One for Dale, one from

Our friend Dale Nelson is a fan of the long literary sentence–at least longer than is currently fashionable. He’ll appreciate this article from the LA Times, by way of Mirabilis: The Writing Life: The point of the long and winding sentence.

Enter (I hope) the long sentence: the collection of clauses that is so many-chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions, that has so much room for near-contradiction and ambiguity and those places in memory or imagination that can’t be simplified, or put into easy words, that it allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time, and to descend, as by a spiral staircase, deeper into herself and those things that won’t be squeezed into an either/or. With each clause, we’re taken further and further from trite conclusions — or that at least is the hope — and away from reductionism, as if the writer were a dentist, saying “Open wider” so that he can probe the tender, neglected spaces in the reader (though in this case it’s not the mouth that he’s attending to but the mind).

Dale sent me this link, from the English Government Archives: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Army Commission Application.

It’s a Plot, Mugsy

The Master Book of Plots, Plotto, was written in 1928 by your favorite author and mine, William Wallace Cook, and Tin House has released it anew for your reading or writing pleasure. With well over a thousand plots, Plotto can spoil more stories than you can swap by the fireplace in a year of weekends. Of course, the joy is in the telling, which is why I’m working on revisions of The Tale of Two Cities and Macbeth. I may even combine the two–not sure.

Along these lines, Greg Bergstrom explains how the cliches line up in various TV mysteries and detective stories. “There are also 2.74 metric tons of clichés,” he says, “like the typical stubbly detective who breaks the rules, struggles with the bottle and tends to tune up suspected killers with a copy of the Manhattan Yellow Pages.”

Snippet Five, Troll Valley

The “Old Stone Church,” Kenyon, Minnesota. Photo: Lars Walker.

[The book is coming out soon. I promise. We’re that close. ljw]


“What the—what kind of crap is this?” Shane demanded.

“ʽCrap’ is an interesting word,” said Robert Swallowtail. “Very marginal. I might have to use the soap on you, just to be prudent.”

“I’m talking about this story. You realize what this means, don’t you?”

“It’s a little early in your reading to have discovered a theme.”

“The old man was crazy. All that stuff people said about him, what a great man he was, and all the time he was a loon from the moon. No wonder I got problems. It’s genetic!”

“You may find this hard to comprehend,” said Robert Swallowtail, “but the book is not about you.”


They established Anderson & Co., Inc. of Epsom, Minnesota that summer, manufacturers (then) of the Anderson Viking Separator and (eventually) of the Anderson Reaper and the Anderson Traction Engine, first steam then gasoline. The year was 1900, a good round number for our lives to pivot on. I celebrated my eighth birthday on Sunday, September 30.

It was a cool, fine morning. I remember the pinch of my knickerbockers below the knees, and the scraping of the hard brush Mother used on my hair. One of my most enduring impressions of childhood is how much everything hurt. Being young was like being an unhealed wound.

I’m going to take you to church with us now. I know that’s bad manners. But if you’ve come this far and want to know what our lives were like, you need to understand about our church. Continue reading Snippet Five, Troll Valley

Tolkien’s Writing Wasn’t Good Enough for Nobel

C.S. Lewis nominated his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, for a Nobel prize in literature. The judges said nay, or maybe Ni!. “Swedish reporter Andreas Ekström delved into 1961’s previously classified documents on their release this week, to find the jury passed over names including Lawrence Durrell, Robert Frost, Graham Greene, EM Forster and Tolkien to come up with their eventual winner, Yugoslavian writer Ivo Andrić.”

Time travail

Confessional in Sint-Pauluskerk,Antwerp

I wrote the other night of my current state of heightened diplomatic tensions with Time. That state persisted yesterday and today, in the form of a titanic struggle with instruments of time measurement.

Or to put it in layman’s terms (I am, after all, a layman), I had to buy a new alarm clock.

