Friday, March 24, 2017

These Days Mercy Cuts so Deep

A Severe Mercy

How to even begin? This ought to be required, read and re-read at a young and impressionable age: let it leave an indelible divot on a soft-formed soul: black marble on a new grave, a walk through the terminal ward; hold the car-struck kitten's head and watch it die.  Let spring meet winter while it's young.  Would that make it any easier?  No? Then no one ought ever to read this book. It should be banned, burned, forever forgotten and wholly unmade with the one ring and a summer snow. Let it die with a dying fall.

As I must begin, let me begin by saying that this book was beautiful. I cannot emphasize that enough, and probably won't even try. Their love was staggering.  As full and conscious and devoted as any I've ever heard of.  It was liltingly lovely, with the literary lives, the shining barrier, the conversations with Lewis and Joy, St. Udio's (Studio), the yacht, and so, so much more.  It was a truly lovely, heartbreaking book.

The title is taken from a comment from Jack (C.S.) Lewis.  He was speaking to Sheldon Vanauken, the author, and said that as all mortal loves must die, perhaps it was a "severe mercy" for the love to perish with one of the lovers.  For this book is the finish of a fairy tale love and ends after the "happily ever after," with "to the end of her days."

I made three abortive attempts to begin this book.  I don't do that.  Ever.  It simply does not happen.  I will usually read a book in a day, sometimes as long as three, or not at all (writers like Dalrymple and Dunnett take a bit longer).  If I start a book, I either finish it fast or I put it on my "who on earth was their agent and how can I hire him" shelf, also known as the "if this moron got published why am I still working ninety-hour weeks in North Freezing Dakota" shelf.  The "Left Behind" and "Twilight" shelf. This book was none of the above.  I didn't even try to review it for the first four months.  The abortive attempts all ended on the same page, with me setting the book aside as I wept bitterly and thought of Pound: "His dice be not of ruth."

So now I am left in an awkward position.  This is one of the most brilliant books I've ever read.  One of the most worthwhile, the most lovely, the most useful, and will become among the most often referenced.  But for me it was easily, hands down the most devastating: Narn I Hin Hurin was a tale for toddlers; Notes From Underground was pleasant by comparison.  There is nothing I've read that brought me closer to the edge of nihilistic "God damn You God!" despair as this book.  If you have a month you can set aside for becoming a hermit, reading the Bible, this book and raising cute little cuddly fuzzy things, do it.  If you've not yet been hit hard by death, read it now, while you can.  If you are at the beginning of a relationship, give Glory to God, READ IT NOW.  Not tomorrow: now.  Not even because of the death, but because of the life up to the death.  If ever there was a love that ought to have been given the resurrection without the death, it was theirs.  Imitate it.

But if you've loved and lost, and to love means to lose, sooner or later, then I don't know what to say.  You might take comfort in this book.  I didn't: I came as close to praying for death as I've done since I lay on a bed with my face buried in my dead wife's wet hair.  I understand suicide: the desire to go to sleep abut a cold bare wall for the last time, to never again wake up with her freckled face before your eyes until you open them, to not face that same damned day again: to go to sleep for the final time.  I understand that.  I know that longing, and it is a small step to an irrevocable fall.  If you are prone to morbidity, don't read this. It will kill you.

So there it is.  The most beautiful, self-sacrificial love I've ever seen, ever heard of, preserved forever.  The way to obtain a love like that.  Its birth, life, redemption and death.  The prose is extremely good; the friendship with Lewis, priceless; the references to books and music, invaluable; the cost, absolutely catastrophic.  Make your choice.  But if you can at all read it, though you have to put yourself on a Haldol drip and communicate by clicking your straight-jacket clips with your teeth as a result, do so.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Little Green Potatoes

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Well that's the second most startling opening line I've ever read, only surpassed by Stephen Hunter's Dirty White Boys.  And that, unfortunately, is the best aspect of the book: it is funny.  It's suspenseful, well-written, interesting without being technical, and fun, but again: why do we care about this guy?  His sense of humour is about it.  Live or die just changes the book from comedy (in the modern "ha ha" sense) to tragedy (in the modern "oh, how sad, now bring me another beer" sense).  I didn't care about any of the characters, except maybe Johanssen (sp?).  And that's just cause she's short, and I (naturally) made her Irish (in spite of the description).  I think my thought process was something like, "Heck with Andy Weir; she's getting freckles so I have someone to like."

