Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sample Prose

Williston.  A small town suffocating under the weight of the greatest boom in American history and it’s torn between burning the witches and resignedly saying, “More weight.”  And I’m the problem: I’m one of the bad boys of the Bakken.
Furthermore, I get to tell strangers that I work for Savage.  “Oh, you’re going to CNA School?  Congratulations.  I work in the oil fields for a company called Savage.  Yeah, last winter it hit about minus seventy degrees Fahrenheit, but by May it was above zero again, and come July it was a hundred.  But by mid September it starts to get a bit nippy, say, twenty below.  No, only about ninety hours a week, but we’re allowed to work extra shifts, so it’s not too bad at all.”  The trick is to say it nonchalantly then change the subject.  Because if they ask, they will eventually find out that I glance down at a hundred grand a year doing a job that requires the intelligence of a whack-a-mole game and the stalwart courage of a vole of retiring disposition catching sight of a tail twitching above the grass (that would be "none;" do try to keep up...).  Mostly I push buttons.  I also sometimes glance up from my book to watch the thing that the buttons are on.  Plus, we have our own personal heaters and forty minute breaks every hour.  Seriously.  But we usually have to work two out of every three weeks and there are no outlets to charge our phones in our booths, so I guess it evens out.
Savage sounds like a pretty brutal name for a pretty brutal company, but turns out it’s just the name of the family that started it. Yeah, it’s a family business.  And they’re Mormon, to boot: the company actually has a no profanity clause in their employment contract, which is about as effective as putting up a chain link fence to keep out the mosquitoes: we’ve only got one supervisor that doesn’t cuss, and he’s a Catholic with nine kids and the ability to work thirty hours a day while remaining oblivious to dry sarcasm.  He actually believed me when I told him “lol” stood for “lots of love,” but I couldn’t maintain it for fear of him sending someone a text reading “Heard your dad died, lol.”

The Craft is all I Love

At the Mountains of MadnessAt the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm beginning to realize that if I keep track of which people recommended which books, my holiday shopping will drastically change.

I'm rather bemusedly reminded of the time my Lordship professor informed us that he'd accidentally assigned us four times the amount of reading that he was allowed to (this in a school whose first year reading list book stack was taller than I was), so he told us we only had to read the odd-numbered pages (but quizzes and tests would include information from the even pages as well). I'd have liked this book more had I only read every other page. It was well-written: very well-written. But that's half of the problem: why was it written at all? If someone wants to inflict this kind of thing on humanity, at least he could have the decency to write it like a Pakistani immigrant attempting to compile a phone book so that no one would ever read it. I grant you, the concept was interesting. Actually, it was downright brilliant. But it was entirely the wrong genre. We have one hundred pages of suspense for half a page of rather dry revelation with the shock value of seeing trouble with great legs walk into a private eye's office in a noir film. Is it Chinatown, Jack?

If we cared at all about the character, or any of the characters, then there might have been some tension. My favourite "person" was the dog and he died, or rather, was dead when I started to posthumously like him (I figured that a dead dog, on top of being worse than a live lion, had more of an excuse to have no personality than all the other characters did). But we know the narrator lives, as it's his memoirs, and we know that a lot of people die, as we find them, well, dead, about page thirty, and we never really cared to begin with: they're just the girls dropping their tops to start the horror film (not literally: I'm talking motifs here), or whatever no-name actor is standing next to Harrison Ford. The problem is the utter lack of Harrison Ford.

All in all, it was erudite and sophisticated, and would be a fantastic twenty-page story. Sorry Lovecraft, but you're going to gather a good bit of dust over the next few decades.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

The Devil of Ramadi

American SniperAmerican Sniper by Chris Kyle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ghost-written books are always a bit awkward. The writer tries to create structure without losing the voice of the author. In this case it made for a fast (if disjointed) read.

Chilling. Were I to describe this book in a word, that would be it. Often humorous, often moving, informative throughout, all these are overshadowed by the story continued beyond the book, by the life and death of the man, the hero, the legend, the devil. Why the hell did the flag fly full-mast that day? It's almost enough to make me get a flag solely to fly it low in memorial, were that not something that would infuriate him were he still alive.