For the last few years I’ve had an alarm clock that pleased me more than any I’ve ever owned. I got it in a special offer from my credit card company. It received a radio signal from the atomic clock in Colorado to keep the time accurate and, as a special bonus, it projected the time on the ceiling in red light (I’ve always loved projection clocks, but have only had a use for them since I got Lasik surgery). But lately that clock has been doing funny things, and I decided to get a new one. I thought finding another atomic/projection clock at Target was probably too much to ask, and of course I was right. I did buy a clock which seemed to suggest it was radio controlled (it wasn’t) and I tried it out last night.

I’d failed to note that it actually had a special feature—a built in Fresnel light, which threw a stark blue blaze over the whole room, inclining me to dreams of being a cornered fugitive, spotlights from cop cars blazing in all the windows, and a voice on a bullhorn yelling, “Come out with your hands up, Baby Face! Nobody has to get hurt!” Continue reading Time travail

Stuck on Pogo

Stefan Kanfer has warmed my heart with an affectionate article on the cartoonist Walt Kelly, and his comic strip, Pogo, over at City Journal.

I share Mr. Kanfer’s enthusiasm. Although Kelly was generally known as a lefty (though not an admirer of the Soviet Union, as Kanfer points out), the charm and sheer achievement of Pogo transcended politics. When I was a kid, vaguely hoping to grow up to be a cartoonist, I pored over his daily strips, and despaired of ever achieving anything like that masterful inking and character modeling, to say nothing of the preposterous, nonsensical humor. Imagine Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) collaborating with Robin Williams—while being possessed by the spirit of Lewis Carroll.

This furry, scaled, quilled, feathered, and shelled quintet was backed by a supporting cast of Dickensian proportions—more than 600 players, all told. They included Beauregard Bugleboy, a doggerel-loving canine; Miz Mam’selle Hepzibah, a flirtatious skunk; and Deacon Mushrat, a hypocritical mammal of the cloth who spoke in elaborately lettered Gothic script. (When an editor complained that such effusions were hard to read, Kelly replied, “Mighty hard to letter, too.”) There were also Molester Mole, a paranoid sneak; Seminole Sam, a fox who specialized in scams; and Bewitched, Bothered, and Bemildred, a trio of scruffy bats. Crowds of lesser players entered and exited, ranging from Sarcophagus MacAbre, a vulture and mortician in search of clients, to Tammananny Tiger, a corrupt politico. But the ursine P. T. Bridgeport outdid them all. Kelly drew his monologues as minuscule vaudeville broadsides, complete with pointing fingers, striped capital letters, and booming exclamation points—making it impossible, in the pages of this magazine, to replicate properly his “Don’t give this away, pal, but DRIVE-IN FUNERAL PARLORS COULD BECOME A LIVIN’ RAGE—quick, easy, curb service!!!”

I’m happy to report that Fantagraphics Publishing has brought out the first volume of a complete collection of daily and Sunday Pogo strips.

I’m eager to get mine. As soon as it comes out in paperback.

Wodehouse: ‘Innocent tactlessness?’

A.N. Wilson describes P.G. Wodehouse’s life in Hollywood and Nazi Germany. He apparently joked about everything and gave little thought to whatever devils may be within whatever hearts beating around him. Let them keep their devils; Wodehouse didn’t have any. (via Books, Inq.)

Also on one of our favorite authors, Christopher Hirst reviews a book by Sophie Ratcliffe.

When [WWII] was declared, [Wodehouse] blasé response (“They all say there is going to be a boom in books”) becomes all the more astonishing when you learn he was devouring Churchill’s books. “What strikes me most about them is what mugs the Germans were to take us on again.”

“The Professor!”

Today, as Phil has already noted, is the birthday of Prof. J. R. R. Tolkien (shown above as a 2nd Lieutenant in the English army in 1916), author of The Lord of the Rings and subcreator of the world of Middle Earth.

Somebody on Facebook called this his “eleventy-tenth” birthday, in the hobbit fashion. I’m not sure it shouldn’t be “twelftieth,” though.

It’s the custom of the Tolkien Society to promote a rolling, world-wide toast each year on this day, and certainly this year deserves a toast more than most. The instruction are here:

The toast is “The Professor”.

