Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward

A day late, but any day is a good day for a poem by John Donne.

Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other Spheares, by being growne
Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey:
Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit
For their first mover, and are whirld by it.
Hence is’t, that I am carryed towards the West
This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.
There I should see a Sunne, by rising set,
And by that setting endlesse day beget;
But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,
Sinne had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I’almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for mee.
Who sees Gods face, that is selfe life, must dye;
What a death were it then to see God dye?
It made his owne Lieutenant Nature shrinke,
It made his footstoole crack, and the Sunne winke.
Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,
And tune all spheares at once peirc’d with those holes?
Could I behold that endlesse height which is
Zenith to us, and our Antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood which is
The seat of all our Soules, if not of his,
Made durt of dust, or that flesh which was worne
By God, for his apparell, rag’d, and torne?
If on these things I durst not looke, durst I
Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye,
Who was Gods partner here, and furnish’d thus
Halfe of that Sacrifice, which ransom’d us?
Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye,
They’are present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them; and thou look’st towards mee,
O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree;
I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may’st know mee, and I’ll turne my face.

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.

“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.

That sinking feeling when you realize that the novel you’re reading is about an author with an unhappy childhood

I liked Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (although I liked the HBO movie better).  Her new novel is called My Name is Lucy Barton, and the reviews I have seen have been luminous.  “It is both a book of withholdings and a book of great openness and wisdom” raves the Washington Post, for example.  Maybe I’m the wrong audience. 

“A book of withholdings” is another way of saying it’s short (193 pages, actually).  The narrator (who’s about 60) is sort of telling you the story of her life, but she mostly skips over stuff like why her marriage failed and what her books are about; she names characters almost grudgingly, as if naming them would force her to pay more attention to them.  She focuses on her childhood, but she does this by setting up the narrative voice at two removes: she is remembering a long hospital stay in the 1980s when her mother flew into New York and stayed with her, and they ended up talking, often elliptically, about their shared past.  Turns out it wasn’t that great.  Nothing much flows from this, as far as I can tell; no conflict and no resolution, except in the sense that the narrator seems at peace with what she has had to endure. The complex narrative structure doesn’t seem to accomplish much; telling a story in a non-linear fashion doesn’t necessarily make the story more interesting.

I do want to say that I listened to the book, and the narrator was just wonderful.  If it weren’t for her, I probably would have given up.

A nice review of “The Portal”

Here’s a nice review someone just posted on Amazon for my novel The Portal:

The story is riveting from beginning to end. Two preteens far from home but in fact not far but in a parallel universe is a fascinating concept all by itself. Throw in the time travel, dangerous situations, an array of interesting characters to interact with, and the emotions evoked as they experience privations and loss, and this becomes a captivating story you don’t want to put down until the very end. Recommended for teens and adults.

I couldn’t have said it better myself!  I’ll probably post more of these when I get closer to publishing its somewhat long-awaited sequel.

What I read in 2015

Highlights, anyway.  Much of it listened to, rather than read.  Listed more or less in order of enjoyment.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.  An English woman takes up hawking to get over the death of her father.  She tells the story of training the hawk, interspersed with a psychobiography of T.E. White, the author of The Once and Future King.  Well, that doesn’t sound promising, does it?  But it’s glorious.  I felt like I was entering deeply into a wondrous world I never knew existed.  And Macdonald’s narration is also glorious.

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande.  This book, about how we deal with the end of life, has gotten a lot of praise, and it deserves every bit of it.

The Iliad.  Narrated by Dan Stevens.  I talk about it here.

SPQR by Mary Beard.  A history of ancient Rome up to the early 200’s.  I love this kind of book.

Middlemarch by George Eliot.  It still works.

Fore! The Best of Wodehouse on Golf.  I don’t know a mashie from a niblick, but Wodehouse on anything is great.  I was trying to read The Kreutzer Sonata by Tolstoy and kept switching back to this book so I could feel good about life.

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders.  Weird, wonderful stories about weird, wonderful people.  With a lovely afterword about how Saunders finally found his voice and his success.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks.  Finally got around to reading this.  Lovely, illuminating stories.

Adverbs by Daniel Handler.  A strange but enjoyable “novel” for adults by the author of the Lemony Snicket series.

Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan.  Who doesn’t want to listen to 25 hours of narration about the peace conference after World War 1?  I learned a lot.

Faith vs. Fact by Jerry Coyne.  A good summary of why science works as an explanation of the world and religion doesn’t.  Fairly familiar stuff to people who read Coyne’s web site, but worth getting down on paper.  It probably won’t change many minds, alas.

Life’s Greatest Secret by Matthew Cobb.  Tells the story of the scientific discoveries about DNA, RNA, and genetics, down to the present day.  Great, although a bit too dense for someone listening to it at rush hour.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind  by Yuval Noah Harari.  Harari is a big, big picture kind of guy and has all kinds of provocative ideas, not all of which I agree with.  But I was entertained and educated nevertheless.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.  This is a novel about the world after a flu epidemic causes civilization to collapse, with lots of flashbacks to the final days of the world we knew.  It’s been a big best-seller and was nominated for the National Book Award.  I’m a big fan of dystopian novels — I’ve written a few myself!  But this one, despite being very well written, left me a bit cold.  Too many characters and too many plot strands insufficiently developed.  And I really didn’t get the Station Eleven stuff.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  This book was showered with praise and awards, but it left me rather cold.  I’ve enjoyed his shorter work more.  Partly it was the author’s narration, which I thought was rushed.  And I wished he pronounced the word “asked” rather than “axed”.  But I also found it difficult to follow his argument sometimes (if there was an argument).  The centerpiece of the book is the death of one of his college friends at the hands of an out-of-control police officer.  This is a symptom of what’s wrong with America; fair enough.  But the police officer was black, working for a black-controlled police department.  I wanted Coates to connect the dots for me better than he did. Here’s a long review that says what I thought about the book better than I can.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir.  More than I wanted to know about them, I guess.

I notice that several of these books came my way via BookBub.  And I notice that my Kindle is filling up with BookBub titles that I really want to read, all purchased for $1.99 or less.  Is this the future?  Do we like this future?