That said, it was a good book, and worth reading.  I apologize for the negative(ish) review: I'm just tired of passive protagonists.  Give me a ballad for a change: someone we can like for reasons beyond "common humanity" or "funny."  Honestly, had he killed himself to prevent his crew from risking their lives to save him, I would have liked him more.  Write a note to be sent home with the next mission and take the morphine.

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He's No Vestal

Selected WorksSelected Works by Alexander Pope
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Pope's Essay On Man is in my opinion one of the best (and most criticized) treatises on the Sovereignty of God and man's role in relation to Him that I've ever read, and it's written by a morally degenerate lapsed Catholic hunchback.

I well remember how I was first introduced to The Little Monster, and through him, to poetry in general.  I was sixteen and walking home at one in the morning from a dishwashing job.  A bookstore had a rack of dollar books outside.  I picked up what I thought to be a biography of a Pope named Alexander (I have always had strange compulsions when it comes to books), and found when I got home that it was just poetry.  I didn't crack the spine again for two weeks.  From the day I did I don't think I put it down for two months.

Pope is terrible.  He is savage, ruthless, cynical and hilarious: the kind of man you don't want to like but can't risk offending.  His wit is unparalleled, his life tragic, and his tremendous legacy is now rotting into the leaf mulch of other author's minds.  Yet he's one of the greatest poets of the English language, and we can't escape him:

"Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,"
"To err is human, to forgive, divine,"
"Hope springs eternal in the human breast: Man never Is, but always To be blest,"
"Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of mankind is man,"
How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!  The world forgetting, by the world forgot.  Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!  Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d,”
"Vice is a monster of so frightful mien, As, to be hated, needs but to be seen; Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face, We first endure, then pity, then embrace,"
"A little learning is a dang'rous thing,"
and many, many more.

And these are just the more well known, too.  My favorites aren't necessarily in the list:

"Oh sons of earth! attempt ye still to rise
By mountains pil'd on mountains, to the skies?
Heav'n still with laughter the vain toil surveys,
And buries madmen in the heaps they raise."

"Heav'n from all creatures hides the book of Fate,
All but the page prescrib'd, their present state:
From brutes what men, from men what spirits know:
Or who could suffer Being here below?
The lamb thy riot dooms to bleed to-day,
Had he thy Reason, would he skip and play?...
Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
Atoms or systems into ruin hurl'd,
And now a bubble burst, and now a world.
Hope humbly then; with trembling pinions soar,
Wait the great teacher Death, and God adore."

"From Nature's chain whatever link you strike,
Tenth or ten thousandth, break the chain alike.
    And, if each system in gradation roll
Alike essential to th' amazing Whole,
The least confusion but in one, not all
That system only, but the Whole must fall.
Let Earth unbalanc'd from her orbit fly,
Planets and Suns run lawless thro' the sky;
Let ruling angels from their spheres be hurl'd,
Being on Being wreck'd and world on world;
Heav'n's whole foundations to their centre nod,
And Nature tremble to the throne of God.
All this dread ORDER break—for whom? for thee?
Vile worm!—Oh Madness! Pride! Impiety!"

"(on writing)'T is not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an Echo to the sense:
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar:
When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,
The line too labours, and the words move slow..."

Yet lacking from all of this is what he is most famed for: the savage, cruel, rifle-shot couplets that damn those he dislikes to eternal fame:

"Virtue she finds too painful an endeavor,
Content to dwell in decencies forever...
She, while her lover pants upon her breast,
Can mark the figures on an Indian chest;
And when she sees a friend in deep despair,
Observes how much a Chintz exceeds Mohair...
Of all her Dears she never slander'd one,
But cares not if a thousand are undone.
Would Chloe know if you're alive or dead?
She bids her Footman put it in her head.
Chloe is prudent—Would you too be wise?
Then never break your heart when Chloe dies."

I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.  Granted, I don't necessarily find that Homer is improved by translation into epic couplets, but that error in judgment aside, Pope is one of the most worthwhile authors ever to write.

Yet there is one more thing I have to say.  I've heard Pope simplistically slandered by Dickens and Dalrymple for a line of his, and I've started to get touchy about it.  He has a fantastic passage in Essay On Man:

"All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of Pride, in erring Reason's spite,
One truth is clear, WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT."

The "whatever is, is right" is what seems so commonly to be opposed, but here I find myself in very strange agreement with a person whose life horribly belied the words he penned.

But to understand, we have to look at Hume's "problem of evil for the existence of God."  If evil exists (and it does), then either God is not all good (and is fine with evil), or He is not omnipotent (and can't stop evil), or there is no God.  Leaving aside Hume's lack of a definition for evil (apparently, protoplasm that offends him at these temperatures), there is one enormous assumption that is entirely glossed over.  This makes no sense unless you operate from the presupposition of "God and Creation exist for my comfort and pleasure."

This is what Pope so profoundly disembowels in his fantastic Essay On Man.

IV  "Go, wiser thou! and, in thy scale of sense,
Weigh thy Opinion against Providence;
Call imperfection what thou fancy'st such,
Say, here He gives too little, there too much:
Destroy all Creatures for thy sport or gust,
Yet cry, If Man's unhappy, God's unjust;
If Man alone engross not Heav'n's high care,
Alone made perfect here, immortal there:
Snatch from his hand the balance and the rod,
Re-judge His justice, be the God of God.

In Pride, in reas'ning Pride, our error lies;
All quit their sphere, and rush into the skies.
Pride still is aiming at the blest abodes,
Men would be Angels, Angels would be Gods.
Aspiring to be Gods, if Angels fell,
Aspiring to be Angels, Men rebel:
And who but wishes to invert the laws
OF ORDER, sins against th' Eternal Cause.

V  Ask for what end the heavn'ly bodies shine,
Earth for whose use?  Pride answers, ' 'T is for mine:
For me kind Nature wakes her genial Pow'r,
Suckles each herb, and spreads out ev'ry flow'r;
Annual for me, the grape, the rose renew
The juice nectareous, and the balmy dew;
For me, the mine a thousand treasures brings;
For me, health gushes from a thousand springs;
Seas roll to waft me, suns to light me rise;
My foot-stool earth, my canopy the skies.' "

He is correct: the world and all in it are made for the Glory of God, not our comfort and pleasure, and whatever is, is right; Dickensian humanism be damned.

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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 Father, 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.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Stop the Whistling

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

Dare I even speak such heresy? Watch the movie, don't read the book.

Qualification: if you have ever been accused in the vernacular, with digressions every third or fourth word (as Dunnett says), of being a narrow-minded bigoted Bible thumping hate mongering idiot whose continued existence would give humans a bad name if only you were a human, or if this description of you would be recognized by someone you didn't realize thought she was dating you, then watch the movie, don't read the book.

The movie is great, so long as you don't read too much into certain parts. The movie is wholesome and good and clean and one that (I think) I'd be fine showing in the presence of certain not so pink now as they were before nieces of mine, save for a few moments of violence that the story hinges upon. On top of that, it's one that cannot fail to absolutely captivate. I cannot praise it highly enough.

The book is prolific with immorality, though probably no more than most novels, and a lesbian (relationship? love affair? physical relationship?), well, a lesbian something is the center of the book. In the movie, it's a friendship, and a lovely, lifelong friendship, a David and Jonathan kind of friendship, just with a significantly cuter cast.