For those unfamiliar with British toast-drinking ceremonies:

To make the Birthday Toast, you stand, raise a glass of your choice of drink (not necessarily alcoholic), and say the words ‘The Professor’ before taking a sip (or swig, if that’s more appropriate for your drink). Sit and enjoy the rest of your drink.

Oddly enough, the notice doesn’t mention the time, but 9:00 p.m., wherever you happen to be, is customary.

Tolkien is often (and correctly) credited with making the fantasy genre respectable. But I think he may have accomplished one more thing. At a time when the whole western tradition was coming under attack, he elevated a part of that tradition so obscure few had even bothered to undermine it (the Anglo-Saxon age), and made it glamorous.

If western civilization survives, Tolkien may deserve much of the honor.

“Rise! Men of the west!”

#JRRTolkien Facts

Here are the thing we sent out on Twitter in honor of the professor’s birthday in reverse order.

“…they get quite drunk on it. Many young Americans are involved in the stories in a way that I’m not.” #JRRTolkien

The name Sam Gamgee was that of the inventor of a surgical dressing which #JRRTolkien remembered from childhood.

Happy Birthday, Professor Tolkien – “If humans could live as long as some of J. R. R. Tolkien’s famous fantasy chara…

As a boy, #JRRTolkien studied Welsh and Finnish instead of doing his homework.

At Oxford, reading Beowulf aloud magnificently. “The sound of #JRRTolkien made sense of the unknown tongue,” said a student.

“I am in fact a Hobbit. I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like plain food.” #JRRTolkien

How can one create a majestic fantasy world like Middle Earth? Read “Leaf by Niggle.” #JRRTolkien

One #JRRTolkien grave, he is called Beren and his wife, Edith, is called Luthien like the beautiful couple in his history…

A visit to #JRRTolkien and Edith’s grave

“… and doing evil, even if ‘realistic’ or ‘prudent,’ always works evil.” David Mills, Touchstone Jan/Feb 2002 #JRRTolkien

“The world of Middle-earth is governed by a Mind with a will and purpose, and in its world doing good always serves the good… #JRRTolkien

“I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories) and in fact a Roman Catholic.” #JRRTolkien in a letter

@cslewisdaily Move over a bit, Jack. We have some #JRRTolkien facts for his 120th birthday.

Happy Birthday, Professor Tolkien

“If humans could live as long as some of J. R. R. Tolkien’s famous fantasy characters, the author himself would have turned 120-years-old today (3rd January 2012).” Sam Parker has an article on made-up languages, starting with Elvish.

We’re tweeting some Tolkien facts today. #JRRTolkien John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892 in Bloemfontein in Free State Province, South Africa, and the world has never been the same.

Talented people

I am temporally at sea today, awash in the tides of chronology. My calendar tells me it’s Monday, January 2, but it doesn’t feel like Monday, January 2. That’s partly because although today is a holiday, it’s not January first (I suppose), and partly because of the energy drain caused by a weekend spent mostly with people. I spent much of this day certain I had a dentist appointment this afternoon, and it was only when my cell phone alarm failed to go off that I realized the appointment is actually for tomorrow. January two and twos-day; you can see how I got confused.

Time is the the great puzzler, God’s subtlest joke, in my opinion. And yet, it’s deadly serious. Take Jesus’ parable of the stewards and the talents (Matthew 25:14-30):

“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability….”

“Talent” is a Greek term for a sum of money, and our own English use of talent as meaning a special, inborn ability comes from an interpretation of that passage.

But although I wouldn’t go so far as to call that interpretation entirely mistaken, I think there’s a simpler meaning. I suspect the Lord’s intention when He spoke of the talents was simply “time.” Each of us is given some—some of us more, some less. But whatever we’ve got, we’re responsible for. We may complain that we have no great gifts or abilities, but we always have some time, up until the day we die. And we can choose whether to use that time constructively or not, boldly or cautiously. The real targets of the parable are people who are lazy and cowardly.

In other words, it’s directed precisely at me. As for any application to you, you may judge for yourself.

A blessed new year to you.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture