the tune right, Miss Casey. It’s such a lovely song, but I’m not good with tunes unless I have the music.” She sang, her voice quavering a bit on the high notes. When she had finished, Cassie applauded.

Smiling gratefully, Margaret said, “Now let’s hear you sing it, Miss Casey. You can’t help but be better than I was.”

Cassie stood and coughed to clear her throat: a soft, apologetic sound.

“As close as tomorrow the sun shall appear,

Freedom is coming, and healing is near.”

“Louder, Miss Casey!”


“And I shall be with you in laughter and pain,

To stand in the wind and walk in the reign,

 To walk in the reign.”

The song seemed to fill her, a host of angels caroling through the corridors of her mind.

“The sower is planting in acres unseen

The seeds of the future, the field of God’s dream.

Those meadows are humming, though none sees them rise.

The name of the sower is God of Surprise.

God of Surprise....”


    from An Evil Guest, by Gene Wolfe. © 2008 Published by Tor Books, NY, NY.
Gene had asked me over a year ago, I think, about using part of a song, and of course that’s not within my authority to do, since I don’t own those copyrights. However, I did ask my publisher for him, and Alec Harris, the president of GIA, was more than happy to give his approval, since he is a fan of Gene’s himself! But I never gave it another thought, right up to the moment when Gene started reading my lyrics in his book! How about that. I mean, I can see a sci-fi writer using a hymn or church song in his book with some irony in it, but this was about as clean and lovely as it could be, and Gene further explained at the reading that he settled on the text because of the element of “surprise,” which keeps popping up in the narrative.

So what can I say? Buy his book! Then come to Barrington and I’ll take you to his house, we’ll pick up him and the Mrs., and go have some lunch so he can autograph it for you. To buy all of his books, you’d need a couple of suitcases; Gene has been at it for many, many years. If it’s too dear to buy them new, we can stop in Palatine at Top Shelf, and Claire and Kate or their accomplices will scour the shelves for used copies, which he will gladly sign with the same flair, probably throwing in a quip or a story gratis.
Claire and Gene at our Barrington house, with Desi,
at Claire's 21st birthday, 2002.
Sigh. In the intervening years, both Gene and the irrepressible Rosemary had some health issues, which Gene was able to navigate, but Rosemary was not. To make her transition easier, Gene moved their homestead west to their native Peoria, where she died in December 2013, and was buried from the same church in which they had been married over five decades earlier.

Claire is hardly a "fledgling" writer now, with several stories, poems, and novellas published and anthologized and her own page on Amazon.com. And Katie Redding sold Top Shelf Books in the interim, moved on with her life, and now Top Shelf is no more. So I have two fewer artists, at least, with whom to hobnob on (at least) a weekly basis, whose enthusiasm and cleverness was a source of inspiration and gratitude.

What I have is those words I wrote in those days, about one evening, to remember them by, and to kindle hope for a reprise. Just one night among the 7,000 or so I've had in Barrington and environs over the last twenty-plus years, crammed full of memory and longing, treasure and loss.

Time to get on with this Thursday. Enough throwing-back. Avanti!