So, three of five, and barely three: three for the sake of the five star movie.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

I Thought Ashes Were Light

Angela's AshesAngela's Ashes by Frank McCourt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

So begins Frank McCourt's autobiography. And he's right: he had a hard life. But I still don't see that he had any cause to inflict it on the rest of us. I had a rather unpleasant childhood but at least I didn't write a book about it, and if I ever do it will be with significantly more humor and vivacity than this book contained. It wasn't a bad book, it just has absolutely no redemption.

The plot (spoiler): guy meets and impregnates girl in Brooklyn. Guy marries girl, the author is born. Lots of kids born, lots of kids die, father descends into alcoholism and can't keep work. The family goes "on the dole," more kids die, more drinking, more rampant poverty, cruel family, vicious teachers, etc. Then the war. Dad goes to get a job in England, never sends money. Mom gets sick but lives, Frank learns to steal, then gets a job, saves, steals and whatever else he can do to get enough money to move back to America, and the book ends. But oh look, it's an inclusio: we begin with a broke guy having sex in New York, and we end up with a broke guy having sex in New York. Yay!

Perhaps it's as bleak as it is due to looking back on life: whatever you endure as a child is normal. You have no standard beyond your own experience to judge by, so if you ever move from a difficult life to an easier life, you'll come to view your earlier years with more disfavor. But when you are going through them, they're fun, lively and thrilling, not just such extreme, bland lows as we might remember. Definitely not as bad as he remembers. But, c'est la vie.

I will say that between this book and Beloved, I'm beginning to wonder what kind of masochistic guilt motivates the Pulitzer committee: there's something there that isn't right. Sure, a book with no evil is an evil book, but a book with no good is hardly better.

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Sunday, May 5, 2013

Please Stop Pattering

Kill Me If You CanKill Me If You Can by James Patterson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

It has been rumored among the more unfeeling of my "friends" that Jesse is a cynical man. "Jesse," they say, "is a bloke" (I give all of my friends British accents so I don't feel badly for hating them); "Jesse," they say, "is a bloke who, when confronted with a beautiful, short, single, Calvinistic paedobaptist redhead with a flurry of freckles on her cheeks and a copy of Chesterton in her hands, assumes that she'll either turn out to be his sister, in favor of low-church liturgy, or she'll get hit by a truck. But probably two out of three."

True, not one among them is necessarily the brightest Guinness in the fish tank: I glum no puddles; I wiggle no marsh. I sail the ocean (usually) beating Lucy. Have they not heard my life motto? When I am faced with evils too great to be borne, such as Briana prevailing against me at chess, or Andrew shaving, or Dave, I say "Why so downcast, O my soul? Why so disquieted within me? This shadow too shall resolve into beauty, for if it didn't, then it wouldn't, and that would just straight-up suck." Am I not joyful? Is not this optimism at it's absolute, fatalistic finest?

I say all of this as a prelude to my review of Patterson. If any of you are aspiring smithies of the words, should any of you meander through Anglo-Saxon dictionaries looking for gems to glean, should any of your fingers be as inkstained as Jo March's and you know who I'm talking about because you read everything no matter what kind of feministic drivel with wretched sentence-construction it is, then buy this book. Don't read it yet, but buy it. Five years from now a moment will arrive. You will re-read that first chapter of yours and realize with horror and despair that some thirty-five year old unemployed twit sleeping till two pm in his mom's basement, living off of Doritos and Coco-Puffs who spends his time on-line gaming with twelve-year-olds, that idiot wrote a blog post in ten minutes maintaining that Counter-Strike was totally way more awesome than Halo and his blog post was better written than your chapter. That moment of terrifying clarity will arrive. When it does, and you realize that you write like a Pakistani immigrant who learned English for the sole purpose of compiling a phone book, that you can't put your pen to paper without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge, when your only hope seems to be gainful employment or suicide—at that moment, pick up this book, say audibly "this man is a NY Times best-seller," and read it. When you're halfway through, you'll print your manuscript and send it to his publisher complete with a request for an advance and a promise of two new books for him next week.

It was the worst book I've ever finished, and I've read Rick Joyner, Left Behind and Twilight. Was it train-of-thought? Three hundred pages, two hundred chapters? His characters have the depth of a mud puddle on a newly paved street after a drizzle and I know damned well which one I'd prefer spending my time with. Especially if worms are involved. I got it for a dollar, read it in an hour and felt as incredulous as Goliath looking at David, just fewer projectiles.

If prison libraries stock books like this then I think those against water-boarding as "cruel and unusual" have been straining out gnats through their teeth.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

No, He Isn't French.

Murder in Mesopotamia (Hercule Poirot, #14)Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My first introduction to Poirot via the written word, and I can't get David Suchet out of my head. For the most part it doesn't matter: the finicky Belgian seems to have possessed the poor chap, save for his age. He's too young to be Poirot, and the moustache ought to be just a wee smidge bigger. And yes, computer, I know it's not a word, I don't care. Not a full smidgen, not even a small smidgen, but a wee smidge. But again, it was save for his age, and that did jar me a good deal. Here I was expecting a Belgian with a bit of hair on the sides, and his head is described as an egg? Not fair to me and my poor nerves.

I've always considered myself a writer (non-practicing, of course). But this authoress went out of her way to shun credit: the person that wrote this let us know that the person that wrote this was informing us that someone else wrote it. In other words, Christie summons a Dr. to call in a nurse that happened to be present to write the account, so Poirot has unusually little face time. I presume it's unusual, that is—as I said, it's my first Poirot. In any case, I loved it. Light, flippant, and not too obvious (yes, I admit it, I was wrong: not only did I not guess the murderer, but the method of murder escaped me). I was right on a couple of less important mysteries, though, so my back shall be patted.

Christie is also a well known authoress for a reason, and the heroine / authoress of this little book is just great. She describes one character as being straight out of a P. G. Wodehouse novel, while another affords her no greater opportunity for kindness than "he must have been a lovely baby..." She's saucy, practical and entirely reminiscent of Lewis' old school of English innkeepers that view customers as a nuisance, but tempered with self-deprecating homour, compassion, and a good deal of grit. Just another fun book.

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Terry Pratchett, You Saucy Mynks.

Mort (Discworld, #4)Mort by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two things to note. First, I'm sorry Terry, I've resisted you too long. Second, if you giggle like a girl, and you are, in fact, not a girl, it can be rather uncomfortable to do so in a library full of huge hairy smelly unwashed homeless people that know where you sleep and carry pipe wrenches in leather holsters on their hips.

This book was just straight funny. Pratchett has a Wodehousian turn of phrase, and I caught both a line from Mortimer and a philosophy from Lewis, who of course published it some forty or fifty years before I oh-so-proudly formulated it for myself. Pratchett tends to get a bit dry when he grits his teeth, spits on his hands and tries to force a plot into the book, but aside from said plot, the book was just great. Complete with red-headed freckled princess, awkward clumsy kid who takes an apprenticeship with a rather lonely Death (bones optional was the selling point), Death's adopted daughter and a two thousand year old wizard; yes, this book was fun. Kudos, Little Miss Ligon.

A few snippets:

After five minutes Mort came out of the tailor's wearing a loose fitting brown garment of imprecise function, which had been understandably unclaimed by a previous owner and had plenty of room for him to grow, on the assumption that he would grow into a nineteen-legged elephant.

(A bit later, talking to Death:)

"What are we going to do now?"
"These were new today—yesterday, I mean."
"Father said the shop was famous for its budget clothing," said Mort, running to keep up.

She had silver hair, and eyes with a pearly sheen to them, and the kind of interesting but impractical long dress that tends to be worn by tragic heroines who clasp single roses to their bosom while gazing soulfully at the moon.

An inner-city area sorely in need either of governmental help or, for preference, a flamethrower...It didn't have so much a neighbourhood as an ecology...

(Of a river:) Even before it entered the city it was slow and heavy with the silt of the plains, and by the time it got to The Shades even an agnostic could have walked across it.

(A wizard's front door plaque:) Igneous Cutwell, DM (Unseen), Marster of the Infinit, Illuminartus, Wyzard to Princes, Gardian of the Sacred Portalls, If Out leave Maile with Mrs. Nugent Next Door.

...the kind of person who throws all his socks at the wall and wears the ones that don't stick...

Yes, this book was fun.

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Well and Glad.

Outliers: The Story of SuccessOutliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Gladwell, par for his course, remains preeminently readable and manages to assemble a pleasant, interesting book. But of his books, this one I liked the least. Perhaps too much Dunnett and Wiman make a simple sentence vaguely soporific; perhaps sleeping in my car in sub-zero weather leaves me less rested than I thought.

Either way, it was still a quick and pleasant little read. His thesis, simply (and far more pedantically) put, is that the miraculous stories of success of which we are aware are less miraculous than they seem. Maybe there was a sandbar, maybe mom did pack me a lunch, whatever. Rather than a miracle, a perfect sort of storm occurs, getting Bill Gates thousands of free hours on a computer when such a thing was unheard of, and getting Oppenheimer off of an attempted murder rap (yes, murder). Thus, when opportunity appears they are in the perfect position to grab the proverbially knocking hand and either take it off at the shoulder or drag the body in with it.

So the vast majority of professional Canadian hockey players are born toward the end of the Canadian hockey cut-off year: a kid that's seven years eleven months tends to be larger and stronger than a kid that's seven and a day, so he makes the team, gets the practice, gets sent to the camp, gets the extra practice, gets noticed by scouts, gets drafted, gets brain damage and ends up spending his fortune being fed soup through a straw; long live the Queen. The flurry of Jewish doctors and lawyers succeed because they were descended from the flurry of Jewish immigrants that had to work obscenely long and hard hours, passing the habit on to their children (who wiped the floor with the lazy earlier immigrants, like us), and many other circumstances, including Asian math skills of all things.

The magic behind success? 10,000 hours. Simple, straightforward. If you want to excel at anything, if you want to master anything, put in 10,000 hours. Or just marry aforementioned Jewish doctor or lawyer.

This book ends, however, with a rare, hushed, even sacred view of Gladwell's personal life—a touch that's absent his other analytical books, a touch that ushers the reader into the realm of confidant and Gladwell into the realm of human. So intimate a gesture intimates to me that when I part the covers of his next book, I'll probably sit back, light a pipe and greet an old friend whose conversation I've ever enjoyed, but one that I feel I'm finally getting to know.

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Saturday, March 9, 2013

Broke and Broker

The BrokerThe Broker by John Grisham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is probably my favourite of Grisham's books, despite a smattering of sentimental cliches that make me desire to inspect the brains of some fairly central characters with a fire poker. The worst one:

(She:) "Have I offended you?"
(He:) "You could smile more."
She nodded slightly and her eyes were instantly moist. She looked away, through the window, and said, "I have so little to smile about."

This type of thing, along with the rhythm (wretched) of most of his prose convinces me that Grisham ought to be a screenwriter, not a novelist. The singular strength that has propelled him to stardom is that of his plots, which usually aren't bad. It is a rare writer that can combine intriguing plots with good prose and fully developed characters. Grisham is one for three, and that one is occasionally debatable. Yet, with his characters flat and his prose poor, I'm still reading him due to my inability to pass up fifty cent books when coins are flirting with the pens in my pocket. I'm just not reading him fast enough to be done with him before I'm annoyed at him.

To top it off, he spent six months in Italy "researching" gelato, architecture, cuisine and language for this book. I empathize. Let us say with the Hindu: life is suffering, get a helmet. P. T. Barnum's famous quip that no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public gives me hope to one day become independently wealthy. Perhaps my first book ought to take place in the Mediterranean instead of Mexico...

