What “A Theory of Justice” needs is a little “Slaves of the Volcano God”

I am following through on my resolution to read John Rawls’s magisterial A Theory of Justice.  But I’ve gotta say that it doesn’t have a lot of laughs.  Approximately zero laughs so far.  Nowhere near as many, in other words, as you’ll find in my friend Craig Shaw Gardner’s Slaves of the Volcano God.  I’m even using my valuable Slaves of the Volcano God bookmark to mark my place in A Theory of Justice, in hopes that some of Gardner’s humor will rub off.  No such luck.  (Of course, if what you’re looking for is political philosophy, I’m pretty sure you won’t find much in Slaves of the Volcano God.)

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By the way, something else that could have used a few laughs is Manchester By The Sea.  Casey Affleck is good in it, I guess, but mostly what he does is mope.  Maybe he’ll get an Oscar for moping.  (His big scene with Michelle Williams, though, is epically good.)

If you’ve already read Slaves of the Volcano God and still need some laughs (don’t we all?), you should try Gardner’s new novel, Temporary Monsters

Naming names

I was too annoyed with Western civilization last month to write the usual recap of my year’s reading.  But the best novel I read was The Sympathizer, which my son recommended to me.  It’s a novel about the Vietnam war, and life in America, and Apocalypse Now, and sundry other things, written from the point of view of a nameless Vietnamese double-agent.  For my son, this was pre-history; for me, it was stuff I had vaguely experienced, second-hand, told from a completely different perspective.

It was brilliant, but the author made a couple of choices that I found odd.  I liked that the narrator was nameless, but I was puzzled that many other characters–but not all–were also nameless.  The narrator’s boss is referred to only as The General, but the boss’s daughter has a name.  One character he has to deal with is called “the crapulent major”, while a comparable character is named Sonny.  (Spoiler alert: the narrator ends up murdering both of them.)

I have trouble deciding ahead of time whether minor people and places deserve a name.  In the novel I’m writing now, I have already had to retrospectively name a couple of places that turned out to be more important than I originally expected.  But this is standard fiction writing: characters and places, if they become important enough, get a name; otherwise, it’s hard to keep track of them  Nguyen is obviously trying to distance us from some of his characters; I’m not sure why.

Another distancing effect: he doesn’t use quotation marks.  My son didn’t even notice this, but it annoyed me.  It seemed like an affectation.  Punctuation helps the reader, and sometimes we need all the help we can get.

New PORTAL cover?

My publisher liked the cover we came up with for TERRA.  (They also seemed to like the uppercase letters.)  So they suggested coming up with a comparable cover for The Portal and change its title to PORTAL, which was okay with me because that’s the title I came up with in the first place.

Anyway, here’s the new cover design, courtesy of Jim McManus:

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Richard Adams

Amidst all the dispiriting deaths in 2016, that of Richard Adams didn’t get a whole lot of attention.  But his Watership Down was a masterpiece, I think.  In it, he created a world so vivid, so completely realized, that it rivaled Lord of the Rings.  And it was about, you know, rabbits. Forty years later, I still look at a rabbit nibbling on some grass and I think of the word silflay.

I read his second novel, Shardik, and I thought it was just okay.  I didn’t bother with The Plague Dogs.  But Watership Down is forever.

“Would that the dead were not dead! But there is grass that must be eaten, pellets that must be chewed, hraka that must be passed, holes that must be dug, sleep that must be slept.”

 

The best way to watch “Love Actually”

You guys don’t care about John Donne.  The first Facebook comment about my previous post was: “But what about Love Actually?”  Philistines.

Assuming that one has to watch “Love Actually” every year at this time, and most of us do, whether we want to or not, how does one survive the ordeal?  The answer, we have decided, is to fast-forward through the awful parts.  For example, none of this Liam Neeson and his stepson crap:

Skip the boring unfunny porn-star-stand-in scenes with Martin Freeman:

And most especially ax the dreary Laura Linney and her crazy brother subplot:

What you’re left with are the Hugh Grant scenes, which are pretty funny; the Colin Firth scenes, which are moderately funny; the Keira Knightley scenes (which aren’t funny but, you know, Keira Knightley); the Brit-goes-to-America scenes, which are stupid but kind of funny; and the Alan Rickman/Emma Thompson scenes — because, you know, Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson.  Also the Rowan Atkinson scene, which is priceless.

This results in a tolerable movie that is less than 90 minutes long.

I still don’t know how to cope with my wife pointing out all the many unbelievable things that happen in the course of those 90 minutes: “Alan Rickman would never bring the necklace for his girlfriend home where Emma Thompson can find it.”  “The Prime Minister would never come through Heathrow arrivals with everyone else.”  “No school would have a Christmas play on Christmas Eve.”

I know all this.  It’s your idea to watch the thing.  Every year.  It doesn’t become more plausible with the passage of time.

Now I’ll shut up until next year.

Update: No, I won’t shut up.  Turns out that in my general befuddlement I forgot the best part of the movie: the Bill Nighy aging pop-star subplot.  You can actually skip everything else (except maybe Keira Knightley) and just watch that.  Here’s my favorite quote from Billy Mack:

Hiya kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don’t buy drugs. Become a pop star, and they give you them for free!

And his final line to his manager on Christmas Eve: “Now let’s get pissed and watch porn.”

Always good advice!

“For I am every dead thing…”

Somehow every year I get around to reprinting this poem by John Donne about Saint Lucy’s Day, the Winter Solstice.  Will our sun renew?  Sure doesn’t feel like it.  But let’s not give up hope.

‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world’s whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave
Of all that’s nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown’d the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.