I simply have to say that despite the language, despite the occasionally dubious morality, everyone ought to read this book. We too rarely bear in mind that the luxury of family is provided for us by those that give up theirs; the luxury of ethical discussion is safeguarded by those who do not discuss, but obey; the luxury of life is ensured by those whose instinct is to jump upon a grenade instead of out of a door, whose very reaction is to die so that others can live.

It is not a job, it is a calling. They are not merely soldiers (as if there were such a thing as a "mere" soldier), they are the wall between us and the world that we don't have or want to face.

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Sunday, September 14, 2014


MortalityMortality by Christopher Hitchens
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First off, this is a quick read. Very quick. Secondly, this is the best nonfiction I've read since Vanauken's A Severe Mercy.

Hitchens can undoubtedly write, and he is in peak form here. A serrated wit, a pragmatic realism, an impending end and an open-eyed anti-theist watching its inexorable approach. At times darkly funny, at times lightly flippant, always erudite and often drawing us off into an unexpected and absorbing aside, his account is entirely transfixing, glass-edged and heart-breaking. Typically philosophical, uncharacteristically personal, it is an excellent book, and his wife's afterword is devastating.

I don't know if this was the intent, but the structure of the book is as ghastly macabre, as haunting as it possibly could have been. It is chronological, beginning with his diagnosis and slowly, finally devolving into the disjointed, eerily aberrant, inchoate musings that the publisher informs you—in small print at the bottom, as a parenthetical aside; nothing important here—were unfinished at the time of his death. He was dead. I hit this mid stride and was slammed with the shock of seeing the author with whom I was conversing abruptly drop dead in the middle of his sentence, and slowly fade away even as I adjusted to the feeling of having stepped into a moving train.

I think he would have liked it that way.

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Monday, September 1, 2014

From the Son of a Gunn

Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing LifeWordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life by Douglas Wilson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Taking care of your preschoolers or being deployed with the Seventh Fleet is far to be preferred over purchasinng a backpack and heading off to find America, or even worse, yourself."

So begins a book that I feel far too inadequate to review, as if I were asked to give a comic introduction to Bob Hope: I'd much rather shut up and sit down.

Having said that, read this book. Again and again and again. Memorize the blasted thing, and buy and read all the books he recommends. Or just follow him around till you see a chariot then steal his coat.

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(Unless it Doesn't)

The Sun Also RisesThe Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How have I just given Williams three stars and Hemingway four? More importantly, what does this say about the state of my soul? Bless me Craiggles, for I have sinned.

I found Hemingway to be far more friendly than I'd expected, though I have a feeling that our friendship might begin to feel a bit strained after page 250 and I'd have to go talk to Wodehouse or Chesterton before coming back. He has a light, playful, terse type of prose whose minimalism and lack of distance conceal what feels like a deep-seated cynicism. In any case, I'll be reading a lot more of Papa Hemingway, though never again The Snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

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The Place of the Lion

The Place of the LionThe Place of the Lion by Charles Williams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When first I encountered Charles Williams, I sat stunned at his feet as the heavens were rolled back as a scroll and earth opened to receive my abandoned flesh. This time I had a beer.

I give this book a solid 3.5 stars, but Goodreads allows for no such nuance, so I (ever the cheerful cynic) err on the side of "all shall be hell" and just give it three. But don't get me wrong: it is a book well worth the read, just not so, well, not so tight, if you will, as Descent Into Hell. Yet it is vintage Williams, and therefore like nothing else you will ever read. The prose is still sublime, the characters are still so real as to almost make us mere caricatures of them, and the dialogue disdainfully dares you ever to speak again. I suppose that my discontent lies purely in the premise, which while still furiously fantastical, failed to be as personal as I was expecting after he burned, buried and exhumed me in our last meeting.

But permit me a few samples:

Interpretation of infinity by the finite was pretty certain to be wrong.

They also probably liked their religion taken mild—a pious hope, a devout ejaculation, a general sympathetic sense of a kindly universe—but nothing upsetting or bewildering, no agony, no darkness, no uncreated light.