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Arguably: Selected EssaysArguably: Selected Essays by Christopher Hitchens
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The late Christopher Hitchens shared one tremendous skill with his less notorious brother: the boys can write. And they aren't cowards. They remind me—I apologize in advance—they remind me of the scene in Miss Congeniality when fifty contestants for Miss Universe or whatever say they want world peace and then Sandra Bullock wants harsher punishments for parole violators. I get exasperatedly amused at Dufflepuddish people violently bowing to the variable light breeze of being PC and (all hail) Tolerant. No wonder they do yoga—I get whiplash just listening to them. But neither of the Hitchens brothers are cowed by the intelligentsia. Neither of the brothers are PC, nor are they crass, as most of those attempting to avoid the PC charge are. To top it off, Christopher Hitchens' fame gorged itself on the miracle-grow of (gasp) Intolerance in a world that tolerates everything but intolerance.

This book is quite simply splendid, and has something for everyone. From P.G. Wodehouse to John Brown there is great stuff on almost every page. Hitchens' research is impeccable, though his conclusions are often flat-out wrong (says the twenty-seven year-old who happens to be nine years into his four year degree). But wrong conclusions are often more profitable than simply reading all the things that you'd have written yourself, which seems a type of mental asexuality, if you will. Only with the introduction of that which is wholly other can your mind give birth to new thoughts, new life; without the stimulation of controversy the mind atrophies. And Hitchens, true to form, manages to polarize even from beyond the grave. He'd be pleased to know that a girl (whose appearance leaned toward the ailing piscine, as well as being endowed with... "sufficient" ears attached at right angles) managed to challenge the record for the standing high-jump when I expressed my reservations regarding Hitchens' views on Lincoln. (I shrieked "NO HE DIDN'T" in Applebees, and my server ended up wearing my root beer. I tipped well.)

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Friday, January 25, 2013

For a Glory and a Covering

May the Mennonites forgive me. And the Pierces. And Becca in an odd month. I am to be found in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16: the head-covering passage. And, to paraphrase Lewis, if your mind is shut, let at least your Bible be open.

The typical reading of this passage is that "a woman's hair is her covering; let's move on." And to an extent that's all good and true; verse fifteen is anything but ambiguous: a woman's hair is her glory and covering. But, should you have the misfortune to read the entire passage with one of your eyes only halfway closed, you'll come across a problem that cannot be satisfied without extremely... well, "flexible" exegesis. That problem is verse six: if a woman is uncovered, then let her also be shorn.

If the only covering in the passage is hair, we're in trouble. For Paul would be saying, "If a woman has no hair, then let her hair also be cut off." No, there have to be two heads spoken of. And the only other "head" for a woman in this passage is man.

So here's my thesis: verses 1-5a are speaking of the heads that verse three mentions: God the head of Christ, Christ the head of man, man the head of woman. After that, hair is introduced and the types of "heads" alternate, but not before. This would mean that verse six could be interpreted as "If a woman is not under authority..." This also makes it clear as to why men ought not to be covered: the authority over a man ought to be Christ, not the woman. And if a woman is acting like a man then she might as well look like one, and all hail Marine haircuts. But if looking like a man is shameful for a woman, then let her act in a feminine manner: let her be covered.

So the fundamental principle of the passage? Men are to act like men. We ought to take responsibility. Women are to act like women. They ought to submit to man as Christ submitted to God.

But this has further ramifications. Christ's submission to God was in spite of His equality with God, and a woman's submission to her husband is in spite of her equality, which she ought not to consider something to be grasped at. The passage goes on to say that neither woman nor man is independent of the other. So—and be careful here—a woman's relationship with her husband ought to be similar to that of Christ's relationship to God: a wife ought to be able to say a good half of John 15 without batting an eyelash.

And of course, if her hair happens to hit the small of her back or at least go "poof" in a light drizzle, all the better.


Wodehousian Fun