"I think you're rather unkind," Damaris answered. "We both like each other—"
"Dearest, I don't like you a bit," Anthony interrupted again. "I think you're a very detestable, selfish pig and prig. But I'm often wildly in love with you, and so I see you're not. But I'm sure your only chance of salvation is to marry me."
"Really, Anthony!" Damaris got up from the table. "Chance of salvation indeed! And from what, I should like to know?"
"Nobody else," Anthony went on, "sees you as you are. Nobody else will give you such a difficult and unpleasant time as I do. You'll never be comfortable, but you may be glorious. You'd better think it over."

The book is well worth reading, especially if—like me—you are tempted to attempt to tame the furious ideas of philosophy, or the shattering theophanies that lie within theology, if, in a word, you seek to fit your little world on a leash or teach it to only make wee-wee in the potty. For in this book the Ideas, Powers and Principles break free and nearly unmake the earth before Mercy harnesses the whirlwind so that we feel naught but a slight breeze.

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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Heather May Sisk

He was a boy who played the games, and she was a girl who watched. He had shaggy hair that looked weird on him, and he tucked his t-shirt into his shorts, never having been informed how mortally uncool that was. On top of that, being born and raised in California had somehow invested him with a semi-Irish accent that most people thought was fake. It probably was.

But if he was unaware of the ins and outs of cool, he had semi-creepy stalker guy nailed. People usually didn't like him, but then he would talk to them and they found themselves telling him everything, bad hair, worse clothes, weird accent and all. He listened well, understood everything—whether explained or not—sympathized perfectly and they found in him someone that truly knew them. Then they liked him, until the next day when he'd forgotten that he'd so much as met them, let alone become their dearest friend. Then they disliked him again, just with better reasons this time.

But her? She had a big smile, huge eyes and surprisingly little else. Unless it had recently rained, in which case she had extremely excited mad-scientist bouncy hair. And it rained a lot. On rain days, she resembled a very surprised, mischievous chipmunk with a fro. And half of the time her laugh was more visible than audible, shaking her tomboy farm-girl frame until her enormous eyes entirely disappeared.

But usually she sat, appearing happily astonished on her counter in the corner, leaning forward, legs swinging, shoulders shrugged to her cheeks with her eyes wide above them as she talked to Hayley. They giggled like girls the world over, and all the boys played all the harder knowing that the girls were watching, not knowing that the girls were not really watching them; not knowing that the girls were talking about movies, clothes and lip gloss; not knowing that the girls neither knew nor particularly cared what game the boys were playing, let alone who was winning. But the girls were polite enough to "ooh" and "ah" whenever, in the interest of arousing interest, some boy was simultaneously introduced to the laws of physics and a wall.

When the game ended, the boy rapidly found himself in front of the girl, laughing at her bouncing legs. Hayley said something that made her laugh just as he was about to ask her a question and his train of thought promptly jumped off a cliff. Freckles he'd known, but dimples? Had she no conscience?

So they talked till she went home, and the next week he found her in the corner with Hayley, legs still bouncing, and they talked, and the next, and the next. But he always remained the boy who played, and she the girl who watched. She only once told him why, and though he'd asked, for once he neither sympathized nor understood, nor did he even really listen. She knew him, and he thought he knew her.

Then the boy moved twice in as many months. And he forgot the girl who watched as he switched families, siblings and churches.

He became the boy who played the games in other groups, and she the girl who no longer watched the games at all. She sat on a bed, not a counter, and her feet did not bounce. She no longer talked to Hayley, but to her mom, and neither of them giggled when the doctors cut off her feet to save her heart.

The girl who watched died in a hospital far from her home and farther from the boy who played the games. She sent him a heart-shaped necklace: her broken heart and his.

The boy now has even shaggier hair that usually looks weird, or at least wild, without any assistance from him. He sometimes tucks his shirt into jeans, but never shorts. He invented a story for the accent, and occasionally he still plays the games, bad knee bad shoulder bad back and all. But usually he is found quiet on a counter in a corner, experimentally bouncing his legs, and watching.

Wodehousian Fun